Wednesday, 28 September 2011
In the lair of the Mantikore
Friday, 23 September 2011
The first ongoing gamebook series ever (nearly)
One autumn afternoon in 1983 we sat around the kitchen table. Jamie was working at Games Workshop and must have mentioned that The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was selling better than anyone including its authors (Livingstone and Jackson) could have expected. “Other publishers will be looking for their own gamebook series,” realized Mike, always the most astute of our group. It dawned on us that maybe we should forego that day’s gaming in order to put together a proposal. Min will have been the one to insist on that; Jamie and I would surely have rather just played a game.
What we came up with that day was a proposal for The Sword of the Silver Dawn. The title was probably Mike’s, and I think I detect an underlying Campbellian framework that will have come from him too. I remember him insisting that the old mentor figure should depart at cockcrow – the first inkling that he might be a ghost. Doubtless more would have been made of that fact later in the series. (Heroes prefer their mentors to be ethereal as it means they’re conveniently available in a crisis, most fantasy worlds lacking mobile phone coverage.)
Galador, the Council of Paladins, Castle Blight – those are classic Oliver Johnson touches. The magic sword is almost certainly Jamie’s. The betrayal of Sussurian (ah, so that’s where I first used that name!) by the champion must have been my idea; I love reversals in unexpected places. The notion of a deeper evil lurking in the castle dungeons, prolonging the curse even when you think you should have triumphed, that again bears Mike’s fingerprints. The actual nature of the final foe as a pure manifestation of hatred and evil I’m sure was Min’s. Always a fan of Leiber’s stories, he particularly liked the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story “The Cloud of Hate” and later elaborated on the theme in his gamebook The Coils of Hate (soon to be re-released if negotiations work out).
The Sword of the Silver Dawn wouldn’t have been the first gamebook series. Inspired by programmed learning books, the Choose Your Own Adventure series was already going strong by 1983. The American Steve Jackson (of GURPS fame) had extended the concept into role-playing with his Fantasy Trip solo books in the late ‘70s, and of course the UK Steve Jackson and his partner Ian Livingstone had transplanted that variant to high street bookstores with Fighting Fantasy. Joe Dever and Gary Chalk both worked at Games Workshop back then, so Jamie may have got wind that they were planning a series of their own. Nonetheless, Silver Dawn would have been the first ongoing, narrative-driven gamebook with a specific lead character.
It didn’t happen because Jamie and Min got sidetracked by The Talisman of Death, their entry in the Fighting Fantasy series, and then by the Falcon and Way of the Tiger books. Oliver and I were wooed by Philippa Dickinson to write The Lord of Shadow Keep for Fighting Fantasy, but I went off instead to write the Golden Dragon Gamebooks (less money, more control) and Oliver soon joined me there, bringing Shadow Keep with him. And then Dragon Warriors, Blood Sword, and so on.
Perhaps The Sword of the Silver Dawn would have been a bit too generic and D&D-ish to hold our interest over any more than three books, but having found the original proposal just today – a couple of crumpled, typewritten sheets stuffed into one of the Ophis folders – I feel a twinge of regret that we didn’t try our hands at a five-way collaboration. Between us we had the talent to make something truly memorable. Well, that's something I hope we did anyway.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
The Sword of the Silver Dawn
Background to the adventure
In former times, the land of Thalassa was ruled by the High King, a good and wise monarch who brought peace and prosperity to his subjects.
But the High King died, and his son, the evil wizard Prince Sussurian, came to the throne. The Council of Paladins was dissolved and its members scattered to the corners of the kingdom. While those who opposed the Prince were beheaded or cast into his dungeons, the cruel and ruthless became Sussurian's knights, and thus he closed his evil grip on the land.
Your father, Galador, was chief of the Council of Paladins. Now he lives in retirement on the only lands which were not taken from him. You have never known a life different from the simple country ways you and your family have been forced to adopt. But you have always dreamed of the glorious days when your father 'wielded the sword Whitefire.
One night you are visited by an old man, Aurelion, who persuades your father that he must once again take up arms and oppose Sussurian, whose tyrannical reign must be ended. As your father reaches for the sword, the fire dies to a flicker and all the lamps and candles go out. At once, Aurelian shouts a mystic word and the fire leaps up. In the flickering gloom, you see a dark shadow reaching out to touch your father.
Instinctively, you seize the sword. A nimbus of light shines from the blade as you swing it at the Shadow, which begins to shrivel but,even as it does so, fades into your father, who slumps to the floor. Aurelion does his best; after some time he turns to you. He explains that your father is a victim of the Prince's evil necromancy, and that there is little he can do. He tells you that the sword Whitefire has chosen you as its wielder, and that in order to save your father's life you must undertake the quest in his place.
Your first objective must be to prevent the wicked Baron Korstang, who rules this area through his band of robber-knights, from returning to the Court of Prince Sussurian with the dread Sceptre of Doom. With this artifact, the Prince's power would to such that none could stand against him. At this point, the cock crows and Aurelion hurries away.
You set off on your adventure...
Although all three books form a single adventure, each is entirely self-contained and can be read/played on its own.
The Sceptre of Doom
In this book, the hero's objective is to prevent Baron Korstang from taking a magical artifact of great power to the evil Prince Sussurian. After many adventures, the hero finally catches up with Baron Korstang and defeats him. He destroys the Sceptre of Doom, and in so doing attracts the attention of the forces of darkness.
The Black Knight
Prince Sussurian's champion, the Black Knight - who appears only peripherally in the first book - is sent with orders to slay the hero and capture his enchanted sword, Whitefire. The Black Knight has other ideas. With the power of the sword he hopes to supplant Sussurian. Early in the book, the hero loses Whitefire, upon which he has come to depend. He has to overcome the obstacles facing him without the aid of its magic. Thus he begins to learn that he can rely on his own inner strength. Eventually he retrieves the sword. In the final battle with the Black Knight it is his own courage and resolve, as much as the power of the sword Whitefire, that wins him victory.
The Court of Prince Sussurian
The final book takes the hero into the heart of Sussurian's domain, Castle Blight. The many rooms and towers of the Prince's court are inhabited by dissolute courtiers, brutal men-at-arms and creatures of the night, attracted by the citadel's aura of evil. The hero has to find his way past these, and the Castle's many traps and magical wards, to get to Sussurian. The ensuing battle pits the determination and valiant heart of the hero against the sorcery and cunning of the evil Prince. However, even with Sussurian defeated, the hero realizes that the curse laid on his father in the first book is still not lifted. So he penetrates the Castle's deepest depths where he finds a monstrous demon, the pure manifestation of evil. He hurls his sword at it, and the sword becomes a shaft of white light which pierces and destroys the demon.
Tuesday, 13 September 2011
The Land Below the Sunset
There were twenty vaults along the Avenue of the Esteemed Dead. At either end stood pikemen hired by the Exequial Guild to keep away graverobbers. Under the wide-brimmed helmets their faces were sweat streaked and morose. Only the eyes were animated, darting, luminous with wild emotion in those expressionless faces, like someone staring through eyeslits in a painting. These men, known as Interficers, were recruited directly from the Tower of Jalef where the city's lunatics were kept. Their madness was a better deterrent to grave robbers than any judicial punishment would have been. There were tales of tomb guards devouring prisoners or bricking them up alive in narrow cervices. No graverobber ever came to trial.
In the course of his life Azimbo Canitis had made a small fortune. Unfortunately he had also spent it, frittered away on gambling and gifts for a dozen girls who all looked the same. But it wasn't so bad. Azimbo was never short of company. He could live on his reputation. There were always people eager to hear his tales. He never needed to buy supper or a tankard of ale. Beyond that, there wasn't much of value that money could buy - or so Azimbo told himself.
Here were two more now. They pushed under the sacking covering the doorway and for a moment the pipe smoke and hubbub of the taproom entered Azimbo's snug.
"Master Canitis?" ventured one. Azimbo sized them up at a glance. Youthful and wide-eyed; raw recruits. The blue doublets with the badge of the hawk and dolphin in gold marked them out as city militia. The shortswords with blade-catching prongs at the hilt meant that they'd just come off duty. Eventually, if they lived long enough, they'd learn that The Singing Fish wasn't a place to stop for a casual drink on the way home to a better part of town.
Azimbo gave them an ironic salute. An age ago, he'd been a militiaman too. He moved the bench opposite out with his foot. "Set yourselves down there, my lads, and set that mug of ale down here, and you can tell me what I can do for you."
They sat down hesitantly, just boys really. "We heard you used to be a tomb robber," said the taller of them. His eyes were half hidden under an unruly shock of curls.
"Come to arrest me, eh?" said Azimbo.
The youth took him seriously. "Oh no, no, sir..."
The other butted in. He had a clever cavalier look about him. But not as clever as he fancied himself. "What my friend means is, we were hoping you could tell us what it was like. How did you get by the Interficers?"
"You couldn't always. Once I had to kill a couple." Azimbo basked in the look of respect that appeared in the eyes of the two young men. "Oh, they weren't the worst of it. Got any pipeweed?"
The taller youth jumped up, almost banging his head on the low beam. "I can get you some, sir."
"Nah, what I've got'll do fine. Sit down, then, and I'll tell you a tale to think about on dark nights." Azimbo leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. The ale could wait a while. He enjoyed reminiscing. "It was the last time I went to the
. There was me, Beergut Barino and Eresh the Whisper, though neither of them'll mean much to you. Old City
"There were a few spots of rain as we set out and barely a grumble of thunder over the hills, but it was cutting up pretty rough by the time we got across. The weather wasn't a problem, it was on our side. The Interficers couldn't see our boat in the rain."
"What about patrols on the bank?"
"You're getting ahead of things, lad, and in any case there aren't any patrols. You don't suppose the Interficers stay in the place after dark? They get the job by being crazy, not stupid. Once it's nighttime they keep to the river and once you've made the run across it's not them you've got to worry about. Anyway, we put in at a quay with a kind of cloister round three sides. I saw then that Eresh was going to be a problem. He'd taken a dose of some stuff he'd got off a trader from upcoast and he was starting to lose it. If not for the rain I'd have gone straight back, but it was coming down too heavy by now. The only thing for it was to do a night's work and get going as soon as it let up.
"We came out of the cloister passage and something scuttled off. It was big and it went on all fours. That was a bad moment as you can guess, lads, but it was just a leper. I remember that leper's face to this day because he had a big mad grin like nothing I can describe. I guess he knew what it was like to be turning into a monster.
"Well, we headed across a square that I used to call Bone Yard because of another time. The rain was driving in our faces and the trees were shaking about like crazy women. There was a sheet of lightning right overhead - it was just like the day came back for an instant - and we saw these three big statues made of green stone. They weren't human statues. Something else. They were facing out towards the river. Eresh chuckled to himself and told us they were Vaals, but I still don't know what that means. A mystery for you lads to clear up one day, hmm?"
"Vaals..." said one of the youths seriously.
"Something like that. Anyway, there's a fountain in that square with a sculpture in the middle. What a sculpture! She could stir your loins even in as desolate and blood-freezing a spot as that. Chizzi, we used to call her, like in that old song:
"Chizzi'll be waiting, boys,
'till you come back to dock;
drop your anchor there, my boys,
and give 'er - "
"I'll get some more ale!" cried the curly-haired youth, jumping up suddenly. This time he did bang his head. He went out to the taproom with his hand pressed to his head, but it didn't hide the blush that had shot up into his face at Azimbo's ribald song.
Azimbo roared with laughter, and his big stomach was still quaking when the youth came back sheepishly with a second foaming flagon of ale. "Where was I?" he said as he poured himself a mug. "Ah, that statue in the fountain. She had limbs that went on and on, reaching up to the sky..." He grinned at the embarrassed youth and decided to spare him. "The fountain itself was full of muck and slime, but to Eresh in his addled state it must have looked like sweet water. He leaned over and suddenly he was staring into the water with eyes as wide as a doxy's legs. His mouth was open like he was trying to scream except nothing came out. Then he was off and running. He went into a low building with narrow windows and we decided not to follow. You get a feel for certain places and this was one of them.
"There's a building with tall towers on the side of the square. I think it was a temple in the old days. Me and Beergut waited under the colonnade in front watching the rain. There were swarms of gnats and kissgiss and a whole lot of fat brown snails like oak apples. Eresh didn't come back. After a bit the wind turned and started throwing the rain in on us so we decided to go inside for a look. There was a smell from an old drifter who'd crawled in there and died. There were more of those snails all over the body. We got a couple of lilac opals out of a face carved in the wall and Beergut didn't see me pocket a string of prayer beads that I later got twenty Argurs for.
"The storm was over, the clouds breaking up. You could see the stars like little bits of glass and the wet paving just gleamed. We decided to head back before the moon got too high, though with the Interficers it's often hide-and-seek out and a straight race coming back. Anyway, then Beergut grabbed my arm all of a sudden - like that - and he pointed up to the parapet of the nearest building. You know what? Eresh the Whisper was dancing and leaping about up there like a bloke that's backed the winning chariot on Foundation Day. But then it was like he just froze, his arms dropped and his head went back and he came tumbling down. Crunch. A body makes a hell of a crack from that height."
"Was he dead?" asked the youth with the mop of hair.
"Dead? Of course he was dead! His head had come open like a melon and a dog would've turned its nose up at what was left in his brain-pan."
"What did you do?" said the other youth and, to show he wasn't as naive as his friend, he added, "You couldn't get the body back."
"Nah. Who'd have wanted it anyway? We left his cash - well, most of it - in case he needed it in the afterlife, but we did take a ruby scarf-pin and this silver ring I'm wearing.
"You think that's it? Well, lads, you don't know anything about the
in that case. It never is easy, and always in a way you didn't expect. When we got back to the quay, there was Eresh sitting in the boat with his head in one piece and a strange thoughtful smile on his lips. We just stood there, Beergut and me, and he kept on looking back at us without a word. Eventually Beergut took me aside and he said, 'Whatever we thought we saw we can't have seen, right?' 'Right,' I said. 'And we don't want to stop here until the Interficers have got their boats out.' 'That's true too,' I said. Old City
"'So come on,' says he and we got into the boat. By this time I guess we'd both decided it must have been somebody else we saw fall off the roof. I'd seen enough weird things over there in my time.
"The storm had passed over and the sky was like black glass. Beergut kept an eye out for patrol boats while I rowed. We were past midstream and in the clear when I saw Beergut tense up. Something behind me. So I looked over my shoulder and there was Eresh getting slowly to his feet, just as slowly as a curl of smoke rising from this pipe, and without rocking the boat even a bit. I reached for him in case that stuff had got him so stoned that he was going to take a dip. But then..." Azimbo shook his head.
The young militiamen waited as long as their impatience allowed. "Then?"
"You know what it's like when you wake up in the middle of a dream? There can be a face in front of you and it just sort of sloughs away. Suddenly it wasn't Eresh anymore. It wasn't anything natural. It was like a shadow standing up in the prow of the boat. Beergut was one of those people who get real angry when they're afraid. He pushed past me and went for it with his sword. I started trying to get one of the oars loose so I could shove the thing overboard. The tricky part for us was that we had to keep low so as not to upset the boat, whereas whatever it was really didn't seem to have any more weight than a shadow. Beergut yelped as it snatched at him. It had sliced off a couple of his fingers somehow, though I didn't see a knife. Beergut fell back into me and I got knocked over. I was lying in the bottom of the boat and I saw Beergut lift his sword high over his head, screaming all the time. He was going to cut that thing in two if he could.
"But he never got the chance. It was a clear sky like I said, so I don't see how it could've been lightning - but what else? There was a hot blinding light and the boat flew apart like a giant had gone - " He banged his fist on the table. "Next thing, I was gulping water and when I got to the surface there was nothing left to see. I swam back to shore and got back, as I've told you, with a bit of treasure but minus my eyebrows and two old friends. And that, my fine lads, was the last time I went to the
." Old City
"Until tonight," said a voice from the doorway.
The newcomers had entered without any of them noticing. One was a rose-tinted Ancient, long and insubstantial within a sheath of silken robes. Wisps of lank hair hid his pale heavy lidded eyes. The other was a lean young woman whose high leather boots and close-fitting brocade jacket suited her tomboyish figure. The brooch at her throat, her one item of jewellery, bore the crest of one of the first families.
The two militiamen shot to their feet, torn between distaste for the Ancient and deference to the lady. Deference won out. They attempted a gallant bow in unison. "Ma'am," said the tall youth with old fashioned courtesy, "you would do us an honour to join this gathering."
"Leave us, please," she said. "We have business with this man."
The militiamen nodded. "Of course." They snatched up their swords and helmets, almost falling over themselves in their haste to comply.
When they were alone in the snug, the Ancient came forward, bowing under the low rafters. Azimbo scrutinized him in the smoky light. "Chendu. I never thought to see you back in Deliverance."
"This is Mistress Seraphine," said Chendu. "We need to go over the river, Azimbo."
"My lady, will you sit?"
Nephithia glanced at the beer-stained bench, planted a boot on it and rested her arms on her knee. She nodded for Azimbo to sit back down. "Did you hear what he said? We need to cross to the
. Tonight." Old City
Azimbo gave an uncomfortable laugh. "You don't want to put too much store by those tales I tell, my lady. That's just a way for a fellow to scrape a living."
"Azimbo has acquired the virtue of modesty since last we met," said Chendu to Nephithia. "The truth is he was the best ever to ply the trade of tomb robber. He is wily and he has luck on his side too, as the story we just heard attests. Most importantly, he knows his way around the canals where we'll hope to lose the Interficers.
"That's a good combination of skills. How about it, Azimbo?"
"You want me to come along? No! I'm retired. I don't need it."
A bag of coins smacked onto the table. Azimbo stared at it keenly like a cat discovering a sleeping mouse. There was an unmistakable heaviness in the sound it had made...
"Yes," said Chendu, "it's gold."
"But," began Azimbo, then his mouth went dry. His instinct was always to haggle, but they were already offering more money than he would ever have dared to ask for. More than he had seen in five years.
He snatched the purse, drained his beer and got up. "Let's go," he said.
They stepped out of The Singing Fish. The day had gone and the sky was like old silver. A few high thin clouds caught the last rays, becoming plumes of black smoke limned with fire. Those thin rails of light only served to quicken the retreating sun, leaving the deep streets draped in dusk.
Half a dozen men emerged from nowhere. "You got a pretty package there, Azimbo," said one.
"Yeah, and the purse too," snorted another.
The first man moved a little nearer and stood in a loose cocksure stance. "Hand it over, old man." He had a thin bullying voice, the kind that sniggers at another's misfortune. The details of his face were lost in shadow, but they could see the yellow gleam of teeth and the iron bar in his hands.
"Can we cut the pasty, Frovel?" asked another of the gang eagerly. "I want to see what color blood he's got."
There was a frozen moment as both groups confronted each other in silence. Then a massive figure detached himself from the shadows around the side of the tavern and lumbered into view. His face looked like a crag with a patch of grey moss growing on top of it. In his hands he swung a spiked mace. It looked as if he would need no effort to push a man's face through into the back of his skull.
"You better keep out of this, pal," said Frovel.
"Get back to the gutter, you rodents," said Taltivin.
He had the kind of voice that didn't give a second warning. Frovel took a step back before he could stop himself. That made him feel humiliated and angry. He had his reputation to think of. "Deshok and Holmar, both of you - "
Nephithia drew her sword. She put her hand on Azimbo's shoulder and moved him aside. Frovel gave a high titter of laughter. "You let girls do your fighting for you these days, Azimbo?"
"Think about this," said Nephithia. "Before you bring us down, at least three of you will be dead."
Frovel couldn't understand what there was about the lean young woman that made him feel afraid. He hated her for her aristocratic self-assurance and for her lack of fear. "You won't be dying, bitch, not till you're begging for it."
"That really is no way to speak to a lady."
Frovel turned his head towards the young man at the entrance to the alley. "Scutri's balls!" he screamed. "Is there anyone in this whole pissing city that doesn't want to muscle in?"
The two militiamen chose that moment to step out of the tavern. With their smart uniforms and their helmets tucked under their arms they looked like two cavalry captains on parade. The shorter of the two, obviously not as sharp as he liked to think, said in a bemused voice, "What's going on?"
It was enough for Frovel and his gang. They beat a hasty retreat along the alley and ducked through a hole in a fence.
"A timely intervention," said Nephithia with a smile, not to the militiamen but to the man at the entrance of the alley.
"If you're planning that boat trip," replied Kethar, "I think I'd better come along."
Friday, 9 September 2011
Invisible bridges of "what if?"
These are stories about the "least vivacious" and "most threatened" people in the world - the aboriginal South-East English. They concern a mythical village where strangers are welcome, but not always safe. The cast comprises, to quote Oliver Cromwell, "men of modest means and ancient principles" while the spirit which imbues the Binscombe Tales is best expressed in these words of Kundera's: "On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop's cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract... On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth".
It sometimes strikes me that the English are losing sight of their history, that is to say, the vital perceived links between past, present and future - and, just as importantly, their shared mythology. I also gibe at the growing Americanisation and Londonisation of everything. The Binscombe Tales emanate from that vague sense of loss. They perhaps seek to prompt an alternative perception of life in England (and Britain).
There is, more or less, a real place called Binscombe, a village with a working men's club still known as 'the Moscow', with old men with Anglo-Saxon names like Aethelbert, and where many family trees verge onto that interesting time before records. The two Binscombes are not the same but they are linked with subtle and invisible bridges of 'what if'? However, the truth of the matter is that these are just ghost stories which I hope you will enjoy, and that:
"God gives all men, all earth to loveBut since man's heart is small,Ordains for each one spot shall prove,Beloved over all."
Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Frankenstein's nephew and Byron's daughter
The day that she came, Frankenstein’s diary would have read:
‘Breakfast. Pep talk. Doodling. Bed. Six days to live.’
save that just before bedtime he had another visitor.
Security at the Heathrow Hecatomb was tight, but skewed towards preventing escape, not invasion. On the whole, the reputation of the place was its best defence against intruders: a bit like the Tower of London or Bedlam.
Even so, there were guards to counter the off-chance of French or Christian saboteurs. Great skill or wealth must have been required to shroud their eyes. Julius put his money on the latter.
‘Good evening, sir,’ said the stranger, in a soft-spoken voice.
His uninvited guest seemed courtly but looked otherwise. A prize-fighter turned flunky was Frankenstein’s wager. Scrubbed-up and instructed in the non-spitting, non-swearing lifestyle when his pugilist prime was over. Most certainly not a Hecatomb staff member.
Frankenstein raised his glass.
‘Good evening to you, dear fellow.’
‘Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?’
Julius felt no great alarm: indeed, he felt no great anything at all lately. His sabre was within reach if need be.
‘You presume correctly, sir. How may I oblige?’
‘Permit me to first introduce myself, sir, and to apologise profusely for the interruption. I would not dream of intruding were not my purpose pressing. My name is Foxglove.’
‘Do you have a calling card?’
‘Not as such, sir, but I do have this.’
Foxglove drew a pistol from his coat and cocked it.
Frankenstein dismissively waved the aim aside. ‘Fire away and do the world—and me—a favour. My present life holds little savour. Alas, sir, you choose to toot upon a muted trumpet…’
Foxglove accepted it on trust and returned the pistol to his pocket.
‘Forgive me, Doctor, but I had strict instructions to start thus. Were it my place to do so, I would have pointed out such considerations hold little weight with true gentlemen. Unfortunately, whilst my employer is a worthy person they are also inclined to be impetuous, even wild, you might say —and especially so at present. ‘Tis in their blood you see, though do not mistake me to imply criticism by it. But I assure you, sir, they have good cause. In those circumstances, might I be permitted to begin again with sweet reason?’
‘You may as well,’ he said, ‘since you are here. As a mere foreigner, kept nigh prisoner in this ghastly place since reaching these shores, almost any diversion is welcome.’
Foxglove raised one eyebrow (near the full extent of his permitted emotional range, Julius suspected) in sympathy.
‘I commiserate sir. Nevertheless, that same internationally acknowledged expertise in your field which binds you here is also the reason for our interview.’
Though not the scientist that his late uncle hoped and late father feared, Julius could extrapolate the present data into an elegant theory.
‘If it’s lazarans you require, I cannot—indeed, will not—oblige. The black market attracts capital punishment and though, as I state, my current existence holds few charms, neither am I minded to quit life via what you English call the “Tyburn clog dance”. Nor does my moral code permit cooperation. If—and I stress if, sir—I were minded to be helpful I should merely inform you there are alternative sources of supply. Certain depraved surgeons would comply, I’m sad to say. Find one made reckless by drink or debts and there’s your man. Or you could even attempt what I believe is termed a “home-bake” —’
Foxglove looked pained by such second-hand crudity.
‘There remains the need for serum, sir,’ he reminded, still courtly.
Frankenstein scoffed. ‘Serum? Bah! The very dogs in the street know that to be just an activated admix of formaldehyde, egg-yolk, alcohol and… ahem, vital seed…’
Still the visitor stuck to his guns.
‘Possibly so, sir. But those same well-informed canines cannot help with the matter of relative proportions. Nor with that “admixing” you referred to. All highly rarefied tasks, I’m told; requiring specialist skills. Not to mention the activation itself.’
‘Well, yes,’ conceded Frankenstein, ‘there is that. You cannot afford to get any component wrong.’
So-called ‘half-bakes’ were justifiably the stuff of legend and nightmare. The fortunate among them soon expired, but others had been known to live for years, to the horror of all, including themselves.
Frankenstein recalled himself from reverie.
‘But you need not have penetrated this grim edifice to learn such commonplaces,’ he said. ‘And on that subject, how did you penetrate here?’
‘Sacks of sovereigns,’ said Foxglove succinctly, also conveying decent distaste.
‘Mankind...’ mused Frankenstein, mostly to himself, ‘how can one fail to love it?’
‘Indeed so, sir. But not all men are mercenary. I know I am not, for all my failings. Nor, I trust and pray, are you. Reflect, if you will, on what brings me here, at risk of life and limb, not to mention terror. For I am bound by ties of loyalty and gratitude. Were it not so I would be far away and in safety and comfort. As it is, I have lost all: home, position, good name, everything but honour, to be here to speak to you. Concede then, that some men act unselfishly for the good.’
Frankenstein waggled his hand.
‘My father believed thus,’ he said. ‘And his brother, the most famous or infamous of my family once believed thus. As for myself, I waver. However, pray continue.’
‘My instructions,’ said Foxglove, ‘prescribe pleas and promises of enrichment should threats fail. Monstrous enrichment...’
Again, Julius just waved the prospect away. Mention of monsters was not a happy choice of phrase, and nor was gold a starting motor in him. The visitor perceived both mistakes and quickly moved on, guided by the light of instinct.
‘However,’ he said, ‘I will dare to disobey and skip such sordidness to ask one thing, and one thing alone, of you: will you meet my patron? She waits on the Heath.’
Bedtime and a restart of the grey cycle was the only alternative. Frankenstein shrugged to signify ‘why not?’
* * *
Normally, Frankenstein needed written permission to visit the Heath, but the same sovereigns that got Foxglove in now let Julius out. Outside, a carriage awaited with a passenger inside.
As greying twenty-something women went, Foxglove’s mistress was worth seeing: some might even say she was attractive. Necrophiliacs especially. That face, though pointy-nosed, might once have been thought piquant and pretty. However, Julius Frankenstein had met enough dead people for one day (and lifetime).
He withdrew from the coach-window. The ice packed round its sole inhabitant made the interior appropriately tomb-like. In passing, he noted the rich livery and scrolled ‘L’ painted on the door. Some faint association stirred in his brain.
‘Well,’ Julius told Foxglove, acidly, ‘it was perfectly… average to make her acquaintance. We really ought to do this a lot less often.’
The servant remained charmed.
‘She has — had — her father’s likeness,’ he reflected, drawing on happier memories. ‘He was a loveable rogue —though I grant the balance between the two qualities varied vastly. Of course, presently you cannot note the family’s wild eyes…’
‘No indeed. ‘Tis the practice to close them when laying out a corpse.’
He instantly repented of his sarcasm when he saw Foxglove shudder. His loss was too recent for levity.
‘You are taking a risk here,’ Frankenstein added out of charity. Heathrow is not safe at night even for armed coaches, whereas you are but one man and a cadaver. Doubtless you also bribed the sentries to shield your vehicle and… cargo, but it will soon come to notice. Be on your way and give her decent burial. The old adage is trite but true: grief yields to time.’
For a second, Julius thought he’d gone too far and Foxglove was reaching for his gun again. Happily, a letter was produced instead.
‘Read, I beg you.’
Julius looked back to the looming Hecatomb. If any director should see, or an unbribed guard betray him, there would be need for explanation and written reports. He bit his lip in indecision.
Foxglove was more subtle than he looked (not that that was saying much).
‘The night is long, Doctor, but my lady’s message short.’
That played upon the right strings. And he saw that it was personally addressed to him. Julius broke the seal and unfolded the missive.
At top were two impressive coats of arms, embossed and in colour. Then a bold hand took only a few lines to cover the whole page with confident script, richly expressive of the author. It flowed wastefully free over on to pages two and three.
‘My dearest Herr Frankenstein,
If you are reading this, then I am gone. Moreover, it must be presumed that my revival has been forbidden or thwarted, despite explicit instructions.
I am NOT content with that. I wish to return. My life’s work is not yet complete.
You are foremost in your field and kin of its inventor. You have access to finest serum. Therefore, I could ask for no better person to restore me to full life.
Assiduous research (insurance against this awful day) makes me feel that I know you already. You will not fail me.
Therefore, I will not insult you with offers of wealth or position, though both are mine to grant should you so wish.
Rather, my dear Julius—may I call you Julius? I offer you ESCAPE &, what is better, ADVENTURE.
Such is my sure promise from beyond the grave and shall be repeated—even put in contract, if you demand—when we meet amongst the living.
From, I assure you, your most fervent and true admirer:
Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace, nee Byron.’
Julius Frankenstein didn’t even have to think. Now they were talking! Why didn’t they say so in the first place?
* * *
Geo. Washington: ‘This “serum”, sir, by which you work your blasphemous horrors, what is it comprised of?’
Victor Frankenstein: ‘Essential oils, Mr President; a complex melange of mixed vivifying chemicals, to which is added a tincture of the electrical fluid. And, with all due respect, sir, that much detail must suffice.’
Washington: ‘How so, sir? Do you impute to us sordid commercial ambitions? Do you think we mean to rob you of your patent?’ [Uproar in the house].
Frankenstein [shouting to be heard]: ‘No indeed, sir. On the contrary, my reticence stems from far higher motives. I decline to describe the precise formula only because amateurs attempting the Revivalist process have resulted in the production of impermissible monsters! Therefore, when it comes to serum, Mr President, I assure you that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’
Washington [pausing, with great solemnity]: ‘Indeed, sir, I do not doubt it. And therefore how much more dangerous is your entire knowledge.’
Transcript extract from ‘Submissions to the Congressional Committee on the Legalisation of REVIVALISM, popularly known as Corpse-raising.’ 13th July 1793.
* * *
‘When did she die?’
‘Two days ago,’ answered Foxglove. ‘Foully murdered.’
Julius’ question arose from professional interest and required asking even though his hands were full. The onset of decay was harmful to the Revival process. Therefore he should have stopped there and got on with his preparations. However, the extra detail supplied sparked mere curiosity.
‘A severe blow to the head. As you will see, Mr Frankenstein, sir, the family surgeon who attended the scene closed the gaping fracture for cosmetic reasons, because a public laying-in period was intended—before I purloined the mistress’s remains that is. If your ministrations are successful the damage should heal.’
Julius probed the relevant area with skilful fingers. Scarlet sealing wax! It would do, but some more lasting form of cap would be necessary in the long term—if there was one. Meanwhile, caution and laudanum should see Ada through the recovery period—if he chose to go through with this.
Disturbed by these attentions Ada’s locks released a waft of spice, despite death and chilling. Long deprived of such sensations, Julius discovered himself more than usually hopeful his charge would tread the long path back.
He let the cold head return to the pillow and surveyed the whole. A pale vision in a scarlet gown with green buttons. It was strange that so evident a beauty hadn’t attended to the premature greying of her crowning glory. It hinted at a character worth the risk of snatching from Heaven.
‘Fasten the leg straps whilst I attend to her hands.’
Julius had better qualified assistants on call but there wasn’t time to bribe or persuade them. The guards who admitted the coach and swallowed Julius’ ‘special ladyfriend’ explanation had delayed them enough already. Besides, Foxglove had disgorged yet more money to buy them and Frankenstein wanted there to be some left for after. ‘Escape’ and ‘adventure’ rarely came cheap.
In deference to the skull trauma, he rigged up a neck restraint also. Quite often renewed life wasn’t welcome, or last painful memories were still lodged in the brain: therefore, frenzied thrashing about was by no means uncommon. Vocal distress likewise, so a gag was applied too. They’d already pushed their luck with excess activity disturbing the normally silent Heathrow night. Screams (or unscheduled screams) inside the Hecatomb would almost certainly wake unwelcome attention.
Frankenstein’s private laboratory was a dolls’ house version of the main production line. Therein, he’d been expected to work the wonders Governments believed inherent in his family name. Devoid of inspiration or inclination he had proved a sad let-down so far and daily expected expulsion to menial work: if he were lucky. The arrival of high-ups like Sir Percy Blakeney suggested exalted impatience and that the dread day would not be long delayed.
Therefore, Ada’s arrival might be that luck. Julius hadn’t considered that before. All his own planning seemed to end in dead-ends like beggary or bullets in the back whilst trying to escape. Or, worst of all, boredom. This wild-card could be his last chance at playing a decent hand in the game of life…
Which made his mind up.
‘I suggest,’ he said, ‘that you avert your eyes.’
Foxglove, worried but entirely in another’s hands now, reluctantly turned his back on the zinc table where his mistress lay.
Julius parted the scarlet gown with two hands, baring Ada’s breasts. Then he reached up to position the primed serum spear.
‘You never did say who...’
Mainly he desired to distract Foxglove during the most distressing part of the process, but he also wanted to know.
‘ “Who?” sir’
‘Who killed her.’
Foxglove clenched his huge scar-coated fists.
‘Her lazaran lover, who went berserk as such beasts do. If you could believe such a slander of such a woman. Alas, Lord Lovelace did. He went through the motions of requesting revival but did not demur at its speedy refusal.’
Frankenstein threw a lever and impelled by lead weights the serum spear descended. It penetrated spot on, deeply piercing the dead heart.
No blood flowed, demonstrating life was long gone. The body jumped once at the impact but returned to repose.
Gruesome sound effects almost made Foxglove turn but he restrained himself.
‘It… will not hurt her?’
‘A fractured rib perhaps, probably a lingering ache. Certainly a lasting scar. All but the last will pass. A small price to pay for life anew.’
‘Ah yes… and it shall be the best serum, as we agreed?’
‘I am provided with a select store: the much distilled sort used for reviving generals and the like. Royalty even. The same stuff that runs in Neo-Nelson’s veins. It was intended for my experimental program which proved sadly stillborn. So, having no use for the stuff, I shall not stint it now.’
Ada probably had pale skin even before Death made her pallor permanent. Now she was stuck with it. Not even the vintage serum being forced under pressure through her body cells would alter that, for all its high quality. It was one of the defining features of the Revived and no method yet discovered could alter that. When life returned a lazaran might spend its entire un-life pearl-diving under tropic suns and still remain ‘pale and interesting’.
Frankenstein took hold of his patient’s right hand and foot. He sought and found the faint plumping that said the steam-spear had done its work, pushing serum to the far extremities.
Whilst the Galvanism tank warmed up, Julius brought Foxglove back in to fill the pregnant pause and save some sweat.
‘You can turn around now. Help me roll her in.’
If he’d expected miracles in the interval, the faithful retainer was disabused. Lady Lovelace remained as she was: mere breathless meat with a tenderised head.
‘Crank the wheel when I say. Ready? One, two, three, go!’
Julius Frankenstein was young and hale but it was still arduous work setting in motion a mechanism meant for two. Foxglove’s brawn provided ideal assistance. The conveyor belt fairly shot Ada into the open maw of the tank in one fluid motion.
Frankenstein hid her from view and fastened the heavy seals.
‘I should stand back. Leaping arcs are not unknown.’
A rubberised mat was provided for the purpose. Julius beckoned Foxglove over to join him on it.
‘You don’t believe that explanation then?’ he asked.
With but one topic occupying his mind the visitor knew what was meant.
‘The murder story? Indeed not, sir. Those who knew her ladyship recognise the wicked imposture for what it is. Or they should. Sadly, Lord Lovelace was not of that number. Perhaps his mind was misled by grief and shame, but he remains at fault. Sorry as I was for him, my obligations to his house severed that day.’
‘So she wasn’t a lazarophile? It does happen you know: bored aristo ladies appreciative of super-human staying power. Plus there’s attractions in a lover who doesn’t get in your hair afterwards.’
Foxglove’s face was eloquent answer enough.
‘Not a flighty piece at all…?’ Julius persisted. The hum from the tank had not yet reached its optimum.
‘No.’ The reply was firm, not encouraging any challenge. ‘Madam’s passions lay elsewhere. In realms of the utmost propriety.’
Julius was minded to say ‘pity’ but thought better of it.
‘Then who? And why?’
Foxglove drew a deep breath.
‘Those questions are projects for another day. We shall see what her ladyship says.’
His confidence was flattering but misguided. The public didn’t realise Revivalism was not an exact science. Persuading a critical mass of atoms to resume work when they thought their job was done and eternal rest in order, required both skill and luck. Many cadavers were stubborn (or safely ensconced in Heaven, according to theologians) and the failure rate significant. Yet even a failure was better than a botched job: the halfway returns were terrible to see—and hear. It was a kindness to send them straight back to oblivion.
For Julius such thoughts evoked inner pictures of scenes he’d witnessed as an army field surgeon. Unfortunately some things seen can’t be unseen.
Frankenstein gladly left his mind’s-eye version of the Battle of the Vatican for even this present. The whine from within the tank was almost transcending human range. He checked the gauge and its fail-safe twin and then threw the remote-lever.
Dynamo columns atop the tank lit up like lightning-struck trees. They exchanged arcs of power and fed them back into the container. Dust on its surface hovered in sprightly blue-lit dance.
In the absence of screams or any other sign Frankenstein gave it an extra second but dared no more than that. The only thing worse than half-returns were what the Hecatomb wits called ‘fry-ups’.
How he hated the English way with words! Other nations would have been more… indirect, more delicate.
The lever was lifted and the dynamos died. Residual sparks gradually subsided.
One way or the other, they hadn’t long now. The power usage would register on every other Hecatomb system. The duty officer might assume it was just the useless foreigner burning some midnight oil for a change—or he might not.
Donning protective gauntlets Frankenstein opened the door a fraction sooner than was prescribed. Burnt ozone wafted out.
‘Give me a hand again.’
They reversed the belt drive and Ada emerged head first.
She was still pearl white, not charcoal black, which was a good sign. She lay absolutely still, which was not.
Nevertheless, Frankenstein removed the restraints and observed the exposed chest for signs of heaving. There were none.
‘Slap her,’ Julius ordered.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘It works with babies and likewise lazarans.’
‘She’s your mistress. You wouldn’t like seeing me do it.’
Foxglove hesitated. It went against Nature —or his nature—every bit as much as raising the dead.
‘Hurry!’ said Frankenstein. ‘Do you want this thing or not? The opportunity is fleeting. Oh—I see your problem...’
The English were brutal but bashful. A Frenchman or Italian would have jumped at the chance.
Frankenstein spelt it out. ‘No, man: not exactly as with babies: I meant slap her face.’
Foxglove almost panicked but recovered. He marked his target and then shut his eyes.
Ada’s head rolled in response to the blow: her sole response.
‘Again!’ said Julius.
Back the other way went Ada’s face.
Foxglove looked at Frankenstein in extremities of distress.
‘Can you not repeat the process?’
Julius shook his head.
‘One attempt is all that is meaningful. You may have to reconcile yourself that perhaps she is —’
Foxglove delivered without restraint.
Julius suddenly realised that the corpse’s face was reddened where the blows fell. Which implied—
Ada’s eyes flicked open. Foxglove’s next strike was too far advanced to cancel.
‘Owwww!’ she said. ‘How dare you?’
The servant flinched back, both mortified and awash with joy. Each flickered briefly across his normally impassive face.
Ada Lovelace sat up like a jack-in-the-box. There was obviously more energy in that slight frame than met the eye.
Speaking of which, as a doctor (albeit a mere military one) Julius recalled from his studies that all eyeballs were of much the same size, and that only eyelid variations gave the illusion otherwise. Yet Ada Lovelace’s face seemed dominated by windows to the soul of extraordinary size and sauciness.
She felt her face and rubbed it. Previous paleness returned. She next noted her display of more cleavage than decorum allowed and sought to repair Julius’s careless undressing.
Only then did she deign to view the wider world. First Foxglove.
‘Hmmm…’ she said, with neither gratitude nor reproach.
Julius had been brought up with Swiss manners before he learnt less starchy Italianate, and then anything-goes English, ways. He bowed politely.
‘Lady Lovelace. Welcome back to this wicked world.’
She did not acknowledge him but swung her long legs to the floor via a flash of silk stocking.
‘That “wicked world” awaits us,’ she said to both all and none—but proving she must have heard. ‘Foxglove, fetch my coach.’
* * *
Foxglove not only fetched it, he proposed to drive it, for there was no one else. From having a horde at her beck and call Ada Lovelace was reduced to just one lackey.
Not two. When Frankenstein joined them in the waiting vehicle, Ada looked at him like a side dish no one had ordered.
‘Foxglove!’ she called through the carriage roof. ‘Is this man coming with us? What did you offer him?’
‘Only as per your letter, milady.’
She had a rich variety of those, all meaning something subtly different. Meanwhile, she studied Julius up and down.
Frankenstein felt it was time he had an input. ‘Escape and adventure were the core contractual features, madam. You promised both.’
Ada had a hat now. She threw back her bonnet and laughed heartily.
‘Did I? Did I really?’
‘Those were your very words. And now my bridges are burnt I must hold you to them.’
Lady Lovelace was selectively deaf. It was as if he’d never replied.
‘I see he has packed a bag, Foxglove; plainly meaning to accompany us. What do you think?’
‘He’s sound,’ said the voice from the driving seat. ‘But I’ll be guided by you, milady.’
Ada fixed Julius with her gorgeous eyes.
‘Do you have pen and paper, Herr Doctor?’
Packing hastily (for the guard’s bribed blindness wouldn’t last forever) those were indeed amongst the few items he’d scraped into a case to take with him. Latterly, all Frankensteins travelled light. Julius demonstrated to her that he owned both.
Ada smiled and snatched them.
‘He’s in, Foxglove. Drive on!’
* * *
As with her revival, Ada’s next step presumably followed a pre-laid plan. Not being a party to it, Frankenstein sat back and relaxed as Foxglove clattered along the Great West Road, heading only God and he knew where.
Hounslow went by in the dark, then progressively larger villages and miles of thriving market gardens till they were skirting the outskirts of the Capital. Finally, they came to a halt before the Turnham Green Bastion and awaited—so Frankenstein presumed—the opening of the gates at dawn. Unseen hands trained wall-guns upon them.
Fortunately, there were other untimely or impatient travellers, and a small collection of conveyances and horsemen gathered close together for mutual protection from the perils of the night. For it was a known fact that the lightless hours were the preserve of feral humans and rogue-lazarans, to which ignorant superstition added werewolves and vampires as well.
Though rarely known to attack so close to civilisation, precautions against such threats were always advisable. Therefore the coaches were manoeuvred into a circle and a watch set. Armed with a blunderbuss, Foxglove took on all the sentry duties assigned to three.
Meanwhile, inside her vehicle, Ada ignored her new companion just as she did the wonder of returned life. Instead, she sat hunched over Julius’s loaned notebook, scribbling furiously into it. And increasingly furious—for from time to time she wrenched out pages in a rage, or viciously scored through what she’d written. Sometimes, the pen was jabbed so hard it pierced straight through the page, or ink flew from the companion pot. Likewise little gasps of frustration escaped her ladyship’s pursed lips, along with occasional most unladylike hisses of hate.
Frankenstein stayed by her side but left her to it. There was wisdom in his inaction for he had nowhere else to go and it was as well not to show his face to the world so soon. The Hecatomb’s working day would be starting soon, and shortly after he’d be missed. Also, Lady Lovelace didn’t seem the sort for small talk.
Julius only wished Ada’s schemes hadn’t included a liveried coach. It proclaimed her presence as good as a flag, and Bastion guards would recall it. However, there was nothing to link him and the ex-deceased just yet. The association needn’t be fatal to him moving discreetly for a while.
Then, just as the huge windlasses creaked to open London’s gates to another day, Ada deigned to notice her companion once more.
She threw the book at him. It bounced off Frankenstein’s forehead, leaving an angry mark.
Her eyes glared at him, equally angry.
‘Charlatan!’ she spat. ‘Fraud! Where is my spark?’