Theodore arrived at the appropriate dock at nine-forty in the morning. The vessel was scheduled to depart at eleven, but he had intentionally arrived early. There was no one for him to say goodbye to. He tried to not be bothered by this, but the slinking worm of loneliness stirred in his gut. He clenched his teeth. There was simply no one deserving of a goodbye, that’s all.
He hurried his pace.
A skyship was moored at the dock, one of a dozen of other ships, all fanned out in their own personal gate. The crew was gathered around their weasel of a captain, who was briefing them on something in a quiet tone. As he approached, Theodore could hear some questions being asked before the group split up to their various tasks. The captain gave Theodore a look as he approached.
“Sorry, young master, but our departure’s been delayed.”
The captain spoke like someone unfamiliar with politeness. It came out sounding awkward.
“Just some unscheduled cargo we’ve got to include last minute.”
Theodore frowned. Unscheduled cargo? He supposed it made sense. His father had to make the most of any flight to the Barony, given their infrequency and cost.
“Alright. How long till it departs, then?” He got a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.
“About four or five o’clock, I guess.”
He groaned. The silver watch in his vest read ten minutes before ten o’clock. “Make it fast. I want to get out of this dump.”
The captain looked irritated for a brief moment before remembering how much he was being paid for the trip.
“I’d better get to it, then.”
Theodore slouched into a bench and set his things down with a sigh. It took a second to find his lighter and cigarette case, after which he avoided making eye contact with passerby’s and smoked.
The roaring echo of the station train reached him some time later. With a screech it came to a halt before a platform labeled ‘SKYDOCKS EAST-1′.
Passengers disembarked in suede jackets, tight blouses, skirts, and fashionable hats, all looking for their departure. Skyships lined up at the various points, awaiting them. Magnetized pillars held them tethered in their gate, below which was a four hundred meter plummet. Morning sunlight gleamed off their sleek silver and white bodies, shimmering with energy. Airmen and women in uniform bustled about the behemoths like ants.
Men kissed their women goodbye. Women embraced and promised to write. Some stopped to pick up breakfast at a street-side food stall. Others sat at sun-shaded benches to read or smoke a cigarette.
Bluecoats stood to either side, watching citizens pass by with seemingly little interest. They rested their hands on their belts and occasionally chatted with one another before returning to the tedium of their duties.
A raggedy musician playing an old guitar entertained a few onlookers, his cap upside-down and awaiting donations. Large mechanical boards ticked off the minutes until each flight’s departure above his head.
Theodore leered at the milling masses. The muscle in his jaw tightened.
“To hell with these people,” he muttered under his breath, flicking the snub of his cigarette onto the pavement. “To hell with these people and the city they live in.”
They were no different from his peers – these Machians. He would remember the names they had called him. He would remember the way they had laughed at his title.
I am the son of a Baron, you gutter-rats. I am nobility.
Two years of this insolence he had dealt with. At first it had baffled and confused him. He was nobility – why were they laughing at him? But after that it had only ashamed and angered him. They made fun of his round, chubby face, his country accent, and the clothing he wore. They called him names that still echoed in the back of his head, and laughed when his face reddened.
He thought of a dozen retorts to their name-calling and slurs, but it was too late to do anything about it, which only deepened his resentment.
The disrespect had gained enough momentum to become the talk of the university. A certain scornful rumor began to circulate regarding his sexuality, and that was it. He stopped leaving his room. He didn’t socialize, he barely went to classes, and always avoided campus when he did go out.
He was eager to go home. Of course, he would have to return to this city to complete his education, but he would make sure he returned a different man. And when he did, he would remember the names and faces of every whoring bastard that had made these past two years so wretched. His heart beat faster at the thought and his palms broke out in a sweat. He would not be so weak and vulnerable. He would make them pay.
He couldn’t help but smile at the thought, imagining the vengeance he could inflict. Perhaps he would have Duncan teach him how to fight or shoot a pistol. Then the next time he returned to school he would be lean and mean. He would be just like Duncan Le True – sly, deadly, and respected.
Caught up in this fantasy, he imagined he would look different, too. He would have darker hair, a fairer complexion, and rippling muscle. His face wouldn’t blush so much, his cheeks wouldn’t be as puffy, and his eyes would be a little less beady.
The women wouldn’t laugh at him behind his back anymore or huddle in groups and whisper as he passed. In this daydream of his he imagined having his way with one of them – particularly Gracie Newel or one of her friends.
It would be their due payment to him for the years of slander.
The station attendant sounded the whistle, and the train pulled back out, engorged once again with passengers. A skyship bound for Oulette had begun boarding in the distance. Important-looking dignitaries and aristocratic gentlemen had their luggage loaded for them as they sauntered aboard, canes swinging at their sides. They left behind them a trail of cigarette stubs and cologne vapor.
He watched them out of boredom until one of them happened to look his way and make eye contact, at which point Theodore immediately broke it by averting his gaze.
He stared at the ground for a while, brooding, until he gradually fell asleep there on the bench.
In the depths of sleep he was subjected to a nightmare – the kind that lingered in his head long after waking. Directed by his insecurities, the nightmare played out painful scenarios made worse with bizarre, non-sensical twists.
Don’t be a fucking sheep, Theo! I thought I told you! I won’t have my son acting like a bitch! You’re gonna man up or YOU’RE GONNA PAY, His father scolded him. In the background his classmates acted like they weren’t watching.
Past events from his childhood met recent memory with frightening clarity, and convinced him through its entirety that it was real.
His father was beating his mother against the couch, yelling “Wipe that look off your face! I don’t want to see it anymore!!” But it wasn’t his father doing the beating. Glancing in the mirror, he saw it was his own face looking back.
The dream jarred him awake painfully. His heart was drumming in his throat. The raucous sounds of the station came flooding back again. Someone was leaning over him
Theodore squinted through the daylight.
He had only seen his sister a handful of times over the past two years, and briefly at that. She wore dark colors, mostly purple and black, with a wide-brimmed hat perched fashionably on her head of carefully tidied hair. Her gloved hands held a purse, looped around her thin shoulders. She only seemed to have grown more beautiful; with black hair, cream-pale skin, and a slim body. He hated her all the more for it.
“Just making sure you’re still among the living,” she said, still speaking with that fake Machian accent he hated.
“Unfortunately for you.”
“Good to see you too, brother.”
“I know. They threw a surprise farewell party for me and I had to do my rounds saying goodbye to everyone.” She smiled a playful smile.
It sounded like gloating to him. He wanted to slap that stupid smile off her face. He became painfully aware of his disarray and sat up on the bench.
“The flight’s been delayed,” he said.
“Has it, now?”
She walked over toward the men bustling about their small craft. The fact that she hadn’t simply asked him the reason for the delay infuriated Theodore. He watched her approach the crew.
The sight of her drew the gaze of every dock worker. She quickly singled out the captain and walked up to him with a confidence Theodore could never have.
He felt obviously lesser compared to her, and he was sure that everyone else could see it. He was certain that they were comparing the two of them, always judging him as lesser. His mind stumbled in an angry flurry of thoughts trying to prove evidence to the contrary – that he was not, in fact, inferior. He came up with a few weak-sounding arguments and desperately tried to swallow them.
He watched her confront the captain like an officer approaching a subordinate. He could see the captain shift his weight uncomfortably.
His sister spoke briefly to the captain. She laughed a pretty laugh and the captain grinned along like an idiot. The rest of the crew were still busy at work, but most found an excuse to be within eyeshot of the young woman.
The two separated and his sister returned with a pleased expression on her face. Theodore groaned inwardly.
“The captain says we’ll be departing at three-thirty. Pleasant fellow.”
“Three-thirty? He told me five.”
“I persuaded him to make haste,” she said with a smile.
“What, you’ll sleep with him, too?” It was a weak cut. She didn’t take the bait. Her smile turned into a fake frown.
“Oh, don’t be vulgar.” She sat on the bench across from him and crossed her legs. “We haven’t seen each other in almost two years, brother. Let’s not fight.”
He dug in his jacket for another cigarette “Yeah whatever.”
“So how’s the city life been?”
He didn’t want to answer that. “Fine.”
“A charming place, isn’t it? Always something to do and new things to see.”
“How’re your studies coming along?”
Panic fluttered in his chest. He fumbled with his lighter. “Good.”
“How did you place in your class?”
He felt a sweat break out across his back. The cigarette’s tip glowed as he took a big drag to steady his nerves. “Top of my class, of course.”
She smiled. “Good. Father would give you a thrashing if you weren’t.”
An image of his father, red-faced with rage, flashed in his mind. “You think I don’t know that!?”
She threw her hands in the air. “I’m just saying. At least I won’t have to listen to the beating.” She stood with a smile and walked off.
“Where’re you going?”
“To enjoy the city some more before we depart. Were you planning on just sitting there by yourself for the next five hours?”
His face flushed red. He had been planning on just that. It would be easier than feeling self-conscious in front of strangers.
“Of course not,” he said quickly. “I’ll go for a walk, maybe.”
But she was already gone.
“I’ll go…,” he muttered to himself after she had left.
He was even about to follow through with it, before the thought struck him; what if he were to run into someone he knew, or even worse, someone that recognized him?
And then: who’s to say he wouldn’t be recognized here? Plenty of other students came from abroad and would be flying home for break just like him.
Those that lived in other Machian cities would probably be taking the North Express home, but not all of them. He scanned the masses of people passing through the station while trying not to look paranoid. Too many people. He didn’t like the odds, and he didn’t think he had it in him to weather anymore of their insults.
Quickly he gathered his luggage and relocated to a more secluded bench, away from prying eyes.
There he spent the next five hours alone. He told himself it was because he didn’t feel like talking at that particular time, but the truth floated quietly in the shadowed places of his mind like a patient disease.