Part II: The Mystery of the Brass Vault
It was noon when Professor Robert Goodwin gave the order for the VS Rosanne 7 to surface, and amidst the constant blue of the sea, Elsie was of course the first person to emerge from the hatch. Smiling, and stretching her arms towards the sky, she acted as though she had been holding her breath for a week, and was overcome with joy. This was the first time since commencing her voyage that Elsie had been outside. Above the Rosanne, where the hatch was located, was a large oval-shaped platform with a guard-rail all about. The rest of the Rosanne stretched seventy meters exactly from stem to stern.
It was a wonderful day to be outside, and leaning against the metal rail, Elsie gazed blissfully over the ocean, which now possessed a certain enchanting serenity that she had never quite known before. This far out to sea the waves that swirled by took on a frighteningly dark shade of blue, and the ocean, all at once, became a mystery. Elsie was not afraid of the sea, although she did notice that when the clouds passed overhead, the water below seemed to be almost black.
It was by the guard-rail that Professor Goodwin found her standing shortly afterwards, and there they spoke for a while. “You remind me of your father,” he was saying. “Yes, the way you stare over the sea like that with the world in your eyes. You are indeed the daughter of Theodore Heartwing in that respect. I’m finally beginning to see your ulterior motive!”
“I don’t have an ulterior motive,” she said, defensively.
“Why, of course you do. The reason you’re here right now is the same reason why you’ve been staring out at the sea, wondering what you might find if you sailed beyond that horizon.” Elsie smiled but remained silent, until the professor said, “I don’t doubt the love you bear for your brother, but I know your family, Miss Heartwing, trust me, adventure is in your blood.”
Elsie turned towards him. “And what about you, professor?”
He seemed bemused. “Me? Ha! Perhaps once, but I’m afraid those days have left me.” His gaze became distant. “I’ve seen enough horizons to last me two lifetimes, but now I’m old, and the world has far too much noise in it for my liking.” He took a deep breath, taking in the sea air. “Let me give you some advice: if ever you go looking for trouble, don’t be surprised when you find it. Adventure comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, oh yes, and it’s often the small adventures that are most precious to us.”
Afterwards, as their conversation drifted, Elsie felt the need to inquire as to what exactly the professor was researching. “Your research, and this investigation, it wouldn’t have anything to do with those missing ships, would it?” She couldn’t think of anything else so classified that would be worth the professor’s time.
In answer, the professor chuckled, and said, “Oh no, my dear, my work is of a different nature. I am, chiefly, just a biologist after all, and that’s one mystery I’d rather not trouble myself with.”
“So what are you doing, then?”
But then the hatch behind them opened up and Herschel Adams popped out. There was a sense of urgency to his voice. “Professor, I’m afraid you’re needed in the map room.”
Goodwin glanced at Mr. Adams, and then at Elsie, and then back at Adams, and patting Elsie on the shoulder he left her alone atop the Rosanne, and she returned to staring over at the horizon.
The research facility that the Rosanne was traveling to was named Gamma Base, and over the years it had been a fortress of secrecy and superstition for the local township that was situated nearby. They never came near in, in fact, they were unspeakably afraid of it. Some claimed that the scientists who worked there spent their time transferring the souls of demons into organic bodies. The base was built underground, in a cave that ran into the sea. The only entrance was a small man-made tunnel located a few hundred meters back from the cliffs, but that was destroyed shortly after the rest of the base was shut down, and no one had ever stepped inside since. And yet someone had sent that transmission directly to the Rosanne – from inside the base.
On the day that the Rosanne arrived in the bay outside the township, the professor summoned half of the crew to breakfast, even Tilly Eveans – who worked in the engine room – and together they designed a method of overcoming this roadblock. Goodwin began by stating that Jack – if it was indeed Jack – could not have used the original entrance, meaning that he either entered through the sea, or found some other secret way in. The opening to the cave was below sea level and the Rosanne was too large to fit inside; furthermore, there was too much water for someone to swim the distance without drowning. Then, with a wicked smile, the professor set down his tea and said, “I was hoping it would come to this. Elsie, Herschel and Fiona, I’d like you to meet me downstairs in fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen minutes later, with Mr. Adams and Doctor O’Donnell by her side, Elsie entered a part of the Rosanne that she had not yet been to, but what she saw left a bad feeling in her gut. There, hanging upon the walls, were four diving suits. Some were slimmer than others, and some were taller. They were made from some flexible but very waterproof fabric, and beside each one was a great bulbous helmet fitted with air tubes and a looking glass. The air canisters, it seemed, fitted onto the backs. Elsie trembled, thinking that there was no force on earth that would get her into one of those suits.
It took a lot of encouraging to get Elsie to play along. Once she was actually in the suit and the four of them were stepping into the airlock, well, it became a little easier. There came a red blinking light, and slowly the airlock filled with water, and then they were confronted with that great turquoise blue, and Elsie found herself sinking wistfully to the ocean floor.
The beauty of the ocean was hypnotizing, and instantly Elsie found herself forgetting her worries and gaping in silence at the mysterious aquatic world around her. It was peaceful down there, and she smiled. When she lifted her head she saw the Rosanne drifting by, large and somewhat majestic. Then it passed and Elsie saw the surface of the water, way up above her, glistening with light. It was as though there were angels dancing about the gates of heaven. Streaks of sunlight shot down like spears and pierced the ocean floor. With every slow step the sand exploded around her feet, she became incredibly aware of her breathing, and for just a few moments she strolled freely around this blue underwater castle. The walls of the castle seemed to soar higher and higher as she walked, and coral of every colour imaginable was spread out before her like paint on a canvas. She glanced in awe as a giant sea turtle glided overhead with the gentle grace of a butterfly – it was the first time she had ever seen one in person. Suddenly there were fish all about her, and prickly urchins, and mean-looking eels, and sea sponges, and a small reef shark as well. Every step brought her something new, and she marvelled still while she had the chance, and the sun left strokes of bluish gold upon the sand.
Suddenly she was confronted by another, somewhat stouter suit, and she knew that it belonged to Professor Goodwin. He stood still like a statue, and slowly he raised his padded hand and waved at her. Then there came a crackly voice out of nowhere, as if it were in her head, but in fact it came from the radio in her helmet. “Elsie, can… hear me?” said the professor, but some of his words were covered with static. “How… you feeling?”
Elsie tried a reply on her own radio. “I’m doing fine. Professor, I’m not sure if the radio is working properly.”
“That’s odd,” the professor exclaimed, but again his words were hard to understand. “I was… Miss Eveans had… look at them!”
“Professor? Professor, I can’t understand you.”
A new voice came over her radio, belonging to Doctor O’Donnell. “Elsie, it appears our radios… cutting out. We’re heading… cave, okay? Just stay… to us… keep your light on. You do not want to get lost down…” After that there came only static.
Elsie followed the doctor and the professor as they stalked towards the dark abyss that was the cave entrance to Gamma Base. She continued to talk into her radio, even though she knew they couldn’t hear her. “Professor, it is absolutely beautiful down here. I’ve never seen anything like it; never ever dreamed of anything like this. Do you and Doctor O’Donnell do this sort of stuff all the time? I suppose you do.” So Elsie followed the others, and Mr. Adams stayed close behind her, but then, all at once, the ocean became very dark and dismal. There was less life to be seen as they entered the chasm, and much less colour. As the light faded away behind them, Elsie saw Mr. Adams turn on his torch, and after fiddling around with her suit, she did the same, but all she could see with her single beam of light was colourless rocks and sand.
Elsie was breathless and sweating by the time she emerged on the other side, in a dark chasm that appeared to be empty. With water dripping from the suits, their lights darted around as if they were alive, sliding and jumping over everything that wasn’t in sight. Through muffled sounds, Elsie heard someone remove their helmet, and then they helped to remove hers. She took a great breath of fresh air and glanced upon Mr. Adams, whose stern face was illuminated by her torchlight. When everyone was communicating again the professor said: “Oh Elsie, thank goodness you’re alright. I was only a little worried when the radios stopped working. I’ll have to talk to Miss Eveans about that.”
“I’m sure it’s not her fault,” Doctor O’Donnell added in.
“Quite so, still, the matter is behind us. Let’s see if I can’t find a power source. Herschel, with me if you will. Elsie, you stay with Fiona.”
Elsie stayed with Doctor O’Donnell in silence, and deep down she began to feel uncomfortable, as if some strange presence was lurking within the dark cavern. O’Donnell noticed this, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay, Elsie? You seem, I don’t know, a little on edge.”
“I can’t help thinking about this place, and the professor.” They both glanced up at the roof of the cavern, but saw only darkness. “I know there’s something he’s not telling me, and I don’t really care what it is, but I’m worried about Jack. Do you know if the professor has any connection to the research bases scattered around Pearl Isle?”
O’Donnell chuckled. “I should think so, he built them!”
Her words came as a surprise to Elsie. “He did? How? When? Wait, could you at least tell me, who was Professor Goodwin? Before all this, I mean.”
The doctor gestured for Elsie to sit down, and sitting upon a rock, she began to explain. “Alright, let me tell you something. Have you ever heard of an organisation called RimTech? Or perhaps AsGen? I wouldn’t expect you too. They were real secret-like, only a few people outside of the organisation knew about them. Some of their work was considered to be a little extreme, but that never stopped them. Suddenly one day it all shut down, and it caused a lot of fuss too, all over Pearl Isle. I must have been about ten-years-old at the time, and I only know about it because my daddy worked there. Anyway, the founder of the corporation of Rimtech and AsGen was Professor Robert Goodwin. Marvellous things he did; we owe our bio-tech to him, and probably most of our medicine. I can’t tell you why he stopped, though. He never let me ask.”
Professor Goodwin must have found the power, because in an instant the entire cavern lit up, bright as day. Gamma Base was a great deal larger than what Elsie had thought. Part rock, part metal, on the far side of the cave (as far as Elsie knew) there was located a series of doors all around one particularly big door, and above them was a catwalk; a sort of platform, or perhaps a second level. When Elsie glanced up she saw great metal beams bearing bright lights amongst a shadowy rocky surface. Great pillars of rock dove down from the roof and plunged into the ground.
The professor and Mr. Adams awaited them on the far side of the cave. Looking upon the place, a certain grimness came over Goodwin, as though he had just stepped into a shadow. “Well,” he said, “we all have a job to do, let’s get to it.”
Elsie stopped him before he could walk off. “Professor, what are we looking for exactly?”
“Anything interesting. Anything that might lead us to your brother, or better yet, your brother himself!” He glanced over the numerous doors about them. “Perhaps it’ll be quicker if we split up. Everyone, pick a door, and oh, good hunting.”
Elsie picked the door closest to her left. Quiet and alone, she treaded down a long hallway that gradually became less of a cave and more of a laboratory. When she emerged on the other side she was standing in a very large room. For a secret underground facility this room had a lot of windows, but they glowed with a dark turquoise colour, and Elsie knew that she was gazing again into the sea. The room was richly furnished; there were dusty sofas, lamps, and desks upon which were piles of paper. To the left was a large pin-board covered in notes, and on the far wall was a tall bookshelf reaching right up to the ceiling, and a ladder beside it. Beside the bookshelves were filing cabinets filled to the brim with more notes. At Elsie’s feet was a dusty old, drink-stained rug.
Elsie took a moment to rummage through the desk to see what all the paper was about. Most of it was just research notes; test results of some kind or scientific studies. She determined, after seeing the words ‘genetic engineering’ in various forms throughout the notes that that is what they were studying. She picked one particular book, a massive tome-like thing, titled The Complete Study of the Nature of Life. The very first sentence read: “Organic life is a canvass upon which we shall make our art.”
The next room Elsie entered made her despairingly uncomfortable. The first thing she noticed was the surgical table in the centre, and a collection of tools smeared with dry blood. All around her were cages and cages of animal bones, as if someone had just left them down here to die. But Elsie knew that the professor would never allow such a thing. She wondered how much Jack knew about all this.
What stood out in the gruesome scenery around her was a single journal; a small forgotten book covered with dust and, frighteningly, a little blood. Elsie picked it up, and saw the name Charles Fredrick Vandenberg inscribed upon it. The man must have worked for Goodwin, and perhaps his journal would have answers as to what happened to all these animals. The pages were filled with writing, and Elsie had to flick through it, trying to find the most important parts. She read:
Today I joined AsGen and became part of Mr. Goodwin’s special team of researchers. I am simply astonished by this place! The amount of resources that must have gone into building it; and the secrecy! Why, I’m not even allowed to tell my colleges about this back in Warren City. As far as they know I’m still holidaying in the countryside…
Elsie skipped a few pages. She wanted to find out what Professor Goodwin was doing with all this research.
I happened upon a strange man today as I was loading the professor’s specimens into the labs. I had never seen him in the facility before, but he held his head high, so I assumed he was important. What startled me at first was that he knew my name, and as I shook his hand I hadn’t the foggiest idea at the time that this man was in fact Mr. Robert Goodwin himself! Oh how embarrassed I was…
Still no answers, although one of the following passages seemed intriguing.
Goodwin has cleared most of the workers from the labs. I never see them go, but as the days shoot by they just seem to disappear, and the facility becomes just a little quieter. I received a letter from him this morning informing me that I am to be promoted to chief researcher. It is funny how it can all happen so fast. The letter also made mention of a new special assignment that I am to commence. At last I understand why one of my labs if full of animals…
Elsie now understood that Goodwin had this man Vandenberg perform experiments on the animals. But still, she knew that he wouldn’t just let them die.
I’ve done it! At last I’ve done it! Mr. Goodwin will be most pleased indeed. I applied his methods to my work – as instructed – and with my expert knowledge of genetic engineering I have exceeded the limits of the natural world! Why, just the other week I bred a lab rat that – in a matter of days – grew to be the size of a small dog! And everything remained in proportion! I have the specimen now in my office, and I intend to examine it in great detail…
Of the entire sample of lab rats provided to me, those that displayed any signs of rapid of growth have died. Post mortem examinations reveal that their cells became cancerous, roughly one week after treatment was inflicted. They died rapidly; the cancer acted in a way that I have never seen before. I believe that studying this occurrence in a number of different species may assist me in solving this dilemma…
It has taken a very long time, but I believe I may have found a breakthrough in my research. I was able to delay the cancer symptoms in my advanced lab rats and I may have discovered something astonishing. Approximately six days after treatment, the new specimens displayed incredible signs of heightened intelligence. Just imagine what AsGen could do with this sort of technology! But not yet, as there was one other complication that seemed to occur. Further observation is indeed required, but I swear the rats became abnormally aggressive in the moments prior to their deaths. It looks like I now have two problems to solve…
Elsie stuffed the journal into her suit upon hearing footsteps echoing like ghosts through the labs. Doctor O’Donnell appeared, and her smile faded when she noticed the state of the room they were in. She urged Elsie to leave. “Elsie, my dear, did you find anything?” Elsie shook her head, and the doctor took her hand. “Come with me, I do believe Robert has something for us.”
Returning to the main body of the cavern they found Mr. Adams and the professor awaiting them patiently, and the professor presented them with a very large sales log. “We are in luck, Miss Heartwing, for I now believe I know where your brother is located. This here is a sales log, and according to the records inside, the facility had been making purchases from Mr. John Backhaus for at least two years after it had been shut down.”
Elsie wondered if it was Vandenberg who had been making the purchases, trying to continue his research. She didn’t feel like asking Goodwin. Instead she inquired as to who this Mr. John Backhaus was, and what he had to do with Jack.
“Mr. Backhaus is the owner and founder of Backhaus Industries located in Edith Post. Now, look here Elsie, there’s a page missing from the log and I think that Jack took it; you see, for the past year he’s been tracking the items used in this sort of research.”
Fiona O’Donnell investigated the sales log as well. “Look at this,” she added. “Some of these entries are less than a year old. This facility might not be so abandoned after all.”
And so they left Gamma Base in the same manner as they entered, and Elsie smiled, knowing that her brother was at Edith Post, and her next move was to have a talk to this man, Mr. John Backhaus.
Edith Post was an interesting city indeed in that the whole thing was built with one layer upon another upon another. It was a bright city, and lively, like a giant clock, it was always moving. Ticking away, cogs turned wheels, chimneys puffed clouds of smoke into the air, and busses and elevators flew about like little insects. For an outsider, it had the mesmerising effect of making one incredibly dizzy. It was hard not to get lost when everything was constantly moving; left and right, and up and down. It seemed that when they ran out of space to build horizontally, they decided to start building vertically. From afar could be seen three great spires that served as the pillars of Edit Post, just as Edith Post served as the pillar of modern industry in Pearl Isle.
Miss Tilly Eveans, despite her youthful appearance, was the chief engineer upon the VS Rosanne 7. Upon their first official meeting when Elsie was exploring the lower levels of the ship, she learned in conversation that ever since Miss Eveans was a little girl she had a passion for machinery, and in her later years found that fixing ship engines was a great source of income. In brief, that is the story of how she arrived on the Rosanne.
Tilly was two or three years older than Elsie, and she was short, but never quite seemed so, down in the cramped confines of the engine room. She had a wide face that was – upon their first meeting – spotted with smears of engine grease. Beneath the goggles that rested upon her forehead were two sleek brown eyes, and tumbling down to her shoulders was a shock of knotty auburn hair.
“Hey, I was wondering if you could do me a favour,” she was saying as their conversation neared its end. “I’ll be needing some supplies if I want to keep the Rosanne running smoothly. Here, take this list. Get it to my friend in Edith Post, his address is on the back, and he should be able to procure the items. Don’t worry, Mr. Goodwin will cover the cost.”
Elsie examined the list, and said, “Some of this is just peanuts and expensive drinks.”
“Which is why I’m asking you and not one of Goodwin’s boys,” she said with a smile. “I hope you’re still up for games night. It sounds like a wonderful idea, I think. Drinks will be on me.”
When the Rosanne docked at the port of Edith Post, most of the crew departed and went about their business in the city while they could. For some, the day was quite an adventure.
Some people visited family, and those who didn’t ventured to the taverns, while others, such as Elsie, were still quite occupied with their work. Elsie spent her first moments carrying our Tilly’s errand while Professor Goodwin and the rest of his company sought out Mr. Backhaus. In Elsie’s backpack at the time was Floof, who was by now very agile with his new front leg. He had spent most of this voyage so far in Elsie’s cabin, seeing as he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else. So he sat and ate carrots and ran like crazy on this oversized hamster wheel that Goodwin had provided. But today Floof began a new adventure.
Elsie had set her backpack down for just a moment and in the spirit of curiosity Floof decided to take a stroll. He didn’t know where he was going but he knew that there were people everywhere! Or, in his eyes, they were more like giant colossal things, stampeding around, this way and that. In just one minute he was almost crushed thrice by huge boots, and it was here that he decided to retreat back to his master. He heard her calling. “Floof! Floof! Where are you?” But alas, his path was crossed with a foe. It was an unnaturally feral creature, and it hissed and scowled bearing sharp yellow fangs. Flexing its claws and arching its scrawny, partially hairless back, the street-cat marked Floof for its prey, and within seconds it came bounding over, thinking to sink its fangs into the soft, helpless little bunny.
Startled, and in this particular situation, very alone, Floof fled for his life, hoping to escape the predator in the jungle of humans. He darted side to side as feet crashed down around him. His new leg aided him greatly in this endeavour, but the cat was still right on his tail – so to speak. Floof turned his head to the right and hastily made his way off the street, and into the nearest alley. It would have been a tight fit for a human, but the cat certainly managed it all right. Floof hopped with all his might until her landed himself in the refuge of a small pipe. It was dark and smelly inside, and the cat jammed its paw in and swung it about, but it was too large to pursue Floof any further. A wave of great relief washed over the little bunny.
Having no intention of stumbling upon another cat, Floof wondered the streets anxiously, trying to find his way back to Elsie. But the journey was long, and soon Floof grew hungry. He followed his nose, and the scent of cooked vegetables led him to a smelly dumpster behind a restaurant. There, Floof began to eat, until he heard a metallic creaking sound, and was smothered in a bright light. A human approached. “Bloody street rats!” he cried, but then he caught a glance at Floof’s special leg, and he said, “Well hello, now you ain’t no street rat. My friend Pete will pay a pretty price for a pet like you.” The next thing Floof knew, he was upside down in a bag that smelt an awful lot like potatoes.
When at last Floof saw the light he was surrounded by all manner of different animals. Indeed, he saw dogs, cats, rabbits, possums, mice, ferrets, and all the like. Above him towered a man with a white moustache and his companion – the man who had stuffed Floof in the bag. They were discussing the price at which the man with the moustache – presumably known as Pete – was willing to pay for the rabbit, and the other man made several mentions of the fact that this particular bunny had a biotic leg.
“What a curios little creature,” said Pete. “I wonder how he got that leg.”
“Bugger how he got it,” said the other man. “I just want to know how much you’re willing to pay.”
“I never said I was interesting in buying it. Business goes well enough without your personal supply, thank you.”
“Spare me, business hasn’t been good here since AsGen shut down and those mad scientists stopped taking our animals.”
And thus, after a small amount of bartering, the other man left with a regular sum of money, and Floof ended up locked in a cage, and he remained until the morning of the next day, where, as fortune would have it, he was rescued. Elsie Heartwing, after spending the night investigating various aspects of Edith Post, entered the animal shelter to find out what they knew about those animals back at Gamma Base, and as she spoke to Pete, the owner, she was shocked to find Floof locked up in one of his cages. “That’s my rabbit!” she blurted.
“Miss, I can assure you that is not your rabbit,” said the store owner, defensively. “You must be mistaken.”
“I most certainly am not. How many rabbits out there have bionic legs? You stole him, didn’t you?”
“I did no such thing! That there rabbit was sold to me. Regardless of where he came from he is now my property and I will not just hand away my belongings to any person who just waltzes into my shop and claims that this bunny is theirs!”
“But it is!”
“Alas, that’s business for you. But look here, if you want the bunny so much, you’ll have to buy him.”
And so Floof’s misadventure came to an end with the exchange of one or two unsavoury looks and some money. The young rabbit henceforth made a personal note of staying with Elsie at almost all times, particularly outside the Rosanne, and he never ever left the safety of her backpack again.
Elsie discovered that when following in her brother’s footsteps, another day simply meant another abandoned laboratory to examine. When she stepped off the Rosanne her first task was to perform Tilly’s errand, but in doing so she lost Floof. By this stage she couldn’t quite recall if she had brought him along in her backpack or if he had remained in her cabin. None of her companions seemed to know. Afterwards she met up with Professor Goodwin, who had failed to gain an audience with Mr. Backhaus, and instead begged Elsie and friends to accompany him to another one of the corporation’s labs. He explained that when RimTech was still active, they used a nearby warehouse to develop the bulk of their technology. From afar, above the entrance of the warehouse, Elsie read the block letters: Research Institute of Mechanical Technology.
The warehouse, much like the laboratory at Gamma Base, was abandoned and dusty. It was so huge, but so quiet, that all of Elsie’s footsteps sang echoes right through, and when Mr. Adams tossed an old spanner from a table the sound sent a dozen pigeons flying off from the rafters. The entire place had an eerie atmosphere. It seemed a graveyard for machines. Giant steel arms were craned upon the floor like dead spiders, and massive conveyor belts were stopped in motion, still littered upon with bolts and screws.
They split up again, in order to cover more ground; Doctor O’Donnell and Mr. Adams went down to the factory floor, while Elsie and Professor Goodwin examined the office, which was essentially just a square box that overlooked the entire factory, and just like Gamma Base, it was filled with paper, and a great deal of it was merely forgotten research notes. Then Elsie found something interesting upon the wall, and said, “Look, it’s a work roster, and it has Charles Vandenberg’s name on it, and his signature!”
Professor Goodwin turned around quickly and glared at her. “What did you say?” he demanded, softly, as if he were in some sort of trance.
Elsie recalled the journal that she had left sitting on the desk in her cabin; she had read a great deal more of it on her way to Edith Post, mostly information about the progress of Vandenberg’s experiments. She looked timidly down at her feet. “Charles Vandenberg,” she said. “I saw his name when we were at Gamma Base. According to his journal he used to work for you.”
“Well, yes, he did, but that was a long time ago now.”
“Oh, do you stay in touch often?”
Goodwin became grim, as if that dark cloud had suddenly returned. “I’m afraid he died in a terrible accident. That was a sad day indeed. I’m sure if he were alive we would have been the best of friends.” He moved over to the main desk. “But enough about old ghosts. I’m certain your brother hasn’t visited this base yet. See these documents? They’re crucial to our investigation. If Jack had found these he would have taken them. That being said, I’m still certain he is somewhere in Edith Post, and I’m suspicious that Mr. John Backhaus knows where.”
“What makes you say that?”
“His secretary told us he was in a meeting, however I checked her book, and it told me otherwise. He knows me, you see. Backhaus was eager to delay our meeting – he’s up to something.”
Elsie moved over to the table and began sifting through some of the papers. She gasped when she saw what they were. “Good God, professor! These are schematics for bio-tech! I’ve never seen anything like this; hearts, lungs, is this a part of the brain? Were you really working on replicating internal organs?”
The professor gave a sombre smile. “RimTech accomplished some amazing feats, but the technology was never developed enough for proper use, sad to say. Arms were the easiest of our many challenges,” he flexed his brass fingers, “as you can see.”
It was mid-afternoon when the team finished up with the warehouse, and Elsie felt the need to follow up on a hunch that had suddenly occurred to her. Before the day came to an end, she visited a local animal shelter to inquire about any large shipments, and, well, the rest of that story has been told.
Mr. John Backhaus had a marvellous beard. In fact, it was really quite bazar. Dark and flush and trimmed to perfection, it was like a piece of art that was attached to his face. His moustache sat evenly upon his upper lip, and was curled neatly into two fine points. His skin appeared to be smooth as silk, and the colour flowed into his purple eyes that were shadowing and somewhat fierce. The man wore an evening-black vest over a fiery-red shirt, as well as an orange cravat and a beige coat. Backhaus was a business man, in short, and one of the richer members of Edith Post’s little industrial empire.
He smiled, ear to ear, with his fingers laced together upon his large mahogany desk; Edith Post was in the window behind him. “Now, Miss Heartwing, is it? What can I do for you today?”
Elsie was seated in a black leather chair on the other side of the desk; she was alone, and she took as much time as she could observing his office for anything suspicious. As she expected, it was spacious; sort of a typical office, save for a few odd things. For one, Backhaus’ chair was more of the likes of a throne. And, on the right side of the office, above the bookshelves, was an interesting display of swords and shields – medieval in nature, Elsie thought. But most importantly, to the left, a giant and mysterious brass vault loomed over her, and she could hardly keep her eyes off it. She had a thousand guesses as to what Backhaus could have been hiding in there, and one of those guesses was Jack! “I’m looking for someone,” Elsie explained, “and I think you can help me.”
“Edith Post is a big city,” he replied, his eyes remained still, “and there are a lot of ‘someones’ running about. Why come to me?”
Elsie noticed something sinister in his voice, a shroud of confidence that clung to a snake-like tone. “Were you familiar with the nature of the research carried out by AsGen before they were dismantled? I only ask because certain sources of mine linked Backhaus Industries to the corporation back when it was still active. This person I’m looking for may have contacted you, or perhaps one of your associates, in regards to this matter.”
“I am afraid no such person has come my way.”
“And you are certain?”
“Most certain.” Backhaus rose from his throne, and standing over Elsie, he strode with his hands behind his back, staring over the city through the great window. He seemed to marvel at its magnificence. “Do you know how this city works, Miss Heartwing? You are young, and I can sense that you are unfamiliar with this place. Perhaps I shall enlighten you? Everyone here wants something from everyone else. That’s business. It is the way the machine runs and it is the force that allows it to do so without any disruptions. When I came to Edith Post I was but one shallow fool amongst thousands, but through hard work, blood and sweat, I clawed my way above them all, and now they all work for me. I have grand designs for this city, grand designs indeed! My only predicament is the vermin who get caught in the cogs of this grand machine, who block the flow of its splendour. I love my city, Miss Heartwing, and I know that you and your little company upon the VS Rosanne 7 will remain most courteous during your stay here.” He had one of his assistants show her out, leaving her with the words: “I do hope you find whoever it is you’re looking for, and oh, send my regards to Mr. Goodwin, will you?”
After the unpleasant encounter with Mr. Backhaus, the crew were ordered to return to the Rosanne to discuss the day’s events, and to figure out their next plan; but after meeting face to face with Mr. Backhaus, Elsie was left feeling quite dismal. Her mood improved after a kind thankyou and a kiss on the cheek from Tilly. That night, everyone gathered around the map table; including Elsie and the professor, Mr. Dunstan, Mr. Adams, and Doctor O’Donnell. Goodwin placed his hands flat on the table and said to Elsie, “So, tell us how your meeting with John Backhaus was.”
In response, Elsie drew back a little. “I should think it was dreadfully unpleasant,” she remarked. “That man is a snake, and you were right, he knows about Jack.”
“And now he knows we’re onto him,” Doctor O’Donnell added. “We shouldn’t have trusted him to play nicely in the first place.”
A shadow of grief and worry fell over Elsie. “Oh God, you don’t think he did anything to Jack, do you?”
“Obviously the information that Jack tore out of that sales log at Gamma Base posed some kind of threat to Backhaus Industries. Mr. Backhaus would have destroyed the information the second he got his hands on it, but as for Jack, who knows?”
“Even a man like John Backhaus wouldn’t go so far as to commit murder,” said Goodwin, before Elsie became too anxious. “Our goal remains the same. It is imperative for the sake of Jack and his sister, and our investigation, that Jack Heartwing is recovered. We just have to find out how.”
They all stood in silence for a moment, until Mr. Dunstan proposed an idea. “Oh, I know! Why don’t we get Mr. Adams in a room with Mr. Backhaus and get him to ruff him up a bit, you know, make him tell us where he’s keeping Jack!”
What followed was an exchange of uncertain glances. “Riley, that’s a terrible idea.”
And then Goodwin said, “Elsie is right, Mr. Dunstan. John Backhaus isn’t a man you can just beat up. He is one of the wealthiest men in Edith Post, and more likely the most powerful. The men of this city play at a game of ambition, they are quite ruthless, but even they have limits; John Backhaus, however, I am not so sure. We are treading on thin enough ice as it is. Our next move must be discrete, else we’ll find ourselves exiled from Edith Post, or perhaps worse!”
The next day a local paper announced that a cruise ship, travelling from Victoria City to Kings Island, mysteriously disappeared in the same manner as all those ships that came before it. In the wake of this incident, five hundred people were reported missing – those who were aboard the ship; and as usual no one could propose a solution as to how it all occurred.
Meanwhile, on that same day, Elsie – alone – fancied herself another visit to Backhaus industries. She didn’t quite have a plan, nor any particular purpose, however she figured that a little extra reconnaissance could never possibly hurt. Unfortunately she was very wrong in that regard.
Now, Rex Bowler was a mysterious and frightening man, whom Elsie had witnessed that day walking towards the office of John Backhaus. Rex was a brute who moved with the impact of a freight train. He had a head like a boulder, jagged and unruly, and riddled with scars upon the jaw, mostly; shaven, with only shades of grey and brown stubble for hair. His eyes rested under a heavy brow, and were copper, and most unsettling. Around his thick shoulders was draped a dusty shredded-up cloak that hung down and covered his entire right arm. He wore leather beneath it – some kind of modified engineer’s suit. All Elsie knew was that she could feel the weight of his footsteps. Although she did not know this man, she deemed to avoid him, for her own sake.
Having scurried upstairs and having avoided the security for know, she soon found herself with her ear against the door of John Backhaus’ office, straining to hear what they were saying inside. The conversation was worse than she thought.
“I paid you to put an end to this infernal investigation!” cried Backhaus. “And yet somehow I still have an entire team now breathing down my neck!”
Rex Bowler retorted. “Hey, I did my part. I brought you the boy, just as you asked, and I disposed of that evidence he had against you.”
“Yes you did, and I commend you in that, but I’m afraid it wasn’t enough. I am prepared to raise your initial pay if you continue the job and scare of these rascals, kill one or two for all I care! Just don’t get caught and don’t leave any evidence that can be traced back to me. I can’t afford another scandal on my hands. Oh, but of course your initial task still stands. I don’t want any of these damned scientists uncovering the truth about Mr. Vandenberg’s experiments, is that clear?”
“That’s a big ask, sir. Perhaps you could show a little more gratitude. I owe you nothing, you know, I could have kept the evidence for myself.”
“Don’t pose to threaten me, Mr. Bowler! If you are unwilling to do the job then I can just as easily hire a new man, whose very first assignment under me will be to deal with hindrances such as you!”
The next voice that Elsie heard didn’t come from within the room, but it sounded remarkably angry. She didn’t know who the man down the hall was, or what he was doing there, but he pointed at her with his finger and shouted, “Hey!” And Elsie, realising that she had been discovered, made to escape when another man confronted her, and she was trapped within the hallway. The next thing she knew she was face to face with John Backhaus, with Rex Bowler by his side. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you that it was rude to eavesdrop?”
Elsie submitted herself as a captive, and cursed, knowing that her actions had just made the mission a great deal more difficult for everyone involved.
She shared a jail cell with one of the largest rats she had ever seen. In fact, she questioned if it were a normal rat at all, and not one of Vandenberg’s obscure experiments. In the misery of the cell, the rat smiled at her and wiggled its gross little nose. The jail cell was a dank place; there was barely any light and nothing to sit on, not to mention it smelt like a sewer – which would explain the rat. Also, she could hear the distant rumbling of water, somewhere far off. As for her gaolers, the place was completely empty, save for her and her rat, and one other man, who she didn’t quite recognise at first.
The man lifted his head from the subtle dark of the corner of the cell, and Elsie Heartwing knew at once, in a flurry of relief and surprise, that it was indeed her brother Jack. In such a vile place he didn’t quite seem himself, but then again it had been a very long time since Elsie had last seen her brother in the flesh. After a long gaze Jack leaned forward and brushed the long unkempt hair from his face, and Elsie saw that his eyes were very much the same. “Elsie?” he uttered, as if her were talking to a ghost. “Elsie, is that really you? Or have I finally gone mad?”
With a big smile Elsie rushed over and embraced him, marvelling at how great it was to at last hear his voice again, and to know that he was okay. “Jack, you haven’t gone mad. I’ve come to rescue you, so has Professor Goodwin and Doctor O’Donnell.”
“Come to rescue me, have you?” he remarked. He released her and proceeded to wrap his hand around one of the iron bars of the cell. “Swell job you’ve done so far, little sister. No doubt this is all part of the plan.”
Elsie laughed and rolled her eyes. She always knew that her brother was a ‘straight to business’ kind of person. She replied, “Actually, no. That cretin Mr. Backhaus locked me up after he caught me listening in on his conversation.”
“Oh, no matter, I’m sure Robert will come along in no time at all.”
“I wasn’t aware you were on a first name basis with the professor.”
“Oh indeed, we’re practically best friends, he and I.”
Despite being stuck in her very first jail cell, Elsie could hardly contain her joy. “It’s so good to see you again Jack! Although, I ought to slap you for getting yourself into this mess. You know the professor still hasn’t told me what all this is about.”
Jack smiled, and together they sat cross-legged upon the floor of their cell, talking and talking away, and catching up on time lost. “Nor should you have known at all,” said Jack. “To be entirely honest, I’m surprised he had the stomach to bring you along, given the response mum and dad would issue if they ever found out. But look at you now! Little Elsie is out in the world!”
Elsie giggled. “I’m old enough to take care of myself and yet no one seems to believe me! I’ve actually been enjoying myself, the travelling and seeing the sights and all, although the Rosanne is hardly what I’d call comfortable.”
“Quite understandable, I think. But you know, this job isn’t all fun and games, dear sister. I’ve put a lot of hard effort into this investigation, been all over Pearl Isle – as you know – and this isn’t exactly the first time I’ve seen myself in the face of danger.”
“Oh, well the professor has been annoyingly secretive about it. I want you to tell me everything, Jack. It’s not like we’re going anywhere. Tell me what happened.”
And so Elsie sat back and listened quietly, allowing Jack to tell every detail of his story in full: “It all started a few days after dear mother and father departed for their own little adventure. I was working a few jobs at the university – mostly just miscellaneous errands, you know the sort – and then I get a letter from Robert inviting me to dinner at that fancy restaurant in the royal district – the calamari there was just precious, by the way, we should really go there sometime. Anyway, so I arrive with my best suit and I find three people there; Robert, Fiona O’Donnell, and this man Herschel Adams – some kind of mercenary, I think. I start to wonder; what sort of job would require an old biologist, a very beautiful doctor and a scary-looking mercenary? And then I’m told that it’s all to do with those ships that have been disappearing. Have you been reading about it in the papers? Seven ships in two months, over two-thousand workers and civilians just wiped off the face of the earth. Now, I heard all of the theories, and I know that some of the greatest minds in all of Pearl Isle still couldn’t crack the case, so of course I took the job myself! Hey, I might not be a ‘great mind’ but it isn’t all about being smart!
“Two days later I’m on a boat staring down into the water with a bad feeling in my gut – and it wasn’t the sea sickness either. Robert tells the driver that he’s supposed to take me where ever I desire to go, and I am to go wherever the investigating takes me. As for my investigation, well you see, a while back there was this corporation made up of two organisations; AsGen and RimTech – real secretive, they were. Oh, you know about them already? And Robert’s part in it all? Excellent, I guess I’ll skip that part then. So Robert sends me off in a boat and he gives me a map of Pearl Isle. On that map is the locations of all of the Corporation’s research facilities; seven of them named after the letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha to zeta.
“Robert tells me when I leave that the thing wiping out all of these ships could be the result of one of AsGen’s experiments. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to tell you any more than that, sorry kiddo, although I can say that it is a very unnatural phenomenon. But that’s all. My job was to find out if Robert was right, and so far I have within my possession a whole pile of maybes, but not enough evidence to prove anything. What I am suspicious of is a man named Vandenberg. Oh, you know about him too? Well, you have been busy. So Vandenberg was this scientist working under Robert on some of his more special assignments – the way I hear it they used to be good friends. Then, around the time that the Corporation shut down Vandenberg is killed in an accident – one of the labs explodes. The only thing is, I’m not sure if Vandenberg really died at all. My investigation hinted to me that someone had been secretly running the labs years after they were abandoned, and all the evidence pointed to Vandenberg, and then when I’m at Gamma Base is find a sales log that tells me how whatever Vandenberg has been doing is being funded by Backhaus industries.
“That’s when I arrived at Edith Post, and upon a visit to Mr. Backhaus’ office I marvelled at this mysterious brass vault – I think whatever Backhaus has in that vault is crucial to the investigation. Before I had a chance to find out what it was I was jumped by a bounty hunter named Rex Bowler – he’s been following me ever since Warren City. Now, the fact that Mr. Bowler is involved tells me that Mr. Backhaus and Mr. Vandenberg don’t want me to discover whatever it is they’re hiding, but if I don’t solve this mystery Elsie, more ships are going to disappear.”
When the gaolers arrived at noon to give the prisoners their lunch, Jack devised a rather daring escape plan, and merely awaited the perfect time to carry it out. “You see that pipe there on the wall?” he mentioned to Elsie, as the gaolers approached down the stairs. “I think it’s seen better days. Okay, I’ve been working on this plan for a while. When the gaolers open the door, make sure you stay right behind me, and get ready to run.”
The gaolers were both stout-looking men; one with a black and grey beard, and the other with a brown and grey beard. They wore blue uniforms and carried batons, and one had a wort like a grape on the left side of his face. They were both grumpy, like grouchy little dwarves who never managed to get enough sleep. “Look!” one of them blurted. “This one made a friend!” As he reached for his key to open the door he said, “Grub’s up, do try not to choke, it’ll look bad on my record.” He released a bout of laughter.
The second the door was opened Jack flew across the cell and slapped the tray of food into the gaoler’s face so that he was temporarily blinded by leftover mashed potatoes. The second gaoler grumbled and swung his baton, and when Jack leapt aside the blow crashed down on the first gaoler’s back, and he cried out in anguish. Then Jack took up a rock and he bashed it against the rusty pipe, and it burst open spraying hot water vapour into the room. Steam was soon everywhere, and taking Elsie’s hand, Jack used the commotion to steal the gaoler’s key and escape, locking the iron door to the holding cells on his way out.
They emerged free and to the light of noon, only a few blocks away from the port of Edith Post, where the VS Rosanne 7 humbly awaited. They had all seen quite enough of this city for now.
Having returned at last to the company of friends aboard the VS Rosanne 7 Jack Heartwing took a moment to freshen up, and was very soon back to his normal self again. Now Jack was a tall sleek fellow of twenty-five years, and was considered by many to be most handsome. He donned a wine-coloured jacket to match his very tall top hat, and the light slipped across the smooth fabric with every swift movement he made. Jack had trimmed his beard so that it fitted neatly around his jawline, and his hair curled out from under his hat. “It is so nice to look upon familiar faces!” he exclaimed as he entered the map room. “Robert! How are you? We have much to discuss when circumstances allow it. And Fiona, why am I not surprised he brought you along. We absolutely must have dinner together sometime.” He played with his cufflinks as he talked. “I have uncovered a great deal of knowledge during my investigation across all of Pearl Isle, and I will share it with you shortly…”
But Professor Goodwin raised his hand and interrupted him. “Jack, I believe there is first the matter of your dear little sister to attend to. She is remarkably intelligent and knows all about our secrets, although little of what they contain. This is no place for her.”
“Excuse me?” Elsie blurted. “I am standing right here! You can’t just toss me from the ship like some parasite. I deserve to be a part of the investigation!”
“It’s too dangerous,” the professor declared. “We have a responsibility to your parents, one that I intend to uphold. Besides, I believe your only motivation was to locate your brother, well you’ve found him now. It’s time to stop playing games, Elsie. I had intended to send you off on the train from Edith Post, however in our eminent haste it seems that option has been removed. No matter, I am sure we’ll figure something out.”
Elsie turned to her brother, and her face had begun to turn red. “Jack, surely you can’t agree with this.”
Jack inclined his head. “I’m afraid I have to agree with Robert, Elsie. I mean, there’s a bounty hunter after us, and we’ve already been locked up in jail by one of the most dangerous men in Pearl Isle. It’s too risky. What would mum and dad say…” He paused for a moment. “But, we also have dire need to get to Epsilon Base on the Eastern Cape, and I won’t dare let you out of my sight while that man Rex Bowler is out there. As much as mother and father would hate it, I think you’re safest right here on the Rosanne, if the professor will have you.”
They all glared at Goodwin, and the slight – though inert – movement of his head was all Elsie needed to know that she was indeed staying aboard the Rosanne, for now at least.
Jack continued his report. “Good. Now, as I said, we must make all haste towards Epsilon Base. It’s the only research facility that I haven’t checked yet so whatever we find could very well put a stop to these attacks once and for all – and I should remind you that the disappearances are becoming more frequent. It’s only a matter of time before we lose another ship.” Doctor O’Donnell then inquired as to what their next move would be should they find nothing of value at Epsilon Base, and Jack answered. “We return to Edith Post and we kidnap John Backhaus, of course.”
“Jack,” Elsie pointed out, “didn’t you just say that Mr. Backhaus is probably one of the most powerful men in Pearl Isle? How could kidnapping him possibly be a good idea?”
“If nothing comes up at Epsilon Base, well, desperate times call for desperate measures, dear sister. Also, I have an inking as to how Backhaus might be related to the attacks. Robert, do you have a record somewhere of the Victoria Times?”
Professor sent someone to collect every newspaper they had with stories regarding the attacks, and Jack spread them all out over the table, and then he smiled. “So I was right! Look at who all of these ships belong to.”
Goodwin leaned over the papers. “My word! Just about every company in Pearl Isle except Backhaus Industries! Jack my boy, you’re a genius. But are you supposing that Backhaus is controlling it somehow?”
“It makes sense. I mean, I have no idea how on earth someone would be able to control it, but I believe they found a way. Whatever the case, we should hope to find answers at Epsilon Base.”
Goodwin clapped his hands together. “Then we have our objective! Mr. Dunstan, set a course for the Eastern Cape, we’re going to visit my old work station.”