Sir Thomas strode through the smog, his mask clamped to his face, rubber seal tight against skin. A Smith and Wilkins Model Three Aerator, it was the height of technology. A small steam engine in a satchel at his side kept the air flowing, constant and clean, as he made his way around the city. No need to walk in one of the transit boxes, sharing the breath of a score of the great unwashed, or to share a motor cab with one of the city’s other peers. He travelled alone, as a man should.
As he crossed Oldrail Bridge, he caught a whiff of chemical smoke. The smog must be particularly thick today if it was getting through the mask.
Up Redgate and along Pennypurse Lane he went, while one of those ghastly transit boxes rattled past in the other direction. The smell was getting stronger, like someone had set fire to a sewage plant and was marching him towards it. He swallowed back a wave of nausea and paused for a moment to catch his breath.
What in all eight hells was wrong with his mask?
Sir Thomas ran his fingers along his forehead, down the sides of his face, and around the underside of his chin, feeling for a gap between his face and the mask, some place he hadn’t fitted it right. Nothing. Apparently the air was simply so awful that even the worst mask wouldn’t help.
He started walking again, but still the smell grew worse. He could taste it on his tongue, something vile and tingling. He swung the satchel around from under his arm and flipped the flap open to check the filters.
A trickle of oily black smoke ran from the motor out into the thin, sickly brown of the smog.
Panic made Sir Thomas’s heart jump, followed a moment later by anger. He had been promised the best in personal perambulatory equipment and instead he had this. Someone would pay for this with their job, if not their hide.
A transit box ground to a halt next to him, its overhead wires creaking. A hatch opened and the driver thrust his head out.
“You need a ride, sir?” he asked.
“Certainly not!” Sir Thomas snapped. “Do I look like a man who would ride in your ghastly machine?”
“Suit yourself.” The hatch snapped shut and the box drove on.
By now, the smoke from the motor was visible behind the glass of his mask. A flame darted from the corner of the satchel.
“Gah!” Sir Thomas ripped the mask from his face and flung the whole device in the gutter. Something popped. More flames sprang from the side.
“I’ll sue the bastards,” he growled, glaring at the mask, its glass plate cracked where it had hit the cobbles.
But he couldn’t stay here, brooding on others’ failings – he had business to be about. With a furious snort, he set off along the road again.
The smell of the burning device might be gone, but now he faced something just as bad. The smog swirled around him, thick and acrid, filling his lungs with every breath. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The back of his throat tickled, then scratched, then burned. He clutched a handkerchief to his mouth but it did no good. There was no escaping filth when that filth was in the very air.
Only another half mile, he told himself. Keep going. You’ll be there soon enough.
A coughing fit took hold of him and he doubled over, bitter phlegm spraying from his mouth. The coughing went on and on until his head spun and his legs were week. Even when he finally got his breath back, his knees felt like jelly.
He took one step, then a second, and a third, grabbing hold of a lamppost just before he collapsed.
It was all so unfair. He had paid for the best, he should get the best. Otherwise he was just…
Was just like…
He jerked his head up, coughed again, caught a lungful of smog that almost made him puke.
Someone had hold of his arm.
“Here, quick,” they said. “Get him in before we have to breath any more of this shit.”
He was aware of being dragged and then lifted, of settling onto a hard seat, of the world moving around him. Gradually, he came back to his senses.
He was in one of those awful boxes. Beside him, a little old lady was holding out a cup of water.
“Here, love,” she said. “You’ll want to clear your mouth out after that.”
“Thank you,” he croaked, accepting the drink.
The box was crammed with people. Across from him, fleas were dancing on the back of a mangy dog. The whole place smelled of sweat and cheap gin.
“It’s not good to go out on your own,” the old lady said. “Better the box, where there’s someone to catch you if you fall.”
Sir Thomas nodded. Maybe she was right.
Or maybe he just needed a better mask. They said that Smith and Wilkins were working on a Model Four.
* * *
My latest steampunk book, The Epiphany Club, is out tomorrow! Collecting all five novellas of that name, it’s a great way to get the whole series cheaply or to buy it in print for the first time. Click here to buy the e-book from your preferred store or the print version from Amazon.