Chapter 2 Episode 1 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Hammering at his bedroom door awoke Adewole the next morning. "Adewole! Adewole! Ollie, old thing, get up, the most extraordinary thing has happened!"
Grumbling and sleepy, Adewole shrugged a robe over his nightshirt and shuffled into the sitting room on his long, bare feet. "Please do not call me 'Ollie,' Deviatka. 'Old thing' if you must, but never the other. Especially first thing in the morning before I have had my coffee--oh, damn." He scratched the curls sprouting on his head and peered at the early morning light in the window; Ofira had called him "Ollie," but no one else. "Anyway, do not call me that."
"I knew it would get you up," said the agitated Deviatka. He flourished a newspaper in the other man's face. "Look!"
Adewole took the proffered paper and woke up entirely. In giant type across all six columns, legible without his reading glasses, read the following headline:
Hildegard Goldstein Makes Historic Flight to Inselmond!!!
Adewole found his spectacles and scanned the article. "How is this possible? You told me once about that autogyro thing yourself--you said it could not get more than ten feet off the ground, and the island is a mile up."
Deviatka retrieved the paper and backhanded it. "The lamp fuel."
"That 'black mercury' you put on the wick last night?" Adewole glanced at the table where the innocent-looking lamp sat. They hadn't even trimmed the wick the entire evening.
"Just that. She got her hands on some--who knows how, I thought I had a lock on it--and the idiot put it in her autogyro boiler." Deviatka paced the room.
"I should hardly think she is an idiot, my friend, it worked," said Adewole.
Deviatka stopped in his tracks and fixed his friend with a half-crazed stare. "I've been experimenting along similar lines, though not on this scale, and made the mistake of showing Blessing." He shook the paper. "Then this--this--happens. I can only assume he sold my work to the Goldsteins, the money-grubbing bastard! You know what just the smallest amount can do--you've seen it. What powers our lamp is less than half a drop, and we have to be careful we don't burn the house down. But that woman filled an engine with it and had the audacity to ride it a mile into the air!" Deviatka burst into laughter. "I hate to say it, but she's my kind of woman."
As Adewole rushed through his morning wardrobe, the newspaper headline tumbled around in his head. Deviatka focused on the engineering achievement, but all Adewole could think about was what this Hildegard Goldstein discovered. Several myths insisted the island hid a sophisticated civilization, its science so far beyond the modern world's it approached magic, its people near-immortal and approaching the god-like. How could anyone survive up there? Living people or no, there had to be artifacts, clues as to what cataclysmic event had thrown the island into the sky to cast its shadow over every culture in the world.
He had to get there, but he was a visiting professor, holding a despised chair in a despised department. At least, Dean Blessing, the man who'd be choosing the University's research team, despised him. His name would not be on the list.
How cruel, thought Adewole, that he should be driven from his home to Eisenstadt, only to have this waved in his face.
A knock at the door broke his thoughts. At Deviatka's invitation, the housemaid popped in, all calico and flutters. "Message for you, Professor," she said, handing Deviatka a note before vanishing again.
Deviatka unfolded the sheet. "It's from the Ministry of State. Minister Faber wishes to see both of us first thing this morning."
Adewole and Deviatka walked together to the Ministry building. "I cannot imagine why Madam Faber wishes to see me," said Adewole. "You, that is understandable. You are an expert in the study of black mercury."
"I have military experience as well--served a hitch and left a captain, in fact. But you are the world's pre-eminent folklorist."
That's not what his colleagues in Jero had thought, but Adewole was a proud enough man to stay silent. "She cannot wish to talk about folklore."
"You speak something like a dozen and a half languages and're an expert on sigils in general and world mythology surrounding Inselmond in particular. I can't imagine anyone not choosing you to go."
"You exaggerate, I do not speak a dozen and a half languages." Deviatka gave him a hard squint. "I am truly fluent only in ten," Adewole amended.
"You can make yourself understood in at least nine more languages than I can, at any rate. I suppose I can read Old Rhendalian like any professor, but my diction is terrible. If I ran into an Old Rhendalian I'd be in a bad way. Good thing they're all dead." They up the Ministry building's broad stairs; Deviatka held open the heavy, brass-framed glass door set in the grim granite facade, and Adewole stepped through.
They stood inside a great marble-floored lobby; above them soared a surprising, ornate domed ceiling, gilded and painted with scenes of the city-state's greatest achievements in the last century's most florid style. In the most prominent mural, two beautiful half-naked women flanked a god-like, half-naked man; the three were hanging garlands round the neck of a stern-looking matriarch in classical robes. Beneath, in gold lettering, read the inscription, "Fortune, Strength and Wisdom Honor Founder Eiden."
Deviatka handed his card to the young woman at the lobby desk; she smiled and pushed a button. A crisp man popped from a doorway like a figurine on a clock, took both professors in tow and led them up the majestic stairs to the Minister's antechamber; voices and typewriters buzzed just within hearing.
The crisp man placed them in a private conference room, where thick carpet smothered the floors in dark reds, blues and golds. Adewole's nerves kept him on the tufted leather sofa's edge; Deviatka lounged beside him. "You are so familiar with the great figures of the day that you sit at your ease, eh?"
The engineering professor shrugged. "Cecile Faber is a person like anyone else. Once my family moved in the same circles as the Fabers." Deviatka's face darkened, but cleared as the crisp man popped in again from a side door, carrying a tray. The man set its contents down on a table one by one: a spirit burner, a long-handled copper pot, a grater, softly rounded golden cakes piled in a small bowl, an enameled tin, two small cups on saucers.
The man lit the burner, filled the copper pot with water from a pitcher and set it to boil on the burner. He lifted the lid on the tin. Adewole sat up even straighter, his nose craning toward it. A familiar scent filled the air, reminding him of fresh oranges, warm river breezes, contentment and morning sunshine. "Coffee!" exclaimed Adewole.