The Forever Engine – Snippet 12

The Forever Engine – Snippet 12


“The what?” Thomson sputtered.

“No, I didn’t think so,” Buller said with a nod. “There were cases of sabotage, such as the Vickers workshop, which I think are also linked to this spy, whoever he is. You weren’t positioned to assist in those. No, I had already ruled you out. Damn you, Gordon. Why couldn’t you have been the bloody spy?”

“Sorry, sir,” Gordon answered with a hint of sarcasm and Buller glanced up sharply at him.

Buller played the blustering, gobbling British general, but there was clearly more to him than met the eye. Rossbank’s body was hardly cold, Buller had been head of Military Intelligence for probably twelve hours at the outside, and he was already up to speed on the leak and the most likely suspects. I wasn’t crazy about the guy, but that was impressive.

“Carstairs, Burroughs, you are both dismissed,” he said.

The two other officers barked “Sir!” in unison and stamped out of the office. Once the door closed behind them, Buller looked at us.

“Well, that’s it, then. You three are the only ones in this whole business I can trust. Trust is perhaps too strong a word in your case, Fargo. Let’s just say I am certain you are not a spy for the Old Man. The same is true for you, Captain Gordon.”

Buller moved the folder to the side and opened the one under it.

“You are with the Northumberland Fusiliers, I see,” he said after a moment.


“The First Battalion fought in Afghanistan eight years ago. You were a subaltern then, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good opportunity for a young chap to show what he’s made of. But you stayed in England, exchanged places with a subaltern from the Second Battalion, lad named Collingwood.”

Gordon shifted his weight from one leg to the other and frowned.

“Yes, sir.”

“He was killed in action, I see. Where was that?”

I saw the color come to Gordon’s face. His ears burned cherry red. When he didn’t reply, Buller looked up at him. Gordon licked his lips before answering.

“Kandahar, sir.”

“Yes, that’s right. I missed that show. Down in Zululand, you know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then last year your second battalion rotated with the first, got overseas service at last. It’s seeing some lively action out on the Northwest Frontier. You exchanged out again, I see, with a captain named Winthrop. Is he still alive?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lucky chap,” Buller said.

Gordon dropped his hands to his side and came to attention.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“No, damn you, it will not. I know the army is full of worthless young gentlemen who think soldiering is nothing more than hunting foxes in Yorkshire and gambling away their father’s money in London. They exchange out with poorer officers whenever their battalion ships overseas. The poor ones can’t afford the mess dues back in England and so go on campaign, seduced by the prospect of prize money. They end up doing all the bleeding and damn the army for still allowing it. But you, Gordon! You had your chance to prove yourself yesterday, and you ran.”

“I went for help!” Gordon protested.

Went for help? You ran into the others outside the door and so had to turn around and come back. Otherwise like as not you’d have kept running all the way to Horse Guards.”

“If you believe that –”

Shut up, damn you!” Buller roared, his searing rage no longer a pretense. Sweat broke out on Gordon’s forehead and he seemed to wilt in the furnace of the general’s contempt.

“I won’t say what I believe,” Buller resumed after a moment. “If I did, I might have no choice but to give you a revolver and some privacy. I can’t afford that. Much as I loathe the idea, you are the only officer in this entire department whom I can trust. Whatever else you are, Gordon, Fargo has convinced me you are not the spy.”

Gordon glanced at me, but there was no gratitude in his eyes.

“You fancy yourself an intelligence officer,” Buller continued. “I will tell you this much: an intelligence officer isn’t worth a box full of backsides unless he’s out in the field. So that is where you are going, all three of you.

“Professor Thomson, I cannot order you, but the Crown would be extremely grateful –”

“Of course I’ll go,” Thomson said. “I owe poor Tyndall that much. We should never have let a scientific disagreement divide us so bitterly all those years.”

“Splendid. Lest there be any misunderstandings, you are in charge of the expedition.”

“Where would you have us go, and to what purpose?” Thomson asked.

Buller looked at each of us in turn.

“Investigate the Somerton site. The police already have done so, and we have their report, but there’s nothing in it. This talk about a ‘hole in time’ is worth looking into, though. The incident at Somerton was not a unique occurrence. We received a cable from our embassy in Berlin which reports another similar detonation in southern Germany — Bavaria, actually — at precisely the same time.

“After you’ve learned what you can from the Somerton site, go to Bavaria. I’ll have a Royal Navy flier ready to take you — quickest way and no embarrassing questions from fellow passengers. Contact the Bavarian State Police. They have already agreed to cooperate. You will jointly investigate the reports of the explosion near Kempten, Bavaria, in the Allgäu Alps. Find out what happened and what role this Old Man had in the business. Follow wherever it leads, Thomson, and sort this business out.”


Out in the hallway the three of us paused for a moment, but Gordon stared straight ahead, as if Thomson and I weren’t there. He straightened his tunic and then walked away without a word.

“That lad’s carrying too many rocks in his pockets,” Thomson observed. “Tyndall was his uncle, you know. They were quite close.”

“Well, he better get his shit together or he’ll get us all killed.”

His shit together?” Thomson chuckled. “Aye, that’s one way to put it. Now, where are you staying?”

“Here I guess.”

“Nonsense. Come along to my club. We’ll have a wee bit of lunch and then see about providing you with some proper clothing.”

“That sounds okay. Some jeans, running shoes, and a couple sweat shirts and I’ll be good to go,” I said with a smile.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t sound like proper attire to me. My tailor will kit you out, though, no fear. You’ll have to look your best when we meet Lord Chillingham.”

We started down the broad stairs, and I saw the butler at the bottom holding our coats, calm and emotionless as a robot. I’d only been here a few days, but one of the things which already struck me was how people were so careful about not showing their humanity to anyone of a higher social station. I bet this butler loosened his collar and roared with laughter with his pals, tossing back a pint or two in the pub, but you would never know it to see him here, standing like a statue.

“Who’s Chillingham?” I asked Thomson. “Is he the man you said might help me?”

Lord Chillingham, and best not forget it, laddie. He won’t find you as amusing as I do. He doesn’t find anything amusing, so far as I can see. No, he’s not the man I mentioned earlier. Lord Chillingham. All the soot and smoke in the air over London — and Manchester and Birmingham are worse — is mostly from Chillingham’s foundries and mills. Ever since he bought up the patents to Henry Bessemer’s process, he’s had a stranglehold on heavy industry. He’s also the Lord Minister Overseas, the real power behind the foreign ministry, colonial affairs, and particularly military intelligence. I imagine that’s the reason the general’s so upset. Buller was Quartermaster General until yesterday, safe and sound on the Army Board. Now he’s at Chillingham’s mercy. Well, we all are now, I suppose.”

I knew at least something about British government, but I’d never heard of a Lord Minister Overseas.

“Aren’t ministers from the House of Commons? What’s with this Lord Minister thing?”

“The Common Cabinet comes from the lower house, but cabinets come and go as Parliament changes. The Lords are — more permanent. Their two ministers — Home and Overseas — well, they’re the ones to worry about.”

“In my time the House of Lords is pretty powerless,” I said.

Thomson slipped into the coat the butler held open for him and looked at me a moment before answering.

“Now, that’s a revolutionary idea,” he said. “Were it mine, I’d keep it to myself.”

“Okay. So who’s the guy who may be able to help?” I asked.

“We’re fortunate he’s even in the country, it’s only a temporary visit. He’s speaking at the Royal Society tomorrow. I’ll send my card and ask him to meet with us afterwards. A remarkable man, especially considering he’s a foreigner of quite humble origins.”

“Yeah, you have to be careful of those foreigners of humble origin,” I said.

He glanced at me to make sure he understood what I meant and then squinted as he smiled. “Aye,” he answered, “present company included. This fellow’s eccentric, of course, perhaps even a bit mad, but only a madman would take your story seriously. His theories are certainly excuse enough for a suite at Bedlam. I suspect it will take some very unconventional thinking to sort out a way to duplicate the event which brought you here.”

That, I thought, was probably an understatement. And simply reversing the event wasn’t enough. I had to figure out a way to go farther back in time, find out what had changed the course of history, undo it without making any other changes, and then get back home. Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone here that was my plan, because it involved undoing this history to restore my own, and they probably wouldn’t like that idea.

So whoever this guy was, he had better be really smart.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Nikola Tesla, although I doubt you’ve heard of him. He’s certainly a very creative thinker, but he doesn’t have the sort of organized, methodical approach likely to leave a lasting mark on the world.”


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13 Responses to The Forever Engine – Snippet 12

  1. Steve says:

    Either the divergence point is very recent, or I’m going to have some trouble with suspension of disbelief due to the same people being born despite all of the changes. First Darwin, now Tesla?

    • 4th Dimension says:

      Yeah, I know. But what is the fun in alt-history, if you can not namedrop, and have famous historical figures in unussual situations.
      I myself am clamoring for Tesla – Edison lighting cannon duel on an airship :D

      Also that namedrop was arranged with laser like precision. Right at the chapter/snippet end.

    • Robert Krawitz says:

      Not to mention Thomson himself — Lord Kelvin in OTL. And he did indeed dispute evolution on the grounds of insufficient time based on the rate of the planet cooling off.

      • Steve says:

        Thanks Robert, I don’t have the science education to have recognized lord Kelvin (temperature guy, right?)

      • Richard H says:

        Based on the physics demonstrated in the story so far, or at least the sample chapters, I’m not certain he’s not correct in this case.

      • Stanley Leghorn says:

        Apparently, this fellow is as embarrased at how poorly the calculation was done as Kelvin himself. So many assumptions, most of which he knew were far to low to be realistic, The worst of which was that NO heat was being added, including sunlight.

        • Robert Krawitz says:

          The issue, if you don’t know about radioactivity (which Kelvin wouldn’t have), is that there’s obviously heat inside the earth, to power volcanoes. If you assume that the earth has cooled as a black body radiator, you’d have to start at an impossibly high temperature for the amount of time required for life to evolve. Sunlight does not significantly affect this. For that matter, and even more seriously, you have the same problem with the sun, assuming that it’s powered by chemical combustion or gravitational collapse rather than (as we know now) hydrogen fusion, which produces millions of times more energy per unit mass of fuel.

          Fission was discovered late in his life, which answered the question about the possible age of the earth, but fusion was not discovered in his lifetime, leaving the problem of the sun unresolved.

          Kelvin’s objection was IMHO perfectly reasonable in context. Without knowing of fusion, it’s simply not possible to come up with a 5 billion year age of the sun.

          • Mike says:

            Agreed. Kelvin’s calculations were pretty accurate if the source of the energy was just gravitational collapse (turning potential energy into thermal energy). He didn’t know that fusion drives the universe. (Or at least, that’s what we think now.)

          • Stanley Leghorn says:

            He also ignored heat flow limitations, assuming the planet cooled like a superconuctor. Atmospheric insulation alone slows his equation significantly. The incomig solar radiation is not insignificant, one only has to look at Venus. Yes, he may not have known all of this, but he DID know his equation was an ABSOLUTE MINIMUM. Which he himself admitted.

  2. We seem to be missing Maxwell, though he may have died naturally by now in this time.

    If the time lines replicate, the greatest American physicist of the Second Millennium is, however alive and well. Josiah Willard Gibbs is a professor at Yale. He set down the bases and some depth in two fields, chemical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, created vectors as a mathematical tool, and (if you read his Elementary Principles very carefully) correctly predicted what topics quantum mechanics would treat, namely molecular spectra, chemical reactions/molecular structure and dynamics, and second quantization of the electromagnetic field. He didn’t say what quantum theory would predict about these, but he had all the topics on which predictions would be made down. Given that the first American spaceship was launched from Yale University (I do not know if that is mentioned in the novel) he may have had a hand in its development in this time line.

    Of course, as technology was more important in this line, it is plausible that Gibbs would have received a much larger offer from John Hopkins and gone there, where he would have had graduate students and colleagues who would have vaguely apprehended his work.

    If there is a lightning cannon, one might expect Maxwell to be involved.

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