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