[identity profile] copperbadge.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] originalsam_backup
Chapter Seventeen

The rooms Ellis took for them were sumptuous: a suite with a dining room and sitting room, two bedrooms adjoining and a small servant's room. Purva, rolling her eyes, claimed the servant's quarters; Clare took the smaller of the bedrooms for herself, leaving the men to bunk together, Jack camped on the lounge so that Ellis, the taller of the two, could take the big master bed.

They ate at an ornately-carved table near a big bank of windows, enjoying the sunset. Afterwards, Clare listened to Jack talk about the inferences he was drawing from the automobiles while Purva watched people pass below and Graveworthy made notes for himself on hotel stationery.

One of the few things Clare had clung to all through the journey was the thick letter, tucked in an inside pocket, from Anderson to his father. It wasn't that she thought about it often -- it was just there, a reassuring reminder that Anderson had faith they would make it. Before she tried to find her own parents, before anything else, she had a duty to take Anderson's letter to his father if he were still alive. She wanted to go with Jack to find a library, and she wanted to see as much of the city as she could, and she wanted to go to Melbourne and try to find her own family, but this had waited long enough.

It was a strange sensation, knowing that this was what she'd been sent away from as a child: the warm sun, the different food and clothing, the high buildings. Well, not these buildings, perhaps, but this was all a part of her -- the forest and cities and the dry, parched landscape they'd come through to get here.

Her sleep that night was filled with dreams of automobiles driving through a desert, kicking dust into the air until it formed a column against the blue sky.

When she woke, Purva was already dressed and braiding her hair, comfortable in the short trousers and waistcoat that the shopman had recommended for the servant of a gentleman like Ellis. From the sound of voices in the big bedroom, Jack was haranguing Ellis about something, probably about sleeping late. Clare smiled as she washed and dressed, and correctly anticipated Jack moving on to her next when Ellis didn't respond fast enough.

They took breakfast in the hotel's enormous dining room, surrounded by wealthy travelers and businessmen. It was very different from their first meal in the city, though not in some respects; Purva was relegated to the kitchen, where she went with obvious ill-humor, and Clare didn't blame her.

Jack, annoyed but hungry, shoveled eggs and some kind of heavy rye-bread toast into his mouth until a complex network of glances, raised eyebrows, and rolled eyes between him and Ellis made him stop mid-chew, set his food down, and start actually cutting his egg into bits before eating it.

"I went out last night," Ellis said, clearing his throat, "to make trouble and learn interesting things. I've found you a library, Jack, if you'd care to visit this morning."

"Really?" Jack asked, looking pleased. "When can we leave?"

"Breakfast first," Ellis said, because Jack looked like he was getting ready to cram the rest of the toast in his mouth and bolt. "Clare, will you come along? I'm sure you'll find it interesting."

Clare shifted uncomfortably. "I...have an errand," she said. "Something Mr. Anderson asked me to do."

Ellis raised his eyebrows. "Anderson? He didn't mention anything to me."

"It's not official," she said. "And before you start badgering me, it's also harmless. I'm just carrying a letter for him."

Ellis chewed thoughtfully. "If it were anyone but Anderson I'd be demanding to read it," he said. "And I'm not certain I like the idea of you wandering round Brisbane on your own -- yes, all right," he added hastily, as she opened her mouth to protest. She shut it, surprised. "I'd say the same thing about Jack here, no need to fight."

"You've done almost nothing but wander around Brisbane on your own," Jack pointed out. "Also, why me and not Purva?"

"Purva knows how to take care of herself," Ellis said. "And I carry a gun and have had many years of experience wandering around on my own. Still, I can't imagine there are too many threats you're not familiar with from Boston. Do mind the automobiles, Clare."

"I could come with you," Jack offered, looking as if the effort of turning down the library would strangle him.

"That's all right, Jack," she said. "I don't want you to miss out. Besides, someone's got to keep an eye on Ellis."

Ellis chuckled and continued eating, while Jack cautiously and with great delicacy investigated the bowl of fruit, casually shoving some in his pocket for Purva.

Clare waved them off at the door of the hotel and ran up to her room to fetch her long coat, the envelope tucked securely in an inner pocket. She found a handful of the small metal money-strips in her pocket and smiled a little -- Ellis Graveworthy was taking liberties, sharing his ill-gotten gains.

She had very little idea of how to find Anderson's father, other than a name and an old address scrawled on the envelope, but she was nothing if not resourceful. At the hotel desk downstairs she asked where the nearest post office was and allowed the young man behind the counter to draw her a map, kindly ignoring his blushing and stammering. Boys were pretty much the same the world over, she decided.

It was wonderful to have a few minutes' freedom, to walk down the street without having to worry about carrying a pack or where they were going to put their heads down when night fell. It was almost like being back in Boston, except for...well, except for everything really, the accents and clothing, the strange things in the shop windows, the automobiles purring along in the streets. But while the shops might sell unfamiliar fruits and strange devices it was still an ordinary city, full of people hurrying to work or doing the day's shopping.

It was also a very...casual city.

"Hello beautiful, what can I do for you?" said the man at the post office window, leaning forward and grinning, his accent almost as broad as his smile.

"I'm looking for someone who may have moved away," she said, taking out the envelope, holding it up so he could see but couldn't reach around the bars on the window to take it from her. "Can you tell me if he lives there anymore?"

The man pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, and then disappeared into a back room. She watched the rest of the post-office patrons while she waited for him to return. The majority of them looked -- what should she say, Tribal? – and most had parcels to send.

Her informant returned and slapped down a scrap of paper, scribbling on it in pencil.

"Here's the office you're looking for," he said. "Man there'll have his route."

"Do you have a map?" she asked. "I'm not from around here."

"S'fair distance. Might want a cab."

"Oh," she said. "Yes, I suppose."

There were still plenty of horses on the road, despite the automobiles; farmers' carts, mostly, but also what must be horse-cabs, their drivers wearing brightly colored badges to set them apart. She stepped outside and put out her hand to try and halt one, and was startled when an automobile dove across the road and pulled to a stop directly in front of her.

"Well, get in," said the man behind the wheel, through the open window.

"I'm sorry?" Clare asked.

"Did you want a cab?"

"I -- " she hesitated, then smiled. Of course; they were just like any other cart. "Yes, I did."

"So, get in."

She pulled open the rear door of the cab and settled herself on the seat, fingers digging into the plush as they began to move. It was smoother than a horse-cab.

"Where you headed?"

Clare was no amateur at this; tourists in Boston were ritually cheated by cab drivers, if they let them get away with it. She gave the address without looking at the scrap of paper, leaned back, and began counting turns just in case her driver wanted to take the long way around.

Jack was going to be beside himself with envy.

The cab let Clare off in front of another post office, nearly identical to the first but deep in a suburb, surrounded by large houses with tidy lawns. She paid hesitantly and then probably over-tipped the driver, who smiled at her and motored off with a satisfied look.

This post office had no barred windows, and the man behind the counter lounged indolently, only straightening a little when he saw her.

"Help you, miss?" he asked.

"Yes, actually. I'm looking for someone who may have moved away. Downtown they said someone here would have his route," she said, showing the letter, again without giving him any opportunity to take it.

"Oh aye, that's our district. Bartholomew!"

Another, rather older man looked up from where he was sorting letters into bins. "Yes?"

"Girl here wants you."

Bartholomew grinned and set the letters down, ambling over. "Help you?" he asked.

"Wants to find this bloke," the first one said, and Clare held up the letter again. Bartholomew squinted at it.

"Oh, yes. Well. I know the name. Dun't live there anymore, but his daughter does. Old man still gets a letter to that 'un now and again," he said.

"Could you do me a map?" she asked.

"Leavin' on my route in a few minutes, could take you there myself if you like."

Bartholomew's route turned out to be long and -- of course -- full of stops; they walked as if they hadn't any reason to hurry, which was as well considering how hot it was outside. Bartholomew was full of stories of the people on his route, their servants, their jobs and their mail; she listened and followed, fighting the urge to hurry. When they finally reached the street scrawled on the envelope, he gave her a grin.

"You've been patient with me, Miss; here's the post for that address," he said, passing it over casually. "Run it down like a good lass, and good luck to you."

"Thank you," she said, and carefully shuffled the letters so that her own was on top. Heart in her throat, she walked the half-block down to a tall, dark red house with wide windows and knocked.

The woman who answered the door was Tribal, she supposed, though lighter-skinned than most others she'd seen. She was also very young, not older than Clare, with a cheerful face and her hair pulled tightly back into a knot at the nape of her neck.

"Can I help you, miss?" she asked, drying her hands on an apron over her dress.

"I'm here to see James Anderson," Clare said. "I have a letter for him."

"I'm afraid you've come late," the woman replied, frowning sadly. "Mr. Anderson's been dead two years."

Clare's heart fell.

"You can speak to his daughter if you like," she offered. "Mrs. Jackson. Or I can take the letter to her if you'd prefer."

"I'd like to speak to her myself, if that's all right," Clare said, and the woman stepped aside to show her in.

"I'm Clare," she said, by way of introduction. "What's your name?"

"Miranda, miss," the woman replied, giving her an odd look, and didn't offer anything more.

She was led through an elegant hallway and a screened-in porch at the back of the house, out to a garden where a woman was engaged in what appeared to be a game of tag with two small children. She looked up when Clare and Miranda appeared on the grass, then released the little girl she was holding, who shrieked and ran away laughing.

"Young woman to see you, Mrs. Jackson," Miranda said. "She says she has a message for Mr. Anderson."

Mrs. Jackson shook out the folds of her dress and came forward, offering her hand.

"Elizabeth Jackson," she said. "James Anderson was my father."

"Clare Fields," she answered, shaking it. "I'm sorry to hear of your loss."

"Thank you. That's all, Miranda, you may go," she said, and the servant disappeared into the house. "You had a message for my father?"

"Mrs. Jackson, I have a letter here from England," she said, sifting out the rest of the mail and setting it to one side on an ornate white garden table. "From your brother, Gregory."

The change was immediate and almost frightening; all the color left Elizabeth Jackson's face, and her fingers curled into her hands.

"Gregory?" she said. "Really? Has he -- did he hear of father's death?"

"I don't think so, no," Clare replied. "I'm sure he would have written to you instead, if he knew his father had died."

"Please, may I?" she asked, holding out her hand for the letter. Clare hesitated. "Please, Miss Fields."

"I'm sorry, it's only -- it was meant for your father, and I don't know what it says."

"You know of Gregory, though? You know that he was -- sent away?"

"Yes, I know," she said.

"How did the letter come into your possession?"

"I..." She looked at Mrs. Jackson again; she wondered when she'd grown so suspicious, but of course -- that was Ellis's caution in her head.

"If you're worried, believe me -- we're no Conservatives, not in this household," Jackson said. "Whoever brought the letter to you won't be reported for smuggling, I swear it."

Clare thought of Anderson, and the way he'd looked lying on the couch with a sling on his arm.

"Mrs. Jackson -- "

"Elizabeth, please."

"Elizabeth, your brother gave me this letter himself. I've brought it here from England."

The woman's eyes widened, and she turned to look at the two small children, chasing each other around the garden.

"Girls! Inside at once," she said, and they both turned to her, looking annoyed. "Inside, girls, and go to the kitchen. Tell Miranda to lay an extra place for lunch."

They continued to look annoyed, but they filed inside without any further complaint. Elizabeth moved away from the porch, tilting her head for Clare to follow.

"How did you make it inside?" she asked, in a low voice, once they were well away from the house.

"I'm not certain I should tell you that," Clare replied. "I have other business in Australia. Mr. Anderson was supposed to come himself, but he was injured -- I've come in his place, at his request."

"You're safe here, I have no interest in reporting anything, not when you've brought me this. My God, a letter from Gregory. I'm sorry, but this is...I was barely eight when he was sent away, and it nearly killed our father. The last letter we had was ten years ago. This is like seeing a ghost -- and he's due some of our inheritance, but -- "

"I don't really think he'd care much about that," she replied. "He's done well for himself in England -- works for the government."

"Is he married? Children?"

"No. It's not easy to be an Expat. It's a secret people carry."

"Yes...here too," Elizabeth said thoughtfully. "Creationism, I mean. I don't know if you know -- he tried to hide it. We all tried to hide him. That's how it took them so long to come for him. Do you mind very much...?" she asked, gesturing to the letter.

"I can go back to the house, if you like," Clare said, passing it over.

"No! You've brought it all this way. Just...allow me to read it?"

"At least there's someone left to read it," Clare said, and Elizabeth slit the envelope neatly. Inside, page on page of close-written script bore testament to all that Anderson had wanted to say to his family, and Clare felt her heart clench. He should be here.

And...somewhere in Melbourne, perhaps her own family was waiting for her, waiting for a message like the one in Elizabeth Jackson's hands.

"He sounds like a good man," Elizabeth murmured, sinking onto a bench as she read.

"He is."

"I'm glad of it. Thank you for bringing it all this way," she said, folding it up and tucking it into a pocket of her dress. "And -- are you returning to England? Can you carry letters back for us?"

She smiled. "I'll be in Australia for some time, I think. I'd be happy to take anything back you'd like."

"That's good, that's wonderful. Thank you," Elizabeth repeated, and looked as if she wanted to hug her. Instead she stood, smoothing her dress, and gestured for Clare to precede her inside. "Thank you so much."

Clare felt a little embarrassed by his gratitude; after all, she would have gone to Australia whether Anderson asked her to carry a letter or not.

"You'll stay for lunch, won't you? My husband will be home, he should meet you, and it's the least we can do -- feeding you, I mean."

"Of course," she said, and warmed to the idea that they had found a friend and ally. Clever, clever Gregory Anderson.

***

"So, a library," Purva said, as they left the hotel, Graveworthy looking regretfully behind him in the direction Clare had gone. "Whose will it be? Some teacher's?"

"Hm? No," Jack said, studying a street sign. "A public library, I imagine. Graveworthy?"

Graveworthy nodded. "Ever seen one, Purva?" he asked. She gave him a blank look, and he smiled. "It's a collection of books that anyone can read. You can sit in the library and read them there, or borrow the books for a few weeks."

Purva considered this. "They must be robbed often."

"Not as often as you'd think. You had a library on ship, didn't you?" he asked. She was opening her mouth to answer when Jack suddenly grabbed her hand, pulling her sideways; she barely had time to regain her balance when a contraption of metal piping and wheels and levers careened past them with a clatter, a man in a little seat in the middle of it all yelling "Make way!"

Jack leaned around Purva to watch it retreat, but he didn't let go of her hand.

"What was that?" Graveworthy asked, rejoining them -- he'd ducked the other direction, into the street, and looked like he'd had a narrow miss with an automobile.

"Some sort of wheeled man-powered machine," Jack replied, still staring after it. "Looks like a pedal-driven belt on the wheels. Wow."

"Library," Purva reminded them gently.

"Yeah, yeah," Jack said, moving again. She held onto his hand and followed, amused as always by Jack's catlike brain -- intently focused and clever, and yet easily distracted by something wholly insignificant and ridiculous, like a feather or a bit of dust. He'd be able to build a pretty good sailing ship but he'd last about two minutes as a pirate.

And, much like a cat, Jack was best handled without sudden moves.

They were still holding hands when Graveworthy touched her shoulder, pointing out a large building with a short flight of stairs in the front. Jack didn't let go, in fact, until they'd climbed the stairs and let themselves through the heavy wooden doors labeled "LIBRARY" and "OPEN". They passed through a narrow hallway that smelled of dust, and then stepped out into the library itself.

Purva tilted her head back, looking up and around; they were in a wide domed room with shelves radiating outward and filling the balconies above -- three levels of balconies before the dome tapered in on itself. She could see doorways into other rooms, and in the corner a staircase going not only up to the balconies but also down into the ground. This room itself was easily the size of a small sloop; there were more books than she'd seen in one place in her entire life.

"Oh," she said softly, wonderingly.

Jack's voice, even hushed, echoed strangely against the dome. "Well, I guess it'll do."

Purva watched as Jack made his way to a desk at one edge of the shelves, where a handful of people were sorting books and stacking them in bins.

"Excuse me," Jack said. Purva glanced at Graveworthy, and was surprised to find he'd crept off without her noticing; he was settled into an alcove at the far end with a stack of newspapers already.

"I was wondering if you have any books on engineering," Jack was saying, as Purva hurried to catch up with him, a little overwhelmed at the idea of being alone in this tall, book-filled building.

"Theoretical, functional, history of, ethics of, or how-to manuals?" the man asked, in a bored tone of voice. Purva glanced at Jack, who looked like he might be experiencing some kind of brain overload.

"History of, please," he said meekly. The man consulted a series of cards in a rack on his desk.

"Engineering Library, shelves nine and ten."

"Engineering...library?" Jack asked.

"Through the nine o'clock door, turn right, ground level," the man sighed.

Jack looked around briefly, orienting himself, and jerked his head for her to follow. He led them between a row of shelves that Purva reached out to, brushing them with covetous fingers as they passed.

"The whole library's laid out in circles," he whispered as they walked. "Twelve o'clock is due north, which is that way -- " a hand darted out to indicate somewhere off to their left, " -- so nine o'clock should be this way. It's...elegant," he added. "Mathematically beautiful."

"It's a lot of books," she whispered back. He laughed.

"Through here, turn right -- " Jack stopped just inside the doorway of a smaller room, round like the central room but with a ceiling that didn't allow her to see if the roof of this one was domed as well.

There were perhaps forty bookshelves, still more in this tiny room than Purva would know what to do with; each shelf had a number hung on it and a label beneath with two larger numbers on it. She watched Jack make his way to the one marked 9 and ran his hands over the first row of books at eye level.

He turned around, so that he was facing a shelf marked 8, and took down one of the books there, flipping through it.

"Principles of propulsion," he murmured.

"Interesting?" Purva asked. He looked up at her.

"Yeah, it -- yeah," he said, putting the book back and turning again. He began to move along the shelf, studying the titles on the spines. "This whole room is nothing but books about engineering. Even the library at Harvard hasn't got this many."

Purva smiled at him. "Should I leave?"

"What -- no! I mean, you can, if you're bored, but, if you want to look at the books, or -- or I could come with you," Jack stammered. "Just, uh. Just let me get two or three books and then we can go find -- what do you like to -- "

Purva put a hand on his mouth to stop him talking. It really was the most effective method.

"Take what books you please," she said, and waited for him to nod before she took her hand away. "I will be..." She waved at the room. "I will look, and see what I like. When you're ready, we will find somewhere to read, yes?"

"Sure," he said, smiling widely at her. "Okay."

She found the books on maritime engineering with relative ease, and lost herself in those shelves for a while. She'd assumed Jack would pile his arms up with books, which she was nobly fighting the urge to do herself, but when he found her half an hour later he had only three, and two of those were quite slim.

"This is amazing," he kept muttering, as they searched for a place to sit and read. "The things they've done -- what it all means...I'm so far behind. It's going to take me months to catch up."

"Shall I steal the books?" she asked, grinning to show she was teasing.

"If we leave Australia before I'm done, I'll steal them myself," he said, and his grin was not quite as facetious as hers had been. She opened a book and hid her amusement behind the cover.

Jack soon became too absorbed in the books to even talk to himself under his breath the way he often did. After a while, Purva felt her muscles cramping; they sat a lot more, and worked a lot less, than she would have onboard her mother's ship. When the stillness became intolerable she set the book down quietly and slipped away, mapping in her mind where the desk was so that she could come back to it.

She retreated to the central dome, where the bored man from before was still sitting.

"Excuse me," she said. He looked up at her.

"Hey, does that guy know you wandered off?" he asked. She raised an eyebrow. "What, like you'd be let in here without him?"

"Books on Australia, please," she answered, gritting her teeth.

"History, geography, geology, society -- "

"Cities of Australia."

He narrowed his eyes as if she'd challenged him instead of interrupting him in order to save time.

"Twelve o'clock doorway, on the left, upper level," he sneered, and turned away in dismissal. It was a real challenge, she decided, not to slit his throat. He was in the perfect pose for it.

Instead she let herself fade back into the rows of shelves, drifting towards the door at the far end and the stairway beyond. On the second floor she browsed until she understood that the books were arranged alphabetically by city (which seemed inefficient, since down in the Engineering library they were numbered; consistency is an important part of a sailor's life).

She took down a thin, lightweight book on Brisbane, "A Guide For Touring Gentlemen" with a sketchy map in the back. After skimming it for a moment she closed it again and tucked it into her trousers, snug in the small of her back, under her shirt. Well, if fools were going to insult her and then expect her to behave around their books, clearly they didn't deserve them.

Jack was still buried in a book when she returned. She smiled indulgently, settled into the chair, and resumed her reading.

***

Mr. Jackson, when he arrived home for lunch, turned out to be a slim man, no taller than his wife, an accountant who worked for a large manufacturing company. He appeared to be far more concerned about Anderson's potential to contest the inheritance than how the letter had reached them.

"You'll have to forgive him," Elizabeth said with a fond look, as he peppered Clare with questions. "He squanders all his intelligence on business."

"All I'm saying is, we invested the money your father left and built it into something -- something I meant to make secure for us and the children. After all, we must pay for good schools for the girls. There will be all kinds of legal difficulties if -- "

"Mr. Jackson," Clare said, giving him her warmest diplomatic smile. "Mr. Anderson wouldn't dream of disturbing a family's finances out of petty spite. I'm sure he'd want his nieces to have the best possible education."

"Well," Mr. Jackson said, looking only partly mollified, "I shall have to make him the offer, at any rate."

"I'll make sure he understands your concerns," Clare replied, smile widening into a grin.

"How did you come to be in a position such as this, if I can ask? You're hardly out of school yourself, surely," Elizabeth said.

"Well, I..." Clare considered it. She wasn't actually sure. Between Jack's life being threatened and a boat trip to England and the airship and a three-day train ride, she'd had the time but not the motivation for introspection.

But really, the answer was easy -- she'd come because her family was here, she hoped, and because Ellis couldn't have gone alone.

"I suppose I fell into it," she said thoughtfully.

"Fell into it," Elizabeth echoed, lifting her eyebrows. "I shouldn't like to think what you could do if you acted with intent."

Clare laughed. "I intend a lot, actually. Depending on my friends' business in Brisbane, I'm bound for Melbourne within a few days."

"A lovely city," Mr. Jackson said approvingly. "We do a lot of shipping to Melbourne. Will you be traveling by steamer or rail?"

"I hadn't thought," Clare said. "Rail, I suppose."

"Well, I have a map of Melbourne somewhere about, I believe," Mr. Jackson said. "Come -- are you finished eating? Come see the garden properly -- "

" -- while he has a search around for the map," Elizabeth finished. "Do let him, there's nothing he likes better than rummaging. You have business in Melbourne?" she continued, leading Clare back out into the garden. The two girls -- Anderson's nieces, a strange but not unwelcome thought -- ran ahead of them, down to the fence where flowers ran more riot than the sedate and orderly roses that hedged the lawn. "Or is it pleasure?"

"I'm looking for someone," Clare said.

"More letters to deliver?"

"In a way."

"To come so far, just to carry letters...I can't imagine," Elizabeth said. "You must be an adventurer."

Clare looked around at the garden, the children playing, the happy life it all indicated, and Elizabeth, with her faint resemblance to Gregory Anderson. It was far away from the weeks in England, half the time dodging bullets, it seemed like, not to mention the time on the airship, firing on pirates and crash-landing on a beach two days' walk from Port Darwin.

"I had to come," she said, and found that it was true.

Mr. Jackson returned then, carrying a leather map case with a series of maps inside -- and also a small framed painting, carefully preserved.

"Oh, that's me," Elizabeth said, smiling delightedly at her husband, sitting down to show Clare the portrait. "Thank you dear. The baby there -- that's our father holding me, and mother with Gregory on her lap."

Clare studied the portrait -- Anderson Senior looked like a stern man, but he held the infant delicately, and their round-faced, smiling mother had a toddler cuddled against her, the boy who would grow up to be the man they'd left in England.

"I wasn't very old when he was taken," Elizabeth said, fingers tracing over the painting. "This is really the strongest memory I have of him, and it's not even so much a memory."

"He's grown since then," Clare said, trying to lighten the mood, and Elizabeth laughed a little.

"I imagine so."

"Thank you for the maps," Clare added. "I should be going -- my friends will wonder where I am."

"Of course. When you leave Brisbane, do forward us an address where you can be reached, if it's convenient, and stop in straightaway when you return."

"If we can provide you any help, please don't hesitate to ask," Mr. Jackson added.

It was earnest and innocent, and bizarre as well -- to find Anderson's family, the family of a spy, so helpful and domestic. She'd forgotten that this was the way most people lived their lives.

"Thank you," she said. "I'll write to you when I can."

"Very well, then," Elizabeth stood up and Clare politely ignored it when she wiped her eyes with one hand. "Go in good health and stay safe."

"I plan to," Clare said.

***

Jack and Purva, thankfully, wandered off on their own almost as soon as they arrived at the library, leaving Ellis to matters of state.

He didn't particularly enjoy lying, especially to his friends, but he was rather good at it. He'd always felt that not using the dubious gift he'd been given would at the very least be a waste of talent. At any rate, it protected them, and in some sense protected him. They didn't know about the letter.

Ellis had never been told the name of the person who originally received the letter -- The Letter, as Anderson had jokingly called it -- and by the time its contents filtered down to him, most of the personal information had been stripped away. It wasn't anything he needed to know, or at least that was what the higher-ups said, so he wasn't told.

What he had been told, back when this journey was theoretical, back before he'd found Jack, was that someone in Australia had news for the Empire. They'd dropped names, even, the name of a man who'd come to Australia as a prisoner and the name of a woman who had been sent to Australia as a spy, both dead; they'd said that plague and war were coming, not yet but not too long from now, not more than five years away. They'd said they would leave a way to contact them at the library in Brisbane. That was nearly a year ago, now, but the letter had been very specific, had named a certain book on a certain shelf --

And there was the book, unless he was mistaken, a large red volume of biological studies on native Australian fauna. He took it out and flicked through it, but didn't see anything tucked in the pages; no writing on the margins, no folded pages, and nothing he could see in the cover or spine. Perhaps the letter-writer had given up hope, or perhaps someone else had come along to steal it.

He set the book aside and investigated the shelf, first the books on either side and then the back, pushing to see if there was a false panel. When that gained him nothing, he felt around behind the other books, then on the bottom of the shelf above, which was recessed slightly --

There. Just above the gap where the book sat, someone had gummed a key to the wood. He pried it off the wood, then replaced the book and walked casually away, the key in his pocket, the gum making it stick to the fabric.

He found a quiet, secluded alcove and took the key out, rubbing the gum away with his fingers, peeling it back from the flat metal. There was a bit of paper under the gum, up against the head of the key, and Ellis unfolded it curiously, an old thrill running through him for all this silly secret-message fuss.

Ask the librarian, it said.

Well. Nothing ventured, Ellis supposed. When he approached the desk, the bored-looking man barely acknowledged him; Ellis set the key on the counter and gave him an expectant eyebrow-raise.

It worked, or at least he thought it did; the man disappeared with the key into a little room beyond the desk, and came back with a leather documents case stamped SECURE COLLECTION - PRIVATE. He set the key on top of it, passed it to Ellis, and went back to looking bored.

"As safe as any bank box," Ellis murmured, carrying the case away with him. He settled into a chair -- back to the wall, facing the doorway -- and opened the case. Inside was a sealed letter with no name on it, sitting on top of a pile of papers. He set the letter aside for the moment and began flicking through the papers: page after page of scrawled notes and diagrams, what seemed to be medical histories. At the back was a proposal in what he recognized as a bastard form of the way military plans were drafted in Great Britain.

He caught his breath softly when he read the opening lines. Then, hurriedly and with clumsy hands, he settled the paperwork back together and opened the letter instead.

***

When Clare returned to the hotel, giddy from triumph and a second ride in an automobile, she found Purva and Jack both in the sitting room. Purva looked storm-faced as she paged idly through some book she'd acquired; Jack was at the writing desk near the window, working on sketches.

"Guess what I did," she said, leaning on the desk next to Jack.

"Mm? Oh! Welcome back, hello."

"Hi," she replied, ruffling his hair. "How was the library?"

"Oh, fine," Jack said, still sketching. When he got like that, not much could distract him. Clare glanced at Purva.

"Not certain," Purva replied. "Good for Captain there."

"I enjoyed it!" Jack agreed, not looking up.

"But they were rude," Purva continued.

"Rude to you?" Clare asked.

"Yes, so very rude. I tire of being a servant, is all rudeness, all the time."

"Jack." Clare poked him in the head, just above his ear. "Did you let them be rude to Purva?"

"Of course not," he murmured absently, then sat up. "Wait, no, what did you say? Purva, who was rude to you?"

"The man at the library. No matter."

"No, it does matter," Jack protested. "When? I would have -- "

"Must not," Purva said. "You must not put a stop when it happens, you must not draw attention. I know these things, I know all this. It's only..."

She gestured helplessly. Clare gave her a sympathetic look.

"It'll be better soon," she said. "Ellis will have better work for you, surely."

Purva scowled. "That one. I don't know. Go see him. Not much for talking, coming back."

Clare pushed away from the desk, patting Purva on the shoulder reassuringly as she passed, and knocked on the door to the bedroom.

"Yes," Ellis called, when she knocked.

"It's me," she called back.

"Come in!"

Purva was right -- it was difficult to tell, as she entered, but when he looked up from the window there was something clearly wrong. His face had the drawn, pinched look of a man working away at a problem, and his eyes were tired.

"Welcome back," he said, nodding at the door, and she took the hint to close it. "Sorry, there's -- " he began clearing paperwork off the bed and the dresser, piling it neatly, " -- I found some documents in the library..."

"Purva says there's some problem?" she prompted.

"What? No, not a problem. Just new information." He ran a hand over his face. "I'm glad to see you back. Anderson's letter get delivered?"

"Sort of," she said warily. "His father's dead."

"Dead?" Ellis asked, throwing himself into a chair.

"Two years ago."

"Poor Gregory. He'll be upset," Ellis sighed. "And the letter?"

"I gave it to his sister -- she still lives at the same address."

"Was that wise, do you think?" Ellis asked, closing his eyes. Clare cocked her head at him, considered whether she wanted to fight this battle at this moment, and sighed.

"Yes, I think it was. They seemed trustworthy -- his sister and her husband. They've asked if I'll carry a letter back, when the time comes."

"You told them?" Ellis demanded, eyes snapping open.

"Yes."

"Clare, of all the stupid -- "

"Can we...is it all right if we just don't have this fight?" Clare asked. "You're tired, and shouting at me won't change anything. They offered to help. They're not going to turn us in to the government, even if they knew about you -- which they don't, by the way -- or where I was staying, which they also don't know. I made a decision, and I don't think it was the wrong one, so you can stuff your superior nonsense, Ellis, the job's done now."

His mouth was open, mid-rant no doubt, but he snapped it shut after a second, frowning.

"I've heard people in this job ten years speak with less self-assurance than you do," he said, tightly, and turned away towards the window near the desk.

"It's a gift," she retorted.

"No doubt. You think they're trustworthy?"

"I do."

"What makes you qualified to decide that?"

"Good sense and a distinct lack of paranoia," Clare said. It earned her an unexpected laugh. "They could be allies, if things go wrong here."

"We won't be in Brisbane much longer. Purva and I, at least, must leave for Canberra soon -- this new information demands it. Events are already moving very quickly."

"What's happened?"

His lips twitched. "Australia's planning to take over the world. It's quite unpleasant."

"The whole world?" Clare asked.

"Any bit of it they can reach, I should think."

"How English of them."

"Clare," he said with a weary sigh.

"Ellis, I'm teasing you."

"Yes, well, in this place, I am England," he said. "I am the British Empire. And now it is my job to at least try to slow them down."

"What are they doing? What did you learn at the library?"

He looked like he was on the verge of telling her, but instead he shook his head. She waited patiently for him to speak.

"We aren't the first that were sent, you know," he said quietly. "Two other agents ahead of us went, one almost a year ago, one six months ago. We know one died; the other one probably did. Neither made it further than the northern coast."

"Well, they didn't have an airship."

"No, they did not," Ellis replied. "But that doesn't change the fact that this is dangerous work. I'm not certain the three of you should know all that I do. It puts you in peril."

"We tend to figure these things out," she said drily. "Remember who sussed out where you were going?"

Ellis nodded. "I know that too. You must understand my position, Clare -- you're clever, but you're all very young, and I'm not accustomed to...well, when I was young I accepted the danger, so did we all, but now it's hard for me to watch others do it."

Clare gave him a smile. "So you're wrestling with your hypocrisy, is that it?"

"I suppose so." He ran a hand through his hair. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"I am. Purva will too, and you know Jack."

"Sometimes I wonder," he murmured. "Very well. I'll send down for some dinner, and we'll discuss it."

***

When the food arrived, steaming under its metal covers, Clare dragged Jack away from his drawings and settled him at the dining table, while Ellis poured glasses of wine from the bottle that had come up with their meal.

"Sometimes I think," Purva said, delicately sipping from her glass, "this is a bad business."

"It's a necessary one," Ellis replied. He wasn't quite sure how to discuss this -- possibly dinner hadn't been the best idea, either. Still, Jack was eating hungrily and Clare at least had something to do with her hands. "It's going to get worse before it gets better, I imagine."

"Is this about that thing you got from the library?" Jack asked with his mouth full. "How'd you even get a card?"

"I don't think one is required, not for this," Ellis said. "They didn't ask for one, anyway. And yes, it is about that."

"What's in those papers?" Clare said, tilting her head at the bedroom.

Ellis sighed. "The Australian government -- which, by the way, appears to be -- "

"Incredibly restrictive and totalitarian?" Clare suggested.

" -- I see you've been keeping an ear to the ground, yes. They've been...studying the biology of Creationism, I suppose you could say." He tapped his fork on Jack's plate. "Chew properly, the food's not going anywhere."

"Sorry," Jack said sheepishly.

"The documents are -- presumably -- copies of research work on Creationism being done in Canberra, funded by the government. They seem to think it's in a bit of our brains," Ellis continued, tapping his temple. "There's a lot in the notes about why Creationism exists, and why it doesn't exist here -- whether it's to do with soil or food or the air, the water...but what they've mostly found is that this bit of the brain is much bigger in Creationists."

"How would they know?" Purva asked.

"Autopsies."

"On Creationists?" Clare said, alarmed. "How did they even find bodies to autopsy?"

"Apparently there have been...incidents where parents of children showing the ability would rather they die. I can't say I didn't consider this might be the case," Ellis said. Clare narrowed her eyes and he shifted uncomfortably. "They killed their children, Clare, rather than see them sent away. Five in the past decade alone, at least, five that are in the notes."

Jack had stopped chewing. All three of them looked sick.

"And there have been accidents -- maybe accidents..." Ellis trailed off. "The medical college at Canberra acquired the bodies."

"This is sick," Clare said, the knuckles of one hand pressed to her lips.

"I'm sorry. It's -- in its own way it's groundbreaking work. Nobody's ever done a systematic study of the brain in terms of Creation before, at least not that I've ever heard of," Ellis said. "I mean. One doesn't poke the machine if the machine works."

"Says you," Jack replied.

"Can we put a stop to it?" Clare asked.

"The damage is done, Clare, and it's not the end of the story. They also studied Tribal anatomy. In Tribals, the scale of these portions of the brain were relatively large even when they couldn't Create, which if the science is right means there's an actual, natural tendency amongst Tribals towards Creationism."

Jack swallowed and glanced at Clare.

"Something stunts or blocks it early in life, at least that's their theory," Ellis continued. "They think...that is, they're planning to isolate what they think is a disease, some disease that attacks the ability to Create. It would make sense, I suppose. It's borne out by the shipping manifest we stole from Port Darwin, oddly enough -- there's a lot of medical apparatus coming in, along with all the scrap."

"That didn't alarm anyone?" Clare asked.

Ellis shrugged. "People get sick. Now it makes more sense, though. Think about this -- Australia is more than a match, technologically, for any country we're aware of. We could fight them, perhaps even beat them, but not without Creation."

"Creationists don't fight in wars."

"They don't have to. Especially in America, they're the backbone of production for any number of industries. Imagine if every Creationist suddenly couldn't Create," Ellis said, and saw Jack turn pale. Jack above any of them knew how much heavy industry relied on Creationism. "They could destroy a country, any country, just unleashing this disease. And there's nothing to say it would stop at the border. It's plague, plain and simple. They can't be far from isolating it."

"It would cripple every country with a standing military," Jack said hoarsely. "Creationists are used in the factories and shipyards. They're used in farming, in communication, even sometimes in train garages. Steel production. Everything."

"And it may kill. If it were virulent enough, if it killed enough people, whole civilizations would topple," Ellis said.

"You're talking about an apocalypse," Clare said. "With Australia at the helm."

"Yes. And a world governed by the politics we've already seen."

"Dieu," Purva said softly. "What must we do?"

"I don't know yet. There was a letter with the documents, urging me to come to Canberra. I might send the three of you back to the airship."

"What!" Purva demanded. "Why?"

"We may need to get a message back through to Anderson. He'll know who to tell about this. But -- well, this is about to be no place for -- "

"Ellis, I swear to the Creator if you end that sentence with either women or children I will kick you," Clare said.

Jack snorted a laugh. Purva snickered. Ellis rubbed his forehead.

"You can't really think we should go back," Jack added.

"Jack, I don't know what to think. I'm not keen to be stranded here, and the journey back to Port Darwin isn't something you undertake on a whim. They'll know we stole the ledger; they'll be looking for us, eventually."

"Well, then we'll settle that idea for you," Clare said. "When do we leave for Canberra?"

"There's a train tomorrow afternoon -- I shouldn't dawdle. I can get you a ticket to Melbourne. More than one, if Jack wants to go with you. Purva -- "

"Not Melbourne," Purva said. "I am on hire, not here for pleasure."

"What will you do when you get there?" Jack asked.

"Make contact with whoever left me these documents. They left a few clues as to where I can find them."

"And what then?" Clare said softly. Ellis looked down at his hands, fingers curled on either side of his plate.

"There are only so many ways this can end," he said.

"War," Purva nodded. Ellis gave her a sharp look.

"Possibly. If there's any kind of antidote, we must get it back to England; if there isn't, we must find a way to at least warn the world. Possibly the Empire must attack to prevent Australia attacking first." He sighed. "It's possible, if I could get someone -- get anyone's ear, in this government, I could negotiate a truce. Maybe a trade agreement of some kind, but I don't think Australia is fighting a war of need. I think this is a nationalistic war of conquest."

"Publish," Clare said. "If those notes get out there'd be riots in the streets, I bet."

"If they're believed. It's preferable to war, but not by much. There's a reason whoever acquired these hasn't published them already."

"And if there is an antidote..." Clare continued. "If Australians could take the antidote..."

"Australia would be a land of Creationists without any understanding of the ethics of this power -- none of the cultural taboos we learned in our own countries. It would tear itself to shreds," Ellis finished. "I don't know, Clare, I really don't."

Ellis noticed Jack studying the pair of them with a solemn, unhappy look.

"I don't think we can go to Melbourne, knowing what we know," Clare said.

"You ought to. You ought to find your parents before..." Ellis gestured, and saw that she understood: before the trouble starts.

"Maybe I ought to," she agreed. "But this is my country, Ellis. I have to do what I can. Whatever's going to happen is going to happen there, and if Australia's going to fall apart around me there's no point in burying my head in the sand in Melbourne and pretending I didn't help cause it."

"I'm sorry, Clare. Just consider it for a while before you decide, bearing in mind I have many years of experience to your few."

Clare rolled her eyes, but she'd probably listen to him. He let the silence settle -- in itself it was comfortable, but he knew also there was a chill to it. He didn't think anyone could truly comprehend the magnitude of a plague of this kind, but inasmuch as they could understand, they understood as well as he did what was at stake.

He should never have brought them here.

***

Clare was quiet through the rest of dinner, but she didn't think Ellis took it for sulking. Jack was lost in a little horror-show of his own, she was sure, picturing what would happen if Creationism were removed completely from industry. He might want to industrialize, but it was one thing to do it oneself, over time, and another to have a vital part of the production process ripped away. Purva seemed thoughtful as well.

"It will matter little, to sailors," she said eventually, when Jack was back at the writing-desk and Ellis ensconced in the sofa, reading. Clare looked up from the newspaper she was hiding behind.

"Well, that's a very universal way of looking at it," Ellis drawled. Purva shot him a smile.

"We ride light; heavy ships could not catch us. We use little Creationism. Stormpirates...eh, better if those were put to an end anyway, I think," she said. "So, I will not worry. Canberra will be new, at least."

"There is that," Ellis said quietly, more to himself than to them, turning a page in his book.

"Can I ask you something?" Clare said, because Purva's last remark had surprised her. "Why us?"

"Why you what?" Ellis asked.

"Why us? Why do we have to be the ones to fix this?"

Ellis blinked. "Because it's what I do, Clare."

"Topple governments?"

"If necessary, yes. Admittedly it'd be a first, even for me, but I swore to protect the interests of the Empire. So did you, though I'll allow that was expediency over patriotism. Why you're doing this -- well, only you can answer that."

"The Empire's not so great, sometimes," Clare said.

He laughed. "Well, no. But I can work to improve it, with faith that the work is good. And I made a promise. I'll defend it with my life, if I must. Do you think what you've seen of Australia is evidence that it would be an improvement?"

Clare shook her head. "But I don't think destroying Australia will help."

"Lord, I'm not going to destroy Australia."

"I don't see any other outcome for this, if you let Creationist countries turn on it."

"I'll look for a treaty first, but this country is the aggressor, not mine," Ellis said sharply.

"You've told me that you are Great Britain in this country. Well, in this room I'm Australia," Clare replied, just as sharply. "You expect me to just sit here and listen to you make plans to cause a war?"

"What in the bloody hell do you think Australia's doing?" Ellis shot back.

"And who made Australia!"

They were interrupted by the slap of a hand on a table; both of them looked at Jack in shock. He was glaring at them, eyes bright in his face.

"It doesn't matter," Jack said. "We have limited levers; there's no point in picking which one to pull until you know what the machine does, and to know that you have to go. There's no point to any of this fighting. Clare, stop being an ass; right now you're no more Australia than I am. Graveworthy, stop treating it like some kind of school debate."

He pushed away from the desk in disgust and stood up. "We could sit here and argue about it for days or we can go to Canberra and get the truth. Until then it's all theory. People make me so tired sometimes!"

All three of them stared at the door, slamming behind him on his way out.

"What..." Ellis said blankly. He looked at Clare. "What was that?"

"I don't know," Clare said. "That's not like him."

"I can -- " Purva began.

"No, I'll go," Clare interrupted. She was at the door, but she turned in the doorway and looked at Ellis. "He's right; we won't know what to do until we have more information. No point staying here fighting about it."

She hurried down to the hotel lobby and out into the street. From there he wasn't that hard to find; he was lurking in the plaza outside the hotel, pacing angrily between the trees. When he saw her coming he wheeled on her and snarled, shocking her.

"I don't need to be petted, Clare!"

She stopped, and then scowled. "I wasn't going to," she snarled back. "I was considering punching you for that stupid remark about Australia, though."

"Stupid, was it? So I'm just some dumb American with no stake in this?"

The remark rocked her back on her heels. "What?"

"I know why you came, Clare! I know you want to find your parents, but guess what? My parents are dead! They're never coming back!"

"Is that what you think this is about?"

"No, but it's not helping," he retorted, running his fingers through his shaggy pale hair. "This is my fault -- I built what brought us here. I came because we needed a pilot, and I wanted to come because it meant you could come and you could find your family, you could find out where you came from. But -- that means we had to become a part of what he's doing in there. That's the trade, Clare, and you're trying to get something for nothing."

"Do you want Australia to go to war?"

"No! Of course not, I don't want anyone to go to war! But I can't help the inevitable and -- you don't understand what I mean. We're standing on the brink of history."

"You've never cared a damn for history."

Jack brushed it aside. "Whatever we do, whatever decision we make. Four people in a hotel room in Brisbane. We're going to make history, but all anyone seems to care about is -- politics. Pointless politics!"

He slammed his fist against a tree. "Do you comprehend what this place is, Clare? I don't want to see it destroyed either. Automobiles. Mechanized elevators. Electric lights. The machine age is here, Clare, it's right here, the revolution is here. It's not theory anymore. I see quantifiable value and I'm frightened, because if there is a war all of this becomes -- blood. Britain fires on Australia and all of this is destroyed, but if it doesn't half the world might die. These things are more important than whether or not what Graveworthy does is right. I listen to you argue with him and all I can see is this city on fire. It's about so much more than you it isn't even funny."

Clare touched his arm gently, and he pulled it away from the tree trunk where it rested. His fist was bleeding.

"Everything I've worked for, it's all for nothing because they've already done it. That's hard, but it's okay," he said, quieter now. "I don't care. I can learn what they've done, I can study and catch up and be part of this. I want to. And they're so close to destroying themselves because a hundred years ago Father LaRoche told Parliament they should ship their criminals to Australia. Look what they've done to the people here. It's so brilliant and so awful. Look at what they're going to do to themselves and tell me you're any part of Australia."

"I can't help that," she said softly. "It's not a matter of philosophy, Jack, it's a matter of blood. I was born here. My mother and father were born here."

"And I wonder how well it's done by them," he said bitterly. She caught her lip in her teeth. He glanced up at her, sighing. "It doesn't matter; all that matters is we have to go to Canberra. From there...we pick which lever to pull."

"Come back," she said, turning his hand over to study the scrape where he'd hit the tree. "Ellis will fret. And you need to wash this."

Jack laughed, but it was brittle. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Fields."

"Don't, Baker," she pulled him close by the wrist she still held, kissed his cheek. "Shows you're still human."

"Sometimes I wonder."

"Come on."

He followed, twining his hand around hers so that she was holding onto his palm, rather than his wrist.

"When I said I wanted to travel I didn't think it would do this to me," Jack said quietly, as they walked.

"I'm so sorry, Jack. I shouldn't have -- "

"No. This is the way the world is. I had to see it. I've been buried in Harvard for too long." He sighed. "The library today...it was a lot to take in. And all this stupid stuff about Tribals, like how Purva can't eat in public with us and...would I still care? If..."

"I know you, Jack. You'd care."

"Maybe we can fix it," he said, shoulders slumping.

"That's my Jack," Clare smiled. "Come inside, I'll tell you about the automobile I got to ride in today."

Chapter Eighteen
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The Original Sam Backup

May 2012

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