Faces Lost in the Smoke – a steampunk short story

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A pair of smoking chimneys
Image by cwizner from Pixabay

“You can see the whole city from up here,” Archie said, peering out of the control cabin, through the smoke billowing from the constructor’s stacks. “Yet in some ways, you can hardly see it at all. The faces, the clothes, the shop fronts, they vanish from view.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve been building towards?” Ramsey pulled a lever and a vibration ran up through their feet. “To see the big picture and make big changes. To transform the city, so that all those people can live better lives?”

“I suppose so.” Archie sneezed. “Sorry, it’s the smoke. Maybe we should have put glass in the windows.”

“I’ll fix that later.” Ramsey gestured to a big blue button. “Would you care to do the honours?”

Archie took a deep breath and pressed the button, a tiny gesture for a life-changing moment.

The constructor rumbled out of the inventors’ yard on wheels the size of wagons, a towering pillar of steam and steel, and approached a deserted row of back-to-back terraced houses. There was a whoosh and then a roar as vacuum pumps sucked up tiles, bricks, and timbers, then a rattling cacophony as mechanical arms started laying them back down, building cleaner, more spacious houses. Wretched slums became the beginnings of a bold new dream.

In the control cabin, Archie and Ramsey hugged, slapping each other on the back. They could barely make themselves heard over the noise, but there was no need for words. They were changing the world.

#

Archie clutched a handkerchief over his mouth as he stepped into the cabin. Ramsey stood at the controls, stiff-backed, staring out at the city. His hair had grown longer, dark with soot and grease. Archie tapped him on the shoulder and he jolted, then turned.

“Didn’t hear you coming in.” Ramsey raised his voice over the machines.

“I could tell.”

“Pardon?”

Archie took the cloth from his mouth. Smoke scratched at his throat, a reminder of why he didn’t come up often.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Ramsey stared at him with bloodshot eyes, as if he was looking at a gear that had inexplicably started turning backwards.

“I’m exultant. Look at what we’re achieving!”

A sweep of his hand took in the city. Some parts were a mess of irregular roads and cramped, slumping houses, dirty factories, dingy shops. Other parts, those the machine had been through, were neatly laid out, the houses sturdy and spacious, the shops well lit and the factories clean.

“About that.” Archie shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We need to slow down. Not everybody wants their homes rebuilt, and some people aren’t getting out fast enough. We’ve upset a lot of people and destroyed some family heirlooms when they weren’t removed in time.”

“Things and feelings.” Ramsey laid a hand on Archie’s shoulder. “These will be forgotten once everyone has the space and shelter they need. Remember our vision: a better city.”

“I suppose…” Archie looked out of the window. It really was hard to see the people from up here.

“You get back down, calm the ruffled feathers, and I’ll keep us going. Trust me, this is all for the good.”

#

Wheezing even with a mask over his mouth, Archie stepped inside the control cabin. He stumbled, kicked the corner of a console, and Ramsey spun around, his smoke-stained coat flapping behind him.

“Archie!” Ramsey grabbed his arm and dragged him to the main console, which was shrouded in wind-blown smoke. “Isn’t it magnificent?”

Half the city had been transformed. Wide avenues, neat houses, matching shops, rail lines on viaducts so as not to break up the grid.

“It’s certainly impressive,” Archie said, blinking tired eyes. He cleared his throat. “But the thing is, we’ve run into some problems.”

“Problems?” Ramsey scowled. “Just explain our purpose to them. Whoever it is, they’ll stop whining once they understand.”

“Look.” Archie pointed to a district where smoke rose denser than ever from the old houses. “Our designs are good, but they don’t leave room for as many people as before, so they’re crammed in elsewhere. And some people want to keep their houses, even if they could have something better. Those homes matter to them. They need time to see the benefits, to accept what we do.”

“This is why we have to keep going, so that a new generation doesn’t grow up bound to the past.”

“No, Ramsey, it’s why we have to stop.”

“Stop?”

“Temporarily.” Archie turned to face his old friend, or what remained of him behind the soot and the scowl. “While we work out which houses to leave standing, and while we win people’s support.”

“They’ve got to you, haven’t they?”

Ramsey shoved Archie against the console. Archie coughed as more smoke billowed in through the window behind him.

“Nobody got to me. I’ve just talked to people, listened to them, seen things you’re missing from up here. Please, come down and see. You’ll understand.”

“Come down, so someone can come in while I’m gone, switch of the constructor, kill the momentum carrying us towards our vision?”

“Your vision.”

“Our vision!”

“Not any more.” Archie swatted Ramsey’s hand away.

“Why you…” Ramsey shoved Archie again. He didn’t mean to push him over the console, but anger multiplied his strength. Archie cried out as he fell through the window, terror gripping him for the length of a single short scream before he hit the street with one final, fatal thud.

Ramsey grasped the console and stared down at the tiny dot that was his friend’s body. Then he whirled around and bolted the door shut. It was a shame what had happened to Archie, but he couldn’t let them stop him because of that. There was a bigger picture here, a better city for everyone. They would understand that once he was finished.

He turned a dial and the sounds of the engine intensified. Smoke blew in through the window. Beyond, the city sprawled. He could see it all from up here: the big picture, and none of the distracting little details.

***

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Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

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