The sound of steam carriages and passing pedestrians floated up to Tao Wan through the darkness of a Bianjing night. The streets below were lit by gas lamps, far more sophisticated than the tarred log street lights back in the Kingdom of Xia, but up on the outside of the War Ministry, all was darkness.
Clinging to the stonework with her toes and the fingers of one hand, Tao slid a slender knife along a window frame, lifted the catch, and opened the shutters. Clad in loose grey clothes, she slid across the sill and into a corridor.
As she had expected, lamps were lit to guide the guards, but none were here now. Their next patrol should be in twenty minutes.
She strode silently down the corridor, opened one of a pair of imposing doors, and entered the Archive of Inventions. The room itself was a majestic machine, full of gears, pulleys, and belts, all set up to protect and secure documents.
A control console in burnished brass stood before Tao Wan. She didn’t have the key needed to operate it, so instead she forced open a panel and started rummaging around inside, removing bolts and repositioning gears, making it work for her. She pressed a carefully selected series of engraved buttons on the console then pulled a lever.
Gears rattled. Belts whirred. A piece of brass like a picture frame emerged from a slot in the wall and came towards her, hanging on a chain. It stopped in front of the control console and hung swaying a foot from Tao Wan.
She smiled in satisfaction at the blueprints for the new Chinese attack airship.
Tao Wan took hold of the frame and tried to open it.
It wouldn’t part.
With a frown, she turned it on the end of its chain. There was some sort of geared locking mechanism on the side, one that clearly needed a matching machine to make it work. She would have to hack that too.
There was a click. She opened a pouch on her belt, revealing a fat metal tube and a pocket watch. The click had come from the watch, a signal to tell her when time was nearly up.
The guards would be on their way, regular as clockwork. Regular as Chinese discipline.
She cursed under her breath. The time for subtlety was over.
Tao Wan tensed her arms then yanked hard on the frame. Chains rattled and gears groaned somewhere in the machine. She pulled again and this time a metal link broke. The frame came free and clanged to the ground.
From the corridor came a surprised shout and hurrying footsteps.
Still clutching the frame, Tao Wan ran out through the archive’s great doors. Guards stood at one end of the corridor, spears raised, staring at her.
“Stop, thief!” one of them shouted.
Tao ran back towards the window where she had come in. As she ran, she slammed the frame against the wall. It buckled and a corner gave way. She wrenched it open, pulled out the papers, and flung the frame back behind her.
The guards bellowed and picked up their pace. Tao Wan’s heart raced. The fate of spies was worse than mere execution, but that was nothing compared with the fate of her country if they couldn’t match Chinese technology. Almost at the window, she stuffed the papers into her tunic and pulled the tube from her pouch.
She flung the shutters open and leapt up onto the windowsill. Outside was darkness and a terrible drop. An airship was passing by, twenty feet up and a dozen out from the tower, like a low grey cloud passing through the night.
“Ha!” a guard shouted. “We have you now.”
The guards slowed, and when she looked back their expressions varied from smug to cautious, uncertain what sort of adversary they faced.
“It’s a hundred feet down,” their leader said. “But if you want to jump, we can peel you off the street instead of arresting you.”
Tao Wan pointed the tube at the airship and pressed its trigged. A barbed spearhead shot out, powered by a miniature rocket, trailing smoke and a slender rope. It buried itself in the gondola of the flying machine.
The rope tugged at Tao Wan as the airship sailed away from the tower. She grabbed hold with both hands and let it lift her from the window, swinging out over the city and away. Behind her, the guards pointed and yelled, but failed to draw the attention of the airship’s crew.
A mad burst of laughter swept through Tao Wan as she climbed up the rope. She had done it. She had got the plans and got out alive. Now all it would take was a little airship piracy and she would be on her way home.
For a longer and more subtle adventure from Tao Wan, check out my story “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” in Volume 14 Issue 2 of Electric Spec, out now.
And if you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.
Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.
For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.
Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.