Book excerpt

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

David Barnett

Tor/Forge

1
 

THE SMITHS OF SANDSEND
The night before, Gideon Smith had dreamed a dragon ate the sun. But there was no dragon in the blue sky, only a gull hovering on the hot air rising from the dry sand, seemingly screaming, save me, save me. And the sun had risen as usual, just ahead of Gideon, emerging from the iron-gray sea and traversing the cloudless blue until it began its descent toward the Yorkshire moors far from where he now stood. Save me, save me, cried the gull, its black face to the sea.
“And me,” whispered Gideon as he leaned on the tarnished railings, watching the men drag the day’s meager catch from their trawlers moored alongside the ancient wooden jetty to the tarpaulins laid out on the fine golden sand. Gideon’s day had been as unremarkable as the sun’s, and as he observed the men standing and shaking their heads at the small piles of haddock and cod glittering in the dying day, he idly prayed a dragon really would come and devour them all, if only to give them some respite from the unending boredom that was life in Sandsend. But the only things that came were the hovering gulls, their minds on eating only fish.
As the fishermen shooed the gulls away, one of the men detached himself from the muttering trawlermen and walked wearily up the beach to the stone jetty, as though the heavy oilskins and thick leather boots made each step a chore. He paused to light his pipe, then climbed the stone steps and rested his thick arms, clad in a cable-weave woolen sweater despite the summer heat, on the railing.
“How’s the leg?” he grunted, not turning his weathered face away from the knot of fishermen.
Gideon rubbed the thigh of his serge trousers. “Shooting pains when I woke this morning,” he said, the lie stabbing him sharper than his imaginary ailment. “It isn’t so bad now.”
Arthur Smith nodded and puffed on his pipe. “That’s why I didn’t wake you when we went out. Thought we’d give it another day. You’ll be fit for tomorrow?”
A week before, a hook had gashed Gideon’s leg while he’d been out on the trawler. There’d been a lot of blood from the fleshy part of his thigh, but it had looked worse than it felt. He looked at the paltry pile of fish, which the trawlermen were now loading up into barrows ready for delivery to Whitby to the south and the villages to the north and inland. He couldn’t with an honest heart delay any longer.
“Aye, Dad. I’ll be fit for tomorrow.”
Arthur Smith put out a hand as big as a spade to ruffle the black hair hanging over Gideon’s frayed collar in loose curls. “Good lad.”
Like a protective arm, the rocky promontory of Lythe Bank at the top of the village reached out to sea, as though pointing with silent accusation at the long, dark shapes of the factory farms on the distant horizon. The farms belched columns of black smoke into a deep blue sky broken only by the high, stately passage of a dirigible. Gideon had read in the Whitby Gazette there was talk in London of making a special dirigible with some kind of unheard-of engine, so they could plant the Union Flag on the very moon. He wished he could be on it when they built it.
“We should complain,” said Gideon, shaking the collar of his white cotton shirt to allow some of the sea breeze to circulate around his chest. “Write to our Member of Parliament.”
His father sighed heavily. “What’s the point?”
Gideon suddenly felt angry. “Look at that haul! It’s a tenth of what we were doing five years ago. The Newcastle & Gateshead shouldn’t be so far south, not at this time of year!”
His father shook his head sadly. “Remember the Wheeler?”
Everyone remembered the Wheeler. Three days before it sank with the loss of its fourteen crewmembers, its skipper had gotten an order from the assizes preventing the Newcastle & Gateshead factory fisheries from entering within a ten-mile boundary of Sandsend. Nobody could prove anything, but tough old trawlers like the Wheeler didn’t just sink without a little help.
“How old are you next birthday, Gideon? Twenty-four?” asked his father, spitting on the stone promenade.
Gideon nodded. His father said, “We’ve been trawlermen for four generations. When I was a lad, I thought we’d do four generations more. Five or six, even. I thought fishing was a job for life.… But now, I wonder, Gideon. When I’m gone…”
“Dad,” protested Gideon.
His father laid a hand on his arm. “When I’m gone … it’s no life for a young man, Gideon. Not anymore. I thought you’d be settled down by now, maybe have young’uns yourself, ready to take charge of the Cold Drake and let me retire. But the world’s changing quicker than I can keep up with it.” His eyes stared into the middle distance. “I’m just glad your mother’s not here to see the state we’re in.”
She had died fourteen years ago, in childbirth with his brother, who had lasted only a day. In another world, Gideon would have been the middle boy of a family of fishermen. But six years ago, his older brother Josiah had fallen victim to the influenza. Now there was just Gideon and his dad.
“What did you get up to today?” asked his father.
“I walked along the sand to Whitby,” said Gideon, glad to speak of other things. “Picked up some bread and vegetables from the market.”
His father gave a crooked smile. “And did you buy anything else?”
Gideon flushed, then nodded. “The latest issue of World Marvels & Wonders had just come in on the steam pantechnicon.… I had a penny spare.…”
His father laughed and ruffled Gideon’s hair again. “Why don’t you put us something on for supper, and maybe you can read me a couple of chapters before we turn in? The carriages are here for the catch.”
Three horse-drawn carts and one steam-truck, the latter in the black-and-white livery of the Magpie Café. How long before these faithful few finally succumbed to the cheaper supplies from the Newcastle & Gateshead was anyone’s guess, but for now there was work to be done. Gideon watched his father stride back down the beach, and he was just turning to go when he caught sight of a smaller figure, a little way along the shoreline, struggling to push a rowing boat three times longer than himself into the shallows. Gideon shielded his eyes against the sun. It looked like little Tommy, the son of Peek, who skippered the Blackbird. What was he up to?
Gideon walked along the sand and stood to watch the boy—only seven or so—loading a leather bag into the rowing boat. Gideon hailed him and waved.
“Where are you off to, Tommy?”
“America,” said the boy stoutly.
“Ah,” said Gideon, squatting down beside him. “Does your daddy know?”
“I’ll send him a letter when I get there,” said Tommy, heaving against the stern of the rowing boat. “Can you give me a hand with this?”
Gideon nodded, then scratched his chin. “Have you got enough for the journey, though? It’s an awfully long way to America.”
Tommy dug enthusiastically into his leather bag. “I have a loaf and a jar of pickle. Two apples.” He looked at Gideon. “Will that be enough?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. I’ve never been to America. Which part are you heading for?”
Tommy reached into the bag again and pulled out a magazine, then bit his lip. “Oh. This is yours.” It was an old edition of World Marvels & Wonders that Gideon had lent Tommy. The boy had a skill for drawing and liked to copy the illustrations of Captain Trigger’s adventures.
“That’s all right. It’s the one with the Bowie Steamcrawlers, isn’t it?”
Tommy nodded enthusiastically. “Captain Trigger teams up with Louis Cockayne, the American adventurer, and they defeat the Texan rebel Jim Bowie and his steam-powered armored desert-wagons. I thought I’d go there, see the Mason-Dixon Wall they built to keep the Texans from attacking the pioneering families.”
Tommy separated another sheet from the magazine, a map he’d clipped from an old book. “Do you know where that would be? It isn’t on this map.”
Gideon took it from him. “Let me see … here on the East Coast is British territory, Boston and New York. Over here on the West Coast, that’s ruled by the Japanese, or the son of the old emperor, at any rate. Nyu Edo.”
“That’s New Spain,” said Tommy, pointing to the south. “And Ciudad Cortes. I learned that at school.”
Gideon jabbed his finger in the middle of the map. “Then this must be where the adventure took place, north of the Texan strongholds, where they keep slaves and make them dig for coal.”
Tommy frowned. “Would they make me dig for coal?”
“Possibly. If they caught you. Might be best to go somewhere else first, maybe New York? They have tall buildings there called skyscrapers.”
“Taller than the ones in London?”
“So they say,” said Gideon.
Tommy put the map and magazine back into his bag. “I’ll go to New York, then.”
Gideon stood up, then put a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “One more thing,” he said, pointing out to sea. “That’s east. America is west. You need to be on the other side of the country if you’re going to sail there.”
Tommy’s shoulder slumped under his hand. “Really?”
Gideon nodded. “Sorry.”
Tommy looked out to sea, then shrugged. “I don’t really like pickle, anyway. Maybe I should go home.”
Gideon nodded. “Me, too.”
*   *   *
“Is it cold for July, or is it these old bones?” asked Gideon’s father. Gideon grunted noncommittally as he cleared away the dishes from their supper and lit half a dozen candles and small oil burners.
Gideon retrieved the July 1890 issue of World Marvels & Wonders, its cover depicting a fearsome ape-beast menacing a lithe, heroic figure with brilliantined hair and an impeccable mustache, framed within a Union Flag border. He kept his penny dreadfuls stacked in piles in his bedroom, where he could, in summer, get the rays of the sinking sun to light his bedtime reading. World Marvels & Wonders was always his first choice, if only for the adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger.
This adventure was called The Man-Monsters of the Forty-Ninth Parallel, sandwiched between a lurid account of the latest victims of Jack the Ripper, who was slicing up streetwalkers in the capital, and a slew of advertisements for labor-saving kitchen devices and telescopes that could see the craters on the moon. Gideon read breathlessly aloud to his father in the flickering flames how Trigger had been dispatched by Queen Victoria herself to investigate reports of Frenchie bandits running amok on the border between Britain’s interests in the New World and Canada. His father’s eyelids began to droop after half an hour, so Gideon retired to bed to complete the story, reading with wide-eyed amazement how Captain Trigger had uncovered a conspiracy going back to Paris, but had been betrayed and abandoned in the frozen wastes. Near death, he had been discovered by a pack of grotesque, hair-covered demihumans, known to the local Red Indian aboriginals as sasquatch. Despite their horrific appearance they had proved benign, and with their help Trigger foiled the French plot to assassinate the British Governor of Michigan.
It was a chilly tale for a summer edition but a thrilling one. And like all the Trigger stories, it was prefaced with: This adventure, as always, is utterly true, and faithfully retold by my good friend, Doctor John Reed, followed by the flourish of the good Captain’s signature.
One day he would leave Sandsend, Gideon promised himself for the hundred-thousandth time. One day he would seek adventure, just like Captain Trigger. Gideon Smith would be the Hero of the Empire, and he would meet his one true love, and he would truly live in a world of wonders and marvels. One day, but not today. Maybe tomorrow, thought Gideon, as he drifted into sleep.
*   *   *
Arthur Smith awoke before dawn from the disturbed sleep that sometimes troubles those who live their lives in tune with the sea. While not given over to whimsy as much as his son Gideon, Arthur had learned over the years not to ignore the insistent little voices speaking at the back of his mind. When he drew back the drapes in his bedroom and saw the thick sea mist rolling up the cliffs and making black islands of the ramshackle roofs of the fishermen’s cottages, he felt a slight shiver. He would have given anything to close the curtains and return to his bed, but there was a living to be made.
In the darkness, he creaked open the door to Gideon’s bedroom and for a long moment observed his son, snoring gently with the bedsheets wrapped around him, the pale square of a penny dreadful on the rug by his bed. Arthur felt a sudden wave of love for his only remaining flesh and blood. He’d told Gideon to be fit for work this morning, but his troubled sleep still bothered him, and he didn’t like that sea mist rolling in off the bay. Arthur fingered the polished piece of jet hanging around his neck on a leather thong. Gideon had found it on the beach fifteen or sixteen years ago and fashioned it into a good luck charm for his daddy. Arthur Smith never put out to sea without it, and he had a feeling he’d need it on this early morning more than any other. Let the boy sleep, he decided. Another day of dreaming wouldn’t kill anyone.
*   *   *
The Cold Drake, like all the Sandsend trawlers, was a gearship, built seventy-odd years previously on the Clyde. Arthur remembered the first time he had skippered her, taking her out beyond the bay just three hours after they had buried his father in St. Oswald’s churchyard on the top of windblown Lythe Bank. As his boots slapped along the wet stones, he could hear Milton’s heavy breathing as the old first mate cranked the paddle-gear, but couldn’t see him for the fog.
“Ho,” called Arthur.
“Skipper,” grunted Milton, his lined face framed by his oilskin hat emerging from the mist. “She’s cranked up and ready to go, the old girl.” He paused and chewed his ever-present tobacco. “We’re the only ones out, you know.”
Arthur grunted. “More for us, then, and more fool them. We got a full crew?”
“Aye.” Milton nodded, then squinted over Arthur’s shoulder. “Except … no Gideon?”
Arthur said nothing. Milton, like him, would have had that feeling in his bones that today was not going to be a good day. He muttered, “Shall we get moving? Those fish won’t catch themselves.”
*   *   *
The pace of a gearship was slow, and it was two hours before they reached the deep waters where they could drop the nets for cod. The sun was rising somewhere ahead of them, but the fog stubbornly refused to lift, so they were little better off. Arthur applied the shaft-brake, and the Cold Drake drifted in a silence that unnerved him. There weren’t even any gulls crying overhead.
The nets down, Arthur settled into the wooden chair he kept on deck and lit his pipe. The sea was millpond calm, and all there was to do was wait for the cod to flock into their nets. He puffed on his pipe and wondered what Gideon was doing.
At first, he thought the knocking was a gear slipping, or one of the springs wearing. He sat up in the chair, suddenly alert, and peered around. “Anybody else hear that?”
Arthur frowned. There it went again. He stood and walked to the port side. Probably a piece of driftwood or rubbish hauled over the side from one of the factory farms. He leaned over and looked at the black, oily water.
The first one came at him so quickly he didn’t have time to yell. He stepped backward in surprise, slipping on the damp deck. His first thought was that it was a seal, such as could be seen sporting out at sea on balmy days. Seals, though, rarely clambered up the side of a trawler, as far as he recalled. As the shape sat itself, hunched over, on the steel balustrade around the deck, he heard the other men find their voices, and he looked madly around to see panic on the deck. His hand went instinctively to the jet charm at his throat, and with his other he fumbled at his belt for his gutting knife, but it was too late. The Cold Drake was overwhelmed.

 
Copyright © 2013 by David Barnett
DAVID BARNETT is an award-winning journalist, currently multimedia content manager of the Telegraph & Argus, cultural reviewer for The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and he has done features for The Independent and Wired.  He is the author of Angelglass (described by The Guardian as “stunning”), Hinterland, and popCULT!