With every glance back at Number Four grinding up the slope, Brewman was more convinced that her water was foul. He chewed at his lip furiously. Blast Grint for not paying closer attention to the filling! Blast the Guild for leaving the tank at the North Cut three-quarters empty. Blast this shoddy coal - all he'd been able to secure at the last yard - which was boiling so slow. He looked out at the rising country around him and fixed each rowan and pine with an angry glare. Blast them! But it was his own fault, and that was where the fury was sourced. He had known that Grint needed closer supervision. The man was fair enough for local runs, but on a trip like this he didn't have the sense to think further than the next milestone ahead. Steerbridge was laid up and Macklemore was taking the Beast down to Manchester with a four-car train. That job needed two good men, so young Horrocks had gone with him, leaving old Horrocks to handle the local work in Number Five for the time being. They were both well past their prime - old Horrocks could only really stand when clutching onto the regulator wheel and Five, well, she spat cinders whenever she was driven further than four mile. And that had left only Grint and the boy to accompany him on this trip. He'd known he would need another hand for the stretch past Yarthwaite, and thank God, the man he'd taken on at the Crown didn't seem to be an idiot, but it was Grint, his own employee tasked with the responsibility of driving the second engine, that frustrated him. A steamsman needed more caution. The big engines were temperamental - Brewman wasn't ashamed of admitting that. They needed coaxing up the long slopes, warming gently in the morning, talking to, reading. Every gauge and valve told you their needs. Number Four had always been thirsty. It couldn't be called a fault, no. That would be a deeply ungrateful, even unfaithful thing to say about a steam-powered road locomotive. It was simply part of who she was. And a good driver took account. It was a dirty tank, though. He hadn't filled at North Cut for years, but he should have known the water was going to be muddy. It was his own fault more than Grint's. "Mester Brewman," said the lad. "They's two engines a-coming up from the Cut." Brewman turned about on the footplate and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He could see the two dirty plumes of engines burning coal and accelerating up the road, clearly meaning to climb Hammer Hill the same evening as himself. He unclipped the monoscope from its mount above him and handed it to the boy. "Take a good hard spy on 'em," he said. "Who is it?" The boy peered away while Brewman concentrated on steering his own engine over the uneven road. The mighty Carocall locomotive didn't mind where she rolled, but the two wagons behind were piled right high, lashed tight over with canvas and cord, but still at risk. He let a little more steam in and immediately felt the pistons surge and the wheels pick up pace. If it were a local firm, they'd have climbed the hill in the morning. So they were making the same run he was: up Hammer Hill by twilight, a rest at the filling station just over the crest and a run down into Finchwick in the morning. And probably on into the city after that... "I think they's Guild engines, Mester," said the boy at last. "Red with gold bands." "Hop back onto Number Four and look from there," growled Brewman. "Then light on up here as fast as you may. Go on - get!" He'd stoke and drive for the next stretch. The hill didn't really steepen for another mile and Spadille, his own Number One engine, was singing and steaming as sweet as she ever did. It was Number Four that worried him, and he longed to coax her up the slope himself, but that would mean changing places with his man and he'd rather go blind than trust Grint to drive Spadille. Brewman settled into his rhythm. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, toe the door, look about, choose a line, check the pressure, feel the wheel. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss. Spadille was older than all of 'em, except Number Five, but she was tough. She was tough and she rode smooth and she never complained. She liked a hot fire and a long run and she lit quick again in the morning. A real steamsman's engine. His kind of engine. He allowed himself a grim smile and began to build the pressure a little more in anticipation of the climb. The boy scrambled up again beside him. "Red and gold bands, Mester Brewman." He didn't have to say anymore. Brewman handed him the shovel and it was the boy's turn. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, wiry muscles standing out through his thin cotton undershirt. Scoop and toss. The boy knew not to ask questions, but Brewman liked him. Another three-four year and he could be of real use to Brewman and Son, Haulier. And if he were to drive, he needed to know the lay of the land. "It's like this, son. We need water after the climb. Hammer Hill station has enough for both our engines, but maybe not for four. And the Guild fill first, see. Because it's their tank." It hadn't always been their tank. Old Master Brewman had been one of the seven or eight hauliers who had seen it built, replacing the very unreliable roadside pool, but the Guild had bought it out more than ten year back. That rankled too. Because it was really Brewman's own water - at least in part. "But we're going to be there first, Mester, ain't we? And they can't fill if we's already taken what we need." "You think we'll be long ahead of 'em, Shawn boy?" The lad looked up into his master's face. He wasn't often called by his given name. He had hoped that the master liked him - he tried to be good - the tough, reliable roadsman he wanted to be. "You think we'll be filled at the rate Number Four is goin'?" They looked back. The gap between their own rear wagon and the following locomotive had lengthened even since the boy had scurried between them. Brewman shook his head. He could see it all ahead of him. Half-filled, the Guild drivers would arrive upon him and claim their privilege. Four really needed a full flushing. He'd be stuck, waiting for the tank to refill at its trickle, until at least midday, or have to split his train of four wagons and take two on and deliver half the consignment. But he'd contracted to bring it in by the night of the eighteenth and the bounty wasn't a prize: it was his firm's lifeblood. They couldn't compete with the Guild's margins, so he had to get every delivery in on time. No penalties, no mishaps, no smirches on the Brewman name. That was the only way he had managed to keep the firm alive.
I wrote this piece in 2013, but I’ve had the concept since around 2004/5. Monks in Space. A space monastery in the Kuiper Belt. Excellent.
The First Chapter
It was Brother Isador, returning from a baptism on a nearby asteroid, who found the drifting escape pod. The spherical capsule had long since burnt out its distress beacon, but the polished reflective surface made a spark in the darkness that caught Isador’s attention. As he neared it he scanned for transmissions – none. He would certainly find nothing more than the remains of a lost soul forgotten in space.
But he didn’t. Matching trajectory and velocity at about thirty metres he saw a movement through a tiny, trapezoid window. Then a face. A haggard and desperate face. Isador offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for the preserved life within the pod – and a prayer that he might serve his maker in preserving that life further.
He approached, programmed a tiny rocket drone to thread a cable through a projecting rung, fired it, and powered up all his boosters to begin to slow the pod’s flight. Once in the hangar beneath the refectory and with the gentleness of the abbey’s air on his cheeks, Isador and the other monks wrestled with jammed catches and an electronic lock coded in an unfamiliar script. They opened the hatch and found a man inside, unconscious and breathing shallowly in the remnants of his thin air. He had a wasted and enervated body, lank and dirty hair. He wore an old-fashioned suit that seemed to have been fitted to a larger, form. How long had he been drifting in space? Neither the pod nor he could tell the monks, who carefully carried him up to a cell and laid him on clean sheets. Continue reading “Monks in Space”