First published in Anthology of Steampunk (edited by Tonia Brown, Sonar4, 2010, out of print)
I want to tell you about my best friend Julian. He has been gone for over a year now, and today a depressive pall slowly grows inside of me, seeping through my very being, reminding me of the terrible day that he died. Julian Fellows was a fine man and the events that led to that sad day deserve to be told.
Julian was my closest companion since our early school days. We shared classes at Rugby, and graduated together at King’s College. We even entered the Bar on the same day. Our careers blossomed, and in our young, optimistic adulthood, we honestly, sincerely believed we could conquer the world.
He was a jolly fine fellow to be with. He was always sanguine and smiled with his gapped tooth grin whenever he had an opportunity—which was frequent. Julian had light green eyes that missed nothing in his observation, and at the same time they were gentle and soothing to those who were close to him. Those who knew him. He was gregarious and his circle of acquaintances was far wider than what I could possibly gather, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than to be involved in extravagant social or societal events. Most of his associates misjudged him as superficial, uncaring, and pompous—except, of course, by those who shared those vices, and of course, me.
I was always the quiet type. My greatest pleasure was to spend sunny summer days in the country, alone or with my closest friends, and write poetry.
Julian used to say, in those introspective moments, “Rupert, old man! You are a Wordsworth in the making, but surely, isn’t it better to be a Richard Burton?”
I always replied by stating that there was only room for one Sir Richard Burton in the Empire, and he was infinitely better qualified for the position than me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his company, and his enthusiasm with life instilled a lesser, but tangible, equivalent in me. I was most alive when I ventured in his territory.
In short, he was my best friend.
Richard Burton. What a coincidence. A year ago, on the tenth anniversary of Burton’s untimely passing, Julian excitedly knocked on my town house front door. My man let him in and I immediately recognized that look on his face, and tone in his voice.
“My good man,” he said. “I have been invited to an adventure that has no peer! What’s more, the invitation has been extended to taking along a companion!”
This was not the first time that my ears were subject to Julian’s hyperbole. “This has nothing to do with New Guinea, does it? I hear the humidity is atrocious, the mosquitoes and other biting insects are the size of rats, and the natives are still cannibals.”
Julian laughed. “Much more exciting than the tropical Antipodes. Rupert, my friend, Sir William Laughlin has invited us on a tiger hunt.” He paused, studying my face in preparation for some undefined turn of enlightenment.
I responded quizzically, “So we are off to India. That’s two out of the three New Guinean characteristics. We have been there before, Julian, and we all know that the tigers are hunted out—ye gods! These days every house has a Bengal skin on their floor or wall. It would be easier to win a lottery than find one of those beasts alive.”
Julian’s disappointed look turned to a mischievous smile. “Ah, Rupert, you have not been following the Laughlin story in The Times, have you?”
“I am sorry to disappoint. All I know is that he is one of the richest men in the Empire—he has something to do with the anti-gravity device, doesn’t he?”
This time he laughed so loud Jervis entered the room, wondering what was causing the commotion. “Rupert, he owns the patent! Every ether ship that leaves the Earth and traverses the vast distances to alien worlds, contributes to Laughlin’s vast fortune. In ten short years he has elevated himself in power and influence second only to Queen Victoria.”
I was slightly embarrassed by my naivety but not enough to be subdued. “And pray, Sir, what has this to do with tigers?”
“Laughlin’s favorite pastime is hunting. Big game hunting. His manor walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with trophies. He has two permanently employed taxidermists. He has done it all on Earth, and now practices his sport on other worlds. I did not know this—no one else does either—that he has a private planet ideally suited for hunting. It has no name that I know of, but it is the eighth satellite of Sirius A—nearly nine light years from the Sun. He confided in me that there is a creature there that remarkably resembles the Bengal Tiger.”
By now my interest was piqued to an unprecedented high. I realized now that we were invited to a big game hunting expedition to the Dog Star. I opened a bottle of Laphroaig in celebration.
The ES Ironheart had landed on Sirius A-8 in the morning, local time, after a two month journey through the ether and the phantasmagorical whiteness of folded space. While it was a long journey, I found the weeks in the ship mesmerizing, what with the clarity of the star and planet-lit ether and the excitement of traveling through a cruel, deadly environment, cocooned in the tiny teak and brass tube that was our home. The even longer journey between the halos that allowed us to jump vast interstellar distances was particularly satisfying, allowing me time for writing verse and to get to know Sir William and other members of the hunting party.
For much of the two months in the Ironheart, I wondered how the no-nonsense Sir William could bear long exposure to his hangers-on, even Julian. He was a short, stocky man in his late forties, and plainly demonstrated an immense strength of character and body. His dark hair did not have a single fleck of gray, and his bushy moustache capped a firm mouth that rarely smiled or laughed. Even without knowing him by reputation, it was demonstrably clear that Laughlin was a man driven to excel in every task at hand, and to grind his competition into the ground, be it friend or foe.
The other members of the party seemed all too preoccupied in fanning Sir William’s ego. There was Sir Warwick Pendergast—a young but wealthy spice merchant, who just recently inherited his fortune. Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV was the sixteen year old ruler of Mysore, although, of course, under the suzerainty of our Queen Victoria. He was a quiet youth, generally self-absorbed in reading penny-dreadfuls. Finally, there was Hamish Campbell, a transport tycoon in his fifties, and the closest thing to a friend of William. This Scot also had a reputation of absolute infatuation with big game hunting. Along with these four party-members, there were eighteen servants and friends to add to the social ‘quality’ of the expedition, and to ensure the comfort of their patrons. I brought Jervis along to support both Julian and I, a rather small subset of the party compared to the others.
The star known as Sirius A appeared much like the Sun from Earth, yet it was twice the distance away from its eighth satellite. Near the horizon I spotted a faint, but bright point of light that was Sirius B, the remnant of a once-great star that was now the size of a planet. It reminded me of Venus on a clear morning. I initially felt at home. This impression was enhanced by the surrounding rainforest, which was the size of the Amazon, with trees and undergrowth that resembled Earth-like vegetation.
On closer inspection, however, I saw where there were marked differences. The texture and smell of the leaves of the ferns were not right—there was a faint soap-like scent to them. Their surfaces felt like fine-grain sandpaper, and on touch, the leaves curled up into tight scrolls. The creatures, while clearly of the Insecta class of Arthropods, were nevertheless distinctly different; they had varying numbers of limbs, were universally dull in color, and tended to be much larger than their Earth counterparts.
It was then I realized, despite the veneer of ‘Earthliness’ of this world, that there was a superimposition of the recognizable with the alien, which begged the conclusion that I was treading in a place I was not meant to be. This cold feeling did not leave me, and in fact slowly, inextricably grew. I was not sure this hunting trip was going to come to any good.
I recall on that first day returning from a short sojourn into the rainforest and finding Julian sitting on a tree stump, staring at me with a wry smile on his face. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Rupert, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I bowed to him, with as much theatrics as I could muster. Then, without thinking, a quote from The Tempest came into my head, and I could not help but utter the Bard’s famous lines:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Julian was taken aback by my thespian moment. “Rupert! That was a marvelous rendition, although the subject matter is rather…ominous in nature?”
I nodded, but did not explain why.
The hunting party split into two groups of three, and I found myself sharing the wilds with Julian and Sir William. The rainforest was thick with vegetation, blocking most of Sirius’ rays, the verdigris shadows forming worrisome shapes in my mind’s eye. I still hadn’t lost my sense of foreboding.
Sir William was oblivious to my concern, and after traversing a particularly difficult gully and stream, made an off the cuff remark. “My scouts say they saw signs of the tiger in this region. Be wary, as I have lost a few men to those creatures. Personally, I haven’t seen one.”
“Those who died, what were the circumstances?” I asked.
Laughlin momentarily tightened his lips in thought. “They were eaten. The tiger appears to have a love of human flesh. We are not sure if it is one beast with this predilection, or it is common to them all. They are powerful—larger and stronger than the Bengal and they have a mix of light green and orange stripes on their bodies. They have upward pointing, lynx-like ears. They have a cat look about them, but this fellow has a larger head than his earth cousin, and his jaws and teeth are double-rimmed—a formidable bag.”
“Has one been bagged yet?” Julian chimed in.
“No. Just sightings, and what he has left behind. They are illusive. They make the perfect quarry.”
I remember seeing his mouth curl to a smile. It was the first that I had seen in two months. Julian also smiled—not for sycophantic reasons, but because I knew that Julian was a keen hunter and had wanted to ‘bag’ a tiger since his first hunt in Tongsa when he was nineteen.
Sir William signaled for Julian and I to keep quiet, indicating in no uncertain terms that we were entering the territory where the alien tiger had been seen.
We continued through the dense undergrowth of the rainforest, careful to avoid the leaves that we now knew curled on touch and made sufficient noise to sound our presence. Here and there a shaft of Sirius’ light glimmered among the trees and ferns, as if I was in Oberon’s Kingdom. I grasped my accelerator rifle tightly, nudging my consciousness out of that fairyland. A cold feeling crept up my spine again.
“There,” William whispered, pointing to his right.
We all stopped, lowering to our knees. A small clearing lay beyond a giant fern, and following William’s index finger, I saw the beast. I was astonished. Walking slowly through the open space was a creature the size of a draught horse, but whose shape and proportions uncannily resembled a Bengal Tiger. Its fur was thick and yet each paw-fall it took, and each sway of its large head, revealed muscles that promised enormous power, speed and agility. Irregular, diagonal stripes covered its entire body, alternating between a burnt umber and an olive-green, which was surprisingly good for camouflage in the forest. The silkiness of its fur caused the colors to shimmer before us. I could hear the creature breathing, its powerful lungs forcing air in and out through its flaring nostrils, above a mouth displaying eight razor sharp, twelve inch long canines. I only saw its eyes for a moment in this first spotting, and they were a bright, almost fluorescent, green.
Sir William slowly raised his rifle, nursing it like a baby, checking the dial in the stock that there was sufficient power to enable all twenty of his bullets to rapidly fire.
The giant cat stopped, frozen, turning its massive head in our direction.
Our patron also froze, cursing under his breath.
The tiger bared his multiple lines of teeth and growled so heavily that I could feel the reverberation through my chest. It quickly but deliberately stepped backwards, increasing the distance between us.
I saw William pause in thought, determining his next course of action. He was not one to waste time. With dexterity that defied our sense of reality, William leapt through the ferns, landing in the narrow clearing, and raised his accelerator rifle.
The creature was in our patron’s clear view now, and it roared so loudly it caused the undergrowth to rustle. It quickly tensed its muscles.
Just as Sir William’s rifle stock was planted on his shoulder, and he was about to pull the trigger, the tiger jerked forward and vanished—but only for a split second. It reappeared next to the astonished hunter, who fired three steel missiles into the forest, where the cat had stood a moment earlier. Again, to my surprise, Sir William threw himself back, hoping to avoid the tiger’s lethal paws. Not entirely with success. A few claws clipped William’s side, flinging him ten yards back, spinning like a top and spraying blood from a gaping wound.
I was riveted to the spot, and failed our patron by not raising my rifle. Julian, on the other hand, did the opposite. With bravado and immense foolhardiness, he leapt into the clearing and raised his sights to the towering beast. I saw those two-foot long pointed ears twist with blinding speed in Julian’s direction, and it winked away for the second time in less than a minute.
Julian didn’t fire—perhaps he had learned something from William’s mistake, but he could not compete with such a fantastical creature appearing behind him. With a sickening crunch, the tiger twisted its head and clamped its jaws around its prey. The tiger lifted Julian like a cat picking up a mouse. It swung its head left and right, causing more damage to my poor friend, and let Julian go, flinging him hard to the ground.
I remained stilled with fear and saw the alien tiger lower its gaze to the unconscious, dying human on the forest floor. It sniffed its victim.
I couldn’t bear Julian being eaten! I found movement return to my limbs and forced my way into the clearing, already readying my rifle. The creature was still sniffing Julian but its glowing eyes were focused on my every move. I lined my sights on its head but prepared myself to rapidly change direction and shoot it at point blank range, if needed.
The tiger continued to stare at me. It did not vanish. I peered back into those deep green eyes. I placed pressure on my rifle’s trigger. Then I saw something else in those glowing pools. Emotion. Thoughts. I swear on my mother’s grave that this beast was telling me that he understood me. He was not going to harm me; nor defile Julian.
I lowered my weapon.
The tiger lifted its head. Then it vanished.
I did not turn around to see if a monstrous mouth was about to cut me in half. I knew it was gone. Julian was in a horrid state.
As I moved closer to Julian’s body I knew he was done for. The damage to his torso was profound and it was a minor miracle that he was still alive. Despite the blood, I knelt next to him and held him tight to me, willing with all my might that he would live. I heard his breathing slow and I felt his life diminish and fade to nothing.
I do not know how long I continued to hold him, but Sir William started to stir. Reluctantly, I gently laid Julian back to the forest floor and attended my patron. He was in better condition than I thought he was and he would be able to walk back to the ether ship.
The hunting trip was over.
I turned back to Julian lying peacefully on the ground. I thought of Prospero’s words:
…our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
I write a lot of poetry now. Julian was my best friend.