India may be the jewel of Queen Victoria’s English Empire on Earth, but other precious stones shine brighter. The finest of these is Mars. First visited by Thomas Edison and Jack Armstrong in 1870, Mars inflamed the imaginations of Earthmen and lit the torch of exploration to the other planets.

Two decades have only touched the shell of the various worlds. Dry Mars, while smaller than Earth, has almost equal surface land to probe. Moreover, Mars has wonders galore! Its canals make the Suez Canal of Earth seem a city sewer drain. The pumps, locks, and water movers are so far advanced that after almost twenty years the finest engineers of Earth have yet to decipher their mechanisms.

But they will. After all, Earthmen have invented machines that record and play voices, light without a flame, engines that consume liquid fuel rather than wood or coal, even vehicles that transport people and goods between planets. This is the last decade before a new century and everyone wants a place in history.

Widespread commercial electricity is just being adopted on Earth. Almost without exception, industry is powered by coal-fired steam boilers. Transportation of the era is notable for its general lack of single-person conveyances, in favor of trains and horse-drawn carriages. Sailing and steam vessels ply the worlds’ oceans. Aerial flyers coast upon the skies of Mars. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone is in use in urban centers, and British orbital heliograph stations transmit flashes of light—much like Morse Code—almost instantaneously between Earth and Mars.

By 1889, the waning 19th century is popularly acknowledged as an age of wonder. Earth’s nations have expanded among the planets, planting colonies, guiding people they see as savage heathens on the path toward what they consider to be true civilization, and introducing European justice and security to all lands.

Yet not all is well in the twilight of the Nineteenth century. The European powers teeter on diplomatic brinkmanship, edging ever closer to war. The scientific exploits of vanguard inventors lead to destructive technologies whose impacts can scarcely be grasped by Victorian minds.

Natives of all the planets show signs of revolt, listening to the whispers of entities that do not always appear as they truly are. Anarchists and revolutionaries work to bring about the eradication of official establishments, while doomsayers warn of the end of days.

Worst of all, speculations abound regarding a new, rising power, a far-flung and secretive cult of deadly assassins some have dubbed the Brotherhood of Luxor. Headed by a secret inner circle named for the Titans of Greek myth, only the Brotherhood knows what it wishes to achieve with its acts of atrocity.

In 1889 Britain is a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Victoria presiding alongside Parliament. As far as republics go, America’s is relatively stable, while France’s is not. Germany and Russia remain hereditary monarchies, with traditions deeply rooted in bloodlines that stretch back for centuries. Japan is a society in transition, whose feudal beliefs are blending quickly into those more proper for an age of machines.

What all these nations have in common is their aspiration to be a “great power.” In 1889 a nation is not called a great power unless it can command interplanetary colonies, robust trade among nations and worlds, and liftwood. More than any other aggressor state in the 1880s, Belgium’s actions have consistently thrown international relations into chaos and disarray. Driven by their King Leopold’s overriding obsession with establishing a new empire safe from French and German meddling, the Belgians have pursued aggressive imperialistic agendas in the Congo and on Mars. Resentment of the Belgians on Mars has led to the poor reception of anyone whose complexion is ruddy enough to earn him the epithet, “red devil.”

Red Sands