Forthcoming Steampunk (and a bit free to read)

A couple of months ago, I signed a contract with Musa Publishing for my novella Murder on the Titania, which will be coming out in early 2013. It’s a story that involves the same characters and world as The Jade Tiger, my short story that appeared in Penumbra  vol 1 issue 6.

I’m excited (and slightly terrified – this is the first time in my life I’ve signed a contract for a story I haven’t yet written, let alone four of them!) to tell you that there are going to be even more stories about Captain Ramos and Mr. Simms!

Also coming in 2013 will be:
The Ugly Tin Orrery
The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz (and Her Exceedingly Tiny Dog)
Blood in Peyote Creek
Do Shut Up, Mr. Simms

I shall give you more details as they come.

If you’re curious about Captain Ramos and Mr. Simms, there’s also a story that’s free to read! Last year I wrote this adventure for the Machine of Death 2 anthology. My story didn’t make the cut, unfortunately, but I’d rather it be available for the reading than languishing on my hard drive.

Story is below the jump. Enjoy!

INFECTION

Being outside the fence was a nerve-wracking, dangerous thing, and with each passing second as the sun sank toward the steep granite ridge of the mountains, it became more dangerous. Meriwether Octavian Simms – simply “Simms” to his colleagues – moved quietly along the perimeter, boot soles cushioned by a thick padding of green pine needles, only straying far enough to check his snares and the small piles of stones that acted as message drop points. Behind him, the fence was a living presence, emitting an unending hum that was felt in the air rather than heard, though every now and then a leaf or twig would touch on the wires and explode with a loud pop.

Every few steps, Simms paused and listened, holding his breath. The Infected rarely had the mental acuity necessary to stalk prey; if there were any nearby, he would hear them long before he saw them.

As he stopped to retrieve a luckless rabbit from a snare, movement accompanied by the crack of a twig caught his attention. He dropped the limp rabbit on the ground and drew his pistol, his other hand resting on the machete that Captain Ramos always insisted he carry despite the fact he was rubbish with blades.

But the sound didn’t move toward him, and didn’t carry the aimless quality of the Infected. Cautiously, he moved forward, ducking around a tree to catch sight of a young man in dirt-encrusted clothes leaning against a tree. He was pale, his hair smeared down across his head with sweat, but there was no visible sign of blood.

Simms, always a little too tenderhearted for his own good, hissed, “Oy! You, boy! What the hell are you doing out here?”

The young man jerked around to face Simms. His eyes, surrounded with bruised circles, were red as if he’d been crying. “Stay back!” he shouted.

“Quiet!” Simms hissed. “Or you’ll get us both killed. Come with me, boy. Evening’s coming and you don’t want to be caught outside.”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s too late for me anyway.” His shoulders began to shake, a curious mixture of laughter and sobs burbling from his throat. “Might as well get it over with.”

The young man broke into a run, diving into the pine trees. He was out of sight almost immediately, his crashing footsteps echoing through the valley.

Simms hissed a curse, lurching forward out of instinct but stopping himself before he broke into a run as well. Chasing someone out into the woods at any time was stupidity; with the sun a bare sliver topping the ridge, it would be suicide.

He noticed something fluttering on the ground where the young man had paused, and walked over to pick it up. It was a scrap of paper, dirt-stained and crumpled. In black ink and mechanical lettering, there was only one word: INFECTION.

#

The marquee, lit yellow-white by the steady flare of gas and sodium, read: WEDNESDAY – DR. BIRRENBAUM’S ENGINE OF MEDICAL MARVELS. The letters making up “medical” and “marvels” had been dusted with specially cut glass that caught the light and sparkled.

And, despite the fact that that had been the title on the marquee every Wednesday for nearly two months, the street outside the theater was packed, men and women in their Sunday best waiting impatiently to purchase five penny tickets.

“I’ll lay you a wager that this is simple fraud, and a waste of my time,” Marta Ramos murmured to her companion, leaning back to avoid the elbow of a rather portly man that smelled strongly of garlic.

“You didn’t have to come along, Cap–” Simms cut his words off with his teeth as Captain Ramos stepped very precisely on his foot. For all that her disguise had required she wear fashionable shoes, he was beginning to think that said shoes had been designed by a weaponsmith of some sort.

“I’d rather you not bring me to anyone’s attention if it’s all the same to you, Mr. Simms,” she hissed in his ear. “Giving the good Colonel’s pride a tweak by escaping his prison for the fourth time might be good for a lark, but it’s not the sort of entertainment I’m after tonight. So do be careful.”

“Yes, Miss Elizabeth, I’ll be more careful for that.” He didn’t think Marta looked much like an Elizabeth, but she also didn’t look much like herself at the moment. Blonde wig, white powder turning her brown skin fashionably pale, enough padding to make her aristocratically plump, and a carefully crafted slouch that made her a full half foot shorter than him despite the three inch heels on her shoes had turned the Captain into a completely different person. One that could pass unnoticed in such a crowd as this, which was really the point. “As I was saying, ’twas the work of your own curiosity.”

She didn’t answer, which meant that he had either won, or she was just ignoring him as normal.

Simms sighed quietly to himself. There were a lot of things he could have been doing with his night; he wasn’t precisely excited about being in the Grand Duchy of Denver, where he, too, was wanted by the law, if in a much vaguer and more disinterested way than the Captain. But the red, tear-wrung eyes and despairing laugh of that young man still haunted him. He’d made some inquiries on his own here and there, showing off that scrap of paper until someone mentioned the name ‘Dr. Birrenbaum’ to him. At which point he’d told Captain Ramos the entire story, because she’d been starting to get that look again, the one that said she was bored and terrible things were going to start happening if that condition wasn’t seen to soon. And fraud or no fraud, the Engine of Medical Marvels seemed like a diversion.

At the little ticket stand, a richly carved wooden structure that had since lost most of its paint, Marta carefully counted ten pennies from her ridiculous beaded purse and slipped them to Simms so that he could pay. The smoky, heated atmosphere inside smelled a little too much of the crowd, along with the scent of sausages and fried bread that some of their fellow audience members ate. That, in Simms’ experience, was simply how theaters were, a press of curious people warming up a large wooden box before the limelights were started and the heat really got going. But the sound of the crowd was off, a mix of laughter and gaiety with an almost hysterical edge to it, coupled with murmurings of sober worry. It was the sort of attitude that came with the Grand Duke making some sort of portentous announcement about the state of the fences or the possibility of an outbreak, not a presumably fun evening out with friends.

“Do you hear it?” he murmured in Marta’s ear.

“I do.” She made an impatient shushing movement with one hand, tilting her head ever so slightly toward the couple next to them.

“But my brother said the Engine told him the same thing, even after he quit his job at the foundry,” the woman of the pair said. She rested her hand, gloved in emerald green silk, on the sleeve of a man who was presumably her husband. “It may be better not to ask.”

The man shook his head. He had a long mouth, drawn into a frown, and the downcast expression was only accentuated by his muttonchops. “If I never go near the docks again, I can’t imagine how a crane will drop something on me. I will prove it to you, dearest.”

“But we can’t know…”

The rest of what the woman said was lost in a roar of applause as the limelights turned on with a crackling hiss. The purple velvet curtain that obscured the stage rose, revealing Dr. Birrenbaum, and what could only be his Engine of Medical Marvels.

The doctor was exactly what one might expect from his name; an older gentleman with iron-gray hair and an impeccable goatee and mustache. He wore a spotless black suit with tails and white gloves. The Engine itself was a monstrosity of engineering, gears and tubes and cranks, all done in shining brass and well-polished wood. It was as tall as the doctor, and twice as wide, levers and dials projecting out in all directions.

Simms glanced at Marta; the machine certainly had her attention, a contemplative frown pursing her lips and putting the faintest of wrinkles into her forehead. She drummed the fingers of one hand against her leg, something she did when deep in thought.

“My dear ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming out tonight, thank you most kindly,” Dr. Birrenbaum said from the stage. “By now, I suspect most of you know of the Engine of Medical Marvels – that is why you’re here, after all, told by your friends and colleagues or whispered rumors of its mysterious powers. What would you know… of your future? Would you know how many children you will have? What sort of wealth you can accumulate? Are you truly brave enough to dare – to dare, gentlemen, for it may be too agonizing for the delicate sensibilities of your ladies – to find out how you will die? Who will dare?”

Half the crowd surged to their feet, men and women alike, hands waving frantically.

Dr. Birrenbaum laughed pleasantly. “Now, now… we have only limited time, and there is but one Engine of Medical Marvels. My assistants will move through the crowd, and we shall pick as many of you at random as we can, just please stay standing.”

Sober young men dressed in surgical frocks moved through the audience, picking a person here and there and then leading him or her to the stage. Marta and Simms watched intently as these various subjects were asked what they wished to know, and then told to pull this lever or step on that pressure plate or turn this wheel anti-clockwise for one purpose and clockwise for another.

Dr. Birrenbaum raised his hands. “Ladies and Gentlemen! We have a brave soul that does not fear his death, and wishes to know more about it! Will you give him your attention?” The audience went dead silent as the doctor turned to a nervous young man wearing a tweed jacket that had seen better days, frayed at the edges and patched on both elbows. He had a battered hat clutched in one hand, his light brown hair cropped short and standing out in all directions. “If you please, good sir, your hand,” the doctor said. He took the man’s wrist. “To calculate your fate, the Engine requires a bit of your essence, what is dearest to you – a few drops of blood. If you will allow me…” The young man murmured something affirmative, and the doctor produced a vial and a small razor from his pocket. One assistant rushed forward to help him; they pricked the man’s finger and filled the little vial part way before the assistant cleaned the wound and bound it up with a tiny white bandage.

A little murmur of discontent rippled through the crowd, a tinge of disgust coupled with excitement. Blood, as everyone knew, was the vector of Infection – seeing it so blatantly displayed on stage was both frightening and titillating.

“And now,” the doctor said, the vial now hidden in his hand, “let us ask the Engine what fate it will calculate!” He opened a little drawer in the device and tucked the vial in, then closed it. “Sir, if you will be so good as to pull this lever, then turn this wheel like so… yes, anti-clockwise… and all shall be revealed.”

At the lever pull, there was an odd feeling in the air, a hum that seemed almost subliminal. Simms hazarded a glance over at the Captain, wondering if she heard it – or, to be more accurate, felt it – but she gave no sign; the necessity of slouching momentarily forgotten, she sat up stiff and straight in her seat, attention fixed on the stage.

The young man turned the wheel, and a mechanical chatter began that would have been far too quiet to hear had the theater still not been silent. A strip of paper fed from a brass-lined slot just above the wheel. When the strip was a few inches long, the chatter of gears ceased, and Dr. Birrenbaum said, “There’s a good man, you can stop now. Let’s see what the Engine has to say for you…” He tore the strip off and examined it. “Ladies and gentlemen… I beg your indulgence for a little macabre amusement, but this young man’s fate has been calculated as… SILVER TEA SPOON AND TWO LUMPS.”

The audience erupted in hoots and cheers. Marta sat back with a quiet huff, then turned a narrow-eyed look on Simms. “This is quite ridiculous.”

“It may be a little, at that,” Simms said. “But we paid our pennies, might as well see what else there is.”

“Please, a round of applause for this brave soul… and here sir, your death, to keep as a souvenir. Who will be next?”

And with that first, seemingly silly death, there were indeed more brave souls to follow – many of them, Simms noted, so brave that they were willing to slip money into the hands of the ushers for the privilege. The deaths that followed were equally amusing, the audience so caught up in gaiety that they no longer fell silent for the taking of a blood sample, and there were even cat calls and teasing shouts directed at the men – for it was all men – who tried. There was FERRY BOAT and UNBUCKLED SHOE and UNDERDONE CHRISTMAS ROAST; there was even a BELOVED WIFE – that caused some rather rowdy cheering – and PEACEFUL SLEEP. The man who sat next to them even made it to stage, and had his death reaffirmed as CARGO CRANE WITH LADIES’ CLOTHES; despite the cheers that got, he was pale-faced as he left the stage. Then at last, a single woman made it to the front of the theater. She made a show of good cheer as her blood was taken, and she turned the Engine’s wheel with no delicate act of finding it difficult.

“And you, mistress… oh, I am sorry for this. And I am sorry to anyone with a delicate constitution in the audience. The fate the Engine has calculated for you is… INFECTION!”

Gasps, murmurs, and then the crowd went silent. The woman put a brave enough face on; she took her paper and folded it into her glove, then left the stage with her back straight and shoulders back, not a tear in sight. As she passed through the crowded theater, people parted before her, as if afraid that she might already bear the Infection and be ready to kill with a touch.

The show ended soon after that; no one had the sense of adventure necessary to try out the Engine’s morbid predictions after one that hit so close to home. There was one last round of applause, and then down the curtain came, the ushers beginning to shoo people from the theater.

Marta made no sign that she was prepared to move, her thumb resting firmly against her lips.

“Well?” Simms said, standing. “What do you think? Ca—Miss Elizabeth?”

She glanced up, then held out her hand so he could help her stand – not because she needed the help, of course, but because that was the sort of behavior expected from a lady. “I think that man is a charlatan, and that many people will suffer needlessly because of his fraud – like the young man you encountered. And I wish a private conversation with the Engine of Medical Marvels.”

Simms nodded. “I thought you’d say that. I’ve half a mind to just talk to the man, myself. Awful of him, to go scaring people like that.”

“Once we’ve had a look at his machine, then we may decide what justice ought to be dispensed.” Marta tapped her chin with one long finger. “I wish to understand the mechanism he uses, considering that there was provably one person who has received the exact same prediction twice. Mr. Simms, if you please, go mill about with the crowd, make your way to a few taverns and see what else is being said about this Engine.”

“And what’ll you be doing, while I’m off pretending to drink?” He grimaced; Marta knew that he hadn’t touched a drop in years. He was fairly certain she gave him tasks like this just to mess with his mind.

“I’ll be making other observations and preparations. I’ll meet you at the Blue Duck in… two hours. I think that will be sufficient time.”

He sighed and plopped his hat onto his head. “As you like, Miss.”

#

Simms found little new in the taverns, where he generously bought drinks and joined in some singing while he searched for conversations to eavesdrop in on. It was more of the same sort of stories he’d gotten when he first inquired about the paper scrap reading “INFECTION” – so-and-so had their death prediction confirmed two or three or even four times, someone’s Uncle had been predicted to die from “FLOWERS” and had indeed met his end when a large flower pot was dropped from a third story window and on to his head. The curious thing Simms found was that there were no stories to the contrary, no anecdote where a person could claim the prediction had been wrong – those who tried were corrected with a slight re-interpretation of the words, which were often vague to begin with.

Stomach churning from two hours spent surrounded in an almost overwhelming haze of beer, it was a disquieted Simms who went to the Blue Duck down by the air docks, and it was a much transformed Marta who met him there. She’d changed her outfit entirely, dressed now as a common laborer in a suit jacket that had obviously been handed down through a generation and likely hadn’t been washed in that time. Her mass of curly brown hair was hidden under a disreputable bowler hat, and, “I do wish you’d play your men clean shaven,” Simms said, staring in to his tea cup. The surface of the tea had a faintly oily sheen, and he wished he hadn’t. “It’s just disturbing.”

“Only because you don’t accept the role I play. It certainly fools everyone else well enough.” Marta sat, gently patting the scraggly goatee that decorated her chin. “Did you find anything of interest?”

“If the word on the street has any truth to it, the Engine’s the genuine article. Never changes a prediction no matter how many times you go back, and is never wrong even if it’s a bit vague.”

She snorted loudly. “People remember that which confirms and forget that which does not.”

“If you say so.” Simms gave her narrow-eyed look. “And did you spend your two hours well?”

“Well enough. They took the Engine from the theater as soon as the crowds had cleared off, and it went straight to the Grand Duke’s palace.”

Simms choked on his mouthful of tea.

“Which is interesting, since I hadn’t known a fellow like Dr. Birrenbaum would have friends in such high places. It lowers my opinion of the Duke, and I hadn’t really thought that possible.”

Beating a fist against his own chest helped clear his airway enough to ask, hoarsely, “So I guess we’ll be waiting until next week, when it’s taken out again?”

“Don’t be daft. We’ve got the supplies and the time. We’ll go in tonight.”

“You’re not joking.”

“I’m deadly serious. I haven’t broken in to the palace since the his royal stuffiness got rid of his last security chief. I’ll be interested to see if Colonel Douglas has improved things at all.”

“You’re mad.”

“I know.” Marta stood up. “Now come along, there’s a good chap.”

#

The enormous palace the Grand Duke occupied was surrounded by a massive wall, and street lamps that filled the area with white light, making the nearby streets almost bright as day and cutting the shadows deeply. It was into one of those shadows, a deep set doorway that afforded them a view of the front gates, that Marta took them. “The lights are new. They weren’t here the last time I passed through Denver.”

“It’s going to take more than just scaling a wall this time.”

“Perhaps the sewers, though I’d like to leave those as a last resort. They’re quite unpleasant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the good Colonel has seen to the more obvious entry points anyway.” She frowned, then said, “Let’s go around to the west gate. I have an idea.”

The west gate was smaller and much less ostentatious, as the entrance for deliveries, servants, and other ordinary persons. It was not, however, any less well-guarded or well lit. The two sheltered in the doorway of a church. “Doesn’t look much more likely,” Simms observed.

“On the contrary. Direct your gaze past the lamps.”

The wide bottoms of the kitchen chimneys were visible, their tops retreating in to darkness. “Chimneys. And?”

“How far away do you think they are?”

“Not very. Three hundred feet, maybe?”

“A bit more than that, I think, but still well within range.”

“In range? Oh no. No, no. No, you are not making me do this.”

“I have no interest in making you do anything, Simms. You can stay behind in the belfry, if you like,” Marta said calmly.

That didn’t even bear consideration, knowing the sort of trouble she might cause without a steady hand at her back. “And then once we’re in, how do you propose we get out?” Simms demanded.

“It’s always easier to leave than it is to enter. We’ll just black up our faces with coal dust and leave by the west gate. Servants often keep irregular hours.”

“You’re mad.”

“And if you’re just going to repeat the obvious, Simms, you might as well save us both the time.”

#

The plan required a quick jaunt to a warehouse where Marta kept a cache of tools, clothing, and a myriad of gadgets. Simms was made to change into a more appropriate set of clothes, which smelled a bit of mildew and didn’t fit quite right, but would do perfectly for the role. Marta also used a tiny little steam engine, fueled with gas siphoned from the mains in the street, to pressurize a canister of air, which she loaded into something that looked like an elephant gun.

“Only one round?” Simms had asked.

“If we miss the first time, I don’t think we’ll get a chance for a second attempt.” She’d handed him a large grappling hook, surprisingly light for its size, and took up a coil of silk rope. “To that end, I think you’d better take the shot. You’re a much better marksman than I.”

“That, I won’t argue with.” Simms hefted the gun, trying to imagine shooting such a heavy missile from it. “Are the sights adjusted to compensate for this… projectile?”

“They should be.” She hesitated. “I’ll get another canister up to pressure. Take it out into the alley and fire it to get a feel.”

A broken window and a terrified drunkard later, they were on their way back to the church.

The belfry at the top of the church, redolent with droppings and a few dead birds, afforded a lovely view of the chimneys, though the tops were still a bit hard to make out. Not worried about his borrowed clothes, Simms knelt in the muck and steadied the heavy gun against the windowsill. “Feels like old times. Though I don’t think the Rangers would ever consider firing a gun this ugly.”

Marta laughed. “Can you make the shot?”

“Not too much of a breeze. So good a chance as any.” He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Have a backup plan if this fails and we have to run for it?”

“At the moment, my backup plan is for you not to miss. I’ll think of something else if chance requires it.”

“Right.” Another deep breath, and he sank into that quiet center that he’d learned years ago as a marksman. Even a lifetime away from his youthful adventures, it was still habit. He sighted carefully on the closest of the chimneys, adjusted for the light breeze, and then let out his breath as he squeezed the trigger.

Even expecting it, the kick from the gun sent him flat, his shoulder throbbing. “I think,” he said, staring up at the feces-crusted bronze church bell, “that you must have put more pressure in this one.”

“I may have.” Marta busily reeled the rope back, then yanked on it when it stopped. The line sang with tension, but held even when she put her full weight against it. “But a good shot, Mr. Simms, a good shot indeed.” She pulled a sack from under her coat and retrieved two pulley assemblies, flicking them together around the rope and hanging a strap from each. “Ready?”

He set the gun down and gave his shoulder one last good rub. “As I’ll ever be.”

It was all Simms could do to keep his teeth clenched around a scream as he slid along the rope, far faster than he would have liked. He had the presence of mind to bring up his legs and stop himself with them before he actually ran in to the chimney; the shock set his back screaming in protest. From there, it was a perilous hang and shuffle around the top of the chimney until came to the rungs bolted to the side, there for the convenience of chimney sweeps. Marta followed him a few moments later, the grappling hook dangling from her belt. “We should be able to reel the rope up back at the belfry now. I’d rather the good Colonel not find out about this particular route any time soon.”

“Next time you take this route, feel free to leave me behind.”

Down the side of the chimney they went, breeze tugging at their hair and coats. From there it was easy enough to get in to the palace; what few doors were locked, Marta made short work of with the lock picks she always carried in her belt.

Once inside, they became more cautious, creeping along back hallways where only servants went, always listening for the sound of approaching footsteps. While they might pass as coal shovelers from the boiler room, they were a long way from that location, and explaining themselves would be awkward indeed, particularly since they were still both quite clean.

Away from the kitchens and into the dark expanse of the Grand Duke’s formal residence they crept. The lamps in the servant’s halls were dimmed, since it was unlikely for anyone to be active without a party going on. Simms simply followed Marta, trusting that she had an idea where she was going and knew the layout of the palace well enough to get there.

Though they may have crossed their own path a time or two, she eventually had them at a drawing room, the entrance to it in the plain back hallway marked with a little piece of card. Marta signaled Simms to turn the lamp on one side of the door down while she turned down the other.

Light shone in from under the door. Silently, Marta crouched, as close to the door crack as she could get, head tilted so her ear almost rested against the door. Simms followed suit, barely daring to breathe as he listened.

“—for waiting up for me, Dr. Birrenbaum.” A deep voice, familiar, though it sounded a bit odd when not being magnified by the acoustics of the grand balcony.

“My pleasure, your royal highness,” the doctor said.

“Let us be swift. I’ve an early morning tomorrow.”

“As you wish, highness. Though… I hesitate to say this, but the Engine has yet to change a prediction.”

“If it will change for anyone at all, it will change for me.” A pause, then the sound of the lever being pulled, the wheel being turned. The chatter of gears within the machine ceased quickly, and then the soft sound of paper tearing.

“Ah, I am sorry, highness…”

The Grand Duke laughed, the sound bitter. “Some day, the result will be different, my good doctor. I will not be laid low by such a common thing. Or I will know the reason why.”

“If only I could change it…”

“Save whatever you were going to say next. Your neck’s not at risk, so long as you keep your lips sealed.”

The doctor then delivered a most unctuous goodnight, which the Grand Duke barely acknowledged. The sound of a door closing, and Dr. Birrenbaum said quite distinctly, “At times I regret building you, you infernal machine.” Then the light from the room dropped to nothing and the other door open and shut again.

Simms opened his mouth to ask her a question and she only shook her head, taking her watch from her pocket. Only after five minutes had crawled by did she open the door into the dark drawing room. She pulled several pillows from the rich couches arranged about the room and stuffed them against the door, then signaled Simms to turn the lamps up enough for her to work by.

“That was interesting,” Simms commented quietly as Marta took a few tools from her little bag.

“Interesting indeed. I wonder what the machine had to say. You’d think its creator would have more care with the Duke.” Each movement efficient, she began to remove screws and bolts, laying them out on the floor in careful order. “From the duration of the sound, all I can really say is that the result was a prediction nine letters long.”

“Well, that narrows things down.”

She opened her mouth as if to laugh, but allowed no sound to escape. “Be my ears please, Simms. If I’m to get this done quickly, I must put all my concentration to it.”

Simms did as she asked, focusing mostly on the servant’s hall. Listening with all his might still left his eyes free, and he watched Marta rapidly remove all the outer coverings of the machine with great interest. Once the cogs and wheels that made the Engine’s innards were visible, she began gently working levers and turning wheels, examining every movement the machine made and nodding to herself. She waved Simms over. “These functions are as I suspected. A lever is pulled a wheel turned here… it uses a very simple principle to generate a number with something close to randomness. See this contraption here? It puts a variable spin on this wheel –” which was marked with the numbers one through twelve “–to ‘predict’ the number of children.” She smiled, pocketing a handful of screws. “They ought to malfunction quite spectacularly upon the next intended use.”

“So it is all a fraud,” Simms said. “What a horrible man. Is the engineering the same for the portion that predicts death?”

“I’m not quite done.” Marta turned her attention to the little slot that received the blood sample, following thin copper pipes deep into the Engine’s belly.

Simms retreated to his position by the door, though he was so fascinated by the random way Marta twitched her feet as she wormed deeper into the machine that he almost missed the faint sound of footsteps. He froze, whispering a quick, “All quiet!”

One foot pressed against the carpet for balance and the other at a strange angle, the Captain froze.

Out in the hall, the footsteps became louder, two sets, accompanied by merry voices, a man and a woman, the tone both drunk and flirtatious. They paused at the door, the man saying, “Oh, we can just use this room, no one’ll know…” then the sound of a hand fumbling against metal and wood.

Simms clenched his teeth around a curse, lurching forward as quietly as he could to grab the door handle, stretched out precariously like a runner frozen as he surged from the starting line. The handle jerked against his hand, but he’d trained himself to hold against the controls of steamships and engines, kicking guns, and one enthusiastic toddler. A drunk wasn’t going to move him.

The man gave up after an eternity that was in reality only a few seconds, muttering, “Oh, I guess it’s locked. Well, my room’s not too much farther…” The voices moved away.

Simms let go of the handle and sagged to the floor, fighting the urge to giggle. By the time he’d gotten himself back under control, Captain Ramos was once again in motion.

Contorting herself in a strange way to see around a large cog, she reached deep into the machine and unscrewed something. A moment later, she pulled out a strange blue crystal, its faces twinned in odd ways. She crept over to where he crouched by the door and showed it to him. “This was at the center of the death prediction mechanism. There were other devices around it, arranged to sample some sort of output from this crystal, and then I surmise to translate it into a written output using printing press letters mounted on a wheel.”

Simms stared at the crystal; he reached out to touch it, then pulled his hand back before he was within a few inches. “But what does it do?”

“Perhaps generate more randomness. Perhaps not. I admit I am intrigued.” She tucked it into her bag. “This, we will take home and test.” She returned to the machine and began to reassemble its outside.

#

As the Captain had said, leaving was far easier than arriving. They made a side trip to the enormous basement where the palace’s coal stores were kept, and blacked themselves up well by rolling around on the floor. After that, it was simple enough to leave by the west gate.

Simms had many things to take care of when he got home: a young daughter to see to, supplies that he’d acquired during their trip to distribute, and perhaps most importantly, a long bath followed by a longer night of sleep. By the time he’d finally gotten the last of the coal dust scrubbed from under his fingernails, the other residents of Devil’s Roost were beginning to mutter about Captain Ramos’ new obsession – blood samples. And while they dealt with her other little ways normally with a shrug and a, “Some people are just a bit odd,” blood was another matter entirely.

Deep in the remodeled silver mine, he knocked on the door to the Captain’s work room, then let himself in without waiting for an answer since she normally ignored knocks anyway. Marta spared him the briefest of glances before hunching back over her work table, one hand scratching busily away at a pad of paper with a pen. “You’re disturbing the normal folk, Captain,” Simms said.

“I’m doing nothing of the sort. I’ve been in my lab all day.”

“Blood samples?”

“Oh, that. It’s only blood, Simms. Nothing untoward.”

He sighed. “Even if there’s no vector about, it gives everyone a bad feeling. Please tell me you’ve gotten all you need?”

Marta sighed in perfect mockery of him. “If you insist. I think I’ve got the principle understood now anyway. Come over here and give me your hand.”

He did as he was told, and wasn’t as all surprised when she pricked his finger roughly with a pin and squeezed some blood out onto the blue crystal. It was hooked to a conical metal structure with a series of wires and tuning forks. Two things happened simultaneously: the blood drops seeped in to the crystal’s face, disappearing in an instant, and the crystal began to vibrate, a distinct series of musical chords feeding from the metal cone.

“Well, that’s interesting,” he said, prying his hand away. He yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped his finger up. “Sounds almost nice, doesn’t it? Soothing.”

“Most of the time. And I’ve tested every bit of blood I could get my hands on; it’s not different for every single person, but there is significant variation. And it does indeed emit the same series of vibrations when given the same blood sample.”

Simms glanced at her hand; there were several bits of tape on each of her fingers. “So it’s real.”

“Though I haven’t theorized the mechanism yet, it is indeed real. With enough study, I could do as Dr. Birrenbaum did and translate these frequencies into words.” She sat back in her seat; the musical sounds emanating from the crystal faded in to silence. “So I suppose I was a bit hasty in calling him a complete fraud.”

Simms crossed his arms and tilted his chin toward the crystal. “If it’s a real thing, then you ought to destroy that. Hell, we ought to go back to the city, find the man’s plans, and burn those too.”

“His machine has been disabled, Simms.”

“For now. But what if he’s got another crystal? Or makes one?”

“Then the Engine of Medical Marvels will make its return.”

“And you don’t see the problem with that?” Simms demanded. “Now that you know that it is somehow real, that it can predict deaths? There are–”

She thrust a finger at his face, drawing up to her full height. “Don’t. You. Dare,” she hissed. “You were about to say that there are things man isn’t meant to know, and don’t you dare even think those words in my presence again, Simms, if you value your health.”

Simms took a step back, bringing his hands up defensively. He’d never seen the Captain in such a state of anger before, her normally cold demeanor gone in a flash of rage. “But there are people killing themselves over this nonsense!”

“Yes, and I suspect others are taking it as permission to live their lives more fully!” She stabbed her finger at Simm’s chest as if it was a sword. “I have issue if people are doing anything over the lies of a charlatan, but as it appears to be in the realm of fact it is no longer my concern! Considering I left their society because it is built entirely upon polite lie after polite lie, I admit to finding myself refreshed that anyone is being influenced by a truth at all!”

He threw up his hands. “Fine then, why don’t you build your own little Engine and find out how you’ll die? Since it sounds so lovely!”

She sat back down on her stool and laughed at him, throwing in an unladylike snort for good measure. “Oh Simms… so little in life comes as a surprise to me that I should like it if my death at least were unexpected.” She let out a few more giggles, then waved him away. “I can tell you’re still quite cross with me. Do take it elsewhere. I may have stolen this little object fair and square, but I refuse to maliciously destroy someone’s research just to score some sort of… philosophical point.”

“You are impossible!” Simms hissed, then turned on his heel and stomped from the room.

“Nothing is impossible,” Marta remarked to the empty workshop, folding her thin hands over her stomach. “Though I suspect I am highly improbable at times.”

#

They never spoke of the matter again, though Simms did always ask around when he was in the city, just a surreptitious inquiry here and there about the Engine of Medical Marvels or Dr. Birrenbaum. Neither made a reappearance, and he had to satisfy himself with the thought that the blue crystal was one of a kind, and now out of reach of anyone but Captain Ramos.

As she had said, she had no interest in recreating the Engine or its methods of communication. Instead, she made a more sophisticated construction of metal forks and precisely tuned wires and fitted the crystal in to it. And sometimes, before she drifted off to sleep, she would feed the contraption a drop of blood and listen to the soft, strangely beautiful music of her impending demise.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: