by Michael O’Brien
“It looks like an extremely overdone clock,” Naomi observed. “Planning to keep time on other planets?”
“It’s simply a curiosity: a hobby,” answered her uncle Richard. “You spend all day playing World of Elves or whatever; this is what I do with my free time.”
She inclined her head over to the table of old books he was failing to subtly block from her view. “Are those diagrams part of your project? They look very old. I mean, really old.”
“They’re simply reference material, Naomi. I’m enjoying giving this project a classic look. Now, that’s as much as I’m going to indulge you tonight. You wouldn’t understand half of this anyway. Go back to the house and log on to your orcs, and eat something if you want. I will probably be here in the workshop until late.”
Reluctantly Naomi stopped slouching against the roughly paneled workshop wall. “I don’t understand why you aren’t working on something more interesting than a reproduction of an antique clock. With a dozen patented gadgets in your portfolio – “
“Which not a single person in the world has heard of, besides the engineers who use them as mechanisms in boring corporate consumer products. One day, young lady, you’ll learn that you’ve got to spend some of your life doing things to please yourself. Otherwise, you become a little maladjusted. Now I won’t tell you again: go back to the house.”
Naomi sulked her way out the door, and heard the deadbolt slide home behind her. Oddly, her mood improved the moment she reached the house, and she practically bounded up to her room. She had a date with her desktop computer: it had nothing to do with elves or orcs, but quite a bit to do with the tiny wireless camera she’d wedged into a knothole downstairs. She shoved aside a few Overwatch game character figurines decorating her desk and plugged the receiver into a port on a powered USB hub.
Soon she was grabbing images from the device’s video stream, trying to improve the clarity in Photoshop. “Enhance. Zoom seventeen to twenty–three. Enhance,” she muttered wryly to herself. Uncle Richard continued to fuss and fiddle with the device, making frequent reference to the books and charts piles on the side table. He was a man of medium high with sandy hair and a bit more weight than was fashionable, and he peered at his work through eyeglass frames in the latest European style.
As near as she could tell, the books he examined had a great deal of Greek and Latin text next to diagrams of the clock–like device her uncle had been fiddling with for the last month and a half. Naomi could recognize the text, but spoke neither language, and the image resolution was barely good enough to guess at the lettering. However, she did recognize large astrological symbols that had been reused in one of her favorite anime series.
There was the symbol for the Moon above a lengthy passage next to what might be an ornately engraved disk or lens. And one for Mars, yep… Mercury… Jupiter… Maybe Uncle Richard really was planning to tell time on other planets. The intricately geared box he’d begrudgingly showed her did resemble an orrery she’d seen in a science museum once. You could spin a dial and the complicated model of the solar system would spin and revolve to show you the positions of the planets on any given day in history. Uncle’s “clock” had a lot more dials than the orrery, though. The top of the clock sprouted a dizzying array of rods, levers, mirrors, and prisms of inscrutable function.
Someone knocked on the workshop door, and Richard looked startled and expectant simultaneously. He peeked through the curtain, pulled the deadbolt, and opened up the door. The man on the other side was tall, with a heavy dark beard and an aspect of rough business about him. His clothes were clean but weatherbeaten. He looked furtive and had a parcel under one arm. A fascinated Naomi thought that her little remote camera subterfuge couldn’t have been better timed.
Richard ushered the other man in quickly. “You have it, then? I didn’t expect you to get it so quickly, Mister…”
“It’s still John Doe to you. It’s just easier that way. And yes, once I’d tracked down Kemidov, negotiations went quickly.” ‘Doe’ cocked his chin at the parcel. “The book was little more than a curious relic to him.”
“Well, that’s wonderful. Let me get you your money.”
Richard stopped short and raised an eyebrow at his visitor. “Yes…”
“It’ll be an extra five thousand, I’m afraid. Kemidov bargained well. It wasn’t precious to him, but he could tell I wanted it pretty bad.”
A short silence followed, then Richard barked out a short laugh. “I’ll tell you want, John. You’ve done such a good job, you’ll have your extra five. I don’t even care what your reasons are.” He pulled a lockbox from the shadows under a table and extracted several wads of cash, which he handed to his visitor.
‘Doe’ eyed the cashbox. “Well, if your budget is that flexible…”
Richard reached casually into a jacket pocket, pointing whatever was inside at his visitor. “Someone once said, ‘Large in the purse is not soft in the head.’ Take your money and behave yourself. There may be other lucrative work… later.”
‘Doe’ hesitated, then he smirked. “Fine.” He set the book on another table, waving his free hand at all the tools, gears, and frames scattered about. “Have fun with your clock–making.” He walked out. Richard slid home the deadbolt on the door.
Naomi’s uncle carried the parcel over to the best light in the basement, which by no accident was close to the camera she’d left. He unwrapped the parcel slowly. “The last book of the Codex Astromechanisums…” he breathed. “It’s real.” He turned several pages, which Naomi could see clearly. “And soon… the world will know.”
Naomi decided she didn’t like the expression on his face. She couldn’t completely identify it… but it kept her up that night.
“Hey, Booker, I think you’re going to want to look at this.”
Jake Booker looked up irritably from his laptop. While his heart was committed to the Booker Foundation’s cause of recovering the lost literary treasures of the world, his mind sometimes had to spend time managing the fortune he’d made in oil and gas. People he trusted to do their jobs weren’t doing them well and he resented having to deal with that, even through a stack of intermediaries. Wasn’t that what they were supposed to be for?
“I’m busy, Chris.”
Chris Blaine waved a tablet at him. “I guarantee this is more interesting. They aren’t very good pictures, but they’re good enough.”
Booker flipped through the images on the tablet. Recognition slowly dawned on him; Booker was an educated man, and knew much more of the world than fossil fuels. “Tell me this isn’t what it looks like.”
The young blond man took a seat without asking. “Well, we think it looks like intact, clearly–labeled diagrams and procedures for an Antikythera Device.” Booker had seen the original in a museum, resting there after its recovery in 1902 from two thousand years underwater. That environment hadn’t been kind, and much of the mechanism was missing. Experts had since reconstructed much of the device using advanced imaging techniques, and constructed various working models according to different hypotheses, but the undeniable fact was that the Greeks had constructed a clockwork computer before the birth of Christ.
“But it isn’t,” Chris continued. “The dials are different, and the mechanism isn’t quite the same as the one from the shipwreck. Plus, it seems to have attachments for exterior peripherals… here, these lens–like objects on these levers. We think the instructions describe ways of producing different alignments of the lenses.”
“You got me, boss. A lot of the content of the books isn’t readable from these pictures, and what we can see of the text seems to assume you know what you plan to do with the thing.”
Booker leaned back in his chair. “All right, then. And the point of all this?”
“We got these pictures from a young lady named Naomi. Her email said she was familiar with our work, and that her uncle had recently come into possession of a book that sounds like the last volume of instructions. The complete set must have valuable information on the construction methods used for devices like this. The books might indirectly unlock some of the mysteries of the actual Antikythera Mechanism. Basically, she thinks the Foundation wants these.”
“Do you think so?”
“Without a doubt.”
“So do I. Well, my schedule full until the Second Coming, but you can head on out there. You’ve got the kind of boy–band face a young lady’s likely to appreciate, and maybe that’ll help with the negotiations. Get my assistant to set up your travel and accommodations and whatever.” Booker started to get back to his laptop world of PDF files and digital surveys.
“There’s one more thing, boss.”
Booker looked up as though he’d half expected there to be. “Yeah?”
“Miss Brandt was very concerned about something she didn’t want to put in the email. She was willing to say she thinks we should have the books… whether her uncle agrees or not.”
Booker closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead. “Oh. It’s one of those acquisitions.”
“All right. This is your notice that should you or Miss Brandt be caught doing things you shouldn’t, the Booker Foundation will of course disavow any knowledge of your actions. Now get out of here before I self–destruct in five seconds via paperwork overload.”
“Thanks for meeting me, Miss Brandt.” They sat in a secluded corner of a Starbucks, taking each other’s measure over strong coffees and iced pound cake. Naomi was a slight fourteen–year–old with black hair cut in a bob, wearing a t–shirt displaying a Japanese anime character seemingly named “Madoka Magica”. Chris had on a nice suit that made him look respectable and bland. His looks were having the effect Booker’s predicted, but clearly she had too much on her mind to pay them too much attention.
“Naomi’s fine. And you’re Chris?”
“Correct. I have to say I wasn’t expecting to be so furtive about this. The Foundation has noticeable resources, if not infinite. We’re usually able to conduct an open, mutually satisfactory deal with rare book owners.”
Naomi stared into her coffee for a moment. “First of all… I’m not entirely sure he has the legal right to some of the books. He had someone come by the other night and I don’t think they were a reference librarian… And anyway, look at these disks. From what I’m seeing in the text, they’re made from rare metals, though nothing too exotic. I mean, nothing government–restricted, for example; but Wikipedia says they’re still expensive enough. Luckily the device doesn’t require too much of any of those materials, because the inside circles of the disks are almost as thin as foil.”
“Well… the engraving on them… it’s incredibly finely detailed. I didn’t even know you could do that kind of intricate, precise work two thousand years ago. That would have been the really expensive part… at least before modern tools and methods.”
“So it’s pretty.”
Naomi began to look impatient. “Look. I didn’t have time for much, but I managed to get into his workshop a couple times for a few minutes and get pictures of the disk diagrams. They show a bunch of possible setup configurations, though I’m unsure for what.”
Chris interrupted. “You said in your messages that the workshop was locked. How did you get in?”
Her look became more impatient. “Let’s just say I got in, okay? I’m not stupid or helpless. Now look, you see these six of the disks are marked with astrological signs, and these two with signs I haven’t been able to identify searching online.”
Chris looked at her notations. “I’ve never heard of any of these signs. Usagi, Ami, Rei, Makoto, Minako, Hotaro…?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh god. Those are the classic astrological symbols for the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. When I see those symbols, I think of characters from a Japanese TV show, okay? Those characters from the show represent the planets of the solar system.”
“Ah. So, obviously, Haruka and Michiru are Uranus and Neptune.”
“Very good! And that’s exactly what has me worried.”
Chris shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“Great Cthulhu, did you not learn anything in school? These copies may be a few centuries old: but like I just said, the original of this ‘Codex Astromechanisums’ was compiled two thousand years ago. And we have no records to suggest anyone know about Uranus and Neptune back then. Modern science didn’t know about them until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. You need advanced telescopes to find them, and Newton didn’t even publish his treatise on optics until 1704.”
“Until the last few decades, we were also pretty sure no one had clockwork computers two thousand years ago…”
“So you see my concern.”
“All right. Clearly this device has layers of mysterious science to it. I still don’t see why we can’t just try to buy the books from him when he’s done making his toy.”
Naomi sat back, crossing her arms. “Ever watch Mythbusters? The show where they try to replicate urban legends?”
“I’ve heard of it, but some of us have things to do besides watch television all the time.” Chris couldn’t prevent some impatience from creeping into his voice.
“In 2004 and 2006, the Mythbusters tried to replicate the legendary heat ray of the Greek scientist Archimedes. Supposedly he used this invention to set fire to an invading navy, defeating them effortlessly. But despite sunny weather and an impressive array of mirrors, the Mythbusters were unable to make a test boat hot enough to do any real damage.”
The hair on Chris’ neck stood up. “Go on…”
“This was one of the more blurry pictures, but the heading at the top of the page is big enough to read.” Naomi opened an image on her phone: it was clearly zoomed–in and filtered, but Chris had no trouble figuring out from his clues what the name in Greek characters starting with ‘A’ had to be.
“I didn’t dare put this in the email. You’d have laughed. This page also has the Greek words for ‘fire’ and ‘distance’. My uncle’s had a few more shady visitors, and held rather muffled conversations with them. I… don’t know how this thing could possibly work… or even if it really will… but I don’t think Uncle Richard is building a cigarette lighter. I don’t like the look in his eyes when he works on it. And I want those books in someone else’s hands before he finishes.”
Darkness was falling as Chris stood next to the workshop and Naomi knelt before the lock. Chris kept glancing nervously from the main house to Naomi’s work. “How does someone your age know how to pick a top–quality deadbolt lock?”
“I have an enquiring mind. Didn’t know my parents long enough to know if they were the curious type, but Uncle Richard sure is. So it’s probably – ah ha! – genetic somewhere.” She twisted the knob and pushed the door open. The lights were already on, which she explained was a regular habit of her uncle’s. “It probably means he’ll be back later tonight, so we shouldn’t dawdle.”
Chris followed her in, feeling a bit swept–along. He tried to remember if he’d been this assured at her age. His reverie didn’t last long; this workshop was a cave of wonders. Intricate, partially finished miniature mechanisms filled rows of shelves. A table over on one side groaned under the weight of stack of old tomes gone a bit crumbly with age. The very nature of his job made him want to leap over and examine the books to see which ones were those he’d come for, and too see what else there might be. But enticing as they were, his attention was drawn to the device in the center of the workshop, under the clearest light. It did look like a large brass mechanical clock at first glance, maybe three inches by four by five, with that random array of articulated mirrors and supports. He noted that all eight of the disks were in place. One side of the box was decorated in semi–precious gemstones, one each on an inscribed arc. From the colors it was clear the gem at the bottom was the golden topaz Sun, while brown Mercury was succeeded by pearlescent Venus, cool blue aquamarine Earth and Moon in moonstone, gleaming red garnet Mars, agate Jupiter and Saturn, and Uranus and Neptune in turquoise. Inscribed rings surrounded Saturn, though there were no sign of them around the other outer planets.
“Your uncle’s an artist,” Chris said in awe. “I doubt it was necessary to make it so pretty.”
Naomi was less happy. She pointed down the room at a wood–and–cloth dummy standing before a steel partition. The dummy was blackened with fire and parts had burned away, while even the steel behind it was scorched. “I didn’t think he’d made it this far on the project. If it’s not finished, it must be damn close to it.”
Chris wasn’t naïve enough to feel surprise about that kind of language from a teenager in the 21st century, but even had he been, the morbid display held his attention until he consciously forced himself to look away. “I’m going to start looking over these books.” He pulled on a pair of cotton gloves and began turning pages with a pair of short forceps, marveling at the contents. Booker would absolutely want these, and even Dr. Cuinnsey would likely want a look, despite her preference for Celtic writings.
He looked up for a moment. Naomi clearly wanted to pick up the device, but was clearly afraid to. “How are you going to explain this to your uncle?”
“I figure we make it look like someone broke in. Maybe we can even somehow leave clues to suggest the culprit was his John Doe contact who brought him the last sections of the Codex. He’ll find out soon enough that your Foundation has them, won’t he?”
“Yeah, but we have all sorts of lawyers for those situations. I doubt he can prove prior ownership. No idea what we’ll do with the device, but I can think of at least five scientist, historians, and engineers I know who’d like a look before we start worrying about those legalities.” Chris bent down to look at a chart notable for the planetary symbols at the top and squiggled writing below.
Right then, a key rattled in the deadbolt, and the door opened before either Naomi or Chris could move. Richard Brandt walked in, shut and locked the door automatically behind him, then looked up and registered their presence. His face flushed and his jaw clenched. “What – in the hell – is this? Naomi, who is this man? What are you two doing in here? You are in more trouble than you can imagine.”
Naomi tried an ingratiating young voice on her uncle. “Oh, Uncle Richard! This is my librarian friend Chris. I talk to him all the time when I’m checking out real books, and he got really excited when I told him about your old ones. We were hoping to find you here, but when we knocked, the door was not bolted like usual, so we came in. You can trust him, he just wanted to take a look!”
Uncle Richard wasn’t buying it. “The door to my workshop was locked, young lady. I can see that your friend knows how to handle a precious book, but you shouldn’t be in here, and you should bring your… friend.” He clearly didn’t believe Chris was a librarian, which was a bit ironic under the circumstances.
Chris tried a gambit from his end. “You have my apologies, Mr. Brandt. Miss Naomi assured me there would be no trouble.” Her eyes flashed thanks for throwing me under the bus at him, but he tried to sound placating at them both. “I’m sure she didn’t understand how upset you’d be. We’ll certainly leave, but I must say, your collection is incredible. I can think of a dozen libraries, mine included, that would pay remarkable sums to acquire these books. I’ve never even heard of this, this ‘Codex Astromechanisums’ before. And I’m bewildered by that beautiful object over there.”
The flattery had at least a little effect. “Young man, I’ll make history with that device.”
“I know what that is, Uncle,” shouted Naomi. “I can see your target over there. That’s some kind of heat ray. You’re going to blow up tanks and planes with it?”
Richard looked shocked. “Naomi – why in heaven would I want to do that?”
“I heard you. You said that soon, the world would know what you’d created.”
“Why – why, yes, of course. Look – look here.” He laid the device flat on the table so the array pointed down the room at the dummy. Now the gemstones were on top, and he depressed the topaz gem briefly. Bright light came from the other end of the device, bouncing among mirrors and prisms and gleaming from metal lenses. The effect was dazzling.
“The original source was sunlight, of course,” Richard commented. “I’ve substituted a small arc lamp so one need not worry about clouds nor darkness.” He hid the top in the curve of his free hand while he tapped another gem. “I don’t think either of you needs to know all the operating details. But look!”
The metal lenses aligned, the engraved tracery upon them glowing incandescent with the light reflected and amplified upon them by the mirrors and prisms. Naomi and Chris felt a wave of heat and watched in fascination as an untouched spot on the dummy brightened and burst into flame. In moments, the burning section had disintegrated and burned away. The metal plate behind the remains of the dummy started to glow with heat before Richard tapped a gem behind his head again. The dazzling light remained, but the steel started cooling and the effect of heat vanished.
“See!” Naomi crowed. “It’s a heat ray.”
“Maybe for Archimedes,” Richard replied with just a bit of smugness. “But I believe that with some adjustments it could be many more things. A heat source to drive steam turbines, or jet engines via solar power! Perhaps even a thruster for long–distance space probes: the efficiency of the energy conversion is astonishing!” His face fell. “Of course, in production it won’t be as pretty. We can replace the original gearing with components the ancient Greeks could barely have dreamed of. I’m sure it will end up computer controlled and stuck in a boring brushed titanium casing. But it can change the world.” The three of them gazed at the device, each enraptured by their own thoughts.
“I have no doubt it will make someone a very rich man,” ‘John Doe’ said. Chris, Naomi, and Richard stepped back, startled, as Doe stepped around from behind the partition with a small machine pistol trained in their direction. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stay back there much longer; it got a bit warm behind that plate.”
“How – how long have you been back there?” Chris stuttered as he tried to assimilate the surprise and figure out what to do about it.
“Only a few minutes before you and the young lady broke in,” Doe said smugly. “Got inside pretty much the same way, considering the sounds you were making in the lock. I was trying to figure out how to transport all this but barely had time to hide as you worked the door open. At least I moved faster than the two of you did when he came in.”
“What do you want?” Richard asked in resignation.
“Just what Mister Chris here wanted. I want, the books, and your prototype. I was just going to sell it as a weapon, but I don’t doubt the Chinese or North Koreans would be just as fascinated by the other applications you mentioned. I’m going to be wealthy enough that being on the run from a government or two will be completely worth it.”
Suddenly, Richard lunged for the device. “Not if I can stop – “ but before his hands touched the gemstone controls, a controlled burst of three machine pistol rounds smacked into his chest, and he dropped.
“Uncle!” Naomi shrieked. She put her ear to his chest, and lips, then stood to aim an incendiary glance of her own at Doe. “You goddam asshole, you didn’t have to kill him!”
“Are you sure he’s…” Chris started.
“Yes. No pulse, no breathing. Just like on all that television I watch,” she snapped at him. He blushed and looked away.
“Now, did I understand correctly that neither of you knows how to operate this device?” Doe asked. Chris looked back at Naomi questioningly, and she shook her head silently. “I see. That’s probably just as well. I’m sure I can find someone to figure it out. You – you start collecting those books you were looking at. And, little girl, you will pick up the device and bring it over to me while I decide if you’d be worth the trouble as a hostage.”
“Fuck you!” she yelled. “Come over here and get it yourself and we’ll see if you can keep your little gun aimed at us while you do it.” The muzzle of the machine pistol swung to point at her.
Chris had begun to gently flip the pages of the Codex back over before he closed the cover, and stopped when he saw the planetary chart come up. “Naomi. Don’t be a fool. Give him the ray gun.”
“There. Is. No. Way. I. Will –“
Chris tried his best to get through to her, wishing for telepathy at this moment. “Naomi, this isn’t television. Maybe one of your superhero characters would survive, but you need to think about what you are doing before you do it. Give Mister Doe the ray. Don’t you understand?” Please understand.
Her eyes suddenly widened. “Oh. You’re right of course. I’m sorry, Mister; I’ll give you the ray.” She approached the device slowly, ever aware of the machine pistol. Very carefully, she lifted the device from the table, turned toward Doe… and in a lightning motion pressed the red gem in its engraved orbit. The wave of heat filled the room and Doe’s gun glowed cherry red. He dropped it, his hand horribly burned, and instinctively lurched forward to catch it.
Doe’s head moved into the path of the burning shaft of light.
Neither Naomi nor Chris ever liked to think much about what happened immediately afterwards.
“So, we’ve got the book and the trinket?” Booker asked, his feet up on his desk as he questioned his operative.
“Yes, boss. Miss Brandt, as his closest heir, negotiated a very fair price.”
“Well, the books of course, but what are we going to do with a heat ray?”
“I couldn’t tell you, boss. Have it studied by Top Men?”
“Very funny. So how’s Miss Brandt doing?”
“Surprisingly well, considering the trauma of her uncle’s death and the guilt for believing such evil things about him. I believe she spent the next week divided between therapy and Netflix.”
“Poor girl. Wonder where she’s going to go from here?”
“Well… we are always looking for Information Technology staff that will fit nicely with our sometimes… unorthodox procedures.”
“Blaine, she’s fourteen!”
“So call it an internship, maybe? I think she’d like it here, and we’d be lucky to have her.”
Booker examined his operative carefully. Awful concerned with the girl’s welfare. Platonically? It had damn well better be.
“Fine, Blaine. I’ll think about it. Now get out of – hey, no. You know, it was damn lucky she pressed the right button before John Doe ventilated her.”
“Oh. No, it wasn’t luck at all, unless it’s lucky for her she was so quick on the uptake. I was looking at an astronomical diagram, and I realized from the notations which planet had to be the trigger. So I told her to give the guy the ray.”
“Okay, so you figured it out. But how did she?”
“That’s just it, boss, I told her. Rei Hino is the secret identity of one of her anime heroines. When I mentioned her television habits, Naomi figured out I was telling her to ‘give him the Rei.’ Rei Hino is called in her superpowered form: Sailor Mars.”
––––– END –––––