The Secrets of Fireflies
a steampunk short story
Oh no, she thought. This can’t be good.
A sharp laugh echoed around her and she snapped her head up. “Thankfully you’re not a detective!” The voice floated toward her through the gloom. Anise didn’t think she’d spoken aloud. She could barely see in the dim light of the underground city, despite the watery green-ish glow from the firefly light, high above them. She lifted the dark lantern higher, bringing her companion’s features to life, melting away the sickly light from the fireflies. He looked healthy, and alive, unlike the person on the ground between them. His kind blue eyes with the crows-feet at the corners made her feel suddenly stronger than she felt a moment ago.
She shook her head, at a loss for words. Not a good start for an investigative journalist!
When Benedict had first invited her, asking if she would help write an exposé on the living conditions for the citizens of the underground cities of New London, New Cardiff, and New Edinburgh, she jumped at the chance. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, especially for the United American Empire’s first, as far as she was aware, female newspaper reporter.
She’d grown up hearing stories about the underground cities of the British Isles – how they were a network of tunnels and caverns, reached by massive iron airlocks, and guarded by chosen slaves of the Romans who had taken over the cities above after Napoleon’s victory over the Kingdom.
New London had sounded romantic and whimsical, like some magical lost city made of gold and marble with towering statues, ornate fountains, bustling town squares and colourful marketplaces. So when Benedict asked, she said yes even before he had finished his proposal. And they would be taking an airship. It would be only the second time she had ever travelled by dirigible, and her first outside of the Empire.
Benedict Aldershot had given the guard at one of the four main up-side entrances the piece of paper that he had managed to get signed back home by the Emperor and co-signed by the Roman Emperor. It granted them entrance to the underground. The man at the gate glanced at the paper and gave them both a strange look, followed by a shrug.
Anise meant to ask Benedict how he had managed to get permission from such important people, but for now she focused on being on her best behaviour. She smiled widely at the guard with his bright red trousers, golden long-tailed coat, and trailing beard. The man didn’t acknowledge her as he moved to the middle of the hatch and began turning the wheel. The screech of rusted metal pierced the air, and before Anise knew it, she was following Benedict down the rungs of one of four ladders that led down into the darkness. Benedict held the lantern in his mouth as he descended, causing its light to careen wildly against the circular walls. Anise could make out, here and there, tiles with symbols she had never seen before. A loud noise reverberated as the airlock door closed above them. The finality of it made Anise shudder.
It felt like she had been climbing down, and down, and down for an eternity.
Anise Buttersby was thankful for her sturdy boots that rose to her knee, and was glad she wasn’t wearing the silly heeled shoes that other women of society did. She had no time for that kind of thing. Not if she wanted to be a serious journalist!
“Abe, come on!” Benedict’s voice rang out from below her. She smiled at the use of her nickname and clambered the last few rusted rungs, finally reaching solid ground. She allowed only a small number of people, those she trusted most, to call her Abe – a play on her initials, A and B, so that people wouldn’t call her Miss Buttersby, which she detested with a passion.
Glancing around in the retreating glow of Benedict’s lamp, she could just make out that there were four tunnels branching off in different directions. Above the one filled with the quickly retreating amber light from Benedict, she read the words ‘North West’. Over her shoulder, above a patch of tunnel-shaped darkness, she saw ‘South East’.
Thankful she wasn’t wearing a long cumbersome skirt and bustle, she tore off in the direction of the lantern’s comforting glow.
She caught up to Benedict, and stopped to catch her breath. “Would you mind?” she asked turning her back to him, gesturing to the laces at the back of the corset she wore over her favourite purple blouse. “Just loosen them a little,” she panted, and then breathed a proper sigh of relief as the restriction lessened. “Thank you.”
As they walked down the corridor, Abe became aware of writing and pictures scrawled on the grimy tiles of the tunnel. She passed a circle with ‘Romans’ written in it, and a line diagonally through it. The romanticism of the underground city wore away with each step, as they moved deeper. There was a dank, damp smell, like a house that had never been aired out in the spring. She shook her head in disbelief.
“How can people live like this?” she said as she side stepped what looked like a broken statuette. Is that a wolf? She peered at the broken shards. That’s odd, they look to be of gears and metal, instead of stone. Still staring at the broken bits of the statue, she bumped heavily into Benedict, who had stopped and was holding the lantern aloft. The corridor ended and opened into a giant, cavernous room.
Abe craned her head up and looked at the stone arches of the ceiling, holding up the earth above their heads. She saw the tubes filled with fireflies and their luminescent glow that ran around the room in sections. Some, she noticed, were broken, and there were small clusters of fireflies flying freely near the ceiling, highlighting the curves and dips of the sculpted arches.
“Abe.” The slightly perturbed tone from Benedict snapped her out of her thoughts. He was standing next to a large fountain shaped like a giant octopus. Normally, Abe noticed, its tentacles would have water streaming from the ends, but now the fountain was dry, and there was a layer of scum on the bottom. Abe berated herself for forgetting a pair of gloves. She shuddered at the thought of touching anything in this grimy, disgusting place.
“Abe!” Benedict shouted again, and the urgency in his voice made her jump.
She made her way to his side and looked down into the puddle of light the lantern, with all of its slides up, made on the stone floor in front of them.
She stared down at a somewhat human-shape, except it was bent and broken, and parts sat at unnatural angles. Abe turned her head away and fought to stop bile rising in her throat.
Oh no, she thought. This can’t be good.
Benedict’s sharp laugh echoed around her and she snapped her head up. “Thankfully you’re not a detective!”
“I thought we were supposed to be talking to the citizens? About what it’s like living here after their homes above were stolen by the Romans, when they invaded, after Napoleon won,” she choked out as she swallowed loudly.
Benedict shook his head. “Look around. Do you see people?”
Abe was shocked to find that he was right. She hadn’t noticed until now because she too overwhelmed by the grandeur and melancholy of the place.
She saw doors to houses that were built within alcoves in the walls, with a small number of windows. The doors were closed and the windows were all tightly shuttered. Except one. A few houses down from the fountain, a window was open, just a sliver. Abe thought she saw movement, a flicker of a shadow.
“Hey!” Abe shouted, sprinting towards the house. Her booted feet rang hollowly, echoing off the walls and ceiling.
She heard Benedict behind her, the light of the lantern bouncing wildly. “Abe! You can’t just run off like that, at least not without light!”
Abe patted the satchel she had strapped across her chest that hung reassuringly at her side. The thought of her grandfather’s energy-coil gun within its folds made her feel safer, light or no light. As she reached the open window, she pulled the gun from her bag and held it down by her hip. This is the one time I wish I wore those ridiculous skirts every other girl wears! A skirt would be a lot easier to hide the fact you’re holding a gun. It was shocking enough that she was wearing trousers in the first place, but the fact they were just a bit too snug didn’t help matters. One too many toffees!
“Hello?” she called out cautiously. “Is anyone there?” Her heart beat loudly in her chest and filled her ears. She felt sweat trace a path down her back, and she shivered involuntarily. She reached her hand out, about to pull the shutter wider when a hand landed on her shoulder.
“Be careful,” Benedict whispered from behind.
“Well, I would be if you didn’t frighten me!” she hissed back over her shoulder. She heard him chuckle under his breath.
“Sorry,” he breathed. Abe moved again towards the window. Her fingers wrapped tightly around her energy gun, and she pulled the shutter wide.
The window framed a small kitchen. On the dining table, in the middle of the room, was a large glass jar, full of fireflies. It lit the room with a strange, almost intoxicating light. Abe found it hard to look away from the insects trapped in their prison. She sensed Benedict move to stand next to her. They stood, staring into the kitchen that seemed untouched.
Benedict raised the lantern, flooding the small room with warm, inviting light.
“Is anyone there?” he asked, more confidently than Abe felt. “We just want to talk to someone, ask some questions. We’re from…”
“Above,” Abe jumped in. “We’re actually visiting, from across the ocean. We just want to talk to people here. Find out what it’s like to live here.”
The shadow that Abe had seen earlier materialized from behind a long, dusty curtain that separated the kitchen from another area of the house.
Thin and pale, the small girl looked more ghost than real, not helped by the greying white dress she wore. Bare feet poked out from under the hem of her skirts. The years of living down here in the underground had not been kind to her. Dark, lank hair was plastered to her head.
The girl stared at them with dark, wide eyes.
“Is your mother or father home, Miss?” It was Benedict who spoke.
The girl shook her head and remained silent.
Abe removed her finger from over the button on her energy gun, and slid it back into her bag. “Would it be okay if we came inside? We won’t hurt you. We just write for a newspaper.”
The girl stared at them.
“Can you speak?” Abe coaxed.
The girl nodded.
“I’m Abe,” she introduced herself, and pointed to Benedict. “And this is my friend, Benedict.”
“You can call me Ben,” he added.
Abe glared at him. Ben? He’d never told her to call him Ben! Why? Why had he never told her she could call him Ben? She shook her head. This wasn’t the time to debate about what to call who. “What’s your name?” she asked softly, as if talking any louder would scare the girl away, like a flock of nervous birds.
“Abigail,” the girl mumbled so quietly Abe wasn’t sure at first that she had actually said anything.
“Abigail, that’s a pretty name.” Again it was Benedict. Abe was never good around children. She never knew exactly how to act. Especially when they were of a certain age, like Abigail, who seemed to be about eleven, maybe twelve.
“Where are your parents, Abigail?” Benedict had lowered his voice as well.
What little patience Abe had with others, children especially, was waning quickly. She sighed loudly and gave a huff of annoyance. Benedict put a hand on her arm, and glanced at her with a look that said ‘patience’. She glared back at him, hoping he could read her expression that said ‘I’m running out’. She was starting to really not to like it down here. The darkness and the damp were making her nervous, uncomfortable, and irritable. A shiver raced down her spine, and she wished she had brought a shawl to cover her arms that were starting to grow an army of goose bumps.
“You don’t know where they are?” Benedict was sounding concerned.
Abigail dropped her head and stared at her feet. “No.”
“Where is everyone?” Abe asked, trying to keep her voice soft and comforting, not allowing irritation to creep in.
“Left?” Abe and Benedict repeated, incredulously.
Abe fought the urge to take out her reporter’s notebook. “But why? When?”
Abigail shook her head, causing hair to fall into her eyes. She brushed it away. “I don’t know. Something…happened. Something went wrong down here.” Abigail then disappeared from the window. A few moments later the door opened.
Abe and Benedict looked at each other, eyes full of questions. They entered the house. It was cold and damp, like the rest of the underground city. Abigail moved to a worn armchair, that Abe thought might have been red, but now was a dusky pink. Abe and Benedict moved to sit on the couch that sat next to the chair. There was a small coffee table in front of both chair and sofa, and two other jars full of fireflies sat on either end. Benedict put the lantern in the middle of the table, before turning to Abigail. “Why are you still here?”
Abigail kicked her feet absentmindedly against the chair, her feet dangling above the floor. “Dunno,” she mumbled. “When I woke up, there was no one here.”
Abigail gave her trademark shrug. “A couple days ago, I think? I’m not sure. Sometimes time seems weird down here. There’s no sun.”
Abe wanted to ask if the girl had ever even seen the sun before, but another question burned in her more strongly. “No one?” she asked, “just you?”
“Well…” Abigail avoided their gaze, and bit her lip. Her feet beat out a nervous rhythm against the chair.
“You can tell us, Abigail,” Benedict said calmly. “We want to help you, if you’re by yourself.”
“There’s him,” she whispered, inclining her head ever so slightly in the direction of the door.
Abe and Benedict exchanged another look, and Abe felt the life drain from her face.
“Him?” she whispered, afraid of the answer, but knowing it all too well.
Abigail nodded. “The man outside. By the fountain.”
“Do you know him?” It was Benedict.
“No. I’ve never seen him before. But there were lots of people here, I didn’t know too many people. And there were always people coming down from above. People with big guns, that spoke funny and I couldn’t understand them.”
“Romans,” Benedict said under his breath before Abe could ask what she meant.
“Did you see what happened?” Abe asked.
Abigail shook her head once more. “I woke up, and my parents were gone. And I went outside and there was no one except him, out there.” Abe was thinking Abigail wasn’t going to speak again when she said, “I talked to him, that man out there. He said a few things, before…” she bit her lip again. “Before…”
Benedict tried to change the subject. “What did he say?”
“I don’t know what he meant. He just said two words. The key.” She looked at Abe and Benedict. “And he sounded like you. He wasn’t from here.”
Benedict jumped up so swiftly from the couch that he hit the corner of the low coffee table with his knee. One of the light-jars shook and then tumbled, almost slow-motion, off the table. It shattered instantly, freeing its prisoner fireflies that floated like a luminescent cloud towards the dim ceiling, winking on and off. Abe thought they looked magical, like little fairies. Much better free than caged. And then she had another, more disquieting thought. Much like the people of these New cities.
“What on earth—?” Abe called out as Benedict rushed out of the house.
Abe shook her head, causing a few of her neatly pinned curls to fall. “Stay here,” she ordered Abigail sternly with a finger before following Benedict, careful not to bump into the coffee table. Abe grabbed the lamp that Benedict had forgotten in his haste and found him crouching next to the body by the fountain. Hanging the lamp on one of its tentacles she knelt beside him. “What are you doing?” She didn’t whisper now, knowing there was no one to overhear.
Abe focused her gaze on what Benedict was doing, to avoid looking at the man’s head, whose neck was twisted and bent at a horrible angle. Underneath Abe was trying not to notice the large dark stain, darker than the surrounding cold stone of the floor. Something was wrong with his face, but she didn’t look too closely. Benedict was lifting up the man’s sleeve. Around the body’s left forearm were a couple dark rings. “Tattoos?” Abe wondered aloud, peering at his arm.
“Just as I thought,” Benedict said, moving to lift up the hem of the man’s shirt, exposing his stomach, and then chest. Marked like a dark stain on the left side of the chest was a large ornate key.
“The key!” Abe gasped. “So you knew what Abigail was talking about?”
Benedict shrugged. “I had an idea, once she said he sounded like us, that he was from the United American Empire.”
Abe felt compelled to reach out and trace her fingers over the key etched into the man’s skin, but pulled her hand back at the last moment, realizing she would be touching a corpse.
Abe knew she looked puzzled. “I take it you know what all this means?”
Benedict nodded. “He is, or was, a member of the criminal underworld back home. See those black rings on his arm?”
Abe nodded, “Like a tree.”
“They symbolize people they have killed.”
Abe blanched, feeling sick. She moved her eyes from the gruesome symbols to the gothically beautiful key instead. “And that?”
“You get the key tattoo when you take on the role of the leader of the underworld.”
Abe stared at the key, and then looked to Benedict. “So if he was the leader, he was very important.”
Benedict nodded again, his mouth a thin, grim line. “And also very bad. And the fact that he is dead…” He shook his head and rose unsteadily. Abe offered her arm for support. After all, Benedict was older than her by ten years or so. And it was what society expected. She looked around the dark, abandoned city, punctuated with the flickering green of fireflies. Though I’m not sure what this society would expect. She watched a cloud of fireflies lazily circling around a joining of arches. “The secrets of fireflies,” she muttered under her breath.
“What did you say?” Benedict lifted the lantern from the octopus’ grasp. Abe raised a hand to block the light. “I said, those fireflies,” she gestured to the free ones, flying around the alcoves in the ceiling, along with the ones still trapped in their lighting tubes. “They will have seen what happened here. They hold the secrets, and will never tell.”
Benedict’s hand fell on her shoulder, and she turned at it, and followed his gaze to where Abigail stood, a few feet away.
Abe and Benedict moved to stand in front of the dead man, concealing him from the young girl.
Abigail shuffled forward slowly, and again Abe was reminded of a ghost.
“It’s okay,” Abigail said quietly. “I’ve seen dead people before. People die a lot down here. I think it’s because we’re not up there.” She pointed to the stone arches high above them. “I think because there’s no sun, no sky. Just stone, and darkness. People get sick a lot.”
“Aren’t people allowed to leave? For fresh air, if only for a little while?” Abe asked, a note of pity creeping into her voice.
Abigail shook her head, dark hair falling over her small shoulders.
“People who didn’t want to be recruited as slaves above moved down here, into the catacombs below,” Benedict explained sadly. “If they wanted to keep their freedom.”
“Freedom?” Abe nearly yelled. “What sort of freedom is this, being trapped in darkness? Never allowed to leave. This is the opposite of freedom!”
Benedict shrugged. “It’s all perspective. At least they’re safe, and can live how they want, without threat of harm.”
“But, Abigail said she saw men with energy guns,” Abe protested.
“Just for show, most likely. To keep people in line, let them know who is in control. People don’t argue very much with energy guns. Especially not if they’re the newer ones. When I was part of the New Alchemists Society, I actually worked on some new changes to the energy conductors in the latest models of energy guns. It was quite fascinating, putting in a series of safety mechanisms.” Abe watched Benedict’s expression change as he shifted into his inventor mode, looking more like an excitable child than a forty-something founder of a Newspaper. “You push the trigger button once, and the energy builds up, glowing blue, just like normal. A second press didn’t automatically release the energy stream, but allows you a turning back point. If you still wanted to use the weapon, you’d press it a third time. If not, you’d pull another lever and it would power it down.”
“My father was like you,” Abigail said softly. Benedict and Abe turned toward her once more.
“What do you mean?” Abe thought the words, but Benedict spoke them aloud.
“He built things. Machines. He used to be well known when he lived up above. The bad people that took our homes away from us, they destroyed most of his things. I think because they were scared of them.”
“Scared? Why would soldiers be scared of machines?” Abe asked, incredulously. “All they are is metal and gears. They can’t hurt—” And she stopped herself, suddenly realizing how ridiculous what she was saying sounded. Of course machines could hurt, could kill. After all, they had just been talking about energy guns…
Abigail pointed to the dead man on the ground. “I saw him talking to father, a few days ago. He was in our house. Father told me to go to my room, because he was to have an important talk with him. I did, but I wanted to know what they were talking about, so I snuck out and hid behind the curtain. The man said he came all the way here just to talk to father. I thought that was funny. What was so important to come here? And then father brought something out of his shop to show him.” Her eyes grew wide at the memory.
Abe was about to ask what kind of shop, when Benedict jabbed her sharply in the side.
“Father never let me into his shop. He said what was in there wasn’t for little girls to see and he always kept it locked, even when he wasn’t working inside.”
“What did he show the man?” Benedict asked. Abe noticed he was using his reporter’s voice, the one he used when attempting to wheedle the real story from a reticent victim.
Abigail pursued her lips, as if debating whether to let the secret free. After a moment, she whispered in awe, “A wolf!”
“A wolf?” Abe couldn’t control the shock in her voice. Her skin prickled, and suddenly she really didn’t want to be down here underground. Especially if there were wolves.
Abigail nodded vigorously and gave a wide smile. “Not a live one. Well, not really. They are father’s machines. He makes them from metal.”
The small statue of the metal wolf Abe passed in the tunnel, on the way here, reared suddenly larger than life in her mind.
“So the man wanted your father’s wolf?” Benedict retained his composure.
Abigail nodded, wide eyed. “Not wolf. Wolves. He was making lots. I’ll show you.” Abigail turned and padded away to a wooden structure, leaning haphazardly against the wall, next to her house. Benedict followed and Abe trailed cautiously behind.
The girl pushed open the door, which was barely hanging on by its hinges. It was more shards of wood than whole door.
A gasp escaped Abe as she reached the doorway. Benedict held the lamp, which glinted brightly off brass, copper, and iron. The malicious mouths of giant metal wolves grinned back at them. There was one that was complete, which had partially been covered in a fur-like substance, but there was a least a dozen others in various states of construction. Spare limbs, individual teeth, and other body parts cluttered the tables and countertops.
Abigail moved confidently to the one that seemed to be most complete. “This is like the one father showed that man.”
Benedict seemed to forget his manners and rushed to the specimen, examining it with an inventor’s eye. “This is brilliant!” he crowed excitedly.
“Benedict,” Abe berated. “Keep your head. Remember why we’re here. To find out what happened to everyone. To Abigail’s parents.”
“Yes, yes,” Benedict waved a hand at her dismissively. She bristled. She hated being ignored. She wasn’t going to put up with it, not like every other demure-society woman would. “Ben!” She hissed, stamping a booted foot loudly on the floor.
His head shot up, and he looked almost sheepish.
“Sorry,” he raised his hands in front of him defensively, “you’re right. A professional journalist doesn’t let him—, herself,” he gave an apologetic half-smile, “get swayed off track away from the real story.”
Abigail was running a small hand along the wolf’s fur. “It’s funny, it feels kind of hard, and spiky.”
Benedict moved back into reporter mode. “So your father showed the man a wolf like this?”
“Yes. He had a big metal chain around its neck. I remember father showing the man how to turn it on.” She moved a hand to the wolf’s neck, in between the ears. “There’s a thing here that wakes it—”
“No!” Abe and Benedict yelled in unison.
Benedict pulled Abigail’s hand away from the neck. “Don’t touch it! It could be dangerous!”
Abigail’s lower lip began to quiver. She bit it, and nodded, blinking back the beginnings of tears.
Abe crouched down, so she was eye level with Abigail. “We just want to keep you safe.” And us, she added silently.
“What happened after your father showed that man the wolf?” Benedict asked in an attempt to change the subject.
“The man said he wanted to buy all the ones that were finished and working.” Abigail’s eyes grew far away as she remembered. “And Father laughed at him. He said he couldn’t sell all of his wolves, what with there being almost a dozen, it would have taken a long time to get them all out of the city to the above city.”
“And then what did they say?” Abe asked, curious.
“They started arguing. Over money, I think.” Abigail’s large, dark eyes widened again as a memory came to her. “And I remember father turning on the wolf then, to make the man be quiet…” she shuddered. “It was awful! The sound its teeth made, snapping together. Metal against metal.” Abigail shivered again, and Abe stopped herself cringing at the mental image. Like the sound of nails down a chalkboard. Worse, probably. Chalk isn’t sharp and can’t kill you.
“I don’t remember anything else,” Abigail was saying. “I ran back to my room. The wolf scared me. I remember putting my pillow over my ears, but I could still hear it. It was like a monster!” This time tears began to roll down her pale cheeks. “The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was its howl. It sounded like metal that was being torn apart. It sounded so angry. Angry and sad. Like it was being hurt.” She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut, as if trying to block the image from her mind. Abe couldn’t blame her. She felt like doing the same.
And then Benedict said something that made her blood run cold. Suddenly, she felt like running, but her body was frozen, rooted to the spot by the terror his words held.
He spoke slowly, as if testing the validity of the words in his mouth. “You just said your father told the man there were a dozen wolves.”
Abigail nodded, her eyes still shut, her small arms wrapped tightly around her tiny waist. “Yes,” she whispered, the word barely audible.
There was a long pause. The silence was deafening. Abe thought her heart had stopped beating, except she could hear it in her ears. She realized she was holding her breath. It went dark. Abe realized she had closed her eyes as well, as if doing so would stop Benedict’s next words from being uttered. It didn’t. Of course not.
“Where are the others?” The words hung in the air, as if entities of their own, growing and filling the room with the dread that they held.
The silence that had filled the room a moment before fled, and was replaced by the sounds of screaming metal.
Suddenly everything became terrifyingly crystal clear: the reason for everyone’s disappearance. The tattooed man’s face loomed in front of her. She realized what it was she had tried not to see. Claw marks. Something had happened. Something bad.
A single word filtered into Abe’s brain. A lifeline, in the form of Benedict’s voice.
And she did.
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