Chapter 18 - Dreams of a Clockwork Universe
Jean G Hontz
@copyright 2009 all rights reserved
Ned groaned and threw down his pen. He ran his hands through his hair. He couldn't think. And everything depended on him thinking. He had to concentrate!
Instead his mind insisted on personal things, not the science. Too much had happened too fast. He kept worrying about getting Margot or Cyril hurt or killed, and wondering what was happening to Septimus. Jesus, he should never have friends. He put them all at risk.
Then there was the mystery of Richard and Emmie showing up here. Just how had Richard managed that? He had a few ideas, but no time to really ponder them. More to the point, why had he brought her here? And why had he been with her? So far as Ned knew, Emmie hadn’t seen him since they'd all left Oxford. But then he had no expectation she should tell him anything of her life. Even so, interesting that just as she's attacked he was right there, right there to step in and... And Richard’s father, what exactly did he have to do with it?
“So,” Cyril asked, leaning over Ned’s shoulder. “Getting anywhere?”
“Bugger all, don’t bite my head off,” Cyril groused.
Ned sighed and ran his hands through his hair again. “I can't think.”
“Emmie does that to you,” Cyril replied, commiserating. She had the same effect on him. “Always has, I know. You lost all sense the very first time you met her, old chap. I liked you until then. And whenever she’s around you’re a mess. And now you’re done for, well and truly. You’re not going to drive her off again, if I know my sister.”
“You sell her short, you know. She doesn’t care sod all for titles or money. Just look at what she does. Off she goes to live in a tent and dig pots in the desert. What girl who cares for fine dresses and fancy townhouses does that by choice? Hmm?”
Ned frowned and bit his lip so he wouldn’t be tempted to retort and worse say something he’d regret.
“True,” Cyril mused aloud. “You are currently in danger of being hung, or are traitors drawn and quartered these days? I can’t keep up. But knowing Emmie that’s a positive. She likes independent thinkers, men who challenge the status quo. And she's always had a thing for outcasts and underdogs, not to mention bedraggled rats and cats. Not precisely certain which you are, old chap, but Emmie will sort you out.” Cyril turned to regard Emmie who was sitting with her head close to Margot, which was rather worrying.
“And what would your father say if he found out a bastard was in love with his daughter?” Ned asked.
“My father?” Cyril repeated, turning back to Ned, his surprise clear on his face. “God but you are blind. My father wishes you were his son rather than me.”
“Now you’re being an ass. The old toad adores you,” Ned averred.
“Hah. He loves to torture me, and I want to strangle him most days.”
“Well, that’s neither here nor there. He might like me fine, but if he discovers his daughter is in danger of ... Of...”
“Ass. Give it up. It wouldn't matter to Emmie, anyway. She’d defy the pater, give up her titles, and any allowance from the estate in a heartbeat and he'd probably love her the more for it. Besides, she wants you, she’ll get you, you’re a well and truly cooked goose.”
"We’re all well and truly cooked geese unless I figure out how to get us back to where we belong,” Ned muttered, staring down at his calculations.
Richard, who’d been recalibrating several of the different parts that made up the array that was The Assembler joined them. He raised an eyebrow but Ned wasn’t about to mention any of his private thoughts with Richard. Was Richard in love with Emmie? She'd be better off with him.
“Check my math, Richard, please,” Ned asked him. Cyril frowned, but only when Richard wasn't looking.
“Absolutely. I’ve no desire to end up a petrified version of myself,” Richard replied and sat down with the figures in front of him. He frowned as he went over them.
Ned watched him for a moment. How had he managed to get himself and Emmie here? True, The Assembler could move things, sort of, from one part of reality to another. But it couldn't move people from England to Bermuda on demand. Not yet anyway. What machine was Richard using to manage that?
He tried again to concentrate, getting up to walk over to the control console of The Assembler.
Cyril wandered over with him. He had no idea at all what it was Ned was up to but he did rather enjoy the mystery of it. With Ned around, one never quite knew what would happen next so one was never bored. And, he confessed, seeing the usually entirely focused and competent Benedict Black reduced to a blithering idiot by his loving sister amused him no end.
The console, unaware of Ned’s confusion, blinked serenely at him. Maths Ned understood. Machines he understood. They made sense to him. You could count on them to do what you told them to do, no more, no less. Gears and cogs and the things that made them work together like clockwork. A well-oiled, understandable universe.
Alchemy gave him the tools to use to take that world apart, one tiny piece at a time. He could take it apart, put it back together again and make it better. More efficient, more focused, less prone to breakage.
He had no such control over his feelings, or hers. In fact when she was near he felt out of control and he hated that. Hitting buttons to run a routine maintenance program, he wondered idly if Septimus had set about repairing the lighthouse yet. How long had they been gone, anyway? He wasn't entirely certain time ran at the same speed where they were and where home was. Although there was no reason to think it was wildly different. He didn't believe they’d return months or years after they'd left. It would, he reassured himself, be a matter of hours or at most a day or two.
He glanced over to where Emmie and Margot were laughing together. Cyril, still beside him, looked glum. “She’s going to infect Margot, isn't she,” he whispered to Ned.
“I’m not sure who’ll infect whom,”Ned replied. “If you want a traditional woman, Cyril, don't get involved with Margot.”
Cyril ran his eyes over Margot. He took in the pants and man's vest and bobbed hair and the devastating smile and alluring lips. No, traditional was definitely not what he wanted.
Richard was over at the main work area, still checking Ned’s calculations for errors. Ned, like Cyril, had his eyes on the two women. When the colors on the main console began to change their rhythmic blinking, a loud blaring began and Cyril jumped. The women did too.
Ned, awaked from his daymere, looked down at the console and flipped off the audio alarms. After a moment spent regarding the readings thoughtfully, he muttered, “That’s it. It isn’t anything to do with the calculations, it’s all right there. Right there in front of me. I’m an idiot Cyril, an idiot!”
“Of course you are,” Cyril muttered, figuring it best to agree with Ned, since he had not the slightest idea of what his friend was saying. “You’re the smartest idiot I know. Now tell me you know how to get us back safely.”
“Yes,” Ned replied grinning. “Yes, I do.” He began tweaking dials on the console first then when he’d finished that to his satisfaction, he took out a clock key from his pocket. He went throughout the cavern, adjusting each and every part of the great array, all the while talking in Turkmenistan as far as Cyril could tell (he spoke Greek and it certainly wasn't Greek). Richard seemed to understand it. Hrumph.
After a time Richard joined Ned at the main console and the two of them began jabbering back at each other in the same completely incomprehensible language. “Maths,” Cyril muttered darkly. That’s what it was. Calculus and derivatives and something called Boolean something or other, and... and a language all Ned’s own that defined and explained the Assembler’s instructions and promise. Cyril, who loved language and whom language loved back, did not feel this particular language of Ned’s loved him.
There followed a boring hour of such things: Ned and Richard rushing around throughout the cavern adjusting things, and arguing with one another.
Cyril retreated to the relative safety of the corner where Emmie had made herself comfortable, staying out of the way. Margot, knowing a good deal more about Ned’s machine than Cyril would have believed, or liked come to think of it, was helping with the adjustments too.
Then finally Ned glanced over at them looking a bit smug. Cyril had seen that look dozens of times. It presaged either utter disaster, utter chaos or, once in awhile, complete success. Needless to say he had his druthers focused on the last one.
Ned sauntered back over to the main console. “All right. I’m going to instruct The Assembler to .. Well, reassemble us, including itself, as we were when I moved us out of the cavern for safety. Whatever you do,” he added, looking at each one of them, his gaze lingering only a heartbeat too long on Emmie, “don’t interrupt my concentration. Right?” he asked, looking at each of them again, waiting for the acknowledgement.
Emmie, Margot, Cyril and even Richard nodded their agreement.
Ned closed his eyes. He stood as he had just before they’d been moved out of the cavern under the Gibbs Hill Light. His feet apart, his eyes closed, his hands about waist height level and open, palms up, just to the side of the main console. He was chanting something, something Cyril recognized as similar to what he'd been mumbling as he was setting switches and cranking gears earlier.
As Ned’s words continued, Cyril felt the rock floor beneath them begin to tremble. He reached out and pulled Margot into his arms. Emmie stood near him, watching Ned, her eyes shining. Cyril took her hand. Richard stood off to one side watching it all.
Ned’s voice fell silent as the entire Assembler seemed to rumble to life, making a sound far louder than it had before. The ground began shaking harder. There was the smell of ozone and the feeling of electricity playing along the hairs on Cyril’s arms. Margot’s bobbed hair, free of pins, began to stir and then stood out from her head.
Just as things began to get truly scary, there was a distinct and loud clap of thunder and then... Nothingness. Again.
Cyril had no idea how much later it was that he came back to himself. “This is becoming a habit,” he muttered as he shook his head to make the loose screws in his brain fall back into place.
Next to him lay Margot. She was already picking herself up off the cold stone floor. Cyril looked around a bit wildly but was reassured to see Emmie. Reassured until he saw her face.
She was sheet white, her lips blue. Her eyes, always a bit large for her face, were huge pits of shock and darkness. Cyril turned to see what had so frightened her.
Then it was his turn to go pale. They were in a cavern alone. There was no Assembler, no Ned. Nor, Cyril noted, was there any sign of Richard.
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