A Curiosity of the Solar System – Ian Antony

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PROLOGUE

Ivor’s sleep was not a peaceful one. Normally fairly content when having a mid-afternoon snooze, today he was troubled with visions and sensations that he would subsequently have trouble fully articulating. Intangible streams of suffering and torment, the ear-piercing screams of men, fire and ash, dark terrifying firmaments, screeching machinery and the crack of thunder, all building to a great, awful crescendo like the crashing of a thousand cymbals… and then nothing. The world shrank into a tiny, virtually imperceptible dot; the silence pounded on his eardrums and a great void of nothingness washed over him.

Ivor woke with a start, perspiration from his forehead soaking the sleeve of his jacket on which it was rested. Troubled by his inexplicable and nightmarish visions, he stumbled over to his wash bowl and doused his face with a few healthy handfuls of cold water.

Eager to forget his unexpectedly turbulent post-lunch nap, he opened his small wooden medicine cabinet and poured himself a stiff glass of brandy before depositing himself back into the rather rigid wooden chair, one of which could be found in each of the officers’ cabins. He leaned his elbow on the small mahogany writing table and rested his chin on the palm of his hand as he gazed out of the cabin porthole with a hang-dog expression.

Ivor’s nightmarish vision seemed to have instantly plunged him into one of his mournful, reflective moods – moods that weren’t conducive to doing anything particularly constructive, but which were something he took a sort of perverse, comforting pleasure wallowing in occasionally.

‘Life really is not fair,’ he complained to himself, a sentiment that up until that precise moment in time he hadn’t been terribly fond of. It had always seemed to him that the only people who went around saying things like ‘well, life’s not fair old boy!’ happened to be exactly the same people who were in fact most likely to be making the decisions that dictated the course of events in his life: decisions that, rather than provide any rational justification for, they tended to attribute to some sort of mystical, unwieldy, universal law of unfairness.

Not today, however. Today life certainly was most unfair, decided Ivor. The aftershock of his troubled sleep seemed to have awakened all manner of anxieties that he was usually so adept at repressing. These anxieties now gushed forth in an uncontrollable torrent and were, he supposed, infinitely preferable to dwell upon than the awful visions that had just been visited upon him as he slept.

This was the problem with long voyages. They gave Ivor far too much time with only himself for company, despite the various activities that the ship’s officers tended to participate in to keep the mind and body stimulated. He never was any good at chess, couldn’t stand the screeching of Major Perry’s violin, and there was only so much patience he had for practising swordplay. He always seemed so far away from the action (not always a bad thing, some might argue) that it seemed a fairly pointless exercise to attempt to hone the art of killing a man in a single combat. Besides, in all honesty he wasn’t entirely sure he had the stomach for it.

It wasn’t hard for Ivor to find a reason for his glum introspection. If anything there was too much to choose from. The stagnation of his military career over the course of the past five years was always a good place to start. It was a stagnation that had been precipitated by his elderly parents’ loss of nearly the entire Hooke family fortune in the Great Guano Scandal of 1846. An inheritance lost to bird shit.

Or perhaps he might choose to get in a stew about another of his favourite topics of despondency: the fact that he’d seen neither hide nor hair of his most beloved and betrothed Isabel Grenfell in half a decade?

No, not Isabel. That was too much to dredge up now. He’d save that particular subject for when he was sure he really had sufficient time to luxuriate in some all-encompassing self-pity. Today, instead, he opted for something far more immediate: his latest posting. Last month he had received orders that he was to be unceremoniously plucked from the safe haven of his admittedly dull but decidedly unperilous administrative duties at Horse Guards, the offices of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and dispatched to one of the farthest-flung corners of the British Empire. Although the exact details of the task in hand remained something of a mystery to Ivor, and would doubtless remain so until Lieutenant Colonel Craythorn decided otherwise, he understood that the mission of the company to which he was assigned was a diplomatic one rather than an overtly military undertaking.

This, at the very least, provided Ivor with a small amount of comfort being, as he was, rather fond of his own skin and not being one who felt that he was necessarily best equipped to go risking it on behalf of Queen and country. That wasn’t to say that Ivor was not a patriot; more that he understood where his limited talents lay and how best they might be utilised in the service of the British Empire – even if everyone else did not.

Ivor stirred from his daydreaming with a jolt as a loud crash reverberated through the floor of his cabin from the deck below, closely followed by the sound of orders being shouted in a deep, guttural tone and men generally yelling, bickering, and moaning at each other as they attempted to undo whatever mishap had just befallen them. This was not an atypical occurrence on HMS Cranleigh, as Ivor had discovered after nearly a fortnight on board – a fortnight that was yet to see him be granted an audience with his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Craythorn, although with just over three months to go until they reached their destination, there was little point rushing these things, Ivor supposed.

Ivor’s attention again turned to the world outside. As he gazed at the stars twinkling in the vast blackness of the heavens, his thoughts, quite against his express wishes, began to meander back to that fateful day five years ago, a day since when he had never again laid eyes on his beloved Isabel. No matter how many times he replayed the events of that day, the outcome was still the same: his betrothed had fled and no one, absolutely no one, knew where to find her.

There was a sharp rap on the cabin door.

‘Captain Hooke, sir?’ enquired a rather boyish voice from the other side.

Ivor shuddered. He could just imagine the barely suppressed grin now spreading across the face of his young visitor, a frequent occurrence since Ivor’s now long distant promotion to captain, with people taking constant delight in reminding Ivor how very piratical his name sounded when combined with his rank. It was rather funny he supposed, the first couple of times, but with no further promotion in sight, it seemed like a bad joke that he was destined to live with for the rest of his career.

‘Yes, come in,’ said Ivor, somewhat testily.

A fresh-faced Lieutenant Willy popped his head round the door. Ivor breathed something near to a sigh of a relief. Charles Willy was a nice young enthusiastic fellow. He’d only met him a couple of weeks ago at the start of the voyage, but he seemed a sincere sort of a person who didn’t appear to be the type to poke fun at others. Ivor, feeling a touch guilty about his initial curtness, gave Lieutenant Willy a broad smile and a wink.

‘Charles! How are you, old chap? Was that you creating mischief in the hold a moment ago? Hell of racket down there.’

A rather panicked look spread across Lieutenant Willy’s face.

‘Um, well, no sir. No, I think that was… well I’m not entirely sure what…’

‘Don’t worry, Charles,’ interrupted Ivor jovially, saving the lieutenant further embarrassment. ‘I’m just pulling your leg, old boy. We’ll leave all that crashing about below deck to the crew. We infantrymen will have to find other ways to keep ourselves occupied during this interminable voyage, won’t we? Talking of which, how can I help you, Lieutenant?’

‘Ah yes, indeed we must, sir,’ replied Lieutenant Willy, looking relieved. ‘Um, it’s just that the colonel requests the honour of your presence in his quarters… right away if you don’t mind, sir?’

So he would get to meet old Craythorn today after all, thought Ivor. Maybe some light would even be shed on just what they were doing so far from home.

‘The colonel wants to see me, does he? Any idea what this is about?’

As if on cue, the ship’s bell began to ring in furious alarm. The distinctive voice of the ship’s master began to reverberate throughout the Cranleigh’s hull, bellowing in his gruff Lancashire accent to make himself heard over the din of the bell.

‘Newearth to the fore!’ he shouted. ‘Newearth to the fore!’

Lieutenant Willy looked at Ivor and cupped a hand to his ear in a rather showy attempt to listen to the master’s plainly audible cries.

‘Not exactly sir, but I suspect that has something to do with it. He’s been in there with Major Perry. They’ve been poring over maps and charts all morning…’

The major was Craythorn’s second in command – a shrewd and rather cold character.

‘Fine, well, no time like the present,’ said Ivor. ‘Let’s go and see what old Craythorn wants then, shall we Willy?’

Ivor turned back to his desk to retrieve his shako, a piece of headgear that had turned out to be decidedly cumbersome in the small confines of a ship. As he did so he took one last look at the outside world.

The stars shone as brightly as ever in the vastness of space. As he narrowed his eyes, the simultaneously familiar yet utterly alien spectacle of Newearth came into view through his cabin porthole. It was the first time Ivor had seen Earth’s mysterious doppelganger in person and he felt a strange sense of foreboding as HMS Cranleigh made her way to rendezvous with the small British fleet stationed just outside its orbit. Foreboding was a funny sort of feeling for Ivor. He was quite used to a bit of melancholy punctuated by a dash of anxiety here and there, but foreboding was a sensation quite new to him, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he was that fond of it.

Ivor gazed upon the outline of Newearth’s equivalent of the African continent with a glazed look in his eyes. As he peered beyond the recently discovered planet’s warm blues and verdant greens he was sure he could just about see the rapidly shrinking outline of Earth millions of miles away – a mere pinprick now, soon to disappear from view entirely for who knew how long.

His home was soon to vanish from before his very eyes, just as Isabel had vanished all of those years ago.

1

On the twelfth of August 1851, three months and ten days after launching from Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth, HMS Cranleigh reached her eagerly anticipated destination: the British Empire’s far-flung colony on the mesmerising blue planet of Neptune. As the Royal Navy ship began her descent into the planet’s upper atmosphere, Ivor noted to himself that the blues of Neptune felt nothing like the blues of Earth (nor indeed Newearth, for that matter). They were richer, deeper, and somehow more enchanting – and quite a sight to behold. The atmosphere aboard the ship was one of sheer, unbridled excitement, not least because after three months in space, the prospect of escaping the cramped confines of the Royal Navy frigate was at last a very real one.

‘Brace for entry!’ came the call from the ship’s master. As the call was repeated and echoed down the length of the Cranleigh, Ivor joined the scramble for one of the seats that lined the walls of the officers’ wardroom. Upon finding one he fastened himself in with the leather straps with which all the seats were equipped. To remain standing during atmospheric entry was inadvisable, unless one enjoyed the sensation of feeling one’s legs buckle suddenly, depositing you on the floor like some sort of ungainly human pancake.

Ivor had only done this a couple of times before, and it should come as no surprise that it wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. The Cranleigh started to judder and jolt as its hull, unperturbed by the vacuum of space for so long, began to meet resistance from Neptune’s atmosphere. The juddering increased in intensity to a violent shake. The ship rattled uncontrollably and a crash was heard from the galley as some cooking utensil or other that an inexperienced cabin boy had neglected to stow away properly managed to escape.

The Cranleigh was now well within Neptune’s upper atmosphere, her crew ready for the real fun to begin. The frigate began to plummet towards the planet’s surface, dropping like a lead weight under the force of Neptune’s gravity, surely to be smashed to smithereens unless something was done about it.

But, of course, everything was perfectly under control. Those who had undergone atmospheric entry many times before sat stony faced, allowing the procedure to unfold, while those with a bit more joie de vivre, on the other hand, and particularly those fond of fairground rides, couldn’t help but whoop and holler in delight at the exhilarating sensation of free falling. Ivor was most certainly not in this camp, and hung on to his harness for dear life as he tried not to think of the planet’s surface rushing towards them at hundreds of miles per hour.

After what seemed like an age, but was in fact just ten seconds or so, the call that Ivor had been waiting for finally came.

‘Release the balloons!’ ordered the master.

At that point, two huge balloons unfurled from two squat little chimney-like structures that stood where the masts would have been on a terrestrial sailing ship. The sound of atomic burners firing up could be heard reverberating through the ship’s hull as the two balloons rapidly inflated with hot air in just a matter of seconds. Suddenly, as the balloons reached the requisite inflation levels to support the weight of the ship, the Cranleigh’s dramatic descent was arrested with a huge jolt (not to mention another crash from the galley).

Ivor, realising that he hadn’t drawn breath for quite some time and was starting to feel decidedly giddy about it, exhaled loudly. The worst of it was now over and he hoped, all being well, that it would be plain sailing from then on in – figuratively speaking, of course. In stark contrast to the turbulent nature of atmospheric entry, HMS Cranleigh now cut a far more graceful figure as she gently glided through Neptune’s spectacularly hued sky, suspended under two inflatable orbs and powered by two side-mounted steam-driven propellers.

Ivor unstrapped himself from his chair and called over to Lieutenant Willy who was doing the same on the other side of the wardroom. ‘Fancy poking your head above deck, Charles? I think we’ve had quite enough of this fetid air, don’t you?’

After three months of breathing the increasingly stale recycled air aboard the Cranleigh, those members of the ship’s crew who didn’t have duties below deck had exactly the same idea. There was something of a rush to get out into the fresh air and stretch one’s legs after months of being cooped up and Ivor couldn’t wait to clamber on to the ship’s deck. There was an excitable hubbub of activity as men lined the ship’s railings and chattered eagerly about what they would do when they finally reached port.

Some of the chatter was savoury, and some, well, some was a little less so.

‘’Ere lads, I’m gonna find me the cheapest knocking shop in New Newcastle and get as many dolly mops in the sack as I can for a shilling…’

The able skyman, obviously not wanting to offend the sensibilities of two officers, trailed off with a slightly embarrassed look on his face as he came to face to face with Ivor and Lieutenant Willy, who had elbowed their way through the throng to the ship’s railings. Ivor had heard it all before, but Lieutenant Willy looked a little awkward in the face of such outright bawdiness.

‘As you were, skyman,’ said Ivor jovially. ‘Charles, take a look at this. What a sight, hey?’

The two officers rested their elbows on the railings and peered down to Neptune’s surface three miles beneath them. It was a cloudless day and a desert-like, storm-scarred landscape was clearly visible down below. Ivor closed his eyes and took his first deep breath of fresh air in three months.

Lieutenant Willy excitedly referred to the copious reference material that he and Ivor had been poring over for the last couple of months. ‘The Great Solanum Desert! They say it’s named after a particularly hardy breed of potato that’s taken root there. Darwin discovered it growing on a beach in Chile, don’t you know! Who’d have thought it, sir?’

Ivor had actually met the great botanist, Darwin, by chance several years previously, but couldn’t honestly say that he’d got on to the topic of potatoes with him. He let Lieutenant Willy continue enthusiastically, not wishing to interrupt him.

The process of atmosphorming had resulted in some areas of Neptune being able to sustain some really rather verdant grasslands and forests, but the Great Solanum Desert was an exception. Occupying a vast tract of land comparable in size to the Indian subcontinent, it was this desert-like region in which Neptune’s rich mineral deposits were primarily found and, consequently, where most of Neptune’s population had to situate themselves whether they liked it or not. In the centre of the desert stood, or rather floated, Neptune’s principle city of New Newcastle, towards which HMS Cranleigh now steadily wended her way.

‘Good lord. There it is, Charles. New Newcastle. Quite spectacular if I do say so!’

Spectacular was certainly one way of putting it. As Neptune’s capital city slowly floated into view, the astonishment of the crew was audible as they oohed and ahhed (not to mention cursed) in amazement at the sight before them. For there, suspended beneath a network of a hundred thousand balloons, floated a city of almost unparalleled splendour. Its architecture was quite extraordinary and Ivor could only think to describe it as a bizarre combination of the gothic revival that was so in vogue back on Earth, and a sort of Moorish or Moroccan fort-like sensibility.

Cornices, crestings, crenels, and chimneys punctuated a landscape of towers and bastions connected by a series of lofty walkways, passages, and bridges. The city was awash with dark reds and yellows, which alleviated the slightly austere atmosphere conjured up by the more gothic architectural elements, not to mention the shadows cast by the thousands of balloons floating above, each connected to the city by a series of robust steel cables. Emanating from the bowels of the city Ivor could see a huge steel pipeline descending to the surface of the planet below – a pipeline that would ferry the fruits of the mining operations beneath the surface of the desert to the merchant ships docked in the city’s port, way up above.

New Newcastle’s docks sat at the southernmost edge of the city – a series of platforms and bays into which ships of the stars could gently nestle their hulls when not in flight. As the Cranleigh approached New Newcastle, Ivor could see that the docks below were hives of activity. He could hear orders being shouted in the distance as hundreds of men rushed around arranging themselves into parade-ground formation – no doubt their official reception committee, he thought to himself.

The ship’s crew was ushered away from their idle gawking and took up their stations as the Cranleigh prepared to dock. Lieutenant Colonel Craythorn and Major Perry appeared alongside Ivor and Lieutenant Willy.

‘Remember, men, this is a mission of diplomacy. Governor Wyatt may be stubborn as an old mule, but we are here to charm and flatter him,’ cautioned Craythorn.

‘And failing that, sir?’ enquired Ivor.

‘And failing that we will subjugate him,’ said Craythorn, before adding in a slightly milder tone, ‘but one thing at a time, Captain. One thing at a time.’

As Major Perry continued to remind Ivor and Lieutenant Willy of the details of their mission on Neptune, Ivor’s mind started to wander back to his first audience with the major and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Craythorn, two months previously just outside Newearth’s orbit…

 

‘Right, Hooke. It’s about time we brought you up to speed with what exactly is going on here,’ barked Major Perry.

‘Right hook? Oh, very good, Major!’ said an amused-looking Colonel Craythorn. ‘Have a good right hook do we, Captain? Like a bit of scrap, hmm?’

Ivor was standing rather stiffly at one end of his commanding officer’s quarters. Opposite him, behind an oak desk strewn with dusty ledgers and old astral charts, sat Lieutenant Colonel Craythorn, a thin, wiry man with a long nose and a twinkle in his eye. Beside him stood his second in command Major Perry – a stout fellow with a luxuriant moustache not quite long enough to cover an unsightly boil on his right cheek.

‘Well, I don’t know about that, sir. I mean, I’ve never really been a believer in nominative determinism. I’m really not sure I’m the type who likes a scrap to be honest…’

‘Nominative what, Hooke?’ interrupted Major Perry.

‘Nominative determinism! Do keep up, Major,’ chirped old Craythorn. ‘Very good, Hooke. Very good, although that’s not what I’ve heard,’ he said with a wink. ‘By all accounts, a bit of a scrap is exactly what you do like.’

The Colonel steadied a pair of pince-nez on his impressive nose and brought a sheaf of papers in to focus in front of him.

‘“Twelfth September 1846: Caught duelling with an officer of the Queen’s Royal Rifles at Leith Hill Tower shortly after dawn”, it says here, Hooke. “Frightful racket. Terrified the local deer.”’

The Colonel peered at Ivor over the top of his glasses. ‘Duelling, Hooke!’ And then after a pause, with a slightly wistful look in his eyes, ‘Matter of the heart was it, Captain? Nothing like a duel over the honour of a fine young lady. Good to hear that chivalry isn’t dead…’

‘Well, um, it wasn’t exactly like that, sir. I didn’t exactly want to…’

But the Colonel wasn’t listening. Lost in his own thoughts he stared into the distance. ‘Duelling. A fine tradition among young men. I remember the good old days. I’d be duelling twice a month if I had the chance! Elizabeth was awfully generous when I returned from a good bout of duelling…’

Major Perry and Ivor exchanged rather awkward glances.

Suddenly, the Colonel remembered himself and snapped back to life. ‘But, of course, duelling has been banned for some time in the British army, Hooke. A fact of which I’m sure you are well aware. We’ll have no duelling under my command. Isn’t that so, Major Perry?’

‘Indeed it is, sir,’ intoned the major gravely.

‘Of course, Colonel. It really was rather a one off,’ said Ivor. ‘Besides, pistols at dawn and suchlike has never really been my forte.’

He didn’t really think it was worth dredging up the past any more than necessary. Besides, going into more detail would only serve to pour cold water over the rather chivalric version events that Craythorn had apparently conjured up in his mind: a version of events that seemed to have already given the old colonel a respect of sorts for Ivor.

‘Ah, modest as well, hey Hooke? The British army could use a few more cut from your cloth, that’s for sure. Anyway, where were we, Major Perry?’

The rather dour major raised an eyebrow at the colonel’s last comment, looked at Ivor, and said, ‘The slave trade, Hooke. Pay much attention to it?’

Ivor, slightly taken aback at this rather abrupt change of topic, and feeling somewhat incapable of doing justice to such a broad question about such a globally divisive issue on the spur of the moment, simply muttered, ‘Slavery? Well, um, it’s a terrible business isn’t it, sir? We banned it some time ago though, didn’t we?’

‘Quite, Hooke. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833. An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the industry of the manumitted slaves; and for compensating the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves.’

‘“Am I not a man and a brother?” and all that sort of thing, sir?’

Major Perry looked across at Ivor with a suspicious look on his face. ‘What was that, Hooke?’

‘Oh, oh just something I saw once at Josiah Wedgwood’s home, sir. The anti-slavery medallion designed by his father. It was on display at his home on Leith Hill.’

‘Hmm. That may well be, Hooke, but we’ll have no more talk about that non-conformist thank you very much. This is a serious business, Hooke.

‘Slaves helped Great Britain build an empire the likes of which the world has never before seen,’ continued Major Perry in his rather officious growl, ‘but of course we must move with the times.

‘The thing is, Hooke, it’s one thing parliament passing an act from the comfort of the benches of Westminster, and quite another thing actually enforcing it. Particularly where the colonies are concerned…’

‘And particularly where the celestial colonies are concerned!’ interrupted Craythorn. ‘Sorry, do continue, Major Perry.’

Major Perry continued to explain to Ivor how news of the 1833 Slavery Act was communicated to the colonies as soon as it was passed. They quickly fell into line: Venus, Mercury… the Governor of Mars even rather sheepishly informed Whitehall that he’d already freed all the slaves who’d travelled on his atmosphorming ship some time ago. But Governor McAdams always was a liberal sort.

There was, however, one exception. The rather curt response came from the Governor of Neptune, to the effect that he would be happy to free the colony’s slaves as long as parliament was happy to see a significant reduction in the quantity of titanium that Neptune’s slaves worked so hard to mine – an export upon which the British Empire’s military might was very much dependent. It was a delicate situation. Having learned from the American War of Independence, parliament was cautious when it came to antagonising the colonies – particularly those in the furthest reaches of space.

‘The impudence of it!’ spluttered Craythorn. ‘We can’t have the colonies defying Her Majesty’s government, going off willy-nilly doing as they please,’ and then after a short pause, ‘Governor Wyatt always was a contrary old coot, but the British Empire simply cannot afford to have the man cultivating his own personal fiefdom on the edge of the solar system. It will not do!’

Much as on its Earthly colonies, Great Britain’s planetary colonies were ruled by carefully selected governors chosen for their supposed loyalty to the Crown along with the wit and iron constitution so very much needed to sow the seeds of civilisation in their respective domains. Some had travelled on the initial atmosphorming ships thirty years before, while others were relatively new appointments where the previous incumbent had retired or expired. Governor Wyatt fell into the former category. Now over seventy years old, the ex-Royal Navy man had a reputation for being a shrewd and ruthless ruler.

‘So why have we stood for it for so long, if you don’t mind me asking, sir?’ pitched in Ivor, desperately trying to find a good balance between sounding inquisitive and sounding informed. ‘I mean, it’s been eighteen years since the act was passed.’

Colonel Craythorn sighed and switched to a more resigned tone. ‘Well yes, why indeed, Hooke. It’s the mines you see. As Major Perry has explained, no one produces titanium quite like Neptune does. Too economically important to the Empire, you see. The East India Company managed to get an exemption from the slavery ban, a precedent that Governor Wyatt has been all too happy to remind us of, and as we well know the company has been quite the piggy bank for the Crown.’

All men are equal, unless there’s a tidy profit to be made, Ivor thought wryly, a thought which he wisely chose to keep to himself.

‘And then of course there’s the matter of proximity,’ continued Craythorn. ‘It’s very hard to keep a dog on a leash when the dog in question is three billion miles away, and when the hand at the end of the leash is busy doing other things. But we can no longer let this sleeping dog have its day. We must bring this dog to heel! Do you follow me, Hooke?’

Ivor, trying desperately to untangle the barrage of metaphors that Craythorn had just fired at him, nodded furiously in agreement.

Major Perry continued. ‘Neptune no longer has quite the monopoly on titanium production that Governor Wyatt thinks it does. Discoveries have been made by surveyors on Newearth that will help bring the production of titanium much closer to home. The time is ripe to bring Neptune back into line and remind Wyatt where his loyalties lie. Which is exactly what we are going to do, Hooke.’

‘And presumably arrange for Neptune’s slaves to be freed, too, Major?’ enquired Ivor sheepishly.

‘Yes, yes, that too, Hooke,’ said the major with a rather dismissive wave of the hand.

Craythorn, eager to cut to the chase now, looked at Ivor and said, ‘A company of the Queen’s Royal Rifles has been posted on Neptune for eight months now, Captain. A show of force if you will. Wyatt doesn’t seem to have got the message though, so we’re going to take a rather different tack as it were: diplomacy, Hooke. It seems like a rather novel idea, but the prime minister thought that we may as well… well, try talking to Wyatt.

‘This is where you come in. Major Perry and I will be handling the doubtless thorny negotiations with the governor, while you, Hooke, will be keeping your nose to the ground, recording anything and everything you see pertinent to our mission.’

‘Anything and everything, sir? That’s rather a lot of, well, things, isn’t it?’

‘It is indeed, Captain,’ said the colonel with an encouraging wink (the colonel seemed to do a lot of winking. Ivor started to wonder if it was in fact some sort of nervous tick), ‘and you are just the man for the job. We’ve heard good things about your time in The Kingdom of Nepal. Got on well with the Gurkhas, got on with things with minimum fuss, detailed dispatches back to Horse Guards and all that. Just the man for the job.’

‘Well yes, umm, thank you, sir.’

‘To be frank, Hooke, if these negotiations break down then a military expedition somewhat larger than just a paltry company of riflemen is going to be required to deal with Neptune. Any military manoeuvres must be based on intelligence and detail. Intelligence and detail that you will record and report back to Major Perry on a daily basis. Understand, Captain?’

‘Intelligence and detail. Absolutely,’ said Ivor, sensing that this was probably about as specific as his orders were going to get. And then he added cheerily, not really sure what else to say, ‘Happy to be of some use, sir.’

Major Perry raised another rather cynical eyebrow. ‘There’s plenty to be getting on with in the meantime, Captain. Lieutenant Willy can furnish you with ample reading material on all things Neptune, its people, geography, and suchlike. We will talk again.’

There was an awkward pause as Colonel Craythorn and the major stared at Ivor. Craythorn, suddenly realising that the conversation was over, added, ‘Well, I should think that’s all clear then. Off you go, Hooke. Dismissed.’

Ivor stood to attention, saluted, and then shuffled awkwardly out of his commanding officer’s quarters, his head already starting to fill with questions that he wished he’d thought to ask during the briefing, along with several he was relieved he hadn’t asked, foremost of which was how on earth a dour thing like Major Perry and an excitable old thing like Colonel Craythorn hoped to bring their influence to bear on Governor Wyatt, a man who clearly had the strength of character to openly defy the British Empire.

 

Over the course of the next few weeks Ivor had pored over the reading material that Major Perry had provided him with in an effort to bring him up to speed on Neptune’s short colonial history. He was pleased to have something to occupy his mind at last and Lieutenant Willy, who had been assigned to assist Ivor, proved to be an amiable young companion with an inquisitive mind, happy to discuss the fruits of their daily reading well into the night.

Ivor learned of Neptune’s rich mineral deposits, which were to be found in deep underground caverns beneath the planet’s surface. He learned of the subterranean mines that had proliferated alongside the colonisation of the solar system, feeding deposits to the surface through vast vertical pipelines. He was fascinated to learn of Neptune’s rather splendid sounding capital, New Newcastle, a city above the clouds, its position there necessitated by the two-hundred-mile-an-hour winds that frequently plagued the planet’s surface – winds that the process of atmosphorming had still not successfully brought into check. He also learned of the hardy prospecting communities who lived on the planet’s surface, braving the hostile conditions as they sought out new titanium seams to mine.

Despite his initial trepidation at being so far from home, Ivor had started to become rather excited at the prospect of sailing through Neptune’s faint planetary rings, which were comprised of tiny ice particles, and of peering out of HMS Cranleigh’s portholes as she navigated past Neptune’s fourteen moons (the largest of which, Triton, was large enough to be a planet in its own right) before finally descending into the planet’s delightful-sounding iridescent blue atmosphere.

Learning about a celestial body from the pages of a rather stiff Royal Geographic Society report was one thing, however. Experiencing it first hand would be a different prospect entirely: something that would become all too apparent to Ivor over the course of the next few months.

A Curiosity of the Solar System

by Ian Antony

Copyright ©2017 Ian Antony

 

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