A Ticking of Gears – a flash steampunk story

Talia was careful not to look too smug as she stepped over the broken door and into the gaslit room. The city watch only asked for her help when they were desperate. If she made them feel bad then they might not come to her at all, and she couldn’t afford to lose a repeat client.

The owner of the room, Lady Kabirand, sat naked and dead at her writing desk. On the desk were an inkwell, a pen, some stained papers, and a small jewellery box. Her dress hung from a hook on the wall behind her. The room was filled with the ticking of the clockwork machines that lined the walls – miniature examples of Lady Kabirand’s inventions, from the clockwork butler to the steam carriage. The constant noise battered at Talia’s sensitive ears.

“Room was locked from the inside when we arrived,” Captain Rollar said. “Something in here killed her.”

Talia walked over to the desk and inspected the body. She’d heard rumours of Kabirand’s eccentric lifestyle, the high turnover of servants due to the shock of walking in on their mistress working nude. But it took more than bare flesh to shock a private detective, so she set to inspecting the body.

It was hard to concentrate. The ticking seemed to come from everywhere – the walls, the floor, even the desk. She kept having to force her attention back to the task.

“No marks,” she said at last.

“I know,” Rollar said. “But I knew you’d want to check.”

“Probably a poison, then,” Talia said. “No entry wound means it was breathed or ingested. No sign of food or drink, so probably the latter.”

She started considering the types of toxic gas. There were dozens of likely options, but every time she tried to run through them the ticking derailed her train of thought and she lost track of which ones she had already discounted.

She glared at the nearest device, an intricate clockwork calendar.

“Can’t we get rid of these?” she asked.

“What if they’re part of the crime?” Rollar replied.

She hated it when he was right. At least he had the good manners not to look smug.

It might not matter which gas had been used if she could work out where it came in. There were no windows, so that was out. A quick glance up the fireplace revealed that it was currently blocked. Reluctantly, she approached the machines one by one, enduring the noise of mechanisms right by her ear as she looked behind each object in turn. By the time she got around the room, her ears were ringing and she’d found no sign of a pipe or hole.

She stomped over to the desk, trying to get away from the noise and get her head straight. But even here, it seemed as if a quiet ticking was constantly coming from just in front of her.

She peered under the desk, hoping to find some sort of cannister or dispersal system. Nothing. She opened the drawers one by one, looking for incriminating messages or suspicious contraptions. There were just trays of gears and a couple more pens. She lifted the stained sheets of paper with the tip of her pocket knife, realising how futile that was even as she did it, but unwilling to let the constant noise keep her from doing her job.

As she lowered her head to peer at the underside of the papers, it seemed as if the ticking were right by her ear. It was worming into her head, consuming her brain so she could never escape.

Unless the ticking really was right by her ear.

She lowered the papers and turned her attention to the jewellery box. The more she listened, the more certain she was that some small part of the maelstrom of sound, hidden beneath the rest of the racket, was coming from there. A clockwork device whose action would be camouflaged by the noise of the room.

With the tip of her knife, she lifted the lid of the box. There was a click of shifting mechanisms and a puff of air from a small hole at the back. Talia jerked away, alarmed that she might have become another victim. When nothing went numb or tingly, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“The poison was in here,” she said, tapping the lid. “A clockwork mechanism was triggered when Lady Kabirand opened the lid to deposit her jewellery. It dispersed the gas into the air. Find out who put this box here and you’ll find your killer.”

“Could you help with-” Rollar began

But Talia was through the door and striding away down the corridor.

“Thank you!” he shouted after her.

Rollar turned to take a closer look at the jewellery box. It amazed him how she found these things.

Amid the quiet, soothing noise of the miniature machines, he pulled out his notebook and started work on his report.

* * *


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Dead Detectives and Exponential Complexity

Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a murder mystery dinner party. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve created one with so many player suspects. It’s been a real eye opener on the exponential effect of adding complexity to stories.

There are a dozen characters in this game, plus the victim, who doesn’t get played. When I write this sort of murder mystery game, I create various details for each character – three secrets, three resources to influence other people, three aims for the evening, and two relationships with each other character – the relationship the others see, and the secret relationship behind that. These details are there to ensure that no-one is ever bored and to create the haze of suspicions and red herrings through which the players try to identify the murderer.

You can probably see already why doubling the number of players doesn’t just double the complexity. Every new character has to have relationships with each other character, and that creates an exponential growth in relationships. As a creative exercise they’re a lot of fun to create, but it’s also taxing – there’s a lot to think about, and each time I’m adding a detail I have to work out how it connects up with the rest.

In a way, this applies when writing stories, and in another way it doesn’t. Each detail you add – a person, a place, an event – has the potential to interact with everything else, so the growth in potential is exponential. But you control the narrative, including which things interact, and so you can avoid defining all those interactions – something I can’t do with a murder mystery game.

The problem comes if you’re too controlled. There might be interactions readers will look at and go “what about those two characters? surely they would have talked about x?” You don’t want to look at all those interactions, but the more of them could exist, the more holes can be picked. The potential to miss something important grows exponentially.

So if you want to write about five ideas, and you don’t want to spend a long time writing about them, is it better to split them into two stories than to roll them all into one, dealing with all their interactions?

Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m still thinking through the implications. What do you reckon?


If you’re interested in commissioning a murder mystery party, you can find the details here. And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

Out Now – Short Stories of Ancient Magic and Dark Futures

I have two new short stories out this week, both of them available for free as ebooks.

Silence on Second Street - High ResolutionFirst up is Silence on Second Street, a science fiction detective story. Foul mouthed detective Holden Flynn is a policeman on the rocks. His marriage has fallen apart, and now he’s the only detective in occupied Greykirk, a city scarred by interplanetary war. Trusted by no-one, supported by no-one, Flynn is faced with the tangled loyalties of an occupied planet and the broken technology of a shattered city. Everyone knows who killed Annie Talbot, but can Holden Flynn work out why, and catch the man responsible before another tragedy takes place?

You can get Silence on Second Street for free now from Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.

Demons and the Deep - High ResolutionThen there’s Demons and the Deep, a fantasy adventure story. An apprentice magician on a Mediterranean pirate galley, Saul is learning the art of controlling demons. Pursued by the armies of Rome, his shipmates fight to retain their freedom, while Saul struggles with oppression at the hands of his master. When even demons are bound in chains, can a young man make himself truly free?

You can get Demons and the Deep for free now from Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.