Escape Pod 631: Heart of Ash, Heart of Steam
Heart of Ash, Heart of Steam is set in the same universe as Escape Pod 436: Into the Breach.
Heart of Ash, Heart of Steam
By Malon Edwards
You squeeze through the doorway past the bouncer wearing the massive Conquest Knight XV exo and make way your over to Nyanza Swift. The Soul Queen’s blackout is spacious, but minimalist. Low sightlines. No shadowy alcoves. No jacks. No data exchange. No electricity.
This is the best blackout in uncontrolled airspace.
Your twin sister is sitting in the back near the chop shops. She stands and you kiss her on both cheeks. Her quicksilver skin is cold against your lips. You frown.
“It’s not that bad,” she says.
“Fout,” you curse, and you are surprised by the anger in your voice. “Ou malad prèt pou mouri. You’re dying.”
Nyanza Swift smiles, a wan, tired one, and new crow’s feet crinkle her eyes. “Mwen fatige.”
“E fèb,” you add, trying to keep the worry out of your voice. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”
“Mwen byen. I just need an hour or two of rest and some high quality coal dust.”
You shake your head. “M ka wè li. It’s all over your face. You’ve aged twenty years since we last saw each other.”
Your sister’s smile becomes more playful. “M ap fè dan zòrèy. I’m no spring chicken anymore, am I?”
“Sispann fè jwèt,” you tell her, wiping your eyes. “It’s not funny.”
Nyanza Swift’s smile fades fast. “Ah, sè byenneme mwen, my kind-hearted little sister, pa kriye.” She moves her chair to the other side of the table and puts her arms around you. The cold quicksilver skin of her fine jaw touches your exposed cheek. “Please don’t cry.”
You shake your smooth, brown bald head hard. “M pa vle al bwachat w. I don’t want you to die, but you will. If you keep doing this, w’ap mouri.”
You have no idea what she is doing to herself, but it scares you.
Nyanza Swift kisses you on the temple. “Se pa anyen ditou,” she tells you. “It’s nothing. M pa gen anyen. Really. M’anfòm. I’m fine.”
You take a deep breath to push back down the sob bubbling up from your chest, threatening to burst out of your mouth. “You look like Manmi.” Your voice is soft. It does not waver. “Age looks good on you.”
And you mean it.
Li bèl. She is beautiful. You have always thought so, and you still do. Even with the crinkled crow’s feet around her dark brown eyes. Even with the lovely new furrows on her once smooth brow. Even with the soft parentheses bracketing her rosebud mouth.
No one will mistake you for identical twins now. People will say she is your older sister. And she is. Nyanza Swift was born six minutes before you. But her refined beauty does not make her accelerated aging any less troubling.
Kounye a, her nose, her eyes, her mouth, and her forehead look like they belong to a forty-year-old-woman. This will take you some time to get used to. You are not sure if you ever will. You are not sure your sister has enough life left for you to become accustomed to this look.
You cannot help but wonder how much she will age in another month. You cannot help but wonder about the state of her exo. It is fused to her body, as yours is. It is her livelihood, as yours is. It is her defense against sickness and the elements, and light combat, as yours is.
If Nyanza Swift’s exo is unhealthy, if her exo is defective, you are quite certain she will die.
You try not to be obvious as you give her exo a good once over. You have always been a bit jealous of her custom-made Hennessey Venom GT steamsuit. Ever since you were thirteen years old. It is sleek. It is aerodynamic. It is built for speed.
And, to your relief, it is still immaculate.
But that does not quell your fears. You have never seen someone age so fast before.
Nyanza Swift takes a sip of her Royal Flush. “I woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and my face was like this.”
“Ou trè bèl.”
She grins wide. “I know.”
You try to puzzle this out. “When was the last time I saw you?”
“When I bought those two heart engines from you.”
You remember. That was the first day of spring. And then, it begins to make sense.
“You didn’t sell those heart engines to the State of Illinois,” you say. Your voice is pitched for her ears alone.
Nyanza Swift does not blink. She does not say anything. She just rubs her own smooth, brown bald head, which still matches yours. This is one of her nervous tics. She does not want to talk about the heart engines.
“You kept them. You’re using them.”
Your sister allows her round and perfect head an infinitesimal nod. “Both of them. Double implants. A symbiotic organ system operating with seamless efficiency.”
Your dark brown eyes go wide. You have never heard of anything like this before. “You’re stressing them beyond their limitations.”
Nyanza Swift smirks, girlish and mischievous. “I like speed.”
“As much as you like ash poisoning?” Your whisper is fierce.
She scowls, as if she can taste the ash on her tongue. “Is that what I’m coughing up every night?”
You open your mouth to answer her, but you do not because the Soul Queen’s evacuation klaxons sound.
You and your sister were born into Chicago’s Spies, Saboteurs and Smugglers Guild. So were your mother and father. So were their mother and father.
Your mother is a spy, like Nyanza Swift. Your father is a smuggler, like you. Your sister is your mother’s ti fi cheri. You are your father’s ti chouchou.
You suspect your mother is a spy for the State of Illinois. You suspect your sister is a double agent. You believe she spies for both the State of Illinois and the city-state of Chicago. You are not certain because talk of politics and war is forbidden at the dinner table. That is, when your family has the time to come together and eat.
Like your father, you smuggle for both the State of Illinois and the city-state of Chicago. There are no rules against this. The Guild allows it. The Guild encourages it. E dayè, the demand for wartime products is great from both sides.
You have been smuggling heart engines in one form or another since the Guild began hollowing out your abdomen to give you a vacuum-sealed supe, a smuggler’s creep. Lè sa a, you were a third-class smuggler.
Premyèman, you smuggled tricuspid, mitral, and aortic heart engine valves. The Guild took most of your stomach to make space. You were thirteen years old.
Ansuit, you smuggled heart engine ventricles and thoracic aortas. The Guild took most of your small intestine to make more space. You were fifteen years old.
Kounye a, you smuggle heart engines whole, often, three at a time. The Guild took most of your large intestine for maximum space. That was six months ago, on your eighteenth birthday. You eat once a week now. But you are a Master Smuggler.
The Guild has taught you everything you need to know about heart engines. You know how they should be assembled. You know how they should be disassembled. But the Guild did not teach you two heart engines can be implanted in the same chest and co-exist as a symbiotic organ system.
You are almost certain the Guild does not know this. You would not believe it had Nyanza Swift not taken you to one of the Soul Queen’s repair and relax solariums the level above the chop shops, opened her exo-chest, and shown you.
As you gazed gobsmacked at your sister’s inner workings, you were fascinated by the two heart engines working side-by-side. But you were also horrified by them. They were wired to her exo in a configuration you had never seen before.
You did not tell your sister this, because you love her. But this is sacrilege. The heart engine was not conceived to be utilized in this way.
Daniel Hale Williams built the heart engine as a straightforward bio-mechanical organ. He meant it to sustain life. He meant it to power an exo. He meant it do so with just water and steam.
He designed the heart engine to remove water from the bloodstream, and then pump that water through steam vent arteries after being heated by a small, coal dust boiler in the stomach. This conversion to steam, the resultant production of energy, and the potential for thermal propulsion allows your exo-rockets thrust and you to fly.
You learned this when you were a third-class smuggler and chose the heart engine as your preferred item. And, ever since then, you have believed Daniel Hale Williams to be one of the smartest people to walk the earth.
So any unwarranted use of the heart engine bothers you. Such use would cause extreme wear and tear. It is a delicate organ. Even when used in the proper manner by spies and scouts and grunts on both sides of the war, it does not last more than a year. Exo-suits are hard on heart engines. They take an immense amount of power to operate.
The rumors you have heard these past few weeks now make sense. You would hear snippets of conversation while conducting business on the Soul Queen–Nyanza Swift is the fastest thing, living or mechanical, on Earth. Operating two heart engines at the same time would allow for that.
But you do not think aging two decades in the span of forty-five days is worth the bragging rights for a nonexistent speed title. But you are not your sister. You are not Nyanza Swift.
Growing up in Guild, you were not called Nyanza Swift, the Chance Taker. You were not called Nyanza Swift, the Daring. You did not make up silly songs, like this:
The harder she torches,
the faster she flies.
The faster she flies,
the more she spies.
The more she spies,
the faster she dies.
The faster she dies,
the crows taste her eyes.
You do not burn your rockets too long, too hot, and too fast. You are not careless. You are not brash.
You would not have ignored the excess bottom ash from your boiler pushing up into your heart valves and your lungs. You would not have ignored the bottom ash filtering into your bloodstream, withering you away.
Li pa manje anyen frèt non. You are not–and I am sure you will excuse the pun–a little spitfire. A hellion. You are the level-headed one. You are the cautious one.
You are Siaya Swift.
Li pè. But even hellions get scared.
This is why Nyanza Swift came to you. This is why she asked you to bring her two heart engines today.
She does not want to be the fastest thing on Earth anymore. She does not want her heart engines to fill up with bottom ash. She does not want her heart engines to seize. She does not want to have a double heart attack.
She does not want to torch out.
She does not want to die.
The muted bioluminescence of the glow worms shift from the crown molding and the baseboards framing the walls to outline the exits of the blackout. The evacuation klaxons continue to blare. You wait at your table with Nyanza Swift to avoid the mad rush to escape the Soul Queen, to escape the State of Illinois raid.
The blackout empties fast. When only you and your sister are left, you walk through one of the exits because the blackout’s dampeners have rendered your suits inactive. You are calm. You are composed. You have done this before.
You follow Nyanza Swift to the open, far-end starboard promenade window and put on your fitted Calvaria helmet. Nyanza Swift does the same. It does not take long for you to bring your exo online and power up your thermal rockets. Nyanza Swift goes out the promenade window first because she is much faster and you would only get in her way.
But there is no chance of that.
Nyanza Swift is falling fast to the earth below. Funeral glide. She is limp. Her thermal rockets have not fired. You do not see the tell-tale white vapor trail from them. You wonder if her heart engines have seized.
“Nyanza?” you say to her through the helmlink channel you share.
You are not calm. You are not composed. You are screaming. You are crying.
An Illinois National Guard Koenigsegg Agera Interceptor burns rocket after Nyanza Swift’s tumbling, twisting form, ak tout vitès. Like a shot. A second Interceptor hovers before you. His side-mounted Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns are locked and loaded. Close behind you is the Soul Queen. He hesitates.
You do not.
Your side-mounted Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun unfolds from your right exo-arm. You blink. Two final tears roll down your cheeks. Your vision clears. You shoot the Interceptor through his left eye, shattering his helmet visor. He is dead before he begins his spiral to the ground.
But you do not notice. You also do not notice the scores of other Koenigsegg Agera Interceptors in pursuit of Soul Queen patrons fleeing to all points of the compass.
You just focus on your sister.
You put your hands tight to your sides. You cut your rockets. You tumble head over heels. You are not Nyanza Swift. You conserve rocket burn wherever you can.
After three-point-five-five seconds have elapsed, you and dive hard and fast for your twin sister.
You two raced when you were younger. Three times around the city-state. North to Edgewater. West to Austin. South to Morgan Park. And east to Lake Michigan.
She always won. Every single time.
And she should have. She is a quicksilver class spy. There is no faster quicksilver class. Not even a quicksilver class smuggler, like you.
Your exo is a custom-made Bugatti Veyron Super Sport steamsuit. It is sleek. It is aerodynamic. It is built for speed. But it could never outpace your sister.
Kounye a, you hope you can reach Nyanza Swift before the Koenigsegg Agera Interceptor bearing down on her does. You hope the Interceptor is a horrible shot. But most of all, you hope Nyanza Swift does not smash into the ground, scattering metal and ash and steam in her wake.
You and Nyanza Swift were war babies. You have always known the State of Illinois and the Sovereign State of Chicago trading barbs, trading bombs, and trading body bags.
The hostilities started with myth. That is what you were taught in Guild. Nuclear bombs scorched the land, from east coast to west coast. Chicago was a smoldering, glowing heap of nuclear ash.
From the ash, emerged Bèl Flè, like a steam-phoenix. She sowed the land with pristine black dirt, precious minerals, and useful metals created with heat from the steam boiler in her stomach and love from the steam clock heart in her chest.
Grass and trees grew. Buildings were erected. The radiation clouds dissipated. Rain fell. Chicago became green again.
You did not question the ridiculousness of this history. Nyanza Swift did, every night, in the dark, in her bunk. You tuned her out. You loved Bèl Flè for what she did.
But Bèl Flè did not stay. She traveled the country, bringing her wave of green to other survivors. In her place stepped Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable.
He was malen. Clever. Sly. Resourceful. He named himself Lord Mayor. He seceded Chicago from the State of Illinois and created a sovereign state. He merged Kreyòl Ayisyen with old school Chicago politics.
He made Chicago into the black-market capital of the world.
Chicago flourished and thrived. The State of Illinois remained stagnant. Its leader, Governor Jean-Baptiste de Sainte-Claire, accused the city-state of selfishness. Of hoarding all other wealth.
To strengthen political relations, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable met with Governor de Sainte-Claire in his Hyde Park mansion on the South Side. Bèl Flè would have wanted him to do this. But Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable could not help himself.
Ten minutes into the bab pou bab, the Lord Mayor began laughing. He could not stop. Tears streamed from his eyes.
When the Governor asked him what was so funny, the Lord Mayor gave him the middle finger. From each hand. And continued to laugh.
Of course, Chicago would hoard all the wealth. It is what Chicago does. It is why Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable formed the city-state. Only a djèdjè would think otherwise.
Every so often, you would find your sister holding her stomach, laughing, with tears on her cheeks. Sometimes in the Guild Hall. Sometimes in the rose garden. Sometimes in her bunk.
When you asked her what was so funny, she would give you the middle finger. From each hand.
And then, she would laugh and laugh and laugh, until she could not breathe.
Ti kras pa ti kras, you close in on your sister and the Interceptor, your fists clenched before you Supergirl style. The Koenigsegg Agera Interceptor is also sleek. It is also aerodynamic. It is also built for speed. But it is not built for combat.
Neither are you. But you are a sharpshooter. You have to be, in your line of work. This skill has saved your life many times over.
You have just one round in the side-mounted Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun of your left exo-arm. It is all that can fit. But it is all you need.
The Interceptor is in now range. Nyanza Swift is thirty seconds from impact. You line up the shot. And that is when your sister’s rockets burn.
You swallow a breath. You hesitate. She stops spinning. She faces you. She faces the Interceptor. She raises her left exo-arm. Her side-mounted Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun unfolds from its compartment. The Interceptor levels his left exo-arm.
She shoots. He does not.
Chunks of the Interceptor’s helmet go flying, end over end. One-point-five-seven seconds later, chunks of your midsection go flying, end over end. You feel no pain, but you know something is wrong. Your smuggler’s creep has been breached. Broken bits of the heart engines you were smuggling within are flicked out into the air.
The world no longer has an up or a down. You flail and wheel and tumble. The South Side of Chicago prepares to catch you. The green rooftops spread and lift, waiting for your body, ready to cushion your fall with their lush flora.
I do not trust this shady-ass city-state to make the catch.
So I press my arms to my sides, point my toes, and dive after you. I burn my rockets long, hot and hard, as usual. My gauges redline. I should not be doing this. But you are my sè. And I love you.
My chest tightens. My body stiffens. I cannot breathe. If I do not get to you within the next fifteen seconds, my heart engines will seize. I will die. And you will die.
I will not allow that to happen.
I am lightheaded. Cold sweat rolls off my head in large drops. Onto my visor. Onto my neck. Down my back. My vision flares with the pinpricks of white stars.
I slam into you. I grab you. I hold you. We spin, we flail, we twist. I will not let you go.
We hit the ground hard. I take the brunt of the impact with my back. But I do not let you go.
The wind is knocked from me. My exo crunches and buckles in places. My heart engines rattle in my chest. Li fè nwa.
Then, everything goes dark.
You are shaking me. I get the impression you have been doing this for some time. You scream my name. Your voice has cracked with tears.
I open my eyes. You look horrible. I am sure I look worse.
The earth is gouged and scored. We have rolled and skidded and somersaulted across grass and cobblestones and concrete. My exo is damaged in places, but nothing feels broken, other than my midsection. My heart engines are relaxed. I wipe my nose and my mouth. The back of my hand is smeared with blood and ash.
I start laughing. I cannot stop. Tears stream from my eyes.
You start laughing, too. Tears stream from your eyes. You laugh and laugh and laugh. It is a wonderful sound.
And then, when we have laughed so much that we cannot breathe, we fall on our backs, and we give the city-state of Chicago the middle finger.
From each hand.
About the Author
Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature people of color. Currently, he serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.
About the Narrator
Mandaly Louis-Charles, the Haitian Creole blogger was born in Port-au-Prince and raised at Arcahaie, Haiti. While her mother and father moved to the United States in search of a better life for her and her siblings, she and her siblings were raised by her aunt and several caretakers who came from many different parts of the beautiful Caribbean island nicknamed the Pearl of the Antilles. Even at a very young age Ms. Louis-Charles appreciated the diversity of her caretakers whose nightly routine was to tell bedtime stories. These bedtime tales she heard were stories filled with courage, bravery and unrelenting resilience. She grew up surrounded by courageous and spirited people like the ones in the tales.
A few years later when she settled with her family in Florida, in the United States, she continued to uphold her beloved tradition of recounting tales to her own children. She feels that it is important that her children understand the other half of their history. She teaches them that they are products of two cultures and teaches them how to embrace them both. She remains passionate about her heritage and her home country and cherish the welcoming spirit of the United States, the country that received her with open arms and gave her a second home.
She works to ensure that her culture, traditions, and primary language will always be remembered by creating the Haitian Creole blog, a blog about the national language of Haiti. She has worked with MIT linguist Michel Degraff on the very first video of the Haitian Creole alphabet to make it fun for Haitian school children to learn their language which was once not allowed on school grounds or in the curriculum.
When she is not working as a hospice nurse, she is translating documents in Creole, and in her spare time she bikes on the Pinellas Trail in Tarpon Springs area where she lives with her three children.