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November 4, 2015

Another Excerpt from The Gauge War

Metalheads Who Read, Writing Runes

charles babbage

charles babbage

Did you hear the news? Well, in case you didn’t, here it is – The Gauge War, the second novel in my Engine Ward series, is now available in ebook. Print is a week or two away. To celebrate, I’m doing a few Gauge War themed posts. I already posted a major teaser excerpt from the book back in May, and today I’m giving you the second little snippet of what you’ll find inside its pages.

This section concerns Charles Babbage, the surly mathematician Brunel has hired to conduct some rather interesting work. Babbage was a real historical figure, responsible for conceiving of a programmable computer and attempting to create the Analytical Engine, which likely would’ve been the first computer had he actually completed it. He’s a fascinating character who, like many polymaths, demonstrated an array of interesting quirks. Many, including his hatred or organ grinders and his letters to famous poets, I’ve included in The Gauge War.

Read on, and let me know what you think! I’d be delighted if you picked up a copy of The Gauge War, and left a review on Amazon so others could see if it interested them, too!

This material is copyright Stephanie Green, 2015. Do not republish without permission.

***

gauge warAlthough nothing was really wrong with him, Brigitte refused to let Nicholas leave his bed for three weeks. When he finally pulled on his travelling coat and stepped out into the biting rain, he was grateful to be returning to work at the Ward, even if there was little to occupy him there. All he’d been able to do was lie in bed and think about all the hellish things that might be causing the voices, and how Isambard could possibly be mixed up in it all. One thought in particular kept running over and over in his mind.

Aaron must have known something … and that is why he grew to hate Isambard so. But why didn’t he tell me?

Or did he try to tell me, and I didn’t want to listen?

As his carriage rolled under the huge iron gates of Engine Ward, and the air grew thick with dust, apprehension bubbled in Nicholas’ stomach. Somewhere in the Ward was a terrible atrocity, and if he didn’t hunt it out and stop it, then he would never be able to rest again.

Isambard greeted him outside the Chimney, and helped him down from the carriage. “Welcome back, friend. I am so pleased to see you on your feet again.”

“Not as pleased as I,” replied Nicholas. He met his friend’s gaze, keeping his expression impassive. He wasn’t yet ready to confront Isambard with his suspicions. Perhaps now I’m back in the Engine Ward, I might be able to discover the source of the pain on my own.

“I have something to show you.” Isambard led Nicholas around the back of the church. Nicholas braced himself for the onslaught of voices, but they never came. Whatever had been causing them, they were well away by now.

Nicholas was astonished to see the work had mostly been completed. In less than a month the Boilers had completely demolished the old Stoker slum, cleared the area of debris and erected a line of long, peak-roofed factories. The back wall of the Chimney had also been demolished and extended to create offices and workshops for the engineering team. Now only a handful of the machines trundled around the site, riveting the final exterior cladding on the workshops.

“We still have to fit the windows by hand,” explained Brunel as he gestured to a small team of workmen lifting a high frame into place. “The Boilers lack the dexterity to set them in place.”

“I’m amazed, Isambard. It’s practically a miracle.”

“A miracle will be if I ever get the Wall completed.” Brunel sighed. “I still do not have the Council’s approval to build the railway on top.”

“I’m confident you will get your permission. Too much of the Royal Purse has been spent on the project now for the Council to abandon it. Besides, whatever its intended nefarious purpose, it will now be useful in monitoring trade and preventing dragons from entering the city.”

“You’re correct, of course. I just hope those old men see it that way. In the meantime, I’ve sent my newest batch of Boilers out to another job, which I’m hoping you might be able to assist with. These that remain here in the Ward are my older models. They will suffice for the needs of my engineers and my locomotives while the Wall can be completed—”

“Nicholas, old chap!”

A hand clamped on his shoulder. Already on edge, the touch made Nicholas jump. Isambard reached out to steady him, frowning at the man who’d startled him.

“He’s been ill,” Brunel scolded Buckland. “You should not be so careless.”

Buckland didn’t seem to notice the reproach. “Isn’t this fantastic?” He exclaimed. “A month – it all went up in a month! Just imagine what you chaps can do with this kind of technology! I’ve got two Boilers of my own down in my office right now. They’re currently at work polishing my rock collection. Can you imagine?”

“Who else is working here?” Nicholas scanned the bank of workshops for a familiar face.

“Every man who wants to make a name for himself.” Buckland smiled. “They’re deserting the other churches in droves to come work for our Messiah. Every clever man in England has an office here now. And Babbage, too, of course. That quack thinks he’s Lord High Engineer the way he struts around the place.”

“You leave Babbage alone,” said Isambard, and Nicholas was surprised at the harshness in his tone. “His work is vital to me, as vital as yours. He commands a quiet, undisturbed space, and I’ll not have him interrupted under any pretence. Now, Mr. Buckland. I believe we had some matters to discuss in my workshop. Nicholas, your new office is on the second level, beside Babbage. I’ve left a Boiler at your disposal, and some paperwork to go over.”

Once inside the Chimney, Nicholas found the new platform and pulley Brunel had installed, and rode it up to the second floor. He peeked inside the door to his office, a plain, sparsely furnished room equipped with a desk, chair, drafting table, bookshelf, and a Boiler unit in the corner. He glanced over the files on his desk; Brunel had made notes on one of his station designs, and Nicholas would need to make several changes. Not quite ready to get to work, he thought it appropriate to introduce himself to his neighbour. He’d never met Charles Babbage before, but he knew all about him; the infamous mathematician had been ousted from the Royal Society and excommunicated from the Metic church on the eve of Nicholas’ secret return to London. Working for Isambard would be the only way Babbage could afford to finish his immense calculating engine.

The mathematician’s office was enormous, larger even than Isambard’s underground cavern. Along one wall, huge glass windows looked down into the nave of the church below. In the centre of the room stood a great steel frame, nearly eight feet in height and over thirty feet in length, upon which was suspended a highly complex section of pegs and barrels, the purpose of which Nicholas vaguely understood to be the carrying out of mathematic equations. Two Boilers flanked the frame, as still and silent as stone, the empty windows in their furnace bellies signalling their inactivity. He could see no sign of Charles Babbage.

“Er … hello?” he called.

There was no reply. The two Boilers seemed to stare back at him. He took a step into the office, then another. Still he could hear nothing.

Nicholas peered over the desk, over sheaves of typewritten pages – page after page of number sequences with no apparent pattern. As he shifted through the papers, a glint caught his eye – something metallic hidden between the papers. Nicholas reached out and picked up a metal rectangle, holding it up to the light of the windows.

It was a simple metal plate, embossed with a series of raised dots and lines spaced evenly along the surface.

It’s our code, Nicholas realised. The code Aaron and I created. But why does Babbage have it?

Back before the Vampire King, before Brunel had sent the Stokers back to the swamps, Nicholas and Aaron had devised an embossed code so that the minutes of the Blasphemous Men’s Supper Club might be kept secret from prying eyes. The code was embossed so that James Holman could read it with his fingers – each symbol was small enough that he could discern it with one swipe of his finger. Later, Nicholas had taught Brunel the code also, and so he guessed Brunel must’ve taught it to Babbage.

Nicholas glanced down at the desk, at the spot where he’d found the plate. He shifted aside a stack of papers and saw something interesting – a wooden box, stuffed with identical metal plates, stacked evenly in five neat rows. He lifted out another plate – the symbols were the same, but placed in a different order.

There was something odd about Babbage’s plates. Nicholas scanned the two he held, but could discern no message, just rows of numbers and letters, completely random and unpredictable.

Perhaps it’s a second layer of code – the true message is written in the embossed code and then hidden in a cipher. But why Babbage would have a use for such a thing …

“Get out,” a voice snarled.

Nicholas whirled around. Charles Babbage was standing in the doorway, a long fire-stoker clenched in his fist and a nasty scowl on his face. He raised the fork in a threatening manner.

“Who said you could be in here? This equipment is extremely sensitive. I can’t have just anyone—”

“I’m Nicholas Thorne, sir.” He dropped the plate on Babbage’s desk and extended his hand. “I am a great admirer of your work. I just wanted to offer my congratulations on your post—”

“I said, get out!” Babbage screamed, hurling the metal fork across the room.

Nicholas ducked as the stoker sailed over his head and crashed into the window behind him. Glass tinkered everywhere, falling like snow into the nave of the church below. He leapt back from the desk.

“By Great Conductor, man.” he cried. “You could’ve hurt someone.”

“And you could hurt my machine with your clumsy hands. Who are you? What is the meaning of this intrusion? Wait—” he held up his hand, cutting Nicholas off. “I don’t even care to know. Leave now, before I am forced to remove you forcibly.”

Nicholas met the man’s gaze, and what he saw there sent a shiver down his spine. Brilliant mathematician or not, Charles Babbage’s eyes burned with rage, with madness.

As quickly as he could, Nicholas backed from the room, slamming the door shut behind him. Not a second later, he heard something smash as it crashed against the doorframe. Wiping the sweat on his palms against his trousers, Nicholas took off toward his own office, his heart thumping and the worrying encounter replaying in his mind.

Why was Babbage so angry? What machine could be so sensitive that the very presence of another man could upset the whole endeavour? What did the mysterious frame with the banks of numbered wheels actually do? And why did Babbage have all those plates? What did he need with an embossed code designed to be read by blind men? It was a mystery, and a perplexing one at that.

***

Babbage slumped down in his chair, ignoring the glass shards stuck to the legs of his trousers. He rested his hands on his desk, trying to stop them from shaking. He counted off the golden ratio to a hundred decimal places, in order to calm his racing heart.

How dare he? How dare that jumped-up young architect enter my quarters without permission and rifle through my things? It is disrespectful. It is criminal. If he’s knocked even so much as a peg out of place—

Babbage lifted up the papers on his desk and stared into the box. Had he seen the plates? That was the only thing that mattered. Has he seen the plates?

Isambard had been very clear. Nicholas Thorne was never to know how the Analytical Engine worked. He could never understand what the code was used for. If the Metal Messiah found out that Babbage had compromised his one condition—

What does it matter? He’s an architect. Even if he did see the plates, he can’t possibly understand what they mean, what they’re for. You saw how he looked when he left – the little scamp was terrified. He won’t be telling Brunel about his little visit, which means Brunel won’t find out.

“Right,” he muttered, slamming the box shut again and placing the stack of papers back on top. “Right. Back to work, then.”

***

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