(If you missed the first part of our tale, read it here!)
I stood before the ruins of Mason Labs with some dismay. “Aye, there’s not much left,” said a short man wearing a dapper waistcoat and a tophat adorned with moving gears. He had seen me approach the debris-strewn lot and gaze at the rubble, and, in the friendly manner of Steelheaders, decided that this was an invitation for a conversation. In truth, I was happy to see him on the otherwise-deserted street, for I was in need of a new lead.
After I docked the airship, I sent a radiogram to Kathy, inquiring about Tesla’s health. I then walked to the new Town Hall where I thought I might find someone knowledgeable about any medical men rumored to have unusual powers. Mr. Eclipse, the leader of the community, was tinkering with a boiler but set down the wrench and heard an abbreviated version of my story. When I was finished, he nodded in understanding. “I wish I had an easy answer for you. I’ve heard rumors of the man called the Scientist, just as you have, but I can’t say I know him personally, or even where he might be. I’m pretty sure he’s not in Steelhead; it’s a small town, in some ways, and I’d like to think I know everyone in it, at least those who aren’t just passing through. Hell, I even know the poor buggers who are camping out in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens. Steelhead doesn’t have any medical magic men in it – or at least not any more.”
I felt a pang of disappointment. He continued, “We all felt the loss when Darien – Dr. Mason – left town some time back. He may have provided some exciting times around here, especially for his neighbors – and, believe me, I don’t need more excitement – but a man of his skills is hard to replace.” Dr. Mason had left not only Steelhead but the entire Steamlands in the dead of night, under some sort of legal cloud that Mr. Eclipse was unwilling to discuss further. I chose not to push the issue.
“And can you suggest anyone to whom I could speak who might be acquainted with the Scientist?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said, shaking his head, causing his long, silver hair to bounce slightly from side to side. “Darien is gone, and I’m pretty confident he’s not coming back. Although he had his confidants, none was really a medical doctor. Right now, the only doctor in town is a Ryne Beck. Dr. Beck lives in Shanghai –” At this, Mr. Eclipse gestured in the vague direction of the Chinese section of town. “– but practices a more, er, conventional brand of medicine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get this boiler back on line before the town meeting tonight or some feathers are going to fly. Like as not, quite literally.” I thanked him for his time and took my leave.
Before seeking Dr. Beck, I thought I would visit Mason Labs to see if perhaps someone was living there and carrying on Dr. Mason’s work. I looked for a passing hansom cab, but Steelhead was obviously smaller than Caledon and its people less used to such little luxuries. With a small apology to my aching feet, I set out for the harbor district, which is where I saw what remained of the Labs and met my new acquaintance in the top hat.
“The explosion was heard for miles around,” the man was saying, “and flung pieces hundreds of yards. Big pieces, too, such as iron support beams. “ ’Twere a miracle no one was killed.”
“When did this happen?” I asked. Surely no one inside the building could have survived the explosion, but it was still possible that one or more of Dr. Mason’s followers was away at the time.
“Shortly after Dr. Mason left Steelhead. The building sat vacant for several months, not a one of us willing to venture indoors to see if he left anything worth salvaging. I understood Lunar – that’s Mr. TotalLunar Eclipse, our town leader – was on the verge of having some men gut the insides and sell the property when the entire building exploded.”
“What caused the explosion?”
He shrugged. “Someone got inside and played with something he oughtn’t”?
“So, as far as you know, no one moved in to continue Dr. Mason’s experiments?”
“That’s right. Afterward, of course, all sorts of scavengers picked up anything that looked remotely useful. I only hope that none of those items accidentally kills someone.”
It appeared as though this site was a dead end, and I would need to seek out Dr. Ryne Beck. Shanghai was a section of town most easily accessible by water, so I found myself stepping aboard a small boat, not unlike a gondola, with Chinese markings on the sides and a dragon head mounted on the prow. I had secured passage with a Chinaman whose English was broken but whose negotiating skills were unimpaired. My purse was significantly lighter when we reached the other side and I left my pilot, who grinned as he bowed a farewell to me.
It took some doing, between my inability to speak Mandarin and the locals’ difficulties with English, but I eventually tracked Dr. Beck down, not in his office, which was a seedy enough affair, but in a nearby opium den. This certainly helped explain the man’s presence in Shanghai, I thought.
I fought my way through the stench of cooking opium until I found the Steelheader lying on a couch, his eyes glassy. He was a handsome fellow, I suppose, his stylish beard providing some contrast with his youthful face, but one could see the effects of the drug taking its toll on his body. His face looked hollow, the skin around his eyes drooping as though exhausted.
“Dr. Beck?” I inquired.
With great effort, he shifted his position to look at me. “Er, yes? What can I do for you miss…?”
“Rhianon Jameson.” I extended a gloved hand, which he touched briefly. I only hoped he was not too far under the influence of the drug to provide useful information. “I was hoping you could help me find someone. It’s quite important.”
“Hmm, yes, who is it?”
“A man who goes by the nom de plume the Scientist. He apparently knows some powerful medicine. I must find him, and time is running short.”
Beck, whose face had been set in a lazy smile, gave a start at the name and his expression closed. “I’m, ahhh, afraid I don’t know anyone with that name.”
I lacked the time for tact. “You lie, sir. I can see it in your face.”
“I’m telling you, I don’t know…” He started to drift off.
Grabbing him roughly by the arm, I said, my voice raised in anger, “Dr. Beck! You call yourself a medical man; you took an oath. And yet you are willing to let a man die – for what purpose? To protect the Scientist?”
At the disturbance, an attendant rushed over. “You not create noise, miss. You let customers alone. Leave now.” He attempted to lead me out by the arm, but I shook him off.
“Dangerous,” Beck said.
“I understand danger. I can take care of myself. Just tell me where he is.”
“I don’t…know. I really don’t. He didn’t want anyone to find him. All I know is…Babbage…”
“New Babbage? Where?”
“Hmm, not sure. Find…” His voice trailed off as he nodded again. The attendant was calling for reinforcements. I had little time left to find out what the doctor knew.
“Find who? The Scientist?”
Back stirred. “No, not him. Find Lo Ping. Elderly chap. At least I think so…can’t really tell. He’s the only one…only one…who knows how to locate the Scientist. Sssss all I know. Now leave me alone.”
Two more attendants converged on me, each placing a meaty hand on an arm of mine. “Thank you, Dr. Beck. I hope we meet again on a happier occasion…in a better place. Get well, sir.” The two men half-dragged me out of the den as I stumbled across the wooden floor. The first attendant opened the door while his assistants pitched me forward. I tumbled to my knees on the dusty street. The glare of the mid-day sun was a painful contrast to the gloom of the den, and I squinted as I picked myself up and dusted myself off. “Lo Ping. We shall see if he wants to be found.”
Diary of Tesla Steampunk. March ??, 18__. A day? Two? More? I’m not certain. Time has no meaning. Amorphous shapes pass by my field of vision. Some seem more solid than others – are those the real ones, or are the vaporous figures? More than once I have found myself at school, naked, with the other boys pointing and laughing. I am fairly certain that is my dream state at work, though the boys look quite real. I am an adult…yes, even now I am fairly certain of that. Still, quite peculiar. And surely the serum should have worn off by now? No matter. My calculations are correct.