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Iron Quill - Six - A Number


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A Number

Words: 1750

Ingredients used: All

    When I sleep I see them,closing in around me shadows with teeth and claws. I don’t bother to shoot them anymore, even in my dreams the bullets do nothing. Again and again, Clara dies alone.

    Each night I work until I fall asleep, my fingers are stained with soulstone dust and potent acids where my gloves are coming apart. My room is a jumble of boxes stuffed with custom rounds. I can’t find my bed so I fall asleep at my work bench. I stumble to breakfast in the morning with dark circles under my eyes and my hands trembling so badly I can hardly drink my first cup of coffee.

    The steamfitters all leave me alone, no one wants to make a gunsmith jump.

    By the time I finish breakfast - oats slow cooked in cream, eggs scrambled over thick rye toast, they treat me like an officer now - the steamfitters are in the workshop and I’m left alone in the long dining hall.

    Most days my orders come through the aethervox hidden behind the bar. I pull down a cracked mug and a tube trails behind it, I hold the cup over my ear and for a moment I hear the ocean of my native New England before it’s drowned out by Mouse’s barking.

    “Alright gunsmith,” the recording crackles, “We’ve got a little problem that needs your sorting. Miners working a claim near the edge of the bayou turned up a mineworks left over from the first breach - victim of a collapse apparently. They mentioned they found a six fingered pneumatic arm and a few other relics. That was two days ago.

    “There was a shipment of soulstone from the mine scheduled to enter the city early this morning but they never made contact with our smuggler in town. Since reporting the find, the only communication we’ve had with the mine was a garbled vox tape, as best as I can figure the tape said that ‘a number’ of miners had gone missing.

    “Your objective is clear; make contact with our smuggler and head to the mineworks. Secure the soulstone shipment and get a picture of what happened. If any of the miners are still alive make sure they’re safe and clear the mine for continued production. Report back to me as soon as you can.” Mouse clears his throat, “And good luck.”

    The vox clicks off and there’s a hiss of static as the tape wipes itself. I return the mug to its shelf. I don’t leave my room unless I’m fully armed, two small pistols in clockwork holders on my forearms, a heavy revolver on my hip, bandoliers of special bullets criss-crossing my chest and legs, more sewn into the lining of my coat. A stop by the kitchens furnishes me with a sack of travel food - biscuits and jerky.


The soulstone deaddrops move around so that the Guild can’t find them, but a bayou-side drop would have to cross the wall in one of two places - a culvert in a residential area, or over a crumbling section of wall in the quarantine zone. The quarantine zone crossing is within spitting distance of a friendly bar - so I head there first. Fortunately my contact stands out like a sore thumb.

    There’s a table near the door with a standing poker game. Six players sit at the table, five are grim faced men and women; scarred, heavily armed. Mercenaries that won’t make the cut to join the ‘korps. The sixth player is dressed in sequins and sporting a top hat, she wears gloves to her elbows and a seductive pout.

    “Did you ever truly love me?” She complains, pushing a small stack of chips across the table to a man with one eye.

    “Looks like you’re alright without him,” I say, motioning to the stack of chips in front of her.

    “You’re going to make me work, aren’t you?” She says.

    “Yeah.” Colette’s crew are useful, but high maintenance. I’d rather have one of Ironsides’ mages at my back. I realize with a start that this showgirl has an adam’s apple.

    “Fine,” she says, and tips her winnings into the center of the table, “It was fun boys and girls, no fighting over me now.”

    “Let’s go,” I say.


We’re over the wall in a few minutes, and kicking up dust on the road before I say another word. The showgirl has kept up a steady stream of patter, all corrupt Guild agents and lipstick shades or something.

    “What can you tell me about this mine?” I say at last.

    “Not much, I just pick up the shipments,” she shrugs, “They’re highly automated, just a handful of actual miners, they’ve got somebody making spiders to do most of the heavy lifting.”

    “So when they say they’ve had ‘a number’ of casualties we could be looking at no one left.”

    “Casualties?” She said.

    “Do you know what we’re doing?”

    “Nobody tells me anything.” She gives me a look.

    “Don’t pout at me,” I say, “It won’t work.”

    She rolls her eyes but the pout vanishes.


    The mineworks are perched on the edge of the bayou, a couple tin roofed shacks with mud walls, and an outdoor kitchen swaddled in mosquito netting. I make for the only permanent looking building - a low, concrete walled bunker squatting over the minehead.

    “What are we doing?” The showgirl says.



    “Directly.” I try the door, it’s locked - likely barred from the inside. “If something’s attacking you from the mine, why would you lock yourself in?”

    “You wouldn’t,” she says.

    I make sure my revolver is free in its holster.

    “What are you going to do,” she says, “Shoot the door?” She’s scanning the treeline for signs of movement.

    “Maybe,” I say.

    “Knock first?” She says.

    It’s my turn to roll my eyes. I wrap on the door three times, “My name is Elle, I’m here on behalf of the Miners and Steamfitters Union. Open up.” No response.

    And then… “Help, please, help me.” The voice is so faint I almost can’t hear it.

    “I need you to open the door,” I say.

    “Help, I can’t…”

    “Move,” the showgirl says. I step aside and she caresses the lock. There’s a loud thunk, “It’s unlocked,” she says, “You go first.”

    Maybe you’re not so useless after all. I shoulder the door open and step through, gun raised. The revolver has my standard load-out, alternating manstopper and witched rounds - an answer to most of my common problems.

    Inside it’s dark, the light from the door shows a handful of crumpled automata and then stops short. I can hear whimpering from across the room.

    “Help, help me…”

    “Where are the lights?” I call.

    “Can’t,” says the beggar, “They’ll come...”

    Great. Behind me the showgirl throws a switch and the room is bathed in sickly green light.

    The beggar screams and dives under a desk. He’s dirty, with a shaved head and a long matted beard. I cross the room in a dozen steps and haul him up by his collar. “What happened here?”

    “Why’d they send a couple of girls…” I toss the beggar onto his desk.

    “Useless.” I turn and scan the room. Nothing, nothing, dead bodies, nothing. There’s a workbench in the corner covered in steam arachnid limbs, with a pneumatic arm given pride of place. The hand has six fingers curled tight, and under its tattered leather skin I can see six glowing soulstones. “Who will come?” I ask the beggar.

    “The…” but he doesn’t have to answer.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” the showgirl says, “Welcome to our fight in three acts.” I turn and see her surrounded by miners. There are four of them, two more crawling from the mine with the disembodied jerking of marionettes. They bleed freely. One raises his pickaxe, “Act the first, a Shocking Disappearance!” The pick embeds itself in the showgirl and she snaps her fingers. Her cloak falls to the ground and I hear a clattering behind me. “Damn,” she whispers as she recovers her balance, “Spoiled the dismount.”

    I open fire on the miners. The manstoppers jerk them around, and the witched rounds freeze them in their tracks for a second, but neither one bothers them for long.

    “Act the second,” the showgirl says, “Long Odds.”

    I ignore her. While the miner-things are durable, they are also slow and awkward. I circle around the pack of them, reloading as I go. Explosive rounds prove no better than the manstoppers.

    I trip over a rusting drill and in the time it takes to recover the things have split up and are moving to trap me. Slow they might be, but they’re coordinating somehow. I stand my ground and load the revolver. The beggar seemed to think they’re drawn to light, if I can take out a few of the lights above me…

    But they are moving faster now, like they needed to warm up. One lunges at me and I shoot it, it staggers, but another one grabs my arm and rears back with its pick. A pistol drops into my left hand and I fire point blank. The bullets in this one are Clara’s recipe, she called them mage-hunters and they redirect soulstone energy.

    The miner collapses, but doesn’t release my arm. I twist as I fall, try to free myself. All I can see are the blasted faces and empty eyes of the miners closing in. I fire blindly, I fire until my gun clicks empty, but it’s not enough and I can’t break the death grip on my arm.

    “Act the third,” comes a ringing voice, “The Stunning Reversal, the Ghost in the Machine!”

    The miner releases my arm and I roll away. I empty the revolver into the cluster of miners and then drop it and my other hidden gun springs into my hand.

    But the miners are falling. Behind them the showgirl is juggling six soulstones at once. She grins at me, “Good thing I’ve got sticky fingers,” she says, nodding at the arm on the workbench.

    The fist has unclenched, the soulstones no longer power it. Under closer examination the arm is entirely the wrong size and shape to fit on a human arm. The socket is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, even living surrounded by steamfitters.

    I turn to the beggar, he is shaking, “Can you walk?” I say.

    He nods.

    “Good,” I say, “Because I’m sure as hell not carrying you.”

    “Is that all?” The showgirl says

Edited by admiralvorkraft
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