Then, when I turned eighteen, Foreman Humphreys died.
I remember everything about that day. I can remember which junction I was at, and which Steam Meter I was replacing. I remember exactly where the cracks and chips were on the old brass piping that snaked in and out of the wall. I remember where my hands were, and which tools were on my belt when I heard the long sharp cry of the whistle.
The whistle means everything in the Steamworks. It is communication–the breath of our work. The whistle sometimes blows for lunch, other times for rest. Other times, someone has fallen and burned themselves on the pipes, or cut their heads on the sharp bolts that seal the connections. Sometimes it’s a meeting, or a call for the young Runabouts to meet with the Foreman to coordinate their efforts with the repairmen.
Sometimes it is a funeral.
The Steamwork Spiders removed our hats as he passed on the doctor’s cart, tears in our eyes. His face was still red, but thin and waxy from the glowing lights, not bright and vibrant as we remembered him. As I watched him pass, I became aware, for the first time it seemed, of the sound in the Steamworks. It is never quiet in the Steamworks. The pressure bangs and claps against the piping, while cooling vapors and dripping water ticks and taps against the brickwork. The Steam Meters tick, while the fire roars, and the boiling water pops and fizzes in the gorged belly of the City. And randomly, a whistle would blow.
The officers said it was an accident, but we Spiders suspected murder most foul. It would never be proven, but we knew the Foreman was not a man who made mistakes. The funeral was in shifts, because the Steamworks never slept. After the funeral, Sir Walter Finneius Pike took the reigns. He was a harsh man, thick of stomach and sharp of tongue. He had a bright gold ring that glittered in the dim red light. When he spoke, he barked like a dog, his spittle flicking about to sizzle on the burning hot brass.
“Keep up the pressure!” he would yell, pointing a chubby finger right at us, the ring glinting in the lamplight. “The blood of the City, that is!”
And so we would, running to and fro, keeping the pressure high.
After a year he decided to move me and Peeks from the pipes. He said it was to make room for new blood, and that we were getting too big. He needed us to work the Boiler.
There are thousands of boilers in the Steamworks, all filled with thick bubbling water and Areos Vitae. They were fickle things, and needed constant tending to make sure the heat was always high, and the steam pressure steady. They provided the lifeblood of the City to every nook and cranny, but these were mere homonculi–vague mockeries of the one true Boiler.