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The Steam Eaters (Part 3)

 

 

Part 3: The Indifference Engine

It had been a quiet day for Edmund and Lydia Trefusis. There was little for them to do but wait, read, take tea and wait some more. Deny as they might the emotional distance between them, time would force the issue as it so often does. Young Mr. Trefusis, so commanding and decisive in his work for the railroad, was left mystified and uncertain by the coldness of his one true love. The waiting was finally over, but there, in room 302 of the Hotel Excelsior, there was no celebration… there were only questions.

Lydia sat at the vanity, removing and then brushing makeup on her cheek for what seemed like the tenth time that day. Edmund watched adoringly, even as his failure to know fully the ways of women — even his own beautiful wife — caused him mild vexation. He was trying to collate documents and photographs, but found it difficult to concentrate. “You look exquisite,” he said hoping to break the strange tension that had arisen between them.

“Nice of you to notice,” she said flatly and turned her attention to her eyelashes.

Edmund stood behind his wife and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Are you worried about me, darling? I’ll be fine. You know I’ll be just fine.”

“Please, don’t make me go!” Lydia blurted out. She turned to Edmund. “If the matter is nearly resolved, why can’t I stay? Or why can’t you come back to Caledon with me?”

“If things work out well, I’ll have work to do here, agreements to get signed. And if things turn out badly… I want you as far from here as possible and safely on your way home!”

“I sensed your regret… that you didn’t want me to come with you. I just wondered…” she stammered, suddenly embarrassed, “It had been suggested… that perhaps you had… other reasons for remaining in Babbage.” She absentmindedly fidgeted with a comb from her dressing table, bracing herself for an unpleasant revelation. “You were so sought after before we were married, and that Emma Scarbrough lives so close by, and so does…”

“Good grief, Lydia!” exclaimed Edmund, stroking his wife’s dark, silken tresses, trying to bring her calm. “My precious green-eyed soul! You were the brightest light of your season… from the moment I saw you at the Queen’s Crown Ball, I’ve had eyes for no other. And besides, what sort of a dimwit would I be to blithely give up the only woman — besides my mother — who can put my father in his place so sweetly?”

Lydia smiled and seemed to relax, all of the tension of the past few days suddenly dissipated. “Oh, Edmund… how do you put with a jealous fool like me?”

He bent down, touching his cheek to hers. “If you didn’t get jealous, how would I know you loved me?”

Lydia’s smile widened. “Then my ridiculous jealousy you shall have… as well as my heart.” Turning to kiss her handsome husband, she took his hand in hers and then… paused. “Perhaps it’s time we settled our business with this patient gentleman, darling.”

The pair glanced my way as I stood by the hotel room door. “Of course!” said Edmund turning toward me, “May I offer you a drink while I finish gathering the documents?”

A pint of laudanum with a chloroform chaser, please? “Just give me the [CENSORED] evidence so I can get the [CENSORED] outta here before I yank my [CENSORED] head off!!!”

I have never been a romantic.

And, in my defense, it had been a funny sort of day. It had gone from me worrying about tip money being divided fairly among my fellow waiters to wondering when I would next be assaulted by dangerous gangster mutants. My deep ruminations on these matters are the only reason I can think of for walking in the wrong direction when I left the hotel. Only when I nearly tripped over a train track did I realize I was going west when I needed to travel east toward Clockhaven. I turned around and found myself nose-to-nose with Steam Eater #3.

“You met vith za couple in 302, yes? Vere zey nice people? Did zey give you tea and cookies? Or simply photographs of me killing people… like you?”

He looked almost exactly like the first two — bald, clean-shaven and a little pasty — and he wore a suit very much like the one #2 was wearing, except on #3 it looked so stiff, it was as if it had been made out of paper rather than cloth.

“You’re in my way,” I replied. Having seen two of the villain’s friends — who, I had just noticed, were significantly shorter than I was — neutralized rather handily, I was disinclined to turn into a fearful, blubbering mound and surrender my satchel full of hard-won evidence of the crimes of the Cogswell Trio (plus one). He didn’t know I was no ordinary delivery-stooge. If there was going to be a fight, I was willing to let him attack first. Which he did… he just didn’t attack me.

Steam Eater #3 held out his left hand in the direction of an approaching trolley, which shuddered to a premature halt. I felt the wind rise and knew what was coming next. Immediately, the trolley sounded as if it were about to rattle itself to pieces. The handful of riders on board leapt off as if the streetcar were on fire (ironic since, in fact, all of the heat in the machine was actually being pulled out of it). Tubes and pipes ruptured, rivets flew like tiny missiles and the trolley’s boiler went off like a bomb… a bomb with a large chunk of ice left in the middle.

I had learned a few things in the hours previous to my encounter with #3. He and his friends didn’t just absorb heat, they stored it and could use it to hurt people like me… hurt them a lot. I was also reminded of how incredibly unwise it was for me to attempt directed flight, my previous effort having resulted in a plentiful amount of embarrassment. However, there was one maneuver I was willing to try. I had one more flight left in me.

#3 was clearly invigorated, he even looked slightly taller. “Ahhhhhhhh! Zat is soooo much better! Now I truly feel zat I can break you in two.”

Taking a solid hold of the lapels of his jacket, I launched us skyward, straight up, until I saw rooftops. Then, I simply let him go. His accent being a bit thick, there are any number of indelicate expletives he could have been shouting at me as he fell, but I couldn’t tell what they were. I tried not to take it personally.

I had hoped the fall would at least render my foe unconscious, but I was focusing on ensuring a softer landing for myself and it wasn’t until I was safely back on the ground that I noticed #3 wasn’t where he should have landed. I looked around and started to wonder: Do Steam Eaters bounce?

“YOU VILL PAY FOR ZAT!!” #3 was shouting at me from the train platform as he got into the cab of a train that had been sitting idle at the station. I had noticed the engine earlier when I arrived at the Excelsior. There seemed to be something odd about it, but I was too preoccupied to consider it more carefully. Paying closer attention, I could clearly see the curious attachments and instruments on the engine’s exterior. Even stranger, smoke was billowing from its chimney, but there was no coal car attached to it, no obvious source of fuel. Beyond that, there was the fact that it was a train on tracks and, therefore, a limited threat once I stepped away onto the sidewalk.

“What’s he gonna do, run me over?” I wondered aloud.

“Among uzzer tings,” came the answer through a loudspeaker mounted on the engine.

“You can hear me? There’s a microphone on that thing?”

“Of course zere is a microphone! Vhat is za point of running over people vhen you can not hear za bones snapping?”

“Now that’s a well equipped train.”

“You haf no idea!”

The engine began to shudder and shake, very much like the trolley. For a moment, I wondered why he would be destroying his own train. I did not expect mechanized armatures to pop out of the left and right sides of the boiler — each one supporting a large, fully loaded Gatling gun.

And I certainly did not expect the entire engine to rise up on six mechanical legs and chase me down Abney Parkway. It looked like an enormous black ant. With guns.

Indiscriminant sprays of gunfire sent the few remaining spectators running for cover. I remained the key target… shooting at random strangers was simply #3’s idea of a good time.

I ran toward City Hall, hoping the metal monster would not be able to negotiate the steps. As it turns out, the machine was tall enough to shoot at me without climbing the steps. I tried to take cover in the Athenaeum, but, for some reason, the doors were locked that day. Another volley of bullets drove me into what I thought was an alley between the Athenaeum and the warehouse next door, but there was no outlet. I had managed, at least, to find a sufficiently narrow space where the surprisingly agile, but still train-engine-sized, death machine could not go. I knew it was no good to try and reason with a snarling maniac piloting his steam-driven mechanical terror, but trapped between a rock and an Athenaeum, for a brief moment, it seemed a logical course of action.

“It’s no good, you know,” I shouted at the machine’s conductor. “I’ve already beaten two of you frosty buggers! And we already know you’re not the last one! Your secret’s out: Everyone knows there are really four of you!”

“Five, actually. Von of our ‘brozzers’ has decided not to take part in our little venture.”

“Running his own racket, is he?”

“You might say zat… He is an Episcopal priest.” There was another spray of gunfire, bullets ricocheting dangerously off of the outer walls of the warehouse. “Und you know, it really is for za best. He is a tenor and vhat za Trio needs is a good bass baritone. Our arrangements seem so limited vizzout von.” More bullets.

“Anything else you’d like to confess?”

“I can tell you anyzing, ya? Vhy not? You are going to be a stain on ze sidevalk soon!” More rat-tat-tat. “As a boy, I flooded my school’s cafeteria and let za cook take za blame! Anyvon who tickled me could make me vet myself until I vas 13! My muzzer screwed za butcher to get discounted steaks! I vas za von who got Stephanie Veisencracker pregnant! I framed my fazzer for my first contract killing! I haf library books zat are six years overdue! I HAF BEEN VEARING ZA SAME UNDERVEAR FOR THREE DAYS AND YOU ARE NOT VORTH ZIS AGGRAVATION!! GET OUT IN ZE OPEN AND DIE ALREADY, YOU [CENSORED] BASTARRRRRRRRRD!!!!” Many, many, many more bullets are sent my way.

Apparently, at least some emotional stability is needed to be a successful mutant extortionist. Fortunately for me, #3 was in very short supply. In the middle of his soliloquy, I could feel the wind picking up in an unnatural fashion. Shortly after reaching the “rude names” portion of his rant, the mechanical train monster flew to pieces. I came out from behind the Athenaeum to inspect the wreckage. I didn’t think the driver was dead, but I was reasonably sure he was unconscious.

A new problem presented itself: With the shooting over, people were going to come by with questions that were inconvenient for me to answer at that moment. The solution was, as it so often seems to be, in the sewers.

As it became clear that the machine gunning portion of the afternoon had ended, people did indeed begin to gather around the wreckage of the six-legged train. When the crowd seemed sufficiently large, I was able to slip away unnoticed, find the nearest manhole cover and go underground. It was an ideal getaway: A quick and discrete escape with no one to tell which way I was going, even if the price was a soggy pair of socks.

I headed east for several blocks until finally emerging near the port where none other than Audrey the time-girl was lounging on the steps of The Curious Seamstress.

“Hey, sheik!” she said, watching me climb out of the sewer. “Having a busy day, are we?”

“I’m sure you heard the explosions. You tell me.”

“Babbage when it sizzles, baby! A day without explosions, gunplay and giant, deadly mechanoids is like…”

“… a day without shoes soaked in sewer water?”

“Speaking of accessories, what about that little party favor I brought you?”

“I haven’t found a need for it yet. Which is not surprising considering I don’t even know what it is.”

“You still have it right?”

“Of course.” I opened up my messenger bag and reached inside. All of the documents seemed to be there, but it was only then that I noticed the bag had taken several bullet hits leaving a number of holes in it. Slightly panicked that I did not immediately see a pink purse, I poked a finger through one of the holes.

“Well there’s a fine how-do-you-do!” said Audrey. “I haven’t even known you a whole day, and already you’re giving me the finger!”

 

Next (and last), Part 4: Communicative Normalization In Response to Nonlinear Macro Heterogeneity: A Sequential Equilibrium Analysis, The Musical

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Tepic Harlequin Tepic Harlequin September 30, 2010

    Blimey! there i was, leaning against the warehouse wall, when just round the corner there was all this noise an smoke an stuff, an a couple of blokes using VERY bad language!  An i think one of em said he was a priest, too! Anyhow, after a bit, there was a loud bang, an bits of machine came whizzing by, including a bit that looked like a load of rifles all in a ring…..   well, no one was looking, an it were a bit heavy, but i managed to lug it over to a manhole an down into the sewers to one of my stashes.  Dunno what i’m gonna do with it, but might be useful sometime….

  2. Arconus Arkright Arconus Arkright October 1, 2010

    And the ammo! Don’t forget to salvage the ammo!

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