Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Price of Independence - Rough - Day 1


This is a story I began in October, prior to NaNoWriMo, and which I put on hold until after NaNo was complete. Now that that's over with, I'm resuming work on it. It's the first part of an ongoing multi-generational story following the Dolets.


THE PRICE OF SUCCESS


by Gordon S. McLeod




The student wrote furiously, the scratching of the copper stylus drowning out the outside world.Around him, other students were likewise absorbed in their scribblings. The blaring cry of a steam whistle rang out; the air filled with the sense of frustration as the quiet writing ceased, but not a student grumbled or groaned.
"Quills away!" barked the Academy intendant, hard eyes scanning the rings of students for any sign of deceit. "Remain where you are seated. Ms. Sulin will collect your exams presently. There will be no talking, no fidgeting, no leaving. Once all of the exams have been accounted for, you may return to your rooms."
Altman Dolet smiled, copper-sheathed quill neatly set to the side of the exam paper he’d just finished. He’d long since mastered the routine of exams at the Academy; he knew to the second how long they had, and always made sure he knew the material well enough to get the most detail down possible without going over time.
A low impatient murmur arose from the room while Ms. Sulin and several assistants made the rounds, collecting papers with cursory examinations. Most of the student body were impatient to get themselves to the sporting fields where the house semi-finals were due to start, but Altman felt only relief that the exam was complete.
As the last of the students were filing out of the hall, Altman pocketed the copper quill, took a final look around the exam hall, then stood and followed them out.

* * *

The lab was quiet save for the bubbling of exotic solutions and the grinding of mortar and pestle as Altman continued his work. He was a final-term student of the geosciences—a graduated student now, he reminded himself. Save for the formalities, at least.
He worked with the chemicals and energy and minerals of the earth, a rich field of promising discoveries for the past century and which showed no end in sight. His particular study was focused on extracting usable energy from rare earth minerals, and he had managed to acquire samples of a particularly rare type. It was so rare, indeed, that Altman was beginning to believe his particular sample might be unique in the literature.
He started, jolted back to reality as the lab door abruptly opened.
“Can you believe it? I thought that would never end.” Deman Buxton strode in, wearing that look of relief so common to those who've just escaped an ordeal. "Shall we go? The game will be starting any moment.”
Altman just looked at him askance until Deman shook his head ruefully. “Of course, of course, what was I thinking? I imagine you have a book you must read, or perhaps it's one of these experiments that has entrapped your attention?”
“You know me so well, Dem. As a matter of fact I do have some mineralogical solutions to attend to. My uncl—”
“Altman! Your whole life revolves around science! Where’s the rest of it? We're done now, free by seconds, not yet out of the exam hall, and already your mind is back to work. If you won’t come to the game, at least come with me down to the pub to celebrate properly, will you?”
Altman sighed. "And I trust you won't leave me a moment’s peace until I agree, will you?”
“Would you expect any less?"
“No, of course not. Alright, let's go. But only the one, else my experiments will be ruined.”

* * *

The pub was loud and hot with the crowding of many bodies despite the crisp chill of the autumn air outdoors. Deman lead them to a small beer-stained table in the quietest corner, though “quietest” was entirely relative. The bar was crowded with regulars and students alike, the latter drinking their celebrations or drowning the sorrows, and the noise was fantastic.
Gesturing to the serving maid for a pair of mugs, Deman seated himself with a sigh of pure pleasure. “Getting you out of your head may be difficult, but at least you have some taste when you do give up on stubbornness.”
Altman accepted the the mugs from the pretty girl absently, sliding a couple of heavy coins her way. Deman watched the exchange critically. "Dem, I swear I don't know what you're talking about. Am I really so bad as all that?"
"The fact that you have to ask at all is answer enough! Here, let me ask a question in return. What did you think of her?"
Altman stared at him blankly for a moment. “Her? Who—”
Exactly my point! The serving wench you just took our beer from, the one you gave up your money to! Did you not see the look she was giving you? It could've warmed a frozen man on the coldest winter night!”
Altman gaped in confusion for a moment. “Surely you—”
“Altman, you can't live your whole life in the metaphorical ivory tower. Academics are all well and good, but you really must start paying attention to the finer things in life. And for the record, she is a fine thing, indeed!”
He felt a flush creeping up his face, and he coughed even as he glanced around the crowded room. Their server was nowhere to be seen. “I don’t know about all that, Dem. It’s worked well enough so far. Hasn’t it?”
Dem’s face became uncharacteristically serious. “Has it? Has it really worked so well for you? You have the best results in our year, for certain, but what else do you have? Who else are you, Al?”
Altman started to retort that he was a student, a scholar, a scientist, but found to his surprise that he could think of nothing else to say.

* * *

Altman strode back to the Academy towers, mind a whirl of introspection. He barely noticed the people in the street around him as he navigated the broad streets, avoiding huge, wide wagons and the horses that pulled them, three abreast in front of each one.
Upon entering the huge Academy gates, he headed automatically toward the science labs, there to check on his experiments’ progress. Young men surrounded him, and some young women, all relaxed and cheerful in their freedom, bunched in groups, huddling around braziers filled with burning embers, staving off the late autumn cold.
He pulled open the heavy iron door to the lab, fingers chilling fast on the cold metal. He slipped inside, noting with relief the warmth that still filled the room. The coals were banked low, and he’d feared the room’s temperature might drop too far before his return.
All was as he'd left it. The great fire burned low, heating both the room and the iron and bronze pots placed at carefully measured distances from the fire. Wooden shelves filled with leather and cloth bound books covered the far wall, the walls between occupied by standing desks and work tables, surfaces obscured with the accoutrements of the scientist. A particularly large book sat open on a table at the center of the room, neat hand-written notes describing in intricate detail various minerals and the experiments the author had attempted.
He strode to the fire and inspected the contents of the pots, then pulled a curious apparatus from a large drawer in the nearest desk. It was large and awkward, an ornate wood and brass box with a handle at one end, a pair of antennas on the other, and several dials and gauges on the front face. He adjusted the knobs and brought the antennas near each pot, taking careful note of the gauge’s motions in each case and listening intently to a resonant ticking. It got louder and faster the closer he brought it to the pot; he frowned and backed off, setting the instrument on the table, eyes straying to a set of heavy, lead-lined aprons near the door.


Continue to The Price of Independence - Rough - Day 2

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