The Forever Engine – Snippet 01
The Forever Engine
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
– Robert Oppenheimer, 16 July, 1945,
(quoting the Hindu scripture, Bahagvad Gita,
upon seeing the Trinity atomic bomb test)
August 2, 2018, Wessex, England
Reggie Llewellyn was the most casual killer I ever met, but I didn’t hold that against him. If I’d known he was behind the trip to England, you couldn’t have gotten me on the plane at gunpoint — not because of who he was, but what he represented. But I didn’t know. Not until it was too late.
My internal alarm started sounding from the moment I walked in the front entrance of WHECOL — the Wessex High Energy Collider facility. I expected an overweight, white-shirted rent-a-cop guarding a civilian research complex out in the sleepy English countryside. Instead I faced four hard-eyed soldiers dressed in camo’ fatigues and packing assault rifles. Their stares followed me in unison as I crossed the polished marble floor, but I looked straight back at them. If they wanted to intimidate someone, they’d have to wait for the next guy through the door.
Well, maybe I was a little intimidated, but the trick is never to show it.
I’d barely cleared security when a greeting echoed through the foyer.
“Jack Fargo! There you are!”
Although I hadn’t heard it for a decade, I recognized Reggie’s voice at once. And I knew nothing here was what it seemed.
We shook hands and Reggie beamed at me. Reggie always beamed — sort of crazy that way. My anxiety at seeing him was mixed up with some pleasure as well, and that surprised me. Lots of surprises that day, and more to come.
Unlike the guards, he wore a pressed service uniform. He wasn’t much different from the young subaltern I’d known in Afghanistan – deeper laugh lines around the eyes, hair clipped shorter, mustache showing some grey in the jet black, and different rank insignia on his shoulder straps. Well, he looked a little jumpy, too, which I’d never seen in him before.
“They made you a major, Reggie? The British empire is doomed.”
“The empire’s been finished for some time,” he said. “If your education system were better over there you might have noticed. How have you been? I was quite sorry to hear about your wife and . . . well . . .”
The sudden tightness in my throat surprised me. “I’m okay. Tough time. My daughter Sarah and I got through it together.”
Reggie nodded in sympathy. “I’m glad to hear that. Well, then . . .” He gestured down the broad marble corridor into the facility and we walked side by side. I didn’t know what was really going on here yet but decided my best bet was to play along with the original premise of my trip and see where that led me.
“So let me get this right,” I said. “You started digging the foundations for a new wing and stumbled on some possible Roman artifacts? Not that I’m complaining, but why fly an historian all the way from Illinois to evaluate a cultural resource site? Isn’t Cambridge around here somewhere?”
“Oxford is closer, actually, but it’s a fair question. Some discretion in this matter is required. When I realized we might have need of someone conversant with ancient history, I recalled that you are a very discreet fellow. More than that, I know you will tell me the truth, with neither fear nor favor. You are honest — to a fault, as I recall.”
“So I’ve been told. Thank god for academic tenure, huh?”
“Yes. We don’t have that in the Army. Fortunately, excessive honesty is not a failing from which I suffer.”
He grinned that toothy grin, the one that looked like a tiger about to make a kill. Reggie and I had worked together well a long time ago, but there were good reasons I’d chosen academia instead of a more active career. These days my most vicious fights were over who was going to be the next departmental chair. Reggie knew a surprising amount about my post-military career. That made me nervous.
We stopped in an open, well-lit, but deserted office area.
“The technical staff is preparing for another test,” Reggie explained. “We do these mostly at night, when the clerical staff is gone.”
He studied me for a moment, as if deciding how to open the conversation. He took a clear plastic coin case from his trouser pocket and handed it to me.
“Give me your professional opinion of this.”
Since the Brits had brought me a long way at some expense, I took my time studying the coin, but I pegged it in about two seconds.
“Roman silver denarius, first century CE, reign of Emperor Galba. Supposedly.”
“Well, it’s counterfeit – a really good one, too good, actually. It looks as if it were struck last year, not over nineteen hundred years ago.”
“But other than that you’d say it was authentic?” he asked.
“No. The inscription places it from the third year of the reign of Galba. The thing is, Galba’s reign only lasted about seven months before he was killed and replaced by Otho.”
I handed the coin back.
“Weren’t coins ever struck . . . in anticipation of an event?” he asked.
“Not a couple years in anticipation, and especially by Galba. About the only thing memorable about him was his stinginess.”
“You’re certain, Jack? I brought you in on this because people tell me you’re one of the top men on Roman coins these days. I need to know. Are you absolutely certain?”
“Yup, one hundred per cent.”
Lost in thought, Reggie frowned at the coin in his hand and said nothing.
“What gives?” I said. “You didn’t fly me all the way here from Chicago to tell you what any Roman numismatist could.”
“It is not counterfeit.”
I started to insist otherwise, but stopped. What was an American historian really doing in a British high-energy physics lab guarded by armed soldiers, looking at a phony silver coin that wasn’t phony? Had to be, but wasn’t. Reggie wasn’t worried about disturbing a cultural resource site, and suddenly I had absolutely no curiosity about what he really wanted.
“Well . . . sorry I couldn’t be more help. Give me a ring next time you’re in the States, Reggie, and I’ll buy you a drink. I can find my own way out.”
He laughed. “You know it’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is, because I don’t know anything yet, and I intend to keep it that way. You asked for my professional opinion, I gave it to you. Adios muchacho.”
“It is not counterfeit.”
“Oh, fuck you, Reggie! My daughter starts her freshman year of college in three weeks. I don’t know what sort of cloak and dagger Indiana Jones bullshit you’ve got going on here, but whatever it is, it’s not my department. I used to be an Army translator. That’s it. Now I’m an historian and a single parent, and I have things that need doing. You aren’t on my list.”
“Of course I understand how you must feel, Jack. But before you say anything else, why not have a seat and read these papers? Please.”
He held out a folder with the seal of the U.S. Department of the Army.
Son of a bitch! I’d been set up.
I snatched it, sat at an empty desk, and found nothing surprising in the folder: my change of status from unassigned reserve to active duty with a pay grade of W-4, recertification of my top secret security clearance, and orders assigning me to temporary duty with Wimbish Detachment, Military Provost Guard Service, Major Reginald Llewellyn commanding.
Provost Guard Service my ass. Reggie was SAS – the British elite special operations force — and I figured the four goons at the front door were as well.
The last document was the British Official Secrets Act form. I scribbled my signature, the date, and handed the folder back.
“I’m out of the world-fixing business, Reggie. If I’m not back in time to take Sarah to college, I will have your ass, SAS or not.”
He beamed and took the folder.
“Imagine how terrified that makes me!” Then the smile left his face. “The question of who would actually have whose ass may be academic, however. What did you just call it? The world-fixing business? Believe me Jack, you do not appreciate how apropos a term that is. If we are not successful here, there is a distinct possibility our world as we know it will not survive.”
I studied him for a moment but he didn’t look as if he was trying to snow me. He looked a little frightened. I’d never seen him look frightened before. “Okay, you’ve got my attention. Here’s the deal: I’ll help you out on this, but I will not, under any circumstances, do anything I will be ashamed to tell my daughter. Is that understood?”
“Assuming we live through this I wouldn’t recommend telling her anything, old man. The Official Secrets Act –”
“Fuck the Official Secrets Act.”
His eyebrows rose a bit at that, but then he smiled ruefully.
“Very well, conditions understood and accepted. And you’ll be happy to know that we won’t be jetting anywhere to do our work, or have any annoying people shooting at us. That is not the sort of danger we face. No one knows what we are doing here.”
“Yeah, including me. So what are you doing?”
He sat in the chair beside the desk and looked at me for a moment.
“It’s . . . something of a time machine, I suppose,” he said.
“A time machine? Bullshit.”