This is an excerpt from “Moonlight, Murder & Machinery”, a Steampunk mash-up of Frankenstein, Jane Austen, and the Romantic Poets, published by Excalibur Books. Learn more about the mysterious world of Nova Albion here!
The Red Branch carriage clattered over the Chepstow to Land’s End turnpike, traveling deeper into Kernow through a rugged landscape that lay beneath rolling billows of cloud. Shelley stared moodily out of the window. The fierce winds blowing in from the North Atlantic had cowed the trees into stunted, twisted shapes, scattered among the huge granite boulders littering the Cornish moors.
“Your first assignment will be Eglossenara, previously known as the town of Zennor,” Major Lethbridge had told them. “You may remember, in July of this year, a ship being lost in a storm with all hands off the coast of Kernow. The deaths included four operatives of Red Branch. The inquiry decided it was an act of poor judgment on the side of the captain and a tragedy that could have been avoided, but we suspect something far more. We suspect the soldiers were murdered because of what they had discovered, and their bodies dumped at sea. Captain Gordon, your squad will survey the area for signs of contraband technology, and take action as required. Your cover will be that of a trade delegation of geomancers looking into Kernow’s natural resources: the republic has nowhere near the number of dowsers that we have.”
And so Shelley had boarded the coach that morning, with his new squad, on his first mission. He had met Captain George Gordon for the first time, who had insisted on entertaining the three men on the journey south with bawdy jokes, dirty songs, imposing questions, and snatches of apparently spontaneous poetry, all delivered by his overly dramatic voice at unnecessary volume.
Captain Gordon was not exactly tall, but he gave a very imposing impression. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular; from a large, smooth forehead crowned with thickly growing locks, his nose ran down to a wide mouth and heavy chin. He was also reputed to be the army’s finest telepathist; he had given a display of his ability earlier, by projecting the image of a running horse, with a commentary like a whisper from the back of the head, into the minds of all three soldiers. It was an experience that Shelley found extremely disconcerting; but only a telepathist could command a Red Branch squad, as he was charged with commanding and coordinating their actions by unspoken thoughts. It was, however, a function undertaken only at strategically crucial times; prolonged exercise in telepathy was proven to induce a fatal hemorrhage in the sender.
Most of the talking was done by Gordon and Linnel, swapping arguments and jokes; Shelley laughed and showed all due respect to his seniors, but his mind was elsewhere. His mind was on the young Miss Godwin, who had fainted before him at the Michaelmas Fayre, one week before …
“Gentlemen!” Gordon suddenly declared, breaking off in the middle of a line of poetry. “I have an idea coming through from the War Office. It is a warning that the smuggler known as Boiler Calhoun may be operating in this area.”
That, remarkably enough, had the effect of getting Linnel to shut up.
“I was under the impression he was killed when the army sank his steamship off the coast of Penzance,” Rose said thoughtfully.
“That was the official announcement. Nevertheless, the distance-viewers have noted his name and face come up in their sketches several times. We must exercise all necessary caution, gentlemen.”
Their driver, Cribb, gave a yodeling wail to the horses, and the carriage braked to a halt. Gordon dismounted first, Shelley last, and they stood before Eglossenara Quoit.
The day was crisp and cool, and the wind had a taste and clarity that the air somehow did not have in London. The Quiot was a tomb high on the moor – a portal dolmen with an enclosed burial chamber beneath a capstone weighing ten tons. The capstone had slipped and was now resting at an angle, in contact with only one of the five supporting stones. There were two large slabs at either side and beside the tomb were five standing stones. The slabs seemed to be flaked with astonishing precision into a symmetry so precise it looked as if it had been done by hand. Shelley touched it gingerly with his fingertips, remembering Stonehenge.
“We shall recharge our weapons here,” said Gordon. He walked with a peculiar sliding, rolling gait; the rumors were correct, there was most definitely something wrong with one of Gordon’s legs. Gordon would not mention or explain it; and, presumably, it had been overlooked by the War Office in favor of his telepathic abilities.
They walked beneath the massive stone slab and sat upon blankets that they spread upon the ground, each soldier on one corner.
“Take your points, gentlemen. Remember, Rose, you are earth.”
“Well, at least earth here is good for something,” Linnel said, grinning at Rose. “To the Thermidorians, it’s mainly for burying their dead.”
“Don’t spoil the mood.”
Shelley watched as Linnel followed Gordon’s commands with a casual air verging on insolence. At the War Office, it had been discovered that John Linnel’s Uncanny ability was an extraordinary quickness of reflexes during hand-to-hand fighting; when attacked, he was able to react to his opponent’s moves much faster than should have been possible. In one demonstration, Shelley had seen him even dodge a bullet fired from a matchlock pistol, at almost point blank range.
Linnel shook his head and grinned at Gordon in a most immodest way. “Have you ever thought, sir, that maybe we got this the wrong way round? Maybe we are not doing this out of our own free will. We are the slaves of the earth, not its masters. It’s making us do what it wants, and we are simply puppets.” He glanced around. “Who knows why Stonehenge was really built? And who knows how this power really works?”
“I do know you’re going to feel the power of my glove if you keep talking like a drainpipe,” Gordon warned. “Now shut up and concentrate!”
Flintlock crystals charged and hidden in their jacket holsters, the Red Branch squad rode into Eglossenara. The town was a moderately large affair of two thousand souls, and the houses that held them straggled lazily over hills and fields, lying at intervals on either side of the turnpike. There were plenty of new houses under construction, and neatly tended gardens with immaculate walls; it looked as if the town was enjoying the fruits of a recent and welcome prosperity.
Just so, whispered a voice in Shelley’s head. The question is, to what does Eglossenara owe this burst of good fortune, hmmm?
Shelley looked at his commanding officer, who grinned back at him. This is going to take some getting used to, he thought – and immediately wished he hadn’t.
They stopped at the local magistrate’s mansion, perched on a hillside that looked, appropriately enough, down onto the town. The servant led them in to the magistrate’s parlor, a masculine-looking room with crimson damask walls, a sideboard glittering with venerable family plate, a huge looking glass, and a homely fire of seawood on the hearth, burning clear and lambent with blue salt flames.
“Is it cold out?” The large, portly man in the armchair by the fire, who had been smoking from a long clay pipe, got to his feet and addressed them. “You look like salmon just out of the ice-basket!”
This was Justice Pengallon, magistrate of Eglossenara and member of the Kernow Assembly. “You are the fellows I was warned about,” he said, “the Excise Men, come to check up on us, eh? Welcome to the ends of the earth.”
He held out his hand for Gordon to shake. “Myttin da. Fatla genes?”
“Yn point da, meur ras,” answered Gordon.
Pengallon clapped his hands in joy. “Ah, you speak the old tongue very well, sir. Yes, when they told me you were coming, they said you could speak good Kerniweg.”
“Really?” Gordon smiled. “What else did they say?”
“They said that the King would help us get back on our feet. It is the Celtic tradition, sirs! But come, bring your backsides to anchor. Tobacco? Snuff? And can I get you something to drink?”
The magistrate called for brandy, they all sat down, and Gordon introduced the individual members of the team.
From his training, Shelley was aware that the entrance of the King’s armed forces into any situation, especially ones involving cross-border trade, was usually not enthusiastically received. The plump, jolly magistrate seemed sincere, but Shelley knew that Gordon was scanning Pengallon’s mind, probing in such a subtle way that he would not suspect anything.
Unless, of course, the man was a telepathist himself…had the War Office considered that?
A sleepy-eyed maid who looked half Pengallon’s age brought in a gold tray bearing a flask of brandy and half a dozen silver beakers.
“My personal favorite – a glass of Ararat milk, sirs, to keep out the autumn chills. The finest Armenian brandy, named Ararat, laced with Cornish milk. It is strong, and sweet, and sets the heart at ease on long winter nights with good company and a back-gammon board.”
Shelley took a sip of the liquor, but nearly choked, not being used to strong waters. The Squire drank his liquor down in a gulp, held out his goblet to be refilled. He looked at Gordon’s wistful smile, and laughed. “You are wondering, sir, if this brandy is legitimate. Would I dare serve you contraband? If you wish, I can show you the receipts. With the punishments for smuggling, I would not like to end my days going up the ladder to a Tyburn bed.”
“Of course, sir. To your good health.” Captain Gordon cleared his throat. “Well now, to business. Mr. Rose, would you mind?”
Rose stood, picked up the case by his side, and laid it on the table near Pengallon. He clicked open the catches and opened the lid.
“Divining rods – made of the best hazel.”
This seemed to satisfy the squire, who winked at Gordon. “You have read the file? The republic of Kernow has not progressed as far as Nova Albion in the number of Uncannies and Chosen Men in our armed forces. Dowsers on loan would go a long way towards helping that.”
“I quite agree, sir. It is the other suggestions in your letter that may be difficult.”
“Yes, the lifting of the ban on Newcomen steam engines.” The squire flashed his teeth warmly and spread his hands. “What can we do? All we have are ageing Archimedes Pumps in the copper and tin mines. With fishing, farming and china clay, we are barely getting by.”
“And yet you have many handsome new houses in town,” Gordon said.
Pengallon smiled with the hint of a shared secret. “We are thrifty, and we use our gold wisely. But I urge you, sirs, Kernow is a separate country, and limited access to new technology would help us greatly. Machines could free the Cornish from drudgery. True merit and hard work would be rewarded, not accidents of noble birth. Youth would not be shackled to superstition.”
“That’s what the Thermidorians believed,” Linnel said in his thick London accent. “It did not stop the corruption of power.”
“Because the French still insist on having a top and bottom class. That is why, sirs, we need a new social order!”
Gordon drained his glass and looked noncommittal. “I am afraid, sir, politics is a little outside my jurisdiction. Well, we must not keep you waiting, and it has been a great pleasure to meet you. When we meet again, we must have lunch in the town somewhere.”
“That would be my pleasure,” said the magistrate, nodding vigorously.
As they were being led out by the impassive butler, Shelley – and, he knew, the other two men – heard Gordon’s voice in his skull.
He is indeed afraid of something, or of someone, but not us. Someone has trained him to block his mind.
Outside, the sun was about to set, and the air tingled with early autumn chill. Their carriage drove slowly along the main street, townspeople looking at the officers slyly as they passed, giving half-hearted greetings, or no greetings at all. Where the road forked and led to their inn, Gordon ordered the coach to stop, outside a large, Norman-style church. The four officers dismounted and stood gazing at the ancient granite and stained glass.
“The parish church of St Senara, based on the ancient Celtic goddess Sinar,” Gordon told them. “The deity is now the patron saint of Eglossenara.”
Shelley surveyed the bright green grass and leafy boughs of the graveyard. The tombstones were mainly Celtic crosses, many carved with images of serpents and mermaids, and some with runes or Druidic Ogham script.
“Good afternoon, sirs!” called a voice. “I see you are admiring the carvings. Would you be the Excise Men?”
“I see that everyone has heard of us.”
The speaker was an elderly man walking up the church path towards them, clad in the somber black of a minister. He had a sharp nose and a lined, pinched face. “Pleased to meet you, sirs. My name is Syn. Christopher Syn.”
“That’s a fine name for a Churchman,” said Linnel with a loud guffaw.
“Perhaps it is the Lord’s way of reminding me of the burden that we all share. So you have come to tell us we have a serpent in our garden of Eden, then?”
“Serpent?” said Gordon. “Well, Reverend, most would call Black Technology a work of evil.”
“Obviously, I cannot approve of a technology banned by Nova Albion, but anything that would help to unite our community should not totally be condemned.” The priest leaned on his walking stick and tilted his head to squint into the sky. “An interesting word, black,” he said ruminantly. “As black as soot. As black as the coal beneath our feet, which we are forbidden to remove. As black as the smoke that hides the cities of France. As black as the oils they have found in far Persia.”
“As black as the grave,” Linnel added.
“Yes, indeed,” the priest riposted. “These days, even the graves are not behaving how they used to. On some nights I hear sounds from the churchyard, beneath the ground. A beating, or hammering, almost like a heartbeat. The old folk of the town remember the tales of the Knockers, evil spirits that live beneath the earth. They would rap on the rock walls to distract the miners, leading them astray into the deep tunnels, where they would fall to their deaths down uncharted fissures.”
He pointed a long bony finger at the ground. “Who knows what creatures lurk down there?”
“Sir, if you do have something to tell us,” Gordon said quietly, “I implore you – forego the fairy tales and tell us directly.”
The priest bowed his head. “I…I fear I can add nothing to what the Magistrate had already told you. I will, of course, pray for your success, just as I prayed for the souls of your colleagues lost at sea. But I must leave you now. I have a sermon to write. Today’s text is…Genesis 3:24.”
With that, the priest bid them good day, and walked into the shadow of the trees, back to his church.
“What a curious fellow,” Shelley observed.
“The Reverend wanted to tell us something, but he couldn’t,” said Rose. “I wager someone has threatened him to keep quiet. Just like the whole village.”
“But he did tell us something,” said Gordon.
They all turned to look at him.
“Did you get kicked out of school before you took Bible studies?” Gordon stared pointedly at a mildewed stone angel, one of the ornaments of the graveyard.
“‘He placed at the east of the garden a Cherubim, with a flaming sword that turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life’. Genesis 3:24.”
“It appears we are getting some divine inspiration,” said Rose, looking towards the angel.