The new world – On the wings of the eagle – Digging for pearls in a pig sty – Miss Brenda Lee – A shift in perspective
AT WHAT PRICE PROGRESS?
Rina Prescott reporting
We often take for granted the comfort that our advanced society affords us. We need not fear the elements, because we are safe and warm in our houses, and all we need to do if we are cold is turn a valve. It behoves us to remember, though, where that warmth is coming from. People toil ceaselessly in the coal mines, their machines gnawing at the bowels of the Earth like earth-worms. Coal mining is not a healthy occupation. At least in England, mining equipment is designed with miners’ safety in mind, if not their comfort. They wear masks that prevent them from developing the dreaded Black Lung, or pneumoconiosis as the physicians call it. But not all coal comes from our own mines. Our voracious appetite for steam compels us to purchase coal from overseas, where mining conditions are not up to our standards at all. There are places where children as young as eight years of age are driven to do the hard labour of bringing the black gold to the surface, not only in the mining carts or on the sleds, but in their lungs. We, in our civilised environment, cannot imagine the suffering, can only speculate about young children coughing like chain smokers until they are finally unable to continue. Spare them a thought, when you are warm in your bed, and remember at what price that warmth comes.
This is the first entry into my diary of this New World that Mr. Nicholas Slate has promised us. I honestly don’t know what possessed me, André Dupont, Physicist and Mathematician of modest reputation, to step on board the massive airship Aquila and allow myself to be seduced into this adventure. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that those who did not now lie dead among the rubble of the Eiffel Tower. Am I a coward for choosing this way out? Part of me loathes Slate for not taking a more reasonable approach. Another part of me is excited. I must confess that in the world of the University of Paris, I have often felt restricted. When Science fears to tread the dangerous path of exploration, progress stagnates. We live in a world powered by steam, powered by coal. I know from my studies that other ways exist, not unknown to Science, but an insufficient improvement over what we now have, to be pursued. Mr. Slate offers me the opportunity that the University will not. But at what cost?
I have met my colleagues. Not all of them are French. We have Americans among us, and some Englishmen. There is a biologist from Poland and a civil engineer from Russia. Their moods vary between excitement, fear, resignment, anger. As Mr. Slate often reminds us, we are the intellectual heavyweights of the Nouveau Monde. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of our time. He spends with us all the time that the ship does not demand his attention. While he is still vague about some of his plans, he has told us that it has something to do with energy. A mysterious force he discovered, dwelling deep within the domain of matter itself. A wild energy that, while dangerous to lesser men, can be harnessed by those of staunch heart, and used to serve the needs of Humanity for as long a time as our Creator sees fit to give us.
When I hear him speak, sitting at the head of the table, eyes aglow with fervour, I believe him. But to my shame, when I return to my bed, doubt sets in. But we have not been given yet all the data that Nicholas Slate possesses. Without data, there can be no knowledge, and without knowledge, there can be no certainty.
We have stopped at an airport to take on coal. Slate has not told us where we are. One of my colleagues asked if he could visit the town, to buy some of the local products. Slate denied the request, because our enemies are moving. We cannot risk any one of us being captured. Each and every one of us is essential to the Great Plan. We quickly set off again, heading East with the setting sun in our backs. I spent most of my time on the observation deck, watching rain forests and deserts pass below us. From the geological features, one of my colleagues determined that we were flying across Sudan. It is all the same to me. Our destination is some secret cavern called by Slate “The Eagle’s Nest.” Our organisation is called Prometheus after the Titan from Greek mythology, who stole fire from the Gods, and for punishment was chained to a rock. The eagle came every day and pecked out his liver. Every day Prometheus’ liver would grow back. Our symbol is an eagle struck down by lightning. Aquila, the name of our dreadnought airship, means “Eagle” in Latin. It seems strange to me that Slate should name his airship and his lair after the instrument of Prometheus’ punishment. I haven’t the heart to ask him. I hide, as I have always done, behind my unremarkable appearance. Until I know Nicholas Slate’s moods and tempers better, I will keep my head down.
Not all of us on board Aquila are scientists. There are a number of Prussian guards on board, who call themselves “Klemm’s Jäger”. They are all professionalism and ruthless efficiency. Violent tempers checked by iron discipline. Slate assures us that they are here to keep us safe. I am certain that they are up to that task, but at the same time, they frighten me. Luckily, they keep to their own section of our airship, except at meal times, where everybody joins in, except those at the helm.
We are well taken care of. Meals while not excessive are good, with above average wine. I share a comfortable cabin with a taciturn Russian mathematician named Kristoff. I don’t know if that is his first or last name or even whether he has any other name. He has not offered any explanations on why he has joined Prometheus, and I have not asked him. He snores, but I once slept through an entire failed alchemical experiment not three hundred meters away. He specialises in the analytic and algebraic topology of locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds, which is an obscure topic even at Paris.
When we are not sleeping or eating, we play at cards, or are lectured by Mr. Slate about the troubling direction the world is taking. Slate seems to think that we are running out of coal, and that when we do, Prometheus will be ready with the replacement technology. My skeptical mind rebels. There are untold millions of tons of coal underground, and the Tyson Process for enhancing its energy assures us of enough fire for the foreseeable future. But at some point, granted, the last lump of coal will be delved. Whether the human race as such will still exist at that time is anyone’s guess. Mr. Slate has not yet explained the nature of his replacement technology to us. He simply states that it is abundant and clean, so that even in a million years, Humanity will not need to fear the dark. Once we arrive at our destination, all will be made clear. My problem remains. When he speaks, I believe him. When he is silent, doubt floats to the surface again.
I wish we were at this Eagle’s Nest already. I want to know whether Nicholas Slate’s vision is viable, or just a madman’s dream.
We have landed at the Eagle’s nest. We have disembarked, and have been gently herded into our new home. We all have rooms to ourselves, and I will no longer have to listen to Dr. Kristoff’s grumbling about some kind of plagiarism affair. The laboratories are… stunning. They are fitted with the latest equipment. They are well lit, not with gas light, but with the mysterious processes of tamed lightning. We have been told that the light in our laboratories is a perfect mirror of sunlight. While this is impressive, I cannot shake the thought that this means we will not see the sun again for a long time.
To start us off, we have been given the works of a Professor Hammond of a university in Arkham, in the Americas. I have to admit that I cannot quite understand the documents. The formulas are easier to grasp, but they include variables that I am not familiar with. In fact, that is putting it politely. This, Kind Reader, is drivel of the worst description. Still, given the trouble Mr. Slate has taken to bring us here, commenting on it may not be opportune. It seems that our task is to take the sunstroke-induced ramblings of this Dr. Hammond and somehow transform them into sound science. I have started on notes trying to determine what Hammond was trying to do. Maybe I need a stiff Cognac to put myself in this American’s frame of mind. I shudder to think what will happen when we try to put these ideas into practice. I would recommend the Alchemist’s running shoes for this.
I have taken a short walk through the complex, which includes a mining operation for the mysterious ore on which our hopes are founded. The mines are worked by dejected looking natives of the area. We are in a very large cavern, and the airship Aquila sits on top of the only exit, hidden from observers on the ground by the mountain peaks. I could see that this exit is artificial, made using explosives. A stairway winds up into the shaft, and cargo can be loaded or unloaded by means of a crane. I could not see any other exits, but I may simply have missed them. I was just about to return, when a young lady wearing the uniform of a Jäger approached me, asking if I was lost.
“No, mademoiselle, I said. I have just arrived and I am stretching my legs.”
“The Boss doesn’t like people wandering around,” she said, not unfriendly but firm. “It isn’t safe everywhere.”
“Oh, I don’t intend to go where I’m not wanted,” I said.
“That’s pretty much everywhere except the brain pen,” she replied.
“Pen. It’s a play on words. Because you people are supposed to be very clever. And we like to keep you inside. You live longer that way.”
“Are you afraid I might fall into a mine shaft? Maybe you think a carriage might run into me? Is the roof so badly constructed that rocks fall off?”
The lady pointed at a group of miners. “We’ve got plenty of people here who would love to show you the bottom of one of the mine shafts.”
“But I have not done anything to them! Why…”
“Others have. And they were the same colour as you are. Think I’m wearing this revolver as a fashion accessory?”
“That is simply…”
“Brain pen is that way,” said the lady. “Come on, I’ll take you there.”
She led me back to my laboratories, to my colleagues, and to my unfathomable documents. She gave me a nod, and turned round to leave.
“Wait.” I said. “My name is André Dupont. What is your name?”
She half turned round to look at me for a moment or two.
“Lee,” she said. “Brenda Lee.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mademoiselle Lee.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
I have now been at the Eagle’s Nest for a week. Our job is to look for nuggets of wisdom in the large volumes of nonsense left not only by Prof. Hammond, but by others of the same expedition. Here and there, I have indeed found pieces of sound Physics, but to be honest, those could have been produced by any competent physicist in an afternoon’s hard work. Magister Nicholas Slate visits us often, wanting to know what progress we have made. I leave it to my colleagues to inform him that we are gaining deeper and deeper insight into the very essence of existence itself, and that we are awed by the depth of the research of Hammond et al. I am not a competent liar. I have obtained a few samples of the ore. They are on my desk now, glowing prettily when I turn off the lights. I have a large stack of paper to be read, a small stack of paper containing the few coherent pieces of research, and a large waste paper bin. Mr. Slate has asked me twice in person if my research is getting on. I keep a small supply of paper available on which I have “copied” some of Hammond’s work. In reality, these are my own work on magnetism and electricity. Since that has everything to do with energy, I hope it will satisfy him.
I have seen Mademoiselle Lee once or twice, spoken with her once. She visits the Brain Pen only now and then with her colleagues, on one of their unending Sicherheitsinspektionen. Among the large bulky Jäger, she seems small, but there is a sense of strength about her that can only be the result of many hours, even days wasted picking up pieces of metal and putting them down again. I honestly cannot think of a less productive way to spend one’s time. I have not told her my opinions, as those in glass houses should not throw stones. My own work at this moment is no less futile, and does not even leave my brain in better condition.
Though she hides it well under a layer of professionalism, I can’t escape the notion that something is troubling her deeply. I am curious what it is, but at the same time not sure at all that I want to find out.
Today was not a good day, to say the least. We were familiar with the way Mr. Nicholas Slate treats his friends. Today we were shown how he treats his enemies. All the scientists were gathered together in the dining hall, and we were asked about our progress. One of the physicists, a Romanian named Marius Cjelli, launched into a large treatise on the merits of the impressive works of the great scientist Professor Hammond. He spoke at great length about the lightening that dwells deep in the substance of the pitchblende, citing many of Hammond’s papers on the frequencies permeating the higher dimensions of Being. He finished with a bow and expressed his gratitude for being allowed to participate in this great endeavour that would no doubt elevate Humanity to the very stars and beyond.
Some of us cheered him on, but true to my nature, I kept silent. I thank the Good God that I did. Nicholas Slate’s silence drew into it all sound until nobody spoke. He turned to Dr. Cjelli with a dark look on his face.
“Doctor Cjelli. Have you anything more to say on this subject?”
“Mr. Slate, Eternity itself could not contain the words. I am privileged…”
“Enough! Doctor Cjelli, do I look like an imbecile to you?”
Dr. Cjelli could only stammer.
“Do you think I am unaware of the nature of the documents left to us by Dr. Hammond? Do you think I don’t know that the man sullies the very title he bore by his sheer existence? I know that Hammond’s papers contain nothing but the delusional babblings of a madman! This should have been obvious to any of you at the first glance! I gave you these papers, not to learn of the nature of the powers inherent in the ore that our mines provide! No, I gave you these papers to learn of you! Do you think I cannot tell when someone tries to deceive me with a deluge of words? You, Dr. Cjelli, have tried to deceive me. You have insulted my intelligence, and you have betrayed the New Order! I will not take this lightly, nor will I forgive you for it. Take him!”
Two of the Jäger stepped forward, and held his arms. A third came up behind him. I thought that Dr. Cjelli would be thrown into a dungeon, but the truth was worse. He was dragged to the middle of the dining hall, and a rope was thrown over a beam. Before anyone could move or speak, the rope was looped over Dr. Cjelli’s head, and he was pulled off his feet till they were about a yard off the ground. His face turned red, and he tried in vain to pull himself up by the rope. His legs kicked out like some grotesque dance.
We all looked on on abject terror. One of us, I could not see who, stood up.
“Good God, Slate! Let the man down, he has learned his lesson!”
Mr. Slate bared his teeth in a grisly travesty of a grin as Dr. Cjelli’s movements grew weaker, and finally stopped.
“Dr. Cjelli has no more lessons to learn, Gentlemen. But he has one final lesson left to teach. You are the ones who must learn, and learn well. This is the fate of traitors.” Slate calmly walked over to Dr. Cjelli and turned him to face us. “Observe. Observe the way his eyes bulge. Observe the way his tongue protrudes. Observe the expression of one who suffers and then dies. This is the fate of those who seek to betray Prometheus. Remember Dr. Cjelli’s final lesson, Gentlemen. I have read all your reports. Know that I have learnt from your words who to trust, and who to watch closely. Who can sleep easy, and who must redeem himself.”
At a gesture from Mr. Slate, the Jäger let go of the rope, and Dr. Cjelli’s body fell to the ground. There was a sickening crack as his head hit the stone floor. It drove home the fact that Dr. Cjelli was no longer alive to feel the pain of a broken skull.
“Now return to your rooms. Tomorrow, you will be given your true tasks.”
This journal, I write by the dim light of a single candle. The small black Moleskine notebook fits snugly inside the pocket of my jacket. I will confide to it all that happens to me in this horrible place. We have turned from Slate’s trusted colleagues into his prisoners. We are his slaves as much as are the poor wretched souls toiling, spoiling their lives, in the mines. I doubt whether they will feel our kinship as keenly as I do. If Slate holds their life in as little regard as he does ours, then they have good cause to hate all those of us with white skin. I hope and pray that my skills will be equal to the tasks set before us. I have no doubt that Slate will deal harshly with any of us who cannot satisfy his demands.
I will try to sleep now. I am both exhausted, and rigid with fear. Perhaps I should have taken my chances in the Eiffel Tower. This place stinks of death.
Mon Dieu, why did I come to this place? Even though the Eiffel Tower lies in ruins, with my poor unwilling colleagues dead among the rubble, their fate cannot be worse than ours. We are prisoners here in the belly of a mountain. We are made comfortable, we are well-fed, and our dwellings are kept clean by dedicated slaves. This only accentuates the fact that our comforts can easily be taken away from us. We are as much captives as our poor dark-skinned brethren, who have to work in the mines to delve the poisonous materials from the bowels of the Earth. I have seen them, forced myself to look at their bodies, burnt by unseen fire, disfigured with unnatural swellings. Even if I can do nothing to lessen their suffering, I will witness it. Even if my pity does not help them one iota, they have it.
I write these words, maybe in the vain hope that someone will at some time find them, and read in them why scientists, who should know better, allowed themselves to be used in this fashion by a madman, hungry for power.
We are the damned. History will spit on our names. They will call us traitors, cowards, heretics, villains, and they will be right.