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Facing the Vast

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From the  Journal of the London Society of Natural History

Volume XXVII, Issue 107, pages 334-357

Minutes of the London Society of Natural History quarterly gathering has been further resolved that as no news has been received in over two years concerning the expedition of Mr. Penrose, in which that gentleman undertook to venture about the globe and advance the scientific knowledge of our Planet, that the Society will petition Parliament to send a vessel in search of them. The last known location of the Stella, the ship which sailed under his command, was the port of Sydney, from which they departed in May of 1801. It is the express desire of this Society that a new expedition will be ordered which will search for the lost ship. There is some hope that at least some members of the original voyage yet survive on some far-off shore, watching the horizon with unblinking eyes for rescue...




 Thor had to wonder who, exactly, he had angered, for him to have received this assignment. Every other Captain who had purchased his commission within ten years of him was being sent to war, where he would find laurels and glory in either life or death, and a promotion to Admiral if he survived. But Thor was not being sent to war; Thor was being sent to the South Seas in search of a ship that was almost certainly lost.

He was given two weeks to prepare for the voyage. His crew was assigned to him – another irritation, but it relieved him of the guilt of pulling his favoured hands from more laudable opportunities – and on his third day at the Admiralty, while he was engaged in decisions about provisions and supplies, he was informed that the ship was also to carry along an astronomer, a naturalist, a geographer, and their assistants. The Hope would be not only searching for Penrose. They would also be continuing the scientific work of the lost ship. The astronomer would be studying the southern skies while the naturalist conducted an evaluation of the plant life on the ill-charted isles. The geographer would be dedicated to studying the landscapes and improving the cartographic knowledge of those areas they sailed.

“Even more time wasted,” Thor muttered.

“What was that?” Admiral Borson demanded, peering down his nose. “I don’t think I heard you, Captain.”

Thor straightened his back. “Nothing, sir.”

The Admiral gave a sharp nod. “I thought not.”

Worst of all was breaking the news to Sif. His betrothed was perhaps even more enthusiastic about the war than he was. The dress she had worn to the Christmas ball given by the Admiral’s wife, inspired by the sails of a Man-o’-War, was in turn the inspiration of every dress worn by every lady of Society. The train had swelled as Thor spun her about the room until at its fullest, her flag-embroidered petticoats were daringly exposed. Her conversation was always full of tactics and manoeuvres. More than once, Thor found himself surprized she did not don men’s clothes and run away to the battlefields. The war was not going so well that the enlistment office looked too hard at a smooth chin or a trim foot, and he would have preferred her at his back over many men he knew. He did not love her, but he respected her. It was a sentiment he prized far more highly.

He told her his news one week before he was to leave. She did not take it well.

"The South Seas, for eighteen months? The war will be over and the promotions all handed out, and you will have had none of it!"

"And you would be no more than a captain's wife," Thor said.

She looked at him suspiciously. "Why do you say it so? Why would and not will?"

"For the simple fact that I cannot hold you to our engagement, now that I have received these orders. You are ambitious-"

She opened her mouth to protest and he raised his hand. "It is no bad thing, though others would hold it so. Were things different you would be a General already, my dear, and the army would be all the better for it. But things being what they are, you must have all your ambition fitted into the shape of a husband. And I say these things to tell you that I will not hold you to our engagement, if you wish to be freed of it. I will leave you a letter, testifying to the same, that you shall face no social approbation. If I return to find you wedded, I will be honest when I wish you joy."

Sif rose in a crinkle of skirts. She held out her hand. He stood and shook it. "I wish you safe and well in your endeavours. And, Thor – had I but been a man, I should have been proud to serve with you, even in the South Seas."

"Had things been different," he corrected.

"Yes. Had things been different."


There were no artists in Loki's family. It was a matter of merest chance that his hand had caught the eye of the master he served. He was ten when it happened. He had been sent to clean the grates in the library, and after scraping off the ash and cinders, he couldn't quite help drawing his finger through the pile, making lazy curlicues when he should have been working.

He did not hear the door open behind him. If he had, he would never have let himself be caught so idle.

"You have an eye, boy," said his master.

He jumped up, wiping his guilty hands on his trousers. "I'm sorry, sir. I wasted only a moment."

"Come here," Master Abney told him, crossing the room with bold strides to his desk. He unlocked it and took out a fine sheet of paper, setting it on the smooth dark wood top and dipping his pen. He handed the quill to Loki. "Draw me something," he said pleasantly.

"I'm sorry, sir, I've never..." Loki stammered.

"Never used a pen? Here, you hold it like this."

It took him some false starts and several terrible blots of ink, but once he caught the knack, he had the nib swirling across the page.

"Why, that's Flossie, my best hunting bitch," Abney said.

"Yes, sir," Loki said. He set the pen carefully back on its rest.

"Where is your father? I need to speak with him."

"I believe he is in the stables."

Loki trailed along after him and stood silently listening to the conversation that would determine his future. "The lad has real talent, and it can be hard to find a good artist to work for me. With your permission, I'd like to get him trained up in scientific illustration and put him on my staff."

His father looked at him suspiciously. "He's puny, sir. Sickly. I can't say his mother and I look to see him live to manhood."

"Then it will be my money lost, not yours."

His father gave a shrug. "Do with him as you like, then."

A mere two weeks later he was the newest and lowest apprentice of Mr. Abney's sometime-artist. He worked fourteen hours a day for the next ten years. His first year was spent sharpening the pencils of Mr Billiade and his more advanced pupils. He found it quite perplexing to think he was expected to be learning anything, but he had no complaints. Once he was an investment he was well fed and warmly dressed, and he grew up tall and healthy.

His second year, a new apprentice came to sharpen their pencils, and Loki was set to work copying simple geometric figures. This too seemed lacking in educational value, but he held his tongue. And in the third year, when he was set to copying completed works, he found he had learnt patience and that his eye for shapes had somehow been honed to perfection when he wasn't paying attention.

By his ninth year he equalled Billiade; by his tenth, he outshone his own master (who, to his very great credit, was pleased with his own skills as a teacher rather than dismayed at his own relative skill as an artist). Loki's skills exceeded even the highest expectations and it was a very glad Abney who welcomed him home.

Loki took up his pencil the day he arrived back. Abney had a drawer full of leaves he had collected and wanted recorded. He wasn't paid for his work – his years of lessons had been costly, and his work now was done in recompense of it – but his life was far more comfortable than he had expected it to be, back when he was a child.

He had gone on several excursions with Abney before, spent weeks upon weeks rambling after him, toting reams of paper and a box of pencils in his waterproof case along with whatever equipment Abney required for his work in a pack on his back. The news of this journey, though, came as a shock. "Pack your trunk, Loki, we are to sea. We leave this Friday," Abney said one afternoon.

"Very good, sir. May I ask how long?" he answered.

"Oh, a year at the very least. More likely two."




From the Times of London, September 29, 1803

We are happy to report a naval victory that occurred on the twenty-sixth of September in the waters off Oostende. HMS Reliant encountered a French warship leaving the port, and though the Reliant was outgunned and outmanned, the Captain, a Mr Norton of recent commission, led them to a rousing success. Rumours are already circulating of a promotion to Commodore. We fully expect that he will return to London to find fully half the caps in town already set at him.

Also of note is the departure of HMS Hope, commanded by Captain Thor Odinson. She sailed yesterday for the South Seas with the directive to learn all that can be learned about the fate of the Stella, the lost research vessel of the noted Mr Penrose, and to carry on the Stella's work.

Also assigned to the Hope are three Commanders, Vallent, Grimme, and Deshing; two Lieutenants, Kerman and Cortcastle; Mr Foster, an Astronomer, and a Mr Lewis, his assistant; Mr Abney, a Naturalist, and Mr Mortimer, his assistant; and Mr Ellis, a Geographical Engineer and Mr Holt, his Draughtsman. Furthermore there are the normal number of petty officers and seamen, resulting in one hundred and twenty-three souls in all.

We think it must be a very hard thing for Captain Odinson to be sent on this expedition in a time of war, even were it not for his well-known hatred of the French. Perhaps he shall find solace in the knowledge that this mission is one which all right-feeling English must support. It is unthinkable that English sailors be denied the rescue they have every justification for expecting from their nation.