When he stepped off the train into the empty station, he felt not fear or apprehension but, rather, simple annoyance. He hesitated for a moment and turned to signal the porter, but the porter had vanished back into the car and the train was already pulling out of the station in chuffing clouds of steam. He was annoyed because it had been no small task to secure passage to New Babbage on such short notice (notwithstanding the urgent nature and secretly noble origins of the request), especially in a style to which he was most comfortably accustomed. He was annoyed because he could see clearly that, in spite of all extravagant promises to the contrary, no one was there to meet him. He was annoyed because he could see that the nearby hostelry was the Mechanix Armsâ€”no doubt a fine enough establishment, but it was not the Brunel Hall Hotel, where he had rooms reserved for his immediate occupancy.
He was also suspicious, for it seemed all just a little too convenient to be happenstance. He had nearly missed boarding the train at Stewart-Upon-Grange, due to an unusual misprint in the timetable that had been delivered to him by messenger the day before. Then his bag had nearly been left behind on the platform, and although the porter had been most profusely apologetic at the oversight, the mishap had stung a little.
Once underway, the train had been delayed between Upper Whingeing and Lower Whingeing, in order to allow for clearance of debris from the tracks, or so the porter had advised (and, hmm, very interesting, there he was again). However, try though they might, neither he nor any of the other gentlemen in their car could make out any sign of obstruction on the tracks ahead, or indeed of any clearing activity, even using a pair of opera glasses graciously lent by the Lady Astoria, who happened to be traveling to visit her daughter in Middling Kensington, and who gave the proceedings an unexpected air of musty gravitas. He found himself no more dubious than ever of that porter, who had seemed so friendly. And now here he was, arrived at last in New Babbage, with no one waiting to greet him and escort him to his hotel.
It was almost as if someone did not want him in New Babbage at all. And that was, if nothing else, interesting. When the summons (he could not in all honesty think of it as an invitation) had reached him in his rooms in Cook-and-Clerk Street, it had been quite clearly obvious, even then, that interesting events were transpiring. He had been annoyed by the faint hint of suggestion that he had been a second choice for this investigative task, after Holmes of Baker Street in London had been found to be otherwise engaged. Yes, Holmes was more well known than he himself, but that was due solely to the promiscuous publications of his escapades by that hack Watson. Â He had been careful not to let his irritation show, for he had found himself very interested indeed. He had accepted the commission with alacrity and commenced with immediate preparations for departure.
So, yes, he was annoyed, and he did not mind admitting to it. He suspected that he was in for rather more trouble than he had anticipated. But he would have to deal with that later. The first order of business was to make his way to Brunel Hall and esconce himself in his rooms, for he had been traveling all day in a railway carriage that, the truth be told, had been rather dusty. A change of clothing was in order. Also, it was well past early evening, on the cusp of the violet hour. He would want a drink soon.
After a brief conversation with the station attendant (who, unlike the porter, was seemingly not embroiled in whatever conspiracy ran underfoot), he hailed a hansom cab and set out to Brunel Hall. Thanks in no small part to the exchange of a few shining coppers, he was also armed with directions to small absinthe house, fortunately just a brisk walk away from his lodgings, where he might fortify himself before embarking upon his investigations. The hour was fast growing late but, all things considered, he felt he had no time to waste.
As the attendant had promised, his hotel was but a short cab ride away, and the driver made the trip in respectable but not remarkable time. Accordingly, his tip to the driver was neither extravagant nor particularly generous, but eminently respectable. After all, one never knew when one might again encounter the same service person, and it simply would not do to burn any bridges unnecessarily. Also, he was a gentleman, and a gentleman always conducts himself in a manner befitting his station. Upon arrival at the hotel, he was pleased to see that his accommodations were more than acceptableâ€”they were, in point of fact, quite fine, even luxurious. He would be perfectly comfortable as long as his presence was required in New Babbage.
After changing quickly into clothing that was both fresh and more appropriately suited for a gentleman’s evening out, he made his way to the absinthe house. He sat quietly at his table in the lowering evening, contemplating the quietly hissing blue flame as the sugar burned and caramelized, and he pondered. Where to begin? From the cryptic conversation with the one who had commissioned him for this investigation, he already had an idea from where certain strings might be being pulled, and it was, quite frankly, an open secret that the extensive subterranean sewer tunnels of New Babbage had become both haven and highway for certain unsavory elements. It was no coincidence that he had chosen a hotel that was located near what had recently been identified in official quarters as a nexus of illicit travel and other activities just below the bustling city streets. It was decidedâ€”he would be going underground.
Fortified by the green fairy, he made his way to to an address he had committed to memory rather than to the far lesser security of writing on paper, for it had come at the not inconsiderable expense of exposing the identity of at least one undercover agent. He had not known what to expect there, but nonetheless he was surprised to find not a slumping tenement house or brooding back alley, but a handsome manse in one of the finer parts of the city, fronted by a brightly lit stone courtyard. Oh, but these devils were bold and brazen! Fortunately he was a gentleman, and dressed as one, and certainly looked as if he had every right to be in this place, at this time. A man of lesser apparent social status would appear to be, let us be honest, simply skulking aboutâ€”and even so it was all but impossible not to give that impression to any but the most casual passer-by.
Just as he was beginning to fear that price for the secret address had been even more excessive than originally thought, and that it had purchased only something meaningless and therefore worthless, he quite literally stumbled upon what he was searching for. A stone that looked solid was actually loose, and when he used the tip of his cane to prise it up, instead it shifted aside in a most peculiar manner, and then an almost-man-sized aperture slid open in the cobbled pavement. He slipped through it in a blink, for already it was closing again by means of some clever counter-weighted arrangement, and found himself standing in a vaulted tunnel that stretched into dimly lit distances. Success!
One direction seemed as good as any other, and his ready intelligence had included only the address that had got him this far, so he struck off down a tunnel branch from which he thought he discerned a faint but fresh draft of air. He made his way as quietly as he could in the rough surroundings, and the only sound was an occasional tiny tick as the brass tip of his cane found an irregular spot in the pavement. The ticks began to sound more regularly, in spite of his care, and he made an effort to be even more quiet, but the sounds continued, and indeed grew louder. What could this be?
He glanced about quicklyâ€”fore, aft, and all aroundâ€”expecting nothing and therefore all the more astonished to find that he was beset by a trio of monocular monstrosities! They were one-eyed things the size of large dogs, covered in chitinous, shell-like armor, and they clustered about him, snapping at him with large claws, again and again, and glaring at him balefully with great red eyes that never blinked. And all the while the infernal noise went out and grew even louder, not clicking as one might expect, but rather ticking and tocking, as if from a congregation of clocks. What were these dastardly things? Were they living, unknown creatures of the sea conscripted to stand guard? Or something somehow manufactured, clockwork creatures wound up and set free to wander the tunnels on their mechanical mission?
He flailed at them violently with his cane, and they seemed to be afraid of its whizzing motion, for they pulled back somewhat. Encouraged, he managed to drive them back enough that he could push through them and forge onward, for there was no point and no gain in going back. The Cyclopean things pursued him, but it seemed that their internal mechanisms (if such was in fact their nature) were imperfect, for they could not follow him very quickly. He brandished his cane at them threateningly as he walked briskly ahead, and they slowly but steadily fell behind, and eventually stopped altogether, as if they had reached the edge of their territory and could go no farther. Even so, they sat, the three of them together in the middle of the tunnel, and watched him and ticked until they were lost in the darkness.
He walked on, confident that the presence of such guards meant that surely there was something worth guarding. Tunnel led to tunnel, and the moving air grew cooler and fresher. He heard water lapping somewhere off to the side, and then up ahead, and his path led him through a vast vaulted chamber that was flooded to a significant height below an elevated walkway. He worried briefly what elevation the water would reach at high tide, but strode on firmly, following stone rampways up and upward, trusting that they would not leave him stranded irretrievably.
As he neared the top of the final ramp, he steeled himself to acknowledge defeat or at least temporary impasse, for the inclined stonework simply led directly into the solid ceiling. He felt about on all sides, seeking some clever trigger-stone like the one that had led him down below from the aboveground courtyard. Perhaps he tripped an unseen mechanism without realizing it, or perhaps it was simply the crown of his hat brushing against the ceiling as he searched, orâ€”as occurred to him only later on, as he revisited and pondered the evening’s eventsâ€”perhaps an unseen someone pulled an unseen lever. Whatever the cause, there was a rush of air, a shifting of mass, and a great portal tilted silently open above his head…into what? He had to know.
Up he went, silent and cautious, into the dimly lit space above. He heard no voices, sensed no movement, but he did not, could not trust that he was alone. He inspected his surroundings quickly but thoroughly, and from the exhibit cases scattered about and banners hanging from the high ceiling he realized that he had made his way by secret passage into the Academy of Industry itself.
This was an unexpected developmentâ€”and yet he realized that it made sense of certain other heretofore incomprehensible elements of information. He needed time to think, and he could not do that here. There was no way to know when he might find himself suddenly no longer alone, and that was certain to be highly problematic. He made his way to a side entrance (under normal circumstances intended for service deliveries and the like), slipped through the folding metal gate without disturbing its position, and escaped into the night.
Without particularly intending to, he before long found himself at the docks, and so he stood for a while, looking thoughtfully out over Port Babbage. The lighter-than-air ship Penelope floated silently overhead whle his thoughts ran furiously through his mind. It seemed that a certain secret address might bear further, deeper investigation. And who could construct such intricate clockwork creatures? Surely that list of likely suspects would be small and highly intriguing. All signs pointedÂ clearlyÂ and definitivelyÂ to the involvement of, if not orchestration by, someone at the highest levels of industry. In New Babbage industry was, for all practical considerations, the New World Order. He would have to tread very carefully. But he knew that he was on the right track.
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Our intrepid investigative hero’s adventures in New Babbage are perfectly accompanied by the beautifully detailed, attractively priced vintage sartorial designs of Nix Sands. For travel, our dapper friend prefers the dandy stylings of:
Rangoon Shirt Delux, Pearl (rolled-up sleeves option); McPlaid Trousers in Indigo; Impressionista Waistcoat, “Darrow Clouds”; Knotted Cravat with Diamond Stickpin; Madstone Boots, Black w/Grey Spats; “VALISE” Traveling Bag. All by Nix Sands, Xcentricity.
Glenn Spectacles in Copper by Reghan Straaf, Hatpins.
While out and about in the evening, this gentleman chooses:
Rangoon Shirt Delux, Pearl (full sleeves option); 19thC. Fall-Front Trousers in Coffee Pins; Impressionista Waistcoat, “Klimt Kiss”; Impressionista Sculpted Bow Tie; Madstone Boots in Gator with KhakiPlaid Spats. All by Nix Sands, Xcentricity.
Steamy Victorian Gentleman’s Top Hat by Reghan Straaf, Hatpins.
“Kura” glasses in Bekkou Brown by Aslan Kish,Â AIR.
Braced Cane by Vincente Shepherd, Gaslights Emporium (sadly, no longer available).
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Period furnishings by Yelena Istmal, available at Noctis.
Photographed at various locations in New Babbage.