Fantasy steampunk found family disabled protagonist

Crew 255

By Claire Humphrey
Aug 8, 2019 · 4,464 words · 17 minutes

The internal workings of an old windmill.  The fast spinning vertical drive shaft is driven by the sails and powers the mill.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody via Unsplash.

From the author: An airship disaster levels Toronto. Emiliana, one of the Portuguese workers brought in to help rebuild the city, has to make her rooming house a home, and her crew a family.


Emiliana's first sight of Toronto was the crater.  No longer smoking, ten days after the wreck, but ash still drifted like fine snow in the draft of the airship's propellers.  Emiliana saw the ghostly foundations of some of the buildings that had been, or maybe the curbs of streets, straight lines here and there laid bare amid the rubble and the windblown char.

"Our boys on the ground have moved a thousand trainloads of brick already," said the young man in the next seat over; he was called Manuel, unofficial leader of a dozen fellows from the same Azorean village.  "I was worried they wouldn't leave us any," he added, and all his lads laughed and elbowed each other.

They were squeezed onto narrow fold-down bench seats, butted right up against the inner curve of the airship's passenger compartment, these dozen wide-shouldered lads, their heads ducked uncomfortably or hooked over each other's shoulders like they were all puppies from the same litter.  Emiliana, at the end of the row, looked down at all the heads of dark hair and all the square, tanned hands, not a single hook or grasper among them.

"My friends," she said, "there is always more labour."

No one answered her.  Eyes flicked down and away; heads tilted awkwardly.  A minute or so later someone made a joke Emiliana's altitude-dull ears could not pick up, and the lads went back to shoving at each other, or yawning hugely to relieve the pressure in their heads.

Emiliana caught a gangly fellow looking at her, and she smiled and then yawned in sympathy, but he only flushed pink and pretended he had not seen.

When the airship moored at a station north of the crater, the young men jammed shoulder to shoulder in their hurry to get to the ladder, not looking back.

Emiliana offered to carry Manuel's luggage for him.  He refused her politely enough, but she saw the downward flash of his eyes toward her graspers, the whitening of his knuckles as he clung to the canvas strap of his bag.  He hefted it over one shoulder, turning away already.  The fine muscles of his forearm pulled taut beneath the skin.

Emiliana lifted her own carpetbag, hearing the winding of gears and the hum of wire beneath the leather of her arm as her right grasper clung to the handle.  Her left steadied her, grappled to one of the cables crisscrossing the inner wall, as the airship rocked gently against its moorings.

Her arms were more than a decade old now; they needed oiling each night, and the brass was scarred bright here and there with the scratches of heavy work, just as the boys' hands showed the white scars of fishing accidents.  They were not so different.  Time left marks on metal just as on flesh.

As Emiliana descended the ladder, though, she felt the ache of the bones within her knees, and the swelling that came and went about her ankles.  And her graspers, painlessly locking and unlocking on the rungs, bearing most of her weight.

She gained the solid platform, and followed the young men out of the wind, into the station tower, and down a few narrow stairs.  She caught up again at the end of a queue before a red-hatted immigration official: he was stamping papers busily, with the same crest that had decorated the airship's curved flank, a Union Jack surmounted by a red leaf.

"How many in your party?" he asked Manuel.  "Are you all together?"

"Everyone except her," Manuel replied, as if he did not even know Emiliana's name; maybe he had forgotten it already, although she had told him only that morning.

Emiliana waited until the herd of young men had stampeded out into their new country.  She had her papers stamped alone, by the official whose pale gaze lingered on her arms.  He slid the packet back across the counter to her and said, unsmiling, "Welcome to the Canadian Territories, Miss Da Silva.  Proceed through the gates."

 

 

The young men sat shoulder to shoulder on the tram exactly as they had on the airship, jostling, giggling.  None of them looked at Emiliana when she boarded; she took the last seat, right behind the driver, who nodded, and did not meet Emiliana's eyes.

She dropped her bag between her feet and used one of her graspers to poke at the ever-present ache in her lower back.  The tram rang its bell and belched out a gout of steam and rumbled off southward down twin steel tracks.  Over the driver's shoulder, Emiliana could see the clinging pall of ash and smoke over the heart of the city, shrouding the pale sun.

Their boarding house turned out to be in the west end, in a grid of streets where each block was a solid row.  The roofs were lower, the lots narrower, than the others the tram had passed.  Chimneys clustered together in threes and fours.

"Oldest gets dibs on the best bed," Manuel called out, to a chorus of groans; the youngest-looking one on the tram, a rawboned boy with lips too soft for his face, theatrically covered his eyes and said it was just like living with his sisters.  No one laughed.

The tram stopped on a corner where the tracks curved lakeward, and everyone piled out, slinging cases to each other.  Emiliana grabbed a trunk before anyone could stop her, passed it out to the nearest lad and bit back a smile when he staggered under the weight.

The boarding house had four bedrooms, each with several cots.  Manuel bulled his way into the largest, and tossed his kit on the cot by the window.

Emiliana followed him in, puffing a little from the steep stairs, her own carpetbag clutched in one of her graspers.  She deposited her bag on the window cot, plucked up Manuel's and set it on the floor nearby.

He was staring at her, mouth open, looking not so much angry as utterly bemused.

"Oldest gets dibs on the best bed," Emiliana said.

Manuel grabbed up his kit-bag from the floor.  For a moment Emiliana wasn't sure where he was going to put it.

"I didn't realize you were with us," he said, finally, face stiff.  "Of course you should have the best bed, ma'am."

He turned and left, taking his bag with him.

Emiliana sat down on her cot, kicked her feet out of her elastic-sided boots and rotated her stiff ankles.  Her stockings were torn again; her graspers didn't have the smoothness of hands.  She rooted through her carpetbag for her ancient sheepskin slippers.

As she was bending stiffly to put them on, the rawboned lad came in, sidling along the hallway, ducking his head as if to hide his height.

He glanced at Emiliana, eyes half-hidden by his unruly hair, and placed his case--a kicked-in, rotted leather suitcase--on the smallest of the room's cots, closest to the door.  Then he disappeared again.

At sundown, when Emiliana returned from a solitary dinner at the nearest public house, the bedroom's woodstove had a log in it, but the other two cots were still empty.

 

 

Morning in Toronto in late March proved to be blisteringly cold.  A tram took the crew downtown, over roads white with ash and the remnants of winter's salt.  Emiliana saw some of the young men tucking their fingertips into their armpits or blowing steaming breaths over them; her own graspers didn't have feeling, but she could see the brass dulled over with frost, could sense the stiffness to the mechanisms as their oil congealed.

The factories along the lakeshore sent up billowing towers of smoke into the clear cold sky.  Emiliana had no idea what they were making, or who was working in them now, with so many of the working folk committed to the massive rebuilding of downtown.

The airship crash, so she had heard, was the largest to occur in the world: two zeppelins, each with a hydrogen capacity of sixty thousand cubic metres, had become entangled while trying to dock in high winds.  One had collided with the mooring mast and caught fire; the other had nearly freed itself, but was set fire by the explosion of the first.

The first had been a passenger ship; fifty civilians had been aboard, all killed.

The second, though, had been carrying explosives.  Each of the rival newspapers had a different story, the bartender at the public house had another, and the charwoman at the boarding house still another: civilian explosives destined for the Sudbury mines; Allied munitions en route to the depot at Downsview; some kind of contraband shipped under a faked manifest destined for an enemy strike on New York. 

Casimiro--the young man who was the only one either brave enough or unimportant enough to share Emiliana's room--thought it was not explosives at all, but some new and fearsome fuel, something that would give airships the run of the globe if it could be made less volatile.

Up close, it all became irrelevant.  The crater had looked much deeper from the air, but it looked much wider from the ground.  Churches, banks, office buildings, and a brand-new department store: how many million bricks had been thrown down by the blast?  How many square metres of construction laid waste, how many beams and trusses shattered, how many windows blown to shards?

How many people were still missing?

Casimiro didn't know that one, and Emiliana didn't press him.

Their tram stopped a good half-mile from the epicentre, and they walked from there to a command post where they were issued lunchbags and heavy leather gloves.

"No, thank you," Emiliana said, brandishing her graspers, which were pincer-shaped, lacking the complex fingers of a fleshly hand.

"You want mittens instead?" the quartermaster said cheerfully.  She was a woman maybe the same age as Emiliana, round-faced and fat.  She didn't wait for an answer, just hauled a pair of scorched leather mitts out of one of her bins and handed them over.  They were shiny and stiff with use, bigger than Emiliana's graspers needed.  Emiliana slipped them on anyway, an extra layer between the world and the most delicate bits of her metalwork.

"Which one of you wants to be foreman?" the quartermaster said.

Manuel stepped forward, shouldering in front of Emiliana even though she had not moved.

When no one objected, the quartermaster tossed Manuel a whistle and a timepiece, and said,  "You're Crew 255.  You'll be clearing rubble.  Wait by the yellow flag and someone will come fetch you."

So they waited by the yellow flag.  Some of the lads stood flush up against each other for warmth, chest to back.  Not Emiliana.  Not Casimiro, who seemed to have been elected keeper of everyone else's belongings, and stood alone over a heap of lunchbags.

Other crews gathered, too, in eights or twelves, many of them bearing resemblance to each other in the same way Crew 255 did: people from the same village or county, people from the same extended family.  Emiliana saw two others with mechanical limbs, one a very young man with a grasper like her own for his left arm, and one a severe-looking fellow with both legs brass from the thighs down.  This man stood a half-head above the rest of his crew, and Emiliana wondered if he had been so tall on his old legs too.  She thought so, from the length of his arms and torso.  While she was measuring him with her eyes, he happened to look over, and he scowled; the scowl leavened a bit, though, when Emiliana drew off one mitten to give him a wave.

Her attention was shattered a moment later by Manuel's whistle-blast, completely unnecessary and right beside her ear.

"Crew 255!" he bellowed.  "We have our work order.  Follow me."

And Emiliana followed, all the way to the rear, behind even Casimiro, who was burdened with everyone's lunch.

She inched up behind him and said, "You won't make friends that way.  They'll just give you more to do."

"You won't make friends at all," Casimiro snapped.

"No," Emiliana said.  "But I'm not trying."

"Aren't you?" Casimiro said, halfway between sulky and honestly curious.

"I do only what I want," Emiliana said, "and I want from others only what they give freely.  Not scraps that must be begged."

She saw him recoil at that, and bit her tongue on whatever she would have said next.

And here was their little square of the work site, anyway: their mounded rubble, their hand-trucks and dump-bins, and a tiny kerosene heater for them to take turns warming themselves on their breaks.

Emiliana wiped her streaming nose on the cuff of her leather mitten, and listened to Manuel over-explain their day's work.

 

 

The tram ride back to the rooming house was quiet, apart from the rumble of iron on track, the hiss of steam and the occasional clang of the bell.  Even Rafa, wiry, pranking Rafa, smallest and loudest of the crew, had run out of things to say; he was drowsing in his seat now, head drooping toward his friend's shoulder.

All of them were grey with ash from foot to thigh and from hand to bicep.  Emiliana's graspers had taken in some grit, and the left one especially made a grating sound when she bent her elbow.  Her left knee felt nearly the same, as if the kneecap scraped against the butt of the femur when she bent.  Twenty-odd years of heavy lifting took a toll on flesh and bone and metal alike.

She was well tempered to it in her mind, though.  In her will.  It was what kept her moving when some of the lads had gone glassy-eyed and stupid and slow near day's end.

They were quick enough to pile out of the tram and shove each other into the rooming-house, but they stopped and milled about uncertainly when they saw the unlit stove, the dark kitchen.

A couple of them looked to Manuel.  Manuel looked to Emiliana.

Emiliana crossed her mittened graspers over her chest and looked back.

"Casimiro," Manuel said.  "You know how to make biscuits?"

 

 

The work got harder as the first week went on.  Muscles and ligaments strained, joints compressed, feet chilblained, faces chapped.  Little pains compounded and bigger ones took root.  Emiliana began to wrap her knees with bandages made from torn stockings.

The lads ate like starving hounds and Emiliana wasn't far behind them; Casimiro could not cook worth a damn, really, but they all crumbled their burned biscuits into their over-salted stew and tucked it away uncomplaining against the next day's work.

At night Casimiro slept hard until the small hours, but then began to whimper in his sleep.  Emiliana put up with it at first, not wanting to embarrass the lad after she'd already insulted his pride, but on the fourth night she was awakened, she threw a slipper at him.

"What?" he said, snuffling.  "What did you... did you just..."

"You were whining like a pup," she said, "and I need my rest."

Casimiro turned over; in the darkness all Emiliana could see was the long skinny shape of him, feet extending off the end of the cot.

"I get hungry," he said, through a yawn.  "It wakes me sometimes."

"Then learn to cook better," Emiliana snapped.  "And there are two apples in my kit-bag.  Eat them and go back to sleep."

Casimiro caught his breath.  "Are... are you sure?"

"I don't like them.  My graspers get sticky," Emiliana said.  "Chew quietly."  And she stuck her head under her pillow, not waiting to see if Casimiro would take her up on it.

After that, at the end of each workday she set her apple out on the window-sill, and each morning it was gone.

 

 

The crew had Sundays off.  A few blocks away through the streets of workers' houses, there was a church with services in Portuguese twice a day, where they would let lads in sooty jackets fill the pews.

Not all of the crew went.  Emiliana preferred to stay back and work on her graspers; it was a slow business, going over the joints with a rag to get the grit off, then applying oil with a dropper, which was difficult to squeeze delicately with the strength of her machinery.  Half the time the oil dislodged more tiny cinders from within the joint, and then she had to rag everything all over again.

Casimiro was devout enough that he had talked Rafa into taking over Sunday dinner for him, or else maybe the lads had done so in protest of Casimiro's still-terrible cooking, so Rafa would spend the morning and early afternoon on a spread of roasted meats, a soup of potato and kale and sausage, and a pot of rice with flaked fish and raisins.

Manuel did not attend the church either; he spent his Sunday mornings composing letters to a sweetheart back home, who he said he was going to bring over if the crew received a second contract.

Emiliana found Manuel alone by the stove as he finished up a letter, and she sat herself down in front of him and laid one of her graspers on the page to get his attention.

"Some of your lads are being bullies," she said.

Manuel actually laughed a little, disbelieving.  "You mean Rafa?  I told him your stockings would tear if he tried to fit them over his damn goat-feet..."

"Oh, was that him?  I tear them myself all the time," Emiliana said.  "No, I meant Casimiro."

"Him, a bully?" Manuel shook his head definitely.  "Not him."

"I'm glad we agree.  No.  I mean someone's bullying him.  He's not getting enough to eat."

Manuel blinked.

"Fix it," Emiliana said.  "You wanted to be foreman.  They're your crew."

She lifted her grasper off the paper then, but Manuel didn't take it up right away.

"I can't make them like Casimiro," Manuel said.  "He's always odd one out.  He was the one who put himself in your room.  The rest of them chose to recognize your seniority."

"Does that still rankle?" Emiliana said, laughing a little.  "I don't care where he sleeps, as long as it's his choice.  But you can make sure he doesn't eat last every meal, and you can stop the other lads taking his share and then tossing it on the midden."

"Do they," Manuel said.  "Well."

He stayed in his seat, letter forgotten, while Emiliana pulled her chair closer to the stove to warm her joints, both flesh and not.

 

 

Slowly the work began to get easier.  Arms and legs and backs grew accustomed to the motions of work.  The chill lifted.  Instead of huddling over the kerosene burner for their breaks, the crew could choose to sit on overturned buckets to play cards, though the cards grew almost illegible with soot.

Emiliana, who had been fearing that her strength was beginning to wane, found that it was not: it came with a bit more pain these days, but she could lift more than ever, the long bones of her legs dense with years of work, the muscles of thighs and calves grown heavy and practiced, the webbing around her spine not quite as supple as it had been, but just as sturdy.  When the crew needed to move a massive beam or a cornerstone, Emiliana was one of the ones who always stepped up; many of the lads had stronger legs or shoulders, but the muscles of their hands couldn't hold as fast as Emiliana's graspers.

Neither she nor Manuel could quite figure out what was going on with Casimiro, though.  Even after Manuel put a halt to anyone messing with his food, Casimiro stayed gaunt, the fleshy lips looking almost grotesque on his hollow-eyed face.  He kept carrying lunches and ferrying water from the tanker that drove slowly between all the crews around the crater, but the other lads didn't speak to him the way they spoke to each other, and they left a careful space around him on the tram and in the rooming-house.

He kept eating Emiliana's apples in the night, and he kept awakening her with his nightmares.

She began to feel too much sympathy for him to throw slippers any more.  She did not want to frighten him with the touch of a chilly pincer, either.  She settled for reaching her foot across the gap between their cots, and prodding him, very gently, with her wool-socked toes.

Sometimes he woke; sometimes he quieted.  Once he wrapped his hand around her foot and held on.

"No one's messing with him any more.  I would swear to it," Manuel said, in one of their Sunday conferences, while Rafa sang to himself in the kitchen, chopping onions.  "You've seen it, haven't you?  They save him a bowl now even when he's still in the kitchen."

Emiliana said, "I've seen him eating it, too.  But no one treats him like one of the crew, yet.  And he doesn't write home."

"He might be lonely," Manuel said.  "But aren't we all?  Don't we all miss our sweethearts?"  Maybe it was intended to be judgmental, but his eyes welled up as he spoke, and so Emiliana left him to his letter and went back to her own rags and oil.

 

 

As the rubble-clearing grew closer to completion, Crew 255 moved on to building.  The blast had crumbled so many structures right down to their foundations, fissuring stonework that had been made to last centuries.  Earth had to be shored up and framed, cornerstones had to be laid, then foundation-stones and supporting walls.  The work was going to take years, and the workers were ready and willing.

Manuel, when he saw the next set of orders, was so jubilant he actually hugged Emiliana and shook her by the graspers.  "I can bring Paula over!" he said.  "I can marry her at last!"

Emiliana kissed him on each cheek and hugged him back, in the stiff way her graspers would allow.  "Will you still live with the crew?"

"Paula can cook much better than Casimiro," Manuel said.  "Maybe she can sleep in your room until we're married."

Emiliana laughed at that.  "If we're going to move people around, doesn't Rafa have seniority?"

"Rafa's been sharing with Jorge so long they can't sleep when they're apart," Manuel said, grinning, and that was that.

Emiliana did not tell Casimiro that he was going to lose his post as cook, but someone must have, for he came to her that evening, as she laboriously trimmed the lamp and rolled the sleeves of her nightgown down over her graspers.

Casimiro sat on the edge of his cot, long hands wrung tight together, and ducked his head between his shoulders.  He did not usually come to bed so early; Emiliana did not even know what he did in his evening hours.  She rolled her sleep-socks onto her feet, and waited for Casimiro to speak.

He took forever about it, too, taking in deep sighing breaths and then letting them out again without finding any words.

Finally Emiliana said, "Paula might be a wonderful cook, but you will still be part of the crew after she arrives."

Casimiro lifted his head, eyes wide, lips open.  "Manuel's wife is going to be our cook?"

"I thought you had heard," Emiliana said. 

"Thank the Lord," Casimiro said.  "I was never going to get the salt right."

Emiliana touched her pincer to her mouth so as not to laugh.  "If it isn't that... then what has you worried?"

He didn't bother to deny there was something.  He only ducked his head again.

"I won't tell anyone," Emiliana said.  "Whatever it is.  I'll find you more apples, since you like them.  Buy you bread.  Whatever you need."

Casimiro hunched further into himself, hands over his face.  "No," he said.  "You told me not to beg for scraps.  You said that."

Emiliana did not remember saying that.  "It's not begging," she said.  "I'm offering."

"Why?" Casimiro said, looking up at her, brows twisted.

Because you're part of my crew, Emiliana almost said, and that was true--the crew was hers now, in a way, hers as well as Manuel's--but that was not the whole of it.

Because you're my friend, she thought next, and that was also true.  But that wasn't all of it either.

"I want to," she said, finally, simply.  "When I give, I give freely.  If I want to say no, I will say no.  But I might say yes."

"I'm afraid of what will happen," Casimiro said.  "I'm afraid either way."

And he shuffled off his cot to kneel before Emiliana, and he laid his cheek on her thigh, and she could feel the heat of his breath in heavy quick bursts through the flannel of her nightgown.

And she saw what he was asking, and it was much greater than apples.

She reached out with her graspers and lifted Casimiro's shirt from his shoulders, and the fabric tore apart.

"I am not afraid," she said.  "And I am strong enough to carry you, if you'll let me."

 

 

The rooming house was full to bursting: one room for Manuel and Paula and the babe on the way, another for Emiliana and Casimiro, the other two rooms with four cots each for the crew, and then Rafa and Jorge on a makeshift cot in the pantry.

"We'll build an addition," Manuel said, rolling out a sheet of plans on the table by the stove, while he and Emiliana stayed back from church.  From the kitchen, Emiliana could smell thyme and onions, and hear Rafa teaching Paula a new song in English he'd learned from someone at the work site.

"Build it ourselves?" Emiliana said.  "We've got enough brickworkers, that's for certain."

"We'll need plumbing.  And another stove."

"And conduits for the wiring Casimiro is always talking about."

"Then we'll have better light," Manuel agreed.

"Even though you don't have to write letters any longer," Emiliana said, "it will be better for you when you read to the baby."

Manuel's face went soft.  "And you?" he said.  "Will there be a baby for you?"

"A baby is not what I wish to bring into the world," Emiliana said, shaking her head, and smiling.

She laid one of her graspers on the sheaf of plans to hold it open, while she pointed out where they could put the third chimney, and how the new rear wall would cast warmth onto the earth, and how in the next spring Casimiro might plant an arbor there.

This story originally appeared in Clockwork Canada.