Short Story – “The Underground Lecturehall”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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The Underground Lecturehall

by

David J. Blake

 

Tick-ck, tick-ck, tick-ck.

I glared resolutely at the book in my hands, trying to block out the unending noise. Shuffling my feet and settling myself further back into my chair, I let out an overlong sigh. With as much noise as was permissible in a library, I drowned out the sound of the ticking. Finally, satisfied that the irritant had been driven off, I hid my face behind the old book once more and tried to lose myself in Daniel Gloretts’ narrative of his first encounter with the primitive natives of the uncharted volcanic island.

They didn’t fall down on their knees in misplaced worship as was so often the case in the dreadful fictions that appeared weekly at the newsstands. Rather, the bronze-skinned aborigines smiled and welcomed him as if he were an old acquaintance, and not the first tick-ck man to tick-ck foot on tick-ck.

The book snapped shut between my palms, and I was forced to close my eyes for a moment to compose myself. It was only after several deep breaths that I felt I was in sufficient control of myself to stand from the chair.

Past the rows of bookcases and tables stacked high with books, a figure dressed in blue stood motionless by the door. He was directly beneath one of the several gas lamps that lined the walls, and the light of the blue flame glinted sharply off his polished buttons and badge. His eyes swept back and forth over the room like the pendulum of a clock. Tacked up on the wall next to him was the latest list of books banned by the Refinement Society.

The eyes stopped their surveillance and locked onto me. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, sir,” the officer said. It was clear that it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference if he was.

“No,” I said, carefully keeping my expression neutral and suppressing the urge to cringe under the dispassionate gaze. “I just, er, realized that I’m late for an engagement.” Stepping sideways, I ducked behind the nearest bookcase and slunk away out of sight. The truth was that I wasn’t quite late yet. I’d hoped I could finish reading one more chapter before leaving the library, but that was going to be impossible now.

I consulted my mental map of the labyrinthine library and tried to plot a course that would keep me hidden until I was just a step from the doors. In the midst of my strategizing, I hurried around a corner and nearly collided with another patron. My feet stopped, but momentum carried the rest of me forward until I teetered precariously over a young woman whose arms were laden with books. Looking up, she started in shock from what must surely have seemed a madman standing inches away from her, balancing on his toes with arms wind-milling in absurd attempt to keep from falling.

At the last moment my hand caught a bookshelf and I recovered short of disaster. Immediately, I stepped back to a respectful distance. “Ah… excuse me,” I said, inclining my head to the woman. Lady, I mentally corrected myself as I got a good look at her. She wore a dark grey dress that had clearly been tailored for her, not cut from templates and stitched together by machine hands. Her black hair was pulled back from her face by a pair of brass clips behind her ears. Green eyes blinked at me in confusion.

With the skill of one of the disaffected, I gauged the distance between us in gentle society, acutely aware of my own disheveled hair and ill-fitting jacket. I was already assuming an expression of disdain for the opulence of the rich when I noticed the books she carried. They were, line for line, the same titles listed on the bulletin posted by the door. Immediately, my opinion of the lady shifted toward the favorable.

“I wouldn’t bother, Miss,” I said in a low voice. “They’ve already posted the list, and there’s a grinder watching.”

“A grinder?” she glanced toward the doors.

“An agent from the Refinement Society will be here any minute to collect those.” I indicated the stack in her hands.

She looked down at the twenty or so books in confusion. “But…”

“Are you new to the city?” I positioned myself so that I stood between her and the aisle that led to the doors. Hoarding was strictly prohibited, and even being seen carrying a stack of banned books would be enough cause for a pair of grinders to come calling in search of contraband.

“I just arrived last night from Crawlit.”

Nodding, I helped her set the books down on the floor and continued whispering. “I’ve heard that the influence of the Refinement Society isn’t as strong down there, and that it takes a day or two to get a retrieval agent to all the shops. Here in Rikheim it takes less than a day for them to sweep the whole city.” To save the endangered books, we had to post runners who would read the list as it was posted in one shop and then dash to another that the grinders hadn’t reached yet. The agents were already starting to catch on, though. I glanced nervously over my shoulder.

She held on firmly to the bottom book in the stack as I tried to take it from her, Discourses on the Principles of Natural Philosophy. When I looked at her in askance, she stared back without blinking. “It’s going to be burned,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered. “It will be re-released.”

She looked at me quizzically, releasing her hold on the book. “You mean to say someone’s already hoar–”

“Why, I haven’t introduced myself have I?” I interrupted quickly as I set down the book, hoping that she would take the hint. Grinders had good ears, and one had to be discrete when discussing illegal activities. “My name is James Ivan.”

She stood straight and inclined her head to me politely, as dictated by the years of etiquette instilled in every child of civilized society. “Vanadis. Lydia Vanadis.”

“Is someone accompanying you?” I asked, looking around eagerly for her escort. For her to have been carrying the books so openly, he must have possessed a similar disposition. There were precious few of us left in Rikheim who sought truth and worked to keep it from disappearing behind the blank steel walls of the Refinement Society.

She hesitated. “No.” My surprise must have been evident, because she looked away in embarrassment. “My home is only a few blocks away. I had only meant to stop in for a few minutes to look around, but when I saw the list being posted¼”

“Well, please allow me the honor of escorting you home. Even in the heart of Rikheim, it isn’t safe for a lady to walk alone at night.” Those were my own years of etiquette talking. There hadn’t been a violent crime in the city center for years. Yet in spite of that, the thought of a lady unescorted conjured all manner of imaginary villains and predators that might lay in wait for just such an opportunity.

Only a moment passed before she nodded her consent. Smiling, I bowed and proceeded to lead her out of the forest of books. We exited the shadows into the well-lit central corridor, though the space was packed almost as tightly with tables and chairs. I blinked in the sudden illumination and looked back to make sure Lydia did not stumble over the stacks of books littering the floor. I should have paid closer attention to my own feet, as they carried me straight into the grinder who had been standing by the door.

He was a head taller than me, with shoulders half again as wide. Hitting his unyielding chest was like slamming my face into a brick wall. I stumbled backwards in surprise and in pain, biting back a curse. His hand darted out and grabbed my wrist. It kept me from falling, but also kept me from following my instincts and bolting like a hare.

Held in his vice-like grip, I was pulled upward until I stood on my toes, my nose an inch from his steel badge. A tiny glass window in the polished metal allowed me to see the clockwork inside, spinning in constant movement. Dozens of small gears clicked back and forth with precision, the sounds of them grinding against each other combining into the audible tick-ck, tick-ck, tick-ck that was a grinder’s heartbeat. The words embossed across the top of the badge gleamed, LAWFUL IMPLEMENT #246, RIKHEIM.

I read the number again to be sure; the last I’d heard, the Royal Machinery had only manufactured a hundred the mechanical constabulary. The heavy monotone voice spoke again, his square jaw moving with mechanical precision to shape each word. “Is this man bothering you, Miss?”

Lydia stared up at the towering grinder curiously as if she had never seen one before. She spoke after only a moment of hesitation though. “No. I had lost track of the time and didn’t realize it was growing dark outside. This kind gentleman has offered to see me home safely.”

From my uncomfortable vantage I watched the gears click and spin, then change direction. The pressure on my wrist was released and I was allowed to stand under my own power again. “Thank you,” I said acidly.

Cold blue eyes gazed down at me from an expressionless face. “Don’t mention it, sir.” I was tempted to think he was being sarcastic, but the grinders were incapable of subtlety. They had only 27 classifications for people, ranging from foreigners and criminals all the way up to royalty. I didn’t pretend to know how the behavioral enneagraph worked, but Lydia’s statement had apparently been enough to bring my score above the bar in the grinder’s clockwork brain. A second ago I had rated as a Potential Deviant, warranting close scrutiny. Now I was a courteous young Gentleman, entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof.

Instead of grabbing Lydia’s hand and running for the door, I casually strolled out as she trailed behind. My score was almost certainly still just on the edge of acceptable, and I didn’t want to do anything that might tip the scale back over the line again. I spared the list of banned books a passing glare as we walked under it.

The familiar heading was printed in thick letters above the list of titles.

As we have no safe method of investigating any cause but by its known effects, it is therefore unphilosophical and unlawful, to assume the liberty of imagining that there exists more than one cause of an effect. More causes of natural things are not to be admitted than those acknowledged by the Refinement Society to be both true and sufficient to explain the phenomena.

It stood out boldly as if issuing a challenge; daring anyone to question its relevance. It had been the Refinement Society’s original purpose to guard against the dangerous and immoral. However it became clear almost immediately that their intention was to limit, rather than safeguard, all philosophical research and experimentation. Substances which were invisible and intangible like electricity and light, whose properties were still only dimly understood, were deemed dangerous and declared Imponderable. All research pertaining to Imponderable substances was outlawed. A few years ago the Refinement Society had extended their authority to include approving and censoring printed information as well, and began culling books from both public and private libraries.

Outside in the cool night air, twilight had faded and the sky was almost completely black. A lone lamp-man passed us on the white marble steps of the library, his pole over one shoulder. He walked from post to post, reaching up with the hooked pole to deftly turn on the gas and light the lamp with a burning taper. As soon as the door closed behind us I began walking faster. “Come on,” I said as she hurried to keep up. “We still might be able to make it.”

“But my home is that way,” she said, pointing the opposite direction into the darkening gloom.

“Are you expected?” I asked, slowing. I didn’t wish to be responsible for abducting a young lady on her way home.

She shook her head. “There’s no one there now. I was given free reign to explore Rikheim today.”

I glanced anxiously at the clock in the wall above the library doors, its radium-painted face glowing dimly in the darkness above the lamplight. They would be locking the doors any minute. “Look, those books you were trying to save? I want to introduce you to some of the people who read them, but we must hurry. Please trust me,” I implored. “I mean you no harm whatsoever.”

After another agonizing few seconds she made up her mind and nodded her assent. I smiled and spun on my toes, almost running now. I could hear Lydia’s boots striking the pavement close behind as we hurried deeper into the maze of buildings. The alleys grew narrower, and soon the warm glow of the streetlights was left behind.

The back door of the theater, illuminated from above by a single green flame, was just closing as I rounded the last corner. I called out in a hoarse whisper, as loud as I dared. “Wait!” The door stopped two inches from the jamb as I skidded to a stop just outside. Trying to force my way in would have guaranteed my being thrown out again immediately, as well as being barred from any future gatherings. I waited.

“Late again, Iban,” a low, lisping voice queried from within.

“Sorry,” I muttered the apology sheepishly.

The door hesitated for a moment before swinging fully open. Lydia took my arm and we both entered, ducking slightly through the low doorway and into the shadows within.

As soon as we were in, the door swung shut again. Behind it stood a short, broad-shouldered man with scars down the right half of his face and neck. With a grunt, he lifted a thick oak beam under his right arm and rested it against the closed door. The solid slab of wood had to weigh at least three hundred pounds, but he still shoved it into place with one hand.

From the corner of my eye I could see Lydia staring at the man as I spoke to him. “Thank you, Taylor.”

Taylor flashed a lopsided grin, revealing white teeth. “Ebenin’, Mishter Iban.” He looked at Lydia, his one eye twinkling. “I barn yeh, Mish. Bein’ new to Rikheimh, yeh prob’ly ain’t heard yet, but dish one’sh a right shcoundrel.”

Lydia started. “How did you know I’m new to the city?”

Taylor’s grin grew into half of a smile. He tapped a finger to the unscarred left side of his face. “Got a good eye.” His gaze shifting back to me, he nodded toward another low door. “Ye’d besht hurry, Mishter Iban. Dey’ve already shtarted.”

I nodded my thanks as Lydia and I ducked through another small doorway that led into a darkened auditorium, the reflectors of the few gas lights that lined the forward edge of the stage were directed up to illuminate a woman whom I recognized as Miss Virginia Campbell. She stood between two chalkboards, gesturing to the complicated diagram on the right as she spoke. It appeared to be a spectrum chart she was pointing to, while on the left was a chart listing times of day and corresponding measurements.

Keeping low and unobtrusive, Lydia and I crept forward and found seats among perhaps a score of other men and women in attendance. It seemed a pitiful number in this cavernous theater that was capable of seating hundreds. We filled up the forward-most seats as if we were primitives afraid of the night, crowding in close around the light of a fire.

“…green and sometimes even blue,” Ms. Campbell was saying. Already engrossed in the lecture, it took a moment to notice that Lydia was tapping my shoulder. I tore my eyes from the diagram on stage and looked at her sitting next to me. Her face was almost hidden by shadows, highlighted only by the diffuse light coming from the stage.

“Where are we?” she asked in a hushed whisper.

I smiled in the darkness. “The Underground Lecturehall.”

Her eyes went wide, and I caught the barest hint of green reflected in them from the stage lights. She stared at those around us again, her gaze darting from face to face in the gloom.

I didn’t blame her for being afraid at first. Our small group was infamous across the inner coast as a band of murderers and lunatics, who conducted grotesque experiments and plotted bloody revolutions nightly. Once the lectures were all completed I planned to introduce her to some of the other members and disprove those rumors.

As Ms Campbell finished, I joined the other members of the audience in applauding quietly. Absently, Lydia clapped her hands together as well while she continued to look at those around us.

An older woman, Mrs. Evan, stood from the audience and stepped forward into the lights. Her yellow dress was fine, but clearly had seen better days. “Thank you, Virginia,” she said to Ms Campbell before turning to face the rest of us. “Who would like to go next?” My hand stole to my pocket and fingered the large diamond I’d brought with me. I’d planned to speak tonight about what I’d learned in my own experiments with the amazing gems, but now decided against it. Lydia was my guest, and it would be ungracious of me to desert her.

Eventually, a young man stood. I recognized him as Dr. Edward William, a member of the faculty at the university. Mrs. Evan recognized him as well. “Edward? Very well, go ahead.” She sat down again as Dr. William made his way to the stage.

I grimaced and steeled myself against the boredom ahead. Dr. William was the brilliant man who had been able to, through only empirical observations, decipher the various classifications of the grinders’ enneagraphs. There were always at least two stationed at the university, which had allowed the doctor to watch and take note of what had once been their inexplicably abrupt changes in personality. Over time, he had come to realize that each grinder had a sort of personality map that they used to rate a citizen’s social standing. He had been vital to us in evading their scrutiny. I made a mental note to find him afterward to notify him of my own run-in with #246.

There was a definite reduction in the energy of the audience as Dr William tacked up his now familiar pinwheel-shaped charts. As he began his speech, I already felt the muscles of my throat trying to stretch and bit back a yawn. Although undoubtedly brilliant, the doctor’s droning lectures were infamous at the university as a cure for even the worst afflictions of insomnia.

Lydia, having had a chance to calm down, now looked at her surroundings with more curiosity than fear. She leaned close and whispered, “This is the Flatstreet Playhouse, isn’t it? I always thought that the Underground Lecturehall was… underground.”

“It’s a metaphor,” I whispered. “For being out of the light and hidden.”

Onstage, Williams droned on. “…Factors that are known to be significant include accent and tone of voice, rapidity of eye movement, dress, posture…”

I tried to follow his gestures to the chart, but it was just as cryptic as the many others he had displayed in the past. Every year the Royal Machinery produced new models of the peace keepers that were more sophisticated. I could still remember the first ponderous steel machines, painted blue and plodding heavily down the center of the street, only able to speak a few prerecorded phrases. These days they were given clothes and their faces were artfully painted to resemble flesh. One could almost lose them in a crowd if not for their seven-foot stature and distinctive blue uniform.

As Williams brought out another chart, indistinguishable from the first, my gaze began to wander of its own accord. Only a few of the listeners displayed any real enthusiasm; the rest either watched with glazed eyes, no doubt lost in their own thoughts, or fidgeted impatiently as I did. Lydia watched Williams with an expression of polite curiosity. Near the door we had used to enter the theater, I could see the outline of Taylor’s wide shoulders in the darkness. He leaned unmoving against the wall and I wondered if he was really even awake.

Movement on stage caught my attention, though not from Williams, who stood immobile as a statue except for his arm as he explained the minutiae of the charts. The red silk curtain, which had remained closed behind the speakers, shifted slightly. Someone moving behind it had brushed against the other side of the fabric. My energy quickly returning, I sat up eagerly in my seat. Would there be a demonstration tonight after all, I wondered? My impatience with Williams’ interminable speech was redoubled. It was an eternity later that he finally concluded and took down his charts. I happily applauded as he vacated the stage. Mrs. Evan stood again once he had seated himself.

“Thank you Edward,” she said. “Anyone else?” Shoving the diamond deeper in my pocket, I hunched my shoulders as if back in the classroom, hoping not to be called on by the professor. After a moment of silence she nodded. “Very well.”

She turned toward the stage and called out, “Gervas? Are you ready?”

A muffled voice replied from behind the curtains. “Yes, just a moment!”

A thrill of excitement made the hair on the back of my neck stand. Gervas Swartzwahnsinn. Founder of the Underground Lecturehall, and firmly instilled at the top of every list of intellectual outlaws. Where most of the rest of us were content to quietly observe and take notes and theorize, Professor Swartzwahnsinn had boldly defied the Refinement Society from the start, conducting illegal experiments in order to test his theories and publically announcing the results.

As the Refinement Society’s influence within the government spread however, he soon found himself placed on probation at the university, his lectures canceled and even his professorship in question. I had added my signature and vote to every petition to have him reinstated, but to no avail. It had hardly been a surprise to any of us who knew him when the grinders finally broke down the doors to his manor house and discovered an expansive and illegal laboratory in the cellars. Least surprising of all to Professor Swartzwahnsinn himself it seemed, since they also found that the house had clearly been uninhabited for weeks.

I saw Taylor’s shadowed bulk move toward the edge of the curtains and disappear behind them. A moment later there was the sound of wooden gears and pulleys turning, and the curtain parted. Behind it, taking up most of the stage, was a cacophony of brass and steel. Wires and tubes curled around glass cylinders and gearboxes, all situated around what looked like a metal table. Standing on three narrow legs, its surface gleamed like polished silver in the stage lights. Many of the wires leading from the machine wound around the narrow legs of the table to connect to the underside of the silver plate.

Eyes wide, I tried to take in everything. The capacitors were easy to recognize, fifteen of them in a line on the far right. Some of the pipes were giving off a white vapor and likely carried some sort of frigoric. What it was meant to cool, I had no inkling; the pipes terminated at seemingly random intervals throughout the machinery.

“Good evening,” Gervas said, addressing us all. “As you know, my research has been concerned primarily with the nature of the various phenomena that the Refinement Society has deemed Imponderable. Our eventual understanding and mastering of these forces has been my goal from the onset. What you will see in a moment,” he gestured to the collection of machinery. “Is not directly a part of my pursuits. It is a discovery which may be described as a tangent of my primary goal, but one which I believe is important enough to warrant this demonstration.”

Pivoting on his toe, he strode back to the front of the machine and pulled several small levers. There was an electric crackle and a blue spark as the capacitors hummed. He continued to speak over the sound as he checked numerous meters set into a panel next to the levers, the acoustics of the auditorium conveying his voice to us. “I had been experimenting with various ways of neutralizing each Imponderable in order to render them nearly inert and thus study their effects closely without danger to myself or my equipment.”

After consulting the meters, he reached up and pushed one lever back into place. Apparently satisfied with the result, he moved to the metal tank and opened a pair of valves. Pipes leading off a large tank hissed angrily, venting jets of the white vapor into the air. Consulting another panel of gauges Gervas spun the valves almost all the way back until there was only a soft hiss emanating from the pipes.

“Caloric and frigoric were both simple enough to neutralize, heat and cold being opposing elements. The two opposing components of electricity, electrile and etherile, similarly could be used to balance each other, albeit with some greater difficulty. Magnetism proved very troublesome to counteract…” He knelt and turned a crank near the floor, taking nearly a minute this time to consult the meter next to it and adjust the crank again before standing. He moved quickly between different sections, spending more time at each panel and making what I assumed were finer and smaller adjustments to the machine.

As he progressed, I became aware of a slight ringing in my ears. A high-pitched keening just barely loud enough to be discerned, yet I could somehow still hear it through the noise made by Gervas’s machine. It seemed to have no source, resonating through me from all directions at once.

Gervas stopped before the final component, the silver table itself. “Eventually I reached the point at which I now stand, having successfully neutralized the influence of all imponderable materials in the desired area.” He indicated the space above the tabletop. “Then I was struck with a moment of perverse curiosity: what would happen if I was to remove all ponderable material as well?” He reached past the table and brought out a clear glass dome attached to a rubber hose that led back into the machine. The dome fit perfectly over the round tabletop.

When Gervas activated the last switch, I heard a low groaning sound from the machine. I assumed it was pulling the air out of the sealed dome, removing all of the ponderable gasses from the space above the tabletop. At the same time, the strange ringing in my ears rose in pitch. The groaning ceased, and I and everyone else in the audience waited expectantly. Hands held behind his back, Gervas stood smiling, enjoying his captive audience.

Finally, he spoke again. “I watched and waited, but it seemed that this was the answer to my question: Nothing. But then I realized I’d forgotten to neutralize the influence of one last Imponderable.” Gervas raised his hand and called out, “If you’re ready?” His hand dropped and every light in the auditorium suddenly went dark, their fuel cut off, presumably by someone backstage.

Sitting silently in the total darkness I listened to the strange all-pervasive keening sound rise until it became almost a whine. Gervas’s voice floated out to us from the direction of the stage. “Please be patient, it will take a moment.”

Totally enthralled, I nearly jumped out of my seat in surprise when someone leaned in close and whispered in my ear. I had completely forgotten about Lydia in my excitement! “Pardon?” I whispered, embarrassment vying with irritation at the interruption.

“Who is that?” Lydia whispered again.

In spite of the darkness, I turned my head to stare at where I thought she was. “Gervas? Gervas Swartzvahnsinn?” True, he hadn’t been introduced, but it had hardly been necessary. I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t at least guessed.

I felt her stiffen next to me in the dark. “Gervas Swartzvahnsinn? The most wanted intellectual outlaw in Rikheim?”

“Wanted dead, here and in every other city in the Empire,” I whispered proudly.

A sharp intake of breath from somewhere in the darkness drew my eyes back toward the stage. After a moment I thought I could make out the barest flicker of light. In another few seconds it had brightened to a pale glow.

I could just barely discern Gervas’s outline where he stood next to the glow. “I believe that what you see here is a primordial state of all matter, both ponderable and imponderable. This proto-material is very likely what the whole universe consisted of before the first unstable imbalances caused it to break down and disseminate into the various elements we all now know. I call it apeiron.”

In the dim colorless light, Gervas was turning off the machinery again. Thankfully, the incessant ringing faded as the various components were shut down. Gervas continued to speak. “The light you see isn’t generated by the aperion directly. Rather, it is created by the surface of the table and the few remaining molecules of air as they react with the proto-material.”

There was a hiss of air as Gervas detached the glass dome and air rushed in to fill the void. The apeiron flared as it came into contact with the air, illuminating the whole stage in a colorless silvery light. “If left alone, this piece will last for perhaps an hour before fully sublimating back into normal materials. It’s very reactive with all matter, to degrees I have yet to understand.”

My view of the stage was obstructed for a moment as Lydia walked past me. “Lydia?” I whispered. “What are you-?” She didn’t stop or even acknowledge me as she made her way through the dark back toward the door we had used to enter the auditorium.

I stared after her in the light shed by the apeiron while conflicting desires warred within me. On stage, Gervas was revealing secrets that could be key to understanding the fundamental nature of existence. I knew that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I left before he was finished.

But Lydia was my unwitting guest. She had only been trying to save a few books from the furnaces of the Refinement Society, and I had practically abducted her as soon as she exited the library. Unknowing, she’d allowed me to take her into the heart of an illegal gathering of intellectual outlaws and their infamous leader. Never mind that our infamy was ill-deserved, it was no wonder that it had all been too much for her.

Silently berating myself as a fool, I stood from my seat and chased after Lydia’s retreating back. Taylor would be standing guard again, and would not let anyone leave until the meeting was over. She had been intimidated enough by the scarred man the first time, and I feared she might panic if it appeared we were holding her captive.

She had nearly reached the door when I caught up with her. I placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Lydia, I’m sorry. I should have– hey!” Instead of stopping at the door she continued past it without slowing and began climbing the stairs to the stage, pulling free from my hand.

Bewildered, I stumbled after her. “What are you doing?” I hissed angrily, grabbing her arm.

My hand had all the restraining effect of a clinging spider web as Lydia strode purposefully out onto the stage. Incredulous, I pulled, digging my heels in and leaning backward, but Lydia didn’t even slow. Gervas stopped speaking as she entered the light of the apeiron, dragging me behind her.

“Yes?” Gervas asked, bemused.

There was a murmur of disapproval and anger from the audience, and my membership flashed before my eyes. Never mind the embarrassment of my guest having taken leave of her senses, I would be lucky if I wasn’t banned from all future meetings for interrupting a lecture given by the clubs founder himself.

Abandoning both etiquette and chivalry, I reached around with both hands and grabbed Lydia’s middle in a bear-hug, pinning her arms to her sides. I strained backward, intending to bodily lift her and carry her off the stage. But her feet remained on the stage floor as if her boots had been nailed there. I could no more lift her than I could have lifted Gervas’s machine.

It was then, straining with my arms wrapped tightly around her and my ear pressed against her back, that I finally heard it.

Tick-ck, tick-ck, tick-ck.

Her heartbeat.

In my shock, my arms lost their strength and I slid to the floor as she walked onward. “Please stay back, Mr. Ivan,” she ordered without looking back.

Twenty feet from Gervas, she stopped. Silhouetted by the pale light of the apeiron, she appeared as a dark apparition facing the ghostly illuminated professor. “Gervas Swartzwahnsinn,” she addressed him. “You are under arrest, for conducting unlawful research and for the possession and dissemination of unlawful knowledge.”

“Really?” Nonplused, Gervas reached into his waistcoat and produced a thin wheel-lock pistol. Training it on Lydia, he slowly backed away. “I would have been impressed with your ingenuity, young woman, to have so skillfully infiltrated our group. However, your premature assumption has made your abilities somewhat more suspect.”

Lydia matched him step for step, keeping the distance between them the same. “You will surrender now, or I will forcibly subdue you.”

Having regained my senses again, I quietly stood and moved so that I was upstage from them both. My feet picked their way gingerly through the cables and wires that criss-crossed the floor in the dark, until my back was pressed against Gervas’s machine. A grinder! I had invited a grinder to the Underground Lecturehall!

Beyond the edge of the stage, the audience was already fleeing the theater. It wouldn’t matter though, I thought to myself darkly. Grinders had the ability to recall a finite amount of information. I couldn’t begin to guess what Lydia’s capabilities were, but even #246 would have been able to recollect enough for someone at the Refinement Society to put a name to every face. Even if Gervas did manage to somehow escape, every other member here tonight would be arrested within the next twenty-four hours.

Reminding myself that this seemingly delicate woman was just another lawful implement, I dove forward with as much power as I could muster. She might weigh two hundred kilograms or more, but I hoped that if I hit her with enough force, I might be able to knock her off the stage into the orchestra pit.

It felt like trying to tackle a lamppost. Pain that spoke of torn muscles and ligaments exploded from my shoulder as it collided with her middle and we both fell. Unfortunately Lydia didn’t fall so much as tip over, landing heavily several centimeters short from the edge of the pit. I cried out as my leg caught in the tangled cords and twisted. The table they were connected to was pulled over and the lump of apeiron tumbled to the wooden stage.

Head spinning from pain, in the pale light I saw Lydia’s face regarding me from where she had fallen. She kept her eyes on me as she stood, and I tried unsuccessfully to stand as well. Aiding a criminal against a grinder was the best way to label oneself a criminal as well. As she looked down at me, I braced myself for the worst.

“Please do not interfere, sir,” she said politely.

Incredulous, I stared up at her as she turned her attention back to Gervas, who had been trying to slip past us toward the door. Suddenly, Taylor’s bulk materialized out of the darkness to stand between them. I called out to him, “She’s a grinder!”

“Notished dat, tanksh,” he lisped as he raised a heavy iron pry bar and swung it at her head. There was a sound of metal striking metal as she neatly deflected the blow with her forearm. Grimacing angrily, Taylor used both hands to swing the pry bar in a downward stroke. Lightning quick, Lydia reached up and caught the bar in her hand while simultaneously her other hand reached out to touch Taylor’s chest. There was an electric sizzle and the smell of scorched cloth. Taylor’s whole body spasmed once before his eye rolled up and he toppled backward to hit the stage unconscious.

Dropping the pry bar, Lydia quickly closed the distance between herself and Gervas. He raised the pistol and fired point blank, but to no effect. She merely grasped his wrist and twisted until he was forced to drop the gun. “You will surrender.” It was a statement, not a request.

I stood painfully, bracing myself unsteadily on the silver table. My mind raced. I should have been lying unconscious like Taylor after having attacked her. The only explanation was that she hadn’t thought I was a criminal. Before my ineffectual attack, she had called me ‘Mr Ivan’. Afterward, she had only called me ‘Sir’. I realized with a shock that she must have regarded me as a Gentleman. How high must I have been rated before, that a bodily attack had only reduced me to that? An Upstanding Citizen at the very least.

Grimacing at the pain, I stumbled to lean against Gervas’s machine. From there I moved to intercept Lydia as she calmly dragged the struggling Gervas toward the door. A streak of exposed metal on her cheek, presumably from Gervas’s bullet, gleamed in the apeiron light. The table served as a makeshift cane as I limped, dragging the several cables that still connected it to the machine. William’s pinwheels spun in my head as I tried without success to estimate how many points I had left to lose before she would view me as an enemy as well. As I reached them I held out the table. “Lydia! Take this, quickly!”

She looked at me quizzically, but reached out with her free hand to grasp the stand. There was an electric hum, and the tabletop lurched to fasten against her chest. I smiled in triumph to see that I had correctly identified the levers on Gervas’s machine which activated the magnets in the table. Lydia released Gervas to grasp the legs of the table with both hands and attempt to remove it.

Free, Gervas stumbled away from her and scrambled to his feet. “Quickly James!” he called to me as he ran back to the controls of the machine. “Before she gets it off!” In spite of everything I couldn’t help but elate that after so many years the professor still remembered my name. Holding my arm to my side I gritted my teeth and limped back as swiftly as I could to where he stood at another panel, spinning dials. “Turn everything on!” he ordered. “All the way!”

I obeyed, closing the circuits to the capacitors and opening the valves as far as they would go. My hair stood on end in the charged air and the keening sound returned to my ears, redoubled. On the floor the apeiron responded to the changes, the light it shed shifting from pale white to a deep violet color.

At stage left, Lydia couldn’t gain the leverage to pull the table more than a few centimeters away from her chest. Shaking, she stood immobile as she was exposed to the myriad Imponderables generated by Gervas’s machine. Her dress and hair crackled and smoked, while electric arcs danced between her arms and fingers. Finally, she shuddered and jerked spasmodically with the sound of metal screeching against metal. The magnetized table came free from her hands and struck her chest with enough force to tip her backward.

At a nod from Gervas, I began powering down the machine once more. As I did, the light from the apeiron brightened, but still retained its purple hue. When I had finished, I joined him where he stood over the motionless grinder. Her arms were held out rigidly in front of her, her toes pointed up as if she were still standing. Green eyes stared unseeing at the table that rested on her chest.

Now that his machine was once again quiet, Gervas was able to easily remove the table and set it aside. The front of her dress had crumbled away to reveal a polished badge over where her heart should have been. It was silver, rather than the usual grinder steel, and engraved across the top were the words, LAWFUL AGENT #3, CRAWLIT. In the violet light I could just discern the tiny gears through the small window. A few still twitched back and forth futilely, but most of them remained locked and motionless. Absently I reached down and closed her eyes, the lids clicking shut.

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