by Alarin and mayamaia
Elson was confused.
The various dials and meters on the airship had never been much more than a bunch of frustrating brass-and-glass faces to him. Templeton could read them like a book - all he ever asked Elson was which ones were in the red. He'd even made little signs so Elson wouldn't have to remember what they were all called, and when Elson had trouble pronouncing them, he'd simply numbered them.
But they had never ALL been in the red, before.
"Uh .. Temple?"
"I'm a bit busy, Elson. Just give me the numbers of any red ones!"
"Right. Numbers. Is there a convention for saying EVERY BLASTED GLASS FACE?"
"What? ... those aren't all made with glass, you know. Let me see... oh, schnitzel!"
At least Templeton got down to business rapidly, as Elson stood by trying not to be entirely useless. After a few moments of pulling levers and turning valves, Templeton ran down the stairs that connected the bridge with the level below it and through the door to the engine room, cursing between his teeth as he was lost to sight in the clouds of steam filling the hall.
And Elson would have just stood there, waiting for an order from the comm tube, if the cockpit window hadn't blown in with a crash of shattered glass. He covered his face with his arms, letting his leather gloves and thickly woven overcoat deflect the shards. Pulling his goggles down over his eyes against the wind, he spat a curse at what he saw.
The mechanical boarding party unfolded from the cylindrical shape used to fire them at enemy ships and into a short, humanoid form with nasty claws and a built in blunderbuss. Two of them blocked his path while the third turned around and aimed his arm-cannon at the controls. Elson drew his pistol and snapped a shot between the gyropirates in front of him, taking the would-be sabateur's head off moments before the other two opened fire.
Elson jumped up to grab a pipe in the ceiling and haul himself clear of the gunfire, the gyropirates' shots ricocheting around him. He kicked out with his legs and caught one of the little buggers around its neck with his feet, then wrenched it over into its companion. They clattered down into a tangled heap as he landed lightly on his feet.
Elson allowed himself a chuckle as he pulled his heavy little hatchet from the ring on his belt. Even if they HAD managed to damage the controls here on the bridge, Templeton rarely steered the vessel from here unless it was an emergency. Unsurprisingly, the good professor preferred to steer from the observation bubble - made from something he claimed wasn't glass, situated just below the bridge and fitted with a ridiculously comfortable chair, using the good controls that were built into Templeton's coat.
He made quick work of the twitching machines before they could untangle themselves, hacking away until they stopped moving. He grimmaced at the fresh oil stains his massacre had put all over his clothes. His laundry bill was ALREADY going to be bad without ...
He looked down in disbelief at the smoking barrel of a gyropirate's blunderbuss staring starkly up at him from the scrap heap he had just finished chopping at, then at a new stain rapidly growing on his shirt. He air went out of his lungs in a confused noise, and he tumbled forward and sideways onto the deck. Air came in shallow gusts - it reminded Elson of pulling a sail against a stubborn wind - as he felt the shudder of more gyropirates landing. Ever a good Skyrine, the last thing Elson did as his arms went slack was try to find his pistol.
Templeton finally had the air intake under control, but it was tenuous. His best guess was that some important restraint or bolt on the outside had been knocked loose, so he'd have to go find and fix that later. Right now, though, he was three miles up and trying to outrun air-pirates, so his temporary solution would have to do.
He felt the first blows land against his ship. He heard the glass shattering and the gunfire. He knew Elson was in a fight for his life, but he also knew the former Sky Marine could easily handle himself against a few of those mass-produced and frankly poorly designed mechanicals.
Then he felt more blows - more boarders, likely - but no gunfire. Something was wrong.
As he raced up to the cockpit, Templeton grabbed supplies from the racks: his coil gun which he loaded with a copper cannister, a satchel with more ammunition for it, and a small welding shield that would at least look like it could block bullets. Failing that, it was small enough to throw.
In his careless rush, he barely noticed his clothes snag on a nail, and didn't notice at all that the airship slowly started to descend.
When he reached the cockpit door, Templeton took a moment to sling the coil gun and ready his shield, hoping one last time that it could stop what he needed to. Sure enough, his theory and faith were tested as soon as he opened the cockpit door. Two blunderbuss rounds slammed against his shield as Templeton came through. He aimed over the shield at the first unfriendly thing he saw and fired a short stream of heated copper wire at it. The wire landed all over the gyropirate's face and gun-arm. It seeped into holes and crevases before cooling, locking up the mechanical intruder's joints and creating short circuits. The gyropirate twitched, wrenched violently to try to free itself, and fell to the deck.
As it did, Templeton took a better stock of the opposition. Three more gyropirates and a smug looking brute in a thick, dirty leather jerkin brandishing a large pulley-saw in both hands menaced him from the other end of the small bridge. "Guthrie Jameston," said Templeton with contempt as he recognized the brutal mercenary from England. "We should have left you to die in Hong Kong."
"HAH! But you didn't, you soft hearted dunderhead." Guthrie yanked the pulley on his weapon and the saw-blade spun menacingly. "And with your soldier-boy dead, there's nothing to keep me from carving you to pieces."
Templeton's eyes went wide with surprised denial. Guthrie nodded down at Templeton's feet, and when he looked ...
The valiant young man lay bleeding on the deck, where he had been just hidden from Templeton's view by his shield. Suddenly, surprising everyone, Elson sucked in a long, gasping breath and said, "M'not a soldier ... m'a skyrine ..."
Elson's arm shot up and he blasted a hole in an oil pipe right next to Guthrie's head. The air-pirate yelped in surprise and pain as hot oil sprayed all over him and the deck. The gyropirates slipped and slid, one clinging to the bulkhead for balance and the other two falling to the floor.
Elson went slack again. Templeton fired another shot from the coil gun, sticking the standing gyropirate to the banister it was hanging onto for balance, then dropped the weapon to dangle from its sling and dragged his friend out of the cockpit. He pulled a little firebomb out of a pouch, wound it, and tossed it in with Guthrie and the spraying oil before slamming the door shut.
"Well played," said Templeton as he hefted Elson up in his strong arms. "I didn't know you knew my ship well enough to hit an oil-line like that."
Elson made a coughing noise that was probably laughter. Templeton winced as it sent a spatter of blood onto Elson's overcoat, and his heart sank as he saw how soaked the skyrine's shirt was. Even so, the wounded warrior just smiled and said, "Was aiming ... for ... s'head."
Templeton rushed to find his stash of linen bandages, fretting over how little he knew of medicine. For Elson to be as coherent as he had been, the wound couldn't have punctured a major chest artery, but it had probably hit a lung, and Templeton was sure that was more than he could handle with first aid. Elson would need surgery, and he would have to survive to get that surgery. Bandages would NOT be enough.
As Templeton yanked the first aid kit from its shelf, a round, iridescent box clattered to the floor. As he picked it up, he realized there was some hope: Elson had a box of stasis bugs leftover from his own old medical packs. He opened the lid and poured about twenty of the tiny round balls into his hand, closed the box, then carefully unbuttoned and peeled back the cloth of Elson's shirt to pour them into the wound. As soon as they touched the blood, the little machines unrolled, shivered their tiny, silver wings and got to work, stopping the bleeding and injecting medicines to let Elson rest easily before he could get to an operating theatre.
Over Templeton's shoulder, a small round window showed a cliff rushing by as the pair's luck narrowly held.
Templeton wrapped a bandage over the wound. He could hear Elson's voice in his head even as he watched the Skyrine's face go pale: "Now remember," Elson had told him as he treated a would on Templeton's leg, "even if you don't know what to do with it, cover the wound with a soft, clean bandage. That'll keep it protected and clean so it doesn't get worse. Plus, if you've got stasis bugs on it, the bandage will keep them from getting brushed off."
Templeton blinked back a tear and stifled a rueful laugh. Elson was always taking the time to show Templeton how to do what he was doing, just in case the inventor had to do it on his own, some day.
Good thing, too.
His friend stable, Templeton started to think about how to get away from the air-pirates. Fortunately, they seemed to want his ship intact. Frankly, at this point his was willing to give it to them as long as he could get away with Elson.
Then again, even if he got the both of them safely to the ground, he couldn't just carry Elson to the nearest town. He would need transportation.
Just then, a screw rolled by along the deck. Templeton looked out a porthole to see the horizon at a tell-tale slant.
His ship was in a dive.
He pulled out his remote and fumbled at the controls, only to discover two connections had been torn loose. Repair would require time and tools, neither of which was handy. Templeton cursed as he realized his carefree cockpit fire, while contained, meant the secondary controls were probably out, and certainly too hot to handle.
They would have to abandon the ship. All his modifications and improvements, the money and time he had invested in it... he shook his head. If it was all going to go up in smoke, he'd just have to make sure he and Elson would survive to make something better.
The escape glider in the engine room was up against the wall at the very aft of the ship, folded to allow access to the cockpit with seats for two. He pulled Elson into a secure position and strapped him in, seated himself and hit the release. The glider seem to fall through the wall and into the open air, and suddenly the sticky heat and noise of the airship's interior was consumed by the rush of cold, clean air and serene silence of high altitude. Templeton felt the strange, breathstealing experience of freefall - of all his organs being lifted inside him - for a long few seconds before the glider's great wing snapped open and he was wrenched back into his seat. It caught the air, and they floated away from the lost battle. He quickly steered the glider the side side of his vessel opposite the pirates so they wouldn't see him leaving. Looking back, he saw his airship blocking his view of the air-pirates. His faithful, tough old ship was rendering him one last service in covering his escape.
Templeton sighed. "Thanks, girl," he said, then he turned to look at the Alps spread out below him. The view would have captivated him if he weren't so desperate - sharp slopes covered in shining white snow and dark evergreens rising and falling all around him. He pulled Elson's map out of his friend's backpack, approximated their position, and angled west, towards the nearest town.
The little gear almost fit.
That couldn't be right. His measurements had been precise - perfect. He adjusted the magnification on his goggles and tried again. Still, it slid only partway into its place in the mechanism. The inventor sat back in his chair, set his goggles up on his forehead, and scratched one of his ample side-burns where it came up to meet his mustache. It made no sense. He took the schematic his friend had made of the device. He had sketched it before the owner had mailed it to be repaired so the inventor could plan the repairs ahead of time, using measurements the owner sent by telegraph.
He laughed aloud when he saw the problem. The device was too small.
The owner had provided a description in which everything was - he saw now - roughly a milimeter larger than was true, and the inventor had made the necessary gear based on those measurements while the device was in the mail to save time. In a mechanism this finely intricate, even that small difference was too much.
"Well, my little fellow," he said down to the gear in his palm, "you would be perfect if the world were just a bit larger."
He found he liked the sentiment. He set about sodering a pin and clasp to the back and, once finished, he fixed the little ornament to his lapel.
He was admiring it in a refractive mirror from the selective light source he was building when his friend came through the door. The inventor turned to watch him artfully dodge the spare parts and unfinished projects on the floor with practiced steps, all the while looking down at a cream-colored card decorated with beautiful gold and black engravings.
Elson Dowring was down to his loose white undershirt, black trousers, and high black boots, meaning he had been practicing. That he wasn't sweating and his short brown hair was still in place meant he hadn't gotten too far into it. He came to a stop and said, "Templeton, why have we been invited to a private audience with the Chancellor of
Templeton Sledmeir cocked an eyebrow, then took a closer look and made out the distinctive seal in the center of the card. Now, both eyebrows were high on his forehead in surprise.
"Well, technically, just you," said Elson, reading it again. "I thought it said, 'bring a friend,' but that's not it ..."
The American spoke German well enough, but he was still learning to read it. Templeton got his hefty frame out of his comfortable work-chair with a grunt and went to look at the card. "No, no - see here, it says, 'freud,' for 'joy,' not 'freund.' They hope to 'share our joy,' not 'share our friend.'"
"Oh. I see it, now."
Templeton took the card and shook his head at the absurdity of using an invitation from Otto von Bismarck himself for a language lesson. Sure enough, his presence had been requested "for a closed-door seminar on the scientific future of the German Empire."
"Well, it's 'closed-door,' rather than 'private,' so there will likely be other scientists there."
"What to you think it means?"
"The Chancellor has just reunited Germany," Templeton said. "It's probably got to do with that - to discuss what kind of advancements the Empire can make, now."
"Will you go?"
"Streudel!" Templeton exclaimed. "This is an opportunity to take part in historic leaps ahead in science! Of course I'm going!"
"It sounds to me like a lot of mad scientists in the same room with Otto von Bismarck."
"Exactly! Think of what we ... could ..." Templeton's excitement slowed as his imagination told him the kinds of things that could occur in such a situation.
"I AM thinking of what you could do. Who else might he invite?"
Templeton put together a quick mental list of the brilliant minds with massive egos that might be in attendance. "I'll bring the Sonnenchen."
"It's a good thing you know me."
The massive hall was a silent testament of power. The wine-red carpet run with little twisting vines of green and gold and sectioned out in large, ornate golden squares gave one the sense of needing to stand where told to. Great, smooth, white marble pillars along the stained oak walls framed enormous paintings and tapestries set between them.
The crowd was smaller than he had expected - a little less than twenty other people stood in the room with him. He recognized a few and had heard of most of the others: a motley bunch of inventors, researchers, and visionaries.
There was Count Drossenfore, with his magnificent mechanical arm - fully articulated, plated with polished brass over oiled black leather. Templeton had always admired the Count's work, and had indeed used his notes when making inventions that required articulated limbs - such as his Fluegeltasche wing-set and the leg he made for Elson. Standing nearby was Herr Rigel, a sharp man with a dry wit and a talent for mixing chemicals. The rumor of the day was that he had developed a fluid that alternated between liquid and gaseous states as you increased its temperature. Templton resolved to ask Herr Rigel about it, tonight.
While he was on good terms with those two, Templeton was purposefully avoiding Sir Linden, a thin, pale man with a long face and wide, piercing eyes who, despite the well-heated room, was wearing his trademark blue wool overcoat and brown leather driving gloves. Templeton had never quite trusted Sir Linden. He was a historian and
explorer, known for designing ever more elaborate vehicles to reach and survive in his difficult destinations. However, his interest never seemed very ... benign to Templton. More predatory - as if he were seeking something to exploit. He also had a few patents on inventions having to do with compulsion - truth serums, a hypnotizing tool, that sort of thing. It made Templeton wonder what a historian would need with such things.
Elson would be upset that he had missed the bold Commander Korsner, sporting a long brown trenchcoat and his signature white woolen scarf about his neck. The thrill seeking pilot was laughing with Sir Linden about the dangerous stunts they had attempted, his bright, reckless smile emphasizing the curl of his broad mustache and his eyes twinkling with mirth under his spectacles. Templeton always thought it a bit funny picturing the most famous daredevil in all of Germany trying to keep his glasses from falling off in the middle of all those aerial acrobatics.
Of the several ladies in attendance, most were the equally brilliant mates of husbands who had either brought them along or sent the woman in their place. Sir Linden's quiet, dangerously beautiful wife, for example, known for her independent research into optics, was present in a downright scandalous outfit of a black silk shirt and matching knee-length bloomers. Though she stood near to Sir Linden, the striking hazel eyes behind her wire-frame glasses were firmly fixed elsewhere, clearly showing that her interest was NOT on her husband's conversation.
It was, as far as Templeton could tell, on the only woman to be here of her own accord, the Baroness VanBruggen - the lovely and wealthy widow of a Dutch nobleman who had returned to Germany upon her husband's death. Her work was a highly controversial blend of zoology and human physiology, funded in large part by the fortune her husband had left behind. Even so, one of her recent developments - using animal parts in patients needing transplants - had caught the eye of the international medical community. Despite the modest pinstripe dress she was wearing, she had a small cloud of younger inventors all trying to make her laugh. To her credit, she was paying far greater attention to the older ones who were genuinely interested in her theories.
Templeton checked his pocketwatch. It had been some time, already - well past the appointed hour, and plenty of time for the fashionably late to arrive. He had just resolved to go and speak with the Baroness when, finally, the doors opened to the sound of an attendant proclaiming, "His Excellency, Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto Von Bismarck."
In swept the Iron Chancellor, sporting a stiff, stylish suit with plenty of medals and an entourage of uniformed guards behind him. Templeton was sure the guards were present specifically for the problem presented by a room full of eccentrics, but nothing - not the guards, the grandiose room, or even the medals he wore - none of it
seemed able to add or detract from the power that Otto Von Bismarck exhuded with every quick, purposeful step and the glower in his steely eyes that said, "I am in charge," and knew it. He passed through this collected brilliance as a lion passes through his pride, and not one eye in the room watched anything but him.
The guards filed in to points both strategic and ceremonial as Von Bismarck took a podium set at the end of the room opposite the door. Some of the attendants already present started setting up a screen and projector next to him as he began.
"Ladies and gentlemen - gathered minds of Germany - the empire is united."
This incited some applause.
"But we must never rest on laurels. Never settle, for should we pause to consider ourselves grand, others will surpass us. This is why I have brought you here today." He gestured back to the doors he had just come through, and everyone turned to see a man in traditional Russian clothing - a knee-length coat of dark green belted at the waist and low-topped leather boots - with dark brown hair pulled back into a tail and a generous beard. "This is Dimitri Indelkrinsk." The Russian started into the room as the Chancelor spoke. His pace reminded Templeton of Elson's, measured and poised, but with a difference that was hard to define; a lethargy of movement that did not match the intensity of the man's face. He was smiling, just barely, a charming thing that Templeton imagined worked quite well on the ladies. "Some of you may know him. For those who do not, he is an expatriated Russian adventurer, and has made a discovery that will ensure Germany's place in the world."
Von Bismarck shook Indelkrinsk's hand firmly as he approached, then stood by as the Russian turned to address the gathering.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be among your distinguished company." He spoke German almost perfectly. "It is good to see old friends and to have the opportunity to make new ones. Even better, however, is the opportunity which I know present to you." Indelkrinsk signaled the attendants, who dimmed the lights and started up the projector. Everyone now found themselves looking at an image of a man sporting a strange-looking backpack with open nozzles pointing down. Templeton recognized it as a personal flight device invented by Commander Korsner.
"Commander Korsner, my old friend. This marvelous device - why did you never make more than one?"
The Commander harumphed around his pipe. "Never could get the thing to work more than a few minutes. Couldn't get enough power."
"Indeed." At the Russian's signal, the image changed to one of a simple-looking wooden box that might have seemed ordinary but for the hole exposing a row of fluid-filled glass tubes, row of buttons, and a slot with a small stub of paper sticking out. "Here we have the Baroness VanBruggen's life-sign detector. Madame, why is this sitting forgotten on your shelf?"
The Baroness smiled with fond but disappointing memories on her face. "That device should be in every hospital and every explorer's kit in the world. It would show us the workings of living bodies in ways that would vastly improve medical science, but I could not find a way to get the chemicals to the proper temperature without melting the rest of the device."
The image changed again. This one showed a large metal cylinder with all manner of dials, pipes, wires, and controls, all on a wheeled platform. "Finally, this is a picture of Herr Rigel's attempt at a portable, instantaneous alloy producing machine. Tell me, Herr Rigel, why did you give up on this promising project?"
Herr Rigel sighed. He removed and wiped his glasses as he spoke. "A simple and frustrating problem, actually. The energy levels were never high enough. Producing the power necessary would have needed a power source as large as a foundry and five times as expensive, and then there would be no point."
Sir Linden spoke up indignantly, "Yes, Herr Indelkrinsk, we have all had failures. Is this presentation meant to humiliate us?"
"Forgive me, Sir Linden," said the Russian. "No, that is not my intention. I merely wish to remind you all of the possibilities denied to you because of simple limitations in the advancement of energy sources." He looked to the attendant. "Skip ahead."
Five more images flashed quickly by. Templeton recognized one of his own: a weapon that would fire beams of energy and would never need to be reloaded. He began to see where this was going; his problem, too, had been the lack of a suitably significant energy source - without one, the bolts dissipated after only a few feet. The attendant stopped when the projector showed a strange, rectangular box of a dark, shiny brown metal. Its surface was an endlessly intricate pattern, and through in Templeton saw that it was really a series of boxes, all fitted within one another, each with the same fascinating, swirling designs.
"You see, I think I can help you solve that problem."
"This was recovered in a geological research site in South America. We have been able to discern little about its physical properties, other than that it is fashioned from some kind of iridium-rich alloy - a mineral which, by the way, is in abundance at this research site." That caused a barely discernible shuffle among the audience. Not a word was spoken, but every mind in the room had just taken a keener interest; iridium was a rare metal almost invaluable to anyone involved with science, particularly with high temperatures and caustic materials. "Although no more have been found in this region, I do believe I know where we can find more."
"And just why should we care about this box?" asked someone Templeton didn't recognize. "It's pretty enough to stuff it with tissues and place in one's living room, but that's all a picture shows us, Herr Indelkrinsk. What makes it special enough to want more?"
A murmer of agreement rustled the crowd. With an emboldened voice, the speaker continued. "Indeed, why not MAKE more, if you have all this iridium at your 'research site?'"
The Russian smiled ruefully. "Ladies and gentlemen, I see I misjudged the German spirit." He stepped up to the cart with projector. "I thought to tell you more about how I came to find it and what led to my theories, first, but I can see now that the demonstration I had planned for later is the first thing I should have shown you."
The cart upon which the projector rested was covered in a fine dark blue cloth, which Indelkrinsk now drew aside and produced the real version of the box they had all just seen a picture of. He addressed one of the guards standing by. "Cut the power cord to the projector."
Puzzled, the guard looked to Von Bismarck, who only nodded curtly. Templeton noticed now that the Chancelor seemed ... different, now - impatient, agitated ... something less generally satisfied than he was when he came in. It was hard to tell, but Templeton expected nothing less from the man, and decided he was just unused to letting anyone else have commend of the room for so long.
With an "oh, well" look, the guard drew the sword at his side and deftly sliced the cord. Predictably, the image went out.
Indelkrinsk thanked him and moved up to the projector. "Now. Watch." The Russian touched the box gently to the projector - a wooden side-panel, no less - and the image instantly flared back to life, doubly bright and crystal clear.
The room watched in hushed astonishment. Templeton could almost hear the collected wheels turning as the scientists tried to figure out how it was done.
"There's a battery inside the projector," offered one.
"Indeed! And he's using the box to complete the circuit!"
Templeton watched Indelkrinsk stifle a groan and almost laughed out loud. Scientists can be a difficult bunch to amaze. The Russian muttered something in his native tonge that didn't sound very understanding or patient, then withdrew something small and thin from his pocket and slid it into the top of his strange box. The patterns began to shift and slide with a gracefully mechanical quality that suddenly gave Templeton pause - he'd never seen a machine move quite so smoothly. As they moved, they slowly revealed a reddish orange light deep within. Indelkrinsk touched it to the projector once more, now with far more spectacular results: the images began to cycle, faster and faster, bright and brighter, until they became a dazzling, multicolored blur of light on the screen. Templeton smelled burning, and first thought the projector was being overloaded. but then realized that the screen was actually getting singed under the intense light.
"Now you see?" Indelkrisnk asked his finally silent audience.
"Indeed, but YOU don't!"
Templeton looked toward the source of the voice in time to see someone smoke errupt from Commander Krosner's clenched fist just as the grinning explorer wrapped that long white scarf of his over his mouth and nose. It gave Templeton enough time to realize he wouldn't do that unless the smoke were more than just to obscure the room before everyone around him started to hack and wheeze uncontrolably. As the gas washed over him, Templeton held his breath and pulled his little air-scrubber out of the secret pocket in the bottom of his hat. Once it was in his mouth, he pulled off his left and right cufflinks - better to go for broke - pulled his goggles down over his eyes, and snapped the cufflinks to the floor.
His disguised sonnenchen burst like a pair of little suns, lighting up the gas like a streetlamp lights a fog and blinding anyone who had their eyes open - including anyone who might be making their way through the confusion to the Russian and his astounding discovery.
Templeton bounced off of a dazed guard and knocked Baroness VanBruggen clean over as he followed the red glow of the box through the smoke. There, he found the gas more disippated by a wildly flailing Commander Krosner, clutching a guard's stolen sword in one hand and the box against his chest with the other. Templeton waited for his back to turn, then grabbed both ends of his scarf and pulled him sideways. Cart, projector, and Commander crashed in a painful heap to the floor. Templeton whipped the scarf off of would-be thief and put a swift kick to his head, just in case.
The guards soon had the renegade commander in irons, and medical staff were summoned to see to who got the worst of the gas, ushering the guests into a nearby sitting room with plenty of couches and large chairs. They brought in all manner of antidotes and even a portable breathing assistance machine fashioned of brass and rubber. Two of the guests - Sir Linden and his wife, who had been standing nearest the gas - were soon taken away on stretchers to where they could get more expert assistance. Templeton kept aside, leaning against a bookshelf and taking it all in while keeping his eyes on Indelkrinsk. The Russian stood near the door, giving directions to the soldiers and doctors moving in and out.
It struck the inventor as odd that they all showed him deference - even the proud young Prussian warriors hand chosen to guard the capital followed his instructions quickly and naturally. Templeton wondered absently what Elson would think of him, and decided the American would probably quickly compare him to one or more of the finer officers he had served under, whose presence and composure instilled calm and purpose in those around them.
Back to the matter at hand - the attack didn't surprise Templeton. He had all but assumed it would happen. What was more surprising was the content of the presentation. Indelkrinsk claimed to offer a means to make possible their greatest ideas; he had been cut short by Krosner, and now all Templeton could think of was what he had planned to ask in return. Chancellor Von Bismarck seemed to believe it would all be for the betterment of the new empire, and indeed, if Templeton and his fellow German inventors were the only nation benefitting from this new source of energy, that outcome was practically assured.
But where was the string? What was the cost? And where did Indelkrinsk find this treasure? Logically, Indelkrinsk would only offer it to the Chancellor for his own personal gain, and probably because he would need the empire's resources to truly profit from his discovery. And then he - or perhaps Von Bismarck himself, that thought it best to bring together the greatest inventive minds in the nation for further assistance.
What on earth would need the assembled might and wit of Germany to collect?
"Excuse me, Herr Sledmeir?"
The young soldier's calm, professional voice plucked Templeton out of his reflective stare at the Russian. He made a startled grunt and turned his head, recognizing a captain's rank on the man's pressed and perfect uniform. "Hm? Oh, it's 'Doctor,' actually ... what can I do for you, sir?"
"Apologies, Doctor. Herr Indelkrinsk wishes, now that the excitement has died down, that you would accompany him to a more private setting. He would like to thank you for your bravery."
Templeton looked up just in time to see Indelkrinsk flash him a sly smile before he strode from the room.
The library was clearly a private one. The ceiling was low, almost touching the tops of the glass fronted book cases which crowded the walls around a central table, almost completely covering the dark green wallpaper. To his right as he entered, more shelves marched in stately rows to a large window which revealed nothing, and beyond them a large window which, at the moment, revealed nothing but darkness and sheets of rain. The floor was a red carpet so lush it felt like Templeton was walking on a bed. The small, gas powered chandelier cast a timid yellow glow that made plenty of shadows. This is a room for secrets, thought the inventor.
Indelkrinsk stood at the table, hands clasped behind him and standing almost at attention. Seated in a proud leather armchair, however, was another man, one arm resting comfortably while the other fiddled with some unseen trinket. He wore a dark blue tailcoat that seemed to elongate his already slender frame, embroidered with silver vinework that almost matched the color of the long, straight hair that fell about his shoulders. A thin, strangely familiar smile was on his face under dark hazel eyes that practically glowed with the intellect behind them.
"Doctor Sledmeir," said the old man with a reverence that Templeton did not understand. His German was practiced, but Templeton still caught the American accent - probably because he spent so much time with one. "My associate tells me you rescued our rather valuable little trinket from capture by a daring would-be thief."
Americans now, too? What in blazes was going on? "The Commander's plan was bold, sir, but incomplete." His host inclined his head in agreement. "You have the advantage of me. I do not know your name." The old man laughed aloud - even Herr Indelkrinsk was covering an amused smile. "I have made some kind of joke?"
After wiping his eyes, the man stood, still chuckling, and came forward to look Templeton in the eye. It struck the inventor that they were of a height, and the familiarity of the man's features was even more pronounced at this closer distance. "Indeed, Templeton, because you DO know my name. It's the same as yours."
After a long night of dreams that chased his mind in shadows, Elson tumbled to wakefulness at the sound of a small brass bell. His sleep-fogged vision took in white curtains moving gently by his bed and the silhouette of a woman's profile as she examined a clipboard. She wore a practical aproned dress with gloves and her hat seemed to be that of a nurse. He tried to remember, through vague wisps of thought, what had put him in a hospital. It came to him all at once when attempting a deep breath made him hiss in pain. The woman turned to look at the sound, giving him his first sight of a lovely and dramatic face crowned with auburn hair.
"Good morning and hello," she said in german. "Those stitches will hold as long as you don't pull them too much, so just pay attention when your body says it hurts. Your right lung had collapsed when you came in." She tilted her head to the side and went on, "I'm Marta, your attendant. Welcome to the Markenbourg hospital."
Markenbourg ... yeah, that was the closest town. Good job, Templeton, he thought. Elson had woken up in hospitals enough to know the routine ...
... but with Marta looking right at him it was kind of hard to remember what to say.
Suddenly, he noticed that his mechanical leg was unattached. His hand went to the stump and his eyes scanned the room in a brief panic until ...
Aha! It was right next to the bed, a marvel of black leather and polished steel standing proudly. Elson sometimes wished it would be more convenient to show it off - it was really quite beautiful - but his pant-leg and knee-high boots covered it up rather well.
"I ... um ..." he started, carefully collecting thoughts scattered by missing prosthetics and beautiful nurses, "who brought me here?"
"It was your friend, Mr. Templeton Sledmeir."
"Doctor," Elson corrected automatically.
"I beg your pardon?"
Elson suddenly wished he'd just let her talk. "He has a doctorate's degree. He's a doctor. Sorry. He keeps correcting everyone on that ... I guess it rubbed off."
"Oh, I see." Marta took it in stride and moved to check his pulse at his wrist. "Anyway, he brought you in here yesterday and the doctors operated on you right away. I'm honestly surprised you're awake already. You're American, aren't you?"
Elson pulled his attention away from her practiced fingers on his wrist to click his tongue. His german was only so good. "Yeah, I guess it shows. Did the operation go okay?"
"Oh, just fine. They pulled out the bullet and sewed you right up - it all went like a textbook."
Elson let out a little sigh of relief. "Good to hear that. Where is Templeton, anyway?"