Authors: D. Dalton
“News!” The Pitchstone’s telegrapher shouldered his way through the throng. He was a neat, elderly gentleman with his vest tucked into his trousers. His white hair was cropped close to his temples and nonexistent on the dome of his skull, but he wore his waxed mustache like a badge. He waved at Jing and Drina, ignoring Solindra.
“I have news.” When he reached them, he paused to straighten his vest. “I’ve just gotten word. A boulder has taken out part of the track between here and Valhasse. The south train is stuck here until it’s repaired. Can’t get anything on the radio either, but you know how unreliable those things are up here. Telephone would be down too,
we had one.”
“What? What do we do?” Solindra backed up until she was pressed up against the wall.
Drina nudged Jing. “I could mix some opium into everyone’s food, have them all pass out.”
“Hm. I’ll leave that one up to the boss.” He looked down.
“Uh, what?” Solindra looked back up at him, wide-eyed. She started chewing on her lower lip and shook her head, causing her hair to wave like fire. “There are over two hundred people here.”
“Right, I don’t have enough opium,” the cook remarked. “I mean, headache medicine.”
“But you have belladonna,” Solindra shot back. “Does that work?”
Jing rolled his eyes. “Only if you don’t want them to wake back up.”
Drina kicked him in his metal ankle. “Not in very tiny measurements. Then it’s just sleeping poison. I mean, sleeping medicine.”
“Do what you want.” The telegrapher growled. “I am not sleeping on the roof again. It’s freezing, even in summer. And last time you let someone use my quarters they stole my charcoal pencils.”
“Sorry, John.” Jing shrugged.
“I’m Calvin!” the telegrapher interrupted. “John was your
master of messages!” He jerked his vest again. “I can see why he left! Over two hundred people here and four people to handle them.” He snapped up his chin and strode away into the crowd.
“But we only have two rooms to rent!” Solindra protested.
Solindra turned to see the man in black. He doffed his bowler hat to the women and tapped the butt of his glass cane on the floor. “Cooper Smith, Esquire.” He proffered a couple of gold coins of Eliponesia, and the gaslight reflected from the wreaths and gears embossed on the money.
Drina smiled tightly and took the coins. “Of course, Mr. Smith. Let me show you to your room.”
He swung his cane between her and himself. “A moment, please.” His dark eyes slid over to Solindra.
Jing stepped between Smith and the girl. “Excuse us, sir, but we’re already busy, as you can see. So Drina will just show you–”
Smith raised his cane toward the mechanic. “Just a moment please, sir. I am a paying customer.” He looked back at the proprietor. “You have the most amazing, otherworldly eyes.”
Solindra blushed. “Thank you, Mr. Smith.” She glanced back to her guardians, looking for a cue.
The man in black reached into his inner jacket pocket and removed a puzzle device. It was a wheel decorated with crowded etchings of pastoral scenery – the kind extolled by the transcendental literature so popular in the cities at the moment. She had many examples in her trove of abandoned magazines. This one boasted rows of letters and teeth like a typewriter’s circled around a central dial. The numerals and foreign letters were raised in gold.
“Are you any good with puzzles, my dear? I’ve been trying to solve–”
Drina pushed Smith’s hand and box away. “I’m sorry, sir, but we are just far too busy.”
Meanwhile, Jing tugged on Solindra’s shoulder. “I need you to run to the back and fetch me my tools. Now.”
The mechanic’s grip was like a crushing vice. “Now, Cylinder.”
Smith sidestepped Drina and materialized in front of the teenager. He smiled stiffly and held out the circular puzzle box. “Please.”
“Don’t.” Drina’s hand shot out, trying to intercept.
But the girl had already reached out. She lifted the stunning puzzle into her fingertips.
It disintegrated into its individual cogs and springs. Gears shot up past her nose and ears, and the numerals clanged loudly as they bounced off the floor.
“Oh!” Solindra cried, but stopped short of an apology. She stared at what had been left behind, glowing on her fingertips.
Smith chuckled, instantly chilling Solindra’s wonder. The man in black smirked and then erupted into a neighing laugh. “A vessel!”
“In all of Steamscape…” Solindra lifted up the glowing blue device that had fallen from the puzzle box to eye level. It took the form of a pre-civilization thunder deity’s hammer, but it looked to the girl like a double-bended fishing hook. Patterns and endless knots swirled with an inner light deep inside the hammer, and they sparkled and moved whenever she tilted the device.
“A vessel!” Smith’s neighing laugh didn’t quit. “How long has it been?”
Solindra dropped the glowing device in surprise. It chimed like a bell when it crashed on the floor.
“Cyl!” Jing jerked her away and they plunged into the crowd. “Drina!”
The cook nodded. She jumped up and over the bar counter and jerked on a hidden lever underneath it. Holes snapped open throughout the steampipes across the ceiling, releasing a cloud of vapor into the room. Smith disappeared into the sizzling mist.
Solindra reflexively ducked underneath the descending steam. It was hot, but not scalding by the time it descended closer to the floor.
“What’s going on?” she screamed. Other surprised shouts exploded around them and she clapped her hands over her ears.
The mechanic guided her out the door. He pointed up the mountain to the thin trail that led to the little pocket they had nicknamed the Garden. He swung wide to his workshop and came back out with two shovels. “Go!”
Overhead, lightning flashed. Thunder bounced around the mountain peaks.
Solindra tripped over her skirt on the narrow steps worn into the mountain. She held out her hands, scratching them on the stone as she rebounded off the granite. “Jing?”
She hitched up her dress with her free hand and kept climbing. They wound their way up through the trail’s narrow turns. As they ascended, the sounds of the Pitchstone’s chaos began to fade.
They rounded the final turn into the Garden, a natural bowl filled with a clump of aspen. It also contained a trickling stream lined with smooth stones, some radiantly green grass and Mark Canon’s grave. On top of it, Jing had let out a small pipe to breathe steam continuously over Mark’s special steamflowers. Their petals remained open almost all spring and summer on the grave.
Jing had made the tombstone from an old engine’s steam whistle marked with Canon’s favorite saying,
veritas temporalis est
. Truth is temporary.
The mechanic stopped in front of the marker and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, old friend.”
He handed Solindra a shovel.
She dropped it. Her face paled as she looked between the shovel and the grave. “I… I don’t understand.”
Jing sighed and looked away. “Sorry, Cylinder, but these are your old man’s instructions.”
“To, to…” She backed into the granite wall. She looked everywhere: the trees, the storm clouds flashing, the walls of the garden – everywhere but the grave.
The mechanic scooped up her shovel and held it out to her again. “He well and truly wanted to be buried with this secret.”
“But why? Why now?”
He closed his eyes. “He said that if either of us ever saw such a puzzle box again that we would all have to know.”
“Again? But I’ve never seen one before!”
“He kept this away from you all your life.” He thrust the head of his shovel deep into the dirt. “Now dig.”
Solindra, trembling with fear and rage, slammed her eyes closed against the sight of the flying shovel. “No!” She gritted her teeth and covered her ears again, trying to block out the sound of moving soil. Thunder boomed, causing the freshly loosened dirt to slide toward her boots.
She flinched – she’d never heard Jing snap before, nor could she remember the last time he’d used her given name. She rubbed her eyes. She didn’t know what to do.
Numbly, she curled her fingers around the handle of her shovel and followed Jing’s lead. She had always followed the three of them.
She remembered when she, Drina and Jing had buried her father. She didn’t know if she’d been crying harder then or now. Only the lightning illuminated their actions.
“We’ve all had to do things that we hated ourselves for doing,” she recalled her father saying one morning as she sat on his lap. Mark had been supervising her as she had transcribed the telegraph. She had learned the dots and dashes when she’d learned her letters. It had been the first time he’d let her transcribe one by herself.
“We each had to do things, but it was for the highest good.” A scowl weighed down on his brow, causing his brown eyes to narrow and his dark hair to slide forward across his forehead. “Or so we were told.” A new smile washed away the brief darkness. “Little Cylinder, we always have to face what we don’t want to. Face it, and it will have no hold on you.”
“I don’t understand,” she had said, so long ago.
Solindra tossed a shovelful of dirt behind her. Her tears blurred her vision too much for her to see what she was doing clearly. Time also blurred. She knew she was moving down and was soon working in a hole. Suddenly, the shovel’s edge cracked against wood, thudding to a stop against the coffin’s lid.
“No!” She yanked up on the handle.
Jing set his shovel aside and offered a hand to help her climb out of the hole. Then he turned his back and smashed the shovel through the lid, splintering the wood.
Solindra kneeled at the edge of the hole, helplessly staring. The mechanic reached down and removed the large fragments of wood.
She covered her eyes, but she’d seen enough. Two years of burial had not been kind to Mark Canon. The only father Solindra had ever known was well into becoming part of the earth again. The bottom of the coffin had rotted away.
She slammed her eyelids down, but the scent knocked her back. It wasn’t strong, not after two years, but the echo of the smell of decayed meat was still there, clawing its way up her nose. But through the nasal cacophony there was just a hint of what Mark had smelled like when he had been alive.
Jing reached down and wrestled an identical puzzle box from his friend’s skeletal hand. He bowed his head. “I’m sorry that it came to this. I know that you had expected to be here.”
“Daddy…” Solindra whispered.
Jing brushed the accumulated dirt from the box’s raised, typeset numerals and ancient letters. He passed it to Solindra and when it touched her fingers, it cracked apart like Smith’s had before. It released another stylized hammer, this one red and glowing.
Jing leaned against his shovel. “It’s called a sancta, if I remember eavesdropped conversations correctly. Put it in your pocket, that’s right. Now let’s cover him up, Cyl.”
She nodded, trying to gasp out something and failing. The shovel seemed to float on its own accord as she pushed the dirt back into place. The tears dripped off her nose to mix into the soil, just as they had done two years prior.
They were just patting down the grave down when Drina, breathless, rounded the corner into the Garden. “I lost Smith in the crowd.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jing replied. “We got it.”
Drina nodded. “Good.” She looked back to the rusting steam whistle poking up out of the ground. “Goodbye, old friend.” She looked up at Jing and Solindra. “It’s ready. I’ve got all the cargo, including our weapons and even our old uniforms.”
“Weapons? Uniforms?” Solindra started shaking her head. “But my father wasn’t a soldier. He worked on ships his whole life before he settled down to build the waystation. He told me that, so he couldn’t have been a soldier.”
Drina and Jing both hesitated.
The teenager repeated louder, “My father wasn’t a soldier!”
Jing started to limp toward the path. “No time, Cylinder.”
Drina grabbed the girl’s shoulders and steered her away from their secret garden. “Everything soon, Cyl, I promise. Even the secrets your father had buried with him. But for there to be time in which to explain everything, we have to leave.”
“What? Leave? Leave the mountain?”
“Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?” The cook pulled her toward the trail.
“Not like this!” Solindra bounced off the rock wall, stinging her shoulder.
“Drina,” Jing sighed.
They hustled down the thin steps around the mountainside toward the air-dock. A small engine pumped hydrogen into the waystation’s emergency air-dinghy. The sky-boat had only been used a couple of times that Solindra could recall and she’d never been on it no matter how much she’d pleaded.
Jing ran his fingers over their emergency airboat’s little coal-fired engine props on the dinghy’s tail. He had built the engine and the boilerbox too. He had made them so they recycled the water of the steam that powered the propellers so the boat wasn’t weighed down with excess water.
Jing’s boots pounded on the wood as he approached the air-dinghy, barely big enough for four people. The pliable bubble hissed as its sides bloated. A cargo box had been latched to the bottom of the craft.
Solindra eyed the dials on the hydrogen tanks’ gauges. Those were Pitchstone’s most expensive possessions, since they were the hardest to replace in the mountains.
“We can’t leave.” She backed up toward the edge of the dock. “We can’t leave.”
Jing and Drina glanced at her, but the cook went over to the hydrogen tanks and Jing tossed another bag into the dinghy.
“All my things are in my room!” When they didn’t respond, she waved her hand at the lightning and clouds. “And we can’t fly in this!”
“Yes, we will,” Drina replied coolly.
Jing paused at a large lever on the edge of the platform. The ornate brass-and-copper handle seemed out of place, away in its own little corner of the dock.
“Drina, it’s fifteen years old, but I know my work.”
The cook’s chocolate eyes widened briefly. Then she shrugged. “There are lots of travelers in there, but okay.”
“Never stopped us before.” But his fingers slackened and he pulled them away from the untouched handle. “But we can’t blame it on orders anymore.”
“What?” Solindra stared at the dinghy as she watched the dirigible’s bubble bloat. She looked back down to the lights of her home. “Wait! Where’s Calvin?”
“He’ll be fine.” Drina pushed the girl toward the airboat. Jing fired up the propeller.
The cook helped the younger woman sit near the stern. Solindra gripped the side with white knuckles. The craft wobbled as Jing hacked clean the ropes.
The hose broke free from the balloon, hissing and writhing against the platform since no one was there to shut off the tanks
. The balloon’s valve closed, and they hovered in the storm’s darkness over the waystation.
“But where can we go?” Solindra gulped.
Drina pointed. “Valhasse. We’ll get some information and supplies, and then we’ll head for the frontier. Maybe beyond Steamscape itself.”
“Barbarian lands?” Jing grinned. “Been a while.”
Solindra squeezed her knees together and bit her lip. She peeked over the side. Lightning lit up the walls of the mountain, throwing blinding whiteness and deep shadows across her vision. She scrunched her eyes closed and huddled down against the deck, staring at the cook’s boots. “Drina, I think I hate sky-sailing.”