Nils Nisse Visser 

Scribbler on a quest to retell old Sussex Folklore (and some Dutch Sealore) within the genres of historical or contemporary fantasy (including Steampunk). Hopes to become a pirate if/when he grows up.

 


SEE OUR COLLEC

BRIGHTON, SOMEWHEN IN 1870

1. Game of Sounds


It was high tide and the waves rolled onto the shingle beach in a valiant effort to conquer the shore.


Alice decided they made a good sound. She turned to her friend and said, “CRASH…shhhhhhhhh…ritritritrit.”


“Ritrit?” Lottie laughed. “The shingle don’t rittle, it rattles.”


“Wrong! It bain’t the shingles.” Alice was jubilant, because she had gained a point in their game and Lottie had lost one. “Three to two. I take the lead.”


She raised her arms in the air and cheered, framed against the dry but cloud-filled sky.


A passing seagull that was swooping by low squawked in alarm. Changing course, the bird headed for the West Pier to seek safety from noisy children.


Alice and Lottie were both ten years old, Alice dark-haired and Lottie fair. They were barefoot and wore tattered old dresses, as well as smudgy aprons.


They had no problem walking on the shingle beach on their bare feet. When out-of-town visitors tried to walk on the beach without shoes, they would often twist and turn in a tortured dance that locals called the ‘Shingle Twist’.


Alice looked at the long West Pier, which rose over the surf with all the elegance of a palace. It was crowded with gentle folk strolling up and down the pier’s decking. The likes of Alice and Lottie, slumgirls from the Lanes, weren’t welcome there.


They had come to their own stretch of beach, the one used by Brighton’s fishermen. The beach smelled of brine and fish. A boat crew was turning one of the beach capstans, hauling their hogboat up the shingles while they sang a bawdy song. It was the type of ditty that was unsuitable for children, so naturally both Alice and Lottie knew every word of it.


Farther along the beach, Alice could see the converted fishing boat called The Skylark. Her captain, Fred Collins, was trying to get more sightseers aboard with the loud cry: “Any more for The Skylark?”


The deck of The Skylark was already crowded with passengers and noisy with the strains of the brass band that Collins hired for on-board entertainment.


“What was it then?” Lottie demanded to know.


Alice tore her eyes away from The Skylark to look at her friend. “Quiddy?” She asked, using the Sussex word for ‘what did you say?’


“If the rittle-rattle sound weren’t the shingle, what was it?”


“The waves, surely,” Alice answered.


Lottie looked cross. “Unfair! Waves go ‘swoosh’ and it’s the shingle what makes the crash-hush-rattle sound.”


“Not without the waves. You should have said ‘twas the sound of waves on the shingle.”


“So I got it half right, didn’t I?”


“Yarr,” Alice admitted. She made an offer. “One point for me, no point taken off for you?”


“Three to three?” Lottie asked, before quickly adding: “Done. Now tell me about this invitation.”


“We should be going!” Alice exclaimed. “I’ll tell you on the way.”


They walked to the steps leading up to King’s Road above the lower promenade.


“Mus Volk and my father were friends,” Alice explained.


“Why don’t you call him Mister instead of Mus? Speak proper, ain’t it?”


Alice shrugged. A lot of folk in Brighton were outlanders who hailed from London or other shires. These furriners talked differently from local Sussex folk. Usually the furriners spoke fast, ever in a rush. Sussex folk had a habit of taking ample time to speak, weighing up each word to before drawling it out loud at leisure.


Lottie had been born and bred in Brighton, but her parents were from London making Alice’s friend an outlander. Alice had grown up in the nearby fishing village of Rottingdean. There had been a grocer in the village called “The Furriner” because his great-grandfather had been born just across the county border in Surrey. It was different in Brighton because there were so many outlanders that they outnumbered the natives. From Lottie’s view, Alice was the outlander, with strange mannerisms and a funny way of speaking. It was cause of occasional confusion and much fun.


“You should learn to parley proper!” Alice countered. “All-along-of this being Sussex, not one of them unaccountable furrin places.”


“No. This is Brighton, a proper English town, not a backward hamlet filled with country yokels.”


“I’m a yokel too,” Alice pointed out.


“You’re different though. You’re my mate, aintcha?”


The girls arrived at the bottom of the steps.


“Double Steps!” Alice cried out.


They dashed up the steps, skipping every other step. Doing that right was just as important as getting to the top first.


Alice began to hear the traffic on King’s Road more loudly. The clip-clop of horses as they hauled fancy carriages and coaches to and fro, as well as huffing and puffing steam engines that powered steam-cabs, lorries, and trams. There was another sound too, the continuous, thrumming zilzish of the three-wheeled lektrishaws that ferried sight-seers around.


“I win!” Lottie beat Alice to the top of the steps. “Four to three. Where do we go next?”


“The Old Steine.”


Lottie glanced east in the direction of the Royal Suspension Chain Pier. “The promenade is busy.”


Alice nodded. Negotiating the seafront promenade could be a risky business when it was crowded. Police constables would frown at them because they disapproved of slumfolk mixing with their social betters. Ladies and gentlemen often poked their umbrellas and walking sticks at the girls to keep them at a distance. Slumfolk were about as welcome as scabby rats raiding a near empty larder.


“North Street,” Lottie suggested.


Alice nodded her agreement. They dashed across King’s Road in a haphazard manner. Coachmen and lektrishaw drivers shook their fists at the girls and hollered angrily.


“You’ll get yourself killed one of these days!”


“You bloody little fools!”


“I win!” Alice reached the pavement across the road just before Lottie did. “Four to four.”


“Puh! Crossing the street is easier than racing up seafront steps.”


“If it’s so easy, you should have won, bain’t it?”


Standing on the pavement on this side of King’s Road was like standing at the foot of Sussex chalk cliffs. The imposing hotels and grand residences rose six, seven, and even eight stories high. The big difference, of course, was that chalk cliffs were white. All the buildings in Brighton were covered in layers of filth; sooty residue of the many steam engines that plied land, sea, and air. The architecture was splendid, but grimy and grey.


Alice grimaced. Londoners kept making the train journey or inter-city flight to Brighton for ‘fresh air’. They said there was a lot of it in Brighton. It made Alice wonder just how bad pollution had become in London.


Slipping into a narrow alley between two of these palatial buildings, the girls entered the Lanes. This was a maze of twittens and mews, the Sussex words for alleys and courtyards. The slum, shaped like a great rectangle, was tucked away behind the grand seafront buildings and broad shopping streets on its inland sides.


Alice and Lottie made fast progress through the Lanes. Lottie had lived in the maze of tiny houses, workshops, and shacks all her life. She could find her way about blindfolded if need be.


Keeping a wary eye out for potential trouble, Lottie said: “Mister Volk? Who is he? Why did he invite you to his workshop?”


“Like I said, he was one my dad’s friends. Dad helped Uncle Magnus with ekspurriments on Dad’s aeroship.”


“Spurriments?”


“Ekspurriments,” Alice corrected her. “You have to say it correctly. He does ekspurriments in his labrador-tory. With lek-trik-is-city.”


“I dunno about none of that stuff,” Lottie admitted.


Alice was pleased that she knew something Lottie didn’t.


Rottingdean was less than two hours away if you walked at a brisk pace. At the same time, it seemed as distant as the few stars that penetrated the smog layer over Brighton at night.


After Alice’s father had died, Mum couldn’t pay the rent for the Rottingdean cottage anymore. That’s why they had moved to Auntie Beth’s little house on Artillery Street.


Alice had been frightened of Brighton at first. The Lanes were not a good place to be. The posh shopping streets, as well as the seafront hotels and residences, were even less safe because people there were hostile to slumfolk – calling them the ‘vicious classes’.


Lottie lived a couple of doors down Artillery Street and had become an instant friend. She was teaching Alice how to survive in the slums. Alice smiled. Lottie had also made life fun again, because she was full of mischief. Still, usually it was Lottie who knew everything, and it was nice to have those roles reversed for a change.


“Lek-trik-is-city ekspurriments are very important,” Alice declared grandly. “Mus Volks is a famous inventioner. My dad always said Mus Volk would fay well.”


“Inventioner?” Lottie asked. “Isn’t it inventionoreer? Or spurrimenter?”


Alice shook her head. “Inventioner. You’ve got to say it all properly. Science is very exact.”


She didn’t know why, but she recalled Mus Volk saying that on one of his visits to Rottingdean.


They halted. The commotion of a loud argument blocked easy passage. A drunk man was happily singing outside of a hovel. A woman inside was shouting at him and throwing men’s clothes out of the window. It was common enough, but best avoided. Lottie led Alice back and then confidently chose another path through the maze of lanes and twittens.


“Well, as long as he don’t plan on spurrimenting on us.” Lottie shuddered. “Inventoreers do that, don’t they? Remember what happened to Reggie Chancellor in Eastbourne.”


“Inventioner, not inventoreer.” Alice sighed. For all her cunning street savvy Lottie was a slow learner. “It was different in Eastbourne. Hopley was a schoolmaster, not a scientist.”


“He beat Reggie bloody and then beat him some more until Reggie was dead! And he said it was a spurriment.”


“Not a real one. Hopley said he wanted to see if a good trashing would make Reggie behave, bain’t it? Like most schoolmasters do. Mus Volk is a proper scientist, not a classroom butcher.”


“Sounds like spurrimentation to me! What about Fanny Adams in Hampshire? She were cut into a thousand separate bits! They never even found all of her.”


“That was a madman and a clerk, not a scientist.”


“This inventorist of yours will be wanting to saw off our fingers, and toes, and hands, and feet, and arms, and legs, and heads for spurrimentinganation! I don't want me eyes plucked out, do I?”


Alice tried a different tack. “Last time I visited, his mum gave me scones.”


“SCONES?” Lottie’s eyes grew wide.


“Proper ones,” Alice confirmed. “So fresh they were still warm, with butter, jam, and the bettermost cream.”


“We have to hurry,” Lottie decided. “We don’t want to be late for the spurrimentercises.”


She ducked into a particularly narrow and murky twitten. There was brightness at the end of it, as well as the sounds of busy traffic on North Street.


“Got one!” Lottie exclaimed. “Chugga-chugga-chugga…”


“The mono-rail!”


“Wrong, the mono-tram. Five to three.”


“It’s the same thing!”


“No it ain’t!”


They spilled onto the pavement of Northern Road. It was one of Brighton’s busiest streets, lined by elegant shop fronts and centred by the steel girders that held aloft the mono-rail. The pavement was crowded with shoppers, promenading gentlefolk, and Army, Navy, and Royal Aero Fleet officers in bright and gaudy uniforms.


“Mind where you’re going!” A red-coated officer snapped at the girls.


Ignoring him, Alice appealed to Lottie. “That’s like the shingle and the waves just now.”


“True. Five to four?”


“Agreed.” Alice spotted an opportunity to catch up on points. It was a mono-tram chugging its way from Hove to the Old Steine, a small steam engine hauling three carriages, all suspended from the single rail above. “Let’s do a three-pointer. Race the mono-tram to the Steine Transfer Station?”


Lottie’s eyes lit up. She nodded and the girls took off, helter-skeltering down North Street. 

2. A PROTOTYPE CALLED MATILDA

Running didn’t stop the girls from having a conversation of sorts. It was often interrupted whenever the pavement was particularly busy. A few passers-by expressed their irritation with the girls’ hasty and erratic progress. The girls ignored the comments because they weren’t connected to their conversation.


“We should have…” Lottie huffed. “Changed into our…scruffiest dresses.”


Alice dared a brief peek down at her dress. She didn’t have many dresses and all were equally scruffy. “Why?”


“They’d feel sorry for us, ain’t it? Feed us extra scones.”


Part of the pavement was littered with shards of a broken bottle. Alice had to keep a close eye on where she placed her bare feet – and that gave her inspiration.


“How about we don’t wear our shoes? Tmight be worth an extra scone.”


Lottie quickly agreed to seal the deal. Neither of the girls owned a pair of shoes so it wasn’t a real challenge, but at least they felt as if they’d made the extra effort.


They erupted onto the broad pavement that lined the Old Steine. A large round park surrounding a magnificent fountain. Opposite that was the Steine Transfer Station, the central hub of Brighton’s mono-rail network. The triple-storied rotunda rested high on dozens of stout pillars, almost like a pier.


The mono-rail from Hove looped about the first story of the rotunda. The second story served the eastbound Kemp Town line, the third the northbound service to Hollingbury Aeroport. Stairs, steam powered escalators, and elevators ran between the bottom of the rotunda and the ground below. The building seemed to spit out and draw in hundreds of people, and a steady stream of mono-trams chugged to and from the station.


Casting a quick look at the traffic, Alice reckoned they could still beat the mono-tram they’d been racing down North Street. She also spotted what they had come to meet because Uncle Magnus had made mention of a lektrishaw prototype in his invitation.


The one parked nearby looked different from all the other three-wheeled lektrishaws. Those were open vehicles. They had casing that curved around the back to enfold the passenger bench and hide the engine and batteries beneath it. This one had casing all around forming a proper cabin, a larger engine, and a sturdy seat for the driver.


Alice ran halfway past the lektrishaw prototype. When Lottie was barrelling forward at full speed Alice stopped, dashed to the lektrishaw and patted its side. “I WIN!”


“Not fair!” Lottie howled after coming to a halt.


Alice knew it wasn’t. It was definitely cheating of sorts, but three pointers required every sailor to put their best step forward for England. Or something like that. There was a lot at stake.


“SEVEN to five!” Alice cheered.


“I didn’t know this…thing was the end of the race!” Lottie protested.


“I should hope it bain’t seven to five,” a man’s voice boomed from the lektrishaw’s cab. “As that would make us terribly late, and mind your language, Matilda is not a thing.”


Although the prototype looked far sturdier than regular lektrishaws, the frame shook on its three wheels as the man emerged from the vehicle. He’d been sitting on the backseat reading a newspaper, the broadsheet still in his hands.


He was a large man, heavy-set with broad shoulders, short light-brown hair and vivid ginger sideburns and moustache. He wore sturdy boots, dark brown trousers, shirt with rolled up sleeves and unbuttoned collar, a waistcoat, and a derby hat.


“Matilda?” Lottie asked.


“No,” Alice said happily. “Mus Gunning, a proper Steam Rider from the Sons and Sisters of Steam.”


“Hello Alice, good to see you again.” The man looked at Lottie inquisitively. “I’m Jim Gunning, and you are?”


“Lottie. Are you taking us to the lababorty?” Lottie asked, casting a hopeful glance at the prototype. “For spurrimentinations and scones?”


Gunning looked confused for a moment. “If you mean the Volk Workshops, I’ve been asked to transport one miss from here to there, aye. But it seems there are now two misses, instead of the one miss. Which makes for one extra miss, unless I missed something in my calculations?”


Alice had to think quickly. It was true that Mus Volk’s note was addressed to Miss A. Kittyhawk and made no mention of anyone else at all. But Lottie really, really, really, really liked scones and that was important too.


“Lottie is my spare miss,” Alice explained.


“Spare miss?” Gunning raised his eyebrows.


“Zackly,” Alice said. “I don’t go anywhere without my spare miss, in case something happens to me. Cause then I wouldn’t be missed all-along-of Lottie, being the spare miss, finishing the secret mission instead. So really, there’s just the one of us.”


“She can’t miss her spare miss, Guv,” Lottie added.


“It would seem wise to have a spare miss if you’re on a secret mission,” Gunning agreed. “Do you go on a lot of secret missions?”


“All the time,” the girls answered in unison.


Gunning scratched his head. “Very well, I’ll tell Magnus that you tricked me and he can sort it out.”


“We get to ride a lektrishaw?” Lottie thrilled.


“Not just any lektrishaw,” Gunning said proudly. “This is Matilda. A trike modelled on the lektrishaw.”


Alice wasn’t surprised, being used to the wondrous contraptions invented and built at the Volk Workshops. Lottie was more impressed by the prospect of a ride on the machine than its origins, so they both nodded politely.


“I didn’t know you worked for Mus Volk, Mus Gunning,” Alice said.


Gunning chuckled. “I’m a Steam Rider and never stay in one place long enough to pick up a regular job. But I like to test-drive Magnus’s wheeled inventions, both as Steam Rider and engineer.”


“A Steam Rider!” Lottie exclaimed. “How romantic!”


“Romantic?” Gunning looked puzzled.


“Dashing outlaws,” Lottie explained. “The Blue-Eyed Rogues of the Highways and Byways.”


Gunning laughed. “It’s not quite like that, Miss…?”


“Carnell, but you can call me Lottie, Mister Gunning.”


“Miss Carnell. Life on the road isn’t what the broadsheets or Penny Dreadfuls tell you. The majority of us aren’t highwaymen, and that’s just for starters. Never believe a word a journalist pens down. Question everything.”


“Like that broadsheet, Mus Gunning?” Alice pointed at the newspaper in his hands.


“Exactly! I was happily disbelieving every word I was reading when you showed up.”


“Then why be a Steam Rider?” Lottie asked, disappointment in her voice. “If you can’t rob rich people?”


Gunning grinned and answered with a single word. “Freedom.”


Both girls looked puzzled at that and Gunning clarified. “Free to do what I want, when I want it, where I want it.”


Alice and Lottie exchanged a quick glance. It sounded optimistic, even ten-year-old chavvies knew such a thing was impossible. What kind of adult lived by such daydreams?


“Never you mind, hop in,” Gunning said. “It’s time we were off to Volk Workshops.”


The girls climbed up the steel steps that led to the small aft cabin of the prototype. People always made getting in and out look easy, but it was a bit harder when you had never done so before – and had shorter legs.


The girls could see Gunning get on the driver’s seat through the glass window at the front of the cab. Looking around they discovered the upper half of the cabin consisted of a canvas roof, resting on a frame made by hoof-iron shaped steel rods. They also discovered the small control panel for the roof and quickly worked out how to use it. When Gunning started the engine, the electrical hum was added to by a whirring sound as the roof folded backwards to expose the cab.


Gunning aimed the prototype into the traffic on Grand Parade.


“I’ve always wanted to ride one!” Lottie was over the moon. “It’s like being proper royalty, ain’t it?”


She pointed at the Royal Pavilion to their left. The many domes, minarets, and garden of palm trees made it look like the building had got lost on its way to India and ended up in Brighton by mistake.


Alice was sure she felt a drop of rain and deftly operated the small instrument panel. Back in Rottingdean, when her father had still been alive, he had sometimes taken her out flying in a small sky-skiff called The Liddle Mew. The control panels in the small pilot house of a sky-skiff were more complicated than the roof controls, but it was nice to be switching levers again. She looked at her handiwork with admiration as the roof folded back over them.


“I think I see a ray of sunshine,” Lottie pointed at a wholly sunbeamless mass of grey clouds over Carlton Hill. She worked the panel to lower the roof again, whirring patiently as it went.


Gunning steered the trike left and took them into the North Laine neighbourhood. He didn’t seem to notice the almost continuously moving roof of the prototype. He had to slow down because many of the narrow streets had market stalls and were filled with folk doing their shopping.


“We have to talk in secret,” Alice said. “Because of the secret mission.” She started raising the roof again and pressed a finger against her lip to hush Lottie until the roof had rolled firmly shut.


“What secret mission?” Lottie asked, her hand already hovering over the control panel.


“Mission Scone,” Alice said solemnly.


“Aww.” Lottie shrugged. “I get it, don’t I? I weren’t really invited so maybe I won’t get a scone. But that’s alright, Alice, just riding a portortip lektrishaw is fizzing, ain’t it?”


The trike turned a corner and Lottie set the roof to fold down again.


“I need some fresh air,” she explained to Alice. “I think I might be getting seasick.”


“Oh dear,” Gunning called out. “Do you want me to slow down?”


“Slow down?” Lottie asked. “No, please don’t, Mister Gunning. Can’t you go faster instead?”


Gunning brought the trike to a halt. They were on a rising access road of sorts, empty of traffic. There was a narrow strip of empty pavement to one side. The buildings lining both sides of the road were warehouses or workshops, with broad sliding bay doors.


Gunning turned to face the girls. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Did you ask if we could go faster?”


“Lottie,” Alice poked her friend. “He’s a Steam Rider, remember.”


Lottie ignored her and answered, “Yes, please, Mister Gunning.”


Gunning gave them a broad, eager grin. “I’ve been wanting to find out what Matilda can do.” He turned around again, calling out, “Better hold on!”


They soon found out it was wise advice when Gunning accelerated up the access road. Alice felt her hair dancing in the airflow as the broad bay doors began to pass by in a blur.


“Whoah!” Lottie screamed happily, hanging on to the side of the prototype for dear life.


“Whoohoo!” Gunning whooped from the driver’s seat.


Alice smiled. She discovered that if she closed her eyes it was almost a bit like flying, steering The Liddle Mew through a brisk cross-wind.


There were even engine sounds. This puzzled Alice at first because the prototype’s engine remained near-silent, even at great speed. She figured it out when the row of buildings on one side of the road was replaced by a grimy cliff-side. They were below Brighton’s railway station and the Locomotive Works. Passenger trains, freight trains, and shunting engines all added to the noise. There was non-stop rumbling, grumbling, chugging, huffing, hissing, thunking, clanking, and thudding, with the occasional piercing, shrill shriek of venting steam.


Alice didn’t find the industrial medley annoying, but it was a good excuse to raise the roof once again. It had only just closed when Gunning began to slow down, approaching the gates at the end of the access road. They had reached the Volk Workshops, so naturally Lottie had to open the roof again to get a better view.

3. Proper Perfessors

The layout of Volk Workshops was strange. There wasn’t much space in Brighton. Magnus Volk had solved this by leasing a narrow strip of wasteland. It ran along the bottom of the low cliff below the railway station and Locomotive Works. It was less than fifty yards wide at its broadest but endlessly long, filled with shacks and sheds of all shapes and sizes. It even crossed underneath the London Road rail viaduct to continue beyond the high arches of the viaduct.


Volk had invented the lektrishaw simply to get from one end of the Volk Workshops to the other. He hadn’t foreseen the commercial success of the vehicle. Thousands now plied Brighton, Worthing, Hove, and Kemp Town. Half the Volk Workshops were  dedicated to the production of lektrishaws. That provided enough income to let Magnus Volk pursue his interests in the other half of the compound.


Gunning drove the prototype trike to a long single-story building, much like one of the railway sheds at the Locomotive Works. He helped the girls scramble off the trike and then motioned for them to follow him into the long building.


The first room was an office filled with technical drawings: Hanging on the walls, spread over tables, or pinned to display boards. Many of the schematic layouts had later additions. Bold red circles with exclamation marks penned here and there, accompanied by illegible scribbles and scrawls.


The second room was filled with a pungent acrid smell. The steel cupboards along most of the walls were blackened by smoke. What might have been a large table in the centre of the room was a smouldering heap of charred mess, surrounded by partially scorched chairs. One chair had a singed and smoke-streaked laboratory coat hanging over its back.


“Funny thing,” Gunning stated. “I’m pretty sure this room wasn’t like this when I left.”


“I’m hoping,” Lottie whispered in Alice’s ear as they made their way across the ruined room. “That this isn’t where they bake the scones.”


The third room was filled with more schematic drawings, only this time they had to share the space with more machinery than you could shake a stick at. There were bland steel cupboards along one entire wall. Alice suspected they held massive batteries. Many of the other machines hummed with that tension-filled buzz of electricity. Other parts of the room looked like the laboratory of a cackling-mad scientist in a Penny Dreadful novel. Copper tanks were connected by tubes, some made of glass to show the passage of vilely coloured vapours or drops of vividly bright liquids. Things bubbled, dripped, gargled, or blew out tiny jets of steam.


Two men were leaning over a table placed near the window. One wore a lab-coat and the other one a business suit. They were tinkering with a lamb-sized mechanical toy of sorts. The men muttering and exclaiming as they poked it with various tools, entirely unaware of the newcomers.


Lottie looked around in wonder, before whispering to Alice: “Is this where they make the scones?”


“Ahem,” Gunning scraped his throat.


The lab-coated man turned to face the Steam Rider and his passengers. Magnus Volk was a stout young man in his early twenties, with an open face that could be animated by enthusiasm or temporary dejection. Sometimes his face was frozen in a thoughtful expression when he was lost deep in his wondrous mind. He had short, unkempt dark hair. His chin and cheeks were covered in stubble. His lab coat, Alice noted, wasn’t as scruffy as she had expected. It was usually covered in small scorch marks and indeterminable stains of all colours.


“Jim! Welcome back,” Volk said. “And the outcome of our experiment?”


“Matilda’s fold-out roof is child-proof,” Gunning reported. “The girls did their best.”


Wunderbar!” Volk turned to Alice, beaming. “My dearest Alice, growing cleverer by the day I hope?”


“Yarr, Mus Volk,” Alice confirmed happily.


“And…” Volk’s voice trailed off as he looked at Lottie in some bewilderment. “Have we met before?”


“Mus Volk,” Alice said quickly. “This is Lottie, my best friend.”


“Ah, Magnus,” Gunning said apologetically. “Miss Kittyhawk convinced me that Miss Carnell is crucial for the security of the realm. It’s all very hush-hush, on a need-to-know basis as it were.” He winked at Alice and Lottie who dared a small grin in response.


“Indeed.” Volk nodded absent-mindedly. “Pleased to meet you Miss Carnell.”


Alice sought Lottie’s hand and squeezed it. Their plan was working and the secret mission could continue.


Somewhat flustered, Lottie answered Volk as best she could. “Pleased to meet you, I’ve never met an inventorian…” Lottie threw a quick guilty glance at Alice. “A spurrimente…a proper perfessor before.”


Gunning chuckled. “Not one proper ‘perfessor’, but two of them.”


“That would be correct,” the man still by the table said. “If one of them wasn’t infamously improper and a Döktor to boot, rather than a professor.”


He walked to Volk’s side. In contrast to the younger man, he was neatly dressed in a sharp-cut formal suit. Every crease of his cravat looked like it had been carefully folded in place. Every hair of his silver-streaked dark hair seemed placed with exquisite precision. He had light greying sideburns and a horseshoe moustache, grey in the middle and silver at the ends. His eyes sparked with sceptical amusement at the world.


“Young master Gunning,” he nodded at the Steam Rider. When he addressed the girls, he politely ignored their frayed dresses and bare feet. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, young ladies. I’m Herr Döktor.”


“Herr Döktor?” Lottie asked. “That sounds German. Are you German?”


Alice was confused as well, because Herr Döktor spoke fluent English. Then again, Mus Volk’s father had been German and the young inventor spoke with a normal accent, other than the occasional German word thrown into his speech.


“The name is purely for marketing purposes,” Herr Döktor explained. “I’ve found it lends my branding a certain mystique.”


“Quiddy?” Alice asked.


“He says it’s a mistake, don’t he?” Lottie said. “That makes more sense.”


“It’s far worse,” Gunning said with a grin. “Herr Döktor is from Surrey.”


“Surrey!” Alice exclaimed.


“What’s wrong with Surrey?” Herr Döktor sounded surprised.


“Oh, a native thing, that’s all,” Volk said. “Sussex folk think those from Surrey are the most chug…?” He looked at Alice.


“Chuckle-headed,” Alice provided helpfully. “Of all sheere-folk, be they from Hampshire, the Americas, or Cathay, furinners from Surrey be the most chuckle-headed of all.”


“Chuckle-headed?” Herr Döktor asked. “I will add it to my resume. I’m happy that my home county ranks number one in something at least. Gunning, I trust you had a smooth run on the prototype?”


“With less mishap than whatever happened next door,” Gunning said. “Though compliments are due, I suppose, for your flawless appearance after what looks like a small explosion.”


“An unfortunate minor setback,” Volk assured him. “No one was hurt.”


“Other than our bruised egos.” Herr Döktor commented dryly. “As for maintaining appearances, Master Gunning, I do but honour our common ancestors. They prided themselves on keeping their sleeves spotless while skinning marauding Northmen alive. Spotless. Not a drop of blood.” He lifted his hands to show off his starched shirt cuffs, complete with silver skull and cross-boned cufflinks. “And the skinned Northman’s sorry barbarian hide nailed to the town gates as a warning to others.”


“Hide? Skinning, Perfessor?” Lottie asked. “Is that like peeling somebody’s skin off?”


“Oh dear,” Herr Döktor addressed Volk and Gunning. “Was that inappropriate?”


“Erm, I’m just a simple engineer,” Gunning said. “But I’d say it was.”


“Do they do that when the person is still alive?” Lottie asked. “That must hurt.”


“I’m reliably informed the screaming is sublime,” Herr Döktor agreed. “And the trick, I do believe, is to keep the victim alive as long as possible, because otherwise, what would be the fun of it?”


“That makes sense,” Lottie said, nodding eagerly. “Does it take long to skin someone, Perfessor? Where do you start? The feet?”


“Lottie’s fambly is from London,” Alice told no one in particular, in an attempt to explain her friend’s sometimes morbid interests.


“Well, my dear,” Herr Döktor told Lottie. “That would depend on a lot of factors. The type of blade used, the craftsmanship of the skinner, the size of the subject, the strength of restraints – because the subject is unlikely to be a willing participant.” 


He produced a notebook and pencil and started scribbling in it. “I could make the calculations based on the size of our friend Master Gunning here…he being the most accurate representation of what I suspect a savage Northman would look like—”


“Don’t,” Gunning said. “I’m starting to feel queasy.”


“Mus Gunning does look a mite squimbly and flue,” Alice said. She hoped to change the subject before Lottie became determined to learn exactly how to best skin someone.


“Shame.” Herr Döktor tucked away his notebook reluctantly. “I am of the strong opinion that youthful curiosity should be encouraged. Eagerness to learn suitably rewarded with knowledge.”


“You would make a splendid schoolmaster, I’m sure,” Volk assured him. “But, there is another matter at hand today, that of the sea-tram.”


“Sea-tram?” Alice asked.


“Indeed! The Pioneer.” Volk beamed. “It was an idea I once discussed at length with your father, Alice. He enabled me to carry out the necessary experimentation on board of his aeroship. Herr Döktor has been helping me complete the final concept.”


Alice smiled. Her father’s The Salty Mew had often served as an aerial laboratory for Volk. Back then, the aeroship had ample scorch marks to show where the inventioner had set up his experiments as he taught himself to master electricity.


“It’s a big day today, Alice,” Volk continued. “We’ve scheduled the first test-run, and I invited you over because I’d like you to witness it.”


He gestured at the model on the table. Alice and Lottie walked over to the table to admire it. The top half consisted of a saloon, like a tram carriage, but it was surrounded by an oval deck much like a ship. There was another passenger deck on the roof of the saloon. The bottom half consisted of a steel frame resting on four long latticed steel legs that ran down to a double set of long cylindrical casings.

“This is a sea-tram?” Alice asked. “Are the wheels inside the casings?”


Volk beamed. “Ja, stimmt. Like train wheels, but inside the bogies.”


“It runs on rails, like a tram or train,” Gunning added.


Alice was puzzled. She couldn’t see an engine house, boiler, or funnel. “What powers it?”


“Electricity of course,” Volk said. He indicated a slender pole that ran along the upper deck. “This trolley pole can be raised to connect with an overhead trolley wire which then powers two General Electric motors in the bogies.”


“But, sea-tram?” Lottie asked.


“Precisely,” Herr Döktor said. “That’s where I still have my doubts.”


“On a track bed,” Volk enthused. “Eighteen feet between the rails which will rest on large concrete blocks morticed into the chalk bedrock.”


“On the seabed?” Alice asked. “But the waves, the tides!”


“These young minions have sharp minds,” Herr Döktor said with evident satisfaction.


“It will work,” Volk said confidently. “Besides, we’ll use the test runs to identify difficulties. Starting today. Jim, could you lend us a hand?”


Gunning nodded. He carefully lifted the test model of the sea-tram off the table before following Volk, who was making his way to the door of the fourth room in the building. It was a vast, cavernous space, partially illuminated by electrical lamps suspended from the ceiling.


A low, broad trough made of riveted steel sheets ran through the hall in a great loop, sometimes flanked by various mechanical devices. The largest of these was closest by, appearing to be modeled on the open pilot house of a small airship. On coming closer Alice saw that the trough was half-filled with water and had a bed of coarse sand, upon which ran a wide pair of miniature train rails. Next to the rails rose posts, like tiny streetlight posts but instead of lamps the tops of the posts supported a thin wire.


Gunning set the model on the rails, and then gingerly raised the trolley pole so that it rested against the wire. He looked at Volk and Herr Döktor eagerly.


Volk nodded with a smile. “If you’d be so kind…”


Gunning broke into a happy grin, and then began to walk around the trough, activating power switches at the various devices he passed.


“…it was truly magnificent.” Volk continued a conversation he had started with Herr Döktor. “There was no power source in Brighton to be had back then, so I built scale models and powered them aboard The Salty Mew. That was Cap’n Hawkeye’s own airship. I used the wind differential and small windmill sails to generate power. He used to skim the cliffs beyond Seaford Head. There are no better aviators than the local smugglers, I assure you.”


Lottie poked Alice’s side and whispered. “He knew Cap’n Hawkeye! I reckoned inventoreers were a bit boring. But this Perfessor Volk of yours knows highwaymen, skinners, and aeroship smugglers!”


Alice grimaced. She had never told Lottie that her father had been the most infamous smuggler of Sussex. Only Scylla the Mairemaid of Sinneport was as well known, but that smuggler was mostly known for her cruelty because she drowned naughty children alive in the mud of Romney Marsh. Cap’n Hawkeye was remembered along the entire coast for his antics in outsmarting the Preventative Men. He had tricked them again and again, until the last time that was, when they had shot him dead.


Lottie narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t you tell me at the seafront that it were your old man who helped Perfessor Volk on an aeroship?”


Alice grinned slyly, secretly relieved that it wasn’t a secret she could keep from Lottie anymore.


“Nooo!” Lottie exclaimed loudly. She quickly threw a glance at the two inventioners, but they were deep in conversation about something called a shaft and worm arrangement. Gunning was still making his way around the trough, switching on applications, all electrical to judge by their humming.


Lottie continued, speaking in a low voice. “Your old man was Cap’n Hawkeye? The smuggler chief?”


“Yarr, but we call it Free Trading, not smuggling.”


“Why didn’t you tell me?”


Alice shrugged. “Free Traders aren’t meant to discuss Free Trading business. They don’t even use their own names, it’s all to be kept secret. Howsumever, Mus Volk bain’t one of us, so he broke the rules just now.”


Lottie’s eyes widened. “One of us. Do you still know smugglers? Real smugglers?”


“Free Traders,” Alice corrected her friend. “Or Owlers, Night-Fliers, and Gentlefolk of the Night.”


She paused, not sure how to explain. Of course she knew Free Traders. In a village like Rottingdean everyone helped out. A chief had a core gang of strongmen for protection. Then there were the tubmen, who unloaded and carried away the contraband. Innkeepers and vicars often provided storage beneath their pubs and churches. Small children kept watch from the hilltops. Alice had spent plenty of time atop one of the hills around Rottingdean at night, keeping an eye out for potential trouble and hooting like an owl to communicate with the others.


Fortunately, she was saved from further clarification by Gunning’s return.


“All systems operational, Magnus,” he announced happily.


Wunderbar.” Volk grinned like a small boy. He stepped up to the small pilot house and picked up clipboards with forms attached to them, some of which he handed to Herr Döktor and Gunning. He also handed two pairs of darkened goggles to the girls. They slipped them on in imitation of the others who were shielding their eyes with their own goggles.


“Gentlemen, Ladies, are we all ready?”


“No,” Herr Döktor said sharply. “Young ladies, if you would be so kind as to step away from the trough please.”


Ja, genau.” Volk slapped his forehead.


The girls stepped back from the trough. Gunning must have seen they looked puzzled because he explained: “Electricity and water don’t mix well. If anything goes wrong and a current gets into the water, you don’t want to be too close to it.”


“Unless, of course,” Herr Döktor said, “you want your hair to sizzle, your skin to fry, and your eyeballs to melt, not to mention certain unfortunate bladder and bowel issues.”


“Really?” Lottie asked. She looked at the trough with fascination. “We could get killed horribly?”


Gunning frowned at Herr Döktor, while Volk looked slightly shocked.


“Oh dear,” Herr Döktor said. “Not appropriate?”


Gunning and Volk shook their heads.


“I do believe I owe you an apology, young ladies,” Herr Döktor said without a note of regret in his voice. “But please, do keep your distance from the trough until whomsoever survives this experiment tells you it’s safe to get back near the water.”


The girls nodded. Lottie prodded Alice and whispered: “This is so much fun!”


Volk grinned again, but sheepishly this time. “Right, a second try. Everyone ready?”


There being no further objections, Volk reached into his coat pocket. “Then let’s launch The Pioneer on her maiden voyage.”


His grin disappeared and a light frown appeared on his forehead as he reached into his other coat pocket. “Why do I never put keys in the same pocket,” he muttered.


The frown grew in intensity, as he stuck both hands into his trouser pockets, then withdrew them – empty – and searched his coat pockets again. “Verdammt!


He looked up at the rest of them, looking quite dejected. “I’m afraid the launch will have to be delayed; I seem to have lost my key.”


The three men, who had moments earlier been as excited as chavvies given a license to run riot in a sweet-shop, looked crest-fallen.


“Does that mean we’re not going to sizzle, fry, and melt?” Lottie asked, unable to hide her own disappointment.


“I suppose not,” Alice answered, almost as disappointed as Lottie was. It had all sounded very exciting, but now it seemed the model of the The Pioneer was going to go nowhere at all.

4. Alice Saves the Day

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Herr Döktor muttered as he peered around the small pilot house.


Gunning had started walking in broad circles, peering intently at the floor.


Volk was once again searching his lab-coat pockets. He muttered, “I was so sure I’d put the key in my coat pockets this morning.”


Alice felt for him, sensing his keen disappointment. As she watched the inventioner turning his coat pockets inside out, she recalled her earlier observation that she’d never seen him wear such a tidy lab-coat before.


Alice’s father had once told her that Mus Volk’s mind was too impatient for reading detailed instructions, that he learned by trial and error instead. That was how the inventioner had learned the art of clock-making in his father’s clockery when he was a boy. Volk senior had died when Magnus Volk was eighteen. The young Volk had carried on the business, looking after his mother and younger siblings. He had slowly transformed the business to include his fascination with electricity and subsequent inventions, including the now famous lektrishaw.


Learning by making mistakes didn’t seem particularly ingenious to Alice, who reckoned she did that all the time. She had to admit though, that Uncle Magnus was particularly good at it. His usual lab-coat looked like an old battle banner that sported the scars of his errors.


A thought struck her. “Wait here, I’ll be back drackly,” she told Lottie, and then hurried through the working laboratory to the ruined second room. She slowed down when she reached the charred chairs around the blackened remnant of the table, but it seemed safe now.


Alice reached for the scorched lab-coat and laughed happily when she found a small brass key in one of the pockets. She rushed back to the testing run.


“Mus Volk! Is this the key?” She held out her find, delighted to see him break into a relieved grin.


Ja, genau! Where…how…?”


“You said you put it in your coat pocket this morning,” Alice said. “But since then, there was that fire in the other room, and I recollected seeing a lab coat on a burnt chair.”


“Well done, Alice!” Volk exclaimed. “You should become a detective.”


“Or a scientist,” Herr Döktor said.


Alice’s spirit rose, but then sagged. She liked the idea of becoming a detective, but she was just a slumgirl. Her old schoolmaster in Rottingdean had always said girls shouldn’t have too much schooling, because too much knowledge confused girls.


Shrugging, she said. “I’ll scratch by.”


“We’re just girls,” Lottie clarified, clearly understanding Alice’s sudden sullenness. “We can’t be detectives or scientists.”


“Just girls?” Herr Döktor asked. “Nonsense. You’re participating in an experiment now. That makes you scientists. Just minions of course, but that’s where we all started, didn’t we Magnus?”


Volk grinned. “I remember being a minion.”


Herr Döktor continued. “Have neither of you ever heard of Detective Livy Glenn, Scarlet Carshalton or Admiral Regina Sherman? Solved crimes by the dozens.”


“But didn’t they have to go to Detective School first?” Lottie asked.


“It helps to like reading and writing,” Herr Döktor admitted. “Although I do believe Admiral Sherman was never a great reader.”


“I like reading,” Alice said. Back in Rottingdean, Uncle Yard had often read stories to her. Alice had always loved getting lost in the worlds that existed on the pages of his small library. “Howsumever, books are expensive.”


“I suppose they are.” Herr Döktor examined the girls, seeming for the first time to notice their drab attire.


“In the meantime,” Volk changed the subject, holding up the small key. “Third time lucky?”


Attention was transferred back to the experiment at hand. Volk inserted the key into its slot on the instrument panel in the small pilot house and turned it. Like the other machines around the looped trough, the pilot house hummed into life. Various small light bulbs glowed red or green amidst an array of switches and gauges, the latter’s thin red needles trembling into life.


Eyes shining, mouth in a broad grin, Volk flipped a few switches and announced: “The Pioneer is go!”

5. Furrin Substitutions

The Pioneer glided forward in effortless slow motion.


“Huzzah!” Gunning shouted, before rushing off to one of the machines that lined the trough, clip-board and pen in his hands.


“Thar she blows!” Herr Döktor rushed off after Gunning.


Volk handed Alice a clipboard and Lottie a pencil. “Do you see those small measuring stations? Shaped like a periscope?”


Alice saw a number of poles that resembled walking sticks with eyepieces at the short curved end. “Yarr.”


“There is a gauge on them, I need you to record the number pointed at by the little red needle when The Pioneer passes. It measures the speed. Do you think you can do that? It’s important that it’s done right.”


The girls nodded.


“Good,” Volk smiled. “Go! Go!”


They all rushed after The Pioneer which had begun to negotiate the first broad bend of the loop. After overtaking the miniature sea-tram Volk took his own clip-board to another one of the machines.


It was a tense moment at the first gauge, because it was new and Alice wanted to do well. They watched the sea-tram’s progress towards them, marvelling at the grace with which the spidery legged vehicle ploughed through the water.


“Now!” Alice yelled.


“Twenty-two!” Lottie replied. “Definitely twenty-two.”


“Twenty-two.” Alice wrote it down on the form on the clipboard, as Gunning rushed past, on the way to his next station. They followed him, passing Herr Döktor recording the measurements of the machine he was manning as The Pioneer passed him.


The team continued to leap-frog past one another in this manner as The Pioneer progressed around the first half of the loop. After that the trough broadened, first doubling and then tripling in breadth. There were small turning paddles at the end furthest away from the track. These created small waves and it was here that The Pioneer began to struggle. The sea-tram slowed down, its movement more erratic as it progressed with hesitant pauses at times.


“As I suspected,” Herr Döktor said as he passed the girls. “The latticed steel frames of the legs are creating too much drag.”


Alice had no idea what that meant, but – watching the brave little Pioneer struggle – it made perfect sense nonetheless.


Additional difficulty was created when the bed of sand at the bottom of the trough sloped down. With the rails much lower, The Pioneer’s legs were mostly underwater, bringing the saloon and its deck closer to the water’s choppy surface, almost like a boat now.


The sea-tram slowed down to a crawl, and the next speed measured by Alice and Lottie was much slower.


“High tide might be an issue,” Volk announced as he stopped by to peer at the numbers Alice had recorded.


Alice almost felt guilty when they rushed on to the last part of the trough’s loop, leaving the brave little Pioneer behind to wrestle onward all by itself.


The trough narrowed again, the bed rising, and the sea-tram was back to its earlier performance as it ran in smoothly to complete its run. The end of its maiden voyage was met by whooping and cheering.


“Now that was a sight to see!” Gunning exclaimed as Volk powered the pilot house down. “I’ll go switch the other machines off.”


“There are some issues to address yet,” Herr Döktor mused. “But you’re quite the genius, Magnus.”


“All of us,” Volk said generously.


“Well I beg to differ,” a woman’s voice announced behind them.


Alice turned to see that Mus Volk’s mother Sarah had entered the hall, carrying two large lidded hampers. Both Alice and Lottie eyed the hampers eagerly.


“Has my clever son,” Sarah Volk asked pointedly. “Remembered to offer his guests refreshments?”


“Refreshments?” Volk asked. “Mutti, we’re conducting an important experiment.”


“Not so clever after all,” Sarah Volk told him. “Look at these poor children, scrawny little things that they are, they must be starving.”


Alice nodded, trying to look as poor and hungry as she could, which wasn’t very difficult all things considered.


“I could murder a scone,” Lottie said hopefully.


“A scone?” Sarah Volk asked. She shook her head, dashing the girls’ hope of completing their secret mission. “I’m sorry but I didn’t bring scones today. I did bring zwetschgenkuchen, gugelhupfen, Franzbrötchen, magenbrot, spritzkuchen, bratapfels, and gebrannte-mandeln.”


Herr Döktor’s eyes lit up. “Frau Volk, you’re an angel descended from heaven!”


Sarah Volk greeted Herr Döktor with a hearty denial. He wouldn’t accept that though, and made multiple declarations insisting on her celestial credentials.


Lottie narrowed her eyes and whispered to Alice. “That food sounds foreign.”


“Mus Volk’s dad was from Germany,” Alice whispered back. “Didn’t you guess when Mus Volk was using German words earlier?”


Lottie’s eyes widened. “I thought he was using Sussex words, like you do.”


“Sussex?” Alice couldn’t believe that her friend was unable to tell the difference between proper Sussex words and furrin words from Germany.


“Well, I’m not going to let meself be poisoned by foreign muck, am I?” Lottie asked.


“I’ve brought a flask of coffee and a flask of tea as well,” Sarah Volk said. Winking at the girls she added, “And just in case, a flask of hot cacao. Come on, there’s a table in the next room.”


Taking Alice’s clip-board, Volk said, “I’ll be there in just a moment, Mutti, we need to have a quick look at our measurements. Alice, you and your friend go on ahead already.”


“Always ‘just a moment, just a moment’,” Sarah Volk tutted. She turned and made towards the laboratory next door, followed by Alice and Lottie.


“‘Cacao’ sounds foreign as well,” Lottie noted as they entered the lab.


“So is tea,” Alice pointed out.


“Nonsense!” Lottie declared. “Tea is as English as can be. We just grow it elsewhere to give all those poor people in the Empire jobs.”


Sarah Volk chuckled. “Those poor people may disagree with your point of view. As for cacao…”


She put her hampers on the table recently occupied by The Pioneer. “If it makes it more digestible, I could also call it hot chocolate.”


“Hot chocolate!” Lottie exclaimed and repeatedly poked Alice who nudged Lottie back. It was rumoured in The Lanes that such a thing really existed, but neither of the girls had ever had reason to believe such a fanciful tale.


“Indeed,” Sarah Volk confirmed with a smile. “Would you like to try some?”


“Yes, please!” Alice and Lottie called out together.


Sarah Volk began to unpack the hampers. Alice grinned at Lottie’s face when the woman arranged the zwetschgenkuchen, gugelhupfen, Franzbrötchen, magenbrot, spritzkuchen, bratapfels, and gebrannte-mandeln on the table.


An array of delicious sweet smells filled their noses, each one more enticing than the last.


“Shame you’re not having any,” Alice teased her friend, who was eyeing all the pastries, and cakes, and delicacies with wide eyes.


“I’ve changed my mind.” Lottie said quickly. “I reckon it would be rude not to have any. It's far worse being rude than being poisoned.”


Suffice to say, that after having sampled a little bit of everything, and then again just to be sure, Lottie’s estimation of Germany was much improved that afternoon.


Rarely having much sugar in anything also resulted in both Alice and Lottie experiencing quite a sugar rush. Fortunately, Jim Gunning coped with stoic resignation when he was asked to bring the girls back to the Lanes at the end of the day. Both girls were loudly and restlessly exuberant, despite having failed to achieve the main aim of Mission Scone, and Matilda's roof went up and down again all the way home.


Neither Alice nor Lottie realized The Pioneer would be part of yet another adventure before too long, one which would allow them to redeem the failure of Mission Scone.


To be continued in A Sea Voyage on Wheels Part Two: A Plot Most Foul

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