One more year — I told Devon that’s all we needed. I was so sure that working together we would find the key to prolong the reaction. But Devon doubted. His allowance consumed and the debts mounting, his pride could not abide the shame of failure. Even though I told him it did not matter to me, that I had already found two families that would have hired me as governess, that I knew we could succeed together, he would not have it. So we went to America to see this John Keely. It was December of 1887; the man was at the height of his fame.
(This story first appeared in Antipodean SF issue 280; January 2022)
In explanations that language could scant keep coherent, one third mysticism, one third music theory, one third apparently scientific, Keely claimed to have liberated untold pressures by resonating the aetheric force. Devon did not believe one word. But the man used platinum wires, the same kind we did; and the motive power demonstrated by his machines matched Devon’s predictions.
After one of the demonstrations, Devon approached him. Soon they were at the centre of a circle of admirers, important men, business leaders eager to share in the limelight and the assured riches to come. They continued late into the night, until I could stand the apprehension no more. I tried to pull him away, but he refused; he would rather cling to the hope and legitimacy of that company than me. I left in anger, taking the flushing of my face for righteous indignation rather than the alarm it was: for I had noticed, in passing, the furtive glances of the two men at the back of the room.
Devon never returned to the hotel that night. He was found by the police in an alley, murdered, in an apparent robbery. And by the end of the week Keely was again discredited in the local papers. Someone did not want the secret of this power revealed. Had I been with Devon, I too would have died that night.
But that is not when I died.
After a year of mourning, I continued Devon’s work. Switched to palladium stabilized on silica. Sold what was not needed, kept the country cottage, spent ten years as governess, taught piano… Then my younger sister married a wealthy businessman and supported my work until they lost it all to the Second Republic. It took 40 years.
“Madam…” the attaché to the prime minister struggles to decipher the proper way to address me, his voice drawing me out of memories I thought had been left behind forever. My original letterhead has my full name: Agustina Pilar Araujo Leon, Lady Devon Hamilton. He finally tries my first name, mangles it, and I interrupt him gently.
“Call me, Angustia.” I decided on that change decades ago. It means Sorrow. It is my calling.
Professor Uritsky snatches the document from attaché Van Blerk’s hand and stares again at the equations. His eyes squint as he tries to see beyond the dark veil that covers my face. “How do you know this will work?”
“Many others came close.” My manner feigns vanity, to feed his own. “But I was the only one to realise the calendar periodicity in the results. If Graham had performed his experiments a few years earlier, he may have noticed the effect. Eight years later, and Paneth would not have retracted his discovery. Tandberg’s exploding wire experiments could have succeeded, three years earlier, with catastrophic consequences.”
Uritsky counts forward, from the names to the dates. I go on.
“Then I proved it: The year 1933, at 1,500 feet. No one else had thought of that either; yet the evidence was there already before the Great War. The altitude test was the crucial piece of the puzzle, the final proof.”
By then, that’s all that mattered to me.
I explain, “if the recorded results correlated to the airplane’s hops between landings, it would have been incontrovertible proof that cosmic rays mediate the reaction.” He notes that ‘would have’, so I motion him to turn to the end of the document, the newspaper clippings, and the story of United Airlines flight 23. The United States Bureau of Investigation concluded that the explosion that shattered the plane over Chesterton, Illinois, had been a nitroglycerin device. They were off by at least three orders of magnitude.
“It was a portable electrochemical cell, with a built-in magnetic wire recorder,” I explain. “In the baggage compartment, in the post,” I lie. “It only had 8 micrograms of deuterium.” I manage to add that before my voice breaks; and I let it sink in.
Uritsky’s eyes grow wide with greed. “Cosmic rays?”
I turn aside before answering. Had I any cheeks, tears would be streaming down them. “Yes, that’s what Professor Millikan called them. My plan was to take my results to him.” I swallow against the knot in my throat and go on. “But that cosmic ray shower of 1933 was extragalactic in origin. Ultra-high energies — the muon flux was much stronger than it has ever been since. And the solar wind was weak; the magnetic envelope of the Earth was no match. I have confirmed the data.”
“You proved room temperature fusion works!” He nods with approval and wonder. “In that pressure range, inside the palladium lattice, the silica operates as a helium getter; you removed the alpha-sticking channel.”
I couldn’t have known.
The muon was not even discovered until 3 years later. It took another 17 years for physicists to theorise on the possibility of using it as a catalyser, and 6 more years to witness experimental evidence. But ignorance brings no absolution. I killed seven people! Eight if you count me, the last-minute passenger. I had the package with me, on my lap. I felt the sudden temperature rise. I ran toward the rear of the plane trying to get it away from everybody else, tried to tear it apart. Too late. I was vaporised.
That the tragedy gives him no pause, confirms all my suspicions about him and the attaché and whoever is financing their traffic of death. He peers at my veiled face again. He is doing the math. From 1933 to 1979 is 46 years. Assuming I was a genius of age 20 back then, he expects a woman in her mid-sixties. But the veil hides my face, the long black gloves hide my hands; and the drape of the hooded dress reveals nothing.
He knows my terms. I will only deal with his master. Even as a tinge of suspicion lingers on the back of his mind, the greed wins out. He makes the call for the seaplane that will take us to the ship.
If only he knew how far the deception goes. It took me years to learn that I could touch things in this world without rendering them immaterial. With decades of practice, I learned to turn the page of a book, grasp a pen, make the keys of a typewriter pound away, hold a disguise in place. But in my natural state, I walk through steel and stone. In my natural state, I can stand still and let the planet rotate past me, and go anywhere despair calls.
Though I relish the quietude of holy ground, I don’t think I am a ghost. I don’t know what I am. But I know who I am.
I am Sorrow. And her tears called me to this sorrowing land.
Her name is Sibongile. His name was Bryan Morobe. She was a teacher; he was a doctor. Married, they dedicated their life to the work in Soweto, until June of 1976. The imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, curtailing the use of indigenous languages, sparked a student uprising. Police started firing on the crowd as it reached Orlando West High School. Bryan was shot trying to rescue one more child.
Seeking to understand the sickness tearing her country apart, Sibongile became a journalist at the Daily Dispatch in East London. But she did not find closure. Instead, she discovered a trail of international conspiracy, at the highest levels of the government: rumors of uranium yellowcake being traded for nuclear capable missiles, with the output of the infamous gold mines making the intermediaries rich.
She got too close. They beat her. They threatened her family. And that was too much. She relented: to her, a betrayal of Bryan’s memory. She poured out her heart at his grave. And from there I heard her.
By 2:30 in the morning, the plane delivers us to a cargo ship, halfway to the Prince Edward Islands. I am not surprised at the identity of the man that meets us. Sibongile was right.
“Lady Hamilton, what is it that you think we can do for you?”
“Artificial muon sources are now possible. With the resources at your disposal, surely you could make me one.”
“Why would we want to do that?”
“The international community forced your government to abandon the underground test site in the Kalahari, two years ago. Incommodious; wouldn’t you agree? Funding my research, as evidence of a commitment to safe nuclear energy for peacetime applications, would go a long way toward diverting the eyes of your critics… giving you breathing room to pursue your private interests.”
He smiles. “That is very generous of you.”
“For a cut of the gold,” I add.
That I ask to see their latest payment doesn’t surprise them. They take me to a counting table with a shining array of krugerrands: a square, 12 stacks on the side, each stack 20 coins deep. Worth, I estimate, a quarter million pounds. I lay down the folder with all the details of my experimental set-up on the table and start removing my gloves.
Uritsky wastes no time in picking the folder up, and leafing through the papers within, to verify that there is much more there than I had revealed before. He smiles. They nod to each other and to another man that has just entered the room.
They haven’t noticed the translucency of my hands. The third man clears his throat, reaches for my arm, but all he seizes is an empty sleeve. As they recoil at the dress collapsing in his grasp, I reach the coins and push, not my body through them, but coin through coin through coin.
“What the hell?”
I could almost respect the single-mindedness of this man. The presence of a discarnate entity bothers him less than the fact that the coins appear to have been fused into each other. He tries to pick one up, but together, that’s 95 kilos of gold.
He takes the gun from the third man’s hand and wields it as a hammer.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. That’s not just gold anymore.” I turn to Uritsky. He ought to understand. “Where the coins come together it is gold within gold… I am sure in most places the nuclei just slipped past each other. Those crystal lattices won’t last long. But I calculate there is about half a percent chance that I have created element 158 at those interfaces. And, as Burkhard Fricke will tell you, 158 is not stable.”
With a snarl, he slaps the butt of the gun through my face, harmlessly. The flash of fear that finally shows in his eyes is only a fraction of the horror in Uritsky’s as he sees his master’s next move, swinging the gun down to the table.
I close my eyes and let the Earth slip by. In two seconds, I am almost a kilometer away. Not far enough. I feel the blast sweep through me, carry me along like flotsam on a crashing wave. Maybe I will finally die.
But it is not to be.
I find myself walking again among the tombstones of this valley of tears. There is still too much despair in this world.