1879: Hat 03: The Aetheric Resonance Compensator
This story will be relevant to a future product. You’ve been taking notes, right? The A levels are approaching.
“Sah!” Sergeant Nokwazi snapped off a salute sharp enough to cut.
Lieutenant Anderson raised an eyebrow at the woman. “And Color-Sergeant Booth is where?”
“Sah!” Nokwazi grinned briefly, a flash of startlingly white teeth against dark skin. “Color-Sergeant Booth’s regrets, sah, and if this is an invitation rather than an order to attend, he would prefer to continue supervising the latrine detail, sah!”
Lt. Anderson rolled his eyes. “Very well, I suppose I did phrase it that way. If he would prefer to give our latest attempt a miss, I can’t say that I can hold that against him. You, however, will attend me, and fetch a squad of our stronger soldiers.”
“Stomach or shoulder, sah?”
“Shoulder, I should think. No cattle this time round.” The lieutenant gave a delicate shudder.
The sergeant snapped off another salute with a nearly audible pop, about-faced and ran off at an easy trot. Lt. Anderson watched her go with something akin to envy. The Zulus ran everywhere, even in this infernal heat. He trudged off toward the Rabbit Hole, far too aware that even a slow walk caused him to break a sweat that did terrible things to his uniform.
Lieutenant Morgan gave him a cursory glance as he arrived, sparing only the briefest fraction of his attention from the preparations over at the portal.
“Looking a bit wilted there, old boy.”
“I call attention to your lack of a neck scarf,” Anderson rejoined. He peered through one of the slits in the steel blast shield that had been erected at the observation point. Based on the last three attempts, both officers had felt it prudent.
Beyond the steel barrier, a team of sweating technicians labored under the supervision of a boffin who’d shed his jacket, and in his waistcoat and bowler looked more a navvy than one of Her Majesty’s leading scientists. They’d removed the works from a handcar, leaving only the platform and wheels. At one end, a steel tow cable led from a stanchion off into the portal, the safety doors of the tunnel standing open in preparation.
“So if this one explodes,” Lt. Morgan commented, pointing to the cable with his swagger stick, “we won’t have a derailed locomotive to explain.”
Lt. Anderson almost protested that he knew this quite well, thank you, when he realized that Morgan’s explanation was directed to Sergeant Nokwazi. She’d arrived silently, as she tended to do, not even breathing hard from her recent sprint. Behind her, a half dozen of Her Majesty’s riflemen jogged up to join her, blowing like spent horses.
Lt. Morgan’s attention had returned to the team at the portal. “Coming along all right, is it?” he called out.
The boffin glanced up from his efforts. “Just calibrating!” he shouted back, rather more loudly than necessary, and, from his intonation, through his nose.
“Sure this will work?” Morgan inquired.
The boffin downed tools and stood bolt upright. “Are you impugning the design of the Aetheric Resonance Compensator?” he demanded.
Lt. Anderson chuckled. “Careful, Morgan. He’s likely to call you out, and as the aggrieved party, he’s got choice of weapons.”
“Never was good at sums,” Lt. Morgan mused. More loudly, “Not at all, Doctor Finkleshteyn. Just concerned with the success of the project.”
Dr. Finkleshteyn harrumphed, and turned away to retrieve the Hat from its carrying-case. He placed the top-shaped artifact reverently in a padded wooden frame at the focal point of the tremendous lot of scientific apparatus loaded onto the handcar. While his team made final adjustments, the boffin looked over their shoulders, criticized their performance, and reached past a few of them to do it himself.
“Regular Brunel, he is,” Lt. Morgan remarked. “Fancy a pound on it?”
“No bet,” Lt. Anderson replied, shaking his head.
Dr. Finkleshteyn did something that sent his team running for the blast screen. The Compensator gave out a deep, thrumming note that made everyone’s back teeth ache. The boffin gave three sharp tugs to the tow cable, then followed his men to the steel shield, awkwardly trying to move faster than a walk and almost completely failing. As he joined the rest of the observers, the cable went taut and the handcar jerked into motion.
“Careful, you idiots!” Dr. Finkleshteyn shouted, as if the men on the far side of the portal could hear him.
The handcar crept toward the portal, the bass note of the Compensator rising into the baritone range, then into the tenor.
“Going well?” Lt. Morgan had to shout to make himself heard over the machine’s howl.
“So far.” Dr. Finkleshteyn’s attention didn’t vary from his device, now scant yards from the portal.
The sound from the Compensator rose steadily in pitch and volume as the handcar drew closer to the safety doors. Then, as the leading edge of the platform passed the margin, the howl shot up into an agonized shriek. Everyone present grabbed their ears –
And the apparatus exploded. Tiny bits of metal and glass pinged off the blast shield. The handcar platform, or most of it anyway, soared off down range, taking the railing off the parade reviewing stand before ending up in a stack of hay bales, setting them ablaze on impact.
Sergeant Nokwazi slapped one of her men on the shoulder, pointed at the fire, and gave him a shove. It took Lt. Anderson until the men had run off for water buckets and fire-fighting tools to realize he couldn’t hear a blessed thing. The Zulu woman wasn’t just faster on her feet, she was quicker on the uptake as well. His dejection at the failure of the latest attempt to send the Hat back home compounded more than a Lloyd’s account at being beaten out by a colonial, and a woman to boot.
Then the Hat came down out of the sky and landed on his foot. As the pain greyed out his vision, Lt. Anderson was very glad that no one could hear what he was saying.