Read an Excerpt
A Calculus of Angels
By Greg Keyes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 J. Gregory Keyes
All rights reserved.
Distracted as he was, the sudden pounding at the door captured all of Benjamin Franklin's attention. Sticking his head above the bedsheets, he stared for an instant at the source of the noise, completely at a loss.
"Katarina!" A man's voice shouted, profundo, followed by ever more violent thuds.
The appropriate reaction occurred to Ben, and he swiftly disentangled himself from milky limbs with as much enthusiasm as he had earlier entangled in them.
"It's my father!" Katarina whispered.
"Oh, only your father," Ben hissed back, reaching frantically for his breeches. "Ask him to come back later, then, will you?" He tumbled out of the bed and began struggling into the breeches, wondering where the rest of his clothing and his haversack had gone to.
"Katarina!" her father roared again. "Open the door. I know you have a man in there!"
"I don't think he will listen to me," Katarina replied.
Diving for his shirt, Ben yet allowed himself an admiring glance at tousled honey hair, half obscuring a softly rounded face still rosy from exertion. "Well, should I introduce myself?" Ben asked, yanking his shirt over his head and starting toward where his waistcoat lay crumpled in the corner. He made a mental note to learn to undress more neatly, even when passion ruled.
"I wouldn't. He has a pistol."
"Well, he has a commission in the army."
"What? You didn't think this worth mentioning?"
"I wasn't thinking much about my father just now. Besides, I thought he would be gone all day."
"Quite understandable. This window opens?"
"Yes." She sat up in the bed, allowing the sheets to drop away from her upper body, and despite himself, Ben grinned. The floor-length mirror behind Katarina grinned back at him from a face still rounded by the last traces of boyhood and haloed by thoroughly mussed chestnut locks. "Sorry to leave in such a rush," he apologized, pleased at how smooth his German had become.
"Don't forget you promised to show me the palace."
"I shan't, never fear. Expect my letter."
He bent to kiss her and heard a key suddenly grating in the lock.
The kiss turned into a quick nip on the lips. "Remember me," he said, grabbing his haversack and rushing to the window, flinging it recklessly open.
"Don't think ill of me!" she called from behind him. "I don't do this all the time. But I know more than I showed you...."
Ben was no longer listening, concentrating as he was on gripping the windowsill, looking down at his feet superimposed over cobblestones two stories below. He did not hesitate, for at seventeen his body was long and strong, near six feet, and he was confident of his athletic ability — at least, more confident than he was of his capacity to withstand a pistol shot.
The pavement shocked up through the bones of his legs into his belly, forcing out a pronounced oof, but he straightened quickly, looking about to see if he had been noticed. Happily, the street was deserted — but he had gone fewer than fifty yards when the door banged open behind him. He was running already, not up the street or down it, but straight toward the Moldau River.
"Goddamn lech!" a man's voice roared, accompanied by a bright barking sound. Something whizzing struck sparks on the pavement two yards to Ben's right.
"Beelzebub!" he grunted, and then leapt again, this time vaulting over the wall that kept high waters from swallowing Kleinseit. He paused for just an instant to slip the metallic key dangling from his waistcoat into the tiny pocket near his belt — and disappeared.
Or at least to the casual observer, he reminded himself. Among other things, the aegis built into his waistcoat bent light around it, a trick that fooled some mechanisms of the eye but not others. From the corner of his eye, the vengeful father might catch a glimpse of Ben, and staring straight on he would perceive an eye-hurting blur. Of course, the aegis also emitted a repulsive gravity that turned such objects as musket balls, but Ben's experiments had shown that as a shield the device sometimes failed. Rather than further test it, he scrambled down the stone and sand embankment to the river. There he drew out the contents of the haversack — a pair of odd-looking shoes, stiff and solid like a Dutchman's but comically larger and more boat shaped. Behind him, the hollering continued — albeit with a somewhat confused quality — as he donned them.
Katarina had been so sure her father would be gone until nightfall. Or had she? Might it be some plan of hers to trap him into marriage? After all, these days he was a fine catch, and she not without ambition.
As quickly as he dared, he placed first one foot and then the other onto the surface of the river and awkwardly glided away, around the shielding bulk of little Venedig Island. The shouts faded behind him, and once he was certain he was far enough away to risk it, he drew out the key. Wearing the aegis restricted its wearer's vision as well, faded the world to rainbow at the edges, as if one stared through prism eyes. Much like being caught in a girl's bedroom by her father, it was a less-than-comfortable sensation.
He finally found his stride, sliding his feet from side to side as if skating. It was rougher than skating, however, harder to keep his balance, but at last he was sure enough of himself to take his eyes off his feet. Just in time, too, for looking up he noticed a boat with an instant still to avoid it. He had a glimpse of a wide-eyed boatsman, heard his terrified Gott! before he was beyond, bouncing perilously over bow waves, and then weaving in front of the small craft.
People were staring and shouting from the shore as well as if they had never seen a man skating upon the Moldau before. But perhaps they had not, he thought smugly. Not when it wasn't frozen.
Grinning, he pushed on, still marveling at the way his shoes pressed against the flowing water without touching it, like two magnets with like poles shoved together. He turned back upstream, laughing at the peculiar resistance, Katarina and her father already forgotten, sliding two steps forward but nevertheless moving back with the vaster sweep of the current. Turning again, he lost his balance and teetered precariously on one foot, arms windmilling, but he did not fall. He knew all about falling from practice the day before: The shoes stayed out of the water, making it hard to get his head up; the only solution was to take them off, a clumsy business.
After an instant or two, he relaxed, marveling instead at his surroundings. It was a beautiful day — or as beautiful as days got now. Fingers of sunlight groped down through billowy clouds, tearing blue portals to a more cheerful sky. In the past two years blue sky had been so rare a sight that, if it could be minted, it would replace gold and silver as the currency of nations. Sweet, honeyed light traced languidly across the eldritch rooftops of Prague, quickening copper and gilded steeples, dancing across the gray waters of the Moldau as easily as he did. For a moment, he seemed beyond himself, a part of that singular gift from the heavens, and it came to him like a wind at his back that if he could walk upon water by the labor of his own mind, his own hands, he could do anything. He could bring sunlight back to the world. He would.
It was, he thought with a trace of an old anguish, the least he could do for having taken it away.
The inconstant sun was hiding again when he reached the Charles Bridge, and neither the span nor the baroque iron saints that stood watch upon it cast a shadow as he slid to the river's edge and the quay below them. A small crowd had gathered to watch him with a sullen and superstitious curiosity he had come to know well. Even though they whispered, he still heard one of them hiss "der Lehrling," the Apprentice. That was what they called him, these people of Bohemia. They did not say whose apprentice he was, for everyone knew the unspoken part of the phrase: the Sorcerer's Apprentice — Sir Isaac Newton's apprentice.
The lone person actually waiting for him was not frightened, however, but stood, arms akimbo, an irritated expression on his handsome face.
"Oh, 'tis a fine thing!" the auburn-haired man shouted, Ben pushing back his gold-ribboned tricorn. "Walkin' on water whilst I wait on you! The other fellow as performed that feat had more consideration f'r his friends!" "Yes, and look how they treated him for his troubles," Ben rejoined. "Anyway, by the toll of the clock — or its lack, I should say — I'm not yet late for our appointment."
"Any moment that separates me from a beer is a moment too long."
"Well, Robin, let's remedy that, then." The solid stone felt strange beneath Ben's feet, as if he had been on shipboard for some time. He considered taking his new shoes off — they were clumsy and thick, for he was no cobbler — but going about in stocking feet would quickly ruin his stockings. So he left them on, noting with satisfaction that not a single drop of water adhered to them.
Robert was looking at them, too, shaking his head as they started up the stairs. "I don't know as I should show out an' you've been doin'," he said, more softly than his greeting. "These affrighted Catholics might pitch you up and make a torch from you an' them."
"Let 'em try," Ben replied, trying to smooth a wrinkle on his waistcoat with the palm of his hand. "They'll learn a hard lesson in science from me and a harder one in politics from their emperor. Anyhow, suspicious as these folks are, they know who keeps the Turk from the gate and food in their bellies. Don't worry about me."
"Never that!" Robert assured him. "I worry about me. How would I explain to Sir Isaac that I, your s'pposed bodyguard, let his little homunculus end up at the bottom of the Moldau?"
"If I'm at the bottom of the Moldau, it'll be to hunt mermaids," Ben replied.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Robert started to turn left and cross the bridge.
"Let's not go that way," Ben suggested.
"Ain't we goin' back to Kleinseit, to Saint Thomas'?"
"I thought to go to the Vulture," Ben said.
"Ain't you meetin' his sirness in three hours?"
"A few hours is plenty," Ben replied. "It'll — eh — give a certain fatherly sort time to calm and quit roaming the streets of Kleinseit."
"Indeed? The father of a certain golden-haired lass?"
"Ockham's razor," Ben supplied. "The least complicated answer —"
"Is the best," Robert finished. "I saw ya throwin' sparks at each other in the square t'other day."
"She has considerable spark," Ben acknowledged.
Robert shrugged. "Well, then, to the Vulture and a pint for your adventures."
"And to celebrate my new invention," Ben added. "Then we're back across the bridge."
"A pint," Robert agreed, turned right onto Charles Way, and began to walk into the Old Town.
Ben loved the Old Town. Across the river in Kleinseit and Hradcany there were castles and palaces, pomp and splendor. In Old Town there was life. The streets — even Charles Way, a central thoroughfare — were narrow, darkened by several stories of buildings on each side. And such buildings! Medieval edifices like the tower of the bridge behind them, brooding and black. The strong heaven-seeking arches and spires of gothic cathedrals and state buildings, scrolled and ornamented baroque houses from the last century. It was like something from a fairy tale — from all fairy tales — and it was nothing at all like Boston, where he had been born and where nothing was even a hundred years old. Prague was a city with its foundations sunk nearer the creation, the memories of a thousand generations in its walls and streets. Even London had never struck him in this way, for the core of London had been gutted by fire and rebuilt according to scientific plan, a vast structure designed by a single architect, Sir Christopher Wren. It had been modern, not a hodgepodge from every human age.
But, of course, London was dust. It was worse than dust, and with very few exceptions, everyone who had ever lived there was dead. Like the blotted sun, that too was his fault.
London was gone, but Prague he would save.
They went on, past the Italian Chapel, past the Golden Serpent and its fountain of red wine, out into the Old Town square. Just as they arrived, the clock began to toll, and Ben quickened his steps.
"Now what's your hurry?" Robert asked.
Ben didn't answer, instead skirting to the opposite side of the Old Town Hall, so he could see the clock.
It was a magnificent creation. Dancing its minuet of brass and time, it displayed not only the hour and minute, but the movements of the spheres. As it tolled, Jesus and his apostles shuffled behind small windows, bowing to the watching square before receding into the mechanical labyrinth where they dwelt.
"I should think such frippery would not impress you, Benjamin Franklin," Robert said. "You've made much greater magic than this."
"I suppose," Ben replied, "but perhaps that's what impresses me. This clock was here for hundreds of years before true science came to be. It's just a clever machine. But so clever, Robin, and with so much attention to beauty. It is entirely practical and entirely a thing of art at the same moment — and that moment stretched to centuries."
"I'm sure he was very clever with his hands, the man who built this," Robert temporized, "but p'rhaps not so quick-witted in other ways. As I hear it, he was blinded so he couldn't repeat his feat. A truly intelligent man would know t' be wary of the whims o' kings 'n' lords."
"Is it my imagination, or are you still mothering me?" Ben asked softly. "Do you know something I don't, Robin?"
Robert chuckled. "I know plenty you don't, boyo, and don't you f'rget it. But nothin' specific worrisome — just an itch I have today."
"Maybe it's time you settled down and became a father. That'll scratch that itch right well."
"Hah. Some cures are worse than any affliction."
A gilded cockerel suddenly stuck its head from the clock face and flapped its wings. "Let's on," Ben said. "The performance is at an end, and the Vulture is a stone's throw that way."
The Vulture was indeed only a few doors away, but the beggars in the square had noticed them now and swarmed about, hands thrusting out, eyes and mouths pleading. Ben set his gaze straight ahead and brushed through them — the children, the nursing mothers, the old men. In his first months in the city, Ben had been wont to give them what he could, but by degrees his heart had hardened; for the simple fact was that there were too many of them, and for each he satisfied with a coin, twenty were left to stare grudgingly after him. Prague was bursting its walls with refugees of all sorts, from peasants driven from the land to the emperor himself, fleeing the fall of Vienna. The most and poorest of them dwelt in New Town, sleeping in whatever tents or shanties they could piece together; but many made their way here, to the heart of things, during the day, despite the periodic rounds of soldiers who cleared them out.
Ben also knew that none of them were starving, due to the manna machines he had helped Newton design. Manna might be unpleasant, but it was food and free for the asking.
A man at the door of the Vulture looked them over in case they might be beggars, but he let them pass without comment. Even at this time of day the tavern was nearly full, though it was no small place. Soldiers in uniforms rough and fine, gentlemen in stylish frock coats, workmen in stained shirts stood or sat at the long wooden tables, both in the darkened rooms and outside in the beer garden. Ben and Robert chose a table in the corner mostly because there was still room on its benches. Almost as they sat down, a serving girl with a thin face and lank brown hair brought them each a beer.
"Thank you, my dear," Ben said, flashing her a smile.
Robert lifted his wooden tankard. "To your new invention, the Jesus shoes!" he pronounced.
"Hush, you butter-head!" Ben said, nearly choking on his drink. "Now who's being incautious around the Romish?"
Robert grinned and took a gulp of his beer. "'An eagle abroad but an owl at home,'" he quoted. "So what do you call those things?" He gestured vaguely beneath the table.
"Aquapeds," Ben replied.
"Of course. Nothing is scientifical unless you name it in the Latin," Robert remarked, a bit mockingly.
Ben didn't bite at the bait, but instead tasted his beer — it was black, bitter, and solid going down. "God save the king," he toasted automatically, and then wished he hadn't.
Excerpted from A Calculus of Angels by Greg Keyes. Copyright © 1999 J. Gregory Keyes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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