The Forever Engine – Snippet 25

The Forever Engine – Snippet 25


October 5, 1888, Munich, Bavaria

I had no idea what a Forever Engine was, but something in those words, or perhaps in the way Thomson said them, sent a surge of adrenaline through me.

“If word of this leaks out. . .” Gordon said, and he leaned back against the wall as if exhausted, his words trailing off for a moment. Then he shook his head, his expression grim. “The colonies on Mars will go up in flames. It’s just the sort of excuse the local troublemakers have been looking for. Once that starts, heaven knows where it will all end.”

Then he stood forward again, and his eyes turned to Gabrielle.

Mademoiselle Courbiere, you must give us your word that you will not share this information with your government.”

“You are wrong, Capitaine Gordon. No part of our agreement obligates me to withhold information from my own government.”

“This goes beyond our agreement. This is a matter of the lives of thousands of innocent people on Mars.”

“Will you keep the information from your own government, Capitaine? Non? Why can your government be trusted with this information and mine not?”

Gordon was getting his steam up, so I broke in.

“Would you two just take a break for a minute? All of you seem to know what this Forever Engine thing is. I haven’t got a clue, so first somebody fill me in, and then you guys can get back to refighting the Napoleonic Wars.”

Ja, I am wondering the same thing,” Wolfenbach said.

Gordon glared at Gabrielle for a moment longer, and then nodded. Gabrielle shrugged.

“Yes, of course, laddie, you’ve no way of knowing, nor is it widely known in general,” Thomson said. “It’s not a secret, of course, just rather arcane. Forever Engine is the translation of an old Martian term — Makach Khadeek in Son-Gaaryani, although there are similar versions in all the Martian tongues. Martians agree on very little, Jack, but they are unanimous in their belief that the Makach Khadeek, the Forever Engine, is a device of unspeakable blasphemy.”

“You mean this is a religious thing?” I asked.

“Not precisely. Or rather, many religious prohibitions in all cultures have a survivalist foundation. In the case of the Makach Khadeek, the prohibition is no doubt based on the distorted remnants of earlier scientific understanding, from before Martian civilization went into decline.

“I should start by explaining the device itself. Depending on the orientation of its grain, which appears to follow an internal energetic field in the wood we do not yet understand — depending on the orientation of that grain from tangent, a length of liftwood provides either greater or lesser repulsion from a gravitational mass. This much you already know.

“Now imagine a waterwheel, but with liftwood planks in place of the paddles.”

“Like blades,” I said, “with one edge facing in and one out.”

“Good lad. Now suppose you add something to your wheel. Suppose you add a clever but mathematically very simple system of gears to the attachment points of the liftwood panels, gears which control the orientation of those panels, and tie that orientation to the position of the panels on the wheel. This orients them so that all of the panels on one side generate a repulsive force but those on the other side are neutral. The repulsive force ‘lifts’ one side of the wheel but not the other. This makes the wheel turn. As the panels come around, the gear mechanism keeps them turned in such a way that they always are neutral on one side of the wheel and repulsive on the other.”

“Okay, I get it,” I said. “The wheel goes round and round forever. A Forever Engine. Good name.”

No, wait . . .

“Tesla has made a perpetual motion machine? That’s crazy. There’s no such thing, can’t be, even in a place as screwy as this. I took high school physics. The universe is the universe. There’s only so much stuff in it, whatever that stuff is and however it interacts. You still have conservation of matter and energy.”

“And momentum,” Thomson added. “Do not forget momentum, Jack. You are perfectly correct. A perpetual motion machine is impossible, in the sense it is normally understood, for the very reason you set forth: conservation of matter, energy, and momentum. But a Forever Engine is not a true perpetual motion machine for two reasons.

“First, liftwood simply does not remain active forever. It deteriorates over time, not only in a physical sense, like ordinary wood, but also in terms of its repulsive properties. So a Forever Engine will eventually run down simply from exhaustion of the field characteristics of its lifters.

“But more importantly, the Forever Engine does not create energy from nothing. I now believe, based on what you told me in London, that liftwood redistributes momentum in a system. Normally the gross momentum in the system would remain constant overall. A flier takes off, but later it lands. Even while aloft, the center of mass of the planet and the flyer moves infinitesimally, but their combined momentum within the solar system remains unchanged. You see?”

“I think so.”

“Good. But this device actually allows its maker to convert momentum to work energy. In this case, Tesla is charging his giant Leyden jar with electricity generated from that momentum. He gains his energy at the price of momentum.”

“What momentum?” I asked.

“The Earth’s orbital momentum. We believe Mars was originally farther from the sun than its current orbit. The use of Forever Engines as power-generating devices slowed its orbit and caused it to move closer to the sun, began its warming and the subsequent decline of its civilization. That much, I believe, is now clear. And the Martians must have eventually understood it as well.”

There was a moment of silence around the chart table as everyone thought that over. Well, everyone but me. How restless the natives were on Mars wasn’t my problem.

“That still leaves us with the question of what we plan to do once we get there,” I said. Thomson looked up at me and then over to Captain Gordon. Gordon looked around the circle of faces a moment before realizing the call was his.

“Well — I should think that much was clear. Learn what we can about his operation.”

Wolfenbach shifted his weight and nearly knocked an inkwell from a side table behind him. Thomson scratched his beard and then shook his head.

“Daunting as I find the prospect, I am afraid our charge is rather more than simply gathering facts. General Buller expects us to deal with the problem, and it becomes clear Tesla has potentially enormous power at his disposal. Whether these incidents which brought us Professor Fargo were entirely Tesla’s doing or not, he clearly has some scheme in train. I cannot think it anything but reckless to let him play out that scheme uninterrupted. No, I fear our mission must now be to penetrate his lair and either capture or kill the villain.”

Well, that was their plan. Mine was going to have to have some embellishments.


Eat, drink, and be merry, or so Ecclesiastes recommends. That night it seemed like pretty good advice, at least the heavy drinking part.

Gabrielle left us to rejoin “Renfrew,” and within minutes Gordon left as well, his sullen glare keeping the revelers at arms’ length, which that evening spoke volumes about the broadcast power of his personality. Every time Thomson or I turned around, someone offered, “ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!” — a toast to good fellowship — and they meant it. Hard not to drink to that.

So we ate Thüringer brats and Steckerlfisch — really delicious little fish grilled on a stick — washed down with too many steins of Märzenbier. The Märzenbier packed a punch, more like malt liquor, and, before we saw it coming, Thomson and I were both arm in arm, one stumble away from knee-crawling drunk.

In a more lucid moment, I noticed the normally cheerful Thomson increasingly drifting into melancholy. We sat on a low stone wall slightly out of the main traffic pattern and nursed our beer for a while.

“What’s eating you, Professor?”

“Tyndall haunts me. We were friends, you know, before all this Darwin business. As God’s my witness, I wish I’d never heard Darwin’s name!”

I remembered something from back in London, maybe from Buller’s office, something about disproving Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The details were fuzzy.

“Gotta stick by your guns,” I said, but just to make him feel better.

“Magnetism is an interest of mine, you know that. But temperature is my true passion. Heating, cooling, that’s the history of the cosmos, laddie. Everything else is . . . side effects. No one knows heating and cooling as I do. Not half a dozen men can even understand the equations I’ve derived to model the cooling of the Earth.”

“Well, there you go,” I said, but he shook his head.

“You don’t understand. Temperature — it’s all I’ve got. It’s my legacy, and . . . I made an error.”

“An error?”

“Aye, an error in computation. The Earth is older than my calculations, old enough . . . perhaps . . . I don’t know. But no one’s noticed the mistake yet, even though it’s been published for over a decade. Who would think to double-check Billie Thomson’s sums on something that important, on something about temperature? No one but me.”

He stared down at his beer stein. No wonder he felt haunted by Tyndall’s ghost.

“Well, your secret’s safe with me, pal,” I said, and patted his back.

He turned and looked at me, eyes empty and hopeless.


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23 Responses to The Forever Engine – Snippet 25

  1. “…convert linear momentum to energy…”

    Simply violating energy conservation is less radical by a lot, but no sillier than faster than light travel.

    It is still an excellent story.

    I look forward to hearing how an aether flier gets up to an altitude where its aether propeller does anything.

    • Escape Zeppelin says:

      I noticed that too. If the lift wood is only available on mars then how did the first spaceship get enough altitude to allow its aether propeller to work? Giant high altitude balloons? Even if the trip only took a week each way the amount of food, water, equipment, oxygen, and misc supplies would weigh tons and the ship itself is going to be built of heavy steel. And if you manage to get off Earth, how do you land on Mars and how do you get out of the Martian atmosphere to get the propeller working again?

      I think I’m over thinking this.

    • Stanley Leghorn says:

      I am sorry, but this last bit broke my suspension of Disbelief. Mars FARTHER out allowed the civilization to develop and it’s drift inwards caused it to collapse? Liftwood repels the particles that transfer the gravitic energy that holds matter together and does so in relation to the area exposed to the gravity source. That is my explanation as to why liftwood and it’s synthetic version Cavorite work and makes WAY more Pseudo-sense than momentum catchers.
      OTOH, the liftwood turbine WOULD modify the orbit of the planet over time because it is pushing on the planet constantly. A small push would upset the rotation if continued over a long enough time.

  2. Robert H. Woodman says:

    I just find myself repeatedly surprised that Fargo doesn’t know who William Thomson is or what his legacy is.

    • Drak Bibliophile says:

      Well, I don’t know the name “William Thomson” but I do know “Lord Kelvin”.

      • Robert H. Woodman says:

        Maybe it’s just me. I enjoy reading about the history of science, so things like “William Thomson” = “Lord Kelvin” just stick in my mind.

        • Drak Bibliophile says:

          It is just you. [Wink]

          Seriously, to me it was a realistic gap in Fargo’s knowledge. To somebody like you, it is a different matter. [Smile]

          • Randomiser says:

            Well I spotted it, but since I studied Physics at Glasgow U once upon a time I have an unfair advantage. It’s just a nice piece of dramatic irony – an easter egg, if you like. I think it’s perfect!y plausible for an American ANE historian not to recognize the name.

  3. On a different note, will Gabrielle return to Baron Renfrew, or will she discover he has taken up with a Bavarian Maedchen and return, in order to escort Thomson and our hero to their rooms, and see they are safely tucked into their beds like the little boys they are currently resembling?

  4. Cobbler says:

    Why would your anti-gravity wheel steel momentum from the planet’s orbit? I would expect it to steal from the locally available force, rotation. Instead of moving closer to the sun it would make days and nights longer.

    General Buller expects us to deal with the problem… Is the man mad? “We need someone to enter the enemy’s secure and well guarded stronghold and end the menace. Let’s see…should we send a commando team? Should we send paratroopers? Should we send the damned cavalry? Nonsense! We’ll send an elderly physicist, a historian from God knows where, and a known coward.” How did these idiots win an empire in the first place?

    In our time line, at this date, radioactivity hadn’t been discovered. Radioactivity has a little to do with calculating the cooling rate of the earth. Why hasn’t Fargo spilled the beans? It’s been a while since Fargo learned that Thompson thought he had disproved Darwin.

  5. Fargo likely has no idea why the earth’s core stays warm. He is more likely to bring up solar heating and the greenhouse effect, which is about to be discovered by Arrhenius, at least on our time line.

    • Stanley Leghorn says:

      Even in high school I heard about radioactive heating of the core. And why should Fargo go on about atomic weapons? If either side had had them during WW1, northern France would be a radioactive waste land along with selected parts Germany or England, depending on who developed it. These people have no morales when it comes to other people. This IS the time of racial superiority and the mass butchery of the Congo. The Sepoy mutiny was in response to similar behavior by the Brits in India, and the suppression was similar to what the Nazi or Soviet governments did to pacify areas, They were only “wogs” or “fuzzy-wuzzies” after all. Not real people. This is the reality of the late 1800’s, which is swept under the carpet by most educational systems. ESPECIALLY the US and the conditions on the Reservations and the treatment of Blacks at the hands of “The SOUTH Shall RISE Again” southerners. Steamcon is a Victorian/Steampunk convention and last year its theme was “Victorian era Monsters” and one fellow wore a pseudo-British costume with a sword thru a world globe. If there is constant unrest in your empire, maybe there is a REASON for it?

      • Cobbler says:

        Fargo could talk about radioactivity without mentioning atomic weapons.

        Europeans were willing to accept colonialism in general. In this they were no different than any other conquering peoples.

        To be fair, when word got out about conditions in the Congo Free State—which went beyond tyranny into systematic genocide—public outrage forced a change. In our time line that only happened two decades from the setting of this story.

  6. Buller had no idea there was an enemy stronghold. Also, these are the people who fought the Crimean War (our time line) eviscerating any belief that the English Army was even marginally effective in warfare, thus wrecking UK foreign policy, which was based on having the most effective army in Europe. After all, it beat Napoleon.

    • Cobbler says:

      Butler knew The Old Mountain Assassin was targeting England’s best minds for murder. Sending one of England’s best minds—with no training or qualifications for the job—on a Forlorn Hope is either crazy or treason.

      I doubt that the British army was much worse in the Crimea than it was during the Napoleonic wars. The difference was in the quality and quantity of information reaching England. The telegraph, photographs, and Florence Nightingale made the difference. Much of home front discontent was about the poor quality support for the troops. And the idiotic political and military leadership. Their famous charge wasn’t the Light Brigade’s blunder. Blame Raglan and Cardigan.

      In the same time frame, Tommy Atkins saved India during the Sepoy Munity. The army can’t have been a total disaster.

      Besides, even a poor quality military has a better chance here than civilian cannon fodder.

  7. The British Army that beat Wellington was viewed at the time as being the most powerful in Europe. Crimea showed that it had ceased to be competent.

    However, the science here is as solid as the science in a Weber novel, just with a different list of impossibilities. The tale is certainly a good read. So I would say Chadwick is doing a fine job.

    News that someone is killing your physicists, late 19th century, is properly greeted with complete bafflement, since these people are not doing anything important.
    Thomson is being sent, on board a warship, to inspect an explosion site. That’s quite reasonable.

  8. I do not have the dates of Thomson’s first and second marriages at hand, so Gabrielle might also pursue the English physicist. It would certainly be a plot twist that would surprise some readers.

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