Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.
Welcome back to the second installment of our Choose Your Own Adventure collaborative project. The first post where I explained the project can be found here.
My goal for the beginning of the short story Life of a Foundry Moth is to set the stage. Who are the characters? What are their situations? What do they want? The story grows from there until we reach the end of the first section, the point of no return, and your opportunity to vote for what happens next! Enjoy!
Tesla sighed as she munched on her sandwich. Her legs dangled over the edge of the wide iron beams suspended high above the South Foundry’s superstructure. She could see the red glow of the furnaces faintly between the layers of metal gridwork, copper pipes, and iron beams supporting the massive roof.
There were so many ladders between the foundry floor and the roof that Tesla found it more convenient to carry her supper with her when assigned to cogslight maintenance on the top levels of the foundry. Otherwise, she would spend the majority of her supper break climbing down the multiple steps, ramps, and ladders it took to wind her way down through the metal maze.
The Rafters, the engineers called it. Her supervisor Nielson often assigned Tesla to the Rafters for maintenance, which none of the foundry maintenance technicians enjoyed because of the climbing and cramped spaces the assignment entailed.
Even strapped into her bulky coveralls, bulkier boots, tool belt, and satchel stuffed full of replacement cogs, Tesla was smaller than her fellow engineers were and had an easier time moving about. They were almost all men and much older than her twenty years. Seniority had its advantages, she supposed.
At least it is quiet up here, Tesla thought as she finished her sandwich. No one ever came up here unless ordered, usually for maintenance-related activities. Besides, some of her best designs ideas came while she was twisting cogs, and she hoped one of them would get her out of the Foundry Maintenance Division and into the Cogswork Design Facility someday.
The Timekeeper’s whistle blew three short puffs, signaling the end of the supper break for the foundry crew, including the engineers. The sound resonated in some of the gridwork pipes, creating a strange sound like the warbling of iron birds. Tesla smiled at the thought.
She folded up her blue-checked napkin and placed it in her supper tin, closing the lid. Pushing herself to her feet took some effort considering the weight of her gear. Bending to retrieve the satchel of cogs, her prybar swung loose from her belt, clanging into her supper tin, sending it over the edge.
“Well, that’s scrap,” Tesla said as she listened to the tink, tink, tink, as the tin ricocheted off the metal gridwork below. She prayed it would not fall completely through the layers and land in a smelting vat. If she ruined a batch of iron and they had to purify it with more flux, the foundrymen would probably string her up in the Rafters and leave her there until her bones rattled to the Timekeeper’s tune.
Instead, she heard a man faintly say, “Ouch.”
Who the blazes was up in the Rafters with her?
“Did someone up there lose their supper tin?” a male voice asked. It sounded like he was only a handful of levels below her.
“Sorry, I knocked it over when I was packing up.” Tesla leaned over the edge, her blond pigtails swinging free, but she could not see the source of the voice below her.
“Do you want me to bring it up to you?” the man asked her. He sounded young, but she was not certain.
“No, I just wrapped up maintenance in the section of the Rafters. I was going to work my way back down until the shift ended,” Tesla said.
“Then I’ll rest my bruised head until you reach the level I’m on,” the man said.
How hard had her supper tin hit him? “Don’t close your eyes. If you have a concussion and fall asleep, you might not wake back up.” The last thing she needed was for some stranger to die in her work section. She did not think it would improve her chances for a promotion.
“You’d better hurry down and check on me. My eyes are starting to feel droopy,” he replied. Surely he was not mocking her, was he?
He could get wedged if he thought she was going to rush down to check on him, skipping levels of cogslights that needed to be retwisted or replaced. If someone else came up here to do maintenance and found himself in the dark, word would get back to her supervisor. She would never escape this place if a black mark like that landed on her review.
But if an accident was reported, that would be even worse. Damn, damn, damn.
“Fine, I’ll be right down. And for your sake, don’t fall asleep,” Tesla said, gathering up her gear, unhitching her carabineer, and heading for the nearest ladder.
When her footsteps thumped on the grated metal ramp, the man turned his head towards her. She noted how young he was, only a few years older than her, with sleepy blue eyes and a lean build. He flashed Tesla an easy smile, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion. People did not smile at her when she was wearing coveralls.
“The Constallari sent an angel to save me,” he said, not bothering to stand.
“After I dropped my supper tin on you? That hardly seems likely. Only authorized personnel are allowed in this area. What do you think you’re doing up here?” she asked.
He gave her another easy grin and ignored her questions. “I’m Edgar Endicott, Assistant Researcher at the Brighthurst District Laboratory. How may I address my charming angel?” He offered his hand up for her to shake.
“Foundry Maintenance Engineer. Tesla Spence. Second Class.” She gave his hand two quick shakes before crossing her arms and glaring at him. She wondered if Edgar was lying to her. Only the brightest minds worked directly for the District Laboratory. This young man was up in the Rafters without a hardhat or carabineer, and he was carrying on like a Hightown fop.
“Tesla Spence is a beautiful name. Sadly, the same description no longer applies to your supper tin. Here I was, just looking around for—“ Edgar paused a moment before continuing on. “Just looking around, then from the heavens above I receive such a blow fit to shatter my goggles in twain.” He raised the two pieces of his goggles, which he had been cradling in his lap, up for her inspection.
She frowned at the sight of them. They were not municipal goggles, which she could replace with a requisition form and hefty expediency fee. They were custom-made from Glassblow Row, complete with a quartet of expensive lenses and fine metalwork around the edges. As she watched, a thin wire in the left lens housing broke, the lens fell to the floor, bursting into crystalline shards. There was no way she could afford to replace his goggles.
Edgar must have been able to read her face. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, tossing the goggles into a small cubbyhole.
“What are you doing? You can’t just leave gear up here, even if it is busted.” Tesla stalked over to the cubbyhole, the thud of her boots echoing loudly. She hoped Edgar could hear her annoyance in each step.
As she reached down to retrieve the goggles, a flurry of wings burst from the cubbyhole, startling Tesla. She jerked her hand back as a bright scarlet moth winged into the air.
“Quick, see if you can catch it,” Edgar shouted, leaping up from the floor to swipe at it. “That heterocera caminus is what I’ve been searching for all day.”
Tesla backed away from the scarlet moth, whose wingspan could easily cover her face. She had no intention of touching the giant bug.
“Get out of the way if you aren’t going to catch it,” Edgar said, shoving her out of his way in pursuit of the moth fluttering overhead.
Tesla was knocked off balance, stumbled backwards, and reached for a railing that was not there. She fell backwards off the metal landing and screamed. She clawed at the pipes and beams around her, but her gloved fingers only brushed the smooth edges. She could not gain purchase on anything long enough to stop her descent.
Her body jerked suddenly as her harness rope went taut, halting her downward momentum and instead swinging Tesla sideways into a pylon. Her shoulder slammed into it, followed by her head, the helmet thudding loudly. She reached above her to grab onto the rope and stuck her legs out in front of her before she slammed into the pylon again.
“You okay?” Edgar yelled.
Tesla bounced off the off the pylon with her boots a couple of times before she stopped moving. Her shoulder was already aching from where she had slammed into the metal. She tried to take a deep breath. Was she okay? She looked up and saw Edgar poke his head over the edge of the landing.
“Splendid, you’re okay,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “I have the carabineer secured to the pipes. Can you help walk up the beams while I pull you up?”
“Just get me out of here,” Tesla said. So I can throw you over the edge myself, she thought.
“Righto, let’s get to it then,” Edgar said, disappearing from view.
A moment later the rope began to move. It took several minutes and a combination of Edgar pulling and Tesla climbing, but they managed to haul her back onto the landing. Tesla stretched out on her back, feeling the chill metal beneath her, and tried to calm her breathing. Edgar’s face appeared above her.
“I thought all angels knew how to fly. Good thing I was around to catch you,” he said, leaning over to kiss her.
Telsa punched him in the mouth. She did not have any power behind it from the awkward position, but it was enough to give him a fat lip. He backed away with a hand to his mouth, and she sat up, her hazel eyes furious.
“What the blazes do you think you are doing? You almost kill me, then you think you can kiss me and make it all better?” she yelled at him. Tesla pulled herself to her feet with her good arm, making sure to stay well away from the edge and from Edgar.
“You looked so peaceful there. Seemed like the kind of thing that happens in storybooks,” Edgar said with a shrug.
Tesla stared at him with her mouth open. “Like in storybooks. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I almost died a few minutes ago, and you think a kiss is going to make it better. What is wrong with you?” she asked.
Edgar did not answer her question, choosing instead to poke at his lip, which was already beginning to swell. Served the idiot right, she thought. But then he cast her such a sad puppydog look with his pale blue eyes that Tesla felt slightly guilty about her reaction.
Tesla sighed. “Whatever. I’ve got to report all of this to my supervisor, so pack up your gear. It’s time to get down from here.” She collected the broken goggles, the satchel of cogs, and the wretched supper tin that had started it all. “We’re going down now. You go first.”
The descent down the steps, ramps, and ladders was without incident, although her shoulder ached so fiercely that she had to switch arms to manage the satchel. Edgar had opened his mouth to offer his assistance, but Tesla had glared and him, and he clamped his mouth shut.
“Just what kind of circus performance were you putting on up there? The foreman wanted to shut down the shift just in case something went wrong. I told him not to worry. If one of my engineers was stupid enough to get herself killed, we’d just scrape your body off to one side so you wouldn’t be in the way. I thought you were brighter than that, Engineer Spence.” Supervisor Nielson paused to run a hand through his wild hair.
Tesla opened her mouth to explain, thought the better of it, and closed it again.
Nielson wheeled around, turning his brimstone gaze on Edgar. “And imagine my surprise when I see the monkey act in the circus is being performed by my very own nephew. Such a bright boy, they say. Such a great failure, I say.”
“Hello Uncle. A pleasure to see you, as always,” Edgar drawled.
“Don’t give me any of your tomfoolery, lad. I won’t stand for it,” Nielson said. “I’ll never understand how my sister managed to raise a child like you. Mind explaining to me what you were doing up there?”
Here’s where I need you to vote for what happens next. This is going to be the point of no return for Engineer Tesla. If you don’t like the options I have provided, please feel free to offer your own suggestions.
I am so excited with all the responses I have received so far. I won’t apologize for taking an additional day to post this because I wanted to give you good quality work to read. There’s still a lot of polishing to do, and please feel free to point out anything I can improve. However, I’m happy with how the project is progressing so far.