Rise (a steampunk serial)

A world of steam and revolution.
A work in progress (find out more).


"This is the new world, Olivia."

Steel-plated crabs clambered across the city, their patchwork skin mottled black-brown with rust and pollution. They rattled from rooftop to rooftop, pausing only to vent steam.

"I hate it, Papa."

A strange clamour swelled, a great clanging and chiming.

"What is it?"

"Clocks, child."


"Marking the hour. They have been silent so long, since time and love were outlawed."

"What does it mean, Papa?"

There was a flash on the horizon, followed by a dull thump and a thin plume of smoke. Mechanical claws clacked frantically.

"Someone thinks they can save us."


"What is love, papa?"

"An eccentricity of a bygone age, Olivia." He pulled her back from the window. "History was allowed such luxuries. We are not."

"But why?"

"We cannot afford it. And the Steam Barons forbid it."

"You said the Barons outlaw the things they are afraid of, but-"

"But pretend it is for our own good. Well remembered. Love, loyalty, passion... make men do foolish things."

An explosion, near enough to roar, shook the tower. Dust sifted down from the ceiling, settling on the oak furniture.

He put an arm around Olivia. "And foolish things rarely end well."


There was a pounding on the door, many floors below.


He pulled her close.

"You're hurting me, Papa."

They looked up as Alfred trundled into the room with a rattle and hiss. His brass head bobbed in apology and his chest dial clattered as it span then settled on an image of the front door.

"I know, Alfred, thank you. Olivia... I have disgraced our name. I was but trying to protect you."

Angry shouts rose from the street.

"Tell no one who your father was."

It was like a lance through her heart. "But-"

"I must go. Hide."


Olivia heard cantankerous jeers as her father opened the front door. From her hiding place she couldn't make out the words, and she was glad, the voices were ugly. Sophisticated oratory it most certainly was not.

She held her breath as a great crashing wave of people washed up through the tower. The boards concealing her nook wobbled as booted feet stomped by, and there were sounds of splintering wood and shattering glass before the intruders sluiced away again, back onto the streets.

Some time passed before Olivia dared shift the boards aside and climb out into her broken home.


Olivia's legs wobbled as, in a daze, she roamed the violated remains of her home.

She came upon battered, broken brass and her hand flew to her mouth.


Clockwork spilled from his side and through the rent in his gut she could see his cracked boiler venting precious steam.

His chest graunched, then clacked slowly over to show a spanner. Papa had often promised to install oratory valves, but somehow other matters had always been more pressing.

"I'm sorry, Alfred. I can't..."

A picture of an exclamation mark clacked over, then a skull. Cantankerous to the end.

Olivia wept.


Olivia traced whorls in the broken oak desk top with her finger. Thoughts of her father pelted through her mind.

There were no more tears, and no words. Papa had raised her to be articulate in all situations, but now he...


She would find him.

She rummaged through her wardrobe, her pretty dresses torn but salvageable. And wrong. But folded neatly at the bottom were her overalls, that Papa made her wear in the workshop, that she had secretly always felt more comfortable in.

She would leave the tower, venture into the world, alone and for the first time.


The front door hung from one hinge, angled and open. Olivia peered into the street, looking for the steam-driven crabs that ranged the city, fearful of the mob that had dragged her father away.

She dashed to the alley opposite. The wide sky above made her nervous, the cobbles beneath her feet felt wrong.

At the sound of footsteps she dived behind a pile of sacks. The scent of herbs assailed her nostrils as she pressed herself against the hemp.

Papa's voice sounded in her head: No man is truly altruistic, be wary of all.

The footsteps stopped beside her.


"What 'ave we 'ere?"

An ogre of a man peered over the sacks at Olivia. He was big, meaty and misshapen, with patchy stubble, a puckered scar across his forehead, and greasy hair in a lank ponytail. His tiny eyes were close together, dark and intense.

"Y'er a delicious little thing."

He put one leg over the sacks, straddling them, blocking off her escape route. From his belt he drew a long knife with a filthy, notched blade.

"We're gonna take a walk." He licked his thick lips, "Then we're gonna decant you outta them overalls and inta somethin'... tastier."


There is all manner of demonry out there, Olivia.

She clung to the oaken tones of her father's voice in her head. It was a calm centre about which her mind and heart twisted like twin tornadoes as the grotesque man clutched her chin with strong, chubby fingers.

He leaned in and forced her to look up at him. His breath smelt of rotting meat. His beady eyes were twin portals to the Abyss, windows onto unimaginable evils.

"Oh, yes. Delicious." He smacked his lips and spittle flecked her cheek. "There's an 'ole catalogue of pleasure we'll be explorin' tonight."


Her malformed captor pressed his bulk close as he forced her out of the alley at knife point.

"You smell of aristocracy." He sniffed at her. "Well aristocracy don't mean nothin' no more. Y'er outta ya manse, little princess, and on our streets. The scum 'ave risen and we'll 'ave whatever we take."

Something vile rose in her throat and burnt as she swallowed it back down.

Then she heard a sound over his heavy breathing that froze her and forced the point of his blade sharply into her back. It wasn't something eldritch. It was something worse, familiar, mechanical.


The man behind Olivia grunted in surprise as he too heard the sound of creaking joints and turning gears, of metal tips clacking on cobblestones.

Twice-hinged legs arched across the alley's exit, and then with uncanny speed the rusted carapace slewed into sight, steel claws twitching below, eyestalks wavering from side to side, searching.

She had seen the mechanical crabs from her window before, studied sketches in the margins of her father's technical handbooks, but having one just there, so near, stopped her turbulent thoughts dead still. Her body and mind felt paralysed.

Her captor shoved her towards it.


Olivia heard the trampling steps of the man fleeing down the littered alley behind her, but as she stumbled forwards, she had no time for relief.

She steadied herself. The crab's eyestalks settled on her face and it stilled. A frozen tableau charged with all the suspense between a flash of lightning and the following crash of thunder.

Then a cloud of steam gushed from its dorsal vents and she heard its piston valves rush into motion. A thick claw swung at her and grasped her by the waist.

She tensed for the inevitable end. The crabs knew no charity.


The crabs were not sentient. The gears and clockwork needed for such a marvel would be as vast as the city itself. They were not even as impressive as Alfred's cantankerous, miniaturised reasoning engine. They didn't need to be.

They could not be bargained with or bribed, they were implacable and incorruptible.

The crabs enforced a curfew. Except for certain loci favoured by the Steam Barons and a half hour at dusk and dawn for people to catch the omnibuses to their work in the mines or the manufactories, anyone caught outside was punished.

And the punishment was always death.


The hydraulic tube in the crab's arm tensed and caustic bile rose in Olivia's throat again. She thought she might vomit. She would die here, in the intimate embrace of the barons' machinery, and never find her father. No one would know; no one would avenge her death.

She pictured her father's earnest face.

We do not always get that which we want, Child. But hope should never be fully extinguished.

A fat cylinder wrapped in brown paper bounced off the crab's leg and landed on its carapace. At one end a length of dark twine sparked and hissed angrily.


The hungry spark consumed the twine and disappeared into the broad tube.


Then a compressed moment of intensity. Thunder and light. As if all the noise of the city was in her ears at once, with a flash so bright she thought heaven must have opened, and a fist of heat and pain that punched her back down the alleyway.

Her ears rang and the world swam in and out of focus. A pungent smell filled her nostrils. Cohesive ideas slipped from her mind like silverfish beneath the skirting.

One, asinine, thought remained. The crabs weren't meant to explode.


Shadow people blurred into the alley, jockeying steeds of light and bulging sound. One of them came towards Olivia as the world shifted into focus.

A boy straddled the crab's claw in front of her. His clothes were rough and patched and he had a rag tied over his soot-streaked face.

He called over his shoulder, "Properly disarmed this one, we did."

She groaned.

"'Ave you outta there in a jiffy, miss."

He put a knife to one of the claw's hydraulic tubes.

"No," she coughed, "other one."

He moved the knife and cut. Green-tinged fluid spurted across the cobbles.


The pressure of the claw lessened and Olivia took a deep breath, relief flushing her cheeks.

The boy offered his hand and pulled her up, then he tugged the rag down and grinned at her, "I'm George."

She hesitated, "...Olivia."

"Nice to meet you, Olivia. Sorry about blowing you up 'n' all." He waved at his companions huddled around the smoking remains of the mechanical guard, "The lads are a dim-sighted bunch, and you can't take any chances with them crabs – they're antiquated compared to the Barons' new war mechs, but they can still take a hell of a punch."


George looked her up and down, "You shouldn't be out here alone, miss. Can we escort you somewhere?"

She could walk down the alley and see her home, but trampling, raucous intruders flashed through her mind. "No, I... I have nowhere to go."

He glanced at his comrades and when he turned back he was nodding, with a sad half-smile, "You ain't the only one. But the city has risen, Olivia. We are riding a wave of fire and heresy. Join us."

She thought about her father, and the utility of trying to find him by herself, or the futility.


"Are the Barons defeated then, George?"

"They are at war. But they will return when word reaches them of this glorious malefaction."


"Foolish, maybe."

 "What will happen?"

"The risen men will fight them, but we," He indicated the group of boys they were approaching; "we will need to be as crafty as ever, just to survive."

"George, I need to find Pa–, my father. We lost each other in the commotion."

"We can pass the word, ask anyone we meet. What's your pa's name?"

Tell no one who your father was.

Her heart ached, her mind raced. "Alfred."


George's companions were dressed as he was, in rags, with patches so numerous there was more repair than original garment. One of them looked up, ginger hair tufting from under his woollen cap.

"Who's this then?"

"Olivia. You almost blew her up having your bit of fun."

"Saved her, more like." He winked at Olivia, "Harry, ordnance expert."

A boy with a pox-scarred face snorted, "Are not." He saluted Olivia with a spanner, "Charlie."

"Am too."

"You just found a bag of dynamite."

"Like a toolkit makes you an inventor."

George shrugged, "They're brothers."

"So the gang swells. Another hungry stomach."

"And this is Ruth."


The crab's brass shell had ruptured, exposing the mechanical guts within its steel framework. Hydraulic piping snaked through a cragged mountainscape of cogs and pistons. Steaming water pooled onto the cobblestones from its cracked boilers.

Olivia watched the gang set about it with spanners and hammers, piling parts into cloth sacks.

"Wish we could take it all," George said, "can't tarry though. Be others wanting a share. Dog lords and flesh punks." He spat on the ground.

Olivia frowned at the unfamiliar terms.

Astride the crab's remaining claw Charlie shuddered, "People as make us look well-mannered."

Ruth grimaced, "'Orrible folk."


Olivia was relieved that none of them had thought to ask after her provenance; they were all too busy scavenging. She saw Ruth raise a lump hammer, and recognised the target.


Ruth raised her eyebrows, challenging, "What?"

"Sorry. I didn't, I just thought, would that not be worth more in one piece?"

The other girl snorted, "The crab? S'already in more than one piece, case you didn't notice."

"No, the logic box," Olivia answered, pointing at the steel casing Ruth had been about to break open.

Ruth stared at her.

George coughed. "You know how these godforsaken things work?"


Harry tugged at a wisp of ginger hair. "You saying that little box is its brain?"

Olivia hesitated, suddenly the centre of attention, not sure which question to answer first. "Yes, well, no."

Ruth snorted. "Well ain't you a beacon of enlightenment."

George glared at Ruth. "Go on, Olivia."

"My father is... an engineer. He taught me how things work." Sometimes it seemed like he had just wanted, needed, someone to talk to. "That logic box is nothing so grandiose as the brain, it just controls the claws, I think. It takes a lot to make machines autonomous and coordinated."


"So..." Charlie scratched his pocked face with the spanner, "You can tell us what parts to take. What's most valuable, like."

"Don't flatter her," Ruth scoffed, "she could be talking horse crap."

Olivia balked at the crude word.

"Ha. Look. Been wrapped in cotton wool your whole life, ain't you?"

"Ruth." George held up his hand, half in pacification, half in warning.

They were interrupted by a long howl, followed by more, and high yips and yells. A rising cacophony, some unholy mingling of man and mutt. It sounded to Olivia as if the hounds of hell had been unshackled.


The bestial discord was only a few streets away. Olivia couldn't place it exactly; it reverberated around the buildings and alleys wildly. Its tone shifted between human and animal, and flattered neither.

"Dog lords," Charlie said, paling.

Harry looked at the low sun, "But it ain't night yet."

"The people have risen," George said, "The old rules don't apply no more. Seems like the dog lords want a piece of the action, have thrown their shackles early."

Olivia shivered. "It's terrifying."

"She cottons on quick," Ruth said.

"What do we do?"

George helped her off the crab. "We run."


They ran, her hand in his, and between breaths he told her about the dog lords.

"I ain't gonna varnish this, Olivia. Just the brutal truth. They're a bad crew, erupting onto the streets from below, some place in the sewers, and by the cold light of the moon they hunt. If they catch you, they might just eat you. But they might drag you back to the den.

"We get caught by them, best we can hope for is a quick death, 'cause anything else is worse. They like to play with their food, and they play real nasty."


Dusk painted the sky purple as they raced through twisting alleys and back streets until Olivia was truly lost. Charlie, Harry, Ruth were ahead of them, the dog lords still behind.

"The people they don't eat, they break their minds, turn them, run them with the pack, leashed and savage, forgetting what they were, all varnish of humanity stripped away.

"I been witness to that evil. Makes your blood run cold, seeing an animal in your friend's skin, their goodness ripped away till that beast at the pit of every person erupts with an inhuman wailing and hunger and bloodlust."


A slow fire spread through Olivia's legs, unused to running, and she stumbled.

George pulled her onwards. "No one left behind. No exceptions."

Olivia's breathing rasped in her chest, her eyes fluttered. She remembered a few precious afternoons when her papa had put his parchment and pens aside and brought out his phonograph. He would put on a symphony, Bach or Beethoven usually, and they would listen to its harmonious perfection. High peaks of euphonic blending compared to the abyssal discord of the dog lords and their pack.

She had been torn from peaceful heights and cast down into darkness.


The chase began to feel unreal to Olivia, a horrible dream, worse than any nightmare her brain might have fabricated. They had been running forever, pursued by nebulous bestial men who were unimaginably terrible and always just out of sight.

Their shrieks and howls seemed louder now, but over the roaring in her ears she couldn't be sure. She knew she couldn't go much further; her thigh and calf muscles were stubborn turncoats, somehow both sloppy and stiff, as if she was wading through honey.

If it weren't for George she would have given up and lain down right then.


"We're the abandoned, so the abandoned is our heritage, see?"

George's words were just more noise.

He shoved her sideways at a wall. No, at an open hatch.

She tumbled down a shoot and caught the impression of an enormous basement stretching away from her, but the dim light slimmed to a sliver as the doors were closed, and darkness descended.

Someone slid into her and they spilled across the floor in a tangle of limbs. In the uncertain yellow light of a freshly lit torch she saw George's face close to hers, a finger to his lips for silence.


A tremble threatened to steal through Olivia’s limbs and she pushed at George, not wanting him to feel her shaking. He resisted for a moment then let her roll away.

She lay on her back, bringing her breathing under control. It took a concerted effort not to panic at the not-quite-human not-quite-animal turbulence of the dog lords and their pack rioting past the closed hatch.

Twice in a day. She was flung back to that very morning and her claustrophobic hiding hole, the rioters raging through her broken home, stealing her papa away.

Only stubbornness kept her from crumbling.


The furore passed and for a moment no one dared breathe, or speak. They were cocooned in taut silence ‘til Ruth burst the bubble.

“She can’t stay.” Her hands were on her hips, her lips thin as wire, her eyes challenging.

“Yeah, we are a bit wanting for space...” Harry gestured at the broad expanse of basement.

Charlie’s laugh faltered into a choked cough as Ruth flung the brothers a fiery glare.

“Oh, and we ain’t wanting for grub, I suppose?”

“And what, Ruth?” George asked. “Toss her back out, with the dog lords on the hunt? It ain’t safe.”


“It ain’t never safe, George. When the dog lords slink back down to their hell some other bunch of bastards will bubble to the surface like shit in the great river. The flesh punks’d happily pluck a pretty little piece like her off the streets. The carnival of sin would lap her up. If some gutter thug didn’t wrap a wire round her throat first. Maybe we should just sell her to Old Jeremiah and get us some food; he’d feed her, give her shelter.”

“Ain’t all he’d do,” Charlie muttered, and matching looks of revulsion crossed the brothers’ faces.


“Sell her?” George spat the question out, slim body taught, fists clenched, eyes fierce and angry.

The colour drained from Ruth’s face. “George, I didn’t mean–”

“Didn’t mean what? To make us slavers? To make us flesh merchants? Cos we’d be no better than them scum.”


He glared at her.

Harry looked back towards the outside world, convinced someone would hear George’s tirade. His voice was hushed, urgent, “George.”

George took a deep breath, conceding the warning with a nod. He pointed at Ruth, hammering each word home with a stab of his finger, “We. Don’t. Sell. People.”


George stormed away, disappearing into the dark basement.

The wavering illumination of the torches reflected glassily from Ruth’s eyes. Her hands – held to her sides – had the slightest tremor. She, too, turned and fled, though in a different direction.

Olivia felt stunned, unable to move. Thoughts slipped away from her like sunlight on silk.

People are complex, Olivia, more than any machine.

Her father had tried to convey such things to her many times. She was only just beginning to understand.

“Well,” Charlie said, “I’ve never felt so–”

“Don’t.” Harry interrupted.


“You were going to say ‘Ruthless.’”

“No ... Maybe.”


Harry shook his head, “that doesn’t even make sense.”

“’Ruthless,’” Charlie spread his hands, as if it was obvious, “without Ruth.”

“No. I get it. But a pun has to work both ways, dunnit? And you are the least ruthless person I know.”


Harry made a strangled noise, “It doesn’t work. What you’re trying to convey in this situation–”

“I was just trying to break the tension,” Charlie looked crestfallen, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Harry relented, “I’m sorry, Charlie. You was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and I went and made it worse.”


Olivia tried to understand what had happened. Ruth had wanted her gone, had said cruel things, but Olivia couldn’t help feeling responsible for making Ruth and George fight. She was the outsider here.

“Ah,” she said. The brothers looked at her. “Shouldn’t we do something?”

“Yeah,” Harry nodded, “yeah. Don’t guess Ruth’d be too chuffed to see you though. We’ll go after her.”

“Oh good,” Charlie looked uneasy, “and here I forgot to bring a muzzle.”

“She ain’t gonna bite.” Harry swatted him on the shoulder. “Probably. Let’s just bury our smart tongues. Real deep. Like, fossils and coal deep.”


The brothers disappeared into the yawning depths of the basement, leaving Olivia alone. The surrounding dark became an ominous substance, a looming hungry ink barely held at bay by the wavering torchlight.

The faintest scent of machine oil provided some comfort, evoking memories of the workshop, of papa.

Every so often distant mechanical noises rattled overhead.

She had no idea where George was. Didn’t even know where she was. She had no plan, but any move at all seemed more attractive than standing still, slowly sinking into her own mind.

She took the torch, a timid firefly in the night.


She crossed the basement, the fluttering heart in a body of tremulous torchlight. Pillars loomed in the gloom and were swallowed again as she passed. Her footsteps carried a soft echo, just enough to make her wonder. Black stains streaked the floor, but she encountered little else.

She recalled George saying something about ‘the abandoned.’ Them. The building. Her, maybe. No, she couldn’t believe that. That was paranoia and exhaustion gnawing on her sanity.

No one left behind. No exceptions.

George valued life. Of that she was certain.

The endless basement ended. A wall, green with damp, stretched both ways.


  1. Nice and pacey again. This feels like I'm reading a serial rather than a story. That's not a problem, more an observation. It's almost like each one is a stand alone 100 worder that could be read as it stands or in connection with the others.

    1. Thank you, Pete. =)

      They are definitely being written as self-contained, or at least 'well-rounded,' segments. The trick will probably be in smoothing that out when it comes to editing it all at the end.

  2. Definitely edgy. Love the pace and the action. I'm curious about this world too. Great story!

  3. I loved the first piece I read in the Predictions, and I'm loving how you've developed the story!

    Even with 100 words the flow of each segment is easy on the eye, the pace is excellent. This is building up nicely, Mr. Xero!

    1. Thank you, Cindy. Hopefully it'll keep on building! =D