Monday, January 30, 2012
I love adventure stories. I also love genre fiction across the board- noir period pieces, science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, historical fiction, the whole gamut. One of my favorite genres is steampunk. If you're unfamiliar with the type, steampunk essentially takes the coolest technology from the past, smashes it together with the coolest technology from the future, then attaches the whole thing to a brass and copper coal-fired engine.
I had so much fun with this steampunk story that I'd actually like to expand it into a full novel. I'll add it to the already mile long list of things I want to turn into novels.
Aaron Mathew Smith- January 30th, 2012
“Extend that sail, Harper!” Lieutenant Commander Douglas Windhelm barked at me, and I moved like the devil himself was on my tail. Careful of my harness, I dashed across the deck of the ship and yanked the lever at port. The sail unfolded like the wing of a colossal bat from the side of the ship and caught the wind immediately, causing the Romulus to pitch to starboard.
The magnets in my boots kicked in, their connection to the ship’s gyroscope the only thing keeping me from pitching over the starboard side. I fought to stay upright as everything that wasn’t tied down clanged across the steel decking and crashed into the railing.
A localized hurricane tore past the port side, a blast of wind and searing heat nearly tearing my jacket off of my body. A split second later a thunderous explosion shook the steel beneath my feet and made my ears ring.
Windhelm was screaming something at me, and even though I couldn’t hear him I knew what he wanted. Typical evasive maneuver; I yanked the lever again, folding back the sail and causing the ship to right. The magnets in my boots disengaged and I dashed across the deck to where two ensigns were seated at the starboard side lancers. Windhelm was getting there just as I was.
The expanse of grey, cloudy sky was broken by flashes of yellow light as the cannons aboard the airship flashed to life. Their shells were wide and right, streaking past the ship and buffeting the Romulus with their passing. The surface of the balloon above our heads shuttered and rippled.
The ensign on my right swung his lancer to bear, the machine itself looking like a huge steel easy chair with a battered cage across its front. There was a loud crack as the tension in the steel arms of the lancer released, flinging a projectile as long as my arm across the empty space. The pneumatics ground loudly as the lancer reset itself and another bolt slid into place even as the first fell short of its target.
“It’s no good Sawyer,” called Windhelm to the ensign behind the controls. “They’re at least four kilometers off. The lancer will never reach them. Don’t waste the bolts.” The teenage girl manning the lancer looked frustrated but didn’t argue.
“Who are they?” I asked the Lieutenant Commander.
“That’s a Champion-class vessel,” Windhelm said, raising a rangefinder to his eyes. “Flying the red, white and blue bars. Russians.” He lowered the glasses and squinted his clouded blue eyes. “There are Russians after us. And attacking us unprovoked is an act of war.”
“Windhelm?” I glanced at the hearty old soldier, his face almost totally obscured by his white beard, huge eyebrows and the cap pulled over his hair. “What’s worth so much to the Russians that they’d be willing to go to war over it?” When he didn’t answer, I said, “What was in that cargo box we picked up in Constantinople, sir?”
The Lieutenant-Commander’s beard bristled. “Harper, you’ll do well to remember the chain of command. We need you on deck, but another insubordinate word and after we escape you’ll be in the brig. Understand?” His tone left no room for argument.
I bit my teeth together to keep from saying something I’d regret. “Yes sir,” I said.
“Maintain evasive action! Lancers, if that vessel comes within three kilometers, fire at will!” Windhelm roared over the wind on the deck. I pulled the goggles on my flight cap over my eyes and moved to the starboard sail, ready to perform another evasive maneuver. I watched the Russian ship drift lazily across the grey sky, tiny brass flippers waving, its colossal cannon swiveling about again. They were readying another barrage.
“Starboard sails!” I cried into the brass microphone mounted on the deck railing, sending the message to the whole crew. The gyroscopic bridge would be fine- everyone else in the gondola would just have to hold on.
I yanked the lever and the Romulus took another ride on an updraft, tilting wildly to port. Another shell whizzed past, the shrieking air that it displaced making my ears sting. As the thunderous gunshot followed and I swung the starboard wing back into place, my microphone crackled to life.
“Junior Lieutenant Harper, retrieve additional lancer bolts from the hold!” The voice of Captain Moriah Masters barked.
I grabbed the attention of Hobbs and Anja, two of the other crew on the deck and passed off my sail duty to them. They didn’t seem too happy about the change in shift. As soon as my boots demagnetized I stomped to the short set of steps that lead into the gondola, my footsteps thundering on the steel.
It was several flights down to the hold, and I had to stop once as the ship lurched beneath me and nearly dumped me to the bottom of the gondola. Maybe I’d made a mistake putting two ensigns on sail duty.
The hold was cramped and tiny, but not as tiny as the crew quarters. I went to the corner where the weaponry was stored and began to wheel palettes of the bolts onto the tiny freight elevator that would carry them to the deck. I’d nearly finished when a peel of thunder shook the room around me, vibrating the steel beneath my feet and causing the lamps on the ceiling to flicker and sputter. I was tossed from my feet as the floor bucked beneath me.
The ship tilted again and I crashed against a huge wooden crate that had been pushed against the elevator shaft. I cried out as my shoulder went numb from pain.
A tiny shriek came from within the box.
No, that wasn’t possible. I stood and looked at the crate. It was nearly as high as me and twice as wide, with words in a language I didn’t understand painted on the face. There was a dossier nailed to the wooden panel. I scanned it.
It was the parcel from Constantinople. And somebody was inside.
If I catch a stowaway, I’m in for a promotion! An optimistic side of my brain said. I slapped the elevator button and sent the ammunition to the deck, then carefully approached the crate. I’d cracked one of the boards near the top when I’d fallen into it. There was a crowbar nearby; I took it and went to work on the crate. In just a moment the lid was loose enough to lift. I climbed onto a box of lancer bolts, raised the crowbar like a bat in case whoever was inside came out fighting and kicked the lid away with the toe of my steel boot.
It wasn’t packed with straw, like most of our shipping orders were. The box was filled with plush, ornamental rugs and cushions. Huddled beneath them a tanned face with two large, brown almond-shaped eyes blinked up at me.
My brain buzzed with a thousand things, all at once. How had she gotten in here? Did the captain know? More importantly, did the Russians know?
The one thing I didn’t wonder was who she was. Because everyone in the whole world knew her face. I’d first seen it day before yesterday in an English newspaper that one of the men had found in Constantinople. She was the only thing anyone in Asia or Europe was talking about.
She was the princess of the Persian Empire. The news said she’d been kidnapped three days ago. And somehow she was on the Romulus.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Well, it looks like I did get around to writing a short story this week after all. Sometimes my writing comes as naturally as thought, a cocktail of equal parts inspiration, experience and blind creativity. And sometimes my stories are just really weird.
This is one of the second kind.
Aaron M. Smith - January 22nd, 2012
Is she staring at me? Oh crap, she’s staring at me. What do I do now? Stop, Dan. Slow down. Remember the YouTube video. Smile!
So I smile. She smiles back.
See Dan? You can DO this.
The soup arrives. Thank god, I can’t eat another bite of kimchee. She seems to like it though, so I can say that I’m just letting her have it. Double-win.
“So Dan, you’re a programmer?” She says.
“Oh, well, I’m in charge of system and archival maintenance for several clients. But I work from home, so, y’know. No corporate noose!” I tug at my tie. She smiles and looks at her soup.
Oh crap, that was too much. Made her feel awkward. What do I do now? She’s looking at her soup- look at yours too!
There are tentacles floating in the soup. It’s tentacle soup. Oh crap, I never should have let her order for me.
“I love this place,” she says. She inhales deeply and smiles.
I stuck my spoon into the bowl.
“Ask her about herself!” A tiny voice squeaks. I freeze and my eyes flicker up at her. She’s eating soup, totally unaware. I should be eating mine too. I bring the spoon to my mouth.
“Listen to me!” The voice peeps again. My eyes fall to the tiny tentacle in the red broth.
I slurp the broth but drop the tentacle back into the bowl. She doesn’t notice.
“So, uh, what do you do again?”
“That’s good!” The soup says again. I try to not look at it.
She doesn’t notice. She says, “I’m a paralegal, but I’m saving up to go to law school,” she keeps talking but now I’m too distracted by the soup to listen.
“Quit paying attention to me, pay attention to her!” The soup scolds me.
“And I really like dogs,” she continues. I nod politely.
“Good,” the soup encourages. “Take a bite so she doesn’t think you don’t like the soup.”
So I do, careful to avoid the tentacles. I’m not sure why.
“Tell her you like that sweater.”
“I like that sweater. The green goes with your eyes.”
“Thanks!” She smiles and touches my arm with her free hand.
“Good job going off script,” the soup says. My eyes flicker down to it again. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t talk to me! She’ll think you’re crazy.”
So my soup is talking and it’s also psychic. Great.
“I don’t usually go out with people that I meet online,” she says, “but I’m having a really good time.”
“See that?” The soup says. “Stick with me and by the time you’re done with this soup you’ll have a girlfriend!” I tried to not look too excited about that… or too bewildered by the fact that my soup had just said it to me.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
I got the inspiration for this story from something I heard on NPR several months ago. Yes, I listen to NPR. If that makes me a hipster then I guess I should go buy some Birkenstocks. Anyway, I might take a few weeks off from short story writing after this entry. I have ideas for other entries, don't worry. I just plan to focus all my writing energies right now into sending query letters to publishing agents. Yes, I'm really going to do it this time!
Anyway, here's the story. Enjoy!
Aaron Matthew Smith
“Me next,” said the big man in the puffy overcoat. He sat down next to me on the hard tube bench. I grinned and took his five pounds, stuffing it into the pocket of my jeans.
“Okay, you have to ask your question when I cut the deck,” I said, tugging my scarf away from my neck. I opened the little wooden cigar box I kept my deck in and started shuffling. As I was cutting the cards, Puffy-coat Guy said,
“Am I going to get that promotion?”
I laid out the top four cards of the deck in a diamond shape on the molded plastic bench between us. I glanced at the man, my hand frozen on the top card. His eyes were transfixed on the face-down card, oblivious to me or anything else. I waited a heartbeat before I flipped it over.
“In the romance position, two of pentacles, reversed,” I said. He glanced at me, awaiting my appraisal. “Bad news. Discouragement.”
“That’s okay, I’m married,” he said. A few of the people who’d gathered around us chuckled.
I flipped over the left most card. I looked up and smiled at Puffy Coat Guy. He must’ve taken encouragement from it because he smiled too, eyes crinkling.
“Career position, Temperance, upright,” I announced as if I was calling the winning horse in a race. “Patience, confidence, harmony.”
Puffy Coat Guy pumped his fist as if he’d been betting on the horse I just called.
“Yeah, I’ll bet that’s what it means,” said a woman’s voice from the back of the crowd. I didn’t look up from the cards. I moved on, flipping the rightmost card.
“Finances, the nine of wands, upright. Preparedness, perseverance.” The guy clapped both hands together. His enthusiasm had drawn a little bit of a crowd at this point; we’d arrived at the next stop on the line, but nobody was getting off. They were all trying to look over his shoulder at the cards.
I flipped the last card. “Happiness, Page of Swords, reversed.” I tugged at my scarf, trying to remember what that card meant. After a second of silence I decided upon, “Caution. You should be careful, something unexpected might happen.”
“If I do get that promotion, it’ll be unexpected!” he chuckled. He stood up and grabbed his briefcase. “Thank you young lady, you’ve made my day!”
I grinned and bowed my head. “I just read the cards.”
He grinned and walked to the open door. Now that the reading was over the crowd was beginning to disperse. I started gathering my cards back into the cigar box when a tall, spindly woman in a coat the color of stale mustard came over to me.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she hissed. I glanced up. She looked down at me over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that were too big for her face but too small for her nose. “Taking honest people’s money.”
“I’m just reading cards,” I said quietly.
“And taking money from people with real jobs, pedaling this pagan voodoo nonsense like it’s gospel,” she said in a voice that would peel paint from concrete. “You’re just telling people what they want to hear and keeping their money for yourself.”
“I’m just reading the cards,” I said again, not meeting her eyes.
“It’s witchcraft and lies is what it is,” she continued unabated as if she and I were alone in the car. “What’s your name? How old are you?”
“Claudia,” I said, still not meeting her eyes. “Fourteen.”
“Well ‘Claudia’,” she said my name like it was a four-letter word, “You’re what’s wrong with society, young lady. I have half a mind to report you for panhandling.” She gathered her purse in her hands as if I was going to try to snatch it away and stalked stiffly out of the car.
Most Saturdays I rode the tube for a couple hours doing readings. I was doing a reading for a strung-out looking blonde woman who asked “Is my boyfriend going to propose soon?” when I saw Mustard-coat Lady again. This time she didn’t say anything, just stared at me over the shoulder of the other woman as I flipped cards.
“Romance, Queen of Pentacles,” I said. The blonde woman stared a hole through me. “Over-dependence, mistrust.” I winced as the woman’s blue eyes flared. She got up and stomped off before I could read the rest of the cards.
“You should be ashamed,” Mustard-coat Lady scolded.
I did another few readings before getting off the tube and grabbing a sandwich for lunch. An hour later I’d already taken a seat on the hard bench before I noticed who was sitting across from me. She looked like a grizzled old cactus that had been planted in a mustard-colored pot, her sharp features and dyed black hair like spines.
“Are you following me?” I asked.
“You need to stop,” she said. “You’re cheating these poor gullible people.”
“Leave the kid alone lady,” said Sal, a big Italian guy with a mustache. He was a regular. He sat down next to me and smiled beneath the wide brim of his hat. I gave him a quick reading; be patient with his wife and a potential investment opportunity might fall through, the cards told him. He tipped his hat and I thanked him for the support and the five quid.
After Sal left, Mustard-coat Lady started in again. “Do you really think anyone believes this card nonsense? You can’t tell the future any more than I can fly across the Thames!”
“I just read cards,” I said innocently.
Her beady gaze smoldered on me before she stomped off, heels clicking like the nails of a dog on a tile floor.
She’d succeeded in scaring away most of my customers for the afternoon, so I decided to wait for the evening commuters then head home for supper after rush hour. I was just flipping over the card in the happiness position for a college guy when I sensed her presence. I just knew she was there, like sometimes how you glance at a telephone right before it rings.
“Happiness position, Ace of Cups, rightside up,” I said. “New beginnings. Good things on the horizon.”
He grinned behind a set of black plastic frames. “That’s amazing, I just started class today and I love my new program.” He passed me a fiver. “Thanks again. See you tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” I said. He stood and walked away.
As if she’d been waiting all day for the chance, Mustard-coat Lady plopped down right next to me. For a moment she just sat and glared at me. I didn’t look up at her. I focused on carefully shuffling my deck, stacking the cards neatly into my cigar box.
“Well, go on,” she spat.
“Excuse me?” I looked up as if noticing her for the first time.
“You heard me. Go on. See if your silly witchcraft can tell my future.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Just leave me alone.”
“Look here Claudia. You’re scamming these people, and I intend to prove it. You’re going to read my fortune.”
By now the car was full of people on their way home. She hadn’t been speaking loudly but by the way she was leaning across the empty seat it was plain that she was angry. People were stopping to notice.
“Why would I tell your fortune?” I asked. “You’ve been awful to me all day.”
She tugged a five pound note from her purse and threw it at me like a grenade. “There, that’s what you want, isn’t it? Now do your voodoo. Tell me a lie.”
“I’m confused- am I just lying, or am I doing black magic? I can’t very well be doing both,” I said. A big guy in a stocking cap chuckled.
Her small dark eyes were as cold as a snowflake down the collar of your sweater. “Deal one card. Read my fortune.”
Everyone in the car was squashed together around us in a human hedge, watching. I couldn’t disappoint a crowd. So I shuffled. I felt my face heat up as the cards flew between my hands. Finally I cut the deck.
“You only asked for one card,” I said, trying to stay focused, “So this is going to regard your immediate future. Alright?”
“Young lady I already know what my evening holds,” she said, her voice an icy razor. “I’m just waiting for you to be wrong about it.”
I felt my cheeks flush, but I didn’t let it show as I finished cutting the deck and placed the top card face down between us. Her thin lips turned up at the corners. Her smile was an odd broken shape, like a crack in a mirror. I was starting to sweat under my hoodie. I wished now I hadn’t worn the scarf. “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove here,” I grumbled. “I’m just reading cards. My fortunes are for entertainment.”
“I’m making a point,” she snapped. “Now read.”
I flipped the card and read it aloud, “Nine of Pentacles, reverse.” I glanced at the card, back up at Mustard-coat Woman, and back at the card.
“What does that one mean?” she asked, her voice like the subtle snap of ice breaking underfoot.
“Potential loss, caution. Danger. Be wary of strangers.”
“Ha!” She snapped. “The only person I need be wary of is young girls trying to take my money. Just as I said, nonsense. Foolishness.” She stood and looked at the people who’d watched the reading unfold. “I hope you all paid attention and learned a lesson.”
The tube suddenly lurched to a halt, the crowd swaying with the car as it stopped. The door opposite us started to open.
“I have nothing more to fear from strangers than—”
“Excuse me ma’am,” an authoritative voice sliced the crowd apart like a hatchet. A uniformed police officer stood in the open doorway beyond the gap. Mustard-coat Lady spun on the spot. “I have reports of you harassing a young girl on the tubes today. Is that true?”
“That’s her, officer,” said a familiar voice, and Sal poked his head around the edge of the door. “That’s the woman who’s been stalking Claudia.”
“Stalking? Harassing!?” She sounded as if she’d been slapped in the face. She whirled on me. “You and he planned this, didn’t you?” She pointed an accusatory finger at Sal, then at me. “You’re trying to make me look like a fool!”
That was when the crowd turned on her. She tried to shout them all down, which only made the officer more irritated. Pushing hands and ushering arms moved her out of the car and onto the platform. I could still hear her screaming at the policeman as the doors slid shut and the tube took off again.