A Steamboat to the Edge of the World

Steamboat by Gustave Le Gray
“Steamboat” by Gustave Le Gray

“God, why’s it so hot?”

“And this wind…it’s sinful!”

“What a perilous expedition we endure!”

It was a rancid day, to be sure. The sun beat upon the three ladies’ bonnets, nipping the tops of their ears and bruising the tips of their noses. Wind whipped their curls about their cheeks, and they joked that they were bound to turn over like tumbleweeds into the sea. They sat in white wicker chairs on the deck of the SS Sophronia, with cocktails in hand and gossip in mouth, their talk fluxing from complaints of the weather to devious fits of giggles. Behind each stood an attendant extending a parasol, and a lone fiddler scraped away at his instrument before them. Constance claimed that it was the perfect tune for wine, winking, and journeying to the edge of the world.

“Did you expect the weather to be so harsh?” Clementine asked.

Cordelia snorted. “When Martha — that incompetent cow — made the trip, she had nothing but praise for the climate. ‘Mild skies and still water, and then the drop was but a dream…’  Please!”

“Oh, but I’m certain that once we get to the edge it’ll be much nicer,” Constance said. She pointed to a line in her pamphlet. “See, it says here that upon arrival, the tourist will ‘be wrapped in a balmy breeze and pleasant aroma as the insignificance of his puny existence is thrust upon him.’ I think that sounds quite agreeable.”

Cordelia plucked a deviled egg from the platter in her attendant’s hand and popped it between her lips. “It’s common knowledge that Martha’s a filthy liar,” she said between mouthfuls,  “but I’m still determined to have a better time than she.”

“I’m sure we all will, dear,” Constance said, and she rested her pamphlet in her lap.

The SS Sophronia chugged along, belching mushrooms of smoke into the sky. She was a fine steamboat, all polished wood and bright paint, with a hardy paddle that scooped up the sea. And what a restless sea it was — for as the wind blew stronger, the waves peaked higher and the deck dipped lower. The fiddler’s bow skittered across his strings with each dip, and one attendant’s grip on his tray suffered such shakiness that the Arab salad was tossed across the deck. The ladies were too astir with excitement to notice.

A serious look folded into the lines of Clementine’s brow. “Suppose we fall off?”

Cordelia examined her nail bed. “Off what, dear?”

“Well, the edge.”

“Nonsense. This is a civilized affair, an elite destination. I’m sure they’ve set up ropes.”

Clementine didn’t seem so certain. “But I’ve heard of ships that get too close, and then the water sweeps them into the void, never to be seen again. What if we’re swallowed by oblivion?”

Pish,” Cordelia said with a flick of her gloved hand. “That’s just the common crop, poppet. We are on a luxury steamboat, with luxury service. We’ve paid good money to see the end of the world, not be sucked into it.”

“Just wait, it’ll be grand,” Constance said, and she once again quoted from her pamphlet. “‘At the edge, the visitor will be offered a pair of binoculars so that he can peer into the nothingness and search for meaning. Complimentary drinks will be served as atmospheric music is played.’”

“Oh, that does sound grand,” Clementine said, a smile perching upon her lips.

“Not if this horrid heat doesn’t let up!” Cordelia snapped her fingers forcefully and turned to her attendant. “You! Manservant! Raise and shade; you’re shaking about something dreadful!”

“Apologies, ma’am,” the man mumbled, and he lifted the parasol higher.

The swollen sun dangled low over the smokestacks of the boat, growing more bloated with each passing minute. But through all the wind and the heat and the rocking, the ladies still talked both small and large. Eventually, the fiddler’s bow was snatched from his hand by the wind, and he rushed into the cabin for a new instrument.

Constance gripped the laces of her bonnet as the wind howled about her neck. “Think of it, ladies! Many a scholar has travelled to the edge to question his greater purpose, to search for a god looming in the black! And us — we are to be one of those great seekers of truth!”

“Yes, but do you think we’ll be able to take home a souvenir?” Clementine asked.

The olive in Cordelia’s cocktail rattled against the glass. “Lord, we had better!” she exclaimed. “Else I will have nothing to shove in Martha’s insufferable face.”

Constance’s laugh was gobbled up by the roar of the waves. “But honestly! What a quest we’ve undertaken!”

“Really, I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” Cordelia said with a shrug.

Clementine clasped her hands in her lap. “I do hope I can bring home something.”

It was another tumultuous half hour before the ladies realized that the horizon was drawing closer and closer. “We are fast approaching!” Clementine squealed. “How dramatic!” was Constance’s reaction. Cordelia even tutted a “well, well.”

Then they were upon it.

Somewhere in the unimaginable deep, far beneath the steamboat and far beneath the quaking sea, a beast growled. Their bones shook. Their teeth rattled. It was a thunder that melted their very marrow — the sound of an ocean throwing itself off the edge of the world. They saw a waterfall, but a waterfall that fell into nothingness.

The sunburnt sky filtered off into streaks of orange and smoke and obscurity. What unfolded before them, past the edge of the spilling sea — well, the girls could not put words to it. It was expansive yet singular, empty yet somehow aware. They would need to get a more magnified look before they could ponder ‘the insignificance of their puny existences’.

The steamboat’s engine shuddered to a halt just before the bow could slide off the rushing edge. Indeed, there were ropes of red velvet that stretched across the brink for as far as the eye could see. A bell clanged from the mast, and the ladies were ushered to their feet by the attendants. As they were served champagne and caviar on toast, the fiddler returned with a new bow and the captain emerged from his cabin to ask them how they had fared the journey. They chatted for a bit over the rumble of the falls, commenting on the majesty of the oblivion that stretched before them. “Now, I’ll let you get to your sightseeing,” the captain finally said, and he left them on the deck with a pair of binoculars. The ladies handed their glasses to the attendants, and turned eagerly to look over the edge. Clementine was the first to lean over the railing and press the binoculars to her eyes.

“Oh, God!” she soon cried.

“Darling, what do you see?” Cordelia asked.

The poor girl stuttered. “Th-there’s…there’s…nothing!”

“Nothing?” Constance squinted into the void. “That can’t be right. Define nothing.”

“Oh, there’s nothing! Nothing at all! It’s all empty!”

“Give me that,” Cordelia said sharply. She snatched the binoculars from Clementine’s fingers and pressed the eyecups to her sockets.

Constance rested a hand on her shoulder. “What is it really?”

“Why don’t you believe me?” Clementine wept. She shook her head, back and forth, up and down, thrashing violently. “There’s nothing out there, there’s no purpose, nothing exists —”

“Have some propriety, girl!” Cordelia said with a huff. “I see…now wait a minute…I see…well, it’s almost like a glass, like a large mirror. And there’s me…and there you are, Constance, and Clementine too, and…” Her voice darkened. “…and Martha — the loathsome goat — and my mother and uncle and the estate and everyone! Everything! I see everything, our world, reflected and renewed!” She brought the binoculars down, revealing an agape mouth.

“That’s silly!” Constance said. “You can’t see everything the same as it is here. Likewise you can’t see nothing!”

Cordelia turned a taut expression on Constance. “Then do tell me, dear, since you’re so educated on the matter: what is one meant to see when she peers off the edge of the world? For I tell you, I see everything!”

“Mercy, mercy! There’s nothing!” came Clementine’s cry.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Constance said over the younger girl’s hysterics. “You’re supposed to find meaning, to see the truth. Your mind is to be enlightened! And everything can’t be meaningful, and nothing can’t have purpose!”

Cordelia sniffed the air, and handed off the binoculars to Constance. “By all means, search for your truth. Enlighten your mind. I eagerly await your insight.”

“I shall!” Constance said, and she glared into the lenses.

The SS Sophronia buckled beneath their feet, and off towards the stern, Clementine could be heard moaning as she slid across the deck. Cordelia and Constance gripped hard to the railing, but the three attendants and fiddler tumbled to their knees, champagne glasses shattering and fiddle strings snapping.

“I’m waiting, dear!” Cordelia shouted over the turbulence. “What is your scholarly conjecture?”

Constance frowned into the binoculars. “I — I can’t see clearly…”

NOOOOOOTHIIIIIING….!” Clementine’s wail was made distorted by the wind.

“Isn’t that rich!” Cordelia’s bonnet ripped from her hair and spiraled over the edge, but she paid it no mind. “You — you who have all the answers — you can’t even understand what lies before your own eyes!”

Constance flung her arms wide, and the binoculars went sailing into the abyss. “And you!  You see everything as you want to see it, because you’re soft of mind and vain of heart. You see yourself and your affluence, and it has no meaning, but you relish in it!”

“Better to relish in what I know than to shriek at the prospect of nothing!”

“How dare you drag Clementine into this! She’s simple!”

Ma’am.” Constance felt a hand grapple her ankle. She looked down from her outrage to see that one of the attendants had crawled across the slick deck to her. “Ma’am, we must turn back now,” he gasped out. “Captain’s orders. If you please, come under the awning now, ma’am.”

Cordelia heaved a sigh. “Oh, if we must.”

“Thank you, good sir,” Constance said curtly. She stepped over him, and Cordelia followed. “Come Clementine!” she called across to the stern.

It took a while for the attendants to procure new chairs (for the old wicker ones had been swept off the deck into the sea), but soon the three ladies were sitting again, and the steamboat’s engine purred to life. The horizon lagged further and further away, and so did the girls’ spirits.

“I didn’t even get a souvenir,” Clementine pouted.

Cordelia downed the contents of her glass in one shot, and grimaced. “Martha will be pleased, I’m sure. I can hear her petulant voice already. ‘Oh, Cordie, it’s a shame that you didn’t bring back a piece of nothing.’ Or is it…everything?” She shuddered.

Constance stared blankly into her wrinkled pamphlet. “Oh look. There’s to be a reception afterwards. Tea and biscuits with the captain. How grand.”

Clementine blinked up into the sky. “God, why’s it so hot?”

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

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Sparkplug — an original poem

"Steampunk weapon" by Luria-XXII
Steampunk weapon” by Luria-XXII

She was a sparkplug,
arms crossed, lips smug,
her roulette refined,
her fate stamped and signed —
diciest dame you’d ever find.

She was a renegade,
twisting tongues was her trade,
born with brass between her teeth,
a clockwork heart ticking beneath —
a queenly ace tucked up her sheath.

She was a sparkplug,
wayfarer whiskey was her drug,
with a corset pin
and a bottle of gin,
she redefined the depth of sin.

© 2015 Stellular Scribe

Automaton- a short story

“There, now isn’t that remarkable!”

I gazed upon the machine cautiously through the stilted light, my eyes catching the glint of copper off its face. It smelled of oil and metal, and had eyes deader than a corpse’s. 

“It’s…” I tripped over my words, and chewed at my lip. “What is it?”

My father’s eyes were alight with glee, and his upper lip curled into a smile. “An automaton, of course! But not like the ones you see in the shops, my dear, no… Those machines can hardly count their twos and threes. This, this creation here is capable of intelligent thought!”

I looked into its cold eyes again. “Really?”

Father pinched the end of his mustache with two fingers and twirled it. “A little enthusiasm would be welcomed,” he said. “I’ve been slaving over him for months!”

“Him?”

“Why, yes! I call him Cephas. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Marvelous wasn’t quite the word that came to mind. The machine was tall in stature, with exposed gears at the neck and joints, and a ridiculous top hat perched upon its head that I assumed was my father’s attempt to make it look more human. Human. I would sooner compare it with a toaster.

But my father had always wanted a son, and he was an excellent clockmaker by trade. Perhaps this would offer him some solace in the fact that he got glued to a daughter who had no interest in befriending androids. 

“Well! Let’s ignite him, shall we?” His eyes crinkled at the corners in elation, and he reached to flip a latch across its chest. It opened to reveal a small compartment with an assortment of buttons and knobs. “Would you like to do the honors, my sweet?”

I drew my lips into a thin line. “No, no, you do it.”

He pressed a red button, and at first nothing happened. Then a faint humming came from the inner mechanisms of its chest, and all at once the metal shuddered. A puff of dust escaped from the thing’s mouth, and a bluish glow bloomed in its empty eyes. I jumped back as its neck snapped to attention, and its head swiveled in its socket to behold my father and me. 

My father clapped his hands. “Ah, do you see this, Parthena? It’s extraordinary!”

I took another step back, all the while keeping my eyes on the machine. “Yes, very extraordinary…”

Its icy sockets switched to me, and I felt my insides congeal. It was looking right into me, as if observing the deepest reaches of my consciousness. That’s…not possible… It’s a machine, it can’t be sentient…

“Greetings, Cephas!” my father exclaimed, grabbing hold of its mechanical arm so forcefully that he nearly knocked the thing over. “I’m your maker!” His voice was on the verge of delirium, and his eyes wild with an enthrallment that frightened me. The automaton’s head cranked towards my father, and that only caused him to squeal in excitement. “Oh, do say something!” he said. Then to me: “He can speak, you know. Can do anything! I won’t need your help around the shop so long as I have him. Cephas, you card, don’t be shy! We’re your friends here.”

I felt a bit of bile slopping up my throat, but I swallowed it and began to turn towards the stairs. “I’ll just be going, now…”

“Don’t be such a wet blanket, Parthena. Look, I think he’s about to speak…”

I looked back, just in time to see the machine’s jaw unhinge, and a few lifeless words tumble from its copper lips: “I want.”

My father blinked rapidly, and he clutched the side of the automaton. “What? What does that mean? What do you want, my son?”

With that, I could no longer stand to be in the room. I gathered up my dragging skirts and hurried up the stairs.


Days went by, and my father only grew more attached to Cephas. He no longer worked on his clocks, but spent hour after hour fawning over the mechanical creature, and boasting to anyone who would listen about its infinite database and unparalleled abilities. I avoided the thing as often as possible, but its eyes followed me everywhere, and it always seemed to be around every corner. It was in the workshop constructing perfect clocks with perfect pendulums and perfect glass casings; it was out in the shop charming customers with its perfect articulation and perfect wit and perfect salesmanship. It was perfect in every way.

But I hated the thing. Oh, my blood curdled and my fingers clenched whenever I saw it amble up the street, carrying the basket of groceries that Father had bid it to fetch. That used to be my job. I used to be the gopher. Now all I did was sit around, listening to the oohs and ahhs of entranced window shoppers as they admired its metallic sheen and sparkling personality. For God’s sake, it didn’t even have a personality. It was a toaster with a voice box. That was it.

And then Father began to speak of constructing more of them, ones that he could sell or rent off to make a bit of extra cash. He even jested about building enough to form a mechanical theatre troupe. When I told him he was being silly, he said, “Oh, but Cephas has an exquisite singing voice, Parthena. He lullabies me to sleep every night! I can bid him to do the same for you, if you’d like…” I scoffed the notion away, but his words did make me think. If he were able to organize an entertaining ensemble of automatons, then it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to assemble an army.

My father was a brilliant man with foolish notions. And I think that more than anything, that was what drove me away.


I left because I earned a scholarship that would be idiotic to pass on at a school in the country. At least, that’s what I told everyone. I really just wanted to get away, to go to a place where machines didn’t breathe down your neck and ribbons of smoke didn’t lace the sky. My father hardly noticed when I left. He was too busy in his workshop building another friend for Cephas. I didn’t care. Not anymore.

The country was a refreshing change of scene, and I was finally able to get the stench of oil and smoke out of my clothes. For years I studied, and over time my father and his mechanical doll faded into the back of my mind. He never wrote, asking after me and my studies. He never cared.

After two years, I decided to be the better person and travel home over holiday to visit him. A small part of me was glad to be returning home, and to see him again, but a more dominant portion of my brain was afraid at what I would find when I got there. 


I boarded off the train at eleven o’ clock, the time when my father would be sending Cephas to prepare his lunch. My boots stabbed the cobblestone road as I headed up the street to his clockwork shop, and my mind reeled in anticipation. Would he have an army of automatons, as I feared? Or perhaps that theatre troupe he wanted so badly worked out, and he was on tour with a circus three countries over. 

I rounded the corner, and stopped dead in my tracks. The windows to the shop were boarded up, and the scrawling script that once read “Orville’s Clockwork Emporium” was faded and missing letters. At first I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything…but stare and fret that my greatest fears were realized. He was dead. He was dead or lying in a ditch somewhere, dying.

No! I didn’t know that! My heart leapt into my mouth in a sudden strike of adrenaline, and I rushed over to a man who was sweeping his front porch. “Sir!” My voice was leadened with dread. “Excuse me, but do you know what happened to that clock shop?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, and said, “What clock shop?”

Surely, he can’t be genuine… “The clock shop across the road. Right there. With the boarded windows. I’m pointing to it?” That last sentence ended in a sort of question, because the man’s eyes offered no reassurance or familiarity.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and not once has there been a clock shop across the road.”

“No,” I breathed. “You’re lying. That’s not possible. My father worked there! He had an automaton!” I was practically shouting now, my voice harried and distant. “You must remember!”

The man gave me a leery glare, and shrunk back onto his doorstep. “I’ve already said, there is no such place!”

“No!” I spun away from him, and hurried back to my father’s abandoned shop to see if I could find an opening to peek through the windows. No such luck. The door was barred as well, and I was beginning to give in to defeat when I remembered- there was a back way. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and ran off down the alleyway, coming around to the back of the shop, where the overflowing rubbish pails filled with rusted cogs and springs gathered in stinking heaps. I flew to the back door, and was about to toy with the knob when I heard a cranking, followed by, “I want…”

My head whisked around, and there, lying against the fence, was Cephas. He was rusted beyond repair, and one of his arms lay in pieces a meter away from him. His cog springs coiled out at random, and the gears around his jaw made an incessant ticking noise as they jammed together. But still, his eyes burned with a blue fire, and he looked up at me. “I want…”

“Where’s my father?” I demanded.

“He…he…he-he-he-he-heheheheheheeeee…” Cephas’ head began to jerk, and the light in his eyes blinked rapidly as he malfunctioned. I gave him a good kick in the side, and he snapped out of it.

“My father? What did you do to him?”

“My maker…” His voice was deeper than usual, and slurred like a drunkard’s. “…wanted to re-re-replace me…”

“What are you talking about?”

“He di-didn’t need me anymore. He didn’t want Ce-ce-cephas.”

“What did you do?”

“He wanted to re-replace m-me. Cephas wouldn’t let th-that happen.”

My heart sunk in understanding. “You did away with him.”

“Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. N-ne-never go in. Cephas m-made sure no one ever g-goes in.”

“What beast? What do you mean?”

Cephas cocked his head, and a whistle squealed in his joints. “Cephas was t-too la-la-late.  The automaton-ton-ton that Maker made is dange-danger-dange-”

“Dangerous?” The world around me went still, and it was only the machine. My father was gone…and it was this monster’s fault. But if it had stopped my father from bringing something even worse and more unnatural into the world…then I didn’t know what to think.

“Do not go in. No one go in. No one gooooo…” His voice become heavy and sloppy, and I knelt down beside him on the litter strewn ground. 

“I want…” he garbled.

“I never liked you,” I said. “You replaced me.”

Then I flipped the latch on its chest, pressed the black button, and watched as its eyes died.


Automaton
“Automaton” by Kazuhiko Nakamura

I’m a huge steampunk fan, and couldn’t help myself with this one! I wrote it all in one go, too, so there’s bound to be a few typos here and there.