NIGHT WITHOUT DARKNESS
Night Without Darkness is a short story written in collaboration with Shannon Page, and published in Gears And Levers, a steampunk anthology released by Sky Warrior Press in 2012.
Here are its first few pages.
NIGHT WITHOUT DARKNESS
By Shannon Page and Mark J. Ferrari
(In which the lamentable Mr. Wendell Shrewbury, Esq., proffers his astonishing recollections regarding the spectacular events which transpired on the evening of December 7, 1886, in the Cambridge manor laboratory of Sir Rupert Collin Frost.)
…The laboratory in flames, generating ever-larger flashes of blinding light and searing heat. The terrible din of exploding bottles and jars assaulting his ears. Tinctures and potions combining as they were never meant to do, filling his lungs with noxious fumes. The high, choking screams of Sir Frost… suddenly silenced.
Shrewbury stands, frozen as always, held within this horrifying scene by guilt and remorse—real or imagined, he no longer knows—unable to avert his eyes as Sir Frost bursts from the conflagration, a man aflame. The doctor’s nearly vanished lab coat is a shriveling, blackened wick, billowing up on gusts of heat as it is consumed. His sizzling skin sends a cloying stench into the air… “Shrewbury!” With that anguished, accusing croak, Frost pitches forward, perishing for the thousandth time at the feet of his horrified protégé.
A dark, flitting presence begins to mock Shrewbury from within the flames and smoke, from behind Frost’s ruined face—from inside Shrewbury’s very mind. As it whispers sins—of commission, and omission—he is appalled to realize that it has been there all along, hiding in his thoughts, his dreams, slyly driving him… to this.
“Officious fools!” it hisses triumphantly, as if borrowing voice from the flames themselves. “What would England be without its dreams—and us to shepherd them?”
* * *
An insistent knocking brought Shrewbury to what remained of his senses. He bolted up in bed, gasping for breath, pulling the covers up against the chill of the deep February night. Had he been shouting? Very likely… his throat felt dry and sore.
He looked around, blinking in the dimly lit room. It was not his own; he was abed in a well-appointed guestroom at the home of barrister Ian Rutherford, Esq.
An old friend and Cambridge classmate, Rutherford had made significantly better progress in the world than had Wendell Shrewbury since their graduation together some twenty years before. Ian’s warm if unexpected letter inquiring into Wendell’s strange elusiveness these past few years, and inviting him to come rekindle their old friendship, had drawn Shrewbury hesitantly out of hiding, hopeful that a change of scenery and some social interaction might relieve his… difficult condition.
“Wendell?… Wendell! Are you quite all right in there?” The knocking grew a little gentler, if no less insistent.
It was the first night of Wendell’s visit—and, he feared, after this display, his last.
* * *
A quarter-hour later, the two men sat downstairs in Ian’s book-lined study. A coal fire had been laid and lit by Ian’s aged, live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Sapphira Lamblittle, and was now bestowing some begrudging warmth upon the room. This elusive comfort had been augmented by the half-drained snifter of brandy at Wendell’s elbow. He took another sip and adjusted the belt and lapels of his dressing-gown self-consciously. He could not meet his old friend’s eyes, choosing instead to watch the low flames, despite their dreadful evocation of his fiery dream.
“I am terribly sorry for waking you—and Mrs. Lamblittle,” Shrewbury ventured at last.
“Not at all!” Rutherford cried, too cheerfully. “I am only glad that you happened to be here and not alone while suffering so terrible an episode.”
“Ah…” Wendell gazed into the fire. “Well… Yes. It can be quite troubling…”
“You’ve had such fits before?” his friend asked gently.
“I have.” Wendell took another sip, nearly finishing the snifter, and set it down on the mahogany table beside him, only to have Ian reach for the decanter and pour him another generous glass. “Almost… every night.”
“Every night?” Ian blanched and took a healthy draught of his own brandy, then shook his handsome head. “What devilish torment! Is there no one of sufficient expertise in such matters to offer you hope of relief?”
“There was,” Wendell lamented. “There was…” The liquor was beginning to affect him… that, and the terrible paucity of sleep. Despair crept ever closer. “But he is lost forever now—and… I fear this torment I endure is all too richly deserved.”
“The devil, you say!”
“The devil, indeed.” Wendell teetered on the brink of indecision. He could make his excuses and leave tonight—or on the morrow, more politely—to continue bearing this burden alone. Or…
A sudden resolve prodded him to speak before he quite knew he’d decided to. “Oh, Ian, dear friend, I cannot contain it any longer. I must tell someone, though it leave me in as much need of your legal assistance as of any medical counsel. Yet, confess I must, if only in the desperate hope that guilt acknowledged and justice satisfied may rid me at last of this endless nocturnal scourge. May I burden you, old friend, with a dreadful tale—from which I dare hope our long friendship might emerge intact?”
His friend stared back, blue eyes glinting in the firelight. “After such an introduction, how am I to sleep now without hearing it?”
“I fear you’d best not count on sleeping either way,” said Wendell. “Does the name Sir Rupert Collin Frost mean anything to you?”
“I’ve heard of him, of course. Who hasn’t? Such a titillating catastrophe!” Ian leaned forward, keen interest on his ruddy face. “Did you know him?”
“More than that,” said Wendell. “I was his research assistant for some years.”
“You jest! How can I have failed to hear of this before?”
“I have taken pains to see the fact unadvertised.” Wendell did not entirely succeed in keeping his voice steady.
“Surely…” Ian said, “you weren’t there when…”
“Oh yes,” Wendell whispered, lost in painful memory. “I was there. … I am not sure I have ever truly left that night behind. It has not left me. That much is certain.”
Wendell accepted another refill of his brandy, cleared his throat, and set out to confide at last the lurid truth of Sir Rupert Collin Frost’s spectacularly fatal attempt to rid England forever of nightmares.