Friday Flash - Crocodile Tears

Friday 26 August 2011

A single tear
Image by Lisa Humes
The steady tick of a grandfather clock filled the afternoon quiet of Madame Duval's Bazaar and Emporium. The madame inspected the wares for sale in the glass display case that served as a counter. She picked an errant ball of fluff from the surface of the travel-sized scrying mirror.

The antique bell over the door jangled and the madame looked up. A tall man in an astrakhan coat looked over his shoulder and slipped into the shop. He walked up the central aisle of the shop, casting glances either side. Madame Duval didn't think he was interested in her collection of esoterica. No, she knew a furtive expression when she saw one.

"Good afternoon, sir, and welcome to my Emporium. Do you require any help?" she asked. She fluffed up her mass of unruly red curls and straightened her green robe.

"Do you, um, are you, er, have you been busy today?" asked the man. He stopped in front of the counter, but stayed several feet away. His fear of the occult clung to him like an objectionable smell.

"I have made several small sales, yes, although as you can see, at present you are the only customer," replied the madame. She hopped up onto the stool behind the ancient brass cash register.

"Ah, I see. Capital, capital," said the man. A small section of his moustache had come away, revealing the small patch of glue beneath. Madame Duval guessed the black hair beneath the top hat was not his, either.

"May I show you anything? Do you have something particular in mind?"

"I, er, I heard that you're the person to come to for unusual items."

"Indeed, my shop is the only place to buy these items," said Madame Duval. She gestured to the display case behind the man. He looked at the beautifully illustrated tarot card decks and shuddered.

"It's not something like that I'm after. No, what I need is probably more of an...under the counter item."

"And this is not something you can purchase from the apothecary?"

The man shook his head. Madame Duval suppressed a smile.

"Sir, it is a crying shame that you cannot purchase said items from a reputable trader," she said. She placed heavy emphasis on the word 'crying'. The man's face lit up.

"Exactly! Exactly! So, er, do you have any?"

"I do indeed. Do you have anything particular in mind?"

"Whatever's the most popular will be fine."

Madame Duval slid off the stool and removed a small panel from the floor. She lifted a wooden box from the hollowed out space and placed it on the counter. Ten glass vials of different colours lay nestled on black velvet inside the box. The man's eyes roved across the bottles.

"How much is that one?" he asked. He pointed to the lavender vial.

"That one is £10, four shillings and tuppence."

"That's ridiculous! I can't afford that!" Horror and indignation burned in the man's grey eyes.

"How about the green one? It is only £4 and seven shillings."

"And the pink one?"

"£3 and two shillings, sir."

"I'll take that one." The man fumbled in his pocket for money. Madame Duval removed the small pink vial from the box and wrapped it in tissue paper. He handed her the money.

"Now, remember, sir. Falsifying tears is a grave offence. Six years in the workhouse, last time I checked. If anyone catches you, you did not get these from me," said Madame Duval. She handed him the package.

"Don't worry, no one will know. I only need them for tomorrow. It's my wife's funeral, and, well, we weren't exactly happy, but I need to look upset or her family will never let me inherit anything," said the man.

"I do not need to know particulars, sir. All you must do is put two drops in each eye approximately ten minutes before you need to cry, and no one will know they are not your tears."

"Only two drops per eye?"

"These tinctures are incredibly potent, sir. I would not wish to bore you with the technical details."

"Oh...well, thank you very much. Good day, Madame."

The man shuffled out of the shop and hurried away down the street. Madame Duval returned the box to its hiding place beneath the floor and ducked through the velvet curtain behind the counter.

Madame Duval followed the narrow corridor around a tight bend. She turned up the gaslight at the top of the crooked staircase and stepped down into the gloom.

The stairs took her into a low room with a vaulted ceiling. Light flickered in glass orbs set at intervals along the central rib. A wooden rack filled with test tubes and glass flasks took up the far wall. A stout woman worked a foot pump beside a small distillery in the centre of the room.

“How does the distillation go, Amarine?” asked the madame.

“Well, it goes very well. I shall have another bottle of our finest Blue ready by the time you close this evening,” replied the woman.

“Good, good. I shall also need another bottle of Pink.”

“Consider it done, Madame.”

Madame Duval nodded and headed back up the staircase to the Emporium. Amarine turned a dial on the distillery control panel and left her seat. She waddled along the room to an iron door set into the far wall. It swung open with a protesting squeal. Pale light fell into a narrow chamber, dancing across rusty bars and scared faces. Amarine reached for the padlock of the first cage.

“Come on, Number Eight. Your turn to cry.”

* * *

A note on money
I used a currency converter to work out the money. £3 and two shillings would be worth approximately £150. £4 and seven shillings would be £210, and  £10 and four shillings would be approximately £493.

The Prize - Part 3 of 3

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Part One : Part Two

Liss turned back to her own target. She took a deep breath, and raised the gun to her shoulder. She needed to hit the bullseye if she was to stand any chance of winning. It’s not even about the stupid bet, she thought. I just don’t like losing.
The roar of the crowd faded to a dull hum in her ears. She aimed the gun, closed her eyes, and squeezed the trigger.

“Well I’ll be damned!” cried the red-nosed man.

Liss opened her eyes, but could only see two bulletholes in the target – one in the dead centre of the bullseye, and one in the 4 ring.

“What happened? What did I hit?” she asked.

“Your first bullet hole!” replied the young woman. “You shot the exact same spot!”

Liss fought the urge to grin, and simply shrugged, as if this were an everyday occurrence for her. A weight lifted from her shoulders. After all, unless the young woman did the same, she couldn’t lose.

“Remember, miss, the first young lady has fourteen points now. You have nine. Make this last shot count,” said the red-nosed man. Liss frowned. He’d clearly picked a favourite. Fixing her gun sight must have really wound him up.

The young woman lined up her shot. Something fluttered past Liss’ face and she reached up to brush it away. The moth landed on the gun, opening its black wings as the woman took her shot. The bullet went wide, slamming into the ‘1’ ring. Liss looked from the moth to the target and back again. A white shape glowed in the black fuzz of its back; a white shape that looked a lot like a human skull.

“Oh bad luck, my dear, bad luck indeed!” said the red-nosed man. He reached out to brush away the moth but the young woman grabbed his wrist. She looked up into his eyes. He gasped and tried to recoil but her grip was too firm.

“That is a Death’s Head Moth. Do not strike it,” she said. She dropped her voice low, the implicit threat sounding like angry waves breaking across the deck of a sinking ship. Lightning crashed in the depths of her black eyes. The moth fluttered away into the noisy air above the crowd.

“Hey, here’s my gun back,” said Liss. The red-nosed man broke eye contact with the stranger and snatched the gun from her. He reached out a trembling hand to take the young woman’s gun.

“I believe you owe my friend here a prize,” said the young woman. The dark cloud passed across her face, and she broke into another of her wide grins. Liss shuddered. She couldn’t help liking the young woman, but those teeth would take some getting used to.

The red-nosed man fumbled behind him for the wooden figurine, and handed it to Liss. Liss smiled, and led the stranger away from the range before the man could call the militia.

“It seems you won, my new friend,” said the stranger.

“Indeed I did, except that moth was bad luck for you, wasn’t it?” said Liss. She might have pressed the distraction with the stallholder if he hadn’t dismissed her own bad luck.

“Not at all. She was good luck for you. Maybe you should consider her a sign,” said the stranger.

What an odd way to think about it, thought Liss. For the first time, she noticed the silver scythe hanging from the young woman’s black velvet choker.

“It seems you may keep your life, Miss Hunt. I’m glad of that – I like you,” said the young woman.

“I like you too,” said Liss. Her hand flew to her mouth to stop the words but they were said before she could stop herself. The young woman chuckled, and Liss grinned.

“In fact, I’m going to give you a gift, my new friend.”

“Oh you don’t have to do that,” said Liss.

“No, I don’t have to, but I want to.”

The young woman reached forward, skimming her frozen fingers behind Liss’ ear. She pulled out a flat black coin, and dropped it into Liss’ open palm. Liss flipped it over. One side was complete blank, and the other was marked with a flame.

“That is a very special coin, Liss. When you’re ready, and only when you’re absolutely sure, all you have to do is put that coin on your tongue, and whistle. I’ll come for you. But this is important – I will only come for you if you do this,” said the young woman.

“So I won’t see you again?” asked Liss.

“Not until you’re ready.”

“Exactly who are you?” asked Liss, narrowing her amber eyes.

“I’ve got a lot of names. But you can call me Morta.”

A strangled cry of excitement cut across the babble of the crowd. Liss craned her neck to spot Teva plunging towards her. Liss turned back to Morta, eager to introduce her to her sister. Morta was gone. Liss kissed the black coin and slipped it into the deepest reach of her pocket for safekeeping.

“Oh that fortune teller was amazing! She knew everything! And I know she was right because I’ve already seen everything she predicted,” said Teva. “You have to come and see her! You have to!”

Liss looked down at the wooden deer in her hand, and thought of the black coin in her pocket. Somehow she didn’t feel like she needed to know what the future held. Liss Hunt had all the time in the world.

* * *

If you liked Liss, then maybe you'll enjoy The First Tale! It's 99c from Amazon or Smashwords.

The Prize - Part 2 of 3

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Liss plunged through the crowd towards the shooting range. She heard the swish of the young woman’s coat behind her. Liss shivered. She didn’t know how, but the coat sounded like the deep silence that gathers around midnight. She felt a tug on her sleeve before they reached the range. Liss turned around to face the young woman.

“Before we go over, here’s a thought. Why don’t we make it interesting and have a small wager while we’re at it?” asked the young woman. She flashed Liss a wicked grin.

“Aren’t we trying to win the deer?” asked Liss.

“Well we could do that, but we can think of something better. I bet you ten shillings I can win the deer and you can’t.”

“I don’t have ten shillings,” replied Liss.

“If you don’t want to do it…”

“No, I do, I just don’t have ten shillings. I know! I bet you my life I win it.” Liss smirked at the woman. The woman couldn’t have been serious offering such a high sum as a bet – so she wouldn’t be serious in her offer either.

“Your life, eh? That’s a rather large thing to gamble,” said the young woman. She smiled again, exposing the grey teeth and black gums. Liss swore she saw a shooting star in her right eye.

“Well if you’re scared...” said Liss.

“Alright then. If I win the deer, I take your life. But if you win the deer, I’ll let you keep it,” said the stranger.

“Sounds fair to me.” Liss screwed up her face. It sounded like such a stupid bet – what was this stranger going to do, kill her?

“Right, my good man. My friend and I wish to shoot,” said the young woman, turning to the announcer. Liss winced at her voice – now it sounded like hob-nailed boots on rusty metal.

“Have either of you handled a weapon before?” asked the red-nosed man.

“I have, I’ve used a rifle, and a pistol,” said Liss.

“I’ve used all sorts,” said the young woman.

The red-nosed man handed them each a long gun that looked like a cross between a revolver and a rifle. Liss looked along the barrel, adjusting the sight. The man coughed, looking pointedly at the sight.

“I am not adjusting it back. How do I know you don’t have these set up wrong just so we’ll lose?” asked Liss. The young woman laughed, an eerie sound like that of a crow cawing a lament for the dead soldiers on a misty battlefield. The red nose man coloured, and waved at Liss to continue.

Satisfied that the sight was correct, Liss examined the gun. The chamber hung like a distended stomach, and held three brass shots. She needed the highest score to win the deer. The highest possible score was fifteen, which meant getting all three shots into the bullseye.

“How are we going to do this then?” she asked.

“How about we alternate? I take a shot, you take a shot,” replied the young woman.

“Sounds fair to me. Want to go first?”

“I think you should go first. You have more at stake than me.”

Liss raised the gun and nestled the butt against her shoulder. She looked down the barrel and aimed an inch above the bullseye. The young woman sniggered.

She thinks I’m going to miss, thought Liss.

Liss squeezed the trigger. The gun yelped and fired, smacking Liss in the shoulder with the recoil. The bullet thudded into the dead centre of the bullseye. Five points. The red-nosed man gawped, and the young woman stared. Liss gestured for her competitor to take a shot.

I’ll be damned if I explain why I did that, she thought.

The young woman raised her gun and aimed an inch above the bullseye as Liss had done. She also jerked back with the recoil, and the bullet slammed into the target, right at the edge of the bullseye. The red-nosed man clapped and announced it as a five-point hit.

Liss raised her gun, and stared down the sight again. She squeezed the trigger just as a man pushed through the crowd and shoved her shoulder. Liss jerked the gun to the side as she tried to stay upright, and the bullet thumped into the ring marked ‘4’. She turned back to the target – she’d missed the bullseye by an inch.

 “Oh that’s not fair, that man pushed me!” said Liss. The man had already been swallowed up by the crowd.

“It’s true, she was pushed,” said the young woman. She nodded, and her curls rippled like an oil slick on cold water.

“Sorry dearie, but I can’t let you have another go. The guns only hold three shots, so you only get three goes,” said the red-nosed man.

“Why can’t I just reload one chamber?” asked Liss.

“Rules is rules.”

Before Liss could answer, the young woman raised her own gun and fired. The bullet hit the ‘4’ ring above the bullseye. Liss looked at her, but she just shrugged.

Part One

The Prize - Part 1 of 3

Tuesday 19 July 2011

The Prize is set eight years before the events in The First Tale, which is still just 99c on Amazon and Smashwords.
* * *

“Step right up! Come and see Fenwell’s Fabulous Fair! Come one and all! Everybody welcome!”

The portly man stood by the open gate, ushering visitors into the field. Red and gold paint spelled out the name of the travelling fair over the lop-sided entrance arch. A hag in gypsy clothing took pennies and handed out tickets.

“Liss, have you got the money? Have you got it?” asked Teva.

Teva Hunt clutched at Liss’ arm, dragging her elder sister along the track to the fair. Liss rolled her eyes and fished in her pocket for two pennies. Teva snatched the coins and scampered ahead. She bounced up and down behind the people blocking the arch. Liss strolled up behind her as she handed the hag the money.

“I still don’t know why you made me come to this. You know I don’t like travelling fairs,” said Liss. She shoved the small paper ticket into her pocket.

“Oh but they’re so much fun! All of the stalls, all of the smells, all of the colourful people with stories to tell!” Teva beamed.

“You need to stop reading that poetry nonsense,” said Liss. “I told you it’ll just bake your brain.”

Teva rolled her eyes and pulled Liss into the crowd. Citizens of all ages and classes mingled in the field. Liss spotted two Vertigo City officials standing by the stall marked “tavern”. They hid under stovepipe hats and false moustaches that fooled no one. A gang of rowdy dockworkers jostled each other beside the dancing girls’ show. Liss hurried her sister away from the stage. The girls didn’t look much older than Teva.

“Look! A fortune teller! I’m going to go and have my cards read!” said Teva. She pointed at a purple tent covered in silver stars. A scrawny woman in a moth-eaten shawl stood outside, proclaiming the talents of Madame Cherie, the finest fortune teller in all the land.

“You do know it’s all rubbish, don’t you?” asked Liss.

“Stop raining on everything. Mother asked you to bring me and you said yes. If you didn’t want to come, you shouldn’t have said you would,” said Teva. Her look of defiance withered under Liss’ glare.

“I came because I wouldn’t have had a moment’s peace if I had said no. Why in the name of sweet Vertigo would you want to come somewhere like this in the first place?”

“Well I’m going to see the fortune teller, and you can’t stop me.”

Teva turned and flounced through the crowd towards the purple tent. Liss tried to follow her progress but the bulk of a quayside fishwife blocked her view.

“That girl has talent of her own. Why is she going to a fortune teller?”

Liss spun round at the sound of the scraping voice. A pale young woman stood behind her, a mass of inky curls tumbling around her shoulders. She wore a long black frock coat over voluminous black leggings. Liss gaped at her, watching the stars that glittered in the depths of her midnight eyes. The woman’s deep purple lips parted in a friendly smile, although Liss baulked at the black gums and grey teeth.

“Who in the name of Vertigo are you? And how do you know about Teva’s talents?” asked Liss.

“I know a lot of random things about people. You might call it my parlour trick,” replied the young woman. A harsh metallic edge sharpened her words into the buzzing of flies.

“Are you a fortune teller as well?” asked Liss.

“Not quite.”

“Well you’re not from Vertigo City. I’d remember someone like you.”

“Oh I’m a frequent visitor to Vertigo. I just like to keep a low profile when I’m there, especially when business is...brisk.”

“So what do you want?” Liss knew she sounded rude but the black and white woman unnerved her. She tried to avoid eye contact by glancing at the shifting crowd around them. She’d completely lost sight of Teva.

“We’re both bored and neither of us really wants to be here. Say, there’s a shooting range over there, do you want a go?”

Liss followed the line of the young woman’s starry gaze. As promised, a shooting range stood at the end of the row of stalls. A man with a red nose and grey beard called for citizens to take their best shot. He offered a wooden figurine of a deer to the best shot of the night.

“Oh I love shooting!” exclaimed Liss. Her father taught her to shoot rats in their cellar, using the sound of their squeaks to locate them in the dark.

“Let’s have a go then!”

“You’re on!”

Friday Flash - Angels of the Junkyard

Friday 15 July 2011

Image by John Uhri
Edits by me
Pot holes line the road to the Vertigo City Yard of Scrap Metal. I bounce around inside the hand cart whenever the front wheel finds a rut. Jones whistles a mournful tune as he cajoles the cart along the pitted track. The servant begged his master not to dispose of me, but Mr Pickard was not to be prevailed upon. I am not entirely surprised. What master would allow a servant to keep a battered and broken automaton found in the street near a known lair of the Meat Beast? Indeed, Jones made several impassioned pleas on my behalf, promising Mr Pickard that he could repair the damage. Yet here I find myself, riding in the hand cart. I fancy I hear a funeral dirge nestled inside Jones' melody.

A portly man in an ill-fitting jacket sits in a small booth beside the gate. A tiny pork pie hat perches on his bald head. He clutches a newspaper more than a week old inside his beefy fist.

"What've yer got?" he asks.

"An automaton," replies Jones.

"What's wrong wi' it?" asks the guard. He sniffs the air, looking for all the world like an overweight yet suspicious rabbit.

"A few dents, some scrapes...mostly its internal damage to the mechanism. It looks like he was thrown against a wall, y'see, and-"


"Well, it. I've tried to repair it but Mr Pickard insisted I leave it here," says Jones. The threat of tears thickens his voice.

"Best place fer it then. In yer go," said the guard. He waved us past his booth with the ageing newspaper.

Jones leaves me lying in the cart as he opens the gate. The guard sits back in his booth, his bulk spilling over the waistband of his bulging trousers. Such a man is allowed to feast with impunity, and yet I am to be discarded through no fault of my own? Vertigo City was once a place of fairness, though this is no longer the case. I wonder when I developed the capacity to feel. My maker did not install such abilities.

The servant wheels the cart into the yard. Towering piles of rusting metal rise either side of us, threatening to blot out the sun. Forgotten machines of industry cluster near the gate, and piles of scrap rise and fall like rolling hills of twisted metal. Bronze arms and legs stick up among the junk, reaching for a saviour that will not come. I regard my own brass limbs with nostalgia. How long will it be before I too become buried, my arms the only part of me to witness the sun?

Jones pushes the cart a short way up a low pile. He pauses and tips me onto the slope. Toothless cogs grind against the metal of my torso, while rusting blades scrape my limbs. Jones looks down at my prone form and lets out a single sob. He turns and runs down the slope, hauling the cart behind him.

I lie on my bed of scrap, staring up at the sky. Bilious grey clouds loom above me, grumbling to one another in thundery tones. I longed to see the sky when I worked for the Resistance. I think of brick-lined tunnels far below the City, devoid of sunlight and air. I remember the savage attack of the Beast, and dragging myself above ground. I sought my maker, and salvation, yet I found only abandonment. A drop of oil wells up beneath the rim of my eye lamp.

A fat raindrop explodes against my exposed torso. Another hits my face, chasing the droplet of oil across my cheek. Raindrops hit my eye lamps and I curse the sky for her cruelty. The water will surely damage what circuits I have left, and I picture myself as an empty carcass, spotted with rust. I wish the Meat Beast had not so thoroughly destroyed my vocal mechanics. Without my voice box, I cannot beg for release.

A crash and a clatter disturb my silent prayer. I cannot turn my head to see but the splintering of glass and the rending of metal is enough. Something is coming for me, though I know not what. Is this to be the end of me? Oh, let it be so, for I cannot take this slow descent into decay and ruin.

Two figures lean over me, blocking the rain. One is a collection of scrap metal in the rough form of a man. Cogs stare at me in the place of eyes, and it stretches out fingers of pistons and spark plugs. The fading light streams through the other as it stretches multi-coloured wings of broken glass.

I do not know how much time passes but twilight streaks the sky when they finish their repairs. I sit up, and look around. The sea of scrap no longer looks as melancholy as it did. I flex my fingers, pistons hissing at my knuckles. Clockwork beats within my chest. My voice box is beyond repair, but I can move. I am myself again. I am Four.

The gates of the junkyard screech open. The angel of broken glass gestures to the freedom beyond. I shake my head, and delight in the new range of movement. I cannot leave. I will remain here, a guardian of the junkyard. I will protect the angels, and help others. I will save as I have been saved.

* * *
If you've read my steampunk story, The First Tale, then you'll already be familiar with this particular automaton. If you want to know more (and find out exactly how he got here) then The First Tale is just 99c from Smashwords and Amazon.

Friday Flash - Festive Felicitations

Friday 24 December 2010

"Caleb, I found the box you were looking for."

Liss held up a small wooden crate. Uneven letters spelled out the word 'Festive' along the side in black paint. She looked across the room. Caleb balanced on a ladder near the door. Two stood below, holding the branch of a fir tree above the window. Caleb swung a hammer, hoping to knock in a few nails to keep it in place.

"What in the name of sweet Vertigo are you doing?" she asked.

"Putting up the festive decorations. Two wanted to help," replied Caleb.

"Why is Two covered in holly garlands?" asked Liss.

"I assume it's because he's overcome by the festive spirit. Go on, Two. Go and see Liss, maybe some of it will rub off on her."

The automaton shook its head, gesturing to the branch that hung from the wall. Only one nail held it in place so far.

"I'm not overcome by the festive spirit because I still don't know what we're celebrating. All my life, everyone has insisted on dragging trees inside and hanging up poisonous berries or eating their own bodyweight in mince pies, and I just don't get what all the fuss is about," replied Liss.

"Oh come on, Liss. You know the stories as well as I do."

"Yeah but they're exactly that - stories. It seems a bit of a waste of time and effort to go to all this trouble over a fairytale," said Liss.

"You're such a grinch," said Caleb.

"Well why don't you tell the story anyway? You know how much Two loves to hear it, even if I think it's folkloric hogwash," said Liss.

"Two, would you like to hear the Festive Story?" asked Caleb.

The automaton nodded. The small antenna at the base of its torso wagged enthusiastically.

"Very well then. Come on, Two. I think that'll hold."

Caleb climbed down the ladder and crossed the workshop to the fireplace. He settled into the armchair in front of the crackling flames. The automaton thudded across the room. The pistons in its knees hissed as it lowered itself to a crouched position.

"Back in the days of feudal rule, long before a single building of Vertigo City had been built, two powerful lords saw the potential in the land. They could farm here, and the river would provide good fishing. But instead of sharing the land, or dividing the land using the river and each claiming a bank for themselves, Lord Oakenstaff and Lord Hollybrough wanted all of the land, and they came to blows," said Caleb.

He looked at the automaton. Two gazed at him, its twin eye lamps focussed on his face. Caleb sneaked a glance at Liss. She stood by the window, pretending to be engrossed in catching a spider. Caleb could tell she was listening by the tilt of her head. He grinned at Two, and continued the story.

"The lords had a mighty battle, and in the end, Lord Hollybrough was beaten. He took his men and left, although he vowed to return one day. Lord Oakenstaff decided to claim the land immediately, and began to build a citadel. He named it Vertigia, after his mother," said Caleb. "Lord Hollybrough did return, but he found the beginnings of a great city where the fertile land had once been. They struck a truce, and took it in turns running the city. Each lord would take a holiday and travel the world while the other was in charge. Every 21st December since then, we have celebrated the great battle that saw the birth of our city."

"How do you explain all the greenery that people bring indoors then?" asked Liss.

"It symbolises the greenery of the land that they originally fought over," replied Caleb.

"And the mince pies?"

"Vertigia's baked delicacy."

"The roast turkey dinner?"

"Turkeys were the only birds that would live in Vertigia."

"Giving presents?"

"Well it's a birthday, isn't it? We're celebrating the birth of the city."

"So why don't we give things to the city then? We could give time, to do things that need doing around the city, or we could give money to the new charities..."

"I didn't make up the rules, Liss. I just celebrate them," replied Caleb. "I know you don't believe in anything, Liss, but a lot of people believe in this story, so stop trampling on their faith just because you don't understand it."

Liss looked at the floor, casting her gaze downwards to hide the embarrassment clouding her amber eyes. A thought crossed her mind, and she looked at Caleb again. A wicked grin played around the corners of her lips.

"Still, it's better than that claptrap that visiting preacher was going on about, isn't it? What was he saying? That the festivities are really about the birth of the son of some invisible being that controls the world?"

"Oh I know, that one really was a bit far-fetched, wasn't it?" replied Caleb. He chuckled.

“Festive Felicitations, Caleb,” said Liss.

“Festive Felicitations to you too, Caleb.”

Two wagged its antenna. Liss and Caleb smiled at each other.

“Festive Felicitations to you, Two!”

Quantum Steam Theory - Part 5 of 5

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The men taunted her, staying several paces behind. In Vertigo, she could call for a Weimar patrolman, or a district lawman. Selina saw no reassuring badges of authority here. The footsteps behind her quickened, and Selina broke into a run. A cart trundled out of a side street, blocking her flight. Panic gripped her, and she threw herself sideways into a dark alley. Clambering over piles of rubbish, Selina plunged into the gloom ahead.

Selina collided with a figure hunched over a heap in a doorway. The figure let out a shout as it fell to the ground. Selina rolled off the man, and scrambled to her feet. She looked down and saw a bloodied knife in his hand. Her eyes flicked between the knife and the motionless heap. Legs streaked with mud stuck out from filthy skirts pushed up to the waist.

“There she is!” shouted one of her pursuers.

Selina took flight, rushing headlong down the alley. She couldn’t stop to think about the heap, or the knife.

What kind of place is this? she thought.

A commotion erupted as her pursuers ran into the man with the knife. One of them shouted a curse, and scuffling filled the air. Cries of ‘Murder!’ echoed around the alley. Windows flew open and heads poked into the darkness. Selina ignored it all, and the fracas grew faint as she rounded the corner. Relief flooded her mind as her pursuers forgot her.

Selina’s foot caught the edge of an abandoned cart and she stumbled forward. The book slipped out of her grasp, and fell open. Selina just had time to notice the starry void opening beneath her as she dived headfirst into space.

* * *

Selina woke up on the floor of the library. Cold flagstones supported her back, and a thumping in her skull told her she hit her head when she fell. She parted her hair and felt a lump. The black leather book lay open on the floor, just beyond her grasp. Blank pages stared up at her, telling nothing of her adventure.

Selina picked up the book and closed it with a thump. She pushed it back into its slot on the shelf. Selina shoved it onto the shelf as far as it would go, and the shadow of its neighbouring tome fell across the shiny golden lion.

Dusting herself off, Selina dabbed at the mud splatters on her boots with a handkerchief. Taking her time, she walked back to her table in the reading room. Quantum steam theory suddenly didn't seem so boring after all.

Part 1 : Part 2 : Part 3 : Part 4