The Forever Engine – Snippet 23
“It’s a SchÃ¼tzenpanzer Puma, the standard infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr — the German army in my time,” I explained to Thomson, Gordon, Gabrielle, and Inspector Wolfenbach of the Bavarian Stadtpolizei, who stood with them. Gabrielle crouched, an open pad on her knees as she sketched the vehicle and made notes in the margins. Inspector Wolfenbach had already been told, in confidence, of my origins. He clearly hadn’t believed any of it but now seemed to be having second thoughts. Thirty-five tons of squat, angular armored vehicle, obviously not from this time and place, possessed a quiet but persuasive eloquence.
Five graves. A Puma could carry nine men — a crew of three and six infantry dismounts. Squads were usually understrength in the field, and there was no telling if all the passengers had even made it through the transition to this time, given that hole ripped in the back end. Somebody had survived, though. No matter how smart the guys in the black zeppelin were, it would take weeks to figure out how to remove that remote turret without damaging it, remove the engine, and install them in an airship so they would actually work — not to mention figure out how they worked. Somebody from my time had to have helped them, which was not to say the assistance was rendered voluntarily.
Gordon drifted over and touched the beads of melted steel along the open rear, then peered into the alien interior of the vehicle. He still wore that same blank expression he’d had since the zeppelin attack, which made it tough to figure what he was thinking. After a moment, he looked at me, and his expression was altered. He believed this thing was from a different time, and now he also believed, not just in his head but down in his gut, that I was from a different time as well. Fear had replaced contempt.
I climbed up onto the deck and looked into the now-open turret ring. When I glanced over, I saw Gabrielle studying me with curiosity. She didn’t look away at first, but then went back at her work and continued sketching.
“There are brackets for Spike missile reloads, thirty-millimeter ammunition boxes, and seven-six-two belted — what you’d call thirty caliber. All the brackets are empty. I’d guess they have four missiles — three now, since they took out a turret on Intrepid with one of them — plus 400 rounds of thirty millimeter, and about 2,000 machine-gun rounds, give or take. That can make a lot of trouble for one or two of your warships, but it’s not exactly a conquer-the-world ordnance load.”
Thomson scratched his beard and squinted at the broken vehicle. “There’s something bothering me. You mentioned the laboratory you worked at was not in Somerton, but rather the countryside, and this vehicle does not seem to have come out at ground level. But your facility was in Wessex, and this vehicle was at least in Germany, and quite possibly southern Germany, so in both cases the transition point was close to its origin. You mentioned the date of the incident in your time was early August, but it took place a month later here. Do you suppose the difference in where the Earth was in its orbit around the sun could account for that shift?”
That had been bothering me as well. “I wish it could, but I don’t see how. The difference in orbital position is much more than this little shift in location, but it’s insignificant compared to the distance the sun has moved in relation to the rest of the galaxy in over a century. By my time we’d been able to measure that speed. The sun’s moving through the galaxy at about 40,000 miles an hour, and pulling the Earth and the other planets along with it. That means that in the century between my time and yours, the sun and earth have moved” — I paused and did some quick calculations in my head — “about three and a half billion miles. Being a couple dozen kilometers off in terms of where I came out doesn’t seem like that big a deal when you look at it in those terms.”
What I left unsaid was that if I’d been a couple dozen kilometers — or even meters — off in altitude, I wouldn’t have survived the experience. These guys had come out a few meters high. What if they — or I — had come out a few meters low? For a moment I felt sick to my stomach.
“Well, how can you account for this difference, then?” Thomson said.
I looked at him. “You’re the scientist. You tell me.”
Three and a half billion miles. As I thought about it, I realized this was an aspect of time travel I’d never heard addressed in any of the science fiction I’d read as a youngster. For that matter, the physicists at WHECOL hadn’t questioned it, either. Why not? They were just swept up in the excitement of the possibility of time travel, I supposed. And for all I knew, maybe some of them had wondered about it — I never spoke with any of them directly, only with Reggie. But I think the first question I’d ask if I had a machine bringing things back from the past is why it wasn’t just bringing back big scoops of vacuum, because that’s about all there would have been hundreds or even thousands of years earlier in the spot we occupied when the time machine was running. How would the machine search out where Earth was back then and bring samples back from it? Something didn’t add up, but the answer wasn’t in the burnt-out Puma.
“I think we’re done here,” I said. I’d sure as hell seen all I cared to.
Intrepid had finished its jury-rigged repairs and was already airborne and coming to find us when we were an hour from the crash site. I was happy to switch from the German landship to Intrepid. The landships were big on the outside but amazingly cramped on the inside, not to mention hot, steamy, and filthy with coal dust and lubricating grease and oil. Dante would have taken one look around and nodded.
But aside from the comparative comfort of Intrepid as a means of transportation, we didn’t have a lot to celebrate. We were too late getting to the incident site, and the pride of the Royal Navy had had its ass handed to it by a balloon. The three-hour flight from Munich was looking like a six or seven-hour return flight on one propeller. Gabrielle was no longer confined to the crew’s mess, as the room periodically filled with steam from a leaking boiler line — that and the fact that Harding had a lot more on his mind than the danger posed by one unarmed French woman. She joined Thomson and me at the bow railing, but none of us had much to say.