Chapter 1 Episode 2 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Adewole continued up the stairs to the sitting room he shared with another young professor, Karl Deviatka. Though Deviatka was a newly-made full professor in engineering--the University's most celebrated department--and Adewole held a chair in the most neglected department, they'd become fast friends almost from the moment of their meeting here at Mrs. Trudge's house.
"Do you have a few pfennigs to buy standing-room tickets to the Opera House, old thing?" called Deviatka from his bedroom.
Adewole opened the case of his two-stringed Jerian bansu. "Why?"
"Johanna Diederich is singing Simon Ritter's new piece two nights from now. I never really cared for sopranos before, but by the Founder that girl can sing!"
"I shall search my desk drawer tomorrow. Listen now, it is amusing you should mention it. I felt expansive today. I spent all but two of my last spare pfennigs on a horrid cup of coffee--and Ritter's new lieder collection."
Deviatka popped his head through the door, pushing his over-long hair from his eyes. "Hope Never Dies in the Faithful Heart?"
"The very same."
Deviatka hurried in, guitar in hand. "Well, then! Let's get to it! We have the day off, we may as well spend it usefully!"
"We must improvise, I am afraid. I will arrange the music for us in the next week."
Rhendalian guitar and Jerian bansu duets were perhaps an acquired taste; Mrs. Trudge was occasionally heard grumbling about "the racket upstairs." The two men themselves were as different as the six-string and the two-string. Deviatka was a man of medium height, mercurial brown eyes, wavy hair in desperate need of a trim, and had just been awarded tenure. Adewole stood several inches taller, and had been denied tenure at Jero.
There were times when Adewole looked at his friend and wondered at the world; both were too young to have been considered for tenure at all. When Adewole's name was submitted, he thought his colleagues at Jero must have had it in mind to give it to him--else why bring it up? But it hadn't turned out that way. Deviatka's colleagues had been kinder.
Footsteps on the landing below warned them Mrs. Trudge was nearby, but the professors ignored any potential protests. Deviatka played guitar accompaniment, and Adewole carried the melody in either his strong, mellow baritone or on the bansu, though its swooping, bent notes gave Ritter's lieder a quality that sounded foreign even to Adewole.
After music and dinner, Deviatka lit his one nightly meditative pipe as they sipped a little--a very little--brandy and water. They always retired early; neither could afford the candles or lamp oil to stay up too late after dark, nor the heat, tobacco and brandy that made staying up pleasant. Even though Adewole fretted over every pfennig, Deviatka behaved as if he were much worse off; in fact, Adewole usually paid for the brandy and lamp oil. A tenured professor in a favored college should be making far more than the modest stipend attached to the Mueller Chair Adewole himself received, and it puzzled him. "Tell me now," he began as he thumbed through sheet music, "I know how my Chair is funded, and much of the Humanities department--through the late Hubert Mueller's largesse. Where does the Engineering College receive its funding?"
The Jerian raised an eyebrow. "I conduct research, but no one outside of academia seems to find it of monetary value."
"Ah, this is where the sciences outstrip arts and letters," grinned Deviatka.
"Then I do wonder, Karl--it is impertinent, I know--"
"Why am I so poor?" The engineer pulled on his pipe and stared at the smoke for so long Adewole feared he'd offended the man. "I shouldn't be. The Deviatkas are an old family in Eisenstadt, gentility of the highest order, accepted--courted--everywhere. My father was…improvident when it came to money, and my mother equally so when it came to bearing children. I am the oldest of eight, five of whom are still at home. My father left behind quite substantial debts. No one knew how deeply he'd dug himself into a hole until he was killed in an accident on the lake. There's some question he might have preferred dying to…" He trailed off.
Adewole winced; this was more than he'd intended to solicit. "I am sorry to have asked, my friend. I do not wish to stir bad memories."
"No, no," said Deviatka. "It's all right. It helps to talk about it." He puffed hard for a few moments, the pipe's coal glowing red through the smoke surrounding his head. "My mother can't bear the debts alone, she's quite unable to work now and wasn't raised to it besides. Before my father died, we were very used to the greatest luxuries, but the creditors came and took everything. Now we all struggle just to stay out of the workhouse--or worse, debtor's prison. My oldest sisters and I work to keep the household afloat, but it's taking everything we earn besides my barest living expenses. I'd live with Mother and the children, as my sisters do, but I just can't bear it. The noise, you see. I can't think."
Adewole's sister had been noisy, prone to singing and dancing like their mother. Ofira loved to spin in circles; she called it flying, but her whirling kikoi always cleared unwary knick-knacks and coffee cups off the tables. How he'd lectured her as she cringed over the shards. He'd tried to be gentle with the little girl, but with their mother gone he'd felt his responsibility deeply; he had to raise her right, but what was right, after all? He should have kept the tables clear and let her fly. How silent the house became when she died, how intact the table tops.
He turned his attention back to his friend, whose face appeared almost sinister in the lamp's flicker. "Some day I swear we will be out from under this shadow and stand again in the light," said Deviatka. "I am sick of lodgings. I am sick of flattering the likes of Mrs. Trudge. I am sick of rationing out my tobacco and brandy. I am sick of--of shabbiness. One day, I swear, we will have what we had before my father died and left us like this. More than what we had."
"One day I am sure you will inherit Dean Blessing's position, and his good fortune."
Deviatka snorted. "Blessing. Well-named, that one, the greedy bastard. He sucks the department dry, you know. He's done very well for himself off the work of graduate students and associate professors like me. Sells our better inventions and techniques to the highest bidder and pockets a good chunk of the money. All legal as far as any of us can make out, and we've tried to make it out, believe me. At least his high living gives him the gout." He swirled the liquid in his glass. "Ah, I've said too much. Too much brandy, not enough water."
The man's mood lightened suddenly; he leaped to his feet. "But I forgot to show you, Adewole! Sometimes the flow of information comes to me, not from me. The most amazing substance has come my way!" He disappeared into his bedroom, returning with a stoppered glass vial; a bright, black liquid filled it. "This!"
Adewole peered politely at the vial. "What is it?"
"That's just it, I'm not entirely sure. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. Watch." Deviatka unstoppered the vial and poured a bit into his hand.
An odd, appealing, but vaguely unsettling scent rose from the liquid; it reminded Adewole of the air during a lightning storm. He waited for it to spread, but it stayed in a tidy, liquid bead. Deviatka carefully rolled it around like a ball from his palm to Adewole's. "Is it some form of mercury, perhaps? I acknowledge I know nothing of these things--"
"No, no, not a foolish thought at all, it's the first thing I thought, but this is the only property it shares with mercury. Diederich's people tapped into an underground lake of it--it's been gumming up the works of a particular strike just outside the city," said Deviatka.
"Diederich's people? Not Johanna Diederich, surely."
"Oh, no, well, relatives, yes. Diederich Enterprises. Large mining concern, hardly operatic. In any event, they've been pumping it out and storing it in tanks. They haven't known what else to do with it. They sent some to us in hopes we could find a use."
"And have you?"
"I think so, yes. Possibly several. Wait a moment." Deviatka fetched an empty oil lamp from his bedchamber to the sitting room table. "It seems to be a super-efficient kind of fuel, at least in part. I've done some experimenting. I wanted to try something here--perhaps solve one of our own little difficulties." He took the lamp apart, removed its wick and unspooled a new one. He smeared the black stuff along the wick, no more than could coat the tip of a nail; for all its propensity to clump, it formed a dirty, almost transparent film, as if Deviatka had wiped a speck of soot on the flat, braided cotton. He replaced it in the lamp.
"You do not expect that to burn for long, do you?" said Adewole, frowning at it.
"I tried something similar in the lab and nearly took my eyebrows off. Put too much on it. I think I've got it right now." He lit a paper twist at the table's candle and set it against the wick. A strong blue flame erupted. Deviatka trimmed the wick and replaced the lamp's chimney in satisfaction.
The two friends sat up until late in the night waiting for the lamp to burn itself out, until Adewole cried off. "Congratulations, Deviatka, you have solved our lighting problem. You may have solved everyone's lighting problem. Everywhere. Forever. How much of this did you say they had?"