Faylor stared at the dials and the gears, the rough grain of the wood. He had heard about such devices, fantastical machines with exotic names like radio, airplane, television. Faylor had heard them all and even passed along a few to new recruits to Baydown Manor. Stories about machines built by men of simple wood and metal that could, somehow, accomplish things that only the masters could do. Machines that could transmit sound and pictures through the air, metal cylinders that could fly, devices that could heat a room without smoke or flame, potions that could cure any ill, weapons that could turn an ordinary man into an army. All without magic.
They were great stories, inspiring stories, but they were fairy tales told to entertain children and whispered in hushed voices so the masters wouldn’t hear. They were myths, urban legends meant to distract servants from their drudgery. The radio hissed and popped. But the stories had to come from somewhere right?
Faylor could feel Wyke’s gaze on him as he reached for one of the dials. He tried to hold it steady, but his hand trembled as it approached the machine. There were grooves on the dials, cut into a slick, shiny material he had never seen before. Horrible images of vengeful masters branding him, torturing him, danced through his mind as his fingers brushed the dial. He had heard stories about what happened to servants who rose above themselves too.
Faylor twisted the dial. The noise coming from the box cracked and popped. He twisted it further and the sound softened to a low hum, like a giant bumblebee just out of sight. Faylor imagined he could almost hear human voices behind the buzz. How comforting that would be, he thought, to hear human voices coming from this alien mechanism. It would be something to hold on to, something to anchor himself to as the box spit and squawked and crackled.
Machines like this were urban legends, something someone heard about from their brother’s friend’s widow’s niece. Not solid objects sitting on his kitchen table. If men could make things like this, then maybe the masters weren’t the only way to prevent famine, pestilence, death.
The dial wouldn’t turn anymore. The buzz had settled into a low drone that set Faylor’s teeth on edge. Wyke reached over, flipped a small metal switch and the buzz faded and died. Faylor felt tears come to his eyes as the noise faded.
“At the Congregation, they called that ‘static’,” Wyke said. “It’s annoying as hell, but it means it’s working. If you turn that dial to the correct…oh hell, what did they call it?”
There had been a story when Faylor was a child about a young boy who found a radio in the woods. The boy convinced everyone that he was a wizard because he always knew what was happening in far away lands before anyone else did. The local magistrate, a wizard of course, came to test the boy he heard so much about.
The story then could end in one of two ways. If the teller preferred happy endings, the radio helped the boy convince the magistrate he had precognition, he was adopted into magician society and lived happily ever after. If the teller was a pessimist, the radio stopped transmitting right before the magistrate arrived and the boy was exposed as a fraud. The story usually became pretty gruesome after that. Faylor preferred the second ending. It was more realistic.
Faylor’s voice was a church whisper. “A ‘frequency.’ It’s called a frequency. If you turn the dial to the right position, you can hear sound from someone hundreds of miles away.”
Wyke threw back his head and laughed, “That’s right, my boy! I knew you were the one to bring this to. Always did like the old stories about fancy machines. With this, you can hear people talking thousands of miles away. But it does more than just that.”
Faylor continued to stare at the radio as Wyke went quiet. Wyke was a true raconteur. Half the reason Faylor and his housemates stretched their rations to keep the old man around was the way he would tell them stories. A good story could take your mind off the bitter cold after your firewood ration ran out. A good joke could make you forget that an untrained barber was sewing up the gash you received after one of the masters disciplined you for pouring the wrong vintage. Wyke always paused at the good parts to increase the suspense, but he never waited very long.
Wyke leaned in close to Faylor and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “That one there,” Wyke pointed to the ragged looking box on the table, “isn’t just a receiver. It’s a transmitter too.” Wyke grinned as he leaned back into his chair.
Which Faylor thought meant that he could talk to people hundreds of miles away. Which, while interesting, wasn’t very enlightening. You didn’t send a relic like this halfway across the territory just to listen to the idle gossip of a servant. This time Faylor couldn’t contain himself, which, he assumed, was exactly what Wyke had in mind. Wyke’s smile widened enough to show all six of his teeth as Faylor gave in.
“And?!” he cried.
“And it’s a weapon, boy. A weapon we can use against the masters. Turn that on near one of them and it disrupts their magic, makes them human.”
Faylor was not learned. Most vulgus were forbidden from even learning how to read but as a house servant Faylor had been taught his letters. He had to be able to identify which vintage to pour after all. But even without an extensive education, he could sense the structure of Wyke’s plan. Actually, Faylor thought, it probably hadn’t been Wyke’s plan. The old man was garrulous and warm, but he wasn’t a thinker. This came from someone at the Congregation; an unseen hand had set the device on its path to Faylor’s door, on the path to someone with access to the inner sanctum of one of the most powerful mages in the land. Wyke probably thought it was his idea though.
“You want me to smuggle it into the manor, don’t you?”
“You always were a sharp one, lad. Kyrum Baydown is one of the most powerful mages in this region, a confidant to half the government, and one of the few who lives alone. The Congregation wants to send a message and I told ‘em I knew just the man. All you need to do is get the radio within a few feet of him and flip that switch,” Wyke pointed to a red switch between the dials. “It’ll make him helpless.”
“And then you use this,” Wyke reached into his rucksack and pulled out a beautiful, and highly illegal, dagger that he handed to Faylor. No more than about six inches long, Faylor could still see the ripples in the thin blade that marked it as true steel. A stylized lightning bolt slashed across a letter ‘C’ was emblazoned on the handle. It felt good in his hands. A true weapon and a calling card. The Congregation might be enlisting him as an assassin, but at least they weren’t being shy about it.
“This will show those bastards, Fay,” Wyke continued. “Show ’em that none of them are safe. And it’ll show the people. Show them that the masters aren’t immortal. They can be killed, just like us.”
It was murder. There was no denying it, but it might just be justifiable, Faylor thought. He certainly wasn’t going to lose any sleep over shoving that blade into Master Baydown’s chest.
“I’ll do it.”
Wyke smiled, but he couldn’t resist a little teasing, “But I thought you didn’t want any black marks on your annual review this year, boy?”
Faylor chuckled as he slammed the dagger into the tabletop where it stood quivering. “Fuck my annual review.”
TO BE CONTINUED…