I haven’t been able to blog much about this, but my steampunk short story, “The Survivor” was recently published in the Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets steampunk anthology. I figured for this Sample Sunday, I would give you all a bigger sample of the story than what I have published on my website.
“The Survivor” tells the story of Angelica Blackmore, the lone survivor of the HMS Phoenix, Great Britain’s first airship attempt that ended in disaster.
Here are some links to purchase the book of you are interested.
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Hardcover
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Trade Paperback
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Kindle
Angelica’s head throbbed. A scorching breeze laced with smoky fumes—far too hot for an autumn evening in England—rushed across her face. She lay on her back against the ground with the corner of a sharp rock poking at her temple. With each heartbeat, intense pressure burst across the left side of her head. Such pain felt foreign; Angelica rarely experienced headaches.
An explosion thundered in the distance and caused the ground underneath Angelica to vibrate. Several yards away, women, children, and even men shrieked with terror.
Wake up, Angelica ordered herself.
She blinked, trying to open her eyes. Once she fully lifted her eyelids, Angelica saw only swirling smoke that blocked out the half-moon’s light.
My circumstances have not improved, she thought. She was lying in an unknown field, barely able to see the ground beneath her feet. Fortunately, but not surprisingly, the throbbing across her temples began to subside. The headache would disappear in a few minutes.
Those near her, hidden in the smoke, continued to wail. Their haunting cries resounded on all sides. Angelica ignored them. Her mission required all of her focus.
Another gale brought yet another gust of heat, intensifying the suffocation she already felt beneath the layers of fabric in her dress, bustle, corset, camisole, and drawers. She pushed herself onto her arms and attempted to stand up. Her corset fought against her.
“My underthings will be the death of me,” she mumbled. Unlike other ladies, Angelica loathed the confinement of such finery. She possessed a far different set of talents than others of her gender, and all required freedom of movement.
Angelica rolled onto her stomach. She pushed herself to her knees and stood up. She spent a few moments brushing off her dress and making sure it hung correctly. Once satisfied, Angelica reached to the top of her head to adjust her hat. She felt only air and loose strands of hair. It must have blown away during her fall. Angelica huffed with frustration. She prized that midnight-blue bonnet with its black trim and peacock feathers. Finding another like it would take time.
Another blast rumbled through the field.
Focus, Angelica reminded herself. She had only completed half her mission. Forget the hat.
Her eyes stung and started to water from exposure to the dense smoke. She squinted as she grasped her purse. Inside, she found a pair of goggles, which she pulled over her head. No one considered goggles appropriate attire for a respectable British lady, but Angelica never claimed to be one of those. Besides, she reasoned, wearing the goggles compensates for having to wear a corset.
The goggles may have protected Angelica’s eyes from the smoke, but they did little to help her see through it. She knelt to the ground, feeling for the one item she required to complete her assignment.
Angelica’s fingers grazed pebbles, shoots of grass, and an occasional sharp rock. She continued her search until she found a smooth, leather box. She pulled it close and beamed at the sight of the ivory-handled briefcase. She grasped the handle and stood up.
“How much time do I have?” she muttered to herself.
Angelica glanced at the small silver watch that hung around her neck. It was two fifteen. She needed to rendezvous with the carriage no later than four o’clock that morning in order to meet Alistair in London at seven.
“What are my bearings?” she whispered.
Angelica turned the watch over and opened the back, revealing a small compass. She turned south. Then she sighed, closed the compass, and let the watch fall to her chest.
No point in knowing where south is if I don’t know where I am to begin with, she thought. She hoped to find a point of reference with more promise than random stones lying on the ground.
Slowly, the smoke thinned, and the soft glimmer of light beckoned to the east. Angelica began hiking toward the glow. The heels on her boots sank into the ground as she walked, adding to her sweaty, fabric-and-corset-lined misery.
It’s silent, she realized. The screaming and moaning had stopped. Even the normal nocturnal animals, such as crickets and owls, made no peep.
Angelica refused to entertain any morbid thoughts of why those around her had fallen silent. Focus, she again reminded herself. For some reason, maintaining her concentration seemed more difficult than usual on this mission.
She took only a few steps when she heard voice. She dropped to the ground, softened her breathing and waited, ready to spring if those who approached had malevolent intentions.
The silhouettes of two men, each wearing custodial helmets, emerged from the smoke.
Police, thought Angelica. A pleasant development. They might be able to help her reach her destination or at least give her a hint of her location.
She ripped off the goggles, stowed them in her purse, and held the briefcase behind the ruffles of her skirt to prevent them from noticing it. She took a deep breath and stood up.
The men hurried toward her the moment they saw her. They gazed at her with concern and pity.
I must look ghastly.
Her midnight-blue dress, lined with black and bits of teal, was smudged with dirt and grass stains. She assumed the graceful twist that swept her hair up had been ruined. Soot probably covered her face, and her high-lace shoes most certainly bore scuff marks.
One of officers, a young man with freckles and buckteeth, asked, “Are you hurt, Madame?”
Angelica started to say not at all, but her throat tingled from all the smoke she had inhaled. She coughed.
The buck-toothed fellow stepped to her side. “Should I take her in, Sergeant?”
The sergeant nodded. “I’ll search for others.”
The young policeman offered her his arm and noticed the briefcase. He reached for it.
Angelica moved the briefcase away. “Thank you, but I’ll carry this.” She slipped her hand into his arm and allowed the man to guide her across the field.
“What happened out there?” he asked.
“I’m… I’m not sure. Lots of smoke… People, people were screaming.” Angelica sounded panicked. “I don’t know what happened.”
A booming creak reverberated from the wreckage site. Angelica and the officer turned and watched what resembled a molten, round skeleton collapse to the ground with a metallic groan.
It was October 21st, 1886—a day that, if the Royal Navy’s plans had succeeded, would have changed the course of British military history. Angelica had gathered with the rest of the ill-fated passengers in a field outside London at ten o’clock. Military officers, ministry officials, lords, and other persons of importance waited for the inaugural flight of the HMS Phoenix, a dirigible class R10. The Royal Navy had chosen to test the dirigible at night. They hoped to keep from arousing the suspicions of Britain’s enemies if they succeeded and the suspicions of the Times if they failed.
The Phoenix, composed of a white, horizontally-cylindrical balloon more than 800 feet long, was much bigger than Angelica expected, even from the plans she had been given. Underneath the balloon hung a gondola with two decks of cabins, a dining room, and a storage compartment. Moonlight reflected off the ship, and Angelica decided they should have chosen a color other than white if they truly desired secrecy.
They boarded the gondola, and the airship rose. Angelica originally feared the wind would toss the ship about, but she found the ride smooth, quiet, and pleasant. She stayed in the background for most of the night. She preferred watching people to participating in their political games. After an elegant dinner, the initial excitement of flight had worn off, and most of the passengers retired to their rooms.
Angelica lingered in the dining room where plates of partially eaten food still spotted the tables. She sat on a plush, velvet bench right next to one of the French-paned windows that surrounded the bow of the hull, allowing patrons a full view of the sky. Below, the lights of London flickered. She watched the Thames River wind through the city, resembling a black snake slithering among embers.
She checked her watch. One fifty-nine. The time to begin her assignment was nearing. She stood up and stretched, preparing herself for her first task. Before she could move, the ship shook ever so slightly, throwing her off balance. She spotted a half-drunk glass of wine and noticed the liquid tilted toward the port side of the ship.
The Phoenix was listing.
Eerie, orange light flooded in through the windows indicating the balloon had burst into flames. In five to ten minutes, fire would engulf the ship.
Angelica’s stomach lurched. The Phoenix was descending, speeding toward the ground below. She had precious few minutes to complete her assignment.
The airship’s passengers, bellowing with panic, flooded into the dining room, and the crew tried in vain to calm them down.
I must find the professor, thought Angelica. Her mission’s success depended on it. The frail, timid man traveled alone and would require assistance. Angelica hunted for him, navigating the humanity frantically running about.
The ship continued to tilt. She opened each cabin door, searching for him. The last door in the hall was locked. She knocked on the door. “Professor Guthrie?” she yelled.
A muffled cry sounded inside.
Angelica suspected the professor could not traverse the floor’s steep incline to unlock the door.
“I’m going to get you out, sir!” she yelled.
Angelica flicked her right hand back. A three-inch-long, needle-thin dagger shot out of her sleeves under her wrist. She inserted it into the lock, and with a few jiggles, opened the door.
She jerked her wrist down, and the blade retracted into the spring-loaded sheath hidden under her sleeves.
The door fell open inward. A thin, balding man with a long beard leaned against the wall, which in a few minutes would become the floor if the ship continued to tilt. He clutched a briefcase to his chest.
Angelica tried to keep her balance—despite her heeled boots and corset—as she shuffled down the steepening incline.
“Who are you?” he asked. He had a high-pitched voice and beady eyes.
“No time for that now,” Angelica said. “Take my hand and come with me.”
The professor hesitated for a few moments. Then he reached for her hand, and the two struggled up the incline to the starboard side of the ship.
“We’re going to jump out of the window and roll out of the way,” she yelled over the din.
“Why couldn’t we have used my window?” asked the professor.
“Because we would hit the ground under the dirigible,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to outrun it. This gives us a chance.”
The two of them climbed into the room and tried to open the windows. They were locked.
“Move away from this window,” Angelica said. She flicked both hands up and aimed each spike at the window, breaking the glass.
The professor teetered and almost lost his balance. She grabbed his hand, hopped on the windowsill, and pulled him out. They crouched on the side of the ship, watching the fire, which almost engulfed the balloon, move toward them.
“The minute we land, we need to run,” she yelled. “Hold tight to your briefcase.” She wrapped her arm around his waist before he could object. The ground lay forty feet below them. “Now!”
They jumped out of the gondola together, leaving behind both the blazing airship and the professor’s shrill holler.
…to be continued in “The Survivor”
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Hardcover
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Trade Paperback
- Dreams of Steam 3: Gadgets – Kindle
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston hosts The Final Cut in Movies, an radio talk show about science fiction and fantasy movies that airs on 740 am WSBR. The Final Cut in movies can also be heard on iTunes. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.