I awaken with the sun. The chaotic rattling of cartwheels and the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves on cold flagstone clash in dissonance and my mind scrabbles for light.
My breakfast is cold and hurried. Glops of rushed porridge polka-dot my threadbare lapel. The coat is thick, and that is all that matters.
The door opens and the relentless icy wind roars in to grab me, pulls my feet outside, into the dawn’s bustle, and I pull my collar tighter and look around for a moment. I listen to the city talk. The chatter is always loud in the mornings. The din of commerce fills the air.
I am staying in rooms near the Foundry District, where shrines to mechanical gods belch black smoke and strange vapors on the wind. The altars of forge cults are secreted in the sprawling dim warehouses, and the rattle and hiss of the hungry machines cover the low chanting of feverish prayers to Cogs and Wheel.
Drays pulled by mules and draft horse pack the streets. The stink from their droppings is so thick I have to cover my mouth and nose or be rendered helpless from the fumes. The small wagons are loaded with every conceivable raw good known in the realms. The industry of the city is insatiable – and thousands of its servants scuttle in the early-morning frigidity to shovel sacrifice and tribute into its ravening maw in daily devotions. There are no feast days or the holiest of the holy to the Machina. Only endless toil.
Foot traffic is sparse, mostly gulnahk like me, trying to Get Somewhere Else. I am jostled and bumped, shoved and nearly trampled. A loose board clipped me across the ribs and broke at least one I think. I cursed the driver but he could not hear me above the clattering din.
I was at the corner of Copperthread Avenue and Mithral Way at the fringes of West Metal. Great iron arches towered over me as I stood, gawking.
The sky looked like it was on fire. Like it was fire.
A thousand thousand chimneys were ablaze with flame and smoke and roiling vapors that I could not identify. A maelstrom of filth swirled the skies here, and I noticed that it was lightly snowing a black ash all around me. The roar of it was awe-inspiring. It nearly brought me to my knees. If the voice of god is said to drive a mortal man to madness, then the voice of industry could be said to drive a man to obsession.
I saw factories and workshops by their thousands. Crammed into every unused space, hammered into the sides of buildings where no stairs could be seen, packed like salted fish on the rooftops of ramshackle warehouses, stacked atop one another in narrow alleyways. Some were no more than a few empty barrels to serve as a bench and a precious collection of reagents and reactives. A few tools locked in a battered chest, perhaps. Their sole-employees were haggard souls. They threw themselves with abandon into their work, whatever it may be, but there was a … a greyness about them. As if their souls had been traded for obsessive focus and left them bereft of any graces. I spoke to none as I quickly passed through their domains, I dared not, but neither did I see any smile, nor any comaradery common to working people everywhere. There was a tension in the air – as if to slow one’s work were to be a terrible thing. A profane act in this sacred land of Toil.
My business carried me deep into the bowels of the great district. I had a map, hastily scrawled in lantern light, but I was soon lost amid the twists and turns and seemingly insane geography of the place. There were hundreds of unnamed alleyways, some that seemed to only be made of staircases, or a long bridge of flimsy planks crudely nailed together and secured with hemp ropes. Streets suddenly dead-ended at the vast wall of some Tool and Die edifice, only to begin again on the other side, as if the factory decided to just build where there was space, and the road was the only place left. I wandered for hours, past wonders. Past profane and profound wonders.
Just past midday a great and terrific bell sounded from somewhere near the center of the district, I think, a tremendous clanging that forced me to clap my hands over my ears. Its great volume necessary to be heard over the Voice of Industry, I think, and after the tolling the street traffic suddenly trickled off and died. I was awed. The streets were jammed to the point of near-standstill one minute and the next it was as quiet as a country village on Praiseday. For a moment there was no sound. No scuttle of a Booka on a crumbling wall. No rapid blasts of wingbeats overhead. For a moment the Great Beast was still.
The hordes that murdered that peace were too great and terrible to number. An endless sea of stinking men and women came rushing out from everywhere into the false winter skies – eating, drinking, laughing, fighting, rutting, shouting, dancing, and the noise. And the smell. For a moment I was transported to the tryptychs of Galanfrei and his “Visyns of a Fiery Helle”, such that the flames were not evident but the raucous cacophony and the noxious funk of the place were enough to send me into a near-panic of blind terror.
A handspan later and the great bell rung again and the stinking hordes vanished as if they never were, and the street traffic mingled in with them as the streets swapped inhabitants. Carts, wagons, noddys, drays and even a few dog-carts were on the move once again.
I found a safe corner and tried to figure out how I was going to find the Offices of Whitlock and Whitlock, Top of Verdigris Alley (#2), Laboratory One Double Nine. No one I had asked claimed to know Verdigris Alley, and without any street signs, I could wander here for days. Weeks perhaps, if I took the roofscape into account. I was tired, hungry, bruised, scared, and lost. Life in the big city wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
I miss the farm.
I pushed on, determined to find my way.
I tried to remember all that I had seen, in some vain attempt to create landmarks for the crudest of mental maps.
- Grumblestump & Sons: Fabricators
- The Hammer and Tong: Manufacturers of Steel and Iron Products Since XXXX
- J&L Steelworks & Engineering: We Build Everything
- The Copperpot Consortium: Offices and Showroom
- Jinxmouse Labs: STAY THE FUCK OUT DONNY!
- Tinpok’s Tool and Die: No Job Too Small – Repairs While U Wait
- Harnabor Gretyetyel: Architect/Engineer – BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
- Umbercliff Foundry
- Tekel Cotton Mill
- Moore Glassworks
- Yellowdog Iron Works
- Hartford Dredging Works
- Eddington & Sons Soap Company