You may have heard of the disappearance of the explorer Lady Alison Tiffany Hempton Addleby Pettigrew and the subsequent rescue expedition organised by her nephew, Jason Hercules Pettigrew Johnson. At the time the papers reported it a great success – a wonderful story of a family reunited. But the few that knew the truth, were aware that it was anything but.
Auntie Ally, as she was known to her devoted nephew, had launched an audacious subaquatic expedition to observe new species and explore ancient wrecks around a mythical island. But she had returned from her ill-fated expedition little more than a husk of a human being. Despite her nephew’s best efforts, as the months passed, that truth eventually came out and poor Auntie Ally’s fate was news again. She was even described in the parlance of one of the more fanciful penny dreadfuls ‘reporting’ the story as a revenant or zombie-like creature – albeit one that did not shuffle, threaten, or hanker after the meat of humankind.
It seemed a sad tale, and soon the public started to lose interest in even reading about the more sensational, and let me say, entirely fictional versions of the story. So poor Auntie Ally eventually moved from being a passing concern to a forgotten tragedy. But there was one person who never gave up hope, never lost his faith in an eventual solution to Aunt Ally’s lamentable condition; her devoted nephew, Jason.
Jason had grown up into a determined young man – a man who, by virtue of a series of circumstances, had essentially inherited a considerable fortune and a number of residences. Since Aunt Ally’s return, he had become obsessed with returning to the spot where her submersible was found, to investigate, and to find some way of returning Aunt Ally to normality. Let me point out dear reader, right here, right now, that although he was obsessed with his Auntie, it was an entirely innocent obsession; this is not one of those stories.
Jason had few friends, but one, in particular, seemed to put up with his single-mindedness and adored him for his pureness of heart. Homily Williams was a singular young woman who had known Jason from his college days. They had met at an evening science lecture on the talking cure and had long discussions over coffee afterwards. She was an intelligent and pragmatic lady and had remained a faithful friend when his fixation with his aunt took hold. Although when she learnt of his plan to return to the seas and dive in that fateful craft, she urged him to reconsider. After all, she argued, one soul had been lost to those hopeless waters, why lose another? And particularly why lose his, she thought to herself.
But Jason was not to be swayed, he spent time, money and a great deal of thought on planning a new expedition using The Prospect of Joy – Lady Allison’s revolutionary underwater craft. He had made sure the finest English mechanics and engineers had checked the entire vessel more than once for faults or possible weaknesses in construction or design. But the famous French marine designer had done his job well, and Jason was reassured on that score. He did, however, add some new elements – he fitted bigger, stronger windows, five, lead-shielded compasses, added a more powerful periscope, several inches of armour, multiple torpedo tubes, and mounted a waterproofed machine gun of radical design to the front deck. He even fitted a device based on Tesla coils that would pass an electrical current of great magnitude through the outer hull at the throwing of a knife blade switch. As originally conceived, The Prospect of Joy was purely an exploratory vessel, the product of an inquiring, innocent, peaceful mind. But in Jason’s determined hands it was turned into a most potent weapon of war. To transport it, the expedition utilised as it’s floating base an old steam cruiser retrofitted to suit Jason’s more single-minded requirements and renamed: The Journey of Faith.
A week before the scheduled start of the expedition, the Admiralty caught wind of the submersible and its militant new capabilities. This forced Jason’s hand, and he slipped port in the dead of night having checked that Auntie Ally was being looked after, but without the chance to say goodbye to faithful Homily.
The journey to the area of sea where Lady Allison had met with her singular fate was largely uneventful. It is true that when they left port, they were hastily followed by navy ships, mustered as quickly as they could manage, but Jason’s expedition had a decent head start and soon outdistanced them.
Arriving at the most likely spot to start their search for… well, to be honest, Jason wasn’t sure. Alison had written of an island – but she had never seen it, it wasn’t on any charts and there was simply no evidence of it. What he had seen with his own eyes was a wall of mist, beyond which human vision could not penetrate, but which seemed to have a definite influence on the psyche. If there was an island in the mist, he was determined to press ahead and find it, for he was sure that there he would find the means by which to save his aunt.
It took them several days to locate the mist – and to be honest, Jason had been prepared for this, sending out no less than six steam launches in a complex, scientifically developed search pattern that would cover an enormous area of ocean in a short space of time.
Once located, they recalled the launches and sailed to the relevant spot. Jason viewed the swirling mist ahead of him and remembered the last time he had witnessed it. Lady Alison was always very fond of quoting literature, but all Jason could think of at that moment was Dickens: “There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated.” He pulled his jacket tighter against the slight chill that had crept up on him.
“Well”, he said out loud to himself, grabbing at another quote:
“Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”.
“What’s that?” asked the captain of The Journey who had quietly pulled up alongside Jason on the ship’s rail.
“Oh, sorry – it means to pluck the day, time for action. Launch stations Captain if you please.”
“Aye, aye sir!”
Jason felt a strangeness as he lowered himself into The Prospect of Joy – he must be experiencing some of the same emotions and sensations that Lady Alison had felt as she set off on that fateful undersea voyage. He had left strict instructions for The Journey of Faith to withdraw at least twenty leagues from this spot – he did not want them becoming yet another disappearing victim of the mist.
Unlike his cautious Auntie, Jason set his teeth together, strapped himself in, and set a course directly for the water under the mist. As he advanced, he could see the water getting darker, seemingly heavier, and the pace slowed. Almost immediately he noticed strange sea creatures in the murk around him and the vague shapes of masts and funnels of wrecked ships beneath.
Despite the upgraded engines, he was making slow progress, and weird, dark, twisted, shapes that resolved into loathsome, many-eyed creatures began to investigate this mechanical interloper. Small creatures, but threatening nonetheless, Jason detected a maliciousness in the way they twisted and turned around the craft. Suddenly one darted forward in a flash of fins and teeth. At the last moment, it was propelled unnaturally sideways as one of its brothers snared it between hugely out of proportion jaws – picking its moment to strike against it’s distracted shoal mate.
Jason shivered, and checked all the weapons systems again, although truthfully, these small creatures would be no match for the submersible’s thick iron hull. And almost as he thought that Jason noticed a darker shape off to his right, just too far into the gloom to make out its proper form. After observing it for a minute or so, it became obvious it was of a magnitude larger than of the other aquatic beasts in these dark waters. Indeed, Jason realised that there were no other creatures near it – as if they feared to be in its very presence. At the back of his mind, Jason felt an unnatural fear – a strange contradictory wave of emotions urging him on and yet at the same time compelling him to leave. Driven by his fondness for his Auntie, Jason’s will was resolute. He quelled the rising feelings and pushed on.
The submersible swayed for a moment as something tugged against it and Jason took a moment to swing the vessel around. Swirling purple tendrils were writhing up from the sea bottom – the monstrous fronds of some huge marine flora. Trimming The Prospect of Joy to rise to a higher level, Jason resumed his course.
Something ahead and in the distance caught his eye. A slight iridescence in the gloom. It was getting closer, and brighter. To Jason’s eyes, it was like an underwater waterfall – somehow catching the light as it tumbled down to the depths below. But this was a waterfall that was moving. And not composed of water. And… Jason realised at the last minute that the iridescence was caused by some sort of electrical discharge and that he was witnessing the lower part of what could only be described as some sort of gigantic electric jellyfish. Or more like a Portuguese man ‘o’ war of unparalleled size and literally stunning beauty. Jason slammed the controls hard to port as he broke the spell of the creature’s dangerously enticing glamor.
The Prospect of Joy was a fine example of the best of French marine knowledge and English engineering and manufacturing. It responded fast to helm control and it’s powerful engines and streamlined shape helped it speed through the water at an unprecedented rate and with fine manoeuvrability. It was designed to cope and excel in all waters known to man. These waters, however, were not known to man. And here, alas, The Prospect was a little slower, a little less powerful, a little less manoeuvrable, and in this case, found a little wanting. Jason had almost got away with it, but at the last possible moment a single, smallest tentacle lightly caressed his iron craft.
All the lights in the cabin went out and there was a sudden silence. Jason – to his credit – did not panic and scrambled over to the wall on his left and a huge bar attached to a rotary switch. He grabbed the bar and wrenched it counterclockwise for a count of three, then clockwise for a count of three… nothing. As the submersible sank slowly lower, he tried again: left, one…two…three…, right, one…two…three… This time there was a loud buzz of electricity and a massive clunk as the engines started up again and systems returned. Lights came back on and Jason threw himself back in the chair. He had regained control. Nervously checking the windows all around him, he could see nothing.
Would this reassure you? It did not reassure Jason. After witnessing an ocean teeming with deadly ravenous life, the absence of it seemed to him to be by far the most frightening outcome.
It was not long before those irrational fears proved entirely legitimate. Shapes in the dark distance. Movements in the murk. Darker water now moved around The Prospect of Joy, and the feeble light that was fighting its way down to the depths was fading.
If Jason could see above him, he would have found the surface roiling with violent waves, rocks awash with huge spumes of spray, and a mere few hundred yards away – the cliffs and chines of Shipwreck Bay, the most notoriously treacherous feature of all those that made up the hazardous coastline of Hopeless, Maine.
At the surprising depths below the bay, all was calmer, well, current-wise anyway. This was of absolutely no comfort to Jason however, who now found himself surrounded by a veritable menagerie of misshapen aquatic beasts, monstrous miscreations of teeth and spines and eyes and claws and tentacles and… unidentifiable vicious appendages. Jason did not suffer from nightmares, nor did he read ‘gothic’ fiction, but here was the very embodiment of the most exaggerated form of night horror, or ghastly, obscene, bestiary become life.
He could feel them somehow calling to him like he had ants crawling through his mind. He ran his fingers through his hair, scraping his skin sharply with his nails as he sought to get a grip on his sensibilities. Oddly, it seemed to help and he gained a moment to assess his predicament.
Jason could hear their freakish forms grinding against the outer hull, teeth scraping on metal, tentacles trying to find gaps to worm their way insidiously into. The submersible was not moving forward now and Jason could see a wall of rock ahead of him, so even if he could proceed, there was simply nowhere to go. Jason considered his options as The Prospect of Joy was rocked by unseen brutish forces.
There was really no point in the torpedoes – there was simply too many creatures and only one was conveniently lined up with a firing tube. And hitting it point blank was likely to cause an explosion that might do as much damage to the submersible as to the creature. The Tesla shocker came to mind, but Jason wondered if it would still work after the earlier encounter with the electric behemoth. He reached for the switch, paused a moment, and threw it. There was an extremely satisfying arc of wild blue electricity around the craft, an intense crackling, buzzing sound, a boiling of water and a nauseous burning smell which was so intense, Jason could feel it assaulting his nostrils even through several inches of iron, however improbable that might seem.
The end result, however, was not nearly so satisfying – it merely seemed to drive the creatures outside mad with rage and they buffeted Jason’s vessel with renewed vigour – some even swam directly away and then back again at high speed to ram the sides, the bottom or the top of the submersible. Jason was thrown out of the chair and anything not tied down was to be found rolling around on the floor. The Tesla shocker was effectively a one-shot deterrent – it would be a while before it had built up enough charge to use again. Several more times the iron ship was buffeted. Every time Jason managed to stagger to his feet, he was thrown down again and new bruises were added to his pain-wracked body. All throughout this time, the ants in his head were also getting worse – they felt more like small mammals now – noisy rats talking to him, murmuring, muttering, seemingly urging him to leave the safety of the craft.
Just as he felt he would surely be pummelled to a pulp, the pounding stopped, and things went dark again. But it was not the cabin lights that had failed, they were soldiering on; although much dimmer, they were still illuminating the small metal cabin – no, this was darkness from outside. Two or three huge forms were enveloping The Prospect of Joy. There was a sudden brighter shape in the forward window – Jason made out the shape of a mighty tooth the size of a man – and a tall man at that. It was vaguely ivory in colour, but with much green mould around its edges and a yellowy red vein running randomly across its side. That was all Jason could discern before it was gone.
But then, seconds later, there was an ominous grinding noise. And Jason was no longer sure that the armoured iron would be enough. Should he try to swim to shore? How deep was he? Would he survive the swim to the surface? He could feel the island calling to him.
–– •◊• ––
Out of the three, it was Gertrude who was inevitably the most observant, so whilst Ludmilla and Mildred were often wrapped up in the latest gossip, Gertrude still managed to keep one of her three eyes trained upon the seas around the island.
The three were called the Agents of Change, or The Ocular Ones. Those that had perhaps encountered their influence in some way, or knew them better, called them The Aunties – a name they rather liked. But whatever you named them, they had been around since – well, let’s just say it’s a very long time.
“Look,” Gertrude said, “Stop your fussing for a moment, there is some sort of commotion over there.”
“Oh yes,” said Ludmilla, “the pets are getting obstreperous again.”
“I don’t know why you call those nasty creatures that,” responded Mildred “and stop using silly long words – you know it irks me.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, just some simple shipwreck I’m sure. Their ship will break up and the silly humans will die. That’s that.” responded Ludmilla.
“Oh don’t be so trite Ludmilla. This is different – it seems to be happening underneath the waves” pointed out Gertrude.
“Oh yes, why there is some sort of tin can with some poor dear stuck inside” observed Mildred.
“Well, they will soon open that and he’ll be pet food for sure!” Exclaimed Ludmilla.
“Stop it with the pets again. Can’t we help him – I sense he has come a long way in search of something… or someone” reasoned Gertrude.
This statement piqued their curiosity and they all turned their many and varied senses towards the trapped submersible.
“Oh – he’s searching for that nice young lady that arrived here a while ago – she was in a tin can too. Most interesting – not at all like the others” said Mildred.
“Oh yes, she was a lot more ethereal – a strange one that. Still, she’s lost like the rest” stated Ludmilla off-handedly.
“I think we should help him to find her” decided Gertrude. “He is resolute and determined to find that lady – he is devoted to her.”
“Oh, not another tale of lost love, how pathetic,” said Ludmilla petulantly.
“No – it’s not that sort of love – she’s family. And family is important.” Gertrude said firmly.
And despite her general reluctance to agree Ludmilla nodded – as did Mildred, family was important.
“Besides, we have to help” affirmed Gertrude.
“Why?” asked both Ludmilla and Mildred in unison.
“Because, dear ladies, she is an Auntie, just like us!”
This piece from Keith Errington (sometimes known as the Keith of Mystery) continues the tale started in The Prospect of Joy (which can be read by clicking on the highlighted text) We were lucky enough to hear Keith read this aloud at the Vendetta Live at Asylum Steampunk festival this year.
Art by Tom Brown