He landed easily enough, and a little steam truck took him down a short track to the public train landing. The platform was elevated and gave a good view of his new world and so he stood and studied, and bothered no one as no one passed by for the duration of time he floated lost in thought and planning – the wanderer’s common meditation. From there he set out, heading, for no important reason, south through the coal dust coated city, blanketed and brightened, at least for now in deep winter, by a thick fall of snow. The buildings stood in granite and grey, and the houses leant some dull pastel coloring to the ashy landscape.
There were shops, but no one waited the counters; there was an automated steam powered stephensons crawling up and down main streets but no passengers. It becomes obvious after a block that cemeteries are frequent in their town squares.
Finally he found a party of late night singers and drinkers. It was a wedding party, and evidently the Bride and Groom would not leave, so the revelers remained, drunk and exhausted, to fete the couple. The major stumbled into the place and saw the wave of cold confusion wash over the faces of the celebrants and heard the dip in conversation, the missed notes of the band, the catch of cutlery noise, and that short intake of breath, not quite a gasp and too long for a cough, from a few of the guests not accustomed to surprises. But that late in the wee hours he thought it was just a public house up late, it wasn’t until after he had taken a table and was enjoying a whiskey that he overheard congratulations for the couple, and a comment on the shaman’s sermon. Embarrassed, he left his seat, and his glass, and slid toward the closest door to the out. A plain gentleman, well liveried, waited at the handle and opened the escape; Philipp stood and stammered while the doorman, patient and quiet, motioned for him to leave. It was asked whether or not he was intruding, the answer was negative, nevertheless it proved to be a private gathering, and the seating and eating and drinking were invasive.
“It is quite alright, my good man, you introduced yourself as turning from the cold, and what could my Master have said to that otherwise?”
And now effusive apologies for imposing, and causing sympathy. And now the scene slides to pathetic. And pathos leads to cruelty. Now the doorman is embarrassed, and the tidal misery fell upon the closest rank of guests and they fell silent from the press of the emotional excess nearby. Philipp stepped toward the door and into the brightest gas light in the room, and the sudden collective intake of breath, no question as to whether or not it was a sigh, echoed the room with gasps. This time the band just stopped. There was the obligatory dropping of an object in the background, and the tableaux strikes its pose. The broken and mended man stood stunned in front of a sudden audience, overwhelmed by a spectrum of emotions that assaulted them as they were presented, in the kerosene and whale oil, of a man not a man.
Exhausted, he stumbled up a flight of stairs to an empty landing, an empty door, an a night’s refuge. He had not slept for, perhaps, thirty six hours, and his few remaining muscles were burning, his brass parts weak, he secured a late bed in an abandoned warehouse attic, with enough blankets in his pack to make himself comfortable.
He went on like this day after day. So this entire island, or continent, has a near ghost town on its shores; sections are occupied in among whole blocks empty and covered with dust. What kind of place is this? There is no constabulary evident, no military or authoritarian figure walks past you on the snow blanketed streets. No ashmen gather bins nor servants shovel snow from important walkways and road corners, no postmen can be seen morning or evening, even the peripatetic costermongers were absent. After three days here, Oldrich had discovered various kinds of safe lodgings, certainly out of the weather and at least dry, if not warm; but sometimes sumptuous and grand, with featherbeds and down pillow.
At the beginning of the sixth week Doktor Valeska made contact, and the Major finally felt safe. Valeska met him at a public house, and gave him some more money and devices to help him, as well as extra machine oil and cleaning linens. They did not speak much, the Doktor was tired and seemingly in distressed health, he winced when he sat or stood, and coughed if he bent over – and he was easily winded on stairs. Valeska drank a small brandy and listened to the violinist, making only comments on the music and the face of the accompanist, a petit young woman playing piano. When he finished the drink he held the glass in front of his face, and twisted it between his fingers before setting it very deliberately down on the smack edge of the table and pulled an envelope from his vest pocket and lay it carefully in front of Oldrich. He then stood, scuffed the chair over the sawdust and peanut shell covered floor, and wished his friend well, and related his desire to see him again soon, that their job would soon commence, and walked out of the building.
The Major watched the white haired academic leave, then picked up the envelope and tore off one end; the folded paper tube contained only a hotel room key, with the room number one side of a handsome wooden tag, and the address of Hotel Ecclesium on the other, with the promise that any key given to any of the numerous steam couriers would be returned to its owner.
There was an unfortunate encounter when he reached the lobby after struggling for half an hour against battering wind and driving snow and frozen rain. The desk clerk watched Oldrich walk in and aim for the stairwell, then demanded, “What business have you here, Sir?” The old warrior turned and looked at the child that had addressed him with such disrespect. He stopped and produced his key and held it behind him so the number was toward the paling face of the brash youngster behind the counter. In an ill considered gesture that stemmed from his fatigue and frustration, the clockwork man spun ‘round and let his coat open to briefly display the grip of his pistol, the young man would not know it could only fire harmless smoke rounds. The boy stammered his apology and regrets, and protested that duty motivated him.
The leather man raised his hands, palms out, extended slightly from his body along the line of his shoulders. It was an submissive pose, not quite as far along as a surrender, but painfully sincere. He shook his head, and dropped his arms to his sides.
“I apologize young Citizen. You are only earning your pay. Let me explain. As you can see I am greatly altered from what I was when I was a young man, like yourself, and this happened to me only a dozen or so months ago. You can guess these prosthetics take concentration to operate, and the by the end of the day a man in my situation finds himself highly agitated. Do you understand what I am trying to say?
”I think so, S-sir. But I dint know you” the boy sniffed.
“You are right, Young Sir. Still, I advise you to have a light touch with your elders, and next time someone comes stomping in late and cold just ask him if you can see his key, and avoid the confrontation. And avoid contractions, young man, they are a sure sign of the illiterate.” He reached into his coat, found the pocket full of small metal disks of various alloys, and fished out a few. The one with the shiny yellow luster he flipped onto the desktop, it warbled and spun to a stop as the boy stared at it.
“There is something to establish my good graces.” Then he turned and walked, laboriously, up the stairs. There he would dream of more places crowded with buildings, but almost devoid of inhabitants. No, this place will not do, but it is large and may yet have a vibrant neighborhood. There is a University here, that has to be alive. If this place is not suitable, perhaps somewhere on the that campus I can find a place where we can home.