Sunday, 1 January 2017

Building steam

Jump-start my heart...
Doors wheezed open as Calquin ran towards them.  His boot-heels rang on the metallicised floor of Queen Isabella Hall and the echoes bounced from the high, arched ceilings.  A group of students, stood together and comparing notes on tablets, halted their conversation and stared after him, but he paid them no attention.  The guard-bots on duty at the door turned slightly towards him, coloured lights playing over their synthiskin as they bounced lasers, masers and (illegally, experimentally) grasers off him.  Whatever data they received failed to animate them further and Calquin ran through the doors and out on to Isambard Bridge.  Behind him the doors wheezed shut again and there was a solid clunk as huge iron cogs turned and locked the doors in place.  The students stared for a moment longer and then returned to their notes and tablets.  It was nearly six minutes later when one of them paused in mid-sentence and looked back towards the doors.
"Those doors," she said.  "They're the ones that everyone's prohibited from opening."
Isambard bridge was empty save for Calquin.  One end was blocked by the doors to Queen Isabella Hall, doors that weren't ever opened so no-one had any reason to walk up to them.  The other end, nearly a half kilometre away, opened onto a concrete platform that was the entire safe area of the Bristol quagmire.  Laser and maser emplacements on the edges of the platform kept anything from coming out of the quagmire.
The bridge was built of red-brick and iron and crossed the Eyric timestream, a cataract of seething, roiling time that crashed against the supporting pillars and dashed itself into a fine spray that could add or subtract seconds from the lives of anything it landed on.  The air around the edges of the bridge was hazy and odd eddies of air breezed across here and there as pressures from the past and future popped in and out of existence in this time.  Looking down from the sides of the bridge there seemed to be a white mist that rose upwards, thinning out as it reached the edges; looking up the sky seemed to narrow into a point of light with no sun visible in the constricted sky.
Calquin continued running along the bridge.  His face reddened as he ran and his chest heaved under his double-breasted military jacket.  His gun holster slapped at his thigh as he ran, and against the other leg he held his scabbard so that it pointed behind him and didn't trip him.  His boot heels continued to click on the brick surface, and a casual observer would realise that he was running out of desperation.
As he finally left the bridge and ran on to the concrete platform he slowed enough to get enough breath together to shout out a name: "Valerie!"
Birds flapped and squawked, rising in huge black clouds from the trees of the quagmire.  His cry was quickly lost in a mass of water, loose-time, ancient woods and dark, aquatic grasses.  The emplacements at the edges of the platform, tall, harpoon-like gun on rotating gimbals to allow them to cover all the platform, spun abruptly.  Their movements were like flashes of lightning in a stormy sky, and within the space of two heartbeats they were all focused on Calquin.  As he ran on they tracked him, holding fire while they waited to see what he would do.
A smell like spoiled milk rose from the waters that lapped at the edges of the platform and a mist -- a real mist this time -- curled around the creeper-wrapped branches of grey trees with sparse leaves at the ends of long, limb-like twigs.  Something honked mournfully a small distance away, and what might have been a fog-horn blared back.  Something dripped or splashed, and then one of the emplacements spun again and fired.  An electric blue spark seemed to leap from it to something shadowy in the thickest part of the mist and there was an inhuman scream and a smell of freshly peeled oranges.  Mist coiled and swirled and reddened slowly.
Calquin halted, one foot in the water and the other still resting on the concrete.
"Valerie!" he called again.  There was a plaintive note in his voice, a hint of desperation.
His jacket stirred as a wind rose up and then tugged away from him as the wind grew stronger.  He turned, hearing the familiar but unwelcome throb of thaumatic engines, and saw the airship Freiburg holding position above the concrete platform.  There was a egg-shaped film around it with colours rippling across its surface like oil across water; here and there the colours splashed as though something had collided with them.  The splashes spread out and dissipated slowly, but even as Calquin watched he could see that the number of splashes were steadily increasing.  He started to turn away, but as he did so his eye caught a movement and he blinked and looked back.  A rope-ladder fell, unravelling chaotically, until its lowest rung was barely three feet above the concrete platform.
His legs betrayed him.  His mind wanted to stay on the platform, staring into the mists and the quagmire, waiting for Valerie's return, but his legs made him move, carried him forward towards the rope ladder.  As his hands gripped the rungs and he began the climb he could hear her voice in the back of his mind.
You will die out here, Calquin.  And how will that help me?  Leave, go now, and find a way to help me.  I'll wait for you.  I promise.
"You'd better," he muttered under his breath.  "Because I will be back."
The wind swung the ladder back and forth and each additional rung was a little harder as he had to force himself to relax his grip on the ladder, risk being pulled off by the air-currents, and then grab the next rung and pull himself up.  His arms ached, his legs ached from trying to keep the ladder taut and tensed against the treacherous air, and his lungs ached from the running he'd done in the first place.  Nothing felt good, and when he looked down he realised he'd already come too far to let go now; the fall would definitely kill him.  Then he climbed through a circular hole in the belly of the airship and the wind was gone and the crew of the Freiburg were around him, tending to the machinery and magical apparatus that made the damned thing fly, and a deep voice behind him said,
"It's about time, Calquin."

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