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Iron Quill - The Price of Progress - Your Lucky Day


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Mystery ingredients:
Line: "It would be so nice if something made sense for a change."
Location: The Industrial Zone
Item: An Incomplete Deck of Cards


Length: 1750 words


Your Lucky Day


Gwyneth paused in her examination of the latest deck of cards and rubbed her eyes. The soft yellow glow of the factory’s oil lamps wasn’t really sufficient for her work, and this was her sixth double-shift of the week. She blinked a few times and checked the last few cards for flaws.
Casually, one-handed, she cut the deck, riffled it, and fanned out the cards. Concentrating, she ran a finger down the pack until she found the one that felt right. She knew without looking that it was the Ace of Crows, and that its moment would come during one of the few unrigged card games at the Honeypot – dealer’s blackjack. House takes all.
A subtle crackle of energy played across the card’s face as she pulled it from the deck and slipped it into her bodice. She smiled as she packed the remaining cards into a box and sealed it. That moment of fortune was hers now, along with all the others. This week’s shifts had been very productive.
“A fine morning to you, Mister Haversham,” the weaselly man began, his gnarled hand extended. “My associate and myself would just like to have a bit of a chat about the packs you’ve been sending us.”
Haversham shook the offered hand and looked from the diminutive speaker to his companion, a colossal slab of muscle with eyes sunk in an expressionless but somehow menacing face. He’d heard of these two, and their presence surely meant nothing good. He smiled nervously and leaned back in his chair.
“Is there a problem with the product? I assure you, we check every card individually for distinguishing marks and imperfections. Haversham Cards are synonymous with quality.”
The giant, seemingly a little behind the flow of conversation, extended an enormous hand to Haversham. He reluctantly shifted his weight forward and shook it. The smaller man smiled, though Haversham couldn’t help feeling it was more of a leer.
“Sin-nonny-mouse, is it? Fancy.”
The huge thug wasn’t letting go. Haversham tried to tug his hand back, but it might as well have been caught in a bear trap as the pressure of the man’s grip increased. His associate leaned in close, his sharp features only inches from Haversham’s face, his breath carrying a cloying sweetness that made Haversham feel ill.
“The packs ain’t all there, Mister Haversham. Sometimes there’s cards missing. Normally that would be an annoyance, but here’s a funny thing – the casino’s had some losses lately. Nasty ones. Not the kind where we can take the punters downstairs, if you see what I’m saying.”
Haversham had no idea what he was talking about, and was having trouble focusing while the bones in his hand were grinding against each other.
“Anyways, we checked. Every time, it was one of your fresh packs, and every time there was a card missing. Bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”
One of Haversham’s fingers gave way with a muffled click, and he screamed. Fighting for composure, he managed to stammer, “Wh-what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. We’ll take care of it. You maybe want to start looking for some new employees, though. Could get messy.”
Haversham’s face was pale and sweaty, and he stared into his tormentor’s eyes without comprehension.
“Well, it’s been swell chatting with you, friend. Have a pleasant day.”
There was a crunch as the giant clenched his fist. Haversham gasped, his eyes rolled back and he slumped limply in his chair. The two figures turned to leave.
“The stench of her magic is thick in this place,” the bigger one growled. “Do you smell it?”
“Powerful mojo,” the smaller one snapped. “Too big for us alone.”
The giant nodded solemnly. “We should speak with Mattheson.”
“It’s a bit strong calling it theft, ain’t it Sarge? I mean, one card out of a deck, that’s barely stealing at all.”
Sergeant Galen scowled at the younger Guard. “It’s taking something that don’t belong to you, Belham. What the heck would you call it?” She grimaced, and quickly added, “No, don’t answer that. Just shut up and keep your eyes peeled. This is Union turf, we’re not welcome here.”
Andrews, one of the other Guards, scoffed. “Come on, Sarge. You worry too much. Nobody’s going to tangle with us while Brunhilde’s around.”
The Sergeant nodded, forced to concede the point. It would be a foolhardy agitator indeed that stood against Brunhilde – the hulking Peacekeeper was lethal suppression incarnate, even with the little red bow that Belham had insisted on fastening just behind its head, “So’s you can tell she’s a girl, Sarge.” She could feel the ground tremble through the soles of her cheap boots with every precise, piston-driven step it took.
The five of them – six, if you counted Brunhilde – rounded the corner of a warehouse, and the Sergeant held up her hand for a halt.
“Haversham’s,” she pointed. “Her work area’s in the south-east corner. Keep your guard up. If she resists, shoot her.”
“I still don’t see why she’s getting the heavy treatment, Sarge,” Belham piped up. “What are we expecting this lass to do?”
Galen fixed him with a stern expression and cocked the hammer on her Collier. “Questioning orders, Belham?”
He shook his head ruefully. “Course not, Sarge. It’s just... it would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
Gwyneth savoured the taste of her latest captured moment – a Ten of Tomes, an unlucky bust in a game where some drunken fool had bet his entire fortune and then some – as she set the latest sealed pack in the crate by her workbench. Her own deck of cards, nestled in its secret pocket, made her skin tingle with its accumulated power.
The factory floor was almost deserted at this time of night, with only a few workers remaining to ensure that nothing went wrong with the clattering printing presses. With a furtive look to make sure nobody was watching, she drew the pack and shuffled it, letting its power thrill her. She dealt five cards onto her workbench –  a Royal Flush of Rams. Laughing quietly, she dealt again. Two pair – Aces and Eights.
Startled, she stepped back, and the wall next to her exploded.
Gwyneth screamed as jagged pieces of brick showered over her, leaving grazes in the exposed skin of her face and arms. Through the dust, she saw a huge chunk of masonry lying across the space she had been standing in moments earlier.
A hulking steam construct was forcing its way through the broken wall, piston-driven claws casually tearing away the bricks. Its ponderous head swung towards Gwyneth, and its glowing lenses focused on her. She turned and ran.
Behind her, she could hear human voices shouting, and a moment later there was gunfire. The deck in her hand was crackling, and with every bullet that whistled past her, missing by the merest fraction, a card would flare and turn to ash. She hadn’t had time to complete it, and its magic was unstable – the moments she’d stolen were being lost, one by one.
“I had her dead to rights, Sarge. Something’s wrong.”
Galen nodded, her face grim. “Spread out. Find her.”
Gwyneth was fighting to stay quiet and keep her breathing steady. Her deck was burning out much faster than it should.
Crouched behind one of the presses, she could see the ragged hole in the wall left by the Peacekeeper’s entrance. One last dash, a bit of luck, and she’d be gone.
Half-crouched, she padded softly across the rubble-strewn floor. She’d done it. She was fr...
A wooden beam, swung by someone outside, hit her in the face so hard that her vision went black. Points of light danced around her. She was flying, drifting through the night sky. It was... peaceful. Or was she falling? The ground rushed up to meet her, and...
She was alive. Her head was agony, she was sore all over, and she felt sick. Somehow, what remained of her deck was still in her hand.
Gwyneth opened her eyes, and was greeted by a chorus of pistol hammers being cocked in unison.
“Easy,” a gravelly female voice ordered, “No sudden moves.”
She tried to get a look at the woman’s face, but her eyes didn’t want to focus.
“Gwyneth Maddox,” the voice continued, “By order of the Governor’s Secretary, you are under arrest. If you resist, we are authorised to kill you. Do you have anything to say?”
Gwyneth sat up carefully, and gave the Sergeant a bloodied smile. “Yeah,” she rasped. “Good luck with that.”
With all her remaining strength, she hurled the last of her deck at the Guards, the cards flitting and sparking in the air. Five guns went off at once with a deafening report, each weapon misfiring catastrophically and disintegrating into burning shrapnel. A stray piece shot through one of the Peacekeeper’s eye-lenses and lodged in its control cortex.
Three of the Guards died almost instantly as the construct’s threat assessment matrix short-circuited, their bodies crushed by massive steel claws. The sudden motion jarred the machine, and an old hairline fracture in one of its primary thoracic rotator cogs gave way. With a grinding howl of shearing metal, the Peacekeeper’s torso accelerated into an uncontrolled spin, its flailing arms catching the fourth Guard and scattering his body in pieces.
Sergeant Galen had taken only a second or two to recover from the loss of her pistol, and she rushed forward through the expanding cloud of cards and ash, drawing her sword. Ignoring the chaos behind her, she locked eyes with her target and lunged.
The Peacekeeper’s harpoon fired without guidance, but it found a mark nevertheless. The barbed hook caught the Sergeant in the thigh, biting deep. Her blade just nicked the skin of Gwyneth’s throat before the rapidly-winding cable hauled her off her feet and into the whirling claws, her howl of anger abruptly cut short. Overwhelmed by the forces it was subjected to, the Peacekeeper’s boiler ruptured and Gwyneth blacked out.
Brunhilde’s tattered red ribbon fluttered to the ground.
Someone was carrying her, cradled like a baby. She looked up into the impassive face of a giant. Walking next to them was a reedy, weasel-faced man.
“Ah, Miss Maddox. You’re going to need a new job,” the little man sneered. “Fortunately, we could really use someone with your skills at the casino. So,” he snickered, “it looks like this is your lucky day!”

Feedback welcome. :)
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Oh my, Kadeton!


I loved this story -- I'm afraid I'll run out of superlatives before I can really do any sort of critique justice. 


Excellent development and characterization. The pacing and resolution were spot on perfect. Very subtle, the way you incorporated the gaming elements so naturally into the plot -- this was the story's greatest strength. I hope you'll excuse my effusiveness, but I've nothing negative to say, truthfully. This was a pleasure to read from start to finish. Such a wonderful story!


- Nikko

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