Okay this one isn’t a Chuck Wendig Challenge story. This is a Steampunk short story, that’s a tad longer than 1,000 words (another 9,000 words longer!). (note: featured image by Matthew Stewart from http://digital-art-gallery.com/picture/10869)
I hope all my followers enjoy it!
Armistice Wells knew he was going to die today. He just had that feeling. His hand shook as he wrote the second, and final, note that he wrapped around the energy gun he always kept on him now, more for peace of mind than anything. His fingers shook as he tied the piece of string to secure the note onto his gun.
He sighed and strapped the gun securely into his harness, making sure not to accidentally hit any of the cables that kept his wings currently folded neatly on his back. He had always wanted to be a flier, and he was lucky, because his father had been one, and that’s how it worked. It ran in your family. He didn’t know of anyone who was a flier who didn’t love it. Armistice knew he would be unhappy in any other job. Flying was the one thing that made sense when you were on the top of the world – or at least the top of your world, where you lived, the only one that mattered. From the top, on a clear day you could see for miles in all directions across the United American Empire. When he was younger, he used to love to sit within the barriers, right up against the guard rail that protected you from the sheer drop, six tall levels, with the seventh hidden underground, and watch the airships glide by in the distance like swollen cocoons. He loved to watch them dock at the piers, one on each of the four sides of the city, and watch them unload their goods, like the sailors he read about. From the top of the city, he could just see a sliver of silver on the horizon that indicated the ocean.
But now, fifty years later, the airships had lost their appeal; they were nothing special, just an everyday occurrence. But flying never had. He loved the adrenaline rush of taking a running leap off the edge into nothingness, and letting the wings open up and out lifting you, with steam powered assistance if necessary, and then drifting downwards, to deliver your messages to the people below, in the Middle.
Armistice had loved his life, and his job, until he was snatched away from it all, like a butterfly caught in a net. He had believed once you were a flier, you were one forever. But the Elders at the ArcHive had different ideas. They said there were too many messengers, and that keeping the ArcHive going was more important, that it was above all else.
Armistice had seen the ArcHive buildings, of course. They dominated the middle of the topmost level of the city, where he lived. They were just like their name sake – a cluster of domes, like the hive of an insect, but inside was housed the history of the Empire. Not just the general histories – the wars, the Emperors, the Coalition, but the histories of every single living, breathing person, as they lived, their lives were recorded. Years ago it had been noted down in books by automatons, who would never tire, never cramp, never complain, and could download the information that was streamed from the tiny chips embedded in every person, the moment they were born, that recorded their lives, their experiences, as they lived. But the ArcHive quickly began to fill up with large, paper volumes. But then the Computing Machines were invented and information was transferred almost magically onto them, and whole volumes were saved onto paper thin discs that were shelved next to the ancient leather bound books.
Armistice had just about begun his run towards the edge of the building that didn’t have a barrier, the jumping off point for winged messengers, when a hand landed on his shoulder. He turned and looked into the hooded face of a robed Elder. He recognized him as being from the ArcHive. “We need your help,” the man said sombrely, managing somehow to turn Armistice away from his running path.
“Why me?” Armistice said, confusion creasing his features. His wings were still lowered across his back. He only had to press a single button to eject them outwards.
“The Fate of the Empire lies in our hands, and we need help to keep it going. If we do not have a history, we do not have a nation, we do not have anything.”
“But-” Armistice’s wings rustled in a slight breeze.
The robed figured interrupted him. “The Master Elder has instructed me to bring you to us. You need to help us maintain the records. Maintain the scribe-bots, and keep them functioning, ensure records are filed correctly.”
“But I’m not a New Alchemist! I don’t know how to fix anything!” He lied. He did know how to fix one thing – his wings. But he was taught how to do that by his Father, as he was by his. His wings were literally and figuratively his life. He had to make sure they were in perfect condition. To neglect them meant death.
“We will show you how to fix the bots when they break, how to file the records in their places. We will show you everything you need to know.” The man in the white Monk’s robe said. “Look,” the Elder said, pointing to one of Armistice’s colleagues who had positioned himself at the end of the launch lane, and started pumping his legs like pistons, and at the last moment, loosed his wings which arced upwards gracefully just as his feet left the edge of the top. “You see? There are too many of you.” Beyond the man that had just become airborne, Armistice could see other winged men in white flying, floating and fluttering in the sky – and this was just on the one side of the city – there were three others.
Shoulders slumped, and head drooping, looking everything like an Angel being ejected from Heaven, Armistice Wells was forced into serving the ArcHive.
He shook his head, as he walked along the barrier fence, his fingers rising and falling up and down the wrought iron spikes that topped each post. He looked longingly out over the edge of his world, at his old life, as he did every morning on his way to the ArcHive. He couldn’t believe it had been five years. Five long years. Five years of trying to escape. Doing little things, controversial things, to show the Elders he was unnecessary, that he could be released from their net back into his old life. He could feel their eyes on him as he walked up and down the rows of shelves that filled the honeycomb rooms, and when he called a scribe bot over to him, to inspect it, after observing its behaviour or its work. He could hear the whispers of the Elders behind his back, and could see them shaking their hooded heads out of the corner of his eyes as they pointed at the wings he still wore every day despite not being able to fly to deliver necessities to the lower levels of the city.
Armistice had just reached the last post before the flying gap when a hand fell heavy on his shoulder. He didn’t turn to see who it was. He already knew.
“You disobey us,” the soft, unthreatening voice said. “In small ways, you shirk your duties; you flaunt your supposed superiority. You still do not understand the importance of what you do, of what we are all doing. Without it-“
“Without it we are nothing.” Armistice finished the sentence. “Yes, I know, so you keep saying.” He could see how important they thought they were, with the whitewashed honeycomb building taking up a huge piece of real-estate in the finite space that the enclosed tower city had.
There was silence. It dragged on so long that Armistice turned to look at the Elder who had been speaking with him, a question on his lips.
Suddenly he was flying again, but not of his own volition. The wind whipped past him, cold and biting. The surprise of this change of circumstance delayed his reaction. He hadn’t prepared himself. His hands fumbled for the button to release his wings. The rush of the wind past him as he fell brought tears to his eyes. He smiled widely. Armistice had had a feeling in his bones.
He had seen his fair share of dead bodies, living in The Roots it was inevitable, but Martin Knightsbridge had never seen one that had fallen from the sky with wings sprouting from its back. To be honest, he hadn’t seen this one. Fall that is; but he saw it after, because it took his entire audience’s hard earned attention away in an instant and the crowd that had gathered around him suddenly moved en masse to crowd around the crumpled body that lay outside one of the arched entrances to their part of The Tree.
He heard hushed voices “It’s from the Branches,” he heard someone whisper. “Look at how it’s dressed,” said another, prodding the clean white trousers of the unfortunate soul with a grubby shoe. The man was wearing entirely white from head to toe – white short cut jacket, over a shiny white waist coat overtop of a white button-down shirt that was tucked into white trousers, now with a dark smudge on one of his shoes from the intrusion of a dirty Roots shoe.
“Those Upper people are ridiculous with their fads,” said a third, a man, Martin noticed, who was covered in brightly coloured tattoos. A middling, he thought, shaking his head and smiling at the hypocrisy of the stranger’s statement. He had heard rumours that people from The Trunk liked bright, garish things, supposedly as a way to distance themselves from people like him; people that lived underneath. Those in the middle levels were unlike everyone below in the Roots who favoured more subdued…everything – clothes, personalities, jobs. Martin briefly wondered what someone from The Trunk was doing down here in the below, but then noticed the bag slung sideways across his chest and hanging at his side. Of course, that explained it. He was a messenger. As a messenger, the man with the jumble of tattoos on his arms underneath a vivid yellow top and bright red trousers and matching canary and crimson shoes was one of the only people allowed to travel between the layers of The Tree.
Martin sighed and began packing up his stall, removing the banner that hung above him proclaiming that he was the one and only Marius the Magician. There was no way to get people interested in his magic now, not now with this new visitor to their part of the city. People would be talking about now for at least a few days. Through gaps in the crowd, Martin could see people inspecting the person’s wings, tugging and pulling, and Martin was sure, the poor man would be lightened of any jewellery or valuables he may have had.
He rolled up the banner, folded up the small table down into a portable size, pocketed the kerchief that contained a paltry amount of coins, and was all set to ignore all the and walk right by the man who had elicited such interest, when something glinted, catching his eye.
Martin had never cared about the other levels. He was born in the Roots, and he knew that was where he had to stay. There was no way around it. That’s just how it was. The Golems were a pretty definitive answer to those who questioned their status. People like him were born into the Roots, the lowest level of Tree, and other people were luckier, those that were born in the Middle levels, affectionately called the Trunk. And if you were especially blessed, you’d be born in the top levels, what everyone down here often in bitter tones called the Branches. Sure, it would be nice to have a bit more money, but Martin couldn’t complain, not too much. He had already managed to move into a new abode in the Second Level. He was literally moving up in the world. It was far better than the lower level, the very bottom, where there was nothing much, including hope. At least in the second level, they had windows that let in actual daylight from the outside world, and not the sickly watery glow from fireflies trapped in glass. The top level of the Roots also had entrance gates to Outside of Tree altogether, which is where this sudden visitor had appeared and stolen his dinner money. And the money Martin earned here as a Magician would buy him more than watery stew and a stale, often mouldy, chunk of bread. He was as happy as he’d ever remembered. Even though the law stated he could never move further than the second level; could never become a Middling, just as a Middling could never become one of the people who live in the top Branches, he was content.
People around the body had begun to thin as the curiosity and novelty began to wear off. In the distance Martin could hear the loud piercing whistles of the police, above the rattle of carriage wheels. Martin jumped at the noise as the sound of hooves became louder. He still hadn’t gotten used to the fact that people at this level travelled by carriage. Below, he’d spent his life walking everywhere, just like everyone else. It seemed each level had its perks and privileges.
Martin casually inched forward toward the victim, as if he was just taking a curious, morbid interest like the rest. It was an older man with a shock of white hair surrounding a bald spot, his head bent unnaturally to one side, underneath a jumble of polished brass and large thin feathers made of some kind of stiff material. He leaned down peering at the man’s clothes which had a strange shimmering quality. He’d never seen anything like it. Even on the second level, people wore earthy colours – browns, beiges, greys, greens.
He saw out of the corner of his eye the messenger was still hanging around, his red trousers and bright images inked on his skin were almost like a beacon. He stood out as a foreigner.
Another long whistle pierced the chatter of pedestrians on the street, and Martin knew he had to act fast. He leaned down as if admiring the sleeve of the man’s shirt, and quickly slipped the object he’d seen as people milled about the winged man up his sleeve. Being an illusionist came in handy sometimes, and glancing over his shoulder, Martin was confident no one had seen him take the thing that glittered at him like it was calling him.
“What’s happened here?” a gruff voice shouted loudly from above.
“Oh!” Martin jumped and almost head butted the officer’s horse. “You startled me, Sir, Officer.”
The man peered down at him with small, dark eyes. “So I see,” he said. “Now,” he leaned to look around his horse, and lifted the visor of his hat slightly, “what do we have here? It looks like we have someone from above.” The officer turned to one of his companions. “Oooeee, look at those nice threads! Do you see that?”
The second officer nodded and then shook his head, clucking his tongue. “Look at those wings. Those Uppers and their crazy inventions. Obviously this one didn’t work too well.”
Martin nodded vigorously, feeling like an ant under a spyglass. “Well, sirs, I’ll get out of your way, I was just packing up my things,” he lifted the folded table draped with the purple banner up by way of explanation. “All my customers were distracted by this…gentleman paying us a visit.” Martin didn’t know if the man was actually a gentleman or not, but seeing how he was from above meant that he was rich, and that automatically made him a gentleman in Martin’s books.
The officer barely gave Martin a second glance, “yes, yes, go on,” he said, waving a dismissive hand in Martin’s general direction.
“Wait!” the second officer shouted, raising his energy gun and point it squarely at Martin. “He looks familiar.”
The officer in charge looked over his shoulder. “Does he?” his eyes barely registered Martin and took in his things. “Oh he’s just one of those street mages,” he said, turning away again and looking instead at the victim.
Street mage! Martin bristled at the insult. He was more than just a common street mage, he was a full-fledged illusionist! But the second policeman’s energy gun popped and crackled with flickers of blue electricity, and Martin decided he valued his life more than his dignity.
Martin took the cue without another word and slipped away through the scattered crowd of on lookers. He realized he was holding his breath only when he stumbled upon one of the Golem guards, and tried to let out a startled scream, but his breath came out in a whoosh instead. He hated the Golems, even though they had never done anything to him. They gave him shivers each time, so he avoided looking at them if he could, especially in the dark holes of their eyes. They just looked so…unalive that he felt like he was looking at the dead encased in metal.
The metal Golem turned to stare at him, holding its large energy gun across its chest. It stood stoically in front of one of the lifts that lead to the Middle two levels of the Tree. “How are y-,” he started, but swallowed the greeting. When he got nervous, he started to ramble. And emotionless automatons holding weapons made him nervous. He was never sure if the person trapped inside was man or woman, not that it mattered. It would have been horrible for anyone to be voluntarily stuck inside a hunk of man-shaped metal, and moving around with the help of steam and levers. He also knew they rarely spoke through the perpetual grimace that the mouth grille gave them, so even if he spoke to them, they would just stare back at him through a tinted window where the person inside could look out clearly, but anyone looking back just saw unnerving darkness.
“Excuse me!” a voice piped up behind him. Martin jumped, his heart pounding in his chest. It was the delivery man, with his bright clothes and satchel across his body. Martin smiled at him nervously and stepped out of the way as the Messenger showed the Golem his credentials. Only then did the guard move out of the way of the lift door, the metal ratcheting noisily and the accordion gate closing with a rattle and clang behind him. The messenger flashed a smile, straight white teeth under a neatly trimmed moustache and waved his pass tauntingly in front of Martin before the lift took him up into the unknown and Martin was suddenly self-conscious of his own smile and closed his mouth over yellowed teeth.
Martin had never seen a real tree, having been born underground, and none of the people in the Roots were allowed to leave without penalty, but he’d seen pictures of trees in books, and he was pretty sure that the seven level city, that everyone called the Tree, did not resemble anything of the sort.
He shook his head, and continued on his way through the dim cobble stoned streets that were only slightly brighter punctuated by the odd street lamp than the bottom-most level. Only when he’d closed the door behind him did he open his palm to reveal the item he had hidden in his sleeve.
He fumbled for the dial on the gas lamp on the small table in the foyer to examine the thing that filled his palm. A scrap of paper was wrapped around it and tied with a piece of string. Martin tugged the string free and was about to throw the paper aside when he noticed black marks on the underside – writing – just three words. “It wasn’t me,” Martin read aloud. He shrugged and tossed the paper to the table, his attention drawn by the silver thing that glittered with a cold light. It was a gun with an energy coil spiraled around the muzzle. He flinched and almost dropped it. He’d never even held, let alone used, an energy gun. They were forbidden. Only certain people were allowed to carry them, mainly those in the military, but you rarely saw them down in the Roots, the Armies were all from the Upper Branches, or Golem guards. You had to be important to be protected by people with energy guns. Or if you weren’t important, you were more likely to be on the receiving end of a gun if you were caught disobeying the law or trying to leave your level.
“Get a hold of yourself,” he whispered under his breath. “You’re Marius the Magician for Emperor’s-sake!” Marius. It was who he became when he didn’t want to be plain, boring Martin. He was still wearing his outfit, after all, and the half mask he wore over his face so children wouldn’t pester him in the streets to do illusions when all he wanted to do was look for a new brooch to secure his cloak or get up early to get the best pick of vegetables at the daily market.
He held the gun away from him, willing his hands to stop shaking. He moved his finger over the button on the side of the handle, the trigger, and with a steadying breath, pressed it. He’d expected the buzz and flares of blue of live electricity to jump from the coils on the outside that charged the muzzle and allowed the gun to shoot streams of electricity, but there was nothing. He pressed the button again, harder this time. Still nothing.
As he cautiously shook the gun, he noticed the outline of a rectangle in the handle. He ran a thumb around and came across a raised tab that flicked open. He was expecting to get some idea of why the gun wasn’t functioning. Instead something fell out and clattered to the stone floor.
It was something else wrapped tightly within a piece of paper. This time he unfolded it carefully revealing a small silver key, and a larger message written on paper torn from a notebook.
The writing was small and cramped and messy.
My name is Armistice-
“Armistice! What kind of ridiculous name is that?” Martin wondered aloud shaking his head. It seemed the higher up in Tree you went, the stranger people became.
My name is Armistice Wells, and if you’ve found this then you must use this key to expose the lies and secrets that the government has kept from all of us. Kept all of us in the dark, in order to protect us they say. But in reality, they are hurting us, and soon we will start dying. They are stopping all airships, turning them away and not allowing them to dock, even to deliver supplies from other areas of the Empire. They say we need to become self-sufficient.
That we need to make our own food. I have a feeling they are trying to get rid of us, to shut down the top levels. We are unnecessary; we are wasting space, being too frivolous. It’s the middle and lower levels that run the city, not any of us in our nice clothes and our past times. We don’t need to do anything; we live off the rest of the Tree. We are disposable in their eyes. You will know this if you have found my first note. It is how they protect the ArcHive. At all costs, it must be protected, they say. It is the heart of everything. But they can’t see that how they are doing the opposite of protecting, and instead harming people. If they see that people are doing the wrong things, what they,” this word was under lined darkly, “perceive to be the wrong thing, they interfere.”
Martin’s eyes skimmed the words hurriedly trying to absorb this strange message. The ArcHive?
He scanned the page again. Did he really just read what he thought he had? His eye fell on the word he was looking for. He hadn’t imagined it. “Airships?” he said with awe. “Airships are real?”
Martin had never really had any real ambition. Besides getting money to put food in his belly, that was. He had seen death too much and didn’t want to be one of the many that were literally swept off the street by street cleaners like so much rubbish. That was a goal enough for him.
But holding the silver key in his left hand, and Armistice Wells’ letter in the other, he realized there was something more than just doing illusions in the street for kids with nothing better to do than try and steal what few coins audience members felt charitable enough to throw into the ragged hat he placed on the ground in front of his makeshift stall.
I need to go to the Branches. On autopilot he made his way to the kitchen, turning on gas lamps here and there as he went. “But first thing’s first,” he said grabbing the kettle from the stove top and filling it, “a nice cup of tea.” He sat at the small square table that took up most of the space in the small kitchen while he waited for the kettle’s familiar, comforting whistle. “I need to find what this key belongs to.” Really, what he wanted to do was to see an airship. He’d read about them, just like he had of real trees, but had never been outside of the walled towering city. Curiosity burned inside him. He re-read the letter again, and twisted the key through his fingers like a baton. He had to find a way to get to the top. “I need to find out about this secret Armistice wrote about,” Martin said to his tea, his fingers tapping a nervous rhythm on the side of the mug. “Whatever it is, he died because of it.”
He gulped down his tea when it was a drinkable temperature, changed out of his Illusionist outfit and into something less remarkable and left in a rush for the one place he didn’t really want to go. The lift to the Middle. He nervously and awkwardly made an attempt to wave at the Golem staring at him, he assumed, and holding the energy by its side like it was simply a cane to support oneself, and not a highly charged weapon.
He didn’t have to wait long. Soon the lift descended, and in it was exactly what he was looking for: a Messenger.
The gate opened and the man, the same one as before, stepped out without acknowledging Martin’s existence.
The man strode past Martin without so much as a glance, and Martin lunged at him, grabbing a tattooed arm. “Excuse me,” he said, apologetically as the man threw a scowl at him. “I’m sorry, I was just curious, could I take a look at your…um, pass, uh, thing? I want to become a Messenger, and I’m just curious what sort of things they ask for on your credentials.” He tried to peek at the small booklet that the messenger showed the Golem, but the man snapped it shut hastily, as he took in Martin’s drab beige pants and brown tunic with a look of contempt. “You can’t,” he said simply. He gave Martin that look: the one that said we know you’re not from here, we know you’re not one of us. Martin remembered the stories his parents, and he was sure countless other parents told their children to scare them away from finding a way up to the Middle where they didn’t belong – it was a bad place, an alien place. And Martin was just fine where he was. He’d had no reason to want to leave the Roots. But the words of Armistice’s letter burned in his brain and under his skin.
“Because,” the man said. Martin thought he would continue, but instead he continued walking, his delivery bag swinging slightly with each step.
“Dammit,” Martin muttered under his breath. Being normal Martin Knightsbridge wasn’t getting him anywhere. He needed to become Marius the Magician. He needed some magic. Or, if not strictly magic, a little something that would get him what he wanted.
He ran up to the man and tapped him twice on the shoulder, and then leaned down quickly towards the dark, often slippery cobbles. He popped back up quickly like a spring, causing the colourful man to jump. Martin held out a piece of paper, folded into a neat, tight square. “I think you dropped this,” he said, the square resting in his palm. He flexed his hand slightly and the square grew, and puffed out, until it was a small balloon, that hovered an inch or two above Martin’s hand.
This did the trick. The man leaned forward, dumbstruck. “That’s not-” he began, but then stopped, taking a step forward and leaning in to peer at the little paper balloon that bobbed gently. “How in the Empire-?” the man stated, reaching a hand out. Martin had worked his magic, and then worked some more. As the man was admiring his simple trick, Martin slipped his hand into the man’s trousers and withdrew his credentials, and silently placed it in his own pocket. “Oh, you mean this isn’t yours? Sorry, I thought I saw you drop it. Here, you can have it anyway.” Martin wrapped his fingers gently around the paper-balloon and gave it to the man. The man stared at the tight square of paper the balloon had become once more, and looked glum. “What happened?” The man looked like a pouting child.
Martin shrugged. “No idea. Sorry to bother you,” he gave a curt nod and resisted the urge to run. Only when the man had begun to walk away, still glancing distractedly at the paper, did Martin walk quickly in the opposite direction. He turned down a narrow alley and up an even narrower one, before stopping under a street lamp to look at his pilfered prize. It had a photo of the man’s face, his name, where he was from, and as a watermark behind it all, the Emperor of the United American Empire’s Seal – a purple lion rearing up on hind legs. Martin rubbed the paper between his fingers. “It shouldn’t be too hard to forge,” he said. “As long as you know the right people.” And being an illusionist, you got to meet a lot of different people, some right people, some wrong people, and most of the time people who you could ask for favours because they had asked him to perform at their child’s birthday, or at the grand opening of some shoe maker’s shop. Martin did these with aplomb and grace, never asking for anything in return, at the time, as he knew that he could then ask favours of them when he really needed help. Like now. He took out his pocket watch as he slipped the passport away. You never knew what the time was down here; there was no sun to mark the hours.
The shop was closing in ten minutes. He ran. When he reached the door he was so out of breath he could barely open it. Being a magician didn’t require being physically fit.
“I’m sorry, we’re just closing,” said a muffled voice floating up from behind a counter. A man with hair that seemed determined to leave his head popped into view. “Oh, Martin, it’s just you.”
Just me. Martin thought glumly. Of course, when I’m just regular Martin, I’m not important. He pushed the negative thoughts aside and plastered on a smile. “Yes, Jeffrey, it’s just me. I’m wondering if you’d be able to do me a favour. Since I’ve done your three kid’s parties this year, at no extra charge.”
“Oh yes, of course!” Jeffrey said, slapping a stack of paper down on the counter and lifting up an ink roller. “How can I help?”
Martin handed over the messenger’s identification. “Would you be able to replicate this?”
Jeffrey looked at it, punctuating his examination with hmmms and grunts and vigorous nods. “Yes, I think it’s doable. We definitely have the paper stock, and I can match the inks, and the colour of the Emperor’s seal, most definitely. You’d need to get your photograph taken, of course.”
“Of course.” He knew a photographer that owed him a favour after entertaining her overbearing mother-in-law to give the woman and her husband some well needed time away. “How long will it take?”
“I can get started on it right now,” Jeffrey said, coming up beside Martin to flip the open sign on the door to closed. “If you come by tomorrow morning, just as we open it’ll be ready then.”
Martin shook Jeffrey’s hands heartily. “Thank you! You don’t know what this means.”
Jeffrey smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “No, I’m sure I don’t. You’ll behave yourself though, won’t you Martin?”
Martin didn’t like to lie, so instead just gave the printer a smile before taking his leave.
If the sun had been visible in the Roots, it would have barely skimmed the roofs of the houses and shops, but as it was, Martin left the shop with an identical Messenger’s pass in hand, minus the photograph, even before the Open sign was turned over to welcome the day’s customers, and he wended his way through early morning shoppers and made his way to the photographer’s shop just as the shop keeper was propping the door open with a tinkling of a small bell above the door.
The woman smiled. “Martin, how nice to see you! Are you here for a photograph?”
Besides the Lifts, this was the second place that Martin disliked coming, and he’d only been once before. The photo-bots unnerved him, so he avoided photography shops at all costs. “Yes,” he said, handing over his forged booklet, and the messenger’s original so they would know how to take the picture.
“Okay,” she nodded, pointing further into the room. “You know the drill.”
Martin indeed knew the drill. He had to stay stock still and look straight ahead, a deadpan expression on his face – no smiling allowed. There was a single stool in the middle of the room, and Martin perched uncomfortably on the edge. The bot appeared silently out of nowhere, like a giant metallic insect – a perfectly spherical insect that hummed and buzzed as it floated up to Martin and stared at him with one large lens-eye. He always felt like it was scrutinizing him, like the camera could look into his soul, and if he stared at it too long, that it would steal his soul. He opened his mouth to speak but the camera-bot flashed an angry red light at him, and something clicked and snapped inside its sleek silver body.
Martin thought he’d feel better about it if it had wings, like the dead man that had disrupted a perfectly normal Thursday. Even if the wings were just for show. It was eerie, the way it just hovered and floated, like a metal soap bubble. Martin tried to un-focus his eyes and look through the camera, as it looked at him. And then it blinked, and blinked a green light at him. The photo was done and Martin almost leapt off the chair. The camera floated away following the woman into the back of the shop. “I’ll be back in a flash!” she said with a giggle, disappearing into the gloom.
Martin admired a collection of photographs that hung on the wall, all of different areas of the Roots. He paused to look at his favourite of the large ornate fountains in some of the squares – the octopus with water spouting from the ends of its twisted tentacles. The picture was vivid and seemed as if it was jumping out of the frame towards him. He moved on to admire a second photo of another landmark in the Roots: this one of an area of the lower level – the firefly farm, where they bred fireflies for all the lamps and lighting in the lower area – they weren’t worthy of actual gas lamps, or so whoever ran Tree thought. The photo captured the eerie green glow of the lightning bugs, as they flew underneath the large glass dome that housed them. It was like an iridescent bubble. Martin moved to look at a third picture on the wall, but was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of cameras.
“Shoo!” the woman shouted, waving her hand about as if they were pesky house flies. They scattered with angry buzzing, seeming to glare, Martin thought, at the shop owner with their single lens-eyes.
“Sorry about that,” she apologized. “They have a mind of their own sometimes it seems, they’re curious. I think the New Alchemist who made them, made them a bit too intelligent for their own good, sometimes,” she said with a light laugh and a shake of her head.
Martin wasn’t sure he’d be able to laugh off the ministrations of one of the inventors that belonged to the Society of New Alchemy – they did strange, bizarre things with steam and gears and metal. They worked a sort of magic he didn’t understand, and didn’t trust. Like the cameras that were now clustered together at the other end of the room, he was sure were watching him, as he watched them, warily.
He was so busy glaring at the little things that he didn’t notice the booklets the woman held out for him. “Oh, I’m sorry! I was just distracted by…” he gave a curt nod in their direction.
The woman laughed again. “I understand. They do take some getting used to.”
He made his way through the streets that had burst to life from the peace and quiet they had been moments before. He flipped open his copy of the messenger ID and smiled. It looked identical to real one. He would be able to get to the top of the Tree!
He was so preoccupied with looking at his photo and the watermark of the Emperor that only after the loud shout from the carriage driver followed by the crack of whip caused him to look up and jump back out of the way of the carriage that was heading straight for him.
“Watch where you’re walking!” the driver, perched high on his bench at the front of the vehicle released one hand from the reins and made a vulgar gesture.
He arrived at the lift, his heart in his throat as he flashed the pass. Seconds stretched into an eternity before the golem stepped aside with an almost imperceptible nod and he was on the platform and moving up even before he could release his breath. Clutching the key tightly in his right hand with visions of airships floating through his head, Martin was startled when the lift stopped and deposited him in what was obviously the Middle – he’d never seen so much light, and brightness!
The lift door slid open. “Uh, excuse me,” he said to a golem guard identical to the last in an unnerving way. “But I need to continue to the top of the city.”
The Golem swiveled its metal head on large metal shoulders and, Martin assumed, looked at the pass he held out. The mouth grate opened, and a single word floated from the gap. “No.”
Martin’s jaw fell and disappointment hit him like a punch to the gut. “No? What do you mean no? I’m a messenger! See?” he waved the paper emphatically in front of those empty eyes.
“That is only for Messengers between the Middle and Roots,” the metal thing said matter-of-factly.
“But, but-” Martin stuttered, at a loss. This was unexpected. “But I need to deliver something to the top! How do I get there?”
“There is no lift to the top,” the golem explained. Whoever was inside this metal suit at least had some patience. “To make deliveries between here and the top, you have to fly.” It seemed like the automaton was looking him up and down. “And you are not a pilot.”
“Fly?” Martin’s heart seemed to have found a new home in his throat.
A large metal arm lifted and pointed. Martin followed it to large arches that opened to the sky at regular intervals.
He made his way to the hole in the wall on feet that felt made of concrete. He gripped the edge of one of the holes with white knuckles and peered out, squinting against the brightness. In the sky he saw men who looked just like Armistice Wells, with large wings made of a white material, and strapped to their backs with a harness, struts made of brass and copper glinting blindingly when the sun hit them. Most flew gracefully with long, smooth strokes of their man made wings, catching updrafts that swirled close to the walls of the city.
Martin tried to look up, to see how far up the Branches actually were, but vertigo caused a wave of nausea to roll up from the bottom of his stomach and he quickly squeezed his eyes shut.
He moved back to the Golem, the concrete grip on his feet crumbling the further he went from the gaping hole to the outside.
“So if I want to get to the top?”
The golem shook its head again. “That’s impossible. You can’t. You aren’t a flier.”
“How do you become one?”
Born? Martin had a vision of being hatched out of some strange human sized egg, like a strange bird and bit back a laugh.
Even though the Golem had no expression on its blank metal face, it seemed to take offence. Its mouth grille opened again. “By that I mean, you are born into it, it’s in your family. It’s passed down, father to son. Inherited.”
“Oh,” said Martin, deflated. He squeezed the key in his hand so that it bit painfully into his palm. He had his mission. To find out what Armistice Wells had been talking about, this ArcHive.
“Well, I need to get to the Branches. Is there any way for me to do that?”
In the distance there was shouting and Martin and the Golem looked in the direction of the disturbance. The Golem raised its energy gun. Martin looked and at first couldn’t see what the guard was pointing at, he wasn’t used to the brightness of white-washed buildings instead of the familiar dark, sooty gloom of the Roots, but finally the white robed figures came into view and once he could see them, racing towards him, that’s all he noticed.
“Uh oh,” the Golem with a note of worry in its voice as the hum of his energy gun built up and Martin saw the pop and fizz of electricity dance across its muzzle.
Uh oh? Martin had never heard a Golem say uh oh before. “What do you mean uh oh? Who are those people, and why are they heading towards us?”
“They aren’t heading to us, they are heading to you.”
“Me?” Martin’s voice came out in a high pitched squeak as if it were too frightened to even leave his throat. He felt suddenly vulnerable without any form of protection. He didn’t even have any of his magic props on him that he could use for defence. Like the box of matches he used to light the toy air ship on fire.
“I know I haven’t done anything wrong in my life. You must be doing something they don’t like if they’re looking for you.”
“Who are they,” Martin said, moving behind the imposing bulk of the guard.
“You don’t know?” the guard said, sounding amazed and at the same time irritated. “Let me out of here, and follow me and I’ll explain. I’m not allowed to use my gun on them, anyway, so I can’t really protect you.”
From his hiding place behind the Golem, Martin was positioned right in front of the large latches that ran down the back of the suit of armour. He worked the latches quickly, only half wondering if undoing a corset would be as easy as this. The last one undone he flung open the two sides, and came face to face with a slender girl in her mid-twenties with large blue eyes and long dark hair tied back from her head to save it getting caught in any of the moving mechanisms. She wore skin tight bright blue trousers and a slim fitting sleeveless canary yellow top, her exposed arms dotted and scarred with steam burns.
She stared at him. “Well, what are you waiting for? Help me down from here!” She sat on padded chair and reached her arms toward him.
He grabbed her hands and pulled her out and down, her legs stretching to reach the ground. As soon as she was out, she grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the corpse of the automaton that she had been providing the life for. It stood listless and dead still holding the energy gun in front of it, still poised ready to fire, but with nothing, or no one, to fire it.
They ran. Martin risked looking around as they ran through the streets. It wasn’t all that different from the Roots, he realized, taking in the cobblestone streets, and the buildings all squished tightly together to house as many as possible within the confines of a tower that was twenty five square miles. Everything was just brighter, as if someone had decided to throw buckets of white wash on every surface instead of living with the dark and gloom that people in the Roots did. And the people here were brighter, more colourful, and seemed more full of life. Everyone wore a multitude of colours – and not just drab neutral browns and greens and blues but bright, vivid colours like the yellow and blue of the girl that was dragging him onwards.
“Where are we going?” Martin hazarded asking as they ran down a particularly narrow street that had the brilliant idea of filling with a fountain half way down it.
“Somewhere safe,” she said, and before she finished the words, she was opening a door and pulling him inside.
Martin looked around. They were in a house, one that looked almost identical to his, except the walls were white, not a dark eggplant like his. “Is this your place?” he asked turning to her.
“Yes. The Elders don’t know where I live. I’ve never been in trouble with them. See?” she said, lifting her arm. Martin didn’t know what he was looking for at first, and then he saw it, a faint green light pulsing at her wrist.
He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. “Is your arm glowing?”
The girl looked at him, her eyes growing wide. “Where are you from?” she said, and then looked him up and down. “I see. Do they not teach you anything at all in the Roots?”
Martin shrugged, embarrassed. “Yes, they do, of course!” he said defensively. He needed to stand up for his people. “But-”
“They obviously don’t teach you the important things if you don’t know what this is,” she gestured to the light, “or who the Elders are. Have you even heard of the ArcHive?”
Martin broke into a smile. “Yes! Well, actually no. But I just read about them today.” He fished the letter out of his pocket and held it out.
“It’s not a them, it’s an it. Well, I guess the Elders are a them.” She took the letter and read it silently.
The sudden silence made Martin uneasy, standing in this strange girl’s house. “I don’t even know your name. I’m Martin,” he said, holding his hand out to her.
“I’m Louise,” she replied, still reading the note and making no move to complete the handshake.
“Well, what does this ArcHive do?” Martin asked, still trying to fill the silence.
“They record all of us. With these implants.” She pointed to her wrist again without raising her eyes from Armistice Wells’ note. “The ArcHive is just the place where we are recorded and stored.”
“And the Elders?”
“The Elders are like the worker bees. They keep the ArcHive running smoothly.”
“So that’s what Armistice was talking about.”
“Where’s the key?” Louise asked.
“Armistice mentioned a key. Where is it?”
Martin took it from his pocket and handed it over.
“The Government and the ArcHive are one and same. If they are doing this, altering people’s life lines…” Louise trailed off shaking her head, dark hair falling into her face. She brushed it away impatiently. “It’s dangerous for all of us.”
“How did they know where I was?”
“The implants, like I said. We’re all given them when we’re born. That’s how they record our lives – all our moments, all our life changing decisions. And when something comes up that they don’t think is right – like this Armistice person, trying to challenge them, and you, you’re obviously trying to find out what they’re doing, they found out about it and are coming to stop you.”
“So the implants, they’re like homing beacons?” Martin said.
Louise nodded, stray bits of hair finding their way into her face again. “Exact-“
Her words were cut off by a loud knock on the door.
Martin pulled Louise further into her house, into a spacious kitchen. “So you said the ArcHivists don’t know where you live because you’ve never done anything in your life to bring attention to yourself. But I’m here now.”
Louise eyes widened and she looked at the door which shook with another violent knock. “We need to run!” She lowered her voice to a whisper.
Martin looked about helplessly. “Where?”
Louise grabbed his hand. “Come with me.” She pulled him through the kitchen into a sparse living room, dominated by a collection of large reclining chairs and a bookshelf that filled one wall. As she pulled him through another doorway, he noticed a camera-bot floating forlornly in the corner of the room. He shuddered.
She flung open a door and they were out on the street again, this time in a narrow lane barely wide enough for the both of them, and cluttered with garbage and rubbish bins.
“Now where are we going?” Martin said, his voice still a whisper despite the only things around that could hear them were a couple cats and a drunkard, asleep against a doorway.
“To a friend of mine,” Louise said.
Martin waited for more information but none was forthcoming. “A friend that can help us get rid of the Elders?”
Louise shook her head. “A friend that will take us off their radar.” She stopped suddenly in front of a door that Martin didn’t even see until he looked closely at the vague rectangular outline. She didn’t knock and instead just pushed a nearly invisible button at the side of the rectangle. The door swung inwards with a squeal of rusted metal.
“Amalfus?” She said quietly at first, tip toeing into the room, and then again much louder. “Are you in? It’s Louise. We need a favour. Urgently.”
There was a clatter of metal hitting the floor and a loud curse, followed by a another clash of things banging together. “Just a moment!” a lightly accented voice said from deep within, behind shelves filled with partly assembled machines, and loose gears and cogs, coils of wire and telescopes.
A man appeared wearing a plum waistcoat and lime green trousers with leather boots the colour of black cherries that rose to his knees. He wore large goggles over his eyes, the lenses mirrored, reflecting Martin and Louise in miniature. The man hastily pushed the goggles up into dark hair speckled with white, not from age, but some sort of powder.
“Louise my dear!” he said, removing long leather gloves that ran up his arms, the colour of cocoa. He leaned over and embraced Louise. “How are you? How’s your mother?”
Louise waved a hand impatiently. “I’m fine, we’re all fine. Well, sort of. Martin here needs his implant removed. The Elders are after him.”
Amalfus’ dark brows shot up away from emerald eyes. “Are they now?” he said, at the same time reaching out for Martin’s arm and exposing his wrist. There was no glowing light. For a moment Amalfus looked puzzled, and then took in Martin’s clothes and understanding dawned. “Oh I see,” he said, nodding. “Turn around boy,” Amalfus instructed.
Martin bristled at that. He wasn’t a boy, but he obeyed. “What are you doing?”
“You’re from the Roots, are you not?”
Martin nodded. “Yes but-“
“People from the Roots usually have their implants behind their ears.”
Martin felt Amalfus touch his right ear, pushing it forward, and then move to the left. “Ah yes, here it is. Yes, this won’t take any time at all. Let me just get my things.”
Martin turned around and saw Louise looking at him. “Who is this guy? Is he a doctor?”
“No, he’s my Uncle. He’s a New Alchemist.”
Martin could feel the colour drain from his face. “Has he done this before?”
Louise shrugged. “I think once or twice. It doesn’t take long to cut it out. And he’s stitched me up plenty of times when I’ve cut myself on my Golem.”
Before Martin could protest Amalfus was back with a cloth, some thread and a small knife.
Amalfus smiled at him. “This won’t take a second. Turn around again please.” Martin did, and a moment later felt a poke and brief sharp pain, and then felt strange tugging. A minute later he heard the snap of thread.
“Done,” Amalfus said proudly, handing Martin the cloth. Hold this to the area for a minute or two, for any blood. “Now for the hard part,” he said with a grin. He dropped the small square to the floor, and crushed the chip with the heel of his boot, twisting his foot, and grinding it hard. “There!”
“Now we’re safe,” Louise said. “They don’t know where you are.”
“So that means I can find what this key belongs to and destroy whatever is locked up, like Armistice said.”
“Do you really think that’s a good idea?” Louise asked, concern creasing her face.
“You’ve read the letter. And you’ve said yourself, they alter your life if they’re not happy with where it’s going.”
Louise nodded. “You’re right. We need to stop it.”
Amalfus had been quietly observing, but now interjected. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Are you planning on infiltrating and shutting down the ArcHive?”
Martin looked to Louise, and Louise looked back at him for confirmation. “Yes,” they said simultaneously.
“That’s suicide!” Amalfus shouted, causing a precarious piece of equipment on a shelf to roll off and hit the floor with a thud, a pause and then, “is there anything I can do to help?”
“Can you fly? We need to get to the ArcHive.”
“The Branches! I haven’t been there since I used to be a delivery boy on an airship when I was a young one.” Amalfus said, excitedly.
Louise’s jaw dropped. “You’ve been to the top?”
“Of course! I was born there.”
Again puzzlement screwed up her features. “But then how-“
“How am I down here in the Middle? Why would I choose to be down here when I could live up there among the clouds and sun and sky?” Amalfus finished her thoughts, pointing to the ceiling.
Louise nodded, as did Martin. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would trade a life at the top with a sheltered, restricted one down here trapped within the walls of the city.
“Love,” Amalfus said simply. “Love clipped my wings and made me abandon a life of sailing the skies. That, and well, the ArcHive were starting to become controlling. Well, I guess they’ve been controlling the whole time, with their implants, always monitoring, always tracking, they say for our own good. For posterity. For the Empire.” He snorted derisively.
“We have a chance to stop it, and we should.”
“Do you recognize this?” Martin said, holding out the silver key.
Amalfus took it, holding it by the end, a stylized A in delicate filigreed scrolls.
He held it by the other end, examining the A. His eyes widened suddenly. “It’s the heart key!” he nearly shouted, thrusting the key in their faces. “Look!” he pointed to the A, and indeed, it was nestled inside the shape of a heart.
“What’s the heart key?” Louise and Martin asked as one.
“It leads to the computing machine that powers the entire ArcHive. It can be disabled, shut down.”
“Do you know where it is?”
Amalfus nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “I think so. There were a few times I had to deliver things to the ArcHive. There was a locked door, right in the very centre of the building.
Martin nodded with understanding. “The heart.”
Amalfus nodded. “Come, we should get changed.”
“We’d stand out like plums on a banana tree dressed like we are. I still have some old clothes from my delivery days.”
Half an hour later and they were all dressed in white, and Amalfus had managed to borrow wings from three delivery messengers from the Branches, and bribed one into a tutorial on how to use them.
“Ready?” he said, standing where the messenger had told them to, before their running jump into the sky.
Martin shook his head. No, he was most definitely not ready, and would never be. But this had been his idea in the first place. Grudgingly he nodded, swallowing all fear and pushing it deep down.
One minute he was standing comfortably, surrounded by strange yet familiar cityscape, and the next he was surrounded by blue sky and nothing beneath him except the ground extremely far below.
Eventually his heart left his throat and settled again where it belonged, as he flapped awkwardly upwards like some strange Icarus.
And then he was there. Finding his land legs again on the smooth white marbled ground of the very top of Tree.
Louise and Amalfus had already pulled their wings in and were waiting for him, as he ungraciously tried to make his wings behave. After minutes of trying to rein the wings in, Martin gave up and just unbuckled the harness that held the wings on, letting them fall to the hard ground with a clatter. He’d apologize for any damage later.
And then the showman, Marius, appeared replacing the nervous Martin. “What are we waiting for?” he said, striding confidently toward the ArcHive.
Martin walked in as if he owned the place and headed straight for the large square vault at the centre. He was almost there. His skin tingled with excitement and nervousness. He ignored the wary gazes of men in robes, and stuck the key in the lock. He turned it, wincing at the loud click that seemed to echo through the rooms.
He yanked the door open and was met by nothing. The room was empty.
A voice spoke behind him that sent chills down his spine “Did you really think it would be so easy to stop us?”
He recognized the voice, but turned, anyway. It was Amalfus, with Louise standing beside him. She shrugged, apologetically.
As Martin fell through the air, he briefly wondered if this was how Armistice felt. But he didn’t smile.