Stay Back – a steampunk story

“Stay back,” Talia snapped as she strode deeper into the alleys of The Anvil.

“I might lose track of you,” Pollyglog replied, panting as he tried to keep up.

“Good.”

The noise was getting to Talia already. The Anvil might look like the rubbish tip of some angry machine god, the place where heaps of old machinery went to die. But it was also a place where the rejected and the lost found new life. Where skilled artisans who had rejected factory routines built their own manufacturing shops. Improvised pistons and blackened furnaces powered a thriving industry, creating goods for those who lived down below, repairing and recycling the objects others abandoned.

To Talia’s sensitive ears, the noise was like a steam hammer pounding at her brain.

“I need to witness the retrieval,” Pollyglog shouted, struggling to be heard.

“Without you, I’d have captured Shofflekrep already,” Talia said. “Go back to your barracks and wait.”

“That’s the fifth time you’ve-”

“Enough with the counting!” She spun around and waved a fist in his face. “If I hear one more number out of your mouth, I swear I’ll…”

Her words trailed up as she looked past him. Half a dozen burly men and women were approaching, each one carrying a cudgel, an axe handle, or some other primitive weapon. She glanced around and saw more coming, closing in on them from every direction.

She knew some of the faces, guards from Jan Shofflekrep’s rally. They clearly also knew her.

“Reactionary pigs,” the leader bellowed, waving a length of pipe above her head. “It’s time for you to see some justice.”

Talia drew her sword but left her pistol holstered. She didn’t want to kill these people. She’d seen the way they lived. They had a right to be angry at the way the world treated them.

But she didn’t want to get killed either. As Pollyglog drew a pristine gentleman’s rapier, clearly never used in anger, she groaned inside. She was going to have to save him again.

As the toughs advanced, Pollyglog lunged. It was like watching a hot air balloon caught in a storm, a rippling blob that threatened to collapse at any moment. His thrust was easily parried by a length of pipe and Talia had to leap in to stop him being battered around the head.

“Back against the wall,” she said as she stabbed one attacker’s shoulder and slashed another across the forearm, making both drop their weapons.

“I can do this!” Pollyglog exclaimed. “I don’t care what the others say. I’m not just a bean counter.”

He tried another attack. The target brought a sledgehammer down, smashing the top six inches off Pollyglog’s beautiful blade.

“I said get back.” Talia darted low, cutting the back of the man’s legs. He fell to the ground, dropping his sledgehammer and clutching at the wounds.

She slammed Pollyglog back against the wall then spun to deflect another attack. The machines in the nearest building had got louder. She almost lost her balance as a wave of nausea made the world spin.

“Your whole job stinks,” she said, lunging twice and then parrying a length of plank. “Going after a reformer for a bunch of mercenaries. Fighting poor people who want change.”

“You didn’t mind when I showed you the pay,” Pollyglog said. He stabbed at someone with his broken sword, leaving himself exposed to another attack.

“Maybe I should have.” As a woman lunged at Pollyglog, Talia smashed her in the back of the head with her sword guard, knocking her out. “Instead of helping people who kill for money.”

Pollyglog laughed. It was a shrill, hysterical sound, the laughter of a desperate and sweat-soaked man.

“You think Shofflekrep’s any better?” he asked. “How do you think he wound up in prison?”

“Debt. The plague of the poor.”

There were three opponents left. Talia was exhausted, her head aching, but if she could keep herself together they might get through this.

“Debts from gambling on illegal cage fights,” Pollyglog said. “Shofflekrep likes watching tramps beat each other to death.”

At last he landed a blow, slicing the shoulder of a man attacking Talia.

“And these people?” Pollyglog just parried an attack by the man he’d injured. “Did he send them for a revolution or to protect his hide?”

With a low kick, Talia swept the legs from under a woman in an ironmonger’s apron. A second swift kick knocked the woman out.

Only Pollyglog’s attacker remained. He stood uncertainly, blood running down his arm, a cudgel in his hand.

“She beat thirteen of your compatriots in one hundred and ninety-three seconds,” Pollyglog said. “Do you think you can beat her now?”

Despite the ringing in her head, Talia grinned. It wasn’t often that her achievements were acknowledged.

The man dropped his weapon and ran.

At last, Talia sank to the ground. She clutched her head. The noise was killing her.

Pollyglog tore a strip of soft lining from inside his scabbard.

“For your ears,” he said. “The sword’s broken anyway.”

“Thanks.” She tore the material in half and started balling it up.

“I’m not saying I’m a good man,” Pollyglog said. “But neither is Shofflekrep.”

Talia stuffed the material into her ears. It didn’t blot out all the noise, but it did make things better.

“Let’s talk to these people,” she said, gesturing at the injured and unconscious bodies around them. “Someone must know how we can find their boss.”

“We?” Pollyglog asked, the word just audible through her improvised earplugs.

“We,” she said. “You and me.”

* * *

 

As a fan of action stories, I hate how often women are shown as needing protecting by men. Watch how often even supposedly “plucky” ladies get led away from explosions in Hollywood films, never mind the whole plotlines about rescuing them. So while I didn’t deliberately set out to invert that in this scene, it was still very satisfying to write.

Next week, Talia and Pollyglog head even deeper into danger. Will anyone need rescuing? Guess you’d better come back in seven days to find out. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss it, you can sign up to my mailing list to get these stories by e-mail. There’s no cost, no obligation, and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.


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