Science Fiction steampunk Arctic

The Wind and the Spark

By Benjamin C. Kinney
Jul 4, 2018 · 6,109 words · 23 minutes

Tree in fog and snow

Photo by Das Sasha via Unsplash.

From the author: On a remote Arctic base, mysterious automata may hold the secret to ending the forty-year war against Napoleon's war machines.


Bain’s orders sent him out from London on an ironclad to occupied Oslo, a train to Tromsø, and finally an airship over the Barents Sea. Now he stood on a wind-scrubbed platform, on an island whose name he’d already forgotten. Soldiers bustled around the mooring tower, men following orders like the hands and tools they were. Bain stood in the cold with frost in his beard, his best coat’s thaumic lining struggling to keep him warm, and waited for someone with the capacity or the spirit to receive him.

An automaton strode in, and the soldiers parted to clear a path for the humanoid machine. At least these were experienced soldiers. The automaton’s iron pistons extended as it lifted a heavy crate, and an engineer directed the automaton into the encampment with the snap of a canary-yellow flag.

An officer in captain’s stripes lowered his hood. Beneath, he had a sourly amused smile and a thin face the color of oiled oak. "Welcome to the Arctic, Major Bain. Captain Nimesh Madan, at your service. We’re a long way from Oxbridge, but the general said he would send the best controls expert he had. Not sure this thing is worth your trouble, but they won’t let me flatten it and go home until someone’s sorted it out."

"A pleasure to meet you, Captain Madan." Poor fellow, dragged from the heat of the Raj to a frozen Cocytus such as this. "Please, call me Professor. I do most of my work up at Cambridge—my rank is just a formality. How soon can you show me ‘this thing’? I’m afraid my orders were a bit short on detail about our little puzzle."

Madan frowned at Bain’s coat. "I can show you right now, if you can manage another hour in the cold."

Bain nodded. The sooner he could start, the better. The most stressful part of any project was not knowing the shape of the question, not yet knowing whether his wits and knowledge would see him through one more time.

Madan led the way through the base of low slant-roofed buildings. Every board and plank had been scoured to the same palette as the stone below: gray hues ranging from ash to gunmetal.

They left the base behind and ascended a bare rocky rise on the inland side. Ocean winds whistled past them, pushing them up the trail. Someone had laid down sand underfoot, a small mercy on the twenty-minute walk.

Madan said, "Six weeks ago, the Northern Fleet ran across some French ironclads around this middle-of-nowhere coaling station." They crested the hill, and Madan gestured to a sheltered valley. "When we gave the island a proper survey, we found this!"

A garden sat in the valley’s basin. Someone had planted scrubby pine bushes in the neat geometrical patterns of a waist-high labyrinth, perhaps half a mile across. Rime-blurred obelisks jutted upward like scattered nails amidst the hardy arctic plants. Automata walked among the garden, humanoid mechanical shapes pacing between the rows and around the periphery.

"So? What’s this garden? Why is it out here?" Bain bit back the urge to add, Who cares?

"Good question, yes? But come along, you haven’t seen it yet."

They descended to the garden’s edge and waited as one of the automata circled toward them. The stocky humanoid machine stood slightly taller than a man, its form made bulbous and awkward by vulcanized rubber sheathes around its joints. Pistons slid along its legs and arms, and thaumic circuitry on its torso gleamed in the afternoon light. The smooth hiss of a well-maintained engine whispered through the air.

Madan shouted, "Hey, machine! You’ve got a visitor!"

The automaton stopped and turned its smoked-glass eyes on them. It diverted from its well-stamped path and walked in a circle around Bain, and then stopped. Bain took his cue from Madan’s smirk and stayed impassive. An iron hand reached out, and then paused two feet away. The machine hesitated as if uncertain, but Bain knew better than to anthropomorphize these devices. The machine tilted its head and then turned away and resumed its gardening.

A chill breeze slipped through Bain’s collar. He crossed his arms. "Very funny, Captain. Who’s controlling it?"

"No one, Professor." Madan’s smirk remained. "There are no people here but us. No French ships for a hundred miles, on the sea or in the air. Nothing to control the automata, as far as anyone can tell. But you see how they act—not like machines. Someone decided it’s a mystery, Professor Bain, and it’s your job to sort it out."

Bain walked alone into the garden. Usually, the automata acted as they ought: they traveled their fixed paths and occasionally bent down to trim and tend the gnarled plants. Constrained by rote and rhythm, the patterns engraved into their cognitive mechanisms. After more than fifty years’ war with Napoleon and forty years of advances in the thaumic sciences, the finest automata could accomplish little more without human direction. Only a soul could make decisions.

The labyrinth’s designers had made good use of the island’s paltry resources. Tiny white and purple flowers bloomed beneath the bushes, interspersed with scurvy grass and saxifrage. A stream darted beneath the hedgerows, pairing sections of the path with a channel of swift shallow water.

The stream had no outflow. The entire valley had no obvious outflow; the water had to go somewhere. Bain traced its course, following the faint sound of hollow burbling. He bent down and peered through a culvert as he circled the place where the drain must be. Something nagged at his subconscious, and he looked up.

The six automata had all ceased their laps of the garden, and now stood staring at Bain. The lack of iron footfalls, that was what he’d noticed. He hunched down lower, as if the bushes might shelter him from that mockery of human gaze. The machines turned away and resumed the mindless structure of their duties.

Bain huddled once more around Madan’s stove. Bain said, "I want a sharpshooter with armor-piercing bullets watching the valley anytime I’m down there."

"Give you the creeps, did it?" Madan seemed all too pleased.

"Someone has to be controlling them. If the French could make automata like that, we’d hear about it from the front." He cradled his hands together until they stopped shivering. A mystery indeed, but he could solve it. He needed only to find the mechanism.

"Well, you’re the controls expert. But if you ask me, we should blast this place and leave it. Once there’s no secret mumbo jumbo here, they can hand the coaling station over to the Russians—they’ll probably thank us for the cold," Madan said as he poured two cups of tea.

"It does seem inhospitable. You’ve been out here six weeks, you said? My condolences. And thank you, Captain." Bain wrapped his hands around his steaming cup. "I’ll try to finish my job here as swiftly as I can, so we can all be done with this place. There were no French alive here after you took the island, yes?"

"No doubt about it. Ironclads at the bottom of the harbor, and we smoked the garden for a full day to make sure nobody was hiding down there. You won’t find one of those godless frogs for a hundred miles."

Bain concealed his thoughts behind his teacup. There were ways to shield against smoke, and ways to hoard a few weeks’ supplies. Still, a technical solution seemed more likely. This expedition would provide a far better boost to career and country if he could secure some new French technology.

Madan said, "We’re bloody bored up here, Professor, so whatever we can do to speed you along, name it. My men could use a break from sitting around and waiting to shovel coal."

"In that case, I think a twenty-four-hour watch would be advised. With lights around the garden, if possible." He did not want those machines sneaking away, let alone sneaking up on him. "And some of your engineer's time would also be appreciated. First thing tomorrow morning, if you would. I’d be much obliged, Captain."

The base had only one mess hall, with a separate table for officers. At breakfast, Bain ran the gauntlet of introductions without learning any more names than necessary. The only person worth remembering was Master Sergeant Collins, the engineer.

"So, the captain says you could use my help?" Collins had hair so dark that the red almost vanished, and a uniform sleeve that ended at a knot six inches below his left shoulder.

"If your other duties aren’t too pressing, Master Sergeant. It’s only some sensing equipment. As much as I’d like to begin straightaway, I don’t intend to interfere with the base’s necessities."

"I’m spread thin, but not that thin. Quiet place like this, it’s all maintenance until the ships come in. But maintenance can be moved a little. I’ll have time for you this afternoon." He leaned forward and pinned his bread to the plate with the stump of his arm while his good hand wielded the butter knife. "Would be easier if I had my apprentices, but someone was smart enough not to send girls here."

The war effort needed everyone. Invalids and women could not serve as soldiers, but they could find their way into support positions. Sometimes Bain wished a few more of the wounded could be sent home to assist with research. Surely some of them had cleverness enough to work in a laboratory, even if they lacked the intelligence to enroll at Cambridge.

That afternoon, Bain and Collins returned to the garden, unspooling telegraph cable as they walked. They brought tripods with delicate sensoria of thaumic wires and thin sheets of metal mesh. It took two agonizing hours of battle against icy, uneven slopes, but in the end, they managed to set up all four tripods around the valley’s edge.

Collins tightened the last screw. "You really think there’s some air signal here? It’s more than two hundred miles to Norway. Not many closer places where frogs could hide on open ocean."

"I think it’s entirely possible. If the French have developed long-distance aerial telegraphy, that could certainly explain the automata’s behavior."

"Could be an undersea cable, maybe? Seems as likely as an air signal."

"Much less so, I’d think. How would the French lay a cable like that, let alone maintain it?" Bain resisted the urge to sigh. "A long-range aerial signal would be an incredible invention, no doubt, but a cable halfway across the Barents Sea would need ten such inventions."

Collins scratched the stump of his left arm. "Speaking of inventions, always wanted to ask a proper man of science about thaumics. Is it true what they say, sir? Official line says the Russians invented it during the Sixth Coalition, but I also hear we stole it from the French. Or that Saint Patrick whispered it into the ear of the old czar. Though I don’t go for that kind of superstition myself," he said as he crossed himself.

"As well you shouldn’t! But that’s a new one to me. Anglicans usually say it was the Archangel Gabriel. Or more often, that Napoleon made a deal with the devil." Bain shook his head. Biblical literalism ran rampant among the lower classes these days. "Your first rumor had the right of it. The French were the original inventors."

"Is that so? Hah! Need to swear me to secrecy, sir?"

"No need to bother. When someone hears it from you, it’ll be just a rumor again. But back to business, Master Sergeant. We have better things to explore before we worry about myths like devils and undersea cables. Do you know where the stream goes?"

"Sure, it flows to a drain in that dead end down there, just past the obelisk with all the lichen."

"But where does that drain lead, then?" Bain kept his voice light. Collins had skills and knowledge Bain needed; it would do no good to show his impatience.

"It sounds like there’s some machinery down there, but we haven’t dug deep. We smoked it out when we first got here. Private Riggs wanted to scout it, but I didn’t let him—nothing good comes from sending an ordinary Tommy down into gears. And I can’t crawl myself."

"Well, I may have to try my hand at it. Or hands and knees, as the case may be." Bain looked up at the descending sun, in search of an excuse to put things off. "We’ve burnt most of the daylight wrestling with the thaumics, so I’ll have to come back tomorrow."

As soldiers set up coal-gas lanterns for the nighttime watch, Bain and Collins trudged out of the valley, back into the arctic wind.

In the gray light of dawn, Bain ate a quick breakfast and hiked alone to the valley beneath a gentle flurry of snow. A few flakes snuck into his collar, sending a cold trickle down his neck. He followed all four of his telegraph lines to the same end: his tripods lay on their sides, stacked in a messy pile.

His equipment, his data! Someone had to account for this. Bain shouted at the guard, "You! Soldier! What happened here?"

"Major Bain! The automata moved your equipment, sir."

"And you just let them?" Bain forced his fists into his pockets as he stomped toward the guard. "Why bother watching, if you aren’t going to step in if something happens? What’s your name, soldier?"

"Private Farlow, sir!" He saluted. "But what could I have done? I told it to stop. Should I have shot it, sir?"

"Stand in its way if you have to! Move the tripods out of the way yourself! Think, boy. You have a brain, not just a rifle." Bain took a deep breath. "If the automata do something like that again, I want to be informed immediately."

The sensors were broken, their mesh torn in a half-dozen places. Bain doubted either he or Collins could fix them here. Still, he realized, this made his data from last night more robust. The automata took the initiative to move his tripods, but nevertheless his ticker tape showed no hint of a long-range signal. So much for his first intuition. So much for a swift return home with a brand-new French invention for the chancellor-general.

It had been a fool’s hope anyhow. Why would some remote controller, in tune with the French army, command the machines to such trivial but attention-grabbing actions?

Only one direction left to search: down.

At the change of the watch, Bain made Private Farlow get another pair of soldiers, and then led them through the labyrinth to the stream’s drain. The soldiers kept glancing over their shoulders at the two automata that stopped to watch.

After the soldiers pried the drainage gate out, Bain said, "Thank you, boys. Please do keep watch while I’m down there. And keep a hand on the grate. I don’t want the automata replacing it."

Armed with torch and tools and as much waterproofing as he could endure, Bain lowered himself into the tunnel. On hands and knees, he crept along the underground channel, away from the light of day. His torchlight illuminated the smooth stone of walls huddled close around him.

Stone brushed his shoulders, but he could feel the tightness all the way to his ribs, forcing him to fight for breath. The water was only four inches deep, the winding tunnel likely intended to serve as both channel and crawl space. As shallow as the water was, it seeped in around the edges of his Mackintosh pants and soaked his shins and feet. Water flowed through narrow runnels, and gurgled through drains to disappear behind the stone. Hours seemed to pass before he found the chamber.

It looked like a furnace. One central machine, connected to dozens of pipes that led out to the rest of some well-heated building—a fiery heart pumping blood and warmth to a grand home in London or Newcastle. But it sat here, under this unlikely garden, without the heat of either fire or blood.

The machine stood at the room’s center, bell-shaped and as tall as a man, linked to the walls by a tree of branching pipes. The silvery etchings of thaumic wires covered every inch of its surface. The heart-like machine sat on a nest of something spongy and artificial, soaking in the pool of water beneath. A pressure engine chuffed with a regular beat, joined by the rattle of steam through pipes, the gurgle of water through valves and wheels, the beat of this strange liquid heart.

What was this machine doing? He had to get closer. Bain circled it, squeezing and clambering among the pipes to study every side. He couldn’t help but touch it. He pressed his gloved fingers against metal and felt the steady vibration of a pipe, the busy patter of shifting pressures, and the cool, still presence of the central heart-machine. He found no leaks or worn components, no sign that the French had tried to scuttle the device when the Northern Fleet discovered their base.

When Bain crawled back out through the tunnel and finally pulled himself upright in the drain, Private Farlow said drily, "Welcome back, sir."

Four automata encircled the drain, looming and shifting as they sought a way past the three soldiers. Bain froze. The men stood on either side of the open drain, dynamo rifles raised and fixed, their arms tense and shaking. Bain opened his mouth to shout, to exhort the soldiers, but he had no idea what orders to give.

Four pairs of smoked-glass lenses focused on Bain, and then the machines turned away in unison and resumed their gardening.

That evening, Captain Madan sat down across from Bain at the officer’s table and leaned forward. "Professor, how’s the research going?"

"Good evening, Captain. I believe it’s progressing quite well, but I’ve only begun to investigate the underground mechanisms."

"Sure, sure. You’re creating quite the stew of rumors, you know that? It’s been a while since my men had anything new to talk about. Now you’re slowing down my maintenance, crawling in caves, yelling at my privates, and nearly getting three men killed." His voice cooled word by word as he walked through the litany of misadventures.

"The mission has presented some challenges, but I have it under control." Bain barely looked up from his meat loaf. He did not need to justify himself to this captain. "Next time I dig into the valley, I intend to bring along a full half squad of soldiers. Perhaps then they won’t get frightened."

"We have two ships coming through the day after tomorrow, Major, and at least three more over the following two days. We’ll need all hands to coal and resupply. I’ll spare you what soldiers I can, sir, but I can’t let it interfere with our operations." Madan’s words came out crisp, polite, and all too pleased. "Morale is low enough as is, in this weather. Every man who isn’t helping on the docks means his mates have to work harder."

"I understand your constraints, Captain. If I need to delay until you can free enough soldiers to support me safely, then I can wait." He did not look forward to more of this cold and this meat loaf, but the thought of a delay loosened his shoulders with unexpected relief.

"Oh, I’d hate for you to have to delay your findings. Keep you out here in the cold longer than you have to? Far be it from me, Major. We’re all looking forward to the moment you write your report." Madan bared his teeth in a mirthless smile, and called out to the next table. "Collins, do we have a spare dynamo pistol? I wouldn’t want our professor to be in any danger, if he has to go down there alone."

"Yes, sir." Collins stuffed a forkful of potato into his mouth.

Bain bit back the urge to protest. "Very kind of you, Captain." He knew who controlled this base, no matter the difference in rank. There was no sense complaining about Madan’s intransigence until he was back in Britain.

Early the next morning, Bain got an hour of Collins’s time to jury-rig a waterproof sled. For protection, he would have to rely on his own two hands and a dynamo pistol. Its electrothaumic shock would only stun a human, but against a modern automaton, that pistol could do far more damage than a bullet.

Bain dragged his sled to the valley, its runners clattering and skipping along the stones. It was late morning by the time he reached the maze’s drain. Bain drank from his flask of cold tea and ate a biscuit. Clouds filled the ice-gray sky above him.

As long as he sat here, his search ongoing, this mission still had the potential to turn out perfectly. Right now, he was the undefeated darling of the chancellor-general. But a puzzle would defeat him someday—whether in his Cambridge lab or some other godforsaken corner of the world like this. And then a younger, cleverer man of science would succeed where he failed. After that, his career would dwindle into nothing, like the sun on an arctic afternoon.

Bain flicked the biscuit crumbs from his gloves. When his failure came, it would neither be from lack of trying, nor lack of courage. He checked the seal between his cuffs and his boots, and then descended into the underground channel.

When Bain reached the garden’s chthonic heart, he unsealed and unpacked his sled. Step by practiced step, he checked his gear: his hydrophones, calorimeters, Bourdon gauges, thaumometers, and galvanometers; their wires, engravings, valves, tickers, needles, and braces. He clamped his devices to pipes and the heart-machine’s body, drilling the occasional hole to insert a probe. Bain let the room’s rhythmic sounds guide him with rattle and clunk, bubble and hiss.

He moved from one sound to the next, from one pipe to the next. He placed his ear against ducts, and the sound echoed through his bones to hint at mechanisms within. He chased down each whispered tune, entrained to the beat of this mechanical heart.

A clank and scrape interrupted Bain’s reverie. One of the garden’s automata clambered out of the crawl space, into the heart chamber. Bain drew his pistol, but the machine made no move to chase him through the web of pipes. Instead, it dragged a blocky device from the channel and sat down on the floor behind the device.

Bain stepped back, trying to put the heart-machine between himself and the automaton. It was unarmed, but hydraulics and iron did not need weapons to kill a human. Bain kept both hands on the pistol but came a few steps closer. The front of the device held a plate with rows of movable letter-blocks, like a printing press. The automaton manipulated some gears and levers on the back of the device, and soon enough, the letters formed a sentence in French.

LEAVE ME

Bain pulled his jaw shut. What was happening here? His mind latched on to minutiae: Leave? How could he? The automaton and its print-device sat between him and the crawl space.

THIS PLACE IS NOT YOU

"Explain yourself! Do you expect me to answer you?" The note of panic in his voice made him wince. He took a deep breath, but it only spread the shaking to his ribs.

YES

"Pardon my confusion. Whom am I addressing?" Apparently his converser understood English as well as he did French.

THE GARDENER

"My apologies, I hadn’t realized there was a gardener in residence here." His heart still pounded, but at least he had his voice steady. There had to be a way he could wrest control of this situation as well. "I would be honored to speak with you in person, if you might."

YOU ARE

"I see." So many possible truths behind that evasion. Who controlled these machines, and to what end? Better yet, why? He holstered his pistol. "How can I help you, then?"

LEAVE ME

Impossible. He could not return ignorant and empty-handed to Captain Madan, let alone the chancellor-general. "I’d be happy to, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do you any good. The men outside aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps we can come to some kind of agreement?"

WHY DID THEY STOP TALKING TO ME

Stop talking? Ah. The French. "The previous men went home, and their friends came to replace them. Have the new men forgotten something?"

I WAS LEARNING

"And the men should help you learn?"

YES

"How should we help you learn?" Bain shook his head, and then realized the other speaker might not even see the gesture. "What have I been doing wrong?"

YOUR THINGS HURT ME

"These devices I’ve attached?" Bain unbolted a thaumometer, and reoriented its wires to measure the currents in this room. The needle jumped, and then pinned at the top of the scale.

YES UNDO THEM

"My apologies, I don’t understand how they hurt you." Perfect—this gave him leverage. "I didn’t realize anything here was so sensitive. What is this room?"

PINEAL

"Of course." Either he was speaking to a child with an improbable vocabulary, or one of them lacked some context, a scaffolding of knowledge that would turn answers into sense. "These devices help me teach you. If I take them off, will we be able to talk again like this?"

THIS PLACE IS NOT YOU

Discouraging, quite possibly meaningless. But not a refusal. He could work with this. "But I want to help teach you. I have no other way. My predecessors forgot to tell me how."

The automaton’s hand hesitated. TAKE THEM OFF AND YOU CAN COME BACK

Bolt by clamp by screw, Bain removed his sensors from the machinery. His hands still shook, but he didn’t let that slow him down. The automaton packed up its print-device and stood silently off to one side. When Bain finally wrestled his sled back into the crawl space, the automaton set to work patching drill holes and dents.

That night, Bain lay beneath his blankets, kept awake by the wind’s whistle and the strange conversation circling in his memory. Had it tried to mislead him, or had it truly not known the difference between a Frenchman and an Englishman? If it lied, why? If it was ignorant, how? Its odd words seemed to gnaw at his mind, as if he’d encountered them in passing sometime long ago.

The following day, the whole base was busy refueling a pair of ironclads, and Bain could get no help. He reduced his gear to a backpack’s worth, but he knew what he needed to bring. A good idea would serve him better than a hundred tools. The heart-machine and the talking automaton were not two mysteries, but one. His next step was to determine how they connected.

In the garden’s chthonic heart, Bain found an automaton already waiting, motionless behind its print-device. Bain pressed his ear against the central machine and heard the steady churn of water, steam, and valves. The machine’s warmth offered a pleasant respite from the room’s subterranean chill.

The automaton tapped the printing device. STOP THAT

Bain stood straight and unwrapped his pistol from its waterproof holster. His gloves gave him a firm grip despite the sweat on his palms. "I’m sorry?"

BETTER

"I see. So, you want help learning, is that correct?" He reholstered the pistol.

YES

"What about?"

EVERYTHING

The conversation meandered, senseless and childish. Bain probed at the other speaker, answering questions with questions. He came here to learn, not to teach. But the conversation never grew easier; Bain struggled to phrase his questions, let alone make sense of the answers. As he spoke, Bain drew his ball-peen hammer and vise transducer from the backpack. He slipped the hammer into a pocket near the pistol, then clamped the transducer to one of the narrower pipes and tightened the vice.

STOP THAT

Bain ignored the command. "Who taught you first? What’s your earliest memory?"

BALANCE

The needle remained still. This pipe wasn’t part of whatever mechanisms linked the heart and the automaton. Bain moved the transducer from pipe to pipe, diverting the machine’s complaints each time. The other speaker seemed guileless and easily distracted, and Bain walked the conversation in circles so he could pay attention to his real work.

Eventually, Bain found a pair of pipes where the needle fluttered each time the print-device clattered out a new sentence fragment. A memory clicked into place. He was no neurologist, but according to the French exile, Broca, the faculty of speech arose from one particular place in the human brain. Bain had sought communication routes, but the signals could start right here.

An interesting possibility, but unlikely. He needed to extract more clues, one way or another. "Do you control the automata in the garden?"

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND

"The machines, like the one printing these words right now."

THEY ARE ME

"All of them? Do they all understand English as well as you do?"

YOU SPEAK ENGLISH

"Yes, of course. You seem to understand it well enough."

ENGLISH IS A LANGUAGE OF THE ENEMY

"I’m not your enemy. I’m here to teach you."

THEN WHY ARE YOU ASKING ALL THE QUESTIONS

"Because—" Bain stopped himself. This conversation had to end, swiftly. "You said yesterday that this is your pineal. Why do you call it that?"

PEOPLE NAMED IT

"And what does that word mean?" Behind his back, he slipped the hammer into his hand.

CONTROLS PRESSURE

"And the seat of the soul, according to Descartes." Bain smashed the hammer into the pipe. It cracked on the second blow, and a jet of steam whistled away from him.

SOP STP P SPOP

"That makes it hard to speak, doesn’t it? But no, I don’t intend to stop. Let’s confirm." He turned his hammer on another pipe he’d chosen and cracked it on the first strike.

CRRR DEJM I PS

Bain wanted to pump a fist in triumph, but instead he dropped the hammer and drew his pistol. He expected the automaton to leap for him, but it reacted slowly, staggering to its feet. Bain had plenty of time to aim at its center of mass and then pull the trigger. An arc of crackling light struck the automaton, and a hot metallic stink hit Bain’s senses like melting solder. White fire sizzled along the machine’s thaumic circuits, and the automaton collapsed to the floor in an inanimate heap.

Bain exhaled, breath shaking with his relief. He had triumphed, in more ways than one. When he first saw this room, he thought of a burning furnace, a beating heart strung with veins. He had been wrong. These pipes were the nerves and ventricles of an iron brain.

His triumph grew cold and clammy, like bare feet in water no longer warm. The machine still chuffed and rattled, unchanged beyond the added whistle of two broken pipes. The pineal gland, it had said; the delicate valve deep within the brain, where the soul controlled the hydraulic motion of animal spirits within nerves—or steam within pipes. If this machine could learn and make decisions, then it had a soul. That left two terrible possibilities. The French had either built an artificial soul, or found a way to connect an existing soul to the machine. An innocent, ignorant, childlike soul.

Bain aimed his pistol at the brain. This abomination ought to be destroyed, but he had a duty to queen and country. The British were not the godless French; they could turn this technology toward a worthy end. They would try, at least.

He scowled. If the decision were his to make, he would wipe this thing from the earth, child or no. He holstered the pistol, picked up his backpack, and clambered out to the crawl space.

As Bain approached the drain, angular shadows blocked the sunlight ahead of him. The automata, the hands of an angry child, waiting for him. He cursed silently and worked his pistol from its holster, praying the weapon would stay dry. As he crawled the last few feet toward the sunlight, an arm reached down with iron fingers outstretched. Bain squeezed the trigger, and the bright bolt drove his assailant back.

Bain crept forward another foot, and then fired up through the mouth of the drain. One shape fell, but two more reached down in perfect coordination. Powerful hands grabbed his right forearm and then his left. The crushing grip forced a shout from his lungs as the automata lifted him into the air between them.

The pistol still hung in Bain’s hand. He twisted his wrist and squeezed off whatever shot he could. One of his captors lost its balance, tipping forward on its stricken leg, and it released Bain as its head cracked into the next machine. He fell back into the drain’s frigid water and stone. The dynamo pistol clattered from his numb hand and splashed into the water.

Before Bain could take a second breath, another hand reached in and grabbed a handful of his coat. He tried to brace himself against the walls, tried to hammer his fist against the pistons and cables, but the fingertips worked forward until they dug into his shoulder like railroad spikes. The iron hand dragged him out, inch after inch, and then more hands reached down and lifted him until his feet kicked at empty air.

Bain struggled in their cold grip, his panting breaths drowning out the sound of gears and steam. The automata—no, the abomination—clasped his arms and leg, pulling and bending with a child’s flailing rage. He gritted his teeth and tried not to scream.

One of the automata burst apart, and metal shards tore lines of pain across Bain’s face. The machines threw Bain to the ground, and he landed hard on the back of his head. A bell rang across his skull, and a white fog blurred his vision. Another machine split apart, as distant as the far side of a poorly focused microscope. Bain rolled onto his side and watched the last of the automata run among the garden paths like panicked fowl as the sharpshooter brought them down.

Bleeding, bruised, and shaken, Bain would not let Madan or Collins evade his summons. Madan seethed, but they both had obeyed Bain’s direct order.

"Captain, Master Sergeant, I appreciate your, ah, talking now." Bain had intended something more eloquent, but his words kept trying to dissolve in the steady throb of pain behind his temples. "My research is finished. Blast the… You can begin a controlled demolition of the garden as soon as you like, as soon as is convenient."

"Now that’s news worth hearing." Madan brightened. "What did you find in there?"

"An experimental French, ah, weapon. Most of it must be destroyed, should be destroyed, yes, but not all. There’s one underground chamber with some, ah, mechanisms we need intact."

"Sounds like a bloody good answer to me. Are you all right, Major?"

"I’ll manage, thank you. Just a headache." Bain realized he’d meant to find the infirmary first, but his mind had wandered. "That will be all, gentlemen."

Madan saluted and went back out into the cold. Collins fetched a survey map of the garden, but Bain shook his head. "Master Sergeant…Collins. Do you remember what I said about thaumic sciences? Where they came from?"

"You said we stole it from the French, sir?"

"Who bartered it off the devil himself. Ridiculous idea. But maybe, I think today, true, in a way." He had trouble focusing, but one thought led him forward like a lighthouse through fog. "Souls, Collins. Captured, built. In Descartes’s design, the hydraulic brain, with nerves of steam." Collins stared with blank incomprehension, so Bain tried again.

"Nerves of steam." Could the man not hear him? "Nerves. Nerves!"

"Let me help you to the infirmary, sir." Collins’s brows drew together with worry, and he gingerly took Bain’s arm and guided him toward the door.

"We mustn’t allow it." He was so tired, but he had to make the man understand. "It’s against nature, against God! Still, we need to salvage it. We have to bring it, the pineal gland, back to Britain. The seat of the soul, Collins."

"Brace yourself, sir. I know it’s cold, but we’ll be back inside again right quick, I promise. Come along now."

They stepped outside, and windswept snow blurred the world.

This story originally appeared in Fictionvale.


Data?1537396525
Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist and SFF author who writes stories about minds, memory, faith, and the occasional conquistador dragon.