Mary carefully opened the door to Lachlan Aberford’s study and paused to allow her eyes to adjust. Outside the November afternoon was drawing down to dusk and Lachlan’s study was unlit and dim. It was a stark contrast to the bright aether lights in the kitchen and hall and, for a moment, Mary struggled to see her employer. “Good afternoon, sir,” she said brightly. “I’ve brought the tea tray. Shall I put on a light?”
“Hmm?” Lachlan stared out of the window at the hansom cab trotting along towards Plumstead Common. “Yes, of course.”
Mary set the tray down on the side table near the door and wound up the aether light. “I’ve got the evening paper as well,” she said. “It’s all about the Boer War on the front page.” With the ease of practise, she set out the teapot, milk, cup and saucer, side plate, sandwich and slice of fruit cake on the edge of Lachlan’s desk. “They say that Kitchener is likely to be sent there.” She shook out the paper and then folded it again neatly.
“It’s nearly a new century,” Lachlan said, still staring out of the window. “The century starts in 1901, you know, and we are on the edge of such discoveries.”
“Yes, sir,” Mary said, deftly pouring a cup of tea. She shivered and realised that she could see her breath steaming in front of her. “It’s very cold in here, sir. Would you like me to light the fire? If nothing else, it will be better for the rats.”
Lachlan pulled his attention away from the window. “Of course, although we have sadly lost all but Cedric now.”
“Oh dear!” Mary said. She took down the aether lighter and knelt to light the fire. At least the fire was still coal. It may make more work for her, but the amount of aether crystals in the house made her uneasy. “Poor things. What do you think it was? They had plenty of food, didn’t they?”
Lachlan slowly pulled the heavy curtains across the window. “Yes, I made sure of that, with lots of fresh water. And you did a splendid job of cleaning the cages.”
Mary repressed a shudder. She didn’t have much choice of employment, and this situation had a lot of good points. The rats were a small price to pay. “Thank you sir.” She stood and brushed down her skirt before walking around the room and turning on the lights. The study was the biggest room in the house, with the small fire and desk at one end and the large table with rat cages and experimental equipment at the other. “I’m sorry to hear about the losses. Will Cedric be alright?” Mary looked around. “Perhaps I should leave you to eat your tea, sir. You haven’t had anything all day.”
Lachlan walked slowly over to the cages. “Cedric seems to be tolerating the effects of aether waves much better than the others,” he said, ignoring the food. “But it still doesn’t answer the question of the effects of aether rays on a man. The relative size of an aether crystal to a man compared to the rat is significant.”
“I heard that the miners in aether mines go mad if they spend too much time in them,” Mary said. “It was in the paper. Can I tempt you to a little beef broth, perhaps, sir? Or some nice buttered toast?”
“I put the remains of Cedric’s companions out on the rubbish heap,” Lachlan said. “I wonder if I should have preserved their remains.”
Mary took a deep breath. She couldn’t afford to give notice, not even if there were preserved rats. “I’ll give the cages a good wash tomorrow with carbolic and hot water,” she said.
“Do you think you would be able to clean some of my equipment for me?” Lachlan said, waving a hand at a large bowl full of wooden clutter. “It’s quite specialised, to work with the aether crystals, so needs a certain amount of care, but it’s not too complicated.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to do that, sir,” Mary said.
“There are no real traces of rats, I promise,” Lachlan said. “I used some rags to clean the instruments off and burnt the rags. But a wash with hot water and carbolic soap would improve them. They are made of wood, you see, instead of metal, to try and reduce aether conductivity.”
“I see,” Mary said. They reminded her of her brother’s equipment, many years ago, and for a moment the sadness washed over her. Then she pulled herself together. “So these sharpened sticks and dowels, then, and these…” Mary poked at the full bowl.
“I designed a lot of these myself,” Lachlan said. “These may look like toothpicks, but they are specially filed and sanded ironwood. They are much more robust and quite sharp so you can rub them quite briskly in water but be careful of their points. These I suppose are a type of chisel but with only the very edge made of metal. And while the oak clamps are nowhere near as robust as their iron counterparts, they don’t spark with aether interference. Wood seems to be non-conductive. It’s not ideal,” he said, frowning, “but it gives clearer, results and helps me get a better idea of the aether flow.” Lachlan paused and stared back at the window now hidden by the curtains. “I’m getting so attuned to the aether current. Sometimes I feel I can see the currents with the naked eye, without the use of an aether scope.” Lachlan put a hand on Mary’s arm. “You mustn’t try and wash the delicate instruments,” he said quickly. “Just these wooden and metal pins and probes.”
“Your hand is very cold, sir,” Mary said. “Are you feeling quite well.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Lachlan said, stacking the notebooks to one side. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt better. But I’m not sure about Cedric. Perhaps he will take a morsel of my sandwich.”
“And I then could make you some fresh just for you,” Mary said. “I made ham sandwiches for you, with some nice Wiltshire ham, but there’s some cheese in the kitchen. Do you think that would tempt him?” She peered past Lachlan and into the cage. Like all of the cages, it was placed carefully out of the draughts and provided with lots of straw. There were dishes of water and untouched feed and, at the back, the iridescent and experimental aether crystal strapped in place. Her heart broke a little. Cedric had always been her favourite. He may have been a rat, but he had been friendly, playful and even willing to be cuddled as she cleaned the cages. Now he was uninterested and unmoving. “Perhaps I could even try some bread and milk.”
“Yes, that may be an idea,” Lachlan said as he frowned over the rat lying listlessly in the corner.
Mary moved the notebooks away from Cedric. Lachlan had the finest notebooks but had strips of old maps as bookmarks. He paid her a generous salary but his boots were worn almost to pieces. The rats were given the best care he could manage but insisted on the plainest of food for himself. She had been here nearly a year now, and while the work wasn’t hard, there were quite a few quirks that needed to be considered. Caring for sick rats was barely a tithe of it. “I could get a hot water bottle for him to sleep on,” she said. “I could wrap it in flannel and it would keep him snug.”
Lachlan opened the cage and reached in. “That is probably a good idea. The poor little chap has been quite cold to the touch. Ouch!” Lachlan stared in disbelief at the rat. “Cedric bit me!”
Mary stared. “But Cedric never bites! Did he hurt you, sir? And the poor thing must be feeling even worse than we thought.”
Lachlan frowned. “His eyes look quite red. I wonder if I will be able to get a photograph of this. Ouch!”
Cedric squirmed out of Lachlan’s hand and fell heavily onto the bench. Instead of fleeing, he turned and reared up on his back legs, glaring at Lachlan and squeaking defiance. Lachlan grabbed at him but missed. Mary tipped the bowl of instruments out and tried slamming it over Cedric, who slipped easily out of the way, chittering as he went. Wooden skewers and chisels scattered wildly over the notebooks and desk. Lachlan swore as Cedric fastened onto his wrist, sinking his incisors deep. “Mary, get back!” Lachlan cried as his attempts to pry Cedric from him failed. In desperation he caught up a wooden stick and stabbed up into Cedric’s belly.
Mary watched horrified as Cedric shrieked and seemed to shrink and fold in on himself. The poor rat shrunk and collapsed around the wooden pin as the red light faded from Cedric’s eyes and he looked at them with a final sad squeak. Then there was just a husk of bone and dusty fur where Cedric had been and a stain was creeping up the ironwood skewer. “Poor Cedric,” she whispered before wrenching her gaze back to Lachlan. “Your wrist, it’s hurt.”
Cedric had torn a ragged gash into Lachlan’s wrist and it was oozing blood. Lachlan stared at it, growing paler. “This is all wrong,” he said.
“Mr Aberford, please come and sit down and I’ll tie up the wrist before fetching a doctor,” Mary caught Lachlan’s elbow and steered him quickly away from the bench. “Just sit nice and quiet with this tea. It’s lovely and hot.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” Lachlan said quietly.
“I think it best to be safe,” Mary said. “I don’t want to be presumptuous, sir, but you have a hole in your wrist. It needs to be seen to.” She pushed him gently into his chair.
“And yet there’s hardly any blood,” Lachlan said, his voice carefully controlled. “I don’t seem to be feeling the cold. I rise later and later and spend most of my waking hours in darkness. My night vision is currently greatly improved and I am not hungry at all despite a lack of food. I think that I have more than Cedric to worry about.”
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