Guest Blogger: Bartholomew Korbyn’s Steampunk Short “Water Works”

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Water Works

“It’s amazing what we can do with a little water and heat. Everything depends on that steam. Our factories, our vehicles, our weapons and our economy.” The man smirks and takes another drag. His long pipe is oddly curved and wide at the tip. The tobacco he’s smoking smells like it’s been spiked with something. His guest sitting opposite him at the table doesn’t seem to mind. “You see,” The man starts gesticulating and pointing with his pipe. Ash trickles down his long, salt and pepper beard, and smoke rises from beneath his mustache. “water with a high mineral content causes a slow degradation of the machines and they become pretty useless, pretty fast. Too much exposure to that kind of steam only leads to more cost, and more cost leads to war.” Vernan, the older man’s companion, simply nods. He knows all these stories. He knows the score; but indulging his temporary companion will lead to the information he needs. Hopefully, for the older man’s sake. “And nobody wants another war.” He was right. The last war between England and America – dubbed the Seamstress War, as both countries fought over fertile land in the south of the Americas, which had previously belonged to Spain – was a bloody one. Scores of people died for the sake of the Technologists experimenting with new machines. People called them Seamstresses because they sewed together new parts to make better killing machines. “England is now the king, queen and their mother.” The man does the formal ceremonial cross over his chest, first touching his left shoulder, raising his hand to the heavens and lastly bashing his fist against his heart. All hail King Edward, or better yet his technological advisor, Jeffrey Stern. Vernan thinks to himself. “Now, you see boy, they won’t let their guard down. They hold a monopoly over a secret manufacturing process that gives a water bursting with high energy and no minerals.”

“Distilled water you mean.” Vernan interrupts.

“No boy, not distilled water, something more. That water is like fire. It needs only little combustive energy to burst into steam with thrice the power we had ever hoped for. It’s magnificent. They’re selling it only to select countries and every ruler and their dog wants a share. No one can figure out how they do it. And then this man comes along,” That is what Vernan wanted to hear all along. “and proposes a new source of energy that needs less time to manufacture and can be molded into any kind of machine and above all else, needs no steam. The Americas have been dabbling with this sort of thing, but Britain took them down instantly. Truth is, steam is everything and going against it means only you’ll end up silenced.”

“What happened to the man?”

“Who?” The older man takes another long drag.

“The man with the new energy source.”

“Oh him!” He bursts into a roaring laugh. “God knows. First he spouted that bullcrap somewhere in the Austrian Empire and when the British caught whiff of it he just disappeared.”

Vernan leans in closer and says in a stark silent tone. “You know more. Where do you think they took him?”

The man shrugs. “Like hell I know. I’m just a bookkeeper.”

Vernan sights. I hate it when they play dumb. He thinks to himself and nods a discreet sign to the innkeeper. With a trained and swift move of his hand Vernan unsheathes his dagger. He waits. “As a bookkeeper you have to know where the funds go, and funds can be traced. No matter the case, money is needed to transport someone. And my sources tell me the man with the new energy source is still alive. His mind is too valuable. Now, one more time, from the top,” Vernan grips the handle of his knife tight, his palms turning yellow. “where do you think they took him?”

The innkeeper closes the front door and his waitress the back. No one is in the tavern but the two men. He knows the bookkeeper has a taste for shady taverns and whores, and the promise of both was bound to lure him in. It took too long to get the man they needed into the right place and there was no backing down now.

The man looks around, his beard dangling in all directions as his fat chin wobbles about. “I don’t know.”

“Fuck!” Vernan shouts at the top of his voice and slashes the pipe out of the man’s hand. The knife pointed between the man’s eyes, he asks again. “Where?”

“I can’t tell you, they’ll kill me.” The man cries out, his eyes watering over. Looks like bureaucrat scum don’t cry steam after all. Vernan thinks to himself and unconsciously lets out a devious smirk.

“I’ll kill you too. But first I’ll torture you. Skin you alive, after which you’ll still be alive. Then I’ll throw you into a bath of hot sand. You will live after that too if we give you enough drugs. Only after days upon days of pain, you will die, but not before you give me the information I need.”

“Please no!” The man starts to cry.

Vernan shoves the knife closer to the eye of the older man. There is a permanent dark stare on his waxen face. This is business and he is no stranger to it. It doesn’t scare him as it used to, back when he joined.

“Vernan stop!” A voice resides from the back entrance of the tavern. “He will tell us in due time, no need for such violence.”

“But we’re so close!” Vernan lashes back at the leader of the Technocrat Opposition, Merilion Stout. A broad shouldered man in his late fifties. His eyes shimmer in a distinct blue. His dark hair is unruly and long, and his beard is full and grey.

“Sheila will take it from here Vernan. You brought him, you’ve done enough.” Vernan sheathes his knife and lets the man sob solemnly and alone while he retreats to his superior. As he comes closer to the man behind the revolution Sheila passes him, lightly brushing his shoulder. A beautiful woman. Dark skinned, strong lines of the face and eyes that suck you into their fire, long and billowy dark hair, red lips. Built for persuasion and a body made for wielding a long distance harpoon cannon and stiletto daggers for close range. She sits opposite the bookkeeper.

“Sir, I think we should commence more aggressively. We’re so close.” Vernan whispers to his superior.

Stout puts his hand on Vernan’s shoulder. “Believe me, she’ll get us the information we need. Now, let’s have a drink.” They proceed to the bar while Sheila escorts the bookkeeper to the attic. There they can be alone. She never works in front of other people.

Stout and Vernan have a drink and in less than an hour they have all the information they need.

***

“They call him The Specimen and he’s being held in St. Kilda.” Grim expressions flood the room. Many of the revolutionaries have done time in the prison held and financed by the Technocrats. Inmates and revolutionaries call it Stern’s asshole. “He’s being kept in solitary. Three meals per day. No interaction with other inmates or staff. They let him conduct research and use his mind to further their cause. That’s the only reason he’s not dead. Now,” Stout looks at his troops. Vernan is twitchy as always, while Sheila tends to her ale. “the government will notice one of their bookkeepers is missing and we have no longer than three days to strike.”

“We need to attack now!” Vernan shouts at the top of his voice. Always ready to fight, aren’t you Vernan. Stout thinks and shakes his head.

“No. Even with all our forces we have no chance of taking that prison. Otherwise we would have freed our brethren by now. We need to go about with caution and precision.” The troops contemplate. Stern’s Asshole is the tightest prison known in the kingdom. Speaking against the Technocrats will get you sent there in no longer than a heartbeat. Treason will get you life and other major crimes against the kingdom will do the same. Petty crimes get you sent to Glasgow, The Tower, or other minor prisons. Only steam will send you to the Asshole.

“And how do you suggest we go about this,” Vernan mimics quotation marks. “with caution and precision. This is St. Kilda we’re talking about.” His defiance echoes through the ranks. Over the years Stout’s forces have become more rowdy, more bloodthirsty and he will have to quench that thirst soon; or else risk mutiny. Nevertheless, this will not be that occasion.

Sheila puts down her ale and announces. “We have two people inside the prison.”

“And of what use can two people be.” Vernan does not stop sowing displeasure.

“Our people inside are the sister and a marauder. She is the head doctor and he’s the coordinator of the shifts in the prison. We will communicate with them via our carriers and have them take over this operation from here on out.”

The troops go wild. Some of them stand up, bash their fists against the tables and look at Stout with that look of mutiny he has become afraid after new recruits have joined. They all want blood.. “So we’re just going to sit here and wait! What if their plan doesn’t work!”

“Sit down! All of you!” Stout shows again why he is the leader of this revolution. He didn’t come to this position by birthright, he came to it by force and will, both of which resound in his voice. “We let the sister and marauder do their work and The Specimen will be with us soon. Trust in your brethren! Trust in me and we shall not fail.”

Deep down inside, Stout hopes he’s right. If this fails he’ll lose his troops and more likely, his life.

A revolution needs martyrs and Merilion Stout isn’t ready to become on.

***

“I’m changing the shifts for today.” He says to his colleagues. “I’ll take solitary. I’m tired of these treasonous bastards. Clover, Danny, you take block A, Tennyson, Blacky and Smith take C. Dismissed!” The only reason Trevor Blake can work for the revolution and not be noticed in St. Kilda is because his troops trust him. He became the youngest marauder to ever reach the rank of commanding officer. He keeps a tight ship and does not let anything leak; except for information. Yesterday evening a pigeon came bearing a job. He has to bring The Specimen into the arms of the revolution, whatever the cost. They didn’t even know they were holding such valuable cargo. No one ever told them who is in that cell. All they know is that there is only one rule – never talk to him. Three meals per day, no communication, absolute solitude except for the Technologists that visit The Specimen from time to time. Blake and the sister always kept a plan ready if they needed to get someone out of solitary. The plan has yet to be tested and Blake fears this is not the perfect occasion to test it. The risk is too great. The prize too big for failure. Yet he is hopeful. If the sister and himself coordinate right, they can make it happen.

It’s 10AM, time for breakfast. Each prisoner in solitary gets a loaf of bread and mineral water. Blake gets going. In the eyes of his colleagues, this is just a routine day.

To get to the kitchen he has to cross block A and go down through the guard quarters and descend one more level. It’s close to the basement where they keep their supplies and the vault. Supplies range from clothes to food, while the vault is filled with weapons. Each guard is assigned a shard gun, which is used to incapacitate the prisoners and not kill them. It’s loaded with small shards of steel fired with a heavy burst of steam. Assault troops have spearshots, large rifles with a rapid fire tempo of small spears, while some have harpoon cannons. These guards are stationed on upper levels and support the ground troops. Marauders on the other hand are assigned thermoblades, long swords that heat up and can cut through a body like it were made of paper. The handle is isolated with thermite-plated alloy so they won’t burn as well. The marauder’s sidearm is a whale gun, which fires whale oil capsules that burn on impact. If the revolution got its hands on these weapons it would further the cause more than anything. Blake wishes to see that day, when Stout tramples on the corpses of the guards and frees their brethren.

No time for wishful thinking now. Blake comes back to the task at hand. He moves with the precision he’s known for. His back straight, his look always pointed forward, addressing his troops only with a silent nod. The quarters are not packed at this time of day. Positions have to be manned. The prisoners in St. Kilda are all accused of treason and the only reason they are kept alive is for the information they might at some point share. If they die, then they are showed off to the public. All in the name of the kingdom.

The kitchen is bursting with movement. Cooks are already preparing for the next meal. Pots of stew for the inmates and goulash for the troops. Slabs of meet are being roasted and cooked. Fish fried and vegetables stewed. It all reminds Blake of a steam reactor, as the premises is overflowing with aroma and damp air.

“Fiona, is the breakfast for solitary ready.” The cook points to a lone plate on the table closest to Blake. There are currently no other prisoners in solitary besides The Specimen. “Thanks.” He takes the plate and commences back up to block A. His troops are preparing and breakfast is commencing in the mess hall. They have to man their position in the yard and on the walls when the prisoners have their noon walk.

Blake takes a walk along the balconies of block A and a secluded doorway leads down a spiral flight and into the seclusion ward. Only marauders have the key to that door and only their designated troops can share that same key when they are on duty.

The flight of stairs is dark, only lit by lamps on the walls placed at equal intervals. The seclusion ward is damp and dark. Heat from the reactors in the basement trickles through every pore of the walls, making it harder to breathe. The technologists had this part of the prison dug out in between the two thickest walls of the structure. There is no escaping solitary. Prisoners have been known to go insane from starvation and lack of sleep. Some died due to weight loss caused by the searing atmosphere. Blake can already feel beading sweat on his brow and the heavy marauder uniform is not helping.

He follows the line of the corridor to the last of three doors in solitary. Before opening the hatch and giving the prisoner his meal he empties a bottle of liquid into the water. The hatch opens with a rusty squeal and Blake retreats back up the stairs and to the blocks.

Three hours until lunch.

Time passes slowly in prison. There were no incidents apart from a dispute two inmates had at about 11:30AM. Lunch commences smoothly and Blake brings The Specimen his meal. A slab of pork with a side of mashed potatoes, already cut so the prisoner does not need a knife and fork. They are treated like animals and eat the same. Poor bastards. Usually in solitary they don’t even get this kind of treatment, but this one seems to be of use, so he’s getting better meals and more attention. As the sun sets Blake brings him his last meal before the technologists have their arranged meeting.

They arrive at 6:45PM, on time as always. Two technologists in their usual garments, monochrome glasses and assorted parts and gears around their waist. One is dressed all in black, the other in red. Double-breasted vest, long coat, a hat with a wide floppy brim to cover their eyes. Filigree adorns the edges of their coats and the Tri-pronged Star and Gear, the banner of the technologists, on their left breast.

Blake escorts them to solitary.

As he opens the door he hears the technologists call for the doctor. Something is happening to The Specimen.

***

Carolyn Trevor has to stitch up a prisoner who got into a dispute with one of his fellows. He’s got a small cut over his left eyebrow. She can barely understand why the technologists keep the prisoners alive. They work only for a couple of hours each day in the generator room and this place only eats up money to keep running. She always had a fear that maybe the technologists have more in store for the inmates at some later time. Many of them simply disappear to make room for more prisoners, but the doctors are never told why.

Not much happens during the hours before evening. She chats with the sisters and guards. Barely any unruly behavior happens here. Monotony and routine are key. She just hopes Blake will manage his part of the plan. If she did her calculations right, there should be a call around 7PM. If all goes according to plan. She thinks to herself.

In order to move quickly she takes the shorter route across block A.

“Ms. Trevor!” A guard runs up to her. It’s 6:53PM. She smiles, but keeps it hidden. Catching his breath the guard utters in between gasps. “There’s an emergency in solitary.”

“I’ll take my gear and be there in a minute.”

“Aye!” The guard rushes back to give the good news.

She already has her gear ready, neatly tucked away in a leather bag she always has with her. She knows what she needs for this operation. One syringe.

Quick and secure steps guide her to solitary where Blake is waiting for her at the end of the spiral staircase. “Quickly Carolyn, he’s dying!”

She rushes through the door. Two technologists stand sentinel around the convulsing man on the floor. “Move!” She tells them with authority.

The poor man is in severe pain. He’s gripping his chest and clawing at his limbs. She tries to steady him, but he’s writhing in pain. Poor man. What we have to put people through for the sake of revolution. “Blake, hold him down! I need to administer this shot to keep his heart from stopping.” The marauder moves in between the technologists and holds the man’s hands down. She can barely see the poor man’s face from all the hair whipping around like seaweed. Carolyn steadies her hand and punches the needle through the man’s chest. Her fingers steady, the dose goes into his heart.

“Move away Blake.” She takes out a stethoscope and listens for a heartbeat. “No! It’s fading. We’re losing him.” The doctor applies pressure to his chest and pumps. “No.” Her voice is solemn. “No.” Her head sinks.

The heartbeat is gone.

“Sad. He was such an extraordinary specimen. Alas, take him with the rest.” One of the technologists says in a cold tone. No emotion behind the words. Only in death do the vilest of traitors get out of the prison. They are transported to London where their bodies are burned on Trafalgar Square, for all the masses to see what happens to traitors. Steam will not even give you a grave.

Blake and two guards take the frail man’s body to the ship waiting to transport him and three other dead to London.

The Specimen is dead and can be of no use to the revolution.

***

“When is the shipment coming in?” Vernan asks Stout, who is as eager as the young and aggressive member of the revolution.

“This evening. We wait for the boat at Southwarke after midnight.”

Waiting always bares the most burden. Being able to do nothing. Stout burns the time away with drinks at their tavern while the rest of his crew does mostly the same. Vernan is twitchy and even Sheila seems anxious.

This could change everything.

Midnight arrives and the three of them move to Soutwarke to wait for their carrier. The streets are dingy and dimply lit. They know the way through the side-alleys like they know their own pockets. No guards in the way and no trouble.

At Southwarke they can see the boat already slicing through small waves in the distance. A small skiff with only one passenger. Stout frets the worst.

The boat docks and they help their brother steady her. “Where’s the package?”

Their brother nods towards a pile of blankets. As if possessed, Stout jumps into the boat and rummages through the blankets. At the bottom he finds a pale, thin man with unruly hair shivering like a child. The dose must have been hard on him. Malnourished and cold is how they come to after death. Carolyn gave him a poison that slows down the heart for just long enough for the victim to seem dead. He can survive a day in a coma, not moving, barely breathing. In London they woke him up and transported him here, where the revolution will take care of the man. He is the change they want.

“What is your name, brother?” Stout asks the man, who answers with more shivers. “Don’t worry, you’re safe with us. We’ll help you. We are the revolution. We want what you want.” The leader of the revolution is shivering.

The man burst into a weak laugh, coughing after just one or two breaths. “Revolution.” His voice is almost a whisper, but his accent is heavy. Stout places him somewhere on the Balkans. Not even the darkest of corners can subdue the light of such a mind.

“Please, tell me your name.” He holds the man like child. Vernan and Sheila watch and wait for the name by which to call their ender of steam.

“Nikola. My name is Nikola Tesla.” The man says, only this time one can hear a determination in his voice. “And I will change the world.”

Epilogue

 

“During the past six months we have achieved more than we could ever have hoped for!” Stout celebrates with his comrades and Tesla next to him. The scientist has created a generator powered by something he calls electricity. A marvel of the new age; an age without steam. “With this generator our brother Tesla has created we will demonstrate to the world that no one need live under this tyranny.” Cheers echo throughout the tavern.

Sheila comes up to Stout and whispers into his ear. “It is set.”

Marilion Stout nods. It is time to show the world. “Brethren, let us all commence to Trafalgar Square.”

The troops gathered move out the tavern and take the side alleys to the square.

***

The masses have gathered before a shrouded pillar in the middle of the square, right next to the statue of King Edward. Stout, Tesla and Sheila watch from the balcony of a brothel the elite frequent, but is currently closed. It is high noon. Usually bodies are burned at this time. Technocrats parade about the alien structure next to the giant statue.

“Now.” Stout orders Sheila.

She pulls the lever next to her. A hiss comes from the wire leading all the way down to the pillar. The curtain falls.

Next to Kind Edward a metal pillar with a large dome at the top is placed. It glimmers in the high noon sun like a diamond. To it Vernan is shackled. Stout takes a high frequency mobile speech device, microphone some call it, and his voice resonates through two receivers next to Vernan.

“We are the Techoncrat Opposition. We are here today to show you our power!” Vernan is conscious but does not move. Only a stern resolve on his face and malicious grin. “We will not be chained and we will not fall. Down with the technocrats!” Stout pulls a second lever on the wired device.

Flashes of blue light snake around the dome of the pillar.

“No! What are you doing?” Tesla shouts, fear in his expression.

“What needs to be done.”

Like lightning, flashes of blue light emanate from the pillar and burn everyone around them. The revolutionaries were told to keep their distance. Vernan screams but keeps smiling. People’s skin is burned off; their wails and lamentations cut though the bones of onlookers. Technocrats are reduced to ashes. In less than ten seconds, Trafalgar Square has become a graveyard.

Tesla bashes at Stout’s chest. “No! Murder. I did no create this for killing! No!”

“Sheila. Send him off.” Stout moves closer to the balustrade. He wants to smell the ashes.

Two revolutionaries take Tesla away. They are sending him to the Americas. There he will find one likely minded fellow they call Edison.

Sheila comes back. “Why Vernan?” She asks Stout.

“He was a traitor. I found his notes. The council voted we eliminate him as an example. Everyone will be notified.” Human ashes smell the same as normal ashes.

“I read his notes. He was planning take command and challenge you, but he was no traitor.” Under that cold façade Sheila is furious. She is, or rather was, fond of Vernan.

“He was a traitor. That is all our brethren need to know.” Stout retreats from the balcony and commences down the stairs.

“You killed him so he wouldn’t challenge you.”

“I did no such thing.”

“How does this make us any different from them?” Finally she lashes out. Stout disregards her.

Every revolution needs a martyr and Marilion stout is not ready to become one.

 

About Bartholomew Korbyn:

BIO:

“Hello, my name is Bartholomew Korbyn.” I have been a writer for over eight years now. As you could probably guess, and see from my articles, I am a dreamer and determined to make it as an author of both name and reputation. My self-published début novel is available on Amazon and here is the link – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GYAO9X4

Korbyn has been featured on Dancing with Fireflies several times and we always love to see him take the challenge and run with the topics we give him. I hope you enjoyed “Water Works” as much as we did.

Have your own historical fiction or steampunk short story you would like to feature as a Guest Blogger? Email me at Crysta@DancingWithFireFlies.net today!

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