The Philospher’s Flight

My name is Scott Anthony Caul, and I am E. M. Parmander’s only living assistant.

Parmander is a genius and a philosopher and as such is very difficult to work with. He also has a disregard for his own personal safety that would have been thrilling to watch if it hadn’t extended to my safety as well.

“I’m not certain this is the best of ideas,” I tell him. I bore even myself halfway through the sentence, so many times have I said it. Parmander is in the process of building a flying machine. It is all gears and canvas and rope and somehow, it is powered by thirteen frantic sparrows that are caged in a bamboo nest in its belly. The cage has no door.

“I will need you to fly it, Caul,” Parmander says, in response. “My thighs are too monstrous to fit in the seat. No starches tonight.”

Parmander has no thighs of which to speak. Aside from being a genius and a philosopher, he is also vain, and his intelligent, thoughtful variety of vanity means that he will often skip meals while he works. He studies himself in reflective surfaces. Pinches the skin at his hipbone and makes a wrinkle to match the one that appears between his eyebrows. Pensively brings back up the contents of his stomach after lengthy luncheons. If his thighs are too monstrous to fit the seat of the machine, then he has built the seat too small or he intended all along for me to fly it.

I crouch to look at the sparrows. They are horrified by my presence and flap crazily about. Their activity makes something in the machine hum, and its canvas wings twitch as if to flap.

“Caul,” Parmander says, “You are agitating the engine. Come away.”

I come away.

“Where,” I ask, “Is it you’re wanting me to fly this thing?”

“Pshaw,” says Parmander, “You needn’t sound so ill-tempered.”

“Have a tangerine,” I suggest, because tangerines will frequently improve his mood. He refuses the fruit. I have it. I say, “I don’t think there’s any use to having this flying machine. Where is it you want to go with it, other than up into the fog?”

Parmander gazes wistfully out of the garage. The scene before us is a maze of roads, crawling with vehicles driven by gears and powered by bellows thrusting steam and darkened by coal. There is nothing quite as elegant as Parmander’s flying machine, all bleached cotton canvas and whips of golden bamboo. Over all of it is the fog, and below it, the black birds and the pigeons that cannot be troubled to challenge the clouds.

“Through the fog,” Parmander says. “Over the fog. To where the fog ends and the sky begins.”

I have another tangerine as he begins to expound upon how only in the unpolluted air can man truly be free to contemplate the complexities of existence. I should be tidying — geniuses leave a lot of clutter behind — but it seems to me that if I am going to risk my neck going up in the machine, I shouldn’t have to work.

“If I could fit my hideous buttocks into the machine, I would fly to the Tower,” Parmander muses.

He is just trying to bait me now. The Tower is a massive, pre-war stone structure that lays in the middle of a moat. The fixed bridge that takes you over the moat is submerged under a foot of water so that there is no way to get to the tower itself without getting wet. This is because the Tower contains a breed of cloaked monsters who cannot cross water. They are forbidden to come in contact with humans — not that this is likely to happen as precious few cross the flooded bridge to the island.

“And convert the monsters to Parmanderty,” I say. This is what Parmander has named his brand of philosophy. It revolves around purification and denial and clarity of thought and women not wanting to have sex with you. There are finer points, but that is the bulk of it.

Parmander adjusts the rudder of the machine. “Breaths,” he says. “Not monsters. St. Vladimir’s Breaths, that’s what we knew them as, because they were so quiet. Get in the machine so I can strap you in.”

I get in. The seat is small and uncomfortable and pinches parts I’d rather not pinch. It wouldn’t have pinched Parmander any worse than me, however. He straps my foot down in a place that will be difficult for me to reach myself if I crash.

“Knew them as when?”

“When I was a student at the Tower,” Parmander says. The birds are beginning to flap around again, and the whole machine is humming. I feel it in the foot Parmander has strapped down. It feels like it is buzzing up my leg. He straps down my other foot.

“I didn’t know you were a student at the Tower.”

Parmander lays a strap across my waist and pulls it tight. Now I can feel the entire machine thrumming, the wings thinking of flapping even if they are not already. “I was there for twelve years, Caul,” he says. “That is when we built them.”

The machine is shaking the heartbeat out of me. “You . . . built . . . the monsters?”

“That is why they cannot cross the water,” Parmander concurs. Disconcertingly, he binds my hands to the steering device. “The current that runs through their gears and brains would short out if they put their feet in it.”

I can feel the power of the machine working all through my body, from my feet on the copper foot plates to the hard seat to my fingers bound to the metal of the steering wheel. The wings are starting to buffet air beneath them. I can barely hear the birds flying around in their bamboo cage.

“But you will not have to worry about that,” Parmander says. “Because you are flying over it.”

The machine is flying, flapping, pulsing, throbbing in time with the beat of my heart and I realize, suddenly, that I am the machine and the machine is me. I am not so much lashed on as plugged in.

“When,” I gasp, as the flying machine lurches forward and the birds howl. I feel gears grind inside me, tendons tied onto wire, wire embedded in lungs, lungs fed by bellows, bellows turned by screws. “When did you build me?”

“When I needed you,” Parmander replies. He shakes his head as he looks at my unchangeable form. Now, I can see the wistful envy, the same that he directed at the sky earlier.

Parmander is giving me directions to the Tower, telling me all of mankind wants nothing more than to return to its point of origin, and that is where we shall find perfection, only it is a we I am no longer a part of. I cannot listen to him. As the birds and my fearful body power the flying machine, I am building a new philosophy.

Author’s Note: I’ve never tried Steampunk before . . .

image from JosephB

47 thoughts on “The Philospher’s Flight

  1. There are finer points, but that is the bulk of it.

    For having never tried Steampunk, I think you’ve made a very good beginning. It’s got a Jekyll/Hyde feel as well as a disturbing sprinkle of Frankenstein. I’d love to read a novel of yours in this genre once you’re done with the whole werewolf thing.

  2. Creepy……………..
    And, Goddess, but Parmander is a brilliant genius! And also kind of mad…

    But he built a human machine! And monsters!!! EEK!

  3. Thanks! I like the idea of steampunk very much, in a kind of oh-I-rarely-read-steampunk-but-the-visuals-sound-amazing sort of way. But I just talking with friends over the dinner on Wednesday, saying that I couldn’t do steampunk until I worked out what my metaphor was, my purpose for using it, because otherwise, it’s just a very pretty setting.

  4. I expected a twist but not that one!! WOW!
    That is the most amazing story I am actually lost for words.

  5. Ooh – steampunk!! I liked it – love the characters and the dialog and the details, and can’t believe all that from a photo of birds against a dark sky. Awesome. : )

  6. I try my best to make all my supernatural stuff Mean Something Else.

    And thank you!

  7. That is neat! I’d never heard of steampunk until I started reading on the internet, and along with Cakewrecks, it is probably my favourite random discovery of things that every one else had known all along. πŸ˜‰

  8. P’s eating disorder versus Caul’s existence, the things in the Tower being called “St. Vladimir’s Breaths,” the fog: lots to think about in this one. I have a feeling I’ll be rereading it and niggling at it for days.

  9. Thank you. πŸ™‚ The ones that niggle are the ones that I am most pleased with.

  10. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to try my hand at steampunk. I love it, but it’s such an intimidating genre. I think you did a fantastic job, though. πŸ˜€

    Have you read AIRBORN by Kenneth Oppel? It’s steampunk YA, and it’s AWESOME. I am in awe of it.

  11. You may have never tried Steampunk before, but gosh, you’re making me want to read more of it! (Which is saying a lot, because despite how big of a genius Scott Westerfeld is, I’ve been too wary to crack open my copy of Leviathan yet *because* of the Steampunk-ness.) You’ve really captured me with this voice, and I just love that twist at the end!

  12. Thank you! I haven’t, actually. I haven’t read a lot of steampunk — LEVIATHAN was the most recent one. I think I recall that AIRBORN has an awesome cover?

  13. You’ll have to let me know what you think of Leviathan, because I HAVE read it. And I felt like it was for a younger audience than my favorite Westerfelds.

    And thanks. πŸ™‚

  14. Seriously? Must you be good at EVERYTHING? I can’t believe that was your first attempt at steampunk! Pretty amazing. πŸ˜€

    I love that Parmander created all of these different contraptions, including his assistent. He’s a genius, if not a creepy one. And that last line was gold.

    I usually don’t read a lot of steampunk. It’s kind of hard for me to get into; I have to reread things over before I fully understand what, exactly, the machine is doing. But this was very good. I applaud you (as well as glare at you for being overly awesome) on your first try at this.

  15. Thank you — I think a diehard steampunk fan might look at this and say: “poser” — in the same way that diehard werewolf fans would look at Shiver and say “poser!”

    But for me, I don’t want to try any supernatural genre until I can figure out what my metaphor is, why it matters to me, what it’s trying to talk about. And so me and friends were talking about steampunk and it got me to thinking about what it COULD stand for, which is where this came from.

  16. I loved this ^_^ it was funny and then sad. If or when you write a steam-punk novel I will be sure to pick it up!

  17. i think you’re a really talented writer:) i was reading one of your books and my friends been begging me for it ever since πŸ™‚


  18. Over all of it is the fog, and below it, the black birds and the pigeons that cannot be troubled to challenge the clouds.


    Also, I was wondering the whole time why Caul was bothering to work for Mr. Parmander, and was quite satisfied with the reason. Hehehe.

  19. Duh, for the same reason that Megan Fox helps the Transformers.

    Oh, wait. Wait, okay, I’m still wondering on that one . . .

  20. I don’t know if anyone pointed this out yet, but I think it’s great how ironic the first line becomes at the end!

    “My name is Scott Anthony Caul, and I am E. M. Parmander’s only living assistant.”

    I feel like this is one of those stories that if you stare at them long enough, everything begins to change. The more I think about it, the more I see, and you have me wondering if you did that on purpose. Either way, thanks a lot for this. Not bad, considering the last steampunk I (re)read was Frankenstein, and I may be unintentionally comparing!

  21. Hahah — I’ll take that comparison. And yes, I did it on purpose! πŸ™‚ I’m so glad you’re finding more everytime you look.

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