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The Space Machine


  The Space Machine

  A Scientific Romance

  CHRISTOPHER PRIEST

  A chance encounter in a dingy hotel and a compromising incident in a bedroom lead to an unexpected adventure in Time and Space! The year is 1893, and the workaday life of a young commercial traveller is enlivened only by his fervent (if somewhat distant) interest in the new sport of motoring. It is through this that he meets his ladyfriend, and she takes him to the laboratory of Sir William Reynolds, one of the most eminent scientists in England. Sir William is building a Time Machine, and from this discovery it is but a small step into futurity. As the young couple emerge into the Twentieth Century, they discover that a ferocious war is devastating England. Indeed, that world war of 1903 is only the beginning of a series of adventures that culminate in a violent confrontation with the most ruthless intellect in the Universe.

  Christopher Priest’s new novel is, as the subtitle suggests, an affectionate return to the imaginative adventures of Victorian fantasists, but with a sharp sense of modern perspective. His last two novels, Fugue for a Darkening Island, and Inverted World, won awards as ‘the outstanding British science fiction novel of the year’, and The Space Machine may well be considered his best novel so far.

  by the same author

  *INDOCTRINAIRE

  FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND

  INVERTED WORLD

  *REAL-TIME WORLD

  YOUR BOOK OF FILM-MAKING

  (for children)

  (*not available from Faber & Faber)

  First published in 1976

  by Faber and Faber Limited

  3 Queen Square London WC1

  Printed in Great Britain by

  Unwin Brothers Limited

  The Gresham Press Old Woking Surrey

  All rights reserved

  ISBN 0 571 10931 4

  © Christopher Priest, 1976

  TO

  H. G. WELLS

  CONTENTS

  The Lady Commercial

  A Conversation in the Night

  The House on Richmond Hill

  Sir William Expounds a Theory

  Into Futurity!

  Futurity’s Alien Land

  The Awakening of Awareness

  The City of Grief

  Explorations

  A Terrible Invasion

  A Voyage Across the Sky

  What I Saw Inside the Craft

  A Mighty Battle

  In the Slave-camp

  A Revolution is Planned

  Escape from Oppression!

  A Homeward Quest

  Inside the Pit

  How We Fell in with the Philosopher

  Rowing Down the River

  Under Siege

  The Space Machine

  An Invisible Nemesis

  Of Science and Conscience

  Chapter One

  THE LADY COMMERCIAL

  i

  In the April of 1893 I was staying in the course of my business at the Devonshire Arms in Skipton, Yorkshire. I was then twenty-three years of age, and enjoying a modest and not unsuccessful career as commercial representative of the firm of Josiah Westerman & Sons, Purveyors of Leather Fancy Goods. Not much will be said in this narrative of my employment, for even at that time it was not my major preoccupation, but it was instrumental, in its inglorious fashion, in precipitating the chain of events which are the major purpose of my story.

  The Devonshire was a low, grey-brick commercial hotel, threaded with draughty and ill-lit corridors, drab with ageing paint and dark-stained panelling. The only congenial place in the hotel was the commercials’ lounge, for although it was small and burdened with furniture—the over-stuffed easy chairs were placed so close together it was scarcely possible to walk between them—the room was warm in winter and had the advantage of gas-mantle lighting, whereas the only sources of illumination in the bedrooms were dim and smoky oil-lamps.

  During the evenings there was little for a resident commercial to do but stay within the confines of the lounge and converse with his colleagues. For me, the hour between the completion of dinner and nine p.m. was the one that made me the most impatient, for by long-observed tacit agreement no one would smoke between those times, and it was the accepted period for conversation. At nine, though, the pipes and cigars would appear, the air would slowly turn a suffocating blue, heads would lean back on the antimacassars and eyes would close. Then, unobtrusively, I would perhaps read for a while, or write a letter or two.

  On the evening of which I am particularly thinking I had been for a short stroll after dinner, and had returned to the hotel before nine. I made a brief visit to my room to don my smoking-jacket, then went to the ground floor and entered the commercials’ lounge.

  Three men were already there, and although it was still only seven minutes before nine I noticed that Hughes, a representative from a Birmingham machine-tool manufacturer, had started his pipe.

  I nodded to the others, and went to a chair in the furthest comer of the room.

  At nine-fifteen, Dykes came into the lounge. Dykes was a young man of about my own age, and although I had affected no interest in him it was his wont to address me in some confidence.

  He came directly to my corner and sat opposite me. I pulled down the top leaf over the letter I had been drafting.

  “Will you smoke, Turnbull?” he said to me, offering his cigarette case.

  “No thank you.” I had smoked a pipe for a while, but had desisted for more than a year.

  He took a cigarette for himself, and made a display of lighting it. Like me, Dykes was a commercial representative, and often declared I was too conservative in my outlook. I was usually entertained by his outgoing manner, in the way one may enjoy the excesses of others.

  “I hear there’s a lady commercial in tonight,” he said casually now, but leaning towards me slightly to add emphasis to his words. “What do you make of that, Turnbull?”

  “You surprise me,” I admitted. “Are you sure of that?”

  “I came in late this evening,” he said, lowering his voice. “Happened to glance at the register. Miss A. Fitzgibbon of Surrey. Interesting, wouldn’t you say?”

  Somewhat aloof, as I saw myself to be, from the day-to-day concerns of my fellow commercials, I was nevertheless interested by what he said. One cannot help but become aware of the lore of one’s own occupation, and it had long been rumoured that women were now being employed as representatives. I had never before met one myself, but it seemed logical that sales of certain requisites—shall we say of a toilette or boudoir nature—might be better negotiated by women. Certainly, some of the stores I called at employed women buyers, so there was no precedent barring their entry into the sales aspect of a transaction.

  I glanced over my shoulder, although I knew that she could not have entered the lounge unnoticed.

  “I haven’t seen her,” I said.

  “No, and we’re not likely to! Do you think that Mrs Anson would allow a young lady of gentle breeding into a commercial lounge?”

  “So you have seen the lady?” I said.

  Dykes shook his head. “She dined with Mrs Anson in the coffee-room. I saw a tray being taken there.”

  I said, for my interest was persisting: “Do you suppose that what is said about lady commercials has any substance?”

  “Undoubtedly!” said Dykes at once. “No profession for a gentlewoman.”

  “But you said that this Miss Fitzgibbon was a gentle—”

  “A euphemism, dear chap.” He leaned back in his easy chair, and drew pleasurably on his cigarette.

  I usually found Dykes an amusing companion, for his ready abandonment of social niceties often meant that he would regale me with bawdy anecdotes. These I would listen to in envious silence, as most of my time was passed in enforced solitude. Many commercials were bachelors—perhaps by nature—and the life of constant movement from one town to another led to an inability to make permanent ties. Thus, when word that some firms now employed ladies as their representatives was rumoured, the smoking-rooms and commercial lounges of hotels all over the country had been sibilant with salacious speculation. Dykes himself had been a source of much information on the subject, but as time passed it became clear that there was to be no substantial change to our way of life. Indeed, this was the very first occasion on which I had even been aware that a lady commercial was staying in the same hotel as myself.

  “You know, Turnbull, I fancy I shall introduce myself to Miss Fitzgibbon before the evening is out.”

  “But what will you say? Surely you would require an introduction?”

  “That will be simple to arrange. I shall merely go to the door of Mrs Anson’s sitting-room, knock boldly, and invite Miss Fitzgibbon to take a short stroll with me before turning in.”

  “I—” My sentence was cut short, for I had suddenly realized that Dykes could not be in earnest. He knew the proprietress of this hotel as well as I, and we both understood what kind of reception such a move could expect. Miss Fitzgibbon might well be an Emancipationist, but Mrs Anson was still firmly rooted in the 1860s.

  “Why should I describe my strategy to you?” Dykes said. “We shall both be here until the weekend; I shall tell you then how I have fared.”

  I said: “Could you not somehow discover which firm she represents? Then you could contrive a chance meeting with her during the day.”

  Dykes smiled at me mysteriously.

  “Maybe you and I think alike, Turnbull. I have already obtained that information. Would you care to place a small wager with me, the winner being the man who first speaks to the lady?”

  I felt my face reddening. “I do not bet, Dykes. Anyway, it would be foolish for me to compete with you, since you have an advantage.”

  “Then I shall tell you what I know. She is not a commercial at all, but an amanuensis. She works for no firm, but is in the personal employ of an inventor. Or so my informant tells me.”

  “An inventor?” I said, disbelieving. “You cannot be serious!”

  “That is what I have been told,” Dykes said. “Sir William Reynolds by name, and a man of great eminence. I know nothing of that, nor care, for my interests lie with his assistant.”

  I sat with my writing-tablet on my knees, quite taken aback by this unexpected information. In truth I had no interest in Dykes’s nefarious designs, for I tried at all times to conduct myself with propriety, but the name of Sir William Reynolds was a different matter.

  I stared at Dykes thoughtfully while he finished his cigarette, then stood up.

  “I think I shall retire,” I said.

  “But it’s still early. Let us have a glass of wine together, on my account.” He reached over and pressed the electrical bell-push. “I want to see you place that wager with me.”

  “Thank you but no, Dykes. I have this letter to finish, if you will excuse me. Perhaps tomorrow evening…?”

  I nodded to him, then worked my way towards the door. As I reached the corridor outside, Mrs Anson approached the lounge door.

  “Good evening, Mr Turnbull.”

  “Good night, Mrs Anson.”

  By the bottom of the staircase I noticed that the door to the sitting-room was ajar, but there was no sign of the lady guest.

  Once in my room, I lighted the lamps and sat on the edge of my bed, trying to order my thoughts.

  ii

  The mention of Sir William’s name had a startling effect on me, for he was at that time one of the most famous scientists in England. Moreover, I had a great personal interest in matters indirectly concerned with Sir William, and the casual information Dykes had imparted was of the greatest interest to me.

  In the 1880s and 1890s there was a sudden upsurge in scientific developments, and for those with an interest in such matters it was an enthralling period. We were on the verge of the Twentieth Century, and the prospect of going into a new era surrounded by scientific wonders was stimulating the best minds in the world. It seemed that almost every week produced a new device which promised to alter our mode of existence: electric omnibuses, horseless carriages, the kinematograph, the American talking machines…all these were very much on my mind.

  Of these, it was the horseless carriage which had most caught my imagination. About a year before I had been fortunate enough to be given a ride on one of the marvellous devices, and since then had felt that in spite of the attendant noise and inconvenience such machines held great potential for the future.

  It was as a direct result of this experience that I had involved myself—in however small a way—with this burgeoning development. Having noticed a newspaper article about American motorists, I had persuaded the proprietor of the firm that employed me, Mr Westerman himself, to introduce a new line to his range of goods. This was an instrument which I had named the Visibility Protection Mask. It was made of leather and glass, and was held in place over the eyes by means of straps, thus protecting them from flying grit, insects, and so forth.

  Mr Westerman, it should be added, was not himself wholly convinced of the desirability of such a Mask. Indeed, he had manufactured only three sample models, and I had been given the commission to offer them to our regular customers, on the understanding that only after I had obtained firm orders would the Mask be made a permanent part of the Westerman range.

  I treasured my idea, and I was still proud of my initiative, but I had been carrying my Masks in my samples-case for six months, and so far I had awakened not the slightest interest of any customer. It seemed that other people were not so convinced as I of the future of the horseless carriage.

  Sir William Reynolds, though, was a different matter. He was already one of the most famous motorists in the country. His record speed of just over seventeen miles an hour, established on the run between Richmond and Hyde Park Corner, was as yet unbeaten by any other.

  If I could interest him in my Mask, then surely others would follow!

  In This way it became imperative that I introduce myself to Miss Fitzgibbon. That night, though, as I lay fretfully in my hotel bed, I could have had no conception of how deeply my Visibility Protection Mask was to change my life.

  iii

  All during the following day, I was preoccupied with the problem of how to approach Miss Fitzgibbon. Although I made my rounds to the stores in the district I could not concentrate, and returned early to the Devonshire Arms.

  As Dykes had said the evening before, it was most difficult to contrive a meeting with a member of the opposite sex in this hotel. There were no social courtesies open to me, and so I should have to approach Miss Fitzgibbon directly. I could, of course, ask Mrs Anson to introduce me to her, but I felt in all sincerity that her presence at the interview would be an impediment.

  Further distracting me during the day had been my curiosity about Miss Fitzgibbon herself. Mrs Anson’s protective behaviour seemed to indicate that she must be quite young, and indeed her style as a single woman was further evidence of this. If this were so, my task was greater, for surely she would mistake any advance I made towards her for one of the kind Dykes had been planning?

  As the reception-desk was not attended, I took the opportunity to look surreptitiously at the register of guests. Dykes’s information had not been misleading, for the last entry was in a neat, clear handwriting: Miss A. Fitzgibbon, Reynolds House, Richmond Hill, Surrey.

  I looked into the commercial lounge before going up to my room. Dykes was there, standing in front of the fireplace reading The Times.

  I proposed that we dine together, and afterwards take a stroll down to one of the public-houses in the town.

  “What a splendid notion!” he said. “Are you celebrating a success?”

  “Not quite. I’m thinking more of the future.”

  “Good strategy, Turnbull. Shall we dine at six?”

  This we did, and soon after dinner we were ensconced in the snug bar of a public-house called The King’s Head. When we were settled with two glasses of porter, and Dykes had started a cigar, I broached the subject uppermost on my mind.

  “Are you wishing I’d made a wager with you last night?” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Surely you understand.”

  “Ah!” said Dykes. “The lady commercial!”

  “Yes. I was wondering if I would owe you five shillings now, had I entered a bet with you.”

  “No such luck, old chap. The mysterious lady was closeted with Mrs Anson until I retired, and I saw no sign of her this morning. She is a prize which Mrs Anson guards jealously.”

  “Do you suppose she is a personal friend?”

  “I think not. She is registered as a guest.”

  “Of course,” I said.

  “You’ve changed your tune since last night. I thought you had no interest in the lady.”

  I said quickly: “I was just enquiring. You seemed bent on introducing yourself to her, and I wanted to know how you had fared.”

  “Let me put it this way, Turnbull. I considered the circumstances, and judged that my talents were best spent in London. I can see no way of making the lady’s acquaintance without involving Mrs Anson. In other words, dear chap, I am saving my energies for the weekend.”

  I smiled to myself as Dykes launched into an account of his latest conquest, because although I had learned no more about the young lady I had at least established that I would not be in a misleading and embarrassing competitive situation.

  I listened to Dykes until a quarter to nine, then suggested we return to the hotel, explaining that I had a letter to write. We parted company in the hall; Dykes walked into the commercial lounge, and I went upstairs to my room. The door to the sitting-room was closed, and beyond it I could hear the sound of Mrs Anson’s voice.

 
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