Mary entered the common study to find Albert absently gazing at the fire. “Good evening,” she said as she stepped into view, a curved piece of metal held in her hands.
“Good evening,” Albert returned.
“What work have I interrupted this time?” she asked with a smile.
“None at all, I’m afraid.”
“Not working? Not my big brother,” Mary said. “You must have yourself confused with some other girl’s older brother.
Albert chuckled. “Sorry to disappoint.”
Mary took a seat in an upholstered hardwood chair next to him, and followed his gaze to the flames. “How is Michael?” she asked quietly.
“Sleeping. Which Hardale reckons is best for him.”
“He’s rather become one of the family, these past years, hasn’t he?”
“Haven’t they all?” Albert asked.
“I have to ask something,” Mary said.
“I thought you might have had a purpose to this visit.”
She handed the piece of metal to him for inspection. It was silver in color, but when Albert looked more closely, he noticed very faint streaks of blue.
“It’s no ordinary metal, is it?” Albert asked, turning it over in his hands.
“Not one found in this world.”
“But strong. And I need to find out how strong.”
“You need them to take it across?”
“I’ve done all I can to test it here. It will withstand a great many weapons of human devising. But there’s no way to know over here how well it will do over there,” Mary said, gesturing in the direction of their mission room on the opposite side of the mansion, where SPOT members made their Crossings.
“Have you asked the tentaclebeasts to take a whack or two at it?”
“I’m avoiding that for the time being. I’m hoping to have them forge a different sort of relationship with it.”
“Tell me more.”
“So far, we’ve had difficulty taking anything across that isn’t native to the beasts. The blue you see comes from metals we brought across from their side. It’s like the material we spun into thread for within the uniforms. But I think it goes further than that. I believe it’s an actual obstacle in the minds of the beasts themselves. Remember how much difficulty we had building a platform there?”
“Back when Michael was still captain. Everything they brought just seemed to lose its shape.”
“Exactly. I believe the structural integrity of the object is something the tentaclebeasts can’t understand properly, because they’re not inside it, the way they’re inside our minds when we Interface. So the idea of the object comes over—as the tentaclebeasts understand it,” Mary explained. “The form…but none of the substance.”
“How do you propose to help the tentaclebeasts “understand” your metal?”
“I’ve been building a sort of jointed armor, intended to mimic the tentaclebeasts themselves. But, when you gather a quantity of that metal together, even as light as I’ve made it, it becomes…well…a great deal heavier.”
“Surely it’s not all that bad? The agents do train for strength and endurance.”
“That’s not quite what I mean. The metal from their world, that I used to create this alloy…it’s…well…odd. There’s no other way to put it. It’s almost as if it…magnifies itself, when it’s near to itself…oh, I’m not making any sense,” Mary said, putting her hand to her temple and resting her elbow upon her knee.
“So this metal you’ve used, which is of the tentaclebeast world, to help them Cross with it properly…it amplifies its own properties when used in abundance?”
“As nearly as I can tell…yes. But I can’t explain it.”
“Some things can’t be explained, sister dear.”
“You’re wrong, brother. If we can’t explain something, it’s only because we have not investigated thoroughly enough, or accurately enough. But the tools of scientific inquiry will yield the truth, when applied with diligence and care.”
“Perhaps that is true in this world, but can the same be said of every world?”
“You know what I would say to that,” Mary said, smiling ruefully.
“I do. However, I do not believe you would have come to me if that was all you had to say on the matter,” Albert said, settling back in his chair.
“And,” Albert added, “you anticipate I won’t like the solution.”
“This is why you manage the people and I manage the machines,” Mary said with a wink. “What I propose is this: we create a much larger suit of armor, with more than just a human being and a tentaclebeast to bear the weight. I can build us automatons, with steam engines to carry the load.”
“Mary. You know how I feel about steam engines.”
“I know, I know, but—”
“What I fail to understand is why you don’t feel similarly.”
“Albert, a machine is just a machine, in the wrong hands it—”
“What makes you think you’ll be able to get a steam engine across anyhow? How is a tentaclebeast going to understand an automaton?” Albert said, cutting her off angrily.
“Because to them, that’s what we are.”
Albert sat in stunned silence.
Mary sighed. “Albert, I know you don’t like to think of it that way, and I know you see Numose as a partner—”
“They’re our allies. On the battlefield.”
“I know. But how do you think they take us across, Albert? To them, we are vessels that move. We are transportation. They can understand that concept.”
“And you want to expose our boys on the field to the dangers of—of those—contraptions!” Albert said, clenching his fist as he grasped for the term.
“And you want to expose them to combat without armor of any kind?” Mary retorted, her voice rising. “You want to expose my children—your nephew and niece—to beings the size of a house in the bare skin they were born in?”
“Confound you, Mary! Why do you have to be so damned persistent?”
“Because you’re such a blockhead!” she said, leaping to her feet. “And if there wasn’t someone here to drag you out of your endless rut, you’d—you’d—”
“What, Mary?” Albert said, rising to his own feet. “What would I do?”
“You’d…you’d…eat kippers three times a day!” she sputtered.
Albert blinked a couple of times. “I am rather partial to kippers,” he said wryly.
They both burst out laughing at the same moment.
“Mary,” Albert said, taking his sister’s hand. “Please. Be careful.”
“I can do this, Albert. You know I’m the best.”
“That’s what I was afraid you’d say,” Albert said, shaking his head.
“You only say that because you know you’ve been bested.”
“Don’t push it. I daresay I can still chase you up a tree.”
“That was aeons ago! Do try to keep up with the times, older brother,” Mary said, patting his shoulder.
“On with you! Let Charles deal with your nonsense.”
Mary laughed as she left the study. Albert turned the piece of metal over and over in his hands.