The mood was solemn in the little steam-launch as it puttered its way around the headlands. Doctor Taupe-Wainscot suppressed a shiver, though what breeze there was was not terribly cold. He’d seen some queer things in his fifty-six years, but the sight of that monstrosity lurching over their bows, ready to drag them below the waves… he sat in silence for some time, until Mr Porter touched his shoulder and broke him out of his contemplation. “I say, Ham – don’t look now, but we’re being followed.”
Doctor Taupe-Wainscot looked. There was, indeed, a small, shabby boat, its lights dimmed, some distance behind them. “Where did they come from? Who are they?”
“Pirates, probably. I’d wager they’re set up in one of the caves around here. They’re probably sizing us up, seeing if we’re worth their while. Son Major? Extinguish those lights, and we’ll try to lose them.”
The great electric lamp was switched off, as was their cabin-lantern, and, all in a moment, they had only the dimness of the false-stars to guide them. Daughter Porter (as he had taken to thinking of her) peered into the blackness ahead, making minute adjustments to their course, and behind them, the other craft maintained a steady distance. Finally, its lights were eclipsed by an outcropping of rock… and did not reappear. Five held breaths were released, and the doctor wondered what other hazards the zee held for incautious travellers. Out loud, he asked whether it was common to encounter pirates so close to London. “More common than it used to be,” answered Daughter Porter. “The Royal Navy doesn’t seem to have the resources to patrol these waters. These were small fish, really – if we’d encountered one of the living-galleys that ship out of Polythreme, or a party of Khaganian privateers, we’d be in real trouble, but they never come this far west.”
The doctor found this less than reassuring, but his attention was distracted by the appearance of a beacon ahead, illuminating a squat, rugged land-mass topped by a flat-topped structure. “Is that our destination?”
“No, but it means we’re close. That’s Tanah Chook – ‘Bird Island’, or something like that. The captain who discovered it thought those ruins might be Javanese, but, well, who can say for sure.”
“Bird Island?” As they drew closer, Taupe-Wainscot became aware of a confusion of whirling shadows above the shore. “Are those birds?”
“Not quite.” This was the youngest Porter. “Tomb-bats – presumably a Neath-dwelling relative of desmodus rotundus. Observe the characteristic hunting behaviour, as the swarm seeks out warm-blooded prey.”
“Hate to interrupt, Son Minor, but I think they’re hunting us.” The swarm had, indeed, detached itself from the shadowy bulk of the island and begun to move in their direction.
With a half-minced oath, the elder Porter boy threw the switch of the prow-light, which uttered a rising whine, spat, and then faded into silence. “Hi, captain!”
“What’s that, Son Major?”
“Light’s bust. I’ll have to take a look at it when we make port.”
“Oh, Hades, that’s a bother.”
“I take it,” Taupe-Wainscot asked, “that these creatures are somewhat dangerous?”
“Only to ships without lights enough to keep them away, which, well. Darling Daughter, lay on the engines, as quick as you please. Fetch that box out again, Ham – we’ll just have to keep them off with flares until we reach town.”
What followed was a period of some little confusion. Hungry bats darted at them, and Doctor Taupe-Wainscot flailed his flare back at the bats. He could see Mr Porter performing similar contortions, and the younger son struggling with a particularly large specimen that was attempting to carry off his hat. Gradually, the swarm began to retreat, and soon they were standing, flushed, panting, and partially hatless, on the Venderbight docks.
Whatever the doctor had expected of the Tomb-Colonies, this wasn’t it. Large, airy buildings, perhaps, full of convalescents attended to by smartly-uniformed nurses… what he beheld instead looked like a mediaeval ruin. Only one building in three showed signs of occupation, and many had were half-deconstructed, their crumbling stone walls giving way to great dark hollows. One wheezing, bandaged figure pushed another down the street in a decrepit bath chair, limping all the way. There were few street signs, but Porter apparently knew the way, as he lead the party deeper into the settlement. There were houses here, and even a few makeshift market stalls. The doctor stopped at one of these and bought some picture-postcards, explaining to his amused guide that he’d promised the Widow that he’d write the moment they arrived safely. “I explained to her that I did not expect to be gone for longer than a day or two, but she insisted. I shall probably get home before they do.”
“One always does, Ham; that’s the curse of picture-postcards. Now, come on – we’re getting to the lively part of town.”
This was not entirely inaccurate – more and more lit windows were appearing in their path, and there were movements not unalike those of a conventional settlement. They even spotted a number of bandage-clad individuals taking such air as there was on a fungus-strewn games-court of unusual design. “The playing-fields of Eaten,” remarked one of the Porter boys, mysteriously. From there, they turned down a broad mews and found themselves before a remarkably hospitable-looking boarding-house, which was, Porter Senior announced, their destination.
The interior was warm and well-appointed, opening into a spacious parlour, where a figure wrapped in white linen rose to greet them. “William! How delightful to see you – ‘pon my soul, is that you, Graeme? Why, I haven’t seen you in thirty years!” It was, indeed, Percival Pease, though not the scrawny youth the doctor remembered – broad-shouldered and strong-limbed, he looked like a Roman athlete.
“I swear, Peas, you’re looking healthier than ever. Ah, well, aside from…”
“Oh, yes, these.” Sheepishly, Pease lifted the bandages around his face, revealing a crescent of scars that began at his hairline and ended below his jaw. “They tell me I was dead for two hours, though it just felt like a bad dream. I still get them sometimes – the dreams. Blackouts. Back to the river…”
The dinner bell rang, bringing him out of his reverie, and Porter exclaimed “Gad, I’m hungry! We didn’t have a chance to have any lunch – you won’t believe the trip we had up, Pease; attacked by zee-monsters, pursued by pirates, every adventure you can imagine. Tell you all about it while we eat – how do they feed you in this place, anyway?”
The meal provided was, in fact, quite palatable, featuring a hearty potato-and-mushroom stew, a generous portion of grilled fish, and a bottle from the proprietor’s private cellar, which he expressed himself delighted to share with his guest’s old friends. The sheer contrast of the day’s events struck the doctor like a weight – from near-death at sea, to a comfortable dining-room and half a glass of an excellent vintage (his chums somehow persuaded him to let them refill it, arguing that, as half a glass could do no harm, neither could another half.) What unusual, unlikely, and sometimes harrowing events Fortune was placing in his path! This reminded him of his hunt for old acquaintances that had brought him on this trip, and he recounted the story for Pease. The children, being only distantly familiar with the details, listened with interest, while their father made himself a sort of Greek chorus of constant interjections. At last, Pease, looking as sympathetic as he could with his bandages comically askew, offered his opinion.
“It does sound like a frightful mess, my dear Ham. You should go and talk to my solicitors; they’ll see you right. In fact – I’ll come with you, and why not? I haven’t been down to London in a while, and it will be just as well if I’m wanted as a character witness.”
“That’s terribly kind of you, Peas… I only hesitate because I don’t know where there’s room for six in the boat…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that! I’ll bunk down in the bottom of the cabin – you’ll hardly know I’m there. I’ve grown accustomed to cramped conditions; I once lived for a month and a half in a disused mausoleum, with only a box of old Gazettes to keep me company. I’ll tell you one, thing, though – that Huffam really can write…”
This anecdote prompted another, and another after that, and the younger Porters excused themselves to the snuggery to plan the next day’s zailing. As the night wore on, Taupe-Wainscot found himself feeling increasingly sober, weary, and uncomfortable. His friends were guffawing over some particularly rambling story that he couldn’t follow at all, while the party at the nearest table shuffled in place, groaned, and muttered to themselves about the “dratted noisy pinkskins.” His attention rejoined his companions, faltered, left them again, then wandered about the room. Two portly businessmen, bandages looped above and beneath their gaudy suits, murmured conspiratorially in the corner. A threadbare zailor, with a red-headed creature of indeterminate sex who she referred to as “my Nancy” sitting on her knee, was being asked quietly to leave by the proprietor. And the tall gentleman standing beside him was –
His glass toppled onto the tablecloth, and the… ocular specimen rolled out. Porter laughed until he couldn’t breathe, while Pease began scolding the practical joker for his discourtesy in Italian. The gentleman – a hollow-cheeked spectre in a large coat – bowed to the doctor. “Forgive me, signor; I could not resist.” Feebly, Taupe-Wainscot took up the offending organ with his napkin and returned it to its owner. His digestion was feeling peculiarly unsettled, and the charm had quite run out of the evening. Mercifully, their host was able to lead him to a guest room, where he cast off his boots, checked the sheets thoroughly for unattended appendages, put the pillow over his head and fell into a deep black nothing.
The next morning, he felt rather better. The previous day’s events seemed less terrible in the cold dark of day – after all, he had seen much worse in this time. He made his way downstairs to find his companions looking rather less sanguine; they had, evidently, made a night of it, and were regarding the breakfast-dishes haggardly. The doctor helped himself to probably-ham, eggs, sausage, potatoes and mushrooms, along with a cup of coffee and a generous pat of possibly-butter (Porter had toast; Pease porridge.) The children were nowhere to be found; apparently, they’d gone out early to find parts and supplies. Together (with a little prompting), Stout, Ham and Peas put their heads together and laid out a plan for the day’s zailing. They’d head out within the hour, and, with a fair wind behind them (“not so many of those about, these days.” Pease muttered), they’d be in London before the lighting of the evening lamps.
They found the Cuttlefish freshly fitted in the harbour, its bow-lamp casting a strong, steady light into the fog. The elder porter boy stood up and saluted them. “Just finished testing it, captain – the proofing had gone on the connections, but otherwise, all correct.”
“Top hole, Son Major. We’re all present and correct, Darling Daughter – ready to weigh anchor whenever you are. Son Minor, you can have my seat today – I might just put my head down for a bit, if there’s no objections.”
True to his word, Pease found a place for himself amid the luggage, tucked into what he called a “travelling-bed” but what looked suspiciously like a coffin. Fitting himself with a flask of warm tea and a paperback novel, he closed the lid over himself and vanished as completely from view as if he’d been a load of ship’s biscuit. The Porter siblings continued loading the boat, packing parcels and crates on and around Pease’s box, and finally, when the doctor had taken his seat, set the engine in motion and left Venderbight behind them.
Fallen London is © 2014 and ™ Failbetter Games Limited: www.fallenlondon.com. This is an unofficial fan work.