Dylan lives on the Welsh side of the English/Welsh boarder with his partner and their inevitable cats. He’s had work appear in places like Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction and SteamPunk Magazine, where he was also a contributing editor for a few years. It was Steampunk that first got him interested in creating marvels of psuedo-Victorian engineering, and then destroying them like an over-excited toddler. He maintains a blog at dylanfox.net, where he talks about psychology, technology, sociology, physics and other things that look shiny to an unqualified lay person like himself.
by Dylan Fox
The East China Sea, 27th August 1870, Night Time
Bik Shŭ shovelled coal, her face wet with sweat and the blisters on her palms weeping. And the only thought in her head was why? Why on Earth would they give the stokers like her a bright white uniform?
You must do something, she could still hear Fa Tiáo Guĭ telling her. You must do something now, niūniu. Soon it will be too late.
Always she ‘must do something’. ‘Do this, little girl’, ‘do that, little girl’. ‘Rearrange the stars, little girl’, ‘move the mountains, little girl’.
Her vision was misty and ears numb through the roar of the furnaces and pipes, the shouting of the other seamen, the sounds of shovels against coal. Her mind was misty through the air almost twice as hot as her body.
Bik shovelled coal from the bunker into steel buckets. The buckets rattled as they were pushed along metal girders and emptied onto the furnace floor before being sent back to her to be filled again. She paused a moment to rest her arms. Although she was big for a fourteen-year-old, she wasn’t built for this.
Wiping the soot from her eyes and picking up the shovel, she turned to a fresh stack of coal. For a moment, she looked at the coal-dust covered bundles lying in a small pile by themselves. Then someone shouted at her and she dumped them into a bucket.
As the bucket rattled down the girders to the furnace, she dropped her shovel and ran. She shoved the other stokers out of her way as she bolted for the deck. They cursed, groaned and doubled over in her wake. The heat made them slow and groggy, single-minded in shovelling coal and she was long gone before they could retaliate.
She gripped the sides and pulled herself up the rungs of the ladder. Her legs were numb and shaking as she stumbled across the lower deck and up the stairs onto the top deck. The cold air hit her hard and she passed out.
The HMS Trident groaned as it pushed its way through the water. Steam drifted and hugged the fabric of the sails. In formation behind it were a dozen Royal Navy gunboats, and another five ironclad frigates.
They escorted the four Engine boats which sat so low in the water that a sailor could stand on the deck, reach over the side and touch the sea. Their gargantuan engines belched enough smog to hide the boats in a pea-souper that would make Deptford proud. Lanterns stolen from lighthouses wagged in front of them like sleeping dog tails. Fathoms beneath them, dragged by launching chains attached to their decks, they carried the Colossus Engine.
Commodore Horatio Paul Thomas sat in his cabin on the Trident and sipped his tea. He was a disposable man. He was a liquid man, to be poured into a convenient vase so he could take on its shape for a time, before being emptied into a different vessel.
There were days when he hated it. Days when he felt like caged lightning.
But he knew his place.
The fumes from his kettle mixed with the burning oil in his lamp and filled his tiny cabin. The tea was hot, and good. One of the advantages of being stationed in Hong Kong for the last eight months—no shortage of good, fresh tea.
You must do something, his uncle had said. You must achieve something before you’re too old. He sighed. His uncle. So desperate for reflected glory that he’d spent the last twelve years trying to engineer a war with France. There was only so much his uncle could do from his seat in Parliament, but he was doing it with tenacity and persistence. Every possible offence was taken. Maybe it had worked. In the past ten years relations between Queen Victoria and Empress Charlotte de Bourbon had slipped from sisterly to damned frosty. All the French troops had been withdrawn from China, leaving Britain alone to defend its trade from the Russians, the Americans, the Japanese, the pirates, the smugglers, and most especially the damned Qing government officials. One day they’re taking bribes from you and the next someone else is pulling their strings.
The ship rolled again, Thomas instinctively braced himself and his tea cup toppled over. He cursed, and then sighed. The whole ship stank of coal smoke, anyway. Trying to eat or drink anything was like licking the floor of a London factory.
There was a knock at his door.
‘Come,’ he said.
Lieutenant-Commander Robinson opened the door and stepped inside.
‘Commodore, sir,’ Robinson said. Like so many English officers, he was perpetually sun-burnt and sported an ugly pot-belly pushing hard against the buttons of his uniform.
‘What is it?’ Thomas said.
‘We are four days away from the forts, sir,’ Robinson said.
‘When shall I ask Captain Walker and Captain Michael to join you for the briefing, sir? And shall I ask the Marine Colonel to attend?’
Thomas sighed again. He slowly moved his hand across his desk and swept the spilt tea onto the floor.
‘There will not be a war cabinet,’ he said.
‘Sir?’ Robinson said.
Thomas picked up his porcelain tea cup and toyed with it absently.
‘Did you not review our orders, Lieutenant-Commander?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Robinson said, beginning to sound uneasy. ‘We are to secure Tanggu Port before proceeding—’
‘We’re here to escort the Engine,’ Thomas said. ‘We’re here to land that damned monstrosity and follow it around as it destroys China, body and soul.’
Was that a chip in his cup? Damn it. He put it back on the desk.
‘We’re to keep our uniforms pressed and clean, produce heroic reports for The Times and pose for the occasional photograph.’
‘And I am here because they need a puppet with a handsome profile at the head of it all,’ Thomas said. ‘Lord Thomas of the Chinese Territories. Does it have a ring to it? That ape from The Times seems to think so.’
Thomas tilted his head up to look into the top corner of the cabin so Robinson could see the striking lines of his jaw and cheekbones.
‘Sir …’ Robinson said, but didn’t seem to know what to say. Thomas looked back, leaned back and put his feet on the desk.
‘We’re on parade, Charles. We’re just here on parade.’
Robinson saluted, turned and left.
Thomas put his feet back on the floor and refilled his cup.
The Engine was a terror. All it needed was a hundred or so men to keep its fires burning and keep it pointing in the right direction. It made any other weapon—artillery, cavalry, men, tactics, intelligence—superfluous. It was the Omega. When they’d tested it on the Yorkshire moors, not a field mouse, not a mongrel’s tick, not a lock of wool, not a blade of grass had been left alive. What a rotten thing for his name to be attached to.
He sipped his tea. Perhaps the world would be a better place with China as a colony of the British crown. Britain’s position in the world would be more secure. The tons of silver that disappeared into the Chinese ports every year would come back home and France, the United States, Russia and everyone else would have to stop their brinkmanship and argy-bargy over who got which piece of the country.
Or maybe, he mused as he took another sip of tea, it would be the straw that breaks Empress Charlotte’s back and war would finally break out between the two European super-powers.
There was another knock on his door, and Robinson came back in without being asked.
‘Signalman reports a problem with the Engine ship Vanguard, sir.’