Shameless plug time!
As I’ve hinted at before, I’m in the process of writing a steampunk fantasy novel. It’s going quite well so far, and I hope to publish at least a version of it within the next few years. I’d like to share what I have so far with you readers, just in case, you know, you happen to be in the market for a new novel five years from now.
It takes place in the far, far distant future, when an unspecified incident has wiped out all civilization on Earth and people have had to rebuild from scratch. They’ve done so by creating a matriarchal, rigidly stratified society spread across the Archipelago (islands that used to be the eastern U.S., where the lower classes live) and the Mainland (Europe, which is for the rich). People travel from place to place very quickly in submarines (called “taxis”) and trains, but there is no air travel. In fact, no one is even allowed to try building something that could take humans closer to the sky, because it’s supposedly too dangerous. But something mysterious is starting to reach down from the sky to Earth, in the form of a disappearing tree and a strange man in a bowler hat.
The main character of the story, a young girl from the Archipelago named Mattie, encounters the strange man and “falls in love with the sky,” becoming fascinated by the idea of reaching it. The story follows her rocky attempts to discover what’s up there, despite all the obstacles thrown in her way by society, and her journey to becoming the “Great Matilda Faye.”
But, other than Mattie’s future nickname, which is established at the beginning, I don’t know how it ends yet! I don’t even have a title (titles are always my weak spot), so I’d welcome any ideas my faithful readers might have.
What I do have is a short story that takes place in the same universe as my novel, featuring a less important character. Here it is in full. (The title may give you a glimpse of my perpetual struggle with titles.)
Enjoy! Or don’t! Whatever!
From the Memoirs of Alice Bellamy, Esq. of the United Alpine States—strange incident concerning an Artifact from Above
Grandpa’s antique store had a most unusual item in a back corner. It had been there forever. It had whistles, bells, gears, wheels and secret drawers. Grandpa had no idea what it was or how it worked.
Like most things in my life, Proctor’s Curiosity Shop was anything but curious. The antique trinkets Grandpa sold to naïve tourists were dull, dirty, and broken in the most uninteresting ways. Except that machine.
It drew my attention when I entered Grandpa’s shop one day when I was twelve. My parents had left me with Grandpa while they toured the rest of Port City. Grandpa and I had tea on the counter at the front of the shop. Neither of us had much to say.
During a particularly awkward silence, I glanced at a dark corner to the left of the counter, and saw something odd.
It looked like a handcart built for a world with a different sort of physics. It had three wheels, all of different sizes, so that it looked like it would topple at the slightest touch. Five brass arms stretched out over its boxy frame, each one dangling a row of rusty bells. At the back, three organ-like pipes stuck up into the air.
But the drawers were the strangest thing. There were too many of them to be possible. Some had knobs or keyholes, while others were just squares cut out of the woodwork. They covered every inch of the “cart’s” square body. I knew some of them had to be false drawers—it would be impossible to fit that many compartments into such a small machine.
“Grandpa, what’s that?” I asked, pointing to the corner.
Grandpa looked up from his plate like someone waking from a deep sleep.
“Eh?” he replied. Then, seeing where I was pointing, he muttered, “Oh, that. That’s nothing,” and returned to his plate.
“What do you mean, nothing?” I asked.
“Funny bloke gave it to me last year. Can’t get no one to buy it, ‘cause I don’t know what it does. Bells won’t ring, drawers won’t open, wheels won’t turn. Worthless.”
I decided not to pursue the subject. But when Grandpa brought the dishes back to his rooms behind the counter, I walked to the corner where the machine sat. It looked even stranger up close.
But it was beautiful. I had, of course, grown up around machines—laundry turners, cleaning droids, taxis—but all their purposes had been obvious at a glance. This machine looked as though someone had welded it together for no reason at all, just for fun. I reached out to touch it.
The shop door slammed behind me. I spun around.
A small man in a purple suit and matching bowler hat stepped into the shop. He wore a neatly-trimmed moustache and carried a cane. He bowed to me.
“Felicitations!” he said. “Am I in the presence of Proctor, or offspring?”
“Uh…offspring,” I replied.
The man popped up from his bow and practically skipped over to the machine.
“This rare and fantastic device is mine,” he said, placing a hand on it. “I left it here once, but now I require it again. No trouble, is it?”
“Would you…like to speak with my Grandpa?” I asked.
The man seemed to consider this for a moment.
“No,” he said at last. “In this case, offspring is what’s needed. Your name, madam?”
“Alice,” I replied.
“Madam Alice,” he said, “Would you be so good as to ring the bells?”
He gestured to the ones on the machine. Puzzled, I dragged my hand across the first row. They were so rust-choked that they barely made a sound. The man lifted his eyebrows in a meaning way, so I rang the second row of bells. These let out a tinny tinkle. Each row seemed to get louder, until the fifth rang out as clearly as a clocktower.
Grandpa stumbled into the shop, but when he saw the small man, he stopped still.
The man inclined his head toward him slightly, then took hold of the largest wheel on the machine. He gave it a spin, and the machine began to hum. He spun the second wheel, and the humming grew louder. He spun the third wheel, and the whole contraption floated up, several feet off the ground.
The little man clapped his hands.
“Excellent!” he exclaimed. “Phase one of the noble experiment—underway!”
He turned to me.
“Thank you,” he said. “Now, would you kindly open that compartment near the top?”
The drawer to which he pointed had a brass keyhole.
“Why don’t you do it?” I asked. “I don’t have a key.”
“Ah yes, the keys,” he shook his head. “The keys are lost. Therefore, I cannot unclose it. Not in my current state. But I believe you can, Madam Alice.”
His stare unnerved me. Hesitating, I reached out and touched the knob on the drawer.
It sprang open. A wind blew through the open compartment, blowing my hair about my face. The pipes on the machine’s back let out one mighty note, and a tree branch shot out of the drawer, heavy with leaves. The wind smelled like rain on moss.
The man smiled and touched one of the leaves.
“A gateway to otherness,” he said. “That’s what this is. A portal to Above, Behind, and all the ways between.”
He looked at Grandpa.
“You never opened it, because you were concerned only with what it might do.”
Turning to me, he said, “In all the years my device has squatted in this shop, you were the only one who loved it merely for what it was. Without the keys, only such a one’s touch could open it. Gratitude.”
He bowed once more, hoisted himself onto the tree branch, and climbed along it until he disappeared into the drawer. The branch jerked back inside, the drawer shut, and the machine vanished.
“Well,” Grandpa said into the silence, “at least we’re rid of the bloody thing.”