May 2, 2012

Well, I missed Monday and I couldn’t post yesterday ’cause, well, I was participating as much as I could in the General Strike.

So here’s two chapters!

Chapter Six
The small transport ship I was on swung low under the weather awnings of the Blue dock to The Vega and settled on the landing rails with a soft chorus of clicks, then drifted slowly down the track jutting out from the massive landing platform until it settled against the permanent gangplank and unloading structure. I stood near the aft rails and watched as the others on board milled about as the gangplank was locked and secured so they could exit. So they could disappear into a vacation of debauchery and excitement. One of the gentlemen on board had even brought a sporting saber, perhaps to engage in the (technically illegal, but grudgingly allowed) gentleman’s clubs that existed under the hotels. Such are the entertainments of the wealthy and the young; dangerous, clandestine, and inscrutable.
I sauntered down the gangplank last, smiling warmly to the attendant automata and their mechanic-handlers. Near the unloading zone, with my bags carefully arranged for me, was a trolley operator in a pressed suit of dark green wearing a smile and open intent. “Where to, m’lord?” I inhaled softly and slowly and smiled at him in the brightest and emptiest fashion. “Why, I’m not sure my good man! I have a prediliction for boys and girls gaily dressed and for the amusements of the Orient, pray tell where I might find these?”
The valet smiled softly and comfortably as he settled into what was for him an old game. “Why sir, just this morning a spot opened up in the Red Dragon Hotel! Perhaps I might secure this for you, and you will easily find a few beautiful shows and numerous games of Mahjong between meals at the Imperial Palace, which is a wonderful little eatery that serves the finest in pan-Chinese cuisine. Especially for palates as discerning as yours, m’lord. Are you visiting from nearby?”
I smiled placidly and shook my head slowly, “Oh no my dear fellow, I live clear across this blasted country in much nicer climes closer to Her Majesty’s protectorates in the north. I came down here to see this wonder of modern technology with my own eyes, well as soon as there was a break in my business that is.”
He began to load my bags into a small trolley car pulled from the main track and opened the side door for me. “Business, m’lord? Might I enquire as to what it is you do?”
I waved negligently to the air around us and sighed. “It’s of no importance, my boy. It’s actually rather boring – I edit the standards and strictures for the examinations in universities across the Empire. It’s quite boring work overall – cleaning up after absent-minded professors, attempting to outsmart students, reading through great volumes of reasoning from previous years. Why, there was this one young man who tried to prove to me that fish the world over are a derivative species of the common sparrow! His reasoning was, while fanciful, quiet well arranged. I fear that he is a prime example of the problems of boredom among bright students on the paths of law and reason.”
I believe my blathering was successful as the valet, while entertained, seemed to be forgetting me almost immediately as he helped me into the trolley. In the dim history of the Empire, it was simpler to be a traveling merchant or some sort of peasant once the Serf class has been abolished, but now it was the roving professional that was so quickly forgotten. The Empire burgeoned with a growing – both in size and power – middle class that dominated the Parliament with its demands. Safer roads, better schools, higher wages, fairer businesses. The Queen, in her infinite wisdom, saw no issue to side with the shrinking noble population, even while handing out land to new Dukes and Barons throughout the Empire, and oversaw the growth of this fifth estate with gentle admiration. “Small kingdoms,” she has said, “grow from the hearts of strong families. To that end, we protect the men and women who cause our Empire to function properly. They are our heart, they make our kingdom strong.” Because of this support,if you were of the working people who built and fixed the engines of Empire you were the most invisible person in the world.
To this valet, I’m one of thousands of working professionals he’ll interact with, doing something semi-interesting but largely forgettable. No one noble, no one rich, no one poor, no one that stands out. No one that he’ll ever remember.
By the time we arrived at the Red Dragon, he had already forgotten about me. I unfolded several paper notes from my wallet and stuffed them into his hand in thanks, enough to pay and a generous but not amazing tip, and I was just a fistful of money and a curios job to him as I stepped through the doors of the hotel.
My performance, I like to think, was magnificent.
I stumbled in with my bags on a cart behind me and gaped. The outside of the building was demure and reserved, red silk banners hung in front of a beautiful but staid edifice. Inside, however, was beautiful. I had seen it before, of course, but John Rathess of the East End had never seen it before. I let my eyes grow wide as I took in the gold ornamentation, the huge fresh-water fish tank standing before the innkeeper’s desk, and the richly carpeted series of sunken dens between the walkways (which were all paneled in teak with brass handrails overlooking the sunken areas). Between each sitting area were curtains of sheer silk, in the same crimson that covered most of the room, and accented with golden cables. The chairs and tables were all made of carved blocks of wood and upholstered in red velvet with thick padding. The final touch, on each table, was a still steaming kettle of water and tea pot with a set of small jars. While I couldn’t read any of the jars as I came in, I recognized the smells of green, oolong, and pu-erhs. Then my vision fell onto the greeter, right infront of me, a young Chinese woman in a beautiful red gown and flanked with waiting bellhops. “Welcome to the Red Dragon, a bastion of Imperial China in the British Empire.”

Chapter Seven
I stood in my room looking out over the flying city, stretching and planning what to do next. The hotel was a wonderful place to plan from, given its location. The old building was one of the first put up on the ship before it even left the ground, so it has a position close enough to the circus at the center to oversee the entire courtyard. In case I somehow run afoul of the…controlling interests of The Vega, I’ll have plenty of time to see their enforcers coming. I had my equipment laid out on the bed behind me, at least the items I received in London along with my guns and my bracers.
My purpose on the airship was to locate a smuggler’s union that ran out of the circus at the center of town. With their assistance, I should be able to get into Magus Lehrer’s workshop. I should be able to get close enough to the Queen’s target to help her take his head from his shoulders and restore the natural ways of order in the Empire. Long ago, though, I learned that these kinds of operations came with the subtle chance for promotion by ferreting out exactly why any particular target was destined for the headsman. Especially under Director Masterson, these sorts of operations normally have a stink of a mess that needs to be cleaned up. An issue resolved. A loose end tied.
With those thoughts haunting me, I donned my disguise and left my room.
The air was crisp outside, though not as cold as even a London spring. I was glad to have a light scarf and my hat though. I feel awkward wearing the top hat, I much prefer a modified Stetson, perhaps because of living in the New World, but it’s known too well as my hat. Too recognizable by the enemies of the Empire.
I walked with a gentle gait through the crowd, staring occasionally at the statuary or the beautiful hotels inspired by the far-flung corners of the Empire, but spent most of my attention listening to the conversations around me. I walked nearly an entire circuit around the man-made sky island listening to people gossiping about the latest skirmish with the Dark Continent or another amazing Yogi from India or the technical advances from Berlin and Munich and Bombay and New Amsterdam and wherever else. Then I heard what I was looking for – a couple quietly whispering over a pair of drinks at a small Parisian-inspired cafe. To the outside world they may have been talking about clandestine meetings in an alleyway or a rich and discrete hotel room. To the trained ear, like my own, it was clear that they were discussing the meeting place for the smuggling ring I was looking for. Unfortunately, though, one of them had the look of a Special Dispatch Constable – the Queen’s department for tracking down and halting truly impressive criminal enterprises.
With her here, things were bound to be tricky, at the very least.
The next meeting would be behind a small Vaudville stage under the small-tops of the circus, after a visiting band playing some new form of electric instrumentation was done playing for the night. The band is running a front for the smuggling operation running the Western coast in the Americas and would be meeting with their factor here on the airship. While I normally like to arrange these meetings before I show up, I didn’t have the time with the constable here. I quickly hurried back to my room to prepare. Unfortuantely, the thug I encountered already had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up. And he had obviously been fighting down on the docks for a decade or so before, or possibly during, his work with the Constables. While I do have obvious advantages from being able to dilate time, there’s something to be said about raw power, speed, and surprise. At least this is how I explain taking the first shot he threw right to my jaw and spun into the door as if  I were in the ballet.
I wouldn’t let him get a second chance against me, sir. No, I lashed out behind me with a stiff kick and faced him properly. Fists up and shoulders squared, jaw still ringing like a bell. I was nervous from the strike, though. It’s hard to best a man with the strength of an ox. My heart fell even further when he grinned. His jaw had been struck so many times that his teeth leaned whichever way the wind was blowing, it seemed.
I parried his next shot, a rather wide haymaker, with a back-handed press and followed it with a lunging strike to his kidney then slipped past him into the room, mostly to get away from the confining space near the door. He grunted as he fell into the wall, especially after I pushed him, and stood straight with a flailing backhand. Expecting this, however, I had already retreated far outside of his range. I watched him pull himself up and crack his neck then settle into a prize-fighter’s stance. I inhaled sharply and spun out my perceptions.
Watching him breath I quickly came to prize my one advantage. Given his easy breathing and the look of the veins in his neck and forearms, he wasn’t the brash thug I took him for. He was measured, controlled, professional. He was just also, perhaps, part Clydesdale.  His hands flexed slowly as he prepped his next attack, his shoulders were hunched and waiting. It looked like he was briefed on me, his style compact and his stance tight and stable. He did have a limitation, however – too great a focus on boxing and Classical wrestling. He leaned too heavily on his forward knee. I inhaled deeply and stepped back into a light, back-foot heavy stance. Kicking out that knee may be my only hope.


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