Here it is, my entry in Steampunk.com’s ‘St. Valentine’s Short Short Short Competition’! If you’d like to check out the page and vote for me, click here. The voting is in rounds so check the latest rounds to see if I’m up for a vote!
“No sir, there haven’t been any calls”
“Thank you, that’s all.” James waited while the restaurant flickered with low toned conversations. The chime in his brass watch cuff pinged out another quarter hour and no new messages. He shifted in his chair and fumbled the little box in his pocket.
Tess pulled a heavy lever and the navigator pit hissed open. “Here she is: the brain of Nemoidia. You sure you’ll be able to handle her?”
“Yep, I can take care of it.”
Tess smirked. “Ok, Charlie, but if it’s too much you gotta tell me.” She ruffled his hair while he elbowed her in the ribs and bounded over to the massive double-thick porthole. “I’ve never worked with a machine so… err…” “So incredibly advanced, smooth-running, and above all else” (she kicked over an empty can of sardines) “tidy?”
“Well, I was going to say old, but working for an old lady like YOU, I guess it makes sense” he sneered with a laugh and a duck-and-run.
“Agh, you twerp. No little brother talks to me like that!” She rounded and headed after him down the tunnel, fish idly looking in on the commotion from the other side of the glass. “Charles Downing, I am not old! Get your narrow butt back here!” She called out stifling a laugh and clanged along behind him through the belly of the ship.
Rounding a corner he grabbed the cleanest-looking hatch lever and shouted back “Ain’t no-ho-body can catch me, I’m growing longer legs ’n you ever saw!”
Tess caught up laughing “Well, if I’m such and old Lay-dee, you can…” and rounded the corner to see him shove the hatch open. The taunt vaporized in her throat. “Charles NO! Not in there!” Dim blue light leaked through the hatch into the hall.
A woman in a long coat hurried in. James watched her eyes light up when she finally met his. He squeezed the little box in a sweaty palm as she hurried to the seat opposite him. “It’s been a little while Tess, I’m really happy you were able to come.”
The woman blushed, “I hate the thought of you waiting so long, really I do.”
He smiled and took her hand across the table “Well, dear, it’s only that I wanted to ask you a very particular question.”
“Wha…?” Charlie’s voice left him. Tess stepped in after him and rested a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were fixed on a massive tank and the figure of a man floating in green blue fluid like a forgotten marionette. “Charlie. Do you remember James?”
Tess knelt beside him on one knee and turned his shoulders away from the tank to face her. “Charlie. Sometimes dangerous things happen. James is a good man, a very honest man. I’m not sure who it was yet, but someone wanted to keep him from being honest. So they poisoned him and made him sleep.”
“S -sleep, like a nap?” She took his hands and looked at him as kindly as she could. “No Charlie, he’s very sick and it makes him sleep. He’d die outside that tank”
“Why is he here? Is he why you ran away?” Tess felt her throat close up and fought it back.
“Charlie, if there was any other way I would have done it. I didn’t want to leave home, I just knew that he wasn’t going to die for being a good man. I couldn’t let that happen. That’s why I have Nemoidia now. I’ve been through half the scientific underworld looking for people who could help.” She pressed her lips together and focused. This really was too much to ask. “There aren’t many, but I’d like you to be one of them. I’ll help you with and thing you want to learn, teach you to sail and anything else you want. But I need your help. Because you’re a good man too and I trust you. Can you help me?”
Charlie’s eyes crept over to the man in the tank. “I… I’m not a man.” He tried to look his big sister in the eye, but could only muster staring at the clunky watch she wore. “I’ll help you. But I don’t want to be in here. He scares me. You scare me. I… can I go?”
Tess swallowed. “Ok. Charlie. I’m sorry I scared you, really I am.”
Charlie walked away, stepped halfway out of the hatch and turned back to look at the tank. “Does… James dream in there?”
Still kneeling, Tess murmured “I don’t know Charlie. One of the doctors said that when folks go through things like this they go back to a happy memory and relive it over and over. I like to think that’s true.”
Her brother met her eyes again in the cold light. “But no one’s really sure?”
“No, Charlie. No one’s sure.”
Charlie turned back to the tank. “I hope it is too.” And walked away.
“Of course James! Yes, I will!” She nearly fell into his arms where he knelt beside her chair. “You do know this means you’ll have to put up with me from now on, that won’t trouble you?” he chuckled, “Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.”
Tess dusted off the knees of her pants and listened to her brother walk away before turning back to the tank. He was only 13, after all. The ripples in the tank filtered the eerie light in ribbons on the floor. She pressed her hand to the glass and checked the brass watch cuff she wore engraved with the letter J. “February 14,” she murmured. “Happy Valentine’s Day, dear.”