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The Next Generation · Original Short Story ·
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A Good Idea
3 July 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin stared dispiritedly at the design drafts spread across the worktable. The newest lines were inked in the borrowed blue of Susanne’s pen, returned to her keeping the previous Friday.

Once again, his attention strayed across the workbenches, strewn with unfinished and forlorn gadgetry. Under the burning white glow of the thorium gas mantles, the shine of mahogany and brass almost seemed to transform into an accusatory glare.

He was anthropomorphizing, of course, but recognizing his projection for what it was did little to resolve the problem.

Once again, his attention alit upon the sole source of motion where dozens should have stood. In stark contrast to himself, the pocket-sized generator he had constructed last month was still performing admirably. The resistive revolution counter substituting for the mechanisms sketched in black and blue had reached 13  256.

There was something ineffably soothing about watching the quiet spinning of gears, too small for their faint whir to be heard across the room even in the dead stillness of night. When he finally reclaimed his gaze from their hypnotic reverie, the counter read 13  297.

Once again, his attention flitted to the clock. 1:41. Another midnight come and gone with naught to show.

Loath though he was to accept it, it seemed apparent that once more no progress would be forthcoming. With a sigh, he stood and made his way to the staircase, stopping at the foot only long enough to divest himself of goggles and coat and hang them on the accoutrement rack. Though the distance to the basement ceiling was not great as such things went, the weight of failure made the climb a trial.

As the door to his laboratory clicked locked behind him, the last vestiges of mantle-light visible beyond it blinked out.

4 July 2008, the patio of The Lavender Leaf

“The spark has drained from me.”

Susanne pulled her attention back from the table’s intricate metal motif. “Wow. It must be bad if it has you mixing metaphors, sir.”

Professor Boone set down his tea with a thoughtful look on his face. “Would that truly count as a mixed metaphor? Describing electricity through comparison with water is a ubiquitous and venerable analogy.”

The exuberant shouts of a pair of children as they raced by cut Susanne off, and she had to wait until their cries had faded into the distance before speaking. “But calling inspiration the spark is itself a metaphor, so bringing in plumbing is necessarily a mixed metaphor.”

“What I mean to say is, the analogy of electricity equals water is so ingrained that it could be fairly called a dead metaphor. It’s essentially become a fixture of the language, no longer a metaphor.”

Susanne quirked her head. “Even if for the sake of argument I were to grant you that it’s reached that point, you said it yourself, Professor: dead metaphor. Just because it’s a fixture doesn’t make it lose its evocative nature.”

“If I were to grant you that, then it would still be at most a case of subsumed metaphor, not mixed metaphor. I don’t....” Professor Boone trailed off, then shook his head. “Alright, diverting as this topic is, it’s also a diversion from the salient point. I had hoped that you might provide the means to replace my blown fuse, as it were.”

Susanne grimaced. “Okay, even you have to admit that adding a fuse to the mix makes it a mixed metaphor, sir. But right, focus.” She paused for a moment to put her thoughts in order. “What have you tried so far to get the creative juices flowing again?”

Professor Boone sighed. “Everything I can think of. Perusing my shelved designs, meditative walks, lesson planning, even attempting to tinker despite my indisposition. And the cruel—”

The toll of the district’s bells striking noon drowned out whatever he’d been going to say next, and he shot Susanne a wry smile as the echoes faded back beneath the chatter of the passing crowds and the rumble of distant cars. “And the cruel quandary is the inconvenient ravages of time. No, the quandary is that my block extends to kindling ideas of how I might remove it, so left to my own devices I fear I am at something of an impasse.”

Susanne clicked her tongue. “That does sound like a real problem. I’m going to need to ruminate some before I can hope to offer any answers.”

Professor Boone graced her with an amused look. “So long as you leave yourself room for the meal proper. If you have no objection, I believe I shall take the opportunity to go powder my nose while you ponder my plight.”

Susanne laughed. “I’ll make sure the table’s still here when you get back.”

She tracked Professor Boone as he stood and made his way inside, until the droves of midday patrons beyond the glass obscured him from her sight, and then let her gaze wander while she collated proposals for him to try. The general aura of revelry in the sun after a long, unseasonable week of grey wasn’t really conducive to her efforts, but she could hardly bring herself to mind.

The tinkling of the restaurant door's bells cut her off of her contemplation, and ruined any further focus she might have had with the last person she wanted to see. She quickly turned her head back to her tea in the hope that Farthing would pay her no heed, but despite the summer heat, fortune left her in the cold.

“Fancy seeing you here, Klein.”

Susanne managed to keep her display of frustration down to a somewhat harsh breath, and as she turned she steeled herself for whatever latest travesty Farthing had chosen to inflict upon the unsuspecting masses. To her surprise, it was a simple black shirt, captioned across the chest with CAUTION: HOT.

...As much as she begrudged to admit it, that was actually somewhat clever.

Farthing smirked. “No snide remarks this afternoon? Perhaps Professor Calvin will manage to make a lady of you yet after all. Speaking of whom, where has he vanished to?”

“What, you weren’t watching him like a hawk?” Susanne couldn't say what had her so off-kilter all of a sudden, but even to her own ears that sounded needlessly aggressive.

Farthing tilted her head with a frown. “Quit it with the antagonism, Klein, all you’re doing is making life harder for yourself. Don’t you know that Beatrix always wins in the end? No matter how you—”

The tinkling of the restaurant door’s bells cut her off as they both looked to see who it was. “No matter how you try to tear us apart, sooner or later I shall hold Professor Calvin in my arms, and he will be my Benedick.”

That assertion was problematic in so many ways that Susanne wasn’t sure where to start. “You know Professor Boone doesn’t like being touched, right? Good luck with that.”

Farthing rolled her eyes. “Congratulations, you've figured out why it will really mean something when he is.”

Whatever it was that had offed Susanne’s kilter had apparently done in her capacity for decent responses as well. “And would you quit it with the Shakespeare already? Even when you’re not constantly mangling it, that was old centuries ago.”

Farthing sighed. “You know there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the classics, right? Given your interest in—”

The tinkling of the restaurant door’s bells cut her off with blessed salvation, in the guise of Professor Boone with a quizzical expression on his face and what looked like powdered sugar on his nose. “Beatrix? What brings you here?”

“Ah, Professor Calvin! Klein and I were just having a short chat while waiting for you. I must have just missed you when you went in.”

“Really? I thought the two of you found each other antipathetic.” Professor Boone raised an eyebrow. “I’m hard-pressed to discern any other plausible rationale for the incident last spring.”

To Susanne’s shock, Farthing actually colored slightly. “Klein might lack respect, but that’s no reason we can’t try to get along. Anyway, my afternoon has freed up after all, so I was wondering if you were still free to meet up with me after you’ve finished your food?”

Professor Boone looked apologetic. “Actually, I had hoped to ask Susanne if she might be willing to accompany me to my laboratory after our repast. Given bygone events, I don’t find myself entirely comfortable with the prospect of having the both of you inside at once.”

Doing so would throw off Susanne’s schedule by an even greater margin, but she could hardly deny either Professor Boone or herself. “I would love to, Professor.” Despite her aspirations to a better nature, she couldn’t help but feel a flicker of satisfaction at Farthing’s disappointment.

“Very well, then. I’ll see you on Sunday, Professor.” Farthing reached into her pocket and pulled something out. “Oh, and do pass this along for me, will you? The food here really does deserve it.” At last, she finally took her leave.

Professor Boone stared bemusedly at the tip she’d pressed into his hand, then moved to take his seat again. “What was that about, Susanne?” Apparently her snort hadn’t been quite as covert as she’d thought.

“You know she’s only doing that to impress you, right? She’s an inveterate Scrooge when you’re not around.”

Professor Boone regarded her with an expression she couldn’t place, then shook his head. “Well, if my presence alone is enough to cultivate the virtue of charity in Beatrix, perhaps I ought to spend more time with her. Shall I chase her down and invite her to join us this afternoon after all?”

Susanne squeezed her eyes tight for a moment. “Please don’t even joke about that, sir. I can’t understand how you actually enjoy spending time with her.”

Professor Boone let out a disappointed sigh. “I know I’m repeating myself, but you two really are alike in many ways. I’m certain that if you were to just set aside your perplexing animosity for one another, you’d make an incredible team. You both have brilliant and fascinating minds." He paused for a moment. “It’s just a shame hers has no sense of decorum when it comes to proper dress.”

All the tension that had twisted up inside Susanne released itself in a burst of laughter as their server finally appeared in the doorway with their food. “I’ll take the proof that you and I think alike over that any day.”

4 July 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin stared dispiritedly at the design drafts spread across the worktable. Eventually, he allowed himself a disappointed sigh. “Once more, progress does not appear to be forthcoming.”

When it became evident that his words would elicit no response, he let his attention stray across the benches strewn with ideas given fragmentary incarnation to Susanne, who had peregrinated off while he struggled in vain with his wayward muse. Her back was turned, and she was so deeply engrossed with her object of interest that he could barely see the black of her bun past the white of her coat.

A recess seemed to be in order, so Calvin elected to jaunt over and investigate. “What has you so thoroughly captivated, Susanne?”

Susanne jolted upright with that peculiar squeak she always denied ever making, so quickly that she almost overbalanced. Instead, she managed to parlay her stumble into an elegant spin, and clapped a hand to her chest. “Professor! Don’t scare me like that, it’s not good for my heart!”

Calvin gave her an apologetic smile. “My apologies. In the future, I shall endeavor to accidentally steal up on you more loudly.”

Susanne let her hand fall back to her side with a sheepish half-smile. “Of course. Thank you.” She stepped to the side with a half-turn and gestured at the generator whirring away, the counter up to 16  086. “Anyway, Professor, I was trying to figure out... whatever this thing is.”

“Ah! That would be a prospective power generator for the portable version of the ætherwave televox I was designing before my spark got grounded out. As you can see, I have it undergoing stress testing, and so far it appears to be performing admirably.”

A brief war between incredulity and bafflement played out over Susanne’s face. “Alright, setting aside the question of why you don’t just buy a cell phone, generator? Are you sure you don’t mean battery?”

Calvin grinned. “I do in fact mean generator. Now, I trust you recognize the basic form of the heat engine, even if the configuration of this particular example is somewhat unconventional?”

Susanne gave the generator a scrutinizing look. “That’s what I thought at first, but then I started second-guessing it when I couldn’t identify a plausible heat source. Either the source or the sink is very well hidden.”

Calvin found himself unable to fully restrain an indecorous chortle. “Hidden in plain sight, one might say. You see how the enclosed portion of the casing is connected to adjustable fins of the same material?”

Susanne nodded.

“That material is a special carpedium alloy, or rather—”

Susanne cut him off with an emphatic groan, one that incorporated the whole of her body to such a degree that even the finest actor would be taken with awe and envy. “Carpedium? Again? What ludicrous property are you going to try and sell me this time? If all your claims were taken at face value, by this point that stuff would be unobtanium by any other name.”

“Would smell as sweet.” Calvin allowed himself a quiet chuckle at her wince and twitch. “Given only what evidence has come to your disposal thus far, such skepticism is warranted, but that makes its properties no less real.

“Now, as I was saying, the material in question is a particular carpedium alloy that has been rendered subject to a careful treatment process to dope in particular changes to its properties across its various dimensions. The result is a material that readily absorbs blackbody radiation from all directions but preferentially emits it in only one. Combined with a smattering of other materials to assist, and the correct geometry—” he gestured at the generator’s casing “—the result is a casing that acts as a sink for low-grade heat from its surroundings and concentrates it to a high-grade source that can drive a heat engine, or a thermoelectric substance, or any other process that requires heat.”

Susanne’s face wracked with disbelief, and for a long moment her mouth worked up and down without a sound. “That’s... That may be the most preposterous thing you’ve ever said. Are you seriously going to just stand there and tell me this thing casually shatters the second law of thermodynamics with a straight face?”

Calvin sighed. “How often have we been over this, Susanne? Gaslamp technology is closer to fantasy magic than science fiction breakthrough, and that’s why it wasn’t discovered a century and a half ago. Normal physical law takes on a role closer to advisor than king.”

“Hold it! Just last week I heard you vehemently insist to that one guy that it is scientific! And that’s nothing new either. So which is it?”

Calvin blinked. “Have we really never touched on this before? It’s important to maintain the facade in front of the layman. Whatever power is behind Gaslamp technology is a stickler for appearances, and if one deviates too far from the prescribed image it ceases to cooperate. And to address the obvious question, it clearly recognizes that anyone with a proper scientific background will not be hoodwinked, as you so aptly demonstrate, and so permits exception for the well-learned.”

Susanne crossed her arms with a critical frown. “So now you say you’re lying to the general public.”

Calvin hesitated for a brief moment. “Not exactly. While the workings of any given Gaslamp device are necessarily incompatible with normal physical law to some degree, they are still subject to scientific scrutiny, and can be studied in the same fashion.” A thought came to him in a flash. “Have you read any of the Discworld novels, perchance?”

“You’re going to say it’s like the UU and Hex, aren’t you?” Susanne practically growled a formless noise of disgust. “Well, if everything you’re saying here is true, then the fact that I can’t think of anything shouldn’t be a problem! By fantasy logic, you should just make a device that magically puts ideas in your head for you!”

Calvin appraised her scowling mien with a frown. “Perhaps a recess would be in order, to permit ourselves to cool our tempers. Shall we head upstairs and procure some refreshments?”

Susanne exhaled a long, deep breath. “That might be a good idea.”

6 July 2008, the faculty workshop of Foglio Hall

Beatrix set down her calipers with a frown. “Alright, Professor, you’ve been growing more and more distracted on me this whole time. What’s going on?”

Professor Calvin blinked and came back down to earth. “My apologies, Beatrix. During her visit on Friday, Susanne said something that I dismissed at the time, but which ever since has continued to grow in my thoughts. Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to keep myself from pondering whether it might prove a solution to my block after all, no matter how inopportune the time.”

No matter how jaded Beatrix thought she‘d become, Klein always seemed to find a new way to impress. She’d never heard of anyone else who for so long managed to dance so close to the edge of competence and yet prevent themself from actually reaching it. “Would it be safe to tell me, or has she stumbled her way into sparking other people now?”

“I honestly cannot say. It feels dissimilar from any instance I can recall, but whether that indicates that this is but an uncommonly importunate mundane notion or is rather a symptom of my indisposed state, I have not been able to determine.”

Beatrix blew at her bangs. “Well, either way it seems to be obsessing you as much as a proper one. Maybe you should just go work on it for a while, since it doesn’t look like you’re going to be much help here right now.”

Professor Calvin let out a long sigh. “Given the evidence, I suppose that might be for the best. Will you require my assistance in returning anything to your flat?”

Beatrix waved him off. “It’s a nice day, I don’t mind walking a little longer. I’ll just get as far as I can without you and then close up. Do you expect you’ll be busy, or should I expect to see you next time?”

Professor Calvin pondered that while he took off his goggles and stowed them away. “I suppose it might well go either way. Perhaps it would be prudent to assume I will be occupied until such time as I give notice otherwise.”

“Can do. Be sure to let me know how it goes, and if it doesn’t pan out I’ll have some more ideas for you to try.”

Professor Calvin chuckled as he opened the door, and he turned to give her a nod of farewell. “As you so succinctly put it, can do.”

20 July 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin glanced briefly at the design drafts spread across the workbench, then returned his focus to the subject of those blueprints. The quiet rhythm of the generator was the only sound to be heard as he carefully positioned the final brace and secured it into place.

With the last connection made fast, he let loose the breath he’d been holding and took a moment to survey his work. Though the helmet’s ultimate aesthetic included more nods to modern sensibilities than strictly ideal, it could nevertheless be readily mistaken for a wayward piece of Victoriana fashioned by a peculiarly prescient mind. Under the burning white glow of the thorium gas mantles, the shine of carpedium and brass almost seemed to take on an electric brilliance.

As was tradition, he turned his attention to the clock. 3:37. After so long an abeyance to let routine fade away, it struck him as strange that the dead stillness of night was when his inventions were most often granted motion and life.

All that remained was to christen the incarnation of his ideas. In accord with the dramatic structure that had limelit his path, it seemed only prudent to make the process a spectacle worthy of the stage. He almost felt dissociated from his actions as he swept up his creation with a flourish. “Behold! After many long nights of sleepless toil, my latest masterpiece is finally complete! With this marvelous invention ’pon my brow, I shall take the world by brain-storm! And such a masterful device requires nothing less than a name to match, so I shall call it...”

As he lowered his masterwork onto his head, it came to him in a flash. "The Epiphanizer!"

23 July 2008, the cafeteria of Skein Hall

"The Epiphanizer? Really?"

Professor Boone quirked an eyebrow. “I gather you find issue with some aspect of the name?”

Susanne toyed with her potato for a moment, but to no avail. “It’s just so ridiculous. What in the world possessed you to call it that, sir?”

Professor Boone sat back with a pensive cast to his features, and his unfocused eyes began to drift across the empty dining hall. “I cannot rightly say. It felt... perhaps not truly akin to a dream, but mayhap akith to one. It was almost as if the spirit of Gaslamp technology came upon me in force and truly electrified my soul, rather than merely guiding my hands through cast-off sparks of ingenuity.”

Though Professor Boone’s distant gaze meant his lack of reaction signified little, Susanne was reasonably confident that she managed to keep her flicker of disgust off her face. “Let’s not go down that route again, Professor. Though actually, if that really were what happened, why would this so-called spirit pick such a... cheesy name?”

Professor Boone came back down to earth, and he began to scoop up butter from the tub she’d pushed to his side of the table. “I of course cannot say for certain, but my experience has been that though the power behind—”

The ring of Susanne’s cell phone drowned out whatever he’d been going to say next, and they both winced as she yanked it out of her pocket and downed the volume to a less earsplitting level. “Sorry! I don’t know how it ended up that high!” She flipped it open, then scowled at the number onscreen with disgust. “Seriously, stop calling me. It is not going to happen!”

Professor Boone shot her a sympathetic smile as she flipped the phone closed and jabbed it back into her pocket with perhaps a touch more force than strictly necessary. “One of my other students? I can have a word with him regarding proper conduct if you so desire.”

Susanne shook her head as she finished the last of several measured breaths. “No, she’s someone I have the misfortune to know from work. Don’t worry yourself about it, Professor.”

“Very well. Now, as I was saying, my experience has been that although the power behind Gaslamp technology appears to gravitate most strongly towards a stereotypical pseudo-Victorian aesthetic, it seems to also have a certain proclivity for genres such as cheesy pulp science fiction, as you might put it. The fact that the Epiphanizer works at all is proof positive that the power in question finds the name meet.”

Susanne squeezed her eyes shut and groaned around her mouthful of beans. “Lovely.”

29 July 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin glanced briefly at the design drafts spread across the worktable, then returned his focus to the image that spun behind his eyes. The newest lines were inked in the rush-blurred black of hectic haste, dashed desperately to the page in hopes that this time they’d be set in stain before another vision took its place.

Once again, his attention snapped back frantic to the plans. With one last correction, he let loose the breath he’d been holding and took a moment to survey his work. Though the design’s ultimate rendering included more blobs and gaps than strictly ideal, it could nevertheless be readily taken in and fashioned were it given focus by a clear and driven mind.

When it became apparent that no more inspiration seemed to be forthcoming, he frowned and cast his attention to the clock. 11:24. In a flash, he recalled that his Tuesday meeting with Beatrix was to be an hour early, and whether or not the Epiphanizer played a role he couldn’t say. The punctuality with which he had timed its discharge should have given him a frisson of pleasure, but compared to the thrill of frenetic epiphany, it was a faint and feeble tingle.

As was routine, he glanced at the generator’s counter while he made his way to the staircase. 63  635. Though the distance to the basement ceiling was not great as such things went, the weight of forfeit opportunity made the climb a trial.

3 August 2008, the dining room of the house of Susanne Klein

As was tradition, Susanne had her first bite of dinner halfway to her tongue when the doorbell chimed.

“Oh for....” She popped the morsel of steak into her mouth, and savored it as best she could while walking to the entrance hall. A quick glance through the hall window revealed the porch empty but for a large, rain-spattered box she didn’t remember ordering.

She stared at it quizzically for a moment, then pulled open the door to investigate, only to start back in surprise when she discovered Farthing had been pressed right up against the other side.

“Finally. It’s about time you—” Farthing cut herself off with an inquisitive sniff. “Oh, that smells quite good. I suppose I can see why you took your time.”

Susanne finally got her bearings back enough to grab the knob and shoot Farthing a glare. “And just what brings you here, Farthing? Why were you hiding behind my door? You know jump scares are a cheap ploy only used by hacks who wouldn’t know a compelling scene if it bit them, right?”

Farthing scoffed. “I had a feeling you’d turn heel as soon as you saw me if I didn’t have a foot in the door, and we need to talk. Do you know what’s going on with Professor Calvin?”

Susanne’s expression softened to a frown. “I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks. Is something wrong?”

“Quite. During the last few times we met up, he’s been growing more and more distant, and today he no-showed without any warning. I shouldn’t have to tell you how unlike him that is.”

A flicker of worry darted across Susanne’s face before she schooled it to a neutral mask. “I suppose that does sound important enough to justify letting my food go cold. Get in here so all the warm air doesn’t leak out.”

“Truly, your magnanimity knows no bounds.” Farthing pulled back her hood, then sauntered inside and slouched wetly against one of Susanne’s clean walls. “So, last month Professor Calvin told me he was thinking about some idea you’d sparked in him, so that might be a good place to start. Do you know what it is?” As she spoke, Farthing unzipped her coat and pulled the front flaps apart so they hung and dripped as widely as possible.

Despite herself, Susanne couldn’t help but look and see what latest crime against fashion Farthing had chosen to commit. The reward for her morbid curiosity was an eyeful of psychedelic color that might have been appealing were it not fettered to a shirt emblazoned with A body tie-dye for, and she had to take a moment to shudder before responding. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you himself. He was quite excited about it when I spoke with him last month.”

Farthing blew a puff of air up across her bangs that came surprisingly close to splashing Susanne with dislodged droplets. “During our meetups the week before last he insisted on waiting until he’d gotten to tell you first, and last week stuff came up. Now get on with it, Klein.”

Susanne’s mouth twisted slightly, but Farthing did have a point. “Fine, short version. Professor Boone asked me to the lunch you crashed last month because he—”

“Inventor’s block, I know, get on with it.”

Susanne would have preferred not to think of the sound she made as a hiss. “Fine. We went back to his lab, I couldn’t think of anything, one thing led to another, and I told him he should just make a device that put ideas in his head for him. Come Wednesday before last he asked me to join him over lunch break and told me he actually had. Decided to call it the Epiphanizer, apparently.”

Farthing leaned up straighter. “The Epiphanizer? Really?”

Susanne gave a quick, self-deprecating laugh. “Would you believe that’s the exact same thing I said? I suppose Professor Boone’s insistence that we think alike might not be entirely without base.”

Farthing snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself too highly, Klein. The words might be the same, but I’m certain the meaning isn’t.” She paused for a moment with a contemplative mien. “It’s not a name I would have expected from Professor Calvin, but yes, I can see how it would work. And that would explain why he’s locked himself up in his lab. The rush of the spark can be quite intoxicating, and if he’s come up with a way to tasp himself on demand....”

Susanne blinked. “He did? How did you find that out?”

Farthing smirked smugly. “He trusts me with one of his spare house keys.” Her face quickly returned to a cool neutral. “Hasn’t told me the lab combination, though. I’ll have to ask about that again after this is over. And that leaves us back at square one, ’cause we’re not going to be getting in any other way. Any thoughts?”

Susanne sighed. “As much as I hate to admit it, you may be better equipped to deal with this than I am. This seems like the sort of situation where some outlandish Gaslamp device is called for, and I still can’t figure out how to make it work.”

Farthing rolled her eyes. “Setting aside the doubtfulness of that claim, it’s like I’ve told you a thousand times, you just have to set aside your pretty little notions of how the world should work and accept how it does. You have all the makings of a decent Tinkerer if you’d only stop shooting yourself in the foot.”

Hearing something almost complimentary from Farthing was always a surreal experience. “Be as that may, I can’t imagine that I’d be able to figure it out on my own fast enough to make a difference. About all I can do is drive by when I get the chance and hope I catch him on a grocery run.”

Farthing sighed. “I suppose that may be our best hope for the time being. How about we both draw up our schedules and meet up this week to coordinate?”

7 August 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin stared raptly at the newest image spread out behind his eyes, and his hand twitched toward the pen before he stilled it. Best to remain undistracted by attempts to capture the vision in ink, lest the details vanish into the aether for good. Memory would have to serve.

Another took its place, once more the kernel of a narrative rather than a new device to grant form. He’d given only passing thought to writing over the years, but perhaps he might consider trying his hand at it after all. His colleagues in the arts had always complained that the general populace failed to appreciate just how much effort was truly required to craft a compelling tale, but with such an arc of inspiration lighting his path, it could hardly be more than a trifling challenge.

Another took its place, a notion of how the miracle material from which the story’s great ship was made might be fabricated in reality. He watched intently, and once more had to still his hand to ensure that nothing was lost.

Another took its place.

12 August 2008, the inspiration room of Foglio Hall

As was tradition, Beatrix had only committed half her idea to the page when the intrusion of the outside world scared the rest away.

She took a moment to breathe deep, and when that failed to lure her muse out of hiding consigned her latest design to the Kubla Khan folder. She was halfway to the door when the person from Porlock deigned to enter of her own accord.

“Klein.” Beatrix scowled. “Hasn’t anyone told you that it’s impolite to knock? And why are you here? You’re supposed to be watching out for Professor Calvin.”

Klein didn’t even have the decency to look abashed. “You know the chances of my vigil bearing fruit are pretty low, and this is the only time today I can talk with you. I—” she hesitated briefly “—may have an idea, and with Professor Boone out of the picture you’re the only person I’m acquainted with who’s good with Gaslamp tech, so....”

Beatrix blew at her bangs. If Klein hadn’t even given her outfit one iota of the usual melodramatics, she had to be serious. “Alright, hit me with it.”

“Okay, so this may be really stupid, but Professor Boone is important enough to look like an idiot for, so....” Klein visibly paused to marshal her thoughts. “Okay, so the Epiphanizer is supposed to put ideas into his head somehow, right? Might there be a way to... make it put something specific in, something that gets him to stop using it?”

Beatrix stared at Klein for a moment, and then a slow grin spread across her face. “Now you’re starting to think like a Tinkerer, Klein. I don’t know how we’d do that, but if what you said about story conventions is true, I bet we can find a way.” She spun on her heel and darted back over to her things. “Do you know where the faculty workshop is? You can go get kitted up and I’ll meet you there in a minute.”

“What?” Even though Beatrix had her back turned, the reluctance in Klein’s voice was easy to hear. “Why would you need me? You know I can’t do Gaslamp tech to save my life!”

Beatrix scoffed. “Weren’t you even listening to me? This one’s your spark, and that means you have to be the one to make it. I can assist, but if I try to do it myself it’ll either clam up on me or blow up in my face. Neither’s fun, take it from me.”

“But— I have places I need to be! I don’t have time to try and invent a miracle device.”

Beatrix snorted. “I know, we gave each other our schedules, remember?” She zipped up her pack and swung it onto her back. “So call and tell them you’re busy. You said it yourself, this is more important.”

It seemed apparent that Klein would still just stand there and stall if given half a chance, so Beatrix elected to expedite the situation.

“Hey! Let go of me!” Klein struggled for a moment as Beatrix pulled her along, but to no avail. “Okay, fine, I’ll come with you. Now let go!”

Beatrix did as asked, and true to her word, Klein didn’t run off. Instead, she took up position alongside Beatrix in slightly miffed silence, and spent a moment rubbing her wrist.

“Alright, if you’re going to make me flounder at this, at least have the decency to tell me why it has to be me.”

Beatrix would have shot Klein an incredulous look, but the stairs they’d just come up on demanded her attention. “Didn’t you—”

“Let me rephrase that. Why would it blow up in your face if you tried to do it yourself?”

“Oh. Heck if I know, that’s just how it works. Or doesn’t.” Beatrix considered it for a moment as she opened the stairwell exit. “I think it has something to do with the aspect of actually devising the idea yourself. You can steal someone else’s idea and make it work if you get a glance at their notes and start running with it, but if they tell you about it first, you’re out of luck.”

Klein mulled that over. “I take it that’s why Professor Boone didn’t tell you anything about his plans?”

Beatrix graced Klein with a pleased smirk. “Now you’re getting it. Now that he’s actually made an Epiphanizer, I could copy it or do my own spin on the idea, but if he’d—” She drew herself up short as she reached the door to the faculty workshop and her hand reached automatically for her keys. “Oh, right. I suppose sending you on ahead wouldn’t have been terribly productive, would it.”

Klein’s snicker was not particularly polite, but Beatrix supposed she couldn’t begrudge her it under the circumstances.

The interplay of sickly white fluorescent and burning white mantle lighting was always an uncanny experience, and as always Beatrix was glad to have the door closed behind her. “Alright, let’s get to it. Spare coats and goggles are over there. Don’t touch these ones, they’re peoples’ personal gear.”

Beatrix placed her pack off to the side, and was halfway through getting kitted up before she noticed Klein simply staring at her, coat unfastened and goggles hanging loosely in hand. “What?”

Klein shook her head. “It’s just... weird seeing you of all people in such old-fashioned paraphernalia. And that you own. I suppose the idea of you being dressed in something that doesn’t look ridiculous is throwing me for a loop.”

And it seemed Klein’s perfect streak would go unbroken after all. “Did you seriously think I tinkered in street clothes?”

Klein took the excuse of doing up her coat to hedge. “I guess, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t normally make a habit of thinking about what you’re doing if I can avoid it.”

Beatrix couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “No wonder you can’t do Gaslamp tech to save your life. I might not think it’s worth going all-in like Professor Calvin does, but at least I recognize the importance of keeping up appearances where it counts.”

Klein’s mouth tightened, but she finished putting on her goggles in silence.

In hindsight, perhaps that had come across a touch harsh. Beatrix might not know all of what made Klein tick, but she’d do her best to buoy Klein’s spirits for as long as their project took. “Now come on. Let’s, as you put it, design a miracle.”

17 August 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

He stared blissfully at the image spread out behind his eyes, a magnificent lotus bedewed in droplets that glistered in all the hues of the rainbow. The way the liquid danced lightly across the petals suggested promising ideas to note for microfluidic applications, but the exquisite beauty of the vision beckoned his hand to the page to capture even a fraction of its glory.

As he sat in perfect stillness, another took its place.

18 August 2008, the faculty workshop of Foglio Hall

“So if that’s true, then what’s the problem?”

Susanne looked up from her sketch. “Really? Given your interest in making stuff, I would’ve expected you at least know the basics.”

Farthing scowled. “So I haven’t had the time to study how computers work, so sue me. I know enough about difference engines to make do.”

It seemed like the same issue ought to be in play there too, but Susanne held her tongue. “Well, basically, it’s a matter of timing. Maybe it’s possible to design a system robust enough to handle the order getting messed up without problems, but I don’t know how. So that means it needs a really high-precision clock to make sure everything’s synchronized, and you’ve already vetoed all the possibilities I know about.”

Farthing brightened immediately. “Ah! Well, if that’s all you need, I bet we can just use chronium.”

Susanne blinked. “Chromium? How would that work?”

“No, chronium. The stuff’s obviously only useful for basic timing, but it does it really well.”

“Okay, fine. What do you mean obviously? I can’t imagine why something you can make a clock out of wouldn’t be useful for a whole slew of applications.”

Farthing smirked. “It’s all in the name, of course. It was discovered a few years back, when people still didn’t know much about Gaslamp tech, and the guy who came up with it called it that because, and I quote, I’ve been making new materials for months now and it’s about time I finally found something useful. At that point it was basically game over.”

Susanne let her head fall across her sketch and groaned. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that might be worse than carpedium. I may need a minute to recover.”

Farthing’s laugh began to fade off towards the material storage cabinets. “You’re going to have to toughen up if you want to help Professor Calvin, Klein. And don’t forget the importance of a proper name! If you want your devices to work properly, you’ve got to call them something good!”

Susanne sighed and spun around to face Farthing’s back. “And you’re still going to insist I come up with that on my own too, aren’t you? I still have nothing better than all the ones you’ve already shot down.”

“If you can write a vision that’ll convince Professor Calvin to give up the Epiphanizer, coming up with a name should be a piece of cake.” Even after nearly a week of distressingly close contact with Farthing, that was still surreal. “And the act of completing a device tends to spark ideas, so don’t stress yourself out too much.” Farthing finally finished rummaging around and turned to make her way back to the table, carrying a spool of silvery metal that shimmered strangely goldish in the harsh light.

Susanne would have preferred not to think of the sound that escaped her as a snort. “I wish, but fine. So alright, let’s see if this will work. How do you use this stuff?”

23 August 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

He stared blissfully at the image spread out behind his eyes.

26 August 2008, the faculty workshop of Foglio Hall

Beatrix watched intently as Klein carefully worked her way through the final components spread across the table. Though the last vestiges of twilight would still be competing with the city’s werelight to tint the sky hidden past the glass, the university grounds were already blanketed in the dead stillness of night, and the quiet ticking of the clock was the only sound to be heard.

At last, Klein sat back and simply breathed heavily for a few moments. “Okay. I think I got everything there. If it checks out, then all that’s left is the final connections.”

Beatrix waved off the notion with a dramatic flourish. “Nay, the time for that is past! The culmination of our labors is almost upon us, and to stave it off even a moment longer would be a mortal sin! Now, walk me through the final steps.”

Klein was too beat-up to really muster a properly incredulous look, but she gave it a valiant effort. “What? Why? You have a better idea of how this thing’s supposed to work than I do!”

Beatrix let out an exasperated groan. “Alright, fine. Two reasons. One, think of it as a checklist. You want to make sure you have the process down for the moment of truth, right?”

“Yeah. And speaking of double-checking things, you still haven’t—”

“Ah-ah-ah, that’s the second reason. Two, now that all that’s left is hooking stuff up, stopping to double-check things would only make the chances of it working worse. As long as we play our parts properly, it’ll be as likely as possible.”

Klein simply stared for a moment, then squeezed her eyes tight behind her goggles. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Beatrix laughed. “You’re the one who kicked off the whole story-logic thing, remember? This close to the end, anything less than racing full-speed ahead would be a terrible breach of narrative convention.”

As typical, Klein took any opportunity she could to brandish the long-suffering groan she’d long since honed to gleaming perfection. “Alright, fine, I’m too tired to even care anymore. Just what ridiculous thing are you going to insist on making me do now?”

Beatrix rolled her eyes. “To start with, you’re going to have to put some actual effort into it. If you sound like—”

“I’ll try, but I need to know what I’m supposed to be trying for first.”

“Okay, fine. Since there’s two of us, you’re obviously the genius inventor explaining to your beleaguered assistant just how your brilliant creation works. And be convincing! All the workshop’s a stage, and there’s an audience waiting for the performance of a lifetime!”

True to her word, Klein responded with a snort that convincingly conveyed exasperated annoyance, and she held up a hand and closed her eyes. After a few moments, she nodded to herself, took a deep breath, and opened them. “At long last, the device is nearly complete! Now I need only make the final connections, and at last it shall be ready to activate!”

That wasn't exactly what Beatrix had been aiming for, but she could work with it. “Excellent! But how does it work? How can something so far away from Professor Calvin’s laboratory possibly send a vision to him inside it?”

“Why, it’s simple!” As Klein began to wire the helmet and the box together, Beatrix could practically see the spark electrify her. It seemed in a distant sort of way like it should have been eerie. “The helmet is in a sense a reverse version of the good Professor Boone’s Epiphanizer, based on his design but modified to extract an idea from the user’s head and transmute it into a transmissible form. It then sends the idea through these wires to his ætherwave televox, which I took and modified to grant it the capacity to beam the idea through the void. When it reaches his laboratory, his Epiphanizer will act as the receiving antenna, if you will, and will use it as the seed to create an epiphany he cannot ignore!”

Beatrix almost felt dissociated from her actions as she brought her hands together in an excited clap. “Incredible! But what if he’s not using it? Surely he has to sleep sometime!”

Klein grinned wildly. “Therein lies the hidden genius of my invention! Its chronium timing circuit guarantees that no matter when the idea is transmitted, it will arrive at the optimal instant to achieve maximum impact!” As she made the last connection fast, she cackled madly in triumph.

That was new, and awesome. “Ingenious! In that case, I only have one more question, but it’s a doozy.” Beatrix smirked. “What... will you call it?”

Klein scoffed. “You call that a doozy? Isn’t it obvious? My creation is designed to save Professor Boone from the scourge he’s created, so there can only be one possible name!” As Klein practically slammed the helmet onto her head, the room lit with a blinding flash. “The Depiphanizer!”

26 August 2008, the personal laboratory of Professor Calvin Boone

The epiphany was unlike any that had come before.

He stared rapturously at the images that spread themselves out behind his eyes. Far more than mere fragments whirling disjunct in the aether, these visions were cogs that interwove and meshed to spin a tale immeasurably grander than the sum of its myriad parts. An epic, tragic katabasis, the myth of a lost hero who braved the underworld in pursuit of his noble goal and returned to the light in triumph, only for the audience to realize that what had appeared to be his victory was in truth the fevered fantasy of a forfeit mind, trapped forever in the depths by chains of his own forging. The parallels with his own life were truly striking indeed.

Calvin tore the Epiphanizer from his head and stared at it in shock, breathing heavily. For a fleeting instant his mind screamed denial, but he could not dispute the truth of his epiphany.

Still, he could not help but look to the generator’s counter in a final act of desperate hope. The last number he recalled was 68  004. With any luck, it would still be in the low seventy-thousands.

104  931. And as he stared at the counter in horror, it became apparent that the generator had given up the ghost some time before.

27 August 2008, the master bedroom of the house of Susanne Klein

Susanne awoke to a strident midnight knocking on her door. It was not an experience she was particularly thrilled to add to her catalogue.

After a torturous eternity of incessant sound, she finally stumbled blearily out of bed to give her tormenter a stern mumbling-to. She was halfway to the entry hall before she realized it’d be prudent to put on some clothes first, and halfway back to her bedroom before she realized she’d flopped into bed without even bothering to take off her shoes.

When she finally cracked open the shuddering portal, she was greeted by the last person she’d expected to see, but fatigue dulled her excitement to a vague and tepid lukewarmth. “Professor. What are you doing here this time of night?”

“Susanne! You have to help me!” Professor Boone bent down to grab a box from the walk beside him, and before Susanne could fully take in what was going on, he shoved it into her stomach with red and swollen hands. “Take this and secret it away, somewhere that I’d never think to look! My ongoing sanity may well depend on it!”

Blinking seemed to be the pinnacle of reaction she could muster. “What?”

Professor Boone took a couple of poorly measured breaths, and his next words came out at a saner pace, though run through with no less urgency. “This box contains the Epiphanizer and as many of its design drafts as I could locate with a superficial canvassing. I need to you hide them away from me for a time, else I fear I might be ensnared by its siren song once again.”

Susanne’s mind finally kicked into gear enough to interpret him, and her arms mechanically rose to take hold of the box. It pulled down on her with a weight that belied her unsleep-addled expectations.

“Thank you ever so much, Susanne! I’d best take my leave while I have the chance, lest my will falter and temptation seize me back into the depths. Sleep well!”

Susanne found herself trapped in bogglement at the irony of that valediction until long after Professor Boone had biked unsteadily off into the night. At last, she managed to derail that train of thought, and induced her legs to shakily carry her back into the house. As she passed the kitchen, curiosity wafted at her, and she set the box down on the counter so she could take a good look at what the recipe for disaster was made of.

For a thing that had caused so much trouble, it was strangely innocuous. It looked strange to the oculus, but that was not strange at all for Gaslampy stuff. She stared owlishly at it for a time, then induced her arms to unsteadily reclose and relift the box.

After a few minutes of haphazard wandering, she finally induced her mind to uncertainly suggest a possible hiding spot. Soonish, she had the box tucked cautiously away behind the water heater. A stray fragment of thought whirled briefly before her, cautioning that leaving it below some distressingly finicky plumbing was not the grandest of ideas, but she batted off the shard with a shake of her head. With how tired she was, cataclysm could wash it clean away for all she cared if that meant she got to go to sleep sooner.

As she made her hazy way back to her bedroom, she closed the front door by means of unwittingly walking into it.

14 September 2008, before the abode of Professor Calvin Boone

Susanne fumbled her keys as she pulled them out of her pocket, but managed to catch them without spilling any of the food she’d brought. With careful motions, she unlocked the door and pushed it open, only to start back in surprise when she discovered Professor Boone had walked right up to the other side and was reaching for the handle.

“Oh! My apologies for scaring you, Susanne. Here, let me help you with that.”

Susanne looked up from salvaging as much of the spilled food as she could for just long enough to wave him off. “Don’t be sorry, Professor, it does my heart good to see you up and yourself again! How are you feeling?”

Professor Boone’s voice took on a wistful tint. “Far better than I have these last weeks. It’s as if a dense fog had been clouding my mind, fading only slowly, until when I awoke this morn it suddenly lifted all at once. Some wisps still seem to be clinging to the recesses and in the shade, but the great mass of it has faded with nary a trace.”

As she stood back up, Susanne beamed as brightly as the sun in the sky above. “That’s wonderful news, Professor! Here, let’s make this meal a feast to celebrate!”

Professor Boone chuckled. “I don’t know if my appetite has yet recovered enough to handle a feast, but a celebration I think I can manage.” As he spoke, he held the door open for her and gestured inside with a flourish.

Susanne wended her familiar way to the kitchen, careful not to spill any more of the food, while Professor Boone vanished off towards his study. She’d just about finished putting the perishables in the icebox when she heard his steps approaching, and a moment later felt him place something strange on her head.

“What’s this?” As Susanne straightened up and turned to face him, the whatever-it-was fell off, and she reflexively snatched it out of the air with a catch she never would have made were she consciously trying. It felt papery in her hands, and as she caught sight of the lopsided cone adorning his head, it all clicked together in a burst of laughter.

Professor Boone joined in with a chuckle. “I’m afraid I did not have any proper party hats lying around, so these will have to suffice. With luck, they will prove sufficiently festive to permit our celebration to proceed.”

Susanne turned her makeshift hat over in her hands. “Are these just old design drafts you rolled up and stapled together?”

“These are not just any old design drafts. Take a closer look, if you will.”

Susanne’s eyes widened as she spotted a particular component sketched in black, familiar even though she’d seen it only the bleary once. “The designs for the Epiphanizer!”

Professor Boone nodded. “Indeed. These represent a preliminary vision that I ultimately did not pursue, but the spirit is the same. Under the circumstances, I found them fitting, as it were.”

Susanne eyed him with a frown. “Are you sure about this, sir? We worked so hard to get the Epiphanizer off your head, so to—” She cut herself off, but the damage was done.

Professor Boone regarded her with a quizzical tilt and an expression to match. “What do you mean, you worked so hard? Could you elaborate, please?”

Susanne sighed. “Beatrix and I started to get worried about you after the first couple of weeks, Professor. At first we tried staking out your house, but you never came out during any of the times we had free enough to spend sitting around waiting. Eventually I got desperate enough to suggest making a device that would hijack the Epiphanizer into convincing you to get rid of it, and—”

“Wait, that was you two?” Susanne nodded, then started in surprise as Professor Boone seized her in a spirited embrace. “I cannot possibly thank you enough. Without that epiphany, I might very well have been lost for good.”

Susanne’s reeling mind latched on to the first coherent thought it managed to form. “I thought you didn’t like hugs.” In the distant and misprioritized way of the dazed and confused, she noted that their hats had landed one atop the other on the floor.

“But you do, do you not? And you’ve earned it.”

After a moment to process that, Susanne smiled and hugged him back.

14 September 2008, the kitchen of the abode of Professor Calvin Boone

Calvin had nearly finished dicing the onion before he decided to cut through the quiet. “Are you of this world again, Susanne?”

Susanne’s head twitched as though she’d nearly made to look his way before restraining her focus to the saucepan she was tending, and she nodded. “Yes, I think so. It was just such a shock, it really threw my mind entirely for a loop. Uh, Professor.”

Calvin blinked, then resumed collecting the diced onion into a ready pile for Susanne to work her wonders with. “Truly? I would not have expected it to have come as much more than a modest surprise. Uncommonly intemperate displays are a frequent hallmark of intense gratitude.”

Susanne laughed as he set the onion beside the stove. “Would you believe that I was worried you wouldn’t take it well? I mean, we did meddle with your inventions without permission. And arguably sort of spy on you. Oh, could you cut the bread next, please?”

“How would you like it cut?”

“A decent pile of croutony cubish pieces, maybe the size of the diced onion? And any sort of slices if you want to have bread and butter too.”

Calvin set to the loaf with a will. “I suppose I can see the cause of your concern, but rest assured, I will never be angered by meddling or spying in fulfillment of such a noble cause. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice the way you called Beatrix by name. I could hardly be anything less than pleased that you two have finally achieved a cordial relationship.”

Susanne tittered, though doubtless she would as wont contest the veracity of the term given the chance. “I don’t know that I’d go that far, Professor, but I suppose you could say we’ve at least reached a more amicable truce. We probably won’t end up accidentally interrupting any more classes sniping at each other anytime soon.”

Calvin chuckled. “And that alone would be cause enough to earn my everlasting gratitude.”

The kitchen drifted briefly into silence, complete but for the sizzling of the contents of Susanne’s saucepan. It was only once she finally pulled it from the flame that she resumed the conversation. “I am still wondering about the hats, sir.” She nodded toward the party hats he’d fashioned, placed to the side for the duration of the meal preparation. “Given all that happened, do you really want to celebrate your freedom from the Epiphanizer by wearing a facsimile of it?”

Calvin nodded, though as Susanne had turned away again it probably did little. “While the tale almost ended in tragedy, at the same time it was a triumph. I see no reason to let the negative aspects stain the good by association.”

Susanne whipped her head around so sharply that her hair sent a ladle clattering from its hook. “A triumph? Please tell me you’re not planning to use it again, Professor.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, but after a moment simply shook her head and knelt to retrieve the fallen ladle.

Calvin sighed. “Progress can rarely be made without venturing some risk, Susanne. Now that I know the risk it poses, I can set about strengthening my will so that once I’ve fully recovered from my ordeal, I will be properly prepared to resist its allure.”

Susanne fidgeted with the ladle in her hands. “I don’t know. So much could still go wrong.”

“If it helps, I was fully intending to ask you and Beatrix to serve as my... spotters, one might say. I don’t dare strain my mental musculature so strongly without assistants to guard me against the prospect of failure.”

Susanne finally placed the ladle down on the counter. “I suppose that would help, sir, but is this really necessary at all?”

Calvin let his gaze briefly drift unfocused towards the ceiling. “Perhaps not necessary, but certainly still for the good. I of course cannot know how the Epiphanizer might change the world, but given the proper refinements and safety measures, change the world it will. To leave such a potent tool gathering dust would be a sin of a sort, comprised of all the foregone benefits it might otherwise have bestowed upon mankind.”

Susanne stood for a time in restless deliberation as the food she’d made grew cold, until at last she blew a puff of air up across her bangs. “Alright, fine, I suppose I can give it my provisional acceptance, Professor. But only if I can be absolutely certain that it’s safe. All those benefits will still be foregone if you relapse.”

Calvin held up a hand. “Worry not. I vow that I shall not use the Epiphanizer except insofar as you and Beatrix are comfortable with my doing so. If you tell me to cease, I shall, even if I am confident that I could safely continue. And I will not even go so far as to work on modifying its design before you give the assent.”

He smiled ruefully. “Until you do, I shall content myself to simply sit back in saudade, and dream of what wondrous idea it might next generate.”
« Prev   13   Next »
#1 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny >>MSPiper
I like the Gaslamp Tech angle you took, but the story felt a little slow. Taking a more lighthearted, comedic tone might have been better. Still great!
#2 · 2
· · >>MSPiper
It's been years:

Since I last read any of the "Girl Genius" comics, but with the steampunk stuff, the talk of "sparks" and one location being called Foglio Hall, I'd say this definitely qualifies as an homage. :)

It's pretty fun, but I'll agree with >>Kai_Creech about the slow pacing--for instance, the seven paragraph discussion about whether or not the professor used a mixed metaphor would be twice as funny at half the length, as the saying goes. The internal chronology seems odd, too--I mean, if the professor spends most of August under the thrall of the Epiphanizer, how does he not dehydrate or starve to death? And I'm not quite sure how the two scenes for Sept. 14th are related to each other. Does Susanne pass out at the end of the first? We're not told that she does, but the professor asks her if she's "of this world" again at the beginning of the second, and I'm not sure what that means.

Other things: I had no idea Farthing was female till the end of her first scene. Maybe instead of saying "it was a simple black shirt" when she first appears, you could say, "the young woman wore a simple black shirt"? Something to get that info to the reader as quickly as possible. When Susanne opens to the door at the beginning of the Aug. 3rd scene, she sees a "large, rain-spattered box" before noticing Farthing. That box never gets mentioned again, so why's it there? And when talking about Gaslamp Tech, the professor says, "that’s why it wasn’t discovered a century and a half ago." I'm not sure what that means: is it supposed to be "that’s why it wasn’t discovered until a century and a half ago"?

#3 · 1
· · >>MSPiper
So this was pretty fun.

I'm not really convinced that you've concluded both the conflicts you seem to raise; the one with the Epiphanizer is pretty well shut, but the secondary one, between Suzanne and Beatrix, seemed like it was predicated on them both vying for the Professor's attention. As-is, that doesn't actually seem to be resolved. Sure. Susie got a hug from Calvin, but I somehow doubt Beatrix will be willing to give up with just that.

And speaking of those names... I really didn't like how you kept switching from one to the other in the middle of the story. I have enough trouble tracking who's doing what in stories as-is, without the characters nomenclature changing scene-by-scene. It's probably not a big deal for people who are good at paying attention to details, but yeah.

Also, I think this story could stand to start a bit faster. It could not only use a better hook, but it could also stand to be more up-front about setting the stage for the steampunk stuff. I'd suggest starting with a failed experiment or something; you could start with a literal bang, and then move into explaining at least a bit of how the steampunk stuff works.

Overall, though, I did enjoy this. Some of the details were really good; 'carpedium' is a nice pun. "Magic science has a flair for the dramatic" is cute and fun. It has a complete story arc, with beginning, middle and end.

Good work, thanks for writing!
#4 · 1
· · >>MSPiper
This is a story that loves its expensive words, likely to excess. Some of these are remotely okay, but others (peregrinated) are really just obtuse; wandered would be much more natural in the context of the piece, most people aren’t even familiar with the word “peregrinated”, and unless you’re trying to do some sort of allusion to a falcon, I don’t know why you’d even want to use the word. The sheer density of all this is kind of offputting; it feels like it is trying a bit too hard at times.

The story on the whole felt rather drawn-out, and while the idea of Gaslamp technology is cute enough (and you needed space to explain it), I’m not sure that it really ever reached the point where I was actually enthusiastic about reading it (though I did get a chuckle out of Beatrix’s shirts, and I appreciated the terrible puns. Clearly Gaslamp tech is a dad).

Also, in the end, I’m not quite sure what the point was. It seems like it was Susanne coming to accept the Gaslamp technology would be the central conflict, but I didn’t really feel much there.

On the whole, this was something that I wanted to like more than I actually liked it; the whole thing is silly, but the pacing strangled the humor out of it. I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be funny, but only a few of the little jokes actually made me chuckle, and for most of it, I was just making my way through the story.
#5 ·
· · >>TitaniumDragon
Alright, with the results out and most or all of the likely comments in, time to respond! General stuff first, then individual replies. (And apologies for the length – this ended up being a bit longer than I'd expected or planned.)

To start, I'd like to thank everyone for the feedback, and particularly the parts that get into specifics and details. I knew going in that that was the only prize I had any remotely realistic hope of winning, and while it was perhaps not exactly pleasant to be proven right, I nevertheless appreciate it. Hopefully it'll help me get to the point that I can at least make the competition work for the prizes at some point down the line.

On that note, does anyone have a suggestion as to what tack I should take next? On one side, a natural choice would be to start with trying to fix this story up some – after all, it's not even to the point that I'd have felt comfortable sending it off to prereaders yet, but the deadline had a way of forcing the issue. On another, I could see it being more educational to jump into a new story instead, and save this one to maybe revisit at some point in the future.

The near-unanimous consensus that the pacing is too slow is definitely the issue I most expected to see brought up; as one might imagine, the repeated rereads I had to do to double-check various things quickly became something of a slog. I'm pretty sure that at least three or four full pages could stand to be cut, and quite a bit of material would probably benefit from being shifted around. Unfortunately, even if I'd had the time to do any significant trimming – let alone a second draft – I'm not sure it would have helped all that much, since I'm not confident I can actually tell the parts that need work from the parts that currently do work. If anything stood out enough either way that it immediately springs to mind, I'd be quite grateful to have it pointed out.

The need to explain things better is also not a surprise, considering that the solid majority of stuff I wanted to detail ended up only very vaguely hinted at or not making it in at all. In this specific case, the critical aspects of the feedback actually ended up being somewhat encouraging emotionally as well as intellectually, since pretty much every specific thing people have pointed out to me as needing elaboration is one I already wanted to include.

The big thing I didn't expect was people thinking this was supposed to be a comedy. After all, comedy is hard and I'm not going to be up to the challenge anytime soon, else there's a decent chance my first story would've been an attempt at the Comedy Is Serious Business contest instead. I simply figured it wouldn't hurt to at least try for a modicum of levity to keep the edge off the darker aspects of the story, and once the pacing problems became evident, I had to hope it'd also be enough to keep the story from being too much of a drag to read.

Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

>>Baal Bunny
First off, I have a horrible confession to make: I have not actually read Girl Genius. I've heard enough about it to know that I certainly want to, and if I'd come up with this story idea at the start of the contest rather than three weeks in I'd probably have used Research! as a transparent excuse to finally do so, but as-is I simply haven't been able to justify taking the chance to yet. The name Foglio Hall is actually just because they're who coined the genre term gaslamp fantasy, and everything else is simply drawing on general memories and stereotype rather than directly pulled from a specific source.

I agree the mixed-metaphor discussion (along with basically the whole of scene two) ought to be more like half the current length, but I honestly didn't plan for or expect it to be read as funny at all – it was merely intended to give a bit of initial characterization. But you're not the only one who's commented to that effect, so I suppose there may be something to it....

On chronology in general: that was basically an instinctive attempt to try and keep the timeline from being too ridiculously implausible. Naturally, it was only after the deadline had passed and I'd had the chance to recuperate for a couple of days that it occurred to me that hold on, given the way the magic works a ludicrously compressed timeline would actually be more appropriate. Oh well. At least it'd be an easy change to make, since there're only a handful of in-text references to specific days and weeks to line up with a new chronology.

Regarding how Calvin survived the month (and also part of why Susanne and Beatrix didn't catch him on a grocery run): that's one of the things I actually tried writing out but ultimately cut, since I felt that with just the limited number of Calvin sections I had the time to fit in it weakened the overall effect. Since that effect is one of the things I've been told worked well, I'm reasonably confident that while it might not have been the right choice, it at least wasn't a wrong one. But of course, that's no reason I can't copy over an example attempt here so you can decide for yourself:

[date] [~CB emergency food larder]

Calvin placed a last pair of cans from the nearly empty shelf into the bag he carried, then retrieved the pot of water with a shaky hand. Though the lost time pressed against him in a burning ache, failure to maintain his body would result in far greater losses as his strength flagged and his mind fogged.

He hurried his way back to his laboratory. A flick of the switch set the fabrication torch to blazing life, and as the water began to heat, a quick examination verified that the ventilation was still performing admirably. It would hardly do to lose time poisoning himself into insensibility.

A stray fragment of thought niggled at him, cautioning that depleting his supplies with such abandon was not the grandest of ideas, but he quieted it with a shake of his head. He would simply make sure to go purchase replacements once he’d watched his latest ideas to their completions.

Regarding the 14 September scenes: the intention was that the second one starts a short bit after the first, with the theory having been that the combination of Calvin and Susanne suddenly being a little way into food preparation and Susanne's comment about being really thrown for a loop would establish that it started a few minutes later, once she'd had a chance to get herself unstunned a bit. Obviously, that's something a prereader would probably flag as not sufficiently clear. It doesn't help that while all three characters get in a comment or question about someone coming back to earth, the speech patterns Calvin's affecting means his takes a completely different form from Susanne's and Beatrix's instances, so the repetition is of limited use in realizing his intended meaning.

On Beatrix's introduction: whoops.

The box is another thing I wanted to include more detail about, but given the already-slow pacing I figured it'd be better to hold off until after I'd had the chance to cut some stuff first, since I assumed people wouldn't care too much (and it's good to see that's not true!). Basically, Susanne wouldn't have any more reason to open the door for Absolutely No One than for Beatrix, so Beatrix needed something else to get her to actually do so. In theory she could've tried asking someone she ran into on the way to stand there until Susanne answered, but bringing a prop herself was both easier and more reliable. It's not ideal to only bring up the box once and then leave that thread hanging, but at least it's better than leaving people wondering why Susanne didn't just go back to her food once she saw an empty porch (and it also serves as a convenient way to establish the weather before it becomes relevant). I didn't write out the end of the scene, but it would probably look something like this:

[SK propose a time to meet]

[BF agree + head out]

[SK notice BF grab box and object to her stealing]

[BF ~eyeroll/equiv, explain box hers and ask if SK would've opened the door if she'd seen empty porch]

[SK ~"Ugh, right, duh" reaction, BF response?]

[BF depart, SK watch for a bit? + return to dinner (+ nar note SK thought regarding now-inevitably-cold food?), SCENE END]

[NOTE: try to set up/include BF "It's just water." bit to contrast BF actual reasoning with SK biased narration]

Finally, the "and that's why it wasn't discovered a century and a half ago" is intended to mean "and that's why it wasn't discovered in the middle of the 1800s (ie during the time period whose aesthetic the magic favors most)". Unfortunately, the timing of the magic's manifestation is another thing that I didn't figure out how to elaborate on without resorting to an out-of-character As You Know infodump (which would probably be tonally appropriate given certain genre stereotypes, but I've got to draw the line somewhere); the best I figured out how to manage was Beatrix's line about chronium being "discovered a few years back, when people still didn’t know much about Gaslamp tech". While a setting that diverged in the mid-1800s would be really interesting, it'd also take a ton of work to worldbuild properly, and since I had an all-too-vindicated suspicion that I was going to be running up hard against the contest deadline, I was basically forced to take the least-time-intensive option of a familiar modern setting, which required the magic to have been around long enough to have been studied a bit but not long enough to provide sufficient proof of its outlandish properties to go mainstream and start causing radical changes.

For what it's worth, I certainly don't think the story properly concludes the Susanne/Beatrix aspect. To some extent that's because the relatively one-sided nature of Susanne's conflict with Beatrix that I'd intended is absolutely not readily gleanable from the story as it stands, so even if the planned denouement had been executed better it wouldn't have been sufficient to address what readers actually take away from their sections. In large part it's because I ended up scrapping quite a bit of Susanne/Beatrix interaction and Susanne/Calvin discussion, so there's a lot less on-screen development than is probably called for. But I think the biggest issue is that I wrote the ending before the bulk of Beatrix's scenes, so I essentially had to guess at what would still need to be dealt with in detail, and obviously didn't manage to cover everything that ultimately needed it. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what I could have done to improve things, because that turned out to be an extremely good decision: the earlier parts might be important, but having an ending is vital, and if the deadline hadn't been extended the fact that I wrote the ending when I did would've made the difference between submitting a weak-but-functional narrative and submitting a collection of events that sort of look like a story but crash to a halt without wrapping anything up.

Do you have any suggestions for how to make characters calling each other by different names less potentially confusing? It's not something I'd expect to use all the time (or necessarily to such an extent – I figure I might as well go all-out with any experimental stuff early on, since if it doesn't work it's not like it's going to ruin a particularly good story anyway), but it's also too useful for characterization to just let fall by the wayside. I do suspect that a lot of my early story attempts will end up being not very forgiving to the less-attentive reader, but I'd prefer to minimize the extent to which that happens, at least as long as it's not intentional.

Of course, it would've been rather more appropriate to have the story in third-person omniscient instead anyway, but I haven't read anywhere near enough 3PO stories to have a good idea how to use it, and while scrambling to dash down a contest entry in a week is not the time to try figuring it out.

Definitely agreed on the need to get essentially any significant exposition into the first half of the story (or the second half, but that's a different issue). That's probably the area where a stylistic aspect ended up hurting the story the most – if the story had been in 3PO, it would have been dramatically easier to fit in lots of background information without the delivery coming across as unnatural. However, I know it's certainly possible to do in the particular third-person limited variant this story actually ended up using, so I suspect this may be a case where the solution may well be just to practice.

And I'm glad you ended up enjoying the story anyway despite the issues. Particularly the pun(s?) – I know they're pretty throwaway compared to everything else, but I find them disproportionately appealing relative to a lot of the more actually important stuff, and it's nice to see them well-received even though I didn't manage to make as good a use of them as I had hoped.

About too many big words: yeah, I was afraid that might end up being the case, since an aspect of Calvin's character that only got inadequately hinted at is that he's intentionally trying to affect a particular "professory" image to help with how the magic works for him. I did try to ensure things didn't go too overboard by restricting myself to just words I'm already familiar with from seeing them used in media multiple times (which, yes, includes "peregrinated"), but the consensus seems to be that it doesn't appear to have worked particularly well. However, it feeling like the story's trying too hard at times might actually be appropriate if all those times are in Calvin's narration or dialogue, so I'm not really sure yet to what extent that should be considered a bug versus a feature.

I've covered most of the second paragraph's stuff in previous comments, so onto the most important aspect: I'm glad to see you liked the shirts and the puns. Those were pretty much the only "real" jokes I intentionally included (at least that I remember as of the time of writing this comment), and I was somewhat worried that this would be a case where everyone else's sense of humor differed from mine, so it's good to see that everyone who's brought them up so far has appreciated them.

What I had originally envisioned as the core narrative was Calvin's arcs, including some cut stuff for the gap between 27 August and 14 September about the aftereffects on him. The increased focus on Susanne and Beatrix was in some ways kind of a throw-it-in aspect that emerged as it became apparent that my early fears of struggling to meet the word floor were perhaps not entirely warranted, and their sections ended up being significantly more discovery-writing than Calvin's. Ideally, reconciling the two a bit better would've been something to do during a second draft of the story, but given my time troubles I was essentially forced to just muddle through and hope it'd work alrightish anyway.

Also, are you sure you meant to say "Beatrix" there instead of "Susanne"? Beatrix is the one who already knows how to use Gaslamp tech, and who ends up helping Susanne not-sufficiently-onscreen to get it to work, so I can certainly imagine that Beatrix coming to accept Gaslamp technology would seem a bit vacuous as a central conflict.

And to finish off, while I've covered this paragraph's material earlier too, it does lead me to wonder: would going in knowing the story wasn't actually intended to be properly comedic have affected its interpretation/rating, and if so, how?
#6 ·
· · >>MSPiper
"Do you have any suggestions for how to make characters calling each other by different names less potentially confusing?"

Yes, actually; give at least one of them a them more distinctive voice, such as a spelled-out accent or catchphrase or verbal tic. It won't entirely remove the problem, but if you make them recognizable without the names, then you can call them whatever you like.

Another thing that might help (and you might have done this, somewhat; I don't remember ever being totally confused by who was who) is associating one of them with a distinctive descriptive characteristic, like Beatrix's shirts. When you change the name, associating the new name with that characteristic can help cement who you're talking about in the audience's mind.

As for the 'revise or start again' question, I've always been a 'do it better the first time' kinda guy; I'm really not a fan of revising. My view is basically: why do something I don't enjoy? As long as the problems have been identified, I don't think I learn that much from re-writing.
#7 ·
Ah, good. I mean, it's not good that the voicing is too samey, but it's always nice when the solution to a new problem turns out to be "start by fixing a known problem and then work from there".

I did want and try to associate them with individual characteristics, but I'm not sure any made it into the story enough for people to pick up on; at the very least, if anyone did they haven't brought it up yet. Pretty much the only character/voicing thing whose implementation I was really satisfied with is Susanne's tendency to (over)address people while talking to them in proportion to how respectful she's feeling toward them at the time, and that basically just distinguishes Susanne from herself (between different situations) rather than helping to make her voicing distinctive where it really matters.

And thanks for the input.
#8 ·
Also, are you sure you meant to say "Beatrix" there instead of "Susanne"? Beatrix is the one who already knows how to use Gaslamp tech, and who ends up helping Susanne not-sufficiently-onscreen to get it to work, so I can certainly imagine that Beatrix coming to accept Gaslamp technology would seem a bit vacuous as a central conflict.

Yes, I meant Susanne.