Council Of Fire – Snippet 17
What has happened to the world I knew?
The crew and officers of Namur were surprised by the appearance of the Frenchman and his young lady companion but asked no questions as the admiral came back aboard. He left Mademoiselle LaGendière in the care of Father Frederick, and escorted Messier to his private cabin. With the hatch secured, he directed Messier to place the unusual instrument on his chart-table. With the sides opened, Boscawen reached his hand toward the glass with the same result as before: the gray liquid climbed the side of the vessel to follow the movement of his fingers.
Boscawen settled himself into his chair, leaving the Frenchman to stand, slightly hunched, in the cramped cabin.
“I require an explanation, Monsieur. Who you are, what this–instrument–might be, and why you are aboard my ship.”
“You invited me–”
“Do not try my patience, Monsieur Messier. I beg to remind you that your king and mine are enemies, and our nation is at war. I suspect that you have knowledge that I need, and there is some reason that Governor Pinfold is eager to send you packing. Now, out with it, sir.”
“I am an astronomer,” Messier began. “I am formerly in the employ of Monsieur Joseph Delisle–”
“I believe that employment ended a week ago, Admiral, when we were deposited on this side of . . . whatever the comet has wrought.”
“Monsieur Delisle is the astronomer of the Navy of His Highness King Louis. I had the honor to be in his employ for several years, during which I applied myself to the discovery and cataloging of comets. I had a particular interest in the one that was predicted to return this year.”
“You said that you discovered it in the sky, Monsieur.”
“Yes . . . with the assistance of Mademoiselle LaGendière and her instrument.”
“Ah, so this peculiar device is something of her invention? Then perhaps we should send for her to join us.”
Messier shook his head. “She is generally reluctant to discuss the device. Partly, I think, because she got the inspiration for it from her father and–” He broke off, shaking his head again. “Her family situation is . . . ah, difficult.”
Boscawen frowned. “Her family . . . Is the lady married?”
“Yes, but–ah–her husband chose not to accompany her on the voyage. As I said, the situation is difficult.” Messier’s expression made clear that he did not wish to pursue the topic any further.
There was some mystery here. Boscawen had gotten no sense at all that the relationship between the French astronomer and Catherine LaGendière was in any way an amorous one. Yet why was she traveling unaccompanied and under the title “Mademoiselle”?
But there seemed no need to investigate that now, so the admiral decided to acquiesce to Messier’s clear desire to avoid the topic. “Tell me more about this alchemetical compass, then. And why it seems attracted to me.”
“As to the latter question, I cannot say, except that she assured me that it was you to whom we would be guided. The device detects the . . . patterns of the earth and aligns itself to them. It was particularly active during the period just before the arrival of the comet, and as I told you earlier, it was necessary that we distance ourselves from land in order to properly calibrate it. While we were at sea, the event happened.
“Our ship was hurled against a rocky shore, and only a few of us survived, thanks be to God–” Messier crossed himself piously–“Mademoiselle LaGendière and I were among them. And we were able to save one of our three instruments. The others . . .” he made a dismissive gesture.
“The rocky shore was Barbados, I presume. This must have come as something of a surprise.”
“Not to Mademoiselle LaGendière. She assured me that it was Divine Providence that had guided us to this point, and that we need merely present ourselves to the governor of the island and inform him that we were waiting for you to appear.”
“Governor Pinfold was then expecting us?”
“Expecting you, Monsieur Admiral.”
“I still fail to see why . . . why me.”
“I cannot answer that question, as I told you.”
“Then perhaps you can explain to me what we have experienced, and what has happened to the world I knew.”
Messier looked around the cabin; his eyes fell on a small piece of round shot, perhaps three inches in diameter. He picked it up and drew out a pocket handkerchief. He took the ball and draped it in the handkerchief, then held it at arm’s length. “Imagine this is the comet, a heavenly body of some sort: a rock like a lump of coal. This object flies through the heavens, and when it gets close enough to the Sun it catches fire and streams the result behind it.” He moved the shot about so that the handkerchief fluttered. “This is the tail. As it swings around the sun, more and more material streams out; when it falls away and back into the void, it eventually cools enough that it is no longer afire.”
“Why does it not all burn away, then?” Boscawen asked. “And why isn’t it smaller the next time? You would think that, after several trips around the sun, it would be all consumed.”
“I don’t know. In any case, the comet is usually at some remove from our terrestrial globe.” He removed the handkerchief. “But imagine now that this ball is the Earth.” He moved it to his other hand. “And this is the cometary tail.” He waved the handkerchief. “I think that somehow we passed through it this time, instead of watching it go by.” He moved the handkerchief past the ball, letting it brush the surface. “I don’t know how that could be, but I do think it’s happened.”
“Wouldn’t that mean that this lump of coal has changed its course?”
“Yes. In fact, I think that already happened–the last time it came this way in 1682. There is a book about the comet’s motion, written by the esteemed Dr. Halley, which was originally published with an unusual essay–”
Boscawen held up his hand. He leaned over and unlatched a sea-chest, from which he drew a slim volume, which he handed to Messier.
The Frenchman took it and leafed through the last few pages with an almost mystic reverence. “Yes, yes–this is the first edition. It was largely suppressed by Newton, when he was head of the Royal Society, as a courtesy to Halley. Have you read this book, Monsieur Admiral?”
“Yes. It was a parting gift from my wife. It is a load of rubbish about ætheric patterns and mystical awakenings. It is no wonder that Newton removed the essay. It would have destroyed Halley’s reputation for all time.”
“Be that as it may, Monsieur, there have been a number of incidents and tendencies that suggest strongly that the transit of the comet in 1682 began to awaken latent abilities among those disposed toward them. It is no accident that individuals like my companion have what I might generously term ‘attunements.’ Unusual things. Visions; clairvoyance; that sort of thing.”
“There are places in the world–including your native land–where one could still be burned at the stake for exhibiting that sort of ability.”
“Quite true. But if the 1682 transit awakened a few latent abilities–perhaps even what might be taken for witchcraft–in the past, what would a more serious interaction bring about this time?”
“This is all speculation.” Boscawen looked from the French astronomer to the alchemetical compass. For a moment, the liquid seemed to move of its own accord, rising on the side of the glass nearest him.
Messier moved the handkerchief across the surface of the ball again. “As you say. But whatever this material is–fire, or gossamer, or æther, or something completely unknown–for it to fall to earth could do more than simply change one man or another. It could change all of us. It could remake our image.”
“I don’t know what that means.”