SF The Island of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev

Editor’s Foreword

No, not the genetics of Mendel and not the infamous Mengele either. It's Mendeleyev! Enjoy the story, and then peek inside your favorite encyclopedia...

My heart told me to stay a little longer in Telukbetung, but my publishers decided otherwise. The gentlemen of the Cartografiese Dienst had received word that my maps were ready and summoned me to return to Batavia without delay. I would miss Telukbetung for many reasons, and bid a silent goodbye to the city from a vantage point on one of the hilltops. One last time, I enjoyed the splendor of the deep-blue bay, which cradles the Strait of Sunda like a newborn child.

The journey over land from Telukbetung to the harbor of Bakauheni took Taufik and me the better part of two days. My guide was silent, sensing that I was no mood to talk. We traveled by stagecoach, which was far from comfortable. But my distress came from another quarter.

As Taufik knew, I loathed visiting Batavia, a foul place infested with bloodsuckers of many shapes and sizes, especially of the kind that sport stiff upper lips. With a sinking feeling, I realized that my publishers would drag me to societies which pretended to be scientific, to administrators who pretended to govern, and to nitwits who pretended to be gentlemen. They would expect me to appreciate hollow questions and laugh at predictable jokes, just like a fox terrier wags its tail at the sight of a dead duck.

My spirits were somewhat lifted when we arrived in Bakauheni, early in the afternoon of the second day. Against the backdrop of the sea, I could see the hazy outline of Java in front me and a smattering of tiny islands to my right. Taufik guided the coachman through the narrow streets of the harbor. He pointed at a small, but seaworthy prahu that would ferry us to the other side of the strait. The captain, just as small and sturdy as his little wooden ship, announced that we would leave immediately. This surprised me. The crossing of the Sunda Strait would take at least six hours. Under normal circumstances, we would land on Java after nightfall. According to Taufik, the captain expected to benefit from a favorable current, which would shorten the trip considerably. As a consummate landlubber, I shrugged my shoulders, and stepped into the boat. Two sailors helped Taufik store my luggage. Shortly afterwards, we left Bakauheni and found ourselves in open water.

For reasons beyond my understanding, the captain had miscalculated the current. Halfway Java and Sumatra, we deviated from our course, slowly but surely, and in a singularly unspectacular fashion. Without the aid of a storm, a tidal wave or any other atmospheric phenomenon we simply drifted westwards. The coastline of Java remained as hazy as ever. The sailors made several attempts with their sails and rudder to correct our course, but none of them was even remotely successful.

Several hours later, the current had brought us in the proximity of one of those little islands that are strewn across the strait like pebbles in a pond. Our captain decided to go ashore and called his men to oars. To instill a sense of urgency, he also pushed an oar in the hands of Taufik and me. After twenty minutes of arduous rowing, we managed to extract ourselves from the current and reached the island. With our last strength, we jumped on the rocky beach and pulled the prahu onto dry land.

After a brief rest, I took stock of our new surroundings. The island was dominated by the cone of a largely submerged volcano, which rose up to about three kilometers above sea level. I estimated the circumference of the island at eight to ten kilometers, too small to support wildlife. The sparse vegetation and the rocky soil suggested that the island was uninhabited with the possible exception of a few other stranded sailors.

To my relief, we were reasonably well stocked. The captain told us that we would make camp on the beach and try to reach Java in the next morning. Our position was annoying, but far from precarious. We would simply have to wait until dawn. Or so I thought until Taufik tugged my sleeve.

Sana, Pak!” Look, Sir, there!

I saw the man immediately, at approximately two hundred meters from our small band of stranded passers-by. He was dressed immaculately, with a white topee, a khaki shirt and matching trousers. The man was walking towards us at a leisurely pace. The five of us stood immobile, not knowing what to do.

When the man had reached us, he smiled, and welcomed Taufik and the sailors in passable Sundanese, asking them to make themselves at ease. He then addressed me.

Goedemiddag, mijnheer.” The gentleman spoke in heavily accented Dutch. His face, which looked vaguely familiar, was covered with an unruly beard. I guessed that our unexpected visitor was around fifty years old, almost twice my age.

He waited patiently for my reply, and seemed to inspect his walking stick while I was trying to reassert myself. Eventually, I blurted out, “What on earth are you doing here, Sir?”

The man seemed to find my remark amusing rather than inappropriate. “I am doing what I always do at this time of the day. I’m enjoying my afternoon walk.” After a brief silence, he added, “I suspect that you are here for a somewhat different reason.”

I nodded, and narrated the events that had befallen us since our departure from Bakauheni. I also told him that I was on my way to Batavia to publish a series of topographic maps for the Cartografiese Dienst. I did not hide my distaste for social life in the upper circles of Batavia, hoping to find a receptive ear of this–hermit?

In a clumsy attempt to correct my earlier faux pas, I held out my hand and introduced myself as well I could. “My name is Govaert Vandiest,” I said, “I’m a self-employed geologist. It is always a pleasure to meet a gentleman, even in the most unusual of circumstances.”

The elderly man chuckled. “I am a man of science myself, Mr. Vandiest. My name is Mendeleyev, Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev.”

Even though my professional interest is confined to the fields of geography and geology, I pride myself on being reasonably aware of the most important developments in the scientific arena. Mendeleyev. The enormity of the name tied my tongue for the second time in just as many minutes.

“With permission, Sir, but a man of your renown is supposed to teach his work to others, to lecture at the most eminent universities of the Old and the New World. Not to roam the Strait of Sunda. You will not find that elusive ninety-third element here.”

“You’re a well-informed young man, Mr. Vandiest. If it is of any consolation to you, I have not given up my periodic system of elements. In fact, I am here because I believe that the some elements exhibit certain interesting properties.” By now, he had switched to German. I remembered that Mendeleyev had studied at the University of Heidelberg.

I smiled without mirth. “I’m a mere cartographer, Sir. I’m afraid your words are far beyond my understanding.”

“If that’s what you believe, well, then you are indeed a victim of the social circles that you seem to abhor. Come, Mr. Vandiest, you’re a man of science. You should not let class distinctions dictate the boundaries of your curiosity. Indulge yourself. At the very least, indulge an elderly man. It doesn’t happen too often on this island that I can speak with an educated layman, let alone a layman with a self-confessed interest in science.”

At that very moment, I took an instant liking of the great man. “Very well,” I said, as the founding father of modern chemistry sat down on the rocky beach of a nearly uncharted island, “Tell me about these interesting properties.”

Mendeleyev beckoned me to sit down as well. “First of all,” he said, “you should not consider the periodic system of elements as a finished work, Mr. Vandiest, because it isn’t. It is no more than a rough sketch that others will improve upon in years to come. For example, it only lists the elements that we have been able to detect thus far. I’m sure we will detect more of them in the future. My good friend Becquerel is presently working in that field, and his initial results look promising. More importantly, the periodic system, in its present form, is a one-dimensional system, no more. What would happen if we would add a dimension, combine certain elements and attempt to predict the properties of those combinations...?"

My blank stare must have been a resounding indication of my ignorance.

Mendeleyev resumed his exposition. “At present, I am confronted with the same question that was posed thousands of years ago, when our ancestors found a way to melt copper, tin and other metals. How did they discover the process of making bronze?”

“By trial and error,” I ventured.

“Most perceptive, Mr. Vandiest. They stumbled upon it. They experimented, if you will, and that’s precisely what I’m doing here.”

I understood what he was hinting at. I smiled, gesturing at the volcano behind us.

“Precisely!” exclaimed Mendeleyev, “The only source of heat that is powerful enough to serve my purposes is volcanic heat, which is freely available in great abundance, if you know where to look!”

“But,” I interjected, remembering the geological strata of Southern Sumatra, “This island is barren. Apart from silicon, you won’t find any traces of elements worth speaking of.”

“True enough,” conceded the Mendeleyev, “But I’m not interested in rare elements. I’m not an alchemist who tries to turn lead into gold. I’m only interested in the properties of combined elements, and any element will do. In fact, I have reason to believe that lighter elements are easier to fuse than heavy ones.” To emphasize his point, Mendeleyev spread out his arms, embracing the Strait of Sunda, “What I need is right here, Mr. Vandiest. You’re looking at an inexhaustible supply of hydrogen atoms.”

Mendeleyev was best known as a scientist, but I remember him for his unparalleled ability to teach, to educate, to destroy preconceived notions with a simple counter-question. In one splendid afternoon, he released a thousand questions from my mind, not only about chemistry, but also about geology, philosophy, ethics, politics, and–if time would have been kinder to me–about many other things besides.

Eventually, dusk appeared and my teacher announced that he would return to his laboratory. His afternoon walk had come to an end, and so had our discussion.

“I wish you well, Mr. Vandiest. You and your men are welcome to spend the night on the beach, but I would expect you to leave early in the morning. My sponsors believe that my experiments will bring them commercial gain. For obvious reasons, they discourage visits to the island.”

I shook his hand and promised to leave at sunrise, but couldn’t resist asking a very obvious question. “Why have you told me about your experiments if they are to be kept secret?”

Mendeleyev shrugged. “For the simple pleasure of having an interesting conversation, I guess. I enjoy doing science, but I don’t particularly enjoy being surrounded by people who have no notion of what I’m doing.”

“A huge risk,” I muttered.

“Not at all, Mr. Vandiest, as I’m sure you will find out.”

Mendeleyev was right. In the weeks that followed, I acquired a certain reputation in the scientific circles of Batavia. I became known as the buffoon who seriously insisted that a world-famous scientist was throwing seawater into the cone of an active volcano.

I never returned to Mendeleyev’s island, although I did visit a nearby island a few years later. That island was never mapped, simply because it hadn’t existed before.

I remember it as ‘Fusion Island’. To the locals, it is known as Krakatau’s child.

 

About the Author

Andre Oosterman is a financial analyst and aspiring SF-writer. His fiction has appeared in Alternate Species and will appear in Andromeda’s Inflight Space Magazine and Alien Skin. He is married with two kids, and an ever changing number of cats. He lives in Bali.

 

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