• Tag Archives steampunk
  • The Epiphany Club – What Was That All About Then?

    After years of hard work, distractions, and delays (some self-inflicted), I’ve finally got my Epiphany Club series out in print. So it’s time to talk a bit about this book – what it is, why I wrote it, and what it means to me.

    The Epiphany Club started out as a throw-away line in a short story. I was writing about Victorian adventurers heading into the sewers beneath Venice to face the mechanised head of Leonardo da Vinci. To flesh out their background, I made them part of a scholarly club with a history of such escapades. That story became “The Secret in the Sewers”, published in issue four of a magazine called Fiction, and later republished in my collection Riding the Mainspring. And out of that story, Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were born.

    I liked Dirk and Tim, so I ended up writing more short stories about them, some of which saw publication. In fact, I liked them so much that, when I wanted to write something longer, I decided to make it about them.

    This was a decade ago, a time when I knew much less about writing, but when I went at everything with gusto. Any fragment of steampunk or Victoriana I came up with was shoved into my Epiphany Club planning. From Parisian sewer maintenance to the aftermath of slavery, in it all went, with little thought to theme, audience, or consistency. By the time I got onto part two of however many, it was a bit of a mess.

    But it was a mess that I loved and one that could be broken up into novella-sized chunks. So when I decided to try self-publishing, and that the best way to do that was a novella series, it was a perfect fit.

    In the meantime, I’d learnt more about writing and representation. This led to some big changes in the book, particularly around character arcs and the roles of men and women. The results are something far better and far more coherent than my original vision. It’s far from perfect, as is everything in this world. But for my first serious attempt at putting something this substantial out, I’m still pleased with it, and more fond of my characters than ever before.

    The me who started this project so messily, creating much more work down the line? Him I’m not so fond of, but it’s a little late for recrimination.

    Despite the eclectic nature of its birth, there is a coherence to The Epiphany Club. It’s a story that tries to mix pulp adventure with the things we often ignore in steampunk and Victorian adventure stories. Gender inequality, colonialism, and the toxic effects of nationalistic politics are all there. But to stop that dragging it down, there are also strange machines, hideous monsters, and action galore. It’s the sort of adventure story I’d like to read, and so I’m proud I’ve written it.

    If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then you can get The Epiphany Club now. And if you enjoy it, please let me know. It’s always good to hear when your story works.

  • The Epiphany Club Out Now

    The Epiphany Club is out today! Collecting all five novellas in my steampunk series, it’s the biggest book I’ve put out so far, and the first one that’s available in print as well as e-book.

    So what’s it all about? Well…

    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.

    But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

    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.

    The Epiphany Club is available now from all sorts of online outlets. Go get yourself a copy now, and if you enjoy it, please leave a review where you bought it or on Goodreads.

  • The Epiphany Club

    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.

    But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

    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.

    This book contains all five novellas in the Epiphany Club series.

    Available in all good e-book stores and in print via Amazon.

  • A Lungful of Smog – a flash steampunk story

    Sir Thomas strode through the smog, his mask clamped to his face, rubber seal tight against skin. A Smith and Wilkins Model Three Aerator, it was the height of technology. A small steam engine in a satchel at his side kept the air flowing, constant and clean, as he made his way around the city. No need to walk in one of the transit boxes, sharing the breath of a score of the great unwashed, or to share a motor cab with one of the city’s other peers. He travelled alone, as a man should.

    As he crossed Oldrail Bridge, he caught a whiff of chemical smoke. The smog must be particularly thick today if it was getting through the mask.

    Up Redgate and along Pennypurse Lane he went, while one of those ghastly transit boxes rattled past in the other direction. The smell was getting stronger, like someone had set fire to a sewage plant and was marching him towards it. He swallowed back a wave of nausea and paused for a moment to catch his breath.

    What in all eight hells was wrong with his mask?

    Sir Thomas ran his fingers along his forehead, down the sides of his face, and around the underside of his chin, feeling for a gap between his face and the mask, some place he hadn’t fitted it right. Nothing. Apparently the air was simply so awful that even the worst mask wouldn’t help.

    He started walking again, but still the smell grew worse. He could taste it on his tongue, something vile and tingling. He swung the satchel around from under his arm and flipped the flap open to check the filters.

    A trickle of oily black smoke ran from the motor out into the thin, sickly brown of the smog.

    Panic made Sir Thomas’s heart jump, followed a moment later by anger. He had been promised the best in personal perambulatory equipment and instead he had this. Someone would pay for this with their job, if not their hide.

    A transit box ground to a halt next to him, its overhead wires creaking. A hatch opened and the driver thrust his head out.

    “You need a ride, sir?” he asked.

    “Certainly not!” Sir Thomas snapped. “Do I look like a man who would ride in your ghastly machine?”

    “Suit yourself.” The hatch snapped shut and the box drove on.

    By now, the smoke from the motor was visible behind the glass of his mask. A flame darted from the corner of the satchel.

    “Gah!” Sir Thomas ripped the mask from his face and flung the whole device in the gutter. Something popped. More flames sprang from the side.

    “I’ll sue the bastards,” he growled, glaring at the mask, its glass plate cracked where it had hit the cobbles.

    But he couldn’t stay here, brooding on others’ failings – he had business to be about. With a furious snort, he set off along the road again.

    The smell of the burning device might be gone, but now he faced something just as bad. The smog swirled around him, thick and acrid, filling his lungs with every breath. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The back of his throat tickled, then scratched, then burned. He clutched a handkerchief to his mouth but it did no good. There was no escaping filth when that filth was in the very air.

    Only another half mile, he told himself. Keep going. You’ll be there soon enough.

    A coughing fit took hold of him and he doubled over, bitter phlegm spraying from his mouth. The coughing went on and on until his head spun and his legs were week. Even when he finally got his breath back, his knees felt like jelly.

    He took one step, then a second, and a third, grabbing hold of a lamppost just before he collapsed.

    It was all so unfair. He had paid for the best, he should get the best. Otherwise he was just…

    Was just like…


    He jerked his head up, coughed again, caught a lungful of smog that almost made him puke.

    Someone had hold of his arm.

    “Here, quick,” they said. “Get him in before we have to breath any more of this shit.”

    He was aware of being dragged and then lifted, of settling onto a hard seat, of the world moving around him. Gradually, he came back to his senses.

    He was in one of those awful boxes. Beside him, a little old lady was holding out a cup of water.

    “Here, love,” she said. “You’ll want to clear your mouth out after that.”

    “Thank you,” he croaked, accepting the drink.

    The box was crammed with people. Across from him, fleas were dancing on the back of a mangy dog. The whole place smelled of sweat and cheap gin.

    “It’s not good to go out on your own,” the old lady said. “Better the box, where there’s someone to catch you if you fall.”

    Sir Thomas nodded. Maybe she was right.

    Or maybe he just needed a better mask. They said that Smith and Wilkins were working on a Model Four.

    * * *


    My latest steampunk book, The Epiphany Club, is out tomorrow! Collecting all five novellas of that name, it’s a great way to get the whole series cheaply or to buy it in print for the first time. Click here to buy the e-book from your preferred store or the print version from Amazon.

  • Fireworks and Foolishness – a flash steampunk story

    The smell of fallen leaves and bonfires filled Dirk Dynamo’s senses, as close to fresh country air as London ever got. Somewhere in the distance, the first fireworks were going off, but here in the heart of the city the crowds were just getting warmed off.

    He headed off the main thoroughfare and up a well-appointed residential street. Outside Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms’s apartment, something was looming, its bulky body, heavy wheels, and strange projections casting a monstrous shadow in the gaslight.

    “You’re here!” Blaze-Simms appeared, his top hat askew and a wrench in his hand. “Just in time to see my latest creation.”

    “What is it?” Dirk asked, peering dubiously up at rows of brass tubes.

    “An automated firework launcher, programmed using a miniature Babbage engine.”

    “Why the wheels?”

    “So that it can drive past crowds. This way, everyone can have a good view.”

    “Nice thought. Did you have to get a licence?”

    “A licence?”

    “For a truck full of explosives near Parliament.”

    “It’ll be fine.” Blaze-Simms pulled a lever. Steam burst forth and wheels began to turn. “What could possibly go wrong?”

    After years of working with Blaze-Simms, Dirk couldn’t pick a single answer. There were just too many options.

    With a whoosh, the first firework shot skyward, exploding in a dazzling burst of white light. A red one followed, then a blue, then a stream of smaller yellow rockets as the machine accelerated down the street.

    “It’s not meant to go that fast,” Blaze-Simms said. “Maybe we should stop it.”

    He looked expectantly at Dirk, who raised an eyebrow.

    “You can clean up your own mess this time.”

    “But I…”

    “Your machine, your mess.”

    “I suppose so.”

    Blaze-Simms dashed after the machine. It had reached the end of the street and headed out into the crowds. People jumped aside to avoid it, laughing and screaming as Catherine wheels spun on its sides.

    Dirk strolled along behind, keeping the machine in sight. He saw the moment Blaze-Simms leapt onto its back and started prying a hatch open. He saw the burst of steam that blew the inventor’s hat off. He heard his friend cry out in pain and fall back into the crowd.

    “Dammit.” Dirk started running.

    The machine was veering through an increasingly panicked crowd. Dirk had hoped that Blaze-Simms could learn from this one, but he couldn’t let that happen at other people’s expense.

    The sky blazed with artificial stars as the machine rolled at ever-increasing speed through the city. It hit a lamppost, spun around, smashed into the side of a Hackney carriage, and continued its rampage towards Westminster Bridge.

    Some people saw the machine in time to leap clear. Others, distracted by its fireworks, were almost crushed as it bore down on them.

    Dirk caught up just as it thundered onto the bridge. He leapt onto its back, clinging to the towering mass of gunpowder and brass as it headed towards the lights of Parliament.

    With a crash, the machine hit a chestnut seller’s cart. Hot nuts and blazing coals flew in every direction, some of them falling down the pipes at the front of the machine.

    A renewed volley of fireworks sprang into the sky. So many launched at once that the machine shook, almost flinging Dirk off. His shoulder blazed with pain as he was hurled to one side and then the other, but he clung on with all of his strength.

    Hauling himself up, he peered through an open hatch into a mass of gears and pistons. Acting on instinct, he reached inside, ready to yank something out or jam something in, anything to bring it to a halt. But a blast of steam forced him to pull his hand back, skin red raw.

    The pain was intense. He had to cool the hand down before it got any worse, but first he had to stop this machine.

    Over the side of the bridge, he saw an answer to both his problems. The problem was, it meant diverting a machine ten times his own weight.

    Clinging on with his good hand, he flung himself one way and then the other, putting his whole weight into it. His shoulder went from an ache to a raw blazing pain as he became a human pendulum, each swing bigger than the one before.

    At last, the machine started to sway with him. It tipped up onto just two wheels on one side and then the other. As Dirk flung himself back and to the left, the machine started to turn.

    They were nearly at the end of the bridge now. A dozen alarmed-looking policemen were rushing to get between the machine and Parliament, but Dirk couldn’t see any way they could stop this. The heart of democracy was about to face the explosive fate Guy Fawkes had once planned, this time at the hands of a well-intentioned eccentric.

    He swung with all his remaining might. The machine lifted up on one wheel and pivoted around. It clanged back down at ninety degrees to its previous course, hit the side of the bridge with an almighty clang, and tumbled over, taking Dirk with it.

    As they plunged through the air, Dirk kicked off from the machine. There was a huge splash, then a smaller one as he hit the Thames. The water was filthy, but the cold on his hand came as a sweet relief.

    He surfaced to see a crowd looking down at him, pointing, gasping, and cheering. Beyond them, Parliament stood proud against the night sky, lit up by fireworks.

    Dirk turned onto his back and watched the fireworks as he drifted towards the bank. He had to admit, they were spectacular.

    On the bridge, a figure in a top hat stood awkwardly, waiting to face the consequences of his latest endeavour. Maybe this time he’d remember how these things could go wrong.

    Dirk wasn’t holding his breath.

    * * *


    For more of Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s adventures, check out The Epiphany Club, a story of action, adventure, and intrigue set against the dark underbelly of Victorian society, released on the 1st of December. And if you’d like more short stories like this one then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.

  • Coming Soon – The Epiphany Club

    If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’re probably familiar with the Epiphany Club. They’re a band of Victorian steampunk adventurers I invented for a short story, reflecting my interest in Victorian history, strange machines, and old-fashioned adventure stories. In the decade since, I’ve written five novellas exploring their adventures. And now, at last, those novellas are collected in one place.

    The Epiphany Club isn’t just my biggest self-publishing project yet – it’s also the first time that I’ve dared go into print. Previously, my books have been purely digital, but now, for the first time, you can also get a physical version. A preview is currently sitting on my desk and I have to say that it looks pretty awesome. I’m very proud of this project.

    So what’s it all about? Well…

    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.

    But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

    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.

    You can pre-order the e-book now, and if this is a story that appeals to you then please do pre-order. If you want to read a sample before you buy, the first novella is free from all good e-book retailers. Sadly Amazon won’t do pre-orders for the paperback, but I’ll provide details when it’s available.

    Welcome to a world of curiosity and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed the writing.

  • Steam Versus Punk – a flash steampunk story

    Mr Steam sat at a table at one end of the Gilded Cog, sipping tea with the rest of the Inventors’ Guild. On the far side of the room, Lady Wasted sprawled in her booth, a safety pin through her ear and a glass of absinthe in her hand, toying with the parts of a clock her gang had pulled apart. Between them, steamers and punks filled the bar, circling each other like hyenas around a corpse.

    “Such a waste,” Steam said, shaking his head as he watched the gears tumble through Wasted’s fingers.

    “What you lookin’ at?” She shoved her table aside and jerked to her feet, sending gears flying. She strode through her people, boots pounding the sawdust-strewn floor.

    “I’m looking at destruction,” Steam said, brushing dust from his lapel. “At a tragic waste of a good machine.”

    “You think you’re better than me, with your fancy devices?” Wasted snarled, looming over his table.

    “I build,” Steam replied. “You destroy. So yes, I am better.”

    “Will you still be better once I shove this up your arse?” She held up a large, jaggedly edged gear wheel.

    The punks laughed like a pack of beasts. Mr Steam rolled his eyes. As the pack surged forward, his compatriots rose to hold them back. Pushing and growling turned into shoving and shouting. An engineer drew back her fist.

    “Ladies and gentlemen!” Steam shouted and the crowd fell silent. “I know that things have been tense, but this is not how we settle our differences in this town.”

    “Oh yeah?” Wasted said, tossing the gear in her hand. “Then how?”

    “The old way,” Steam said. “An invent-off, tomorrow at noon, in the municipal works.”

    “Why not?” Wasted said. “Loser leaves town?”


    She spat into her hand and held it out. Steam pulled on a silk glove and shook.


    In its casing high above the municipal works, the town clock started to strike. Lady Wasted and Mr Steam stood facing each other, hands on their tool belts, waiting for the twelfth chime to ring. Their followers stood amid the surrounding machines, watching, waiting.

    The last chime came.

    As one, the duellists whipped out their spanners and ran across the floor. Both went for a large, intricate machine that had once powered a set of rotating fountains. As they each laid hands on the same piece of engine casing, they glared at each other.

    “Get off,” Wasted hiss, loosening the bolts. “It’s mine.”

    “No calling dibs in an invent-off,” Steam replied, unfastening a screw. “And I need these parts.”

    “Parts, eh? And you give me shit for destroying things.”

    “I can hardly build without them.”

    “What d’you think I was gonna do with them?”

    “Based on our last conversation, stick them up my bottom.”

    Wasted let out a wild laugh.

    “What are you gonna do with a knackered old pipe system anyway?” she asked.

    “Pneumatics to drive a walking machine. And you?”

    “Mine’s gonna climb.”

    “Using the claws from those cranes?”


    Together, they pried open the casing of the fountain. Steam tutted and Wasted snorted as they saw the rusted mess inside.

    “There’d better be some decent pipes in this place,” she said.

    He pointed to another corner. “Perhaps in that pile of old fixings?”

    “If we find the right joints, we could make something that walks as well as climbs.”

    “That does sound promising…”

    As the two leaders strolled across the room, together planning for a grand machine, their followers looked at each other uncertainly.

    “Want a go with my safety pin?” one of the punks asked, pointing at his ear.

    “No, thank you,” the steamer next to him replied. “But I might try a little of your absinthe.”

    * * *


    I’m moderating a steampunk and related genres panel at Fantasycon this autumn, and that got me pondering the place of an actual punk aesthetic in steampunk. I’m not sure this story addresses the question in any meaningful way, but who knows, maybe it at least got me thinking about what punks and engineering heroes represent.

    If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up to my mailing list. You’ll get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday, as well as updates on my books, comics, and short stories.

  • Cog Feathers – a flash steampunk story

    We found the first cog-bird nest while surveying for the secondary mill wheels. The creature looked down at us inquisitively from high in a willow, beneath which a stream gushed forth between the terraced fields and into the main river.

    “They’re supposed to be lucky,” Aluma said. “To bless the crops.”

    I shrugged.

    “If it was lucky, it wouldn’t have built its nest in a tree we need to chop down.”

    Maybe the bird heard my tone or maybe it was alarmed by the whistle of the cargo barge then steaming towards us full of work crews and machine parts. With a chirping cry, it shot into the air. A single geometrically edged feather drifted to the ground.

    Aluma picked it up and tucked it into her tunic.

    “For luck,” she explained.

    Within days, that tree was gone, and many more besides. A sprawling complex of water mills was spreading along the banks and up the tributaries. Already, wheels were turning grinding stones, ready for when the harvest came in. There had been plenty more cog-birds, most with the sense to get out of our way. The nests we found were all abandoned, left behind by refugees from progress.

    On a whim, I stuck one of those nests in my storage trunk. Not for luck, of course. To examine its structure later. Many advances in engineering come from nature.

    It was Aluma who told me the bad news a few weeks later.

    “The crops are dying,” she said over a chorus of hammering and sawing. “The plantation owner’s threatening not to pay. Says we’ve ruined his farms.”

    “That’s ridiculous!” I slammed by fist against a half-finished wheel housing. “He commissioned this complex. If he doesn’t pay up then I’ll sue.”

    “That could take years,” Aluma said. “And who will hire us when they hear about it?”

    I looked around at our labourers and engineers, all relying on us for their jobs, and at Aluma, who like me had sunk all her wealth into this enterprise.

    “What can we do?” I asked in a small voice.

    “Let’s look at the crops.”

    I followed her up the hillside to the nearest field. Most of the grain here was fine, but the stalks at the edge were falling over. As soon as I looked at one I could see why. It was riddled with holes. Crawling out of them came a small beetle with a pearlescent shell.

    “Thank goodness,” Aluma said when I showed her what I’d found. “That’s not our fault. He’ll have to pay.”

    For a long moment, I held my tongue. But if I found it hard to lie, then I found it even harder not to share a deduction.

    “Actually, it might be our fault.”

    I led Aluma back to the cargo barge, where we each had a small cabin in the rear. I opened my trunk and took out the cog-bird nest. Pearlescent fragments of shell gleamed between the moss and twigs.

    “The cog-birds eat the beetles,” Aluma said, slapping a hand to her forehead. “We have to get them back.”

    The construction site fell silent as we called everybody from their work. Soon, they were heading up into the hills, looking for any sign of the birds.

    Three days later, they were still searching, roaming ever further from the site. I sat with Aluma by the river bank, desperately seeking solutions to our self-inflicted disaster.

    “Maybe the beetles are nutritious,” Aluma said despondently, twirling her cog-bird feather between her fingers.

    “Not for humans,” I said. “I looked it up.”

    She sighed and let the feather fall from her fingers.

    “So much for luck.”

    A chirping sounded from within a half-built mill wheel. Aluma and I exchanged a look of desperate hope. Holding our breath, we crept towards the sound.

    A pair of cog-birds perched in the centre of the wheel, building a nest in the sheltered space.

    “What do we do now?” Aluma whispered. “There are no trees left for them to nest in.”

    I smiled. “I have an idea.”

    When our work crews returned, we handed them our hastily revised designs. Every mill wheel now held a small barrel at its centre, weighted so that it would stay upright while the wheel turned around it. The mill buildings had nesting platforms and nooks for birds to shelter in. And outside each building was an open-topped box that could hold straw, twigs, moss, and other nesting materials.

    “This will take twice as long,” one of the foremen grumbled.

    “Then you’ll be employed for twice as long,” I replied. “What are you complaining about?”

    That changed their grumbling to approval. Soon, the site was full of hammering and sawing once again.

    “Do you think this will work?” Aluma asked. “In time before all the crops die?”

    I presented her with the feather she had dropped.

    “Maybe, with luck,” I said.

    * * *


    If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more like it then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a free story straight to your inbox every Friday, as well as updates on my books and comics.

  • Watching the Water – a flash steampunk story

    Ella leaned on the wall and watched the Thames lapping against the stonework below. She came here every night and watched the water, whether by the light of the moon or of the gas lamps. It was a connection to the life she had left behind to become a governess, and though the water looked murky during the day, at this time she could pretend that it was as clean as the river back home.

    The water stirred, a shadow approaching the bank. Ella watched, expecting the shape of a duck to emerge from the darkness. If she had been a duck perhaps she could have swum away from London and found a life of her own. But that was just wishful thinking. All the feathers in the world wouldn’t have given her a purpose, something to swim away to.

    The shape grew into something larger. Gaslight gleamed off a pair of long curves with a cluster of shining points below. Half a wheel-rim reached up out of the water and hooked onto the wall not a dozen feet from where she stood.

    Amazed, Ella watched as the creature dragged itself out of the water. It was as tall as a woman, its body made of an old barrel with wheel rims for arms. Underneath, a flattened metal plate had been shaped into something like a fish’s tail. The creature turned its head and she saw a face made of old tin plates and rusting gears. A ticking emerged from the hollow of its mouth.

    Now she was frozen not in amazement but in terror. What dreadful things might this machine monster be here to do?

    It turned its head once more, stretched out with its arms, and dragged itself away down the road.

    Ella sagged in relief against the stonework. No sooner had her heart stopped racing than a ticking once again caught her attention. Another machine dragged itself out of the river using arms of chain and pipe. Trailing pond weed like a ragged gown, it followed the first one up the street.

    As a thudding sound announced a third machine arriving on a mud bank below, Ella almost ran away to raise the alarm. But by now her fear was passing and curiosity was triumphant. She watched as something fish-like lay flopping on the mud, gaslight glinting off tin scales.

    Ella stared in wonder at the machine. This junk couldn’t have reshaped itself, so who had turned it into such a marvellous imitation of life? Who was down there beneath the water, crafting machines from cast-offs, not yet knowing that a fish could not swim on land?

    Perhaps there was wonder in the city after all. Perhaps she didn’t have to flee to find her own purpose.

    She looked at the river again. Whoever was down there, she had to meet them, but she wouldn’t be able to see them in the dark of night and the murk of the Thames.

    Perhaps if she scratched a message into wood she could sink it and begin a conversation. Perhaps, if she was lucky, and if they understood that there was someone friendly up here.

    She hurried down a set of steps to the mud bank, pulling a ribbon from her hair as she went. The mud squelched and soaked her boots but she didn’t care. She strode up to the fish, tied the ribbon around its tail, and lifted it out of the mud. Then she strode out into the water, its icy current tugging at her skirts, and set the strange machine adrift. It sank beneath the surface with a ticking of gears.

    Ella walked back up the stairs, skirts trailing damp behind her like pondweed. Tomorrow she would come in the daylight, not to be reminded of what she had left behind, but to see what new wonders she could find.

    * * *


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  • Progress Turns to Rust – a flash steampunk story

    All that remained of the mighty Black Iron Railroad was thirty feet of track and a single locomotive, rust flaking from its ancient boiler housing as it sat in the middle of Santa Vitelli’s new industrial yards. The name “Gertrude” was still visible, written across the front in peeling paint. The wooden panels of a prefabricated airship shed sat nearby, waiting to take its space.

    I climbed down from our hired scrapping engine and went to stand beside Josef as he stared up at the machine. He hadn’t been wearing his goggles and so stared with red-rimmed eyes from amid a patina of brown dust.

    “I remember when I first drove old Gerty here into town,” he said, his voice drifting as he peered back down the decades. “When Vitelli was a backwater longing to enter the modern world. Who’d have thought then that Gerty would one day be obsolete?”

    “I could deal with her alone,” I said. “Move the scrapper into position, then use the claw, then-”

    “We’ll do this together, just like the rest,” Josef said. “But let’s finish clearing the station house rubble first.”

    The labourers were surprised to see us turn up in the scrapper, but no-one protested as the machine took the brunt of their work, heaving piles of old bricks into the wagons that would carry it away. Josef didn’t work the grabber as smoothly as usual, and whenever it was idle I saw his gaze shift to the rusting locomotive.

    “It’s not that I don’t want her to go,” he said at last. “We need to carry on modernising. I just need to adjust to the idea.”

    “Of course,” I said. “Take all the time you need.”

    “We’ll do it after lunch.”

    That was reassuring to hear. The scrapper was hired by the day and the town couldn’t afford to keep it around much longer. Finishing early would mean more money left for other projects.

    The morning’s work took longer than usual and even when we stopped Josef seemed to have no appetite. He sat staring at the contents of his lunch pail while rubbing at the corner of one eye.

    “It’s not that I don’t want to clear that space,” he said, apropos of nothing. “It’s just that old Gerty’s been here for so long. It’s a shame to throw away such a beautiful machine.”

    “She’s kind of a mess, Josef,” I said. “She’s out of date, her boiler’s broken, she hasn’t even moved in ten years.”

    “Maybe if we cleaned off the rust, gave her a new coat of paint…”

    “There’s a reason we let her get rusty.”

    He sighed and set aside an untouched sandwich.

    “She was a symbol of progress,” he said. “Almost my whole working life, while we built up our industry and raised a community, she’s been there. When she goes, so do those days.”

    “The town’s still growing,” I said. “This project will help.”

    He sighed again.

    “Maybe there’s just too many memories,” he said. “Maybe I don’t want to let her go.”

    He got to his feet and strode off across the yard. I followed, a half-eaten pie in my hand.

    “Over there,” he said, pointing along the new tracks towards the edge of town. “We could put the airship shed there.”

    “OK,” I said. “But what about Gertie?”

    “We’ll keep her here, so people can see her. A reminder of what we were.” He was excited now, smiling for the first time in days.

    “What about the rust?” I asked. “She’ll fall apart if we leave her out here.”

    He looked from Gerty to the wooden walls beyond.

    “If we take the scrapper back early, we can afford another shed,” he said. “Put it up around her.”

    “Just for Gerty?” I raised an eyebrow.

    Josef’s shoulders sagged.

    “You’re right,” he admitted. “I’m a sentimental fool. This town needs to keep moving forward. I’ll… Just let me do this one myself, OK?”

    The sight of him trudging towards the scrapper made my heart wilt. He was weighed down with memories. Without the artifacts of the past to support him, he would have to bear that burden alone. And there were so few of those artifacts left. A few gravestones from the town’s first cemetery. The paintings in the civic hall. A few old machines like Gerty. Scattered remnants that people seldom saw.

    “Wait,” I called out in a flash of excitement. “It doesn’t have to just be Gerty. This town could do with a museum.”

    Josef turned to me and smiled.

    “Now that’s progress,” he said.

    * * *


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