Part 1 – A Man May Have A Plan
The sun glowered furiously overhead. It sapped what little moisture there was and flung it back with humid venom. Three figures cringed beneath its relentless glare. Their tracks distinguished them easily: a man, his footsteps dragging on the dry earth; a cat, weaving but nimbly staying within the diminishing shadow of the man; a giant centipede, his many feet stroking curling waves into the dust. The trio had come from the Great Bane Desert and shadows followed them out of that grim place. Anyone unfortunate enough to be heading in the opposite direction would have seen them slowly resolve out of the heat haze. The man was tall, despite his thirsting and exhausted posture; his once-fine expeditionary clothing was torn and sand-filled, rasping against his red burned skin. The black, white and ginger streaked cat limped faintly, his ears pressed against his head and his eyes were squeezed half closed. The enormous centipede’s chitin armour was scratched and abraded by the fierce desert wind but it seemed otherwise unaffected by the aggressive climate.
“Are we nearly there yet?” enquired Maxwell (the cat), with impeccable timing. He had managed to find the absolute bare minimum interval between his otherwise infuriating questions to ensure maximum irritation and yet still receive a response. The quest and practice of such perfection kept him occupied. Neither Harvey nor Rosenhatch Traverstorm had guessed at the cat’s simple game, and both replied in the same weary voice that they had done countless times in the past three days:
“No. Well, maybe. I don’t know.”
Satisfied, Maxwell returned to counting out the seconds. It distracted him from his thirst. His fur was thick with sand which gave him the ghastly stripes of red but he had quite lost interest in attempting to groom the grains from his fur. With horror he considered that it might even be necessary to get wet… His tongue furled in sympathetic imitation of lapping at a delicious cool bowl of water. He hopped once more to lurk in Traverstorm’s shadow.
Maxwell doubted that this particular trip would be commemorated in the university’s hall of fame. Not that it had been badly planned; he himself had spent most of the preparation phase curled up on the maps, so he had a good sense of how much debate and argument Rosenhatch and Maxwell had needed to present to qualify for the grant. Maxwell only took an interest because he knew that he would be accompanying his eccentric servant (cats have a clear view on the roles and responsibilities of those who offer them food and shelter), and it was better to be prepared.
Some months ago, Harvey’s contacts on the edge of the Bane had alluded in several letters to the existence of a species of Crystal Finch previously only described in the folk tales of the traders who crossed the Bane centuries ago. The Crystal Finches were near-mythical creatures who colourfully populated the old tales as spectacular beasts wreaking havoc with their beauty. However, the only extant species on the colonised end of the continent was a dull chalky colour hardly meriting the glorious description. In addition it was grumpy and prone to sulking to death. Rosenhatch had literally bounced with excitement at the prospect of proving the creatures’ existence and closing (or poking open, depending on your scholastic alliance) one more hole in the accepted zoology of the Northern Continent. He had shared his proposed expedition immediately with his intimates. Harvey’s views had been clear and bluntly put forth:
“The Great Bane Desert will kill us all.” His segmented back undulated with displeasure at the prospect of venturing into the great wasteland.
Traverstorm had of course been of an entirely more optimistic attitude, which was unsurprising given his present status at the university. Traverstorm’s stock was at an all time low following yet another disastrous expedition into the heart of the Barrow Reef. They had lost (at the last count) thirteen men and women to the slow-acting poison of the Manticore Urchin, as well as a ship, supplies and even the lighthouse itself that secured safe passage through the Reef for merchants (and fools). This was neither unprecedented or unexpected; Rosenhatch Traverstorm’s career had been launched by a series of blind luck discoveries which had him ridiculed and lauded in roughly equal measure by academics and the public respectively. The consequent political pressures had ensured his continued employment and the contempt of his newfound peers. A lesser man would have been humiliated but Traverstorm continued to invite the research fellows round for Bumblescrape Whiskey and a hand of cards.
Traverstorm evaded Harvey’s sensible objection with just one phrase, a phrase which would enable ease of transport, safety and even speed to their expedition, that would romanticise the journey of even the hardest soul and give gentlemanly respite to the most ragged and rugged explorers: “we travel by airship.”
Next Week: Part 2 – Lord Corsham’s Airship