Worldbuilding: Sparrows

A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.

This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.

These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.

Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.

  1. Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
  2. Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
  3. Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.

To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.

If you liked this post and want to see more consider checking out and following my pages on Twitter, WorldAnvil, TeePublic, and more.

Worldbuilding: Flicker Lamps

Now I just need to assign meaning to the trinkets on the bookshelf…

When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.

The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.

An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.

There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.

There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.

With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.

This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!

Hired Guns

“Boss. He ain’t going down. That’s thirteen bullets we’ve put in ‘em and Wyatt put in six before that.”

“You really think a man who just ripped a steer and Wyatt in half is going to go down easy?”

“We-”

“Listen here. I’m not looking for excuses. If you can’t take down one man then what the hell am I paying you for? Keep him away from the herd or else you’ll all be looking for a new job.”

“Boss…”

“Get it done.”

 

Train Heist

Billy raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. If he strained his eyes he could just barely make out a thin line of black smoke rising up from the opposite end of the valley. “Best be getting ready!” he yelled as he ducked back into the signal house.

Inside Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet. Sitting in the corner was the bound signalman, who was resisting Jack’s attempts to force another vial of Oil down his throat. The first dose had worked wonders and had bought them hours of silence from their captive, but the poor bastard had woken up since then, and this time he knew what was coming.

“I still don’t know why we can’t just blow the track,” Clay complained. Even when agitated the man spoke in a laid-back drawl.

Billy was growing irritated with his friend’s unwanted suggestions. “Clay, did I ask you to speak?”

“No, but you need me to,” he answered. “What the hell are you going to do when they realize they’ve been set up and get the train moving again?”

“They won’t get moving because we’ll tie up the engineers first. Besides, what happens if we blow the tracks and someone dies? Do you really want to hang for murder?”

“We’re going to be wanted men after this anyway,” Clay replied, raising his voice.

Billy said nothing, and turned to check on Jack’s progress. By that point the signalman had finally been subdued for the second time. Jack assured him that the man would definitely remain incapacitated for the duration of the job, and was now checking the sealed jars of formaldehyde that he had prepared for their heist.

“I still think we need a name,” Sawyer said quietly.

“Shut it Sawyer!” Billy yelled. “The train is almost here.” He balled up his fist, but held it at his side. His brother’s incessant ideas were starting to annoying him. “I’ve spent weeks planning this heist, and all you-”

“He has a point,” said Jack. “Most gangs give themselves names nowadays. If they don’t some reporter will. It’s the only way keep control of your branding. ”

Billy glared at the disgraced chemist. He didn’t know what the man meant by ‘branding’ but he knew that he had no time for it. “I,” he began slowly. “Am beginning to regret bringing you on for this job.”

Jack shrugged. “Just trying to help.”

“All of you are going to get me killed.” Billy declared, and went out to check on the train’s progress. It was now close enough that he could make out the individual cars behind the engine. In his mind he pictured the mail car at its end, loaded with gold. He had paid good money for the information, and he was expecting a big payoff.

This would be it. No more working for another man’s profit, no more worrying about where his next meal would come from. Soon all four of them would be rich men. He checked and saw that the stop sign was still in place before taking a swig from the flask of whiskey he kept in his back pocket.

Once he had allowed the whiskey time to calm his nerves, he turned and went back into the house. “Everyone on your feet!” he hollered. “Train’s almost here.” Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet, while Jack’s response was much more subdued. “Guns loaded?” The three nodded an affirmative, while he made sure to check his own pistol as well. “Alright Jack, put on one of the signalman uniforms. I want you to be ready out there with the formaldehyde. The rest of you, keep yourselves hidden in here, or else they might see you and suspect something.”

The three of them nodded, and Jack, having donned the uniform, went to stand wait by the stop sign. Billy swore when he realized that the uniform was much too small for the chemist. Jack’s twin revolvers produced a pair of bulges in the uniform that he hoped would not be noticed. “They’re too far away to see anyway,” he muttered to himself.

“What’s that?” whispered Sawyer.

“Nothing!” Billy snapped. “No more talking!”

The train eased to a stop. Billy had imagined the engineers panicking at the sight of their stop sign, but by all appearances the engineers seemed perfectly in control of the metal beast. They must have seen it from a distance, he thought, and then realized that meant they might very well have seen him too. “They’ll just think I was here to help,” he assured himself.

“What?” asked Sawyer.

“Shut up!” He was getting worried. Not about the plan, everything had worked so far. He was worried about Jack. As the train approached the man had suddenly lost the snarky attitude that they had all gotten used to hearing from him. Jack, Billy decided, was a professional.

Jack had approached the train and was speaking to the engineers. “Now,” he whispered, silently urging Jack to throw his jar. He began to wonder if Jack actually intended to throw the jar, and it he was planning on selling them all out instead, until suddenly Jack sprang into action and lobbed his jar of formaldehyde through the engine’s window.

Billy drew his pistol and ran from the signal house, “Go!”

Clay and Sawyer pulled scarves over their faces and ran out of the signal house after him. They quickly closed the distance between them and the mail car before throwing their own jars of formaldehyde through the windows. Billy watched long enough to make sure that the two had made it inside before taking up position beside the engine with Jack.

Jack nodded to him and drew his pistols. Together, he and Billy jumped aboard the engine and found the engineers coughing and sputtering from the formaldehyde’s noxious fumes. Jack gave them a few kicks for good measure, while Billy tied their hands with a length of rope from his satchel.

Billy kicked them again and told them to stay quiet, before jumping out of the engine with Jack. “Let’s get the passengers subdued.” Jack, still without any sign of his previous attitude, simply nodded again. As they walked along the coal hopper Billy saw Clay stick his head out of the mail coach and give the all clear sign. Billy allowed himself to breath a sigh of relief, so far everything had gone as planned. He expected that by then Sawyer and Clay would be working over the mail guards, trying to convince them that opening the safe was in their best interests.

The two passenger cars presented a different problem. Billy and Jack were only two people, and if there wasn’t a single gun-carrying passenger on-board Billy would eat his hat. He reasoned that a single gunman might be able to keep control over the car so long as he displayed enough bluster. Even that was assuming that no one on board felt a sudden urge to become a hero.

He took the first passenger car while Jack went on to subdue the second. Billy cocked his pistol and held it before him as he went to face the passengers. To his relief most of the seats were empty, and to Billy’s eyes the few passengers that were on board all looked to be clerks and bankers. Not the kind of people who would feel inclined to fight. Billy allowed himself to relax a little, although he was well aware of the fact that less passengers would mean less loot.

“Alright!” he yelled, trying his best to add an edge of menace to his voice. “Unless you want to get shot, you’ll keep any valuables you have held in in front of you, and your mouths shut.” He struggled to open his satchel and keep his gun ready at the same time.

Billy was so nervous that he nearly pulled the trigger when the door at the opposite end of the carriage swung open. Just in time he realized that it was only Jack, who was pushing two women who looked like sisters in front of him.

“Only ones in there,” Jack explained, as he pushed them onto the nearest empty bench.

With Jack’s twin pistols now trained on the assembled passengers, Billy felt comfortable walking among them to collect their booty. “Everything you have goes in this bag!” he yelled repeatedly as walked along the aisle. Most of them complied, dropping handfuls of bank notes, jewelry, and spare change.

He had almost reached Jack when something hard struck the back of his head, and he soon found himself lying on the floor.

“Put the guns down or I put a bullet in your friend’s head,” said someone behind him. From where he was Billy could see Jack standing with both of his pistols trained on a single target. He was standing firm for the moment, but Billy could sense that the man was wavering.

Slowly, Billy tried turning his head to see who was behind him and was instead greeted with a boot that slammed his face into the floor. Teeth broke free from their roots and blood filled his mouth. “Bastard,” he said spitting out the teeth.

“Hardly,” said the voice. “Now, you,” he addressed Jack again. “Put down your guns as I instructed, or I will kill your friend.”

Billy looked towards Jack and their eyes met. Resignation flashed across Jack’s face. He nodded, and slowly he placed his pistols on the floor. The voice spoke again. “Right. Now, pick up the bag, and give all of these good people their money back.”

Jack stepped forward cautiously and grabbed the satchel from Billy’s hand. As he did that the strap caught and twisted Billy’s wrist. Billy swore through the blood, but he refrained from saying anything else lest he invite another kick.

As Jack rose up again, the sound of gunshots and shattered glass filled the carriage. Fresh blood spattered on the floor. Billy shut his eyes, in anticipation of a bullet soon entering his skull. To his surprise that bullet never came. Instead he heard a heavy thud behind him accompanied by a woman’s screams. His assailant had been shot, he realized.

Jack helped Billy to his feet and retrieved both their pistols. Meanwhile Sawyer, followed by Clay rushed into the car. Clay had abandoned his usual lazy drawl and was now screaming at the passengers while brandishing his rifle.

“We should hurry,” Sawyer insisted.

Billy was in no mood to argue. He looked around the car one last time and saw the body of the man who had been holding a gun to his head. A woman, he guessed her to be the man’s wife, was sobbing over the body. He spit a mouthful of blood at them and turned to lead the gang away from the train.

They untied their horses from the posts behind the signal house and rode off towards the mountains. Half a day passed before Billy was satisfied that no one was following them. Jack scouted the forest around them and soon came back to lead them to a small stream. Next to this stream they erected what Billy decided was the saddest looking lean-to he had ever seen.

Sawyer and Clay, eager to take stock of their prize, dumped both the haul from the mail car and the passengers’ effects on the ground beside the campfire. Meanwhile, Billy found a comfortable tree besides the fire where he could nurse his sprained wrist.

Their prize turned out to be considerably smaller than Billy had been led to believe by his informant. Silently he cursed the ‘western gentlemen,’ who bought their wives jewelry made of fake gold and hardly carried more than five crowns on them. His more pressing concern, now that they were a safe distance from the train, was what to do about Jack.

All he had known about Jack when they first met was that he was a disgraced chemist, whose customer had died after an unfortunate mix up of tonics. Billy had welcomed the chance to recruit an educated man for their job, especially when Jack had shared his formaldehyde trick with them, but there was something wrong about the man. Something about Jack made Billy think that he was a bit too comfortable with the pistols hanging from his hips.

Sawyer soon distracted him from his paranoid thinking. “How are we gonna divide this up?” he asked holding up a gold bar.

“We wont,” Billy answered, “not yet.” He looked at Jack, then back to the two of them. “We us the loot to buy provisions first. Then we divide up what’s left.”

Clay was visibly crestfallen upon hearing that his share would be smaller than hoped.

“You mean we’re gonna keep this gang together?” Sawyer asked carefully.

Billy nodded.

“Okay. Well, in that case. We have a name for us.”

Billy raised an eyebrow.

Sawyer turned to Clay. “You tell him.”

A grin split Clay’s face. “The Broken Heads.”

Billy could see Jack smirking behind them. He thought about their suggestion for a moment. “The way I see it,” he said slowly. “Is that there’s got to be something broken in your head if you’re going to go rob a train like we just did. Alright. We’ll be the Broken Heads Gang.”