From the master of the space opera comes a dark, mind-bending adventure spread across time and space, where Doctor Silas Coade is tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact.In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it's up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.
Release date: August 2, 2022
Print pages: 432
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Footsteps rescued me from my nightmare. They were approaching with urgency: hard soles thudding on old, creaking timbers. I came around seated at my writing desk, face pressed to the pages of my manuscript. I lifted my head and pinched at the gummy corners of my eyes. Pince-nez spectacles were before me on the desk, slightly askew where the force of my slumping forehead had borne down on them. I straightened them out, fixed them to my nose, and splashed water on my face from a cork-stoppered earthenware jar.
The footsteps ceased. A knock sounded at the door, followed by the immediate sound of the door being eased ajar.
“Come in, Mortlock,” I said, swivelling in my seat, feigning the impression of being disturbed from innocent business.
The tall, stooping midshipman bent his head and shoulders into the low-ceilinged cabin.
“How did you know it was me, Doctor Coade?”
“You have a manner, Mortlock,” I said pleasantly. “Everyone has a manner and I remembered yours. Sooner or later, if we are not first shipwrecked, I expect I will know the manner of everyone on this vessel.” I made a show of blotting the manuscript, even though the ink was hours-dry on my last addition. I was in the process of closing the leatherbound covers when my eyes alighted on the little machine-engraved snuff box that was still on the desk, open to reveal its contents. A cold horror of discovery shot through me. “How is that tooth?” I asked, a touch too hastily.
Mortlock tugged down his scarf to touch the side of his jaw. It was still slightly swollen but a good deal less inflamed than it had been four days ago, when I had dealt with an abscess.
“Much better, doctor, sir, thank you very much.”
“Turn about. Let me see your profile.”
Mortlock did as he was instructed, affording me the precious seconds I needed to spirit the snuff box safely into a drawer. “Yes,” I said, nodding. “Yes, very satisfactory. Continue with the tincture I gave you, and you should feel a steady improvement over the coming days.” I looked at him over my spectacles. “Your company is always welcome, Mortlock. But is there something else besides the abscess?”
“It’s the Coronel, sir. He’s had a bit of a bump out on deck. Out cold, he was, and now he’s back with us but he’s striking out, wriggling and cussing in that native tongue of his…”
“Spanish, is I believe the term for it. Or at least the form of it endemic in New Spain.” I relaxed slightly, believing that Mortlock had made nothing of the snuff box nor its sudden disappearance. “What was the nature of the injury?”
“A block came down on his bonce, hard as you like—knocked him clean to the floor.” Mortlock made an emphatic chopping motion. “We were changing tack, looking for that gap in the cliff, and the Coronel just happened to be in the wrong spot when a rope snapped. There was a bit of blood, but his head hadn’t gone all soft as if it had been stoved in, so we thought he’d be all right if we just sat him up and let him have a nip of rum, sir…”
“What is it, do you reckon?”
“I dare not speculate. But if he has suffered concussion, even in the absence of a skull fracture, there may be elevated intracerebral pressure.” I reached beneath the desk for one of several elegant boxes which I had brought with me. “All haste now, Mortlock!” I continued, raising my voice spiritedly. “And be so kind as to communicate to Mister Murgatroyd, or Captain Van Vught himself, that it would be extremely helpful if the ship were to maintain a constant heading for the next half an hour.”
“The Master might grumble about that, doctor, if it slows down our search.”
I nodded sombrely. “He is bound to. But I shall remind him that it is his man-at-arms that I shall be striving to save.”
Mortlock departed, his footsteps ringing away. I sat still for a moment, collecting myself, and reflecting on that irony that I had first hidden one pretty box and then disclosed another. Both were finely-made things; both in their way vital to my work. The box I had concealed contained opium snuff, self-administered with the intention of dulling myself into dreamless oblivion. The other held a French-made trephination brace of impeccable manufacture, but which I had never had cause to use on a living subject.
I feared—no, hoped—that this state of affairs was about to change.
“Are you ready for this, Silas?” I asked myself aloud. “Your first real test, on this voyage? Your first real test, of any sort?”
I opened the lid on the trephination brace, imagining the college examiners casting their doubtful gazes upon my hesitant efforts. Stern-faced men in black, men with London manners, veterans of troubled voyages and bloody engagements, men for whom cutting and sawing was as effortless as breathing, men to whom screams were merely the peculiar music of their profession. What hubris was it that made me think that I could ever join their ranks? I was a West Countryman without connections: a poor, provincial surgeon out of Plymouth (but of Cornish blood, as I reminded all who would listen), forty-four (and therefore long past the age at which most surgeons made their first voyage), a mere Assistant Surgeon (yet the only surgeon of any kind) on a fifth-rate sloop under a Dutch captain. The captain was kind, but his ship was old, his crew tired, their provisions threadbare, and the terms of our charter questionable in the extreme.
This was how I meant to make my way?
The gleaming parts of the trephination brace waited in snug recesses of purple felt. The metalwork was engraved, the handles of ebony. Such beautiful artistry, for such brutal ends. My fingers quivered as I reached to extract the drill-like components.
Suppressing a spasm of shame, I retrieved the snuff box and took a hasty pinch in order to settle my nerves and banish the last traces of the nightmare. It was a habit that was becoming all too familiar, especially as we ventured further north along the Norwegian coast. Matters had worsened since leaving Bergen, with the nightmare repeating itself with increasing regularity. I had been taking more and more snuff to counter its effects, with diminishing success.
The nightmares were like nothing I had endured before setting foot on Demeter. In them I found myself staggering along a barely-lit stone passage, clad in hood or mask or helmet, gripped by the terrible intimation that I myself was dead, merely a shambling corpse, with empty sockets and grinning jaw. I could not identify the cause of these torments, other than to speculate that being confined for long hours in my cabin, with only books, potions and surgical instruments for company, my mind had become unhealthily focussed on the thin membrane which separates the living from the dead.
My one hope lay in the failure—or should I say abandonment—of our expedition. Perhaps, as we scoured endless dismal miles of Norwegian coastline, looking for a glimpse of something that only one man truly believed to exist—and he not exactly the most sober or reliable among our number—and as the days grew colder, the seas rougher, the ice more abundant, the stores more depleted, the ship more worn-out, the general morale weaker, the lugubrious Dutchman more openly sceptical of our chances—perhaps I might yet be saved by our turning home. It was a coward’s hope, as well I knew. Yet in the grip of the equal miseries of seasickness and dysentery, not to mention every other common hardship of sea-borne life, I should gladly have proclaimed my cowardice to all who would listen.
I had hidden the snuff box again by the time the injured Coronel was brought down to my room. In those minutes I had also prepared the main table, sweeping it free of books, journals and manuscript pages, and made sure my other instruments and remedies were to immediate hand. Coronel Ramos was in a state of considerable agitation as the midshipmen press-ganged him into the room, for even in his confused condition he was bigger and stronger than any of them. It took four to get him onto the table, and they had a struggle to make good his restraints as he thrashed and twisted like some muscular eel.
“He was unarmed while agitated?” I asked Mortlock, who was one of the four assistants, and the only midshipman I knew by name.
“That’s the lucky part, doctor. He’s always polishing that flintlock of his, and he had it in one hand and a cleaning pipe in the other when the block came down, and it made him drop the pistol. Mister Murgatroyd got hold of it before it got washed through the gunnels, but I think if he hadn’t, and the Coronel had still had it in his hand, you’d be digging a bullet out of one of us.”
“Let us be thankful for small mercies, then.”
Since the wound was on the back of his head, I had dictated that they secure him to the table face down. He had bled profusely, so I swabbed the affected area as gently and thoroughly as I could, being careful not to depress the bone until I had determined to my satisfaction that there was no serious fracture. My examination was helped by the fact that Ramos was quite bald, not just about the crown but around his whole blocky, boulder-shaped head. Some hair still grew, but he shaved it away each morning, sparing only his beard and moustache, which he maintained with the same devotion shown to his armaments.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Mortlock offered.
“There is no penetration of the skull, nor any fracture that I can detect. He is made of stern stuff, our Coronel. But the impact has knocked his brain about, causing his present distress. There is likely a build-up of pressure—blood or cerebral fluid—which must be relieved by means of trephination.”
Mortlock’s eyes drifted to the exquisite French brace, poised in its now-open box.
“You’re going to drill into ’im with that Froggy thing?”
“It is the only thing that will save him.” I looked to the four men who had come in with the Coronel. “It will likely cause him some discomfort, and you must be ready for that. But I am confident that the procedure will work, if we proceed speedily.” I pushed my spectacles back up my nose, countering their habit of drifting to the tip. Rolling up my sleeves I took the brace, and settled myself into the most comfortable and stable position for the procedure.
Master Topolsky and Milady Cossile burst into the room without warning. The former was a cloud of black, the latter an apparition in yellow. I glanced up from my preparations, squinting through a loose lock of hair.
“What is this?” asked Topolsky, heavily clothed, wet and windswept from being out on deck.
“A medical emergency, Master Topolsky.”
“The doctor’s going to drill into ’im,” Mortlock explained, with as much eagerness as if he had just graduated to the position of Assistant Surgeon. “His brain can’t breathe in and out, see, so it’s squeezing his thoughts.”
“A most commendable summary,” said Milady Cossile, her fingers steepled. “I expect Mister Mortlock will soon be composing the standard monograph on the subject?”
Mortlock looked at me doubtfully.
“Is the young gentlewoman being sarcastic again, doctor?”
I nodded sympathetically at the midshipman, who was straining every muscle to hold Ramos still. “Pay her no heed, Mortlock. You are doing very well.”
“Is there need for this?” asked Topolsky, looming over the table. “The Coronel is a hale man with the common vigour of his kind. He just needs a little rest, not to be drilled into like a brandy cask.” His tone sharpened. “We still have need of him, Coade!”
“And my purpose is to ensure that he remains at our disposal, Master.”
Ramos muttered something from the table. It sounded like trece to me, the Spanish for thirteen.
He was not a true-born Spaniard but a citizen of New Spain. He had been a soldier—hence his title—but he now owed his allegiance to no army or king, and offered his services for hire to men such as Topolsky. I knew very little about him, for Ramos was a taciturn man, quite the opposite of his boisterous employer. But we had spoken now and then, usually in the quiet moments between watches, when one of us might encounter the other on deck, pensively watching the sea.
Some political or religious difficulty—more than likely the same thing—had forced him to leave the Americas: I understood a little of it, piecing together such crumbs of biography as Ramos chanced to offer during our nearly silent communions. Turning against his father, Ramos had developed sympathies for the independence movement led by the Jesuit Hidalgo.
“Better men than I have found themselves before the Court of Inquisition,” Ramos had confided to me. “But I had the means to leave, and they did not. It does not make me brave, merely astute.”
Now this softly spoken giant—Ramos said that he owed his size and strength to his mother, who was of criollo descent—lay on my table, whimpering and foaming at the mouth. I was glad that his face was averted, facing the floor, because I could not have stood to look into his eyes as I began to work the brace.
“Trece,” Ramos murmured. Then, after a pause: “Cinco.”
I applied firm but steady pressure on the brace, while turning the handle at a slow, constant rate. The three-tipped bit was already biting into bone, etching a coin-sized groove. Mortlock kept glancing at my work then tearing his gaze away, while the three other midshipmen seemed incapable of mustering even a glance. I did not blame them for that: trephination was hardly something to be encountered in the normal life of the sailor.
“A question of terminology, if I may?”
Sweat was already in my eyes. It was the first time I had found my cabin anything other than intolerably cold since leaving Bergen. I paused in my work and pushed my hair and spectacles back again.
“By all means, Milady Cossile.”
“La vigilia…” Ramos said, on a note of rising concern. “La vigilia! La vigilia… de…”
“Concerning the procedure you are employing.” Milady Cossile still had her fingers steepled, tapping their tips against her lips between utterances. She had perfect lips, I thought. Not even the brush of Gainsborough could have captured their fullness. “I have encountered the term trepanation as well as trephination. Would you presume that the two forms are etymologically related?”
I resumed my drilling. “I cannot say that I have given the matter much consideration.”
“But still—would you presume?”
“I suppose I might.”
Even with my eyes focused on the drilling site, I still detected Milady Cossile’s gleeful response to my answer. She skipped forward, clapping delightedly, her feathers bouncing jauntily, before re-steepling her fingers.
“Then you would presume incorrectly, Doctor Coade! The two forms are etymologically quite distinct! I am surprised you were not aware of this.”
I continued with my work.
“Do enlighten us, milady.”
Ramos said: “Trece… cinco. Trece… cinco! La vigilia de piedra! La vigilia!!”
“Trepanation derives from trepanon, which in turn derives from the Greek trupanon, meaning an instrument for boring. Trephination—or trephine—derives instead from the Latin, in particular tre fines, or three ends. Whether the latter term was first coined by Fabricius ab Aquapedente, or John Woodall, a century later, is a question yet to be settled.”
I looked up from my work and nodded. “Thank you, milady. I am sure we are all most enlightened.”
“Never mind enlightenment,” Topolsky said, leaning very close in to the drill site. The Russian was a stout, pot-bellied man of about forty, with a wide, cherubic face, densely circumscribed by a curly mass of beard, sideburns and fringe. He had the sort of twinkling, searching, jocular eyes that suggested an agreeableness of temperament lamentably absent in the man himself. “Will he live? We need this brute, Coade! Our expedition cannot proceed without him! He may not be learned, and his manners distinctly those of the New World rather than the Old, but who among us understands the placement of gunpowder like the Coronel?”
“I agree entirely,” I said. “And if you value him as much as you say, you might refrain from projecting spittle into the wound site.”
Topolsky swore at me in Russian, his lips largely hidden behind the prodigious eruption of his beard, which was as voluminous and roomy as Ramos’s was neat and manicured. His hair glistened and smelled faintly of perfumed oils. Regaining something of his usual composure he continued: “Your reputation is satisfactory, Coade. I only wish that this were not the time to put it to the gravest test.”
“In my experience, Master, serious accidents rarely happen on a convenient schedule.” Suddenly I felt the opposition to the brace lessen as I bored through the last, sliver-like layer of bone. I had an image in my mind’s eye: the tip of a drill bursting through the underside of a layer of ice, into the dark water beneath. Ice as bone, water as dura and brain. “We are through. Master, if you might assist: that small implement like a sugar-spoon? I must lever away the bone fragment. Had there been more time I might have attempted to form an osteoplastic flap, but…” Abandoning my commentary I put away the brace and closed my fist around the tool Topolsky had passed me. To my immense relief the coin-sized section of bone levered away willingly, and with it came an immediate expulsion of thick, sticky blood from a severe epidural haematoma.
“It’s like raspberry jam, doctor!” Mortlock declared excitedly.
I smiled at him. “But perhaps a tad less palatable, even with your mother’s best bread and butter.” I watched Ramos for a minute, until I had convinced myself that there was a definite easing in his distress. “That must work,” I declared. “It is, in any case, all I can do. To go beneath the dura would kill him. Medicine has done what it can, gentlemen—the rest of his fate is between Ramos and his god.”
“His god,” Topolsky muttered contemptuously. “Can you imagine such a debased deity? Half Papist nightmare, half whatever Inca savagery came down to him from his mother.” Laughter lines creased the skin around his eyes and mouth, as they did when he was pleased with an observation he had either uttered or was about to utter. “Better no god at all, I might venture!”
The expulsion of blood was easing. I did not think there was continued bleeding under the skull, although it would likely be many hours or days until we could be assured of his survival. Longer still before we knew that Ramos would recover entirely. I was not so sanguine, for I had seen and read about the lingering influence of concussion and other maladies of the brain on otherwise healthy men. If he carried only the physical scars of this day, he would be fortunate.
“Will you pop that bit of bone back into his head, doctor?”
“No, Mortlock—it would only become infected. But the hole is as small as I could make it. When I am sure that the pressure has been relieved, I shall close up the wound with stitches.” The unwelcome imagery of my recurring dream sprang to mind unbidden: the stone passage, the hood about me, my own face reduced to a hollow skull. I winced it away as one winces away a sour aftertaste. “I think the Coronel will consider himself fortunate to have come through this day, even if he must live with a weak spot on the back on his head.”
“A commendable effort,” Milady Cossile said. She was dressed all in yellow, with a short-brimmed hat that seemed mostly made of yellow feathers. “Perhaps there is something to be said for our provincial schools of medicine after all.”
“I shall be sure to convey your estimation to my tutors in Plymouth. Thank you also for the lesson in etymology, which could not have been more timely. Do I have that right? I sometimes forget which one is to do with words, and which is to do with insects.”
She smiled patronisingly. “You have the right of it, for once.”
“I still say he’d have been ship-shape with a bit of rest,” Topolsky complained, eyeing the now much less agitated form on my table. Ramos was still murmuring, but now his words slipped out of him drowsily and without any conveyance of inner turmoil. “Trece… cinco. La vigilia de piedra.”
“Without this intervention he would have been dead within the hour, Master. Now he has a fighting chance.”
“Good. Then if you’re done with your infernal sawing, I suppose I can ask the captain to resume our northerly progression?”
“Far be it from me to interfere in the priorities of the expedition, Master. Dare I enquire: exactly how far into the ice floes will we sail, before giving up on your quarry?”
“Concern yourself with potions, doctor: leave the work of discovery to those of us who have the imagination for it.”
“That I shall gladly do.”
Topolsky and Milady Cossile departed. I told the midshipmen that they had been of great assistance, but were now free to go about their duties. Since Demeter would surely be about to resume turning and turning-about, zig-zagging her way north, I presumed that they would be needed on deck, assisting in the great coordinated dance of rope and canvas which made us sail.
Mortlock lingered after the other three had gone.
“I’m off duty now, doctor, so if you’d like someone to sit with the Coronel and keep an eye on ’im, I’d be more than willing.”
“That is very kind of you, Mortlock.”
His gaze fell upon the restful giant, still bound to the table. “He’s a quiet, brooding sort of cove, isn’t he. The men said he was aloof, to start with, like he was better’n the rest of us. P’raps he is. But out of all of ’em that came with Master Topolsky, I think I like ’im the best.”
“I venture our opinions are not entirely unalike.”
Mortlock put on a half-smile. “Is that your way of saying you agree with me, doctor, but you can’t quite come out and say it?”
I reflected on my answer as I set about cleaning and packing away the parts of the trephination brace.
“You have the right of it, as Milady Cossile might have said. Now will you help me turn the Coronel? I fancy he will be more comfortable on his back.”
After he had assisted me Mortlock slid one of my chairs across the timbers and sat down in it wearily, without waiting on invitation. He was about my age and height. There all essential similarities ended: Mortlock was a burly, red-headed Yorkshireman; I was from whippet-thin Cornish mining stock. Mortlock had been at sea since he was a boy and survived action, mutiny, flogging, shipwrecking and two bouts of scurvy. Since coming aboard, I had merely been afflicted by racking seasickness and a near constant dread of imminent catastrophe. In my mind, every creak and groan of the ship presaged the splitting of her fabric from bow to stern. I was not made for the sea and all the men knew it to one degree or another. But, of all of them, only Mortlock seemed not to judge me for my failing.
“Concerning her ladyship, doctor—and I don’t mean to speak out of turn here—but she’s a bit of an arse, isn’t she?”
“An arse, Mortlock?”
“Pardon my French, I mean.”
“It is quite all right. And in point of fact I see no reason to find fault with your assessment.”
Mortlock relaxed into the chair. “Why’s she got it in for you all the time?”
“I think that is merely her manner, Mortlock. I imagine she was raised to consider herself among inferiors at all times. Doubtless life has reinforced this admirable opinion of herself at every turn, from cradle to college. She has never had the slightest cause to be disabused of it. There may even be a grain of truth in it. I do not doubt that she is intelligent and well-schooled.”
“I didn’t go to a school at all.”
“Then my point is proved. With no schooling, save for the humble education you have received at sea, you have proved yourself a far more agreeable companion than Milady Cossile will ever be. Granted, you are not so fair to the eye, nor so free of blemishes, nor do you deport yourself with such maddening—” I curtailed my train of thought before I blushed at him. “But we must make allowances. Master Topolsky picked his expedition partners himself and we must strive to see the value in each of them.”
Mortlock leaned back in the chair, reached for a shelf and began leafing through the papers I had shoved from the table.
“Did you know of her before you came aboard?”
“As she is at pains to remind me, I am a provincial surgeon from the West Country while Milady Cossile moves in well-connected intellectual and academic circles in London. I am informed that she is on as equally agreeable terms with the likes of Byron as she is with men such as Davy. Our spheres, dare I say it, do not greatly intersect.”
“First it’s circles, then it’s spheres. Make your mind up, doctor!” He scratched at the rough red skin on the back of his neck. “I just don’t understand why she needles you all the time. It’s like you offended her in a past life!”
“I am equally at a loss, Mortlock,” I said wearily. “I can only suppose that Milady Cossile sees it as her gainful mission to occasionally improve another soul. Regrettably, for the duration of this expedition, I am the target of that undoubted altruism. But enough of our redoubtable etymologist.” I glared at him as he continued rummaging through my papers. ...
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