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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Master.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Halderleft and Halderright – a steampunk short story

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

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

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

“Go go go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now!” she shouted as the airbags collided.

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

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

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

“You were installing pillars to tie them to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too,” Lori replied.

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

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

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

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

***

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

The Chop Shop Automaton – a steampunk short story

“Look at Blake’s ridiculous servant!”

Derisive laughter filled the hallway of the Taverwell Academy for Gentlemen, rattling like broken gears in the ears of John Blake. He blushed and pulled up the collar of his second-hand tailcoat, while leaning away from Pounder, his personal automaton, as if a few extra inches could distance him from humiliation.

“I mean really.” Oswald Cheadly-Smythe strode up to Blake, trailing half a dozen obsequious sons of aristocrats and their modern, perfectly formed mechanical servants. “Did it come free with your scholarship?”

Blake shook his head and kept his gaze on the floor. There was no guaranteed way to shake of the likes of Cheadly-Smythe, but silence was a safer bet than defiance. Another fight would only lead to a stern meeting with the headmaster, who looked upon the son of his old friend Lord Cheadly-Smythe with avuncular consideration, and upon scholarship boys as a necessary evil.

“It doesn’t really look like anything, does it?” Cheadly-Smythe tapped one of Pounder’s mismatched arms. “Just a bunch of scrap thrown together.” He paused for his entourage to laugh. “Is that the only place you could find a servant, Blake, off a refuse heap?”

More laughter. Blake’s cheeks burned. It was all too close to the truth. His father and aunt had assembled Pounder out of pieces left behind when they repaired other people’s automatons, as well as broken machines abandoned by the nearby mine. One hand had originally been made to dig coal, the other to shape ceramics in a factory. Neither had the delicacy of the other boys’ servants. Blake’s father had been sure that any automaton would be better than having none at all in a place like this, but Blake lived with the crushing truth that, without the money for new clothes and machines, there would be no fitting in at the Academy.

“Well Blake, am I right?” Cheadly-Smythe leaned in, a nasty grin on his face. “Are you being followed around by rubbish?”

“He’s going to look better,” Blake said, desperately clutching at hope. “After I paint him.”

“Who paints their own servant?” Cheadly-Smythe’s laughter was like a storm, waves of noise crashing in upon Blake. “And you really think that paint could save a wreck like this?”

Cheadly-Smythe knocked his fist against Pounder’s chest plate, its surface uneven from where the dents had been beaten out. A trickle of steam ran from Pounder’s shoulder joint, a deliberate design Blake’s aunt had included to keep Pounder’s pressure steady, but that looked like the leaking of a broken machine.

“You win,” Blake mumbled.

“What’s that?”

Blake sighed and looked Cheadly-Smythe in the eye. “You win. Your machine’s better. Now please leave me alone.”

Cheadly-Smythe’s eyes shone with malicious delight.

“Who even made this thing, some east end junk dealer? They should be ashamed of themselves, putting such a monstrosity into the world.”

Blake’s father and aunt had worked for months building Pounder, while his mother took on extra sewing so that she could buy him a second-hand uniform. His family had dedicated themselves night and day to sending him here, the only lad in his town to escape the pits. They had poured their hearts and souls into that work, and looked so proud as they sent him away.

“What did you say?” Blake narrowed his eyes. His heart was beating faster. He mustn’t hit anyone. If he did that again it would mean expulsion, and the shame of explaining that to his family.

“I said that this rust bucket is utter trash,” Cheadly-Smythe said, leaning in close. “And so is anyone who had a part in making it.”

Pounder’s joints hissed. Blake gritted his teeth.

“My father made that machine.”

“Of course. Trash from trash. How fitting.”

Blake’s whole body shook. He clenched his fists as he drew ragged breaths. Cheadly-Smythe stared at him in delight.

“Go on,” Cheadly-Smythe whispered. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Cheadly-Smythe’s automaton stepped closer, so that it stood facing Pounder, the sleek, pristine servant inches from the cobbled together industrial machine.

“Pounder,” Blake said quietly. “Dig.”

A hand made for shovelling coal slammed into Cheadly-Smythe’s servant, gouging open its chest plate with a scream of rending metal. The hand struck again, tearing out pistons and pipes. Steam spewed, sending the schoolboys scurrying. A third blow, out the back of the chest, and the broken automaton fell with a resounding clang.

“That’s what I’ve got,” Blake said, beaming with pride at what his family had made. He glanced at the slack-jawed students, then turned back to Pounder. “Come on, mate. We’re going to be late for class.”

***

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.

Maintaining the Gearwheels of God – a steampunk short story

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Sister Savrin set aside her tool belt and placed the chipped gearwheel reverently on the table in the corner of her cell. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and bowed her head in a moment of prayer.

According to doctrine, as espoused by Mother Superior, this gearwheel was no longer a part of God, had not been since Savrin removed it from His great mechanism in the heart of the cathedral. The new, undamaged gearwheel was a part of God now, and would help in performing His divine calculations, while the old one was drained of divinity, mundane scrap to be discarded.

But those scraps made Sister Savrin feel closer to Him. The small spring that she carried in the folds of her shift was an anchor securing her soul through the storms that raged through her heart.

There was a knock on the door. She eased it open just a crack, and peered out at Mother Superior, craggy faced and frowning.

“Sister Savrin,” Mother Superior said. “May I come in?”

To say no would raise as many questions as it avoided. Could she put it off until she had time to come up with an excuse?

“I…” They had brought her into the order for her gift with machines, not with words.

“Sister Bonopass says that you haven’t been bringing scrap to the smelter after tending to His mechanisms. What have you been doing with it?”

“I…”

“You can’t go selling machine parts to the faithful as relics. That was what got Brother Castazzo into trouble, remember?”

“I haven’t…”

“Then there won’t be a problem. Now please let me in.”

That please was accompanied by the pressure of Mother Superior’s substantial boot against the bottom of the door. Savrin lacked the courage to resist authority with words; physical resistance was beyond unthinkable. She stepped back and bowed her head, ashamed, as the door swung open.

“Oh, Savrin.” Mother Superior stared at the pile of broken and rusted machine parts, Savrin’s own private chapel. She didn’t sound angry, just disappointed, but that made Savrin feel like an invisible key was winding her guts like a spring. “What is this?”

“It’s God,” she whispered.

“I’m sure I heard you wrong.”

“I said it’s God. I couldn’t bear to throw him out.”

“Savrin, this is not God. It is just some pieces of metal.”

“Of course it’s God!” Her voice rose, becoming to big for the stone-walled confines of the cell, spilling out like a tide into the corridors beyond. “God is perfect and his pieces are too, even if they’re broken. They came from inside him, and everything in God is divine. How could it stop being holy, just because it stopped moving?”

“Sister Savrin, you know this. God is in the whole, not the parts.”

“Parts make up the whole. My hand is me. My heart is me. My brain is me. I’m made up of pieces, and so is God.”

“God is a pattern, a process-”

“God is a mass of gears that spits out commandments. If those parts aren’t holy then nothing is.”

“Sister Savrin!” The Mother Superior looked appalled. Behind her, other brothers and sisters had gathered in the corridor, staring in shock at what they heard. “Are you denying His divinity?”

“If your rules are His rules, then yes I am!”

The brothers and sisters stared, white-faced. The only sound was the soft, distant thud of God’s master wheel, the heartbeat of all their lives.

“Sister Madack, Brother Jerroff,” Mother Superior called out, her face fixed in cold fury. Two burly siblings stepped out of the crowd. “Take Sister Savrin’s robes and escort her from the cathedral. She is done here. And call for Sister Bonopass to gather this scrap.”

Savrin wept as she was dragged from her cell and stripped down to sandals and shift. She had lived for years among the holy order, and now her whole life was being wrenched away. Some of them watched in silence as she was marched down the nave to the great iron doors. Others, some of them men and women she considered friends, jeered at her miserable fate. Then the doors swung open and she was cast out into the cold.

She stood stunned in the middle of the mud road, while passing strangers stared at her through the pouring rain. She had prayed so hard, but God had ignored her, let her be cast out on her own, while the fragments she had believed were relics were melted down to make nails.

Mother Superior was right. There was nothing divine in those pieces.

Mother Superior was wrong. There was no God at all.

Then Savrin felt something, wrapped in a fold of her shift. A rusty spring, its end twisted, a piece she had taken the first time she ever maintained the great machine. Touching it, she felt peace flow across her like the dawn, chasing away the shadows of fear and grief. Like the saints in old stories, she had been cast out by the ignorant, but God had left her a sign, a part of him that would travel with her.

Sister Savrin straightened her back, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and strode out into the world. Whatever storms raged, this small iron anchor would keep her soul secure.

***

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.

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.