The Ghost that Stole Lightning
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Maximilian Ward had two wooden legs, but not in a row.
Let me explain.
He had three legs in total. Two of them were left legs. The right leg was firmly attached, and probably grew out of his hip at some point.
The other two legs, he made at his workbench.
As usual, he was wearing one while working on the other. The leg that Max was working on was his favorite. It was the wood-panelled one with chrome bits, and quality leather buckles keeping it together. And it had pockets!
Inside was a symphony of design. Through the clear access panels, you could see the inner workings of the leg, which was mostly cogs, glowing wires, and small metal pieces that hummed with power. These aren’t very technical terms, of course, but they will serve our purpose for now.
Conversely, Max’s other leg…the one he used to remain upright while he worked on this one…was pretty much a bit taken off an old piano. Ten minutes with a lathe got it into an aesthetically pleasing shape, and then it was largely ignored.
But we shall confine our attention to the leg that is on the workbench. Of the three legs assigned to Maximilian Ward, this one is clearly the most interesting, and it deserves the definite article, for if someone in Widget Ridge talked about Max’s leg, this is the one to which they always refer.
The Leg (as it will now be called) hummed to life. Lights correspondingly dimmed in Ward Manor, as they did around this time every evening. The power requirement for Maximilian Ward’s experiments was unfeasibly large, but the Ward family were ridiculously rich, and had the resources.
An alarm sounded nearby, and Max silenced it. Time for his nightly interruption.
“MAX!”, yelled the woman that had just yelled ‘max’. She was tall, with dark hair, and ran into the room in the same way that a big (smaller) sister runs to tackle-hug her little (but bigger) brother.
The woman was tall and pale. She wore a delightfully impractical dress, and her hair was set like a rolling wave about to crash on a beach.
She looked like her name was Luna Ward. Fortunately, this was the case.
Max barely shifted from the tackle-hug. This was a nightly ordeal for him and his occasionally-bruised ribs, and he expected it.
“I shot my boyfriend,” she said in her bizarre Scandinavian accent. Nobody knew why Luna spoke this way, since nobody in Widget Ridge was of Scandinavian descent. Max liked it, though he had no idea what accent it was. Nobody here did. The only reason I’m telling you is so you can accurately hear it.
“Alistair Gaines is not your boyfriend,” said Max, as he gently disengaged his sister’s arms.
Luna pouted. “But he flirts with me. He flies by and invites me to shoot at him.”
“He flies by because he’s a pilot, probably testing his Velocitron again.” Max was always a little bit jealous of Alistair’s bravery…or insanity…but Max preferred to plan things and do safety checks and other boring things like that.
“Well we’re getting married as soon as he asks,” said Luna. “He is timid. He hid from me today but I still got him with the air cannon one time only. I shot at a ghost also but you cannot hit a ghost but it was fun.”
She grinned, because shooting at Alistair Gaines was clearly fun. But a ghost? Max couldn’t let that pass. “Where did you see this?”
“Near your power station. It was a pretty ghost. All blonde and blue.”
“Not very many minutes ago,” said Luna, counting on her fingers as she remembered. “I shot my lover, I shot a ghost, then I came to talk to you.”
Max was already strapping up his Leg. With that done, he ran to the window and jumped out of it. Behind him, Luna clapped and cheered in a way that vampires almost never do.
Maximilian Ward soared above the city, propelled by the jets in his wonderful Leg. He didn’t have a lot of fuel, but he could easily make it to the Ward Street Power Station.
The station building was rather flat and nondescript. Max had built it himself, improving on his father’s already excellent designs, and he didn’t want anyone to know anything about it (hence the dull shape). Max had prided himself on the security of the building, as well as the untamperability of the Thrum Engines and the Golden Conduits. This was, in part, because of his insistence of using Concentrated Spark.
Concentrated Spark was unpredictable, and most sensible engineers avoided it. Max tried it out and discovered two things: It worked very well, and proximity to Concentrated Spark caused what the Doctors Halliday called "temporary aphasia".
Thus the Ward Street Power Station became unmanned, as nobody could write anything down without producing horrendous spelling mistakes and productivity was being affected. Max's decision to fully automate the station was one of his finest achievements as an engineer.
But lately Max had noticed a small drain on the power output. He had first marked it down as a fault in the reporting system, but the trickle remained as a maddening mystery.
Luna’s observation suggested this was more than a simple fault. Ghosts didn’t exist, but then again, neither did people that could actually breach his power station.
Max landed rather more noisily than he had intended. Up until now, he had no use for stealth, but his heart skipped a beat when he saw the open door, and he knew whoever was inside had probably heard him.
This was made immediately evident when the door flew open and something large and metal hit Max in the forehead. The last thing that he remembered before he spiraled into a lovely sleep was a flash of blonde and blue that vanished into the night.
It was several weeks later when Max, still hurting from his last encounter, was able to set a trap for this “ghost”. The power drain on his station had been caused by a tiny device clamped to the bottom of the Southern Grid. Max had spent many days trying to understand how the device was built. He was the smartest engineer in Widget Ridge, but this was completely beyond his ability to fathom. Since fathoming things was always his strongest skill, that fact really bothered Max.
Max instead had tried nightly patrols, using some heat-sensitive goggles he had built. Unlike the last pair, these were specifically tuned to be volcano-proof, as even a sideways glance at Mount Thunderbastard gave him a very quick headache.
The nightly patrols yielded zero ghost sightings. It did, however, show Max just how passionate his sister was about shooting down Alistair Gaines. The test pilot had taken to flying at night, possibly hoping to take advantage of his naturally dark skin, but Luna Ward had excellent vision, and an even better aim.
One night, Alistair could just be seen by the light thrown from the Lightning Spire (which was a giant Van der Graaf generator in the vague style of the Dome of Florence built by the city founders – don’t ask). Alistair had just landed the Velocitron near his workshop when the lightning stopped. Max checked his watch.
Just a few seconds shy of 13pm.
By city law, Max knew the Lightning Spire was shut down every night at precisely 13pm. Not one second before or after.
But according to his flawlessly accurate timepiece, the lightning had stopped early. By six seconds.
And he immediately knew why.
“How did you find out?” asked the Ghost.
Max tried to respond, but the life was being choked out of him by the coiled springs that were wrapped around his body. Four days earlier, he had traced the power siphon from the Lightning Spire to a small disused workshop on Castlereigh Street. His curiosity…and inexplicable bravado…got the better of him.
He had boldly stepped through the door of the nondescript engineering lab. He saw his Ghost, and then a blur of metal.
Max kept trying to answer, but the trap set by this Ghost denied him most of the oxygen he required. The Ghost appeared to be a young girl, maybe fifteen. She wore the dress of a widget wrangler, and the jacket of a zeppelin pilot. Her hair was half blonde and half blue.
She was, as Luna had observed, a very pretty ghost.
The Ghost tilted her head sideways, examining Max’s wonderful leg. Max didn’t want her to touch his pride and joy, but he couldn’t stop her.
“Reverse this,” said the Ghost, tapping one of the clear panels.
Max responded with noises.
The Ghost frowned, pressed a switch on the wall, and the coils receded somewhat. Not enough to easily get free, but enough for Max to speak. And breathe.
“Reverse…what?” he said.
“I don’t know what you call them,” said the Ghost, somewhat agitated. “The purple things. They should go the other way. It would be…I mean…they shouldn’t go that way it’s not the right way.”
Normally, when someone gave Maximilian Ward advice on engineering, he would laugh until his leg fell off. It never happened, of course, because nobody was silly enough to give Maximilian Ward advice on engineering.
It was a new experience for him that he wasn’t entirely sure he liked.
The Ghost started to yell, but stopped. “I don’t…know what you call them, okay? You know what I mean!”
“Alternating Inducers” said Max, smiling. “They regulate the…”
“They regulate the power flow from the battery to the primary junction yes I know! But ‘alternating inducers’ is a stupid name. They’re purple and they’re things. Take them out and put them in the right way.”
Max didn’t know what to say, except “what is your name?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said the Ghost. “Say hello.”
Max frowned. “Hello?”
“Not to me, to Scraps.”
Max looked around. “Oh,” he said. This is one of the things that one might say when one sees a robot corgi for the first time.
It was one of the most beautiful things Max had ever seen. The design, the form. Was it…alive?
“He’s the one that attacked you at the power station. He’s very sorry. Scraps is a good puppy and you should say hello, and that you forgive him because he’s a good boy.” The Ghost crossed her arms, expecting resistance from her prisoner.
Max, however, was in a new world of having no idea what was happening. He said hello. He forgave the puppy for attacking him. He did not know why he did these things, except it felt right to do them.
Scraps seemed happy. The Ghost picked him up and cuddled him in a way that she probably did a lot.
“You built him?”
The Ghost shrugged. “Of course.”
“How did you build your leg? I took parts, and put them together. I’m going to leave now.”
Max struggled with the coils, which were looser but still rather inconveniently wrapped around him.
“Wait! I need to know your name!”
“Because…I don’t know.”
“You have weird reasons for things.”
Max sighed. “Listen, five minutes ago, I knew I was the smartest person in Widget Ridge, and now…I’m not even the smartest person in this room!”
The Ghost started pacing. She put Scraps down and stalked around the room in no particular pattern. She flapped her hands and twitched and strode every inch of the workshop, like she was politely but firmly trying to burn off a large amount of excess adrenaline.
“I don’t like you,” she said.
Max wanted to respond, but felt like he wasn’t supposed to speak right now. He was correct. It would not be his turn to talk for some time.
“You tracked me down and I don’t know why,” she said.
“All I did was steal six seconds of electricity per day,” she said.
“But you didn’t bring the police,” she explained.
“So you want something,” she reasoned.
A sudden realisation came over her, and she turned to Max, her mouth agape.
“You want my name!”
“Ye…” said Max, but she was off again.
“But it’s not fair! You don’t know my name and that bothers you because it’s something you don’t have,” she said. “And you think you deserve it.”
“You’re right,” said Max. The Ghost stopped pacing and glared at him, but he was committed now. “I didn’t know something and that…gnawed at me. I didn’t know who you were, but I was determined to find out. That’s all, I swear.”
“You have no weapon,” observed the Ghost. “What if I was in the Cult of the Blood Moon? What if this were one of their hideouts? You would die because you’re not smart.”
Max shook his head. “The Cult of the Blood Moon is a story. If they existed, I’d know.”
“Would you really?” asked the Ghost in probably the most condescending way possible. “They exist. I’ve seen them. They have three hideouts and a temple in the city. They don’t like me though.”
“Wait, they’re real? Why don’t they like you?”
“Why would they?” The Ghost. She picked up Scraps, who was nuzzling at her boot. “I’m leaving now. And reverse those purple things.”
And she left.
It took Max ten more minutes to completely disentangle himself from the coils. They were fashioned from old piano wire and discarded springs. He spent a few more minutes searching the room, but it was an obvious decoy. A trap laid for him.
He returned to Ward Manor, dejected.
That night, he reversed the purple things.
Three nights later, the Ghost made some small adjustment to her Lightning Stealer. She needed a little more power for a big project, and she had a pretty good idea that nobody would track her. At least for a while.
The Ghost looked up at Ward Manor. There was a single light burning in one of the highest rooms. Probably the leg guy. She didn’t know his name. He never introduced himself.
She would just call him Leg Guy. She wondered what he called her. Names weren’t all that important anyway so she stopped wondering pretty quickly. She had a robot to build.
Amelia Pettengill put on her pilot jacket, and motioned for Scraps to follow her into the night. He did so, because he was a good boy. He was a good boy because that’s how Amelia had built him.
Somewhere, in the sky above the city, Alistair Gaines screamed in abject terror. However this was nothing to do with Amelia so she ignored it.