Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Stung" Part 1 of 3

As a brief explanation, this is the first steampunk story I ever wrote, and the inspiration is purely Appalachian. The Smoky Mountains got their name because of an odd meteorological happenstance: in the summer, when the sun comes back out after brief but intense rainshowers, the water evaporates from the ground and rises up through the trees all across the mountains in columns of what looks like steam.  The Cherokee Indians thought the phenomenon indicated the sites of fairy campfires.  During the moonshining era, it was used as an easy way to hide the signs of a working still in a mountain glade, because no law officer could investigate each and every one of those plumes.  One such summer's day, riding the bus home from school in Knoxville, I looked out at the river ridge and saw the smoke rising, and since I  had been reading entirely too much Girl Genius, the idea of a huge mechanical monstrosity, a mobile still powered by the steam from its own distillation fire, sprang full-formed into my head.  And that was the birth of Appalachian Steampunk.

Part 1 of 3
"We-ell, you in or you out? Can't leave this'n too long, or the revenuers'll catch wind of it. Big cache." The man leaned forward across the small, rough-hewn table separating him from his companion, casting his eyes meaningfully about the small, single-room interior of the mountain shack. "Share in it'd set you and Emily up a real treat, y'know."

The young, threadbare man sitting in the other chair ran a hand through his sandy, ill-kempt hair, shaking his head uncertainly, though a look of longing had passed over his face at the woman's name. "I just don't know, Roop. Those things are unnatural. A man could do a lot worse with his life than staying far, far away from them."

Rupert threw back his head and laughed, a huge, bellowing whoop that echoed out of the cabin and across the clearing, a laugh befitting his reputation as one of the best backwoodsmen left in the county. "A course they ain't natural," he replied, rubbing tears from his eyes with fat fingers toughened by years of exposure to Appalachian winters. "They's machines! But they ain't nothing but machines, you know that." He waved his hands expansively. "Machines is easier to take on than any other kind of critter, cause they can't think. All they can do is as they've been set to. I know there's some as says they can, but let me tell you, I've hunted and killed just about every kind of animal there is in these mountains, and when I shot 'em, they all had brains leakin' out. I've shot me one or two of these damned stills, too, when I come across 'em - I'll grant they's dangerous to children and women and the like, so I'll take 'em down when I can - but I ain't never seen anything leaking out of one a them save oil and likker." He smiled, his point proven. "No brains, how they gonna think?"

His companion frowned, drumming his fingers on the table in thought. "Still. Cache that big, they gotta be leaving one guarding it, that's just how they work." He shuddered. "Damn things're like bees guarding a nest. Ain't never seen the brains of a honey-bee, neither." He glared defiantly at the larger man.

"You ain't been gettin' your churching, then, or you ain't been listening right," Rupert chuckled. "Bees is a special case, made by the Lord hisself. But that ain't here nor there, Mort, you ain't given me an answer yet." He frowned slightly, contemplating the man. "I only come here seeing as I want to do you a favor. I know Emily's sweet on you, too, and since she's my sister's girl, I gotta make sure she gets done right by. This'd get you all you need for a better place, some fields, some stock..." He let the words hang invitingly in the air, grinning disarmingly.

"Huh." Mort snorted, but it was clear he was beginning to be won over. "Ain't never seen you work a field, Roop."

The big man only grinned wider. "Ain't got wife nor little 'uns, neither. Man wants those, he's gotta work a bit. Or be willing to take a bit of a risk."

Mort bit his lip, but one more glance around the interior of the rough bachelor's hunting cabin decided him. "Aw, hell. All right, what's your plan?"

Rupert thumped the table with a thick finger. "That's my boy. This here cache, it's in a cave 'round the south side of Raccoon Mountain. Seems like there's three or four of 'em round and about that mountain, always on the move. I been watching it for a couple weeks now; they always leave one guarding, but there ain't no spring there, so the beastie's gotta go down to the river at least once't per day to top up his boilers. The one what's there now always goes in the middle of the night, guess they can see in the dark, and they been told to know that humans don't get out at night much."

He leaned back, chair creaking ominously, tucking his thumbs into his suspenders. "I ain't been in the cave yet, but I seen 'em make drop-offs, and they're never in there very long, so it can't be too far back. And anywhere one a those blasted oversized spider machines can clamber to, so can a person. There's got to be a fair bit in there by now, Lord only knows why they store it when they can't use it." He tapped the side of his head, grinning knowingly. "Machines. Can't think, all they can do is what they're told, even though sometimes they decide that's something different than what the human doing the telling thinks it is."

Mort sat listening, unimpressed with the big man's bluff assurances, and still looking unhappy over the whole affair. "All right, so we've got to get out there in the middle of the night, go rooting through an unexplored cave, and then trek back out with as much moonshine as we can carry, all while avoiding the still what's doing the guarding." His eyes narrowed in thought. "You got a good look at it? Seen what kinds of weapons it's carrying?"

Rupert waved a hand dismissively. "We shouldn't ever have to worry 'bout that, but all it's got is a couple of old rifles. Nothing too powerful, probably can't even aim straight. As for getting there and back, full moon's next week, and I got a couple of rucksacks we can stuff the gettings in." He grinned like a cat in the cream. "Don't even need to worry 'bout the cave, I had occasion to do a favor for the Wizard a couple months back, and he gave me one a them fireless torches for it. Works like a charm, and it oughta light up our way a treat."

For the first time, Mort looked impressed, and as though he felt the plan was anything short of suicidal. "The Wizard, huh? Well, all right, then." He sighed. "I must be going crazy, but what man doesn't go crazy for love at some point or another?" He leaned across the table and shook Rupert's hand, sealing the deal. "I'll be here, you come find me when we're ready to set out on this damnfool exercise."

Chuckling, Rupert returned the handshake and nodded. "I'll be here. Have no worries on that account."

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