As in the previous post, I’ve been saying for a while that I’m moving more towards fiction as a way of explaining the core ideas of my work.
This extract is from the early stages of what I intend to be my main fiction-project for the next few years. At the minimum, it’ll be a standalone novel and/or graphic-novel, coming out somewhen mid- to late-2017; but from the responses so far, and if I do manage to develop the ‘world-building’ part in the right way, I’m told it has the potential to develop into quite a large-scale collaborative transmedia project, across books, graphic-novels, games, interactive-events, costume, merchandising, fan-fiction, even TV, film, music and more.
In essence, it runs in parallel to the popular steampunk genre – and yeah, that’s intentionally part of its appeal. Yet that’s only on the surface. Beneath that, there’s a full alternate-history model, developed outward from a little-known yet utterly crucial event in British history, way back in 1647: the success of Oliver Cromwell and others of the ‘Grandees’ in sidelining a proposed new post-Civil War constitution called ‘The Agreement of the People’, and instead imposing a constitution that was more about protecting the property and privileges of the Grandees and others of the new merchant class, than anything to do with the needs of ‘the people’ as a whole.
To put it bluntly, Cromwell’s act of self-centred sabotage was a direct cause of much of the misery for ordinary people – not just in Britain, but in many countries right around the globe – for much of the following three centuries, and still is an active cause of much of the mess we’re dealing with today.
Yeah, it really is that important. And if you look at the Agreement of the People, and you’ve been following my work on RBPEA (Really-Big-Picture Enterprise-Architecture) over the past few years, you’ll probably see the connection straight away…
So I’ve gone back and reimagined the world as if Cromwell had not succeeded, and that instead the Agreement did become the basis for all subsequent law. As you’ll see from even a quick summary of the Agreement, it would have had huge, immediate impacts not just on law, but property, gender, religion, social-relations and much, much more. Those impacts would have included science, medicine and technology, since all of those are deeply interwoven with the respective culture’s ethos and worldview. That’s dealt with in some detail in various of the story-fragments and storyworld materials that I’ve already written.
For this story-fragment that follows, though, there are probably just two items from that backstory that are relevant here:
- the classic exclusion of women from science and technology disappears within a very short time after the Agreement, in effect doubling the available science / technology workforce
- an entirely new strand of technology starts to develop early on in this timeline, referred to as ‘the art of the viners’ – in essence what we’d think of today as themes such gene-splicing and biomimicry, developed as full (if not all that well-understood) technologies in their own right, centred more around the full potential of plants, in parallel with those other technologies of brass, clockwork, steel and steam
So in this storyworld, Britain and its related Commonwealth develop a fundamentally-different political system from the rest of the self-styled ‘civilised’ world, and also a different additional technology – that of the ‘viners’ – with plants as living ‘machines’. To everywhere else, the social-model is anathema – “anarchy!” – whilst the viner-technology is greeted with fear at best, and in many places earns the country the epithet of ‘the land of devils’.
This story-fragment – placed in London’s dockyards in 1887 – introduces several of the main characters for one of the storylines that I’m developing for this world. The two central characters here, Sasha and Anton, are both recently-qualified ‘enginers’, the former focussing more on steam-technology, the latter more on viner-tech; much of their storyline in effect explores the trade-offs between the two technologies, and the types of context for which each is a better fit than the other. As with steam, the viner-technologies have come on a very long way over previous couple of centuries…
(You might also spot a few homages to various sci-fi/fantasy classics, and steampunk-like references to other present-day technologies, scattered around even within this fragment – well, writers have to have some fun, don’t they? The places mentioned and described are all real in our timeline, by the way.)
Oh, and if you think Sasha – the narrator – is a bit of a pompous ass, well, yeah, that’s true: a not untypical product of the age (in both senses), though easing-off on that head-up-the-ass attitude is a key part of Sasha’s character-arc in that storyline. I based Sasha’s style of dialogue and narration somewhat on Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson – another imagined denizen of that period in our own timeline – but cranked up the pomposity about half a notch, to match up with someone young enough to want to make their mark on the world, but without enough experience yet to be able to do so.
Over to you – hope you enjoy it, anyway.
At the docks
A good night for this, I thought. For once, no rain; cool, only the mildest of breeze; a quiet time on the dock itself, what with the holiday for Her Majesty’s Jubilee. And to meet at last with Anton. So much correspondence over these past two years, and yet I know almost nothing about him. Interesting indeed.
From the station, it was a brisk walk alongside the Blackwall Basin. Turning down Coldharbour towards the great River, I passed a pair of Sweepers scuttering lengthwise along the gutter, their tendrils flicking outward to the centre of the road to pick up any waste and debris. And then onward to The Gun, the inn at the far end of the road, beside the harbour’s great lock-gates. There was plenty of noise from roisterers inside the inn, yet no-one outside, it seemed. And yet here was where we’d arranged to meet, and where Anton had said he would be at this hour. Around the corner, perhaps?
And there indeed, just one person, sprawled lazily across a wooden chair, crossed feet resting on a low barrel, facing out to the river, and to the SS Galveston itself, anchored mid-river, gleaming brightly in the half-light. Yes, another enginer all right, to judge by the coat and boots and cap. But…
Long auburn hair? A woman?
“Punctual to a fault, Sasha.” A bright alto voice. “Or Sasha, I presume. Yet I heard no cab?”
I could make no response but a surprised intake of breath.
At this, the red-head twisted, turned round, puzzlement clear on her face. “Sasha? You’re Sasha Rostov?”
“You’re Anton? But I was…”
“Expecting a man. And I another woman.” She laughed. “Rostov, not Rostova – how could I have missed that all this time? And Sasha is Alexander, not Alexandra. My apologies, good sir!”
“And likewise mine.” I will own that I blushed, then looked around us in some concern. “You’ll pardon me for being somewhat forward, miss, but…”
She cut across. “Not ‘miss’, please. Or ‘mistress’. Or anything. Just Anton. Short for Antonia, which I hate. A name that deserves to be hit with a hammer. Which I do, daily, with joy.” She stopped, hand momentarily to mouth, laughing, but with embarrassment too. “Oh. You were saying…?”
“Um, uh, that I’m, I, uh, I don’t see your chaperone? I mean, I know you’re an enginer and all, but still, these streets can be…”
She held up a hand to stem my flow of embarrassed mumbling, and with a wry laconic grin waved an arm towards the dark corner at the river’s edge. “Shh. You’ll wake them.”
I stopped to peer into the gloom, and then my eyes and mouth alike opened wide in shock. “Are they…? Ye gods, how…? Are they following…?”
“Me? Yes.” A quick smile. She lifted her cap, and pointed to the meshwork of wire and phials resting upon her head. “Mother asked me to take them for a walk.”
“She’s a Master Viner, at Royal Arsenal. Does fast-mobiles. Like those two.”
“Viner? Ah, yes, I see, of course, your name’s Devine. Of the vine. Of course. I should have known…”
“Why ‘should’? I didn’t.” We both laughed.
“True. But those” – I pointed a quavering hand to the gloom – “are they safe here, out on the streets? Are they, ah, sentient?”
“Safe to me. Safe to you, as long as I tell them so. So be nice to me, Mister Sasha, if you please?” She made another happy grin. “And sentient? – yes, somewhat. We want to know how much. That’s why I’m talking them for a walk.”
She unfolded herself from the chair, and again gave me that same bright smile. She stood upright, tall, slim, within perhaps a year of my own age. Her enginers’ uniform was alike to ours, with trousers, not skirts, but still somehow more fitting for a woman. “And now, good sir”, she said, “shall we ourselves walk? We’ll see the Galveston better from the far side of the lock.” She offered me her arm, but stopped, listening. “Wait! – what’s that?”
The sound of running from the roadway rose to a crescendo; booted feet clattering on the cobblestones in the distance beyond. Shouts; angry voices. A small form swung round the corner at full pelt, straight into us. “Ajuda me!” Breathless. “Por favor, ajuda me!”
With no time to think, I pointed at the chairs behind us; whoever it was dived to the ground, but there was not sufficient space to hide. Two sailors clattered to a halt at the edge of the street. “We got ya fair an’ square, you slimeball wetback”, said one, in the coarse, harsh tones of the Bronks. He waved a cudgel with evident pleasure. “You ain’t got nowhere to run now.” The other sailor looked disdainfully at me, ignoring Anton entirely. “You, git out the way.”
Dangerous, yes, but his attitude towards us was more than I could tolerate. “Sir”, I retorted, “we shall do no such thing until you explain yourself!”
“We don’t explain”, said a third voice in a cold, sardonic Texas drawl. “You wouldn’t understand, and it’s none of your business.” An officer, it seemed, even if dressed as a civilian, in a crisp white suit with gold fastenings. “Captain James McLennan, at your disposal.” He laughed, as if at some unpleasant joke, then bowed, sarcastically. “Just hand over our property right now, and you won’t get hurt. Probably.”
“Property?”, I gasped. “What property?”
“But that’s slavery!”
“Yeah? So? He’s our property. And you got five seconds to get out the way, boy, or they’ll find your corpse floating on tomorrow’s tide. I ain’t joking. So move, y’hear?”
I put up my fists, ready for a fight; the sailors moved forward, grinning…
“Oh for heavens’ sake!” That from Anton. “Caesar! Brutus! Out! Now!”
Two forms exploded out from the dark of the corner, and crashed to a halt beside Anton, hissing loudly, quivering in warning. Sentinels. Each was around the size and shape of a lion, or a very large dog – but no lion or dog ever looked like these, each a barrel-shaped body on sinuous legs, with a frill like a lizard, the metallic sheen on the skin, and a mane of tentacles around the multi-eyed head…
One sailor fell straight on his backside with a squeak of surprise; the other managed just to stand his ground. “Holy shit!”, he exclaimed, “What hell-spawn is that!”
McLennan yanked a pistol from his pocket, pointed it straight at Anton’s face. “Whatever those goddamn things are, girl, you call them off right now, or you’re dead – y’hear me?”
“I hear you, yes.” Her voice surprisingly calm. “Now you’re going to put that gun on the ground – those clubs too, you two – and you’re all going to sit down very still against that wall. Don’t do anything else, and for your own safety, move slow. These are still experimental, and I don’t know what they’ll do to you. But you won’t like it, I promise you.”
The ‘dogs’ leant closer towards McLennan, hissing louder. “Do it now”, said Anton. “This is the only warning you’re going to get.”
He bent halfway down, as if to drop the gun, then shouted, “The hell I will!”, and swung up, ready to fire. But as he did so, the ‘dogs’ each flipped out the petals of the frill folded along their neck and body, shielding Anton; the bullet hit one petal with an audible clang, and ricocheted off into the distance. Before he had a chance to fire again, one of the Sentinels spat out a pair of metal threads that hit him full in the chest. With a crackling noise, sparks poured across the gap; McLennan’s arms flew wide, throwing the gun skittering across the floor, and he collapsed to the ground, twitching. The sailor rushed forward; the other Sentinel opened its mouth wide, barked with a shaped explosion of sound that sent the man flying across the space, crashing into the wall.
“Warned you.” Quiet, calm, with perfect poise, she walked over to pick up the gun.
The other sailor was still sprawled on the ground where he fell at the start, when the Sentinels first jumped out. “Go on”, she said to him, “be a good boy, go sit by the wall, like I told you.” He needed no further prompting: he scurried backwards to the wall on hands and feet, as fast as he could, whimpering in fear.
The first Sentinel extended octopus-like tendrils outward from its mane, grabbed hold of McLennan’s unconscious body, and dragged him up against the wall beside the other two. The other Sentinel spat out an adhesive mesh, gluing all three assailants to the grimy brickwork and the ground. They then stepped back to stand either side of Anton, delicately pawing the ground, hissing quietly.
Only then did I release the breath I’d had no idea I’d been holding. It had all happened so fast… I had known that the viners had been working on new capabilities, but I’d had no clue that they could create such as this! And Anton – what courage! Far more than I possessed, I would have to admit.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get the peelers here, cut you free”, she said to the only conscious sailor. “But you may have some explaining to do before they let you back to your ship. We don’t allow people to walk around with loaded weapons here.” He stared at her, open-mouthed; looked toward the Sentinels; turned to face her again, started to speak, then stopped at once. “Uh-uh”, she said, shaking her head, “not one word. ‘Sides, the dogs are set for non-lethal. Lucky you.” Turning away, she pointed at the other two men. “So don’t you worry about them, either. They’ll be right in the morning. Probably.”
As she walked towards me, where I was helping the fugitive to his feet, she made one last aside to the sailor: “Oh, and do tell him I don’t like being called ‘girl’?”
“Yes. ‘Ma’am’ is better. And wiser.”
It was only then that I noticed that the sailors’ shoulder-lapels showed them to be from the SS Galveston itself. What mystery was this?
The fugitive, we now discovered, was not a boy at all, but a young man of not much less than our own age. He seemed well enough at first glance, though he was very thin, soaking wet, in clothes that had been good-quality once, but now very worn, and bloodstained too. “Gracias, gracias, muchas gracias!“, he said, his body still shaking with with exhaustion and fear. “Pero Madre de Dios, que estan estos perros?“, he stammered, pointing at the ‘dogs’. “Y quien estan ustedes? Por favor, donde estamos? Donde yo esta? Estamos en España? Francia? O en qual païs?”
“My turn, I think?”, said I to Anton. “It’s all right, chico, you’re safe. Seguro. No-one’s taking you anywhere. Seguro, okay?” The fugitive nodded, though clearly still doubtful.
“What’s going on?” asked Anton. “Who is he? From where?”
“Spanish, he’s speaking Spanish, that’s all I’ve got so far.” I turned again to the fugitive. “Estamos en inglaterra. Londres. England. London.”
“Inglaterra? El païs del diablos? Oh Dios…!” If anything, he looked even more frightened than before.
“It’s all right, it’s all right, you’re safe now, seguro, libre, free. No esclavas, no-one’s a slave here.”
“Pero los diablos…”
“Don’t worry about the ‘dogs’. They’re Sentinels, that’s all. They’re not devils, they’re just machines, see? Maquinas.” I glanced at Anton. “Mostly.”
Anton cut in. “What’s your name?”, she asked.
“Su nombre“, I added.
“Si, me llame Pe… Pe…” – but his stammer came to a halt, and he slumped into a chair, exhausted.
Behind us, the Sentinels began hissing again, if less aggressively than before. It transpired that, on hearing the shot and the noise of the fight, people had come running from inside the inn and from down the street – but they’d stopped, very still, very cautiously, as soon as they’d seen the ‘dogs’. Soon there was quite a crowd, including, at last, a policeman with his high-crowned helmet. With the Sentinels’ attention seemingly elsewhere, the last sailor had started to try to break free of the net – but noticed, in horror, as what had seemed to be the tail of the nearest Sentinel changed into a sharp-pointed spike extending outward towards his face, sprouting a pair of eyes as it did so, watching him closely. He froze once more, very quickly indeed…
“Come on, Sasha, time to go. Bring Pepe with us. There’s Navy at East India Dock – we can call Mother from there. They’ll help us calm the dogs down, too.”
She handed the pistol to the policeman; then a brief conversation between them, pointing to ourselves, to ‘Pepe’ and to the sailors entrapped in the net. Cards were exchanged, of course; the policeman saluted, though keeping careful distance from the ‘dogs’. The crowd parted silently to let us pass, I with my arm around Pepe to help him walk, one Sentinel in front of us, the other behind, trotting backwards with all its eyes and sensors extended, heading swinging from side to side, alert for the slightest threat.
(That’s it on this story-fragment. Over to you for any comments, or corrections on my Spanish, if you would?)