Check out this excerpt from The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman, out now:
This is the story of Harry Ransom. If you know his name it’s most likely as the inventor of the Ransom Process, a stroke of genius that changed the world.
Or you may have read about how he lost the battle of Jasper City, or won it, depending on where you stand in matters of politics.
Friends called him Hal or Harry, or by one of a half-dozen aliases, of which he had more than any honest man should. He often went by Professor Harry Ransom, and though he never had anything you might call a formal education, he definitely earned it.
If you’re reading this in the future, Ransom City must be a great and glittering metropolis by now, with a big bronze statue of Harry Ransom in a park somewhere. You might be standing on its sidewalk and not wonder in the least of how it grew to its current glory. Well, here is its story, full of adventure and intrigue. And it all starts with the day that old Harry Ransom crossed paths with Liv Alverhyusen and John Creedmoor, two fugitives running from the Line, amidst a war with no end.
My name is Harry Ransom. Friends call me Hal or Harry, or by one of a half-dozen aliases, of which I have had more than any honest man should. Don’t let that shake your confidence in me. I was a victim of circumstance. Often I went by Professor Harry Ransom, and though I never had anything you might call a formal Education I believe I earned that title. For the last few years it’s been Excuse me, Mr. Ransom, sir, from those beneath me and just plain Ransom from those above. I never cared for any of that and now I am free and on the road again with nothing but my name and my wits and my words.
If you know my name maybe it’s as the inventor of the Ransom Light-Bringing Process, or maybe you believe in all that secret-weapon stuff they wrote in the newspapers, in which case I intend to set you straight. Or you may know me as the man who lost the Battle of Jasper City, or won it, depending on where you stand in matters of politics. If you’re an Officer of the Line who has intercepted this in the mails, then you know me as a Wanted Person but maybe you know to think twice before coming after me.
If you’re reading this in the future maybe you know me as the man who founded Ransom City. It lies out in the unmade lands, or it will, one day. Maybe as you read this it’s a bright new century and Ransom City is a great and glittering metropolis and there’s a big bronze statue of me in a park somewhere—if I have any say in the matter there will be parks—well, who knows? I am an optimist. Maybe one day these pages will be read by every boy and girl in the West. Your grandfather will look over your shoulder and say, I remember old Harry Ransom, I saw him back in Nowheresville one time, that was a hell of a show but the bastard still owes me money.
I am writing from no place in particular. All I’ll say is that it is a big red barn not so different in architectural grandeur from one of those oldworld cathedrals you see in picture-books sometimes, although I guess more full of straw and dung. I have never been in a cathedral but I have been in a whole lot of barns. There are thousands like it in the Territory. The fields all around and the mountains in the distance are brown like an old coat. The man who owns the barn and the cows and the horses and all the straw and the dung is a good fellow, not educated but one of nature’s Free-Thinkers, and when we strike out West again he will come with us.
I am writing on a typewriter that I salvaged from the old man’s office after Jasper City fell. Naturally it’s the very latest state-of-the-art machine. Nothing but the best was good enough for the old man. There’s a bullet-hole in its casing and some water-damage to its innards. Nobody thought I could get it working again but I did not get where I am today by being a fool, at least not in matters mechanical. In spite of my efforts the letter R still sticks one time out of four, and that is no small inconvenience for a man who likes to talk about himself as much as I do. On the other hand the machine types in triplicate, through an arrangement of carbon papers and clever little levers, so that when I type RANSOM it echoes across one-two-three sheets of white paper. The old man used this device to convey orders with the greatest possible efficiency. I want to talk to a lot of people as I go so this is a great timesaver.
Well, we moved on from the big red barn. One of the Line’s Heavier-Than-Air Vessels was spotted overhead. It circled, writing a kind of black-smoke question mark in the sky. Most likely it had nothing to do with us—there’s fighting not far south of us, or so I hear—but we’re taking no chances. We left by night and took the road west. I am sitting and typing under the shadow of a big old cottonwood tree in a valley of rank grass and blackberry bushes and old tin-plated junk and fat dragonflies. Our numbers have been swelled by the barn-owner’s younger son and two of his friends, and I have just eaten one of his first-rate apricots, but the man himself stayed behind to sell off his furniture and settle his affairs. If all goes well we shall all meet up at a certain location on the Western Rim.
I left a triplicate of letters in his care all about who we are and where we are going and what we are going to do when we get there, by which I mean the founding of Ransom City. We are going West. I waxed eloquent about the glories of the free city of the future and true democracy and the Ransom Process and the parks and the tall buildings I have planned in my mind’s eye and all the rest of it, and how every person who wants should follow us. One of the letters is to go to my onetime friend the famous Mr. Elmer Merrial Carson, formerly of the Jasper City Evening Post,* one is to go to the editor of the Melville City Gazette, and because I do not know any other journalists, the third is to go to an editor of Mr. Barn-Owner’s choosing.
*Of course, there never was a Jasper City Evening Post. I was an Evening News man. Mr. Ransom’s memory fails him here, not for the first or last time. —EMC
I thought everything would be easy to explain but it is not. I mean to set the story straight, because a lot of things have been said about me or by me that are not exactly true. It is not easy to tell a true story. Most of my practice with words has been selling things, which is not the same at all, it turns out.
I am not yet thirty but I have had an odd kind of life and I have a lot to say before I go. Anyhow this is my AUTOBIOGRAPHY I guess, and so I will call this CHAPTER ONE, and below that INTRODUCTIONS, just like a real honest-to-goodness book.
MY HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
When I was a boy I read the Autobiography of Mr. Alfred Baxter, the late great business magnate of Jasper City. We knew him even in the backwater town of my boyhood, and I read his Autobiography half a dozen times if I read it once. The book told of how he came up from nothing to triumph over adversity and become the richest and grandest and free-est man in the world. I read it by candlelight and I learned it like it was sacred Scripture. I can still quote some of it today.
There is a moment in the life of every man of greatness when he sees History clearly; when the Spirit of the Age stands like a woman before him; when he can seize the reins of Fortune!
I would not presume to call myself a man of greatness, but as it happens there were a few moments back there when it was my hand that seized the reins of History and Fortune, if only by accident or because nobody else wanted to or while I thought I was doing something else.
Mr. Baxter also liked to say that things come in threes, in business and history and Fortune. I will go the old man one better. By my count I have held history in my hands on four occasions, and if Fortune favors me like they say she favors the bold then the founding of Ransom City will be the fifth.
First I will tell how I saved the lives of the lovely Dr. Liv Alverhuysen and the horrible John Creedmoor and thereby changed the course of the Great War too, not that I meant to at the time.
But of course when Mr. Alfred Baxter sat down to write the story of his life and how he rose from Rags to Riches, as they say, he very sensibly began in the natural place, which is to say with Rags. You do not start right in with History and Greatness and the Future, that is no way to make the sale. And so in Mr. Baxter’s first chapter he told us how he was born in a pauper’s room in the bad part of Jasper City and he was the seventh and hungriest of seven hungry children, and so on and so on. So that’s how I’ll begin too.
I was born in the town of East Conlan, thirty years and a little more shy of the new century. I was the fourth of four children. I do not know the exact day of my birth. My father was scrupulous in his business affairs but did not make note of the date, and my sisters all remember it differently. I like to think my mother would have recalled it had she lived. I believe that I recall my birth as a kind of red light and terrible pressure but when I tell people this they get skeptical, and I do not want to strain your faith in me too soon.
East Conlan is a coal-mining town some four or five days’ ride north of Jasper City, on the northern edge of the Tri-City Territory and not far south of the Line’s lands. There is no West Conlan and so far as I know there never was. There are two mines up on the hills at opposite ends of a long straight road and the town of East Conlan is laid out in the depression between them. When I was a boy one was operated by the Conlan Coal Company and the other belonged to a Mr. Grady, and sometimes when Grady’s men and the CCC’s men met in the middle of town there was fighting, and the myths and epics on which I was schooled as a boy were stories of how Big Joe from the Grady mine had met the Bierce Brothers outside Shad’s Bar and beaten both of them black and blue with a pick-handle for saying . . .
Well the business of coal never interested me. Once when I was a boy no more than knee-high I met Mr. Grady. He was a very old man even then and there was something dry and dusty as coal about him. He had come to my father to make arrangements for someone’s burial—as I remember it the burial in question was his own, though that may be a child’s imagination at work. He patted me on the shoulder and asked if I would come work for him one day. I told him that I would sooner flee town and live wild among the Folk, even at the risk that they might eat me. He asked why and I said that coal-mining was always the same: the going down into the dark and the coming up again, day in day out, since men first set foot in the West, and that a new century was coming and I had my eyes on the future, when men would not toil like beasts. Mr. Grady gave me a quarter-dollar, and told my father that I had a clever tongue but no sense of when to use it, and that that quarterdollar would likely be the last honest money I would earn.
My father was not a miner, and did not work for anyone. He made a living arranging funerals and burials, of which conditions in the mines ensured a steady supply. He was not a native of East Conlan. In fact he was as far from a native as it is possible to be. As a young man he came over the mountains into this western land of ours from the hot and distant country of Juddua, which to me has always seemed unthinkably magical and strange, and whenever I meet a fellow from that part of the world I pepper him with questions until he is about ready to strike me down and flee. I believe my father had been a man of great learning, maybe a priest or a doctor or something of the kind—he never talked about his past. He came West and I do not know what he was looking for but he found my mother in East Conlan.
He was a tall man in a town of short men. You could not imagine him entering Grady’s Mines—he did not stoop. He kept his beard precisely scissored in a way that was somewhat too grand for East Conlan, where men mostly either went clean-shaven or shaggy as a moose. For exercise, he took long walks, alone. He was tremendously strong, or so it seemed to me. He hauled stones taller than me and he carved names and dates into them as casually as a man might jot down numbers in a ledger.
Ransom was not his real name. His real name was something a little like Ransom in sound but too hard to say for the simple people of Conlan, so he became Ransom. He spoke little, and as I remember him he was quite bald on the top of his great black head, and though he was not a religious man in any way he tended to the widows and the dead with the dignity of a priest. He often quoted a variety of Scriptures in a variety of languages but he believed in none of them. The miners of East Conlan were not religious either in those days and the plain things he did for them sufficed.
My mother died a little after I was born. She was pale and freckled and pretty and I am sorry that that is all I can say about her. Jess used to say that she had green eyes but in the photograph my father kept everything about her was soft and sepia-brown as if she was looking up from the earth where she lies. I have three sisters: Jess, Sue, and May. Two older brothers did not live past infancy. A reasonable percentage. We the survivors all worked for Father from as soon as we could walk. I was no damn good at it.
One day my father summoned us all into his workroom. There were heavy tools and dust and fragments of stone. There was a human skull on a shelf above my reach and very dusty books in languages from the old country which I could not read but wished I could. There was also the photograph of my mother and some mementos of her in ivory and jade. My father sat behind a desk and looked at each of us in turn, and announced in his deep rumbling voice that he had been thinking about the future, and what would happen when he was gone. He reminded us that nothing on earth lasted forever, but everything sooner or later went down into the dark, and one day he would too. What would happen when he was gone, he said, was that May would go to the church, and Jess should find work in Jasper or Gibson City, and Sue would marry and take over the business and do well with it. I scratched my scabs and I asked what I would do and he was silent for a very long time then said that he had thought long and hard and consulted the wisdom of the ages and of the dark places of the world and of the most learned heirarchs of ancient Juddua and the wisest wizards of the Folk and still he could not imagine what sort of things I might do with myself.
Not long after that I fell sick.
The sickness in question was something that originated in Mr. Grady’s Mine, something belched up out of a dark recess of the deep earth. It laid low a dozen men with fever, and they were strong men who were used to physical hardship. Most recovered. Some did not. It was probably one of those who died who brought it into our home— no fault of his own, of course. May fell perilously ill for a week and it is possible that that is why she was never able to have children, and maybe that in turn is why she got so damnably Religious. I don’t know and I guess now that I have committed this thoughtless and idle speculation to the page I will have to hope she never reads this.
One popular theory—regarding the sickness, I mean, not May—one theory was that the sickness was a curse left by the First Folk. Something they had left behind, a gift for the usurpers—maybe in some deep hidden place Mr. Grady’s diggers should not have penetrated. A word carved on the wall. A curse, a poison. Some of Grady’s men tried to organize a mob to go scour the hollows south of town, where some families of the Folk lived free, it was said. I know this because they came to my father to see if he would go with them and he told them to go home and stop being such fools, and there were raised voices but they did as he said.
I heard all this from my own sickbed.
Most likely there would have been a mob sooner or later, and ugly things would have happened, but within a few weeks the sickness had run its course—for everyone but me, that is. But then I was always an odd child, who had to be different.
Previously I had resided in the same room as my sisters, with a curtain for modesty’s sake, but now I was quarantined. What had previously been storage was made into a sickroom. It smelled at first of dust and stone and it was cold. There were two cabinets of battered pine. My father shuttered the room’s window, at the advice of Dr. Forrest, who worked for Grady’s Mine and believed that sunlight would excite and overtax the nervous system or some such nonsense. Nor were candles permitted. The sickroom was at the end of a long hallway, the shape of which created a sort of big camera obscura mechanism, so that there was real Light only at certain unpredictable times when all the right doors were open at once. Otherwise everything was gray. I sweated and shook and did not eat. The sickness was a great mystery and when Dr. Forrest visited, cloth to mouth and hovering in the doorway, there was something like awe in his eyes. My father could not look at me. My sisters came and went and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful but I have to confess that in my state of delirium I could not often tell them apart. Dr. Forrest stood in the hallway and whispered to my father that it was inexplicable that I had not died already. For a time I was scared pretty bad, I will not lie, but after a while it came to me with certainty, as if I had reasoned it out and the mathematics was sound, that I would not die, and I could not die, because I was meant for something greater. After that it was mostly a matter of patience. There was not a lot in that sickroom to do for fun and a lot of discomfort to endure. I do not mean to ask for your pity, because it seems to me that for a great many people life is always like that, and I have otherwise been lucky for the most part.
It was while I was sick that the Line came to town.
East Conlan is on the southern edge of Line territories, like I said. Before I was born it owed its allegiance to no one, and the law was mostly what Mr. Grady said it was. The Red Republic rose and then fell and East Conlan politely declined all offers of federation and would not sign the Charter, but we sold the Republic coal at neutral terms. When I was a boy some people said we belonged to Jasper City, though I never understood exactly what that meant. I have never cared for politics. But we were near to Line territories and even a child could see that we could never be free of their influence. On a clear day if you went up onto the hill north of town, among the storehouses and outhouses and cranes and heaps and unmarked shafts of Grady’s Mine—and if you found a clear high place to stand—you could see all the way to a black mark on the horizon that might debatably have been Harrow Cross, oldest and biggest of the Stations of the Line, with its enormous smoking factories and its indescribable fortifications. And sometimes when the wind was just right the sound of an Engine crossing the continent in the distance might be carried into town and there would be one of those moments of nervous silence, as if anyone who spoke too loudly might be swept away in its wake.
Mr. Grady’s business belonged to no one but Mr. Grady, but it was an open secret that the Conlan Coal Company was owned by the Line. This was the cause of some of the fights I spoke of, though most were over women or money or for no reason at all. Even Grady sold much of his coal to the Line, like it or not, because their factories were always hungry and they could always outbid anyone else in the world. Otherwise they did not interfere with us much.
One afternoon while I was busy sweating and puking, and my sisters were at their chores, and Dr. Forrest dozed in a chair in the hallway with a bottle at his feet, and my father was in town doing business, three big black cars came up a road that had previously mostly been used for mules or horse-drawn conveyances and led right into the heart of town. The cars’ motors kept running as their passengers emerged, and kept running all afternoon, with a noise like a swarm of locusts. Or so Jess said, who said she heard it from my father. However, when Jess went sneaking out after dark to spy on these new arrivals the Linesmen had gone to bed—she was disappointed that Linesmen went to bed like regular people—and their cars sat silent in the road. They were warm to the touch, she said. I do not believe she really dared to touch them.
The Linesmen had taken up rooms in some of the bigger houses on the main road. Rented or requisitioned or a little of both. There were about a dozen of them, which is a unit that Linesmen often come in, I have noticed. Some were soldiers, black-clad and dead-eyed and fearsomely armed. Some were what for want of a better word one could call businessmen. It was said that they had with them a great deal of complex machinery of mysterious appearance and function, and perhaps their real motives were ulterior and unearthly, known only to the Engines whose minds are not like ours, but their ostensible purpose in town was straightforward enough. They wanted Grady’s Mine.
There was a war on. There was always war somewhere or other, like weather, and at that time it was blowing quite close to East Conlan. Line was at war with Gun, whose sinister and fabulous Agents had infiltrated some nearby towns and were working their corruption in secret. So the Linesmen said, or so Jess told me they said. She snuck into the town meeting where the Linesmen’s demands were debated, and heard everything, though she may not have understood it all.
Have I said what Jess looks like? It’s been years since last I saw her but she was quite tall, and very beautiful. She was brown and greeneyed and thick-haired. There, now she is immortalized in a way. Let’s call that a portrait of my sister. It is very strange this business of turning flesh-and-blood people into words.
Anyhow a neighboring county had thrown in with the Line’s enemies and there had been some acts of terror and sabotage, affecting the Line’s chains of supply, which were vast and far-flung beyond East Conlan’s imagining. To avoid further incidents it was necessary for the Line to assert control over the means of production in the region. The price they were offering Grady was not unreasonable—so Jess said they said—and the alternative unthinkable.
Well, after considering the offer but not for long Mr. Grady stood up in front of the meeting and the old man leaned on his stick and shook with rage like a proper old-fashioned prophet of doom and he said:
“Go to hell. Go to hell and f—— you. The things you serve should never have come up out of hell. They may steal everything else in the world in their greed but they shall not steal a single thing I have built. I will burn and bury it all first. Good day to you and go to hell. Go to hell! And as for the rest of you. Half you provincial dunderheads have never known a damn thing in all the years I have worked for this town, and yet I can see you are trying to think. Here are two things you should think about. First, their demands will not end with me and what’s mine but they will eat you up too. Second, any man who is not with me who sets foot near my properties will be shot. Good day to you all.”
And Mr. Grady stumped on out the back door of the meeting-hall and up the road up the hill, and he settled into his territory with those of his miners who were loyal to him, and they broke out rifles hoarded against maybe exactly this particular emergency, who knows, and Grady’s Mine turned into something like a fortress, lit at night by torches. Attempts were made by the town’s accountants to calculate the tonnage of explosives Grady might possess up there but they could not come to agreement. Honest traders started to pass Conlan by but we were visited by a plague of life-insurance salesmen. Dr. Forrest fled town without giving notice and I hear he later set up a practice in Sweet Water where he operated drunk and killed a child and was shot by her father, in a duel and in accordance with both law and custom. The Linesmen stayed in town in their rooms on Main Street and seemed to do nothing, which only made everyone even more afraid of what they might do. And nobody in East Conlan much remembered or cared that that odd little Ransom boy was still sick, except for my father.
He went into town and he called on the Linesmen. As I imagine it, it was one of those good old Conlan mornings when the sky was grayblack like coal dust, and my father stooped and stared at his feet and held his hat in his hand and tried to make himself look small and forced himself to be humble. For the Line had machines that no one else in the West could begin to understand, and back north in Harrow Cross there were sciences that only the Engines themselves fully comprehended, and while their ingenuity and their productive capacities were mostly turned to War they had medicines too. Certainly they had medicines that old Dr. Forrest could not dream of.
My father was a very proud man, and I do not doubt they made him grovel. The Line gives nothing for free.
Of course I knew nothing of these negotiations, until one afternoon there was the sound of many feet in the hallway outside, and the sound of ugly and unfamiliar voices, and then the door to my sickroom opened and five men entered. One of them was my father, and he stood in the doorway. The others, who quickly and without asking permission encircled my bed, were all short men in long black coats. Apart from various combinations of caps and spectacles and gloves or their absence there was no way I could see of distinguishing between them. One of the gloved ones seized my jaw and turned my head this way and that, and I could think of nothing clever to say. He let go of me and wiped his glove clean on the other glove and said, “He’ll die.”
“I do not believe that.” My father spoke as if from a very great distance, and his tone was very flat.
“It don’t make no difference what you believe, Mr. Ransom.”
“What is it? What does he have?”
“Don’t know. We don’t know. Some sickness, some poison. Some defect in the world. Something badly made. Not our business to catalog these things. What does it matter?”
“There is something you can do.”
“If there was, you couldn’t afford it, Mr. Ransom.”
“You could send back to Harrow Cross for help.”
“Think they got nothing better to do in Harrow Cross? There’s a war on, Mr. R—”
“I know, I know. What do you want? Damn it what do you want?”
“You want to talk in front of your son, Ransom? Makes no difference to us if he hears but the stink in here—”
“No. No. Thank you. You’re right. Come away. Please, come away.”
They left. They were gone for a long time and I slept, and Jess came and chattered about nothing in particular, and I slept again, and when I next woke the Linesmen were back in the room. My father was not with them. But this time they had one of their machines with them, and I could not make out what it was exactly in the dark of my sickroom but it was the height of a low table, or maybe it was just something that sat on a table. In any case the wheels of it were turning and turning, and there was a terrible stench of burning metal and oil. Two pairs of strong hands—one gloved and one ungloved and cold—seized me by my arms and my head. I opened my mouth to protest and a leather strap was thrust into it. Like an animal my instinct was to bite on it and go silent. They lifted my head and lowered a crown of wood and wire upon it. There was a snap and a sizzle and a stink and then there was LIGHT—
—and to this day I do not know if the Light was all in my head or if it really and truly filled the room but to me it made black ghosts of the Linesmen and splashed everything else white. After the Light there was pain, the way thunder follows lightning. The pain was in every part of my body, every muscle spasming and then bursting with new life, not least my heart, which rushed like an Engine until I thought I would certainly die.
These days sometimes you see people offering the electric-cure for madness or a variety of other ailments. In my expert opinion they are mostly quacks or madmen themselves. This was the real thing. I have never seen or heard of its like since.
They packed up their apparatus. As soon as they took the bit from my mouth I said, “What was that? What did you do? What was that?” Or I think I said it. In any case they did not answer, but marched silently out, single-file. I could still see the Light as they left, and it was some time before it faded.
The Linesmen demanded two things of my father. The first debt came due at once. I have said that my father had a certain authority in that town. He was not a priest but the next closest thing. He was their link to the next world. When he spoke they listened.
The town was divided. Some people wanted to side with Grady against the outsiders, because he was a bastard but he was our bastard. Some people wanted to get rid of Grady before the misfortune that had fallen on Grady fell on us all. Some thought that if they got in good with the Line it would make their fortune. All along my father had been neutral. Like a priest, he did not involve himself in politics. But now he spoke out against Grady, and for the Line. People listened to him.
And not long afterward some fifty or a hundred men from town set off up the hill to Grady’s Mine. They were armed with picks and a few rifles. They banged on locked doors and shuttered windows with pickhandles and called for Grady’s surrender. From up on top of a tower one of Grady’s men let fire and in the ensuing daylong skirmish two men died and many more were injured. Some of the explosives went off and Shaft Number Three enjoyed a brief but noteworthy career as a volcano. And so of course the Linesmen had no choice but—for our own protection and for the maintenance of public order—to intervene and to resolve the situation by force, with noisemakers and poison gas. Then in order to maintain the operations of Grady’s Mine, which they said was vital for the War, they were forced to seize it. Mr. Grady was taken to Harrow Cross for trial and he was an old man and he did not make it all the way. Since then East Conlan has been a Line town, in some ways openly and in some ways that are not obvious or easily spoken of. And nobody ever listened to my father in the same way again. His foreignness, which had formerly been considered a sign of his great and exotic wisdom, now marked him as untrustworthy—hot-blooded, a rabble-rouser, of unsound judgment.
The other debt was only money, but it lasted the rest of his life and he never repaid it. He never came close, though he lowered his dignity and took on odd jobs and worked himself to death. He sold our better furniture and what remained did not fit his giant’s frame and it is on this that I blame the stoop that afflicted him more and more, as year by year he seemed to shrink until nothing was left and he died with nothing. He and I never talked much and I do not know how badly he regretted his bargain.
My sister May recalls all of this quite differently and says that bad business deals were to blame, but I know what I know.
I have worked all day and not said a whole lot of what I meant to say. I have not talked about how I first got interested in mathematics. That was while I was still laid up in bed—because though the Linesmen’s treatment set me back on the path to health I did not at once get up and walk around like in a miracle. My father had some old books and later I sent off for a set of books published in Jasper City by a company owned by Mr. Alfred Baxter, some Encyclopedias and some books on business and a whole lot of almanacs of various kinds. I sold them at a small profit to the few literates in town and to business travelers and to some gentlemen who could not read, but who thought the volumes gave their homes a touch of big-city sophistication. Before I sold them I read them myself. I do not mean to boast but I am what is called an Autodidact. That means I taught myself just about everything I know and that is why some of my notions are unorthodox, and it is why when I write letters to the Professors in Jasper City they do not write back. The Autobiography of Mr. Alfred Baxter came free with the set and that is how I came to read that book over and over dreaming of greatness and fame and the freedom that comes with them.
I have not talked about how one of Jess’s gentleman friends taught me to shoot, though not very well, or about what it was like when Line troops started moving into town, or about the boy in town who fell down an old shaft and stayed down there for weeks and we got reporters up from Gibson City and how I tried to impress them so they would take me back with them, or about first loves or anything of that kind— well, there is a lot I could say about Love but I am writing now about History and the two have little to do with each other. I have not talked at all about the time I ran away and met with the Folk and there is a lot more I guess I should say on that subject if I mean to tell the truth and the whole truth, and I do, but not tonight.
I never did set foot in a mine but I always found work of one kind or another. Most of the money I earned went on my father’s debts. He didn’t thank me and I guess he didn’t owe me any thanks. The rest went on books and later on parts: copper wire and glass and magnets and acids &c. I kept on returning in my daydreams to that Light.
Jess moved away to the Three Cities to find work in the theaters. Sue got married. They both sent back money. May got religion and went off with a traveling revival, from which she sent back occasional optimistic messages about the World to Come. I sold Encyclopedias and swept and mended and dug and scraped and ran and climbed and carried and cooked and did whatever else I could. I worked at night on the Ransom Process. At first, naturally, I tried to create an electrical process just like the one the Linesmen had used on me. I climbed to the top of the disused tower on what some of us had started calling Grady’s Hill, in a thunderstorm, with a kite and some nails, though all I accomplished that way was three months of penal servitude as punishment for Trespass. The Encyclopedias were not well informed on the subject of electricity, it being so new and in those days mostly a closely guarded secret of the Line. I made a virtue out of ignorance. I did not know what could not be done. I did not know the names or the words for anything so I made my own. In my fourteenth year I had a piece of good fortune that I may write of later if there is time. Behind every moment of inspiration there is hard work and good luck. Anyhow what I ended up discovering instead of electricity was something more fundamental than electricity. I did not call it the Ransom Process then. I did not call it anything because it was not the sort of thing one could speak of in East Conlan. It was too big and wild a notion. I did not have the money to do it justice. And besides East Conlan was a Line town now and I did not mean to let the men of the Line steal my idea and make it ugly. I dreamed of heading out West, where I would be free to work and think freely and look for investors who might not know or think they knew that the whole thing was impossible.
I got taller. I exercised daily. I expect I will tell you about the Ransom System of Exercises in due course. I learned from a book how to paint signs and for a time I supported myself and paid down my father’s debts that way, making the town colorful until the Line ordered me to cease and desist. I was sometimes happy and sometimes not, just like everyone else. In my eighteenth year the Line installed electriclighting in East Conlan, like they have in Harrow Cross or Archway or other Stations of the Line. Men from something called the Northern Lighting Corporation placed big arc lights on the rooftops or at the top of wooden poles, at the foot of which they placed barbed wire to discourage sabotage. The sky over Main Street became a cage of wires. The birds departed and were mostly replaced with rats. The lighting increased efficiency and working hours, but the costs of operation were extraordinary and the fee that was assessed on each household in town was so absurd that at first it was widely thought to be a mathematical error, and that is not even to mention the interest on it. Nothing the Line does is for free. Nothing in this world is free. I have never accepted that should be the case. The light was cold and hideous and I took it as a personal insult. I knew I could not stand it for long.
I was nineteen years old when my father got sick and died. In the same year I built the first prototype of the Apparatus, and I will certainly tell you about the Apparatus in due course, because if I am still famous it is what I am famous for. By the time I was nineteen years old East Conlan was a much bigger town than it had been when I was a boy, and when I put an advertisement in the newspaper for a mechanic and an assistant and a traveling companion it was not long until one Mr. Carver applied for the job. Not long after that Mr. Carver and me and two horses and the Apparatus’s rickety prototype headed out West.
The Rise of Ransom City © Felix Gilman 2012