The Holy Church of England teaches us that the souls of those who sin are cleansed in the burning heat of hellfire. As I toil with a pick, prying lumps of coal from frozen earth with hands always touching the barest edge of frostbite, I sometimes wonder if they were wrong. I wonder if it wasn’t the Norsemen who were right, the pagan barbarians from my half-remembered history lessons. The Norsemen believed that the dishonored dead were sentenced to an eternity of bitter, bloody cold.
In 1885, the British Empire was at the height of its power. The Werhner core had revolutionized the efficiency of steam power, to the point where the crudeness of the simple locomotive’s engine was laughable. Airships plied the skies, land Dreadnoughts carried goods where neither ocean nor rail could reach, and the Difference Engine allowed for mechanical computation of unprecedented complexity, and sparked a revolution of technology. With automatic prototyping machines, a new revolution of industrial technology was sparked and powered by steam. In the latter months of 1885, the greatest marvel of engineering yet conceived by man was revealed; The Automaton. Like the rest of the new world of wondrous technology, the lifeblood of the automata was steam, and using less then ten pounds of coal it could replace an entire crew of workers for the best part of a day. The brightest minds of the generation predicted an era of unprecedented prosperity.
At least… it was for me and mine. It was a bitter truth of the era of the reign of Victoria that the lower class needed to be more involved than ever before in the lives of the nobility. The farms and workshops could no longer be deftly hidden out of sight and mind of the high and mighty of London. Suddenly they needed more than mere workshops to work in to earn their livings; they needed factories with access to steam power, they needed trained engineers to service and maintain the delicate mechanisms that stamped and bent and forged the tools of the new world. They also needed food and housing, because as London grew so did the need for longer shifts and the less tolerant factory schedules were for the long walks between cheap housing and factories close enough to steam hubs.
London grew grey with ash even as engineers unveiled new and impressive ways to condition and clean the air of the homes of the wealthy. The population grew and what food there was spread thinner and thinner, almost faster than the development of new clinking, clanking machines build to rip food from the ground more efficiently than ever before. Coal burned, ash spread, and London grew.
In the summer of 1886, the snowstorms began. Frost spread through the heat of summer, killing crops and causing food shortages throughout the empire. Behind closed doors the more callous of the House of Lords called the shortages a boon, a tool to control the masses and justify the replacement of laborers with the Automata that needed no food save the hard black gold of coal running in rich seams through the earth. I was part of a fairly well-off coalition of merchants, and did well enough for myself. The high and mighty of London did what they did best… ignored what only affected the masses beneath us. We lived like that for some months, on fruits and meats and spices delivered by rail from the southern colonies, over the Great Mediterranean Rail line. Life went on for a short while, all were blissfully unaware of the storm on the horizon as the number of workers dwindled and food rose higher and higher in price.
In the winter of 1886 the temperature plummeted. The snows in summer gave way to blizzards in the autumn, the mercury falling to ten below zero by November. The hushed laughter of the cruel died quickly. Glass cracked and pipes creaked as everyone who could huddled by radiators and steam pipes. Automatons, dedicated to sweeping the streets of snow, needed their difference engines recalibrated. They needed to be told where to put the bodies that regularly formed the base of snowdrifts.
Food shipments became rarer and rarer. The engineers aboard the train reported that the cold had spread farther and farther south. There were worries the cold was weakening the metal of the Werhner core. Even the wealthy went hungry. Rumors spread that the Queen herself had died and the house of nobles were abusing the power vacuum to act in her stead and support themselves. People grew more and more desperate. I remember one specific incident more than any other. I’ll take the memory to my temporary grave in the snow pit.
I had dropped in on an acquaintance of mine, Quincy, with an extra bottle of lamp oil I was planning on giving him as gift, in return for him fixing my radiator. I pushed open the door. I saw him holding a very large knife. I saw the cut of meat on the table. I saw the rest of the corpse behind him. The bloody clothes of a factory worker soaked in the sink. I fled into the cold and never saw him again, the bottle of oil cracked and wasted, freezing against the cobblestones. I try my best to purge that memory every single day. I do my best to keep the daily soup down. I do my best to not think about where around half the meat comes from.
Things turned from bad to worse when the train pulled off one day, the boiler steaming in the freezing air. A few short minutes after it disappeared over the horizon, a bone-rattling sound boomed through the city, shattering what few windows had survived the cold and the heavy insulating boards. Smoke rose from just behind the horizon. Every soul still living in the city knew there would be no more shipments.
There was a mass exodus. Nobody could agree on where to go, but everyone knew that only the cold remained in London. I was one of the lucky few. Around a hundred, me included, were crammed into a Great Land Dreadnought, packed with enough coal to get us across the frozen sea to the north. Most who left went south, but the Captain of the Dreadnought convinced us that our salvation was north. Not much colder than the equator at this point, and much, much richer than the south in one critical area. Coal. For as the winter wore on, the temperature fell farther and farther and frostbite surpassed even hunger as the primary danger of London.
We lost twenty seven on the journey. Three died trying to repair the great steam boiler of the Dreadnought, limbs crushed between shuddering gears or scalded entirely by boiling water and killed out of mercy. The rest died to frostbite or hunger on the long march ahead. We were numb to the pain, the shock. We took their cloaks, their lamps, their rations, and left their bodies in the snow. We marched for miles. We finally came to it. Our salvation.
A steam-powered Iron foundry, with a Werhner core at its heart. Those of us with enough strength left heaved coal into the hopper. Doused it in lamp oil to kindle the flames. We lit the brazier. Heat began to fill the rocky crater we found the machinery in. Ice began to melt. I wept. I was not alone.
The foundry was built upon where a seam of coal met a pocket of iron-rich ore, and was perfect for our miniature colony, the workers having abandoned it long ago. The glowing orange metal spread beautiful, blissful heat through the burning cold, thawing bitter Helheim. Our lives were still unbelievably hard. We lost person after person to the bitter snow, and the lack of food. What little we had, we scrounged, from the corpses of frozen deer found in the wastelands, and the cans in basements of little cottages and caves. Teams of scavengers hiked for miles, clutching hunks of red-hot iron in special metal carrying boxes, trying to find some nourishment and return before the glow fades and the heat disappears. Food was carefully rationed by The Captain, but it was still hard.
The worst day came when we were down to sixty-two souls. We had found no food in several days and the last of our stores had disappeared. Our Captain decreed that times were truly desperate. He decreed that resources shouldn’t go unused. He orated and cried to the heavens, offering his flesh to stoke the fires and his blood to oil the chains of hope. He sparked a feeling in all of us we had nearly forgot. Passion. Some kernel of hope for the future. Any emotion other than the need to stave off the darkness of eternal rest for one more miserable day. It was almost enough to make me forget why he was making this speech. He knew we needed food. He knew that we had over a hundred pounds of meat buried in snow, perfectly frozen a few hundred meters outside the heat zone of the foundry.
In Helheim, the frost can kill an unprotected man in seconds. All who can stand need to toil, to work harder than the poorest of factory workers, to free nuggets of coal from the frozen earth. All need to feed the furnace. In Helheim, the soup is made with melted snow, and thickened with sawdust, and tastes of pork.
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