Within Victorian Mists…

23 Apr

A GSP release from Author of the Week: Steven R Southard.

Within Victorian Mists by Steven R. Southard

If the fog of time had lifted a bit differently on the 19th century, and you could mix a hauty Englishman tinkerer, a plucky American steam engine repair-woman, laser holograms, giant dirigibles, and ornithopters, you might just get one madcap steampunk romance. Strap on your brass-rimmed goggles to see what happens . . . Within Victorian Mists.


Hoping for success this time, Stanton Wardgrave threw the knife switch. Through smoked-glass goggles, he watched his apparatus, fearing another failure. On the laboratory table, an image began forming at the end opposite the gleaming mirrors and prisms. A reddish apparition shimmered there, a tall, glowing blob lacking any distinct features or shape of its own. A voice issued from the crimson ghost, Stanton’s own voice.
    “John, by the grace of God King of England,” the voice said, “Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls—”
    “The bloody devil take it!” Stanton said as he jerked back on the switch lever to open the circuit. The apparition vanished. Its voice ceased. Stanton stared at the arrangement of prisms, mirrors, and lenses, wondering what other adjustments he could make now. Nothing seemed to make a difference.
    “Sir, may I present—”
    “MacSwyny!” Stanton tore off his goggles to glare at his rotund, red-haired servant standing at the laboratory’s entrance. “I told you not to interrupt . . .” he trailed off as he saw other people silhouetted by the sunlight in the doorway behind MacSwyny.
    “Apologies, sir,” MacSwyny rolled the final consonant, “but ‘tis Tuesday. Two o’clock on Tuesday.”
    Stanton straightened up. “Confound it, man. My no-interruption rule remains in force on Tuesdays at two o’clock, and at all other times. Now, go.” Stanton dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
    “Sorry, sir,” MacSwyny remained stationary, but looked uncertain, “but ye had agreed to meet with your sister at this hour.”
    “Eh?” Stanton frowned, searching the backroom shelf of his mind reserved for social trivialities. “Amelia . . . Tuesday . . . ah, yes, I recall now.”
    “Oh, now you recall,” Stanton’s sister Amelia entered the laboratory, blonde curls bouncing beneath her pink bonnet. “After we’ve trudged all the way from the house to your dreary, dusty hideaway.”
    “Amelia, I’ll not put up with—”
    “And did you also recall that I was to introduce my friend to you today?” Amelia curled a gloved finger and a second woman entered the room. “She’s the one I told you about, whom I befriended during my trip to America. Now she’s visiting here.”
    This newcomer stood taller than Amelia, almost to Stanton’s height. Overcome by his foul mood, Stanton noted very little about her other than her shoulder-length brown hair and rather plain blue traveling garments.
    “May I present Josephine Boulton, from New York, in America,” Amelia said.
    The American stuck out her right hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wardgrave,” she said, in a pleasant alto voice marred by a jarring Yankee accent.
Stanton was taken aback, being used to bows and curtsies at formal introductions.
    “Charmed, Miss Boulton,” he shook her hand, surprised at the firm grip. “I really must apologize for the condition of my laboratory.” With a glare at MacSwyny, he added, “I wasn’t expecting visitors.”
    “It’s your own fault, really,” said his sister. “If you concentrated on your social appointments as much as you think about this—whatever it is . . .” She waved a hand over the experiment table as if to sweep it away. “For some reason, when I mentioned your silly laboratory to Josephine, she actually wanted to see it, didn’t you, Jo? Well, I must go now. Entertain Josephine, won’t you, Stanton? And try not to bore her to exhaustion.” Amelia strode out the door with shocking swiftness.
    “What?” Stanton stared after her in open-mouthed disbelief. “Amelia! Come here!” He ran to the door, but saw no sign of her. No doubt she’d hidden among the hedges of his nearby garden. If he ran out to find her, she’d skip to a different hedgerow until they would both be scampering about, making them both look foolish. Stanton knew his sister’s games too well.
    So now Amelia was playing the matchmaker again. Stanton snickered at the thought of just how wide of the mark her Cupid’s arrow had flown. Not only was he uninterested in the burden of female companionship at the moment, but even if that had been otherwise—what on Earth would attract him to this Yankee creature?
    Still, the present situation wouldn’t be helped by undue rudeness to a guest. “I’m terribly sorry, Miss Boulton,” he cleared his throat as he re-entered the laboratory, “this is all most unseemly, you being here without a proper chaperone. We must locate my sister at once.”
    “Chaperone?” the woman looked up from the apparatus on the table, at which she’d been gazing. “Am I in danger, here with you and you servant?”
    “Absolutely not,” Stanton said. “It’s just . . . well, it isn’t done . . .” Did Americans not know the rules?
    “That’s settled, then,” she said, “and I’d very much like you to explain this equipment here.” She pointed, her finger almost brushing a mirror.
    “Don’t touch that!” Stanton snapped. Then, softer, “I’m sorry. Please, just leave the equipment alone. It’s delicate and much too complicated to explain to, uh, to . . .”
    “—to a woman?” Boulton frowned at him and crossed her arms.
    “Well, of course, to a woman,” Stanton said. “This is intricate machinery, well beyond the understanding of any—”
    “It’s an experiment in optical physics,” she interrupted, returning her attention to the table. “Here you use electricity from a voltaic pile to produce light. Over here you split the resulting beam, and there you guide the beams with mirrors and lenses to that end of the table. The light rays meet there at an acute angle . . .”
    Stanton blinked. This strange woman had somehow correctly guessed at the rudiments of his device. He found himself rather impressed with her powers of discernment. What sort of female was this?
    “. . . and from the noise you were making as we approached your laboratory,” she continued, “I deduce that this machine doesn’t work.”
    “It works, indeed,” Stanton struck a defensive tone, “just not as well as I would like. You see, this device with the ruby rod and the mirrored ends produces a powerful coherent beam of light. I call it a ‘dynaphoter,’ from the Greek for ‘mighty light.’ Where the separated dynaphoter rays meet again they form a picture in three dimensions. I call the entire apparatus an ‘Omni-Sim,’ from the Latin for ‘whole image.’”
    “You could as well have stuck with Greek and called it a ‘holo-gram,’” the young woman pointed out.
    Stanton would not admit that he liked that name better. “I’ve kept the Omni-Sim small,” he went on, “so that it can be packed up and carried in a briefcase.”
    “Can you turn it on and show me?” Josephine asked with a hopeful smile.
    “I really don’t think—”
    “I’d love to see it. The whole thing sounds wonderful.”
    Stanton sighed. “Ah, well. Please bear in mind that it is an uncompleted project. First, however, you must don goggles to guard against the hazards of the dynaphoter rays.”
    He handed her the goggles usually worn by MacSwyny when he assisted Stanton, and told MacSwyny to avert his eyes. The goggles featured brass frames, darkened round lenses, and leather straps to go around the head. Josephine removed her sky-blue bonnet and put on the goggles without hesitation, as if part of her daily wardrobe.
    When Stanton turned on the machine, the same vague reddish blob appeared, and the voice began speaking again.
    “It’s amazing!” Josephine studied the ghostly apparition from all angles. “And it speaks quite clearly. What is it reciting?”
    “The Magna Carta,” Stanton said, still disappointed in the Omni-Sim’s image quality and in his complete lack of ideas for improving it.        





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