The Forever Engine – Snippet 11
September 24, 1888, London, England
The next morning an older maid woke me up with tea — hot for a change — some crisp toast held upright in a silver toast rack, and the news that I was wanted downstairs as soon as I could dress. I’m not sure why, but a hot cup of tea, and the thought of someone — even assholes — waiting for me, restored my confidence.
“Outrageous! Do you hear me? It is bloody outrageous, and I will not bloody have it. I will not!!”
I paused in the doorway, glanced around the office, and saw three red-faced junior officers at rigid attention — with Gordon the reddest of them all — in front of the ranting older officer. I recognized the two others with Gordon as the men I had taken for detectives the day before. Thomson sat in a chair in the corner, puffing on his pipe and lost in thought. He noticed me at the door and took the pipe from his mouth to wave me in.
The tall, stout officer turned his ferocious glare on me. His eyes narrowed and his gray moustache bristled like the whiskers on a walrus.
“So, the mysterious Mr. Fargo joins us. Because of you they said my ‘talents’ were needed here, in the Intelligence Department. They’re bringing that doddering old fool Baker back from India to give him my seat on the Army Board. That was Wood’s handiwork, I’ll wager. Well damn Wood, damn the Board, damn Rossbank for getting himself killed, and damn all of these fools for not dying in place of him!”
“Don’t forget to damn me,” I said.
“Damn you, sir!”
“Fargo, allow me to introduce the new director of military intelligence,” Thomson said from his chair. “Major General Sir Redvers Buller, VC. General, as you correctly deduced, this is Professor James Fargo of the University of Chicago.”
VC after his name meant Buller had the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for heroism, the equivalent of our Medal of Honor.
“University of Chicago?” Buller said. “Never heard of it.”
“Be patient,” I answered. “It wasn’t founded until 1890, but we managed to make a name for ourselves fairly quickly. Redvers. Do your friends call you ‘Red’?”
“Damn you, sir, they do not. Americans must prize a particularly thick sort of professor. Just what did you intend by taking on two armed assailants?”
“I intended not to go with them.”
“Damned foolish, if you ask me,” he said.
“Well, you guys have been so nice to me, I couldn’t bear to leave.”
“‘Better the enemy you know’ was more likely your motive,” Buller muttered.
There was more than a little truth to that.
“I think this ‘Old Man’ may be the only one who can get me back to my time,” I said. “I want to have a nice long talk with him about that, but not as his prisoner. So I’m going to need some help.”
Buller stood there for a moment and stared at me.
“Indeed,” he said finally. “And you expect us to provide that help?”
“Yup. You want him, and I appear to be the key to getting him, or at least bringing him out into the open. His henchman said as much. So you need me for bait, and I need you for muscle. It’s a match made in heaven.”
Buller snorted and looked to Thomson, who simply raised his eyebrows in reply.
“And I suppose I’m to trust you because you turned on your captors,” Buller said. “But you did not raise a finger until after Tyndall and Rossbank were dead. How do I know the entire episode wasn’t staged just to put you in our good graces?”
“You’re director of military intelligence. In my time I’d know what that means. Here, not so much. Is this just another assignment, or have you actually done this stuff before?”
“‘Done this stuff before?’ Listen to this fellow, Thomson. You actually believe he is a professor of anything? He talks like a guttersnipe.”
“Well, he is American,” Thomson answered.
“Hummph. I was chief of intelligence in the Ashanti campaign and again in the Sudan in ’82, so, yes, I have ‘done this stuff’ before. What of it?”
“You’d give a lot to have a source inside the highest level of your enemy’s counsels, right? Sure you would,” I said. “But once you had it, would you risk it just to get a second one?”
“What are you insinuating, Fargo?” Gordon demanded.
Buller turned on him.
“Found your voice, have you, Captain? He is insinuating nothing; he is stating the obvious. We already have a viper in our midst. How else could they have found out about both Fargo and the artifact? As I’d say you were the principal suspect, your outburst is hardly surprising.”
“Yes, you,” Buller answered. “I must say, Gordon, for a serving officer that was a remarkably unconvincing display of marksmanship. You put pistol bullets all over the place, missed almost everything you aimed at, but your very first shot hit the henchman square in the back. Or should I say square in the body armor?”
The color drained from Gordon’s face, and he shook his head.
“No, sir. It wasn’t like that!”
“No, perhaps not,” Buller continued. “Perhaps that shot was as wild as all the rest. Were you really aiming for Fargo, but couldn’t hit him any better than anything else?”
“No, sir. I swear it, upon my honor!”
“If, as I suspect, you are a damned spy, you have no honor, sir, so your oath is hardly reassuring.”
Enjoyable as it was to watch Gordon getting roasted over a fire — and it really was — I knew I had to step in before this careened out of control.
“No, it can’t be Gordon,” I said.
General Buller’s eyebrows went up a little in surprise, and for the first time he looked at me with genuine interest. I learned something about him right then. Everything he’d done up until then had been a deliberate performance, and everything he’d seen and heard had been exactly what he expected, until I came to Gordon’s defense.
“Go on,” he ordered.
“You can fake voluntary reactions, but not involuntary ones. He soiled himself. It’s a common but completely involuntary response to sudden danger. He was as surprised as the rest of us.”
“You didn’t soil yourself,” Buller observed.
“I knew I was in for a long and stressful day, maybe even torture, so I took a tactical dump on the train right before we got to London.”
“And what, pray tell, is a tactical dump?” he demanded.
I told him.
Thomson laughed, and one of the young officers snickered, which made Buller frown all the more fiercely.
“You never filled your trousers in combat, General?” I asked.
His scowl grew even darker and his face reddened.
“Different matter altogether,” he snapped. “Water’s always bad on campaign; a soldier learns to live with dysentery. Not the same thing at all.”
“No, of course not,” I said.
“Damn you, Fargo. How do you explain his convenient marksmanship? Hasn’t it occurred to you he may have been trying to kill you?”
“Yeah, but I decided against it. Use your head, General. If he works for a guy who wants to ‘collect’ me, whatever the hell that means, why would he want to kill me? No, his shooting makes perfect sense. You’ve been in tough combat before or you wouldn’t have a Victoria Cross, so think about it.
“His stress level was through the ceiling, so his hands shook, and he’d lost fine-detail resolution in his vision. He couldn’t see the sight on the end of his pistol. His first shot was pure muscle memory; he raised his hand, and it automatically pointed where his eyes were looking. After that he started thinking about it, trying to aim, and so he put bullets all over the place.”
Buller studied me carefully for a few seconds, and I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he thought it over. He’d probably never heard it explained that way before, but if he really had seen a lot of combat, it would make sense.
“Loss of fine-vision resolution, involuntary responses, muscle memory — how do you know all this?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you some day. But right now you’ve got a more pressing problem, don’t you?”
“Yes, the spy. Well, that’s thin soup, Fargo, but it’s the only soup we have, I’m afraid. Damned if I’m certain why, but I think you’re right. Blast you, Gordon! My life would be a deal easier if you were guilty.”
Buller waved the three rigid officers to ease and sat down behind the large wooden desk. I found a chair.
“I’m a fair suspect myself, I suppose,” Thomson said. “I knew all the details concerning Fargo’s story, and I was on bad terms with Tyndall and the other X Club members.”
The same thing had already occurred to me. I liked Thomson, but that didn’t change the facts.
Buller opened a folder on his desk and studied its contents, frowning in thought.
“Your argument with the X Club was public, Professor, but I hardly consider it a motive for these killings. Your position is rather sensible, if you ask me. All this Origins of Species nonsense the X Club members spouted — I knew my grandfather, by God, and he was no monkey.”
Across the desk I saw Gordon’s face tighten, but he said nothing. Buller turned to me.
“Professor Thomson disproved all that rubbish, you know, but the X Club johnnies still stuck with it. Rather thick of them, if you ask me. Not to speak ill of the dead, of course.”
“Disproved it?” I asked.
Thomson shifted uncomfortably in his chair and cast a guilty look at Gordon.
“I . . . ah . . . calculated the age of the Earth based on its internal temperature and the rate of cooling of its component elements. It is not old enough for the processes Mr. Darwin outlines to have played out . . . at least not in the fashion he describes.”
He looked down and away when he was finished. Maybe he felt uncomfortable bringing up a disagreement with the late lamented Tyndall.
“Right, but that’s hardly a motive for you to go around killing them,” Buller went on. “Rather the other way, I should think. Between Sir Edward’s staff and this department, a dozen men knew or could have known of Fargo and his story. Thomson, did Sir Edward ask you to consult on the Vickers lightning-cannon project?”