Friday, June 12, 2009
Free Fiction: Annus Mirabilis
Okay, here's a little bit of something to make up for lost time. Originally appearing in Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 2 (Black Coat Press, 2006), this story is a bit of Wold-Newton silliness that features nods to loads of late 19th and early 20th century science fiction, and stars a cantankerous old Doctor who might be vaguely familiar...
(No, that that Doctor. This one.)
by Chris Roberson
Le Creusot, 1905
In the still dark hours of the morning, while the town of
As the sun pinked the eastern sky, and Le Creusot began to hum with life and activity, the old man came back down into the township proper, passing the gates of the Château de la Verrerie, since the last century the residence of the Schneider family, the masters of the forges. At this early hour dark smoke already bled into the lightening sky, billowing up from the smokestacks of the foundries. Arriving at the metal-works unmolested, the old man flung open the door, and a wave of heat from the forges rolled toward him like a solid wall. Within, directing the workmen of the Schneider foundry, the old man found his companion already hard at work, crescents of sweat darkening the arm-pits of his crisp white shirt, his trouser legs stained and scuffed.
“Borel,” the old man said, then had to repeat, raising his voice over the tintinnabulation of metal striking metal. “Borel! How goes the assembly?”
“What?” the young man shouted back, cupping his hands around his ears like a listening trumpet. The old man repeated his question, raising the pitch of his voice even higher. “Oh, well enough, Doctor! We seem to be proceeding on schedule.”
“In that case,” the old man said, quite unconcerned now whether his companion could hear him further, “I shall find a bite to eat, hmm?”
On a side table was laid out the makings of a simple breakfast, for the use of the foundry’s workers. The Schneiders’ had evidently learned that providing such simple amenities, though a notional expense at the outset, meant that their laborers had a shorter distance to travel to sate their appetites, and would perforce be the quicker to return to their duties. The old man, considering himself in some regards as the worker’s employer—he had, after all, contracted the foundry’s services in the construction of the large craft which Borel now oversaw—had no compunctions against helping himself to their board.
Selecting an apple, a hunk of cold cheese, and a small loaf of fresh bread, the old man seated himself on a nearby straight-backed chair, on the back of which was folded some sort of newspaper or journal. As he bit into the apple, the old man unfolded the periodical, and scanned the contents. It was up a copy of Beiblätter zu den Annalen der Physik, and the old man concluded that it must have been left by one of the foundry’s engineers. Absently chewing on a bite of apple, the old man began to read, idly.
After finishing no more than half of the apple, having hardly touched the bread, the old man’s eyes opened wide, and he jumped to his feet, clutching the journal.
“Borel!” he shouted, racing across the foundry floor, waving his arms for the young man’s attention. The old man’s companion, seeing his approach, gave a shout of alarm, and rushed to his side, his labors forgotten.
“Doctor, what is it?” the young man said, his expression suggesting that he feared the worst.
“What is the date, my boy?” the old man asked, his mouth drawn into a tight line.
The young man’s forehead wrinkled momentarily, as he did some quick mental calculation. “March the sixth,” he finally answered. “A Monday.”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said impatiently, waving his hand. “But the year, man, what year?”
The young man was a bit taken aback, but it was clear he’d grown used to the old man’s eccentricities in recent weeks. “Why, it’s 1905, naturally.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.” The old man began to pace back and forth, his expression grave, his eyes flashing. “No, this won’t do. This won’t do at all.”
Before the young man could speak, to ask the old man what was the matter at hand, the old man stopped short, straightening.
“Borel, I’m leaving you in charge. See to it that the three components of the craft are appropriately joined together.”
“Certainly, Doctor. But where will you be?”
“I’m sorry, my boy, but I have vital matters which must be attended.” With that, the old man shoved the journal into the young man’s hands, turned on his heel, and stalked from the foundry.
The young man watched the retreating back of his companion, baffled. He glanced at the journal the old man has been reading, hoping there to find some clue to what had set the old man off. It was open to a review of a Professor Wellingham’s paper, “On the role of panergon in the relationship between electricity and light,” by one A. Einstein. The young man could see no reason for excitement with either the names or the subject and, tucking the journal into his trouser pocket, shrugged and returned to his labors.
Two days later, on the morning of Wednesday, March 8th, the old man appeared at the reception area of the Swiss Patent Office, in
“I insist on speaking with one of your technical assistant examiners,” the old man said, before the clerk had the opportunity to ask.
The clerk sighed, a long-suffering, resigned sort of sigh, and pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “And does this concern a pending patent application, I assume?”
“You may assume what you like,” the old man said, brusquely, “it makes no difference to me. However, I dare say that the matter on which I have come will impact a great many future patents and discoveries which might one day pass through this office.”
The clerk sighed a second time, if anything more dramatic and expressive than the first. “And whom should I say is calling?”
The old man straightened, grabbing hold of his lapels with either hand.
“I am the Doctor.”
“What?” The old man blinked, a bit perplexed, as if suddenly asked by a stranger the dimensions of his inseam. “Oh, Omega will suit under the circumstances.”
The clerk looked the old man up and down, suspiciously. After a considerable pause, he gave yet another sigh, rose from his desk, and moved to open a low gate for the old man. “This way, Doctor Omega.”
The old man followed behind, as the clerk escorted him through narrow, musty hallways, gray and grimed. Finally, they came to a small room, smelling of old tobacco and mold, dimly lit by sunlight filtering in through heavy glass panes that hadn’t been washed since the previous century. There, seated at a low, wide desk, was a young man, bent low over a great stack of papers, a pen in hand.
“Albert,” the clerk said, motioning the old man forward, “this gentleman has some inquiries for you.”
“Ah,” the old man said, brightening. He strode forward, smiling broadly, his hand extended before him. “Mr. Einstein. Precisely the man I wanted to see. I am the Doctor.”
Albert Einstein was a week shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, with dark, curly hair and a full mustache, and though his eyes seemed sad, he smiled easily and often. There was a certain unearthly quality about him that reminded the old man of someone, though it took a moment to recognize something of his granddaughter’s look in the young man’s expression. The old man wondered, idly, if there might not be a trace of his “countrymen” somewhere in the young man’s ancestry. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“It is about your recent review concerning panergon that I have come,” the old man explained, once he’d arranged himself on a chair opposite Einstein’s desk. “In it, you discussed panergon’s capacity to produce ‘secondary electricity,’ with which one can control the movements and qualities of projected light.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Einstein said, folding his hands in his lap, looking more than a little surprised that someone had sought him out to discuss his avocation and not his vocation. “And it is Wellingham’s contention that panergon is also the cohesive force that keeps the molecules of matter from falling apart from one another.”
“Mmm.” The old man rubbed at his lower lip. “And in your remarks, appended to your review, you made mention that this put paid to your own theories on the nature of photoelectricity.”
Einstein nodded. “I had made careful study of Heinrich Hertz’s writings on the subject, and had begun to formulate an equation that might address the causes of the so-called ‘Hertz effect.’ This effect concerns the production and emission of electricity from matter upon the absorption of visible or ultraviolet light…”
“Yes, yes, I know all about that,” the old man said, impatiently. “What, specifically, was this theory of yours, impacted by the discovery of panergon?”
“Well, my thinking was influenced by Joseph Long Thomson’s theoretical ‘corpuscles.’ Thomson argued that these subatomic components constitute cathode rays and, under certain conditions, that these ‘corpuscles’ could be excited in such a way that they would be emitted singly, and thus detected. It occurred to me that light, which since Maxwell has been assumed to be a wave phenomenon like electromagnetism, might be constituted of small, discrete packets of energy, which I thought to name ‘light quanta.’”
The old man leaned forward, pulling his fur hat from his head and worrying it between his hands. “But you no longer believe this to be the case?”
“Clearly not,” the young man said, shaking his head sadly, “as the demonstrated nature of Welligham’s panergon clearly precludes the existence of the quantum.”
Over the course of the next hours, the old man picked through Einstein’s thoughts, questioning him at length about the reading he’d done into the study of energy in recent years. In addition to his summary of Wellingham’s panergon studies, it transpired, Einstein had also written recent reviews of Professor Mirzabeau’s work on violent flame, and Henry R. Cortlandt’s paper on apergy, and had just begun a survey on recent findings concerning vril.
The old man was interested, specifically, in the ways in which recent discoveries about these energies had affected Einstein’s understanding of the fundamental laws and forces which governed the natural world.
As Einstein spoke, the old man scribbled strange notations on his cuff with a laundry marker from time to time, deep in thought.
At length, the old man pushed off his chair and stood. He set his fur hat back on his head and wound his long scarf around his neck. “I thank you for your time, Mister Einstein. I’m afraid, based on what you’ve told me, that I haven’t a moment to lose.”
The old man turned and started towards the door, but Einstein jumped to his feet, taking hold of the old man’s elbow.
“Please, sir, I now find I have many questions for you.”
Einstein was breathless, eyes wide. “From your questions and comments, it’s clear to me that you have a stronger grasp of theoretical physics than any individual it has been my pleasure to encounter.”
The old man’s mouth formed a moue of distaste, and he waved his hand, shooing away the compliment as though it were a horsefly. “I’ve no interest in your flattery, sir. It means as little to me as the praise of a child first learning his alphabet complimenting Flaubert’s penmanship.”
The old man tried to extricate himself from Einstein’s grip, but the young man was insistent. “Wait! You say that you find some peril in this talk of energies and fundamental forces?”
“Yes,” the old man said, nodding slowly, “grave peril.”
“I won’t pretend to have any notion what you might mean; however, I can’t but trust a man with your grasp of physics. If there is anything I can do to assist, you have but to ask.”
The old man responded with a tight smile and, as Einstein released his grip, swept towards the door, his long cloak billowing around him. “Well, come along, young man, don’t dawdle. There is work to be done.”
That night, on a hilltop some distance from
Einstein connected the components as the old man directed, while the latter busied himself with strange objects he pulled from the inner folds of his coat. They were small, glittering objects, flashing in the moonlight like gems.
“There,” the old man said, once the apparatus was assembled to his satisfaction. “Now, step back a moment, my boy. Were these to be misaligned, even a fraction, neither of us would survive long enough to attempt a correction.”
Obligingly, the young man stood, and took a few paces backwards. Only when he was safely out of reach did the old man kneel down, placing the objects one by one at key junctures of the assemblage.
When the old man finally rose and stepped back, a low humming noise began to fill the night air around them.
“Doctor, what precisely is this we have constructed?” Einstein looked down on the strange assemblage, a worried expression tugging down the corners of his mouth. “What is its purpose?”
“This device emits a sort of resonance pattern,” the old man said, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, “specific to this region of space-time, which should be anathema to anything which resonates at a different frequency. Like positive and negatively charged plates drawn together, or matter being forced into a vacuum, this emitter will serve to attract any non-resonant objects, pulling them here to us.”
Einstein blinked, and slowly shook his head. “I can scarcely begin to understand the principles involved.”
“I’m sure they will become clear to you,” the old man said. “In time.”
“But supposing that this device does function as you suggest,” Einstein said, “what is its purpose? What is the utility of attracting objects with a different resonance frequency that this… what did you call it? Space-time?”
The old man rubbed his lower lip, and then wagged a finger in the young man’s direction. “I believe I’ve worked out the cause of anomalies you have noted in recent years, those involving these strange energies which seem to contravene the expected laws of physics. It would appear that your continuum has been infected by influences from outside what you would consider the natural world. These strange energies, resulting from the presence of beings from beyond the dimensions of space and time that you know, over the course of decades, has been perverting the fabric of reality, slowly transforming it into a replica of some other plane of existence.”
“Towards what end?”
“Why, to colonize your world, of course. My boy, you are being invaded, and you don’t even realize it.”
The night wore on. The assemblage before them continued to hum, setting their teeth on edge, and the stars wheeled in their slow courses overhead.
The two men discussed energy and matter and space and time, passing the hours, until finally falling silent, simply staring up at the clear night sky overhead.
“It just occurred to me, Doctor,” Einstein said at last, breaking a lengthy silence. “Should these beings you seek appear, what do you intend to do?”
“Hmmm?” The old man raised an eyebrow, a contemplative expression on his face. “Do? Oh, yes. Well, that is a good question, isn’t it?”
“But, I thought…” Einstein began, alarmed, but the rest of his words were cut off, as the air around them suddenly began to vibrate, and a soft blue light suffused the hilltop.
“No time for that now, my boy,” the old man said, raising his voice above a sound like a hundred violins tuning up at once. “I believe our guests have arrived.”
Suddenly, the sound ceased, and just as suddenly the empty air around them was filled with a riot of shapes and forms.
“Name of the name,” Einstein whispered.
Circled around the two men and the strange apparatus, these unearthly shapes appeared to fall into one of three categories. Cones, which varied in color from blue to green, and which were about half the size of a full-grown man; cylinders, some tall and thin, others low and squat, which range from bronze laced with green, to purple, to black; and layers, vertical shapes patterned almost like the bark of a birch tree, which seemed to resemble virgin copper. Each of them was translucent, shifting in color and size continuously, and at the base of each is a dazzling light. As the two men watched, the shapes shift from one form to another, cones becoming cylinders, layers becoming cones, undulating endlessly.
“As I suspected,” the old man said, as the undulating figures circled around them.
“What are they, Doctor?” Einstein asked, his voice a tremulous whisper.
“On most worlds in which they have appeared, they are known simply as ‘The Shapes,’ but my people have long known them as the Xipéhuz.”
“Doctor!” Einstein said urgently, grabbing the old man’s elbow and attempting to drag him away from the device. “We must flee.”
“Flee?” The old man snarled briefly, his eyes momentarily flashing. “What do you take me for?” He calmed, and then added, “Besides, each of the Xipéhuz is capable of emitting radiant energy in a concentrated burst, sufficient to reduce either of us to ashes.”
“What?!” Einstein blanched, and regarded the strange floating forms in horror intermingled with amazement.
“But this is not a contest to be won by fisticuffs and feet, my dear boy,” the old man said, patting Einstein’s shoulder. “No, we must reason with these creatures. They are quite simple, when you get down to brass tacks.”
“But what are they?” Einstein asked, eyes wide.
“They are three dimensional intrusions of multidimensional beings, naturally.” The old man shook his head, a distasteful expression curling his lip. “But really, they are little more than pests.”
One of the floating cones flashed red, angrily, and advanced towards the old man, the star-like light at its base dazzling.
“There we are. An invitation to parley.” The old man stepped right up to the advancing cone, his chin held high. “You know who I am, don’t you?” he said, a hard edge to his voice.
The cone seemed to vibrate in the air, and a black symbol appears on its front. It resembled nothing so much as the Greek letter omega, but then quickly transformed into what appears to be the Greek letters theta and sigma, which then turned sideways before fading from view.
“That’s right,” the old man said, nodding slowly, as though coaxing a simple answer from a slow child. “And you know what I’m capable of doing, I would bargain.”
Einstein was confused, and grabbed hold of the old man’s elbow. “Doctor, what is happening?”
“The shapes and lines which sometime appear on the surface of the Xipéhuz”—the old man pointed to the symbols now coming into view on the surface of another of the forms—“are complicated signs used for communication. But though they hate to admit it, they are capable of understanding the spoken word, perfectly, and could probably even vibrate the air around them sufficient to create spoken language, if they weren’t so pig-headedly obstinate.”
Another of the Xipéhuz now displayed a new symbol, a complex figure-eight design inside of a circle.
“I have left my people,” the old man answered, as a cloud passed across his features. He shook his head. “A minor difference of opinion. But don’t think for an instant that I’ve surrendered any of my power in doing so.”
A floating cylinder shifted like sand through an hour glass, going from tall and thin to short and squat, and flashed a quick sequence of black shapes on its forward edge.
“This is my home, for the moment,” the old man answered, crossing his arms over his chest, “and I won’t have you muddying the place up.”
One of the vertical layers moved from side to side, and flashed a single, incredibly complicated symbol on its surface.
The old man glowered, and shook his head. “That’s all well and good, isn’t it, until you’ve pushed things too far, and then decoherence is the least of our problems. At that point, there’s no more particles, no more fundamental forces, and no more arrow of time.”
One of the cones shifted from blue to green, and displayed another set of symbols.
“Good for you, perhaps,” the old man said, stabbing a finger in the cone’s direction, “but not good for me, nor for any of the natives of this continuum. And if you think I’ll stand idly by, and allow myself to be marooned in a little bubble of distorted four-space, you are sadly mistaken.”
Several of the Cones clustered together, raising slightly off the ground, and moved closer to the two men, menacingly. The one in the lead displayed one, simple symbol.
“What will I do about it?” the old man said, repeating the question.
After a lengthy pause, the old man smiled, darkly, and answered.
“You know who I am, and you know what I’m capable of doing. The question you need to ask yourself, Xipéhuz, is what I won’t be willing to do about it.”
The old man and the patent examiner stood in silence as the shapes appeared to communicate amongst themselves, rapidly shifting shapes, sizes, and colors, in a dizzying array too quick for the human eye to follow.
Finally, they all adopted the same form, and the two men were ringed by dozens of translucent blue cones, each about half the size of a man.
As one, the cones all displayed the same symbol on their surfaces, and then with a mighty inrush of air, they disappeared from view.
The air was still around them, as the sky began to pink in the east, the first signs of the coming dawn.
“What happened?” Einstein looked around him, turning this way and that, as though suspecting the strange forms of sneaking up behind him. “What did they say?”
“They have gone, leaving this continuum for less… troublesome climes. As for what they said? Well, let us say that they expressed displeasure at my intervention, and leave the matter at that.”
The old man leaned down, and collected the small gem-like objects from the assemblage they had constructed, and the faint humming which had persisted through the night suddenly stopped.
“Had I not seen it with my own eyes,” Einstein said, rubbing his hands together, “I’m sure I wouldn’t believe a bit of it. I came following you seeking answers, and find myself now with even more questions than before.”
“The important thing is not to stop questioning,” the old man said, smiling. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
The old man pocketed the glittering objects and started down the hill, leaving the assemblage of copper and iron and ceramics behind.
“Come along, my boy,” the old man called back over his shoulder. “You have work to which to return, I’m certain, and I have matters requiring my attention back in
Over a stout Swiss breakfast of fresh bread, cold meats and cheeses, sweet rolls and coffee, the old man and the patent examiner discussed all manner of things, most often with the old man listening attentively as the younger man worked his way through any number of his half-formed hypotheses. The old man nodded appreciatively, asking leading questions from time to time, the bones of their meal lying forgotten on the table between them.
Near midday, when the young man could delay going to the Patent Office no longer, the two men shook hands and parted company. Each headed into history, each in his own way.
By week’s end, the old man was back in Le Creusot. Though Borel plied him with repeated inquiries about what had so commanded his attention that he traveled to another country, the old man remained tight lipped about the affair.
Five weeks later, though, on their return to his residence near Marbeuf in
Over dinner, having spent a long day attaching plates of pandimensional metal to the surface of their still-unnamed vessel, shipped by rail from Le Creusot, the old man showed the journal to Borel, and tried unsuccessfully to explain its significance, saying as much as circumstances and decorum would allow.
That Borel failed to recognize the import of those few pages was hardly surprising. It would be many years to come before any but a select few would recognize what a year of wonders this had been.
(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.