The God of the Hive

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During each month of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz, we will be uploading a new excerpt of The God of the Hive. Click on the dates below to jump to the relevant section.



Prologue

Friday, 29 August 1924

Two clever London gentlemen. Both wore City suits, both sat in quiet rooms, both thought about luncheon.

The younger was admiring his polished shoes; the older contemplated his stockings, thick with dust.

The one was considering where best to eat; the other was wondering if he was to be fed that day.

One clever man stood, straightening his neck-tie with manicured fingers. He reached out to give the silver pen a minuscule adjustment, returning it to symmetry with the edge of the desk, then walked across the silken carpet to the door. There he surveyed the mirror that hung on the wall, leaning forward to touch the white streak—really quite handsome—over the right temple before settling his freshly-brushed hat over it. He firmed the tie again, and reached for the handle.

The other man, too, tugged at his tie, grateful for it. The men who had locked him here had taken his shoes and belt, but left him his neck-tie. He could not decide if they—or, rather, the mind in back of them—had judged the fabric inadequate for the suicide of a man his size, or if they had wished subtly to undermine his mental state: The length of aged striped silk was all that kept his suit trousers from tumbling around his ankles when he stood. There was sufficient discomfort in being hungry, cold, unshaved, and having a lidded bucket for toilet facilities without adding the comic indignity of drooping trousers.

Twenty minutes later, the younger man was reviewing his casual exchange with two high-ranking officials and a newspaper baron—the true reason for his choice of restaurant—while his blue eyes dutifully surveyed the print on a leather-bound menu; the other man’s pale grey gaze was fixed on a simple mathematical equation he’d begun to scratch into the brick wall with a tiny nail he’d uncovered in a corner:

a ÷ (b+c+d)

Both men, truth to tell, were pleased with their progress.

Book One

Saturday, 30 August—
Thursday, 4 September
1924

Chapter One

A child is a burden, after a mile.

After two miles in the cold sea air, stumbling through the night up the side of a hill and down again, becoming all too aware of previously unnoticed burns and bruises, and having already put on eight miles that night—half of it carrying a man on a stretcher—even a small, drowsy three-and-a-half-year-old becomes a strain.

At three miles, aching all over, wincing at the crunch of gravel underfoot, spine tingling with the certain knowledge of a madman’s stealthy pursuit, a loud snort broke the silence so close I could feel it. My nerves screamed as I struggled to draw the revolver without dropping the child.

Then the meaning of the snort penetrated the adrenaline blasting my nerves: A mad killer was not about to make that wet noise before attacking.

I went still. Over my pounding heart came a lesser version of the sound; the rush of relief made me stumble forward to drop my armful atop the low stone wall, just visible in the creeping dawn. The cow jerked back, then ambled towards us in curiosity until the child was patting its sloppy nose. I bent my head over her, letting reaction ebb.

Estelle Adler was the lovely, bright, half-Chinese child of my husband’s long-lost son: Sherlock Holmes’ granddaughter. I had made her acquaintance little more than two hours before, and known of her existence for less than three weeks, but if the maniac who had tried to sacrifice her father—and who had apparently intended to take the child for his own—had appeared from the night, I would not hesitate to give my life for hers.

She had been drugged by said maniac the night before, which no doubt contributed to her drowsiness, but now she studied the cow with an almost academic curiosity, leaning against my arms to examine its white-splashed nose. Which meant that the light was growing too strong to linger. I settled the straps of my rucksack, lumpy with her possessions, and reached to collect this precious and troublesome burden.

“Are you—” she began, in full voice.

“Shh!” I interrupted. “We need to whisper, Estelle.”

“Are you tired?” she tried again in a voice that, although far from a whisper, at least was not as carrying.

“My arms are,” I breathed in her ear, “but I’m fine.”

“I could ride pickaback,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“I do with Papa.”

Well, if she could cling to the back of that tall young man, she could probably hang on to me. I shifted the rucksack around and let her climb onto my back, her little hands gripping my collar. I bent, tucking my arms under her legs, and set off again.

Much better.

It was a good thing Estelle knew what to do, because I was probably the most incompetent nurse-maid ever to be put in charge of a child. I knew precisely nothing about children; the only one I had been around for any length of time was an Indian street urchin three times this one’s age and with more maturity than many English adults. I had much to learn about small children. Such as the ability to ride pickaback, and the inability to whisper.

The child’s suggestion allowed me to move faster down the rutted track. We were in the Orkneys, a scatter of islands past the north of Scotland, coming down from the hill that divided the main island’s two parts. Every step took us further away from my husband; from Estelle’s father Damian; and from the bloody, fire-stained prehistoric altar-stone where Thomas Brothers had nearly killed both of them.

Why not bring in the police, one might ask. They can be useful, and after all, Brothers had killed at least three others. However, things were complicated—not that complicated wasn’t a frequent state of affairs in the vicinity of Sherlock Holmes, but in this case the complication took the form of warrants posted for my husband, his son, and me. Estelle was the only family member not being actively hunted by Scotland Yard.

Including, apparently and incredibly, Holmes’ brother. For forty-odd years, Mycroft Holmes had strolled each morning to a grey office in Whitehall and settled in to a grey job of accounting—even his long-time personal secretary was a grey man, an ageless, sexless individual with the leaking-balloon name of Sosa. Prime Ministers came and went, Victoria gave way to Edward and Edward to George, budgets were cut and expanded, wars were fought, decades of bureaucrats flourished and died, while Mycroft walked each morning to his office and settled to his account books.

Except that Mycroft’s grey job was that of éminence grise of the British Empire. He inhabited the shadowy world of Intelligence, but he belonged neither to the domestic Secret Service nor to the international Secret Intelligence Service. Instead, he had shaped his own department within the walls of Treasury, one that ran parallel to both the domestic branch and the SIS. After forty years there, his power was formidable.

If I stopped to think about it, such unchecked authority in one individual’s hands would scare me witless, even though I had made use of it more than once. But if Mycroft Holmes was occasionally cold and always enigmatic, he was also sea-green incorruptible, the fixed point in my universe, the ultimate source of assistance, shelter, information, and knowledge.

He was also untouchable, or so I had thought.

The day before, a telegram had managed to find me, with a report of Mycroft being questioned by Scotland Yard, and his home raided. It was hard to credit—picturing Mycroft’s wrath raining down on Chief Inspector Lestrade came near to making me smile—but until I could disprove it, I could not call on Mycroft’s assistance. I was on my own.

Were it not for the child on my back, I might have simply presented myself to the police station in Kirkwall and used the time behind bars to catch up on sleep. I was certain that the warrants had only been issued because of Chief Inspector John Lestrade’s pique—even at the best of times, he disapproved of civilians like us interfering in an official investigation. Once his point was made and his temper faded, we would be freed.

Then again, were it not for the child, I would not be on this side of the island at all. I would have stayed at the Stones, where even now my training and instincts were shouting that I belonged, hunting down Brothers before he could sail off and start his dangerous religion anew in some other place.

This concept of women and children fleeing danger was a thing I did not at all care for.

But as I said, children are a burden, whether three years or thirty. My only hope of sorting this out peacefully, without inflicting further trauma on the child or locking her disastrously claustrophobic and seriously wounded father behind bars, was to avoid the police, both here and in the British mainland. And my only hope of avoiding the Orcadian police was a flimsy, sputtering, freezing cold aeroplane. The same machine in which I had arrived on Orkney the previous afternoon, and sworn never to enter again.

The aeroplane’s pilot was an American ex-RAF flyer named Javitz, who had brought me on a literally whirlwind trip from London and left me in a field south of Orkney’s main town. Or rather, I had left him. I thought he would stay there until I reappeared.

I hoped he would.


Chapter Two

The wind was not as powerful as it had been the day before, crossing from Thurso, but it rose with the sun, and the seas rose with it. By full light, all the fittings in the Fifie’s cabin were rattling wildly, and although Damian’s arm was bound to his side, half an hour out of Orkney the toss and fret of the fifty-foot-long boat was making him hiss with pain. When the heap of blankets and spare clothing keeping him warm was pulled away, the dressings showed scarlet.

Sherlock Holmes rearranged the insulation around his son and tossed another scoop of coal onto the stove before climbing the open companionway to the deck. The young captain looked as if he was clinging to the wheel as much as he was controlling it. Holmes raised his voice against the wind.

“Mr Gordon, is there nothing we can do to calm the boat?”

The young man took his eyes from the sails long enough to confirm the unexpected note of concern in the older man’s voice, then studied the waves and the rigging overhead. “Only thing we could do is change course. To sail with the wind, y’see?”

Holmes saw. Coming out of Scapa Flow, they had aimed for Strathy, farther west along the coast of northern Scotland—in truth, any village but Thurso would do, so long as it had some kind of medical facility.

But going west meant battling wind and sea: Even unladen, the boat had waves breaking across her bow, and the dip and rise of her fifty foot length was troubling even to the unwounded onboard.

Thurso was close and it would have a doctor, however, he and Russell had both passed through that town the day before, and although the unkempt Englishman who hired a fishing boat to sail into a storm might have escaped official notice, rumour of a young woman in an aeroplane would have spread. He hoped Russell would instruct her American pilot to avoid Thurso, but if not—well, the worst she could expect was an inconvenient arrest. He, on the other hand, dared not risk sailing into constabulary arms.

“Very well,” he said. “Change course.”

“Thurso, good.” Gordon sounded relieved.

“No. Wick.” A fishing town, big enough to have a doctor—perhaps even a rudimentary hospital. Police, too, of course, but warrants or not, what village constable would take note of one fishing boat in a harbour full of them?

“Wick? Oh, but I don’t know anyone there. My cousin in Strathy—”

“The lad will be dead by Strathy.”

“Wick’s farther.”

“But calmer.”

Gordon thought for a moment, then nodded. “Take that line. Be ready when I say.”

**

The change of tack quieted the boat’s wallow considerably. When Holmes descended again to the cabin, the stillness made him take two quick steps to the bunk—but it was merely sleep.

The madman’s bullet had circled along Damian’s ribs, cracking at least one, before burying itself in the musculature around the shoulder blade—too deep for amateur excavation. Had it been the left arm, Holmes might have risked it, but Damian was an artist, a right-handed artist, an artist whose technique required precise motions with the most delicate control. Digging through muscle and nerve for a piece of lead could turn the lad into a former artist.

Were Watson here, Holmes would permit his old friend to take out his scalpel, even considering the faint hand tremor he’d seen the last time they had met. But Watson was on his way home from Australia—Holmes suspected a new lady friend—and was at the moment somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
He could only hope that Wick’s medical man had steady hands and didn’t drink. If they were not so fortunate, he should have to face the distressing option of coming to the surface to summon a real surgeon.

Which would Damian hate more: the loss of his skill, or the loss of his freedom?

It was not really a question. Even now, Holmes knew that if he were to remove the wedge holding the cabin’s hatch open, in minutes Damian would be sweating with horror and struggling to rise, to breathe, to flee.

No: A painter robbed of his technique could form another life for himself; a man driven insane by confinement could not. If they found no help in Wick, he might have to turn surgeon.

The thought made his gut run cold. Not the surgery itself—he’d done worse—but the idea of Damian’s expression when he tried to control a brush, and could not.

Imagine: Sherlock Holmes dodging responsibility.

Standing over his son’s form, he became aware of the most peculiar sensation, disturbingly primitive and almost entirely foreign.

Reverend Thomas Brothers (or James Harmony Hayden or Henry Smythe or whatever names he had claimed) lay dead among the standing stone circle. But had the corpse had been to hand, Sherlock Holmes would have ripped out the mad bastard’s heart and savagely kicked his remains across the deck and into the sea.


Chapter Three

The man with several names edged into awareness. It was dark. The air smelt of sea and smoke. Fresh smoke. Memory was…elusive. Transformation? Yes, that was it—long plotted, sacrifices made, years of effort, but…

He’d expected physical reaction, but not this pain, not that smoke-filled darkness. Could what he felt be the birth pangs of the Transformed? Blood and pain are companions of birth; he himself had written it. If the right blood had been loosed—but no. The wrong blood had been spilt on the altar stone.

His own.

Certainly the pain was his. He groaned, and became aware of a woman’s hands, then a man speaking, and the sudden bright of an opening door followed by more voices. After a time came the suffocation of a rag soaked in ether, and with a sharp vision of the sun black as sackcloth and the moon stained with blood, everything went away.

It was broad daylight outside the hovel when he woke. The woman lifted his head to trickle in a jolt of some powerful drink. The nausea of the ether receded. His chest was aflame, and his head was flooded with the memory of fire and gunshot, but the whisky helped settle his thoughts as well as his stomach.

“What time is it?” he croaked.

“What’s that?” the woman said.

“Time. What time is it?”

“Oh, dearie, let me see. It’s near noon. Saturday, that is.”

Midday Saturday. To the north, over the pure, cold sea, the sun would be edging back from its darkness, the eclipse fading—and with it, opportunity. All his work, long months of meditation and planning, gathering the reins of Authority, feeling the power rise up within him (oh, exquisite power, exquisite sensations—peeling away a goose quill with the Tool, the sweet dip of nib into spilt crimson, concentrating to get the words on the page before the ink clotted: perfection) power that welled up like a giant wave from that vast sea, carrying him across the world to this exact place at this exact time, to midnight at an altar surrounded by standing stones with the perfect sacrifice, the one who mattered, lying helpless and expectant with his throat bared…

Taken from him, at the very peak of the Preparation. The sacrifice had turned and summoned fire—the lamp, that was it. Damian had managed to fling out his arm and smashed the lamp. But what followed was unclear: noise and confusion and hot billows of flame, and…others? The impression of others—two of them?—and then a boom and a giant’s fist smashing his chest, and nothing until he had wakened to the smell of sea and smoke.

Who could they have been? Enemies? Demons? Figments of his imagination? Not that it mattered: They had robbed him of Transformation. The Great Work lay shattered. A waste of years. His hand twitched with the urge to strangle someone.

And the child? She who was to have been his acolyte, his student, the daughter of his soul? Had the two demons stolen her, or was she still in that burnt-out place where he had taken refuge?

Midday: She would be awake. Sooner or later, she would find her way out, and be seen. He had to get away before they came looking for him.

“Gunderson?” he whispered.

“He’ll be here tomorrow morning.” This was a man’s gravely voice.

“MacAuliffe.”

“That’s right, Reverend Brothers. You know what happened to you?”

With an effort, Brothers got his eyes open, squinting into the smokey light. “Shot?”

“Aye.” The man grinned, and reached down to whittle a slice from the sausage on the table, popping it between his yellow teeth and chewing, open-mouthed. “Only thing that kept you from the pearly gates was that book in your chest pocket. Weren’t for that, the lead would’ve gone straight into your heart. As it is, we dug the thing out of your shoulder. Can you move your fingers?”

The wounded man looked down and saw a hand arranged atop a thick gauze pad covering his chest. The fingers slowly closed, then opened.

“There you go,” MacAuliffe said, whittling off another slab of meat. “You’ll be right as rain in no time.”

“Is that my knife?”

The hired man held up the curved blade. “This yours? Wicked thing, nearly cut my thumb off with it.”

“Give it!” The command came out weak, but MacAuliffe obeyed, wiping the grease on his trousers, then turning it so his sometime employer could take the ivory haft.

“I found it on the ground next to that altar thing, nearly stepped on it before I saw the handle. Didn’t know for sure it was yours, but I didn’t want to leave it behind.”

Brothers’ good hand slipped around the familiar object, his thumb smoothing its blade, the cool metal that had been given him on the very hour of his birth. He felt a pulse of temptation, to plunge the Tool into MacAuliffe’s hateful belly, but he was not strong enough to do without assistance. Not yet. Not until he could summon The Friend.

Instead, he tucked the knife under his weak hand, as if the Tool’s strength might transfer to flesh. “I need you to send a telegram to London.”

Chapter Four

When we reached the coastal track and turned towards Kirkwall, the light strengthened with every step. Earlier, I had been forced to choose between the dangers of blind speed and the threat of being seen. Now, I hitched the child up on my hips and leant forward into a near-jog. Her light body rocked against mine, and her own arms had to be getting tired, but she did not complain.

Half a mile down the road, I spotted a farmer coming out of a shed, to climb onto a high-sided cart. A tangle of shrubs marked where the farmyard lane entered the road; I let Estelle slip to the ground behind them, stifling a groan as my shoulders returned to their proper angle. I hunkered beside her (my knees, too, having aged a couple of decades in the past hours) and said in a low voice, “We have to wait until this man has gone by, and I don’t want him to notice us. We need to be very quiet, all right?”

“Can we ask him for a ride?” she said in her loud, hoarse, child’s whisper.

“No, we can’t,” I said. “Now, not a word, all right?”

I felt her nod, and put my arm around her tiny body.

The metallic sounds from the cart indicated milk canisters, and as I’d feared, it was headed towards town: We should have to wait until he was some distance down the road before we followed. This was clearly a daily ritual, since the reins were nearly slack and the cart was controlled less by the farmer than by his nag. Who was in no hurry—its pace was no faster than our own, and the high sides… I stared, then pushed aside the branches to see.

The cart was a purpose-built creation with a flat-bedded base on which had been fastened a large crate, some five feet on a side, tipped with the open top facing backwards. The dairyman sat in front, feet dangling, back leaning against what would originally have been the crate’s bottom.

The only way he could see inside the cart would be if he were to walk around and look inside. Better yet, he had no dog.

I snatched up the child, warning her again to silence, and trotted forward, grateful now for the blustering gusts that concealed my footsteps. Aiming at the rattling cans and hoping for the best, I tossed the child into the shadows and hopped in beside her. As the noise had suggested, the cans came nowhere near to filling the space, and there was room for us to creep around behind them. The road was rough enough that the driver took no note of the shift our boarding caused, and if the horse noticed our weight, he did not complain.

Estelle snuggled against me. The milk cans rattled; the waking island retreated past the rear of our transport. We dozed.

The cart slowed, and stopped. I wrapped my arms more securely around the child, placing my finger across her lips. The farmer’s boots crunched to the road, the cart jerking as his weight left it. I followed the sound of his footsteps, braced for sudden flight, but the steps continued away from us a few feet, paused, then returned, moving more slowly and with a hitch in their gait. A figure suddenly loomed at the back of the car, and another canister of milk swung inside. He added a second, then climbed back onto his seat and chirruped the horse into motion.

He repeated the milk pickup half a mile down the road. Once we were moving, I worked my way towards the back, to ease the heavy canisters to one side. The road was smoother here, which meant that our sudden exit would be difficult to conceal. I waited for a rough patch, but before one came, I caught a faint odour of distillery, and knew we had run out of time.

I gathered the child in my arms and more or less rolled off the back to the road. The horse reacted, but by the time the startled driver had controlled the animal and reined it to a halt, Estelle and I were squatting behind a wall.

The man would have seen us, had he got down and walked back, but to him the jerk of the cart must have felt like a result of the horse’s shy, not the cause of it. After a moment, I heard him repeat the noise between his teeth, and the music of milk cans retreated down the road.

I rose to get my bearings, and found that we were a scarce half mile from where Captain Javitz had set us down.

“Can you walk for a bit, Estelle? We’re nearly there.”

In answer, she slipped her hand into mine and we set off up the road. It took two tries to find the correct lane, but to my relief, the ’plane was there, in a long field surrounded by walls and a hedgerow. Lights shone from the adjoining house, and I led my charge in that direction.

I stopped outside of the gate to tell the child, “My friend Captain Javitz, who drives the aeroplane, may be here. There’s also a nice lady and her son. But, we don’t want to talk to them too much. We’ll only be here for a few minutes.”

“And then we’ll go in the aeroplane? Into the air?”

“That’s right,” I said, adding under my breath, “God help us.”

I knocked on the door.

It opened, to a man pointing a gun at my heart.