Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
How to Change Stone to Bread
Men in robes and thick canvas gloves dumped piles of raw material into massive black-iron bubbling vats: smashed stone, weeds ripped from pavement cracks, chalk. Bryan wiped sweat from his face and hauled his wheelbarrow back to the yards for another load, and caught sight of Cosimo flashing him a grin. Bryan threw it back, but that smile faded quickly as he returned to work.
The hours were long in the vathouse. He sat outside well past sundown, his skin slick with sweat, and leaned his head into the corner of the courtyard. Thick haze fell over the city of Saltflats as distant factories belched smoke and steam into the air.
The cooks brought their finished product out in cloth-wrapped bundles to be distributed across the lower quarters. The cheap chembread would sustain the poor for the next week, though if people knew what went into the vats, if they knew how the alchemists turned stone to food, if they heard the prayers and felt the magic, nobody would touch the stuff, not for anything.
Cosimo approached and slumped down next to Bryan. He stank like grease and tangy ozone.
“My back aches,” Cosimo declared. “My shoulders hurt. My hands feel like shit. My lungs are on fire. My eyes won’t stop watering. And honestly, I’m the happiest man in the world.” Cosimo’s enthusiasm was infectious, and even the mages liked him. He was burly, covered in fine black hair, with a curly mop of it on the top of his skull.
“I’m glad you’re in a good mood,” Bryan said. “Considering we spent the last day shoveling rocks.”
Cosimo cracked his knuckles, one by one, and leaned closer. “What did you find for me today?” he asked in a low voice, almost casual, but Bryan heard the anxious undertone.
“Two guards at the base of the stairs,” Bryan said. “Lizardheads I think. I saw two mages carry a recipe box up there.”
Cosimo grunted. “What else?”
“Door’s definitely locked. Mages had a special key.” Bryan stretched his neck. “This might be your worst idea yet, you know. Nobody steals from the alchemists.”
“We can do this,” Cosimo said. “We just need a way through that door.”
Bryan let out a slow, weary sigh, then reached into the folds of his ratty work tunic and produced a small iron key with a long hook at one end.
“You gorgeous man,” Cosimo said, eyes shining.
“Picked a mage’s pocket for this,” Bryan said. “He could’ve thrown me into the vats, you know.”
Cosimo tried to laugh, but doubled over instead with a wild coughing fit. When it was finished, he had blood on his hands.
“Come on,” Bryan said and helped his friend up. “Let’s get you home before your lungs give out.”
Sticky globs of light pustules shivered in the evening breeze atop their large poles. Their glow was weak and yellow-green, but they gave new life to the City of Saltflats. Before the alchemists came and revolutionized the world, the city at night was quiet and partially abandoned, but now folks swamped the streets moving from restaurant to drinking hall to pub. Raptor-pulled carriages, crocodile beasts the size of small horses, skittered down the street. Men in thick rubber suits with gears and steaming packs sprayed noxious liquids into the gutters to sterilize the smell of shit and sweat and blood. The tall, narrow row houses belched smoke from their chemical guts, nearly blotting out the moon and the stars, and enormous public crawling machines powered by burning mercury lumbered along packed with the poorest of the city on their way home from work.
Saltflats was a maze, grown up from a centrally planned fortress hundreds of years ago. Bryan led the way past groups of men spinning chemical dice that flashed different colors and numbers as they rolled, through crowds overflowing from packed bars, and down a damp alley corridor.
Cosimo’s breathing was labored as they reached the tenement. The pungent air wasn’t good for him. Bryan had wanted to move away for years, but they couldn’t afford it. They went in the back entrance, up the loose stairs, and into their two-room apartment. The green wallpaper peeled in long strips, and their furniture was a jumble of stolen chairs, boosted tables, and dented pots and pans.
Cosimo collapsed onto the low couch, hand on his chest. Bryan hurried into the bedroom and grabbed the mister, a heavy brass contraption with a mouthpiece at one end and a series of bladders and chemical heating elements at the other. He set it up in front of Cosimo, placed a measure of powder in a small dish at the top, and worked the hand crank until the powder caught fire. Cosimo leaned forward and breathed the vapors as deep as he could.
“Better?” Bryan asked.
“Better,” Cosimo said with a sigh.
Bryan paced across the room. “We’re almost out of the medicine,” he said. “And we can’t afford another packet with what we’ve saved.”
“Then we move the timetable up,” Cosimo said. “Tomorrow night.”
Bryan wiped his face with both palms. He felt a shiver down in his chest, in his feet. He’d done a lot of foolish things with Cosimo over the years: ripped off foreign merchants with fake vials of blessed mercury, scammed rich folk up in Foreverside with powders and holy symbols, forged recipe books for creepy back alley chemists. But stealing from an actual alchemical company was beyond anything.
And yet Cosimo’s scarred lungs were worse every day, and soon the medicine wouldn’t work anymore, assuming they could even afford it. Stealing the recipe for the chembread could save them both. There were hundreds of buyers in Saltflats, and with the profits they could leave the city, start over somewhere with cleaner air, and buy all the cures and powders Cosimo could ever need.
Bryan sat down next to his best friend and draped an arm across the big man’s shoulder. They’d been together since they were children running wild in the gutters. He’d do whatever it took to keep Cosimo alive.
“Tomorrow it is then,” Bryan said.
Cosimo leaned his head against Bryan’s shoulder.
The company’s side door was unlocked, despite the late hour—Bryan made sure of that before he left from last shift earlier in the night. He slipped inside with Cosimo right behind. The familiar halls of the bakery were quiet and dark, and the soot stains and chipped plaster felt oppressive. They made their way along the factory floor, passed beneath the massive iron vats caked with years and years of fumes and burning materials, and climbed up the back ramp to the second level.
The stairs to the recipe room were tucked in the far corner down a short hall, away from the bustle of the cooking floor. “The guards are still on duty,” Cosimo whispered.
Bryan slipped a long, hollow brass rod from his tunic. It had cost them every last penny they had. The center was made of glass, and two different liquids sat inside the middle vial. Bryan shook it hard, mixing the components, and pointed the end toward the nearest vat.
Light sparked from the rod as the chemical reaction roared outward. Blue electricity smashed into one of the chains holding the big vat up. It snapped with a massive clang and the whole enormous contraption tilted to one side, the ceiling groaning under the shifted weight. Boiling alkahest spilled over the side onto the floor below, eating a massive hole in the concrete.
The guards came running. Lizardheads with green scales, the size and shape of an average man, but with a long, skinny tail swishing along the floor. They were alchemical nightmares, monsters born from the worst of the arts, a combination of a condemned man’s mind and a massive lizard’s body. The Lizardheads stared at the broken vat and hissed in some strange language. Eventually, they ran off together, hurrying down a side passage.
“Now,” Cosimo said and ran out from their hiding spot. Bryan tossed the spent rod and chased after him.
The back hall was clear. Bryan slammed the wizard key into the plain iron door’s lock and turned. It clicked with a deep reverberation and opened slowly toward them.
Stairs led up. Cosimo went first and Bryan followed.
The recipe room was simple and windowless. Filing card catalogues were lined up along the walls, and several tables stood in the middle. Cosimo began ripping through the drawers. Bryan gaped—there must’ve been millions word of recipes.
“Here,” Cosimo said, sucking in a breath. He held up an old, faded yellow card with cramped writing covering its front and simple alchemical symbols on the back. He shoved it into his robes. “Come on, let’s go.”
Back down the stairs. Bryan shot a look over his shoulder and wished he’d grabbed more recipes. Cosimo stopped at the end of the hall, peering out onto the cook floor.
Lizardheads swarmed the place. “Shit,” Cosimo said. “Too many of them.”
“Is there a window?” Bryan asked. “We can get out that way.”
“One floor down,” Cosimo said. He took a deep breath then coughed wetly. “We’ll make a break for it,” he said.
Bryan wanted to argue—there had to be a better plan—but Cosimo sprinted toward the ramp and Bryan went after him.
They didn’t get far. The first Lizardhead to notice them hissed wildly and climbed the wall like his hands were made of glue. It swung itself up behind them, tongue lapping at the air, a curved blade in its hand.
Cosimo turned right and dove down the ramp. Bryan kept close, hands sweating, tunic fluttering behind him. The Lizardhead was fast, and it flew after them.
They reached the center floor and Cosimo turned right, through a side door, and down a long storage hall. Bryan slammed the door shut just as the Lizardhead reached them. The monster bashed against it as Bryan ran, and the door smashed open moment later.
Cosimo ripped a window open at the end of the narrow hall. “Here,” he said. “This way.”
More Lizardheads crawled in through the doorway and came toward them. Cosimo grabbed Bryan and shoved him out first. Bryan scrambled over and hung there for a moment, fingers straining on the ledge.
“Come on,” Bryan said, reaching a hand back inside. The drop would hurt, but it wouldn’t kill them.
“Sorry,” Cosimo said, smiling sadly. “They’d never let us get away.”
“What are you doing?” Bryan tried not to scream as Cosimo shoved a yellowed, tattered recipe card into his hand.
Then turned and ran at the Lizardheads.
He didn’t last long. The first Lizardhead was surprised as Cosimo barreled into it, but the creature threw Cosimo to the ground and lashed out with its blade. The monsters fell on him, stabbing, tearing, kicking.
Bryan released a sharp sob and dropped. He hit the ground hard, hobbled once, twice, then began to run.
Behind him, those monsters slaughtered the only friend he’d ever had. They’d feast on him and throw what was left into the vats.
Now Bryan was alone and no magic could bring back what was gone.
ps, It’s a heist! Prompt for this week was “alchemypunk” so pulpy lizard monsters, I guess. If you enjoyed it, please share! Have a good week. - DC