Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Soul Camera (Part 1)

[Author's note: A light entertainment for Halloween. A little Mad Science, a little gunplay, and scantily-clad women! The pacing in Part 2 is a little fast, which is what happens when I need to make a deadline. But it was fun. Apologies to any Caledonians, Winterfellians, or Steelheadians whose likenesses have been expropriated for the purpose of this tale. - RJ]

“Have you ever wondered what your soul looks like, Roland?” With that question, Uncle Roland and I became embroiled in a fantastical adventure.

The scene was the Prop Spinner’s pub in Steam Sky City, where the eccentric inventors and mad scientists of Caledon would occasionally gather to discuss their latest triumphs and failures over a pint of ale and, no doubt, conjure up some tall tales and wishful thinking as well. The interlocutor was Professor Diggory Foster, a plump man of about fifty, with long hair in the back compensating for the thinning of the crop up front, whose work in electromechanics had lately been superseded by an interest in metaphysics; and his victim was Dr. Roland Luminos, a somewhat elderly, decidedly eccentric inventor-of-all-trades, notoriously scatterbrained, and a close friend of mine, though no biological relation.

“Pish. No such thing, old man.” Roland did not like to drink; he merely liked the social atmosphere of the pub. Consequently, he looked at his nearly-full pint as though the conversation had never occurred. Several people around him were busy with their drinks, and the bartender was working feverishly to keep up with demands for refills.

Foster looked hurt. “Not pish at all! Look here, don’t you believe you have a soul?”

“The jury is still out.”

“Well, allow me to assert that you have one, whether you like it or not. If so, why would it not be possible, in principle, to view the soul? Not the way one would view an ordinary object, of course, but if one could develop a mechanism to convert the particular ‘form’ of the soul into light waves in the frequency that the human eye can decipher, one would have what is, to all purposes, a daguerreotype of the soul.”

Roland replied haughtily, “Sounds tautological, old chap. If it exists, you can see it. Possibly see it. True enough.”

Now Foster looked exasperated. “All right, then. See for yourself.” He reached into his satchel and brought forth a series of daguerreotypes. Roland peered at them. Each had a series of lines that swirled and tapered off, dancing across the print in an apparently random set of sequences. The backgrounds ranged from pale to nearly inky black, with the latter rendering the darker whorls nearly invisible.

“These are souls?”

“Indeed. Just look: the background color reflects the basic character of the subject. The lighter the color, the greater is the individual’s propensity for good; the darker, the greater is the propensity for evil. The various swirls reflect different ambiguities within the individual. I won’t pretend to be able to interpret them, at least not in any great degree, but that is the next stage in the project. Well? What do you think now?

Still peering at the nearly-black print, Roland answered, “I’m not sure how this proves anything. How does anyone know what this is? Science is about objective reality. You sit here and tell me this is a soul, but how is anyone to really know? It looks to me as though the silver solution you used to develop the pictures is tainted. Even if this does reflect some sort of aura or emanation from the body, old bean, why should it necessarily be anything as metaphysical as a soul?”

“You really can be quite annoying, Roland. I don’t know why I bothered. I supposed, foolishly, that, as a fellow man of science, you could appreciate the depth of my discovery. At least, proof positive that man is different from animal in some special way. Proof that there exists within us some level of spark that extends beyond our consciousness. Proof that notions of good and evil are not just abstract concepts, but have some underlying basis in science, and are innately part of us. At most, a demonstration of the Divine.” He drained his pint and signaled for another.

“Don’t sound so agitated, Foster, my boy. As one scientist to another, I merely thought it appropriate to apply the tools of our trade, as well as a healthy skepticism, to your claims. As a friend, I am perfectly happy to accept your claims at face value. As a member of the Church of Phillip, my faith allows me to accept the concept of evil, but not the concept of a soul. If Phillip has none – and the evidence is fairly convincing on that score – then surely lesser beings should not have one.”

Foster chuckled. “Don’t try to drag your religious mania into this conversation. But I’ve saved the best for last. These pictures were not taken randomly. I know each subject quite well. I tell you, Roland, that the degree of goodness or evil in each subject corresponds perfectly to his outward personality. It cannot be mere coincidence!” He went on to identify the subjects, most of whom Roland knew. A rather dark one with ominous swirls was that of Doctor Obolensky, a subtle shade of gray was identified as Colonel O’Toole, and a pale cream color with wild spikes radiating in every direction turned out to be that of Miss Gray. (“I always knew that fa├žade of villainy was just pretense,” Roland muttered.) Foster pointed to the nearly-black print and identified the subject as Lord B___, a government Minister. That sealed it for Roland, who had had no end of difficulties from the man’s calumnious behavior.

“You’ve convinced me, my boy,” said Roland. “The relationship between your colors and what we know to be the character of these people is too strong to be a coincidence. Whatever you’ve captured – call it the soul, if you like – it appears to be something real.” He turned back to his glass and contemplated the dissipating foam. “But whatever is it good for?”

“That’s the easy part, Luminos. Think of the applications: do you want honest employees? Use the soul camera and see whether an applicant is good or evil. Do you want politicians who will work for the people and not for themselves? Ask candidates to submit to the soul camera. Worried that your daughter will marry a scoundrel? Insist that the lad pose in front of the soul camera. The possibilities are endless!”

“You really have thought this out, Foster. I take it you think the camera is ready for commercial uses?”

He nodded. “Well, just about. I have a few more bugs to iron out, and I’d like to be able to make some headway in how to interpret the lesser marks, the whorls and such. But I think there will be amazing demand for the product as it is.” He sounded almost gleeful at the obscene amounts of money he planned to make. “In fact, I have an appointment with a financier this evening. If he likes the camera, we agreed to form a small company – he’ll provide the financing while I provide the technical know-how. He knows how to market the thing, too.” Foster checked his pocket watch. “I should be heading there shortly. Why don’t you come with me to my lab, and I’ll show you the camera before I report for my appointment?”

Roland nodded, and set his three-quarters full ale aside. One of the regulars lifted it and poured it in his own glass before the two scientists had left the pub.

Foster led the way from the pub to the transportation hub in the sky city, and from there the two made their way to Aether Isle. Diggory Foster suffered from vertigo, and only the promise of ale and good company drew him to the Prop Spinner’s pub; a home on the sky city was out of the question.

The pair reached Foster’s cottage. Roland looked at the door, then at his companion. “I say, did you have to smash in your door the last time you came home? I’m always forgetting my keys, but I usually just take the spare from the box labeled ‘Spare Key’ next to my door, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Foster’s eyes grew wide. He pushed open the ruined door and looked about him. Even by bachelors’ standards, the room was a wreck. It was clear the place had been ransacked. “My God, I’ve been robbed!” He ran for the cellar, Roland one step behind him, and fumbled for the lamp cord. When the room was illuminated, Roland could see that this was Foster’s laboratory: pieces of electrical equipment lay everywhere, along with boxes and devices of varying shapes and sizes. Only one spot was clean: the very center of his work table.

“The camera! Someone stole the camera! What am I going to do, Luminos? This is an utter disaster!”

“Surely you have notes and such. You can build another, can you not?”

“I can eventually build another one, but it’s no easy feat. But once the original camera is out there, buyers will be willing to pay much less for mine. All that work, ruined!” Foster could see the Linden dollars floating away, like so many dust motes. Roland was beginning to get a sense for the way his friend weighted Knowledge and Money. He wondered whether the soul camera also captured a man’s greediness, and, if so, what color it was.

“Really, Foster, it’s the expansion of scientific boundaries that’s really important, isn’t it?”

Obviously not. “Oh, God, what am I to do?”

“You could call the constabulary. That sort of thing is just up their alley, eh what?”

“Heavens, no! Those buffoons are no help at all. Just get in the way.”

Roland wondered why this was his problem, but he admitted to himself that the idea of a soul camera intrigued him. “I don’t know much about this sort of thing, sleuthing and all that, but this sounds more like the sort of thing Rhianon would know how to tackle.”

“Rhianon?”

“Miss Jameson. Family friends. Known her for years. She’s a journalist – ”

“A journalist! Are you crazy, Luminos? All I need is for this to get in the press. There goes my funding!”

“As I was about to say, she works as a journalist, but would be very discreet, if I asked her to do so. Really, old man, I’m trying to help.”

He sighed. “I suppose I should give it a try.”

“Capital! I shall send for her posthaste.”

And that is how the Case of the Soul Camera came to my attention.

* * *

“Who else knew about the camera, Mr. Foster?” I asked. The time was 10:30 in the morning, and I had just been awakened from a sound sleep, and was in no mood for small talk.

“Why, no one, Miss Jameson. I am the soul of discretion.” I stared at him with an expression that suggested I would hurt him if he failed to tell me what he knew. “Oh, I suppose I might have dropped a hint here and there. Can you blame a fellow? I was so excited at my discovery.”

It turned out that “dropped a hint” meant “gave a full accounting” and “here and there” meant “to every member of the aristocracy to whom Foster came into contact. They had all been sworn to secrecy, but I gathered that every one of them, no matter how skeptical about the properties of the camera, wanted to know what his soul looked like.

I sighed. “Even if we assume everyone who knew of it directly was discreet – a bad assumption, knowing how those old women like to gossip – that leaves an uncomfortably large number of suspects.”

I agreed I would make careful enquiries among my contacts, and returned home for a soothing cup of tea with a drop of distilled restorative in it. At a more decent hour, I started to reach out to various information sources to see what they knew.

However, the next piece of information came not from those sources, but from the police. Late the next evening, my doorbell sounded. My old friend Captain Armstrong stood on the porch, bearing a weary expression on his face. I let him in and poured him a large whisky as the little man made himself comfortable in my sitting room armchair. I fixed another for myself and sat on the couch, tucking my legs under me. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Captain?”

He took a deep drink before saying, “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that what I’m about to tell you is highly confidential…”

“Indeed you do not. So let us pretend you did not say that.”

“…but I thought you might be able to help us.”

“Again.”

A wry smile passed his lips. “Again. You see, earlier today, a shipment of pistol silencers – the very latest design, supposedly quiet enough to deaden a large-caliber report effectively enough that it can’t be heard in the next room – was on its way from Ordinal Enterprises to the Mainland, where the military government was most interested in procuring two dozen of this model, when the shipment was hijacked in Port Caledon. The driver of the wagon was killed, as was the dock master. The silencers were removed from the rest of the cargo, and disappeared. We’re concerned that they are meant for some nefarious purpose here in Caledon, and I’d like to find out what before it’s too late.”

“I shall see what I can do, Captain.” He finished his drink and rose. Making his good-byes, he continued on, doubtlessly determined to work late into the night. I sat back on the couch, sipped slowly, and wondered what a stolen shipment of silencers might have to do with the disappearance of a soul camera.

* * *
Nothing useful came from my sources about either the camera or the silencers; I hoped the police were doing better. I was sipping a cup of tea at Steamperk, idly flipping through the latest version of Caledonian Strand magazine and wondering whether hemlines would fall again next season (I was strongly hoping not), when Molly Lundquist sat next to me, wiping a bead of perspiration from her forehead. Molly was a manager of Steamperk and the Steampunk Resource Centre, and was forever coming up with tweaks to the building. She explained that she had just been rearranging the wall of Steampunk pioneers, and was stopping for a well-deserved coffee and pastry.

“I suppose the peak social season is upon us,” she observed.

I nodded. “First the harvest dances, then the Christmas formals, followed by the solstice balls. Not to mention various house calls, charitable events, and the occasional parade, and the calendar is packed. But ’tis the right season for it: when the temperature outside falls, there is little else for couples to do but…” I wiggled my eyebrows, and Molly had the decency to blush.

“In fact, the season starts next week, with the Guvnah’s Halloween ball.”

“That’s right! A costume ball, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s at the Guvnah’s mansion in Victoria City, and he has invited anyone who is anyone this year. The entire Caledon aristocracy, of course, and I’ve heard the Vicerene will be making an appearance, as well as the Guv himself, and the Winterfell Seneschelf, the Steelhead City Mayor…it’s the ball to go to.”

Sipping some more tea, I replied, “If you can wrangle an invitation, that is. I suppose my destiny is to mingle with the common people.”

Molly laughed. “That’s good isn’t it? Because I’m one of the common people.” She finished her break and returned to pounding nails. I looked back at my magazine, but my heart was no longer in it. I thought instead about masquerade balls and silencers.

[Concludes tomorrow!]

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