Monday, 23 March 2009

Storming Hell

I have finally made the front page of a magazine with one of my stories:

You could describe this as a steampunk fantasy story. I play a trick of having a universe where the scientific laws operate according to the principles of Victorian Science rather than modern science.

It starts like this:

The sun rose slowly on another long day. Crystal showers of frozen air fell gently, sublimed upwards under the sun's rays, only to refreeze and fall again. Fine snow littered the surface like baking sugar, lending the splintered landscape a surreal beauty. This was a place of dialectical extremes, of hot and cold, of light and dark and of stone and dust.

The only splash of colour came from Sarah's multiple reflections in the viewing port. Convention decreed that her long dress and tailored jacket be Royal Navy blue, her blouse cream, but she was allowed to express some individuality in a neck tie and the band around her straw hat. She elected to wear a defiant red.

Sarah was too keyed up to enjoy the bleak landscape. She gazed out of the porthole, lost in her thoughts, disinterested in the view.

"Ma'am?" a piping voice sounded behind her.

She turned, moving carefully so that her skirt would not fly up.

A boy in a midshipman's uniform half made a salute then thought better of it.

"Is that your sea trunk, ma'am?"

She nodded in assent and he clicked his fingers at the porters. Two Selenites scuttled forward, sharp claws tapping on the stone floor. Like all lunar natives, they were six limbed but their exoskeleton was without the tripartite division that characterised the insect body. The size of a large dog, they stood mostly on four legs so that their front claws could be used as hands. The Queen Below bred them for Port Bedford's use as part of the Co-operation Pact with the British Empire. A not unpleasant wet-straw smell drifted off the creatures as they grappled with her luggage.

"The captain presents his compliments, ma'am, and asks you to accompany me to the ship."

"Thank you," she said. "Lead on."

They made a strange crocodile through the narrow corridors, the midshipman in front, her behind, and the Selenites bringing up the rear. Convention decreed that they should walk in single file on the right. This necessitated one of the Selenites walking backwards, something that seemed to discommode him not at all. She thought of the Selenite as "him," though "it" was probably a more accurate pronoun for a sterile worker.

Sarah stepped over the lip of a double-doored hatchway into the aethership, revealing far too much ankle for her liking. The porters banged her trunk against the hatchway. She admonished them and they listened politely, clacking lateral mouth mandibles in reply before forcing her trunk through the narrow opening. The midshipman walked on without pausing, causing her to half run to catch up. It was so undignified; her instructors had impressed upon her the importance of comportment for a lady but what was one to do?

The air inside the aethership held a sharp tang of carbolic soap, like a newly scrubbed hospital. The ship had recently been refurbished so it did not yet smell of stale sweat seasoned with the aroma of ripe latrine but, given time, it would. Port Bedford's air was clean and natural in comparison, if a trifle musty, refreshed as it was from fungal forests Below.

She was soon completely disorientated in the maze of cramped passageways and staircases. Sailors hurrying about their duties gave way when her party needed to pass. She ignored their interested glances. A final spiral staircase gave access to the bridge. The mid stopped in front of a man wearing a captain's uniform and smartly snapped to attention, saluting.

The captain, who was deep in discussion with one of his lieutenants, ignored them. She took the opportunity to study the man who would be in control of her life for the foreseeable future. He was about thirty-five, tall, slim and fair haired—a typical member of the Anglo-Norman ruling families. She resigned herself to being patronised when he finally acknowledged her existence

"My dear Miss Brown, welcome aboard Her Majesty's Aethership Cassandra." He pumped her hand vigorously and grinned. "I trust that they made you comfortable at Port Bedford while you waited for us. I am afraid we had a little trouble with our cavorite panels, which delayed our departure."

"Thank you, yes, I was quite comfortable," she said.

"Either I am getting older, or the pilots are getting younger and prettier," said the captain to the officer beside him.

She blushed: the interview was not going precisely to her expectations.

"This is my first independent posting but I assure you that I am properly qualified, Captain Fitzwilliam," she said. She tried to sound brisk and efficient but it came out as pompous.

"I never doubted it, dear lady," he said.

He cocked his head to one side and looked expectantly at her.

For a second Sarah's mind blanked and then she realised that she had unaccountably forgotten to carry out her first duty. Fumbling in her bag, she finally managed to remove the two critical pieces of paper. Why did everything take twice as long when one was flustered?

"My posting and pilot's certificate, sir," she said, handing them to him.

He cast a quick eye over them as convention decreed before handing the certificate back.

"Show the lady to her room, Mister Chomondely," he said to the midshipman.

"Aye, aye, sir."

She made to go but the captain stopped her with a raised finger.

"I hope to have the pleasure of your company at dinner tonight, Miss Brown, but in the meantime, stow your gear quickly and strap yourself in, as we shall be lifting shortly." He glared at the other officers as if defying them to contradict him.

The midshipman showed her aft to a small cabin, taking his leave of her without entering. The click-clack of Selenite claws disappeared down the corridor as she shut and locked the door. Pilots had a special status on Queen Mary's ships because the Royal Navy still struggled with the concept of a lady in the crew. Ruling Queens were a long accepted tradition in Britain, ever since Queen Boudicea told her groom to sharpen the scythe blades on her chariot wheels while she looked up London on the map, but ladies on a Royal Navy bridge were anathema.

The Senior Service had settled for a typical British compromise. She was classed as an officer and so bunked aft and ate in the wardroom. However, it was strictly understood that she most assuredly had no place in the chain of command. One of her instructors had compared the position of Royal Navy pilots with that of the army's regimental mascots—and not to the detriment of the latter.

Stowing her luggage took little time as there was very little storage space to put anything in. She left most of her possessions in her trunk, which she pushed with some difficulty under the bunk. Then she arranged herself on the narrow bed and fastened herself down with the safety webbing. She stared blankly at the featureless grey walls, trying to control her breathing. Terrors nibbled at the edges of her mind like hyenas around a wounded beast but she was determined not to give way to hysteria. She inhaled and held her breath for a count of two, then again to a count of three and so on. Slowly, she brought her rebellious body under control.

Sarah balanced a watercolour miniature on her stomach that depicted the likeness of a cavalier sitting upon a rearing horse. He waved his hat high over his head with one hand while the other pointed a pistol at a coach. A speech-bubble depicted him saying "Stand and deliver all enemies of the crown."

She composed herself and prayed, slipping gently into a trance, but she was nervous and could not quite achieve enthesis. When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but featureless light grey haze, like sunlit fog.

"Captain, Captain, are you there?" she asked.

White rings formed cloud-like shapes, sharply defined on the outside edge but fading into mist in the centre. They developed, imploded, and were replaced in a repetitive moving pattern. She prayed harder and for a moment thought she saw the shadow of a figure but it drifted away when she reached out. Her stomach lurched and she disconnected, suddenly back in her cabin. She was upside hanging by the webbing, which alternatively pulled and relaxed at her body as she became lighter and heavier. The three coloured galvanic warning lights over the cabin door shone steadily; the ship was lifting from the lunar surface.

Her stomach lurched again as she first became weightless and then fell back into her bunk as down reasserted itself. Obviously the engineering problems had not been entirely addressed. She grabbed the bowl that a steward had thoughtfully clipped to her cabin wall and was violently and horribly sick.


  1. Great story! I wonder if there is anyway to get that publication on my side of the pond? I'd like to find out what happens next.

  2. Yes, it's an electronic magazine run by Baen Books in the USA.

    You can buy it here:

    My story comes out in the April edition.

    You will find other stories by me in Universe here: