08 April 2010

Foray into alt-history.

I pounded this out somewhat during a class that had gotten sidetracked (read: completely derailed) using the little bit I knew about the late 1800's experiments of Allesandro Volta and Voltaic piles. The idea being that the British develop a Volta-like device that allows them to create electrically powered weapons that soundly place them as victors in WWI. That's as far as I got, other than imagining battalions of special forces infantry in thick rubber boots and ceramic armor toting around Arc-throwing rifles and zapping anything that moves at the second battle of the Marne.

   The most excellent event of 1916 happened in a floorless tin shack on the side of a sand dune in an Arabian wadi without a name. It was not reported by the BBC, nor was it even picked up by the papers in Cairo, not even as a curiosity. Two men alone witnessed, and indeed, midwifed the entire occasion. Though the consequence and spectacle of their success was visible in the night sky from as far away as Damascus from 9:03pm to 9:18pm local time, it was mistaken for a celestial event by the more educated locals, and as a portent from Allah by the more superstitious bedu tribesman. Oddly, the bedu were the more correct.
   British Army Captain Arthur Hill Mowbray and Lieutenant Basil Charles Fitzwilliam Henry celebrated their first success with a magnum of contraband champagne, the name of which neither of them could in later years recall. It was cool, almost cold, they remembered, and the air smelled like the beaches at Brighton in winter time. The sun had long gone beyond the horizon, and the desert was submerged in an oceanic darkness with a hint of a northerly wind.
   Mowbray drained his tin cup and winked at Henry, unable to speak due to the warm champagne burning his throat and the enormous grin which stretched his face muscles to the limit of their ability to express pleasure. Henry grinned back just as mightily, too overcome to say anything but, "Cheers, cheers," his eyes blue and shining with tears. Mowbray poured another round into their issue cups, which they quaffed, and another, the last, before they both sat down on the opposite ends of a single wooden bench (that had been carried along with everything else except the water, by camel) and stared at it, their raison d'ĂȘtre for the last eight months, seventeen days, nine hours, and three minutes in the blank wastes of Turkish occupied hinterland.
   "That's our baby, CF, ours." Mowbray leaned his elbows on his knees and rocked giddily, attempting to light a cigarette with his hand dancing the lighter about. On the small work bench it was little more than a jumble or wires, at the center of which a heap of dull metal wafers foundered in a colorless liquid, all of which was centered beneath a trio of electrodes that extended from an antenna that penetrated the sloped roof and was grounded via an iron rod driven twelve feet into the pliable desert floor. Where the antenna poked through the tin roof, a twelve inch border of mud brick kept it from contacting the metal. All of the brick was now gone, having exploded in a spectacular manner two thirds of the way through the massive light show.
   Henry ignited the bowl of his pipe, took a long drag, removed it from his lips and used it to gesture at the bench. "That will be your pass to Field Marshall, Hill," he said. "What shall we call it then? The Fitz-Hill Device? The Mowbray-Henry Lightning Dynamo? By God, if we don't both of us get knighted for this, I'll kiss a bedouin girl!" Blue-grey smoke puffed smoke slipped between his teeth as he spoke.
   "I hadn't thought of a name, CF... I didn't expect it to work- well, not like that...like," Mowbray made a gesture like a mushrooming explosion. "Think of what this could mean for the war. Planes, ships, tanks, trucks..." He put his head in his hands and laughed silently.
   "You know," Henry murmured, tugging the corner of his mustache with his pipe hand. "You know, this could be made portable, couldn't it? Easily." Mowbray got the hang of his cigarette at last and looked at Henry. His friend's sandy blond hair was sun-stiffened and sloppy, and he had the pale, drawn look of a starving saint, and the brilliant eyes and joyous smile to go along with it. "Why, if you think about it, Hill, every infantry man could carry one in his pack!"
The two men looked again at their newborn, the unheard grinding of their minds occupying the interval.
   "We've got to get to the city as soon as we can with this, and on a boat home even faster," Hill said.
   Henry tugged his mustache and said nothing for a moment. "We'll have to get more water for the camels for the ride, you know."
   Mowbray nodded. "Quite, and all of this will have to be packed up, well, our notes and equipment at least. Everything else we'll burn and bury."

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