Twin pairs of leather aeronaut’s boots crushed brittle green leaves and stems as gently as they could. Amanda Westcott and her love Wyatt Ellison approached the unconscious girl as quietly as if they were entering the room of a sleeping baby.
“Oh God, Wyatt, you were right. She is here, but how?” Amanda appeared some six or so years older than her thirty-year-old companion, but her hair was a rich and thick ebony restrained only by her pilot’s goggles. Equally “restrained” as it were, was her full figure, dressed in her leather aviation jacket, scandalously short knee-length wool skirt, and shear black silk stockings, she looked both innocent and alluring.
She bent over slightly as if to touch the child but then held back, perhaps not wanting to disturb her.
“Your steampunk version of my unitool. I recreated it finally when I knew I’d never get my original equipment to work again. It was triggered in our universe while we were using the chronoship.”
“But the chronoship has only traveled the time line in two quantum realities, yours and mine. This…” she waved an arm expansively at the verdant wood they had been stumbling through. “This is something else, somewhere else.”
“Yes, according to my instrument…” Wyatt scowled for a second under his thin cowhide helmet, arcane mechanisms spinning and hissing upon it as if alive “…we’re more than a century ahead of our own time but we’ve gone…sideways.”
“Mommy.” It was a whisper. The pair gazed downward seeing the child’s lips murmur while her eyes were still closed. She could have been ten or eleven, sparely dressed, and for the most part concealed by the foliage. Roses had fallen across her hair like a tiara.
“Poor waif. You’re sure she’s alone.”
“Yes, and she’d better be, Amanda.” Wyatt quickly swiveled his head as if scanning for a charging barbarian horde that had yet to arrive. “From everything I’m reading, this whole planet, all of it, every major population center has been devastated. There are billions dead and billions more dying.”
“A plague, a war?”
“More like a war, but not between armies. It’s as if every living adult on this planet decided to kill everyone else, a kind of madness maybe. I’ll try to take more measurements.”
“Mommy? Daddy?” The girl’s eyes fluttered open expecting the familiar, and then catching sight of the unknown pair she squealed, pulling herself by her elbows away from them in a panic.
“Dear, please. We’re not going to hurt you. My name is Amanda. This is my friend Wyatt. We’re here to help.”
The little girl in the tattered dress, face scratched and soiled still looked like an angel or an elf. Something unseen behind her blocked her further escape and she trembled.
“Are you…police. Are you red or blue?”
“Darling,” Amanda knelt at the girl’s feet, remembering one version of her temporal existence when her father had been murdered by agents from Wyatt’s reality. Fortunately, she had corrected the timeline, but the price was her lover would never go home to his alternate world in the far future.
“We aren’t police and I have no idea what you mean by blue or red.”
“How can you not know? It’s like that everywhere. If you’re a red, you hate blue. If you’re blue, you hate red. Who are you really?” She started to sob. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Amanda risked lightly touching the girl’s shoulder. She shuddered but didn’t pull away.
“I don’t know about reds and blues, but I’ve accessed some sort of digital archive. The origins of the current world conflict are complex involving organizations with odd initials. One starts with B, another with an A…what are Patriots? Anyway, the tipping point was when a mad king…make that President, refused to be opposed…no that’s replaced by another President.” Wyatt paused to read and then, “Oh I see, one side uses red as their color and the other side blue.”
“Which one’s which?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore…Amanda.” It was the first time the girl used her name. “They both went crazy. The police and soldiers came. I don’t know.” She stifled a sniffle. “Then one crowd started shooting, then the others, then police and army and everyone else. Mommy and Daddy and me drove away as fast as we could but then the car crashed. Blood. They didn’t move. I couldn’t wake them. Then I ran and ran and ran. Are they here, Mommy and Daddy? Did they wake up?”
Amanda looked up at Wyatt’s pitiful expression which told her the grim truth. The child saw the same look and wept bitterly into the palms of her hands.
“Sweetheart. You can’t stay here alone. Let us take you home with us.”
“You’re right about the not staying. There are three airships, some sort of rotor driven craft, approaching from the southeast. They’re armed and from what I’ve learned so far, there are no friendlies or non-combatants here.”
“Dear child, my name is Amanda, this is Wyatt. We have to go. What’s your name?”
“Em…Emily. Home? But everybody all over is fighting and killing. Where can we go that’s safe?”
Amanda tenderly took Emily by her arms and lifted, coaxing her to her bare feet. “That’s going to be hard to explain.”
“How much do you know about science fiction, kid?”
“Wyatt, not now,” Amanda chided.
“It might help her understand.”
Emily’s eyes brightened. “You mean like Star Trek and Star Wars?”
“Well, that’ll have to do.”
Amanda gave him a confused look.
“We had them on my world too in the distant past.”
“Come with us, Emily.” Wyatt executed a half turn toward the inadvertent trail he and Amanda had made through the ground cover when tracing her signal here from the time vessel.
“How much Star Trek do you know? The original series? Do you know specific episodes?”
“Uh, I like Discovery, but I don’t…”
“The mirror universe.”
“Isn’t that when Captain Lorca and Michael…”
“So you understand about parallel realities. How about time travel?”
“That was in the third season, wasn’t it?”
Amanda knew Emily hadn’t simply dismissed her grief and terror. Shock, their strangeness, and the immense need to believe that she could escape her world’s horrors had taken over. It would wear off in minutes and then she’d crumble again.
“We’ve got to hurry. Those ships are only a few miles out.” Wyatt dropped back to help Amanda lift Emily up. The girl would never be able to run over the rough terrain, sharp rocks, and plant spines without them.
“It’s just ahead, Emily. Look, through those bushes, see?”
“It’s…What is it? A boat? Why’s it made out of red metal and what’s that big glowing blue thing?”
“It’s a sort of time machine, but it can also go into mirror worlds, like Wyatt was talking about.”
Emily stiffened and tried to pull away. “You’re crazy. That only on video and in…”
“We don’t have time for this, Emily.” Wyatt bent down to capture her gaze with his pale, blue eyes. “We are your only hope. Those things are almost here and if we haven’t vanished when they arrive…”
“Emily,” Amanda softened her voice as a counterbalance to Wyatt’s emphatic tone. “You really should come with us. I promise a wonderful ride and at the end, a miraculous world, a London like no one here has ever known.”
“London, but it’s all broken and burnt up like…”
The girl gasped as Wyatt lifted her in his arms. Amanda raised the main door to the chronoship and the man deposited the child in the farthest seat just behind the co-pilot’s.
While he was strapping her down fast, Amanda closed the hatch, regained the pilot’s chair and initiated the start up sequence.
“Hurry, Wyatt. I’ve got them on scanners and they’re 30 seconds out. I’m setting the controls for immediate return and the jump will be rough.”
He crawled into the chair just forward of Emily’s listening to the girl’s frightened mewing.
“Don’t wait for me. Do it!”
Amanda pressed the red initiator button bypassing the safety checks and warm up routine. The famed Westcott-Liechtenstein engine roared to life filling the cabin with a brilliant azure glow. “We’ll just make it.”
Something like giant, metal insects that Emily recognized as helicopters whined above their heads as the chronoship disappeared from her world forever.
“Wyatt.” Amanda whispered into her headset which she’d just donned knowing only he could hear her in his helmet. “There must be others, other children. Shouldn’t we help…?”
“She was the only one who registered.”
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t…”
“I know and she probably isn’t the only one. But the unitool is a probability engine. It’s designed to pick up the single most likely person…well, in this case, to live.”
She looked at him knowing that no matter where he’d come from, what he’d done in a past, or rather future life, he had only compassion for Emily, and undying love for her.
“I’m sorry.” Wyatt’s eyes glistened like silver with uncharacteristic tears.
The ship lurched and all three occupants were thrown against their safety harnesses.
“Where…where are we? Everything out the windows was white and now we’re…we’re…”
“Calculations were slightly off. We’re not at the lab.”
“But this is definitely London, home. I’ll get the door, Amanda. You take care of her.”
“Come with us, Dear. We’re home. We may have to call my Daddy for a ride since we ran a bit off course but…”
Emily, now released from the series of belts, buried her face into Amanda’s chest. Crying, her body jerking, she wailed, “I’ll never see my Mommy and Daddy again. Never, never.”
Amanda embraced her. “No Emily, I’m sorry but you won’t. And I know Wyatt and I will never be your Mummy and Daddy, but I promise you’ll never be alone and no one will ever hurt you.”
“How can you say that? Everyone hurts everyone else.”
“No, not here. Not were we live. Come. I’ll show you.”
Emily took a few more moments and then pulled away.
“Here, let me take care of those lovely green eyes.” Amanda retrieved a cotton hanky from her jacket’s lapel pocket and dabbed it on her face. “See, much better already. You can hold onto it.”
Emily clutched the cloth between her fingers and then let Amanda slowly guide her out of the doorway and then beside Wyatt. He was standing, hands on hips, admiring the view.
Amanda saw they were on the south bank of the Thames facing Westminster Bridge in the distance, twin towers reflecting the rays of a rising sun. Under a partly cloudy sky, the dim light rendered the cityscape a charcoal gray. On the street to their left, self-propelling carriages occasionally zoomed by, issuing equal parts of hissing steam and a bluish glow from small cylinders mounted on their rears.
A combination of seabirds, zeppelins and bat-winged bi-planes were soaring overhead, the hum of fast moving motors creating a pleasant vibration. From somewhere behind Westminster Abbey, a large spherical metal object wider than one of Big Ben’s clock faces, soared straight upward with a faint whoosh, and piercing the cloud cover, swiftly vanished from sight.
“I’ve seen pictures of London on the internet like it was before…before everything. This is London?”
“Our London. A London run on a special sort of steam engine powered by equal parts of technology and dragon magic.”
“Dragon? But they’re not real.”
“Most of them live in another quantum reality…” Wyatt hesitated and then faced Emily. “Another mirror world. The ones who live with us or who come to visit sometimes don’t like big cities. Once you get settled in, we can take you to the deep wood. Would you like to meet a dragon?”
“Impossible? Look around you, Emily. This is a world of the impossible. I think you’ll learn to love it as much as I…” Wyatt stopped talking as Emily dove into Amanda’s arms and bosom again.
“It’ll take time, Wyatt. Her world has been destroyed and we’ve taken her away from the smallest bits of what was left that she still knows as home.”
“I’m sorry.” He stepped forward and patted Emily gingerly in the small of her back. “I was an adult when we had to make a decision which of our two worlds would continue to have time travel. I made my choice. She didn’t have one.”
Amanda gently rocked Emily. It was going to take a long time and it was going to be hard. Someday the waif from the lost world, the world where people decided that hating each other was more important than building a better future, would become used to this place. It was a place where machines and mysticism had equal reign, a world Emily could hardly believe, except in fairy tales.
“I’ll call your Dad for a pick up. Let him know what happened.”
“Thank you, Wyatt.” Then Amanda mouthed. “I love you.”
He pursed his lips in a kiss and then pulled the slender unitool from his trouser pocket. He thought about making a joke but it wasn’t the time.
Now he supposed he and Amanda would get married. She was a scientist and inventor and he an adventurer and a rogue. Starting today, they would have to learn to be parents for the sake of Emily.
The idea is to use a particular image, which you see at the top of this page, as the inspiration for a short story, poem, or other related work.
I used two characters and a universe I created in a series of stories both published and unpublished. The universe, but not Wyatt and Amanda, appear in The Deseret War published in the Mormon Steampunk Anthology A Mighty Fortress. The Mechanical Dragon found in the Zombie Pirate Publishing Fantasypunk anthology Clockwork Dragons does briefly show Amanda and Wyatt and explains why dragon magic must power steampunk.
Given the rather horrible events in Washington DC today, I couldn’t help but think of a world of unremitting violence, not just by one side but by everyone. It seems for most of the past twelve months, but really much longer than that, one “side” has been pitted against another with no one neutral, no non-combatants, where everyone must win, which means always that we must make another side lose.
When I saw the photo, I could only imagine some piteous child who had managed to escape the carnage, but where could she go? I sent her to the only world I had at hand to keep her safe. If only I could send my grandchildren there and then show them around. Steampunk and dragon magic indeed.
To read other tales inspired by the photo, click Mister Linky.