Quite Glorified Uncle

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¤  CHAPTER 13 ¤

The radio on the ground at Swinburne’s feet crackled to life as he planted another pylon in one of the holes around the sacred spring.

“Chariot to base,” came the staticky voice from the other end. It was Ralph, checking in from his surveillance of the Burrows’ home.

Swinburne picked up the radio and pushed the button.

“This is base, over.”

“They’ve all gone, all but the houseguest and the wife, over.”

“Right,” said Swinburne. “Keep an eye on them and let me know the moment those two leave, or else when all the lights in the house go off for the night, over.”

Ralph grunted his acknowledgement of the order and signed off. Swinburne put the radio back down, fetched another pylon off the stack on the ground next to him, and went to plant it in its own hole. One more, and all the holes that they had dug around the spring would have pylons in them, the first phase in the construction of the device he, Portnoy, and Burroughs had worked so long to complete. It was risky, doing this in broad daylight, but time was of the essence now. Besides, the glade wasn’t readily visible from outside the forest and close observation of the family’s habits suggested that noone was likely to visit the spring at this time of year. As far as Swinburne could tell, apparently they still hadn’t discovered that anything was amiss here.

The last pylon planted, he went back to the wall, where he found that Burroughs had stacked the elements for the next phase of their project: boxes containing electronic elements studded with a complex array of vacuum tubes, wires, transistors, resistors, and other similar things, each connected to a kind of electronic amplifier, with points at which wires could be connected fore and aft. Swinburne took the boxes by turn, each one slightly larger than its brother, and affixed them on top of one the pylons in a specific pattern.

This was it, Swinburne thought, as he began connecting struts to the eight pylons that directly ringed the spring. The struts descended diagonally down towards the center of the spring, their terminal flanges forming a holder for the main amplifier, which was to be suspended mere inches above the water. Swinburne took a satisfied glance at his handiwork. It was finally coming together. Yes, he had had to endure the fantastical spiritualistic wafflings of Portnoy and Burroughs, but it was worth it to get the funding and materials for this project. Noone else had been interested. In fact, he had been laughed out of every office in which he had made his pitch. Noone else seemed to be interested in the possibilities of harnessing the power of both telluric currents and ley lines in order to create a portal to the past. Or maybe the future. Or maybe even an alternate universe. He wasn’t sure of anything, other than that space and time should be somehow rent by his device, and that a human being possessed of sufficient courage should be able to walk through that rent to whatever awaited on the other side. Noone had been interested, except Portnoy and Burroughs, who as it turned out had been searching for nearly a year for someone with the technical know-how to make real Portnoy’s supposed “vision” that he had had in Rome, a vision that was uncannily similar in many ways to Swinburne’s idea about the portal.

Sometimes coincidence was a scientist’s best friend: an overheard conversation in the Ashmolean Museum had led to Swinburne introducting himself to the other two men. As he discovered, Portnoy and Burroughs wanted to make a portal. Swinburne also wanted to make a portal. Portnoy had money and a vision; Burroughs had some skill with electronics and connections with people like Ralph and the man with the lorry who had appropriated many of the supplies needed. Swinburne also had technical knowledge and degrees in physics, geology, and maths. Well, he almost had those degrees. Actually he had failed his exams, but not through his own fault. His instructors at university had simply refused to recognize that they were asking the wrong questions. It had been gratifying to read newspaper reports of their consternation at the thefts from the geophysics lab. And it would be more gratifying still to learn of their amazement at his eventual success. At least he wouldn’t end up like Kirwin, poor fool. Kirwin also had been recruited by Burroughs early on, but when he had made the fatal error of coming to the notice of the police, Portnoy and Burroughs had dealt with him swiftly and brutally. Some aspects of their passion for Roman culture were rather more disquieting than others.

Finally the struts were all in place. Swinburne was nearly ready to attach the largest box of all, which was octagonal, about two feet across, and made to fit onto the platform created by flanges at the ends of the struts. In the top of the box lid was an indentation, covered with glass, in which had been sealed the Janus medallion he and Ralph had picked up earlier. On the inside, in the center of a nest of circuitry, was a space for the puzzle matrix which, when activated, would fuse all the copper wiring into a miniature schematic of the pattern of telluric currents and ley lines within a ten-mile radius. The pylons would act as conduits for the energy from the telluric currents and ley lines, along which they had been strategically placed. This energy would be collected by the boxes and, enhanced by a charge of electrical current, would flow from one box to the other until it arrived at the matrix, which would act as a kind of amplification of geological power at the point at which it was most collected and focused: the sacred spring. Swinburne wasn’t quite sure why Portnoy had been so insistent that he go through the added steps of using the Janus medallion or embedding the matrix in a puzzle, on the latter of which was written what Portnoy assured him were Druidic enchantments from Roman Britain, but Portnoy controlled the purse strings, and if Swinburne wanted to build the portal some sacrifices were necessary.

The light was fading fast. Burroughs entered the glade, one large coil of electrical cable hung on each of his broad shoulders. He tossed the cable to the forest floor near the spring.

“Where do things stand now?” asked Burroughs.

“We need to hook up the cables and run them back to the house to be connected to the mains there. As soon as we have the puzzle matrix, I can connect the primary focal unit to the struts and we can run our first test.”

Working together, the men connected all the boxes on the pylons with lengths of electrical cable. In order to handle the power that was supposed to increase in intensity as the electricity moved along the path of the pylons, larger and larger numbers of wires had to be connected from one box to the next. Finally, large coils of wires would go snaking down the struts to be plugged into receptacles at each vertex of the main amplifier box. When that was all in place, a metal grille would placed over the sacred spring: the person wishing to use the portal would stand there, directly over the main amplifier box, and when the current was switched on, the concentrated energy flowing into the box would open the portal, taking the person on the platform to wherever it was the portal went. Or at least that was the theory.

Soon the wiring among the pylons was done. Just as the men were about to start extending the main cable back to the house, the radio spat and fizzed again. It was Ralph, checking in from the copse opposite Steed’s sister’s house.

“Chariot to base: they’ve left. Repeat, the houseguest and the wife have left the house by car and seem to be headed into the village. Over.”

Burroughs grabbed the radio.

“Excellent. Stay where you are. Swinburne will be joining you shortly with further instructions. Over.”

“Acknowledged. Chariot out.”

Burroughs turned to Swinburne.

“Right. Now’s your chance. Meet up with Ralph, wait for one hour past full dark, get into that house, and get the puzzle. The locator is in the van. It’s charged and ready to go.”

“But the rest of the cable—” Swinburne began.

“I can run that myself. Making that last connection isn’t rocket science, you know,” growled Burroughs. “Get going. We have to make that first test tonight, or it will all have been in vain. And unless you want to join what is left of Kirwin at the bottom of the Cam, you’ll not come back without the puzzle. Understood?”


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