“Does anyone remember what’s significant about this date?”
The teacher stood in front of the classroom, emphasizing the writing on the board with a massive pointing stick. Heavy lines of chalk spelled out, “June 20th, 1947.” He paced in front of his desk a little spastically, and the floorboards creaked with each step. It was a rhetorical question, of course. Everyone on board knew the date.
Silence fell over the room long enough for him to answer the question himself. Even though he only half-expected an answer, he was unamused by the lack of participation in class. “That day is the day the Nazi regime launched der Dampfkrieg. Or, as we call it, the Steam War.”
Whether for effect or to organize his lecture points, he paused. If he’d been paying attention, he would have noticed that almost nobody was listening to his lecture. Instead, he continued. “Who here knows the name of the first Nazi ship to go up into the sky?”
A better question to ask the students was probably, “Who actually cares about the names of Nazi ships?” Regardless of the fact that Germany and America were the two superpowers of the war, the first American ship got the sole luxury of being remembered. Any other country was lucky to have any of their ships remembered.
His pacing picked up again, each step clicking against the wood, and each plank creaking under his weight, reverberating the sound of the unreinforced beams underneath them.
Finally, Lukas, a quiet first-year from New Germany, raised their hand. “I believe the answer is the Kammerjäger, sir,” he said.
It was his second day on board the ship, but Lukas had already figured out the routine. He braced himself for the incoming comments from the rest of the class. It wasn’t easy being extensively German, much less a nerd.
“Quiet down, class,” the teacher commanded, ignoring the remarks made. “The English translation of this ship is the Exterminator, and it was home to six of the highest-ranking Nazis, including Hitler himself.” He paused intentionally this time, letting the information sink in.
Of course, someone had to break the silence. “Sir, this isn’t history class,” a third-year kid said. He seemed to have a freckle for every month he’d been alive. He leaned his chair back, twirling a pencil between his fingers. The teacher, an outspoken opponent of obnoxious outbursts, immediately whirled to face towards the student, and his glasses nearly took flight. He replaced the pointing stick with a discipline stick.
“History, Mr. Williams,” Mr. Gates began, beginning his pacing again, “is not simply a boring retelling of events for you to memorize. It is the remembering of all of humanity, of every advancement, of every war, and technology, and culture, and person. But most importantly, it is the context in which we live our very own lives.”
If what he said was meant to be profound, it didn’t receive the recognition he believed it deserved. The audience yet again gave him blank stares and apathy. He sighed, realizing that it was time to wrap up and get to his point.
“What year is it, Mr. Williams?” the teacher asked, walking over to his “Wheel of Fate.” The wheel had a large red button and thirty different disciplinary options, each with grueling homework as punishment.
“1977, Mr. Gates,” the kid replied. He’d heard the horror stories from this class, and while he had a creeping desire to see if any of the stories were actually true, it slowly dawned on him that testing the oldest teacher on board was not a very smart idea. He hoped for options on the wheel that were slightly less sadistic.
With a dramatic smack of the discipline stick against the power button, the wheel kicked into motion. It clicked as it passed every option before finally settling on a slice with a pretty painful task.
“Oh dear,” sighed the teacher, “it seems you have received a homework assignment. Coincidentally, it happens to be a four-page paper on the history of airships. Isn’t that neat? I hope this will be a valuable lesson about respect. You’re seventeen. Act your age.”
The kid groaned and leaned further in his chair, nearly falling back.
“I do have a point to this brief history lesson,” Mr. Gates said. “Just yesterday, thirty years after the Steam War began, the remains of Hitler’s aeronautics mastermind, Herr Weber, washed up in the Baltic Sea.” He paused for effect again. There were no outbursts this time, so he continued. “That said, he still has many documents and studies that are under Nazi control that will certainly outlive him.
“Although he was a Nazi, a lot of what we’ve learned comes from reverse-engineering ships he helped design. The twenty-five of you want to be steampunks? If you want to know how to steer the ships, repair them, and shoot with them, you must know how they work. Welcome to Airship Anatomy, soon to be your favorite class. Dismissed.”
The group of students left class with boggled minds. Not by the history lesson, the remains of the mastermind, or the fact that Mr. Gates didn’t smack him with the discipline stick–It was mostly because he “dismissed” them at the same time the bell rang, even though there were no clocks in his room.
“Guess the old man works like clockwork,” one kid chirped to his friends. He had greasy black hair, hazel eyes, and more puns than almost anyone else in the world.
“Really, Sprocket,” one of his friends said, a blonde girl with blue eyes, who stood a lot shorter than him.
“Oh, come on, Cog, you know you love his puns,” the other kid commented, about a head taller than her. He actually held the title for the most puns in the world. “They honestly make me gearful.” She glared at him for a painstakingly long moment.
“Gogs,” she said, slowly, “make one more pun and I’ll throw you into the Baltic Sea!”
They walked out of the classroom and on towards the mess hall, morphing into a large crowd of seventy-five kids in the corridors, all third-years like themselves. Many walked in groups of their own, each talking and trying to one-up the noise level of the group next to them just to be heard. Once inside, an old routine for a new school year took effect: they had to reclaim their table.
When they noticed a group of first-years at their table, another old habit kicked in.
“We must reclaim throne, for Motherland!” Gogs yelled, perfectly imitating a burly Russian voice. The first-years initially did nothing as Sprocket and Gogs charged at the table. Until they realized that the two upperclassmen weren’t slowing down, they sat wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights. Eventually, they snapped back to reality and dove out of the way. Cog walked over to the table afterwards, simultaneously smiling and rolling her eyes at their insane behavior.
They could be insufferable sometimes.
Sprocket then stood atop the table, posed nobly, and yelled, “Let this be a lesson for you newcomers: this is the Cogwheel table!”
All their fellow third-year classmates whooped and laughed. The second-year kids awkwardly laughed alongside their older counterparts, but the first-year kids were all frightened or stunned by what happened. As they slowly settled into their new life on the ship, many made a mental note not to disturb the Cogwheel dynasty.
Up on the cafeteria stage, a man in official Sky Pilot clothing tapped a microphone, which signaled everyone’s attention. His sky-blue jacket snugly displayed the badge on his chest.
“Thank you, Cog, Gogs, and Sprocket, you mischievous third-year knuckleheads. Now that their less-than-affectionate welcome is over, let’s give the real welcome to our new first-year class!”
All but one person from the second and third-years stood up and clapped for about fifteen seconds. The 150th person, Cog, was helping the poor, uprooted kids find new seats, leading them every which way in search of an empty table. The wave of brown overcoats slowly sat back down, one by one.
“I am your pilot and principal, Mr. Steampipe,” the man continued. “For those of you who prefer nicknames, I’m usually called ‘Steamy,’ ‘Pipette,’ or, mostly, ‘Amp.’”
A large rumble rocked the boat. With his signal, all seventy-five of the fourth-year students crashed through the doors of the lunchroom, chanting his nickname to the school theme, “Wool and Wind.”
Despite the mess of it all, Cog finally found a chance to sit back down. “I thought I said we weren’t calling it the ‘Cogwheel Table’ this year, you guys.”
“But we’d do anything for you, my queen,” Gogs responded.
A spotlight highlighted their table instantaneously. “I didn’t mean it!” he yelled, raising his hands up as if surrendering.
“As you may have already figured out,” Amp announced, “that is the Cogwheel table. The three amigos over there pretty much own it. I understand that, as head of the third-year class, you have a speech to give, Gogs?”
Gogs lowered his hands, cracked his knuckles, stood up, and pulled a deck of cards out from his pocket. He joined Amp up on stage, and said, “Good day, my fellow classmates. I’ve been nominated to give this speech, because it was chosen by a select—and very stunning—board of twelve students. So, without further ado, let me begin.”
He rubbed the deck of cards, then slid it back into his pocket and retrieved his speech copy.
“Today marks a new era for the steampunk people!” he said, with an awful Hitler impersonation. “Seventy-five more smart! Strong! And handsome young people!” With each break in his speech, he pointed to the exact same kid, who was in full-blown laughter by the end.
The voice strain made him cough. Students whistled and cheered. “Someone water me!” he demanded, hand outstretched for a glass.
Upon receiving a cup, he took a swig and said, “It’s hard to be evil.” This generated more noise, including chants like, “Führerocious!”
After pausing to get the strain out of his system, he continued in his normal voice. “I’m lying, by the way. Not about the ‘hard being evil’ thing, of course. He’s had it deservingly rough as of late. I’m lying about the ‘strong, smart, and handsome.’ Y’all aren’t the best looking.”
“He sure knows how to keep a crowd entertained,” Sprocket said, repositioning his junior pilot goggles on his hat.
“If that’s what we’re calling it,” Cog replied.
Gogs continued with the speech, reverting to his inappropriate impersonation. “Times have changed for the superior Steampunk race, bringing new rules and regulations! But fear not, for most of them are obvious! No killing fellow steampunks! No dipping your arms in lighter fluid! Salute the American flag every morning!” He coughed more from voice strain and took a second drink of water. “Your mustaches can only be trapezoids. No other inferior shapes!”
He fixed his gaze on Amp, who wore a grin despite his head shaking in disapproval. Gogs spoke again without the accent. “In all seriousness, most of the major rules will be explained next class, and whether or not you’re new here, welcome aboard the Globetrotter. Let’s eat.”
There were multiple food lines for them to choose from, so the three of them traveled to the wall on their left and went down the line.
“What was all that about, Gogs?” Sprocket asked, concerned by how well of an impersonation he can do. He got a sandwich with chips and water for lunch.
“Let’s just say that took a lot of persuading,” Gogs replied. “Come to find out, he isn’t a popular person. I never want to taint my soul with his voice again.”
“Good idea,” Cog said. The trio sat back down, reflecting on the previous moment’s insanity. “That was highly inappropriate, and we don’t need people thinking you’re a Nazi.”
She played around with the food on her plate. Even though she was usually the hungriest person at the table, lunch didn’t sound good to her. It was a mixture of butterflies in her stomach and the impersonation that set her hunger aside. She’d also eaten a honey bun before her last class, which probably didn’t help.
“Feeling down, Cog?” Sprocket asked, noting her lack of enthusiasm for the admittedly sad-looking sandwiches. They were homemade, but still uninviting.
“No, just some first-day anxiety, per usual,” she replied. “And I definitely loaded up on sugar this morning.”
Their lunch wrapped up with no more new chaos, and the three had to split. Gogs and Sprocket headed to gym class, while Cog made her way to her languages class.
“Welcome to socials class. Please find yourself a seat.”
The teacher, an older lady who went by Springlock, stood in front of two large filing cabinets behind her desk. She reached into one and pulled out four files, three full and one empty. “Today, the first-year students get to decide on their nicknames. As many of us know, this is a very special process. Whatever you choose will stick with you for the rest of your tenure here. You choose a nickname for yourself, and almost every teacher will use it. Many teachers, like myself, also have a nickname you can use.”
A few of the first years mumbled between themselves. They had been waiting for this exact moment since before they boarded.
“First, we will introduce ourselves individually with our actual names. I am Mrs. Frye, but you may call me ‘Springlock.’ I am your socials class teacher. Would everyone but the first-years line up at the front and state your name and then your nickname.”
Madness ensued. Most nicknames were simple, but there were a few stranger ones thrown into the mix.
“My name is Pat. You may only call me Tap.”
“Though my name is Donald, I prefer ‘The Donald,’ and will ignore you otherwise.”
Despite having done this two times already, waiting to present herself brought her the same anxiety as waiting to give an actual presentation. Her heart beat a little faster the closer her turn came. Everybody presented themselves differently. How would she? Short and sweet, or lengthy?
Her time to decide ran out too quickly, so she quickly decided to keep it short. It felt like the longest walk she had ever taken, just to reach the podium to say, “My name is Cog.” Then she speedily moved to return to her seat, hoping to avoid confrontation. Unfortunately, one of the first-year kids caught on.
“You forgot your real name first,” he said.
The room went dead silent. The rest of the class switched between staring at her and the kid that challenged her statement. What he’d said made sense to the other first-years in the class, but everyone else acted like he’d signed his own death warrant. The opposing parties broke eye contact, and Cog sat back down. The last few kids awkwardly presented, and the teacher walked back up to the podium.
“Now that we’ve heard everyone’s names,” she said, with special emphasis, “it’s time for you first-years to create your own nickname. It doesn’t have to be steampunk-related, but it’s always nicer that way. You can’t officially change it once you decide right here, so please choose carefully.”
About twenty minutes of writing and talking ensued, and the first-years lined up, each with their newly chosen nicknames.
“I’m Katie, but I’ll go by Sail.”
“My name’s Ronny, but I think Ratchet sounds nice.”
“I’m Bill, but you can call me Barrett.”
“I’m Lukas. Call me das Gehirn.”
The Cogwheel trio sat at the lone table with three seats for their math class. Of every class they had, Cog and Sprocket understood math the least. As soon as some big-brained moron mixed letters with numbers, and eventually even older letters, they lost comprehension. The singular reason they’d made it this far was sitting next to them.
“Welcome, mein freunds, to Calculus drei,” the math teacher announced. His fake German accent matched his crazy white hair, creating a near-perfect mad scientist impression, complete with a white lab-coat draped down to his shins and something vaguely resembling a sweater, but somehow nerdier. It made Cog sick.
“For those of you who may have forgotten, that follows Calculus zwei.” He held up two fingers in his mocking of the class. “I am your professor, Dr. Elbrooke. You may call me Einstein or Genius. I really accept either. I recognize one of these lovely faces. Herr Everest, happy to see you.”
Gogs waved, saying, “Long time no see, eh?”
“Eh. Please open your textbooks to page forty-three. We begin today with some small review problems.” He cleared his throat, almost too loudly, and said, “Questions one through eighty-nine.”
Loud and obvious pain came from the class. Already, this class was going to be a doozy. Then, he threw homework on top almost immediately. Torture and torment were on the forecast. The outburst, however, prompted him to say, “Odd problems only.” The mood slightly lightened. He finished, adding, “Due one week from today.”
“I like you already, sir,” Sprocket said, confused. He still wasn’t happy with six pages of work to do in a calculus class.
“Gut! Now, before we begin, I have a very important question. Who here knows the date Albert Einstein was born?”
Immediately, Gogs’ hand shot up. “He was born March fourteenth, 1879, Genius.”
Einstein slammed his books on the desk and glared intently at Gogs. The German accent disappeared, now replaced by an angry American one. “Are you insulting me, Mr. Everest?!”
Confused, Gogs answered, “No sir, I meant nothing by it.”
A very intense pause followed. “I know,” Einstein said, breaking the silence, “I’m just pulling your leg. Get it? Because calling someone ‘genius’ or ‘Einstein’ is usually an insult? Anyway, welcome to triple calculus, class.”
Lukas pressed himself against a nearby wall. If anyone had seen him, they would probably have assumed he was a crazy German kid with ties to the Nazi regime eavesdropping on someone on the other side of the drywall. That’s because he was, in fact, eavesdropping on a conversation of Cog, Gogs, and Sprocket’s. The spectator he made up would probably be more convinced if they found out how he was listening.
“Well, guys, are you ready for another great year of math, airships, and gears?” Cog asked, sounding unenthusiastic about the long two hundred days that lie ahead. She’d always eventually admit that the school year was fun, but at the beginning of both last year and this year, she’d been reminded of the grim circumstances that brought her to the school to begin with.
Lukas didn’t care about the small talk they were having. He saw this as a chance to see if he could read their minds from this far away.
I can’t naturally read minds, and I don’t have any strange powers, he reasoned with his nonexistent watcher. He, along with some help from an undisclosed group, developed a technology that could read brainwaves up to fifty yards away, so long as nothing interfered.
His nonexistent spectator wasn’t very convinced.
He pulled out a cartoonishly simple remote from his pocket. With the flip of a switch, and a small amount of tuning, he was in their heads.
I’d rather work on my airship than this calculus garbage, Sprocket reckoned.
I’ll have all my assignments done by tomorrow, no doubt, thought Gogs.
When he aimed at Cog, he received nothing but static.
“Yeah, totally ready,” Sprocket said. “Aren’t you, Cogalicious?”
The findings were very strange. He didn’t understand why it would work on the two boys, but not on her. He tried to make a quick list of likely reasons but wound up with just two: she was either too far away to scan, or some sort of interference had gotten in the way. Just for kicks, he also mentally added “a lack of cognition” as a third option.
He let himself steal a peek around the corner. They weren’t fifty yards away anymore; they were much closer, and walking towards him! His black boots thudded against the wooden floor as he bolted away. The trio never saw who it was that randomly ran down the hall.
The door slammed shut behind him as he entered his room. His grand Victorian clock hanging on the wall ticked just as loud as his heart, pounding from the spontaneous run.
“Welcome aboard the Globetrotter,” he whispered, repeating Amp’s words with a smile. He was still pressed against the door, and the cold doorknob returned the favor. This week would prove very interesting.
“Welcome indeed, but not for long.”