Steampunk Wenesday

Due to focus issues, or rather lack thereof, I'm having to reach into already written material for a bit of filler. In an attempt to make up for this break in story I've decided to go for what I feel to be one of my better pieces. It's been picked up by Steampunk Tales, but they only ask for first print rights. What follows is the first story I had given them. Sure it's available for free here but I'd rather you support them if possible. It's only two bucks an issue and it helps support a very worthwhile small-time magazine. Sure in theory i get a portion of the profit off anything my material appears in, but in practice it's negligible without a huge surge in sales. I'd just rather the place not shut down before giving others their first break in getting published.


Sideways in Time


His starting point is not important for it will never be visited, and only serves as an excuse to get the ball rolling; and even he is starting to forget a few of the finer details of what things were like. He has 'lived', for want of better term, in the spaces between moments.

Currently he is visiting a bar in what could be any industrialized city in the late nineteenth century. It could be London, it could be Paris, or it could be neither. He has no problems with the language barrier (one of the many perks of his being from the Where and When he was from, is being able to speak any historic language – and more than a few were purely made up over the course of history). He just wants to spend the next bit of his existence taking in the local color, perhaps grab a drink or two; and if he is really lucky, grab a bite to eat.

He landed, rolling to an abrupt stop atop a man cursing and screaming. This in and of itself is nothing new – after all, you go about your business only to be interrupted by... say... a grown man wearing a broad brimmed hat, full-length coat and sporting a three-day growth of stubble, literally dropping out of nowhere on top of you. What made this occasion different was that this time, our time traveler happened to drop in on an attempted murder. Fortunately for both the would-have-been-murdered and the Traveler, the chance encounter ended with the would-be-murderer knocked out cold and lying sprawled in the middle of a cramped alleyway.

The Traveler checked the man's things to try to get some sense of When and Where he had arrived. He found a general sense of both, and whistled as he exited the alley into the only slightly-wider street. He always liked this “When”: it was the time of Beginnings, when many of the technologies and theories of Science and Entertainment had started taking on the shapes that were familiar to him. That, and it was a far sight better than hitting any When-Where that had a general ban on spirits. He hated bathtub brew with a passion.

Money was always a problem in these situations, at least since he was a somewhat moral person. He had a small amount, thanks to his inadvertent entrance, but he would need more if he wanted to wine and dine in the style to which he was most accustomed. This could be solved in time with a combination of a play-list of songs from his music player that he had long since memorized, a voice that lends itself to singing in a variety of styles, and the fact that in most time periods he could literally sing for his supper.

He would sing songs that would be popular both past and future, and be entertaining; if things looked too hairy, he could always step sideways and free-fall into another When-Where.

Of course he had not counted on the man he had collided with having friends, or that they would wait until he was both drunk and asleep before retaliating. Hindsight being what it is, he would have taken the simple measure of finding a bar further from his entry point. As they beat him – and this was not the first time he had had to take a few punches over the years – he felt something break: several of the more delicate mechanisms of his displacement suit. Though he was in no immediate danger from internal injuries, he was in a fair amount of pain. He was thankful for the small mercy that although thoroughly broken, the devices he wore had taken the brunt of the assault. On further examination he was relieved to find that the more toxic elements that powered and controlled the suit were undamaged. Sadly ,even with that small mercy he was well and truly stuck here, wherever and whenever 'Here' actually was. That, he was sure to soon find out.

Be calm, he told himself during his fourth attempt at forcing his displacement suit to unstick him. Part of his mind knew that there was no chance of it working, but he was panicked and hoping against all reason that somehow it would contain one last jump. You've read the manuals, taken training courses, and played through many simulations of this. Think, then act. With deliberate calm he got up and made his way to the common area of the hotel from which he had rented a room. There would be talk there, and unlike the drunken doings from the night before (from the previous When-Where), he would pay attention to this talk until he got a better handle on his situation. Alright, nothing screams that you're in the middle of a war. So far, so good. He sat in a threadbare rocker and soaked up the conversation while sipping a cup of coffee. Passable, but compared to Transcendent Brew it couldn't hold a candle. Then again, what could? Right?
From the eight others who had – for reasons that are unimportant to the Traveler, and thus to us – decided to wait there until the time came to go about their business, he learned the following:

This was not, as he had initially supposed, any major city; at least not one that was recorded by any of the major histories, urban myths, legends or any of the travel guides he had bothered reading.

This place was run by some sort of council – possibly democratically elected, possibly self-appointed rulers. These people were thought of as somewhere between 'benevolently eccentric' and 'evil overlords' depending on the speaker's political, moral and spiritual leanings. As far as he knew, they were actively trying to keep this place – Guardinia, for future reference – out of some larger political quagmire that would probably spark a major, if not global war some ten to fifty years down the road.

At no point did he try injecting himself into these conversations since it seemed the everyday crowd of this place was more than a little mistrustful of foreigners. Needless to say, as someone who has been across the seven eras of human history –  much less more than two dozen different countries, kingdoms, city-states, empires and mole-hills from the majority of these periods – his accent was decidedly out of place. Seeing no further entertainment here, he arose and started walking.

One of the many things the Traveler had learned over time was that if he focused on no particular destination but instead followed his feet, there was an intangible force that lead him. Typically this would pull him to somewhere interesting, though what it considered ‘interesting’ and what he considered ‘sane’ were matters that he and this quirk had never quite seemed to reconcile. One time he had followed his feet and ended up an eyewitness, and nearly made an accessory to the failed gunpowder-bombing attempt on Parliament by Guy Fawkes. Another time he was at Times Square on New Year’s Eve 3349 PT (“Prior to Time-travel”) (or 1999 AD). Both were undoubtedly interesting from a historian's perspective. However, given that his displacement suit required at least a few hours between uses, the former was decidedly less fun than the latter.

Right now his 'points of interest' sense was telling him that he had arrived at wherever it thought he should be. A nice, newly completed building done in a neo-classical style loomed before him. It looked something like Grand Central Station, except that it had no obvious mode of transportation visible. Giving in to his curiosity, he joined the milling throngs waiting to get inside and listened.

“...Did you hear?"

“ATTENTION! ANY UNDOCUMENTED PERSONS FOUND EITHER ARRIVING OR DEPARTING WILL BE  RETURNED TO THEIR POINT OF ORIGIN THEN FLINCED, OR FLINCED AND CHARGED WITH MISUSE OF PUBLIC RESOURCES.”

"About Porthos? Yes Martha, I heard. No, I don't want to talk about it right now."

“ATTENTION! ANY UNDOCUMENTED PERSONS FOUND EITHER ARRIVING OR DEPARTING WILL BE  RETURNED TO THEIR POINT OF ORIGIN THEN FLINCED, OR FLINCED AND CHARGED WITH MISUSE OF PUBLIC RESOURCES.”

"I just think it is a terrible thing, and for someone so young." The woman, Martha, stopped at hushing motions by the man beside her when they were pulled aside by a man wearing a uniform that seemed to combine turn-of-the-nineteenth-century New York police officer with WWI wehrmacht.

"Sincerest apologies, but I must see your papers." The voice, amplified rather than muffled by the face-obscuring mask sounded as if the speaker were trying to be imposing and terrifying, but also non-confrontational. The Traveler decided that despite the menace added by the gear, the ticket agent did not want to harass the elderly couple. The woman passed the ticket agent four highly decorative yet official-looking strips of paper which were examined, then had holes punched into them before being passed back. "Everything is in order. Pleasant travels." The ticket agent looked like he was about to give a comforting pat on the back to the old man, then seemed to reconsider after seeing the sour, mistrustful look on his face.

The ticket agent continued down the line taking tickets here, question people there; normal actions for most industrialized rail and/or airship platforms. The Traveler did not see where people had bought these tickets from, so he stepped out of line to avoid being questioned. It is somewhat inconvenient to be jailed when you are just trying to mind your own business. To the Traveler's great misfortune, the masks these guards were issued came with air filtration, built-in communications gear, low-light amplification and one wholly unique property: the wearer was able to see the faint traces that mark a recent time-traveler apart from the 'normal' people. This is a very handy feature since, over uncounted years, numerous time-traveling folk had made a hobby of petty theft.

For our Traveler this was, without question, a very unwelcome surprise. The crowds cleared as more and more guards showed up. Our 'hero' bolted, understandably, given that those called in as backup were clad in downright frightening armor and armed with even more unsettling weapons. But they found him, as they are very good at what they do. He was attempting to use one of the many cards in his wallet to lift the latch of a nearby used-book store, hoping the place would conceal him. However, when he saw that he was cornered and faced with several heavily armored opponents with no tolerance for further resistance, he gave up peacefully. After all, if you were in that situation would you not do the same? One can always, it is hoped at least, avoid violence and find a way out of a situation later.

His hands were bound in special mitten-shaped shackles. Other than the fact that he was bound and being taken to what amounted to the local jail for being an unregistered time-traveler, the guards treated him kindly. They were sympathetic to his situation; but laws being what they are, they had to hold him for further investigations. This did not make the Traveler's situation any better, but he told himself he could be much worse off.

After being processed, he had nothing to do until they wanted him for whatever it is men like him in this situation are wanted for. He took the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. He dreamed:

The land all around was flat and featureless. Time passed, centuries in seconds, millenia by the minute. Man went from mud huts to great stone buildings, back to mud huts, then to stone, then to wood, steel, smart construction, and finally ending with an ascension into light. He watched the whole of history as he knew it, and realized that the dream was a familiar thing to him. His consciousness drifted as a passive observer even as the energies started to break down, and those beings that survived used their collective power to start the cycle over again.

Abruptly, he awoke.

Time passed, and eventually his jailors took him to a nearby building. Its interior was plush: arch lamps (or at least something that looked like these early lights), carpeting, decorated wood and leather furnishings, and touches of stonework here and there. Not too much, but just enough finery to show that this was someplace important. The entrance looked much like the lobby of a government building.

Here they waited, allowing the Traveler to catch his bearings and take stock of things. Whoever had wanted him was apparently a person of influence, who wanted him alive and in good condition – much to the disappointment of at least one of the guards. Our hero had been in worse positions, so he was not too worried. Sure, he was curious, but not worried.

He was led into a spacious office after being hurried past rooms of what he took to be clerks and button-pushers, then he was left alone for a short time. It was a nice room: big desk, touches of money evident in the decorations. An open bottle of liquor sat on a trolley by the desk next to two empty tumblers. Suddenly he noticed that he was not alone as he had previously believed. A huge chair swiveled around to reveal that behind the desk was a man, dark skinned and with a blend of ethnicities evident in his facial features. He rose from his seat and bowed formally at the waist. "I apologize for inconveniencing you, but we have had several prior encounters with the Temporally-Displaced making a nuisance of themselves here." His voice was deep and resonant, something the Traveler found just a half a step away from being commanding. He had heard the type before: mostly on people with enough money and connections to have it crafted for them.

"Why then," the Traveler did not bother asking before pouring himself a drink, "are you being gentle with me?" He took a sip and held it for a moment before swallowing, and nodded approvingly. "Good stuff. Anyway it has been my experience that if men like you do not want people like me about, they generally are far less kind about it." He had wanted to ask what the man was up to, but the Traveler had dealt with the rich and powerful before, and thought it better not to cut that close to the chase.

His host grinned, which set the Traveler’s hairs on end. "A seasoned drinker, though foolish to drink from something offered without making sure it is not somehow drugged. Points for good taste, though." He poured the other tumbler and sipped, making pleasant noises as the spirit did its work on his system. "I like to pride myself on treating any newcomer as an innocent guest until I have proof otherwise. It helps to build a kinder reputation. Plus, as you said while you were being processed – and my men have verified from your equipment after it was taken –  your machine-suit is broken and you had not quite intended to stay here."

He replaced the stopper in the whiskey bottle and motioned the Traveler to a side window. "I'm doubtlessly sure you're aware this place doesn't really exist, at least so far as the histories are concerned." He motioned for silence when the Traveler was about to speak. "The entire story is long and boring, but it involves the disappearance of the Muu, an unintended colony founded by exiled or other 'misplaced' travelers, and our attempt at keeping a low profile."

The Traveler thought this over and nodded. Plausible, though unlikely.

"However, as I'm sure you can guess, it's hard to build and maintain a civilization where most people have forgotten that there is literally nothing outside of our city's walls but complex illusions and force-screens. We have a commerce of sorts, but all who leave are trusted to be discreet about where and when they go." His grin returned along with a light chuckle. "No matter. We've made a good life out here for far longer than most."

"So... you're trying to figure out if you can use me as a way to gather... supplies?" The Traveler snorted. "Not like I have much choice is there? I already know too much for you to let me go if you're intent on keeping your secrecy."

"Indeed. You are a sharp one Mister...?"

“Jason Fawkes." The other man raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I know my family has a history." This history, colorful as it was, had become the center of so many conversations our traveler had started to grow tired of it.

They talked and nickered for the better part of an hour. Jason was left with a job of sorts, though not the one he had expected, and directions on when and where to be the next day. Considering he knew not from whom he had just accepted employment – and more importantly, his time-traveling equipment had been confiscated – it was not likely he would go anywhere, so keeping him under watch would be somewhat pointless.

That night passed quickly for Jason, partly due to nerves and partly because he had spent the rest of his day getting acquainted with the city and he was exhausted.

Morning brought him continued aches from that initial beating as well as a sense of impending dread. They have no reason to trust me with any sort of field work, he told himself during breakfast. They're just trying to make sure I stay cooperative until they can be sure I'll be a good little paper-pusher. Not like I have any options right now.... but slim hope of getting out in the future is better than nothing. He nodded to the doorman on his way out.

This isn't such a bad place,  he thought as he made his way through the surprisingly clean, narrow and winding switchbacks and side streets between where he was and where he was headed. They could have modeled it after the late Renaissance after all. He shuddered involuntarily at the idea, then was interrupted by another far worse thought: Of course they're feeding me some sort of line about the setup here. A place that doesn't exist importing from points in time that won't miss the difference? Sounds nice... but nice and money for a sandwich will still only get you a sandwich.

* * *

The man I was introduced to after explaining my purpose – with more than a little hushing and overly dramatic attempts by the man at the counter to get me to be more secretive – was more or less what I had expected; yet at the same time unique amongst the different lone tinkerers, mad scientists, back yard builders and others of the type. The image of this man – immaculately dressed, using a series of Tesla coils spaced about the room (apparently as reading lamps) – will stick with me for quite some time. I suppose this was the intended effect, since once he decided to acknowledge my presence he promptly switched from the naked electrical arcs to more conventional lamps before showing me his workshop and outlining the tasks for which I would be required. (For reference, the whole building normally used fluorescent light.)
 

Despite my earlier thoughts, I would not be working as a clerk – at least not one that would spend most of the day bound to a desk, filling out papers. Instead I was meant to act as an errand boy for the Professor. It is strange that he did not even bother introducing himself; he just launched into describing the tasks I needed to perform. But then again, everyone I had spoken with about the 'good' Professor assured me that this was normal for him.
 

My first non-trivial task for him was to gather a few necessary bits and pieces for the Chronos Engine. I do not even have the knowledge needed to repair my own traveling device/displacement suit, so any attempt at puzzling out this device is well beyond me, other than trusting that the Professor understands the mixing of bits and pieces from all manner of traveling devices: anchors, paradox shields, and odds and ends I cannot even guess at. I really do hope he knows what he is doing, because the sort of power that is being poured in is tremendous. It scares me, knowing that he is tapping dark energy. Nobody has done that since Tunguska. (I believe the Continuity Directive made it look as though a comet had exploded.)
* * *

"Ah, Jason." the Professor did not bother looking up from his work when Jason entered. "I hope you changed out of those filthy clothes you were in earlier." He wielded tools whose function Jason could not even guess at, but were a somewhat familiar sight. "I have things for you to accomplish and will not tolerate your usual disregard for appearances." His tone was – as always on the subject of Jason's state of dress – disapproving. This was not precisely his fault, as Jason had been warned that the Professor was something of a stickler for neatness.

He sighed inwardly as his employer continued berating him. In his limited experience it was generally better to keep silent unless an answer were required, and to always agree with the Professor's assessments. He would make notes on what spot or stain had set the man off and either attempt to get the offending area removed, or never wear that bit of clothing around him again.

Once the Professor had calmed down – mostly because Jason had changed into something 'more suited to a civilized man' – he looked Jason in the eye. "I am ready to test this apparatus on a person." Jason waited for the other shoe to drop and was not disappointed. "I will also need to test this on a reasonably-sized structure along with you, of course. So, for your day's task you will need to find someplace appropriate that is either uninhabited or easily vacated."

Inwardly Jason winced. His boss would want whatever building he selected to be pristine. There was no such thing, for as soon as a building went up here it was immediately put into service or occupied. Jason would have to convince someone to relocate because most of the structures within city limits were multi-home units occupied by the exceedingly wealthy, or were attached to other buildings. A few minutes later Jason was astride an underpowered but reliable Kris-Higgs motorcycle in search of candidate buildings. His bike was not fast nor particularly attractive. In fact it looked to be nothing more than a bicycle frame modified to accept the parts needed to run off of electricity rather than human muscle.

An hour into his task he had already eliminated three buildings due to their requiring too much clean-up to even be considered by the Professor for trials.

Three hours in, and five other buildings were either attached to far larger structures, had too many people living in them to realistically expect them to relocate, or were condemned due to imminent structural failure.

After eight hours, Jason had finally found two buildings that needed only small repairs and clean-up before they would serve. The Professor wanted to inspect both of course, and listened to Jason's assessments of each while they rode to them in his car.

The first was inhabited, but the owner was willing to leave if he were paid for his trouble and helped to new lodgings (a reasonable thing to request). On seeing the man however, the Professor flew into a rage, rounding Jason in the process. When the man tried breaking the two up, the Professor shrank away as if the man were diseased, making no apology before practically dragging Jason to his car.

The second building was a far better experience for both. The Professor toured the building after taking Jason to a doctor. As it turned out, the altercation nearly cost Jason the use of his right eye; stitches were required along the lower edge of his right eye socket and cheek, and he had a broken nose.

The experiment had been put on hold while Jason recovered. The selected building, a former hobby store, was being prepared.

* * *

While he lay in bed recovering, Jason planned. They would not allow him to leave this place if they feared outside discovery. Why did they fear being found out? After all, wouldn't open-trade arrangements with other time-traveling civilizations be far better than having to skulk about, stealing resources a little at a time? The only answer that made sense to him was also the most disturbing: the ruling body of this place wanted to make war. Against whom he did not know, but war was the only reason that made sense.

While pondering his thoughts he fell asleep. He dreamed:

History diverged from its familiar course. He was powerless to stop Rome’s fall, so that it continued to be a major power until a surge in his dream caused the Industrial Revolution to occur fifteen hundred years sooner than what modern history has recorded. A third surge brought Alexandria's Library forward in time.

Split. Fracture. The Web cannot handle that large a change. Fate tries to intervene, and her back is broken as more changes are made than She can fold into Continuity.

Maybe what they want is for the best. It would undo much of the suffering of the ages. Maybe. He would watch and wait. Time is something he had in abundance. He would not squander it in rash actions.

* * *

The Professor reclined in a favored reading chair with a tumbler of whiskey on the table beside him and a notebook in his lap. He had a perfect memory, so writing a journal was an exercise in redundancy; but what he was writing was for the sake of the man he had lashed out against. He had already apologized for hurting Jason and was in turn forgiven, but he still felt he needed to make reparations. They both knew he loathed violence, especially when it was caused by fear and primal instinct. A quirk of his genius was that there was often a struggle between intelligent action and primal reactions, such as when things that were insignificant to most would completely distract him: a stain on a shirt, or a mar on the floor. They both also knew that at this point he was beyond most means of help, at least means that would leave his genius intact.

In this book he wrote many things. Some, such as how to work and repair the displacement suit were precautions against the programmed sequences failing, leaving the Traveler stranded. Other things, such as his musings on how the world might have changed had this or that come out differently, were merely continuations of discussions the two men had while not working. He had made sure however, to include a series of notes should this book be delivered to himself at a point before he wound up here.
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