"On your feet laddie." The throne creaked. Its occupant shifted to a more comfortable posture.

Charles managed to suppress the shudder. It never boded well when her royal majesty dropped the formalities of court etiquette in his presence, but 'laddie' was the nail in the coffin. He knew she was about to lay something unpleasant in his lap, like when Ms. Grisby's cat insisted on dropping live mice on his knee while he ate his morning porridge. He straightened, staring into the light grey eyes of Royalty.

"What is it now, Vickie?"

Queen Victoria, monarch of Great Britain and all its vast holdings, stretching from the Atlantic to half the eastern continent, snorted. Not a lady-like snort either. Ms. Grisby would be thoroughly scandalized.

"How long have you been leaning on the success of that book, Charlie boy?"

Thrown by the question, Charles felt his eyebrows creep upward. "The Catalogue of the Empire's Fauna? Nearly three years since the university published it."

The Queen nodded, squinting at him. He wondered if he had a tea stain on his vest, perhaps a bit of egg on his trousers. After leaving him to fiddle with his cuffs for a solid minute, she finally let him have it.

"It's high time you added an appendices."

"Pardon?" Charles fumbled, sending a mother of pearl cuff-link clattering along the floor.

"The Empire is aiming to expand, and you're just the man I need for this particular job," she said, shuffling through a ream of paper on her work desk. A document, rife with seals and signatures, landed in front of him. Charles scanned its contents, his stomach dropping with each line of spidery text. A proclamation of doom, that's what it was, the doom of his current comfortable lifestyle.

"An exploratory mission of the Empires' waters in a prototype nautical vessel? Vickie, this is a glorified scout mission for new territory. What use would I be on a ship full of roughs?"

A small smile played on the Queen's lips. "This is a very different sort of mission, using a ship unlike any other in the fleet. We've received many reports my boy, many troubling accounts from those at sea. I need a scientific eye for this, and you're the best."

Charles scanned the paper once again. "What exactly will I be doing?"

"Rutledge will brief you at the docks. I've assigned the best captain I've got to accompany you. Counting on you to dispel these pesky rumors. Don't let me down."

"But-"

"Off you get," said the Queen, flapping her hand at him. It was a firm dismissal, furthered by the entrance of the Royal Guard. Dejected, Charles turned to go. "I would set your affairs in order laddie, you'll be at sea for a good stretch."

Hang it all.

It took the extent of one afternoon to give Ms. Grisby notice, store the bulk of his belongings, and pack a reasonably sized valise for travel. His land lady did not seem put out by his leaving other than losing a tenant who paid his rent on time. Her cat stated his opinion of the matter by throwing up on Charles's shoes.

Early the next morning, Charles took one of the smoky trolley cars to the London dockyard, uncertain what he would find there. The grim face of Admiral Rutledge certainly didn't reassure him. Still the man was a highly decorated sailor of the Queen's navy, he'd seen quite a few things to make him so grim.

"Morning, Sir Rutledge," said Charles, tipping his hat.

"Mr. Darwin," grumbled the Admiral, "glad to see you travel light. Not a lot of room where you're going."

"Where is that exactly? Her majesty was a bit vague on the specifics of my assignment."

An unpleasant smile creased the man's craggy face. "No, the Queen isn't one to mince with the gory details. That's my job." He took off, gesturing to Charles with a nod over his shoulder. "This way, and mind your feet."

The Admiral stalked off, leaving Charles to scramble in his wake. The man's purposeful stride took them past ships in mid build, the smell of heated iron and tar thick in the salty air. There were ships off loading goods from every corner of the Empire, exotic spices and silk from the East, minerals and fruits from the Dark Continent, and every manner of finery and frippery to be had along the coast in between. Other ships loaded up men for various tasks of the Royal Army, set to sail to all the faraway corners of Queen Victoria's reach. Admiral Rutledge passed all the frenetic activity of the shipyard without pause, leading Charles to one of the innocuous side buildings, marked by a gaudy red cross painted over the door.

The antiseptic stench confirmed they entered the seaside infirmary, set up to take men right off the ships. The two men passed victims of scurvy, various injury, and a particularly pale fellow who swayed on his cot. Finally, the Admiral paused at the end of the wing outside a partition that blocked the cot's occupant from the others.

"This gentlemen here returned from sea with a rather interesting tale," he informed Charles, nodding to the prostrate individual.

"Is that so? He's a bit unconscious now."

"His sedation was necessary. They brought him in raving, clawing and snapping to be free so he could return to her." The admiral watched him as he spoke. "Told the attending physician he must return to his Goddess, among other hog wash. When the man contradicted him, he bashed in his nose."

"Hallucinations are a common symptom of half a dozen sea sicknesses. What makes this one special?"

With a nod, Rutledge drew the blanket off the sedated sailor, revealing a bare chest covered in bruises. Darwin frowned, bending close to study the oddly familiar pattern.

"Those look like-"

"Scales, imprinted into his skin, as if he were squeezed by a giant serpent." The Admiral's dour face expressed the gravity of the situation. "His ship was on a routine run along the coast of the Dark Continent when a green flash rent the sky. Startled the whole crew. A head count that night revealed him missing."

"An abduction?" Charles inquired, continuing his study of the bruising. It was amazing whatever caused them hadn't crushed the man to death.

"One without witness, without sound or evidence. He vanished without a trace for three days, and reappeared asleep in his bunk just as they made to sail for home." The Admiral pointed to the bruises that ran the span of the man's ribcage. "These didn't appear until a few days later, when he complained of discomfort to the ship's physician. Their doctor reported the bruises darkened each day. Two weeks out, his mental state deteriorated rapidly to its current state."

"Sir Rutledge, what is my purpose here? This man is obviously sick, and while I am a man of science, medicine is not my field of expertise." Darwin stepped away from the patient, feeling rather out of his depth.

"No, but creatures are. Therein lies your mission, Mr. Darwin." The Admiral strolled away. Charles pulled the blanket back over the unfortunate soul. "You will be accompanying the crew of the Royal Navy's prototype vessel to investigate this phenomenon by order of her Majesty, Queen Victoria."

"What? But this is one case!"

The Admiral stopped so suddenly Charles nearly crashed into his backside. "No, lad, this is merely the first one to make it back to our shores alive." He took off again, leaving the stunned scientist to fall in behind him. 

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