I. A Brief and Tiny Hole in the World
In the town below the castle, the people were afraid of storms. The moment they sensed one coming they would flee into their homes, hiding from the wind that plucked at their windows and doors with greedy, searching fingers. They feared for their livestock, their crops, even their houses – but Sascha wasn’t afraid. He loved it, all of it; the wind, the black sky that boiled above the tower, even the rain that drove its pitiless bolts into the ground like icy arrow shafts. But most of all, he loved the smell of thunder.
It arrived before the clouds did, before the wind began to pick up, even before the storm-chaser began its shrill whistling. At first it was distant, nothing but a faint tang on the breeze that no one else seemed to notice. Then it would grow, charging the air as the trees began to quiver, as if in anticipation or fear – he could never be quite sure which. It grew until the sky darkened, becoming stronger and strong until even the townspeople could sense it.
Sometimes he would miss the first strike, too busy drinking in the electrifying scent, only realising when the deep-throated thunder rumbled in his ears. Then he would imagine what it would be like to be at the heart of the storm, lightning crackling down his spine and to the ends of his fingertips. He once asked his father if a person could catch lightning in their hands, and his father replied that if they tried, they would die. Somehow, Sascha never quite believed him.
Sascha’s father was an imposing man, the tallest person Sascha knew. The maids often told him how alike they looked – the same broad shoulders, the same thick brown hair and eyebrows – although they never said that where Sascha’s father could hear it. His father once told him about thunderstorms, about how the energy built up in the sky until it shot down to earth in a powerful arc, tearing a brief and tiny hole in the world. He showed Sascha the storm-chaser, spindly and strange in its big glass case at the back of the schoolroom.
“What does it do?” he asked as he sat on the desk, swinging his legs back and forward.
“It chases storms, of course.” There wasn’t any reprimand in the voice, so Sascha continued.
“Well, you wait until it starts whistling, take it outside and throw it into the air. Then it flies off into the heart of the storm.”
“And what does it do when it gets there?”
“It gathers energy and brings it down to us. People used to use it to power machines. The electricity collects in that little cage at the bottom, see?”
Sascha looked. At the bottom of the device, below the rotary propeller and between its tripod legs, there was indeed a small cage, unusually shaped and with lots of sides like the funny dice the old village men used in their games. He tried to picture it full of lightning, sparks pressing against the tiny bars. In his head they made a noise like chirping birds.
“But what does it run on?”
Sascha’s father smiled, and clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Good question. It’s powered by clockwork. This is a very early model though. Later ones actually ran on tiny amounts of electricity, and instead of collecting it, they gathered an even purer form of energy.” Sascha tried to imagine something purer than lightning. He couldn’t.
“Not the subject of today’s lesson, I’m afraid. We are learning about obsolete technology – clockwork, steam and electricity, all eclipsed by today’s far greater energy needs.”
Sascha thought for a moment. “Can I learn about clockwork?”
There was a long pause.
“No, Sascha. Clockwork is a thing of the past, and it does not do to dwell upon the past. Progress is everything.”
Sascha almost flinched, and looked at his feet, a little scared of the coldness in his father’s voice. But still he ventured another question.
“So why do you keep it?” There was a long pause, during which Sascha looked up and saw his father staring out of the window.
“Because sometimes we dwell on the past despite ourselves.” Then, after a much shorter pause, his father said: “I’m tired of teaching you now. The remainder of today’s lessons will be taken by your tutors.”
Sascha nodded as his father left the room.
Later that night, he crept into the schoolroom to get a closer look at the storm-chaser. The case was always locked, so he couldn’t remove it – otherwise he would have smuggled the device out into the courtyard to send it whizzing into the sky each time the smell of thunder was thick in the air – but he could still get a good look at it. His father was right – it was clockwork, just like the little devices Cloudia showed him, although it was nowhere near as beautiful.
He noticed something inscribed just above the cage. The initials AF, which didn’t match those of anyone he knew.