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Title: The Disappearing Island (Chapter 2 of 6)
Fandom: Welcome to Night Vale/Cthulhu Mythos
Author: tikistitch
Rating: M
Characters/Pairings: Cecil/Carlos
Warnings: Cursing, sexual situations
Word Count: ~36,000 total
Summary: Carlos, a naturalist on board the HMS Vigilant, stumbles upon the ancient island of Nightlantis during a tour of the Pacific in the 1800s. There he unwittingly joins in a contest to win the beguiling Prince Cecil's hand in marriage.
Notes: At the end.





Strathlachland, Scotland, Year of Our Lord 1854


Carlos tugged at his stiff collar and listened to the soft tinkling of glasses and silver as the servants set up in his family’s formal dining room. All things considered he would have rather been out on the estate this evening, hunting for beetles.

He felt a small hand on his arm. He smiled as he turned around. His mother stood up on tiptoe to give him a kiss on the cheek. The bonniest lassie in all of Iberia, his father called her, and she was still a striking woman, with strong cheekbones, wide, dark eyes, and black hair peppered with grey. Despite his relatively young age, Carlos’s own dark hair already carried a streak of grey, right at his hairline, just off center. Touched by the gods, his father swore.

“I am so sorry about this, miho,” his mother whispered, her words softened by a mild Spanish accent.

“I can endure an evening of formal dress now and again,” Carlos chuckled.

But his mother didn’t smile back. Instead, for a very brief instant, she frowned and looked her age. She patted Carlos on the shoulder, and then whisked off to direct the servants, leaving her older son standing alone to stew in confusion.

He didn’t remain alone for long. His father, Angus MacLachlan, seventeenth Baron of Strathlachlan, strode in. Although father and son shared little in the way of facial resemblance (Carlos took after his Continental side, the Baron was fond of saying), they were similar in height and bearing. His once reddish hair had gone iron grey, but his steely blue eyes were still sharp.

His father was accompanied by three young ladies, who swirled and cooed around him like so many kittens tumbling after their mother.

“Carlos,” said the Baron, slightly rolling the R in his son’s name, “I suppose you’ll attend to these three wee lassies. These are Lord Hatrack’s daughters: Miss Patience, Miss Constance, and Miss Temperance.” As his father pronounced their names, the three girls stepped forwards one after another and bobbed into curtsies, like well-trained puppies. “May I present my firstborn son, Dr. Carlos Gutierrez MacLachlan.” Carlos bowed formally, evoking some muffled giggles. Carlos tried not to roll his eyes.

“I’ll leave you in his care, lassies. I have some matters to attend to prior to dinner,” said the Baron, who, with an eye to Carlos, swept off. Carlos kept up his formal smile: this must have been what his mother was referring to in her apology. She knew how much he despised small talk.

“You’re so awfully tall, Mr. MacLachlan,” gushed one of the girls. Carlos surmised it was Patience. “Er, yes, thank you Miss Hatrack. It is said I take after my father in that regard.”

“Tall and dark,” remarked a second Hatrack. Constance?

“Yes, I am said to resemble my mother in terms of complexion, Miss Hatrack,” Carlos answered, wondering if these individuals had ever happened to read a book, or indeed anything that involved using their powers of cognition.

“Are you the bug man?” ventured a third Hatrack. Miss Temperance, who was making a rather regrettable face.

“I have an interest in the natural sciences,” said Carlos. “This often involves the collecting of specimens. My father’s estate is a good source for such things.” While he spoke, however, a thought nudged at the edge of his mind. Miss Temperance Hatrack. It seemed he had heard the name before, but he couldn’t quite place it. “Were you perhaps at the museum’s last natural sciences lecture, Miss Hatrack?” he asked.

“Me?” she gushed as her sisters laughed rather openly. “Oh, no. My father says the study of science is no place for a woman!”

“Well, that’s nonsense,” said Carlos, before he could stop himself. “I mean,” he retreated, viewing the scandalized looks on the girls’s faces, “we have many female attendees at our lectures, and there are women amongst the aficionados of collecting. Butterflies, for example.”

“All displayed on pins,” sniffed Miss Constance.

“Er, yes,” said Carlos.

“Not worth getting my gown muddy,” agreed Miss Patience.

“Indeed,” said Carlos, who couldn’t help but frown. Fortunately, at that moment, much to his relief, they were called to dinner. Miss Constance and Miss Patience linked arms and walked ahead, and Carlos offered an arm to Miss Temperance.

“If I may be so bold,” she offered, “you are quite different from your brother, Mr. MacLachlan.”

“Rafael?” asked Carlos.

“Yes,” she cooed, her grip on his arm tightening. “Mr. Rafael MacLachlan.”

And quite suddenly the penny dropped. Miss Temperance Hatrack. Rafael referred to her as Tempy the Beanstalk, although not, Carlos hoped, in her presence. The implication was…. Well, it wouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

Carlos led her into the dining room, where she found her place beside him, her sisters arrayed across the table. Sitting beside Carlos were their parents, Lord and Lady Hatrack. The Lord, a large man with bushy mutton chop sideburns accentuating his prominent jowls, didn’t look terribly pleased. Carlos’s father entered, leading his mother by the arm, nearly glowing in her presence. With a kiss to her hand, he got her situated at one end of the table, and then proceeded down to the other end, near Lord Hatrack.

Carlos beamed at his parents. He had always prayed for a bond in his own life as tender as the one he observed between his mother and father. It was clear to him his mother was not for his father just the loveliest girl in Barcelona, she was the only woman he had ever seen.

The rest of the parties seated themselves, Carlos noting with some curiosity that there were two places left unattended: one, he knew, was set for his brother Rafael, who made a habit of being late for occasions such as these. As for the other, Carlos had no idea, not unless the Hatracks thought to suddenly produce a Prudence, or perhaps a little Happenstance. He smiled at his own terrible joke as the servants began to fill their water glasses.

But then the dining room door flew open, and in burst the answer to his inquiry: Carlos’s younger brother, Rafael, in the company of a young woman. Carlos hadn’t seen her before, but that didn’t strike him as odd. He rarely saw Rafael in the company of the same young lady twice. What he did note was the reaction of a number of the Hatracks. Miss Temperance, to his left, audibly gasped, and her father, who had an unpleasant countenance, turned a beet red.

“You’re late, Rafael,” scolded his mother.

“My apologies, Mother,” said Rafael, as if he had committed no greater offense than bumping into someone on the sidewalk. “Mother, Father, Lord Hatrack, Lady Hatrack, Miss Hatrack, Miss Hatrack, and Miss Hatrack,” he nodded to the sisters in turn, although Miss Temperance Hatrack did not nod back, “may I present Miss Cruikshank?” The girl simpered and bowed, Lord Hatrack fumed, and Miss Temperance Hatrack, beside Carlos, reached over and intemperately gripped his arm. Carlos glanced at her in dismay, but was too polite to brush her off. Then, red-cheeked, Rafael and Miss Cruikshank took their seats. The servants bustled about, filling glasses with wine. Carlos noted that Miss Temperance, sitting beside him, went out of her way not to meet his brother's glance.

“Well, now that everyone is here and seated, we have a small announcement,” said Carlos’s father once the servants retreated. The same look of uneasiness that had crossed his mother’s face earlier now flitted over the Baron’s features. “I am pleased to let you know that Lord Hatrack has kindly consented to promise his wee lassie, Miss Temperance Hatrack, in marriage to our elder son.”

Carlos blinked, and Miss Temperance Hatrack’s hand tightened on his arm. Elder son? Wait, wasn’t that him? He flashed a look at his mother who, worryingly, did not meet his eye.

“Congratulations, brother,” chuckled Rafael. “Well done. And Miss Temperance, my best wishes.”

Miss Temperance’s hand was now a small vise gripping Carlos’s arm. “May I propose a toast, to the happy couple?” barked Lord Hatrack.

Carlos raised his glass. And then he upended it.

The room swirled.



An Uncharted Isle, The Pacific Ocean, Year of Our Lord 1856

Carlos moaned. He blinked, trying to remember where he was. He wondered whether he had lost consciousness for a moment, as a consequence of the fall.

He was lying, dazed, on a carpet of soft, springy moss. Sitting up, he checked himself for signs of injury, and then rose, somewhat shakily, to his feet.

Carlos looked around. He was now inside some vast underground chamber. He raised his eyes to the vaulted ceiling directly above. Oddly enough, he couldn't see the door he had fallen through. Was it closed off now? “Johansen!” he called up. But there was no reply, and no movement nor any sound he could sense. “Johansen! Bonden? Anybody!”

He heard something then: the sound of running feet. He glanced around, but saw no one.

“Thurston?” hollered Carlos. “Thurston!” But there was no response, nothing but the dull echo of his voice.

“Thurston!” he shouted, his voice cracking. He sat down on a boulder, and put his head in his hands. Think, he told himself. Keep your head. After a moment, it occurred to him that it was weird, if he was indeed inside a sealed cave, that it was still light enough to see. Was there an opening that had escaped his notice? He looked around for a means of escape, and was surprised at what he saw: up on the rock wall, there was a small, round light source. But the closer he looked, despite his agitation, the more curious he became. It appeared to be made of glass, but there was no flame visible, only a glowing filament in the middle. It was passing curios.

The light was connected to a string of wire which stretched along the wall of the cave. Carlos followed it for a bit, thinking there might be someone at the source who could help him. He walked along a passageway for a while, occasionally shouting, “Thurston,” though he heard no more running footsteps. There were however more lights along the way, all connected to the long wire. “Thurston!” he shouted. The cave echoed.

“Thurston!” came a response.

Carlos froze. “Hello?” he ventured.

“Thurston!” the voice came again. And then the speaker was upon him: a most unusual-looking person. He was around medium height, and quite slim. His skin was dark, about the same hue as the Pacific islanders Cecil had met, but his eyes were a pale blue, which was rare in these parts. And although he appeared fairly young, his hair was pure silver.

It somehow reminded Carlos of the moonlight.

He was oddly clothed, wearing a colorful silk tunic over trousers that appeared to be constructed of some kind of animal pelt.

“Thurston,” said the man, giving a graceful bow.

“I'm sorry,” said Carlos. “Are you acquainted with Mr. Thurston?”

The man sprung back up. “Mr. Thurston? Sorry, don't know him. But I heard you calling, and took 'Thurston' to be a greeting of your people.”

Carlos stared for a while. He rubbed his head, wondering if he had sustained some kind of injury. This was definitely an odd conversation. “Er, no, actually, we say, 'Good day.'”

“Good day then,” said the man, giving the same bow. He had a quite lovely, sonorous voice, which gained resonance in the echoing cave.

“Good day,” said Carlos. He decided perhaps introductions were in order. “I am Dr. Carlos Gutierrez MacLachlan. I am a naturalist aboard the HMS Vigilant.”

“Oh, how very elaborate, Carlos the Naturalist of the HMS Vigilant.” The man pointed to himself. “I am Cecil. Just Cecil. And are you presently seeking Mr. Thurston?”

“In fact, I must needs return to my ship. I was pursuing Mr. Thurston. He jumped through a door.” Carlos pointed upwards, feeling a bit ridiculous.

“Oh! You opened one of the interdimensional portals?”

“I suppose so. Yes. Though it looked like a door. An oddly-shaped door. And Mr. Thurston bolted through in a state of agitation.”

“And you jumped in after him? That was rather impetuous!” said Cecil, who was peering intently at Carlos.

Carlos scratched the back of his neck. “Actually, I fell through.”

Cecil nodded knowingly. “Ah, yes. Easy to do. Non-Euclidean geometry, you know. That's the way the Old Ones sometimes built things. Didn't have a level, I guess.”

“Er, I guess not? So, you know about the Great Old Ones?”

“Yes, of course, they left their graffiti everywhere, didn't they?” asked Cecil, pointing to a nearby outcropping which had the strange hieroglyphic splayed over it.

“You can read it?”

“Yes, but why bother? All hail the mighty Old Ones,” Cecil muttered in a mock-pretentious voice. “When they can't even build an efficient interdimensional gateway. I mean, I suppose you don't have time paradoxes where you come from!” Carlos shook his head. “We're perpetually getting tomorrow and yesterday mixed up. It causes no end of problems!”

“I can imagine,” said Carlos

“Those gates are another thing! They tend to open and close in their own good time. Old Ones were pillocks at engineering. We might ask Josie back in town about it: sometimes her angels know these things. In fact,” said Cecil, his eyes widening, “why don't you come back to town with me? It's nearly dinner time. We could get something to eat, and see if anybody's has seen your Mr. Thurston.”

“But.... There is a town down here?” Carlos couldn't help but be intrigued. And he had to admit, he was feeling a bit peckish.

Carlos allowed Cecil to lead him down through a series winding tunnels. Carlos had been disoriented by the fall, but assumed that they were walking further into the interior of the island.

“So how did you come to our island, Carlos?” Cecil asked. “You don't mind if I call you Carlos, do you?”

“No,” said Carlos. It was a bit informal, but these were strange circumstances, and Cecil didn't appear to have a surname. “You may call me by my Christian name, although I am unused to hearing it.”

“Why is that? It is a lovely name. Why, almost as lovely as your dark, soulful eyes.”

“Um, indeed?”

“Carlos. Is it not a variant of St. Charles? And it sounds as soft as you delicate skin.”

“Uh....”

“Not that I've had the favor of touching it. But I am quite close enough to judge, I feel.”

“Er....”

“Not that I want to be too forward. I'm not being too forward, am I? Josie says I'm sometimes too forward.”

“Well...”

“But you never answered me!”

“Um, answered you what?” asked Carlos, his cheeks now burning hot.

“Why, what you have granted our humble community with the great favor of your presence?”

“Oh!” Carlos huffed a sigh of relief, hoping to guide the conversation into less treacherous waters. “I am a naturalist....”

“But you're wearing clothes!”

Well that hadn't worked at all. “Excuse me?” Carlos ventured.

“But I suppose you are naked underneath. As we all are. Well, except for that man who loiters at the post office.” Cecil narrowed his eyes.

“Cecil,” said Carlos, trying to clear up the misunderstanding, “I don't know what you mean, but I am a scientist.”

“Oh, that's lovely! But haven't we all been scientists at one time or another?”

“Er. Maybe. That is to say, I came here aboard the HMS Vigilant. We are in service to Her Majesty's government, charting the waters. And I have taken it upon myself to supply a list of the local wildlife, after the manner of Mr. Darwin.”

“Mr. Darwin? Is that your beau?”

“What? I should say not.”

“Good,” said Cecil, who was looking a little smug.

“I don't have a beau,” said Carlos.

“Even better!”

Carlos was about to explain the situation with his fiancée (not that it was any of Cecil's business: the man was a bit nosy) but then he heard a great clanking and clattering coming from the trail up ahead. He ground to a halt, astounded at the sight before him.

Coming towards them, clinking and clanking and stomping along, was a large man – but he seemed to be entirely encased in metal. Carlos at first took him for a knight in armor, as he had seen sets of medieval armor before. But something about this looked off. It wasn't shaped right somehow: it was of a form more like a mechanical toy than a man.

The prodigious contraption came to a halt in front of them, pausing to exhale a blast of steam from a pipe trailing out of the top of his head.

“Hello, Babbage,” sighed Cecil.

“My goodness!” exclaimed Carlos, who couldn't believe his eyes. “Cecil, is this a mechanical man?”

Cecil nodded. “Yes, this is my bodyguard, Babbage.”

The mechanical man came to attention, and executed a swift, somewhat clumsy bow. “I'm not entirely sure his name is Babbage,” Cecil whispered to Carlos. “They don't generally give the sentinels names. But he looks like a Babbage, don't you think?”

Carlos didn't really know how to reply. “Um. Good day, Mr. Babbage,” was all he could come up with. The mechanical man squeaked and creaked, and executed another bow for Carlos, flourished but another exhalation of steam. “I suppose he likes the appellation,” he surmised.

“Well, I suppose we better get a move on, if they've sent Babbage after me,” said Cecil. Babbage executed a turn and began to perambulate down the path. Cecil and Carlos followed him.

Carlos was just beginning to wonder why Cecil would need a bodyguard – especially something so prodigious – when all at once they rounded the bend and came upon an astonishing sight. The narrow tunnel opened up once again, and they could survey an entire town constructed within the hollow crater of the volcano.

“Welcome to Nightlantis!” said Cecil.

“This is remarkable!” said Carlos, staring in wonder. There were stone edifices of such weird geometry as he had seen up on the island, but here everything was in good repair, and had been freshly whitewashed. There were many tall buildings and graceful spires. He stared upwards in wonder: there was light overhead, but it was all artificial. Looking up, you could see the vaulted ceiling many meters high, formed, he guessed, of the interior of the island’s central mountain. No sky – neither stars nor clouds nor sun – was visible from within. The settlement was entirely isolated from the outside world.

Cecil hummed with obvious pride. “Well, it's just our modest little town. But we like it!”

“Prince Cecil!” There was now a small group of townsfolk heading their way, great looks of concern on their faces.

Prince Cecil?” whispered Carlos.

Cecil’s dark cheeks turned a little pink. “Well … yes.”

“I thought you told me you were just Cecil.”

“Well, I am! To you! I mean, I'm their prince, but not your prince. Anyway, the whole thing is tiresome.” He turned to greet the townsfolk. “Hello, my listeners!”

“Cecil, we were very concerned!” said an officious-looking woman. “We sent Babbage off to find you!”

“I just went for a stroll in the caverns, Miss Hidge,” said Cecil.

“Cecil, you know you're not supposed to do that! And all alone?” she tutted.

“But I found this beautiful man there!” said Cecil, pulling Carlos over closer. “He's Carlos the Naturalist of the Vigilant!”

“Um, hello,” said Carlos. He couldn’t recall ever being referred to in such gushing tones before, not even by any of his female admirers.

As her aides murmured in appreciation, Miss Hidge tutted. “Well, I suppose his hair is perfect. And his skin is perfect. And his teeth are perfect,” she said, waving a hand. “But beautiful?”

“He's fairly beautiful,” said one of the fellows accompanying her.

“Oh, yes indeed! I am simultaneously awed and terrified by his hair,” commented the other.

Carlos self-consciously touched his hair, thinking he had not even bothered to comb it since he had plunged into the pool the other day.

“We ought invite him to the wedding!” said Cecil.

“Er, what wedding?” asked Carlos.

“That's a little forward, don't you think, Prince Cecil?” muttered Miss Hidge.

“Why don't we ask Mayor Winchell about it?”

Miss Hidge drew up to her full height, which was not terribly impressive. “We can't ask Mayor Winchell at the present moment.”

“And why not?”

“Because she has disappeared. Which is completely within her rights as mayor,” Miss Hidge added, glaring directly at Carlos.

“Uh, yes?” said Carlos, looking at Cecil.

“Why, I could disappear right now, if I really wanted to!” Miss Hidge insisted. “As her assistant, I can disappear as well. Allow me to demonstrate!”

“Er, I'm sure you could,” allowed Carlos.

“Then it's a plan!” Cecil told a dubious-looking Miss Hidge. “Come along, Carlos!” So, with Babbage stomping after them, Cecil led Carlos into the city. Behind them, while her aides watched her, Miss Hidge appeared to be straining with great effort.

“You'll enjoy this,” Cecil told Carlos.

There was a distinct “Pop!” sound behind them. Carlos turned around to see Miss Hidge was there no more, but there appeared to be a small, mustard-colored stain where she had been standing. “Do you smell olives?” asked Carlos.

“Come along, we don't want to be late. I'm in enough trouble as it is,” sighed Cecil. The town was truly lovely, although Carlos reckoned you could experience feelings of claustrophobia given the lack of visible sky.

“Will we see Josie, the person you mentioned?”

“She’ll be at the dinner later. We’ll see her after I make my transmission.”

“Transmission?”

“Yes, I’m supposed to be on the air now.”

Cecil didn’t explain any further. Carlos had expected Cecil to lead him to the center of town, towards a graceful building with tall spires that looked something like a palace. Well, given that he was “Prince Cecil.” But instead they began heading down dark staircases, as if they were heading to some underground carriageway, such as they had proposed to build in London. They threaded through through some hatches, and then descended a ladder or two.

They had bade Babbage farewell back up at the top: Cecil explained that the mechanical man would take something he called an “elevator,” which was evidently a steam-powered room which traveled upwards and downwards. Babbage had appeared annoyed at this eventuality, as he emitted a couple of harsh steam puffs, and then trudged off.

They walked through some remarkable sights. Some floors were completely crammed with noisy, clainking machinery, and with men crawling among it, shouting at each other. Other floors appeared to be completely deserted, the abandoned rune-carved structures standing silent as to their function.

“So what should I call you, um, Your Majesty?” Carlos asked as they scrambled down a ladder of metal rungs.

“Cecil, of course. That's my name!” Cecil called up.

“But, you're a prince,” said Carlos, leaping down to the floor.

“Oh, please.” Cecil waved his hand. “Everyone down on the lower levels calls me Cecil. It's only the stuffy people up above to stand on ceremony.”

“These are the lower levels? How many are there?”

“A lot!” They had finally arrived on a level that was a series of storefronts. Cecil hailed the shop owners, all of whom appeared to know him, as they walked along the underground avenue. As he had claimed, they all called him by his Christian name.

“Exactly how big is this Nightlantis?” Carlos asked as they walked down the broad, underground avenue.

“Nobody rightly knows. There’s definitely more underground than there is up top. Like I said, the Old Ones were a bit rubbish as engineers, so there's plenty of stairways that go nowhere and hatches that open in to blank walls and hallways that loop back on themselves somehow. The geometry gets odder, the deeper you go.”

“My goodness!”

“The lowest levels are also beastly hot, so nobody has followed them all the way down. That's where Cthulhu lies dreaming.”

“What?” asked Carlos. Something seemed familiar.

“Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! As they say,” said Cecil. “That's the old name for this city, R'lyeh. But it's a ridiculous name, I think. No one can pronounce it!”

Carlos nodded. He noticed a group of children had been pursuing them. They held themselves back, but (as Carlos was used to tracking wildlife through thick forests) he sensed them lurking, just out of reach. They were not at all the boisterous youths he was accustomed to, but rather silent and watchful.

“Ah, here we are,” said Cecil.

Carlos looked back, but the children had all slipped away. Cecil entered a storefront labeled “Nightlantis Civic Wireless Telegraphy.” Carlos stared at the sign for a moment. He seemed to recall the term “Wireless Telegraphy” in the works of Mr. Tesla, but couldn't quite place it.

He spotted Babbage tromping down the street and, with a bow to him, followed Cecil inside. He was astonished at what he found. For one, thing, somehow, the interior looked bigger than it had appeared from the street. Just to be sure, Carlos stepped back out the door, and then back inside several times.

“You'll let in flies, doing that,” Cecil scolded him.

“My apologies,” muttered Carlos, looking around at the large, high-ceilinged interior. “But I happened to notice-”

“Yes, it's bigger in here.”

“Well, it appears bigger.”

“No, it's actually bigger. The non-Euclidean geometry again. We have an infinite event horizon, something like that. Anyway, it's time I begin my transmission.”

“I'm sorry, your what?”

Cecil sat down at a wooden desk that was festooned with many dials and the strange, flameless light fixtures he had now seen everywhere in Nightlantis. There was an apparatus on top of the desk that looked like a metal cone. Cecil wound up a crank on the side of the desk, the dials flipped and the lights blinked on and off. He picked up a stack of papers on his desk, leaned forward and spoke into the cone.

“Is today the tomorrow you thought about yesterday? Please try to keep track, time is weird. Welcome to Nightlantis.”

Carlos stared around him in wonder. It seemed he heard Cecil's voice outside, echoing all around the area. Despite Cecil's annoyance, he went back to the door and poked his head outside.

“The Sheriff's Secret Police have requested that citizens refrain from illegal activities during the night time. It makes it harder to get daguerreotypes from the many hidden cameras, a spokesman explained. When you are committing crimes, you are urged to stand still, so the images do not turn out blurred.”

Cecil's voice was everywhere, though it had picked up a strange, tinny quality. Carlos noticed that the citizens who had been walking through the area now all stopped to listen.

Carlos stole back inside. It was marvelous, like a type of talking telegraph, he guessed. Another thing he would have to ask Cecil about, he supposed. He needed to get back to the Vigilant, but this place was so intriguing, he felt obligated to stay a while and learn about it.

“There's a new person in town, and he is perfect and beautiful. His name is Dr. Carlos Gutierrez MacLachlan, and he is a naturalist from Her Majesty's Ship, the Vigilant.”

Carlos went quiet. He hadn't realized Cecil had caught his full name. Clearly, he had been paying more attention than Carlos realized.

“Tell me, Carlos, what do you think of Nightlantis so far?” Cecil pushed the cone over towards him with an elegant hand. The fingers were long and graceful, and Carlos stared at them for probably a bit longer than he should have.

“Er,” he stumbled. Cecil pressed the speaking cone a little bit nearer. “I find it very interesting here,” said Carlos, marveling as his voice echoed outside.

Cecil pulled the cone closer to himself. He leaned over further, his face very close to Carlos. “What do you find so interesting?” he asked. He pressed the cone back towards Carlos.

“Well, for example, I find your lighting system extraordinary. And I am very impressed with your servant, Mr. Babbage.”

Babbage, who had been silently standing watch nearby up until now, tooted out a blast of steam evidently in approval. Carlos smiled.

Cecil's face was awfully close to his now, Carlos noticed. He was smiling, and his eyes were bright.

“Er, I also think your city is very beautiful,” said Carlos, not certain why he had voiced a rather mundane thought. But this caused Cecil's smile to broaden, and his eyes to dance, and Carlos decided right then and there it had been an utterly perfect thing to say. “Um, especially the upper levels. I mean, the view.”

“The view here is very lovely as well,” said Cecil. Carlos suddenly dropped his eyes and found himself blushing. Why had he gotten shy? It was weird, but perhaps it was the disorientation. “Thank you, Dr. Gutierrez MacLachlan.”

Carlos sat back and tried to straighten up, clearing his throat.

Cecil edged away, grabbing a sheet of paper. “Listeners, as you know, I don't like to make this transmission all about me. I am but your humble narrator, chosen for this purpose. But I need your help. As you know, Mr. Marcus Vansten is one of our candidates. I have just received the following notice from him, or rather, from someone he hired to pass on a notice. The notice reads, 'I am Mr. Marcus Vansten. I am rich. I am the richest man you could ever imagine. In fact, I am so rich, you can probably not even imagine it. It's all right. Your imagination is probably anemic because you are so poor. But everybody is poor compared to me. Mr. Marcus Vansten: richer than you.' Well, what do you think of that, Nightlantis?”

“He sounds horrid,” blurted Carlos. “Er,” he muttered, hoping that his face wasn't close enough to the cone to be transmitted. Cecil grinned at him.



Sometime later, Cecil hurried Carlos out of the Wireless station as Babbage tromped along behind them. As they passed the shops, several citizens called out, “Hullo!” to Cecil along the way.

“We think Carlos is a good candidate!” announced a mustachioed man standing by a barber pole.

“Well, he's not really a candidate, Telly,” said Cecil.

“I'm voting for Carlos,” said a man wearing something that looked like a monk's cowl. He was accompanied by a similarly attired man, out walking their dogs. They both had their hoods pulled up, so it was difficult to make out their faces.

“Thank you, Hitoshi, Xavier,” said Cecil, tugging on Carlos's arm. “But Carlos is not-”

“Cecil, forget about Marcus. We want Carlos!” said a dark-haired girl, who was standing in the middle of a group of young people.

“Thanks, Dana. We appreciate that.”

“I'm sorry, Cecil,” said Carlos as he was escorted away. “To what are they referring when they mention candidates?”

“Well, my wedding of course.”

“You're- You're getting married?” For some reason, Carlos felt disappointed at the news. He wasn't entirely certain why. Cecil seemed a good fellow, and he should be glad for his good fortune. “I'm sorry, I mean, of course, my best wishes.”

Cecil looked glum, and patted Carlos's arm. “You are a good friend to say so. I am fated to be wed this year, as the stars are in alignment, and there are currently three candidates who are seeking my hand.”

“Er, forgive me if I am being forward,” said Carlos, “but isn't Marcus Vansten … male?”

“Yes, of course. All three candidates are male. You see, the town set this up long ago. They were expecting a girl – all the signs and portents pointed to it! I was intended to be Cecilia. So I came along as a bit of a shock to the system. But everyone has been so terribly understanding about it all.”

“Well, that was … agreeable of them.” Cecil kept a loose, companionable grip on Carlos's arm. Maybe, Carlos thought, marriage in this culture was different from what it was back home? He thought back to what the captain had told him: when you arrive at a place with different customs, try to learn a little about them before you pass judgment. That seemed reasonable, right?

“But we're headed to dinner now, and you'll get to meet them all!”

“This is your engagement dinner?”

Cecil laughed. “Not precisely, as I don't know who I'll be marrying yet.”

Both Carlos and Cecil turned at a soft sound behind them. The quiet group of the children Carlos had noted before were standing there, though they remained silent and still. One of them, a stocky, dark-skinned girl, stood a little ahead of them, a red-haired boy at her side. Carlos turned to approach them, but felt Cecil's hand on his arm.

“Careful,” Cecil whispered.

Carlos nodded but then slowly, as if he were approaching some new wildlife, moved forward a few steps. He crouched down, so he was at eye level with the dark girl. He noticed she was clutching something: a book. He peered at it, recognizing the cover. “Is that by chance a novel by Mr. Dickens?” he asked softly.

Carefully, as if revealing a great treasure, she held out the book so he could see the cover. “Oliver Twist: the Parish Boys' Progress,” read Carlos. “That is one of my favorites.”

She looked him up and down, and then glanced at the red-haired boy standing beside her. He was wearing a sash with some badges clumsily sewn into it. He nodded. She glanced again at Carlos, and then quickly, quietly, all the children scattered again.

Carlos remained squatting down for a moment. He got up. “Who are they?” he asked Cecil.

Cecil shook his head. “Miss Tamika Flynn – she's the leader – is a survivor of the summer reading program. Master Barton Donovan is her friend: he was one of the Eternal Scouts. I'm not sure about all of the rest of them. They mostly inhabit the lower floors, down where none of us dare go.”

Carlos nodded, wondering if the group of ragamuffins had happened onto a Fagin of their own. He and Cecil came to a pair of sliding doors. Cecil didn't move to open them, and neither did Babbage. But then, to Carlos's astonishment, they whisked noiselessly open on their own, to reveal a small chamber. Carlos followed Cecil inside, and Babbage clanked after them, the floor sagging slightly under his weight. Cecil pushed a lever to one side of the doors, and they slid closed. Then he turned a crank, and Carlos felt the floor lurch beneath him.

“It's the elevator,” Cecil explained. The floor settled, and he pressed the lever again. This time, the door opened to reveal they were now back at the top level of Nightlantis.

“This is extraordinary!” exclaimed Carlos, leaping outside, hoping to get a glimpse of the mechanism. But to his disappointment, it was all concealed inside of the structure.

“If you'd like, I think we can show you later, but right now we're late for dinner, and we don't want Miss Hidge – well, what's left of her – to get cross. She'll go tattle to the mayor, and then I'll have no end of worries.”

“So that's why you have Mr. Babbage following you?” asked Carlos. “They want to keep track of you?”

“Yes.”

“You know, I've heard stories, our own young Queen, Her Majesty Victoria, had an escort during the regency of her uncle, before she ascended the throne. She couldn't even descend a staircase without someone holding her hand!”

“Really?” asked Cecil. And then, more softly, “Did she appreciate it?”

Carlos leaned over to whisper to Cecil. “The rumor is, she detested it,” he confided.

Cecil smiled at the confidence, and Carlos felt his heart flutter.

“Well, here we are,” Cecil announced. They had come upon one of the grander buildings in Nightlantis, although not the one Carlos had taken for the palace. He still needed to ask Cecil about that one, and he start to wonder whether he could convince the prince to take him on an after-dinner tour of the city. But then Babbage opened up a great double door, and, on Cecil's urging, Carlos walked inside.

He froze as the great beast standing inside reared up, roared and spat fire.

--
Notes on Chapter 2: The mention of Tesla was the chapter's biggest anachronism, as Nikola Tesla wasn't born until 1856. By the way, Carlos's surname, MacLachlan, is a tribute to Kyle MacLachlan, who played Agent Cooper on Twin Peaks. And Charles Babbage was the engineer who came up with the concept of the computer.
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