Chapter 7 Episode 2 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles

“In service of knowledge, eh?” said Deviatka that night at dinner. They were still living in the Freys’ former stables, though it had been transformed. Quartermaster Jagels’s crew scrubbed the outbuilding so energetically the mortar between the stones nearly washed away. Ofira had caught every mouse in the vicinity, and politely spit her pellets into nearby compost heaps. The autogyro convoys had brought up the professors’ clothing, Deviatka’s guitar and Adewole’s bansu, camp furniture, bedding, carpets and other comforts, and now the ancient rooms were almost homelike. Even Adewole’s trunk had been brought up from Mrs. Trudge’s boarding house; now it served as his wardrobe.

Corporal Wirtz did their cooking and cleaning up; otherwise, the two professors had the place to themselves. The Ambassador and her staff had rented Councilman Kolb’s house at a rate the locals thought foolish, and Major Berger split his time between Camp Turnip—their original landing site, officially North Camp—and the new East Camp just outside the City. “I didn’t know you were so glib, old thing,” Deviatka continued.

“Glib?” said Adewole, fork halfway to mouth. “I want access to the Library. How are you faring? Anything interesting?”

Deviatka grimaced. “I’m doing more support work for Berger and his lot than anything else, though I am finding some damned odd devices I can’t explain.”

“Such as?”

“Well, take those priests, or whatever they are, the Choir,” said Deviatka.

“Not priests,” said Adewole. “Never priests, not here. I do not understand yet entirely, but their concept of god as we understand it is more akin to what we would call a demon. To even mention god is to bring down great social disapprobation.”

“To be fair, no one thinks very much of gods in Eisenstadt, either,” said Deviatka.

“No, but one can discuss gods there without fear. Otherwise there would not be so many Jerians in residence.”

Deviatka laughed. “I never have understood your people’s fascination with humbug.”

“I would take it as a kindness, Deviatka,” said Adewole, “if you would not refer to my religion as ‘humbug.’”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Ollie, didn’t mean to put your back up,” said Deviatka. “I didn’t know you were a believer.” Adewole didn’t know for certain if he believed, but his people’s pride, and his mother’s, meant something to him. “Here,” said his friend, “may I offer you another slice of this lamb?”

“You are very good, Karl,” he smiled.

“Not at all,” Deviatka grinned back. “In any event, these Choir members—if I believed in magic, or gods, or some such, I would swear they have some kind of power. It seems to lie in these pendants they wear. I watched a Chorister comfort a soldier. Poor girl broke a leg, was in a great deal of pain before Doctor Ansel and his crew could get there, and the woman sang this song...” His face grew dreamy. “It lulled the soldier right down, barely awake. I didn’t grow drowsy myself, mind, but I felt so...I don’t know, calm, as if everything was going to be all right. I love music as you well know, but this was different.” He shook himself. “It impressed my translator so much he memorized the song, put everything he had into it, sang it over days, but it never worked for him. He went to Melody Hall—their church, or temple, or whatever—came back all aglow, quit the translator corps and off he went to join the Choir! I wasn’t too bothered, I almost don’t need one now anyway, but the man looked like you do when you’ve uncovered a new folk song or something. He took me to Melody Hall and they showed me these necklace things, pretty little baubles I thought, though many of ‘em looked a little worse for wear. You’ll have to come look at them—Ollie, would you believe it?” he said, leaning across the table. “They contained black mercury! I haven’t found it anywhere else on the island.”

“Whatever for?”

“I don’t know, but it’s some sort of machine, I’m betting, voice-activated—maybe from before the Rising. They call black mercury ‘ichor’ here. I might have you come and take a look at ‘em later.”

Ichor? An obscure word in Old Rhendalian meaning “blood of the gods,” a word the ancient alchemists used to describe a mythical, elusive substance which turned lead to gold. Adewole said nothing about it to the engineer; esoterica bored him.

Deviatka speared a potato, plopped it on his plate, loaded it with butter and began mashing it up. “Not right now, though. I’m taking a tour to see what else I can ferret out. Peter Oster’s shown me some ingenious uses of their limited resources, and I’m seeing what I can apply to our ways of doing things as well as recommending appropriate technology of our own. I’ll take him along, if Ambassador Weil can spare him.” Peter proved to be a hard-working, intelligent young man. Three Osters had gone to work for the Eisenstadters as guides—Peter, his mother, even his hot-tempered younger brother, but not Master Oster; Peter’s father stayed holed up in the farmhouse and watched Camp Turnip with hostile eyes.

“Do me a further kindness, Karl,” said Adewole, “and document whatever you see for me—whatever you see, mechanical or no. I do not know how long these people’s ways can continue under the onslaught of the new.”

“Why would you want them to?” he answered in surprise. “It’s a tough life up here, you can’t blame them for wanting something better."

Adewole finished a bite of imported lamb, a haunch of which he’d watched the Osters devour two days earlier; their incredulous delight had brought a new appreciation to his meals. Everything on the table—potatoes, butter, lamb, bread—had been brought from the ground. “No, no, of course I cannot, but as an anthropologist...” He thought of the couriers he’d just begun to talk with. So little paper could be made on the island. Parchment made from things like frog skin might be had, but something so costly would never be used for something like a request for a farmer to please send two bushels of peas straight away and would he accept flax in payment. The couriers carried messages from one end of the island to another instead, using songs and rhymes handed down over centuries to remember them. Their traditions might be lost in less than a generation; radios and cheap imported paper would wipe them out. “I do not know if I will have time to document it all before it is gone,” he finished lamely.

“You won’t be the only anthropologist up here for long, though, Ollie,” said Deviatka, “and you’ll be the dean of them all. Speaking of deans, Blessing’s due tomorrow, you know, with a scholarly horde. Is that the right term? ‘Horde?’ It’s a parliament of owls, a murder of crows and so on. If it’s chaps like you I suppose he’d call it a ‘plague’ of scholars, eh?” Deviatka laughed and cheerfully tucked into his remaining dinner. Adewole picked at his. What had they brought upon the fragile island? As difficult as life was on Risenton, so much would be lost in so short a time. He brooded on it through their traditional pipe and brandy, and took his brooding to bed.

Comments

MeiLin's picture

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As we were creating this universe, what struck me so hard was the basic fragility of Risenton culture. So poor in materials, so rich in tradition. I'm going to be exploring that in later books. We specifically didn't want to get into colonial politics in this series, which is fine with me as that's partly what the History books cover (or will). But you can't ignore the basics: you can't keep 'em up in the air after they've seen Eisenstadt, or something like that. Interesting times are coming to the island, not all of them good.

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