Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Jade Dragon

In Honor of The Steampunk World's Fair I'm reposting my steampunk story.

Cogs, goggles, corsets, metal teeth and superheroes!

Well, I'm not sure superheroes are steampunk, but the mechanical suits definitely are.

The major ran a rag over the chest plate, smiling absently when she could see her green eyes reflected back at her in the polished brass. It was important, even if the whole mechanized surface would be covered with cloth, to make sure it was well polished and gleaming. “Almost time to fly,” she said under her breath, setting the cloth on the workbench.

She climbed into the suit in a fluid motion, even the soreness in her joints didn’t take anything from the ease of long practice. She secured herself to the seat with an array of buckles that shone as brightly as the chest plate. A look in the mirror made her laugh. The hulking metal frame she sat in made her taller, wider and stronger, gave her fire, and tonight even wings. But with her head bare and hardly clearing the shoulder gears she looked like a child in her father’s clothes.

She looked away from her reflection, forcing a more serious expression. It was serious work and she couldn’t allow herself to be distracted. Not even by the prospect of flying again. Seating her hands in the heavy gloves at the ends of her metal arms she twisted and flexed, testing the new gasket seals under the leather, jaw tightening at the pain in her wrist. She had taxed it on the last mission and even her thick bones could break. She could only hope they would hold for one more night.

It had been so easy, years ago, to punch through a brick wall. Effortless.

Something she wouldn’t have the chance to take for granted again.

“Maudlin,” the major said wagging an oversized and disapproving finger at her reflection. There was no good to be found in looking back. No good in dwelling on what would happen tonight.

She moved each finger individually, listening for the faint whir of the well oiled gears. The suit was as quiet as it could be, but the noise was still a concern. Stealth was hard to come by covered in pistons, cogs, and gears. There was no doubt it had been easier when she hadn’t needed hundreds of pounds of metal to be strong.

A loud knock, hollow on the metal door, made her jump, the pistons at her knees hissing.

“You’re not ready?”

She had turned when the knock came, knowing it was Gene, expecting her. Still, the major stared.

The doctor stood tall in the doorway. The coat was perfect across her shoulders, trousers lying as though they’d been tailored to her long legs. With the heavily embroidered vest smooth over her chest the only signs of her femininity were the loose curls haloed by the light and the smiling bow of her mouth.

“Nearly done,” the major said, quietly. She hadn’t expected anything like this. Not when she’d told Gene she must be disguised for the mission, not when Gene asked to borrow one of Henry’s suits. She found herself watching the doctor’s progress, down the wrought iron steps, wishing they were about to do anything else. Dinner at the Savoy, one of those insipid plays Gene loved, maybe even dancing.

Gene stopped before her, hands both clamped on the handle of her satchel, head tucked so she met the major’s eyes through her dark lashes. “You know, Isabelle, I always wondered what was under the green,” she said, unclenching one hand to touch the harness that held the major to her seat.

Isabelle felt strangely short of breath as Gene hooked a finger under one of the straps and tugged playfully. “This suit is enormous. No wonder you look bigger than life.”

The major shrugged and the mechanism hummed. She was belatedly relieved that Gene hadn’t noticed the pistol she had strapped against her side or the bulge the cloth mask made in her trouser pocket. “Your cravat is wrong.”

Gene dropped her hand from the brace, stretching to look down past her chin, fingers toying with the knot. “Oh, I was sure I had it,” she said, flushing pink at her cheeks and her ears.

“Here,” the major said, brushing the doctor’s hand away and smoothly pulling the knot loose. “Chin up.” Isabelle watched her gloved hands move, always amazed at the dexterity of the clumsy looking devices. The knot was retied in a moment. “You only need the hat now,” she said, taking a step back.

Gene smoothed the cloth with her fingers and set her bag on the cleared end of the workbench. “I have it, but we should finish with you first.”

The major had been dressing herself for forty years and almost said as much, but the glove had pulled sharply on her sore wrist, making it throb. “It’s only the over-clothes and the helmet,” she said, gesturing to the set of neatly pressed clothes, all to gigantic proportion, all a green so deep it was almost black, hanging from a hook next to the bench.

Gene nodded smartly, curls falling into her eyes.

Isabelle wanted to brush them away as Gene squinted through her hair and freed the trousers from their hanger. “These first?” she asked, holding them up.

The major nodded and lifted one booted foot and then the other, eyes on the doctor.
Gene tugged the trousers up over the thick knee cogs and smoothed the satin piping along the sides as she went so it lay flat and straight. She buttoned the waist and gave it another tug up. “Braces?” she asked, fingering the empty button holes.

“On the frame,” Isabelle said, one gloved hand braced on the table, the other gesturing to the brass rivets near the lap harness that circled her seat.

The doctor hooked the tabs over the makeshift buttons and nodded. “Helmet or waistcoat?”

“Waistcoat,” Isabelle said, leaning away from the table so Gene could shift it over the metal shoulders. She buttoned it herself, carefully testing the range of motion in the shoulders. They showed no sign of bending to their full extent, but then they never had. “Coat,” the major said a bit hoarsely, the adrenaline just beginning to flow.

The coat had a raised lapel and a high embroidered collar. It neatly covered the most of the mechanical harness. Only the hooks at the neck showed above the smooth fabric.

“The helmet now?” Gene asked as Isabelle shifted her shoulders under the coat.

The major nodded not quite smiling at Gene’s obvious fascination with the process, surprised to find the doctor at eye level in her low heeled boots, Isabelle with the added height of the suit. The major leaned forward and bowed her head. The bun she’d tucked her hair into protected it from catching against the pistons just inside the helmet. When Gene had secured the five latches the major turned her head experimentally, side to side, up, down, in slow circles. Her neck felt tight but the mechanism moved smoothly, giving her head a full range of easy motion.

When she looked at Gene through the wide lenses she found her looking at the dragon helmet almost wistfully. “I’ll let you do this,” the doctor said, passing Isabelle a jade green cravat that would hide the bright copper of the latches where the helmet met the suit.

Isabelle tied it at the mirror. With the helmet in place she looked like a hulking monster, fierce yellow eyes, mouth fixed in a malicious snarl of sharp teeth, suit outlining a powerful metal frame, making it look like it belonged to the reptile face, one powerful whole. It was vital to show power these days. Now, when there was no natural strength, no extraordinary abilities. It required more than the force to punch through walls, to create sheets of flame, to fly. It required the look of it, the expectation of power, the facade of intimidation.

The major sighed wistfully, there had been no need for this kind of posturing in the war.

“All systems in place?” Gene asked, appearing beside her in the mirror, hair tucked under the borrowed hat, looking excited and bashful.

The major had tested the flame projectors in the gloves before Gene arrived so she nodded to their reflections. “You remember the plan?" she asked, mouth suddenly dry.

Gene nodded dutifully. "We secure the rig. We drive to the site. You launch. You enter from the roof, place the charges, use the distraction to get to the captain. I meet the two of you at the rendezvous point with the car," she ticked off on her slim fingers.

Isabelle nodded, helmet sliding smoothly, head heavy. "And if I'm gone longer than an hour?" she asked, her voice echoing strangely in her ears.

The doctor frowned, full lower lip pouting out. "I find Wellington, tell him everything." She wrinkled her nose as she said the detective’s name.

Isabelle nodded again. "It will work," she said with what she hoped sounded like conviction. There was no point in telling Gene how it would really be. She would know when Simone showed up at the car alone.

"Of course it will work," Gene said with a bright smile, "I designed that rig myself."

Isabelle smiled in return despite her sore joints and the ache in her hand. "Let’s go test that bravado," she said, not sure which of them she had meant as she strode across the workshop.

Gene trailed behind her, each of them going to one side of the car, methodically checking the straps that held the rig in place. “Secure,” Gene said, eyes huge behind the goggles she had already put on.

The major nodded to confirm that her straps were tight, wanting to tell the doctor to take the damned goggles off, that this was no test run, that she would be safer if she stayed in the workshop.

But Gene was smiling brightly and already hoisting herself over the side of the car into the passenger seat.

Isabelle opened the driver’s door with a wry shake of her head. The Jade Dragon was far from being so light and agile. She checked her lap belt and turned her ponderous head to see that Gene’s belt was secure before she started the engine. As soon as she rolled forward the heavy paneled wall at the back of the workshop lifted, now a door.

With a deep breath she sped forward.

The night was tinted yellow behind the helmet, the clouds, the buildings, her young companion. She felt removed from it, frowning and sweating in her metal box, no trouble being serious now, moving through the plan in her head.

The cliff, the rig, the flight, the landing. And then the difficulty. It would have been simple once. Before the government’s mandatory treatments had left her, her whole brigade, small and ordinary. Then she wouldn’t have needed the suit and the attic wouldn’t have been a problem. It didn’t even look like a problem on paper. Gene had never raised it as one, and there had been so many. On paper the suit cleared the small space. But the major had piloted the suit, in one version or another for ten years and she knew. The shoulders, no matter how she twisted or squeezed, had never folded as they were designed to, they would never clear the narrow passageway, not without alerting the sentries. The suit would have to go. Once she’d landed she would have to leave it. It would just be her and whatever she could force her body to do.

She knew she could only carry five charges, not the ten Gene had planned on to neutralize the guards and open the wall into the alley.

She walked through it in her head, the pistol she had strapped tight to her side, the mask to cover her face in place of the helmet, the belt that would hold the heavy charges, the matches she would have to light them with. She could see Simone in her mind’s eye, fleeing into the night, safe as the major held off the guards to her last round. She could make that sacrifice knowing the captain would have done the same for her.

The car moved smoothly uphill as they rode up to the very crest of the cliffs that flanked the city. The major brought them to a smooth stop in a clearing that was hidden from the road by layers of brush. Gene was out of the vehicle almost before Isabelle could pull the brake, already tugging at the buckles and straps holding the rig.

The major moved more deliberately, closing her door and easing the buckles loose on her side.

Gene threw back the tarp with a flourish, grinning again.

It really was a masterpiece, the smooth metal capsule with its clear nose was just large enough, just solid enough for the suit, the metal wings folded tight against the body, like a sleeping bat, making it portable, reasonable, successful where none of the hand gliders they'd tried had been.

The major shifted her boots for better leverage and gripped the rig by the folded wings. She could just see Gene over it as she lifted, her arms around the tarp, hugging it to her chest, eyes wide as her creation was lifted clear of the back seat.

Isabelle had to lean well back on her heels and juggle a bit to get the capsule firmly in her grip. Gene flung the tarp into the backseat and walked in front of the major, guiding with gestures when Isabelle couldn’t see the ground before her. After several yards Gene held up one hand and mouthed something. When Isabelle didn’t move the doctor pointed down.

The major nodded in the helmet and gratefully settled the rig in the smooth track she knew would be there. It slid forward slightly and she tightened her grip until she felt it catch. When she stood Gene was at her side tugging on her sleeve.
Isabelle shook her head, not understanding, not able to hear over the wind plucking hard at their clothes.

Gene held her hands to her own head and mimed taking something off, her hat already gone, lost to the wind.

Isabelle lowered her head and between them they worked the helmet off easily. Gene took it and laid it reverently beside the open end of the capsule. “Sorry, I didn’t think it would be so windy tonight.”

The major frowned, feeling a trill of panic along her spine, the sweat freezing on her brow. Simone only had hours. Once they realized there was no ransom it would be too late. “Too windy?”

Gene shook her head solemnly. “No. It will actually help the initial lift, the way it’s blowing.”

“Whatever you say, doctor,” Isabelle said, smiling broadly in relief.
Gene cleared her throat, cheeks red again. “I’ve got it locked down. We can unfold the wings.” She went around the far side of the capsule, hand trailing lightly over the gleaming metal.

The major undid the catches on her side. The wing slid out with almost no help, as though it was ready to fly too. She locked and checked through all of the joins twice; rocking the wing slightly to make sure nothing would give in flight. She came around to the other side, surprised to see Gene still working her latches into place. The major watched her work, checking, checking, and checking them again. “All secure,” the doctor called out, jumping when she looked around for the major and saw the huge shadow already at her side.

She coughed and beckoned Isabelle to the open end of the capsule. She stooped and scooped up the helmet, holding it with both white hands, twirling it by the brass edge in a slow circle. “It hasn’t been this windy during the tests,” she began, her voice a half shout to carry over the wind, “you’ll need to be ready for the lift right away, compensate with the ailerons and if that doesn’t work shift your weight like you practiced for dives. But not too steep, or-“

Isabelle bent closer so she wouldn’t have to yell. “I’ll be careful,” she said as sincerely as she could.

Gene swallowed and looked up through her lashes again, her cravat fluttering at her neck, half undone by the wind. “Good,” she said so quietly the major saw rather than heard her lips move. She leaned forward then, closing the small gap between them, her pouting mouth touching the major’s. Isabelle’s lips parted in surprise and Gene took the lower one between hers, laving it gently with the tip of her tongue.

Before Isabelle could move, to press forward, to pull away, Gene had stepped back, holding the helmet up between them.

“For luck,” she said, pink from her neck to her dark hairline.

Isabelle nodded dumbly, her lip tingling where Gene’s tongue had touched it. She bent forward when the doctor lifted the helmet. Gene worked the latches on her own, Isabelle’s gloves stayed loosely at her sides until the last latch was tight and she lifted her head.

Gene had taken another step back and was nodding.

Isabelle nodded back; feeling like her head was on a spring as she crouched down and positioned herself in the capsule. The padded bench inside did little to relieve the pressure of the metal harness pressing into her hips and her sides. She braced herself for the pain in her hand but it seemed distant. She looped her heavy arms into the controls, shifting forward until the helmet was lined up with the headrest, her eyes at just the right level to see everything through the transparent nose of the capsule. She saw the city below her in yellowed points of light. She turned her head and saw Gene at a place well to the side of the rig, arms wrapped around herself, her coattails whipping in the wind, hair coming loose to do the same, a dark banner against the clouds. Isabelle pulled the lever, jerking her weight forward until she felt the rig sliding down the smooth track. She counted the seconds in her head and on eleven felt the jerk and short drop just before the wind caught her wings.

It was glorious to be in the air again. She was a leaf in the wind. Light, but not quite at its mercy. The major felt herself going high, too high for landmarks, too high to see the road. For a moment she didn’t care and when she did dive it was with a fierce grin and a yell that echoed in her helmet.

It had come to her as she was sliding back to the limits of her harness, wind buffeting her booted feet. Just because the shoulders were too big, didn’t mean she couldn’t remove them, take the legs, and strap the munitions to her seat.

Half a dragon might just do the job.


  1. I loved this!!!

    I love the steampunk mecha, and the very steampunk fetishization of technology in the text. I love that you juxtapose the love of technology in the text with the character's ambivalence.

    "She was a leaf in the wind." Oh, dear. Did you go there? ILU!!

  2. That leaf was just for you.

    And sure, for Isabelle, the mech is only a means to an end, maybe like a horse to a cavalry officer?


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.