The Rocks of Aserol
The doors hissed open and a fine mist of steam and water drops entered the carriage. Horis was standing by the door, ready to disembark when the spray from a poorly maintained seal soaked his trouser leg. As he stepped from the carriage the wet fabric stuck to his calf. Muttering to himself he jostled his way onto the platform, dragging his cases and Ministry bag through the unyielding throng.
The air smelt of coal dust and unwashed humanity, it was a different smell to the well-scrubbed human odour of the capital. But even though the tang was different, the steam was the same, and the coal dust was the same. In fact his whereabouts could be defined by the unusual clarity of the air, and that the late afternoon sun shone more strongly. And where he normally shrank from large crowds – due to his short, wiry frame and shy nature – the urgency of his mission made him bolder as he elbowed his way to the exit.
“Aserol! Aserol!” a rail-master cried. “All alight here! This is the end of the line! Move along now! This is Aserol! The end of the line!” And indeed it was, thought Horis, the end of the line; it could have been the end of the world, to a lot of folk, it still was.
The carriages loomed over him, their brass-works shining amid the dull steel and brown livery of the Rail-Ryde company. There was a seating level and a recessed passageway on the roof. This was manned by soldiers armed with gas weapons against the brigands that infested the countryside, and the Drogans whose dive was an ever present threat. Horis had been guiltily hopeful that they might have an adventure on the journey and had spent the whole time gazing through the windows. Sadly nothing untoward had happened and the official papers he had intended to read had remained in his bag.
Reaching the barrier, Horis showed his Ministry pass to the ticket collector, who touched his grimy cap with a set of nicoweed stained fingers and waved him through. There were the usual crowds of small children gazing through the metal fence at the gleaming locomotive, no doubt dreaming of one day driving such a beast. A team of mechanics were attending the engine, oiling and greasing the pistons and other moving parts, or polishing the gleaming flanks.
Another group were cleaning the large ram fitted to the front of the locomotive. Nicknamed the bovine shredder by the popular press, it was designed to clear a passage for the Ryde, dislodging any objects from the rails before they could cause a problem. There were stories of Rydes arriving with whole beasts impaled on its blades, hence the name. This time it seemed to have only caught a few branches.
Past the ticket barrier there were groups of disabled sailors begging and selling sundries. There were entertainers juggling, tumbling and balancing. There were cages full of exotic animals. And everywhere was the hiss of steam. Steam drifted across the concourse like small clouds. Horis stopped and gazed out at the scene, so different to the cityscape he was familiar with.
The Rail-Ryde terminus was situated on a high point, and looking towards the sea, Horis could see the town of Aserol spread out below him. Compared to the capital Metropol City, it was a small place, but important due to the mines in the vicinity, and of course the Rail that carried its produce and people to the centres of the country. There were smoking chimneys below, but not as many as he might have expected. On the other hand there were a lot more Bal-towers; clearly the town was closer to Bal than the city was.
Priests were becoming a rarity in the city and worship was declining, being replaced more with the religion of science. Horis knew that the further you went from the capital, the more resistance there was to the scientific advances that city dwellers took for granted. He shuddered to think that he might not be able to find some of the small comforts that city life afforded him. In his opinion science was more relevant than Bal; at least the science was generally predictable.
“It’s quite a thing, isn’t it?” The voice came from a man at his side. Horis turned and recognised him from the Ryde; he had been sat in the same carriage.
“I’m sorry,” Horis replied, still looking around but not wanting to appear rude, “do you mean the Ryde, or the place?”
“Oh both,” replied the other, a tall man dressed in dark suiting. “Do you realise that a little more than five years ago, it would have taken four days of travel over rough roads, through mountain passes and subject to the whim of surly equines to reach this outpost of civilisation.”
He had the way of speech of an educated man but the knack of stating the obvious. He sounded like a government spokesman. Horis was intent on his purpose but did not wish to give offence. He nodded. “And we were safe and comfortable all the way, with a meal as well.”
“Indeed,” the man continued. “Now, thanks to the determination of the government of Norlandia, and the brute force and skill of its people, it’s a mere six hours from the capital. Times are changing.”
He was right of course, civilisation had advanced and as usual, conflict had driven the process. In the quest for superiority Norlandia had developed many things, but not all were general knowledge. From his place in the Ministry of Coal, Horis knew of all sorts of innovations that were both thrilling and secret.
“They certainly are,” agreed Horis, remembering a document he had seen at the Ministry. “And who knows, in another five years we may be able to journey between towns through the very air, like the birds and the Drogans do.” As he said it, he realised that he might have said too much, the document had been marked Secret in large red letters.
But the man clearly thought he was overly optimistic. “That’s a fascinating idea,” he mused, “but I fancy there will be all sorts of obstacles to flight, why the weight of the boiler and the coal alone would be a problem.” Horis was about to tell him more of the document when he stopped. Perhaps this man was a foreign agent, or an undercover Watchman testing his fealty. He changed tack.
“Are you a military man?” he asked. “You seem to have knowledge of the mechanics of flight.”
“No,” the other replied with a grin, “just a mere functionary in administration.” He held out a hand. “I’m interested in many things; Lewis Morgan at your service.”
Horis shook it. “Horis Strongman,” he replied, “from the Ministry of Coal.”
“What brings you to Aserol then, Horis, or do you live here?”
“No, I’m staying in a hotel, the Provincial,” Horis hesitated to tell the man more, continuing his visions of spies and secret police. He was about to utter “Ministry business” when they were joined by another, who clearly knew Morgan. “Good after, Lewis,” he greeted him, nodding to Horis. “I have the vehicle readied.”
Horis caught a look of frustration from the man Morgan, as if his arrival had spoiled an opportunity.
“Excuse me,” said Morgan to Horis, “it was pleasant to meet you; I hope your stay in Aserol is fruitful.”
As they left, Horis realised that he had given his occupation but the man Morgan had revealed nothing.
Glancing around at the throng, Horis saw that there seemed to be a lot more people wearing swords and dart pistols on the streets here, and their overall dress was gaudier than the restrained, formal styles in the capital. Bright satins and polished leather mingled with shiny black suiting and feathered hats.
Horis carried a compressed gas pistol in a holster on his hip even though he had been told that the area was not known to be generally lawless. He suspected that in many ways the locals would also lack the sophistication and manners of the city. Perhaps, being on the coast the population felt less safe, despite the recent treaty with the Western Isles, there could still be raiders that would not yet have learned of the peace. Horis knew that there was a naval base just a few miles up the coast, and while there were also Drogan attacks, since the navy’s expedition to the nesting sites, these had reduced, so that now they were no more than a nuisance.
Not that a sword or a dart pistol would be much use against a Drogan in full flight. Even his gas pistol, the latest invention and presently only available to government employees, would be of little help in that situation. Glancing up, as if half expecting to see one of the beasts, he noted the web of fine netting strung over the station entrance, and the gas balloons that floated gently on the breeze.
He knew that they carried armed balloonists in their wicker gondolas, their long telescopes keeping a watchful eye on the skies and the seas. They were flying, he thought, all they had to do was control their motion.
Also, Horis noticed the absence of masks and breathers on the faces of the people. It must be because the air is so clean, he mused. Indeed every breath almost hurt him, so sharp was the effect of the clean air on his lungs. His own mask hung around his neck, redundant.
It had recently rained and the cobbled roadway ran with grey rivulets, coal dust washed from the air and the road. It had the effect of making the view sharper and after the closed vistas of the capital and the limited view from the carriage window, the sight opened out in front of him gave Horis a glimpse of the enormity of the world.
And he inevitably thought of his country’s place in the world. Norlandia was one of several countries that had benefited from harnessing coal and then coal gas to produce power, and whose machinery of metal gave them dominion over the less enlightened kingdoms and territories. There seemed to be a perpetual struggle between the world’s industrial powers for influence over the others, and over the disputed parts, as one gained an advantage it would briefly rise, until it was caught in achievement by the others.
The overall effect was a rapid scientific advance, but espionage and warfare were the continual gifts of the race for superiority. At the moment, Norlandia was supreme, and with the peace that had recently been agreed with their neighbours came hopes for a long period of stability.
They had a new and popular monarch, and government was stable and apparently uncorrupted. Although pirates and opportunists occasionally caused problems on the coast, the navy, with its superior equipment, generally kept order.
He knew that Aserol had expanded as trade had increased, for now that the capital could be reached in a day it was worth producing more food and catching more fishes than could be used locally. And of course the coal that was dug here could find its way to the factories and steam-generators more easily.
But the populace were struggling to keep up with the advance of civilisation. Indeed there was a lot of resistance to progress in places like Aserol, despite it being a bustling port in the most powerful country in the hemisphere.
Looking to his left, he saw an aerial beltway, which strode across the countryside from a point between two hills in the distance. Its metal framework towers and clanking rollers spoke of power, the power of man over the land, and of the power of technology. From its end, it was discharging coal into a large yard attached to the terminus; a fine mist of water was spraying over the lumps of coal from a metal pipe at the end of the belt, damping the dust and reducing the chances of fire.
Mechanical shovels were piling the coals into lines of Rail wagons, all bearing the name “Waster Mining and Metals” on their sides. Exo-Men swarmed around the shovels, assisting in the operation, their steam lines forming a tangle of pulsing knitting on the ground, damp with water from vented pressure. Waster Mining was the company Horis was coming to see, and from the size of the operation, and the number of workers, he could see that it was a force in the area.
Horis had not seen many Exo-Men in the flesh, so to speak, and he was as impressed by the sight as any child would be, ten feet tall in headless human form, they had articulated arms and legs, driven by steam pistons. Attached by hoses to their generators, they were moved by a man, strapped to a metal frame, with wires attached to his joints. As he moved his arms and legs, so the steam flowed through pistons and moved the Exo-Man’s limbs, enabling work to be done.
To his right he could see the harbour, filled with a variety of craft, large metal steamers, a few wooden sailers and the usual collection of fishers and work-boats. Cranes bobbed and dipped as cargo was moved. A naval vessel was cruising past the harbour entrance, all flags flying, in a show of strength to the population, probably patrolling against pirates.
As Horis walked across the concourse, past a couple of magickers who were making objects borrowed from the crowd disappear and reading minds for small change thrown, a fight broke out between two men waiting in a queue for a refreshment stand. Horis put down his bags and stood, watching.
The wheeled wooden hut was selling hot drinks and various snacks. Painted in gaudy colours, it had the image of a smiling porker on its canvas awning. The smell of oil-fried foods and char drifted in the air, as the mood changed in the crowd, which backed off and made a circle around the two men, one in an army uniform of grey, and one in the naval blue. Both of the men were huge and heavily muscled, the sailor’s arms were tattooed, and the soldier had a shaved head and half an ear missing. Their caps and uniform jackets were off; shirtsleeves rolled up, they faced each other.
They were engaged in a shouting match, something about a girl whose honour had been questioned, and their insults escalated in severity and volume, until the point was reached where violence was inevitable. They started to move, each looking for a weak point in the other’s stance, throwing exploratory punches and kicks, neither doing much damage as they tested reflexes and speed, cheered on by the crowd, who seemed to favour the sailor, which was not surprising, given that this was a navy town.
But the soldier had his backers; a regimental party had formed up around the edge of the informal ring and were cheering their man on. At the rear of the throng, a shady looking individual in a greasy suit was taking bets; notes and coins were passed and pocketed. A few dubious looking characters stood by the roadside, trying to appear nonchalant whilst scanning the road for the Watchmen’s arrival.
A number of smaller scuffles were in progress where the two sides’ supporters met, adding to the confusion as the main protagonists wrestled. The soldier had a lock on the sailor’s neck, and he was choking in its grip. In desperation, he swung his booted feet at the legs of the soldier, who danced out of the way, keeping his lock firm. The soldier was so intent on his victim and avoiding the flailing feet that he failed to notice the kerb stones and tripped. His grip released and the sailor fell to the ground wheezing. The soldier stumbled into the crowd, who pushed him upright and he turned to see the sailor still on the ground. With a grin the soldier stepped confidently towards his foe and swung a boot at the sailor’s face. The sailor must have been shamming, as he grabbed the swinging ankle and pulled. Now it was the soldier’s turn to fall, and the crowd cheered. As both men rose to their feet, the sailor drew a knife from his boot and lunged at the soldier, who backed off quickly until his retreat was halted by the throng. Unfortunately, he had retreated into that part of the crowd containing the sailor’s backers, his arms were grasped by his sides, and despite his struggles he could not free himself.
The sailor advanced, holding the knife in a casual, familiar grip, with the point steady on the soldier’s stomach. Horis turned away, sure that the man was about to be gutted, this was a sailors’ town; the army had no friends here.
“Stop!” rang out an authoritative voice. The crowd hushed and parted as a Watchman strode into the gathering, tall and black uniformed, his cap badge and cane ferrule gleaming brass.
He approached the sailor. “Give me the knife, laddie,” he commanded in a tone that, whilst soft, carried the unmistakable sureness of command. Everyone stood still and waited.
He looked to the soldier, who had got free and was trying to creep away. “You stop there,” he ordered. “I will want a word with you as well.” There was a low growl from the crowd, like a wave breaking on sand as the Watchman repeated his request, holding out his hand towards the sailor. “Come on, laddie and give it to me, before things go too far.”
The sailor wavered, and whilst the Watchman was looking at the knife, the soldier saw his chance and made a run for it. The crowd dissolved as he pushed through them.
The Watchman saw him move, reached into a pocket on his quip-belt and withdrew a small ball, which he threw underarm at the disappearing soldier, it bounced between his legs, and metal bars sprang out from it, tripping the man and leaving him sprawling.
“I told you to stay there.” He sounded exasperated and turned his attention again to the sailor. “Now you, please give me the knife, and don’t make me take it.”
The sailor wavered, reversed the blade and handed it over. The Watchman took it and put it in his backpack. Producing cuffs, he fitted them over the man’s wrists. Walking to the fallen soldier, who had wisely decided to stay down, he pulled his hands behind his back and cuffed him. “On your feet,” he demanded, as a Watch-Wagon arrived in the concourse, pulled by two glossy black equines. Both men were placed in the rear of the wagon, and then turning slowly the Watchman surveyed the scene. “Any of you fine gentlemen care to enlighten me to the cause of that disturbance?”
The Watchmen, Horis knew, were totally impartial, and would single-mindedly pursue the truth, they could not be bought, or put off, and resistance only made them stronger. “As honest as the Watch” was a compliment in business and in life. No-one in his right mind would dare to fight with a Watchman; there was only one punishment for that.
The crowd thinned; clearly there were no takers for the request. Horis, who had not been close enough to hear anything, picked up his bags and resumed his walk toward the town. There were flags and bunting hanging from every available surface, and everywhere was decorated with flowers and the fruits of the Harvest. Of course, tonight was the festival of thanks for a good Harvest. It would be celebrated in the cities, but as they were less connected to the soil, it was muted, and mainly an excuse for a military parade. Here there was likely to be a more earthy ritual.
From the Author:
You can find out more about Horis’s mission in The Rocks of Aserol, available at http://mybook.to/RocksOfAserol
My Steampunk journey continues on my website where there are more extracts, free short stories and details of my other Steampunk work, including the sequel to The Rocks of Aserol, A New Life in Ventis.
My Amazon author page is here.
My Goodreads page is here.