imaginary archive (ib_archive) wrote,
imaginary archive

[story] the engineers' elephant

author: xahra99 (xahra99)
email: xahra99 [at]

'And there were strange prodigies in that place-men with the heads of animals, and animals that spoke like men, and marvelous mechanical wonders that counterfeited life, and sang, or moved, when they were spoken to.'

Ramadan, Neil Gaiman

"All right," said Thomas. "This is the last time we build anything this big." He looked down at Lukas from the shoulders of a headless bronze harpy. "Satisfied?"

"I don't mind big," Lukas shouted back. "I just keep looking for a place to hide the engine." He jumped over the lip of the fountain and crossed the room to a valve built into one wall. "I don't like building things that don't move. There's no challenge to it."

"We could have made it rotate or something."

"The Duke just wanted naked women." Lukas said. He looked glumly up at the fountain's five statues and spat on his hands. Individually, the statues were stunning. Grouped together, they resembled a wall of tortured metal. "He wouldn't pay for the mechanism, the cheapskate."

Thomas wrapped his arm around the nymph's neck, reached down inside her body cavity and fitted a spanner around the protruding bolt inside. "Let's just finish the damn thing off and get it out of here."

"Ready?" Lukas shouted. He began to turn the wheel that opened the valve.


Lukas spun the wheel. Thomas twisted the spanner. The pipes hidden under the harpy's bronze skin clanked. Water gushed from the pitcher held in her upraised arms. A thinner jet dribbled from each of her nipples to soak the front of Thomas's jacket. "All done!" he called down to Lukas. "Throw me the head."

Lukas retrieved the head from a peg on the wall, where it hung like a macabre hunting trophy. He passed it up to Thomas and stared critically up at the fountain as his partner bolted the head in place. The rising water had reached his knees by the time Thomas jumped down.

"Any problems?"

"Not a one. It looks good."

"It's all working, at least." Lukas said reluctantly.

They stood together for a moment in the swirling water as the fountain clanked and groaned. Water spilled over the bodies of the four harpies, filled the fountain's basin and circulated through a complicated system of pipes and pumps before it gushed forth again. A statue of Roland, Morgenstern's national hero, stood on a plinth in the centre of the fountain. He sported a phallic sword and a self-satisfied grin.

"I thought it'd never be done." Thomas said.

"Same here," Lukas said glumly. "And I thought those jeweled eggs we made for the Duchess were bad."

The fountain groaned. Lukas ducked as a gilded nipple flew past his left ear.

"I told you we should have welded them.' Thomas said cheerfully as he searched for the nipple among the floor's clutter.

"Forget welding. Next time we'll cast them as part of the piece, and damn the aesthetics." Lukas said as he bent down, squinting under tables for the gleam of bronze. He found the nipple wedged between a dish of rat poison and a treatise on Damascene filigree techniques. "That's it," he said as he picked it up. "We're never building big, and we're never working for the nobility again. Especially not the Duke of Wenigsburg, the pervert. Any problems with that?"

"Hey, he never pays on time anywa-" Thomas said, and paused. "What's that noise?"

"What noise?"

"That noise." Thomas frowned. "Almost sounds like trumpets."

"Don't be stupid. The only time they sound trumpets is when..." Lukas paused, "When the King visits. The King, dammit! I thought he was coming on Thursday!"

Thomas pulled an almanac from his pocket. "It is Thursday."

"Can't be. It's Wednesday."

"It was Wednesday yesterday!" Thomas said, and shrugged. "Don't worry. He might not find us."

"Don't be stupid! He has people to do that for him!" Lukas snapped. He sighed as the sound of trumpets grew louder. "I told you so."

Thomas nodded glumly.

They'd started working out of the old meat storehouse several years ago. It was the only large building in the old city, right in the centre of a maze of tenements. The rent was cheap, and the space large enough to accommodate the biggest of projects. The engineers made few modifications. They had partitioned off a tiny office at the front of the building, and a dormitory at the back, and blocked off all but one of the entrances. They slept on-site, and cooked, or at least heated food, over the forge. A discreet sign over the doorway read: 'Vakanson and Dampfmacher, Manufacturers of Automata to the Gentry. Open Sundays Only, 10-10.30.'

Because of their high prices and erratic opening hours, most of their clients were automaton enthusiasts or fans of custom engineering-such as the Duke of Wenigsburg, fountain commissioner extraordinaire. Few people appreciated the skill and craftsmanship involved in the construction of (for example) an eighteen-inch mechanical chess-playing woman, or a life-size metal swan that appeared to digest a carefully prepared mixture of ground grain and river water.

There was a knock on the door.

Lukas elbowed Thomas in the ribs. "You go!"

"No! You go!"

"I'm the most senior! You go!"

"You're more experienced! You can do the talking!"

"Excuse me, gentlemen," a new voice cut in, smooth as a sword through butter.

Lukas spun round and found himself staring down at a small man. He recognized him as a courtier by his clothes, which were neither functional nor even aesthetically pleasing. "What do you want?"

The courtier shook sawdust from his shoes and raised one eyebrow in a perfect sneer. "Gentlemen?" he asked. "I trust you are prepared for His Majesty's visit?"

"Um," Thomas said.

The courtier looked them both up and down. "His Majesty has been eagerly anticipating this visit." He said. "He has heard many tales of your most wondrous machinery."

"Oh." Lukas said. "Good. All positive, I trust?"

"Of course," the courtier said politely. He paused. "Do you get many negative reports?"

Fortunately for Lukas and Thomas, the King arrived just at that moment.

He was a big man, with a face that would have seemed more at home on a plate with an apple in its mouth. His jaw dropped as he entered the room, trailed by a dozen more courtiers, and Lukas noted clinically that he seemed to share the Duke of Wenigsburg's appreciation for naked, buxom women.

"What on earth is that?"

"It's a fountain." Thomas mumbled. "For th' Duke."

"My goodness," the King said blankly.

"It's the Hero Roland of Morgenstern Subduing the Harpies of Darmhalt." said Lukas.

"Subduing," the King said. "Yes." He turned away from the statue with an effort. Drops of perspiration beaded on his brow. "Subduing. An undoubted masterpiece. You have talent, my good men!" He grinned like a pumpkin and wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief."Your names?"

"Thomas," said Thomas.

"Lukas Vakanson and Thomas Dampfmacher," Lukas said. "Manufacturers of Automata to the Gentry," he added automatically, and bowed. Thomas hastily copied him. They were both slow learners when machinery was not involved, but nobody could say they didn't get there in the end.

"Vakanson," the King said thoughtfully. "Dampfmacher..." He beamed, clapped Thomas on the shoulder and wiped his hand on another silk handkerchief which he let drop to the floor. "Weren't you from the monastery?"

Lukas swallowed. Lying to royalty was like lying to priests; you just didn't. "We once had the honor to be clergymen," he said carefully. "Unfortunately, we found that our talents were best suited elsewhere."

The King cast an eye over the four harpies' polished breasts. "I can see that."

"It was the flying angels that did it," Thomas interrupted.

The King paused. "Angels?"

"That's what did it," Thomas explained happily. "We built angels. Flying ones. For the Christmas tableau." He paused as Lukas's hobnailed boot impacted with his shins: aware that he had made a mistake, but unclear as to what exactly the mistake was. "Uh. There was an accident. I'm told that the children recovered. Eventually."

"Angels," the King said blankly.

"Flying ones." Thomas corrected.

The King burst out laughing. The courtiers followed suit, one second behind, in faultless harmony. Lukas wondered how he could replicate the effect in the next mechanical organ-player or choir they built. It would be difficult, he knew, but with the right number of bellows nothing was impossible.

The King wiped tears from his eyes. "Angels!" he snorted. "Excellent!"

"Very clever!"


Maybe a mechanism similar to a pianoforte, Lukas thought. He jumped as the King turned to him, derailing his train of thought with a voice like an avalanche. "I saw your mechanical swan in the house of Baron von Knauss! A veritable work of genius!" His gaze swept the floor. It was more cleaning than the floor had seen in years. "How do you make it work?"

Thomas began to shake his head.

Lukas, driven by an acute sense of self-preservation, stamped on his foot. "A slurry made from wheat," he said quickly, "The movement of the swan's beak divides the wheat and renders it more easily ingested by means of a pump. The wheat is stored in a box inside the swan and expressed by a cunning arrangement of pipes." He shrugged. "There's no art to it, really."

"Ingenious," the King said. He looked a little disappointed. "You're modest, I am certain. Besides, I have something more ambitious in mind for myself. I need a miracle."

"In theory," Lukas said carefully, "nothing is impossible. In practice, however...." He shrugged. "Things can be complicated."

The King snapped his fingers. A servant passed him a scrap of paper. "It's not impossible," he said, and handed Lukas the paper. "It's just never been done."

Lukas unfolded the sheet. It held a picture of an elephant and castle, Morgenstern's national emblem. Exactly why it was the national emblem was a matter for debate among people who thought of anything other than automata. Elephants were not native to Morgenstern. The palace zoo held several, but it was generally held that this was a consequence of the heraldry rather than its cause.

Lukas turned the paper over. There were no other marks. "An elephant. That shouldn't be hard."

The King beamed, but his smile quickly faded. "We will soon be at war with Gravenhurst," he said.

"Will we?"

"I have planned a magnificent victory parade!"

Lukas thought this rather premature, but had enough sense not to voice his thoughts aloud. A response was clearly called for. "Oh," he said. "Good."

"I will march through the streets of Gravenstadt at the head of my army!" the King exclaimed. He waved his arms enthusiastically, narrowly missing a box of pencils. "You will build me a magnificent chariot for the parade."

"A chariot?" Lukas asked. That didn't seem too difficult either. Ornate carriages were unfashionable in all the High Countries, but there were plenty of texts detailing their manufacture. A carriage, after all, was just a box on wheels.

The King pointed at the drawing. "A chariot like an elephant!" he exclaimed. "A walking, moving elephant, as realistic as possible."

"That's... going to be hard," Lukas said.

The King frowned. "I have every faith in you," he said pointedly. "Succeed, and I shall shower you will gold. I shall place every resource at your disposal. Materials, money, men... nothing is too much. Just build me my elephant!"

"We prefer to work alone." Lukas said.

"Not that we don't appreciate the offer." Thomas mumbled. "What if we fail?"

"Fail? You shall not fail!" the King said happily. He turned to leave in a flurry of ermine and retainers. "Have it ready by Christmas."

Lukas froze. That was impossible. "Your Majesty-" he said hopefully.

The King whisked out the doors. One courtier trailed behind. Lukas clutched at his sleeve like a drowning man to a stick. "You have to talk to him!"


"We'll be ruined!"

"That," the courtier said, "is your problem." He shook Lukas's hand from his sleeve. "One last thing."


"You might do well to remember that when the King says 'anything', he means it in a strictly figurative sense. After all, the royal treasury is rather overstretched." The courtier adjusted his hat and turned on his heel. "Goodbye."

The door slammed behind him.

Lukas collapsed onto the rim of the fountain. "He must be mad!"

"Certain facets of his personality are rather similar to the last stages of syphilis, certainly."

"We'll never do it!"

Thomas took the paper from Lukas. "What if we could?" he asked. "A steam-powered elephant?"

Lukas recognized the look in Thomas's eyes. It was the same one he'd had when he'd suggested making a few modifications to the Christmas angels, back when they were novices. "No," he said. "Oh, no."

"We'd be famous."

"We'd be broke."

Thomas gave him a look that suggested financial ruin happened to other people. "It'd be amazing."

"It can't be done," Lukas told him. "The largest automaton ever built couldn't even carry one passenger."

"Jensen's Mechanical Squid, in sixty-three," Thomas said down at a workbench. He pulled pen and ink towards him and began to scribble on a sheet of parchment. "I know. But technology has moved on since then. Musa's Book of Ingenious Devices contains plans for mechanical acrobats sixty cubits high."

"It's a story!"

"That's one theory," Thomas said. He dipped a quill into the portable inkpot he carried around with him at all times and drew it out, glistening. Working quickly, he sketched a design. "It only has to carry one man. We'll make it work. The legs just have to look pretty. They don't have to bear all the weight. We can use a carriage for the basic mechanism. I'll build a howdah on top and cover it with tapestries. That'll hide the workings. Find some way to vent the steam."

Lukas peered at the plans. "Mechanically, it could be possible."

"It could."

"Then we'll make it."

"If we can."

"By Christmas," Lukas said glumly.

"By Christmas."

It took Thomas three days to sketch the plans. Lukas spent them at the zoo.

It was how it always worked. Thomas mapped out the machinery, Lukas worked on the aesthetics, and they built together. Neither had had any experience with elephants, and the automaton needed to look and move just like one. This presented a problem, true, but an easily solvable one. Tickets to the zoo were both cheap and readily available.

When he got inside, Lukas knew why. The zoo's elephants looked like the pictures on the flags, but they smelt much worse. Their legs were chained together. Their cages looked like they had not been cleaned in weeks.

"Why isn't there food in the cages?" he asked one of the keepers.

"Public brings it."

Lukas had expected the elephants to consume a more exotic diet. "What, anything?"

The keeper shrugged. "Pretty much."

The second time Lukas visited the zoo he took a sack of leftover bread from the bakery and a few bags of last season's apples. The elephants crowded the cage bars, picking apples delicately from Lukas's hand. Beneath the manure, they smelt strangely, a musky animal smell that Lukas was fairly confident would be impossible to replicate. Their legs were like pillars, their eyelashes longer than the Duke's buxom harpies'. Despite their chains, the elephants moved with grace.

Lukas pitied them, in between sketches. His elephant would be more than these sad prisoners. It would be perfect.

He drew elephants in every position imaginable, shading their hides with charcoal to approximate color and texture. Each tiny movement posed a puzzle. For instance, the fingerlike protrusions at the end of the trunk seemed to move independently of the appendage itself, and that would be hard to replicate. The automaton would need eyes that blinked. Its ears would have to flap. He'd have to capture the way the elephants walked without bending their knees and the rocking motion of their sloping backs. Still, he drew the line at copying the streams of dark coffee colored urine that pooled on the cage floor. Nothing had to be that accurate.

He left the zoo on the evening of the third day with a book full of sketches and a head full of ideas. The streets were crowded, and already dark. Lukas barely noticed the other people. They weren't elephants or automata, after all.

He glanced down at his book for a second to check that he had remembered to deposit his pencil in its accustomed place in the binding.


Lukas cannoned into a man's well-padded back. His sketchbook went flying. He reeled back against the wall, rubbing his face, with the vague notion that he had been hit by an elephant.

The man turned round. He had a friendly, rotund face. He held a tankard in each hand. Both were half-full. Lukas noted that the bulk of the man's body must have absorbed the impact of Lukas's proportionately lighter mass well. The beer had not even spilled.

The man deposited his beer on a nearby mounting-block and bent down to help Lukas to his feet. Lukas refused his aid, looking frantically around for his drawings.

"My sketchbook!"

The man lifted something from the cobbles. "This it?"

Lukas took the pad with as much grace and dignity he could muster. His cheek smarted from the impact with the man's shoulder. "Yes."

The man stared at the sketches. "Elephants, huh? Funny thing to think of, at a time like this,"


The man collected his tankards. He raised one glass. "You know," he said. "The war?"

Lukas shook his head.

"You don't know? The King just declared war on Gravenhurst! We'll finally have the chance to teach those foreigners a lesson!"

"Oh," Lukas said, not understanding why war was more important than the proper construction of elephants. "Well, I hope it goes well."

The man guffawed as if he found Lukas the funniest thing in the world. "I hope so!" he shouted as Lukas touched a hand to his cap and hurried off. "Don't you want to join us for a drink?"

Lukas didn't even hear him.

They spent the next two days in the workshop, hammering out (sometimes literally) the problem of constructing an apparatus strong enough to carry a man and move like an elephant. Thomas went out about midnight to collect food and weak beer, and the shape of the tankards he brought back reminded Lukas of the man he had barged into.

"They say the war's already started," he said.

Thomas shrugged, utterly uninterested. He took a drink and replaced the stein on the corner of their most recent plan. "The King said it'd be soon.' He paused. "This won't interfere with the construction, right? The King did say to ask for anything we wanted."

"Probably not," Lukas said. "Truth is, I don't know."

Thomas held up a tattered list. "Then we better make sure he gets this soon."

It seemed that the King had nothing more important to think about than elephants, either, because they got most of the items on the list within the week. Thomas and Lukas did not think this at all odd behavior. The workshop was already equipped with a small forge, so the King's servants brought sacks of charcoal and the finest quality ore to create the wrought iron that would form the elephant's boiler. They brought enough food for six months, feather mattresses and a portable stove to ensure neither man had to waste time leaving the warehouse for such prosaic matters as eating or sleeping. They brought piles of cured hides and pints of oil and tapestries salvaged from a saleroom. Lukas and Thomas heard the odd mutter about diverting material from the war efforts, but as the comments weren't about elephants or automata, they ignored them.

They started construction the next day.

It was slow, hot work, in the heat of midsummer, with sparks flying from the furnace and wrought-iron glowing cherry red. Still, it progressed faster than expected, and the workshop's summer heat had only just faded to tolerable by the time they finished the engine and the armature.

Lukas looked up from bolting together the last strut as the sound of cannon fire echoed through the room. "It's started."

"What has?"

"Must be the siege. Pass me that octagonal wrench."

Thomas passed him the wrench. A fine dust of plaster drifted from the rafters and settled on the shoulder of his jacket. "It's a good job we got all the kit before everything started," he said practically. "Things could get bad."

Lukas nodded. "Mmm." There was the noise of a faint explosion to the south. "I wonder if we're winning?"

Thomas patted the framework of the elephant's shoulder. "I don't know," he said. "We're nearly done, though."

They discovered later that they weren't nearly as finished as they had thought, but that was often the nature of construction.

The Gravenhurst army had just started.

They stormed the city, massacring half of the underpaid and under-equipped Morgenstern army. Having pushed the remainder of the troops back within the city walls, they systematically plundered the outlying farms and settled down for a long siege.

Lukas and Thomas hardly even noticed. The King's servants had stocked the storehouse well. They ventured out seldom, and the doors of the workshop remained resolutely closed. Smoke issued from the giant chimney on occasion, but it was lost in the clouds of gunpowder and mortar-dust as the enemy guns pounded the walls.

In the surrounding tenements, the price of bread rose and the Morgenstern citizens rioted in the streets. The protest started quickly. It ended quickly, too, and bloodily, as the remaining troops put down the rebellion, confiscated food stores, and set up communal kitchens on starvation rations. In the warehouse, Thomas spent six days working on a mechanism that made the elephant's lips move as it walked.

Lukas foraged for them both, supplementing their diet with judicious pigeon-snaring. He removed the pistol from Baron Munchausen's Marvelous Mechanical Midget and found it extremely efficient. On the first snowfall of the year he knocked the snow from his boots, bolted the door behind him and dropped a brace of dead pigeons on Thomas's pallet.

"Still not won?"' Thomas asked. Their customary question had become a joke. The elephant had long lost any significance in terms of the victory parade. They built it for its own sake now, and for theirs. It was the last elephant left in Morgenstern, the palace elephants having been slaughtered the previous week by a hungry mob of townsfolk.

"Doesn't look like it."

They roasted the pigeons over the stove and shared the meat. The shadow of the elephant loomed against the wall, wavering in the flickering candle light. Its glass eyes gleamed in the light.

They finally finished their stores four weeks later, right around the time the soldier broke down the door.

He caught Lukas and Thomas by surprise. The door was one of those that had been blocked for years. Fortunately for them, the soldier was nearly as surprised by Lukas and Thomas's elephant as they were by his sudden appearance. The pause gave the engineers enough time to reach for their improvised Intruder Deterrents.

The soldier looked at Lukas and Thomas's skinny unshaven bodies and the sticks with nails clenched in their hands, and he laughed. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Manufacturers of Automata to the Gentry," said Lukas. "We used to be quite popular. You may remember."

The soldier blinked. "You've been holed up in here all this time?' he asked incredulously.

Lukas nodded.

"We thought you were dead."

"We've been working." Thomas said simply.

The soldier looked up at the elephant. "I can see," he said. "Any weapons?"

Lukas shook his head.

"Shame," the soldier said, with a hint of regret for lost opportunities."Food?"

Lukas put down his stick. Rummaging around, he retrieved a strip of smoked pigeon meat and an apple from the store cupboard. He held them out towards the soldier, who took them and quickly stowed them away in his pockets.

"What's this?"

"It's our elephant," Thomas told him. "It's nearly done."

The soldier looked up at the elephant and shook his head. He was thin and his coat was splashed with blood. He did not appear to be armed. "You'll have to leave it. The siege is over. Gravenhurst troops have gained the walls. They've stormed the Summer Palace!"

"Then it's a good job it's winter," Thomas told him.

"Our work's nearly finished," Lukas said. "We're not leaving."

The soldier looked from one face to another. "You're mad!" he said. "It's a machine! A thing! They'll kill you!"

Lukas shrugged.

"You're not bothered?" The soldier took a bite out of the apple. He reached for a poker and hefted it thoughtfully in his palm. "Can I take this?"

"Go ahead."

"Many thanks," the soldier said. "I'll not linger, though, if you've made up your minds. I'll leave you to your work. I warn you, they're close behind."

"Thanks for the warning." Lukas told him wearily. "But we're still not leaving."

The soldier shook his head and left. The Gravenhurst troops found them three days later.

They burst in through the door of the warehouse, big men with scarves wrapped around their faces to protect them from frostbite. Momentum carried them through the office and into the warehouse, where they halted. A behemoth loomed before them, its forehead nearly touching the ceiling. Its tusks gleamed. Lukas and Thomas had shoveled the last of the coal into the boiler to build up pressure. Steam curled from the elephant's trunk. Lukas clung to the howdah.

One of the Gravenhurst men spoke first. "What in the name of the gods..."

Lukas nodded, spat on his hands and began to turn the wheel that allowed the pressure to rise in the elephant's boiler."Ready?"

"Yes." Thomas called from his perch in the bowels of the elephant. He shoveled another load of coal into the boiler.

"Any problems?"

"Not a one. It looks good."

"It's all working, at least," Lukas said. He grinned.

The Gravenhurst captain put his hands on his hips. "Stop right there!" he called.

Lukas spun the wheel.

The elephant took a step forwards. The soldiers took a step backwards. The captain stayed where he was. He was a veteran, a hard-bitten man who had smiled only once in his life, and that when his wife's mother died. He had fought in a dozen countries and survived half a dozen campaigns. "Stop!' he called again.

Lukas opened the valve completely. The elephant shot forwards. There was a small jolt in the elephant's gait, and an unpleasant squelching noise.

Lukas ducked as the elephant smashed through the plywood walls of the office like they were matchwood. The warehouse walls offered slightly more resistance, but not enough to stop the elephant's headlong progress.

The Gravenhurst soldiers dived for cover in a cloud of dust and splinters. Eventually one of them raised his head from the shelter of his arms and looked around. There was a patch of oily grease on the ground that, with a bit of imagination, strongly resembled the late captain.

"Crikey," he said. "How're we going to explain this to the Major?"

The elephant trundled off among the alleys of Morgenstern's old town, and it was never seen again.

the end

Author's Note.

The inspiration for the elephant can be found here. and's_Elephant

Morgenstern is a direct Princess Bride reference. Gravenhurst is a band.
Tags: author: xahra99, book 09: steampunk, story

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