The Day Steampunk City Lit up like the Fourth of July on the Fourth of July
By Amy Donovan
High amidst the clouds floated a city where everything, from buildings to flying cars and even traffic lights were all powered by steam, where beings of all shapes and sizes lived, worked, and played side-by-side. It was known as Steampunk City. And in the topmost floor of the most secretive building in Steampunk City, 37-year-old Jared Bradley sat in his office. He leaned back against the plush leather armchair, propping up his feet on the smooth, oaken desk, flipping through the official papers of his latest case. On a sign at the forefront of his desk, the words "Jared Bradley, Hardboiled Detective" were etched so lightly that you'd have to rub your fingers over the indentations of the letters to read it at all.
Just then, a woman entered through the door of his office. She was dressed in a way that clearly revealed her upper-class ancestry, as usual. But she was fidgeting all over, almost as if she was trying to say something, but couldn't. She also looked like she was carrying something behind her back. Jared looked up from his cigar and muttered, "Oh, Aileen. What's up?"
The 29-year-old could barely lift her eyes to meet Jared's, even though she'd known him for over five years now. As she clutched the precious box in her hands behind her back, her heart raced as she tried to calm down and remind herself of what she set out to do. She closed her eyes and pictured Jared as she always preferred to envision him. How she loved that look on his face as he buckled down to crack a tough case, how dashing he looked when leaping over the building roofs of Steampunk City, in his long heavy trench coat, packing a pair of .44 magnum pistols at hard numbers and popping them off, if necessary. You can do this, Aileen, she told herself. Enough with the excuses. Play it like a waffle iron if you have to, but today is the day you do it!
Jared sifted through his papers in impatience, even though he would normally wait much longer for clients to tell him which cases they needed his help for. He knew Aileen Phaidra would normally get straight to the point; she would never stall for this long. "Spit it out, Aileen. I don't have all day."
She bent down on one knee, pulled the little box in front of her, and opened it to reveal a bright purple Amethyst stone on a golden ring. "W—w—will you…?"
Jared stared. It took her THIS long to propose? he thought in astonishment. His brain started working wildly, analyzing the situation and remembering events from the past few years. A lot of my guys have been giving me a hard time about it recently, he reasoned. They're all married, and they all get extra money. As much as I'd like to work by myself, maybe it's not such a bad idea. Let's try it and see if it works. Besides, she is pretty. For a woman, anyway.
Aileen was still stuttering. "M—marry—?"
Jared lifted his feet off the desk and interrupted her before she could even finish her sentence. "Sure, why not?" he answered with a flick of his wrist. "Which day?"
Aileen's heart leapt with joy. "July 5," she immediately replied. The day after the Fourth of July. In a mere three months, she would be known as Aileen Bradley. All her hard work getting to know him, helping him out on tough cases, picking out the right kind of trench coats and Auto Mag Pistols for him had finally paid off. He was hers at last.
At that very moment, to his left and right, the walls of his office belched flame. Using his quick reflexes, Jared leapt over the desk and brought Aileen down to the ground with him, barely dodging a pair of bright red lasers that rained over their heads, nearly vaporizing them. Jared brought out his .44 pistols and poured lead into the fiery holes in the wall. The sudden stop of the lasers assured him that he at least hit the controls to them…wherever they were.
A line of tall gray-skinned muscular beings dressed in shiny battle armor emerged from both holes, all carrying more laser guns, marching with perfect timing. They looked human-like, except for their long pointy ears, sinister yellow cat-like eyes, and mouthfuls of razor-sharp teeth. As the smoke cleared from the holes in the wall, Jared could see that they came from a roving military tank that could scale buildings, and that their rooftop laser cannons were filled with bullet holes. So that's where the lasers were coming from. Aileen clung closely to him as he stood up. "I know these guys. I can handle them," he whispered to her.
It was the Elf Mafia.
Before he could shoot any more, something from above blasted both his guns, disabling the firing mechanisms. The Elf Mafia's leader was apparently clinging to the ceiling, waiting to take Jared by surprise. He leapt from the ceiling, landed on his feet, pocketed his laser gun, and got straight to the point. "Where's the dough, Jared?"
Jared shrugged and replied, "Look, I know I'm in deep hock to you guys, but I've almost got it. Just one more case, one more client, and that'll be enough."
The Boss-Man growled, "That was your last chance, Bradley. You knew that." And with that, he bopped Jared a nice one on the jaw with a steel-knuckled roundhouse smash. Jared's brain spun and he saw stars. He fell to the ground, promptly blacking out.
"JARED!" screamed Aileen. That was the last thing he heard.
Jared slowly blinked his eyes open, waiting for his head to stop spinning. He wondered why there was a cloud of thick steam floating all around him. Finally, it cleared away. He sat up and looked around. He was sitting in a dark-blue pod of some sort that looked recently opened. The room surrounding him gleamed with the sparkle and chill of a metallic, sterile finish. He wiped his finger. No dust. But there was a sliding door of some sort in the wall opposite him.
Suddenly, the door slid open, and a digitized voice emitted from the ceiling. "Preparations complete. Welcome to the Science Bay's training facility, Jared Bradley. If you pass this simulation, there will be a reward." Jared looked up to see an orbular camera hanging from the ceiling like a spider ready to pounce. It analyzed him with a rapidly opening and closing shutter eye that gave him an unexplained chill. Annoyed, he asked it, "Who are you? How do you know my name?" with a bit more force in his voice than he intended.
"Your file is in my database. You have always been here for the past 37 years. Now shut up and enter the doorway," ordered the computer. Jared reluctantly stood up and walked with trepidation to the open door. Glancing back, he could see the camera's eye following him. It occurred to him that the voice was on the feminine side, but it still didn't soothe his nerves at all.
As he walked down the dimly lit hallway, he could hear his footsteps echoing everywhere each time his thick boots hit the cold, hard floor, like the footsteps of an executioner trying to match his stride. No windows, no people, not even breeze of air, yet a chill still seemed to run down his spine. "So my whole life has been a lie?" he whispered to himself.
"Correct. You never were a private investigator." The voice almost made him jump. He couldn't see any hidden cameras, but he deduced that the voice must have come from a row of speakers hidden in the corners of the hallway. He figured he shouldn't talk anymore if that computer had such unnatural hearing. After all, the more time he was able to think, the better his chances of discovering a way out of here…wherever here was.
The first room he came across held a simple obstacle course with moving platforms. Jared was relieved, but also a little suspicious, to find that while he didn't have his .44 pistols anymore, he still had on his trench coat, and what's more, many of his previous physical abilities were still perfectly intact. He could still leap from platform to platform with more skill than he suspected his body would be able to muster if he actually did live here his whole life and just woke up. Finally, he reached the high corridor at the end and leapt through it. There was an elevator at the end, and he went in. Though there were no buttons, it automatically went up.
As it travelled up, he thought he could hear muffled screaming noises from somewhere far off, as well as machine gun fire. What is this place? His brains raced ahead with possibilities. The door opened to the next level. He was staring out at a room with a pit of what looked like grayish-green acid at the bottom, and it looked like he would have to jump across the platforms to get to the door on the other side without slipping and frying himself. As he jumped across, he realized that there was something familiar about the smell of the acid pool…but just as he figured it out, his foot came upon some invisible slippery substance and he started falling!
Luckily, he managed to grab a hold of the ledge to the doorway, and thankfully, there was none of the slippery substance there. Whew. Better be more careful…, he thought as he pulled himself up. But still, who'd smear something like that in a place like this?
Right before he stepped into the elevator to the next level, the computer spoke up. "Please note that any and all appearance of danger is meant to enhance your testing experience." He didn't answer it as he rode the elevator to the next level. In his gut, he had an uneasy feeling that if this computer was capable of lying, it was also capable of sadism. He tried not to let his growing anxieties overcome his powers of analysis, but he never trusted computers to do the thinking for him (even in his past life, if that wasn't a lie), and a homicidal computer, if it was smarter than him, could be his toughest case to crack…
By the time he reached the third floor, he found where the screaming came from; there was a trail of dried blood that looked like it had been dragged across the floor into a hidden door in the walls. When he saw the five walking combat robots in the room point their guns at him, he realized with a sickening thought that there were people here who died at this point because they were too exhausted to move out of the way. But he wasn't. With lightning-quick reflexes, he dodged the spray of machine-gun lead and tried running around them in a circular way. One of the robots caught the one in front of it in the crossfire, and he noticed that there was a split-second delay between the time they locked on to him and the time they fired. With that in mind, he maneuvered in such a way that four of them were slammed with friendly fire, and he bumped off the last one by yanking two machine guns from two of them and pouring lead into it.
By the time he reached the fourth floor (which the computer called the final floor), he was jumping around platforms over another pit of acid while metal rained all around him from the massive droid in the center. He slipped several times, and it took all his effort to avoid being iced and hang on long enough to pour the last stream of bullets into his adversary. At last, the final door opened, and he used the last of his energy to pull himself up and jump onto the ledge. He collapsed to rest, thinking, How do they expect any normal person to make it this far? But the computer piped up again, goading him. "What are you waiting for? Your reward can't possibly wait for you to take a nap like that. I mean, seriously. You fight all this way, and you stop right before you claim your prize? What kind of game-player are you? A lazy, unmotivated incompletist, that's what you are. There. Someone had to say it."
He groaned at it and reluctantly sat himself up, thinking, Fine, fine. Jeez, someone's a hypocrite. He walked through the final door and saw a platform magically floating above a chasm of some sort. "Please step onto the platform to claim your prize," chirped the computer.
A vague feeling of dread passed through Jared as he walked toward it. Even through a thick layer of sweat, he could still feel a light breeze chill him to the bone. As he stepped onto the square platform, he could swear that some creepy-looking computer eyes in the darkness ahead gazed right at him. He sensed that something was very wrong here, but he couldn't figure out what. "Thank you for participating in the simulation. We hope to see you again…someday."
Was it his imagination, or did the voice waver with sadness in the end?
Laser guns on both sides of the chasm poured red energy into the space in front of him, making him almost cry out in shock. So this is what his instincts have been warning him about. How could he not tell? That computer was homicidal after all. As the firing field got closer and closer, he started to panic. All along, he was afraid that maybe the computer was lying the whole time, and he despaired that he found he was right, as usual. Calm down, he admonished himself. Fear kills the mind. There's always a way out. Think…think… But he couldn't think. All that crowded his brain was the horror of the lasers' deadly touch, of how the computer tricked him, let him believe that he could find out where he was. Maybe there was no outside world. Maybe he never had a past life as a hardboiled detective. But now he would never know for sure, because quickly, surely, he was going to die.
And then he saw it.
Lit by the rapidly firing lasers, there was a single pipe with an opening big enough to fit him if he jumped—and made it, for that matter. He didn't have much time to think it over, and if he miscalculated and missed the pipe, who knew how deep that pit was, or even if it had a bottom at all? If he had to act, he had to act quickly. He took a deep breath, mustered up the last of his energy, and made a leap of faith, one second before the platform entered the laser field.
He made it.
The tube quickly enveloped him in darkness. He rode down, down, down, down, down, almost like a water slide without the water. And it was completely vertical. For a brief moment, Jared became paranoid that maybe this pipe would lead to nowhere, or that maybe it was a never-ending ride, or worst yet, there would be a flat bottom to this that gravity would crush his body against in a loud splat. Maybe the lasers were the better way to go? But luckily, the tube slowly curved down until it was perfectly horizontal and only his momentum kept him going. He shot out into another hallway, but this one was much dirtier. There were smaller pipes lining the walls and ceiling, and the walls were dirty and rotting with mildew. In fact, there were several puddles of water lining the hall. He had no choice but to hurry down the hallway, trying to find a way out.
"Where are you going?"
For a moment, he seized up in terror, but then relaxed. The computer's voice wasn't nearly as loud as it used to be, so maybe he was going somewhere at last. In fact, if his observations were correct, these halls looked very much like Steampunk City's sewage systems, so at least he wouldn't be totally lost if he ever found the exit. As he sped down the maze of hallways, he came across a fork in the tunnels and took the left, just for the heck of it.
"I wouldn't go that way if I were you. I would have turned right. Everyone knows you should always turn right to get to where you want to go." Something seemed familiar to Jared in that speech pattern, almost as if it was trying to trick him by using reverse psychology. At each fork in the tunnels, he always took the opposite direction the computer told him, picking up speed. The water puddles became thinner and thinner. Soon enough, he came upon a metal grating, and through it, he saw the one scene that confirmed his suspicions.
The entire Elf Mafia was crowded in a room with computers. Activity was frantic, with military elves running around in disarray. He could hear the Boss-Man, roaring, "Find Bradley! He couldn't have gone far!" And then under his breath, he muttered, "How could he escape…?" The Boss-Man was standing next to a pod of some sort that had a helmet with wires of all shapes and sizes attached to it leading to the main computer in the room, and in that pod with her head in the helmet was whom Jared thought he'd never see again. "Aileen!" he nearly choked.
So that's how it was. He heard the stories of what the Elf Mafia did to people they hated, but he never knew it was anything like he just experienced. He also found that they tied a P.A. microphone around Aileen's chin. No wonder the computer sounded so realistic. He had to quickly formulate a plan. There was an inactivated time-bomb, a jetpack inside the room, and a small vent that would hopefully lead to the surface, but he'd never be able to turn them on and blast out of there with Aileen before the entire mafia was on him. What to do…?
And then he figured it out.
He quickly memorized the layout of the room. Then he grabbed a wheel attached to the pipe to his right to shut off the water, leaving no steam to power the generator. The room blacked out. "Hey! Who turned out the lights!" roared the Boss-Man amidst a cacophony of shouting. The noise was enough to cover the sound of Jared kicking the grating open, swiping the time-bomb, and making his way to where Aileen was, accidentally bumping into several elves.
As he reached the pod, he shouted out to them, feeling bolder than ever for once, "It's over, boys! I sniffed out your game here. Looks like I'll have to turn you over to the fuzz for kidnapping, extortion, cruel and unusual—" Suddenly, the lights turned on, and the tank had a shattered hole in it that wasn't there before. Aileen was gone!
The Boss-Man laughed as his troops all pointed lasers at Jared's head. "No, Bradley. You're exactly where I want you. And you know what happens when you mess with us."
Right then, Aileen's voice cut him off. "Catch!" she shouted.
Another time-bomb flew into the air above their heads, catching all of their eyes. Apparently, Aileen smashed the tank with the helmet on her head and snuck out of the tank in the darkness and chaos. She jumped down from the tank's ceiling where she was hiding, grabbed Jared's jetpack, and flipped the switch on. As she wrapped her arms around his neck, he dropped his time-bomb in surprise. The Boss-Man saw what was happening and roared, "GET THEM!"
Too late. Aileen's time-bomb exploded, engulfing the whole room and activating Jared's time-bomb, creating an extra-wide explosion. Aileen and Jared barely managed to stay one step ahead of the explosions as they flew through a narrow vent all the way to the surface. They burst out through a manhole cover just in time. As they flew into the night sky, the bright light and heat forced its way through the sewer system and out of every manhole cover in the city. The resulting illumination allowed everyone, regardless of whether they were in the air or on the ground, to see the city for miles around. Many of them took pictures and even recorded live videos of the spectacle. The light was bigger than the biggest firework they've ever seen.
That day became known as The Day Steampunk City Lit up like the Fourth of July. Coincidentally, it WAS the Fourth of July.
When they found that the wedding day was the very next day, that in fact they were knocked out for three months, they hurried so quickly they didn't have a chance to talk over about any of the recent events. (This was Steampunk City; weddings don't just get cancelled because someone goes missing…or that half the buildings in the city get charred from some mysterious underground fire.) Finally, they got their chance after they walked down the wedding aisle and stood in front of the clergyman, even as their families in the chairs watched on, wondering what could possibly be so urgent that they needed to talk during their wedding.
Aileen whispered, "I'm sorry! The Boss-Man forced me to trick you like that! I even offered him all the money I had to settle your debt, but he still didn't listen, and…"
"Ah, don't get all hung up on me like that. Besides, I figured it all out."
She paused, surprised. "You did? How?"
"It's simple. At first, I thought I was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that it was you pretending to be a homicidal computer. Only you know about how much I hate computers. So then I figured that maybe someone was forcing you to do it when you wavered on the word, 'someday'. Then, there was the acid on those training floors, and that invisible slippery stuff on the platforms. Both those substances originated in the elves' homelands—and I should know, I've gone there once—so I figured that the whole thing was an elf operation. Finally, there were those sewer lines that turned out they were Steampunk City's sewers. It also helped that you used reverse psychology to help lead me to their hideout. Elves are bad at noticing subtle dialogue like that."
Aileen relaxed. "I'm glad you noticed."
The clergyman then said, "Do you, Aileen Phaidra, take Jared Bradley to be your lawfully wedded husband?"
She replied, "I do."
"Do you, Jared Bradley, take Aileen Phaidra to be your lawfully wedded wife?"
He looked into her eyes and saw a depth to them that he never observed before. This was a woman who knew how to pull an impressive homicidal computer act, who knew how to lead him to the answers of a case without anyone suspecting anything, who knew how to use a time-bomb and a jetpack and quite possibly much more than that…and that she was actually truly beautiful. Not just on the outside, but on the inside, too, both in her own unique way. Maybe because his multiple brushes with death changed his priorities in life, maybe it was because Aileen proved she could be just as hardcore as he was and not just be a client anymore, but whatever the case, he then realized that there was no way he was ever going to find another person as special as her. There was only one thing for him to say.
And this time, he really meant it.