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Iron Quill - Ivory - Curiosity


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"Riding a train to another planet," Professor Julia Bervixi exclaimed over the clacking cadence of steel wheels on steel rail.  "I never would have imagined."

 

Professor John Bervixi rolled his eyes.  "I don't see why it should be so unimaginable, Julia," he noted emotionlessly.  "Before the train, people walked from Earth to Malifaux . . . or rode there on horseback.  I should think that would be significantly harder to imagine."

 

Julia momentarily pulled back one side of her mouth.  "You know what I mean," she insisted.  "Can you imagine how far away Malifaux must actually be?  Farther than a train could travel in a lifetime.  And yet, somehow, the trip is nearly instantaneous."  Julia smiled.  "You have to admit, it redefines everything we thought we knew about what's possible."

 

John slid closer to his wife on the leather cushioned bench of their private train car.  "That's not necessarily so," he corrected.  "Let's assume, for a moment, that you are correct and Malifaux is, in fact, another planet in our own universe, some great distance away."

 

Julia nodded and watched her husband lift a paper menu from the small table that sat between the car's benches.

 

"Even so, you're thinking too linearly."  John tapped at the bottom center of the menu with the index finger of his right hand.  "Imagine this is Earth," he instructed.  John then tapped the top center of the menu.  "And this is Malifaux . . . somewhere far away in the universe."  John returned his finger to the lower part of the menu.  "What you're imagining is that the only way to get from Earth to Malifaux would be like this."  John slowly traced an invisible line from the bottom of the menu to its top.

 

Julia nodded.  "That seems rational."

 

John winked.  "And you can't imagine any other way you could get from point A to point B?"

 

Julia thrust a slender finger at the menu.  "Well, you could go out and around . . ."

 

"No, no," John corrected.  "Not a longer way.  Can you imagine a shorter way to get from point A to point B than traveling in a straight line?"

 

Julia withdrew her hand.  "Now you're just being ridiculous."

 

"Am I?" John asked, folding the menu so that the bottom touched the top.  "What if you were simply to jump across?"

 

Julia stared at the folded paper, nodding slowly.

 

"And," John continued, "that assumes Malifaux does, in fact, exist in our universe."

 

Julia stared into her husband's eyes, and John smiled at his wife's genuine academic curiosity.

 

"Now, Imagine Malifaux exists in a completely different reality."

 

Julia raised an eyebrow and again pulled back one corner of her mouth.

 

Still smiling, John raised the wine list with his right hand.  "Imagine Earth is in the very center of this reality."  He shook the menu.  "And Malifaux is in the center of this reality."  He shook the wine list.

 

Julia nodded.

 

John then placed the menu and the wine list back to back.  "Malifaux and Earth exist in exactly the same place . . . just in different realities."

 

Julia again raised an eyebrow and smiled curiously.

 

"And that's what I think the Breach is," John concluded.  "It's a doorway that connects the same point in two different realities."

 

Julia gently took the stacked sheets of paper from her husband and examined them.  "That really does make sense," she observed thoughtfully.  "No wonder your students love you."

 

John shrugged.  "It's a theory, anyway."

 

Julia returned the papers to the table then placed her hands on John's leg.  "My poor John," Julia chided.  "The last realist in a society based upon magical stones."

 

John placed one hand atop both of Julia's.  "I envy you the most," he offered.  "Who knows whether I'll find anything in Malifaux to support my theories?  But you . . . interpreting the mountain of books still awaiting translation . . . you're almost certain to discover a wealth of knowledge that might otherwise have been lost to history."

 

Julia nodded.  "I'm certainly excited about the possibility.  So many mysteries remain to be solved.  I'd love to be the one to . . ."

 

John and Julia jumped slightly at the sudden knock.

 

"Come in," John invited.

 

As the compartment door slid noisily on its track, the professorial couple assessed an unfamiliar man standing in the passageway.  He wore a long black coat that stood in stark contrast to his alabaster skin and long, dirty blonde hair.  In one hand, the man held an envelope.

 

The man glanced from side to side then stared into the compartment.  "Professor Bervixi?" he asked.

 

John and Julia smiled.  "That would describe both of us," Julia observed.

 

"Professor Julia Bervixi?" the man clarified without humor.

 

Julia nodded.  "I am she."

 

Without further invitation, the man stepped into the compartment, slid the door shut, and sat on the opposite bench.  "I heard you were a linguistics professor," he offered urgently.  "Is that right?"

 

Julia nodded again.  "That's correct."

 

Fumbling with the envelope in his hands, the man turned a quick glance to the compartment door.  "I need you to translate this letter," he explained.  "I need to know what it says."

 

"This is rather unusual," John observed impatiently.

 

"What sort of letter?" Julia asked, still in a casual tone.

 

"It . . ." the man began, "It's something I'm supposed to deliver.  But I need to know whether I . . . well . . . whether I should."

 

"You're a messenger, then?" John inquired.

 

The man nodded.

 

"So, what makes you think you shouldn't deliver the letter?"

 

The man closed his eyes and gripped the envelope tightly.  "I think it . . . it . . ."

 

"Yes?" Julia asked.

 

The man opened his eyes.

 

"Let's have a look," John suggested, reaching across the table toward the envelope.

 

The man recoiled, turning his gaze to John then back to Julia.

 

Julia reached across the table and gently took John's extended arm by the wrist.  "It's alright," she assured the man.  "I'll be happy to take a look."

 

As John withdrew his hand, the man slowly passed the envelope to Julia.  The address was clearly written in English:

 

The Honorable Lucius Gustavius FitzWilliam Mattheson

Secretary of Legal Affairs--Malifaux

Personal and Confidential

 

Julia exchanged glances with John then looked into the man's eyes.  "You shouldn't have opened this," she said.  "It was a breach of your duty as a courier."

 

"I know," the man hissed, again firing a quick glance at the compartment door.  "I should never have opened it.  I would un-open it if I could.  But now I . . . I . . ."

 

John and Julia stared at the envelope.  "I must say," John breathed, "I don't see why we should be party to . . ."

 

A metalic click drew the couple's attention back to the opposite bench.  The muzzle of a Collier revolver stared back.

 

"Do you know the risk I'm taking?" the man demanded.  "Showing that to you?  Do you know what he'll do if he finds out?"

 

The Collier trembled uncontrollably.

 

"Listen, young man," John invited urgently, slowly raising his open right hand.  "We haven't seen anything yet.  You can still . . ."

 

Julia pulled open the envelope.

 

"Julia!" John exclaimed.

 

"I'm curious," Julia confessed casually.

 

John shook his head, turning his gaze from his wife to the pistol and back again.

 

As Julia withdrew the folded paper, the gunman slowly leaned forward, the Collier still trembling in his hand.  "I need to know," he whispered.

 

Julia unfolded the letter and studied the symbols exquisitely penned upon its surface.  "It's certainly not any known Earth language," she observed flatly.  "It looks a bit like some of the ancient writings from Malifaux but . . ."

 

The symbols shifted before Julia's eyes, like worms writhing in a pile.

 

"Oh my!" Julia exclaimed, dropping the sheet atop the menu and wine list on the table.

 

"What is it?" John gasped, startled by Julia's reaction.

 

"Who gave this to you?" Julia demanded, seemingly oblivious to the pistol.

 

The man gritted his teeth.  "I can't tell you that," he growled.  "Just tell me what it says.  What it really says."

 

For several seconds, Julia stared over the gun into the man's unblinking eyes.  Then, with a sigh, she looked down at the letter and lifted it with one hand.  The symbols continued to squirm.

 

"This top section," Julia began, "appears to be a salutation . . . a wish of good fortune . . . something like that.  The names of the addressee and sender appear to be unique symbols, denoting specific individuals . . . something fairly common in Malifaux's written languages."

 

Julia scanned the remainder of the letter.  "The rest of these symbols are completely . . ."

 

By the hundreds, they come.

 

The words resonated in Julia's mind, as if someone were reading them to her.

 

As the time draws near.

 

"Something about numbers and time," Julia offered breathlessly, struggling against a swelling sense of dread.  "It's very difficult to . . ."

 

All is prepared and all stand ready.

 

Julia could not finish her sentence.

 

Awaiting the moment.

 

"WHO GAVE THIS TO YOU?" Julia screamed, her face suddenly pale.

 

"I can't," the man gasped, thrusting the Collier toward Julia's chest.  "I should never have shown you!"

 

John grabbed at his wife's arm.  "Julia, calm down.  Everything will be . . ."

 

"WHO GAVE THIS TO YOU?"

 

A thunderous explosion stabbed John's ears, forcing his eyes shut.  When he opened them, John's hand and his wife's slender arm were painted with splashes of red.

 

Releasing his grip, John pressed himself into the corner of the bench as Julia's hand clasped her darkening bodice. 

 

Julia slumped off the cushion onto her knees. 

 

Desperately, John turned his gaze from his injured wife to the man on the opposite bench.  A wisp of smoke rose from the deep well of the Collier's barrel.

 

"Who?" Julia coughed.

 

"SHUT UP!" the man screamed, shifting the Collier back and forth between its two potential targets.

 

Releasing her devastated torso, Julia pressed her blood-soaked hands onto the tabletop and looked into the man's eyes.  "WHO?"

 

The dark man flared his lips into a wide grimace.

 

"WHO . . . ?"

 

John thrust his hands across the table.

 

The Collier was faster.

 

In another reality, erudite lovers would revel in the wondrous discoveries of a magical new world.  That reality is not Malifaux.

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I quite liked the first half, but once things started getting crazy... I dunno.  I had a hard time finding the flow.  I really liked the dialogue between them in the first half.  I think you really captured that erudite excitement for new discovery and the naivete of sheltered academics on their way to Malifaux.  Very strong characterization.

 

I liked the implications of the letter, but wished for some sort of a hint or allusion as to who the sender might be (though perhaps that tantalizing unknown is sweeter than a hint.)  The line 'sharp as a razor, soft as breath' seemed sort of shoe-horned into the ominous threat of the letter.  For me the letter reads smoother without that line.  I liked the way you framed the translation as being words resonating in her mind.  It definitely added to the creep factor of the letter.

 

For me the drawing of the gun (and subsequent events) felt like a leap that wants a couple lines of lead-up.  Maybe a mention of his agitation or mental state to telegraph that he's unstable and potentially violent.  I felt like I had to work at it to make shooting them make sense from his perspective.  I liked some of the changes (the ones I noticed anyway) in your descriptions in the latter half.  I also loved that John cowered in the immediate wake of the first shot.  It felt fitting with my sense of him.

 

And the last line?  Gold.  Loved it.  Tied it up and put a bow on it.  

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Thanks for the very thoughtful insight.  In this version, I was trying to convey the shooter's agitation, early on--but I clearly need to do more.  One problem I'm facing is the word limit.  It's a fun challenge . . . but it is very challenging.

 

Thanks also for your comment on the last line.  I really struggled with whether I should leave that in.

 

You gave me some great ideas for another rewrite.  This time, I think I'll resist putting smoked oysters in my white chocolate cupcakes.  :)

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This version is much clearer. I think the only thing I'm struggling with now is the letter, it seems ambiently creepy without any real direction. Maybe I'm missing something but I'm not sure why she suddenly NEEDS to know who sent the letter.

 

Still like it, fun characters, nice concept. I'm not sure why Lucius wants this woman dead, but I'm sure he has his reasons.

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I apologize that the story remains more cryptic than I intended.

 

The idea I hoped to convey is that Julia can't really interpret the letter; she simply understands it.  As a result, she also understands its terrible implications (which are not revealed to the reader) and her mood instantly changes from calm curiosity  to mad desperation.  Something similar happened to the messenger when he read the letter, which is why he is desperate to confirm its meaning and is struggling with whether he should deliver it.  At the same time, the messenger is playing a dangerous game because Lucius (in addition to his Earthside partner) is no one to be trifled with.  When Julia proves to be less than helpful, the messenger realizes his mistake and becomes even more desperate.

 

I did not mean to suggest that Lucius set Julia up to be killed.  That is an interesting interpretation.

 

Thanks again for your time and comments.

 

 

 

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