The Forever Engine – Snippet 24


October 5, 1888, Munich, Bavaria

Intrepid limped back to Munich well after dark. We met the next morning in the chart room on Intrepid’s bridge. Gabrielle joined us and I expected an argument from Captain Harding about a “Frog” coming into his inner sanctum, but I was mistaken. His still-bloody head bandage was reminder enough that, for the moment at least, the French were not the enemy.

The chart room wasn’t all that big, and the six of us crowded around the map table: Gabrielle, myself, Gordon, Thomson, Harding, and Inspector Wolfenbach of the Bavarian Stadtpolizei. Inspector Wolfenbach’s considerable girth contributed to the close quarters; I pegged him at between two-fifty and three hundred pounds. Gabrielle stood to my left, pressed against my arm by necessity, and I enjoyed the sensation.

Thanks to her I knew almost as much about Tesla’s location and setup as did French intelligence, which was quite a lot, although much of it was pretty boring, mundane stuff. Gabrielle had recited all of it the previous evening, warming to the subject as she went, becoming more interested as the information became more arcane and obscure. She went on long after Thomson, Gordon, and I started listening out of a sense of duty rather than genuine interest, and then after we began just pretending to pay attention, and she never seemed to notice. In a sense it was a replay of her long lecture about anarcho-syndicalism in the mess hall of Intrepid earlier. Coming from anyone else it would have been annoying, but from her it was strangely endearing. We are all suspicious of perfection, and rightly so. Perfection is an illusion; this flaw made her real.

Or maybe that was why Gabrielle Courbiere could be a successful spy; guys got stupid around her, knew they were being stupid, and didn’t care. Part of it was because of her looks, no doubt about it. But part of it was her disarming directness and absence of guile. She might lie about facts — provided it was a carefully constructed lie, rich in nuance and detail, and painstakingly internally consistent — but she did not seem capable of deceiving as to her feelings.

“Can we still count on your cooperation, Inspector Wolfenbach?” Thomson asked.

The corpulent policeman bobbed his head, making his jowls quiver. “Natürlich.”

Thomson unrolled Intrepid‘s chart of Serbia and pointed to the mountains along its southwest frontier with Turkish Bosnia and Montenegro. That had surprised me the first time I saw it — Turkey still holding a bunch of the Balkans. I was pretty sure in my time-line Austria had them by now, but wasn’t certain.

Mademoiselle Courbiere tells us that Tesla’s base is here in Serbia, specifically in the valley of the Uvac River, between Zlatar Mountain and Mutenice Mountains, near the village of Kokin Brod. Two years ago the Serbs built an earthen dam near the village, used explosives to bring down some of the rock cliffs. Since then the valley to the southeast has filled with water. Mademoiselle Courbiere also tells me you have been gathering information on this installation, Inspector?”

Wolfenbach nodded and then pointed to the valley, using a finger like a small bratwurst. “Ja. Berlin does not, but down here we still remember our friends in Vienna and help them out now and then. If a hound in Serbia has fleas, soon there will be scratching in Budapest, nicht wahr? So this is the lair of Der Alte Gebirgsmann. Bad country. There are many rumors about horrible things in the hills, we think started to discourage the curious. Also maybe three, four earthquakes, but not large. We know about the dam, but why build it? This we do not know.” Wolfenbach shrugged, which threatened to knock a lamp off the wall behind him.

“When he was working for Edison, Tesla did a lot of work with large electrical turbines,” I said. “I wonder if he’s playing around with hydroelectric power generation.”

I looked around but realized the word didn’t connect with anyone. “Have there been any unusual shipments of equipment into there?”

“Nine heavy naval guns,” Wolfenbach answered, “and glass.”

“Glass? As in window panes?”

Ja, window panes. Large sheets of window glass, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. They have been buying as far north as Dresden.”

“Armor plate as well?” Harding asked, but Wolfenbach shook his head.

I looked at Thomson, figuring glass might mean something to him, but he simply chewed on the stem of his new pipe, lost in thought.

Gordon tapped the map to bring us back in focus.

“The question remains how we are to reach this base deep inside Serbia.”

“That I can arrange, Herr Hauptmann,” Wolfenbach said,

Thomson’s head came up and he took the pipe from his mouth.

“Please elaborate, Inspector.”

Die Hochflieger Ost, the express zeppelin from Berlin to Turkey, stops here in Munich, then Vienna, and finally Sofia before arriving in Istanbul. It makes no scheduled stops in Serbia. However, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG, the concern which owns the Hochflieger Ost, is willing to do occasional . . . favors for the imperial authorities, und now it seems for us as well. I believe Fraulein Courbiere has a particularly persuasive friend.”

Yeah, I’d met him two nights before. Wolfenbach looked at Gabrielle with a smile and raised eyebrow, but if he was trying to make a veiled salacious hint, it was lost on her. Veiled hints didn’t seem to penetrate her consciousness; if you wanted her to know something, I suspected you needed to just tell her.

Zo,” he said, “your party travels as civilians on Die Hochflieger Ost with passage to Istanbul, but when it passes over southern Serbia, it will land in the countryside, secretly disembark your party, und then continue on with its voyage. The other passengers will be told a story of some sort. We leave that up to the zeppelin line.”

“I’m unclear as to exactly what our plan is once we get there,” I said. “But more importantly, how do we get out when we’re done?”

“Walk west,” Thomson said. We all looked at him, and he tapped the chart with his pipe stem. “It is only a few miles to the Bosnian frontier. The Foreign Office has said we can expect cooperation from the Turks in this. I imagine that extends at the very least to allowing us to flee across their frontier.”

“And if they follow us with that damned black zeppelin?” Gordon demanded.

“Leave that to Intrepid,” Captain Harding said, “providing Johnny Turk lets us use his air space. If we sight that black zeppelin again, we’ll see what a salvo of Hale rockets does to its hydrogen cells. Why he’s still using a dirigible is a puzzle, though.”

“Why?” I asked.

Harding looked around the chart table and colored slightly, as if he had said too much.

“I . . . well, this fellow’s an inventor, ain’t he? I just –”

Capitaine Harding is perhaps concerned with the stolen Royal Navy liftwood,” Gabrielle said.

We all looked at Harding, whose face turned a deeper red.

“How do you know about that?” he snapped.

“I am a spy,” she answered, and gave a wonderfully Gallic shrug.

“He stole a shipment of liftwood?” Gordon asked. “And we weren’t told of it?”

“We don’t know who stole it,” Harding answered. “We just know that a White Star aether flyer under Royal Navy charter was seized by its crew during a return flight from Syrtis Major. The passengers and ship’s officers were put down on the Azores, and there’s been no sign of it since.”

“Yes, I remember,” Gordon said. “That business with RMF Prolific last year. I read of it.”

“What was kept from the papers,” Harding continued, “was her cargo: the finished lifting vanes for another cruiser of this class, along with refitting vanes for two of our older gunboats.”

“He has it,” Gabrielle said.

No one seemed inclined to argue the point with her.

“This changes things,” Thomson said. He leaned back against the bulkhead and studied the lamp hanging from the ceiling of the chart room, chewing thoughtfully on his pipe. After a few minutes of increasingly awkward silence, his face soured and he shook his head.

“Are you stumped, or have you figured it out?” I asked.

“I believe I understand the business, although it gives me little enough satisfaction. Remember, Tesla has not imported any heavy machinery, at least that we know of. Therefore everything he needs, aside from the items we know he brought in, must have been on RMF Prolific, the pirated White Star aether flyer.

“The first critical component, of course, is the vessel’s aether propeller. It is useless in the Earth’s dense atmosphere as a means of propulsion, but at its simplest it is nothing but a very large, although specialized, electromagnetic field generator, exactly the device Tesla has spent much of his life working on and perfecting. I think it clear he has discovered uses for it beyond simple propulsion in the vacuum of space. He has found a way to concentrate its field, and heighten its power, to the extent that it can tear open a hole between our time and others, such as yours, Jack. As I recall you told us, your Wessex apparatus required enormous electricity.”

“Enough to power a good-sized town when they really had it cranking.”

“Tesla cannot generate that much power all at once,” Thomson continued, “nor is there a central power grid such as in your world from which he can simply draw it. I believe he must generate it gradually and store it, then discharge it quickly through his field generator — the modified aether propeller — to open his portal to other times.

“So, the next question is how can he store that much power? Well, this is where I believe it gets truly remarkable, and I’ll say this much for Tesla — the villain thinks large.

“Are any of you familiar with a scientific device called a Leyden jar? No? It is a device for storing electrical charges and then discharging them on demand. It consists of a conductive medium on either side of a nonconductive barrier, a dielectric, in which the actual charge is stored. Its most primitive version is a handheld beaker of water, where the water inside and the hand outside serve as conductors and the glass is the dielectric.”

“The window glass!” I said.

“Very good, laddie. Yes, the window glass, enough glass to make hundreds, even thousands of cells. And where does he keep this latticework of glass?”

He looked around the circle of faces. Gabrielle was the one who answered.

“The lake, obviously. The lake he has made. It is his giant Leyden jar.”

“The largest Leyden jar ever conceived,” Thomson said. “I cannot begin to fathom how much energy it could store. He could accumulate energy slowly, I suppose, were he a patient man. He could run a waterwheel or two, as Jack suggested, or use the steam engine from RMF Prolific.

“But the numerous stories of small earthquakes, which I take to be the thunderous reports of his time-rending machine, these point to more frequent uses.”

“As I understand what you’ve told us,” Gordon said, “this Leyden jar thing does not generate power. It merely stores it. So where is he getting all this power?”

“Ah, the missing component from RMF Prolific, and I do not mean its steam power plant. I mean its cargo of liftwood, along with the vessel’s own lifting vanes. Here is a man who has more liftwood than any private citizen, and most governments, on Earth, and yet he still makes use of hydrogen-filled airships. Why?

“He does so because he has better uses for his liftwood. The damned fool has built himself a Forever Engine, and God help us all.”