Note from Eric Flint:
Steve Ruskin’s The Newton Cipher is being published by Ring of Fire Press on August 1. We’re going to snippet from it for the next month. Anyone interested in the novel can learn more about it on our web site:
THE NEWTON CIPHER
By Steve Ruskin
The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity
A Night in April, 1666
It was well past midnight when Isaac heard the knock on the door. He was awake in his rooms at this hour, of course. Night was the time he could do his reading, his thinking, his experiments unmolested: in the dark and the quiet the only interruptions were the sputtering of candles, the chiming of the chapel bell tolling the hours, and the occasional drunken shouts of fellow students staggering back to their colleges after a night of drinking and whoring.
But Cambridge was nearly empty now, evacuated because of the plague that had decimated London during the previous year; decimated the city before spreading outward, like a conflagration, until no town was safe and everyone — at least those with means or family — fled to the countryside. Isaac had been forced to leave Cambridge as well, fleeing to his widower mother’s farm she’d received from that pox-stubbled fool she’d taken for a husband; Isaac’s his stepfather, now long dead.
But Isaac had returned to Cambridge early, to his rooms and his books and his alchemical apparatus, even though Trinity College was so empty the Great Hall was not serving food and the buttery was nearly bare. He scrounged what vittles could. As a sizar — a poor student serving the wealthy ones in exchange for tuition — he knew where to look. After all, other’s scraps were his standard fare. And what was food anyway, but a means of sustenance? Day-old mushroom broth or fine Christmas goose — it was all the same to him.
Silent, empty Trinity was his alone, and Isaac was at peace.
Nevertheless he jumped when the knock came. He had been expecting it, but so deep was he into a volume on the laws optics by that Frenchman Descartes that Isaac had lost track of time.
“A moment,” he said, dropping the book on the rough-hewn planks that served as both his dining table and laboratory bench. The thud shook a half-dozen soil-filled pots, dislodging a shower of dried petals. It also rattled a tiny brass-tipped tube on a tripod, as well as the plate of cold chicken that he had brought up earlier but had neglected, lost as he was in his intellectual trance.
On the way to the door he pulled a fist-sized nugget of coal from the scuttle and threw it into the small stove, which was itself nearly as cold as the chicken.
Isaac barely recognized the man waiting in the shadows of the narrow stone hallway. Short in height and slight in stature, he wore no wig this time, and his mustache was more unkempt than Isaac remembered. Perhaps the situation in London was even worse than the newspapers indicated.
And yet the man’s clothes were still fine, hints of rich velvet and gold chain caught the feeble light from the candles on the table. But most of his finery was hidden beneath the coarse wool traveling cloak that fell from his shoulders to his boots.
It was the eyes, however, that convinced Isaac that it was the same man who had greeted him over the wall of his family’s orchard the previous Autumn, while Isaac had been dozing beneath the fruit trees. Grey and piercing; eyes that sparkled with intelligence and — it seemed — barely concealed malice.
“Hello again, Master Isaac.” His voice was sibilant; it made Isaac think of the serpent in Eden.
“Master Plumbago,” Isaac bowed. Plumbum, the Latin root for the element lead. Isaac knew Plumbago was not the man’s real name.
Plumbago nodded and stepped into Isaac’s small room. Isaac closed the door after him, then jumped back in alarm when it was forcibly pushed open again, and another man stepped in.
“Sir?” Isaac looked questioningly at Plumbago. This second man was huge, with shoulders nearly as broad as the frame of the door.
“Fear not, young scholar,” Plumbago said. “This is my associate, Mister Clysto.”
Even in the dim light Isaac recognized Clysto for the royalist that he was. Long hair coiffed in perfect ringlets cascaded over his lace collar. An elaborately embroidered red waistcoat fitted precisely over yellow breeches, which themselves were tucked into knee-high leather boots that gleamed with brass buckles — far more metal than seemed necessary for keeping those shoes on his feet. He carried his wide, plumed hat in one hand, the other rested on the pommel of the rapier that hung from his waist. It was a fine blade, inlaid silver and one large ruby glinted on the pommel. The man’s entire ensemble was also covered by a traveling cloak that fell back from his shoulders, but of a fine woolen weave of much higher quality than Plumbago’s.
Yet despite the frippery, Clysto was clearly a soldier, or at least had been. His neck bulged with knotted muscle, his nose had obviously been broken and reset more than once, and scars of Euclidian precision marked the places where honed Puritan pikes had attempted their most enthusiastic proselytization on his heathen face. Never had Isaac seen a more definitive specimen of Cavalier: those veterans of England’s civil war, friends to King Charles and enemies of Oliver Cromwell.
“M’lord,” Isaac said, bowing low and peeking furtively around the open door to make sure there were no others waiting in the hall. Detecting none, he closed the door.
“I’m afraid I have little to offer by way of refreshment,” he said, wishing he’d covered the cold chicken with a cloth. Suddenly he was keenly aware of the poverty of his surroundings.
Clysto said nothing, merely surveying the room with an appraising stare. Looking for danger, perhaps. The wariness of the soldier.
Plumbago, however, waved his hand dismissively.
“As you know, this is not a social call, master Isaac. Not at this hour, and not in such times. We are merely here to take delivery of my order, and will be on our way. You have finished?”
Isaac glanced at the dozen clay jars lined up at the far corner of his workbench. “I have, m’lord.”
Plumbago followed his gaze, stepping lightly across the small room. His hand hovered over them.
Plumbago regarded them for a moment, and Isaac did the same. A stack of small clay jars, each marked with the appropriate alchemical symbols, capped with cork, and sealed in thick wax.
“Fewer than I expected,” Plumbago said flatly.
“But highly effective, I assure m’lords,” Isaac countered sharply, then caught himself, continuing in a more pleasant tone. “You indicated potency was my task, not volume. The strange striae in the petals were the sub rosa, if you will forgive the pun.”
“These striae, you could see them?”
“Strange marks on the petals you gave me, yes.”
“How, pray tell? I saw nothing unusual.”
“Ah,” Isaac said, pointing to the brass-tipped tube on his table. “With that. A microscope, it is called.”
“A similar principle to the Galilean telescope,” Isaac said. “But instead of causing distant things to appear close, it makes small things large to the eye. A fellow of the Royal Society, a Mr. Hooke, published his explorations with the microscope just last year. Micrographia, he named it. I’ve read it thoroughly. It is passable, for a treatise, but only just. I’ve already improved upon his researches, and upon the device itself. For example, it — “
Plumbago cleared his throat. Get to the point.
“It … allowed me to closely study the petals you provided.”
“I have devised a way to reverse their effect. Here is the result.”
Isaac swept his arms toward the jars with barely concealed pride.
“What, may I inquire, is the precise method of their application?”
“Place them around London. Unseal them where they are open to the vapors, but can’t be molested. Hidden from common sight would be best. Up high, perhaps. It will take time, but they will disperse their contents and stop the … ah, particular contagion.”
Plumbago seemed skeptical. He raised one of the sealed jars to his nose, sniffed it cautiously, then set it back down.
“So … small.”
“Effective, despite their size. I assure you.”
Isaac took a bound notebook and bodkin from the table, and cut a page neatly out of the back with a small knife.
“Encoded, as you suggest,” Isaac handed it to him. “You are familiar with the language of alchemy?”
Plumbago muttered as his eyes scanned the page. “In Autumn, bathe the Doves of Diana in aqua fortis … let the White Swan swallow the Black Crow … the Emperor shall burn with the Eagles of Hermes ….”
“You understand?” Newton asked again.
Plumbago nodded, tucking the formula away. “I truly hope this is as effective as you say. If not …”
Isaac bristled, watching the work of half a year disappear into the folds of Plumbago’s cloak. He could not abide those who questioned his abilities, but hated himself even more for feeling the need to defend himself to anyone. But then again, these gentlemen were well above his station. Isaac was young, and poor, and while massively ambitious, abiding was what one must do in the presence of men like Plumbago and Clysto.
Some day …
Plumbago seemed to follow his thoughts. He smiled broadly, revealing gapped and yellowed teeth. “Fear not, my boy. Your genius is prodigious, and has caught the attention of your betters. All my inquiries for a philosopher capable of providing for our unique requirements …” he tapped one of the jars with a tentative finger “… led me to you. It was I who traveled all the way to Woolsthorpe last Spring to seek you out, was it not?”
“Aye,” Isaac nodded, affecting as much humility as his own hot temper allowed, yellow bile being perpetually out of balance among his own internal humors. Quickness to anger was one of his recurring sins, and he prayed for forgiveness nightly. Once, as a child in a fit of rage, he’d even threatened his own mother and step-father with burning their house down. With them in it. He never followed through on the threat, of course. The man soon died of his own accord.
Lord forgive me.
“And I am sure they will be as effective as you say.” Finally satisfied, Plumbago nodded at Clysto, and the big man crossed the room to the table in one long stride. A large canvas sack appeared in his left hand, and with his right arm he swept the entire collection of jars into the bag.
Isaac leapt as the jars clattered into the bottom of the sack. “You fool!” he cried, lunging at Clysto’s bag. “Be careful!”
In a blink, the tip Clysto’s rapier was out and up, denting Isaac’s adam’s apple. Another quarter-inch and he would bleed. Clysto merely stared at Isaac, the rock-steady tip of his sword punctuating his wordless warning.
Isaac backed away, shaking.
“I … I only ask that you be careful!” he choked, grasping his neck.
“Steady, master Isaac,” Plumbago said. “For all his refinements, sometimes my friend is a bumbler. Clysto learned his profession at a time when might alone ruled our fair isle, and now forgets we inhabit a different era. One that often requires finesse rather than force.”
“M’Lord,” Isaac drew in a ragged breath. He may have an excess of the yellow bile, but he was no fool. “Forgive my impertinence. I ask only that you be most careful. Those vessels contain the delicate work of many months.”
Clysto sneered, then turned on his heel and retook his position near the door. He did, however, seem to carry the bag more carefully. Isaac relaxed.
Plumbago patted Isaac on the shoulder, as if he were his benevolent uncle. “You have done well, and you will be rewarded. A quid pro quo, to use the Latin you scholars are so fond of. Do you still wish membership in the Royal Society? A college fellowship, perhaps?”
Isaac eyed the piles of papers shoved in the corner of his room, calculations on planetary mechanics and theories of the constitution of light. Membership in the Royal Society he could manage on his own. But a fellowship at Trinity required connections.
“Of course you do, of course you do. Now,” Plumbago made an elaborate show of pivoting around the room, looking for something. “Those jars tucked safely in my companion’s bag complete the first part of my order. And yet …” — Plumbago squinted into each nook and cranny, and Isaac was suddenly keenly aware of the dust and cobwebs he’d never cleaned — “… I fail to see anything that might constitute the second part of my request?”
“Ah,” said Isaac. “Those are behind the college, down by the Cam. In barrels, inside the old brewery.”
At this, Plumbago became alarmed. “In so public a place? You are certain no one …?”
“Quite safe, my lord. Cambridge is nearly deserted, Trinity especially so. I’ve counted less than a dozen of us, including the stubborn old porter, whom I think believes he can stop the plague from entering the Great Gate as readily as he does those louts from Gonville and Caius, who can’t find their own college through the blindness of gin, and can only find their way home like dogs, following the scent of their own piss from the previous night’s revel.”
Isaac chuckled at his own joke, stopping only when he saw that Plumbago found no humor in it. He didn’t even glance at Clysto.
“They are safe,” Isaac repeated, more soberly this time. “The mixture is far too voluminous, to say nothing of volatile, to store within doors. Come, I will show you.”
The two men exchanged silent glances.
“M’lords,” he added, stepping toward the door.
The two men enhanced glances, and then Plumbago spoke. “It would go ill for you, young scholar, should anyone other than us be aware of your formulations.”
“None were, are, or shall be. I have taken precautions. I replaced the lock outside with another, and I have the only key. No one has used the building for months, not even those sodomitic students looking for a bower to bugger each — ” He stopped short again, realizing the depravities of his fellow students, so scandalous to Isaac himself, were of no interest to his guests.
“At the backs, by the river?” Plumbago repeated.
Clysto turned and left the room, his footfalls fading rapidly down the stone hall and out into the Cambridge night.
Plumbago’s gregarious smile returned, and he swept one arm dramatically toward the open door. “Then lead the way, master Isaac.”
Isaac took his lantern off its hook, lit the stubby candle inside, and led Plumbago down from his room, located between the Master’s Hall and the chapel. The night was wet with dew, the stars sparkled, but the college was quiet and dark. Not a single lantern lit the arched stone entrances to the other college rooms, nor a single candle could be seen in any of the windows. Such was the silence of the plague.
Their footsteps echoed over the cobbles of Great Court, the criss-cross pattern of light from the lantern illuminating their way. Isaac considered taking a shortcut across the manicured grass that filled the center of the court, a privilege reserved for college fellows. Who would know? But propriety won out and he maintained the perimeter, even as Plumbago cut the corner.
Isaac caught up with him at the steps up to the narrow passage between the empty dining hall and the buttery, and then they were through to Nevile’s Court, stars appearing overhead once more.
They passed beneath spindled porticos, took one turn, then another, and were finally out into the grassy banks behind Trinity that lead down to the river Cam, its slow current sluggish in the moonlight. To their left, squat and dark in the shadows, was the brewhouse. Isaac slid a key from his pocket and opened the lock, beckoning Plumbago to enter.
Once inside he set his lantern on an upright barrel. The floor was dirt, and motes of dust danced in the air. Behind a stack of moldering hop sacks, Isaac pulled a large cloth off a stack of kegs.
Plumbago ran a hand over the nearest, tracing the alchemical symbols Isaac had scratched onto each with rough chalk. Unknown to Plumbago, in a moment of conceit, Isaac had marked the inside of each small barrel with his own initials. When they burned, as they were designed to, so would his hidden vanity, consumed in pure alchemical fire.
“This is the most volatile compound ever created,” Isaac said. “By anyone,” he added, with barely concealed pride. Black sulfur, quicklime, oil of vitriol, and other compounds of Isaac’s own painstaking transmutation. The experimentation had been arduous — months spent over noxious crucibles, grinding and heating and combining — but ultimately successful.
Plumbago nodded approvingly. The faintest odor of the mixture still hung in the air; Isaac could smell it, could almost feel the heat of alchemical fire it promised.
“You are satisfied then, M’Lord?”
Plumbago said nothing for a long time, and Isaac eventually concluded that he wasn’t going to answer. But then he spoke.
“The Kingdom is in a bind, Master Isaac. War at sea, plague at home. The King has restored his throne. Now he wishes to restore his country.”
It was a vague answer.
“And what I’ve prepared, it will help?” Isaac said.
“Some scholars spend their entire lives in their rooms, noses buried in their books. That may yet be your fate. But at least tonight, you are part of something much bigger. You are defending the Kingdom from all enemies, the quick and the … dead. Think upon that, and let it succor you in the otherwise obscure life that awaits you in sleepy Cambridge. May it be a long and pleasant one.”
Isaac bristled. A life of obscurity? Bah. This past year had been productive in other areas beyond the alchemical. Physics, optics, mathematics … in time, the world would see whether he was to remain unnoticed and isolated in sleepy Cambridge.
Clysto appeared suddenly in the brewery’s wide doorway, silhouetted against the moonlight outside.
“All is ready,” Plumbago said, patting Isaac’s heap of kegs. Clysto shoved his way past Isaac, took a barrel under each arm, and turned toward the door.
“Be even more careful with these, M’Lords,” Isaac said, eyeing Clysto’s rapier warily. “The jars were merely fragile. These barrels are mortally injurious — far more combustable than gunpowder. A sudden drop, a wayward spark … why, I suspect you could burn down most of London with the contents of these dozen casks.”
Clysto stopped in mid-stride.
“All of London?” he said, without turning.
Isaac realized that it was the first time the entire evening that he had heard the man speak.
“Well, if one we not careful,” Isaac said, startled by Clysto’s eager tone. “But in the contained spaces Mr. Plumbago described, merely to burn the corpses of plague victims, one would only need …”
He was unable to finish. Clysto had gone. Isaac looked at Plumbago, hoping for clarification, but the man had managed to loop his scrawny arms around a single keg and was waddling out the door after Clysto.
Through a gap in the wooden walls of the brew house, Isaac saw that Clysto had procured a punt: a small wooden boat the locals used to ply the Cam, pushing the craft up and down the river with long wooden poles.
For the next few minutes Isaac stood at a rapier-safe distance, watching the two men come and go until the stack of kegs was gone, leaving empty round circles on the brewery’s dirt floor.
He stood there in the semi-darkness, wondering what to do, when Plumbago reappeared.
“We’re loaded now, Master Isaac.”
“May I raise the matter of my compensation?” Isaac said. “You made me assurances. That I would have the support necessary to advance my station.”
“Yes, and in good time,” Plumbago nodded. “But first I must insist on one final … precaution. In exchange, you will never in your life reveal what you have done here. Is that understood?”
“To this I have already agreed, M’Lord. What more must I do?”
Plumbago produced a roll of paper, bearing multiple wax seals and festooned with ribbons. He laid it flat on the upturned barrel beside Isaac’s lantern.
A contract. In the light of the guttering flame, Isaac read the terms. Paragraph after paragraph of precisely-scrawled legal clauses and subclauses, all of which boiled down to one overarching coda: Isaac’s formulae for the contents of the jars and kegs were to be turned over to Plumbago, and Isaac’s involvement in the creation of said recipes was to kept secret for the remainder of Isaac’s life.
Secret. On pain of death.
In exchange, there would be certain favors, fulfilled following the successful application of Isaac’s concoctions by those who had hired him.
When Isaac finished reading, he looked up at Plumbago, who produced a small reed and inkwell.
Isaac took the reed, dipped it, and scratched it over the paper.
Is. Newton, baccalaureus artium.
Plumbago blew the ink dry and left without another word. From the entrance to the brewhouse, Isaac watched the two men step onto the laden punt and push off down the river, a single hooded lantern at the bow marking their progress.
In a few minutes they’d sailed beneath the Bridge of Sighs of neighboring St. John’s College, then were gone.
Isaac returned to his rooms, to his experiments and calculations.
He thought little more of Plumbago and Clysto, only noting with satisfaction that by the end of summer the plague seemed to have mostly left London. Soon the city returned to its thriving, chaotic self.
But Cambridge was not so lucky. The plague came again, and by August, Isaac was forced once more to escape to his family’s farm in Woolsthorpe. It was there, as the leaves began to turn on the apple trees, as war with the Dutch and plague-pestilence and Plumbago and Clysto finally faded from memory, that Isaac awoke one morning to the frantic shouting of the locals gathered in the narrow lane leading from the village.
News from the south, delivered on the day’s mail coach:
London was burning.
All of it.