"I put it to you Mr Hawkes that this is the gravest danger we have ever faced." I was most adamant on this fact and jabbed my finger in his general direction even as I jutted out my chin to check for stubble growth in the reflection afforded by the rear porthole with its view of the star-filled heavens. Mr Hawkes was his usual voiceless self.
I had now spent countless weeks in the admittedly well-furnished space-traversing vessel with just Mr Hawkes for company, and poor company at that. It is no exaggeration to say that my mind had entered a dark place just as my body was hurtling through dark space too.
"Damnation man!" I exclaimed loudly, wheeling around. "Won’t you just speak up for once! This solitude and silence are enough to fray the edges of my mind!"
Mr Hawkes kept himself just outside the edges of my peripheral vision. It was an extraordinary talent he possessed in this respect but it held scant recompense for his otherwise dreadful companionship. Our games of tag and hide-and-seek had been initially entertaining but ultimately grated on the senses. There was little entertainment in playing with someone as skilled as he was.
I prepared a meal for one from the ship’s kitchen. I didn’t like to exclude Mr Hawkes as it gnawed at my sensibilities, yet if the man would not so much as converse then he deserved to suffer. He hadn’t complained thus far and I suspected he was consuming ship supplies slyly while I slept. At the conclusion of the meal – a full Sunday roast for the seventh day running for I had determined there was an excess of potatoes that needed to be consumed before the eyes they had already sprouted started winking – there was a rather loud knock on the outside of the spaceship.
"Mr Hawkes! Will you get that?" I asked.
He would not, and there was a second knock, followed swiftly by a third. I put down the plate that I had been washing, dried my hands, and made my way to the foremost porthole. I glared at Mr Hawkes as I did so but he leapt away from my gaze preventing me from seeing whether he was in any way sorry for being so utterly unhelpful.
At the front of the vessel I expected to see what I always saw: the black beach of outer space sprinkled with star sand. I jumped back in shock. Needless to say but my eyes were greeted by something wholly unexpected.
"Carruthers!" I gasped. "It simply cannot be!"
Peering inwards was my old friend Carruthers. Through many decades I had assisted this genius with his many astounding inventions and experimentations. We had journeyed to the very centre of the Earth in his Marvellous Marble Mole Machine; there wasn’t much there. We had recreated living dinosaurs from fossils; they had succumbed to smog. We had created a method of travel that was nearly as fast as a beam of light from a gas lamp; women did not appreciate the weight-gain side-effect and the business collapsed. Most recently we had travelled to the inner solar system by brass tube and set foot on Mercury.
"They told me you were dead!" I exclaimed.
Carruthers pointed to his ear, shaking his head from side to side and mouthed something back to me. Through the sturdy English oak door and thick glass it was no wonder he could not hear me, nor I him. I shrugged by way of response and shouted loudly and slowly, hoping he would understand. "The door is locked from the outside."
Clearly my message got through and Carruthers pulled out a small pistol from inside his tweed jacket. I stepped away from the area and told Mr Hawkes to do the same. There were two sharp cracks.
Suddenly the door swung open.
"Doctor, you’re a sight for sore eyes," he said smiling.
"Carruthers, my eyes are surely more sore than yours and the merest glimpse of you is clearly far superior to any protracted stare at me," I countered. There was a movement behind my friend as I said this and I gasped once more. "Elizabeth! You’re alive too!"
"Of course I am Doctor. Why wouldn’t I be?"
"Never mind this chit-chat," shouted Carruthers hurriedly. "We must transfer to The Ringseeker at once!"
I had no time to gather my wits and was rushed out of the front of the space vessel and into another identical model that had been courageously and expertly tethered alongside. There I was urged to sit down while Carruthers and his niece flicked switches and twisted knobs. They knew what they were doing and I was happy to remain invisible for a few moments, still elated at my rescue. Mr Hawkes clearly felt the same way.
With a lurch we were on our way, but to where?
"To Saturn!" beamed Carruthers. Clearly I had spoken aloud without realising it. I started to shake my head but Carruthers held up a hand and stopped my questions before they could form. "There is much to explain Doctor but fortunately we have a half hour to kill. Elizabeth, would you be so kind as to make us all a nice cup of tea?"
Over the next thirty minutes I listened intently as my dear friend and his niece – both of whom I had believed to be dead – told me news of the past couple of months.
Carruthers, far from dying of complications to his severed hand, had instead made a swift recovery and over a weekend had fashioned a replacement limb from polished brass recycled from his Mercury tube. The fingers and thumb flexed just as a normal hand would, controlled by a series of levers near his elbow. I remarked that once we returned to my surgical practice in Woolwich I would endeavour to connect the levers to his brain allowing him to use the power of thought itself to move the mechanical digits. It was the least I could do, after all.
Elizabeth – dear, sweet Elizabeth – was fortuitously and obviously also not dead. There was no hansom cab incident and, indeed, she had not been in Whitechapel on the day of the alleged accident. She had, instead, infiltrated the lepidopterists at the behest of her uncle and it was through this subterfuge that she learned – sadly just too late – of their dreams of revenge against me.
At Her Majesty’s Imperial Spaceport near Dagenham Carruthers had used the superhuman power in his brass hand to break into and then steal a recently-repaired rocketship and with the aid of his niece the pair of them had then pursued my flying tomb, eventually catching up and releasing me just outside the jovian gas giant’s atmosphere.
"Carruthers and Elizabeth, I can never thank you enough for what you have done for me," I stated with a trembling lip as I sipped the last of a rather lovely Darjeeling. "May I just ask, though, why we are on our way to Saturn rather than returning home?"
"Doctor, have you ever heard of the Sex Sirens of Saturn?" asked Elizabeth.
I confessed that I hadn’t. Mr Hawkes said nothing and I surmised he too was in the dark.
"During his recuperation my uncle learnt of their existence through old records unearthed in the recent global catastrophe," continued the most handsome young woman with what might have been a small apologetic smile. I nodded understanding.
"To Saturn!" I exclaimed. "And the Sex Sirens!"
Under the expert guidance of Carruthers and Elizabeth, The Ringseeker switftly carried the four of us past the great mass of Jupiter where we witnessed my previous vessel of transportation spark briefly, burn rapidly, and extinguish sharply. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks that I had such a courageous and capable friend.
The descent to Saturn later that day was fraught with danger, as you would expect. The great planet’s rings were razor sharp and required supreme navigation skills to avoid a fatal piercing, but eventually there was a noticeable bump and we came to a rest. It was the first time in the best part of a couple of months that I and Mr Hawkes had been more-or-less stationary, and the experience was initially unsettling. I felt queasy – particularly around the midriff – though I tried to hide the discomfort through a breathing and gentle stretching technique Mr Hawkes and I had developed only recently.
"Doctor, is there something amiss?" asked Elizabeth, placing a warm hand on my arm.
"It appears your uncle is not the only inventor on board," I replied. "I and Mr Hawkes have come up with a method that calms the spirit and relaxes the muscles. It requires no outlay of capital and I shall probably introduce it initially to the subcontinent to test the waters so to speak when we eventually return. We have decided to call it toga."
Elizabeth looked slowly around the cabin and smiled once more. "Named after the Roman garment?" she asked quietly.
I was about to remark that the name was unimportant when a loud hiss of air interjected. Carruthers pushed open the door and the three of us took our first look and then first step out across the strange land that formed Saturn’s crust.
It was both a breathtakingly beautiful and bone-chillingly barren world. From horizon to horizon it was as flat as Norfolk but even more devoid of interest than that Godforsaken Slough of Despond. Its saving grace came in the colour of the soil; like the sand of Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight the ground was streaked with a myriad of colours: yellows and ochres and browns for the most part, but occasional rivulets of pinks and whites and even vivid blues punctuated the floor.
"Like a kaleidoscope," said Elizabeth. I turned to her to nod and was struck by just how truly, marvellously handsome she was. In this strange place with its endless expanse she shone, and I found myself more in awe of her face and the curves of her body than of the planet Saturn with its halo of rings rising into the sky and out of sight in the dirty grey-green sky.
A sound – deep, rumbling, and decidedly unnatural – rolled across the land and we all stiffened (some of us needed little assistance there). I looked frantically around. There was The Ringseeker and ourselves but not a thing else to be seen. As the noise abated Carruthers clapped his hands – that sound of flesh on brass only marginally less strange than the Saturnian one that had preceded it – and beamed.
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "We can go now!"
"Go? We have only just arrived!" I blustered. "And while I would like nothing more than to return home to my Woolwich practice and undertake a nice, relaxing holiday around India we are nevertheless standing on Saturn, a world – need I remind you? – that you wished to visit in order that you might seek out these so-called Sex Sirens, damn it man!" I felt my face turn beetroot at such language in front of the lovely Elizabeth but she was her usual nonplussed self.
Carruthers looked taken aback but this gave way swiftly to bemusement. "Did you not hear the planet’s wail?" he asked. I was confused.
"Doctor," said Elizabeth, interrupting me from my storm of tangled thoughts. She held my hand in one of hers and then reached out with her other to touch my sideburns and usher my gaze into her eyes. They were beautiful, of course, like lagoons in the milky sea of her face. A man could drown happily there and slide down her long neck into the recesses…
That sound returned, louder than before, and from every direction. We all jumped and Carruthers laughed. Elizabeth smiled too, and I came to a sudden realisation of my own.
"Oh," I said, sheepishly.
"Let’s get you home Doctor," said Carruthers. "It’s a long trip and I think some tea with an extra spoonful of bromide may be just what you ordered."
I laughed, feeling the stress and embarrassment leave me. I pictured it in my mind as a physical thing: a trickle of tension manifested as blue soil joining the multicoloured surface of Saturn for all eternity. We boarded our vessel and left in due course heading home.
"Confound it!" I said loudly, startling my friends, as we negotiated safe passage past those rings once more. I ran to the porthole and looked frantically over the slowly shrinking world we were departing. I fancied I saw him once or twice but could not be certain. "Goodbye Mr Hawkes," I said to myself.