The Forever Engine – Snippet 15



October 2, 1888, Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,

Aloft Over the English Channel

“Lift-wood?” I asked. “You mean to tell me this thing is held up by wood?”

“I assure you, laddie, I was as surprised your time does not have it as you are that ours does,” Thomson answered.

We stood inside the massive lower hull of the flyer, looking down at row upon row of broad, thin wooden slats, arranged like louvers in a door.

“Go ahead and touch them,” he told me. “They’re real enough. Only touch the top surfaces, though, unless you want the skin stripped off your fingers.”

I knelt on the catwalk, reached out, and ran my fingers lightly along an upper edge.

“Are they always so hot?”

“No. As we ascend, their temperature increases. We don’t know why the temperature rises when they climb and drops as they descend, but my theory is it has to do with potential energy. A good trimsman keeps the climb shallow enough to avoid thermal distortion. The angle of the plane of the wood with respect to the center of mass of the world determines the amplitude of lift.”

I sat on the catwalk, leaned my back against one of the steel ribs of the hull, and looked at the rows of louvers, their positions controlled by an elaborate array of brass and steel gears and thin control cables running up to and through the overhead. As I watched, the louvers adjusted slightly, two here, five over there, keeping the flyer in trim.

Thomson and the others had figured out I was from a different future right away, but they’d done a good job of keeping it to themselves. It had been obvious to them once I talked about our “amazing” space-exploration program, which had finally put an unmanned rover on Mars in the twenty-first century. That’s why he hadn’t wanted me to tell Tesla about our space program — it would have let him in on the secret as well. Men from this world had been visiting Mars since 1870!

And they had liftwood. It grew on Mars.

“Back at the hospital I felt a downdraft when one of these things went over. I thought maybe it had big fans inside or something. Instead it’s got these wood slats, but when we took off I noticed a lot of wind underneath. So how do these things work?”

“There is some controversy over that. The panels clearly do not block the effects of gravity. Since there are lifting panels between us and the ground, we would not feel the gravitational pull of the Earth below us, or would feel it with reduced effect. Nevertheless, we clearly do feel it.

“The accepted explanation is that the louvers exert a repulsive force on whatever they come in contact with, but only do so parallel to the axis of strongest proximate gravitational attraction. The mechanism of this repulsion, and the source of the energy which produces it, remains a mystery, but it is one to which I believe you may have provided the answer.”

“Me?” I said. “What does time travel have to do with it?”

“Not time travel,” he answered, “but rather your explanation of matter in terms of small particles, particularly those — what are they called? Bosons? Those bosons which carry force and are exchanged.

“The difficulty with the standard explanation of liftwood’s function is that it seems to allow for violation of conservation of matter, energy, and momentum. If you float something heavy and then drop it, you generate a good deal of kinetic energy at the impact point, and appear to do so for free.”

“Nothing’s free,” I said.

“Quite right, and there is some historical evidence from Mars’s past that in fact the entire momentum of the system is preserved. I now believe that liftwood does not actually repel matter which comes in contact with it, but rather exchanges momentum with it.”

“What momentum? The air isn’t moving.”

“Of course it is,” he said. “It is spinning around the Earth’s axis and hurtling through space as the Earth revolves around the sun. Each particle of air has enormous momentum. What remains a puzzle is why, or how, liftwood is able to selectively borrow the momentum parallel to the pull of gravity, but organic constructs are extraordinarily sophisticated. We cannot even begin to explain how a chameleon’s skin can so quickly react to its surroundings and duplicate them as a form of visual camouflage. Your time has extraordinarily advanced computing machines. Do you have one as quick, sophisticated, and compact as the brain of a seagull?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“No, and mind you a seagull is not a particularly intelligent bird.”

I looked back at the rows of louvers. They vibrated softly, in tension between gravity and the restraints of the gears holding them in position.

No, not gravity — momentum?

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “This place gives me the willies.”

We made our way through the doorway, back out into the rhythmic clatter and bustle of the engine room, and I felt better right away. I was tired of complicated men and impossible science. I paused and took a good long look, breathed in the steamy smell of oil and hot metal. Here were men dirty and sweaty from work, real work — lubricating the big reciprocating engines, fine-tuning a dozen different-sized valves on the steam lines, shoveling coal into the hungry boilers, shouting to be heard over the pounding beat of the flyer’s heart. They worked with confidence and economy of motion — a well-practiced team. I was nearly overcome by a desire to be part of that team, to take off my shirt and just start shoveling coal.

“Do you mind, lad? I’m starting to melt,” Thomson said.


Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid was damned impressive. I’d been on the old cruiser Olympia, Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, and Intrepid reminded me of her. She had a broad, shallow hull. A narrow superstructure, topped by the wheelhouse, ran most of the way along the upper surface, all dark iron, steel, and polished brass, along with bleached white wooden decks and rich varnished interior woodwork. The flyer bristled with guns. One large steel turret dominated the main deck forward and another crowned the stern superstructure. More guns were mounted to fire broadside from the superstructure, and a sort of sideways turret on each side of the deck mounted another gun each. They called those sponsons. They could fire up and down as well as to the sides.

A small housing below the hull held the ship’s compass. It had to be below the hull because the liftwood interfered with it. It didn’t stop it from working, it just made it slow to change, like a gyroscope. Later, as we leaned on the brass railing and watched the distant clouds drift by, I asked Thomson how that squared with his new theory of how liftwood worked.

“I’m not certain,” Thomson said, “and if I know anything, I should know that. I designed that compass, the one in use in every Royal Navy vessel. It is not simply a navigational aid, it is also a precision scientific instrument. The navy has ships all over the world and they’ve been mapping the magnetosphere since — well, the 1830s, as I recall. Still are. This cruiser’s taking magnetic readings all along its course.”

“Since the 1830s? And you’re not done yet?”

“The magnetosphere is not absolutely stable, you know, laddie. The north and south magnetic poles drift over time, and there are other anomalies worth mapping. For the last year we’ve noticed a very slight weakening in the electromagnetic field. That’s the main reason the Royal Navy adopted my compass; it’s the most accurate and sensitive navigational instrument the service has ever had.”

“If you do say so yourself,” I said.

He smiled but I saw sadness there as well.

“Yes, you’re right. It is a very good compass, but still — just a compass. As I grow older, most of my work seems little more than tinkering: the transatlantic cable, the adjustable compass — simply toys by your day, I imagine. I wonder if I’ve done anything which will be remembered once I’m gone. Tell the truth — you’ve never heard my name, have you?”

“Nineteenth century science isn’t my field,” I said.

“Yet you knew of Edison.”

“He’s American — hometown boy makes good.”

“And Hertz?”

“They named radio waves after him. A car rental company, too.”

But the truth was, I knew a half-dozen or more scientists from about this time: Edison, Hertz, Faraday, Marconi, Kelvin, Babbage, Darwin, Planck, Tesla, of course — but not Thomson.

“Now Tyndall — there’s a scientist who’s left his mark on the world,” Thomson said.

I’d never heard of Tyndall, either, but I didn’t think that would make Thomson feel any better about his life. Besides, I had problems of my own.

I’d found out how the South won its independence: Lincoln had died in 1862 from typhoid fever. It made my heart ache again just standing there thinking about it. Everyone thinks strategy is all about generals, but it’s more about the men who stand behind them. Hamlin, his vice president, apparently just didn’t have what it took to get the job done, so the war effort faltered. McClellan won the election in ’64 and made peace. That’s how the South won — not anything they’d done, just some microscopic organism.

Typhoid fever. Son of a bitch.

In the midst of the post-war malaise which gripped the North, a young inventor named Edison heard a lecture on the luminiferous aether and decided America needed a new challenge, a new frontier to re-spark its spirit of purpose and adventure. A year of obsessive-compulsive experimentation later and he had a working aether propeller. So far so good. The problem was, when he got to Mars, there was a breathable atmosphere and life.

“Yes, there’s a troubling difference,” Thomson had said when he told me all this other stuff. “Mars has very small polar caps, but they are slowly growing, have been for several centuries as near as we can tell. I actually believe that is at the root of the collapse of the great civilizations there, the gradual cooling and drying of the world. It’s not just its seas which have disappeared. It’s also losing its cloud cover. I suspect that kept the world warm, rather like a greenhouse.”

That was about the first scientific thing I’d heard here which made much sense. I knew a little about our own Mars expedition plans. They included some long-term terraforming involving melting the polar caps, which were mostly CO2, to release the greenhouse gases, get the planet warming, and cook an atmosphere from Mars’s own frozen gases and the moisture locked in the soil. I wondered what it would have taken to do that naturally a couple billion years earlier, long enough for life to have evolved. A really big meteor strike at the pole? Sure, that would probably do it.

The problem was, now I was not looking at “fixing” a change in history as recent as the Roman emperor Galba. Now I had to figure out how to rearrange the solar system. Well, somebody apparently did it, so somebody could undo it. Maybe I was that somebody.

Yeah, maybe.

The sky stretched before us seemingly to infinity, dusted with a handful of clouds ahead and above us, and a wispy, uneven floor below. Through breaks in the clouds I could still see the blue-gray water of the English Channel and the approaching green outline of the Belgian coast. By then the sun was low in the sky behind us, the deck dark in the shadow of the hull, the clouds below us turned from white to pale orange, with dark, well-defined shadows and pink highlights.

This was real. I could never dream this sunset, and I felt tears run down my face.

“What is it, lad?”

For a moment I couldn’t even find my voice. Thomson put his hand on my shoulder.

“My daughter doesn’t even exist here,” I whispered. “How can it be this beautiful?”