The tiny house spider scurried out onto the brass pipe moments before steam hissed from a nearby valve. The factory’s heating system was starting its evening cycle. Cecil, slouched sideways in his chair, chin on palm, shifted his elbow from the chair arm to the warm pipe. How long could he keep it there before the heat grew too intense? Who would move first, him or the trapped spider? Could he be any more neurotic tonight?
Traces of the Leviacrum representative’s African lily perfume lingered on his gangway overlooking the giant, restless machine. Miss Polperro and her dozen cronies were busy inspecting it below, making notes…assessing his progress for the Council. Jackals! They had their agenda, he had his. What gave them the right to scrutinize his experiment when their own skyscraping venture remained the empire’s most closely guarded secret?
Well, two can play at that game.
He stood his hinged, twin picture frames beside him on the fold-up metal table and tilted the photographs toward him. He hadn’t wanted the Leviacrum spies to see how personal this experiment was to him, or that this spot on the gangway was his favourite place in the world. Lisa’s timid smile and distant, ethereal eyes belonged up here with him. Their black-and-whiteness did not register. Through his spectrometer goggles he saw only full colour—her flush cheeks, hazel eyes and beautiful auburn hair. Little Edmond’s curious intellect almost leapt out of the frame. Cecil smiled, shifted his goggle lens to a higher magnification. The boy had his features alright: black curly hair, a thin face with a square chin and that famous Reardon button nose, eyes a little too close together. Edmond might have grown up bookish and odd-looking like his dad but he’d also had his mother’s sweet and sensitive nature. Under her tutelage he would have become a good, moral man, a man with many friends. What would he have made of his father’s reclusive quest—this epically selfish machine?
Would either of them approve of him unravelling time to bring them back? Perhaps messing up the temporal works for good? He’d asked their images a thousand times and his heart’s response had never wavered, not in six years.
Do everything within your power. Nothing else matters. You will never be complete if you don’t try. Let God stop it if He must.
The massive primary brass cogs flanking the machine lurched incrementally forward, powering the network of gears and pistons. He’d designed the machine in a creative fever six years ago, shortly after quitting his job as laboratory supervisor in the Leviacrum. His work there had concerned the acceleration of psammeticum energy in subspace lens refraction, specifically to send light waves a tenth of a second back or forward through time.
He had achieved both those goals, but despite unlimited resources, the Leviacrum scientists had not made further progress since his departure. A tenth of a second, on such a small scale, had no practical use. These spies had come to check on his progress because their research had hit a brick wall. They were desperate for a breakthrough.
Little did they know he’d been on the verge of that breakthrough for the past four years.
His machine rolled cosmic dice continually, once every ten seconds, every hour of every day. He leaned over the brass railing and inhaled the delicious smell of petroleum and steam, his favourite combination anywhere on Earth apart from the scent of African lily, Lisa’s perfume.
He flinched as the house spider scurried along his arm. Well, well. The critter had outwitted him, escaped the hot pipe by using its opponent, Cecil—swapping one danger for another. The lesser of two evils. Nature’s own difference engine at work? The parallel for his own plight tickled him, and he caged the spider in his fingers and lowered it onto the gridiron gangway, then watched it scurry away to safety.
“Professor Reardon, I have one last question for you.” The insufferable woman’s footsteps rattled the platform behind him.
He turned and cupped a hand over his ear, pretending he hadn’t heard. How dare these jackals yell at him in his own factory.
She approached, wiping the moisture from her thick-rimmed spectacles. The hem of her grey walking suit snagged on a jutting end of steel and ripped. Cecil bit his lip to hide his amusement.
“Everything seems in order.” Miss Polperro freed her skirt and then tapped her pencil on her clipboard. “We are most impressed with your psammeticum transfer process—very novel. But my colleagues and I are unable to discern the precise mechanism calculating the angles and indices of refraction. All we can find is a Hillary magno-abacus, hardly an advancement. Is that the hub of your machine?” Disdain poured from her snooty remarks, as though she regarded him as a pesky insect to be stepped on, and she’d wasted her time even coming here.
Exactly the reaction he’d hoped for.
“Yes, the abacus is calculating those measurements,” he lied.
“Modified of course?”
Uh-oh. Best not make it too obvious. “Yes, greatly modified. But Hillary’s design was always the best template.”
The corner of her thin lips curled cruelly, precipitating an unpleasant levity across her schoolmarm face. “Indeed. Thank you for your time, Professor. I will make my report to the Council first thing tomorrow. The next inspection is scheduled for six months from now. Oh yes, have you any questions for us?”
Only a trillion that you’ll never answer. “No. I believe this concludes our business for now. Good evening, Miss Polperro.” He waved to the throng of shadowy cronies huddled together near the spiral stairwell.
“Good evening.” She handed him a copy of the full disclosure document he’d signed earlier. It stated that he was still bound by the Official Leviacrum Secrecies Act, and that if he withheld any new scientific discoveries based upon his work in said institution, he faced prosecution and a potential charge of treason against the Crown.
Familiar threats were bandied about indiscriminately in England these days. As soon as the jackals had left, he screwed the document into a cricket ball and bowled it over-arm into the molten iron furnace a hundred feet below—that section of his factory he leased as a miniature steelworks to a new Irish company. “How’s that?” he mimicked the fielding team’s reaction to a wicket keeper’s catch. He’d loved cricket once upon a time, and Lisa had loved to watch him play…
His tightening fists squeaked on the moist brass railing.
How one skidding automobile, barely out of arm’s reach, could destroy a man’s life so completely. The sting of ice pellets thrown up by the crash, the way Lisa had contorted her slender frame in an attempt to shield Edmond, the unimaginable helplessness he’d felt as he’d watched on, frozen, impotent. No, he daren’t dissect the memory any more, not when he was so close to erasing it forever. He hissed and shook his head, trying to loosen the memory but it was lodged. Cecil Reardon, husband and father? Tail coat and top hat in the morning, pyjamas and dinner jacket in the afternoon and for interminable months afterward…
His lips receded from his teeth. The molten metal in the vat below ran through his veins tonight. He’d just lied to the Leviacrum Council, staked his fortune and his life on a roll of the dice that might never come to pass.
But the device at the heart of his difference engine held more than just promise. It was destined, a family affair. He’d fashioned it after his famous ancestor’s blueprints for a celestial chronometer. John Harrison had invented the first accurate seafaring chronometers used by the British Navy in the late eighteenth century. Yet, unbeknownst to the public, he had also drawn up plans for a timepiece so accurate, so versatile, it could be adapted into a difference engine of mind-boggling application.
Cecil had achieved that and more besides. And the world’s first steam-powered temporal differentiator ticked away beneath him, the numbers on its brass dials hidden from official science like the invisible countdown of life was hidden from all living things. For now, God alone was privy to the correct sequence that would turn back history to before the crash. But finding those numbers, he knew, was only a matter of time.
He sat once more on his chair on the gangway and crossed his legs. How many days and nights had he waited here, watched over the instrument of his salvation? The hissing, whirring, clanking brain below seemed to speak to him. It said, “Everything within our power. Let God stop us if He must.”
Minutes passed like hours. He’d begun to nod off when a noxious fizz in the air made him cough. He eased to his feet and scowled at a strange lilac light seeping up through the steam like luminous grains in an upside-down hourglass. His pulse outpaced the machine’s rhythm for the first time in weeks. The light appeared to have emerged from…the Harrison clock? The only thing he could think of was to get to his differentiator and record the numbers. Something truly extraordinary had happened inside his machine, and he needed to know when and why.
In moments, the entire factory glowed with lilac webbing on the walls and rain that fizzed, burned on his skin. He pulled his dinner jacket over his head and rushed for the stairwell, never more frightened or excited in his life.
Before he left the gangway, a blinding purple flash blazed throughout the factory…