Steampunk, part two.

Last time I talked a bit about genre and offered a taste of a story in progress, so I thought I’d continue that discussion and add another segment.

The other genre I’m interested in writing in is Weird Fiction. It’s kind of hard to explain if you’re new to it, so hit the link and

H. P. Lovecraft, master of weird fiction.

have a look if you want to know more. Suffice it to say that it’s a type of speculative fiction that deals with the unexplained, the horrible, and the too horrible to explain. H. P. Lovecraft is at the forefront of this kind of writing, and if you haven’t checked out his work you really should. I’m sure you’ve at least heard of Cthulhu–that’s Lovecraft’s baby. Stephen King (It, The Tommyknockers and some of Dean Koontz (the Frankenstein series) could be said to fall into the category too, if you’re looking for a contemporary example.

Weird fiction is fun because it encourages you to be wildly imaginative. The sky is literally the limit–and the weirder it gets, the better the story. One of my favourite tropes of the genre is of the “too curious for his own good” adventurer who stumbles upon something so horrible, he drives himself mad. Another is of the curious researcher investigating something that ends up drawing just a little too close to home. He usually ends up going mad as well.

One of the best examples of Lovecraft, and weird fiction in general, is The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That’s the whole text, but it doesn’t read too comfortably–though you can easily find most of Lovecraft’s work in eBook format for$1 or less, and this one is included in most anthologies. Check it out.

And on to another entry in my attempt at steampunk, The Astrologers! (The first entry can be found here if you haven’t read it yet.)

 

Her father loved the side show. He must know, she thought, that the displays were more for show than education, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d once told her that it didn’t even matter: a person needed mystery and wonder in his life, and even if he knew what lay behind the curtain, it was nice sometimes to stand in front of it and just…wonder. He’d said that with a wistful look in his eyes, and sighed; Dolle was never sure what he meant, but it looked like he’d lost something. Then his smile returned, and he whisked her off to see the Lizard Man and the petting zoo, which that year featured supposedly blind basilisks. She had been disappointed to see roosters with paper mache tails painted with scales, each of them wearing ribbon blindfolds and wandering around aimlessly while young children giggled and chased them about. He father hadn’t been too impressed, either, and added to his original statement: “wonder is nice and all, as long as you don’t get suckered into paying an arm and a leg for it.” He hadn’t told mother how much the petting zoo had cost, and neither did she.

This was the main contention this afternoon; the Astrologers were a big draw for the carnival, and getting a chance to see them was not cheap. She had hoped that on some wild chance there would be a free show, at least a few minutes–sometimes the hawkers at the carnival found it worthwhile to give a tease for free to encourage people to pay for the whole show. But when they finally approached the side show tent that afternoon, she was saddened to see a long, winding line in font of the Alchemage’s tent-within-a-tent. He would have no trouble making his money, and there was no chance of his giving a peep for free. Her father saw this and noted her disappointment, giving her a polite push on the back. “Maybe next year the novelty will have worn off and they won’t be so much in demand. That Vesir will have to charge less, then, and maybe we can take a look. Why don’t we go back to see the anima again? They’re pretty well the same thing. And we didn’t get a close look at the pyroanima,” he added, hoping to stoke her interest.

She wanted to yell out that it wasn’t the same, it just wasn’t…the Astrologers were supposed to be fully fledged automata with free will and even souls; they were to anima what she was to the cattle in their fields. But she knew better than to start that argument again. It would only ruin the rest of the afternoon.

Instead they went to the Bestiary, where they had exotic and sometimes even mystical beasts on display in cages. They even had a petting zoo, her father reminded her; and Dolle had to admit that she always did enjoy getting right up close to the animals, fake basilisks notwithstanding. Jim went wild when he heard they were finally getting to the Bestiary. He was crazy about animals, especially the weird ones you’d never see around the farm or in town–and this year they had a Chimera. They headed toward the Bestiary Tent, Dolle holding back just a step.

Her father looked back over her shoulder to make sure she was following, and she flashed him a weak smile to show her disappointment. There was something in his eyes that said he was sorry, but that she’d get over it. One of those “you’ll know why when you’re older” looks. He blew her a kiss ,and turned back to Jim and his ramblings about chimerae.

That was her chance. The carnival was a busy place, and her brother would preoccupy her father more than long enough for her to get a good look at the Astrologers. She didn’t know how much it would cost, but she had some money–her parents always gave them each a few silver coins to spend however they liked at the carnival. All she had to do was get past the line.

It was even longer now that when she’d seen it at the mouth of the tent. People craned their necks and stood on tip-toe to try and see the front of the line, where people were being let in in small groups. A few of them looked impatient, and one or two even left the line. But most of them looked excited to see the Astrologers–and why not? They were an enormous breakthrough in Alchemical Magic. Who wouldn’t want to see them first hand?

At first, Dolle stood in line, furtively looking over her shoulder to make sure her father hadn’t missed her already. But after a minute or two she felt anxious. The line wasn’t moving. It might take a half hour for her to get to the front, and she didn’t even know if she had enough silver to pay the entrance fee. She thought about asking the people in front of her, but didn’t want to attract attention. A ten year old girl wandering the carnival all by herself would be assumed to be lost. She’d be taken to a booth somewhere while someone in charge tried to find her father, and she wouldn’t see the Astrologers at all.

Then she saw it. A small flap at the place where two sides of the tent-within-a-tent met. It opened and closed lazily as people hurried past it, as if it were breathing. As it did, she saw a pale gold light emanating from inside. She could just barely hear what she could only assume was Vesir’s voice over the din of the side show. It was a low mumble, and it was responded to by a high pitched sort of tinny sound. She couldn’t make out the words.

But the Astrologers were in there, she was sure of it. It was a small flap, but she was a small girl; with luck she’d be able to find something just inside to hide behind. She casually left the line, feigning boredom, then made a quick dash to the flap, lifted the fabric, and let herself in. Safely inside, she was pleased to find a series of crates lines up along the edge of the tent. She kneeled in the dirt on the ground behind them, and her eyes popped wide open.

It was an incredible sight. Before her stood a tall, ornately carved wagon with bright green panels and gold trim, large heavy wheels with silver spokes, and a scroll-work crenellation running along all four sides of the top. Big loopy letters proclaimed that it belonged to the Magnificent Vesir and his Astonishing Astrologers. Painted on the panels were detailed landscapes peopled with wonderful machines in all forms. Birds, beasts, trees–but especially mechanical men. There were automata carrying wood, wearing hats, strolling hand in hand with female automata, even playing games like she did with her friends at school. All of them looked the same: they had thin, lithe limbs, a stocky chest covered in dials and winches and gears, and a smooth head like an egg with the taper pointing backwards. At the front were two bulbous eyes that seemed to be laughing. They had no mouths or noses.

She nearly clapped her hands with glee until she remembered that she was sneaking into Vesir’s tent. Instead, she sat on her hands and bit her lip in anticipation for the demonstration. Vesir was pacing in front of the wagon, hands behind him, robe whipping like a flying flag in his wake. In front of him was a line of seven people, all eagerly waiting. Vesir stopped his pacing and stamped his foot on the ground, raising his hands into the air, wearing an ear to ear smile. He addressed the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen! For centuries the Toral has eeked out the mysteries of elemental magic, teased the very fabric of the universe, and turned it to our needs. Mages study for decades to become masters of their craft, and even then, the Elements themselves are fickle; often the most accomplished magic users can only perform what amount to parlour tricks.

“And then the Alchemists began to learn magic, and they twisted their theories and experiments to incorporate the Elements—the Alchemages were born! They say the Grand Sage Osir was the first to meld Elements and Constructs into Anima, two hundred and more years ago. But even then, the awesome power of the Elements could not be harnessed, and only now are Alchemages learning how to use that power to fuel the anima that till our fields, sweep our floors, and carry messages from one town to another. Once more, I say: parlour tricks!

“And what is the pinnacle of invention, you might ask? To what end can this wondrous Elemental power be wrought? Well, my dear ladies and gentlemen, I have answered that age-old question! I, the Magnificent Vesir, have not only built the ultimate anima; I have not only bent the powers of the Aether to my will in their creation. I have brought to bear the ultimate anima, the automata: and I have given them life!”

And with that he stamped his foot upon the ground again, and a soft whirring sound began. It quickly grew louder and louder, encompassing the tent, and as the humming swelled a parade of five curious mechanical men marched out from inside the wagon. They walked stiffly, but in perfect unison, their metal legs clanking together softly as they stomped on the ground. Their arms were held perfectly still as they walked, and their bulbous heads never moved, but looked straight ahead, as if looking miles into the distance. The faint glow of the lanterns in the tent glimmered off their stocky, square bodies, and Dolle could see intricate designs carved into their chests. They were all made of gold—though Dolle guessed that they were actually plated, and perhaps even just painted. Still, they were a remarkable sight in all their clockwork precision and opulent splendour.

They lined up in front of the wagon, all facing the same direction—directly at Dolle, in fact—then took one final step in place. As one, they turned sharply at the waist, facing the crowd, their legs stepping lightly to catch up. Dolle quietly moved along the crates blocking her view so she could see them head-on.

The front facet of the chest was completely flat and rectangular, almost boxy. It looked inelegant at first, until Dole took note of the inscriptions. There was an intricately carved set of circles, one above the other. The circle on the bottom was a ribbon of a spiral, she noticed; there were notches at regular intervals, dividing it into a series of small rectangles all the same size. A thin pointer was set at the twelve o’clock position.

The circle above it was more complex. It was inset, and when Dolle looked closely she could see that there were actually eight concentric circles, all set close enough to each other that she could barely tell them apart. There were eight pointers, aiming in different directions, each with a small coloured ball just below the tapered tip. A sort of hub was set above the mechanism, covering the centre and, she assumed, holding it all together. Around the edge of the circle were two sets of inscribed rings; the outer one was divided into more segments than she could count, but the inner one was made of only twelve—and each of them had a familiar symbol, a star sign.

Vesir continued talking, explaining the tiresome and complicated construction of the automata, an explanation that was as colourful and as embellished as the wagon. Her attention drifted as he went into great detail about eclipses and ecliptics and so on, but she perked up again when he said—yet another flourish and stamp on the ground—that all of this would enable to Astrologers to tell the future.

And finally, Vesir was nearing his demonstration. From his pocket he produced a short, slender rod. One end was bent into a right angle; this end bent another ninety degrees and sported a leather handle. Holding onto the leather part, he twirled the rest in the air, pacing once again in front of the assembled viewers.

“And now, ladies and gentleman, the part you have all been waiting for. Who has a question for the Astrologers? Who would dare inquire about the misty haze of the future?!”

 

That’s it for now folks–another entry soon!

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3 comments on “Steampunk, part two.

  1. […] those of you who have been following my experiment in Steampunk, (you can find part one here and part two here) here is the conclusion of The […]

  2. […] I want to create as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world. But how does one go about creating a whole […]

  3. […] of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many […]

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