Summerhouse land, p.10
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       Summerhouse Land, p.10

           Roderick Gordon
 

  The officer points to a page Curtis has just retrieved. ‘Couldn’t help but notice that one. Jolly interesting your calculations about ramping up the output.’

  Curtis glances at what he’s scrawled across the page in his minute handwriting. The officer is right. ‘You’re telling me that you understand this level of physics? Just who the heck are you?’ Curtis demands, becoming even more concerned about his intruder. ‘This is my office, and this material is top secret.’

  ‘Technically this is my office.’

  Curtis frowns. ‘Your office?’

  ‘Yes, this is a Ministry of Food establishment.’ Unbuttoning the breast pocket of his tunic, the officer slips out his warrant card and tosses it on the desk in front of Curtis, who studies it.

  ‘Morgan. You’re a lieutenant colonel in the Artists Rifles.’ Curtis’s eyes are back on the man. ‘Isn’t that the unit which mocks up bogus tanks from canvas and timber to fool enemy reconnaissance?’

  ‘Yes, amongst other things, but I don’t get involved in any of that malarkey. Mine is only a nominal rank so I can travel the country unhindered.’ Morgan leans back in his chair. ‘You see I have oversight of this installation. Total oversight. The whole shebang is mine.’

  ‘Then why haven’t we met before?’ Curtis asks suspiciously.

  Rising from his chair, Morgan ignores the question as he steps over to the window and waves a hand at the view; a patchwork of different greens extends over the gently rolling landscape as far as one can see. ‘On paper, at least, I’ve been tasked to find out if these experimental crops will help good old Blighty become self-sufficient. The populace needs to be fed.’

  ‘If you had the appropriate security clearance, you’d know that’s not the main purpose of this installation,’ Curtis counters.

  ‘Precisely. It’s a cover story to keep prying eyes from your research.’

  ‘So you do have clearance?’ Curtis presses the man.

  ‘Why else would the MPs on the main gate let me waltz straight in here?’ Morgan replies. ‘Maybe because of my wonderful personality and dashing good looks?’

  Not appreciating the other man’s sarcasm, Curtis joins Morgan at the window, slamming it shut in a bad tempered way. ‘I never open this. I suppose you’re one of those fresh air fiends?’

  Now he’s closer to his unscheduled visitor, Curtis can make out the skein of fine scars down the side of his face, and that a chunk is missing from his ear. Then he spots that one of the man’s eyes doesn’t look quite right. It’s glass.

  Morgan smiles as he sees that Curtis has noticed his false eye. ‘Took some shrapnel when I got caught up in that unpleasantness at Dunkirk. I’d been sent to France to smuggle a boat load of their scientists over the channel before Jerry could get their greasy mitts on them.’

  ‘So you are a soldier?’ Curtis says, still wondering precisely who he’s dealing with.

  Morgan shakes his head. ‘A soldier second.’ He looks out of the window again, tipping his head back slightly as he loses himself in the clear blue of the sky. Although he must still be in his thirties, his hair is gray and longer than is usual for an officer. He may only be in the Artists Rifles to give him a rank, but there’s also something of the artist about him too. ‘Curtis, you asked how I have an appreciation of your calculations. Before the war I worked under Rutherford, late of Cambridge University. And I’m currently also overseeing Watson-Watt’s research, and a number of other hush-hush projects.’

  ‘Robert Watson-Watt?’ Curtis allows himself a wry grin. ‘The application of electromagnetic energy as a medium-range weapon. The death ray everyone’s crying out for?’

  Morgan’s mildly taken aback at this, annoyed even. ‘You know about it?’

  Curtis’s grin has broadened. ‘Of course. Bob and I compare notes from time to time, because our research has some overlap. That aside, the project is a badly kept secret. And it’s also a red herring.’

  ‘Is it?’ Morgan replies, frowning.

  ‘You honestly believe we’re going to be able to focus a beam of energy with enough power to knock a German bomber out of the sky? Not a chance. At least not in our lifetimes.’

  Morgan really isn’t pleased at this pronouncement, but lets it go. ‘Why don’t we sit down again, so we can talk about your project?’ Once they are back in their chairs, Morgan turns toward the door and shouts, ‘We’ll have that coffee now.’

  ‘There’s no one …’ Curtis begins. None of his team will have reported for work yet that early in the morning, and he’d also never dream of asking any of them to wait on him.

  There are sounds from down the corridor.

  ‘Don’t worry – that’s my batman, Dagby. He’s not good for much, but he can brew a knockout cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain. Best coffee in the world. And it’s proper ground stuff, not that frightful Camp Coffee they fob us off with.’

  ‘Jamaican coffee?’ Curtis asks. ‘How do you get hold of that?’

  ‘If you’re in Winnie’s inner circle, bottles of Hine, Cuban cigars and excellent coffee are never in short supply.’

  Curtis looks askance at Morgan. ‘You’re talking about Churchill?’

  ‘Yes, Winnie. He’s terribly excited about what you’re doing here. He so loves science, particularly if it produces new toys that can kill large numbers of our foe.’ Morgan slides a folded sheet of paper from his still unbuttoned breast pocket. ‘Speaking of which, you were sent a communiqué by the War Office requesting an update on your research, specifically its offensive capabilities. You replied with some prevaricating stuff and nonsense about the imprudence of moving too fast, and …’ Morgan squints at the piece of paper with his good eye as he finds the right passage, ‘Here it is … the source of the energy accessed by my device has not been fully investigated and should be treated with the utmost caution. And, besides, the technology should be used to preserve and save lives, not take them.’ Morgan fixes Curtis with a stare. ‘What are you – some kind of idealist? We’re at war, man.’

  ‘We’re dabbling with the unknown here,’ Curtis says. ‘To press it into widespread use for healing, or rush blindly into a full-scale trial of its destructive capabilities, would be incredibly foolish. Criminal even. It could result in serious consequences.’

  ‘What balderdash!’ Morgan exclaims. His tone is uncompromising as he continues, ‘If this gizmo you’ve dreamed up seriously works, have you got any idea how many lives we can save by blatting the enemy out of existence. I want you to …’

  Just then the door is pushed open and a rather grubby looking and overweight man shambles in. His hair is untrimmed and hangs lankly over his collar, although he is bald on top with a shiny pink scalp very much in evidence. He is carrying two mugs of steaming hot coffee on a tray, and as he approaches the desk to put it down, he begins to fumble with it.

  The mugs start to slide toward the edge of the tray, but Morgan is quick to leave his chair and take it from him. Morgan then passes Curtis a mug. ‘Try some. The aroma alone is intoxicating.’

  ‘Will that be all, sir?’ Dagby asks. He wipes his face with his sleeve. Curtis sees that he’s sweating heavily.

  ‘No, wait there a second,’ Morgan replies. ‘So, Curtis, first things first. I want you to demonstrate your device for me. You know, I met a Spitfire pilot who was brought in here so badly shot-up that the docs only gave him days to live. But lo and behold, he left here completely healed … good as new. Didn’t even put in for a single day of leave – chose to go straight back to flying his kite and full active service again.’

  ‘Yes, of course I remember him,’ Curtis says. ‘You went to the trouble of seeing him?’

  ‘I did, and in fact he told me he’s better than new. Said he’s never felt so fit and strong than ever before in his whole life. And what was really strange was when I examined him there were no signs that he’d ever been wounded – nothing, not a single scar. Is that the same for all the men you’ve had through here?’

  As Curtis nods,
Morgan continues, ‘What you did for that pilot is nothing short of a flipping miracle. Is there anything you can’t fix?’

  ‘No,’ Curtis replies flatly.

  ‘You mean that? But what if they’re too far gone?’

  ‘If there’s a pulse, I can save them. I can use my device.’

  ‘So why not build a whole string of your devices for the transit ports along the south coast so we can process incoming casualties?’ Morgan suggests. ‘And Winnie’s also got his heart set on mobile units that could follow behind the front line when we finally make our move into Europe.’

  Morgan takes a sip of coffee. ‘Ahh, that’s good. Just imagine – no more field hospitals with all the logistics they require. No more evacuating the wounded back home. We’d simply heal the injured and the dying, and sling them right back into action again, like that pilot.’ He takes another mouthful of coffee. ‘Tell me if I’m wrong. Is this feasible, or not?’

  Morgan waits for a response from Curtis, who takes a second to answer. ‘Yes, with reservations. And I suppose if I oversaw the construction of additional devices, then trained doctors to operate them.’

  Morgan whistles. ‘When you consider the edge these healing factories would give us over Jerry … it’s mind boggling,’ he says, smiling at what he’s just said. ‘Yes, I like that. We could call them healing factories.’ His good eye is back on Curtis. ‘But I want to see it work for myself. I want to see the power of your device.’

  ‘What, on you?’ Curtis replies.

  ‘No, on my batman here.’ Morgan leans over and grabs Dagby’s wrist, tugging up the sleeve. Curtis sees that the man’s arm is actually a wooden prosthetic, which explains why he was having problems carrying the tray. ‘Dagby lost it just below the shoulder.’ Curtis seems comfortable to talk about his batman as if he’s not there. ‘I’m afraid to say it wasn’t in the line of duty. He had a skin full one night and nodded off in the road. A supply lorry ran over him.’

  Dagby is looking bashfully at his feet by now, like a disgraced schoolboy.

  Curtis isn’t happy with the suggestion. ‘Look, Morgan, all my trials so far have been on terminal cases … soldiers who have no other recourse,’ he says. ‘So if something does happen to go awry, there are no repercussions because they’re lost causes.’

  ‘You just described Dagby,’ Morgan says, flashing a grin, then he addresses his batman. ‘I say, old chap, wouldn’t you like your arm back? What would you give to be able-bodied again?’

  Dagby appears nonplussed.

  ‘I said do you want your arm back, just as it was before you went on the razzle that fateful night?’

  ‘Erm … do I … do I have to?’ Dagby flounders.

  ‘Good man!’ Morgan exclaims. He stands up and places a hand on his batman’s shoulder. ‘Just knew you’d do your bit for king and country, and volunteer.’ He turns to Curtis. ‘Show us to your laboratory.’

  Similar to the view into the back of an ancient radio, full of wound coils of shiny copper wire, and glass valves with elaborate elements emitting a warm fireside glow, this is what Morgan glimpses through a thick window as Curtis leads him and his batman down a corridor.

  They come to a pair of heavily reinforced metal doors where Curtis stops beside a shelf with a series of brown Bakelite trays arranged on it. ‘I’m sorry but I have to ask you to empty your pockets. I can’t allow anything metallic to be carried inside – keys, cufflinks, studs, coins and the like. Nothing.’ Undoing his wristwatch, he deposits it in a tray. Then he plucks a fountain pen from inside his sports coat and places it beside his watch.

  Morgan gives him a questioning look.

  ‘The pen nib is an alloy containing steel,’ Curtis explains.

  When Morgan and Dagby have shorn themselves of any offending items, Curtis indicates Morgan’s neck. ‘Dog tags? Are you wearing dog tags? Because, if so, you need to remove them.’

  Dagby appears reticent to do anything about this, as if the effort is too great. However, when Morgan doesn’t hesitate to comply, his batman grudgingly follows suit. Both loosen their ties and unbutton the top buttons of their shirts so they can slip their tags off over their heads.

  ‘It doesn’t matter because I can heal it at the same time, but have you ever had any bones pinned because of an injury?’ Curtis asks, addressing Dagby. ‘Or anything else in the way of remedial surgery that required the use of metal? You see we’d usually have a doctor’s report or an X-ray to refer to before treatment.’

  ‘Remedial,’ Dagby repeats, not understanding the word. ‘Broke a toe once, but I haven’t had no metal put in me.’

  ‘Fine. Thank you.’ Curtis squats down to inspect their shoes. ‘Standard issue – metal eyelets, and the soles are tacked. I’m afraid you’ll have to remove them.’ He straightens up again as the two men slip their shoes off. ‘Any other items of jewelery or hooks and loops in your clothes, or hanging chains in your jackets? Anything at all, no matter how small. Please have a last check.’

  Morgan makes a tch sound with his tongue. ‘Completely forgot about my little friend.’ He bends over and tugs up his trouser leg. In a leather scabbard strapped to his calf is a knife. He slips it out and, for a moment, considers the slim stiletto with its deadly looking point. Curtis catches his eye. ‘Force of habit, I’m afraid. Never go anywhere without my Fairbairn Sykes,’ Morgan says, laying the weapon in the Bakelite tray with his other items.

  ‘Oh, blimey, yes,’ Dagby exhales, his voice so husky it sounds like a belch. He delves deep into a back trouser pocket. ‘Never go anywhere without my little friend either,’ he adds, as he drops a small folding corkscrew in the tray with his belongings.

  ‘Is all this really necessary?’ Morgan inquires. ‘Why no metal?’

  ‘It’s standard procedure, and all my people have to follow it, without exception. It’s different for you as you’re both visitors here, but I insist that my team change out of their civilian clothes and into overalls before they go inside, to be absolutely sure.’

  Morgan frowns. ‘So how is metal detrimental to the process?’

  Curtis shakes his head. ‘If it distorts the field, it can be … be calamitous.’ Shaking his head slowly, he nudges one of the Bakelite trays so it’s in line with the others. ‘No, I can’t risk ferrous objects in close proximity to the Cube, or much more serious, being carried inside it. We might be talking a major release of energy. We had an incident early on, when a steel bolt dropped inside the field.’

  Morgan is keen to ask more about this, but with some effort Curtis is already opening one of the pair of massive doors. ‘Righty ho, you’re now about to enter what’s known as the Generator Square,’ he tells them.

  There are columns of the radio valves everywhere, from which an incredible proliferation of wires emerge and then entwine as they feed up above. And above these columns what on first glance seems to be a low ceiling is in fact a spider web of mind-numbing complexity, spun from huge numbers of these braided cables.

  Morgan takes in the glowing columns, noticing that there appear to be more of them continuing around the corners at either end of the space. ‘How exquisite. They look like Christmas trees from a Fritz Lang film.’

  Curtis laughs. ‘They’re a little more than purely ornamental.’

  ‘Lummy! It’s hot enough to shell your peas in here,’ is all Dagby has to say, panting and showing his bloated tongue as he runs a finger inside his OG shirt collar.

  ‘Yes, these valves only function at full efficiency within a narrow temperature band, so we leave them powered up. Otherwise the delay from a cold start means that you can’t use the Cube for a day or so.’ Curtis points to several areas in the skeins of cables above. ‘The thermostatic fans maintain a balanced air flow and hence regulate the temperature at precisely the right level.’

  ‘And the Cube … where is it?’ Morgan asks, his voice tight with curiosity.

  ‘Through here.’ Curtis heaves on another heavy door directly opposite the one they’ve just e
ntered. They walk out into a space approaching eighty feet from side to side and reaching the full height of the three-storied building.

  In the middle of this is a large gray cube the size of a small lorry. ‘So that’s it,’ Morgan whispers.

  As Curtis leads them closer to it, he indicates the walls around them. ‘The Generator Square we’ve just passed through completely surrounds the Cube on all four sides. It’s responsible for production of the field, which is channeled up there.’ He sweeps a hand toward where the copper cables all attach to the circumference of large circle some twenty feet in diameter suspended directly above the Cube. ‘Then the field is refined by what I call my lenses as it’s focused down into the Cube itself.’

  ‘Lenses? Those metal hoops?’ Morgan asks. He’s referring to the succession of ever decreasing circles under the largest one, each held in place by the wooden framework.

  ‘Yes. Quite right. Each lens can be moved independently via the gantry. We position them according to the amount and nature of the healing required. The energy is drawn to the Cube by a massive armature buried in the floor below it.’

  ‘So it’s nothing like Bob’s death ray,’ Morgan says, a slight smile playing on his lips.

  ‘Nothing like it,’ Curtis replies emphatically. ‘In order for my device to work you need the equivalent of an anode and cathode. Negative and positive poles, in effect,’ he says, waving his guests forward.

  The three of them step over a thick red line painted on the concrete floor that warns NO METAL in several places. Then they reach the side of Cube itself, which is around fifteen feet across.

  ‘What’s this material?’ Morgan asks, touching the gray side of the Cube. It is formed by a series of five panels, each of which appear quite rough and are set into a dark timber frame. ‘This Cube of yours looks like it came from the Stone Age,’ Morgan comments, then raps exploratively on the gray surface with a knuckle. It gives off a dull sound. ‘It isn’t actually stone, is it?’

 
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