River of Light
Transcolumbian Telegraph Line
Boston-Maine Transmission Log
Evening, September 2, 6459
Maine: The aurora is strong again tonight. My transmitter is behaving erratically.
Boston: Same here. Please cut off your generator entirely for fifteen minutes.
Maine: Will do so. It is now disconnected.
Boston: Mine is disconnected as well, and we are running on the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?
Maine: Better than with our generators on.
Boston: Suppose we work without generators while we are affected by this trouble.
Maine: Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?
Boston: Yes. Go ahead.
Artemis Malcolm stood in front of the Freyberg streetcar depot
watching the Aurora Borealis meander across the crisp evening sky above
The summer days in 6509 had been notoriously hot, and as
the cool night air set in had made Artemis’ nose run slightly.
Luckily a handkerchief was part of his uniform; on a day like today
Artemis wouldn’t have thought to carry one.
uniform was navy blue with a line of brass buttons down the jacket.
Though Artemis was just a scrawny eighteen year old, the outfit gave
him an air of authority that made him take pride in his job as a
“Hey, Charlie, the aurora is back again tonight!” Artemis shouted into the open car barn.
“So?” Charlie was replacing the pistons of a partially dismantled electric engine.
beautiful, that’s what’s ‘so’. Come and see it,
it might go away any minute. It’s pretty.”
irritating, if you ask me. You weren't on duty Tuesday night when the
aurora came and disrupted the power to the entire system. The power
came back on just in time.” Charlie said.
“That’s too bad.”
“What? That the power came back on?”
“No, that the lights vanished before I had a chance to see them.”
snorted. “You’re full of stuffing kid. Being a motorman on
an electric railway and liking magnetic storms is like being a
ship’s captain and being fond of cyclones.”
up Charlie, it’s not every day that we can see the aurora as far
south as we are. It’s been some fifty years since the last time
this has happened, and you never know if it will ever happen
“Thats nice Artemis, but as long as
those pretty lights are out in the sky, we both have got to worry about
the electricity going out again, and if that happens Mr.
Woodrick’s guests will be stranded here in Nineva and they
won’t be very be interested in giving him money now will
The reminder gave Artemis pause. The owner, Mr.
Woodrick had been giving a tour of the tramway to a gathering of
important people from the United States of Columbia to convince them to
fund a renovation project.
Mr. Woodrick emerged from the depths
of the workshop guiding a small crowd of wealthy looking men and women,
all better dressed for a ballroom event than this dingy streetcar depot.
that, ladies and gentlemen will conclude the tour of our facilities
here this evening.” Mr. Woodrick announced proudly. “I
would now be honored to provide you all with a ride to the harbor for
your ship back to New York.”
Mr. Woodrick helped each
guest on board the private luxury streetcar, “City of
Freyberg” which had been built for carrying important people like
the mayor and his friends.
The tram was like a small yacht on
wheels and had wide open verandahs with wrought iron railings on each
end, fine mahogany interiors and mirrored cabinets from which a waiter
served drinks and snacks to the guests in the little parlor.
reluctantly broke his gaze from the aurora and did a brief inspection
of his car as the passengers boarded. He knew everything had been well
oiled at the start of the day, all the bolts were good and tight and
the trolley pole on the car’s roof was attached firmly to the
He neatened up his uniform and climbed
aboard City of Freyberg, assuming his position on the frontmost
verandah where his controls were laid out before a little stool for him
to sit on. The verandas and the parlor were packed with guests, and the
waiter was already passing out the first of the tiny caviar and
cucumber sandwiches he had prepared during the layover.
everyone on board then?” Mr. Woodrick asked the crowd.
“Then Artemis, could you please release the brakes so we may
begin our journey back to the harbor yard?” He announced
“Yes Sir! Right away Sir!” Artemis
replied enthusiastically as he opened up the brake valve and with a
hiss of air and a clang of the bell the car propelled itself out of the
garage and into the open street. Charlie saluted City of Freyberg as it
rolled past, and the passengers waved back to him.
The depot was
out of the way on a side-street in the middle of the meat packing
district, and there was little traffic to slow the car down as Artemis
carefully rounded the sharp swerve onto the Third Avenue line.
pressed on the throttle and City of Freyberg surged forward, her
electric engines whirring and the overhead wire spewing sparks as she
rocketed down the street past horse wagons and steam buses. A
gramophone in the parlor began to play a recording of Scott
Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, and the car became a high
class party on wheels as it cruised through the streets.
Mr. Woodrick came up from behind Artemis and patted him on the shoulder.
going Artemis. I knew I could count on you for this. The visitors are
impressed and if they keep drinking they way they have been
they’re sure to give us all the funds we need. Just keep it
steady on the hill, the last thing we need is for people to be spilling
their drinks. I just got the floor varnished and all that you
“Yes, Sir. I will Sir. Thank you Sir.”
Artemis said, keeping his hand on the throttle and his eyes on the
An man came up from behind holding a drink, beckoning the host’s attention.
“So, I take it that this entire operation is done by electric traction, correct?”
yes, of course. Nearly all that is, the last mile from 116th street
down to the harbor still needs electrification, so I’ve chartered
a motorcoach to take us the rest of the way. That is why we’re
looking for investors you see, and speaking of investments, once we
come around this bend there happens to be a vacant lot beside an old
warehouse that looks like just the spot for that new bubble gum plant
you were talking about building. I happen to own that property at the
moment, and seeing as I have no plans for it…”
sunk back into the task of driving the tram as the street twisted out
of the gloomy meat packing sector and into the open bustle of the
theatre district, which was lined with gaudy nickelodeons, opera houses
and kinescope parlors.
When the road straightened out and and
the warehouses vanished, Artemis again had a clear view of the sky, and
the aurora. It seemed to have grown in size, and along it’s
fringes fringes drifted clouds of luminescent dust.
on the decks began crowding around the railings to see the sky, and
soon nearly the entire party were vying to get a glimpse of the aurora.
land, what a gorgeous sight Darling. If only we had brought along our
photographer.” Said a woman from somewhere near Artemis.
“Photographs are useless for capturing the aurora dear, the result just looks like smoke.” Her husband replied.
Bessemer, what exactly is it that causes these lights to occur?”
Asked a man standing just near enough to be heard clearly.
Lucas, it’s a matter we’ve only quite recently begun to
understand in any real scientific capacity.” Said a gruff, older
voice. Artemis glanced to his left to catch a glimpse of it’s
owner, a man in a tall top hat with a curled grey mustache.
was once assumed that the auroras were caused by stores of radium
trapped beneath the earth’s surface beneath the pole, but that
theory was discarded after a team of explorers was sent there to mine
it out and found nothing but magnetized rock.
haven’t been visible this far south of the Arctic Circle since
the magnetic storm of 6459, and disruptions in telegraph operations in
the United States proved a connection between the aurora and electric
currents. The consensus now is that these magnetic storms may be an
ordinary behavior of the planet’s atmosphere, like lightning
strikes and cyclones and such.”
Artemis struggled to keep
his mind on the task of driving the tram as he eavesdropped on the
doctor’s explanation. In the theatre district there were many
carts and coaches sharing the road with him, and as the young motorman
fought to keep his eyes on the road and off the sky he had been forced
to brake abruptly several times to avoid hitting them.
himself driving with one hand on the throttle and the other on the
bell, having to clang it constantly as he navigated the streets as
though he were driving a fire engine to the scene of a blaze.
few people out on the streets seemed to notice or care about what was
taking place in the sky above their city. It was strange, Artemis
thought, how people would pay for tickets to a theatre but never bother
to look up at the night sky for free when a rare phenomenon was taking
As Artemis daydreamed, the City of Freyberg slowed suddenly and jarred him back to alertness.
Artemis muttered aloud as he checked the controls, thinking that he had
mistakenly closed the throttle, but instead he saw that his throttle
was open, nearly all the way in fact. He spun the wheel to release the
brakes, but the tram was still loosing speed fast, and beneath the
floor he knew instantly the sound of the engines losing power.
stands and theatre marquees about the street dimmed gradually and then
shut off, all together at once. City of Freyberg climbed her last few
inches up the avenue, halted for a moment, and then began to roll back
down the incline. Artemis applied the brake quickly and stopped before
more than a few feet had been lost and came to a complete halt just as
the gramophone stopped playing.
The silence among the passengers
came so abruptly it was as though their ability to speak had been shut
down as well as the lights and music. Though darkened in the absence of
electricity, the city was not blacked out completely. There were still
many gas stands lit up and down the streets, and the candles in the
windows of the tenement buildings still flickered in the dark above
While the congregation began uttering their dismay to one
another as they realized that they were stranded, Mr. Woodrick muscled
his way out of the parlor and over to Artemis.
magnetic storm. Figures something like this would happen on a night
like tonight.” The owner sighed. “Can we move at all
“Only downhill sir, we haven’t got a
single watt of power left. It looks like the whole city could be
without energy.” Artemis moved the lever to full throttle to
demonstrate, the engines were completely dead.
“What about the backup batteries? Can we use them?” Mr. Woodrick asked hopefully.
“Actually sir you had Charlie remove the batteries to make space for the drink cabinet.”
it all.” Mr. Woodrick groaned. Artemis could feel the glares and
concerned looks of the guests fixed on his boss. Mr. Woodrick knew he
couldn’t ask them to walk halfway across town and still expect to
receive money from them.
“So, where are we anyway?” He asked.
“We’ve just passed 109th Street sir.”
only seven blocks to go too.” Mr. Woodrick sighed and then
whispered to Artemis. “I’m going to run ahead and find the
motorcoach that should be waiting for us at 116th Street. If the power
comes back on before I return just keep going uphill as far as you
“Yes Sir.” Artemis said obediently.
you can pull a miracle out of this one I swear I’ll make it worth
your while, just do whatever you can and I’ll go try to get
The boss turned his attention back to his guests.
ladies and gentlemen, as you can see this district has unexpectedly
lost power due to the effects of the magnetic storm and this car is
momentarily stranded here. Fortunately I’ve arranged in advance
for a motorcoach to be ready several blocks ahead to carry you beyond
the electrified territory.
I will go ahead myself to fetch your
coach. There is no need for alarm and I promise that you will be in
time for your boat back to Manhattan. While you wait you may wish to
observe the aurora or enjoy a refreshment in the parlor. Now, if
you’ll excuse me...”
Mr. Woodrick clambered over the
rail of his streetcar and opened a compartment hidden beneath the
carriage which contained an old, worn out velocipede. He positioned
himself on the seat and began to pedal up the street, wheels flying as
fast as their bumpy wooden tires would let them.
As Mr. Woodrick
vanished from sight some ways up the avenue and the guests resumed
their drinks and discussions, Artemis slumped on his stool, sulkily
leaning on the control panel with his chin planted on his fist.
was pathetic, Artemis thought. Being chosen against older and more
experienced motormen for this important job and then for this to
happen. Though Artemis knew it wasn’t his fault at all, but still
felt responsible. He thought of adjusting the trolley wire or opening
up the floorboards to look at the engines to give the passengers the
appearance of productivity.
But still, Artemis sat there, and
continued to watch the curtains of light as they flapped gracefully in
the sky. With nothing else to do, he gazed into the aurora as his ears
scanned the chatter around him for interesting gossip.
Bessemer, have you had a chance to read the newest paper from Nicola
Tesla? I’ve heard that it deals with some exciting new
discoveries he has made regarding the aurora and
electromagnetism.” Asked a young man who sounded not much older
“What sorts of discoveries?” Asked a woman.
couldn’t understand it all myself to be honest, but word is that
he has built some sort of electric tower in Long Island in a town
called Wardenclyffe, and that with it he can create auroras and control
lighting and all sorts of things.”
“Oh my, you don’t say.” She gasped.
also heard that he has invented a new type of electric engine that
works by a force called linear induction.” He added.
Dr. Bessemer laughed his mighty Santa Claus laugh and lit his big, dirigible shaped cigar.
my boy, you must be speaking of the nonsense in those papers the
Aylsworth Institute has been putting out haven't you? Well let me
assure you that our slippery friend Mr. Tesla has been up to no such
shenanigans lately, not in Long Island at any rate.
Wardenclyffe tower was demolished nearly five years ago now.
That’s right, and I know that for a fact because my good friend
John Pierpont Morgan was the one who funded the project to begin with,
and through him I know more about what went on there than any newspaper
will tell you.”
“Is that so?” Asked yet another male voice.
indeed it is. I aught not to be telling you this, but you see, after
that crackpot Tesla burned down his first laboratory in Manhattan to
the ground, he went to Morgan to ask for one million dollars to build a
Tesla wanted to build on a site in upstate New
Amsterdam near the capital city of Albany, but Morgan insisted on a
site to the south in the state of Long Island because it was closer to
the ocean you understand, quite near Manhattan in fact, and the plan
Morgan worked out with Tesla was to build a transatlantic telegraph
station to compete with Marconi see.
Anyway, the long and
short of it is that Tesla got his million dollars and built what what
looked like a transmission tower, but was really a frighteningly
dangerous contraption ment to create what he called a ‘river of
light’ in the sky which would supposedly provide him with
infinite energy and allow him to travel to other planets.
managed to keep this a secret for a few years, but as you can imagine
Mr. Morgan became suspicious after five years without a single
telegraph sent, and when he got word of what was really going on at
Wardenclyffe he evicted Tesla and cut funding immediately, but not
before the madman used the Tower to send out a beam of energy towards
the North Pole in an attempt to create this so called ‘river of
Well, Tesla missed the Pole, and his beam struck
Muscovy in a remote region called Tunguska and flattened nearly a
thousand miles of forest like a hurricane. Luckily no one important was
killed, but Tsar Nicholas was furious as one might expect, and Morgan
had to pay him several million dollars in gold to keep the story
There was a moment of awestruck murmurs and gasps
among the crowd like the audience at a magic show. It seemed now that
nearly the entire party had been listening to Dr. Bessmer’s tale.
“What about Tesla? What is he up to now?” Someone asked.
I do know that he is now being funded by the Alylsworth Institute, who
are publishing his papers and trying to popularize Tesla’s
nonsense about alternating currents and linear induction. The rumor is
that the Alylsworths have built a new laboratory for Tesla deep in the
Republic of Alyeska, and that his experiments are the cause of the
magnetic storms that have swept this part of the globe as of late, but
of course there is no proof of that, and if you ask me...”
quickly lost interest as the subject drifted away from that of the
aurora, though the Doctor went on and on, spreading gossip about
science and industry, and rumors of secret military alliances being
forged throughout Europe.
How powerful, Artemis thought, men
like J.P. Morgan must be to keep things like the Tunguska disaster and
the ambitions of Nicola Tesla out of the newspapers as he did, and to
be able to throw gold freely at kings and emperors like a chef would
throw scraps to a dog.
But still, he was far more fascinated by
the forces behind the aurora in the sky than the tricks and lies of men
on earth. Artemis still remembered his mother’s story about the
first time she had seen a light bulb back in 6485, about the countless
hours of toil that went into inventing it, how people would stand in
line for hours just for the chance to turn it on and off over and over
Yet, with no source other than the earth’s own
magnetism, this great translucent cloud or color meandered through the
sky, making any light bulb seem as feeble as an ember beside the sun.
the absence of electricity in the world below, the aurora’s light
and color were more vibrant than ever, brighter even than a harvest
moon. The gas stands out on the street might as well not have been lit.
couldn’t take his eyes of the sky, though his neck became
increasingly sore from looking. It was a physical thrill for him
watching the lights, almost like riding a roller coaster. And while he
watched the aurora he imagined that it was watching him as well, that
it was in his head sharing his thoughts and feel his feelings.
Artemis recognized the connection he forgot all about his disabled tram
car and the disgruntled passengers as they grew more and more
Artemis could feel himself in the sky, the current
cradling his soul up there in the aurora, sharing its warmth with him.
He sprung up in his seat rejuvenated, feeling as though he could have
pushed City of Freyberg all the way to the end of the electrified zone
with his bare hands.
And as he thought this, with a sudden burst
of effort, the tram’s engines came alive with electricity and
exerted so much force as to make the brakes groan as they struggled to
keep the wheels from turning.
There was a moment of shock for
everyone aboard as they realized what was happening. Artemis glanced
around him, the electric stands still stood dormant, and the marquees
of nickelodeons up and down the street were still dark. The power had
returned, but only for Artemis and his tram.
Artemis released the brakes and City of Freyberg launched itself like a
cannonball up the street, gaining speed like he had never seen a
streetcar do in his whole life, the engines roaring fiercely as they
toiled. He scrambled to close the throttle and gain control, but the
lever was no use in affecting the car’s speed and they barreled
uphill at what may had been close to sixty miles per hour.
Slow down! Slow down!” Artemis begged the machine as he panicked
and fumbled for the brake wheel, though as he wished for slower speed
it suddenly came, the engines calming down to a gentle purr as they
propelled the car along at ordinary speed. The adjustment came
instantly, without Artemis touching the controls.
the passengers cared to notice that Artemis was driving without
touching the throttle or brake, or realize that they were passing
stalled electric automobiles and even stranded trams sharing the same
circuit as theirs.
From the sidewalks however, pedestrians up
and down the street all pointed and stared at what those on board could
not see, a tendril of red light from the sky like St. Elmo’s fire
curled around the trolley pole, which was swaying free of the catenary
Artemis was so engaged in driving that he didn’t
realize he had already traveled several blocks north and had already
caught up with Mr. Woodrick, who was struggling uphill on his
velocipede and looking very exhausted.
Artemis clanged the bell he crept slowly alongside Mr. Woodrick,
effortlessly keeping pace with his boss’s labored pedaling. Mr.
Woodrick halted and propped himself against the ground panting and
Artemis stopped his tram beside him.
you’re up and running again, but how? The power is still out
throughout the entire city and your pole isn’t even on the
“It isn’t?” Artemis asked, quite surprised himself.
and in fact the roof is covered in this red and green light that's
coming down from…” Mr. Woodrick followed the light from
the trolley pole up into the aurora, which now resembled a burning wall
of twilight between the earth and the stars, and went slightly pale in
“Have you seen your trolley pole Artemis? Light
from the aurora is pouring down from the sky directly into your
electric pickup. Is this how you’ve been running all this
“I didn’t notice that, but I suppose
that explains why we’re the only ones on the street with
electricity.” Artemis reasoned.
The guests hoisted Mr.
Woodrick and the velocipede on board in the front near where Artemis
was seated and when they both were on deck, Artemis willed the tram
forward, his hands on the throttle and brake out of habit rather than
“How are you doing this Artemis? Did you rewire something? Is this some sort of trick you and Charlie schemed up?”
don’t know exactly Sir, I was looking up into the sky after you
left and then I felt some sort of connection with the aurora like it
was alive and talking to me and then I thought about the tram moving
forward and it did, and I’ve been able to drive just by thinking
about it ever since. I’m not even touching the controls right now
Sir.” And he demonstrated, putting his hands behind his head as
though stretching leisurely, and yet still able to slow down for
traffic at the crossing between 3rd Avenue and 115th Street.
“Well, for however long this lasts, let us use it to our benefit. Let’s see how far the aurora can take us.”
“I’ll go all the way to the harbor then Sir?”
“Oh, absolutely, go right ahead.”
more than five others on board seemed to take any notice of the miracle
taking place before them, as Artemis drove hands free under the power
of the light from the sky. The rest were all busy drinking and
They soon came upon the intersection of
3rd Avenue and 116th Street where electrification ended and streetcars
heading further north would stop to be attached to a horse or
locomotive to pull them down the last mile of track.
Freyberg roared triumphantly through, completely unhindered by the lack
of a power line. Artemis effortlessly piloted the tram through the port
district traffic at great speed, and Mr. Woodrick observed the
operation intensely, as was a man with a notepad who happened to be a
All too soon for Artemis, they had reached
the end of the line, a cobblestone square by the seaside where many
ships were docked. As the Island of Nineva’s north-eastern
seaport, the harbor here was one of the biggest and busiest in the
Some of the ships had been left without electricity by
the phenomenon and would sail nowhere until power returned, though
there was one ship nearby which was ready receive her passengers and
White and glistening in the light of the aurora, she
was powered by steam and lit by the warm glow of gas lamps for the
comfort of her high class passengers. Artemis chuckled aloud as he saw
that the ship’s name was ‘Northern Light’.
looked up into the sky as the light wrapped about City of
Freyberg’s trolley pole retracted back into the air and then,
very quickly, as though a switch had been flipped, the aurora vanished
and in the world below electric stands, automobile engines and light
bulbs across the city came back to life.
Meanwhile, City of
Freyberg’s engines fell silent once again, and the electric tram
was marooned more than a mile away from the nearest catenary wire.
could feel his soul, which had been borrowed by the aurora return to
him and wrap itself around him like a snake basking in the sun.
“She said she’ll be back tomorrow.” Artemis’ soul said to him.
“Good.” He replied, and smiled.
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