Edition 4: Halo In The Sky by Gerry Huntman
To raise his station, Nigel Taylor takes to the stars with the army. He returns a glorious hero, lauded by his countrymen. But will it win him the hand of the woman he loves or were his discoveries for naught? Many thanks to Gerry for donating this story, as we would love more steampunk, but we have not caught the attention of the market yet. SY
Three weeks following her return journey through the Alpha Centauri halo, the HMES Indomitable entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Slowly and precisely she exposed her antigravity coils, causing a reduction in the rate of her descent, allowing the ether ship to gracefully approach terra firma. The London-Berkshire region was covered in slate-grey rain clouds; the moisture gathered and glistened on the teakwood and brass finish of the giant ship in her approach for landing. Many of the Indomitable’s thick, glass portholes contained eager faces peering through them.
The giant conical ship silently descended towards the drenched green fields of the Sandhurst Military Etherdrome, her eight landing pads impressed upon the grass with a heavy thud. As the enormous weight of the ship settled on the pads, and the thick steel springs absorbed its enormous kinetic energy, the antigravity coils were fully covered with lead shielding, followed by the shutting down of power systems.
On cue with the safe landing, and despite the pouring rain, a flurry of soldiers furiously went about their business. A band of fifteen military musicians, dressed in bright red uniforms, shuffled near the craft and played God Save The Queen. Rain splashed from drums every time their sticks hit the taut leather, and the tuba and French horn players had to periodically tip the pooling water from their instruments. Six soldiers heaved and hoed the mobile stairs to the Indomitable, perfectly level with the ship’s hatch, twenty-two feet above the ground. Another group of soldiers marched in perfect formation to positions on both sides of the ground level of the stairs, holding their magnetic-accelerator rifles to their chests. Finally, a party of military officers and civilians wandered to where the guard of honour were, carrying sensible umbrellas of varying shapes, colours and sizes.
The brass hatch door opened and a small group of senior officers of Her Majesty’s Expeditionary Forces stepped into the refreshing, though damp, air. They were dressed in their finest military colours and ostentatious headdresses, and stiffly descended the stairs, having spent three months in a light artificial gravity during their return journey to Earth.
Light handclapping greeted Queen Victoria’s finest, except for one of the last travellers to reveal himself —a young Major of the 6th Infantry Division. As soon as he stepped through the ether ship’s hatchway, there was wild applause from all who were on the landing field, even from the military band. As Major Nigel Taylor set foot on the sodden red carpet, the most senior member of the welcoming party saluted and held out his hand.
Nigel only now recognized who it was. “Field Marshall Roberts! I am honoured.” He returned the salute and grasped the offered hand.
“My boy, it is I who should be honoured,” the Field Marshall responded, loud enough for all to hear. “Her Majesty has already declared that she is looking forward to awarding you the Victoria Cross. We are all proud of you.”
Nigel was swamped by well-wishers and it took him the best part of twenty minutes to make his way to a lone civilian, waiting ten yards back from the crowd, smiling under his black high hat and umbrella.
“Gerald,” was all that Nigel could say, and embraced his brother.
An hour later, with his travelling trunk loaded on the fast train to Colchester, via London, he sat next to Gerald in their own private car, courtesy of Field Marshall Roberts. It was the first time in a long while he could relax, and yet he was fidgeting with anticipation.
“I need to know something, Gerald,” Nigel said.
“And I can deduce what it is,” his younger brother replied. “Penelope is fine and she is very much looking forward to seeing you.”
Nigel sighed in relief. “Are you sure?”
Gerald laughed. “Of course. While it may have been difficult to penetrate the defences of the Sturgess family, Penelope has been able to keep in contact with me for the year and a half you have been away. With the news of your VC and subsequent promotion…let us say things have changed quite dramatically. It would appear that the Taylors are now good enough for their family, and more importantly, you are suitable for their daughter.”
“Then my plan worked—and better than expected.”
“Hmm, I would certainly call a VC ‘better than expected’,” Gerald scoffed. He then took on a more serious tone. “What was it like? The newspapers have regular columns on the Sphaira colony but they seem too sanitized to provide any meaningful insight.”
Nigel frowned, and a dullness filmed his eyes. He nodded his head slowly. “It is important that you know. At least one other person in my lifetime. We all know that a posting on Sphaira is desperately dangerous. That was why I volunteered in the first place—it enabled me a chance for quick promotion and an opportunity to win favour with the Sturgess family. My eyes were wide open, but I still was surprised, amazed, dismayed.
“The planet is the only celestial body with life in the Alpha Centauri system but it is not suited to Earth-based life forms. The atmosphere has half a dozen toxins that would kill a human in minutes, but the scarcity of oxygen would do the trick well enough. The air is thick with gases and there is a perpetual light blue glare through their long days—the companion red star takes care of that. If it wasn’t for the immense riches in the ground and in their jungles, the British Empire would leave it well alone. The wealth to be gained from Sphaira is unbelievable, Gerald.”
Nigel packed and lit his pipe, relishing his first smoke in three months. “I have seen men die from simple, stupid mistakes. One corporal in the 38th Field Company of the Royal Engineers tripped over an infernal tree root and tore a hole in his rubber suit the size of a threepence. We tried to seal the breach but he was dead in two minutes.
“And then there are the Sphairans. We call them ‘toadies’ because they have large heads, squat bodies, and large, bulbous eyes.”
“What colour are they?” Gerald asked. “Blue, perhaps?”
“Ah, a difficult question…at least until recently. You see, the hazy atmosphere and the perpetual, glary blue distorts human vision—everything is basically blue. I suppose, given the nature of Sphaira, you could say the natives are blue, but that was until I acquired the glasses.” He held his hand up when his brother was about to interrupt. “I will explain what the glasses are in a few moments. You need to understand something about the toad…the Sphairans. They are simple and generally peaceful, and they are primitive in many ways. However, in some fields they excel us, especially in matters of optics—glass and crystal grinding, telescopy, and suchlike. They are mysterious and I suspect there are dimensions to their culture and technology that we still are unaware of. They didn’t stand a chance when we came. They started to lose their territory as our businesses expanded mining and plant harvesting. Eventually they started to fight back; and there are a lot of them. Despite our superior armaments, their numbers and tenacity make them a formidable force. Their ability to see their terrain with clarity is an advantage to them. Over recent years we have gained little in our conflict with them, although we hold our own.
“Some of the natives befriended us, most of whom operate as scouts. A few are artisans in their sciences. I had an interest in what they did and one Sphairan made me this.” Nigel pulled out of his jacket pocket a pair of glasses, made of brass and crystal that found no counterpart on Earth. Both lenses were thick and irregular in shape, and depending on what angle one looked at the pair, it would reflect a different colour, much like a prism. He pivoted the glasses and saw a deep blue in the crystal, and then mauve, magenta, and burnt umber.
“And what is its purpose?” Gerald asked.
“Ah, something of great value on Sphaira, but useless here. Quite simply, when I wore them, I saw the world as if I was one of them! It was miraculous. The distortions disappeared and instead of the permeating blue, I discerned a great variety of hues in everything I saw.”
“And the ‘toadies’, what colour are they?”
“Two, old chum. They are a mottled combination of light green and a rather sickly pink. To be honest, they were more pleasant to see as a uniform dark blue. It was with the aid of these glasses that I was able to save my men from an attack by the natives. One could say that these odd looking spectacles won me the Victoria Cross, and more importantly, Penelope’s hand.”
Gerald inspected the glasses and was caught up in the wonder of the prismatic effects of its crystal lenses. He looked out the train’s window and saw the countryside speeding past, thanks to the antigravity coil technology invented a decade before, and decided to don the spectacles.
Nigel yelped in protest, reacting instinctively.
Gerald nearly fell off his seat after he placed Nigel’s glasses on his nose. He waved his hands about, until he found the glass of the car’s window. He then leant forward, until his forehead touched the glass, allowing him the maximum view of the countryside. “Nigel, this is amazing. I have never seen anything like it.”
Nigel tried his glasses on for the first time since leaving Sphaira. Instantly, everything he saw distorted, causing a profound sense of vertigo, not dissimilar to that which new soldiers experienced naturally on Sphaira. He turned his eyes to the countryside, which was significantly brighter than in the carriage, and saw more distortions, and, with the occasional gap in the rain clouds in the sky, rays of sunshine inexplicably spiralling to the ground. Near the cloud gaps he saw pulsating yellow halos. They were not like rainbows, nor any other optical effect that he had experienced before on Earth; the halos were incredibly vivid, almost as if they were solid, and they appeared to be extensions of the sun, rather than products of it. The nearest comparison he could think of to this phenomenon was the momentary flash of light that appeared when an ether ship passed through a magnetic nexus—unique to each star system, causing a folding of the ether, and making it possible to travel vast distances. These points were called ‘halos’ because of the shape of the energy flash.
He told Gerald what he observed.
“Is it possible that those halos are the same as the gates to the stars?” his brother asked.
“I don’t know. Surely not. I am not an astronomer but I do know that the halo effect in the ether only comes into being when the activated antigravity coils interact with a nexus point, which are located at two precise locations in a stellar system. I cannot see how this could relate to sun rays beating down on our Earth.”
His brother said, in a sober tone, “This might be daft, but is it possible that the halo is not a by-product of the folding of the ether…but perhaps is a prerequisite?”
Nigel laughed. “An interesting thought. You are practically implying that the ether can be folded anywhere, even on the surface of the Earth.”
Gerald also laughed. “I’m a surveyor, not a physicist. I suspect my theory is just poppycock! But your spectacles are intriguing. You might want someone at the Royal Academy to look at it.”
Nigel agreed. Their conversation turned to other, mundane topics, catching up on events in politics, the arts, and gossip in their family and local community. The train stopped briefly in London, and continued on its journey, passengers alighting in several towns, and terminating at Colchester. They traversed the one hundred mile distance in less than two hours, which included the station stops.
The remainder of the afternoon was a joyous occasion for Nigel, as his family were assembled at his parent’s home. It was particularly good to see his father and mother. To his surprise a large number of Colchesterians—and people from further afield in Essex—had come to greet their new military hero, lining the streets from the train station to his home. The icing on the cake, however, was when his father presented an invitation from the Sturgess family for dinner that night. He guessed Penelope had a hand in the timing.
The afternoon turned into a blur for Nigel, and he managed to sneak into his waiting bedroom and catch forty winks while the revelry continued at the front of the house. When the last of the visitors left, it was already nearing sunset and he prepared himself for his carriage ride to the Sturgess manor, overlooking the nearby village of Lexden. His heart started to pick up pace, and there was nothing he could do to abate it. He needed to get to the dinner party, and only then would his fears subside.
He decided to wear his military formals, given that it was his military achievements that elevated his social status, and without thinking, he placed his alien glasses into his inner jacket pocket.
To Nigel’s relief, the journey to the manor was short, and when climbing out of his parent’s carriage, he was immediately assailed by servants, treating him like a royal visitor. His timing was perfect, as the other guests for the dinner were only just then called to table, and he fluidly joined them in the dining room. There were eighteen in attendance, most of whom he knew by reputation, but his eyes barely strayed from Penelope, who sat diagonally opposite him, next to her father and brother, and who looked absolutely radiant. It was clear that she could barely tear her eyes from him. Still, there was the subtle, nagging fear that his plans would unravel.
Nigel had known Penelope since childhood, although they were from different social circles. Nevertheless, children have an uncanny ability to breach such artificial constraints, and they became the best of companions, albeit they could only manage time together once in a blue moon. As they got older, their friendship solidified, but the opportunities to meet were more difficult to come by. It was then, when they were both seventeen, that they started to secretly meet, and their relationship grew to an enduring and profound love. The ruse had lasted for several years, and by then Nigel had already become an officer in Her Majesty’s Army, but this was not good enough for Theodore Sturgess Esq. And two years ago, to the day, their secret had been discovered, and a terse note was delivered to the Taylor family, explaining that Penelope would not see Nigel again and that he should seriously consider seeking a female match aligned to his ‘social rank’.
He ground his teeth when remembering the note, and fought hard to hide his emotions at the table. It was on that day that he decided to volunteer for the most difficult post the Empire could supply, to accelerate his career, or die trying. At the time, they seemed perfectly reasonable outcomes. He still did. And I won.
The dinner was extravagant and a delight to savour, given the rations that he had eaten for three months aboard the Indomitable. He was able to carry effective conversations with the other guests, where the subject invariably, and constantly, returned to his exploits on Sphaira. He never spoke once to Penelope, and only had the opportunity for a few glib exchanges with Mr Sturgess.
When all the plates were empty or disposed of, and a few of the guests were looking tired of their seating, they were all directed into the parlour where a piano awaited them, as well as fine spirits and cigars. Some of the women congregated near the grand while the men clustered near the balcony window, cigars already in hand. A few, including Nigel, mixed in the no-man’s land. Penelope orchestrated a social feint, and ‘accidentally’ found herself in front of Nigel.
He took her hand and kissed it like a gentleman; she was the only one who detected a minute lingering of his lips. “Miss Sturgess, I am so glad to see you again.”
Penelope could hardly stifle her laugh on hearing such subdued language, but understood their difficult situation. “And I, with you, Major Taylor.”
They chatted for twenty minutes, talking about the most mundane of subjects, and yet they were close together, and they read each other’s eyes throughout—which validated their last intimate moment together, where he swore he would come back and marry her. There was no disappointment in her eyes. He now was absolutely sure that Penelope still loved him, but curiously, his nervousness did not disappear.
“Major Taylor,” came a voice from behind Nigel.
He turned and saw Theodore with a large cigar in his hand. “Good evening, Mr Sturgess. I trust you have considered this a successful night?”
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Sturgess replied, boisterously. “And I suspect the night may even get better! Have you a few spare minutes? I would like to talk to you privately on the balcony.”
Nigel saw a sparkle in Penelope’s eyes. “Of course, Mr Sturgess. I would be delighted to spend some time with you.”
They quickly slipped by the Chinese silk curtains that blocked the balcony exit and found themselves in the fresh night air. The sky was now empty of clouds, the stars and the waxing crescent moon were crystal clear, reminding Nigel of the clarity of stars in the ether.
“Turned out to be a glorious night, what?” Sturgess mumbled.
“Yes, Mr Sturgess, indubitably.”
“What is it like coursing among those glittering lights?”
Nigel inwardly smiled. Theodore had at least the good sense of timing not to jump straight to the point. “A mix of sensations, sir. The stars do not twinkle, they just stay bright all the time, and of course we have the opportunity to see some of the other planets of our solar system intimately. That is inspiring. And yet, it is completely silent, like the grave, and the journey is long and boring. When we pass through the halo there is nothing but a bright white light all about us, that lasts for nearly a month—this too is wearisome.”
“Ah, I envy you,” Theodore said. “Yes, there are moments when there is boredom, but at least you lived the adventure. You know, it was not too long ago that I did not think you had it in you.”
Ah, he has stopped circling, and is now closing in. “I do not know how to respond, sir. I am, who I am.”
Mr Sturgess smirked. “Well said. And I admit that my first impression was wrong. If there was any ill feeling in the past, I have none now, and I hope your sentiments are aligned with mine.” He held out his hand. “Shall we agree that the past is now forgotten, and that we can move forward under much more convivial circumstances?”
Nigel spotted true sincerity in Theodore’s expression, and yet he had to fight his cynical concern why the Nigel of two years ago was unacceptable, and tonight he was. He slid his hand quickly and assertively into Mr Sturgess’, and they shook on the agreement. “Of course, sir.”
“Call me Theodore, son.” Mr Sturgess still held Nigel’s hand, and was staring into his eyes, waiting for the response to his unambiguous prompt.
Nigel knew he had the opening that was offered to him. “Mr…Theodore. May I have your permission to have the hand of Penelope in marriage?” He didn’t need to feign sincerity—his words were brimming with it.
Sturgess shook Nigel’s hand more vigorously. “Mrs Sturgess and I gladly give it! We are absolutely delighted!”
Nigel was ecstatic and could barely maintain his composure. “I am grateful…Theodore. You have made me a happy man.”
“Then share a cigar with me, my old man. I suspect you have not had time to purchase an engagement ring—we will have to delay the announcement—could hardly imagine Tiffany’s having opened a shop on Sphaira!” he guffawed, and started to cough cigar smoke. On recovering, he changed the subject. “During your posting, have you had any opportunities for business speculation on Sphaira?”
The question took Nigel by surprise, but he had no reason to be anything other than honest with his future father-in-law. His earlier, undefined nervousness inexplicably returned—and yet he had no reason to fear that his plans would be compromised—in fact, they had already gloriously succeeded.
Nigel explained that he had established connections with a number of wealthy businessmen and that offers were already made for lucrative positions in various companies, including partnerships. He pulled out his glasses and gave a shortened version of its history, as well as his plans to have it scientifically analysed—noting the potential for commercial opportunities.
Sturgess couldn’t resist trying the glasses on. He gripped the balcony’s handrail with both his hands, to stop himself from losing balance, seeming to adjust to the glasses’ effects better than Gerald. “My God! Your description does not do it justice! It is amazing, beautiful. I cannot find the words…”
Theodore handed the glasses back and Nigel put them on, wanting to view the night sky from Earth for the first time. His hands tightly clutched the railing as the sight before him was ten times as spectacular as his view of the countryside earlier that day, and the vertigo nearly overwhelmed him. The night was beautiful and before him was the silhouette of the village of Lexden. It was distorted, where the buildings and trees seemed twisted to some extent or another. What confounded his senses the most were the stars and the moon. Each star had a halo surrounding it, identical in colour to the light it emanated. The moon also had a massive halo encompassing the glorious crescent. The constellations, and even the band of stars that encompassed the milky way, had spiralling light formations, weaving and pulsating with their own life. The starry night sky was alive.
Nigel now knew that the halos that pulsed before him were identical in form to the two occasions he saw them momentarily flash when the Indomitable passed through folded ether. He recollected Gerald’s observation on the fast train. It occurred to him that the similarities in shape and colour could be a coincidence, but his heart told him it wasn’t. His brother was right. The halos were everywhere—one just had to find them! The revelation came too quickly; he couldn’t contemplate the ramifications of what he discovered while with his companion.
“Are you alright, my boy?” Sturgess asked.
Nigel turned, leaving his glasses on. As his eyes tracked toward Theodore, he gasped at the sight before him. Theodore was standing before him, his body shifted every few seconds into a mottled combination of light green and fleshy pink, and his head enlarged, with swollen green eyes.
“Son, you look pale—perhaps you should remove those spectacles.” Theodore’s voice had turned disturbingly cautious.
Nigel started to panic, too scared to confront what appeared before him. “I…I feel a little faint. Excuse me—sir.” He shuffled quickly past Sturgess and back into the entertainment area, still wearing his glasses.
The majority of the guests were still in the parlour, chatting amongst each other in their various groups. Mrs Sturgess was talking with two other female guests—revealing her Sphairan form. Two other guests—the mayor of Colchester and his wife—were also of that species. He couldn’t think; he was dazed with the revelation.
“Darling,” came Penelope’s voice from behind. “Daddy said you were ill—”
Nigel slowly turned and stared into those lovely blue, but alternating, bulbous green eyes.
Gerry Huntman lives with his wife and young daughter in Melbourne, Australia. He is an IT Consultant to make the real money, while a writer, Managing Director of small pulibhsers IFWG Publishing and IFWG Publishing Australia, to make the Monopoly money, and keep him sane.
Gerry publishes short fiction in mags, ezines and anthologies, in all three main genres of speculative fiction, and many of the subgenres. He divides his time equally between fantasy, horror and scifi, but much of his fiction tends towards dark and no small number cross genre. Recent short fiction have appeared in Stupefying Stories, Lovecraft eZine, BLEED charity anthology, and Night Terrors III pro anthology.
He will be publishing a young teen fantasy novel, Guardian of the Sky Realms, in 2014. He is on the judging panel for novels and novellas for the 2012 and 2013 Australian Shadows Awards.