null

Fiction - The Paper Shield

The Paper Shield

If the professor ever knew my name, he never used it. “You there,” he’d bellow. “Careful with that crate! Its contents are worth more than the hides of this whole miserable crew!” Or sometimes he’d just bark something like “Move, you contemptible walking ballast!” when he was stomping from one end of the ship to the other and found me blocking his path. Now, I’ve long considered the sea my home, and even before that fateful mission with the professor I’d shipped out enough times to know how to keep clear of others on deck. Yet somehow I was always in his way. We all were. The Chelston was better than one hundred meters from bow to stern, a sizable enough freighter, but it felt like a river punt with him aboard. In truth, it’s hard to imagine any place big enough for the likes of Charles Augustus Thaxton.

There was no way to avoid him. No corner of the ship was too dark, too distant for his rounds. Above deck he checked and rechecked the automatons and the modified heavy cranes he’d installed or quizzed the guards stationed around the other special equipment, which remained hidden from us beneath tarps for much of the voyage. Then he’d stomp off to harangue the glowbug about the wireless or the captain about the evasive maneuvers to be used in the event of a French airship attack. Below deck he seemed intent on inspecting every pump, valve, hatch, and seam. He even bulled into me once near the crew quarters. I turned a moment before impact to find him huffing toward me, green eyes piercing beneath the great bald dome of his head. He was too caught up in his thoughts to offer up an insult this time. He merely grunted through the mechanical speaking box clutching spiderlike to his throat before giving me a rough shove.

Startled, I dropped the magazine I’d been carrying, and old habit prompted me to try to retrieve it so it wouldn’t be trodden upon. Apart from charts and logbooks, printed matter of any sort tends to be handled pretty roughly at sea; a page from Sartor Resartus will make a serviceable napkin or Bunco scorecard in a pinch. It takes considerable effort below deck to keep paper clean and dry, too, even for those inclined to bookishness, so anything brought aboard is usually seen as disposable. Me, though, I can’t imagine going anywhere without something worthwhile to read—and doing all that I can to keep it safe. Respect for the word, printed or written, was something my father instilled in me. He was a schoolmaster, and in my reverence for knowledge, at least, I will always be a schoolmaster’s son. Not even my awe of Thaxton could change that.

I wasn’t nearly fast enough to grab the magazine. As I reached down he trod upon my hand, without malice but forcefully enough to send me back against the bulkhead. When I got my wits about me again I was relieved to see that he’d stepped over the journal. I picked it up gingerly with my bruised hand and gritted my teeth in anticipation of a harangue that would leave my ears aching as painfully as my purpling fingers. Instead, I found the professor glowering at me. More precisely, at the old number of Scientific Alarums resting on my lap.

The tiny gears and pistons of Professor Thaxton’s speaking box clicked and whirred as it worked. He’d designed the marvel himself after a mission in Afghanistan went horribly wrong and a Russian scientist slit his throat. Some in the press claimed that Thaxton could have given himself the voice of an angel, but he’d chosen one that mixed the clack and rattle of a difference engine with the growls of a safari’s worth of wild beasts because the resulting metallic snarl more accurately conveyed his intended tone. 

“What’s that trash you’re holding?” he demanded in that awful voice. “Something for keeping down the fly population in the head?”

“N-No, sir,” I said. “I was reading a piece in here on the possibility of aether-burning rockets and travel to the moon.”

His expression wavered for a moment, teetering between annoyance and disappointed amusement. I’d seen that battle play out on many a master’s face during my school days and even that of the occasional first mate during my time at sea. Fortunately, amusement won out this time, and Thaxton was smirking as he replied. “No doubt the editors of that dubious publication have concluded that the moon is a mirage—or a hoax, like they did with the clockwork detective I created to solve the Enigma of the Severed Head.”

I should have let it go at that—smiled and gathered up my magazine and scurried off. Had we still been ashore, I might have done so. I’ve always been bolder once I’ve lost sight of land, though, and the chance to speak to the professor was too great an opportunity to let pass. “At least they share your disdain for Baglioni’s theories on Atlantis,” I offered, far too brightly.

“Those imbeciles deserve no plaudits for rejecting Baglioni’s fantasies,” Thaxton said. “There are foods so indigestible that even a starving rat would refuse them, but that’s no reason to mistake the rodent for a gourmet.” He gestured at the Scientific Alarums, dismissing it with the sweep of one grease-blotched hand. “Find something more substantial with which to better yourself, or at least something worthy to be trampled over. Even the flies deserve more substance from their doom than that rag offers.”

Some element of that last pronouncement brought the professor up short and whatever part of his intellect I had momentarily distracted turned back to other, more weighty matters. As he stomped off deeper into the ship, he was muttering darkly to himself about things part of me wishes were still a mystery.

*    *    *

My assignment to the Chelston had been an unwelcome surprise. For a time after I got the orders, I wondered what I’d done to earn the Admiralty’s scorn. The notification arrived on the heels of them rejecting me as automaton artificer on the Terra Nova. Instead of manning Scott’s supply vessel for the First British Airship Antarctic Expedition, I would be stuck on a refitted lumber hauler bound for the Atlantic, under the command of a man notorious for loosing a revolutionary self-directed and, as it turned out, homicidal clockwork policeman on London back in ’03—or staging a clever deception to that effect in order to cover for the misdeeds of a friend at Scotland Yard, if you believed his critics on Fleet Street and in the British learned societies. Excited as I was about the prospect of meeting Professor Thaxton, his mission promised to be rather less glamorous than the race to establish the first permanent airbase at the Pole. In fact, it sounded a bit absurd, as all his exploits were wont to do at the start.

A disagreement over the fate of Atlantis between the professor and a marine biologist by the name of Baglioni had set the whole thing in motion. Thaxton’s plan was for a quartet of ships to trawl the waters northwest of Cape Juba, off the Continental Slope, using reinforced cranes and modified diving bells to bring up artifacts that he guaranteed would establish the truth about the fabled lost continent. Or at least disprove the theories put forth by Bory de Saint Vincent in 1803 and, most recently, Doctor Rupert Baglioni that cite volcanic eruptions as the cause for Atlantis’s demise and identify the Canaries, Madeiras, and Azores as its remnants. It was the promise of those artifacts and their potential scientific and, of course, financial value that drew bids of support for the expedition from both public and private sources.

Our government seemed enthusiastic about the venture, which was a surprise given their skirmishes with the professor over the years. No one could accuse Thaxton of being disloyal to the Crown, but he did not always share the War Office’s notion that all scientific research should have an obvious utilitarian, martial goal. His grail was truth, no matter its usefulness, no matter the consequences of its achievement, and he’d been quite vocal in the past about resources directed to the military that might have instead bolstered his operations. Most famously he’d told Lord Kitchener and the Committee of Imperial and Colonial Defense: “There was much Plato got wrong, but he was spot on when he identified ignorance as the root and stem of all evils, a blighted class which, of course, includes war. Conquer ignorance and you lot would be out of a job in a fortnight.” 

Still, when news of the proposed expedition hit the papers and the Royal Societies announced their support, the Admiralty was right there with a promise of several noted specialists—geologists, meteorologists, and the like—to assist the professor, as well as a score of nameless, less noteworthy sailors, such as myself, to man the lower decks. Thaxton took them up on the promise of artificers for the engine room and automatons, along with mechanical stokers for each of the four ships, but rejected the specialists on the grounds that he himself could provide whatever scientific expertise the mission required. If the Sea Lords took offense at that slight, they did not voice their anger, at least in public.

The press hounded both camps for a time, hoping to stir up the sort of ever-escalating row for which the professor was notorious, but no one rose to the bait. By the time we set sail, Fleet Street had turned its attention to the latest in a yearlong string of bombings and bloody assassinations across London. A few of the more radical journalists claimed that the chaos was the work of an apocalypse cult hurrying along the end of the world, but most of the papers pinned the terrorist activity on a boogeyman suited to their readers’ tastes: French or Russian spies, any of a dozen homegrown anarchist groups, or immigrants of one sort or another. The consensus held that the terror was meant to disrupt the start of the Festival of Empire. If that was the intent, the scheme failed. The opening at the Crystal Palace, scheduled for the night of our departure, went off without a hitch. There were fireworks over London as we set sail, but they were not for us.

I cannot speak to the mood aboard the other three freighters in our little group, but the Chelston was a grim place indeed. A decade waiting for a seemingly inevitable war with the French and the Russians—sitzkreig, as our allies in Berlin call it—had left most of the career sailors dispirited. At the outset of our expedition, a few of the engine room artificers tried to build up a camaraderie around increasingly rude jokes about the mermaids Thaxton was going to haul back for the London Zoo. There was no way such feeble efforts could compensate for the generally sour mood and the way in which the crew had been assembled. Sailors were arriving from all over the fleet right up until we cast off, so everyone was left to size up the men working around them even as they tried to get their bearings on the officers’ expectations and the ship’s routines. That’s a certain course to mistrust, just as the secrecy shrouding large parts of the mission guaranteed a steady swirl of rumors. Logic proved even more useless than usual against this shipboard gossip because the professor’s past exploits lent even the most fantastic yarns an air of credibility. In some cases, the truth proved stranger than the speculation.

Take the rumors about the phantom passengers. Such tales are common enough when a crew is patched together on a new vessel and the civilians on board aren’t experienced enough to avoid getting lost below deck. Someone glances up from a duty to see an unfamiliar person wandering past, somewhere he shouldn’t ever be, and they assume it’s a stowaway. After a telling or two, it’s a damned spirit prowling for revenge. The first week out, the Chelston was full of chatter about such things. I myself thought I’d seen some oddly dressed men creep onto the ship the night before we left, but let it go as a trick of the fog after the officer stationed on deck told me that no one had come aboard for an hour or more. Others said they’d heard eerie chanting rising from a part of the hold off limits to everyone save Thaxton. Fear of the professor’s wrath prevented us from venturing down there to settle the matter.

It turned out that there really were a dozen men lurking in the Chelston’s hold: cultists, like the ones described in the radical papers. It was only when we’d sighted the African coast that the truth about them was revealed, at least a small part of it. Their leader was a smirking New Englander by the name of Marsh who dressed in the robes of an ancient Persian priest. I was on deck delivering a message from the chief artificer to one of the petty officers when Marsh led his people up from the hold. They took positions around the ship, praying in a language none of us recognized, as if to sanctify the work being done by the sailors and the automatons. The ministrations were not well received. The men—those not frightened by the sudden appearance of the rumored phantoms, anyway—made their unhappiness known with sharp elbows and sharper words whenever the chance arose.

It was then that Thaxton arrived, rushing down from the bridge. I expected him to grab the nearest cultist and pitch him overboard, but instead he roared at the sailors he passed, “Eyes to your work! Leave the priests to their business!”

Marsh soon fell into step with the professor. He walked not in his wake but at his side, an equal. Even the captain had not managed that feat in the days we’d been at sea. As they strode toward a hatchway, Marsh drew a thick, tattered book from the satchel slung at his hip and offered it to Thaxton, who waved it away. They were right in front of me then. The look on the professor’s face was positively demonic. His eyes were wild, his teeth clenched in a mad grin.

Reeling with disbelief, I watched them disappear into the ship. I couldn’t understand it. We were finally in position, readying the equipment for its first pass of the ocean floor. There could hardly have been a worse time to unleash this lot of mumbling mystics.

I wasn’t the only one baffled by the professor’s actions. In something of a haze I delivered the message from the chief artificer, then made my way down to grab a meal before I took on the afternoon watch over the automatic stokers. When I got to the galley, I found it humming with confusion and concern about the morning’s events. I lingered in the passageway, wondering if I could stomach the uninformed speculation.

“I’m having second thoughts about going in there, too,” said someone at my shoulder. The femininity of the voice was something of a surprise. The compulsory universal service laws hadn’t been enacted yet, mind you, so distaff sailors were still a rarity in the fleet.

I turned to find myself facing the only woman aboard the Chelston and the only reporter who had ever gained Thaxton’s trust. “I wouldn’t let the cook hear you say such things, Miss Hayes, ma’am,” I noted. “He might take it as a comment on his skills, whether you meant it as such or not. After that, you wouldn’t want to eat anything he’d serve you for the rest of this trip.”

She tried to muster a laugh at that, but the result was less than convincing. It seemed that the concerns plaguing me, or some variation thereof, had her by the throat, too. As I took in her worried look, I found myself staring at the scars on her face and the reflective circles of her goggles, the sure signs of a former aether addict. Awkwardly I forced myself to look away. She ignored my discomfort and invited me to join her in the galley. Soon enough we were sitting together at the end of one of the metal trestle tables.

Darcy Hayes was as far from my notion of a pressman as Thaxton was from my notion of a scholar. My uncle wrote for the Cornish Post and Mining News, but he was a tweedy sort, bright and conscientious and not terribly interested in anything adventurous or even out of the ordinary. Not at all like the ambitious London rumormongers you hear about, slinking around after indiscreet politicians and harrying crime victims, then rushing back to Fleet Street with their latest scoop. Not at all like Darcy Hayes. She was a stringer for one of the most aggressive of the radical papers, Uncommon Sense. I could see right away why Thaxton trusted her. There was a brashness about the woman, a cheerful insolence that let you know she disdained guile. Some former aether junkies hid their scars with makeup, but she left them alone, even the blackened tip of her nose. The ugly mark suggested that her use of the distilled element had been prodigious. Without the dark goggles she probably couldn’t even see the mundane world anymore.

It was impossible not to catch fragments of the conversations going on around us. A few of the sailors hushed their voices to whispers in deference of Hayes, but many simply blurted out their opinions of the mission and Thaxton and, most pointedly, the strange priests.

“You’re getting this as a proxy,” I explained after the men nearest us left the table, grumbling and casting baleful looks back at Hayes. “They wouldn’t dare speak so bluntly around the senior officers and they’re frightened of the professor.”

“Oh, this is nothing new. I’ve had respectable men, titled old codgers and the leaders of venerable societies, hurl insults my way that would make the saltiest seadog blush. Their anger’s got little to do with me, though.” She sighed and sipped her coffee. “They wouldn’t know me from Eve, except for my association with Thaxton. But they aim their venom my way because they all understand that he’d brain them if they so much as looked at him cockeyed.” 

“I’ve read about those incidents.”

“Don’t believe everything printed in the newspapers,” she said archly. “Anyway, if you’re worried that I’m going to report your mates, don’t be. I usually just allow his critics to have their say and let it go at that. No need to get him riled up about the buzzing of gnats. That’s not to say your shipmates are gnats.”

“When you’re around Thaxton, it’s hard not to feel like one. I ran into him below deck the other day.” I held up my still-bruised hand. “The other marks are less visible.”

“You should have seen me after my first meeting with him.”

That memory lightened Hayes’s mood considerably, and she seemed to shake off whatever had been troubling her. “Look,” she said, “I understand why everyone is so concerned. Those priests were a surprise to me, too. But they must have a purpose for the expedition, even if we can’t see what it is just yet.”

“Do you know who they are?”

“Members of a Yank religious cult that’s been predicting the imminent end of the world since Fashoda set us on the brink of war with France. My editor thinks they’re linked to all the trouble the lapdog press has been pinning on free thinkers and immigrants. Their leader’s a nasty piece of work. Involved in some weird doings on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m guessing that book he’s lugging about contains some information Thaxton needs for the search.”

It seemed reasonable enough on the surface, but if you plumbed the depths of the hypothesis at all, it sounded wrong. “You know the professor better than I do, but after all he’s been quoted as saying about superstition, it seems to me that he’d just call the cultists dunderheads before snatching the book from their altar, if he thought it held some knowledge worth preserving. It’s not like he’s tolerant of ideas that contradict his. Look at the way he went after Doctor Baglioni for mentioning that volcanoes might have sunk Atlantis in his lecture on—what was it again: the morphology of the squid?”

“That’s right.” Hayes didn’t give me the look of surprise I often get when I mention some obscure fact I’ve picked up from my reading, but I could tell she was recasting her opinion of me. “I can guess now why you know so much about the professor: You read the science press.”

“The Baglioni lecture was written up in the news section of Beyond Nature, though other places picked up the story of Professor Thaxton bursting in from the wings and shouting him off the stage after the Atlantis comment. What I’ve never quite been able to figure out is how Baglioni ended up as the nemesis on the other side of this debate. The lecture was supposed to be his last before retirement. As far as I can tell, he’d never written about Atlantis before. He’s a biologist.”

“And a tough old mummy,” Hayes added. “Not Thaxton’s equal, of course. Then again, few are.”

It was time for me to report back to the engine room. Hayes offered me her hand, transparent, aether-blighted fingernails and all, as we left the galley. “It’s no good trying to second-guess Thaxton on any of this,” she said, grinning. “It’s not just that he’s blazing new trails. He’s blazing them across locales not found on any maps. We’ll just have to see where we end up.”

“What if those trails take us somewhere we don’t want to go?”

Hayes’s smile wavered just a little. “That’s not really something to worry about,” she said. “It’s not like we can stop Thaxton from taking us all with him, once he’s set his mind on a destination.”

*    *    *

The diving bells the professor created for the expedition were remarkable things. They boasted echo-mapping systems decades ahead of the crude submerged sounding devices that were in use at the time around lighthouses, with hydrophones and noise filters that allowed them to send back clear reports of the seabed. Each bell also housed two guns capable of firing six belt-fed torpedoes apiece. The torpedoes were tipped with powerful magnets and attached to spools of heavy wire of a wholly original and incredibly strong alloy. Like the professor’s infamous clockwork policeman prototype, the bells and torpedoes possessed a capability for self-direction and independence far beyond the most advanced mechanical constructs of the day.

The controversy surrounding the expedition’s outcome has overshadowed the astonishing nature of these inventions, and some of his colleagues still deny Thaxton his due for their innovations. That’s no surprise, really. All the bells used for the mission remain shattered and sunk at the bottom of the Atlantic. There were no spares, no back-ups. The professor has refused to release any information about them directly via the usual scientific publications, instead spreading the knowledge through a network of likeminded and similarly reckless truth-seekers. He’s filed no patents, demanded no payments—though several braggarts falsely claiming credit for some facet of the inventions have found themselves battered and bullied into publicly acknowledging their deceptions.

It’s a shame the original bells were lost. They were magnificent. I saw them up close, saw them in action. Once the mapping maneuvers started in earnest, many of us took shifts away from our regular stations to support the operations on deck. The search phase itself was tedious, apart from Thaxton’s marvels. For more than a week our group trawled in patterns dictated by the professor, who commanded all from the Chelston. He refused to supervise from the bridge. It was, he said, too removed from the actual work being done. He had the captain set up a station for him on the deck. In the final days before the discovery, he was a fixed point around which moved a scrum of men and equipment.

The doom-saying Americans lingered at the edges of this Thaxton-centric system. Their leader, on the other hand, tried to position himself close by the professor’s side. Marsh was an inconsistent presence, sometimes forced away by sailors repositioning a bank of sensors, sometimes by a need to speak quietly to one of his fellow cultists. When he managed to stay close, he created an uncomfortable juxtaposition. One moment the professor would call out sounding data for Hayes to enter into the meticulously maintained logs. The next, Marsh would crack open his moldy old book and croak out a prayer for his followers to parrot back at him in ragged, broken chorus. Not even the most devout of the zealots could keep up with the professor, though. The Americans required sleep, where Thaxton, apparently, did not.

Ideal weather and a calm sea greeted us the morning the search ended, all out of line with the unreal events that would mark the day’s close. We only realized that something unusual was going on when the ships were ordered to full stop and the wireless was relocated to the professor’s command post. My duty station was close enough to Thaxton that I could hear his growled orders and the glowbug repeating them to the other vessels. Throughout the afternoon, messages flew back and forth, choreographing a series of complex maneuvers to position the bells. Once they were in place, they largely directed themselves in firing their torpedoes, which in turn swam incredibly elaborate routes to ensnare the object of our quest. 

Hour after hour the work dragged on. The priests were hoarse from their chanting, the crew weary and tense before the maneuvers were complete and the torpedoes had each locked onto a bell with its powerful magnet. By the time Thaxton finally gave the order to raise the prize, the sun had sunk to the horizon. Its dying light washed the world in stunning reds and golds.

All except the thing we hauled up from the depths.

It emerged from the water between the four ships, pulled up by the groaning cranes and supported on a net of alloy wires strung between the diving bells. At first it appeared to be a gigantic column resting on its side. The more of the thing that rose above the waves, the more it became clear that it was not some remnant of a lost architectural wonder, but rather something organic. Not a whale. Not a giant squid or octopus. No, we had snared a single, gargantuan tentacle, and it reeked like all the charnel houses and killing floors in England flushed out at once. Its surface was the pale white of old death. No light from the sunset lingered upon it. Or perhaps the sunlight vanished into its blotchy bulk. Looking at it was like looking into nothing, the Void made manifest.

The initial cheers of triumph fell silent, and a dread settled over the ship as pernicious as the stink from our prize. The cultists dropped to their knees, screaming praise to the ancient thing from the sea. Some of my crewmates dropped to their knees as well, but their prayers were directed at younger gods and prophets.

“You shall be exalted for this, Professor,” Marsh crowed. “Your name shall be legend among the faithful. You have proved the existence of the Dreaming One!”

Thaxton had been looking out at the ghastly white limb. Now he turned. The demonic grimace was gone. In its place was a snarl of utter disdain. “Yes, I’ve proved the thing you worship exists.” He lunged at the American and clouted him in the ear. The priestly headpiece that Marsh wore tumbled to the deck. “I’ve wanted to strike that blow since I first heard of the schemes you and your idiot followers have undertaken in the name of that bloated corpse—the murders and the chaos you’ve sown. I’ve wanted to do worse since I first set eyes on you, you howling buffoon. You have no idea how much self-control it takes me to refrain from bashing in your brain-deprived skull every second I’m near you.”

Marsh pointed to the creature. “That is the doom of Atlantis. You have proved it to be so. Now it will be the doom of England and France and the rest of the corrupt Old World!”

“That thing has no power over England. England has science and reason. With those tools and my intellect I’ve pulled that beast up into the daylight. Look at it. The object of your worship is a thing of flesh and blood.” Thaxton lurched forward to loom over the cringing mystic, and through his speaking box he declared, “Since it is flesh and blood, it can be destroyed. Watch.”

As the professor turned to give a command, Marsh scrambled away. He dropped to all fours, scuttled beneath one of the command post tables, and got to his feet on the other side, near where Miss Hayes was standing. There he held up the ancient tome from which he’d recited his prayers. “With this I have seen the things that dwell beyond the rational world,” he said. “The feeble constructs of your science and reason cannot stand against their coming.”

Marsh shoved the reporter aside and grabbed whatever logbooks and charts he could hold. Crushing them and his own book to his chest, he turned for the rail. Hayes was on his heels in an instant, a dirk in her hand, but it was I who tackled the priest—or rather, who knocked most of the books and papers from his grasp before he went over the side.

As for what happened next, the official reports claim that one of the cranes on the Caria gave way, so that the massive, lifeless object shifted awkwardly in the net. A crane on the Chelston followed suit. Then the explosives inside the bells and the torpedoes went off, as Thaxton had ordered, and it was all over. The unidentified salvage blew apart and sank back into the Atlantic.

I recall those moments differently. No sooner had Marsh gone overboard than the entire ship lurched heavily to starboard. The air was filled with the blare of klaxons warning of the impending explosion, but also the teeth-gritting whine of metal twisting and the roar of sudden waves pounding the hull. The deck tilted madly. I fell upon the logs and papers, and Marsh’s old book, pressing them beneath me to stop them from sliding away. The angle of the deck was so great that, for a moment, I had a clear view of the weird prize in our net. Contrary to what the reports claimed, it did not simply lay there, lifeless. It flexed and pulled down with tremendous force. Only then did the cranes and cables give way, just before the explosives went off and something—some unsecured tool or piece of equipment from the command center—crashed into my skull.

I was gazing at the thing when unconsciousness took me. The whiteness of it drew me in, swallowed me and pulled me down with it to the bottom of the ocean. There I floated, aware of terrible shapes, aspects of an ancient being’s form that emerged from the surrounding darkness and then dissipated: a body like a bloated, scaly dragon; rudimentary wings; a pulpy head with a muzzle of tentacles that stretched along the floor of more than one ocean, a single strand of which Thaxton had pulled to the surface. I saw then that the beast crouched sleeping among the submerged ruins of not just Atlantis, but all the great cities of mankind that ever were and ever would be. Its bed comprised their buildings and the bones of countless generations. My hands began to burn, and then my arms and my chest. I tried to hold back the shriek of pain, fearful that any noise would draw its attention, but I failed. The sound of my scream was the color of the beast. No sooner had the cry been uttered than the whiteness turned on me and took me into its smothering embrace.

They tell me that I was still screaming when they got me to the sickbay, where I was sedated and the books and papers finally pried from my grasp. The steward bandaged the scorched skin of my hands, arms, and chest. No cause was ever offered for the burns. They healed before we reached port, so the wounds rate no mention in the reports generated by the doctors on shore.

All four of our ships limped back to London, damaged though they were, with crews shaken as badly as if they’d endured a month-long battle. “Shell shocked” is the term the Army is using now to describe the soldiers returning from the trenches in Alsace and Sebastopol. The doctors used other words to describe what happened to me, mostly Greek or derived from the Greek. The scientific sound of them has provided more comfort and speeded my recovery more effectively than anything else the doctors prescribed.

On the day the Chelston made port and the expedition officially ended, Miss Hayes stopped by the sickbay to inform me that the surviving cultists were going to be set free. “Such are the professor’s wishes,” she noted with a shrug, then offered me a few words of advice on dealing with her fellow pressmen, who would be swarming over the story like, she said, “rats on a carcass.” It was inevitable that the time she’d spent with the notoriously press-hating professor would sour her opinion of her fellows. Or perhaps she had witnessed this empty frenzy play out enough times with her own aether-warped eyes to recognize the game for what it is.

True to Miss Hayes’s prediction, it was impossible to avoid reading about the professor in the expedition’s aftermath. Claims of fraud, both intellectual and criminal, filled the papers day after day. The learned societies whose funds he had accepted declared that the entire misadventure was nothing short of a swindle, that he and Baglioni had staged the Atlantis debate to gain money and resources for a scientifically worthless monster hunt. The lack of hard evidence of the thing we dredged up and the confused accounts of the expedition’s final day fed the fires of controversy, though they eventually died down, smothered, some say, by the government. Those looking for a reason to explain such an intervention, or for the support the Crown provided the expedition in the first place, might mark the notable decrease in the crimes attributed to the doomsayers in the months after our return.

Though I never again spoke with the professor, I did receive a communication from him toward the end of my convalescence, just before I shipped out again. My name was on the envelope, but in a different hand from the note inside. It was most likely that of Miss Hayes, who had been tasked with delivering the heavy package and this letter:

Sir,— 

I am told by my associate, the bearer of this message, that I have you to thank for saving the logs and charts that the unconscionable cur Marsh attempted to take with him when he rid the world of his own pernicious presence. For that, I offer thanks, though I must also point out that you would have done a greater service to me and to the world if you had let him destroy his book of credulous gibberish instead of the few papers of mine to which he clung so obstinately as he went over the rail. Since Miss Hayes has also reminded me that you and I crossed paths aboard the ship, in an incident that I vaguely recall involved you taking a blow to stop me from tromping upon a publication that is hardly worth even that low treatment, I cannot express surprise at your lack of discernment. Still, I recall you claiming an interest in knowledge, so by way of providing you with something more substantial with which to better yourself, I offer the enclosed. They are flawed, every last one of them, but they demonstrate thought. I hope it proves contagious and that by taking in what knowledge these volumes contain you will become a carrier. If ignorance and superstition can propagate in this fashion, so, too, can truth and reason.

—Charles Augustus Thaxton

As for the gift itself, it comprised well-read, dog-eared copies of The Origin of the Species, Hooke’s Micrographia, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Babbage’s Triumph of the Thinking Machine, and a dozen more. Many have notes in the margins, in Thaxton’s precise script, and a few have whole sections or entire chapters crossed out, with the word rubbish written across the pages. I value these books beyond measure.

Despite the challenges of keeping them safe from the grime and damp, I’ve carried one of the volumes with me each time I return to my home on the deep, on every ship I’ve manned since the Chelston. Some of my mates consider me a jinx because I served on the Thaxton Expedition—a venture as infamous as Scott’s disastrous trek to the Antarctic—and they view the books as nothing less than tokens of ill luck. I’ve been told that rousing the thing, whatever it was, finally jolted the world into the war that now engulfs it from pole to frozen pole.

I see it differently. I have a mission, the one with which the professor charged me in that final letter. I am an agent of truth, a carrier of knowledge. Like the cultists he let scatter back to their warrens to describe the rough treatment of their would-be god at the hands of one lone scientist, I spread the message: reason will triumph.

On most nights when we are gliding across the great shroud of the sea, my shipmates and me, I speak to them of the products of science that keep us safe from Russian submersibles and French airships. The echo-mapping system now outfitted throughout our navy would seem familiar to anyone who had seen the equipment aboard the Chelston, and the remarkable new alloy that has found such sudden and widespread use among the shipbuilders of Great Britain is particularly well suited for armoring hulls. But there are times when I am reminded that the enemies’ weapons, too, are the product of science, and in those awful moments my mind conjures up an image of that thing beneath the Atlantic and its vast demesne, built upon the bones and works of innumerable dead priests and warriors—and scholars, too. On those nights I clutch the books the professor gave me a little more tightly and silently hope that they are, as he claimed, shields against chaos and not charts setting our course toward that unspeakable kingdom of ruin. 

____________________

James Lowder is the author of the bestselling, widely translated novels Prince of Lies and Knight of the Black Rose, along with roleplaying game material, comics, film reviews, essays on pop culture, and two dozen short stories for such anthologies as Shadows over Baker Street and Tales of the Lost Citadel. As editor, he has helmed more than twenty anthologies, including Madness on the Orient Express and the award-winning Hobby Games: The 100 Best. He has directed book lines and series for a wide variety of publishing houses and currently serves as executive editor for Chaosium. His work has received six Origins Awards and two ENnie Awards, and been a finalist for the International Horror Guild Award and the Stoker Award. 

“The Paper Shield” © 2014 James Lowder. Originally published, in slightly different form, in Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, Vol. 1, edited by Laura K. Anderson and Ryan J. McDaniel, FtB LLC, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

Artwork by Monika Godyń. © 2020 Chaosium Inc.