FDC presents "The Clockwork Cagliostro" by Mikel Midnight
Baker slipped the helmet over his head, and thumbed the controls for the atom powered aircraft he called the Hoverer. As the propeller whirled overhead, he pulled back on the steering column, and the vehicle ascended skyward. As Cyril Sheldrake, Beryl Hutchinson, Archer Dawe, the man who called himself Alfred Chinard, and the woman who had taken the name Ystina Aurelianus shielded their eyes against the sun, the brilliantly white winged steed Vanguard galloped down the runway and set off into the air in pursuit.
Baker looked behind him and grinned, and when Vanguard came near, he started to accelerate. The horse kept pace for minutes, but then began to lag behind. Vanguard performed a series of theatrical aerial loops and stunts as if to reassure himself of his capabilities, and then descended back to join the others, snorting indignantly.
Finally, the Hoverer returned to land, gently touching down after a vertical descent. Hutchinson led a round of applause as he dismounted easily, slipping his helmet off with a grin. "So what are you going to call yourself now," she said, "the Hovering Baker?"
"And rain currant buns down upon my enemies?" Baker laughed, "I don't think so. My mother's name was Scarlette Holcolmb, and I have no desire to cut ties with my former assignation. What do you think of 'The Scarlet Hawk?'"
Chinard narrowed his eyes. He had long suspected Baker's family resemblance to the Scarlet Hawk of his own world, and as the man had begun work on his own version of the Hoverer, those suspicions had become increasingly confirmed. "It does have a certain appropriateness to it," he conceded.
Dawe rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I suppose 'The Bowman' doesn't win any awards for originality, though having inherited the first name of 'Archer' from my ancestor, perhaps I ought to have called myself 'The Archer' instead?"
"I admit I'm impressed with your design work," Sheldrake said. "I assumed it would take you years to catch up with your lost decades, but you've adjusted handily enough."
Baker shrugged. "I was an engineer before I signed on with the Blackhawks, and some of my designs were just waiting for the right sort of technology to make them possible. So don't be modest; you and the Spider did all the hard work in building this girl."
"Don't be modest yourself," Sheldrake said. "I would never have been inspired to design something like the Aviosub on my own, and now the Seven Soldiers can arrive just about anywhere in force."
"Yes," Aurelianus said, "if we want to travel under the ocean half the time to do so. It still feels unnatural to me, and it makes Vanguard nervous. I believe we shall continue to soar the skies under our own power."
"That's your privilege, Ystina," Sheldrake grinned, "but you'll only have yourself to blame if all we leave to you is the mopping-up. No shame, Vanguard is incredibly fast, but technology will always outpace him. Have you heard the song the Yanks sing, of the man they call John Henry?"
"No," she admitted, "can you regale us with the story?" Seeing the reaction on his face, she laughed and shook her head, "Pardon me, I forgot that in this era warriors are not expected to know the finer arts, preferring to leave it to those small flickering boxes to tell their tales rather than singing their own praises to their peers."
Hutchinson giggled, "I think you ought to go ahead, Cyril."
Sheldrake managed to look persecuted if not indignant. "I think what it is time for, is lunch."
"I agree," Dawe said, "I came here directly from the archery range and I'm famished. Lead the way, Knight."
As they walked, the older woman pulled the younger aside. "Beryl," Ystina whispered.
Beryl looked at her, surprised. "What's the matter, Ystina? You're not upset over what Cyril said, are you?"
Ystina shook her head. "That was but a warrior's gibe. It meant nothing, and I deserved it for quailing at the use of the ... Aviosub." She lowered her voice to a near whisper. "Do you trust this Spider?"
Beryl shrugged. "I've had no reason not to. Why?"
"Vanguard does not, and his instincts are better judges of a man's character than any of ours. He presents himself as the kindly uncle, but I believe he would manipulate us to his own ends."
"I will certainly keep my eyes open. Thanks for trusting me with this. All right, I have a question for you, then. You came from the same place he did ... is that the real Frankenstein? I mean ... from the book?"
"I have not read the book, nor did I ever fight alongside the man in the war against Morgaine. I have only his word for it that we were both linchpins in that battle. But I will ... keep my eyes open."
"Fair deal." Beryl grinned, and extended her hand. Ystina took it in a firm grasp.
"I do have another question for you," Ystina said as they passed through into the mess hall. To Beryl's enquiring glance, she continued, "Where did they ever find a chef's hat and apron so big?" Beryl laughed, as they witnessed Frankenstein so clad and exiting the kitchen, passing out huge chops of mutton and broiled root vegetables to the other members. "You are late," he said to the pair as they saw the others attempting to carve out edible-sized portions on their plates. "Your food will get cold. Now sit." After serving them with plates only slightly smaller than the mens', he took a large serving platter of raw vegetables out to Vanguard, who preferred eating under the open sky so long as the weather was good.
Later that evening, Beryl and Ystina sat in the former's living quarters, her fingers moving at blinding speed across her keyboard. After an hour, she sighed. "When we all met, the Spider said he'd been fighting crime for many years, albeit working underground, and that's why none of us have heard of him. But I've found no records of an Alfred Chinard, and no criminals captured by anyone using anything like the Spider's technology which have not been attributed to another superhero or vigilante. So he's either been working way underground ... or lying."
"When we met, he'd been enchanted by the same spell as Frankenstein and I had," Ystina noted. "He probably comes from that other world, so like this one. Why would he conceal that fact? How would it benefit him?"
"None of us knew who he was. We don't do background checks on each other. It's, uh, information, and any information can be valuable. So the more any of us are misled about him, the more of an advantage he has to."
"Maybe he thought there would be another Spider? Both my own world and this one seem to have another Shining Knight, Sir Justin."
"And who would that other Spider be, then?"
" ... a criminal?" "My thoughts exactly," Beryl nodded. "Let me look some more." She cracked her knuckles and went to typing once more. "No unsolved crimes of note. Hh, what had you said that other Shining Knight? Wait a minute." A few moments later, she said, "You've seen photos of your Sir Justin, yes?"
Ystina nodded, "Yes, of course, though I'd never met the man."
Beryl rotated the screen so that it was within the other woman's view. "Is this him?"
Ystina stared at the image. "Yes. It's difficult to say. I believe so. Who are those others, with him?"
"Those are our universe's version of the original Seven Soldiers of Victory. They were mainly Americans, aside from Sir Justin, but do you see that man with the bow and arrow?"
Ystina nodded again.
"He was an archer, much like our own Bowman. Except he called himself the Spider."
"That's most odd."
"Do you want to know what's odder yet?" Beryl asked. "He turned out to be a criminal and betrayed his team."
"I have seen history repeat itself too many times," Ystina said. "We must ensure it does not this time as well."
"You're looking reflective, Cyril."
Cyril Sheldrake looked back up at Archer Dawe as the latter entered the library. The shelves were sparsely populated, mainly consisting of left-behind books on military strategy and experimental technology dating back decades, and some items from the Sheldrake's family library which had been taken out of storage. "Archer," he said.
"I know the Batman is fond of lurking in the dark, but that's usually not your style. What's weighing on your shoulders?"
"I'm just thinking about how ... well ... how diverse we all are. Am I possibly going to be able to lead us into being an effective team?"
Archer sat down opposite him. "We've been together a few weeks, and aside from moving house, we've already defeated the Dealer, the Scorpion, and Blackbriar Thorn. I'd say that's a fairly good record. And once Baker has the rest of his 'Scarlet Hawk' equipment up and running, we ought to be even more effective."
"I know," Cyril sighed, "but the Club of Heroes had an equally stellar record, and despite their international membership, had more in common than our Seven Soldiers. And you know perfectly well how that team broke up into discord, and how my father was at the core of it."
"You're not Percival Sheldrake."
"You're right. I'm not half the hero he was."
"I think that's appreciated, but it's based more on our friendship than any ... objective assessment, Archer. I'm sorry, I'm poor company. Leave me to my soda water and dark thoughts. I'll see you later."
"You're not the only one with a famous family, remember. The Archer Dawe that I'm named for was self-educated in criminology and had a career that makes mine look like nothing." He rose to his feet, placing his hands on the back of Cyril's chair for a moment. He almost trembled. He so much wanted to touch the other man more than that, to take him in his arms and comfort him ... yet he dared not. "I'll be around," he said as he turned to stalk out of the room with its deepening shadows.
The Spider smiled and tilted his head in acknowledgement as he passed Baker in the hallway as they each passed en route to their separate rooms. As the two passed, he whispered, "L'Uomo Ragno." Baker stopped in his tracks as the Spider's implanted hypnotic code word took effect.
"This way," the Spider said, crooking his fingers, and Baker followed him to his quarters obediently.
The Spider took out an electronics textbook. "Tell me what you've overheard the others saying about me," he began. Slowly, he continued the process of moulding the man to his own needs: updating his scientific knowledge, dulling the emotions attached to his deceased family and friends as well as the horrors of war, weeding out any suspicions the man may have had about the Spider's own motivations and ensuring his ultimate alliegence to the Spider's personal agenda ... when he chooses to enact it, whenever that may be.
It was past midnight when the Aviosub departed the Orkney island northwest of Scotland, heading towards Edinburgh, with the Knight at its helm. The vehicle was flanked by the Shining Knight aboard Vanguard, the Scarlet Hawk aboard the Hoverer, and the Spider aboard his rebuilt helicar.
"Edinburgh Castle?" Squire asked. "it's just a museum piece now, ennit? Why would someone send an army of robots to seize it?"
"Just beware; robots can be tricky," Bowman said, "they're always full of surprises. I'm glad they summoned us before too many civilians got hurt."
The Knight shrugged, "I guess we'll find out when we get there."
"The castle is old," Frankenstein said, "far older than I am." He looked out the window at the Shining Knight. "Who knows what secrets may be buried beneath its walls?" Fierce as she was, she reminded him of the Bride at times; but that companion was a universe away, and he was a monster.
As the Aviosub approached the volcanic Castle Rock, the Knight slowed down to an easy descent. Facing up against sheer cliffs from north and south, the team divided with the Spider and the Bowman approaching from one side, the Scarlet Hawk, Knight & Squire approaching from the other, and with the Shining Knight and Frankenstein approaching up the steep ascent from the west.
The castle was well-guarded, by metallic soldiers whose designs were reminiscent of 18th century military uniforms. They fired at the approaching Soldiers, bullets ricocheting off their armour. They were met in kind by a barrage from an aerial squadron of miniaturized Spitfires under the Knight's control, and steel-tipped arrows from the Bowman.
"Squire, open the front gate so Frankenstein doesn't try to batter it down, then search for the hostages," the Knight shouted as he and the others dismounted from the Hoverer.
The Scarlet Hawk knelt down to briefly examine one of the robots crushed during the landing. "What sort of robots are these?" he said. "I don't even see any electrical parts ... they're all clockwork gears ... my god I think they were literally wound up by key. What sort of mind could construct something like that?"
"It's like a mad dream devised by Charles Babbage." The Knight glanced down, his sword readying as he prepared to hunt down another of the invaders. "That ought to clear our conscience about knocking them to bits. They look like they're made of tin."
As the Bowman departed from the helicar, the Spider slid into the shadows. There was little of obvious renumerative value in the castle fortress, so he first examined the War Museum. He came up with naught, so he re-entered the courtyard, evading the sounds of battle, and slid into Register House where were kept the state archives.
He came upon the rotund, grey-haired man in his antiquated clothes as the man rifled through the ancient papers. The man saw him and cursed, raising a blunderbuss which he fired at the intruder. The force of the impact knocked the Spider off his feet. As the man came to examine his conquest, he discovered that the Spider's exo-skeleton stood him in good stead, as the latter drew forth his web gun to entangle the man in sticky, steel strong strands.
"Well, well, well, what sort of fly has the Spider caught today?" He removed a ring from a finger on his right hand, which was engraved with his insignia, and began to dangle it before the man's eyes, reflecting light into it even as he began to speak in soothing, low tones, subsuming the man's will into a hypnotic state. "What is your name?"
The man stared unblinkingly. "Joseph Balsamo."
"Balsamo? Like Cagliostro? What were you looking for?"
"Cagliostro's ... my ancestor's ... secret files were held here ... or they were supposed to be ... I didn't have time to finish my search ... "
"Fascinating," the Spider said with a smile. "Tell me more about what those papers were supposed to be all about."
In the shadow realm of Perfidious Albion, where black stars hang in the heavens and where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, the Witch-Queen of Northumberland stared balefully into her scrying pool. "The machinist has failed me, as I'd suspected he would, despite his promises." She turned to the raven who was perched on her shoulder. "We must act more directly; take flight and speak of these developments to the King in Yellow, for the scalloped tatters of the King must hide Yhtill forever."
If it had been possible for the face of a raven to show terror, it would have then, but it nonetheless took flight and went to fulfill its duty.
The Clockwork Cagliostro is copyright and trademark Kim Newman.