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 him.

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. 

His 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 tramway motorman.

“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.

“It’s beautiful, that’s what’s ‘so’. Come and see it, it might go away any minute. It’s pretty.”

“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.”

Charlie 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.”

“Lighten 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 again.”
“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 they?”

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.

“And 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.

Artemis 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 electric line.
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.

“Is 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 theatrically.

“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.
Artemis 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.

“Good 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 know.”

“Yes, Sir. I will Sir. Thank you Sir.” Artemis said, keeping his hand on the throttle and his eyes on the street ahead.

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?”

“Oh, 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…”

Artemis 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.
Passengers 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.

“My 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.

“Dr. Bessemer, what exactly is it that causes these lights to occur?” Asked a man standing just near enough to be heard clearly.

“Well, 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.

“It 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.

The lights 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.

He found 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.

Very 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 place.

As Artemis daydreamed, the City of Freyberg slowed suddenly and jarred him back to alertness.

“Whoops.” 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.

Electric 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 them.

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.

“Damn magnetic storm. Figures something like this would happen on a night like tonight.” The owner sighed. “Can we move at all Artemis?”

“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.”

“Damn 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.”

“Humph, 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 can.”

“Yes Sir.” Artemis said obediently.

“If 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 help.”

The boss turned his attention back to his guests.

“Well 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.

This 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.

“Dr. 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 than Artemis.

“What sorts of discoveries?” Asked a woman.

“I 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.

“I've 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.

“Ah, 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.

The 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.

“Yes, 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 new one.

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.

Tesla 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 light’.

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 dark.”

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.

“Well, 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...”
Artemis 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 again.

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.

In 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.

Artemis 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.

Once Artemis recognized the connection he forgot all about his disabled tram car and the disgruntled passengers as they grew more and more impatient.

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.

Without delay, 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.

“Ahh! 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.
None of 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 line.

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.

“Hello Sir.” 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.

“Artemis, 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 wire.”

“It isn’t?” Artemis asked, quite surprised himself.

“No, 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 the face.

“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 time?”

“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 necessity.

“How are you doing this Artemis? Did you rewire something? Is this some sort of trick you and Charlie schemed up?”

“I 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.”

No 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 chattering aimlessly.

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.

City of 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 newspaper reporter.

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 country.

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 shove off.

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’.

Artemis 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.

He 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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