Outside, the Count checked his antique silver pocket-watch and said, “Ah, you still can make Lacnuit’s next show. I wish we could extend this conversation. Charles, might I interest you in the view? The vista overlooking the town from the battlements is grand.”
Skip looked relieved. “Actually it sounds excellent, er, Excellency. My head’s spinning from the museum. I’ll skip the planetarium. I could use fresh air.”
Gus and Allie gave their thanks and took the lift to the top floor of the great round tower. The entire space was occupied by the Cosmoscope. As the first was in its day, this was a state-of-the-art planetarium. The first had been crammed in one of the towers of the Cathedral, run by gears and belts from a room beneath, powered by human muscle. This one was larger, equipped with the latest electronic projectors.
Courtesy of Gus’ pass, they entered the large, indirectly blue-lit dome. Seven rings of seats descended the sides of the room, already half full. They were quickly ushered into the best seats at the bottom and settled in the comfortably-slanted and padded benches.
At the bottom in the center was a dais where a thick short pillar stood in the center of a small arched gazebo. Four slim pillars supported the roof atop which a dark glass hemisphere sat containing the projectors. The sky-blue dome above slowly began to dim.
Gus sighed, trying to relax. “Did you catch that at the end?” he whispered. “Dangled the quote from Beauregarde like he dared me to admit I took it.”
Allie nodded. “He tried way too hard to seem friendly, didn’t he? Slimy, both of them. The Count must really want Dad’s stuff a lot.”
The lights dimmed to a deep blue, and the sound of ticking and gears grew. The room slowly lit to show how the original planetarium looked. Projected onto the smooth inside of the dome were the cartoonish shapes of the constellations filled with glittering six-pointed stars. Circular disks hanging from tracks around the ceiling represented the Moon, Sun and planets.
A window opened in the sky, and a projected image of the bearded astronomer looked down like God. “Time,” he intoned. “Endlessly changing, without end or reversal. But time is full of repeating cycles of different types and lengths. Around and around they endlessly go, like wheels within wheels.”
The disks began to circle, slowly at first but then faster. The dome grew light and dark as the days and nights flicked by. Soon it became a blur. The disks became spots of light which moved forward and looped backwards, rising and falling in an intricate dance as the years sped past.
“To understand their patterns, a steady place is needed to watch them through long periods. Seven hundred years ago, here, a man did that, and the result was – magic!”
The image snapped its fingers. A bright flash and the dome went white and faded.
Lacnuit suddenly appeared beneath the pavilion, smiling broadly while the audience applauded. “Let’s discover how, shall we?”
He pressed a switch. The dome darkened again, orchestral music swelled as twinkling stars lit, projected from the hemisphere above his head. Flickering light from the screen atop the pillar lit the astronomer’s face eerily from below as he began the program.
“Every society keeps track of the seasons. Farmers must know when to plant and harvest, hunters must follow the herds. The days get long, then short. But the sky moves slowly, and all heavenly bodies have their own rhythms too�”
They talked to the astronomer on the way down to the first floor afterward. “Thank you for the great show,” Allie said. “I never knew the Moon has its own seasons before.”
“An interesting way of putting it,” Lacnuit said. “I may steal that. But yes, the Moon does has ‘seasons’ lasting years. The full cycle takes nearly two decades. It goes both higher and lower in the sky than the Sun does. Just by five degrees, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s nearly ten times the Moon’s average visual width. The important thing is that this makes the lunar cycle more complex than the Sun’s. Because the Moon revolves so much faster than the orbit itself changes, both highest and lowest points can occur within the same month.”
“Interesting,” Gus said as the lift opened. “But back to my earlier question, do any lunar cycles match with the appearances of the Vision?”
They wandered onto the ground floor of the tower. Don Yago’s famous dinosaur femur and other bones which Doc re-discovered stood prominently in a central spot. But the floor was mainly given to Heronimo’s devices, including a small model of the Monumentum showing how it was carved. As Lacnuit talked, they strolled past the Ampliospectus, a long wooden beam with lenses mounted in various holes along its length, an unheralded ancestor of telescopes and microscopes.
Models of the hermit philosopher’s clocks stood with several priceless astrolabes and other optical equipment. A flying machine hung like an ungainly bat from the roof, above a corner cabinet full of alchemical stills and glassware. On one side, several grisly manikins jerkily demonstrated the mechanical movements of the Dance of Death.
“Ah, still wondering if Raimondo’s right, eh? The Vision has generally been reported around full Moons a month or so before or after midsummer, so there seems to be a temporal correlation. Weather would complicate the situation but some apparitions don’t fit any pattern.
“Sightings of the ghosts of the Templars have been reported, which might indicate it’s a paranormal phenomenon. Unfortunately, extensive records compiled by the Church were destroyed during the War – in the same air raid which nearly killed your father, I believe.”
“Why’s there a Holy Tub symbol on the Great Clock?”
“So you noticed too,” Lacnuit said. “It also puzzles me. The window it appeared in indicates when an eclipse is possible, and I’ve never seen that sign there before. But it’s intriguing. I may have to attend the vigils again this season. You should too – but come early; the South Transept will likely be packed solid all week long.”
“I’ve always wanted to,” Allie said. “Even if nothing happens.”
“Good not to be too hopeful, just enjoy the full Moon this midsummer.” He paused momentarily, looking sideways at them. “You see, I’ve been working on another theory which might interest you,” he confessed. “Like your father, I think it could be a psychic phenomenon.”
“Really?” Gus said, surprised.
“Don’t look so astonished, young man. My friends and I are open to these things here. Heronimo wasn’t called ‘le mage’ for nothing. Why, the Cosmoscope wasn’t designed to be the first planetarium, but for performing astral magic.” He paused. “Speaking of the paranormal, I must ask if you would consider participating in an experiment.”
“I might be, it depends. What do you propose?” Gus asked with extra caution than usual.
“Actually, I was talking to your sister.”
“What?” Allie peered wide-eyed behind her glasses.
“You might have noticed something missing from Roland’s ecclesiastical dustbin there,” Lacnuit said, “the Ark fragments.”
Gus nodded. Allie looked puzzled.
“As you know, they were withdrawn for testing.” Lacnuit said. “Fatamorgana indeed paid for a big array of analyses, chemical composition, isotope analysis, dating; the works. I haven’t seen the detailed results yet, though I heard what he claimed last night.”
“Yeah, so?” Allie asked.
“So if you’re interested, Miss Alix, we have the opportunity to try for a somewhat different perspective.” The old man smiled craftily. “Normally the pieces are locked under glass. But having just returned, they’re still upstairs in my office.” He paused. “Well, Miss MacLantis? Interested in doing a psychic reading?”
Alix blinked. She took a deep breath, exhaled with a sound, and said, “Sure, love to. You know, Dad let me sit in during the Vault s�ance, but as I was still a child, never let me near them. When? I usually don’t need much preparation, but for this, I want to be up for it.”
“Oh, not today with the Count’s Ball looming, don’t worry,” the scientist said with a happy grin. He tapped his fingertips together in anticipation. “But it needs to be soon, as they must be put back on display. Let’s say, tomorrow morning here at ten?”
Allie glanced at Gus, and nodded in decision.
“Wonderful!” The scientist grabbed her hands. “Until then,” he said, ushering them towards the door. It was closed just for a moment when he opened it again. “Pardon, Professor MacLantis,” he called, “sorry, but I have been just reminded, could I have a word please?”
“Permit me to give a word of caution,” Lacnuit said in a confidential whisper. “You may be aware that various interest groups seek the Holy Tub for contradictory reasons. Yet so strong is their determination that long ago several joined together in a loose alliance to share information. Currently this consortium is under the leadership of Count Roland.”
“If it’s called ‘the Triple Knot’,” Gus interrupted, “I’ve heard the name, but that's it. Why?”
“Well,” the old man replied with obvious relief, “not to break any confidences, but you should be aware that certain of these allies have conflicting ideas concerning what should be done with the Maundy Grail if it is ever found. Not to mention who should control it.”
“And you, Professor?” Gus crossed his arms. “What would you do?”
“Like you, Professor, I am a man of science driven by curiosity. I – and my colleagues also – think the Most Holy Footbath is a paranormal artifact of the highest importance. It should be studied under carefully controlled conditions.” He paused. “These colleagues are called the ‘Secret Sages.’ The group was founded by one of Heronimo’s assistants, the dwarf Roger, to probe the Holy Tub’s mysteries for the benefit of humanity.”
“Sounds enlightened,” said Gus. “Doubtless you guys have some blood-curdling secret oath to use the Holy Tub for good and not evil?”
“This is not a joke, sir,” the old man huffed with great dignity. “We are rational persons of science and pursue our studies with intellectual rigor. You, more than most people, should readily appreciate the necessity for utter seriousness and proper methods in this effort.”
“Yes, of course,” Gus said, reddening. “I apologize. It’s just been one weird thing after another since we arrived. What are you asking me to do, Professor?”
“I’m not trying to recruit you.” Lacnuit smiled. “Thankfully, that’s not my job. But do be cautious and discreet with whom you share any discoveries you make. It’s true what they say: ‘in Vieux Poictesme not a garden ditch can be weeded without the whole county hearing.’ Here, the gophers are not just listening, they have secret agendas.”