Strange Tales #5

May 6, 2017 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Strange Tales

Randy Lander presents
Marvel Rebooted – Strange Tales
Issue #5 – The Secret Society of the Ex-Men
by Scott Clements

strange_header

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

                        Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, 1859

*****

From the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 8th Day of September, 1856

            He will die.

There is no longer room for doubt or false hope. I have done the tests myself. Two years, perhaps three, and my son will die. Even now realization settles upon me like the infinite weight of the night sky, inexorably crushing the life from me, the will, making each breath a burden, grinding my bones beneath the… unfairness of it all. What has he done, this fragile infant who longs for nothing more in life than to be held by his mother, to hear sweet lullabies sung, to smile and be smiled upon…?

Not unfair, unlucky Charles would say. The fault lies not with him, but in the information passed on, or rather not passed on, to him by those who came before. Is this my fault, then? Rebecca’s? Or was it rather the fault of our parents, or our parents’ parents??

NO! Think, man! Fault matters not! All that remains now is to set about repairing the damage done by Fate. But to do so, I will need to understand the process whereby this information is passed from progenitor to child. Charles himself lacks such knowledge and his proposed ‘gemmules’ solution is… inelegant. I shall revisit Lamarck and Buffon, Linnaeus and even Ray. If I find not the answers that I seek, then I shall find new sources. Word has reached my ear regarding the works of a Czech, Mendel. I shall follow up on every theory; gather to myself all the information that exists. Then I shall conduct research of my own. I shall dig and dig, for the answer must lie somewhere! If I can determine the process by which this information is passed along, if I can find the place where this information from our forefathers is stored, then I can access it; change it.  And if I can change it, oh, what wonders might I craft….

*****

Blackwall, East London. The East India Docks. 13th Day of September, 1862.

Claws scrape-gouged a path across his chest, shredding wool and protective leather like wet parchment. Pain, red-hot and searing, lanced through him and Nathaniel Essex screamed as he was hurled backwards through the night air drizzle, careening into the warehouse wall hard enough to buckle the weathered wood.

By God, he thought, fighting, desperately, to reclaim the breath ripped out of him by the creature’s claws, how could anything move so quickly? Faster even than Ulysses.

“Essex!”

I… live, Ulysses. Nathaniel glanced down at his torn, bleeding chest. For the moment.

“Excellent news, old boy,” Ulysses said. “I fear I should have been terribly put out otherwise.” In the eye of his mind, Nathaniel watched Bloodstone thrust aside pieces of shattered crate and dirt and clamber to his feet.

Not dirt. Guano?

“Hrm. Du Monte has much to answer for. I see him. He sits atop the carriage heading west. He’s tied on eight horses. Given the head start, I do not think I could catch them. In retrospect, it may be that Van Helsing was correct: capturing Du Monte instead of killing him was not the wisest course of action.”

Perhaps, but what a story his cells might have told. Not a mistake we shall repeat, however. What of the others?

“Livingston had the rats. Last I saw him he leaped headlong into the Thames. Faraday lies unconscious beside me. His gloves, the way they spark and hiss, does not inspire confidence. He struck Du Monte a solid blow. Had he been able to unleash his full electrical might, perhaps–”

Yes, I am aware that this is my fault. I underestimated our opponent. What sign of–Ah, there he is.

A loud crash followed by a grinding squeal and the shocked cry of horses.

“Ah, I see him now.”

Using Ulysses’ eyes, Nathaniel watched Charles Babbage roll, not wholly without grace, free from beneath the tarp that hid Du Monte’s cargo in the back of the carriage. The carriage itself had been crippled, the rear axle splintered, sending sparks in all directions, causing the precious cargo to slide forward, toward the carriage edge. A moment later, the front axle too gave way, sending both wheels skid-sliding in opposite directions. The sudden jolt of this second impact was enough to dump the already precariously balanced cargo out the back of the carriage onto the muddy ground, where it settled with a dull thump. A moment later Du Monte leaped free of the wreckage, landing nimbly, his animal’s gaze pin-wheeling from the box to Ulysses and back again.

From within Ulysses’ mind, Nathaniel saw Ulysses draw his guns. Felt him smile.

For a split second, Nathaniel was unsure what the beast would do. But as the light from the dockside frigates gleamed off the twin pair of Dragoon Revolvers, Du Monte glanced to the box a final time.

“I shall come for you, master!” he hissed, the words spat from between teeth stake-sharp and savage.

Then like lightning, he turned, vanishing in the gloom.

Alone in the road, the rain tap-tap-tapped gently upon the box.

*****

Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 17th Day of January, 1857

Time is a tyrant, a wicked slave master; its weapons of choice? seconds and minutes that burn like lashes, hours that impale, days that cripple. It encroaches like madness, inexorable as the movement of the spheres and as uncaring as an earthquake. The pressure to find the answers I seek is unrelenting. Every second that ticks by my son suffers, is brought closer to death. I know not how much time I have left, only that I have to hurry, always hurry.

I have spent months scouring the works of all the masters; they lay scattered at my feet, piled high on tables and shelves all around me. I searched through each one, combed every word looking for something they may have missed, an idea to spark the revelation that I seek. I know more about this idea of evolution than even Alfred and Charles themselves, yet still the answer to how information is passed on from one generation to the next eludes me! I hear it whisper-laugh at me sometimes, in the dark. Though I am loathe to leave Milbury House, the fruitlessness of my research dictates I must. I have exchanged letters with the monk, Mendel. His ideas and the results of his recent experiments with plants have sparked, against all my efforts to dampen it, a tiny flame of hope within my heart. I do my best to keep it in check, to keep it from becoming a conflagration, for I know not if I could survive yet another disappointment. I leave tomorrow morning, after breakfast. The trip to the monastery in Brunn is long, but I must more closely examine his work if I am to fully understand it, use it. It will be months before I am able to return home, and the very thought of leaving Rebecca alone to face whatever may happen in my absence….

But I know that to do nothing would mean giving in to despair, to death, and that is something I refuse to do. For so long as Adam draws breath I shall fight for him. And not Time, nor Fate, nor even God Himself, shall keep me from saving my son.

*****

Blackwall, East London. The East India Docks

“Well, that was exciting,” Babbage said, scraping dripping muck from his face and clothes.

Bloodstone laughed. “Quite,” he said, slapping the polymath on the shoulder as he approached.

“Now then,” said Babbage, wiping his hands on his mud-soaked pants, “let’s have a look at poor Faraday.”

“Poor Faraday,” Faraday grumble-groaned, “has had better days to be sure.” He pushed himself to his elbows slowly, before sitting up. “Our fearless leader has been poking around in my head. Interrupted the sweetest dream.”

“It was the one with the fair-haired lab assistants again, was it not?” Ulysses said with a grin.

Faraday only sighed. He stared down at his steaming, hissing gloves. “Less than optimal,” he muttered.

“And what of our fearless leader?” Babbage asked. “ Last I saw or heard, the beast near filleted him.”

“Your concern is touching, Charles,” Nathaniel said as he limped toward the group, holding tightly to his chest. “But as you can see, scarcely a mark on me.” Nathaniel stumbled to a knee.

More quickly than the eye could follow, Ulysses was at his side.

“Thank you my friend,” Nathaniel whispered.

“Fah! I would happily trade your torn flesh for those rats,” Livingstone said with a shudder as he too approached the group. The explorer was drenched from head-to-toe and covered in tangled strings of green-brown weed. Thames-stink clung to him like a bad memory. “Nasty little buggers, rats.”

“Indeed,” Essex said, wrapping an arm around Ulysses’ shoulder and regaining his feet. “This might have gone easier, but it was not wholly devoid of success.” He turned his gaze to the box resting in the middle of the road. As one the others, too, turned towards it.

Perhaps seven feet long and two feet high, the box was simple and unadorned. It appeared to have been fashioned from pine, and could have comfortably held the body of a very large man. A crack ran along the planks of the wall facing the group, and from it a steady stream of loose dirt poured. The lid too was damaged, partially staved in by the fall from the carriage and slightly raised on one corner. For a moment, no one spoke. The rain fell harder, blurring the outlines of the box.

“Do you hear anything from within?” Babbage asked Nathaniel quietly, his eyes never leaving the box.

“No, but I am not entirely sure that means anything. If the creature is all that Van Helsing claims, it may well be beyond my power to affect. I fear digging too deeply, lest I stir a mind better left unstirred.”

Silent nods all around save one. “I have heard tell of this creature,” Ulysses said, stepping forward, hand on the hilt of his knife, his voice granite-hard, “many times in my travels, across many countries. If he is indeed as terrible as the stories would have us believe, let us open his coffin now and end his threat forever, lest he have the chance to gather his power.”

“No,” Essex said, gripping Ulysses’ shoulder tight. “No. We stay our course. He is too dangerous to risk confronting, even if he is weakened. We have not prepared for that. We load him on the ship and proceed as agreed upon.”

All eyes turned to Ulysses. He stared at the broken box, fists clenched, forearms rippling. After a moment though, he nodded. “Very well, Nathaniel. We stay the course.”

“Excellent,” Babbage said. As he spoke, the rain fell harder still, and thunder rumbled in the distance. “But might I ask: who exactly is going to load the box onto the vessel?”

 

Less than an hour later, delayed only by a brief trip to the warehouse to bandage Nathaniel’s ribs, Bloodstone and Livingstone gently, so very gently, hauled the wooden box and its cargo aboard the “Enlightenment”.

“You are sure,” Livingston asked Faraday, laying the box upon the slowly rolling deck, “this contraption will get us to the North Sea?”

“Oh, rest assured she shall see us through,” the physicist said, a proud father, patting the rail. “She runs on petrol and is decades beyond her time. She will prove her worth, I’ve no doubt.”

“We have the utmost faith, Michael,” Nathaniel said. “Now, let us be off. The sooner we are rid of this thing, the better we shall all be.”

Several hours later, as night deepened and the rain, urged on by a violent, bitter North Sea wind, battered them, Bloodstone and Livingstone lifted the box a final time and heaved it overboard. Essex and the others had gathered by the rail and in silence, watched the coffin slowly sink into the dark, stippled depths.

“Very well. Take us home, Michael,” Nathaniel said.

*****

Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 11th Day of June, 1857

I was right! There is a pattern, though it can be difficult to see. My tests with phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) show that Mendel’s idea of inheritance does indeed transfer to humans. The factor – something that passed information along to his plants, is the same something that passes information along from a mother and father to their offspring! My studies have shown that when both parents can detect the bitter taste on their tongue, their child, in almost every single case, can likewise taste the chemical. But when neither parent can taste it, the child is also unable to do so. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is not a single particle that passes along information, but rather there are particles from both the mother and father that are passed on, intact, and the combination of these particles determine the offspring’s ability to taste or not taste the chemical. The rare instances where the child shows the opposing ability, only helps support Mendel’s proposed dominance and recessive factors.

But what is that something? I have come to believe that whatever it is, particle or chemical, it resides deep within the cell’s nucleus, hiding, waiting to be discovered. In order to crack the nucleic structure, I will need to develop technology far and away beyond what is currently being used. If I can find a way to look more closely at a cell, more closely than anyone ever has, I may at last be able to find the answer that I seek.

*****

Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 28th Day of November, 1857

A terrible, terrible day. Adam grows steadily weaker. Several times a day, for prolonged, tortuous periods he gasps for breath, clutching desperately to Rebecca or myself, begging for help, for an end to his suffering. Once passed, these same periods are punctuated with wracking, heaving coughs and severe chest pain. His colour is frightening to behold, as though his body has already transitioned into the spirit world and awaits only the arrival of his spirit that they might complete the journey to Paradise.

His heart cannot last much longer. The good days now are so few I can scarce remember them! This disease saps not only his life but Rebecca’s life as well. She has fallen into a despair so profound that I am no longer able to reach her. She will not be removed from Adam’s bedside. She rarely sleeps or eats. All light has gone from her beautiful eyes. I am little better. Only the work keeps me going, the thought of finding the answer to all of this. I am close, so close! My experiments with optical instrumentation have borne fruit. I have gazed upon things heretofore glimpsed only by God Himself. After countless hours of research, I have at last beheld what I believe to be the vessels by which information is inherited. They are thread-like structures, twenty-three in all. But that is the limit of what I can see! What are these tiny structures made of? How can I gain access to them, change them? I am so close, have come so far. There must be a way! And I will do whatever is necessary to find it.

*****

Outskirts of London, Milbury House, the Annex. 15th Day of September, 1862

“You are certain he was in the box?”

Around the large table, each man looked one to the other.

Ulysses shrugged. “Why would he not be?”

Professor Abraham Van Helsing slapped his hand to his forehead.

“Professor,” Nathaniel said with a sigh, patiently steepling his fingers upon the table top, “it was you who gave us the information that allowed us to intercept the cargo. At no small cost,” he added, indicating the cane the professor leaned upon. “It was also you who, very, with crystalline clarity, made us vow not to open the box, lest the creature inside be awakened. Which is why we agreed, together, that the best course of action was to drop it into the sea where no sunlight will ever reach it. Now you say we should have looked inside the box? Hardly the fairest time to bring that bit of doubt to light, wouldn’t you say?”

“Fah!” Van Helsing waved aside Nathaniel’s gentle reproach and rapped his heavy cane upon the ground. “I would have thought it obvious you’d be sure before consigning the box to the depths. I suppose it matters little enough now. If the box was indeed empty, we will know it. Sooner or later.”

“A pleasant thought,” Faraday mumbled, pushing his spectacles higher up on his nose as he picked up a new tool and leaned over his gloves.

“Indeed,” Nathaniel said, leaning back in his chair at the head of the table. “Not an issue we can address at the moment, however.” Suppressing the thoughts of his friends, he stared outward at his team, his “Secret Society of Essex-Men”(though Bloodstone had taken to calling them simply the Ex-Men, a name the others seemed to have adopted despite his attempts to convince them otherwise.) Too cumbersome your way, Bloodstone had said, with that infectious smile.

Michael Faraday sat beside him tinkering with the gloves that allowed him to more finely control the electrical power that raged through him like an unending thunderstorm. The gloves, a complex network of leather and wires and knobs and thin metal piping, had been mended and improved upon more times than Nathaniel could remember. Each incarnation was better than the last. Dressed in his green herringbone frock coat, high-collared shirt and black ascot, Faraday looked every bit the dandy. The silk vest and fine top hat, laid upon the table beside him, completed the ensemble. Faraday was more than sixty years old, but, as a result of the transformation, he did not look a day over thirty. His winter-sky eyes, streaked with the shadows of lightning, were sharp as ice and roiled with a savage intelligence.

Beside Faraday, Ulysses Bloodstone had placed both his guns on the table and with all the care a father might bestow upon his children, cleaned them. If he allowed himself a glimpse inside Bloodstone’s mind, Nathaniel knew, he would hear, over top the voices of Menes and Plato and Bacon, the world’s foremost monster hunter speaking to those weapons, very much as though they were his children. Bloodstone was a huge man, vast and intimidating in ways beyond the physical, radiating confidence and competency. His sculpted features and down-to-the-shoulders blonde hair had garnered him the attentions, at one time or another, of most of London’s female populace. Born some ten-thousand years ago, Ulysses had seen the rise and fall of the mightiest civilizations in history and was among the most powerful and dangerous men in the world.

Across from Ulysses, Stanley Livingstone leaned back in his chair, hands folded across his vest with his coachman hat pulled low over his eyes. But though he appeared to be resting quite comfortably, Nathaniel knew Livingstone could hear his heartbeat from across the room and that nothing that was said, or even unsaid, was missed by the great explorer.

At the far end of the table, Charles Babbage tinkered with an invention of his own, a small, complex machine, all edges and sharp angles, with lights and tubes and all manner of wires jutting from it from all directions. A small man with a round, full face, Babbage’s mind was labyrinthian in its complexity. The machine, undoubtedly the latest addition to his Difference Engine, whirred and chugged and blinked as though alive. And Nathaniel knew that in some ways, it almost was. But even as he appeared to be fully focused on his contraption, Nathaniel knew Babbage was, at all times, working through a host of problems and probabilities. They ran in the background of his mind, independent of his conscious thoughts. As a result of his transformation, it was almost as though Babbage was becoming (had become?) a living extension of his machine. Nathaniel would have taken a peek into the inventor’s mind, but he knew from past experience that Babbage’s thoughts moved too quickly for him to gain anything but the most rudimentary insights, his thoughts gliding through the mindscape like quicksilver.

“And still no information on the whereabouts of Du Monte, I suppose?” Bloodstone said lazily, not bothering to look up from his guns.

“Nothing,” Van Helsing said with disgust. He turned to Nathaniel. “You should have had Livingstone track—”

“Enough Professor,” Nathaniel said, mildly.

Van Helsing drew a deep breath, looked prepared to say more, then stopped. He sighed, and as he did, his old man’s frame seemed to shrivel upon itself.

“My apologies, Nathaniel,” he said quietly. “An old man’s frustration at failure and frailty.” He cast aside his cane but was quickly forced to reach out to the huge oak table for support. “I should have been with you when you met Du Monte at the docks. I should have prepared you better. I could have—”

“Professor,” Babbage said, looking up from his work, “You are injured, cannot even stand on your own. It was fortunate that you managed to escape Du Monte the first time with your information. He is old and very powerful, as you know. Had you come along with us to the docks, injured as you are, the probability of you escaping a second meeting was less than ideal. And, in our efforts to protect you, things may have turned out rather poorly for the rest of us as well.”

Van Helsing bowed his head as Babbage leaned back.

“You see, Professor,” Essex said, “there really was nothing more you—”

Livingstone sat up.

Nathaniel turned to him. “Stanley?”

Stanley met his gaze, eyes narrowed, listening. Very slowly, he nodded.

Just before the glass from the large window beside the table shattered inward, showering them with a million invisible daggers, a cold wind blew in from the outside, setting the curtains to fluttering. Standing atop the smashed sill, Du Monte smiled. “Good evening, gentlemen. I thought it time we reacquaint ourselves. This time, however, I brought friends.”

Like spiders, they appeared at the edges of the shattered window, silhouetted in the moon-bright night. Claws clacked on the old stone of the Annex. Six in all now. For a moment, no one moved. Then with a motion too quick to follow, Du Monte leaped onto the table.

“Kill them all,” he hissed, and his fangs glistened in the light of the moon.

*****

Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 10th Day of March, 1858

God forgive me. I have met the Devil and like Faust himself, I believe I may have willingly forsaken my soul in exchange for the answer I seek.

Months of careful study, endless experiments have yielded nothing. I have been unable to pierce the secret hidden deep within the cell. Given five, ten more years and perhaps I could do it, but it would be a miracle if Adam saw one more Christmas. For the first time in my life, science failed me. As a result, I was forced to explore… other avenues.

For weeks I scoured Europe, tracking down ancient texts, making deals in the dead of night, searching out forbidden lore. So much darkness. In my desperation I recited alchemical poetry, held dark séances, cast spells heedless of the consequences that made the world shift and bend. Spilled blood, much of it my own, but not all.

In the end though, like science, it seemed magic too, was destined to fail me. Or so I thought.

Three weeks past, in an alley in the heart of London, I sought to purchase one final tome, an ancient book I was certain would, at last, reveal all the answers to my questions. In my desperation to lay claim to the text, no longer thinking rationally, I handed payment over before securing the book. It was then I learned there was no text. The blackguards had heard tell of the wealthy, crazed man buying up anything that smelled of the arcane, and had taken advantage of their knowledge. And like the wretched, manic thing I was become, I rushed headlong into their trap. Before I fully understood the danger, I was struck a terrible blow from behind and my purse was cut. I fell to my knees, dazed and hurt. As I tried to regain my feet, blood pouring from a wound at the back of my skull, the leader of this band of cutthroats, a small man, dirty, dressed outlandishly in a ring master’s coat and top hat, laughed.

“Now then,” he said, as I groped and teetered before him, “‘ere’s a lad what ‘as spirit, he does!” Then stepping towards me, he drew his knife and plunged it deep into my gut.

I was forced to redefine my idea of pain. I stumbled back, fell, and as pain called forth the Final Dark, his laughter continued to echo in my ears.

“Marauders don’t take t’fools,” he said, dangling my purse, jingling it before my closing eyes, “though we be more’n ‘appy t’take from ‘em!”

He turned then, and as I curled into a ball of anguish amid the alley’s filth he called out, “C’mon lads, this ‘ere party ‘as reached what’s called an inevitable conclusion. A fine evenin’ to you, good sir.” Then with a tip of his hat, they left me, gaslight from the distant street glinting off the puddles of piss and filth amid which I lay, bleeding and dying.

In truth, I think a part of me was relieved at the prospect of death. Dying meant I would never have to face my failure, would not have to look into Rebecca’s dead eyes and tell her I could not save our son; death meant I would not have to watch Adam die. Remarkable the thoughts that race through one’s mind while perched so precariously upon the edge of that Final Night. As I closed my eyes for what I thought must surely be the last time, I clutched to an image of Adam, happy and strong, wrapped in his mother’s milky arms. In my mind, I reached out to that image and, if that was all I was allowed, I was content to take it with me to whatever fate waited for me beyond that final curtain.

It wasn’t until sometime later, when I awoke upon a bed of stone, that I understood Fate had not yet finished with me after all.

*****

The Annex. 15th Day of September, 1862

Bloodstone reacted first. He grabbed his gun and aimed for Du Monte’s heart. Ulysses was fast, preternaturally so. He possessed great gifts even before his transformation. And had he had his gun in hand, he may even have been fast enough to get off a shot. But even as he reached for his weapon, Du Monte evaporated before his eyes, becoming mist, seeping through the room.

“Bloody hell,” Ulysses muttered.

Ulysses! Behind you!

Nathaniel’s mental warning saved his life. Bloodstone dove to the side and Du Monte’s once again solid claw tore open his shoulder instead of finding its way to his heart.

Beside Nathaniel, Faraday struggled into one of his gloves, but before he could fit it to place completely he was lifted above the head of a lumbering creature and hurled against the stone wall.

Faraday!

Nathaniel’s psychic cry went unanswered. Before he could check on his fallen friend, a monster fell upon him, all fangs and claws and fetid breath. The beasts that had come with Du Monte were also fast and strong, but they lacked their master’s skill. They attacked like savages, wild dogs, flailing and ripping. Nathaniel kicked out in the way Bloodstone taught him and put some separation between himself and the beast.

Sleep.

The monster before him raised its clawed hands and stepped forward before it stopped.

Sleep.

The monster growled, but its eyes began to close.

Sleep.

The monster toppled to a knee before finally falling over.

Sweating, breathing hard, Nathaniel turned to his friends.

“Dear God,” he whispered.

*****

 Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 12th Day of March, 1858

“My name is Ozymandias,” the Devil said to me from the shadows cast by the flickering torchlight. “And I have the answers you seek.”

His voice was grinding rock, a shifting of deep foundations.

“Where–”

“This is my home, Dr. Essex, far below the streets of London. I have been here for a very long time.”

I struggled to find my bearings. Slowly, and with great care, I attempted to sit up, expecting pain and failure to accompany the effort. As a doctor, I knew precisely how severe my injuries had been.

“Rise, Doctor,” Ozymandias said. “You need not fear pain.”

I stared into the shadows. A cave. I was in a cave. Cold, damp. All around, shattered stone lay strewn about. Amid the discarded stone rose great statues of figures I did not recognize, and on the walls, carvings and paintings of things I did not understand. As I stared, I listened. A distant hum underlay my quickened breath, a sound more felt than heard.

“What is this place?”

Ozymandias stepped forward into the light and I gasped.

“Indeed,” he said, “my blessing and my curse.”

He was made entirely of stone! A living statue, he stepped closer to the bed.

“What is this place? This is the place where you will discover the answers you have been searching for so long. This is the place where you will finally save your son.”

“I don’t understand. Who are you, Ozymandias? Why have you brought me here?”

“I am a chronicler, Dr. Essex, a keeper of secrets. I have walked this earth for more than five thousand years, and in me lives the history of the world. You see me and undoubtedly see the Devil. I assure you I am not. In fact, the Devil is the very reason I have brought you here. Together, you and I will destroy the greatest evil it has ever known.”

*****

The Annex.

Blood everywhere. The walls, the table, the floor. Red mist paints the air. It happened so fast. People speak of monsters glibly, like they speak of fairytales. Like they are nothing more substantial than the imagined constructs of children. The word has become overused in this new, industrialized society, lost its true meaning. But as Nathaniel looks out over the table at his friends, desperately fighting for their lives, he is reminded of what monsters really are.

Nathaniel, if you feel inclined, some help may be in order.

Babbage in his mind, thoughts like mercury. Across the table, Babbage did his best to fend off the creature that clawed for his throat. Beneath the surface of Charles’ call for help, Essex sensed the other thoughts at work, calculating, solving. Using his gift, Charles was able to avoid most of the creature’s attacks. It was like watching a dance. Babbage used the table, the chair, an old suit of armor, even a tapestry to his advantage, reaching for things without looking, understanding intrinsically where they were and how best they could be used to his advantage.

But the monster was supernaturally fast and strong. He did not tire, or acknowledge pain. Already Babbage’s shirt was torn, and a long, deep gouge has been carved down his arm. Each defensive movement sent blood cascading through the air. The scent of it drove the creature to greater heights of savagery.

Turn, beast, and face me!

The creature facing Babbage paused, for only a moment. As though he had anticipated his opponent’s pause at this very spot in the room, Babbage reached up and calmly grabbed the sword mounted upon the wall. Then he cut the head off the surprised creature.

Babbage nodded to Nathaniel who turned his attention back to Faraday.

Michael!

A crumpled heap at the base of the wall, Faraday groaned. Was unable to see the monster leap for him, fangs exposed.

Stop!

The sheer force of his psychic command caused the creature to freeze.

Michael, you have to get up. I can’t hold him! It’s like leashing a thoroughbred. Get up Michael! Get– EYES!

Nathaniel’s thought slammed into the minds of his friends just before Faraday reached out with his gloved hand and grabbed the monster’s ankle. The room lit up with blinding blue-white brilliance that caused a momentary lapse in the melee. The creature before Faraday screamed and writhed and smoldered under the onslaught of electrical might. A moment later a wooden cane was thrust through the monster’s back and into his heart.

The beast collapsed in a blackened heap before turning to dust and drifting away on the wind.

“My thanks, professor,” Faraday said. Van Helsing fell to the floor beside him.

Amid the pause, Nathaniel drew a breath. Three down. Livingstone somehow held his own against two opponents for the moment, while Bloodstone took the fight to Du Monte.

Now would be a good time.

Faraday groaned at Nathaniel’s thought. Throw me the other glove. I just had to put it in the other glove.

Better late than never. Essex reached across the table and tossed Faraday his second glove.

The inventor snatched it out of the air and pulled it on. A moment later it began to glow. Faraday looked at Essex.

He nodded. Do it.

Faraday drew a deep breath and made a fist. “Cheers,” he said, before the glove exploded.

*****

 Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 12th Day of March, 1858. Continued.

Ozymandias told me this story:

“I was born on the shores of the Nile, in the City of Kings more than five thousand years ago. High-born, from a line of kings, I was destined from birth to wield the Crook and Flail and rule Egypt by right of blood. But might and blood mattered little to Rama-Tut, the Visitor From Beyond the Sun. He came to us in his machine, disguised as the Sphinx. With his time-torn weapons and advanced constructs from the distant future, he quickly and easily took control of my native land and set himself as pharaoh. I plotted always against him, sought ways to throw off his yolk, but Rama-Tut would not be overthrown. Too smart, too much power, including his ultimate weapon, the Ultra Diode Ray, a weapon capable of sapping the will of even the mightiest foe.

“Such was his power, that Rama-Tut might have ruled Egypt for all time and rewritten completely the world’s history had it not been for the intervention of four time-tossed strangers and a slave who was so much more than a slave. Attacked, independently, on two fronts, Rama-Tut was forced at last to flee Egypt. The four strangers too, returned to their own time, leaving behind only the slave. His name was En Sabah Nur and it was he who was responsible for making me into that which stands before you now, he who cursed me to act as chronicler to his savagery and evil through the ages, he who is the true Devil. And unless you can help me, he will be the reason the world one day falls into a darkness more terrible than any you can imagine.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, breaking the spell his story wove in the flickering darkness. “Time travelers, weapons of impossible power, immortal evils: what role can I play against such things? I only want to save my son!”

“The answer to your question lies in the very nature of your quest, Dr. Essex. In order to save your boy, you will need to shatter wide the secrets held closely in the depths of the human cell. It is there that salvation lay; not only for your boy, but for the world itself. I can break the secrecy for you, but only you can use the hidden knowledge, only you are capable of shaping it into a panacea that will save the life of not only your son, but the world. Will you help me?”

I stared at Ozymandias. “Yes, I will help you. Now show me how to save my son.”

*****

The Annex.

            For a moment, a light, like a new sun, erupted from Faraday’s glove. Nathaniel, eyes shielded and forewarned, still could not stifle a scream. His own cry however, was overshadowed by the screams ripped from the throats of the remaining beasts.

He smelled the weapon’s success before he was able to see it. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Dancing, shifting afterglow. Groans. The hiss of sizzling of flesh. The bleary eyed sight of his friends, scattered amid the burning bodies of monsters. All of these things assaulted his senses as Nathaniel took in the scene before him. Rubbing his eyes and focusing his mind, Nathaniel quickly realized only Livingstone still stood. Bloodstone lay on the ground in a heap beneath two of the beasts and one of the heavy table chairs. Faraday rested against the wall still, glove high, hand covering his eyes. Babbage lay covered in blood upon the ground. Van Helsing knelt beside him.

Ulysses!

Ugh…For the love of God and Country, Nathaniel, must you be so loud?

Nathaniel smiled as the pile atop his friend began to shift.

Faraday?

“I… believe I live?” the scientist said tentatively, slowly removing his hand from eyes.

I believe you are right. Van Helsing, how fares Babbage?

“He’ll live as well,” the old man said. On the ground, Babbage stirred. “But his wound will need to be addressed soon.”

It will hold, Nathaniel.

It will not need to hold long, Charles. I promise you. And the beasts, professor?

Van Helsing stood. “They are all down, though their wounds will heal more quickly than any wounds should. We cannot waste time.” Van Helsing turned to Livingstone. The explorer nodded.

Sword in hand, he approached each of the sizzling, blistered creatures and removed the heads from all but one.

Ulysses pushed aside the bodies and rose to his feet.

“Well,” he said, glancing around at the carnage, smiling, “I would call this bit of business a rousing success!”

Nathaniel shook his head.

At Ulysses feet, the only living creature remaining in the room began to stir. Ulysses grabbed Du Monte by the back of his tattered frock coat and pulled him to his feet. His skin still hissed. Livingstone held the sword to his neck as the monster groaned again and opened his eyes. Du Monte stared around the room, comprehension dawning slowly.

For less than a moment, Nathaniel allowed his thoughts to lightly brush against Du Monte’s. In that instant, he sensed the creature’s shock and in the back of Du Monte’s mind, hiding like a small child might hide from the sounds of a thunderstorm, the stirrings of fear.

Good.

“What have you done to my children?” he whispered.

Livingstone pressed the blade closer as Ulysses tightened his grip.

“Children? Children! They were abominations! They have died as–”

“Thank you, professor,” Nathaniel said, “but please. Du Monte is still a guest. If we lack civility, we have nothing.”

Nathaniel turned back to Du Monte. “Faraday, would you care to explain?”

Faraday stepped forward and raised his glove. Du Monte visibly flinched.

“We have known for some time now that your lot have a particularly severe reaction to sunlight. But why sunlight? What about the light of day is so destructive to you and your ilk? Babbage and I decided it was time to explore those particular questions in a little more detail.”

“And while my friends broke down the science of light, I dabbled in the biological effects it produces using this.”

Nathaniel reached into his pocket and pulled out a serrated fingernail.

“Recognize it?” he asked turning it this way and that. “You left it in my chest at our last meeting. It was all the key I needed to unlock your genetic code.”

Du Monte turned from one to the other, incomprehension etched deeply in his face.

Faraday picked up the story. “With the help of Babbage’s Difference Engine, we soon learned that it was not sunlight itself that was the issue, but rather a specific wavelength of light contained within the sun’s much broader spectrum. We thought if we could isolate that wavelength, store it and release it as needed, we could actually harness the power of the sun any time. So, with our own knowledge, coupled with the knowledge Nathaniel gained by examining your cells, that is precisely what we did. In the palm of my hand, I quite literally hold the power to reduce you to ash. So tread carefully here, Du Monte.”

Du Monte’s eyes grew wide as he stared at Faraday’s glove.

“And thanks to Babbage’s own little facility for working through problems, he was able to accurately predict your arrival,” Nathaniel added. “Though in truth, you turned up a trifle earlier than he’d anticipated. Still, all-in-all, a satisfactory outcome.”

“Why am I still alive?”

“Oh, come now, Du Monte. You have spent some four-hundred years amassing wisdom and knowledge. I suspect you already know the answer to that question.”

“You want to know if he was in that coffin you dropped into sea.”

Nathaniel said nothing. He turned to Faraday and nodded. Faraday’s glove flickered and sparked and a harsh violet glow began to grow deep within the palm.

“What witchcraft is this?” Du Monte whispered.

Faraday laid his gloved hand over Du Monte’s mouth as Bloodstone held tight to his flailing arms and the monster began to scream.

Faraday released him and Du Monte sagged to his knees, the lower half of his face burned black.

“Enough! Enough! No, of course he was not in the box. Do you know nothing of him? Do you think villains such as you could be a step ahead of him? No, it is he who is the chess master in this game, he who is always ahead.”

Nathaniel and the others exchanged glances.

“Then where?” Van Helsing said into the silence. “Where has he gone?”

And here, in the face of the fear and pain and hatred that seeped from every one of his thousand wounds like poison, Du Monte smiled. “There is a new world out there, a young world, not so steeped in ancient knowledge. There, amid the blossoming of civilization, he will sow his seeds of death and conquest. He has gone to America. And the New World will run red with blood.”

*****

 Excerpt from the journal of Nathaniel Essex, 2nd Day of May, 1858

I have done it. My son will live.

And thanks to Ozymandias, that is only the start of what is possible. I have beheld the very blueprints of humanity. It has taken me weeks to learn how to manipulate those blueprints — genes, as they will come to be known — in even the most rudimentary manner, but it required only the smallest alteration to completely repair the damage to my son’s genetic base.

The change in him was almost immediate. The morning following his simple surgery, he woke and climbed from his bed for the first time in months. His appetite returned in full the day after that and today, only three days later, he is outside running around the yard, laughing and playing like any young boy should, the memory of his illness gone as though it had never been.

No less dramatic is the change in my wife. Each moment of renewed life that blossomed in Adam, was reflected in his mother. While he was sick, it had been as though they shared the illness, the wasting away. But if that was true, the opposite has also borne itself out. With each new, healthy breath Adam draws, his mother draws the same. As he has been reborn, so too has Rebecca. I had forgotten how beautiful she was when she smiled, how precious the sound of her laughter.

Never before have I experienced a joy so profound.

But as so often happens, the joy in one, stirs the need to mar that happiness, to besmirch it and tear it down, in others. So overcome with joy was she at our son’s recovery, Rebecca sent word almost immediately to one of her closest friends, Margaret Slade, that she might see for herself the source of Rebecca’s joy.

While I worked in my lab in the Annex yesterday afternoon, Margaret and her son, young Hamilton, paid a visit to Milbury House to behold the miracle of our Adam.

Her reaction was far from what my wife had been hoping for. Rather than joy for her close friend, Margaret instead looked upon Adam’s recovery with doubt, and no small amount of fear. It seems as though my months-long efforts to find a cure for Adam reached many ears. The Slades were a powerful, influential family. She told Rebecca that she had heard the stories of my midnight meetings, my continent-wide wanderings. In some circles it seems, it is believed I went mad. Adam’s recovery she deemed unnatural, likely sourced in witchcraft. Once word was out, others would see it the same. The name of Essex would be scorned and reviled. She urged Rebecca to leave with her, to leave her cursed child and warlock husband behind! Rebecca, shocked and incensed by this betrayal, raged at her to leave. According to Rebecca it was at that point that young Hamilton, always a strange child, too self-assured, too, mean, stepped in and began berating Rebecca. Taken aback, Rebecca gave ground before his virulence. At which point it seems, Adam himself intervened. He stepped calmly between Hamilton and his mother and just stood there.

As Rebecca tells it, the boys exchanged no words.

“They merely stared at one another Nathaniel, in such a queer way that the collective force of their gazes cast a deep chill upon the yard. I have never felt its like.”

Her words disturbed me in a way I have not quite been able to put into words. I’d hoped that by writing of this incident it might help clarify my feelings, but it seems I will need more time to reflect upon that strange meeting. For as Margaret claims to have heard stories about me, I too have heard my share of stories, and the Slades are at the heart of many of them.

But enough! I’ll not dwell on the single gray cloud in my otherwise perfect sky! Margaret’s words, while heartless, have helped me resolve an issue I’d been considering: how best do I share this miracle of knowledge? How many thousands might benefit from what I have learned? Not as many as I suspected might, if my knowledge is indeed viewed as witchcraft. It seems that if I am to convince others of the legitimacy of my researches, I will need some help. But I am not ready yet. My understanding is still at the rudimentary stages. When I have delved deeper, fully grasped the implications of this knowledge, then will I reveal it. If I am correct, then the healing of my son will be the very least of the miracles I will be able to achieve in time. Once I have unlocked the secrets of further genetic manipulation, I will send letters to the most enlightened minds in the world and invite them to join me in ushering in a new stage in human development! What wonders we will achieve! A society of genetically transformed, enlightened individuals, devoted to the betterment of humankind! Together, we will change the world. And when the time comes at last to face Ozymandias’s devil master, we will be ready.

A new world dawns and great things await us all.

*****

The Annex.

“Bloody America, of course,” Ulysses said.

Du Monte began to laugh. “When he has finally risen and cast his shadow over the New World, he will turn again to this one, and when he has–”

Du Monte’s eyes went wide as Van Helsing drove a broken chair leg through his heart. A moment later the ancient monster crumpled to dust, carried away on the night breeze in eddies and swirls.

Van Helsing looked at the others and shrugged.

Nathaniel shook his head. As he made ready to speak, a faint shimmer distorted the air in front of him. An instant later, Adam stood before them.

“Adam!” Nathaniel cried. “How many times must I tell you, you are not, ever, to enter the Annex without my express permission! Not via the door or otherwise! Had you arrived only moments before—”

Adam’s eyes fell and his small frame seemed to become much smaller.

“I heard the glass break from my room, father and only thought to–”

Nathaniel sighed. He looked at his friends before he knelt before his son. “This is no business for a child, Adam. Perhaps someday, when you are older, when you have fully mastered your abilities. But not yet. These dangers, with the help of my friends, are mine to address.”

Ulysses rubbed the boy’s hair. “Besides, Adam, you have a far greater danger to face: the disapproval of your mother should she learn you were here with us. And I fear not all of us together could save you from her righteous wrath.”

Adam smiled at Ulysses. His smile faded when he turned to his father.

“Ulysses makes light, but this is a serious issue Adam. You have assured me that you would respect my wishes and stay out of the Annex. Yet here you are. Are you some blackguard whose word is so easily cast aside and forgotten? Or are you a man of honor, one whose word is his bond even in the face of overwhelming tribulation?”

Adam stood a little taller as his father spoke.

“I am a man of honor, father. I promise I’ll not enter again unless you have asked me to.”

Nathaniel, stern and unyielding, held his son’s gaze for a long moment, considering. Then he smiled and pulled Adam into his embrace.

“Of course you are. And thank you for being concerned for me and my friends.”

Adam smiled and hugged Nathaniel tightly.

“Now then, back to bed before your mom looks in on you. Ulysses was right: were she to learn of your presence here, not all of us together could save you, or me, from her wrath.”

Adam laughed, said his goodnights, and vanished as quickly and quietly as he had arrived.

A small silence followed Adam’s departure before Faraday spoke. “We need to get Charles to the lab, and then we need to decide on a course of action.”

“Agreed,” Nathaniel said. “Ulysses, take Charles downstairs and place him on the table. I will tend to him immediately. While I do so, why don’t all of you go home, rest. We can reconvene tomorrow evening. We can decide then how best to help our American friends.”

Nods all around as Nathaniel headed downstairs and the remaining Ex-Men took their leave.

*****

The Annex. Evening, the following day.

“You are looking as fine as ever, Babbage,” Faraday said, slapping his friend on the back.

Babbage groaned. “Yes, quite,” he muttered. “Nathaniel is nothing short of a miracle worker.”

“The wounds were mostly superficial,” Nathaniel said. “And Charles is far too stubborn to be laid up for any true length of time.”

“Yes, yes, that is all well-and-good,” Van Helsing chimed in impatiently, “but what about the box? What about America?”

A collective sigh.

“I am open to suggestions,” Nathaniel offered.

“Then might I suggest we climb aboard Faraday’s vessel and head to America at our earliest convenience?” Van Helsing said. “This danger cannot be underestimated. If our foeman does indeed get a foothold in America, Britain herself may face the gravest danger she has ever confronted. We must prevent that happening at all costs.”

Around the table, the others nodded silently.

“I have already taken the liberty of sending several messengers to the docks. They will pass their messages along to as many captains as they can who are heading to America. As we speak word of the danger is being carried across the ocean to our friends. With luck, at least one of the messages will reach the proper ears and preparations can get underway to face this threat. In the meantime, I agree–we should consider a journey ourselves. The Americans have power, but this is a direct threat to Britain herself. She should be represented in her defense. Who is willing to take up arms in her name?”

As one, all present raised their hands.

Nathaniel sighed. “Very well then. I will arrange–”

Essex’s words were cut off by the sound of heavy footsteps on the stone staircase. Startled, Nathaniel rose to his feet.

Stand ready!

From the shadowy passage, a familiar figure strode forward. He appeared to be made of the same stone as the surrounding passageway, and each footstep fell with the force of cannon shot.

“I fear you shall be required to postpone your trip to America, Nathaniel,” the stone figure said, his voice a settling avalanche.

“Ozymandias! How–”

“I’ve no time for trivialities, Dr. Essex. The time has come for you to honor the promise you made to me years ago. For the devil is rising, Nathaniel, and only you and your Ex-Men can keep Apocalypse from claiming this world for his own.”

 

NEXT TIME in Marvel Rebooted: The Secret Society of Ex-Men: Apocalypse

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1 Comment + Add Comment

  • Holy. Shit.
    This was beyond cool, man. This is better than practically anything that thinks it’s intellectual at the real Marvel comics. I can’t wait to see what you do with not only this story and characters, but what else you’re going to do in this era of Marvel Rebooted.
    So good!!