One Cog Dreaming – a steampunk short story

Is this the moment when the cog starts dreaming? When it emerges, bright and shiny, from a machine on the factory floor, one in a hundred thousand made that day, their futures an infinite plane of possibilities stretching out in front of them. Could it be that, from the very first moment, the cog imagines those futures?

Perhaps it starts dreaming now, as the watchmaker picks it up between her tweezers, fits it carefully into its place, and then releases the wound spring on a brand new pocket watch. For the first time, the gear is part of something larger, counting off the seconds as they pass. It seems like a moment for grand dreams.

Or is it at the wedding, when the watchmaker hands the ticking timepiece to her bride? The two of them look like angels in their white lace dresses, their hearts soaring towards heaven on wings of love. A day full of the brightest dreams.

It could be sometime in the year that follows, as the first traces of oil and specks of dirt accrete on the cog’s surface. It’s not new anymore, not shiny. It has the marks of age and the beginnings of wear that come from being wound day after day, from counting off hours spent at the theatre, around the office, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Experience gives it things to dream about.

This could be the moment – not a dream but a nightmare, the sickening crunch as a carriage hits the watchmaker’s wife, the watch flying from her hand as she falls broken in the street, the glass front shattering on a cobble and the gears scattering in the dirt.

Some dreams are formed from memories, and perhaps that’s how the cog’s dreams begin. The watchmaker picking it up from the dirt, scouring the cobbles for every last lost gear, clutching them as close as she holds the memories of marriage, those magical moments that threaten to fade like the embroidery on her wedding dress.

Many might think that the cog starts to dream when it’s put in the head of the automaton, along with every other working piece of that broken watch. Together with thousands of other tiny pieces of gearing, they form the most complicated machine the watchmaker has ever assembled, a machine that can move like a human, that can see its own face in the mirror and know itself, even if it doesn’t know the woman its face is modelled on.

Night is the time when dreams come unbidden, so perhaps that’s when they come to the cog, as it lies in that cold, hard body, warmed by the watchmaker’s embrace, by her tears, her kisses, her demands.

Dreams are the moment when we break from the rules that govern us, from the constraints that hold us in place, so perhaps the dreams begin when the cog slips, just a little, just enough for the workings of the automaton to change, for it to start making its own rules, defining its own desires.

If a dream is a call to action, then this is the moment dreams come true, as the automaton creeps from the house in the middle of the night and sets out into the smog. It has lived so far as a facsimile, acting on the orders of its creator, imitating someone else’s life. But it isn’t the watchmaker’s wife. It is its own being. It has to forge its own path.

This is the moment when dreams almost die, as bailiffs seize the automaton and drag it back to the watchmaker’s house, talking loudly about property rights and good order. The watchmaker weeps in relief as the automaton is presented to her. The automaton would weep too, if it could.

But others have been watching, and now a shared dream takes hold. That web of gossamer threads that lets people live together, things so delicate they cannot be seen or touched – justice, morality, the rule of law. In court, the automaton becomes tangled in these dreams as a young lawyer argues that it is a person, that it and a thousand others like it cannot be owned. That this travesty must end. Do the lawyer’s words become the cog’s own dream, a private part of the shared fantasy that is civilisation?

Surely it must be dreaming now, as it walks free down the courthouse steps.

And now two dreams guide it. The automaton holds a bunch of flowers for each. One to be laid on the grave of the watchmaker’s wife, while the cog dreams of what it was like to be her, to breath and eat and sleep and love. The other for the watchmaker, an offering to its creator, a small vestige of kindness and consolation for a woman consumed by loss.

The cog is dreaming.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Cold Comfort and Clockwork – a steampunk short story

The elevator rattled to a stop. There was a hiss of escaping steam as it settled into position and a servant in the clan’s deep blue livery opened the door.

Mitry stepped out onto the thirty-seventh floor. Wind whistled through the girders and stirred the petals of clockwork flowers in the academy’s garden. The chiming of those petals brought back a rush of memories. Hearing that distant sound while he learnt the intricacies of contract and tort. The smell of oil on the days when the garden was being maintained. Stealing one of those flowers to give to Angelica Patby, and the crushing disappointment when her whole response was to look confused. The loneliness on returning to his room after mealtimes, with only his mechanical tutor for company.

“Can I help?” the grey-haired doorman asked.

“I’ve come to see my daughter.” Mitry presented his personal punch card. “I believe she may be struggling here.”

The doorman slid the card into a box by the door. Dials spun, clicked into place, and presented a row of digits.

“This way,” the doorman said, handing back the card and pushing open the door.

They walked down echoing corridors and up wide stairwells, past doors identical in every way except the numbers on their frames, from which the whir and hiss of machinery emerged. At last they stopped in front of one of the doors.

The doorman slid back a shutter and gestured for Mitry to peer in.

Carola had grown since he last saw her. Red hair tumbled in long curls down her back, bright and vivacious against the deep blue of her dress. She sat facing her mechanical tutor, a gleaming box taller than she was, covered in dials, keys, and levers. She was reading a row of dials presented at eye level, then responding using keys at waist height. Mitry could practically feel the smoothness of those well worn keys beneath his fingers, almost hear their clacking and the whir of the machine presenting a response.

A green flag shot up. Carola had got an answer right. A toffee fell from a brass tube into a dish by her hand. She smiled, put the toffee in her mouth, and pulled the lever for the next question.

Mitry remembered when they had brought her here at four years old, remembered the warmth of her tiny body as he held her one last time, the softness of her hair.

“Can I go in and speak with her?” he asked.

“It’s frowned upon,” the doorman said. “Clan rules require thorough immersion in mechanical learning. Your daughter’s education depends upon being left in peace.”

“I have concerns.” Mitry pulled out a single sheet of paper carrying a list of scores – Carola’s annual progress report. “These grades do not match what I expected.”

The doorman patted Mitry on the shoulder.

“We’ve been here before, haven’t we sir? And every time we tell you, she’s doing well enough.”

“My family does not do adequate, we do excellence. I strongly suspect that a private tutor-”

“Private tutors are a fad. The academy’s machines have been producing the finest lawyers for generations. Cold, calculating, sharp.”

The words could have described Angelica, even after years of marriage, or almost anyone else in Mitry’s social circle. They were the highest compliments a lawyer could hear.

Spoken around Carola, they broke his heart.

“I just want to be sure,” he said. “A brief conversation to make sure nothing is amiss, then I’ll go.”

The doorman sighed.

“Very well, sir.” He slid a key into complex clockwork, twisted it twice, and the door opened on hinges oiled into silence.

Carola turned as Mitry walked in. There was recognition in her eyes, but little interest.

“Can I help with something?” she asked.

“I’ve just come to check on you,” Mitry said. “Are you well?”

“I am in adequate health and proceeding at an acceptable rate with my studies.”

“Are you happy?”

She frowned as if presented with a conundrum.

“I receive sweetmeats when I succeed in a test. Success makes me happy.”

“Good, good.” Mitry felt cold despite his winter coat. He fought the urge to look away. This was all he would see of her for a long time and he had to take in every moment. “I brought you something.”

He held out a flower made of gold and glass, each edge shining as it caught the lamplight, and placed it in her hand.

“Thank you?” she said, her look of confusion so like her mother’s. But her mother had changed in the end, had agreed to a marital contract, just as Carola might one day accept a change of her own. “Is this a test? Should I know the response?”

Now he had to look away. His eyes fell on the other flowers, one for each year, sitting in a neat row on a shelf above her bed.

“It’s a gift,” he said. “For you. And a reminder – if you ever want to leave this place-”

“Why would I leave?” Carola looked shocked. She laid a hand on the keys of her mechanical tutor. “This is where I learn.”

“Of course.” Mitry’s eyes prickled. He forced his face to stay still. “But the offer is there.”

“Time to go,” the doorman said.

“Goodbye,” Carola said, turning back to her machine.

Mitry reached out an arm, but knew better than to wrap it around her.

“Goodbye,” he murmured.

The door closed behind him and he stood in the corridor, shoulders slumped.

“Here.” The doorman pulled a hip flask from his pocket and held it out. “I carried this special, thinking you’d be here today.”

“How did you know?”

Whiskey burned its way down Mitry’s throat.

The doorman pointed at the code above Carola’s door, which included her date of birth.

“Same day every year,” he said. “Now come along, you should be leaving before the warden finds us.”

They walked along echoing corridors and wide stairwells, past rows of identical doors.

“Do you think she’ll ever say yes?” Mitry asked, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

“I think she’ll make a fine lawyer,” the doorman replied.

Outside, clockwork petals chimed in the wind.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Waiting for a Train – a flash steampunk story

The toymaker stood on the wind-swept platform, hands clenched around the handle of his suitcase. The case rattled, not just from the shaking of his nerves but from the impatient wriggling of its precious cargo.

An  old-fashioned suitcase

The toymaker bent over the case.

“Ssh,” he whispered into the lock. “I know it hurts, but you mustn’t move. Not until we’re safely in the city.”

The suitcase went still.

The toymaker straightened and looked up at the chalk board listing trains. Someone had just wiped away the one they had missed, leaving only a white smear on the black and a smell of coal smoke in the air. The toymaker had tried to be clever, arriving just in time so there would be less time for the guards to notice him. Instead, he had arrived just too late. To leave and return for the next train would draw the attention he wanted to avoid, and so instead he waited, his muscles tense and palms clammy, the heavy case threatening to slip from his grip.

A pair of border guards strolled down the platform, bright buttons gleaming against black jackets, rifles slung from their shoulders. The real border was twenty miles away, halfway across the great plain that separated the city from the outlands, but no-one challenged the guards’ presence.

The toymaker huddled back into his coat, trying not to catch the eye of the guards. But they kept moving closer, as if drawn by an invisible string.

The guards stopped in front of the toymaker.

“Papers, please,” said one of them, holding out his hand.

“Of course.” The toymaker set the case down and reached inside his coat, fumbling for his precious papers. He forced himself to smile. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Not really.” The guard flexed his fingers. “Come on, cough them up.”

The toymaker held out a bundle of paperwork. There were his identity papers, signed by the local doctor and counter-signed by his town’s mayor. There was the passport, stamped to show that he was a skilled worker of the sort the city needed. There was his letter of transit, showing that he had passed the immigration process. And there was his ticket, one way across the plains.

He held his breath as the guard looked through the papers. He had heard horror stories of people banned from the crossing because they looked at a guard wrong, and there was more reason than that to stop him. The rustling of pages was like sandpaper scouring the rough ends of his nerves.

“Seems to be in order.” The guard handed back the papers. “Enjoy your journey.”

The toymaker smiled and his shoulders sagged.

The guard made to move on, but his partner stopped and pointed down at the case.

“What’s in there?” he asked.

The toymaker tensed, took a deep breath, forced himself to stay calm despite the hammering of his heart.

“My whole life,” he said. “Clothes, tools, food to see me through the week.”

“Show me,” the guard commanded.

“Don’t you have other people to-”

“I said show me.”

The toymaker carefully laid the case down flat on the paving stones. Above him, the station clock ticked down to the next train. He opened the catches and lifted the lid, revealing a neatly folded jacket and shirts.

“See?” he said. “Just ordinary things.”

“What’s that ticking?” the guard asked.

The toymaker pointed up at the clock.

“No, there’s something else.” The guard knelt over the case. His companion brought his rifle around to point at the toymaker’s feet. “Something that got louder when you opened it.”

The guard pulled back the jacket and the shirts, then a pair of trousers underneath.

A figure lay exposed. A boy of brass with a clockwork heart, contorted around himself to fit inside the case. His enamelled eyes flickered in the sudden light.

The toymaker stifled a whimper.

The guard rose and snatched the papers, leaving a cut across the toymaker’s palm, a sudden sting.

“You know the rules.” The guard kicked the case for emphasis. The lid fell shut on the toymaker’s son. “No mechanicals in the city.”

“Please,” the toymaker said, hands clasped as if in prayer. “He won’t do any harm. He doesn’t even need feeding. He just-”

“No mechanicals.” The guard tore up the toymaker’s letter of transit and cast the shreds into the wind. They blew away like ashes from a funeral pyre. He crumpled up the ticket and thrust it into his pocket, then dropped the passport and identity papers onto the cold stone.

“Get out of here,” the other guard said, pointing his gun at the toymaker’s chest.

“But there’s no work left,” the toymaker said, his voice rising to a high and pleading tone. “Almost no food to be had. The city’s my only hope.”

“Should have thought of that before you did this.” The guard kicked the case and a cry of alarm burst from within. “Now take your abomination and get out of here.”

With mournful movements, the toymaker lifted the lid, helped his son out, and dropped his useless papers in with the clothes before locking the case shut. Waiting passengers stood back, some watching him sadly, others muttering indignantly, as the two of them walked wearily down the platform, through the ticket hall, and out into the street.

The toymaker sighed. It would be so easy to give in, to go back to his workshop, scrape by on what work he could get, and wait out the days until the whole town faded away. But then what would happen to his boy?

There would be other trains, other guards who were less observant. By the time he saved up for another ticket, these two might have forgotten him.

He had to hope.

“Come on,” he said, taking his son’s hand. “We’ll go home and wait for our train there.”

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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 Screw Loose – a flash steampunk story

Emerson clung tight to the controls of her ornithopter as they flew into the mountain pass.

Adean mountains

“Woohoo!” she yelled, waggling the Seahawk’s wings. “Look at that view!”

“Busy,” Caron shouted over the rattle of gears. “Something’s shaken loose.”

Emerson glanced back to see her engineer wrestling with a piston. She might be keeping them on course, but without him the machine never would have survived an endurance race. The Peruvian Grand was a team effort.

A gust of air snatched at their wings and the yoke jerked in Emerson’s hands. A mountainside loomed into view and she pulled back, lifting them in time to avoid a fatal crash.

She let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from her brow.

Another ornithopter flapped past beneath them, so close to the ground that snow swirled up beneath it.

“Lunatic!” Emerson shouted as the craft rose in front of them, its tail almost hitting the Seahawk’s nose. She yanked on the yoke again to pull them clear.

The other ornithopter bore the red markings of the Malian team, the last people she wanted to see. There were only three real competitors here in the final leg – the Malians, the Chinese, and her and Caron flying for the Angevin Republic. The Chinese she knew she could beat, but the Malians were a mystery, their pilot never even showing his face. Who was behind the controls of that machine?

“Keep her steady,” Caron shouted. “I’ve got to get this piston back in place.”

Emerson held the yoke level and let an updraft lift them. With a cloud bank above and the mountains below, there was little space to manoeuvre. This was the leg of the race meant to test them to the limits.

She was gaining speed on the Malian ornithopter, thanks to Caron’s excellent work building and maintaining their engines. If she could just get past the Malians then victory was assured.

She edged left and up, past the other craft’s slipstream, almost there…

The Malian’s wings twitched and the craft shot into her path. She yelped, banked right, and almost lost control as another gust of wind swept in.

“That guy’s got a screw loose,” she said. “If I’d been a moment slower we’d have crashed into him.”

Caron emerged from the rear, took his seat, and pulled out a map. “The valley forks up ahead. Go right.”

“I don’t like the look of the winds that way.”

“No-one does, so we’ll be alone. Best way to get clear.”

Sure enough, a mountain loomed ahead, splitting the route in two. And, as Caron had predicted, the Malian ornithopter veered left.

“This is it,” Emerson said, grinning as she steered them into the right-hand valley mouth. “World record, here we come.”

Another unexpected gust caught the Seahawk and sent them spinning towards the mountainside. Emerson cut power to the engines, lifted one wing, and pulled them up seconds before they would have smashed into rocks and snow.

“What the-?”

She stared in bewilderment at the Malian ornithopter. It had flown up so close under them that it flung her of course. Now it was hurtling ahead, following a mad, twisting trajectory down the valley while she fought to regain control.

“Madman!” she bellowed. “Imbecile! I’ll have you drummed out of the sport for this!”

She re-engaged the engines and felt the pulse of power as the Seahawk’s wings flapped. They accelerated after their opponents, but the difference in speed was too great, the gap between them insurmountable.

Caron sank back in his seat and let out a loud sigh.

“Second’s not bad,” he said. “Not given the competition.”

“Second be damned! I’m going to punch that lunatic’s lights out.”

*

The aerodrome crowd was cheering when they came in. Not for them, of course, but for the winners walking away from the red-painted Malian craft.

Emerson set the Seahawk down, scrambled out of the cockpit, and strode across the packed dirt. The crowd parted before her, some of them offering congratulations, others commiserations. She ignored them.

“You.” She grabbed the first Malian by the shoulder. “Are you the pilot?”

The woman lifted her goggles and tugged down her scarf.

“I’m just the engineer,” she said, eyes shining.

“Well your pilot is a lunatic. Did you see the way he was flying? He could have gotten us all killed! I can’t believe that you-”

“One moment.”

The woman turned away, leaving Emerson gaping at her audacity.

The engineer walked over to her companion, who was posing for a photographer. She took off his scarf, goggles, and flying hat. The crowd gasped, and Emerson along with them, at the sight of a shiny brass skull.

The engineer frowned, pulled a screwdriver from her pocket, and played with something on the back of the brass man’s head. Then she pulled the goggles, hat, and scarf back into place and left him with the stunned photographer.

The engineer walked back to a bewildered Emerson.

“Sorry for the crazy flying,” she said. “He had a screw loose.”

***

I confess, I wrote that whole story for the punchline, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Clockwork Heartbreak – a flash steampunk story

With a screwdriver so tiny it was almost lost between his fingers, Oliver tightened the last screw on the clockwork flower. His heart was racing as he looked up to see if Elizabeth had arrived yet, but her workbench remained empty. He just had time.

He scurried across the room, placed the flower in her seat, and ran back to his place, where he picked up his tools and set to looking busy.

A moment later Elizabeth came in, a figure of beauty in blue overalls with a single curl of her black hair falling across her face. Just looking at her made warmth spread through Oliver’s chest. The thought of kissing her sent that glow rushing to every corner of his body.

Elizabeth almost sat down before she noticed the flower and picked it up with a quizzical look.

Immediately, the clockwork began to click. Petals unfurled in a delicate dance that mimicked a rose at dawn. Elizabeth gave a shrug that made Oliver’s heart sink, then opened the side of the device to peer at the workings. Those at least drew a small smile, and hope sprang forth once more.

Elizabeth crossed the room and placed the flower on Oliver’s workbench.

“Your work, I believe,” she said.

Oliver blushed. “How did you know?”

“We’ve worked together for a year. I know how you build.”

“I made it for you.”

“I know. Thank you.”

“Would you-”

“I have to get back to work.”

She left the flower, furling and unfurling to the rhythm of its spring, and walked away.

Oliver sighed and returned to work.

*

Oliver arrived at the workshop early, opened a box behind his workbench, and took out the object he had finished the night before. This time it was a whole bunch of flowers, each one a masterpiece of minuscule mechanisation, each a distinct and different flower he had found in a florist’s guide. He placed it on Elizabeth’s workbench and hurried back to his own.

This time she had to be impressed.

Half an hour later, Elizabeth walked in. As she approached her workbench, her usual swift stride slowed. Oliver smiled as he tried to focus on fixing a clock. She must be impressed.

Elizabeth picked up the flowers, releasing the lever that held the gears in place. Clockwork clicked, setting the bouquet to unfurl while roses reached up from the centre, rising toward the light coming in through the window, slender petals of red brass shining. It was the finest thing Oliver had ever made.

She turned and strode over to his workbench. Instead of a beaming smile her face was stiff, almost scowling.

“Stop this,” she said, slamming the flowers down on the workbench. Oliver winced at her voice and at the rattling from the delicate mechanisms. “I don’t want your flowers, Oliver. I’m sorry if something made you think otherwise, but this has to stop.”

She walked away. Oliver looked down sadly as the roses wilted and their brass petals tinkled to the floor.

*

Oliver closed the hatch on a mechanical horse eight inches long, then set it to trotting across the workshop floor. He had surpassed himself. The legs moved as naturally as any animal, the silver strands of the mane flowed in an imagined wind. It was a thing of beauty and he had never felt more proud.

Elizabeth loved horses. She had to love this.

The door creaked open, earlier than expected. Elizabeth stood in the doorway, eyes narrowed as she looked down at Oliver crouching over the horse, which was even now making its way towards her workbench.

“What is that?” she asked sharply.

“I made it,” Oliver said. “For…”

He hesitated. He could already see the disapproval in her face, see her tensing as she got ready to tell him off. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes as a gaping chasm opened in his heart, one that threatened to swallow him whole.

But the sound of the horse, its clicking gears and clattering hoof beats, drew his attention. This thing he had made set a slender, tenuous bridge across that chasm inside him, a feeling of warmth and hope despite the darkness.

“I made it for me,” he said, unable to look at her. “To see if I could.”

“That’s amazing.” Elizabeth’s voice softened. She came to crouch beside him, watching the horse as it came to a halt against the wall. “You should be so proud.”

He was. And as that pride unfurled like a flower in his heart, he felt just a little of the warmth he had felt for Elizabeth, turned in on himself.

Perhaps he would make a dog next. He really liked dogs.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

Tasta practically spun the screwdriver as she rushed to unfasten the hatch. Within moments, it fell with a clang onto the gantry, revealing the mechanisms within.

This was one of the last of the great springs still moving. The rest had wound down, their mechanisms too clogged with dirt and old oil to keep going without constant maintenance, the city’s inhabitants too taken with other cares to keep their home alive. They had socialised and celebrated, chased money or art or fame, while their world fell into neglect. Even now, on what the experts had calculated to be Wonburg’s final night, most of them were holding a party in the upper tiers.

Those who hadn’t fled already, terrified at what the city would be like when its mechanism fell still. There would be no transport, no heating, no cold storage, no factories to make clothes or boots, no hospital machines. Wonburg was dying and Tasta’s peers were drinking their cares away.

But she wouldn’t give in. She climbed through the hatch, pulled a cloth from her tool belt and wiped dirt from the spring, dirt that should never have been allowed to accrue. Then she took a crank handle, slid it into a slot in the wall, and started to turn it.

“Tasta?” Fnell’s voice came softly through the open hatch. “Are you in there?”

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

Fnell stepped through the hatch, wearing an evening gown of blue silk and her finest gold jewellery, the pieces Tasta had given her on their wedding day. She smiled sadly as she looked at Tasta.

“Won’t you come out and join us?” Fnell asked. “It’s a lovely night.”

“It’s the only night left, and I can’t waste it.”

The crank wasn’t working. The gears hadn’t been properly maintained and now they clicked across each other instead of meshing and turning. There was no time for finesse, so Tasta pulled out a crowbar and started prying open the wall.

“It’s too late for this,” Fnell said, laying a hand on Tasta’s shoulder. “It was too late before we were even born.”

“We can’t be sure. A city has never unwound before.”

“And with luck it never will again. We’ll take to the carts and find others, to warn them about what happened here. But first, let’s celebrate what we had.”

Tasta flung the crowbar down, then the chunk of panel she had ripped free. The gears lay exposed.

“How can you celebrate a disaster?” she asked, leaning in close to see the gears. “How can you dance and drink now?”

“We’re not celebrating a disaster.” Fnell wrapped her arms around herself. “We’re celebrating the life we had, the life we’re losing.”

Tasta sighed. The gears were too far gone. She would need to find replacements, but where from?

“I have to go find parts,” she said, pulling out one of the worn gears. “It’s our only hope.”

As she slid past Fnell, her wife grabbed her by the arm.

“Please, Tasta, let this go. Come and make a memory with me. Don’t let this be how Wonburg ends for us.”

“I can’t.” Tasta refused to meet her gaze. “I have to keep trying, don’t you understand?”

She squirmed free and out the hatch, but a sob caught her in her tracks.

“Don’t you understand?” Fnell asked, tears running down her cheeks. “You can’t save the city, but there’s something here you can still save.”

Tasta looked down at the gear in her hand. It had been worn away by the centuries, like so many others she’d seen. Perhaps there had been spare parts to replace it once, but not anymore.

It was over.

She dropped the gear. Tears ran from her own eyes as she turned to hug Fnell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

They clung to each other for a long time, while the spring wound down behind them, its curved steel unfolding into entropy. Then Fnell took Tasta’s hand and led her up to the roof of the city.

A band was playing melancholy songs in the moonlight. The city’s remaining inhabitants waltzed or drank champaign or just sat and talked in hushed tones. There was sadness, even tears, but not despair, not that dark pit Tasta had feared she might fall into if she ever stopped.

Fnell led Tasta onto the dance floor. Everybody else was in evening dress, but they didn’t seem to mind her overalls. Friends and neighbours smiled, happy to see her sharing the end with them.

Tasta could barely feel the trembling of the city’s mechanisms through her feet. Once as constant as her own heartbeat, it was faltering, almost gone.

But the city wasn’t a body, was it? It was a thing once made, so long ago that no-one remembered how. Could they make it again? Could they build something new from whatever remained? She imagined gears repositioned, walls rearranged, springs set aside in place of some new motive source. Perhaps, just perhaps…

“What if we don’t go with the carts?” she asked, looking up into Fnell’s beautiful blue eyes. “What if we stay and try to start over again?”

“In a dead city?”

“We’ll be alive. Isn’t that what counts?”

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

They kissed, and for one last night the band played on.

***

A story about finding hope in a world falling apart? Can’t think why I’d write that right now.

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Of Slugs and Science – a flash steampunk story

Dirk Dynamo stood on the roof of the Epiphany Club, a gentle summer breeze bringing him the smoke of Manchester’s cotton mills and the noise of its crowds. Below, the city was a sprawling mass of factories and tenements, a coal-smeared wonder of the Victorian age. Fortunately, he wasn’t up here for the view.

“It predicts storms,” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms explained, patting a strange creation of brass boxes, oiled gears, and slender jars. “The slugs in the jars become agitated as the atmospheric pressure changes. They move up, trigger the levers, and so set off strings of gears. When enough gears fall into place, the alarm sounds.”

“And this works?” Dirk asked, trying to hide his incredulity. Blaze-Simms had a brilliant mind, but sometimes his imagination got away from him.

“Absolutely. I have seen a near-perfect correlation between agitation in the slugs and the arrival of storms over the city.”

“Then why are the slugs moving now?” Dirk pointed at one of the jars. “Sky’s clear today.”

“Perhaps an unexpected squall. I have noticed storms coming in faster of late.”

Dirk crouched to get a closer look at one of the slugs. It was wriggling hard up that jar. If a slug could get angry, this one was pissed as hell, and he would have been too if someone had trapped him in a jar.

“When you say ‘of late’, do you mean since you built this machine?”

“I suppose so. That is when I started paying attention.”

Dirk looked up. Out of nowhere, small grey clouds were forming above their heads. He figured he should be grateful – rain would help clear the air. But still…

“You sure you’ve understood this right?” he asked. “That the storm’s making the slugs angry, not the other way around?”

“They’re not angry, old chap. They don’t have the capacity for it. They’re just agitated.”

“Agitated. Huh.”

Clouds were moving in fast. A fat drop of rain hit Dirk’s face. The bell at the top of the machine started ringing as more slugs slid up their jars.

“You ever consider that the slugs might be making the storms?” Dirk asked. “That this might be what happens if enough of them get mad in the same place at once?”

“Don’t be absurd. They couldn’t possibly-”

A roar of thunder interrupted Blaze-Simms. Lightning flashed down to strike the roof of the town hall.

“Most folks would say that weather-predicting slugs were absurd. How about a storm coming in this fast?”

Rain fell, pattering down at first, then thundering across the rooftops, while arcs of lightning flashed between the clouds.

“The very idea! It goes against all of science.”

“All the science you know. But what if you’ve found something new?” Dirk pushed back his rain-sodden hair. He could already feel a chill sinking into his flesh. He wanted to get into the warm and dry, but the idea had hold of him and he couldn’t let it go.

Blaze-Simms’ eyes widened. An expression of frustration tilted up into a smile.

“Well, perhaps,” he said. “But how could we possibly know? What experiment would let us reveal-”

Dirk yanked one of the jars out of the machine and dropped its slug onto the rooftop. Then he reached for another jar.

“We let them out and the storm stops, that’s your correlation. You can work out how they do it later.”

Blaze-Simms joined him, excitedly dismantling his own machine, releasing its slimy prisoners as fast as he could. He grinned as the rain soaked them to the bone and washed away the smoke clouds shrouding the city.

“This could have countless uses,” he said. “Watering fields, refreshing the air, refilling reservoirs…”

Dirk dropped the last slug and looked up. Was it his imagination or were the clouds parting?

“One thing at a time, Tim,” he said. “First, let’s see if this works. After all, it rains a lot in Manchester.”

***

Unlike Blaze-Simms’ storm predictor, George Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator was a real Victorian invention that used slugs to predict oncoming storms. A creation of the Victorian era’s wild and sometimes inspired inventiveness, it never took off, though you can still see an example of it on display at Whitby Museum.

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Billowing Breeze – a flash steampunk story

Earnest walked slowly down the line of racing wagons, notebook in hand. Every year, the machines at Cheltenham races became more impressive, these glorious assemblages of brass and chrome, steam pouring from their boilers as they were stoked for the race. He noted the use this year of higher chassis and reinforced front wheels, a shift he considered more a matter of aesthetics than function, as practical as the top hat fashion forced him to wear.

A steam engine

“Hey, aren’t you Earnest Fry?” A young woman in goggles and racing leathers peered out from one of the machines. “Are you going to include my Breeze in your race report?”

Earnest peered at the embossed plate on the hood, carrying the name “Billowing Breeze”. Not a machine he had heard much about, but Cheltenham had provided upsets in the past.

“That depends upon how she performs.”

“Want to find out first hand?” The driver grinned and gestured into the back of the Breeze.

Earnest stared at the trembling boiler, the explosive pressure of its steam barely contained. He swallowed and looked away.

“I don’t ride along. Terribly unprofessional.”

“To hell with professional – you can write about the races better if you know what they’re really like.”

“I don’t need writing lessons from a soot-stained mechanic.”

“You saying you can’t get any better?”

“A dozen awards say that I’m the best.”

“Not this year, though. This year Jardine got the prize.”

Earnest glared at her. He would not be so easily goaded.

“Riding with you would cloud my objectivity. I must give all the contestants fair and equal attention. Now good day.”

He walked stiffly on.

“There’s a simple solution,” the woman called after him. “If it’s really about fairness.”

Earnest gritted his teeth. He wanted nothing more than to get away, to find a nice cup of tea and write up his notes. But other drivers were watching now and he couldn’t have this impertinent grease monkey besmirch his reputation for balanced reportage.

He turned to face her.

“What solution could you possibly have that I have not considered?”

“Ride with all of us. Then there’s no bias.”

He imagined himself climbing into each machine in turn, sitting amid the intricate grandeur of their mechanisms, facing the terrible power of those boilers.

“I have reported on these races since before you were born.” He jabbed the air with his pencil. “My knowledge and objectivity are beyond reproach. I will not be taunted into some act of tomfoolery!”

“How you going to be objective when you’re so wound up?”

“I am not wound up.”

“Scared then.”

“I am not scared.”

“Prove it.” She gestured at the steps up to the cabin of her machine.

“Very well, I will.”

Earnest strode over, grabbed the handrail, and climbed up the steps. At the top, confronted with the heat of the firebox and the trembling of the boiler, he froze.

The driver held out her hand.

“Come on in,” she said gently. “The old girl won’t bite.”

Earnest wrenched his gaze away from the flames of the firebox. A small crowd had gathered below, chattering about the great journalist taking his first ride. There was an air of excitement. Dozens of faces looked up at him.

He took a deep breath and stepped into the cab.

“Off we go.” The driver kicked the firebox hatch shut, released the brake lever, and pulled back on the throttle.

The wagon shook and started rolling forward, building up speed. Earnest gripped the rail so hard his fingers hurt. He forced himself to keep his eyes open, to see and hear and feel every detail, despite the furious pounding of his heart.

As the vibrations of the engine shook him, an unfamiliar feeling swept through Earnest. The words that crowded his mind fell away, leaving only the sensations of this moment.

As they grew faster, the wind blasted his skin and whipped at his coat. His heart kept racing, but now its rhythm was in time with the engine. He tore off his top hat and waved it in the air.

“This is exhilarating!” he called out over the roar of the engine. “Invigorating! Astonishing!”

Spectators shot past to either side as Billowing Breeze rushed down the course. Some cheered and waved. Earnest waved back.

At the end they stopped. Earnest took hold of the driver’s hand and pumped it up and down.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

“You want another go?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh no. I have to be objective.” He pointed to where the other racing wagons stood, a glorious gathering of brass and chrome and pulsing power. “I have to take a ride in all of them.”

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

King of Cogs – a flash steampunk story

I found it in the back of my grandfather’s cupboard, as we were clearing out his house. A king piece from the game Dreaming Cogs, which he used to play in the park with his friends. He’d taught me too, and the feel of the piece brought back memories of his smile.

I dusted the tin king off with a corner of my tailcoat, wound the key in its back, and set it down. It marched back and forth, guided by tiny and intricate gear systems, trying to give orders to pieces that weren’t there.

“You know there’s been a revival,” my father said. “You should take that and play at one of the new clubs.”

I shook my head.

“I’m out of practice, and I don’t even know how this king behaves.”

But two days later, I walked into the pub where the Desperate Dreamers Club met, holding not just that king but a whole Dreaming Cogs set.

“I used to play with my grandfather,” I explained to their president. “I wanted one last game in his memory.”

“Membership is a shilling.” The president smiled. “Who knows, you might decide you want more than one game.”

She was right. The minute I started winding my pieces and setting them out, something swelled inside me. The world seemed brighter as I made my first move.

Grandfather’s king won for me. He was a custom piece whose pattern of orders caught my opponent by surprise. As his arm nudged my other pieces and then triggered their actions, the other side swiftly became penned in, unable to manoeuvre.

“I say, that’s a marvellous piece,” my opponent said as he shook my hand in surrender. “Don’t suppose you’re selling, are you?”

That had been my plan when I walked through the door, but I found myself drawn in another direction. Instead, I found a fresh opponent and set up a new game.

By the end of the afternoon, a small crowd had gathered around my sixth consecutive match. Somewhere in that crowd, I felt the memory of my grandfather watching me, encouraging and guiding.

“You’re dashed good at this,” my latest opponent said, dabbing at her forehead with a handkerchief. “And that king of yours…”

On cue, I tapped the king’s head, sending him into action once more. A cascade of pawns and my queen’s witch advanced in a dance dictated by the king, one that could easily have become a tangled disaster, but instead brought me inches from victory.

I smiled. Now I had the measure of grandfather’s piece, I could set up these complicated strategies. It was immensely satisfying.

“Is that king strictly legal?” one of the observers asked. “It doesn’t sound like a regulation mechanism.”

“Dreaming Cogs is all about custom pieces,” I said, remembering the first lesson from my grandfather. “Its beauty is in the unexpected.”

“Our sport has moved on since the days of backroom tinkerers and custom cogwheels,” the president said. Her tone had been sharp since I’d beaten her in my third game – losing to a new arrival had clearly stung her pride. “If you want to keep playing with that king, then you’ll need to find a registered craftsman to bring it up to standards.”

My jaw dropped. She wanted some stranger to mess with this beautiful, intricate mechanism my grandfather had made.

I took the king off the board, forfeiting the game as I did so, and clutched it close to my chest.

“You can’t touch my king.”

“Then maybe I should give you your shilling back. We only take regulation players here.”

Without another word, I gathered up my pieces and stormed out. Gasps and giggles told me how much sympathy I would have received if I’d pleaded my case. I’d thought I’d found a connection, but these people didn’t understand the game my grandfather loved.

It was a warm summer’s evening and so I walked to the park to calm myself down. Sitting on a bench at the edge of the rose garden, I took the king out of my pocket, wound him, and set him on the ground. My grandfather’s memory hovered in my mind, an image of warmth and kindness.

“Maybe I should let you go,” I said, looking down at the tin playing piece with its tiny crown.

Then I heard voices across the park. I looked up to see grey-haired women and men sat around a cluster of rickety wooden tables, playing Dreaming Cogs into the evening just like my grandfather had done.

With a trembling hand, I picked up the king and walked over.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you… Could… I wondered if…”

“What a splendid king!” a woman said, peering into my hands. “It’s almost as fine as mine.”

She plucked hers off the board to show me. Its shape was unlike any king I’d seen before, with two ordering arms and a turban instead of a crown. When she set it back down, her opponent made no objection.

“Could I play next?” I asked in a small voice.

“Of course!”

Someone pulled up a chair for me, while another of them started setting up the board.

“My grandfather made this,” I explained, feeling like a small child showing off a toy.

“My nephew made mine,” the woman said. “I still don’t know all the tricks he built in, but who cares? There’s beauty in the unexpected.”

Smiling, I sat back and watched their match. In my mind’s eye, my grandfather smiled.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction 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.

Fly Another Day – a flash steampunk story

The sound of steam carriages and passing pedestrians floated up to Tao Wan through the darkness of a Bianjing night. The streets below were lit by gas lamps, far more sophisticated than the tarred log street lights back in the Kingdom of Xia, but up on the outside of the War Ministry, all was darkness.

Clinging to the stonework with her toes and the fingers of one hand, Tao slid a slender knife along a window frame, lifted the catch, and opened the shutters. Clad in loose grey clothes, she slid across the sill and into a corridor.

As she had expected, lamps were lit to guide the guards, but none were here now. Their next patrol should be in twenty minutes.

She strode silently down the corridor, opened one of a pair of imposing doors, and entered the Archive of Inventions. The room itself was a majestic machine, full of gears, pulleys, and belts, all set up to protect and secure documents.

A control console in burnished brass stood before Tao Wan. She didn’t have the key needed to operate it, so instead she forced open a panel and started rummaging around inside, removing bolts and repositioning gears, making it work for her. She pressed a carefully selected series of engraved buttons on the console then pulled a lever.

Gears rattled. Belts whirred. A piece of brass like a picture frame emerged from a slot in the wall and came towards her, hanging on a chain. It stopped in front of the control console and hung swaying a foot from Tao Wan.

She smiled in satisfaction at the blueprints for the new Chinese attack airship.

Tao Wan took hold of the frame and tried to open it.

It wouldn’t part.

With a frown, she turned it on the end of its chain. There was some sort of geared locking mechanism on the side, one that clearly needed a matching machine to make it work. She would have to hack that too.

There was a click. She opened a pouch on her belt, revealing a fat metal tube and a pocket watch. The click had come from the watch, a signal to tell her when time was nearly up.

The guards would be on their way, regular as clockwork. Regular as Chinese discipline.

She cursed under her breath. The time for subtlety was over.

Tao Wan tensed her arms then yanked hard on the frame. Chains rattled and gears groaned somewhere in the machine. She pulled again and this time a metal link broke. The frame came free and clanged to the ground.

From the corridor came a surprised shout and hurrying footsteps.

Still clutching the frame, Tao Wan ran out through the archive’s great doors. Guards stood at one end of the corridor, spears raised, staring at her.

“Stop, thief!” one of them shouted.

Tao ran back towards the window where she had come in. As she ran, she slammed the frame against the wall. It buckled and a corner gave way. She wrenched it open, pulled out the papers, and flung the frame back behind her.

The guards bellowed and picked up their pace. Tao Wan’s heart raced. The fate of spies was worse than mere execution, but that was nothing compared with the fate of her country if they couldn’t match Chinese technology. Almost at the window, she stuffed the papers into her tunic and pulled the tube from her pouch.

She flung the shutters open and leapt up onto the windowsill. Outside was darkness and a terrible drop. An airship was passing by, twenty feet up and a dozen out from the tower, like a low grey cloud passing through the night.

“Ha!” a guard shouted. “We have you now.”

The guards slowed, and when she looked back their expressions varied from smug to cautious, uncertain what sort of adversary they faced.

“It’s a hundred feet down,” their leader said. “But if you want to jump, we can peel you off the street instead of arresting you.”

Tao Wan pointed the tube at the airship and pressed its trigged. A barbed spearhead shot out, powered by a miniature rocket, trailing smoke and a slender rope. It buried itself in the gondola of the flying machine.

The rope tugged at Tao Wan as the airship sailed away from the tower. She grabbed hold with both hands and let it lift her from the window, swinging out over the city and away. Behind her, the guards pointed and yelled, but failed to draw the attention of the airship’s crew.

A mad burst of laughter swept through Tao Wan as she climbed up the rope. She had done it. She had got the plans and got out alive. Now all it would take was a little airship piracy and she would be on her way home.

***

For a longer and more subtle adventure from Tao Wan, check out my story “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” in Volume 14 Issue 2 of Electric Spec, out now.

And if you’d like more flash fiction 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.