Clara Vicksworth couldn’t stop smiling. This was a common complaint about Clara, especially from the rest of her family. The Vicksworth clan could all be grumpy on a competitive level, and Clara was the black sheep of the family. The rest of the Vicksworths usually stayed around the volcano mines, giving visitors sooty scowls, and generally frowning at each other.
Clara was different.
Today there was a reason for Clara’s smile. She looked back at her apprentice. “Is it ready, Oyster?”
Oyster nodded. He was a young and solid lad of 17 or so in the final year of his apprenticeship. His real name was Oliver, but years of personal interactions had shortened it to Oy. Clara didn’t much like nicknames, and she decided that Oy was short for Oyster. Oyster never corrected her since he never really enjoyed being called Oy, but he was fine with Oyster.
Clara looked over the converted train engine one last time. It was pointed in the correct direction (downhill), the wheels had been modified for use on non-rails, and the whole thing looked ready for something unfortunate to happen.
This was it. This was her moment.
Clara jumped into the seat from which one was meant to steer (since it could hardly be called a driver’s seat).
“Shouldn’t we point it away from the city?” suggested Oyster.
“Oh. Yes, good point,” said Clara. “I’ll steer away from the city.”
Oyster probably should have come up with a few slightly compelling arguments here, such as the steering mechanism not being all that effective, but he often found it difficult to talk Clara down from a ledge. Especially one that she was excited to be on.
“Chocks away!” she yelled, which was a surprisingly accurate use of the phrase. Oyster tugged the rope, and two wooden wedges came away from the front wheels. The machine was now moving. Clara squealed with delight.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said Clara.
Well,” started Oyster. “You didn’t steer away from the city. You steered towards the city. You shot down George Street and crashed into an apple cart.”
Clara frowned. “I don’t remember that.”
“You’ve been unconscious for two days.”
Ah,” said Clara. “That would explain the bandages. And the bed. And the hospital.”
Oyster glanced around at the white room. Since he started his apprenticeship with Clara Vicksworth, he had been in all three hospitals several times.
“Knight-Captain Covington-White has requested that you don’t do that anymore,” said Oyster. “You’re destroying too much property.”
“No problem there,” said Clara. “I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong.”
“It’s not the same,” said Clara.
Oyster gestured to the modified engine, the hill, and the city. It had been four weeks since the ‘accident”, but you could still see the marks on the hill where Clara first lost control.
“Nope,” responded Clara. “I’m three degrees to the left. I won’t even get close to the city.”
“But the storage dock at Stephenson Harbour…”
“It’s miles away.”
“Three miles,” said Oyster.
“Three miles is miles,” said Clara. “Chocks away now, there’s a good lad.”
Oyster sighed, and did what he was told. Again.
Oyster was strong for his age, but never a particularly skilled runner. Despite the downhill start, he was plodding along at what might be very generously called a slow jog.
He was a bit faster when he heard the crunch, but that sense of urgency had long since left him. Through the haze of exhaustion, he saw the current City Protector, Martine Covington-White riding her horse, Pepper. She looked to have a pretty fast pace, so Oyster slowed his enough to catch his breath. The Knight Captain could handle things from here.
Martine could smell the friction burns on the grass before she could see them. Following this trail would most likely lead her to the cause of the loud bang.
Clara Vicksworth was rapidly becoming Martine’s least favourite Vicksworth. Clara was the opposite of her brothers. While the male Vicksworths were likely to do something nefarious and stupid under the cover of secrecy, Clara did everything out in the open. Her charisma and charm were infectious, and she had an easier time convincing people that she was fun.
And yet she wasn’t evil. Clara Vicksworth certainly caused more property damage than all the other Vicksworths combined, but she always had reasons and didn’t seem to ever hide information. Still, things became destroyed around her. The Vicksworth Trust paid for most of the damage, but Martine was more interested in preventing it altogether.
The trail led to an unmarked warehouse near the docks. Clara Vicksworth was there, astride what looked like some sort of half-sized train engine. The engine had embedded itself in the now-splintered wooden wall, but Clara seemed fine. She was moving about, probably disentangling herself from the safety impact netting she used to keep herself alive and relatively uninjured.
Martine pulled up on the reins. “Are you ok?” she yelled.
Clara looked around and grinned. “Marty! Hello!”
Martine’s jaw tightened. Just once she’d love to see consequences for actions.
“I appear to be well,” said Clara. “And I don’t think I damaged the wall very much.”
Almost on cue, the wooden wall started to groan and crack. Recognising the sounds of the loss of structural integrity, Clara ducked down in her seat. Martine turned Pepper and rode away as the wall to the warehouse crashed down to the forest floor in a single piece.
The rush of air nearly knocked Martine from her horse but she was able to recover. Clara had quickly and correctly calculated that the hole she made was large enough to pass over her (as long as she ducked).
Martine dismounted to help Clara, but Clara’s attention was taken with something else. Martine followed her gaze, and saw one of the biggest machines she’d ever seen in her life.
“What is it?” said Clara.
“Some sort of...giant gun,” said Martine. “Wait, why are you asking me? You’re the engineer.”
“Why would anyone want to build this?”
Martine shrugged. “I've never understood engineers.”
Clara looked at Martine. For the first time since they were children, Martine saw Clara frown. “There’s no joy in this,” said Clara.. “There’s no point in building something if it doesn’t give you a sense of achievement and wonder.”
Martine caught a quick glimpse of a figure stepping from the shadows. She reflexively drew her sword, but sheathed it again after identifying Casey Vicksworth. Any threat that Casey Vicksworth posed would definitely not be physical.
“Really?” he said. “This doesn’t give you a sense of wonder?”
“I wonder why you built such a monstrosity,” said Martine.
Casey looked up at the giant machine. “Why does anyone build anything? Because it wasn’t there.”
“What is it?” asked Martine. “Because my main concern is that it’s some kind of weapon.”
Clara nodded. “Definitely a weapon.”
“What makes you come to that conclusion?” asked Casey. “And let’s not forget you broke my wall.”
“I didn’t much care for your wall,” said Clara. “And this is definitely weapon-shaped. You don’t make something weapon-shaped unless you want people to be afraid. Is this a Tesla design?”
Martine stepped forward upon hearing this. “Where did you get these plans, Mr Vicksworth?”
“How dare you? This is an entirely original invention.”
“No it’s not,” said Clara. Clara then spent the next several minutes pointing out why it wasn’t designed by her brother. She went into such exquisite technical detail that Casey was unable to refute her observations. Not being an engineer, these details were entirely lost on Martine. We shall also spare you, the reader, from the indignity of not understanding the technical details because who needs that kind of stress?
“Alright, it’s from a Tesla design,” said Casey, “but it’s been heavily modified.”
“Is this the Death Ray?” asked Martine, who wished she hadn’t sheathed her sword but was feeling too self-aware to draw it again.
“Absolutely not,” said Casey. “It started out that way, but it’s far from a Death Ray. It’s more like a...Doom...Cannon.”
“How is that better?” asked Clara.
“Would you relax?” said Casey. “It’s not dangerous.”
“You called it a Doom Cannon, but it’s not dangerous?” said Martine. “What’s that wheezing sound? Is it supposed to be making that sound?”
“...no,” said Casey.
“It’s coming from behind us,” said Clara. She turned to see the puffy red face of Oyster, who had just entered after his three mile jog through the forest. Oyster stumbled into the building and wheezed past the trio. He found a water spigot on the wall and quickly drank his fill, taking time to breathe every now and then.
“This is your apprentice?” said Casey.
“Yes. His name is Oyster,” said Clara. “Be nice.”
Everyone politely waited for Oyster to finish drinking. It took a while.
“I want this shut down right now,” said Martine.
“Why?” asked Casey.
“It’s pointed at the city, and it’s clearly powering up,” said Martine.
“It’s not powering up,” said Casey. “I have the power hooked up but the regulators are off.”
Martine leaned towards Clara. “I’ve watched that dial marked ‘power’ go up since we got here. It was at 15% and now it’s closer to 20%. Doesn’t that mean it’s gaining power?”
Clara nodded. “Certainly looks that way!”
Casey ran to the dial. He tapped it with his finger a few times. “Impossible.” He put his hands on the machine to test the vibrations.
“Turn it off,” ordered Martine.
“I can’t,” said Casey. “If I interrupt the power flow, the excess will discharge via the path of least resistance.”
“Through the barrel,” said Clara.
“What if we let it power up?” asked Martine.
“It’ll discharge,” said Casey.
“Through the barrel?”
“Yes,” said Casey and Clara together.
Martine looked around. “There’s a lot of stuff in here. Can you build something that will help?”
“Help to do what?” said Casey. “This is going to fire. We have maybe 15 minutes.”
“Why not pull the batteries?” said Oyster.
Everyone turned to look at Oyster.
“The batteries are storing the power, right?” said Oyster. “If we can disable those, the thing won’t have power.”
The joy in Clara’s face returned. “Let’s get to work!”
TO BE CONTINUED
THE VICKSWORTH CONUNDRUM