Georgetown Steam Plant, part II of II

No, there’s really no need to attach those electrodes to my skull.

I’ll tell you everything that happened.  I wouldn’t lie to you.  Not to you.

Wait, this is a treason panel, isn’t it? But why…?

Gentlemen, nobody loves our city state more than I do.  I was born in Seattle.  I remember what this place was like.  Before the Martian war, the Scorching, the Emancipation…  Before the goddamn zeppelin pirates.  Before every other fishing boat had to become an ironclad.  Before the robots starting taking our…

Yes, sir.  Fine.  I’ll get to the point.

Interstellar radio

It all began with a wireless call.

5:00am is a bad time to call me.  Nobody does it unless it’s important.  So I pick up and it’s John.  My friend John, the night technician at the Plant.  You should talk to him too.  He’ll confirm my story, just…

Oh.  No, I didn’t know anything about that.  I was afraid that…  God, I wish I had…

Yes, I can continue.

So John wants me to come down to the plant.  He’s seeing things, he says.  He doesn’t want someone to think he’s crazy.  You and me go way back, he says.  And you’re good at these things.

What things?  But I can’t get a straight answer.

Not like John at all.  So I get my gun.  No sir, standard KP-12, got it at Wade’s.  Not jailbroken.  Legal.  I have the papers at my place.  Oh, you got them there?  Why’d you ask, then?

Steampunk weaponry

You know everything, huh?  Well, I owe John a favor from the war.  Back when we’re first starting to use those giant nitroglycerin bombs against the Martians, I get hit with some shrapnel from one of our zeppelin bombing runs.  Some bloody cowboy clown from Renton, trying to be a avenge his family, be a hero.  Just throwing ’em everywhere.

So I’m wounded, and everything is going a bit dark, but I’m this close to a Martian walker, and even though I’m losing blood like crazy, I really want to see what’s inside the damn things.  Always empty metal shells when we got ’em.  Nobody ever saw one-

Yessir, that was twenty five years ago.  No, it’s not relevant.

He saved my life then, see, and we’re still friends.  So when John asks for a favor, I drag myself out of bed, turn on the pipes, drink some coffee and gear up for war.  For free.

Steampunk seating

So I take a quick balloon to the plant.  Land over where that Boeing kid started making those new airship models last new.  I don’t know what he’s doing there, but the place smells bad.  Like something poisoned it.  We only have so much land left unscorched, and the last thing we need is shit in the Duwamish.  You people really should look into…

Yes sir, sorry.

So I walk towards the plant from the airstrip and there’s John.  Babbling about stars and lights or something like that. You have to see it, he says.  It wants the difference engine to help, and I don’t know what to do.

Yes, that’s what he said.

I realize that it doesn’t make any sense.  But John has tears in his eyes, and I’ve never seen that.

I’ve been under fire with this guy, see.  But I know what he looks like when we’re in an East Side foxhole and the Martians are firing those crazy sonics at us.  So I figure whatever it is, we don’t got ourselves an immediately hostile situation.  Know what I mean?  So I just walk past John, and go through the door into the plant.

Museum interiorWheel

No, except for John the plant was empty.  No guards.

I don’t know.  The other technicians sleep at night, I suppose.  You call ’em if you need ’em. And John’s there to keep the place running, he knows what to do.  But there were no guards.  Are there usually…?

Yeah, need to know, of course.

So I start walking around the plant.  I love seeing this place, it’s like every kid’s little dream of fire trucks and trains and steam engines and gaslights…

No sir, I’ll get to that in a minute.

John is walking with me, telling me he doesn’t know what to do, it’s just too far.  After a minute, I give up asking him questions, and eventually pull rank.  Sergeant, shut up!  And he shuts up.

You never really get the war out of your system.

DoorwaysSteam engine and bridge

So we walk around the ground floor.  Everything seems fine, the whole place humming along just like you’d expect.  I start poking at the gauges, even turning a faucet or two, and John just looks at me wordlessly – like there’s a bear in your tent, but it’s asleep so that’s okay because you know what to do.

And then I hear it.

I don’t know, sir.  I still don’t know.

It’s a vibration so deep, it’s like the air is going to shake us until we burst.  I can’t even stand, it’s like the ’33 earthquake in slow motion.  The plant is spinning around me, and I can just see the hot water bursting out of the turbines and drowning us all.  And I tell myself I should be afraid, but everything is moving really, really slowly and I’m just a little surprised is all.  I’m stretching my limbs out in every direction, looking for something, something very important.  But I can’t remember what it is, and all I can think about is how bad the fucking coffee tasted this morning.  And then, I’m looking at myself from the outside, and I feel so lost and separated from myself so deep that I want to cry.  There’s this vast void I want to leap across.  And then I think that maybe this is what John is feeling, and why he won’t talk to me.

No sir, I understand this is bullshit.

Then it just moves away from us.  I don’t know how to describe it, other than I feel it sliding away, droning its way across the plant and then it’s gone.

And John is just standing there, still staring at me, and the plant isn’t falling down on us after all.  There’s a rack full of old tools right next to me, and none of them are even shaking.

Clerical weaponry

No, sir, cocaine doesn’t agree with me at all.  Maybe it doesn’t give you a headache.

Yes, maybe I was hallucinating.  It was pretty early in the morning

No, sir, there was nothing special in the coffee.  You know how expensive sugar is these days.

Yes sir, you’d think that I’d do that.  But all that’s in my head right now is to follow that vibration.  I know how crazy that sounds.  It sounds that way to me too.  I haven’t done my job all these years without a sense of self-preservation.

But that’s the thing, see.  I don’t feel like I’m in danger.  I just know.  So I follow it around the plant.

Silver machineCiaroscuro

John’s still behind me, still walking like he’s in a trance.  I’m feeling weird, like I’m following someone who’s lost.  We stumble into the machine room on the second floor, and then suddenly John shouts something and starts running towards a control panel.  And I think I know what’s happening for a minute, wrong string to pull, and then I have no idea what that means.

But the room tries to tell us.  It lights up in red, like the reddest red alert you ever saw, and there’s this panicked, lurching drone of a bass scream from deep from within the turbines.

Red alert

Yes, sir, that might have been when Seattle blacked out.

No, I have no idea what did it.  It just happened.

But I hear John screaming something about cavorite overheating. I don’t know what that means;  I thought cavorite really didn’t heat up at all.  But it doesn’t sound like something good.  And there’s this moment when I look up and all I see is the quicksilver line creeping up in this thermometer on the wall, like it’s going to burst out the top and just keep going towards the ceiling.

Then John hits the button.

Mercury risingToo many choices

Yes sir, I know that when the plant goes down, it means our air defenses are down.  No cannons.  At the time, and please don’t take this the wrong way, that didn’t seem so important.

John was running around the room, opening emergency supply pipes to get some extra cooling.  Yes, he did seem to know what he was doing.

Pipes, chains and ladders

No, John was worried about the plant melting down.  The plant’s his life.  Yes, I know it’s everyone else’s lives, too.  But John always loved his machines, and this is the best machine he’s ever had.

And what he did makes sense, doesn’t it?  Take the plant down.  Restart it carefully.  Then figure out what happened.

No, I don’t know if there was anything else going on.  What do I know?

I don’t know that he was in a right state of mind.  Neither was I.

Gauge art

So the red light goes off and the plant just stops.  All the pressure gauges are at zero.  There’s this eerie silence, and I don’t know if we’re heroes or something else entirely.

John just keeps going.  He fiddles with some more controls and I can feel the the plant turning back on again.  Then he tells me to go talk to the difference engine.

Yes, talk.

Sir, I’m aware that a difference engine can’t talk.  I don’t know what to tell you now, but it made some kind of crazy sense at the time.

Heat pipesKeeping the balance

The plant is beginning to train up again, and it’s humming like crazy.  The heat-pipes that cool the difference engine are beginning to glow. The analog heart is ticking again. And I don’t really know what I’m doing here, except it’s important.

Then I look into the engine’s core and I see it.

Gazing into the abyss

Yes sir, I’ll get to that.  That was a few minutes later.

I see a vast darkness between lights.  I feel hopelessly lost, just like I did before.  I see streaks of light reaching out across the darkness, and being extinguished.  I feel like death.  But I have to keep going.

Then something is telling me something that really matters, and I have to repeat it before I forget.  And I’m pushing buttons and turning knobs and spelling out words in some weird alphabet, like it’s Japanese or something.

Yeah, an island out west.  You’re probably too young.

No sir, I know a difference engine isn’t a typewriter.  But this was as real to me as you are now, sir.

The last thing I see is this hangar.  It’s just like the steam plant boiler room, but it’s also where the airships were launched from.

I don’t know which airships, sir.  I’m trying to tell you what I saw.  What I knew at the time.

I’m rushing towards this bright light, and the walls are vibrating yellow and green, and then a color I don’t even have a name for.  Then I’m hurtling out into the darkness, crushed by acceleration, but I’m not afraid because my sisters are with me.

Did I say sisters?  I don’t know…  Only child, sir.

And then I’m just staring into a corrugated iron sheet.  Made in Georgetown, just like everything else.  But I know the difference engine is happy, and the vibration around us like a purr.

Furnace roomFurnace room

The purr tells me to run.

Furnace room

So I run into the boiler room.  That’s where I need to hide, I just know.

From what?  I don’t know.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

All I can think about is the coal stains on the walls, and that I don’t want to end up another one. I run down a side aisle, where it’s going to be safe, and I’m grabbing at the chains hanging from the ceiling and pushing them aside.

Sir, I don’t know what I did to the difference engine. I don’t think I did anything, really.  What could I do?  I don’t know any of the codes.

No, I don’t know how I knew I would be safe.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

So I sit down in a nice isolated spot and wait.  I can feel the plant heating up again, and this time for some reason it feels right, like everything is going to be fine.  There’s a rhythm to it, like a mother giving birth.  The boiler room is ablaze with light, pulsating from yellow to white.

Every time it climaxes I have to close my eyes.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

Yes, sir, this was probably about the time when Seattle went down again.  And no, I don’t know what the plant was doing.  I’m not an engineer.

I don’t know where John was during all this.  He wasn’t with me.

No, sir, that’s right, you don’t leave a man behind.  But it’s like he was on his own mission, see.  I guess if I could say what was going through my head, it’s that I knew he was doing something important and I didn’t want to stop him.

I don’t know what that means.  It’s hard for me to understand too.

Furnace room corridor

Was there anyone else there?

No, sir, there was not.

Phantom of the furnace roomTrapped in a Faraday cage

I guess eventually I blacked out.  The light just kept getting brighter, that’s all I remember.

When I woke up, the stormtroopers were-

I am the fire

Sorry, the firemen were pointing their guns at me.  No, I don’t know how I got outside the plant.

Or what happened to all the cavorite that was powering the plant.  I know it’s irreplaceable.  I guess we get to reopen Newcastle now.

Or why the boiler room suddenly grew a giant hole on the south side.

Or what really happened to John.

How did I feel when I woke up?  To be honest, sir I felt really happy, and I don’t know why.  Joyful, almost.  Like when I was a kid, and it was Friday and school was finally out and I was free again.  Or like when I once helped a little kid find his mother, and she just looked at me and said thanks, without words.  That’s what was going through my mind.

Oh, that’s a leading question…  Was John a traitor…   You said you never found a body, right?  Well, I could say yes, and then we’d all have a good story to tell.

No, I’m not going to say that.  I think John made a decision, and that’s why you didn’t find him.  John is…  was…  a gentleman.  The kind of guy who always tried to help people when they were in trouble.  I told you he saved my life, that one time.  Maybe this time there was something more important than sticking around here.  Like he found a better machine or something…

May I go now, sir?  I’ve told you everything I know.


The wall that ate people

The complete Flickr set.

One thought on “Georgetown Steam Plant, part II of II”

  1. Hey, that was really cool. I’ve always been a science fiction fan. And the photos are perfect with it. Thanks Max.


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