Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Four, Part One

Notes: Anton's world is slowly coalescing, like a black hole, only he doesn't realize it yet. More plots, more schemes, and a few innocent little tidbits that turn out not to be so innocent in the long run!

Title: The Tank: Chapter Four, Part One


Chapter Four, Part One

For the first time in months, the campus was quiet. The university had officially let out for the year, and while there would always be some people about—the staff that maintained the facilities, certain teachers and students who had experiments that couldn’t be put on hold for holiday, and the occasional tourist—the bustling crowds of dark-robed students were by-in-large gone now.

Anton, by all rights, should have been one of them, new graduate that he was. At the very least, he should have been in the process of packing his laboratory, settling his paperwork, and moving on to a new and exciting position back out in the world. The last, of course, hadn’t happened, and because it hadn’t happened none of the rest of it was until he absolutely couldn’t put it off any longer.

He wouldn’t have squatted on campus, of course. Anton had his pride, after all—he would never have pushed his welcome so far that he was forced out. But if he’d had to be reminded more than once, well, he was absent-minded at times, wasn’t he? It was a caveat of the trade—thaumaturges tended to focus so deeply on their work that much of the rest of life passed them by, often including the need to sleep and eat. It was a bit of a miracle that Anton’s parents had ever found each other, given how many thaumaturgical miracles his father had wrought and how much bloody time they’d all taken.

Besides, Anton now had an actual, official reason to stay here—at least until he was called in to meet with Dr. Grable. He’d received a message from the man’s secretary not an hour ago, requesting his presence at four. That was right after Grable was scheduled to meet with the emperor’s delegation, according to a passing comment by Camille that morning.

That morning…mmm, that had been nice. Camille had gone out early, and returned not long after with hot chocolate, ham and gruyere croissants, and just in case Anton couldn’t cope without it, a little cup of espresso as well.

“You are a god among men,” Anton had slurred from where he still lay in bed, his arms wrapped around Camille’s pillow.

“I hope not,” Camille had said, gently setting the tray of food down before joining Anton on the bed again. He didn’t lay down, just sat across from Anton’s head and smoothed a hand across his shoulder and upper back. “There’s too much expected of gods, and I have more than enough people to worry about as it is.”

Anton craned his head around until he could kiss Camille’s palm. “I wish you didn’t worry about me.” He knew better than to suggest that Camille didn’t ever need to worry about him—last night had made the opposite abundantly clear.

“You wouldn’t be yourself if you didn’t occasionally become involved in things that normal men shy away from.”

“I am normal,” Anton had protested sleepily.

“No,” Camille had replied with a faint smile. “You’re really not.”

Anton stopped and stood in front of his laboratory’s window. It was late May, the height of spring now arcing toward summer, and the temperature outside was as lovely as Zürich could possibly be. There was no logical reason for him to keep the window closed. None of his experiments were so sensitive that they would be disrupted by a bit of breeze or a few raindrops, and that was all the weather had offered up lately beyond pure sunshine.

In truth, the laboratory could have used some airing out, after the last round of experiments involving powdered sulfur. That was what a normal man in this situation would do, and Anton was still of the opinion, despite Camille’s easy teasing, that he was quite normal.

None of this logic had much of an impact on Anton’s peace of mind, though.

He touched the stone sill beneath the window, cool and dark, shaped long ago by a stonemason’s chisel and worn a bit more by the hands of dozens, scores of students that had done their work here. It had a bit of a shine to it, this stone. Humanity had literally pressed its grease into the cutter’s marks until the surface was nearly smooth. Once, Anton wouldn’t have hesitated to lean his weight there, to throw open the window and stare down at the square far below with nothing more than a bit of bemusement. Now the thought of it made him shudder.

Oh, get a hold of yourself, he thought irritably. You’re not a child. There’s no need to let the past rule you like this. He was lucky he hadn’t had a nightmare last night—he would have hated to wake Camille up with his shouting.

Sometimes—rarely—hardly more than once a week—Anton relived the sensation of being pushed from this window. In those dreams, unlike in real life, he didn’t catch himself on a bit of gothic ornamentation as he fell, and Camille didn’t haul him back into his laboratory at the last second. In the dreams he fell straight to the cobblestones and dashed his brains out, yet somehow lived to see his own disfigured corpse despite that. Or Camille found him, but their hands slipped apart. The worse ones were the ones where Camille saw him, but never bothered to reach for him at all, and Anton had to see his lover’s indifferent face as he fell to his non-death and wonder what he had done wrong.

They were wrenching, but they were just dreams. “Just dreams,” he told himself. “Now get a move on.”

It made sense to at least start packing now, especially if Camille was right and Dr. Grable was going to offer Anton a place as his assistant for the summer. In Paris, nonetheless. Paris! Anton had always wanted to go to Paris. Some of the greatest technological innovations of the nineteenth century had been made there, courtesy of L’Institut D’Ingénierie Technologique. The Institute was to the development of machinery what Oxford was to British thaumaturgy—simply the best of the best. Anton was greatly looking forward to visiting it, if he got the chance.

Which he certainly wouldn’t get if he couldn’t even pack up his bloody laboratory. Anton began with his notebooks, organizing and triaging the most important ones versus those that could be left in his—safe and securely spelled—trunk for the time being. He needed to keep his greatest works at hand, of course, just in case. Just in case you’re offered a job down there, perhaps, and Caroline sees it and goes into conniptions and tattles on you to the Council and your citizenship is revoked and you never see your mother again.

No. Caroline wouldn’t do that to him. She would hurt him, verbally and emotionally, deliberately and not, but she would never do something to put him in physical danger and she would certainly never cause any harm to his mother. Caroline was like a daughter to her.

Get on with it.

Anton packed up his most specific and irreplaceable spell components next, things that he needed for his masterpieces or that were less essential, but that he doubted he’d be able to afford if he had to repurchase them. Next came the spell housings—little balls like the one he’d deployed yesterday, carved from resinous pine and balsam, light and easily lit. Lastly he added in a few basic alembics and firestarters, in case he had to make things on the go.

“That’s all the important stuff,” he murmured. Except…it really wasn’t. There was still the palimpsest.

It was a copy of the palimpsest, actually, one Anton had made before the original was stolen. He’d very nearly decoded it and he wanted to finish the job, even though it seemed like a waste of time now that the spell was out there in the world. Wasn’t it? Even if it was, there was no excuse for leaving something like that where any old thaumaturge could discover it.

Anton reached beneath his long wooden desk, brushing a few spiders out of the way as he felt around for—ah. The false panel he’d wedged in place fell out, and the copy of the palimpsest dropped into his hand. There. He pulled it out, brushed it off, and tucked it into his holdall. Now he was ready.

The bell tower chimed quarter to four. Anton put on his jacket and hat, straightened his tie, and headed for the stairs.

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