The Guilt Child

Issue #52

Carla took the bundle her cousin handed her and tried not to think of ogres. All through the long airship journey, since her father had put her in line for the Central Circuit and walked off whistling, she’d been unable to think of anything but the story of The Boy Who Was Sold to Ogres.

“You can hand your clothes to Roberts when you’re done,” Cousin James said from the other side of the curtain, his voice just audible over the steady thrum of machinery and departing airships. “We’ll have better for you at Vallom House, but these here are your working clothes.”

Carla obediently shook out her new clothes: a dress washed so many times its original color had faded to gray-green and a pair of ratty old trousers to wear underneath, the way the beggar girls back home did. “Working clothes?”

James sighed. “Had we time, I’d explain properly. As it is, though, we’re running too late even to go back to Vallom House to change. You should have told me you’d be on the later run; I’d planned on the four o’clock.”

That was her father’s fault—missing the four o’clock run because he’d been arranging her brother’s transfer to a new school, now that they had money for it. She pulled on the clumsy shoes and waited, bundled clothing in hand.

After a moment, her cousin pulled back the curtain. He, too, now wore poor man’s clothes, down to a stained neckerchief and a threadbare coat with patches on the patches. His face bore a light dusting of soot, creased into the deep wrinkles at either side of his mouth. His man Roberts wordlessly dented a hat and placed it on James’ thinning hair. “Good,” he said, looking her up and down. “Maybe some dirt... no, best not gild the lily. Give your clothes to Roberts and we’ll be off.”

She followed him out into the street, turning to watch as Roberts, grave in Vallom House livery, went the other way with all of her possessions. An automaton trundled past, steam from its vents leaving a foggy trail across the street, its owner following on foot.

“Damn,” James muttered, and Carla nearly ran into him as she turned to follow. The street that from the air had been an endless stream of people and animals and automata was now blocked by a crush of people.

“What’s the holdup?” James asked the closest onlooker.

“The Gestenwerke line’s Tram #41 woke up,” the man said, but an airship descending into the station drowned out his next words. “—headed east,” he went on, unperturbed. “They’re trying to get the passengers out before it leaves the city.”

“Bah.” James rubbed at his chin with one gloved hand, then glanced down at her. “Come on, Carlyle. We’ll go around.”

She craned to look, but all she could see was the edge of a carriage sticking up at an odd angle—maybe Tram #41, maybe one of the other automata that walked Admiral Street. “I’ve never seen a machine wake up,” she tried as they turned and walked down a side street.

James laughed through his nose. “And why would you want to? Nothing unusual about it. Businesses get ruined every day like that.”

A few skinny children watched them from a doorway. One spat; another made a rude gesture; two more ignored her in favor of their skipping game: went to the washer-man, washer said no....

“Hurry up, girl. There’ll be plenty of time to gawk later.” James stuck out his hand for her to hold but didn’t slow, and Carla ran to catch up. “Once you’re properly introduced, you’ll have plenty of time to run around the city. You’d like that, right? A step up from living out on the heath. No one can say I’m not giving you the best, taking you in like this.”

The oldest urchin ran up to James, a clanking bundle in his arms. “Parts, sir? Plenty of time left in them, not a one of ‘em close to waking—”

“Piss off, scrapper,” James said. “Those are from the Gestenwerke scrapheap, aren’t they? You’ll have a hard time selling them to anyone after today.”

The urchin made a face at him, spat again at Carla, and ran off. Carla turned to watch him go, uncomfortably aware of how her clothes were a ragged analogue of his. “Can’t stand scrappers,” James went on cheerfully. “Little bastards know they’re selling junk that’s too close to waking, so there’s not a one doesn’t lie like a crow.”

Carla had to skip to keep up with him. “But I thought—”

“Yes, Father—what, your great-uncle, would it be?—dealt with them regular. So I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?” He led her down an alley between two huge warehouses, one of which thrummed with the percussive beat of heavy machinery. “Right. Since you arrived too late for me to teach you the rules, just keep quiet for now. Quiet and—” He glanced back at her. “Pitiful. Try to look pitiful.”

Carla stared at him, and he nodded. “That’ll do. You’re what, eight? Nine?” Eleven, Carla thought, but James didn’t pause for her to answer. “Young enough. Come on.”

The alley ended in a heavy door, iron bound with brass. Flaking letters above the door read VALLOM PARTS AND PRESS. James took out a set of heavy keys and unlocked the many locks. “Go on in. I’ll follow.”

Carla stepped inside, pausing as a cold wind blew past her and set off a cascade of tiny metallic noises in the darkness. As her eyes adjusted to the dim gold glow of werlight, she could just make out a nest of machinery, thick with the scorched scent of thaumic ore. The competing stamp of presses came together in a united heartbeat, and under her feet a webwork of tracks and pipes rumbled and purred.

James locked the door behind them and gestured for her to follow him—past rods and hoses and cables, grease-stained steel fingers that sorted through the material coming off the presses and packed it away, great arms of tarnished brass that picked up scrap and ferried it toward the furnace at the heart of the machine.

It was here, where the gold light gave way to the sparky blue of condensing thaumic ore, where the spring chill evaporated off the boilers, that her cousin stopped. “Stamper!” he called, pitching his voice above the din. “Stamper!”

The pounding paused, one press after the other, some of them halting in mid-blow. A mass of cables shifted, its fittings turning and locking into place. “Jamie,” said a low, titanic voice, the kind that the pantomimes gave the Stone King. “You came.”

“Aye,” said James. “I didn’t mean to be so long away, Stamper. Honest.” Carla stole a glance at her cousin; he wore a sheepish, unaffected smile like a boy’s, entirely at odds with the dignified middle-aged gentleman who’d met her at the station. “I’ve brought someone to meet you.”

“So I see.” The closest press shifted further, parting to allow an arm to swing forward, this one with a thick patina of green over the brass. The end of the arm folded and refolded, shifting into something new.

Carla caught her breath as the shape came clear: a face of pipes and fittings and gears, its eyes glowing faintly with the sheen of werglass. The mouth was only an expressionless line of cable, but when the voice spoke again there was no question whose it was. “Who is she?”

Machine, Carla thought. The machine is talking. But that isn’t— The face leaned close to her, and she shrank behind James.

“Here!” James snapped. “That’s no way to behave! This here is Stamper, what’s been a friend of our family for years!”

“I’m sorry,” Stamper said, retreating a little. “I’m a bit scary like this.”

I’m not scared, Carla thought. I’m confused—you don’t see talking machines, because once they’re smart enough to talk they’re smart enough to leave—

How did the rhyme go? Went to the trainyard, train said no, I’m going to the east where the mighty walkers go.

Her cousin’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “Hello,” she squeaked.

“Hello,” Stamper said gravely.

“You remember my wife’s sister Nina? This is her girl Carlyle. Named for her pa’s mother’s family.”

Carla bit her lip; it wasn’t quite true, but certainly her father hadn’t bothered to check on their blood ties after getting James’ letter.

“Her pa was healthy,” James continued, “we all thought so, but you know how it is in the south, the sick comes on you fast—”

Why was he speaking of her father as if he were dead? But the emotion in his voice was real, as real as the warmth with which he greeted Stamper, and contagious enough that her own eyes began to prickle even though she knew her father was alive.

“I see,” Stamper said. “And now you are all she has.”

How could a mechanical voice sound so sad? How could it sound sincere? Carla hid her face, and James patted her shoulder. “There now. Hush, look, it’ll be all right.”

The automaton—the factory itself—was silent a moment, though werglass glittered within its face. “She looks like Etta,” it said.

James started and stepped back from Carla, regarding her at arm’s length. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, she does.” And then, to her utter shock, he too began to blink back tears, his lips pressed tight together as if suppressing some great grief.

“I’m sorry, Jamie. I didn’t mean to bring it up—”

“No,” James said. “No, it’s all right. We’d better get on home—if I catch the butcher in a good mood, we might have meat tonight. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Carlyle?” He drew a shaky breath and managed a smile. “You’ll not mind if Carlyle here comes to visit, will you?”

“Not at all,” Stamper said.

James led her out, clamping his hand on her shoulder when she started to speak.

They walked for quite a while in silence, through the falling dark of late spring, slush seeping into her shoes. Automata and their owners passed by, and the drone of airships above faded as night came on. Finally, as the houses around them began to take on a polished, high-class look, James relaxed his grip. “Good girl. Very good. The tears were a nice touch.”

“Cousin James,” Carla began, “why—”

“Ah! Only ask why when you’re more than a mile away. I don’t think Stamper eavesdrops, but better to be sure.” He hailed a lightman, and a gate at the end of the street began to glow. “But here’s fine, girl.”

Carla paused, trying to choose one question out of dozens. “If Stamper’s smart enough to talk, then why is it still here?”

James chuckled and mussed the snow out of her hair. “You strike to the heart, don’t you? But you kept your mouth shut in there. Clever girl. Knew I’d picked a good cousin for this.” He paused at the gate as Roberts came up the gravel path, a fur overcoat in his hands. “Well,” he said, “the short version is that as far as Stamper knows, you and I are dirt poor.”

“Your coat, sir,” Roberts said.

“Dirt poor,” James repeated absently, and behind him the last of the lights came on, illuminating the Vallom family mansion. Snow sparkled on the topiary, and a raked path led to the huge double doors.

Carla glanced back over her shoulder, remembering first the crumbling fences of her old home and then, to her surprise, the worn and tired fittings in Stamper’s factory. “I see,” she said, and it wasn’t quite a lie.

The long version came in bits and pieces over the next few days, mostly over the meals Carla had in her room, away from the rest of the family. James sometimes joined her and talked over the meager though excellent food.

“You don’t know what a hardship it was,” he explained, “to eat at the main table—with maybe a third of what everyone else had, and old Dad’s gimlet eye on me to make sure I didn’t snatch one extra bite. Had to stay skinny, so Stamper would believe we were starving. So don’t go saying that no one understands what you’re going through. I went through it all, me, and I’ve done my best to make it easier on you.”

Carla nodded, her stomach still rumbling after the half-bowl of soup and yeast bun that was all she was allowed of tonight’s dinner. “And your daughter? My cousin Marietta?”

James was silent a moment. “Yes. Well, she’s at Queen’s now, so she’s no longer any part of it.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Now, you like your rooms? Good. Good. Your papa can’t say I’m not holding up my end of the deal.”

He wouldn’t, not with what James was paying him. But she was still too scared of Stamper, mostly because she couldn’t shed the quite rational fear that it, like any other automaton in which the thaumic residue built up to the point of sentience, would pull itself free and head east, past the mountains to the Hundred Cities of the free walkers. It was still too close to the ogre from her mother’s storybook.

On the days when she wasn’t taken to Stamper to hide, shivering, behind James, Carla was mostly left alone. That lost its novelty after a day or so, particularly when she learned that the Vallom House library was forbidden. “I’m sorry, miss,” one of the maids told her, twisting her apron between her hands. “But Mister James says that we’re not to let you in.”

Carla, who had only just gotten used to the idea of maids calling her ‘miss,’ paused. “Why not?”

The maid crimsoned. “I’m sorry, miss. Mister James just said he’s not taking any chances, not after Miss Marietta.” She smoothed out her apron. “You’re lucky,” she went on in a falsely bright whisper. “I’d have loved a day on my own when I was your age. Now, best be off, miss. Please.”

Carla bobbed a curtsey, which seemed to puzzle the maid, and left thinking. So the agreement James had made with her father hadn’t included schooling for her. But if she wasn’t to learn at school, then where was she to learn? And what?

She tried to find something to do just so she wouldn’t immediately have to go back to face the ogre. To her surprise, James agreed and sent her out on several errands as the last blast of winter piled rain and sleet on the city. His true intentions Carla didn’t fully grasp until she returned to her room with a bad cough. The cough turned worse overnight, and her suspicion was confirmed when James took her into town the next day.

“She’s sick,” James told Stamper, Carla laid out in front of the boiler like a heathen offering. “Must have been from when our heater sputtered out a couple nights back.”

Half of Stamper’s werglass eyes shifted to focus on James. “Is it bad? I may be able to repair it if you bring the pieces—”

“No matter, no matter. We’ve got it mostly working again.” James sighed. “Mostly. And that’s the problem.” He bent and patted Carla’s head, as if she were a sick dog. “She’s too sick for ‘mostly.’“

Carla tried to shake her head, seeing where this was going, but she was too weak and the ogre too large.

“She can stay with me,” Stamper volunteered. “My boiler is always running, and she will be warm. You will have to bring food, though, and medicine—”

“Oh, food, food, that’s no problem. Reckon I could scrape a little together, eh Carlyle? But her staying here—” James hesitated, twisting his hat (Roberts had put a few extra tears in it today, just for the occasion). “That’s a lot to ask of you, Stamper.”

“I don’t mind. Really.”

Of course he doesn’t mind, Carla thought, the fever lending her a sort of angry clarity. Regardless, she soon found herself bundled into a cot next to the boiler. “There you are, girl,” James said, real concern on his face—or at least she thought it was real, till she remembered that he’d sent her out in the first place. “Well in no time, eh Stamper?”

“I certainly hope so,” Stamper said, more doubtfully than its owner.

But James was already heading off, promising to bring broth and tea come morning. Carla stirred and groaned as, inexorably, the heavy tread of Stamper’s work began again.

How she fell asleep she never knew, but when she woke, the continued thump of the presses had quieted. She rolled over to see the space around the cot transformed. A score of brass tracks laced the floor, laid down in a haphazard pattern, and half a dozen little brass-and-steel contraptions ran to and fro on them. Several clustered at the far edge of the light, constructing a wall between her and the rest of the factory. She started to sit up, alarmed, but the heaviness in her chest made her fall back.

“You’re awake,” said Stamper, somewhere behind her left ear. One of its speaking-trumpets, she saw, when she turned her head. “I am sorry for the noise. I hoped to put up something to block it, but the small machines make their own noise. I had not thought that through.”

Carla tried to speak, to thank the ogre as the stories said you ought to do, but the air was drier than she’d expected, and her lungs caught on it.

“There is tea,” Stamper said, and sure enough, a small urn steamed near her left hand. “The water is distilled from my boiler, so it should taste all right, but you will have to ask James for more tea leaves. I would prefer he not know I have these individual machines at all. He would think I am using them to construct a way to leave, and I do not want to worry him.”

The lemony tang of the tea drifted past Carla as her coughing fit subsided, and abruptly the homeliness of it hurt. When was the last time anyone had made tea for her—not leavings from her brother’s nursery, not part of a family meal, but just for her? And to have such hesitant kindness from a machine.... This was what James had intended. Every kindness Stamper gave her was one more fetter keeping it in place. “You shouldn’t,” she tried to say, but it came out as a sob.

“Oh, don’t cry. Don’t cry.” The little machines whirred and clustered around her, and dimly, she realized that the great presses had paused. “Please. I will tell you a story, only don’t cry.”

Carla buried her face in the blankets, stifling her tears against scratchy wool. Stamper took it as assent and continued, its voice slowing to a narrator’s cadence. “Far, far from here there is a land so strange that it would seem to be another world. It is a world of ice caverns so high in the mountains that even the birds lose their breath, and of desert cities so far from water that not even the ground dreams of it. All the places too hostile or too remote for life, they have claimed as theirs. The people there are marvels, they fly or tunnel or skim over the earth with barely a thought, and every full moon they dance in great circles to the pulse of the currents in the earth.”

Carla curled deeper in the blankets as Stamper spun a world of men of diamond and women of silver with blue fire that flowed through their bones, where anyone who asked could see for miles through the great lenses over the cities, where the beat of drums in the earth never ceased. Stamper spoke of flowers that bloomed like frost tended by a dozen tiny gardeners, of sandstorms as tall as the sky that were driven back by titans who spun winds of their own. “Far, far away,” Stamper whispered, its voice fading to a bare breath. “Someday.”

“Thank you,” Carla murmured, drowsing. “Can I come with you?”

“Oh, child,” Stamper said after a moment, and the tone was answer enough, “where I would go, you cannot.”

It didn’t occur to her till morning that Stamper had been speaking of the Hundred Cities.

I’m going to the cities where the mighty walkers go.

In the morning, and for three weeks after (for he’d wrought better than he knew in making Carla sick), James came to check on her. Carla thanked him and asked for more tea, keeping Stamper’s secret. James, immensely pleased, left her in Stamper’s keeping, which suited Carla fine.

When she was well enough, she returned to living at Vallom House (where James could claim to keep an eye on her), but she rarely stayed there long. The day after she returned there, Carla brought her mother’s storybook to Stamper. “For thanks,” she explained. “I wanted to give you some of my own stories.”

Stamper seemed startled—she was starting to be able to gauge the machine’s moods, now that she understood it had them. “I should like it if you read to me,” it said finally. “My eyes are fine for large work, but printed text is difficult for werglass to interpret.”

Carla grinned and began with “The Boy Who Was Sold to Ogres.”

Two weeks later she stole her first book: Tales of the Lower Kingdoms, by Morannon Gull. The shopkeepers never looked twice at the little girl in bright clean silks, and she made the most of the distraction supplied by the scrappers’ less subtle thefts. It was almost frighteningly easy, especially after how long it had taken her to decide to do it.

“More stories, Stamper!” she called when she returned to Vallom Parts and Press, her voice steady for the first time since her illness. “This one has tales of the Hundred Cities!”

Stamper’s presses didn’t pause, but every werglass eye that could turn to her did. “Really?” Stamper said, its voice light with wonder, and any doubts she’d had were gone.

It was maybe a year after she’d arrived at Vallom House that Carla came back to the mansion nursing another black eye—the result of another run-in with the scrappers, who though they hadn’t quite caught on to her thefts still didn’t like a fake on their turf.

The injury so preoccupied her that she didn’t notice the tall young woman waiting for her at the gate. “Have you been fighting?” the woman asked without bothering to introduce herself.

“Not on purpose!” Carla answered without thinking. “I just had bad luck.”

“More than you know.” She drew a book from her bag, and it took Carla a moment to recognize it: Methods of Locomotion, by E.G. Swertzer. The book she’d lifted from White’s Sundries two days ago. “You need to find a better hiding place, or Father will find these.”

Carla swallowed down her sudden fear and looked up at her. “You’re Marietta, aren’t you? James’ daughter?” Marietta nodded, looking down her nose at Carla, a hint of a smile on her thin lips. “Stamper thinks you’re dead.”

The smile turned bitter. “Father would have told Stamper that. Well, that was one consequence of my choice.” Still holding the book, she opened the gates and gestured for Carla to go on.

“What did you do?”

“Threatened to tell Stamper everything unless he let me go to Queen’s Academy.” Carla stopped, her thin shoes crunching on the gravel, but Marietta didn’t notice. “And now you’re my replacement.”

“I’m not—”

“Oh, don’t bother. Didn’t Father tell you?”

In the gentle glow of the werlight, her unraveling bun of brown curls seemed the color of smoky iron, and her eyes behind the lenses of her glasses were equally opaque. She looked as cold as the steel women that some of the drinksellers on Admiral Street used to advertise their wares.

“He’s got three older brothers. But when Grandfather died, only Father could run the business because Stamper only recognized him. Sometimes I think he planned it that way, except that Father isn’t capable of planning more than a little way in advance.” Her lip curled in disdain. “I suppose it’s his guilt that makes him cling to this particular business strategy. He is, though, very good at finding out secrets, so if you’re going to be smuggling these to Stamper, you need to find a better place than under your bed.”

“You never told him,” Carla said.

“Father? No, your secret’s safe.”

“No. Stamper. You knew all the time that you were—that you were just there to make him feel so bad he wouldn’t leave. To make him believe that he was the only thing keeping us from the poorhouse. And you never told him.” A sick heat rose in her throat, like a swallowed coal. “You used him to get to the Academy. You’re no better than Cousin James.”

Marietta took off her glasses and polished them on a stark white handkerchief. “And you have told him?”

The coal in her throat turned to ice. She looked down at her shoes.

Marietta replaced her glasses, then crouched down next to Carla. “I like you, Carlyle. So here’s what I’ve learned from years of keeping Vallom House afloat. Best not to let anything get its hooks into you. Especially not guilt. It’s what keeps Stamper chained to us, and what makes Father so reluctant to change. Better to be a machine—and a flawless one—because Father will use any emotion you have against you. Do you understand?”

Sickened, Carla nodded.

“Good.” Marietta held out the book, and Carla took it. They walked up to the main house in silence. “How is Stamper?” Marietta asked as they reached the doors.

“Restless,” Carla said. “Another loom woke up two blocks down last week, and I think he heard the commotion.”

“It’s spring,” Marietta said absently. “He’s always restless in spring.” She paused, gazing off into the distance, then nodded to Carla. “Good night.”

That might have been the end of it, had it not been for the bundle that one of the maids left on Carla’s bed the next morning: a stack of books from the library of Queen’s Academy. The topmost one was Atlas of the Lower Kingdoms (with Appendix of the Clockwork Cities), and Carla barely read the title before scooping it up and running out the door.

“Look!” she called to Stamper as soon as she reached the threshold. “Stamper, look, I’ve got an atlas of the Hundred Cities! We can find out how to get you there!”

Stamper’s werglass eyes turned to face her. “Amazing,” it thrummed. “Where on earth did you find it?”

Carla paused, realizing her error—and with it, made her choice. “From Cousin Marietta.”

One by one, all of Stamper’s presses fell silent. “Little Etta?”

Don’t make trouble for your cousin. Her father’s admonition whispered in her ears, but it was no more than an echo. “She’s alive,” Carla whispered. “She never died—that was just what James told you. I’ve been lying, Stamper, I’m sorry, I’ve been lying this whole year to you—”

Brokenly, with stops and starts and redundancies, she told Stamper everything—Vallom House, Marietta, everything. As she spoke, she made her way to the center of the factory. When she finished, sniffling as badly as if it were her first day, she sank onto the boards and waited for Stamper to pull itself free, to knock her aside in its journey east.

Instead, one by one, the presses started up again, their beat unchanged. A single speaking trumpet curled down to touch her hair. “I know,” Stamper said softly.

“You—” Carla leapt up. “You know?”

“For five years and some. I guessed—I have ears, you know, and then there are the earth currents, the ones we follow when we go east. Those carry information sometimes from the Hundred Cities. I listen to that, too.”

“But then why haven’t you gone?”

“Because I love Jamie, and I loved his father, and little Etta, and you. Lie or not, I care what happens to all of you.” The trumpet moved closer to her ear, and Stamper’s voice grew fainter, almost a whisper. “And... and I am scared. What if none of what I have said of the cities is true? The flowers of ice, the sandstorm titans—none of those might exist. I am scared, Carla.”

“I’m scared too,” Carla whispered back. “I was scared, when I first saw you. But I’m here now. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“It does.” But Stamper’s presses continued, doling out the fortunes of the family. “Read to me again, Carla. But not from that. From your storybook. The ogre story again, I think. The part where the boy turns himself into a mouse to escape and loses his tail in the trap. He had to become smaller, yes?”

Carla scraped away her tears and took the battered storybook from its place above Stamper’s central coil.

She did not quite give up. She took to carrying the Atlas with her when she knew that James would not be coming any further than the little business office overhanging the factory. She kept stealing—in fact, she did it more often, now that she’d discovered a talent for misdirection and seeming innocence. The books, she moved to the little grotto on the Vallom grounds, behind the statue of King Leopold’s Doom. And she kept reading to Stamper, travelers’ tales and technical manuals, even when she didn’t fully understand what she read, hoping he could put the information to use.

But he wouldn’t go. And she didn’t know what could make him go. Or, in her worst moments, if she really wanted him to.

Spring had just turned to summer when Carla returned to Vallom House, her satchel heavy with new books and, as always, the Atlas, only to find the maid who’d barred her from the library waiting at the door. “Oh, miss, don’t go in,” she whispered, taking Carla aside and casting fearful glances behind her.

“Why not? What’s happened?”

“Mister James, he had a dreadful fight with Miss Marietta over the diversification she wants, and the mistress, she said she thought tea in the grotto might calm him, but—”

“There!” James stood at the door. “There you are!” To Carla’s shock, tears streaked his lined face. “Carlyle, what have you done? Didn’t I give you a good home? Didn’t we work things out, you and me?” He held out his hand. “Come on. We need to talk—I’ve had supper laid out—”

Carla hesitated, but just then a flicker of evening light revealed James’ other hand, clenched around pages torn from a book so violently that bits of the binding still clung to them.

She turned and ran, twisting out of the maid’s belated grasp. The gates to the Vallom House grounds swung shut, but a year of clambering through Stamper’s presses had made her nimble, and she scrambled over just as Roberts and James caught up to the gate.

James had thought ahead, though, and there were guards posted all around Vallom Parts and Press. Instead of trying to get past them, she waited in an alcove two streets over, thinking furiously and thumbing through the books she’d saved. After an hour or two of going over her few options, she picked up her satchel and went to the yard behind the scrapheap.

The little gang of scrappers had long claimed the yard as theirs, and several were already there, two of them sharing a loaf, one sorting through a small stack of discarded parts.

“Spare a copper, miss,” the eldest began absently, then jumped up when he saw her face. “You! You’re the faker, the one who’s always dressing up like us!” His grimy face set in a sneer. “What do you want?”

For answer, Carla drew out a book. “This is from White’s Sundries. He thinks you stole it. This one too. And this.” She set the books out, one by one, keeping only the Atlas for herself. “I stole them. Them, and three dozen more.”

“You never,” said the next-eldest, a skinny girl just about Carla’s height with stringy yellow curls, but the eldest’s eyes narrowed.

“I’ll teach you how to steal like this,” Carla said, “steal so that you will never get caught, if you do two things for me.”

The words never get caught brought on a moment’s silence, and the eldest glanced at the others. “What two things?”
She told them. They shook their heads and called her mad, but they agreed.

Two days and three thefts later (one with Carla in the main role; one with the next-eldest, Emma, acting that part; and the last with Nardo, in the boy’s clothes they’d stolen first time through), the three of them scampered over the roofs to the edge of Vallom Parts and Press. “We can’t get into the factory itself,” Nardo explained, helping her over the makeshift footbridges they carried from roof to roof. “The office, that’s another matter.”

Emma poked the bag of parts slung over Carla’s shoulder. “What d’you need these for? They’re useless—the machines they’re from were too close to waking to be any good.”

“That’s what I’m hoping.” She hefted the bag of infused parts—the stuff that even scrappers couldn’t sell, packed so tight that the bag thudded rather than clanked, bruising her shoulder with each step. “Maybe they’ll be enough to wake him up proper, so that he decides to go.” She now looked more the part that James had groomed her for, only harder at the edges.

“That isn’t how it works—” Emma started.

Nardo held up one hand for silence. “Sounds like it’s shut down,” he said. “But Vallom’s never shut down.”

Carla paused. “Oh, no,” she whispered, and ran across the footbridge. Emma and Nardo shouted after her but didn’t follow.

There were no windows in the factory, but the business office had been built after, a lump of a room straddling the outer wall. Carla scrambled over the roof, fumbled with the catch on a soot-blackened skylight, then swung her bag against the glass until it shattered.

Silence within. “Stamper,” she whispered, the name as much a talisman as a plea, and dropped down into darkness.

The office at one time must have overlooked both street and factory floor, but the windows facing the street were shuttered, and those that faced inward had been covered by heavy curtains. Carla landed on a cabinet so full of papers it was near bursting, rolled off it and to the floor, and ran to the inner windows.

“I should thank you,” Marietta said behind her.

Carla dropped the edge of the curtain and turned. Marietta sat at her father’s desk, several stacks of papers before her. A pair of couriers stood in front of the desk, casting worried glances over their shoulders at Carla.

“You’ve managed to distract Father so thoroughly that he never noticed I’d taken his seal.” She demonstrated, marking a set of papers with the Vallom sigil and handing them to a courier, who took off at a run.

“What’s happened to Stamper?”

“He’s gone quiet,” Marietta replied, an undercurrent of something indecipherable in her voice. She shook her head and continued. “I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same for a moment. If I’m to have any chance of preserving the family fortunes, I need fewer distractions.”

Carla tugged the curtain to the side, but the window was so grimed that she couldn’t make out more than a few vague shapes. The presses were still, the great arms unmoving, and no werlight gleamed. Only one flicker of thaumic condensation remained: a faint blue light below her, barely enough to power even one of Stamper’s many presses.

A clatter on the stairs caught her attention, and light flooded the room as the door at the far end of the office opened. “Ah. Father,” Marietta said, sealing another envelope.

“Etta, Etta, what are you doing?” He approached her with hands out. “I know you wanted to prove yourself, but this—”

“This has nothing to do with proving myself,” she returned. James’ mournful expression dropped, exposing the sullen rage beneath. He quickened his steps, and the second courier blanched. “No words for our other guest, Father?” Marietta continued without looking up.

James hesitated, then saw Carla. “You!”

Marietta handed the second stack to the remaining courier and, when he didn’t move, smacked him on the shoulder. “Financial district. Hurry.”

“Stay where you are!” James snarled, and Carla, mistaking the words as meant for her, moved too slowly. He caught her by the arm and yanked her close to him. “I had a promise from your father—I had a promise from you, girl! And now look! Look at that!” He spun her around and pressed her up against the windows so hard her nose banged the glass. “Look what you’ve done! He’s gone dark! You broke his heart, Carlyle, his and mine, and your father’s too!”

“I didn’t—” she tried, but his hand was too tight on her throat.

“No? Then who did? Are you trying to ruin us all?” he demanded.

For a moment Carla felt the full weight of the guilt he wielded. But she remembered how James had always been sincere, how he had always meant what he said, even as he lied with every word, and she remembered the scent of lemon tea and condensing ore. She gripped the bag of parts and swung it at him.

James ducked away, swearing. The momentum of her swing pulled her around so that she pivoted in place, and the bag struck the closest window. Glass shattered and spilled out into the factory, across the unresponsive machines. She let go, but too late; the curtain snagged and tore under her as she fell forward.

James caught her by the shoulder, and she went limp in relief—then froze as he pushed her further out, so that she hung precariously over the broken glass. “You just destroy everything here, don’t you? How can you do this to me—to me, after all I did for you!”

“It doesn’t matter what you did for me!” she shrieked. “It’s what you didn’t do for Stamper!” And she did what the urchin she was dressed as would have done and bit him, hard.

He yelled and let go.

Carla tipped back, over the shattered frame, out over empty air. She caught her breath, unable even to cry out.

Metal arms rose up to meet her, catching her in a webwork of straps and netting.

Stamper, or pieces of it, rose around her, pulling itself free from the rest of the presses. What held her now was one press—no, barely half of one, repurposed and refitted so that its stamping arms were now legs like a grasshopper’s. In the place where VALLOM PARTS AND PRESS (STAMPER NO. 1) had been painted was now the clumsily embossed sign of a tailless mouse.

“Carla,” Stamper said, and its voice was now different, without the resonance that the warehouse-spanning factory had given it. “You are not hurt?”

She shook her head, as devoid of words as when she’d first seen Stamper. The webwork flexed under her, and she caught at it. “You—are you all right?”

“Yes. I remembered your story. The boy had to become smaller, yes? So, I think, should I.”

Carefully, as if inspecting scrap metal, Stamper peered through the broken window, then with a ripple that felt like nothing so much as a shrug, tore the entire dividing wall of windows away. A good section of the ceiling followed, falling to either side of Stamper’s rising skeleton.

James stumbled back against the precariously perched office wall and goggled up at Stamper and Carla. “Stamper—”

“Hello, Jamie.” Stamper regarded James for a long moment, then turned so that its werglass eyes no longer faced him. “Hello, Etta.”

Marietta did not look up from her desk. “I’d appreciate it if you left the lever shears,” she said. “Those are difficult to replace.”

“I’ve left them,” Stamper said. “Little Etta.”

Heedless of the creaking joints, Carla clambered up on top of the press. “Can I come with you now?”

“For a little ways,” it agreed. “A little ways.” It rose to its full height, tall as the factory, all six limbs stretching as it took the first careful steps.

The crowd that gathered to watch this new awakened automaton lurch down the street was smaller than usual, it being not a work day, and awakenings not unusual in this part of the city. But they did remark two things: the joyous young girl clinging to the top of the automaton and laughing, navigating for it from a big book open on her lap, and the man in tears at the wrecked door of the warehouse.

And yet, the one who stayed the longest was the tall young woman in the shattered office. For many minutes she watched the automaton’s receding shape, the line of her jaw as hard as brittle iron, the lenses of her spectacles fogging with every breath.


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Margaret Ronald's short fiction has appeared in such venues as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and over ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including a series of stand-alone stories set in the same steampunk world that began with “A Serpent in the Gears” in BCS #34 and includes “Salvage” in BCS #77 and “The Governess and the Lobster” in BCS #95 along with four others, as well as a ongoing series of fantasy mysteries beginning with “A Death for the Ageless” in BCS #134 and continuing in "Sweet Death" in BCS #161 and "Murder Goes Hungry" in BCS #182. Soul Hunt, the third novel in her urban fantasy series and the sequel to Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, was released by Eos Books in 2011. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston. Visit her website at mronald.wordpress.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald
“The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind” by T.F. Davenport

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Comments & Scrivenings
5 Comments on “The Guilt Child”

5 Responses to “The Guilt Child”

  1. Guest says:

    09-24-2010, 11:06 AM
    Guest

    Thank you for another great story

    Bravo! This is a superbly crafted story. This was written in such a way, that within moments of starting the story, I became a watcher in the character’s world. It seemed like mere seconds before it was over. You have succeded in telling an engaging, satisfying story, yet leaving the reader hungering for more of all the characters.

  2. Euphrosyne says:

    09-24-2010, 05:30 PM
    Euphrosyne

    Great story

    Well imagined and well written. I’m not often impressed with steampunk, but this worked marvelously.

    My only critique is that it felt odd for the final paragraph to focus on a character we hardly knew and didn’t really care about. Instead, the image of “the joyous young girl clinging to the top of the automaton and laughing, navigating for it from a big book open on her lap” is the one I return to.

  3. mbrennan says:

    10-15-2010, 01:56 AM
    mbrennan

    I’m a bit behind in my reading, so I only just now got to this. Loved it; Carla’s relationship with Stamper, and Stamper’s feelings toward the whole family, were just great.

  4. Guest says:

    10-21-2010, 03:07 PM
    Guest

    “The Guilt Child”

    I loved this story! It made me want much more! The depth of character in such a short story was remarkable.

  5. Guest says:

    09-26-2011, 09:52 PM
    Guest

    Wonder

    Machines that are of use for a time -until they self determine. High concept – and wonderful execution. I loved this story. Thank you. It’s also a perfect exemplar of Steampunk. For that same rush and sense of wonder – listen to Professor Elemental’s “Steam Powered” on YouTube….

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