A steampunk tale of tragedy for moon-eyed lovers.
London, England 1849
The man known to the world as Doctor Stormshock stood before the Tower of London, his mechanical gauntlets hurling electrical bolts in the direction of the British Bobbies, forcing them to withdraw.
Compared to some in Stormshock’s line of work, he was dressed modestly: a dark brown suit and cape, lightning bolt insignia on his lapels and twin mechanical gauntlets connected by cables to a backpack. Beneath his top hat, a mask and goggles kept his identity from the world. Clipped to his belt was a bag containing several choice items pilfered from the Crown Jewels of England. Stormshock and his warrior-automatons had made it out of the Tower and the wide grin on his masked face communicated to the world his belief that there were no impediments to making his escape.
That smile was wiped from his face in an instant.
Out of the clear blue sky dropped a lone figure clad in blue, white and red with the emblem of the Union Jack on his cowl and chest. The outline of muscles were visible even under his costume, and his telltale lantern jaw, along with his garments, were all the introduction he needed, for this was the legendary super-sailor of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Navy, the greatest defender and champion of the Empire.
“Freedom Jack,” Stormshock said. Wasting no time, Doctor Stormshock pointed to the costumed crime-fighter and commanded, “Attack, my clockwork minions! Beat that flag-wearing fool within an inch of his life!”
Doctor Stormshock’s brass men piled on Freedom Jack en masse; powerful automatons grappled with the Union Jack-clad hero who, undeterred by the odds against him, delivered gloved blow after gloved blow into their midst.
Doctor Stormshock turned to run from his arch-nemesis but only took a few steps before being hurled from his feet by a pair of nearby explosions. As Stormshock stood, he looked to the skies to see a young woman, her long blonde hair flowing in the wind behind her from under her winged tiara. On her eyes were her ubiquitous flying goggles and around her maidenly form was a gleaming brass mechanized suit of her own design. The suit’s sweeping metal wings and built-in rocket pack provided her the power of flight. Over her shoulders, on small train-like tracks, her suit was drawing up and reloading a fresh pair of offensive rockets.
“Steam Valkyrie! Freedom Jack will need more help than the likes of you can provide to stop me!” Stormshock hurled bolts of electricity through the air at the flying heroine but she nimbly evaded his blasts. Doctor Stormshock adjusted the dials on his equipment and began to throw shorter, less powerful blasts more often into the sky. The Winged Wonder whirled and dove and spun, going full evasive against the onslaught. She was managing no attacks of her own against Doctor Stormshock but neither was Stormshock landing any blows upon her.
Behind him, Stormshock could hear a repetitive sound, like dropping something heavy upon pavement over and over again, or the low tones of distant drum beats, a sound suspiciously like very heavy footfalls —
Stormshock turned just to see a hugely muscled man with thick brown, leathery skin and three horns on his head plow through the middle of his mechanical men. The charge continued all the way to Doctor Stormshock’s own position and he barely managed to dive out of the way before being trampled. This was yet another hero Doctor Stormshock recognized though they had never before worked together against him.
“Tricerator — you too? This is hardly sporting, don’t you think?” Stormshock asked with a grin, resetting his equipment. “Not that I don’t love a challenge!”
The huge creature before him caught its breath and prepared to charge again. Tricerator was once a sickly, frail man who had traveled the world seeking a cure for his unknown affliction. He had found succor in a cure concocted from Dr. Jekyll’s own formula but that cure had been somehow contaminated by dinosaur blood recovered from the Royal Science Academy’s expedition to Antarctica. In a few agonizing, excruciating moments, the injection turned a weak, nearly skeletal man into the huge behemoth Doctor
Stormshock saw before him, the hero known as Tricerator, the Juggernaut of Justice.
Doctor Stormshock didn’t wait for Tricerator to charge again. Two bolts of electricity arced out from Stormshock’s brass-covered electro-gauntlets, catching the stout hero directly in the chest. Tricerator howled and was knocked away by the blast.
Stormshock laughed and turned to continue making his escape but with the first step found a fist waiting for him. He took a punch to the face and after that, one to the stomach. Blinking as he stumbled back, he saw the costume-clad form of Freedom Jack before him. Freedom Jack pulled way back and delivered a haymaker punch to Doctor Stormshock’s jaw that sent him reeling to the ground. Dizzy and shaking his head, Stormshock was pulled up onto his feet by Jack. Freedom Jack then took both gauntlets into his hands and crushed them. Doctor Stormshock screamed as both his arms were broken instantly.
With a single blue gloved hand, Freedom Jack lifted Doctor Stormshock from the ground by his throat. Stormshock’s gauntlets, now ruined, sparked and sputtered, and bits of metal casing and circuitry fell to the earth.
“Your perfidy is now ended, Doctor Stormshock. You’ll get life in the Panopticon for this,” Freedom Jack said.
Doctor Stormshock searched his mind for a witty retort, some last statement of defiance but the pain of his wounds was too great and he gratefully succumbed to unconsciousness.
* * *
Twenty years later…
Herbert Schocke, the man who once made the Empire tremble as the costumed ne’er-do-well Doctor Stormshock, the Electric Highwayman, worked on the cylinder reader of the broken brass automaton head on the table before him. The unit had malfunctioned in its routine patrol duties and part of Herbert’s standard contract was a repair and maintenance agreement, a warranty of sorts, regarding his handicraft. He tilted his head at the mechanism while he puzzled out the error.
There was a knock at the door. Herbert put down the automaton head, wiped the grease from his hands onto his work apron and opened the door. Before him stood Freedom Jack, twenty years older than when he’d seen him last and no less impressive. The powerfully-built lantern jaw he remembered held a few more lines, a crease here and there, similarly the edges of the eyes visible through his blue, white and red cowl, but otherwise, Her Majesty’s man-mountain was much the same as he’d always been. Herbert sighed, knowing he hadn’t weathered quite as well.
Without a word, Herbert turned from the door, leaving it open and walked behind the counter and waited. Freedom Jack entered Herbert’s establishment, marked outside by a swinging wooden sign labeled “Doctor Stormshock’s Mechanical Soldier Emporium” and looked around. On display were a few mock-ups of what Herbert had to offer perspective clients and various parts thereof, mechanical heads, arms, legs and torsos, various weapon attachments, even kits to employ his artificial limbs as replacements for the lost limbs of soldiers, a lucrative line after the Americans’ own recent unpleasantness. Herbert waited, careful to remain perfectly still, while Freedom Jack continued his survey of the room.
“Well, well, well, Doctor Stormshock. I’d heard you’d been paroled – for good behavior, no less. Keeping busy?”
Herbert nodded. “As much as I am able to, sir. As for my parole, I have you to thank for my freedom – it was your testimony about my assistance to you and Doctor Labyrinthe against the Necromaturge that turned the tide.”
Jack looked wistfully into the distance for a moment. “The Necromaturge – that was a sticky business, wasn’t it, eh Stormshock?”
“Quite,” Herbert said. “And it’s just Herbert Schocke now, sir, I only keep the name Doctor Stormshock on the sign to drum up business.”
“And has business been good?”
“I’ve sold automaton units to a number of local banks and other businesses statewide, sir. Given my past, I’m just grateful people have been willing to look past my faults and give me the benefit of the doubt.”
Freedom Jack nodded. “No doubt. No doubt. So – none of reverting to your old tricks then?”
Herbert shook his head. “No sir. Not at all. I run an honest business. I’m not a rich man but I make an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.”
Freedom Jack smiled for the first time upon entering Herbert’s establishment. “That’s good to hear. I’d hate to think you’d run all the way to the States to think you could carry on as you did back home and evade justice. These ingrate colonials may be next of kin to savages but if I did think you were up to your old schemes, I’d be back over to this side of the Pond as fast as I could lay my hands on an airship.”
Herbert shook his head. “I’ve broken no laws since arriving here, nor do I intend to, sir.”
“You don’t have to keep calling me, sir, Schocke, I’m not here to arrest you or anything. We’re just two men talking.”
Jack picked up one of the brass mechanical heads and examined it more closely. “And this is all you do?”
“I lecture from time to time at the university for a small stipend. It helps when business is slow.”
“I see. And the university is – aware of your, past, as it were?”
“They are, sir. The local sheriff’s name is Irene McDaniel. She knows about my checkered past and my hopes to make a fresh start here.”
“I know,” Jack put the automaton head down and walked over to face Herbert at the counter. “I spoke to her and the Dean of the university before I came here. I’m happy to see you’ve rehabilitated, Schocke. It’s always good to see when the story has a happy ending – to know the system works.”
Jack extended a blue gloved hand over the counter to Herbert.
Herbert swallowed, took Jack’s hand in his and shook it. Jack very nearly crushed the bones in Herbert’s hand with the handshake, keeping his eyes on Herbert’s all the while. Herbert said nothing and simply smiled when his hand was released.
“Well, I’ll be off then. Take care of yourself Schocke.” Freedom Jack began to pull the door closed behind him.
“And you too, sir,” Herbert called after him.
The door closed and Herbert leaned over the counter and sighed, shaking his hand in pain.
Herbert had never before been more grateful that he had confided his situation with the Sheriff and the Dean when he’d first made his way to American shores. He was reasonably sure they wouldn’t care that much about crimes committed half a world away but he was sure that if he kept it from them and they found out at some inconvenient moment that it would cost him. And now, it seemed that estimation was correct. He’d built a fairly thriving business selling automaton guards and maintaining them; things weren’t as staid as he had implied to Jack, but the sudden appearance of a legendary, if aging, British hero and accusations of a hidden, notorious criminal past could have ruined all he had built. That fear, at least, Herbert could put to bed.
Herbert closed shop early and made his way to the local saloon for a drink. The drudgery of mechanical maintenance seemed even less interesting than it had shortly before. Herbert hadn’t even removed his oil-covered apron, simply locked the door behind him and walked down the street.
Quiet conversation and a pleasant tune on the piano greeted Herbert as he made his way into the bar. The saloon was much the same as it always was, a few patrons enjoying cards, liquor and tobacco, a man playing piano and the owner, Charlie Caldwell, behind the bar. Caldwell was a robust man in his thirties, known for the length of his handlebar mustache and the fastidiousness with which he kept his bar clean. There was almost no time he was visible behind the bar that he was not seen cleaning something.
Herbert plopped down on a stool at the bar. Caldwell looked at him trying to shrewdly work out what was the matter. “Ya look like hell, Herbert.”
“I feel like hell, Charlie. I need a drink.”
“What’s it gonna be?”
“Whiskey comin’ up.”
Charlie poured Herbert a whiskey, which Herbert drank immediately and then another, which Herbert also drank immediately. He held the bottle over the glass and looked to Herbert, who nodded, and then poured a third drink. Herbert let that one sit for the time being.
“You gonna tell me what’s eatin’ ya?” Charlie asked.
“My old – nemesis – came to my shop just now. Freedom Jack.”
“That feller what wears the British flag?”
“The same. He came to check up on me after twenty years. Said he spoke with the Sheriff and the Dean. Thank goodness I admitted to them that I’m an ex-felon or I might have lost everything.”
“But ya didn’t. So it’s all right.”
“No I didn’t.” Herbert sighed in relief. “It’s all right.” A strong hand clamped down on Herbert’s shoulder.
“Doctor Stormshock?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
Herbert lowered his head, sighed, again, and finished the drink before him.
“Herbert Schocke, proprietor, yes.”
Herbert turned about on his stool to see a man wearing a suit and a string tie with a briefcase in hand. “Daryl Parks, Deputy Mayor, Purvis, Mississippi. Is there somewhere private we can talk?”
Herbert nodded. “My shop is just down the way.”
A short while later, Herbert unlocked the door and held it open for the well-dressed man. Herbert again walked behind his counter. “To what do I owe this visit, Mister –?”
“Parks. Daryl Parks. As I said, I’m the deputy mayor of Purvis. We’d like you to help us with a bit of a problem we have.”
“I’m sure I can provide you with automatons to help you with a number of security needs. I have automatons that can –”
Parks cut Herbert off.
“While I’m sure we will certainly be making the purchase of a number of your mechanical soldiers, our needs are somewhat – larger – than that.”
“Perhaps you should begin with the exact nature of the problem before us, sir,” Herbert said.
“I couldn’t agree more, Dr. Schocke. Purvis, Mississippi, you see, is under attack from the Moon.”
* * *
Over the next few hours, Daryl explained to Herbert the strange occurrences that had befallen the people of Purvis – meteor showers, the strange sounds and lights in the air at night, the howling and inexplicable behavior of pets, farm animals and horses, the disappearance of a local young couple. While there was no clear proof of the involvement of men from the Moon, that was the predominant belief among the townspeople.
“And so, you see, sir, something must be done – even if it is just to return the people to a state of calm. Our town cannot endure with the people certain of imminent attack from the heavens.”
It was decided that, for a stipend, Herbert would travel back with Daryl to Purvis, survey the situation and address the people there. Herbert began to conceive of a plan for the town’s defense, should moon men, Lunarians Herbert began to call them, actually be responsible. And if there were no actual threat, the fees to be gathered from the enterprise would still be enough to feather Herbert’s nest for a good long time to come. For the first time in over twenty years, things were looking up – no pun intended – for Herbert Schocke.
* * *
A train ride later deposited Herbert and Daryl at the newly constructed railway station in the tiny town of Purvis, Mississippi. A meeting was scheduled to take place between Herbert and the Mayor in two days time, to allow Herbert to speak with the locals and see if he could ascertain what the trouble was and how it should be best dealt with. Herbert’s interviews in the local pub went much the same as the stories Daryl had told him on the train ride from Oxford: the attacks of the “Moon Men” had been heralded by a series of meteor showers. Strange craft had been seen in the heavens at night, craft which flashed otherworldly colored lights and which fixated animals in an agitated fashion.
Herbert’s instincts were to dismiss the possibility of Moon Men but the truth was he found himself thinking he could not entirely discount the possibility; he’d seen much strangeness during his career as a costumed criminal. The exploits of the mystic Doctor Labyrinthe and Herbert’s own encounters with the Necromaturge’s death demons and steam zombies had convinced Herbert there was more in the world than mere Science could explain. But, yet, he thought, Lunarians? It seemed so far fetched.
Herbert sat atop a tree on the highest hill in the region, surveying the town of Purvis by night through a set of binoculars of his own design. The town was still and quiet; settled primarily by farmers, Purvis was the sort of place where people didn’t bother to lock their doors and went to bed early so as to rise in the predawn hours to milk their cattle.
Hours passed and while the full moon overhead afforded Herbert enough light to get a good view of the environs, there was simply nothing to see and he began to grow bored. Or at least, he was, until he noted, on the horizon, low and slow above one of the outlying farms was an unusual twinkling light source. Refocusing the multi-lens binoculars he had with him and calibrating for the estimated distance, he could see more clearly – an array of colored lights, blinking in odd patterns and illuminating a vaguely disc-shaped form floating above a farm.
Herbert slid down the trunk of the tree he was in and made his way as fast as he could manage without chance of injury in the direction of the strange airborne vehicle. In the distance, he began to hear the howling of dogs and the auditory agitation of other animals from the farm. Herbert quickened his pace.
Reaching a point within a hundred yards of the farm, Herbert took to another tree so as to spy upon the situation. The farmer and his family stood outside their home, pointing at the floating form in the sky. A dog on a leash at his master’s feet howled and howled and howled into the night sky. Unusual sounds echoed from the property. Herbert guessed they emanated from the barn. As Herbert began to sweep the surrounding area around the farm with his binoculars, he spied movement. Again adjusting his binoculars, he spotted a man manipulating a box of controls. As Herbert watched, the disc above the farm made a few more passes overhead and then drifted off into the night. The man with the box followed and Herbert assumed the two made rendezvous. When the man began to make his way back in the direction that Herbert himself had come from, Herbert decided to quietly follow him.
* * *
Herbert crept up upon the small cabin on the side of the hill overlooking the town, the very hill Herbert had started his odyssey from. Inside, candlelight flickered and mocking laughter echoed outwards. Herbert was now reasonably sure about what it was that was actually assaulting the poor people of Purvis. He approached and knocked on the door.
The laughter inside stopped in an instant.
A voice called out from within. “Uh, hello?”
“Open up in there. Right now,” Herbert said.
The door creaked open and a trepidacious youth peered out from behind it. Herbert simply stood there and placed his hands on his hips. The youth opened the door wider.
“Let me guess,” Herbert began. “A balloon, perhaps a hot-air balloon, with a battery-powered propeller and rudder set to receive orders by radio and a number of colored flares behind shutters that open and close in a random or some prearranged fashion and finally, a number of high-frequency whistles set to allow a portion of the hot air from the balloon’s bag to pass through them to agitate the local animal life? That about it?”
The youth’s eyes widened.
“You the law? Ya gonna turn me in?”
“No, son. What’s your name?”
“Peter Morris, sir. And pardon me, but if’n ya ain’t the law, then who are ya?”
“My name is Herbert Schocke. I’m not a law enforcement officer but we need to talk.”
* * *
Peter Morris was a talented young man who had studied with a number of the railway engineers before they left town. They’d encouraged him to apply at the university in Oxford and he’d done so, eager to learn. While he managed to pass the entrance examinations, the fees charged by the university were too great for him and thus, he was to remain in Purvis. Out of anger, disappointment and boredom, he had concocted his rather elaborate prank.
Herbert, for his part, explained the circumstances by which he had come to Purvis and the two agreed to work together and so, a few days after, they stood together at a town assembly called by John Purvis, Mayor of Purvis, Mississippi, and third surviving son of the town’s founder, Thomas Purves.
Mayor Purvis took the podium and spoke to all assembled. “As I promised, I have written the governor about the goings on of late here in Purvis and the governor has responded. I shall read the governor’s letter to you all right now.
“My dear friend, John, as an educated man, I give no credence to this talk of ‘moon men.’ Rest assured however, that we in the state capitol always have the interests of the good people of Purvis in our hearts and in our minds as we go about the work of rebuilding this great state of Mississippi and should you have need of it, we assure you of our readiness to provide you whatever aid necessary to maintain the peace and security of our beloved citizens. Yours truly, Brigadier General Adebert Ames, Military Governor of Mississippi.”
A farmer stood from his seat. “So – is he going to do anything?”
“To put it simply, no,” the Mayor said.
There was a great rumbling from the assembled.
“But what can he do? There is no proof. No one has been harmed, not the head of one of our cattle touched. The Governor stands ready to assist us if some threat should emerge but until that happens…”
Old Amy Morris stood, wringing her hands in her apron. “So we just wait for these moon men to strike in strength?”
“It is my devout hope that it will not come to that,” Mayor Purvis said.
The crowd fell silent for a moment.
Josiah Hughes, a local farmer spoke up. “Mayor, did ya mention moon men in your letter to the Governor?”
“Of course not! I simply mentioned the witnessed strange sightings in the sky after the meteor shower.”
“Then how did he know we were talkin’ ’bout moon men?” Josiah asked.
Everyone looked at Josiah.
“It seems t’ me that if ya didn’t mention it, he shouldna known that,” Josiah said.’less he already knew what was goin’ on here from someone else.”
“I don’t see what you’re getting at…” the Mayor responded.
“What if the Governor knows the moon men are ’bout to attack – what if he’s known all along and he’s not gonna do anything about it?” Josiah asked.
Another citizen replied, “You mean, like he’s in on it? Or they got to him or somethin’?”
The Mayor spoke up. “That’s a serious allegation, Mister Hughes. And again, there’s no proof.”
Another farmer took to his feet. “Proof, proof! All this talk o’ proof! If ah see a man lurkin’ outside mah house in the bushes with a rifle, do ah need to wait for him to shoot mah family or steal mah cattle before ah drive him off mah land?”
The meeting degenerated into chaos as the good citizens of Purvis, Mississippi took to their feet in unison and began to argue with each other and their elected representatives. The din began to rise higher in intensity and volume until the Mayor interjected.
“Good people, good people! Silence!” The crowd calmed down and a few of them resumed their seats. “Please, please sit down and be patient. We do have a plan.”
The rest of the crowd appeared less agitated, and order restored, resumed their seats.
The Mayor continued, “Our own Daryl Parks has gone all the way to Oxford, Mississippi to fetch us an expert on these matters. Ladies and gentlemen of Purvis, I give you Dr. Herbert Schocke.”
Herbert swallowed and then walked from the back of the assembly up to the podium before those gathered.
“Good afternoon. The Mayor and his Deputy have briefed me on your situation and I do believe I can furnish a solution.”
“What can ya do that the Governor cain’t?” a voice called out. Numerous voices cried out in agreement.
Herbert put his hands up and quiet was restored.
“Allow me to explain. These Lunarians, as we in the scientific community call them, are no doubt encouraged to attack your town because it is remote and has no immediate defenses. As a bully looks for the weakest man to pick on, so too do invaders seek out weakness. We must show the Lunarians that the people of Purvis are not to be trifled with and that they should find easier pickings elsewhere.”
“But how can we do that?”
“Ladies and gentlemen – we shall build a rocket!” Herbert waited while Peter brought up the illustrations Herbert had prepared. The crowd oohed and ahhed and people in the rear of the assembly strained their necks to see the illustrations better.
“With your donations and your labor, we shall erect the largest rocket ever created, and armed with an aetheric warhead of my own design, we will launch it towards the capitol of the Moon, which my telescopes will locate. When this attack lands, the Lunarians will know they cannot trifle with the people of Mississippi and not be themselves molested in return. With this single, devastating attack, they will leave your town alone, forever.”
* * *
Over the next few weeks, Purvis became a whirlwind of activity. On the hill overlooking the town, a launch gantry was built, a great metal tower of cross hatched beams of steel laid on a foundation of concrete. Numerous huts and shacks for the assembly and storage of tools and raw materials were erected, even a small log cabin, complete with a rooftop observatory was built for Herbert. Peter acted as Herbert’s assistant, directing the workmen and handling much of the paperwork involved in procuring parts from cities both near and far.
The people of Purvis gave generously to a common fund to pay for the expense of the rocket, which Herbert insisted be administered by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, so as to prevent any possibility of shenanigans. He had also insisted a portion of that fund go to those reputable individuals as the administration of a special fund did not otherwise fit into their elected duties. Herbert and Peter were paid a salary from this fund, half at the outset of their historic mission and half at its completion.
The pair of them had even arranged to make some money on the side. At first, it began when Peter allowed some curious children to look through the telescope atop Herbert’s new home and someone suggested people would pay for the privilege. When small lines began to form and people began to picnic on the hill and look at the construction, Larry Bradley, the owner of the town’s general store approached Herbert with the possibility of his setting up an establishment on top of the hill. Officially, the Mayor had ceded the entire hill to the rocket enterprise for the duration and so Bradley couldn’t begin construction on the hill without Herbert’s consent. In the end, a “Moon Store” was constructed adjacent to the other projects on the hill, ostensibly to more easily provide snacks, tools and equipment to the work men building the rocket, but also various collectibles and memorabilia were made available to the public, for which Herbert received a consideration.
Two scale test launches had been planned prior to the primary launch. Crowds gathered and fell to a hush as Herbert counted down from ten to one and then depressed the launch switch. With the crowd shouting, “Blast off!” the first scale rocket lifted from the platform upon a roiling cloud of smoke, hurtling into the sunlit sky. A marching band played music and the crowd cheered when the parachute-equipped test rocket was recovered and brought back to the top of the hill.
Herbert had become a man about town and was wearing his old suit, mask and cape, or a facsimile thereof, one sans his electro-gauntlets of course. It played well with the crowd and drew in even more customers to what was now a full-blown town fair in operation atop the hill. Herbert picnicked with well-to-do ladies in the shadow of the launch platform and began to take a more administrative role rather than hands on as Peter had proven himself more than capable of handling the routine matters. The second test launch went off as smoothly as the first and the construction of the main rocket proceeded in earnest.
* * *
The great projectile completed, a brass-covered shaft pointing into the sky, Herbert and Peter celebrated the anticipated launch in his home on the hill, toasting their success with wine.
“To the future, my lad, we’ve literally nowhere to go but up!” Herbert exclaimed.
“’bout that, sir. I do have – concerns,” Peter said.
“Something other than that miscalculation of mine, I trust?” Herbert asked. “I said I would attend to it.”
Peter had found an error in Herbert’s calculations and had had to muster up the courage to bring the matter to his attention, for which Herbert thanked him. Science was rarely an endeavor of lone individuals, despite Herbert’s long criminal career of having done so and he was glad to have an assistant for just this very reason.
“No sir,” Peter said. “I just wonder – what happens if we fail?”
“You mean, if something goes wrong with the launch tomorrow?” Peter nodded.
“There’s no reason it should. Both the test launches went as smooth as silk,” Herbert said.
“But if somethin’ should occur?”
Herbert nodded and put down his drink. “If something should go awry, it will depend on at what point in the launch it does so. To put the matter succinctly, there will be no problem so long as the rocket leaves the launch platform. Once that hurdle is passed, we’re fine.”
“Sir?” Peter looked at him confused.
“If the rocket explodes immediately, doesn’t lift off or goes up only to come straight down, we will have clearly failed and either the townspeople will afford us another opportunity to prove ourselves or they won’t. In either case, we’d still have the first half of our fee and the monies we’ve made from the Moon Fair. Should the rocket leave the platform and go out of control in the upper atmosphere and come crashing down in some remote location, we can always say the Lunarians shot it down. If the rocket leaves the atmosphere but fails to reach the Moon – who but the two of us will know that for certain? No. All we need do to collect the rest of our fee tomorrow is have a successful launch and thanks in no small part to your help and efforts, I am certain that will be achieved.”
Peter smiled in relief and Herbert clasped the lad by the shoulder.
“When this is all over, you’ll be a wealthy man and you’ll have a letter of recommendation from me that with our accomplishments will enable you to find a place in any university in the world, my boy. Any one.”
“Yessir!” Peter enthusiastically said. The smile lasted on Peter’s face for but a moment and then it faded and he lowered his head.
A long moment passed before Peter said anything but Herbert waited and let him speak in his own time. “Sir? Does it ever bother ya? Trickin’ the townsfolk like this? Takin’ advantage of them, I mean?”
Herbert smiled. “Not since I confided in the Mayor my belief that there are no Moon Men.”
Peter’s eyes widened in terror. “Ya did what? But ya didn’t tell him –”
Herbert interjected, “No, I didn’t tell him about your prank. I felt guilty about our enterprise here and I confessed to the Mayor that I had absolutely no belief that there were any such Moon Men. Do you know what he told me?”
“He told me he prayed that there weren’t any. He told me that we’d restored calm to the town and beyond that, we’d awakened this sleepy village with Science and industry – that we, the two of us, had put Purvis, Mississippi on the map. The rocket has drawn the attention of the entire state – journalists have come far and wide to report on our attempt tomorrow to reach the Moon. Mayor Purvis told me that if we’d accomplished all we had and done it without harming a hair on a single soul’s head, that he’d thank Heaven for it.”
Peter sighed in relief.
“The worst situation imaginable at this point would be if there WERE Lunarians up there. Sending a rocket crashing down upon them could only be seen as an act of war and you people here have had enough of that foolishness, I dare say,” Herbert said.
Peter nodded in agreement.
“And now, we must to bed, we’ve got a long day tomorrow,” Herbert said.
Peter finished his glass of wine and saw himself out. Herbert stood for a moment looking out the window at the moon, full in the night sky, before he got in bed and went to sleep.
* * *
The fateful day reached, the festivities began with a speech by the Mayor and one by Herbert. They spoke of the resolve of Man, of His accomplishments, of Science and His will to defend what was His own. Children played in the sunlight and couples picnicked on the grass atop the hill. The Moon Store was nearly cleared out of memorabilia commemorating the occasion.
Making one last check of his equipment and having been re-assured that his brass arrow would successfully make its ascent into the heavens, Herbert addressed the crowd for one final time before launch.
“Well, everyone, it’s been a long road, but this is it. I just want to remind you that the launch is but the first step in our historic journey – it will take this rocket, that we the people of Purvis, for over the past few weeks I certainly feel as though I have become one of you, this – our rocket – will take nearly a week to reach the surface of the Moon and deal such a blow to the Lunarians, that they will never, EVER threaten the peaceful people of Purvis, Mississippi ever again!”
The assembled crowd cheered and the marching band struck up Dixie as Herbert, clad in his suit, cape, top hat and goggled mask, approached the launch switch. He looked skyward for a moment, before turning with a flourish of his cape and bowing in the direction of the Mayor’s wife. Herbert extended a hand towards the launch switch and to the cheers of the crowd, the Mayor’s wife stepped forward, beaming.
“Ten – nine – eight – seven – six – five – four – three – two – one!” all in unison cried.
The Mayor’s wife depressed the switch.
There was a great rumble from the belly of the metal projectile and jets of flame and smoke shot out from under the great metal arrow. For a moment, it just sat there and then, with a mighty reverberation, the rocket took to the skies and hurtled up, up, up into the cerulean blue. The largest rocket ever created, it leapt forward on a pillar of flame, leaving a winding trail of smoke as it vanished into the distant sky to meet its destiny.
Each day, the crowds would gather for news of the rocket and each day, having checked his instruments, Herbert would apprise them as to its relative location. Excitement hung in the air and confidence swelled in the hearts of all assembled. Each night, Herbert would check his instruments and try to find the rocket with his telescope, making measurements and recording its progress.
* * *
It was night, the Moon was full in the sky and though the crowd had lessened, a few die hard observers had remained, including journalists from nearby cities, to receive the news of success or failure immediately rather than waiting for the morning paper.
Atop the observatory constructed into his hilltop home, sweat beaded on his forehead as Herbert looked at his instrument panel. He spoke with a practiced voice, calm, quiet and professional. “We should contact the Moon in – three, two, one – impact.” He adjusted one of the controls before him and then pulled away from the panel.
Herbert dropped all pretense of professional detachment and grinned like a child at Yuletime, exclaiming, “We’ve done it! We reached the Moon, lad! WE REACHED THE MOON!”
Herbert and Peter linked arms and danced a jig in circles, whooping and hollering.
Tears formed in Peter’s eyes. “Can ya believe it? We sent a rocket all the way to the Moon!”
“It’s a scientific first! We’re famous, lad! Famous!” Herbert cried.
Ecstatic, Peter looked up at the Moon. From a single spot on the face of Luna, telltale bands of colored light from the rocket’s experimental aetheric warhead spread out to envelop the whole of the Moon.
“Uh, Doctor? Doctor?”
Herbert opened a bottle of whiskey and began to pour the amber fluid into two glasses.
Herbert turned to see Peter pointing up at the Moon. The once crisp, clear edges of the full moon began to diffuse and disperse. The bottle slipped from Herbert’s hands and fell to shatter on the ground. The visible disk of Luna became a smudge in the firmament and with the speed of cold molasses began to form an ever expanding cloud.
Peter’s voice was a whisper. “Dr. Schocke, you — you’ve blown up the Moon.”
Eyes agape, in similar hushed tones, Herbert responded. “Now technically lad, that’s not strictly accurate. Technically, just technically mind you – it would be more accurate to say WE just blew up the Moon.”
The pair of them looked at each other and then out at the nearest citizens who had remained to see the spectacle and even now were looking up in wonder and confusion as to the display in the heavens.
“I’ll get the money,” Peter said.
“I’ll get the horses.”
About the Author
A new voice in the field of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy fiction, New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His most recent story, “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” was published in Dark Oak Press’ Capes and Clockwork II, edited by Alan Lewis. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon lives with his guardian and protector, Battle-cat Princess Kaleidoscope, in his home town of New Orleans, Louisiana.