Felis aurantiacus

Steampunk Short Story by Kathy Steinemann

Felis aurantiacus

By Kathy Steinemann

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***

[Editor’s note: I found this narrative inside an antique bottle on an isolated Connecticut beach.]

Most fairy tales open with “Once upon a time.” However, my story begins with once upon many times.

Are you seated? The shock of what you are about to read might turn your legs into India rubber.

My name is Dr. Horace Marcellus, PhD. I am stranded in the distant past, so distant I cannot ascertain the century. Or even the millennium.

In 1850 I manufactured a time machine from fine metal, wires, and blown glass: the Marcellus Chrono-Transitor.

You might wonder why I created such a device.

I wanted to revisit August 8, 1829, and warn my beloved wife, Lottie, not to take the carriage into town. When she did not return as expected that afternoon, I set out on a search and found her trampled body next to the trail. Our horse galloped into the barn several hours later, lacerated by long claw marks.

I buried my wife, but not my memories of her. Her soft laugh haunted my dreams. Every day I expected to look up and see her standing in the doorway. Sometimes I was sure I smelled her perfume wafting into my laboratory.

Back then—in my current future—I knew my theories about time travel were correct, even though my colleagues ridiculed me. All I required to make my machine function was a power source.

I spent the last of my savings (hoarded for years from the proceeds of paltry royalties on assorted inventions) to purchase a scarlet emerald of perfect size and form. Then I developed an energy dowser, which relied on the unique properties of the emerald. After many false positives, it detected what I required: crystals of a glowing blue element that I named Marcellium.

Yes, perhaps I was a tad self-centered in the old days. The old days. Ha! If 1850 was the old days, what is now, perhaps thousands of centuries before?

But I digress.

During the weeks before my initial trials of the Transitor, I kept detailed notes, recording when and where I was at all times. What would transpire if I saw myself when I showed up in the past? Could two instances of me occupy the same time and space? If I had no recollection of such a temporal paradox as I pondered the possibilities, I concluded it had never happened and never would, thanks to either my careful preparations or the laws of physics.

When my meticulously engineered Transitor was finally ready, fear grabbed me by the throat. Would I survive the transition? Since the machine required an operator, I could not send an object in my place. I mulled over the decision for hours before my first journey.

The interval was crucial. I paced as I planned. Ten minutes should do it. Ten minutes ago I was using the chamber pot in the adjoining room.

I slid onto the seat and adjusted knobs. A shiver flew up my spine. My breathing grew rapid and shallow. I stroked the smooth leather of the instrument panel and inhaled its comforting saddle scent.

Before engaging the countdown sequence, I noted the time displayed on the clock: 4:25.

I moved the lever forward one notch.

My head spun.

My body vibrated.

My eyes lost their focus.

With a flash of light and a sound similar to the sizzle of bacon, my surroundings rematerialized.

The clock now showed 4:15.

I clutched my stomach to quell the wave of nausea that consumed me. Within seconds, it passed.

Good. A journey of ten minutes would not be a disaster if I could not get back to the future—my former present.

I reset knobs, waited for one minute, and then eased the lever back a notch. The lab quivered as though I were looking through a heat wave, dissolved, and became solid once more. The clock read 4:26.

It had worked!

Of course it had worked.

Was there ever any doubt?

I cavorted to the center of the lab, clapped my hands, and danced an ecstatic jig.

I made several short voyages into the past. I was able to calculate how much Marcellium I would expend per day of regression. To regress twenty-one years, I would deplete one-third of my remaining cache. That would leave me enough to return, with reserve for another trip.

I speculated that, since the past had already happened, the Marcellium I found in 1850 would have been the remainder after I harvested as much as I wanted in 1829. Therefore, no matter how much I carried back with me, I would not change the present. Simple supposition.

What could go wrong?

Now I had to prepare the Transitor for its longest journey. Paramount to my success was an airtight resin seal around retracted pistons, oarlocks, and door.

After thirteen exhausting hours, I stepped back to admire my work. A tripod of Marcellium-powered pistons hissed as they adjusted to the uneven terrain of the seashore next to my laboratory. The large blown-glass globe atop the pistons glistened in the early morning light, crisscrossed by the shadow of a four-bladed rotor that would lift and stabilize if I emerged in the air. The sealed control chamber would allow me to breathe for several minutes if I appeared underwater, and the pontoons on each side would allow flotation and maneuverability.

Water was the key. I did not wish to materialize inside a tree or any other object that might have occupied the same space on the beach in 1829.

I prepared a generous supply of food and other necessities, stowed it in the storage compartment along with the energy dowser, and held my head in my hands. As confident as I was, the thought of a twenty-one-year journey into the past caused involuntary twitches and rumbles in my stomach. They continued long after I assumed my seat and rowed out against the salty wind of a sudden northeaster.

Would Lottie heed my warning?

Would she even recognize me? My hair was thinning and grey. I had a scar on my forehead. I wore spectacles. She might deem me a madman.

But I had to try.

I checked my adjustments, performed a mental review of my calculations, and squeezed my eyes shut. The thundering of my heart echoed in my ears. Its tempo harmonized with my countdown. “Five, four, three, two, one.”

I pushed the lever fourteen notches.

Vibrations pulsed through every cell of my body.

A vortex of light and sound beset me.

The transition had never felt so violent on prior tests. Fear clawed at my innards. I clutched the control lever with a grip that made my knuckles crack. The Transitor pitched. A pungent odor akin to burning manure assailed my nostrils.

The rotor engaged. It hit something hard and then stalled. The Transitor plummeted. The energy dowser flung against the Transitor’s glass, which splintered, creating a jagged gap in the protective globe. Machine and terrified occupant plunged deep into a moss-covered forest floor surrounded by giant trees with leaves the size of dinner plates. Strange fruits in a kaleidoscope of colors sploshed down in a thunderous deluge.

I blinked.

This was not 1829.

I gawked, aghast, at the energy dowser. It lay broken, with its innards of cogs, springs, and wires exposed. My fingers scrabbled and poked.

The emerald was gone.

I rummaged. I searched. I cursed.

If the emerald had flown through the crack into the forest, I might never find it. Without the gem, even a repaired dowser would remain useless, like a lantern without oil.

In the unfamiliar surroundings, I had no idea where to search. However, I should be near the Marcellium deposit. Even though the surroundings looked different, I had traveled in time, not space.

Yes, everything would be all right.

I could not see, smell, or hear the ocean. The cliffs that existed in 1850 were absent. Yet that would not stop me from hunting. To rescue Lottie and continue my research, I had to find more Marcellium.

Much more.

And perhaps the Universe would reveal the location of the emerald as well. Was I foolish to hope?

I repaired the crack in the Transitor as best I could, with tree sap hardened by the heat of candle flames, before I set out on my pursuit.

I built a crude sundial to keep track of time, and hunted for a fortnight, scouring through underbrush, hiding whenever I saw what I realized were dinosaurs. To describe them would require a book, and my supply of paper is limited. Let me just state that the theories of dinosaurs with scales are incorrect. They sport feathers. At least, the ones I saw did.

As the days passed, I realized that my time-travel calculations were flawed. When I returned to 1850, I would recheck and recalculate.

My nights, sheltered in the safety of the Transitor, were rife with faraway thumps, grunts, and shrieks as beasts devoured their prey.

During a silent period on the eighth night, a scratching sound woke me.

I peered outside and scanned the clearing, which glowed silver in the light of a full moon. Amber eyes stared up at me from a furry creature about the size of a rabbit. I studied it: short ears, whiskers, long tail, and orange fur with stripes reminiscent of rippled sand following a windstorm.

After several seconds of appraisal, I decided it was probably harmless.

I unsealed the door and edged it open. The creature leaped, and with a single fluid movement, landed on my lap. I smiled. “What kind of animal are you? Should I call you Sandy? Carrot? Or maybe Marmalade?” It licked my hand. “Marmalade, it is.”

Soundless, it rubbed against my chest, turned a full circle, and made itself a bed out of my lap.

I gazed down at my new friend. Not a dinosaur; at least, not like any I had ever studied. His—I checked—yes, his ears were too short for him to be a rabbit, and his legs looked more like those of a runner than a hopper. Even though he was obviously a mammal, I could not resist the whimsy of dubbing him a time-o-saur.

For the next day and two weeks thereafter, my search continued: with Marmalade at my side; or behind me; or under my feet; except when he disappeared for short periods, reappearing with whatever small prey he had hunted down for a meal. He seemed mute. I wondered if he even had vocal chords.

I built a crude treehouse with a thatched roof, pushed the Transitor into a cave, and covered it with branches.

Twenty-two days sped by, exhausting my food supply and forcing me to partake from the abundance of unknown fruits. My quest for the Marcellium deposit remained unproductive, and I had given up hope of ever finding the emerald. To locate such a small object in this vast forest would be worse than trying to find a flea on a mastodon.

Marmalade sat in my lap as I prepared the Transitor for my homecoming. When the vibrations started, he dug his claws into my thigh. His body stiffened, but he remained mute.

Back in the future, Marmalade adjusted to his new surroundings. My constant shadow, he accompanied me on shopping excursions. Everyone in town loved him.

“Where did you find such an adorable pet? Overseas?”

“Where can I get one?”

“Look at those beautiful eyes.”

“Is it all right to let Isaac hold him?”

With only enough Marcellium remaining for two trips, it was essential to verify my calculations before planning any further transits into the past. I dawdled and procrastinated. Formerly cocksure, I now dreaded another journey, feared another mistake. If I could not find Marcellium … well, I refused to consider the implications.

But the hope of being able to save Lottie haunted me. And so did the desire to flaunt my genius in the presence of every bullying colleague who had ever mocked me.

So, I tried to make the Transitor work without Marcellium.

Steam power required coal. Too bulky.

A voltaic battery was likewise too bulky.

A Faraday motor would not generate enough power.

Marmalade kept me company at my moments of deepest despair, watching me with intelligent eyes, as though he understood the mysteries of the Universe and was laughing because I could not grasp them. Laughing. Humph. Poor time-o-saur was voiceless. The only sounds of revelry in my world were the ones I made when I watched him chasing sunbeams and strings.

After two years of unsuccessful experiments, plagued by doubts and fears, I woke one morning to find Marmalade stiff and cold next to my pillow. Tears welled in my eyes. His presence had been a comforting constant in my lonely existence. I caressed him and wiped away the blubbering wetness of my grief. I cradled him in my arms, stumbled outside, and buried him in his favorite patch of mint.

“Why?” I cried.

Not only had I lost my beloved wife, but now my cherished companion had deserted me.

I missed his quiet presence, his rough tongue waking me in the morning, his insistence on being scratched at the most inconvenient moments.

I tried to make a clockwork version. It moved like a stiff marionette. Time and again I tore down, remade, refined. But the automatons could never replace my Marmalade.

What if …? Could I …? Of course!

If I …

[Editor’s note: Several paragraphs at this point in Marcellus’s letter were illegible due to water stains.]

… and all I had to do now was use a half-dose of Marcellium to animate the creature I had created from Marmalade’s unearthed bones. But that meant I would never be able to rescue Lottie and bring her to the present.

Unless I found the primordial source of Marcellium. Then I could do both.

And more.

Lottie by my side. Another time-o-saur to keep us company. The naysayers forced to swallow their taunts.

Yes! I would find the Marcellium.

With a confident smile, I inserted the energy canister into the chest of my creation. I closed the outside flap to activate the canister. Marmalade II’s eyes flickered. His mouth opened, and he mewled like a newborn infant. Then he butted his head against my hand, and a rhythmic thrum rumbled from deep within the vocal-chord enhancements of his throat.

Over the weeks, I grew close to Marmalade II—Marmie. Although no matter how diligently I tried, I could not eradicate the thrum.

My fears returned. Fear of mistakes. Fear of being ridiculed. Fear of possible rejection by Lottie.

One Sunday as I scrambled my breakfast eggs, I frowned. What had I become? I muttered an answer to my own question. “A foolish old widower close to the end of his life who spends his days and nights in the company of an artificial time-o-saur.”

I wanted a real time-o-saur. Without the thrum. I wanted Lottie. I wanted fame and acclaim. Why was I letting my fears control me? It was not too late.

Was it?

I packed the Transitor as full as I dared, including Marmie, looked around my lab for what I suspected might be my final time, and moved the lever ahead fourteen notches.

My calculations were perfect. I arrived outside my camp approximately one hour past when I had left—confirmed by the shadow on my sundial. Everything still looked the same: treehouse with a thatched roof to keep out the rain, a worn path to the mint patch, and fresh grooves in the earth where I had pulled the Transitor from its cave. I unsealed the Transitor’s door.

Marmie bolted away.

I called. I whistled. I clapped my hands.

No inquisitive eyes and perky ears appeared. A slight breeze rustled leaves, wafting the sweet scent of flowers in my direction. I plodded through a cushion of thick moss, continuing to call and clap. My fist grazed against the rough bark of a tall tree. I jammed my knuckles into my mouth until the sting disappeared.

Now what would I do? If Marmie did not return, I would be alone. Really alone. In an unforgiving environment where I could end up as dinosaur dinner.

As if in answer to my unspoken anxiety, a beast grunted from somewhere in the deepening darkness. Underbrush crunched. I dived into the Transitor and locked myself in. The glass fogged with my frantic breathing. I prayed I would not have to engage the controls and use the last of the Marcellium to flee.

Heavy footfalls grew in volume. The ground shook. Eyes peered at me from a face not unlike that of an ostrich. They blinked, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. The owner of the eyes shrieked, probably in response to a growl from another animal. Loud thumps and crashes, accompanied by unearthly screams, faded as the monstrous beings transferred their fight into the jungle.

When I was sure they had gone, I climbed into my treehouse and slept.

Early-morning sunlight streamed through a chink in the thatched roof. A rough tongue licked my whiskery chin. “Marmie! Where did you—” A second set of amber eyes appeared. “You little philanderer. You brought a girlfriend home with you.”

Marmie rubbed against my chin and responded with the thrumming I had never been able to eliminate.

Weeks later, I still had not found any Marcellium, and I could not eliminate Marmie’s thrum. To my surprise, his mute sweetheart, whom I named Soot because of her black fur, had a litter of young ones.

I called this new mammalian species Felis aurantiacus. By their thrumming and high-pitched mewls, I knew Marmie was the father.

Months later, Marcellium still eluded my grasp. The young ones multiplied. Soon I had mewling, thrumming creatures that followed me wherever I went. They frolicked in the mint that grew in abundance underfoot, and demanded head scratches—at their convenience.

Two decades later, I resigned myself to the fact that I was stranded in the past. I had grown accustomed to the thrumming, and I slept every night with at least a dozen of their warm, furry bodies cuddled up to me.

Now I am eighty-nine. My health is failing, and I must tell my story before I depart this life to join Lottie. I will put these pages into a bottle and send them as far forward as possible with the power generated by the last of the Marcellium.

I apologize for altering history by creating these creatures. However, perhaps you can forgive me and find solace in their company, as I will do during my remaining sojourn on Earth.

 

***

Kathy Steinemann is an award-winning author who has loved words for as long as she can remember, especially when the words are frightening, futuristic, or funny. She’s fond of speculative fiction and rarely misses a day at her favorite pastime—writing.

Felis aurantiacus was published in Steampunk Fairy Tales Volume II, October, 2016.

She’s also recently had her work published in Mad Scientist Journal, Shoreline of Infinity, Boston Literary Magazine,
Pidgeonholes, and The Quarterday Review. Not to mention that I read another piece by Kathy titled ‘Rain’ several months ago.

About Christopher Herron 26 Articles
I run a free short story audiobook blog and youtube channel. Written by you, read by me. Submit your short fiction and I will read it out loud.

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