Friday, 8 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The steam engine bargain

The family huddled in the back room, listening intently to the approaching sound of marching boots. When they heard their front door kicked in, they knew it was too late. The soldiers had come to take their son away to become a wizard.

The boy's mother stood defiantly between the soldiers and her son. Nobody was going to take her boy away without going through her first, and her jaw was set hard in an expression that said it all. She would go down fighting - kicking, screaming, biting, scratching like an enraged lioness - if they tried to move her aside.

The soldiers, anonymous behind their visors, hesitated. They were not above kicking teeth if they had to - indeed, some had enlisted specifically for the possibility of face-kicking - but this determined woman was not like many of the others they had seen. There would be no joy in attacking her. Not for this.

The boy himself seemed indifferent to the ordeal. Whether he went to become a wizard to run the machinery of the city seemed to be of little consequence to him. Perhaps he did not understand that wizards, once trained in the ways of magic and put to work for the city, had a life expectancy of about 5 years. 10 if they were lucky.

The city ran on magic. Everything from transport and construction to communication. And every task needed its own wizard. As the city grew, the need for wizards increased with the demand for infrastructure. And that level of demand for training wizards meant taking boys from their homes now. No more possibility of volunteers. The population was practically eating itself to get enough wizards to make the roads, trains, phones and lights work.

When the father stepped in front of his wife holding a machine, the soldiers snapped back a step and raised their clubs, their own brand of training taking over. The machine was chugging and whirring, emitting a growing cloud of smoke. The man tried to explain, to say "It's okay, I can build these for you, and you won't need to take my boy", but the soldiers were not trained or authorised to make decisions like this. They called their captain, still uncertain whether the clanking machine was dangerous.

The captain glanced at the machine, then took a long look at the man holding it, trying to puzzle out whether he was dangerous, insane, brilliant or some combination of the three. Warily he asked the man to explain the machine, but did not order his soldiers to stand down from full alert.

"It's called a steam engine. See, it burns coal here, which heats up water in the boiler, and that turns the wheel here. You can use it to run the trains, and then you won't need nearly as many wizards, so you won't need my boy at ... all." The had been intent on his invention during his explanation, not seeing the captain's still-glaring face until he looked up at the last moment. The captain considered the device for a long time.

"It's very small", he said, finally.

"I can make it bigger", replied the man.

The captain considered again for a long time. The boy continued trying to peek out at the action, and his mother still stood defiantly in front of him, though her unspoken challenge seemed to have lost some urgency.

Finally, the captain ordered his men: "Take him and the machine." Then, almost as an afterthought, "The boy too."

Both parents cried out in unison, and the captain cut them off.

"Not a word! I will not hear one word about this! The boy comes with us. He has the talent, and we were sent for him." He breathed a sigh, then softened just a little. "If your engine ... thing works, then maybe we won't need wizards to run the trains. You can appeal to have him back in a year."

The soldiers all turned and left, taking the steam engine, father and son in tow, and the only sounds as their bootsteps faded was the quiet sobbing of a woman left alone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I would have liked to spend more time in world-building on this.
PPS - But I don't have the room for that.

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