The old brickworks at Adams Valley had a decrepit look to them from the outside. It was nearly two hundred years old and made from old bricks, crumbling and with a variety of weeds growing from the gaps in the mortar. There was a large gap between the wall and the ceiling in the north side where the ground had partially subsided, the wall below streaked with bird or possibly bat excrement that revealed it to be their favourite access to the building. The land all around was choked with weeds and brambles except where the works vehicles had trampled it down, and the sounds of sawing and hammering were coming from somewhere inside as workmen desperately worked to keep it from falling down.
Andrea McCrea sighed as she surveyed it from the road where the carriage had just dropped her off. Was this really the best they could do? Perhaps it was some kind of psychological thing, make agents of the enemy think there couldn’t possibly be anything important happening here. If so, it would certainly have worked on her. If she were to pick a spot where the most important research project in the world was to take place, this would probably be the last place she'd choose.
It was its location, of course. Just five miles from the border with Gildon. If Carrow were to invade before they made the breakthrough they needed, as seemed increasingly likely, they could load everything, all their equipment, notes and personnel, onto carts and dash across the border to the safety of the other country before the first Carrow troops arrived. Hopefully. There was a large town just a few miles on the other side of the border. If they could make it there they could seek refuge, asylum, from the authorities and hope they wouldn’t hand them over to the Carrow embassy in the name of political expediency. Gildon wasn't a large country, after all. They also had reason to fear Carrow, but Gildon and Helberion had enjoyed good relations for many years and that was what they would be pinning their hopes on, if the worst happened.
So, she thought, looking at the building that would surely be condemned if any structural engineer should happen to pass this way. This is where the invention that saves mankind will be born. The electric messiah. Either here or nowhere. If human civilisation survived, she wondered what future generations would think of this place. Would there be a monument here one day? A brass plaque or something saying ‘Here, on this spot, the alternator was invented, before the building collapsed in a light breeze’? She smiled to herself, then picked up her small bag of personal possessions and headed towards the open door.
The place was filled with woodworking equipment, sacks of cement and clouds of sawdust. Sounds of work and conversation grew louder as she went further in, until she found three carpenters shaping a large oak beam they were going to use to brace the ceiling. They were fully focused on their work, and she had to shout several time before she was able to get their attention. “Where are the scientists?” she asked.
“Through there,” said the largest of them. “They're setting up in the firing room. What used to be the firing room. Don't go upstairs, we haven't finished work on the upstairs floor yet.” Andrea nodded and set off in the indicated direction.
She found Shanks and Clarke working on the large steam engine that would be supplying most of the building's power. Beside it was a large pile of packing crates containing all the scientific equipment they'd asked for, moved out of the way to the side of the room until they had time to sort it out. The other side of the room was filled with a huge pile of coal, a few lumps of which had rolled across to the middle of the room. She kicked one back to the pile as she went to join her assistants. “Boss lady's here!” said Clarke, turning a greasy, soot stained face to greet her. “Look at this baby, Andy! Three times the size of our last one!”
“Impressive,” agreed Andrea, hanging her bag by the strap from the pipe that supplied the engine's water. “Now soon can you get it up and running?”
“Pretty much ready now.” The engine was radiating heat, she realised. As she moved closer, she felt it on her face and sweat began to break out on her brow. She went around to the furnace and saw yellow flames through the soot stained window in the door. “Pretty much up to heat,” Clarke continued. “The water's starting to steam. Give it another few minutes and we'll be ready to turn some wheels.” He indicated the pressure gauge mounted on the side of the boiler, whose needle was slowly climbing out of the blue and into the green.
“Where does the steam go?” she asked.
“Well, at the moment, it’s all going out through the release valve. When there’s enough of it, though, we'll close the valve and see if the piston rod turns the flywheel. If it does, we can attach whatever we want to the PTO wheel. Probably a belt, like last time. Turn a generator, get the electric candles burning.”
“Where are the electric candles?” Andrea looked around the ceiling, saw nothing but bare brick and cobwebs.
“Still in the crate. No point hanging them ‘till we know this fellow’s up to the job. We've already spent most of the morning replacing a whole bunch of seals. You should’a seen the place the first time we fired her up! Like a sauna! Even Tom here had to take his shirt off!” The other man looked up, wiping his hands on a rag. He scowled but said nothing.
“I think we're about there now,” said Clarke, looking at the meter. He went around to the side of the machine and wiped some more grease on the piston shaft, just for good measure. “Okay, Tom. Turn the valve. Just a little bit.”
Shanks walked around to the front of the machine and gave the round wheel under the valve a quarter turn. There was a loud squeal from somewhere, but nothing else happened. “A bit more, Tom!” Shanks gave the wheel a half turn and the squeal came again, louder this time. It reached a crescendo, but then subsided, turning into a regular rhythm alternating with puffs of escaping steam. “It's working!” cried Clarke jubilantly, and Andrea went around to join him. The piston was sliding rhythmically in and out, emitting a small puff of steam each time, turning the huge flywheel that stored the engine’s energy as angular momentum. A belt connected it to a smaller wheel, the Power Take Off wheel, which would be used to power whatever equipment they chose to connect to it.
“Sounds like we still need more grease somewhere,” said Shanks, examining all the moving parts critically. “There’s still friction somewhere. It'll wear if we don’t fix it.” He dug a large dollop of grease from a tin with his fingers and slapped it on the flywheel bearing, being careful not to get his fingers trapped. He frowned as the noise persisted and searched around for more moving parts.
“Where's Attwill?” asked Andrea.
“Talking to the staff, sorting them out. Assigning rooms, that sort of thing.”
“Okay. Keep up the good work.” She picked up her bag again, left the two men tinkering with the engine and headed deeper into the building.
The rest of the building was in better condition, she saw. The walls were plastered, the windows still had glass in them and the tiled floors looked almost new. She saw a woman scrubbing the walls, removing the layer of mold that had crept over it since it had last been occupied. She smiled at her as Andrea walked past and the scientist nodded back.
She found Olar Attwill talking to an elderly woman with what looked like a pair of knitting needles thrust through the bun of hair that sat on the back of her head. “I imagine they'll have their own rooms on the first floor, once the workmen have made them safe, but for the time being they'll all have to share that storeroom at the end of the corridor. They can put up sheets if they feel the need for their own spaces.”
“I’ve never understood the need for private bedrooms anyway,” the woman replied. “We all shared the one dormitory when I worked for the Ministry. A bed, a cupboard for your clothes and a couple of personal possessions. What more do they need?” They both looked around as they became aware of Andrea McCrea standing there and Attwill raised a hand to her. “So, I can leave it to you, then?”
“You can leave it to me, Sir.” She gave a confident smile, nodded to Andrea and bustled out of the room.
“That was Martha Grey,” said Omar Attwill, coming over to join his superior. “I've put her in charge of the staff, told her to sort out office and living spaces for them, that sort of thing. I hope that's all right.”
“Fine,” said Andrea. “How many staff do we have?”
“Two cooks, two cleaners, a caretaker, an accountant and six soldiers to make sure we’re not...” He looked around to make sure they weren't being overheard. “Saminov is dead! Had you heard?”
She stared in shock. “The Saminov? The Harrolian?”
“Suicide, they say. Ever since... Since the King told us... all about this... Well, I've been trying to get in touch with her. She was reaching out to Maxine Hester, I thought she might be interested in working with us. I wrote letters to her, heard nothing back, until her sister sent word that she'd hung herself. Destroyed all her notes, destroyed all her equipment and hung herself. First Maxine Hester, then her. Bit of a pattern developing, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps it really was just suicide. We don't know anything about her, what kind of stress she might have been under...”
“Yeah, maybe, but why destroy her equipment and burn her notes? She was murdered! By someone who wanted to end research into alternating current!” He leaned closer and lowered his voice, “And we're next! That's why the soldiers are here! The King thinks we need protection!”
Andrea McCrea stared at the wall thoughtfully. “I thought the King was being paranoid,” she admitted. “Shooting at shadows! Those Above! What if he’s right? What if the Radiants really are out to destroy human civilisation?”
“I’m getting a little scared, Andy. I don't mind admitting it.”
“Well, if the Radiants really are out to get us, the thing to do is build the weapon as fast as we can. The Alternator. The Electric Messiah.”
Andrea McCrea laughed. “Never mind. Let's get unpacked. We've got a laboratory to build.”
“Oh, by the way, the accountant wanted to talk to you.”
“Dunno. He's setting himself up in what used to be the Manager's office.”
Andrea laughed. “Is he now! Oh well, I expect he'll have more need of it than us. Let's go see what he wants.”
They had to pass through ‘the kitchen’ to get there, or the main works floor, to give it its proper name. The largest room in the building, occupying more than half of its total volume. It was the place where the clay had been stored in large damp mounds and where most of the work of pressing it into moulds to make bricks had been done. No-one knew why it was called the kitchen. Andrea supposed it had started as a joke and had stuck, which was probably how most things had been named back in the dawn of history. It would become their main laboratory, as soon as they had all their equipment unpacked and sorted out, but for now it was just a huge, empty chamber, its floor covered with dirt and dried lumps of hard clay.
As they walked through it, Andrea tried to imagine what it would look like in a few weeks time. Filled with sturdy, wooden tables on which hot equipment sat, sparking and crackling noisily and giving off the smell of ozone. There would be a dozen scientists and their assistants working here. Andrea and her assistants were only the first. The King intended that this place would be the leading electrical research centre for the Kingdom, if the Kingdom lasted that long.
On the other side of the kitchen was what had been the administrative area of the brickworks, and they found their bookkeeper in the Manager's office, as promised. He was sorting through a large pile of paperwork on his desk and didn't notice their arrival at first, until Andrea cleared her throat loudly. “Ah!” he said, looking up. “There you are! I need you to sign some requisition forms for me. Batteries, bottles of acid, zinc and copper plates.” He picked up some sheets of paper and handed them across.
“You've worked with electrical scientists before?” asked Andrea, scanning her eyes across them approvingly. “I was going to ask for these items.”
“I was the bookkeeper at RedHill. I know what you need, that's why they sent me here. Saves the time and effort of training up someone else. Geoffrew Barlowe, at your service.” He held out his hand.
“Andrea McCrea.” She took his hand and shook it, then held onto it as she studied it carefully. “Why the skin powder?”
“I have tiger stripes on my skin. A little embarrassing. People like to make jokes about it. They called me Tiger Man at RedHill. I know, I shouldn't let it bother me, but when it goes on day after day...”
“I think you'll find us a little more human than that. Was RedHill as bad as they say? The fire, I mean.”
“Worse. You can't imagine... They suspected me of starting it for a while. I enjoyed a nice few days in interrogation rooms, but at least I'm still alive to talk about it.”
“What changed their minds about you?”
“Well, officially I suppose I'm still a suspect, but they found a better candidate and I think they've pretty much closed the case on it. The caretaker. He vanished, and his body wasn’t found. They think the Carrowmen paid him to do it.”
“Horrible thought! Well, we’ve got soldiers to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If Carrow wants to stop our work, they'll have to send a squad of armed men. I don't really think there’s much chance of that. When they attack, their first priority will be to destroy the army and take the capital. They won't bother with us until that's done.”
“I'm sure you're right,” said Barlowe, and he smiled.
“Exquisite!” said Lady Dwen, clapping her hands. “You play beautifully, your Highness!”
Princess Ardria grinned with pleasure. “You're too kind,” she said, putting the lyre aside, “but I know all too well how I compare with professional players. I've asked father to stop inviting them to the palace, because hearing them play is just too depressing.”
“The story I heard is that they begged not to be invited any more because they couldn't compare with you!”
The Princess and her mother both laughed. “No wonder they chose you to be ambassador,” said Queen Lacurnia. “You have a silver tongue!” She waved the maid over and took one of the sugared almonds from the tray she held. The maid then offered the tray to the other two women, who both declined with slight shakes of their heads. “Willa, pour us some glasses of grapefruit juice, will you?” The maid bobbed her head and trotted daintily to the drinks cabinet in the corner of the room.
“How is Gildon these days?” asked the Princess. “It's been so long since we've been there! Father refuses to go anywhere so long as the state of emergency continues!” She took a crystal glass from the maid and took a small sip from it. Her brother, Prince Bowen, curled himself around her ankles, purring contentedly. He played with her bootlaces, his fingers having recently grown human enough to grasp things and not yet having grown bored with the novelty. The Queen reached down and picked him up, sitting him on her lap. Beside her, Princess Stephanie regarded him disdainfully, then returned to studying herself in a small hand mirror. She loved the sight of the small green feathers that still covered most of her face and didn't seem to have quite accepted the fact that she would soon lose them forever.
“Gildon will still be there when Carrow has been dealt with,” replied the Ambassador, also taking a glass. “Nothing would please and honour us more than to host an official visit from the Helberion royal family.”
“We may be going there rather sooner than we'd like, as refugees,” said Ardria gloomily. “Father keeps making optimistic noises, but anyone with a brain can see how this is probably going to end.” She stared at the delicately carved glass she was holding, as if imagining it being replaced by a porcelain mug.
“Nonsense! They may outnumber you, but your armies are far superior to theirs in equipment and training. And despite the escape of so many prisoners, thousands died during the getaway. Veterans who must be replaced by green recruits. I understand that our analysts think they may call off the invasion altogether, for ten years at least!”
“I think your analysts overlook the desperate situation the Carrowmen face at home,” said the Queen, though. “It's not that they want to invade, it’s that they must! We've been offering them a fortune in foreign aid, trying to ease their situation...”
“And pressuring other countries to do the same,” replied Lady Dwen. She raised a hand to forestall the Queen’s reply. “I agree with you! It's in all our interests to stabilise the country, but King Ponwell can't, or won't, see Carrow as a threat to Gildon.”
“Because Helberion lies between! But if we're conquered and occupied, Gildon will be directly adjacent to a province of Carrow!”
“The problem is that Carrow has never threatened our country. Even before Helberion split from Carrow, when they were our direct neighbours, they never threatened us. King Ponwell sees no reason why that should change.”
“Suppose King Nilon demands that we be turned over to him?”
“King Ponwell had guaranteed your safety if you seek sanctuary in our country. He can't go back on that without damaging his reputation with other countries.”
“Even if Carrow threatens war?”
“Forgive me for saying so, your Highness, but I doubt they would threaten war just to get their hands on you. They'll be happy just to get your country.”
The Queen rather doubted that, but she couldn’t reveal her reasons for thinking so. Their knowledge of the Radiant threat had to be kept to as few people as possible. The fact that Carrow was their tool with which to destroy one nation after another. If it was up to her, she would tell all the ambassadors, try to create an alliance against Carrow. If all the other small countries that circled Carrow and Helberion joined forces, they could build an army big enough to make Carrow pause and think twice, but Leothan still thought that the Radiants’ ignorance that they were aware of the threat was their greatest asset, and he wouldn't do anything to threaten that. If just one person who knew the truth were taken by the Radiants and adopted, that advantage would be lost forever.
“Besides,” continued the Ambassador. “Taking Helberion and keeping it may be two different things. You threw them off once, you'll do it again. I can see you returning from exile after a few years to be cheered by jubilant crowds! Just imagine the celebrations!”
“Why is it that, every time we get together, we end up talking politics?” asked Ardria, picking up the lyre and strumming a few notes on it.
“Well, we're a Queen Consort, a Crown Princess and an Ambassador,” said her mother with a smile. “What else are we going to talk about? And I doubt anyone else out there is talking about much else at the moment, whether they're Ministers or farm labourers.” She turned to the maid, standing patiently in the corner of the room. “Willa, what do they talk about below stairs?”
“Why, they talk about you, your Highness,” the maid replied. “About how much they love you. And the King, and the Princess, and the other Royal children.”
Lady Dwen laughed. “In no other country would I believe a statement like that, spoken by a maid to a Queen! And in no other country would a Queen chat to a maid as if she were a childhood friend in the first place! I think that might be the greatest weapon you possess, your Highness. The soldiers of other countries fight to defend themselves, their homes, their families, but the soldiers of your armies also fight to protect you!”
“I just see no reason why we can't be civil to each other,” said Lacurnia. On her lap, the Prince squirmed impatiently and she put him back down on the floor. The Prince immediately ran back to Ardria to resume playing with her bootlaces. “The children here remind us that we were all animals not long ago. I’m a Queen because a Queen adopted me. She could just as easily have adopted the animal that Willa used to be. May I ask what you were before, Willa? You needn't answer if you'd prefer not to.”
“I don't mind at all, your Highness. I was a peacock.”
“A peacock!” exclaimed the Ambassador in delight. “How wonderful! How did your parents adopt a peacock?”
“They were servants working for Duke Wellman. He kept peacocks in the grounds of his estate. My father was given the job of feeding them. He got a little too close to one of them, a parent bond formed. The Duke gave his permission for my parents to formally adopt me and that was that.”
“Well, there you are!” said the Queen. “My mother could easily have adopted a peacock! If things had gone differently, you'd be a Queen now, Willa! How would you like that?”
“Oh no, your Highness! I couldn’t handle the responsibility!”
“You could if you'd been raised by a King. It's not just the physical form of the parent that impresses itself on the child. Their mind and personality is impressed as well. If you'd been adopted by King Goswen, you'd have a completely different personality!”
“Then I wouldn’t be me. I'd be someone else. The person I am is quite content to be what I am, your Highness.”
“Interesting birds, peacocks,” mused the Ambassador. “They're one of the few creatures where the male is physically different from the female. Those beautiful tails of theirs. If we were like peacocks, we'd have no choice whether we were men or women. We'd be what our bodies made us.”
“Hard to imagine what that would be like!” said the Princess, stroking her brother and tickling him under the chin.
“May I ask a personal question, your Highness?” asked Lady Dwen. “Why did you choose to be female? Most people would think it’s a strange choice for a future monarch.”
“I don’t know, it just felt right. Anyway I can always change my mind. All I've got to do is cut my hair short, start dressing in men’s clothes. Start calling myself Bruce or something...”
All three women started laughing together. Prince Bowen stared at them in wide eyed bewilderment for a moment, then went into the middle of the room, raised a leg and started licking his bottom.