Good morning readers! On this mild Friday morning, I am offering a short story.
I began writing in the genre commonly called Steampunk, some 4 years ago. Steampunk is one of those awkward to describe genres, occasionally referred to as, Speculative Fiction. The ‘founders’ of this style; Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter and James Blaylock write dissimilar stories, but the commonality in this kind of literature is the cross-over of timelines, that technology is often; but not strictly, driven by steam and a fantastical/fantasy/punk quality.
I wrote this piece for my daughter; and read it later at Wirral Writers group. She was studying for A Levels at the time and the pressure of handing in assignments on time was the prime influence. It is a light-hearted take on the theme of time travel;
The Milford Papers
The thing rose almost silently from the dark water. Tiny, oily bubbles accompanying the rising pale dome of a head streaked with filth. With what might be called a sense of intelligence, the thing headed for the steps built into the stone-faced quay, and began to climb.
“The Monster!” Came the shout from a steamship passenger; a pointed finger directing the gaze of the dark men along the ropey quay.
A cry of alarm from the dockside drew further spectators.
The dark men; burly men, sinewy men, hard labourers with grease and coal etched into their faces, advance upon the hapless thing. And with raised fists, bale hooks, picaroons and wood off-cuts, beat the now landed creature. It staggered and flailed, urged back under a flurry of blows and snarled curses, these men who were broad backed, with strong muscles, and of sharp eye, paid no heed to the bizarre waving of limbs and strange snaps of light the thing gave off. Its alien wings twitched spasmodically. It was quickly and efficiently sent back to where it came from; tumbling backwards into the dark water, fizzing and sparking all the while, enveloped in the darkness the thing was presumed dead, or as good as. The docker’s returned to their duties.
And below the surface of the river, the thing thrashed, its legs pumped frantically as its hands scrabbled about its own being. And then. It simply vanished.
“Calm down Milford.”
“Calm down?! Calm down?” The young Milford screeched. “I almost got killed this time. I’m not bloody doing it again. Nothing is worth that kind of hammering. Have you seen me?!” He pointed at newly ripening marks on his upper body.
“Hm?” The older man was inspecting the limp skin of ‘The Monster’.
“Professor. I said have you seen these bruises? I’m black and blue thanks to those thugs.”
“Who was it this time? Hm? What did they look like? Is the phonology like ours? Yes? What about syntax? Do they –“
“Professor!” Milford yelled over the gush of questions. “I couldn’t hear them. I had my helmet on. My bloody head.” He rubbed the back of his neck and skull that had been rattled under the reign of blows.
“Well, the suit seems to have taken a fair old pounding.” The Professor said. Milford’s mouth dropped open. “But nothing we cannot repair, hm?” He fondled the slippery fabric, pale as the underbelly of a sea bass, now detached from its complicated helmet. “I think a few simple repairs and adjustments will have it working good as new, better even.” He studied the multi-beam antenna on the helmet and the hinged time-space array panels, drooping from the shoulders of the suit.
“Professor. I don’t know if you’re aware, but we, sorry, I, keep missing the place. Or the time. I don’t know which, I’ve never got beyond five steps before some hooligan attacks me! Oh, and thanks for asking how I am.”
Professor Arbutus waggled his finger. “No, no, no, hm, no my boy. Not the wrong time.” He gently laid the suit next to the weed and mud smeared helmet. “I am absolutely, one hundred percent certain that the time is correct. Just a matter of co-ordinates. All we need to do – “
“I’m not doing it.”
“I said. I. Am. Not. Doing. It.” Milford said, then added civilly, “Sir.”
“Well now. Hm, yes, no. I see. Well in that case.”
Milford squinted at his professor, lips tight, don’t you dare old man, he thought.
“I cannot pass your coursework.” Damn!
Milford worked closely with his tutor for the next few days. The Finals were looming and he still hadn’t completed his paper. He had made adjustments to the multi-beam antenna, adding Albertian Relativity Sensors, whilst the professor fashioned his personally designed Continuum Lures for the time-space array panels.
“Should work a treat, hm?” The Professor smiled his apparently vacant smile.
Milford scowled at his tutor. “I bloody hope so. It’s me who has to wear it.”
“Language Milford.” The kindly voice warned.
“Sorry sir, but, well you know it hasn’t been as successful as we hoped before.”
“Don’t you understand the enormity of what we’re attempting Milford? My word. You young people today take everything for granted- “
“No sir. We don’t. Look, I’m sorry but Tasker has already completed her dissertation, handed it in to the Board this morning. And Barnes’ thesis is practically complete.”
The professor patted his students shoulder awkwardly. “It’ll be fine boy. Trust me. One more time.”
The figure that came to stand before the lectern was greeted with a wild burst of applause that threatened to deafen Milford. He was astounded. People stamped their feet upon the marble floor, the applause and cheers rose to the ceiling and seemed to curl around the tunnel vault and wrap itself around the audience. Milford’s hand trembled as he jotted in the small, leather bound notebook. He had expected him to be shorter. And then he spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Here we are…” The speaker paused, his eyes twinkled. “…again, in the most perfect room in the world, in this most rich and beautiful port.”
The audience erupted into laughter and cheers, causing Milford to furtively press a finger into one ear. And so the evening continued, the speaker read extracts from his past works, enacting the parts and portraying the voices of his characters so flawlessly, Milford imagined there were hidden players lending their voices. The man combined whimsy and pathos, joy and exuberance, the audience was spellbound. Great oratory and acting combined; Milford squirmed with delight thinking of the examiners reading his thesis. His professor would have loved to visit this evening. Milford had been studying Literature for a mere seven years, his tutor had devoted almost seventy of his years to it, Milford felt he owed it to the old man as much as himself. And so, Milford scribbled like he’d never done before. He enjoyed the evening immensely.
When the crowds eventually dispersed beyond St. George’s Hall, Milford made up his mind to speak to the great man. He found him in a rear room, glass of some deep, syrupy liquid in one hand, bottle at his elbow. He looked Milford up and down with his acute eye, shook his hand firmly, laughed bawdily at his own jokes, and Milford was twisted with anxiety inside – should he tell the great man he would die the following year? Complete that novel sir.
The writers hand came down companionably upon Milford’s shoulder. He proffered the other to shake. Time to go realised Milford.
“Sir?” He managed to mumble. “I…” His voice trailed away, flaccid, impotent, suddenly afraid.
“Son.” The writer smiled. “If I may be allowed to misquote myself, ‘It has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times, an age of wisdom, an age of foolishness, everything is before you.”
He took a brown, felt hat from a stand. Buttoned his heavy overcoat and turning at the doorway, smiled at Milford, winked and, swaying slightly, left the building.
The lights fizzed and hummed. Professor Arbutus looked up from his current project.
“Milford my boy!”.
He tottered forwards to release Milford from the Deep Time Suit. Removing the helmet, he was halted in his waffling by the glistening on his student’s cheeks. Milford sagged onto the nearest seat.
“He’s going to die Professor.”
The professor sat down opposite Milford. He noticed the suit was comparatively pristine this time. Milford yanked a small, leather bound notebook from inside the outfit. The professor took it gently, almost reverently. He thumbed through his student’s notes making exclamations of delight.
“Did you get the dialogue?” He pressed.
Milford began laboriously unfastening his one-piece, revealing the historical costume beneath. He unknotted the tie and from within its lining, pulled out the tiny recording device. Arbutus grabbed it and thrust it into the Vox Processor.
As the rich, deep voice filled the room, the Professor clenched his fists and almost jigged on the spot.
“He’s going to die Professor.” Repeated Milford morosely.
“Milford my boy.” Lectured the aged man before him. “Mr. Charles Dickens has been dead for five hundred years. Now pull yourself together, you have a thesis to write!”
*Dedicated to Erin
* In 1869 Charles Dickens gave his last speech at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool. He died in 1870.
*Featured Image – Film still from La Jetee, 1962