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Engine Dreamer (a steampunk story)

Written by Siri Paulson


Madoc wandered through the spacedocks, sucking on a ha'penny candy and feeling out of sorts. Mr. O'Shea had given him the day off, and he'd cleaned the ever-present oil from his hands as best he could and put on his spare set of clothes, but his two stationside brothers were working and none of the ships where he had family was in dock. That gave him too much time to think. So he rambled down the corridor, passing docks and the occasional bulkhead, not paying much attention to where he was going. Only a few of the docks were out of bounds to a young station labourer, and nobody much minded if he poked his nose in wherever he pleased. But right now he didn't want to talk to any spacefarers.

He'd been on the station for two years now, since he was twelve. Mr. O'Shea worked him hard, lugging great barrels of oil and crates of parts; that much he didn't mind. It wasn't any worse than working in the cargo hold back home, and he'd done that for years, ever since he'd grown too big to crawl into the tiny spaces in the engine room where his father and his many older brothers couldn't go. His boss was gruff, but not unkind; he'd even let Madoc send a transmission now and again, when he saw the boy was homesick.

His prospects weren't too bad, really. One day he might follow in the footsteps of Mr. O'Shea, if he was lucky and none of the other journeymen or apprentices ahead of him wanted to take over the small shopfront. Or he might spend his days working for one or another of them, like his shopkeeper brother. It was unlikely, he knew, that he would ever get off-station again. He was handy with tools, and Mr. O'Shea was teaching him to fix ship engines. But doing it in drydock with the energy locked down involved a very different skill set from doing it in space with the energy active and the great cogwheels turning, and the ship engineers never let the station engineers forget it.

He would be of age – sixteen – in a few years and nothing would change. He could see the stars from inside the station, if he walked up to the boulevard or sought out a window. But the bulkheads were closing in on him. He wanted to be out there, in a ship like the one he'd grown up in, but of course there was no room on that one with all the cousins and his oldest brothers and their parents. So he was beginning to think seriously about signing up with one of the black-painted ships that came in at the dead of night, if there was no other way, although thinking of the penalties made him shudder.

A light flickered out above him. He came to himself with a start. He'd wandered farther around the curve of the station than ever before. Looking back, he could make out his footprints in a thick layer of dust – barely, for at least half the lights were out. How long had it been since he'd seen another person? He was still in the docks, though: airlock lights blinked at each door, some red, some flickering wildly back and forth between red and green – no way was he going in one of those. But a few were a steady green.

Madoc hesitated, then opened the first green door.

He held his breath, expecting dust, but there was none: the airlock seal was good. He reached into his jacket, pulled out the little safety lantern he'd made out of scraps, and lit it cautiously. The dock was ghostly quiet, but not empty. Hulks of ships loomed beyond the frame of the airlock. He stepped through into the cavernous, echoing space and closed the door, then held up the lantern and hit the switch for the overhead lights. They came on reluctantly; half of them were out too, but they still gave more light than the lantern, and he extinguished it.

The dock held a handful of old ships, all mottled with rust. He wandered among them, noting the likely reasons for their mothballing: a blown engine here, twisted metal making him wince; a rust hole there, so big he could nearly climb through it; a decades-old model without enough cargo space to make the asteroid run worthwhile. There was nothing else wrong with that one, though, at least not at first glance. He turned back to look at it again. It was certainly older than any of the family ships he'd seen, though they too were years past their prime, held together with makeshift solders and prayers. But the engine vents were intact. So was the hull, or what he could see of it from the station deck. There was almost no paint left on it, and it too bore signs of rust, but not as badly as the others.

If only, he thought as he walked around it, peering and poking. Surely it was worn out in places he couldn't see. Surely parts needed replacing. He had no money for the energy needed to get a ship out to the asteroids, let alone for maintenance. And he wasn't a good enough engineer, and he didn't want to discover where he'd gone wrong by suddenly breathing vacuum. It was foolish to even wonder if the ship might be spaceworthy.

Madoc finished circling the ship and came again to the ladder that led to the tiny cockpit. He wasn't going to climb it, but he reached out to touch it and his hand curled around the upright and his foot was on the bottom rung, and by then it was too late.

© 2011 Siri Paulson