The Forever Engine – Snippet 27


October 6, 1888, Munich, Bavaria

“Well, you’ve got guts, Yank, I’ll give you that,” O’Mara, the Royal Marine corporal from Intrepid, said, shaking his head and looking around. A half dozen of the men from his section along with two Bavarian policemen examined the bodies in the street while several more Marines checked out the hotel behind us room by room. A crowd of over a hundred curious locals clustered around, looking at the visible evidence of violence with the same mix of horror and fascination as motorists driving past a bad wreck.

“Thanks. You want to hold this for me?”

I was trying to bandage my left arm and it was hard to manage it with one trembling hand, especially since both of my arms felt as if they were filled with sand — really hot sand. Every muscle in my body seemed on fire.

He tied the bandage for me as Jenkins, a naval lieutenant from Intrepid, came out of the hotel and looked around.

“You did this by yourself? Unarmed?”

“I had a pipe.”

“Remarkable,” he said, shaking his head. “The Marines shot four of them when they opened fire, but you killed three men yourself. Injured more than that, I daresay, but they got them away.”

“They got away with Thomson, too,” I said. “That’s what matters. Son of a bitch.”

I’d gotten tangled up with the mob from the hotel, and the dirigible had dropped a sling and hoisted Thomson up. It dropped a whole bunch of lines with slings at the end. The thugs had overcome me by the time the Marines showed up, were dragging me toward the slings, but they got sloppy in their haste. They had sheathed their knives to use both hands, and I got hold of a nice heavy-bladed one, pulled it out of its sheath, and cut up two of the thugs pretty badly before they dropped me. With a dozen Marines pounding up the street and firing rifle shots, there wasn’t enough time to deal with me again, so they grabbed the slings and called it a day. The dirigible had let loose a cascade of ballast water and shot up into the sky, gone just like that.

The water had washed most of the blood off the street.

Now what the hell was I going to do? Thomson was the closest thing I had to a friend here, my guide, the honcho of the expedition. Gordon was probably dead, or Tesla’s men would have hauled him out as well.

“Better let our surgeon have a look at that later,” Jenkins said, nodding to my arm. “Right now he’s busy with casualties from the diversionary attack. Some sort of metal globes that unfolded into mechanical spiders after they landed. Devilish machines, and quite deadly.”

“Yeah, I saw some in London. Not that hard to avoid once you get over the surprise, but pretty scary the first time.”

He looked at me and frowned, clearly unsure what to make of me, a history professor who ran the decks of his ship every morning and who had done . . . this.

“You may have a broken bone or two as well. You do look frightful, I must say.”

“I’m still a little groggy so I think I’ll just sit here on the grass for a while, if that’s okay.”

I probably had a cracked rib or two and probably a mild concussion. Once I went down, they were pissed enough that, orders or no, they might have kicked and beaten me to death if the Marines hadn’t shown up. My vision was blurry, and I was sure my nose was broken, but I still had all my teeth. That was good; the thought of having to visit whatever passed for a dentist here was pretty high up on my creepy nightmare list.

Gordon came out of the hotel with the last couple Marines. I experienced a flash of an unfamiliar emotion — pleasure at seeing him. He saw me and walked over, clearly still excited from his narrow escape.

“You’re alive! Good Lord, what happened to you?”

“There was a fight. They captured Thomson and got him away. Where were you?”

“Thomson? Gone? I . . . I woke up and had to visit the water closet. I saw them on my way back, and when they tried to overpower me I broke away and made it to my room.”

“Barricaded in right proper, ‘e was,” one of the Marines volunteered.

“You barricaded yourself in?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he answered and looked around at the others. O’Mara stood and walked toward his men in the street, suddenly interested in what they were up to, and Jenkins and the other Marine followed him.

“I’m just one man,” Gordon said. “What the devil did you expect me to do against that mob?”

“Your revolver was in your room. Shoot the first six of them and then beat the rest of them to death with your empty pistol. Or die trying.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came, perhaps because there was no anger or accusation in my voice. I simply said what I honestly expected of him. It’s what everyone had expected of him, and, as he stood there, I think he knew it was what he ought to have expected of himself.

He looked away and frowned.

“Go to blazes, Fargo. I don’t answer to you.”

“No, you answer to Lord Chillingham. If we go back empty-handed, General Buller might be willing to give you a revolver and some privacy, but Chillingham won’t. Have you met him? I have.”

He looked back at me, anger and resentment mixed up with desperation and the hint of panic.

“Of course I’ve met him. He’s my department head. It doesn’t matter what you think,” he said in a low voice. “Hate me if you like. You’re nothing here.”

I didn’t hate him. I wasn’t all that crazy about myself right then.

Not because I’d failed. Success and failure are often beyond our control. But I had killed three men, probably crippled as many more, and after all these years, it had been so fucking easy! Every day here took me further from the life I had built for myself, took me further from my daughter, Sarah, until even if I returned she might not recognize me.

Sarah found an old picture of me once, a picture I’d forgotten. For a while she kept it in a frame on the desk in her room. I never spoke to her about it, but after a while she put it in a drawer. She noticed I stopped coming into her room when it was out. She was always very sensitive that way.

The picture was taken in Afghanistan, at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. There’s an MH-60L Black Hawk helicopter from the 160th Aviation in the background on the tarmac, with me and the other eleven guys in my chalk in the foreground, six kneeling and six standing. I’m standing second from the left. We’re not combat-loaded; we’re just in desert camo pants and tee-shirts. I remember it was a hot day, but we don’t look uncomfortable. We look as if all our lives up until that day had prepared us for that place, that moment, and nothing else. That’s not true, but that’s how we look.

I’m grinning, squinting in the sun, mouth wide and showing bared teeth, white against the brown of my tanned face. I look like a cheerful Doberman, well-adjusted and happy and dangerous. I look like Reggie Llewellyn, but I’m not. I’m not like Reggie Llewellyn.