For a reply I heard a cackling laugh, then footsteps. A figure loomed over the table. In the glare, I could only make out that he had a white laboratory coat and a long, thin moustache. A pair of brass goggles with green lenses sat perched atop an unruly mop of hair. “You are in no position to make demands of anyone, madam,” he said calmly. I twisted my head to avoid the worst of the glare and looked around me. I appeared to be in some sort of operating theater, and was lying on a slab that could equally have been an operating table or an autopsy slab in a morgue. Blood stained the walls and floors of the room, suggesting the latter might have been a more accurate interpretation. The white-coated man standing over me carried with him a scalpel, also covered with blood, but fresh droplets. In the corner, standing quietly, as though awaiting instructions, was a small fair-headed girl, dressed in a dirty smock that evoked the urchins that plagued Babbage, yet she seemed…oddly mechanical. In her hands she held a dissecting tray. Against the walls, Tesla coils sparked and capacitors hummed. Power lines snaked from the coils to a control panel, which was in turn connected to several evil-looking tools. I started to wonder if dissection was in my future, with me starring in the role of the subject.
“I beg your pardon, sir. You are, I believe, the Scientist? The former D –”
He interrupted. “Indeed I am. My quiet assistant with the gas-powered heart is Miss Wren. And I believe I have the honor of addressing Miss Rhianon Jameson, of Caledon?”
“Yes, sir. Pleased to meet your acquaintance. Forgive me for not curtsying.”
The Scientist smiled without warmth or apology. “I’ve noticed that headstrong women can be quite…unpredictable. These days especially, I crave predictability. In any event, I have heard you were seeking me, and here I am. What would you have of me?”
“Could we discuss this in a more civilized manner? Perhaps sitting in chairs, with a cup of tea?”
“Civilized manners are for friends and acquaintances who have been invited, not unwanted guests.”
“Wait a moment – you had me kidnapped!”
He nodded. “A fair point. Still, you were making a pest of yourself, and threatening to bring all sorts of unwanted attention to my operations here in Babbage. I am, let me say, the Clockwinder’s guest, and negotiations regarding my continued residence are at a delicate point. I do not need goons from Linden Land storming the gates and demanding that the Clockwinder turn me over to them.” He paused. “Not that such a demand would go well for them. Quite the contrary. But I would consider it bad form to lay waste to half the city just to maintain my freedom.”
“If I concede I was injudicious in my enquiries, could we move to the ‘acquaintance’ stage of our relationship?”
“Perhaps, though I haven’t really decided whether I plan to kill you after we’ve talked. I’ve noticed that sort of thing tends to make my subjects a tad restless; hence the restraints.”
“I’ve come seeking help. Do you know of a Dr. Tesla Steampunk?”
“Tesla Steampunk?” the Scientist repeated. His eyes narrowed. “I may have heard the name. Tall chap, muttonchops, fancies himself a scientist. That’s with a lower-case ‘s,’ in case you had any doubt. As I recall, he once used an electrical charge to detonate a…”
“It was an accident!”
“Of course it was. In any event, what is your relationship with the man? The love of your life? A casual fling?”
I rolled me eyes as best I could. “Neither,” I said stiffly. “He is a dear friend of my sister’s and mine – and he’s dying.” Strapped down to the gurney, I told my story to the Scientist who stood, nodding periodically and looking thoughtful.
When the tale was done, he made a casual gesture that flipped his goggles from his forehead to his face. The green lenses appeared to glow and flame in the flickering light of the lab. He leaned over and drew the scalpel. I closed my eyes before he delivered the killing blow. Instead of a fatal incision, however, I heard him unbuckling the restraints. “Miss Jameson, would you like some tea?”
Diary of Tesla Steampunk. Date unknown?? I have seen wonders of which Mr. Verne could only dream! Dream indeed, as some part of me understands I am locked into my own imagination. Pride, foolish pride, always my downfall. Earlier today Father told me so. A lion appeared before me, but the lion was Father, and he lectured me on the sin of Pride as he shifted between his human and lion forms. As a lion, he merely roared, but I understood every word. “You are foolish and arrogant, young man. You have played with powers but failed to understand them. As sin is cast upon the waters, so it returns to punish the sinner…yours is to live within your folly. Mother appeared as a lamb, but said nothing.
I clutched the small leather case, holding it tightly against my body. Inside were a half-dozen vials of green Reanimation Fluid of varying opacity, each the color of the Scientist’s goggle lenses. I had specific instructions about how and when to administer each. “That should clear things right up,” the Scientist had said before leading me to a series of underground tunnels that deposited me near the Clockhaven docks. “At least, I think it should. I’ll admit that I haven’t heard of a strain of the infection quite like this one and, as always, one can never do enough tests on humans.”
Of course, the negotiations had not gone smoothly. I could see that the man’s ego was pushing him to provide me with the cure to prove to me – and, more importantly, to Tesla – that the Scientist had mastered the human body and mind. He wanted bragging rights at his club, if he were the clubbing sort. At the same time, he was loath to give up the fruits of his researches so easily, or cheaply. I had nothing much to offer him that he wanted. I could make promises, but I did not know enough about Tesla’s inventions, or what the Scientist might find valuable, to make such a promise. In the end, ego won out. He agreed to provide me with the means to cure Tesla and, in return, I assured him that the Jamesons owed him a huge debt, to be repaid through the favor of his choice.
“Rest assured I will collect…and repayment will be neither cheap nor easy,” said the Scientist. “And should you desert me in my hour of need, I can also assure you that I never forget a grudge. Nor does my extended family.” His eyes briefly lit on the small urchin girl, Wren, who stood with a bored expression on her face. I would ponder what he meant by his “extended family” some other time. I nodded my promise.
I left the laboratory via a secret tunnel that exited into the New Babbage sewer system. Clutching the leather case containing my prize, I made my way to the nearest manhole, climbed, and used my shoulder to move aside the heavy cover. I crawled out, finding myself on a deserted street in Clockhaven.
My race against time was not yet complete, however: I needed to return to Caledon within forty-eight hours to administer the first dose, and the schedule was running tight. I no longer felt exhausted; perhaps being chloroformed was an effective rest treatment. I raced to the air station as quickly as I could, always being careful not to jostle the vials any more than necessary. After filing my flight plan back to Caledon and dispatching a quick radio telegram to Kathy, tell her to implore Tesla to keep fighting for two more days, I restarted the airship’s engines and stoked the boiler until it reached maximum pressure.
Back inside Tesla’s mansion, where Kathy had kept his body warm and alive while his mind wandered elsewhere, I quickly prepared the first injection of the serum. Kathy rolled up his sleeve while I jabbed the needle into his skin, the vein shrunken nearly to nothingness. At first, nothing happened. Had the Scientist tricked me? I felt weariness descend on me. All that effort for naught!
Then Tesla sat up and screamed, his face contorted in pain. The sound chilled me. As quickly as it started, it was over, and he lay back on the pillows once again, his breathing shallow. Kathy looked at me with a quizzical expression. “I was told to expect both sudden changes in the patient’s condition and some discomfort. I can’t accuse the Scientist of exaggerating.”
Each subsequent injection had to follow at precisely fifteen-minute intervals. Too little time between and his weakened body would be unable to withstand the drug; too much time and the serum would be unable to elevate sufficiently his body’s own functions. In addition, the serum contained something that would draw back Tesla from his permanent dream state. Each dose was stronger than the last. Each time, Tesla screamed in pain. Was it a physical pain, or simply the agony of being drawn into our world from the infinitely pleasing world of dreams? Perhaps both.
Finally, it was done. Tesla was still prone, lying on the sweat-soaked sheets, but his eyes were open and clear. He smiled weakly. “I…I seem to have returned from my mind’s journey. You must have found the Scientist.”
I yawned. “Yes, and we now owe him a favor.”
“I cannot begin to express my gratitude.”
Kathy said, “Perhaps you could limit your experiments to those of a more practical nature for a time. Invent, say, a parasol that contained a small pistol.”
“Or a set of ladies’ boots with poisoned-tipped heels,” I added.
“Child’s play,” Tesla said. “No, what you would find really exciting would be the ability to control the minds of your enemies, or…” He stopped when he saw our expressions. “A projectile-firing parasol it shall be.”
Some days later, most of which I spent sleeping, Tesla appeared at our door. Kathy asked him in and inquired as to his health.
“I am quite well, thank you. It appears that my colleague earned his fee. As I am in the process of tidying up the laboratory and discovering what I was doing in the days before administering my mind elixir, I wondered if you had seen my Journal.”
“Indeed I have,” Kathy replied. “It is on your desk, in the laboratory, sitting next to a row of chemicals, right where you left it when you made an entry on March 10.”
Tesla had a puzzled expression on his face, but he thanked her, made his good-byes, and returned home.