Authors: Frank Chadwick
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk, #Time Travel, #Action & Adventure
London 1888. His Majesty’s airships troll the sky powered by antigrav liftwood as a cabal of Iron Lords tightens it hold on a Britain choked by the fumes of industry. Mars has been colonized, and clockwork assassins stalk the European corridors of power. And somewhere far to the east, the Old Man of the Mountains plots the end of the world with his Forever Engine.
Enter Jack Fargo. Scholar. Former special forces operator in Afghanistan. A man from our own near future thrust back in time—or to wherever it is that this Brave Victorian World actually exists. Aided only by an elderly Scottish physicist, a young British officer of questionable courage, and a beautiful but mysterious spy for the French Commune, Fargo is a man on a mission: save the future from irrevocable destruction when the Forever Engine is brought to full power and blows this universe, and our own, to smithereens.
by Frank Chadwick
How Dark the World Becomes
The Forever Engine
THE FOREVER ENGINE
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Frank Chadwick
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Adam Burn
First Baen printing, January 2014
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Forever Engine / by Frank Chadwick.
ISBN 978-1-4516-3940-7 (pbk.)
1. Steampunk fiction. 2. Science fiction. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
—Robert Oppenheimer, July 16, 1945,
(quoting the Hindu scripture,
upon seeing the Trinity atomic-bomb test)
August 2, 2018, Wessex, England
Reggie Llewellyn was the most casual killer I ever met, but I didn’t hold that against him. If I’d known he was behind the trip to England, you couldn’t have gotten me on the plane at gunpoint—not because of who he was, but what he represented. But I didn’t know. Not until it was too late.
My internal alarm started sounding from the moment I walked in the front entrance of WHECOL—the Wessex High Energy Collider facility. I expected an overweight, white-shirted rent-a-cop guarding a civilian research complex out in the sleepy English countryside. Instead I faced four hard-eyed soldiers dressed in camo fatigues and packing assault rifles. Their stares followed me in unison as I crossed the polished marble floor, but I looked straight back at them. If they wanted to intimidate someone, they’d have to wait for the next guy through the door.
Well, maybe I was a
intimidated, but the trick is never to show it.
I’d barely cleared security when a greeting echoed through the foyer.
There you are!”
Although I hadn’t heard it for a decade, I recognized Reggie’s voice at once. And I knew nothing here was what it seemed.
We shook hands, and Reggie beamed at me. Reggie always beamed—sort of crazy that way. My anxiety at seeing him was mixed up with some pleasure as well, and that surprised me. Lots of surprises that day, and more to come.
Unlike the guards, he wore a pressed service uniform. He wasn’t much different from the young subaltern I’d known in Afghanistan—deeper laugh lines around the eyes, hair clipped shorter, mustache showing some gray in the jet black, and different rank insignia on his shoulder straps. Well, he looked a little jumpy, too, which I’d never seen in him before.
“They made you a major, Reggie? The British Empire is doomed.”
“The Empire’s been finished for some time,” he said. “If your education system were better over there, you might have noticed. How have you been? I was quite sorry to hear about your wife and . . . well . . .”
The sudden tightness in my throat surprised me. “I’m okay. Tough time. My daughter Sarah and I got through it together.”
Reggie nodded in sympathy. “I’m glad to hear that. Well, then . . .” He gestured down the broad marble corridor into the facility, and we walked side by side. I didn’t know what was really going on here yet but decided my best bet was to play along with the original premise of my trip and see where that led me.
“So, let me get this right,” I said. “You started digging the foundations for a new wing and stumbled on some possible Roman artifacts? Not that I’m complaining, but why fly a historian all the way from Illinois to evaluate a cultural resource site? Isn’t Cambridge around here somewhere?”
“Oxford is closer, actually, but it’s a fair question. Some discretion in this matter is required. When I realized we might have need of someone conversant with ancient history, I recalled that you are a very discreet fellow. More than that, I know you will tell me the truth, with neither fear nor favor. You are honest—to a fault, as I recall.”
“So I’ve been told. Thank God for academic tenure, huh?”
“Yes. We don’t have that in the army. Fortunately, excessive honesty is not a failing from which I suffer.”
He grinned that toothy grin, the one that looked like a tiger about to make a kill. Reggie and I had worked well together a long time ago, but there were good reasons I’d chosen academia instead of a more active career. These days my most vicious fights were over who was going to be the next departmental chair. Reggie knew a surprising amount about my post-military career. That made me nervous.
We stopped in an open, well-lit, but deserted office area.
“The technical staff is preparing for another test,” Reggie explained. “We do these mostly at night, when the clerical staff is gone.”
He studied me for a moment, as if deciding how to open the conversation. He took a clear plastic coin case from his trouser pocket and handed it to me.
“Give me your professional opinion of this.”
Since the Brits had brought me a long way at some expense, I took my time studying the coin, but I pegged it in about two seconds.
, first century CE, reign of Emperor Galba. Supposedly.”
“Well, it’s counterfeit—a really good one. Too good, actually. It looks as if it were struck last year, not over nineteen hundred years ago.”
“But other than that you’d say it was authentic?” he asked.
“No. The inscription places it from the third year of the reign of Galba. The thing is, Galba’s reign only lasted about seven months before he was killed and replaced by Otho.”
I handed the coin back.
“Weren’t coins ever struck . . . in anticipation of an event?” he asked.
“Not a couple years in anticipation, and especially by Galba. About the only thing memorable about him was his stinginess.”
“You’re certain, Jack? I brought you in on this because people tell me you’re one of the top men on Roman coins these days. I need to know. Are you absolutely certain?”
“Yup, one hundred percent.”
Lost in thought, Reggie frowned at the coin in his hand and said nothing.
“What gives?” I said. “You didn’t fly me all the way here from Chicago to tell you what any Roman numismatist could.”
“It is not counterfeit.”
I started to insist otherwise, but stopped. What was an American historian
doing in a British high-energy physics lab guarded by armed soldiers, looking at a phony silver coin that wasn’t phony? Had to be, but wasn’t. Reggie wasn’t worried about disturbing a cultural-resource site, and suddenly I had absolutely no curiosity about what he really wanted.
“Well . . . sorry I couldn’t be more help. Give me a ring next time you’re in the States, Reggie, and I’ll buy you a drink. I can find my own way out.”
He laughed. “You know it’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is, because I don’t know anything yet, and I intend to keep it that way. You asked for my professional opinion, I gave it to you.
“Oh, fuck you, Reggie! My daughter starts her freshman year of college in three weeks. I don’t know what sort of cloak-and-dagger Indiana Jones bullshit you’ve got going on here, but whatever it is, it’s not my department. I used to be an army translator. That’s it. Now I’m a historian and a single parent, and I have things that need doing. You aren’t on my list.”
“Of course I understand how you must feel, Jack. But before you say anything else, why not have a seat and read these papers? Please.”
He held out a folder with the seal of the U.S. Department of the Army.
Son of a bitch!
I’d been set up.
I snatched it, sat at an empty desk, and found nothing surprising in the folder: my change of status from unassigned reserve to active duty with a pay grade of W-4, recertification of my top-secret security clearance, and orders assigning me to temporary duty with Wimbish Detachment, Military Provost Guard Service, Major Reginald Llewellyn commanding.
Provost Guard Service, my ass.
Reggie was SAS—the British elite special operations force—and I figured the four goons at the front door were as well.
The last document was the British Official Secrets Act form. I scribbled my signature, the date, and handed the folder back.
“I’m out of the world-fixing business, Reggie. If I’m not back in time to take Sarah to college, I will have your ass, SAS or not.”
He beamed and took the folder.
that makes me!” Then the smile left his face. “The question of who would actually have whose ass may be academic, however. What did you just call it? The world-fixing business? Believe me Jack, you do not appreciate how apropos a term that is. If we are not successful here, there is a distinct possibility our world as we know it will not survive.”
I studied him for a moment, but he didn’t look like he was trying to snow me. He looked a little frightened. I’d never seen him look frightened before. “Okay, you’ve got my attention. Here’s the deal: I’ll help you out on this, but I will not, under any circumstances, do anything I will be ashamed to tell my daughter. Is that understood?”
“Assuming we live through this, I wouldn’t recommend telling her anything, old man. The Official Secrets Act—”
“Fuck the Official Secrets Act.”
His eyebrows rose a bit at that, but then he smiled ruefully.
“Very well, conditions understood and accepted. And you’ll be happy to know that we won’t be jetting anywhere to do our work, or have any annoying people shooting at us. That is not the sort of danger we face. No one knows what we are doing here.”
“Yeah, including me. So what
He sat in the chair beside the desk and looked at me for a moment.
“It’s . . . something of a time machine, I suppose,” he said.
“I hardly believe it myself. It wasn’t meant to be. It was intended as a weapon, very hush-hush. I don’t completely understand how it was supposed to work, something about quantum-tunneling projectiles going straight through the Earth without actually touching it, that sort of thing. I suppose that’s all academic now, in any case, because that’s not what happened. When they test-fired the device, it sent the projectile out as planned, but instead of it appearing at the target point, a
object appeared back here, at the launch site.”
“And what happened to the projectile?” I said.
“No idea. So far as we can tell, it simply vanished. They’ve done quite a number of test fires. The projectile always disappears. The accelerator brings back a small solid object—sometimes rock, sometimes a molten slug of metal, but sometimes an intact artifact. Artifacts from the past, Jack. Artifacts from
past, we thought, until this.”
Reggie tapped the coin with his finger. I looked at it again, looked at the coin from the third year of a reign which, in our world, had lasted only six months! For a moment blood pounded in my ears; the room spun. I leaned back in the chair and held its arms to steady myself, breathing slowly and evenly.
“This . . . this can’t be right. A
machine? A different past? How do you know all that? Maybe it’s just a movie prop you snagged by accident from the Fox back lot.”
“I understand how you feel. Honestly, I doubt you can say anything I didn’t say myself when I first heard about all this. If you want the technical explanation of radioactive decay dating and something I think they called electron-cloud shift, one of the boffins can trot it all out for you later. I don’t really understand any of it myself, but I know when people are lying and when they absolutely believe they are telling the truth. You do as well, don’t you? Well these scientists are telling the truth. And they are frightened.”
I stared at the coin.
Emperor Galba, huh?
“Okay. If it’s not from our past, then what gives?”
“Of course there are as many theories as there are boffins—circular time, infinite universe—but the most dangerous, the one we must act on, is that someone else has accessed the past, perhaps someone from our future—or perhaps even us—and either deliberately or inadvertently altered it.”
I shook my head. “No way. We still
our past, we still have museums full of artifacts from it. How can the past change and the present stay the same?”
“Well, of course it cannot. But the theory involves a temporal event wave. If you drop a rock in a pond on one side, its effects are not felt immediately on the opposite shore, but eventually they reach there. The notion is a change in the past takes time—whatever that means in this context—to manifest its effects in the present, that it moves forward through time destroying the presents it passes through and replacing them with the alternate. The wave simply has not yet reached us, but when it does . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Everything changes,” I said. “But we won’t know it changes. As far as we know, it will always have been like that, right?”
“It’s more than that, I’m afraid. My mother was married before she married my father. Her first husband, who as far as I know she loved very much, fell down the steps of the church as they emerged on their wedding day, broke his neck, and died. Several years later she met my father, married, and I am the result. But had her first husband not found his death in remarkably unlikely circumstances, I would never have existed. Someone else would have, in all likelihood, but not me.
“I don’t believe in predestination, Jack. Although we’ve never spoken of anything so esoteric, I don’t think you believe in it, either, or you would not behave the way I have seen you do.
“Men like us believe we make our own destiny, to the extent we are able, and for everything beyond that the gods roll the dice. Leaving aside whether someone else would have saved your life in Khost that one time had I not been in the world, what is the likelihood
would exist at all? How many times in your ancestry, stretching back thousands of years, do you suppose a future hinged on whether a man looked to his right and saw the love of his life or to his left and saw the woman he settled for instead? The gods rolled the dice, Jack, and as a result of all those rolls, here we are. But change something and, aside from its direct effects, the table is cleared, the game begins anew, and all those dice are rolled again. What are the chances they will all come up exactly the same? And what if even one of them is different?
“No, when this temporal-event wave passes, it may leave a world full of people, but they will be entirely
people. I cannot conceive that you or I or anyone we know and love will actually be among them, no matter how much some of them may coincidentally resemble us. We will all be dead. Well, we will never have existed, but I’ll let the philosophers argue that distinction in whatever time they have left. To me it amounts to the same thing.”