A request for divine intervention
Squigs had as yet been unable to put together a coherent picture of what they were up against. "A flying monster machine full of men with God-weapons" left it pretty wide open. Whatever it was, they were capable of killing dragons, which sounded pretty ferocious and tough, too. Huigi the vampire seemed sure that they came from Earth. Squigs' bet, at the moment, was on a helicopter full of hunters with heavy-caliber rifles. Not exactly what you wanted to stand on a raft and threaten. He fiddled with the selection of vials and powders from his lab-coat pockets. They weren't what he really needed but, well, he'd been going to stock up and slip away from Earth through the frequent congruence point that had been the original reason for building the Alchemy institute just there, when he'd been attacked.
He shuddered. The types in the tailored suits had been bad enough. At least you could pick them out from the crowd. But the monster in the lab had been something else. Not even conc. sulfuric acid had stopped it. And he hadn't had much space to run, unlike at Glastonbury. The thought of that made him grin. Temples! Druidical calendars! Parking garage for inter universal departures was more accurate. Hadn't it ever occurred to anyone that the stone bits that were left were the supports and struts for the wooden platform above? He'd been half-way up a ladder when trouble had struck there.
Mungo and Kate were arguing. They'd been at it for fifteen minutes now, with the temperature steadily rising. "I'm positive! The answer is definitely NO!" said Mungo, applying his usual skill to giving English a whole new meaning. "You'll not be staying on this raft! You're coming away with me on the boat-wagon."
"Oh no, I am not! And you can't stop me staying. I'll be perfectly safe with Crummag here to protect me," she said.
As events proved, they were both wrong. But the argument suddenly became academic. The hovercraft popped into existence a hundred and twenty yards off. Squigs checked his watch. Tensed.
The hovercraft hurtled towards them. The heroes—except Squigs—held their weapons aloft and shouted defiance. Well, Crummag, Korg, Leggilass, and Baron Ashill shouted defiance. The Credible Hulk was looking the wrong way, but did get as far as 'Huh!" The Great Krambo used the opportunity to edge closer to the roast goose carcasses and seize a greasy handful of breast-meat.
The flying monster-machine zoomed past, and other than bending the reeds and churning the dark water to froth, made nothing of their challenge. Squigs breathed again. Began to uncoil from his readiness to spring. Then, suddenly, in the midst of the heroes' jeering, the craft's rotors clattered under the rubber skirt. It was turning in a wide arc.
Despite the fact that he'd been mentally prepared for it, the sound of machine-gun fire still made Squigs freeze. It was only the line of small waterspouts ripping across the dark channel that galvanized him into action. "DOWN!!" he screamed. He dived. Knocked Kate off her feet, and pulled himself over her.
Only the Credible Hulk and the Great Krambo hadn't reacted to his warning. The Hulk was holding his shoulder, blood streaming between his fingers. His "Huh?" was full of puzzlement, and little tears were trickling from his teddy-bear eyes. The Great Krambo's mouth was still full of stolen goose-flesh, but he'd lost a lot of ugly useless fat. He wouldn't be stealing any more food either, without a top to his head.
Across the reeds the hovercraft's rotors clattered again. "They're coming back!" yelled Squigs, pulling himself off the recumbent and angry Kate. "Mungo! Tell everyone to get into the water! Go underwater to the reeds!" He heard the big man's bellow and saw him grab his daughter's arm and drag her over the side.
The powder was ready. The second vial was in his hand. He hoped the draconnier would forgive him for what this would do to his big frying-pan. With deliberate care he poured the powder into the pan. Shook it carefully, to spread the fine powder into a single-grain layer. He forced himself to ignore the sound of gunfire flailing the reeds. Then he poured the contents of the second vial into the pan with equal care. In a few seconds it should start to react with the cast-iron.
He looked up at the hovercraft, now barely fifty yards off. And stood frozen by the shock of recognition. It was the three-piece suit types. He forgot about the thaumo-chemical reaction he'd just initiated. If it hadn't been for the powerful dwarf hand that plucked him into the water at that moment, he'd have fried.
The McSkillen chain-reaction, named after the late (after the experiment) Prof. "Flambé" McSkillen, was the archetypal alchemistic reaction. It produces no gold . . . but a lot of heat . . . and about three hundred cubic meters of dense purple smoke. If you get it right.
If you get it wrong, instead of a "slow" reaction lasting seconds, you get near-instant catalytic conversion of iron to chromium. It is then a violently exothermic process, without the loss of energy in the creation of by-products like iron sulphide—as Prof McSkillen had found out, a little late. He got his wish about being cremated, but they were unable to scatter his ashes on Loch Lomond. They figured some of them probably ended up there anyway, as well as in Pakistan and Australia.
The pilot was frantically trying to clear the windscreen. Beside him the various Carpaccio Corporation Executives were coughing and spluttering. All except for the one who was groaning and retching blood in the corner, a black fletched cross-bow bolt through his chest. The hovercraft was still in a slow circular turn that would take them back into the spreading cloud. Nick dropped the M40 and shouted, "Ay! Pilot! Watsamatta with you! You damn crazy! Take us away from this shit, fast! If we don't get Looie back to a hospital soon, he's a dead man!"
Smooth Mario tried to sit up after a racking spell of coughing. Eventually he managed. "No!" Cough, cough, "We gotta go back! Dat's Harkness-Smythe back dere!"
But it was no use. The purple-blue fog, having gone straight up, was settling now. It covered the better part of a square mile of the reed and water-channel maze like a cloak. They had limited time, and a fair distance to fly, to reach their exit point.
It was a somber party back at Mungo's float that evening. Nobody wanted to start the post-mortem of the failed mission. The memory of hiding in the water while the hovercraft cut swathes through the blue mist above them was not a happy one for the heroes. If word of this got about they'd be short of jobs. Even Kate was in no danger from Crum's advances. No doubt the smooth-talker was burning brain-sawdust to think of a good explanation for why he'd been the first to abandon the raft at Squigs' warning. Finally Squigs went off to the kitchen and buttonholed Mungo. "What happens now?" he asked.
Mungo sat down on the scrubbed table, Looked thoughtful. "Well, boyo, I dare say most of the muscles would like to leave for other parts. Except the dwarf. He reckons he put an arrow in one of the beggars. He's still keen, but the rest, well . . . still they're contractually bound to try again, though I'm not sure where or how."
"I can work out where. If I can get some chemicals, I think I know how," said Squigs with as much confidence as he could muster.
Mungo raised an eyebrow. "So, what do you have in mind, youngster? Swallowing the chemicals and then getting that brain-weapon of yours to explode under them?"
"Well I was going to explode things under them, but I wasn't strictly thinking of my head," Squigs replied, with a grin.
But Mungo had no grin to answer him. "Explosives! That you'll have to talk to Ziklevieson about."
Ziklevieson? By the references that was the local God! Warning lights lit up in Squigs' mind. Religious taboos about explosives? Hell! They were at least half of his stock and trade. Best to feel his way cautiously. "Can I pray for permission?" he asked.
"Why not?" said Mungo easily. "We'll go into town tomorrow, and have a word with him. He's a bit knaggy but you can reason with him. Not like the old God-King, who mostly used to eat any supplicants! Now tell me: when is it that you think these devils'll be back?"
Squigs fished a mini-PC notebook out of his lab-coat pocket. He carefully undid the stretchy rubber membrane and took it out of its covering. He hoped like hell that Mungo wasn't going to ask about that covering. He'd bought it from one of those machines on which someone had written "this is the worst chewing-gum I've ever tasted."
Some camper acquaintance had explained that they were wonderful things, not only for stopping babies and HIV but also for keeping the little PC dry under very adverse conditions. Squigs set the program he'd written running. Entered the time of this afternoon's materialization into it, and waited. The answer scrolled onto the screen. Squigs just had to read it out. "The day after tomorrow. At 8:15 am. Exactly fifty-six point seven two one three miles east of the last point. Five foot three above ground level."
Mungo looked at the PC. Looked at Squigs.
"Waratah!" he exclaimed. "What is this you're telling me, boy? You can work it out that exactly? What's that device then?"
Squigs was wary. If the local religion felt that way about explosives, how was it going to fancy electronics? "Er . . . do you have something like a bead frame, you know, those thing shopkeepers use for counting?"
Mungo nodded. "An abacus. To be sure. Never understood them meself. Why do we have fingers and toes if not to count on?"
"Well, this is just a mechanical device that does the same thing," said Squigs glibly, crossing his fingers behind his back, and hoping like hell Mungo wouldn't ask to see the beads.
"Well, I must say it'd be a boon to those that wear shoes an' mittens," said Mungo. "Except I don't see how they'll work all those tiny buttons. But it's not for the likes of me to puzzle over these things. I'll see you in the morning. We'll take the boat-wagon into Zikadoonvarna and see the old fellow, for all that he's bound to give a me penance because I'm not the most regular temple attender in the world. I'll take Kathleen along. That'll keep her away from that blond bumbo for most of the day at least."
The Credible Hulk, now officially invalided out of the quest, was added to the passenger list the following morning, but before they could leave, they had a visitor.
According to Korg, who was standing with Squigs looking at the sunrise, the black swans glided out of the pale rose-light of dawn towing a cockle shell, on which Venus reposed. Well . . . except that Venus was standing, handling the reins of this treacherous little craft with consummate skill. She was tall and willowy, wearing a lot more clothes than Korg's imagination would have had her in. As to exactly what she was actually wearing, neither of them could say, but she was the sort of girl who would make anything from a G-string to a suit of armor look like a tweed skirt, twin-set and pearls. She had a cool, clear voice, which Korg said reminded him of mountain streams.
It reminded Squigs of a horse, like the rest of her, which just goes to show that it's all a question of perspective. Mind you, it was of a very nice horse. She was rather like a leggy young filly, naturally as graceful as a ballet dancer, except when she noticed herself, when her legs and tongue would tie themselves in clumsy knots.
"Good morning. I'm Venus. I say, my dad isn't here, is he?" There was a touch of worry behind the insouciance.
"Er . . ." Squigs said doubtfully, wrestling with his mythology. He'd had to take classical Greek and Latin to get into Alchemy, so at least he had something to start on. Venus: Roman Goddess of fertility, but who her father had been he had no idea. But . . . she was the equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite . . . Who, as he remembered, had two possible mythical origins: Either the castrated testicles of Uranus . . . or the father of the Gods. The latter sounded more plausible than a search for a washed-up set of family jewels. Mind you, Aphrodite was supposed to be the essence of feminine beauty. He hadn't previously realized that a fine-boned roman nose and a gap-toothed wide smile were part of this. "Zeus?" he ventured, while the dwarf gazed besottedly at her.
She blushed. Korg blushed in sympathy, his craggy, black-browed face turning almost puce. "I'm sorry. It's such a silly name. I'm Venus Ashill. My father's Baron Ashill of Long Ash."
"It's a beautiful name. Absolutely beautiful," Korg proclaimed. "Never heard such a beautiful name before."
Her lip quivered. "Ashill? You mean . . . Daddy isn't here? But . . . but I've searched everywhere!" she wailed.
Korg almost fell over his feet. "Er, here, yes! Yes! Don't cry, I'll find him for you." The dwarf set off in a direction which would have had him bubbling from the swamp in a few seconds, if Squigs hadn't turned him around and pointed him the right way. It was quite fun, he reflected, to see someone else suffering from his usual complaint.
Squigs patted her shoulder sympathetically. He set about analyzing why she wasn't affecting him as badly as Korg, and concluded that she was something he'd been inoculated against at St. Robert's.
She reminded him of the daughters of the less objectionable squirearchy. The ones whose mothers always said, "Dahling, there's absolutely no money," but still somehow managed to send their offspring to St. Roberts or St. Clams, despite this. Who seemed to spend their whole lives and their incomes trying to support ancient structures far too large for either their bodies or their finances. He remembered the explanation one of his almost-friends had given him: They felt that education there was their only chance at escaping the relentless downward spiral of a fixed income and increasing maintenance costs. This was a strange belief, as it hadn't yet done anything for the previous generation, whose parents had tried the same thing.
It had all seemed totally inexplicable to the young Squigs, after spending a weekend at one these decaying Gormenghasts. If it were sold, the family could have lived in comfort in the stockbroker belt, and driven the children to school in a new Jag instead of a fifty-year old one.
He looked carefully at the cockle-shell. Yeah. Zoar's equivalent of a vintage MG. Pre-war and elastic.
The Baron came hurrying up. "My darling Vee!"
She hugged him. And then stepped back, and stamped her foot angrily. "It's not right, Daddy! You said you wouldn't go on any more quests!"
The Baron sighed. "I know dear. But the roof of the west wing has lost some more slates . . ."
She sighed too. "I'll have to get a job. Just give this quest up . . . please?"
He shook his head. "It's a matter of honor, dear. Besides, I've signed the contract. The non-completion clauses are vicious. I will say it's a very generous agreement otherwise. It'll pay for the slates and fixing the fish pond, I hope."
"Really, Daddy, it's not worth it. I'll find a job. We'll pay off the penalty clause somehow. Please?"
He shook his head again. "No, Vee. I can't do that. Anyway," he smiled, "if you go off and work in town, who is going to look after the swan-mews?"
She twined her arm in his. "I think we should sell them, Daddy. There's no money in swan-breeding any more. And I'm not leaving until you come home."
"We've always bred racing swans at Long Ash," he said stubbornly, "and really, I'm quite all right."
Her wide mouth set in a firm line. "I'm too worried about you. I'm staying until you come home."
Her father raised his eyes to heaven. "Well, you'll have to ask the Master Draconnier if you can stay. He's over there. Come, let me introduce you." The baron took her over to Mungo, who was organizing breakfast on a large trestle table.
"Er . . . Mungo. This is my daughter Venus. Venus, this is Master Draconnier Mungo Kentigern."
They shook hands, his huge hand totally enveloping her slim fingers. She smiled at him, a smile too wide for an ordinary face, but just about right for hers. "Just call me Vee, please, Master Draconnier Kentigern. Look, you don't really need my dad for this quest of yours do you? Can't he come home? 'Cause if he doesn't come home, I'm staying until he does."
"Now, Vee," protested her father, "it's a matter of honor to be part of a quest like this. It's the way things are done." He shook his head despairingly at her. "I should never have sent you to your mother's school. Any place that teaches you French instead of Latin is bound to have filled your head with silly ideas."
Mungo smiled back at her. "You've certainly used the wrong argument to get me to release your father. Stay as long as you like. You'll be company for my girl. Call me Mungo, Lady Venus. Baron, you introduce her to the rest of these layabouts while I finish getting breakfast ready. I've got to go to town as soon as that is done."
Korg was standing by, ready and waiting. He bowed low on being introduced, and then stood on tip-toes to kiss her hand. She giggled at this. "Pardon me, ma'am," he said, "I couldn't help overhearing that you were eddicated in the great language of romance, French?"
"Well, I did do it at school . . ." she said doubtfully.
"Ah! I have a smattering of the language myself, picked up from my late comrade Frenchy Ne'part. Please permit me to try the greeting he taught me?" asked the dwarf with an uptilted face, and a hopeful puppy expression.
She smiled. "Why of course, Mr. Korg. But my French is pretty rusty . . ."
"Just Korg, Milady. Not Korg for short either," he scowled. Then he assumed the posture of an orator, and cleared his throat. "Voo lay voo cooshay?" He beamed happily at her. "That means 'how do you do' in French," he said to the open-mouthed Squigs, "and 'fine, thank you' is 'Wee mon sewer,' which doesn't mean 'the little guy's a muck-conduit,' like I thought at first."
Venus restrained a grin, biting her lower lip, obviously trying desperately not to laugh. Squigs thought it fortunate that her father had taken Latin and not French. "What a lovely accent you've got, m . . . um, Korg," she said finally, straightening her quirking lips, "Tell me, did your friend teach you this reply?" In schoolgirl French she answered, "Non ce mois, j'ai une migraine."
Korg shook his head regretfully. "I think it means something like 'the same as last night,' but I'm really not sure."
Where this conversation would have led, had Baron Ashill not started fighting off invisible attackers, is anyone's guess.
After breakfast the party for town set off in the boat-wagon. Squigs was too wrapped up in his own thoughts and calculations to notice that it was a silent trip, with Mungo and his daughter plainly not speaking to each other. At length they came to the town, and parked the hippo and boat-wagon. Kate set off with a shopping list while Mungo took Squigs across the mud to the towering Ziggurat.
They came to the huge, brass-bound doors set into the mud-brick steps. The black wood had been deeply carved. It showed a spiral of images, with two recurrent themes. Dragon-slaying and human sacrifice. Some of those horrifying half-animal figures were doubtless Gods or Demigods.
Squigs looked nervously at them, trying to make out details, and then wished he hadn't. They were gruesome in the extreme. This wasn't Earth. This was Zoar. Dragons, kraken, mermaids, and selkies were commonplace enough here. Those probably weren't flights of imagination carved there.
So Squigs looked instead at his companion, and then wished he hadn't done that either. The large, bluff, take-on-hell-with-a-fire-bucket man was looking distinctly nervous. And he was just standing there. Squigs began to expect the worst. His mind drifted back across the religious excesses of history. His heart was in his boots when Mungo finally reached for the bell-pull.
The big man sighed volcanically. "I suppose we'd better take the bull by the nettle. I hope the old fellow is in a good mood." He heaved at the cord. The sound of the huge, distant gong was not quite swallowed by the towering wall. They waited. And waited.
Mungo's expression began to brighten. "Perhaps he's out. I'll just give the bell one more ring," and he tugged again. The gong boomed again distantly.
"Oy! Enough already. I'm coming. I'm coming. Patience! Don't pull the damn t'ing off." The voice was reedy, nasal and with a slight quaver. Squigs wondered whether this would be the doorman or a priest.
The door opened. The vasty hall behind it was dark. In the door's trail of sunlight one could just see the dusty fingers of a cobweb hung across heaps of jumbled chests.
The door opener stood there, a short, stooped, octogenarian figure, in a shabby black suit and down-at-the-heel slippers. A black skull-cap was perched on top of his nearly bald head, from which two wispy side-curls came down. Steel-rimmed pebble glasses perched on his nose. But, from under the wrinkled eyelids, the eyes that peered through the glasses were still sharp. "Vell? You going to stand on the doorstep, or you going to come in, before you let all the hot in?"
They stepped forward, and the door swung closed behind them with a hollow clang. A wave of fear swept over Squigs in the stuffy darkness. He could feel all the weight of the great stepped pyramid pressing down on his chest. Then his eyes became accustomed to the dimness. There was a lighter patch in the distance. They walked towards it, in silence, at the elderly pace of the door-warden. In his mind's eye Squigs saw the blood-wet altar, in a chamber hung with rich fabrics and scattered with the tribute of the draconniers.
They turned up a passage, and then went into a small room, lit with oil lamps. Well, it wasn't quite what Squigs had imagined it to be. Unless the sacrifices happened on the desk. Only . . . it would mean moving a lot of used tea-cups, books and pieces of paper. Any rich hangings would have got in the way of the bookshelves. The only Draconnier tributes were a couple of overstuffed green sofas. The old man lowered himself down onto one, in the cautious fashion of those with old bones.
"Vell, Mungo Kentigern? Vy you don't sit down?" he asked. They sat. The old man continued. "I haven't seen you in temple for a long, long time. Don't tell me. I'll guess. You got your tuchis in a tight place again. So you come running like your pants is on fire. Oy! But when things are good, do I see you? No. Do you even send me as much as vun small piece gefilte fish? No."
Mungo bowed his head in shame. "Forgive me, Oh Ziklevieson."
The old man looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Yah. Sorry now. But later on, vell you forgat. So I give you something to do, so you don't forgat. Your grandfather, he sacrifice his kinder, his own flesh and blood, to your old God. Me, you keep calling a God no matter how many times I tell you stupid shlemiels otherwise. But you can't even bring the old man vun little piece gefilte fish, every now and again. Now, vot's wrong . . . this time?"
"Poachers," said Mungo, heavily.
The old man pursed his lips, sighed, shook his head. "So you hire a hero. You catch the poacher. You sell his body . . . vot's left, to the armorer. You put in claim vith the union for the difference. Vot's so hard?" he asked. "Those are the rules. I know. I wrote them."
Squigs stared at the tableaux they presented—a tiny old man and veritable giant. It certainly looked like Mungo could have killed his God-king, or whatever he was, with one hand. Yet, by the respectful tone that Mungo took—that would never happen.
Mungo held out his hands, appealing. "But Ziklevieson, they've killed one hero already, with explosive weapons. They're killing hundreds of dragons."
"So they've killed vun hero. Ged another. They're like rats, kill one . . . Oy! You say they're using explosives to kill our Drache?"
Mungo nodded. "By the hundreds, Ziklevison."
The old man looked sternly at Mungo. It reminded Squigs of the look the desiccated old maths master at St Roberts used to quell the rugby forward hooligans with. It had the same effect on Mungo. He almost visibly shrank. The old man shook his head again. Sighed. "Oy! So vy nobody come and tell me about this earlier?"
Squigs decided it was time to join the conversation. "Shalom, Ziklevieson."
The old man focused his rheumy eyes on Squigs and burst out in an excited stream of words that Squigs guessed, by the few familiar ones, to be a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish. Squigs held up his hands in defense. "I'm a gentile. I only know a few words of Hebrew." He didn't say that he'd only learned and used them to irritate the hell out of his grandfather, who kept his own Jewish father a deadly secret.
The old man's face fell. He looked on the verge of tears. Squigs hastily added, "My great grandfather was Jewish, but he married a gentile."
The old man gave a wry smile. He was half Squigs' height, but Squigs now understood why Ziklievison had reduced the towering Mungo to schoolboy status. Squigs felt that way himself, now. The old man had the kind of charisma that made size and age irrelevant. For the first time in many years Squigs felt he should be looking up at someone.
Zikleivison patted the sofa cushions reassuringly. "Not your fault, my boy. It vas just so good to hear some words in the holy language again. Now, back to business. Vhere do these poachers get their weapons? Ve stop that, we stop them."
"They're bringing them in from Earth," said Squigs.
The old man cocked his head on one side and fixed Squigs with a beady eye. "So vun got in from Earth. Coming here from Earth a few people all the time, by accidents, like me. But it don't give him ammunition for very long. Soon he runs out of bullets, and the hero chops him into kosher salami."
Squigs sighed. The equations had predicted this. Earth-to-Water or as the locals called it, Zoar, was mostly the easy way. Accidental harmonics matched quite frequently. And congruence points were usually safely air to air, a safe-to-fall distance above the ground, at least at this end of the century. The model said that Water-to-Earth congruent points were usually a long way off the ground. That was probably what the Ziggurat had originally been built for. Well, there was no point in denying the truth. It was the only argument he could advance to let the man allow him to take action. "I'm sorry, Ziklevieson. It's all my fault. They can go from here to Earth and back, as often as they like. I hope I can do something about it, to make amends."
The old man regarded him with one raised eyebrow. Finally, he scratched his head, thoughtfully. "Ven I come here, there's no law. Just everybody fighting. Lot of little lords, with little kingdoms, making their own rules to suit theirself. Bad for everybody, bad for business too. So, I set up a system based on the only law I know. Talmudic law it says 'no man may call himself a wrongdoer.' So, you cannot just say it is your fault. Mungo, vy you don't go to the Green Monkey and vait for this boy, vot you said his name vas? Ve have a liddle talk, come up vith a plan."
Having introduced Squigs, Mungo left with every sign of relief. The old man looked at Squigs in silence for a time. Finally he said, "Here I've been for nearly eighty years. Now you tell me I could go back to Flushing just like that." He gave a reedy chuckle. "Tell me, son. Vot's it like for a Jew in America, now? They started pogroms yet?"
He saw Squigs' face, and obviously mistook the expression. Squigs was trying to work out how you would explain the holocaust to a man who did not know of it. "It's all right, boy. Vot kind of meshuggah you think I am? These people, they're the only children I've had. It's a lousy job being the melamed to a bunch of goyim, but I von't run away ven there's trouble. Instead you tell me how come these poachers can come here venefer, and vy you think it's your fault."
That was at least easier that encapsulating a long period of traumatic history. "I am . . . or I was, a doctoral student doing my doctoral thesis. Um. In Alchemy." Squigs paused waiting for the inevitable reaction.
The old man didn't turn a hair. Well, alchemy might easily be a respectable science here. So Squigs continued. "I was working on the music of the spheres. The existence of the other universes or as they used to be called, spheres, has been pretty well established in alchemistic circles for a long time. And odd sounds associated with "weird" occurrences—which, according to Masters and Thringsmith's research almost all relate to intra-universal contacts—are widely reported. Thringsmith catalogued all the frequent "disappearance" sites, but that was about as far as we'd got with establishing real reliable ways of working out where the various universes would intersect."
Ziklevieson nodded. "But it changes. The old history here shows there was some trade with Earth once. Mostly with Ireland. Now we trade with Sylvan, some."
Squigs noticed that now that the man was intensely interested the accent had vanished. "Yes. The spheres are dynamic things in four dimensional space-time. Intersection points and how much they intersect changes. In about 800 AD there was a lot of intersection. Anyway, about seven years ago the department acquired another fellow—he had actually deliberately come to our sphere from the world we'd always referred to as the fourth state—fire. Or Hell. We learned a lot more about the spheres from him. Dr. Nisebind started a research trend to working out predictors of the various intersections. He was one of those that have been killed. I actually tried to go to him for help . . . But I found he was lying dead in his study. Anyway, I've got away from the point. It's pretty much in the realm of alchemistic folklore that the "music of the spheres" when the spheres were in congruence could only be heard by innocents. Um. I started with the assumption that "innocence" was a factor of age not actual absence of guilt. Young people hear higher pitched sounds. I started doing recordings of ultrasonics at the various intersection sites. I found not only were there sounds—wave interference between the two universes—at those places, but that they followed a regular periodicity."
"So you know when the universes connect, ja?"
Squigs nodded. "The connections produce sounds which relate to where they're between. Earth to here is ultrasonic. Earth to the sphere we use to call "air" is lower pitched. It produces a strange eerie sort of piping. Faerie pipes they used to call it. Earth to Air, or Sylvan as I believe I should call it, was pretty common in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The sounds for the connections to fire are even deeper pitched. I calculate there was a lot of contact with Earth in the middle ages."
Squigs tugged at the few wisps of hair on his chin. "I thought . . . well if you can predict the time and place of near-contact . . . maybe you could cause a contact, by enhancing the vibrational properties of the area." He saw the blank look. "Producing sound which would force a congruency." Ziklevieson peered intently at him. Shook his head. Squigs shrugged. "It's fairly complicated physics and mathematics, Zikleivison. It as a lot to do with wave-harmonic theory . . ." Squigs realized he wasn't going to succeed in this explanation. "Um. It works. I've worked out where all possible congruence and near congruence points are and when they'll occur. I can produce sounds at the right place and time to force an opening between the spheres. It just means you have a transition through the underlying state . . . limbo." He shook his head, realizing this was either a year's explanation or just cutting to the chase. "I handed in the first draft of my thesis to Prof. Selby. Then these guys in the smart suits suddenly turned up and started killing. Everywhere I ran the suits would turn up. I found out that they've killed the department—staff and students, every last one of them.
"They tried to kill me at least three times. I . . . er tried the cops. Well, I couldn't tell them too much . . . and when I tried to show them to the bodies . . . the bodies had gone. I even got accused of trying to stir up racial tension! And then the suits nearly caught me . . . I realized they must be getting information from the cops . . . I supposed it was something to do with the lead-gold transmutation process, and that they must come from some government agency. So . . . I was going to collect some stuff from the department and hide out in Zoar. They were waiting for me with some kind of monster . . . but I got away through a congruency I opened."
Squigs took a deep breath. "I was wrong. I have since found out these same suits are raiding Zoar and shooting dragons wholesale. There is only one way they could be getting to-and-fro so easily: They've got my computer model and are working out the congruences."
The old man shook his head, as if trying to clear it. "I don't understand too well how it works, but I do understand what's happening. You tell anybody else what you find out?"
Squigs shook his head. "Only my supervisor. Prof. Selby. And he's dead."
The old man held his hands out, palms upward. "So, he tried to sell it. Or he showed it someone else. They try and sell it. The men who he tried to sell to, kill him, take it anyway."
Squigs shook his head again. "Money doesn't mean anything to an alchemist. Especially Prof. He made the department and himself financially secure forever with the royalties OPEC pays us for suppressing his perpetual-motion system. And he'd only ever show it to one of the other dons in the Department."
He saw the look of puzzlement on the old man's face, again. "I mean, alchemists can make gold from lead. He wouldn't try to sell anything. Why bother?"
Ziklevieson smiled again. And when he spoke now the accent was back. Squigs was pretty sure it was assumed, just as he would assume a West Indian accent to annoy his mother. "You make gold from lead, pretty soon gold's worth the same as lead. That's just good business sense. Like I do here. Kill a drache easy with a gun. So soon drache teeth are cheap . . . so you kill more drache to get the same money, and then no drache left. No more business. So, I tell them, you make it vun to vun, no guns, and you use it all. For vot you kill the thing, you just take its teeth? So, maybe this Professor he thinks different to you, or maybe he shows it to somebody else?"
Squigs considered. He understood the peculiarities of Zoar's social system somewhat better now. Economic ecology . . . or was it ecological economics? But the rest . . . it was like a jig-saw puzzle with too many missing pieces. "It still doesn't make sense to me, I'm afraid. On Earth, only an alchemist would know the value of dragon's teeth. And all the other alchemists on Earth are dead. I saw that myself. But, anyway, whoever it is, I want to stop them. This is what I want to do . . . but I need to use explosives."
Eventually the old man nodded. "All right. Just one other thing. This 'computer' you are talking about. Is like this thing?" The accent was gone again.
He pointed to a far corner where a familiar screen looked blankly into the room, from beside a crystal ball. "A junge brought it here with him. He make some money with the locals with it as magic. Tried to make himself a big cheese. One of the heroes, he chopped him into pieces. They brought his talking picture box to me. It has died.
Squigs walked across to it. Clicked the toggle-switch. The familiar sound of boot-up made him feel soggy and nostalgic. "It just has a power-off system. To save battery-life."
Ziklevieson nodded again. "A clever idea, that. But where do they put the battery? It's too small."
Squigs pointed. His hands flicked across the keyboard. "Battery is pretty nearly dead, anyway."
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