The Killing Machine
by Michael Vella
Steam. It is the essence of our lives. It runs our cities, our computationals, our inter-rails, our space rockets. Without it, we are lost.
Steam. It is the essence of our lives. It combines the four elements, becoming the perfect product of their interactions. Earth creates wood, coal, and other fuels to feed the fire, which transforms water into air, which creates steam, which generates life.
Steam. It is life.
April 29, 1932
Razor bowed as she entered the low lit room. The furnishings were spartan, only a small mat in the center of the room, behind a low solid wood table. A single cup of green tea lay steaming on the table. Her master sat on the mat, his eyes closed.
Razor picked up the hot cup of tea and sipped.
“You must go to New York.”
Razor looked at her master, searching for any clues on his face that betrayed his intentions. As usual, his face was a perfect mask of untouchable zen.
“When you arrive there you will be told what to do. Any questions?”
Razor put the tea on the table, stood up, and walked backwards out of the room, never dropping her gaze. As she was about to step out of the room her master said, “This is very important. Do not fail.”
Razor bowed and left the room.
When she was gone, a figure appeared behind the master. When it spoke, its voice was amorphous, each vowel fluid, each consonant grating.
“Can she be trusted?”
“Razor is our most talented assassin,” the master replied.
“Ah, so? I will keep an eye on her, nonetheless.”
“Do as you will,” the master said, but the figure had already disappeared.
Dr John Milton Miller sat in his office long after everyone had left. He looked down at the small box on his desk and sighed. Seven years of hard work lay in the box, and now, in two days he would unveil it to the world. In two days his research would change the world forever.
May 1, 1932 2:37am
The plane was flying over Upper New York Bay when Razor jumped out. The first moment, when you’ve just leapt from the plane, always felt like you had stopped moving, she thought. Your body and the Earth are opposing magnetic forces maintaining the same distance from each other, in equilibrium. This sensation only lasted a split second, but for that one moment there was complete balance.
Razor plummeted to earth. She spread her arms and legs, slowing her descent, then looked around to get her bearings. Her landing point was there. She cut through the air, a lethal arrow speeding towards her target’s heart, unstoppable, unmerciful.
Henry Stimson, Secretary of State, looked at President Hoover, and sighed. Hoover’s face was becoming more pinched each day. The economy had entered the darkest pits of hell, and was still dropping. Hoover had aged considerably during his term in office. Stimson knew that the president would not last another term in office. He hoped that this small diversion would make today bearable.
Hoover looked up at him from his desk and asked, “All I need to do is push this button?”
Stimson nodded. “Yes. When you press the button the lights will go on in New York.”
Hoover smiled. “You see, Henry, like I always said, the future is progress! Technology will see us through.”
“When do I press it?” Hoover rubbed his hands, like a small child about to receive candy.
“The opening ceremony starts at sundown.”
May 1, 1932 6.35pm
Razor dropped down from her hiding place and stretched. She had been hiding behind ceiling pipes for over twelve hours. The building was emptier than she would have imagined. She was on the 84th floor. She needed to make her way down to the 78th floor where the target was located.
The building’s halls were carpeted, making it easier for her to move around. Except for the carpeting, the rest of the building was unfinished. Exposed piping snaked across the ceiling, carrying air and water. Bunches of wires crisscrossed the ceiling, attached to strange looking boxes with gaping holes. Office furniture was stacked in corners.
Not one person had entered this floor while she was hiding.
She peered down the hall. Nothing.
She made her way to the staircase door, ignoring the elevators. Too easy to get trapped. The staircase was not much better, but gave her more options.
Razor descended, each of her movements fluid and graceful. She made no sound and blended into the background, becoming invisible. She was mist.
Dr Miller opened the box. The reporter frowned.
Miller was taken aback, but quickly regained his composure. He kept forgetting that other people hadn’t spent almost a decade working on this.
“This is it. And this will change the world.”
The reporter cleared his throat and squinted. “Hm. Yeah sure. How?”
Miller placed the tube on his desk. “This tube can replace pistons and steam. It works directly with electricity. We wouldn’t need piping anymore. Everything can be operated using simple cables and wires. Imagine a world without pipes and vents.”
The reporter pointed at the tube. “Really, doc? That little tube can replace pipes?”
“Ok, then. Show me.”
Miller smiled and folded his hands. “You just wait until the opening ceremony. That’ll be in another half hour. You’ll see.”
The reporter tipped his fedora and left the office. Dr Miller turned and switched on the flickering green screen at his desk. Its beauty overwhelmed him each time. He was looking at live electrons. He was looking at the future: a world without steam.
President Hoover studied the little box with a single black button, turning it in his hands. A small cable snaked out of the back, ran along the floor, and out the room.
“Henry, where’s the computational attached to this?”
Henry smiled. “I was wondering when you would ask that, sir. There is no computational.”
“What is there, then?”
Stimson walked out of the room. Moments later, he appeared, pushing a small cart with a squat device. Glowing green tubes bristled around it.
“What… is that?”
“They call it a computer, sir. There’s another in New York. When you press the button, I’m told that the computer in New York will receive a signal and turn on the lights.”
The president stood and hunched over the machine, drinking in all the details. “Amazing, Henry. Astounding. Where’s the steam pipe?”
Stimson’s smile widened. “That’s the beauty, sir. There is no steam.”
“No steam?” Hoover touched the computer and sighed. “Wonderful.”
Razor opened the office door and peered in. Her target was in the room. She stepped in, leaving the door ajar. She stood behind the man, who was sitting at a desk, observing him. He stared at a small black piece of glass. But, it was something else. Green letters appeared, blinked, then disappeared. He was twisting knobs and flipping switches.
Suddenly he gasped and turned. He had seen her reflection in the screen.
She reached out, but he flipped another switch that made the lights in the room turn off.
Grabbing him by the neck, she lifted him off his chair. He tried to resist but the years spent sitting at his desk had made him weak.
Turn him around, just like a doll, wrap your arm around the neck and squeeze. Just enough to cut his oxygen supply. Just enough.
He stopped moving. She dropped him to the floor and checked his pulse. His heart was still beating. Good. She didn’t want to kill him.
The tube was on his desk. Her target. She placed it in its box and put the box in a padded pack strapped to her chest. The tube was delicate, she had to move carefully.
Razor stepped into the darkened hall. Walking towards her was an armored giant pointing a nail gun.
She dove back into the room as nails hissed down the corridor, puncturing the concrete walls like jelly.
A carmagnolle armor suit.
Fighting it would be useless. The suit was impenetrable. Her speed was her only advantage. The suit was over 150 kilos and cumbersome. But it was steam powered and gave the wearer enhanced strength. The helmet had twenty five tiny portholes for vision rather than one large visor, making it impossible to hurt the wearer through a head injury, but also gave her plenty of blind spots to exploit.
The suit thumped down the hall. When it was less than a meter away from the office door Razor rolled out, keeping her body tightly coiled, creating the smallest target possible. Nails punched into floor. She uncoiled and ran towards the carmagnolle. She bent her knee as her left foot made contact with the suit’s free arm, and pushed up, flipping over her attacker, landing behind him. As the suit tried to turn, she ran towards the staircase.
Compressed air hissed as nails streaked towards her. She pushed off her left foot, launching herself at the righthand wall. Just before she hit, she pushed out with her other foot, and flew in the opposite direction. Nails punctured the walls, concrete dust filled the corridor.
She flung her body at the staircase door, it crashed open.
Up the stairs, to the Observation Deck on the 86th floor. Don’t stop. That suit is slow up stairs.
She opened the door to the 86th floor observatory and stopped dead. Another carmagnolle was waiting for her. Instinctively, she dropped to the floor. Nails whizzed overhead.
She pushed herself up, jackknifing through the air, hitting the underside of the carmagnolle’s gun arm. Nails pounded into the building’s steel and concrete frame, arcing upwards, and disappeared into the night sky.
Razor crouched, aiming below the suit’s hip line, and pushed. The suit was too heavy. Its armored fist came down, missing by millimeters.
Pulling out a phosphorous pellet, she threw it to the ground. Blinding white light. She vaulted over the edge. The lights of New York embraced her.
Stimson held the phone with one hand and signaled to the president with his free hand. Reporters crowded the room, tapping out stories on their portable stenotypes. Camera bulbs burst, showering the floor with shattered glass.
President Hoover pressed the button.
In New York, the world’s tallest building flashed into existence lighting up the skyline.
Hoover smiled and held up a small vacuum tube. The room fell into silence.
“This tiny tube that I have here will replace steam power. The Empire State Building will be the first building to run on, house, and use vacuum tubes for its offices rather than steam power.”
The room exploded into a babble of simultaneous questions.
Razor landed in a clearing in Central Park. She recovered her parachute and stuffed it into her backpack. The vacuum was still in one piece.
Razor turned and flung a poisoned needle towards the voice. It dodged and stepped closer.
“I am not an enemy, Razor.”
The man was stick thin. Darkness surrounded him. He absorbed the light, becoming the darkness within the dark.
“I am an observer… and a messenger. You must go to the docks. A boat will be waiting, called White Rose of Nippon. Speak to the captain. He will know you.”
The figure disappeared.
Razor tucked the vacuum tube back into her pack and jogged out of the park towards the port, towards home.
Electricity. It is the insatiable consumer.
It runs our cities, our computers, our transport, our space rockets. Without it, we are lost.
Electricity. We must feed it:
Electricity. It is the essence of our lives.
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