The Sanity of Crowds – a steampunk story

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The space holding the Social Levelling League rally was something like a town square. A broad, open space, it was flanked on three sides by the ramshackle buildings of Rubble Town and on the fourth by one of the massive pillars holding up the sky docks. Somewhere up there were the comforts of Talia’s office and her cat. Down here, where she waited impatiently to do her job, there were only noisy crowds and her employer.

At least she’d managed to find Umberto Pollyglog some working class clothes. A collarless shirt and frayed waistcoat couldn’t hide a waistline made by fine living, but even the poor included some fat people, so there was a chance they would blend in. She’d even left her rapier behind, a revolver and a sturdy knife providing more discrete armament under long leather coat.

The crowd grew louder as a man stepped onto a stage made of old ceiling beams. Jan Shofflekrep looked just like his wanted leaflets and pamphlet etchings. Long, thinning hair fell across his shoulders like a tangle of old string. His eyes were dark and narrow.

“Comrades!” he called out.

The crowd fell silent.

“Comrades, can you feel the change blowing through this country?” Shofflekrep talked with the practised pattern of a man who had given his speech a hundred times. As he got into the rhythm, Talia stopped listening to the details and focused instead on the people around the stage. Many of them were tough looking. Most had weapons poorly concealed beneath their coats.

Grabbing Shofflekrep wouldn’t be easy.

Someone shoved between her and Pollyglog.

“Frightfully sorry,” Pollyglog said. “Didn’t mean to jog your elbow with my belly.”

The woman turned to stare at the man with the cut crystal accent. Instinctively, Talia reached for the handle of her knife.
Others were turning to look as well.

“Ain’t he funny?” Talia said, linking her arm through Pollyglog’s. “Playin’ at bein’ one of them.”

She gestured upward with her head.

“Funny,” the woman’s lip curled like there was a spring winding it. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Ooh, this is one of the best bits,” Talia said, nodding toward the stage.

On cue, Shofflekrep’s voice rose, drawing attention away from them.

Talia dragged Pollyglog off through the crowd, away from the woman and closer to the stage, trying not to jostle people as she passed. The two of them couldn’t pass for locals much longer. That left two options. Either she gave up on grabbing Shofflekrep here and followed him back into the noise and chaos of The Anvil, or she grabbed him soon and counted on surprise to carry the day.

The sound of the crowd cheering was making her ears ring. There was no way she could face The Anvil.

The crowd went wild as Shofflekrep finished his speech. Their cheering made Talia feel dizzy, but she kept her feet, kept her focus, and extracted her arm from Pollyglog’s.

“Follow me,” she hissed.

She reached the bottom of the rickety steps as Shofflekrep descended from the stage. She slid her knife into her right hand, just the tip of the blade protruding from her baggy sleeve.

“Ooh, Comrade Shofflekrep!” she exclaimed, sliding her arm through his. “You were magnificent!”

Shofflekrep’s smile affirmed everything she’d expected. This was a man whose position had an allure his looks didn’t, and he wasn’t averse to making the most of it.

“I try,” he said.

“You succeed!” She did her best to look bashful. “Could I buy you a gin and hear more about the revolution?”

“Of course.” Shofflekrep said. “But I have business first.”

“Ooh, go on, have a drink now,” Talia said. She slid her other hand across so that the tip of the blade, hidden by their interlinked arms, pressed against his ribs. “I insist.”

Shofflekrep’s eyes widened. He had the good sense not to say anything but to fall into step with her, though she could practically hear his eyes shifting as he looked for a way out.

“You ain’t no factory man!” a voice called out behind them.

Talia turned to see Pollyglog, his face red, being harangued by an old woman in a shawl.

“You’re some sort of spy,” the woman exclaimed. “Here, everyone, they’ve sent spies!”

Talia hesitated. If she was going to get paid then she needed Pollyglog as well as Shofflekrep.

The crowd shifted, closing in toward the disturbance. Someone barged against her. As she turned, Shofflekrep twisted clear of her grasp.

“Spy!” he yelled, pointing at her. “There’s two of ‘em!”

Angry glares turned on Talia. She flashed her blade and drew her revolver. But now what? Pursue Shofflekrep or rescue Pollyglog?

She hated the answer. She might find Shofflekrep again, but there was no way Pollyglog got out of this alive on his own.

“Everybody back.” She raised the gun. A clear space opened up between her and her employer. “Here, now.”

Pollyglog hurried over. Together, they inched toward the edge of the square, people parting to let them through.

Everyone looked furious. Many had pulled out knives and clubs. The only thing holding them back was her gun. But if these people did the maths, if they realised that she had six shots and there were hundreds of them, if some were willing to risk themselves for the greater good…

They reached the edge of the square.

“Run,” she hissed.

That, at least, Pollyglog could do.

She fired a shot just above the heads of the crowd. As they backed off in panic, she turned and ran too.

She was around two corners and almost caught up with Pollyglog before she even heard pursuit coming. They were going to get away.

What came next, though – that she wasn’t happy about.

* * *


And so the story continues. If you’d like to read more from me, just sign up to my mailing list for a free e-book and flash fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.

Published by

Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is an author of speculative and historical fiction, including comics, short stories, and novels. A freelance writer and a keen gamer, he lives in Yorkshire with a cat, an academic, and a big pile of books. His work has been published by Top Cow, Commando Comics, and Daily Science Fiction, and he has ghostwritten over forty novels in a variety of genres. His latest novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is out now from Luna Press Publishing.