From the author: In the fabled city of beetle-drawn carriages and chained singers, a man tries to find a way to resist the city's foreign occupiers. A brief steampunk adventure set in the same world as the Spire City series, some years after the events of those books.
If not for the flames I wouldn’t have believed the woman. But there it was, the enemy’s construct surrounded by flames so hot the brass fittings melted off as it caved to the cobbled street. Rain hissed from hot metal. All because I’d lit the stranger’s gunpowder at its base.
Poor choice to stand there watching. A moment later, an airship lowered through the drizzle. The enemies and their airships, filling our sky. What was wrong with a beetle-pulled carriage?
An officer called down, “You there. What do you know about this fire?”
Only that I’d started it. Only that I’d been complaining about the occupiers’ constructs that spied on us, and some woman overheard. Said she used to work for a great inventor and had access to a gunpowder so strong it’d light the constructs sky high.
I ran instead of answering him. They were too high to chase me and too focused on putting out the fire to do anything else.
I knew the streets enough to be long gone. But that powder! I had to get my hands on more.
This foreign army had been here for a year, their airships filling the skies and their warships the harbor. Worst of all, their constructs everywhere, monitoring us with weird tech even Mystery Woman’s famous inventor probably didn’t know.
But with enough of that powder, I could drive them out myself. Back to the old Spire City of stately, beetle-drawn carriages and no soldiers on the streets. Or even something better, a Spire City like the best of us imagined it could be.
The woman wasn’t in the bar by the time I got back. No one knew who she was or where she’d gone.
Back outside, I glanced around for police. None in sight. I crossed the street and entered a door that only looked locked. A narrow stairway for maids climbed steeply up the spire.
My legs burned by the time I reached the top. I stepped through a door onto a narrow walkway, high on the building’s spire. Outside, a man my own age was singing. His voice carried through the fog, the words nonsense as far as I knew, but the melody strong. Around his ankle was a thick chain.
He might be stuck on the roof, he and the singers on other spires, but nothing happened below without them seeing it.
“Hello, cousin,” I said when he finally paused.
He nodded and wiped the damp from his forehead.
“There was a woman who left the bar a while back,” I said.
“And without you? That must be a blow to your ego.”
“No, it wasn’t that. She just, she had some stuff, and I want more of it.” That sounded even worse, but I rushed on, describing her for him.
He was silent for a moment when I finished. Finally he said, “I did see her. You sure you want to involve yourself? It’s not just one person. There’s a whole group of them.”
A whole group armed with that powder? Better yet. He gave me instructions to follow. Strange instructions.
On the street I looked for an unattended beetle. Only took a few blocks to find one, hitched to a fancy carriage. No driver in sight. I slashed the tresses and jumped onto the beetle’s back, tensing for it to jerk away from me.
The beetle began a trudging walk away from the carriage. Someone shouted behind me. How was this supposed to draw the attention of the mysterious group? Well, I guess it drew everyone’s attention, actually.
I tried to make the beetle go faster. Down a certain alley, the singer had said. Then I had to jump off its back at just the right place and hide. Mystery Woman or one of her associates kept an eye on that alley and would find me and know what my jump meant.
Several people chased me. Wouldn’t take long before someone jumped on a steamcycle and caught up. The alley came into view, as my beetle picked up speed, barreling along the street.
A glance back told me I was still followed, but no one was too close. Not at this pace. The beetle fought turning, and I didn’t dare let it slow down, so we took the turn wide, clipping the brick building on the far side of the alley. My shoulder slammed into the wall, and my head shook with the impact, but I held on.
The people following took the turn more gracefully, closing the gap. Where the alley jogged a little, I was briefly out of their sight. That was the place. I leapt from the beetle’s back into a pile of garbage. Something slimy broke my fall.
As I scrambled to make myself hidden, I heard a noise ahead and peeked out. My beetle ran right into a group of cops. They were surrounding a figure, the Mystery Woman. Not what the singer had told me to expect. The beetle’s arrival gave her an opening, and she dashed away.
Not enough. One cop fired a gun. The woman dropped to the cobbles just as my pursuers rounded the corner. The cops ignored them and circled the woman. As they picked her up, she squirmed and called out. My pursuers drew back to let the cops work.
What could I do? I stayed in hiding. There must be something. As they were leaving, I tensed, ready to run out and…I hadn’t figured out what. Something foolhardy, no doubt.
Before I could, a hand grabbed my shoulder. I spun around. A man crouched behind me, his face angry as he watched the cops lead the woman away, but he shook his head when I tried again to follow.
After everyone was out of sight, he said, “I saw your jump.” He let that statement hang for a moment, then gave a last angry look toward where the cops had gone. “Welcome to the resistance.”
This story originally appeared in Every Day Fiction.
Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets. But there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.
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