Hello internet friends
Chapter 56 of Lead Heart is up!
Three women watched with vacant expressions as a small vessel lift off into the air. Wind from the propellers blew smoke and grass into their faces, yet no one moved until the crew’s focus shifted back away from them.
“Told ya they’d never help us get ‘uncle’ to the hospital,” Teena said smugly.
“What would we have done if they’d said yes?” Karina put her hands on her hips and eyed her sister. Teena casually hoisted a section of blown-out wall from the destroyed house and hurled it like a frisbee, revealing her springy sprinters.
“Didn’t even think that far ahead,” she admitted. “Warship crews are the same the world over. ‘We fly, you crawl.’” She snorted. “Besides, now we’re off the radar. For now.” She hopped up onto the steambuggy and fanned the charcoal as it slowly came to life under Leliana’s careful tutelage. “Fill ‘er up girl, I’ll do the pyrotechnics.”
Leliana laughed, relinquishing Teena’s striker back to the girl and making the dozen trips out to the well to fill the reservoir with water. Karina eyed the smoking ruin that used to be a house while they worked, nodding to herself. “I’ll be right back,” she said, disappearing around back. Ten minutes later, Leliana was fidgeting with knobs and levers all over the vehicle when Karina finally returned.
“What was that all about?” Teena called from the front passenger seat.
“I just let the family know they should be safe now, and to give it a couple of hours before they leave.”
“Why?” Leliana looked confused for a moment.
Karina shrugged. “Farmers all over the world get the same treatment,” she said. “I feel bad for destroying their lives? Least I could do is to let them know they’ll be okay.”
It was Leliana’s turn to shrug. “If it makes you happy. Ready to go?” The last she directed at Teena, who was scratching schematics into the dirt with a sliver of wood she’d picked up. Leliana and Karina stared at their companion unblinkingly until she finally caught on.
“Wha-? Oh, ah, right! Let’s see,” Teena climbed into the rusted iron vehicle to check the pressure gauge. The steam tank itself was of pretty decent size, but the furnace was woefully inadequate to keep a reservoir that size going full time as she had explained some time earlier. “Looks like we can probably head out as long as you take it slow?”
“Alright, let’s go!” Leliana leapt into the driver’s seat and the whole thing squealed alarmingly. Teena jumped in just as eagerly, followed by an extremely reluctant Karina.
“Where in the hells do you keep it all?” She complained.
“Ah, shut it. We’ll be fine!” Leliana punched the accelerator to the floor; wood-and-iron wheels sliced the air with shrieks of metal-on-stone as the entire vehicle circled 360 degrees. Leliana stomped the breaks as soon as she found her footing and the whole thing skidded to a stop. It groaned and tipped to the right. “Whoa!” Leliana leapt out in time to stop it from rolling. She broke out in sweat, slowly righting the vehicle to all four wheels.
“WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING?” Teena yelled, clutching the back of her seat where she’d barely managed to save herself from being catapulted.
“That was amazing,” Leliana grinned ear to ear. “No wonder those selfish bastards never let me drive back at the lab.”
“You…you mean you’ve never driven?” Teena paled. “Maybe one of us should driIIIIIIIIIIIIVE” She screamed as Leliana floored the accelerator again, managing to keep the steering-column straight.
“Are you kidding!?” Leliana yelled over the whistling wind. “This is easy!”
Karina and Teena’s replies were drown out by the cries of the buggy and the whooping of its driver as they careened down the road at breakneck speeds. More than once, all four wheels left the road after a small hill, the entire world dropping out from under them only to smash back into them moments later. Teena’s initial thirty minute trip estimate took less than ten minutes.
“SLOW DOWN,” Teena yelled. They neared the outskirts of the city, and the surrounding warehouses and military stores were teaming with people.
“Running over the guards is very conspicuous,” Karina chimed in as the cart slowed. “Your idea to act like country bumpkins was a good one, I think. Let’s keep it until we leave the city.”
Leliana reluctantly agreed as the gate came into sight.
“And let me do the talking. Neither of you speak a single word, you understand?”
“What about-” Teena started.
“Those are words. Quit that.”
Leliana smiled as Teena pouted from the front seat. The grin melted as two uniformed men barred their way through the gates.
“State your business.” One demanded, rifle shouldered.
“Well you see, milord, we’s uncle Tredicus taken a right nasty spill out yonder in them’n fields anon once that there gun started boomin’ it’s top.”
Leliana screamed internally with every fiber of her being to keep from melting into a puddle of laughter. Karina’s accent matched the officer’s almost perfectly.
“We’s hoped we could get a doc or least some medicine to get ‘im on his feet again if you catch my drift.”
The two men relaxed visibly as she spoke, guns returned to the holders on their backs. “Tredicus? Poor bastard,” the second man replied. “Get a goin’ with you then. Park in the two garages on your left, first two buildings. Can’t miss it.”
“Thanks kindly,” Karina waved him off with a silly back-and-forth sort of hand wag before settling back as Leliana drove through the gate.
Thankfully, Leliana had a feel for the pedals by now and managed just to shower the guards with dust as they sped through the gates. Monstrous slabs of steel and iron dug into the ground. They were at least a meter thick by Leliana’s estimation. The trio stayed quiet until they turned into an empty warehouse with stone markers indicating the parking spots, neatly lined perpendicularly to the entrance. Leliana drew a shaky breath, not sure she could trust herself to speak. “Where…what…How did you…”
“That was amazing!” Teena cut her off, “where did you pick that up so fast?!”
Karina giggled. “I practiced with the family in the shelter. I knew one of us needed to sound like they were from around here.”
They abandoned the cart and set off into town on foot. Leliana noticed a wide road along the inside of the wall leading South, which Teena explained as an express route for the military. Or anyone rich enough to purchase a pass. Vehicles were forbidden from the city streets due to their mechanical nature. Even the road from the gate was inset with a rail of some sort, a series of copper tubes diving into the concrete on one side and springing out again on the other.
“Whooa, this is one of the first designs they came up with a century ago,” Teena sprung along next to Leliana, trying to point at and explain everything in sight. “That whole building can RAISE UP and roll down this track to the edge of town, or anywhere along the walls! There’s even some places in the city where you have to be careful or they’ll run you over kersplat!”
“They don’t have a bell or something to warn people?” Leliana asked.
“Well they didn’t have any in Frederickshire when I was there last so I wouldn’t imagine they would but really the amount of smoke spitting into the air is a pretty deterring factor as far as pedestrian traffic goes, you know?” Teena pointed across the street into an alley where a big, fluted tube jutted about 3 meters out of the ground. “That thing is the exhaust vent, see? When they move the building, that thing will spit enough smoke and steam to choke an army.”
“I see,” Leliana said.
“What’s wrong!?” Karina ducked, scanning for danger.
“Do you have our wallet?!”
“I…I have my wallet?” she said tentatively.
“OHMYGOSH let’s go!” Teena sprinted uphill through a growing crowd of people, where a maze of stone and iron buildings belched steam and smoke into the air. The place looked like a ghost town, only with throngs of people darting in and out of the clouds. Most wore face masks to filter the air, though many did not.
“Wait!” Karina yelled. “I…” She looked from Teena to Leliana apologetically before running after her sister. “Teena!”
Leliana smiled. “Looks like I’m figuring things out from here,” she told herself. She gave herself time to wander the outer portions of the town. It had been a while since she’d had the opportunity, after all. Her first impression was…gross. The air was rank and smelled like the inside of a busted engine, and she gagged more than once when the wind shifted unfavorably. How do these people live like this?
She wandered aimlessly for an hour at least, maybe two. She avoided the shops, having no coin to her name. The bag she shouldered held a few days of food and her knife, but nothing of value.
Besides, that wasn’t what she was here for.
She kept her eyes peeled for any munitions storehouses or big piles of explosives just lying about, anything that may prove useful in creating a bigger diversion. The Protector said he’d be coming through that pass by the day after tomorrow, whether she’d been successful or not. She needed to capitalize on the chaos she’d already created. Even now, ships drifted lazily over the fields to the North instead of patrolling the mountain pass to the South.
If she could point some of that army inward somehow…
All this smoke was making it hard to think. The southern half of the city was further uphill than the markets she’d been walking around all day, and she saw considerably less pollution over there. She decided to check it out, and hopefully clear her lungs. She was groped and assailed more than once by poor souls down on their luck, looking to beg or steal what little she could possibly be carrying. Stepping over what she hoped to be unconscious or drunken bodies, she skirted the main market squares in favor of alleys and service roads when nobody was looking. Until the way forward was blockaded by an angry mob collecting in front of a dull wooden mansion.
The crowd was about one hundred strong, men and women, all sporting dark and stained tatters and grim signs. Some of them didn’t even have signs, they just wrote words into a shirt or coat and waved it menacingly.
‘Clean air now!’
‘Fair pay for honest work’
What’s this? Leliana stepped instinctively into the shadows, a parade of sooty faces spitting abuse at a line of uniformed officers in formation in front of the mansion. The police all shouldered rifles, but none were pointed at the protesters. The people protesting hurled insults and handfuls of wet ash or gravel at the men guarding the wrought-iron gates, but they kept their distance.
“I can use this?” She murmured, mind racing a mile a minute. A grumpy old man with his arms folded leaned quietly against a concrete wall a short distance from her. “Hey you,” she hissed, “what’s going on here?”
“Obvious, innit?” He scoffed. “Bloody Overseer been promising to blow the smog away from the poors but he never does. Some fool blastin’ scat up this morning tipped a smokestack and crushed a group o’ burners in the steamworks and now they all wants to rebel.” The old man sighed wearily.
She had a good idea what explosions he was talking about – she’d certainly not shied from tossing a few shells this way earlier. She felt a bit bad about those workers, but she shook the feeling away. She had a job to do.
Suddenly, the gates creaked and slid slowly open.
A mustached old man in a clean uniform stepped out of an elaborately adorned glass door, holding a megaphone. His sharp, tinny voice cast over the voices of the disgruntled workers below.
“The city is under an assault watch. Public displays are disallowed until we return to a state of peace.” The protesters stopped slinging debris, but continued their verbal assault.
“We’re always in an assault watch!”
“You won’t let us ‘ave any peace!”
The man continued, not bothering to respond. “Disperse this illegal gathering immediately or we will disperse you by force. You have to the count of three. One.”
Some cursed and walked away. The old man Leliana had spoken with sighed again, “guess we’d better get a move on, missus. You don’t want to be around if they start shootin’.”
Leliana saw many of the youths redoubling their efforts, slinging insults and debris with renewed fervor at the uniforms threatening them. “You…go on ahead,” she told him, “I want to watch a bit longer.”
“Your funeral.” He shrugged, disappearing into the alley.
A dozen people remained by this point, all of whom had spread out cautiously near side streets and alleys between the concrete buildings.
The line of guards raised rifles, loosing a blistering volley of fire that sent clouds of stone chips and puffs of concrete everywhere, the shots ricocheted wildly. Luckily, none of the youth had been hit, she noticed. There were a few gouges blown out of the wall right next to Leliana, as well. The remnants of the protest scattered, disappearing into the shadows or sprinting toward the North wall.
Leliana let herself sink back into the shadows behind her, watching men in uniforms reloading their weapons, though no further shots were fired.