Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

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 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.

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.

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

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

“Cucumber sandwich?” Jared offered her the plate.

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

“Of course. The Brotherhood of Ludd.”

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

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

Jared’s handsome brow crumpled as he frowned.

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

Joceline sighed deeply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is that coming from?” she murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did I do this time?”

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cog is dreaming.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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The elevator rattled to a stop. There was a hiss of escaping steam as it settled into position and a servant in the clan’s deep blue livery opened the door.
Mitry stepped out onto the thirty-seventh floor. Wind whistled through the girders and stirred the petals of clockwork flowers in the academy’s garden. The chiming of those petals brought back a rush of memories. Hearing that distant sound while he learnt the intricacies of contract and tort. The smell of oil on the days when the garden was being maintained. Stealing one of those flowers to give to Angelica Patby, and the crushing disappointment when her whole response was to look confused. The loneliness on returning to his room after mealtimes, with only his mechanical tutor for company. “Can I help?” the grey-haired doorman asked. “I’ve come to see my daughter.” Mitry presented his personal punch card. “I believe she may be struggling here.” The doorman slid the card into a box by the door. Dials spun, clicked into place, and presented a row of digits. “This way,” the doorman said, handing back the card and pushing open the door. They walked down echoing corridors and up wide stairwells, past doors identical in every way except the numbers on their frames, from which the whir and hiss of machinery emerged. At last they stopped in front of one of the doors. The doorman slid back a shutter and gestured for Mitry to peer in. Carola had grown since he last saw her. Red hair tumbled in long curls down her back, bright and vivacious against the deep blue of her dress. She sat facing her mechanical tutor, a gleaming box taller than she was, covered in dials, keys, and levers. She was reading a row of dials presented at eye level, then responding using keys at waist height. Mitry could practically feel the smoothness of those well worn keys beneath his fingers, almost hear their clacking and the whir of the machine presenting a response. A green flag shot up. Carola had got an answer right. A toffee fell from a brass tube into a dish by her hand. She smiled, put the toffee in her mouth, and pulled the lever for the next question. Mitry remembered when they had brought her here at four years old, remembered the warmth of her tiny body as he held her one last time, the softness of her hair. “Can I go in and speak with her?” he asked. “It’s frowned upon,” the doorman said. “Clan rules require thorough immersion in mechanical learning. Your daughter’s education depends upon being left in peace.” “I have concerns.” Mitry pulled out a single sheet of paper carrying a list of scores – Carola’s annual progress report. “These grades do not match what I expected.” The doorman patted Mitry on the shoulder. “We’ve been here before, haven’t we sir? And every time we tell you, she’s doing well enough.” “My family does not do adequate, we do excellence. I strongly suspect that a private tutor-” “Private tutors are a fad. The academy’s machines have been producing the finest lawyers for generations. Cold, calculating, sharp.” The words could have described Angelica, even after years of marriage, or almost anyone else in Mitry’s social circle. They were the highest compliments a lawyer could hear. Spoken around Carola, they broke his heart. “I just want to be sure,” he said. “A brief conversation to make sure nothing is amiss, then I’ll go.” The doorman sighed. “Very well, sir.” He slid a key into complex clockwork, twisted it twice, and the door opened on hinges oiled into silence. Carola turned as Mitry walked in. There was recognition in her eyes, but little interest. “Can I help with something?” she asked. “I’ve just come to check on you,” Mitry said. “Are you well?” “I am in adequate health and proceeding at an acceptable rate with my studies.” “Are you happy?” She frowned as if presented with a conundrum. “I receive sweetmeats when I succeed in a test. Success makes me happy.” “Good, good.” Mitry felt cold despite his winter coat. He fought the urge to look away. This was all he would see of her for a long time and he had to take in every moment. “I brought you something.” He held out a flower made of gold and glass, each edge shining as it caught the lamplight, and placed it in her hand. “Thank you?” she said, her look of confusion so like her mother’s. But her mother had changed in the end, had agreed to a marital contract, just as Carola might one day accept a change of her own. “Is this a test? Should I know the response?” Now he had to look away. His eyes fell on the other flowers, one for each year, sitting in a neat row on a shelf above her bed. “It’s a gift,” he said. “For you. And a reminder – if you ever want to leave this place-” “Why would I leave?” Carola looked shocked. She laid a hand on the keys of her mechanical tutor. “This is where I learn.” “Of course.” Mitry’s eyes prickled. He forced his face to stay still. “But the offer is there.” “Time to go,” the doorman said. “Goodbye,” Carola said, turning back to her machine. Mitry reached out an arm, but knew better than to wrap it around her. “Goodbye,” he murmured. The door closed behind him and he stood in the corridor, shoulders slumped. “Here.” The doorman pulled a hip flask from his pocket and held it out. “I carried this special, thinking you’d be here today.” “How did you know?” Whiskey burned its way down Mitry’s throat. The doorman pointed at the code above Carola’s door, which included her date of birth. “Same day every year,” he said. “Now come along, you should be leaving before the warden finds us.” They walked along echoing corridors and wide stairwells, past rows of identical doors. “Do you think she’ll ever say yes?” Mitry asked, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “I think she’ll make a fine lawyer,” the doorman replied. Outside, clockwork petals chimed in the wind. *** If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday. ***
Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world. For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world. Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age. Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

DSC_0152 - Copy“That was delicious.” Isabelle McNair placed her cutlery carefully on the empty plate and peered around the flat. “Should I call for a servant?”

“You’d be lucky.” Dirk Dynamo leaned back and lit a cigar off a wall mounted gas lamp. “Once they’ve experienced a couple of Tim’s inventions going wrong, staff never stick around.”

“I’m afraid Dirk’s right.” Blaze-Simms grinned as he looked at his guests. “But I have turned the problem into a solution.”

He took a box from the bureau behind him and pushed a button on the top. With a hiss of steam, a mechanical arm extended from the cabinet and took hold of the nearest plate. More followed it, grabbing wine glasses, leftover pudding and empty plates.

Isabelle applauded. It was one of the most marvellous machines she had ever seen.

“Wait for it…” Dirk raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know what you-” Blaze-Simms was cut short by a crash of shattering glass as the port decanter exploded in the device’s grip. His face fell. “Oh dear.”

He pressed the button, and then another one next to it, but the machine kept going. A frantic look spread across Blaze-Simms’s face as the machine flung a chair across the room and then grabbed hold of the table.

“I’ve got this.” Dirk stood. “Where’s the power source?”

“Steam engine in the linen closet.” Blaze-Simms kept hitting buttons to no effect. “There’s a pipe feeding into the left side of the machine.”

Dirk leapt toward the pipe and the steam trickling from its joints. But as he vaulted forward the machine lifted the table, swung it like a cricket bat and knocked Dirk flying. The window exploded as he hit it and went tumbling into the street.

“Are you alright, Mr Dynamo?” Isabelle shouted, her heart racing in alarm.

“I’ll live.” The distant reply was almost a groan. “Ain’t gettin’ back up the stairs anytime soon though.”

“Then I’ll deal with this.” Isabelle glared at the machine. She was not going to let a glorified cupboard be the ruin of her. “Sir Timothy, how can I-”

The machine swung the table and Isabelle darted back, dragging Blaze-Simms with her into the corner of the room. Half a dozen mechanical arms were flailing around, turning the whole space into a whirl of deadly, determined metal.

“Terribly sorry.” Blaze-Simms had a screwdriver in his hand and was fiddling with the control box. “I overlooked certain limitations that would have told it what wasn’t mess.” He ducked as one of the arms tried to grab his collar. “I’ll remember next time.”

“Lets worry about getting through this time.” Isabelle looked around. There was almost nothing left in the room around them, and five out of six arms were busy yanking books off of shelves, trying to cram them into the same recess as the dirty dishes. Just one hovered in front of her like a snake, its pincered end snapping open and shut, ready to tidy her away the moment she came near.

“Dash it all, this isn’t working.” Blaze-Simms frowned in exasperation at the controller.

“Then maybe this will.” Isabelle grabbed the controller and waved it in front of the arm, then flung it on the floor a few feet away. As the arm reached down to tidy the mess, she darted past it. The others turned to stop her as she stood by the side of the cabinet and the hissing metal pipe. One lunged down and she leapt out of its way. The pincers slammed into the pipe, which burst open, filling the room with steam.

Its power cut off, the tidying machine ground to a halt, limbs crashing down on the floor.

Isabelle righted a toppled chair and sat down, fighting the trembling that now threatened to take over.

“Maybe if I pay more I could find a tolerant cleaner,” Blaze-Simms said from the far corner of the room.

“Maybe,” Isabelle said. “Or maybe you could just learn to wash the dishes.”

* * *

This brief story is set after Suits and Sewers, the second book in my Epiphany Club series, available now on Amazon and Smashwords. If you enjoyed this then you might like to give that a read, or to start with the first book, Guns and Guano, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.

If you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox every Friday then just sign up to my mailing list, and get another free book while you’re about it.