Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

A Tale of Two Sisters Excerpt #1

Chapter One


Broadside

 

Niflheim, Norway


1913


Arm in arm as they weaved their way through the crowded garden party, the McEwan sisters were inseparable this evening. Insuperable. At long last, they were closing in on their prey.


While the youngest, Sonja, preferred to march, to tromp wherever she went, Meredith was naturally inclined to glide. Even now, approaching their long-time nemeses for this showdown in Professor Sorensen's garden—three years had passed since the last vicious encounter here—Meredith felt as cool and smooth as vichyssoise. Maybe it was because she was approaching womanhood now and was more composed, on the threshold of society, while the last time they'd visited Niflheim she and Sonja had been little more than skittish girls, easily humiliated.


Tonight, together, they would end that humiliation once and for all. Tonight they would be formidable.


Sonja stopped them, brushed a stray white curl from her goggles, and motioned away to the hedgerow to their left. “Hags ahoy, east-north-east—with extra ballast this time.” Meaning the three Sorensen cousins had brought reinforcements, anticipating this full-blown McEwan offensive.


“Age and class?” Meredith loved it when they reduced people they didn't like to nautical metaphors. It always sounded deliciously coded, for their ears only, and really brought out Sonja's cruel wit.


Her little sister adjusted the magnification on her spectrometer goggles—the current night-time lens would be illuming everyone in a ghostly green hue. “Um, rather tight lines, I'm afraid, but a little older. Ballonets fully inflated. She's luring men like a siren.” Sonja lifted her goggles, cast Meredith a forlorn gaze. “It's Lady Catarina. They've gone and recruited Lady bloody Catarina!”


“Hell.” The prudent thing to do would be to turn back and bide their time, wait to catch the Sorensen bullies on their own, for Lady Catarina Fairchild, the only daughter of wealthy English emigrant parents, was a notoriously accomplished peahen back in London. Yes, she had more men on the go at any one time than a tramp steamer on a boom town run, and knew how to talk her way into or out of anything.


But damn it, Meredith had drummed herself up for this encounter for weeks, ever since Aunt Lily had announced they'd all been invited to Niflheim for the grand opening of Father's science exhibition. He and Sorensen were good friends, and Father's historic subterranean discoveries had been given pride of place in the local museum. After tonight, the evil trio might not visit their uncle's estate again before Meredith and Sonja returned to Southsea. That would not do. Years of pent-up humiliation needed an outlet, and this was it—sweet, sweet vengeance—now or never.


“We see the mission through, no backing out.” Meredith’s lips receded from her teeth at the sight of Helga, Brigitte and Freya Sorensen giggling away by the large baroque fountain in the shade of a Norway spruce tree. Their leg-of-mutton sleeves flapped in the manner of fat penguin wings as the girls cajoled one another around Lady Catarina’s energetic regalement.


Though none of the cousins held a candle to their older chaperone, they were all passably attractive—frustratingly so, for it gave Meredith precious little verbal ammunition with which to cut them down to size. Their prominent high cheekbones and striking golden-blonde hair, both classic Nordic attributes, gave them an immediate advantage over Meredith and her sister, who each had rather anaemic-looking, almost white hair and whose facial definitions, though promising, had not yet escaped the last of their adolescent roundness. Sonja in particular had a chubby face and a button nose that belied her fully-developed figure—nor did it help that she preferred to hide the latter behind her conservative dress and slightly masculine carriage.


Yet Meredith secretly hoped her sister would stay that way forever. As things were, boys did not pay Sonja much mind, and Meredith loved being the sole gatekeeper for any and all male attentions. Not that she ever accepted such callers or invitations, but it was encouraging to know that their sisterly clique—on which she relied so much, indeed, more than she dared let on—was hers to ensure for as long as she wished.


Yes, while they were together and no one breached their confidence, everything was as it should be.


“What are you girls up to?” Aunt Lily sashayed across their path, tilting her white fur hand warmer and Cossack fur hat toward her latest conquest, a dashing beau at least ten years her junior. She was forty-one, looked twenty-five, and had a waist you could almost pinch between your forefinger and thumb. Kind of an architectural miracle, in fact, as she also boasted an ample bosom—one imagined her having to scurry hither and thither to maintain balance lest she topple over, yet she moved with swan-like grace.


“We’re showing all these scallywags how to behave,” Sonja replied. “This place is far too rowdy.”


Meredith snorted. “If somebody blew their nose here, it would qualify as a riot.”


Aunt Lily cast them a haughty glance from the corner of her eye, then beamed at her gentleman admirer. “You’d best behave, young ladies—” She gave her best ventriloquist impression through the teeth of a fixed smile, “—if you want to see daylight for the next month.”


An empty threat. She’d tried grounding them in the past, but it was tough to be a jailer when you were rarely at the prison in person. Aunt Lily was one of the most popular women in Portsmouth and Southsea, or at least she had been before Father’s latest scandal. Her endless engagements kept her away from her home for much of the time. But despite what she said about Meredith and Sonja hating having to stay with her while Father was away on his subterranean adventures, they honestly didn’t. She was fun to be around when she actually bothered to talk to them, and the empty house and grounds gave them endless opportunities to explore, idle, and otherwise hide from the world.


A world that hated them, that they hated in return.


“Your father was asking for you earlier.” Aunt Lily coyly turned her nose up at her gentleman admirer across the garden and looked straight at Meredith, masking a yawn with her fluffy hand warmer. “There’s someone he wants you to meet.”


“Yes, Auntie.” Sonja motioned to put a finger down her throat.


“That’s enough of that, little madam. You know how important this visit is for your father—for all of us.” The glint in her questing eyes sparked, as though she’d caught the scent of wounded prey somewhere in the garden. So honed was her social survival instinct, Darwin himself might do well to follow her exploits at one of these eclectic functions. No matter what gossip ailed the McEwan family back in England, Aunt Lily would sniff out an antidote and peddle it tirelessly until she came up smelling of roses. She always did. Her motivation might be selfish but that social finagling had also helped revive Father’s reputation in the past.


He needed it now more than ever.


A little over eighteen months had passed since Ralph McEwan’s heroic return from his second expedition to the subterranean realm he himself had discovered back in 1899, a vast underground network of chambers and tunnels that, as far as he’d ascertained, went farther and deeper than man had ever thought possible. On his first expedition, he’d penetrated the earth in his famous mechanical iron mole, and his discovery of a world far beneath the surface had stunned the world. But shortly after his return from that adventure, claims that he had stolen the design for his burrowing machine from an American colleague had tarnished his reputation.


It had taken him seven years to mount his second expedition and a further eighteen months to complete it. In that time, Meredith and Sonja had grown up together, mostly alone. They’d watched Mother grow weaker every day until the tuberculosis had claimed her. They’d also developed keen instincts for deflecting insults aimed at Father from classmates, idiotic neighbours, and other pesky insects. Had Father returned home triumphant from Subterranea this time, things might have changed.


But history cruelly repeated itself. No sooner did he arrive back from Central Africa with a trove of samples and artefacts than the mud began to fly once more.


Reports that he had maimed his expedition partner, a Frenchman named Armand Clochefort, weeks before embarkation—to claim sole authorship of all discoveries—and that that had caused the Frenchman to commit suicide, had landed Father in serious hot water. The reprieve the McEwans had hoped for did not arrive—rather their name was blackened further still.

Only a handful of loyal colleagues openly honoured Father’s achievements these days. Professor Sorensen was one of them, which meant all Norway held Father in high esteem, for Sorensen, an inventor of some note, was a much-loved and well-respected figure in his home nation, and the people trusted his judgement implicitly.


If only the same were true of his nieces—the Niflheim trolls—who had humiliated Meredith and Sonja so viciously the last time.


But not tonight, harpies.


Sonja tugged Meredith behind a group of sporty-looking gentlemen while their aunt was distracted. “We need to make our move.” She folded her goggles and slid them into her dress pocket. “Father will parade us around like maharanis once he gets hold of us—and we’ll have blown it.”


Leaning close, Meredith parted the loose curls from her sister’s brow. “Let’s make it sharp then. Exchange a few volleys, then go in for the kill. They’ll never know what hit ’em.”


Sonja sprouted a wicked smirk. “You take Freya and Brigitte. I want Pimple Face.” The youngest, Helga, had taken special delight in mocking Sonja’s “accident” two years ago. The little troll might not have instigated the prank but she’d milked it in front of the entire party nonetheless.


The recollection cut anew. Her gaze darting over the dark hedgerow, Meredith winced as she fought back the memories...

They’d stood alone, away from the crowd one moment, sharing silly observations; the next, they’d fought to break free from their frocks pulled over their heads and tied with curtain cords. No warning given. It had happened so quick, supernatural quick. For Meredith’s part, the shock had left her truly panicked. Tears had streamed down her hot face undercover, the shame of her undergarments on full display for high society while she’d bumped into tables and walls and Sonja, desperately trying to free herself and put an end to the humiliation.


Lord, that endless laughing, whooping, cackling.


No one had helped her, not until she’d crashed into the punch bowl and the contents had spilled all over her. Even when Father and Professor Sorensen and a few other gentlemen had finally put an end to the spectacle, freeing her and Sonja, the evil cousins had celebrated long into the night, taunting them at every opportunity, bragging to other interested young parties about how they’d “struck a blow for justice.” They’d said “the McEwan girls are obnoxious little sows” and “fraud spawn,” referencing Father’s rumoured illegal practices.


But all of that might have been at least surmountable had she seen, or even come to learn who’d actually performed the malicious prank. For God’s sake, the Sorensen cousins had not been anywhere near them. No one had, unless that person had been hiding under the drinks table. But even so, how had neither she nor Sonja felt their frocks being pulled up, let alone tied overhead?


It was as if the prankster had slid in through a nick of time, done the deed in the blink of an eye and then sneaked out again unseen. Father had questioned the witnesses afterwards, and not one of them confessed to having seen the culprit.

In the intervening years, that last part had haunted Meredith more than any other. She knew the Sorensens had orchestrated it, but how—and with whom—had they deceived a room full of guests? Only one thing was for certain: her payback would not disappoint. No, she and Sonja would have the last laugh tonight.


“Are you sure your friend understands the signal?”


“Aye, he’s watching us right now.” Sonja glanced to the pavilion roof behind them, gave her mysterious young acquaintance a 

discreet wave. “For ten bob, there’s no way he’ll let us down.”


“Ten bob? We both owe him a big sloppy kiss if this works.”


“Yuck! You can if you like,” Sonja replied. “He rather fancies you anyway, poor bloke.”


Meredith didn’t pay her sister’s comment much mind. “I’ll have to meet him later.”

“You’ve already met him, Merry—three years ago, remember? Sorensen’s English ward, the little urchin from up north. Lancashire, I think. Could hardly tell what he said back then. He’s, um, changed somewhat since.”


“I remember,” she lied. The only thing she recalled from three years ago laid siege to her defiance once again. It screamed in the deep, private chasms of her being, summoning forth hate and blasts of molten shame. She ground her teeth, gripped her parasol in a moist lace glove patterned with the fleur-de-lis motif. “All right, here we go.”


Sonja gave her sister’s arm a quick soft punch for luck. “Let’s do it. It’s our turn now.”


The eldest, Brigitte, cast a dark shawl over her trim shoulders. All three cousins turned to greet Meredith and Sonja. But something wasn’t right. They smiled—uncommonly warm and genuine smiles that lit their pale, chiselled faces.


Meredith swallowed, didn’t know what to do next. She had agonised over the awful events from three years ago, nary a day free from stomach-twisting pangs of shame; she had dwelt on this moment of revenge for endless nights; but had they, for all love, given the matter so much as an idle thought during that time?


The notion wrung her insides bitterly.


“Miss McEwan, Sonja, how do you do?” Brigitte extended her arm, inviting them to join the group. Either an expert lure or sickeningly sincere. “Lady Catarina just remarked on how handsomely you’ve grown. Not that we ever doubted it—your mother outshone all of Niflheim when she visited.”


Um, where is Brigitte Sorensen, and what does this automaton run on? Butter milk?


“Thank you, Miss Sorensen. And Lady Catarina, very kind.” Two can play at this. “Did you find Father’s presentation agreeable? We’ve never seen him happier. How he loves sharing his triumphs with eager listeners. And you must thank your uncle for us when you see him. It’s such a vindication for Father’s achievements, don’t you think?”


Let them choke on that.


“He was pleased as punch when your parliamentary whatsits announced he was to be honoured.” Venom was brewing in Sonja’s words. “I dare say a few people will be eating crow about now. Nice buffet earlier, hmm?”


The younger cousin snorted, then engaged in an ill-advised staring contest with Sonja. Now this was more like it—both sides testing their strengths, flying their true colours. The game was afoot. Or was it?


“Helga! Manners.” The middle cousin, Freya, closest of the three to strawberry blonde, slapped her younger cousin’s shoulder, then turned to Meredith. “Pay no mind to my sister. She was born a pest.”


“Shut it, sow.” The smallest received a clip to the ear for that retort, and Meredith lost her bearings again. Divided enemy forces? Not fighting back? This wasn’t at all how things were supposed to happen. What next—exchanging Christmas cards?


If any of them use the word sorry, I’ll throw up.


“How is your Aunt Lily?” Lady Catarina stepped forward, adjusted the ribbon on her wide-brimmed touring hat, while the buns in her ebony hair shimmered in the light from several blue-tinted oil lamps. There was nothing subtle about the woman’s beauty: high rounded cheekbones; a scaled-down voluptuous figure, generous in hips and breasts yet a long way from plump; and big hazel eyes that seemed to reflect the best of everything else but the worst of you. Yes, all women were jealous of her. One could clock her appeal in a single glimpse from across the fullest room.


“She is well and in good spirits, ma’am. Thank you. And you?”


“I am enjoying my Arctic trip immensely. An airship took us far north last week, and such a thing you never saw—flat white as far as the eye could see, and uncommonly still, not a quiver of a breeze. Now I understand why your father insists on his explorations. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of being somewhere man has not yet trod. I envy him deeply.”


Something distracted her, and she threw a wave across the garden. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies. I’m needed elsewhere. Promise I shan’t be long.” She climbed the shallow slope toward a group of elderly women near the slow-moving buffet tables on circular tracks.


Which left Meredith and Sonja with their enemies, unsupervised, for the first time.


Sonja glanced over her shoulder to the pavilion roof. She would give her signal to the boy very soon—phase two of their revenge would be the showstopper all right, and no one would ever forget it, least of all the Sorensens. So what if it marred Father’s big night. He’d already delivered his presentation, received his great honour, and the visit had been a resounding success. His star shone brightly tonight and would continue to do so. They’d strategically waited till the final hours to get even. And anyway, no one could prove they were to blame for phase two, not unless the boy talked, and he would be implicating himself.


No, this would only destroy three reputations. Just as they’d inflicted unforgettable wounds three years ago, the Sorensens had to suffer. And the time was now.


“Meredith, Sonja, on behalf of my cousins and I,” Brigitte opened her shawl in surrender, “we would like to offer our sincerest apologies for how we treated you on your last visit. It was unforgivable.”


Wait. What?


Meredith and Sonja shared a quizzical glance. The bitterness froze in her chest. She lost all recollection of where she was, what she was doing. Then she remembered, and cringed. Hell, what if they went through with this and the Sorensens were genuinely contrite? Their apology was an honest one?


“Yes, it was unforgivable.” Sonja set her fists on her hips.


“Truly it was.” A grave bow by the eldest cousin softened the tension a fraction, and she looked up at Sonja with doe eyes, the vulnerability a little overdone. The V of her eyebrows lifted suddenly...


There! Brigitte sneaked a hand behind her back, as if to take something from her cousin standing behind.


“Move—” Meredith opened her parasol and jabbed it in front of Sonja. A split-second later, dark liquid exploded on it, peppering the side of Meredith’s face and the shoulder of her gown. She instinctively sidestepped a second ink bomb thrown by Freya. That one burst on the lawn behind her, its rubber balloon pieces gurgling in a dark frothy streak.


For a moment, seagull cries and the rumble of distant waves were the only sounds in Niflheim.


Sonja balled her right fist, fingered the cap off the point of her bracelet, and darted for Brigitte Sorensen. “Have some of this!” She struck in precisely the right place, the side of her neck, injecting a dose of the paralytic solution. Instant drowsiness.


The plan had been to prick the cousins’ hands, one by one, surreptitiously, as they ventured close during the heated argument, but there wasn’t time for that now. Meredith sprang at Freya, ignoring her scream, and pricked her jugular. Lastly, Sonja ducked Helga’s wild slap and injected her cheek—a reckoning for the personal humiliation heaped upon her by the youngest troll three years ago.


A giddy flush of triumph overcame Meredith as she stalked around her sluggish prey. She gave a whoop of delight, then she and Sonja skipped away together, pretending to curious partygoers that they were batting away a swarm of angry mosquitoes. 

A nice touch—Sonja’s, invented the night before. It would spread a faux explanation for the Sorensens’...strange reaction.


Dozens of guests flocked to the now-mute trio, whose drunken stumbling elicited a glorious smattering of laughter from around the garden. Positively glorious.


Ah, sweet, sweet revenge.


Phase one was a resounding success.


Meredith rubbed her hands together. “All right, now we hammer the nail in. Give the signal.”


***


A stunned silence gripped the garden party. It was by now several score strong—almost everyone had ventured outside to witness the commotion. A large white projection screen unfurled from the upper balcony of the manor house. It droned and then whumped taut, its stiff frame patting the gothic stone balcony.


Sonja blanked out the voice in her head telling her this was cruel overkill, that they’d had their revenge on the Sorensens. She’d almost said as much when Merry had first floated this plan, but tonight was not as clear-cut as the dictates of her own conscience. No, only she knew Merry’s pain. Only she’d had to endure those long, fractured nights, looking helplessly on, pretending not to notice the endless tossing and turning, the tormented groans, the sickly odour of sweat-soaked sheets. For months, years now. That awful humiliation of three years ago had traumatized Merry more than anyone knew.


Perhaps Sonja’s youth—thirteen at the time—and her lack of social awareness had made her more resilient to the shock, whereas Merry, who’d been on the threshold of romance and courtship and that raw self-consciousness all teenaged girls are cursed with, had had nowhere to retreat to. The dashing young Viking men whose attentions she’d caught, even commanded, had watched on as she’d been exposed, helpless and humiliated.


Sonja looked across at her big sister. That same torment broiled inside Merry now, pursing her lips to the size of a halfpenny. It blazed with anticipation from her wide eyes as she fixed on the moonlit projection screen. Her balled fists trembled at her sides.


Sonja sucked in a breath, let the vicarious venom flush through her, and gave William the wave.


This was not for her, it was for Merry.


The beam from the pavilion roof brightened until the projection screen shone brilliantly silver-white. Borrowing the screen and the steam-powered moving image projector from Professor Sorensen’s conference hall had been a nice coup—William had helped. A strange lad, shy but determined. He was the professor’s ward, an orphan from Northwest England, and didn’t seem to fit in here or anywhere else for that matter. But he’d taken their part admirably this past week.


A chorus of outraged gasps sounded from around the garden as the moving images flickered on the twenty-foot screen. Sonja flinched, not wanting to look but she had to. This was Merry’s—and her—collection of a debt. But something told her it would not close the account. No, there would inevitably be a reckoning for this reckoning.


To hell with them.


The Sorensens, au naturel, frolicked in the lake for all of Norwegian high society to see. The glimpses of their immodesty were brief and partial, but the moving images left little to the imagination. One middle-aged woman fainted near the gazebo, while raised voices competed in their outrage, demanding the movie be stopped immediately.


Sonja smirked as William, having climbed down on the far side of the pavilion, tiptoed into the shadows behind an overgrown bower. Slick as a knock-off artist. Whatever the cousins had done to tick him off, he’d settled that debt as well.


Outrage among the partygoers fell away to morbid fascination as the scene played out, the wide open mouths of many guests almost matched in size by their bulging eyes. Especially the so-called gentlemen. The Sorensens sobbed onto the shoulders of gallant saviours who carried them back into the house, away from this humiliation. Damn. The end of the show. Merry had only taken a few minutes of film from her hiding place in the bushes behind the lake, using Father’s dynamo camera.


The image crackled and then flickered out, leaving the blank screen to flap in a sudden gust. Men who’d climbed the pavilion roof disabled the projector, and the tattling began around the now noticeably colder garden.


Sonja shivered. She tugged the sleeve of Merry’s gown, flashed her a grin. In reply, her sister clamped her teeth on her lower lip and flicked her eyebrows up in delight. Good, tonight had been everything she’d expected. A complete and utter victory, worthy of Nelson on the Nile or Nemo in the Atlantic. Whatever happened next, Merry would always have this to look back 

on, to hopefully negate the nightmares.


Sonja puckered her lips and whistled silently as gazes burned into her back. She linked arms with her sister and marched over to the yellow cloudberry plants, where it was poorly lit. Here they shared a giggle of relief and a hug, and Sonja loved the sound and feel of Merry’s long, relaxing sigh against her.


“So it’s over.” Merry juddered as she lifted free. “We showed them, didn’t we?”


“Absolutely.”


“They still don’t know what hit them, I’ll bet. Rotters, bombing us with ink, of all things.” Merry spread her fingertips on her temples. “The nerve! After what they did last time, and they still weren’t satisfied. My God, if ever revenge were justified, I mean—they just handed it to us on a silver platter. All this time, and the bitches only got bitchier. Tell me we’ve hit them where it hurts.”


Sonja clicked her heels to attention, hoping to lighten the mood. “Aye, Captain. We raked ’em, for certain.”


“Raked?”


“Yes, that’s when you hit their stern with a broadside and your shots travel lengthways along their decks. Maximum damage.”


“Ooh, I like that. We raked ’em and watched ’em get dragged to port. And now I think it’s time we made ourselves scarce. 

Come on—” she pulled Sonja toward the greenhouse abutting the empty conservatory, “—let’s find your mystery boy. We both owe him a kiss.”


Sonja wasn’t normally one for lollygagging, but her feet suddenly dragged like anchors over the gravel. Kissing William?

That had better be a joke. Never mind three years—a lifetime of embarrassment awaited her if she had to go through with that.