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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Steampunk · #1990430
It was the first of its kind; a promise of the future.
It was the first of its kind

         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         (whatever happens, Edmund, remember to breathe...)

         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         Somewhere below, yet another metallic groan of the hull shattered the monotonous silence. He grimaced and attempted to change positions, his lower limbs now numb from hours of inactivity. Aunt Beatrice would have a field day if she were to see him this way. Why, she'd waste no time admonishing him for being such an impolite cad. Her sharp tongue would pierce through his usual veil of disinterest, her afternoon tea long forgotten as she would take muted pleasure at her ability to peg him in his place. Perhaps the lecture would end with a rap of her umbrella on his head and a verbal promise never, ever, ever again to act that way in her presence.

         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         It was a bloody pity Aunt Beatrice had gone the way of the air balloons last July. No one had foreseen her passing, for all knew of her incomparable vigor accentuated by her ability to spend most evenings taking long walks through town. Though she never could turn down a good glass of sherry after an evening meal, she was otherwise in good health and rarely betrayed her age. Edmund could still recall the telegram from Uncle Smitty; the words seeming to materialize in the air before him:


         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         (a mysterious illness at eighty-one what a shame)

         Ah, he had so looked forward to telling her about his new job. Wouldn't she have been surprised when he'd walk up to her, proudly displaying his certificate as a newly minted member of the Navy. Not just any Navy now, dear Aunt Beatrice, but of the special deep sea diving expedition unit. He would be under the tutelage of the great Commander Horace Horthington; only the most decorated naval officer in the history of the British military. What an honor, eh Aunt Beatrice?

         He was rewarded with a hollow clunk and another weighty groan. The floor seemed to shudder and there it was – subtle yet obvious. He was titling again. There was another waft of cold air seeping into his cocoon. He took a deep breath; inhaling the mingled stench of oil and steel. There was smoke too, but luckily, it didn't appear to be as strong as it was earlier.

         Lucky him.

         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         He closed his eye and took another breath. Once gloomy surroundings becoming opaque with memories – of memories when –


         "Is that it then?"

         "Beauty, isn't she?"

         Pretty features scrunched with distaste; her lace-gloved hands tightening around the handle of a parasol as white as the well-made summer dress clinging to her petite figure.

         "It reminds me of a zeppelin," she muttered. "And an ugly one at that. Is it really supposed to go underwater, dear Edmund? It doesn't look particularly safe."

         "It's the first of its kind, my love," Edmund argued, albeit weakly as he twirled his top hat nervously between his hands.

         He had hoped she'd be more enthusiastic about this, considering how difficult it was to be chosen as one of the first crew to man Professor Henson's new invention. Endless days and nights studying, training, and finally passing the simulations and written examinations had all come to this day; the day when he could show the woman he loved, that he was finally ready to take the first steps toward their future.

         "Sarah..." he began again, but was interrupted at the unpleasant sight of his fellow seaman, Henry Padwig. He groaned and hoped he'd be able to come up with a decent excuse to cut this discussion short. Everyone knew of Henry's notorious antics especially with members of the opposite sex.

         "By Jove, is that you, Edmund? Jolly good to see you again, old chap!" Henry enthused with a beefy arm thrown around Edmund's shoulder and a grin as wide as the River Thames. "And to you, my lady," he greeted with a bow and a flourish of his hat toward Sarah. "You look positively ravishing today."

         Rosy spots of color filled her cheeks, but she turned away with a huff to stare at the docks, where three of the 'ugly' submarines stood ready for launch.

         "Telling 'er about the ol' steel n' brass egg, eh?" Henry jostled Edmund playfully. His blue eyes seemed to twinkle with mischief.

         "I was just -"

         "Steel and brass egg?" Sarah gasped. "Exactly. It's shaped like that and that color -"

         "...brown -"

         "...rust -"

         "'Tis the power of the machine, my lady," Henry argued with a 'tut' beneath his breath. He wagged his finger as if admonishing her before releasing Edmund – much to his relief. He paced toward the edge of the boardwalk and spread out his arms. "You're looking at the future of travel! We've conquered the air, yes, but think about all the possibilities lurking just beneath the ocean. We could bloody well create underwater tunnels connecting one country to another!" He paused, his eyes widening as if coming to yet another revelation. "Good God, Edmund! We could even connect continents! Think about it!"

         "What nonsense," Sarah interrupted with a roll of her eyes. "Whoever heard of such rubbish. Underground tunnels in the sea? You might as well begin building them in the sky first. It's impossible!"

         "And they said the zeppelins wouldn't fly either, but you manage to go on your jolly rides across the country in 'em, don't you?"

         "That's different," came the heated rebuttal. "Zeppelins are safe -!"

         "Pah! As safe as my donkey's hiney -!"

         "How dare you!" There was a harsh intake of breath; her features contorted into one of disbelief. No one dared speak to her that way. No one! "Edmund! We are leaving!"

         It wasn't until they were in bed that night, the sheets pulled up to her neck despite just minutes earlier left panting and breathless beneath him, did she finally bring up the topic again.

         "I don't want you going in that thing, Edmund," she whispered.


         She sat up then, the abrupt motion causing her mane of wavy black hair to nearly shield her frightened features from view. Her green eyes looked too large in her face, her lips struggling to remain firm despite minute tremors. The kerosene lamp cast dark shadows across her porcelain skin, and not for the first time since their fateful meeting at the post office, he wondered how on earth he had managed to get the attention of the most beautiful woman in all of Dorchester...if not beyond.

         "If you go, then our engagement is off," she declared.

         He sat up then too, jaw dropping at the harsh ultimatum. She couldn't possibly be serious. He had spent a good deal of money getting that ring (just thinking of all the hours and work he put in was enough to have his blood boiling) and now she was thinking of just throwing it away over...over...over what exactly?

         "You're being unreasonable, my love," he began in what he hoped was a calm tone. "We've tested and re-tested the vessels and they're more than sea-worthy. This is Professor Hensen we're talking about. Wasn't he the one who worked with your father on that new mechanical motor bicycle that's taken off like the wind? Why everyone wants one now, and it's made your family awfully rich."

         "That's different..." she mumbled.

         "Why is it so different? You said the same thing about Henry when -"

         "Don't bring up that name," she groaned and sank back amongst the pillows, sheet pulled up to cover her face. When she spoke, her voice was muffled and miserable. "Why don't you just work on a steamboat? They are absolutely wonderful, Edmund, and I know you won't make as much money, but at least I can sleep at night knowing you'll be home soon."

         Edmund sighed and leaned over to tug the cloth gently until he could see her worry-filled eyes again. His heart ached at the sight, but he wasn't about to back down now; not after all he had gone through and besides, if Commander Horthington had actually given him top billing among the other sailors –

         "I'll come back," was all he could say as he kissed her tenderly. "I promise, my love. When I return, we'll get married, and I'll make you so proud to be the wife of the best sailor in all of England." He reached down to lift her hand, the simple engagement ring sparkling beneath the muted glow from the lamp. "Just one more thing to brag about, my love, don't you think?"

         She giggled and tried to swat at him playfully, and yet – even as she wrapped her arms around his neck to pull him closer – both knew that their fears and worries wouldn't be appeased until the first mission was an absolute success.


         It was a splendid farewell at the docks – with almost a thousand citizens including a few representatives of the royal family - even if Sarah had refused to attend. At least Uncle Smitty had been there; his mechanical arm (he had lost the original during the war) waving frantically while his goggles fogged up with tears he could barely contain.

         "Your Aunt Beatrice would have been so proud of you," he had said, though Edmund had to wonder about that. Aunt B. had never had much in the compliments department to spare for him.

         All the same, as he marched – along with 52 other crewmates – into the main hull of his home for, hopefully, the next two weeks, he couldn't help the surge of adrenaline and contagious excitement to course through him. It was especially heightened as the strong hand of Commander Horthington landed on his shoulder to squeeze it gently in encouragement.

         "Ready for the ride, my boy?" he had asked in that gruff yet warm voice of his; the white beard almost reminding Edmund of Santa Claus during Christmas.

         "Right ho, Captain!"

         And so it was as the countdown began and all hands went on deck. His job was simple yet crucial; to help maneuver the submarine until its diving area. To his delight (as well as the rest of the crew), they clocked at a record 23" knots.

         "Ready for the dive, sir," Edmund announced after the congratulatory whoops had died down. He cranked the handle of the rudder slowly; watching as the seemingly haphazard conglomeration of steel and iron gears began rotating in pre-designed fashion.

         On his left, Henry – for once not looking like he was ready to do something malicious – watched the needles spike back and forth on the gauges; brows furrowed as he began to count aloud.

         "Two feet....three feet...four feet..."

         Looking good, Edmund thought; feeling his heart soar with relief at how well all this was going.

         He looked through the periscope and into the thrilling sight of the mysterious sea; childhood memories of adventures into worlds unknown flooding back with a vengeance. It was one thing to do simulations, but a whole other to actually know you were inches from touching a shark or whale or God knows what other unearthly sea creature harbored in these dark waters.

         "...eighteen feet....nineteen feet...twenty feet!" Henry roared and the cheers went up again almost immediately.

         This was their limit, and as Edmund prepared to let go of the rudder to set it to autopilot, there was a sudden jarring shudder that nearly sent them careening off their feet.

         "What the bloody hell was that?" Commander Horthington bellowed.

         Henry, whose gaze had turned back to the needles, sucked in a harsh breath in disbelief. "Ca...Captain?"

         "What is it, man?!"

         "Still diving, Captain! Twenty-two feet...twenty-three...!"

         "The boiler room!" came the sudden cry from a junior officer all but flying into the control room. He looked petrified. "It's...it's flooding , sir!"

         "Lock the door to the stern section now!" came the brusque order, which had the men in the room looking at each other in horror. The crew. There had to be at least fifteen men down there -

         "That's a bloody order, Woody! Get to it now!"

         "Ye-yes, sir!"

         "Goddamn it," Horthington cursed beneath his breath. "At least that should stop us from plunging any further. Ellington! Send a message to the surface now to send in rescue."

         Edmund – who was still trying to wrap his mind around the loss of so many men – snapped to attention and did as told, but would end up crying out in terrified surprise as a sudden screeching sound and another violent shudder had him slamming hard into the jutting periscope. It would be several hours later before he'd realize he could no longer see out of his right eye – but that was a small price to pay for what was to become his grim reality.


         tick tock tick tock tick tock

         He opened his one good eye, and believed – for just one moment – he believed there was a hint of light above him.

         Possible rescue? He doubted it.

         The submarine was still sinking. He had managed to crawl into the narrow conning tower in an effort to be closer to whatever help was coming. He had waited. He was still waiting. The hydroplanes had stopped working hours earlier. Compressed air had screamed through the pipes until the ballast was blown out. No one knew when the fire started at the console, but it was enough to take out even more of the men and steal valuable oxygen needed.

         (...remember to breathe...)

         But for how long? Every breath now was a lesson in tolerance. His lungs felt crushed; as if the very vessel had lodged into them. How deep into the ocean was he now? 50 feet? 100 feet? Was there no end in sight? No submarine or deep sea vessel had been invented yet to search this far, and it was unlikely he'd ever see the surface again. None of them – not even his hero, the great Captain, who must have died valiantly still trying to save his submarine – would ever get to see the beauty of another summer sky. And for what? A vessel they had thought sea-worthy, that was claimed to have been tested and re-tested, that was believed to be the future of deep-sea travel -

         (guess it's back to the drawing board, eh, Professor Hensen?)

         He chuckled weakly and reached – with some effort – into his uniform to bring out the gold pocket watch – a gift from Sarah on his twenty-fourth birthday. He watched the tiny hands continue their singular motion -

         tick tock tick tock

         ...and allowed a weary smile to come to his blood-streaked features. Sarah would be so very upset with him for coming home late. He could almost see her standing at his doorway, hands akimbo with that wonderful petulant expression on her beautiful visage. And, God help him, but he'd fall in love with her all over again.

         My dearest, Sarah, he pleaded with the pocket watch now pressed against his chest. Please wait just a little bit longer, for I promise to make you so very proud of me.

Word Count: 2,548

Written for:
The Pressure Valve - closed for now.  (13+)
The SteamPunk Authors Guild's short story contest.
#1778153 by CeruleanSon
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