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» Short Stories:

'Our modern times'
(c) Mike Hepburn, 2008

Voluminous red drapery slowly peeled apart to reveal a massive, flyspecked screen. All the eyes of the expectant audience looked up, as a sepia-tinged newsreel flickered to life.

“Mars has surrendered,” an aristocratic voice bellowed from loudspeakers placed throughout the steam-hazed room.

“This is truly an age where steel and steam have forged our glorious Empire,” the clipped accent continued, to the excited cheers of the patriotic crowd. “To think that all of this may not have been possible without the genius of Charles Babbage, and the prescience of our glorious Empress. Together they created computing powered by steam: the Analytical Engine. With this one invention the Steam Age is forever entwined with the Information Age.”

The screen was then filled with a small section of Babbage's computational device. The ever-evolving copper cage was larger than a city block. It contained countless valves, gears and ratchet wheels. Plumes of hot steam belched from giant boilers deep within its belly. Thousands of scientists were connected to it by copper wires, which were patched directly to their cerebral cortexes. The machine, combined with the many human minds, was capable of answering the most complex of scientific questions.

The Empire soon used these answers to conquer land, sea, sky, and now the very stars themselves. We learned how to harness the power of elecricity to reanimate vast armies of minotaurs and centaurs – long thought lost in the mists of myth. Our engineers built Titans. These colossal, metallic monsters stamped and tore apart all who would oppose us. Our legions of clockwork automatons crushed the rebel spirit from all that stood in our way. Finally, we built starships, with steam engines larger than mountains. With these we conquered Mars.

Here we are now on the angry red planet, once populated by a war-like race. The newsreel showed what they had become: hunched and emaciated, cowering under our technological superiority.

Their thin leaders, with heads hung low, bowed to our Empress, who was trussed into a most modern and becoming corset. Her husband, the Prince, was an exceedingly tall and bowlegged man with greying muttonchop whiskers and a florid face, into which he had poured a considerable amount of the finest Martian wine. He wore a traditional navy-blue, double-breasted frock-coat, and knee-high boots, which offered little comfort to his gout. One gloved hand rested on his 3 barreled pistol, while the other rested on the bejeweled hilt of his sword.

The Empress, with a smirk, accepted the Martians' terms of surrender, and said to her adoring legions of men and machines: “Today Mars. Tomorrow - with our steel, and our steam - the Universe!”

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Holmes and the case of the Steamborg'
(c) Mike Hepburn, 2008

It was late in summer when all of Londoninium was enthralled by a series of horrific murders. Over a period of a week, numerous men and women were found dead - with their limbs torn asunder.

“I'm afraid Watson, that this may be a case we cannot solve,” said an unusually modest Sherlock Holmes.

The tall, rangy detective sat with his legs crossed, while staring into the embers of the ornate fireplace in his lodgings at 221B Baker Street. I, Dr Watson, stood with my back to him looking through an open stained glassed window, and watched as an airship sped past like an air-engorged leviathan. Its powerful engines shot out blue flames as it sped through the burgeoning storm clouds, towards some exotic distant destination. Two smaller winged craft flapped their wings furiously as they escorted the beast through the crowded airway. On particularly busy days, these crafts could blot out the sun. I cannot stop marvelling at our modern age of steel and steam.

The cosy room was bursting with miraculous and beautifully crafted devices, which Sherlock Holmes required for his detective work. Many of these connected to the numerous body modifications that jutted out here and there over the great detective's head and body. As I looked at these marvels, he unscrewed a brass ocular magnifier from his right eyesocket, revealing the complex clockwork moulded to his brain.

However, all these forensic instruments seemed like pretty curios when faced with crimes of such barbarity. Crimes that could have only been committed by someone with inhuman strength.

“Watson,” Holmes paused and turned his head towards me. “All the evidence points to Miss Hyde.”

I was taken aback by Holmes' statement, because mention of Miss Hyde sent shivers down my spine. She was truly an inhuman blight on humanity. “Holmes, it cannot be her, you killed that monstrous travesty with your own hand at Reichenbach Falls.”

Her story was familiar to all. It began many years ago when Dr Frank Jekyll - once a gentleman of great wealth and greater intelligence - lost his lover, Miss Hyde, to the Plague. Devastated, he froze her putrid body and spent his vast fortune on discovering ways to bring his beloved back to the land of the living.

His initial experiments, on the local graveyard corpses, proved promising. He was soon ready to operate on the frozen body of Miss Hyde. We are not completely sure how he did it, but Dr Jekyll merged her with the latest machinery. Miss Hyde's mind was powered by the finest Swiss clockwork. A small exhaust pipe protruded from the back of her neck, which let steam escape from the engine in the pit that was once her heart. Brass plates were rivetted onto her body to cover where wounds once seeped. Enhancements such as these were common amongst the living, but no-one had been able to reanimate the dead.

Something went horribly wrong, and instead of the love he so craved, Dr Jekyll only received anger and hatred from his creation. She became more machine than human. The deluded doctor was her first victim – the first of many. The heinous murders only ended with the famous duel at Reichenbach Falls.

“So, you see Holmes, she is dead. She can't be responsible for these murders.”

Just as I said this, with a thunderous explosion, a bolt of lightening hit the wrought iron gate on the balcony that I had just been looking out of. It filled the room with a blinding light. Our hair rose and the room was charged with invisible energy.

Holmes calmly puffed once more on his pipe, and his opiate-sullied eye suddenly cleared as he looked at me. He smiled, put on his deerstalker's hat, and said “The game is afoot.”

It seems that I must once more follow Sherlock Holmes, our age's greatest detective, into the mysterious night.

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Baron of the Skies
(c) Mike Hepburn, 2008

Decades ago I was known as the Baron of the Skies.

Back then I lived in New City, which, contrary to the name, was built a very long time ago on the ruins of an even more ancient metropolis. Remnants of which jutted out from the foundations, creating a confusion of sun-bleached marble ruins, amongst grime-covered metal, glass and concrete.

In the middle of the city was a large park - a splash of green in a sea of grey. One road gouged its way through the trees and led to a sprawling mansion: the heavily guarded, and mysterious, Lost Boys' Orphanage. Stone gargoyles, frozen in mid-yelp, stood guard over its gothic towers, which pierced far into the sky. A sky that always had thick, black clouds, which oozed over the mansion - even when the rest of the city was bathed in sunshine.

The institution was run by Dr Saliva Grey; a thin, little man with pale, taut skin. He had a toupée, which was poorly adhered to his head, and flapped wildly in the wind. He constantly spat on his hand and pasted it back down onto his skull.

He was always flanked by two identical twins: the Brothers Gloom. Both were ghostly pale, with closely cropped white hair. They stood around 8 feet tall and wore black leather frock coats. Their hefty left arms had thick steel plates rivetted to them.

I was far too young to remember how or why I arrived there, but I'll never forget what they did to me and the others. The tortuous experiments in the relentless quest to create an army of steam powered soldiers.

I was one of the fortunate few who survived.

However, they ... transformed me.

I awoke groggily from this transformation, and was lying on a steel bed in a cavernous laboratory. Dr Grey was sneering at me.

At first, all that appeared to be different, was a small metal cap which had been implanted into the top of my head. Then I patted my chest and discovered a series of dials and buttons had been embedded into it.

In a panic I pressed one of the buttons. To begin with there was a just small tickle in my feet. Then, the tickle rushed through my body like a wave, until it reached the crest of my head. With an electric shock, the metal cap started to bloom and rapidly extended into a 4 foot steel pole. With a little steam, that puffed surprisingly out of my ears, four tapered blades unfolded. They started to turn, and rapidly gathered speed. I lifted from the ground. Only a little at first. Then, with confidence, I allowed myself to go slightly higher.

I turned my head, by just a fraction, to the right and zoomed unexpectedly into a row of bubbling test tubes, causing glass and hot chemicals to spit throughout the laboratory. This collision made me jerk to the left like a rag doll. With my knees scraping along the floor, I careened into a book case, and chewed up dozens of scientific tomes.

At that moment, I noticed Dr Grey fleeing the room, only to be replaced by his towering henchmen: the Brothers Gloom.

Escape was possible, if I only could reach the door that the brothers stood in front of. I raced towards it, but as I did, one of them stepped in front of me, barring my way. He smiled his steely smile. I sped towards him undettered, propeller first.

The brother put up his metallic left arm. I saw this too late and my blades hit the proffered limb, causing sparks, which lit the shredded books around us. As the flames grew, I battled both the metal-armed Glooms, who parried, and thrusted at my propellers.

The fire got higher and the smoke thicker. Both my spinning blades and the swinging metallic arms fanned the flames.

A Gloom brother looked warily at the encroaching fire, and let his guard down. This allowed me to get my blades close enough to gash his face. In response to the pain, he raised his other, fleshy, arm to his fresh wound. With a turn of my head I severed my foes real arm, and watched as he screamed; a loud, inhuman roar.

The roar was echoed all around me by many identical voices. Then there were resounding thuds, getting closer, like elephants stampeding. Through each of the walls smashed through dozens of men who looked exactly like the two Gloom brothers I had been battling. All eyes turned hungrily towards me.

All at once they rushed towards their prey - me. I parried as they all tried to grab me with their steam-strengthened arms. One managed to grab my blade and I became suspended in the air. Fearfully, I pressed all the buttons and twirled all the dials on my chest, willing my blades to spin again. After what seemed forever, plumes of hot steam billowed out of my ears. The brother Gloom struggled to hold me, and the force of the sudden release flipped me upside down with my blades near the unprotected legs of the Glooms. They could do nothing but jump as my blades came close to them.

I managed to get to my feet and jumped out of the window. I flew, unsteadily at first, trimming some of the parks’ trees. Several Glooms stood at the window, shaking their steel fists as I flew farther away.

This was only the beginning of my adventures.

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