A few years back I had the opportunity to write a short story for an anthology collection Beyond the Gate (Free!) taking place in the world of The Dream Engine (by the guys from the Self-Publishing Podcast, Sean Platt and Johnny Truant) which was a Steampunk novel set in a place where a great Fog surrounded the islands where the book takes place. Those who can avoid it, for within is a collection of nightmare creatures from the stories of old.
Anyway, my story was “The Secrets of Storytelling”, which focuses on one of the pilots living in this world, someone who is like a Rock-star on our world… and used his mouth and mind to tell the greatest stories.
Isaac Parkes twisted and turned through the throng of people gathered around the skyport. All eager to see the ferry shaws begin their next circuit supply run. All hoping for one more look at the ruddermouth pilots before they lifted off.
Isaac raced across the tarmac but not in an effort to be a spectator. He sidestepped an older woman who had painted her face a strange blue hue, nearly causing him to collide with a teenage girl, her eyes full of stars and hope. His satchel slid down his hand in the scuffle, but he kept his grip, leapt over another gawker, and shoved his way past the perimeter guards with a flash of his paperwork, though they did very little to verify much of anything. Too concerned with maintaining the lines for the rest of the mob, it seemed just acting as if you belonged was more than enough to allow you past their blockade.
Only fifty feet to the final shaw, he heard its engines fire up and begin their lift-off cycle. With no one between him and his goal his run transformed into a sprint. Back and forth he waved, trying to get the pilot’s attention. It did him little good. There was a stir in the engine. It would be only a few more seconds before the craft took to the skies, leaving him alone on the empty platform.
Just before the final lift, his hand found the passenger door and slid it open, hopping into the cockpit as fast as he could. His stomach lurched in time with the ascent, but he managed to keep his breakfast down. With a click, the door slid back into place, locked tight.
Now inside the craft he realized how heavy his breaths came and used the back of his sleeve to wipe away the sweat from his brow. Below them, he could see the crowd for what it was. A flash of red hair behind a handmade sign gave him the briefest pause. A memory from another time… then she was lost in the mass of women crying at the loss of their true love. Nearly fifty people saw them off. Their adulation was an impressive sight. Isaac wondered if they only felt that way for tonight’s lift-off or if this was a regular occurrence.
“About left you back there. Another coupla seconds and you’d have started walking.” The pilot startled Isaac. He turned to give the man his sincere thanks and the words wouldn’t come out. He started to stutter out some words again, but couldn’t make his mouth work like it was supposed to. There he was in the flesh. Never in all his years would he have expected to get his lift to Stensue from Lukas Byron. But it was him. The strong jawline, the dark hair with just the barest hints of gray peeking out told the truth of that.
Except once he took a good look at the pilot, he realized he’d gotten it wrong. This wasn’t the Lukas he’d seen two years earlier. Isaac still remembered the smell of the bar, a mixture of cigar smoke and bodies crowded into such a small room. He and his brother Sean arrived hours early, squeezed into one of the booths near the back where they could watch everything and everyone. Then the ruddermouths came in, full of thirst and swagger. He recognized a few of them, but it wasn’t until Lukas came in that the wait had been worth it.
Sadly, something had hidden that man from the world and replaced him with a doppelganger. That Lukas was a star, with his jet-black hair grown long enough to hide his eyes, but not enough to block a full smile displaying a full set of shiny ivory teeth. Apparently the years of long hauls and spinning yarns late into the night was tougher work than it appeared. Replaced by the four-day growth on his face, gray hairs were no longer content to hide from the world, fully announcing their presence. His jacket, worn thin in some places, was stitched together with hastily placed patches that were threatening to pull away from the leather. And while this Lukas still smiled, there was no longer a toothy grin attached. Instead, he gifted Isaac with a forced smile from a shell of a man.
The Lukas Byron he knew, the one everyone knew, told legendary tales, each one more fantastic than the last. He fought river creatures one day before stopping gremlins from destroying his skyship the next. Then there was a dogfight with a dragon, if you believed in that sort of thing. He was a man who made being a ruddermouth a goal to be had, not a consolation prize for those who aren’t picked for skyships or the zeppelins. He’d weaved his way through every city and every port, spinning his lies about adventures to the far side of the world.
Isaac would know. He owned the book. More than that, he had memorized the book. He could have recited the story about the hauntings at Aerohead when a group of ruddermouths were forced to stop overnight and nearly lost their lives.
And here, in this inner sanctum of his hero, he saw the proof. Pinned and stuck to the ceiling were an assortment of clippings, sketches, and fabric pieces torn from dresses, scarves, and possibly other things. These were his gifts from an untold number of fans.
Of course, Isaac knew the stories weren’t true. They couldn’t be anything other than simple tales. But he was fine with it. He’d always been one for stories and the like. When he was no taller than a doorknob, he’d lose himself in his father’s study. Books lined the walls, some stacked in the corner, and each time he touched a book a plume of dust lifted from its home. Each one held those old stories. His father liked to refer to them as Alterra’s old secrets. He’d say, “In those books you’ll get a picture of how things were.”
“You mean monsters and elves used to run around?”
“No. I mean you can understand what people believed many hundreds of years ago. Those are just stories. Stories your mother might kill me over if she knew you were reading.”
The shaw hummed through the night’s sky. Lukas rummaged in the front of his jacket and produced a flask. Isaac saw a tint of green liquid leak at the edges of the man’s mouth before he offered his cargo a sip of Thunderclap. Isaac shook his head.
“So, why’d you join?” When Isaac didn’t immediately respond, Lukas filled in the silence for him. “It’s going to be a long enough flight, and I’ve never had a partner up here before. Might be nice to have someone to talk to.”
“I suppose. Well, I-”
“Wait! Let me guess… you fell for the campaign didn’t you? That whole ‘Come and see the world’ bit. Am I right?”
It was a question Isaac found himself pondering many nights when he couldn’t sleep. He’d yet to find a satisfactory answer, so he countered, “Why’d you join up?”
“To see the world.” Lukas said the words without any hint of happiness or sadness. It was a matter of fact. “I was never going to see Waldron’s Gate or Yon or Stensue where I was. Grew up in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Just was never going to happen. Being a ruddermouth was my way out.”
Isaac found himself nodding. Maybe he wasn’t different from this man. Both of them thrown into situations because of circumstance more than anything else.
“The women don’t hurt either.” This time he gave a full-toothed smile, and Isaac couldn’t help but return it.
Isaac shifted in his seat beside the pilot. All the gears and instruments clicked and hummed as the shaw made its way through the air. “I’ve heard almost all your stories. I even have the book.”
“I’ve always wondered what part of flying opens your mind up to weave those tales. I mean, I know it must be lonely when you are making your runs. Especially when you’re going from Yon to Waldron’s Gate. No disrespect to the Builders, but you do what they do… just in story form.” Isaac wished he’d stop gushing, but he couldn’t help it. There were so many questions he’d had since he’d first started reading about Lukas. He saved every clipping from the papers, watched every news story produced. Now he was riding in a ferry shaw with the man.
“Oh that. The writer ended up listening to my stories and a bunch from other pilots. Took ten and slapped my name on it. I don’t honestly know which ones they used.”
“Are you saying they aren’t your stories?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I mean, I am pretty entertaining when I need to be. Ruddermouths always got stories to tell. Everyone knows that.”
Lukas stared out at the night. Below the cloud line they could still see the slow rolling fields underneath them. For some reason it reminded Isaac of what Jonah the Whale God’s ocean might be like. The grass swayed in time with the wind.
“Things are changing, though. Routes that were once sleepers… there’s a threat around every turn of a mountain or valley. Every…” Lukas trailed off. “I shouldn’t say anything.”
“What? What shouldn’t you tell me?”
“Let me ask you a different question first. Where have you been?”
“All over,” Isaac said.
“Waldron’s Gate?” When Isaac shook his head, Lukas continued, “Then you haven’t been anywhere. But it’s alright. You’ll be there soon enough.”
The squawkbox lit up the cockpit with its flashing glow. The voice on the other end reached out through the air to try to find an anchor to someone. Static cut the words into broken pieces. “Something hit… going to try…”
Lukas touched the box. “Where are you?”
“Thirty miles out… on the way to Thestic.” Static ate the rest of the communication.
“Do you know where that is?” Isaac asked.
“Damn fool, trying to cut his route short after I warn him to stick to the tried and true ways. Yeah, I know good and well where he is.”
Isaac clenched his hands, tightening his grip on the dashboard, knocking off a random keepsake. He leaned forward in his seat, as if the movement would allow them to travel faster. Lukas shook his head at the gesture. “Oh, you’re a romantic… that’s why you want to be a ruddermouth. Well, with those doe eyes and full head of black hair, the ladies are going to love you.”
Isaac saw the crash site first when they came over the ridge. Flying low to the ground, above the treetops, Lukas pressed the shaw harder to get to the crash site. Not that it was possible to miss the blaze as it contrasted against the white-gray mist. The fallen shaw had carved a long trench, before coming to a stop at the edge of the Fog, half in and half out. Strewn pieces littered the ground, cogs and gears, as if someone had taken the Builder’s toy and destroyed it, turning the metal into nothing better than scrap.
“Hoped they’d not be this close to that blasted thing.”
No matter where you lived in Alterra, the Fog surrounded you. Maybe if a person happened to live where it intruded, it might occupy their thoughts a bit more. For most it was like the Crown or Jonah the Whale God; it just was. To Isaac, though, this was something else. He’d spent so much of his life away from this edge of the world. Horrible things pulled and probed at a person’s psyche from within that great unknown. He’d seen it firsthand.
Lukas pointed at the white curtain. “You’ve seen it before?”
Isaac croaked a reply, “Yes.” He’d seen it many years earlier.
“My sister… Penelope.” Isaac wasn’t sure why the words began to flow. Something about the pilot seemed eager to hear another story perhaps. “She was fearless. Always calling me out when I didn’t want to go exploring in the woods near our home. She’d always pick the highest tree and climb it. I can’t remember who dared the other one first, but it didn’t take any convincing. She walked right up to the edge of the Fog and reached out to touch it. That was all she was supposed to do. And then, for some damned reason she turned and looked at me… flashed me that smile of hers, and her red hair trailed her into the mists.”
“By the Crown,” Lukas muttered.
“I called for her. I screamed her name into the nothingness.” Lukas nodded and Isaac continued, “I lost track of the time… maybe it was a minute, maybe ten minutes. My voice was hoarse when she finally reemerged. I didn’t notice at the time, but there was something different. Like she’d lost a piece of herself. The light behind her eyes had grown dull.
“We didn’t notice it immediately. But all the same something was different. She was a little off. Not big things at first. She forgot things. Time suddenly didn’t concern her. Where before she’d always hated being late to anything, instead we’d find her wandering around the farm without a care.
“One night we found her hiding in her closet with a knife. She was screaming about the darkness becoming alive. I thought maybe she hadn’t taken her Crumble, but that wasn’t the case either. She was slipping. And when she attacked our brother Sean two nights later… that was the end.”
Isaac took a deep breath, but his voice cracked anyway. “We had no choice.”
Lukas said the words for him, “Joffrey Columns.”
Isaac nodded and wiped the wet from his face, long repressed emotions resurfacing. Lukas placed a hand on his shoulder. It was an awkward movement, though the meaning behind it was well intended. The final descent jarred both men back to reality and the burning ship below.
John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. The Trade paperback collecting the first 4 issues is finally back from the printers! If you would like to purchase a copy, go here!
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His other prose appears in The Dark That Follows, Hollow Empire, Beyond the Gate, and Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows.
He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com