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On the Wings of Steam

Sarah Tintagyl

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Men did not go to Aquitanian prisons in hopes of getting off rough streets at nightfall. The dark and damp gaol echoed with the sounds of cells opening and the coughing of dying prisoners. This world existed separate from the gilded halls of the Hotel de Ville and the castles in the countryside. Anton and his comrades were thrown into this world.


For three days they languished. Guards fed them stale bread and watery stews for meals. The morning sun rose like a fireball burning into the small cell where the police crammed all of the machinists together. At night the light faded completely leaving them only with the eerie cackling of the prisoners in the pitch darkness. Finally, on the third day, fairer footsteps sounded in the hellish annex underneath the ground.


"These are the prisoners who were at my ball?" said the Viscountess, standing outside the cell in a long black gown. A black mask hit her face from the guard and the machinists, only her blue eyes shone through the dim light.


"They are, they've been here three days."


"You may leave, I will speak with them, I have private matters." The guard left and the Viscountess turned and gripped her gloved hands over the bars. "I have your ship confiscated at a platform outside of the city." She paused, her mask never moving, making her seem unearthly, inhuman, like a painting. "Who built it and why are you not in my retinue?"

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For the five machinists, some hoped that they would be released after the night of the ball was over, but such was not the case when the sun came, and once again went down. A number of times they would argue with the guards who brought them their food, at one point, Charles blamed the whole fiasco upon Anton for coercing him to partake in the stunt, receiving a cold look from the others. For as much as the other three machinists, Clarice, Thomas, and Martin wanted to say something similar, they owed a lot to the eccentric master mechanic, and stayed their mouths from implicating him. Instead of issuing a rebuttal to Charles' accusations, Anton ignored them and kept sketching on a couple pieces of paper that the others had rustled up from their pockets. None of the guards would utter much in the way of a response to their pleas anyways, except to let go of them when they grasped their coats or to hush up.


When the black-gowned figure, in a black mask showed up on the third day, most of them were quite sick of the watery stews and stale bread they had been subsisting upon. Their interests would be perked up when the guard and what turned out to be a woman, and when the guard mentioned that they had been there three days, and the woman left, Anton would speak up for the first time in almost forty eight hours.


"THREE DAYS TOO MANY YOU UTTER CHARLATAN! HOW DARE YOU FEED ME THIS RUBBISH!" he would yell, as he grasped a piece of stale bread that he had left uneaten, and hurled it at the retreating guard. The slice of bread would whistle past the Viscountess and narrowily miss the guard's back, as he shook his fist, "I WANT A WAFFLE!"


"You were also talking about some cranberry sauce two days-," started Charles, in a mocking voice.


"AND SOME CRANBERRY SAUCE FOR MY ASSOCIATE!" he yelled, interrupting Charles, as he went back to his piece of paper, without really looking at the Viscountess grasping the bars in front of them.


"I have your ship confiscated at a platform outside of the city." She paused, her mask never moving, making her seem unearthly, inhuman, like a painting. "Who built it and why are you not in my retinue?"


For a moment, the machinists looked at Anton, who seemed to be off in his own little world again, Clarice would sigh, and give him a kick.


"Hm?" said Anton, as he looked at Clarice, then looked at the woman grasping at the bars in front of them. "Oh, the blimp? Rather primitive design, I must say, but we chose it because it wasn't as imposing as the others. Didn't want to scare anyone or interrupt the festivities going on in the city."


He looked back down at their sketch, but Clarice would quickly keep him from sinking back into his thoughts, with a kick, and a verbal prod, "And who are we, the good woman asked."


"Ah, fine, fine," grumbled Anton, throwing his pile of papers in Clarice's lap, who would grudgingly hold onto them, as Anton stood up and started pacing the small cell. He almost trod on one of Charles' feet at one point, and the young machinist would let out a grumble as Anton whispered, something, then turned to the veiled Viscountess. "The dreams one has in the night, we are the people, that make dreams come true, the ones who sweat and toil to bring together elements, gears, cables, metals. We weave dreams into reality, we bring what was once on a drawing board, to life, what the human body lacks in muscle, we make up for with pistons and gears, and mechanical advantage."


"Right, I think she was asking what our names were, boss," said Thomas, with an upturned eyebrow.


"Mon dieu! Can't you gearheads understand that I am playing the game here? She asked us who we are, I answered that, now I have a question for her, then she can ask us our names," said Anton, looking at Thomas with melodramatic flabbergasted look. He would jaunt a couple steps, as if an orchestra was playing in his head, before looking at the masked figure, then looking around quickly. At that instance, he would scurry up to the woman, his grey eyes looking into those bright ones that held so much promise, that were staring at him from behind the mask.


He would whisper, "I need to know, when I was a wee lad, my mother foretold that a black cloaked figure with a mask would bring trouble to my life. I must ask," he hissed, his eyes shifting left and right multiple times. "Are you that figure?" he hissed.

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The Viscountess laughed at Anton's last statement. "Heh," she said under her breath, the mask never moved on her face. "That depends, boy. I can be an angel to you or I can really make your sentence here long. Society tends to look the other way with ruffians. But as you said, you and your friends here seem to have good heads on your shoulders and if that blimp was primitive, as you said, then I'm curious what other contraptions you are capable of building."


She took off her mask, revealing herself as the Viscountess. "I am in the business of an alternate way of displaying Aquitaine's power to the world. We do not have the capabilities to create true war machines, but perhaps your genius could serve your new country?" the Viscountess turned away and played with the fingers on her glove. "Really this isn't a question. You can either serve the state as engineers or you can languish in the prison for a few more days before you change your mind or I exile you."


Her eyes pierced into Anton's own, two bright aquamarine gems shining through the darkness. "Make my dreams into a reality."

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Anton would let the Viscountess speak, and the words seemed to sink into the otherwise completely eccentric mechanic. When she removed her mask, the rest of of the machinists behind Anton would scramble onto one knee. Anton would not sink to one knee as she spoke however, his eyes watching her every move as she spoke to them. Very few people could command Anton's attention for very long, and despite his slight for not sinking to one knee, for the Viscountess to command the mechanic's attention for so long, was a respectful show indeed.


She had a certain air of strength about her, and when she looked back into his eyes with her own and said gently, "Make my dreams into a reality...", she would see a measure of understanding dawn on his face.


He would look at her for a few more moments, as the rest of his machinists would rise from their kneeling position to watch their boss ascertain their fate. He would finally clear his throat, "Mademoiselle, tis my business to do so, consider us your humble mechanics for such a feat as breaking us out from these bars. Now tell Anton LeFebre, what do you dream of? And where can I get a waffle in the city... at this hour?"

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"There are too many of my dreams to name here." Said the Viscountess and gestured for the jailor. "Let them out, they've all been pardoned."


The jailor nodded his head, silently opening the cell door as the machinists poured out.


"Outside," continued Jacqueline, "My carriage is waiting for me. I will take you all back with me to the Hotel de Ville. You'll be fed there and giving your own private quarters. Then," she rested her hand on Anton's shoulder. "You can begin producing the war machines. I want to see just how many miracles you have stored in that head of yours." The Viscountess chuckled, tapping him on the head.


From out of the dank gaol, the machinists returned to the daylight. They journeyed with the Viscountess through the streets of Bordeaux as she made the call to the Hotel de Ville to, "Prepare a meal of waffles with the best maple syrup that you have on export from North America. I want to treat my guests with respect."


Being brought into the Hotel as the Viscountess' actual guests was a different experience from sneaking inside. The moment they entered, a long table with delightful smells fluttered into their noses. Servants ran around the main hall to place food and open chairs for the machinists. Then after Anton had a few bites of his waffles, he felt a few hands grab him and he was taken, privately, up to the Viscountess' quarters where she poured two glasses of wine.


"Do you drink?" she asked and then pointed to a large table in the middle of her quarters. "This is where you will be working." Then she sat down on a long couch and looked at him, narrowing her eyes. "So tell me, boy, what genius can you produce for me. How can you help me make Aquitaine the greatest state in the world? How can you make me into the greatest ruler?"



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The whole lot of machinists seemed very astounded at the pardon the Viscountess had afforded them, and there was no hesitation when the jailer opened the door to get up and make their way to the exit. They would all thank the Viscountess with a nod and an uttered friendly word as they passed by. Clarice would slap Anton's schematics he had been drawing throughout their stay into his hands, but she seemed to be in a much better mood, and she smiled at him. Anton would be the last one out of the cell and he would smile at the Viscountess politely, and with a smile, "My miracles, mademoiselle, can be quite small, but at the same time, they can be quite large as well."


He would whisper in her ear as he passed, with his signature two-step jaunt, "But you must dream as well, and tell me what you want, what has come from your thoughts and dreams." He seemed quite philosophical at that moment, but his silliness would return as he two-stepped past, and began his jaunt out of the prison, arousing a series of mocking catcalls from some of the prisoners. He would bow at a number of the insult-throwers as he made his way up the cell block, and out the door.


Anton would clap his hands together excitedly when the Viscountess mentioned waffles, almost like a little child, but he seemed absolutely serious about the whole thing. When the machinists arrived to the Hotel de Ville, they would set upon the food like a ravenous pack of dogs, having ate little of their afforded food back in their cell. The machinists would lean back in their chairs as they dined upon some of the best food that some of them had probably had in their lives. When a few hands grabbed Anton, and started to yank him away from the table, he would let out a growl of disdain, but as they dragged him out of his seat, he would grasp the other half of his waffle in his hand and continued to munch on it.


Arriving in the Viscountess' quarters, a little of his disdain was forgotten when he saw the Viscountess was pouring two glasses of wine, and he scurry forward to sit down across from the couch in a comfy chair. He would take the flute of wine and lightly sprinkle the wine on his waffle, before taking a bite of it. He would look at the Viscountess as she spoke to him, seemingly his attention for the woman was much more astute, and that was for good reason, not only had she gotten him out of jail, more importantly, she had gotten him waffles and a glass of wine.


"Mademoiselle, in my experience, it is hard for me to... explain... the extent of what I can truly do... when I said I make dreams come true, I am not at all a kidder. Perhaps if you could fetch another carriage... I could show you," he would say, putting his feet up on the table. "It is but a short jaunt up to Royan, especially if we used my blimp?"

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"Consider it done," said Jacqueline as she stood up from the couch. She walked over to the phone on her desk and mumbled a few words while looking at Anton with a smirk. Finally she hung it up and crossed her arms. "The blimp is being released now, but I would like to see your workshop myself with out all your associates and without any prying eyes of the government. My plans for the nation are to remain secret, for they are plans for Aquitaine and plans for myself."


About ten minutes later the blimp appeared again in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville. Jacqueline guided Anton back through the hall until they stared up at the airship.


"It is a marvelous piece of work." She said and pushed him forward. "You lead the way."

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Anton would continue his feast of wine-topped waffles as the Viscountess made her phone call, he had seemed to be at a loss for words when she asked him what he could do. Now that she mentioned that she would acquiesce to his request to take her to his machine shop, his smile seemed that much more giddier, and his posture seemed even more relaxed. When she mentioned that they would be departing without his associates, he put his feet atop the table, and sigh.


"Mademoiselle, in important order, you have gotten me waffles, and you have gotten me wine, and out of a dank dungeon, I can certainly provide such a secretive atmosphere should you require," he responded, in a proud tone.


Anton would let the head of state grab him and usher him through the halls of the Hotel de Ville, he still finishing up the last bits of waffle as he went. As he passed through the hall where his associates were now lounging and rubbing their stomachs from the fullness, he would whisk his pile of drawings from next to Clarice and bid them a hasty adieu.


As they stepped outside, the Viscountess looking up at the airship in wonderment and mentioned that it was a piece of a modern marvel, Anton would sigh, "Yes, it is quite the marvelous piece, quite crude in design, to be quite critical of my own work, much more so than the others." Whilst a small appointed ground team held the blimp steady, he would fancifully jaunt aboard, seemingly excitedly pulling along the Viscountess with him.


"Guard these with your life," he said, slapping his stack of drawings he had pulled from Clarice into the Viscountess chest, and without waiting for her to fully grasp them, went about readying the blimp for use. He would scurry this way and that, turning valves and throwing coal in a small fire box, the machine responding to its master quickly. He seemed to know every detail of the small open gondola that was securely suspended beneath the balloon above.


There were some seats appropriated in the small gondola, which were quite crude but still relatively comfortable for being in the open control apparatus if the Viscountess decided to sit down. Moreover, as the master mechanic scurried about the gondola, it would give her a chance to look at the drawings he had thrust upon her. There were drawings of different propeller blades with mathematical formulas for better air flow, drawings of steam engine enhancing features with crisp lines of detail written out, schematics of huge airships with rigid hulls and long gondolas with formulas for weight and transport capacity. Makeshift blueprints of huge steam locomotives with double-decker cars behind them, chemical formulas for better purifying steel, a design for a steam-powered walker, a schematic for a huge battleship with mighty guns. It seemed like there was no end to the pile of papers that were sitting in her lap, each had notes, equations covering them, pointing out specific details here and there.

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When the airship took off from the courtyard of the Hotel, Jacqueline smiled in wonderment. She had ridden in planes and in hot air balloons, but this contraption was different. The whirring of the motor and the jettison of steam from the back of the zeppelin played with her imagination. She could see hundreds of these vessels hovering over the horizon, flying her flag and fighting in her name. Aquitaine did not have the technology of the other super powers, but perhaps with the manipulate of ancient technology she could create an empire that could rival the great nations of the present.


Once the zeppelin stabilized in the air, the Viscountess stood up and joined Anton on the pilot deck as they looked over the French countryside below. "It's beautiful up here." She smiled and rested her hand on Anton's shoulder. "I looked over your drafts. They're wonderful sketches and I'm curious, how much money would it take to turn them into reality?" She walked to the bow of the vessel and opened her arms. "I want a military of your designs, Anton, I want to have my soldiers equipped with the best weapons. I want your ships, your tanks, and your helicopters. Aquitaine is small, but with your technology, there is no point that we can't have dominance, one day, of the Atlantic."


Then she turned back to him and smiled. "And what can you do for my person? For such a great military, they need a great leader and I can tell," she said looking back over the countryside, "I am conceived as little more than a little guppy in a little bowl."

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For most of the time that the Viscountess was looking over various designs in wonder of the marvels that they portrayed, Anton was scurrying about, or jaunting with his usual little two-step dance at the helm as he adjusted course. The small, but effective steam concentrated engine was chugging along magnificently, and they had rose far above Bordeaux and the surrounding countryside. The faint smell of coal soot was on the air, but it was quite faint, whatever the blimp pumped out was quite insignificant for it reused much of the energy within the confines of the engine.


"Mademoiselle, its not so much money that one needs to produce such wonders, it takes large teams of mechanics, skilled with gears, attuned to chemical reactions, competent with metal cutters and torches. Your dreams are quite big, and I will name my price, and that, is time," said Anton, in a proud manner. "And possibly some food and drink along with it, but yes, mostly time."


As he steered the airship, following the banks of the river towards Royan, a relatively quiet city on the Bay of Biscay, he watched her walk up to the bow of the small gondola, and he seemed to be quite happy that he was pleasing her desire to see such machines come to life. It was uplifting to any man, especially an inventor like Anton, who seemed to grasp his ideas and mold them for a purpose. "I am quite well versed in chemistry, mademoiselle, I'm sure that I might be able to work up some sort of compound, if that is what you are seeking? Of course, all in good time, might I add, ensuring that such a compound is stable is an important step in any production process," he added, as the blimp chugged onwards.


"Ah, Royan approaches, here, take this helmet and flick that little switch on the side there," he said, tossing the Viscountess a helmet with what looked like magnifying glasses on it. Once she would don it and flip the switch, the gears would whir, and bring down the magnifying glass, which she could increase or decrease with the flip of a switch. If she magnified it in high enough, and looked down towards Royan, she would see a giant facility right outside the city, their destination was close...

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