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CHAPTER IV
STEAM AND BRASS

from

Silvarum, Book I: Frost

by Dean Kuhta

"Hello?" said Roger through the front door. "Merkresh. Are you in there?"
      There was no reply. Only the wildlife and wind responded to his repeated knocks. A battalion of crickets sang their evening cadence as a cool breeze blew through the lane. Wind chimes hummend softly from the house across the street.
      Roger looked down at his pants and shook his head. How had he fallen out of that stupid tree like that? He could not remember, but was certain that his annoying sisters were going to harass him about it for days to come. Probably years. Even his best friend Frederick had teased him when he showed up with that map wrapped around his waist. Could they be blamed for their mockery? It had truly been a ridiculous sight. At least Frederick had let him borrow a pair of old pants, even if they were two sizes too small.
      The boy turned to the door and knocked three more times. Still nothing. “Good grief,” he said under his breath. “I have been waiting out here long enough.”
      Roger slowly eased the heavy door open and peeked inside. The interior was dim and musty and reminded him of his grandmother’s attic. He heard a faint clatter and clanking of activity deeper inside the shop.
      “Hey, Merkresh. It is Roger,” he said again, a bit louder. “We were supposed to have an appointment tonight at seven to look at my map. Remember?”
      Roger pulled out a brass and mechanical timepiece from his breast pocket. Its face and hands were set within the industrial patterns of a worn cogwheel. He flipped open the polished cover and checked the time. It was 7:34 p.m. After all, Merkresh was terribly old and forgetful and probably just overlooked their appointment. There was no harm in letting himself in. Roger nodded at this reasoning and stepped inside the shop.
      Rusted hinges creaked and moaned as he pushed the door open. As he stepped inside, the boy noticed that none of the interior candles had been lit. Only a faint glow from the street lanterns filled the room. The dim light revealed a ghostly impression of the irregular shapes and angles that cluttered the surroundings. He slipped inside and stood perfectly still in the middle of the room. He listened.
      Tap. Tap. Shwoooosh.
      Ding. Pop.
      He tilted his head and focused on the sounds. His hearing was enhanced by the lack of light in the room. The bangs and clanks were coming from downstairs.
      Pop. Pop. Creeeeeeck.
      The second set of noises called his attention to an area at the far end of the room. It was darker in that direction. Roger unstrapped his backpack and carefully and silently knelt on the floor. He unbuckled a leather pouch and felt inside. A folding pocket knife? There was no use for that right now. Fishing line? Nope. Something sticky and small and round? Definitely not. He did not even want to know what that thing was. He felt around some more. It was in there somewhere. Yes, that was what he was looking for. His green glow torch. It was fashioned in a similar style as his timepiece. The design was industrial and fatigued, accentuated by a riveted, brass outer shell and a metal mesh that covered the glass face.
      Roger fastened up the pouch (he stuffed the knife in his pocket because every adventurer knows the value of having one handy). He slung on his backpack and cranked up the torch’s dynamo. As he switched on the light, the room immediately came alive with a greenish shade of form and structure. He temporarily forgot about the noises from downstairs and stared in wonder at the fantastic objects that filled the shop.
      Shelves and shelves of leather-bound tomes crowded the four walls. The enormous number of books were stacked both horizontally and vertically and filled every possible nook and cranny. Perpendicular to the bookshelves glared glass cases, each one crammed with whimsical shapes and alluring devices. Most were mechanical in nature and were covered with dials and buttons. Other contraptions highlighted a patchwork of brass fittings, wood paneling, and copper tubing. A few of the items were constructed of electronic components.
      Roger saw a collection of mechanical masks in one of the crowded cases. He stared in awe at their complexity and artistic design. Six of the nine masks contained large tubes that curved up from a grated mouthpiece and connected to a rectangular apparatus at the back. Was it a breathing filter of some type? All the masks contained round eyepieces. Some extended out from the face, while others sat flush against leather linings and brass fittings. A mask on the second shelf featured a nose piece in the shape of a long beak, like some mechanized bird. Chrome rivets peppered the polished straps and linings that encompassed the curious designs.
      One of the masks caught Roger’s attention and curiosity. Situated on the top of the case, next to a mechanical glove, glared a remarkably unusual specimen. On its head sat a leather top hat. Like most of the other masks, it contained the filter hoses, circular eye lenses, and brass gadgets.
      “But why the top hat?” said Roger. He would have to ask Merkresh about its purpose.
      In the green light, the glass cases reflected and permeated an ethereal glow throughout the showroom. Capricious shadows danced upon the objects as Roger moved his glow torch and shifted his attention from one wonder to the next. It was an experience of sensory overload. He turned from the masks and surveyed the other side of the room.
      Numerous shelves of books and cases stood on this side. Instead of masks, however, these glass displays were filled with weapons of war. There were firearms of all types and sizes, crossbows, and long swords. They were all mechanized and as elaborately artistic and impressive as the masks. A tremendous composite bow, as tall as Roger, hung above one of the cases. Its technical characteristics were absurd. Gears, pistons, and tubing created a brass tapestry along the bow’s limbs.
      Roger walked to a rack of long swords. As he crossed the floor, his right boot kicked a hard object that emitted a buzzing sound. He froze in place. All was silent except the chirping crickets from outside. Even the weird sounds from downstairs were gone. He hesitated for another moment and then continued over to the display of blades.
      The boy had visited Merkresh’s shop a hundred times, yet each time his mind raced with thoughts of adventure and mystery. Each visit was a privilege that offered a brief glimpse into an alien world that was filled with enchantment and life. Being exposed to this amount of knowledge and technology was infinitely more interesting than sitting in a boring classroom every day learning about fractions and long division. The books written in mysterious tongues and symbols, the inexplicable artwork that hung on the walls, and the steam-powered devices. Where did Merkresh obtain all these outlandish curiosities? Over the years, Roger had asked about his travels countless times. Merkresh always smiled with his old eyes and proclaimed that one day he would speak of his astounding adventures. Roger wondered if that day would ever come.
      He reached into his breast pocket and rechecked the time. Roger let out a shriek of terror as he shined the green glow of his torch onto the timepiece. A giant spider sat on his forearm. It was the size of his hand and had eight thin legs that were tapping and searching. He shook his arm in a frantic motion to get it off, but it did not budge. He waved his arm even harder. The spider was attached to his shirt sleeve and was not going anywhere. Roger pointed the torch back on the monstrosity and realized that it reflected the green light. He scrunched his eyes together and examined it carefully. The spider was made of brass and metal. Delicate gears and pistons connected to each of its eight legs. The main body contained miniature dials and sensors. Eight glass eyes, all black as pitch, peered from its head. It was not a real spider at all. It was a machine.
      “Click. Get off Roger’s arm right now,” said a voice from the darkness.
      A buzzing hum emerged from the spider’s gears as it turned its head toward the command. It hopped from Roger’s arm and scurried across the floor.
      A sharp mechanical twang pulsated through the walls and illuminated a multitude of gas powered lanterns. The chamber glowed with new life and color. A figure stood across the room from Roger. It was clad in a gray cloak, a vest with many pockets, and a mechanical glove. The figure also wore a mask that contained large eye lenses, an elaborate magnification device, and an acoustic feature that resembled a miniaturized brass horn. Each component was covered with intricate gears and piping. The mechanical spider sat on the figure’s shoulder.
      “Is that you, Merkresh?” asked Roger.
      The figure reached up with its mechanical glove and turned a white knob below one of the rubber hoses. Jets of steam hissed from either side as the figure slowly unbuckled several leather straps and removed the mask. The old and withered face of Merkresh smiled back at Roger. His long beard and bushy eyebrows contrasted with the extreme engineering of the equipment that enveloped his thin form.
      “Hello, lad,” he replied. “What brings you by my shop on this fine evening?”
      “I thought we had an appointment at seven. You said I could show you my map, and you would check it over.”
      Merkresh rubbed his beard. “Oh dear,” he replied. “I am so sorry, young Roger. You are right, of course. I completely forgot about our appointment. I have been locked away in my workshop all day. There is just so much to do.”
      Roger shrugged and smiled. “It is okay, Merkresh. I can come back another time if you are too busy now.” He reached down and switched off his glow torch and turned back toward the front door.
      “Heavens no,” replied Merkresh in protest. “Our meeting will still be honored. As a matter of fact, I am awfully excited that you are here.” The old man thought for a moment and continued to fiddle with his beard. “I will tell you what. Let us review the accuracy of your map, as we intended, and then I will give you a demonstration of the project I have been working on all day. I could use your feedback. Does that sound like a plan to you?”
      “That sounds perfect.”
      “Very well then,” replied Merkresh. “Let us see now if we can find some empty table space to inspect your map.”
      They glanced around the clutter-filled room. Every inch was occupied by some gadget, device, or book.
      “Oh dear,” said Merkresh. “This will not do at all.”
      He set his mask and mechanical glove down on a giant stack of books and walked over to a panel filled with knobs, switches, and dials.
      “Now, I have not used this thing in ages, but I believe this turns it on,” he said as he flipped two switches and turned four dials.
      Motors clanked and murmured within the ceiling and floor. Jets of white steam shot out from a matrix of copper tubing along the nearest wall. Roger stared in wonder.
      “I will be surprised if this still works,” said the old man.
      Three slots in the ceiling slid open and revealed long rubber hoses that snaked and searched through the air. Each hose contained a brass funnel at the end that produced sharp sucking sounds. They crept and twisted toward the center of the room. An industrial crank table sat near Roger. It had been previously concealed due to the enormous number of blueprints, notes, sketches, and other assorted clutter. The hoses encircled the table in unison and sucked up all the papers and objects.
      Shwooomp!
      Shwuuump!
      Shwaaamp!
      A polished metal surface, pockmarked and bruised from decades of use, glimmered up at them. The table’s chrome crank wheel and heavy-duty steel legs mirrored the industrial theme of the room.
      Merkresh clapped. “I am amazed that gizmo still works after all these years.”
      “Where are all those things going?” asked Roger.
      “Wait,” replied the old man. “It is not over yet. This is the best part.”
      Roger followed the bulges and lumps of the objects in the tubes as they disappeared into the ceiling. The hoses themselves then escaped back through the slots. More steam vents whirled above their heads as metallic clamps opened and closed in rapid succession. The boy and the old man stared upward.
      Merkresh motioned with his index finger for Roger to watch the wall on the opposite side of the room. The boy twirled around while still staring straight up and then tilted his head to focus on a massive book shelf. Like everything else in the room, it was the personification of disarray. Gears and pistons produced a sharp clank, and then each of the shelves receded into the wall and out of view. Some of the books and papers that sat near the edge of the shelves fell to the floor. Merkresh grunted at this observation and scribbled into a small notebook.
      As each cluttered shelf was pulled back by conveyor belts into the wall, a new shelf, perfectly organized and tidy, slid into its place. They all contained neatly folded scrolls, papers and blueprints organized and set into metal bins, and leather-bound books that were set upright and in alphabetical order by author.
      “Wow,” said Roger. “That was incredible.”
      Merkresh tapped a pencil onto his notebook and shook his head. “It does work fairly well, I guess. And I am certainly impressed that it still functions after all these years. Apparently, I have not used it to clean up this dump in forever. Nevertheless, I think I am going to have to log a couple of defects.”
      “Defects?” asked Roger.
      “That stuff should not have fallen off the shelves like that, for one. I could probably integrate some metal netting along the edge that would pop up and catch any outliers.” He scribbled some more notes into his small book and grumbled to himself. “Secondly, the sorting algorithm does not seem to be calibrated correctly anymore. I am sure you noticed that the books are in reverse alphabetical order based on the fourth letter of each author’s last name.”
      Roger scratched his head and stared at the old man.
      “Aww, who cares anyway,” said Merkresh as he threw the notebook and pencil over his shoulder. “What is really important is that we now have a clean table to unfurl your map on. Bring her here, lad, and let us have a look.”
      Roger unstrapped his backpack once again and carefully took out the map. He unfolded it and they each took an end. Merkresh grabbed a random book (Cruniac’s Principle of Elastic Modulus and Transverse Isotropy, Vol. 89) and placed it on his edge to keep the map flat. Likewise, Roger set another leather-bound tome (Essential Adiabatic Theorems and Quantum Perturbations, 13th Edition) on his end.
      “Excellent,” said Merkresh. “This will do nicely.”
      As the old man leaned over and studied the details of the topography and geographic elements, the mechanical spider crept down along his arm and hopped onto the parchment.
      “Hey there, Click,” said the old man.
      The spider raised itself up on its eight limbs and expelled a series of motorized squeaks. A rotating dish antenna spun in circles as the mechanical creature danced and sang.
      “Where did you get that thing?” asked Roger.
      “I built him from scratch, of course. It took me a whole weekend. His name is Click. Is he not cute?”
      Roger peered at the brass arachnid and grimaced.
      The old man snickered at his expression. “You are not a lover of spiders are you, real or mechanized?”
      “I am afraid not,” he replied. “I kind of had an unpleasant experience with one of them when I was younger.”
      “I see,” replied the old man. “Well, little ol’ Click will not bug you. He is more like a survival knife than a real spider. If you are ever in a pinch, this fellow will more than likely be able to get you out of it.”
      “What can he do?” asked Roger.
      “All kinds of neat stuff, but we do not have time to get into the details now. Instead, let us look at this magnificent map of yours, shall we? There is still so much to do.”
      Roger turned to his illustrated map and described the major landmarks of Thorndale and its surrounding countryside.
      “Basically, I focused on the main streets and avenues of the village and then worked outward to the isolated locations.”
      “A very logical technique, indeed,” said Merkresh.
      “Here is the main street with all the shops and stores. As you can see, I have labeled each shop’s function and owner. Then extending out from the central marketplace, I have attempted to catalog each house along with the family’s name. This is my neighborhood and here is the smaller one on the other side.”
      He tapped on the specific locations. Click scurried out of his way each time. Its motors and pistons buzzed with activity.
      “Over here is the school house, the main park, town hall, the post office, the library, the grocery store, the hardware store, hospital, your shop, the bank, and Leaftail’s Bakery.”
      “Very nice,” said the old man.
      “Finally, I chose to implement a border around the local area here.” He pointed toward a red line that encapsulated the entire village, nearby woods, and streams. Beyond its border was empty space. “Having never been beyond this border, I just do not know what else is out there yet.”
      Merkresh nodded. “This is fantastic work, my young friend. Not only have you illustrated the shops, homes, and natural features with the skill of a master artist, but you have also accurately incorporated the basic principles of cartography.”
      Roger smiled.
      “Can you please tell me what those three principles are?” asked the old man.
      The boy rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “Well, the fundamental purpose of cartography is to articulate the geographical information of an area graphically.”
      Merkresh grunted in approval.
      “The first principle is beauty,” said Roger. “The second is accuracy, and the third is communication.”
      “Fantastic,” replied Merkresh.
      Click hopped up and down in the center of the map and chirped its mechanical applause.
      The old man walked to the opposite side of the map and bent down low to study the upper corner in detail. An elaborately drawn ink legend contrasted against the yellow-beige tint of the parchment. It was illustrated in the shape of an eight-pointed star, with a face in the center, and encircled by eight symbols.
      “Roger. The compass rose that you have depicted here is rather spectacular. Where did you come up with these symbols?”
      “A compass rose? Is that what it is called? I have only ever known of it as a legend. For depicting the four directions of a compass. I guess I got a little creative in my interpretation.”
      “A little? This is wonderful. A compass legend is also known as a Rose of the Winds or a Star of the Sea. The eight-pointed rose that you have created here was historically used to portray the eight principle winds. These included the four cardinal directions, North, East, South, and West.”
      “And the four intercardinal ones, right?” asked Roger. “Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest.”
      “Fantastic,” replied Merkresh. “You are really improving with your cartography knowledge.”
      They turned back to the map and continued to study its contents. The old man examined the compass in detail.
      “But tell me,” said Merkresh. “Where exactly did you get the idea for this design?” He tapped his finger on the symbol located between the North and Northwest points. It was a triangle encircled by a ring at its center.
      “Oh, that one?” replied Roger. “I saw it in a dream not too long ago. It is actually supposed to represent a giant pyramid that has a gold ring orbiting its center. It sounds silly, and it is kind of hard to explain, but the golden ring is, in my dream at least, constantly spinning around the pyramid. There were eight other objects that formed the shape of the pyramid, but I felt that adding them would be too complicated. I wanted to keep the design simple, and I thought it might look neat as a little symbol on my map.”
      The boy turned and noticed that Merkresh’s expression was cold as ice. His face was ashen.
      “Roger,” he said. “That place you dreamed about is real.”



Member comments
 siteDroid377
  52
12/16/2017
steam and brass test


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