Monday, 1 August 2016

Tales from Norlandia, Part 8

The penultimate Flash Fiction, exploring the world of Norlandia. This time, we go inside a power station or “Local,” as they are more commonly known.

Inside the Local
Amberon Wilsh was the floor manager at the High-Top Local in Aserol, where steam power for a large part of the upper town was produced. He ran the floor like a military operation, indeed before this employment he had been a supply corps Captain and knew how to keep things moving.
Pushing open the doors from the equipment room, where he had put on his helmet and ear corks, he entered a vision of some dark underworld.
The room was vast and the ceiling high, it had to be to accommodate the boilers; fifty feet high and polished steel. A web of piping crossed the room at just above head height, connecting the equipment. It was all coloured to show what it contained and arrows indicated the direction of flow. There was blue for water and green for low-pressure steam. The largest pipes were red, wrapped in a mixture of wool and clay; they contained the high-pressure steam that was the product of the floor. A cluster of these pipes led away underground in the far corner of the room, heading out in various directions to the premises that took the supply.
At the bottom of each boiler was the furnace. In the old days, each would have been tended by teams of stokers, shovelling coal into the hungry maw of the firebox. These men were a special breed, stunted in height from the constant bending, with huge shoulders and arm muscles they could shovel for an hour before being replaced by a fresh team.
Some of the older Locals still used men this way, Amberon knew; but here at the High-Top, they had embraced the latest innovation from the Ministry.
In a separate room, huge rollers crushed the coal into a powder, even this was automatic, the power coming from the plants own production. Lorries from the mines of Waster tipped their loads of roughhewn coal into a chute leading to the rollers. The powdered coal was fed into the furnaces by a belt system. The conversion had been costly but efficiency had improved.
Amberon walked slowly among the equipment, passing men oiling moving parts and checking the various gauges and clockwork counters. They were stripped to shorts and heavy boots. Their torsos were dust and sweat stained but they had a much easier life these days. With waving arms and signs they greeted Amberon, each carried a small slate and a chalk. It was a quick way to pass information in the din. Amberon copied their notes onto his own notebook; everything appeared to be working well. He stopped and watched for a while as the belts fed coal powder into the furnaces and examined a few valves at random.
Satisfied with his inspection, he passed through another set of doors into the spring-box shop.
Here steam power was converted into a usable form for places and applications that were apart from a supply. The problem was one of distance. The Local could produce high-pressure steam over a large distance but never enough to fulfil all needs. And some places were just too remote.
The spring-box was the answer. It consisted of several springs driving a shaft with a coupling. By a system of gears and clutches, each spring uncoiled in turn, supplying steady power to the shaft. Other springs were wound in opposing directions and were tightened by the friction of resistance in the discharge. Thus a lot of power was housed in the box. The Local rented the boxes to users, collecting and exchanging them as required. Smaller boxes in many sizes for household uses could be purchased and charged manually or from the dwelling supply, these large ones required clean high-pressure steam to overcome the springs.
The noise here was muted and Amberon removed his ear corks. Boxes of all sizes were lined up on the stone floor, and the winding gear hung from the ceiling. A jointed steel tube, it had a rotating inner core with a female coupling on the end. Guided by two men the coupling was placed over the male on the box. There was a rapid clicking noise as the ratchet was overcome and the springs wound. A third man watched the charge needle. At just under full charge, this man waved his arm and the gear was disengaged. All the power was now held by the ratchet.
“How goes it?” asked Amberon of one of the winding crews.
“A busy day,” replied the other. “We have a lot of large boxes to do and we have found a problem with some of the overwind clutches, they have been placed over there,” he indicated a stack of boxes to one side. “We are disconnecting manually for a time for any box of that batch.”
Amberon nodded, he understood the nature of the problem and appreciated the man’s caution. A clutch was supposed to disengage the winder at just under full charge. If it did not then the spring could snap with the load.
Amberon had seen the result of over winding, the full power of the coiled metal was released in an instant and the box frame, although sturdy, simply blew apart under the imbalance of forces. Wood and metal shards scattered over a large area, as fatal as any munitions, the flying steel could cut a man in half.
“I’ll get Maxim and his engineers to take a look,” he said, slapping the man on the back. “Take care in the meantime.” He made another note in his book.
Amberon passed through more doors and across the yard to the final part of his domain, the gas works.
Here coal was baked in batches in sealed vessels; the gas given off was piped into storage and released into pipes that ran underground with the steam supply. The gas lit the streets and cooked the meals. Still more was stored in cylinders; these were sold for portable supplies. Nothing was wasted; the residue of the baked coal could be used in steel making. The bake was in full swing and the place deserted. Amberon checked gauges and made more notes.
Amberon entered the hut at the entrance of the works, set in a high wall it contained several people working adding machines and writing in ledgers. A stream of steam lorries passed in both directions, carrying coal in, spring boxes in both directions and gas cylinders. The whole seemed like a version of chaos but was, in fact, well-ordered by such men as Amberon. The whole place was evidence of the triumph of modern science over its most pressing needs, light and heat and power. The minor problem with the clutches would be solved by his engineers.
“All is well in the plant,” he said to no-one in particular as he helped himself to char.
The last piece, "Ministry of Invention," will be published on August 15th, the novel itself on September 1st. 

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