In which Victor witnesses the pleasures and perils of technology
This 1500 word Princelings story/extract is an introduction to the changing technology in the realms. I thought of Victor seeing people pass through Seventh Happiness, imagining stories for them, and decided that a tale set in his home would be nice. I have an inkling of what happened to Van and why, but we’ll see whether it makes its way into a full story in time.
Victor finished polishing the glasses, stacking them neatly underneath the bar counter. Just two of the overnight guests lingered over their breakfasts at a table near the window. They looked like they’d be a while yet, since the early stages had departed and the market stalls wouldn’t open again till the midday ones arrived. Tuesday, he mused, working through his personal diary, which he kept in his head. No news from Prince Lupin; work on the Dimerie presentation tomorrow; George expected Thursday.
Despite his new role as a business guru, which involved visiting castles, checking their accounts and suggesting how they could improve their financial security, Victor still looked after the Inn of the Seventh Happiness for his dad, Argon. He tried to help out two or three times a week, to give his dad a break. This time he’d persuaded Argon to take a real break, and he was visiting Castle Marsh for a week, returning in George’s flying machine on Thursday. He grinned as he remembered how excited Argon had been to hear of this treat. George and his flying machine was now a regular sight all over the realms. A few more adventurous souls had built their own machines and taken up flying, after a course of lessons at Buckmore Flying School, run by Pippin, with George’s and Prince Lupin’s full support. Victor sighed. He didn’t think he’d want to fly a plane. He preferred being on the ground really. Now, if he could afford to rent a carriage now and then… His thoughts drifted for a bit till he came back to earth and wondered why he hadn’t heard from Prince Lupin. Tuesdays he usually arrived for a late lunch, before going on to one of the other castles in the east for general Prince business.
He checked his guests needed nothing else, and were all set to depart later, and wandered out into the spring sunshine. His breath clouded in the morning air all the same. A sun trap and a frost pocket in one go, the busy hamlet was surrounded by low cliffs, a little bowl in the middle of a vast plain. He crossed the market place and opened the door of the message exchange. Van the Vacuum Man lay asleep on his table. His name used to be Dan, but some wag had changed it for him. His ledger was open in front of him, listing the messages that had arrived in a vacuum pod, where from, the time, and where they had been sent on to, and that time. Two vacuum pods lay in the basket below the little round doors that kept the ends of the tubes airproof. Why hadn’t Van picked them up?
Victor shook Van’s shoulder and the sleeper rolled over and fell to the floor. A trail of blood traced the line of fall and Victor noticed a knife sticking out of Van’s side. Seventh Happiness needed a new Vacuum Man.
“So I sorted the messages, listed them and redirected them properly, saw you’d be here, and came back to sort things out,” Victor explained to Prince Lupin of Buckmore, who was drinking a glass of Dimerie white wine and hearing the evidence from the community of Seventh Happiness. The Prince had arrived on the stage, much to everyone’s surprise, since he had his own carriages.
“All the messages were accounted for. Well, they were all listed with ins and outs,” he clarified, meaning times for arrival and departure. “Although he’d made a mistake with one as it had been scribbled out.”
“Hmm,” Lupin frowned. “And nobody saw anyone entering or leaving the message exchange today?” He looked at the stall holders and other workers who variously sat, stood or lolled about in the bar area. There were general murmurs and shakes of heads. No-one had seen anything. The only strangers in town were the two who wanted to go on the Buckmore stage, and since Prince Lupin knew they were expected, they’d been allowed to go, along with the other passengers who’d arrived, been fed and refreshed, and despatched on other stages.
“Well, you need a new vacuum man,” he said, after another sip of wine, “and I think we’ll have to wait for Baden; he’ll be along soon enough. Why don’t you all get back to whatever you usually do at this time of day.”
“Who will do the vacuum job?” asked Gertrude, who ran the fabric stall. “It can’t be left. The messages come in and out all day and night.”
“Why don’t you do it, Gertie,” said her neighbour, “since you know about it?” Everyone laughed. Gertrude knew everything about everything.
She pursed her lips. “I can’t, not with the stall and a home to run. I could oversee young Marty, though.”
There was a little discussion before everyone agreed that Marty had always been hanging round the vacuum tube system, and even though he was very young, he could be trusted to look after it – with Gertrude’s help at the start.
“Problem solved, then,” Prince Lupin said. “Good, good.”
The crowd dispersed and Gandy, Argon’s ancient assistant, tottered out of the kitchen with a tray of food for Prince Lupin. Victor rescued it as it threatened to slide from his grasp straight into Prince Lupin’s lap.
“Do you mind me asking, sir, when Baden might be expected?”
“I don’t know,” Lupin sighed. “We planned to surprise you with the first long journey of the horseless carriage, but it went wrong in the tunnel and the stage caught us up again, so I hitched a lift.”
Lupin grinned up at Victor, who had been party to the development of some important inventions at Castle Buckmore during the final year of his Masters’ Degree. “Yes, we thought we’d refuel here then run it down to Marsh to surprise young George!”
“George will be here on Thursday,” Victor said. “He’s flying my dad back from his holiday as a treat.”
“Good, good,” said Lupin, tucking into his lunch. He paused long enough to ask: “Why do you think someone killed Van?” and carried on munching.
Victor took the cue to pull up a chair from the next table and sit down.
“Well, I’ve been thinking,” he started. “Everything was normal apart from that entry that was scribbled out. It was in the early set of messages listed, the ones before the stage to Deeping and White Horse left. The ones above and below it had originated from places like Palatinate and Hallam. It must have been from that region. But we don’t know where it was going. Or whether it left.”
“It must have left, since there were messages later, and Van would have sent it on straight away, wouldn’t he?”
“So someone didn’t want to know that a message from someone to someone had arrived and been sent on,” Lupin continued.
“That’s silly,” said Victor. “It just draws attention to it. And hardly worth killing poor Van for it.”
“I agree,” said Lupin. “What’s going on out there now?” He patted his lips with his napkin (Victor only laid them out for royalty) and they both went to the door.
A crowd had gathered around the entrance to the Buckmore tunnel. Lupin laughed.
“I know what they’re looking at! Come on Victor, you’ll enjoy this!”
They joined the crowd around the tunnel entrance. The people parted to let the Prince through. Victor could see the roof of a carriage over the top of their heads, slowly moving forward to meet him.
It was a carriage, but there were no horses pulling it. Instead of the driver’s box, there was a window in the front of the carriage, and Pippin was sitting facing forward, holding a pair of handles just like the direction controls of a flying machine. Behind him on the usual seat, Baden was now leaning out of the window, shushing people away and making sure no-one got run over.
“Thank you everybody!” called Prince Lupin over the hubbub and, as the noise died down: “Step back now, so we can finish our journey at the inn!”
Pippin steered the machine to the usual standing place in front of the inn and drew to a halt. He nipped out of one side and put some chocks around the wheels to stop it moving by accident, while Baden stepped out of the main door.
“Here at last!” he said in greeting to his boss. “It was just a couple of connections that had rattled loose on the roads. Just took a bit of finding!”
“Hello, Victor,” he said, turning to the budding business guru and deputy inn-keeper. “Meet the future of land transport. It runs on strawberry juice, of course. We think we might call it a car!”
(c) Princelings Publications 2013
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