READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Nightshade Cabal, by Chris Patrick Carolan
Behold! Today you can read the first two chapters of Chris Patrick Carolan's fantastical steampunk mystery, THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL.
Dark magic was bound to find its way to technomancer, Issac Barrow. After discovering an underground group of necromancers called The Nightshade Cabal holds responsibility for missing Emily Skye, Issac must find her and put a stop to their dastardly plans for the rest of Victorian Halifax...
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Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1881.
“I’m telling you, Jonathon, these so-called stage magicians are nothing more than charlatans and hucksters of the highest order,” Isaac Barrow said, raising his voice to be heard over the din of the crowded Theatre Royale. “The act is nothing but mirrors and wires and other trickery making you think you’ve seen something you haven’t.”
Inspector Jonathon Eddings chuckled heartily, shaking his head. “And I keep telling you, Barrow, being fooled is the whole point of the bloody show!” Fifteen years in Halifax had done little to blunt the edge of his thick Mancunian brogue.
His friend’s retort failed to quell Barrow’s annoyance. The inspector’s invitation had had all the cordiality of a press gang. Eddings had bought the tickets to thank Barrow for his help with a recent investigation. He hadn’t skimped, either; they sat just three rows back of the orchestra pit. The notion of putting down hard-earned coin with the express intention of being hoodwinked by some sham of a magician struck Barrow as inordinately foolish. He knew of the occult and the dangers of flirting with its deadly secrets. Real magic being his stock-in-trade, he considered the pretend variety, popular on stage, mildly offensive at best. It was only on his friend’s repeated insistence that he had finally, against his own better judgment, agreed to attend the performance.
“Besides all that,” Eddings continued, smacking his rolled-up playbill against Barrow’s knee, “they say this Oriental mystic Lai Jūn can conjure up illusions unlike anything you’ve ever seen before!”
Barrow snatched the pamphlet from his friend’s hand. He knew Eddings was given to overstatement, even exaggeration. “I highly doubt that, Jonathon.” He looked down his long nose at the inspector, then unrolled the playbill and read.
He had to admit that the show’s promoter had a flair for the dramatic, making fantastical claims about Lai Jūn’s mysterious origins and otherworldly talents. “Thrill to the Spectacle of the Spectral Chinese Dragon and Other Wonders,” read the headline. “Straight from the darkest corners of the mysterious Orient, Lai Jūn shocks and amazes audiences by conjuring fantastic beasts from the very air. Not for the very young or faint of heart!”
Barrow couldn’t hold back a mirthless chuckle as he scanned the playbill. Real magic remained taboo, its practitioners the target of scorn and hatred, yet here he sat in a room with five hundred people who had paid to watch these pointless illusions. The lure of the forbidden is a powerful thing, I suppose, he mused.
The playbill also promised An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, but the first entertainer to take the stage—a young magician performing as The Amazing Antony—failed to impress the audience, trotting out tired tricks and illusions it had seen a hundred times over. He clashed a set of three large brass rings together, then held them up so the audience could see he had linked them like a chain, drawing little more than polite applause. A pretty young woman was placed in a wooden box, then apparently cut in half with a comically oversized blade. The trick was performed flawlessly, but it was nothing new. The illusion had been an old saw when Barrow was just a lad. No doubt sensing the audience’s growing impatience, The Amazing Antony rushed his way through his final two feats. The illusionist seemed as glad to leave the stage as the audience was to see him go. Heckles and jeers followed him as he departed.
“I hope this mystic of yours has something more interesting to offer than that poor display, Jonathon,” Barrow said over weak applause, again looking down his nose at the inspector.
Eddings remained impassive. “Wait and see, Barrow. Wait and see.”
The lights dimmed as reedy flutes played a mysterious tune and the hubbub in the crowded theatre died away. With a deafening crack, a swirling column of flame erupted from the center of the stage, sending thick red smoke billowing up. More than a few people in the audience shrieked in surprise. The flame soon subsided, revealing the mystic.
Standing in the center of a single spotlight wearing long robes of red silk, Lai Jūn appeared younger than the wizened figure Barrow had envisioned while reading the playbill. The man on the stage was no graybeard, but a well-built figure of maybe twenty-five. From his place above the audience, he regarded the auditorium coolly, wordlessly, his expression distant.
Pounding drums struck up a frenetic rhythm as Lai Jūn stripped off his scarlet robes, leaving him bare-chested under the glaring stage lights. His skin was tracked with several tattoos depicting exotic animals, though from this distance Barrow could make out only a scant handful. There was a large tiger on one shoulder, and a cobra on his chest. Most impressive was a massive, colourful Chinese dragon, snaking the length of the mystic’s torso. Even from this distance, the level of detail was astounding.
As impressive as the tattoos were, Lai Jūn allowed little time to admire them as he launched into an acrobatic display unlike anything Barrow had ever witnessed. As if borne upward by some preternatural wind, he leapt high into the air, catching a hanging ring in each hand, twirling and spinning at dizzying speeds before coming to an abrupt pause. He hung there for a full half-minute, his arms straight out in a crucifixion pose as the audience held its breath. Sweat beaded on his brow as he held the agonizing pose, the taut muscles of his arms twitching beneath the skin. Finally, without seeming to move at all, he slowly inverted the position, hanging upside-down in midair for just as long. With a cry, he flipped himself over once more, released his grip on the rings, and landed on the stage to thunderous applause.
As the drums went silent, Barrow could hear Lai Jūn softly chanting. He watched as the mystic touched two fingers to the tattoo of the tiger on his shoulder. The image seemed to peel away from his skin, glowing faintly as it took form. It grew slowly, morphing from a flat illustration into a fully formed projection that appeared to have substance. It stood on the stage, easily the size of an actual tiger.
The audience cheered as the music swelled once more, the spectral tiger padding its way from one end of the stage to the other under Lai Jūn’s determined gaze. Aside from the soft glow surrounding the beast, everything about it—the way it moved, the way it regarded the audience with those fierce hunter’s eyes—seemed real and alive. The illusion was phenomenal.
Sweat, visible in the spotlight’s glare, beaded on Lai Jūn’s brow. Maintaining the image clearly took a great deal of concentration and effort on the mystic’s part. He continued his chant as the beast prowled, all the while holding two fingers to the spot on his shoulder where the tattoo had been just moments before. As he raised his free hand in a fist, the tiger came to stand obediently at his side, bringing another chorus of cheers from the captivated theatre audience.
The drums pounded, their deafening beat working towards a frenzied tempo. With a barked command, Lai Jūn threw his free hand out towards the audience. The drumming ceased as the phantom tiger sprang forth from the lip of the stage, leaping outward over the front rows of the breathless spectators with a mighty roar.
The airborne beast vanished, swallowed up into nothingness. In the same instant, Lai Jūn removed the two fingers he had pressed to his skin to conjure the tiger into being. The tattoo reappeared on his shoulder.
Rapt silence filled the cavernous theatre, replaced a moment later by a deafening rumble of applause. As one, the audience leapt to its feet. Barrow was surprised to find himself out of his seat, part of the ovation.
“Well, Barrow? What do you think of that?” Eddings shouted over the noise of the crowd as he clapped his big hands together.
“Very impressive,” Barrow replied, also shouting. “Very impressive indeed, though I’ve no idea how he was able to create such an illusion.”
“Bah! Scoffer!” Both men laughed.
The lights dimmed once more, the sound of the flutes urging the audience back to their seats in attentive silence. Still in the spotlight at the center of the stage, Lai Jūn began to chant once more as he raised his right hand above his head, displaying the tattoo of the Chinese dragon for all to see. He pressed two fingers to the image.
As the tiger had done before, the image of the dragon glowed softly as it peeled away from Lai Jūn’s skin. As the audience was stunned once more into awed stillness, the ethereal beast grew larger and larger until finally, it stretched the full length of the stage.
The serpentine dragon took to the air, flying up toward the theatre’s ornate ceiling. It swooped and coiled its long body through the space above the rows of seats, astonishing and delighting the audience. As the dragon passed overhead, Barrow could feel the draft it left in its wake. It has physical mass, he realized. This is no mere projection. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled.
As the dragon danced in the air above the audience, Barrow regarded Lai Jūn with growing suspicion. The mystic was locked in intense concentration as he worked to keep the ethereal beast under his control.
Gently, carefully, Barrow extended a small part of his own mind out toward the stage. He had come to the theatre expecting naught but cheap illusions and trickery, but was beginning to believe he had discovered something much more. If there was real magic at play, he should be able to sense it.
The tricky part would be doing so without Lai Jūn noticing his probing.
Near the very edge of the stage, Barrow found what he was seeking. The aura of magic emanating from where Lai Jūn stood was intense, swirling around his feet like a ragged, churning maelstrom. It wasn’t a thing that could be seen by human eyes; only those trained in the transmundane arts would sense the radiating circles of raw power that focused wherever occult energies were being channeled.
With an audible gasp, the mystic’s head whipped around. He locked eyes, , with Barrow across the rows of oblivious spectators. Disbelief and anger mingled on his face.
In that moment of distraction, Lai Jūn faltered and dropped to one knee, losing control of the spectral dragon. It turned in midair, fixing its stare on its human master with a wicked grin. With a startled cry, Lai Jūn flung a hand toward the airborne beast.
The spell broken, the dragon vanished instantly. As the tiger before it had done, the tattoo reappeared on the mystic’s body. The column of otherworldly flame erupted around Lai Jūn’s feet once more as the audience burst into applause, thinking what they had seen was but part of the show.
Lai Jūn stared through the flames directly at Barrow, pure malice evident on his face. When the flames died away a few moments later, Lai Jūn was gone.
Fog had started to roll in from the harbour by the time Barrow and Eddings left the Theatre Royale, taking on an oily and unwholesome aspect as it swirled in the yellow glow of the gas lamps lining Spring Garden Road. Hansoms lined the street waiting for fares, and a bare handful of steamcarriages ranged among their number. Nervous horses shied away from the low rumbling of the steamcarriage engines and their acrid exhaust fumes. The hansom drivers eyed the newfangled vehicles with mingled curiosity and disdain. The lure of the unfamiliar was enough to draw some passengers to try the steamcars at least once, but there weren’t yet enough of the vehicles on the streets to be any real threat to the hansom drivers’ livelihoods.
Eddings was still gawping as they emerged from the theatre lobby. “Bloody brilliant, weren’t he?” he proclaimed, wrapping a red scarf around his neck. It was early June, but the coming of spring in Halifax simply meant rain instead of snow. Days were milder, but evenings remained chilly and damp.
A small group of vociferous protestors huddled across the street from the theatre, their enthusiasm undampened by the soggy weather. The placards they carried quoted scripture and denounced the evils being performed within the Theatre Royale. They didn’t care that stage magic was an act; the demonstrators drew no distinction between the real and the pretend, and thought any public act of magic was performed in concert with the devil himself. To their way of thinking, mere discussion of the occult was as bad as the practice. One good thing about the brutal Halifax winter was that it kept most of these sorts of debates indoors.
Narrow-minded bigots, driven by nothing more than base fear and a lack of understanding, Barrow thought as he glanced across the cobbled road. Have they no better way to spend their time? He wondered what the demonstrators would think if they had seen Lai Jūn’s conjurations for themselves. He scarcely knew what to think of what he had seen, and he knew a great deal more about such things than these busybodies.
“Come now, Barrow,” the inspector chided, swatting the technomancer on the shoulder and calling his attention away from the display. “You can’t tell me you’ve ever seen anything to compare to those illusions before.”
“What we saw tonight was no mere illusion, Jonathon,” Barrow said. “Those creatures were as solid as you and I, and conjured into being by some very real magic.”
“Wait a minute,” the inspector said, stopping in his tracks. “Are you saying those great glowing beasties in there could’ve come down off that stage and, what? Taken a bite out of us?”
Barrow nodded. “I believe so, but I can’t be sure. I have no idea what magic could be used to create and control those... those monsters. Not only have I never seen the like before, I’ve never even heard of anything like what we saw on that stage tonight.” He frowned, annoyed at having to admit his ignorance in the matter.
“Then how do you know it was real magic?”
“There’s an energy connecting all things,” Barrow explained, frowning as he tried to conceptualize the truth for his friend; the inspector was worldlier than most, but still had little experience with the transmundane. “No one knows what it is, really, but you can think of it like the surface of a pond. Most of the time the water is placid, the surface flat as a pane of glass. When a spellcaster taps into that energy, it’s almost like a stone has been thrown into the pond. Another spellcaster can often feel the ripples from that spell breaking the surface. The more powerful the spell, the further those ripples radiate.”
“And you felt those ripples tonight?”
“It was more like a maelstrom,” Barrow said. “Most magic is primarily a means of manipulating elemental forces and playing off their interactions. There’s nothing I know of—nothing I’ve ever heard theorized—that would allow such creatures to be conjured out of pure nothingness. I don’t think he called the beasts forth from the Otherwhere, either. Whatever it was, though, was some quite potent casting indeed.”
Eddings exhaled deeply. “Bloody hell.”
That brought a small smile to Barrow’s face. “Indeed, Jonathon.”
“Well, you’re a right clever fellow. You’ll suss it out soon enough,” Eddings said. As ever, he showed great confidence in Barrow’s talents. He turned the collar of his heavy wool coat up against the chilly night air, then jammed his hands into a pair of black leather gloves. “In the meantime, how do you fancy joining me at Carleton House for a late meal?”
Barrow shook his head. “I would, but I’m afraid I have an early appointment in the morning,” he said, drawing a curious look from the inspector. “I’ve got to be at Henry Feele’s home in Point Pleasant for eight o’clock, and I’d rather not keep him waiting.”
“Henry Feele, of Feele Trans-Atlantic? I should say not, Barrow!” Eddings whistled, impressed. “That’s one wealthy client. What does he want with you?”
“Mechanical services of some sort, I would assume.” Barrow shrugged. Henry Feele’s message had arrived earlier that day and, other than the time and address, the note had been maddeningly vague. Absent of any details, only the shipping magnate’s solid reputation—to say nothing of his deep pockets—had held Barrow’s interest.
“Maybe he has one of those new steamcarriages in need of repair. The engines that power those things will be keeping mechanics busy for years to come, I’d wager.”
He reached out and clasped his friend’s gloved hand. “Have a good night, Jonathon,” he said with a smile. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “And thank you for this evening’s entertainment. It was certainly...intriguing.”
“By which you mean you’ve found yourself faced with a question you don’t know how to answer,” Eddings said with a grin, clapping one big hand on Barrow’s shoulder.
Barrow tipped the brim of his bowler hat to his friend, conceding the last word. He turned to stroll into the roiling fog, another shadow in the chiaroscuro night.
Stepping off the Point Pleasant streetcar into a gray Tuesday morning, Barrow popped open his umbrella to fend off the light rain that peppered the cobbles. He thanked the conductor as he hopped down from the car’s bottom step, instantly feeling foolish. The automaton that sat behind the controls clicked and whirred as it sketched a jerky salute before putting the streetcar into gear to continue along its route, but the emotionless machine had no sense of professional pride.
Barrow’s courtesy came from habit. He was used to interacting with the human operators that still ran the Gottingen line; few streetcars in Halifax had the expensive new autonomous conductor units installed. Any time he happened upon one, he wondered why the transit commission insisted on dressing the automata in the same uniform their human counterparts wore. Clothing a machine struck him as inordinately wasteful. He supposed it was in part to set their passengers’ minds at ease. Not everyone was enamoured with the idea of the streetcars driven by mechanical operators. But with the spinning mirrored discs of their round eyes set into featureless, polished brass faces, the mechanical men didn’t look remotely human. No clothing would change that.
There was talk that a British airship company was planning to use the new automata to pilot their transatlantic routes, but Barrow had trouble believing the story was anything more than a clever marketing ploy. The technology was too new, too untested to make the idea palatable to any but the most enthusiastic of technophiles. Conducting a streetcar along a set cable track and piloting an airship with more than five hundred passengers across an ocean were very different propositions.
Despite his own misgivings, Barrow had to admit the idea had merit. Nonstop flights across the vast ocean took several days, requiring three shifts of crew members to make the journey. Airship pilots worked in pairs, so each flight meant training—and paying—no fewer than six men on the flight deck. Add to that the mechanics in the engine rooms and the crew tending to the passenger cabins, and it quickly became a very expensive operation. Powered by their compact internal voltaic batteries, automata worked around the clock, requiring no rest.
His thoughts came crashing back to earth as a steamcarriage rattled past, its chassis squeaking as it sped over the uneven surface of the cobblestone roadway. The driver capably handled the steering from his seat behind the long barrel of the steamcar’s tapered boiler, keeping the vehicle on a more or less straight course as it pitched and jounced over the cobbles. Dark velvet curtains were drawn over the windows of the passenger compartment, concealing the identity of the steamcar’s wealthy owner inside. Even with the noise the vehicle made, Barrow took a moment to admire the machine as it passed. The artistry that went into designing the miniaturized boiler engines the new steamcars used was no small thing, and advances in materials engineering over the last few years had reduced the number of explosions to almost nil. The astronomic cost of the vehicles was the only factor keeping them from overcoming their novelty status as playthings of the wealthy.
Pausing at the gate, Barrow checked the address on the note Henry Feele had sent the day before. Visiting the home of a client wasn’t normally a notion he willingly entertained. He offered mechanical services mainly to local industry and the shipping trade at the wharves, leaving the broken-down home appliances to regular repairmen. Every hour he spent working on someone else’s machinery was one he didn’t have to devote to his own technomantic research. As much as he wished he could hole up in his own laboratory with his personal projects, though, the reality of his fiscal situation demanded he take on at least some outside work from time to time.
As much as Barrow hated the idea of playing to another man’s tune, the backing of a wealthy patron could mean the difference between a technomancer eking out his days repairing worn-out valves while scribbling away in a basement somewhere, and becoming the next Edison. The American, backed by some serious capital, had been on a tear over the last few years, filing patent after patent.
Barrow’s successes were nothing compared to Edison’s, but neither did he have a fortune of resources to draw on. If he managed to suitably impress Henry Feele, the shipping magnate might very well be convinced to finance his future researches. Such politics galled him, but he knew it was a game he had to play.
Heading straight up to the house, he didn’t take much time to admire the pristine landscaping. He was met at the door by Mr. Feele’s butler. Gray-haired and a bit paunchy, he was English-trained if his accent was anything to go by, though Barrow supposed that could be an affectation. He handed the man his calling card.
“Isaac Barrow, Technomancer,” the disinterested servant read aloud, an edge of disdain apparent in his voice. “The tradesman’s entrance is located at the rear of the house, Mr. Barrow,” he said shortly, handing the card back.
Barrow couldn’t decide if the butler looked down his nose at working men in general, or if this condescension was held specifically for spellcasters. He didn’t much care either way. “If I should happen upon any tradesmen, I shall let them know,” he replied as he took a step across the threshold. He handed his coat, hat, and dripping umbrella to the butler. The stuffy servant bristled, but took the damp articles without protest. “There’s a good man! Now, where might I find Mr. Feele?”
He followed the butler down a long corridor to Henry Feele’s library. Even on a gray morning such as this, two tall windows at the south end of the room flooded the library with light. Barrow noted a number of taxidermied animals throughout the room. Several stuffed game birds were perched atop bookshelves, including pheasant, grouse, an eagle with its wings spread wide, and some others Barrow couldn’t name. A small red fox stood between the two windows while a large wildcat, posed as if prowling through long grass, kept vigil on the transom above the door to an adjoining room.
A broad oak desk sat in front of the windows, its surface scrupulously tidy. Sheets of paper were piled neatly in labeled trays atop the desk, and an oversized ledger was laid open in the center of the blotter. Not a single item was out of place. Barrow almost wondered if the tableau had been set out for his benefit, but based on the fellow’s reputation, he quickly decided Henry Feele was likely not the sort of man to resort to such empty theatrics.
A sturdy man in his early forties, Henry Feele had dark brown hair that was graying slightly at the temples. The sleeves of his crisp white shirt were rolled up past his elbows, and he wore a fine silk waistcoat. His suit jacket was slung over a nearby chair. Barrow didn’t even try to hide a wry smile when he noticed the butler eyeing the rumpled jacket with something approaching resignation writ plain on his face.
Mr. Feele stood studying a large coastal map mounted on one wall. Several colored pins were scattered across the map, which Barrow assumed noted the current locations of Feele Trans-Atlantic’s fleet vessels. His attention locked on the map, he didn’t seem to take any notice of Barrow and the butler. Barrow admired a man who could become so engrossed in his work; indeed, it was a trait he shared.
The butler cleared his throat once, loudly. “A Mr. Isaac Barrow to see you, sir,” he announced in a booming tenor, drawing Feele from his reverie.
“Ah, thank you, Coleman,” Feele said as he crossed the room to clasp Barrow’s hand. “And thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. Barrow. May I offer you anything in the way of refreshment?”
“Coffee, if you have it. Bergamot tea if you don’t, thank you,” Barrow said as he shook Henry Feele’s hand. The fellow’s grip was firm and confident, his smile sincere. His ruddy face told of some years spent working outdoors; Barrow knew one of the conditions of his inheriting ownership of the company had been five years at sea as a young man. The condition of inheritance had been written into the company charter by his great-grandfather before his retirement, remaining in place through generations of family ownership, with the notion being that a man cannot properly run a company without some hands-on experience in its daily trade. Barrow thought the reasoning sound.
Feele nodded to the butler, once. “The Sumatran, please, Coleman. I trust you didn’t have any trouble finding us, Mr. Barrow?”
“I’m not in the habit of visiting private residences, Mr. Feele,” Barrow said, joining his client in looking over the large map on the wall. “Most of my clients require mechanical services in factories, offices, or other places of business.” He flashed a crooked smile. “I hope you didn’t call me here for the sake of a burned-out bread toaster.”
Feele chuckled heartily, taking the comment for the joke Barrow had intended. “Of course, Mr. Barrow. The library here at home often does duty as my place of business.” He shrugged. “Some days I find it easier to work here, away from the din and constant interruptions of the office. I’m sure you understand the virtue of solitude.”
“Yes,” Barrow said, and left it that. It was a generally held assumption that spellcasters tended to be withdrawn by nature. In his case, it happened to be true more often than not, but he didn’t feel the need to play to the stereotype. “Why did you ask me here, Mr. Feele?”
Just then, Coleman returned, carrying a silver tray laden with a pewter carafe, matching vessels for cream and cubed sugar, and two porcelain cups. Barrow accepted a cup with murmured thanks, stirring in a small dribble of cream. The rich smell of the steaming coffee filled his nostrils.
Feele also took a cup, dismissing the butler. “I’ve been having rather a lot of trouble with my autotype machine lately,” he said, gesturing towards the unit, which sat off to one side behind the desk. “It started acting up some months ago, peppering random letters in places throughout the documents I composed on it. At first I thought these were simply errors on my part, but it was happening when I dictated to my secretary as well.”
Barrow nodded, taking a sip of the coffee. He tried his best not to let on when the steaming hot liquid stung his lip, but he thought he saw Feele suppress a grin. “Was there any pattern to the extra letters?” he asked around his embarrassment. “Ks slipping in next to your Ls, things like that?”
Feele shook his head with a rueful smile. “No, I did check to make sure it wasn’t a case of my fat fingers hitting two keys at once,” he said, waggling the digits in question. “And as I said, the same happened when my secretary used the machine, and her digits are notably slenderer than my own.”
“I’m sure they are,” Barrow said. “My thought, though, was that frayed wiring underneath the keys might be causing the errors.”
Feele shook his head. “I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why not, before you start pulling the machine apart. The problem became more pronounced as the weeks passed. It wasn’t long before entire extra words started to appear on the page.”
Barrow felt an eyebrow quirk upward. “Whole words?”
Walking over to the desk and opening a drawer, Feele pulled out a sheaf of printed pages. “I was drafting a speech to deliver to my company’s shareholders some weeks back. Have a look for yourself.”
“Third quarter moon earnings were up year over stinking year,” Barrow read aloud. “Modest cheese gains were made along the traditional transatlantic porridge routes, though investment in the French cabinet project in Panama has yet to bear out.” He leafed through a few more pages, noting numerous other similar errors. “This was printed here? You didn’t type it on this machine, then transmit it to have it printed it at the company office?”
“That’s right,” Feele said. “I’ve had to leave the paper carriage empty. Towards the end, the damned thing was spooling out reams of nonsense.”
Barrow set the pages and his cup down on the desk and crossed the room to inspect the autotype, a black behemoth of a device almost half the size of the broad oak desk and likely almost twice as heavy. “Do you know how an autotype works, Mr. Feele?” he asked, running his hand down the side of the machine.
“I never thought to consider the specific mechanics of the device,” Feele said with a shrug. “I know there’s an element of the arcane in it.”
“You’re not quite wrong,” Barrow said, “though the word arcane doesn’t necessarily imply anything of the occult. It only refers to something which is secret and unknown to most people.” He smiled. “As long as a machine works as it’s supposed to, most people will never stop to think about how it does what it does. It’s enough for them that it works.
“When you hit a key on a standard typewriter,” he explained, poking at the air with his fingers, miming the act of typing, “a hammer engraved with the corresponding letter swings upwards, striking an ink-soaked ribbon to transfer that letter onto a sheet of paper. It’s instantly on the page, and difficult to correct if you’ve made an error. An autotype machine is similar in concept, though it puts a few intermediate steps into the process. Instead of mechanically swinging a hammer, each letter keystroke sends a unique electrical impulse into a storage medium, which remembers the order of their input while sending a working copy to a rasterized display screen as you type, rather than impressing it on the page. The great advantage is you can review what you’ve typed and make changes before printing the document, and unlike a single document drafted on a typewriter, someone using an autotype can create multiple identical copies when his document is finished.”
“I’ve already purchased the machine, Mr. Barrow,” Feele said with a patient smile. “You don’t need to sell me on its merits.”
“The storage medium is where the arcane factors in,” Barrow continued, grasping the cold metal edges of the autotype machine’s outer casing. With an audible click, the top panel of the casing came free, and he gently lifted it off and set it aside.
Examining the machine’s inner workings, Barrow whistled slightly. “Oh, but you are a beauty, aren’t you?” he whispered, almost inaudibly. Hundreds of tiny brass gears and polished steel wheels and pistons sat idle, springs and pins ready to spin into life at a moment’s notice.
Towards the back of the machine lay a glass tube, nearly a foot in length and as thick as a man’s wrist, filled with a viscous gray fluid. There were electrodes attached at either end. The stuff inside looked almost gelatinous and glowed softly with a pale, pulsing iridescence as Barrow pointed to it. “That fluid is the machine’s storage medium: brain tissue, suspended in a preservative solution of nutritive and conductive compounds.”
“That’s right,” Barrow explained, “a cluster of cells from the brain’s memory center, to be specific. No bigger than child’s front tooth when it was extracted.”
Feele swallowed once, hard. Barrow was sure he wasn’t meant to have noticed the reaction. “What...what kind of brain?” he asked after a moment.
“Oh, an animal, always,” Barrow said reassuringly. “Rodents are too small to yield much viable brain matter, so they use the tissue from livestock that would have been discarded or sold along with the offal. Sheep and cows are too slow-witted to be any use, but swine are actually quite clever beasts.” He gently twisted the memory cylinder until it came free from its mounting, and held it up to the light of the gas lamp on the wall behind Feele’s broad desk. “Enough viable tissue can be extracted from a single pig’s brain to build nearly a hundred autotype machines.”
“I had no idea.”
“Arcane, as you yourself said, Mr. Feele.” He tilted the memory cell back and forth in his hand in a seesaw motion, watching the viscous fluid within slowly swirl. “Do you mind if I take this with me? I’ve never seen a memory cylinder even half the size of what you’ve got here. I’d like to conduct a few simple tests on this.”
“You may as well,” Feele said, seeming to have regained his composure. “It’s not any use to me, working the way it is now. I trust you’ll return it to the machine when you have some answers?” His eyes narrowed slightly as he watched Barrow examine the cylinder. “You know something already, though, don’t you, Mr. Barrow? I can see it in your eyes.”
“I don’t know anything yet, Mr. Feele, though I have a suspicion that what we have here is something rather more evolved than the brain of a hog,” Barrow said solemnly, tucking the cylinder inside his valise. “I suspect that the brain tissue used to create your autotype machine’s memory cell came from that of a human.”