Chapter 2 Episode 3 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Adewole's fingers stopped playing with the kikoi's fringe; his hands dropped into his lap, stilled by the grief flowing so close beneath his skin. "You are well-briefed, ma'am," he said as the ache spread in his chest. "I was not sure I could properly care for Ofira in a foreign country, and with our mother dead I could not leave her. I was going to wait until I had gotten tenure, and she was older." He paused and reached into his suit jacket. Inside his wallet he found a fading photograph: Ofira's bright little face. He turned it to face the Minister. "She would have loved Eisenstadt. She loved birds, and talking ones would have…" The ache nearly won, and he stopped to recollect himself, replacing her picture in his wallet. "River fever took her from me last year. She was only nine."
"You've never told me any of this," said Deviatka.
"It is hard for me to speak of it," murmured Adewole. "I have neither tenure nor sister now. The Creator, I suppose, took away my obstacles. She has played a fine joke on me."
Deviatka wrinkled his nose at the religious reference, but Minister Faber remained the diplomat. "I am sorry about your sister, Professor. To have her taken from you so young must be quite, quite difficult. But your Creator has not, perhaps, played a joke on you. Perhaps she has placed you exactly where you need to be at exactly the right moment. If I believed in a Creator, that's what I would say, Professor, because you are exactly the man I need right now." Adewole sat back in his chair, stunned. To be the first anthropologist on Erukso'i--on Inselmond, use the Rhendalian he reminded himself--was more than he had ever conceived. He looked over at Deviatka; his friend had the look of a dog who'd just learned a walk is in the offing.
Minister Faber rinsed the coffee pot and poured the grounds into an elegant basin before she refilled it and placed it back on the burner. "I will not lie to you. This is a risky endeavor. You will be translator to a military scouting mission. You will report to Major Florenz Berger, an experienced diplomat as well as soldier. Professor Deviatka has been selected for both his military experience and his understanding of the black mercury powering the autogyros. Miss Goldstein and her crew will be piloting your autogyros and will return for a second group of soldiers to help secure a base of operations. Your group will be in radio contact as much as possible with both your base and the ground, but should things go wrong, you will be on your own for a time. We have few autogyros yet, after all. The mission will require diplomacy and tact. Major Berger has experience assisting me as military attaché, but your tact and knowledge will be essential. If you have come this far without cursing Dean Blessing to his face, I believe you can handle any wild Inselmonders you may find--and yes," she added at his eager face, "we expect you will find some. The mission leaves Juni the 15th."
"So soon? Today is Mai 6th!" exclaimed Adewole.
"'So soon?' I'm ready to go right now!" laughed Deviatka.
"I'm afraid there is some legislative business to attend to first," said the Minister. "We must amend the Schmidt Act first."
"I am not perhaps as familiar with your laws as you are," said Adewole.
Minister Faber smiled. "No one is familiar with the Schmidt Act. It passed a hundred-some-odd years ago."
Deviatka sat up and snapped his fingers. "I remember. Some crackpot had the idea to build a great tower that reached all the way up to Inselmond."
"A mile-high tower? Is that even possible?" said Adewole.
Deviatka thrust his lower lip outward in thought. "Couldn't do it now, let alone a hundred years ago, but a couple of speculators got hold of the idea and convinced everyone it was possible. Bilked a lot of people out of a lot of money. Anyway, this Schmidt character was an investor, and he got his act pushed through the Senate. Basically, it says if you manage to make it to Inselmond first and prove it, everything on the island is yours. Salvage rights."
"But there may be people up there. How can you claim salvage rights from people who are still alive?"
"No one knew that a hundred years ago," said Madam Faber. "The Ministry of State is worried if salvage crews were to make it to the island first and claim rights, we'd find ourselves at war--or worse, a hostile force might take over the island and hold it over our heads."
"Ha, hold it over our heads!" crowed Deviatka, quickly turning serious. "Just imagine someone dropping a rock off it into the city." He opened his hands and eyes wide. "Boom!"
Minister Faber nodded. "We must get the salvage act repealed, and then we must get there first. Now, Professor Adewole, shall we see what your cup says?"
Adewole stared like a fish beached on the mud of those warm Chano River banks. "Do you read?"
Adewole finished his coffee while Minister Faber prepared the next cup. As the highly amused Deviatka looked on, the Jerian swirled his dregs three times, holding the cup near his heart, before putting the saucer atop it and turning it upside down. Minister Faber laid a gold mark atop the cup to cool it faster. When it was ready, she turned the cup right side up; all three peered inside it. "Does it speak?" whispered Deviatka.
"Hush," said Minister Faber. She put her pinchnose spectacles on and studied the shapes in the grounds. "A broken heart, but it appears on the right."
"What does that mean?" said Deviatka.
"The right means the symbol is good, the left means it is bad. I hardly think a broken heart is good," said Adewole, thinking of all he'd lost in Jero.
"A bird, also on the right." Faber laughed. "Do you play an instrument, Professor?"
The grounds had sketched a guitar on the left. "Oh dear," said Deviatka. "Perhaps we should stop our nightly music before Mrs. Trudge snaps and slashes your throat with the carving knife." Adewole frowned, until Deviatka gave him his sunniest grin.
Faber rinsed out the cup and poured the fresh brew into it. "Well, Professor Adewole? Can I count you among my team members?"
The autogyro frightened him, and Dean Blessing would come down on him like thunder--but what matter? Adewole grabbed his newly-filled cup, downed a mighty gulp and burned his tongue. "Yeth!" he croaked.