Here's what I read for a small but select audience on Friday at Clockwork Alchemy in San Jose, newly updated and made a little more overtly steampunkish. Just so you know I haven't been entirely idle.
The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London
Ye gods! Steam pressure dropping! Experiment failing! Again! Voltaic energy running wild, the Great Device rocked and trembled on its lofty platform, but the vast black mirror that was its inscrutable face persisted dark while sparks exploded from everywhere else. Something was banging that should not be banging.
“What is it?” cried Ambrose Lovejoy, whose machine it was. “Newton’s wig! What is it?”
Beneath the old scientist’s boots the wooden platform that supported the Great Device shivered and warped. Lurching unmindful past the work table and benches covered with arcane tools and littered with his notebooks, he felt a sickening lurch as the world dropped out from under him then launched him in another direction. Dizzy, lights dancing in his head like fireflies, he launched away from the snapping and clanging at the back of the platform, caroming painfully off the side rails like a boxer on the ropes. When his hands went out to catch himself, at least he was facing the right way round, even if one ancient hip did slam into the edge of the desk; he barked a startled oath, quickly stifled.
He rubbed unconsciously at the bruised hip, while with the other steadier hand he plucked the horn-shaped end of a speaking tube out of its hanger and shouted to the man in the steam room below.
“What the devil is the matter with you, Murphy! Can you not hold the pressure steady for five minutes! Five...The pressure, man! What’s that? Yes, you idiot, what else? Damned Irishman.”
No time to wait for a reply, certainly not. Not while everything was flying apart. He flung the horn in the general direction of the hook, and glared toward the control panel, watching for the arrow of the pressure gauge to begin to steady. The banging stopped.
What now, he wondered. What next? The monitors wavered in and out of focus; the Professor ground sharp-boned knuckles into streaming eyes until the spectacles dropped from his forehead to his nose. Again he checked the madly spinning dials swimming in and out of focus in the fitful light. Squinted and checked again. The light was abominable these days, for all the place was nothing but windows. The colored lights in the console, his own invention, which should be gleaming behind the artfully lettered tiles sputtered, flared, and went out.
His Great Device, his fortune and his fame, that was his only care! Where was that wretched boy, what was he doing, was he asleep?
A dark head emerged from the crawl space under the platform, then a swarthy face suffused with frustration and sweat. Then shoulders in a streaked and stained lab coat. Finally, spanner in hand, Ambrose Cray, who was not a boy but a trim man in his thirties with a waxed mustache and a furious expression.
Professor Lovejoy snapped at his assistant, “What are you doing down there, blast you? Stop tampering! Are you trying to ruin everything? Well? Well? Newton’s wig! I can’t be everywhere at once!”
His own wrinkled lab coat flapping, grey hair floating cloudlike round his ruthlessly shaved face, the old scientist clambered over and swung around and ducked under this cable and that canister, tripped over three copper coils that somehow tumbled into his path when a curious fold in the cosmos—or perhaps just the threadbare carpet--suddenly rippled under his feet. After two years with the dratted fellow—a failed schoolteacher from Sheffield, for god’s sake--he should know better than to trust Cray with his jewel, his genius, his Great Device.
“Seventy-eight, I said!” Lovejoy barked, and cranked a dial, set a switch, then pulled a lever.
“I set it to 78, you old fool,” muttered the rather more brilliantined Ambrose Cray, unappreciated and unheard under the crashes and bangs. “Now, look what you’ve— Damn!”
“No, no, no!”
Between two words, a rustle of papers, a flutter of notebooks, the whir of a spinning gauge. An aura barely seen, disguised as a directionless hum, a buzz that might be pens rattling, or loose bits of metal, silk thread, and reed began just slightly to rise from every surface.
Cray saw nothing of this as he lurched forward, straining to reach the controls though his thoughts were weirdly scattered. If he could just get to the bend of... If he could blind the... What on earth? In his confusion, he nearly put a foot off the velvet-roped edge of the platform and into the gaping crowd that had gathered as soon, of course, as things began to go wrong. Things were always going wrong. It made Lovejoy and Cray the most popular exhibit on the ground floor, after the refreshments area. Explosions daily with iced cream!
The grey winter light from the domed ceiling far above began to curl and stretch through the spectrum, trapping the platform, the device, two frantic men in the moment as if in amber. The gaping audience, with one voice, released a moan like the wind soughing through a hollow stone. The thickened light wavered, broke and scattered. The moment reasserted itself, but the Device continued coughing and straining, spitting smoke.
“Bastard,” he muttered. “I will tame you, I swear it. I will not be bested, not again!”
“Shut it down! Shut it down!” cried the Professor, waving his arms madly as smoke began to billow and curl.
Gritting his teeth in a snarl like a prizefighter in the ring, Cray threw himself forward and gained the machine at last and slammed down a single horseshoe switch to sever it from the power source. A row of colored lamps set into the panel winked like madly disordered stars, then went dark. Smoke rose with one last bang from under the panel. The platform heaved once and, with something like a sigh, relaxed from its extra-dimensional adventures leaving nothing but shocked silence in the halls of the Great Exhibition.
Exhausted , the Professor slumped into the richly padded velvet chair provided for the device’s operator. The crowd burst into mocking applause. He had long since learned to ignore them. They would thank him, by the great Sir Isaac Newton, he swore the whole world would thank him one day!
A Great Device indeed! The chair into which its inventor collapsed sat in the midst of a Byzantine cage of polished brass and copper, iron and steel. a mahogany console set with beveled crystal panels protected a series of ivory tiles, which displayed the names of cities, countries, continents. These could be flipped and changed by the rotation of several interlocked gears, each cranked by a small ivory handle. Across the top, globes of colored glass the size of a thimble, each containing a sliver of charred bamboo filament, awaited the excitement of the ether to set them alight, marking the successful stages of the device’s operation in the colors of the rainbow, a rich violet indicating perfect operation. A lamp which had so far failed to illuminate at any point, even while the rest had danced.
At one side of the console hung a huge polished oval of volcanic glass, nearly two foot long, set in a band like a embroidery frame of fancifully wrought iron and vulcanized rubber, and suspended from an over-arching iron frame. The whole business supported by a ring of radiating, stabilizing wires like a mathematical spider’s web in a larger gilt frame of scrollwork and cherubs. It took the breath away just to consider it. The wires drew galvanic power, when the blasted thing worked properly, exciting its metaphysical properties and harnessing them in the service of Science. At least, that was the theory, yet to be satisfactorily proved.
As he had explained in his application, the purpose of this extraordinary device with its dials and wires and spiraling copper coils, Erasmus Lovejoy’s darling, was first to examine the prevailing weather in any area of the world indicated on the ivory tiles, and then, inevitably, to predict it. One day, it might even be used to change it! He reminded himself of this, his great purpose, as he fought back despair. Such reminders always restored his sense of purpose—his mission.
His device would end drought and famine, prevent flooding from excessive rains and mitigate the disasters of blizzards whilst bringing needed rain to the driest lands, making deserts bloom! It would display weather conditions throughout the world. It would with judicious adjustment, permit the trained operator to move a storm system here to a desert there. Hurricane devastation in the Indies would become a thing of the forgotten past. Before the decade was out, the Sahara would be golden with ripening fields of wheat instead of sand. Under the guiding hand of the British Empire, universal peace and prosperity would result! And Erasmus Lovejoy’s name would echo down the halls of time beside Isaac Newton, James Watt, and Aristotle.
The plan was perfect, his understanding of the cosmos perhaps less so, but the device was still in the testing phases, after all. He had the personal wealth and his banker’s testy confidence. And he had been granted permission to pursue his experiments in his own twenty-five foot square of space here at the Great Exhibition, the sonnet in glass and iron to the Triumph of Industry that was referred to in the press as the Crystal Palace.
“Professor?” A plain young woman in a plain stuff gown mounted the eight or ten steps to the platform carrying a wicker hamper and two brown bottles of beer. “I’ve brought lunch for you and Mr Cray, Great Uncle.”
“Susan!” the professor shouted, leaping up at once, restored in the instant. “Susan, thank the Powers you’ve come! Just the girl we need!”
Alarmed, Miss Susan Pickering almost dropped her basket. Her Great Uncle had never expressed a moment’s pleasure to see her in their whole acquaintance. For the most part he ignored her, in fact. Still she took care of him, and meekly bore his frantic attitudes and appalling manners, because at the advanced age of two-and-twenty with no suitors, no face, and only a modest fortune, she had little other choice.
“Yes, Professor,” she said. Not a complete mouse, she picked her way over the cluttered platform, but no more quickly than modesty and multiple petticoats allowed. Not much, as rebellions go, but her options were few.
“Take the chair, child, take the chair. Cray! We’ll go again. Watch the readings! Susan, touch nothing until I give the word, then push that red button.
“Do you understand, that button only! “
“Now watch the mirror, and call out if you observe any changes, anything at all!”
A chattering crowd was gathering again around the platform, drawn from the silk shawls and Venetian glass and the rattling Chinese porcelain in adjoining displays by the violent zaps and whines of electricity and steam engines and action.
Cray turned three clicks on the steam pressure modulator. Copper coils spun. A fly wheel flew. Bars of lightning crawled up the Jacob’s ladder and spat out the top. The panel of lights began to glow a sickly yellow which should, they hoped, grow through the spectrum to success. Lovejoy and Cray both dropped smoked goggles over their eyes, and Lovejoy drew on thick cowhide gloves, this time, just in case. Taking a deep breath, he glanced briefly at his assistants, and barked, “Now!”
Then he brought up the massive horseshoe switch, and closed the circuit. The frame around the mirror began to vibrate, to buzz, then to glow ever so slightly blue.Yes, this was more like it.
For the crowd and the neighboring exhibits all around, voices rose in alarm as wild galvanic energy hummed on the air, caressed faces, lifted hair, snapped from the mirror frame to the massive iron framework that held up the greenhouse panels of the vast exhibition hall and the lofty domed ceiling high above. Those who had read Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein gasped in awe, expecting wonders.
Susan dutifully stared at the obsidian mirror, and felt her flesh crawl, though the polished black surface never changed. No, wait. Maybe it did, just for an instant. The flashing lights reflected on its surface seemed almost to be coming from within. Uneasily she wondered why, if the men had felt the need for goggles, they had not provided her with a pair. Perhaps her own spectacles would be enough. Just keep watching!
The air crackled. She could already feel her hair escaping its pins, swirling, tickling her ears. A light breeze floating through the hall became a whirlwind that moaned, then howled. Snap! Both lenses of her glasses shattered in their frames. Susan cried out, and threw herself forward with hands clasped behind her head.
Over her shoulder, Cray watched the monitor lights dance from gold to blue to green until one, just one, flashed red. He kept glancing up at the mirror as the lights progressed, making slight adjustments as the professor called out numbers and letters, more deliberately this time, taking care over each setting and percentage, and every spinning dial. Now what was that? The shadows of clouds appeared to drift across the glossy midnight surface, but no, that was coming from outside. The glass panels that gave the Crystal Palace its name showed the same clouds in reverse. So it was a reflection, nothing more.
But no, wait.
“Wait!” he muttered, and clicked a dial back by one notch, then another. The last light went deep blue, and a face, a woman’s golden face lovely and desperate, appeared against an open sky but the image was fogged, or something, as if seen through a screen. Or through smoke, or fire. For a few moments, moist golden eyes stared, bare arms lifted in supplication, bare breasts... Then flash! Every filament blew out and the mirror went dark.
“What is it?” shouted the Professor. “What are you doing? Cray!”
“Didn’t you see her?” Cray bellowed over the dying whine of the Device. Frantic to get back the image, he flipped and turned and jiggled everything he could think of. For an instant, he thought he saw the face again, imploring, but no amount of recalibrating could fetch it back.
Then bang! The pretty etched panes of beveled glass shattered and blew out. Lovejoy shrieked and dropped to the floor. The crowd shouted in fear and anger as something else exploded and the Device shot a fountain of sparks into the air, starting a minor fire in a stuffed Barbary ape next door.
Then—and perhaps it was not related, but maybe it was—the earth itself trembled. London had not felt an earthquake in generations. The building swayed and the crowd screamed and each clutched the person nearest him, who might or might not be a family member. Outside, the lowering clouds descended in great masses from the summer sky, throwing the Crystal Palace and half the Thames Valley into shadow. Lightning descended as well, the amplified echo of that within, and in an instant rain was pounding at the glass dome and slapping the glass walls.
In the green and pleasant gardens surrounding the exhibition, under the breaking diamond spray of an Italian fountain, an unmistakable shimmer of derisive laughter echoed in stony halls few mortal eyes could see. The rustic faeries of Hyde Park could not for a moment enter the vast, ungraceful structure buttressed with the iron so poisonous to their kind, but they could dance for its downfall.
Yet it did not fall.