A SPARK OF LIFE • by Dave D’Alessio

It was a night for a warm fire and a good drink of whiskey. Instead there was a rapping at my door. By the sound of it, someone was banging away with a proper walking stick.

I pumped up a pneumatic pistol and cranked the magneto flash, a good trick indeed with only my two hands, to see who it might be.

The light shone on Auld Jamie and he smelled no drunker than usual. “In the name of Saint Andrew, cease that banging,” I told him. “I hae no time for your shenanigans, Jamie FitzWilliam!”

“‘Tis the Sassenach,” he said, excitedly. “They hae started something foul, doon to the loch. Ye call yeself a constable, so be moving, Stewart!”

There’d been Englishmen tenting on the moor overlooking the loch. No one knew why they’d come but guesses were easy to come by, talk is cheap and tongues had wagged all over town.

Clachan Frith-Bhaile is nae Aberdeen, ‘tis true. The huts are as our grandfathers made them, and the lanes where the sheep hae walked, lamb and ewe, for centuries, but the people will talk as people do. We hae lit the square with the finest whale oil the King of Norway will sell, but we hae little use for His Brittanic Majesty’s fancy air battleships and less for his dandy lordlings.

The moor was lit bright white and flickering, in the glow of a limelight nae seen north of a London stage, driving even the moon from the night sky with its blinding glare. But limelight or nae, ye’d have known to hear it that some infernal contraption was in use. And be ye deaf and blind, ye could smell steam, smoke and lightning on the air.

I shaded my eyes from the glare. There were two of the men stoking the fires of a boiler that drove an engine that clattered and roiled, and spat great gouts of steam and smoke into the sky, and others running about with oil cans and punched cards. There was a mechanical chittering, the sound of a hundred bronze-beaked woodpeckers hammering away. And singing harmony to this cacophony was the irregular snap of an electric arc popping on and off. The FitzWilliam had the right of it. The Sassenach were up to something foul.

“Guid man,” I shouted, addressing myself to the Englishman who looked busiest. If ye want a quick answer, ask a busy man. “Who’s in charge of yon beastie?”

He pointed out an English gent, and a gent he was as you could see from his clothes. No hand weaving for this Sassenach; only the finest Persian silk, woven into the intricate patterns that the best Jacquard looms in the Empire could produce. The lenses of his smoked glasses glinted whitely, and he smiled the smile of a mad man. “Yes, my good man,” he said.

“I’m the constable hereabouts,” I told him. “Will you be tellin’ me o’ the meanin’ o’ this?”

The man fairly capered. “Isn’t it marvelous?” he danced. “It’s the biggest ever! Unprecedented speed and precision! Revolutionary!”

“Nae so fast,” I warned. “None o’ that! Revolutionary what?” We Scotsmen hae learned to be wary of that word, ‘revolution.’ The English hae taught us to be since the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

“It’s a Marconi device,” he said. This he thought would hae meaning, but it did nae. “A digital tele-communicator?” he tried, and when that had no effect, “A wireless telegraph! It’s a marvel! We’re talking to the American colonies, without cables!”

“Go on with you,” I said. “There canna be a wireless telegraph. The wires are the heart of the beast. Might as well say a lightless lamp!”

“No, no,” he insisted. “It’s simple!” Aye, and when a Sassenach wearing smoked glasses at night says something is simple, ‘tis nae. He spouted chapter and verse of the sheerest mumbo-jumbo — the Newcomen engine, it seemed, drove a Babbage machine and the Babbage machine controlled a great sparker, which explained the snapping noises and the whiff of ozone in the air. Or so the madman thought.

“Yon Sassenach’s insane,” FitzWilliam said. “Hae him taken away!”

“Aye,” says I. “Turn it off and bring it back tae where ye hae gotten the beastly thing.”

Then the Sassenach produced a warrant, all correct and proper, signed by the Judge Advocate of Aberdeen. I read it, using one hand to keep the FitzWilliam from snatching it from my other in rage. “See here,” I said. “Ye hae been enjoined to operate this device legally.”

“I am!” he crowed. “I have my license from the crown itself!”

“Aye,” says I. “But ye said ye are using yon monstrosity to speak to the colonies, did ye nae?”

“I am!” he said, and with that I had him.

“Fine,” I told him. “Then I am arresting ye for Disturbin’ the Peace.”

“What?” he shrieked, dancing a new dance, a jig of rage or I am nae judge.

I said, “The law says if ye can make yeself heard in the next parish, ye are Disturbin’ the Peace. Since ye hae confessed that ye can be heard in the Americas…”

He was nae interested in hearing the rest, and I was soon able to add “Cheeking An Officer,” and “Use Of Intemperate Language” to the list of charges.

He ran low on steam, and had a look at the list I was drawing up. “You look like a reasonable man, constable,” he said. “Can we make this… go away?”

“Ye can come along and do thirty days in gaol,” I told the man. “Or ye can take this monstrosity away and nae bring it back.”

The FitzWilliam and I stood on the hill and watched them take the pieces apart. “They’ll be back,” I said, gloomily. “There are a thousand lochs in Scotland.”

“Aye, laddie,” agreed the FitzWilliam, “but there’ll be Scotsmen at each of them.”

Dave D’Alessio is an ex-industrial chemist, ex-TV engineer, and ex-award-winning animator now masquerading as a working social scientist. His fiction has appeared in The Other Side of Paradise, Stories in the Ether, and the Veterans of Future Wars anthology; he has also published non-fiction and academic works.

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