Alternative History

Claridge of the Klondike

London, 1898

The Solicitor took Father’s will from the hand of an automaton standing next to the desk. He waved the machine away and began reading. “To Euphemia Thorniwork, my Pheemie, my only daughter, I leave whatever money is in my bank account. She is of age, therefore she may receive the bequest without delay. It will contribute towards funding her intended mathematical study. Great things await her.”

Only Father had called me Pheemie. Tears pooled in my eyes at the sound of it spoken in another man’s voice.

The solicitor continued, “I have faith that she will devise a way of paying for the remainder. I also leave her one of my inventions that may facilitate the matter.” He looked up and removed his pince-nez. “That is all. Despite my urging, your father included no indication as to what that is.”

The following day, I tried to poach an egg for lunch. It appeared that, contrary to all Father had taught me about chemistry, it is possible to burn water. As I scraped the cinders into the bin, I was interrupted by a knock on the front door.

A figure stood outside, the shape and size of a man but constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman, with a black band tied around the upper right arm. The face, with a slit for the mouth to enable the voice to project, was smooth. Engraved curlicues above its eyes imitated eyebrows. According to the copperplate letters engraved on its forehead in Father’s handwriting, its name was Claridge. Its green glass eyes fixed mine. “My master – your late father – required that I reside with you as your adviser.”

I took a step back. “Adviser? How can an automaton get me to Oxford University?”

“I have faith that we will devise a way of achieving it.”

My first instinct was to turn the thing away. I hesitated and the bronze man stuck its foot in the path of the door as I made to close it.

“My master created me to learn and grow from my surroundings.”

“I must consider this.”

“He also taught me to cook.”

“Can you poach an egg?”

“It is elementary.”

“Then come inside.” I shut the door behind it. “Where is your key?” I could not see the winding port situated in the head that all automatons required.

“I am powered by a form of battery.” It raised its shirt, revealing a glass panel in its abdomen, fitted with a small brass tap. Inside, two polished metal plates hung in clear liquid. It explained that its brain was a wax cylinder inside its head. “That is where my programming, which tells me how to see the world and how to react, is stored. All my knowledge, my learned behavior and my skills, are etched into logical circuits in the cylinder, ready to be accessed.”

I heard Father’s voice in my mind: “Pheemie! The beauty of numbers, the magic of the sphere!”

“Did my Father scratch science and mathematics into your cylinder?”

It was fortunate that no others would observe my engaging in chit chat with an automaton. Our neighbors were keen observers of social propriety.

It nodded. “After my master taught me literacy, he made me commit his library to memory.”

“All of it?”

“Yes. Of course, it includes many mathematical texts, but my preference is for chemistry. It is easiest to process.”

“I feel that his library connects me to him,” I blurted. “I know it is not in your programming to feel. I am sorry if I… the fact of the matter is that I am still…”

“A period of grieving is within logical parameters. I have computed that his passing was a loss to the world of science, and to you.”

While one could not hold discussions with machines, it might provide a useful method of retrieving information from the library. “You may stay.”

Blessings by the Shade

They still tell stories about the day I was born, of how a lilac comet streaked across the stars and the volcano ceased spitting fires to the heavens. They call it omens but I call it a conspiracy of convenience. This is what made me High Priestess, because I am blessed. The volcano is Lua Pele and Lua Pele is the volcano, and only the High Priestess of Lua Pele can soothe her. She gives us ebon earth for sustenance; she takes our lives with vermilion lava.

The Altar of Lua Pele is not ordinary. While the High Priestesses before me have studied it for lifetimes, I stand before it but once a day. It is not marble, because what marble glistens like the flesh of dew-drenched coconuts? They have only given me the knowledge I need. I am to go to the altar once a day, they whisper, and no more. To my left, on the altar’s top face, are hieroglyphs wrought in bronze; those are for the incantations and they are always first. For the sacrifice a spike rises from the middle, pale as the rest of the altar and thin to a point beyond my observation; that is for the sacrifice’s head and not the heart. The altar needs no cleansing. Its surface drinks like a stranded mariner. I never could find out where all the blood went. The basin to my right is for washing my hands last, its waters redolent of ‘?helo berries that replenish without human touch.

There is a legend of a High Priestess once who had cleansed her hands, made the sacrifice, and then chanted the incantation. On the panel that faces me the altar’s seamless surface has the thinnest crack dark as charred kukui oil. It is the altar’s only flaw. The High Priestess vanished by night, but the legend says no more. I would that I could be so bold.

Sometimes my sister visits me in the night. I have guards and priestesses to keep my privacy, but she enters my chambers unannounced. Even though she is only Queen and I High Priestess, they follow her orders before mine. There were no comets and the volcano did not stop when she was born.

“Sweet sister,” she asks, resting her face next to mine on the pillows, “whom have you sacrificed today?” She knows the answer, but she asks all the same. Her crown is a chain of polished aventurine links, wrapped around her skull thrice, and from it a single black pearl the size of an eye dangles over her forehead.

I tell her. It was the merchant who charged too a high a price for lapis lazuli sweet sister, it was our cousin who tried to usurp you one time too many sweet sister, it was the baker who burned your bread sweet sister. And while she asks for details, she runs her fingers through my hair. Mine is soft and long as hers and the strands shimmer jet violet in the candlelight because we are of the same seed, the seed of Lua Pele, and we are blessed. She strokes my cheeks and rubs her thumb to my lips and nothing more follows when I am good. She does not mind my shuddering.

“Good, sweet obedient sister, blood of mine by half,” she whispers when she leaves, still with the moons high in the sky or as night gives way to dusk. I draw the curtains around my bed to lie still and weep. To her I am always half-sister and never elder-sister.

Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues

Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.

Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.

“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.

“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.

“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”

Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.

Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.

“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”

Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.

Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.

“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.

Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.

Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.

Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.

Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”

Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.

Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.

Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.

“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.

“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.

The Death Of More


Shadows danced around the sparsely furnished cell as his candle guttered in a draft. It was a large room, and thankfully above the worst stink and grime of the lower tower, but a cell nonetheless. The tattered, threadbare robe he had worn for the past fourteen months fluttered about his legs as he shuffled across to the bed.

He lowered himself down onto the straw pallet pushed up against the wall. For most of his life he had lived in palatial homes, and slept on massive four-poster beds with feather mattresses swathed in silk sheets. Servants lit fires to drive away the slightest chill, and the kitchen was always ready to accommodate him. My goodness, he thought, how things have changed. At least it was summertime, and the brutal heat of the day had surrendered to a warm, humid night.

This cell had been the abode of some of the most famous and wealthy prisoners ever to find themselves confined in the tower. The conditions of their stays largely depended upon their ability to curry favor or mercy from the Crown. Many were allowed to furnish the cell as if it were their own home. The most privileged prisoners could walk about the tower grounds, and even host guests with dinners of roasted capons, puddings and wines. Thomas had no illusions about his standing with the King. He had been allowed only the most rudimentary comforts, those which his family could beg, buy or smuggle in to him. A short, three-legged stool, a chest for his small possessions and provisions, and the straw mattress for which he was immensely thankful; it was the only soft thing in the stone chamber.

In the end though, we are all prisoners here, he mused. Fine furnishings did nothing to change that, evidenced by the hundreds of scratched pleadings in the stone walls. They were perhaps the only lasting memorials to the poor souls who had languished out their last days here. Thomas had read them all. Some were simple protestations of innocence, some were whimsical poetry, and still others were fervent pleas for succor or salvation. The sheer desperation of the etchings was enough to destroy the morale of any man. He was not just any man though; Sir Thomas More was a knight of the realm, and until his conviction of high treason, had held the post of Lord Chancellor. One of the most powerful men in England and a favorite of the King himself, and yet now he was sleeping on straw in the Tower of London. That was not the worst of it though. Today was July 5th, the year of our Lord one-thousand-five-hundred-and-thirty-five. On the morrow, he would lose his head.