Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/04/17/verity_stob_steampunk/

Hold on, Booker prize judges - Stob's penned a steampunk hit

Everyone has a novel in them. Sadly this includes Reg columnist Verity

By Verity Stob

Posted in Verity Stob, 17th April 2012 07:33 GMT

Stob Somewhere on the hard drive of every programmer-wannabe-writer’s laptop there is the first chapter of an unfinished steam punk novel. Here’s mine.

Clockwork iPhones all round

It was late and I was tired, so on the way home I nipped into a Mesco Tetro to pick up a ping meal for dinner.

When it came to paying, the self-service checkout machine insisted that there was an item that it did not expect on its packing platform, when in fact this item was a phantom in the perception of its anti-fraud load cell. So I had to wait on a Mesco Colleague’s pleasure with the PIN and Barcode of Release, which took as long as it always does. I attained a state of reverse Nirvana and frazzlement.

Eventually I grabbed my receipt and carrier bag, and was about to hurry out the way I had come in, when I spotted a small door in the back of the shop that I hadn’t known about before. It had a metal arch over it which I took to be one of those gadgets that sounds an alarm if you should accidentally wander through it with three bottles of gin secreted about your person.

It so happened that I wasn’t indulging in spiritual theft, and the bus stop was on that side of the building. This looked like a Good Shortcut. As I approached, I saw it was defended by a small Private - No Entry sign, but I pressed on, impelled by sloth and righteous bloody-mindedness.

I felt the usual shock of guilty anxiety while passing through the arch, but no alarm sounded, and nobody called out as I hit the bar on the door, and escaped into the night.

Except it wasn’t the same night anymore, Toto.

Of Eloi and Soylent Green

Outside, to my surprise, it smelled smoky, like a day out at the Bluebell railway. As I stepped onto tarmac, a man appeared dressed in one of those long brown coats that used to be the uniform of caretakers and warehouse men but which I haven’t seen for 30 years. He was wielding a clipboard.

He spotted me and approached, a cross writ large on his face like the top of an Easter six-for-the-price-of-four bun.

"So where are they?"

I wondered where were what.

"For starters, where is my palette of Eloi and Soylent Green crisps?"

I made a grunt of puzzlement; the one generally written "Huh?"

A look of scorn appeared on his face. "You’re not a customer are you? Came out through a funny looking arch 'by accident'?"

My face betrayed the truth of this supposition.

"Bill? Bill, come over here will you? Got another Wanderer."

Bill appeared from somewhere behind me. He was a middle-aged man with the same kind of obsolete brown coat as the other, a harassed look and a badge that said William Staple, Mesco Staff, Wanderer Welcoming.

"Please come with me to the office, madam."

Wanderer orientation

I followed him across the yard, through a side door and into a dark office. I looked for a light switch, but to my astonishment the man called Bill produced a metal-clad paraffin lamp of the type that look terrific in BBC costume dramas, but which in real life leak, stink and give out a feeble flickery light the colour of old newspapers.

He produced a box of matches and applied one to the lamp's innards. "Let there be dinge," he said. There was.

We sat down either side of a cluttered desk. I put my carrier on the floor, and said, sarcastically: "I get it. I’ve travelled through time."

Bill picked a pencil out of a souvenir mug, and used it to scratch his side whiskers. "It’s a bit more complicated than that, I’m afraid."

I was still staring at the mug. It bore the slogan "Happy 100th Birthday SS Titanic - England’s oldest line - a century of safe sea-going". Behind it stood a desk fan of rather clumsy appearance. Its base comprised a miniature steam engine complete with boiler, spirit burner and a manufacturer’s label: Mamod Domestic Appliances.

It seemed like a complicated gag, and not very funny. "I’ve travelled to an alternative future, haven’t I?"

He replied, irritably, "You have travelled from an alternative future. This is the real thing. Here, you’d better look at this."

He handed me a printed card. It said:

Wanderer Orientation

Welcome, Wanderer, to our universe. We hope you enjoy your visit.

Since you have not travelled in time, there is no need to adjust your chronometer, unless your universe practises the barbaric custom of Daylight Savings.

To minimise culture shock, and to avoid the danger of embarrassment or worse, please note the following facts. In this universe:

If you need to convert money, branches of the National Provincial Bank are prepared to buy your currency at a rate of 19/6 for £1 sterling. Only coinage and proper fivers (the white ones the size of picnic rugs) are accepted.

Please note we drive on the left. Tenez la gauche.

Trans-universal iPhone drawback

I gave the card back to him. It was a lot to take in, and I didn’t know where to begin, so I began by stating the nerdious: "I guess if you don’t have electricity, you don’t have any computers or mobile communications devices."

Bill was indignant. "Of course we have mobiles - look, here is my iTalky." He felt in his pocket of his coat and placed an object about the size of a snuffbox on the table in front of me. I picked it up. It was smooth and it glowed green, faintly.

"Radium glass," he said, proudly. "So you can read it at night."

I examined the object. "Read what? I can’t see anything."

"It runs on clockwork. I’m afraid it has wound down."

"Why don’t you wind it up again?"

He looked away. "Can’t do that. It’s sealed. Have to take it back to the shop. Only a Genius can wind it up, costs 53 guineas."

One recognised the feeling. I changed the subject: "So you use clockwork and coal as your power sources in this universe?"

"Not at all. Personal transport is mostly powered by nuclear fission these days, although you still see the odd steam-powered Moggy Minor on the roads."

"Same Moggy thing where I come from. But you really put uranium in your cars? Isn’t that really dangerous?" I asked.

Bill was defensive. "Nah, nothing to worry about. It is lead-free uranium."

The room was suddenly full of heavy silence, like a fallen cake. Bill said: "I see you have a Raymond Chandler in your universe. Mr Chandler makes exceedingly good similes."

I said: "Never mind about that. How come a Mesco Tetro contains an inter-universal gateway?"

"Distribution and stock control, of course."

"What?"

Bill sighed the sigh of one who is being tediously questioned by a not-very-bright child. "How do you think you get to enjoy crisp flavours like Eloi and Soylent Green?"

"Never heard of them."

"Well, you may know it as something different. The marketing boys try to be culturally sensitive. Probably labelled 'hand cooked' or something like that; they have found it works much better when selling to the more gullible universes. You’d think people would clue up. I mean, how the hell do you cook a crisp by hand? Do you plunge your pinkies into boiling fat to fish them out when they’re done?"

I said: "Let’s get this straight. You are telling me that Mesco has solved the most difficult questions in physics and uses the resulting technology to shift crisps?"

Bill sniffed. "Don’t you sneer. Logistics is a serious business. As is stock control. Mostly still done on paper, needless to say. It is a complete sod sustaining a Bluetooth link between universes. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rain forest 20,000 years ago and pouf! Your connection is toast."

"So Mesco is the first multi-versal multi-national?"

"The first? I don’t think so!" Bill was scornful. "It’s not even the first multi-versal supermarket. Where do you think Hejrose gets all its exotic fare from? Now if I were to tell you what went into its papaya and kumquat sorbet..."

"I don’t want to know," I said hastily. "In fact, all I want to do is go home. I don’t think I like it here. Besides, my prawn kurma is losing its chill."

"Prawn kurma indeed. You’ve got to hand it to them. Very well." Bill pushed back his chair. "I’ll escort you back to the gateway. Just one thing, before you go."

"Yes?"

"I like to ask my guests if there is a single stand-out technology that is key in their universe but underdeveloped in ours. You know," he winked at me confidentially, "so I can keep a weather eye out on the stock market."

I looked at Bill thoughtfully. To be honest, I hadn’t much taken to his manner, and felt no particular urge to improve his financial prospects.

"Just two words, Bill," I said. "Vulcanised asbestos."

Less is more

I stepped through the doorway, and the oil-lit dimness brightened to the eyeball-aching whiteness one associates with fluorescent lighting. It was a relief. One day I might look back on my adventure fondly, but right now it felt to good to get away from the late, late Victorians.

An outraged, male voice behind me called out: "Oi!"

I started to turn around. "What?"

"You can’t just barge in like that. This is the five-elves-or-less queue."

"Five elves or fewer," I said automatically, and then I said: "Oh." ®