Beth Bernobich


The Golden Octopus

November 1897

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.

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 made a hundred tiny rainbows over 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 Leclanch? 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 timeframe. 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 face. "So you did, your Majesty. Well, then. 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 descendents 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 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 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 over the table. Where the octopus had sat, it 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.


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