The Blackgod-2#(21)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    NEWTON'S CANNON

    by J. Gregory Keyes

    Please read on for a sneak preview of this thrilling novel…

    1716 A Miracle

    Benjamin Franklin was ten years old when he saw his first miracle. Cold fingers of wind had been groping up the narrow streets of Boston all day, and as night fell they tightened their grip. The equinox had come and gone, and winter had an early hold on the Massachusetts colony.

    Ben stood on the Long Wharf, watching the tall, sleek lines of a sloop as she sailed into port. He was worried less about the cold than about how to explain to his father where he had been and why it had taken him so long to get a loaf of bread. He should not lie to his father—that would be a terrible sin, he knew. But with his brother Josiah so recently run off to sea, his father would not want to hear that Ben had been watching ships again. Ben wondered if there were some way to frame the truth so that it was not incriminating. He could argue that his love of ships was just a love of well-crafted things. But he did long to follow his brother to adventure—whales and pirates and unknown realms. The truth was, he could not stand the thought of remaining for his entire life in Boston, not with the promise of grammar school and college snatched away from him.

    His mood bleak, Ben turned down Crooked Lane, hoping to shave a few moments from his journey back home. The narrow alley was almost entirely dark; here and there the halfhearted flame of a candle gave life to a window. The candles brought Ben no comfort, reminding him instead of what he would be doing tomorrow: boiling tallow to make the wretched things.

    Halfway up the lane he saw a light that did not flicker. At first he thought it a lantern, but even the illumination of a lantern wavered. This shone as steadily as the sun. Ben felt a little chill that had nothing to do with the marrow-freezing air. The light was peeping through the half-closed shutters of a boardinghouse.

    His decision took only an instant. He was already late. This light seemed so unnatural, he knew that it must be some trick. Perhaps the flame was encased in a paper lantern. He moved through the yard as quietly as he could. Now he could see the light itself: a pale, bluish, egg-sized sphere. He immediately understood that this light was not a flame. But if not flame, what?

    A spark from flint and steel had something of the quality of this sphere's light, yet sparks lived only briefly. He knew in his bones that this was alchemy, magic—science, the king of magics.

    If there was magic, there must be a magician. He crept closer to the house until his eye was almost pressed against the thick pane of glass.

    The sphere was the only source of light in the room. There was no fire in the hearth, but the window was warm to the touch. Ben wondered if the magic light gave off heat as well. If so, it could not be very much heat, since less than a foot away from the glowing sphere a man sat, reading a book. The sphere was floating above the man's head so that his wig and brows cast shadows over his face. He was leaning over the table, tracing the characters in his book. So clear was the light, so legible the characters, that Ben could make them out and determine that the book was written neither in English nor in Latin. The characters were all swooping curls and curves, as beautiful as they were enigmatic.

    The man was not having an easy time reading the script, Ben thought. He was puzzling at it, Ben could see, because the magician traced his finger over the same line several times before moving on.

    How long he stood there, Ben did not know—nor was he certain why. But what Ben thought was, That could be me. That could be me reading that book, commanding that light.

    There were no whales or pirates in Boston, but there were books. The three years of school his father had been able to afford had provided Ben with the skills he needed to read and understand what he read, and he had long ago devoured most of the books his father and uncle owned. None of them were on magic, but there must be books on it. And now his future suddenly seemed brighter. He would become more than a tallow chandler.

    Indeed, when he tore his gaze from the window, he realized that if one flameless lantern could be made, then so could another. And if enough were made, neither he nor his father would be in the candlemaking trade for long.

    Tiptoeing away he spared one look back, and in that instant the magician looked up from the book and rubbed his eyes. It was an unremarkable face. Then, it suddenly seemed to Ben that the man saw him from the corner of his eye, as if he had known Ben was there from the very beginning. Then the magician's face was in shadow again, but his eyes seemed to catch the light, reflecting red like those of a hound. Ben abandoned all efforts at silence and flew home with what speed his legs could command.

    “I told you, Josiah, the world is changing faster than we want,” Uncle Benjamin maintained, propping his elbows on the table. “I'd heard tell of these flameless lamps in England two years ago. And now one has come to Boston.” He shook his head wonderingly.

    Ben's father frowned at his brother. “I'm not so concerned with these new devices as I am with my son's moral well-being. I wish you would at least remonstrate your nephew for spying.”

    Ben felt his face burn. He looked about him to see if anyone else had heard, but the hubbub of conversation produced by Ben's siblings—eight of them were at home tonight—was enough to drown out the three of them. Ben, his father, and Uncle Benjamin often fell into conversation after dinner, especially now that Ben's older brothers James and Josiah were away. The remaining Franklins rarely cared to join them in their usually bookish discussions.

    Uncle Benjamin took his brother's comment to heart. He turned to his nephew and namesake. “Young Ben,” he said, “what betook you to spy on this man? Is spying a habit you nurture?”

    “What?” Ben asked, astonished. “Oh, no, sir. Twere not an act of peeping but of investigation. As when Galileo trained his telescope on the heavens.”

    “Oh, indeed?” Ben's father asked mildly. “Your observations were purely scientific, then? You felt no impropriety at peeking into someone's window.”

    “It was an uncovered window,” Ben explained.

    “Ben,” his father said, frowning, “you argue well, but if you do not take care, you will logic yourself straight into hell.”

    “Come, Josiah,” Uncle Benjamin said. “If you had seen such a strange and unnatural light—”

    “I would have passed it by or knocked to inquire, preferably at a reasonable hour,” Ben's father finished. “I would not have sneaked across the yard and peeked into his window.”

    “Only this one time, eh, Ben?”

    “Yes, Uncle,” Ben affirmed.

    Ben's father sighed. “I should never have named the boy after you, Benjamin. For now you rise to defend his every misdeed.”

    “I'm not defending him, Josiah, I'm merely making it clear that the boy knows he did transgress.” He did not wink at Ben.

    “I do understand,” Ben assured them both.

    His father's face softened. “I know that you are perfectly adept at learning your lessons, Son,” he said. “Did I ever tell you about that time he came home tootling on a pennywhistle?”

    “I have no recollection,” Uncle Benjamin admitted. Ben felt another blush coming on. Would his father ever cease to tell this story? At least James—who never failed to taunt him about his mistakes—was not here. Though he would never say it aloud, Ben could scarcely be sorry James was 'prenticed in England.

    “I'd given the boy a few pennies,” Ben's father explained, “and he came home with a whistle, well pleased. Such a din he made! And I asked him what it cost and he told me. Then what did I say, Son?”

    “You said, 'Oh, so you've given ten pennies for a whistle worth but two.'”

    “And he learned,” his father went on. “Since then I've approved of all his purchases—not that he makes many.”

    “I know what he saves his money for,” Uncle Benjamin said, patting Ben's shoulder affectionately. “Books. What are you reading now, Nephew?”

    “I'm reading Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, by Mr. Bunyan,” Ben answered.

    “Ah, so the Pilgrim's Progress pleased you, then?”

    “Very much, Uncle Benjamin.” Ben pursed his lips. “And speaking of such matters …”

    “Yes?” his father asked mildly.

    “Since I won't be going to school anymore, I'm hoping to pursue my education here at home.”

    “And I encourage you to.”

    “Yes, Father, and now I want to educate myself in science.”

    His father settled back in his chair, face thoughtful. “Ben, these new philosophical machines seem womsomely close to witchcraft to me. You know that or you wouldn't have asked me whether you could learn of them.”

    “They don't say so in London,” Uncle Benjamin interposed.

    “Or in France,” his father shot back, “but you know what deviltry they've put this 'science' toward there.”

    “Bah. The same could be said of such an honest invention as a musket. It only profits us to know the mind of God.”

    “Indeed. But is it the mind of God that makes stones glow and float in the air?” Ben's father lifted his hands. “I don't know, and neither do you. Neither does Ben, and it's his immortal soul I worry about. Not to mention his pockets, for books are not cheaply had.”

    “Father,” Ben said carefully, ordering his words in his mind, “you ask how it will profit me. I ask you, When every man in Boston has a flameless lantern, who will buy candles?”

    The two older men turned to stare at him, and he was secretly pleased at their dumfounded expressions.

    “Say that again,” Uncle Benjamin whispered.

    “Well, suppose these lights are easy to make—”

    “Suppose they are expensive,” his father interrupted.

    “Yes,” Ben persisted, “suppose they cost ten times the price of a candle. But suppose also that they never burn down—need never be replaced? Would not the wise man then invest in the more expensive item so that he could save in the long term?”

    His father was silent for a moment. His uncle sat equally quiet, observing the exchange between father and son.

    “We don't know that they last forever,” Josiah finally said. “We don't know that they are not even more dear than thirty times the cost of a candle.”

    “No, Father, we don't,” Ben said. “But if you give me your leave, I can find out.”

    “Do what you think best, Ben,” his father at last acquiesced. “And when you are not certain what is best, then you speak to me. One leak will sink a boat: one sin will destroy a sinner.' You see, I, too, have read your Mr. Bunyan.”

    “Agreed, Father.”

    “Now then, here is another thing that touches on your bookish-ness. Where were you before you spied on this magician? You took a very long time after a single loaf of bread, even with some espionage thrown in.”

    “Oh. I…” He had forgotten about that. He picked at the grain of the table wood with his thumbnail. “I went down to the Long Wharf. A New York sloop was coming in.”

    Ben's father sighed. “Why do boys so pine for the sea?”

    “I don't pine, sir—” Ben began.

    “I wasn't asking you, lad. It was a question for the Almighty. Ben, I know that if I try to keep you in the chandler's trade, you will treat it badly or run off like your brother Josiah. So here is my thought. I will try to find you a trade more suited to your talents, and in turn you will remain here in Boston, at least until you've reached a proper age.”

    Ben hesitated. “What trade did you have in mind, Father?”

    “Well, I must apprentice you, so here is my thought.” He leaned forward. “Your brother James is due home soon from England; he is going to set up a printing shop right here in Boston.”

    Ben felt a sudden, almost giddy hope. Was his father going to send him to England, too, to serve an apprenticeship in the printer's trade? That was more than he had dared hope.

    “Yes, I thought you would like this idea,” his father exclaimed. “Brother, what did I tell you?”

    “It will please him well,” he replied, but his eyes were watching his nephew carefully.

    “It's settled then, if James agrees,” his father said, eyes shining. “When your brother returns, you shall be 'prenticed to him. That should bring you in touch with those books you seek, give you a trade that will bring you pleasure, and keep you here in Massachusetts.”

    Ben felt his happy expression freeze. The thought of becoming a printer was interesting, but years of servitude to a brother worried him.

    Ben reached his bed that night with a feeling of both wonder and resignation. Though he could hardly dispute that things had taken a turn for the better, something was slipping away from him. And at the very edge of sleep, he realized it was the floating light and that strange, curling text. The shadow of apprenticeship dimmed hope of that alchemical light.

    That can be me, he thought again insistently. I will find every book in Boston that tells of science and magic, and I shall make my own devices. I shall profit from inventing them, too, and Father will be proud.

    But something about that rang false, so that when sleep at last found him, it found a fitful and unhappy boy.

    NEWTON'S CANNON by J. Gregory Keyes

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