Beyond the Cascade
The True Story of the Valerius

Chapter I

Captain's Log -- Nov. 14, 682, Trans-Cascadian Project Headquarters

The Imperial throne has, at long last, appointed an envoy, Mr. Rory Jennings. Were I to judge from his dossier, I would believe him to be an honest man. Whether that is accurate remains to be seen, but regardless the gentleman appears to be far from the worst possible candidate to be selected.

Having received word of this appointment, I will be gathering together the commissioned officers, and plan on departing within a fortnight. There is nothing to be gained by unnecessary delay.

Harcastle's Journal -- Nov. 25, 682, Trans-Cascadian Project Headquarters

There was a deep sense of expectancy at the Headquarters. Though I have, of course, been present at headquarters on prior occasions, this occasion stood in particular note, with the weight of the impending event omnipresent behind the eyes of those present. There was nothing frantic about the manner by which this weight manifested itself, but rather it created a subdued, unspoken tension. Soon, it was apparent, the journey of massive consequence, daring, and adventure was to begin. This sense struck me as soon as I stepped from the carriage, hat in hand, for it was evident in every detail, from the stiffness of the butler to the quiet but charged demeanor of the building.

As my eyes adjusted to the late afternoon sun, I perceived the unmistakable figure of Mr. Asper standing not ten feet from me, his hands clasped behind his back, his posture as straight as ever. As I approached, he stuck out his hand, which I shook in a manner I hoped would be ingratiating.

"I trust your journey as uneventful?" He inquired, his voice firm but pleasant. I nodded, and he continued, "I do apologize for the haste with which you were summoned, however, I shouldn't like to delay any further. If you have no objections, we will be leaving on the morrow around noon. Tonight, if you are not too fatigued from your journey, I would be most pleased if you would join the other officers and I for dinner; I should like to introduce you to those you will be flying with."

"I would be most honoured to join you," I replied, "and the journey was not so taxing as to prevent it."

Asper smiled, and bowed slightly, "Excellent. Now, if you will forgive me, I have urgent matters that require my attention. You will be shown to your room, where you may rest until dinner."

As he walked away, the Captain exuded a calm, unperturbed air quite in contrast to the tension in which he resided. Though he strode not slowly, he did not rush, and did not allow any sign of internal stress to affect the calmness of his surface. However, and perhaps this is simply my fancy, but I believe I sensed that below his dignified, reserved air, he was more on edge than any other present.

I was understandably rather fatigued from my lengthy travels, and availed myself of the Captain's suggestion to rest until dinner. Having donned my finest, I made my way to the dining room, where I saw that I was likely the last to arrive, as four of the five places at the table were already taken. The Captain was present, in discussion with another gentleman, who appeared from his attire to be someone of a notable position within the Imperial bureaucracy, although I had not the understanding required to know his position before he was introduced to me. On the other side of the Captain sat a short but clearly strong man in a military uniform, evidently one of the officers aboard the vessel. I fancy that he did not appear to be totally of Imperial blood, though perhaps that is simply a figment of my own imagination.

The final person seated was someone whom, I shall be completely honest, I would not have expected to see. A young lady, several years younger than myself, perhaps, sat with the most perfect expression, a mixture of bemused indifference and genuine curiosity. I must admit myself for a second bewitched. However, I was able to return my attention to the room at large as the Captain began to speak.

"Ah, Mr. Harcastle, I'm glad you felt able to join us. I must apologize again for the haste of your journey, however I find myself most impatient to depart. Please do have seat," he gestured to the remaining seat, situated between the lady and the military gentleman, which I took as he continued, "I should begin by introducing myself, though you have all met me before. My name is Captain Lawrence Asper, and I ask that you refer to me from here onward as Captain Asper or simply as Captain. I will consider the neglect of my title as an act of insubordination aboard the vessel, and I will react accordingly.

"With that aside, I would like to introduce you to my lieutenant and first mate, Mr. Calther," the Captain gestured to the military gentleman beside me, "He served with me in the Navy for some time, and will be the second highest authority onboard, only lower than myself. Should I be incapable or not present, you are to obey him as if he were myself.

"Beside him is Mr. Harcastle, a gentleman who has been studying with Professor McHenry, an academic whom I hold in high regard, and who recommended Mr. Harcastle for this position. He will serve as a linguist and cultural philosopher, helping us to understand and communicate with any peoples we may encounter on the other side.

"Ms. Summerfeld will serve as the Chief Scientist. I have consulted with her over the structure of the vessel and the complex processes on which operates, and she has proven already to be a valuable member of the crew. I would also like each of you to firmly note that I will not tolerate any prejudice on account of her feminine nature. I have selected her for this position based on my own experiences with her capabilities and found them to be extremely satisfactory. I will not be reconsidering this point.

"Finally, we have Envoy Jennings, an employee of the Ministry of the Exterior, who has been delegated by His Imperial Highness, Emperor Valerius II, to establish official Imperial relations with any sovereign nations we should come across in our travels. The envoy will be required, like the rest, to obey commands from myself, however he has superseding mandate for issues related to the foreign relations of the Empire."

The Captain paused in his speech for a brief moment, "We are on the verge of attempting that which has never been accomplished, the crossing of a range of mountains so vast that its extent is unknown. This is not a journey to be lightly embarked upon, and as such I would ask each of you to once again consider whether you truly wish to venture forth. We shall not turn back, once we set forth, until we have accomplished our mission or we are unable to continue. We may be gone for a good long while. If there are any of you who regret your decision to participate, this will be your last opportunity to recant that decision."

Captain Asper suddenly smiled, leaving behind the serious captain in favor of the gracious host, "Now, I do believe it is time we ate. Enjoy this meal, as we shan't have the supplies to produce its like whilst in the air."

With that we all began our dinner, with a silence pervading at first as we consumed the rather delicious meal served to us. Presently, however, the Captain rekindled his conversation with the Envoy, and I sought to kindle a conversation with the fascinating creature to my right.

"If I might ask, Miss Summerfeld, what is it that would motivate yourself to be involved in this journey? Might it be a sense of adventure? Or perhaps this is a matter of scientific curiosity?"

"Do you ask me seriously, or simply to engage me in conversation?"

The coldness of her rebuttal was as I expected from her demeanor upon entering the room, and thus I was prepared.

"I wish to know the motivations of all of my companions. You are merely the first, because you had the misfortune of being to my right."

"I am not the only one who sits beside you, and yet it was me that you chose to speak to first. Could it be that you believed me to be the friendlier of your options because of my feminine nature?"

"Not at all. I should never be so incautious with a woman so capable of having her own way as to be engaged as the Chief Scientist."

I was then graced with the hint of a smile, perhaps due to my being less dull and stuffy than she had initially feared.

"Very well, Mr. Harcastle, I shall tell you my motivations, though they are not as worthy as either option you have suggested. You will be surprised to learn that there are those who do not hold the same level of confidence in my abilities as you seem to, and who believe me to be inherently unfit as a scientist due to my being a woman. In fact, I would claim that most are of that opinion, and as such there are few who would give me such an opportunity as the Captain has. I am obligated by the prejudices against me to take every opportunity available to me if I am to advance towards my goals. And what of yourself, Mr. Harcastle? Is not fair that you should tell me your motivations as I have told you mine?"

"But of course! I find myself here due to an intellectual curiosity and the chance of adventure that drives any man of fewer than thirty years. My interest lies in people and language, and thus the chance to discover new people and new languages is more exciting to me than perhaps any other thing that I have previously attempted."

The rest of the meal passed without note, and presently we rose from the table and adjourned to our chambers for the night.