Maybe he was crazy. It’s crossed my mind more than once. Easy to see how such manic, frenzied cogitation could burn one out prematurely. In which case all of his notes, however sophisticated, however suggestive of some master plan...would be so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
No. Surely not. If that were the case he’d never have had so many successes in business. His grand scheme, whatever it was, could never have made it as far as this. The orphanage really was built. By dubious means, it seemed. But even so I now sat within tangible proof that he wasn’t all talk, nor smoke and mirrors.
He was going somewhere with this. A destination visible only to him, but so enticing as to render irrelevant everything else in life. It compelled me to believe that whatever he meant to accomplish with this project, it was of such far reaching importance that the whole of human civilization until then would have been little more than apes stacking stones in the mud.
A solution to poverty. To homelessness and hunger. A permanent end to human suffering, to hear him tell it. Isn’t that worth some sacrifices here and there? Isn’t it in fact worth the joyless, repetitive life devoted to mechanical innovation which grandfather led right up until they buried him?
I closed the book, laid back and made my best effort to fall asleep. I was certainly exhausted from the kitchen work. But my mind raced feverishly in defiance of my aching muscles, driving back the sandman with chair and whip every time he drew near.
I couldn’t leave it alone. I suppose I get that from him. After a few more minutes of futile efforts at relaxation, I finally gave up and headed out for a walk. At least that’s what I’d tell anybody who objected to my wanderings, I decided. Of course, what I really meant to do was explore.
The door, though it may better be described as a hatch, groaned slightly as I swung it open. I cringed, then peered out in either direction to find out if I’d aroused anybody’s attention. The corridor appeared empty as far as the light from the dim, flickering electric lamp above the doorway could reveal.
Encouraging enough that I overcame the urge to withdraw back into my room and instead set about tiptoeing into the darkness. I oriented myself using other lamps mounted at intervals to the outer wall, supplying just barely enough illumination to navigate by.
As I crept down the hall I heard long, low groans. The structure itself, I assumed. Shifting and shuddering as it gently sway in the wind. I soon noticed other faint noises accompanying it, like the hiss of pipes carrying water to cool mining equipment or whatever else, the distant clankety clank of a chain transferring motion from one gear to the next, and the throbbing of unseen pistons.
I imagined the various components were speaking to one another. Engaged in lively argument about whose burden was the worst, complaining of damage in need of repair and so forth. It all slowly merged into monotonous background ambiance. I soon felt as Jonah within the belly of the whale, listening to the beat of its heart, blood coursing through its veins and so on.
I slipped more than once on my way down the darkened corridor. The lights seemed too far apart, leaving long stretches unlit but not long enough that your eyes adjusted before you came upon the next light.
When frustration got the better of me, I reached down to blindly feel at the floor. In the unlit stretches it seemed to be coated in straw for some odd reason. Thick enough that I wondered if they brought it in from outside. Thin enough that I decided it was more likely debris of some kind.
A cart piled high with straw must've come through, bits tumbling off the edges here and there. Recently no doubt, as I recalled the floors elsewhere had all been carefully cleaned.
I spied a spiderweb spanning the gaps in the criss-crossing beams overhead and stood there for a moment, marveling at how it caught the faint, fluctuating light from the nearby bulb. High enough to escape the regular cleaners, the little creature would be safe until someone bothered to bring a stepladder.
Immersed in the stillness, I savored the gentle symphony of structural groans and shudders. The clankity clankity clank of distant gears. The hiss of steam escaping a nearby pipe.
Steam? Couldn't be. I remembered gramps swearing off steam engines in his notes. Curiosity now engaged, I hunted the sound to its source. Sure enough, a rusty length of pipe running up the wall blasted a cloudy jet of steam, louder as I drew near.
I approached as near to the wall as I could, knowing all too well what steam can do to unprotected skin. I studied the pipe fitting, flinching now and again as tiny flecks of scalding water landed on my face and arms.
"Needs tightening" a monotonous voice barked from the shadows. A boy emerged a moment later, perhaps twelve or thirteen. Face and neck marked with scattered moles, short blonde hair in need of a wash but neatly parted.
"I don't really...I mean, I wouldn't want to mess something up on my first d-" he cut in here, voice suddenly stern. "You saw, you fix. That's what Miss Alice says. I saw you at supper, you heard."
I explained that I hadn't any tools with which to effect repairs. He gave me an incredulous look and asked what I'd done with the standard issue toolbox under my bed. The what? He couldn't believe I'd overlooked it either. I promised to return with it in short order.
Just to make sure, he accompanied me. I really did mean to return, it wasn't at all necessary. No use telling him that. I found it right where he said it would be, and scolded myself for not searching my room more thoroughly when I arrived.
He allowed me most of a minute to open the sturdy metal box and familiarize myself with the contents. An electric lamp was among them! If only I had this earlier. It consisted of a galvanic cell encased in ceramic, a bulb in the shape of a candle flame for aesthetic reasons, and a concave reflector dish behind it by which one could direct the beam.
On the way back, I pestered him about the steam leakage. It was my turn to react with incredulity when he insisted there weren't any steam engines in the building. "Lights run on power. Power comes from heat, deep underground. Pumps suck up the water, like a well. The water is sent down into the Earth through pipes. It gets hot, then comes back up and makes the spinner go. That's where power comes out."
I intuited that by spinner, he meant some manner of steam turbine. So Gramps never abandoned steam entirely, only for the purpose of locomotion! I wondered if, with some searching, I might after all find compressed air or petrol driven mechanisms tucked away in hidden rooms.
For all his bluster about the elegance of purely electrical systems and the headache of steam, in the end he'd found no better means of generating current than to heat water up and use the resulting vapor to turn a dynamo. I smirked, now slightly less awed by the old man's handiwork. Then again, if it's not broke…
The lamp made my return to the leaky pipe much easier, but no less awkward on account of my dingy blonde escort. He even stood there, a few paces away, arms crossed, watching me turn the nut. Not one offer to help as I grunted and heaved, face now beet red and dripping with moisture.
One last grunt. The steam jet sputtered and died. With the pipe fitting corrected, the terse little goblin finally buggered off into the darkness, presumably to find somebody else to haunt. I wondered if I wasn't unjustly irritated. He was only following the house rules.
I didn't mean to get caught up in a repair job just then and resented being arrested for that purpose. But I knew similar jobs would make up the lion's share of my assignments in the years to come, and decided I should learn something from the boy's discipline rather than grousing.
I packed the wrench back into the toolbox, closed the lid with a satisfying clang, then returned to my nocturnal explorations. The lamp saved me several times from stubbing my toe on unshielded conduits or catching my clothes in exposed clusters of gears.
I expect it will come more naturally with time. Already I could feel myself acclimating to the idiosyncrasies of this place. Where before the sensation of being as a tiny mouse engulfed in the bowels of this gargantuan machine was daunting, I now felt some strange comfort. As if it were the most natural place for small creatures to be.
Symbiosis, I think you’d call it. As small birds clean off bugs from the hide of hippopotami or clean the teeth of patient gators, so we children of the machine crawl about within its superstructure, fixing any breakdowns we come across. Just as it is in nature, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
The cone of light projected from the awkwardly heavy little lantern swept across a detail I would've passed by otherwise. A hatch, like many others I’d seen, situated low enough in the wall that I’d have to crawl through. The design stamped into the thin metal panel was recognizable to me as Grandfather’s monogram, also present on various other flat surfaces throughout the tower.
As good a time as ever to find out what lay behind them. Unless they all concealed something different? I set the toolbox down to one side and withdrew a screwdriver. The bolts came out easily enough, with perhaps twenty rotations of each. I tucked them away in one of the toolbox drawers lest I lose them down some gap in the floor panels.
At first I thought it to be an air duct. Only I felt no moving air within. Instead, handrails lined the interior walls above and below, with maintenance access panels every ten feet. I was loathe to climb in there, even with the lantern, but realized I could at least evade being roped into more compulsory repair jobs this way.
Once inside the cramped metal channel, I pulled the loose panel as close to the wall as I could. Not bothering to replace the bolts as that had to be done from outside, but leaning it up against the opening so the fact that it’d been opened might escape notice.
My hands were filthy within the first minute. I only discovered it by chance when I set the lantern down and happened to glimpse my palms, now coated in black stains. Soot? Oil? No matter. I came this far, may as well see what’s at the end.
As I painstakingly crawled through the dingy confines of the maintenance duct, I began to hear voices. Confusing and a trifle frightening, until I discovered the source. Soon enough I came upon a grating in the side of the vent from which I could peer, undetected, into a room I’d not seen until now.
Row after row of children decked out in aprons and gloves. Chopping fruit, mixing broth of some sort and otherwise preparing food. Burning the midnight oil, but why? For the sake of tomorrow’s meals? Alternating teams must take turns at this, else nobody would get any sleep.
I huddled there and watched until I felt I’d seen everything which goes on in that room, then continued crawling until I arrived at the next grate. More preparation! Primarily of broth this time. Great vats of it, motorized mechanisms stirring the aromatic concoction within.
Stay tuned for Part 6!