As long as he could remember, Mallory had been a dreamer, which, of course, made him an outcast in polite Fiorese society. He was always more comfortable with a pen in his hand than a gun or sword, so he immediately was doomed to a life of poverty and scorn at birth. However, his father had been a mechanic in the new national navy and he had acquiesced to his family’s wishes that he should put aside his aspirations to pursue his “scribblings” seriously, so he studied engineering and found that his dreaming could extend to the designing of gadgets of use to the empire. This pleased his father to no end.
After graduating from school in Oxwell, his parents helped him set up a workshop nearby where he and his wife could settle. Before long, he had settled into a lucrative business servicing the war effort against the Orloinians. Though he disdained making weapons, the design of a new breach-loading musket kept his mind away from the moral questions and on the intellectual challenge of solving another mechanical puzzle.
One late autumn day, Mallory and his wife were strolling across the city square—he on his way to the workshop and she on hers to the marketplace to shop for groceries for the evening’s meal. On the six hour, a chime rang out across the square disturbing the resident flock of gulls in the nearby fountain. The birds flew off in a cloud of grey feathers and headed towards the sea.
“And as fast as her time came, she was delivered of a fair child, and well that child was kept and well nourished,” Mallory said, sniffing the cold dew on the morning air.
“What was that, dear?” his wife Belle Isolde asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Mallory said with a boyish laugh. “Just an old poem I learned as a child. The chiming of the bells reminded me of it.”
Of course, the oldest bell in the ring mounted in the clock tower of the regional assembly building had been cast more than 100 years ago. It was a tangible link to Mallory, but also the city’s most famous resident—the Fiorese dictator and unquestioned ruler Newbold. At the turn of the last century as it had been for Mallory, it had been rung to summon relatives, friends and neighbors to the induction of the current ruler and again at Mallory’s baptism before such rituals were outlawed by the government. After the bell ringer finished the peal, he would turn lookout, climbing to the top of the great red sandstone tower. From there, he had a panoramic view over the heart of Fioria. When the engineer was born, knowing who was about had been essential. Those were dangerous times. The freely elected tribune had either been murdered, executed or were being hunted in the hills while plague stalked the land and killed by the thousands. Hard-faced, hard riding bands of armed men were scouring the shires for ‘traitors’. This was the world Mallory had been born into—and yet a nursery rhyme prevailed in his mind.
“It’s a lovely poem,” Belle Isolde said. She walked with a slight limp ever since fell off a horse as a young child. “I thought you might have written it.”
Mallory shook his head. “No, you know I haven’t put pen to paper since I opened the shop. My parents always frowned upon my literary pursuits. Anyways, there’s no money to be made in that, especially since the censors clamped down on publishers.”
“I’m not talking about making money, silly,” she scolded him playfully. “Not everything is about money.”
“It’s about being a whole person,” Belle Isolde said. “I would love to have your skill with words. I would write every day if I were as good as you. I could dream of other worlds and people of other cultures. What they think about and what’s in their hearts.”
“Careful, dear, such dreams can be dangerous in these times. The national party has eyes and ears everywhere and they don’t take too kindly to dreamers. I should know. Anyways, what’s important is not what’s in other people’s hearts, but in our own. I know what’s in mine.”
He took her hand in his and gave it a gentle tug. They continued across the courtyard until they came to where the roads diverged. Belle Isolde leaned in to him and kissed him softly on the lips. Mallory looked sheepishly about, but it was still relatively quiet and empty.
“Have a good day at work, dear, but don’t work too hard.”
“I’ll try not to stay late.”
“Good. Perhaps after dinner, we can begin our own work to deliver that ‘fair child’ from your poem,” she whispered. An impish smile passed over her lips.
“You are naughty,” Mallory grinned, but his face grew hot and he was certain a blush was betraying his attempts to be cool and sultry.
With that, they parted ways. Mallory’s shop was a two-story affair about two blocks down the street at the corner of an alley where the young snipes liked to gather to shoot dice and generally make mischief. The front of the building was windowless and, like most newer buildings in the city, was featureless. A large bay door fronted the street and was flanked by a side entrance. The bay door was effective when he needed to test larger equipment or needed to circulate air through the building more freely. Mallory went in through the side door and turned on a few of the gaslights.
In the middle of the workroom stood a large rectangular object that nearly touched the ceiling and was almost as wide as the bay door. The engineer set about removing the tarp he had placed over it the night before. Not even his apprentice was allowed to touch this project and he was even reticent about reporting his progress on it. He didn’t want to give away too much about its capabilities until he assured what they truly were and had test them on his own. However, that was a tricky task given the prying eyes of the chief of engineering corps who delighted in making surprise visits on his engineers to ensure they stay on their toes and that they were not pilfering materials for their own side projects, which Mallory had often done.
When the tarp was safely removed and tucked away in the corner of the work space, he carefully appraised his creation. It was a vehicle, but more than that it was a metallic beast, crouching upon its treaded wheels and ready to barrel onto a battlefield like a wild boar in heat. The thick metal armor made the vehicle incredibly heavy and took months to forge or scrape together from other machines, but it was virtually impenetrable by musket or cannonball. He had installed a the most powerful steam engine he could find and enhanced it even further so that it could handle a maximum pressure more than 10 percent beyond its original specifications. Two smoke stacks protruded menacingly from the top like bull horns. It was almost complete, but it was unarmed. It was an armored beast with no teeth.
Mallory mounted the vehicle and climbed to the top, where a turret would be mounted. Right now, there was just a circular hole lined with bearings. He had been vague in his sketches about what shape the armament would take, because he was uncertain how much weight the engine could bear after the armor had been applied and tweaked. He could design a cannon that could take down a fortress wall in one shot, but the weight would almost certainly slow the vehicle’s mobility to a crawl. Too light a cannon and his superiors would be disappointed with its fighting capability against large targets. Mallory scratched his head as he continued his calculations, then pulled out a tablet from his breast pocket to jot down some figures.
There was a polite knock at the door and then a crack of light crept into the workroom. It was his apprentice Joaquin. He always knocked to alert his master that he was entering but that he was alone. If he had not been alone or if he had been followed by one of the government’s spies, he would have knocked loudly on the bay door and waited to give Mallory enough time to return the vehicle to its tarp.
“Good day, sir,” Joaquin said, closing the door behind him and locking it. “How does the baby look today?”
“Troubling, as always. But I believe we may be able to test its capabilities tomorrow evening, if the weather cooperates.”
“That’s good to hear,” Joaquin smiled. He was a teenager and eager to please. Yet the young man fumbled nervously at the buttons of his coat.
“What is it, Joaquin?”
The apprentice looked down at his fidgeting fingers and remembered his tell. He smoothed out the front of his jacket as though it mattered and then plunged his hands deeply into his pockets to obscure their jittering from his master. Mallory, unimpressed, climbed down from the back of his contraption and walked over to his flat files to pull out the schematics for it. All the while, Joaquin stood frozen near the door.
“You know something so spit it out,” Mallory eyed him impatiently. “Or get to work. We’ve got a lot of prep work if this hulk is ever going to move.”
Joaquin cleared his throat. “I don’t want to alarm you, sir, or put a crimp in your plans to test our new vehicle. However, I heard chatter in the servants quarters that the Supreme Chancellor himself was arriving in Oxwell today.”
“Bran Oxley said he overheard two clerks at the tube office about a message from the capitol that said as much.”
“Oh, well, if Bran Oxley says it, it must be true,” Mallory said, rolling his eyes for effect. “My dear boy, you are quite vulnerable to innuendos and rumor. A scientist must deal only in facts or else your mind will be destroyed by the sheer panic born from speculation.”
“Very well, sir,” Joaquin removed his overcoat and joined his employer at the draft table. There wasn’t more than a decade separating the two men in age but the apprentice treated him like a full-fledged master.
“Still, we had best assume the worst, that the rumors are true. If so, we can expect a visit to these very premises in the next day or so,” the inventor said and sighed. “And we have nothing to show them.”
“But we have that, at least,” Joaquin said, pointing to the armored vehicle.
“We do, indeed,” Mallory said darkly. “It’s untested and has no weapons capabilities as yet. If I present this contraption in the state it’s in to the Chancellor’s representatives, I’ll be laughed out of the profession—or worse.”
“But we have the schematics, master. And we have the guns loaned to us by the armory. Surely we could adapt one of them to fit the turret,” his assistant pleaded. “At least we can make it look complete enough to impress the Chancellor so he keeps funding us.”
Mallory cinched his mouth in disapproval, but said: “I suppose we haven’t much choice but to try. I just hate having to rush through a project.”
He spread a large roll of vellum blueprint paper across the drafting table and examined it quietly. He knew it by heart but sometimes the act of simply staring at his plans could stir an idea. Besides, he was sure that his assistant needed the visual guide to help him. The designs for the turret were clearly unfinished. Mallory unfurled a few smaller rolls of translucent wax paper and superimposed each on the blank spot where the turret would be.
“What about that one—the ten-pounder?” Joaquin pointed out eagerly. “That has proven destructive power, enough to impress even the Chancellor.”
“Yes, of course, it would make a magnificent hole in any enemy fortification but look here,” Mallory sighed. “We would be selling this vehicle as a mobile destructive platform, with emphasis on the mobility. If we attempt to mount that on the turret, not only will a team of horses be able to outrun it, but it might not even be able to keep pace with infantry.”
“Still, with its range, it might not matter—“
“And look at the length of the barrel. It juts out over 15 feet past the forward visor. All that would need to happen is for them to ask us to drive it down a sizeable incline or crater or across a well-placed field works like a moat or trench and the muzzle will dig into the muck and trapping the vehicle like a bug in amber.”
“We could shorten the barrel.”
“Compromising accuracy dramatically and reducing the velocity of the projectile. No, the ten-pounder is an excellent artillery piece but impractical for our beast.”
Joaquin nodded gloomily. “And I would guess that the five-pounder lacks the punch we would need for a suitable demonstration of firepower.”
“You would be correct. Hence our dilemma.”
Joaquin dropped his pencil on the table in frustration. “Then we’re doomed,” he muttered and slumped down over the drawings.
Mallory clapped his assistant on the back. “No, no, we can’t give up that easily, son. And being down in the mouth about it won’t help. If what we have won’t work on our turret, we just have to find something that will.”
“But we possess the only working artillery pieces in district,” Joaquin moaned. “Oh, if only we could restore a bit of that old world magic, we’d have a devastating weapon to match with this brilliant vehicle and the war would be won instantly.”
Mallory frowned at the young man. “Careful now, son, voicing such thoughts would be considered heresy in these parts nowadays. The old magics are long dead, if they ever existed in the first place. Besides, we are bold men of science. We must trust only that which we can test and prove through empirical evidence. It’s not constructive to think about magic.”
He waved his hand in the air as if he were dispelling the bad ideas and then cast a sidelong glance at the unfinished vehicle. The inventor tried to imagine what machine of war would mount on that turret.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just that I was thinking out loud. My parents used to tell me about the Dragon’s Breath. It was weightless cannon, but spat out powerful balls of flame and didn’t require ammunition, just casks of dragon’s blood to fuel. It wasn’t deadly, but my granddad served in the infantry and he said it was a scary thing to see on the battlefield.”
“An interesting, if curious, family fairy tale, to be sure,” Mallory said. Suddenly, as though a spark struck a tinder in his mind and set it ablaze, he had an idea. “Hold on a second, maybe we have been thinking about this problem in completely the wrong direction.”
“My boy, you’re a genius and you may not know it yet,” Mallory said, scurrying to grab a blank sheet of wax paper and a wax pencil.
“Thank you, sir. Does this mean I’ve graduated to master inventor?”
“Not on your life, but you may have suggested an alternate plan that may save both our skins.”
“How’s that again?”
“I’d been puzzling over getting artillery on top that thing, for tackling fortifications, but most engagements are between massed groups of infantry and cavalry. That was a mistake, don’t you see?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“This beast would be best at taking on moving targets, not fixed ones. Its combination of mobility and armor is what gives it its key advantage. Artillery is nice and we may tackle that another day, but there are other weapons that would be more effective against infantry targets. One in particular may leverage what’s already built in to the beast’s designs.”
“I see your point, sir, but I’m not seeing how that makes me a genius.”
“You said it yourself: dragon’s breath.”
“But you also said yourself that was a fairy tale—and a heretical one at that.”
“Of course, I’m not literally saying we try some poppy cocked magical incantation. I’m talking about a flamethrower. The heart of our beast is not unlike your mythical dragons. It harnesses fire in its steam engine. If we could route those flames into the turret, we could mount a flamethrower that would make your dragon’s breath seem like a light summer breeze.”
Mallory began hastily scribbling across the wax paper, scratching out existing lines in the steam chamber’s bulwark and sketching out a crude line to the turret.
“Magnificent!” Joaquin declared. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that myself.”
“I didn’t either until we talked about it. That’s why we make a good team. The most wonderful and terrifying things are often hidden in plain view, son. Just remember that,” Mallory said. He ripped off a corner of the paper and jotted down a few notes, then handed the ragged slip to his assistant. “We must move quickly though. I’ll need a few supplies to make this work. Can you get them for me?”
“Most certainly,” Joaquin said with a new bounce in his step. He grabbed his coat and made for the door.
“And another thing,” Mallory called after him. “We probably should give our creation a proper name. Any suggestions?”
Joaquin paused at the door and smiled. “Of course, dragon’s breath.”
“Good lad. When all this is over, perhaps we’ll try mastering something really important, like flight,” Mallory smiled briefly and then dived into his work.