Sheppard leaned gingerly over the railing of the observation platform and peered into the great hole in the earth, one hand clamped to his hat lest it fall into the gaping maw below. He thought that it would tumble for a very long time before coming to rest. Behind him, Ronon gripped the belt of his shooting jacket, as a precaution.
"Impressive," he said dutifully, but in truth he found it unsettling. He preferred heights to depths.
"It most certainly is," agreed Kavanagh, the site manager, a lanky, sneering fellow with long greasy hair. Sheppard disliked long hair, his preferences forged during service in the Air Corps. He had not taken to Kavanagh. "McKay pretends that the mechanism bracing the walls is entirely his own work–"
"And rightly so," snapped another man, climbing up onto the now crowded platform and elbowing Kavanagh aside. "You are an ass, Kavanagh, and if I find you taking credit for my inventions one more time I will tip you bodily into the hole myself!"
Kavanagh flinched away. "I will not be treated in this manner, McKay. Dr. Weir will hear about this!" McKay flapped a dismissive hand and Kavanagh hurried to the access ladder, slipping in his haste to clamber down.
"Would you indeed throw him into the tunnel?" asked Sheppard lazily, running an assessing eye over the new arrival, apparently the famous Dr. McKay whose engineering genius had made this extraordinary, some would say lunatic, project possible. Ronon also regarded him with interest.
He was not overly prepossessing: short brown hair, a stubborn jaw, in need of a shave. Still, Sheppard reflected, he could hardly throw the first stone there. McKay's eyes were very fine – slate blue and bright with intelligence. He had clearly been attending to some mechanical task: his throat was bare and his brow sheened with sweat. His topcoat had been abandoned and his shirtsleeves were rolled up above the elbow, exposing strong forearms and emphasizing a nice breadth of shoulder–
"Hello?" McKay said pointedly, snapping his fingers impatiently in Sheppard's face. "Are we boring you with the greatest engineering feat the world has ever seen?"
This sort of thing rarely happened when one was the heir to a fortune and vice-president of the largest electrical generation company on the Eastern Seaboard. Sheppard found it refreshing. He smiled at McKay and shrugged. "There's only so much to see with a giant hole in the ground, Dr. McKay. It is Dr. McKay I'm addressing, I assume?"
"Yes, yes of course. And you, I take it, are the potential investor I have been ordered to impress." He glared across at Ronon. "And his pet giant." McKay exhaled irritably. "Why Elizabeth wants me to talk to an entitled social butterfly who happens to hold the project's fate in his hands–"
"Why indeed?" agreed Sheppard, rather enjoying himself. "I imagine it's your pleasant disposition and charming manners." He cocked his head. "Tell me again what you hope to achieve here."
McKay sighed in a put-upon fashion. "Clearly the briefing information was too taxing for your meagre intellect, focused as you are upon dreary commerce and social climbing."
"You perhaps forget that with a fashionable fortune comes an expensive education," said Sheppard, narrowing his eyes. "Now, tell me about the tunnel."
Muttering darkly about wasting his time dealing with brainless ornaments, McKay reluctantly obliged. "The Earth is not solid, Sheppard, but is largely liquid. Beneath our feet lie lakes of molten rock. This project –the McKay Patented Steam Colossus– will tap that vast store of heat, so as to generate energy."
"A tunnel through the Earth's crust, I see. And your water source?"
McKay's gaze sharpened: clearly he had not expected Sheppard to grasp even that much. In a slightly less supercilious tone, he continued. "That is Phase Two. The Doranda plain is barren so we must bring water from the river beyond those hills by canal and aqueduct - construction is already underway."
Sheppard nodded. "An ambitious undertaking. So you are drilling a tunnel down to molten lava and will then pour water into the hole?" he summed up, raising a questioning eyebrow.
McKay waved his hands and spluttered angrily. "That is an oversimplification so egregious as to, to…it is far more complex…but yes, in essence that is how the Colossus will be powered. The true genius of the undertaking lies in the mechanism –entirely my own design– that will be built here, overtopping the tunnel, to capture the column of superheated steam and convert it to mechanical and then electrical energy. It will harness enormous forces and has required all my ingenuity."
Sheppard tilted his head to acknowledge the magnitude of the undertaking. "Forgive my asking, doctor, but is not a lake of lava with a hole to the surface what an ignorant man such as myself would term a volcano?"
McKay rolled his eyes. "In the simplest of terms, yes, but we will harness the wild energies residing in nature. When complete, this project will power not only the state of Nevada, but also parts of Kansas and Nebraska. You will see, Sheppard – in time there will be a McKay Colossus in every state. In every nation!"
"You are a man of modest ambition, I see," said Sheppard, his tone wry.
"Modesty is for those lacking the skills and intellect to achieve greatness," retorted McKay, drawing himself up importantly. "You are in the presence of genius, Sheppard. The dawn of a new age!"
"We're suitably impressed," said Sheppard, quirking a grin at Ronon. "What d'you think of the McKay Colossus, then?"
Ronon shrugged. "Risky. Could go boom."
"Oh, what? And where is your engineering degree from?" snapped McKay. "Did you send away coupons from the Boys Big Book of Knives?"
"Harvard," said Ronon, and arched a brow in challenge. "Political Science."
"An oxymoron if ever I heard one," muttered McKay.
Ronon looked over at the wooden buildings that housed the engineering and administrative offices. "Teyla and Weir," he said, indicating the figures emerging from the main entrance with a head tilt. "Must've finished sparring." Teyla was a chartered accountant, and Sheppard's top negotiator.
They climbed down the ladder and strolled over to join Teyla and Dr. Weir.
John removed his hat. "Pleasant afternoon, Dr. Weir." She smiled and nodded. Beside her, McKay huffed and made a 'move it along' gesture. Dr. Weir's smile tightened. She took McKay's arm, seemingly to calm his impatience but his strangled yelp indicated that she had trodden sharply on his foot. Her long skirts made it difficult to see.
"I trust your discussion with Dr. McKay was informative?" Weir asked, shooting a quelling glare at McKay.
"Most certainly was," said Sheppard, nodding. He addressed Teyla. "How'd your little parley go?"
"Dr. Weir and I have come to an agreement about the arrangements, John, should Sheppard Utilities decide to fund this project. They estimate a further six months until the tunnel breaches the crust and the mechanism is completed. That is the period for which they require funding, but the final decision is up to you."
"Oh, what? The future of innovative power generation, the future of the McKay Colossus, rests with a spiky-haired social adventurer?"
"Rodney," gritted Weir. "Behave yourself."
John grinned. "Yep, 'fraid so, McKay." He addressed himself to Teyla. "It's the most grandiose, dangerous scheme I've ever encountered. Impressive engineering but very high risk. The whole thing could well blow to smithereens. And McKay here's brilliant, no doubt about it, but his ego's the size of the Hindenberg."
Dr. Weir and McKay stared at him, their faces a mixture of consternation and rage. In Weir's case, the rage was directed at McKay.
McKay's eyes narrowed. "Typical short-sightedness. The world of commerce hasn't got the wit to recognize my genius." He set his chin defiantly and crossed his arms. "That's a 'no', then?"
"No, we'll fund it," said Sheppard cheerfully, enjoying the way Weir and McKay's jaws dropped. Teyla arched a delicate eyebrow and Ronon rolled his eyes at the theatrics. "Project's perfect for Sheppard Utilities. A nice costly disaster'll convince my father I'm not a corporate player so that he'll let me take over the airship research and design division." He turned to Weir. "Promise me one thing. When you're about to break through the crust to the lava, evacuate this area of all workers, McKay included."
Dr. Weir nodded. "Yes, we intended to do precisely that, as a safety precaution. But Dr. McKay assures me that he can control the energies and channel them."
"The drill is an automaton," McKay put in. "The whole process is highly mechanized and no human personnel are required for the last phase." He glared at Sheppard again. "My calculations are impeccable, and your protestations of doom are entirely unfounded."
"Care to put a small wager on that?" suggested Sheppard, looking amused.
"A wager? What sort of?–"
"If it works," continued Sheppard, ignoring McKay's interjections, "Sheppard Utilities will contribute a further quarter of a million dollars." He shot an enquiring glance at Teyla, who shrugged philosophically. Sheppard turned back to McKay. "And if it goes boom, to use Ronon's turn of phrase, you'll come and work for me in Atlantis, designing airships."
McKay bridled. "It will not 'go boom' as you put it – I have calculated the tolerances very precisely. And any fool can design overblown balloons so I fail to see why you would want me."
"Oh, I don't know, You're lively, and no one's built the kind of airships I have in mind." A brief flash of interest crossed McKay's face. "So," said Sheppard. "Do we have a deal?"
McKay stuck out his chin and his hand. "For a quarter of a million dollars I'd be a fool to refuse. And I am far from a fool, Mr. Sheppard."
"Indeed you're not," said Sheppard keeping hold of his hand a trifle longer than was polite.
Six months later, Sheppard stood with a dejected McKay at the edge of the Doranda plain, staring at the new volcano which had buried the buildings and mechanism of McKay's Patented Steam Colossus. The cone was already 100 feet high, belching a thick column of black smoke. Even as far away as they were, there was ash in the air.
"I was so sure it would work," McKay said plaintively. "But the pressures were too unstable, and there was a build up of explosive energy."
"You're lucky that only the majority of the plain was destroyed, and that it was uninhabited," said Sheppard. "The workers are all safe?"
"Yes, we would not take chances of that nature. It was bad enough to lose Collins to a freak accident last month. He fell into the..." McKay looked away, unable to continue.
Sheppard grimaced and put a consoling hand on his shoulder. "In my view there is more profit to be had from going up than down, and the view is vastly better. I'm calling in my wager, McKay. Come join my team - build me airships."
McKay turned to look at him. They had become acquaintances, possibly even friends, in the intervening months, corresponding by letter. Formal reports on the project had soon given way to discussions of mathematical theorems or arguments about pulp cowboy adventure magazines. Another favorite topic was the writings of Mr. Jules Verne, which John enjoyed. He reckoned McKay enjoyed Verne's stories too, although he was scathing about the science. McKay's mouth was a bitter slant. "Even though my stubborn refusal to listen to reason has cost your company a small fortune?"
Sheppard shrugged. "It might have worked, and it got my father off my back. I'm just sorry about Collins, but large construction sites are dangerous places, whatever the project."
"It was the longest tunnel ever built by man," muttered McKay, staring sadly at the dark bulk of the volcano.
"It sure was." Sheppard gently pulled McKay away and set him moving towards the distant steam traction conveyance where Teyla and Ronon waited.
After a time, McKay asked "What sort of airships?"
"Ah," said Sheppard. "I had in mind something small and fast, very maneuverable."
"Not a dirigible design, then," McKay said thoughtfully. "Possibly high-pressure jets of steam, to power them. The problem will lie in constructing a small yet powerful boiler, and the fuel…hmmm. Coal will never do. Perhaps some form of petroleum product?"
Sheppard bent his head to offer a comment and together they walked on, talking animatedly, their boots crunching in the pumice underfoot.
- the end -
(now see Part 3 of the Steampunk Atlantis series to see what Rodney built for John)