Steampunk Fortnight

The Perdido Street Project

A note of explanation about the Steampunk Quartet.

(with apologies to China Miéville)
Wetlands to Rudewood, and then the train. After years of wandering in the wilderness, I am coming home to a place I’ve never been. It feels already as though I live here, as though I’ve lived here a very long time.

As the train moves from the tawdry edge of the city, all decaying farms and rusting iron mills, the voices of its inhabitants, rough, ill-formed, without art or poetry, call out their names swiftly from walls as we pass in the dark. Some are written in Ragamoll or Lubbock, but other scripts abound, including a few I have never before seen. I am sure one of them was Anopheliian, a strange, whiny script that made my body itch as we passed. Strange scents filled the car and were gone: Khepri obscenities.

The train slows, a safety requirement: the thaumaturgic gyros have been shut off for its passage through the city. A tinny voice of uncertain origin—mechanical? Remade? Garudic, even?—announces upcoming stations, but many are unannounced, and we pass through quickly without stopping, as if there is something shameful about them.

We cross the River Tar, and then quickly, far more quickly than seems possible, we are in the heart of the heart of the city. Although I’ve never seen them before, I recognize the Ribs, off in the distance, silhouetted against the sky.

My train pulls into the station. This is precisely where I want to be, in this scrofulously magnificent construct. I shoulder my bag and walk out into its cavernous arrival hall, eight stories high. Five railway lines, six militia lines, and the militia’s towering Spike: there were thousands of people in the hall—running, walking, standing still in puzzlement or exhaustion or boredom. Stairways up, stairways down, passageways lit or dark, some with descriptive signage, some completely anonymous, but all of them thronged with creatures of every shape and size and color and race, an ocean of roiling beings, all on their way somewhere else.

For people without tickets, there is much to do in the station itself. There is free food—tons of food tossed aside half-eaten by those in transit. There are shops of all kinds, selling everything from cheap sex toys to luxurious clothing and hard goods that only the very wealthy can afford. You can even live here, if you find some abandoned tunnel or unused stairwell. But space is at a premium, and anyone who finds a dry corner and makes it theirs is likely to be evicted by someone stronger or better armed. There is talk of a community of fRemades, the free Remades, many levels down who defend their domain and whose members rarely see the light of day.

The Remades themselves draw my attention, of course, and I stare at them like some country boy come to the big city for the first time, though I am not someone unlearned or unused to cities. A man with a rat’s head begs for change and pieces of cheese. A woman with a fishtail instead of legs manipulates her tank-on-wheels deftly through the crowd; in her shopping basket, a package wrapped in white butcher paper squirms. A man and a woman walk together, close but not touching. He has pins stuck into him, all over his body, their rounded heads protruding slightly, and she has pins sticking out of her, the points emerging through her skin and clothing, like a human bed of nails. I wonder what on earth they—and all the others—have done to deserve such torture. It is a sickness of this city that they use their remarkable thaumaturgic technology to punish and shame.

I have lived and worked in many great cities, though their names are unknown to those who live here. These people know little of the rest of the world, expecting it to come to them. And it does, to this crossroads of life, this station that is more than a station.

I walk on, examining this remarkable structure, its construction, its design and endless redesign, its strengths and its bruises.

* * *

Sitting in his usual booth at the Moon’s Daughters, Gedrecsechet, librarian for the renowned Palgolak Church library, watched the human stranger work his way through the pub. He had the clothing of a businessman and the demeanor of an artist, and he moved with a certain confident awareness that made Ged think he was packing a weapon of some kind. Odder still, he was greeting the various locals—a particularly diverse bunch—in their native languages, not in Ragamoll. This didn’t make them remarkably more friendly to him—but wait: he was buying a round for a small group of Workerbees. They all clinked glasses and toasted The Product, and he talked with them a bit. The atmosphere around him got…not warm, really, but distinctly less frigid.

Ged bided his time. He would do this, of an evening, just sit and watch. It was amazing how much knowledge of the world one could pick up just by hanging out in a pub and listening to other people. Though he hoped the Godmech Cogs weren’t canvassing tonight: he could do without another lecture on the evils of sentientomorphic thinking.

Eventually, sure enough, the stranger caught his eye. “Ready for another?” he asked in Vodyanoi.

Ged nodded. “Thank you kindly,” he said in Ragamoll. “Kingpin.” The name of the beer was unpronounceable in his own language. The stranger nodded and went off to the bar.

When he came back, he handed Ged his beer, and indicated the empty seat across from him. “May I inconvenience you?” he asked, still in Vodyanoi.

“Surely, honored sir, it is no inconvenience, but a pleasure,” said Ged in his own language, with a gesture of welcome.

The stranger sat down. “I am Santosh,” he said. “Santosh Philip, new to your city.” He spoke with a slight accent, but Ged could not place it.

“Gedrecsechet,” Ged said. “Ged, if you please. And what do you do, Mr. Santosh Philip?”

“I am an architect,” said Santosh. “A designer,” he corrected. “Anything from an ashtray to a city.”

“Cities? Really?” said Ged, intrigued. Only a small number of cities had known designers, and he thought he remembered all their names. “And what cities have you designed?”

“I am afraid you would not have heard of them. They are small cities, and far away.”

“Try me,” said Ged. Like other members of the Palgolak Church, he was a fount of knowledge.

“The city I am most proud of is a suburb of Maruábm called Bmapastra,” said Santosh. “A cruel high-desert climate, dry and cold, but I aligned the city to tame the winds and situated parks over its geothermal vents. It’s rather a cheerful place for such a bleak setting. Temperature never gets much above freezewater, but they have fresh fruits and vegetables year-round.”

“I have heard of Bmapastra, but was unaware it had been completed. My congratulations, sir. Certainly your name should be as well-known as the city you designed.”

“Well-known, sir? It gets no visitors, except from Maruábm, whose citizens consider it a place to escape, briefly, the grimness of their own city,” said Santosh. “I am astonished that you have heard of Bmapastra.”

“You are not familiar with the Palgolak Church?” asked the vodyanoi. He gestured at his yellow robes. “I am its librarian. You should have been astonished had I not heard of it.”

“Ah, you are the relentless seekers of knowledge?”

Ged smiled a huge saurian smile, and licked his lips with his huge tongue. “That is our joy, sir, and we are an ecstatic sect.”

“Then perhaps you can answer a question for me, if you would?” Santosh asked diffidently.

“What I know I can share,” said Ged. And that was true, technically, although what he didn’t want to share remained his own.

“Who was the architect for the magnificent station?”

“Ah, a sad story there,” said Ged. “His name is lost to history. If it could be known, I would know it, I assure you.” It frustrated Ged to have to tell a story with holes in it.

“Lost? How could that be?” Santosh scratched his head. “Surely the station was built during the Full Years, the blossoming of the city?”

“It was, and if you think that was a well-documented time, you’re quite right. But the architect—that first architect—fell in love with his own creation, and fell afoul of those who sought to control it. After seven years of fighting with the government for his beloved’s freedom, he found himself first accused of heresy, and then declared quite mad. He was locked up, and they threw away the key. And his name.”

“A mere architect?”

“He was fortunate he was not blinded. We take our architecture very seriously,” Ged said.

“I see you do. I see you do.” Santosh was clearly taken aback by this.

“But let’s not dwell on that,” said Ged expansively. “If I spent my time interrogating the things I know, I’d never have any time to learn anything new.” He laughed.

“I am honored to have met so learned a person on my first day in your city. Perhaps you could tell me what caused the recent damage to the station and environs?”

Ged’s face became serious. “Slake-moth feeding season.”

Santosh looked at him quizzically.

“They’ve been particularly bad this year,” Ged said in a noncommittal tone. He did not want to go into the details: his friend Isaac was among the many people still missing.

Santosh nodded uncertainly, as though he had never heard of slake-moths. “Any plans for cleaning it up? Good bit of work, that. I’ve never done a reconstruction on something quite so big and complicated and historic. Wouldn’t at all mind getting the contract.”

“The mayor is soliciting bids, but I told you what happened to the original architect. No one wants to take on this project.”

“Good grief, man, that was hundreds of years ago,” Santosh replied. “I’m sure we needn’t fear a repeat.”

“This city is not welcoming to the stranger, my friend. Be careful on the streets, and in the pubs. And in the mayor’s chambers.”

“I am aware of that,” said Santosh, with a friendly demeanor, “and I thank you kindly for your concern.”

He did not say he was armed, or he was ready for anything, or indicate in any way what his means of defense might be. Whatever he’s relying on, Ged thought, he’s good enough at it that he doesn’t feel a need to bluster about, scaring people off. I will not worry about him until he has rebuilt the station.


Author’s note: This is what Santosh Philip told me about himself:

Born in Kerala, India, grew up in Madras. Speak Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, English. Am an architect in Alameda, California, and can design anything from an ashtray to a city. Like walking barefoot in the wilderness. Learnt knife fighting from Roy Harris.

Copyright 2010 by Eileen Gunn


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