Evan’s brow furrowed slightly. “It’s clearly writing of some form,” he said, speaking slowly, thinking as he analyzed what he saw. “I don’t see why this would excite you so, Mr. Stark. Clearly, whatever culture was advanced enough to produce the artifact would have needed to be capable of writing.”
I nodded. “Of course. But, look at this. This doesn’t actually look like writing at all, not as we know it, at least.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I pointed to a random letter A on the page. “See this symbol? You find it here, here, here, here, many places on this page alone. And every one of them is exactly alike. Nobody can write that perfectly. These characters appear to have been poured from a mold.”
His eyes widened slightly as he realized what I was saying. “But that’s preposterous. You can’t pour letters from a mold.”
“Of course not, but somehow, the people who created this writing had a way of doing exactly that.” I had had plenty of time to rehearse this conversation on my way over. I knew the perfect example to give. “And doesn’t the king do almost the same thing, with his signet? When sealing a letter, he can stamp a print of it into the seal.”
That’s when the light came on. “You think that somebody, whoever created the artifact, has letter-signets? And they stamp prints of them in ink, onto pages?”
I gave him a slight nod. “Can you think of any more reasonable hypothesis?”
Evan bit his lip. “Such a device,” he mused, “would need to use extremely small signets, to form characters at this scale. They would have to be carved, or…” he laughed suddenly. “Or metal, cast from a mold, bearing the mirrored inverse of each character. It would require a great collection of them to fill out a page worth of content… but if such a thing could be prepared,” he grinned, looking a bit excited. “Prints of one page could be reproduced hundreds of times.” He looked at me, his eyes gleaming. “Mr. Stark, do you realize what this could mean for the spread of knowledge?”
Time to switch roles and play the skeptic. “I’m not sure,” I said. “There must be thousands of these characters on this page. Even if I had that many letter signets, it would take hours, perhaps even days to set up a single page. And this book has many, many pages.”
Evan nodded, trying to convince me now. “Yes, it might take longer to prepare a book this way than to have a scribe make a copy. But in the time it would take for a scribe to prepare two or three copies, we could produce hundreds! Our next discovery could be delivered to guilds across the entire kingdom, instead of simply to the Royal Academy.”
I did my best to look a bit bemused. “So you think,” I said, “that this curiosity of a book might be the inspiration for a device that can produce multiple prints of the same page with ease? Some way to pour entire pages out of a mold, as it were, and produce massive amounts of writing?”
Evan scowled a little. “Don’t take a tone like that. This is no simple curiosity, and you would not have shown it to me if you thought it was. You had something like this in mind the whole time, Mr. Stark, didn’t you? Don’t bother denying it. You were using me to refine your idea.”
Well. I wasn’t going to bother denying that. Let him think he’d contributed to it. I looked at him, all hopeful-like. “Do you really think it could work?”
“I’d have to speak with the smiths. Producing letter-signets in the desired quantity might be difficult. But it could very well be possible.” He asked for some paper, then scrawled out some notes to himself. I really wish I could read what they said.
“All right,” I mused. “I’ll leave you to it, since you seem to have a design in mind already.” I quirked my mouth into a little grin. He gave a slightly distracted nod, and I headed out of his office.
Things had been a little bit tense at the Academy for the first few months after the incident. When I had pulled a working automobile out of nowhere and driven off in it in full view of some of the most talented researchers and engineers in the kingdom, it had drawn all sorts of suspicion down on me.
I never did tell them the whole story. The only people who knew that the infamous thief Paul Twister and the eccentric visionary Anthony Stark were one and the same had been inside that car with me that night. But I had to explain the automobile in some way. I ended up halfway coming clean with them, saying that I had found it in the woods, and I believed it to be an artifact from a different world, and that most of my better ideas that I had proposed to the researchers had come from my own independent study of the artifact, but that I hadn’t known enough about the principles involved to figure out much on my own, so I found a way to bring together people who could understand, and then pretended to be inspired by dreams about some aspect or another of the vehicle.
There was still a heck of a hole in the story: how did the car get here in the first place? I told them that their guess was as good as mine, and that I was just glad that we had something like it to study. Which of course drew a bit more annoyance, as I’d gone and destroyed the thing before the engineers could get their hands on it.
We were still nowhere near producing an internal combustion engine of our own, but our knowledge of electricity had grown by leaps and bounds over the last two years. By taking apart one of the air conditioning fans, they’d managed to reverse-engineer the principles of the electric motor, which had everyone at the Academy excited, thinking up new possibilities. When you can make something turn continually in a circle, you unlock the secrets of all kinds of motion. Then it’s just a matter of imagination. We were still working on practical applications, though, as generating electricity was still a tricky task.
I headed over towards the electrical research building, but along the way I saw a couple of men in uniform arguing with a few of our engineers. They looked like Royal Engineers, so I walked over to see what was going on. “Is there a problem, sirs?” I asked.
David Pine was head of the cement project, one of the two things that had been the foundation of Stark Academy. He looked up as I approached. “Hello, Mr. Stark. These men are claiming that our cement we’ve developed is flawed, whereas we think that they have been laying it improperly.”
Oh, lovely. Engineer disputes. “Well, what’s the problem?” I turned to the Royal Engineers. “Can you explain why you think there’s something wrong here?”
The man glowered slightly. “So you’re Mr. Stark? Well then, this is your cement. And over the last few months, it’s been breaking. Growing cracks up and down the Royal Highway, and it’s going to be quite an expensive and laborious task to replace it.”
Argh. A dim memory surfaced, something I had read online once, long ago, and completely forgotten about when setting this all up. There was actually a pretty good reason why, back home, we paved roads in asphalt and not concrete, and why concrete sidewalks were done in blocks with cracks between them instead of being continuous like roads: concrete was much more prone to thermal expansion than asphalt. It was getting into summer now, and after a few years of this, of course the wear was going to be showing.
So how to deal with it?
Stall. “Very well,” I said. “Do you have any hypothesis as to the reason behind this decay?”
“Poor quality of materials,” the man said at once.
I couldn’t help but chide him a little. “Come, sir, you know better than that. We only use the highest-grade cement in what we produce, manufactured locally and inspected regularly by the Royal Corps of Engineers. If this is poor material, it all is.”
“And yet,” he said, “we see these cracks developing everywhere. Perhaps it all is.”
“Well,” I mused, “what could cause cracks to form? First, what do you mean when you speak of cracks? Chips, as if they were hit by a hammer?”
He shook his head. “You must have seen some yourself, coming here. Jagged lines where the material cracks from one side to the other and begins to split.”
I frowned. “That sounds as if the concrete were being displaced. Perhaps roots of trees by the side of the road are growing up under it?”
Another head shake. “We thought so too, at first, but we are seeing this in places where there are no nearby trees.”
“Well, what else could be displacing the concrete?” I asked. “Cracks such as you describe would not arise spontaneously; they are the result of some force acting upon it. Carts or horses might wear it down, but that’s not what you’re describing.”
He looked puzzled. “In many places, there are no good candidates. Nothing but the road itself.”
I thought about that for a few moments. “Well, then perhaps it is the material after all. It’s been sitting there for several years… I have a thought, but we will need some wizards to test this.”
Luckily, we had a magical research division at the academy. Their tower was a ways off, and it took a while for me to get everything ready, but a few hours later we had an experiment ready to test. I had gotten a small section of concrete poured, down to the same depth that the roads were done, and about three feet wide and ten feet long. Then I asked one of the wizards to repeatedly use his magic to cool the concrete down to winter temperatures, then heat it again to summer temperatures, to see if anything would happen.
And sure enough, as the engineers watched, it only took a few minutes for cracks to begin to form. “Well,” I said, once the demonstration had been concluded. “It would seem that our culprit is none other than the sun. Now we need to develop a working theory as to how this is happening, and how we can engineer our way around it. Perhaps it will require changing our materials, or perhaps we will need a new technique for laying the cement. Perhaps both. Do you think you gentlemen can begin to work towards some solution? That seems more productive to me than arguing and seeking to place blame.”
The royal engineer frowned a little, but David smiled. “I think we could do that. Come along, sirs,” he said, beckoning to his counterpart and to the wizard. “I think we have some theories to develop.”
I made a note to myself that the concept of thermal expansion would be much, much easier to demonstrate if only we had a balloon. We would need to get around to inventing rubber sometime soon.
But, once we had a solid theory of thermal expansion, that could bring its own whole field of benefits. The thermometer. The thermocouple, which if used in conjunction with our electrical research could lead to a working thermostat. And all from a bunch of cracked cement. Hopefully some of the researchers would catch on. This was just the sort of thing that I’d written that last line of the academy’s creed for: Failure is its own success. If we could learn from things like this, it might lead to much greater levels of knowledge than we might have attained if nothing went wrong.
On the other hand, I had also made very sure to promote a “safety first” ethos among our engineers, especially when working with electricity. Having someone die, and their knowledge and skills be lost to us, was not in any way a successful type of failure. Back home, a scientist named Planck once said that scientific progress came by older scientists dying so that they wouldn’t keep obstructing new ideas. I didn’t buy that, because a lot of what Mr. Planck (and his contemporary, Mr. Einstein,) discovered would have been known nearly half a century earlier if it hadn’t been for Mr. Maxwell’s untimely death of cancer. So I wanted these guys to live to a ripe old age.
With that all taken care of, I finally headed over to the electrical research building, which was located down on the riverbank, so that we could put waterwheels in the river for power generation. I went around, talking with some of the researchers, getting caught up on what was going on. One of them was working on trying to understand the mathematical foundations of the electric motor. He had built a fan in one of the laboratories, and was experimenting on the effects that different weights of fan blades and different levels of current would have on his motor.
Unfortunately, one thing he didn’t do was encase the fan blade assembly in a metal grille. I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but when he powered it up to show me, one of the blades cracked, then a large portion of it fell. It was driven down onto the floor, luckily enough, instead of going off horizontally, but this unbalanced the fan, and it wobbled as the motor kept spinning. Before he could kill the power, it fell, and the spinning blades sliced my leg up pretty bad. There was a brief moment of intense pain, and then I was on the ground, bleeding messily.
He got the power turned off, then started calling for a healer. I was just barely lucid enough to gasp out a request for no magical healing, before I started feeling woozy, and I’m not too clear on what happened between then and everything going black not too long after.