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 â€“ 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 â€“ if necessary â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ when was Jack the Ripper running around? â€“ 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 â€“ 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.