It might have been the heat of the lecture hall or the swirling light of alchemical globes, shaded to accommodate the lamp film projector. Or it might have been the susurrus of conversation slithering among the auditorium seats. It very likely was the presenter’s Trimeeni accent, a syrupy drawl spooning out a lengthy paper on conceptualizations of the Golden Mean as demonstrated through the flora of the upper Hebrides. Whatever the cause, though he had scarcely been out of bed three hours, the young Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers was left fending off drowsiness barehanded. He shifted about, leaned forward, and rested his chin in his palm. He affected a thoughtful, sober expression that involved drawing his lips into a tight purse and his brow down to his knees, looking—for all that effort—like a nearsighted monkey in the robe of a decorated scholar.
His imagination for socially apt contortions exhausted, Chalmers stifled a yawn and checked his chronometer.
Quarter of eleven. The lecture would not end for another half hour.
The published abstract on the session scarcely resembled the business this Trimeeni deacon was carrying on about now. A sham. A trumped-up bit of buggery. Gloomily, Chalmers wondered if he were within his rights to show his contempt by sleeping the rest of the way through.
Certainly, Chalmers thought, you’re entitled not to have your time wasted. You’re the bloody keynote.
The keynote. The drowsiness left him in a rush at the thought. Chalmers checked the date window on his timepiece, though of course he knew well what it would say. Three days from now. Well, properly, two days, one hour, and fifty-one minutes. The keynote. Chalmers tried a slow, composing breath.
It did little to help.
For him, the Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers—late of the seminary of Rimmerston some three thousand miles east, a gangly tradesman’s son from a plantation town—to have found himself a project of such moment, and a partner of such repute as the Reverend Doctor Nora Pierce, was still an unaccountable miracle. They were better than two decades younger than any keynote speakers the Council Bishopric had selected in ages. Chalmers lived in constant fear of some archdeacon coming up from the back of the hall to tap him on the shoulder and show him, so very sorry, that there had been a mistake in arranging the Ecclesiastical Commission’s Decadal Conference program, and he was, indeed, not in any way suited to being the keynote.
Probably, the Decadal Committee had chosen his project with Pierce strictly for its provocative title. They had debated a long time over it. Chalmers had wanted something rather straightforward. Say, “On the Movement and Accumulation of God-Particles in Statistically Significant Zones: A Case Study.” The colon and subtitle had been his little creative flair. He’d been quite proud of them.
But Nora Pierce had a vision and daring quite apart from Phillip Chalmers’s. She revised the final copy of the proposal and sent it away. As first author, it had been her right. When the acceptance of the proposal was quickly followed by an invitation to keynote the once-a-decade grand conference, he’d been so pleased he’d scarcely even read the handpress-printed copy of the letter past its first laudatory sentences. He’d seen the new presentation title for the first time only a fortnight before, published as a banner on the conference packet sent by post.
It was the title that sent his fame rolling downhill, skirting the sheer edge of notoriety:
“God Is With Us: A Seven-Year Communion with the Conscious Divinity, Featuring Mathematical and Material Proofs.”
Since then, Chalmers had spent his nights pacing the floors of his rectory apartments and his days reviewing his copies of the notes Pierce had been sending by courier from Lemarcke over the summer. There was a sort of truth in that title. But it seemed a mud trap, too, sucking inexorably at his heels. A title like that promised things—not explicitly but implicitly, which was far, far worse to Chalmers’s way of thinking. His colleagues of the EC were no ruffians at a cabaret, but any audience that felt itself shorted on a spectacular premise was likely to turn sour. Chalmers spent days living on a bottle of paregoric and his jangling nerves, searching all his drawers for the evidence to exonerate himself if Nora’s presumption earned them both the boot off the EC’s rolls.
And yet, the first morning of the conference had nearly passed, and Phillip Chalmers had collected only a gracious tip of a hat while walking the Cathedral campus between lecture sessions, and polite queries after his health and rising fortunes. The fearful tap on his shoulder had not yet come.
Well. At the dinner hour, he would meet Nora in the Commons and they would retire to his rectory apartments. They could take a meal and discuss the presentation. Perhaps, very gently, he could suggest some kind of opening remarks regarding the title—something to soften its edge. The Council Bishopric would attend the keynote, of course, and who could know whether they would share the Decadal Committee’s enthusiasm for such an audacious project? Science and theology had merged generations before those grand old men and dames were born, but for some the word “God” was still a talisman, not a synonym for the ordered processes of creation. Chalmers liked to imagine that science had the better end of things now, with conservative theology pared down to trappings and titles. But that was not an opinion on which one should wager a career. There were still women and men who crossed themselves or blessed themselves or said little prayers when they should be working figures or studying theory. It was like a race memory, the young reverend thought, something in the marrow of bone and stitching of sinew.
Perhaps it was not all bad. Science and the superstitious character of Old Religion had made their peace, in most respects. The cathedrals had been kept, for they were marvels of the forces that gave shape to God’s creation, tabernacles of physics and mathematics. Indeed, more of the massive structures had been built, though the modern versions lacked the Gothic opulence of their forbears. Their stained glass windows portrayed the fractal design of the snowflake, the nervous system of the human body, the orbital paths of comets spied at the furthest reaches of a telescope’s lens. No more virgins and shepherds giving watch in the night. To be taken seriously as a person of education, one had to see in the cosmos the hand of God—a hand that shaped and cast the first die and now studied with perfect dispassion the restless action of creation.
Chalmers had thought that, for a time. Believed it with a fervor once reserved for the Old Religion itself. Now, he was less certain.
Two days more would decide whether he was right to look with doubt on what he thought he knew.
The Reverend Phillip Chalmers felt a pressure on his shoulder.
He snapped forward in his seat with a yelp, sending his note papers shooting out from under a propped elbow. Two sheets filled with idle curlicues fell into the seats before him. A woman with a black bonnet and a pinched face glared back. She wore the brooch of an arch-deaconess on the shoulder of her bodice.
“Sorry,” Chalmers said in an imploring undertone.
He looked from where the touch had come.
A page boy in the stark, clean black-and-gold collar of the EC stood by. He offered the reverend a folded note and a curt bow before departing the lecture hall.
Chamers’s face burned as he felt the weight of many gazes. He looked to the note—long for a galvano-gram, folded twice over.
He read . . . and wished he had not.
To the Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers
Lemarcke, 1st Elevenmonth, 0800
The galleon from Lemarcke has turned back to port after a malfunction in one of its sweeps. It is under repair but cannot be expected to sail again sooner than Third-day. There is steerage passage on a freighter that departs on the morrow, though the captain has made buying the berths very dear. I am told it will attain the Port of Corma by Fifth-day, which means I shall miss our keynote. Please use the notes I have sent along to plan the last of it. We shall have much to discuss when I arrive.
Nora Pierce, ThD, PhD, Order of the Physical Sciences, Ecclesiastical Commission
With the stiff composure of a mannequin, Phillip Chalmers rose and began gathering his papers, muttering, “Excuse me, I beg your pardon, so sorry . . .” as he walked up the aisle to the back of the auditorium, addressing no one in particular.
He stepped out into the hall.
He stood at the brass doors in the vestibule.
He put on his tricorn hat.
His nerves did not begin to inform him that he should be afraid until he stepped from the building onto the evergreen paths lacing the Cathedral campus. The terror crept up very slowly, quite unlike the flushed and defibrillated worry he had felt back in his seat. He walked with his hands thrust into his tail coat pockets and shoulders shrugged up to his ears, all his grave composure carefully ordered.
It was not to last.
Nora is not coming.
Chalmers tried reframing the statement as a thought experiment, something merely theoretical. What if Nora didn’t come?
But no. That wasn’t it.
Nora was not coming.
It was cold out—far colder than an early Elevenmonth morning ought to be. His hands were already tingling, even in the depths of his pocketsChalmers’s right fist clenched the galvano-gram. It most assuredly was real, and it was First-day of the month, and the ship from Lemarcke would not come until Fifth-day.
And then, at last, the little winding spring in his head tightened a turn too far, and Phillip Chalmers found himself running down the hill of the Cathedral campus, dodging between strolling ladies departing a laity lecture, passing parsons and deacons and reverends, leaping a squat topiary globe, and tearing around the corner of the great iron gates toward Coventry Passage. He threw a hand up to save his hat from skirling away and did not stop running until he reached the rectory.
The landlady, Mrs. Gilleyen, was dusting the foyer art. She scarcely had time to greet the reverend before he was up the marble curve of stairs, taking them two at a go, his smooth-soled shoes sliding out from underneath him as he barreled into his study and slammed the door.
Inside, it was as it always had been: woody and paneled and busy with papers and instruments, a wreckage of pedantry and bachelorhood.
Use the notes I have sent along, Chalmers recalled. He found his writing desk, pulled its drawers, and dumped them. The rectory’s very fine Aubusson rug disappeared in a cloud of dusty mail and forgotten parcels.
The study door opened, spilling daylight over the riot of stationary in which Chalmers knelt, desperately burrowing.Vast as a prison hulk, Mrs. Gilleyen loomed in the threshold.
“Doctor Chalmers, have you lost your senses?”
“The post, Mrs. Gilleyen. Has it come already?”
The old woman frowned. “Post? Yes, sir, it’s all there. Smallduke Regenzi sent a footman by with an invitation to a welcome ball for the conference attendees, as well. Not half an hour ago. Quite a sudden thing.”
“No, no, no. I don’t care about balls or footmen. I want the other post,” he said,dragging himself into the chair behind his escritoire. “The girl—what’s her name who brings all the letters from Reverend Doctor Pierce?”
“Ohhh,” Mrs. Gilleyen said. It was a very long word in her vocabulary, a statement of not less than three syllables. “Well, that en’t any proper post, sir. Not what she brings.”
Phillip Chalmers buried his face in his hands. He was imagining the Old Cathedral of Corma two days hence, the only place big enough to hold all six thousand of the Ecclesiastical Commission’s attending members, and himself standing there in the pulpit, about to give the keynote with only half—no, with less than half—of the presentation in hand.
“I need the other post,” he moaned and dropped his head onto the blotter.
“It’s First-day,” Mrs. Gilleyen said. “That’s near when she comes ’round. Shall I have a boy send a spark, check for it coming soon?”
“Yes. Yes. Do.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And, Mrs. Gilleyen?” Chalmers lifted his head. In the reflection of a brass lamp teetering at the desk’s edge, he spied a blue bruise of ink smeared up to his hairline. “A little gin, please.”
She frowned. “’S’not even dinner hour, sir. Are you sure?”
He didn’t manage a word—just a squeak and a feeble nod.
-More coming soon! Look for a chapter reveal from Tor.com this fall!