Tell me what you think! Some things to note:

Heather January is a 12 year old tomboy in a misogynist society. In her world, women are considered second class citizens. She lives in a vast underground city in “Southern Palachia,” the southern part of a thin continent that stretches from the equator to the near the north pole. Heather’s biggest problem is she was an assistant to a professor, but he left rather abruptly, saying she should go to a normal school for girls where she can learn to make dresses, wear fancy hats, and learn how to get a husband. This didn’t sit well with Heather AT ALL and when the professor left, she decided to take matters into her own hands which is where we start this chapter. I think this will be the first half of Chapter 3. I chose it because it has a little action and some great descriptions of the steampunk world I created.

Note, this still needs some editing. It’s been spell checked and had the once over for grammar, but as I always say, “Spill Czech hers arr knot purr fact.” There will be some stuff fleshed out, maybe a few paragraphs pared down. Typos have a tendency to slide away from your eyes while you are looking for them, too. I also hope I didn’t embarrass myself with some basic plot contradiction like I did once where a character was mute, yet a few chapters later could speak without explaining why. Gaaah.

This is about 5500 words. I hope you like it! 😀


This is copyright 2010 Grig Larson. All rights reserved. No publishing or reprint is allowed without strict permission from the author.

People from the lower levels of the Palachian cities were considered a dangerous lot. Mainly laborers and manufacturers, they were a motley mix of various expatriate nationalities, illegitimate offspring, and criminal elements that formed the bowels of civilization. Heather’s city level was a few levels above what was considered “safe enough for an organized constabulary,” so her worries of remaining hidden were mainly lawmen of various types more than any criminal element. Criminals were fairly rare, making the constabulary more aloof and nonchalant than some of their harder working brethren below. During the working hours, her main concerns with being out of school were the police and truant officers.

Heather had seen the truant officers on patrol, but as usual, they were more interested in getting free drinks than keeping an eye out for small urchins skipping school. They never looked for children among the utilities and gangplanks; those places were hot and humid, and the heavy felt uniforms were often too hot and stiff for running after people in such environments. The constant hissing and rumbling also disguised footsteps, and the clouds of steam that condensed near cold ventilation ducts often obscured everything in a clingy fog. Heather knew the maps of all the local utilities like she knew the veins on the back of her hand, which helped if she had to suddenly change course, or had to run through them blindly. She made sure to vary her course with every trip she made, and spent the hours alone on utility catwalks and gangplanks near the stone ceiling of her city. There, partially obscured by giant street lamps, she would sit and look over the usual sights one can see of a city up high in its rafters. But it was difficult to stay so close to the realm of smoke and fog for more than an hour before one’s lungs became clogged with the slime and grease mixed with the slithering mists. So she had to keep moving. Sometimes she’d stay in one of a few vacant buildings, or curl up in space between two large pipes and catch a snooze in the lazy heat. She had enough sense to know when workers were about, or notice the telltale signs of someone else who was not supposed to be in hidden places. While criminals were rare, she knew that they still existed, and would not think twice about harming a small person such as herself.

While Heather did her duties planning the Professor’s trip down to the smallest details, she skipped one vital task: she did not sign herself up for school. The professor was so busy with something that upset him greatly, he only asked her twice, and Heather each time made an excuse she needed something from him, which had had forgotten. And as he was focused very much on packing and leaving, he never remembered again. When she got the ticket back for the Iron Horse, the large train that connected Upper Palachia with Eastern Rokasia, the professor shook her hand, and said he liked working with her, and he would give her high marks and hand over transcripts when he returned. Then he was gone.

Heather was now an illegal free agent; she was a minor youngster who did not go to any school. As far as anyone knew, she still worked at the lab. For the first few days, she hid in some areas she knew were secret to everyone but steam and ventilation personnel. Normally, she would have been considered bold and free by the romantic fiction of the time, but she was very realistic about her situation. Unlike the famed gypsy lifestyle of some of the lowest levels of Palachia, she did not have the luxury of a lax social climate run by corrupt and lawless sections of civilization. She lived in the middle levels where people were poor enough to work for their wages, but paid enough taxes to support essential sanitation and constabulary services. Before, she always had the luxury of providing papers to any truant officer who might have stopped her. Signed and stamped by the Queen’s Regent Education Department, she always had a small passport to travel as she wished. Usually she was on errands for the professor, and the small booklet gave her a sense of security as she passed by adults with wandering eyes. In the two years she had worked for the Professor, she was only stopped half a dozen times by a new officer in the force who didn’t know her face. But now she could not risk being stopped, so she was very cautious. She still had the passport, but it was about to expire at the end of the week. And if she was caught with NO schooling to claim her… she had no idea what would happen to her, but it was probably very unpleasant.

After a few days of eating some stolen cheese and hard tack from her home pantry while pretending to be at work, Heather felt she had to keep moving forward with her plan. The atmosphere of the hidden areas of civilization was dangerous if she wasn’t careful, and she knew every day was a risk of being discovered, or worse, attacked by unsavory men who prowled the areas away from the prying eyes of the law. Her mother was beginning to suspect something, too, as Heather’s clothing was always far dirtier than normal, and Heather feared her mother would complain to the professor that her daughter shouldn’t be allowed to work in such conditions, given her “new feminine issues.”

Heather didn’t exactly know what she was doing. She was glad she didn’t reveal to anybody her plan, because she wouldn’t have had a good answer if anyone had asked. Apart from her family she had no friends, as being a tomboy was considered incredibly mortifying at her age, and thus, nobody else would notice her missing. She knew one thing: she would NOT be forced to wear dresses at some dreadful public school like her sister. She was not going to waste her days learning how to cook, sew, dance, and service her future husband in some premeditated destiny set for all women in her society. But what would she do instead? She felt that the Professor’s lab would be unoccupied, and since he had left in such a hurry, he had most likely neglected to tell anyone he was leaving. The only neighbors they had were a small dance studio at the other end of the building, and one of the floors below the lab housed a small law office. The professor was so dour and cheerless to their neighbors, they never came round except, perhaps, to investigate a noise that had been going on for days. He was even less friendlier to their landlord, and that woman was so scared of the professor that she only communicated via notes slipped under the door. For right now, Heather had to pretend that the Professor was still working in his lab, was too busy to see anyone, and then… what?

Heather had laid awake in bed the night the professor left and hatched a plan. After laying low for a few days, she was going to pretend to continue working for the professor, forge some education paperwork, and then spend the entire time in the lab learning as MUCH as she could about anything and everything mechanical or scientific. She felt that if she proved herself as a competent engineer, she would not be asked to act like a lady. And when the professor returned, he would see she wasn’t some silly little girl with schoolgirl crushes and affections for things named after candy.

Heather knew that the Professor would have closed off all the major access points, such as the main door, the service entrance, and probably even the ventilation windows. All were simple common sense security precautions, so she didn’t even try those entrances. But she knew his absent mindedness would probably preclude some of the less obvious accesses to the lab, and if she could get in through a ventilation shaft or even one of the flues, she could open up a more convenient way to get in and out.

Down an alley behind some steam pipes there was a hole in a vent grating that was not large enough for a normal person, but for Heather’s size, it was just enough. Or it used to be. In the last few months it seemed her hips got a bit larger than she realized, and this was unusual for her since she was always a little on the undernourished side. She also noticed her chest had been getting a little raw and sore as they rubbed over her work shirt. Her mother had suggested she start wearing a small camisole, but the very thought of wearing something so feminine, even under her work clothes, was repugnant. The last month it seemed like her whole body was rebelling against her: cramps, bleeding, sore chest, and her pants weren’t fitting so well. So when her skin scraped across the ragged rusty edges of the vent grating, she winced and trembled, which only seemed to make the problem worse. She managed to keep down her swearing, as she didn’t want people to see where the voice was coming from, but it was a difficult task.

Eventually, using a scrap piece of metal, Heather bent back the sharper edges of the grating and lowered herself down into a small metal box that connected some of the lab’s machinery to the pressure vents. There was a huge set of gears and mechanics connected to the “root machine,” the enormous machine that ran their world from deep under the ground. She quietly tip-toed across the metal, gingerly distributing her weight to make sure the small wooden support struts didn’t give way from under her. When she got to an access panel, it was trivial to pop the rusted screws from the other side with her thumb, but she didn’t catch the metal sheet that covered it in time, and cringed as it fell away and clattered a dozen feet below. She stayed still, peering into the darkness, wondering if anyone heard her.

After a few minutes of breathless silence, it didn’t seem like anyone had noticed. Heather crawled out the hole and lowered herself down. She had no idea what lay below her. She couldn’t see in the pitch black, and she heard the metal plate had struck something complicated when it fell, possibly a work table covered with various objects. When she last left the lab, she remembered that the area was clear and free, but she didn’t know what the professor had moved when he packed for his trip. Usually when he was busy trying to find something, he’d leave the lab in complete disarray. He’d move storage chests, tables, and even entire rows of bookshelves around. As she dangled from the edge of the access shaft on the wall, she swung her the tips of her toes in the darkness, hoping to touch something. Nothing but air met her swinging.

After a few minutes of trying to figure out what she should do, the edges of the shaft started to cut into her fingers. Her nerve of just dropping down straight would have to be resolved because now she couldn’t climb back up without a severe amount of pain. She braced herself, and let go, intending to drop straight down.

Despite her intentions, both hands did not commit at the same time. Heather swung wildly to one side and then dropped at an awkward angle into the unknown. She hit something solid to her left, which spun her backwards. The back of her legs hit something else, and for a brief moment she felt the solid floor of the lab hit her back ribs and shoulder blades. Before she could even think to protect her head, her neck and the back of her skull smacked the granite with a loud crack.

Heather’s next memory was a huge array of lights sparkle in front of her. She didn’t know how long she laid in the darkness. Maybe only moments, possibly minutes, or longer. She tried to get up, but more stars swam into her vision with accompanying blinding pain. While she expected to be hurt from the fall, she was not prepared for this level of disorientation. She was aware of a loud ringing in her ears as she rolled back in forth in confusion. Her neck was stiff and felt oddly out of joint. Her stomach heaved in protest as she moved her head, and she wasn’t sure if she had vomited or not. She tried to crawl around in the inky darkness, but couldn’t get a bearing on where she was in the lab, so after a few minutes of confused stumbling, Heather just lay down and tried to quell the panic.

Eventually, she felt more at ease, and tried to assess the situation. She was in complete darkness on a hard granite floor. Her voice was hoarse, and she realized she might have been screaming. Her hair was sticky and crusty, but she didn’t know what from. Her whole body ached like she’d been beaten, and as she tried to sit upright, her stomach lurched like she had been spinning around too fast like she did when she was little. And much to her annoyance, she realized she was crying. With much difficultly, she tried repeatedly to stand up. It wasn’t easy at first; she had no visual points of reference, and her internal balance was all but gone. She stumbled around on her shins and knees until she crashed nosily into the metal access panel strewn on the floor. She dimly realized that a quiet entrance to the lab was now ruined, however nobody seemed to be coming to see what the fuss was about. She was worried someone would check on the commotion and see how badly she had injured herself. While she would have normally considered this a good thing, she realized this would complicate matters; she didn’t know if she really wanted to explain how she had gotten that way even though she had a right to be in the lab, technically. Whatever had happened, she was on her own and had to get out of this mess without an adult’s help.

After a few more wobbly minutes, she was holding herself upright on the edge of a work table, resting across it for stability. She felt a little better, and after she was sure she could stay upright without much assistance, she started to feel around the room.

Heather knew the layout of the lab’s walls, along with some immovable objects like large pipes and shafts that ferried steam, gave ventilation, or were part of some mechanical equipment. The first thing she tried to establish was a light source, but the only light the labs offered were from gas lamps, and she thought they might have been switched off in the professor’s absence. She also didn’t want to alert anyone she was there by suddenly lighting up the entire room. While she probably could have spent half a day feeling around for some candles and phosphor sticks, she knew an easier way.

Trolley.

Trolley was the power that fueled the entire world. An alluring yellow-green mineral that glowed brightly, the heat it gave off was used to generate steam that powered everything from the small trams that crisscrossed Palachia to the massive machinery that operated the Sky Ring. Whenever there was something not moved by a person or an animal, trolley was behind it in some way. Due to its volatile nature, it was mined from only a few places, and was considered extremely dangerous for good reason. The professor had drilled this into Heather’s brain for weeks until she couldn’t help but recite the rules set to an ancient rhyme as she stumbled in the dark for the large metal storage vault.

Trolley is mined from the shallow seas,
And gives us the power to do our deeds.
If trolley is used in your working day,
Remember these rules, and respect their way.

Trolley must be sealed away from air,
Or harm will come to those who are unaware.
Trolley must be kept from the Sky Ring’s domain,
For the light from the clouds will kill and maim.
Trolley must be respected as if it’s alive,
Or misfortune will befall all who survive.

Trolley is mined from the shallow seas,
And gives us the power to do our deeds.
If trolley is used in your working day,
Remember these rules, and respect their way.

Heather’s fingers found the cold metal latch of the storage locker. She hoped the professor did not fix the broken latch as he kept saying he would for the last few years and was rewarded when, after a few shoves, the heavy titanium lid opened and warmed her face with a familiar yellow-green light.

Several dozen batteries lay on the bottom of the box, wallowing in a thick yellow-green mist. That mist was dangerous, Heather knew, because it meant one of the batteries had cracked and the trolley had been exposed to air. Trolley exposed to air would quickly degrade and form an acidic and poisonous mist that would slither around the floor and burn the ankles of anyone unfortunate enough to share a room with it. Breathing trolley gas in was a excruciatingly painful way to die. Legends of trolley miners exposed to it ended with their fellow comrades beheading them in order to spare them the agonizing last few minutes of having one’s lungs eat through their chest from the inside. In a more diluted form, trolley gas was also highly flammable. The mist in the storage chest quickly sealed the trolley from the air, and thus as long as Heather did not fall in the storage chest, she would be safe.

The only thing worse than exposing trolley to gas was exposing it to “lectromag,” a strange and unknown substance that naturally occurred in the sky on the surface of the world. A strange blue/white color, it was considered the snake that hunted trolley from its burrows. When lectromag came in contact with trolley, the explosion was so massive, that it dwarfed all common sense. Even in minute amounts, trolley touched with lectromag was known to dig craters miles wide and hundreds of feet deep. Luckily, one of lectromag’s properties was it could not function underground naturally, and it could not be stored. This is why all civilization took place deep below the surface, and the scant rural towns on the surface had no modern conveniences trolley provided. Surface people had to work from fuel provided by wood and coal which was dirty and inefficient. It is because of lectromag that trolley was almost exclusively mined by divers in thick suits underwater. Trolley was never brought to the surface until it was sealed in mineral oil in titanium canisters. Shallow seas and flooded mines held vast undersea factories that sized, processed, and sealed trolley in a safer form known as “batteries.”

Lectromag was far from Heather’s mind as she looked at the trolley mist that oozed inches over her light source. She eyed a few of the batteries, and picked the brightest one. Using a pair of tongs on a winch, she gently pulled the heavy cylinder from the locker, and she held her hand near it to feel how much heat it was giving off. The cold metal surface told her this battery was safe, and when she was certain the last remnants of trolley gas had fallen from it, she gently carried it over to a work table.

“It never gets old,” Heather said to herself as she looked into the small glass window that held the mineral. Even though the glow was fairly dim, in the surrounding darkness, it shined like a luminescent jewel, bathing her dirty face in a smooth greenish glow.

Heather surveyed the lab in the monochrome green light. It was a mess. The professor must have left in a hurry, given the litter on the floor and the scattered arrangement of the furniture. She hoped he forgot to lock some of his cabinets, as this would make her plans easier for her. The glow from her battery, along with the light from the storage locker was enough for her to get things done that she needed to do, and one of the first things she did was look for his seals.

After an extensive search, she concluded the educational seals were missing. The Professor had most likely taken them with him, and while this was a disappointment, Heather had predicted this possibility and had an alternate plan at the ready. In the desk drawer were a few seal imprints in wax the Professor had already made but never actually used. Sometimes it was to test a new wax, but also the Professor had an absent minded habit of making various letters, sealing them, and then never sending them. Heather took a few that she needed and set to work.

Using a fine plaster compound, she made a reverse cast of the wax seals and set them to dry. Then she took her battery, and hooked it up to a metal casting mold. She carefully turned the dial on the battery, making the trolley inside contact two copper plates. As the trolley touched the oxidized metal, it started to glow brightly and the battery started to heat up significantly. She connected this to the bracket in the smelting mold, and set it aside on a fireproof area of the work bench.

Heather then set to work to clean the rest of the lab up. Her head stung something fierce, and sometimes it was difficult to move or stand because she would become dizzy or nauseous. She tried her best to clean her hair up in the lab sink, but it was difficult to wash her hair as the bump on the back of her head hurt with sharp pains from even the slightest touch, and even lightly pressing the wound made her sick with pain. She thought of a dozen stories to explain the wound to her mother when she got home, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on forming a good story. She often had to sit and rest until the spots of lights stopped, or until the room stopped spinning. She had never felt this way before, and was more than a little scared.

When Heather was done cleaning her hair, she closed the trolley storage chest, and found a few phosphor sticks and some candles. After she lit up a few hand lanterns, she set to work moving equipment back to a sane location about the lab. She also put away some of the books, and as she did so, she came across a few about Korisan and Rokasian languages. Instead of putting them away, she put them in a different pile. Using a grease pencil and some scrap paper, she made notes on which books had been moved and which ones might be missing. She didn’t have a mental map of ALL the books the professor had, since he must have had several thousand volumes in the lab alone, and twice as many in his apartment upstairs, plus a few areas in storage at the local bank vaults. But she did notice some gaps, and since she had alphabetized them, she made some pretty good guesses which ones he took with him.

Heather figured out the professor had taken a few translation books with him, along with a few slim books of his own notes where they were written in cryptic languages, like Korisan and Rokasian. During a few minutes in thought while redressing her head wound, she decided the best place to start her own lessons was to learn these languages. She figured this would impress the professor the most when he returned, and her would eat his words about her wanting to learn them because they “looked pretty.” The memory of her slip up made her cringe. Above all, she would be able to read his notes, which she considered to be of great future value. It was difficult to decide which books she should start with, because unlike children’s books, there was no “My First Korisan” with pop-ups and pictures. Trying to remember how she learned to read, she remembered teaching her sister with small, easy-to-read books. Often, they were books about “The League of the Brave,” which had a lot of action in their comic panels, and the dialogue could be inferred from the action. But there were no Korisan comics, either. All Heather knew about either language was Korisan was both a subset and an root to Rokasian. To learn one was to learn the other eventually, but she decided to start with Korisan, because like reading books on older machinery, one could learn about new machinery by knowing where it originated from, even if it had evolved. Sadly, there were even less Korisan books, so she set aside a few books that looked simpler in both languages to cross-learn them.

After a few hours of her janitorial work, the mold she set aside was hot enough to melt a small amount of copper. Usually, this process was used to recreate gears or cast a brace on an existing broken gear. Instead, Heather was going to recreate the stamping heads that created the wax impressions. She added a few copper ingots and checked on the plaster casts. Given she was working with trolley closely, she didn’t bring over the lanterns, but tested a few gas lamps along the walls, and was happy to see that the gas was still flowing for now. She took the plaster, and held it over a lantern flame until the wax from the wax seal had melted and ran out, leaving a negative impression. Carefully, she cleaned out the remaining wax with a small copper brush, and set it aside.

When the copper ingots became wet and flowed easily in its bowl, she carefully poured the liquid copper into the plaster casts and let them gently cool on a warming plate overnight. She didn’t want them to cool too fast, as it might crack the plaster mold or damage the fine detail of the stamp. Before she left, she also wound all the clocks and swept a little. She made a mental note to REALLY give the shop a good cleaning before she started on her journey to prove to the Professor, to prove to EVERYONE, she was born to be an engineer.

As she left the door, she carried a spare key out with her. She said goodbye to the Professor as if he was still there, in case anyone was watching, and locked the door behind her.

The trip home was painful. Her thoughts were dull and faded as her head throbbed mercilessly. She decided to go with something generic and stupid-sounding, thus eliminating the need for explanations.

Her mother nearly screamed when she pulled back the makeshift bandage Heather had made. The doctor was summoned at once.

“I was on market square…” she said to the doctor. “… and I was hit on the head from behind. I think I was hit by someone carrying a large packing crate.” When asked about witnesses or who saw her or could anyone describe how she was hit, she would say it was difficult to remember and she wasn’t even sure how she got home. Or who bandaged her up. Oh woe was her.

“This is very serious,” the doctor said. “This is a severe blow to the head, and I can see down to the skull. She split her skin here and here. It’s like she must have fallen pretty hard. Look at her back.”

Heather cringed, but disguised it as pain. She hadn’t thought about the other wounds. Again, she used the “I don’t recall, it’s all a blur.” But this didn’t work out as well as she had planned. The constabulary was summoned. Heather’s lie was becoming very complicated, and she didn’t want that at all. The rather bored and slightly irritated lawman took down notes, but he dismissed her as a silly girl who probably fell or something, which upset her parents, and the rest of the evening, Heather was forced to listen to her parents, the doctor, and two policemen argue about what was to be done.

The doctor said that the wounds were indicative of being attacked by a thug. The policemen said that nothing of value was stolen, and they didn’t have proof she was attacked by anyone. Her father said that she had nothing of value, and the thugs probably didn’t know that until they searched her. Heather still stuck to her story that she didn’t have any memory of what happened. She kept her story as bland and repetitive as she could, stating she just walking down market square, pain in the head, crowds of people, and her stumbling home. Sometimes she would also add fake comments about not remembering what the police were doing there.

In the end, there was nothing but frustration on both sides. The police established a case ID, and said an investigator would be sent round later in the week. The doctor said Heather would have to be bedridden for the next week at least. This caused more problems.

“I have to go to work tomorrow, mother,” Heather said quietly. While the trolley hooked to the warming plate should be fine overnight, she was not sure about a whole day. Trolley was a lot like an open flame; you never wanted to leave it going unattended for a long time.

“No, dear. He’ll understand. Your father is going to see him right now.”

Heather swallowed her fear hard. “Um, I don’t think he’ll be in his lab this late…”

“Oh, you know the Professor. He works late. Just because you leave for the day doesn’t mean his work day ends, Heather.”

“I suppose…” Heather said. She thought about what the lab might look like. Of course, it would be easy to say the Professor did not come to the door because it was very late in the evening. But what if her father asked around? What if they said they hadn’t seen anyone in the lab for days? What if a neighbor overheard the professor leave? Her heart started to beat furiously as her mind, dizzy from a sedative the doctor had given her, tried to think of elaborate lies.

Rose January felt she understood the concern her daughter had. But her health was a priority, and a man of science would understand that. “Since he doesn’t pay you or us, he’ll be fine without a girl to wash his dishes and bottles for the time being.”

Heather scowled. “Is that all you think I do, mother?”

Her mother smiled. “Of course not, my love.”

“You think I am just his washerwoman?”

“Nothing wrong with that, dearie,” her mother scowled back.

Heather bristled in embarrassment. She had momentarily forgotten that her mother was, indeed, a washerwoman. She spent 12 hours a day, six days a week at the local cleaners, doing mostly large linens like tablecloths and hospital sheets. But Heather couldn’t help but ask, “Is that… what you always wanted?”

“Well, when I was your age, I fancied men. Of course, my father was a tram operator, and didn’t make a large salary. So I settled for love instead of a man who could afford to keep me as a caged bird. And I think I made the right choice.”

“No, I mean… did you dream you’d grow up and be a washerwoman? Don’t you ever want something else?”

Rose January sat back in her small stool and tried to think of something encouraging to say. “I never thought about it, really. I don’t mind having a steady job. I rather enjoy the satisfaction one gets when making the perfect crease. My boss is very nice. He gives us all bonuses for the holidays.”

“What did you think you would DO when you–”

“Enough questions,” Rose said as she tucked her daughter in with a warm smile. “I never knew such a chatty little monkey. You have had a hard day and you need your rest. I will tell Morganna to sleep on the sofa downstairs so you aren’t disturbed. Your brother will be told not to disturb you either.

“He’s five, He will remember that for…. maybe an hour. Then he’ll wake me up to tell me that he’s not allowed to disturb me.”

Rose chuckled. “I will have your sister keep him occupied. “Good night, Heather. Get some sleep.”

“I will, mother,” Heather said. But for a long time, Heather stared at the ceiling in the dark before her eyes finally closed.

This is copyright 2010 Grig Larson. All rights reserved. No publishing or reprint is allowed without strict permission from the author.

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