Quaith Meets Praxis

On cue, a fresh billow of steam spewed forth from the smokestack, showering enchanted purple-green sparkles over the cheering crowd. Mr. Tollins gripped Quaith’s hand, raising both of their palms in a triumphant fist. Tollins beamed at the audience, stealing a glance at Quaith to nudge a little more enthusiasm out of the young man, but Quaith could only force a half smile, lips sealed tight. He nodded at the dignitaries and members of the news bureaus as they jockeyed for space in the front rows. In a wash of flashbulbs and the fog of camera smoke, the mayor leaped onto the platform and shook hands with Quaith and Mr. Tollins in turn. Grins that would look good on the pages of the papers were exchanged all around, and then each of the three of them posed in front of the glimmering new steam engine.

The morning’s rain, it turned out, hadn’t been a bad thing, enhancing the shine of the already polished black paint. Now the clouds were parting, and the water droplets were catching the light. It looked almost aglow, glimmering in the fresh sun. “Excellent work, gentlemen, truly excellent,” the mayor was saying to them as some hired hand maneuvered Quaith into position for his portrait. A scruffy photographer from the Daily Digest wrestled with his tripod, throwing the cape back every few moments to lean around and adjust a knob on the legs. He muttered something about the lighting, and someone else was telling Quaith not to squint.

Quaith caught another reprimanding glance from Tollins, and he dutifully raised his chin in response. He looked out over the crowd for the first time since the speech had begun. There were still minglers, working the gathering and talking with excited hand motions, but people were dispersing now. Many of them, Quaith noted, were queuing up at the ticket window. So at least Tollins and the rest of the board would be happy.

“All right, now, right over here,” the photographer, finally ready, said.

Quaith’s eyes swept back over to the black mass of the camera, trying to find a place to focus. The photographer’s arms were sticking out of the cloak at awkward angles, a flash raised high in one hand, a bulbous trigger in the other, but it was something over his shoulder that caught Quaith’s attention. His eyes snapped off-focus just as the flash was going off, blinding him before he had a chance to figure out what he had seen. He blinked, trying to clear the haze, as the hired hand eased him out of the way. Duty done, people suitably impressed—and with a nod of dismissal from Tollins—Quaith made his way quickly down the slick wooden stairs, past the bunting and rope lines. He shook a few hands as he tried to excuse himself, hopping up into the step of the train’s coal car to get a better look at the assembled guests.

He spotted her almost immediately. She was under the awning of the station roof, leaning against the wall—one foot raised to support her against the building, one hand holding a battered cigarette, the station’s brass sign posted over her head.

Quaith could not stop staring. It wasn’t just that she wore trousers or a gentleman’s long overcoat, though that was odd enough. It wasn’t even the bone-white skin that peeked out from underneath the brim of a newsboy cap, or flashed against the chapped pink of her knuckles as she drew her cigarette away from her lips. It wasn’t even that she felt vaguely familiar, sort of in the way of a storybook character that you’d read about once and long forgotten.

A long moment dragged on, longer than was polite, as he watched her, as he watched the passersby cast curious and dirty looks in her direction, or whispered to themselves and hurried away. The woman ignored all of this, Quaith and the others alike. She was staring at the steam engine. And frowning.

She was clearly scrutinizing Orange Rail Lines’ pride and joy. Between drags on her cigarette, she would occasionally hold up her unoccupied hand and trace something in the air, as if she was writing out numbers or letters, and then shake her head.

How long he stood like that, he couldn’t say. It wasn’t until her cigarette burned down and she snuffed it out on the cobblestone street and began to walk off that Quaith found his legs. He jumped off the step, hurrying through the dwindling crowd, following the bob of her hat. “Excuse me, miss!” he shouted after her. “Miss!”

She didn’t turn around until he’d actually caught up with her, put a hand upon her shoulder. She looked at the spot where it had rested, then up at Quaith’s face. A white-blond eyebrow raised at him. Up close, he could see that her skin was so pale that it bordered on translucent, and her peach lips were a mosaic of scabs and crusted cuts. Dark circles hung like hammocks underneath her eyes. “What?” she asked, as if he had just intruded upon a most urgent conversation.

“I . . . ,” he began, and then words utterly failed him. He what? What, exactly, did he expect? He realized at that moment that he had no plan, had given this moment no forethought. He didn’t even really know what he was doing there, except that it had seemed so urgent, a moment ago. “I . . . ,” he repeated. “I . . . I’m Quaith Vandervoon. I’m with the railroad?”

“Yeah. And?”

“I saw you in the crowd.”

“I’m hard to miss.”

Quaith paused. “Um. You saw the—the speech, then?”

The woman shrugged. “To be honest, I didn’t really listen. It was what I expected.”

“Oh . . .”

“Is there something else?”

“What do you think of it?” he blurt out. “The . . . the engine, I mean. You seemed . . . like . . . you had an opinion.” He said the last couple of words in a rush, quieting down successively until it was nothing more than a hurried mumble. He looked at his shoes.

The woman considered this. Briefly, she took off her hat and ran her hands back through her white hair—it was cropped short, and not simply pinned up like Quaith had first assumed, and the gesture startled him. Like she was going to strike out at him. Or rather like she could strike out at him, if she’d wished, and there wasn’t a damned thing that he could do about it. He jerked back before he could catch himself.

“Well, it’s a sloppy design,” she said simply, dropping the hat back on her head.

Quaith blinked, momentarily thrown off-guard. “I . . . I’m sorry, what?”

“I said it’s sloppy,” she repeated. “You’re using technology that hasn’t advanced for nearly fifty years. There are better, more efficient ways of powering your engine, Mr. Vandervoon, that your company is apparently either too stupid to know exist, or too shortsighted to implement. So it’s going to be flashy, and catch everyone’s attention for a few months, and this is going to make your stockholders very pleased, but after a while the public will realize that they’re still being overcharged and underserved.” She took a deep breath. “This is the era of innovation. The next big breakthrough is coming, and you’re not going to be on board.”

“We’re not.”

“Nope.” The woman glanced up as the sun began to scurry away behind another set of clouds. She turned down the collar of her coat.

“You seem to know an awful lot about this.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You mean for a woman?”

“No!” Quaith said, feeling the warmth of embarrassment begin to blossom in his cheeks. “I . . . well. Sort of, I suppose. But, in a good way! Maybe . . . maybe that kind of perspective is useful here.”

She shook her head. “Goodbye, Mr. Vandervoon.”

“No, wait! I . . . I’m sorry. Please, just . . . how much do you know? About these kinds of engines.”

Her blue eyes were the color of a frozen lake, the pupil a gaping black hole down which a person might lose themselves to an invisible current. She fixed them on Quaith, appraising him thoroughly, from the shoes that were polished so finely that the square around them was mirrored upside down, to the matching slick of his tightly-curled black hair, back to his own eyes, hidden behind half-moon spectacles with thick lenses. What did he look like, to her? What did he look like, to any of them? Not even a hundred years ago, a man like him—much too dark to ever get what they called a “gentleman’s tan”—would never have been allowed to shake hands with the mayor, pose for pictures with him as if they were drinking buddies. Did she think him unsuited for his role, was that her hesitation?

Abruptly, the woman gave a lopsided shrug. “I know everything about them,” she said finally. “I know that your father’s friend invented them with the hopes of bringing the world to the masses, and that it was your father—among others—that has twisted them into the highly-priced luxury of the ultra rich that they are today. I know that the choate-salt that powers them is mined from half a world away, and that the supply is dwindling with each passing year, and yet your company does nothing to prevent their inevitable downfall. I know that you know that there are better ways of doing things, and yet you stand and stare at your hands during speeches that praise the same old design in new trappings, instead of doing anything about it. I know how these engines work. I know why they don’t work. I know how they could work. And I know that even if I told you how to fix the problem, your company would never allow it—it would be too costly. Don’t try to insult me by pretending otherwise—I also know the ways of business.”

She let her eyes bore into him for a moment, silence punctuating her little speech until Quaith’s shoulders slumped. The woman smirked. “Now: if you’ll excuse me, I have more important matters to attend to.”

He watched her retreating back, the bob of her cap as she edged around the shoulders moving past her. Her hand was still twitching by her side, writing something in the air beside her that only she was privy to. Quaith took a deep breath. “Could you fix it, though?”

The woman paused. She turned just enough to glance over her shoulder, her face still in shade from the brim of her hat. “Didn’t I just say that your company would never allow it?”

“I don’t care what the company would say,” Quaith said, hurrying over to close the gulf that had grown between them. “I’m asking if you could do it. If—if you would do it. I’ll pay you myself.”

She regarded him for a while, fixed in place, her expression unreadable. Her eyes narrowed the tiniest fraction. “I wonder if you would actually have the nerve to let me.”

Quaith straightened his spine. If he was being honest with himself, he had never given much thought to the matter before—someone else had always handled most of the business for him, adviser after adviser, one long line of Board of Directors and chairmen. Quaith had the company thrust upon him when he was only fifteen. Lately, though, he’d begun to wonder if this was truly the height of what they could achieve. He knew that there had been work left unfinished, designs and ideas rotting in dusty old drafting tubes at the company headquarters here in the city. He’d tried, once, to suggest that they bring someone in to take a look at them, and had been promptly laughed out of the meeting. He held his shoulders back, tried to mimic the posture that he’d seen so many times in his father’s portraits. But when he opened his mouth to speak, a burly hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“Come along, now, or we’re going to be late for the luncheon,” Tollins said.

Quaith looked back at his polished shoes, if for no other reason than to avoid the expression of mirth upon the woman’s face. He could see in their reflection that she’d already moved on, her coat flashing out of view. Quaith forced himself to nod. “The luncheon,” he said. “Right. Of course.”