Serious Sabotage – a steampunk short story

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“You should take this arrest as a compliment, Professor Greenspoke,” the agent from the Ministry of Political Hygiene said. “We don’t listen in on people we don’t take seriously.”

“I imagine not.” Greenspoke glanced at her manacles, idly considering the six most likely mechanisms to secure their lock. “It takes a lot of resources to build secret pipes in a person’s walls, to run the tubes all the way to a listening station, to man it twenty-four hours a day.”

“We don’t need to be there all day.”

The MPH agent opened his briefcase, took out a wax cylinder the size of his forearm, and laid it on the table. It was bone white, with a surface that gleamed in the light of the gas lamps like the sweaty skin of a fever patient.

“You’ve been recording as well as listening.” Greenspoke leaned forward, trying to deduce the model of gramophone based on the width of the grooves. “This is me incriminating myself?”

The agent chuckled. It wasn’t a funny sound.

“Of course not. This is to make a point. I wouldn’t put the evidence of your anti-patriotic plotting where you can damage it.”

“Then there was no need for this.” She pressed a finger against the cylinder. It didn’t immediately soften beneath the warmth of her body. This was no fragile candle wax. “My laboratory is next to the factory that makes them. I know what they look like.”

The agent leaned back in his seat, arms folded across his uniform jacket.

“Where is the incendiary powder, Professor Greenspoke?”

“What powder?”

“The one we heard you discussing with known dissidents. It wasn’t in your laboratory when we took possession this morning. That means it’s been shipped out already. Is it going to be used for a jailbreak, an assassination, perhaps another pointless attack on a statue?”

Greenspoke sighed. This man was unimaginative, so crude in his conclusions. She had hoped for a more insightful interrogator, when the time inevitably came.

“Your ignorance is showing,” she said. “You entirely misunderstand what I was talking about.”

The agent gave a derisive snort.

“I heard what you said about the Empress, about the lords, about the penal code. You expect me to believe that you’re not a dissident?”

“I’m not foolish enough to think you need proof to arrest me for that. The value in your recordings lies in listening over and over, comparing, finding clues, following the trail to others who resist this tyrannical regime.”

“You think you’re so smart, but whatever you think I missed, you’re wrong.”

“Really? Then how does the powder work?”

“Put enough in one place and it heats up. As the heat spreads, it reaches a critical mass, then bursts into flame. That works even if it’s spread out through other chemicals. You could hide it in samples of engine oil or soap, transport them separately, then pile them up together and walk away. A heap of innocent objects becomes an inferno.”

“The objects don’t have to be innocent.”

The agent frowned, which made Greenspoke smile. That comment had caught him. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was making the connection, thoughts heading toward their own critical mass. He just hadn’t realized it yet.

Greenspoke’s pocket watch chimed. She took her hand off the wax cylinder, leaving behind a melted palm print. Manoeuvring awkwardly in her manacles, she took the timepiece from her pocket and opened the lid.

“Midday,” she said. “If my calculations are correct, you should be receiving a message soon.”

Something snapped in the agent. He strode to the wall, tore the lid of a communication tube, and barked into it.

“Somebody fetch me the Greenspoke recordings. We’re missing something important.”

He fixed the lid back on, ignoring muffled protests from the other end of the line, and stood glaring at Greenspoke.

“Whatever it is, I’ll find it,” he said. “You’re not as smart as you think.”

The door opened and a junior agent hurried in. Her gaze darted between captive and interrogator.

“Sir, we can’t get you the recording,” she said.

“Why not?” His hand clenched around the edge of the table.

“The cylinders. They started melting an hour ago. By the time anyone noticed, they were too soft to pick up without destroying them. Then one of them burst into flames and the whole archive building went up.”

The senior agent stared at Greenspoke. His expression had the stiff stillness of a memorial statue, a calm carved from professionalism, not real emotion.

“You put the powder in the cylinder wax,” he said, his voice tight.

“They made it right next door.”

“This won’t set you free. I can lock you up forever just by whispering the word dissent.”

“I’m sure you will. But all those recordings, all those overheard words, all those pieces you could have puzzled together to find others like me…” Greenspoke shrugged and smiled. “You should take this as a compliment. I don’t sabotage people I don’t take seriously.”


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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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