Friends in Low Places – a flash steampunk story

Rubble Town was as awful as Talia remembered. She didn’t mind the heaps of gears and broken pistons, the crowded streets where scavengers traded their findings, or the smells of sweat and engine oil. But the sounds of hammering and scraping, along with voices loud enough to be heard over them, were driving her insane after just one afternoon.

At least they didn’t have to head into The Anvil, where the real industry was. That would make her head explode like a ripe corpse in the sunshine.

“I thought you’d have a lead by now,” Umberto Pollyglog said. The fat accountant’s face was running with sweat, the collar of the cloak that hid his uniform dark with it.

“I thought you’d drop dead with all your wheezing,” Talia said. “We’ve both been disappointed.”

They approached a tavern made out of old airship gondolas. Gas lamps glowed in the twilight gloom.

“This is where the Scrappers’ Union recruits,” Talia said. “It’s a good place to meet radicals.”

“You think Shofflekrep is here?” Pollyglog asked.

“That would be too easy,” she replied. “But maybe we can get invited to a rally.”

Heads turned as the door swung open. Two dozen pairs of eyes surveyed them with suspicion.

Talia pulled a fistful of worn copper coins from her pocket and dropped them on the bar.

“Two ales,” she said, doing her best to mask her aristocratic accent.

The barmaid, a square-jawed woman with pox scars, started pouring.

“Ain’t seen you here before,” she said.

“We come over special,” Talia said. “From a factory in Haxling. Want to learn to better our lot.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” the barmaid said. “But I hear Tolliver there’s thirsty.”

She nodded at a lean-faced man in the corner.

“Make it three ales,” Talia said, handing over more coins.

A minute later, she was sitting at Tolliver’s table, sliding a tankard across to him.

“I hear you’re the working man to talk to,” she said. “About improving our lot.”

“Could be,” Tolliver said. “Could be.”

“We want to learn.” Talia gestured at Pollyglog, who was stifling a grimace at his drink.

“I only teach serious people,” Tolliver said. “Union people.”

“We want to be Union people.”

“Even though it’s illegal?”

“Aye.”

“Well then.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Fees are up front. Action ain’t cheap and we need to know you’re serious.”

Talia placed a jangling pouch on the table.

“Fees for our whole factory,” she said.

Tolliver weighed it in his hand.

“Seems serious,” he said. “We need someone more senior to take your oath. Wait here a minute.”

He pocketed the pouch and slid out the door.

Half an hour later, they were still waiting.

“He’s not coming back, is he?” Pollyglog said.

“No,” Talia said, grinding her teeth in annoyance.

“We’ve been conned, haven’t we?”

“Yes.”

“They knew we weren’t factory workers.”

“Clearly.”

“So what do we-”

She squeezed his arm so hard he whimpered.

“We listen,” she hissed. “Like I’ve been doing this whole time. Because if we can’t blend in then I need to follow someone.”

As if on queue, a man at a far table made for the door.

“Stay here,” she whispered. “Try not to get killed.”

Staying as far back as she could, she followed the man out. He and his friends had been talking about an upcoming rally. They’d talked quietly enough that no normal person could have heard, but Talia was no normal person.

Now he was going to a planning meeting.

She followed him down narrow alleys, sliding into the shadows whenever he glanced back, careful to cover the glint of sword and revolver with her cloak. At last he came to a ramshackle building between heaps of old girders. He gave a rhythmic knock, the door swung open, and he went in.

Talia clambered up one of the piles of girders and ran along the top until she was level with the building. Then she leapt the gap, landing deftly on the roof. From there, she lowered herself to a walkway running around the upper storey of the building.

“Is that you, Jo?” someone said.

Talia tensed. A woman stood a dozen paces away, a battered rifle in her hands.

There was no time for bluffing. Talia lunged forward, getting her hand over the woman’s mouth before she could call out. As the rifle swung around, Talia snatched the pistol from her belt and slammed it against the lookout’s head. The woman’s eyes rolled and she slumped in Talia’s arms.

Talia lowered her to the ground, bound her hands and feet, and gagged her. Then she found the nearest window and sat, listening to the conversation inside.

#

“Well?” Pollyglog asked as she sat down opposite him. “This had better be good. I’ve had to buy four awful drinks just to keep my seat.”

“Shofflekrep’s living in The Anvil,” Talia said. “Tomorrow he’s coming out to speak to a rally of the Social Levelling League. We’ll grab him near the rally.”

“What do we do until then?” Pollyglog asked.

The tavern door opened. A woman walked in with a bruise on her face and a battered rifle in her hand.

“Now we get out of here,” Talia answered. “Fast.”

Pollyglog had never climbed out of a privy window before. It was a good thing she was there to show him how.

* * *

 

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