Friday, March 14, 2014

Music Man

An exercise in speculative fiction, "steampunk" that was fun to write but proved that I really, really need to practice with fiction. All necessary caveats have been given. Thanks.

The official seal at the top of the letter was familiar as was the bold, flowing script and confident signature. He had received a number of short letters from the author of the one he now held, but none so brief. Throughout the war, assignments had come directly from the great man, but more often from a Department secretary or agent. But there was always a bit more detail of what was being asked. This one was different.

Thomas, I need your help again.

Looking up at the courier that delivered the strange letter, he asked, “What is this about?”

The blue uniformed soldier said, “I do not know, Mr. Klay. All I was instructed to do was to deliver this note and deliver you to him right away.”

Folding the paper, he  stuck it into his top pocket. “When do we leave?’

“Sir, we are to leave immediately after you pack a few tools, instruments and clothes. I am told it is quite urgent. I am also to advise you that your workshop hasn’t been disturbed since you left last year.”

Thomas Jefferson Klay nodded in understanding. Each previous request, though simple and direct in tone, had contained welcomed personal asides or greetings. This one was fraught with urgency that belied its briefness. Thomas grabbed his bag, always ready for such an event and followed the soldier to the waiting puffer parked in front of his Falls Church, Virginia farm.

Climbing in, he reread the note, placing his fingers upon the signature as if to discern what was troubling the great man by touch alone.

Thomas, I need your help again.

Abraham Lincoln

As the steam carriage rumbled past green-budded trees and over rough cobblestones leading towards the federal district, Thomas reflected on the months and years that brought him to know and appreciate the President.

The grandson of a freed slave and son of a Swiss immigrant, Thomas’ propensity and inventiveness with things mechanical had garnered much attention from both sides of the Civil War. Confederate soldiers noticed the Klay family farm’s rich green fields and abundance that his father, Noah, could produce despite a shortage of labor. While other nearby farms lay fallow or provided only enough sustenance for a farmer’s family, theirs prospered providing a variety of crops and livestock enough to share with their neighbors and even sell to local markets.

Noah Klay, a skilled watchmaker and inquisitive tinkerer, solved the problem of the lack of field hands with machines. Self-propelled clanking plows fitted with gleaming tubes that held seed or fertilizers in the spring would be replaced with delicate articulated metallic hands to pick beans, shave tobacco stalks or even pluck apples from swaying branches in the fall made the need for human backs and hands moot. As far as anyone knew, no farm existed with such complex and clever devices.

As wondrous as these machines were to behold, many people had almost grown accustomed to seeing self-propelled devices. In this time, carriages ran as trains without tracks, puffing smoke and steam as they moved across the land.  Hot air and hydrogen-filled balloons swept across skies. Telegraphic pictures could be sent in mere seconds across thousands of miles. Indeed, this was a modern age.

But it was the Union Army that took notice of something very special about the Klay farm. They noticed that farm hands did indeed work the land, but these laborers were not men. Working together, Noah Klay and his son, Thomas had created mechanical brass men that walked on two sturdy legs, employed up to three stout, powerful arms to pull entire trees from the ground, carry bales of hay to waiting carts and a myriad other chores.

Their movements were carefully calculated, each action controlled by the placement of pins on a series of clockwork rotating cylinders that plucked tiny levers in a determined sequence. Like a music box, the mechanical laborer’s movements could be orchestrated to carry out a variety of chores. Thomas’ mother, Elizabeth, had been delighted when Noah created a cylinder that directed the laborers to dance a short jig every day at noon for her benefit. It was Elizabeth who called them, “Music Men” and the name stuck to this day.

A cold, early March breeze blew into the puffer carriage as it crossed the Potomac, breaking Thomas’ reverie. Those early days in the war, now more than four years ago, had brought changes into his life that no one could have anticipated or God forbid, desired.

Union generals quickly understood that the Music Men, sometimes referred to as “mumen,” “mute men” or even “mum,” could replace not only farm hands but soldiers as well. Capitalizing on the northern states reserves of metal ores, factories, coal and kerosene, entire battalions of fearless and bloodless fighting metal soldiers could be built to lay waste the human soldiers in the south. As the war drew to a close, Music Men became ever increasing in size and numbers.

In a narrative that Thomas rarely revisited, the war had also brought the death of his father and beloved mother. Confederate forces sought to end the progress of Noah’s contribution to the northern war efforts many times by sending unsuccessful raiding parties to Falls Church with the intention of capturing the erstwhile scientist-watchmaker-farmer. Just two years ago near Thomas’ nineteenth birthday, a small band of specialized, yellow-hooded raiders had been sent with the order to change their tactics from “capture” to “kill.” With this, they were successful even more than they would ever understand.  

There was much ado when Noah married Elizabeth, the daughter of a freeman. Perhaps in Europe, the sight of a handsome young man arm in arm with an articulate, stunning chocolate skinned woman would have only caused a few tongues to wag. But in America, where the country was divided over the question of slaves, the idea that a black woman, regardless of her beauty and intellect, could legally marry a white man was even controversial in the “forward thinking” north. Noah would often tell his young son that once he heard her speak as they passed in a train station in New York and he set eyes upon hers, there was nothing else for him to do but seek a way to make a life with her.

It was known by only a very few that much of the success of the farm, as well as the design and nuances of Noah’s inventions were a result of Elizabeth’s imaginative approach to both endeavors. Without Elizabeth, the farm’s crops would not have flourished as they did, Music Men, mechanical plows or not. Without Elizabeth, the Music Men may have never moved at all.

But the story of their marriage and the difficulty they encountered leading them to move to the farm in Virginia was nothing compared to the recounting of Elizabeth’s experiments with plants, soils and even algae. Her discoveries had become secrets when she was killed. Those secrets were now held within her journals and notes that Thomas closely guarded.

The puffer slowed to a stop behind the White House, buffeted by winds that refused to give up winter.  As he hurried with bag in hand and gripping tightly his collar in the other, he hunched towards a door used only on rare occasions such as this one. Looking just below the rim of his hat, he saw the smiling, familiar face of an old friend.

“Get in here, Thomas!” said a burly man with a moustache the size of an alley cat spread across his upper lip. “The only person I usually hold a door open for is the man who saved this union and not some farm plow inventor!” William H. Crook may have been President Lincoln’s personal bodyguard willing to lay down his life for the great man, but didn’t relish having to serve also as doorman for a young man with wild ideas.

“William, it’s good to see you as well,” Thomas replied as he stepped inside a dark anteroom behind the First Family’s private residence. “I see that the end of the war hasn’t lightened your mood any.”

Crook continued to smile a bit sardonically now. “The damned war may be over, but there’s nearly half the nation not pleased with its outcome or how it came to pass. There’s been another series of threats against his life.”

“Oh, no. I thought the Pinkertons rounded up the conspirators?”

“Rounded up three groups. We’re keeping eyes and ears on a fourth in Baltimore. ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ is what they call themselves. Word is, some local celebrities and such are members. And there’s talk that they’re planning something big in the next few weeks.”

From the back of the darkened room a tall figure emerged. “And young Mr. Klay, I made the dreadful mistake of telling my worrisome bride about it and about some dreams I’ve had of me not seeing summer.”

Thomas removed his hat. “Mr. President, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here!”

Abraham Lincoln extended his hand. “And I imagine that there are members of Congress who wish I weren’t. Good to see you, Thomas. I appreciate you coming all the way over the river to this city filled with desperados, confidence men, ladies of ill repute and neglected children. Of course, I am speaking of Congress again and have included their families in my assessment of the residents of this District.”

Thomas shook the tall man’s hand. “I came at once, sir.”

“How are things on the farm?” the President asked.

“Things are going well, sir. As soon as we get a solid patch of warm temperatures, I’ll be able to plant this year’s crop. I spent all winter clearing away the debris in father’s workshop and I’ve restored all of the functions in mother’s laboratory.  It wasn’t easy to get things going again, especially in the lab.”

“I imagine not. As you know, Mary was particularly saddened by the entire course of events. She truly loved Elizabeth and appreciated all she did when Willie took ill. She credits your mother with saving his life.” The president rested a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “I’m not quite sure what your mother did, but I do know for a fact that those medicines and curative methods she employed worked a far sight better than what Willie’s uncle did. 

“My poor boy was dying and I’m certain that despite what his uncle, DOCTOR William Wallace says, your mother cured him. Named my boy after him and he refused to admit that a person of color, a woman no less, was able to do what he was unable to. If Willie was a girl, I would’ve changed his name to Elizabeth right then and there.’

“Yes, sir,” Thomas said looking down. “She was remarkable in many ways. I miss them both every day.”

W.H. Crook interrupted, “Mr. President, do you believe we should tell him about Seward?”

The President nodded. “Yes, but not in this drafty room. Come in and let’s warm ourselves by the fire. It’s nearly April and here we are wrapped up and shivering like Canadian fur trappers.”

Leading the way into the main part of the residence, the young inventor and bodyguard followed Lincoln as he removed his coat and gave it to one of the staff, waiting in a large, well-lit parlor. “Peter, you remember Thomas Klay? He’s come here to fend off our latest band of rabble rousers who wish to do me personal harm.”

A smile widened across the elderly black man’s face. “Thomas! It is a pleasure. You know we still use that machine your father invented to clean, iron and fold the bed sheets. It’s a bit squeaky these days, but those linens are as clean as if they were woven yesterday.”

Thomas embraced the old man. “Mr. Brown, you should have sent for me sooner. A bit of lubricant is all we’ll need to fix that. I see that your employer has been feeding you well!”

Lincoln interrupted, “Peter, while I am certain that your expanding waistline is of prime importance to you and Mrs. Lincoln’s priorities extend into the linens but I happen to know she is also concerned about my continued good health. Let’s allow our young mechanical savant to focus on the latter at present.”

As Peter Brown left the room, W.H. Crook took a leather bound portfolio from a desk and displayed its contents; a number of handwritten reports and daguerreotypes of what appeared to be of the interior of a house in disarray.

Crook began, “Last week our Secretary of State, William Seward was brutally attacked by an intruder wearing a yellow hood. Seward was in bed, recovering from an illness at the time when the would-be assassin entered the house and shot but only wounded his son, Fredrick. When his pistol jammed he whipped him with it.”

“A yellow hood?” Thomas asked.

“Yes, we believe that is the part of the uniform for the Knights of the Golden Circle,” Crook said. “The attacker climbed the stairs to the Secretary’s room where upon he stabbed Seward’s daughter, Fanny and younger son, Augustus. The hoodlum then forced himself past a nurse and uniformed Army officer and set to repeatedly stab the Secretary on the face and neck.”

Lincoln interjected, “Seward is recovering and God was benevolent enough to spare his family. God obviously has a keen sense of humor to allow him to continue to pester me on a regular basis.”

“My deepest sympathies to his family,” Thomas offered. Turning to Crook, Thomas said, “It was a gang of yellow-hooded men who attacked my father and mother two years ago.”

“I am aware of that, Thomas,” Crook responded. “No doubt, it is the same band. Now that the war is over, these men have evolved from soldiers to criminals. The assassin has been apprehended and we have confirmed he is a member of the Knights. We are close to extracting the names of his fellow conspirators to stop them before they can wreak havoc again.”

Thomas drew a breath to speak but was interrupted by Lincoln, “I asked you here today, my ingenious young man, to help us in ending these crimes against our great nation? Do you have some machine that has more cunning than a brute filled with hatred and bloodlust?”

“No sir, I do not,” Thomas answered quickly. “It is important that we draw each of these men into the light. But such men do not do so without the promise of achieving their plots. Like on the farm, we need bait to lure the rats from their holes, Mr. President.”

“And what bait do you think will do such a thing? I doubt they will surface for just any cheese,” the tall man asked.

“Our bait is you, Mr. President,” Thomas said. “They are out to see your death in plain view of many. This death must be public and attested to by a large number of witnesses.” He smiled. “Mr. President, I believe you need to attend the theater.”

Descending into the White House basement laboratory that had been his and his father’s for much of the war, Thomas lead Crook to a locked cabinet. Unfastening the hasp, he peered inside and smiled. It was still there.

Lincoln followed behind with his trusted servant, Peter at his arm. “Mr. Brown, you’re about to see something that you can’t tell your beloved wife, Bessie about. You might say that this secret is at the top of the list of many secrets.”

As Peter looked at the thing within the wooden box, he gasped. “Mr. President, oh my lord, it’s…it’s you!”

Sitting stoically with a fixed stare was a replica of the tall man, himself. Unmoving and dusty, the appearance was near perfect. Its black boots and suit was covered in cobwebs. Upon its lap sat a black stove pipe hat.

Lincoln laughed. “No Peter, meet my Music Man twin brother. I would wager that there are more photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes and carte de visites of this handsome gentleman standing in the battlefield than of yours truly. If you ever have wondered why I am pictured rarely smiling in those captured images, well, it seems that Thomas couldn’t work that out.”

Thomas shook his head. “Mr. President, I can address that problem, but not with this wax bust. My mother devised a pliant material made from the sap of a tree that grows in the tropics. From the processed material, we can fashion a better, more flexible face. But I’m afraid we won’t have time for that. We’ll need to use this one, perhaps with a bit more gray to its beard.”

“Indeed,” the President said, “I suggest a great deal more.”

Crook instantly understood the gist of the plan. “So we are to place this device in view of the public whenever the President is to appear in public with the hopes that an attempt will be made upon his life?”

Thomas nodded. “Yes. I would caution that it would be best that no one comes too close. It’s a good resemblance, but far from perfect.”

Crook interjected, “But if I recall, this thing creates a good noise when puffing about and it needs regular feedings of kerosene to keep it upright. Even someone with poor eyesight would be able to hear it crossing a street a block away and would wonder why it smelled of coal oil downwind of the thing.”

Thomas stood silent for some time before reaching into his valise. He withdrew a large glass cylinder outfitted with several glass tubes capped with oil cloth. “Mr. President, I believe I’ve solved, or rather, my mother solved that problem some time ago.”

Within the cylinder flowed a viscous liquid, swirling green, red and amber.

Holding it to the light, he continued, “It’s a rare form of algae. My mother was given a small sample of it by her father who brought it from sea caves in the West Indies. She grew it in her lab with little effort for it regenerates much on its own.”

Thomas explained that the algae created marsh gas, also known as methane. The methane was odorless, colorless and highly flammable. “When mixed with the correct about of air, it creates a heat and flame which in turn creates carbon dioxide which feeds the algae to create more gas. More importantly, this particular algae does so in the absence of light,” he explained.

Lincoln stared at the substance with understanding. “So this algae, this plant continues to create fuel again and again without end?”

Shaking his head, Thomas said, “Not exactly. Within a closed loop device, this can continue for a good length of time before the algae dies unless more carbon dioxide or small amounts of nutrients are introduced. This pint can go on for a while on its own, though.”

Crook asked, “For how long?”

Thomas looked again at the swirling liquid, “I’d say this would produce enough fuel to power a lightweight Music Man for about 10 hours.”

The room was silent for a long while until Lincoln spoke first. “Do you realize what you have there, son? I dare say that coal could become a thing of the past very quickly. How much of this have you made?”

Thomas blushed as he said, “I’ve carefully grown quite a bit. I limit the amount of carbon dioxide, mother algae and nutrients that is added to the growing media, but at present I’ve got about five hundred gallons stored underground at the farm.”

Crook ceased the moment by saying, “Mr. President, we should be quite cautious about letting this information reach too many ears. We are a country of coal but more importantly, we have a problem with murderous thugs to manage and ferret out.

“If I understand correctly, Thomas hopes to make your twin run on this marsh gas, appearing in public as yourself. If an attempt is made on your life, that attempt will be directed towards him,” he said, pointing to the sitting mannequin.  “We must choose when and where our mechanical man is to be shown.”

Pacing now, he continued, “It must be a place where the public cannot get too close but we won’t need to worry about refueling or noxious fumes. What about the puffing? Can that be muffled sufficiently to render him virtually silent?”

Thomas nodded, “If you haven’t been by the farm lately, you’ll notice that I’ve devised mufflers and dampeners on all of the farm equipment. I like hearing the birds in the fields. And before you ask, this Music Man does not squeak or clank.” He lifted the Music Man’s pant leg to reveal lightweight bamboo fashioned limbs and cloth washer hinges at each joint.

Lincoln smiled broadly. “By Jehovah, I like this plan.  Thomas, when you suggested that I attend the theater, I have promised Mary we would do just that. She wanted me to accompany her to see, ‘My American Cousin’ at the Ford in a few weeks. I’m afraid that the flesh and blood Lincoln will disappoint his bride once again. It would appear that Mary and I are going to miss that performance. I do hope she’ll forgive me.”

Thomas smiled as the President grasped his shoulders as one would a friend. There was much to do. There would be announcements of their attendance to the play. The President and his wife would ride together to the theater only to be escorted out a side door as a mannequin of the First Lady was positioned behind a curtain of the Presidential box. Curtains drawn, she would appear to be waiting patiently as her husband stiffly walked to his seat before waving slowly to the crowd below. Security around the box would be reduced to provide the best opportunity for the assassin or assassins to make their move.

There was all that and more. Thomas hoped he had thought of everything. If the mechanical President was not imperiled that evening, Mary would have once again be denied an evening out with her husband and the ongoing threat against his life would remain.

But Thomas had promised the First Lady that if it made it back, he had a special treat in store for her the next day when a jig would be danced by something that looked very much like the President.

Mary got her promised performance on April 15, 1865 as a very alive and very human President danced a jig at noon.

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