The Forever Engine – Snippet 25


October 5, 1888, Munich, Bavaria

I had no idea what a Forever Engine was, but something in those words, or perhaps in the way Thomson said them, sent a surge of adrenaline through me.

“If word of this leaks out. . .” Gordon said, and he leaned back against the wall as if exhausted, his words trailing off for a moment. Then he shook his head, his expression grim. “The colonies on Mars will go up in flames. It’s just the sort of excuse the local troublemakers have been looking for. Once that starts, heaven knows where it will all end.”

Then he stood forward again, and his eyes turned to Gabrielle.

Mademoiselle Courbiere, you must give us your word that you will not share this information with your government.”

“You are wrong, Capitaine Gordon. No part of our agreement obligates me to withhold information from my own government.”

“This goes beyond our agreement. This is a matter of the lives of thousands of innocent people on Mars.”

“Will you keep the information from your own government, Capitaine? Non? Why can your government be trusted with this information and mine not?”

Gordon was getting his steam up, so I broke in.

“Would you two just take a break for a minute? All of you seem to know what this Forever Engine thing is. I haven’t got a clue, so first somebody fill me in, and then you guys can get back to refighting the Napoleonic Wars.”

Ja, I am wondering the same thing,” Wolfenbach said.

Gordon glared at Gabrielle for a moment longer, and then nodded. Gabrielle shrugged.

“Yes, of course, laddie, you’ve no way of knowing, nor is it widely known in general,” Thomson said. “It’s not a secret, of course, just rather arcane. Forever Engine is the translation of an old Martian term — Makach Khadeek in Son-Gaaryani, although there are similar versions in all the Martian tongues. Martians agree on very little, Jack, but they are unanimous in their belief that the Makach Khadeek, the Forever Engine, is a device of unspeakable blasphemy.”

“You mean this is a religious thing?” I asked.

“Not precisely. Or rather, many religious prohibitions in all cultures have a survivalist foundation. In the case of the Makach Khadeek, the prohibition is no doubt based on the distorted remnants of earlier scientific understanding, from before Martian civilization went into decline.

“I should start by explaining the device itself. Depending on the orientation of its grain, which appears to follow an internal energetic field in the wood we do not yet understand — depending on the orientation of that grain from tangent, a length of liftwood provides either greater or lesser repulsion from a gravitational mass. This much you already know.

“Now imagine a waterwheel, but with liftwood planks in place of the paddles.”

“Like blades,” I said, “with one edge facing in and one out.”

“Good lad. Now suppose you add something to your wheel. Suppose you add a clever but mathematically very simple system of gears to the attachment points of the liftwood panels, gears which control the orientation of those panels, and tie that orientation to the position of the panels on the wheel. This orients them so that all of the panels on one side generate a repulsive force but those on the other side are neutral. The repulsive force ‘lifts’ one side of the wheel but not the other. This makes the wheel turn. As the panels come around, the gear mechanism keeps them turned in such a way that they always are neutral on one side of the wheel and repulsive on the other.”

“Okay, I get it,” I said. “The wheel goes round and round forever. A Forever Engine. Good name.”

No, wait . . .

“Tesla has made a perpetual motion machine? That’s crazy. There’s no such thing, can’t be, even in a place as screwy as this. I took high school physics. The universe is the universe. There’s only so much stuff in it, whatever that stuff is and however it interacts. You still have conservation of matter and energy.”

“And momentum,” Thomson added. “Do not forget momentum, Jack. You are perfectly correct. A perpetual motion machine is impossible, in the sense it is normally understood, for the very reason you set forth: conservation of matter, energy, and momentum. But a Forever Engine is not a true perpetual motion machine for two reasons.

“First, liftwood simply does not remain active forever. It deteriorates over time, not only in a physical sense, like ordinary wood, but also in terms of its repulsive properties. So a Forever Engine will eventually run down simply from exhaustion of the field characteristics of its lifters.

“But more importantly, the Forever Engine does not create energy from nothing. I now believe, based on what you told me in London, that liftwood redistributes momentum in a system. Normally the gross momentum in the system would remain constant overall. A flier takes off, but later it lands. Even while aloft, the center of mass of the planet and the flyer moves infinitesimally, but their combined momentum within the solar system remains unchanged. You see?”

“I think so.”

“Good. But this device actually allows its maker to convert momentum to work energy. In this case, Tesla is charging his giant Leyden jar with electricity generated from that momentum. He gains his energy at the price of momentum.”

“What momentum?” I asked.

“The Earth’s orbital momentum. We believe Mars was originally farther from the sun than its current orbit. The use of Forever Engines as power-generating devices slowed its orbit and caused it to move closer to the sun, began its warming and the subsequent decline of its civilization. That much, I believe, is now clear. And the Martians must have eventually understood it as well.”

There was a moment of silence around the chart table as everyone thought that over. Well, everyone but me. How restless the natives were on Mars wasn’t my problem.

“That still leaves us with the question of what we plan to do once we get there,” I said. Thomson looked up at me and then over to Captain Gordon. Gordon looked around the circle of faces a moment before realizing the call was his.

“Well — I should think that much was clear. Learn what we can about his operation.”

Wolfenbach shifted his weight and nearly knocked an inkwell from a side table behind him. Thomson scratched his beard and then shook his head.

“Daunting as I find the prospect, I am afraid our charge is rather more than simply gathering facts. General Buller expects us to deal with the problem, and it becomes clear Tesla has potentially enormous power at his disposal. Whether these incidents which brought us Professor Fargo were entirely Tesla’s doing or not, he clearly has some scheme in train. I cannot think it anything but reckless to let him play out that scheme uninterrupted. No, I fear our mission must now be to penetrate his lair and either capture or kill the villain.”

Well, that was their plan. Mine was going to have to have some embellishments.


Eat, drink, and be merry, or so Ecclesiastes recommends. That night it seemed like pretty good advice, at least the heavy drinking part.

Gabrielle left us to rejoin “Renfrew,” and within minutes Gordon left as well, his sullen glare keeping the revelers at arms’ length, which that evening spoke volumes about the broadcast power of his personality. Every time Thomson or I turned around, someone offered, “ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!” — a toast to good fellowship — and they meant it. Hard not to drink to that.

So we ate Thüringer brats and Steckerlfisch — really delicious little fish grilled on a stick — washed down with too many steins of Märzenbier. The Märzenbier packed a punch, more like malt liquor, and, before we saw it coming, Thomson and I were both arm in arm, one stumble away from knee-crawling drunk.

In a more lucid moment, I noticed the normally cheerful Thomson increasingly drifting into melancholy. We sat on a low stone wall slightly out of the main traffic pattern and nursed our beer for a while.

“What’s eating you, Professor?”

“Tyndall haunts me. We were friends, you know, before all this Darwin business. As God’s my witness, I wish I’d never heard Darwin’s name!”

I remembered something from back in London, maybe from Buller’s office, something about disproving Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The details were fuzzy.

“Gotta stick by your guns,” I said, but just to make him feel better.

“Magnetism is an interest of mine, you know that. But temperature is my true passion. Heating, cooling, that’s the history of the cosmos, laddie. Everything else is . . . side effects. No one knows heating and cooling as I do. Not half a dozen men can even understand the equations I’ve derived to model the cooling of the Earth.”

“Well, there you go,” I said, but he shook his head.

“You don’t understand. Temperature — it’s all I’ve got. It’s my legacy, and . . . I made an error.”

“An error?”

“Aye, an error in computation. The Earth is older than my calculations, old enough . . . perhaps . . . I don’t know. But no one’s noticed the mistake yet, even though it’s been published for over a decade. Who would think to double-check Billie Thomson’s sums on something that important, on something about temperature? No one but me.”

He stared down at his beer stein. No wonder he felt haunted by Tyndall’s ghost.

“Well, your secret’s safe with me, pal,” I said, and patted his back.

He turned and looked at me, eyes empty and hopeless.