Moscow 1911: Moscow has superhumans...but does it want them?
| PART ONE:
IN THE SOUTH THEY’RE DIFFERENT
In the bowels of 1911, the near heat of late summer…
Moskva, Moscow that is, protruded into the Twentieth Century on the coattails of new leadership, old beliefs and a startling cosmetic shift. To the north of the Volodneyve Canal, the fearless Revolutionary carved a landscape of bold chrome, of titanic angular statues of powerful Russian artists. Bulbous towers built by superhumans but conceived by Tesla fired impermanent hands of mageta lightning into a tundra sky. The wealthy moved there, the Old Believers and glorified priests. They shone as a strand of full moons within a stone's throw of the imperious Kremlin and stately manors from the days of Alexander. But to the south, well, the German engines so loved by those with spare change, the airships gurgling petrol at obscene hours of the night? They went there, along with the power lines (the poor could not afford the towers), the rainbow hue of oil stains. The North bred character and the arts. The South bred noise and a voluminous gray cloud that rolled over itself in the toiling winds. Here the heat built up, like an oven, a situation just begging those smothering there under the cloud to explode.
The Daimler jostled with an uneven snarl, a mammoth gargling metal splinters. No sooner had Andrey activated the thirty-foot high diesel engine did the problem become apparent. He trembled from earthquake emanations, fumbling digits to pull down the switch and still the land.
“She is scarred inside!” He made points daily to remark on the obvious, scratching his grimy, apron covered gut. “Her heart is bleeding from the crash! Greet!”
As the engine wound down, its cylinders slowing their hard churn so one could be removed, a pear-shaped woman in a faded denim jumper and modified cap with a long bill crawled into its innards. She was Andrey’s prize, child of the refugees from America, a paranormal, a mechanic, and family. Her deep black skin glistened purple highlights across her pointed, conical cheekbones, with more of the color visible on her smooth high forehead. The woman carried no tools save for a welding mask she had screwed to a swiveled band on her cap. She was the tool. Grit was her name, repairs her stock and trade. No one did it better, from here to Saint Petersburg and out to Mongolia. Every pilot needed her, every grease monkey envied her. Every Russian save for Andrey gawked at her with disgust or mild terror.
It became apparent as she squeezed into the cylinder shaft of a once proud airship engine that the crash shoved the cylinder against the wall. Deep gashes lined the sides now, steel shavings were at the base; a simple matter to solve for her. Stretching as much as a 5’4” body could, she whisked the shavings into dirty fingers, and got to work. As per her lineage, odd talents were standard. For this rare gem, but one of her abilities was the gift of concentrating molten heat in the fingertips. Laying the shavings in the cuts, she lit up the shaft in a reddish-orange blaze. Black smoke visor dropped down from the cap to protect her face while steel receded into a milky gray fluid, white bubbling, scalding boil. One hand burned while the other molded, flattening the steel. Time came or went. While she worked, it had no pull or push. Soon, the shaft sealed. Superior strength allowed Grit to rub the metal to flat polish. Her eyes, slit orbs of astute pewter, saw no cracks, large or microscopic.
Then she reared back and hit her head. Noise.
“Greet! You have another visitor!”
Thank God for a hard head. Grit crawled out of the cylinder shaft, denim smeared in hot oil bothered her none. Grit looked out across the wide space of Daimler’s Hangar 1, Moskva’s oldest (dirtiest, smelliest) transit hub, and saw the usual: tubby Andrey her boss and instructor, lazy, scrawny Eli writing in the ledger at the desk by the hangar doors (the only clean spot in H1), broken aerowings, intricate orange girders supporting the roof that made the interior like the nest of some giant bird and derelict autocarts in need of her special touch.
The tall woman in buffed chrome and honey bronze with stylized wings curving up out of her shoulders, now that was different. Standing regal and slim like a Czarina, she waited for Grit. The armored mask with the ‘T’ angles and exaggerated jawline, that haughty posture, announced her class.
“What does an anoneemye kontakti want me for?” Grit grabbed both stair rails and slid down to the stained concrete floor to meet this ‘anonymous liaison’, a masked paranormal working for the public good. When Revolutionary took over in place of the dead Nicholas, he brought his superhuman refugee brethren out of the darkness of Russian fear. Well, he brought many out. The rest were either in the wrong part of town, Siberia or stuck in eternal aggravation. Grit existed in the pit of the third option.
“Are you the pyroclastic engineer legally named--”
“I do apologize,” the liaison said in a high and mighty Russian. Her inflections held a touch of French, her poise an air of too much opera, someone who eats every meal slathered in butter with ample glasses of wine. “But do you mean to say you perceive grit, or that--”
“My name. Grit. Years ago, when Andrey brought me out of the Pit, a Limey needing his engine fixed called me that. I liked it.” Grit leaned toward a table, grabbed a dollop of white salve with as much grit as her calling, wiped her hands good with it, and gave Andrey the eye roll.
“Very basic formulation of speech here south of the river. But you are the one? Metallic eyes, welding digits, eighteen years of age, known to offer assistance to those with difficulties of a mechanical nature?” She had produced a slip of paper and read from it, a stilted speech, as if every talent Grit possessed shocked her to the bones.
“Uh-huh.” Grit really did have eyes of flat metal, like unpolished lead. True, it was hard to see as she had slits for eyes (some say her father was Mongolian), but they were metal all the same, even the parts normally white, with circles in circles that widened or contracted constantly and could see variant spectrums and much smaller things if she so chose. People found them fascinating if not damnable. She found them useful. Her fingernails and toenails were metal too, flat solid things, perfect screwdrivers every one.
Liaison nodded to Andrey, who nodded back before offering Grit a sarcastic smile.
“Very well!" Through the metal mask, the liaison's voice echoed. "I am designated as the Diamond Doll, here forthwith to--”
Her audience giggled.
“Why are you--? Has my armor sloughed off?” she asked with such a stern voice the giggles grew into guffaws. "It has a tendency to..."
Grit chortled, "Forthwith?!"
Andrey seconded her chortle.
Now, the Diamond Doll did stand out, especially here in the south of Moskva where lead pipes, old electrical lines and chugging jalopies ruled the day. This warrior of the Third Rome surely hailed from north of the river, the shining bastion of the expansive Chrome Convent, where Russia’s paranormal masks practiced fancy fighting forms and pranced about resplendent sculptures in their meager spare time. The goal was to tone down class divisions. Its effect did more to make the divide apparent. Priest versus secular. Artists versus working class. Rich versus poor. Grit versus the Diamond Doll.
Doll wore a chrome breastplate that flared into those gorgeous pointy wings behind the shoulders. Her dress split into three pieces, the front a flap of chain mail. Beneath it were tight quilted leggings and shiny boots with silver studs. Every piece of her screamed Empire and cried snob. There was a semblance of imagery to old illustrations of American heroines long gone, but Grit couldn’t remember any of their names. Either that or she just cared not to.
“Oh. You two are laughing at me. Well, my blessed armor may appear garish in this factory enriched wilderness, but it stands for righteousness!”
The chortling turned to snorting. Andrey wiped a tear from his eye. Grit took a seat, waving her hand listlessly at this propagandist.
“I’m sorry!” she said between laughs. “Give me a...heeheehee!...minute…!” She continued to laugh from the snout unabated for two minutes, while the Diamond Doll tapped her foot. Grit tried to slow down. “It’s just I saw a mast ornament on the Kamchatka Kiss that looked just like...hah! Just...like you and--” the chortling resumed at full power. Andrey stomped the floor and did a series of laughing hops like a fat rabbit.
“My orders come from the Supreme General Revolutioonary himself. To refuse is one year on the Trans-Siberian Railroad Ditch Program.”
Laughter stopped as if Doll’s words escorted Grit’s tongue to a far flung prison.
“Oh! Right. Ahem! I fix motors,” Grit mumbled almost with embarrassment. “Revolutionary and Czarina Aleksandra need me? Good! Good for them.” She gave a now nervous Andrey the thumbs up. Andrey wobbled to his work table as if he never knew her. Grit found it hard to swallow.
“Now that I have garnered your undivided attention, shall we depart?” Doll clicked her heels, a harsh din,and turned to march for the entrance.
Grit washed her hands again with the gritty soap. “For?”
“We need to abrogate a flight to the Church of the Ascension. The priests there are in dire need of technical assistance.”
“Priests?” croaked Andrey.
“Need--” Grit bumped in.
“A repair job?” they synchronized as one unit.
“Affirmative. And the Sisters at the Chrome Convent advised I seek the best. Whispers on less savory street corners and approval from the Globe directed my attention to you.” There was a lift in the Doll’s feet for a second, a prideful giving of airs for fine sleuthing.
“Priests use motors?”
“This set does, indirectly.”
“Pay whom?” Doll fumbled about her armor for a purse she never brought along.
“Pay! Do I get paid for this? You've heard of rubles, da?”
“Da, Madame Grit, I am acquainted with economics. But this order is Imperial, and I was given no--”
Grit stormed to the far end of H1, where a Blériot Aerowing two-seater (based on the American Stockwell’s designs, but then again, what isn’t?) painted like a tiger ant rested under a quilt of dust. She tapped elastic cords on the wing as if playing a violin. “Let's go.”
“But our work parameters!”
“Tell them on the way, Doll.” Grit pushed a release lever on the Blériot, shooting its folded wings outward. It was a thin, insectoid vehicle with an oval front for the water-cooled engine. She stepped ahead of the wing, bent down, and lifted the rear hangar door with a brief grunt.
“Is that object viable? Does it have a steamheart drive?”
Grit just about spit on the floor. “This is Russia. Does this look like Stockwell Labs? America?” She pulled on her greasy denims. “Do I look like a steam sniffer? Listen Sister of the Stiffs, down here we guzzle petrol and spit hydrogen. No prissy, fancy micro steam false organs to delight your delicate eyeballs. Let’s go!”
The Blériot flew smooth, the hacksaw hum of the three-cylinder engine throbbed as the craft rose into the off-white haze of a Russian summer morning. Grit mentally waved goodbye to the swollen streets, elevated pipes and innumerable dangling lines of the South. She hated leaving home. Moskva River snaked by, forming three large bends in the city landscape. The rest of Moskva was in a state of metamorphosis thanks to the new policies by the Supreme General. Nicholas II’s murder in 1895 saw the Marxists killed, a plotting monk imprisoned, and slowly the hundred and fifty plus paranormals began to feel like citizens (well, those not disposed already to unsavory deeds). So Grit tried to tune it out, listen to her engine’s rough music. Automobiles raced down streets, wooden boxes on bicycle wheels manhandled by impetuous teenagers. Russia's transportation outpaced the mindsets of those daring to cross these reckless roads.
But two things stopped her. First, the northern gleam of the Chrome Convent reflected the sun too well. She dropped the welding faceplate down in order to avoid crashing.
(Official Line: Chrome Convent will be a home for artists and the future of Russia) (Muscovite Line: the gain of the Chrome Convent is the loss of one’s eyesight).
Made up of three imposing skyscrapers connected by sharply arched alcoves for the building's subservient nuns, it was the central tower, forty stories of glass in steel, that held the radio antenna and the brightest gleam. At its summit, two chrome figures twenty feet each male and female, held both the spiral antenna and a massive flag of the double-headed eagle. The convent for artists to work and be paid (by the empire!) housed mainly women, thus the moniker. It was a broad capital letter ‘E’ of wavy seashell cupolas and audacious futurism. It dominated the skyline. It made Grit dizzy.
The second obstacle to her peace? Diamond Doll never, ever stopped talking. She bragged about the festive gatherings, meeting famous generals, her parents stodgy positions in the Odessa Airship Trade Guild, and on and on.
Why talk over the sound of a beautiful motor?
“Because you are stupid!”
“Did you say something?” Doll yelled.
The Diamond Doll continued her life story as the Blériot buzzed over the city.
“...it was then Professor Prius realized my talent for generating crystalline structures could be beneficial. I readily accepted a position with the Liaison program, though admittedly the armor is weighty…”
“...painting fascinated me from the age of five. It was the Louvre in Paris. Do know the Louvre? Have you heard of Paris? My parents began their days as successful merchants from a sophisticated Saint Petersburg family of…”
The slums of Khitrovka fell away, as did the many (better looking) iron airship towers built by Diesel, by Daimler and Zeprov. Despite the lack of a treaty, German engines were a welcome import in a nation unable to get steam power out of the nineteenth century. Behind every tower, petrol tankers painted white dictated the pace of Russian life would be petroleum. She turned the aerowing to avoid the magnificent electrical discharges from a coiled Tesla Tower. Professor Prius was a disciple of the Serbian genius. Moskva gleamed with the shine of tomorrow's advancements and the seeped stains of yesterday's pogrom.
Soon, the Imperial estate lay ahead, a field of verdant green along the slope of the Moskva River. The Church of the Ascension stood out, a narrow tower of white, an octagonal cupola to of wood dedicated to God, upheld by a white stone base, steps all around. Wooden planks leaned down over these steps. From the air, the church appeared as a faceless ballerina in an emerald music box, reaching for Heaven. The Doll assumed she grasped that heavenly goal. Grit held a less savory opinion.
Grit landed the aerowing in two thuds and a long screech, digging deep wheel marks into the tender grass. The final stop jerked both pilot and passenger.
“Not so skilled in the flying as in reparations,” Doll said. She dismounted first.
Grit jumped out of the hard leather seat. She marched away from her wing, and not even the sweet smell of grass and fresh air would calm her down. “Where’s this problem needing a fix?”
Diamond Doll strained her armored neck. “It should be at the rear. From our flight angle, we wouldn’t have seen the vehicle.”
“Vehicle. What vehicle?” She jogged about, seeing nothing but scenic views (Open ground scared her. Nowhere to hide).
They strolled around the church, observing it with intensity as if the building might get up and run off. The Doll might be a (terrible!) nuisance, but she was (annoyingly!) accurate. For as they rounded the Church of the Ascension, they found the rear wall well punctured, a hole over two meters wide. In said hole rested an aerowing, a sleek woman of a machine like a flying syringe. Whoever designed it was good. It was not from any recognizable company, probably some new entrepreneur. They were everywhere these days. Sunlight was eaten by the aerowing’s pitch black paint job, shadows formed under the double wings.
“This is why priests don’t fly,” Grit said, lifting up the welding mask. “Ah well, we can get them to help us roll it back out, provided the wheels are attached, then I can get to work.”
“But the crash is only a secondary consideration.”
“Oh? How so?”
“The pilot is the primary dilemma.”
“Pilot?” Grit crept ahead. She discerned no pilot in the deep-seated cockpit.
Well, she had to get this job done, and return to H1! Fast as short legs could carry her, Grit ran to the aerowing and mounted the wing. Diamond Doll followed, but in a more cautious mounting.
“You should approach more carefully.”
“The priest in the cockpit is tied to an explosive.”
“What?!” Grit screamed. “Now you mention a bomb? A priest, what does he want with a bomb?” She leaned in as if a cat would plant itself on her face, or a bomb. Sure enough, a priest in full vestments was tied up in the cockpit by the control lever. Bearded and terrified with an oiled rag in his mouth, he seemed young, and unaware of his predicament. The eyes held a foggy glaze.
“The occurrence was this morning. Father Utkin was scheduled to return from his studies with some elders on the island of Kizhi, but after the boat to the mainland, the train was upheld by a workers revolt. He was to acquire an aerowing, but…”
“But what?” Grit’s gray eyes became visible now, studying the chain of grenades on the priest’s body, a bandolier of death. She wished she could tune her heart down several notches.
“This is not the aerowing he was on, and this is not Father Utkin. This is, as best as we can discern, a student of the church from Kizhi. Strange methodology they use.”
“They? They who?”
“Villains. Who else would perform such an act?”
Grit lifted herself up into the cockpit, so her feet (wearing flat buckled men’s gaiters) rested on the seat. She shushed the young man, who began to moan. Her hands floated over the grenades, her mind forming a mental image of how they connected, what might set them off, etc. “You leave out good information,” she whispered, “but forget the bomb, the wrong priest, and black wings? I doubt the General’s Liaison idea is sound.”
“Despite your lack of qualifications for passing judgment on a higher member of society, my training is superb, and technically sound.”
Grit stifled another laugh, swallowed a mouthful of nervous excitement. “Oh? Then get in here and stop the bomb yourself!”
“Aside from explosives and mechanics, I am well versed in the arts, languages and literature.”
“Bozhe moi.” Grit snatched the bandolier off the young man with her eyes closed, and just as fast, threw it behind her. Landing in the grassy field, it blew chunks of dark earth into the sky. A mist of soil coated the aerowing, the church walls, and Doll’s dazzling armor.
Silence returned, and then…
“Were, you...going to warn me before thoughtlessly ripping off the explosive from that man’s chest?”
“Wouldn’t there have been a more...effective way to diffuse the situation?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never messed with bombs.” Smiling while biting her nails, Grit helped the man out of the cockpit and to his feet.
“You’ve never...messed with...but, my life…”
“I was as concerned with yours as you were with giving me the truth. Besides, he needed to get it off of him more than we needed to stand here talking about it! Now, go find the others. Let’s push this mother outside, study it, and then I go home!”