Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

This week, I present the first stirrings of steam punk. Not so steamy, not so punky — not even convinced it’s one of my best stories — but rather glad to have a new post to pop up on the site, nonetheless. If I don’t stick something up now, months will fly by and I’ll forget the whole point  is not to be too precious about getting things out and about. The more you relax, the better it gets. Besides, Marina is about to throw some light on the situation…



wind the throw-light – a good twenty-seven times until the spring jumps – and hold it up. As I move the beam across brass tubes, pipes, iron hand-wheels and old machinery, the concentric rings of the lens make the light ripple like a surge of water. Breema is stooped in this bank of bits, and even he (optimisto supremo) has to sniff at the pale gleam he has to work in.

He gets out his bag of spanners and starts finding the one with the right-size head, but this nut is ‘zagonal, while the spanners are all squared.

Lindy sits on an old engine block and swings and dings her heels against it. There’s a brittle tonk, tonk of cat-leather on hollow, corroded brass.

“You need an adjustable spanner,” I says. “You’re rounding it off.”

And sure enough, there’s a soft, toffee give on that tool: metal sheerings gather all magnetic on its square-head and the nut is going way off to round.

Breema puffs out the underside of his tache, and tries to get a better grip “on the sump-infested thing”; even leans in and tries to pin it, hard, but there ain’t no breaking it in to turning – just poor tools.

“Damn it, Marina, hold that throw close-in like you mean it,” he says, shoulders blocking any light, anyhow. I’d have to be a contortionist to get the beam any further round that gleaming pate of his. I end up hanging the throw in on the end of a loose arm, like a tea pot, or some undersea, bow-riding Desdemona.

The shadows swim at my fingertips.

Breema’s side-chops throw out the wavery, whiskery wings of a sting ray.

Two things happen: there’s a spling! And that’s a spanner slipping off and getting thrown half way across the genny room. And Breema utters an oath so barkingly vitriolic I’m just about lady enough to faint pure dead away at the sense of it. Blood gleams on his rusty, oily fingers.

One-one-hundred, two-one-hundred, and there’s a final, clank, bang, tink, tang, crash, as the spanner lands somewhere in oblivion. Eight floors down, maybe.

While I steps aside, sharpish, Breema goes crank-crank-crank off into the gloom, making the walkway rattle on its fixings. He stomps down some cast-iron steps and is gone. He’ll find it better without the light anyway.

And will he find it? ‘Course he will. If you’re as old as he is, you can see things practical by touch – knowing every square-inch of sprue n’ casting – or, like some of them old-old-salts: echo location, tapping a penny.

After a respectful pause, Lindy gets back to danging her heels.

In the huge bubble window that arcs up and over her head like an alien planet, a huge shark is gliding past in the blackwater. Lindy waves cheerily – she likes sharks.

By default, the shark smiles back.

As an Engineer, Woman’s Brigade, Third Deck, I don’t really see these leagues-deep monsters anymore; whiter than ghosts, taller than the cabin trains. I can’t see beyond an inside edge. I see only stressed glass and pressure cracks around the restraining bolts, slippage in the greased clamping seal, and a bucket of cogs an’ gears and a drive chain – cowling removed – that can’t close the iris no more. The unshifting plates give a slight, polygonal straight-edge to the circle.

No, what I’m feared of is glass-spiders – that glass has more pounds per square inch than that shark has had cold, squiddily dinners.

And yeah, I shiver.

“You want we should go now?” Says Lindy. She jumps an undignified jump down onto the walkway, dress entirely dragged down piston block. Her bone-white pantaloons – now oiled up to the nines – is why mama ain’t at all airs-n-graces bout her coming down here. Even Lindy’s boots got fat dollops of grease on the end. What has she been kicking through?

She sniffs at the exposed pump-housing we’re working on. Takes a moment’s displeasure in the valve head which looks rather like the fleshy inside of an oyster – got that creamy, smoothed away shape, anyway. Generally frowns.

“Do you think we’ll ever get this thing going?

“Ah! Course. It’s just a pump. There’s hunners. Plenny of spares.”

“No, dimmy. The whole marine. ” She manages to wipe rust and oil across her forehead as she scatters hair out of her eyes, and gestures at, well, everything. Her arm takes in that bag of tools, her, me, window, the cavernous space up – to the size of so many cathedrals – the deeps, deeper still, and every last man-jack-rivet of it, stuffed full of enough rust and do-hickery machinery, for a million third class hands like me to round off more bolts than there are salt-fleas on a sump-rat. And that’s just this section.

So, yeah, the whole marine.

“Of course we’ll get her goin’,” I says. I pause in the magnitude of this task. “I reckon. One day. If she’ll rest up out of the silt; an’ if we can take up enough floor for the forge and crack enough water for the burning and breathing; and we don’t get tired of them ‘delicious’ algae cakes any time soon; and rat ‘n’ cat don’t get to figuring out traps too well, or wild shark stop swimming into the cable snares; and we can work out everything that connects to everything else, an –”

An’ I stop there, because Lindy is staring at me with narrowed eyes, kind of mad, and I reckon my hobnails are well and truly kicking-in that lie-to-me reassurance she was really after.

“Course. Sure. Um. The captain can’t have left us for long. An’ remember what he’s got up in steerage, across the wall. What his papa named him for:

Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.  Nobody assails me with impunity.”

Though that can take on a forest of meaning, when you’re stuck so deep, you’re almost always talking about the sea.   


1 Helen { 10.18.12 at 7:53 am }

I could hear very tink, clank. Nice feel about this piece, the characters worked well together.

2 Stephen Hewitt { 10.19.12 at 8:31 am }

@Helen — Thanks Helen. They were clanking away somewhere in my hind brain. I thought I’d scritch them down. I was also keen to use that Latin quote: it’s the quote over the gates of Edinburgh Castle and (strangely) the very place where Jules Verne got the name for Captain Nemo. St.

3 Steve Green { 10.21.12 at 6:31 pm }

Anyone who has ever tackled a stubborn bolt will read the truth of the poetry in this.

“And sure enough, there’s a soft, toffee give on that tool:”

What a wonderful phrase, it describes the moment perfectly.

Extremely good writing as always Stephen, chock full of atmosphere, and brimming with beautifully descriptive lines.

A pleasure to read. 🙂

4 Stephen Hewitt { 10.28.12 at 10:54 am }

@Steve — although I’m not particularly the mechanical type (occasion rather than interest) I’ve still managed to round off a few nuts in my time, using a spanner that ‘kinda fits’. Happy you enjoyed the tinkering. St

5 Icy Sedgwick { 10.28.12 at 11:51 am }

Oh I loved this! Simply superb.

6 Stephen Hewitt { 11.03.12 at 8:54 am }

@Icy — Thanks Icy. For some reason, I wasn’t initially sure about this story. But it has grown on me.

7 Joan { 11.01.12 at 11:45 am }

It’s brilliant the way the story comes round to ‘Nemo’, and ‘Though that can take on a forest of meaning . . .’ which the story does – it has echoes through itself.

I had slight difficulty at first with conventions – like the wind up light – of steam punk. I’m only so far familiar with the genre. But I got going okay, got to the end, and could go back to the beginning to see possibilities of new connotations.

In this way, what you’ve written here is like a prose-poem, but then I think much of your writing is.

It was interesting to see how the interaction of characters led to a better understanding of them – in the light and shadow effect of Miranda holding the light for Breem, for instance.

You showed setting well through the action also – like when the spanner lands maybe eight floors down.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 11.03.12 at 9:19 am }

@Joan — drawing everything back into Captain Nemo, without it being a standard 20,000 Leagues story, was an interesting challenge. Somehow the story developed into ‘vast’, ‘stuck’, and Victorian women engineers. All for the good. I’d rather Marina was doing more than just holding a light in this snippet, but that’s just what she was doing when she popped into my mind…

Understanding things like the wind-up-light is probably more to do with how I introduced those concepts rather than any particularly obscure steampunk convention. It can be tricky to present something that would be entirely familiar to the character but which is totally alien to the reader, without adding a clumsy aside for the purposes of explanation. Here, I probably needed more ‘clumsy’ aside.

‘Prose-poem’ is a lovely thing I’d love to live up to, without occasionally tipping too far into ‘hard to understand’. 😉

Glad you found the interaction between characters — and between character and environment — helped to sketch things in. I do like trying to indirectly impart information, and there are other things that would be good to try along along those lines. Getting more into the perceptions of my characters is something I’m trying to work on.


9 Peter Newman { 11.30.12 at 11:46 am }

Great atmosphere and sense of place, character. You have a beautiful writing style, no question (I’m understating here, you’re an excellent writer, you working on a novel? If not, you really should be).

My only issue with the story is that nothing much seems to happen. Perhaps you just wanted to give us a feel for a place and a situation and if so, you did it beautifully but I wanted more character development.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 02.27.13 at 7:48 am }

@Peter — Hi there Peter. Apologies for the hugely delayed reply. Many thanks for the compliment on my writing. I’m currently planning a novel (one of the reasons for my current absence from the Cafe, along with work pressures). I do occasionally fall into doing a sketch of a scene — rather than a developed narrative, and I’d say this is one of those occasions. I was interested in sketching in a piece of world, so that’s mostly where the words went. When I get both in, that’s when I’m really happy. St.