Book Two of Series One.
When Nathanial Stone gets an emergency message from an old friend on Venus begging for his help, his duty is clear: he must go at once.
His ward, Miss Annabelle Somerset, instead of agreeing to stay safely on Earth as he begs, insists on accompanying him to the dangerous tropical planet, home of huge reptiles.
Soon, Nathanial and Annabelle find themselves in the middle of a plot concerning a nefarious German officer, a brilliant English inventor, an Irish guide no better than he should be, a heavily-armed lizard-man and a clever American newspaperman.
Can even they prevail against such odds?
“Might you be Mister Stone, sir?” he called when Nathanial was still some yards away. “A message came in for you, sir, from Venus.”
“Venus, did you say?” Nathanial took the flimsy paper, gummed in half for privacy. Who on Earth—he shook his head and smiled—who on Venus, rather, could the message be from?
He tossed the messenger a shilling. The boy touched one finger to his round blue cap, turned and dashed away towards a three-wheeled steam velocipede. The boy settled himself in the harness between the two huge front wheels and, assisted by the bubbling engine, sped away at quite seven miles an hour, Stone calculated.
Nathanial walked slowly back towards his host, the bit of paper still unfolded in his hand. The address on the front told him little. Fort Collingwood, Her Majesty’s Royal Colony, Venus.
“Something urgent, my dear Stone?” asked White when Nathanial had settled back in his chair.
“I am not quite sure. If you will forgive me, I suppose I should read it.”
White waved his hand. “Naturally. Duty waits for no man.”
Mrs White rose. “I think I’ll just walk down and see if Miss Annabelle and her admirers have worked up a thirst. Do touch the bell for more hot water, William.” She drifted politely away, her long white skirts trailing behind her.
“Well, go on, Professor!” White sat up straight in his chair, all signs of sleepiness gone. “Let us see what is important enough to send a message all the way across the void from Venus!” He sighed. “I have always wanted to visit the colonies there. Imagine the place. Steamy jungles full of huge carnivorous reptiles, while the colonists huddle inside their palisades as the beasts roar for their blood.”
“You have been reading penny dreadfuls, my dear William!” Nathanial laughed.
“I confess it, Professor.” White had the grace to look abashed. “Do not tell my wife, I pray. I already have to hide them in my desk drawers. Oh, not that she disapproves! I have to hide them to keep her from spiriting them away before I have done with them.”
Nathanial threw his head back and laughed at his friend and, at last, ripped open the bit of flimsy and began to read:
21 April 1889, Fort Collingwood, Her Majesty’s colony on Venus
My Dear Stone,
I am sure you have not forgotten our glorious school days together. I excelling in cricket and squash, whilst you swotted away at your books. What is it, ten years since we met? No, longer than that, surely. I shall forego the usual adage re flying time and simply say how immensely proud I am of your great accomplishments in the years since I’ve seen you. Co-inventor of the aether propeller governor! Even on Venus, we have heard of its wonders! Yes, Venus, my dear chap. I passed—we shall not discuss precise rankings, if you please!—my civil service examinations and have been assigned to this damply dangerous—dangerously damp?—planet. At first, one must admit, I simply pushed a pen, but now I’ve managed to get my hands on a rather plush position, a sort of attaché without portfolio, if you will.
I am first assistant—well, let me be quite honest, my dear chap; I am the only assistant—to Geoffrey Forbes-Hamilton, esquire, if you please. I know you recognise the name; all you brilliant engineering johnnies belong to the same clubs and speak the same lingo. I confess, my talents, such as they are, are not the reason I received this particular assignment. It is more along the lines of no one else can stand the bounder. Not one of nature’s gentlemen, shall we say? In fact, I have heard it rumoured that his grandpapa was in trade! But be that as it may: the man is brilliant and H.M.’s government wants him coddled, which is, for my sins, my current job.
You are no doubt wondering, in that perspicacious way which is yours alone, precisely why I am rambling on this way—not to mention, why I’ve dared get in touch with you after all these years. I realise we did not part as the best of chums. Water under London Bridge and all that is how I feel about our little contretemps, and I can only pray you feel the same.
For I need your kind assistance, and in the worst possible way. Allow me to explain in more detail. Forbes-Hamilton has a passion for airships, don’t you see, which is the reason he’s on Venus in the first place. He says he’s untrammeled by inquisitive interlopers here. He is determined to build a new kind of airship which will surpass in every way those the dear old Kaiser’s people have designed. Naturally, our own chaps wish to see that happen as fiercely as does F-H Esquire.
And therein lies the rub, and the reason for this endless scrawl of mine—one of the benefits of working for H.M.’s service, don’t you know: I have no need to be stingy with my words when I can drop a missive into the governor-general’s official pouch!
Forbes-Hamilton has built—and lost—one prototype airship already; he called it the Aeronaut I. “Lost” as in “went down in flames,” don’t you know. Really, it was a most impressive sight, I do assure you! Aeronaut II ended up floating in a local lake and, though we both escaped from the wreckage with no more than scratches, by the time we managed to drag the remnants of the airship onto shore, the local aquatic fauna had chewed it about rather badly. It ended up resembling nothing so much as a badly mangled dog’s toy.
Now Aeronaut III is under construction upon the very bones of II. Dear old F-H refuses to discuss the “inadequacies” of I and II; he simply keeps repeating “she’ll be much better this time.” So much eye wash, in my opinion.
Well, to my point. (“At last!” I hear you exclaim across the aether.) If you could possibly see your way clear to barge off to Fort Collingwood here on Venus and offer your vast expertise to dear old F-H, you would not only be helping out a fellow brilliant engineer, but you would also be offering inestimable services to the government of that regal lady we are both so proud to serve—not to mention, saving the bacon of an old school chum. For, and I tell you this strictly sub rosa, my position as aide-cum-nanny for surly old F-H may will be my best—and last—shot at a decentish career.
Do say you’ll come, old chap. Quite honestly, I suspect some serious problems re III. Life or death, in fact. Do come!
Best regards, Giles Percival Jericho
Nathanial looked up to find White’s eyes locked onto him.
“Well, Professor? You look a bit surprised. Something wrong?”
“Are you familiar, William, with,” Nathanial glanced back at the flimsy bit of paper, “a fellow called Geoffrey Forbes-Hamilton?”
White tented his fingers together; Nathanial could almost see the wheels turning in his friend’s brilliant mind.
“Ah, yes, now I remember the fellow.” White sat forward in his chair, his eyes bright, looking like an eager boy—though Nathanial was sadly aware of the lines of care and the many new white hairs visible in his beard. “Some rather striking new ideas in airship design. Went off to Venus to experiment ‘without a lot of official botherment,’ I believe he told someone. Thinks he can beat Herr Zeppelin at his own game, and bypass the use of liftwood at the same time. More power to him, I must say. Is that the chap you mean?”
Nathanial nodded and tossed him the letter. As White read it, Nathanial watched Mrs White coming towards them across the lawn, Annabelle beside her and the young men following respectfully behind, looking in their uniforms like a cadre of blue jays protecting two swans.
White rose and handed the message back to Nathanial. “I see. This is an opportunity not to be missed, Professor. If you can indeed assist Forbes-Hamilton, and his ideas are bearing fruit, it would be a definite coup for Her Majesty’s Navy. We shall have to see what we can do to get you passage to Fort Collingwood at once.”