Author's Note – Submitted for Kahlan Aisling's monthly challenge of Steampunk. A Steampunk-ified version of The Sender and the Messanger, book 1. I know that Mr. Benedict's message picker-upper isn't underground, but I took the liberty of changing the location for effect. Now as you can probably see, I didn't use the prompt. I've never written anything for this era, style, or setting, and this is completely experimental. Let's see how this works out, shall we?
Disclaimer – Do I own MBS? Nope, still don't.
~The Sender and the Receiver~
Mr. Benedict led the four children through the narrow, underground passages that led to his pet invention; the Receiver. Their faces stood out of the gloom, lit by the yellowish lights set within the glass orbs that lined the hall.
Mr. Benedict, who was in the lead, had a nose much like a large vegetable and messy white hair that was mostly obscured by the top hat he wore. This was not an ordinary top hat in that it had ten monocles. Five on each side, they extended on long, hinged pieces of bronze so that the wearer of the hat could pull down his choice of monocle from the hat brim and then, when he was done, shove it back up and out of the way. He was clothed in a green suit with bronze buttons on the shirt and bronze boots. The boots had pipes and wires creeping all over it like ivy on an old building. One pipe sometimes shot out a cloud of steamed and glowed slightly, emitting a sort of squeal as it did so.
Kate followed closely behind him, her eyes gleaming with excitement. She wore what was traditionally boy's attire; a leather jerkin, a red, long sleeved shirt, and black leather pants. She to wore boots, but these were of a more normal variety than the inventor's in front of her were. Strapped to her hip, she wore a dark red, slightly greasy looking bucket that was full to the brim with odd and useful items – a rope, a magnet, a bronze-plated kaleidoscope with multiple levers and dials, a bottle of grease, a pencil, an extremely grimy flashlight, a penlight, a length of wire, a wrench, and many other odds and ends.
More cautiously came Reynard, clad in a leather jerkin, a long white button-up shirt, and pants made of a bluish fabric. He glanced around often at the boy behind him, who looked scared and even smaller than usual in the eerie glow surrounding them.
Sticky, indeed, was scared. He had no idea who this crazy inventor leading them to his pet invention was, but his slightly creepy manner frightened him. When he'd read in the papers about special opportunities, he had never imagined that he'd be thrown into this madman's world of clockwork and jets of steam. Mr. Benedict had seemed kindly and understanding at first, but as time had worn on the man became more and more animated and loud, and when he wasn't shouting he was muttering to himself about poison apples and golden thoughts, or something like that. And even though Sticky had volunteered to go on the team, he couldn't help feeling that Mr. Benedict could not be trusted.
Behind him, Constance trooped doggedly along, sweltering under her many layers of petticoats and stockings. She hated the clothing, but she had been wearing them for ages and was loathe to change.
Bringing up the rear, two women in bronze plate armour padded almost silently along. The joints of the armour were well greased so that they didn't squeak, and the feet were padded so that they didn't clank. Like Mr. Benedict's boots, the plates of metal were covered in pipes that shot steam and dials that whirred and gears that clicked into place at every move. As for the women themselves, one was Rhonda, a very pretty young woman with coal black skin, and the other was Number Two, a tall, thin woman who reminded the children of a pencil.
At last the seven people reached the door to Mr. Benedict's laboratory and workroom. The door was an extravagant affair, with gears, knobs, chains, pipes, and dials covering its surface. Mr. Benedict stepped forward with a tiny golden key clutched in his hand and turned a dial to a certain place. Instantly, a panel slid away, revealing a keyhole. Mr. Benedict inserted the key, twisted, and opened the door.
The children's mouths fell open in awe. This place was far beyond their imaginings of the inventor's lair. Huge bronze pipes stretched to the ceiling and back to the floor again, twisting and splitting like the Hydra fighting a warrior who had no torch. Gears, switches, levers, blueprints, patents, clocks, buttons, eye glasses, and bits of scrap metal lay everywhere. The room was a terrific mess, and Kate wondered, in the recesses of her mind, how he managed to invent anything when his room was such a colossal disaster.
Dominating the scene was a huge gramophone with a record in it, alongside a wireless radio. As the children gawped and gaped at the size and mess of the room, Number Two hurried forward and set the needle upon the record, preparing to play it.
"A brief word before we begin, Number Two," said Mr. Benedict loudly. Turning to the children, he said, "I was doing a bit of tinkering when I noticed something odd. When I set a needle on a piece of wet clay, and spin the clay, nothing much happens besides the clay getting a groove. But when I do that when a radio is on nearby, the needle vibrates in a very peculiar way. I thought that it would engrave the frequency of the channel upon the clay, and thus when a gramophone needle played upon the grooves, the words of the program would be played backwards. But instead, when I played the engravings backwards, I got something else altogether. Something, I fear, more sinister. There are messages being transmitted by radio – messages that the people who listen to radio receive without noticing it. Rather like someone whispering in your ear while you are asleep." Sticky shuddered. "These messages come across as a sort of poetic gibberish. I do not know what they mean, but I fear it to be something very bad indeed. Number Two – if you please." Number Two nodded and returned to setting up the massive instruments. Finally, she turned it on. A child's voice filled the room, slow and droning;
The missing aren't missing, they're only departed.
All minds keep their thoughts – so like gold – closely guarded.
The people must war so that there is peace.
Control must be had so that populace feast.
Defy not the Institute.
Defy not the Institute.
Grow the lawn and mow the lawn.
Always keep the radio on.
Brush your teeth and kill the germs.
Poison apples poison worms.
On and on the voice went, never pausing, never changing. Each and every one of the children in the room felt a shudder pass down their spines as the child spoke the last words before Number Two shut the gramophone off. Defy not the Institute.
"That would be the Institute for the Very Enlightened?" asked Reynard. Mr. Benedict tapped his nose.
"Indeed. My sentiments exactly. It would seem that that is where the messages are being sent from. We –" Mr. Benedict cocked his head to one side suddenly, as though he had heard something, yet the room was silent, save a faint squeal as steam gushed out of one of the huge bronze pipes. Slowly, inexorably, he began to move towards the children, his face blank and his arms outstretched like a sleepwalker.
Rhonda and Number Two glanced at one another, clearly worried by the man's odd and eerie behaviour. "Sleepwalking?" asked Rhonda.
"But his eyes are open." Number Two laid a restraining bronze-clad hand on Mr. Benedict's shoulder.
Mr. Benedict moved so fast that the assembly barely saw it. One moment Number Two had been trying to hold the old man back, the next she lay on the floor with Mr. Benedict's bronze boot pressing down on her chest puffing clouds of steam into her face. In fact, several of Number Two's ribs would have been broken by the immense strength with which the crazy inventor pinned her to the floor if not for her armour. As it was, one of the gears had been bent, restricting her movement, and one of the pipes had been crushed to the point where Number Two's constant supply of liquid food no longer reached her.
Mr. Benedict's face was still blank, even as he slowly pressed down on Number Two's chest. The bronze plates, to everyone's astonishment, began to buckle. Three sharp cracks sounded, and Number Two cried out in pain. Mr. Benedict then turned back to the children. He said, in a strangely toneless voice, "My brother sends his regards. You must come or be destroyed." He attacked.
Throughout this time, the children had been watching, too horrified to speak. Now though, Kate kicked into high gear. Reaching into her bucket, she brought out a slingshot and a small burlap bag of iron spheres. Fitting one to the slingshot, she loosed it at the inventor, just as Rhonda cried out, "It's Mr. Curtain! Run!" The children needed no convincing. Kate instinctively scooped up Constance and set her on her back. Rhonda saw her turn to pick up Number Two, who lay moaning and groaning on the scuffed wooden floor.
"Leave her, Kate! We need to leave – now!" The five people beat a quick retreat back down the narrow passageway that they had come through, Rhonda speaking as they ran, "Mr. Benedict wanted a work partner – someone just as brilliant as he. He made an automaton in his likeness – one so similar that even he couldn't tell the difference. The automaton was indeed as clever as its creator, but it wasn't nearly as kind. It became obsessive, cruel, even. One day he ran away. We learned from Milligan that he had started the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, and that he had begun to call himself Mr. Curtain. Mr. Curtain must have captured Mr. Benedict and taken you four to the Receiver in the hopes of capturing – or killing – you."
Sticky would have, under normal circumstances, made inquiries into how Mr. Curtain had been built, however he was far too winded to speak, never mind form a comprehensible question.
"You must come with me or be destroyed!" the voice of Mr. Curtain echoed through the hallway, spurring the five on to greater speeds.
"There's no escaping him. He can run for as long as he still has a functioning power module, and we can't fight him. The only way is to rip off the main pipe on his boots. The one on the backs of them," panted Rhonda, severely winded from running. She slowed to a walk, then stopped, her hands dropping to her bronze plated knees. A few gears clicked and whirred as she did so, sending a puff of steam at Reynard and Sticky.
Kate squared her shoulders, inadvertently letting Constance tumble off her back. As Constance picked herself up – or at least was picked up by Reynard – Kate said, "I'll go. I can do it with my wrench. I'll be back in a flash!" And in just that – a flash – she vanished back down the hall. A sound like a metal ball hitting a metal statue, followed by the sound of wrenching metal, echoed back to the remaining four. The sound of a thousand pots and pans smashing to the floor, an erratic buzzing sound, and a shout of triumph later, Kate re-emerged, holding her wrench like a sword and smiling shakily. "I got him."
Rhonda, Reynard, Sticky, and Constance stared at her blankly. It seemed beyond imagination that this threat, so real and immediate a moment ago, was at an end. And yet the children were still in danger for, even as the defeat of Mr. Curtain was sinking in, the emergency bell started clanging furiously.
Author's Note – I'm not even sure that that counted as steampunk. I did my best at the style and setting, though not my best at plot. I thought that the end was much too abrupt – of course, that's what the characters thought too. Kate's single-handed defeat of the automaton Curtain was implausible, but I did this basically to expand my range – and I did that! This may well be utter rubbish, but I'm rather pleased with myself for writing something from a different era than medieval times. That's when most (okay, all) of my stories outside of fan fiction take place. Look at me – reviewing my own work like it wasn't my own. Now why would I do that when I want you to review it? (Hint hint, nudge nudge.) Thanks.