When an acclaimed inventor and his revolutionary new directed energy weapon, the Eye of Ra, are discovered missing, esteemed and erudite adventurer, Astrid Darby, is enlisted to recover them
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Diogenes Club Press
It is a time of steam technology, scientific innovation and quietly simmering political tension. Having lost her husband to the dangerous life of an adventurer and the hazards of hot air balloon travel and murderous mercenaries, Astrid Darby has found herself alone in the world, aside from her motley assortment of eccentric associates, mad scientists, cheeky Ministry of Defence agents, and her keen, clever young cousin, Alexander Knightly. Now an esteemed and erudite adventurer herself, Astrid is, once again, embroiled in a grand conspiracy, the scale and nature of which she has only begun to imagine. When Dr Sebastian Cross, one of England’s most acclaimed physicists and inventors, is discovered missing along with the Eye of Ra, the doctor’s revolutionary new directed energy weapon, the executives of Rake & Gage, premier defence contractors, enlist Astrid to locate the doctor and recover his apparatus. Despite Messrs Cole’s and Thorne’s certainty that the doctor and his assistant, Dr Joseph Ramsey, have absconded with the weapon and defected to a rival contractor, Astrid suspects something far more sinister is afoot. Her search for the Eye leads her into a world fraught with colourful characters, improbable death rays, flying airships, awkward wagon rides, uncouth wranglers, murderous mercenaries, perilous train trips, underground tunnels, ludicrous disguises, condescending Ministry of Defence agents, treacherous executives, malicious terrorists, and the destruction of a beloved national landmark.
Our expedition came upon a small village on the outskirts of Moscow. The cold was dreadful, and I feared for the health of our frailer fellows. I was reluctant to enter the village as it appeared to be uncivilized or, at the very least, unsophisticated, but the nearest city was kilometres away, and the cold had rendered our engine inoperable. The steam turned as quickly to ice as it hit the freezing air, and the wind made it impossible to maintain speed. We were forced to hire a sleigh and driver to haul our equipment over the icy terrain, and we were all in desperate need of a warm fire and a stiff drink.
Upon reaching the village gates, it became immediately apparent that there was something decidedly odd about its denizens. They seemed unusually jubilant at our arrival and overly acquiescent to our needs. We were immediately directed to a small inn in the centre of the village. I was pleasantly surprised by its agreeable accommodations.
The innkeeper was a jovial, portly fellow called Luka, and his wife, Duscha, was soft-spoken and suitably attentive without making herself a nuisance. We dined well on lamb pelmeni and course, strong vodka before Duscha directed us to our suite. It was obvious we were the inn’s only guests, and I realized the villagers must indeed have been pleased by the arrival of a party of seven gentle fellows; tourism is unlikely a thriving commerce in the miniscule, out of the way village. Subsequently, I marvelled at the necessity of maintaining an inn at all, regardless of its size, and a clean, well-managed one at that.
Nestled in the crisp, newly laundered linens of the soft, warm bed in the suite I shared with the Lady Elisabeth Weston, I allowed my earlier suspicions to dull and eventually fade. I soon discovered this sense of security was premature. I awoke in the depth of night to a foreign noise in my room. I became instantly alert; the expedition fellows are close acquaintances, but I was hard-pressed to trust our feminine virtue to the swarthy sleigh driver Lord Benedict had hired out of the city.
I saw nothing in the darkened room, and after a few moments, I began to believe I had imagined whatever had awakened me. However, I was unable to shake the distinct sense that we were being watched. A sudden glint in the corner of the room confirmed my suspicion. I rose from the comfort of my bed to examine the metallic object that had caught the reflection of the pale moonlight through our bedroom window.
To my surprise it was, in fact, a fly on the wall, though such a fly I have never seen. The design was impeccable; the tiny clockwork was sleek and well crafted. Though nearly silent, its soft humming must have been what had interrupted my slumber as it passed over my sleeping person. As I reached for it, it darted away as quickly as the creature in whose image it was cast. After a few moments of stalking it around the chamber, I determined I would be unable to catch it by hand, and I was loathe to risk damaging it by attempting to swat it out of the air. I needed reinforcements. I did not wish to disturb the Lady Elisabeth whilst sneaking about in the night, but I suspected a disrupted beauty sleep would be infinitely preferable to remaining alone with the bug, and I made haste to our provisions.
How right I was. When I returned, it was to a horrifying scene. The poor Lady Elisabeth was engaged in a very close encounter with our tiny night-time intruder. Though the clockwork had yet to attack, it was hovering in dangerous proximity to the Lady’s aristocratic nose. “Stay still, Lady,” I ordered softly, and she seemed inclined to comply, though she may merely have been too shocked by the unexpected visitor to respond.
Ensnaring the bug was easier than I had anticipated; young Xander’s fishing net proved sufficiently successful. Again, however, I found myself lulled into a false sense of security. The automaton had no shortage of tricks up its proverbial sleeve. The clever little thing was well up to the challenge of escaping my net. To my astonishment, the bug was equipped with, not only an uncanny sentience, but a tiny, oscillating blade that shredded my young cousin’s net to ribbons in mere seconds. The like of it I have never seen.
The Lady dove for cover in anticipation of an attack, but the clockwork seemed disinclined to exact revenge upon my person. Though I had been its captor, it had eyes only for the Lady Weston. It did not appear to have any intent to harm my companion, but as she moved experimentally around the chamber, it followed as a Spaniel follows its master, never moving more than several centimetres away.
“What is it, Astrid?” Lady Elisabeth whispered. Unlike many of her peers, the Lady is not prone to hysteria; it is one of the numerous qualities I admire in her. I was pleased to note there was no panic in her voice.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. It looks like an automaton.”
“What is it doing here?”
I pressed my finger to my lips. I suspected, if the tiny clockwork bug could produce a moving blade from its metal exo-skeleton, it was likely equipped with a listening device of some kind. I became quite certain after a few moments of watching the creature circle the Lady that someone was controlling it remotely. Luka, perhaps? I thought this unlikely. The innkeeper was kindly and did not seem bright enough to have constructed such a sophisticated machine. I felt equally certain that Duscha was not our puppet master.
The implications of this were perplexing and disturbing.
Attempting to keep myself at the fly’s back, I motioned the Lady to return to her bed and sought the assistance of our mechanic and electrician, Mr Reinhart. Unfortunately, as the Lady’s betrothed, Lord Benedict insisted upon accompanying Mr Reinhart, young Xander and me back to my chambers. Thus, being the only member of the party left out of the night-time escapade, excepting of course the swarthy driver who had no part in our expedition aside from our safe passage to our awaiting airship in St Petersburg, Mr Murdock, our endlessly capable yet infuriatingly meddling guide, joined the skirmish.
The Lady Elisabeth appeared to be asleep upon our return, and the automaton hummed over her bed like a tiny sentinel. I allowed the gentlemen to examine the creature. Xander in particular seemed highly impressed, though I was hardly surprised; the lad has always had a keen fondness for mechanics, which I attribute to my dear, departed Nathaniel. But I digress. Lady Elisabeth was not, despite initial appearance, asleep. In fact, I am sure she found it quite impossible to sleep in the presence of the intruder. Lord Benedict, being of quick temper and sadly lacking in the poise and grace his intended had displayed thus far, was highly irate and demanded Mr Reinhart swat the fly out of the air at once.
Mr Reinhart, possessing a curious nature and passionate interest in science and all its innovations, most emphatically refused. Luckily, Reinhart, being a former student of my late Mr Darby, had come prepared for such an event. He carried a compact, electro-static generator, the function of which I can only assume was to emit a brief, powerful shock that disrupted the mechanical controls within the tiny creature. Blue lightning arced from the spherical metal wand and unceremoniously zapped the bug from the air. Its humming effectively silenced, it lay on the end of Lady Elisabeth’s bed like a small, benign tinker toy.
Reinhart was very keen to examine the bug up close, but the question of who had sent it remained in the forefront of my mind; I am a woman of action and resolve, not science and supposition. I had little interest in what the bug did; I wanted to know why and for whom. However, it had been a long and trying day, and the incident had only succeeded in reminding my weary body how badly it craved a refreshing night’s sleep. Order restored and our privacy ensured, for Mr Reinhart had kindly left his device with me in case of a replacement bug, the Lady and I returned to our beds to enjoy several hours’ uninterrupted sleep.
It was not to be, however. At dawn, the village came to life, and I was awakened by the shouts of children calling to each other on their way to school. With a groan, I rose from bed, hoping at least for a decent cup of strong, black tea
to chase away the early morning fatigue.
As usual, the Lady appeared perfectly rested, impeccably coiffed and unbearably cheerful compared to my likely rumpled, weary and grumbling mien.