Fantasy Science Fiction beetles

Apprentice in the Steam Library

By Daniel Ausema
Jul 6, 2021 · 3,505 words · 13 minutes


Photo by Alfons Morales via Unsplash.

From the author: Jossian is an apprentice librarian, a public-facing human in a library staffed primarily by constructs. Still a child, she is the only one small enough to enter the library tunnels when one of those constructs gets stuck on its track. She learns that the tunnels hide more chaos than the masters of the library will admit.

Jossian arranged an old, hard-covered manual on her chair so she could sit high enough. Then with a steadying breath to prepare herself for the day's patrons, she flipped the toggle at her assigned desk. With a hiss of released air, the shutter over the window pulled up into the ceiling. A line of people already waited. Beyond them, the open doors of the library showed that the sun had yet to rise, but the gas-lit street cobbles were plainly visible. Steam cars and beetle-drawn carriages rushed past.

"I am Assistant Jossian," she said to the first in line, trying to sound older than her eleven years. "What can I retrieve for you?"

The slight man wore a riding cap, which he left on even as he spoke to her, and his long coat had been brushed to a gleam. "Beetle training. Manual 1374."

"Coming right up." Jossian pressed a sequence of switches. The librarian construct on its tracks behind her came to life with a  hiss and a whirr of gears and rattled off down one of the library's passageways. While they waited for the machine to return, Jossian asked, "A new shipment of beetles coming in?"

The man raised one eyebrow and then shut his eyes. She could read that look, almost as if his face were a manual in the library. It said that she was just a little girl, just an apprentice who certainly knew nothing of the city's vaunted riding beetles.

"No," he said at last, and nothing more until the librarian returned, a thick, metal-bound manual in its pincer hand.

Jossian opened the book to the punch card inside. The man handed her his punch card, and she lined them up to shine the record onto photographic paper. As she did, she looked more closely at the manual. "Beetle training" was accurate, as far as it went, but the manual specifically dealt with grounding a mount that had been accustomed to flight.

Sometimes it was necessary for an older beetle's health to ground it, clip its wings and keep it for pulling transoms and carriages. More often, an owner tired of the novelty of flight, and chose to clip a perfectly healthy beetle. Clipped beetles could be irascible and often lived shorter lives, but if controlled, they were much faster than beetles that had never flown.

What an ugly fact of their city. Jossian frowned and quickly covered the frown with a cough. The last thing an apprentice in the library should do was show revulsion for any book requested by a patron. Such behavior was beneath her.

She darted a look at the man to see if he'd caught her frown—or if he showed any shame for the request—but he was looking over his shoulder at the street outside.

"Here it is, sir. Manual 1374. You'll need to return it or—"

"Yes, I know how it works." He grabbed the thick book and punch card from her hands and left.

Jossian forced a smile as the next patron approached. The woman wore the sturdy clothes of a factory overseer and had her card already out.

Before Jossian could greet her, Master Koosz came up from behind and leaned through the window, one hand held out. "This window is closed. You may go to the next available assistant." Then he pulled the shutter down.

Swiveling to face him, Jossian cocked her head. "Master?"

Master Koosz stepped back so his large belly was not pressed against her chair, and gestured for her to follow. As he walked away, his somber, library master robes swayed like a fluid entity, wrapping around him as if of its own volition. One of the library's two masters, he oversaw the apprentices in the morning until Jossian's aunt, the stern Master Onnia, took over.

Onnia herself was waiting for Jossian and Koosz when they reached the back room. Her robes were smudged with the grease of working deep in the library. Without preamble she told Jossian, "Librarian three is acting up. Again. I can't get deep enough into the mechanism to see what's wrong, so I need you to go check."

"Yes, Aunt—I mean, Master." She glanced up at Koosz to see if there were any instructions from him, but he waved her onward.

Onnia called to her as she went, “If I can get one of the auxiliaries running, I'll send that out, see if it can narrow down the problem. But you'll need to be there to fix things, anyway.” The auxiliaries were even less reliable than the regular constructs, their wiring and clockwork from an earlier era of the library. Jossian wouldn't expect much help from that.

The library proper was not made for people to visit. The librarian constructs ran on their network of tracks back among the books and retrieved what was needed, each of the constructs assigned to a section of the library with its own passages and lines of books. Constructs, though, were much smaller than people and made to fit into narrow spaces and low hallways. Like the children who worked in the city's factories, Jossian and the other apprentices were the ones sent in to those passageways when something went wrong.

Hanging on the wall were several sabretaches full of tools and other gear. Jossian grabbed one and crawled into three's passage. 

The construct was stuck just a few paces down, but if the problem were there, Onnia would have fixed it herself. It was vaguely human-shaped. A head served to scan the coded shelves for the right books. When a librarian acted up, the head was usually where the problem began. Some anomaly along the tracks had confused its gears, and it would refuse to move until the anomaly was fixed. One arm with a pincer hand could carry a single title. The second arm was fixed horizontally and could balance multiple volumes. Its base included the mechanism that drove it along the library tracks.

The fit beside the construct was tight enough that Jossian had to squeeze past, and as she scraped through, her leg became pinned. When she yanked, the construct rolled a click forward, sending a burst of pain up her leg. She bit back a scream. An apprentice shouldn't react to pain. Easy to think, harder to do. 

Once she was sure the construct had frozen in place, Jossian carefully pushed her leg back, feeling the rivets dig into the skin beneath her thin pant leg. She closed her eyes against the pain and pushed harder. At last she tumbled through and lay panting in the passage beyond.

Waves of pain washed up her leg. She should go back, get it bandaged. Did she really want to have to go back and forth past the construct, though? She turned halfway around and stared out into the light. No. Better to just tough it out, get the librarian working and get back out to her real work. A good apprentice didn't turn back so soon just because of a scrape.

Only the light that shone past the construct illuminated the passage. Jossian crawled into the darkness, hearing the hiss of steam pipes beside her. When she'd first come to the library, Jossian had thought of the constructs as the librarians, and everything else as the library, but really these tracks and the coded bumps that directed the constructs were as much the librarian as the more animate-seeming construct.

Even crawling, she limped, and soon her crawl was a three-limbed shuffle, with the injured leg dragging behind.

At the first intersection, Jossian dropped down onto a lower track. Widely spaced lights, powered by the library's steam generator, flipped on. Onnia must be doing what she could from her end to make Jossian's search easier. Good. If only she could send a bandage too. Or a pain tincture.

She pulled herself along, watching the identical spines of the books pass by. The pale metal of the covers blurred, one into the next. Manuals on the specs for every imaginable type of boiler. Manuals on the construction and maintenance of carriages and steam wagons. Those for factory owners on presses of all shapes and on dealing with angry workers. On textile mills and the least necessities for the weavers who slaved inside. The books she passed might be any of those, and the only way she would know would be to pull one out and read inside. Each one was stamped with a number, no more, and the bumps beside the track told the constructs what book it would find, but not her.

After another split in the tunnel, Jossian noticed something lying beside the track. An obstacle. Could easily cause the glitchy construct to become unmoored. Something easy to fix, and she could go back up. She hadn't realized how much she was hating the cramped passageway until she thought about leaving it.

The object was a book. Not a manual, though, as the steam libraries used the term to distinguish regular books from the types they lent out—not a uniform shape like the others, and covered in sturdy paper, rather than metal. It was skinnier and not as tall, and on its spine was a title in actual words. She picked it up and carried it to the next dim light bulb. There were stories inside, a serial that looked to have been collected from a newspaper, made-up stuff about agitators and malcontents, as far as Jossian's skimming showed her. An interesting find, certainly, and if it had stayed where it was, it might have eventually caused the librarian to break down.

It was not, however, the cause of the current breakdown. The constructs, and especially number three, were well beyond their years and easily tripped up, but not usually over something quite that small. She put the book in her sabretache and crawled back the way she'd come. 

After a few minutes she reached a steep stairs leading upward. A remnant of an earlier, pre-librarian library, she'd always supposed, since no tracks led up it.

Her leg buckled when she tried to climb. With her eyes closed, she summoned enough strength in her arms to hop on her good leg from step to rung-like step. She didn't open her eyes until she fell across the floor of the alcove at the top. 

The room tilted dizzily as she caught her breath. Then she was able to see the close shelves, lined with books of all sizes, covered in cloth or paper or crumbling leather. Not a single one had a number stamped on its spine. Not one of them was a bland, put-the-wires-here manual. The wall behind the shelf was a mass of twisting pipes from the boiler below.

The room had been in use by other apprentices long before Jossian found it. Perhaps even her aunt and Master Koosz had once climbed up there to leave behind the odd books they found—remnants, like the stairs, of an earlier library.

Jossian ran her fingers lightly over the books, pulled down a favorite to gaze at its colors. Then she set it down and turned the new book over in her hands. It definitely wasn't one she'd seen before. It must have been wedged among the manuals, hidden for years before it recently came free. The thought made her forget the pain in her leg, and she stretched out to read a few pages of the new book.

No one spoke of the history of the library, so Jossian had come up with her own guesses. It must have once been a general library for people to come and read, full of the kinds of books still sold, used, in little stands along the harbor. Then some great inventor came up with the librarian constructs to make the library work easier. They could effortlessly re-shelve books, freeing up the human librarians for other work. What exactly that other work had been, Jossian wasn't sure.

Over time, more and more of the library work passed to the constructs. For them, uniform manuals made the work easier, so the books were replaced volume by volume until only these few old-fashioned books remained, lost. The old stacks, shelves like those in this little room, were divided and subdivided into passages that made the work more efficient. No need to climb up and down or reach high and low, but only run along on their tracks.

But how had this little room escaped all that? Here Jossian's imagination faltered. Had the constructs themselves taken over the construction of the tracks and passages? That might explain it. The machines might have been programmed in a way that made them miss the ladder and the little room. Or maybe some subversive human engineer had willfully left it behind. For Jossian and other apprentices like her.

Her leg felt better by the time Jossian climbed down. Not entirely healed, but not so stiff. Maybe it was no more than the calming effect of sitting in that room and reading old books. It was her refuge from the rest of the work in those rare times when she could go there and hide away for a short while. 

Crawling made a dull throb return to the leg, not enough to slow her down. She pulled herself through the passages again, in search of anything that might cause the librarian to malfunction.

After a half dozen cramped passages, Jossian heard the clinking sound of a construct. Was it one of the other librarians, their noise traveling through the walls from their own, separate passages? It seemed to be moving back and forth, which no librarian construct would do—they only traveled to their destination and straight back to the desk. Maybe her aunt had managed to get one of the auxiliaries to work. Jossian tried to follow the sound.

Her palms were sore from crawling by the time she saw the construct. An auxiliary librarian, as she'd guessed. It took note of her, the lens of its camera-obscura eye flashing in the lamp light. On the wall it shone an image of a message, in her aunt's precise hand.

Using the auxiliary and some other tools, Onnia had narrowed down where in the library the damage was. One of several lower levels, way on the edge of the library, where the books sometimes had frost on cold days. Jossian punched in an acknowledgment and sent the auxiliary back.

The edge of the library was hot today. She thought the sun must be beating directly on that wall, and wished she could see the sun herself. She was so rarely allowed outside the library during daytime hours, and even when she was, the sky was almost invariably overcast or spitting drizzle.

Jossian found nothing on the first level she tried and climbed down just below that. On the third level she finally noticed something odd. The books on one small stretch of shelf had fallen onto the track. Pushed, it looked like. She went closer. There was a break in the wall behind the book, a narrow gap that led to the outside.

Training an overhead lamp behind the scattered books, Jossian saw the reason for both the crack in the wall and the broken librarian. A nest of giant beetles, right on the tracks. No wonder the construct had refused to continue. It must have come this way for something, come across the refuse and broken track, and returned to the entrance in a huff. Or whatever the construct version of a huff was. Its gears steamed. A half dozen beetles waved their feelers at her light and clicked their mandibles.

Jossian didn't run, or rather the crawling equivalent of running. She was proud of that fact, and that she didn't scream either. She was an apprentice in the library—screaming and running were surely beneath her.

As she forced herself to stay calm, she noticed the beetles weren't anywhere near full-size riding beetles. These were runts, or a related species that didn't grow as big. Still, the smallest was larger around than her head and almost half as big, and those mandibles looked frighteningly large.

She breathed carefully and assessed her choices. The beetles would have to go. A master would say they must be exterminated. She carried a number of tools with her, though none was ideal for the task. Killing them struck her as unnecessarily cruel.

A stable would be the place to send them. Even if they remained small, a trainer might rig them to a miniature carriage for entertainment. 

She sorted through her gear for what she might need to capture them, but the thoughts kept coming. In a stable, someone would clip their wings, undoubtedly. Jossian thought of the raspy-voiced patron who'd come to her that morning. Mean, little man. She pulled out a sack and spread it out as big as it would go. Too small, but maybe enough for three or four of them. Then she'd need a second sack. Or else she'd have to come back another time.

That didn't seem right, clipping their wings needlessly. They needed a place to stay, just like she had when she'd climbed that ladder. A place to be safe, but not a stable where they'd be clipped. She looked at the space around the beetles. If she could only...

Jossian pawed through her gear, pulling out wrenches of various shapes and a stubby screwdriver. The shelves here, as in most of the steam library, included manuals no one ever checked out. Old law, long since superseded, instructions for obsolete machinery, and the like. She found a half dozen manuals so covered with dust she knew they couldn't have been retrieved since Onnia was an apprentice. Pulling them open, she created a box around the hole in the outside wall. The covers overlapped, with the papers facing in toward the nest. She screwed those together to form a sturdy wall. Then she screwed the tops of the manuals to the top of the shelf, leaving an opening to get the beetles all inside.

It made a good-sized space, wider and deeper than she would have suspected, though there was nothing she could do about the height. The pages, she supposed, would soon be torn into shreds to line the space.

Before closing the rear, she had to get the beetles inside. She took a deep breath. What would those jaws feel like, if they closed around her hand? What would she do if they skittered closer, pushing their way into her clothes or climbing up onto her face? Was screaming or running away actually beneath her after all?

Yes, it was. She pulled her apprentice uniform straight, ignoring the grease stains that covered it, and closed in on the beetles. Using the final book she swept them toward the box and the outside light. The clicking of their mandibles grew louder in protest, but they obliged. Hands shaking, she screwed the last book into place.

They wouldn't get through that. The building itself might have holes in its structure, but those manuals would hold anything out. She tightened a few of the screws as she admired the work. Her fingers regained their steadiness. 

The beetles would live. Maybe have some babies, but probably not. From what she'd heard, the city's beetles never reproduced here, only far to the south. They'd fly, when they chose to fly, and find this place away from the streets when they needed it. She brushed her hands on her shirt and sat back.

The box jutted out into the passage. With her wrenches, she disassembled the tracks and shifted them around the box. The displaced manuals, the ones the beetles had pushed from the shelf, would need re-shelving, and the coding for that was beyond what her tools could do. She gathered them up to take with her.

They'd probably have to remove the construct's central spring, let it unwind fully, and then wind it up again to get it moving. But now it wouldn't simply start into the passages and shut down again. Maybe her aunt could pull the construct back out the other way to do that work, so Jossian wouldn't have to push past it. The thought made the dull ache of her leg return.

The library would be fine, even with the track adjustment. Librarian construct number three would click on past, none the wiser, its gears and circuits unconcerned with the narrowing of the passage. And the manuals, all but the old dusty ones she'd made into a box, would be available to the library's patrons.

Already as she left, Jossian knew she wouldn't tell the masters what the problem had been. A fallen shelf, that might work. She'd fixed it, but it had been overloaded—the books she carried must be shelved in a new location. It was believable, something a good steam library apprentice might have done.

Merely a good apprentice was beneath Jossian's ambition.


This story originally appeared in Steampunk: the Other Worlds.

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Spire City, Season One: Infected

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets. But there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.

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Daniel Ausema

Daniel Ausema writes lyrical tales of other worlds, stories of strangeness and wonder.

  • Delicious
    July 25, 7:31pm

    Love Jossian & her library. I was hooked from beginning to end.--Ing



    • danielausema
      July 28, 12:11am

      Thanks, Ing!