Invent the new world – The visions of Magister Nicholas Slate – A change of heart – Feeding the hungry – Objects in motion, objects at rest – Visiting the prisoners
Linda Davenport reporting.
The Algernon Rifle Club are well under way to choosing their representatives in the Folkestone rifle competition in two months’ time. Anyone wishing to represent our school in Folkestone must notify a range marshal, and then fire five salvos of five rounds each at four hundred yards, using one of the Club’s new Browning sniper rifles kindly provided to us by Dr. Pike. The combined score will determine who will go to Folkestone.
Miss Carrie StJohn, as expected, was one of the first members to put in her five turns, and comes in at an impressive score of twenty three hundred and four, out of a maximum of twenty five hundred. This makes her a clear favorite.
Mr. Nigel Arterton managed a respectable second place with twenty two hundred and fifty, Miss Florence Albrecht on third, twenty one eighty. Not everyone has put in their round yet. Your reporter, with a score of eighteen seventy, is regrettably out of the running. It must be stressed that taking the direct approach and shooting one’s opponents is frowned upon as unsportsmanlike, and anyone doing this risks disqualification.
We have learnt our lesson. There is nothing like a demonstration like Magister Slate performed on Dr. Cjelli to instill a spirit of cooperation in my colleagues and myself. I need only close my eyes and I see again the bright red face, the bulging eyes… and Slate calmly standing next to Dr. Cjelli, making perfectly clear that despite his earlier words, any if us is expendable. He often walks among us, speaking with us in a jovial manner, as though we are the best of friends. Nobody protests. Nobody even mentions what happened. Why should we?
Confucius says that the nail that extends above the others will be hammered down. Mindful of this, I do my work quietly. We have abandoned Dr. Hammond’s works, thank God for small mercies. We have been told, simply, to ‘Invent the New World’, a world free from the dominion of coal and steam. It is all so absurd. It is over a hundred years since Thomas Savery showed the world the first steam engine. If we may count the Roman-Egyptian aeolipile, it has taken us almost a millennium to build our civilisation upon water vapour. Slate wants to do the same, in only a few short years, using technology we don’t even fully understand!
My knowledge of magnetism and the tamed lightening of electricity may interest Slate enough to allow me to live out my life here, in the cradle of the New World. To me, this place stinks. It reeks of death, fear, and suffering. There is no escape. Not only would it be impossible for me, an Urbanite through and through, to reach Civilisation through these wild lands, filled with ravenous beasts, and equally ravenous humans. Even if I did survive, Civilisation would spit me out for what I have done, to assist this monster in destroying the world as we know it.
It is time for dinner. It is time for me to play the traitor’s role, to eat well, and drink deep of the fruits of my betrayal.
I should be honoured. Today Magister Slate visited me in my laboratory, and spoke to me, explaining his grand vision. He addressed me in slightly accented, but perfectly adequate French. Slate put his hand on my shouder, and called me his friend and colleague. I think I succeeded in hiding my true feelings. He asked me what I was working on, and I showed him my apparatus. I had connected an electric battery, after the lead-and-sulphuric acid model of Gaston Planté, to a large coil of electric wire with an iron core. When the circuit was closed, a second bar of iron would be attracted to the first and connect with a loud click. It was a toy, a model built to explain a property of electricity and magnets. Useless as Heron’s engine. But Slate disagreed.
“To the contrary, Monsieur Dupont. What you see here, is one of the main principles of the New World. To turn electric energy into motion. It is true that our current designs still use steam for propulsion, but it is such a messy and inefficient process. Leaking pipes, dripping water, raising columns of steam a mile high. The future lies in electricity! I myself have built apparatus not unlike your own, and by allowing a permanent magnet to slide inside the coil, and alternating the direction of the current, I managed to drive a wheel to a speed far in excess of what a similarly sized steam engine could have achieved. Mark my words, Monsieur, electricity is our key to the future! I am fortunate to have at my disposal one such as you.”
“Your humble servant, Monsieur,” I said.
Slate looked at me in an appraising manner. “You seem unconvinced, mon ami. What is it that troubles you?”
I cleared my throat. “The… fuel. It may be more potent than coal, as you say, but like coal, one has to dig it out of the ground. One day, Humanity will dig up the last scrap of pitchblende, and then we will be back where we started.”
Slate nodded severely. “You are right, of course, my friend. Come with me, and I will show you something.”
He took me to his personal laboratory, and from a drawer took a small wooden box.
“Follow me, and behold the future.”
I followed Magister Slate up the stairs, past the massive bulk of the airship Aquila, and out onto the mountain top, where there was a railing next to a sheer drop with an incredible view of the desert below. Slate held out his hand.
“Look, Mr. Dupont, and tell me what you see.”
“I…” I hesitated. “I see the desert. An endless sea of sand.”
“Look beyond that. Look to the heavens, not only with your eyes, but with your mind. Tell me again. What do you see?”
“The… the sky? Mountains? The Sun?”
“Precisely! The Sun! Now observe.”
Slate opened the box, revealing inside a magnetic compass with a coil of metal wire round it. As he moved his hand, a lens almost like an eye was revealed, and as he held it up to the light, the compass needle twitched.
“Mr. Dupont, behold the future of Humanity. I have found a way to turn the life-giving light of the Sun itself into electric energy! Even after the last piece of coal has been taken from the bowels of the Earth, after our strong brown men have brought us the last piece of radiation-rich pitchblende, even then, the Sun will still shine. The Astronomers may say that in eight billion years, the Sun will grow, and swallow up Mercury, Venus, and then the Earth, but with eight billion years at our disposal, shall we not part the Heavens and find Humanity a place to live beyond the eternal veil?”
I looked at the compass needle again. “This cell doesn’t produce that much energy. It would not turn an engine.”
“Then we shall pave the Earth with them! Every street, every town square, every rooftop will have eyes turned to the skies, fulfilling the needs of all. But what about the night time, then? I imagine that would be your next question. But does not your very own laboratory contain a battery that can store for the night the lightening collected by day? All we would need is batteries in sufficient numbers. I see the lightening that dwells in the radiation of pitchblende as a temporary measure, until Humanity frees itself. The real future lies in the rays of the Sun. Solar energy is the roadway to Eternity itself. And you, Monsieur Dupont, are one of us, who put Humanity’s first faltering steps upon that road!
I should be proud.
I should be honoured.
I am terrified.
After my inspiring talk with the Magister, I felt the need for some fresh air, some time to myself. Rather than walk back to the Brain Pen, I slowly turned South, towards the industrial part of the compound, with its workshops, ore bunkers, and also the sleeping quarters for our miners. A smaller building stood a little apart, built from stone, with barred windows. I stood still, looking at it for a while. It was obviously a prison. Why would Slate need to confine people who were already trapped in here? As I stood wondering, there was a female voice behind me.
“I keep telling you eggheads. Don’t go wandering about, it’s not safe. One of these days you’re going to be beaten into a bloody pulp by a bunch of these ore diggers and then you’ll be sorry.”
I turned round. “Good day, Mademoiselle Lee. How are you doing?”
“Marvellous! I’ve just had a big promotion. Been made President of the Trough. I get to feed and water the stupid idiots who tried to keep some pretty glowing rocks to themselves. Some of them were swallowing them, can you believe it?”
I had of course heard of American gold miners’ practice to save for their retirement in this way. If found out, these people would not live to see their retirement. But swallowing pitchblende? That way, they wouldn’t even need to be found out.
“That is unwise,” I said.
“You don’t say,” said Miss Lee. “Now just you wait here till I get back, and then we’ll put the leash back on and put you back in your nice warm lab. Don’t you move an inch now, or Mummy will not be happy.”
“I will not move from this spot, Ma’am. Even if hordes of angry dark men try to move me, here I will stay.”
I watched Miss Lee walk to the prison building carrying her bag of bread and large ten gallon jug of water. I looked up at the crater where the airship Aquila sat, like a bird on its nest. My only means of ever returning to civilisation, to face the wrath of my peers. A little while later, I saw movement at the prison, and Miss Lee came out. She walked slowly, and from a distance it seemed she wasn’t looking where she put her feet. She passed me a few dozen feet away, making for the barracks.
She looked up, startled. Had she forgotten all about me?
“Oh. Mr. Dupont. Heel.”
I fell in step with her and we set off in the direction of my living quarters. I noticed that all the cheer and high spirits of just a few moments ago had left her. What could have happened?
“Miss Lee? Is something the matter?”
“Shut up and keep walking.”
I gave her a quick look, and then I turned aside to a large rock that looked comfortable. I sat down on it. Miss Lee looked at me, not pleased at all.
“What the hell are you doing? I said follow me.”
I wiped the dust off the rock next to me.
“Sit down, Miss Lee. One of these Têtes d’Oeuf has wandered off again, and it falls upon you to guard him until he sees fit to start moving again.”
“I can pick you up and carry you, you know.”
“Noted,” I said, moving aside a bit.
Miss Lee gave me a long, intense look. Then, she sat down next to me. Putting my arm round her would have been too familiar, but I had the impression she needed it.
“Do you wish to tell me?” I said.
I gave a little nod, and we simply sat together for a while, until she took a deep breath, stood up, and nodded her head in the direction of the Brain Pen. Together, we walked back to my laboratory.
“Thank you, Miss Lee.”
Miss Lee gave a grunt that almost sounded like a word. I saw her walk to the barracks. She stood up straight, rolled her shoulders, then opened the door and went in. I went into my laboratory. There was a world to invent, and miracles to perform.
I have made progress of some sort. I have converted electrical energy into continuous motion. Given that magnets’ opposite poles attract, I have mounted one on a pivot, so that it spins. Two electric coil magnets sit on opposite ends, and pull the permanent magnet towards themselves. The important idea was, once the permanent magnet reaches the electro magnets, to reverse the polarity of the battery, so that the close ends now repel each other. I devised a system with metal wheels that make contact with the right ends of the battery at the right time.
The device is rickety, to say the least. And one problem is that permanent magnets, when exposed to rapidly changing magnetic fields, don’t stay permanent. My laboratory now reeks of ozone and sulphuric acid, but I have to say that there is something satisfying and cheerful about my little magnet spinning merrily between the coils. I also need a way to force it into a desired direction. Not knowing whether one’s vehicle would go forward or backward at the start would make for an interesting journey. Still, if Slate wants to pave the world with his solar roadways, then the electric engine will be there to move people along them.
I have refined my design somewhat. I have replaced the permanent magnet with another electric magnet, so future electric trains will not have to take on fresh magnets as today they take on water and coal. I have also put more coils round the rotor, and arranged the small wheel switches so that wherever the rotor is, the next set of coils will be activated. I have put in more lead-acid batteries to increase my motor’s power. To measure my engine’s power, I have attached a spool and some string to the axle.The first results are promising. My little electric friend can easily lift Newton’s Principiae, Paracelsus’ treatises on acids, and a stack of Hammond’s ghastly writings.
With the lights turned off, the blue sparks inside the motor make for an eerie son-et-lumière truly like fire stolen from the Gods. Though the principles are well understood, there is something almost magical about a device that starts moving unexpectedly, with no visible reason why it should. Will I be allowed to name this invention after myself? Does science, or engineering, flourish in captivity? And before I let this go to my head, has anyone else thought of this before me? Back in Paris, I could easily answer that question from our library. Though Slate has provided us with a good choice of literature, I miss the journals. In the end, it doesn’t matter. This Eagle’s Nest is my world now, and in it, the Dupont Electric Engine is all there is.
I am growing more worried about Miss Brenda Lee. Occasionally seeing her walk round the compound cheerfully bossing us eggheads around, was a small spark of light in this dark place. Now, every time I see her, she is the one who needs cheering up. I would be more than willing to lend my young friend a listening ear, allow her to share what is on her mind, but she is unwilling to. I can hardly force her to reveal her secrets, so I show her my electric engines. I say “my” engines, but my inventions have been shared, and the craftsmen among us, metal workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, have rebuilt my sad first attempts into a much more powerful engine. Now, of course, the engine has grown beyond the capacity of my Gaston Planté batteries, and we are working on providing more powerful sources of electricity. At Magister Slate’s advice, we have started to add the radiant crystals from deep underground to our battery acid, but any effect is negligible. Dr. Mason, an Englishman who lived in the Americas until he came to Paris for the Academy dinner, is working with me, trying to optimise the mixture of chemicals to draw forth the lightning. We are making small improvements, but we need huge leaps. To give us something to do while we wait for inspiration, we have constructed an electric locomotive. It is able to propel a mine cart along the tracks almost as quickly as two of our dark-skinned miners can. Which means that two of these poor creatures can occasionally get some rest. Who says that science does not improve our lives?
I found Miss Brenda Lee in my laboratory today. She was sitting on the floor, up against the wall, staring at my very first engine, spinning round in uneven jerks as its battery was almost depleted. I looked at her face, and almost recoiled. She was ashen pale, and looked up to me with hollow eyes.
“Can’t do this anymore.”
I hesitated, then sat down next to her. My knee briefly touched hers, and she winced at the contact. I reached out, held her hand between mine. She closed her eyes. Bowed her head.
“Those poor bastards in the brig. I thought they just stuck them in there for a few days if they stole stuff, or started a fight, or something. But that’s not all they do. They’re… trying to make them…”
I held Brenda’s hand tighter. She took a few shallow breaths.
“Trying to make them talk. Snitch on their friends. And when they’ve done it, they send them back. To show the others what’ll happen if they don’t behave. Sometimes they end up at the bottom of a mine shaft.” Brenda swallowed. “Sometimes, that’s for the best.”
“All that for trying to hide a few lumps of pitchblende?”
“They don’t swallow glowing rocks. What would they need those for? They just get picked. Maybe one of them gets too cocky. Maybe one of them talks about getting outta here. Maybe someone thinks he can get into the Mistress’ good books and makes up something about one of his friends. It don’t matter! They just need an example now and then, and any of ’em will do. To keep them quiet. Keep them scared.”
I gently stroked Brenda’s hand.
“And you bring them food. You bring them water. Maybe a kind word, or a look of pity.”
Brenda scowled. “I look through the hatch. I push a plate under the door, and then I hear them shuffle and take it. I never go in. I try not to think! I’m no better than any of them.”
“Yes you are,” I said.
“You…” I fell silent.
“I just put down the food and the water, and run, and pretend it didn’t happen. That they’re not people. That they are just animals that have been bad. That I don’t see them bleed, because it is too dark. I don’t look into their eyes. I hate myself for doing it, but it’s the only way I can keep myself from going crazy. Maybe I should just give in. Take a turn beating the shit out of them. Go crazy like them.”
“But you won’t. Miss Lee, you are still a compassionate human being. You are not like them. Know that those poor souls look out to you for the one glimmer of light in their day.”
“There’s someone new.”
Brenda blurted it out, as though she had been debating with herself to broach this subject, and saying it before she could change her mind. “Some English woman got herself caught by the side entrance. They’re keeping her tied down. They’re…” Brenda swallowed. “They want to know everything she can tell them. They are… they are seriously…”
I said the word Brenda could not.
“They are torturing her.”
Brenda gripped my hand tightly. Gave a single nod.
“And I have to give her water. I have to see her. Hear her. And then I have to walk away, and leave her.” Brenda gave me a look filled with despair. “Can’t do it anymore.”
“I will not stand for this, Mademoiselle Lee. I will go to Slate and demand that he stop this immediately.”
“Don’t be an imbecile,” said Brenda. “You’ll be in there with her before you know it, and me too, for telling.”
“There must be something we can do,” I said. Did I believe it, or did I simply want to hear Miss Lee deny it, and agree with her, and absolve myself?
“I’m all ears,” said Miss Lee.
We both fell silent. After a while, Miss Lee stood up. Without another word, she walked out of the door.