The Forever Engine – Snippet 07
“I’m afraid I am unfamiliar with that passage, or even the language.”
“‘Marduk the great lord rejoiced in my pious deeds, and gratefully blessed me,’” I translated in turn. “It’s ancient Persian, a passage from the Babylonian Cylinder of Cyrus the Great, which, as I recall, currently resides in the British Museum.”
He studied me seriously for several seconds, arms folded across his chest and eyes narrow, before giving a slight nod.
“Very well, I accept your academic credentials, Professor Fargo. I am Sir Edward Bonseller, personal secretary to the prime minister. You will understand, given the circumstances, if I do not offer my hand. Have you met the others?
“Well, you know Captain Gordon, of course. Colonel Rossbank is director of the military intelligence department at Horse Guards. Professor Tyndall is retired from the Royal Institution, but circumstances have conspired to interrupt his well-deserved rest. I hope you are well, sir.”
The older man who earlier had greeted Gordon with affection was frail and birdlike, with a high forehead and a fringe of white hair around his chin and skull like the ruff of an owl. He now patted his side coat pocket, much the same way Gordon had.
“I am armed, Sir Edward, which is more to the point.” His accent had a trace of Irish, and his voice, reedy with age, nearly cracked as he spoke. “They killed poor Huxley last evening. Had you heard?”
“Yes. You have my sympathy, Tyndall. Damned shame. That makes six, doesn’t it?”
“Aye, six with Huxley. Of the entire membership of the X Club there remains only Hooker, Frankland, and myself, and this scoundrel came within an ace of getting me.” He pointed at me. “Louisa and I were visiting relatives in Somerton when this fellow blew half of it to pieces.”
That could put you on edge, I supposed. I was probably going to have a hard time convincing him it was all just a coincidence, scientists being generally skeptical of the notion that something “just happened.”
“Tyndall is one of our most respected physicists, and Professor Thomson is another,” Bonseller continued, gesturing to a man of similar age but stout and full-bearded, bearlike in physique. “Thomson’s come down from Glasgow University, where he holds the chair in physics, to help us sort your story out. He’s helped the government on a number of thorny matters. Good to see you again, Billy.”
“A wonder I can see at all, dragged down from my clean Sco’ish air into this sewage dump,” he answered in a soft brogue. “What’s keeping you from doing something about the blasted air, Eddie? Waiting till Tyndall here makes his second million off patented respirators?”
“Damn your eyes,” Tyndall hissed back, and the heavy-set Scotsman turned toward him, the malice between the two men suddenly as obvious as a bloodstain.
Bonseller held his hand up to cut off the argument
“Oh, and Meredith is the cabinet’s science advisor,” he added, finishing the introductions.
The last one was younger, probably in his late thirties or early forties, pear-shaped and balding, with only a sparse moustache for facial hair. His eyes darted from Bonseller to me, to the window, the door, the floor. He bobbed his head nervously in acknowledgment.
“Now, let’s get to it, shall we?”
They grilled me for over an hour. Bonseller asked most of the questions, with Tyndall chiming in on technical matters at first, but then becoming more involved as the questions turned from my “story” to a detailed description of the future from which I came. All of them reacted with surprise when I told them the outline of our space program, having put men on the moon and an unmanned rover on Mars. That interrupted the session while they had a huddled and heated consultation in the far corner of the room. When they started again, they asked more about powered flight, and when I told them the broad outline of some of the newest aircraft, they were impressed but confused. I could see why.
Colonel Rossbank had a few questions about the armed forces of my time, but the capabilities I described were so unbelievable he quickly lost interest and lit a cigar. Gordon followed his lead with a cheroot of his own. Meredith sat at a writing desk and took notes, and Thomson, the heavy-set Scottish physicist, remained quiet and paced the room, chewing on the stem of an unlit pipe, his face always in silent motion, alternating between concentration, surprise, disbelief, and then understanding.
The birdlike Tyndall finally shook his head in exasperation.
“The story is remarkable for its detail and consistency. Genuinely remarkable. But it is simply beyond belief.”
“Nonsense,” Thomson said, his first spoken word since my interrogation began. “There is not a thing in the world he describes which is not explainable by direct extrapolation from our own existing scientific principles.”
Right then I decided the big Scot was my guy. I could have kissed him.
“Oh, rubbish!” Tyndall snapped back. “This inter-web thing is extrapolation? Of what?”
“His high capacity computing machines are simply an improvement on our analytic engines, but with mechanical calculation and memory replaced with electric functions. That accounts for both the miniaturization and the higher calculation speed. Electric storage of data is clearly possible, something like that American laddie Smith argued for, recording sounds with permanent magnetic impressions on wire.”
“Smith? Smith who? What are you talking about?” Tyndall demanded.
“Oberon Smith, I think he’s called. It was in Electrical World last year, Tyndall. You really should keep up on your professional reading. As to electrical as opposed to mechanical functioning, it’s nothing more than development of a Crookes tube into something more than a curiosity. The American mathematician Charles Pierce has already proposed a means by which logic operations can be carried out by electric switching circuits.”
Tyndall sniffed and turned away, looking all the more like an offended owl.
“I’d call that a mighty leap,” he said
“Aye,” Thomson agreed. “But thus do we advance, by mighty leaps.”
“And the ability to access these machines from anywhere, without wires?” Bonseller asked, but Tyndall instead of Thomson answered.
“Obviously some sort of electromagnetic communicator propagated through the aether. I suppose it could utilize Hertz’s waves.” He turned to Thomson. “As was reported in Annalen der Physik, last year.”
Thomson smiled and bowed slightly to him.
“That’s right,” I put in, because it was time to insinuate myself into the group. “Hertz was one of the early pioneers in wireless research.”
Things were going better than I’d expected, a lot better. They obviously had some sort of advanced science to work with. I figured if they could manage to make great big ironclads fly like balloons, they knew something we didn’t. Now if I could get Tyndall and Thomson to kiss and make nice, I had three potential allies: the Irish owl, the Scottish bear, and, most importantly, the English lion Bonseller. I’d known men like him before — men who could open doors. Men who thought the world could be fixed and they were just the guys to do it. Dangerous men, but useful ones, too, up to a point.
I heard a thud out in the hallway, where the Bobbies were waiting, and then what sounded like a scuffle.
“What the devil’s going on out there, Gordon?” Colonel Rossbank demanded.
“I’ll find out, sir.”
Rossbank shook his head and dropped his cigar in a brass spittoon.
“I’ll sort it out. I need some air.”
He walked to the doors and slid one back.
“What’s all this, then?” he demanded, but he suddenly choked in pain, staggered backward a step or two, and fell, blood spraying across the floor.
We stood frozen as two dark shapes filled the doorway, paused for an instant to scan the room, then an arm snapped and a blade flew through the air. Tyndall staggered back, eyes bulging, blood bubbling from his throat and mouth. He turned as he fell, for a moment the light of a gaslight sparkled from the diamond stickpin in his cravat, and then he collapsed twitching to the floor.
“NO!” Gordon shouted, his voice rising almost to a scream.
Blood pounded in my ears, and my perception became jerky, strobelike: shouts, curses, scrambling bodies, overturned furniture, and one of the dark shapes raising his hand and pointing at me.
“‘Ere ‘e is. Git ‘im!”
The other’s hand, holding a steel blade rose, and snapped toward me.