Mr Steam sat at a table at one end of the Gilded Cog, sipping tea with the rest of the Inventors’ Guild. On the far side of the room, Lady Wasted sprawled in her booth, a safety pin through her ear and a glass of absinthe in her hand, toying with the parts of a clock her gang had pulled apart. Between them, steamers and punks filled the bar, circling each other like hyenas around a corpse.
“Such a waste,” Steam said, shaking his head as he watched the gears tumble through Wasted’s fingers.
“What you lookin’ at?” She shoved her table aside and jerked to her feet, sending gears flying. She strode through her people, boots pounding the sawdust-strewn floor.
“I’m looking at destruction,” Steam said, brushing dust from his lapel. “At a tragic waste of a good machine.”
“You think you’re better than me, with your fancy devices?” Wasted snarled, looming over his table.
“I build,” Steam replied. “You destroy. So yes, I am better.”
“Will you still be better once I shove this up your arse?” She held up a large, jaggedly edged gear wheel.
The punks laughed like a pack of beasts. Mr Steam rolled his eyes. As the pack surged forward, his compatriots rose to hold them back. Pushing and growling turned into shoving and shouting. An engineer drew back her fist.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Steam shouted and the crowd fell silent. “I know that things have been tense, but this is not how we settle our differences in this town.”
“Oh yeah?” Wasted said, tossing the gear in her hand. “Then how?”
“The old way,” Steam said. “An invent-off, tomorrow at noon, in the municipal works.”
“Why not?” Wasted said. “Loser leaves town?”
She spat into her hand and held it out. Steam pulled on a silk glove and shook.
In its casing high above the municipal works, the town clock started to strike. Lady Wasted and Mr Steam stood facing each other, hands on their tool belts, waiting for the twelfth chime to ring. Their followers stood amid the surrounding machines, watching, waiting.
The last chime came.
As one, the duellists whipped out their spanners and ran across the floor. Both went for a large, intricate machine that had once powered a set of rotating fountains. As they each laid hands on the same piece of engine casing, they glared at each other.
“Get off,” Wasted hiss, loosening the bolts. “It’s mine.”
“No calling dibs in an invent-off,” Steam replied, unfastening a screw. “And I need these parts.”
“Parts, eh? And you give me shit for destroying things.”
“I can hardly build without them.”
“What d’you think I was gonna do with them?”
“Based on our last conversation, stick them up my bottom.”
Wasted let out a wild laugh.
“What are you gonna do with a knackered old pipe system anyway?” she asked.
“Pneumatics to drive a walking machine. And you?”
“Mine’s gonna climb.”
“Using the claws from those cranes?”
Together, they pried open the casing of the fountain. Steam tutted and Wasted snorted as they saw the rusted mess inside.
“There’d better be some decent pipes in this place,” she said.
He pointed to another corner. “Perhaps in that pile of old fixings?”
“If we find the right joints, we could make something that walks as well as climbs.”
“That does sound promising…”
As the two leaders strolled across the room, together planning for a grand machine, their followers looked at each other uncertainly.
“Want a go with my safety pin?” one of the punks asked, pointing at his ear.
“No, thank you,” the steamer next to him replied. “But I might try a little of your absinthe.”
* * *
I’m moderating a steampunk and related genres panel at Fantasycon this autumn, and that got me pondering the place of an actual punk aesthetic in steampunk. I’m not sure this story addresses the question in any meaningful way, but who knows, maybe it at least got me thinking about what punks and engineering heroes represent.
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