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Authors: Patrick Samphire

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BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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3

The Perils of Stickleberry Juice

Finally, Mama stood, and my sisters followed her out of the room. Papa wiped his forehead with a napkin and looked awkwardly around.

“Well,” he said, to no one in particular, and picked up his pen to start sketching on another sheet of paper.

If he'd had his way, Papa would have had his meals in his workshop, eaten them with greasy hands while he poked about machinery, and emerged into the sunlight only when some particularly interesting visitor turned up. Hanging around after meals with guests was not exactly his strong point.

At least that meant I would have the floor to myself. Freddie could only dodge my questions for so long. I fixed him with a piercing look.

“I say, Edward,” Freddie said. “You should try this.” He pulled a small bottle from inside his jacket. “It's called stickleberry juice. It's all the rage over in Chinese Mars, apparently. Delicious stuff. Absolutely full of bubbles!”

He pulled over a glass and sloshed a purple liquid in. I sniffed at it suspiciously. It smelled sweet. Bubbles were rising to the surface.

“Go on!” Freddie said. “It's even taking off in Tharsis City, I've heard.”

I picked up the glass and took a sip. He wasn't having me on. It was nice. It tasted like gold might have if you could have grown it on a bush and made juice out of it. And it was bubbly. Really bubbly. Freddie nodded enthusiastically, and I took another big gulp. Wow. The bubbles felt like a sandstorm bouncing around inside my mouth.

Freddie topped up my glass.

I took one last mouthful, then shook my head. He wasn't going to divert me this easily. Even if the stickleberry juice was really,
really
nice.

I opened my mouth to say,
Freddie, why are you really here?
But all that came out was,
“Murrgrrphsthm.”

I stared down at my mouth and tried again.

“Gurrflbnurrrrr!”

My tongue had gone completely numb!

Freddie raised his eyebrows at me, then turned to Papa. He'd done this on purpose!

“So,” Freddie said. “This water abacus. A jolly clever thing, eh? What might one use it for? Could you, for example, use it to help you design new structures or machines?”

“Quite, quite!” Papa said, finally diverted from his sketching. “The water abacus could perform all the calculations one must now perform by hand. What might otherwise take weeks could be done in hours on the water abacus, and I fully expect that, when it is completed, it will be able to perform calculations no man could hope to manage.”

I grabbed for a glass of water to clear the numbness from my tongue. It didn't help. I bulged my eyes at Papa, but he didn't notice. I wondered if I should bang on the table.

“How about for travel?” Freddie asked. “Might a man with such a device in his ship be able to navigate away from the dragon paths and fly through the void between the worlds without becoming lost?”

Papa frowned. “Perhaps. I hadn't thought of that. Of course, such a man would need sufficient power to escape the planet's gravity well, and a means of sealing his craft such that the air did not escape. And, of course, the distance between the worlds would be far greater if one did not use a dragon path. Still, it might be possible. It might be possible indeed.”

I squeezed my eyes open and shut a few times. Why was Freddie so interested in the water abacus? A few minutes ago, he'd claimed he couldn't operate an ordinary abacus and didn't know the difference between Latin and Greek. Now he was discussing engineering and flying through the void with Papa.

“And codes?” Freddie asked. “I read in
The Times
that the Emperor Napoleon has begun to send his orders in code so that they can't be read if they're intercepted. Could your device decode these?”

I'd thought Freddie had just been running away from trouble, but maybe it was more than that. Maybe he'd come here because of Papa's water abacus. By
why
would he want it?

Papa frowned. “I see no reason why not. But Mars is not at war with France, and I will not allow my device to be used in the pursuit of violence.”

“Even so,” Freddie persisted, “could it break such a code?”

“With ease. Napoleon's codes will not be complex. My water abacus could break much more difficult codes.”

“Ah.” Freddie sat back in his chair, a slight smile on his lips. “Well, well. It does sound fascinating. I wonder … might I have a demonstration of the device? I'm sure I could never understand it, but I would love to be able to say I've seen the work of a genius.”

Papa's eyes lit up. “Of course! Of course!” He and Freddie rose. “You know, none of my family, except Parthenia, have shown the slightest interest in the device. I had once hoped that Edward might follow me, but…” He shot me a slightly disappointed smile. “Well. But I am pleased to find
you
so inquisitive, Frederick. It says good things about you. Yes, it does. You were such a promising child, but we all thought … Well, never mind that! Come!”

Wait,
I tried to croak. But my tongue still wasn't working, and Freddie was guiding Papa toward the door, one firm hand on his back.

I tried to stand, but my legs didn't want to obey. Suddenly, I felt awfully, horribly tired. My eyes drooped, and I slumped in my chair, furious and helpless. Freddie gave me an apologetic shrug, and then he and Papa were gone.

I couldn't even get out of my seat to stop him.

*   *   *

I woke with my head pounding and my mouth dry and sticky. My brain felt like it had shrunk and was trying to pull away from the inside of my skull.

It was dark. The starlight through the curtains was too dim for me to make out anything. I didn't even remember coming upstairs.

Freddie! He'd tricked me. Something in that juice had knocked me out completely.

I groaned, and a hand clamped my mouth shut.

“Don't struggle!”

I pulled free. “Putty? What are you doing? It's the middle of the night.”

“No, it's not. It's three in the morning. And I'm trying to keep you quiet.”

“I was being quiet,” I said, each word feeling like a hammer whacking away inside my head. “I was asleep.” I'd been asleep for over eight hours, but I still felt exhausted. “Now, I'm tired, and I have a headache. Leave me alone.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” She grabbed the pillow. “Who else am I supposed to wake? Mama? Jane? Or would you prefer I went and woke Cousin Freddie?”

“God, no,” I said. “Why do you have to wake anyone?”

“Because someone's trying to break into the house.”

I shot up. “What?”

“Someone. Breaking into the house.”

I rolled out of bed. My head spun. I rested my feet on the bare floorboards until the dizziness in my head subsided and I was able to peer out the window.

The Martian grass glowed soft red under the night sky, outlining two figures crouched near the shrubbery. They seemed to be in the middle of a whispered argument. One of them jabbed his finger at the conservatory, but the other shook his head and a moment later they scurried away toward the back of the house.

“I bet they're trying to steal Papa's water abacus!” Putty said, at my shoulder.

“Well, good luck to them,” I said. “It's the size of the drawing room. They'd need a hundred steam-mules to drag it out.”

“I'm going to get a big stick so I can hit them.”

“We're not going to tackle two grown men,” I said.

Putty looked rebellious. “I thought you wanted to be a spy.”

I reddened. I'd thought I'd kept that secret. Trust Putty to figure it out. Ever since I'd started reading
Thrilling Martian Tales
, I'd been determined that I would be a spy when I grew up.

“Spies don't just go leaping in,” I said. “They're not idiots.”

“You're scared,” she said.

“No, I'm not. I just don't want you to get killed.”

She rolled her eyes. “I never get killed.”

“We should wake Papa,” I said.

Putty blinked at me. “Are you mad? What's Papa going to do?”

She had a point. Papa would try to stop them, and he'd be hurt. I was going to have to do this the smart way.

Back in issue 42 of
Thrilling Martian Tales
(part two of “The Army of the Dead”), Captain W. A. Masters had been trapped in the tyrant's temple by a thousand mad priests. He had raised the ancient clay warriors of Mars to fight for him and escaped. I didn't believe in sorcery, and there wasn't going to be any fighting if I had my way, but I knew exactly where I could get an army of my own.

“Come on,” I said.

“What are we going to do?” Putty said, eyes wide.

“Magic,” I said.

*   *   *

While Putty tiptoed toward the drawing room at the front of the house, I snuck down the narrow servants' staircase, heading for the basement. My plan was for Putty to turn on the gas lamps in the drawing room so the intruders would think someone was awake and stay away from the front of the house. The rest would be up to me.

When Papa had built the house, he'd split the basement in two. The larger part held his workshop, while the other section contained the house's winding room. What I wanted should be waiting there.

In the dim red glow of the winding room, the automatic servants had lined up against the wall, facing outward, the panels on their backs open. Their expressionless metal faces were unmoving. The room was full of heat and escaped steam from the furnace and boiler. The slow grind of the steam engine vibrated through the floor.

The automatic servants had backed themselves onto the spindles that protruded from the wall and clamped hold of supporting rungs with their metal hands. The steam engine turned the spindles, winding the automatic servants' powerful springs to drive them during the day.

I dried the sweat from my hands, then disengaged the spindles. With a
clunk
, they stopped turning. The servants lurched forward.

What I needed wasn't in any of the automatic servants' standard instructions. I crossed to the elaborate brass speaking tube on the far side of the room. It was similar to the auto-scribe that most gentlemen had in their studies, but when you talked into it, it didn't write the words down. It produced small cards with patterns of holes punched into them that could be fed into the automatic servants. The patterns of holes told the servants exactly what to do.

“The back of the house needs cleaning,” I said into the speaking tube. “Carry candles. Don't turn on the gas lamps. Twelve copies.”

With a whir, the machine spat out the neatly punched cards. I snatched them up and placed them in the automatic servants' command slots.

The servants jerked into motion. One after another, they trundled out of the room, pausing only to pick up candles, mops, brooms, and dusters, then clattered up the narrow stairs. I followed my mechanical army. In the dark, the intruders would see only the gleam of candles and the approaching figures.

The first automatic servant pushed its way into the corridor, whacking the door back on its hinges. I heard whispers, then sudden silence from further down the corridor. I slipped past the remaining automatic servants and poked my head around the doorway. Nothing.

A second servant, then a third, thumped out into the corridor. Still no movement from the intruders. This wasn't working.

“Who's there?” I called, in as deep a voice as I could manage. “Show yourselves!”

Another moment of stillness, then something swished above me and thudded into wood. I looked up to see a clockwork Martian starblade vibrating above my head.

They had tried to kill me!

“Get them!” I said, and the servants juddered into motion. Buckets and mops crashed. Metal feet thundered on the floorboards. They sounded like a whole army charging.

Someone cursed up ahead, and I heard the sound of running footsteps. My bluff had worked.

Putty slipped past me. “Don't let them get away!”

“Stop!” I hissed. She was supposed to be staying in the dining room. But it was too late.

I ducked below a broom and took off after her. Behind us, the automatic servants started to clean.

The back door slammed open, and the red glow of the Martian grass briefly silhouetted the two men as they raced away across the lawn.

Putty reached the door a couple of steps ahead of me. I lunged and caught the back of her nightgown. She stumbled against the doorpost.

“Let go!” she said.

“Do you want to get skewered?” I said. “The moment you step out, they'll be able to see you. They'll know you're just a child and you're not armed. You think they'll keep running?”

“Well, they should,” Putty said crossly.

“Well, they won't.”

I peered through the doorway. The men had nearly reached the snaggle of gullies and rock pillars behind the house.

“This way,” Putty said, nipping back into the house. “If they came by steam carriage, they'll have parked on the road. They'll need to cut through the fern-trees. There's really only one way through. We can get there before them.”

“No,” I said. “If they see us, they'll kill us.”

“Well, I'm going after them,” Putty said. “Unless you want to stand here and hang on to me all night, you can't stop me.”

Gah! Putty was the most frustrating sister
ever
.

“Fine!” I said. “But if it gets too dangerous, we're coming back. No arguing.”

“Of course not!” Putty said unconvincingly. “Now come on. We can go through the conservatory. I've got a key.”

We padded quickly along the darkened corridor to the lit drawing room, then through the garden room to Papa's conservatory beyond.

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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