It was a quiet evening, all things considered. The air was slightly damp, the pavement still wet from the storms earlier in the day, and in the distant east, heavy clouds were drifting slowly away. The rest of the sky seemed almost painted in shades of red and orange- autumn colours, he supposed. He quickened his pace a little, feet tapping lightly on the cobbles of the street. He couldn’t miss this slim window of opportunity. Everything hinged on it.
The brass plating of the palace glinted in the half-light of the setting sun. Many people didn’t like it, him included, but the Empress claimed it showed London’s leadership in the Industrial Revolution. She was a foolish woman, he thought to himself, practically a child filled with impractical ideas.
Kole’s ears were filled with the sound of steam hissing and hammers hitting hard metal. London always had its own strange sound, a unique signature amongst the other capital cities of the world. Even on quiet nights like these, the ever present whistle of gas being released from valves serenaded the population to sleep. He paused for a moment as the steam was hushed, listening for the sound of guard patrols. Satisfied he was still alone, he continued, his pace a little faster. He had to do this now.
He stepped from cobbles to grass, stealing across the small garden in complete silence, his bald head catching the light from street lamps. Only a little bit further, he told himself, urging himself on wards. He could make it before the next patrol.
The man stepped into the guard tower, keeping close to the metal wall as he peered around the corner. Typical. As predicted Tomelo was asleep in his chair, feet resting on his desk, hand dangling. The man was drunk as he often was on his late night watches. A smile spread across Kole’s face- everything was working as expected.
Kole crept past the sleeping man, slipping into a room filled with spare gears and pressure gauges. He tapped one of the bronze cogs as he passed, and it rung with a clear, high note that seemed to bounce through the room. Then he paused again, surveying the room. It felt a lot smaller now, filled as it was with spare parts. Completely empty it had been a large empty space, with tall ceilings and steel supports throughout. If he remembered correctly- which he indubitably did- the panel he needed was near the end of the room. Kole started through the shelves, his eyes fixed on the small corner of the panel that he could see.
“At last,” he whispered to himself as he knelt before the panel, fumbling with his tool belt to release a ratchet screwdriver. He was finally here.
With the grace of one experienced in such endeavours, he removed the screws, prising the security panel from the wall. Inside was a jumble of gears and wires, tangled and exposed. He narrowed his eyes, whichever apprentice had assembled this mess must have been in quite a rush. Kole flicked a recessed switch to the left, the display on the panel fading to black. He replaced the panel, and stood waiting.
After a few moments came the sound of whirling, gears turning, mechanics sliding into place. Then there was a barely audible click, and Kole’s smile widened. He took a step back as the section of wall slid into another. A heavy iron door stood in its place. He strained to push it open, grunting softly to himself in exertion. Finally it gave, swinging open on its well oiled hinges. Behind it was a room devoid of everything, besides a single contraption.
It was a thing of beauty, really. A network of steam tubes, each connected to another through wires, stood before him. Intricate enclosures of thin brass holding some of the most delicate machinery he had ever created, glittering in what little light made it from the room behind him, and the blue glow that came from the contraption’s centre. Nestled amongst a bed of wires and brass was what he was looking for; the Arcane Rune.
Every time the valves released, the symbol on the rune’s centre would glow for a second, pulsing pale blue light. Its power was horribly wasted here, much to his regret. The Rune was destined for much greater things that a mere city’s security system. London didn’t deserve its power. Kole reached into the mess of tubes and wires, gently curling his fingers around the rune, and pulling it from its next. A few wires fell from its surface as he did so, and he slipped it into a pouch on his belt.
Almost immediately, a klaxon blared, and a man on a loudspeaker announced; “London’s security has been breached! Flee to the palace at once!” Kole grimaced. In his cautiousness he had taken too long. The alarms were back online. He turned on his heel, and started sprinting, his frail frame surprisingly fast.
Down the steps, out of the tower. He cursed quietly to himself- at least Tomelo hadn’t been woken by the racket. He slowed as he came out onto the empty streets. He had chosen the one time when the guard patrols were furthest from this point- he had a little wriggle room, for this exact reason. He hurried across the cobbles, toward the nearest alleyway he could find, and ducked into it. In a little while he would emerge again and make his escape- he just needed to wait for the guards to pass. Nobody would suspect him, not at first. He had kept his ideas a secret to all, not daring to tell another soul, or even paper, of his ambitions. They were far too important to risk, and the only place they were truly safe was in his mind. The one place he had complete control over. Kole crouched down, hiding behind one of the half-walls, peaking out periodically to ensure he had a clear view of the street, before he returned to his ready position.
Soon, he thought to himself. Soon. He merely had to leave this damned city, and then he could start his project without a single finger lifted by the Empress. She wouldn’t know; she would think him dead. A smile moved across his face, and his hand went to the pouch on his belt. Even through the thick leather, he could feel the Rune’s power. He could feel the heat warm his palm.
He leaned against the wall, and looked up at the starless sky. The sun had set, leaving nothing but inky black. Anywhere else and it would have been littered with small pinprick stars, like holes in paper. This was the beauty of London, and one of the few things he would miss. The street lamps on every corner, lighting every inch of the main roads of the city, emitted such a wonderful orange glow, drowning out the light of any pathetic stars. They left nothing but a perfect sheet of black, with a golden glow on the horizons. It was beautiful.
Kole didn’t have to wait long before he heard footsteps, and saw a steady stream of figures dashing along the roads toward the tower. He wiped the smile from his face, giving him a moment or two to compose himself, before he stepped around the corner. He was ignored in the rush, allowed to walk past the dozens of police officers who pushed past him. They rushed to get to the scene of the crime, completely unaware that the culprit was strolling past right beside them. Only one stopped at the sight of Kole’s face. Only one actually remembered the Empress’s Senior Inventor.
“Mr Tasker!” the man cried, hurrying through the crowd as Kole froze in his boots. This particular man was well known for his success in cases- the lone officer had featured numerous times in recent newspaper articles, praising him for his victories. Kole had to force a smile.
“Officer Lan,” he answered, nodding his head in acknowledgement, “I hear there has been a breech in security? I was on my way-”
Lan nodded solemnly, taking the Senior Inventor’s arm and turning him back toward the tower before he could get out another word. Kole felt his heart sink slightly. The more he was involved in this initial investigation, the harder it would be for him to escape unnoticed. What was it they said in police work? ‘The criminal always returns to the crime scene’? He cursed silently to himself, trying to find a way out of the situation.
“Indeed there has, Tasker. We were hoping you would be able to fix it.”
The hiss of steam was gone from the tower, replaced instead by a rattling sound as the valves tried and failed to squeeze non-existent gas out.
“I can try, Officer, but I’ll make no promises,” Kole said, forcing the words out with as much concern as he could muster.
Lan pulled him into the building, the gathered policemen and city guard parting in order to let them through. There were mumbles of “You can do it!” and “We believe in you!” from the small crowd. A couple of civilians had risen from their homes and joined the policemen, evidently too curious for their own good. Kole shrugged off their words. He had a mission, something far more important than the protection of one city. Why was it so hard to remove this feeling of guilt?
He pushed it down, refocusing himself to the task. Their complete faith in him was rightly deserved; Kole Tasker was Senior Inventor for a reason. He was the best mechanic in the city, creator of many of its best devices, and much of its systems. If he couldn’t fix something, then nobody could. A faint smile spread across his face. This… unfortunate circumstance would be bent to his advantage. He was being given the chance to cause more damage whilst he ‘fixed’ the problem. This could very well work out for him.
As they neared the scene, Kole was pleased OT see Tomelo receiving the grilling he so sorely deserved. There was a reason Kole wished to abandon this city, a reason as to why it was to become his test. The growing population was filled with those unwilling to work for their pay. Its people had become complacent with the security they enjoyed. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened- half the guards were incapable of spotting crimes occurring directly in front of their eyes.
They had returned to the room filled with parts, and Kole was led to the security panel he himself had sabotaged a mere half hour ago. He knelt where he had knelt, picking up one of the screws and examining it closely. Or at least, appearing to. Lan watched intently from a couple of steps away. Kole replaced the screw on the floor, picking up the security panel itself. He switched a few parts around, under the guise of trying to fix it, and pocketed one or two while he was sure that the Officer wasn’t watching. He fixed a grave look on his face, standing slowly.
He strolled into the main room, where the Arcane Rune had once stood, and observed the broken machine. Gears failed to turn in some places, valves completely shut off in others. The contraption leaked steam, and it drifted up to the ceiling, slowly filling the room. The Senior Inventor stepped closer, experimentally pulling a couple of wires here and there, replacing them in other sockets.
After a few minutes of meddling, he stepped away. “I’m terribly sorry, Officers,” he said, turning toward the assembled men, “but this simply cannot be fixed.”
He gave a short nod to the men, noting with glee their crestfallen faces, before he took his leave.
There was no way he was going to stay here now.