A Tale of Scientific Horror
With Various Notes by the Author
by Alain H. Dawson
Within this article, you will find a tale of Horror and New Science in the Steam Age, perfectly suited for Dramatic Improvisation and after-dinner Entertainment. This narrative has been crafted to provide Mystery, Thrills, and Surprises to shock the unwary and strike Fear into the hearts of Rational men. Readers may be edified by reference to the several works GURPS Horror, GURPS Steampunk, and GURPS Screampunk, which provide detailed information on the subjects touched upon below, but this Scenario may be used with any suitable System of Gaming.
The Great Undertaking
"And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cogwheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves."
-- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
New building technology, combined with the current vogue for Gothic architecture, has inspired a renowned master architect, Mr. James McNaughton, to take on a monumental task: build a Gothic cathedral in six months, using half the men needed to build one in five years by conventional means. News of this undertaking has spread throughout the British Isles, the Continent, and even the United States. Crowds of curious onlookers have flocked to Macclesfield, a small town outside of Manchester, to watch the progress of the builders and marvel at the towering cranes and other, more mysterious machinery.
Mr. McNaughton is a constant presence at the site, drilling the laborers in the use of the new construction engines (many of which he invented himself), directing crew chiefs, taking measurements, adjusting machinery, and pacing around with clock-like precision. An outspoken critic of the irregularities found in Gothic architecture, he demands perfection and symmetry from his buildings and from his men. He has caused a bit of a scandal by insisting that work continue on the Sabbath, but he is paying the men so well that about half of them are willing to labor on the seventh day. His money and persuasiveness have overcome the objections of the town council and the local branch of the Church of England -- after all, he is building the Lord's house.
However, problems have come in from a new quarter. The construction has been slowed by several acts of sabotage over the past few weeks, which Mr. McNaughton and other authorities attribute to Luddites. There has been unrest throughout the working community over McNaughton's machines that can carve stone, assemble stained-glass windows, and lay brick. Early on in the construction process, several master stonecutters and glaziers walked out because of arguments with the architect, and these men are under close scrutiny, but so far, the constabulary has had no luck in apprehending the culprit.
It is the third week of the fifth month of construction. The piers and buttresses are complete, and the stone and glasswork are growing like skin over the bones of the cathedral. The two towers are rising from the front facade with meticulous symmetry, surmounted by the preying-mantis outline of the cranes. The town spreads away from the site on all sides, dwarfed by the new building.
A scattered line of people rings the site during the daylight hours. Most are curious or awed, skeptical or amused, but a few seem angry, and a few seem afraid. More people come out after dark, drawn to the powerful electric lights which allow the workmen to extend their day. The interior lighting shines through the stained-glass windows, bathing the village in hypnotic jewel-toned beams. The normal sounds of construction are accompanied by the rumble and thump of machinery, and the loud ticking of a six-foot-high clock hung on the facade which regulates every moment of the race to completion. Every so often, the machines, the hammering, and the clock all synchronize, and the whole site seems to work to a single beat. Then the sounds break up into their usual din. This synchronicity happens just a bit more frequently than coincidence would dictate.
Inside the structure, more machines are working away, the grandest of which is a megaframe analytical engine (pp. STM85-86), taking up a large portion of the choir floor, where the altar will eventually sit. It issues cards which Mr. McNaughton then inserts into the other machines to keep them working according to the grand plan.
All around the walls, inside and out, men stand on scaffolding and work with an efficiency that seems programmed into them. The men do very little but put together sections of material that the machines have churned out -- there is no room for master craftsmen or individuality, just for strong backs and hands to work to the precise orders of the engine and the architect.
The only thing to mar the regularity of the construction is a jagged hole through the main rose window and a broken buttress arch --the results of the latest sabotage -- both of which are being swarmed by workmen repairing the damage.
Mr. James McNaughton comes from Dundee in the east of Scotland. He was educated at Edinburgh University, earned a degree in engineering, and then went on to receive training as an architect. From the start of his career, he has revolutionized the building industry with his construction engines, saving his clients tens of thousands of pounds in labor costs. He has grown rich from his patents and his profits, and has the gratitude of a great many other rich and powerful men.
He is the polar opposite of John Ruskin, a contemporary who defends Gothic architecture against critics of its crudity and roughness, extolling its imagination and the contributions of individual craftsmen to the whole. McNaughton's favorite statement is "The men are extensions of the machinery, not the other way 'round." He requires the same exactitude and obedience from his laborers as he does from his machines, and feels that, of the two, the machines are more valuable. However, he does pay his workers very well, and so he continues to find men willing to put up with his foibles.
In appearance, he is a tall, thin man with a handlebar mustache. He wears a suit and bowler and always looks meticulously dressed. He carries a gold watch on a chain, but never looks at it. He, more than anyone else on the site, moves in time with the construction clock without appearing to do so on purpose.
Bringing in the Adventurers
The heroes can be brought into this scenario in several ways. They could be investigators or guards hired to stop the rash of sabotage. They could be sent by one of the project's patrons to be sure that his investment is safe. If they are scientists or inventors, they could be called in to consult on the project, or they could be called on by friends or family members in Macclesfield who have been affected by the strange goings on. They could even be present as bystanders who have come to observe the progress of this massive undertaking, and become caught up in events.
The longer the PCs are near the construction site, the more they come to feel that there is something strange going on, some undercurrent of wrongness that goes deeper than the resentment of ex-employees and suspicious townspeople. The constant, loud tick of the construction clock is an inescapable irritant, and makes it impossible to think of anything but the race to complete the cathedral. The building looms, at once marvelous and disturbing, surrounded by signs of something unnatural, but most of them are hard to spot. The PCs will need to put them together before they realize the extent of the cathedral's influence on the town and the people. These signs should be presented gradually in game play, folded in so that their impact is not immediate, but cumulative.
- Birds: The birds living on or near the building are becoming mechanized, like the clockwork crow described in the next section. Their songs are perfect copies of birdsong, without any variation. They tend to sing in time with the clock. Anyone with Animal Handling, Naturalist, or other related skill may make a skill roll to notice this.
- Other animals: Any animals that spend a lot of time near the site are beginning to be affected. Dogs, horses, and others will seem subdued, hardworking, obedient, and emotionless. When they aren't occupied, they will remain fixed in one position for hours. Again, people with animal skills should notice this.
- The workers: Many of them seem drained of emotion, although the hard work could account for that. Fewer and fewer of them are going to the pubs after work. They will converse if spoken to, but will mostly be interested in talking about the details of their work. They tend to give disturbingly similar answers to questions, even innocuous ones such as "will it rain tonight?" (Ten different men will answer, "No, no rain. The mortar will set all right.") Every once and a while, their movements will seem to synch up with the tick of the clock, but this doesn't last long, and a casual observer could think it was a coincidence.
- The workers' wives: The PCs can strike up a conversation with one or more of the workers' wives. They often come out to watch their husbands, so they are easy to run into. Several of them look anxious enough to draw attention, and if questioned carefully by a sympathetic person, they will admit that their husbands seem changed. They show little emotion, and although they do work hard around the house, when there is nothing to do, they just sit and stare at the walls. Some of the husbands have gone so far as to rearrange the furniture so that its placement is perfectly symmetrical. (Anyone going to their homes will see that this is true.)
After a few days, the wives who complained will no longer look afraid. They will deny there is any problem, and will rebuff any inquisitors without showing any emotion. At home, the wives will join their husbands in sitting and staring at the walls when not occupied.
- The workers' children: Many of the workers' children are eerily clean and quiet. One day, an investigator may observe a rambunctious child pulling away from his mother; a day or two later, he walks sedately by her side. Children are frequently seen counting on their fingers, as though trying to add something up. If the PCs enter the home of a family that has been affected, they may see very young children using wooden blocks in patterns like those used by an analytical engine.
A Clockwork Bird
Not long after the heroes arrive on the scene, the saboteur strikes again. The dawn illuminates painted warnings on the front doors: "God is Not in This Place" and "Tainted." Soon after work starts that morning, two of the machines malfunction, billowing smoke and groaning as gears slip out of place. Then a stained glass cutting machine explodes, driving a huge shard of glass into the eye of a worker standing nearby, and showering the crowd with multicolored slivers. The injured worker lies unconscious, and other crew members carry him away to the surgeon. The onlookers escape with minor cuts.
The party members who are present should make a Vision roll; those who succeed will notice the damaged body of a crow at their feet. It was sliced nearly in two by glass shrapnel, and the wound reveals bones like tiny gears. The bird gives one last weak flutter of its wings, and the gears move and then jam with a frail snap.
The heroes can take the carcass with them for examination if they like, but further study simply confirms what they already saw -- the bird is made of flesh and bone, but these natural materials have warped to an unnatural state. It is both biological and mechanical.
Later that day, one of the men returns from the surgeon to announce that the man injured by glass died from his wound. The saboteur is now a murderer.
Catching a Killer
The heroes can retrace the steps the police have already taken to find the saboteur, but they are all dead ends. The men who left the project early on are certainly bitter, and tired of being suspected -- allowing them to air their grievances will net an interviewer more information than conducting a strict interrogation. They all have the same complaint; they are craftsmen and artisans, but Mr. McNaughton wanted workers who would follow orders to the letter and not infuse their work with an individual vision. He didn't respect their skills, and when they left, he replaced them with cheaper, unskilled labor. They don't hide the fact that they want the project to fail, but they deny any involvement in the sabotage, and there is no evidence to contradict them.
The architect has no time at all for distractions, and will be very terse with unofficial inquiries into the project's problems. He will be interested in talking shop with other experts, but he is a fanatic, and will not tolerate opposition to his ideas. He will also talk to anyone who has official standing with the law or with his patrons, but will be rude and abrupt if they take up too much of his time.
Prolonged observation of the workers at the site (three full days, with a successful IQ roll each day) will reveal that there is one man who never works in time with the clock. This man, a crew leader named Tom Parker, does not stand out immediately. He works hard, he gives orders to his crew, he takes orders from the architect without demur, and generally fits in to the scene, but he is never in synch with the other workers. Closer scrutiny will reveal that he seems to be under serious stress; he's tense, and overreacts to loud noises. When he thinks no one is looking, he stares at his fellow workers as though there is something wrong with them, and even stranger, he sometimes stares at nothing at all, tracking movement that isn't there. In those moments, his eyes have the empty look of a soldier who has seen too much war.
Tom lives alone, and doesn't spend much time at home because of the long hours his job demands. He is taciturn and wary of strangers -- if the PCs try to question him, he will brush them off, but on a successful IQ roll, they will catch a hint of fear in his expression.
Careful questioning of the guards and construction crew will reveal that Tom was seen on the site near the same time as several of the acts of sabotage, even when it wasn't his shift. The workers just assumed that he was doing extra work. The investigators can try to apprehend him before he does more damage -- if they have that authority -- or they can follow him and try to catch him in the act.
Tom will try to break more machinery as soon as he can if he feels the heroes are on to him. It's a last ditch effort, and the most ambitious of all his acts of destruction. He will wait until night, then attempt to use one of the loaded cranes to knock down the opposite tower. He won't get very far with this plan. If the PCs don't stop him, the guards certainly will. He will have to be dragged away from the crane's control, and then will press an all-out attack (p. B105) on anyone trying to restrain him. He will go down screaming "they're not human! They're just machines! God is not here! It is here . . . the machine . . . they're all machines . . . destroy them now! Stop it from coming!"
Tom Parker makes an unlikely saboteur. He is a respected builder. He worked on the cathedral project since the beginning. He never gave any trouble or spoke out against the machines. But beneath this reassuring exterior, Tom has been living in a nightmare. Through some freak of nature, he is able to see exactly what is happening at the building site; he has been watching the slow creep of the plague ever since it started, seeing one after another of his friends get taken over, and it has driven him over the edge. He feels that he has to stop it, but he's deathly afraid of what it might do to him. He kept working on the project because he thought leaving would draw its attention to him. He is severely paranoid. With the strange logic of the insane, he knew that no one would believe him if he described what he saw, so he set out to halt the construction on his own.
Unfortunately, his state of mind prevented him from being an effective saboteur. He is afraid the machines can see him, and feels that they would actively try to stop him if he attacked them too directly, so his assaults on the construction have mostly been peripheral. He feels no remorse for killing one of his fellow workers because to him, the man was already dead. (The man he killed was not actually mechanized yet, and an autopsy will only reveal human anatomy.)
When Tom is captured, he breaks down completely, and raves incessantly about the evil machines driving God out of the cathedral, the mechanical men, and the need to halt the construction. The police will want to send him to a mental institution, since he is now erratic and dangerous.
Although Tom was too paranoid to talk to another person about what he was seeing, he wrote it all down in a notebook which he keeps hidden under his bed. His handwriting is atrocious, and his thoughts have no organization, but the meaning comes through. He has also sketched crude anatomical drawings of men with mechanisms inside them, much like those inside the bird.
The PCs can find this notebook either before or after Tom is apprehended. If Tom dies before the PCs can talk to him, the notebook will allow them to get his side of the story anyway.
The Least of Our Worries
It turns out that Tom was right. His sabotage was only a symptom of a much larger problem with the project. The heroes begin to see the real problem, aided by Tom's ravings if he's alive, or the words in his notebook if he's dead. The layered clues that surround the construction should start to fall into place for those who are willing to believe the unbelievable.
A malevolent force has seized upon McNaughton's fanatical devotion to precision and machinery; it is using him, and this construction project, to manifest itself into the physical world. McNaughton believes he has tapped into the "Soul of the Machinery," and he is carefully nurturing this contact. In his mind, he is building this church not for God, but to worship the superiority of machines. His every action is dedicated to this mechanical deity, and he is convinced that if he completes the cathedral on time, he will bring it permanently into the world. Using him as a channel, it is drawing power from the entire construction site -- every brick laid makes it stronger. As it gains strength, it gains control over the creatures around it, converting them into perverted bio-machines. They in turn infect their families and friends, spreading the mechanization ever farther.
The GM should decide whether or not the PCs are in danger of being mechanized themselves. By their nature they are less likely to be affected, but they will have to spend a lot of time around the site. If the PCs can be affected, have them start making a Will roll (+5) after a week at the site. Each day after that, they must make another Will roll with the same bonus until another week has passed. Each successive week, the bonus decreases by one point, until they are making a straight Will roll every day. If the adventurers are immune, choose a few dramatically appropriate moments to describe to them how their hearts feel as though they are beginning to beat in time with the construction clock. This is particularly suitable if they are inside the cathedral at night.
In a dark or melodramatic campaign, the GM can go all out with the machine-as-god imagery. As the project nears completion, the interior of the cathedral looks more and more like a temple to a machine god. The analytical engine stands in place of the altar, surrounded by pillars of electric light. McNaughton grows more ecstatic, his eyes glittering with the joy of bringing forth the Soul of the Machinery. The construction engines clank their ceaseless prayers, and the mechanized workers now work entirely to the tick of the clock. Several ranks of them stand before the altar, staring at their new master.
What To Do
When the investigators finally uncover McNaughton's plan, they have some unpleasant choices to make. Should they tell the authorities? They would have a hard time giving their story credibility. Mr. McNaughton has money, power, and influence, and the Powers That Be in Macclesfield (and more importantly, Manchester) will not want to see his work stopped. They will ignore or rationalize the evidence for as long as possible. It's likely that by the time they can be convinced, the construction will be complete and the damage will be irreversible. (In a darker campaign, the people in power already know what is going on -- and they want it to continue.)
The PCs could try to sabotage the project, hopefully with more success than Tom Parker. If the cathedral isn't completed on time, the Soul of the Machinery will dissipate. Destroying the analytical engine would be the most effective way of doing this, since the Soul of the Machinery is focused there, but it will defend itself violently. The engine is surrounded by machines, which can fling stone and glass shards, and explode if all else fails. The cranes can drop their loads on people below.
A safer way to slow construction is to cut off the flow of building materials, particularly machinery parts to fix the construction machines. This has the advantage of staying out of reach of the machines themselves, but eventually the Soul of the Machinery will send a gang of mechanized humans and animals to restore the supply lines.
The weakest link is McNaughton himself. If he is removed from the site, there is no way that the construction will be completed on time. However, if the group wants to take the easy way out and assassinate McNaughton, GMs should be sure that they feel the repercussions of this act, both from the law and from the outraged machine entity. Kidnapping will work just as well, but the heroes had better take him far away, and keep moving to stay out of reach of the clockwork men until the six months are up.
There are many avenues this story could take. Below are three suggestions, moving from a lighter to a darker outcome, but GMs are encouraged to end this in whatever way best dovetails into their campaign.
The heroes manage to stop the project or replace the architect, and everything goes back to normal. The animals and men affected return to normal, and only creatures that died while affected will have the telltale physiology. The adventurers have learned a lesson about harnessing dark forces, but they continue on much as before.
The group may stop the project, or they may not. The people and animals who were affected remain like that until they die, and they all die within a year or two of these events. The soul of the town is gone, and soon it is all but abandoned, the crumbling buildings a blight on the landscape. Those involved will carry the memories forever, and have lost some of their innocence.
Despite the heroes' desperate efforts, the cathedral is completed. Perhaps they even become seen as saboteurs themselves, and must run from the authorities. Implacably, insidiously, the machinery spreads, affecting the whole town, island, or the world. The weak-minded are enslaved to the machines. Those with a strong enough will to resist the plague will either control the slaves, or fight against the new world order. In this case, the campaign shifts to a post-apocalyptic steampunk world, where old institutions and hierarchies come crashing down, and hardy individuals fight a mindless army in a wasteland of pipes and gears.
Article publication date: October 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.