The Nearest Thing to Flying by Bruce Woods

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Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a new guest short story by Bruce Woods, the author of Royal Blood and Dragon Blood.

(You can find the previous story here.)

About Royal Blood:

Historical and fictional characters come together and change the future of Africa forever. Renowned actress Lady Ellen Terry, detective Sherlock Holmes, financier Cecil Rhodes, hunter/naturalist Frederick Courtney Selous, King Lobengula, and a mysterious, undead adventuress named Paulette Monot become chess pieces in the Great Game, which takes the form of Africa's First Matabele War.

About Dragon Blood:

Paulette is sent on a mission to China with the words of her mentor ringing in her ears. “A hot wind is now fanning the flames of racism in China, Paulette." Said Lady Ellen Terry. "And, like dust in a drought, it has blown up an army. They call themselves 'the boxers’ society of righteous and harmonious fists,' or some variation thereof, and practice rituals that they claim bestow invulnerability and more. They are ill-armed and poorly trained but potentially numberless.

“Recently an auxiliary movement has sprung up. Reportedly consisting of young virgin women, from the ages of 12 to 18 and accounted uncommonly beautiful. They carry the name “Red Lanterns,” and claim the powers of flight, fire-starting, and miraculous healing. It is these I wish you to investigate for any sign of Kindred activity.

“More to the point, however, and though the Boxers alone present a threat through sheer force of numbers, the Dowager is perched upon a knife edge. Two camps of courtiers vie for her attention, moderates who would have her eliminate the Boxers for fear that, with the foreigners gone, they would turn upon her throne; and conservatives who urge her to throw in her hand with them to rid the Empire off all peoples and technologies from beyond its borders.”

She is to face great danger and the very real risk that despite her remarkable powers she will not survive. It will take skill and courage to avoid the multiple perils, and risk of exposure for what she really is, that await her in an increasingly turbulent China.

The Nearest Thing to Flying by Bruce Woods

Upon my arrival in London, to which I’d fled to escape punishment for my accidental making, which violated the rules governing the creation of new Kin in America (or vampires if you will, in the parlance of the fantastic fiction of the day), I quickly recognized the need to obtain a mode of transportation. Unlike Manhattan, where my violation occurred, or the nation’s capitol to which I’d initially run, England’s Great City was not designed for the walker. Certainly there was public transportation galore, but until I’d quite established myself I would be forced to squeeze each penny fiercely, and I reckoned that the purchase of a personal vehicle would be, though initially financially reckless, more prudent in the long run. I confess, as well, that the freedom granted by such a conveyance appealed to me, who as a mere publishing house drudge had looked with envy upon the grand conveyances of the well-to-do in New York.

Such a carriage would, I quickly determined, be a monetary step too far, and the lodging and upkeep of a horse or horses would surely soon confound and frustrate me. I had posed this dilemma to Lady Ellen Terry (ageless stage beauty and queen of the London theatre, as well as Mistress of the Kin in that city) when paying my respects to her as fitted a visitor to her realm. She was kind enough to give my quandary some thought, and recommended that I search out her city’s entrepreneurs, England being of course a hotbed of invention and innovation at that time.

That investigation took me deep into the city, to a neighborhood of brick-front shops great and small. Some of these represented firms already part of the language of the town, and I would return to a few of these when equipping myself for future expeditions, while others represented the first efforts by teams of wild-eyed tinkerers to bring the fruits of their labors before the eyes of the mercantile public.

The window that ultimately stopped me in my tracks was that of a firm somewhere betwixt these extremes. Founded by Reggie Horace (formerly associated with the development of the now ubiquitous Sturmey-Archer bicycle hub) and Aldo Wilkershire (who, it was rumored, had cast one of the great gears that relentlessly turned with Big Ben), the firm’s name was announced in gold leaf on its storefront window: Horace-Wilkershire Coilcycles, Ltd.

It was not the name but the product itself that brought me to a halt. A beast of steel and brass, rubber and enamel, it seemed to be in motion even when standing still. Between the front wheel and the rear, and beneath the tractor-style leather-covered saddle, lurked a great mainspring within its protective steel cage. A neatly lettered sign next to this vision of speed and freedom promised velocities in excess of 20 mph, and a range of some 40 miles between windings. I believe I was quite sold before the door-top bell ever announced my arrival within the interior of the shop.

The small front office, consisting of little more than a cash register and the Coilcycle on display in the window, had clearly been carved grudgingly out of the large workroom behind it, which spilled into the front area by virtue of the clangs and curses generated therein and the spare parts that had been forced to find temporary (?) storage space in this vestibule.

The lone salesman cut a sporting figure (for such was certainly his intent) in knickers and knee socks, with a matching vest buttoned snug over his white shirt and a boater perched jauntily atop his head. He eyed me with the slow, greedy look of the predatory male and, smoothing his moustache, proceeded to attempt to charm.

“Perhaps milady is lost,” he began. “For certainly such a beauty is accustomed to carriages and chevaliers, and has never had to look to her own transport?”

“I value my independence,” I replied, somewhat frosty.

“Ah, then you probably need explore the wares in the bicycle shop two doors down,” he was a persistent sort. “There are models specifically designed to suit the feminine form, and they are nothing like as heavy and intimidating as our Coilcycle here.”

This was quite too much. I am fortunate that I have never regretted the decision I made in that moment, for I confess it was rash and reactionary.

“But your Coilcycle is precisely what I want,” I said, taking out my purse and counting out what then seemed a frighteningly large percentage of my total worth. “How soon can you have it ready to ride away?”

The sight of so much pound sterling apparently made the salesman quite forget my beauty, for he abandoned all efforts to dissuade me from my aim and, calling for a pair of workmen from the back to aid him, had the machine prepared in short order.

A singular component of this process was the winding of the mainspring. The chore was accomplished via a large, double-ended cast iron “key” that was fitted to the hub and turned, with no little show of effort, by the sturdier of the two summoned from the shop. I probably need not mention the significant glances I received from the three men while this chore was being accomplished; it was quite clear they felt that, without a stout swain to wind the coil for me, my riding days would be few and far between.

The salesman clearly saw this as an opportunity, and, rummaging behind the counter, produced an assembly of pipe and valve that terminated in a hub identical to the key. This, he informed me, could be affixed to a building’s central steam plant and would allow that miraculous and ubiquitous element to accomplish the spring’s winding effortlessly. He assured me that my building’s manager would certainly allow its implementation. Though I was less confident than he in my superintendant’s agreeability, I was quite certain of his greed and knew that, for an appropriate surcharge, he would consent to such an addition. Therefore I accepted the winding key but also allowed the additional fee for the steam-powered unit to be added to my purchase.

The Cycle made ready, I was about to straddle it (though my clothing was not appropriate, and riding would involve a loss of modesty until I could acquire a few additions to my wardrobe to accommodate the activity) when the burly workman who had wound the device stepped forward. I know not who he was, and in fact he could well have been either Horace or Wilkershire, for he looked upon the Coilcycle as fondly as any parent had ever admired a child.

He pulled a rag from his back pocket and polished a bit of brightwork that had been smudged in the readying of the machine for the road, and addressed me almost shyly.

“You’ll come to love her, missy,” he said. “She’s the nearest thing to flying.”

I had ridden a bicycle in the past, but of course had no experience with the levers and brakes peculiar to my new purchase, so my trip home was not as fluid as I might have liked, and occasioned some panic on the part of the horses I passed and a few choice words from their drivers. By the time I arrived at my apartment, however, I was quite comfortable with my new acquisition.

Over the next few days I did reach an agreement with my building manager for the steam-winding installation, and purchased a variety of bloomers and the like to make my riding less of an affront to the morals of the day. Soon I was exploring London with regularity, and rejoicing in the speed and silence of my mechanical steed.

I was of course familiar with the portrayal of the Kin in the penny dreadfulls of the day, and had often, since my turning, bemoaned the fact that some of those depictions were less than true. How lovely, I thought, would the power of flight, and of transmuting oneself into various beasts, have been! Perhaps that is why I purchased the black cloak, and thrilled at its flare behind me as I rode; looking very much, or so at least I imagined, like a gigantic bat winging through the sour-smelling streets.

That effect, coupled with the speed and silence of the Coilcycle, allowed me to effectively swoop down on the prey that I took, always keeping to those alone and inebriated as Lady Ellen had requested with an eye to the continued invisibility of our Kind. And when I left my victims, not dead but weakened, and confused by drug or drink, by my sudden appearance, and by the illusion of dark wings, I was confidently pleased that I did little to counter the salubrious fictions so enjoyed by the susceptible mind.

It was, in fact, the nearest thing to flying.