Here are the winners of our creative writing 'Steampunk Style' competition, set up with Steampunk Journal.
Under 18 Winner - Finlay Worrallo, 15 years old. Title: The Great Outer Space Travel Engine.
Over 18 Winner - Nemma Wollenfang, 26 years old, Title: Clockwork Evangeline.
Here are the stories:
The Great Outer Space Travel Engine
by Finlay Worrallo
'And if you could just hold that pose – lovely!' Click. 'Thank you very much Mr Butterworthy.'
It was a gloriously sunny day in May. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the clouds were like spun silver, etcetera etcetera. I barely noticed the warmth on my skin, the melodies in my eyes or the marvellous cloud formations in the sky. I was about to leave the planet Earth, possibly forever, and I was understandably a bit jittery.
I took a few deep breaths as the photographer packed away his equipment and strolled off into the crowds to find something else to photograph. I was just relishing the peace and quiet for a moment when an elderly man appeared at my elbow and started chattering away.
'Ah, Mr Butterworthy, good morning. My name is Professor Griffith, I'm part of the Royal Outer Space Exploration Enterprise. We met at the Royal Institute of Space Administration. I just wanted to let you know that you are doing a very brave thing indeed, and that no matter what the outcome, your name will go down in history.'
I smiled politely and wondered how long I had left before I actually had to do the brave thing.
On cue, a man with a speaking trumpet shouted, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Outer Space Travel Engine will be blasting off in thirty minutes time. If I may ask you to retreat to the viewing stands.'
The crowds of people gathered around cooed and gasped with excitement. I gulped. My eyes strayed across to the vast, shining cannon, almost a mile high, rising up in front of me into the clouds like a mechanical titan. Thousands of tonnes of brass and iron had gone into its construction, hammered into great rings and joints, bolted together by yard-long rivets. In half an hour's time it would send me – along with my companions James Cocklesmith and Arthur Stephenson – hurtling through the good sky into blackest space. I felt quite ill thinking about it.
Well then stop thinking about it, I told myself. Shaking my head to clear it, I shook hands with Professor Griffith, marched across the lawns and flashed my identification slip at the guards standing either side of the imposing bulkhead of a door at the base of the colossal cannon. They bowed and I turned the ornate handle.
Inside was a small, cosy room. Wooden panels had been nailed over the iron walls and carpet rolled over the floor. A gramophone was playing Heart of Oak in a corner and flames crackled crimson in the fireplace. This orderly, English atmosphere instantly settled my nerves. Flopping into an armchair, I poured myself a cup of tea and grinned at the men sitting in the other chairs.
'So chaps, last morning on dear old Earth eh?'
The stocky red-head to my left smiled wanly. 'You seem suspiciously cheery, Charlie. Been on the cherry brandy again?'
I chuckled. 'You old Puritan James! I haven't touched a drop all day, swear on the Bible. No, I'm just excited. Don't you get it? If we pull this thing off … we'll be the first men on the Moon!'
'Pretty big “if” if you ask me. We're trusting several thousand tonnes of dynamite to carry us gently to another world.'
'Oh, it certainly won't carry us gently old chap,' murmured the aquiline fellow to my right, puffing on his pipe. Arthur Stephenson flashed his eyes at us from under his grey brows. 'Prototype Engines 1 to 8 certainly weren't gentle. In fact, two of my dearest friends died when Prototype 2 spun out of control in the stratosphere. We ending up crashing into a cowshed at 250 mph.'
James stared at him open-mouthed. 'Crumbs! However did you survive?'
'By the skin of my teeth,' said the veteran pilot, grinning his wolfish grin. 'Broke both legs all the same and spent the next year in hospital. 1861 wasn't just a rotten year for the Queen, I can tell you.'
I gulped. Suddenly I wasn't feeling optimistic any more. 'Thanks, old bean.'
Arthur closed his eyes and sucked at his pipe. 'Well, it's been more than twenty years since the Prototype Missions began; we've come a long way since then. The professors running this enterprise reckon that the Great Outer Space Travel Engine is safer than your average steam locomotive.'
'That's absolute balderdash!' cried James. 'They're just saying that to make us feel safer!'
'Well, if they succeed, who cares if they're lying,' I said, beginning to wish I'd never signed up for this bally enterprise.
James seemed to be thinking the same thing. 'Well chaps,' he said, 'let's just remind ourselves of what to do in an emergency. What do we do if the air generator fails?'
'We repair it using pocket handkerchiefs, belt buckles and tin cans,' I recited.
'What do we do if we miss the Moon and hurtle off into darkest space?' asked Arthur.
'That won't happen because we'll be checking our trajectory every ten minutes and adjusting it using the retrorockets,' said James.
'What do we do when we arrive on the Moon?' I asked.
'Plant the Union Jack in the lunar soil and claim the planet for the glory of the British Empire, then await instructions from Earth,' said Arthur. 'Right, I think that's everything. Shall we board our vessel?'
With a grinding of gears we pulled open the large steel door in the wall and stepped through one by one. Passing through a corridor twelve yards long, we entered the control room. Polished bronze and brass winked from every surface and glass gauges and coloured buttons decorated the flat control panels. In front of these panels were three ornate armchairs which we now sat down in, strapping ourselves into the cocoon of belts and straps holding us safely in position.
One of those newfangled telephones on the panel nearest me jangled, so I answered it.
'Charles Butterworthy speaking.'
'Mr Butterworthy, this is Space Control. Glad you're all ready. Unfortunately we've had a slight hitch. The weight of the Travel Engine is three pounds more than expected, so I'm afraid you'll have to sacrifice a few items from your luggage.'
I scowled. 'What rotten luck! Ah well, give us a moment.'
After extricating ourselves from the chairs, the three of us went through the heaps of bags in the luggage compartment, looking for things that weren't absolutely essential.
Reluctantly, James tossed a vermilion smoking jacket onto the floor. 'Suppose I don't really need four of these things.'
Arthur shrugged and dropped a copy of The Origin of Species onto the jacket. 'Don't even know why I packed that.'
They both looked at me. I gazed back.
'Don't know what you're staring at,' I retorted. 'I know all my stuff is absolutely essential.'
James smirked. 'Why don't you leave your pipe?'
'Good idea,' chuckled Arthur. 'You smoke far too much.'
'That's completely out of the question!' I protested. 'I can't last three days without my pipe, much less three months! Oh come on chaps, surely it counts as part of the life-support systems?'
'We can't take off with our current weight. Do you want to sabotage the entire project?' asked James with an accusing air.
'Oh fine!' I grumbled, relinquishing my beloved pipe. 'But don't blame me if I'm cranky for the entire expedition.'
After James had hurried down the corridor to leave our excess possessions with an attendant, we buckled ourselves back into the seats.
'We're lighting the dynamite fuses in two minutes,' said the man from Space Control when I telephoned him again.
A lesser man would have screamed with terror, but I kept my cool. 'Right-ho. Thank you. See you in a few months.'
'Good luck Mr Butterworthy.'
The line went dead. I turned to the others.
'Two minutes chaps.'
They nodded. Neither looked scared but the air was thick with tension all the same.
'Well, knighthoods for us all if – when we get back,' said James.
'If this is it,' murmured Arthur, 'it's been a pleasure working with you young fellows.'
I closed my eyes; took some deep breaths. Calm down old fellow, I thought. You're going to be just fine. Outside it's a glorious day and thousands of citizens of Her Majesty have gathered to watch this triumph of British power. They're probably singing the national anthem right now. The Queen herself is here, watching from her royal box. I bet it'll be quite a spectacle. And you, Charlie, are going to be a part of this.
If only my heart would stop thumping so painfully...
The entire world exploded into a deafening roar. I was slammed down into my seat, as if I'd suddenly tripled in weight. My teeth crashed against each other again and again; and my hair flapped in my eyes; and my fists clenched the armrests; and my stomach felt like it was going to burst; and Arthur and James were yelling blue murder; and all the controls were shaking so much that they blurred into each other; and that noise like a bellowing giant went on and on and on...
I blacked out.
I was dead. I had to be. Blackness was all around me, something was pressing hard against my chest and I could hear nothing but silence. I was drifting through darkness. It was strangely peaceful to be so calm and still. Except I thought Christians went to Heaven when they died? Then where was this?
'Charlie, wake up!'
James's voice. He must be here too. We're both dead, that's a pity –
My eyes snapped open. James' beaming face swam into focus in front of me. 'Charlie, it worked! The cannon sent us zooming on a perfect trajectory into the sky, and now we're in space!'
Dazed, I fumbled with the straps and undid them one by one, before floating gently out of my chair. James were bobbing around in mid-air, grinning like a child who'd just eaten a whole box of chocolates in one sitting. Arthur was still in his chair, checking the gauges with a worried frown.
'It worked,' I breathed.
'Stupendously!' said James, doing a somersault.
'Hold your horses,' muttered Arthur. 'We're not out of the woods yet. Come and look at this.'
Remembering all I'd learned on the training course, I blew air through my mouth to send myself drifting over to the controls. Arthur pointed at the largest gauge.
'Look at the speedometer. We're decelerating pretty quickly.'
He was right. The single hand was slipping anticlockwise: 10,000 mph, 9,500 mph, 9,000 mph.
'Of course,' I groaned. 'We're only moving because of the force from the cannon, but we're not moving fast enough to escape the Earth's gravity – so we're being pulled back towards it.'
Just then there was a loud clang, followed by another, followed by a steady stream of clunks, puffs and whirs from pistons, valves and gears. Arthur gave the speedometer a sharp look and a wide smile spread across his face.
'It's all right, the Travel Engine's activated, the splendid old machine. Now we're accelerating rapidly.'
'So we'll be able to break free from Earth's embraces,' I said, breathing a sigh of relief.
Arthur did a few mental calculations. 'We only need to keep the Engine on for another quarter of an hour. Then we'll continue sailing on towards the Moon until we get there. Then we can gently bring the ship in with the retrorockets and land.'
'Glad to hear it,' said James from by the window. 'Now come and look at this view!'
We joined him at the reinforced crystal window and gasped at the sight. The inky chasm of space surrounded us completely, and the only feature visible was the soft silver bulge of the Moon, warm and inviting, directly ahead of us.
'Now that's a sight worth coming thousands of miles to see,' I said.
The cogs in Evangeline’s heart ground into gear as she took to the streets, dancing amidst the myriad workers on the morning commute. Malaphos would want his tea soon – dark, no sugar, with a sprig of pungent juniper – and it would not do to deliver it late.
“I beg your pardon, sir, madam,” she sang as she twirled between those queuing for the 8:55 airship to Marylebone. By the time they turned, she had already flitted away.
Evangeline was like a humming bird, a shimmer of amethyst that was there one second and gone the next, and her movements flowed with a grace and elegance that only mechanical imaginings could achieve.
“Ah, Evangeline!” Malaphos exulted as the bell tinkled on their shop’s door.
He was seated at his work-bench, hunched over with a magnifying monocle attached to one eye. It whizzed and whirred as salty hair fell across his face.
“Your tea, Maestro,” she said as she set the cup before him.
“Good, good, thank you, my dear.” He took a hearty sip and the lines on his face seemed to fade. “I am glad you have returned so swiftly. I have a client due in only ten minutes and we must show her our best work, mustn’t we?”
Evangeline’s face lit with delight. When she was happy her very skin seemed to glow. “I will fetch the designs from the Twilight collection at once,” she trilled, dancing away.
“You read my mind,” he laughed.
Malaphos’ Emporium of Extravagant Wonders was, perhaps, a little antiquated. The store was dimly lit and smelled of mothballs, but it was filled to the rafters with the most unusual and marvellous creations. Evangeline spent most of her time amongst the collections, carefully arranging and cataloguing and admiring all of Malaphos’ work. And when she was allowed to display them Oh! Satin flowed along her skin like water, the caress of velvet made her lips rise, and even the hard stiffness of leather was welcome. Gathering up an armful of corsets and skirts, she flitted downstairs to the main store-front. There, she laid them all out with the utmost care. It would not do to have one crease.
The shop bell tinkled. “Hello, Mr Malaphos?”
“Ah, welcome.” Malaphos cringed as he rose but held his smile. “How can I help?”
A gentleman of no more than thirty stood on their threshold, with sleek dark hair. He had a handsome face, Evangeline thought, and held himself with the suave sophistication of the upper class. When he moved he brought with him the scent of roses.
“I have an appointment for 9:10,” he said, “under the name Reed?”
“Oh,” Malaphos said, “I had been expecting a Mrs Reed. I apologise.”
“No need. I made the appointment in my wife’s name. I mean to surprise her with a gift for our anniversary and I believe only your…” As his eyes fell to Evangeline he grew silent.
Never a man to anger, no matter the customer, Malaphos smiled kindly and asked, “What is it, sir?”
“Oh, forgive me.” Mr Reed started. “It’s just… I have not encountered a Clockwork Angel before, let alone one so beautiful.”
Malaphos smiled. “Evangeline, come meet Mr Reed.” With a graceful twirl that flared the black netting of her skirts, she danced to their sides and smiled. “Evangeline is my assistant. She will showcase our collections for you today.”
Even as Malaphos spoke, Evangeline took the gentleman’s top-hat, cane and coat, folding the latter across her arm. With a curtsy, she pirouetted away.
“As you can see, she loves to dance,” Malaphos said fondly.
“Oh yes,” Malaphos nodded. “Ballet, Latin, Ballroom, Tap, anything.”
There was pride in his tone, Evangeline could hear it. To please him she began to twirl, performing the beginning of a slow ballet number she had catalogued in her memory-bank. It was one that seemed to give Malaphos great joy. Swan Lake, she thought it was called.
“She is a mechanical wonder,” Mr Reed smiled as he watched. “So life-like, though the hair is a little… unnatural.”
Evangeline paused. Should she change it? She could with a thought but she liked the icy white of her straight hair – it shone like the moon – and the length darkened into lilac, then blue, until the tips were midnight black. But if a customer disliked it…
Malaphos frowned. “Evangeline makes her own aesthetic selections. I like to encourage her creativity.”
“How fascinating… I meant no offense,” Mr Reed assured, eyeing her curiously. Then, with the exaggerated slowness one would use with a child, he said, “It is lovely, and matches your violet eyes so perfectly.” To Malaphos, he added, “You struck luck when you acquired this one, only a few were issued of her prototype. I tried to acquire one myself, but alas…”
The way he looked at Evangeline, with such blatant longing, unnerved her a little and the happy glow of her skin dimmed.
“Well, shall we?” Malaphos offered Mr Reed a seat. “Evangeline, if you would…?”
The glow returned. The dresses!
For the next hour she paraded before them in the best of Malaphos’ collections. Satin and silk, velvet and corduroy, from earthy moss and rich cocoa to poppy scarlet and the jet black of a beetle’s shell.
“…cross-linked, with chains draped across the magenta-black brocade,” Malaphos was saying, “an exquisite piece, sir. Evangeline…”
He gestured for her to spin. She did as he bid, allowing the fine fabrics to swish and rustle. She loved the sound his materials made – music to her ears.
“The over-bust corset next if you would, Evangeline, the one with the detachable jacket and belt in tanned leather. Genuine bovine, I assure you, sir.”
Brass buckled pieces followed, from their Vintage collection, a menagerie of obsidian dresses with Victorian ruffles and fine velvet overcoats with silver fastenings. Evangeline displayed a steel-boned corset-dress with mercury brocade with particular pride, and wore a zip-liner fascinator with mini-hat to complete the set. Platinum buckles bound the in-seam. Then came the dragon-scales and electrum sheens, crow’s feathers and finely-spun metallic spider-webs – from their Luna Gothic collection.
“Hmm,” Mr Reed said, “may I see the last one again?”
Holographic enhancements allowed Evangeline to alter her appearance on a whim, and as each change was pre-programmed she could revert in a momentary flash – genuine first, artificial on repeat. As was her prerogative, she matched brown ringlets to the earthy pieces, and whenever she displayed black her silken hair gleamed like ebony, ending in silver tips.
“Some very fine designs, indeed,” Mr Reed complimented as he watched. Though, in truth, Evangeline thought that he may have been more interested in her than his purchases. “I am spoilt for choice, though I wonder if your Angel bears quite the same figure as my young wife. I have her measurements written here.” He turned to hand Malaphos a crumpled note.
“Evangeline, if you would…” She flitted to comply as Malaphos winced and held his back, taking the paper from Mr Reed. For the briefest second their fingers touched. She pulled away. “You must excuse this old-timer, sir,” Malaphos continued as she handed him the note. “These bones have little strength left in them. Ah yes, we can make these alterations.”
The rest of their show went well enough and Mr Reed commissioned six pieces, all in all a good morning’s work. As Evangeline re-emerged in her default black attire and ice-white hair, Mr Reed applauded her soundly.
“Very good. You know, a performance by your Clockwork Angel would make a lovely addition to my anniversary celebration. It would be quite a spectacle.”
Malaphos’ eyebrows rose. “Evangeline, dance for a large audience? I don’t know…”
“Come now, I guarantee it would garner a great deal of business. My wife and her friends are avid shoppers, and when faced with such a beautiful model…” He winked at Evangeline as he retrieved his hat and coat and opened the door to the steamy street beyond. Outside, a man with chocolate brown goggles in a juddering car awaited his fare. “Think about it,” Mr Reed said, holding out a small white slip, “My card.”
Malaphos took it, but as the gentleman left and Malaphos frowned down at the card, he missed the way Mr Reed’s eyes lingered on Evangeline, a little too long. Evangeline noticed. The cogs in her heart stuttered a beat.
After closing, Evangeline settled into her high-backed chair by the fire while Malaphos locked the main doors and pulled down the shutters. She held the card Mr Reed had left, twirling it between her fingers as she watched the red and gold flames dance.
Since Mr Reed had left, her heart had felt funny. Even now the cogs and gears ground together like ill-fitting puzzle-pieces. She placed a hand to her chest.
“Even my aged ears can hear that racket,” Malaphos said, “come, my dear, let me have a look.”
Moving to his workbench, she lay down while Malaphos donned his whizzing monocle and opened the hatch in her chest. The noise was louder now, clanking and grating.
“Hmm,” Malaphos said, “your gears are a little loose. Have you been anxious today?”
Evangeline did not understand the word. “I have been happy.”
He only hummed, and, taking a spanner, began to set wrong to right. It did not take long. As he oiled her heart and tested the gears and cogs, he bore a ponderous frown. “I don’t know about this business with Mr Reed,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I am happy to do business with the man; he is a reputable banker, but to involve you in this show of his…”
Looking to her, his eyes brimmed with some emotion she could not define.
“I care for you, Evangeline. And I worry what will happen when I am no longer here.”
“Are you planning to travel?” Evangeline asked with some fright.
“No, no dear. Do not fret.” His gaze returned to her clockwork heart. “But one does not always plan some journeys…” Finishing up, he re-fastened her hatch and wiped his oily hands on a cloth. “As to this fashion-show malarkey, I do not know what to think. What would you like to do?”
Evangeline thought of the dresses and the dancing, she thought of pretty ladies and crystal chandeliers and glasses that tinkled as they clinked. “I would like to dance,” she said.
“Of course you would,” he smiled.
Malaphos had such wonderful eyes, Evangeline thought. Not just for their sky blue clarity, but for their expressiveness. They were neither young nor old; they were ageless.
Awakening to the bright glow of dawn, Evangeline followed her programming and, passing Malaphos slumped over his desk – he must have worked until he slept, she thought, placing a blanket about his shoulders – she took to the smoky streets in search of tea.
“Dark, no sugar, with a sprig of pungent juniper,” she muttered as she danced.
The day was fresh and clear. A steam-train whistled as she passed over its bridge and she was soon returning to Malaphos’ Emporium with his drink.
The bell tinkled as she entered, but he did not waken. Very tired indeed, perhaps… The tea fell to the floor. Dark brown stained the rug.
His skin was pale, too pale, and to the touch, cold. Evangeline blinked, uncertain, but there was no disputing her system summary. Her programming was faultless.
For the rest of the day she stood before him, neither moving nor speaking, as the tea dried to sticky tar. Not daring to utter his name. The sun gave way to the velvet of night, and a layer of dust settled upon them both.
Evangeline lived for Malaphos and his dress-making. She had no other function.
At the moon’s zenith, Evangeline broke her stance. She shifted forward and gently closed his sightless blue eyes. No expression remained. That was when she saw what he held.
In Malaphos’ hand lay Mr Reed’s business card. Evangeline picked it up.