Andre Dupont: The latter days

A gruesome sight – What we are facing – Horses walking slowly – The wages of treason – The web over the world

Smoking on University grounds

Linda Davenport reporting

With nothing but our health and well-being in mind, the Dean has once more drawn to our attention that students are not allowed to smoke tobacco anywhere on University grounds, including the boiler rooms, the disused chapel, the very popular meeting spot behind the stables, and several other places where it is now known that this unhealthy practice was taking place. A full list of these places can be found on the announcement board, and the Dean told the Clarion that regular checks will be held at these locations.

Your reporter would be amiss if she did not probe more deeply into the why and wherefore of this curious habit, or as Prof. Reuel would have it, “art”. The main motivation seems to be the image of sophistication provided by smouldering bits of pipe-weed. While the image of the dashing gentleman, cigarette dangling nonchalantly from his lips, or absent-mindedly held between the fingers, does have its appeal, a survey held among the ladies found a strong preference for non-smoking company. One respondent describes the experience with a smoker as “licking out an ashtray”. Make of that what you will. When asked, the boys gave no preference for or against. Perhaps they do not wish to impose, which is commendable. Maybe they simply do not care about our health, which is less so. Maybe other considerations prevail. Further investigations are not likely.


 

Contrary to the old adage, it is not always darkest before the dawn. Simply because things are worse than you have ever experienced, that does not mean that they cannot get any worse. There is a heathen cult that implores their doomsday deity to eat them first, that they may be spared the insanity of the survivors. Their arguments are not without merit.

It was the night after Miss Brenda Lee spoke to me about the atrocities going on in the prison in the South-east of the Eagle’s nest. There were loud knocks on our doors, and we were all summoned into the great hall, where there was some sort of construct covered by a sheet. We were gathered, driven round close. Magister Slate stood close by, and his face showed no expression at all. Was this to be the unveiling of some new powerful invention? A glimpse into the future of Mankind? At a gesture of the Magister, we all fell silent, and he began to speak.

“My friends,” he said. “I have often spoken to you about our enemies, and as often have I heard you reply, but why? We are men of science! We work for nothing but the betterment of Humanity! To rid the world of smoke belching factories and ear-shattering machines. How can anyone be our enemy? Yes, some of you have even doubted that these enemies even exist! And this angered me, until I reminded myself that you are scientists, by your very nature swayed by nothing but the force of evidence. Truth, gentlemen, is not what a figure of authority says it is, it is what even the merest fool can demonstrate to be true. And I have thanked our Lord and Saviour for the lack of such evidence.” Magister Slate’s dark eyes looked at each one of us in turn. “But tonight, Gentlemen, to our great misfortune, I can present you evidence of what forces oppose us. I can demonstrate to you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what our enemies are willing and able to do. Behold!”

He pulled away the sheet, and all gasped. Before us was a wooden construction, like a bench of some sort. The top of the back rest had been sharpened to a point, and upon the point was the severed head of a woman. Bloodstains were in her long blonde hair, and her face was hardly recognisable as human, as though someone had hit it with a mallet. Her eyes were open, staring into empty space, her jaw hanging slack and broken.

“This, Gentlemen, is the head of the leader of our protectors, Fräulein Hester Klemm, daughter of the late Oberst Gustav Klemm. The cursed spies that many of you know followed us to our Eagle’s Nest to find out our secrets and bring ruin to us. They took her. Her poor body shows signs of ill-treatment to make one’s blood run cold. We can only imagine the suffering she endured, refusing to the very end to tell her tormentors our secrets, before finally, they cut her head off her body with many strokes, and displayed it in this grotesque manner to strike fear into our hearts. I must also tell you that another one of our number, another woman, was taken, we know not where. She too may be suffering the inhuman tortures of our enemies even as I speak!”

Slate turned to one of the Jäger standing by. “Take her away, and give her a proper Christian burial, and may God possess her courageous soul.”

As Jäger took Hester’s head away, Slate turned to us, eyes aglow with wrath. “We will not give in, Gentlemen. We will not falter from our path. We will persevere even in the face of this tragedy, and we will prevail. This, I swear upon my honour, and upon my life. Are you with us, or are you traitors to our cause? Think well before you answer, for you know the wages of treason in the domain of Prometheus. That will be all.”

He turned round and walked to his private quarters, leaving us in a state of shock beyond any yet experienced. I could see several people trying desperately not to be sick. As for me, I could hold on to my dinner without trouble. I had looked into the eyes of Brenda Lee, as she told me about the Anglaise fallen into her clutches.

I haven’t seen Mademoiselle Lee since, so I assume Slate was talking about her. Maybe those who killed Hester Klemm, also killed her. Maybe she and the attackers were all killed in an orgy of blood, and quietly disposed of. Maybe she was taken prisoner, and as Magister Slate said, now is suffering for the crimes of Hester Klemm. I don’t know. I hope she is safe and well.


 

Today, Magister Slate visited my laboratory again, to observe my electric motors in action. They have grown in power, so that one could use one for a vehicle the size of a small carriage or a locomotive of modest power. We built several of these, and they have the advantage over a steam engine that they don’t need to burn anything, and so are suitable for use in mines, where depletion of oxygen would be a serious problem. This has increased our ore production by a significant amount, and as a result Magister Slate is my new best friend. One can imagine how pleased I am with that. I would much rather have been like a brick in the wall, but I suppose it is better than the alternative of being his enemy. The very thought makes me shiver.

We stood by my latest prototype for a while, as it drove a two hundred pound flywheel. Slate looked at me with dark eyes.

“I am pleased with your results, Dr. Dupont. It strengthens my belief that electricity, rather than steam, will be the way of the future.”

Merci, Magister,” I said.

“We may need to leave this place soon,” said Slate. “I fear that the location of the Eagle’s Nest is no longer secret. Our enemies will come to us, trying to destroy us.”

“That is… regrettable,” I said. “Do you fear aerial attacks?”

“Fear them? No. But I expect them. That cursed airship will have put out the news of our location to whoever wants it, and we can expect visitors soon.”

“Will we leave before that happens?”

“No, my friend. We will fight them off!”

“But the Aquila is destroyed. How will we…”

Slate laughed. “Yes, it is true. The loss of our airship is grievous, and my prayers are with her crew. But in the end, Aquila was only an airship. Do not think that because we have lost one of our weapons, we are defenceless! Our enemies will find out to their ruin that to attack us here bears a high price.”

“What defences do we have?”

“We have courage in our hearts, strength in our arms, clear sight in our eyes. But we have more than that. We have cannons that improve upon the Ballon Abwehr Kanone by the Krupp Gesellshaft, we have devices that can turn the mountain side into an inferno. But even these defences are simply variations on that which already existed. Above that, we have devices that not a single nation has ever dreamt of, Dr. Dupont. We will bury the Eagle’s nest in the charred remains of the enemy’s airships before finally we are forced to leave our home.”

“That is good to know. But how are we protected from surprise attacks?”

The Magister looked at me with a grim smile on his gaunt face. “The only air force close enough to reach us is in Khartoum. And the very moment they cast off their moorings, I shall know of it. We will not be surprised. We are not defeated yet.”

And with that, he turned round, and left my laboratory. It is always good to have a leader who is confident.

I cannot remember a day since I came here that I have not felt afraid.


 

There is among us scientists a strange mood. We all know that the airship Aquila was destroyed, and that the spies in the English airship got away. This means that civilised people now know where we are. We dare not hope, but it might mean that a rescue will be under way. That our imprisonment in this mountain may soon be over. None of us are working as hard as once we were.

I am keeping my head down as always. The simple practice of my skills is soothing to me, keeping my mind away from the more frightening realities. Back in Paris, I often used the phrase ‘lose myself in work’. I would start with empty sheets of paper in the morning, and then, after a few moments, find to my surprise that it was now night and I had no more paper. Here, I flee to my equations, drawings, designs, calculations, because they are blissfully free of any moral decisions. A calculation is correct or incorrect, not Right or Wrong.

My hard work, for whatever reason, does not make me any friends among the other scientists. They are eager to gather evidence of how they worked silently against Magister Slate. I have even overheard whispers of an escape attempt, of sabotaging the devices made on Slate’s orders. I am not private to any of these plans. I am seen as one of Slate’s lapdogs, licking his boots.

Can I really defend the position that I am not?


 

I have no words for my feelings at this moment. Disgust, fear, loathing, hatred. These words have become meaningless. New words must be invented for what I feel now. For what I have become. I have washed my hands with rubbing alcohol, with water, and with soap. Still I feel dirty. We are now well and truly complicit in any misdeeds that Magister Nicholas Slate has performed on this world. His crimes are now our crimes. My crimes. No longer do I hope for escape. No longer do I hope for rescue. We have truly forfeited our rights to expect such a thing. Please allow me, not to excuse myself, but only to explain… no, to record what we have done.

It began in the early morning, when the alarm bells were rung. Fearing an attack, I quickly dressed myself and prepared to meet my Maker. But no attack was coming. Instead, we found the Magister and four of the Jäger standing round a steel cage, large enough to hold a large dog, or a small tiger. It held a man, naked. My heart grew cold as I recognised him as one of the Prussian biologists. His name was Ernst Schröder.

“Welcome.” Slate’s voice was loud and dark. “Have I not explained before, gentlemen, my unwavering dedication to our cause? Do you not remember that our work here, Gentlemen, serves Mankind’s very survival? Is there any one among you, who does not remember the fate of Dr. Marius Cjelli, who sought to deceive and betray me? Does anyone think that now, after our grievous losses, my tolerance for treason and failure has grown less?”

A deathly silence fell, only broken by the terrified sounds coming from Dr. Schröder. Slate opened the cage, and kicked it. Dr. Schröder crawled out, stood up with his hands over his genitals, petrified with fear.

“It seems, Gentlemen, that another one of our number has forgotten. It seems that another lesson is in order. But this time, I will make sure that we all learn this lesson.” He nodded at one of the Jäger. “Fortmachen.”

One of the heavy tables was stood on end. Dr. Schröder’s hands were tied to the table legs. We all watched like rabbits caught in a strong beam of light, unable to move. Unable to speak. One of the Jäger handed Slate what I thought was a coil of rope, but it wasn’t. With impeccable skill, he cracked the whip over our heads, and we all shrunk back. Dr. Schröder screamed.

“Schröder has betrayed all of us, Gentlemen. He will be punished by all of us. There are thirty of us. Each of us will administer ten lashes to the Good Doctor.”

“That will kill him,” said someone.

“I fully expect so,” said Slate.

He turned round, and the whip hissed through the air, striking Dr. Schröder. A bloody welt appeared on his back, and he screamed. Slate counted out the strokes with a measured voice, ignoring Schröder’s pleas for mercy. His work complete, he turned back to us. He pointed at Dr. Gerhardt Schmidt, Schröder’s countryman.

Herr Schmidt. Ten strokes if you please. Do not hold back.”

Schmidt looked at the long whip in his hand, then at Dr. Schröder, finally at Slate. He threw the whip on the floor.

Nein,” he said. “I will not be a part of this. I am a man of Science and Reason. I am not a barbarian. I am not an animal.”

Hope welled up in my heart. We would simply all refuse. Slate had gone too far, and we would not follow orders so inhuman. We would see to Dr. Schröder’s wounds, and he would go back to work.

As you will have guessed, kind reader, that was not what happened. Slate never took his eyes off Dr. Schmidt. He simply held out his hand, and one of our protectors handed him a revolver. Without another word, he shot Dr. Schmidt in the head. Before he fell to the ground dead, we were all cowed, beaten into submission.

Slate picked up the whip himself and administered ten more lashes. The next one of us did not protest. Neither did the one after that. Neither did I.

I was one of the last. Dr. Schröder would already be dead, or unconscious from shock and blood loss. Even if he was not, he would already be in agony, and my ten lashes would make no difference. If I refused, I would die, and he would receive the lashes from Magister Slate, who had much more skill than I did. My weak, inexpert strokes would be a mercy.

Those were my excuses.

They were everyone’s excuses.

They are hollow.

Each one of us did these things out of fear for our own lives.

We do not deserve mercy.

We do not deserve forgiveness.

We will not escape.


 

I was visited by Magister Slate again the next day. I could hardly bring myself to greet him. He gave me a friendly smile, put his hand on my shoulder.

“Do not fear, my friend. I know from your diligence that you are loyal to the cause, and loyal to me. You will be the last to betray me.”

“Yes, Magister,” I said.

“You have completed every task I have set you, and for that you have my thanks. You are my most faithful companion.”

“Thank you, Magister,” I said.

“What do you think the reason was for my treatment of Dr. Schröder?”

I steeled myself, and looked into Slate’s eyes. “Recent events have affected morale. Production has suffered.”

“Exactly,” said Slate. “While cruel, it was necessary. Julius Caesar did the same. When morale was low, and mutiny reared its head, he would have the men execute every tenth member. Thus, some soldiers might die, but the cohort would be preserved as a fighting unit. Decimation, Dr. Dupont.”

I remember realising at that moment that we had not had much use for biologists in the Eagle’s Nest, and Dr. Schröder had been relegated to doing autopsies on deceased miners. Dr. Schröder had been chosen because he was expendable. A thought struck me. Had his escape attempt been orchestrated by Slate himself?

“This ‘lack of morale’ stems from the knowledge that we will soon be attacked,” I said. “Perhaps evidence that we are on the winning side would have been more effective.”

“You are right, of course,” said Slate. “And I will show all of you that we are not helpless. In fact…” He turned round. “Follow me. Your loyalty deserves a reward. I have something to show you. Who knows? It may even bolster your faith in our organisation.”

He took me to a steel door, which opened onto a tunnel leading to a stairwell leading both up and down. We climbed the stairs until we came to a brightly lit hallway, but the light was strangely different from normal gas light. At times, it flickered, but more quickly than any flame could be extinguished and re-lit. I looked round. Strange, almost unworldly devices lined the walls, each with the same eerie glow.

“Did you think you were the only one to appreciate the power of tamed lightening, Docteur? Let me assure you that I have long studied it, and harnessed its power to serve my purposes. This, Dr. Dupont, is the true power of the Eagle’s nest. Hidden in abandoned mine shafts below are a mass of Leyden flasks, charged to the brim whenever there is a thunderstorm, waiting for my command.”

Incroyable,” I said. This was science far beyond my simple machines.

“Follow me,” said Slate, and entered a steel cage in the middle of the room. He carefully closed the door behind me, then turned to a large switch. He threw it, and there was the strong smell of ozone. All round us, the very air itself hummed with the sense of power, until with an ear-shattering noise, lightening shot down towards us. I was sure we would be burnt to a crisp, but Slate only laughed.

“Have no fear, my colleague!” He had to shout over the noise. “Within this Cage of Faraday, we are completely safe. It is those who are not with us who must fear my wrath. With this device, I can bring down the mightiest of air fleets in an instant! Truly, I have stolen the fire from the Gods themselves, and by doing so, obtained their power! This is the power of Prometheus, Doctor!”

He threw the switch back, and in an instant, the lightning stopped, put back into its cage. He opened the door, and I carefully followed him out.

“This is not all we do here, Doctor. Superior even to the power of lightning is the power of knowledge. Here, too, have I made electricity my servant. Observe this device. Using it, I can send and receive messages from all over the world, using the magnetic field of the Earth itself! While our enemies cut down and pulp trees, stain them with ink, and send them on smoke belching airships, my missives fly to the ends of the earth, at the speed of light! London, Paris, Moscow, Cape Town, Khartoum. All are within the reach of Prometheus. This, Doctor, is our true power. This is why we will not be defeated.”

Slate cast an eye over a bewildering array of lights and dials. He frowned, tapped a red light that was blinking. From the recesses of the machine, he pulled a small strip of paper, which he ran through his fingers. He looked at the clock and laughed grimly.

“Dr. Dupont, exactly forty two minutes ago, a detachment of seven airships of the ‘Brimstone’ class cast off from Khartoum. They have set course for Kodok, from where they intend to travel here. They will arrive in three days. We will give them a warm welcome! The sight of their destruction will strengthen quaking hearts.”

I honestly do not know whether I fear winning more, or losing.

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