The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 13

“How in the name of Those Above did it happen?” roared Leothan in fury.

“They had artillery,” replied Field Marshall Amberley flatly. “Six four inch cannons, an assault cannon and several infantry mortars. How they got them into the country...”

“How in the name of Those Above did they get four inch guns into the country?” demanded the King. “How? How did they do it?”

“We’re looking into it.”

Leothan ran a trembling hand through his hair. “So, what's the situation?” he asked.

“They used the cannon to destroy the walls, then poured through en masse to distribute hand weapons to the prisoners while the mortars and the assault cannon provided cover. The Carrowmen then slaughtered the guards and disappeared into the countryside, leaving the artillery behind. They must have thought it would slow them down.”

“So there are sixty thousand armed Carrow soldiers in the middle of Helberion with nothing between them and the capital! How soon can they be here?”

“They won't be coming here, Sire. There may be a lot of them, but they're armed only with hand weapons and a limited supply of ammunition. They have no food, no way to resupply themselves. Marboll has strong walls and cannons. They'd be cut to pieces. No, Sire, I believe they'll head back towards Carrow. Try to cross the border back into their own country.”

Leothan nodded, gradually growing calmer as the initial shock wore off. “Can they do that? Get back across the border? They'd have to penetrate the Steel Curtain.”

“They can if the regular Carrow army launches a full scale attack on that part of the curtain. Punch a hole in it with their big guns, send their men in force. They'd have to have agreed beforehand exactly where the assault will take place, so that the escaping prisoners know where to go.”

“Could they go north, through Erestin? Go around the Steel Curtain? You suggested at the last war council that they might do that.”

“Only if they've come to an arrangement with them. Supply dumps, food stores laid up in advance. We’ve been on the lookout for that sort of thing in case an invading army comes in the opposite direction and we’ve seen nothing. Without it, Sixty thousand unprovisioned men travelling two hundred miles through a foreign country, they'd have to forage from the land, pillage and steal. Erestin would take that as an act of war, and Carrow won't risk making a second enemy. No, I believe they’ll make straight for their own country.”

Leothan nodded. “Have you seen any sign that they’re preparing an assault on the Steel Curtain? Gathering troops in one place? Positioning artillery pieces?”

“They already have troops and cannons all along the border. They could hit us anywhere. I believe out best bet is to follow the escaping prisoners, see where they’re heading. They'll be going in as straight a line as possible to make the best time. They know our cavalry's looking for them. If cavalry meets infantry in open country, even outnumbered ten to one, it'll be a short battle. I have the countryside full of men looking for them. There's no way sixty thousand men can hide for long.”

“What are the chances that'll happen? That we'll stop them before they reach the border?”

“Normally, I'd be confident. Cavalry can move faster than infantry. They can sweep back and forth, comb the country...”

“Normally?”

“There's a lot of fog in that part of the country, Sire. Quite unseasonal for this time of year, and persistent. Fog normally burns away once the sun’s up, but this fog is lasting all day, cutting visibility to just a couple of hundred yards. Just our luck that his should happen now, Sire.”

The King was staring, though. “When did the fog set in? Was it there before the attack on the POW camps?”

“Yes, Sire. It set in three days ago and shows no sign of letting up.”

The King was looking thoughtful and paced back and forth across the small room. “Very convenient, wouldn't you say, George? That this fog should descend, giving cover for the Carrowmen, just when they need it?”

“Nobody controls the weather, Sire.”

“The Radiants can control the weather, if the stories are true, and you say the fog set in before the attack on the POW camps. George, I'm going to ask you a question. You're going to think it’s a crazy question, but I'd like you to give it serious consideration. Okay?”

“Of course, Sire.”

“Would it be possible for Radiants to carry an artillery piece through the sky from Carrow to Helberion? Above the fog, unseen to those on the ground?”

The Field Marshall stared in astonishment, but then he turned away to look out through the window at the gardens below while he considered the question. “They can carry a full grown human, but an artillery piece weighs a lot more. Perhaps several Radiants to each cannon, with some kind of harness... Sire, do you have a reason for asking? Have the Radiants taken sides with Carrow against us?”

“George, I have to apologise to you. I have kept some facts from you, and the rest of the War Council, facts brought to my attention by the Brigadier. Things that he leaned while looking for the cure for my daughter. I kept them from you because I wanted independent verification. It was just too crazy, and I think part of me was trying to deny it, because of the terrifying implications. That was a mistake, and the breakout was the result...” Amberley started to protest but the King waved him down. “It was my mistake, George, and the time has come to correct that mistake. Yes, I believe that the Radiants have taken sides with Carrow against us. They don't want us to know, so they won't use earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, anything obvious. Fog could be taken as part of nature, though. Just simple dumb luck. That's why they were willing to risk it.”

“But helping to bring artillery in...”

“They must have hoped we would just take it as a mystery and leave it at that. They have no way of knowing that we're on to them. George, I'm going to hold a full briefing at six tonight, in the War Room, in which I'll lay out everything I know. The rest of the War Council will be there, as well as a bunch of scientists who'll be working on a weapon we can use against the Radiants. No more secrets, George. Not from you. If I'd told you all this before, this disaster might have been averted.”

“You put me in charge, Sire. You gave me Loco Regis. The fault was mine!”

“I kept information from you, information you needed. Be there tonight, George, and I'll tell you everything.”

“Yes, Sire. And we'll find the Carrowmen, Sire. I personally guarantee it. The cavalry will find them and wipe them out, before they reach the border.”

“Good. Tonight, then.” The King then turned and left the room, heading for committee room two, where the scientists were gathering.

Committee rooms one and two were the largest in the palace, about the size of ballrooms, large enough for hundreds of people to gather. Both had a stage on one side, two feet above floor level with steps leading up to them, and both had only small windows high up in the walls, most of the light being provided by electric candles, the only electric light in the palace. Room two was currently full of scientists and their assistants, the assistants setting up equipment, all keen to impress the King with their latest inventions, while the scientists themselves wandered from one display to the next, eager to see what the others had come up with. They all fell silent as the doorman announced the arrival of the King, and Princess Ardria came running up, beaming with delight. “Father, you have to see this! Some of these things are wonderful...”

Her voice broke off as she saw the look of worry on the King's face. “What is it? What's wrong?”

Leothan forced himself to look cheerful. “Nothing,” he said. “I'll tell you later. Show me around then. What have we got?”

She beamed at him and led him to the closest table, on which a strange assortment of equipment had been assembled. A young man and a woman were standing beside it looking anxious, staring down at their equipment as if desperate to do something to it but prevented from doing so by the presence of the King. “So, what’s all this?” asked Leothan.

“It's an audio graphology machine,” said the young man, “Or at least it will be if we can get it to work.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

An elderly woman came bustling over and the young man made way for her beside the machine. “My apologies, your Majesty. I was helping someone with something.” She looked down at the equipment. “Oh you little idiot! You've got the axle connected wrong! Look, this goes here!” She disconnected one of the connections and began attaching it to something else.

“If this is a bad time...” began Leothan.

“No, no, we’ve got it going now. That should be it.” She began to crank a handle, winding up a spring on the side of the machine. “This is a device for writing sound, as you might write down the words a man is speaking.”

“I’m sorry, and you are...?”

“Oh! I apologise, your Majesty. My name is Mary Wellings. How do you do.” She held out her hand, then snatched it back when she realised that wasn't something you did with Kings. Beside her, Ardria smoothed back her hair with one hand, using it to hide a grin.

“And this is an audio graph... something.”

“An audio graphology machine, Sire. If you want to record a man's words, you can just write them down, but what if you want to write down the song of a bird, or the sound of the sea crashing upon the beach?”

“Why would you want to record those things?”

Mary Wellings stared at him as if he'd asked her why she would want to breathe. “Well, someone might want to. And now you can, with this machine!” She made an adjustment to a screw jutting from one side. “The sound goes in through this funnel and moves this needle, which etches a groove in this cylinder of wax while the spring turns it at a steady rate. The sound is then stored on the cylinder, like words written in a book. Then it can be read back, maybe years later, simply by placing the cylinder back in the machine and reading it with the needle. The sound is released back through the funnel, as perfect as when it was first made! Would you like a demonstration?”

‘Yes please,” said the King. Around them, a small crowd was gathering to see what he was so interested in.

The scientist released a catch and the cylinder began revolving. “There we go, the machine is now writing.” She indicated the cylinder, where the needle was drawing a thin line through the wax. “If your Majesty would like to say something into the funnel...?”

The King looked doubtfully at the trumpet shaped brass funnel. “Very well. Er... This is King Leothan of Helberion. Long live the Kingdom and...”

“Excuse me, your Majesty, but you have to speak a little louder. Quite loud, in fact.”

Leothan looked at her, then raised his voice almost to a shout. “LONG LIVE THE KINGDOM AND ALL ITS PEOPLE!” He then looked at the scientist questioningly.

“Yes, er, that should do it.” She carefully lifted the needle from the cylinder and replaced it half an inch back, to where the recording began. A loud hissing began to come from the funnel, within which could just barely be heard what might have been human words. “Was that my voice?” said Leothan curiously.

Mary Wellings looked embarrassed. “Obviously this is just a prototype,” she said. “More work is required, but you can clearly see the potential! This device has the potential to change the world!”

“Wonderful, wonderful!” said Leothan, trying to make himself sound sincere. “You have clearly earned your place in this elite gathering! I look forward to seeing you at the award ceremony on friday.”

“I would be honoured, your Majesty!”

Leothan moved away to the next table, where another strange machine had been set up. The crowd followed him and gathered around, while a pair of guardsmen watched nervously. The scientists and their assistants had all been searched for weapons, but there were any number of bits of equipment that could inflict a lethal injury if wielded with sufficient force. Leothan was probably the only head of state in the world who would literally rub shoulders with strangers in this way. So highly was the royal family revered, though, that anyone who did try to harm the King would probably be wrestled to the ground by the rest of the crowd, with no thought for their own safety, before they could do anything.

“And what is this?” asked Leothan.

It turned out to be a sewing machine, and the King watched with genuine interest as the inventor used it to sew two pieces of cloth together, the needle flashing up and down almost too fast for the eye to follow. “Very impressive!” he said. “It is quite large, isn't it?”

“I expect later improvements to include a quite considerable reduction in size,” replied the woman who had invented it. “It may even be portable one day. I foresee a device small enough to fit into a carrying case, which can be set up on the living room table when needed, them stored in a side cupboard to free up the space when it’s not needed. One day, every household might have one of its own! Once the design has been perfected, a factory could be built to manufacture them by the thousand! All it needs is the necessary funding...”

“I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding a commercial enterprise to sponsor you. They'll be queuing up once they learn what you’ve come up with here.”

“I wondered whether you yourself might be interested in sponsoring it,” said the woman. “Once production is well under way it'll pay back your investment many times over!”

“I'm sorry, but the Crown doesn't get involved in commercial enterprises. Good luck with your invention.”

“A few thousand guineas is all it would need...” A pair of guards came forward to hold the woman back as the King went on to the next table.

Other inventions followed. Some bizarre and clearly impractical, and some that the inventors claimed could do wonderful things if only they could get them to work. One, that the inventor called a vacuum cleaner, was apparently supposed to make it easier to clean up dust and dirt from the floor, but when the inventor started up the steam engine that powered it the machine merely made a deafeningly loud noise and the small pile of grit he'd placed on the floor remained stubbornly immobile no matter how hard he waved the suction hose at it. “There must be another hole in the fan canister!” he roared at a terrified assistant. “I told you to find them all!” The King departed as quietly as he could while they began undoing the nuts and bolts holding it together.

The self playing piano worked better, and the King laughed aloud as the keys moved by themselves and a perfect rendition of ‘The woman with the flaxen hair' filled the room under the control of the cylinder of punched copper that revolved as the operator turned a handle in the side. “I’m intending to replace young Roger there with a clockwork mechanism of some kind in the near future,” said the inventor. “Probably to the great relief of his wife.” Everyone laughed, while the inventor beamed with delight and showed them the other cylinders he'd brought, each with a different piece of music programmed onto it.

“An electric candle!” said the King at the next table. “Surely the electric candle is an old invention! Barrow invented them twenty years ago!”

“This one operates on a completely different principle,” the inventor replied, a woman whose hair had been tied back in a severe bun into which she'd pushed a pencil. “The Barrow candle is basically nothing more than an electric spark between two graphite electrodes, whereas this one consists of a filament of iron that is heated by the passage of electricity through it until he glows with a bright light. The bulb of glass around it enables most of the air to be withdrawn from within, which allows the filament to last longer.”

“Last longer?”

“Yes. The filaments have a tendency to burn out after a few hours. I'm hoping that another metal, or a material of a different nature entirely, will last longer.” She connected a battery to the circuit on the table, flipped a switch and the bulb began to shine with a soft, yellow light. “You'll notice that the light is kinder to the eye than the harsh, white light emitted by Barrow candles.”

“But they last for months before needing to be replaced,” pointed out the King. “If your invention has a shorter life, surely this is a step backwards.”

“Not so, Sire. These candles require considerably less power. This battery here could power one, maybe two Barrow candles, but fully a dozen of my filament bulbs. Also, they present considerably less of a fire risk...” There was a faint ‘ting’ from the bulb and it went dark. The woman muttered a low curse and took a replacement from a box by her side.”

The King reached out to pick up the burned out bulb. It was hot, but not unbearably so. “It looks to be of quite intricate manufacture,” he said. “How much would it cost to make each one of these?”

“More than the graphite electrodes of a Barrow candle, I admit, but once they catch on I fully expect that economy of scale will cause the cost to drop considerably. If you make a thousand bulbs, each bulb costs less than if you only make ten.”

The King nodded. Economy of scale was a fundamental rule of economics that he knew very well. He wished the woman luck in her efforts, therefore, and moved on.

He paid only scant attention to the next few tables where demonstrations of refrigeration and photography, among other things, were being shown. There was one table that he particularly wanted to get to, and as luck would have it it was right at the other side of the room. That table had a small steam engine set up on it which turned an axle on which blocks of metal had been attached. The axle seemed designed to go inside a cylinder of copper wires which the scientist and her assistants were fussing with.

“Andrea McCrea, I presume,” he said when they gave no sign of having noticed his arrival. Someone in the crowd chuckled but the King ignored it.

“Excuse me, your Majesty,” said Andrea without looking up. “This won’t take a minute, and you'll be wanting a demonstration. Forget all those other widgets and gadgets littering the room, this is the machine that will change the world.”

“Your A.C. generator,” said Leothan.

That made the woman look up, and she stared in astonishment. “You've heard of it?”

“A machine that generates electricity, but not ordinary electricity. This electricity changes direction twenty times a second, correct?”

“Quite correct, your Majesty. I admit to being surprised, for which I apologise. You have an impressive knowledge of electricity.”

“I became interested in it when I learned of the fire that destroyed RedHill, and that killed Maxine Hester and her assistants. She was also working on alternating current, I believe.”

The scientist snorted contemptuously. “She thought she could produce current that alternated a hundred times a second! Ridiculous idea! No such apparatus exists! And why convert direct current to alternating current? Much simpler to generate electricity that is alternating in the first place! That's what this machine does. The engine spins these magnets inside these coils. The electricity that results changes direction twenty times a second! More than half a watt of usable power, and this is only the prototype! There’s no reason why future generations of the machine shouldn’t be able to generate hundreds of watts, maybe thousands!”

“Do you happen to know how Maxine Hester’s machine operated?”

“She never managed to create a working machine, and no wonder! The whole idea is flawed! Ridiculous idea! No, this is the future!” She patted her machine lovingly. “Power that can be carried for miles through copper wires! A single generator to provide all the electrical needs of an entire city, especially if Lucy can figure out her incandescent candles. Have you seen them yet? Her glowing hot filaments of wire use only a fraction the power of traditional Barrow candles. That woman is a genius! Unlike Maxine Hester. One doesn't like to speak ill of the dead, of course, but...”

“I have reason to believe that Maxine did create a working machine before her death,” interrupted the King.

Andrea shook her head. “She would have told me. That woman loved to gloat! If she'd created a working machine she would have sent a letter to tell me that very day! I received no such letter.”

Leothan nodded. He wouldn't say any more until they were away from the crowd of eavesdroppers. “Is anyone else working on alternating current?” he asked.

“Tippler in Kelvon is working on a machine like this, she knows where the future lies. There are rumours that the Harrolians have someone working on a converter, the same sort of thing that Hester was working on, but little more than rumours ever come out of that country as you well know, Majesty. I wouldn’t have heard of it, except that Hester sent me a gloating letter telling me that Saminov of Harrol had offered to compare notes with her. Without the knowledge of their government, I presume. Ah, I think we're ready to go now. Help me with this, Shanks.” One of her assistants, a man with black hair and a sallow complexion, took one end of the heavy coil as the scientist placed it back around the axle. “We were trying a different way of coiling the wire,” she explained while fitting nuts through holes and putting bolts on with a spanner. “We're hoping to generate more current this way.”

“I had no idea there were different ways of coiling wire,” admitted the King in bafflement.

“Unidirectional, bidirectional, toroidal, sicilial... Right, here we go. Start up the engine, Shanks.”

There was already a fire burning in the steam engine, and the assistant only had to turn a valve to let water flow through the boiler. “The true genius of this design,” said McCrae,” “is that it doesn't have to be a steam engine. Anything can turn the generator. Water, wind, just like the mills that grind grain info flour. Imagine using the wind to light our houses! How much longer, Shanks?”

“Water takes time to boil, Andy. The steam’s beginning to come now...”

Smoke and steam were rising from the engine, and someone opened some of the windows high up in the walls to let it out. The axle slowly started to turn. McCrae drew the King’s attention to an electric candle that stood in the middle of the electrical circuit, raising her voice to be heard above the noise of the steam engine. “As soon as the voltage rises high enough to overcome the resistance of the air gap...”

Suddenly the candle burst alight, a flickering glow that cast an actinic white radiance over the people gathered around the table. “There!” cried the scientist triumphantly. “Electricity from steam! The generator works!”

The King congratulated her as the crowd stared in admiration at the puffing, smoking, spinning apparatus. “Truly a remarkable achievement!” he said. “I have to move on, see the rest of the demonstrations, but I would very much like to speak to you more about this. Would you be available at around six tonight? You and both your assistants?”

“We are at your disposal, your Majesty!” said the scientist in delight.

“Good. I’ll send someone for you at around five thirty. You might want to eat before that, I might be keeping you for some considerable time.”

“Our time is yours, your Majesty. We’ll be ready.”

Leothan thanked her, then made his apologies and moved on to the next table.

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