Check out The Enceladus Crisis, Michael J Martinez’s thrilling follow-up to The Deadalus Incident, available now from Night Shade Books!
Lieutenant Commander Shaila Jain has been given the assignment of her dreams: the first manned mission to Saturn. But there’s competition and complications when she arrives aboard the survey ship Armstrong.
The Chinese are vying for control of the critical moon Titan, and the moon Enceladus may harbor secrets deep under its icy crust. And back on Earth, Project DAEDALUS now seeks to defend against other dimensional incursions. But there are other players interested in opening the door between worlds… and they’re getting impatient.
August 22, 1798
Cairo can be particularly unkind to Europeans in the summer heat, and despite the early hour, there was plenty of sweat on the brows of the scientists and soldiers gathered in one of the city’s newly abandoned palaces. Finch had opted to wear more traditional European attire for the meeting, but his coat and waistcoat were made of far lighter materials than the wool many of the Frenchmen boasted. A few of the savants had taken to wearing Egyptian robes and coats…on top of their European attire, and Finch idly wondered which one of them would be the first to pass out.
To make matters worse, the newly formed Institut d’Egypt had somehow decided that the first-floor harem room would make the most picturesque setting to launch their endeavor, even though the cooling breezes were hampered by the intricately carved geometry of the mashrabiya latticework covering all the windows. Downstairs, Finch could hear a fountain gurgle in the courtyard, which would have been far more preferable.
“You are Dr. Finch, I presume?” came a voice in French from behind him. Finch turned to see a man in a French revolutionary army uniform, with a great deal of braiding and rather impressive-looking epaulets.
“Ah! You must be General Bonaparte,” Finch said, smiling and extending his hand. The other man nodded and smiled as they shook; he was evidently pleased to be recognized, though there were few other military men who would make the time for such an endeavor when much of the countryside still required pacifying. But the Institute was Bonaparte’s idea, and it seemed he fancied himself a scholar as well as a warrior. Finch knew as much, so the assumption was natural, though he thought the general would be somewhat shorter.
“Dolomieu tells me you are a friend of the revolution, doctor,” Bonaparte said. It was less a question or a statement, more a challenge.
“I am a friend of knowledge and liberty, general,” Finch replied, “and foe to any who would curtail either.”
Bonaparte nodded and smiled, seemingly quite pleased with the nuanced answer. “Then you are most welcome here among us, doctor. Now if you’ll excuse us, I believe the Institute is about to meet. Where is Monge? Let us begin!”
And with that, the Frenchmen filed into the harem room, leaving Finch outside in the open corridor outside. If there were any question about whether Finch should attend, the stern looks from the French soldiers guarding the doors answered them most assuredly.
Despairing of his mission, Finch sat down upon a bench…and waited.
From his perch, Finch could hear muffled French from inside the room. There were smatterings of applause here and there, and then Napoleon himself took up a fair amount of time, his unusual Corsican accent distinctive even if his words were muddled to Finch’s ears.
Finch stood. And paced. Then sat down again. Then stood. All the while, the guards at the doors regarded him warily, if idly. He felt for all the world like an unwelcome suitor, and he was beginning to think Dolomieu was in the wrong for inviting him to begin with. Or that he was in the wrong for taking the offer. Perhaps there were other ways of discerning the motives for the French invasion.
In the midst of wrestling with peevish doubt, and an hour after Finch was left to do so, the meeting in the harem room adjourned, and the savants streamed out. Finch waited, arms folded across his chest, as Dolomieu hurried up to him.
“I am so sorry, my friend,” he said, looking genuinely contrite and concerned. “I had no idea they would go on for so long. The general,” he added, looking around and lowering his voice, “has us worrying about producing enough bread and clean water to feed his armies, rather than any sort of study.”
“Then perhaps I should leave you to it,” Finch said, trying not to snap at his friend but succeeding only partially. “I’m quite hopeless in the kitchen.”
“No, please, Andrew, I’ve been asked to introduce you to Berthollet,” Dolomieu said hurriedly. “Come, please.”
Silently, Finch acquiesced and allowed his friend to take his arm and lead him into the harem room. There, an older man wearing the finest clothes was shaking hands with some of the other attendees as they left.
“You must be Andrew Finch,” Berthollet said in heavily accented English as Finch approached. “Deodat has told me much of you.”
“Hopefully only the best parts,” Finch said as he accepted Berthollet’s outstretched hand. “Otherwise, I shall be forced to deny it all.”
“Deny nothing, young man!” Berthollet responded, a broad smile lighting up his florid face. He was a larger man, with an obvious love of food, but he was barely a few years older than Finch. Both were, in many ways, contemporaries and rivals in terms of aptitude and talent; Finch knew that Berthollet was one of the few Frenchmen to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, as was Finch. “Of course I have heard of you, Dr. Finch, and I am pleased to find you here in Cairo after all. There is much to discuss between us, I think.”
“Oh? And what is that, Dr. Berthollet?” Finch asked as innocently as he might muster. Let the chess game begin, Finch thought, smiling inwardly.
“I believe our General Bonaparte will wish to be part of this discussion, yes? Ah, there he is now. Come, Doctor,” Berthollet said motioning toward the courtyard beyond the harem room. At least, Finch thought, it would be cooler there.
And when they rounded the corner and Finch spotted a table with morning tea, set with four places, he understood why the larger meeting was elsewhere. The general was no fool when it came to the sun.
“Dr. Finch,” Bonaparte said with a smile. “Come, partake with us.”
With a nod, Finch took his place at Bonaparte’s left hand, with Berthollet at his right—a most natural place for him, Finch thought. “I find it interesting, monsieur general, that we three are the only ones invited to tea with you,” Finch said, helping himself to the tea. “I assume, then, you have other things in mind.”
Finch winked at Dolomieu, who looked pale and slightly shocked at Finch’s lack of decorum, but Berthollet merely smiled, while Bonaparte let out a short bark of a laugh. “I like you, Dr. Finch!” the general said. “You speak plainly, as I do. So I shall return the favor.”
“And I welcome it,” Finch said, sipping at his tea and reaching for a piece of toasted bread with jam. Someone took the time to spread the jam on the bread already, which Finch thought was a nice touch, and perhaps telling of the comforts these men were used to.
“You left the English Royal Navy, and England itself, to participate in the events of our glorious revolution,” Bonaparte said. “And then you left seven years ago to come to Egypt. Why?”
Finch smiled graciously at this. “You know full well what France was like when I left, monsieur. Robespierre’s Terror was a betrayal of all that we fought for. France squandered its opportunity. Just look at the United States of Ganymede to see the difference.”
“You might have stayed to try to prevent it,” Bonaparte said, though with no hint of malice. It was, for all Finch could tell, a simple question, though of course it was anything but.
“I am an alchemist, and a terrible politician,” Finch demurred. “I assisted how and when I could, but there comes a time when the waves grow too strong to navigate. And I had no wish to meet Madame Guillotine in the event I was accused of being an English spy.”
“Were you?” Berthollet asked brusquely, though with a grim smile upon his face.
“I am also a terrible spy,” Finch said. “And I think my move to Cairo, rather than back to England, is telling in that regard.”
“Berthollet and Dolomieu say you are among the foremost experts on Egyptian lore, as well as an alchemist of some renown,” Bonaparte said. “We hope, Doctor, we may rely upon you.”
“For what, may I ask? I can certainly facilitate some introductions to those among the local populace who have some alchemical training, or knowledge of ancient myth,” he said, hoping to strike the right balance of innocence and aid.
Dolomieu actually laughed at this. “Do you think, Andrew, that we have come all this way searching after myths? I think the real alchemy of Egypt shall be prize enough!”
With a sidelong glare at Dolomieu, Bonaparte smiled and rose, prompting all at the table to do the same. “Doctor, it has been a great pleasure,” he said, extending his hand. “I have other matters to attend to. Berthollet, you may proceed. Dolomieu, a moment if you please.”
Looking excited, Dolomieu quickly shook hands with Finch and bustled off after the Corsican, whose strides quickly took him out of the courtyard. That left Finch alone with Berthollet. “Will you meet me this afternoon at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun? Before the final prayer of the day?” the Frenchman asked him.
Surprised, Finch nodded, and shortly thereafter took his leave. Ibn Tulun was Cairo’s oldest surviving intact place of worship, and while it had been improved upon over the years, much of the interior hailed from the 9th century A.D. The mosaic work inside was said to be centuries ahead of its time, and Finch himself had spent more than a few long afternoons there, enjoying the art and consulting with the learned imams there with regard to alchemical practices that would meet with the approval of their customs and laws.
The imams, generally speaking, were highly skeptical of the French intentions to begin with; how Berthollet managed to gain entrance was a mystery. If he had done so at musket-point, then all of Cairo would literally be up in arms, and Bonaparte would not have had time for his little scientific society this past morning.
Finch returned to his home and his tutoring, but was distracted through the rest of the day, and admittedly gave his charges less attention than they deserved—one of them nearly created a massive explosion through an incorrect admixture, but ever-watchful Jabir quickly stayed the boy’s hand just as the final errant ingredient was to be added. Chagrined yet grateful, Finch gave his protégée half the coins from the class, as well as an afternoon at liberty. This served a two-fold purpose: To reward the boy’s actions, and to send him off whilst Finch met with Berthollet. Jabir did not understand Finch’s agnostic views when it came to politics (or religion, for that matter) and continued to voice his opinion that the French were little more than the newest wave of Western crusaders. Finch had to admit, there was a chance the boy was right.
Now dressed in his customary Egyptian clothing—far better suited to the summer heat—Finch took a leisurely path to the mosque in order to better gauge the Frenchmen’s activities in the city. Life, it seemed, continued apace in the sprawling honeycomb of byways and alleys, with vendors hawking their wares and porters moving quickly with their oversized burdens. There were street preachers here and there, as was their wont, and some few were stark naked under the glare of the Sun, barking loudly at passersby. While not entirely common, these individuals were largely tolerated under the beys, as they were believed to be touched by Allah and given license by Him to question the ways of mankind.
Likewise, alchemists of all stripes and talents (or lack thereof) plied their wares alongside the vendors of livestock and bread, cloth and metal. Finch nodded to a few of better repute, but got fewer acknowledgements in return. It was not that he was a Westerner, though he imagined that he might be lumped in with the French should the latter make gross missteps, but rather that he was an accomplished alchemist who taught a rigorous, demanding path to the Great Work, one that was done with the tacit approval of the imams. In Egypt, the teaching of Al-Khem was considerably more secretive, with masters accepting one student at a time, and applying their own unique—some might say eccentric—twists to the Work. Some held it to be nothing short of a religious practice, sharing the ecstatic worldviews of the twirling Sufis, while others felt it was completely unrelated to Islam, which would draw the ire of the imams if said publicly. And still others secretly hewed to the ancient Egyptian rites, calling upon Isis and Osiris and Set in their Workings—something that would get them summarily stoned to death if it came to light.
But for all the secretiveness, the wonders of Al-Khem were on full display. Elixirs and potions of varying levels of authenticity were on offer in many stalls around the city, while the windows of wealthy homes allowed alchemical light to seep forth from shadowed corners. Tools and blades of alchemical steel glinted brightly in the sunshine, and occasionally a rich merchant or wife thereof would glide by on a flying carpet. Finch thought the carpets were highly ostentatious and utterly useless as a great Working, but did on occasion fashion them when the price was right—and he charged a great deal indeed for such luxuries.
The alchemy stalls grew less frequent as Finch approached Ibn Tulun Mosque, for even the least devout amongst the Workers rarely chanced the anger of the imams in such things. In the heat of the afternoon, the approach to the mosque was sparsely populated, and as Finch passed under the minaret into the courtyard proper, there were fewer still inside. He walked slowly to the dome in the center of the courtyard where the ablutions fountain was housed; Finch was careful to show respect to Islam, even though he was not a believer, and after his walk, the cool waters of the fountain felt good upon his face, hands and feet. Thus purified, Finch continued toward the prayer area, where the Muslims would pay homage in the direction of Mecca, as signified by the mihrab—a ceremonial alcove—along the rear wall.
He could see Berthollet leaning against a pillar, just inside the hall, as he approached. The Frenchman had at least eschewed his frock coat and cravat, but still looked quite uncomfortable, beads of sweat dotting his broad face, patches of wetness apparent under his arms. Yet he smiled as Finch approached and extended his hand.
“Thank you for coming, Doctor!” Berthollet said. “I am sure you are familiar with this mosque?”
Finch shook hands and smiled. “I am, sir. ‘Tis one of the oldest in all Islam, they say. A thousand years, give or take. Is Deodat coming as well?”
“Dolomieu has other matters to attend to, and does not know of our visit here. He is young, and does not know when to speak, and when to be silent, though he is a good, smart man despite this,” the Frenchman said, ushering Finch into the prayer area, a columned affair of impressive length, with soaring ceilings and intricate mosaics on the floor. “I have been to many, many mosques since arriving, Doctor, and found this one to be particularly interesting. Have you paid much attention to the architecture here?”
Berthollet’s professorial demeanor gave Finch pause; there was something in the man’s tone that hinted of a discovery, perhaps. “Not as much as you, I’ll wager,” Finch replied.
“Perhaps,” Berthollet said, his smile widening. “I do not know if you’re aware, monsieur, but prior to coming here, I had assisted in the cataloging of the Vatican Archives on behalf of General Bonaparte when he liberated the Italian peninsula. There was much knowledge in that storeroom that had been kept out of our hands for centuries, all in the name of religious orthodoxy! Can you imagine?”
Finch could, of course. The relationship between practitioners of the Great Work and the Roman Catholic Church was far more strained than within most Islamic nations. The Church had even produced mechanical orreries that showed the Sun and the other planets going around the Earth—even though these were utterly useless for navigating the Known Worlds. Thankfully, it seemed the Church was at least coming around to the fact that the Sun was central in the Void, for it had been quite obvious for three centuries of exploration.
Berthollet led Finch to the very center of the long, rectangular prayer room, facing the mihrab. “This is the very direction of Mecca, to the south-southeast, yes?” Berthollet asked.
“Quite so, and they did a fine job of it, considering the age of the place,” Finch said.
“Now look closely at the floor, if you would, doctor,” Berthollet said.
Finch looked down at his feet. The floor was tiled in an intricate geometric pattern, one that showed advanced knowledge of mathematics. There were numerous green and blue lines on a white background, intersecting regularly. Finch attempted to discern a pattern beyond that of geometry, but to no avail. There was, sad to say, a great deal of damage done to the floor over the centuries, and it was cracked in places. He knew the imams there were considering doing away with it entirely, in favor of a simpler stone floor.
After a minute, Finch looked up, slightly annoyed. “There is clearly something more here, sir, though I cannot say what.”
A cat with a fat mouse could not have looked more satisfied than Berthollet at that moment. “Do you have something that might allow you to filter out colors before your eyes?”
Finch gasped slightly as he grasped it; he had walked across this floor dozens of times over the past decade! Immediately, he began rummaging around in the small bag he carried with him. He pulled out a pair of eyeglasses, one with several different colored lenses on swivels attached to the frame.
“What have you found?” he muttered, all pretense at formality lost. He settled the glasses onto his nose and began flipping the lenses back and forth, filtering out white, then blue, then green….
Until the faint outline of a red line appeared before his eyes, snaking away to the very western corner of the room.
“What do we have here?” he said, immediately walking forward to follow the line, cannily embedded in the tiles below. So focused on his trail, Finch nearly careened into not one, but two of the columns in the room before he reached the corner, several dozen yards away. There, he saw a bright red dot, partially obscured by dirt and dust.
“A map,” he breathed.
“Yes indeed, Doctor. A map!” Berthollet said. The Frenchman had followed him to the corner of the room, and now stood smiling, hands clasped behind his back. “But to what, do you think?”
Finch could not help but cast a profoundly irritated glance at the man. “Without a sense of scale, monsieur, it is quite difficult to say, but –”
Then he saw another red line behind the other alchemist, one that deftly snaked across the multiple entrances to the prayer room. Finch set off again, following this line. It was far more jagged than the last, dipping and swooping in places, but still relatively straight. It stopped perhaps three yards past the mihrab, then curved up and disappeared into the courtyard.
Finch looked back, then down, then back again. “I know this, somehow.”
“You should. You’ve been here many years now.”
Then it struck him. “Egypt!” Finch exclaimed. “This is the coastline!”
Berthollet actually clapped his hands a few times. “Very good, sir! And so that alcove there, that would be this very spot, Cairo. And thus, that line?”
Finch pondered a moment. “It goes almost directly east, which would take it into the very depths of the desert.” He put his hands on his hips, deep in thought. “But that leads nowhere.”
“Surely, in all recorded history, someone from the West has made that journey, would you think?”
It took a full two minutes of thinking and staring before Finch came upon the answer, and it stunned him to his core. “Surely not,” he said quietly. “Alexander?”
“I believe it to be so,” Berthollet said. “The scrolls I read in the Vatican Archive were taken from Alexandria’s library itself. I believe this is the route Alexander and Ptolemy took to the temple of Amun-Ra more than two thousand years ago.
“And,” he added solemnly, “is it too much to assume that, situated so far from the Nile and the wars of the ancient peoples, this temple may be where some of the greatest alchemical treasures of the Ancient World reside, perhaps knowledge from the Xan or the Martians themselves?”
Finch marveled at this, and a small smile grew upon his face.
The Enceladus Crisis © Michael J. Martinez, 2014