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Empire of Unreason
By Greg Keyes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 J. Gregory Keyes
All rights reserved.
A Matter of Gravity
Benjamin Franklin felt awfully pleased with himself as he rose from the polished oak table to face his audience. The meeting room in the upper story of the Egyptian Coffeehouse was suffused with milky sunlight that poured through high, wide windows, blending with arabesques of pipe smoke and ephemeral vapors from a dozen bowls of coffee. He felt as if he were addressing a Dutch painting — one he himself had commissioned.
He paused at a small bench, and made as if to pluck at the cloth that covered the squarish object that lay upon it; but instead, repressing a devilish grin, he turned toward the assembly and cleared his throat. Coffee bowls clinked and settled as ten men and two women regarded him expectantly. He summoned up his best orator's voice.
"The opening questions of the Junto having been asked and answered, I now propose a modest demonstration. But first a query, my ladies and my gentlemen — and my otherwise — what is the most pressing problem of our day?"
"Get on with it, Mr. Franklin!" Shandy Tupman piped, in his reedy voice, shaking his fist in mock threat. "Han't no schoolroom, this!"
Franklin arched his brows. "And how would you know what the inside of a schoolhouse looked like, Mr. Tupman?"
That drew a few snickers.
"Only by rumor, sir," Shandy replied good-naturedly.
"Allow Mr. Franklin his glory, Mr. Tupman," a beetle-browed fellow named Dawkins said. "It's little enough of it he has, as it is."
A contagious chuckle passed around the room at that, and Franklin kept his smile small: he was not the least well-known man in the British Commonwealth of America.
"Very gracious," Franklin said. "And to my question?"
"Bed mites!" someone offered.
"Foolish, prattling, overblown husbands!" asserted a lightly built woman with sapphire eyes. Her exclamation was punctuated by assenting jeers.
"My dear," Franklin said, peering down his nose at her. "There's no cure for that sort of man but a sensible wife."
"Some cures take a lifetime to work, it seems," she said back sweetly, "especially when the patient is so deeply infected."
Franklin smiled. "Well, it may be. But one good husband is worth two good wives."
"And how do you reckon that, husband?" she said.
"Why, my dear Lenka, the scarcer something is, the greater its value."
He waited for the laughter to die, then put on a more somber face. "Now. In all seriousness."
"The malakim," August Stark said dourly. "That devilish brood and their warlock footmen are our greatest worry."
That chased all the good humor out of the room quickly enough.
"You're on the right track," Franklin agreed, "but I was thinking more specific."
Stark rubbed his hammer-heavy jaw. "Tsar Peter and his demon ships."
"There. Mr. Stark gets the prize."
"You have remedy for them?" Stark asked. "What have you to show us, Benjamin Franklin? Enough of this French wit. What have you invented?"
Franklin absorbed Stark's frank challenge with a modest bow. He understood the man's attitude — Stark's father had died in Venice, fighting those demon ships. He was touchy on the subject, but a good man.
"No more delays," Franklin promised, "once I have two 'prentices to join me here."
"I'll sign no indenture papers with you, no more than I would sign for the devil," Stark said, "but if it'll get you on with it, I'll assist —"
"And me!" Tupman added.
The two men came up, as Franklin uncovered a simple wooden box, a yard long and half that wide and deep, with two handles.
"Take hold there, fellows," Franklin encouraged, "and try to lift her up."
They did. Tupman was a wiry little man, but Stark was a blacksmith with arms like the shanks of a plow horse. As much as they strained, neither could budge the box.
"Nailed down, ain't she," Shandy complained.
"Alley-oop," Franklin replied, and in a sudden motion, the box lifted from the bench, taking the two surprised men up with it. It rose without pause to the height of the ceiling — some fifteen feet — and stuck there, Stark and Tupman dangling from the handles, to the enthusiastic clapping and calling of the small crowd.
"And there you have it," Franklin said, bowing just a bit.
Roger Smalls raised his hands. "A flying box, very well. But there have been flying engines for nigh on ten years now."
"Ah, but not like this one," Franklin said. "Those globes on which the tsar hefts his ships are shells 'prisoning aethereal spirits — malakim. Every machine to this day which flies owes its motivation to those evil and untrustworthy creatures. We all know the malakim plot against us — I for one will not trust them to bear me up a mile above the Earth. This device owes them nothing. It repels directly against gravity."
"You solved the equation? You have the affinity of gravity?"
"Only last week."
"No wonder you've been all puffed up!" David Crowley said excitedly. "And well you deserve it! I admit to being impressed!"
"So must we all," Smalls vowed.
"I, for one," Stark called down from the ceiling, "would now like to see how well it reverses itself."
"At your command," Franklin said and, reaching into his pocket, pulled forth a small box and twisted a key set in it. The box floated back down, the two men with it.
"This is grand," Smalls went on. "Now the enemy loses his advantage, if the depneumifier y' spoke of last month works as well as this new flying engine. You can bring their ships crashing down as you float on up past 'em."
"The depneumifier needs testing," Franklin cautioned. "But, yes, we can at least build flying machines. I've got a good start on one, as a matter of fact."
"Will you publish it to us, Franklin? How it was done?"
"I would not have called you together otherwise. We members of the Junto do not hold back from one another, and I shan't hold this back. In fact, if you are all prepared, I shall —"
He was interrupted by the door suddenly banging open. In the doorway stood Robert Nairne in scarlet coat, Spanish rapier hanging rakishly at his side, a pistol in one hand.
"Pardon me," he said, a bit out of breath, "ladies and gentlemen of the Junto." He paused long enough to gaze around the room, to make certain that only members of that organization were present. "But a warlock walks among us."
Franklin's feeling of well-being vanished as the crowd broke into angry rattling. He held up his hands for quiet, and got enough to be heard. "Where?"
"He's in the Boar's Head, right down the street, plain as you please."
Robert pulled out a brass device that resembled a compass. "Look for yourselves."
Around the room, similar devices came from pockets and haversacks, and then a grim mutter of confirmation.
"Well," Franklin said coldly, "his bad luck, then. Robert, you and Shandy keep a watch on him. At nightfall we'll make our move." He glanced around. "We must delay discussions of matters scientific whilst we take up the other task of the Junto."
The bright copper sunset had tarnished to verdigris when Franklin pulled his greatcoat on and stepped into the streets of Charles Town. The day had been warm, but even here, in May, in the sunniest of colonies, evening brought chill. Boston, the town of his birth, languished beneath ice, as did New York and Philadelphia. The heart of America had been driven south by the cold years after the fall of the comet, and Benjamin Franklin had come south with it.
Lights were brightening in houses, and the streets were beginning to thicken with those seeking the joys and comforts of ale and wine, or the thousand darker sins it was said one could find in the city that had once been Blackbeard's capital. Young men in bright Venetian silks strolled arm in arm with their mistresses, damsels of every hue and nationality. Deerskin traders spit-washed their palms and faces, hoping some girl in a salon might be drunk enough to find them presentable. Sailors, adventurously seeking the taverns far from the docks, strutted unsteadily on legs not yet used to land — or perhaps already filled with waters stronger than the sea.
Franklin strode purposefully through the newly paved streets, comforted by the weight of the smallsword at his side, the arcane pistol in his belt, and the waistcoat aegis he wore beneath coat and greatcoat.
Outside of the Boar's Head, he met Robert.
"We've got him buttoned in," Robert told him, his mischievous green eyes more serious than usual. He tugged nervously at his long auburn braid, hung fashionably in front of his right shoulder. "I think he knows it but don't give no never mind."
"Interesting. They usually try to run when we discover them. They've learned to fear us, at least."
Robert shrugged. "Maybe this fellow is behind on his American news. What now?"
"I've a mind to say hello to this fellow."
"Did y' ever consider that's exactly what he might want? You within sword distance?"
"Well, then he shall get his wish."
"Are you a genie now, granting wishes?"
Franklin winked. "More a leprechaun, I hope." He turned and strode into the Boar's Head.
Six steps later, Robert was still with him.
"Alone," Franklin clarified.
Robert shook his head, a firm no. "I'll play Roger Pipe-smith with the ugliest girl in Charles Town before I let my best friend walk into a sea that deep over his head," Robert said. "I'll be quiet as a Quaker, but it's with you I'll be, no mistake. I'm a free man, last I heard from myself."
"I don't want him thinking me a coward," Franklin explained.
"You know what he is, and probably he knows you know what he is. The last warlock we met took seven bullets and a severe case of headlessness t' put down. He won't think either of us coward, goin' in only two t' one."
"You have a point there," Franklin admitted.
"Aye, an one here, too," Robert said, patting his sword.
"And here," Franklin finished, pointing to Robert's head. "Let's go, then."
The fellow wasn't hard to spot. The place had not begun to fill yet, and he sat all alone, lanthorn light glinting red in his eyes. For an instant Franklin was so filled with fury and loathing that he nearly pulled his pistol and murdered the thing on the spot. The first such creature like this he had met — a man-looking thing named Bracewell — had killed his brother, James, and done his level best to kill Franklin as well. Even after more than a decade, he couldn't forget that weird look of surprise in James' dead eyes, or the red glow of Bracewell's familiars pursuing him through the night.
But he calmed himself, walked to the table, and sat down across from the creature.
The warlock looked up, his eyes now mild and normal. Blue. He had a high forehead and a slightly weak chin, and was young, surely no more than twenty.
"Benjamin Franklin, I think," the man said in a German-sounding accent.
"My father gave me that name, a good man, and I'd appreciate you keeping your tongue off it."
"What offense have I offered you, sir?"
"You know what you are. Your existence is an offense."
The fellow blinked. "One cannot help how one is born, sir, only what one does afterward."
"And what have you done?"
"I have come here to see you."
"Many of your kind have," Franklin said in a low voice, "and we have purged you. Go back to the Old World. Keep it. But America is not for you."
The man smiled. "Yes, you have the great ones talking out there in their palaces of night, Benjamin Franklin. You have them worried, I must say. In all of the lands in all the world, this is the corner they know the least about. And all due to you."
Franklin did not correct him. The Junto had members in every city of the Commonwealth, and other places besides, and their mission was the same — find and kill these agents of the malakim. He, Franklin, had begun it, but it was beyond him now. If he died this moment, the work would go on.
No use telling it that, however. "'They' cannot see or know the world of matter without human — or animal — eyes and ears," Franklin said. "They cannot strike at what they cannot see."
"Oh, no. It is difficult to strike at what you cannot see, but it can surely be done. You have chafed them but not beaten them." He lifted his mug and took a long quaff of beer. "You have some method of detecting us, don't you?"
"Friend, you would be better off with your questions unanswered. We have been known to pack your kind back to whence you came alive. But, frankly, as much as I abhor killing, I'd as soon put you in the mouths of the worms, if you give me the least excuse. Now, you've been waiting for me here, it seems. What have you to say to me?"
"Just this. That things are not as simple as you might have them. Do you know what I really am?"
Franklin shrugged. "What word shall I use? 'Warlock' is popular, and 'sorcerer,' and 'demon.' From my reading, I suspect your kind have been faeries and goblins and all manner of things that slither in the night. What you are is a traitor to Man, and I care only to call you enemy."
The man sighed and took another drink of beer. He leaned forward on his elbows and stared intently into Franklin's eyes.
"They come to us when we are young, very young. I remember their voices from my mother's belly, I think. How is a child to know? How old was I before I knew that every boy did not have this voice in his head, this secret mother and friend? She taught me and made me what she could, my angel mother, and when I was old enough to travel and hold a sword, she sent me out into the wide, wide world to serve the secret emperor. And I was proud to do it." He leaned back. "Tell me, Franklin. You are not a poor man, as I hear it, nor an unimportant one. Why, then, do you dress in linsey-woolsey rather than silk and lace?"
"What divergence is this?"
"If you plan to kill me, you might at least answer that one question."
"Because I am Benjamin Franklin, the son of Josiah Franklin, a tallow chandler and a more honest man than any silk-gowned lord on Earth. Plain cloth is good enough for me. If I wore silk, I would still have all the same faults, with vanity added to them, and would have gained nothing but the respect of fools."
"A lovely sentiment, very Protestant. But once you wore fine, courtly garb, ja?"
"Once I was younger. Experience is an expensive school, but fools will learn in no other."
"So you thought yourself a fool for going 'gainst your father. He brought you up one way, and when you strayed from it, you eventually brought yourself to task, ja?"
"Will you compare my father to your damned familiar?" Franklin asked heatedly.
"Yes. How is a child to know? And once the child is man, how hard for him to doubt? You might leave your father behind, and stray from his ways under other influences, but me —"
"And yet I think you have come to convince me that you have, indeed, strayed? That you are no longer an enemy? Oh, this is sweet. How many years it has taken you to use honey instead of vinegar! What genius among your number came upon this stratagem? Your own 'mother'?"
"No. She is no more."
"You mean to say you dismissed her?"
"No. I mean to say she is dead."
"Ha. And now I pique your interest, if I didn't already. Yes, they can die. They are strange, they are ancient, but not immortal. Wouldn't you like to know how to kill malakim?"
"I know how."
"Sir, with all respect, I do not think you do."
"I know how to kill you."
"I am not a malakim, nor ever was I. I am a man, or something they have made from a man. If you are confused in that, you are confused indeed."
"But — as I said — without your kind, there is little they can do."
"Not true. There are more sorts of malakim than you can dream. Know you not of the cherubim who humbled mighty Gomorrah? Do you think you have met them in your travels? I assure you, you have not, or you would not walk on two legs. But you will meet them, sir — you will. Their way is being prepared."
"So you say. I have no proof of them."
"Ah, the scientific. If you have not seen it, 'tis not real."
"Why, yes. Why haven't I seen these death angels? If I am such a thorn in their sides, why do they continue to send such ineffectual assassins as yourself, when Michael himself might claim my soul?"
The man hesitated. "As you said, they normally have little influence in our world, the world of matter. But engines have been built — dark engines, which bring their hideous strength from the aether to atoms. A year ago, they had no such contrivances; a month from now — or two — they will. As well, their ancient law still restrains them, a law older than Adam. But that is changing, too, my friend."
Excerpted from Empire of Unreason by Greg Keyes. Copyright © 2000 J. Gregory Keyes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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