A fantastical nineteenth century alternate historical steampunk romp from Beth Bernobich, the critically acclaimed author of the River of Souls trilogy.
Éire is one of the most powerful empires in the world. The Anglian Dependencies are a dusty backwater filled with resentful colonial subjects, Europe is a disjointed mess, and many look to Éire for stability and peace. In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man's benefit. And who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.
The Golden Octopus: Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, the young Queen of Éire, balances Court politics while pursing the Crown's goals of furthering scientific discovery. When those discoveries lead to the death and madness of those she loves, Áine must choose between her heart and her duty to her kingdom.
A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange: Síomón Madóc is desperately trying to discover who is killing the brightest of Éire's mathematicians. The key to saving lives lies in the future...and Síomón must figure out a way to get there.
Ars Memoriae: Éireann spymaster Aidrean Ó Deághaidh goes to the kingdom of Montenegro to investigate rumors of great unrest. But Ó Deághaidh is tormented by visions of a different timeline and suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game....
The Time Roads: Éire stands on the brink of the modern age, but old troubles still plague the kingdom. An encounter with a mysterious stranger near death holds the clue to both the past and the future of the nation.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
BETH BERNOBICH comes from a family of story tellers, artists, and engineers. She juggles her time between working with computer software, writing, family, and karate. Her short stories have appeared publications such as Asimov's, Interzone, Postscripts, Strange Horizons, and Sex in the System. She lives with her husband and son in Bethany, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
THE GOLDEN OCTOPUS
I first met Breandan Reid Ó Cuilinn in my father’s Court, in Cill Cannig, on a bright, cold November day. I was seventeen, a Princess Royal and heir to the throne. He, I knew from reports assembled by the King’s Constabulary, was the son of a country gentleman, thirty years old, with degrees from Awveline University in physics and philosophy.
He never even noticed me.
To be sure, he was there to impress my father—the king—and the many astrologers, scientists, and councilors who made up the king’s Court in those days, not a young woman watching from the shadows. But I’m rambling on without purpose. Let me tell you what happened that day.
It was late November, as I said. We were all gathered in the smallest of my father’s audience chambers, the one where he liked to hold such demonstrations. (Miscellaneous Scientific Inquiries, Etc., is how the steward labeled them.) Sunlight poured through the high square windows; an early morning rain shower had spattered droplets over the panes, which cast a hundred tiny rainbows upon the gray marble floor. A raised platform ran around three sides of the room, with a series of recessed alcoves. I sat in my usual place, the middle alcove, which gave me the best view of my father and Ó Cuilinn both.
“Tell me,” my father said, “what you hope to discover.”
Breandan Ó Cuilinn—excuse me, Doctor Ó Cuilinn—said, “I cannot tell yet. I can only report on what I have achieved.”
The old astrologers, who had served my grandfather and great-grandfather since the middle of the century, nodded. They recognized temporizing, no matter what form it took. “True, true,” one old man mumbled. “We can chart the moon and all the stars of heaven, but there are subtleties beyond even the most learned of the cloud diviners.”
The Court scientists and mage-mathematicians, whose philosophies belonged to both the old and the modern schools, merely shrugged and stared hard at the strange machine Ó Cuilinn had brought, which now sat upon a large battered worktable, evidently provided by the steward from the palace attics.
He was not a rich man, this Doctor Ó Cuilinn. He had arrived in a hired van, with no servants, no assistants, and had transported the five large crates to the interview chamber himself using a freight trolley. He must have assembled the machine as well. That would account for the oil stain on the sleeve of his frock coat, and the dusty knees of his trousers.
The machine itself gleamed in brass and silver splendor upon the table. It was as large as a man’s torso and shaped like an octopus, with shining glass tubes writhing about the massive central orb. Wires ran through the tubes, like thin black veins; more wires snaked over the table and connected the device to a crate of batteries sitting on the floor. The metals themselves, however beautiful, were likely chosen for their properties, I thought, remembering the man’s initial letter. And it required a great deal of electricity. But what were those strange knobs and dials for?
With a practiced gesture, Ó Cuilinn drew a small metal bar from his pocket. It was just a few inches long, made of some dull silvery material. He pressed a spot on the side of the octopus’s body. A section of the front slid open—as though the octopus had opened its mouth into a rectangular yawn. Ó Cuilinn placed the metal bar inside. The mouth closed again; this time, I could see the thin lines marking its edges.
“What kind of metal is that?” my father asked.
“An iron-chromium alloy, Your Majesty,” Ó Cuilinn replied. “It proves less reactive than pure iron.”
If he doubted my father’s ability to understand the answer, he made no sign of it. But one question led to a barrage of others from the Court scientists. Those batteries, what were they, and what charge did they produce? Was it purely electricity his device used? If so, what role did those glass tubes perform? A modified Leclanché cell, Ó Cuilinn replied. Ammonium chloride mixed with plaster of paris, sealed in a zinc shell, each of which produced 1.5 volts. He was corresponding with a collective of scientists from Sweden and the Dietsch Empire, concerning a rechargeable battery with nickel and cadmium electrodes in a potassium-hydroxide solution. Yes, the results would certainly prove more reliable. Also, more expensive. (Here the councilors muttered something about how these research men always demanded more money.) As for the role of the batteries, they were purely to start the necessary reactions. He would rather not discuss the further details until His Majesty and the gentlemen had observed the machine’s performance.
Turning away from his audience, Ó Cuilinn began to manipulate a series of switches and dials along the lower edge of the machine. The scientists and mathematicians fell silent, absorbed in watching his work. The astrologers were less entranced, and one old man continued to mumble about the stars and their effect upon the Earth’s magnetic currents. Ó Cuilinn ignored them all. His long slim fingers moved deftly over the octopus’s face. Gradually I became aware of a soft buzzing between my ears. The skin along my arms itched. Just as I reached up to rub them, a loud crack echoed from the device.
The audience gasped. I started, then found myself unable to move.
Gas inside the tubes ignited into gaudy colors. Smoke roiled around the device, and there was a distinct burning odor, as though lightning had struck inside the palace. The astrologers and other philosophers were all whispering. The scientists frowned. My father too was frowning, but in concentration.
Ó Cuilinn alone seemed unperturbed. He leaned down and touched the device. Again the octopus yawned. I stared, uncertain what I might see inside its mouth.
I saw nothing.
More muttering broke out, louder than before.
“Where has it gone?” my father asked.
“The future,” Doctor Ó Cuilinn replied.
An uncomfortable silence followed that pronouncement.
Less assured than before, Ó Cuilinn said, “Please understand that I’ve not yet calibrated the time frame. So I cannot predict when it will reappear.”
“Meaning, it might be anywhere,” one mathematician said.
“Or any when,” another quipped.
One of the courtiers smothered a laugh. Ó Cuilinn’s eyes narrowed—his irritation was plain to see—and I thought he was about to say something regrettable when my father said, “Your application states you are on the point of proving that time travel is possible.”
“I have proved it,” Ó Cuilinn said, a bit heatedly.
My father smiled. It was a kindly smile, but his obvious sympathy clearly irritated this young son of a country doctor just as much as the open disbelief from the scientists. “I have proved it,” he repeated. “Even if I cannot predict precisely when into the future my machine sends these objects. And, well, there are certain difficulties. But to overcome them, I need money. It is a crass plea, Your Majesty. I know that. But I swear you shall not regret offering me and my work your patronage.”
My father gazed at him steadily, no trace of kindness on his face now. “What use do you see for such a machine, Doctor Ó Cuilinn?”
“That is not for me to say, Your Majesty. But if you were to ask—”
“I just did, young man.”
A brief embarrassed smile flickered over Ó Cuilinn’s face. “So you did, Your Majesty. Very well. I would say the uses are infinite, just as time is. You could send artifacts forward, for future historians. And if once we find the means to travel into the future, surely it follows that the reverse is possible. Think of that, speaking with the future and hearing its reply.”
One of the astrologers objected. “Impossible. If the future is immutable, our descendants cannot interfere by offering us assistance, in any form.”
“How, immutable?” said one of the philosophers. “If the future has not happened yet, we are free to change it.”
“But change implies existence—”
“It implies nothing of the sort. You can change a man’s potential after all. The future is nothing more than potential until it becomes our past—”
The argument broke out, louder and more strident than before. Ó Cuilinn scowled. My father shook his head, but made no effort to quash the debate. He beckoned Ó Cuilinn to one side. They stood within a half dozen steps from my alcove. One glance upward, and the man would see me, or at least my dim outline, but his attention was wholly upon my father.
“Tell me truthfully,” my father said, “how you believe to breach the walls of time.” And as Ó Cuilinn looked about to launch into a longer speech, he held up a hand. “In simple terms, please. I have dabbled in science in my youth, but I am no scholar.”
Ó Cuilinn offered my father a polite bow. “You undervalue yourself, Your Majesty. I know your reputation. Well, then, my research and my methods depend on time fractures. These are—”
“I know what time fractures are. Most scholars believe them to be a myth.”
“They are not. Or rather, I have uncovered certain historical documents that support their existence. My theory is that they cluster around specific events. If you provide me with funding, I can map the largest of these clusters and use them to send forward items. Of course I would also need to refine my calibrations for how far into the future…”
My father nodded, his expression noncommittal. By now, the noisy debate had died off. Clearly the demonstration was over. My father spoke a few final words to Ó Cuilinn, so softly I could not make them out. Then with a signal, he and his Court departed.
From my alcove, I watched Ó Cuilinn disassemble his machine into pieces and pack them into the same five crates. Though I knew he must be frustrated, or angry, he worked without hurry, carefully wrapping each item into paper sleeves, then packing them into straw and cotton. His were strong, deft hands, pale and beautiful in the fading November sunlight. A faint flush lingered on his cheeks. Now that I had the leisure, I could examine him freely. He was long limbed and graceful. His complexion was fair, his hair the color of pale straw, and fine. His eyes were of a blue so dark, they reminded me of thunderclouds. Not precisely handsome, but pleasing to look upon. I wondered if he had had many lovers.
Doubtful, I thought. A man like that—a scientist—could have only one obsession in his life, and usually that was his craft, not a woman.
He had done with his packing. Still he had not detected my presence, but then I had placed myself outside of anyone’s casual notice. It was a trick my mother had taught me, back when I was a young child. Watch first, she said, and then you will know how to act.
One by one, the crates vanished from the room—no doubt going back to the same hired van. Ó Cuilinn returned a final time and scanned the empty chamber, as though checking for forgotten items. The sunlight fell across his face, but his expression was hard to read. Discouraged? Or merely preoccupied?
The door swung shut. I counted to ten before I left my hiding place.
Only a half hour had passed since Ó Cuilinn had begun his demonstration, and yet the sun already dipped below the windows. The fire burned low; the air felt chill. Soon servants would come to sweep the floor and carry away the worktable. Soon my father would send for me, to ask me my impressions. Still, I lingered. I made a slow circuit of the room, sniffing. The burning odor had faded, but traces of it remained. The closer I approached the table, the stronger the traces were. The prickling sensation returned, as though tiny pins ran over my arms and neck.
Intrigued, I held my hands a few inches above the table. Where the octopus had sat, the wood felt pleasantly warm.
His demonstration was exactly like that of an illusionist. One moment, you saw the apple on his palm, the next it had disappeared. Hardly proof of a scientific discovery.
But he was so certain. And I am certain he could not lie, even if it meant his death.
Then I saw it—a shadow on the table. A clear, dark shadow, in spite of the fading afternoon light. I bent closer. Not a shadow, but a thin layer of ashes on the tabletop. Exactly where the bar had sat inside the machine.
My pulse beating faster, I touched a fingertip to the shadow. A film of dust clung to my skin. I tasted it. (A rash move, since several of my recent ancestors had been poisoned.)
The dust had the texture of fine grit, and a sour metallic flavor.
Was it rust?
Cold washed over my skin as I realized what I had consumed. This was not mere rust, but the remnants of a metal bar, corroded.
Very quietly, I brushed the iron flakes into my palm and closed my fingers around them. I felt as though I held the future.
* * *
A year and a month passed before I saw Doctor Ó Cuilinn’s name again.
My father had approved a grant for his research, and from time to time the King’s Constabulary sent reports on his work, but these went directly to my father. My own days had lately been consumed with preparations for my formal presentation to the Congress of Éire. I had appeared before them five years ago, after my elder brother had died, and my father named me the presumptive heir—more a formality than any real change in status. Now that I was eighteen, almost nineteen, this ceremony signaled I would take my place at my father’s side in ruling the kingdom.
This morning, however, one of those reports lay on top of the stack of documents handed to me by my father’s secretary. Memory shivered through me as I scanned the first page. Only after a moment did I understand its import.
“He has given up his post,” I said. “I wonder why?”
“Who has?” my father said.
We sat at the breakfast table, both of us reading feverishly in preparation for another long day. Lately, my father spent more time reading than consuming his breakfast, which worried me, and his face had taken on a gaunt and harried look. He seemed older—much older—than his fifty-seven years. One could almost see the shadow of bones beneath his skin.
He has outlived three children and his wife.
Hurriedly, I put that thought aside. “Doctor Ó Cuilinn,” I said, in answer to his question. “The man who invented the time machine.”
“Hardly invented,” my father murmured. “There were and remain several significant obstacles to such a device.”
“The corrosion of materials?” I guessed.
“Among others. According to the Constabulary, our doctor made slow but regular progress for the first six months. Lately, however, his laboratory assistants admit they do little more than sweep the floors while Doctor Ó Cuilinn scribbles notes and formulas in his journal.”
“You set spies upon him.”
My father laid his papers aside and regarded me with mild eyes. “I set spies upon everyone, my love. It is necessary, and you know it.”
I did. I remembered the assassination attempts from my childhood, and the investigations after my mother’s and brother’s deaths, when my father stalked the corridors of the palace, suspecting every councilor and courtier of plotting against the throne. My mother and brother had died of fever, and nothing more. But the assassination attempts—those were real.
“Back to Doctor Ó Cuilinn,” my father said. “Yes, I knew he had resigned his post. He gave no concrete reason to the university, but if I were to guess, I would say he believes himself close to discovery. He wants no distractions.”
“But the reports—”
“Are accurate, but they can only record his outward activities. Not his secret thoughts.”
Or his soul, I thought. I had only observed the man for a scant half hour. Still, he had impressed me as someone who did not give up very easily. The word obsessed came back to me. “Will you extend his grant, then?”
“Possibly. Certain members of our Congress believe the device will have practical applications, and my scholars agree Doctor Ó Cuilinn’s theory about time fractures is … plausible.”
His gaze turned inward a moment, as though he surveyed a scene far different from this elegant breakfast room, the warm yellow gaslight glinting off the silver tea urns. Was he pondering the implications of time fractures? (The idea alone made me queasy.) Or was he perhaps remembering my mother?
Then he gave himself a shake. “Enough speculation. We both have a busy schedule this morning. Let us finish our breakfast and set to work.”
It was Tuesday, a day set aside for private interviews with delegations from other nations. Today, my father would meet with the Prussian ambassador, a stiff-necked, belligerent man, who matched his king’s personality well. It would not be a pleasant hour. The Prussian Alliance was seeking to expand their territory, and while their activities did not affect Éire directly, they did affect our closest ally, Frankonia.
Mine was the less taxing morning. An informal meeting with the newly appointed representative from the Papal States. Another with a group of Egyptian scholars, who wished to organize an exchange between their universities and ours. A much longer session with an ambassador from the Turkish States, listening demurely as the man droned on, and his interpreter murmured in my ear.
The noon bells chimed. The Turkish ambassador and I rose and went through all the formalities of leave-taking. It had been an especially tedious hour, and later events should have erased this insignificant moment from my memory, but a scattering of images and impressions remained. The man’s watery green eyes, almost ghostly in his brown face. The soothing lilt of his voice, which was echoed by the woman who translated his words. How faint lines and the mottling of his skin belied his otherwise youthful appearance. The scent of coriander and rose that hung about his person.
One of the senior runners escorted the ambassador and his interpreter from the room. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had a moment of respite before my next engagement, an intimate luncheon with my father and a coterie of influential representatives from Éire’s Congress.
Then, a door swung open.
I heard it first, a deep, grating noise that penetrated to my bones.
Even when I opened my eyes, I could not quite take in what I saw.
It was not the unobtrusive side door, used by servants and runners. Nor the ordinary ones used by visitors, such as the Turkish ambassador. No, these were the doors used only for the most formal state affairs. Each panel measured six feet by sixteen, and was carved from a single tree imported from the western continent. I had only seen the portals opened once during my lifetime, and that was when my mother had died.
An old man in livery marched into the room and stepped to one side.
Next came a silver-haired lord with the ribbon and chain of office draped over his raven-black coat. It was Lord Mac Gioll, the oldest of my father’s councilors. He had served as an officer, then as my grandfather’s personal adviser, when my father was but a young man. Old, so very old, his thin white hair like a veil over his skull. He walked with a stiff limp, but he held his chin high, and I saw there were tears in his pale gray eyes.
He stopped six paces away. “Your Majesty.”
“What are you saying?” I whispered.
Lord Mac Gioll knelt before me and bent his head. “My Queen. I have the great misfortune to report that your father…”
I heard nothing past that, only a roaring in my ears, but I knew what he was saying. My father was dead. Impossible, cried a voice within. He was well not three hours ago. He—
“… the first to pledge my honor, my loyalty, my blood, and my self to your throne…”
As Lord Mac Gioll recited the vows of lord to queen, a part of me recalled that he had recited those same vows to my father, twenty-five years before, when he had lost his father to an attack by Anglian revolutionaries. It was important that I face the news with as much strength and composure as my father had. And so, when Lord Mac Gioll finished his speech, I held out my hands to receive his kiss upon my rings. With great difficulty (I knew better than to make any move to assist him), Lord Mac Gioll rose and gave way to the next man just entering the room.
Copyright © 2014 by Beth Bernobich
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This steampunk story, The Time Roads, is nothing like anything I've ever read before. The story is not a causal read, it is a highly complex tale that covers multiple stories of time road travel and an alternate world based in historic Ireland. Scientist found that using prime numbers they can access “time roads”, bring the ability to travel between alternate realities. With all the traveling between realities, I found myself somewhat confused and a bit overwhelmed. The concept was strong and extremely intriguing but it left a lot of questions. I enjoyed this story. I wanted to understand more and found the different realities is what held my attention. I give this story 3.5 stars. If you are looking for a totally new concept with a steampunk flare, check out The Time Roads.