The islands of Caldara are a shining jewel in a rather bleak world. A terrible calamity in the past had blanketed much of the world with a toxic "fug." Those who survived were forced to take to the mountains and the skies in wondrous airships. Life has since been a struggle, with only the most ruthless and crafty able to survive. To spare themselves the same fate, the Calderans erected a battery of guns to fend off the airships of the mainland. They isolated themselves from the madness of the world, choosing instead to focus on the pursuits of art and creativity. Few believe the technologically advanced but socially barbarous outsiders have anything to offer. Amanita Graus, though, is hoping that they do.
Nita's mother has lost her livelihood and perhaps soon her life to a terrible disease. Already the black sheep of the family for embracing engineering rather than art, Nita resolves to leave the safety of her home and do whatever it takes to find a cure. For a price, the bizarre crew of an airship called The Wind Breaker are willing to grant her a meeting with their mysterious benefactors, and thus a chance to procure the one thing with a chance to save her mother.
Free-Wrench follows Nita’s adventures in a steampunk world of airships and lunatics. Helping her in her journey are an eccentric crew of smugglers; the gruff Cap'n Mack, the simple but enthusiastic Lil and Coop, the arrogant marksman Gunner, the surly surgeon Butch, and the irritable mascot Wink. To survive and find what she seeks she’ll need to earn their trust, follow their rules, and meet face to face with the people who pull the strings of their society.
I've written plenty of sci-fi and fantasy, but the concept of a steampunk novel had always intrigued me. It is the only genre that would let me include an airship dogfight, implausible steam powered vehicles, and corsetry in the same story. As a bonus, Free-Wrench also provided me with a setting and characters I’m genuinely proud of. – Joseph R. Lallo
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 prevailing opinion about their neighboring countries was that they were vicious, brutish places of savagery and debauchery. A long stretch of choppy sea between them 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, home to both the mightiest 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.
Two such workers toiled in a claustrophobic hallway near the third of ten boiler chambers. Intended for pipes rather than people, little care had been put into making it hospitable. What small amount of 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 had been 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 on to, 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 with his face hidden behind a pair of brass goggles. "It's running a bit high."
"I see it, Marcus," she said, pulling her gloves tight and adjusting her own goggles. Even with lenses carefully designed to keep from fogging, the moisture constantly built up. "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 proved 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. She currently worked as a free-wrench, a laborer traded between sections and facilities to lend an extra hand where it was needed. As one of the most demanding jobs they had, it required a working knowledge in every trade in the steamworks.
"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 as 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-sized nuts, she wore a bandoleer of assorted 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 take 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 began a new order, but his voice trailed off as the usual hiss and rattle of pipes, thicker than his thigh, turned into a worrying rumble. Clumps of the sooty crust that tended to cling to every surface like frost in the early days of winter began to shake free as the vibration 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. After a nerve-racking few seconds of escalating rumbling, 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. Acting on raw training, she grabbed a wrench and began to tap on the pipe. Since a good hard rap on the pipe could be heard throughout half of the mountain, the workers had developed a simple tap code to communicate. She listed off their status: two workers, tunnel 3A, major breech, no injuries. As soon as she was through, she heard the message begin to echo back, a nearby worker pounding it out again to acknowledge and spread the word. Next she 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 banged out this information as well, then 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 flitted through her head. Instead she tugged at the coils of rope slung across her shoulders and shrugged them off, freeing the massive apparatus that they held to her back. The heavy thing hit the ground with a thunk. As heavy as it was, she always brought it with her. Her very first foreman had drummed it into her that she would never know what tool might save some time, save some work, or save her life, so best to bring them all. The sheer size of it made this tool the only one she'd considered excluding from that rule. As large as a backpack and made from a dull purple-gray metal, it looked like the head of a pipe wrench designed for a giant. 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 to accept the square shaft of the broken wheel, then heaved it from the ground and onto the shaft. Two quick slaps to the 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 warned 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 slid 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 it had last been used. Three more steamworkers 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 into 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. "There's nothing like a nice, vigorous ending to an uneventful day."