Saturday, September 14, 2013
I noticed that I've been posting short stories lately that have already been podcast. I still have some in backlog, but I wanted to throw out something new this month. "The Equicart" is my first foray into something resembling steampunk. I really hope to one day bring the characters in this story back into other stories, so keep an eye out for them, and enjoy!
There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. The entire city had braved the downpour to see the unveiling that Lord Kaelin had refused to cancel. “The Horse of the Future,” all the posters said. The promise of a low-maintenance form of transportation was hinted at below the picture of Lord Kaelin himself, as if he were whispering assurances that you would be the first to know the wonders of his new creation. The posters were still up, tacked to the walls of every building, though the ink of their boasts was running and the paper growing fragile with the rain.
Athayde had no choice but to be here, unlike the massive crowd that huddled under oilcloth umbrellas and held coat collars over their heads. Athayde peered through goggles at the milling people, his head uncovered, the rain plastering his hair to his scalp. He ignored the drops streaming down his neck and the uncomfortable way his soaked feet felt, unable to stay dry in his boots. Every few seconds, his gaze left the onlookers and moved back to the cloth-draped shape that was the cause for all this anticipation.
The four-story warehouse also played home to the factory of Kaelin and Co. A wide striped awning served to keep the rain off the yet-to-be-revealed Horse of the Future. So too was Lord Kaelin himself dry from head to toe. A friendly-looking man, Athayde knew from personal experience that there was a temper behind those amiable eyes. Anger lingered underneath Lord Kaelin’s mask, ready to be released at any moment should the opportunity show itself. Athayde had maintained a position with Kaelin and Co. For nearly a decade only by avoiding contact with the raging beast of Lord Kaelin’s temper. He gave the man no excuse to send him to the street, though he had seen dozens upon dozens of men and women come and go in those years. The job wasn’t great, and the fear of job loss was always lingering, but the company was one of the most prosperous in the entire city, and the pay was good. Besides, Athayde lacked even the most rudimentary technological skills. There weren’t a lot of other opportunities for him unless he was willing to be paid next to nothing for his labor. Athayde wasn’t willing.
The fatherly, crowd-pleasing face was what he showed now, although Athayde could only see his back. He knew the exact expressions Lord Kaelin would be using as he gave the speech he’d practiced all morning. The crowd was rapt with eagerness, attentive to his every word as he described the outdated nature of horse travel. His new innovation would revolutionize the world. “Imagine traveling from Elginboarde to West Lavisham in a day! With what I have hidden under this cloth, you can travel a mile in minutes! I guarantee a trip from the eastern gate to the western gate in less time than it would take to saddle a horse and clamber ungracefully into your sear. No more feeding, no more jostling about on the back of a creature that could choose to throw you off at any moment.”
The crowd held their breaths as Lord Kaelin reached for the cloth. The rain pattered on their clothes and the road, the only sound as they waited for the cloth to be thrown aside. Athayde suppressed a yawn.
With a flourish, the Equicart was revealed to the masses. With many oohs and ahhs, excited chatter and shouts of approval, the people surged forward to get a closer look at the new innovation that would make moving about easier. They surged up to the rail of the building entrance, clamoring for more information, details on how the Equicart worked. Lord Kaelin pointed out the wheels, the seat, and the pedals set in the floor that, when pressed in an alternating pattern, would power the contraption. The faster you pressed the pedals, the faster the Equicart could go. Of course, there were plans to develop Equicarts that could carry more than one person, even families.
Athayde allowed his mind to wander. With so many people around, there was little he could do to guard the Equicart unless a riot broke out. Even then, he couldn’t do much by himself. Kaelin and Co. had other other security personnel to help, but the unveiling hadn’t been considered enough of a risk to merit other guards being present. Normally, they guarded the doors of the building, or protected the projects under construction. Being outside on the job was not usual. Even the clouds and rain were a pleasant distraction from the dim and loud interior of the warehouse.
It wasn’t long before the crowd dissipated. Whether it was due to the novelty of the Equicart fading or the persistent storm, Athayde didn’t know. Whatever the cause, it displeased Lord Kaelin. He stood under the awning beside the contraption, looking left and right as though not believing everyone was gone already. He slowly spun on the spot until he was looking at Athayde, a grimace appearing on his lips. The guard quickly brought his attention back to the task it was being sold for. He didn’t make eye contact with Lord Kaelin. Vainly, he hoped that not looking directly at the innovator would make the man overlook him.
“You guard. Name?”
“Athayde, my lord,” he replied, struggling to keep the frustration from his tone. “Athayde Hamli—”
“I will leave the Equicart here tonight,” Lord Kaelin cut in. “The rain can’t last forever, and once it clears, people will want a closer look. They can’t get that if it’s locked away in the warehouse. I’ll have you out here with it tonight. You’ll be relieved in the morning.”
Athayde finally managed to close his mouth and get over his shock once Lord Kaelin was out of sight. Did the man really expect him to stand out here with the Equicart all night? The pouring rain lessened to a drizzle, and there was no sign of Lord Kaelin returning. The lights began going out in the factory, and Athayde realized it was heading toward night. He hadn’t had dinner, and no one would leave through this front door of the warehouse. Would anyone even realize he was out here?
His answer came, and it wasn’t good. No one passed by, no one he could bribe to bring him some bit of food to silence his growling stomach. After an hour listening to the grumbling and feeling the fat raindrops change to misty drizzles, he realized there was no reason he should still be enduring the weather uncovered. He sidestepped a few feet until he was under the awning, lifting his goggles from his eyes once he was protected from the drops. He was already soaked, but at least he might manage to dry out by the time the sun rose. At least it was late summer and wouldn’t be cold as the hour grew closer to morning. The heat started working against him, and only a few hours into darkness, he was yawning. The light pattering of rain only made his eyelids droop, but Athayde refused to allow himself to lean back on the wall of the building. That would be his doom, end up costing him his job.
His eyes snapped open, and Athayde was surprised to find he’d somehow managed to doze off both while standing and on watch. He was disoriented, his legs rubbery beneath him though his knees screamed with stiffness. How long had he been standing there asleep? The rain had stopped. The streets of Elginboarde were slick and wet, reflecting the light of the gas street lamps. The night air was perfumed with the clean scent that came after a storm. Athayde took in that scent, letting the sense of a night washed clean push away the clouds obscuring his thoughts.
A scraping sound reached Athayde’s ears, and he realized he’d been woken by a similar noise. A rat, perhaps, that had ventured out in search of food after the storm cleared? A stray dog or cat? Or a man, out for a midnight stroll to steal a certain newly-revealed innovation in travel? Athayde pulled his goggles back over his face, wishing he’d been able to afford those new waterproof lenses. Drops of water clung to the goggles, distorting patches of his vision, but he knew wiping them on his clothes would worsen his view, spread the water around in streaks and make seeing all but impossible. Distorted vision or not, wearing the goggles was still better than going without them. Athayde’s eyesight was terrible, though he did his best to hide it. His lenses had been specially made by an old friend of his mother’s, a woman who had discovered that bending glass could help clarify the vision of those whose eyes made things fuzzy and indistinct. Athayde had turned down the woman’s wire-rimmed lenses she called spectacles in favor of goggles. He blended in better with average people that way; spectacles weren’t commonly used yet, and those that did wear them were labeled either very intelligent or beneath notice. Athayde couldn’t pass as very intelligent. At least the goggles gave the impression that he was a technician or engineer of some sort.
The Equicart was undisturbed, so Athayde feigned boredom, yawning as he surreptitiously scanned the rain-slick streets beyond the awning. Silently cursing his wet lenses, he made a guess at which direction the sound had come from and settled his left hand at his hip, feeling for the brassbound hand crossbow sheathed there. Kaelin and Co. hadn’t yet deigned to allow its guardsmen pistols, but at least they demanded a certain level of skill with the bow, and they did have a small target area on the top floor of the factory for practice. Athayde was fairly certain he could hit whoever came at him, distorted vision, moonless night and all.
The sound of movement again reached his ears, and Athayde decided confrontation was better than being snuck up on. “Who’s out there?” He called, loudly enough to be heard by his stalker, softly enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone sleeping in the homes further down the block.
The sounds stopped. Athayde’s hand hovered over his crossbow. He should probably draw it, but he’d never shot an actual human being before and really didn’t want to start now. His eyes flicked back to the Equicart, making certain it hadn’t somehow been absconded with while he was looking elsewhere. The wheeled seat sat placidly in its spot, a contraption of wood and metal, worth more than anything Athayde had ever owned or likely would ever own. To Lord Kaelin, the thing was probably worth more than Athayde’s own life. He sneered at the offending device and looked back toward the place where the sounds had stopped. Silence.
Then, quietly from the dark shadow of a nearby leatherworks, “Thayde?”
For the second time tonight, Athayde’s jaw dropped open. Only four people ever dropped the “a” from his name. Three of them were women: his mother and his sisters. This voice was male.
A shadow peeled away from the building, dark clothes defying the gas lamps’ attempts to illuminate the form encased within. Hand still hovering over his holstered hand crossbow, Athayde watched the man approach until their proximity brought his face into the light.
The grin of the other man was infectious, and Athayde couldn’t stop himself from returning it. There were a dozen reasons he shouldn’t be smiling at this man, a dozen scars, a handful of betrayals, and a thousand words that lingered in the too-recent past. Still, the sight of his old friend at this moment made it frighteningly easy to forget what had happened before. Before he knew what was happening, Athayde had been caught in an embrace. Worse, he found himself hugging back, treachery and harsh words forgotten for the moment.
Then, the hug ended, and Athayde found himself scowling at Mittias. Suddenly, that boyish grin, the black cloth cap, his neat black coat, that pug nose were all detestable again. Mittias didn’t seem to notice, though it was hard to tell if it was because of the poor lighting or he voluntarily ignored the downturned corners of Athayde’s mouth. “It’s been… what, eight months, Thayde?”
“Ten. And a half,” he replied, crossing his arms. “I thought you left Elginboarde with… whatever her name was. Something about searching for gold in the Durgael Mountains, wasn’t it?”
“Oil. And her name’s Lula.
Athayde didn't care. She and Mittias had run off without much more than a well-wishing. And nearly a year had passed since then. It still smarted to be cast aside so easily. "Did you find any?" He asked, not really wanting to know whether or not there was oil in the mountains.
Mittias shook his head, and Athayde couldn't help but feel a smidgen of pleasure at the gesture. But then Mittias's infuriatingly charming grin made another appearance. "We found gold."
The dark-clad man reached into a pocket and produced a leather purse of better quality than Athayde's finest coat. Still grinning, Mittias opened the purse and produced a few small nuggets of gold ore. It was raw, unrefined, but at a glance, Athayde was sure his old friend was holding more in his fingers than Athayde made in a year. Maybe in two years. "I've got more money than I know what to do with," Mittias said, a hint of embarrassment creeping into his voice. "And there's plenty more in the mine. Lula's making sure we actually own the land, seeing to ownership documents and all, but it'll be ours by the end of the week."
Ignoring his awe at the fortune Mittias suddenly had, Athayde sneered. "I don't care," he muttered defensively. "I'm sure you and what's-her-name will be happy being rich."
"Lula. She wants to see you again." The bits of gold went back into the purse.
"I don't want to see her." Athayde didn't want to remember the last time he'd seen her, when Mittias had led her by the hand, walking them both out of his life. He'd thought it would be forever. He'd hoped it would be, since the conversation that came before that departure had crashed his world around his feet.
"Thayde, look. I can't say I'm proud of what I did, but Lula and I want to share this with you."
"That's not the reason you came back to Elginboarde."
Even in the lamplight, Athayde could see Mittias's face go pale. "No, it's not. Not the main reason, anyway. But I'm glad I found you. I can't believe you're still working for Kaelin."
"Lord Kaelin," he defended. "So why are you here?"
Mittias straightened his shoulders, and his eyes flicked to the shadowy form of the device Athayde was supposed to be keeping an eye on. "I'm here for that."
"If that's what the thing's called, yeah."
"Go to the storefront in the morning and order one. We're closed right now. We don't sell directly from the warehouse anyway. You know that."
There was that grin again. "I'm not here to buy one." Athayde didn't say anything, just stared down his unwanted nighttime visitor. Finally, realizing Athayde wasn't going to ask the question, Mittias answered it anyway, his dark eyes twinkling. "I'm here to steal it."
Athayde rolled his eyes, sighed, and felt his blood boil all in the same moment. "You just told me you have more money than I could make in my whole life. Why would you want to steal the Equicart?"
"Why not? It's the 'horse of the future' isn't it? Rich men want rich toys, and I want it. That one, specifically. They can make more. But I'll have the one that was first unveiled."
"You couldn't possibly have known it would be left out here tonight."
"You're right. I didn't. I was expecting to have to break into the warehouse."
Biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from shouting in anger, Athayde clenched his fists. Mittias was just as infuriating as he'd always been, just as cocky and self-sure. "Get out of here. You're not getting it. Don't think I won't treat you like I would any other thief." His left fist uncurled, and he wrapped his hand around the handle of his crossbow.
A pistol was pointed at his chest a second later. Mittias's grin was gone. The look in his eyes was one Athayde had never seen before: real care, regret. "Thayde, I'm taking the cart-thingy."
Athayde froze, staring at the barrel aimed at his heart. "You wouldn't."
"I don't want to, but I will." He stepped toward the Equicart.
Even as nearsighted as he was, as broken as his vision was thanks to the water on his goggles, Athayde could see the opportunity. His crossbow was out in a flash, the pre-loaded bolt pointed at Mittias's head so that when he turned back to Athayde, the head of the bolt was aimed at his eye. Mittias smiled. "You wouldn't."
Athayde didn't respond. It took too much effort to keep himself from shaking. He gestured with his free hand at the pistol. It disappeared into Mittias's coat. "Thayde, what have they done to you?"
There was no hiding the trembling of his voice. "W...what?"
"Does Kaelin pay you so much that you're willing to risk being killed for... for this thing?" He nudged the Equicart with his foot. "Why are you even out here?"
He didn't know how to respond. Why was he out here? Lord Kaelin had told him to stay, and he'd stayed. Like a dog, a good dog waiting for the pat on the head and a few scraps from the dinner table. Except he'd never get either. There would be no appreciation for guarding the Equicart until morning. He'd be lucky to get extra pay for the hours. His stomach rumbled loudly, filling the silence in lieu of the words he couldn't find.
Mittias's eyes went to Athayde's stomach, then back to his face. "Are there more in the warehouse?"
Athayde nodded. There were three more Equicarts that had already been built, and a dozen more were at different stages of completion in the factory. Lord Kaelin was expecting to have hundreds of them on the streets by winter.
"Why are you here, Thayde?"
He was shaking visibly head to toe now, the crossbow wavering, hardly pointing at Mittias any longer. His old friend put a gentle hand on Athayde's arm.
"Why, Thayde? Say it."
"I don't know." The crossbow lowered. Athayde didn't know for certain if it was his doing or if Mittias had pushed his arm down.
The kiss came suddenly, and Athayde hated himself for not immediately pulling away from Mittias. Instead, he kissed back, falling back into a time before he'd been thrown into a life alone. Before Mittias had walked in, introduced Lula, and promptly ended the relationship. Sixteen months had been ended in just a few words. Athayde's heart had broken, and Mittias's abrupt kiss put him frighteningly close to forgetting the breaking had ever happened.
Like most kisses, it ended too soon. Athayde didn't want to open his eyes and face the reality of the months since Mittias had left him for Lula. "I wasn't lying," Mittias whispered, his hand not leaving Athayde's cheek. It was as warm as he remembered despite being clammy from the damp weather. "Come with me."
"Come with me, Thayde."
He finally opened his eyes, tears making his vision even worse. He couldn't see anything through his goggles. "What about Lula?"
"I wasn't lying. She wants to see you again. She's told me she feels like she knows you. Apparently I haven't stopped talking about you since..."
"That's not what I meant." The quavering was finally leaving his voice.
He heard Mittias take a deep breath. "I want you back. I never should have left you like I did. Lula's interested, but if you don't want her, she understands. I understand. But we want to share all this with you." The purse was shoved into Athayde's hand. "That's yours, no matter what. But we want you to come with us."
"Do you have a key?"
His vision began clearing. He shook his head. Mittias replied with a nod. "You might want to turn your back while I break in, then."
Half a grin overtook his mouth. Mittias was always brash. And in his own way, honest. Athayde didn't turn away as Mittias somehow flipped the locks on the warehouse door wihtout much sound. He slipped inside, leaving Athayde alone with the Equicart again. He looked down at the crossbow he still held, "Lord Kaelin and Company" etched into wooden shaft. It might as well have been etched into his cheek. He hated his job. But did that mean he wanted to run off with Mittias, wherever he was going with Lula? He knew the woman from only one glance. What would he have with them?
What did he have here?
He was admitting the answer to himself as Mittias came back into view, pushing an Equicart ahead of him from the warehouse. Once it had cleared the door, Mittias turned and began pulling. Another Equicart came out after him. "One for each of us," he explained a little breathlessly. He removed his scarf and tied the back of one Equicart to the front of another; no doubt he planned to drag the second one behind his own. He climbed into the front Equicart and gestured with his head for Athayde to take the one already outside-- the one he'd been ordered to protect.
"I thought you wanted the revealed one," he mumbled, at a loss for anything else to say. Mittias shrugged.
Athayde was rooted to the spot. "I don't know if I can be with you again."
Mittias sighed. "Honestly, I don't blame you. But this isn't the place to talk about it. Come with me, let's go somewhere, we'll talk. If you can't stand to be around me anymore, fine. But let's at least get out of here."
He glanced at the crossbow in his hand, at the Equicart, at Mittias, up at the warehouse, and through the streets of Elginboarde. There was openness out there somewhere. And... what else?
Mittias's face fell as Athayde walked the few steps to the door of the warehouse. But he didn't walk inside. He closed the door, set the crossbow on the ground with the "Kaelin and Company" label facing the street, and climbed into the Equicart. Looking at his old flame, he couldn't help but see Mittias's smile. Not his usual sly grin, but a genuine smile. They began pedaling, and a moment later, they shot down the street together, the third Equicart trailing behind them.