The Golden Heart of the World
Stephen Ramey
Jakob Adams believes he is signing on for the next rung in his climb from immigrant to tycoon, but ... Show More
Adventure, Mystery, Sci Fi, Steampunk
fiction, Ramey, steampunk, alchemy, free masonry, class warfare, industry, society

The Glow

   Clockwork ticking drew Jakob Adam's eyes to a cherry wood desk, the central feature of Captain Wallace's spacious study. On its polished top, an overturned dragonfly lifted and fell, lifted and fell. The size of a hand, with gemstone eyes and gossamer wings, its features were exquisitely rendered, but the inflexible metal body could not right itself. Jakob debated whether to help or crush the device. Life is struggle, he thought. Succeed or die.

   Footsteps sounded. Jakob turned as an imposing man with fleshy jowls strode in, wide blue eyes sparking with a zealot's fervor. His double-breasted suit was pressed in the military fashion.

   "You must be Captain Wallace," Jakob said.

   "I am." Wallace brushed past him to a padded chair behind the desk. The scent of sandalwood cologne trailed him. "I trust your flight was uneventful." He swept the dragonfly into a drawer, muffling but not completely silencing its struggles.

   "It was," Jakob said. "There was so little headwind the dirigible arrived in Pittsburgh an hour early. I took the steam train from there."

   Wallace rubbed his chins. "I sent a motor carriage for you. Did you not get my message?" He inhaled. "Pulaski!"

   Steps staccatoed. A lean man appeared between open pocket doors. "Sir?"

   "Send a message to Pittsburgh," Wallace said. "Tell Carlisle to return at once."

   "Yes sir." The manservant turned crisply, and hurried away.

   "Sit," Wallace said. "You must be wondering why I summoned you."

   Jakob sat. "Your invitation suggested an offer of employment." He gazed directly into Wallace's face, having long ago broken his father's habit of staring at his betters' shoe tops. Tycoons were men too.

   "Cigarette?" Wallace said. A clacking whir sounded beneath the desk. A panel opened. A silver device cantilevered out, a cigarette squeezed between metal protrusions not unlike fingers. Another appendage shot forth. A neat blue flame flared.

   "I do not smoke," Jakob said.

   Wallace waved the comment away. "Wise. Less chance for explosion." The device retracted, dropping its cigarette onto the desk amid a litter of spilled tobacco grains.

   Explosion? Jakob thought.

   Wallace shuffled through papers. He leaned from his chair, to press a switch on the wall behind him. A buzzing sound ensued, and the room brightened. A tube around the ceiling's perimeter glowed with a greenish cast. Particles streamed through it like a sandstorm, emitting light bright enough to read by.

   "A geissler tube?" Jakob said. He had no idea which noble gas might produce such an effect.

   Wallace glanced up. "My son's design. I'll not go into details. Suffice it to say the lighting for the manor comes from a single source, a passive engine if you will."

   "I would be most interested in examining it," Jakob said.

   "Why?" Wallace's expression turned suspicious.

   Jakob winced. He should have realized that a man with Wallace's wealth would be protective of his inventions. "I am an engineer, sir. That is presumably why you invited me here."

   Wallace nodded. "You've an interesting resume, Adams. It was your stint on Brooklyn's bridge that drew my attention. Specifically, your familiarity with caisson work."

   "Caissons?" Jakob was not aware of rivers in the area that might call for deep pilings. Caissons had been utilized in New York because the supports required underwater excavation. Many workers had been afflicted with caisson disease as a result. Even Jakob had been mildly impacted. He would not soon forget the pain that bubbled from his blood.

   "I need someone with experience maintaining air flow and pressure under difficult conditions," Wallace said. "Are you my man?"

   "That would depend upon the circumstances of my employment."


   "That," Jakob said. "And position. I come from humble beginnings." His parents had immigrated to America in 1854 and continued to live in Chicago, where his father worked in the stockyards. It was backbreaking, unappreciated work, the men as expendable as the cattle they carved. "Through initiative and hard work, I have achieved a measure of reputation. I mean to step up from my current position."

   "Of course," Wallace said. "This is management I offer, with a term of no less than five years. Your rapid rise at Berlind is one reason I contacted you."

   Jakob nodded. He hoped Wallace's background research would not uncover that his rise at the Berlind Bridge Works was due in great measure to the affections of Berlind's wife. She admired his work ethic, particularly when he removed his clothes.

   "One hundred a month," Wallace said, "plus a bonus for delivering the first phase on time."

   Jakob turned the cigarette like a compass needle seeking north. "I want to inspect the work site and architectural plans. I must assure myself that the endeavor is feasible. Many a rising career has foundered upon the shoals of a rich man's pipedream."

   "You need not worry on that account," Wallace said. "The project has been vetted by minds more educated than yours."

   "I will make that determination for myself," Jakob said. His gaze went to a golden cufflink on Wallace's sleeve that bore the compass and protractor symbol of the freemasons.

   "Do not push me," Wallace said. "You are in no position to bully your way."

   Jakob stood from his chair. "Nor do I intend to be bullied."

   Wallace blew out a breath. "Oh, very well. My foreman will show you in the morning."

   "Agreed," Jakob said. "I'll return after breakfast."

   "You will be here by eight AM," Wallace said. "Do not think our future relations will follow tonight's example. I am in charge of every detail of this project, and you will follow my orders precisely." His tone conveyed a spring wound tight.

   Jakob shrugged. "So long as your orders do not prevent me completing my work, I am content with that arrangement."

   Wallace's face reddened until he seemed about to explode. Smiling secretly, Jakob turned and walked away. He had come close to overplaying his hand, but it was worth that chance to restore a modicum of humility to Wallace. His father would lick boots for a chance to work for this man. Jakob would not.

   As he passed beneath the glowing tube on his way out, the hair on the back of his neck stood erect. A shudder took his shoulders. He imagined hordes of locusts trapped within that glass.

~ ~ ~

   Promptly at eight the next morning, Jakob approached Wallace's house. The air was crisp with a hint of lingering frost. He took a moment to enjoy the view of downtown New Castle in the valley below. Horse carriages navigated brick streets a few blocks from a row of factories belting out streams of black smoke. A locomotive pulled into a gate while coal boats drifted through a canal.

    "You like?" A muscular Italian with a bushy mustache stepped down from the wraparound porch. "Smell of the progress, si?"

   "Yes," Jakob said. He extended his hand. "I am Jakob Adams."

   "Anthony," the man said. "Anthony Ricci. You call me Rizzi, si?"

   "Fine," Jakob said. "Nice to make your acquaintance, Anthony. Will Captain Wallace be joining us?"

   "Later maybe," Rizzi said. "Now I show to you drawings."

   "Lead on," Jakob said. He couldn't decide whether Wallace slighted him by relegating him to the foreman, or showed respect in allowing him to inspect blueprints without supervision.

   Rizzi took him down a narrow roadway scraped into the side of the hill. Jakob hadn't even seen a hint of the road on his walk from the hotel in town. The tangled mess of leafless trees and shrubs that dominated the hillside must mask it.

   "So, Anthony," Jakob said. "What is this project of Captain Wallace's, exactly?"

   Rizzi glanced at him. "You ask him, okay?"

   "I ask you. Are you not the foreman?"

   "Si." Rizzi's head bobbed. "As the fore man, I tell you ask him."

   "I am about to become your boss. Are you certain you want us to begin on this sour note?"

   Rizzi snorted. "Captain Wallace tell me when you boss."

   "Your choice," Jakob said. He pulled his coat tight.

   They arrived at a narrow carriage house. Piles of droppings attested to the recent presence of horses. Frozen furrows indicated carts.

   "Drawings in there," Rizzi said. He opened the door with a key from his pocket, and motioned Jakob inside. The interior was more comfortably furnished than he would have guessed, with a small, high table and three folding chairs. A fanciful green area rug covered part of the floor. Heat gushed from a square metal device in one corner. Within the confines of its metal grill, Jakob saw a greenish glow, and heard a distant buzz. His interest piqued at the thought of a technology that might produce light as well as heat, but Rizzi was already unrolling a chart across the table. The drawing depicted a tunnel running northeast. Smaller branches were only rudimentarily shown.

   "A mine?" Jakob said. "Why would Wallace want my help with that?" He'd never set foot in a mine.

   "He tell me show drawings," Rizzi said, indicating the page before Jakob.

   "Where is this tunnel, geographically?"

   "Not far."

   "You're as cryptic as Wallace," Jakob said. "If I'm to be the project manager, do you not think it would be in everyone's interest to appraise me of significant details?"

   "Si." Rizzi unrolled a second chart, a cutaway view of the tunnel with callout details for the support beams.

   "This shows me nothing useful," Jakob said.

   Rizzi unrolled a final chart, side view depicting a tunnel plunging downward at steep angle.

   "A deep shaft, then," Jakob said. "Is there water? Is the tunnel flooded? Is that why Wallace thinks he needs caissons?" Surely better methods existed to deal with that situation.

   "I show you drawings," Rizzi said. "Si?"

   "I may just make it my first duty to fire you, Rizzi."

   "You no fire me. I Captain Wallace's favorite. I rescue his son."

   "From what?" Jakob said.

   "You finish here?" Rizzi rolled the charts and set them aside. "You want I show you tunnel?"

   Jakob frowned. "A minute ago you wouldn't even divulge where it was."

   Rizzi chortled as if that were the best joke he'd heard. He kicked the rug so that a portion of it folded back upon itself. Beneath, was the unmistakable outline of a hatch.

   "Under you feet." Rizzi showed a gap-toothed grin. "You not suspect, si?"

   "Not only did I not suspect," Jakob said, "I don't see the purpose."

   Rizzi lifted the hatch via a ring inset into its surface. The buzzing sound intensified. A simple ladder led down. Rizzi descended.

   Jakob hesitated, whispers nipping at his thoughts. The closeness of the opening reminded him of a caisson. There was no peace in those concrete tombs thirty feet below the river surface. He'd had nightmares throughout his stint on the Brooklyn bridge.

   "You coming?" Rizzi said.

   "Yes." Jakob had not let Brooklyn stop him, and would not let this mine do it either. Taking a deep breath, he started down, counting the rungs to keep his thoughts occupied. His foot struck solid ground after the fifteenth.

   "You gonna have to climb faster, you work here," Rizzi said.

   The dark seemed to squeeze around Jakob. The steady buzz enveloped him. There was an ebb and flow to the sound, a pulse that quickly transformed in his mind to the chugging of air pumps, the jostling of men working past one another, the clank of their pick or shovel striking rock. A sewage smell wafted. His gorge slammed up his throat. He retched, bending hands on knees.

   Rizzi clasped his shoulder. "You okay?"

   "Fine," Jakob managed. He swallowed.

   "You wanna go back?"

   "No," Jakob said. It wasn't real, none of it was real. He had left Brooklyn behind. He squeezed his eyes closed, and forced his thoughts to happier places, the dirigible floating over endless forest, champagne bubbling in his mouth. That was what he wanted, not the bridge, not the black muck that seeped through seals and coated everything with its stink.

   Rizzi pulled a lever. The tunnel flooded with greenish light. To one side, a square device no higher than Jakob's thigh hummed loudly. Two tubes extended upward from the device, which must surely be the passive engine Wallace had mentioned, and bent along the ceiling, down the tunnel. Jakob stared past support beam after support beam until the tunnel dipped out of sight.

   Opposite the passive engine, a low-ceilinged chamber held stacks of wooden beams, coiled ropes, and assorted bags.

   "How did you get those beams down here?" Jakob said.

   Rizzi shrugged. "Tunnel already here. We build carriage house above."

   Jakob could understand that Wallace might want to hide his efforts to mine beneath his house, but why go to so much trouble to disguise an existing mine? Surely there must be records of it.

   Rizzi led Jakob past a line of ore cars. Narrow rail tracks ran down both sides of the tunnel.

   "Here," Rizzi said. He opened a door inscribed into the side of the foremost car, revealing two small benches. A panel lit with the same greenish glow. Rizzi sat on a bench, facing it. Jakob perched behind him. The car rolled forward. Unable to see through Rizzi's broad shoulders, Jakob settled for watching the tunnel wall slide past. Smaller tunnels intersected the main one. Some were barely crevices, but a few were more substantial. These were filled with construction rubble.

   Movement caught Jakob's eye. In a side tunnel, a small creature stood atop a heap of broken bricks, pointed nose sniffing. A greenish glow emitted from its flesh. The car rolled past and it was gone.

   He nudged Rizzi. "What was that?"

   Rizzi craned his neck. "What you mean?"

   "That animal in the side tunnel? Did you see it?"

   Rizzi shrugged. "Sewer rat. Tunnels full of them."

   "But it... glowed."

   Rizzi shrugged again.

   "Should we capture it?" Jakob said. "The mechanism of its glow might advance our science."

   Rizzi laughed. "Sure, boss. You go catch it your bare hands, si? Take it back. They tell you sewer rat."

   The descent abruptly steepened. The car picked up speed. Side tunnels became less frequent, then absent. Something had changed about the main tunnel too. It took a few seconds for Jakob to realize what.

   "Where are the supports?" They descended through solid rock, through an oval corridor with walls so smooth they appeared to be hand chiseled. "How is this possible?"

   "I tell you," Rizzi said. "Tunnel already here."

   "That doesn't tell me anything. Who constructed it? When? Why?"

   "Ask God," Rizzi said. They came to a level section. The car slowed to a stop at a chamber crammed with supplies, including a few picks and shovels and candle hats. They must be approaching the active work site. The track ended here, curving in a tight circle such that the car could return up the opposite side.

   Rizzi opened the door. Jakob climbed out. "Where is everyone?" he said.

   "Come again?" Rizzi said.

   "The workers? There are no workers."

   "Captain Wallace send them away until problem fixed."

   "What problem?"

   "Your problem."

   "Caissons? I haven't seen a dribble of water yet. If I am to solve Wallace's problem, I must know what it is."

   Rizzi nodded, one corner of his mouth sucking in. He came to a decision. "You come," he said. "I show you. You no tell Captain Wallace, si?"

   "I won't tell," Jakob said. Finally.

   Rizzi led him down a shallower incline. The light tube did not extend here, but enough light remained by which to navigate. While the tunnel's smooth bore continued, there was evidence of pick marks on the floor, and small piles of stone chip rubble.

   "Problem there," Rizzi said, pointing to a barrier in the tunnel ahead. Boards had been nailed haphazardly, obstructing the way forward.

   "Why is it blocked?"

   "Bad gas."

   "And Wallace thinks a caisson is the answer."

   Rizzi shrugged.

   Jakob peered between boards. The tunnel beyond fell away quickly. In the distance, he thought he could make out a greenish glow, but it was difficult to be certain.

   A grunt came from beyond the blockade. Jakob froze, ears straining. A second grunt sounded. The glow seemed to come closer.

   "Is someone there?" he said. "Do you need help?" He yanked at the outermost board.

   "No." Rizzi pulled Jakob away. "Is all right. You imagine. He inserted himself between Jakob and the barrier.

   "Is it gas?" Jakob said. He sniffed. The air was dank, but he smelled nothing unusual.

   "Si," Rizzi said. "Gas." He tapped his temple. "You brain, it confused here."

   "What is the source of the--"

   An arm shot between boards. A hand grappled Rizzi's shoulder and pulled him back. The skin of the arm glowed vaguely green.

   Move, Jakob thought. Help him. He had witnessed a man drown in Brooklyn. An air pump had failed. Others frantically tried to start the backup pumps, but Jakob could only watch as the water seeped up the man's corded neck, around his face, into his screaming mouth. He still heard the echoes of that scream from time to time in his nightmares.

   Rizzi reached out. His face darkened. His eyes bulged.

   "No!" Jakob shouted. He'd not watch death again. He grabbed at the arm. The flesh was rubbery. His hand slipped, fingernails leaving scrapes in that alien arm. Blood welled only slowly. Jakob wedged his feet at the base of the barrier, and tried again.

   The elbow straightened like a rust-frozen hinge, fingers tore free of Rizzi's neck. A grunt sounded, and the arm pulled back through the boards. Rizzi sagged forward.

   Jakob eased the larger man to the floor, and dragged him away from the barricade. There was no light behind it now, no greenish glow, only the utter blackness of an unlit tunnel.

   "Grazie," Rizzi gasped. "Grazie."

   "What... who was that?" Jakob said. His heart thudded, driving any remnant of chill from his flesh.

   "Is nothing," Rizzi said. "You no tell Captain Wallace I bring you this place, si?"
Jakob helped him to his feet. Rizzi brushed his pants and walked back toward the cart.

   "Tell me, Anthony. Explain what I witnessed, and I will have no need to inquire it of Wallace."

   Rizzi tapped his temple. "Gas."

   "No," Jakob said. "That was no hallucination." He rubbed his hands together. He could still feel the unnatural chill of the creature.

   "You come," Rizzi said. "Captain Wallace not patient." He walked to the cart, and opened its door. There were no obvious marks on him, and he seemed to be breathing normally. Jakob picked a shred of skin from beneath his fingernail. It was pale white, entirely ordinary.

   Was the experience mere illusion, a waking dream facilitated by Jakob's experience in the caissons? He sat on the back bench. Rizzi resumed his seat. The panel lit.

   Jakob inspected his fingernails as the cart began its climb. There was no real evidence, no greenish glow, just that shred of perfectly normal skin. For all he knew, he had scratched Rizzi. The buzz intruded into his thoughts. It was suddenly everywhere, a colony of bees swarming all around. The hair on his arms lifted. He leaned into the cart's side, away from the wall.

   There was no sign of the glowing rat. Maybe he had imagined that too. Some gases were known to impart odd effects. It had seemed so real. Fear pushed at him, but curiosity pulled back. If psychic phenomenon was a property of some new gas, the man to harvest that power might become as wealthy as Captain Wallace.

   The cart finally slowed to a stop beneath the carriage house. Rizzi exited as if nothing unusual had happened.

   "I cannot ignore this," Jakob said. "I must know more if I am to accept this position."

   "Go some other job," Rizzi said, "some other place."

   "Why?" Jakob said. "I regret that we got off on the wrong foot, Riz... Anthony. I am a decent fellow. I'll treat you and the workers right."

   "You go," Rizzi said. "Live happy life, have lotsa kids."

   "Tell me," Jakob said. "You know what's happening down there. I know you do."

   "Ask God," Rizzi said. He started up the ladder.

   "You can trust me," Jakob said. "My parents came to this country from Poland without a penny in their pockets. I have worked hard to make a better life. Just like you, Anthony."

   The hatch opened. Jakob climbed after the Italian. Rizzi was putting away the drawings when Jakob emerged.

   "You gotta wife, Mister Adam? You gotta children?"

   "No," Jakob said.

   "Then you no like me, understand? I come this country Dominico Ricci. They change my name Tony because I going 'To NY' and Rizzi because their tongues al dente, no speak it right. This best job I find. I leave someday. Now I gotta stay for wife, gotta stay for sons and daughter. You no gotta stay. You no wanna end up down there, understand?" He made a gesture toward the tunnel.

   Jakob stared blankly. What could he say to that?

   "You right," Rizzi said. "Was real down there. Is gas, like I say. It... change things. You go, si? Leave the New Castle. No see Captain Wallace, no take job."

   "Is Wallace conducting some sort of experiment?"

   Rizzi shook his head. "Captain Wallace want it pushed outta there. He no want workers hurt. He want the glow dust, not the gas. He want the light."

   "Ah," Jakob said. "He hopes to use a positive pressure caisson to keep the gas out. I see now." They were mining fuel for Wallace's passive engines. That had to be it.

   Rizzi closed the hatch and replaced the rug over it. "You no see, Mr. Adam. Hear. Listen Dominco Ricci. Be wise, my friend. I say to Wallace you never arrive this morning."

   "Thank you," Jakob said.

   "Eccellente, il mio amico!" Rizzi's mustaches lifted. He clapped Jakob's shoulder, and shoved him toward the glowing grate. "Warm youself. I go back now. You close door when you leave, si? Is already locked."

   Jakob nodded, eyeing the rolled charts Rizzi had replaced on a narrow shelf. Perhaps there were other charts too.

~ ~ ~

   "Good morning, Mr. Adams," Wallace said as Jakob entered the study. The dragonfly had been replaced with a bronze crocodile paperweight. Wallace nodded to the manservant, who bowed and slid the pocket doors closed. "That fool, Rizzi, babbled something about you not showing up. Did he miss you?"

   "No," Jakob said. "As a matter of fact, he showed me everything."

   "What does that mean? He was told to show you the blueprints and the tunnel. What more--"

   "You're mining ore for your passive engines. You hope to find a stronger vein."

   "Rizzi told you this?"

   "I deduced it. The green tint in your light tube, the similar glow in the tunnel. It's the only thing that makes sense."

   "Let us say you are correct," Wallace said. "You do see the potential of such a find, do you not?"

   "I do," Jakob said. "But there is another thing I know."

   Wallace's eyebrow lifted.

   "I know about the odorless gas that transforms animals-- and people--into something other than themselves."

   Wallace leaned back, calculation clouding his gaze. He sighed. "Go on."

   "I also know what will happen should the authorities learn of this," Jakob said.

   "Do you, now?"

   "It came to me on my walk back. Why would you undertake such an elaborate means to hide the shaft, if not to elude prosecution? I believe I could see you clapped in irons with a few carefully chosen words."

   Wallace laughed. "Believe again, Adams. Every sheriff and judge between here and Pittsburgh is in my pocket. I doubt you would find a sympathetic ear." He yawned. "I hide the tunnel because it is in my interest to hide it. Now, tell me what you want before I have you prosecuted for trespass."

   "A seat on the board," Jakob said. "A stake in the company."

   "Partnership?" Wallace clapped his hands. "You want partnership in my project?"

   Jakob nodded. "I want your assurance, in writing, that such a path is open to me."

   Wallace's face puffed up. "How dare you demand anything of me. Are you truly so dense? I can have you crushed, your family killed, everything you prize destroyed with a single edict. The countryside is littered with unnamed immigrant graves. Do not forget that."

   Anger flared through Jakob. He started to stand.

   "Oh, sit down," Wallace said. His hand slipped below the desktop. A drawer slid open. Jakob prepared to dodge a bullet.

   Instead, Wallace placed a stack of papers onto the desk, and tapped them into alignment. "I have every intention of rewarding you for your work, Adams. I take care of my own. Deliver the first stage of my project on time and on budget and this agreement grants you a one percent--"

   "Five," Jakob said.

   "One," Wallace said. "If this project delivers as I expect it will, even one percent will make you rich."

   "In that case," Jakob said, "you can surely offer three."

   Wallace chuckled. "You do have spunk, Adams." He rubbed his face. "Deliver the first phase for one percent. Upon completion of the final phase, I'll have the agreement redrafted to raise it to three. Do we have a deal?" He slid the stack across, and offered a pen. Ink glistened from the Nib.

   Jakob set the top page aside.

   "Don't bother to read it," Wallace said. "It is as unfair to you as you can possibly imagine. While engaged on the project, you belong to me, you will live where I say to live, eat what I say to eat, work the hours I decree. No fraternizing, no going into town to slake your thirst in the company of other immigrant souls, only work and more work. By the time this is finished, you will have spent so much time underground that you will no longer know what natural light is." He leaned across, and pressed the pen into Jakob's fingers. "In return, I will make you rich, Adams. That is the deal, take it or leave it."

   "What does this 'first phase' consist of?" Jakob said.

   Wallace waved dismissively. "Proof of concept at scale. My son has an idea. I want it engineered and developed into a working prototype. The first phase ends with successful deployment of a sleeve."

   Jakob opened his mouth.

   "Do not worry," Wallace said. "There is plenty of time built into the agreement for construction and testing. If you are half the engineer your resume implies, you will finish a month before the deadline."

   "And I am to take your word on that?" Jakob said.

   "You are." The determined set of Wallace's eyes told Jakob all he needed to know about further negotiation. He scratched his name onto the agreement with a flourish.

   Wallace nodded energetically. "Welcome to the project, Mister Adams. My son calls it The Glow. Imagine, Adams. Entire city blocks lit by our light, factories powered by our engines, every mansion in town, your mansion, heated with our heaters, cooled by our fans. We will be kings."

   He reached across the desk and took Jakob's hand into his iron grip. Jakob thought of the arm lunging around Rizzi, the rubbery texture of the creature's skin. The sewer rat. You no wanna end up down there, understand? He might have signed his death warrant by accepting Wallace's offer. Still, one percent stake with a potential for three? It was far better than Jakob could have anticipated. If he meant to become one of the elite he may as well get used to the price of admission.

   Wallace released. A Masonic ring on his finger glinted.
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 11/2/2012 4:45:52 PM
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    4/3/2016 1:42:16 AM
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