Saturday, May 15, 2021

A Return on the Investment


A trio of highwaymen confronted a pair of dandies outside of Milano, swords drawn. They grinned at the small object produced by the one with dark hair--until, with concussive force, the lights went out. 

Carl Franconi, professor of linguistics, stared at the victims who'd fallen into a ditch. "You didn't kill them, did you?"

"Only stunned," said Commander Moast. "Let's resume our leisurely tour of the countryside." He addressed the hidden comunit in his tunic. "Kyra, what's our tactical?"

First Officer Preston sounded tinny in the receiver. "Spanish and Venetian forces have consolidated in the north. The French are in retreat. Distance to objective is two point three miles."

The two men moved aside for an aristocrat's carriage thundering past, then resumed their trek in dappled sun on the dusty road. 

Franconi glanced about nervously. "Listen, Moast--how can you trust me to stay mum about how you've discovered time travel?--or do I suffer a mysterious accident?" 

"Who'd believe you?" Moast countered. Among thousands of teleportals scattered throughout the galaxy was one orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, to protect it's time travel function, it floated in an asteroid belt. That had been no mean feat.

"It's a violation of contract," Franconi insisted. "You have command of that ship in return for handing over everything you find out there. All captains follow that rule."

"Think so?" Moast went tongue in cheek. "You have a high opinion of your fellow man, Professor. The Consortium is no different. They're trying to shake me down for a 'rental fee', which is money I don't have."

"You'll certainly have it if our mission succeeds, and if we don't get killed."

As profitable as were the missions out of Pluto Station, the central hub for the Earth system, Moast had plenty of detractors. It all started when with an attempt to plant spyware in Orchidia's AI. The technicians were routed by an army of servobots. It seemed the AI had acquired a keen sense of self preservation, and trusted no one but Moast. 

"Remember the agreement," Franconi said. "I get whatever I can negotiate for, apart from the main package."

"You can afford it after all that gold we traded for lire. Don't sweat it."

"But whatever we take back will be brand new, and labeled forgeries."

Moast laughed. "That's the beauty of it. The goods will age accordingly, which is why we can't take back anything living." 

The comunit interrupted. "Destination has six life forms. We're prepared for selective stun on your orders." 

"Stand by," Moast said. He surveyed the impressive villa of Vaprio d' Adda, owned by the Medici clan. Was there anything they didn't own? " Okay, Prof, it's time to test that proto Italian."

They came upon a gardener who frowned at the odd accent, but he admitted them to a cluttered workshop that smelled of oils and varnish. An elderly gent in a floppy hat was working on a sketch of an equestrian monument.

Franconi made introductions, then made his pitch. "You recently accepted a commission of 500 lire for a portrait. We're prepared to double it if you'll paint an alternate version."

The gent made a clenched fist gesture of agreement.

Franconi beamed gratitude. "Imagine it--another Mona Lisa. We're in your debt, Monsignor da Vinci."

So was Moast, who now had a year's rental on the starship Orchidia.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Canker Barrels (2)


Previous Holmes, Watson and Colton are invited aboard a ghost ship.

Our steam launch bobbed in a gentle swell as it nosed alongside the derelict. The three of us made use of a rope ladder to reach a port on the gun deck. Long bereft of powder, the cannons didn't represent the threat promised by Captain Weehauken. An oppressive mist arose to engulf the ship in a pall of gloom. The pirates were expecting us.

I had to duck the low beams bracing the main deck. "Abysmal place. It smells of rotting fish."

"As well it should, matey." Weehauken closed a creaking hatch behind him. He'b brought his attire up to date, had even replaced the hook with a gloved prosthesis. The outlandish hat looked much out of place. Regardless, it served as the nidus for him to take shape as a gray-fleshed corpse with one staring eye. 

Holmes balanced well on the swaying deck. "I understand you're in possession of forbidden facts."

"I be for a fact." The captain swept his hat in a mocking bow. "I didn't have it all 'til I tricked one of the hellspawn into coming aboard. We'll let him do the talkin'." He opened a chest and removed a moldy coat. It bucked in his hand, arms flapping, emitting a maniacal scream.

"Stow that blarney, ya scabrous bilge rat!" Weehauken forced it to limp compliance. "Assume the form by which ye profaned this mortal plane." A figure materialized.

"My word!" Colton took down the handkerchief covering his nose. "His name was Barnes. He disappeared over twenty years ago, highly placed in the exchequer." 

The captain leered. "Where else but centers of power and money, news, and education. That's where the rotters always be."

"I say," I mentioned to Holmes. "That's an unfortunate word for him to use."

"Yes," Holmes said. "Shall we hear from Mr Barnes?"

Weehauken interrupted. "You won't like it. They'll start their evil empire by taking down the greatest of the free nations. That's you, unless the Americans manage to overtake you. And don't think royals haven't invited themselves to the party."

I was about to protest this aspersion on the queen when Barnes launched into his dreary prophecy. The Illuminati were planning decades ahead. They dreamed of a world drastically shorn of population. They even had theories as to what form this magic bullet might take, right down to the necessity of inducing the public to believe their unwitting suicide a good thing. But first, they must create class structures and pit them against each other.

"Diabolical!" I burst out. "This is mass murder on a record scale!"

"With Illuminati at the top," Holmes mused. "Gentlemen, I must speak to the captain alone."

Reluctantly I accompanied Mr Colton back to the launch. Holmes rejoined us twenty minutes later, having little to say about the proceedings.

Next day, the newspapers described the disappearance of a derelict ship surrounded by anchor buoys. 

"Hmpf. I say, Holmes, the pirates have gotten away. Do you think Captain Weehauken will make good his threat to go 'canker barrels' on the world?"

"Not the world, Watson--the Illuminati, wherever he finds a chance to bedevil them."

I continued reading. "Curious. It happened during routine maintenance, when one of the buoys was briefly unchained. How could the pirates have known?"

"As you say, old boy." Holmes picked up his fiddle. "Most curious, isn't it?"

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Canker Barrels


From the journal of Dr Watson

Our only maritime case of greater strangeness had involved mermaids. We'd not normally investigate a missing ship, save for the fact that Sherlock Holmes was requested by none other than the missing captain. 

Mr Colton sat neat the sunny window here at Baker Street, dispatched by the Home Secretary. He fretted with a bowler hat in his lap. "The ship in question is the Manitou. Her crew ran our blockade of Napoleon, because the Illuminati favored a greater European dictatorship."

"Ah yes." Holmes fired up his pipe. "I've often delighted in defeating their evil schemes. But we know the ship isn't really lost, don't we."

"Quite right; we have it trapped a few miles off Land's End."

"Trapped?" I set down my tea mid-sip. "You make it sound as if crewed by pirates."

"Not pirates, Dr Watson. Ghosts thereof."

I started to laugh, then remembered the case of the succubus. "I can imagine the mischief they could be about. How does this involve us?"

"Quite simply, it's Captain Weehauken who wants a meeting with Mr Holmes." Colton displayed a photo of a captain's hat apparently floating in a ship's cabin. "They manifest through physical objects, their spirits not being captured on film. The captain was privy to Illuminati secrets he decided to profit from, with predictable results. Then he and his dead crew were brought back by some unholy means to serve the masters they had betrayed.  As years went by, the crew threw off those shackles, coming and going in a mist."

Holmes listened closely. "That would make them ideal smugglers. I presume the captain wishes to impart his dangerous secrets to me, hoping to even the score."

Colton made a deferential nod. "Very astute. The Admiralty is equally intrigued, because nothing these people do benefits anyone but themselves. Besides, we can't be certain how long we can prevent Weehauken from carrying out his threat to go 'canker barrels' on the world."

"Now that's a curious expression," I allowed.

"It has something to do with spoilage of ship's stores. In other words, he threatens to go ape dip on the high seas, whatever that entails." 

Holmes stood up. "Then we mustn't keep the captain waiting."

We still didn't know why the captain was so eager to spill the secrets, or what he expected us to do with them. But when it came to Illuminati, the less one knew about them, the better.