His foot slipped from the stool it was resting on, and the sudden movement jolted him awake.  The goggles he wore were covered in a layer of dust, making midday appear to be dusk, and dusk seem to be night.  Of course, night also seemed to be night, so he wasn’t sure of the time right away.  He lifted one lens.  Definitely night.

Taking a rag to wipe off the goggles, he also turned a small knob on the side of his workbench.  The unmistakable hiss of gas began, and the lamp started to glow.  Checking the mechanical time piece that hung above the bench, he discovered it was still a few hours before dawn.  Enough time, but barely.  Equipment needed to be moved and then assembled.

The various gears and arms were already in the wagon, but the lenses still waited for his attention.  They were too fragile to pack ahead of time.  He wrapped them as carefully as he could and loaded them.  A few buttons pushed and levers turned, and the gears that pushed the wagon began to move.  It was loud, but smoother than the horse-drawn carriages that were so popular.  His nearest neighbors were far enough away that no one complained when he started it up.

He steered it up the hill about a mile from his house.  Here there were no trees to obscure the spectacle and inhibit his ability to collect the unique phlogiston particles.  It would be quite a feat, if he could get everything ready in time.  He had until midmorning.

As he worked to put his machine together, several children from the village gathered to watch.  Their parents had warned them to stay away from him, so their curiosity did not interfere.

The sun was well on its journey upwards when he slid the last lens into place.  It had gone much more smoothly than he could have hoped.  The moon was faintly visible as it headed towards its rendezvous.  He aligned the largest lens, the initial catcher as he thought of it.  The intermediate lenses were distributed around it, focusing elements into the smallest lenses which were attached to rather small tubes.  As the moon blocked the most powerful of the sun’s rays, the phlogiston particles from the edge of the sun should be able to get through where he could capture them.  That was the idea, anyway.  If this didn’t work, it might be years before he could try again.

As the moon’s disk slid across the sun, the machine sprang to life, focusing and refocusing lenses.  Slowly, the tubes began to fill with a brilliant yellow light.  The children gasped, and he could hear them whispering that he had made the sun disappear.  He paid them no mind.

When the eclipse ended, he quickly stored the tubes in a specially constructed box.  It had worked.  Despite his design, the heat within the tubes was evident, though they did not appear to be in danger of cracking.  He now had a power supply.  Next was building the machine it would drive.

The Automatic Man

“What is it?”  The boy sounded skeptical of what he saw.

The engineer ignored his tone, however; the smile never faded from his lips.  “It is an automatic man.  My own invention.  First of its kind.”  He was a father, beaming with pride about his newborn son.

“How does it work?”  His assistant still didn’t seem to have the proper appreciation for his creation.

“Well, first, there is the fire in the cast iron belly.  That drives the gears and pistons.  Some of them are so small, some of my finest work.  Then . . .   Come here.  You cannot see it properly from over there.”  The engineer carefully removed the metal plate covering the back of the head.  “Back here . . .  You see all of these small switches?  Adjusting these in different ways allows you to set the machine to perform a variety of tasks.  Lenses for the eyes focus light and conducting wire carries sound; both help provide external feedback to the mechanisms.  You see?”

The boy nodded, though it was obvious he did not see at all.

“I assume some of those switches allow it to use a pneumatic gun?”

The engineer scowled at the sound of the new voice, but he managed to suppress it before turning around to face the man in a grey uniform who stood in the doorway of his workshop.  “Of course.  It can be used for many tasks, even ones as simple as that.”

The office ignored the subtle insult.  “Good.  Good.  And how quickly can you produce them?”

“Well, I cannot say for certain.  This took some time.  It is not as though I have a factory dedicated to the job.”

“Ah, but I do.  And we cannot wait any longer for these miracle machines of yours.  Do you have the plans?  We need to begin at once.”

It was all happening too quickly.  He needed to stall for time.  Find some way to keep this work out of the hands of the military.  “No.  I have just finished.  I have yet to even test it.  There has been no time to draw up plans.”

The smile on the officer’s face was not pleasant.  “You have tested it.  I know you.  You would not be bragging, even to your assistant, unless you knew it worked.  If you do not have plans drawn up, I will simply take this one so my men can fashion plans from the original.”  He waved his hand, and two other uniformed men entered the workshop.  They loaded the automaton onto a cart and wheeled it out.  The engineer wanted to protest, but he knew it would be fruitless.

“Do not worry.  Your creation is in good hands.  And your service to the country is not unappreciated.”  The officer produced a large pouch and tossed it on to a workbench.  The coins inside clattered against one another.  “I may have another task for you soon.”  He nodded and left.

The engineer chided himself for thinking he could keep this from the military.  But he knew he did not have the luxury for lengthy self-recrimination.  He had to figure out a way to get the automaton back.

Crash Landing

The gear slipped onto the post and locked into place. The engineer sat back on the stool to look at the mechanism. There was a ways to go, he knew. But it was coming together. He leaned in again. Now was not the time to dawdle. The more he kept at it, the faster it would be finished.

He picked up a small hand torch and lit it. This part would be tricky. The heat needed to be applied to the right location for just the right length of time, otherwise… Well, best not to think about that. With his free hand, he pulled the googles over his eyes. They would filter out the light so he could see the piece he was working on.

Just as he brought the torch to the spot where heat was needed, as if on cue, the door slammed open, interrupting his concentration. It was all he could do to keep from jerking his hand and destroying the whole construction. Only when the torch was safely off and sitting on the work bench did he turn to the entrance, goggles hiding the fury in his eyes.

“What in the five skies do you…” He cut himself off. A pilot stood in the door. He was not just any pilot, but a member of the Grendarian Imperial Navy. The uniform was unmistakable. Grendar had taken control of this village only a year ago, and it was still startling to see members of their military on the ground.

“Funny you should mention the skies, engineer. My airship is having trouble. People pointed me in your direction. I need your expertise.”

The engineer made a mental note to thank his neighbors later, but for now, he had to deal with this. “I am in the middle of some delicate work. I won’t be free to help you until this afternoon. Come by after lunch, and . . .” The look on the pilot’s face caused him to stop mid-sentence.

“Is that the project you’re working on? There on the bench?”

“Yes, it’s my own design.” He turned back to the mechanism to show it off. “When it’s finished, it will allow . . .”

The device shattered as a metal slug cut through it. Horrified, he turned back to the pilot, who was holstering his pistol.

“It seems that you suddenly have some free time. Follow me.”

Expecting compliance, the pilot turned neatly on his heel and walked back outside. The engineer was in shock. Months of machining the parts, carefully assembling them . . . Gone in an instant. But he was not so far in a daze that he didn’t recognize the still present danger. Not wanting his own slug, he slowly followed the pilot outside.

The small, one-seat airship sat in the middle of the cart path a few dozen yards away. It looked like a narrow rowboat turned upside and sitting on three wheels. It gleamed in the bright sunlight, though his goggles kept him from needing to squint in the glare. At first he thought the pilot had landed it there just to block the lane and inconvenience the villagers. After opening the panel that provided access to the engine, it became apparent that the pilot had had little choice in where he landed. That the village was here was simply a fortunate happenstance.

The problem was simple enough to fix, but it was sufficient to keep the ship on the ground. The pilot needed repairs, and he was probably the only person in the village who could do it.

“I need a few tools. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t make me wait too long.” The pilot’s conversational tone did nothing to hide the implied threat.

But it was unnecessary. He had no intention of delaying and risking the pilot’s presence any longer than was required. Back in his shop, he threw a few tools and parts into his belt. He avoided looking at the work bench. After he had grabbed what he needed, he returned to the downed ship.

People had begun to gather a little distance away. Equal parts awe and fear emanated from them. The engineer ignored them all and set about his repairs. As he thought, it was nothing too complicated. Crucial elements had been compromised, but not destroyed. Putting those parts back in place took a little cleverness and a little strength, but did not stretch his skills.

An hour later, he wiped his forehead with his sleeve, looked things over one more time, and nodded. “That should get you off the ground.” He turned to the pilot, who looked bored. “When you get back to your fleet, have your mechanic check it out. This will hold you for now, but it won’t last indefinitely.”

The pilot climbed into his seat without asking any questions. “Here. This should serve as payment.” He tossed the engineer a small chip of metal with Grendar’s emblem on it. It wasn’t currency. Perhaps it was a kind of promissory note? He didn’t really care and just shoved the chip into his pocket.

The engine on the ship started. The humming drew more people out to watch the takeoff. The engineer stepped back several feet, almost bumping into an older man who was watching.

“I knew you could fix it, my boy. That’s what I told him.”

“Oh? Well, thank you for that.” The man was oblivious to his glare.

The roar of the ship made any more conversation impossible, and everyone was transfixed as the ship slowly lifted up and began moving forward. Even after it cleared the buildings and began heading off to the east, away from the village, eyes were glued to the shrinking outline.

Thus the whole village witnessed the explosion as the small airship tore itself into many pieces before crashing back to the ground several miles away. Gasps and cries rose loudly then quickly died away. Mother’s ushered confused – and in some cases crying – children into their homes. Men lingered a bit longer, talking amongst themselves, explaining that the unreliability of the airships was why they hadn’t become pilots themselves. A few younger ones began organizing to go recover what they could from the wreckage.

Only the old man next to him turned to look at the engineer. “I was sure you could fix it.”

The engineer shrugged. “I thought I had. I guess I’m not good with airships.”

The old man walked away shaking his head. The engineer pulled the gear assembly out of his pocket to look at it. He had been right; the component regulated the temperature of the engine to keep it from overheating. That knowledge might come in handy. Maybe the day hadn’t been a complete waste after all.