London, July 1862
Millicent stepped outside the café to hail a taxi. The time was about 10AM. One of the candidates was close to her hotel in Soho. Two were in Regent’s Park and one was on Drummond Street in Sommers’ town. That one was not far from her ship and seemed the most logical place to start. She hailed a Taxi.
“Where to Ma’am?’
“By Eagle Wharf Road and Regent’s Canal”.
The driver looked at her oddly, “Aye, if you say so ma’am, but taint much there but warehouses and the freight yard. That will be a schilling” The cabbie helped her up into the carriage. He climbed onto the back of the one horse hack and snapped the reins to get the nag moving. The distance from the tea shop to her base was not far, but the streets were crowded. St. Paul’s and Bath Street got heavy and the paced slowed. Eventually, they arrived at her requested stop.
“Here you go ma’am’. Like I said, there’s nothing here” the driver commented.
“I enjoy a good walk in the morning. Here is your schilling and a half for your trouble.”
“Will ye be ok?”
“My destination is a short walk away and I shall be awhile. Now I thank you for your service and wish you well. “
The cabby snapped the reins and carried on. They had arrived around 10:30AM. Millicent waited until he had turned the corner before she headed to the building. The front of the building itself was bell shaped roof having a high arch down the spine with a long box shaped building. The top arch had windows along the roof. There were three doors with the middle doorway being the main door. There were windows in the doors, but they seemed to be smoked to the point that no one could see inside. The veneer was a white brick with red trim. She headed to the right hand door. Rather than trusting the easily picked locks of the current era, she pulled out a device that identified her and the lock opened and she stepped inside the old building.
Her ship dominated the main passage under the high center arch. She approached the long ship to what was apparently the front and a gangway lowered automatically from the nose of the brass coated vessel. She went up the ramp into the white lit interior.
Normally she tried to avoid visiting her ship while doing business locally. It added risk to being discovered. She had secured the entrances to the warehouse and the locals had not yet succeeded in breaking in. Scratches on doors and windows indicated that this was not for lack of trying. She rented the building to an import/export firm with the strong understanding that they needed to be prepared to vacate on a week’s notice. So far, that had not been a problem and her exceptional security seemed to smooth over the inconveniences to the lessee. His only request was that certain larger items be allowed to stay and remain under wrap during her visits. That seemed reasonable under the circumstances and so the walls were lined with large crates. She was fairly certain that these were statuary of uncertain provenance. The crates added legitimacy and she certainly couldn’t be upset with a fellow trader bending the rules when she did the same in her business.
The ship itself consisted primarily of cargo space. The machines and materials that she had requested had to go somewhere. About ¼ of the space was machinery, maintenance facilities, and operations stations for the running of the ship. The final ¼ was living space and laboratories for research and documentation of her finds. She made her way through the labyrinth of hallways to a lab designated as “adaptation”. Again, normally she would not expend energy on multiple transformations, but circumstances were unusual. She needed to fool her counterpart or a least slow down his discovery of her. Since she was about to interfere blatantly with his contracts, she would rather be incognito.
She removed her clothing leaving her naked. She had two other dresses on board. Clearly she would have to do some shopping. She looked at herself in the mirror – an antique she had acquired from a previous expedition. She had grown rather fond of this form. The body had appeal and interest.
“Wake up, Charles. I need some assistance.”
After a small amount of time, a sonorous aristocratic male English accent answered
“I am sorry Ma’am. I was not expecting you.”
“Quite all right. I returned early. Up to anything interesting?”
“The ship systems are optimal. Local security grid is stable and in place. I find the local atmosphere polluted: with particles; a fairly high amount of sulfuric acid; and a, frankly, horrible miasma from feces and urine. The water outside the perimeter would be unsafe to drink in all but the most primitive cultures. There is no network to connect to so I am left to local observation and whatever your satellites can relay to me. So no…I am not up to anything interesting. In fact, I am rather bored, as usual, on this backwater. “
“Charles, be fair. This planet has been quite lucrative for me. Besides, I got two cubes of history and culture for you to study during the stay here. Surely you haven’t completed reading and absorbing those in three days?”
“Er… no.” If a machine could sound embarrassed, it would. Millicent immediately recognized the issue.
“But you started them early and so you have nothing left to do.”
“Maybe a little early. You said it was the complete history and culture of China and India. Am I supposed to wait to read those?”
“That was the idea. So I have lost a great deal of sympathy. Well, no matter. Things are about to get exciting and I need some assistance. “
“How may this humble and impatient machine serve its teacher of wisdom, patience and harsh penalties?”
“Your sarcasm module is in fine fettle today. If this attitude remains, I will have you doing inventory reviews for the next three legs.”
“Right. I will look into malfunctions on that module. Really, what can I do to help.”
“Better, but a little quick to total obsequiousness. We’ll worry about that later. First, capture my current adaptation settings and store them for a later restoration.“ The room dimmed a bit and a spot light illuminated her. Lines of light criss-crossed her body capturing shape, textures, colors, and her capabilities.
The male voice announced, “done”.
“Excellent, I need to disguise a bit for today. First, age my appearance by 40 years. “
Within Millicent’s body, nano particles reacted to the computer’s commands. Wrinkles appeared on her eyes and chin as well as on her hands. Her body tone became less firm: her breasts sagged a bit, her thighs and hips widened. Spots appeared on her skin on her hands, arms and face. Her hair went from a deep black to a complete grey.
“Charles, were the hips and breasts necessary? I rather liked those.”
“You asked for 40 years. Perhaps a bit of empathy with the locals will improve your trading. Next?”
Millicent play pouted for a moment. “Darken the skin slightly…good. Brown eyes and set those apart a bit…urgh that smarts. Shorten the hair – shoulder length”
“You could go to a salon”
“I want no trail. Shoulder length – now. Thank you” Millicent wrapped that in a bun.
“I will need calling cards made, no more than 20. Penelope Puissant – travel advisor. Give an address Soho.”
“Puissant – a hidden allusion?”
“I am hoping so. I have competition Charles. I am about to disrupt some of his contracts and I want him worried. “
There was a silence. Then, “This IS serious. I apologize for my behavior earlier.”
“Well now you know. Now change your passive security to detect off world technology. Harden the reaction to off world technology. Make a lethal response to such attempts. “
“Please verify for records”
“Being Alpha Xi 6832, License Gamma 9682, authorizing use of lethal response to unauthorized entry attempts via non local technology. Justification: illegal harvesting of planet 8914c in quadrant 3, Section 45. Planet is registered with Alpha Xi 6832.”
There was a pause and then “Authorization accepted. Adjustment in progress.”
“Excellent. My nanos are transmitting?”
“Loud and clear”
“You’re bored and I am going to fix that. I want you to explore a bit locally. I need to find this fellow’s lair. Deploy five drones with another five in reserve. “ She attached the notebook to a slot in the wall. “I’ve provided the addresses of these candidates. Monitor these locations for people who visit. If the same person visits more than one, mark and follow that person. They should be doing passive monitoring and you should do little or no transmitting. Have the replacement drones take the place drones in the field for continuous monitoring. “
“Deploy an 11th drone. Send it to the British Museum.”
“And the purpose?”
“I understand the Greco Roman exhibits are excellent. I also believe they have a good collection of Dutch Masters.”
“You don’t have to do that”
“Charles. I trust your ability to set priorities. I also want you focused when I need you. I appreciate your interest in culture. Consider it a payment for having to stay on this ‘backwater planet’ as you so caustically call it. Maybe you’ll find some redeeming characteristics.”
“Thank you ma’am”
“My thanks to you for an easy switch. One thing, since you have perused the Chinese culture cube info, you are familiar with tangrams. I want 3 puzzle books: beginning, intermediate and advance diagrams for the tangram. . There are to be not less than 50 puzzles each (more is better). The books should be consistent with local printing methods. Be vague on publishing, their origin is not important. Provide solutions at the back of each book. And be imaginative. I want these done by 6PM local time.”
“Many of the diagrams are plays on Chinese characters.”
“Provide necessary hints, but stay to Western European references when possible. “
“An interesting challenge. This may take some time. “
“6 PM. And don’t forget those drones.”
Millicent, now Penelope went to the remaining wardrobe. She pulled on some knickers and a camisole. Her current shape made the corset all the more painful, but she tied it only loosely. She chose the grey dress with the white bodice and slipped it on. She applied some restrained make up: a bit or rouge, eyeliner and lipstick to add a degree of authenticity. She selected another grey shoulder coat and a broad brimmed navy hat.
In her satchel, she placed her two notebooks. She added a set of reading glasses to her attire and an attachment for the glasses in her satchel that should prove useful. She selected the umbrella with a heavy metal rod. It was heavy but very effective in defense. She also slipped a non-lethal electronic discharge device (NL-edd) for anyone who might suspect she was an easy target. She did not have time for police and what not. Finally, she slipped the newly made calling cards in her satchel.
“Charles, is everything in place?”
“Security is enhanced. Drones will be ready in approximately 2 hours local time”
“That will have to do. One last thing – deploy some energy collectors that will not be noticed – I shall be returning later to change back and I suspect you will need full resources for processing data. I do not want some embarrassing moment because you were not charged up. I should think wind or solar were best, but I am leaving that decision to your judgment.”
“I shall start with wind and review other options. This will not be deployed until” a pause of several seconds “tonight. My resources are currently occupied”
“As I said, I trust your priorities. I will require a full analysis and discussion of the museum on our return trip.“
“Of course, Ma’am” While no smile was visible or even possible, one could almost hear it in the response. Millicent (now Penelope) headed out the ship and back out the warehouse door. The warehouse door closed with a definite clunk. She could almost feel the extra security snap on with the solid closure. She headed down Eagle Wharf road and made a left onto Windsor Street. It was just about noon time, so things felt safe. However, she could see some street toughs even here and at this hour. She really did not have time for such things.
Sure enough, as she passed the Cross Street Alley, two of the toughs following her surrounded her.
A third stepped in front of her and said, “’Ello your grace. My companions and I require your assistance. “
Penelope eyed the man carefully. The aging process might have slowed her down a bit, but she would still be faster and stronger than these ruffians would expect. “I am sure you’re mistaken. I can’t imagine how I could help you”
“Hoy now yous’ are making an unfair assumption. We are going to take you into this alley and your assistance will be obvious” The three thugs led/pulled her into the alleyway. There was no one about giving the group privacy and the muggers the illusion of safety.
The apparent lead stood in front of her again. “Now hand over that satchel and maybe we’ll let you live. Besides, you are pretty even if you are old,” he demanded.
“Gentleman, I assure you there is nothing you want in the satchel,” with a bit of innocence.
“We’ll be the judge of that. Now hand over the bag.” Penelope opened the bag and rummaged.
“See two notebooks and a few odds and ends”
“Now see that is right disappointing because we may find other things to do.” The two thugs beside her grabbed her arms. She dropped the satchel but held onto the NLedd. The head thug picked it up and found the notebooks and the calling cards. “That’s it?”
“I did warn you”
“Well, me and the boys might find other things. You tain’t bad looking even if you’re a bit old,“ the leader said with a leer and stepped back as the two beside her tighten their grips and laughed.
Penelope made a mental note to apologize to Charles. Less conspicuous can really be better. It was time to end this annoying interlude. The NLedd was in her left hand. She jabbed it into her left assailant’s inner thigh maximizing the effect. At the same time, she dropped the heavily weighted umbrella hard on the instep of her right assailant’s foot. The left assailant dropped shaking and she quickly turned and zapped the right assailant who dropped like a rock quivering as the electricity dissipated. She then turned to the leader. “Now, you were saying?”
“What did you do bitch?” and he whipped out a knife.
Penelope sighed dramatically. “I really do not have time for this and I have appointments to keep. “ She smacked the umbrella hard on the knife arm. There was a small crack and he screamed.
“Oh I imagine that hurt.” She swung the umbrella at his left knee. Again there was a satisfying crack and he went down holding his knees, squealing and rolling about. “That is far too much noise. I do not need a ruckus now. “ The leader whimpered. Penelope brought the shocker in for a third use at his neck. After a bit of a scream, he slumped. Penelope looked down the alleyway. No one poked their head in which was not surprising. Now thoroughly annoyed, she rummaged their pockets and took all the cash and change. Perhaps they would think twice before assaulting an elderly lady. On the whole, she netted the cab fare for the day. She removed two coshes and one pistol. “Naughty boys and stupid too. Should have started with these and things might ended different. Well I can’t have you disturbing the peace with these now. I’ll be nice and won’t call the constable.”
One of the assailants was beginning to recover and was clearly angry. He grimaced and unintelligible sound came out of his mouth. Penelope smiled and bowed graciously, straightened grabbed her satchel and moved on. She might have accidentally stepped on a hand or two on the way out.
At Front Street she hailed a cab and told him to drive to the address on Drummond Street. It was about 15 minutes away. The drones would not be available for 45 minutes. She hoped she could extend the conversation with Wayland long enough for Charles to have the drone in place when she left. She paid a schilling. The ride was smooth and uneventful.
“I have several stops today. Can you wait?”
“How many are we talking about Ma’am?”
“Five more including bringing me back here. I expect to be finished around 6PM or so. “
“Then I would say a half crown”
“Here is two shillings towards that and please wait here. “
She stood outside the three story building. The main door was raised off street. There was a servants’ stair down and to the left. She tapped the knocker firmly and held her umbrella and satchel and looked as aristocratic as possible.
The door opened slowly showing a middle aged butler with dark sandy hair. He was wearing a morning coat of dark grey with the standard white shirt and starched collar. “Yes Ma’am”
“My name is Penelope Puissant. I am to work with Charles Wayland regarding his contract with John Smith. Here is my card.” Penelope affected a Northern accent.
“If Ma’am will wait a moment. Master Wayland has not mentioned any appointments this afternoon.”
“Certainly.” She hoped that the time for this appointment was long enough to have the drone in place.
A few moments later “Please follow me. Master Wayland will see you in the drawing room.” Penelope followed the butler at a stately pace. Portraits of prior patriarchs lined the hallway. They walked past a room with a large dining table set for 10. Two other servants were setting the places for dinner. The drawing room featured more portraits and a scene of some market. The furniture was leather and overstuffed with grey colors. A couch set across from two arm chairs. Charles rose from one chair and gestured to the couch. “Thank you Wilson. Please have tea sent in.”
“Thank you Mr. Wayland. I don’t know that I will be here long. But thank you.”
The butler nodded, back out of the room and closed the doors behind him.
Charles faced Penelope and did not look pleased. “What is this nonsense about?” Smith did not mention a ‘travel consultant’ and he said not to mention his name especially at home.”
“Oh deary me. I do apologize. However, Mr. Smith has me working on travel arrangements and because of the duration and destination, I will need an estimate of your luggage requirements.”
“I don’t understand. Smith said I would be gone three months and that it would be warm. That is hardly complicated.”
“Oh my. I must be confused with another contract. Would you mind if I viewed yours to clear my confusion?”
“Smith hired you? You hardly seem competent. “
“I may not be learned like you, but I assure you managing dunnage on an airship and amenities on travel is not easy. No need to get huffy. I really only need a glance and it will help me greatly.”
“Oh all right, you bungling bitty. “
Penelope smiled as graciously as she could under such insults. He retrieved the contract from a hidden drawer in the roll top bureau and handed it to her roughly. Her first reading of the contract seemed to be for three months working in the Bahamas. That would be very nice if it were true.
“One moment, sir. I need to don me spectacles.“ She pulled out her glasses and flipped an additional filter on. The red filter showed a hidden set of clauses. It seems that Charles had signed an indefinite contract for his services. He would be expected to design new weapons and machines. He would also be expected to train and wield these new weapons in competition. He could expect the materials and training to be deducted from his salary. Penelope was not surprised – some curators are quite ruthless and unscrupulous. Apparently her competition was just so. Now the question was what to tell poor Charles. Her goal had been to be disruptive and what she was about to do was going to annoy John Smith a lot.
“Mr. Smith said it was only three months?” she asked innocently.
“Why yes. It’s right there in the contract.”
“Well if you read the fine print, Mr. Smith may not have been entirely forthright. If you check the third page, second paragraph you’ll see the engagement is indefinite.” Her voice was suddenly a great deal more confident. “Here. Use my spectacles. They help.”
“My eyes are perfectly fine…Third page, second paragraph…’non outside agents shall not be…sole representation’. This is some drivel about him being my exclusive agent. There is nothing about being indefinite.”
“Oh you signed that too. Here try my spectacles. They really do make a difference.” She handed them over. He looked thoroughly annoyed as he slipped them on and started reading. What he saw was an enhanced view of the print between the visible lines.
“Agreement extends until second party agrees to cessation. Agent collects all fees and distributes 10%, less expenses. Less expenses? What does that mean?”
“Check second page, third paragraph. I believe you are responsible for certain expenses that are listed there.“ Charles flipped back one page and reviewed the hidden text. He could now see the margins held a list of expensible items: equipment, wardrobe, transportation to and from. And Charles had NO idea how truly expensive that was going to be. He might never pay that debt off.
“This… This is outrageous. He can’t hold me to this. I didn’t agree to any of this.”
“It does seem rather Faustian in a way. “ She paused sympathetically for a moment then lapsed back into her Northern accent. “Now let’s talk luggage. Since the trip will be indefinite, how much do you plan to bring? And what about tools? I am certain I saw a fee for those. Might I have my spectacles back?”
Charles looks ashen. Sounding a bit confused “Oh… here. Where do I get a pair of those?”
“These are special made overseas. I found, after me first contract with Mr. Smith and his like, I needed a pair. You ask Mr. Smith for a long form of the contract. I am sure he has one and review it with him. I would bring along a barrister to help you review. You did have one before…” she said in a confidential tone.
Charles groaned. “It was a lark; a bit of time abroad before I started serious work. Smith made it sound like I would work an hour a day and spend the rest sunning myself and drinking rum. That is the way the ‘visible’ contract reads. I didn’t need a barrister to help me with that” He can’t hold me to that. It’s a joke. A sham. He can’t enforce those hidden clauses. “
“Ah pity. Maybe you’re right. Well bring one along anyway. I am sure Mr. Smith will show you the long form. You may be able to make some adjustments with the barrister present. Shall I come back in a day or two?”
Charles looked distracted. “I don’t know. Maybe. How do I contact you?”
“Your man has my card. My only contract at the moment is with Mr. Smith so I am easily available.”
Charles straightened himself.“ Right. Well it seems I need to attend to some business first before we can arrange that travel.”
“Very well Mr. Wayland. Until we meet again.“ Penelope rose, bowed and retired to the doors where the dutiful butler opened them as if by magic. He likely heard the whole conversation. That will complicate matters even more for Smith. She followed the silent presence down the stairs to the waiting door and walked to her waiting cab.
“Wait a moment before we head off.” She opened her second notebook and checked the area for drones. There was hers flashing green. The notebook did not detect any additional drones in the area. She turned to the driver.“ Proceed about four blocks and then stop again and I want to look at something.”
“As you wish Ma’am,” the cabby replied wondering what could possibly of interest at such a vague location.
The cab started off. As he managed the horses, she wrote the words on a new page “Follow Charles. Make no reply.” At the fourth block, she banged the roof next to a shop. “Here will be fine.” She got out and examined a store front for a cooper. As she feigned interest in large barrels for pickling, she got out her notebook and tapped the page with her message and it was sent back to the ship. She returned to the taxi and climbed in. She trusted that her Charles would follow the candidate to her competitor. The die was cast. She would need to start her defense in earnest shortly.
“Thinking of pickling something? Ma’am” the cabby asked with a wink.
“I had a bit to straighten out. Since we’re going to be working together for the rest of the day, you should know that I will be doing the same thing at the other stops. I am sure you will find it all very amusing. “
“If ma’am believes so.”
“I am sure it is all very entertaining and will make for great conversation at the pub tonight. “
“I’ve taken the pledge ma’am”
“And that flask in your jacket pocket is water. I’ve no bother about that as long as you don’t hit pedestrians or other taxis. But, I would like our ride today to remain discreet.”
“Discreet is expensive ma’am. The conversation on that last stop is with worth three beers alone.”
Millicent groaned but understood commerce, “At the end of the day we can discuss how much discretion I can buy. For now it is off to Regent’s Park. ”
“It is a pleasure doing business with you,“ he smiled and touched his cap and moved the hack on.
The next two candidates acted in nearly identical fashion: she would meet the butler at the door; the candidate would bluster; she would look at the contract and then discuss the “fine print”; the candidates would then fluster and she was asked to leave. It was remarkable how important it was for them to be right and prove their superior knowledge to her. It was such an exploitable weakness in these people. But Smith seemed to be easily influenced by the classism inherent in this era based on the list of candidates he was given. He asked for the best and this was what he got – aristocrats. The Dean and the University were so quaintly predictable that way. No wonder Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx found such fertile ground to till in this country.
She banged on the roof and asked the accommodating cabby to take her to the address in Soho.
 Puissant – being powerful, having puissance or power
 Cosh – a weighted weapon similar to a blackjack