The Voidist

31 Jan

Maxus halted the two dobbins pulling his canvas-covered caretta. A black-uniformed deputy came forward out of the gatehouse on the west wall of Notker.

“Stop,” called out the tall guard. “Are you an outsider? What is your business in our metropole?”

The muscular driver smiled, staring at him with radiant turquoise eyes.

I am an itinerant who works in metal. A horologer hired me to come to the city and assist him in his trade. Could you inform me where to find the neighborhood where that gild is centered?”

The sentry took from his jacket pocket a small pad and a writing stick. “What is your name, please?”

“Manus Islander,” replied the driver of the caretta.

“And who is the one hiring you?”

“Ricardo Ouest is his name. We have been corresponding for a considerable time.”

The deputy finished his writing, nodded, and stepped away without having given any directions.

Maxus pulled on the reins in his hands, signaling the dickey-donkey to proceed into Notker.

The short, stumpy auburn-haired man led his new worker into a cluttered study and invited him to sit down on a leather squab. Master Ouest remained standing as he spoke.

“As you saw for yourself in the workshop, most of the orders that are sent to me are for astrolabes, armillany spheres, planetaria, and equatoria. Nearly all my clients are medicals who use these devices in making diagnoses and prescribing suitable treatments. When a plain horologe is called for, it is usually for export out of Notker. This city has little demand for time clocks beyond astrological ones.”

His milky eyes grew hazy and abstracted.

Manus gave him a warm grin. “Perhaps I can help make timing horologes more popular in Notker in the future.”

The other seemed to jolt himself back from somewhere else.

“In your letters to me you make mention of a new form of vacuum energy that you have discovered. My knowledge of the void, though, is only elementary. Could you explain for me what it was you were referring to?”

Islander thought a moment before making an attempt to do so.

“I conceive of our universe as being an ocean made of energy. Most of it is the absolute vacuum of interstellar space. Before there was any matter at all, everything was only energy and the void that surrounded it. Energy was prior to all single entities. Energy and the void existed first.

“Therefore, the space between the stars and the planets brims with the original energy that existed before any materials or substances did. This is the foundation of all that we call reality. From the beginning of time, the outer void has pulsed with cosmic vibrations. It contains an endless reservoir of motion and momentum. This vacuum energy pounds on our planet day and night. We have never had any direct experience of it, but I can prove that it lies all about us.”

Maxus paused to catch his breath, then went on.

“A short while ago, I constructed a detector that can tell me the strength and the direction of the voidal vibrations. Its center is a secret valve that I invented. Since you trusted me enough to call me to Notker to work for you, I feel confident in revealing to you the basis of this detector valve of mine.”

All of a sudden Ouest grew visibly excited. “What can it possibly be?” he demanded.

“Crystals of galena, the mineral found in lead-gray cubes. In fact, galena is the main source of the lead that is used in all our metal work.”

“Yes, I know that substance,” declared the horologer. “But how can it be used to take hold of and harness this vacuum energy you speak of?”

“I had to delve deeply into the mysteries of galena crystals,” said Maxus in a murmuring tone. “You shall see how my energy capacitor takes and stores the vibrations. That will become possible once I build the apparatus with the parts I brought in my caretta. You can then judge it and decide what to do next.”

The two men exchanged looks of mutual confidence.

Seven moons circled the home planet of Domus.

Its eighteen fellow planets accompanied it around Heartsun, a yellow-orange star of middle size and age. The wnole system revolved slowly, replicating the actual movements in the sky above.

Ricardo Ouest glowed with pride, naming all of the bodies on the wide surface plane of the planetarium.

“You can see how complex the mechanism is. This is a moving model of the Heartsun sector. As far as anyone knows, we inhabit the only orb with human beings on it. That makes Domus unique, of course.”

Maxus gazed across the six-span diameter of the huge planetary map.

“All of this is run on springs that turn the gears underneath. It must be a difficult, exacting task to construct such a fine model.”

“That is why I need your help,” explained Ouest. “Not only for these astrological instruments. My mind is looking ahead to improved time-clocks. If horologes could be run on voidal valves, they would become both accurate and economical. I foresee us selling one of them to every household in Notker. We will become wealthy, both of us. There are no limits to what can be achieved. There will be colossal changes in everything when the horologe becomes cheap and generally available.”

At that precise moment, an apprentice appeared at the doorway to the work room. “Master Ricardo, Gild Chief Zachary has come here and wishes to see you.”

Ouest gave a look of surprise. “Show him into the study,” he commanded. As the young man turned and departed, the horologer gazed at Maxus with a frown on his face.

“I did not expect him today. We must not reveal our plans in any way. He has come here to sniff around about the reason for your presence. Do not tell him anything specific. You are here to help me build planetaria, understand?”

Maxus nodded yes with an ominous feeling of foreboding.

Henre Zachary, a portly figure with cottony white hair, a large ruddy nose, and bright vermillion eyes, did not rise from his hassock when the two men entered the study. Ricardo and Maxus remained standing as the former made the introductions.

“Welcome to Notker, young man. I picked up a rumor that you arrived to serve Master Ouest. Are you going to become his apprentice?”

Ricardo answered for Maxus.

“He will be my assistant in depicting all the planetary moons on sky boards. As we all know, the fifty-two satellites of our Hartsun system have great influence on the orbiting pathways of their planets.”

Piercing scarlet eyes studied the face of the newcomer. Maxus tried to remain impassive during the lengthy inspection.

“The gild should have been informed of your presence at once. But now that you are here, we must see to your immediate enrollment as a member.”

“I do not intend to become a horologer, sir,” asserted Maxus. “My own metal craft will be sufficient as it is.”

Zachary and Ouest exchanged silent glances.

“Very well, then,” said the former to the vacuumist. “Could you describe for me precisely what you are able to do?”

Maxus swallowed hard. “I make metallic replicas of aspects of the spatial universe. My goal is to place the fifty-two satellite moons onto the plane of a single, unified planetarium model.”

“There are multitudes of attracting forces in our system,” noted the Gild Chieftain. “Is it possible to combine so many factors in a single mechanism?”

“I have studied the vast distances of space as best I can,” boasted Maxus. “Everything that influences the bodies will be included, both visible and invisible.”

“Invisible? What do you mean by that?”

For a moment, Islander was disconcerted. He decided that openness was now necessary.

“There are unknown, unseen forces in the infinite void of space, sir. They affect the movements of all things, including planets and moons. For me, the universe is a vast ocean, endless in its dimensions. We recognize only a portion of the powers that exist in the infinite vacuum that surrounds us.”

All at once Henre Zachary rose to his feet.

“I intend to see you again, young man. My curiosity has been aroused. I want to hear more about these celestial forces that cannot be seen.” He turned to Ricardo. “You must bring him to the Gildhouse. His thoughts are profoundly interesting.”

As the Chief exited, Maxus turned to Ouest. When Zachary was out of the house for certain, the metalist spoke.

“He seemed to suspect me of something,” he murmured.

Ricardo frowned. “Henre is a schemer and conniver. That is how he attained his high position. I have never trusted that liar. It is best to stay out of his way and tell him nothing about our project concerning the void.”

Maxus nodded, his brow furrowed with worry.

It took weeks of hard work to set up the detector, converter, and capacitor. Now the great problem became that of harnessing captured vacuum energy to what was the largest, mast detailed orrery of planets and satellites ever constructed in Notker. The first test of the model had to be kept completely secret. It was to be carried out long after midnight. Petrolic lanterns illuminated the huge storage room that had been turned into an experiment chamber. Ouest saw to it that his staff of apprentices and workers had gone to bed and were asleep before giving the word to Maxus to proceed with the trial run.

As the metalist made the final connections with argentine wire, Ricardo stood behind him, marveling at his skill and dexterity.

“You amazed me, Maxus. If this is successful, we will become very rich men. Yet you seem to have no material ambitions. What is your true motivation in all of this, my friend?”

The young man stopped working and turned his head around.

“That is a difficult question, sir, because I am not at all sure. What can I say? It is not for me to describe what brought me to try to capture some of the uncanny energy of the void. Perhaps someday I shall discover what has been moving my mind in this single direction.”

He returned to his wiring work. In minutes, the whole job was finished.

“It is all ready. You can set the planets and the moons in motion, sir.”

The horologer stepped forward and pulled upward on the braking lever of the revamped mechanism.

Both men stood staring at the circular plane with the models imbedded in it.

All at once, the multitude of planets and satellites came to life.

“There is movement!” gasped Master Ouest. “I can perceive it. You have harnessed the energy found in the spatial vacuum. It has been accomplished.”

As they looked at each other, the door opened, unnoticed by either of them.

Suddenly they both realized they were not alone.

It was the Gild Chief who crept noiselessly to the edge of the planetarium, peering at the planets and their fifty-two satellites.

He looked at neither of the two watching him in wonder.

“That is interesting, Ricardo. Why have you not reported this complex, elaborate mechanism to our gild hierarchy? Every member would wish to observe it for himself.”

It took a moment for Ouest to find his voice.

“This is only a preliminary test, Chief. We did not know how it would go, so this was to be a private try-out, if you please. Now the results can be told to all. Others will be able to witness it for themselves. Notice how this board contains the orbits of all the nineteen planets and all their many moons. This is an achievement never attained until tonight. My assistant, Maxus Islander, is the one who invented the means of coordinating the complex system to which our Domus belongs.”

“How is it done?” demanded the Chief with unconcealed emotion. “Your machinery must be shared with all our horologers. It is contrary to gild rules and traditions to keep new methods to oneself.”

Ricardo Ouest leaned forward, as if challenging the head of their profession.

“That is true for members who are citizens of Notker. But the one who created this new apparatus and knows all its devices and gears does not formally belong to our gild. He is not at all under its jurisdiction. Nor is he a native of our city. Indeed, Maxus is a total outsider. You have no authority over him, none at all.

“Therefore, the regulations of the Horologian Gild cannot be applied to him or whatever he may invent. No, he does not have to comply with any of our rules. Not at all.”

Henre Zachary raised his right hand and scratched his pointy chin. “Tell me, have you found a purchaser for this planetarium of yours?”

“No, not yet,” announced Ricardo. “I have not tried to locate a buyer before this first testing.”

“Such a sale would be hard to make. The price will be extremely high, will it not?”

“Indeed,” replied Ouest. “I cannot think of any possible purchaser for the system.”

The Gild Chief considered for a moment with his mind concentrated.

“The mechanism before us must become the property of the City of Notker. That is the only way to maintain a monopoly over it. The Gild can operate the planetarium in the name of the municipal government. That is the only way to guarantee its progress.” His vermillion eyes fell upon Maxus. “How did you ever build this? Its complexity is incredible. May I peek under the board and see the gearwork?”

Ricardo spoke before his assistant could say a word.

“As I told you, sir, the contrivance belongs to a foreigner, an outsider, not to any of our own citizens. We cannot compel him to uncover the secrets of their astrological clockwork.”

Zachary, momentarily at a loss, moved toward the door of the chamber. Stopping there, he turned about and made an unexpected declaration.

“This planetarium must be brought to the Gild House for all to see, both our members and the general citizenry. The Council of Syndics of the city will have to give the horologers wider authority. Already we have become large exporters. Now our gild will control the greatest invention ever seen here on Domus. This will raise the importance of Notker. We shall enjoy primacy, centered on the horologers’ cooperation.”

The Gild Chief disappeared before the other two could say anything.

Silicified hardwood formed the outside facing of the Gildhall. A steep, corbelled roof and gables with corbie steps gave the building an aura of agedness. Maxus was deeply impressed by the antiquity of the horologian association. It was a combination that enjoyed considerable autonomous power. But he quickly learned the facts of how the city was ruled and governed. The great mercantile gild of traders had long dominated Notker, electing a majority on the Council of Syndics. The artisans and craftsmen had only minority representation there for many generations. But the power situation was about to undergo radical revision, almost a revolution.

It took less than a week to move and reconstruct the new planetarium in the enormous auditorium of the Gildnouse. Only hologers in good standing were permitted in as the earliest viewers of the unprecedented marvel. Excitement engulfed all those let in to see for themselves this outstanding model of the heavens. Nineteen planets, fifty-two satellites, and the Heartsun itself. Everyone who came left in wonder.

On the tenth day of the exhibition, the Gild Chief summoned a general meeting of all horologes for that evening. Ricardo, full of suspicion, told Maxus of his fears as the two of them ate supper together in the kitchen of the former’s house.

“He is up to something, but what it is I do not know at all. Perhaps tonight we will receive some hint of what his intentions are.”

Maxus sat alone in thought for several minutes after his master left. He was descending into reverie when a loud knocking sound drew his attention. Since there was no one else about, it was up to him to see who was at the back door.

His turquoise eyes popped as he opened the devilwood door at the rear of the kitchen.

What is the Gild Chief doing here when a general meeting of the horologers is set for this very hour? That is where Ricardo Ouest had himself gone.

“May I come in and talk with you?” asked Zachary in a subdued, secretive voice.

The answer was a stunned nod.

Maxus closed the door behind the visitor, then led him to the circular table where he had been sitting. When both men were seated opposite each other, the unexpected intruder began to speak.

“Excuse me for dropping in this way, but I had to talk with you in private. There are important questions that only you can answer, Islander.”

“There is a general meeting of the horogers going on at this moment,” bluntly burst out the younger man. “Why is it that you are not there with them?”

A smile crossed the other’s lips, but instantly vanished.

“I am not needed there. My fellow hierarchs know what must be decided tonight, and will see that the necessary measures are approved. Our immediate aim is to open the exhibition to inspection by the general population of Notker. We are certain that will excite every single individual who sees it.”

“But what is the ultimate purpose of all that? Only the richest persons can afford to buy a planetarium of their own.”

Zachary seemed to be gazing far in the distance with his eyes of vermilion.

“That may well be true, my good fellow, but those who witness the device will come to demand that the Syndics themselves purchase a second model for the city. The artisan class of Notker will be especially supportive of that proposal from the horologes. I anticipate future opposition from the mercantile gilds that dominate the Syndic Council of this city. So be it. Such a division of opinion only strengthens the standing and influence of the Horogian Gild and the others who follow our lead. In fact, I anticipate a growing clash between the merchants and artisans. Tell me, do you much about the history of Notker?”

“No,” confessed Maxus, his voice hard and dry.

“Our beginning was as a commercial market for the products of the rural farms and villages. It was natural that merchant gilds would dominate in this city. In all the generations since the foundation of Notker, the burgomagisters have been merchants, every last one of them. There has never been any exception. It is something all the people take for granted. But today, with the new planetarium, we have a means of drastically changing the equation for future history.”

“What do you mean?” suspiciously asked the metalist.

“The officers of my gild are going to ask you to join our ranks and work within our corporate union. That means, of course, that you will have to reveal the secrets of the apparatus you use in place of weights and springs. The inner workings must be explained to me first of all.

“Further applications of the machinery will belong exclusively to the Horogian Gild. Production, distribution, and the use of this mechanism must be completely under our control. This means total monopoly in the utilization of the invention.”

Maxus was now confused. “I don’t understand,” he muttered.

“You yourself will become quite wealthy,” said Zachary, a crazed look in his red eyes. “And I shall become the first burgomagister from an artisan or craft gild. A new, different majority will control the Syndic Council. Everything in Nokter will be turned upside down.”

Islander gasped for breath. A political revolution, that was the vision of this power-hungry Gild Chief.

“The planetarium in our gildhall was something that could be exchanged for control over the city’s government. Our artisan party will dominate every sphere of social life. And you, as an important member, stand to be generously rewarded.”

Maxus drew a deep breath. “But what if I refuse to go along with this design of yours?”

The politico smiled sardonically.

“You will, I assure you that you will.” He paused for a second. “By the end of this week, I want a diagram that fully explains how the invention works, from where it obtains the energy that is used to run it.”

Zachary got up and departed the way he had come.

It was late when Ricardo returned home, but he found the voidist waiting for him, sitting in a high-backed chair near the front of the house. All the apprentices had long since gone to bed.

“Let’s go in the kitchen and have ourselves a nightcap,” proposed the horologe, visibly tired from the long meeting he had attended. “How about a wermuth toddy?”

Maxus sat down at the table as his employer prepared drinks for them at the coal stove.

“How did the meeting go? I had a surprise visitor here while you were away.”

Ouest walked to the round table, two mugs in his hands. His face seemed to shine with curiosity as he placed one of the toddies before Maxus.

“It was Henre Zachary himself,” softly murmured Islander.

“He did not attend our gathering, that I know. We decided to admit the citizens of Nokter so that they could see how the planetarium operates.”

“The man offered to make me part of a political conspiracy.”

Maxus proceeded to lay out what the Gild Chief had proposed to him. No detail was left out.

Ricardo remained standing during the narrative, only sitting down when it was ended.

“He is an unprincipled trickster. Do not trust him, Maxus. He is after the secret of your energy converter. You must not give him what he wants. He thinks it can make him the supreme ruler in this city.”

“That is my conclusion, too. I will never tell him how the vacuum valve works. This greedy politician shall not be allowed to exploit my invention for his own ends.”

Ouest stared intently at Maxus.

“Remember what I told you about constructing voidal clocks for individual homes and shops? That remains my hope for the future of this new vacuum energy. I am familiar with your galena detector, but the workings of the converter and capacitator are still mysteries to me. Only you understand what these do.”

The metalist, all of a sudden, became alarmed. His face flushed red.

“It may be that the Gild Chief plans to open the device for examination. It is important that I check the guard covers at the first opportunity, to learn whether there has been any tampering. Could you and I get into the Gildhall tonight without being seen or noticed?”

Ricardo thought for only a moment.

“There is a delivery shaft down which carbonic stone is brought for winter heating. It should be open, though covered with black dust.”

“We will have to make our entrance that way,” decided Maxus Islander.

The two figures proceeded by the light from three moons, five planets, and the stars in the night sky. They made no sound and heard none. Notker had the appearance of a deserted, empty ruin. Had anyone resided here over centennia of time? A person would have wondered.

Ricardo, an unlit oil lamp and a length of rolled-up rope under his arm, led the way to the back of the gildhall. A narrow cobblestone alley separated latter from a house of horologers who lived adjacent to the gild headquarters. All at once, Maxus felt the lantern against his side, being offered for him to take. “Hold this, please,” whispered his companion in post-midnight adventure. The voidist grabbed hold of the dead lantern with his left hand. In his right was a small case holding tools for opening the apparatus container covering.

Ouest bent down and pried open the hinged door of the delivery shaft, then turned to his colleague. “I will let down the rope so that you can descend. But in order to allow you to climb back up, I must stay up here. How long do you think it will take you to inspect the machinery?”

“About an hour or so, I would think.”

“That long?”

“There are many parts that have to be looked at,” explained Maxus in a whisper. “You will have to look out for anyone passing by and warn me of danger.”

“Try to hurry, if you can,” mumbled the horologer, starting to lower one end of the rope down the chute, into an empty bin.

Holding the unlit lantern and his tool kit in one hand, Maxus dropped down the rope to the floor of the large storage chamber. Reaching the bottom, he lighted the lantern with a lucifer, then went out into a basement corridor. Following instructions Ricardo had given him, he reached stairs leading up to the main auditorium.

Soon the voidist was busy opening the coverings on top of the planetarium, which was still in operation through the hours of the night. First he examined the detector with his special instruments, then the converter, and lastly the capacitator. His hands worked quietly, accomplishing the delicate tasks he held in his mind.

When the pair returned to the house of Ouest an hour before dawn, Maxus sat down in the kitchen to rest, across from his employer.

“There were repairs that had to be made before I could leave,” he explained. “That is why I took so much more time than anticipated.” There was a short pause before he went on again. “The mechanism had clearly been tampered with by someone who did not understand it. There was an obvious attempt to break open its secrets.”

“Henre Zachary, it had to be that demoniac!” explained Ricardo.

“I am certain that, whoever it was, nothing whatsoever was learned. My apparatus is too advanced and complicated for anyone without knowledge of the void to be able to understand. It is doubtful that Zachary could comprehend the vacuum valve, even if it were fully explained to him by someone like me.”

“You mean, then, that the new energy cannot be stolen by him?”

Maxus grinned. “The Gild Chief could still destroy useful, beneficial application of my invention. His political scheme would exploit it for selfish advantage. Of that I am sure.”

The two men silently exchanged long looks.

“We both need rest,” yawned the horologer, rising from the circular table.

A thundering explosion in the early morning light of Heartsun awakened Ricardo Ouest.

An apprentice opened the bedroom door. “Master, something happened at the gildhall. People in the street are yelling that the new planetarium has exploded!”

In seconds, the horologe was dressed. A crowd had filled the narrow street in front of the house. From different persons Ricardo pieced together what the situation was. There had come a very loud noise from the auditorium. A fiery explosion had occurred. Total destruction had fallen on the planetarium. Only dust and junk remained. No one had been hurt because of the early hour. But the mechanism at the center of the planetarium was now nothing beyond melted metal.

Suddenly Ouest thought of the inventor. Where was Maxus?

He rushed back into his house, making his way to the rear bedroom of the metalist. Why was the young man still asleep? Had he not heard the explosion?

Ricardo pushed in the door without knocking. He stood before the empty bed, staring at it in shock and surprise. On top of the pillow lay an envelope with his name written on it. He picked up and opened it feverishly. His eyes hurried over the neat cursive of the now absent vacuumist.

“My dear, most valued friend,

“It became my moral duty to cut the knot that Henre Zachary tied around us. My invention must not fall to him. Therefore, I have destroyed the detector, the converter, and the capacitator under the planetarium. I carried a tiny kinetic constringer in my tool box. It is difficult to describe, but this device has the ability to condense, constrain, compact, and contract any part of the void into a minutely small area of space. I never told you that there is a means of restricting the universal vacuum, then expanding it again. That, in a word, is what happened to annihilate the mechanism in the gildhall. There shall be nothing of my apparatus left there, because the contracted void has erupted and recovered its previous space.

“What I did was for the sake of the people of Notker and the entire Horologian Gild. Your city today is not ready for vacuum energy. Only evil results would come if I stayed and the Gild Chief took over control of all that I have brought here with me.

“So, I must move on. It will be impossible for me to return. I leave you my best wishes for health and happiness.
“Faithfully yours,
“Maxus Islander.”

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