Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 4

One day, I heard the waterman open the valve to the Channel. Perhaps it sounded different? I don’t know what it was that made me stop and watch the water flow into the reservoir. It was rare that I ever took my gaze from the glowing red coals that nested under the Boiler–perhaps it was providence. We both stared as the water that flowed into the cistern. It flowed thickly, like jam, and was tainted red. Barely a moment passed before the waterman reached above his head, and pulled the whistle.

The whistle!

I had heard the whistle thousands of times every day of my life. It was a call to work, to rest, or to eat. I had come to love that sound, to depend on it like a brother. But the cry that leapt from the whistle’s lips that day was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was pain and despair. I could hear the sharp edges cutting their way through the sound, struggling to restrain the harsh echoing cry. The shriek filled my brain as it echoed throughout the room, racing throughout the catacombs, bouncing off the pipes as it sought the ears of Foreman Pike.

He came, red-faced and panting heavily, followed by seven men with heavy spanners. Neither I nor the waterman said a word–we simply pointed at the blood-filled water. With a sharp command, Foreman Pike ordered the tunnel cleaned, and the matter seen to. In half an hour, the dead body had been removed from the intake and handed over to the police. I saw the corpse before it was taken away. He was a young man, with a claw-hammer through his chest. He looked like a bricklayer, with crusty shirt and pants that even the Channel could not have cleaned. His hands were rough and callused, while his face was clean shaven, and thin. He wore a wedding band on his finger.

The reservoir was cleaned and the water flowed quickly again, but something in the valves must have remained because every time I looked, the water flowed a deep purplish crimson. And every time I heard the whistle after that, the dead man’s face rose to my mind, breaking through the fog like a ship in the night. I thought about the blood leaking into the water, and the claw-hammer growing rusty in his chest.

As the years wore on, the image began to fade, but the whistle continued to terrify me. As the days grew in length, I would grow more and more anxious. I began to fear our meals, and our scheduled sleep time. I worked harder and faster, hoping to drive myself into exhaustion, so perhaps I could forget that terrible sound. So perhaps I could drown out the terrible ticking with the sound of rushing blood in my ears.

Time became my enemy–an unavoidable march towards the next hissing scream. Every burst of steam, every echoing clang shivered in my soul. My body pulsed with the rhythm of the Steamworks–It was not the ticking of valves or Steam Meters, like I thought it was. I heard the heartbeat. I realized it was not the three-fourths valve in the center of the meter turning over and clicking into place next to the curing hammer, but a steady pulse of life, following the flow of the steam through the veins of the City. I saw the Steamworks true face: not a maze of pipes and tubes and valves and industry, but a giant web of veins and arteries fueled by the massive spider at the center of it all.

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