The little black pony pranced gracefully in a circle in front of the fascinated crowd. But when the movements became slower and more hesitant, and then finally stopped altogether, the elegantly clad men and women drifted away to another exhibition. The student responsible for the finely crafted automaton reached for the horse’s arched neck and began winding the key. The little horse sprang back into life and a new crowd gathered.
Although Julian had arrived early, the Institute grounds were already crowded with gentlemen in frock coats and ladies sporting feathered and flowered hats against the rare occurrence of a bright and sunny spring day in London. The annual graduation exhibition seemed a popular event, not only for the representatives of government and industry seeking the young scientists for employment, but also for those citizens who simply held some scientific curiosity.
Swinging his brass-tipped mahogany cane, Julian strolled the landscaped grounds of the Institute for Electro-Mechanical Sciences, trying to spot any new invention which might be the source of the rumor responsible for bringing him here, to this parallel Earth of 1885.
According to the briefing he’d received at HQ prior to his departure, this London was a 98.9 percent match to the one in his own timeline. He felt a deceptive sense of familiarity with his surroundings. In some ways it was better to travel further, to parallel dimensions that had diverged more radically from the home world. It kept an agent alert rather than being lulled into a false sense of confidence by the similarity to one’s own timeline.
As they liked to point out back home at the Department, “It’s the one percent that’ll kill you.”
Julian had arrived the previous day, materializing outside town. The transition had felt rough, and the familiar nausea and dizziness more severe than he usually experienced. He had leaned one hand against a sturdy oak tree for some time, catching his breath and waiting for his stomach to settle.
The improved Parallel Gate in New York allowed travel to other locations as well as to parallel Earths. He had volunteered to be one of the first to try it, thereby saving himself a three-day airship journey from New York to the London Gate. However, it seemed there was still some recalibration to be done.
Finally he had straightened his clothing and retrieved his bowler and cane. The spring air was invigorating--still cool enough to call for the knee-length topcoat he’d shrugged on. Dressed as a gentleman and armed with a hard luck story regarding the loss of his horse in a card game, Julian had no problem finding a ride into town with a farmer carrying a load of grain to market.
From his high vantage point atop the cart’s wooden bench seat, he had observed the surrounding traffic with great curiosity. The new steam-powered cars and two-wheeled vehicles passed them, crowding the horses and eliciting curses from their riders as the noise spooked the ponies, and making an already bumpy ride on the farmer’s cart even rougher.
The traffic had grown even heavier as they entered the city gates. A busy place, the London of this timeline--a city full of possibilities. Perhaps the rumor he chased would have a grain of truth to it after all.
After settling at an inn, he had purchased a horse and begun his enquiries at various establishments around town. It hadn’t taken long to determine the Institute was the most likely source of any new inventions in the area.
Looking around now at the various displays of scientific accomplishment, he found it difficult to know where to begin, as he had not a hint regarding the nature of the new invention he was obliged to track down. Was it mechanical? Students demonstrated a steam-powered horse proposed to assist in the plowing of fields. Was it electrical? There was a display of the new lighting already taking the place of the gaslight used in homes and street lamps. Was it chemical in nature? Small explosions blasted a field removed from the majority of the crowd, while men in uniform watched intently from a safe distance.
Julian wandered to a circle surrounding a fanciful mechanical dragon. The machine easily stood five feet tall and measured twice as long. Wanting a closer view, he wove his way through the crowd to find a spot at the very front. As the dragon moved its many-jointed limbs, gyros whirred and gears clicked. Students with rolled-up sleeves oiled its joints and stoked the coal in its belly. They closed the hatch and stood back. One pulled a lever and the dragon opened its mouth and roared fire.
It was an impressive display until the fire did not cease, but instead increased in intensity. The onlookers began to fall back with growing alarm. Julian remained, fascinated. Students ran about, shouting and adding to the general chaos.
The young man who had pulled the lever ran frantically toward the dragon, trying to reach the hatch to rake out the coal and relieve the pressure. He yelled, “Daniel, Daniel! It’s going to explode!”
“I told you it was too much, Stephen. You’ve got to pay more attention to the pressure gauges.” Another, slightly older youth joined the first. He popped open the hatch with a metal rod, letting out smoke and steam. With a loud whoosh, the dragon collapsed, throwing soot into the air to rain down upon the unfortunate Stephen and the red-haired young man who had tamed the dragon.
Julian hardly noticed. Daniel, he thought. Daniel. For one brief moment he felt frozen, suspended in time. The red-haired youth approached him and spoke but Julian could only stare at him helplessly.
“I said, are you quite all right, sir?” The lad--Daniel, Julian repeated to himself yet again--wiped at the soot on his face, smearing the black marks across his cheek, and then swiped his hands on his previously white linen shirt. Long, stray auburn strands escaped from the short black ribbon holding the hair back from the most adorable heart-shaped face Julian had ever seen.
He took in a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Interest in the same sex was not as accepted here as in his timeline. Definitely part of the 1.1 percent difference that might get him into difficulty if he weren’t careful.
He smiled brightly. “Yes, quite all right. A bit messy I suppose.” He looked down at his own shirt ruefully. “Still, nothing that won’t wash off, right?”
The two young men appeared relieved he wasn’t making more of a fuss. Daniel turned to the other man. “The gauges are blown. You’ll have to get some lads to help you drag it back to the workshop.” Stephen, looking crestfallen, went to find some helpers.
Daniel turned back to Julian. “You’re an American, sir, from your accent? Surely you haven’t come all this way to attend our demonstrations?”
“I’m very interested.” Julian held out his hand. “Julian Blake. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Daniel Sinclair.” Daniel started to hold out his hand and then looked at the soot covering it and stopped. “Perhaps we’d best forego shaking hands. Shall I show you to the lavatory?”
“Of course, you’re quite correct.” Julian smiled at him and added, “That would be most appreciated.”
But Julian didn’t move and Daniel gave him a polite smile in return. They were almost the same height with the youth being more fine-boned and slender. Their eyes met and Daniel’s polite smile turned uncertain as a faint flush colored his cheeks under the streaks of soot.
Julian couldn’t take his gaze from the hazel eyes, a light brown shining with tiny green flecks. He felt his face grow warm. One percent, remember? Oh, Julian, you are in so much trouble.
Daniel blinked and looked away. “It’s this way.”
They walked toward one of the many large red brick buildings which made up the campus. Julian felt a strong need to make conversation, to keep Daniel’s attention. “So the dragon wasn’t your experiment? Are you one of the graduating students?”
“No. I graduated from this level two years ago. I’m in Advanced Studies and sometimes tutor the younger students. I thought I’d help Stephen today with his dragon. I don’t normally work with the mechanicals any longer.”
He looked so young. Julian wondered if he dared ask Daniel his age. Surely if he had already graduated, it wouldn’t be robbing the cradle? Julian stopped himself. It didn’t matter; he had a mission to complete.
Daniel showed him the wet towels and they wiped soot from their skin.
“Here,” Julian said, “you’ve still got a little on your face.” Without thinking, he reached out with the wet rag to wipe the soot off Daniel’s cheek. He hesitated when he realized what he was doing but the young man showed no sign of pulling away. He just stared at him with his wide hazel eyes.
Julian finished, running one thumb along the man’s cheekbone to be sure all the soot was gone, and then stepped back. “Better. I think we got it all.” He wiped at his own shirt, pulling his coat closer to hide the streaks on the white linen. “I think that is the best we can do. Do I look presentable? I intended to talk to your administrator--Dr. Barrington, isn’t it? Do you think he is available for a quick chat today?”
“Yes.” Daniel seemed a little dazed. Julian winced, regretting the impulse that had made him reach out to the younger man. But then Daniel’s face cleared and he stepped back, frowning. “May I ask your business, sir? You never really told me why you are here.”
“Why, the same as all your other visitors, I imagine. This is truly a wonderful place. There are so many new inventions, so many new ideas. I am a representative of the American Seaboard Trading Company in New York. We might be interested in investing in some of these new mechanicals and the other marvels I have seen here today.”
Now Daniel appeared positively suspicious, his former dazed aspect replaced by a spark of anger. “A businessman.”
Julian raised his eyebrows. “Have I said something wrong? I would think an investor would be welcomed by the Institute administration.”
“You are quite correct. They will welcome you. They need the funding. But men of business and men of war want only to take our inventions and turn them to profit or to battle, not caring who is injured along the way.” He sounded bitter.
Julian protested. “That is not always true. If you had more funds for the steam-powered horse, for example, it could be developed and in use before the new planting season. Think of the potential food production. Such an investment would benefit all--the Institute, the farmers, the people--and the company would still make a profit.”
“You have made a pretty speech, but I have been here long enough to know no good can come of business investing in our inventions. You will always try to dictate the course of development.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Julian to find the administrator’s office on his own.
At least the young man’s pique put an end to any possibility of further acquaintance. Julian knew that was just as well, even while he eyed Daniel’s very fine buttocks as the young scientist retreated.
Daniel strode away from the company man, as angry at himself as at the stranger. He had felt a strong attraction the minute he gazed into those cool grey eyes, along with a sudden urge to run his fingers through the wavy black hair. And then the man had actually reached out and touched his face! It had felt so nice, so warm, that Daniel had been unable to move. His attraction had certainly lessened once he knew the businessman’s intentions.
But he was still conscious of Julian looking at his bottom as he left. Could the man be any more obvious? He was going to get them both into trouble.
The crowds were beginning to thin, and Daniel wondered how many of the graduating scientists had been hired by the military and by the major trading companies.
He checked in on Stephen to make sure the boy hadn’t blown up the workroom or himself, but everything appeared to be under control. The afternoon was wearing on and the professor was expecting him.
The workshop where Daniel spent the majority of his time was located in a small stone structure some distance from the main buildings.
“Almost suppertime, boy. Where have you been all day?” Dr. Hadley sounded peeved.
“Today is the graduation exhibition, remember, Dr. Hadley? I had to help the students with their demonstrations,” he reminded the professor gently.
The old man looked confused for a moment. Despite his age and his occasional bouts of forgetfulness, Dr. Hadley remained a brilliant man and Daniel felt privileged to act as his assistant. He spent most of his time constructing complicated machinery under the close direction of the professor. When not actively building their machine, he was looking over the professor’s shoulder, trying to follow along as Hadley performed the most intricate mathematical calculations by hand. Only occasionally did the professor resort to the calculating engine which covered most of one wall of the workshop.
Dr. Hadley brightened. “I’ve been working on the new equations, boy. Come and take a look.”
Daniel sat at the work table. They spent the next couple of hours modifying the calculations they’d been working on for months.
Then Daniel rose and began reconnecting the India-rubber covered copper wiring trailing from the spherical metallic generator to the archway, reconfiguring the input of the power supply.
A small brass globe spun in the center of the archway. Light gleamed from the copper spines protruding around its circumference. Each spike was tipped with a highly magnetic alloy designed to interact with the surrounding ferrous arch. A large dial clung to one side of the arch, numbers in increments of five placed around the edges. A single long silver rod, like one hand of a chronometer, pointed directly to the zero at the top of the dial.
They worked late into the night, supper forgotten, until at last Daniel stopped the old man. “We need to get something to eat, Professor, and we need to rest.”
The old man looked weary but mutinous. “We’re so close, boy. Only one more calculation and we can do the second test.”
“First thing in the morning, sir, I promise. As tired as we are, we’re bound to make a mistake if we try it tonight. And then what will happen to poor little Oscar?” Daniel patted the top of the cage which held the unfortunate field mouse. He had survived the first experiment two days before and had grown quite fat from all the cheese and grain they had fed him as they readied for the next test.
The professor grumbled, but finally acquiesced.
Weariness threatened to close his eyes, but Daniel’s work was not quite done for the evening. In his room, he retrieved the latest journal from his desk drawer and began making notations of the day’s work. This was another of his duties as the professor’s assistant. Daniel had already filled one thick journal and was well into the second.
He fell asleep with his head on the book and a half-eaten apple in his hand.
* * * *
Waking early with a cramp in his neck, Daniel washed and then visited the Institute’s dining hall, crowded and noisy at this time of the morning. There were two days left in the term, and soon the hall would echo with silence instead of laughter as most students returned home for the summer break. Daniel would remain, as he always did, using the time to further his studies.
He smiled to himself. There were compensations for remaining on the grounds when only a few other students and staff were present. He had the library to himself and the leisure to enjoy it. He would also have more time to visit the stables, to share a meal and have conversations with his friend regarding matters he could discuss with no one else. And--his grin widened--those discussions often turned into something else. No, remaining on the Institute grounds when others had gone home to their families was not so terrible.
He was back in the isolated workshop, jacket off and sleeves rolled up, when he heard a carriage approach.
He paused in his preparations and asked the professor, “Dr. Hadley, did you invite anyone for the test? I thought we were going wait to demonstrate the device.”
Dr. Hadley frowned. “No, no. I’m sure I didn’t.”
Daniel went to the door to find Dr. Barrington there, along with the American businessman, Julian Blake. Julian looked at Daniel in evident surprise.
“Ah, Sinclair, my boy, are you busy?” The Institute Director strode into the workshop. Julian lingered a moment, his gaze meeting Daniel’s. Daniel felt a little thrill of the same attraction that had struck him the first time he had met those fine grey eyes, framed by long lashes the same deep black as the thick, wavy hair. His face warmed a little and he looked away, resolutely trying to ignore his own reaction.
“Yes, we are a bit.” Daniel answered the administrator. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Splendid, splendid.” Barrington wandered the room, Julian following him, attention caught by all of the equipment.
Barrington introduced Julian to Dr. Hadley, emphasizing the fact that Julian’s company was interested in making a sizeable investment. “Professor, Mr. Blake is most interested in any new inventions currently in progress and of course I thought of your splendid invention, your most marvelous machine. Would you care to tell him a little about it, show him around your workshop a bit?”
Daniel protested. “Sir, we wanted to be more prepared before showing it to anyone. Anyway, I don’t think Mr. Blake would be interested in an invention not yet ready.”
Julian smiled at him. “Not at all, Daniel. I assure you I am most interested. Please show me around, will you?”
“I’ll leave you to it, then. I have another appointment, but do stop by my office when you are done here, Mr. Blake.” Barrington departed, leaving Julian to his tour.
The professor promptly sat at his work table again and proceeded to ignore the visitor in favor of his calculations.
The young scientist stood with arms crossed, glaring.
Julian moved closer and said in a low voice, “You don’t have to be so concerned. I am not some sort of shark, only out to make a profit at the expense of the little people.”
Daniel bit his lower lip in uncertainty as he tried to decide how much to say. He noticed Julian staring at his mouth and looked away, flustered.
Julian walked around the lab. The large, hollow metal sphere caught his eye. “A Van de Graaff generator! How many megavolts do you produce?”
Impressed at the businessman’s unexpected display of scientific knowledge, Daniel let his natural enthusiasm come to the fore and began telling him about the equipment in the workroom. Julian appeared fascinated by the small brass globe spinning at the center of the arch.
“But what does it do, Daniel? You haven’t yet told me what this intriguing machine actually does.”
Daniel smiled mysteriously, his eyes lighting with excitement. “You’ll see. Be patient while the professor completes his review of the final calculations.”
They walked to the research area and Daniel pointed out some of the more esoteric books and papers, gathered with the assistance of other scientists from all over the world. Julian reached past him and pulled out a book, his body pressing against Daniel’s back for a moment, breath warm against his neck.
Unable to hide his reaction, Daniel gave a small gasp and shivered. He didn’t look at Julian but felt the man’s hand move slowly up the back of his shirt to rest against his neck. Trembling, Daniel closed his eyes as the warm fingers gently stroked his nape.
“Daniel,” Julian moved closer, whispering, lips brushing against his ear. “Daniel, I...”
“Stop, please.” He looked anxiously toward the professor, who was still immersed in his work. “It’s not wise.”
Daniel forced himself to move away, back to the arch. Trying to find a distraction, he spoke to the professor. “Are we ready for the next test, sir? The new connections have been created and the gauges have been recalibrated according to the results from the calculating engine. Is there anything else to be done?”
“Are the capacitors fully charged?”
“Then we are ready.” The professor sounded excited.
Daniel sliced a small piece of cheese from the round on the table and picked up the cage containing the mouse. Then he simply stood, staring at the mouse expectantly.
Julian, looking puzzled, started to ask for an explanation when suddenly the mouse vanished. Julian’s mouth fell open in astonishment and Daniel grinned.
Placing the cheese inside the cage, Daniel moved hastily to the archway and rested the cage on the floor.
“Excellent, excellent,” the professor exclaimed. “It seems two of the same beings cannot exist in the same time and space. Little Oscar disappeared, so we must have accomplished our experiment.” Despite his excitement, Daniel couldn’t help wondering how the professor could remember the mouse’s name but not that of his own assistant.
Almost immediately, Oscar reappeared under the archway, and spotting the cheese in the cage, went straight in. Daniel closed the cage door and then looked at the large intricate timepiece on the wall. “Three more minutes, Professor.”
They waited in silence. Daniel could see Julian was bursting with questions but didn’t want to interrupt their work.
The timepiece ticked off the remaining three minutes and Daniel retrieved the now somnolent mouse from his cage and placed him under the archway. He then reached for the long silver rod on the large dial set into the side of the arch, and using both hands, pulled it down until a loud click indicated it was settled properly into position under the number five.
The brass globe immediately began to revolve. They stared in fascination as it picked up speed, the small spines around its circumference becoming a blur. Finally a loud popping noise echoed in the workshop and the capacitors discharged in a flash of light.
The mouse disappeared, only to immediately reappear in its cage.
Daniel exclaimed, “You did it, Professor. The new calculations are perfect--exactly five minutes this time.”
“But so many questions still unanswered, boy. So much yet to learn. But progress, yes, definitely progress.”
Julian looked amazed. “Five minutes ... you’re saying five minutes... How did the mouse appear before you sent him?” His eyes widened in disbelief. He stepped forward, his voice slightly raised. “You’re trying to tell me you actually sent the mouse back in time five minutes?”
Daniel was still smiling. Not even the thought of sharing these secrets with a company man could keep him from savoring the triumph of a successful experiment. “A time machine--yes, exactly. The professor’s calculations are truly a breakthrough in mathematics and the rare magnetic alloys used to tip the protrusions on the globe are a key element.”
“But... That’s not possible. Our scientists have been trying for years...” Julian stopped abruptly.
“You have company scientists who have been working on time travel? Why?”
“Purely for purposes of study--the same motivations you have. We are well aware changing the past could have catastrophic effects on our present.”
Daniel was impressed with Julian’s perceptive answer, but Dr. Hadley interjected, “Perhaps it would, but we don’t know it for a fact. There are so many questions still to be answered. For example, where did the mouse go in the brief time when he was gone from the cage, but before he appeared in the machine? Did he exist at all?”
“Or did he exist in some other dimension, a fifth dimension outside of our common universe?” Daniel was full of speculation.
The professor continued. “As to whether the present could be changed by a traveler to the past, how can we ever know for certain? Why, there has been a theory for years that there could be other worlds similar to ours; a new one created each time a major decision is made, to exist in parallel with ours.”
“And if true,” Daniel added, “then perhaps the mouse spent a brief moment in a parallel earth, as it may not be possible for two of the same being to exist in the same world. And if a traveler did go back in time to change events, our world might remain unaffected; instead, a new, parallel earth could be created.”
Julian appeared pale. Daniel said, “Julian? You don’t look well. Are you all right? Do you want to sit?”
“Perhaps so.” Julian’s voice sounded shaky as he moved to sit at the work table.
Daniel continued. “Sending a mouse back five minutes is a very long way from sending a man back in time. It will be years before we are ready to do any tests with humans. You see that, don’t you?” His anxiety about the company taking over and trying to direct the research surfaced.
Julian turned to look at the archway with its small globe, quiescent now. Daniel couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he did not seem as excited as it seemed he should have been upon seeing such a major new invention. In fact, he almost seemed frightened.
Julian replied, “Yes, I understand. You’re quite right. Much more research needs to be done. And you were also correct, Daniel, to be wary of telling me about this invention. I should be very careful of mentioning it to anyone else.”
The professor frowned. “Scientific discovery cannot be accomplished in the dark. How will scientists collaborate if there are such secrets? How will we generate interest in scientific education within the common man if we do not advertise our accomplishments? It is his interest which allows us to obtain the funding for work to proceed.”
His aspect softened when he looked at Daniel. He said in a kindly tone, “You are young and full of idealism, my boy, and that is proper. But reality will someday show that for all your enthusiasm, you cannot accomplish your endeavors without the patronage of those who have an interest, such as Mr. Blake here, and such as the lovely young couple of means whom I met recently when at the tavern for dinner. It is their benefaction that truly allows serious work to be accomplished.”
Daniel bit his lip, knowing any reply he might give would only wound the old man who had taught him so much. He struggled not to say anything about ivory towers and the complete disregard for the applications to which such scientific invention was subject once it left the realm of theory and moved into the practical world.
Julian asked, “Professor, of what couple do you speak? Perhaps I should make their acquaintance if we share similar interests.”
Dr. Hadley looked pleased, but admitted, “I confess I do not recall their names. But the woman was very cultured and had the loveliest raven black hair. I told them to contact Dr. Barrington to discover what assistance they could be to the Institute.”
“Then I shall ask him. Oh, and what is the name of the tavern where you met them?”
“The Inn of the Golden Lion. I always go there when I don’t wish to have dinner in my rooms.”
Julian stood to take his leave. “Thank you, sir. And thank you so much for this fascinating opportunity to see your work. It is quite amazing.”
Daniel walked him to the door as the professor returned to studying his papers. Julian stopped in the doorway and did not move until Daniel looked at him.
“Can I see you tonight?” Julian asked. “Dr. Barrington has invited me to stay in guest quarters here on the Institute grounds. We could meet for dinner and some further discussion of the experiment. I still have many questions.”
Daniel hesitated. He wanted very much to be with Julian and to feel those strong hands stroking his skin once more. But if they were seen together, it would mean trouble for the businessman. Despite his discretion, many at the Institute already knew where Daniel’s preferences lay and held him in contempt for it, as his family had done. It was best not to get involved, especially as Julian would be leaving soon to return to New York.
At any rate, Daniel had his own friend to visit tonight. Perhaps a long talk and then something more than talk would help him put this tall grey-eyed man out of his mind.
He looked down, not meeting Julian’s bold gaze. “I think it best not to meet, sir. I will be happy to answer your questions if you come back tomorrow, when the professor is here.” He dared a quick look up. Julian appeared disappointed but departed quietly.
Daniel thought that attitudes must be more liberal in New York, for the man to be so forward. Perhaps, he thought wistfully, I will journey there one day.
© Bren Christopher
The Professor's Assistant
Author: Bren Christopher
Publisher: Liquid Silver Books
Genre: LGBT Sci-Fi/Steampunk Romance
Lured by rumors of a momentous invention, Agent Julian Blake steps into the New York Gate and emerges outside London. It is the same year, 1885, but an Earth parallel to his own. The two timelines are almost identical, but the slight variation is enough to threaten his mission as it includes an attitude toward same-sex attraction that is less than accepting.
He never expected that difference to pose a problem. Julian has an important mission to complete; a mission with far-reaching consequences not only across the alternate Earths, but into their pasts. For the momentous invention is a working time machine. And the inventor’s assistant is a beautiful, auburn-haired young man named Daniel who causes Julian to disregard the Department rules he has lived by for so long.
But there are others interested in the professor’s new invention, and when tragedy strikes, the professor’s lovely assistant might just be the only person left alive with the knowledge to recreate the device.
Now Daniel is a target, and Julian is in a race to protect him and retrieve the knowledge of the time machine from those who would misuse it.