Authors: Alan K Baker
Tags: #SF / Fantasy, #9781907777448
A BLACKWOOD & HARRINGTON MYSTERY
ALAN K. BAKER
Proudly Published by Snowbooks in 2011
Copyright © 2011 Alan K Baker
Alan K Baker asserts the moral right to
be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved.
email: [email protected]
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
To Mum and Dad,
for all their love and support
Speculation has been singularly fruitful as to what these markings on our next to nearest neighbor in space may mean. Each astronomer holds a different pet theory on the subject and pooh-poohs those of all the others. Nevertheless, the most self-evident explanation from the markings themselves is probably the true one; namely, that in them we are looking upon the result of the work of some sort of intelligent beings.
– Percival Lowell
From The Times,
23rd October, 1899
MARTIAN AMBASSADOR DIES
Seized by a strange malaise, say witnesses.
His Excellency Lunan R’ondd, Martian Ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s, died last night at a banquet held in his honour at Buckingham Palace.
Witnesses to the event stated that the Ambassador appeared in good health when he arrived with his entourage. The banquet had been intended to celebrate the new free trade agreement between Earth and Mars, which Ambassador R’ondd had been instrumental in securing; however, the evening turned to one of horror and consternation when he collapsed after complaining of nausea and biliousness.
Although doctors were quickly called, they could do nothing to aid the Ambassador, who expired shortly thereafter. The cause of death is unknown, although an unnamed Whitehall source has stated that foul play cannot, at this stage, be ruled out.
Lunan R’ondd was eighty-nine Earth years of age and leaves behind three wives and fifty-two children.
In Which Mr Thomas Blackwood
Investigates a Strange Death
Thomas Blackwood was having problems with his cogitator.
He had purchased the device only a few hours earlier, the sales clerk at Cottingley’s Cogitators Limited having assured him that this was the very finest machine on the market and that he would experience not a moment’s regret in purchasing it. Unfortunately, his regrets began almost as soon as he had set up the infernal contraption on the desk in his study.
fine enough. The craftsmanship was quite evident in the polished teak of the cogitator itself, not to mention the mahogany keyboard inlaid with intricate intaglios of flawless ivory. The keys themselves were capped with mother-of-pearl, while the oval scrying glass looked most impressive on its stand of filigreed steel.
At first, Blackwood was eminently satisfied with it – until he threw the large brass switch on the side of the box to turn on the gadget and was rewarded with... absolutely nothing. The cogitator simply stood there, completely inert, about as useful as an empty ale barrel.
Blackwood gazed into the scrying glass, which remained intractably dark, and muttered under his breath, ‘Bugger it.’
Blackwood was the first to admit that technology was not his strong point: like most people, he knew how to use it (most of the time), but he didn’t give a fig for how it actually worked, preferring to leave that to the fellows who designed and produced it. It was the same with cogitators: their usefulness notwithstanding, he didn’t like them, didn’t trust them, didn’t understand them, and when they went wrong (as they all too frequently did), he invariably found himself in a fog.
In Blackwood’s opinion, a cogitator was no substitute for a well-ordered and astute human brain.
Heaving a frustrated sigh, he filled his pipe with his favourite cherry tobacco from the large jar on his desk, pulled up a chair, sat down and glared accusingly at the contraption which stood before him in blissful inactivity.
‘Why won’t you work, you infernal, bloody thing?’
His eye drifted across the keyboard and fell on one particular key, which was marked HELP. Laying his pipe aside, Blackwood stroked his chin contemplatively for a moment.
Tentatively, he pressed the key.
A small panel on top of the teak box whirred open on a delicate and complex hinge mechanism, and a tiny man, no more than an inch tall, with iridescent dragonfly wings, fluttered out. Peering at him intently, Blackwood could just make out, through the pale lilac glow that enveloped the man, that he was dressed in clothes that had been fashionable perhaps a century ago. He had short, untidy hair of a dark, sandy hue, and his tiny, jewel-like eyes curved gracefully up towards his temples in a manner which reminded Blackwood of the people of the Orient.
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said the little man in a lilting Irish brogue. ‘I am the Helper. How may I be of assistance?’
‘Ah... good afternoon,’ Blackwood replied. ‘I purchased this contrivance from Cottingley’s Cogitators not long ago, and I can’t seem to get it to work. I was wondering if there’s anything wrong with it.’
The tiny man flew backwards a few inches on his shimmering wings, giving Blackwood the impression that he was affronted. ‘Indeed
, sir! This machine is the finest on the market. Allow me to assure you that you have made a most judicious acquisition.’
‘I’m gratified to hear it,’ said Blackwood in the politest tone he could muster. ‘And yet, the fact remains that it isn’t working...’
‘Excuse me, sir, but would I be correct in assuming that your knowledge of cogitators is – how to put this delicately and in a manner unlikely to cause offence – less than absolute?’
Blackwood sighed. ‘Yes, I suppose that would be a correct assumption.’
A broad and sympathetic smile spread across the Helper’s face as he replied, ‘I see. Well, in that case, allow me to put your cares to rest. Lean forward, if you will, and look inside the cogitator.’
When Blackwood hesitated, the man fluttered to one side and held out an arm, indicating the opening from which he had emerged. ‘Come, sir!’ he exclaimed in a humorous tone. ‘Are you afraid? I can assure you it isn’t in the least dangerous, and I’ll wager you’ll find it a gratifying and educative experience.’
‘No doubt,’ Blackwood muttered as he slowly leaned forward towards the opening. In fact, he was rather intrigued: he had never looked inside a cogitator before – had never seen the point of such an exercise – but now that the invitation had been extended, he found himself possessed of a newfound curiosity as to how the contraption worked.
He peered into the opening while the Helper took up a new position next to his left ear, the fluttering of his dragonfly wings sounding pleasantly like the rapid turning of a book’s pages. As he looked inside the machine, Blackwood felt a sudden wave of nausea assail him; however, the sensation was mercifully brief, like the fleeting feeling one experiences when standing up too quickly, and as the giddiness abated, he found himself looking into a tiny compartment which, in spite of its diminutive size, nevertheless gave the impression of extreme capaciousness.
Blackwood frowned at the paradox. Noting his expression, the little man chuckled and said, ‘Don’t be alarmed, sir. You are merely looking at the cogitator’s central processing chamber. This is where the work is done, as you can see from the frenetic activity occurring in there as we speak.’
Peering more closely, Blackwood realised that this was indeed true. He suddenly became aware of numerous diminutive individuals rushing here and there amongst a veritable forest of hair-thin pipes and tubes, which were apparently made of a faintly-glowing metallic substance akin to brass. The people inside the machine were similar in size and appearance to the man hovering beside Blackwood’s left ear.
‘What are they doing?’
‘My colleagues are preparing the cogitator for operation. This is not a process that can be hurried with a brand new machine, sir. There are complex procedures to be followed, otherwise things will not go as they were intended.’
‘What kind of procedures?’
The little man shrugged apologetically. ‘Begging your pardon, sir, but given your lack of knowledge concerning the science of artificial cogitation, I very much doubt that a comprehensive explanation would provide much in the way of enlightenment. Suffice it to say that my colleagues are at present engaged in the delicate process of connecting the machine to the great repository of knowledge which surrounds the Earth, and which defines the border between our world and the Luminiferous Æther beyond.’
‘You are speaking of the Akashic Records,’ said Blackwood, without taking his eyes from the machine.
‘Indeed I am, sir! Are you familiar with the nature of the Records?’
‘Somewhat,’ Blackwood replied. In spite of himself, he felt glad that he seemed to have impressed the little man. ‘The Akashic Records have been known about in the East for centuries, if not millennia, but only in recent years has their existence been accepted by men of science in Europe and America.’
‘Absolutely correct, sir. Do go on.’
‘Well... as we here understand it, the Akashic Records constitute a kind of energetic field, a semi-material, plastic substance which retains an impression of every thought, action and event that has ever occurred on Earth – and retains it for all time.’
‘Bravo! A most impressive and concise summing up, if I may say so, sir.’
‘And it is the Akashic Records which have allowed the development of artificial cogitation,’ continued the Helper enthusiastically. ‘It is from the Records that cogitators retrieve their information. Look, sir,’ he added, pointing into the opening. ‘This is how it’s achieved. Do you see those tiny pinpoints of æthereal light issuing from the ends of the tubules? They are echoes of the information contained within the Records. My colleagues are transferring them to the inner mechanism of the cogitator; these are the means by which the machine is being prepared for its operation.’
Blackwood continued to gaze at the frenetic activity. The tiny people gathered the atoms of information as they emerged from the ends of the metallic tubes and flitted like tiny shards of lightning across the processing chamber to deposit them in other pipes and tubes that emerged from the floor. So quickly did they work that Blackwood could hardly follow their progress.
Periodically, one of the people would stop, give a little whistle to attract the attention of his fellows, and hold up one of the pinpoints for them to see. These atoms looked different from the others: dimmer and of an unhealthy, livid colour. On these occasions, the little people would shake their heads vigorously, and the person who had gathered the offending atom would toss it into a small hole in the floor of the chamber before continuing with his work.
‘What are those?’ asked Blackwood.
‘The Akashic Records occupy but one æthereal plane amongst many, sir,’ replied the Helper. ‘And some of them are not the most salubrious of places – far from it, in fact. Some of them would drive a human being such as your good self quite insane at a single glance. Occasionally, during the operation of a cogitator, atoms of information from these dark planes of existence come through to our world, and it does the machine no good at all when that happens, I can assure you. It is therefore one of our top priorities to guard against such infections and to minimise the likelihood of their occurrence.’
‘So, the rumours of some people being driven mad by their cogitators are true,’ said Blackwood. ‘I’ve heard tell of horrible things being glimpsed in scrying glasses – horrible enough to drive people to insanity or suicide.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t go
far, sir,’ chuckled the Helper.
‘Really? Some of my associates at New Scotland Temple are investigating just such a rumour as we speak.’
The Helper glanced at him, and Blackwood could have sworn he saw a look of profound apprehension flash across the man’s tiny features. ‘Oh, well, I don’t really feel qualified to comment any further on that score, sir... except to say that no such infestation has
occurred in a Cottingley Cogitator. As to our
products... well, let’s just say that one gets what one pays for.’
‘Yes,’ said Blackwood with a faint smile. ‘Let’s just say that.’
There followed a rather awkward silence, during which the Helper gazed into the processing chamber with elaborate concentration, and which was presently broken by a loud knock at the door of Blackwood’s apartment.
‘Excuse me,’ he said to the Helper, who still seemed somewhat out of sorts at the turn their conversation had taken.
‘Oh, of course, sir. Of course.’
Blackwood walked from his study, through his living room, to the apartment’s entrance hall, and opened the door.
A young man was standing in the corridor. He was dressed in a conservative suit of grey pinstripe and carried a bowler hat in one hand, a sealed envelope in the other. ‘Mr Thomas Blackwood?’ he said.
‘My name is Peter Meddings. I have a message for you, sir. It’s imperative that you accompany me at once.’
Blackwood took the proffered envelope, glanced at the wax seal on the reverse, and told the young man to wait a few moments. He then hurried back to his study to find the Helper still hovering above the cogitator on his desk. ‘I have to go out on business,’ he said. ‘Will you chaps have that thing working by the time I get back – say, in an hour or so?’
‘Oh, indubitably, sir, indubitably!’
And with that, the tiny man dived back into the machine, and the door slammed shut behind him.
‘Hmm,’ muttered Blackwood. He returned to the hall, gathered up his coat, hat and gloves, and stepped out to join the young messenger who had brought his summons.