Jenny’s imagination raced, and his strange words fascinated her. She drew closer to him, almost unconsciously, watching his mouth.
“We have six seasons,” he said, “for our weather is not like yours. There is Gunumeleng, which is the season before the great rains, and then Gudjewg, when the rain comes, and then Banggerreng—”
She stopped up his mouth with hers.
After a week’s sailing the
crossed the equator. Atahualpa ordered a feast to be laid for his senior officers and guests. They were brought to a stateroom that, Jenny suspected from the stairs she had to climb, lay just under the deck itself. Tonight, Atahualpa promised, his passengers would be allowed on deck for the first time since Londres, and the great secret that the Incas had been hiding would be revealed.
But by now Dreamer and Jenny had shared so many secrets that she scarcely cared.
While the Inca crew wore their customary llama-wool and cotton uniforms, George Darwin wore his clerical finery, Alphonse the powdered wig and face powder of his father’s court, and Jenny a simple shift, her Sunday best. Dreamer was just one of the many representatives of provinces of the Inca’s ocean-spanning empire aboard ship. They wore elaborate costumes of cloth and feather, so that they looked like a row of exotic birds, Jenny thought, sitting there in a row at the commander’s table.
In some ways Dreamer’s own garb was the most extraordinary. He was stripped naked save for a loin-cloth, his face-spiral tattoo was picked out in some yellow dye, and he had finger-painted designs on his body in chalk-white, a sprawling lizard, an outstretched hand. Jenny was jealously aware that she wasn’t the only woman who kept glancing at Dreamer’s muscled torso—and a few men did too.
The Inca went through their own equator-crossing ritual. This involved taking a live chicken, slitting its belly and pulling out its entrails, right there on the dinner table, while muttering antique-sounding prayers.
Bishop Darwin tried to watch this with calm appreciation. “Evidently an element of animism and the superstitious has survived in our hosts’ theology,” he murmured.
Alphonse didn’t bother to hide his disgust. “I’ve had enough of these savages.”
“Hush,” Jenny murmured. “If you assume none of them can speak Frankish, you’re a fool.”
He glared defiantly, but he switched to Anglais. “Well, I’ve never heard any of them utter a single word. And they assume I know a lot less Quechua than I’ve learned, thanks to your bare-chested friend over there. They say things in front of me that they think I won’t understand—but I do.”
He was only sixteen, as Jenny was; he sounded absurd, self-important. But he was a prince who had grown up in the atmosphere of the most conspiratorial and backstabbing court in all Christendom. He was attuned to detecting lies and power plays. She asked, “What sort of things?”
“About the ‘problem’ we pose them. We Europeans. We aren’t like Dreamer’s folk of the South Land, hairy-arsed savages in the desert. We have great cities; we have armies. We may not have their silver ships and flying machines, but we could put up a fight. That’s the problem.”
She frowned. “It’s a problem only if the Inca come looking for war.”
He scoffed. “Oh, come, Jenny, even an Anglais can’t be so näve. All this friendship-across-the-sea stuff is just a smoke screen. Everything they’ve done has been in the manner of an opening salvo: the donation of farspeakers to every palace in Europe, the planting of their Orbs of the Unblinking Eye in every city. What I can’t figure out is what they intend by all this.”
“Maybe Inca warriors will jump out of the Orbs and run off with the altar silver.”
“You’re a fool,” he murmured without malice.
“Like all Anglais. You and desert boy over there deserve each other. Well, I’ve had enough of Atahualpa’s droning voice. While they’re all busy here, I’m going to see what I can find out.” He stood.
She hissed. “Be careful.”
He ignored her. He nodded to his host. Atahualpa waved him away, uncaring.
Atahualpa had begun a conversation with Darwin on the supposed backwardness of European science and philosophy. Evidently it was a dialog that had been developing during the voyage, as the Inca tutors got to know the minds of their students. “Here is the flaw in your history as I see it,” he said. “Unlike the Inca, you Europeans never mastered the science of the sky. To you all is chaos.”
Jenny admired old Darwin’s stoicism. With resigned good humor, he said, “Isn’t that obvious? All those planets swooping around the sky—only the sun is stable, the pivot of the universe. Do you know, long before the birth of Christ-Ra a Greek philosopher called Aristotle tried to prove that the sun revolves round the Earth, rather than the other way around!”
But Atahualpa would not be deflected. “The point is that the motion of the planets is
chaotic, not if you look at it correctly.” A bowl of the chicken’s blood had been set before him. He dipped his finger in this and sketched a solar system on the tabletop, sun at the center, Earth’s orbit, the neat circles of the inner planets and the wildly swooping flights of the outer.
Servants brought plates of food. There was the meat of roast rodent and duck, heaps of maize, squash, tomatoes, peanuts, and plates of a white tuber, a root vegetable unknown to Europe but tasty and filling.
“There,” said Atahualpa. “Now, look, you see. Each planet follows an ellipse, with the sun at one focus. These patterns are repeated and quite predictable, though the extreme eccentricity of the outer worlds’ orbits makes them hard to decipher.
managed it, though—although I grant you we always had one significant advantage over you, as you will learn tonight! Let me tell you how our science developed after that . . .”
He listed Inca astronomers and mathematicians, names like Huascar and Manco and Yupanqui, which meant nothing to Jenny. “After we mapped the planets’ elliptical trajectories, it was the genius of Yupanqui that he was able to show
the worlds followed such paths, because of a single, simple law: The planets are drawn to the sun with an attraction that falls off inversely with the square of distance.”
Darwin said bravely, “I am sure our scholars in Paris and Damascus would welcome—”
Atahualpa ignored him, digging into his food with his blood-stained fingers. “But Yupanqui’s greatest legacy was the insight that the world is explicable: that simple, general laws can explain a range of particular instances. It is that core philosophy that we have applied to other disciplines.” He gestured at the diffuse light that filled the room. “You cower from the light of the sun, and fear the lightning, and are baffled by the wandering of a lodestone. But we know that these are all aspects of a single underlying force, which we can manipulate to build the engines that drive this ship and the farspeakers that enable the emperor’s voice to span continents. If
minds had been opened up, your science might be less of a hotchpotch. And your religion might not be so primitive.”
Darwin flinched at that. “Well, it’s true there has been no serious Christian heresy since Martin Luther was burned by the Inquisition—”
“If only you had not been so afraid of the sky! But then,” he said, smiling, “our sky always did contain one treasure yours did not.”
Jenny was growing annoyed with the Inca’s patronizing treatment of Darwin, a decent man. She said now, “Commander, even before we sailed you dropped hints about some wonder in the sky we knew nothing about.”
As his translator murmured in his ear, Atahualpa looked at her in surprise.
Darwin murmured, “Mademoiselle Cook, please—”
“If you’re so superior, maybe you should stop playing games and
us this wonder—if it exists at all!”
Dreamer shook his head. “Oh, Jenny. Just wait and see.”
The officers were glaring. But Atahualpa held up an indulgent hand. “I will not punish bravery, Mademoiselle Cook, and you are brave, if foolish with it. We like to keep our great surprise from our European passengers—call it an experiment—because your first reaction is always worth relishing. We were going to wait until the end of the meal, but—Pachacuti, will you see to the roof?”
Wiping his lips on a cloth, one of the officers got up from the table and went to the wall, where a small panel of buttons had been fixed. With a whir of smooth motors, the roof slid back.
Fresh salt air, a little cold, billowed over the diners. Jenny looked up. In an otherwise black sky, a slim crescent moon hung directly over her head. She had the sense that the moon was tilted on its side—a measure of how far she had traveled around the curve of the world in just a few days aboard this ship.
Atahualpa smiled, curious, perhaps cruel. “Never mind the moon, Mademoiselle Cook. Look that way.” He pointed south.
She stood. And there, clearly visible over the lip of the roof, something was suspended in the sky. Not the sun or moon, not a planet—something entirely different. It was a disc of light, a swirl, with a brilliant point at its center, and a ragged spiral glow all around it. It was the emblem she had observed on the navigational displays but far more delicate—a sculpture of light, hanging in the sky.
“Oh,” she gasped, awed, terrified. “It’s beautiful.” Beside her, Archbishop Darwin muttered prayers and crossed himself.
She felt Dreamer’s hand take hers. “I wanted to tell you,” he murmured. “They forbade me . . .”
Atahualpa watched them. “What do you think you are seeing?”
Darwin said, “It looks like a hole in the sky. Into which all light is draining.”
“No. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It is the
of all light.”
“And that is how you navigate,” Jenny said. “By the cloud—you could pick out the point of light at the center, and measure your position on a curving Earth from that. This is your treasure—a beacon in the sky.”
“You’re an insightful young woman. It is only recently, in fact, that with our farseers—another technology you lack—we have been able to resolve those spiral streams to reveal their true nature.”
“The cloud is a sea of suns, Mademoiselle. Billions upon billions of suns, so far away they look like droplets in mist.”
The Inca sky-scientists believed that the cloud was in fact a kind of factory of suns; the sun and its planets couldn’t have formed in the black void across which they traveled.
“As to how we ended up here—some believe that it was a chance encounter between our sun and another. If they come close, you see, suns attract each other. Our sun was flung out of the sea,
, generally speaking, off into the void. The encounter damaged the system itself; the inner planets and Earth were left in their neat circles, but the outer planets were flung onto their looping orbits. All this is entirely explicable by the laws of motion developed by Yupanqui and others.” Atahualpa lifted his finely chiseled face to the milky light of the spiral. “This was billions of years back, when the world was young. Just as well; life was too primitive to have been extinguished by the tides and earthquakes. But what a sight it would have been then, the sea of suns huge in the sky, if there had been eyes to see it!”
There was a commotion outside the stateroom. “Let me go!” somebody yelled in Frankish. “Let me go!”
An officer went to the door. Alphonse was dragged in by two burly Inca holding his arms. His nose was bloodied, his face powder smeared, his powdered wig askew, but he was furious, defiant.
Archbishop Darwin bustled to the side of his charge. “This is an outrage. He is a prince of the empire!”
At a nod from the commander, Alphonse was released. He stood there massaging bruised arms. And he stared up at the spiral in the sky.
“Sir, we found him in the farspeaker room,” said one of the guards. “He was tampering with the equipment.” For the guests, this was slowly translated from the Quechua.
But Alphonse interrupted the translation. He said in Frankish, “Yes, I was in your farspeaker room, Atahualpa. Yes, I understand Quechua better than you thought, don’t I? And I wasn’t tampering with the equipment. I was sending a message to my father. Even now, I imagine, his guards will be closing in on the Orb you planted in Saint Paul’s—and those elsewhere.”
Darwin stared at him. “Your royal highness, I’ve no idea what is happening here—why you would be so discourteous to our hosts.”
“Discourteous?” He glared at Atahualpa. “Ask him, then. Ask him what a sun bomb is.”
Atahualpa stared back stonily.
Dreamer came forward. “Tell him the truth, Inca. He knows most of it anyhow.” And one by one the other representatives of the Inca’s subject races, in their beads and feathers, stepped forward to stand with Dreamer.
And so Atahualpa yielded. A sun bomb was a weapon small enough to fit into one of the Incas’ Orbs of the Unblinking Eye yet powerful enough to flatten a city—a weapon that harnessed the power of the sun itself.
Jenny was shocked. “We welcomed you in Londres. Why would you plant such a thing in our city?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Alphonse answered. “Because these all-conquering Inca can’t cow Franks and Germans and Ottomans with a pretty silver ship as they did these others, or you Anglais.”
Atahualpa said, “A war of conquest would be long and bloody, though the outcome would be beyond doubt. We thought that if the sun bombs were planted, so that your cities were held hostage—if one of them was detonated for a demonstration, if a backward provincial city was sacrificed—”
“Like Londres,” said Jenny, appalled.
“And then,” Alphonse said, “you would use your farspeakers to speak to the emperors and state your demands. Well, it’s not going to happen, Inca. Looks like it will be bloody after all, doesn’t it?”
Darwin touched his shoulder. “You have done your empire a great service today, Prince Alphonse. But war is not yet inevitable between the people of the north and the south. Perhaps this will be a turning point in our relationship. Let us hope that wiser counsels prevail.”