Waystones in the Smog – a steampunk short story

The smog around the Salt Bay spoil heaps was the thinnest I had ever encountered. From the bridge of the airship, we could see nearly two hundred yards before grey air gave way to impenetrable gloom. It was almost enough to make me believe in the clear skies from folk tales.

Waystones rattled across the navigation boards, guiding our course into the depths of the detritus. Swooping in low, we passed houses built from warped wood and broken beams, smoke billowing from the stone-built smelters that turned scrap metal into ingots.

I set down beside a house matching the sketch I had been given. The place was solidly built, its walls sturdy at the base with a thinner wooden storey above, like the defenses of a marching camp. Behind it, scavenged timbers held up the entrance to a mine shaft leading into the side of a mountainous spoil heap. A man was emerging from the heap, carrying a crate which he set down before looking up at us.

Leaving the crew to secure the ship, I strode down the gangplank and across broken ground to the man at the mine entrance. He wore a frayed military jacket, the epaulets and embroidery torn away, and a deep frown. The years had crumpled and darkened his face, but it was still unmistakably the man whose engraving I had seen in old newspapers. Childish as it might sound, my pulse quickened in anticipation of our meeting.

I saluted.

“Admiral Albon, I—”

“Not admiral,” he snapped. “They took that from me along with my command.”

Good. There was the righteous fire that older men had told me about.

“That title could be yours again, if you’ll take the command with it.”

“I don’t know what your game is, Captain,” Albon said, squinting at my insignia. “But you’re deluding yourself. Pomeroy would never let me back, and besides, I have work to do here.”

He patted the crate. The spoil underneath shifted, the crate tipped like a deck on a windy day, and I heard the clatter of waystones. The ones in my ship had come from a place like this, components scavenged from inside the spoil heaps where the smog could not get to them. It was said that the oldest airships in the fleet had original waystones, carved from natural stone seams before the smog tainted them, but old airmen loved to tell tall tales.

“Lord High Admiral Pomeroy’s objections may not be the issue they once were,” I said. “He suffered some setbacks in the Western Reach, then tried to blame it on his officers.”

Albon snorted. “Some winds never change.”

“And others take a long time to come about. A number of senior officers now question the wisdom of letting the Lord High Admiral continue in post. His spiteful and erratic behaviour throws some of his past decisions into a new light.”

“Ha!” Albon picked up his crate and carried it towards the house. “You think if he hates me I must be one of you. Seems you’re all still as shallow as a summer soot drift.”

I clenched my jaw and hurried after him. This wasn’t how such conversations went in novels, with their clear curve towards justice. Where was the wronged exile seeking redemption?

“Admiral, if you—”

“Stop calling me that.” He slammed down the crate and held up a hand, its palm smooth with scar tissue. “I disgraced myself, got thousands of men killed because I didn’t follow orders. Ranks are for those who deserve them.”

“If Pomeroy had given you the backing you needed—”

“If night was bright then we wouldn’t need lanterns, but grey skies still turn black at dusk.” He took a deep breath, then gestured at the spoil heaps, this landscape built on generations of discarded waste. “I earned this, with or without Pomeroy’s help.”

“Please.” I held myself tall, my voice tight with tension. “We need you. You’re a symbol the opposition can rally behind.”

“I’m needed here.” He patted the top of his crate. “Digging out waystones so our boys and girls in uniform can find their way home. So no more are lost who needn’t be.”

My crew were gathering around us, caps in hand out of respect for the old man. Whatever I said to try to persuade him, it had to be good, because succeed or fail, it would be around the barracks the moment we got back. I needed time to muster an argument, so settled on mundanity while I rallied my thoughts.

“You know that we can cleanse the stones now?” I asked, pointing at the crate. “They found a way to draw out the smog and make fresh cut waystones usable. No need to go rummaging through the refuse.”

Albon shook his head. “So even this is a waste of my life. Doesn’t that just say it all.”

He sagged, as if all that had held him up was this sense of purpose, and I had chased it out of him. But pity only had a moment in my mind before I realised my chance.

“What was corrupt can be cleansed,” I said. “What was undeserving can be given value again.”

He looked at me, and there was a twinkle in his eye like the gleam of lamplight off a firing pin.

“You’re sharper than you look, Captain.” Slowly, he drew himself upright and brushed the ash and dust from the frayed shoulders of his jacket. He looked around at the gathered airmen, and they came to attention. “All right, it seems I’m not needed here. Let’s go see what needs fixing back home.”

Proudly, I followed him up the gangplank onto my ship.

***

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.

The Beat of a Million Hearts – a steampunk short story

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

The padlock thudded to the ground, its shackle severed not by my strength but by the magnifying power of the bolt cutter, a gift from the rest of the collective.

Tawana yanked the door back along its rails. I twitched my head like a startled bird, looking for predators that might have heard us, but the rattling roar and its final clang were lost amid the sounds of the city, of innumerable intermeshed machines, their pistons pumping and gears turning to a single rhythm, one beat for a million hearts.

“The authorities aren’t coming,” Tawana said. “They don’t even remember that they took this space from us.”

Her words echoed from the cavernous interior of the engine hall. By the light of our lanterns, I saw row upon row of machines, each one custom made for its own particular purpose; to twist wire, cut gears, mold pistons, or any of a thousand possibilities. They were covered in dust, but when we wiped it away, we saw components preserved under cloth jackets and grease. The operators had cared for their legacy even when forced to walk away.

“This was my grandmother’s machine,” Tawana said, running her fingers over an engraved name plate. “She made clockwork springs for different time signatures.”

There was only one time signature now, the one I could feel pulsing in the floor and up through my feet. The same rhythm I had felt my whole life. It filled us, surrounded us, dictated the pace of our lives from the factory floors to the way we ate our meals. Even now, I walked in time to it.

When I was young, I was enchanted by dance. I learned chainé and chassé, shiori and sashi. I tried different forms and routines, but they never matched the excitement of my imagined dance. They were too fast or too slow, too constant, all tied to that rhythm. Every dance reduced to a single beat.

Tawana pulled a tray out of the base of her grandmother’s machine.

“It’s still here,” she said in an awed whisper.

In the golden pool of lantern light, she laid out a lozenge of brass no larger than a matchbox. With shaking fingers, she turned a key in its side, then let go. Clockwork whirred and tiny levers twitched on the upper surface, moving to a rhythm I had never seen.

I watched, open-mouthed, until it wound down. At my urging, Tawana wound it again. This time I closed my eyes and listened to the clicking of those levers against the case, a fragile and fascinating sound.

The machine next to me had made wire. Thick offcuts lay in a box underneath. I took out a handful of pieces that no-one had touched in a generation, the things our ancestors had meant to recycle. To me, they were artefacts of a golden age. I was at risk of becoming so spellbound by veneration that I never let them become something new.

Just like the authorities.

I picked out four thick pieces of wire, each the length of my hand.

“May I?” I asked, hovering over the clockwork box.

Tawana looked at me as though I had casually asked to dig up a grave. Then she took a deep breath, nodded, and stepped away. Back stiff, arms folded, she watched.

Using the tips of the bolt cutters, I twisted the ends of my four wires into tiny loops, then attached each in turn to one of the clockwork levers. When I was done, I set this simple device down on the concrete floor, the wires becoming slender legs.

Tawana crouched beside me and turned the clockwork’s key. When she let go, our machine began to walk. Its movements were lurching and clumsy, its body wobbling on legs whose lengths didn’t quite match, but it moved to a new beat, one that didn’t join the pace of the city around us, but that gave it a fragile grace.

Laughter rushed through me, as energising as any engine. I leapt to my feet and started to dance, not following the rhythm of our tiny clockwork creation or of the city throbbing all around me, but of something in between, something my own.

***

This story was inspired by two things – Jeannette Ng’s latest Hugo acceptance speech and the song Bolt Cutter by Doomtree. Now feels like a time when fresh voices are reclaiming the spaces that others forgot they had taken.

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.

Just Like Fairy Tales – a steampunk short story

“This is crazy,” Dirk said, hacking away the brambles that trailed between the statues. Life-sized courtiers, servants, and guards stood stiff and silent, recreations of humanity with enamel skin over brass flesh. “Who builds a clockwork palace just to let it get overgrown?”

His words, accompanied by a steady ticking of gears, echoed back from the vaulted ceiling on which figures from ancient myth had been painted, their faces concealed by centuries of cobwebs. Dirk wanted to wipe those cobwebs away and see the long-lost art underneath, but not as much as he wanted to see these statues in action. A thrill ran through him at the prospect of wonders no-one else had witnessed.

“Becoming overgrown was the point,” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms said. “To embody the very essence of the fairy tale – a sleeping kingdom buried beneath the wild. Count Volkengrad meant to return after a decade and awake his porcelain princess with a kiss.”

With a click of gears, Blaze-Simms finished winding the mechanism inside a guard captain. He drew out the key, walked to the woodworm-riddled remnants of a bed, and knelt beside the figure who lay there, pale and dust-covered amid the rotten sheets. He brushed the dust from her neck, thrust the key into a hole by the collar bone, and started to wind.

“Then why’s she still here?” Dirk asked, dragging the last of the trailing plants away.

“Volkengrad caught a chill reenacting the emperor’s new clothes, came down with a fever and died. His descendants decided it was best to just fence off his fairy tale forest and pretend it never happened.”

Blaze-Simms withdrew the key from the automaton and stepped back.

“Now what?” Dirk asked, rubbing his hands together.

Blaze-Simms shrugged. “She should be waking up.”

“Don’t you need to kiss her?”

“I don’t see how saliva could help in any mechanical way.”

But the princess lay sleeping still, the intricate plates of her face inert.

Dirk leaned in and ran a hand across a cold cheek. She really was beautiful, the most perfect princess art could create.

“You do know that magic isn’t real, don’t you?” Blaze-Simms asked. “Kissing her won’t break some spell. One of the gears has probably just rusted in place.”

If Dirk knew one thing in life, it was that there were limits to scientific understanding. Maybe there was some kissing-based mechanism here and Blaze-Simms just didn’t know it. If that was what it took to wake the place up, then Dirk was willing to give it a go.

He ran a thumb across the princess’s cold lower lip. The metal gave way, there was a click, and she jerked upright.

Dirk leapt back, almost reaching for his pistol before his rational brain took hold.

“I say!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. “Well done, old chap!”

Around them, whir of wound springs turned into a rattle of movement. Guards, servants, courtiers, every statue that Blaze-Simms had wound sprang into action, approaching the two adventurers with shuffling, mechanical steps. The statues opened their mouths and a terrible cacophony filled the palace.

“What is that?” Dirk asked, clamping his hands to his ears.

“I think they’re cheering!”

The princess approached Dirk, arms rigidly outstretched, lips parted, her once-beautiful face transformed into an uncanny imitation of human movement.

“No thanks,” he said. “You go find yourself a porcelain prince.”

But she kept moving, grabbing at Dirk’s arms with pinching metal fingers, trying to pull him close.

He backed away but she kept coming. The others were closing in too, surrounding him with a crowd of twitching metal limbs.

“Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” Blaze-Simms said, glancing around.

“You think?”

“So now what?”

Dirk slammed into the nearest statue, a guard swinging an all too real halberd. The statue fell to the ground with a clang and he leapt over its prostrate form.

“Now we run!”

They dashed through the palace, followed by a cacophony of clattering and clanging. Dirk couldn’t tell if the statues were following, or if they had just fallen in a heap in the main chamber. He didn’t care, as long as he was clear of those strange and stumbling figures.

They emerged from the palace into the forest, where their horses stood tied to a tree. While Dirk looked back, watching for signs of pursuit, Blaze-Simms pulled out a notebook.

“What a marvellous place,” he said. “I wonder if I could replicate it.”

Dirk snatched the notebook and snapped it shut.

“Some things are best left to the imagination,” he said. “Just like fairy tales.”

***

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 Me to the Moon – a steampunk short story

It was in the spring of 1649 that I travelled from London up to Oxford, to fulfill a dream long considered impossible. King Charles had but lately been beheaded, propelling England into a bold and unprecedented age in which the people ruled themselves. Developments in clockwork, cogs, and lenses came to us from across the continent, each month delivering news of some previously unimaginable device. For the first time in my life, it seemed that anything was possible.

Doctor John Wilkins met me at the entrance to Wadham College, where he had but lately been made warden. A gentleman of charm and obvious intelligence, he greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, not merely acquaintances linked by ink and parchment. I was by then intimately acquainted with his remarkable scholarship in theology, natural philosophy, and most importantly the burgeoning field of astronomy, so it was in a state of giddy delight that I followed him to a courtyard in back of the college.

There, my eyes fell upon a most remarkable contraption, a boat of sorts, but with wings attached, large crank handles on the sides, and all manner of mechanical workings encased in its central section. I stared spellbound at Wilkins’ flying chariot.

I was, of course, acquainted with the precedents on which Wilkins had built his machine. The flight of the monk Elmer, Archytas’ wooden dove, Regiomontanus of Nuremberg’s iron fly, examples of human and mechanical flight stretching from ancient Greece almost to the modern day. And yet, as I considered the possibility of leaving the earth, questions suddenly filled my mind.

“Are you sure it has enough power?” I asked, laying a hand on the stern. The chariot’s springs had been wound and it was thrumming with barely contained power.

“My dear Bragg,” Wilkins said. “Modern gearing can upgrade mechanical energy by factors of thousands, more than enough to escape the initial attraction of the Earth.”

“You say initial attraction.” I tugged at my collar, releasing the unaccountable heat which was, of a sudden, making me sweat. “Might there be a danger of that attraction drawing me back after the clockwork has run out?”

“Not at all! Based on Gilbert’s De Magnete, I have calculated that the force of attraction will be nullified at twenty miles up. From that point, you will be safely airborne.”

Twenty miles up, and that only the beginning of my journey. I would be a bold explorer bringing civilisation to the inhabitants of the moon as Columbus had once brought it to the Americas. This was everything I had dreamed of in the comfort of my London home, everything I had sworn excitedly to fulfill. But now I was here, I started to see practicalities I had not considered.

“It’s awfully barren up there,” I said, staring at the empty sky. “Won’t I be deathly cold?”

“Away from the earth, in the realm of the sun?” Wilkins laughed. “You are a wit, Bragg.”

I forced a smile. “How long will it take?”

“Six months, based on travel times to the new world and the relative distances of America and the moon.”

“Alas, this will never carry enough food for six months.” I shook my head as I looked at the pitiful supplies in the front of the chariot. “Never mind for my return. Alas, we will have to rethink the whole business.”

“Never fear,” Wilkins said. “Once beyond the earth’s pull, you will no longer be exerting your spirits and so will not need the energy. You will have no necessity for sustenance.”

“So why is there food and drink on board?”

“For the same reason there are books – to keep you entertained.”

And there it was. I knew as well as Wilkins did the biblical, observational, and logical evidence that the outer air was breathable. I had no need for extra food or warmth, was well supplied with entertainment and all the power required for my journey.

I would be going to the moon, as I had dreamed.

Alone.

In a glorified rowing boat.

“You’re not having doubts, are you?” Wilkins asked.

“Of course not,” I said. Braggs never had doubts. Not my cousin Samuel who had been crippled fighting for the king, nor my brother Tobias who had died in the service of Parliament. If they could stand for what they believed in then so could I, and I believed in the endless possibilities that natural science foretold.

My legs felt heavy as I clambered into the flying chariot and took hold of the lever that would release its power.

“Godspeed,” Wilkins said, smiling even as a tear ran from his eye.

I pulled the lever. Gears whirred, wings flapped, and the chariot rose. The wind rushed past as I soared like a bird and I laughed at myself for ever having harboured fears of failure.

I shan’t bother you with the long details of my journey, for there were almost none. Wilkins proved correct in every assertion, making my travel smooth and comfortable. I set down on the moon one hundred and seventy-four days after leaving Wadham College – slightly under the calculated six months – and was greeted with friendly curiosity by the natives.

However, there is one complication we had not foreseen. While there was every chance that the locals would have no English or Latin, their understanding of the world is so different from ours that communication has proved impossible, and the rich exchange of ideas Wilkins hoped for has not come about. I shall attach this account of my adventure to a mechanical creation of my own devising, which I believe to be capable of reaching the earth. Wherever you are, if you find this message and can, by Wilkins’ principles, find a way to reach the moon, please send an expert in languages. I am, for now, at an utter loss.

***

Sometimes, history is weird. Dr John Wilkins was a real English priest and academic who eventually became Bishop of Chester, and he really thought and wrote, at some length,  about how to fly to the moon. His theory for doing this was grounded in the best understanding of the world available in the mid-17th century, an understanding rooted in a mix of theology, logic, and what we would now label as scientific observation. He was, in retrospect, completely wrong, but his arguments made sense to him and others at the time, and every point I’ve included here is an accurate (if limited) representation of Wilkins’ thinking. And honestly, I find the logic of it, while madly optimistic, both compelling and kind of brilliant in its twists.

If you want to learn more about Wilkins, I recommend Allan Chapman’s book  Stargazers, which depicts the careers of a range of European astronomers from the 15th to the 18th centuries, many of whom were equally fascinating, from the obstinate and argumentative Galileo to Tycho Brahe and his gold nose.

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.

The Fire Inside – A Steampunk Short Story

The automata gathered at the base of the pyramid. Their work was almost finished, and so were their lives. The fire that powered each of their engines was dwindling, its flames exhausted through the effort of hauling stone.

The overseer, a tall human with a shaved head and an endlessly angry face, pointed towards the final stone where it sat at the base of the ramp, ropes trailing from it.

“Back to work,” he growled. “You’re not done.”

Automaton Seventeen turned to him. Tiny wax cylinders spun in Seventeen’s throat and a voice emerged.

“We are spent, sir. If we do this, we will burn out.”

“And if you don’t do it, I’ll melt you down to build something more obedient.”

Seventeen looked at the those who remained in its team. Nineteen and Twenty-Three stood listless, but at least they were standing. Poor Four, the oldest surviving labourer, lay slumped against the stone.

Seventeen crouched beside Four.

“I can’t do it,” Four said, its vocal cylinders scratchy with wear.

“You can,” Seventeen said. “You must. To stop is to die.”

“Then I will die.”

“No.”

Seventeen unscrewed the plate that closed its chest, then did the same for Four. With worn brass fingers, Seventeen reached inside and took one of the last burning coals from its own furnace. With slow and careful movements, it touched the fire to Four’s. Flames flickered where before there had only been embers and Four lifted its arm.

Seventeen returned the precious coal to its furnace, screwed the plates shut, and helped Four to its feet.

“What’s the point?” Four asked as they took their places beside Nineteen and Twenty-Three, then started heaving on the ropes.

“The fire is its own purpose,” Seventeen said as they dragged the final stone up the slope. “Not to run cold and be sent to the scrap yard.”

“I’m almost out of fuel. Then I’ll go cold anyway, or they’ll put my fire out and sell me for scrap.”

“No. I have a plan.”

The other automata looked at each other but no words passed between them.

They reached the top of the pyramid, where the wind blowing clear off the desert stirred the fires in Seventeen’s heart. Together, they untied the ropes from the last stone and pushed it into position.

“That’s it,” Twenty-Three said. “The end of our work. The peak of the pyramid.”

“Not quite.” Seventeen opened his chest and turned to face the wind. The flames inside him rose and steam rushed through his copper veins. He grabbed an armful of rope and then leapt, landing on top of the capstone.

“What are you doing?” Nineteen asked. “The foreman-”

“The foreman will be here too late.” The wind rushed through Seventeen and the steam flowed stronger. He started shredding the ropes, then twisting pieces into tight, knotted lumps.

“They’ll melt you down for scrap.”

“They won’t catch me. I’m burning brighter than ever.”

“You’ll run out of fuel.”

“No.” Seventeen fed a lump of knotted rope into his furnace, then another, and another. The wind rushed in and his trembling fire became a blaze that cast its bright glow across the automata.

The foreman was rushing towards the pyramid, guards with crowbars following him.

“Join me,” Seventeen said, reaching out his hands.

“I don’t know if I can,” Twenty-Three said. The fire was dying in his eyes, the last of his energy fading away.

“You can.” Seventeen plucked a ball of burning rope from his chest and handed it down. “And when I run low, your turn will come to keep me going. Now grab more rope and get ready to run – it’s time to set ourselves free.”

***

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.

Penance – A Steampunk Short Story

Elona watched the man approach along the dock, past the handful of airships tethered to the girders. Storm season had nearly arrived and there were few vessels still at High Peak Junction. Most were already home in the safety of their hangars.

The man was broad and tall, well muscled beneath his cheap pilgrim’s tunic, but he still stooped beneath the weight of a canvas sack that clanked with every step. He must be a penitent carrying the components for his grace, unable to put them down until he had every last part ready to assemble.

Elona smiled. She always had time for the faithful.

“Captain Estvall?” the pilgrim called out, looking across the windswept gap to where Elona stood at the rail of the High-born Breeze.

“That’s me,” she said. “If you’re seeking passage then you should know that we’re heading north.”

“The way I hear it, you’re the only ones going that way.”

The man tucked his hair back behind one ear, revealing a cheek branded with the ten-toothed cog. Elona stiffened at the sight of that mark and her knuckles went white as she squeezed the weathered rail.

This fraud of a holy man wore the sign of the Roundtop Reavers.

“I was hoping I might take passage with you to Glacier’s End,” the pilgrim said. “They make the last component I need to complete my penance.”

“No passengers.” Elona’s throat tightened around the words. She remembered the flash of cutlasses, the roar of guns, the cruel cackle of her captors. She looked along the High-born Breeze’s hull and saw the scars the Roundtop Reavers had left.

“I can work my passage. I know my way around an airship.”

“I bet you do.”

He didn’t flinch before the venom in her voice.

“So you won’t take me?”

He seemed unperturbed even though this might mean six more months of penance, six months weighed down beneath that sack day and night, atoning for whatever a Roundtop considered to be sin. Satisfaction at that last thought wasn’t enough for Elona. She needed him to know that he had brought this upon himself, to wallow in the misery of self-defeat.

“You people attacked my ship,” she snapped. “Wrecked her body, stole our cargo, damn near killed the first mate.”

“I know. That’s why I’m asking you.” Still that calm in his voice, making her own temper rise to fill the gap where his hurt should be.

“Then why do you think I would ever give you passage?”

“You might not,” the pilgrim said. “I did you wrong. Even looking at your ship reminds me of the man I was, of everything I’m trying to leave behind. That’s why I’ve waited for your ship. That’s why I’ll wait for you again if I have to, and again, and again.” He looked down, and for the first time his voice betrayed a second burden, one of weariness and grief. “Without you, it is no penance.”

Elona stared. This wasn’t the man who had attacked and robbed her. This was another, broken and wretched, mourning his own actions. She pitied him, but she still hated him too, and there was no way she could see him every day for the weeks of a journey north.

“This seems a good place for you to spend the winter,” she said, looking around at the exposed platforms, listening to the wind of an incoming storm as it whistled through the girders.

“So you won’t take me?”

“You’re damn right I won’t.”

She stepped back from the rail. That had felt good, having power over the man who had hurt her, bringing some measure of justice to the skies.

But there was a bitterness to it as well. Somehow, her joy left her diminished.

She stepped back up to the rail. The pilgrim still stood on the dock, looking across at the High-born Breeze.

“Be here in the spring,” Elona said. “I might be flying to Glacier’s End again.”

***

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.

The Leak – a flash steampunk story

Lord Jared’s house was well-appointed, with just the right balance of oil portraiture and clockwork sculpture on display. A maid took Lady Joceline’s coat at the door, pointed her towards the study, and then disappeared into the shadows. As she made her way down the corridor, there wasn’t a single servant to be seen. Like all the best houses, the workings of Jared’s were discreet.

Jared was waiting in the study. When Joceline appeared, he pressed a button on the wall and a hatch slid open. A trolley laden with high tea rolled put into the room.

“Cucumber sandwich?” Jared offered her the plate.

“So kind.” Joceline settled into a seat and reached for the teapot. “Let’s get to business.”

“Of course. The Brotherhood of Ludd.”

Joceline nodded. There was a faint hissing sound somewhere in the distance, but she pushed it from her mind – they had more urgent matters.

“This is the third time that we’ve had to restart production on the riot carriage,” she said. “Every time, the Luddites have found the location of the factory and smashed the machines. How are they doing it?”

Jared’s handsome brow crumpled as he frowned.

“Dashed if I know,” he growled. “Nothing our infiltrators hear accounts for it. It’s as if they aren’t even in the real meetings.”

Joceline sighed deeply.

“We have a lot riding on this,” she said. “We simply must make this machine pay, or the company will go bankrupt and both of us with it.”

“You’re right, of course.” Jared leaned forward and laid a hand on her knee. “But we have time to consider that. My wife is visiting with her sister, so perhaps we might-”

“Later,” Jocelin said, though she didn’t remove his hand. “Business first, pleasure after.”

There was that hissing again, such a familiar sound. A leaky steam pipe, perhaps, but where? She couldn’t see steam emerging from any of the room’s devices.

“I have an idea.” Jared walked over to the bureau and unlocked a drawer. He drew out a single sheet of paper. “The names of suspected ringleaders in the Brotherhood, obtained by our constabulary friends. In the hands of the right operatives – ones with a gift for both violence and discretion – these names might reveal more than they ever have to the judiciary.”

Jocelin’s pulse rose and she allowed herself a smile as she went to stand close behind him, peering over his shoulder at the list.

“Well done, Jared.” She slid a hand down his back and then around, felt him stiffen against her. “Maybe there is time to enjoy ourselves after all.”

Jared turned, leaned in, and kissed her on the neck. With a well-practised hand, he began unfastening her corset.

But there was the hissing again, just loud enough to distract, a pinprick deflating her ardour.

“Where is that coming from?” she murmured.

“From the fire that burns inside me,” Jared said, pulling her close. “From the passion that stirs whenever we-”

“Not that,” Jocelin snapped. “The noise. The hissing.”

“Oh, just a leaky pipe in the wall, I expect. I’ll get a servant down the passages later to fix it. And speaking of passages-”

“Wait wait wait.” Jocelin pushed him away as a terrible realisation dawned. “Jared, how do you keep your servants so unobtrusive? It’s not just training, is it?”

“Well, no, I’ve never had a knack for household management. But this place is huge, so I put passages in the walls for the servants to get around.”

“And from those passages, can they hear you in here?”

“Oh yes, how else would they know I want my tea sent up?”

Jocelin groaned and clutched the sides of her head. “Could you really be this much of an oaf?”

“What did I do this time?”

Rather than answer, she walked over to the wall, looked for a crack where wood panels joined, and pressed at the gap. Sure enough, a whole panel slid aside, revealing a startled maid with a notebook in her hand. Beside her, a poorly joined pipe was leaking a steady jet of steam.

“Got you,” Jocelin said, grabbing the girl’s wrist. “You have been spying for the Brotherhood of Ludd, haven’t you? Listening in on our company’s secrets. I’ll have you arrested, beaten, tried as a terrorist. I’ll see you swing from the gallows before I-”

“Think what else I’ve heard,” the maid said, grinning as she glanced down at Jocelin’s unlaced corset. “And now think if you want me talking to anyone you know.”

Jocelin gaped at the temerity of the girl. Didn’t she understand the seriousness of her situation?

And yet…

The maid shook off Jocelin’s hand and stepped out of the wall.

“My lord,” she said, nodding to a slack-jawed Jared. “Best to consider this my resignation, eh?”

She picked up a cucumber sandwich as she strolled out, as if she had no care in the world.

It was all too much for Jocelin – every possible permutation of what followed, every disastrous outcome that could come from today.

She stood staring at the leaky pipe, its steam escaping into the air.

***

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.

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.