Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.
Welcome back to the next installment of our Choose Your Own Adventure collaborative project. The latest post where I explained the project can be found in this update here.
Tesla Spence, an aspiring engineer with dreams of working in R&D, drops her supper tin on Edgar Endicott, a young scientist trespassing and doing research on foundry moths. When she goes to check on him on the South Foundry scaffolding, a foundry moth is flushed out, and Edgar knocks Tesla off the ledge. He helps haul her up with the rope, then tries to kiss her like a hero. She punches him, then makes both of them return to ground level.
Supervisor Nielson is Edgar’s uncle, but even than doesn’t stop him from firing Tesla. She returns her gear, leaves the supper tin that started the mess, and goes to the municipal dormitory to pack up her personal things. Tesla has few friends in Cobblecourt, so she decides to return to her parents’ home in Brighthurst. After posting a message to her suitor Merrick, a City Vigilance officer, she walks to the Handsome Corby to drink away her sorrows.
After some drinks, she is approached by the CPC Vice-Chief, who has the ability to get Tesla her dream job and fix the career-ruining debacle with Edgar. The Vice-Chief is very interested in Edgar and quizzes her about whether or not he has a foundry moth chrysalis. More talkative than normal, Tesla tells him everything she knows. Satisfied, the Vice-Chief ominously offers her a ride home, but their departure is halted when someone comes to save Tesla.
The Vice-Chief relaxed and leaned back in his seat. “You’ve had a troubling day, Miss Spence. Why don’t we settle up your tab and go for a drive. My motor coach is waiting just around the corner.” He tossed some shills on the table and held out a hand for her.
Tesla took his hand and stood up on shaky legs. That fourth drink had really done her in, she thought. She was happy that the Vice-Chief was there to give her a ride. She smiled and knew everything would sort itself out.
“What a surprise to see the Vice-Chief himself roaming the streets by coglight. We don’t expect to see you in such lowly establishments,” a man’s voice said behind Telsa. The words echoed in her head, and she couldn’t recognize the voice. “Where do you think you’re rushing off to with my daughter?”
The man rested his hands on Tesla’s shoulders. She looked down and saw he was missing the index finger on his right hand, and his middle finger was foreshortened too. She caught a whiff of machine oil and spicy cracked pepper, a scent that reminded her of home. Papa!
“Ah, Nicholas Spence. How pleasant to see you outside of the Machinist’s Guild,” the Vice-Chief said with a vicious twist of his lips. “To what can we attribute the honor of your company?”
“There’s nothing honorable about you or the company you keep, Horus Belgrave. Or should I address you as Vice-Chief? I can barely recognize you for all the airs you put on, prancing about with that ridiculous title.” Tesla could feel the rumble of her papa’s words.
“As charming and eloquent as ever, I see, Mr. Spence.” The Vice-Chief’s words were calm, but Tesla noticed that his face was flushed. She started to giggle and wondered what had happened to her stacking cups.
“I thought I told you the last time to leave me and mine alone. Chimney snakes like you should stay on the rooftops where you belong.”
The Vice-Chief smoothed his mustache and took a step back. “I was merely offering the poor lass some solace after a particularly trying day. I’m sure even you can understand that. But I’m afraid this conversation has run its course.” He turned to leave, but paused for a moment in the shadows between coglights, his face obscured by shadow. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Spence. It’s frightfully dark out there tonight, and I’d dislike for anything to befall your lovely daughter.”
Mr. Spence watched the moustached man leave before turning Tesla around and guiding her out of the Handsome Corby’s backdoor. Once they were through the alley and heading down the street to the trolley stop, he asked his daughter, “Great Meisters, what have you gotten yourself into, lass?”
“Nothing, Papa, except I got fired from my job today because Supervisor Nielson yelled at me when this lad was in the Rafters with me. I didn’t know him, but no one seemed to care, and it was all so horrible.” Tesla could hear the words stumbling past her lips, but she couldn’t feel them, or her teeth, or her tongue. She slowed her steps.
“What’s wrong, Tesla? We need to keep going before the last trolley leaves. I can’t afford to pay for another hackney back to Brighthurst,” Mr. Spence said.
She paused under a streetlight and tried to take a deep breath, but she could not draw much air into her lungs. “Papa, I don’t feel well,” she wheezed.
“I know, lass. Just hold yourself together for a little longer. We’re almost there,” he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and nearly dragging her down the street. Tesla’s feet were heavy and not doing much to assist his efforts.
Telsa counted the streetlights as they passed under them, but kept losing count and had to start over. A faint glimmer from an alleyway drew her attention, and she stared at it, bemused. She spotted the gleam from a row of buttons, which turned into a bright flash and deafening roar. She felt her papa sag beside her, and as he crumpled to the cobblestones, she lost her support and fell with him.
She stared up at the streetlight, confused. They should be walking to the trolley stop, not resting, but it was comfortable here, and the light above her was growing dim. She closed her eyes and thought she could hear Merrick’s voice.
“And you understand how this needs to be filed in the report,” he said in his smooth tenor. “You found this dumped in a rain barrel two streets over.”
Tesla smelled a metallic tang in the air, and her hand was feeling damp and sticky.
“Take your squad and do a sweep of the perimeter. We need to make sure there were no witnesses,” Merrick said.
Tesla opened her eyes and saw Merrick’s sharp face, dark hair, and darker City Vigilance coat for a fleeting moment before the blackness swallowed her whole.
Tesla woke to find herself in a whitewashed room with thin cotton sheets pulled up to her chin. The sun was shining in through the bedside window, and she could hear people outside the bedroom door. Noticing the clipboard hanging by her bed, Tesla assumed she was in the district hospital. She did not remember coming here though, the last thing she remembered was —
Papa! Meisters preserve him, Papa had been shot on the street after they left the Handsome Corby. There had been blood and then–
Tesla shook her head. She could not piece the images swimming in her head together. She had a brief glimpse of Merrick looking down at her, the brass buttons of his City Vigilance uniform shining in the coglight. There was a glimmer in his hand too. The thought faded as she heard the door open with a creak.
“Good, you’re finally awake,” a curly-haired nurse said as she entered, carrying a tray with a pitcher and cup. “I brought some water if you feel like you can manage it.”
Tesla nodded her head, realizing how cotton-mouthed she was. Moving her head had also created a pounding headache behind her eyes. She was surprised to see her hand shake as she brought the small glass to her mouth. This did not feel like a normal hangover.
After she had drained the water from the cup, Tesla asked, “Where is my father? Is he alright?”
“Mr. Spence? The physician said he was resting well. I’m sure Dr. Wincross will come talk to you soon,” the nurse said with a professional smile.
“I’d like to speak with him as soon as he is available,” Tesla said.
“Of course you do, dear. Why don’t you close your eyes for a few minutes while I let the doctor know.”
Tesla leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes. She wanted to consider what had happened last night, but she drifted asleep before the door creaked shut.
When Tesla opened her eyes again, she found a sleepy blue pair of eyes gazing down at her.
“Edgar, what the blazes are you doing here?” she asked.
“Hello, angel. I’m glad to see you haven’t forgotten me,” he said with a slow smile, leaning over the edge of the bed to kiss her. Tesla tried to swing at him, but he caught her punch easily and kissed her knuckles before placing her hand back on the cotton sheet.
“How could I forget you?” Tesla asked, sitting up and crossing her arms. “You ruined my life.”
“That was not at all my intent. I apologize that my uncle was angry with me–”
“Stark raving furious would be more accurate, Tesla snapped.
Very well,” Edgar said in an accommodating tone. “Uncle Nielson was furious with me and instead of focusing his anger on me, he lashed out at you.”
“And it has only gotten worse since then,” Tesla said with a sigh. “Papa was shot last night on the street after he found me at the alehouse. I don’t know what his condition is, and it’s been hours now. The physician should have been here by now.” Feeling her face crumple as the worry for her papa welled up, Telsa buried her face in her hands. She heard Edgar drag a wooden chair over to the bedside.
“Tell me what has happened from the beginning,” Edgar said quietly.
When Tesla dropped her hands and looked at him, noting he was wearing the same rumpled coat as the last time she had seen him, she saw that he was serious. His blue eyes looked steadily into her hazel ones, awaiting her explanation. “You heard that I was evicted from my municipal housing when I was fired?” When he nodded, she continued. “I packed my trunks and planned to take the morning train to my parents’ place in Brighthurst. When I went out to get a drink and wash the taste of you out of my mouth,” she said, shooting him a venomous glare, “I ended up drunk to the gills and had a conversation with the CPC Vice-Chief. He wanted to know everything I could tell him about you.”
“Do you recall what you told him?” Edgar asked in a low tone.
Tesla considered for a long moment, then shook her head. “It is all so blurry, like I can remember who I spoke with, but not exactly what we said. My head still feels all fuzzy.”
“Was it fuzzy before you went to the alehouse?” Edgar had a concerned look on his face.
“No, I can remember everything through the first three lagers. The Vice-Chief sat down when I started on my fourth.”
Edgar reached for her face, and Tesla jerked away. “Stop it,” he said, using one hand to hold her head as the other lifted up an eyelid. “I’m not mucking around right now. I need to examine you, starting with your eyes.”
“Why?” she asked, grumpily submitting to his poking and prodding.
He was silent as he examined her, finishing by measuring the pulse at her wrist against his pocket watch.
“I didn’t know you were a doctor,” Tesla said.
“I don’t have an established practice, if that’s what you’re asking,” Edgar replied, hunching his shoulders defensively. It sounded like an often rehearsed answer. “I prefer my scientific research.”
“It doesn’t much matter to me what you prefer, just so long as you let go of my hand,” Tesla said.
Edgar rubbed his thumb across her knuckles before releasing it. “I have bad news for you, angel. The Vice-Chief drugged you last night in the alehouse. I’m guessing it was so he could interrogate you about me, the scummy bastard. Some of the drugs are lingering in your system, but the good news is that I can get rid of them. I’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere,” he said as he rose from the chair.
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Tesla said, wishing she was anywhere but this hospital bed.
As Edgar headed to the door, it opened in front of him, and the curly-haired nurse entered. “Oh, hello,” she said, surprised to see Edgar in her path.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat to her as he slid into the hallway and disappeared.
“My goodness, who was that?” the nurse asked as she smoothed down her white apron.
“Edgar Endicott, the bane of my existence,” Tesla said with a groan, sagging against the pillows. “Apparently he is a research scientist and a doctor,” she said, emphasizing the last words.
“He’s easy on the eyes, too. You really should hang onto that prime gent,” the nurse said as she fluffed her curls.
“I’d rather not. He’s altogether too much trouble and is ruining my life,” Tesla said.
“Wait, Endicott, I know that name. Rich as the legendary Midorias, or so I’ve heard. We ought to get you cleaned up before he gets back. Here, let me redo those braids for you,” the nurse said.
A commotion in the hallway caught Tesla’s attention, a chorus of argumentative voices drawing towards them. The door burst open, Edgar striding into the room with a glass beaker, followed by a portly gent and two attendants in hospital uniforms.
“You simply cannot barge into any room in the hospital and start taking things that aren’t yours,” the portly gent said, waving his arms around.
Edgar ignored him and shoved the beaker under Tesla’s nose. A gritty, grey liquid sloshed inside. “I need you to drink this,” he said.
Tesla looked down at the concoction dubiously. “What is it? It doesn’t look very appetizing.”
“It will flush the lingering drugs from your system,” he said while rubbing the back of his neck. “Please drink it, angel.”
“If I die, I’m not doing you the honor of haunting you,” she said, screwing up her face and gulping down the grey liquid before she changed her mind. It was gritty and chalky and sour, and she could barely swallow down the retched taste. Her stomach roiled against the unpalatable liquid. Tesla threw the beaker at Edgar. He ducked, and she heard it shatter behind him. “That was horrible.”
“Sir, I have to ask you to leave,” the portly gent said. “You cannot flit about feeding strange concoctions to the patients of this hospital.”
“She’s not a patient, she’s my betrothed,” Edgar lied.
The portly gent looked flummoxed. “Excuse me, I don’t understand–”
“That is rather obvious,” Edgar retorted, reclining in the chair and throwing an arm casually over the back. He assumed an indolent, lordly air. “Where’s Mr. Spence’s physician? Surely he should have made an appearance by now?”
“Sir, Dr. Wincross is a busy man. I’m not sure who you think you are that you can place demands on his time like that.”
“That’s Edgar Endicott,” the curly-haired nurse supplied helpfully, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling brightly.
Recognition of Edgar’s name broke across the portly gent’s face like a beam of sunshine between dark clouds. “Oh, Dr. Endicott, I had no idea that was you–”
“Mr. Endicott will suffice,” Edgar said in a bored tone, tugging at his coat cuff as it oblivious to its wrinkled and stained condition.
Clearly confused and ill at ease with Edgar’s comment, the portly gent clapped his hands to get the attendants’ attention. “Everyone out. Let’s get Dr. Wincross in here to discuss matters with Miss Spence.”
Tesla stared at Edgar as the door creaked shut. He sighed and ran a hand through his curly, brown hair. He seemed exasperated by the whole ordeal.
“I appreciate your help,” Tesla said awkwardly.
“Don’t worry about it, angel. You were right when you said this situation was my fault. The least I can to remedy it is assist you and your father.”
Tesla wasn’t sure what else to say, so she ran the corner of the bed sheet through her fingers, noting that the shaking in her hands had lessened.
“Why were you in the Rafters yesterday?” Tesla finally asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Does it matter?” Edgar asked.
“You did ruin my life. I think I deserve to know the reason why.”
He turned away from her and stared at the broken glass on the floor. “I was looking for proof.”
Tesla clinched her hands around the bed sheet, wishing for a moment that they were around Edgar’s neck. Why was the lad unable to give her a straight answer? She decided to prod him for more. “Proof of what exactly?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy when I tell you, just like everyone else does. I don’t think I could bear that from you, angel,” he said, begging her with his puppy dog eyes before returning his focus to the floor.
“There’s nothing you can say that will make me think you are crazier than you already are. Why won’t you tell me?” Telsa almost shouted at him.
He hunched his shoulders and said, “Please don’t ask me to answer that question, not yet.”
Edgar was so uncharacteristically subdued that Tesla decided to take a different tact. She pressed her lips together and nodded. “The foundry moths are your proof, right? That’s why you were in the Rafters and why the Vice-Chief interrogated me about you.”
“Yes. You wouldn’t happen to have your supper tin with you by any chance?” he asked.
“Why do you want it? The damn thing has been nothing but trouble. I threw it in the locker at the foundry when I turned in my engineering gear.”
“Constallari save me. Why can’t I find a shred of luck for myself?”
Tesla narrowed her eyes at the young researcher. “What do you mean? What is so slagging important about that scrapped piece of tin?”
He sighed. “I stashed something in it.”
“Edgar, what did you put in my supper tin? It was one of those blasted moths, wasn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I found a chrysalis in the cubbyhole were I’d tossed my goggles. I worried that Uncle Nielson would search me, so I hid the chrysalis in your supper tin.”
“You were going to use me to smuggle out a chrysalis,” Tesla hissed. She opened up her mouth to continue, but the door creaked open and she broke off.”
“Miss Spence? Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Wincross, and I have just come from examining your father.” He was a stork-like man with spectacles and wearing a white lab coat over a pale grey suit. He seemed to fade into the white-washed walls behind him.
“How is Papa? When can I go and see him?” Tesla asked, her voice breaking slightly.
“Mr. Spence’s condition is stable for the moment, but I would advise against visiting him at this time. We currently have him hooked up to a number of apparatuses, and the sight of which would likely disturb a young lady such as yourself,” Dr. Wincross said.
“What is the prognosis for Mr. Spence’s recovery?” Edgar asked.
The stork-like physician adjusted his spectacles before answering. “Please understand, we removed the lead ball as soon as he was admitted. Primitive ammunition, but it entered low through his ribcage, shattering some of the bones. We repaired what we could, so maybe the wound won’t turn septic, but that will give him weeks instead of days.”
“Why will he have only weeks? Won’t he get better?” Tesla asked.
“I would not place a stake on it if I was a betting man. Many of the bone fragments were unable to be removed by the hospital surgeon. One of the fragments will eventually shift and pierce something vital, the lungs, the liver, the heart. It is simply a matter of time,” Dr. Wincross said.
Edgar put his hand over Tesla’s. She did not pull away from his touch.
“Rowansby is an excellent surgeon, she could do it. Have you sent a post for her?” Edgar asked.
The physician cleared his throat. “Forgive me if I don’t phrase this delicately. I don’t believe that Dr. Rowansby services are affordable by the Spence family, so the hospital has done the best it could.”
“If it is only a matter of funds, stop blithering around and send the mucking bill to me. And get Dr. Rowansby down here post haste,” Edgar demanded.
“As you wish,” Dr. Wincross said, departing in a huff of ruffled feathers.
“Oh, poor Papa,” Tesla whispered as the door creaked shut.
Edgar gave her hand a squeeze. “Don’t fret, I told you I’d take care of it.”
“Dr. Wincross was right though. My family has some funds, but nothing that would cover such an expensive procedure as this. There’s no way I could ever repay you for saving Papa’s life.”
“Actually, my lovely angel, there is something you can assist me with. If you do, I’d be willing to call our debt even.” Edgar smiled his broadest, sleepiest smile at Tesla and brought her hand to his lips.
This collaborative (not-so-short) story project won’t work without your input, so please take the time to vote below. Thanks!!