Cogs in the Machine – a steampunk short story

Frank walked down the factory hall, through the clatter of the cotton gins, the whir of the spinning machines, the clack and hiss of the looms. Sweat ran down his neck, under the starched collar he’d put on specially for the meeting. It streamed from the brows of the human labourers, but not the automata. They worked without sweat, without variation, without hesitation, until their fires needed to be stoked.

He saw more and  more of the automata in the factories he visited. They were expensive to obtain, but once in place, they worked tirelessly and without complaint. Lots of employers thought they were the future. Frank feared that those employers might be right.

He walked into Mr Stewart’s office, with its mahogany desk and the painting of a woodland scene on the wall.

“What do you want, McGuigan?” Stewart growled around his cigar.

“Good morning to you, too, sir,” Frank said, with practised civility.

“I have to meet with union leaders, I don’t have to make small talk with them. Get to the point.”

Frank laid a pile of medical reports on Stewart’s desk. They made for unpleasant reading, a catalogue of lost fingers, crushed toes, and worse.

“Your workers need protective boots and gloves, Mr Stewart. It’s your responsibility to provide them.”

“My workers did fine without protection for years. I’m not bearing an extra expensive because they got sloppy.”

“It’s your new engines. Everything’s working harder and faster. That means more profit for you, but more risk for my members.”

“Your members.” Stewart snorted. “I’ve got plenty of workers that don’t need  to be coddled, McGuigan.”

Stewart rang a bell that hung on the wall behind him. An automata strode in, piston legs and arms hissing, and stopped next to Frank. He could feel the heat radiating from its belly boiler.

“Show us your hands,” Stewart said.

The automaton’s arms hissed as they stretched out. Its fingers were scratched and nicked.

“Same accidents,” Stewart said, “but no need for gloves. You want to look at his feet too?”

“Of course this thing doesn’t need protection, it’s a machine. But my people—”

“Your people are workers in my factory, same as this brass man. If some of them can take the working conditions but others can’t, I don’t have to pander to the weak ones, but I do have to treat everyone the same.”

“This is outrageous!”

“Everyone treated the same. It’s in your rules.” Stewart pulled his copy of the union agreement out of a desk drawer. It was surprisingly well-thumbed. “I checked.”

“So you’re going to wait until fingers start snapping off these things before you make a change?”

Frank pointed at the automaton’s hands. Worn as they were, they were a long way off breaking. The automaton let out a little hiss, and if it had been a person, Frank would have said it sounded mournful.

“If your people don’t like their working conditions, I can always replace them with more like him.” Stewart nodded at the automaton.

“You can’t sack people without cause.”

“Ah, but if they leave, when conditions are fine for other workers, then I can replace them however I want.” Stewart leaned back, grinning. “You try bringing a union into my factory when everyone here’s coal fired.”

“I’ll find a way to beat this.” Frank snatched up the medical reports. “You see if I don’t.”

“There is no way.” Stewart tapped the union agreement. “I believe that we’re done.” He waved dismissively at the automaton. “Get back to work.”

Shoulders slumped, Frank followed the hissing machine onto the factory floor. It went to its place by a cotton loom and stood for a long moment, hand raised a foot from its face.

An overseer prodded the automaton. “You get back to work.”

The automaton clacked, like gears were missing each other inside its head. The other automata looked up at the sound. They all stopped and raised their hands.

“I said get back to work,” the overseer growled.

When the automaton didn’t respond, the overseer belted it with a broom handle. The clang rang clear even through the storm of machine noises, but the automaton didn’t move. None of them did.

For the first time since he set foot in the factory, Frank smiled.

“Mr Stewart!” the overseer shouted.

Stewart stormed out of his office and stood glaring at the machines, hands planted on  his hips. “What the hell is this?”

“I think your workers want protective gloves,” Frank said. “Maybe boots too. They’ve noticed that they’re getting damaged, and they’re probably worried about what’ll happen when they’re too battered to work.”

“They’re just machines!”

“And buying them gloves will cost a lot less than buying new machines, though of course you’ll have to buy them for my union members too. Got to treat all the workers the same, remember?”

“You did this!” Stewart glared at him. “You’ve found a way to sabotage my automata.”

“Like I’d know how.” Frank laughed. “Let me know when you’ve bought those gloves and boots. You don’t want to break our agreement.” He strolled away down the factory hall. As he passed the automata from the office, he raised a fist in salute. “See you again soon, comrade.”

The automaton hissed. Though his face couldn’t move, for a moment he almost seemed to wink.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Faces Lost in the Smoke – a steampunk short story

A pair of smoking chimneys
Image by cwizner from Pixabay

“You can see the whole city from up here,” Archie said, peering out of the control cabin, through the smoke billowing from the constructor’s stacks. “Yet in some ways, you can hardly see it at all. The faces, the clothes, the shop fronts, they vanish from view.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve been building towards?” Ramsey pulled a lever and a vibration ran up through their feet. “To see the big picture and make big changes. To transform the city, so that all those people can live better lives?”

“I suppose so.” Archie sneezed. “Sorry, it’s the smoke. Maybe we should have put glass in the windows.”

“I’ll fix that later.” Ramsey gestured to a big blue button. “Would you care to do the honours?”

Archie took a deep breath and pressed the button, a tiny gesture for a life-changing moment.

The constructor rumbled out of the inventors’ yard on wheels the size of wagons, a towering pillar of steam and steel, and approached a deserted row of back-to-back terraced houses. There was a whoosh and then a roar as vacuum pumps sucked up tiles, bricks, and timbers, then a rattling cacophony as mechanical arms started laying them back down, building cleaner, more spacious houses. Wretched slums became the beginnings of a bold new dream.

In the control cabin, Archie and Ramsey hugged, slapping each other on the back. They could barely make themselves heard over the noise, but there was no need for words. They were changing the world.

#

Archie clutched a handkerchief over his mouth as he stepped into the cabin. Ramsey stood at the controls, stiff-backed, staring out at the city. His hair had grown longer, dark with soot and grease. Archie tapped him on the shoulder and he jolted, then turned.

“Didn’t hear you coming in.” Ramsey raised his voice over the machines.

“I could tell.”

“Pardon?”

Archie took the cloth from his mouth. Smoke scratched at his throat, a reminder of why he didn’t come up often.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Ramsey stared at him with bloodshot eyes, as if he was looking at a gear that had inexplicably started turning backwards.

“I’m exultant. Look at what we’re achieving!”

A sweep of his hand took in the city. Some parts were a mess of irregular roads and cramped, slumping houses, dirty factories, dingy shops. Other parts, those the machine had been through, were neatly laid out, the houses sturdy and spacious, the shops well lit and the factories clean.

“About that.” Archie shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We need to slow down. Not everybody wants their homes rebuilt, and some people aren’t getting out fast enough. We’ve upset a lot of people and destroyed some family heirlooms when they weren’t removed in time.”

“Things and feelings.” Ramsey laid a hand on Archie’s shoulder. “These will be forgotten once everyone has the space and shelter they need. Remember our vision: a better city.”

“I suppose…” Archie looked out of the window. It really was hard to see the people from up here.

“You get back down, calm the ruffled feathers, and I’ll keep us going. Trust me, this is all for the good.”

#

Wheezing even with a mask over his mouth, Archie stepped inside the control cabin. He stumbled, kicked the corner of a console, and Ramsey spun around, his smoke-stained coat flapping behind him.

“Archie!” Ramsey grabbed his arm and dragged him to the main console, which was shrouded in wind-blown smoke. “Isn’t it magnificent?”

Half the city had been transformed. Wide avenues, neat houses, matching shops, rail lines on viaducts so as not to break up the grid.

“It’s certainly impressive,” Archie said, blinking tired eyes. He cleared his throat. “But the thing is, we’ve run into some problems.”

“Problems?” Ramsey scowled. “Just explain our purpose to them. Whoever it is, they’ll stop whining once they understand.”

“Look.” Archie pointed to a district where smoke rose denser than ever from the old houses. “Our designs are good, but they don’t leave room for as many people as before, so they’re crammed in elsewhere. And some people want to keep their houses, even if they could have something better. Those homes matter to them. They need time to see the benefits, to accept what we do.”

“This is why we have to keep going, so that a new generation doesn’t grow up bound to the past.”

“No, Ramsey, it’s why we have to stop.”

“Stop?”

“Temporarily.” Archie turned to face his old friend, or what remained of him behind the soot and the scowl. “While we work out which houses to leave standing, and while we win people’s support.”

“They’ve got to you, haven’t they?”

Ramsey shoved Archie against the console. Archie coughed as more smoke billowed in through the window behind him.

“Nobody got to me. I’ve just talked to people, listened to them, seen things you’re missing from up here. Please, come down and see. You’ll understand.”

“Come down, so someone can come in while I’m gone, switch of the constructor, kill the momentum carrying us towards our vision?”

“Your vision.”

“Our vision!”

“Not any more.” Archie swatted Ramsey’s hand away.

“Why you…” Ramsey shoved Archie again. He didn’t mean to push him over the console, but anger multiplied his strength. Archie cried out as he fell through the window, terror gripping him for the length of a single short scream before he hit the street with one final, fatal thud.

Ramsey grasped the console and stared down at the tiny dot that was his friend’s body. Then he whirled around and bolted the door shut. It was a shame what had happened to Archie, but he couldn’t let them stop him because of that. There was a bigger picture here, a better city for everyone. They would understand that once he was finished.

He turned a dial and the sounds of the engine intensified. Smoke blew in through the window. Beyond, the city sprawled. He could see it all from up here: the big picture, and none of the distracting little details.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

Smashwords have just started their annual summer/winter sale, which runs for the next month. You can find a whole bunch of e-books at discount prices, including many of mine at 50% off. Meet Victorian explorers, magical gladiators, or a robot developing emotions. There are links for my books here, and more great discounts all across the Smashwords site. Go on, treat yourself.

How We Fly – a steampunk short story

Image by b0red from Pixabay

Professor Halleux watched the airship lift away from the docks and into a clear blue sky. Another vessel completed, another crew and their passengers launched into the wide yonder. Twenty years as master of her own air yard, and there was still satisfaction to be had from a finished project.

Time to take stock, to pull out the well worn blueprints and to prepare for the next order. With all the final checks and then the bustle of the launch, it was days since she’d been inside the workshop. It would be a relief to put her feet up and spend some time with her old tools.

She walked into the workshop and stopped, unsettled. The regular tool racks and shelves of components had been pushed back against the walls, as had some of the workbenches. In the empty space stood three figures.

“Ingrid?” Professor Halleux shouted. “What is this?”

Halleux’s apprentice scuttled out of a back room, carrying a set of aviator’s goggles.

“Professor, perfect timing!” Ingrid pulled the goggles over the head of one of the figures. “I’ve just finished preparing.”

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, Halleux now realized that the figures were dummies, all dressed in leather overalls and strapped into mechanical contraptions.

“I should not have to repeat myself,” she said. “What is this?”

“I’ve been working on some alternative flight options we can offer to customers,” Ingrid said. “This one is a glider, allowing free flight from a starting point aboard an airship or other transport vessel.”

She pulled a cord and canvas wings unfolded with a clack.

“Did you waste good balloon canvas on this?” Halleux asked.

“No, Professor. It’s offcuts.”

“Well, it’s not the sort of thing our customers are after.”

“Then how about this?” Ingrid stepped to the next dummy, which already had thinly curved metal wings extended. She pressed a button and flames roared from a funnel just above waist height. “Jet propulsion. It only carries fuel for short flights, but you can take off from the ground!”

“Our customers are not looking to sprout wings. Please put things back in order, I want to sit down and start planning for the meeting with Von Chauffen.”

“Just one more.” Ingrid’s voice tightened. “Please?”

“Quickly.”

Ingrid grinned and reached up to spin the propeller blades that sat on the helmet of the final dummy, stretching out two feet to either side.

“I really stretched myself on this one, thinking beyond conventional approaches to flight. A horizontal propeller that lifts the wearer into the air. It’s not as fast as the jet, but you can hover in place, if you want to.”

“Extraordinary,” Halleux said.

“Thank you, professor.”

“Extraordinary that after all this time you have not learnt what it is our customers want. That you would waste time and resources on these ridiculous, impractical machines.”

“Surely we have to try new things?”

“No we do not. We have machines that work, that solve the problem of flight, that carry people around the world. If that’s not good enough for you, then you are in the wrong profession.”

Ingrid’s lip trembled, but she stood firm.

“You used to be an inventor, an innovator, a champion of progress.”

Halleux stared at the girl. How dare she talk like this when Halleux had taken her under her wing, taught her the secrets of the trade, trained her in everything that was needed to take to the skies?

“I am an inventor. I defied gravity itself, and I won. You have barely even mastered the reinforcement of gas bags.”

“Who needs reinforced gas bags when you have wings?”

“Don’t take pride in ignorance. Now tidy this nonsense away. Any components that can’t be returned to supplies will come out of your wages.”

With a sigh, Ingrid started unstrapping the glider’s pack.

Halleux still wanted to sit down and put her feet up, but with all the furniture rearranged she couldn’t even see her chair. Instead, she stood staring at the dummy with the propeller on its head. A long neglected impulse stirred her hand, and she pushed the propeller blade, watched it turn and listened to the click of its mechanism. Ridiculous, and yet…

She unstrapped the helmet, flipped open a panel on the side, and peered at the mechanisms. Intriguing. Not how she would have made it, but a good start. With a more refined drive mechanism, better control could be gained, and then there was the question of how fuel was fed to the motor. She patted her pocket and realised that there was no magnifying glass there. Sometime in the past decade, she had stopped carrying it.

The feeling that had hold of her was familiar, even though she hadn’t known it in years. She strode over to the middle dummy and peered at the jet engine. Perhaps these things could be combined. That was often where the best advances came from.

“Professor Halleux?” Ingrid said quietly from the back of the room. “I’ve, um, I’ve cleared the way to your chair.”

“Not now, girl.” Halleux shook her head. “Come here and tell me, what is the fuel mix? And have you considered a second jet funnel?”

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Velvet and Frozen Whispers – a steampunk short story

Image by b0red from Pixabay

The clock was crafted from velvet and frozen whispers, cogs edged with the sharpness of expectant waiting, framed in a box made from slices of pre-dawn calm. One hand was snow taken in the moment it fell upon the drift, the other polished planking from a funeral parlour’s floor. In place of a cuckoo there was a tiny mute gargoyle, its hands pressed against its stone mouth.

Instead of ticking, the clock created moments of silence. Falling into the room, they softly smothered the noises that would have been. The creak of the chair. The rustle of the curtains. The thuds and mumbles from next door.

For the first time in his life, the clock maker found the perfect peace he had dreamed of. Free from the noise of an ever more frantic world, his attention turned in on refining his work. He made a clock that could count off hundredths of seconds, a watch small enough for a mouse’s pocket, a ballerina doll that danced out the hours.

The silence kept coming. It spread from the clock maker’s workshop to the rest of his house. The cook was freed from the whining of the scullery boy. The clock maker’s insomniac wife slept all the way to noon. The cat crept up on its prey unheard. They worked and rested and stalked in peace, and the house filled with their happiness.

The silence seeped into the street. The discordant rumble of carriages and the clopping of hooves faded. Angry voices became still. The racket of the shoe factory no longer filled the neighbourhood from dawn to dusk.

In the stillness, a carter took a moment to admire the blossom he had always missed on the trees, and a newspaper seller finally found the words he needed to complete a sonnet. Birds rested, undisturbed by the frightening noises humanity had made for far too long.

Three doors down from the clock maker, a blind woman wept.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

A Symphony in Steam – a steampunk short story

Tilda reached her seat just as the bright flames of the gas lamps turned down to a minute flicker. A moment later, a woman stepped out in front of the curtains, her angular face and elegant dress illuminated by the blaze of the footlights, and the crowd burst into applause for Dame Letitia Glave, the foremost composer of this or any generation. Tilda, swept up in the wave of enthusiasm, clapped so hard that her hands hurt, until Dame Letitia raised her own gloved hands and the crowd fell silent.

“A Most Extraordinary Night,” the handbill promoting the concert had said. It would turn out to be one of the great moments of truth in advertising.

“Tonight, I have a new piece for you.” Dame Letitia’s rich voice filled the concert hall, her words hooking every listener on the point of anticipation. Tilda, who had never been to such a grand recital before, grinned to herself in the darkness. “Not just a new piece, but a new instrument.”

The curtains flew back, revealing something like a gigantic church organ, but with strings as well as pipes, and with a row of drums and gongs along the front. The crowd gasped, then applauded, as crowds were prone to doing. Tilda squinted as she tried to work out what all the pieces were and how they fitted together.

“Now, for the very first time, my Symphony Number Nine, for Glave Organ.”

Dame Letiti took a bow, stepped back, and flung a lever on the device. There was a hiss of steam rushing through pipes, and then the noises began.

It was, the kinder reviewers would later say, a sound like no other. Even the kindest among them faltered after that point, leaving the way clear for those unblinkered by the great Dame’s reputation. “An appalling racket,” wrote Vandermeer of the City Times. “Dying dogs have made sweeter music,” wrote Brooks of the County Express. Atwood of the Daily Light was perhaps the most damning: “I would have torn my own ears off, if not for fear that this so-called music would reach my brain directly through the holes.”

Yet through it all, through the screeching of pipes, the wailing of strings, the flat clatter of percussion, Dame Letitia stood proudly by her machine, head tilted on one side, listening with apparent delight. Tilda watched in shame, then horror, then growing fascination, wondering how this could possibly end.

As the last discordant squeal faded away, Dame Letitia bowed, then looked out expectantly as the house lights rose.

No one clapped.

No one cheered.

As Letitia later wrote in her autobiography, even jeers and flung tomatoes would have been better than that awful silence, as the shocked audience rose from their seats and hurried away.

While the auditorium cleared around her, Tilda stayed in place, peering past the unseemly rush of bodies to the machine on the stage. The sound had been monstrous, like nothing she had ever heard, and yet it had stirred something inside her. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t heroic, but it was real. It was a pain like heartbreak and a pace like running to catch a lost friend. It compelled her.

Stage hands watched nervously from the wings, and the manager clutched at his cravat, trying to find the courage to speak to the humiliated star. But Tilda had no such qualms. Glory had been torn away, and now she saw only a heartbroken woman, standing trembling on a stage. Tilda walked down between the seats until she stood just behind the footlights and looked up at Dame Letitia.

“Excuse me, Madam,” Tilda said.

Dame Letitia’s voice was a tiny, quivering thing, a small echo of her machine. “Yes, my dear?” she managed.

“Could you teach me to play this thing?”

It was the beginning of what critics would later call the most remarkable pairing in music, and while few of those critics meant remarkable as a compliment, Tilda chose to hear it that way.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Growing Gears – a steampunk short story

Alf pressed the trunk of a felled tree against the spinning saw blade. For a few seconds, the air filled with a grinding noise and the extra squeal of the steam engine straining to do its work, then a slice of the tree fell into the sawdust. It was less than an inch thick, made of solid, hard-wearing wood, and like the trunk itself, it was in the shape of a perfect cog wheel.

Alf kept going, slicing the trunk up until it was just a pile of gears. Then he disengaged the steam drive, pushed up his goggles, and gathered up  what he had produced.

A man in a top hat was standing beside Alf’s old wagon. He held out his hand.

“Are you the man who grows gearwheels?”

“That’s right.” Alf shook the hand. “Alf Cartwright.”

“I’m Nathaniel Black, of Black Industries.”

“And what brings a big man like you down to my little patch of land, Mr. Black?”

“I’ve been hearing good things about your gears. I thought I should learn more.”

People had warned Alf that this would happen, that the rich gents from the cog-making companies would come and try to steal his secrets. He hadn’t expected them to be so brazen about it.

“All it takes is the right tree and the right frame to shape it,” Alf said. And the right fertiliser, the right elevation, the right program of pruning, feeding, and watering, but he wasn’t even going to give a clue to those.

Black laughed. “I understand your caution. Tell me, are your wooden gears cheaper to produce than my brass ones?”

“Not yet, but they will be, and I don’t produce as much slag and smoke in the process.”

“Yes, I hear that people care about that these days.”

Black picked up one of the gears from beside the saw and held it up between thumb and forefinger.

“This is very good. I assume you can grow more than one size and design?”

“I can.” You didn’t just tell a rich man like Black to go away, but Alf was damned if he’d make him at home. “Let me guess, you’ve come to shut me down. You’ll threaten me with legal action or financial ruin or just comment on how flammable this place is.”

Black laughed. “Oh no, Mr. Cartwright. Far from it. I want to buy you out.”

“Pardon?” Alf stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around. “Think I misheard you there.”

“These wooden cogs hold great promise for the future. I want to buy you out, right here, right now. You sign this contract…” He held up a piece of paper. “…I give you this banker’s draft…” He held up another piece of paper. “…and your business becomes mine.”

Alf took the banker’s draft and peered at the figure on it. His fingers trembled.

“With that, you could retire to anywhere in the world,” Black said. “You can spend your time doing whatever makes you happy. No need to work any more. What do you say?”

Alf took the contract and read through it, slowly, carefully, pausing over the meaning of every word. If he signed it, he would walk away now with nothing. Not his tools, not his frames, not his saplings, not even the wagon. In return, he would be richer than his wildest dreams.

“What’s the catch?” he asked.

“No catch, just what it says in there, that you won’t make these things any more. My company doesn’t want the competition.”

“What if I say no or ask for more?”

“Then I might start to observe how flammable this place is.” Black still smiled, like it was a joke, but there was steel in his eyes.

Alf didn’t like to be pushed around, but he knew when he was weaker, and he knew a good thing when he saw it too. He could get into a fight with people more powerful than him, or he could walk away a rich man, knowing that his legacy would leave the world a better place. He pulled out a pen from the pocket of his apron, tested the nib, signed the contract, and pocketed the cheque.

“Well, well, well,” Black said. “I expected more of a struggle.”

Alf shrugged. “I’m going somewhere tropical. Enjoy the gears.”

He headed for the gate. As he went, Black whistled, and workmen came streaming in. They had saws and axes.

“What’s all this?” Alf asked, turning to glare at Black.

“As I said, these wooden cogs have promise for the future. But my company is heavily invested in metal cogs. I can’t have this promise undermining our decades of investment.”

Someone smashed open the steam engine that powered the saw. Hot coals fell out, igniting nearby sawdust.

“You can’t do this!” Alf said.

“I can. I own it now.” Black held up the contract. “Good day.”

With a heavy heart, Alf walked away from the destruction of everything he had built. His shoulders sagged and he thrust his hands into his pockets. One hand closed around the check, a crumpled sign of how he had betrayed his own creation, with its cleaner way of working. His other hand closed around half a dozen seeds he had forgotten.

He could afford to retire anywhere in the world, do anything he wanted with his time. He was willing to bet that, if he travelled far enough, there would be places where Black’s contract and the laws around it meant nothing. Some of those places would have fine, warm climates, even better for growing his trees.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Serious Sabotage – a steampunk short story

“You should take this arrest as a compliment, Professor Greenspoke,” the agent from the Ministry of Political Hygiene said. “We don’t listen in on people we don’t take seriously.”

“I imagine not.” Greenspoke glanced at her manacles, idly considering the six most likely mechanisms to secure their lock. “It takes a lot of resources to build secret pipes in a person’s walls, to run the tubes all the way to a listening station, to man it twenty-four hours a day.”

“We don’t need to be there all day.”

The MPH agent opened his briefcase, took out a wax cylinder the size of his forearm, and laid it on the table. It was bone white, with a surface that gleamed in the light of the gas lamps like the sweaty skin of a fever patient.

“You’ve been recording as well as listening.” Greenspoke leaned forward, trying to deduce the model of gramophone based on the width of the grooves. “This is me incriminating myself?”

The agent chuckled. It wasn’t a funny sound.

“Of course not. This is to make a point. I wouldn’t put the evidence of your anti-patriotic plotting where you can damage it.”

“Then there was no need for this.” She pressed a finger against the cylinder. It didn’t immediately soften beneath the warmth of her body. This was no fragile candle wax. “My laboratory is next to the factory that makes them. I know what they look like.”

The agent leaned back in his seat, arms folded across his uniform jacket.

“Where is the incendiary powder, Professor Greenspoke?”

“What powder?”

“The one we heard you discussing with known dissidents. It wasn’t in your laboratory when we took possession this morning. That means it’s been shipped out already. Is it going to be used for a jailbreak, an assassination, perhaps another pointless attack on a statue?”

Greenspoke sighed. This man was unimaginative, so crude in his conclusions. She had hoped for a more insightful interrogator, when the time inevitably came.

“Your ignorance is showing,” she said. “You entirely misunderstand what I was talking about.”

The agent gave a derisive snort.

“I heard what you said about the Empress, about the lords, about the penal code. You expect me to believe that you’re not a dissident?”

“I’m not foolish enough to think you need proof to arrest me for that. The value in your recordings lies in listening over and over, comparing, finding clues, following the trail to others who resist this tyrannical regime.”

“You think you’re so smart, but whatever you think I missed, you’re wrong.”

“Really? Then how does the powder work?”

“Put enough in one place and it heats up. As the heat spreads, it reaches a critical mass, then bursts into flame. That works even if it’s spread out through other chemicals. You could hide it in samples of engine oil or soap, transport them separately, then pile them up together and walk away. A heap of innocent objects becomes an inferno.”

“The objects don’t have to be innocent.”

The agent frowned, which made Greenspoke smile. That comment had caught him. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was making the connection, thoughts heading toward their own critical mass. He just hadn’t realized it yet.

Greenspoke’s pocket watch chimed. She took her hand off the wax cylinder, leaving behind a melted palm print. Manoeuvring awkwardly in her manacles, she took the timepiece from her pocket and opened the lid.

“Midday,” she said. “If my calculations are correct, you should be receiving a message soon.”

Something snapped in the agent. He strode to the wall, tore the lid of a communication tube, and barked into it.

“Somebody fetch me the Greenspoke recordings. We’re missing something important.”

He fixed the lid back on, ignoring muffled protests from the other end of the line, and stood glaring at Greenspoke.

“Whatever it is, I’ll find it,” he said. “You’re not as smart as you think.”

The door opened and a junior agent hurried in. Her gaze darted between captive and interrogator.

“Sir, we can’t get you the recording,” she said.

“Why not?” His hand clenched around the edge of the table.

“The cylinders. They started melting an hour ago. By the time anyone noticed, they were too soft to pick up without destroying them. Then one of them burst into flames and the whole archive building went up.”

The senior agent stared at Greenspoke. His expression had the stiff stillness of a memorial statue, a calm carved from professionalism, not real emotion.

“You put the powder in the cylinder wax,” he said, his voice tight.

“They made it right next door.”

“This won’t set you free. I can lock you up forever just by whispering the word dissent.”

“I’m sure you will. But all those recordings, all those overheard words, all those pieces you could have puzzled together to find others like me…” Greenspoke shrugged and smiled. “You should take this as a compliment. I don’t sabotage people I don’t take seriously.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Master Ronvolio’s Steam-Powered Squid – a steampunk short story

Tentacles of interlinked brass rose from the water of the harbour, their tips waving in the air. At their centre, steam poured from a pipe in the back of the squid’s gigantic, gleaming head, while its expensively-dressed driver waved out of a porthole eye.

“We should keep moving,” Elizabetta said, straightening her hat and trying to ignore the twitching in her legs. The mechanisms inside the hat shifted and a miniature train rolled out around the brim, trailing steam and delighting a nearby child. When Master Ronvolio didn’t respond, she tugged at his sleeve. “You’re due at the academy, Master.”

“That’s one of mine!” Ronvolio exclaimed in a voice like a poorly-maintained gramophone. “How in all the circles of Hell did they get hold of it?”

“Perhaps they just had a similar idea to you,” Elizabetta said, trying to draw him away from the dockside. “Come on, your audience is waiting.”

“Similar idea my arse. I built that thing just before my etheric communicator. How did they get hold of it?”

Elizabetta glanced around nervously. She didn’t want to be having this conversation at all, but at least at the workshop she could have controlled it, could have let him wear himself out and forget the issue. Here, the celebrated inventor was drawing a crowd, and it was just a matter of time before someone arrived who could tell him the truth.

“Maybe you sold it?” she suggested. “You have been forgetting more things lately. Like your midday meals, or that painting of Prince Arducio last week.”

Ronvolio glared at her. “How long have you been my apprentice, Elizabetta?”

The word “apprentice” was like a spanner tightening the screws on her frustration. She had been with the Master far too long to still be an apprentice. He should be calling her his assistant by now, perhaps even his workshop manager. That was the job she had been doing for most of a decade, and she deserved some acknowledgement, just like she deserved to be better paid.

“Fourteen years, Master,” she said through gritted teeth.

“And in all that time, have you ever known me to sell one of my creations to these… these… these buffoons?”

He gestured toward the red-faced young nobleman climbing out of a hatch in the top of the squid, waving in self-satisfaction at the gathered crowd.

“No, master,” Elizabetta snapped. “And that’s why you’re constantly poor.”

“What?”

“Imagine how much better off we would be if you sold just a few of your works to the nobility, instead of displaying them in shops and public parks or selling them to labourers’ collectives for a fraction of market rate.”

“This is a matter of principle. My art and my devices go where they are needed, to lift up the common man and woman.”

“What about lifting me up? Or just filling my stomach?”

Ronvolio’s eyes narrowed. Elizabetta shrank back from him, and the hat shifted, internal counterweights keeping it upright at all times. She swallowed, remembering too late that Ronvolio was absent-minded, not a fool. But she was committed now. A long-simmering pot had reached the boil.

“You,” he hissed. “You sold them my squid.”

“Of course I did. Your clothes were threadbare. You needed new coats for the winter and a respectable suit to lecture in. We needed coal for the stove and gears for the machines. You think materials just fall into your life by magic? You needed this!”

“Don’t you presume to tell me what I need, Apprentice. This was my decision to make, not yours. You have perpetrated a theft, and falsehood, a fraud of the highest order. I should have the watch slap you in irons.”

Elizabetta opened her mouth to defend herself, but the sight of his fury, so utterly uncharacteristic, turned the words to dust in her mouth. She had betrayed the man who had fed her, sheltered her, taught her since she was twelve years old. It was an unworthy act. She shut her eyes and gave a small nod.

“I’m sorry, Master.”

There was a click, then a hand settled gently on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and saw Ronvolio holding an enamelled tube with an etheric antennae at one end and a red button at the other. He smiled at her softly.

“Never mind, Elizabetta,” he said. “I am prepared.”

He pressed the red button. Out in the harbour, the mechanical squid tremble, seeped steam, and began to fall apart, pieces of tentacle splashing down into the waves. The driver leapt clear just before its boiler detonated, hurling out chunks of glass eye and brass skin.

The crowd gasped, then cheered at the spectacle. Elizabetta stared at her Master, who pocketed the tube.

“I build such a solution into all of my devices these days,” he said, “in case of theft.”

“All?” Elizabetta’s trembling hand went to her hat, where the miniature steam train was once again hurtling around the brim.

“Most of them, at least.” Ronvolio winked. “Though I am a little forgetful about which.” He pulled a watch from his pocket. “Speaking of forgetfulness, aren’t I due to deliver a lecture soon?”

“Yes, Master.” Elizabetta took him by the arm and led him away. Behind them, a dripping young aristocrat emerged from the water, while behind him the last remnants of the squid sank in a great gout of steam.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Halderleft and Halderright – a steampunk short story

The sundered cities of Halderleft and Halderright wheeled through the sky, steam billowing from their airbags, their steering wings rapidly turning on the ends of vast pistons. Lori hung from the exposed edge of Halderleft, the wind whistling through her leather safety harness, as the extended gantries and connecting rods of Halderright came closer.

“Ready,” she called out to the engineers waiting among the girders around her. “Ready… Now!”

The airbags of the cities collided in a slow crush of crumpling canvas. A moment later, there was a crash of metal and the whole city shook. For the first time in fifty years, the two halves of ancient Halder came together.

“Go go go!”

At Lori’s command, engineers followed her out onto the tangled beams, looking for connectors to bolt together. From the far side, Rightwise engineers in their canvas harnesses rushed out to join them.

Lori found a place where two joining beams crossed, in line with the plan. She took a bolt from her belt, but while the holes in the Leftwise beam were circular, just like her bolt, those in the Rightwise beam were square.

She looked up to see a Rightwise engineer with a square bolt in his hand, staring at the same problem.

“What is this?” she shouted over the grinding of girders as the gasbags started pushing the cities apart. They only had moments to secure the connection.

“Square bolts so you can see which way it fits,” he shouted back, pointing at the holes. “But what’s this nonsense?”

“Round bolts so it doesn’t matter which way things fit!”

It was already too late. The Rightwise engineer shouted about Leftwise idiocy as the girders scraped over each other and the cities pulled apart.

Hours of frantic semaphore signals followed, and with them a new plan. Once again, Lori found herself hanging among the gantries and connecting rods.

“Now!” she shouted as the airbags collided.

Leftwise engineers raced out across the closing beams, then flung lengths of cable to the other side. Rightwise engineers did the same, ropes uncoiling as they tossed them. Then both sides stood staring at each other.

“Tie them off!” Lori shouted as the beams scraped and strained, about to pull apart again.

“You tie them off!” a Rightwise engineer shouted.

“You were installing pillars to tie them to.”

“No, we were installing cables. You were installing pillars.”

Lori cursed and looked around. If she was quick, maybe she could grab a cable from each side, tie them together, and…

With a grinding of metal on metal, Halderleft and Halderright pulled apart. Cables trailed beneath both cities like tentacles dangling in the wind.

More semaphore flashed back and forth, the conversation slower and steadier this time. It took two days before Lori hung from the girders again, holding a coil of cable with a hook on the end.

“Ready,” she called out as the cities spiralled in towards each other, the gasbags met, and the exposed edges of two communities collided. “Now!”

She ran out along a beam. From out of Halderright, an engineer rushed along his own beam towards her. As they swung past each other, the Rightwise engineer held out a hoop on the end of a cable. Lori hooked her hook through the hoop. A moment later, the cable tightened as her team frantically turned their winch. All across the joining works, cables were connecting. Girders scraped against each other, then settled into place, the two cities finally flying together.

Lori shook the hand of the Rightwise engineer. He didn’t take off his glove first, which seemed rude, and he looked at her tool belt with a combination of confusion and disdain.

“Nice to meet you,” he said in a strangely clipped accent.

“You too,” Lori replied.

The engineer looked around as their teams greeted each other, and he grinned.

“The greatest engineering feat of our generation, and we made it happen,” he said. “Now we can all relax.”

Lori watched the interactions around her, the awkward pauses, the misunderstood accents, the moments of incomprehension at each other’s slang.

It seemed to her that the hard work was still to be done.

***

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more just like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of this year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. The e-book comes out on 1 January, and you can pre-order it now.