The Forever Engine – Snippet 04
September 20, 1888, Wessex, England
A constable appeared outside my door after Gordon left. I needed some time alone anyway. Either I really was one hundred and thirty years back in time or I was in the hands of intelligence operatives who had gone to a lot of trouble to fool me. As unlikely as that second option seemed, it was at least physically possible. But time travel? Absolutely unbelievable . . . except for the coin.
The coin. Reggie’s ring had made it through with me, and my allphone sort of had. What about the coin? Gordon hadn’t mentioned it, or anything else that might have come through.
I picked at my dinner, which was a small meat pie – some sort of bird, I assumed, since the top of the pie was garnished with its little amputated feet. Nice touch. It was okay, but there were too many things on my mind for me to have much appetite. Was it time travel, or was I enmeshed in the gears of the most complicated and improbable intelligence scheme I’d ever heard of? Never in my life had I so wished to be in the clutches of ruthless and diabolical villains; the alternative really sucked.
If I was in the past, which past was I in, mine or that coin’s? There was the business with the Royal Military Academy being at Woolwich instead of Sandhurst, but the more I thought about it the less sure I was that proved anything. I didn’t know where it was a hundred and thirty years ago – why not Woolwich?
I’d been thinking about the war talk as well. We’d never gone to war with Britain since the War of 1812, but we’d had some diplomatic bumps. I just wasn’t sure if any of them were this serious – or if this one was as serious as Gordon had portrayed it. He hadn’t said there was a war, only that he expected one. Maybe that was just his wishful thinking. This might still be the unaltered past.
But if the event wave hadn’t hit my present, how had I gotten here? Possibly the malfunction at WHEECOL was simply that, a massive accident which I’d managed to survive. If so, this was my unaltered past and I was, as Reggie’s SAS troopers in Afghanistan used to say, proper fucked. No one in my unaltered past would have the means of building a high energy particle accelerator, even if I had any idea how to go about doing it. My only hope was the event wave had already passed and altered this past enough to give me something – anything – to work with.
But if it had, why did I still have my memories? Why did I even exist? Was the event wave still someplace between 1888 and 2018? If so, how long did I have before it caught up to my childhood, my life? When it did, would it wipe me out? Or would those early memories fade first, one at a time, until it got to the Wessex event itself and then erase whatever was left of me.
When the nurse took away my dinner dishes I asked for paper and pencil. I thought that if I could write down the critical information then I could read it and keep acting, even if my memory of those events started to go. Or if it was going to snuff me out, I should write about that world I’d lived in, leave some concrete record of it having existed. The paper and the graphite in the pencil were from this time; the event wave wouldn’t erase them. It wasn’t a living, intelligent being, just a force of nature, like an avalanche.
For a long time I stared at the blank paper. Where should I even start? What was there to say about the entire history of a world which stood in danger of extinction? What was it about that world which made it so important I had to preserve it? Finally I picked up the pencil and began to write.
I can’t imagine you will ever read this, but just writing it makes me feel closer to you, across the unimaginable gulf which separates us. There are things about me I need to tell you, should have told you before I left for England, but I put them off out of fear and shame. But as I sit here and think of you, of the young woman you have become, I know you are strong enough to hear them. . . .
Two days later Gordon returned with a suit of civilian clothes. I was already up and in my robe but he tossed the clothes on the bed.
“Put those on. We’re taking the Express to London.”
I’d grown impatient, was anxious to start on whatever journey lay before me, but my heart still sank a bit. There had still been the faint possibility I was in my own world and had simply been fooled into thinking otherwise. Now that possibility was gone. Someone could have dummied up a hospital room to look like a century ago and hired a dozen actors to play their parts – London was a different proposition. So I was in the past. Now the question was, which past?
“Hurry up, damn you,” Gordon snapped. “We haven’t got all day.”
“A little touchy today are we, Captain?” I asked as I started to dress. “Have the boys upstairs overruled your plans for a hanging?”
“Never fear, you’ll have your trial and then we’ll hang you. It will be closed door, of course; we have some experience dealing with spies. But first there are some gentlemen who would like to ask you a few more questions.”
“I’ll be happy to talk to your people in London,” I told Gordon, “but I’ve already told you everything I know. I don’t have much more to give.”
He didn’t answer me; he just smiled. Actually it was a nasty little smirk, which wasn’t a good sign. I’d read enough Flashman novels to know what that meant. Those old-time Brits had a code of honor and standards of behavior, unless they didn’t think you were a gentleman. In that case they didn’t feel much need to act like gentlemen themselves, so this could get pretty ugly. Making a run for it started sounding good.