Free-Wrench Sneak Peek

Below is a completely un-proofread sample of the NaNoWriMo project I’m working on for 2013. Brace yourself. Here there be typos.

Caldera was a chain of islands just about as far from any major continent as was geographically possible, and that suited its people just fine. The neighboring countries were vicious, brutish places of savagery and debauchery. A long stretch of choppy sea made for good peace of mind.  As the name would suggest, Caldera wasn’t so much an archipelago as a set of volcanoes that one by one peeked their heads up out of the sea floor to see what all of the fuss was about. This, too, suited its people just fine. It gave them an abundance of free heat. Combined with sea water, that created plenty of steam, and steam was what made the world go ’round.

The largest island was called Tellahn. It was home to both the largest volcano and, where it met the sea, the largest steamworks in the whole island chain. The East Seaward Hub, as the massive facility was called, was a bustling hive of activity day and night. It supplied the bulk of the power for the island, and sat at the heart of a cluster of factories and facilities that did the dirty work for the whole of the nation. The steamworks was an intricate knot of pipes and valves, perpetually muggy, soot covered, and reeking of sulfur. It was as close to hell as most Calderans could bear to imagine, but to a rare and precious few, it was paradise.

The two workers were in a claustrophobic little hallway near the third of ten boiler chambers. It was intended for pipes, not people, so little care was put into making it hospitable. What little light there was came from the dim blue flames of gas lanterns dangling from the belts of each worker. The walls had the texture of a cheese grater, still jagged from the day the tunnel was roughly carved through the lava rock. Making it even more treacherous was the walkway, which was a warped catwalk of oiled wood. The only thing to grab onto should a worker become unsteady was the unforgiving wall or the scalding hot steam pipes. Needless to say, a wise steamworker quickly learned to step lightly and surely, and wore thick gloves just in case.

“Keep your eye on that meter, Nita!” Cried the foreman, a stout man his face hidden behind a pair of brass goggles. “It’s running a bit high.”

“I see it, Marcus,” she said, adjusting her own goggles and pulling her gloves tight. “I don’t like the way these pipes are shimmying either.”

As rare as it was to find someone willing to go to work in the steamworks every day, Amanita Graus was rarer still, a woman willing to do so. She’d been working at the steamworks since her seventeenth birthday, and in the three years since then she’d proven herself to be an asset. In most situations it might have been difficult for a woman to find a place among the primarily male workforce, but truth be told the steamworks was so short on staff they were happy to have anyone willing to take up some of the slack.

“I agree. Inspect the next fifty yards of pipe toward the boiler. I want to make sure the bypass valves are clear.”

Nita nodded and got to work. Despite being the rare female steamworker, she was dressed and equipped roughly as the men were. That meant at least one layer of leather or canvas over most of her body, a pair of chunky work gloves, and a rugged pair of work boots. To maintain the various size nuts, she wore a bandoleer of various sized wrenches and other tools, and an array of pouches hanging from her belt along with two holstered rods. Most men wore a reinforced back support belt with suspenders to the edge off of the heavy lifting so frequently a part of the job, but Nita had found that a lightly modified corset did much the same job. The only other feminine touch she’d made to her equipment was a tasteful little butterfly accent on her goggles, a gift from her younger brother. The whole of the ensemble was fastened in place and held together with brass or copper rivets and buckles, as well as a prodigious number of leather belts.

The senior worker’s voice trailed off as the usual hiss and rattle of pipe thicker than his thigh turned into a worrying rumble. Clumps of the salty crust that tended to cling to every surface like frost in the early days of winter began to shake free as the rattle of the pipe became increasingly violent.

“Down! Brace for a breech!” the foreman said.

The man and woman hunkered down with their backs to the pipes and covered their heads ears. After a nerve wracking few seconds of escalating rumble, a nearby pipe ruptured, sending a thunderous clap reverberating down the tunnel and throwing the workers against the catwalk. Steam came rushing out of a foot long fault in the pipe, filling the tunnel with a thick fog and a deafening whistle. Nita fought her way to her feet and found the pressure gauge.

“It is still climbing!” she called out, on the off chance that she might be heard. “We’ve got to reach the bypass or we could lose the whole boiler and half the mountain!”

She charged down the tunnel. The nearer she came to the boiler, the thicker the pipe became, joining with others that branched off toward other parts of the facility and other parts of the island. Finally she came to a point where the pipe was half as tall as she was, with a massive wheel set into it and a branching shunt pipe leading straight up through the stone above and into daylight. Her leather gloves sizzled against the wheel as she fought with it, trying to redirect the steam flow and relieve the pressure. The shunt was only beginning to sputter with released steam when the wheel suddenly spun loose, snapped free from its shaft, and clattered to the floor.

Nita didn’t waste a moment uttering any of the profanities that were flitting through her head. Instead she shrugged the tugged the coils of rope slung across her shoulders and shrugged them off, freeing the massive apparatus that they held to her back. It looked like the head of a pipe wrench designed for a giant, as large as a backpack and made from a dull, purple-gray metal. Her foreman called it a monkey-toe, and technically it was a so-called team wrench. Today she’d find out how well it worked without a team.

She spun the knurled adjustment screw, sliding the jaws open until they were wide enough accept the square shaft of the broken wheel, then heaved it from the ground and onto the shaft. Two quick slaps to the adjustment screw spun it to tightness. Now for the hard part. Holstered like twin swords at her belt were a pair of cheater bars. She unsheathed one and slotted it into a hole on the head of the monkey-toe, then threw her weight against the freshly installed lever. It didn’t budge, and the telltale ricochet of bursting nuts and bolts warning her that there wasn’t much more time to waste. She grasped an overhead pipe and hauled herself up to plant her boots on the lever and force it with all of her weight and strength.

A grinding sound rattled along the pipe as the valve grudgingly began to open. Steam began to erupt from the top of the pipe in burps and hisses, knocking free the bubbling muck that had filled the pipe in the years since had been used. Three more steamworkers rounded rushed into the tunnel from the boiler side and spotted her working at the valve. One grabbed the end of her bar to lend a hand while the other two inserted a bar of their own to the opposite end of the wrench. Their combined effort finally wrestled the valve fully open and a geyser of stagnant water sprayed from the pipe above, followed by a column of steam that nearly reached the clouds.

Nita and her fellow workers breathed a collective sigh of relief and wiped away the coating of gunk that was still raining down through the opening above them.

“Well,” Nita said, pulling out a clean handkerchief from a pouch on her belt and wiping at her goggles. “Nothing like a nice vigorous ending to an uneventful shift.”

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