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Story 4

 Rie Sheridan Rose

Let us return to the era when steam was king -- on the ground and in the air. In that era distance-devouring speed is everything. Emotions run high when a race is proposed between. the conquerer of each realm to determine which is the faster mode of transportation. And in the middle of it all, a head-strong woman who is ahead of her time.

Rie Sheridan Rose multitasks. Her short stories appear in numerous anthologies, including On Fire, Hides the Dark Tower, and Killing It Softly Vol. 1 and 2. She has authored twelve novels, six poetry chapbooks, and lyrics for dozens of songs. She tweets as @RieSheridanRose.

 

 

The Great Iron Dragon vs. Silk Butterfly Race

An Early Conn-Mann Chronicle

 

by Rie Sheridan Rose

 

 

 

     “I tell you, it’s no contest. Of course the steam engine would win!”

     “And I say you are wrong! The airship — by its very nature — is going to be the faster conveyance. None of that extraneous mass to drag along.”

     Alistair Conn threw up his hands and turned to me.

“What do you think, Jo?”

     Why on earth he was asking me, I had no idea. I wasn’t one of his scientific colleagues, merely his lab assistant. Still, I was flattered that he had asked. It was a sign he was beginning to value my input. I hoped.

     His cousin and partner, Herbert Lattimer pleaded his own case.

“Yes, Josephine — you’ve ridden in both types of transport. Which do you think would win?”

     I rolled my eyes. Men and their toys. They would argue about this point forever — to the exclusion of all other topics — if someone didn’t take charge.

     “Alistair, I know you are quite proud of the Wyvern.” This was the name I had given to his locomotive — which he had spent an enormous sum to purchase. The family pockets must be much deeper than I had thought. I knew it couldn’t all have come from his professor’s salary. “And you are justifiably proud of the airship, Herbert.” He had rebuilt his precious craft practically from scratch after a villainous rival shot it out of the sky, and it was even grander than before. “I see only one way to settle the question. Why don’t you have a race?”

     With their mouths hanging open in astonishment, the family resemblance was quite apparent.

     “A race?” Alistair squeaked.

     “Why, yes. It is what you call ‘scientific method,’ is it not?” I couldn’t see why he was so surprised. “The only way to fairly judge the matter is to put the two to an actual test.”

     Herbert sank back into the chair he had darted up from when Alistair first impugned his beloved Pearl.

“It’s an interesting notion, Alistair. I’ve been wanting to give the new Pearl a shakedown voyage, and you have some time free between class sessions.”

     Alistair pursed his lips in thought.

“It might prove an interesting experiment at that. I’ve been making some modifications to the Wyvern to help it burn fuel more efficiently…”

     “And Fred has been working with you to do the same for the Pearl, hasn’t she, Herbert?” That worthy nodded. “So you would both benefit from the enterprise. Now, let’s go in to dinner.” Before either man could argue, I sailed past them with a swish of skirts, knowing both were too polite to let a lady go to dinner unescorted.

     Dinner at Ma Stark’s boarding house was always a lively affair. Besides the aforementioned gentlemen and myself, my best friend Winifred Bond lived in the establishment. There were other boarders, but they seldom got a word in edgewise, although I tried my best to include them on most occasions.

     Tonight, I didn’t even try. Once Fred — as she preferred to be called — was apprised of the proposal, the three technosists (a name I had coined for them) chattered away at top speed about steam ratios and argued about where to conduct this great experiment. I let their words wash over me, content to observe my companions.

     I had signed on as Alistair Conn’s assistant several weeks before. The moment I laid eyes on the tall, lanky professor, I knew we had been destined to meet. It took very little persuasion to convince him to hire me, so I like to flatter myself that he sensed the connection as well.

     Herbert Lattimer’s first airship had later proved vital when we suddenly discovered ourselves in need of transport out west. When the original Pearl was destroyed in the middle of Ohio, Fred helped us out of our predicament. Curious about the big city, she soon followed after the rest of us returned home to New York.

     Now we had our own little enclave of experiments and exasperation. It was more fun than I had expected lab work and filing to be.

     “Now, Alistair, to make it a fair contest, you will need a long, straight stretch of track, will you not?” I broke in, curious to hear his answer — and tired of being ignored. “Where will you attempt this enterprise?”

     “Best t’avoid any main line,” Ma Stark commented, spooning a large helping of mashed potatoes onto my plate — she feels I’m in need of fattening up. “’Twould be a shame t’disrupt tha service o’good, hardworking folk simply fer a game.”

     “Valid point, Ma,” conceded Alistair. “And since you only just suggested the contest less than an hour ago, Josephine, I haven’t given that aspect of it much thought. I will investigate the matter tomorrow.” From the enthusiastic manner with which he attacked his dinner, I knew the discussion was closed, and turned the conversation to other matters.

 

###

 

     The next morning, Alistair was off before the sun rose. I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish — no one of any decency would receive him at that hour — but I didn’t mind because it would make my own investigations simpler if he wasn’t hanging about getting in the way.

     My first stop was a visit to Aunt Emily across the street. She was actually Alistair’s aunt, not mine, but our common fondness had led to her request I address her so. The refined widow of a respected businessman, I rationalized she might know who to approach with my questions about the railroad.

     “Jo, my dear!” she exclaimed as I was announced, coming forward to take my hands. “I was much in need of distraction this morning. What brings you to visit me today?”

     “Do you know anyone at the railroad?”

     “Whatever for?”

     I explained our latest enterprise.

     “As if purchasing his own train wasn’t foolish enough,” she tsked, shaking her head. “His mother will have something to say about that when she returns, mark my words.”

     “It was actually quite a reasonable purchase, Aunt Emily. Now we can travel about the country as necessary without worry. I far prefer it to the Pearl.”

     “I do tend to agree, my dear. Though I foresee air travel is the wave of the future. It’s the next big thing.”

     I shrugged. “I’ll keep my feet firmly on the ground, if it’s all the same to you.”

     “I suppose falling from the sky will sour your outlook on the matter. Well, I do know one gentleman who might have the information you seek. Let me write you an introduction.”

     I stepped out of the carriage in front of a modest brownstone at the edge of the financial district half an hour later. Nervous, I lifted the brass knocker and rapped on the door. It was opened by a tall, spinsterish woman in a neat uniform who looked down her sharp nose at me.

     “Yes? May I help you?” Her tone was so icy I was surprised the words didn’t form icicles on her lips.

     “I would like to see Mr. Philpott,” I replied, straightening to my full height and fingering the note Aunt Emily had given me. I had every right to speak to the man. I couldn’t look down my nose at her, but I tried to match her tone.

     “Mr. Philpott is not receiving.” She moved as if to shut the door, and I thrust my boot into the crack. She looked down at my foot in surprise. A frown creased her face, and I could see the debate in her head — should she acquiesce or risk causing injury by slamming it anyway?

     Before she could decide one way or the other, I held out my letter of introduction.

“Could you at least deliver this note and tell him I’m waiting?” I gave her my most winning smile.

     I might still have come away with a broken toe, at the least, had not a white-haired gentleman come down the stairs behind her at that precise moment.

“What on earth is going on, Miss Rogers?”

     She turned to him with a stiff curtsy.

“This person has come to see you, Mr. Philpott, but she has no appointment or card….”

     “I’ll handle it, Miss Rogers. Won’t you come inside, Miss…?”

     “Mann. Josephine Mann,” I replied, placing my letter into his outstretched hand. “This is a letter of introduction from Mrs. Emily Estes.”

     His face lit up.

“Any friend of Emily’s is welcome here. Why don’t you fetch a pot of tea, Miss Rogers?”

     He led me across to a fine, masculine sitting room; there were no touches of femininity in the décor. Perhaps he was lonely, and longing for a bit of romance in his life. Was that the source of his interest upon hearing Aunt Emily’s name?  Intriguing thought, but not important at the moment.

     “Mr. Philpott, I need your help,” I began. “The gist of it is in the letter.” I gestured to the paper in his hand.

     He glanced over it swiftly.

“I see. She does outline the problem here. I believe I can help you. There’s a stretch of track outside Bedford that’s currently off the schedule because of work being done to extend it at the far end. You could access the near end and have a fairly straight course for almost ten miles. Would that suit your needs?”

     “We would be able to get the Wyvern onto this track?”

     “The what?”

     “Wyvern — it is the name of Professor Conn’s locomotive.”

     “I see…. Most assuredly. It’s the other end that’s currently disconnected. You must be sure to have a good brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for repairs at the far end.”

     I thought about that for a moment. Alistair would have a good brakeman, of course — I was almost certain that his automaton Phaeton would be handling those duties, and he would perform them with the perfection he brought to any other task once instructed in it.

     “That shouldn’t be a difficulty,” I promised. “As long as we have a clear track, we should be fine.”

     Miss Rogers appeared bearing tea and disapproval. I smiled sweetly at her and batted my lashes. She slammed the tray down as hard as she dared and stalked from the room.

     Mr. Philpott and I had a pleasant chat over tea. I learned many fascinating facts about the railroad that are neither here nor there for the purpose of this narrative. Since it had occurred to me that Mr. Philpott was a very lonely man, I protracted the visit as long as I deemed appropriate. Perhaps I would speak to Ma or Aunt Emily and see if I could arrange a small dinner party….

     But not today. I had a written authorization from Mr. Philpott to the stationmaster at the decommissioned length of track giving permission for the race. I needed to get it to Alistair as soon as possible, before he came up with some less savory alternative.

 

###

 

     The next two weeks were a bustle of activity. Alistair spent all his free time at the roundhouse with Phaeton, tinkering with his steam engine. He built a custom coal car on the back of a flat car cutting much of the weight. They intended to race with only the two cars.

     Meanwhile, in Herbert’s warehouse workshop, he and Fred worked to optimize the Pearl. I was slightly envious of her endeavors — not because of her companion, but because she had something to do. Alistair was worried I would be hurt if I helped at the roundhouse, so I was relegated to puttering about the laboratory and bothering Ma in her kitchen until she tossed me out as well.

     When I went to Aunt Emily for consolation, she offered me an outlet for my boredom.

     “Have you considered publicizing this event, Josephine?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “It seems a fascinating competition, dear. Perhaps other people would be interested in seeing the race. You could put an advertisement in the newspaper and charge for tickets.”

     My mind whirled through the possibilities.

“That’s a capital idea, Aunt Emily! We could make a day of it. Serve lemonade and sandwiches…oh, this could be fun!”

     We discussed logistics until teatime and had a most pleasant afternoon. When I returned home, I went immediately to my room and composed an advertisement to deliver to the newspaper the next morning. Only then did I realize I had no idea when the race might take place.

     I asked Alistair that very question over dinner. After all, the track wouldn’t be available forever.

     “I suppose it could be any time now. The Wyvern is finished. Herbert?” He turned to his cousin.

     “The Pearl is ready. Just name the date.”

     “Today is Monday. Why don’t we settle the matter on Saturday?”

     “Excellent! I’ll put in the advertisement tomorrow.” Now that was settled, I fell to my dinner with gusto.

     “Advertisement?” Alistair’s voice had that chill of disapproval I found particularly irritating…when directed at me.

     “Yes, Alistair.” I sighed, laying aside my fork. “It was Aunt Emily’s idea. This is an opportunity to show off your inventions — Phaeton, the steam engine, Herbert’s Pearl. Inviting the public to the race will prevent any bother like we had this spring. No one can claim your inventions if the public knows all about them.”

     The logic of the argument was inescapable. Even Alistair had to admit that.

     “Fine! If you feel you must. Give Mr. Greenstreet my regards.”

     I didn’t relish speaking to the odious little newspaper man again, but I supposed there was no choice. I had been keen on the plan before Alistair reminded me I would have to deal with the toad. But there was no way around it if I wanted to place the advertisement.

     The next morning, I dressed in my most sensible, business-like attire and headed down to the newspaper office with my advertisement in hand. Taking a deep breath and raising my chin high, I opened the door to Mr. Greenstreet’s office and swept in.

     He glanced up from the papers he was perusing, and — I swear — his face blanched white.

     “What are you doing here?” he blurted.

     The reaction was not unexpected. Our first encounter had not been auspicious. But I set my shoulders and pressed on. What he felt about me didn’t matter. He’d take my money quick enough, no doubt.

     “I am here to place an advertisement,” I said, making my voice as meek as possible in a bid for conciliation.

     “What sort of advertisement?” His eyes brightened at the thought of revenue.

     “A full page, if you please.” I showed him my carefully prepared layout.

     “A race, is it? Fascinating. But you’re undercharging. You should ask a dime for admission and charge twenty-five cents for a sandwich and lemonade.”

     “You don’t think that would be greedy?”

     “I’m sure there’ll be expenses involved beyond this advertisement. Have you engaged a food vendor, for instance?”

     I hadn’t considered that, as a matter of fact.

“No.”

     “I could suggest someone if you like. I know a young woman named Patricia Merriweather who would be perfect for your needs.”

     “That would be lovely.” I meant that with all my heart. I had no idea where to start — unless I asked Ma to cater, and it would be unfair to ruin her holiday.

     By the time I left the newspaper office, I had a full page advertisement scheduled, the address of the caterer, and a new appreciation of Mr. Greenstreet. I doubted we would ever be bosom friends, but at least I no longer despised him for ruining my life. Besides, if he had given me the job I’d applied for, I wouldn’t have become Alistair’s assistant.

     My next stop was to visit the woman he had recommended. Patricia and I took to each other instantly, and worked out a deal to our mutual satisfaction.

 

###

 

     The day of the race the air seemed charged with electricity. It was a beautiful summer day, not a cloud in the sky. A light breeze whipped pennants decorating the course. The Pearl hovered, bobbing on her tethers. The Wyvern gleamed on the rails.

     Dressed in my best summer seersucker, I wove through the crowds, greeting friends and strangers alike; I felt it my duty to play hostess. It was my idea, after all. Ma and Aunt Emily sat behind a table shaded by a large umbrella taking admission money. They were having a grand time.

     Someone had hired a band — I’m not sure who because I hadn’t even thought of it, but it added a festive note to the occasion. Polkas and marches filled the air with bright, ringing brass and shrills of flute and piccolo. Drums beat tattoos in counterpoint to the laughter of children.

     Aunt Emily’s maid, Vanessa, was helping Patricia with the sandwiches and lemonade and flirting with the customers. The caterer had recruited some friends to help with the food, and the aromas of hot dogs and popcorn perfumed the July air. They were doing crackerjack business, and we would receive half the profits. It would be a very lucrative day.

     I saw Mr. Greenstreet chatting with Alistair and Herbert and waved. The gentlemen waved back. I had never seen Mr. Greenstreet smile before. He had quite a nice one.

     Alistair checked his pocket watch, and said something to Herbert. My heart began to pound. It must be time.

     I hurried to join them.

“Are you about to begin?” I asked Alistair.

     “It is the scheduled time.” He glanced around the makeshift fairgrounds. “I wonder where Phaeton can be?”

     “How could you lose a nine-foot tall automaton?” I rolled my eyes. Honestly, the man was hopeless.

     “Just…find him, will you?”

     Herbert rubbed his hands together.

“If we’re getting ready to start, I should be getting aboard the Pearl. Has anyone seen Fred?”

     “I believe I saw her over by the bandstand,” I told him, pointing in that general direction.

     “Thanks.” He hurried off in search of his co-pilot.

     Well, that was one thing sorted. Now, where could the marvelous mechanical man be? I craned my neck, searching for a hint of brass. It shouldn’t be hard to see him despite the crowds. It wasn’t like Phaeton to go off and get himself lost. I hoped no one had decided to kidnap him again.

     I finally spotted him helping Vanessa and Patricia make sandwiches. It was a most incongruous sight.

     I hurried across the grass.

“Phaeton! The race is about to begin. You need to get to the train at once.”

     He cocked his head at me.

“I am needed here.”

     “But….” I was at a loss for words. I’d never seen Phaeton disobey a direct order before.

     “It would be unfair for me to assist Master Alistair anyway, Miss Jo. My weight added to the weight of the locomotive will cause it to far exceed that of the Pearl. You should be the brakeman.”

     I started to protest, then changed my mind. It would be exciting to be part of the race. Alistair hadn’t wanted me to help because Phaeton was a better match for Fred in terms of experience and aptitude. But the automaton was correct. His weight would definitely put Alistair at a disadvantage.

     I ran back to the train, climbing aboard the engine.

“Let’s go.”

     Alistair glanced at me from the controls.

“What are you doing here?”

     “Phaeton is busy,” I answered, picking up the coal shovel. “I’ll be your brakeman.”

     He sighed. “If it isn’t one thing it’s another. Very well. Build up the pressure. It’s just like stoking the Pearl.”

     I regretted my pale green seersucker now, as the coal dust billowed about me, but it couldn’t be helped. I shoveled with a will, and the pressure began to build in the boiler. Alistair pulled the handle of the whistle twice — the signal to Herbert the race was about to begin. I saw Fred wave out of the newly installed porthole on the side of the airship’s gondola, and we were off.

     The train accelerated slowly, but quickly built to breathtaking speed, the wheels clacking in thunderous cadence. I glanced out the window. The wind caught my hair, blowing it in my eyes, but I could see the Pearl sailing above us. It was running slightly ahead.

     “We need more speed, Alistair! They’re winning.”

     “Add more coal,” he ordered, adjusting the pressure.

     I hurried to comply. It was so exciting. Almost like flying…but I much preferred it to being in the airship.

     Suddenly, my mind flashed back to something that Mr. Philpott had said. You must be sure to have a good brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for repairs at the far end.

     “How far have we come, Alistair?” I gasped.

     “About three miles, why?”

     I staggered to the brake, fighting to keep my feet beneath me. I suppose most railroad workers stayed in one place when their trains were in motion. And they didn’t push the engines to the limit, either.

     I could see the trestle of the missing bridge in the distance — the not-nearly-far-enough-away distance. I tugged on the brake with all my strength. The lever barely moved. I must see about strengthening my muscles.

If we survived.

     “Alistair! Help me! The bridge is out.”

     His face paled, and then he was at my side, straining against the lever with me. Imperceptibly, it began to give. The Wyvern was still hurtling down the track.

     “Pull harder!”

     He glared at me.

“I am doing my best!”

     Grunting, he forced the lever downwards. The train began to slow…but not fast enough.

     I swung on the lever with all my weight. Suddenly, it gave, and the engine screeched to a halt. I landed hard on the floor, bruising an unmentionable part of my anatomy. I dared not stand for fear I would faint.

     When I finally had my breath under control, I climbed to my feet and stepped to the window. The cowcatcher on the front of the locomotive was touching the barrier warning of the missing bridge. The Pearl was across the ravine and turning back our way.

     “That was exciting,” I murmured, giving my companion a wan smile.

     “But who won?” he asked.

     A one-track mind on that one.

     “I’d say we did. At least we didn’t go over the edge.” I clambered down to solid ground on shaky limbs.

     Herbert landed the airship in the meadow beside the track. Fred was off the Pearl almost before it touched down.

     “Are you alright, Jo?” she shouted as she ran towards me.

     “I’m fine.”

     Herbert exited the ship more slowly.

“Alistair, is the Wyvern alright?”

     Such is the difference between men and women.

     The four of us climbed aboard the Pearl. I could stand a short jaunt, and it would be much more difficult to back the train up the track.

     “I suppose you won,” Alistair sighed to Herbert, as Fred and I made ourselves comfortable on the settee.

     “I don’t know if I would say that, old man. We were running dead even before you started to slow down. I don’t think we can really count the results of this endeavor. We’ll just have to try again.”

     “Next time, let’s make sure the track doesn’t end in a fall into a ravine, shall we?” Alistair drawled.

     “I told you it was only ten miles, and the bridge was out, Alistair,” I reminded him. At least, I think I told him….

     Things were back to normal. Iron dragon, silk butterfly — both had their advantages, but I would be happy to walk for my everyday transportation. At least for the moment.

 

 

THE END

 

 

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