Not Long Now
Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’m told my Grandfather was a man ahead of his time. I’ve attended no small number of parties at which people I’d never seen until then assured me they knew him, lamented that he died too soon and regaled me with stories of his wondrous inventions. Wasted on me, I fear. I was too young to retain much of it.
Lucky for me that he kept such detailed notes! Reams upon reams of them, filled with the most eye wateringly detailed schematics. Of great, ponderous gears. Of wee little cogs. Of pistons, electrical circuits, boilers, and all manner of fascinating mechanisms.
It resonated with me, even then. Something about the intricacy of it all. The symmetrical, rigid elegance of a complicated machine which I could effortlessly envision in motion. How I would study those pages, luxuriating in all of the brilliant little details!
All too often it was my bedtime story, which I read to myself on the nights father worked late. But how I lost myself in it! Page after page of astonishingly precise diagrams. Each one a snapshot of some thought my Grandfather once had. Fragments of his mind, made immortal as ink on paper.
I’ve heard it said that a book is the closest thing to a real ghost: It permits you to step into the psyche of someone who may be long dead. To think their thoughts after the fact, resurrecting some part of that person in your mind for the duration of the book.
Usually whether or not they intended, it reveals something of who they were. An imprint of their soul, if there is such a thing. But then, anyone can leave behind writing. That wasn’t enough for gramps. He did not simply leave behind a book, nor even many. When a man like him dies, what’s left is a grand puzzle.
Sometimes unintentional, as the thoughts of someone like him are indecipherable without considerable education and at least rough knowledge of his or her idiosyncrasies. Not in his case, though. He was very deliberately cryptic. On every page, some of the notes are in plain English, while the rest are in some language I’ve never seen anything comparable to.
Why bother, when the schematics are laid bare? What’s left to hide at that point? If there are any answers to be found, they’re in his journal. Here and there, written around the schematics, are accounts of every day life. Not the sort of things anybody else would have recorded, significant moments in life such as marriage, births, deaths and so on. All of it related to machinery.
“My first sighting of a horseless bus in London was an epiphenal moment. I spent many an idle evening prior to that reading about Francois Isaac De Rivas’ groundbreaking work on motor carriages, but to see one in motion made it real for me.
At last! A compact, practical means of turning stored energy into motion! I know a milestone when I see it. I at once abandoned my own experiments with steam engines, glad to be rid of the mess. Instead, for a time I tinkered with the new thing, internal combustion. Not long now, I thought.”
The page bore technical drawings of what I recognized for early automobile engines fueled by hydrogen, and more recent models which run on petroleum. Yet as the entries went on, he seemed to lose interest in the technology just as soon as he’d been turned on to it.
“Internal combustion won’t do. Noisy, smelly, too much vibration. Then there’s the problem of obtaining fuel. Simply won’t do for what I hope to build.
I’ve overlooked the electric motor for too long, unconvinced of the utility of electricity. But with the advent of alternating current, it now seems possible to transmit energy in a clean, silent, safe manner throughout the superstructure of the machine with minimal losses.
What a wonder it is! A quiet, invisible butler. Or a genie? Able to perform any sort of labor you ask of it, requiring only the correct machine for converting electricity into heat, light, motion, or anything else. This will do. Yes, it will do nicely. Not long now.”
I began to notice patterns. Not just in the cadence of his writing, but that he frequently concluded his entries with “not long now”. Not long until what? The tone changed as the entries progressed, too. He sounded more and more excited. As if he could see something immense and fantastical rushing towards us all. Something which, to the rest of us, is invisible.
“I’ve just returned from a demonstration of the most remarkable invention. Something resembling a cylindrical lightbulb but which performs an altogether more useful function. It’s a sort of switch, triggered by current, which redirects it into one of two channels. The inventor, John Ambrose Fleming, calls it a triode. The press is calling it a vacuum tube.
I’m tempted, but wonder at how useful it can really be to my project. I’ve already designed mechanical computers which can be machined from the same iron as the superstructure. Utilizing triodes would add silicon to the required materials, which means adding a whole floor to the structure just for producing it.
Before I got my hands on Charles Babbage’s notes, I meant to perform all of the computing via pneumatics. Thank goodness I found a way out of that dead end! It’s been a chore trying to keep the size and complexity down. It only deepens my appreciation for the elegance and efficiency of the solutions nature arrives at, when I compare them to my own clumsy efforts.
Whether triodes prove to be worth the added complexity is uncertain. I will have to build my own for evaluation. At least I’ve put fuels, compressed air and other impractical mediums behind me. It’ll be purely electromechanical going forward, which greatly simplifies my work. Not long now.”
I heard the coach driver call for me from upstairs. I let myself get so immersed, I forgot about the poor fellow waiting patiently for me to return with whatever I meant to bring. Grandpa’s will entitles me to his notes and whatever personal effects I care to take from this dusty old workshop...but there isn’t room for much in the coach.
I carefully stepped over great rusty driveshafts, discombobulated control panels filled with gauges and knobs, trailing frayed wires all over the place. A whole wall was given over to storage batteries, simple galvanic cells he must’ve used as a reliable supply of steady current for his experiments. I tried to lift one, but being comprised mostly of lead, I couldn’t so much as budge it from the rack. To one side, I spied the corner of some brittle paper slip poking out, so with great care I withdrew it.
An irritated beep of the carriage horn sent me scrambling up the stairs. Soon enough I’d packed everything from the ramshackle cottage I meant to take with me, and we resumed our journey. On the way, as every little bump in the road jostled me about, I struggled to read through a brittle pamphlet I’d found tucked away with the batteries.
“The Manifesto of Futurism”. A curious screed that the foreword identified as Italian in origin, having since been translated into a number of other languages including English. I could at once see why Grandpa might’ve possessed such materials.
It spoke of machines. Of clean lines, efficiency and speed. It glorified the breakneck pace of technological progress and the virtue of violent, unrestrained ambition. For all of its vigor and bravado, there was a conspicuous lack of warmth. Of recognition for the central importance of life, of human relationships.
“Somethin’ wrong? You look off balance.” The driver peered over his shoulder at me just a bit too long for my liking. I admonished him to return his gaze to the road. Perhaps a bit too harshly? He doesn’t know about the accident.
I intimately recognize the sort of person who writes such material. Enamored with whatever the new thing is. Always in a hurry to inhabit the future, disdainful of the present as though it is already the distant past.
Always immediately tired of their most recent achievement. Never satisfied being who they are, when they are, where they are. Always baffled as to why they’re perpetually unhappy. Unable, despite their intellect, to recognize the loop they are stuck in which deprives them of comfort and familiarity.
What a banal way to be. Relentless, a sort of mania which grips the mind, permitting no respite. No weakness is tolerated, no inefficiency. No color, nothing vague or sentimental. Machine men, as I once heard them described. With machine hearts, and machine minds.
To think that I came from such stock! Yet I detest automobiles. The cacophony of honking horns, screeching tires, sputtering engines and shouted vulgarities. The speed, the confusion and fear. All too fast, out of control, lives hanging in the balance.
Like those of my parents. I am not so blind to the workings of my own heart that I fail to recognize the role their deaths played in my lingering disdain for the automobile. I was too young to understand it at the time. All just a stupefying blur of sound and movement.
Peaceful at first. The subtle rumble of the engine. A gentle shake as we passed over each bump. Then excited shouting, followed immediately by screams. The whole car lurched. From the back seat I caught momentary glare from the other car’s headlights between the silhouettes of my mother and father....just before it smashed them into jelly.
I witnessed only a split second of it. How easily a pair of colliding metal hulks can tear someone apart. How effortlessly the wreckage impales their soft bodies. What fragile creatures we are, in the end. I’m told I was found wedged in the space behind and under the back seat. Anywhere else and I’d be with my parents now.
A long, terrible, cold journey awaited me in the aftermath. Step by step through the gauntlet of suffering that follows unbearable loss. Without knowing anything else about a man, by looking in his eyes you can know in an instant if he’s been down that path as well. Doesn’t matter how long ago, the changes are permanent.
Seems surreal that life goes on. That you could be gutted so completely, busted down to nothing so many years ago, yet be sitting here today in perfect health. An absurdity! Nearly tantamount to pretending that it never occurred.
But life kept happening to me regardless. I kept waking up each morning, kept putting food in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it. Damn me. Not strong enough to live, nor strong enough to die. That’s how it happened. Unbelievably, I recovered. More or less.
The hardest thing was accepting the authenticity of it. That I’d not somehow fooled myself but was really, at long last, re-engaging with life. An insult to their memory is how it seemed to me at the time. That I failed to spend the rest of my days in rags, weeping in some forgotten corner, and instead was restored to some semblance of sobriety.
I’ve been happy since then. Not frequently but I cannot deny that, here and there, I have found moments of sincere enjoyment. However terrible it often is, life is also heart wrenchingly beautiful. The ratio between those two is lopsided, but not so severely that I didn’t eventually persuade myself to live.
It turned out to be much less convenient than the alternative. I was handed off between various friends of Grandpa. Hot potato. Only so much charitable sentiment to go around, usually I was never with any one family longer than a year. It made me wonder to myself on occasion how close they really were to the old man.
Once I finally arrived at the caboose of that sequential train of temporary accommodations, there was no place left to put me besides the orphanage that Grandfather devoted his twilight years to building. To everybody’s confusion, particularly newspapers which were concerned at all with the philanthropic endeavors of industrialists.
He was and still is regarded as a brilliant man. But out of everything ever said about him by his admirers and critics alike, nobody ever accused him of being an altruist. Not that he was cruel either, just indifferent to everything except whatever project currently commanded his focus.
Why should such a man, whose soul if he had one consisted of angular metal shapes, all of a sudden become preoccupied with the plight of orphans? As mysterious as the man himself. Of course nobody complained, and in fact many public figures applauded his humanitarian detour.
I suppose I should include myself among the grateful masses. If not for his orphanage, I’d be on the street now. Easy enough to see, as the massive structure loomed into view over the horizon, why the city felt it permissible to close down their own such facilities. Grandpa’s orphanage could accept all of the city’s unwanted children several times over.
The motor carriage came to a juddery stop before the immense building’s great double doors. Nowhere else to go now but through them. It was the work of perhaps ten minutes to unpack everything, then the carriage bumbled back the way it came, belching little black clouds of putrid exhaust along the way.
The land around the structure looked to be cultivated into a variety of farms and orchards. Made some sense of where they might get the firewood which must surely be the source of the great, billowing plumes of smoke issuing forth from various tall, thin industrial chimneys poking up through the roof.
“Gracious! Would you like help with your bags?” I didn’t even hear the doors open. The woman approaching me looked no older than twenty, with a pointy nose somewhat reminiscent of a beak and neatly combed brown hair cut nearly as short as my own.
“I’ll be alright” I answered. “I should hardly want to trouble you with any extra work on my behalf when I’ve only just arrived”. She briefly introduced herself as Agnes Stuttgart. Then, rather than lift any of my overloaded bags, she hurried to hold one of the doors open that I might pass through while my hands were otherwise occupied.
“I can’t imagine what it’s all for” she wondered aloud as I heaved it all indoors in serial loads. “Miss Alice provides everything we need.” A curious thing to say, it seemed to me. But before I could ask about it I was hurried along to what I inferred, upon arrival, were my accommodations.
“No doubt meager compared to what you’re used to, but as you’ll see later, it’s a marked improvement over the typical bunk rooms. On account of your relation.” Her tone sounded uncomfortably deferential. Yet another stranger who seemed awed by my lingering, tenuous connection to someone long deceased.
As yet I’ve done nothing more remarkable than to be born into this family. And father, for all his dogged toil, nevertheless also depended greatly upon the social cachet Grandfather amassed during his storied career as an inventor and industrialist.
It is one thing to cast a shadow which your children cannot escape from during your life. It is quite another to cast a shadow which blankets multiple generations. Yet that shadow, and the contents of his countryside workshop, were all he left to us.
So however I might feel about leveraging the power of his name in certain circles, I could do nothing else if I planned to survive. Though his writings often expressed frank references to his own mortality, he nonetheless lived as though his own life was secondary to his goals...if it mattered at all. He’d accordingly set aside no money as inheritance, putting every last dime towards this orphanage.
“Right this way”. She guided me down a long, curved corridor flanked by vertical support beams. All of it iron by the looks of it. In places, the corridor was not fully assembled or blocked off from the rest of the structure. It afforded me occasional views, through those gaps, of the larger superstructure.
I was about to ask where all of this metal came from, but the answer became clear once we rounded the corner. The right side of the corridor now opened up into a round, deep shaft into the Earth. A cold, rusty handrail conspired to prevent onlookers from falling in.
Distant echoes of machinery at work wafted up the shaft, and when I peered as far over the edge as I felt inclined to, I saw an intermittent flash of sparks at the bottom. “Mind your station” Agnes scolded me, without bothering to explain what she meant.
I took it for an imploration to follow more closely, so I did. It was nevertheless difficult not to marvel along the way. Leave it to Grandpa to over complicate an orphanage. What I’d seen so far was closer to a vertical factory, albeit somewhat more fit for living in.
Another gap in the corridor revealed a great pair of lazily turning gears, each at least as large in diameter as I am tall. Just behind them, a row of pistons churned away. I’d assumed the metal was brought in elsewhere. Impressive, but unorthodox, to extract it on site.
Wherever a structural component had been stamped out of sheet metal, there were decorative inset designs. Similar to a bas relief. He must’ve designed it to do that just because he could I suppose. Because if you’re stamping metal shapes anyway, it doesn’t cost much more to include appealing patterns.
We soon arrived before a door in the wall resembling the oblong hatches of a sort often seen in the bulkheads of a ship. “You’ll find everything required for your comfort inside” Agnes advised. “Dinner is at eight, you’ll hear the bell. Don’t dawdle, Miss Alice says we’re to mind the schedule.”
There it is again. But she was gone before I could ask. I made note to bring it up at dinner. If there are certain people I should know better than the rest to fit in here, I’ll make it my business to.
The room didn’t really disappoint, but then I wasn’t expecting much. Very much like a cabin aboard a ship, except so far I’d seen no windows. Would’ve been nice to at least have one in my room, that I might wake to the sun’s rays.
I spent perhaps two or three hours unpacking and otherwise settling into the modest space. With the book splayed open across my desk, I turned my attention to the edges of envelopes sticking out from between later pages.
How did I miss these before? Pressed flat as a dried flower, they looked to be letters Grandpa intended to mail out before death robbed him of the chance. The first was addressed to a Franklin Lutwidge, head of the Ministry of Child Welfare.
“In response to the letter which I received from you on the fifth of May, I certainly am flattered by your kind words and grateful for the city’s generous land grants, which I understand you were instrumental in securing.
But I tell you in truth my dear man, I am only too happy to receive as many needy children as you can authorize transfer of. The poor little poppets will be washed, clothed, fed and put to work in support of the orphanage the moment they arrive.
With respect to the writings of one Thomas Robert Malthus which you saw fit to quote, I am of quite a different mind. Already, his predictions have been repeatedly frustrated by technological developments which have staved off the mass starvation his acolytes seemingly yearn to witness.
They will always be frustrated! Watch and see if it isn’t so. Man does not expand his numbers as blindly as yeast, the paramecium or wild rabbits. He is a creature of foresight and intellect, able to anticipate problems and act ahead of time to mitigate them.
So it is that, when I thought to direct my attention to charitable matters, I reasoned that it would not do simply to hand money out like so many stockings filled by Father Christmas. Spent within the week, then where does it leave you?
Money is like fuel, my dear fellow. You can burn it to stay warm, but it will soon be exhausted. Or you can construct an engine with which to extract yet more fuel in a self-reinforcing cycle. The engine is of course industry! Business! Learning to fish, in Biblical parlance.
I then thought to invent some new industry I might preferentially hire orphans into, making candies or trinkets of some sort, putting most of the profits towards their care. But then, what happens to it when I’ve expired?
What’s really needed to tackle the problem of feeding, clothing and housing the world’s poor is more ambitious than a jobs program. Why is it that they want for basic goods? They haven’t the money. Why do those goods cost money? Some fellow made them, and wants his labor to be compensated.
But what if the various industries necessary for the provision of man’s basic needs could be consolidated into a single building? What if advanced forms of the industrial automation technologies now entering common use were all leveraged therein, such that the whole mess ran itself?
Why, the beggars, orphans and invalids of the world could simply consume what it produces. It would mean a bottomless abundance of those items which a comfortable, dignified life cannot be had without! Of course, there is the problem of maintenance.
Long have I struggled to figure out that final problem. Some mechanism is needed to keep this magnificent, mechanical cornucopia chugging along smoothly. I soon realized this mechanism would need to be quite close to as sophisticated as a man in order to do the job in question! What vexation.
Sharp as my mind may be, that’s a task beyond the scope of my abilities. I might show you the fat stacks of drawings I drew of various rickety metal automatons on wheels and legs. The contraption which I meant to be the basic ‘handyman units’ which keep the larger machine in good repair, as well as maintaining one another.
Then it struck me. The orphans! What machine reliably performs every task that the human animal is capable of, except the genuine article? My little grease monkeys, brought in out of the cold, the relatively simple work of replacing worn out components fairly divided among them.
Is it wrong? I cannot see how. I meant to put them to work anyway. Only rather than pay them in shillings and pounds, they can now be rewarded for their labor with exactly what it is they need to live, and to go on working. Rare and lucky is the fellow whose own exertion so directly benefits him!
Picture it...like so many little bees in a hive, buzzing about, patching holes, ensuring its continuation out of simple self interest. What better motivator than that? Conventional wages pale in comparison.
The children will maintain the machine, and in return it will meet all of their needs, quite independently from society. A self contained microcosm of human civilization that’s sufficient unto itself!
Certainly you see the potential? This is not just another feeble humanitarian gesture, but a permanent solution to poverty! To hunger, to homelessness! One which will not die with me, but instead persist forever, by the hard work of those who depend upon it for survival.”
The rest were unremarkable pleasantries concerning the day to day operations of the Ministry of Child Welfare, the sort of compulsory but banal small talk which I can tolerate only so much of. I was about to open the second envelope when I heard a bell chime. Remembering Agnes’ insistence on punctuality, I tucked it back betwixt the pages, then followed a series of signs to the dining hall.
I should say galley. Like my room, it quite resembled what you might expect to see aboard an ocean going vessel. Long, rusty tables made from the same iron as the chairs, and just about everything else I’d seen so far for that matter.
Above, a great chain like the sort which drives a bicycle wheel whirred about, strung between a pair of massive gears. The grubby looking children seated at the table below showed no concern whatsoever, despite the constant racket.
I took the nearest seat but was soon ousted by an irritated Agnes, who clued me in to the fact that I was intended to sit in a particular place and must remember to return there for every future meal. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anything but a guest in someone elses home, so I know better than to protest the house rules.
All around us, missing wall panels revealed thumping, grinding machinery of the sort I felt quite fearful to be seated so close to. The children serving the rest ducked and hopped over exposed machinery so deftly it could only be muscle memory. I wondered how long until I’d be equally accustomed.
When the servers reached me, they deposited onto my plate what I couldn’t deny was a nutritionally sufficient meal, but only just. The thinnest cut of beef I’ve ever seen outside a deli, assorted greens, rice and potatoes.
“There’s a floor for cattle? He really thought of everything” I remarked to the lad sitting across from me. “Mind your station” he muttered, not even making eye contact. I picked at my food, wishing for spices before realizing they’d have to be manufactured someplace within the building. A ‘needless frivolity’, Gramps probably decided.
Just enough, not more. A theme which extended to the clothing worn by everyone seated around me. Some grey, some blue, some white. Still others wore a queer black apron over a stained white frock, like something you might expect on a butcher. I wondered if they were responsible for putting the meager portion of meat on my plate.
No good to ask. I knew better by that point. It wouldn’t be ‘minding my station’, after all. This place had a definite, rigid structure to it. Roles and regulations, strictures and schedules. I welcomed it. I could at least study the details of what they expected from me on my own time.
In fact, it was to be even more straightforward than that. The room quieted and as my gaze swept around the room in search of the cause, I caught sight of a shockingly expensive looking litter held on the shoulders of four older kids being carried around the far corner.
One of those people carriers, which are themselves carried by people, that you sometimes see royalty or nobles transported about in. A beautifully decorated gold trimmed carriage, the figure inside obscured from view by a sheet of silk draped languidly over his or her form.
The silk was itself dazzlingly detailed with a pattern resembling Henna. When the carriage passed between myself and a wall mounted light, I caught the briefest glimpse of the shadowed silhouette of the slender, frail woman under the sheet. What is all this? Everyone around me looked on in awe and solemnity.
Finally the carriage came to a stop at the head of the room. The quartet carrying it gently set it down, then withdrew. Following this, the woman beneath the sheet moved subtly, gesturing as if to focus our attention on her.
Sure enough, a moment later she addressed the room. Her voice was deep and raspy like that of an aging smoker. “Good evening, my dear little grease monkeys. I see a new face among you.” I shrunk into my seat as all eyes in the room came to rest on me.
I worried I was expected to say something. A speech? But a moment later, the concealed woman continued. “If you find yourself overwhelmed, do not fear. Life here is simpler than it first appears. It obeys a particular rhythm and structure, as well as five simple rules. Tell him children, what is my first rule?”
Everyone boldly called out “The product comes first!” in unison. It startled me. Some sort of local shibboleth? The woman explained it somewhat. “In order to make good on certain debts, to refill the pockets of the generous fellows who funded the construction of our wonderful home, it is necessary to create something to sell for a steep profit. Many of the children here are employed in that capacity.”
She next asked what we’re all meant to do, regardless of station. Everyone again chimed in, this time with “Fix problems as soon as you spot them!” She explained this too, but it seemed plainly sensible. With no new funding coming in, and every dime from sales returned to investors, there would be no way to hire a mechanic to perform repairs. It would be up to us to keep the machinery running.
“What is it you’re to do right now, as you’re gathered for supper?” the woman inquired from within her gold trimmed carrier. They all answered “Eat everything on your plate!” Another self evidently practical rule, presumably meant to minimize waste.
“For that matter, isn’t supper nearly over? That’s quite important to keep track of, isn’t it? What do I always say about that?” The children called back “Mind the schedule!” I recalled Agnes hurrying me to my room, urging me not to miss the dinner bell.
“Last, but by no means least, what are you all to remind each other of when nosy fellows pry into what your daily tasks entail?” They all simultaneously replied “Mind your station!” Aha, I’d been wondering about that. Efficiency, routine, and division of labor appeared to be top priorities. Understandable, all things considered.
That was the end of it. She concluded that, should I remember and obey those rules, I would fit neatly into her family and enjoy a fulfilling life in this place. I wasn’t remotely satisfied and had many questions I wanted to ask, so I got up and approached the front of the room.
On the way I noticed everybody staring as though appalled. Agnes got between myself and the intricately embellished people carrier. “No closer than that. Only I may approach Miss Alice.” I explained that I simply had some questions I wanted answered. I could tell from Agnes’ glare that I’d committed some sort of faux pas.
“Only I can speak directly to Miss Alice! Mind your station, won’t you? Unless I’m mistaken, your plate’s not yet empty and there’s but a few minutes of supper left. Having only just been versed in our rules, have you already forgotten the third?”
Of course. Finish everything on my plate. I backed away sheepishly, turned and headed for my seat. As instructed I gobbled down the remainder of the spartan meal, then joined the rest in the laborious process of collecting and washing the dirty dishes.
They all kept a close, seemingly disturbed eye on me for a while. Agnes was polite enough that it was difficult to accurately gauge how severe my transgression was. I determined to study their ways more closely in the coming week, so as to avoid any similar blunders going forward.
In time, they lost interest in me and I began to detect a sort of jovial camaraderie among them. A rhythm developed as we all worked together to complete our shared task. Each of us knew just which part of it we were assigned to perform and who to hand it off to next.
It is sort of beautiful when you get a ‘flow’ going. Like all the parts of an engine moving synchronously, for however long it lasts. Life becomes unusually simple. The hundreds of things you must normally stay on top of to be considered competent are suddenly reduced to just one, or a few.
The lifting of this burden was something I found curiously joyful, and soon I invested myself fully in the task at hand. I felt sincerely satisfied to perform it as efficiently as I could, one small cog doing its part amidst a larger assembly of spinning gears.
It was finished in no time to my astonishment, and I may even have skipped on my way back to my room. Aside from my misstep earlier, I felt I was starting to fit in. To understand what my life here would be, rather than viewing it all as a tourist might.
What a prospect. No longer will I be a begrudgingly tolerated stowaway! The dismal life of a kitchen mouse. Here, I might actually make friends. At least I might be of some use to somebody! There was a lingering warm feeling, that of belonging to something larger than yourself.
Yet despite my invigorated state, some unnamed thing troubled me. Tucked away in the back of my brain, a faint little voice insisting something’s not right. Something to do with the rules, with Alice. With the way that they talk, their mannerisms, and mechanistic way of life.
I buried it more deeply. That’s the last thing I need right now. Surely it’s enough to let a good thing be a good thing, without dissecting it to scrutinize its insides? In spite of whatever vague sliver of all this feels wrong, the rest of it feels unexpectedly right.
All I have to do in order to avoid ruining the good hand life’s finally dealt me is to mind my station. What a simple, wise rule that is. I contemplated it as I lay on my bed, recalling the recitation of rules over dinner.
Sleep did not come easily though. The longer I lay, the harder my mind worked. Trying to piece it all together, wrestling with the persistent feeling that there was something I missed. Gears turning, chugging away, my thoughts slowly swirling about like the formative stages of a hurricane.
I recalled the letter I meant to read before the interruption of dinner, pulling it free from between the brittle pages. It consisted of fine red paper with elaborate inked designs in the corners, fastened shut with a wax seal rather than the usual adhesive.
For the first time I wondered whether I might be invading someone’s privacy by reading these. Not Grandfather’s, certainly, but that of a living person. An insignificant transgression I decided, my guilt easily overpowered by ravenous curiosity.
“In reply to your letter dated the fifteenth of October, it is my pleasure to have met someone with your considerable experience in this area. I, too, have on occasion tarried here and there in the world of limited run, exclusive items targeted at the boutique crowd.
You may recall four years ago, I built and sold a series of twelve original automobiles with cutting edge hybrid petrol electric drivetrains, each boasting a hand crafted one of a kind chassis, interior and exterior designed by the unnaturally talented Hermann Strauss.
Just the latest in a long line of brief but profitable distractions I have found necessary to fund the orphanage, my magnum opus. I am, now more than ever, bombarded by letters from journalists requesting information about it.
I fear if they could see the big picture, what I hope to accomplish in this world with the completion of the orphanage, they would recoil. For that is the typical reaction the public has to something so grand as to exceed their comprehension.
I compared it to the reaction an ant might have as it crawls across your shoe, were it intelligent enough to suddenly grasp what shoes are, what sort of creature wears them, and how it relates to our species.
You no doubt relate, as your line of work often sees your involvement in the procurement of delicacies, curios and all manner of exquisite items that might confuse, repulse or outrage laymen whose palettes are after all limited to what they can afford.
Such a person might spit out caviar, wondering why on earth anybody might wish to eat fish eggs rather than the fish itself. They might turn their nose up at fois gras, regarding as perverse the consumption of offal which, in their view, should be thrown away in the course of butchering geese.
Pearls before swine! We are, you see, very much congruent in our appreciation of unusual rarities, and the necessity of sometimes practicing that appreciation out of public view. I am only too happy to fulfill the demand for a product of such an exclusive nature, for one whose clients as are discerning as yours.
Already, the considerable financial return from the samples you so quickly found buyers for has ensured the continuation of construction for the next three months. A new batch of the product should be ready for you to pick up on the first Saturday of January. As usual it’s imperative that it be delivered with the greatest haste, as it does not keep for long.
Quality will only improve from here. The source of this urgency is well known to you, surely? I would never have engaged in such a risky, discreet venture if there were any simpler way to raise the tremendous sums I need, in a timely manner and employing as few extra pairs of hands as possible in the interest of maintaining secrecy.
I look forward to handing off the next batch, and to doing continued business with you and your clientele. It is my great fortune to have met you, and to have found an appetite of the wealthy which someone else had not yet satisfied.”
I stared at the last sentence for a time. Of course it must’ve cost a fortune to build this place. Less by far if he’d followed traditional construction methods, but then there was never any chance that he would. I suppose, even from the moment that the orphanage came into view over the hill, I took it for granted.
Increasingly I appreciated the decade long struggle to assemble the unfathomable wealth needed to build all of this. But it only deepened the mystery of why he’d become so fixated on a philanthropic project of all things.
I flipped through the pages in search of more hidden letters. Finding none, I instead began reading the rest of the Futurist manifesto I’d gotten partway into on the ride here. The language was everywhere brash and aggressive, aspiring to heroism. But the actual ideas being expressed were one part juvenile, two parts troubling.
It venerated modern wonders such as the railways, the radio and the aeroplane with the sort of rich, fanatical adoration poets have long directed towards more deserving subjects. The natural world. Women, although I suppose that’s a subset of the former. Family. Birth. Death. Fundamental, primal aspects of human existence which these Futurists appeared unimpressed by.
However eloquent the author was, I could imagine him foaming at the mouth as he typed this out. Detectable in every sentence was the surging, reckless energy I have seen before in the wild gaze and other mannerisms of Pervitin addicts.
On to the next thing. Then the next. Then the next. Always something new. Bigger, better, faster, louder. Like an exponential outward spiral of thought, helpless but to create ever more complex machines. As though that, in their estimation, is the sole source of meaning in their lives.
Surprisingly, I found notes scrawled in the margins of later pages. Grandpa’s handwriting by the looks of it. “The common man would never appreciate any of this. Blind to the larger pattern. If he could see what is coming, he would panic and endeavor to stop it. As if the present state of affairs is the culmination of all history, as perfect as it possibly can be, never to be superceded.”
He’s got me there, I thought. Although it didn’t feel so much that I couldn’t understand the sentiments being expressed as I found them cold, sterile and quite missing the point in certain ways. Perhaps from the perspective of such a person I would seem an intolerably erratic, wildly emotional creature, fit for no constructive purpose.
The notes continued on the next page. “We take it quite for granted that we stand at the top of the food chain. Naturally that’s how most of us think it ought to be. But what say all of the species we have so far driven to extinction?
To them we are incomprehensible, terrifying monsters. That we prevailed over them would seem, were they still living and able to cogitate more effectively, a tragedy most profound. It is the victor who writes history! And victory is self-justifying.
What, then, if we were to move down one step on that hierarchy? How the common people would wail! What turmoil and violence would result as the whole of humanity struggles to destroy whatever new emanation of the Earth would presume to replace us.
But would we be right to? We do not question our own right to dominate. Shouldn’t we? If something superior in every respect were to come along, why shouldn’t its right to exist at our expense be every bit as valid as our own right to exist at the expense of cows, chickens and pigs?
To such creatures, we are monsters. Regardless of the long history of human art, culture, emotion and politics, none of it impresses cattle as we lead them to the slaughter. What is a monster after all, but someone you cannot overcome, who can easily overcome you, and whose priorities are very different from your own? Think of the discomfort felt when unarmed, and in the company of an armed man whose intentions you do not know.”
The next page was torn out. Mildly distressing. I wondered if it might’ve contained the details I would need to make sense of it all. Lost forever by some random accident. After searching the vicinity of the book and my belongings to make sure the loose page didn’t fall out somewhere, finding nothing, I continued to read.
“It is recognized by every thoughtful fellow that, in the event that jealous competitors were to sabotage a more skilled sportsman by injuring his arm or leg before a match, they would be in the wrong to do so. Would we not be wrong, then, to sabotage or seek to destroy that which would otherwise exceed us?
No, they cannot understand. All the better, else I would soon find them amassed outside the doors of the orphanage, torches and pitchforks in hand. Sleep, you ignorant babes. For tomorrow, your breakfast will be humble pie.”
I flipped through the rest of the pamphlet, again looking for any other hidden notes. No such luck. The rest of the pamphlet was as predictable as a broken record, repeating the same theme as rhythmically as the cyclical internal motions of an engine.
“Look at us!” it concluded. “We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”
By contrast with the rest, I found this part mildly inspirational. Though contrary to my initial suspicions, by now I had a better sense of what Grandpa would think of such puffed up boasts. Something like the defiant shouts of a flea, shaking his fist at a herd of elephants which only do not trample him because they’ve not yet noticed his existence.
I wondered what the fellow who wrote this pontification would say if he were to meet all of these orphans, most of them robbed of parents by the great war. The same war such men seem to regard with chest thumping excitement and near religious reverence.
The human cost of violence, of speed, fire and brutality seemed wholly absent from the equation. As if it doesn’t merit even a moment’s consideration. Just the tiresome, fearful sounds made by those stuck in the past, they might say.
I nearly discarded the pamphlet in disgust, but hesitated because of the notes jotted in the margins. Could I so readily throw away the irreplaceable writings of a man now deceased? They could still prove integral to understanding the rest.
So I tucked it into the book, wondering if I’d once done the same with the envelopes but forgotten it since. Not likely as both were sealed, but I’ve done stranger things. This book’s been with me for so long, I’m constantly rediscovering parts of it I read when much younger.
Some delicate association in my brain still exists between familiar passages in the book, and other memories from the same period. Such that when I re-read these portions, flashes of the past come rushing back. I knew it was important even then, as everyone around me missed no opportunity to impress upon me what an important man my Grandfather was.
One particular entry tickled me as a small boy, but became less amusing and more perplexing with age. It was one of several diary style entries where Grandfather took a break from describing some new pivoting linkage or toothed belt system to recall memories from his own youth.
“I have never felt as if I belonged here. On this Earth, or even in this body. I often shudder to think how the world might react should my mask ever slip. What they might think should they glimpse the cold, featureless object I have always felt myself to be...beneath this deceitful flesh.
How quickly they would turn on me, should any of them discover that the countenance I maintain conceals a mind which boils down to metal on metal. Churning pistons, belts and gaskets. Nothing more than machinery in there now, and I can remember no time when I was any different.
I daresay I make a passable old man, being that my indifference to human affairs is easily mistaken for the average codger’s grumpy disposition, but I was never properly a child. I hadn’t the time for toys or larks. Things of that nature seemed wasteful and frivolous to me, even then.
Naturally this alienated me from the other children, though I hardly related any better to the adults. I remember one day I was sent home and paddled over Father’s knee for some smart alecky answer I gave a teacher.
To hear Mother tell it, the teacher was asking each of us what we hoped to accomplish with our lives when we grew up, and whether our parents would be proud. I’m said to have responded that, if I accomplish what I hope to, it would hardly matter what my parents, my teacher, my peers or anybody else thought of it.
She scolded me for rudeness. I could see nothing rude about it. Then she added that by the sound of it, I planned to become some sort of nefarious scoundrel, and if that’s the case she might get an early start on reforming me before the police.
Reportedly I told her that, should I succeed, she would be in no position to do such a thing, nor would anybody else. That was enough to earn me the dunce cap until my mother arrived. A tale she would recount with raucous laughter over many a Christmas dinner afterward!”
I thought his remarks so cutting and uproarious as a lad that I repeated them to one of my own teachers and received a whupping for my trouble. Mother and Father weren’t as cross as I expected, especially when they learned the source of my quip.
What a strange thing to get to know a person so thoroughly after their passing. On top of which the more I learned about his life, the more curious a figure he became. He’d passed by most common developmental landmarks with total indifference. First kiss. First realization of mortality. First romance, first reckless adventure.
Passing through life like a tourist, or a ghost. As if none of it had anything to do with him. I could detect no apparent fear of missing out on what life has to offer, but instead a recurring certainty that none of it mattered to begin with. That human experience was yet another thing he regarded as frivolous.
His sole, all-consuming passion seemed to be the completion of this masterwork I now inhabit. As if it were some sort of ‘winner takes all’ gambit. Like if he could complete it within his lifetime, it would make up a thousand times over for every ounce of satisfaction he passed up along the way.
Yet now his bones lay still in a casket buried on our family plot, this ramshackle tower of rusting iron, gears, chains and pistons the only thing resembling a lasting legacy. I couldn’t see the grandeur in it that he clearly did.
Maybe he was crazy. It’s crossed my mind more than once. Easy to see how such manic, frenzied cogitation could burn one out prematurely. In which case all of his notes, however sophisticated, however suggestive of some master plan...would be so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
No. Surely not. If that were the case he’d never have had so many successes in business. His grand scheme, whatever it was, could never have made it as far as this. The orphanage really was built. By dubious means, it seemed. But even so I now sat within tangible proof that he wasn’t all talk, nor smoke and mirrors.
He was going somewhere with this. A destination visible only to him, but so enticing as to render irrelevant everything else in life. It compelled me to believe that whatever he meant to accomplish with this project, it was of such far reaching importance that the whole of human civilization until then would have been little more than apes stacking stones in the mud.
A solution to poverty. To homelessness and hunger. A permanent end to human suffering, to hear him tell it. Isn’t that worth some sacrifices here and there? Isn’t it in fact worth the joyless, repetitive life devoted to mechanical innovation which grandfather led right up until they buried him?
I closed the book, laid back and made my best effort to fall asleep. I was certainly exhausted from the kitchen work. But my mind raced feverishly in defiance of my aching muscles, driving back the sandman with chair and whip every time he drew near.
I couldn’t leave it alone. I suppose I get that from him. After a few more minutes of futile efforts at relaxation, I finally gave up and headed out for a walk. At least that’s what I’d tell anybody who objected to my wanderings, I decided. Of course, what I really meant to do was explore.
The door, though it may better be described as a hatch, groaned slightly as I swung it open. I cringed, then peered out in either direction to find out if I’d aroused anybody’s attention. The corridor appeared empty as far as the light from the dim, flickering electric lamp above the doorway could reveal.
Encouraging enough that I overcame the urge to withdraw back into my room and instead set about tiptoeing into the darkness. I oriented myself using other lamps mounted at intervals to the outer wall, supplying just barely enough illumination to navigate by.
As I crept down the hall I heard long, low groans. The structure itself, I assumed. Shifting and shuddering as it gently sway in the wind. I soon noticed other faint noises accompanying it, like the hiss of pipes carrying water to cool mining equipment or whatever else, the distant clankety clank of a chain transferring motion from one gear to the next, and the throbbing of unseen pistons.
I imagined the various components were speaking to one another. Engaged in lively argument about whose burden was the worst, complaining of damage in need of repair and so forth. It all slowly merged into monotonous background ambiance. I soon felt as Jonah within the belly of the whale, listening to the beat of its heart, blood coursing through its veins and so on.
I slipped more than once on my way down the darkened corridor. The lights seemed too far apart, leaving long stretches unlit but not long enough that your eyes adjusted before you came upon the next light.
When frustration got the better of me, I reached down to blindly feel at the floor. In the unlit stretches it seemed to be coated in straw for some odd reason. Thick enough that I wondered if they brought it in from outside. Thin enough that I decided it was more likely debris of some kind.
A cart piled high with straw must’ve come through, bits tumbling off the edges here and there. Recently no doubt, as I recalled the floors elsewhere had all been carefully cleaned.
I spied a spiderweb spanning the gaps in the criss-crossing beams overhead and stood there for a moment, marveling at how it caught the faint, fluctuating light from the nearby bulb. High enough to escape the regular cleaners, the little creature would be safe until someone bothered to bring a stepladder.
Immersed in the stillness, I savored the gentle symphony of structural groans and shudders. The clankity clankity clank of distant gears. The hiss of steam escaping a nearby pipe.
Steam? Couldn’t be. I remembered gramps swearing off steam engines in his notes. Curiosity now engaged, I hunted the sound to its source. Sure enough, a rusty length of pipe running up the wall blasted a cloudy jet of steam, louder as I drew near.
I approached as near to the wall as I could, knowing all too well what steam can do to unprotected skin. I studied the pipe fitting, flinching now and again as tiny flecks of scalding water landed on my face and arms.
“Needs tightening” a monotonous voice barked from the shadows. A boy emerged a moment later, perhaps twelve or thirteen. Face and neck marked with scattered moles, short blonde hair in need of a wash but neatly parted.
“I don’t really...I mean, I wouldn’t want to mess something up on my first d-” he cut in here, voice suddenly stern. “You saw, you fix. That’s what Miss Alice says. I saw you at supper, you heard.”
I explained that I hadn’t any tools with which to effect repairs. He gave me an incredulous look and asked what I’d done with the standard issue toolbox under my bed. The what? He couldn’t believe I’d overlooked it either. I promised to return with it in short order.
Just to make sure, he accompanied me. I really did mean to return, it wasn’t at all necessary. No use telling him that. I found it right where he said it would be, and scolded myself for not searching my room more thoroughly when I arrived.
He allowed me most of a minute to open the sturdy metal box and familiarize myself with the contents. An electric lamp was among them! If only I had this earlier. It consisted of a galvanic cell encased in ceramic, a bulb in the shape of a candle flame for aesthetic reasons, and a concave reflector dish behind it by which one could direct the beam.
On the way back, I pestered him about the steam leakage. It was my turn to react with incredulity when he insisted there weren’t any steam engines in the building. “Lights run on power. Power comes from heat, deep underground. Pumps suck up the water, like a well. The water is sent down into the Earth through pipes. It gets hot, then comes back up and makes the spinner go. That’s where power comes out.”
I intuited that by spinner, he meant some manner of steam turbine. So Gramps never abandoned steam entirely, only for the purpose of locomotion! I wondered if, with some searching, I might after all find compressed air or petrol driven mechanisms tucked away in hidden rooms.
For all his bluster about the elegance of purely electrical systems and the headache of steam, in the end he’d found no better means of generating current than to heat water up and use the resulting vapor to turn a dynamo. I smirked, now slightly less awed by the old man’s handiwork. Then again, if it’s not broke…
The lamp made my return to the leaky pipe much easier, but no less awkward on account of my dingy blonde escort. He even stood there, a few paces away, arms crossed, watching me turn the nut. Not one offer to help as I grunted and heaved, face now beet red and dripping with moisture.
One last grunt. The steam jet sputtered and died. With the pipe fitting corrected, the terse little goblin finally buggered off into the darkness, presumably to find somebody else to haunt. I wondered if I wasn’t unjustly irritated. He was only following the house rules.
I didn’t mean to get caught up in a repair job just then and resented being arrested for that purpose. But I knew similar jobs would make up the lion’s share of my assignments in the years to come, and decided I should learn something from the boy’s discipline rather than grousing.
I packed the wrench back into the toolbox, closed the lid with a satisfying clang, then returned to my nocturnal explorations. The lamp saved me several times from stubbing my toe on unshielded conduits or catching my clothes in exposed clusters of gears.
I expect it will come more naturally with time. Already I could feel myself acclimating to the idiosyncrasies of this place. Where before the sensation of being as a tiny mouse engulfed in the bowels of this gargantuan machine was daunting, I now felt some strange comfort. As if it were the most natural place for small creatures to be.
Symbiosis, I think you’d call it. As small birds clean off bugs from the hide of hippopotami or clean the teeth of patient gators, so we children of the machine crawl about within its superstructure, fixing any breakdowns we come across. Just as it is in nature, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
The cone of light projected from the awkwardly heavy little lantern swept across a detail I would’ve passed by otherwise. A hatch, like many others I’d seen, situated low enough in the wall that I’d have to crawl through. The design stamped into the thin metal panel was recognizable to me as Grandfather’s monogram, also present on various other flat surfaces throughout the tower.
As good a time as ever to find out what lay behind them. Unless they all concealed something different? I set the toolbox down to one side and withdrew a screwdriver. The bolts came out easily enough, with perhaps twenty rotations of each. I tucked them away in one of the toolbox drawers lest I lose them down some gap in the floor panels.
At first I thought it to be an air duct. Only I felt no moving air within. Instead, handrails lined the interior walls above and below, with maintenance access panels every ten feet. I was loathe to climb in there, even with the lantern, but realized I could at least evade being roped into more compulsory repair jobs this way.
Once inside the cramped metal channel, I pulled the loose panel as close to the wall as I could. Not bothering to replace the bolts as that had to be done from outside, but leaning it up against the opening so the fact that it’d been opened might escape notice.
My hands were filthy within the first minute. I only discovered it by chance when I set the lantern down and happened to glimpse my palms, now coated in black stains. Soot? Oil? No matter. I came this far, may as well see what’s at the end.
As I painstakingly crawled through the dingy confines of the maintenance duct, I began to hear voices. Confusing and a trifle frightening, until I discovered the source. Soon enough I came upon a grating in the side of the vent from which I could peer, undetected, into a room I’d not seen until now.
Row after row of children decked out in aprons and gloves. Chopping fruit, mixing broth of some sort and otherwise preparing food. Burning the midnight oil, but why? For the sake of tomorrow’s meals? Alternating teams must take turns at this, else nobody would get any sleep.
I huddled there and watched until I felt I’d seen everything which goes on in that room, then continued crawling until I arrived at the next grate. More preparation! Primarily of broth this time. Great vats of it, motorized mechanisms stirring the aromatic concoction within.
Pipes ran from all of the vats up the walls, snaking across the ceiling, converging on a single great vessel suspended by chains. A spigot on the underside seemed intended to dispense the broth as desired, but for the time being was sealed.
Near the back of the room was a row of beautifully ornate jugs of some sort. A trio of children wheeled it along on a rickety old dolly until it sat beneath the spigot. Now and again I saw the jug shake or teeter, perhaps due to the clumsy handlers.
A worm gear mechanism built into the spigot sprang into action, removing the obstruction blocking the flow of broth. Steam billowed from the spigot as a steady stream of soupy, piping hot fluid poured into an opening in the jug’s lid.
Specially placed holes around the lid vented the built up steam inside, emitting an ear piercing whistle that you could almost mistake for screams. Once filled to the brim, a cork was wedged into the opening, hot wax was used to seal the steam outlets, then the jug was wheeled out of the room. The three handlers then returned to prepare the next jug.
I couldn’t make sense of it unless they meant to sell jugs of broth to cover expenses. Who would buy such a thing? I puzzled over it a while longer, then continued down the vent towards the next grate. While the others had steady light coming through them, the light coming through this vent was dim and fluctuated noticeably.
When I reached it and peered through, expecting another scene of industrious bustle, I was instead greeted by the sight of the strangest machinery I’d seen so far. Floor to ceiling towers of countless fine, delicate cogs of various sizes, rotating at different speeds.
With a few hard kicks I dislodged the grate. Destroyed might be a better word, but there was no way to remove the screws from within the duct. I worried that the damage would be discovered until, after a quick search of the room, I found that there was no other means of access. Who ever heard of a room with no door?
I marveled at the intricate machinery, something like state of the art devices I’ve read about which are purportedly able to do sums. Countless pages of Grandfather’s notebook were devoted to speculations concerning how to improve on them. Wherever he spoke of these admittedly impressive machines, it was with a tone unsettlingly close to spiritual devotion.
Just when I thought I’d seen everything the room had to offer, as I turned to leave, I spotted one row of cogs that appeared stuck. They would try to turn, seize up, relax, then resume the attempt. I quickly identified the cause as a slide rule jammed between two of the larger gears.
Perhaps by some disgruntled fellow who preferred to perform mathematical operations by hand? At any rate, with the obstruction removed the assembly of cogs began whirring contentedly about as no doubt intended by Grandfather. It was only because I noticed a pattern in their movement that I stayed any longer.
They all turned in increments. The largest gears near the bottom took the longest, I would never have seen it happen if I’d left when I meant to. The next set up moved perhaps every minute. The next set up from those moved every few seconds. The ones above all appeared to spin continuously, faster and faster as you go up the column.
Like a clock, I realized. But surely a mechanism of this size is not necessary to keep time? Just then, one of the lights protruding from the side of the great mechanism went out. Bulb failure? Now in the grip of fascination, I sat and watched for what felt like hours until the next bulb went out.
Not a clock, then. There were only ten bulbs. It’s counting down to something. I sat and watched a while longer, hoping to notice some additional clue. When I didn’t, I slipped the slide rule into my pocket, then returned the way I came.
Sleep was fitful. Visions of countless interlocking gears plagued my dreams. More and more of them everywhere I looked! If I dug into the ground I found the soil very shallow, and beneath it, a layer of glass protecting the vast array of gears underneath.
When I leaned on a tree to rest, I heard ticking inside. I found a door in the trunk which, when opened, revealed a nested column of gears, pistons and other assorted mechanical bits. The anxiety within me finally boiled over when, upon staring into the sky, I noticed unfathomably fast gears turning at a glacial pace, just behind the cloud cover.
“So this is it” I recall mumbling to myself, stupefied. “The underlying machinery of nature. Of the universe, laid bare.” I awoke with some lingering shred of that awe. But also a troubling suspicion that Grandpa had the same thoughts at some stage of his life. Perhaps I’ve inherited more of his madness than I realized.
Breakfast was the same meal we’d eaten the prior evening. I thought to ask if it was always the same before remembering to mind my station. I dutifully finished everything on my plate, then joined the whirlwind of merry kitchen work.
When that was done, muscles aching anew, I dropped by my room to pick up my toolbox. I then set out to receive my first repair assignment of the day. From Agnes, it turned out. She wore a pleasant white bonnet today, seated before a sturdy iron table that those awaiting assignments were queued in front of.
“Today you’re servicing the backup dynamo” she informed me once I finally reached the head of the line. “It supplies electrical power when the main turbine is down...Say, why are you already fouled up?”
I looked down at my hands, still stained with grease and soot from the night before. ”...I spotted a linkage that needed oiling last night, so I took it upon myself to-” She smiled and gestured for me to stop. “Say no more! Off you go. Hurry it along now, mind the schedule.”
With that, I ascended to the second floor for the first time since my arrival, and found there a most perplexing scene. Row upon row of stationary bicycles, all with a little generator in the wheel of the sort boys often attach in order to power an electric lamp.
Only there were no such lamps. Wiring from each bicycle trailed up to the ceiling, where a grid of thin metal restraints organized all of it and kept it off the ground. I boggled at all of it, though I could not rightly say it was the strangest thing I’d so far seen in this place.
I followed the flow of the thick bundles of red and black wiring to its terminus, a buffer of capacitors and some sort of converter box. I assumed it converted the irregular current from all of the cycles into something appropriate for the structure’s larger electrical system.
“Bout time.” I turned to find the grubby blonde boy from the night before, a wrench dangling from his hand. In this light I could see his skin was lightly covered in a mixture of dirt and soot, and he wore a ragged set of brown overalls with only one strap. There was something slightly off about his facial proportions and posture that I began trying to work out the nature of.
“My name is Frederick.” I introduced myself in turn, then inquired what the problem seemed to be. “Sometimes spinner stops working. Bad day, lots of work stoppage. Miss Alice can’t stand work stoppage. Mind the schedule, she says! Is fine today, so no pedalers” he gestured behind him to the fixed bicycles. “But power box have problem.”
He led me to the mass of electrical machinery adjacent to the array of fat, menacing looking capacitors I saw on the way in. “Power can”, Frederick blurted out. “One of them makes pop pop sound, smells like smoke. I have new one just made yesterday to put in.”
Made yesterday? I pressed him for more and was informed that there was a level devoted to manufacturing replacement parts for the various electrical systems. I’d not seen it yet, but believed him. Ensuring this great machine could sustain itself independent of outside industry was after all something Grandfather harped on about at length in his journal.
The other thing which preoccupied me as I assisted the short, muscular troll of a boy with his work was that he spoke in a stunted fashion. As though he had some rudimentary education but not beyond the sort one receives by the age of seven or eight.
More troubling, he never quite focused on anything. Sure he’d look in my general direction, but with a dull, glassy eyed stare the likes of which I’ve mainly seen from drunks or the mentally ill. This, and his awkward manner of speech, led me to suspect his mother drank when he was in the womb.
Something of that sort, surely. Uncharitable thoughts to have, but then I’ve seen more than a few like him in workhouses before. Nothing at all makes that sort of man unsuitable for menial labor, and if anything they suffer the tedium less because of it.
“Hurry. You are clumsy with tools. Job will take all day if you work like that! Special supper tonight, I don’t want to miss.” I inquired what made it special. He flashed a lopsided grin, eyes almost making contact but not quite. Mostly on account of pointing slightly different directions. “I forget, you are new. Surprise waiting. I won’t spoil for you, was very happy day for me first time.”
He wouldn’t say more, so I let it alone. The mystery of it proved quite enticing, as well as the promise of occasional culinary variety. That made work go faster, which was a welcome mercy since the nature of it was mind numbingly repetitive.
There were just so many bicycles. I know well enough how to repair them, I’ve had my own on occasion that I used to run errands for the families I lived with. But to perform the same few repairs on identical machines, over and over…
Frederick didn’t seem bothered by it. On the contrary, by all appearances he was in his element. Humming and smiling, hobbling about in a spritely fashion. As I suspected, if anything his condition made him better adapted to his station in life than I’ve ever been.
As his sausage like fingers deftly removed the gear, several teeth of which were sheared off somehow, I overheard him singing softly to himself. A queer little song I assume he devised to make the hours go by.
“Alice say work, so Freddy boy work. Alice say eat, so Freddy boy eat! Alice say sleep, so Freddy boy sleep. Freddy been a good boy, gonna get a treat!”
I found it quite charming. But when he noticed me watching him, he fell silent. Self conscious perhaps. I averted my gaze, feeling a pang of regret for having embarrassed the spritely lad, and resumed re-spoking the wheel I had in hand.
The hours dragged on. Soon my fingers, knuckles in particular, were scraped up and slightly bruised from working with all the sharp, hard edged little bicycle parts. It turned out I’d been using my hands for a task that my toolbox included a device for performing. I briefly wondered whether Freddy was really the dim bulb between us.
But really, he seemed in all ways better adapted to this life than I. To hear Darwin tell it, that’s what really counts. Evolution cares not for how bright you are, if it is maladaptive in the environment where you find yourself.
I resolved to be more like Freddy. What better specimen to pattern my own habits after? To that end, given his recurring mentions of Miss Alice, I asked him about her. He have me an incredulous, and slightly appalled look.
“Everybody know Miss Alice. How you not know?” I answered that I was simply very dumb, and in need of some education. He grinned ear to ear, plainly pleased by the notion. “Miss Alice is everywhere, when she want to be. She see everything, all the time.” He formed faux goggles with his hands and peered through them for emphasis.
“You mean like, through cameras?” I queried. He shook his head, subtly misshapen now that I got a good look at it. “She just see. Wherever you are. She knows if you break the rules. We tell her what we do wrong every night before sleep, ask her to forgive, and promise to do better tomorrow. She is most beautiful, nice lady of anywhere.”
I asked how he knew she was beautiful given that she wore that silk sheet draped over her. He looked thoughtful for a split second, but then suddenly scowled at me. “What you mean? What you say that for? You think Miss Alice not beautiful?” He motioned as if to stand. Despite his short stature, he looked easily able to cave my skull in should I fail to choose my next words with extreme care.
“No, of course she is beautiful” I assured him. “The most beautiful there ever was. Everybody knows that. I’m just curious. I want to learn.” He studied my face for a moment, eyes narrowed. Then, apparently satisfied that I was sincere, he went back to animatedly describing Miss Alice’s astonishing capabilities.
He made her sound like a superstition. Yet I’d seen her with my own eyes just the other night! Something was amiss. I tucked it away in the back of my mind, wiped the sweat from my forehead with a freshly greased forearm, then buckled down.
Lunch was simple meat of the sort served with every meal thus far, but on a freshly baked roll of bread. Not much to look at, but the countless hours of tedious, repetitious labor worked up such a fierce hunger that it was gone nearly as soon as I got my hands on it. The pair of boys who’d given it to me out of their wheeled cart were terribly amused.
“Finish everything on your plate” I reminded them. “That’s what Miss Alice says.” A look of sudden sobriety replaced their smirks. Both sternly nodded, then pushed the cart back into the corridor and resumed their rounds.
That works remarkably well, doesn’t it? I filed that knowledge away for future use. Once they were gone, I noted their eyes had the same dull emptiness to them as Frederick’s. Their reactions, on the other hand, were noticeably sharper.
The more of them I met, the more convinced I became that something was slightly wrong with the lot. It’s hard to tell when they’re busy, hurrying about to perform various chores. But when you get the opportunity to talk with one, even briefly, it’s immediately obvious that something is off.
It’s not just that their schooling here is insufficient, though I wouldn’t be surprised given what I’ve seen so far. Rather, their mannerisms and patterns of thought seem...rudimentary. To varying degrees, save for Agnes, everyone I’ve met here comes across as helplessly sincere, docile, and very slightly confused by anything I say to them.
As I puzzled over this, I noticed Frederick set down his tools and retreat to a drinking fountain mounted by the door to the stairwell. I joined him there soon after, beneath the sign reading “Level 2” in stenciled characters.
He lapped it up eagerly, making no effort to hide his enjoyment. I quite liked that about him. The other side of the doubled edged sword of intelligence is duplicity. Frederick appeared incapable of pretense. I expected I would always find him easy to read, to calm down when he is agitated, and all around a reliable fellow to work with. A known quantity.
A rusty pipe ran from the drinking fountain up the wall, then through it and presumably along the ceiling of the corridor adjacent to the stairwell. The one running along the outer wall of the structure in a long, gentle curve. I wondered, briefly, what lay at the end of the pipe.
That was enough to set my gears to turning. A mistake, usually. Once I’ve got ahold of some question I often find I cannot let it go until I know the answer. The same relentless, methodical curiosity which drove me to explore the service ducts the other night once again tugged at my mind.
“I left something in my room, I’ll be right back”. Before I could reach the door, Frederick seized me by the arm. “Mind your station! No work stoppage. What you leave, anyway?” I froze, not expecting to be questioned.
Behind my back, I slipped the screwdriver I’d been absentmindedly carrying up my sleeve. “It’s...my screwdriver. I think I left it there.” He ambled over to my toolbox to make sure it was missing. Then offered me the use of his. “I am fix every problem that need screw turnings. But give back to me when finish.”
Sweating a bit, I sheepishly thanked him. Good ol’ dependable Freddy. I cursed up a storm inwardly, resolving to investigate later that night, then returned to working on that damned endless sea of stationary bikes.
When the dinner bell finally rang, it was as if an angelic choir descended upon me from the Heavens. They’d have to find some way through a dozen or so floors of iron on the way, I mused. Frederick accompanied me to a wash room on the way to the dining hall, where we did our best to scrub as much of the accumulated black residue from our hands, forearms and faces as possible.
The stains persisted, merely growing fainter with the vigorous application of soap and water. At the point where my skin started to feel raw from the scrubbing, I gave up and resigned myself to it. The machine’s marked me now. Does this mean I belong to it? I suppose there are worse things than belonging somewhere.
When we arrived in the dining hall, it was ablaze with commotion. The excited chatter drowned out the pistons, gears and various other nearby mechanisms as Frederick and I took our assigned seats.
The empty plate set before me was actually sort of a relief. I didn’t much care for the usual offering and usually ate just to keep my body going. From what I gathered, we were being treated to something different tonight.
Confirming my suspicion, Miss Alice appeared at the far end of the room on that slightly elevated platform, carried by her usual servants. Then, a procession of children in white chef’s garb pushing wheeled dollies, which bore instantly recognizable decorative jugs.
Broth? Really? I couldn’t imagine it would make for a satisfying dinner. But then, if wealthy men were willing to pay a handsome price to get their hands on it, surely it must be something special. The wheeled dollies were pushed down between the rows of tables, and as the little chefs ladled out broth into bowls and handed them to us, Miss Alice began to speak.
“My dear little grease monkeys. Hard have you toiled this past year, and I would be remiss if I did not recognize it. To mark the occasion, you will tonight be permitted to sample the fruits of your labor. A generous helping, given the cost, of the product.”
The product? I didn’t realize I said it aloud until the girl across from me replied “Yes! The product! Aren’t you excited?” I answered that I didn’t know whether I should be as I’ve no idea what exactly the product is in the first place. She seemed flabbergasted, as did several nearby children I assume were eavesdropping.
“The product will make you handsome” one said. “The product will make you fit” added another. The girl who initially addressed me chimed in. “The product will change your life.” My exasperation mounted. “That’s all well and good” I muttered. “But what IS it?” All I got back was “It’s what comes first”, as per rule number one.
I tentatively blew on a spoonful of the stuff, then smelled it. Overwhelming. Intoxicating! Even after the others built it up so much, I was still impressed. Moreso by far when I took my first sip. No wonder. The fact that it was made to order exclusively for the wealthiest clientele suddenly made perfect sense.
It remains to this day the most savory, satisfying flavor I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. I still dream of it sometimes, if I’m honest. I think the closest comparison is a soup I was served at a party, thrown by one of the more well to do host families I lived with.
A reducing process was employed to further and further enrich the broth with the addition of more and more cuts of top shelf venison. A wasteful process in my estimation, so much perfectly good meat sacrificed for what in the end amounted to perhaps six or eight litres of fluid.
The remarkable flavor achieved by that process made sense of it. As the flavor of the broth I now swirled about the interior of my mouth, reluctant to swallow something so enticing, made sense of the high price Grandfather was able to demand for it.
This is how the upper class eats, isn’t it. Not every meal of course, I knew this broth to be a delicacy for special occasions, which cost a staggering sum even by the standards of society’s wealthiest few. It served as a glimpse of the vast gulf in quality between what goes into the mouths of the moneyed elite, versus what has gone into mine for most of my life up to this point.
Pet food. Offal! What you’d find in a pig’s trough, by comparison with the mouth watering ambrosia which I now eagerly slurped down. That’s no exaggeration, though I imagined I could convince nobody of it who hasn’t savored this marvelous concoction themselves.
I slowed myself, suddenly conscious of the meager portion remaining. When would I next get a chance to partake? I cannot say how, but at the same time that it satisfied me completely, it also provoked ever-intensifying cravings for more. Not entirely unlike what I have read about Opium addiction.
I looked around. Everyone else was carefully savoring every spoonful. Smelling it, then sipping bit by bit to extract maximum pleasure from the experience. When I asked how frequently we would be served ‘the product’, a few glared at me in obvious irritation, ignored the question, then returned their attention to the aromatic concoction in their bowls.
When my own bowl was finally drained of the lovely brew, my thoughts turned of course to how I might obtain more of it as soon as possible. Hoping he’d be more forthcoming with answers, I asked Frederick on our way to the kitchen when we’d next be fed so well.
“Same day every year.” I balked. A whole year? It’d been just a few minutes since I finished mine and, though my belly bulged, I desperately wanted more. “What is the product anyway?” In retrospect don’t know why I expected anything else from him but the cryptic answer that I got.
“The product make you healthy. It make pretty girls like you. The product come first.” Another baffling non-answer, which only raised more questions the longer I thought about it. I thanked him anyway so as not to be impolite. To my surprise, the invigorating effect of the meal extended to my work in the kitchen.
Dishes seemed to wash themselves, but by way of my hands. It was all over before I knew it, a blur of rote movements which occurred without once invoking my higher brain functions. Though it seems shameful to admit, it is a great relief to exist in that state. The burden of complex thought lifted from my shoulders, only the primal pleasure of synchronized physical exertion remained.
I found myself wishing for some means to prolong it. I would find one quite soon, in fact. After finishing the last of the dishes and completing trivial evening patch jobs, I returned to my room for some much needed slumber. But once again, though my body was willing, my mind was not.
Well after I should’ve been fast asleep, I was instead hunched over Grandfather’s journal. This time because of the queer metal slide rule I pried from between two gears the night before. I’d retrieved it from the top drawer of my dresser to inspect it more closely, whereupon I discovered its purpose wasn’t performing mathematical operations after all.
Instead of numbers, there were letters engraved along either side of the rule itself. The slider, when fixed upon a particular letter on one side, framed a corresponding letter on the other. For what purpose I could not fathom until, on a whim, I applied it to the encoded journal entries.
At first it yielded only gobbledygook, which nearly compelled me to give up on the endeavor. But then I tried it in reverse. After decoding a few characters, I gasped. This time it was outputting comprehensible words! Not a slide rule then, but a decoding device. Rather a clever way to disguise it too.
I turned the cold steel device over in my hands and sure enough, Grandpa’s familiar monogram was etched along the back. If only I’d found this sooner! The effective length of the journal doubled, if not more than that, as a result of this development. I wondered how many more years it would take to absorb and understand the rest.
I worked into the night painstakingly decoding a single passage, character by character. Nothing obviously meaningful yet. Some mundane explanation of how eukaryotes at some point in their evolutionary history trapped another species of single celled organism within, which became what scientists now call mitochondria.
An unexpected foray into biology for a man principally concerned with machines, I thought. I briefly wondered at the reason for it, hoping it would become clear once I finished decoding that entry. A few more sentences in, weary from the mentally tedious nature of the translation process (which in truth I have never had much tolerance for) I decided to take a break.
More precisely, I decided to walk about the darkened corridors of the structure. To explore more of it, ideally without being accosted by Frederick this time. To that end, electric lantern in hand, I once again sought out the monogrammed vent cover from the other night.
I found it still unscrewed, and still leaning up against the opening. I cursed myself for not remembering to properly replace it. Lucky for me that it wasn’t noticed, which also saved me the trouble of unscrewing it again.
This time I crawled down the cramped service passage in the other direction. Eager for fresh insight into what goes on in this place after hours, and away from prying eyes. Save for my own of course. If I’m honest, I got something of an illicit thrill from spying on the inner workings of the orphanage.
All this time I felt very much a stranger in a strange land, a newcomer welcomed only by Agnes and then only because of my relation to Grandpa. These covert explorations and observations supplied a feeling of control which had been lacking in my life since the accident.
Even though I remained subject to the rhythm, order and strictures of the orphanage, I could at least know more of its inner workings and of the lives of its inhabitants than I was meant to. While I enjoyed the feeling of belonging, of simplicity, I also found myself yearning for some wiggle room ever since Frederick dragged me off to tighten that nut the other night.
As a result, the idea of doing something mildly subversive brought me some unexpected satisfaction as I pressed on through the narrow, sooty tunnel. I wondered what ol’ Freddy boy would say. Or what Agnes would say, for that matter! She’d throw a fit most likely, then who knows what sort of punishment she might subject me to?
It struck me as I thought about the day we met, that she was worlds more put together than anyone else in this place. Sharp as a tack! Not so much as a hint of the dopey, slow witted stupor I’d seen in Frederick and the others. Better breeding, perhaps? Grandpa must’ve seen the same qualities in her, to assign her a position of power within this orphanage.
I was hoping for another machine room. The last held a clue to Grandfather’s plans, with any luck there were more I’d not found yet. Instead, the first grating I came upon looked out into a nursery. Babies? Here? I suppose many of the workers I’ve seen were old enough to conceive. Provisions for the care of their offspring would be necessary.
It’s truly self sufficient, I quietly realized. Even if the steady stream of unwanted orphans from the city were to one day cease, I could see here a means of maintaining their numbers indefinitely. Girls, aged ten to twenty, walked up and down the rows of cribs to check on the gurgling infants within.
Here and there, diapers were being changed. A tangled mess of clear rubber tubing suspended from the ceiling carried milk or some other pale nutritional fluid to each of the cribs, each terminating in a rubber nipple similar to those found on baby bottles.
But for some curious reason, about a quarter of the cribs were segregated from the rest. A glass divider wall and a door separated them from the larger nursery, though the quality of their care appeared identical. Another door in the far wall led me to suspect I might spy some answers through the next grating, so I continued down the duct.
What I saw through it only confused me more than what I’d seen through the last. A recurring theme in this place, though so far I’d found nothing so strange about it that I couldn’t adapt. Babies from the smaller, separated section of the prior room were being washed and otherwise pampered.
One of the caretakers sprinkled the baby on the table before her with what I took for hygienic powder. When some of it reached my nostrils, I noticed it smelled strongly of cinnamon. Just then a team pushing a wheeled dolly came through double doors in the rear of the room. On the dolly was a familiar decorative jug.
As resplendent as ever. Not yet sealed though. I wonder if they meant to feed some of the broth to the little ones, though I should hardly think they could appreciate such a sophisticated flavor. Instead, something queer followed. The top half of the jug was unscrewed and set aside.
One by one, the naked little bundles of whimpering flesh were gently deposited into the jug until it was filled. I could just see little hands and feet flailing feebly over the rip of the jug’s lower half as the top half was replaced and screwed tightly to the bottom.
The team of youths operating the dolly then wheeled it abruptly out of the room for parts unknown. I just couldn’t make sense of it. Surely there are simpler, safer ways to transport young children. But then, is it for me to question how things are done here? It’s bad enough that I’m peeping.
I shuffled along until I reached the next grate. This room looked more like what I came in search of! Rusty pipes snaked to and fro across the ceiling, as well as up and down the walls. Valves protruded from the pipes at various junctures, a veritable crow’s nest of rusty, tangled iron.
I kicked out the grating with modest effort, again cringing at the thought it would be discovered. But the more I saw, the more questions arose. I could hardly make myself stop now, as I felt closer than ever to uncovering the mysteries of this place. It proved to be a bit of a trick to navigate the convoluted mess of pipes on my way across the room.
It didn’t look as though anybody was ever meant to come in here, except for rare maintenance. It simply wasn’t designed to be traversed by people. I ducked under a great ponderous pipe at waist level, listening to water rush through it as I did so.
Others sounded as if they carried steam, but the sound of rushing water was dominant overall. It seemed as if it must be something like a center for the distribution of the water we use to drink, to bathe and so forth. When I reached the end of the room, I was confronted with wall mounted machinery unfamiliar to me.
One of the pipes was labeled “To administration”. It looked normal enough. The pipes below it were labeled according to the floors they supplied water to…also unremarkable. What threw me off was the mechanism for adding some sort of dull grey concoction to every pipe other than the one headed for administrative rooms. My own and Agnes’, I assumed.
By watching the rate of flow in the array of delicate glass tubes which injected the grey solution into the various water pipes, I found that each pipe received a different amount. The lowest floors received the most. The higher floors received progressively less. The administrative rooms, uniquely, received none.
Could it possibly be something for dental hygiene? Or something to suppress fertility? That seemed unlikely, given that I’d just passed a nursery. I closely studied the great glass chamber of grey solution, noticing that it was water itself...just saturated with almost invisibly small metallic particulate.
It caught the light from the nearby bulb, appearing to me as grey, glittering sand. I followed the movement of the solution through a long, looping series of glass tubes very close to what I’ve seen in the employ of a chemist. The particulate faded and vanished along the way as if dissolving into the water, before being injected into the appropriate pipe.
I wondered if I could taste the difference. So far I’d only had water from my own room, the nearby bathroom or at meals. Although Frederick sure didn’t seem to mind what came out of the water fountain on the bike level the other day, so at the very least it couldn’t be foul tasting or poisonous.
I searched the area around the machinery for clues. All I could find was a brief set of instructions for the operation and maintenance of the “Limiter, version 1”. These instructions were divided into bullet points with crude adjacent illustrations of how to replace various parts, which I imagine someone like Freddy would find very helpful.
No slide rules, though. No notebooks or other writings aside from the instructions mounted next to the device. I sighed. I suppose my hopes were unreasonably high when I entered. It really looked like someplace I might expect to find more of Grandpa’s residual clues. Some gadget or pamphlet that would at last unravel the mysteries of this structure.
But however I searched, banging my shins, knees and elbows more than once on the multitude of inconveniently placed pipes throughout the room, I could find nothing of that sort. So, feeling defeated, I crawled back into the vent and proceeded down the next length of it until I arrived at the final grating.
Jackpot! Very promising anyway, a dusty room filled with all manner of half completed gadgets, tools and blueprints. I took it for the room in which Grandfather must have lived while working on this place, and was vindicated when I found a bed, chair and desk upon emerging from the duct.
It looked unexpectedly clean, given how long he’s been dead. I wondered if Agnes came through here now and again with a duster or something. I fiddled for a while with the various intriguing prototypes sitting on shelves above the desk. There was no telling what they were originally meant to do, as most were in some state of partial assembly.
What really captivated me however was the motion picture projector, set up opposite a matte white projection screen hanging from the wall. I’ve seen a film or two in the theater or on public kinetoscopes, but never known anybody who owned a portable home projector before.
I suppose it makes sense Grandpa would’ve had the latest and greatest gadgetry, long before anyone else. Though for all I knew, he may have built this thing himself! I dug a film container out from beneath a pile of books and papers, cracked it open, then went to work threading the film into the sophisticated contraption.
Possibilities swirled about in my mind as it warmed up and the reels began to spin. Would I see his visage, speaking to me from beyond the grave? Some technical film only of interest to the mechanically inclined? Or, God forbid, pornography. Though given what I know of the man, I doubt he had any interest in prurient materials.
I recalled a journal entry about my father, in which Grandpa lamented that after “all the trouble” he’d gone through to secure a wife with whom to produce an heir to carry on his work, “the blasted boy simply hasn’t got the brains for it.”
I never brought that bit up with Dad, assuming that if he’d read this journal before me, it would be a sore point. But Grandpa wrote about everyone in his life that way, when he wrote of them at all. Always about how useful or useless they were to him. How adequate, or inadequate. Never of his feelings towards anyone, though he must’ve surely had at least some.
The entry about my parents’ death was chilling. Made me wonder, not for the first time, how I could be from the same lineage as such a cold and calculating man. It simply read “My son and his wife perished recently in automobile accident. What trouble! My grandson is said to be staying with sympathetic friends of the family.
That won’t do. I provided lavishly for my wife upon our divorce, I provided for my son and his wife to live comfortably despite his disappointing performance. So of course, I will prepare someplace for the lad to stay within my orphanage. Perhaps he’ll prove more suited to its continuation than his father?”
Not an ounce of feeling. It read like a grocery list, or an opera schedule. Here and there I’ve known boys of a similar mindset, but none so far gone as this colorless, single minded old man. At last the projector cast a discernible image on the screen.
In fuzzy monochrome, there appeared children seated in a circle within some sort of clinical environment. At first I took it for a waiting room as it was lined with comfortable chairs. Only, the film in some places cut away to a view within a room that must have been just behind a one way mirror, with grim looking researchers jotting down notes as they spectated.
A woman in plain looking shoes and a dress down to her shins, her upper half out of frame, pointed urgently to an empty chair positioned nearby. The children looked upon it with confusion, but eventually their countenance was more one of fear and awe. I studied the chair closely but could see nothing about it to account for their reaction.
The woman then left a delectable pastry and glass of milk sitting in the center of the circle of seated children, and left the room. I smiled, expecting one or all of them to gobble it down the moment she left, the way that any child might be expected to in that situation. Instead, while a few cautiously began to reach for it, in every case the other children motioned to prevent it. At the end of the five minutes, that same woman re-entered to find the pastry uneaten.
The short film then suddenly came to an end, flipping through some blank cells of film with various strings of letters identifying the contents. A stretch of blank emptiness after that. Just light from the projector’s bulb cast onto the screen, no more to see.
Being that it was a silent film, they might’ve at least included some captions to help viewers understand what was going on. It made no more sense than most of the other things I’d witnessed so far in my explorations, each discovery only further compounding my bewilderment.
As I turned to search for other film canisters, I was startled by the silhouette of a woman sitting in the shadows where the light from the room’s sole dangling bulb did not reach. “My goodness! I’m quite sorry. I didn’t realize anyone still lived in this room.”
The silhouette didn’t budge, nor did it have anything to say. After a few more efforts to elicit a response, I turned on my trusty electric lantern and brought the beam of light to bear on the darkened form.
Miss Alice! I gasped and stumbled back a ways. Oh, I’ve done it now! I’ve stepped in it alright, I thought to myself on the verge of panic. Of all the rooms to break into. What would happen to me if my transgression were discovered? But even with the light shining directly in her eyes, she sat perfectly still and said nothing.
She’d not even bothered to leave her ornate little carrier. Still ensconced within, covered in that lovely silk sheet. The light revealed some hint of her form beneath it, as delicate and whisper thin as I remembered. Eventually I worked up the courage to lift the sheet and peer underneath.
A wooden mannequin. Very carefully carved in the convincing shape of a woman, with a porcelain mask for the face. Every part was articulated like a doll, with what looked to be steel rods attached to the wrists. Very much like some large puppets I’ve seen, come to think of it. The rods protruded up through slots in the floor of the carrier, the next object of scrutiny.
Finding a panel at the base of the carrier screwed shut, I located a screwdriver from the shelf and unfastened it. Inside was a quartet of phonographs, a motorized mechanism for moving the dummy’s arms about via the long metal rods sticking up into the carriage, and a bank of galvanic cells to power it all.
I fiddled with one of the phonographs until it began to play. “....-If you find yourself overwhelmed, do not fear. Life here is simpler than it first appears. It obeys a particular rhythm and structure, as well as-....” the familiar raspy, deep voice distorted and slowed down as the power ran out.
I studied the carriage more closely, walking about it with my lantern, and found it was plugged into a wall socket to recharge the batteries. I must’ve just missed the team which normally carries her from place to place, depositing her in this room for a few hours of “beauty sleep”.
It reminded me quite a bit of those novelty fortune telling machines with the simple animatronic upper body of a wizard, or a turban wearing mystic encased within. The sort where you insert a coin, watch the jerky figure’s gesticulations, listen to its scratchy pronouncements about what lay in store for you, then receive a printed card from a slot near the bottom. “The Great Zamboro” or some such nonsense.
But why? For what possible reason. Agnes was commanding enough. Despite her slight frame, her abrupt, authoritarian mannerisms made her an imposing person. Why go to all the trouble to deceive the children such an elaborate way?
I found the answer within a second film canister. When I watched the film itself it was just more of the same, except that it appeared to have been of a control group. There was no empty chair sitting adjacent to the circle of children, no urgent pointing from the woman, and as soon as she left the room the kids all began fighting over how to divide the pastry and milk.
It’s the torn out page that lay tucked just under the reel of film which enlightened me as to the meaning of what I’d seen. Judging by the size, the type and assorted diagrams doodled in the margins, I realized it came from Grandfather’s journal! Something he didn’t mean to fall into just anyone’s hands.
“I have followed with rapt interest the behaviorological experiments of one Andrew Williams. Working in facilities supplied by the local university and with grants from wealthy parties interested in methods for cultivating more agreeable attitudes among factory employees, he undertook to study the influence that belief in unseen actors may have on the honesty of small children.”
He’d jotted a diagram I recognized as a scene from the films, of children sitting in a circle with an empty chair to one side. No sign of the woman, nor the pastry. The text continued below.
“The children in Williams’ experiment, excepting those in the control group, were told of a beautiful invisible fairy princess who watched them from a chair placed nearby. She was said to see and hear everything which the children did, keeping close tally of their good and bad behavior.
At some unspecified point in the future, the children were informed, she would reward them handsomely with whatever their hearts desired. If they behaved well, that is. If they didn’t, she would come for them in their beds and gobble them up.”
What a dreadful thing to tell children! What an altogether appalling experiment, for that matter. I’ve heard of worse, but usually inflicted upon the morons and invalids living in mental asylums. To torment the imaginations of little ones in this manner seemed inarguably wicked.
“Like a great many other innovations which have sprung from the minds of comparably talented men, when I read of this experiment I realized at once that I could improve upon it. For one thing, older children were not as susceptible to the effect. In many cases they cautiously felt around in the chair to ensure nobody actually sat there, then carried on as they pleased, realizing they’d been lied to.”
I never saw that film and scanned the room briefly for any additional film canisters before returning to reading.
“For the purpose of deterring unionization and keeping factory workers awed, fearful and obedient, an invisible fairy princess will hardly do. No grown man, however dim witted, could be made to believe in such an obvious fable.
Even for the unwashed, uneducated urchins sent to my orphanage, a more convincing ruse is needed. I’ve applied my mechanical skills to fashioning an electrically motivated automaton which, with careful presentation, they might mistake for a supernatural mother figure.
Immune to those skeptics among them which would see through an empty chair, or which might come to challenge the authority of a plainly human administrator. Though if the limiter works as expected, there should be fewer and fewer of those bothersome doubters over time.”
I sat there, breathlessly reading over the last few paragraphs over and over, finally grasping at least the dim outline of the terrible truth. But the more I thought about it, the more pragmatic and clever it seemed. Nobody here stood any realistic chance of a normal life, after all.
If they arrived on our doorstep it meant they’d already failed to be placed with a family. Usually too old, too ugly, or out of options like me. They have no future outside these walls. Nowhere else they can go but the streets, the prisons or the graveyard. Here at least, they are fed and clothed. Put to some productive task, and made to feel as part of something larger than themselves. Thanks in no small part to this matronly mannequin, ‘Miss Alice’.
“How did you get in here?” I whirled about to see a second silhouette, this time framed by light pouring in through the open doorway. “I...I must have become lost, I was just-”
“A likely story”, the woman’s voice snapped. I recognized who it belonged to just as Agnes strode into the room, shut the door, and approached within range of the room’s single bulb. “Well...now you know. You must realize how much the smooth operation of this orphanage relies on Miss Alice.”
I apologized profusely until she stopped me. Repentance was evidently not what she was after. “What am I going to do with you? You were snooping the other night as well, weren’t you. I found the vent cover ajar.” Blast it! And I thought I’d been so stealthy.
“You’ll no doubt tell everyone that Miss Alice is a sham, won’t you. Depending what else you saw, you’ll contact the local constable...bringing all of our simple, pleasant lives to an end! It’ll be back to the gutter with most of us! To the workhouses, if there’s room. Probably back to the brothel for me.”
I waved my hands in protest. “You have me all wrong! I’d never dream of such a thing. It’s really quite smart, this arrangement you have. I see now why Grandfather set things up as he did. It could never last otherwise, they’d leave as they grew older and sought work elsewhere. Some would begin to wonder why you’re the one in charge, perhaps daring to challenge you.”
She stared at me, a wry smile slowly spreading across her face. I pressed my apparent advantage. “I actually quite like it here. I haven’t got it nearly as rough as the rest, as with yourself. The trick will be keeping them from wanting more. From becoming curious about the outside world, or begrudging their assigned station. Grandpa’s method is predictably brilliant, but I’ve some ideas for how it can be improved.”
I do not know what might have become of me had I answered differently. Had I condemned her for her role in perpetuating this madness. But I really did mean what I said. For someone with my background, to wind up in such a place could be a blessing in disguise. For isn’t it better to rule in Hell, than to serve in Heaven?
There would be no more work for me, we agreed. Other concessions included a better room on the top level, nicer clothing, and more regular enjoyment of that entrancingly delicious broth. When she showed me her own quarters I was astonished at the degree of luxury. All this time she’d stashed me down in that cramped metal chamber, while she lived up here like a queen...but no more!
My new room was no less opulent. The whole upper floor was something of a miniature mansion or hotel, with rooms upon rooms for administrators as well as a dining room, ballroom and various other amenities. I asked Agnes why she’d been running it alone all this time. “I like it at the top. Why should I share the throne with anyone?”
“You won’t live forever” I replied. “Who will take over for you when you’re too old and feeble to keep all of this under control?” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “I suppose I never thought much about that. From the start, it was about providing for myself. For my own life. So that I’d never have to return to that awful place.”
I intuited she meant the brothel, and didn’t press the matter. “No doubt” I offered, “It’s nice at the top. But also lonely, I imagine. Don’t you think it would all be more manageable with a bit of help? Two heads are better than one.” I flashed a conspiratorial smile.
“...You’re being fresh, aren’t you” she accused. I just laughed. “Could be! You do look rather fetching in a bonnet.” She then sternly blushed as the two of us, leaning against the inner railing, gazed up through a circular opening in the roof at the canopy of stars overhead.
I awoke the next morning to a cacophony of screams, structural groans, and bits of dust and debris raining down from the ceiling on my nice new bed. I threw off the covers and stumbled to the floor, pulling my pants on as quickly as I could.
Once outside my room I gazed over the railing at the pandemonium unfolding below. The entire metal skeleton of the building swayed visibly, making a deafening mixture of creaks, grinding noises and shudders over which the cries of frightened youth were only barely audible.
“Agnes!” I shouted. She was nowhere to be seen. When I threw open the door of her room she was stuffing strings of pearls into a handbag. “There’s no time, Agnes! It’s an earthquake, we have to get out of here!” She fought me off, choosing a tiara and collapsible sceptre from the pile of valuables which lay openly before an electrically illuminated vanity mirror.
Stupid girl, I thought. This was no time to be packing as if for a trip to the countryside. “What are you doing!” I shouted. “It’s all coming down around our ears! What good will pearls be when you’re crushed under a mountain of rubble!?”
“I have nowhere else!” she cried, tears bursting forth. “I’m not going back to that place! I’m NEVER going back!!” I took a moment to realize what she meant. Then, solemnly, I helped her fill her bag the rest of the way with whatever looked like it could be sold for a high price.
The corridor swayed sickeningly beneath us as we fled for the stairwell. It was a harrowing descent, neither of us certain we’d reach the bottom before the quake toppled the orphanage. Just when I finally understood it, too. Just when I finally felt I belonged.
We joined a crowd of children in the fields outside, watching the towering orphanage violently shudder. Only once I was sure Agnes and I were safe did I make the connection. The ground beneath us was still. It had only ever been the orphanage itself which shook.
So there’d been no earthquake after all. But then, what? Outer panels began to withdraw from the walls of the superstructure revealing vast, churning arrays of gears, chains, and pistons within. Great jointed cranes swung out from cavities inside, hidden until now by the building’s outer shell.
As we all watched with a mixture of terror, awe and confusion, the orphanage slowly began building an identical structure immediately next to itself. I didn’t understand what it was doing until several hours in.
Vertical beams first, with inner and outer rings where each floor would eventually be. Then plumbing, then electrics, including the dynamo. Some mechanism manufactured for the purpose was placed in the center and, once steam built up, it began to burrow into the Earth.
In search of metals, no doubt. And to reach the water table, which the newly constructed second orphanage would draw on for steam, for drinking water and for coolant. Level by level the pivoting, articulated mechanical arms extending from the first orphanage assembled its twin.
It was just putting the finishing touches on it, steam beginning to rise from its many chimneys, when the police arrived. They frantically questioned us, but nobody present was able or willing to provide an explanation which satisfied them.
The sun now rising brilliantly over the horizon, the press began trickling in. Arriving in their motor carriages, marveling at the bizarre sight of one building constructing another. Their astonishment doubled when, upon the completion of the first copy, each structure at once began building yet another replica to either side.
A media sensation at first. Then a curiosity, drawing great crowds of gentlemen and ladies to spectate as the ever growing cluster of towers expanded itself outward. Only a month or so later did anyone think to raise an alarm over the rate at which the vast mechanical compound was growing.
So, some artillery was amassed. A few dozen men spent an afternoon shelling several of the towers, succeeding in bringing their activities to a halt. But by then, there were nearly forty. More men were gathered the next week with larger, more numerous weapons.
But by that time there were over a hundred. When at last the army was mobilized to launch an offensive against the outwardly creeping grid of unadorned, industrial looking cylindrical towers, they finally understood.
It was too late. The towers were already too numerous, and replicating themselves faster than the collected might of our great nation’s military could destroy them. Panic spread via the papers and radio, but of course it accomplished nothing.
Agnes and I moved back into the original orphanage. We’ve put about half of the orphans to work furnishing and otherwise rendering the neighboring structures fit for human occupation. The other day, mobs of filthy, wretched beggars arrived. Inquiring whether they might live within some of the new towers.
I encouraged it. It’s what Grandfather intended, that the meek might inherit the Earth. Clothed, sheltered and fed without exception, welcomed into our growing family. Everyone else, who still had something to lose, got busy fleeing the continent by ocean liner...for all the good it will do them in the long run.
I have glimpsed the future, as Grandfather did before me. Because of that, now I know what he knew. I understand that if it weren’t him who built this, it would be someone else. An inescapable result of the relentless drive to perform every sort of work with machinery. To eliminate paid laborers wherever possible.
A new Genesis. The dawn of a new world, a new ecosystem. A new form of life, and a new way of life. Soon it will blanket every inch of available landmass. Perhaps extending into the sea, in time. Perhaps beyond the sky.
I have seen it. In my dreams, and for that matter whenever I close my eyes. Gears turning gears. Rusted pipes. Grinding, thumping machinery covering the Earth from one horizon to the other. Humanity at last humbled, taking their place within those endless metal corridors as children of the machine.
Agnes can see it too. The coming order. A new regime, a metal empire. Ruled over by its own pair of nobles, the first of many. The day is coming when our descendants will preside over the entire Earth, unified at last.
Not long now.
Great story. I haven’t thought you could cross steampunk and singularity, but it kind of works.
This one is my favorite so far! It feels like an old school horror story. I loved the closeness of the narrative camera and the narrator’s voice. Him siding with the self-replicating building was a cool twist too, I thought he would end up fleeing like Agnes was suggesting.