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   Chapter 1 No.1

Free-Wrench By Joseph R. Lallo Characters: 11885

Updated: 2018-01-19 12:02


Caldera was a chain of islands just about as far from any major continent as was geographically possible, and that suited its people just fine. The prevailing opinion about their neighboring countries was that they were vicious, brutish places of savagery and debauchery. A long stretch of choppy sea between them made for good peace of mind. As the name would suggest, Caldera wasn't so much an archipelago as a set of volcanoes that one by one peeked their heads up out of the sea floor to see what all of the fuss was about. This, too, suited its people just fine. It gave them an abundance of free heat. Combined with sea water, that created plenty of steam, and steam was what made the world go round.

The largest island was called Tellahn, home to both the mightiest volcano and, where it met the sea, the largest steamworks in the whole island chain. The East Seaward Hub, as the massive facility was called, was a bustling hive of activity day and night. It supplied the bulk of the power for the island and sat at the heart of a cluster of factories and facilities that did the dirty work for the whole of the nation. The steamworks was an intricate knot of pipes and valves, perpetually muggy, soot covered, and reeking of sulfur. It was as close to hell as most Calderans could bear to imagine, but to a rare and precious few it was paradise.

Two such workers toiled in a claustrophobic hallway near the third of ten boiler chambers. Intended for pipes rather than people, little care had been put into making it hospitable. What small amount of light there was came from the dim blue flames of gas lanterns dangling from the belts of each worker. The walls had the texture of a cheese grater, still jagged from the day the tunnel had been roughly carved through the lava rock. Making it even more treacherous was the walkway, which was a warped catwalk of oiled wood. The only thing to grab on to, should a worker become unsteady, was the unforgiving wall or the scalding-hot steam pipes. Needless to say, a wise steamworker quickly learned to step lightly and surely and wore thick gloves just in case.

"Keep your eye on that meter, Nita!" cried the foreman, a stout man with his face hidden behind a pair of brass goggles. "It's running a bit high."

"I see it, Marcus, " she said, pulling her gloves tight and adjusting her own goggles. Even with lenses carefully designed to keep from fogging, the moisture constantly built up. "I don't like the way these pipes are shimmying either."

As rare as it was to find someone willing to go to work in the steamworks every day, Amanita Graus was rarer still, a woman willing to do so. She'd been working at the steamworks since her seventeenth birthday, and in the three years since then she'd proved herself to be an asset. In most situations it might have been difficult for a woman to find a place among the primarily male workforce, but, truth be told, the steamworks was so short on staff they were happy to have anyone willing to take up some of the slack. She currently worked as a free-wrench, a laborer traded between sections and facilities to lend an extra hand where it was needed. As one of the most demanding jobs they had, it required a working knowledge in every trade in the steamworks.

"I agree. Inspect the next fifty yards of pipe toward the boiler. I want to make sure the bypass valves are clear."

Nita nodded and got to work. Despite being the rare female steamworker, she was dressed and equipped as roughly as the men were. That meant at least one layer of leather or canvas over most of her body, a pair of chunky work gloves, and a rugged pair of work boots. To maintain the various-sized nuts, she wore a bandoleer of assorted wrenches and other tools, and an array of pouches hanging from her belt, along with two holstered rods. Most men wore a reinforced back-support belt with suspenders to take the edge off of the heavy lifting so frequently a part of the job, but Nita had found that a lightly modified corset did much the same job. The only other feminine touch she'd made to her equipment was a tasteful little butterfly accent on her goggles, a gift from her younger brother. The whole of the ensemble was fastened in place and held together with brass or copper rivets and buckles, as well as a prodigious number of leather belts.

The senior worker began a new order, but his voice trailed off as the usual hiss and rattle of pipes, thicker than his thigh, turned into a worrying rumble. Clumps of the sooty crust that tended to cling to every surface like frost in the early days of winter began to shake free as the vibration of the pipe became increasingly violent.

"Down! Brace for a breech!" the foreman said.

The man and woman hunkered down with their backs to the pipes and covered their heads. After a nerve-racking few seconds of escalating rumbling, a nearby pipe ruptured, sending a thunderous clap reverberating down the tunnel and throwing the workers against the catwalk. Steam came rushing out of a foot-long fault in the pipe, filling the tunnel with a thick fog and a deafening whistle. Nita fought her way to her feet. Acting on raw training, she grabbed a wrench and began to tap on the pipe. Since a good hard rap on the pipe could be heard throughout half of the mountain, the workers had developed a simple tap code to communicate. She listed off their status: two workers, tunnel 3A, major breech, no injuries. As soon as she was through, she heard the message begin to echo back, a nearby worker pounding it out again to acknowledge and spread the word. Next she found the pressure gauge.

"It is still climbing!" she called out on the off chance that she might be heard. "We've got to reach the bypass, or we could lose the whole boiler and half the mountain!"

She banged out this information as well, then charged down the tunnel. The nearer she came to the boiler, the thicke

r the pipe became, joining with others that branched off toward other parts of the facility and other parts of the island. Finally she came to a point where the pipe was half as tall as she was, with a massive wheel set into it and a branching shunt pipe leading straight up through the stone above and into daylight. Her leather gloves sizzled against the wheel as she fought with it, trying to redirect the steam flow and relieve the pressure. The shunt was only beginning to sputter with released steam when the wheel suddenly spun loose, snapped free from its shaft, and clattered to the floor.

Nita didn't waste a moment uttering any of the profanities that flitted through her head. Instead she tugged at the coils of rope slung across her shoulders and shrugged them off, freeing the massive apparatus that they held to her back. The heavy thing hit the ground with a thunk. As heavy as it was, she always brought it with her. Her very first foreman had drummed it into her that she would never know what tool might save some time, save some work, or save her life, so best to bring them all. The sheer size of it made this tool the only one she'd considered excluding from that rule. As large as a backpack and made from a dull purple-gray metal, it looked like the head of a pipe wrench designed for a giant. Her foreman called it a monkey-toe, and technically it was a so-called team wrench. Today she'd find out how well it worked without a team.

She spun the knurled adjustment screw, sliding the jaws open until they were wide enough to accept the square shaft of the broken wheel, then heaved it from the ground and onto the shaft. Two quick slaps to the screw spun it to tightness. Now for the hard part. Holstered like twin swords at her belt were a pair of cheater bars. She unsheathed one and slotted it into a hole on the head of the monkey-toe, then threw her weight against the freshly installed lever. It didn't budge, and the telltale ricochet of bursting nuts and bolts warned her that there wasn't much more time to waste. She grasped an overhead pipe and hauled herself up to plant her boots on the lever and force it with all of her weight and strength.

A grinding sound rattled along the pipe as the valve grudgingly slid open. Steam began to erupt from the top of the pipe in burps and hisses, knocking free the bubbling muck that had filled the pipe in the years since it had last been used. Three more steamworkers rushed into the tunnel from the boiler side and spotted her working at the valve. One grabbed the end of her bar to lend a hand while the other two inserted a bar of their own into the opposite end of the wrench. Their combined effort finally wrestled the valve fully open, and a geyser of stagnant water sprayed from the pipe above, followed by a column of steam that nearly reached the clouds.

Nita and her fellow workers breathed a collective sigh of relief and wiped away the coating of gunk that was still raining down through the opening above them.

"Well, " Nita said, pulling out a clean handkerchief from a pouch on her belt and wiping at her goggles. "There's nothing like a nice, vigorous ending to an uneventful day."

Chapter 1

Each shift ended with a short but very necessary shower to restore herself to something resembling a human being. That was the most inconvenient part of being part of the female staff. There was but one shower to be had, and modesty forbade sharing it with the men; so when the time came for her to wash up, she had to wait until it was unoccupied and post a sign one of the other workers had made for her stating that the showers were Reserved For Nita until she was through. It was one of the reasons she'd switched to the less popular night shift. Regardless of the wait, though, she always hit the shower. Stewing under a layer of marinated leather while she was in the tunnels was all well and good, but it was not a pleasant way to spend one's leisure hours. Now her shift was behind her, her sweat rinsed away, and her dark Calderan skin no longer stained darker by grime and soot. Having changed into her simple white dress, she was ready to go home.

"Good work today, Nita, " said the foreman, a man named Stover. "See you tonight?"

"Wouldn't miss it, " she said, hanging up her gear in her locker. "I'm going to take a few of the coil boxes, all right?"

Stover gestured vaguely. He was coming off his own shift, and his brain had punched out at the very same moment he had. She likely could have asked if she could borrow his liver and received the same response.

Just inside the walls of the Hub, at the curb of a cobbled street behind a wrought-iron fence, was a clockwork contraption called a "winder." Like so many things in the Hub, it was an accumulation of turning gears and spinning rods, with a grid of metal cubbyholes aligned along the front. Each cubby had a lever at its side, and in the back of the empty ones could be seen a hexagonal socket slowly rotating. Most of the cubbies were small, holding palm-sized boxes, but those nearest to the ground were much larger. She pulled the lever on a pair of the largest occupied cubbies, sliding out a bracket and dispensing two boxes, each three inches thick and a foot square with a matching hexagonal shaft on the front and a handle and switch on top.


She turned to see one of her fellow night-shift workers, Drew, rushing over to her. He was in his usual after-work outfit—a collared shirt, rough black pants, and beat-up brown shoes—and he carried a large bag of salt on one shoulder and a canvas messenger bag over the other. Since the steamworks generated its energy by piping seawater into boilers warmed by the volcano's heat, an inevitable byproduct was a copious amount of brine, which eventually was allowed to dry in the sun to produce sea salt. Workers were free to take as much as they liked, with the remainder being sold.

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