She had long grown weary of Western-style clothes. Through most of her childhood and early adulthood she suffered in corsets and smothering layers of petticoats. Recently she had thrown them off for a sari. It felt light and free as the moon in the clouds above the Thames. When she appeared before the Queen today, it would raise eyebrows, no doubt, but she was too valuable for Victoria to censure and too important as a technical strategist for the fools and bigots in government to murmur over.
And, of course, the political situation demanded her expertise. Dire circumstances had come upon Great Britain—so dire the Queen and Parliament had placed all their hopes in this half-caste woman born of a British father and an Indian mother. Britain’s enemies had encircled her. The Serbian Empire, with its endless supply of soldiers and its vast Eastern European resources, had all but declared war. The Caliphate of Cordoba had joined them. The Caliphate tended to be low-tech, but with the Serbs supplying them, they could be dangerous. Terrified of Eastern European/North African alliance, France, Italy and Germany had declared neutrality. So had the Lutheran Federation—the Premier had announced as much in Stockholm just this morning.
England’s traditional allies were dragging their feet. America remained silent. The Centrists—the long swath of Calvinists whose wealthy, powerful nation stretched from Holland to Switzerland—had not lifted a finger to help. The Kingdom of Prester John might come to their aid, but their territory was not contiguous with England’s and they did not think much of the Anglican religion or of white people. Their reluctance was maddening. Things did not look good. The government ministers had been counting on Sita to come up with a strategy that would save them, as she had done in the war with Spain.
She looked out her window at the clock tower on a near-by building. She would go in an hour. Edward came in. He assessed her, crossed the room, and kissed her.
“Lighten up,” he said. “It’s going to be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“Nonsense. Things were just as dire when the Spanish Empire surrounded us with troop carriers. You took care of that without any problem.”
She had, Sita thought, and her action still tormented her. The Spanish had gathered troops from Iberia and from their colonies in South America—probably a million soldiers, well-armed, well-trained, and poised to avenge the disgraceful defeat England had inflicted upon them in the days of Elizabeth and Francis Drake. The government turned to her and, as the ships steamed toward England, she converted every factory in the land—from textile mills to steel foundries, to umbrella producers—into facilities for manufacturing zeppelin parts. She had gotten the idea from Mr. Whitney in America that you did not build airships like you built ships that plied the seas. You manufactured the components at various locations, moved them to central sites, and assembled them there. The Spanish knew England had flying machines but never imagined they would have a large enough number of them to do significant damage to their new invading armada.
After tying up the British navy with their warships, the Spanish slipped the troop carriers through. The vast flotilla stretched in a line from Dover to Penzance and all the way up to Douglas on the Isle of Man. When the sun broke over the water, the Spanish trembled to see four thousand dirigibles lumbering through the sky toward them. They turned to run, but the steam-powered flying machines were upon them and dropped their loads of explosives, destroying the ships packed with soldiers. The few that escaped the rain of death from the air were intercepted by British warships and sent to the bottom.
Spain lost its entire army. Widows, bereaved mothers, children and parents wept from Barcelona to Caracas and Santiago. She thought of the helpless, terrified men drowning in the holds of ships. The battle, a symphony of death, acknowledged her as its composer and conductor.
“It was a terrible thing. I hope this can be settled through negotiation.”
“Not likely,” her husband said. He paused and then asked, “The new weapon?”
“It is functional,” she said.
She shook her head. “Too terrible to contemplate.”
“Would ten million soldiers from the Serbian Empire crossing the Channel and overrunning our land be worse?”
He put his arms around her. She remembered sweet love they had shared last night. In childhood, her Indian nurses had told her the embrace of a man and a woman can be worship. When she came to England, she encountered fear of sexuality. She remembered the girls in her boarding school who said that the thought of embracing a man “scared them.” Many of her old classmates, afraid of sex and childbearing, had settled into single lives and meant to stay there to the grave. As she remembered how he had had pushed into her, puffed and grunted, and how she had returned his motion with a ferocity that matched her despair, she knew what lay ahead in the next few days. She did not think she would climax, but she did, and he followed shortly. Sated but unable to sleep, she lay with him the heat of their bed and watched the sunrise.
She broke off the embrace.
“I have to see Wu Li,” she told him.
Sita called a servant girl to attend her and walked out on to the street. People stared. The sari, she thought, but she resolved to get use to the gawking men and women and the children pointing and giggling. She would not go back to English dress. The people around her would have to get used to it.
She came to the unobtrusive brownstone where Wu Li lived with his wife. Though a master of the ancient wisdom of China, he was not a monk but what his compatriots called a “householder”—an accomplished master who was married with a family.
She came to the door. The servant girl knocked for her. Sita looked about as they waited for the door to open. It had rained the previous few days, but this morning had been clear. Sun lit the puddles and the new grass pushing through the brown soil and the grey leafmeal. Hedges were beginning to blossom. She saw crocuses and daffodils. The door opened.
Wu Li’s wife met him. A stately woman with a winkled face and kind eyes, she bowed. Sita made namskar.
“Greetings to you, Jiang. I am fortunately met.”
Jiang led Sita and her servant girl inside. Wu Li came into the room. Sita dismissed her servant and then bowed to the floor, touching her forehead to the ground.
“Such a display of abjectness is not necessary,” he said.
“As I walked over I became aware of the reverence I feel for you—feel but do not often demonstrate.”
“You demonstrate it. Come, Jiang has made green tea for us.”
They sat down in the tiny, neat room that served as a dining area and the place where Wu Li and Jiang received guests. Jiang poured tea for them and left, giving Sita and her husband a small bow. Sita drank in silence. Anxiety stabbed at her. She wanted to blurt out everything in her heart, but propriety require that the master speak first. They drank in silence for some minutes. Finally, he spoke.
“You are troubled.”
“Yes. I think you know why.”
“You have made the weapon?”
“Made it and tested it. Now the government wants me to use it against”—
“I have studied the intricacies of the political situation,” he said. “No need to go into detail about it. Why are you burdened?”
His question, so obvious, asked her to reflect upon her own feelings more than to answer him. She had finished work on a new explosive device using unstable radium. She and a group of scientists and military men had tested it in the south Atlantic.
Sita had long known energy is matter and matter energy. This was a startling concept in Britain these days, but the sages of China and her own homeland had know it for thousands of years. They had not, however, she reflected bitterly, used this knowledge to produce a weapon.
Sita sipped the green tea. She had not realized the destructive capability of opening the volatile energy in the unstable ore they had mined in French Equatorial Africa. They had sailed in a battleship past Ascension Island, past Saint Helena, down into the cold waters near Antarctica. Whales spouted in the sea around them and silent, dazzling icebergs floated in the dim sunlight. After spending the night in a shabby, abandoned whaling outpost on the South Orkneys, Sita and her crew took small boats to a rocky islet and set the device up there. The military men wanted to get closer in, but she said the velocity of the blast would be greater than anything earth had seen. Some of the admirals and generals laughed in her face when she told them this. And her calculations had been wrong, though not in the way they imagined. If they had been a mile closer to the blindingly bright explosion they would have all been killed by it. The tidal wave it generated almost capsized the ship from which they had watched. Aware of the toxic properties the explosion would expel, at least she had been had been careful to position the ship downwind from the conflagration. The sight of it made Sita ill. She rushed to a railing and vomited over the side. One of the Army Generals caught her—the ship still lurched and bobbed even though they had ridden out the tsunami the explosion generated.
“Made me a little seasick too,” he chortled.
Sita had returned to her cabin, stunned to the point of lassitude at what she had unleashed.
Her hands trembled as she put down the delicate porcelain teacup.
“I am meeting with Her Majesty this afternoon,” she said. “She wants me to use the weapon against the major cities of the Serbian Empire and the Caliphate.”
He contemplated. Sita marveled at what probably went through his mind when he thought on things—so much more than when she pondered.
“You did not realize the terrible power you would release,” he said.
“Do your associates have the calculations?”
“They do, I am sorry to say. And they have mined enough of the ore from Africa that we can easily make as many as thirty of the bombs.” She paused then let her words spill out. “The power of embedded energy is much great than I had thought it would be. It is the velocity of light proportioned to the mass of the elements involved.” She felt ill once more. She rested her forehead on her thumb and two fingers. “Name of God, what have I done?”
“You have erred—erred in innocence, I would say. The question now is how to correct the error.”
Sita did not reply. She remembered back to her childhood, to seeing the holy men in India who did not eat, who could walk on blazing coals or slash themselves and not bleed. Once, in Tibet, monks vanished before her in a flash of fire and rematerialized a hundred yards away. Even as a child, she had known these were not tricks and not illusions. Nor was it what people thought of as “magic.” As a young woman entering Cambridge, she had begun to grasp that the adepts from her own land and from China and Tibet achieved a state of being that defied the limits of physicality because they knew an ancient truth, one common in the East: that the physical was in fact illusory.
She had long misunderstood this concept. She had thought it an expression of the ascetic’s contempt for the everyday and the quotidian. Somehow she had realized that their identification of the material world as maya, as illusion, was not the arrogant pronouncement of men and women who reveled in their moral superiority because they lived in celibacy, meditated for hours, and treated their bodies to punishing harshness; it was a statement of fact. The physical world consisted of energy. The sidhi, monks, the Zen masters, had learned to exercise that energy.
But they did this to center upon universal reality, not to make horrific weapons.
Reading the experiments of Marie and Pierre Curie, she had once again thought of the Eastern axiom that all things are energy. There seemed to be elements that were unstable in nature—that for some reason bled their energy out. (The release of it could cause death, many scientists had warned.) Sita began to experiment with radium, being careful to limit her contact with the material. Shortly after finishing school, she heard about the odd material the French had found in one of their colonies.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her mind returning to Wu Li and the present.
“The only recourse you have is wisdom.”
“Can wisdom heal a thing such as this?”
After graduation and her rapid rise as an engineer and inventor, she began experimenting in earnest with radium. Lead seemed to block its rays, so Sita developed safeguards for handling the material. All the while she thought of the relationship of matter and the energy of which it consisted.
She kept her musings on the subject secret. As an Indian woman—and as a woman—she found herself the subject of scorn and derision in the male-dominated circles where she travelled. Other scientists behaved contemptuously toward her because she was female. The men she worked work openly express their scorn of India and its people. Sita knew that if she revealed her interest in Eastern theories of physics, her colleagues, who wanted nothing more in the world than to discredit her, would use this as evidence of her unworthiness to be in the Royal Society or be an adviser to the British government.
One day a letter crossed her desk from a French scientist. He had read an article she published on the nature of radium and how to safeguard oneself from its destructive emissions. He mentioned that in the tribal area of Gabon in French Equatorial Africa a place existed where the locals said heat and steam arose in the soil. Examination of the site showed no volcanic or tectonic explanation for this. The heat of the area seemed to derive from unstable ore in the ground—some sort of mineral that, due to its nature, released energy. He had samples of it. Would she like him to send her some?
He sent her a great deal of it in a lead-lined shipping case. Sita examined it. One night—when she was in the very act of enjoying love with her husband—realization stuck her. If the material she had obtained released energy by its unstable nature, just as an adept at yoga or Zen could release the energy of his or her own body to defy physicality, what might happen if the energy of this particular element could be set free? It tended to release energy naturally. What if the process could be manufactured—and controlled?
When she thought of this, an orgasm more intense than any she had ever known shook her from head to toe.
Various war projects waylaid her. She used her spare time to calculate atomic weights and valences. Sita soon realized that if she drove the atoms of the unstable ore at high velocity into a mass of similar material, the energy would be unbounded. And its release would be considerable.
She had not even dreamed how massive and destructive the release would actually be.
“Wisdom,” Wu Li said, “is more powerful than any force. Energy is the work of the Tao. Wisdom is the soul of the Tao.”
“How can I use wisdom to stop our people from deploying this device?”
“What were you taught?”
“You’ve taught me so much.”
“Remember,” he said. “What is the prime concern of the people with whom you must deal in this matter?”
Her mind went back again. She had only intended to create an explosive device superior to any in existence. The Serbs had employed Prussian arms-makers to create long-range cannon and had placed them in the city of Stetin. They could easily shell London and Southern England. And knowing Britain’s dependence on airships, they had also developed high-velocity guns that were effective in destroying zeppelins. Sita had developed effective counters to the second weapon. She had thought superior British airpower might checkmate the Serbs on their intention of using their long-range artillery to strike English soil and thus had developed the radium bomb. Now the English had a weapon that could incinerate millions of people in a flash and could poison soil and water for a hundred years.
She tried to concentrate on Wu Li’s prompt.
What was the prime concern of the people with whom she had to deal in this matter?
Then she knew: war.
Wu Li smiled. “I see enlightenment in your eyes—a satori, perhaps?”
“How can this be a solution?”
“Dwell on what you have discovered. Do not dwell on your questions and your doubts.”
Sit recited: “Weapons of war are inauspicious . . . killing is not the primary thing.”
She could hardly remember.
“Very good,” Wu Li said. “Sun Tzu must be your teacher in this matter. How does the skillful warrior fight?’
“The skillful warrior renders other’s armies helpless without fighting.”
“Can you use this knowledge in your current dilemma?”
“The men in the Cabinet will not listen to me. They want to violently destroy their enemies now that they have the means to do so.”
“They have listened to you in the past. You have saved the nation and the Empire. You have credibility in this.”
Her mind began to work. She and her research team had developed an ultra-hard ceramic covering that made shells glance off its surface. If the shells did not “bite”—if they did not encounter sufficient resistance to trigger their impact-detonating mechanism—they would be rendered harmless. The plan six months ago, before the test of new explosive device, had been approved and the entire fleet of British airships fitted with the new protective armor. If they used the shell-proof zeppelins to destroy the long-range artillery pieces and to disrupt supply of the millions of troops the Serbs were assembling on the north coast of Poland and in the harbors of southern Iberia, they could interdict their plans
“But will they listen now that they have the new weapon?” she asked.
“Lower energy always yields to higher energy. You should know this.”
She thought about ruining their alliances. The Kingdom of Prester John could harry the Caliphate of Cordoba. Five years ago Addis Ababa had handed the Sultan a devastating defeat and forced him to cede Cyprus. If he knew Britain and the Kingdom were allied, he would break his pact with Serbia. Another point of contention with the Kingdom was the British occupation of Kerala, the Christian province of India. If Britain gave control of that province to The Kingdom of Prester John in exchange for their support in the war, it would not only expose the Caliphate to attack but would also endanger the hundreds of miles of border Serbia shared with the massive, powerful Afro-Asian nation along the south limits of the Russian steppe.
Wu Li smiled.
“The Queen, for all her faults, is a wise woman,” he said. “She does not want to see millions of people die at her command and does not wish to be remembered in history as a slayer of millions of people. You will persuade her if you keep your soul centered in wisdom. This is the greatest force of all.”
The clock on the mantle of Wu Li’s guest room struck twelve. At one o’clock she would meet briefly with the War Cabinet and then sit down for a private dinner an consultation with Her Majesty. The Cabinet would be indignant when Sita suggested that they refrain from using the new weapon. The Queen, she knew, would be of a different mind.
She bowed, taking leave of her master, called her servant girl, and walked through the warmth of a beautiful spring day back to her home, where a carriage waited to convey her to the Halls of Parliament.
David W. Landrum lives in Western Michigan, where he has taught literature and writing at a number of universities. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Sinister Tales, The Monsters Next Door, Dark Distortions, And Now the Nightmare Begins, Alt Hist. His novella, The Gallery, is available from Amazon.Com.