It rained in Babbage in late fall. Not quite cold enough to snow. The smoke was at full blast on factories in the Square district, mixing with the raindrops just enough to make everything a little dirtier and not the least bit clean. Umbrellas, if not already open, popped up like mushrooms. Everything smelled of tobacco smoke, and the stench of wet fur from the Moreau citizens. And a police whistle pierced the humdrum. And something sharp touched his shoulder. And then he was dead.
He came back to life in a clinic in a prison in a cavern. The air smelled of antiseptic cleansers trying to hide decades of repressed guilt and the last lost liquids and gasses of the dead. They’d been pushing his gurney to the drop shaft used to bury prisoners. There was no morgue. He woke up. So the treated him. He remembered not.
One doctor opined that he’d been in a cave-in down in tunnel 36. Another felt certain there had been no cave-in and therefore it was probably a prison homicide gone wrong. So when he was good enough they sent him back, without his memories to serve out the rest of his sentence for a crime he could not remember, with a fresh candle pin for his prison issued bowler hat, and a fresh pickaxe to boot. They put him on a different work gang, just in case it had not been a cave-in.
The prison was north of Babbage, some island set up as an idealist political reserve by some well moneyed do-good that found neither good nor more money at first. Then driven to the long cold lava tubes of the dormant vocano that had made their failed colony, the survivors, after surviving on hope and a few of their fellow survivors, had struck gold. Or cobalt and other rare minerals, at least. The earth had vomited up a trove here. The Libertas Foundation re-branded themselves a mining community, and earned more money by taking in prisoners from abroad to serve their sentences at reduced rates within the Mount Tyche Mines.
At least that’s what the former geologist, Nugs, told him as they worked the dark rocks in a life that knew neither day nor night. He lied about his origins. Sometimes he was German via Paraguay, sometimes he was English, and one night he was convincingly Carolignian, wherever that was. He was self-admittedly a pederast and better off where he was. Which was a good attitude to have, considering the life sentence he’d been handed.
The other man on the chains was a Swede named Borg who spoke English and may or may not have ran slaves into Brazil. He claimed he was missionary just trying to get the poor souls to assimilate. They’d all been sold to Libertas. They both agreed he had a Babbage accent.
The days became weeks, became years. Nugs died of black lung and got replaced by a wirey Turk who didn’t speak much, but developed a black market trade network with others in the mine. Borg served his sentence and said he wasn’t going far. He intended to settle in the port town nearby and make a new fortune. Cold weather suited the man.
The day of a year came when he was taken off the chains and had to meet a penance committee.
“Tell us about the nature of your crime.” one of the black robed men in wigs asked from behind a dark wood table. Overhead a series of fans turned driven by a long lose belt running off a drive shaft from elsewhere in the building. The gaslights burned but there was other light. It must be the sun. It cannot be winter, for the sun would not rise much this far north.
“I hit that feller that stole my cheroot. I traded three days ration pails for that stogie and the warden put two fookin years on my sentence and I’d do it again..” he started but was waved off.
“Your initial sentence, I mean. And without filthy language, this is a court of law.” The judge nodded to the prisoner in that ‘Or you’ll know what else.’ way that judges were trained to give, somewhere.
The prisoner shrugged and answered, “I can’t rightly say. Doctors said my memory would come back but it never did.”
The three tribunal members looked over the paperwork with appropriate “ahems” and “ahs” and even an “I see.” They huddled together.
He peered at them, “Well what did I do? Things being what they are, I have wondered about that a fair bit.”
The initial questioner read out, “On the night of .. so and so, Eighteen hundred and.. yes.. Ah here it is. You murdered yourself in and area known as the Fells and covered the body up in a cow pasture.” The judge adjusted his monocle as it really did not make sense.
Another judged chimed in, “I do say, that seems harsh for suicide, and while Babbage has a peculiar reputation as a city of wonders and scientific miracles, it does seem a bit odd that the convicted is here before us if the suicide was, quidem, successful.”
“We do not convict or enforce, we merely assay contrition before returning the prisoner to public life.” the monocle wearing judge said haughtily.
The one on the left added with a polite smile, “It’s all really a formality. Just a part of the service, in truth.”
The stamped his papers. They handed them to him and gave him a new suit. He was a free man named Jon Spires, apparently. Outside the mine the sun was setting. The small hearing building was built outside the opening to the mine which itself was surrounded with fortifications and guard towers both to keep prisoners in and fortune seekers out. There was a steam lorry hauling dead headed empty barrels back to town. He hopped in one and made his way to the sleepy little port town of Libertas. Borg was gone. There was a local Builder’s Mercy mission in the town, and he stopped there for the free soup and to learn a little of the world around him. A monk with a permanent limp named Napol told him that he had met Borg, who had briefly ran a dry goods emporium before selling out and heading back to Sweden, with some mad idea he had for enhancing his body with mechanical parts.
Part of the service was apparently guaranteed passage back to wherever you’d been convicted. Libertas was not keen on anyone who could not pay their own way. They eyed the Salvation Army and Builder’s Mercy missions with suspicion and disdain here in this libertarian utopia. He spent the night in a hostel arranged by the mission and took passage in the belly of a five masted schooner the next day. It would be a short trip, he was told. And it was.
In the city of Babbage, much looked familiar. Much didn’t. He was home. But he wasn’t. People drifted in from around the world. He had a feeling somehow not as many as there once had been, but they were still there. At the end of a tired day trying to get his bearings, looking for some “help wanted” sign that wasn’t there, and finally deciding where to sleep rough, he noticed an old clank sweeping a dingy corner of Clockhaven.
It was no work of art. Nor, compared with the wonders he’d seen just window shopping this day, was it state of the art, either. He had been stenciled “C.S.o.N.B Dept of Public Works” and a serial number, in yellow paint over institutional green. Someone still wound it up regularly to do its street cleaning chores. But time was getting to it, and it was failing. He caught his reflection in the window of one of the cities numerous bars. He’d seen the engine stipled photo of his face on the paperwork of his conviction a decade earlier. He had had worse than this cleaner clank. It continued to sweep. He felt pity for it. Maybe self pity, which had no point and little use. But something gnawed at him. He
scratched the paint on impulse, the green laquer came off, revealing old hammertone black underneath, and in embossed gold “Spires Mechanical Janitorial Unit 8.”
“As we Build, so are we Built” he intoned from old catechism. Memories did not flood back. But a few crept in. He felt underneath the machine’s right arm where he knew a storage compartment would be. It was painted over and sealed. He used a piece of discarded chicken bone in the gutter to trace around and open the panel up. Inside was a small, smart toolkit and oiling bottle for when the device could not be brought in for service. It had never been used. He deactivated the machine .
He serviced it, cleaned it, fixed what he could, hands happy to be doing something besides pushing a cart or swinging a pickax. And when he was done, rewinding the machine, and watching it come back to life again, returning to cleaning chores along the street, not perfectly. But more efficiently. He could have sworn for a second it acted grateful. He took off his hat to scratch his head, as he still squated on the curb, and was surprised to see a couple of coppers fall into it. He looked up to see a city employee looking down on him.
“Good work, that. I been meaning to fix ‘im meself but I never get round to it. So much on my schedule, squire. So much. It’s murder, and that’s the Builder’s truth.”
Spires took the coins in his hand. Dinner and a bed tonight. “thank you” he said gruffly. He hadn’t really heard his voice since the court room, two weeks before. He said no more.
The public works employee had walked into a bar to apparently sort out his schedule. He’d left his own tools behind on his push cart in a small leather knapsack with an official city emblem hanging on by one remaining brass rivet. He stole the tools , ripped the rivet from the leather bag and tossed the city seal in a drain where a drunken dollymop was lifting a leg to urinate.
“Aooouu” she started to say, and he was gone before she could elaborate or turn the official seal green. By the time the workman was back out with a growler of beer for the night, Spires was long gone, just another drab forgotten man in a sea of bowlers going home for the night.