The Forever Engine – Snippet 03
Somewhere in England
I lay in a bed, my eyes bandaged. Those bandages on my eyes frightened me more than anything else, more than the waves of pain that washed over me and made me cry out and try to sit up. Someone spoke, someone pricked my arm, the pain left, and for a while I floated in a narcotic fever dream.
In the dream Sarah needed a bigger bed. I got one of those kits from Ikea, and Tommy Nash, my platoon sergeant, came over to help. We had the parts spread all over the floor, trying to figure out which peg G went into which socket M, while Sarah stood in the doorway watching. She was small, though, only about six years old, with short brown hair like mouse fur. How could she go to college when she was so tiny?
After ten minutes, she asked, “How many hillbillies does it take to put together a bed?”
I laughed and grabbed for her, but she ran away giggling.
I turned back to Tommy, but he was dead, his legs blown off by an RPG round. He lay on the riverbank and his blood stained the water of the Darya-ye Helmond pink, but only for about ten meters downstream. Then it turned back to the same muddy brown as always, and you’d never even know he’d been there.
Then I was back in the bed of pain. People spoke to me. I answered, but don’t remember what I said or if it made any sense. Probably not.
Eventually my senses sharpened and I asked whoever was there not to give me any more of the pain medication. Hard to do. I liked the meds, had started looking forward to my shots.
The more my thinking cleared, the less everything around me made sense. Where was I? What happened to me? I couldn’t see because of the bandages, but what did my other senses tell me?
I was still in England. The nurses’ rural accents were barely intelligible and the food was terrible. The fare that morning, stewed kidney paste on toast, smelled like urine. Who but the Brits would eat that stuff?
The scent of alcohol, soap, and another strong chemical I couldn’t place hung in the air, but I didn’t hear any of the normal background noises – PA systems, monitor beeps. The breeze brushing my face and the smell of flowers meant an open window instead of central air. That was odd. And just as odd, they actually injected the pain medication with hypodermics. Why not just add it to my IV drip?
No IV drip.
Maybe I was in better shape than I thought.
A doctor – older fellow from his voice – talked with me about my burns. My back and upper arms would scar, but not my face. My hair was already growing back. They expected my eyesight to recover, though they wouldn’t know for certain until the bandages came off. I asked about Reggie and the others. He declined to discuss any other cases, but only after enough of a hesitation to make me fear the worst.
Had my daughter been notified? The doctor didn’t know but promised he’d look into it.
A police inspector interviewed me. Beyond the large explosion, he had no idea what happened. I couldn’t fill him in, not without going to prison for violation of the Official Secrets Act, but I told him I’d talk to someone from military intelligence out of London. I repeated my request twice before he got it. Apparently the British police did not reserve their most intellectually promising officers for service in rural Wessex.
The doctor removed the bandages from my eyes the next day. Even through blurry eyes my surroundings looked wrong. No monitors. The bed wasn’t adjustable, just a brass poster with no railings to restrain restless patients. The nurses wore long sleeves, long dresses, and long hair tucked up under little round white caps. Maybe a private Mennonite hospital?
Yeah, maybe. But that damned coin suggested an alternative. I tried to avoid dwelling on the implications but couldn’t. Had there really been an event wave passage? Was I in an altered world, and if so, how altered? But if the world had really changed, why did I remember the way it had been? Why weren’t my memories changed? No, none of that made sense.
The military intelligence guy showed up the following day: a slender, dark-haired captain in his late twenties named Gordon, in his own words “sent out from Horse Guards.”
My vision had improved to about eighty percent or so. He wore a red uniform tunic and dark blue trousers, like the foot guards in front of Buckingham palace. Why send someone from the Guards? Why wear the ceremonial uniform? And besides, the Horse Guards wore blue, not red.
I had learned enough British history to remember the Horse Guards barracks once housed the headquarters of the British Army. “Horse Guards” had been shorthand for Army Headquarters — but not for the last hundred years. So maybe that had changed – or not changed, I guess.
Gordon started. “You understand, Mr. Fargo, that this whole affair is quite a serious matter. The village of Somerton was all but destroyed, between the blast and fires. Over a hundred people died and Copley Wood is still burning. Now what’s all this nonsense about some Secret Law?”
He took out a pocket humidor, stuck a cheroot in his mouth, and lit the cigar from a big, sulfurous match. In a hospital!
A nurse came in with a pitcher of water and when she didn’t bat an eye at the cigar, my pulse increased and sweat broke out on my forehead. I remembered Reggie’s words: it’s something of a time machine. My breathing became labored, as if my ribs had fused and would not expand to inflate my lungs. A hundred years? No, too crazy. But that damned coin . . .
“Are you unwell, Mr. Fargo?” Gordon’s tone told me the question was pro forma; he didn’t really give a damn.
“What year is it?”
“You don’t remember?”
“What year is it, goddammit?”
“No need to be a bore.” Disdain saturated his voice. “It is 14 September, the year of our Lord 1888.”
Sarah! Somehow I had to get back to my daughter. Crazy. She wouldn’t be born for another century, or might not be born ever, but I couldn’t believe that. As hopeless as it might sound, one thought came to me and stuck: wherever I was, whenever I was, if there was a way here, there had to be a way back.
Gordon was talking again and I knew I had to pay attention. I needed an ally, and Gordon was my best candidate.
“I’m sorry, Captain, what were you saying?”
“I wonder if you could identify this item.”
Careful to keep the object out of my reach, he held up a flat sliver of aluminum and plastic. He needn’t have bothered – there wasn’t anyone in this century to call, even if the plastic buttons and screen weren’t melted and fused into the frame. A bandage covered a still-healing burn on my right hip about where the phone had rested in my pocket.
“It’s my . . . oh boy. It’s called an allphone. It’s a communication device and . . . um, a web access tool.”
“I see.” Gordon made no attempt to hide his disbelief. “And this ring found beside you. Can you identify it?” He handed Reggie’s ring to me. Soot still blackened the crevices. My throat tightened,
“It’s a class ring of a friend. You say it was beside me. My friend . . ?”
“Deceased. All we found was the one arm and part of a skull, both badly charred. What does the inscription signify?”
Reggie dead? Reggie was . . . indestructible.
I looked up from the ring. What an odd question from a British officer.
“RMA Sandhurst? It means the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.”
He frowned. “Interesting. And the number 2006?”
“His year of graduation,” I watched his face for reaction. Mounting anger replaced his disbelief.
“Two thousand and six you say? AD? What do you take me for?”
What did I have to lose? Nothing. So I told him everything – who I was, when I’d been born, why Reggie had called me in, what the Wessex project was attempting, and the little I knew about what went wrong. I left out the part about trying to change the past back to what it had been, not knowing whether this time was part of the reality I wanted to save or the one I would have to extinguish to do so.
All that took a while. By the time I was done he was on his second cheroot and his anger had given way to contempt. He sat and smoked his cigar for a while, saying nothing. It’s a good interrogation technique – people like to fill the silence with sound. I filled it with my own silence. After a few minutes he gave in.
“You expect me to believe all this rubbish?”
“Then why waste my time with it?”
“It’s all I’ve got, Captain Gordon. The truth. Who could make something like that up?”
“Some arrogant American scoundrel could. You think foreigners will believe any silly twaddle you invent. An attack on an English village gone wrong, an attempt to shift the blame to the British military — you could at least have done some research. The Royal Military Academy is at Wollwich, not Sandhurst.”
Anti-American bias on top of everything else. So much for my potential ally. Time to change direction.
“Maybe you better put me in touch with the American embassy.”
“That will be difficult, as I am sure you already know. Your ambassador was sent packing a month past. I shall be greatly surprised if we are not at war with the United States within the fortnight.”
My startled expression pleased him.
“You are under arrest for espionage, Fargo, if that really is your name. I don’t know what happened at Somerton village or why all those people had to die. We’ll get to the bottom of it, though, I assure you. And I will see you swing for it.”