I was rummaging thru my files this afternoon, and found a short story I’d written a few years ago. It was ostensibly for a theme anthology, but really I wrote it to entertain myself, and crammed in as many steampunk tropes as I could think of. Except goggles. There are no goggles.
Okay, fixed that.
It still amuses me, and it would make a fun Halloween treat. Unless you don’t like it, in which case it’s a trick and I will be by to TP your house shortly.
If you like it, you might consider picking up the Genius Loci anthology, or checking out my other fiction, much of which is available online.
The Hydraulliope of Dr. Cummerbund
The professor had the mind of a tinkerer, the body of a music hall comedian and the unfortunate name of Cummerbund. He was short, pudgy and entirely obsessed with building a great musical instrument, a pipe organ that would summon the Elder Gods from the abyssal depths where they slept. Some days Dr. Cummerbund wished them to give him the body he deserved, while on others he wanted them to take revenge on the masses of humanity who had laughed at him, believing that nobody named Cummerbund could possibly be a genius of his true stature. Perhaps, he ruminated, the Elder Gods could do both. Yes, that was certainly the correct solution.
The organ pipes were installed along the brick walls of his laboratory, formerly a riverfront warehouse. Some were straight, while others were bent into curves through which no pipe should go. Each pipe had been meticulously engraved with mystical signs. The professor looked at the pipes as little as possible. The eldritch sigils twined around the network of pipes, combining to seem as though the pipes themselves were writhing, though he knew that was entirely impossible. His assistant had fallen into the bass pipe earlier that week and been lost. The boy had been on a ladder adjusting the fittings and slipped headfirst down the pipe, vanishing somewhere before the bottom. Dr. Cummerbund had been unable to secure a replacement, much though he disliked fetching his own tea.
A dilapidated steam engine sat in the corner surrounded by flakes of rust from its decrepit boiler. The doctor had never gotten around to connecting it to the organ, nor even to buying in coal. After contemplating the matter extensively, he had given up on steam power and instead harnessed the river itself to power his pipe organ. He’d christened his new invention the “hydraulliope”. All the best inventions require novel nomenclature.
Dr. Cummerbund surveyed his handiwork, wrench clutched in one hand. He ran the fingers of his other hand through his untidy hair, leaving a foul smear of grease and more odious substances on his already-unclean temple, cutting across the slightly paler streak where his goggle strap had been. In his early experiments Dr. Cummerbund had only managed to summon up a coven of overly-large rats which had probably consumed his cat. At any rate he hadn’t seen the orange tom lately, and the rats had taken to lounging on his workbench and making off with his biscuits. But now, now the hydraulliope was connected to the river, and through the transmissive medium of the water to the ocean beyond. The engraving was completed, the pipes were adjusted into their proper configurations and the organ was ready for its final test. A properly auspicious celestial configuration for calling the Elder Gods would not occur until three days hence (or would that be ominous configuration?), but a thorough assessment of the organ’s performance could still be conducted.
Dr. Cummerbund threw the lever diverting the river’s flow to power the bellows of the hydraulliope. He pulled out a single stop and tentatively pressed a key in the middle of the first rank with one finger. Nothing happened. He pressed another more firmly and a faint wail drifted through the basement. The professor pressed a third key as hard as he could. An unearthly howl echoed from the brick walls, tickling the recesses of the professor’s mind with images of the monsters that wait in the shadows. Dr. Cummerbund shivered and released the key.
He pulled out another set of stops and pounded on the keyboards, one hand on each rank. He’d never learned to play the piano properly, but it hardly mattered. He mashed the keys, one after another and then all together, as many as his hands could span. The individual tones of the pipes blended into something more like the cries of pelagic leviathans than any terrestrial music. The sigils engraved on the pipes began to glow softly as harmonies not intended for human ears filled the basement and washed out into the night. Even the rats retreated from the sound.
A hint of movement might have caught the professor’s eye if only he had raised his eyes from the keys arrayed before him in black and white. A tentacle rose slowly from a pipe, its pallid sucker-laden tip swaying slightly in time to the music. A second pale appendage slipped out from a neighboring pipe, and a third, and then too many to count, all swaying with the erratic rhythm emanating from the hydraulliope.
The professor grew bolder with his playing, running through arpeggios and glissandos that spanned the keys and jumped from one keyboard to another. He paused once to adjust the stops, and the tentacles froze. Dr. Cummerbund returned his hands to the keyboard and began anew, never once lifting his eyes to the pipes lining the walls. The tentacles oozed further from the pipes, feeling their way blindly downward. The music covered the moist burping sounds of the suckers attaching and releasing as they slithered ever closer.
Dr. Cummerbund was unused to vigorous exercise, so his short arms soon began to tremble from the strain. Even the satisfaction of experimenting with different combinations of stops was not enough to entice him to continue. A final crash on the keyboard, and he raised his arms triumphantly, proud of his hydraulliope and its din, proud of his first and only hydraulliope solo. However short the composition, it had already been far too long. The back of his right hand brushed a moist, rubbery surface in what should be empty space. He started, looking up to see an inverted forest of tentacles protruding from the pipes, arching gracefully down into the laboratory. The doctor had taken only a single staggering step back when a tentacle wrapped itself firmly around his ankles and swung him into the air. As he dangled inverted, a second tentacle stroked his back almost sensually then twined around his chest, pinning his arms. The professor cried out when a sucker fastened wetly on his cheek, until the tip of a tentacle shoved into his mouth, silencing him. Tentacles converged on his suspended form until he was entirely hidden from view, a fly dangling neatly wrapped in a spider’s web.
Dr. Cummerbund struggled, but the tentacles were like steel cables encased in malodorous rubber and he achieved no lessening in their insistent squeezing. His whimpers and cries were stifled by the tentacle in his mouth, tasting of mineral-laden salt from the ocean’s depths. Eventually his moans ceased altogether, and the tentacles gently unrolled the professor onto the floor. His new form was as long and as lean as any of the men that he had once admired, and his hated name was no longer his – nor did it belong to any living man, genius or not.
All was silent in the basement laboratory for a long moment, until the questing tentacles found the keyboards of the hydraulliope. They hovered for a moment then struck the keyboards with a crash, the abyssal gods playing themselves into existence.