In the fall of Key’s fourteenth year, their sanctuary was discovered.
For almost two years, Seffa and Key had shared a universe of private afternoons in their cistern beneath the city, he investigating what mysteries of life would open to him with his paltry equipment and she growing into an ever more confident young woman who cherished the freedom she found in their secret place.
Key had realized at some point that one of the main appeals the cistern held for her was that it was a safe place to both store and read books, which she apparently did not get much access to outside their hideout.
When she turned fourteen herself, he presented her with the only gift she would want: a set of books stolen from his home library. They were expensive tomes, artfully bound and likely almost as old as the house on Kammerend Boulevard itself. But such was the genius of Oridosi bookbinders in the days after the Rehabitation that they felt almost like new: the spines tight, their pages crisp and secure.
The afternoon two years earlier, when he’d held her in her despair, had been a watershed moment for Key: he had realized soon afterward that his interest in Seffa was not insubstantial. He found that, unlike the analytical side of his mind that dominated his studies, this relationship—for that was what it was—was controlled by an altogether different side of him. He felt for her, perhaps in a more limited manner than another young man might, but nonetheless he experienced an empathy that was entirely new. He found that her emotional state seemed to affect his own, an observation that sparked a strange combination of personal emotive response and professional scientific interest.
He decided, consciously, to investigate the matter further, and from that day forward he made a conscious effort to pay more attention to the girl who had been sharing his most sacred space and, in a way, the truest aspect of his life for the better part of two years.
As such, he made sure, among other things, to peruse the titles of the books she read from time to time, and to engage with her in occasional discussions of her reading.
This made it rather simple to curate an appropriate selection for her birthday.
She had a taste for philosophy and history, two subjects with which Key’s father’s library was relatively well stocked. Certainly better so than anything Seffa was likely to have access to herself. While she did occasionally appear with a book of her own, most of the books in the cistern lab had been provided by Key, initially for purposes of his own, and later to please her.
He brought her twelve volumes in all, dominated mostly by treatises on metaphysics and the reconstructed history of Oridos and the western continent. The lack of written records found prior to the Rehabitation was a constant source of study for the Oridosi academic community, and one by which Seffa was particularly fascinated.
Included were Badrid’s Sign of the Sign, Herud’s Histories, a book of myths of the Eberai, Filius Kalan’s The Nature of the Phiros, one of the very few surviving texts from before the Fulkawer, and a multi-volume set entitled The History of the Holy City, by Garrus and Bindt. He stacked the neatly on her table, facing the spines to her chair, and waited for her.
She arrived at the usual time to find him seated across from her spot, reading a book of his own.
“Happy birthday,” said Key.
“You remembered!” exclaimed Seffa.
“Of course.” She smiled at him, and his heart beat a bit faster.
“I got something for you,” he said, and rose, taking her hand. He guided her to her old leather armchair, sat her down, and stepped back, gesturing as gracefully as he knew how at the twin stacks of old books. She looked at them, back at him, then quickly back to the tomes, eyes devouring their titles one by one.
“Oh, Key!” Her voice sounded as enthusiastic as he’d ever heard it. In that moment, he finally understood what it meant for one’s heart to soar.
“You like them?” he asked.
“I love them!” She opened one of the volumes, scanning its title pages, then snapped it shut and thumped back on the pile. The next thing he knew her arms were around his neck, and her lips were pressed against his own, and everything else exited his brain.
His hands moved around her seemingly of their own accord, finding their way to her thin waist.
After a period of time Key was not sure he could have measured with a clock, Seffa broke away, met his eyes, and blushed. For several long moments, neither of them spoke. The elation of a moment before had been replaced by a strange, tender anxiety. Seffa sat down in her chair, and Key sat across from her, taking her hand.
“You’re my best friend, Key,” she said.
“You’re my only friend,” said Key. “I guess that makes you my best friend too.” It was the kind of thing only he could say without intending it as a joke, and Seffa knew him well enough to know that. Which only made it funnier.
They burst out laughing, shattering the tension like a skim of ice on a bowl of water.
* * *
Marika Helg died on a Firstday, as she was taking afternoon tea in the conservatory. It was her favorite room in the mansion, and she spent much of her free time there. A marvel of heavy glass framed in lead, it stood out from mansion Helg like a crystal grown over long years from the stone of the south wing.
Key found her in her wicker lounging chair, a light blanket over her legs despite the clinging humidity. Oridos was not a cold place even in the winter, and it was Marika Helg’s particular curiosity to foster exotic plants that required a climate far warmer than even than their southern city could offer. She had died with the same grace with which she had lived. When Key first saw her he thought her asleep: her lips parted gently, eyes peacefully closed, her head nestled in a small pillow. Likely she’d taken tea, as usual, and drifted off, weary from a long morning and early afternoon of managing the house’s affairs and tending her garden. One of the servants had no doubt found her napping and tucked a bolster under her head to spare her neck when she woke.
He wondered how long she’d lain there, undiscovered, while the servants thought she slept. It wasn’t uncommon for his mother to fall asleep in such a situation. In retrospect, Key realized that perhaps there had been symptoms of a larger problem at play. Valkin Helg had always attributed his wife’s fragile health to her gender: one had to make allowances for the delicate sex, as he so often repeated to his colleagues and his son. The fact that she fell asleep unintentionally and often grew faint if she stood up too fast were, in her husband’s mind, unavoidable idiosyncrasies of being female.
Key had just arrived home after school, and followed his usual routine of greeting his mother before disappearing into the sewers to meet Seffa. He had seen the sheen of her hair over the back of her chair and started in on the story of his day, only to round the foot of it and find her pale and still.
“Oh,” he said, standing before her breathless form.
* * *
Time moves differently for some. For Key, when a certain anxiety took him, it came in clips and flashes, with periods of forgotten time in between.
He looked down at her, dead in her chair; flash. He looked down at her, laid out in the velvet bolsters of her coffin; flash. His father looked down at him, with candid confusion in his grey eyes. Flash.
* * *
For a period of weeks following his wife’s untimely death, Valkin Helg took to his bedchamber and did not emerge. Key was not allowed inside, which he discovered the one time he tried to enter.
Once a day a foreman from one of his factories would arrive, and be admitted for a few minutes, but other than that he took no visitors. The servants left covered plates for him in the hall that were occasionally eaten.
For his part, Key spent almost no time worrying about his father’s decisions. He took advantage of them. His tutors stopped appearing regularly, probably because his father had stopped paying them, and without those stiff-necked old academics to keep his learning focused on business matters, Key was able, for the first time, to determine his own course of studies.
He had begun going to his lab directly from school in the afternoon, giving him several more hours of time spent dabbling in the old cistern.
It was almost a week before it occurred to him that he hadn’t told Seffa what had happened. She had kept on arriving at her normal time, and had no doubt presumed that he had simply arrived slightly before her for the past several days.
But on Fourthday after his mother’s funeral, she came early herself. Key couldn’t tell whether she was surprised to find him there or not. Had she come just to discover if he had changed his schedule? Or was she there for some reason of her own?
“How long have been here?” she asked, guilelessly.
“Two hours,” said Key. He’d spent the first hour after class in one of his academy’s student laboratories, a trove of instrumentation and supplies that Key could only dream of owning himself. Perhaps if Valkin continued his seclusion, he might look into changing his concentration. Until then, he was limited to taking advantage of his expanded freedom to explore parts of the school previously off limits to him.
“Have you been coming this early all week?” she asked. Key nodded. “But what about your tutors?”
“Father hasn’t been paying them,” he explained, digging a few things out of a canvas bag he’d appropriated from one mansion Helg’s storage rooms. There were insulated cables, a set of alligator clips…but Seffa was still talking. He looked up.
“Why not, I said?”
“Because of mother,” said Key.
“What about her?”
Seffa’s gasp took him by surprise. Clapping a hand to her mouth, her eyes took on a rather haunted cast, and then her arms were around him, squeezing him uncomfortably tight.
“Oh Key,” she whispered into his neck. “I’m so sorry.”
Such was their relationship, and her knowledge of him by that point, that she did not question that he hadn’t told her. Indeed, she seemed to take it rather in stride, in spite of the fact that any other close friend would have conflicted feelings indeed about the fact that their bosom companion had kept the death of a parent from them for nigh on a week.
“Yes,” said Key. “She was…” He found suddenly that he couldn’t finish.
“Your mother,” said Seffa.
After a long moment breathing in the honeyflower scent of her hair, Key pulled away and scrubbed at his eyes.
“I’ve found something,” he said, turning back to the canvas bag. “I took it from the laboratory at school.” And from the bottom of the sack he produced his prize: a wooden box, packed tight with glass cylinders plugged with copper tops, all wired together. It was a student battery, one of the basic ones they used to teach about electrostatics.
“That’s nice,” said Seffa quietly, standing beside him and putting her hand on his. “But Key—”
“I only hope its capacity is large enough,” he said, uncoiling the cables and preparing to hook them up to the battery’s terminals. “It’s the elekstone, you see. I didn’t have what I needed to proper research before, but now—that is, of course, if you’ll lend me the pendant again, I can—”
“What?” he asked. What had they been talking about again?
“Your mother is dead,” said Seffa.
Key looked at her eyes, saw the line between them, the look of concern that he’d seen for the first and only time in her eyes.
“Yes,” he said, after a long moment. Even as he brought his mind back to the present, he realized how desperately he’d wanted to throw himself into his experiments. Looking at Seffa brought out uncomfortable feelings, feelings that ached and haunted him. Feelings he’d rather disown entirely.
Seffa seemed to be waiting for something.
“I can’t,” he said, willing her to understand him.
“Why can’t you?” she asked.
Key couldn’t answer. He saw something else in her face, then: whether it was deeper concern or some nebulous disappointment that he couldn’t begin to understand, he didn’t know. He patted at her gently, and managed a weak smile.
He turned back to his battery, and when he looked up again, she was gone.
* * *
She had left him the necklace, dropped in a pile of chain on the corner of his work table. A gesture heavy with meaning, only one aspect of which Key recognized: he could now continue his work.
When he had the battery set up, he placed the elekstone pendant in a small, shallow dish of copper, which he connected to two miniature electrodes. He connected one of those in turn to one of the larger cables connected to his battery, leaving the last connection broken for the moment.
Standing back from his table, he sighed slightly, unable to contain the anxious feeling that he was standing on a precipice. Part of it was the possibility that running electricity through the pendant would destroy the stone, thus ruining a terribly expensive possession of his best and only friend. But far greater than that was the concern that he may not be able to get his hands on another piece of elekstone anytime soon. He chewed his lip in consternation, both surprised and slightly annoyed that Seffa’s feelings had come into the equation at all. There was a time when it wouldn’t have occurred to him.
There was also a time when Key wouldn’t have acknowledged, even to himself, the fact that he didn’t clearly understand what he was about to do. A time when he wouldn’t have cared. But now, even as he prepared to do it nonetheless, the number of unknown variables loomed in his mind.
For the first time, he regretted never indulging his father’s wish for him to spend more time at one of his manufactories. Valkin would likely have put him through his paces before ever allowing him near something so precious, and so interesting to Key, as an elekstone generator, but it might have been worth it in the end.
The great manufactories, those owned by men like Valkin Helg and his class of new aristocratic industrialists, all had at least one elekstone dynamo running as a primary or secondary source of power for their businesses. For some, it was small enough that a significant amount of traditional steam power was still required to run daily operations. They kept it as a mark of honor more than anything else, a symbol of the quality of their process and the notability of their firm.
In Oridos, elekstone was prestige. Elekstone was power, in every sense of the word.
It was the great manufacturers, like Valkin Helg, the titans of the Forge, who ran plants driven solely by elekstone, a power source that, when used correctly, provided energy at a rate and efficiency that made the coal dug out of mountain seams and the more ancient wind turbines seem quaint and primitive. It was the substance itself that gave off power, and it did it without chemical transformation. You didn’t burn it, or melt it, or convert it to vapor: you merely tapped into it as one might a battery like Key’s own, and a fresh supply of brilliant energy pulsed from it without limit or apparent end.
A world built on elekstone would be a world of dreams, capable of any feat the human mind could imagine. Unfortunately for the ancient and holy city of Oridos, however, the supply would never meet the demand.
The method of tapping elekstone for power was not secret, precisely, but neither was it common knowledge, and it was complex enough that it required first hand instruction—for most—or at least observation—for someone like Key—in order to replicate. His father had denied him that opportunity—or, rather, offered it at a price he wasn’t willing to pay.
He’d taken it upon himself to recreate the process on his own, with only a handful of facts and a long list of suppositions to aid him. It was a dangerous prospect, and he knew it.
Elekstone was infamously tough, difficult to shatter, impossible to work like metal. But it was susceptible to improper electrical stimulation, and if current was passed through it in the wrong manner, or in the wrong amplitude, it was known to become inert.
Perhaps that wouldn’t be relevant to a piece of jewelry, but Key presumed that the loss of whatever dynamic mechanism made it useful as a power source would also corrupt the inimitable sparkle that the gemstone provided. The whole point of elekstone was that it was worth more than its weight or makeup—unlike gold or silver, it had a definitive use beyond decoration.
He knew that the initial step was to introduce a small positive current into the stone, from another source. This required, of course, another source of electricity, but the catalytic current required was small enough that even a lab battery of the kind Key had pilfered from his school would suffice.
Swallowing, he connected the last electrode, creating a complete circuit. Nothing happened. Not that he’d necessarily expected it to shoot bolts of lightning, but still: he’d thought there’d be a glow, perhaps, or a humming.
Breaking the connection again, he moved the elekstone and its electrifying apparatus onto the nonconductive stage of his microscope, and zeroed in to the same high magnification at which he’d first seen the vesicles that had so astounded him. When the focus was as good as he could get it, he connected the circuit again, twisting the wires together and praying that he hadn’t been wasting his—and Seffa’s, a small voice reminded him—time.
What he saw through the lens of the microscope was almost hypnotic. The branching veins of the elekstone, which pulsed sluggishly even without an electrical charge, had come to life: gleaming pulses of energy throbbed through the stone, lighting it up like dark warehouse, one section at a time.
He stared at it for some time, wishing again that he had a more powerful microscope, then took his eyes away from the eyepiece to look at it at normal size. He was surprised to find that the pendant had begun to glow, after all: a soft luminescence that seemed to have built up over time. He wondered at the mathematical relationship between the glow and the amount of power being run through the stone. Was it a linear relationship? Exponential? Either suggested that a great deal of power would result in an increasingly bright light.
Moving his hand over it, he felt a buzzing, crackling field surrounding the pendant; it licked between and around his fingers like a flow of warm water. It was almost pleasant, though after a few moments of this his hand began to throb mildly.
He had no real idea of where to go from here: he had successfully activated the stone’s potential, but it was not a power source he was after. He sought out its secret. What made it work the way it did? What was its nature? How could so much energy be stored in such a simple piece of crystal?
Legends told of mystical abilities made possible by elekstone, but the lack of any reliable records from before the Great Plague made them just that: legends. Key wanted to know—needed to know—what lay within the amber warrens of this substance.
It wasn’t just idle curiosity. His passion was for life, for the mechanisms of life. For drawing out the secrets hidden within every pulsing organ in every living organism. He dissected frogs and rodents not only to learn anatomy but as a necessary step towards understanding what drove them—what gave them life.
Was electricity the stuff of life? If so, then elekstone was surely a living medium. Was there a connection between man and the stone? Was it meant to be something more than so much glowcoal thrown in the electrofurnace?
His unwieldy thoughts daring him, Key touched the pendant and felt a buzzing through his finger, down the center of his palm, up the length of his arm. Current. Simple electrical current, nothing mo—but there, he thought to himself. There. A haze on the vision. The edges of his worktable seemed highlighted, like the warm pink glow of a hand held before a strong light. He waited, experiencing the moment, but other than a faint lightheadedness, nothing else happened. The glowing edges remained.
Snipping two hands of copper wire from a spool on his work table, Key clipped one end to a tab on the copper dish. Pressing his lips together, he tried to contain a feeling of growing disappointment. There had to be more to it than this. Perhaps his expectations were too high—perhaps he was vain to believe that a few minutes with the stuff would reveal more to him than it had to generations of men before him.
Stuffing down his ego, he reached across the circuit for the metering device he’d also taken from the lab closet at school. At least he could gather some basic data on amplitude and keep track of it in a ledger. Perhaps variations in the energy signature would reveal more.
In the process of wiring the other end of the copper wire to the meter, he accidentally brushed the free end of the wire against the copper dish holding the elekstone, through which live current still flowed.
It was not the jolt that leapt through his body that almost stopped his heart, but rather the sudden sensation, clear as a sunny day, of being somewhere else entirely.