Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Felix Gilman’s Harry Randsom from The Rise of Ransom City.
This is the story of Harry Ransom. If you know his name it’s most likely as the inventor of the Ransom Process, a stroke of genius that changed the world.
Or you may have read about how he lost the battle of Jasper City, or won it, depending on where you stand in matters of politics.
Friends called him Hal or Harry, or by one of a half-dozen aliases, of which he had more than any honest man should. He often went by Professor Harry Ransom, and though he never had anything you might call a formal education, he definitely earned it.
If you’re reading this in the future, Ransom City must be a great and glittering metropolis by now, with a big bronze statue of Harry Ransom in a park somewhere. You might be standing on its sidewalk and not wonder in the least of how it grew to its current glory. Well, here is its story, full of adventure and intrigue. And it all starts with the day that old Harry Ransom crossed paths with Liv Alverhyusen and John Creedmoor, two fugitives running from the Line, amidst a war with no end.
A Letter to May
Another letter from your prodigal brother Harry & I hope it finds you well. The boat I was traveling on sank but I am not drowned, as you can see. It will take more than a little water to put Professor Harry Ransom and his trusty assistant Mr. Carver down once and for all. And then when we dragged ourselves from the river and spent the night in a barn there was a fire. I maintain that the fire was Mr. Carver’s fault, and the fault of his vile cigarettes. Anyhow we are only a little burned, and I have made a note to repay the barn-owner when I make my fortune, even though he rudely shot at us as we fled across his fields. We are now in the town of Elmira and safe and sound in the Perrenial Hotel . That is how they spell it on the sign outside but it does not look right. I have a new pen, and paper, and at last I have brand new shoes to replace the pair that I had to abandon when the boat sank. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in all this wide world as a pair of brand new shoes?
Let me tell you how I got those shoes.
Elmira is a very fine town. It is a little south-west of Melville, and way out on the edge of things. By the standards of this remote part of the Western Rim it is a wealthy and bustling town, with tall buildings and a venerable history, and on most days of the year it is peaceful. It is wealthy enough to maintain a small regular police force, who are decent enough fellows, and do not treat you too roughly even when you turn up after dark barefoot and ragged, and so the law leaves them no choice but to take you to for a vagrant and sling you in jail for the night – anyhow I have stayed in worse jails. I said as much to Mr. Carver, and he showed his agreement by grunting, and wrapping the blanket around himself, and starting to snore. So there, you have his word for it too.
I couldn’t sleep. Instead I got talking to the deputy. I told him that it seemed like lonely work, guarding the jail all night, and he said that at least it was honest work, and I told him (again) that I am not a vagrant, but a businessman and an inventor, and that it wasn’t my fault that the boat sank and the Apparatus was lost.
He took pity on me.
“On Thanksgiving Day, too,” he said, shaking his head. And he got up and walked away.
I had never heard of Thanksgiving Day but that was no surprise, May: out here there are a lot of little towns and people bring all kinds of traditions from wherever they came from with them and I am always coming across faiths I’ve never heard of.
The deputy returned and offered me a plate of chewy and dubious bird-meat and cold gravy.
“Thank you,” I said, solemnly, in case this was a ritual observance. But he did not seem to be paying attention. He went back to his work – I should have said that he was working on something, hunched over a candle, drawing little arrows and circles on what looked like a map of the town. I guessed that he was solving crimes. He looked very young and skinny to be a policeman.
“Thanksgiving Day tomorrow,” I said. “Well, that sounds splendid. Mr. Carver and I—“
“No, no, no.” The deputy shook his head and pointed at the clock in the corner. It was gone midnight. “Thanksgiving was yesterday. Tomorrow – today – is Black Friday.”
He said this with a certain dread.
Behind me Mr. Carver stopped snoring and sat up.
Elmira (the deputy told me) was founded by two brothers from back East, John and Matthew Dackler, twins, a full thirty-five years ago – practically a thousand years by the standards of the Western Rim. They were wandering lost in what was back then uncharted desert when John – or maybe Matthew – slipped on the edge of a rocky slope and tumbled down head over heels into a ravine where, as luck would have it, Matthew – or maybe John — found water, and also gold. They could never afterwards agree on who it was who fell and found gold. Anyhow they built a mine, and a town around it (named for their mother) and they ordered that their employees would observe an annual Day Of Thanksgiving for the stroke of luck that had saved the brothers’ lives and turned around their fortunes and made Elmira possible.
The years went by and the two brothers soon had a falling out. Whose gold was it, really? They couldn’t agree. They called in lawyers. No one could settle the matter. By then there were two mines at either end of town, and so they split the company, each taking half and control of one mine. And so the town was divided into two camps. Each man commanded the loyalty of half the town’s workers. Fights broke out between John’s men and Matthew’s men. Scrip issued by John’s mine was not accepted in the bars in Matthew’s side of town, and et cetera. As the town got richer they built not one big Hotel but two, one owned by John and one by Matthew, and each half-empty. Matthew opened a general goods store so John opened a bigger one, with a second storey, and so Matthew built his up to three storeys and put in electric-lighting, and so on, until the two brothers had constructed two grand department stores, at either end of town, as big as any tall buildings in Jasper City itself, with big red electric-lit signs on their rooftops – I could make out a red glow from the corner of the window of my jail cell, when the deputy pointed it out.
“That’s John Dackler’s Store,” he said, as if he were pointing out an enemy stronghold, which as it turned out he was. The deputy was a Matt Dackler Man, and in fact this was the jail cell on Matthew’s side of town.
Well, O.K. You can build a gigantic department store but you cannot make people come to it. This is the Western Rim not the heartland. The stores stood empty. On the day after Thanksgiving in 1875, Matt Dackler announced a great sale – and so in 1876, John Dackler had to top him – and so on and so on until by 1885 each of the rival stores were simply giving their goods away so far below cost that the brothers came to a dreadful realization. They could not profit from their sales. But they could hope to loot their rival into penury. Each brother controlled some hundreds of employees, thousands if you counted wives and husbands and children. Thus the battle-lines were drawn up, and in 1886 Matt Dackler ordered his folk to raid John Dackler’s department store top to bottom, and vice versa; and in 1887 this happened again, and there was fierce fighting in the streets between Matt’s men and John’s; and in 1887 both Dackler brothers cancelled their sales, but it was too late. Traditions start quickly out here, and the people of the Western Rim are quick to learn their rights. Looting took place sale or no sale. And it has taken place every year since, and that is why they call it Black Friday. One or two deaths each year are usual.
I understood now what the deputy was drawing, the arrows and et cetera. He was planning the angle of his assault on John Dackler’s store, through streets that by lunchtime tomorrow would be fortified, checkpointed, by John Dackler’s men. And so we kept on talking, and I got to telling him about my military experience, and my time as an officer and a leader of men, which in all honesty is not true, as you know, though I have been shot at once or twice. But I very much wanted to be let out of jail, and to try my luck in John Dackler’s Department Store.
The deputy went and got some of his colleagues, Matt Dackler men the lot of them, and they let me out, and I told them about a few tricks I had learned for close-quarters fighting in the Battle of Mandeville, which in all honesty I made up, the Battle and the tricks both, though it all worked out well enough in the end. Apart from Black Friday, this was a peaceful town, and none of them knew much about soldiering, and none of them were much looking forward to Black Friday. Yet honor demanded that they fight. It is a shameful thing in Elmira for a man to return to his family on Black Friday without some trophy.
“You have my services, gentlemen,” I promised them. “Clearly John Dackler is a villain, and I am proud to take your side.”
“We’ll give you your freedom,” said the deputy’s boss.
“My freedom I expect as of right, and an apology for your mistake in throwing an honest soldier in jail.” I was getting quite excited about being a soldier, as you can see. “All I ask in payment is a share of the spoils. Tell me – does the villain John Dackler’s Store sell shoes?”
Rosy dawn revealed Elmira girded for Black Friday. Old men and women of town served as look-outs, perched on the rooftops. Children ran through the streets, taking messages. The bars were open early and Matt’s men and John’s men were getting drunk enough to face combat; drunk enough to go hand-to-hand with men who were, on the other few hundred days of the year, their neighbors, friends, fathers of their children’s friends. A lot of them carried pick-handles, broom-handles, saucepans. Their wives were with them, armed like the men-folk, except that for the most part the women also carried sacks, soon to be filled with loot. There were barricades in the streets constructed out of deadfall and trash. My mouth was dry and my palms sweated as I hefted the night-stick that my policemen friends had given me. Mr. Carver stood at my side, smoking. Past the barricades and the rooftops I could see Mr. John Dackler’s Department Store, its electric sign bright and blood-red, its windows shuttered and barbed. I gave the signal to my friends to put in place the strategy that we had devi
Well May I very much wanted to tell you all about my struggle for these shoes and how your kid brother distinguished himself in the Battle Of Black Friday but now there is shouting in the lobby below and the sound of men stamping about and I hear my name, and it sounds as if some of Matt Dackler’s men take the view that it was bad form to bring in an outsider, and that my conduct was dishonorable, and they are wrong but I do not feel like arguing with a mob, that has never worked out for me; and now Mr. Carver has taken up his pack and opened the window and climbed out, so I am going to do likewise and go straight down the drainpipe and will write to you again from the next town, if all works out, to report further on these very, very fine shoes.
Meet Felix Gilman!
Felix Gilman is the author of four novels: Thunderer, Gears Of The City, The Half-Made World, and most recently The Rise Of Ransom City. The Half-Made World was one of Amazon’s Top Ten SF/F titles for 2010, and was described by Ursula Le Guin as “gripping, imaginative . . . terrifically inventive.” He lives in New York.
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