This January has been pretty fucking stressful for me. My family, friends and I rung in a lovely New Year’s celebration and then life went downhill. A funeral, a minor car accident, two weeks of being sick and the deaths of two very important men (the magical David Bowie and my baby Alan Rickman) means that I just don’t want to do anything.
So I don’t have a cosplay blog entry to offer this month. Instead, I’ll give you a story. This January did see the second Steampunk Showcase. I managed to pull off second place (disclaimer: there were only four entries) in the story division. So please, enjoy my award winning steampunk story and know that February has to be better. Even if I do hate leap years.
Emma Blackwood and the Flying Steam Ship
“Twenty years, Thom, twenty years of his life! And then someone else formulates the same theory? If it can happen to Darwin, then it can happen to you!”
“Ned, your concern for my research is admirable. But just as Mr. Darwin was not the first to come up with evolution, I am not the first to build a flying machine.”
“Giffard can only dream of flying on your ship.”
They were arguing again. Emma could not remember a time when her father and uncle were not in complete disagreement over how her father’s research should be managed. Thomas Blackwood was an inventor who had invested his life in a secret project while his younger brother Edward believed in sharing knowledge with the world. Edward wanted to show the world Thom’s inventions so that they could better the world and Thom’s social standing. Thom was the eternal perfectionist.
Emma had grown up with their arguments. When Emma was very, very young her mother died. Ned, barely a man at the time, had hired a maid to run Thom’s house. Then, whenever he was free, Ned would visit at tea time. He would whisk Thom away to the study where he would ensure that Thom took a rest from his work and then argue about said work. Emma would sit outside the study every time, hoping to learn something about the project that her father even hid from her. All that she ever managed to learn was that her father was building some sort of flying contraption.
The Misters Blackwood were not supposed to be arguing today however. They were supposed to be heading into London to hear the presentation of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theories of evolution. Emma did not know why the presentation could not wait- Wallace was away on an expedition and Darwin has home with scarlet fever. Yet it was quite the feat that both had formulated the same ideas when they had no notion of the other’s work. Emma would have given anything to go with her father and uncle.
“Do we truly need to discuss this now Ned?” Thom asked as he suddenly opened the door to his study.
Emma gasped and fell over.
Thom sighed. “Good morning Emma. I see we’re still eavesdropping at doors.”
Emma blushed in embarrassment but her uncle simply laughed. “Leave the girl be, Thom. If you did not want her to be so curious then you should not have passed so much of the Blackwood genes down to her. It’s our lot in life to want to know everything isn’t it Emma?”
“Yes Uncle Ned.”
Ned smiled at her. “Good. Now go around to the kitchen and treat yourself to some of the sweets I brought with me. Lord knows my gifts go to waste on my brother.”
Emma returned her uncle’s smile beautifully. Although her father would teach her anything it was Ned that made sure Emma learned things in a timely manner. It was Ned who chose the ladies who taught Emma about womanhood and Ned was the one that taught Emma her manners and the fashions. It was also Ned who helped her dissect her first frog and who taught her how stiches could be used to sew a man up just as well as a doll.
And it would be Ned that saved her life.
Emma had been following her uncle’s orders when the shouting started. The girl laid down the sweets she had been arranging with a frown. Ned and Thom argued, certainly, but they were not the sort of brothers to have screaming matches in the front sitting room. She started to head towards the kitchen door when she heard the sound of a firearm going off. Her uncle screamed.
“Uncle Ned!” Emma cried but it was her father that answered.
“Emily! Emily, where are you?!”
Emma’s heart stopped for a moment. Her father rarely called her by her proper name. She was about to push open the door when it was violently pushed open. Her father stared back at her. Emma quickly looked over Thom’s shoulder. She did not see Ned but there were two strange men she had never seen before. Thom pushed the girl back into the kitchen and bolted the door.
“Emily, I need you to run. Head down to the barn.” Thom ordered. “There you’ll find my ship and Nigel. Help him get the ship to safety. These men mean to use it as a weapon. But Emily, darling, you and Nigel are so much more important. If need be, you must help Nigel destroy the ship and go someplace safe by foot. Do not let yourself be hurt.”
Emma would never argue with her father. “Of course. But you must do the same.” She quickly kissed her father goodbye and ran from the house.
The barn was a fair distance from the house yet Emma was used to making the sprint. Her father was always in the middle of some experiment that could and often did become dangerous. She often had to run down to make sure he had not killed himself or one of his assistants. The barn itself was an odd looking thing as well. It proudly boasted of a proud history of agriculture but there had not been any farmers in the region for ages. If those strange men were after Thom’s inventions then they should have had the sense to look at the barn first.
It would not even have taken them long to find what they were looking for Emma thought as she opened the door just enough for her to slip through. The very first thing she saw was the giant flying contraption she so often heard her father and Edward argue over. Had Emma been allowed into the barn before now she would have known exactly what her father had been up too.
And what he had been up to was the building of a beautiful new wonder. The ship was a gleaming bronze. It looked much like a regular ocean faring vessel except it was somewhat sleeker and had strange arm like appendages coming out from either side. There was a sail but it was not the traditional sort that Emma was used to seeing. Still, she did not have the time to admire the lovely metal creature.
Emma crept around the side of the ship, looking for some means to climb aboard. It was as she was doing so that a young man came up from below deck. He was not pleased to see her and let it be known.
“Hey you! What are you doing here?!”
Emma screamed despite herself.
“Now, there’s no need of that.” The man chided. “You’re the one who’s trespassing.”
Emma, clutching her furiously beating heart, turned towards the sound of his voice. She visibly sagged in relief when she saw the familiar curly mop of hair that belonged to her father’s apprentice Nigel.
“Miss Blackwood? I beg your pardon! But you’re not supposed to be here, if you don’t mind me saying so.” Nigel said apologetically. He did not seem to know quite what to make of her now.
“There’s been trouble up at the house. Father sent me here to take the ship and get out.” Emma cried. “I do not know what is going on but I think Uncle Ned was been shot.”
“I’ll toss down the rope ladder.” Nigel responded. “It won’t take long to get the old girl flying. The ship’s steam powered and I’ve been boiling water for a test run. I haven’t boiled enough water to keep us in the air, however. We do have a large coal furnace below deck that we use to heat the water. Your father has made an ingenious system to harness the steam. He described it as sort of a human circulatory system with the furnace acting as the heart.”
Emma nodded, listening as Nigel rambled on as she pulled herself up the rungs. The assistant had always been nervous around his employer’s daughter and thus had a tendency to talk too much.
Perhaps there was more to this particular rambling speech however. The mixture of fondness and marvel in the assistant’s voice told Emma that she was on some sort of miracle ship. Yet Emma knew her father. Thom had a knack for making wondrous, complicated machinery but it was the simple things that could derail all of his designs. Emma knew the ship would fly. She had always known it would despite not knowing anything about it. Yet a furnace was a simple thing and it was a key component in her father’s schematics.
So she asked a question that she already knew the answer to. “How exactly does the furnace stay running? What keeps it fed?”
Nigel actually blushed. “I do. The coal needs to manually be shoveled in.”
Despite everything that had happened, Emma actually laughed. She finished hauling herself up onto the rail and let Nigel help her hop onto the deck.
“Well, you might as well show me the furnace so I can get started.” Emma said. “When this is over I’ll have Father build some sort of pulley system to feed it.”
“I should shovel.” Nigel sputtered. “It’s not easy work.”
“Nigel Thorne, if you think I can figure out how to fly this ship before those cretins find us then you have severely lost your sense of what normal humans can do.”
“The ship was still supposed to be a secret. Father has yet to tell me anything about its mechanics. I cannot fly her.”
“Would you rather blow her up?!” Emma was incredulous. “That is the only other viable option that my father gave me. We can’t leave her behind.”
Nigel stared long and hard at her. She knew what he saw: a delicate boned, pale skinned girl. Yet he had to let Emma handle the furnace or they would never get the ship somewhere safe. And Thomas Blackwood would prefer his ship to be saved. So Nigel simply gave in and told her where to go and what to do.
Emma ran down to the sauna like room. She knew from the heat assaulting her that she was in the right place. She quickly started shoveling the coal. The work was hard and Emma lost all time down there except for the moments when the ship actually started to lift off. The girl had to steady herself and simply felt the ship move around her. Then, when it was stabilized, Emma returned to the mind numbing task of shovelling coal into a gaping, always hungry mouth.
Nigel had to come down to retrieve her some time later. She was drenched in her own sweat and blisters were forming on her arms. The skin on her face and arms were reddened from the heat. Emma was so exhausted that Nigel had to pry the shovel from her and then carry her up the stairs to the main deck.
As he carried her, Nigel told her about the men that had been after her father’s plans. They seemed to be military men but they did not seen to be particularly loyal to Queen Victoria. Nigel did not even know how word about the ship had gotten out. Thom had to fire his last assistant because the man had been too keen on Professor Blackwood’s daughter. That man could have spread word in order to punish Thom. But it could have easily been Ned or one of his friends in the scientific community. They often shared news and unscrupulous men could be found in every corner.
The talk went on much like that until Nigel reached the front door of a very lovely home. As he had his hands full with Emma, he kicked at the door until a middle aged woman opened it.
“Oh my, what’s going on?” the woman asked even though she hurried Nigel and Emma into the house.
“I’m sorry to disturb you during your time of mourning Mrs. Darwin but the house has been attacked and my master’s daughter and invention were in danger.” Nigel said.
“Of course. Professor Blackwood and my husband were prepared for the day you’d need our help. But is Miss Blackwood well? There is scarlet fever in this house. I wouldn’t want her to become ill.” Mrs. Darwin fretted.
“It’s just physical exhaustion. Unfortunately, the nature of our escape meant she had to perform most of the labour on the ship.” Nigel explained.
Emma blinked as the realisation dawned on her. She was in Down House, the home of Charles Darwin and his family. The Darwin family had lost a child to scarlet fever hardly two days ago. She struggled against Nigel’s grip to the point that he had to put her down on her own feet.
“I’m so very terribly sorry to intrude on you and your family like this.” Emma said. She was looking for the right words to convey her condolences when the world started to fade out. As she fainted, Emma was aware of how terribly impolite she was being.
The man looked older beyond his years as grief clung to him like a shroud.
Emma had woken on the morrow to find the infamous Charles Darwin awaiting her. He seemed so very tired. The world was learning about the wonderful things he had discovered and theorised and studied and yet here he was: a sick old man who had just lost a child. The world seemed cruel then. Still, there was awe in being in his company. An awe in being surrounded by his family. They were a people of hard work and curious minds. Emma could only admire them. So when she was asked to accompany Mr. Darwin on a walk around the garden Emma agreed.
“Have you thought about what your father’s work will mean for the future?” Mr. Darwin asked Emma once they were in his greenhouse.
It was hard to tear herself away from the observational experiments that surrounded her but Emma made herself look at her benefactor. “Father never told me about the ship until yesterday. I think he was waiting to finish it so that he could show me everything all at once.”
“Well, the ship is a powerful thing. People will feel threatened about it. My Emma worried that my own work would offend God. I know the church will take it as an affront.” Mr. Darwin admitted. “But a flying ship can be used to attack other countries. A man with such a ship could easily take what he wanted and not be caught.”
“It can also be used to rescue people trapped on rough seas and transport goods.” Emma argued. “My father would want that.”
“Yes, I know Professor Blackwood would. And I would like that too. Which brings us to the problem at hand. The ship is currently not safe here.” Mr. Darwin sighed. “I would keep you here if I could but the men that attacked your home would find you. There is a place that you and the Thorne boy can go to find a loyal crew. Then you must head over to the Americas. I know a man who will help you. We can discuss details over tea in my study.”
“This seems like such a terrible trouble for you to take on, sir. How can I ever repay you your kindness?” Emma asked.
Mr. Darwin smiled so very sadly. “We live in a world of slavery, hunger and pain. Yet science can change our world for the better. We all must protect every marvel in the natural world as well as those marvels we create. I know you will do good with that ship of yours. That is the payment I want. A good deed done by your hands.”
Emma intended to do as much. She knew not if her father and uncle lived. Yet she was given a changing world and the means to shape that change. She would do what she could to make sure that every argument Thom and Ned ever had, every child the Darwins lost, every trial suffered by her fellow scientists would be worth it.
For invention and science would be the future.