Fiction Fridays: The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part II

Hiram Percy Maxim had discovered a letter from his late father, the inventor of the famous machine gun.  It promised to tell him the truth, finally, about how his invention came to be.  The letter continues this week.

Did you miss the first installment?  Click here to catch up!

Vienna, Austria, in 1882

It was in the year of 18 and 82 and I was in Austria—that much is true. I had been invited to Vienna on retainer to examine the possibility of installing the first electric lights in some of the government buildings there. It had not gone well (some there had wanted Edison for the job) and I was left sitting in a small pub on the edge of town eating and drinking on their coin while the royals debated.
On my second day of waiting the stranger walked in and sat down in my booth without as much as a please. He was an odd looking fellow, thin and scrawny but at the same time wiry and strong. His back was slightly bent and he had one of the ugliest faces I think I have ever seen. It was broad with a flat nose and sunken, squinty eyes. His hands were large and his fingers looked unnaturally long. At first his skin seemed somewhat tan but there was something off about it. It had a tint to it, though I could not clearly see what it was. We were seated next to a large piece of stained glass, and it made everything seem slightly greenish, like the tea they serve from China. I wasn’t surprised to see him try to keep it all hidden with an almost medieval looking, fur-lined cloak.

I don’t remember much of the beginning of his conversation now, and he never gave me a name. His accent was very strange, certainly not German and in fact hardly European at all. His voice was deep, and a little scratchy. I remember being very impressed with his mechanical knowledge and I have used some of what I learned in that conversation in my attempts to build a flying machine. We chatted about the growing science of electricity and improvements to steam engines and he ordered beer for both of us. We spoke of religion for some time too. I don’t remember how long we talked before he brought up the subject of war. The first words I remember with crystal clarity are these: “Hang your chemistry and electricity, Maxim! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility!”

There was something in that I found compelling. I had of course heard much about the move toward rapid-fire weaponry that had been occurring since the 1850s. Gatling had produced his gun, as had others, but all had significant drawbacks. Particularly, they all required outside energy to operate. I made a remark about the possibility of an electrically fired gun. He responded that there was something simpler: guns produce energy from both ends, after all. Why not use some of the excess to produce a mechanical solution?

And yes, this does mean that the story told in histories about me is a complete lie. I did not, in fact, get the idea of a gas operated machine gun from a childhood memory of being knocked down by recoil. I made it up to cover the fact that I took my inspiration from this man and his conversation. I remember thinking what a fool he was to have said such a thing to me when he obviously had the technical ability to create it himself. It was late in the evening when he took his leave.

After this conversation, I found that I could not rest until I set about work on my new gun design. The Austrians did not employ me to teach them the science of managing electrical systems, but that hardly mattered to me now. I returned here to London and set up a workshop dedicated to making someone else’s idea a reality. After all, as Edison had taken from me, why should I not take from another?

But it was more complicated than I had at first imagined. I had to find a way to delay the ejection of the shell until the bullet had left the barrel. If I did not, the pressure could explode the shell in the chamber, destroying the gun and killing the user. (I have explained the technical details to you before.) I tried a number of different solutions with no real effect.

I was just about to give it up entirely when a package arrived on the doorstep of our workshop. It was postmarked from Austria, but contained no return address. I opened it in private, and found the first of the schematics contained in this box. At first I was alarmed at their accuracy! My correspondent seemed to know as much of my gun as I did! Aside from the unique paper on which they were written, they had only one distinguishing feature: the word “Ru-kai” had been inscribed in red at the bottom corner of each page.

I stood up to storm from my office to order all the doors barred and the windows shuttered when I noticed that not all was as it seemed. There was something different about the recoil mechanism schematic. I found that my correspondent had drawn something—what I later called a “toggle”—that solved the problem of keeping the casing in place until the bullet had fully exited. What was more, a closer examination of the box revealed that he had sent an exquisitely crafted example! I could hardly contain my excitement! I quickly copied over the plans, had a new toggle constructed, and the original gun modified to accept it. It worked beautifully and our project leaped forward.

The parts of the Maxim gun….

My next major hurdle—the problem of how to make the casing move back faster than the barrel—was solved in a similar way. I had hardly begun to work on the problem when another parcel arrived in the mail containing more schematics and another part. This one became known as the “accelerator” and it solved the reliability problem. From then on, my anonymous acquaintance, Mr. Ru-kai, solved all other issues almost before I even knew they presented a problem. While at the time I could willfully ignore what was happening and even now I still loathe calling the gun by any name but mine, I am forced now to admit that it would not have been completed in the time it was without his help. I received a congratulatory note from Mr. Ru-kai when I successfully demonstrated the gun before her majesty Queen Victoria and again on the day when I received my knighthood in 1901, but never again any designs.

What I received instead was much worse. As I sold my gun to all the countries of Europe, I started finding notes in various places. They were unsigned, but they all contained numbers of some kind—you see the collection in the locked box—each one with a larger sum than the last. I found them everywhere and in the most impossible places. The first was affixed to my mirror in a hotel. I found others tucked into my clothes when they came from the laundry, in my wallet one morning, and even in a letter I had forgotten to address that was returned to me with the original seal unopened! I lived for several years in fear of the people who were obviously dogging my steps. Several of my early trips abroad were made with the ulterior motive of throwing them off my track. When I abandoned your mother, I hoped to leave these people behind too.

It took years before I was able to divine what these papers were and their meaning. I had collected a number of them and noted their dates and locations. I made a chart of their progression and looked for patterns. I saw none other than the fact that each one was larger than the last until I happened upon a newspaper account in November of 1893 about the Battle of Shanganai in the British imperial war against the Matabele tribe in Africa. It said that fifty soldiers armed with four of my guns had held off 3,500 Matabele warriors, inflicting 1,542 casualties on the enemy. The next day I found another note under a napkin at my favorite restaurant. When I charted it, I had a moment of recognition! The number had increased by exactly 1,542. I folded up my chart and rushed to the library where research confirmed my suspicions: Whoever was leaving me the notes was updating me on the number of souls my invention had snuffed out.

I have tried to atone for this. I have returned to the study of electricity and moved on to human flight. I created the captive flying machines for the amusement of all. Ye gods! I have even created medical equipment to alleviate human suffering, but no one seems to care or notice. They only know me for the people I have helped kill.

As the numbers grew, so did the weight upon my conscience. How many lives have I wasted by now? With this war, with my guns being used on all sides, how much worse has it become? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I wish I didn’t know, but the notes still came, each one with a new figure. Each one falling upon me now with the weight of a hundred suns. Until a week ago. A week ago I received a note that was different from all the others. It simply said, “We are coming.”

I know there are others like me out there. I can see it in the eyes of other great military inventors. I have heard hints of it in snatches of their conversation. I have come to believe that many of the scientific advancements we’ve seen deployed so brutally in this war were facilitated by Ru-kai and his ilk, whoever they may be. Humanity is cruel enough by itself. We need no further encouragement.

Hiram, my son, I do not know how long I have before that dreadful interview. I have taken steps though, and we may yet have the best of them. I am not arming myself. They will expect that. Instead, I have created something wholly new. Using your radio technology, a drum recording device, and my knowledge of electrical systems, I have created a transmission process that will make a remote copy of everything that is said when they come to me. We will know them for who they are and, with luck, we can warn off others. You will find the drum of the interview in a hidden compartment above the fireplace in the second guest room on the third floor. There is a button hidden in the right corner of the mantle.

I only hope it is enough. Succeed where I have failed.

Your Father,
Hiram Stevens Maxim

To be continued next Friday! 

Want the full story without having to wait?  Download the 2012 All Hallows’ Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds from here.

The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part I
The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part III
The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part IV


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on April 11, 2014, in Brian Melton, History, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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