Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was over.

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

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a dead city?”

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

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Of Slugs and Science – a flash steampunk story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agitated. Huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Billowing Breeze – a flash steampunk story

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

A steam engine

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

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

“That depends upon how she performs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He walked stiffly on.

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

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

He turned to face her.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not wound up.”

“Scared then.”

“I am not scared.”

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

“Very well, I will.”

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

The driver held out her hand.

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

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

He took a deep breath and stepped into the cab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

King of Cogs – a flash steampunk story

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t touch my king.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Fly Another Day – a flash steampunk story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wouldn’t part.

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

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

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

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

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

From the corridor came a surprised shout and hurrying footsteps.

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

“Stop, thief!” one of them shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Out Now – Zhai Chengda’s Wife

It’s story time again!

My steampunk short “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in the latest edition of Electric Spec. A spy story set in an alternate history Song Dynasty China, “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” follows Tao Wan, a covert agent for the Kingdom of Xia. As the Song Empire threatens Xia, its politicians are forced to the negotiating table, expecting to be crushed by their more powerful neighbour. But when Tao Wan meets with the wife of the Chinese ambassador, an opportunity arises to level the playing field. Will she take it? And what will this meeting cost Zhai Chengda’s wife?

This story was inspired by a desire to write steampunk in an unusual setting. My friend Jon suggested Song China as a time and place full of industrial growth. It was a chance to go beyond the western settings that dominate steampunk and show something new.

Along the way, I stumbled across a theme I hadn’t been expecting – imbalances of power. The story is all about these uneven dynamics, from the bullying diplomacy of the Song Chinese to the ambassador’s abusive marriage. Even the relationship Tao Wan builds with Lady Zhai, a relationship that offers hope for an escape, is built on the power imbalance between a confident, educated woman and her disheartened peer. Is it possible to bring justice when only one side knows how to be heard?

“Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in Electric Spec.

Submarine Pirates and Silkworm Smugglers – a flash steampunk story

The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.

Captain Chao waved to Susan.

“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”

Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.

Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.

Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.

“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.

While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.

As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.

As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.

The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.

“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”

“One moment.”

She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.

The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.

“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”

“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”

“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”

“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.

“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.

“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”

“Can’t be too careful.”

The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.

In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.

“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.

“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”

“You were hired for a job.”

“Not for one involving killing.”

“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”

Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?

“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fifty seconds.”

The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.

“Everyone back, quick!”

There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.

“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.

She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.

Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.

Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.

“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”

“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

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.

Honest Work – a flash steampunk story

Jewellery box

“It’s for security,” Lady Winters explained. “I’ve had broaches stolen by servants in the past. I want a jewellery box that will jab anyone who tries to open it the wrong way.”

“It could make a noise instead,” I said. “A tiny clockwork alarm to scare them off and draw attention.”

“I’d rather draw a little blood, to make my point clear.”

“Aye, I get it.” It was an odd request, but I could follow the logic. It would certainly be an interesting challenge to craft, and I loved a challenge, the thrill of putting the pieces together. “Come back in a week, I should have something for you.”

#

Most people came to the artisans’ district on clear days. Lady Winters preferred to come in the smog, and returned a day late because of it. She said that she liked the shadows the buildings cast through the grey-brown gloom, but she never seemed to linger.

“I included something to clean the needle as it goes in and out,” I said, slowly raising the lid of the jewellery box. A needle emerged from a hidden hole in the cushioned interior.

“No cleaning,” Lady Winters said.

“It will help preserve the mechanism.”

“Yes, but…” She looked away to the left, as if gathering her thoughts. “I want the blood as evidence when I challenge the would-be thief. If the needle is cleaned it will be less effective.”

There were better ways to prove a case, but if there was one lesson I’d learnt as a maker of mechanisms, it was to give the customer what they wanted.

“I’ll adjust it,” I said. “Come back in two days.”

#

I sat over the box, carefully taking parts out and putting others in. Removing the cleaning mechanism was satisfyingly simple work that let my mind wander.

What Lady Winter was asking for didn’t quite make sense. I could have made a mechanism that would have stained the thief’s hands, proving their guilt far more effectively, but she’d refused it. The lady’s logic seemed needlessly cruel, but her behaviour showed a calm rationality. Like gears in a poorly made clock, the pieces didn’t fit together.

Could there be a different reason for wanting to stab whoever opened a jewellery box? Some sort of strange prank, perhaps?

It could be a way to deliver poison, but that was absurd. It would be obvious who the killer was, as they’d provided the box. Lady Winter herself would hang for it.

The shop bell chimed and Hooper, a steam mechanic from up the street, walked in amid a swirl of smog.

“You got time to fix a watch?” he asked.

“In a couple of hours,” I said. “I have to finish a job for Lady Winter first.”

“Ooh, one of the nobs gave you a job before they all left town,” Hooper said. “Very fancy.”

I frowned.

“What do you mean, left town?”

“Whole court’s gone to the country until the fog passes.” Hooper chucked me a newspaper. “You need to get your nose out of your gears and learn about the world.” He put his watch down on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow, yeah?”

#

“I wanted to share a drink before I go,” Lady Winter said. “To toast your remarkable accomplishments.”

She took two tin cups off my shelf, unscrewed the lid of a hip flask, and poured out measures of something sweet and heady smelling.

“But before we drink, could you show me how it works?” she said, nodding to the jewellery box.

“Of course.” I picked it up and started setting the mechanisms. “You know, I saw your picture in the paper yesterday.”

“They never quite get me right,” she said, smiling sweetly.

“Of course not,” I said, handing her the box. “They didn’t even know that you were in town, unlike all your friends.”

“I like to keep a low profile.”

“That’s not what the papers say.”

“Ha. Shall we drink?”

“In a minute. Try the box first.”

She pressed the switch which had previously disabled the stabber.

“Ow!” She dropped the box and looked down at her hand. The sweet calmness of her usual demeanour was gone. “What have you done, you little bitch?”

“A jabber with a set of inked needles. They tattooed my maker’s mark onto your palm. I didn’t want trouble in my workshop, so I told the authorities to look for someone who looks like Lady Winter, with that tattoo on their hand. Told them the person was a poisoner who’d commissioned a killing box.”

“Bare faced lies!”

“Perhaps. If you drink both those cups you poured, then I’ll tell them I was wrong.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I could kill you now,” she said.

“Aye, then Hooper finds me in five minutes when he comes to fetch his watch. He raises the hue and cry and they start hunting you straight away. Or you can leave now and I’ll give you two hours head start.”

She looked at the cups, the box, her hand, and back to me.

“You should have been the assassin,” she said. “You have the cunning for it.”

“You should have been an artisan,” I said. “It’s honest work.”


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

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 Clockwork Cat – a flash steampunk story

13th March 1887

Never trust a salesman. I was explicitly told, when I subscribed to Professor Turnberg’s Cabinet of Wonders, that they would substitute other mechanicals for those in a likeness of animals, as per my directions. After all, if I wanted a pet I would have bought a pet. What I wanted was mechanical art, but when I opened this month’s box, I found inside a life size clockwork cat.

I spoke to the delivery man, of course, as he was departing with last month’s miniature train, ready to take it to the next subscriber. He promised that he would raise the issue with his superiors. I fully expect a response by the end of the week.

16th March

No reply from Turnberg’s. I wager the delivery man never even passed on my message. I shall write to his superiors to complain.

In the absence of another mechanical piece to adorn the drawing room, I have reluctantly unboxed and wound the cat. It stalks the floor as my mother’s dreaded Mister Snubbles once did, rubbing itself against the furniture and purring in its strange, mechanical voice. I will admit that the work is uncannily convincing, but in a model of a cat, I find that far from appealing.

18th March

During a visit for tea, Lady Kirby insisted that I name the cat, saying that I could not spend a whole month calling it “the beast”. After some consideration, I have settled for Bella – if I cannot have the beast I will have beauty, however unfitting that name is.

19th March

Bella is becoming almost as much trouble as a real cat. It roams the house and protests before any closed door, of which there are many, given its propensity for scratching antique furniture. The things is an infernal nuisance, but I cannot simply let it wind down and stop – what sort of house does not have a mechanical on display in this day and age?

21st March

Today, Bella brought me a dead rat it had caught in the kitchen.

A dead rat. On my writing desk. Disgusting.

I must admit, the sophistication of this feline mechanical is truly admirable. Between the hunting, the playing, and the rubbing against my legs, it is unsettlingly close to the real thing. I will be glad when it is gone.

25th March

Bella has taken to sleeping on my desk while I work. It is inconvenient, but allows me to better show her off when business associates come calling. Having such a fine mechanical can do my reputation no harm.

30th March

Today, Bella did not come to sleep on my desk. I should have been more productive, but instead found myself worrying that my prize mechanical might have come to harm. I eventually found her sleeping in a box in a spare room. Her little chest was rising and falling as she purred in her sleep. Truly a remarkable piece of art.

1st April

No Bella at my desk for the third day running. I was eventually able to lure her into the study with a mouse-shaped toy on a string, but then she caught the mouse, chewed it up, and tried to swallow it. Only swift intervention on my part saved her from with shredded cotton tangling her gears. I would not want to have to pay for damages when she is returned to Turnberg’s.

Now she is sleeping in a sunbeam on the rug. I have drawn a sketch of her there, just to keep my hand in with the old pencils.

6th April

Three nights ago, I forgot to close the bedroom door and Bella came in to sleep with me. Since then, she has become my companion every night, curled up by my feet, sometimes rising in the darkness to go and chase mice in the kitchen. After years on my own, it is strangely comforting to share a bed, even with a mechanical beast.

8th April

At last, a letter from Turnberg’s acknowledging their mistake. They have promised that, from now on, my monthly subscription will match my request for no animals. As compensation for their mistake, this month they will be sending me an intricate clockwork village from their elite subscribers list. I greatly look forward to impressing Lady Kirby with it when she comes for tea.

9th April

Bella is back on the desk, in a box I placed there for her.

I find myself having second thoughts about the clockwork village. Where will I even display something so fine with the house in its current state? Perhaps I should save it for another month.

10th April

Bella is due to be taken away in three days. Perhaps she can take her box with her.

11th April

I don’t think I have time to make space for the village. I will send a telegram to Turnberg’s asking them not to change my mechanicals this month. Just while I make some changes in the decor.

I have given Bella her own blanket at the bottom of the bed, to keep her off the other sheets when I’ve oiled her joints.

13th May

The delivery man came today with the second cat. I will be calling this one Bete. He and Bella have been watching each other warily across the study, but I am sure they will soon be firm friends.

Along with Bete came the first item in my altered subscription – a set of mechanical mice for my cats to chase. Next month there will be birds.

I do not like pets, but my heart skips at the sight of a truly great mechanical.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook 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 Great Discovery of Professor Fong – a flash steampunk story

The steam shovel shook in Fong Liling’s hands as she pressed it against the earth. Dirt flew back in great clumps, past the pneumatic power tube and the coal-fired engine, onto a carefully positioned spoil heap. There, her students would sift through it all, looking for shards of pottery and ancient coins, evidence of the people who had built this barrow. As chief excavator, she was after something more.

This would all have been easier if the locals weren’t such a superstitious bunch and she could have paid them to do the digging instead of importing this ridiculous machine. But no, they had to keep away from the ancient grave sites, didn’t dare disturb the angry spirits they were sure lived there.

Just thinking about it made Liling roll her eyes.

There was a clang as the spade hit something solid. Liling switched off the power, pushed her goggles up her forehead, and peered into the dirt.

A curved brass plate caught the sunlight streaming through the trees.

Grab your trowels!” Liling shouted to her students. “We’ve got one.”

By mid-afternoon they had unearthed the whole statue. It was the figure of a warrior, clad in a torc and carrying a club, the whole thing made of interlocking metal plates. A winding key protruded from the back, just like in the ancient books Liling had found.

“Perfect,” she whispered as her students strained to get the statue upright.

With a trembling hand, Liling turned the key. She felt the resistance of the spring inside, heard the clunk of gears.

The statue raised a hand, looked at her, then looked at the grave mound.

“We’ve come to free you from the dirt,” Liling said. “To give you the attention you deserve, you marvel.”

She reached up to brush dirt from the statue’s head.

“Come, this way,” she said, pointing in the direction of their camp.

The statue turned, knelt, and started digging into the dirt they had just rescued it from.

“What’s it doing?” asked a nervous looking student.

“I think it’s trying to bury itself,” another replied.

“No need for that,” Liling said. “Whatever your original creators told you, you are too beautiful to stay hidden in the dark. Let us take you back to civilisation.”

The statue kept digging. It was hip deep in loose soil and still going down into the side of the barrow.

“Well done, you can dig,” Liling said, grabbing the statue’s shoulder and trying to turn it around. “Now come dig in a museum.”

The machine shook her off and kept digging.

“You are mine and you will come with me!”

Liling grabbed the statue around the middle and started dragging it back, its heels leaving scars in the ground.

The statue swivelled around its waist, wrapped an arm around Liling, and lifted her off her feet, clamping her against its chest.

“Stop that!” she screeched. “Stop that this instant!”

The statue strode back into its hole and started digging with its free hand. Dirt tumbled around them as the hole threatened to collapse on Liling. There was dirt in her hair, dirt down her shirt, dirt in her mouth as she opened it to protest.

“Help me!” she shouted. “This thing has gone mad.”

Her students rushed forward. Some tried to grapple with the machine while others tugged at Liling’s legs, almost pulling down her trousers. The edges of metal plates scraped against her chest as she was dragged free and fell in a tousled mess in the dirt.

“This is not funny,” she snapped, seeing the looks on some of her student’s faces.

She looked up at the machine. It kept digging but turned its head to look at her. A single brass eyebrow pivoted up and then back down.

“Fine, you’ve made your point.” Liling stood and brushed off the dirt. “You can stay in your filthy hole. I’m sure there are other sites we could be digging.”

One of the students frowned.

“What will we tell the university?” he asked.

Liling considered her options, wondering which would leave her with the most dignity.

“We will tell them that this place was haunted,” she said.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you can sign up to my mailing list – you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.