A Good Bowl of Ramen

It's going to be a tough night for Gregory Collins. A short steampunk adventure.


1. A Good Bowl of Ramen

The snow crunches rhythmically underneath my feet as I make my way through the lower west side of Chogo, Tokken's industrial district.  Normally, I wouldn't be in such a hurry, it's not in my nature, but right now...right now I have to hurry.  That idiot Honchu has brought in representatives from Tomofune Metalworks so he can sell our machine without me knowing.  If it hadn't been for Ujiki, our errand boy, I would still be sitting at Maruo's sidewalk stand, downing sake and eating the best ramen in all of Tokken.  I'm not sure how Maruo does it, but he uses the right combination of spices, garlic, and vegetables, and cooks the noodles just the way I like them, supple, but still slightly firm.  Top it off with a little soy sauce and it's heaven in a bowl, especially on a cold night like this one, well worth the extra fifteen minutes it adds to my walk home.

I was about halfway through my first helping when Ujiki ran up to me, words flying out of his mouth at ninety miles an hour, stopping only to take in quick breaths of cold air.  He'd sprinted the whole way from the workshop and it took a few minutes to piece together what he had seen.  The boy usually leaves the shop at the same time as Honchu and me, and stops off at the market of his way home.  Today, he left his pack that he uses to carry groceries at the shop and didn't notice until he reached the market.  When he went back to get it, Honchu was there with a pair of well-dressed business men.  Ujiki stayed hidden long enough to find out what was happening and then hoofed it to Maruo's stand to find me.

“You're sure they were from Tomofune,” I ask him in rough Komji as I pull my charcoal-colored stocking cap over my head.  I swear I'll die before I get all the nuances of this blasted language right.  I get by well enough to design steam engines, order a good bowl of ramen, and dish out a solid comeback when someone hurls a Komji insult in my direction, but many of its subtleties elude me.

Ujiki nods and says, “I see one of them every day, Mr. Greg.” It's easier for him to say my first name.  “I share part of my route with him every morning when I go to the shop.  He walks through Chogo before going to Tomofune tower in Yanbo.”

I utter a curse word in the Common Tongue as I leave the stand and my bowl of warm ramen behind.  I button up my heavy wool overcoat and pull on my gloves as I move.  Thankfully, I didn't drink much sake so my wits are still with me.  Not that I ever over-indulge, mind you, but even a few drinks of that stuff will loosen me up a bit.  I'm a lightweight.  Tufts of white breath escape from of my mouth like a chugging steam train as we round the corner and step into the bright gaslight glow of Yanbo Lane.

On the surface, this street is a picture of progress for the Komjin Empire and serves as a model for the rest of the country.  Multistory buildings tower high overhead and run the length of the street, filled with the offices of rising corporate giants from all areas of commerce.  Smaller shops occupy the lower levels, and while they primarily serve the people that work in the buildings, they have turned Yanbo into a shopping hub for tourists and the Komjin elite.  Appearances are paramount, so everything is kept pristine and clean.  Even now, clockwork automatons toil away with shovels to clear the sidewalks of snow.

However, scratch the glittery skin of this place and it won't take you long to find the infestation of greed.  Double-crosses, backdoor dealing, bribery, extortion, blackmail, and sinful excess are all part of daily life on Yanbo Lane.  Companies rise and fall in the blink of an eye around here and when one goes down, its always because someone didn't play ball.  One company in particular has become a veritable corporate fortress that no one can touch: Tomofune Metalworks.  They were one of the earliest founded during the last industrial revolution and, as such, are one of the oldest and the best at the game.

I usually avoid going through Yanbo even though it's a quicker route to the shop, but right now, speed is of the essence.  I am thankful for the hard work of the mechanical street cleaners as I take off in a run down the now clear sidewalks with Ujiki following close behind.  A few steam-powered carriages, imported along with the automatons from the Tirian Hegemony, rattle and hiss their way down the Lane, carrying their wealthy occupants to a charity ball or some other fashionable activity.  I wouldn't mind dismantling one of those clockwork servants just to see what makes them tick (pun intended).

Honchu had approached me about making a deal with Tomofune two weeks ago, but I was vehemently against it.  We argued for a good while before he finally agreed to let it go.  Now, that bald punk was going behind my back to sell our designs to the most corrupt one in the bunch.  I could handle his little eccentricities.  Heck, I have plenty of my own.  But, betrayal is something I will not stand for.

Several blocks beyond Yanbo Lane is an unnamed 'buffer zone' between the Lane and the rest of the Chogo district, a collection of random buildings that are mostly empty.  Those nearest to the street leading away from Yanbo have various stores that are kept relatively clean, but behind them the facade soon fades into the real meat of Chogo.  Most of the district is filled with warehouses and factories.  The sounds and smells drive away most people who don't mean to wander in, a quality that extends a little into the buffer zone.  That, and the proximity to raw materials, make the zone the ideal location for the shop.

My visibility diminishes as I leave Yanbo, and its many golden lights, behind and enter the buffer zone.  The bluish black hue of the sky surrounds me and the wind kicks up, throwing snow at my face, stinging it, but I hardly notice.  Weaving this way and that through the winding, twisted alleys formed by ramshackle tin sheds and dilapidated warehouses we arrive at the one most familiar to me and stop.  There is a set of footprints in the snow leading to the rusty sliding door that serves as the entrance to the shop that couldn't be more than an hour old.  A dull yellow light shines through the grimy windows and paints the snow a sickly pale.  They are still inside.

Ujiki begins to ask me a question, but I put a finger to my mouth to silence him.  Then, it occurs to me that I don't know what I'm going to do.  If a spokesman from Tomofune is indeed here, he will have brought goons with him.  Standard procedure.  Judging by the footprints, there are actually three of them and one is really big.  Ujiki only saw two men which means the third goon either came late or, more likely, was elsewhere in the shop.  I always wondered how one got into a career in gooning and progressed through the ranks.  Is it based on the amount of kneecaps you smash?  Number of cement shoe customers?  Maybe there's a daily quota of teeth you have to collect.

My hope is that I catch Honchu off guard and convince the spokesman to leave my shop without resorting to violence.  Yeah, right.  This is Tomofune we're talking about.  If they like something, it's theirs, whether you sell it to them or not.  I realize I'm going to need a weapon, but nothing too obvious.  I've been in my fair share of scrapes, but these guys will be experts, paid for their ability to exact their violent tendencies effectively.  I only need something that will give me enough time to slip away.  Running is something I can do.

I duck down low, as does Ujiki, and we sneak around the side of the workshop to the garage.  Well, it used to be a garage, anyway.  At one time, it housed a pair of old coal-powered cargo trucks, but we stripped those down years ago for parts and use the space to store random bits of junk we acquire.  I work to calm my breathing and my nerves, which make me shake more than the cold does.  Maybe I should have had more sake.  Producing my keys from my coat pocket, I unlock the side door to the garage, open it carefully and peek inside to make sure no one is there.  The lights in the garage are not on, but I can still see thanks to the light coming from the other side of the shop.

The business Honchu and I set up provides mechanical repairs and servicing to various clients throughout Chogo.  We named it “Honchu Greg's” because we thought we were clever.  The things we fix range from steam carriage engines and factory tools to little clockwork pets and figurines.  We even dabble in firearm repair, but they make me uneasy so we don't work on those as often.  We don't get rich from our work, which is good in one sense because we don't attract unwanted attention, yet we do well enough that we each have our own apartment, and in this town, that's saying something.

As I stare across through the open door, a number of ideas of how to handle Honchu cross my mind, but I don't like any of them.  However, I do settle of the next course of action: getting Ujiki to leave.  If things get ugly, he doesn't need to see it, or worse, get sucked into it.  I ask him where he left his pack and he points in the direction of the office, where Honchu is likely to have his new clients.

“Alright, thank you, Ujiki,” I say in a whisper.  “Head on home.  I'll handle it from here.”

Ujiki shakes his head in reply.

My whisper becomes harsher.  “You're going to get hurt if you stay here.  You need to leave now.”

Again, Ujiki shakes his head and says, “I'll help you fight them.  You're pretty strong, Mr. Greg, but still kind of scrawny.”

This from a skinny thirteen year old.

I'm scrawny?  Listen to me, even if we live through this, your mother will kill me for letting her boy get into danger and I'm far more scared of your mom than those goons.”

He frowns at me and says, “I can handle my mom.”

“I don't think anyone can handle your mom.”  An idea strikes me.  “You want to help?  Go find some honest adults and bring them back here.”

If he succeeds, I've got witnesses in case things go bad.  If not, then he's out of the way.

He scoffs at me and says, “Like who, the police?  The ones that aren't lazy work for Tomofune.”

I am getting exasperated and this is wasting time.  “Then don't get the police, just find someone that can help us out and bring them back here.  The harbor isn't too far if you hurry.”

His mind starts working.  At least he is considering it.

Okay, time to try something more drastic.  “I'll...give you a raise,” I say.  “An extra copper per delivery, but only if you bring back help.”

He squints at me and says, “Four extra.”

“Four?  Little chiseler.  Two extra and that's final.”

He thinks a moment and then says, “Deal.  I'll go find help now.”

“Thank you.”

The black haired errand boy leaves my side and disappears around the corner.  Snow is starting to fall again.  I wish it would stop.  Snow keeps people from coming to our shop and they wait until it melts.  When it does, we get swamped with more work than we can handle.   Not a bad problem to have, mind you, but an annoying one, nonetheless.

I slip into the garage, crouching low near a broken down transport that used to be a hydraulic walker system hooked to a coal engine for carrying heavy cargo over rough terrain.  Ingenious design, but they suffered from improper syncing between the two legs which lead to one of the investors' cars getting stepped on and used as a oversized shoe for several hours until the unit finally powered down.  Honchu and I picked this one up from a factory that was scheduled for demolition.  We hauled tail to get out of there as they started the first explosion and barely made it out before the whole thing collapsed.  Good times.  Too bad there won't be any more of them.

My search for a weapon succeeds when I find a copper rod roughly a quarter inch thick and take it back outside.  Performing a quick check for any would-be observers, I use the edge of the concrete as a rasp to sharpen the end of the metal rod into a point.  Once I am satisfied with my creation, I slide it between my shirt sleeve and forearm, concealing it.  Let's hope I don't have to use it.

I sneak the rest of the way across the garage, moving from one hunk of junk to the next, getting closer and closer to the office door.  All the while, my mind works on how I should do this.  I could take a direct approach and start yelling at Honchu in front of Tomofune's representative.  That might throw him off enough to lose confidence in Honchu and leave.  I scrap that plan because my turncoat partner will have no doubt already shown him our blueprints.  The goons will kill us both as soon as I make a scene and take the blueprints along with our work.  That leaves a bit of cleanup on their part, but if the spokesman likes the plans, which I'm sure he will, he won't mind.

I could try a stealthy approach whereby I sneak into the office and, wielding my newly christened Copper Stabbing Rod of Truth, lure each one of the company men to their demise, leaving Honchu to deal with me alone.  I quickly dismiss this idea because, let's face it, I'm an engineer and mechanic, not a highly trained assassin.  The only plan I come up with that might buy some time is to casually enter the office, use Ujiki's bag as my excuse for coming back to the shop, and go from there.

Not very solid, I know, but I don't have much else to work with at the moment.  My plan decided, I stop worrying about being spotted and stroll right up to the office and grab the doorknob.  No sooner have I done this than I hear shouting from the other side of the door.  It's Honchu and he sounds irate.  I press my ear to the door and listen.  Their discussion is muffled and sounds more like distorted warbles, but I can definitely tell things are not going the way Honchu expected and he is getting mad.  This is typical of him.  Any time a machine refuses to cooperate, or I disagree with him, he flies off the handle.  He usually calms back down after a few minutes and apologizes, but this time, I have a feeling he won't be able to.

A lot can happen in the span of a single second and does.  A sound like a  thunder clap right next to my ear rings out from the office, making the walls vibrate a little and I know instantly what has happened.  My body reacts before my mind catches up with it and I throw open the office door, calling out Honchu's name.  Honchu stands beside one of the drafting tables, his upper body bent forward, clutches his midsection.  From between his thin fingers, I see red liquid oozing from a fresh gunshot wound.  The blood seeps through his shirt and begins to flow down his pant leg at a steady pace.  His face turns to me, full of shock and fear.  When he sees me, it becomes one of helpless terror.  His betrayal is  known, and because of that betrayal, he will now die.  This fact, I imagine, is the only thing on his mind as he slumps to the ground.

My own mind shifts from him to the three company men.  They are now the focus of all my attention and I am theirs.  Out in front is the smallest of the three, and by my guess, the spokesman for Tomofune.  His dark brown eyes are hard and his frame stocky, but only slightly pudgy.  The goon to his right is nothing I haven't seen before.  He stands a head taller than the spokesman, is twice as broad, and holds the same hard eyes as his boss.  His arms are outstretched and in his hands rests the latest model two-shot heavy pistol.  It's a combination gun with two barrels of different sizes in an over/under configuration.  The weapon is designed to give its owner flexibility.  The small caliber bullets can be used on most anything that requires precision while the larger caliber stops everything else.  I'd seen Honchu working on one just like this.  May have even belonged to this guy.

My eyes move to the third one and, if they could have gone any wider, they would have.  Expecting another goon, I am surprised to see the metallic sheen of an oversized automaton.  It is slightly shorter than the gun-wielder, but makes up for it in width and thickness.  His footprints were the big ones I had seen outside of the workshop only minutes ago.  If I wasn't scared for my life, I would marvel at the precise architecture, the high quality metal used to protect its sensitive inner clockwork, and the strength of the machine's structure.  It was designed – and designed well – with one idea in mind: power.  As it is now, these qualities are what make me curse the engineer who fabricated the metal beast and the ancestral line that lead to his birth, each one by name if I knew them.  I absorb all of this information in the time it would normally take me to blink.  It takes them a little bit longer to react.  As I said, a lot can happen in the span of a single second.

“Get him!” shouts the spokesman and the goons begin to move.  They are a little quicker on the uptake than me, but I'm still alert enough to dive back through the door to the garage as another loud boom rattles the windows.  My heart jumps.  Have I been shot?  A loud 'plink!' comes an instant later, telling me that the shot has hit one of the junk piles.  Nice save, but I have no time to celebrate.  I can hear the whirring gyros of the automaton and its feet thudding against concrete as it takes its first few steps.  I judge that the gunner goon (gooner for short?) will spend several seconds reloading his firearm.  For those few seconds, my only concern will be the mechanized behemoth charging toward me.

I know I have to get away.  I might be able to lose them among the confusing alleyways of Chogo, and it is probably the smartest move to make.  There is one problem: I am enraged.  I never harbored any love for Tomofune Metalworks, that much I'm sure is obvious.  But, now they have invaded my domain and killed the best friend I had in this rotten city.  This old building represents a lifetime's worth of sweat, blood, and heartache.

Memories come at me in a flashes.  My parents, former diplomats from Tirian, abandoned me during one of the rebel uprisings when I was eight years old and I wandered the streets for weeks before Honchu's family took me.  Honchu Mikata and I became brothers and did everything together.  We would fight with each other because we liked the same girl, but we had each other's back when the bullies came around.  Honchu's father was an avid mechanic and taught us everything he knew.  We scavenged through the scrap heaps on the edge of the city and brought back mechanical treasures to fix.  And, when we couldn't go out there, we'd dismantle one of Mr. Mikata's inventions which earned us a fresh set of swats.  More often than not, we never got our 'projects' to work, but eventually we got better and fixed more things than we broke.

I always excelled in academics and, when I turned eighteen, I spent two years away studying under an engineer as an apprentice.  A grueling two years it was and I was pretty good at that too, yet I always knew I'd return to the Mikatas.  When I did, it was as if I'd never left.  Honchu was eager to show me all the things he'd made while I was away and I was excited to share with him what I'd learned from the engineer.  Our inventions became grander and more complicated than before.

I don't remember exactly who suggested it first, but within a month of my return, we scoured the buffer zone for a place to set up shop when we stumbled upon this building.  Things were tough for a while, and we had to sleep on the shop floor for the first few years.  Then, it slowly turned around for us and we celebrated our success by picking out separate apartments on the same day.

Everything changed when Mr. Mikata died in an accident at work.  His whole life, he worked for Tomofune as a low level machinist.  The only compensation his family received was a letter of condolence and a fruit basket.  Mrs. Mikata didn't last much longer, dying two weeks later because she refused to eat or drink.  After that, Honchu wasn't the same.  I guess I really wasn't either.  After all, they'd become my family.  It was different for my adopted brother.  He never fully recovered.

We kept working and generated steady profits, but a part of him died with his parents, and the magic and excitement for the work disappeared.  Then I came up with an idea, one so grand I was sure it would bring Honchu out of his funk.  To my delight, it did and we spent many late nights swapping ideas back and forth, arguing over minute details, and writing notes.  It was like old times again.  Then came the Tomofune talk.  After my refusal, he reverted and wouldn't talk to me anymore.  And now this.

I don't know what possessed Honchu to turn his back on me.  I'm sure, in his mind, it was the right thing.  Maybe he got tired of being poor.  Maybe he wanted to become part of the Tomofune corporate machine.  Whatever it was, I'll never know that now.  All that work, all that pain, all that triumph, it was all dashed to pieces by a single bullet.  The company men and their oversized tin can will pay for what they've done.

I glance at the side door leading out of the garage and the safety of the outside.  Then, I turn away and make for the back room where we keep the project that had consumed so many hours.  I'm not stupid.  I know they outnumber and outgun me.  But, I know I can outsmart them.  Let's face it, I'm an engineer.  They aren't.  As I reach the back room, I pull out my keys and quickly unlock the door, rushing in right as the sounds of screeching metal and the thud thud thud of the automaton's steps grow louder.  I slam shut the door, bar it with a heavy pipe, and, for good measure, tip over the nearby metal shelf to block it.  If I live through this, I'll have one nasty mess to clean up.

Underneath the dirty cloth canvas is the prize I seek.  I pull the canvas off and uncover the prototype model of our variable pressure steam engine.  Anticlimactic?  Not if you consider that most steam engines, like the kind that run the carriages, are as big as an icebox and still require a fair amount of coal to run.  This new engine is much smaller, uses half the coal, and produces at least twice the power of the next best engine out there.  The main advantages were gained by reducing the boiler size and improving the condenser capability.  Perhaps the best part about it: it's made with spare parts we found in a junkyard.  And here I was, about to break it.  Well, partially anyway.

I tear off my gloves, toss them in a corner, and set about my work.  I'm counting on Honchu having the engine powered up not long ago, so reheating the boiler and powering up the engine will take less time than normal.  But, those precious few moments may be all it takes for the automaton and gooner to reach me.  The water quickly heats back to the right temperature and I throw open the water intake.  I'm rewarded by the sound of fluid filling the pipe.  The automaton has reached the door and is trying to pound its way in.  I twist a few more valves to build the pressure even higher, but I leave one of the pipes alone because I will need it.  I only hope I guessed the right size.

The sound of the door finally giving way draws my attention and the eyes of the automaton bore into me like a pair of perfectly circular embers.  Its metallic hand grabs the shelf and flings it across the room as if it were merely an inconveniently placed throw pillow.  Now, there is nothing between it and me, and it begins its charge.  But, I am ready.

While I have never dismantled an automaton, I know the basic layout of its systems.  All of them rely on a series of gears and gyros powered by tightly wound springs to keep moving and for something as big as this one, there would have to be an awful lot of springs and gears.  For all its mechanisms, there is a central unit from which the rest receive their commands.  The torso is the only logical place to store these.  The problem is knowing exactly what gears control what.  However, one way to tell is to know which areas of the automaton are the most heavily armored, in this case the upper left breast.  That smug automaton engineer at Tomofune probably thought he was clever by modeling his creation after a human being.  Alright, that's it, his children are cursed too.

I quickly shove my trusty Copper Stabbing Rod of Truth into the detached tube, aim it at the automaton's chest, and rest my hand on the tube's valve.  I don't want to miss so I have to wait the full second it will take for the automaton to reach me.  A lot can happen in the span of a single second.  It takes the machine a hair longer, but it doesn't matter.  I throw open the valve and dive sideways right as its big hands reach for me.  I will always remember how wonderfully sweet the sound of that hiss is to my ears as the pressure enters the tube, forcing the copper rod out.  The velocity of that rod is enough to pierce through the automaton's thick armor plating and lodge itself firmly in its inner workings.  The reaction from the beast is immediate and satisfying.  Its body begins to shake violently and loses its balance, nearly toppling onto me.  Adrenaline is still pumping through me like crazy so I'm able to get out of the way before it crashes into a workbench, sending tools and spare parts flying everywhere.

But, my victory is short-lived as memory of the spokesman and the gooner returns.  They won't be far behind and I doubt they will be pleased at the sight of their disabled machine.

An idea strikes me and my body moves with barely any conscious command.  I grab one of the tools on the floor, a heavy pry bar, and leap onto the automaton.  I will have to work fast.  Wedging the pry bar under one side of its armor, I yank hard, hoping the adrenal fluids have reinforced my muscles enough.  It just barely is.  I can see inside the automaton and where the rod struck.  I couldn't have hit the control unit more squarely had I known exactly where it was located, but I waste no time admiring my handiwork.  If I can change the timing schedule of one of the larger systems, it should cause the automaton to explode, thereby giving me a fighting chance.  I reach inside for one the mechanisms that controls the twisting of the torso.

Then, the pry bar slips and the armor closes back down hard.  The pain is excruciating and I let out a scream telling the world so.  As I try to free my trapped hand, I am certain that I've broken something.  With my other hand I lift the armor back enough to pull my hand out.  My fears are realized when I see blue and yellow bruising develop around two swollen fingers.  They are indeed broken, a fact that asserts itself by sending a fresh stab of pain into my hand.  It makes me forget momentarily that I have two other foes coming for me.  When I remember, I panic and search for an exit.

But, there are no exits and now the spokesman’s gooner is at the door, his combination pistol trained on me.  He hasn't taken a shot yet, probably because he doesn't want to miss this time.  I see his nostrils flare as he breathes out, a sign that he is ready to fire.  His finger twitched and I await the inevitable.  But, it doesn't come.

Instead of a gunshot, I hear the calm voice of the Tomofune representative as he says, “Do not fire.”

The gooner hesitates.  He really wants to shoot me, but he can't disobey his boss so he eases off the trigger, keeping the ends of the barrels pointed at me.  The squat spokesman steps around his henchman and approaches the immobile automaton.  He gives it a brief once over and then shifts his eyes to the steam engine sitting on the table.  This he stares at for several minutes before meeting my gaze.

“You're a good engineer, Mr. Collins,” he says in a steady voice.  “Tomofune would do well to have you working for us.  You may refer to me as Mr. Shiro.”

Anger wells up inside me.  “You can't be serious,” I say.  “You killed my friend and tore up my workshop.”

Without changing his tone, Shiro says, “The state of your workshop is unfortunate.  But, at Tomofune, you would have the latest tools and materials at your disposal.  As for your 'friend',” he says the word with a slight hint of animosity in his voice, “he was a failure the moment he was born to his failure of a father.  He betrayed you, Mr. Collins.  Do not forget this.”

I grit my teeth and say, “He wasn't a failure.  He only lost his head because you people dangled a carrot in front of him.”

Mr. Shiro waggles a finger at me and says, “He approached us claiming he had a revolutionary design for an engine and asked that we come see it.  I knew the moment I laid eyes on the engine that he could not be its sole designer.  As it turned out, he only used this as a ruse.”

“A ruse?”

The spokesman nods.  “His true motive was to lure me here.  He saw me as a cog in the machine that killed his father and sought to kill me.  I suppose he did this because he felt it would be trading one life for another.  Now, how good of a friend could he have been if he betrayed you to meet his own ends, hm?”

This revelation stuns me.  He didn't want to actually sell our project to Tomofune.  He wanted to use it to get back at the company that had killed his parents.  Honchu was misguided, but I find myself relieved, in a way.  I am still angry that he didn't talk to me about all of this and it lead to his death, but some of my anger transfers to Tomofune Metalworks and to Mr. Shiro.

“How can you say that when Tomofune does that every day?” I ask.

“It is true that we are not above...adverse methods of persuasion when we don't get what we want, but truthfully, we pass over many more inventions than we bring in.  Surprised?  Our company is in such a position that many seek to sell to us.  This is how we usually acquire our intellectual property.”

“And when there's something that you want, but the owner won't sell?”

Shiro's eyes narrow as he regards me.  They flicker briefly to the engine and then back to me.  He has caught my hint.

He speaks, but this time more slowly and with a noticeable glower, saying, “I would consider it highly inadvisable for that owner to refuse the company, especially considering the  benefits for all involved, both to finances and health.”

It's my turn to catch his hint, but my resolve is unchanged.  I take a more direct approach.  “You can't have my engine, Mr. Shiro.  Honchu and I designed it, and I will decide how it should be used.  Not Tomofune Metalworks or anyone else.”

“How brash and unwise,” replies the spokesman.  “You invite only misfortune and pain, Mr. Collins.  I will make my demand only once: hand over the engine.”

My muscles start to shake as the adrenaline begins to wear off.  The pain in my hand intensifies and fatigue takes hold of me.  A dull ache in my head develops, likely from a combination of shot nerves and an empty stomach.  Sweat has soaked through most of my inner layers and the cold makes me shiver even more.  A sliver of doubt does its best to crack my determination.  I don't want to be shot like Honchu.  But, neither do I want a corrupt company to take the engine, especially if they intend to create monsters like the one on the floor.  Making a stand right here would likely result in my pointless death while letting them take it would allow me to live a little longer and pocket some money in process.

No, I won't do that.  I could never live with the guilt.  It would eat at me from the inside and turn me into something less than human, like Mr. Shiro.

I do my best to calm my body and fix my eyes on Shiro as I say, “You can't have it.  Inventions should only be used to benefit mankind.”

“Tomofune sees it the same way.”

I shake my head.  “Tomofune only sees what's best for itself.  Do what you want to me and to my shop, but I'm not giving you the engine.”

Mr. Shiro stares hard at me for a good while, a stern frown fastened on his face.  Finally, he sighs and says a few words to the gooner that I don't catch.  The gooner's mood improves, but rather than shoot as I expect, he turns the gun over in his hand so that he holds it by the barrels.  Shiro won't let me have a quick death like Honchu.  Really, you'd think these business types would be above pettiness, but in reality, they're just overgrown two-year-olds in suits and ties...that carry really big guns.

The gooner has a stupid grin on his face as he approaches.  He cocks back his arm and plants one right in my gut, making me double over.  He's knocked the wind out of me, and I'm trying to suck in air.  Before I have a chance to recover, the next hit crashes into the side of my head, and I fall over, face scraping against the rough concrete floor.  I want to move, to get back up, but I can't because it just hurts too much.  On my head, I feel the throbbing knot of pain in my temple and the sting of torn flesh on my cheek.  Blood is pumping quickly throughout my body, including my hand, making it hurt even more than it did before.  My stomach hurts a little too, but it's my inability to take in air that gives me more cause to panic.  My eyes spin wildly inside their sockets as I try to regain some sort of control over my body.  Then, I spot something that shocks my frazzled brain enough to stop it.

Laying on its side, beneath a desk a few feet away from me is a small mechanical bird.  The shiny glint of its brass exterior is what caught my eye.  As I said before, Honchu's father had been a tinkerer like us, but unlike us, his love was dedicated to the smaller pieces, those that required a deft and precise hand to design.  When Honchu and I turned eighteen, he gave each of us a mechanical crane.  They had a built-in wind-up key that, when turned, set the cranes in motion.  With the whine of tiny turning gears, they would march forward on wire-thin legs, stop, and then flap their little wings twice before marching forward once more.  Since Tomofune retains all legal rights to whatever its workers invent, he designed and built the birds in secret, gathering parts from the junkyard, swiping a few tools from his workplace, and, for the most important mechanisms, buying what he needed from vendors with money he really couldn't afford to spend.  What's more, the engravings on the outer shell that outlined the feathers, eyes, and beak would have taken a great deal of time, skill, and patience.  Honchu and I knew the sacrifices made to create these beautiful pieces and appreciated them.  Their only flaw was that the timing mechanism was off at times.  I keep mine back in my apartment, but Honchu liked to have his in the shop as a reminder of what can come of hard work.

Now, this bird represents my one slim chance for survival.  I force my muscles to ignore the hurt and move toward the bird.  As I get to my knees, the gooner rams his leg against my side, cracking a few of my ribs.  New pain comes, but I'm able to hold it at bay.  His kick has actually worked in my favor.  I am within arm's reach of the bird.  I feign another attempt to get to my feet and tumble back over, scooping the crane up and bringing it in close to my body as I do.  My good hand goes to work quickly, winding the key on its back like crazy.  The key gets so tight, I don't think I can turn any more, but I know I have to make just one more turn.  The gooner hits me a couple more times, neither of them as painful as the first two.  Finally, the spring inside little mechanical bird makes the faint clinking sound I was waiting for.

 Turning to the gooner, who is winding up for another blow, I give the key one more hard twist and fling it up at him an instant later.  The spring inside the bird breaks, and, with the tension now gone, begins to unwind freely inside the crane's brass body.  This in turn spins the rest of the gears and mechanisms at speeds much faster than they were designed to handle.  The stress on all the part inside the crane causes the bird to explode, turning a once beautiful gift into a very pretty shrapnel grenade.  Hundreds of metal pieces shoot off in all directions, a good portion of them right into the gooner's face and chest.  The gooner's screams reverberate off the metal walls as brass and copper shards dig into his flesh.  I've rolled underneath the desk and covered my face to shield my body from the shrapnel.  Even so, several pieces find their way to me and hit my legs, but the damage is fairly minimal.

The gooner collapses to the ground, his hands covering his bleeding face.  He isn't screaming anymore, probably because one of the pieces hit his throat, but he is still alive.  As soon as I think it's safe to move again, I crawl out of my cover and reach for the gooner's pistol.

But, the spokesman is quicker than me.  He has reacted faster than I expected and kicked the combination gun out of the way before I can grab it.  He brandishes his own firearm, a small caliber pistol that's easy to conceal on the inside of a coat or jacket.  Not as powerful as his subordinate's weapon, but it is still enough to kill a man.  The black circle of the open barrel mimic's Shiro's eyes as it stares at me with killing intent, daring me to move a single centimeter.

This is it.  In a matter of seconds, I will be dead like Honchu.  I will die for a set of ideals and principles that will likely not be noticed by anyone, certainly not Mr. Shiro.

The next sound I hear is a gunshot and I instinctively flinch, looking down at my chest to watch blood pour out of my body like it did Honchu.  To my surprise, I don't see this.  I see no mark of any kind and it takes me several seconds to realize that I have not been shot.  I look up and see that spokesman no longer holds his gun.  Blood pours out of a new hole in one of his hands.

Mr. Shiro is just as shocked as I am and we both look through the opening to the room, and see a man holding a steam rifle aimed at Shiro's head.  The man is older, in his mid-fifties if I had to guess.  His bushy hair, and matching mustache and beard are blonde with bits of gray showing.  These, along with his broad shoulders and face, tell me that he is from Tirian.  The clothes he wears, worn leather shoes, wrinkled dark pants, and an unkempt white collared shirt, make me think of a dock worker, at first.  But, the pair of goggles resting on his head along with the grease smudges on his shirt and face tell me he is a mechanic or engineer.  There is a sense of command and wisdom within his light blue eyes that belongs only to great men.

Ujiki's face peeks out from behind the man's legs.

“Are you okay, Mr. Greg,” the boy asks.  “This man dressed like you, so I asked him to help.  Do I get my raise?”

I laugh louder than I mean to and say, “Yes, Ujiki, you get your raise.”

“What is the meaning of this,” yells Shiro, almost shrieking.

“Keep your mouth shut,” says the Tirian.  “I've dealt with you company men before. Make another sound and the next bullet goes through your skull.  You alright, son?”

He directs this question to me and I nod.  He waves me over and I obey.  As I do, more people, Tirian soldiers by the look of them, file into the room, all of them armed.

Mr. Shiro begins to protest again, but the Tirian cuts him off.  “I told you to shut up.  This young man is a Tirian citizen.  Do you really want to start a new conflict between our nations?  I don't think your company will look too highly on that.”

The Tomofune spokesman swallows hard.

“Now,” the Tirian continues, “empty your pockets and leave, immediately.  And don't think of coming back.  This man is now under the protection of the Tirian navy.”

Bewilderment covers Shiro's face.  He looks to me then back to the Tirian before he turns out the pockets of his coat and pants, and runs as fast as his legs will carry him out of the building.  My own legs wobble and nearly give out as relief washes over me.  The Tirian catches me and asks me if I'm okay.  I tell him I will be fine and regain enough of my movement to settle into a nearby chair.

The Tirian investigates the backroom for a good while.  As he does, my mind recalls the events of the evening.  I can't believe Honchu was willing to give up our hard work just for a chance at revenge.  Then again, Honchu changed for the worse after his parents died.  Emotions wash over me and I do my best to hold them back, but it's a battle I know I will lose eventually.  I prefer it be at home, not here in front of all these other people.  Ujiki puts a hand on my shoulder and I give him a half-smile.

When the Tirian returns, his eyes are wide.  “Young man, did you design that engine?”

“My friend, Honchu, and I did, yeah.”

He looks back to the room then at me.  “My name is Alexander Daedalus and I am working on a joint project between the Tirian Hegemony and the Komjin Empire to build a  transport ship that will ferry passengers to and from our two nations.  The hope is to develop a sense of cooperation in this time of peace.  I would be delighted if you would allow us to use your engine in the design.  It's a big ship.  Very big.  The sheer scale of the project requires many different steam powered systems and your setup would give us a great deal of design freedom.  Of course, you are also more than welcome to join the team.”

I say nothing for a bit.  It's a lot to absorb at the moment.

Noticing my hesitation, he says, “You don't have to decide right now and I can understand if you're apprehensive given what's just happened.”

“No,” I reply.  “I'm alright, really.  To be honest, Mr. Daedalus-”

“Call me Alex,” he says, smiling.

“Okay Alex.  I like the idea of your project, however, I am not in any shape to make that kind of decision.”  I pause and think a moment.  “I am open to a proposal.”

Alex smiles again and says, “That's all I ask for.  I'll make the arrangements for a meeting.  In the meantime, you recuperate.  I'll have a doctor check your wounds.  Whenever you're ready, send word to me.”  He then looks to Ujiki.  “This young lad would make an excellent courier.”

I smile and thank him.

He puts a hand on my shoulder and asks, “Before I leave, can get I you anything?”

I think for a moment and then say, “A good bowl of ramen.”



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