Chapter 20 - Practical Men
Jean G Hontz
@copyright 2009 all rights reserved
There was a moment when elation and relief filled him with that rare combination of complete satisfaction and awe that he’d even managed it. The Assembler had worked exactly as he’d pictured it in his mind, exactly as he’d programmed it to do. All the books he’d poured over, the alchemists and other scientists he’d grilled when he was at Oxford, all the formulae he’d tested, and later created, all the metals and circuits and ideas he’d combined... all to finally create The Assembler.
And there, after being chased and shot out and finding out his work had put the only woman he’d ever loved in life-threatening danger, after all of that, to feel the power of The Assembler arrayed for him to use, and to control... And there, just as he’d known it would happen, he, his machine and all his friends were safe back in the cavern.
He’d grinned and let out a whoop and then... and then suddenly he felt the world tilt under his feet, and gravity fall away and he was falling, although he was standing on solid rock The cavern was spiralling away from him at near light-speed, either it or him receding into a distant point. The very worst thing of all, was that there'd been nothing at all he could do about it. Nothing whatever. He had zero control, he was frozen as he stood, could not even formulate a thought to try to take control of the situation with The Assembler. Instead off they went, his invention and himself, off into some private hell from which he might never escape.
How long he was frozen there in horror as he watched it all unfold, he had no real way to measure He tried to count the seconds but even that seemed to fail. His mind was too horrified, his heart breaking, his fear rising. Would he destroy all his friends as well as himself, or would he live knowing he’d killed them. He wouldn’t be able to stand it if that was the case.
He wanted to scream out Emmie’s name but he had no voice, he had no body, he was just a point of intelligence adrift in nothingness, and timelessness.
And then the world crashed in around him and he felt as if he'd slammed into a wall at speed. The pain of the impact tore the air from his lungs and the awareness from his mind. The universe went dark and he knew he was dying.
Richard Ainsworth was slumped in a comfortable chair in his father’s snuggery. He sipped the brandy from the expensive cut-glass tumbler and then held what was left up to the light. He eyed the amber liquid and then frowned at it.
He’d never liked the scheme, not from the first time it was mentioned to him. He had liked it even less when he was told of his role in it. And now, now, predictably, the entire thing was unraveling. HIs father’s response was also predictable. He ranted and raged and heaped the blame on his son rather than on his own head. God forbid Father accept that though he’d designed it, politicked for it, and insisted it be carried out, despite Richard’s vociferous arguments against it, the failure was his own. No, Nathan Ainsworth failed at nothing. Anything that went wrong was always the fault of someone else. Richard threw the glass into the fire, and watched the alcohol fueled flames with little satisfaction.
Richard had tried to explain the scheme’s shortcomings to his father several times. The main shortcoming was, as had now become clear even to the most oblivious member of the cabal, currently locked in a room, angry as hell. There was no rational way to make him cooperate, at least none that Richard could see.
Even taking Emiline Hollis-Reynolds had been a long-shot. Black was simply not the sort of man who’d buy the whole, ‘all you have to do is do what I say and all will be well.’ He was the sort who’d expect to be double-crossed and he’d know full well the conspirators cared nothing whatever for him and at the end of the day would have every reason to ensure he was well and truly dead so he could not testify or otherwise expose their machinations.
Father, of course, accepted none of that sort of reasoning. He thought all men were greedy, naive and ignorant. Ned Black was none of those things. Ned Black, Richard thought morosely, wasn’t even an honorable man. Honorable men could be manipulated. No, Ned Black was a pragmatist and clear-eyed, as well as brilliant. Granted, it made for a rare combination, but if Father had listened to him, instead of proceeding on in his usual bull-headed fashion... Well, it was all water under the bridge at this point. Too late to change things. All they could do was try to mitigate the damage.
At this point, the real question was how he, Richard, could get out from under the inevitable consequences of this adventure. And he was absolutely certain there would be strong and severe consequences.
Father thought himself immune from governmental retaliation. Richard begged to differ. They weren't just doing the usual industrial form of espionage here. Oh no. They were messing about with someone who’d caught the eye of the Royals.
Ned might have told Them to go stick Themselves with the pointy end when They'd attempted to recruit him but Richard had no doubt whatsoever that the Prince Regent was already scheming to come up with a way to turn this all to His advantage and get Ned onboard at last.
So how could he, Richard, get his own sins forgiven and end up on the outside of the Old Bailey rather than in it; that was the question. If Father ended up hung, he wouldn’t miss the old bastard at all. Besides, he could damn well worry about himself. He always did. He gave sod all about his son, or about anyone else for that matter.
Richard looked up as the study door opened. Nathan Ainsworth walked in smiling like a Christmas canary. “I need you to speak to Mr Black,” he announced without preliminary.
Typical, Richard thought with a snort. “Why’s that, then?”
“Since you were stupid enough to let the girl go, I was forced to find another hostage to use. I’ve found her. I have her. Just you let him know I do.”
“Hostage? Who then?” Richard had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“His mother, of course.”
“Of course,” Richard repeated, keeping his despair and his anger from his voice.
He got up and left the room without another word. Any would have been a waste of energy and air. Nathan Ainsworth accepted advice from no one, least of all his son.
Richard found Ned lying down either actually asleep or pretending to be. Richard suspected the first. Ned was not good at pretending much of anything. With him, what you saw was what you got. He was straight spoken, unapologetic and disdained subterfuge. Silly rotter.
“Ned,” Richard said as he unlocked the door and sauntered into the room. The place wasn’t a cell. Not precisely. But it was meant to hold nearly anyone.
Ned opened his eyes and searched out Richard’s. “What now? Have you re-captured Emmie?”
Richard walked on in and secured the door behind himself. He took a seat in the wingchair near the sofa where Ned had slept. “No. My father has another hostage to use to persuade you to do what he wants.”
Ned sighed. “You know full well I could easily pretend to agree to your father’s terms and then sabotage the attempt in the end.”
Richard was silent for a time then commented, “Yes, I know it. And you also know full well that if you follow through, or if you don’t, you’re lost either way.”
“Do I?” Ned asked, sitting up and rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Yes. You aren't an idiot. You’re screwed and so is any hostage.”
Ned scooted over so he could prop up his back against the side of the sofa, the better to regard Richard. He took his time, considering what he’d say next. It could, he thought, make all the difference in the world. He couldn’t just say what he wanted to. He was pretty certain there were others listening in. He doubted Richard had much more scope in which to maneuver than he did.
“How did you manage bringing yourself and Emmie to me? And then removing not just two relatively light bodies from Bermuda, but also moving the considerable mass of The Assembler as well?”
Richard shook his head. “Not that interested in the newest hostage?”
“The only other hostage your father could possibly think of is my mother. So, instead tell me about the science.”
“You don't want to see her?” Richard asked.
“Oh, I’m quite certain your father will insist that I see her. And soon. He’ll think seeing her will make me understand I must do as he says.”
Richard shook his head in wonder. “You’re a cold fish, Ned.”
“Not at all. But I am logical and practical. So tell me how you moved that much mass through space, and is there a limit to it? You know, the government would want that even more than it wants my Assembler if it knew about it.”
Richard squinted thoughtfully. Ned, he saw, also appreciated the fact that others were doubtless listening in.
“I came at the idea a bit differently than you did,” Richard replied, pulling a pad out of his pocket and readying his fountain pen. He moved over to sit next to Ned on the sofa.
What was written on the pad was, “I think I can get her out of here.”
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