CHAPTER 1 – A VIOLENT REMINDER
“It’s a perfect day for the experiment” declared Professor Henry Coombs as he looked around at the idyllic scene, and no one felt inclined to contradict him. Henry and his assistants were standing in a large grassy field, lit by spring sunshine, looking over at the apparatus for the experiment. The collection of metal machinery looked incongruous among the rich greenery of an English meadow, having been delivered there by a sturdy cart drawn by an equally sturdy horse.
The apparatus consisted of two machines connected by a long pulley belt, one being a very recognisable compact steam engine but the other was a more exotic device, with more than a passing resemblance to a Heath Robinson creation. Sitting atop the mysterious assembly was a large glass globe that the more observant would have noticed contained a sparse arrangement of metal filaments. Surrounding the apparatus was a large amount of empty space, leaving it looking isolated and abandoned; except for two thin wires and two thin strings connected to a makeshift bunker some twenty yards distant.
It was from behind this bunker that Professor Coombs made his declaration and rubbed his hands together in confident enthusiasm. Beside him stood two young men who did not share his confidence and warily eyed the distant contraption, while cautiously nodding in acquiescence. They were dressed in student garb according to the current fashion, attempting to show their earnest dedication to learning through their stiff white shirts and starched upright collars, covered by modest herringbone check jackets. The professor on the other hand had opted for a tweed suit with gaiters that would have been more suited to a shooting party than an experiment.
He drew a large pocket watch from his waistcoat and consulted it briefly before turning to the nearer man and asked briskly “well Mr. Jones, is the engine primed with a full head of steam?”
The tall thin figure of Mr. Jones turned towards his senior and nodded, “It’s all ready to go professor, I only need to pull the lever to start her going” he said pointing to a large wood and brass assembly attached to a stanchion.
“Good” said Coombs “and is the measuring device set up as we discussed Mr. Perriman?”
He directed this towards the second man. Mr. Perriman was shorter and stockier than Mr. Jones, looking far more robust and florid than expected of an academic. He glanced nervously at the
ancient wood and glass case containing a measured scale towards which pointed a thin and delicate spear of metal. The instrument had been liberated from the New National History Museum, through much negotiation and a little bribery, and no one was sure if it actually worked. Certainly the pointer was movable but nobody had been brave enough to try it out until today.
“I have connected it as you expressed professor but we will not know if we are correct until we run the experiment.” replied Mr. Perriman.
“Very well, then we have no reason to stay our hand, let us proceed” ordered the professor.
Mr Jones reached forward and hauled the lever towards him using both hands, causing the distant steam engine to hiss and creak as it made its first hesitant turns of the flywheel. Soon the wheel was spinning faster and the belt drive engaged, snapping taut as it pulled the second machine into life. A low growl emitted from the strange device as its internals began to rotate and whirr, causing an odd metallic tang to fill the air, while the glass sphere above it began to glow with a weak orange core of light. As the steam engine picked up speed the glow increased until it became a bright white, clearly visible from where the professor and his assistants were standing.
“It’s working,” exclaimed Coombs excitedly “Are we getting any readings on the measuring device?”
Mr. Perriman shook his head glumly and fiddled dejectedly at the connecting terminals, first with one hand and then using both hands, which proved to be a mistake as he catapulted back from the device in a state of startled shock. Coombs and Mr. Jones chuckled with complete disregard for the poor man’s pain and the professor noted “well that seems to have confirmed that we are getting current through the wires at least”. Mr. Perriman scowled and rubbed his hands ruefully.
The professor and the two young men looked over at the spectacle of the little steam engine chuffing energetically while the generator whirred and the lamp glowed brightly. The professor was particularly pleased and satisfied; delighted to see the results of so much planning and building that had gone into this experiment. He almost felt like punching the air in delight but his dignity would not allow it.
Had they been looking in the right direction at this point they would have noticed a small bright object in the sky heading directly for them at great speed. Soon it passed over them and halted some thirty feet directly above the crude generator, its round metallic body glinting in the bright sunlight while small beams of coloured light pricked its surface. The three men froze in terror at the sight but terror turned to horror when a shaft of blue light shot out into the generator, blasting it to pieces with such intensity that much of the apparatus was evaporated. The air reverberated with the crack of explosion, scaring the birds roosting nearby into clamorous flight, while a plume of black smoke shot skywards; a thick accusing finger reaching up before drifting westward on the breeze. The device, now having fulfilled its purpose, zoomed upwards until out of sight.
Many seconds later the three men came out of shock and looked at each other in fear and awe.
“So the stories are true, it would seem” muttered the professor and the others nodded in agreement.
“Yes professor, it looks like the Sentinels are still with us.” said Perriman dolefully “I see now why you wanted to do the experiment out here in the open. I dread to think what the Dean would have done if that explosion had happened in the university grounds.”
Professor Coombs sighed heavily; the Dean would have used an incident like this to close down all of his research immediately. Simply building the apparatus had caused great consternation and the Dean’s opposition had barely been kept in check by promising that no one would be harmed.
There was little else to do now but pack up what remained of the experiment and head back to town to catch the evening train up to Cambridge. The cart was rescued from the adjacent field where the horse had fled from the devastation; then loaded with the surviving steam engine plus various fragments of generator, together with the instruments and packing cases. Mr Jones, in passing Mr Perriman, remarked caustically “A damn waste of time and energy in my opinion, we proved nothing today”.
Mr. Perriman shrugged morosely in agreement, still rubbing his arms and hands to recover from the electric shock but professor Coombs was silently delighted. True they hadn’t got a reading of the current or voltage but they had proved that the generator worked and had produced enough power to trigger one of the ‘Sentinels’, also confirming that Earth was still being watched. He was aghast at the ferocity of the attack by the Sentinel and deeply regretted the loss of the light bulb, made at great cost.
He smiled grimly, ‘both wins and losses today’ he thought but the biggest win would be the report he could now put before the Dean of the College. ‘Now that old fool can’t refuse my grant for research or continue to block me at every turn. I have proof now that the old knowledge holds the truth’.
At the railway station the three men marked the momentous day with a cup of tea and a bun at the station buffet (the professor paid) and while they imbibed their refreshment they discussed the events of the day and the Sentinel in particular.
“I have heard many descriptions of the Sentinels from childhood but nothing prepared me for the reality of that sight this morning.” Perriman claimed, shifting his bulk on a flimsy chair that creaked ominously under his weight.
“Indeed, I was surprised to see it flying and floating without any kind of wings or a propeller. And so silent too.” Joined Jones as he drained his cup.
Henry nodded sagely as if he was an expert on the subject but the sight had just as badly shaken him. It was a wholly new experience and utterly frightening to witness a technology so advanced that it baffled the senses.
“Any idea what that shaft of blue light was made of?” asked Perriman “It must be pretty powerful stuff to have done so much damage.”
The others shook their heads dejectedly; realising their knowledge lacked any possible insight as to how the awesome power of the machine was created.
“Well it was certainly effective at stopping us generating electricity and a hell of a warning not to try again.” Jones remarked “I think it shows that these things are best left alone professor, if you don’t mind me saying so. We get along quite well enough without electricity. Steam power is all we need.”
The professor glowered heavily at Mr Jones, his eyes narrowing in concentration, trying to divine a deeper meaning to the young man’s words.
“Stopping us from using electricity has effectively hobbled humanity, sending our civilisation back centuries in terms of technology and keeping us captive here on Earth. We can achieve a lot using steam but we are still very limited without electricity and that is why I feel so strongly about trying to keep our knowledge of it alive. We may be entering a new golden age, a Second Age of Steam as it were, but until we can use electricity again we will never be truly free.” Coombs pontificated importantly, ignoring the worried looks from those around him.
Mr Jones went quiet on the subject as he was busy with another chain of thought that involved the Professor and he made his excuses to leave, claiming he had relatives nearby that he wanted to see.
“It baffles me how that thing managed to detect us generating electricity in the first place.” Perriman resumed “I mean, we were all alone in the middle of a field and it came out of nowhere.”
“True,” replied the professor “it seems able to see what we are doing from a great distance. Is it possible it uses some kind of super advanced spyglass? I wonder if it saw the light glowing and that gave it away.”
“And I wonder if it had some kind of special instrument, like the one we tried to use, but without needing any connections. I know we didn’t get any readings this time but I did notice the needle trembling at the zero point, with a strange constant vibration. Could that mean anything?” Perriman pondered slowly “Something is tugging at the edge of my mind, possibly from the old documents and books that you gave me to read, a clue that just needs to be remembered correctly to solve this puzzle.”
After their refreshments Professor Coombs retired to the First Class waiting room to read his paper while Mr Perriman, travelling third class, had to wait on one of the hard wooden benches that lined the platform, until the train arrived. He consoled himself with the thought of getting back to Cambridge in time for dinner and to distract himself from the growing hunger pangs he tried to figure out why the instrument had not given any readings. Certainly there was electricity getting through, he was more than convinced of that. He went over the construction of the generator in his mind visualising each piece being brought into being and placed into position, a skill he had learnt from making other instruments for the professor. Several times he had used this technique to see where he had gone wrong or to see where the problem lay. ‘Everything looks fine’ he concluded with a sigh ‘the construction was not at fault, there had to be a more fundamental problem, something to do with how the electricity was being measured.’
At last the train pulled in and he jostled his way onto a seat in the carriage, sitting beside a thin watery-eyed man with a persistent cough; the smell of sweat adding to the stuffy warmth of the interior. ‘Oh well’ he thought ‘I’ll be back home soon’.
Meanwhile, Mr Franklin Jones made his way into the town in search of the Post Office, for he had an urgent message to send. Although the normal means of communication was by letter, or if urgent and local, by messenger boy, today he would need to send a telegram. The Hydraulic Telegraph was the pinnacle of long distance communication, involving as it did many relay stations and pumping stations that allowed the transmission of messages along underground pipes using variations in pressure. The system was quite basic, in that codes were sent as short and long pulses, to be decoded into text messages but development was afoot to allow these variations of pressure to be translated into speech.
Although a student of restricted means, the recipient of the message had ensured that Franklin could afford the severe cost the telegram but even so, he had to produce a crisp blue bank note
before the operator would begin. Franklin had already carefully pondered and edited the wordage on the way from the station, to ensure his message would be clear, precise and most importantly, within budget. Slowly and distinctly he dictated it to the operator and having completed the transaction he promptly left.
Franklin made his way north through the old town of Hitchin, avoiding the slums out of distaste rather than for safety. The police force had been greatly improved in the last 20 years and with the boom in commerce, few were desperate enough to resort to mugging. He made his way to a modest yet well appointed detached house on the boundary of the parish, it being the rectory of the local church, occupied by his elder brother Charles, sister-in-law Janice and their daughter Katie. The post of rector was greatly prized in the area, providing a stipend from the Church that amounted to a comfortable income and a rent-free detached house with ample gardens. His brother Charles had once aimed to become a vicar and work his way up the church hierarchy but he had not been able to find a sponsor and had only managed to achieve the position of rector.
The housekeeper showed Franklin into the parlour where his brother was already seated. The family resemblance was easily seen, especially in the dark brooding brown eyes. The two embraced warmly as only brothers can, before reclining in large comfortable armchairs, waiting for each other to speak. Eventually Charles began by asking
“So how did the great experiment go, there has been rumour of an explosion”.
“As well as can be expected Charles, indeed better in some respects.” came Franklin’s enigmatic reply “Yes, the Dean will be pleased to hear that the professor’s generator went up in a puff of smoke. A Sentinel arrived and blew up the experiment before old Coombs could make any measurements. However, my lovely little engine survived and more importantly my control system worked perfectly. ”
Charles’s brows shot up with surprise and alarm at this sudden revelation.
“You saw a Sentinel? They really do exist then?”
“So it would seem and very effective they are at ensuring that we do not use electricity for any reason.” replied Franklin with a grim smile. “Oh, I must thank you on behalf of Professor Coombs for getting us permission to use the field. I’m afraid there is a burnt patch in the middle of it now but nothing serious.”
“That will be fine Franklin, I am just glad that none of you were injured. You seem to have fallen in with a dangerous man, this Professor Coombs. I would avoid him in future if I were you; it will not help your career, that is for sure.”
“Don’t worry about me, I have the ear of some very powerful friends in Cambridge, looking after Coombs is something of a privilege, you might say. It’s not been an enjoyable task and I feel slightly traitorous in having done it, after all Professor Coombs is not a bad old stick, just a bit of an eccentric.”
Although Franklin had joined the university to study engineering and steam power he had, along with many of his fellow students, taken great delight in attending Coombs’ lectures. These often proved to be most amusing as the old duffer tried to explain what electricity was and tried in vain to convince whomever would listen of the many fantastic feats achieved through the use of this magical ingredient. One notably hilarious lecture had climaxed in paroxysms of laughter when the professor tried to show how rubbing two cats together could generate electricity. Franklin smiled at
that memory but he had his career to look after and keeping the Dean happy would go a long way to improving his standing.
Franklin’s brother was not so at ease with the situation, however. The existence of Sentinels was a troublesome fact for the church and its followers, preferring instead to believe that God had instigated the ban on electricity. There had evolved propaganda that the Sentinels were in fact an angelic host sent to punish mankind for disobedience but eyewitness reports of shiny metal spheres with ray guns undermined this ecclesiastical view. Franklin’s assurance that only he and two others saw the device calmed his brother’s concern somewhat as this small aberration could be safely ignored.
“I too have good news” beamed Charles “It appears I am to be a father again. Janice informs me that she is with child and this has been confirmed by the doctor.”
“Congratulations Charles, and I will pray for the safe delivery of a healthy baby” Franklin remarked. However, he noticed the strained expression behind the happy face and remembered how difficult it had been with their first born. Both mother and child had nearly died during labour from complications that the midwife could only guess at.
“Thank you Franklin, God willing it will be. Now you must join us for dinner and stay the night.”
“Of course I shall and thank you. I was hoping to stay a few days so that I can refresh my friendship with a certain lady.”
They both smiled; knowing of the promising relationship Franklin had with a certain Florence Mayfield, a friend and companion whom was still single. Wagging tongues had often suggested that she was waiting for Franklin to return from his studies and that an engagement was not far off.
The first chapter of The Search for CERN will appear on 21st November. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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