Steampunk

Look Out – Here Comes Tomorrow!

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Gods and Monsters from Japanese Mythology! Super-Heroes! Sword-wielding schoolgirls! Steampunk and Dieselpunk inventions! The latest two releases from Excalibur Books have got them all!

Tales From Beyond Tomorrow –

Volume One!

This lavishly illustrated collection of short stories, novellas and comic strips will take you on a mind-blowing tour of alternative history, where alterations of events and technology have produced worlds eerily different from our own.

From a traumatized Spiritualist medium trying to redeem himself in a bizarre Steampunk London, to otherworldy angels that haunt the trenches of World War I … from a team of super-powered vigilantes fighting to keep order in a seventies New York City gone mad, to a TV evangelist preaching to an environmentally devestated Europe … these stories will propel you from one reality to another, like a giant cosmic pinball machine.

Buy the ebook HERE

Buy the print version – HERE

Book Two of the YA “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!

Japanese-American teenager Reiko Bergman is hoping to get back to a normal life, after helping defeat the alien Kagetori in their attempt to steal one of the mysterious and unbelievably powerful Imperial Treasures of Japan.

Her hopes are dashed when the Nine Star Division, the branch of Japan’s police force that deals with otherwordly threats to the nation, inform Reiko she is involved in a Kagetori threat to sieze the second Imperial Treasure – the mystic mirror known as the Yata no Kagami. Not only that, Reiko learns of a secret two-hundred-year-old scroll relating the history of the mirror and its guardian; the half-Japanese warrior and shamaness known as … Reiko Bergman.

In a journey into the past to try to save the future, Reiko will experience mind-bending battles fighting the Kagetori alongside mythological creatures such as the Tengu, Kappa and Kitsune, but the strangest ally of all will be … herself.

Buy the ebook HERE

Buy the print version HERE

Publishing News for 2014!

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Happy New Year, Brave New World!
Here’s the latest publishing news from Excalibur – the cutting edge of fiction!

All six stories in the first series of “Futurist Manifesto” are now available as budget-price limited-edition collector’s item e-books. They will be removed from sale in June 2014, when the anthology “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow! Volume One” is released in print and Kindle format, including all six stories plus extra short fiction, illustrations and comic strips. So get ’em now – while they’re hot! Click on the links to go to the Amazon page!


The Futurist Manifesto # 1: “The Invention of God”

Spies, spirits, and mad inventors galore in this action-packed novelette set in a Steampunk Victorian London.

The Futurist Manifesto # 2: “Dulce et Decorum Est”
Eldritch abominations stalk the trenches of World War One in this chilling tale set in Ypres, 1917.

The Futurist Manifesto # 3: “The Elements of War”
A tale of love and magic, in a city on the edge of destruction – London, during the 1940-41 Blitz.

The Futurist Manifesto # 4: “Jimmy Diamond and the Girl from Venus”
Experience a Swinging Sixties London filled with Mods, Rockers, laser pistols, moon rockets, flying scooters and killer robots, in this comedy-thriller novelette!

The Futurist Manifesto # 5: “Nightfall in Utopia”
Murder, mayhem and zombies lie in wait in the darkness of the 1977 New York City blackout.

The Futurist Manifesto # 6: “Skin Condition”
Corporate greed collides with miracles of faith, in this chilling short story set in the dystopian, environmentally devastated Britain of 1992.

Artwork for “Jimmy Diamond and the Girl from Venus”, by Terry Diefenbach.


If you’re wondering what happened to Book Two in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy – then wonder no more! Last October Excalibur suffered delays due to unforeseen circumstances – but we’re getting back on track! Reiko Bergman will return in March 2014, fighting more bizarre yokai from the Japanese spirit world – and here’s an excerpt!

“Sword, Mirror, Jewel” Book 2: “Voice of the Mirror” – Chapter One

Cover for “Voice of the Sword”, by Stephanie White.

Out Now! The Futurist Manifesto

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The first two stories in the “Futurist Manifesto” series are available now, as limited-edition teasers for “Tales from Beyond Tomorrow!”

“The Futurist Manifesto # 1: The Invention of God”

Spies, spirits, and mad inventors galore in this action-packed novelette set in a Steampunk Victorian London.

“The Futurist Manifesto # 2: Dulce et Decorum est”

Eldritch abominations stalk the trenches of World War One in this chilling short story set in Ypres, 1917.

From Excalibur – the cutting edge of literature!

Ypres, 1917: Dulce Et Decorum Est

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The following excerpt is from a short story that will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, by Excalibur Books, October 2013.

Dulce et Decorum Est

“Halt! Who goes there?”
Captain Martin Blake pointed his revolver at the figures moving at the end of the trench.
“Don’t shoot!” came a voice. “Don’t shoot! We’re from the War Office!”
Blake kept his gun trained on the shadowy figures, their boots thudding on the duck boards of the trench, advancing into the half-light cast by the shielded electric lanterns. Blake could feel the tense silence of the soldiers behind him as they watched and waited.
The first person to advance was a tall, sandy-haired man, in a greatcoat with a Sergeant’s pips on the shoulder, and the second …
Blake stared in shock. “Good God, what’s a woman doing in No-Man’s-Land?”
She stood blinking in the night’s last shadows, her face pale, long dark hair tied back, her slender frame wrapped in an ill-fitting greatcoat.
“We’re from the Royal Engineers,” the man said, his voice urgent.
The woman stepped forward. “We’ve brought a message for you. We have papers.”
“It’s five o-clock in the morning!” Blake yelled.
The woman sounded British, and well-educated. Blake put down the accent as West Country. The man was definitely American. The man was staring at Blake and grinning. The Captain had seen quite a few men smiling in the trenches, and some laughing. It usually meant that the war had got to them, unhinged them, cut their minds loose to flap uselessly in the wind.
Blake realized that if these two were spies, and he had accidentally captured them, he’d be a hero. If they were genuine Ministry Officials, and he bungled their treatment, he’d be court-martialed.
But either of those outcomes depended on them getting back to allied lines alive …
Blake cocked his revolver as the man slowly put his left hand into his inside coat pocket and withdrew a tiny booklet and several tightly folded sheets of paper. He handed them over to Blake, who holstered his gun and quickly scanned them, turning them over while the soldiers behind him kept their rifles trained on the newcomers. It identified the newcomers as Doctor Alan Kelsey and Miss Virginia Browning; he was attached to the Royal Engineers, and his companion as a driver to the Royal Ambulance Corps.
“These are fake,” said the Captain. “The texture and color of the paper, they’re all wrong.”
“Would you be Captain Blake?”
He blinked. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Please, Captain Blake, we are here to help.”
“We weren’t able to request any help. We’re cut off from the Communications Trench and our radio isn’t working.”
“We have an urgent message and we have a machine that can help you.”
For the first time the man indicated the large black box he had been carrying. He set it down gingerly on a pile of sandbags. He was about to click the two brass handles open, when Blake’s fear and tension returned. He drew his revolver again and stopped him.
“Captain,” Kelsey said patiently, “this is a Mark V Ultra computing machine. We’ve brought it here because we believe you’re all in great danger.”
“Danger?” Blake coughed out the word in disbelief. “We’re in the middle of a bloody war!”
Someone at the back started to laugh, and Blake felt the situation slipping out of his hands.
“They’re spies, sir! Lock ‘em up!” This was Private Gerrard’s Welsh voice.
“He’s got a bomb!”
“They don’t sound like Germans.”
“Maybe the Angels sent them!”
Kelsey was on to the remark like a flash. “Did you say Angels?”
“Be quiet.” Blake leveled his revolver. “Both of you will be confined under close watch until we find out who you really are.”
Blake waved to Corporal Ford, and the soldier advanced. “Wait,” said Kelsey. “You must listen to us! You need to see this machine, and see what it can do …”
“And I must insist.”
Blake had turned away to give his men orders but at the tone of the woman’s voice, he looked back. The woman had a gun. A Webley self-loading pistol, by the look of it.
It was unfair. Most of the time, Blake was fighting the weaknesses of his own body. Fighting the turmoil in his bowels, the urges of his bladder; constant activity, within and without, constant stimulation. There was never a moment when he could not think, not feel; the engines within him never allowed him rest. Suffragette, he thought, his mind furiously working out possible outcomes to the situation. I see. The woman was one of those Emily Pankhurst types.
“You are not confining me anywhere,” she said.
“Madam. Put the gun down.”
Blake could tell the men behind him tensing and getting ready to fire – but none of them, he was sure, would shoot a woman; Blake himself was revolted at the very idea. He caught himself doing what he always did when stressed – holding his breath. It was like shifting gears; quieting his emotions, keeping him within range of his own sanity.
“Please listen to us,” the woman said. “We are not spies, and we do not want to hurt anyone. We are here to help.”
Blake finally drew in some of the foul, smoky air. “My men will shoot you if I order them to.”
“Your men? You don’t seem to have many of them, Captain. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
The situation was insane. Of course, the whole bloody war was insane, so Blake shouldn’t have been surprised at anything.

It was October 1917, just outside Ypres.
For the last two months, home to Blake had been this elaborate trench network, a web of trench lines, concrete pillboxes, dugouts, firing bays, and underground tunnels. Over the parapets of the trenches, and between the Allied encampment and the Germans, lay a desolate muddy wasteland strewn with rain-filled craters and barbed wire. The Germans had their firing lines higher up on the Passchendaele Ridges, closer to Ypres and overlooking the Allied encampments.
For the last few weeks, it had been like toiling in a slaughterhouse.
Three days ago, on the twelfth of October, Blake and his squad had been part of the advance on Passchendaele. Amidst the chaos of the shelling, they had been cut off from the main battalion of the British Fifth Army, and forced down here, into the salient – a zig-zag maze of assembly trenches and dead-end saps perilously close to the German lines.
“Sir!” called Tate, on sentry duty. “Movement near the German lines.”
Blake shot a furious glance at the woman and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In a way, he was grateful for the interruption. He holstered his revolver, grabbed a pair of binoculars from the shelf next to the useless field telephone and climbed up the filthy rungs of the trench ladder.
He cautiously eased his head over the parapet and into the lookout hole, protected by sandbags and steel plating.

Around him in the cold darkness before the October dawn stretched a landscape of dislocation and dismemberment, a ravaged vista of splintered trees, flattened farmhouses, and craters full of stinking water. To the right, a few yards away, squatted the massive dark lozenge of the Landship in silhouette, the ironclad vessel that was now an injured giant of clogged caterpillar tracks and useless, seized-up gears. The bombardment from heavy artillery had stopped – no, paused, for nothing ever stopped in this godforsaken war, nothing ever ended, nothing was ever silent. Blake and his men were always surrounded by noise; the crack of the carbines, the moaning of the wounded.
He saw the first flickers of morning light through shadowed coils of barbed wire. Ripped fragments of flesh and uniform hung on the wire like quavers and notes on a page of sheet music. He could see, as well as hear, the music of the trenches; the shrieks and groaning, the bangs and cracks, the whistling and hissing – and with the crimson dawn would come the shells, like drums played by a berserk god of war.
A star-shell burst overhead, white trails showering down in jerky, swooping rhythms. They were to light targets for night-snipers, and Blake put down the binoculars hastily, wary of reflections. The star-burst trails fizzled to the ground.
He was still alive.
In the light of the flare, with his bare eyes he could make out running figures, carrying backpacks and holding rifles. Most likely a wire-cutting party, getting ready for the next bombardment and raid, running across the parapet with frenetic, marionette-like movement.
Then he saw it. The gas. Curling in from the east, a rolling cloud of thick, yellow-green smoke.
A movement to his right made him start, and he saw Kelsey, climbing up on the neighboring ladder. From somewhere he had got his own pair of binoculars – the woman with the gun, maybe, and he looked nervously at Blake.
“The Hun’s got a new secret weapon,” Blake hissed. “First it was those godawful flame-throwers, then mustard gas, and now this. It’s a poison gas that … eats people. Like acid. The gas attacks have kept us here, unable to get back to the reserves.”
“And the Angels he mentioned?”
“Be quiet. I think you’ll see for yourself.”
The hideous miasma rolled along the shattered landscape. The Germans tried to outrun it, but they were too slow. The mist enveloped them. They floundered, limbs waving, their twisted, mannered figures reeling through it, the sound of their screaming voices growing more and more distant, until they disappeared.
“You told me that’s a German secret weapon,” Kelsey said.
“Yes.”
“So why are they killing their own troops?”
Blake stared ahead, thinking. He had been wondering the same thing himself. “The wind must have changed.”
Kelsey gave a quizzical look.
“Now look. Over there.”
In No-Man’s Land, materializing at the heart of the swirling yellow cloud, was the figure that haunted Blake and his men. Shining metal, barely recognizable as a human shape. It seemed to be composed of metal surfaces, moving in small jerks, grouping together, then splitting apart and reforming, diminishing and enlarging, forming columns and lines. The armored apparition was surrounded by a brilliant glow that illuminated the churned-up mud.
“Good God,” Kelsey whispered. “Is that what you saw before?”
“Yes.”
The figure melted back into the cloud, and Blake felt his skin crawl as he saw the opaque mist churn faster, and shift direction.
“Captain, do you see that? It’s coming this way.”
“Yes. By God, it is. We found a concrete bunker back there, and or the last couple of days we’ve been holing up during these gas attacks. It’s a room we can make air-tight.”
“Excellent. Let’s go there!”
Blake turned his head and glared. “I am giving the orders, Dr. Kelsey,” he snapped.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you might also be interested in this book.

London, 1940: “The Elements of War”

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This forthcoming story is dedicated to my parents, Frederick William Catton and Florence Catton, and will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, from Excalibur Books, October 2013.

First, some background. A few years ago I wrote a story inspired by my parents’ wartime romance, entitled “The Man from Room 39”. Although it was published in “Fugue” magazine in 2010, I was kind of unhappy with it. I eventually realized that there was too much of my own brand of mysticism in it and not enough about my parents.
Therefore, I have taken the same starting point and totally reworked the story. Many details have been changed because of artistic license – my father didn’t work at St. Bart’s (he worked in a clinic in Russell Square) and my mother didn’t work in Smithfield (she was a district nurse in Willesden Green) but the heart of my parents’ experience – two people finding love amidst a city on the edge of total destruction – remains the same.

– J P Catton, June 16th, 2013.

THE ELEMENTS OF WAR
By John Paul Catton

Frankie was ten years old when his father told him about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Francis Wilfred Cooper was born in Norwich in 1914. His earliest childhood memory was watching the men come back from France after the War – and at that time, they had called it (without irony) the War to End all Wars. His childhood was golden; that was the color that came to mind when he remembered his youth – the sunlight, the buttercups and daffodils in the back garden, the fields of wheat that he used to cycle past on his way to school, the grassy banks that he used to roll down, getting his knees grazed and his short trousers muddy. Even the air itself seemed golden.
When he was ten years old his parents took him on a day trip to the British Museum in London. He stared up in awe at the colossal stone faces of Pharaohs with exotic names such as Amenhotep and Ramesses, unreadable weathered expressions in granite, limestone, and quartzite. He goggled at the dusty bas-reliefs of unearthly gods with their heads of birds, jackals and crocodiles, and frowned at the tantalizing hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.
“Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922,” his father had told him the day before they went to London, “and four months later, Carnavon died from a mysterious infection. By the end of 1924 six other members involved in the expedition had died. And some folks say …” Dad lowered his voice, rolling his eyes for effect. “Some do say it was the curse that did it, reaching out from the tombs of the dead …”
“Oh, give over,” his mother had chided. “You’ll scare the child.”
On the contrary, his father’s words, and the arcane masks of the ancient gods, sparked an obsession with Egyptian mythology that was to stay with Frankie for the rest of his life.
Not that Frankie said anything about that to the Medical Board when he applied to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
It was December 1940. Christmas in wartime. Holly and barbed wire. Tinsel around the rim of a tin hat. Sandbags around the church walls, and papier-mâché coffins down in the crypt.
Everyone used euphemisms and jokes to describe the Blitz because the reality was too horrific to contemplate. Every day, as Frankie cycled from his digs to St. Bart’s, he passed a fish and chip shop with wooden boards nailed up to replace the blown-out windows. Last week, there had been a hand-painted sign on the planks saying –
THANKS TO HITLER, CHIPS ARE LITTLER
This week the sign said –
BECAUSE OF HESS, THE FISH IS LESS
It made him Frankie chuckle, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? You had to laugh. Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d sit down and cry and never stop crying.

Frankie had a room in a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. These were the lodgings for the lab assistants, on Bury Street, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from the nurse’s homes and hospital wards that nestled in the city’s bosom, a few streets away from the mighty edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral itself. Frankie’s residence was a musty narrow room at the top of three flights of creaking wooden stairs, and it had damp in the winter and it never got enough sunlight, but to him it was paradise. Every time he swung himself onto the bed to put his feet up and stare out at the grey rooftops before he closed the blackout curtain, or listened to Tommy Handley (It’s That Man Again!) on the crackling crystal wireless, he had the same, inescapable feeling; this was where he was supposed to be.
Before the war, when Frankie met people they often asked him why had taken up a job as a pathologist’s assistant. “How can you stand it?” they asked, furrowing their brows. “Dealing with blood and death every day? Ooh, you poor dear.”
Frankie would just shrug the question off – “Well, someone’s got to do it!” – and then change the subject. Nobody wanted to hear the grisly details of what he actually did in the labs on a regular basis, and that suited Frankie fine. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
And then there was the War – and after that, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied for the Army, but he was in a reserved occupation. He was “doing his bit”, and “helping the War Effort”. Say no more.
At the end of 1939, many of the wards at St. Bart’s had been closed down for the duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients had been evacuated to the Home Counties. A hundred and thirty three medical staff remained at the three main hospital buildings in Smithfield. One of them was Frankie.
Although the number of staff had been reduced, the number of hospital beds kept on climbing. At the beginning of December there were over sixteen hundred, with each ward having at least sixty beds. The main task of the wards that remained open was to receive air-raid casualties. Only the lower floors were in use, and the windows had been fortified with sandbags and sticky tape.
Bomb blasts had already seriously damaged the Nurses’ Home on the east side, the student’s quarters and one of the operating theaters. The windows of the Pathology Block in Giltspur Street had been completely blown out.
The basements had been converted into makeshift mortuaries, where Frankie spent most of his time. It was impossible to get a hospital gurney down the stone steps, so Frankie and the others had to carry the dead down on stretchers. Not an easy job. Especially not on the evening shifts, when the blackout was on and the bombs were falling, and the orderlies had to step carefully over the big bags of coal stacked out in the yard because there was nowhere else to put them. One night Frankie was down in the dark, amongst the dead, on his own, when he heard a dry rustling and pattering, like something slithering its way down the steps towards him. Finally summoning the courage to go and look, he found a hole had been torn in one of the bags and the lumps of coal were rolling down the steps.
If caring for the injured was heartbreaking, then dealing with the dead was a nightmare. After a big explosion, there would be very little of a human body left. A direct hit from a five-hundred pound bomb would leave just fragments of flesh, gumboots, cloth, and mangled tin hats. Once, after a factory had been bombed, the ambulance crew came back with part of a man’s leg. That was all they could find, but Frankie tagged it straight away as the night watchman because the leg still had the braid from the trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains seemed impossible. Sometimes, when Frankie was in the mortuary and the other assistants moved quietly back and forth between the rows of the dead, it seemed to him that every wound had become a mouth. The ripped-open faces of the men, women and children were bloodied mouths stretched open, and all the pain and grief of their prematurely shortened lives was coming out in their endless, silent screams.
“I don’t know how you cope with it, old boy,” his family and friends said to him on the occasions when he had leave and went back to Norwich. “I don’t know how you stay sane.”
Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never, ever, told anyone the real reason of how he was able to cope.

In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways for most people to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on. The other was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to indulge in his passion for reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?” He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London polite society.
She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel, because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s and riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He had asked her for a dance, they had struck up a conversation, and then he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose except time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.”
Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.”
“That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out that those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see … Horace de Vere Cole fellow, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot, with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. Nobody twigged to what they were doing. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted “Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank though she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said breathlessly. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz visibly composed herself as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe that the Medical Board have come up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about that whale meat, eh? The butcher tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they weren’t rationed. One taste of them would make me wail, I can tell you.”
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve going to ask Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream, and no Queen’s Pudding.”
“Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he offered. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“With Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?” She laughed, and he laughed with her. “Frank, you are a scream. Now go on with you, we both have to get back to work.”
After waving Liz off on her bicycle and turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present, the good one, wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her something nice, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage.
The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.

On a whim, Frankie took a left turn. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they had taken long weekly walks on Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he had met Liz, he had regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for?
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk had been magnetized and he was a tiny mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a park bench, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his Liz’s dazzling smile, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches left untouched after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air deeply, looked up at the sky, around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he had taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant.
But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.

Frankie stood in the Egyptian desert once more, and he knew that he was dreaming, and he knew that he had dreamed this many times before.
He could smell and almost taste the dry heat and the mummy dust on the wind. The sun glared, flooding the landscape with a miraculous light.
In the distance he could see a maw in the dunes, the entrance to a tunnel leading down beneath the sand. Frankie ran towards it in a loping, easy gait, bounding high into the air on each step. Everything was effortless in his dreams. He felt the warmth of the sun gave way to shaded cool as he entered the tomb. For he knew what it was; a tomb.
He reached out to touch the crumbling faceless statues that lined the tunnel, but their limbs had the dreamlike feel of glass beneath his fingers. A dim light shone in the darkness ahead and he grew aware of the pungent and almost overwhelming smell of incense.
One room was lit at each moment, the next room was dark but prepared. He walked from one to another, looked into the chamber that was lit, and then walked through it to the next, the chamber falling dark behind him. He did not know the rooms ahead, but he knew that he could not change them. He was the spectator of his own life, his own dreams.
Eventually he came out into a vast cavern, lined with massive statues, seated figures like the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Their heads were not human, but jackals, hawks, crocodiles, and scarab beetles.
The statue nearest to him turned its jackal head towards him, the grinding sound of stone breaking the cold, incense-laden silence.
-I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, the statue whispered, and in the core of every star.
Frankie felt the words bubble up in his mind and opened his mouth to let them out.
-I am Life, and the Giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death, he replied.

TO BE CONTINUED, IN “THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO”…

If you enjoyed this story, you might also be interested in this book.

Venice, 1937: “City of Reflections”

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This is an excerpt from a story that will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, an anthology from Excalibur Books, to be released Summer 2013. Enjoy!

Venice, he had always thought, was a city of reflections. Facades, basilicas, domes and towers – all pondering their appearance in the waters into which they would one day sink. If you wish to know what is above, then look below.
He turned away from the view across the canal, tightening his collar against the February chill. His gloved hands reached up to adjust the white bautta mask beneath his tricorn hat, smoothed the silk hood and the full-length cloak he wore. He stepped onto the bridge to cross to his destination.
As he walked up the steps slick with vapours from the mist, his path was illuminated by the fireworks in the South, the great pyrotechnic display in Piazza San Marco that marked the 1937 Carnevale di Venezia. He wove his way carefully through the drunken revellers that swept past him up and down the bridge. Arlecchino, Zanni and Pulcinella waved to him with bottles of wine. Casanovas strutted with cloaks covered in vermillion stars and trimmed with fleur-de-lys. Women with the faces of foxes, cats and birds beneath elaborate feathered head-dresses screeched with laughter, clutching at his arm, offering him their mouths. He walked on.
He stepped off the bridge and noticed a figure advancing from the shadows to his right. Its face was a cruel, horned mask, a long curved beak in place of a nose and mouth: the face of the Dottor della Peste – the Plague Doctor. In ancient times, the physicians of Venice wore such a mask for protection, the beak stuffed with cotton wool and herbs to guard against pestilence.
The Plague Doctor stared at the other man silently from the two round, milky white eye-holes above the beak, a black cartwheel hat upon its head, one gloved hand upon a black and gold cane. He made a certain ritual gesture with the fingers of his left hand. The Plague Doctor nodded slowly in recognition, and then retreated into the fog.

His silent, masked figure drifted through the mist, past the mobs of revelers in similar disguise, nobles and commoners together in anonymous riot. From the Rio Terra Leonardo he turned down a side street into a labyrinth of ruinous alleyways, passing beneath pots hung from wrought iron balconies, past rude shuttered casements set in decaying brick. The revelers grew fewer and the sounds of hilarity grew faint. This was the older part of Venice – where the ancient, sombre domain of the shadows of history was seldom disturbed.
In time he came to a marble and terracotta arch flanked by two grotesquely carved heads; this was his destination –the Calle degli Spiriti. He passed under the arch into a tiny enclosed square, at its centre an ancient well with a pointed shield carved on its side. To his right was the residence he sought. He stepped forward and lifted the brass handle, striking firmly four times upon the rugged oak door.
The face of the man who opened it did not look like the typical Pantalone. He had keen eyes set in a round, bucolic face that regarded his visitor with a knowing smile. He wore the earth-coloured pants and cardigan of the artisan, badged with stains where nameless fluids had splashed against them.
“Sir Andrew Boyd,” declared Professor Danilov. “Do come inside.”
“Are you so sure I’m Sir Andrew, under this mask?”
Danilov smiled an unflattering, lop-sided smile. “I’ve been watching you since you arrived in Venice, Sir Andrew. I have sensed your approach. In fact, the only reason you are able to step over this threshold now is that I have invited you here, and have relaxed the . . . special . . . defenses around this house.”
“Yes, I was informed that you were rather on the cautious side.”
In the warmth of the parlour, Sir Andrew lifted off his mask and showed Danilov his face for the first time. With the Professor’s help, he peeled off his mantle and floor-length cloak, and stepped through into the front room.
The room glowed warmly with brown and buttery yellow hues, lit by the gently crackling logs in the fireplace. Oriental rugs lay on the darkwood floor, tall candles flickered on the tables in front of the curtained windows. Reflections of the smoky light played upon the glass bowls atop the shelves, the gold leaf gilding the fireplace, the burnished copper of the curiously shaped scientific instruments along the back wall.
“I have no servants here,” Danilov explained, crossing to the dresser and removing a decanter and glasses. “I cannot take any chances.”
“Your concern for security is legendary, Professor. As are the unusual nature of your ideas.”
“I prefer the word . . . innovative.” Danilov handed a glass of brandy to Sir Andrew, then stood to attention, and raised his glass. “Heil Hitler.”
Sir Andrew returned the salute. “Heil Hitler.”
The brandy went down like liquid fire laced with unknown herbs. Danilov smacked his lips and turned towards a shelf where a collection of records sat under a lace-edged cloth, to protect them from dust.
“You’re not going to treat me to Wagner, Herr Professor?”
“You needn’t worry about that. Under the circumstances, I thought Holst was more appropriate. The Planet Suite.” He held up the record sleeve and beamed his lop-sided smile again. “Saturn.”
“As you wish.”

TO BE CONTINUED! FOR MORE ALTERNATIVE HISTORY SF, CHECK OUT “THE INVENTION OF GOD”, ALSO ON THIS SITE.

“The Invention of God”: Part Two

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THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM A STORY TO BE PUBLISHED THIS SUMMER IN “FEAR OF WORDS”, FROM EXCALIBUR BOOKS. FOR PART 1, SCROLL DOWN.

From Brookwood cemetery, a horse-pulled carriage with shuttered windows took Gregory out into the countryside, as he could tell from the freshening of the air, and the chirping of the birds. When they pulled to a stop, the door opened, and he stepped down into the chill of the winter dusk.
He stood at the end of a road that led to a canal lock. Before him, an old stone bridge led away to more fields and trees, and a narrowboat lay moored to a towpath a few yards away.
Someone waited for him. A barrel-shaped man almost as tall as Gregory, with a florid face adorned by a luxurious mustache and mutton chops, a brown bowler crammed tightly on his large head. An enormous great coat encompassed his bulk, but Gregory could tell that the weight on his frame was not obesity, but muscle.
“Perishing cold day, sir,” said the man. “This ain’t the time of year to be without a coat and hat! The name is Voss. Lady Padbury has asked me to take care of you for a while.”
“That’s very … considerate of her.”
“Allow me to escort you to the safe house, sir.”
“Where is it?”
“Why, it’s just over there.”
Gregory followed the man’s pointing finger and stared at the narrowboat.
“That’s not a house.”
“Well, the idea is, sir, to keep you moving around, so we’re going to be cruising the Oxford Canal for a while. It’ll make it harder to anyone to track you down.”
“Ridiculous! I tell you I’m not using that old, smelly, primitive –“
Voss moved in closer, his voice low and threatening. “Don’t be more of a donkey’s arse than you have to be, sir. Just get in the boat.”
Gregory got in the boat.

The drably colored narrowboat – called the Jolly Boatman, as Gregory could see from the peeling paint along the hull – was a long one, perhaps seventy feet from prow to stern. Gregory gingerly climbed on board and went down the steps into the main cabin – a long space dominated by a circular table and chairs, with more chairs along the sides of the hull. He could see down a corridor almost the length of the ship; his view was blocked on one side by a heavy velvet curtain but on the left, he saw through to a galley, past the cabin where the bunks obviously were. The floor hummed beneath his feet with the power of the steam turbine in the stern, ready to get the vessel on its way. The interior smelt strongly of leather and pipe tobacco; the ceiling sloped from door to window to match the roof above, meaning that he had to stoop while moving around. The floor was plain wooden boards covered with Persian rugs. The decoration was minimum, but it did have one feature that Gregory approved of; a reproduction of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden hanging on the port side bulkhead.
As Gregory stood looking disparagingly around him, at the cabin and at the other members of the crew as they prepared to cast off, he became aware of Voss lingering at his side.
“Do you mind if I ask you, sir, why are the Turks trying so hard to tip you over?”
“What? Oh … I see. Last year I held a séance where I contacted one of their recently deceased military officers, General Omar Pasha. From him, I learned the plans for the Ottoman Empire’s Sevastapol campaign, and passed them to Lady Padbury. The Ottoman agents have orders to abduct me to Turkey, to force me to use my abilities for them – and if that’s impossible, then they’ll just kill me.”
“To stop you talking to any more big-wigs who’ve coiled up their ropes. By Jove, sir, that’s a rum do.”
Voss tapped out his pipe on the fire grate with a harsh clanging sound. “Well, rest easy, sir. The enemy won’t find you here.”
“But what if they do?” Gregory snapped. “What are you going to do, choke them with your pipe smoke? Or just bore them to death?”
Voss winked, and the gesture seemed to involve the entire left side of his face. “Keep your hair on, Mr. Gregory. We’ll make sure your peace is not disturbed.”

And so, they fell into an uneasy routine. As the Jolly Boatman took them chugging along past fields and hamlets on their way to Banbury, they went to bed early, rose early, and went for long, bracing walks along the countryside near the canal. They watched the goshawks wheeling overhead – real ones this time, not mechanical. They smelt the woodsmoke, the dry bracken and lavender, the smell of wet barley from the nearby breweries; they listened to the sound of chopping wood and chattering looms from the red brick and thatched reed houses in the nearby villages. Voss pointed out the flowers and berries that were safe to eat, told Gregory how to make a camouflaged shelter out of dead branches and moss, and other things necessary for survival in the wild, if the worst came to the worst. In the evening, Gregory dined on meat pies with thick pastry, hocks of lamb, fillets of freshly caught salmon, with vegetables and fruit to build up his strength.
At night, Gregory lay on his bunk inside a solitary cramped cubicle, staring at a Daguerrotype that he kept in his wallet during the day, and attached to the wall by his pillow at night. A faded picture of a young lady, smiling, holding a child, a girl, who could not have been more than two years old.
One day, he kept thinking. One day, I promise you.
And he lay awake, his eyes smarting with tears, the last of the opium sweats racking his body, listening to the hooting of the owls and the screaming of the foxes outside, until his exhausted brain claimed defeat.

On the fourth night, the Jolly Boatman took them through the winding series of locks and cuttings in the Cherwell valley. The cabin crew and their reluctant passenger sat in front of the wood-burning stove, smoking their pipes and drinking port wine after a meal of kidney pie and potatoes, when Mr. Voss announced that he had received a telegram earlier in the afternoon.
“Seems like Mr. Lentz is losing his patience,” he said. “He’s coming here for a seance tomorrow evening. Lady Padbury asks you to be ready, so for your sake, sir, I hope you will be.”
Gregory looked cooly back at his protector. “You don’t like me, do you, Mr. Voss?”
“It’s not my place to like or dislike, sir. You’re a job. A piece of work. Sometimes I’m paid to keep people from harm, and sometimes I’m paid to put them … in harm’s way, if you catch my drift. You, Mr. Gregory, I’m supposed to nanny you. And what for, I might ask?”
Gregory’s eyebrows went up. “Queen and country?”
Voss snorted. “Lady Padbury says you’re a talented man. She also says that sometimes, you’re an impossible man.”
“You can tell Lady Padbury, when you send your little men to the telegraphist, that I shall indeed be ready for tomorrow evening.”
Voss nodded. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I don’t see how I can stop you.”
Voss leant back in his seat, peering closely at the other man. “Well, it’s just I never really went for all this Spiritualist lark, you know. All this table-tapping and chair-thumping malarkey. I’m a practical man, sir, I’m concerned with what I can see and touch, and to me, I think of mediums a bit like drawing-room entertainers. When the nobs want a a thrill, they hire a tenor, a fiddler, or a medium.”
He leant forward again. “So what’s it like, sir? The spirit voices? The visions?”
Gregory stared at him for a long time. “It is a gift from the Almighty,” he said eventually, “and also a curse. It is my mission in life to see, and to communicate with, the souls who have gone before us on the Great Journey; and I bring back messages of hope and comfort to those of us who one day will follow.”
“At ten guineas a pop,” came a sour voice from the galley.
“Get on with your work, Kilby, there’s a good chap!” yelled Voss. Resuming his expansive mood, Voss gestured with his pipe. “I would like to know, sir, how exactly you are going to pull this off. I mean, if you’re on the level, and you can actually parley with … the deceased … then how are you going to reach this Murray Spear cove? Where in Heaven or Hell are you going to look for him?”
“Not in Heaven, Mr. Voss, and not in Hell.” Gregory stood, and collected some chart paper, ink and quills from the sideboard. “Let me explain.”
He seated himself and drew a circle on the paper with a wide sweep of the quill. Within that circle, he carefully drew a number of smaller ones.
“Try to think of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo as a number of geometric spheres,” he said, “spheres that are orbiting around God in the Empyrean, but at the same time all existing in the same space. To enter the spheres, or to cross between the spheres, there is no physical traveling; it is a matter of ascending or descending to a different level of existence. The most difficult to navigate is Hell, but the hardest to contemplate – for a human intelligence – is the realm of heaven. It is ‘a hyperspace that exists in four dimensions’, as my spirit guide once described it to me.”
Voss breathed in deeply. “I didn’t understand a word of that, sir, but I’ll let it pass. In which part of this four-dimensional thingummibob do you intend to find old Spear, then?”
Gregory drained his brandy glass, and waited while Voss refilled it.
“Lentz admitted that Spear was a nonconformist, which means, I presume, he is in Limbo. It is the first and outermost circle of Hell, known in the Spiritualist world as the Gardens of Melancholy; reserved for heretics, virtuous heathens, and unbaptized children who died without the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They do not suffer torments but live forever without hope, or the possibility of salvation, which some say is the worst torment of all. They essentially do what they did when they were alive, without the distractions of sleep or eating.”
Voss shrugged. “Doesn’t sound such a bad place.”
“It depends on your level of faith.” He took a sip of brandy. “When I … travel … in my state of trance, I work with a guide. A personage who once lived on this earth, but has moved on to a spiritual plane higher than ours. This guide, I trust, will take me to where Spear is in the Gardens of Melancholy.”
“Amazing,” said Voss with a loud guffaw. “I can see now why Lady Padbury wanted you back. I don’t know why you ever left.”
Gregory leaned across the table, the brandy flaring up inside him. “Would you like me to tell you, Mr. Voss?”
He pushed the chart paper towards the other man. “I resigned because to Lady Padbury and her ilk, life and death are simply matters of geography. Heaven and Hell are locations in space, which the British Empire intends to explore, map, colonize, and eventually – conquer. Just as it’s done with the Far East and darkest Africa. Their ultimate aim is the construction of a craft that can carry living souls into the world beyond the veil. And do you believe they will not be carrying weapons? Guns? Rifles? Explosive charges?”
His force spent, Gregory slumped back in his chair. Voss was silent for along time, his gregarious mood suddenly vanished.
“In that case there’s something I should tell you, sir,” he said at length. “I’ve been on to my contacts at the Mundaneum. They informed me that old Father Spear and his flock were getting up to some … queer business.”
“What do you mean?”
Voss shook his head, the mutton chops turning his head leonine in the gaslight. “I don’t rightly know, but apparently Spear and his little group renamed themselves the Company of Electricizers when they left the Universalist Church, and they were working on … well, something not very Christian, sir. Rumor has it they were worshipping something they called the ‘Living Motor’, and their messiah was just about to materialize here on Earth.”
Gregory swirled the brandy in his glass, staring into its depths.
“I think I should go and prepare myself for tomorrow night,” he said quietly. “But before I do, could I ask you a question in return?”
“Ask away, sir.”
“What is behind the curtain?”
Voss drew his eyebrows together. “Why, you’ve just told me, sir. The mysteries of Heaven and Hell and the four-dimensional wotsisname.”
“No.” Gregory pointed to the velvet cloth hung at the far end of the cabin. “I mean, what is behind that curtain?”
“Oh.” Voss turned to look, and then threw back his head and laughed, his jowls shaking with perplexed mirth. “Oh, that curtain? Never you mind, sir. Nothing you need concern yourself with. That curtain, you mean. Oh, my stars and garters!”

TO BE CONTINUED …

London, 1858: “The Invention of God”

3

EXCERPT

They lifted him out of his opium dreams and carried him down into the smoke of Hell – which was, he eventually realized through his struggling and sweats of terror, a private compartment of the District line moving out of Limehouse beneath east London. The wood and glass doors were tightly closed, but the vapors of sulfur, coal fumes, oil lamps, and tobacco from the pipes of the second-class passengers seeped through and stained the air. He was held down by two muscular servants in frock coats and silk cravats, who kept him from escaping, but even so mopped his brow and kept him from yanking open the door and hurling himself onto the tracks outside to escape his misery. Through his delirium, he realized they were under instructions to keep him in one piece; in that case, they were obviously not the Turks.
By the time they had arrived at Hyde Park Corner Station, he had recovered some sense of gentlemanly decorum. They forced some vile-smelling salts under his nose; that chased the last of the phantoms away, and he almost felt human.
They frog-marched him out of the gateway and across the street, to the coarse laughter of the flower-sellers and thimble-riggers behind their wooden stalls. “Our friend had quite a night of it,” one of his bodyguards said to everyone in general, tipping his hat. “Not too steady on his pins.”
The cold of the February afternoon prickled his skin and reinvigorated his senses. He blinked the tears out of his eyes, took in deep breaths of air laced with stink from the nearby Thames, feet plodding in mechanical fashion as he was half-carried by his burly companions. He realized where they were taking him. Tall iron gates loomed up ahead; the Crystal Palace.
He twisted around in their strong grip and tried to dig in his heels. “Tell me honestly, sirs,” he croaked in his rusty voice, “Am I in any danger?”
A broad, mustached face stared into his and winked. “Not much, Mr. Gregory.”
The Crystal Palace stood at the heart of the British Empire, a heart constructed of glass and iron and filled with air and light. The crowning glory of Victorian engineering, over three times the size of Westminster Abbey. Almost a million square feet constructed over the space of a few months, with nine hundred thousand square feet of glass hung supported by thousands of cast-iron girders and pillars. John Gregory and his attendants entered the Hyde Park South gateway, and walked at a steady pace through the colossal structure toward the giant elm tree in the center of the complex, a tree that stretched up towards a vaulted roof seventy feet high. A rattling and whirring above made him look up; in the daylight-filled rafters, a pair of mechanical sparrow-hawks glided, hunting for the sparrows, thrushes and pigeons that had infested the galleries.
Gregory’s bodyguards sat him down at a metalwork chair and circular table at an open-air café. At this time of the afternoon, it had just opened, and there were only a few customers; he now realized how cleverly the meeting place had been chosen. It was private enough to have a confidential talk, but public enough to give Mr. Gregory a feeling of security.
Not a false sense of security, he hoped.
The bodyguards even gave him a comb, so Mr. Gregory could straighten his short, sandy hair and his straggling mustache. He now became fully aware of his appearance; his cravat had gone missing somewhere in the opium den, but his black frock coat and trousers did not seem to be too stained or dusty. He fastened his collar and volubly coughed, taking in more of his surroundings.
Walking through the cafe towards his table at a sedate pace, with an entourage of statuesque men and woman following, was a figure he noted with resigned recognition. Of course. It had to be her.
She came closer, her eyes fixed upon Gregory. She wore a pale blue Battenberg city gown and touring hat, and carried a furled, carnation-colored parasol and matching lace fan. Her face was delicate, compact and fringed with immaculately coiffured, reddish-gold hair.
Lady Florence Padbury, the head of Imperial Counter-Intelligence, seated herself in genteel fashion at his table. “Mr. Gregory,” she said, “let’s try to behave like the ladies and gentlemen we are reputed to be.”
He breathed in deeply and attempted to match her confidence. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“First, there is something I wish you to see.” She waved a kid-gloved hand at the massive stone slab that dominated the cafe, fringed by ferns and palm leaves on either side.
“This is Mr. Garfield’s new memorial, that portrays the great automobile race of 1845. It fascinates me. You see the bas-relief of the Cugnot automobile’s steam turbine viewed from the front, and behind it, the mufflers and goggles of the driver and navigator. Carved in stone. Does it not seem dreadfully absurd, Mr. Gregory? Does it not seem a contradiction in terms?”
“I do wish you would get to the point,” Gregory said with a cough.
“A stone automobile, sir, that is my point. It is a logical contradiction. Marble is cold, brittle, silent, mineral. Automobiles are fast, noisy, warm, metallic.”
“The world is full of statues of the human form.”
“True, but we have had hundreds of years of becoming used to the convention of human sculpture. We do not find it queer to see a stone human figure and expect it to move and walk.”
Gregory indicated the swarthy fellows standing behind him. “Oh, I don’t know. Your bodyguards are doing a pretty good job.”
“And there’s always the tale of Don Giovanni, ma’am,” one of the bodyguards added with slight bow.
Lady Padbury tapped the spike of her parasol on the flagstones. “We need a new way of seeing, Mr. Gregory. A new way of expressing this world of metal, of steam, of speed, of power. When I was a child, I remember my tutor showing me the daguerreotypes taken by Mr. Danelek from his hot-air balloon. The farms and the factories, the forests and the aqueducts. It was like looking at a completely new world. Soon construction will be finished on the Blackpool Tower, and this new world view will be available to all.”
“Unless the French beat you to it, with that replica they’re planning.”
Lady Padbury smiled.
At this point, a nervous waiter drew near and placed afternoon tea upon the filagreed ironwork of the table; scones, wafers, almond and vanilla slices, and crustless sandwiches cut into triangles. The waiter gave a nervous glance at the smiling men behind Gregory, bowed, and beat a hasty retreat.
“You should eat something, Mr. Gregory. You need to keep body and soul together.”
There was silence while Lady Padbury daintily poured tea into two china cups and applied marmalade and clotted cream to the scones.
“We have been very worried about you, Mr. Gregory,” she continued eventually. “ You could have let us know where you were … or simply that you were still alive.”
His stomach groaned and his nausea ebbed and flowed. He tried to restrain himself from cramming the tiny sandwiches into his mouth.
“I have a proposition for you.”
“With respect, Lady Padbury, I am not interested in the slightest.”
“I assure you, Mr. Gregory, you will not be spending weeks being poked and prodded by physicians or engineers.” She raised a gloved hand. “There is someone I would like you to meet.”
At her gesture, a member of the entourage stepped forward. Gregory noted that the tall, wide-chested newcomer wore a black three-piece suit of a cut and material that he wasn’t familiar with, and held himself very straight. His skin was leathery and brown contrasted with the white and black of his tombstone shirt and cravat, as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors. He doffed his felt derby hat and bowed deeply, displaying his unfashionably long hair.
“May I present Mr. Alexander Lentz, of the Universalist Church of Massachusetts,” Lady Padbury announced.
“At your service,” Lentz said with a broad Colonial twang.
“Good Lord,” muttered Gregory.
Lentz picked up the remark at once, and with no trace of irony. “Yes, He is, is He not?”
Gregory snorted with mirthless laughter. “You are indeed a long way from home, sir.”
The Colonial seated himself next to Gregory, his smile intensifying. He seemed about five-and-thirty, perhaps the same age as Gregory himself; his features were finely-chiseled and handsome. “Mr. Lentz has a very interesting story to tell,” Lady Padbury said.
With a strange gleam in his eye, Lentz launched into his tale. “I belong to a small sub-group of the Universalist Church, based in the city of Lynn, Massachusetts,” Lentz began. His voice was deep and mellifluous, Gregory noted; at least it was easy on the ears. He just hoped that he hoped that the frights of opium withdrawal would not return, and paint the man’s face with horns, huge bulging eyes, or similar phantasms.
Lentz produced a daguerreotype from his waistcoat pocket and laid it on the table. The image was of a middle-aged man dressed in severe clerical style, who in profile showed a thoughtful, and somehow noble aspect.
“Our division of the church was led by a man named John Murray Spear. A great, benevolent, and principled man. He was a reformist; his views on slavery, suffrage and temperance were considerably ahead of their time. He even operated a branch of the Underground Railroad, helping renegade slaves escape to Canada.”
“You are using the past tense, sir.”
“Yes, you are guessing what I am about to say. But hear me out, sir. Seven years ago Mr. Spear received a visitation from the Holy Spirit that revealed his powers as a trance medium, and he converted to Spiritualism. He consulted with the Fox sisters and Daniel Dunglas Home, and founded the church that I am proud to be a member of. The spirits guided him – and us – to towns where he cured the sick with the laying on of hands. In trances, he spoke to the spirits of Swedenborg, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and divulged to us messages of hope and salvation, from beyond the veil.”
Gregory sighed. “So where did it all go wrong, Mr. Lentz? Because if it had not, you would not be talking to me.””
Lentz took a sip of tea to moisten his throat.
“Spear was given a vision of a great machine. An invention like no other; a conception that, if realized, could transform the world in the way that the steam engine has.”
“In his trance, Spear was given the knowledge of how to broadcast electrical power by radio waves,” Lady Padbury interjected. “This is the information Mr. Lentz has brought to Her Majesty’s court.”
Gregory could not stop himself guffawing; a short, mirthless bark. “It’s fantasy. We’ve got a few water wheels up and down the country that can light arc lamps, but sending electrical currents through the ether? You insult my intelligence, sir.”
“Be patient, good sir. Last year, we moved the Church to the town of Randolph, in New York, where we began our experiments. Spear received the plans for the mechanism in his trances, and we purchased supplies, and began construction … and then the tragedy struck. A hysterical, misinformed mob broke into the church, smashed the machinery, and destroyed the plans.”
Lentz came to a halt, his countenance visibly upset.
“And Mr. Spear?” Gregory prompted.
A strange, distant look came into the Colonial’s eyes. “The father of our church was killed. Trampled by an ignorant, hate-filled crowd.”
Gregory stared. He noticed for the first time that beneath Lentz’s long hair, at the point where the top of his ear joined the hairline, there was a fine crosshatching of delicate white scars.
“Mr. Lentz was sent here as a delegation of the Church,” Lady Padbury added. “Naturally enough, they felt they had been shamefully treated by their own countrymen. They offered the secret of broadcast electricity to the Church of England, and the British Empire … and just think, Mr. Gregory! Think of the potential!”
Gregory leant forward, keeping his voice low. “I understand that you want to see your leader again, Mr. Lentz, but this cannot be done.”
“Yes, it can.” Lentz seemed to recover his wits, and spoke in a blunt, matter-of-fact voice. “You just have to go far enough in to reach him.”
Mr. Gregory shook his head. “Not possible.”
“Lady Padbury gives me to believe that you were, at one point, the finest Spiritualist medium in the British Empire, and you have done this many times before.”
“Look at me. I’m a wash-out, a discarded rag. Do you really think I can do it again?”
Lady Padbury tapped the point of her parasol sharply upon the flagstones. “Her Majesty’s Government is not giving you a choice, Mr. Gregory.”

*

The Cugnot waited at the entrance to Hyde Park, hissing contentedly. It was the larger version, the variety that seated up to six within its chocolate-brown wood and brass carriage, the barrel-shaped high-intensity coal turbine at the front. Mr. Gregory had always thought it amusing that these automobiles were decorated by a brass horse’s head above the bonnet. An unnecessary, but somehow very British form of ornamentation.
The assassin was also waiting.
He looked like the typical bon vivant, with his satin-trimmed coat, highland trousers and silk puff tie. He sauntered towards the Cugnot as if he was simply out taking the air, and as the bodyguards scowled at him, he doffed his John Bull top hat in a friendly manner and raised his silver-headed cane.
Lady Padbury was even faster than the bodyguards. Before they could throw their bulk in front of her, she had snapped her parasol open and held it up before herself, Gregory and Lentz. Gregory heard the ziiippp! as the spring-fired poison dart sliced through the air and embedded itself in the parasol.
The bodyguards swarmed upon the assassin, wrestling him to the ground beneath a heap of worsted, wool and leather, while Gregory, Lentz and Lady Padbury were politely but firmly bundled into the carriage, three valets accompanying them. The engine hissed and spat, and the Cugnot pulled away from the curb at the breakneck speed of thirty miles per hour.
Inside the carriage, Lady Padbury fussed and smoothed her garments down. “Well, really. I must invest in new bodyguards.” She held up the remnant of the steel dart between her gloved fingers. “And a new parasol; this one’s got a hole in it.”
Mr. Gregory was looking out of the window, back at the struggling human knot on the pavement. “It’s no use, you know. He’ll have one of those cyanide pills that the Turks give all their agents.”
He turned away and sat back. He noticed that Lentz seemed curiously unconcerned at what had just happened. While talking about the father of his church, he had been moved to tears. But for his own personal safety …?
“The Lord hath a task for each or us, and it is vanity to speculate upon its nature,” Lentz said at length.
Gregory scowled. “Is it vanity to speculate whether the Lord will get my gentlemanly posterior out of this mess?”
Lady Padbury leaned forward, her violet eyes twinkling. “Her Majesty’s Government will, Mr. Gregory. Although your task may be arduous, and the secrecy of its nature means that none shall know of your achievement except the Lord, Mr. Lentz, and the agents of Queen Victoria, rest assured – that will be sufficient.”
Gregory could not resist smiling. “Very well,” he said, nodding assent.

*

His confidence was short-lived, however, as he saw through the windows the looming destination of the Cugnot.
“Waterloo Bridge Station?” Mr. Gregory cried. “What the blazes do you think you’re doing? Every station and locomotive in London is going to be crawling with enemy agents. It’s why I went to ground in Limehouse in the first place.”
“We are not entering the station,” Lady Padbury said smoothly, as the Cugnot puffed its way past the Victory Arch, “and we are not taking a train. Not a public train, at least.”
They turned a corner and made their way down a small, quiet road leading around the back of the main station. A gloom fell upon the carriage interior as they entered a vast, echoing shed ribbed with iron girders and walkways. On either side sleek black locomotives waited, their polished metal and brass glowing warmly in the gaslight. Huge ornamental clocks suspended from the rafters measured out departure times in regimented seconds.
The Cugnot pulled up outside one locomotive and halted, bubbling quietly to itself. Gregory dismounted with the others, his boot steps echoing in the vast interior, his breath frosting slightly in the chill. He glared at the copper-plated inscription upon the locomotive’s door.
“But this is …”
Lady Padbury was clearly enjoying this. “Yes, Mr. Gregory, this is the Necropolis Line. An express journey from Waterloo Necropolis Station to the metropolitan cemetery at Brookwood. The driver is one of my finest men, and our agents will collect you at Brookwood and escort you to the safe house. So, you see, there is nobody to witness your escape from London, Mr. Gregory. Nobody among the living, that is.”
At her gesture, he climbed aboard the train and entered the carriage. Inside, coffins were arranged in smart rows leading away into a hushed, murky darkness, the papered walls of the carriage lit softly by gas-burners.
In front of him, one coffin lay with its lid swung open.
“You cannot be serious.”
“What do you have to fear, Mr. Gregory? Surely, as a Spiritualist, you are familiar with the dead?”
“I do not particularly wish to travel with them,” he muttered. “At least, not just yet.”
He looked down at the coffin, with its smooth walnut lid and red satin-lined interior. Lifting his legs, he climbed inside, and lay down. He stared up at the faces of Lady Padbury, Mr. Lentz, and the bodyguards, smiling in sympathy.
“Things could be worse,” said Lady Padbury. “We could have put you with the coffins in Second Class.”
The lid swung down, and Mr. Gregory lay flat, encased in darkness.

TO BE CONTINUED …

“Moonlight, Murder & Machinery” – Sample Chapter

0

Dr. Hall blinked furiously, trying to clear his vision. He became aware of his own body – he was sitting on the cold stone floor, his back against a pillar, one leg crooked painfully beneath the other.A white circle dabbed with black bobs swam in front of him, then began to resolve into a face …
But not a human face. Surely the face of a statue, a grotesque sculpture – a death mask …
And then the face opened its mouth and spoke. Dr. Hall could not help himself; he screamed in sheer terror.
“Forgive the rudeness of my entrance, sir,” continued the soft voice,“and permit me to introduce myself.”
The Dean lowered his shaking fingers, daring to look at the four nightmarish figures standing over him. Surely they were not human; they were specters from the delirious visions of Archbishop Blake, fallen angels from Milton’s Paradise Lost come to gloat over human frailty.
The figure who had spoken stood in front of him in a long riding coat of olive green. His face was pale and slender, but thick black goggles covered his eyes, and his shaven scalp was crowned with an extraordinary affair of wire tendrils in place of hair, that were beaded with tiny round pellets of metal. Hall could see the livid red scars around the skullcap over his head, and realized with a sick feeling that the device was bolted onto the man’s skull.
Equally astonishing was that one of the attackers with him was a woman. She wore a drab workmaid’s dress and bonnet, and stared at Hall with undisguised hatred. Her features, Hall noticed in his confusion, could almost be attractive – if not for the pockmarks scarring the left side of her face, the relics of an old, nameless disease.
Just behind this woman stood a freakish individual whose entire head was enclosed within a wooden box, three glass lenses jutting out of the front. A huge, billowing cloak concealed the rest of his body, except for two painfully thin legs and the sharp metal tip of some kind of walking stick.
But the most uncommonly dreadful figure of all stood in front of the chapel’s Apprentice Pillar. It towered above its three comrades, almost seven feet tall, encased in a leather and plate metal suit that recalled the armor of the ancient knights. Its head was a bulbous, reddish iron globe with a grill in its centre – and behind the metal bars, Hall could make out a pair of human eyes, glitter- ing with unmistakable suffering and rage.
Hall tried to speak, but only croaking noises came from his throat.
“He’s thinking of Paradise Lost.” Although it was the young woman who spoke, the voice was of someone much older – the scratchy, creaking voice of an old crone.
“That’s a good one!” said the wire-headed man.“That poem is one of my favorites. But actually, sir, we are not angels, we are not devils …”
He leant down and grabbed the Dean’s chin.
“But we are not exactly men and women. Not any more.” He pulled the Dean to his feet. Hall coughed, almost doubling up in pain. When he lifted his hand to his mouth, it came away dabbed with fresh, bright blood.
“What are you?” he managed to utter.
The creature gazed at Hall with his twin black lenses, and a thin smile flickered across his lips.“I am one despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” he sighed.When he spoke, the thin strands of metal shook with the slight movements of his head.
Hall immediately recognized the quotation: Isaiah 53:3.“You are soiling the good word of the Scriptures,” he said, with effort. The thing grimaced and shrugged. “Well, let me put it in other words. I am not simply a man of sorrows. I have renounced my former name and titled myself the Squire of Sorrows, your Grace. I am so well acquainted with the pain of the world, not simply suffering it …” he looked down at Hall and leered,“but also giving it.”
“What are you doing here? Why this violence?”
The Squire waved an arm to indicate the chapel around them. “We have been sent, your Grace, to take that which has been buried here for centuries. For now, you see, the time has come for that treasure to see the cold light of day.The bold cold light of day.”
“Never!” Hall cried.“I’ll never tell you where it is.”
The Squire began to laugh. “Tell us? My dear sir, you won’t have to.We know where it is.”
The metal giant suddenly clanked forward and reached out with its brutish arm. Hall flinched away, but the gauntlet caught him painfully by the shoulder and pulled him forward. Hall yelped in pain, but could not help being dragged across the nave, the three other demons following him, as they entered the place he and Sutherland had tried to protect.
“Rosslyn Chapel is not exactly a chapel,” the Squire said, indicating the profusion of carvings on the walls and pillars sur- rounding them. “It is more like a book – no, an entire library – carved out in stone. Words, ideas, pictures …” he pointed upwards,to the roof. “And music.”
Hall didn’t have to follow the Squire’s gesture. He had hoped that they had come for something else, for gold, for silver, even out of misguided religious bigotry. But no; they knew of the secret, and they had come to collect it.
The woman reached down and roughly grasped Hall’s chin, jerking his face upwards. He was forced to look at the roof of the Lady Chapel, and the dominant feature that outsiders had puzzled over for centuries – the hundreds of small stone cubes carved into the ceiling, emerging from musical instruments played by angels running along the top of the pillars. On each of the exposed faces, the cubes carried tiny, delicate patterns.
“Now, sir, the average person might wonder, how could those odd little things have any relationship to a secret key? Or how could they be used to hide something important? The answer is, as I said, this is not architecture. This is music. Music, frozen in time and space, and made solid in stone. A lock that can be charmed open by the right notes. Have you heard of the Music of the Spheres?”
Hall refused to answer, and the giant shook him until his teeth clacked together.“Yes!” he spat.“Of course I have!”
“I think Cicero put it best, when he wrote the fable Somnium Scipionis,” the Squire continued. He put out his arms in a gesture encompassing the whole of the chapel.“Cicero wrote that every planet, every star, every moon in the sky sings as it moves on its circular path through the heavens, filling the void with the most perfectly beautiful music. We mere humans, our ears are filled with the sound, but we cannot hear it.We have been deafened by the roar of this petty world, the shouting, the laughing, the rumble of carriages.”
The Dean moaned.
“What we have forgotten, you see, is the human body is also part of this music.The body is a musical instrument – and it can be played, by someone who knows the tune. Music mundana becomes music humana.”
The Squire opened the collar of his coat, and Hall could now see a thick leather band around the man’s throat – with a short metal tube positioned at the front.The man’s hands reached up to gently touch two levers on either side of the tube.
“Music humana, your grace. Otherwise known as sympathetic resonant frequencies. Allow me to play for you.”
The Squire turned to look up at the roof of the Lady Chapel, and with his fingers on his throat, he opened his mouth and be- gan to sing – just one long, single, extended note.
The sound made Hall feel even more nauseous. His teeth were on edge, and his ears burned as the sound penetrated his head like an iron spike.The glass of the stained glass windows vibrated in complaint.
As Hall fought to keep his eyes open, he saw the wire tendrils on the Squire’s head, beginning to rise, until they extended out in perfectly straight lines, surrounding his singing face like a glittering sunburst.
When Hall thought he could bear the sound no more, a dreadful, deep crack echoed through the whole building, breaking through the Squire’s unearthly song.The floor of the Lady Chapel had split in two.The tiles retreated, sliding back into the walls, and from the charcoal-black hollow beneath, the sound of grinding clockwork gears rattled and clanged, as a dark wooden chest, roughly the size of a man’s head and ornately carved with archaic symbols, rose slowly into view on a brass platform.
“No!” cried Hall, his eyes almost bulging out of his skull, as the Squire closed his mouth and brought the dreadful sound to an end. He struggled in the grip of the iron titan behind him, but it was no use; the creature was as immovable as the stone angels that populated the walls. “No, for God’s sake, you don’t know what you’re dealing with!”

Like to read more? You can find it here …

Brighton Photo Album Volume 2

1

The Royal Pavilion, the former seaside residence of England’s crowned heads, built between 1787-1811.

Brighton Palace Pier, built between 1891 and 1899.

A pub with an intriguing name – “The Mesmerist”.

This strange Steampunk-esque vessel stood just inside the front gates of Brighton’s Sea Life aquarium – one of Captain Nemo’s prototypes?

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