The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 5

King Leothan watched in fascination as the clattering, beeping telegraph machine slowly tapped out a series of dots and dashes on the spool of paper. “You wouldn't believe it possible,” he said, “but you can actually sense his anger in those little blobs of ink.”

“Un-pro-voked a-gre-ssion,” said the telegraph operator as he translated the message and wrote it down on a message slip. “This des-pic-able act, will be met with fu-ry, such as the world has, ne-ver seen...”

“He's probably going to go on for some time,” said Richard Daerden, the Minister for foreign affairs. “When Nilon really gets going he can rant and rage all day. You might as well give your reply now, unless you want to come back tomorrow.”

“I'm just glad we can talk to him at all,” replied Leothan. “It’s unfortunate that the Kelvon telegraph operator will report the entire conversation to the Emperor, but that’s a small price to pay.” He thought for a moment. “Send back that we acted in self preservation, and that we want nothing more than the resumption of normal relations with Carrow.”

The telegraph operator jotted the message down on his pad, then began tapping the contact to send the message to his opposite number in Farwell. Another operator in the Empire's capital would then send the message to his opposite number in Charnox, Carrow's capital city, where King Nilon was still dictating his reply to Leothan's last message. It was a roundabout way for the two Kings to communicate, but there was no alternative until a direct telegraph line was established between the two countries.

Leothan drank in the smell of ozone that filled the room. It was the smell of electricity, the smell of progress, of science and technology. It still amazed him that two people hundreds of miles apart could speak as if they were in the same room. The row of dots and dashes on the paper seemed magical to him, as if the telegraph operator were some ancient, grey bearded wizard summoning arcane, blasphemous powers with demonic assistance. And this was just one of the palace’s telegraph offices, he reminded himself, his heart quickening with excitement. Down the corridor were over a dozen similar rooms linking Marboll with other parts of Helberion and the capitals of other countries, all kept in constant use by merchants, politicians and businessmen as they conducted their business.

“Even ten years ago,” he said to Princess Ardria, standing beside him, “this kind of conversation would have been impossible. We would have had to send an envoy to Carrow, fully briefed on what we wanted and what concessions we were willing to make to get it. We would have just hoped that he wasn't executed the moment he crossed the border, and even if he wasn't, it would have taken weeks for any kind of meaningful negotiation to take place as riders went back and forth conveying our latest offers and bringing back Nilon’s response to the last offer. Now, though, we can settle the whole thing on one day!”

“If he ever stops raging long enough to listen,” replied the Princess.

“Even his rages can tell us important things about him, though,” said the King. He indicated the reel of tape still emerging from the machine, which the operator's assistant was still dutifully translating even as his superior continued to tap out Leothan's message. “Look at this, for instance. When the day comes that you pay for your crimes. What does that tell us?”

Ardria thought hard, keen to show her father that she was learning the lessons of statecraft well. “When the day comes,” she murmured. “He's not expecting you to pay for your crimes in the very near future.”

Leothan smiled with pleasure. “Exactly. Following our dazzlingly successful foray against his garrison cities, he has to rethink everything, make a whole new set of plans. We have fifty thousand of his best soldiers busy building prison camps for themselves, while our army will be back to full strength in just a few weeks. His army is still twice the size of ours, but it’s scattered all across the country defending their borders against all the other countries they've annoyed over the years. It'll take them time to organise another invasion force. In the meantime, his country is hungry and almost bankrupt. He has to sort out his own country before he can think about attacking ours.”

“So we've won,” said Ardria, beaming with delight.

“We've bought ourselves some time,” Leothan corrected her. “A year from now, maybe two, we'll be right back where we started. He has thousands of farmers breaking their backs to just barely make enough money to pay their taxes. Many of them will see the army as a vastly preferable way of making a living. He could double the size of his army very quickly.”

“Recruiting is one thing,” said William Lanier, Minister for Intelligence. “Training them is another. Five years from now we can start worrying.”

“Years have a way of passing,” said Leothan though. “Blink, and those five years will have gone and we'll be facing invasion again. We have to use the time we've won for ourselves.”

“Are we recruiting soldiers too?” asked the Princess.

“We are, but we don't have the same kind of surplus manpower they do. Helberion enjoys almost full employment. We can't pull people away from their jobs without hurting the economy.” He looked at the notes being written by the telegraph operator to see how Nilon was taking his last message.

“We demand the return of our men and a full apology for your heinous actions,” he read. “Also, reparations must be paid, to pay for damages done to our cities in your barbarous attacks.” He laughed aloud. “He can whistle for it! Send this. We wish to resume full diplomatic and trading links with your country. We are willing to resume sales of food to your country. He'll find that hard to refuse. He has to feed his people somehow or face rioting in the streets.”

“That would be good for us, wouldn’t it?” said Ardria. “If King Nilon is overthrown by his own people?”

“It would not be good for us. Nilon would use the army to restore order, There’d be a vicious wave of violence and brutality by the army against his own people. Thousands of people would cross the border into Helberion to get away from it. The last thing we need is a massive influx of homeless, penniless refugees. No, we need things to remain stable in Carrow and hope that, in time, they'll agree to just live in peace with us.”

“Is that likely?”

“The longer things stay the same, the more likely they are to stay that way. We just have to persuade Nilon that Helberion is of more use to him as a prosperous trading partner than a conquered province.”

“Getting a reply from King Nilon,” said the telegraph operator. “You dare to sug-gest that we, er, treat you as a nor-mal, ci-vi-lised coun-try? You are...”There was a pause while he waited for the machine to produce the next string of dots and dashes. “No-thing more than a pack of cri-mi-nals and bar-ba-rians...”

“I don't think we're going to get much else out of him today,” said Daerden. “He's just too mad. Maybe tomorrow, when he's had a chance to calm down a little, get over the shock of what we've done to him.”

The King nodded in reluctant agreement. “We'll leave you to it, then. You know what to say. What to ask for, what to offer in return. Suggest an exchange of ambassadors. Not Lon-Fidell, though. I will not have that toad back in my country. Suggest that they send someone else.”

“You can rely on me, Sire.”

Leothan told Darnell to leave a runner with the two ministers, in case Nilon said something that he had to hear about at once, and then the King and his daughter left the tiny cubicle, his Private Secretary and his remaining runner following a discrete distance behind. They passed several members of the palace staff as they went, and they all smiled happily as the two royals passed them by. Leothan was amazed by how much the atmosphere in the palace had changed since they’d received the glorious news from Kapperwell. Even though the vast majority of the servants, even the high ranking ones, had not known about the military operation in eastern Carrow, they'd been able to sense how tense and strained the King and his staff were. They'd known that something big was happening and that the stakes were as high as they could possibly be. The whole city had been holding its breath in tense anticipation, therefore, the people going about their business in an uncertain, fearful silence as they waited for news.

As soon as the rider had arrived with news of their victory, therefore, Leothan had ordered that the city be informed of what had been happening, and the effect had been dramatic. Several street parties were still in full swing, he'd heard, and the sounds of joy and celebration reached all the way across the elegantly maintained grounds to the palace itself. The atmosphere had been transformed, and palace servants now sang and hummed as they went about their duties, bounces in their steps and smiles on their faces. Only rigid protocol prevented them from greeting the King as he passed them by.

Leothan's heart rose with equally great joy. The joy of a King who knows that his people are happy and safe, that those who would threaten them have been thwarted, momentarily at least, except that Carrow was not the greatest threat to his Kingdom. The smile wavered on his face as he remembered the greater danger that the Brigadier had made him aware of and, seeing it, the maid waiting in the doorway felt her own joy wavering a little. But, then, it’s not so surprising, she told herself. A King must have many cares and concerns, after all. He has the whole Kingdom to worry about. We're lucky to have a King who cares so deeply about us.

Leothan barely noticed her as he passed her by. Now that the Carrow threat has retreated, for the moment, he thought, it was time to take action against the Radiants. He beckoned Darnell forward. “Our use of the telegraph machine has reminded me of the debt we owe go the men of science who have given us this and the other miracles we enjoy in our modern world,” he said. “I have decided that we must recognise these people, and make the greater public aware of all they have done for us. Let it be known that I have decided to create an annual award ceremony, in which the greatest thinkers and inventors in all branches of science will be honoured and awarded in front of their peers.”

“A wonderful idea, Sire!” replied the Private Secretary. Leothan scowled. He abhorred yes men and sycophants. He always surrounded himself with people not afraid to speak their minds and tell him when they thought he was wrong. Darnell had never been the kind to be insincere, though, and the King decided after a moment that he'd said what he’d said because he genuinely thought it was a good idea. I should be less suspicious of praise, he told himself with an inner smile. Sometimes, after all, I really do have some good ideas!

“Send word to the greatest scientists in the Kingdom,” he said. “The greatest, er, twenty, let's say, and each to bring their two or three best assistants.”

“Assistants, Sire?”

“Yes, why not? I'm sure the assistants are just as responsible for the greatest breakthroughs as their masters. I want experts in electricity, chemistry, mechanics, er, experts in living things including Radiants. Experts in the Hetin folk.”

“Astronomy, Sire? Mathematics?”

“No, I think not. Just the practical sciences. Tell them to be here, in the palace, seven days after Strake's day, for a special conference.”

“Yes, Sire. Sire, experts in the Hetin folk? Is that a practical science?”

Leothan relaxed and smiled, his faith in Darnell restored. “Yes, Darnell. I think it is. Oh, I suppose we’d better include astronomy and mathematics as well, as well as any other obscure sciences I may have left out. People may be suspicious if we don't include them. No more than twenty Master Scientists, though, plus their assistants. We don’t want it to become too cumbersome.”

“Yes, Sire. Will they all be receiving an award?”

“They will. Have the royal jeweller make up fifty or sixty gold medals with some kind of suitable engraving. I leave the details up to you.”

“Yes, Sire.” He didn't send a runner this time. Strake's day was weeks away, there was no need to hurry. He would see to the matter himself after His Majesty had retired for the night.

“I'm particularly eager to see Maxine Hester again. She's the genius who perfected the telegraph machine. Before her, it was little more than a parlour trick. She turned it into the miracle that allows us to send messages around the world instantaneously!”

“Sire, I regret that I have to inform you that Maxine Hester is dead.”

“Dead?” She might have been his sister, the way the King reacted with shock.

“There was a fire, Sire. The whole building in which she and her staff worked was destroyed. None of the scientists survived.”

“How do you just happen to know that?” asked the Princess in wonder. “You didn't know until this moment that my father would have an interest in her.”

“It is one of my duties to keep track of all the most important people in the world and to know everything important that happens, so that I can present that information to the King when he requires it. One day I, or my successor, will provide the same service for you.”

“This is terrible!” said Leothan in genuine shock. “She was one of the greatest minds in the Kingdom! I was going to put her in charge of, never mind.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Is it just a coincidence of timing that this happens just when I need scientists?”

“Your pardon, Sire. You need scientists?”

“What was she working on when she died?”

“I don’t know, Sire. I can find out if you wish.”

“I do wish. Find out what she was working on, whether she'd made any important breakthroughs recently. Also, have the fire investigated. I want to know if it was just an accident, or something more sinister. Whatever she was working on, make sure that the next greatest scientist in that field is present for the award ceremony. You may as well know now, Darnell. This award ceremony is just a cover story. I have another, much more important reason for wanting to gather scientists. Ardria already knows, and now you must know too. Let’s go find an empty conference room where we can talk.”

☆☆☆

“Another glorious day at the lab!” said Simon Frell as he took off his wet hat and coat and hung them on a hook just inside the door, where they dripped rainwater into the floor. He picked up his white lab coat and put it on. “I love the lab! Every day a new corpse to cut up, more blood and guts to drench my hands in! Some people rise dreaming of being train drivers or explorers. Me, I spent my pre-declared days dreaming of being a forensic coroner!”

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” said Samantha Tucker, also putting on a lab coat. “If you hate this job so much, why do you do it?”

“I dunno. I just sort of drifted into it, and now I can’t seem to summon the energy to look for another job. This place just sucks the energy out of you!”

“So you can't hate it that much. If you really hated it, you'd find the energy. You are a fully qualified doctor, after all. You could easily get a job at the hospital, or in general practice.”

“And spend the rest of my life wiping the noses of half raised goats and diagnosing stomach aches. Here, though, we get to solve murders!”

Samantha grinned at him. “I knew you liked it really.”

“Standing up in court, seeing the defendant looking at you in sheer terror because he knows my evidence is going to send him to the gallows. Yes, your Honour. Examination of the corpse clearly shows that the victim was bludgeoned to death and not trampled by a stampeding herd of hamsters as the defendant claims. Hangman, do your duty!” He went over to the chief clerk’s desk and picked up the admission forms. “So, what do we have today? A landlord, found dead in an alleyway. Possibly murdered by one of his tenants. If so, the tenant deserves a medal. I've seen the places those bastards run.” He dropped the form onto the table, looked at the next one.

“The foreman of a glue factory. Came to a bit of a sticky end.” He waited for his superior to laugh, but she just gave him a pitying look. “And a... Hey! We've got aristocracy here today! Sebastian Allenn, third duke of Kornis. Found with a crushed skull at the bottom of the stairs. Did he fall or was he pushed? Bagsey I get him!”

“I'll take the duke. You can take the landlord.” She noticed a parcel sitting beside the table and picked it up. There was a cover note attached. She opened it and began to read.

“Too late, I've already bagsied it! You can't overrule a bagsy!”

“Are you sure you're fully human?” She was suddenly only half paying attention, though. She picked up a letter opener and used it to open the parcel. Inside was a mass of loose sawdust. She reached in, trying to spill as little as possible onto the clean ceramic floor, and removed a carefully folded cloth that she opened up on the nearest table.

Simon, meanwhile, was looking at the case notes from the day before. ‘Hey! Remember Dave's drowning? Turns out he was poisoned! Poisoned!” He shuddered in horror. “When did we last have a poisoning? How much would you have to hate someone, to not just kill them, but kill them in such a way that they don’t revert? No chance that any part of them will ever be human again? Kill them so that they just rot, like a piece of cooked meat? That should be a special kind of crime! Just calling it murder doesn't seem anything like enough!”

Samantha ignored his prattling, already engrossed by what she'd found wrapped up in the cloth. A piece of charred bone. She turned it over in her hands, examining it from every angle. “What do you make if this, Simon?” she asked.

Simon looked up at her, recognising the tone of her voice. This would be something interesting! He put down the case notes and walked across, took the bone from her. He removed his spectacles to examine it more closely, then replaced them. “Head of a human femur,” he said. “Unusually hard, unusual colour. Is it real?”

“It's part of a real human skeleton, yes. It was found in the remains of the RedHill fire. Jorn Tellern, the fire chief, wants me to take a look at it. He thought it might be a teaching skeleton, one of those artificial skeletons they use to teach anatomy to medical students.”

“Was RedHill a school, Then? A teaching hospital or something?”

“No. It was a research laboratory. They did experiments on electricity, inventing stuff. Electric candles, the telegraph. That sort of thing.”

“Why would they have a teaching skeleton?”

“Well, the place was full of brainboxes. He thought some of them might be interested in more than one branch of science. He may be right, that would be a perfectly plausible explanation. He wanted an expert opinion, though. For his report.”

“But you say this is a real human skeleton. I've never seen bones like this.” He put the femur down and glanced at all the other fragments of skeleton spread out on the table. Most of them were too badly charred by the fire to make anything of them, but there were a few finger bones that were more or less intact. He picked one up and removed his spectacles again to examine it.

“I have,” said the chief pathologist. “The Hetin folk had bones like these. They found a graveyard over in Telford, twenty years ago. Back when I was still Menwell's assistant. Took us just a couple of hours to confirm that the skeletons were over three thousand years old. They were all like this, though. Much more mineralised than modern human bones. Calcium and phosphorus salts, with traces of magnesium, sodium and bicarbonate. I'll get Dex to do an analysis of these remains, see if they're the same.”

“Weird.” The bone was charred black, cracked so badly by the heat that it was just barely holding together. “There's a groove here, worn into the bone. Possibly made by a tight ring. Was a ring found in the remains?”

“No. This poor chap might have worn a ring years ago, took it off when his partner died, or got divorced or something.”

“It was a man, then?”

“No way to know. We might be able to identify him or her from dental records. The skull broke up when they picked it up but they took photographs showing the original positions of the teeth.”

“How long would the groove persist in such heavily mineralized bone?”

“No way of knowing. We've never come across a living person with bones like this. For all we know, it might be permanent, although we do know the Hetin folk were able to regenerate, to an extent. Several of the bones from the graveyard had healed fractures.”

“Fractures?” said Simon, confused.

“They had broken, then healed. Their bones were so heavily mineralized that any heavy blow would break them, as if they were made of porcelain. They had no bend to them whatsoever. If you or I were to fall out of a third storey window, the impact when we hit the ground would bend our bones out of shape. We'd be crippled for several days until they returned to their normal shapes. The bones of a Hetin man, though, would be shattered. He'd be crippled for several weeks until they healed. Several of the bones had scars across them where the ends hadn’t come together quite right. I imagine the whole limb would have had to be immobilised for the duration, possibly by splints. The way we might splint the limb of a tree that’s been damaged by the wind.”

“Well, thank Those Above that our bones are slightly bendy. I fell out of a tree when I was still being raised. I was a cat, before, and loved climbing trees. I kept doing it until I was almost completely human.”

His superior smiled. “It meant they would have been considerably stronger than us, though. If you were having an arm wrestling contest with a Hetin man, your arm bones would start to bend long before his broke.”

Simon shook his head in disbelief. “None of this makes any sense,” he said. “If we're descended from the Hetin folk, why would our bones be different? Their bones should be just the same as ours! Could they have become mineralised after death? Maybe they became soaked in water that was rich in minerals.”

“Menwell thought of that, but he ruled it out. If minerals had soaked in after death, they should be most densely concentrated near the surface of the bones, but the minerals are spread equally throughout. It must have been a natural feature of their living bones.”

“So why were their bones different from ours?

Samantha Tucker sighed. “There are so many stories told about them. No-one knows which ones, if any, are true. One of the stories is that they learned how to modify their bodies, improve themselves. Maybe our less mineralised bones are an example of this. They wanted their bones to bend instead of break when they fell out of windows. Or maybe it was to help the raising of adopted children. Mineralised bones would have taken a lot longer to change shape. The minerals would have to have been re-absorbed into the body, then deposited in new places. Raising a cat to be a human might have taken decades instead of just a few years.”

“Maybe.” Simon glanced down at the almost completely destroyed skeleton. “So one of the scientists was interested in human anatomy and had dug up a three thousand year old Hetin skeleton to study?”

“Well, that’s the thing. The fire chief says this skeleton was found in the dormitory, among the sleeping scientists.”

“Ew!” Then a thought struck him. “How badly was the building damaged?”

“Nothing left but a few of the outer walls. Everything else was completely destroyed.”

“So, maybe this skeleton was kept on a different floor. Above or below the dormitory. It fell among the corpses when the ceiling collapsed.”

The head pathologist nodded. “That's a good thought. Yes, That’s probably what happened.” She looked doubtful, though. “There's just one thing, though. Some of the bones appear to have burst outwards, as if there was water in them that boiled as the bone burned. Three thousand year old bones should be completely dry.”

Simon Frell laughed. “You think these bones came from one of the scientists? One of the scientists was a Hetin man?” Then he sobered as the merits of the idea gradually came clear. “If they did modify themselves, three thousand years ago, maybe there were some who didn't want to be modified. Religious reasons, perhaps, or maybe they just didn't trust the scientists. They were afraid there would be side effects, and so they refused to take part. Maybe their descendants are still alive today, living among us.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from flights of fancy,” said Samantha, though. “Thank you for your input. I'll give it a proper examination, maybe I'll find something else to change my mind, but my report will probably say that it’s a three thousand year old Hetin skeleton that one of the scientists was studying. I'll say that I can’t account for the high water content of the bones. The truth is that there could be any number of possible explanations for that. Maybe they were stored in a damp place or something.”

“For water to soak into dry bones...”

“Yes, I know, but I'm not putting flights of fancy into an official report. I'll stick to what we know is true and leave it at that. You can go back to your landlord now.”

Simon scowled, and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves. Then he went to the cold room in which the corpses brought in overnight were stored.

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