You draw your jacket tighter around you as the snow falls, and shiver - not just from the sudden cold. For a moment you mistook the snow for ash.
People around have stopped to look up at the snow as well. Quite a few are making the sign of the Name; others are just sighing and pulling out dusty snow shovels from shop closets. One store proprietor - a shoemaker, at a glance - even shakes a cobweb from his shovel handle.
"Excuse me, sir?" You accost him as he steps out onto the shop porch. "Is the weather normally like this?"
He stares angrily up into the falling snowflakes. "Sorry, miss. Normally I'd say no, but we live in interesting times." He waves the neglected shovel ineffectually. "You aren't from around here? You should probably run back to your hotel and wait it out, then. The Tremont?"
It takes you a second to realize he's asking about your hotel. "Yes, Tremont House, down Cross Street."
"My brother Eugene works at reception there. Eugene Levy. Could I ask a favour?"
"If you see him, could you tell him David said hello, and that Dr. Hollerith's boots are ready?"
You nod, dislodging the collecting snowflakes on the fuzzy shoulders of your coat. "I'd better go."
"Stay safe." He waves you goodbye. As you walk down the sidewalk, it occurs to you that Port Huygens is, for all its importance in the Empire, still a small country town - friendly enough that a shoemaker would ask a stranger to pass a message on to his brother at a hotel down the road, important enough for a comforting prosperity to flow to the hard workers as well as the accountants and the aristocrats.
The snow is starting to fall harder, though you can see the occasional sunbeam pierce through the grey clouds. You shiver again. It must be so warm in those sunbeams. But it's not far to Tremont House, and your coat and scarf keep most of the cold out. It's your ears that hurt the most, whenever a snowflake falls on them or a chill wind brings the temperature down, and you find yourself praying (to no one in particular; as you've covered, religion is not your strong suit) for this journey to end.
1 CROSS ST.
The lobby seems like heaven after the inclement weather outside; the marble floors are heated and two porters stand by, taking coats and handing out hot towels. You unfold one gingerly - it's almost too hot to hold - and press it onto your face, trying to force the warmth back into your features. For a moment it clings to you like a kiss, then falls away, spent. Tired of hurting from the cold, your ears switch tacks and begin to hurt from the warmth instead. Ow.
It appears you're not the only soul sheltering from the weather. Various groups of visitors and residents stand around on the lobby floor, quietly trying to shake life back into their extremities. Like you, none of them are dressed warmly, or seem to have been prepared for more than a mildly chilly day. A few muffled sneezes send an invisible frisson of fear through the room, and the perpetrator is quickly hurried upstairs, followed by a tureen of steaming soup (chicken, if your nose tells you correctly).
You make a quiet circuit of the room, hoping to pick up on an interesting conversation, but nothing worthwhile comes of it, and the smell of soup has reminded your stomach that breakfast was a whole three hours ago. You enquire with the concierge about the possibility of morning tea...?
"All we've got is cucumber sandwiches, I'm afraid." He turns for a moment to address another visitor. "Just a moment, sir." Back to you: "This frightful weather... half our pantry has been freezer burned. Will that be all? I'm afraid we're terribly busy right now..."
"That'll be all right." Cucumber sandwiches. Decadence in tiny triangular packages. "Could I have them brought up to my rooms? With perhaps a small brandy?"
"That won't be a problem, Miss Hsobel."
Several notebooks. A novel or two, for inspiration. Warm clothes. Stationery. Your factsheet folder, a watch too cheap to carry around, and - in one pocket of your satchel - your sister's tattered ragdoll, faded and worn. She made you promise to bring it along, and to bring it back. All of these you've emptied out onto the massive bed. They make a very small pile.
Your lockbox is on the bed, too. It has some money and a couple of odds and ends, including a heavy locket from your mother. A tiny lock, no bigger than your pinky nail, holds shut the locket's two halves; unfortunately you neglected to ask your mother for the key before you left and now it's less than useless. There are various inscriptions on the back.
All in all, an invisible observer would conclude that you are not a person to travel heavily.
On one wall, heavy curtains block all light from the outside world. You twitch one aside and look out the sheet-glass window - slightly distorted snow is still falling from the sky, though it seems to be slowing. Across the road, it appears as if one roof has collapsed entirely. A small crowd is pulling the occupants from the snow, and luckily it doesn't seem as if anyone is injured; in fact, the atmosphere below seems almost convivial. Flasks of something or other are passed back and forth, warm blankets are brought up from neighboring homes. Once again, the community spirit of the Pole Islanders strikes you.
You make your way downstairs, into the warm lobby. The milling people have mostly dissipated to their rooms or back to their homes, facing the slowing snowfall outside with furs and boots, courtesy of the Tremont House staff. The concierge seems less flustered now, and he's busy transcribing invoices from one book to another. A little box of gears and dials sits on one cover, and every so often he gives one of these a half-turn. Numbered prisms turn inside the box, displaying different values out a set of glass windows.
"Eugene? Eugene Levy?"
At the sound of his name, the concierge looks up. "Yes? Oh, Miss Hsobel. I didn't see you, I'm sorry. Could you give me a moment?" With a final flicker of his fingers on the box, he closes both ledgers. "The tabulator works wonderfully, Dr. Hollerith. My commendations."
The young man at the desk nods gratefully and takes the box. "It has trouble with values past 10,000, I'm afraid. I've almost got an electrical prototype ready, though of course it wouldn't be as efficient. The gearings alone..."
"Anyway, what can I do for you, Miss Hsobel?"
"Oh, a message. Your brother David says hello. And by coincidence, Dr. Hollerith," you turn to the young doctor, "your boots are ready."
"Oh, excellent, excellent! I was worried they wouldn't be completed in time. I've had them reinforced, you see. It wouldn't do to have them break on the expedition." He gives you a sly wink.
You're starting to wonder if there's anyone in town not going on this expedition.
"Hahaha! Not at all, Miss Hsobel!"
The two of you tramp through the rapidly slushifying snow. The sun has finally come out, and for the first time you see the Glass Gear, twinkling high above in the summer sunbeams. The mainshaft terminates soon after, or so you're told. To you, the golden rod just disappears into a point high in the sky.
"I'm merely part of the base camp, the crew that will act as resupply and liasion with the Hall of Artificers. We'll stay above and act as a first-stage station for further attempts at the chronochasm."
"What did you think of the-" you begin, but he shushes you.
"Please, Miss Hsobel. Daniel McCloud has organised this expedition, it is true, but I am not privy to particulars in the mission statement that he may have told you. On my honor, I would not ask you to violate his trust."
"Then how do you know there's something to hide?"
His only answer is a cryptic, "Daniel McCloud has many secrets."
A little closer to town, you try a different question to clear the air. "Do you have any advice as to my expedition gear?"
"That I can help with," he says brightly, "you'll probably not need much. Just a large pack, and some good tools. The Eckenstein family down in Albion, who are very keen climbers, they've invented a device called a 'crampon', like an inverted rack gear. It slots into specially-altered boots and allows better traction..."
You let him ramble on. Dr. Hollerith seems enthusiastic enough about the mechanical aspects of crampons and the potential applications for redeveloping used rack and pinion gears for use in outdoor activities, but your enthusiasm for the expedition is somewhat less than excellent. According to the good doctor, McCloud has apparently opted not to take porters on the descent, which means you'll have to pack light or risk becoming a liability. Still, you've glean a few good nuggets of advice from him.
The general store has some, but not all, of the supplies you need. As per Dr. Hollerith's advice, you pick up a rugged leather water-flask and a generous portion of dried preserves. The proprietor, a swarthy southerner by the name of Whitelaw, assures you that Worth's down the road has all manner of hiking and camping equipment, and do let Worth know that he sent you.
Worth is happy to supply you with these new 'crampons' and attached boots, which look somewhat like overextended ice skates. Honestly, they seem entirely too specific an item to be useful, but you've never gone on an expedition. What would you know? You also pick up an overlarge rucksack with a light alloy frame, both of which Worth was happy to spend a quarter of an hour expounding on. Not that you find yourself all that surprised - everyone here in Port Huygens is a craftsman, after all.
You'd expected the town tailor to be an insufferably effete socialite, like the bespoke clothiers in Greater Albion, but Miss Tailor is deft with a needle and practical in her advice. "The Elysian Field terminates approximately fifty to a hundred feet down into the chronochasm. After that point, temperatures will be estimated around the zero-centigrade mark and will decrease steadily. Warm clothing will be vital." She bustles about you, adjusting various aspects of your clothing. Together with the woolen underclothes, you're actually too hot in the warm room - a good sign.
Something occurs to you. "How do you know all this?"
"Oh, you're not the first one to come in about this. You're in luck: I have one down anorak approximately your size, with a fur hood. Aside from certain experimental synthetic fills, down is your best choice in this matter. The chronochasm does not experience weather in the strictest sense, and conditions are expected to remain cold and dry."
"Pardon me for saying, but you don't speak like a tailor."
"That I do not. I also study applied meteorology at the Rogers Institute of Technology, up by the Hall. My thesis is on the mechanics of the Glass Gear and the relative microapplications of climate gearing."
You look at her with newfound respect. "A doctorate? That's very unusual."
Her face is impassive, but there is a twinkle in her eyes. "I'm the first in my family."
"And I expect you'll be coming with us on the expedition."
"Yes. I'm your navigator and microclimate expert. McCloud specifically requested me for my expertise in the unusual weather patterns that begin to form past the Henry Richmond sub-level. He had trouble with those last time, so I heard."
You're beginning to legitimately wonder, "Is there anyone in this town who isn't going on this expedition?"
Miss Tailor shakes her head. "It may seem that way, but a great deal of the doctors and artificers coming along will most likely stay within reach of the Hall, at base camp. Their retinue and support staff from around the town will likely remain there as well. McCloud's group - the actual expedition - is much smaller."
"Well, who's in it?"
"I couldn't say. The rosters haven't been finalized. I just outfit everyone who comes along."
Worth's son is a hardy boy, and he's earning his keep today as you watch him jog back to Tremont House with your new clothes in your new pack. The sun is out again, and the snow only remains in sad melting piles in corners and on the roadsides. It's once again a beautiful autumn day.
As if on cue, you spot an apple tree by the side of the road. Red apples hang temptingly from snow-laden branches, and a happy sign indicates that they are free for public consumption. Some scamp has made off with all the low-hanging ones, presumably off to set up an apple stand on the other side of town. It's been a while since cucumber sandwiches, and a snack for afternoon tea wouldn't hurt one bit.
You're reaching for an apple perched on a high branch, when it hits you like a metaphorical... apple, you guess.
Newton's Principia Mathematica. That's where you've seen those patterns before, in a dusty old volume many years ago.
"One of the original collections, dear?" The librarian of the Port Huygens Public Library is a sweet old lady, but her movements are all frustratingly slow. She shuffles through an eternity of files before looking back up at you. "I'm afraid we only have reprints of the Principia, dear. Original collections of Newton's notes, God bless his soul, we wouldn't really keep them here. Have you tried the archives up at the Hall?"
"Are you sure? I really need to see some annotations that were on Newton's originals."
"Nothing like that here, dear. This is a technical library, not an archive. But if you'd like a few potboilers, you're welcome to check our new adventure novel section." She seems vaguely disapproving of this concept in the same way that all old people disapprove of the universe in general.
Well, you've achieved most of what you set out today to do. On the surface, it's been a big day... but like the icebergs out on the sea, you suspect there are far bigger things below the surface. And this was just the first day. Your mind feels positively overstuffed with new experiences.
You rack your mind to see if there's anything else you want to do, or if it's time to return to the hotel and turn in for the night... or the brightly lit never-ending summer that substitutes for night at the North Pole.
Let me out Stay safe inside | You're not kind | Ethics are overrated | What is life | Men are pigs | I'm so drunk | EAT ME NOW | Click clack fuck | Is this right Only money matters | Change my clothes | Little sun rising | One cat's future | Wax and wane | Dark times ahead
So very British / But then again | People are machines Machines are people | Oh hai there | There's no time
Superhero 1920s noir | Multigenre Half-Life | Changing the future | Command line interface
Tu ventire felix? | Clockwork for eternity | Explosions in spacetime