The Serpent's Song (Opening, trying my hand at Steampunk)

reiver33

Only Forward
Supporter
Joined
Jul 14, 2008
Messages
1,811
Location
Dumfries
There is nothing new, even under the furthest sun



With the desperate strength of the doomed, Sadik seized my helmet and pulled it against his own. His muffled voice reached me through the brass-to-brass contact. “There is no God but God, Hauser. Did you hear me? No God but God!”

I could not tell if this was born of defiance or fear but gripped his shoulders in return. “Then walk with him in peace, Sadik. In peace.”

Fear blossomed in his eyes as the vacuum suit failed, corroded by black mould. Air spumed from the rotted fabric as he staggered backwards, flailing. This was no way for a man to die. I fumbled my Tesla pistol from its holster and fired.

At point-blank range the discharge vaporised both faceplate and features, bestowing instant oblivion. Sadik collapsed to the deck like some deflated balloon. Retrieving his body for burial was impossible as thick mould coated the compartment like a creeping shadow, the very stuff of nightmares. Our steam jet had driven the invader back somewhat, but deflection from a stanchion had enveloped the valiant Sadik in a cloud of insidious spores. Now the fabric hose lay holed beyond repair and my compatriot was dead.

My composure snapped and I began firing wildly at the encroaching Hellspawn. Where my shots struck it burned briefly, but this fusillade had no more effect than throwing stones at the incoming tide.

I would have advanced on the enemy had not crewman Rawlings grabbed my arm and pulled me away. He rapped on the hatch with a heavy wrench and a team of four ratings in respirators hauled it open against the suck of vacuum. We fought through a maelstrom of escaping air into the uncontaminated compartment, and the heavy door slammed shut behind us. Eager hands deadlocked it, not that this would have much effect in stemming our nemesis. At least ‘E’ deck – the bilges – was a honeycomb of seldom used airtight chambers, so we were able to repressurise this small compartment with minimal draw upon our air reserves. The self-evident loss of Sadik to the rot stifled any conversation and we were helped from our bulky suits in silence.

Once freed from their claustrophobic confines, however, Rawlings seemed to take a positive delight in our dire straits. “The captain won’t be best pleased, sir, if you don’t mind me saying. Squires told me this was our best chance of burrowing forward to the bow, blasting that muck ahead of us. Don’t fancy being in your shoes when you tell the bridge-”

“Enough! You and crewman Squires should consider yourselves lucky I don’t place you on report. Now, all of you, stand-to and weld shut that hatchway. Make sure every inch of the flange is sealed, airtight – our very lives depend upon it. Once you have finished here, report to Sub-Engineer Charles for further duties. Carry on.”

I headed back to the bridge, and you would have expected my pace to be slowed by trepidation, but in truth every step away from the horror of Sadik’s death was a blessed release.

* * *​

The star liner Helios had paused on its journey to Tigris such that our 1st Class passengers could view the Beaumont Anomaly; swirling clouds of iridescent gas in a visual spectacle to rival the aurora borealis back on Earth. Such distractions from the tedium of space travel were expected by those who paid a premium for our services, and we were happy to oblige.

Then a plague worthy of Moses was visited upon us.

Our forward cargo bay seemed to be the source of the mould, but by the time the alarm was raised it had already spread to several adjacent compartments. The black rot grew on everything - glass, metal, ceramics all failed to halt its progress, and it displayed a voracious appetite for organic matter, including rubber door seals. Already the entire ship forward of bulkhead 3 was an airless tomb. Nothing on our manifest hinted as to its source, although it was commonplace for some of the major manufacturers to move their sensitive creations incognito, given the threat of industrial espionage. Regardless of how we came to be here, to escape our predicament required nothing less than a miracle.
 

msstice

200 words a day = 1 novel/year
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
319
I like the premise (gray goo type story).

I have some preconceived notions about mold-type enemies where I'm like "DON'T TOUCH IT! DON'T EVEN BREATHE!" so I couldn't get over that the narrator was in such close contact with an infected person and is walking round infected areas etc. Also would not think that small arms would work on something particulate like mold. This is just my reaction, because I have preconceived notions on how a mold-type enemy will spread.

A more serious problem is that I got lost at the scene break. Is the first part a prologue? I just could not link the first and second parts.
 

msstice

200 words a day = 1 novel/year
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
319
PS. I would not classify this as steam punk. This reads like space SF, perhaps "space opera" (though I find that term a bit trite).
 

reiver33

Only Forward
Supporter
Joined
Jul 14, 2008
Messages
1,811
Location
Dumfries
I'd tried my hand at steampunk previously - the introduction to Leon Prinz - but found it far easier to 'ground' the story in an alternative Constantinople than amongst the stars. The fact you don't see any 'retro tech' apart from the Tesla pistol (an energy weapon) is part of the reason I posted the opening here; I'm trying to highlight this is an Edwardian steam-powered starship without delving into the mechanics out of context. I'll post a continuation, which will stop abruptly to stay within the 1500 word limit, but sets the scene more clearly.
 

reiver33

Only Forward
Supporter
Joined
Jul 14, 2008
Messages
1,811
Location
Dumfries
On reaching the bridge I could tell the situation was tense, to say the least. The captain and several senior officers were wearing full dress uniform, having been called from a sightseeing soiree on the Observation Deck. Our passengers remained oblivious of the danger, and we had been at great pains to avoid a general panic.

Captain Vanner looked up from the ship blueprints spread across the navigation table as I entered. “Hauser, report.”

I saluted. “Sir, I regret to inform you that our attempt to reach the bow via ‘E’ deck has failed. All keel compartments forward of bulkhead three are extensively contaminated. We tackled one intrusion with a steam hose, as ordered, but the attempt proved fatal to crewman Sadik. I wish it recorded that he performed his duties with bravery and fortitude.”

Vanner nodded. “Mister Hartz, have it so noted in the log.” He stroked his beard. “So, it’s now spread throughout the entire forward section, but still no sign of it on the external hull. Intolerant of sunlight, perhaps. Officer Stern, what the devil are we dealing with?”

The Chief Horticulturist shook his head. “I really can’t say, sir, as it’s proved impossible to secure a sample for analysis. I’ve heard of simple organisms growing on the hulls of star-faring vessels, but nothing akin to what afflicts us.”

The captain’s frown deepened. “Mister Hanesh, what of your efforts?”

The navigator cleared his throat, sounding apologetic. “We maintain a full head of steam, sir, and the Heisenberg flywheel stands ready at a moment’s notice, but the ship simply cannot be aligned correctly without use of the bow thrusters. I’ve analysed the galactic orrery several times, but on our current heading there isn’t any port of call that could offer any meaningful assistance.”

“Could not the tenders be used as ersatz tugs and reposition the bow that way?”

“Not with the precision required, sir. The slightest deviation from the calculated heading and we’d end up lost in the interstellar void.”

Captain Vanner’s mouth moved as if worrying a particularly tough cut of meat. He turned to Communications Officer Brandt. “Any further response to our distress call?”

“No sir, we’re still making directional broadcasts to all colonies who could offer practicable assistance and monitoring the ether for signs of any nearby shipping, but so far nothing other than the battlecruiser Myrmidon, as before. Even at best speed she’s still some sixty hours away.”

“Sixty hours? Dammit, man, this ship could be a lifeless hulk by then!” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Maas.”

“Captain”. Chief Engineer Maas stood out in stark contrast to the glittering array of dress and braid, an icon of industry in soiled overalls.

“Could we send out a team along the hull to cut away the plating and expose the forward manoeuvre room to direct sunlight? Drive this infernal rot back into the shadows and regain control of the thrusters?”

Maas spoke without lifting his eyes from the blueprints. “Possibly, sir, I can say no more than that. The Teleflex relays remain intact, but I suspect the reaction mass tanks will be empty, given they incorporate rubber seals. We carry replacements, and a hose could be run forward to carry superheated steam, but even as water condenses in the tanks we run the risk of it freezing, given the overall lack of heating in the forward section.” He rubbed his eyes. “We could use a second steam jet to keep the tank contents liquid, but the team manning it would have to remain there as the final course adjustments were made. There would be no time for them to reach safety inside the ship before the star jump. It would be a death sentence.”

Vanner nodded. “I understand. I will call for volunteers and-”

“In any event I cannot recommend this course of action.” We all stiffened, as cutting across the captain was unconscionable, even for the chief engineer, but Maas continued, unapologetic, gesturing to the blueprints as he spoke. “In terms of containment I have teams working to weld shut all hatchways, block every conduit, seal off bulkhead three in its entirety - but it’s an enormous task. We simply cannot accomplish this and attempt to re-establish full helm control in the time available.”

He straightened up and looked the captain square in the face.

“Should we lose bulkhead three we lose the forward Rutherford-Curie generator and with it the ship. Unregulated radium surges will kill everyone on board, assuming we somehow avoid an immediate catastrophic explosion. This is my most urgent concern, sir, and as a pre-emptive measure I recommend immediate ejection of the volatile material into space.”
 

msstice

200 words a day = 1 novel/year
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
319
I like the writing, the plot is moving along, things are happening. I'm not well read in the genre, but I think the idea of steam punk in space is novel. I thought too many technical terms were thrown about towards the end. It may be par for the genre, but it reduced my enjoyment. I realize that a "real" crew might speak like that during a "real" emergency, but I would enjoy it if so many tech terms were not used all at once.

I wonder if you could focus on one tech thing, like the "Rutherford-Curie generator" and it's radium surge, to avoid this issue. Again, don't know if that is par for this genre.

Looking forward to reading more!
 

Wayne Mack

Well-Known Member
Joined
Sep 12, 2020
Messages
923
Location
Chantilly, Virginia, US
Fighting a biological menace, the mold, with limited technology, presumably the steampunk element, is an interesting premise. Some things to consider that might help the telling of the story are:

I was confused as to the setting for both sections posted. In the first, I originally thought the MC was out on the surface of some planet, then, after hearing about the airlock, that the MC was external to the ship. It wasn't until the second section that I discovered the action took place inside the ship. In both, character suddenly appear out of no where. In the first section, it is half way through before the reader finds out that Rawlings is also present. In the second section, characters keep appearing throughout. Look at setting the scene -- the location and the characters present -- at the start.

I did not feel a strong connection nor feeling of concern with the MC. The MC seemed to be simply a narrator describing what was happening, but displayed no reaction nor concern. This deprived me of the tension that should have been present, especially in the first scene. One of the advantages of first person is that it more easily lets the writer explorer the POV's thoughts, feelings, and observations. Also, be cognizant of POV breaks, where actions or feelings that cannot be directly viewed by the POV character are described.

Most likely due to the previous two issues not engaging me, I noted a couple of technical issues. One, the mold was living and flourishing in a vacuum, without air or water. Second, the gun ignited fires in a vacuum. Had I been more concerned about the MC's safety, I would probably have not noticed these anomalies.

I think this is an interesting premise and I would like to know more about the capabilities of the mold, the constraints of the technology to fight it, and the risk that the mold actually presents to the MC, crew, and passengers on the ship. It feels like it could be a steampunk variation of Alien.
 

AnRoinnUltra

Go on the humans!
Supporter
Joined
Aug 15, 2021
Messages
466
Thanks for that @reiver33
I don't know much about steampunk, but the idea of a steam powered spaceship and brass fittings etc. set what I thought was a very interesting scene. It didn't really take shape for me until the second part, I think that was because the world started to fill in (a bridge, other ships operating, the mold is relatively unique and not a well understood threat). I found that there were a lot of characters to take in at once, I think it was eight -I'd have found it an easier read if they were narrowed down a bit, just till the thing really gets rolling.
Anyways, cool idea -best of luck with it
 

reiver33

Only Forward
Supporter
Joined
Jul 14, 2008
Messages
1,811
Location
Dumfries
My thanks for the feedback and comments - I'm working over the festive season, hence the delay. So, in no particular order...

The narration style is deliberately formal and 'prissy', given the late-Victorian attitudes of a junior officer. Hence the lack of general introspection, apart from acknowledged episodes of anger and dread. In a similar fashion, he displays his snobbery by only mentioning Rawlings (a rating) in conjunction with himself. The other crew members who haul them to safety don't warrant a name check.

The Tesla pistol is an energy weapon, which burns - perhaps 'incinerated' would have been a better term - the mold at point of contact. These are mere pinpricks given the extent it covers the compartment surfaces.

In terms of the populated bridge, only the senior figures are identified - again as a manifestation of the narrator's self-conscious position in the ship's hierarchy. This is a concentration of officers to tackle the crisis, all of whom (in Hauser's world view) are worthy of note.

Although apparently unexplainable, the mold is actually something of a backdrop given how the plot develops (the story is roughly 5k words), and as a spoiler (for those who recognise her name) Greta van Lears is onboard.
 

Similar threads


Top