Eden’s Voice - Excerpt

⏣  1 ⏣

Ann Arbor, Michigan

October 1, 1904

A two-month assignment in a Midwest hick town. What grave sin had Bruce committed to deserve this? He paced the sideline, notebook in hand, writing nothing.

Promotion. Focus on the promotion.

His boss had loved his coverage of the World’s Fair and the Olympic Games. Fulton had tossed about words like “gritty” and “authentic” and raved about how people wanted the scoop from the inside. He’d implied that something better might be coming if Bruce could do the same on this assignment.

Such implications had been made before, with nothing coming of them. Bruce figured he was being played for a fool. It wasn’t as if everyone at the paper didn’t know his ambitions: higher pay, a say in which stories to pursue, perhaps an editorial position someday. A pipe dream. And yet he’d taken the bait. Again.

Was it optimism, or simply desperation? He was fed up with taking orders and going wherever others wanted him to go. He was tired of low pay, no perks, and long, unpleasant assignments. This would be the last. If Fulton didn’t make good on his promises, he’d go somewhere else. He’d find a way to be his own boss.

Right.

Idiot.

And it had to be football. Bruce had spent years trying not to pay attention to football, pretending he didn’t care. Futile years. As a sports reporter, the topic was unavoidable. Worst was fielding the questions from friends and family every season: Who will be our toughest match? How is Harvard v. Yale shaping up this year? What’s all this talk about someone called Yost and a point-a-minute machine at Michigan? Where the hell is Michigan, anyway? Is that one of the ones in the middle? No, it’s the one with all the lakes that looks like a mitten. They’re making motorcars there now, I hear.

Bruce had yet to see a motorcar in Michigan. Not that he’d been here long. He’d taken the train up from Toledo direct to Ann Arbor yesterday. Transportation in the little five-square-mile town looked to consist primarily of horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. He hadn’t even seen any of the dragon-pulled vehicles that were a mark of status out East. A nice trolley ringed downtown, however, and train transport in and out of town was plentiful. They had to get people here to watch football, after all.

Bruce had to admit a certain curiosity about the long-undefeated Wolverines. The athlete inside him hadn’t fully died with his sporting career, and Coach Yost sounded like a true innovator. Writing about the games might actually be fun, if he stopped dwelling on the past and let himself enjoy it.

A large crowd had turned out today, waving “M” banners and in good cheer, expecting their team to crush the poor men from Case Academy. Bruce didn’t doubt they would get their wish. Michigan had a band to entertain the masses, and students with megaphones to lead the cheers. The atmosphere struck him as typical for a football crowd. None of it would have been out of the ordinary for a game back home.

A single oddity drew his attention. Directly across the field, a girl paced the sidelines, several steps behind what looked to be a mechanical wolverine. She appeared perfectly at ease, though everyone else nearby shied away from the dragon-mascot. Intrigued, Bruce set off to investigate.

Upon closer inspection, he discovered the dragon’s keeper wasn’t a girl, but a fully-grown woman. She was tiny, only reaching to his shoulder, and she wore her hair pulled back into two tails with bits of ribbon, but there was nothing girlish in her face or figure. She wore a short-sleeved white blouse beneath a blue and gold brocade corset-top with a high, stiff collar and long tails that hung to her knees like a half-skirt. Tight, black trousers and sturdy boots completed the unconventional ensemble. Bruce had seen women dressed in similar style back home in Boston—artists, inventors, and other creative types, for the most part. It wasn’t what he expected from a young lady in Michigan. Certainly no one else he had seen in town dressed as she did.

Her jewelry was similarly unique. A gold cuff wrapped around and over her left ear, with a penny-sized blue crystal fitted into the center of her ear. The bottom of the piece connected to a dangle earring, also in gold, with smaller blue crystals. A matching dangle adorned her otherwise plain right ear.

The wolverine snarled, and Bruce sprang back, startled. The metal beast gnashed long, shiny teeth. Glowing eyes fixated on him. Unlike most untethered automata, it had no discernible dials or switches along its back for controlling it. With no clear indication of how to stop it, he didn’t wonder people kept their distance. He tensed up, prepared to run if the creature sprang at him.

“Don’t worry, he hasn’t bitten anyone yet,” the woman informed him. Her voice had something of the Midwest accent common to others here, but her pronunciation was unusually precise, her words crisp. The dragon snarled again. “But he does strike fear into the hearts of our enemies.”

Bruce laughed, his stance relaxing. “I was under the impression the team doesn’t need help doing that.”

The woman stared boldly at his face. “We don’t,” she answered, with noticeable pride.

Bruce gestured at the wolverine. “How do you control him?”

“He responds to vocal commands. I rarely use them, though, because all he does is walk, snap, and snarl. This is his second year. The officials don’t like him, I think, but as long as I keep the correct distance from the field of play, they can’t stop me.”

Bruce jotted a note. “May I quote you?”

Her blue eyes, still fixed on him, lit up. “Certainly! You’re a reporter?”

“Yes, with the Boston Herald.” He tucked the notebook into his pocket and offered his hand. “Bruce Caldwell. A pleasure to meet you.”

She frowned as she shook his hand. The expression made a little crinkle between her dark blond eyebrows. “Caldwell. That sounds familiar. Boston, you said? Oh! Are you the A. B. Caldwell who wrote about the Olympic Games?”

“I am.”

“I read all your articles!” she exclaimed. “Were there truly female archers? Did you watch them compete? Was the marathon as awful as you made it sound, with no water and dust and dragons and poison?”

“Er…” Bruce was uncertain which question to answer first. He’d never had a fan. This was the last place he would have thought to find one. “Yes, to everything,” he answered at last. “Whatever you read in those articles was one-hundred percent truthful.”

“It must have been so exciting. I wish I could have been there.”

Another dragon, a small, winged creature, landed on the woman’s shoulder. A bit smaller than a football, but with a similar oblong shape, the dragon had four legs, a chain-like tail, and long, thin antennae. Like the wolverine, it was unadorned brass, save for the blue crystals of its eyes that matched the jewel in the woman’s ear. The dragon’s wings folded in against its body as it settled in place. The woman wasn’t perturbed in the slightest, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

“You’re here to write about football?” She still hadn’t stopped staring at him. He didn’t think she was flirting, but it was difficult to be certain. He was accustomed to Boston socialites who weren’t so… inquisitive.

“Yes. I’m to follow the team for the entire season. People back East are wildly curious about the way things are done out here.”

“We are to play Columbia on Thanksgiving.”

“So I understand.”

“That will settle it. You’ll all have to own how good we are when we kick their… um, rears.”

He chuckled. “I will write all about it. Could I get your name, Miss?”

“Oh, sorry. I forget that sort of thing. I’m Eden. Eden Randall.” She thrust out her hand and he shook it once again.

“A pleasure, Miss Randall. Thank you for reading my articles. I like your style and your festive blue and gold colors.”

“Maize and blue,” she corrected.

“Right.” He jotted that down. “Perhaps we could talk again sometime? I’ll be in town the entire season.”

She regarded him with suspicion for a moment, then asked, “Will you tell me more about the Olympic Games?”

“If you’d like.”

A sparkle of excitement replaced the mistrust in her eyes. “Okay. I’ll be around.” She snapped her fingers at the wolverine. “Turn.”

The dragon obeyed her command and stalked off in the opposite direction, still baring its teeth and growling. Eden followed it, but then glanced over her shoulder and gave a little wave.

“Bye.” The flying dragon fluttered down to walk beside her.

“Until next time.”

Bruce turned his attention to the field. The game was set to begin. He needed to get on with the work of investigating the football team. He had a promotion to earn, and—regrettably— no one was going to pay him to investigate Miss Eden Randall.

⏣  2 ⏣

Eden entered the party at the president’s house bubbling with a mix of excitement and apprehension. She had little experience of parties in her twenty-three years of life. She was, in fact, considered antisocial and peculiar by most who knew her. It was only to be expected. Her parents were introverted people, and quite unusual themselves. Their little family didn’t often join bustling social gatherings.

Eden scanned the house and its occupants, taking in the decor, the outfits, and the refreshments. In her head, she reviewed all the data she had gathered from descriptions of parties in novels. She thought she knew how to behave, more or less. Her one concern was that most of those books had been written a half-century ago or more. And they usually mentioned dinners or balls. Pity this party would have speeches and awards rather than dancing.

Not that she knew any formal dances. She didn’t even know the difference between a gavotte and a quadrille. Or whatever people danced these days. Still, she would’ve liked to try.

A man bearing a tray of champagne passed by, and Eden’s eyes lit up. He disappeared into the throng before she could take a glass, but she determined to track him down. She wouldn’t miss her chance to try a new drink.

She wormed her way through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone in her voluminous skirts. Her party dress was magical. The long-sleeved, fitted bodice was of supple brown leather, buckled at the waist, with an asymmetrical hem. Layers of black and gray skirts puffed out over a fluffy petticoat. They draped fully to the floor, so she could wear her favorite boots instead of silly little slippers and none would be the wiser. Perfection. A cross between a warrior’s armor and a princess’ ball gown.

Her mother, who wore a white blouse and slim, neutral-colored skirt every day, hadn’t altered this habit for the party. She’d eyed Eden’s dress with quiet suspicion, as she did all of Eden’s clothes. Penelope Randall was a mechanical genius, but she had no understanding of fashion—at least, not of Eden’s edgy, bohemian fashions.

Eden had to admit she didn’t look at all like the other ladies. Gauzy and filmy were the fashion words of the night. Most ladies sported high necklines and lace trimmings, and their skirts had a much slimmer silhouette. Unsurprisingly, she was the only woman with her hair down. Two narrow braids ran from her temples to meet at the back, holding it out of her face. Like most of her hairstyles, it was considered childish. Eden did as she liked. Since she rarely expected anyone to do much more than politely nod to acknowledge her presence, she didn’t see any point in catering to their whims.

The house tonight was packed with professors, their families, and important visitors. Everyone was talking at once. Eden twisted the earring that dangled from her left ear. This was the part of parties and other gatherings that made her anxious. The confusion of so many sounds one atop of the other unsettled her. She had a difficult time sorting out words in the din. It made her feel out of control.

She kept Vox tucked tightly under her arm. She could have let the dragon fly up to perch on a chandelier, or sit on a nearby table, but having hold of her eased Eden’s nerves. Her oblong, metal body was comfortingly familiar. Eden stroked her on the head between her antennae and continued her search for the champagne.

She spied her father across the room, talking with the president of the university and a man she didn’t recognize. Father was difficult to miss, to be honest, in his blue and black velvet coat, and a towering top hat decorated with gears that spun and clacked for no purpose other than that he found it funny. He looked splendid, in her opinion. Even strangers would know him for an automechanologist, and he stood out from the crowd, as a guest of honor ought.

Still, he was almost shabby compared to the unknown man at his side. Ever curious, Eden moved in for a better look.

The mysterious stranger was shorter than average, but devastatingly handsome, with dark, tousled hair and a neatly trimmed moustache and goatee. He was rich, that was certain. His tailcoat and trousers were cut and styled to fit him with a perfection Eden had only seen in fashion magazines. The red and black vest looked to be silk, and his buttons and watch fob gleamed. He turned his head in her direction, glanced her over, then turned away. His indifference didn’t dampen her curiosity. She had inherited from her parents a deep desire to know everything, and she was accustomed to men underestimating her.

Before she could approach her father and demand an introduction to the attractive but haughty stranger, the official business of the party began. The man with the champagne came around again at last, and Eden snagged a glass just in time to toast the first guest of honor. While several English Department professors read excerpts from his award-winning writing, she lounged against the wall, enjoying the tingle of the bubbles against her nose and the dryness of the alcohol. By the time she had drained her glass, she felt relaxed enough to let Vox fly up to the rafters. She accepted another glass for the toast of her father, positioning herself for a good look at the speaker.

“This summer, our own Emerick Randall was named to the prestigious Brass Cog Inventors Society for his fine work in the field of Automechanology and Teletics,” President Angell announced. “His research on the topic of voice-controlled automata received their highest award and has cemented our status as one of the top AM&T schools in all the country.”

Eden joined in with the enthusiastic applause. She was proud his achievements had been recognized, though she wished someone would recognize her mother as well. Her father’s ideas and plans were brilliant, but he was a hopeless mechanic. His prototypes fell apart if you breathed on them. Penelope Randall stood at her husband’s side, beaming. She didn’t seem to mind that her part in the inventions was glossed over. Eden took it upon herself to be offended on her mother’s behalf. Newspapers liked sensation. Could she find one to print a letter entitled In Praise of Women Mechanics?

The memory of Mr. Bruce Caldwell the reporter flashed through her mind. Perhaps she could ask him about it. If he truly did wish to talk to her after all the babbling she’d done during the game that afternoon. She’d messed up the introduction, of course. But he’d been so interesting. Young. And handsome. She’d not expected that. Reading his articles, she’d always imagined A. B. Caldwell to be a scholar of sport, gray-haired and bespectacled. Not an athlete, himself.

“To demonstrate this wonderful new technology for all of you,” Angell continued, “Professor Randall and his wife have brought a recently constructed dragon from their impressive collection.”

Eden put her attention back where it belonged. This dragon wasn’t one of the most impressive specimens, in her opinion, but it was small and portable, and one of her mother’s favorites. Shaped like a parrot, it had delicate brass wings and a colorful, enameled body. Her parents wowed the onlookers by instructing it to talk, fly, play dead, and various other tricks. Everyone looked suitably impressed, but Eden could only shake her head. The parrot was no more than a toy when compared to Vox.

She called for the dragon, who obediently fluttered down into her arms.

“I don’t believe we have been introduced yet, Miss…?” a sultry voice murmured.

She spun around, looking for the speaker, certain she must have misheard. The smartly-dressed stranger stood behind her, an expectant look on his handsome face. Apparently he had been addressing her. Baffled as to why he had taken an interest, she thrust out her hand awkwardly and introduced herself, pleased she’d remembered not to simply blurt out a question.

“Randall. Eden Randall.”

His brows twitched. A satisfied smile played across his mouth. “Eden, is it?” He took her hand, but rather than shaking it, he raised it to his lips. His eyes smoldered, and she found herself blushing for no good reason. “Like the Garden of Paradise.”

“Indeed. I’m full of evil serpents and bad apples.”

He seemed taken aback, but only momentarily. “I can’t believe that of so lovely a woman as yourself.”

Eden pulled her hand away, perhaps a bit more roughly than necessary. She didn’t trust this man. People didn’t compliment the strange girl unless they wanted something. “And you are?”

“Evan Tagget.” He made a brief bow.

It was Eden’s turn to look aghast. “Evan Tagget. As in Tagget Industries?”

“The very same.”

“You recently acquired Dynalux,” she informed him, which seemed a stupid thing to say after the fact.

“I did. I expect it to be most profitable. I’m always on the lookout for… interesting ventures.” He looked her up and down. Was he implying that she was interesting? She tried not to feel flattered, but she was unaccustomed to such attentions. He probably knew that. 

She met his gaze coolly. “Such as?”

“Your dragon, for instance.”

Eden instinctively clutched Vox tighter, then realized she was making things worse. Letting him see the dragon was special would only arouse his curiosity.

“One of your father’s creations?”

“Yes. She runs on luxene—the simple stuff, no fancy additives needed.” It was a deliberate dig at Dynalux and their attempts to lure people into the purchase of a branded, more expensive product. Eden’s mother said their fuel wasn’t worth the price, and she would know.

Tagget only chuckled. “What does it do? Squawk like the parrot?”

“She flies. Vox, up.” The dragon fluttered her metal wings and flew back to the ceiling, perching among the glowing bulbs of the electric chandelier. She was safe there, where no one could grab her. “She also bites anyone who isn’t me.”

It was the wrong thing to say. He looked, if anything, even more intrigued. “How does it recognize you?”

His persistence in calling her dragon “it” irked her. “I have no idea,” she lied. “I’m not an automechanologist. I have somewhere else to be, now. Please excuse me, Mr. Tagget. It was interesting meeting you.”

Eden turned and walked toward the nearest door. Vox flittered from one high perch to the next, following along. She always kept in range.

It was time to find some food. All parties had food, right? Eden was certain she had read about people nibbling on little appetizers.

With luck, the remainder of this party would have more champagne and sweets and fewer suspicious millionaires. If not, she would claim overstimulation and walk home. She caught Vox out of the air and twisted at her earring again. She didn’t need to hear what these people were saying, anyhow.