SteamU Finals Week Feature, Author Steve Turnbull; Travel aboard the Sky-Liner, RMS Macedonia, by Winifred Churchill, Foreign Correspondent, The Manchester Evening News

Cover art by Mark Molnar
Dear Students,

Thank you for joining me today to welcome SteamU Professor Steve Turnbull for a discussion of his work, Murder out of the Blue. Steampunk readers who enjoy their airships will really treasure this dispatch from character Winifred Churchill from aboard a sky-liner powered by the Faraday device. Do I have your attention yet? Let's take flight, shall we?

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Travel aboard the Sky-Liner, RMS Macedonia, by Winifred Churchill, Foreign Correspondent, The Manchester Evening News

(A travel piece, Mr Tyndale? Am I not your ace reporter, as the Americans have it? What I should be writing about is the double deaths aboard the RMS Macedonia. Of course, you have no doubt saved money by stealing the story from The Times of India, and inventing what they do not say. The Manchester Evening News will be all the better for it, no doubt.)

I boarded the P&O Sky Liner early on the morning of 28th April, 1908. To call it morning is to be generous: it was still dark and it was raining though the monsoon had yet to strike. The streets of Bombay were strangely quiet, sounds muffled by the mist that clung to the ground, as my horse-drawn hansom came to a clattering halt on the cobbles outside the air-docks. One might believe oneself to be in Manchester or any large British city, save for the heat and the smell that is uniquely that of Bombay. They chose to build the air-docks on a swamp.

The ship I was to take passage on had docked a few hours earlier. Under normal circumstances none of the disembarking passengers would have still been present. However for this particular journey things were not normal.

Many of the second and third class passengers, ending their journey in Bombay, were still on the site. The police had spent most of the night questioning them in regard to the deaths aboard the vessel. I understood that the Inspector had already gone aboard with the intention of interviewing those closely connected with the murder.

(But, of course, I am not covering that story.)

The Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s latest addition to their airborne fleet, the RMS Macedonia, is 50,000 tons of steel and glass. Once the Faraday device is engaged this is reduced to a mere 15,000 tons and its six steam turbine-driven rotors are able to lift it to a cruising height of 3,000 ft. And once air-borne the rotors are rotated through ninety degrees to provide the forward thrust while its six stubby wings provide the lift.

The vessel boasts four decks of cabins, with its Promenade and Observation decks completely encased in glass in imitation of the greenhouses at Kew. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Decks are for First Class passengers while ‘C’ and ‘D’ are for second and third class respectively.

(Quite frankly, Mr Tyndale, I do not see why I do not rate First Class. We will have words on this subject when I return. It is well that I was travelling only as far as Ceylon.)

The activation of the Faraday Device is something many fear, and others enjoy. I may say that I am indifferent. I have traveled on so many forms of transport in the last half dozen years, most with and some without a Faraday device that I adapt to the reduction in weight almost without thinking. There are those that claim it has therapeutic powers—and while there is no indication to the veracity of this claim that does not however prevent thousands from paying charlatans for their hour each day in reduced gravity.

For a vessel like the Macedonia it is standard practice to run the rotors up to about half speed and then engage the reduced gravity. Dawn was a few hours away when, with the rotors at maximum velocity and the noise reverberating from the surrounding buildings, the ship rose effortlessly into the damp firmament. You can imagine the view, indeed you will have to imagine it, just as I did, since there was nothing to be seen except indistinct lights from the buildings in the city.

I spent some time in my second class cabin getting such rest as I could before taking breakfast in the sumptuous, though not as sumptuous as some, salon. I cannot criticise the quality of the food. When one has spent time not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from and not recalling your last, one does not make light of any sort of food.

(You will recall I have been in that situation more than once as your most intrepid correspondent.)

It was when the sun came up one could truly appreciate a journey such as this. On the observation deck, viewing the coastline of the India sub-continent as we followed it south towards Kerala and thence Ceylon. In the distance, inland, the obsolete exposed railway line. I know it seems hard to believe in this day and age that there are places in the British Empire that do not have the great metal tubes of the atmospheric railways, but it is so. Especially in India where the distances are so vast the conversion process from the old external railways has not yet been completed.

(I assure you I would not be cruising at a mere 100mph in the air if I could have taken the atmospheric railway and been at my destination in a fraction of the time. A Sky-Liner may be luxurious particularly for long journeys but they cannot as yet match the velocity of the tube.)

The wide Promenade Deck features courts for various sports, though with modified rules for reduced gravity. It has to be said that, in my experience, game-playing is not taken seriously under the influence of the Faraday device. When one can kick, or even throw, a ball five times as far as normal a game is played more for amusement than competition.

A question that is frequently asked is that of piracy, especially in these eastern and southern regions. I do not have much to say on this subject save that I do not believe there have been any credible reports of any vessel being hijacked whilst in flight whether it be a modern Sky-Liner or a simple ice freighter.

Does “ice freighter” sound curiously romantic? Sadly I must disappoint. The trade in ice is cutthroat and the competition quite ferocious. For this reason, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of vessels—some independent, others part of great fleets such as the Imperial Ice Import Company owned by Cecil Bainbridge. These vessels, many different types, travel to mountainous regions, or even the Arctic, to cut the ice they can find into blocks and then transport it to the tropics. It is hard and dangerous work. Romantic it is not.

(Yes, Mr Tynsdale, I’m sure you would prefer that it was indeed romantic. I prefer not to mislead the readership. And yes, I have travelled aboard one of these vessels perhaps you would like me to write about that adventure one day. Or perhaps I will save it for my memoires.)

My destination is Ceylon or, more specifically, the Fortress. That vast symbol of British military power located in the heart of Ceylon, built on the ancient rock known as Sigirya. One can be impressed by the ancients who named it thus because in the local language it means fortress in the sky. And that is precisely what it has become: the gateway to the fortress in the void.

Seven thousand miles above the surface of our planet the great Queen Victoria station hangs like a beacon to the British Empire. And it is from Sigirya, half a world below, that the vessels of the Royal Navy travel to that great symbol in the sky. And thence to the planets bringing us back exotic goods in the way the sea traders brought us spices only a hundred years ago.

(Honestly, Mr Tynsdale, I realise I am supposed to be incognito but you should realise that giving me a by-line to an article that has me on this vessel is as likely to give me away as if I were to write an article about the crimes committed aboard this ship. You do realise the Anglo-Indian Roedean girl who was responsible for resolving the Taliesin Affair last year is intimately involved in this case? Astonishingly she walks with a stick though she must be barely nineteen. I am quite frustrated.)

 In my next correspondence I shall be reporting on the entertainments one can find in Ceylon and the sites one can visit.

(Frankly I think the piece is unprintable and I really must protest at this attempt to ruin my reputation. Surely just disappearing would have been simpler? And as a final point, I hope I do not have to remind you to transfer my wage to my account, or should I contact my mother on this matter?)

Winifred Churchill

by Mark Molnar

About the Author 

Caricature Steve by Mar Mai

When he's not sitting at his computer building websites for national institutions and international companies, Steve Turnbull can be found sitting at his computer building new worlds of steampunk, science fiction and fantasy.

Technically Steve was born a cockney but after five years he was moved out from London to the suburbs where he grew up and he talks posh now. He's been a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy since his early years, but it was poet Laurie Lee's autobiography "Cider with Rosie" (picked up because he was bored in Maths) that taught him the beauty of language and spurred him into becoming a writer, aged 15. He spent twenty years editing and writing for computer magazines while writing poetry on the side.

Nowadays he writes screenplays (TV and features), prose and computer programs.

Connect with the Author

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~Class Dismissed!

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