The Hero They Need
by Chris Herron
Tall Tale TV is officially three years old! Check out the past anniversary episodes to see how far the channel has come:
You can tell a lot about a community by the local bar. A swanky joint with polished wood walls, plush chairs and a wide array of spirits imported from far away lands might speak of wealth and self-importance. On the other hand, a knife pitted bar table, stained with booze that doubles as a cleaning agent, means you’re probably in the wrong part of town.
The Greasy Gear, however, was a special case. Bartholomew, or Ol’ Barty as the locals called him, was stationed right outside the walls of the local University. His food was cheap, and his drinks were cheaper, meaning he was quite the hit with all the down and out students. While he kept a stock of weak ale for the truly distraught patrons, the hardest thing most of these academicals had the constitution to drink was hard cider.
Nalt slammed his mug on the table harder than he meant, thick brown liquid sloshing onto the bar counter. “It’s no use. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a mechanist…”
“Hey now, don’t go sayin’ that.” Ol’ Barty swiped a rag across the spill, sopping up the drink before it could seep into the mottled wooden surface. He rung it out into a second glass he had stowed below the counter in case the lad wanted a second round. “Of all them college boys that drown their sorrows in here, you have something none of them has.”
Nalt sniffled and slowly peeked over the rim of his wire frame glasses. “Really? What?”
“Common bloody sense.”
Nalt slouched back on his stool and wailed, “But that’s the problem!”
Barty raised an eyebrow. “How’s that then?”
Nalt gestured wildly with his cup, spilling more of its contents which the barkeep quickly addressed. “They don’t want ‘solutions.’ Just last week I make a flame retardant fabric, they asked me why I was afraid of a little fire?” He slammed back another swallow. “The week before that I showed them a design for blast proof safety glasses. They told me if I’m not willing to loose an eyebrow or two, maybe I was in the wrong field of study.”
Barty tossed his rag over his shoulder and stroked his thick, walrus mustache. “Now those sound like good ideas to me. Can’t count the number of times one of you lot come in here looking like a roast chicken. And they didn’t go for it?”
Nalt sighed and sat his glass on the table. “No. They don’t think anything is ‘properly engineered’ until it has a high likelihood of exploding.”
The door to the tiny establishment burst open, and a nervous looking woman half fell inside, pointing a gnarled finger back the way she had come. “There’s been an explosion at the university!”
Nalt waved a hand. “See what I mean?!”
Barty leveled a look at him before turning to the woman. “What’s the matter, Elsie? There’s explosions up there all the time.”
She shook her head. “Not like this one, an entire building caught fire and collapsed. There are students still trapped inside.”
Barty turned to the sad, skinny little man at his bar. “Sounds like they need you up there, lad.”
Nalt gave him a forlorn look. “What am I going to do?”
Barty crossed his arms over his chest. “I might not be an intelectual like one of you lot, but it don’t take no genius to know that you’re probably the only one up there to have some gizmo that can help in a crisis.”
Nalt mulled that over. It was true, most mechanists seemed to thrive on chaos and pushing the boundaries of what was possible, where he was more focused on preventing the chaos the inevitably resulted from pushing the boundaries of what was possible.
Barty leaned on the bar, getting close to the lad. “In fact, it might be a good way to show them just how useful your little doodads really are.”
Nalt looked up at him, his eye’s filling up with a sudden hope. “You’re right. And I have been working on something that just might do the trick.”
Barty grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Then get goin’ and show ’em what a real mechanist looks like!”
Nalt snatched his cup off the table and slammed back the remainder of his chocolate milk before hopping off the stool and making a dash for the door. “Thanks Barty! I owe you one!”
Elsie shook her head as Nalt disappeared down the street outside. “Do you think he can do anything to help?”
Barty scoffed. “Him? It would take a bloody miracle.” he snatched the partially filled cup from beneath the bar and poured it back into its original jug. “Insane, the lot of ’em”
Master Stokes coughed as the raging inferno around him surged up another support beam. He shielded his eyes from the falling embers with his shovel-sized hands. He had pulled out half a dozen students so far, but there were reports of at least four more people still trapped inside.
There was a whimper to his left and he turned, spotting an arm sticking out from beneath a large section of copper that had once been part of a chemical distillation tank. He dug his fingers beneath the edge and began to haul it up, his muscles straining against the massive weight of the inch thick plate. The figure beneath began to squirm, trying to pull free, but seemed to be stuck on something.
Stokes growled with effort, his arms trembling under the weight as the heated metal began to burn through the thick callouses of his palms.
Something stomped up next to him with booming footfalls. A figure clad head to toe in some sort of clunky armored suit with a billowing cape of brown fabric behind it. The armor was bulky and A-symmetrical, with all manner of gears, pistons and valves protruding from its surface.
The mysterious figure bent down down and removed the suits mechanical right arm, before wedging it beneath the copper plate. There was the hum of an internal motor, and then a series of clicks as the arm began to ratchet upwards like a jack.
Stokes felt the weight lessen in his grip, and the plate lifted. The trapped student scrambled out to the relative safety of the crumbling interior of the burning school. He was a small boy, no more than 12, with a mop of blond hair and a shirt two sizes too big. The master mechanist pointed him towards the exit. “Get clear while you still can!”
The young boy cast a shaky gaze down the smoke-filled corridor, a thick wall of flame standing in their way.
The armored figure reached for a valve attached to its left forearm, and a jet of white powder billowed out in a fifty foot plume in front of them. The cone of propellant extinguished the inferno in its path, and the the student bolted for the exit.
The figure turned to Stokes, his voice muffled and distorted by the breathing apparatus in his helmet. “You might want to go with him, sir. I’m not sure how long this structure will remain intact. I’ll keep going and try to save more people.”
Master Stokes raised an appreciative brow. “A noble sentiment, good sir, but two can cover more ground than one. I’ve cleared the rooms to the left, but the main explosion was in the northern laboratory.”
The armored man nodded, leading the way, issuing occasional jets of white powder to help clear their path.
They heard shouting to the side and saw one of the older students, likely a teachers aid, charge straight past them, his work apron a ball of flame.
Before Stokes could react, the man beside him flipped open a panel in his chest and hauled back on a small lever, aiming for the student. A lasso shot out, catching the flaming student around the chest and pulling him clean off his feet as he reached the end of the rope. The armored man began turning a crank, reeling him back towards them like a fish on a line.
Once the student was close enough, there was a quick burst of white powder to snuff the flames, then the man used another valve to administer liberal amounts of a green gel to the boy’s face and hands.
The mechanist-in-training sputtered and coughed, clawing at the gel. “What is this stuff?!”
“A cactus extract for treating burns.” The man removed the lasso and pointed towards the exit. “But it’s just a temporary measure. There should be medical staff waiting outside.”
The boy tried to stand, but cried out in pain. “I don’t think I can walk. I hurt my back.”
The man nodded and removed one of his metal boots, pressing a knob on one side. A set of wheels popped out of the bottom and he handed it to the student. “Hold on tight!” He pressed in another button, and a small tube protruded from the back. It began to emit a small rumble, which grew in intensity until a spout of flame erupted from the back of the miniature jet engine, yanking the student down the hall and toward the exit in a shower of sparks and mind numbing screams of terror.
Stoked called from across the room. “Over here! I’ve found two more.”
With several giant, clomping footsteps, the armored man crossed the distance and peered to where Master Stokes was indicating.
A pair of student, a boy and a girl, were huddled inside a large supply closet, pouring random chemicals on the encroaching flames in a mad attempt to keep them at bay. The plumes of noxious gas resulting from their efforts were disconcerting.
The man aimed his hand, spun the nob, and a small fizzle of white powder sputtered out. Cursing under his breath, the man raced forward, tearing the cape from his back. He spun it around and snapped it over the chemical fire like a fitted sheet.
The fabric began to sizzle and pop from the mix of chemicals, but it held the fire at bay. The pair of students moved as one, running over the disintegrating cape to safety.
Stokes caught the girl by the arm and spun her around to face him. “Do you know if there is anyone else left inside?”
She looked over her shoulder, clearly eager to flee the crumbling structure. She glanced back up at him. “I think Senior Member Willikie is still inside his office.”
Master Stokes nodded his thanks and shooed her away. He looked around. The building was starting to collapse. Large portions of the roof were starting to fall in, and the support beams were crumbling around them.
“Sir, I really think you should leave with them.”
Stokes shot his companion a scandalized look. “And leave a fellow mechanist behind? Never!”
The man gave a resigned sigh and nodded, turning to the hallway that lead to the Senior Member’s personal office. It was like staring into the sun.
Stokes scratched at his beard, weighing their options. “Perhaps if I run really quickly through the flames, I could-” The sound of a metal fist meeting a solid wall cut him off, and the schoolmaster turned to see the metal clad man pummeling his way through the wall with just his left fist, a piston firing it forward and back in rapid succession like a jack hammer. “Or that might work, I suppose.”
Unfortunately, Willikie’s office was several rooms down, and by the time they broke through, much to the old man’s surprise, the armored fist was a twisted mash of scrap metal.
The ancient teacher spun around in his motorized wheel chair, staring at them sternly through massive spectacles. “What is the meaning of this?! Look what you did to my wall!”
Stokes strode through the newly fashioned portal. “Ah, good to see you’re alive, old chap. Ready to go?”
Willikie adjusted his spectacles, bringing the hulking frame of Master Stokes into focus. “Go? Go where?”
The armored figure managed to pry his hand free of the mangled gauntlet with some difficulty and dropped it to the ground. “There was an explosion, sir, didn’t you hear it?”
The old man waved his hand dismissively. “Pshaw, a little explosion and everyone thinks the world is ending. Why, back in my day, we-”
“Please, sir. We really need to be going. I don’t know how long the ceiling will hold out.”
Stokes nodded his agreement. “Especially now that we’ve broken through so many support walls.”
The armored man looked back over his shoulder. “I, uh… I didn’t think of that.”
The building gave a mighty groan, and the wall imediately behind them buckled. Rafter beams came crashing down, followed by a hailstorm of thick, clay tiles. Stokes dove for Senior Member Willikie, leaning over him to shelter the old man from the worst of the damage.
As the dust settled and the fire began crawling up the walls, the ancient professor nodded. “It’s nearly lunch time anyway. Perhaps we should move this conversation to a safer location. I can finish grading these papers later.”
As the metal-clad man extracted himself from a stray beam, Stokes looked at their escape route which was now buried under half a school. “Afraid not old friend. I think we’ve wound the wrong gear this go around. End of the line, as they say.”
Willike nodded his acceptance. “I see. Well, in that case I suppose I should finish grading those papers before we die.”
The armored figure fidgeted as he looked from the pair of teachers to the wreckage, then up to the collapsed ceiling. “Odd question, but would either of you happen to have a welding torch?”
Willikie pulled a lever on his motorized chair and a small tool cabinet extended out the side. “Acetylene or Propane?”
The pair of teachers watched curiously as the strange man began stripping off what remained of his armor. As he began to undo the helmet, he thought twice and left it on. With what he had in mind, a little extra protection might come in handy. He knelt down and began making impromptu changes to the armor portions he had just removed.
Now that the man was wearing only his school uniform and a helmet, his head looked comically large on his thin frame. Willikie leaned in close to Stokes and whispered. “I think your friend may be having a mental breakdown.”
Stokes shook his head. “He’s performed admirably up to now, I say we wait ans see what trick he has up his sleeve this time.”
The odd man picked his modified armor off the ground and rushed behind the teachers. With expert practice he ignited the welding torch and got to work hastily attaching everything to the base of the chair. “Master Stokes, we’re going to have to squeeze in next to Senior Member Willikie. But if my calculations are correct this should have just enough force for the three of us.”
Master Stokes nodded, humoring the distraught fellow. “Of course. Master Willikie?”
Willikie looked longingly at the stack of ungraded papers on his desk and sighed. “Oh, very well.” He yanked on another lever and the chair of his seat elongated to the side, allowing room for another. Master Stokes squeezed in beside Willikie, taking up nearly the entire bench by himself and compressing the ancient professor painfully to one side.
The odd man squeezed his way between them, forcing the old man even further into the arm rest. He reached an arm behind them and gripped a hastily fashioned ripcord. “This may get bumpy!”
As he yanked on the cord, a massive shockwave of compressed air erupted beneath them, sending the chair and all its occupants up through the ceiling. The sheer force of the blast ripped through the remains of the school, crumpling it like a tin can and snuffing the flames.
As the three shot skyward, the giant of a man gripped the edges of the chair with childlike glee. Meanwhile the ancient professor merely pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose and frowned at the receding planet beneath them. As they hit the zenith of their arch, there was a small ‘POP’ and a billowing white parachute expanded above them.
The mysterious figure looked down at the destroyed college. “I can’t believe that worked!”
Willikie nodded his agreement. “Truly an inspirational performance. I take it by your current uniform you are an aspiring student here at the school?”
The man squirmed, trying to turn to face the old man with little success. “Yes sir. I want to be a mechanist more than anything!”
Master Stokes caught Willikie’s eye and nodded his unspoken agreement.
Willikie smiled up at the lad as they began to prepare for landing. “In that case, I would like to be the first to welcome you to the rank of Entry Level Mechanist! Congratulations, my boy. You have hereby graduated.”
The chair thumped into the grass of the courtyard, spilling the newly elevated student onto the lawn. He scrambled to his feet and and stared in wide eyed with disbelief at the two teachers. “Really? Just like that?”
Stokes placed a massive hand on the lads shoulder. “Indeed, your designs were exemplary, showing not only foresight, but a true grasp of what it means to be a mechanist.”
The boy pulled his helmet free, dropping it to the ground as he grinned up at his, now, peer. “Thank you sir! Entry level Mechanist Sheldon does have a nice ring to it.”
A few hundred feet away, on the other side of the collapsed structure, Nalt was busy trying to explain to a constable that someone had broken into his lab and stolen his prototype safety-suit, while the constable was busy trying to explain back that nobody in their right mind was going to give two shakes of a rats ass.