The Forever Engine – Snippet 05

The Forever Engine – Snippet 05

My only real hope was things had actually changed here, and done so in a way that left me some sort of return route. I knew next to nothing about physics, and when you know that little, anything is possible, right? So my first priority was figuring out if this really was my own past or that coin’s. I specialized in ancient Rome and the near east, not nineteenth century Europe, but I knew more than the average Joe on the street. Reggie had picked me in part because I had an instinct for little things not quite right. I’d need to focus that, look for subtle differences, something the average person might miss.

Gordon included a long overcoat with the clothes but it seemed like a nice day and so I carried it over my arm. Gordon and I, with two big constables in tow, walked out the front door of the hospital. I felt a breeze, heard the drone of machinery, a shadow fell across the broad stone steps ahead of us. I looked up.

Three hundred meters above us was . . . an ironclad? It was big, really big. It had too many surface features to be a balloon, things that looked like gun mounts and observation platforms, with shining brass railings and evenly-spaced rows of massive rivets, the kind that hold steel girder bridges together. The drone grew louder as it passed overhead. Black smoke escaped from a stack in the rear, dispersed into a dirty grey wake by three large propellers that apparently drove the ship forward. I had no idea what held the damned thing up. An intense downdraft enfolded us and piles of dried leaves on the lawn exploded into a swirling red-brown blizzard.

“Okay,” I said to no one in particular, “so much for subtle differences.”


I don’t remember much about the carriage ride. I suppose I was still dazed, but I started paying attention again once we got to the train station – a little place out in the countryside called Creech St. Michael Halt. The locomotive hissed and throbbed nervously, reeked of hot rusty iron and sulfurous coal, and looked longer and more powerful than I remembered Victorian steam engines looking in Sherlock Holmes films.

Sherlock Holmes films? Flashman novels? And I called myself an historian? This was getting pathetic. Why couldn’t this event wave thingamajig have dropped me in fourth-century BCE Achaemenid Persia? At least I knew my way around there.

Gordon led the way with the Bobbies to either side of me. The one on my right slipped his hand around my elbow — not making a show of manhandling me, just letting me know he was there. Gordon looked through the open doors until he found an empty compartment and motioned us to follow him in.

The compartment was pretty much what I expected: dark wood paneling and brass fittings, a gaslight overhead, and a well-thumbed copy of The Times left on the overstuffed seat. Gordon sat facing me while the constables sat opposite each other by the windows.

“Where in London are we going?” I asked.

“You will see in good time,” Gordon answered.

“Who are these gentlemen I’ll be talking to?”

“All in good time.”

“Look, if you could just –”

“Do be quiet, Fargo. There’s a good spy.”

Be quiet. Sure. I was on a train about to take me to an interview with people Gordon had broadly hinted were going to torture me – if necessary – to find out what I knew. Since I didn’t know anything they were interested in, it was hard to see how this was going to end happily for anyone, but especially for me.

I picked up The Times and looked it over. Doing a quick scan was hard – these guys still had a lot to learn about newspaper layout, things like headlines and organizing from most to least important.

A penny had been removed from the pendulum counterbalance of Big Ben, which would slow the clock by four tenths of a second per day. Seems it had been running slightly fast. No one knew why, but a panel of study was being formed. Swell. There was a report on the Royal Horticultural Society’s flower show, another grisly murder in Whitechapel – when was Jack the Ripper running around? – and a letter from an unnamed correspondent about a Fenian Army massing in the U. S. Pacific Northwest. It also alleged several acts of sabotage against the Canadian Pacific Railroad near Vancouver.

Fenians – Irish separatists. I remembered there had been a border incident after the Civil War when a bunch of Irish veterans got together and tried to invade Canada, hold it hostage for an independent Ireland. Not much came of it, although it had been a big deal at the time. It seemed to me it had been earlier than the 1880s, though; weren’t Civil War veterans getting long in the tooth by now?

Then another article caught my eye. The Foreign Office announced its acceptance of the credentials of General William Ransom Johnson Pegram as the new ambassador to the Court of St. James from the Confederate States of America. General Pegram had expressed his government’s sympathy with Great Britain’s current difficulties vis-a-vis the United States of America.

“Son of a bitch! Those assholes actually won?

Gordon and the Bobbies eyed me with disapproval and I tossed the paper aside.

The train started up, gathering speed quickly.

I couldn’t believe it. The South won? I wasn’t just in an altered history, I was in some stupid “Lost Cause” wet dream. If this place had taken a pass on emancipation, what other horrors had it decided it just couldn’t part with?

This place? As if there was somewhere else? No, this was all there was now. This was it. I had already spent too much time in a hospital bed. Whatever trick I was going to perform to fix all this, I had better get going on, and right away.

Son of a bitch.


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15 Responses to The Forever Engine – Snippet 05

  1. Todd Fox says:

    He shouldn’t be too hasty, the only way the South ever stood, even the barest chance, of surviving ( barring the discovery of alien technology) would have been to emancipate their slaves themselves -before the US congress.

    • akira.taylor says:

      Not really. If Britain and France had decided they needed cotton badly enough (or if a US warship capturing a British merchant vessel hadn’t been defused), either or both would have gotten involved in the war. Britain still had a powerful navy and industry – they could have broken the blockade and remedied the South’s lack of industry. Now, it might not have been enough, but it could have been, particularly if Britain just tried to force a peace treaty.

      • Bruce says:

        A couple of other alternate histories speculate on UK/French support for the CSA resulting in independence, including a long Harry Turtledove series. Most do see the CSA self emancipating eventually, with varrying degrees of succes.

        • Mark L says:

          Had the CSA established itself as an independent nation, it is possible that they would have emancipated their slaves. In my view, however, it is equally possible that – having fought a war to defend the practice – that they might well have retained slavery and never abolished it.

          It was a popular conceit in the 1920s that slavery would have gone away because slavery was incompatible with industrialization. However, two industrialized nations – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany managed quite nicely to run factories with slave labor. In the case of Germany, they were making one of their high-tech weapons, the V-2 rocket, extensively using slave labor.

          As to the South winning the Civil War? Assume that prior to Ft. Donelson and Henry that “Useless” Grant had been relieved of command by Halleck. The only reason Grant was able to win the victories at Donelson and Henry was that Halleck had not found someone to replace Grant and also underestimated Grant’s speed, aggressiveness, and determination (a lot of Confederate Generals did, too). After Donelson (to paraphrase a line from the movie Giant) Grant was too rich to “kill.”

          Seriously, absent Grant, the Union would likely have lost the Civil War. Without Grant Sherman would have never been rehabilitated, Sheridan and McPherson would not have been pushed ahead as fast as they were, and the Union would have been stuck trying to defend Kentucky in 1863.

          • Cobbler says:

            The basic argument was that in a high tech world slavery is inefficient. They weren’t wrong about that.

            The industrial and financial inefficiencies of the collectivist Soviet empire had much to do with their eventual collapse.

            • Cobbler says:

              Oops! Verne was ahead of his time, but not by that much. I meant 1886.

            • Mark L says:

              I am not arguing a slave society is an efficient or an effective one. Regardless, it can survive for a time. Remember H. Beam Piper’s “A Slave is a Slave”? (Available through both Project Gutenberg or Librivox for those that have not read it.)

              For a real-life example, it took the Soviet Union 70 years to collapse, and then only because Reagan stressed the Soviet Union to the point of collapse by forcing it into a technology race. So you could easily have a slave-owning CSA in the 1880s if it takes as long to collapse as the Soviet Union.

              • Cobbler says:

                No argument here.

                Especially since nineteenth century technology—setting aside the hovering battlewagon—is less demanding than that of the twentieth century.

          • 2old2ride says:

            Maybe 1963 too! Politics is a slow motion sport.

    • 2old2ride says:

      Actually no. Chamberlaine and Melcher saved the Union at Little Round Top.
      Little Round Top falls, the flank is turned at Gettysburg and Lee burns Philidelphia to the ground on his way to New York. The Union Army at Gettysburg was the only field force left to oppose Lee. With New York burning, the Union sues for peace.
      Slavery ends regardless. It was machinery that ended slavery. Slaves are expensive and cannot match the productivity of Free Men with Machines.
      That combination produced MORE cotton after the war then before.

      • Mark L says:

        You are either from the East or remarkably unversed in Civil War history. The decisive theaters were in the west. A Union victory at Gettysburg did not create a Union victory in the American Civil War. It prevented a Confederate victory. Gettysburg – absent Vicksburg, Chattanooga and the Atlanta campaign would have been a sterile victory. It would not prevent the South from achieving independence.

        Even with Gettysburg the Union victory was a close-run thing. Absent the capture of Atlanta and the victories in the Shenandoah (both of which were the results of Generals trained and pushed into command positions by Grant) Lincoln would have lost the 1864 election to McClellan. He was running on a peace platform, which would have recognized Southern independence.

  2. Cobbler says:

    Poul Anderson wrote a fantasy called A Midsummer Tempest in which Shakespeare is the Great Historian. They really had cannon in Hamlet’s time, and Bohemia really had a seacoast.

    Have we fallen into a Jules Verne universe? Robur the Conqueror was published in 1996.

    Lacking that, it’s hard to see how steam technology could produce such a hovering dreadnaught. It’s hard to see how a science and technology that can produce something like that wouldn’t revolutionize Victorian technology out of recognition.

    It will be interesting to see how Chadwick justifies his universe.

    • Cobbler says:

      Oops! Verne was ahead of his time, but not by that much. I meant 1886.

      I’d pull the comment I put in the wrong place, if i knew how to.

      • Richard H says:

        On the other hand, Paris in the 20th Century *was* published around 1996 (looking it up, actually 1994) when they discovered a safe with all of Verne’s early, and sometimes rejected, manuscripts. Notably, it had faxes and pneumatic subways but not telephones or radios or ball-point pens.

        The man was remarkably visionary, but that ironclad really is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea grade stuff. (Actually, it reminds me of the airships that SWARM uses in Terminal World.) That does seem like a lot of lift capacity you’d expect to be used for other things, too.

  3. The flying warship obviously uses cavorite, as used iirc to take Armstrong and his college professor to the moon. What do they teach in schools these days? Our hero has not yet met any Martians or Venutians, but I believe the bet is in favor.

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