Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Doubting Fairies & the Royal Society

Complimentary to this post on a rpg version of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, some fiction I put together for that setting.

Doubting Fairies

“Mr. Makewar…I am truly surprised at you.”

Sir Blakeney leaned back away from his desk and set down the magnifying glass. He heard a slight gurgle of surprise from his guest. As he allowed his words to sink in, he reached out and sorted the images in front of him, photographs Mr. Makewar had brought him.

“I understand that Mr. Doyle has a sharp mind, after all he studied under the great Dr. Bell. However…” he allowed himself to trail off. He looked across the desk at Makewar, a man who wanted so much to believe. Blakeley knew something of him, an old colonial hand, now in his fading years, following the fads of Theosophy and Spiritualism. The man himself had an unhealthy look to him. He’d alternated bouts of malaria with recuperative trips in which he’d rested and buried himself under several stones of weight, only to lose it again in relapse. As a result his skin sagged, having ballooned out and faded again and again.

Blakeney knew he was about to add to that wear.

“Lord Blakeney…I don’t understand…I’ve been to three reputable photographers…men with expertise and experience…” Makewar’s voice had begun affronted and then trailed off into desperation.

“And they all told you these were authentic…and charged you a nominal fee of course.”

He let that hang for a moment before driving ahead. “As a member of the Royal Society, I have undertaken to do away with such muddleheadedness. Believe me, I have seen many fakes, many much more expertly conducted than these. Let me show you.”

He moved the photographs forward, turning the lamp so that the best possible light shone down. With a tiny wheeze, Makewar pulled his chair closer to the other side of the desk, squinting. Blakeney chose one image in particular and passed magnifying glass across. “Please Mr. Makewar, examine the photograph in general and tell me what you see.”

He leaned forward, trying to look at it anew.

He looked up. “I see a fairy, Mr. Blakeney…”

He turned his head back down to the photo, examining every detail of the tiny hands, the face, the shimmering wings beating like a hummingbird’s, an aura in the air. He looked at the backdrop, the garden, the fountain.

“I’ve looked at it a hundred times, a thousand…”

Now Blakeney added a harder edge to his voice. “And that is precisely why you cannot see. As I said, I do not doubt Mr. Doyle’s intentions. But, even though he chronicled the late Great Detective’s adventures, he is still a writer…a creature of imagination, a fabulist at heart.”
He took the glass from Makewar’s hands and held it over the fluttering wings on the paper. “Look there…what do you see?”

Makewar looked again—harder-- then his eyes opened wider. “A…a…line…but…that was not there before…”

“And here.” Blakeney moved the glass over the legs of the thing.

“Wait…I don’t understand, the limbs…they don’t fit quite right, but…”

“And here.” He moved the glass over the creature’s face, focusing the lens so that Makewar could see the tiny break below the chin of the thing where two pieces had been joined.

Makewar come close to tears, but held them back.

“But…they said…it looked so real…I saw fairies…” his jaw worked desperately, flapping the sagging skin. This close Lord Blakeney could see the tinge of the malaria on him.

He set the magnifying glass down. “You saw what you wished to see and that is how such things are done.” This was the voice of finality; there would be no appeal.

After that it was the work of a few minutes to have Makewar shown out. He seemed shorter now, something having been stolen out of him. He looked back once at Lord Blakeney, hoping for some word, some reassurance. Blakeney, for his part, held himself tight.

He returned to his desk and gathered up the photographs. He would need these for his next meeting.

*****

The gathering remained informal, but Mr. Blakeney called the three men to order. He set his bag on the table to mark the moment, leaving it deliberately closed but in view. The theatrical touch seemed lost on two of the men, but the third appreciated it. Mr. Smile had to-- he himself banked on such flourishes. A “Hougan” or something of that sort from the Caribbean, his exaggeratedly proper dress clashed with a fine ivory tattoo outlining the bones of his skull. Smile fascinated and repulsed Blakeney, but he’d proven to be the right man in a pinch.

The other two he had less confidence in.

“It seems…” he began slowly, perhaps a little absently “…that Dr.Cross has managed to reach The Other Side and enlisted the aid of the Dark Court.” He laid out the photographs on the table, the dancing winged images at odds with the tension in the air. Mr. Coiner picked one up.

“I did a fine job with these if I say so myself.” Coiner’s pride and northern accent irked Blakeney. Coiner’s “ability” involved retroactively manipulating the electro-magnetic ether. Blakeney didn’t pretend to understand it--the ability had only proven useful once before when he’d used it to warm a plate of kippers during their entombment at the Pole. In this case though, he been able to add little details into Mr. Makewar’s photographs from a distance and after the fact…the discreet string, blur lines to hint at fakery, and armatures turned at wrong angles.

“Yes…but the question lies in what purpose Dr. Cross intends by making these images public?” Blakeney touched his fingertips together and tapped his chin. “It is an obvious gambit…a trap. We know the location of the photographic shoot and now we will have to go and deal with…these…” He gestured again at the images on the table.

“Shall we contact Mr. Fen then? His acupuncture skills came in handy last time we dealt with them.” Mr. Smile drew up the corners of his mouth in a titanic grin and tilted his head up slightly for effect. A happy death mask.

Sir Blakeney had a brief memory of that, the killing jars, the mounting boards, and Mr. Smile spending many hours after, carefully spreading the wings and shellacking the pinned specimens.

“No…Mr. Fen is in Shanghai dealing with the beastly Boxers. As well…” He set down the book he’d been thumbing through. “…this time we are to capture a number of them alive.”

The third man…boy really…Gilbert’s eyes bugged out, the reaction Blakeney had expected from him. He was new, young and an American, three details which served as an irritant from the day they’d met. Still, his inventive genius, especially with collapsible devices, had proven useful. Coiner simply looked puzzled, but Smile continued to…well…smile.

“Capture them?…how…we’d need tiny equipment…tiny cages…” Gilbert’s voice squeaked as he worked up a head of steam for his objections. He’d clearly taken this as an affront to his skills.

Blakeney cut him off. “As it happens, I have requested just such equipment from our allies in the Service.” He reached into his carefully placed bag. From its depths he lifted out a precise, miniature iron cage, holding it on the tips of his fingers. The others remained quiet as he gently set it down on the table. “We have large quantity of such equipment left over from a Royal Army expedition led by a certain Mr. Gulliver.”

*****
The Royal Society

England in 1660 remained in the throes of political division, religious tension and superstition. With Charles II’s restoration to the throne, those who had supported Parliament and his enemy, Oliver Cromwell found themselves quickly and not so quietly purged. But in November of that year a group of unlikely men gathered to hear a lecture from Sir Christopher Wren. This group of thinkers, scientists and visionaries drew their numbers from both sides of the struggle. Strangely Charles II granted a charter to the society which arose from this meeting, ignoring the presence of so many of his old enemies. Within a decade this Royal Society reshaped the direction of scientific progress, bringing order and method to investigations of the material world. This change, this advantage would permit England to rise and dominate the next two centuries.

Yet this scientific revolution and the society which spawned it would be only part of what came of that meeting. Indeed the mastermind behind the arrangements, Sir Robert Moray, had not envisioned the Royal Society but something else. Spymaster, Mason, Ambassador, Warrior, Advisor to the King and former agent of Richelieu, Moray had traveled Europe during these tumultuous years. Inducted as a Mason, his order had made him privy to secrets deeper and older than the affairs of Empires. He knew the darkness hanging at the edges of civilization-- in deep forests where peasants appeased ancient forces, in desert lands commanded by masters with uncanny powers, and ancient ruins where hermetic secrets had unleashed terrors.

His blade had crossed paths with these things and others. He’d realized steel alone could only delay, not defeat. With the King’s return to England he set his plan in motion. The earliest members of the Royal Society belonged to Masonic orders, to say nothing of the King himself. Many had learned further secrets of the lines between superstition and reality. They sought to forge a weapon against the enemies of England and the world; they would pit reason and rationality, order and progress against fear and isolation, chaos and decay.

To that end, they began to gather agents, scholars, soldiers, spies and diplomats. Acting in shadowy parallel, they tracked events which might disturb the new order the Royal Society developed. These small groups worked to eliminate and conceal anything smacking of unreason. Yet, as Moray had known when he began, they themselves would not be above using the powers of unreason. They recruited from among those who might otherwise be enemies by bribery, blackmail and threats. They remained one step ahead of the knowledge of the day-- using the advantage well. As years passed, they honed their techniques. When Brownies tore up train tracks, the league bagged them within a week. When werewolves roamed the moors, the league tracked them with dowsing and bloodhounds. When cherubim appeared to parishioners, the league burned the church.

The 19th Century explosion of technological developments forced Moray’s league to react to new threats, these based more on the science and reason they had determined to protect. The threats drew themselves from the scientific fringes …mechanical men, destructive rays, flying devices and a host of other inventions pushing at the imagination’s boundaries. With the coronation of Queen Victoria, the league decided to pursue a modified charter. The world had grown larger, with representatives of England’s greatness scattered across the globe. The league would work to serve and protect that Empire. Inventions of wonder and amazement would be carefully restricted and managed, but to fulfill this they would have to reach out across the whole of Pax Britannica. They took the fight to Thugees in India, Witch Doctors in the Congo and Deathless Sorcerers in the Orient.

In this way they kept back those strange threats which might disturb the Empire’s dreams. Nightmares—Masterminds of technological terror, Anarchist Vampires, Robotic Doppelgangers—remained quietly hidden. Yet, this success would be the downfall of Moray’s league. As the Empire grew, so did the power and diversity of its defenders. Yet, their resources remained stretched thin and counter attacks took their toll. Remaining cells lost unity and contact. Some began to question the use of “special operatives” while others embraced the enemy’s weapons.

By Victoria’s Jubilee in 1898, Moray’s organization lies in tatters, separate groups unaware of one another and often at odds, a chain of authority and orders more like a chandelier than an organizational chart. The millennium approaches as the Empire begins to fade, with rumblings first at the most distant parts: Egypt, Southern Africa, China. How long can Queen Victoria survive and with her, the Empire?