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Newton's Cannon

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Newton's Cannon

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Author: J. Gregory Keyes
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2004
Del Rey / Ballantine, 1998
Series: Age of Unreason: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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(5 reads / 1 ratings)



A dazzling quest whose outcome will raise humanity to unparalleled heights of glory--or ring down a curtain of endless night . . .

1681: When Sir Isaac Newton turns his restless mind to the ancient art of alchemy, he unleashes Philosopher's Mercury, a primal source of matter and a key to manipulating the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Now, as France and England battle for its control, Louis XIV calls for a new weapon--a mysterious device known only as Newton's Cannon.

Half a world away, a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin stumbles across a dangerous secret. Pursued by a deadly enemy--half scientist, half sorcerer--Ben makes his fugitive way to England. Only Newton himself can help him now. But who will help Sir Isaac? For he was not the first to unleash the Philosopher's Mercury. Others were there before him. Creatures as scornful of science as they are of mankind. And burning to be rid of both . .


Louis awoke to the clatter of Bontemps, his valet, putting away his folding bed, as he did every morning. A frigid wind blustered in through the open windows of his bedchamber, and Louis greeted it with none of his former pleasure. Once, it would have invigorated him. Now, he imagined the wind as death's frustrated caress.

Another metallic click, a sigh, and he heard Bontemps retreating. Louis arranged in his mind the day to come. The order in his days was his only remaining comfort. He had made Versailles into a great and precise clock, and though he was king, he was carried along by its mechanisms as surely as his lowliest servant or courtier. More certainly, in fact, since a servant might slip briefly away and steal a private moment, encounter a mistress, take a nap. This was his only private moment, in bed, pretending to be asleep. It gave him time to think and to remember.

The Persian elixir had given him new life and a body that felt younger than it had in thirty years, but it had robbed him of everything else. Gone were his brother Phillipe; his son Monseigneur; his grandson, the duke of Burgundy, and his wife, the duchess Marie-Adelaide, whose death had broken his heart. It was as if God were sweeping clean the line of Louis XIV. The dust had also claimed almost all of his old friends and companions. But worst of all was the loss of his wife, Maintenon.

Now he had only France, and France was a restless, thankless mistress. He knew--though his ministers tried to keep it from him--that there were whispers against him now. As the years passed and he grew stronger and more full of health, those who had hidden their wishes that he would die and make way for a new regime were allowing themselves snide asides. They were plotting. There were even some who whispered that the real Louis was dead, and he the devil's proxy.

He had returned to Versailles to show them he was king and to restore the image of glory to accompany his renewed health.

In the antechamber outside, he now heard the subdued chatter of the ever-present courtiers, awaiting their chance to see him. He heard footsteps entering, and he knew without opening his eyes that the porte-buchon du Roi had come in to light the fire in the fireplace.

The gears of Versailles creaked on. More footsteps as the royal watchmaker entered the room, wound Louis' watch, and departed.

Yes, he had been right to return to Versailles. Five years ago, when he was dying, his chateau of Marly--comfortable, pleasant, intimate Marly--had seemed the place to spend the remainder of his days. Versailles was drafty; it was an instrument of torture that cost a sizable fraction of the treasury each year to maintain. But Versailles was splendid, a fit dwelling for Apollo. The nation needed him here.

A shuffling from the side door was his wig maker, bringing his dressing wig and the wig of the day.

That meant he had a few more moments. Beneath the covers, he stretched, and was gratified to feel muscles respond to his commands. Since his brush with death, his body felt fresh and alive. All his old appetites were returning to him. All of them, and some would not be denied gratification much longer.

Why, then, if his body was again sound, did a feeling of dread still hound him? Why did his dreams grow persistently darker? Why did he fear being alone?

The clock struck eight. "Awaken, Sire," Bontemps said. "Your day has begun."

Louis snapped his eyes open. "Good morning, Bontemps," he said, attempting a smile. He shook his head, gazing at the lean, fiftyish face looking down at him.

"Are you ready, Your Majesty?" he asked.

"Indeed, Bontemps," he said. "You may admit whom you wish."

The morning lever continued. His doctors came in and inquired about his health. When the chamberlain admitted the first of the courtiers--the ones who had earned invitations to the grande entree through diligence--Louis found himself dreading their presence, their fawning submission, their requests.

He felt that way until he saw Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil among them.

"Mademoiselle," he exclaimed, reaching to embrace her. "To what do I owe this exquisite pleasure?"

Adrienne returned his embrace and then curtsied. "I am well, as I always am in your presence, Sire." Her smile was as flawless as a perfect ruby. "I hope Your Majesty is well."

"Of course, my dear." He smiled and cast his eyes over the remainder of the courtiers, all young men, all with that hopeful light in their eyes, all wondering what advantage they might be able to extract from this dear girl.

Adrienne wore the uniform of Saint Cyr, the simple gown with black ribbons that showed she had achieved that school's highest rank--just as she had always dressed when she was his late wife's secretary. Louis generally disapproved of such informal dress, demanding that the ladies wear the grand habit, but Adrienne's clothing suited her as the clothing of the court ladies did not. It matched her thoughtful features and wide, intelligent eyes. She wore the uniform, he suspected, as a badge, a quiet proclamation that she had attended the school and had passed all of its tests. It meant that she was as educated as any woman in France, and more so than most. Louis was suddenly suspicious that she wore the gown also to remind him of how dear she had been to his wife. What was she about, this young woman?

"It is good to see you," he said. "Your letters comforted me greatly after the queen's death." That would let her know that he had been reminded, and she would now press the advantage she believed she had.

Adrienne continued to smile, a faint grin not unlike that on the Mona Lisa, which hung across from his bed. "As you know, Sire, I have taken up residence at the Academy of Sciences, serving the philosophers there."

"Ah yes, Paris. How do you find it?"

Her smile broadened. "As you do, Sire: stifling. But the work of your magi is most fascinating. Of course, I understand little of what they do and say, but nonetheless--"

"I, too, find their theories incomprehensible, yet their results are to my liking. They are a great resource to France--as are those who serve them."

She bowed her head. "I shall not waste Your Majesty's precious time, but I will tell you that I did not come to ask a boon for myself. There is a member of your academy, a certain Fatio de Duillier. A most remarkable man--"

"Near to your heart?" Louis asked, a trifle coldly.

"No, Sire," Adrienne replied quite strongly. "I would never bother you on such an account."

"And what does this young man desire?"

Adrienne caught his shifting mood, his growing impatience. "He has tried for many months to receive an audience with Your Majesty and failed," she said. "He wished only that you receive a letter from him." She paused and looked him in the eye, something that few dared to do. "It is a short letter," she finished.

He considered her for a moment. "I will receive this letter," he said at last. "This young man should know how fortunate he is to have your favor."

"Thank you, Sire." She curtsied once more, understanding that she was dismissed. A sudden thought struck Louis, and he summoned her back.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "I am planning a small entertainment on the Grand Canal several afternoons hence. I would be pleased if you would join my company on the barge."

Adrienne's eyes widened slightly, and an expression he could not identify crossed her face. "I would be pleased to, Sire."

"Good. Someone will instruct you in your attire."

He then turned to the other courtiers, listening politely while they each expressed some sentiment and asked some favor. When they were all dismissed, he stepped out of bed, preparing to dress, to keep his appointments. But he paused to receive the letter that Adrienne had passed to Bontemps. He broke its seal. It was, as the demoiselle had promised, brief.

Most Reverent Majesty.

My name is Nicolaus Fatio de Duillier. I am a member of your academy and a former student of Sir Isaac Newton himself. I tell you in all sincerity that if you speak with me but a moment, I can tell you how to win the war against England, with great finality.

Your humble and most unfortunate servant,

N. F. de Duillier.

Why have I never heard of this de Duillier?" Louis complained to his chancellor, the duke of Villeroy.

Villeroy's face was drawn beneath his plumed hat. The powder on his face did little to hide his surprise at Louis' statement.


"I have a note from him. He is one of my philosophers."

"Yes, Sire," Villeroy replied. "I know of him."

"Has he approached you as well?"

"This de Duillier has radical, unworkable ideas, Sire. I did not want you bothered with them."

Louis gazed down at Villeroy and the other ministers, intentionally letting the silence expand to fill the gallery. Then he said, his voice quite low, "Where is Marlborough now?"

A general murmur arose among the other ministers. Villeroy cleared his throat. "News came late last night that he has taken Lille."

"What of our fervefactum? How can an army take a fortress defended by a weapon that boils its blood?"

"The fervefactum has grievously short range, Majesty, and is too massive to transport. The alliance uses long-range shells, many of which have been taught magically to seek their targets. In fact, they have instructed such shells to seek our fervefactum when they are in operation. They also--" He grimaced. "At Lille they used a new weapon: a cannonball that rendered the fortress walls into glass."

"Glass?" Louis shouted.

"Yes, Sire. Transmuting the wall and shattering it simultaneously."

"What does this mean for the future of the war?"

Villeroy paused, obviously pained. "Our finances are strained," he began softly. "The people suffer from taxation and hunger. They are weary of this war, and now the tide has finally turned against us. In three years we have scarcely won a battle. And now Marlborough is moving toward Versailles, and I fear we cannot stop him."

"So my chancellor and minister of war has no proposal for staving off our imminent defeat."

Villeroy looked down at the table. "No, Sire," he whispered, shaking his head.

"Well," Louis exclaimed, "have any of my other ministers any suggestions?"

Muttering died to silence before the marquis de Torcy, the minister of foreign affairs, voiced what they were all thinking.

"Have we given no thought to a treaty?"

Louis nodded. "As all of you know, I have thrice entreated the alliance against us to conclude a peace, and have each time been cruelly rebuffed--even when I came perilously close to betraying my grandson and surrendering Spain. These people do not want peace with France, they want to destroy France. They fear our might, and they fear our command of the new sciences. Did you know that two members of my Academy of Science have been assassinated in the past year? For that reason I stationed a company of special corps to protect them. I will now move them to Versailles; Paris is too dangerous."

"What of Tsar Peter of Russia?" asked Phelypeaux, secretary of the royal household. "He has defeated Sweden and the Turk, securing his own power quite beyond question. Could we not entice him into an alliance?"

"The tsar has more to gain by watching Europe weaken itself than by taking sides. Accepting his aid would be allying with the wolf to battle the hound. Our enemies are at least civilized nations. If we were to ally with Peter, we would soon find dancing bears occupying my gardens. Worse, we would have to join with him against the Turk, and the Turk is our best weapon against Vienna."

Villeroy grimaced tightly. "And yet Peter stands only just behind you in the numbers of philosophers he employs. When Gottfried von Leibniz flocked to Peter's standard, many followed."

Louis waved that away. "I wish to summarize what has been said here today, rather than to discuss Tsar Peter. We are losing the war for want of proper weapons. You, Villeroy, have just pointed out that I have the greatest philosophers in Europe under my command, and yet England annually produces more effective artillery. How can this be?"

Villeroy straightened his hat a bit. "Your Majesty, England has Newton and his students. We have more philosophers, it is true--"

"And yet--" Louis allowed his voice to rise. "--we have one of Newton's students here, who tells me in a letter that he had to smuggle to me that he has the means to bring us victory. And no one thought I should be troubled with this?" He swept his glance about the room. "Monsieurs, I am not myself an adept, and I do not read widely. I am the king, and it is mine to judge the fate of our nation. I want to see this Fatio de Duillier, and I want to see him tomorrow, in the Cabinet des Perruques."

Plumed hats nodded like a field of poppies in the wind.

Fatio was a nervous, pinched-looking man in his midfifties. His face was dominated by a nose like the upturned keel of a boat, behind which lurked evasive, light brown eyes. His lips were continually pursed, as if he had just tasted something bad. Louis regarded him for a moment, and then took his seat in an armchair.

"Let us come to the point quickly, Monsieur," Louis stated. "I want only to ask you a question or two before hearing what you have to say about the audacious letter you sent me."

"Yes, Sire." De Duillier's voice was unexpectedly pleasant, if a bit high. Fatio was awed in the presence of the king and entirely at a loss for what to do or say. That was good, Louis felt.

"You are, I take it by your accent, Swiss?"

"Indeed, Sire."

"And you were a student of Isaac Newton?"

"Student and confidant, Your Majesty. I have brought my correspondence with him to confirm this."

"What I chiefly want to know is, Why are you no longer his confidant?"

"We had--" Fatio drew what seemed to Louis a shaky breath. "--a falling out. Sir Newton is not an easy man; he is prone to harm his friends."

"Harm them?"

"Yes, Sire. He can be quite harsh, and when his favor is withdrawn from you, it is gone forever."

"I see. So Newton cast you out."

"Not for any lack of scholarly ability, Your Majesty. His correspondence shows quite clearly that he had nothing but admiration for my skill as a mathematician."

"Do not presume, Monsieur de Duillier, to try to guess at my intentions."

"Forgive me, Sire."

"Was your quarrel with him of proportions sufficient for you to betray him? For are you not here to offer to pit some magical weapon of yours against his?"

Beads of sweat stood clearly on Fatio's head as he answered. "Majesty, I care not what happens or does not happen to England. But upon Sir Isaac Newton I wish revenge. The weapon I will detail for you will accomplish both your aims and my own. In prevailing over England, I will also show Newton that he was wrong to shun me."

"Tell me of this weapon," Louis commanded.

Fatio cleared his throat and drew forth a sheet of paper that he unfolded with trembling fingers. "Well, the principle is rather simple, but the mathematics have still to be worked out," he said. "It involves merely the creation of a certain set of affinities, but as Your Highness may know, the proofs required to actualize such--"

Louis leaned forward, frowning. "This is not what a king wants to hear," he whispered. "Kings do not care where your ideas come from. They want only to know what your work will do."

"Oh ... well--" He paused and lowered his voice. "--it will destroy London, Majesty, or any other city you care to name."

Louis stared at him, dumstruck.

"What do you mean," he asked finally, "destroy?"

"As if it never was. Not one brick shall remain."

Louis regarded him for a long moment, careful to keep his mask in place.

"How?" he asked softly.

Fatio told him, and the king's eyes widened. Then he stood and went to the window, staring out at his gardens for one quarter of an hour before turning back to where the man awaited, twisting his paper in his hands. "Monsieur de Duillier, you are a scientific man. Perhaps you can tell me this. Why do the shadows lie so long in my garden, though the sun stands at noon?"

"It is winter, Sire," Fatio replied. "The earth has tilted such that the angle of the sun is from the south. In the summer the shadows will scarcely be seen."

"Let us hope, then, Monsieur de Duillier, that God grants us another summer, for I mislike this long light. As of tomorrow you have my leave to pursue this. Your budget will triple, and I will place a staff at your disposal."

Fatio fought to keep his features under control but failed.

"Go, with my blessing," Louis said.

Fatio left, clearly on the very edge of flight, nearly tripping on his own shoe buckles.

Copyright © 1998 by J. Gregory Keyes


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