The Forever Engine – Snippet 20


October 4, 1888, Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,

Aloft over Bavaria

When we reboarded Intrepid the next morning and Captain Harding learned our party now included a representative of the DCRG, he did not react well. After a number of loud and intemperate words, Gabrielle Courbiere, looking every bit as lovely as I remembered from the previous evening, but that day wearing a dark purple riding habit, found herself installed in the crew’s mess hall with an armed Marine guard at the door for company. She was not a prisoner, certainly not, not by any means. She was simply under no circumstances to leave the mess hall. About an hour after we were airborne, Thomson and I looked in on her. Gordon sniffed at the idea but came along anyway.

We found her enjoying tea served in a white porcelain navy mug. When we sat at her table, she raised her hand and called the mess steward.

“Jerome, would it be a trouble to bring my friends some tea? Ah, bien. Merci, Jerome.” She smiled at him as he brought our mugs, and he floated back to the galley, soaring on the thermals of that smile. Give her a week and she’d be running the ship.

“Lass, I appreciate your assistance in this,” Thomson said once we’d sipped our tea and settled back. “But I have to wonder why. What is your official charge with respect to our mission?”

“None,” she said. “Officially I am not here. There would be much discord in the Chamber of Deputies were it known the DCRG was cooperating with British military intelligence. The same with the House of Commons, n’est-cepas? But my immediate superiors ask me to do this thing, and I say oui.”

“Just out of the goodness of their hearts?” Gordon demanded. “I’ve followed the Old Man’s campaign of assassinations and terror, and I’ve never heard of any of his attacks being directed at France.”

“That is true,” Gabrielle answered. “The majority of them have been in Great Britain, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. There have also been four assassinations in Turkey, two each in Italy and Bulgaria, and single assassinations in five other European countries. Those are Greece, Wallachia –”

“Yes, yes.” Gordon cut her off. “I know all that. The point is, none in France. So what interest does your agency have in this matter?”

“Your country and Germany attempt to isolate us,” she said. “Well, not the entire countries. We have many friends in both places, but Lord Salisbury’s government in your country and Chancellor Bismarck’s in Germany oppose us. Very well. So now we reach out to Austria-Hungary and Turkey as friends. The attacks against them, while we remain unattacked, complicate this friendship. I am to help uncomplicated it.”

Well, that was clear enough. Apparently the Commune was as capable of realpolitik as the next guy.

“You might have uncomplicated it sooner if you’d thought to tell us Tesla was behind all this,” Gordon said. “He was just in England a week past. We could have arrested him and been done with it.”

“I would have been very surprised,” Gabrielle answered. “For all your enthusiasm, your department is not very successful at making the arrest.”

“What are you talking about?” Gordon demanded.

“Two years ago, through private channels, we tell your department we know who killed Sir Henry Bessemer. Do you make the arrest? Non. You tell this English gentleman the French are attempting to slander him and he should retain the solicitor. Instead he disappears. Ah! Now we are more careful what we tell you.”

“A different matter altogether. Tesla is hardly a gentleman,” Gordon said.

“It is hard to know who is, n’est-cepas? Tell me, Capitaine Gordon, why would Lord Chillingham, the man who amassed his second fortune by purchasing the patents to the Bessemer process from the heirs of the murdered inventor, have cause to allow the murderer to disappear? Hmm? Can you think of a reason?”

“I won’t dignify that with an answer,” he said and turned away.

Gabrielle shrugged and sipped her tea.

“I have a question that’s been bothering me, Mademoiselle,” I said. “Maybe you can help. This Old Man of the Mountain apparently has an extensive network of agents and sympathizers and has been assassinating people all over Europe. Why? What does he want?”

“What difference does it make what he wants?” Gordon demanded. “He’s a madman.”

Gabrielle frowned at that, but I answered before she could. “It matters for two reasons. First, knowing what he’s after may help us anticipate his next moves. Second, I talked to one of his guys. You did, too, Gordon. That fellow Grover was someone who believed in something. Understand the beliefs, or goals, which Tesla shares with his followers and we have an insight into his operation.” Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

Oui, this is so. He adheres to the revolutionary syndicalist movement, although his methods are so violent he is no longer embraced by the former leaders of that movement.”

“Former leaders?” I asked.

“Since the Association Internationale des Travailleurs disbanded in 1871, following the success of the Commune in France, there has been no one centrally organized international movement. Some syndicalists centered their efforts in France and the surrounding countries. I know many of those organizers, of course. But those who reject the state as the inevitable enemy of workers followed Mikhail Bakunin.”

“Yeah, I know something about Bakunin,” I said. “Not exactly a happy guy, as I recall.”

She looked puzzled, as if wondering what his happiness had to do with anything.

“I never met him,” she said, “but he does not smile in his photographs. Since his death twelve years ago, there can hardly be named a single dominant leader of the movement. Le Vieil Homme de Montagne emerges as perhaps the most influential of those who see violence as a necessary tactic to achieve their ends. He perhaps has the ties to the German labor movement through Wilhelm Liebknecht. Liebknecht denies this, of course.”

She paused to sip her tea and frowned in thought. I had the impression she was assessing the likelihood of Liebknecht’s denial being truthful, and that she had made a similar assessment many times and had never been completely satisfied with the result. Absorbed as she was by her thoughts, I sensed she had, for the moment, become oblivious to the world around her, unaware we were even there, and it made me feel like a voyeur looking at her, as if I spied on her through a bedroom window. She looked up at me, and I felt my ears flush, but how much from embarrassment and how much from arousal I couldn’t say.

“He also has contacts to the more radical elements of the British trade unionist movement,” she continued, “through Johann Eccarius, who also broke with the Commune.”

“Eccarius?” Gordon put in. “You’re sure of that?”

Oui, but I must tell you we have no proof that Monsieur Eccarius is an active part of his network of agents. I am sorry. I know how enamored you are of arrests.”

I saw a sparkle of humor in her eyes then, and Gordon sat back with a scowl.

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “But what are their ends?”

“Oh. An end to state and private ownership of the means of production. Its replacement with syndicats, unions of workers who produce goods to meet needs, not to enrich owners. Trade negotiation directly between syndicats rather than between states.” She shrugged.

“So,” I said, “a seeker after utopia.”

Oui, I believe so. His methods are objectionable but his ends well-intentioned, n’est-cepas?”

“Non, ce n’est pas ainsi,” I answered, and her eyebrows rose slightly in surprise. “L’idée là sont des forces naturelles qui animent le monde —” I began but glanced at Thomson and Gordon and saw their faces blank with incomprehension.

“The idea there are natural forces,” I began again in English, “which drive the world toward peace and harmony and plenty, and the only things standing in the way of that perfect world are wrongheaded obstructionists — that thinking always ends in blood, and not much else.”

“You do not believe the world can be improved?” Gabrielle asked.

“Sure I do. I just don’t think it can be perfected. I think the world gets better by affirmative works. It doesn’t get better on its own by just killing bad people, but that’s what utopianists always come down to. Like most extreme religious movements end up in crusades or jihads or witch burnings. Just kill enough heretics or infidels and God’s plan will succeed.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Le Vieil Homme de Montagne is not a man religious.”

“No, but all those guys have blind faith in something — an unshakable belief in whatever magic mechanism they think drives the world, whether it’s God’s will, dialectical materialism, racial superiority, or the free market. This Tesla guy’s no different. What’s his plan? Murder obstructionists. If he just kills enough Tyndalls and Rossbanks, he figures the syndicalist worker’s paradise will burst into glorious bloom on its own. It’s bullshit.”

“I have to agree with the lad,” Thomson said, “if not his choice of language. It doesn’t seem like a very constructive program by itself.”