Thursday, September 30, 2010

North to Alaska

I'm sure I've said it before, but it bears repeating: other people's vacations are generally on the dull side. If you, Gentle Reader, choose to skip over this post (and the next two, I'm afraid, though I promise not to inflict more than that), I will not think less of you.

For some time now, the Jamesons had a desire to see the Last Frontier (not to be confused with the Final Frontier, you Trekkies). At the same time, we are not adventurous people and we like our creature comforts. This led to an inevitable conclusion: cruise ship. Specifically, the Silversea Silver Shadow, a small vessel that proved to be an advantage in narrow passages.

We started from Vancouver, itself a lovely town (though substantially more congested than on my past visit, some years ago; sadly, far too many residents drive like they do in Washington, D.C., which is to say aggressively), and sailed past Vancouver Island.

After a day at sea, our first port of call was Sitka, a small town whose economy seemed to be equal parts fishing and tourism. The day was overcast, with a drizzle that occasionally turned harder. Though perhaps it was only a reflection of the weather, the town seemed depressed, and at least one carload of teenagers was less than enthusiastic about having tourists arrive: one threw a smoke bomb that landed at my feet. Hey, I'm leaving already!

The key fact about this itinerary was that everywhere one turned one encountered another spectacular view. If one likes mountains, that is, and I like mountains.

The next stop was Skagway, a tourist town that marketed its gold-mining past. We eschewed the train tour in favor of renting a car to drive the Yukon Highway north into British Columbia and then the Yukon.

The drive wound its way past mountains and gorges, with spectacular scenery around nearly every turn - and, usually, nice wide shoulders on which to park and take pictures.

Lunch (a homemade blueberry muffin) was in Carcross, a sleepy little town with a traffic jam as the highway was under repair.

We made it as far as Emerald Lake, which really did look emerald in color, before turning around somewhat short of Whitehorse.

Though the weather was quite mild, we had an occasional reminder that winters were less pleasant:

I mused on that sign for some time, as it provided no guidance regarding what to do should one encounter a snowplow in one's lane, with a mountain on one side, a steep drop on the other, and piles of snow on the shoulders.

No time to find out the definitive answer to that question, as time was running short. I filled up the car at the only gas station in Skagway, at the eye-opening price of $4.01 per gallon. (The price in Juneau, where there was competition, was around $3.35.) It's good to be a monopolist.

Next: adventures in aircraft!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hurricane Hits New Toulouse!

Duchess Carntaigh sent a rather alarming telegram from New Toulouse:




I did what any Steampunk journalist would do: I planted a hat firmly upon my head, had Mr. Daniels pull the Hangover Two out of storage, and made haste for the swamps of New Toulouse.

Her Grace did not exaggerate. Flooding was widespread even as the storm still raged. The H2 was buffeted by the winds, making it somewhere between a test of skill and sheer luck to maintain the craft in the air and on course. More troublesome were the numerous bolts of lightning; a direct hit on the ship could create a spark that would ignite the hydrogen in the gas bags, an eventuality for which I had planned by wearing a swimming suit in lieu of bloomers (the top went over my corset; some standards must be maintained, even in the event of an evacuation of the airship) and packing a flask of warming brandy, as One Never Knows.

I saw very few souls; most must have heeded the storm warnings and left town. This gentleman, I surmised, was looking for survivors in need of rescue, despite the rain and wind.

Maneuvering low, I saw two zombies menacing the gentleman in the orange suit. He carried a large shotgun, so I assumed he had everything under control, though I thought it unwise of him to refer to one of the zombies as an "undead whore." This merely inflamed the passions of the pair of them, and they redoubled their efforts to eat his brains.

Always the practical one, Baron Wulfenbach laid a line of sandbags around this house in order to keep as much of the floodwaters out as possible.

Another couple sought refuge on the second floor balcony of their building.

More sandbags.

The flooded square.

The couple on the roof of the shack had the foresight to save their horse, and now all three awaited rescue.

A truly terrible storm, and we have yet to see the end of it. One can only hope that the human cost will not be high.

West Speirling for Sale

Darkling Elytis, Lady Speirling, the Marquise of Caledon's West Speirling, announced that she is selling her long-held property in the Firth.

Indeed, I believe she had the property when I arrived in Caledon. As other dukes and duchesses, marquis and marquises have come and gone in that period, Lady Speirling has remained.

The land is not large - water-bourne vehicles have no trouble passing through the territory - but the isle has always had an aetherial beauty to it, which the continual patter of rain only enhances. Magic, I suppose.

I expressed my hope to Lady Speirling that this spot would not change dramatically. She replied that she will be selling the property to "someone who will love the land, and storm, as I have. "

My photographic archive contained several previously-unpublished shots of the isle from November 9, 2008, when a house stood on the land.

One of the surprises one might see is none other than our Nessie, who happened to be passing by the other night as I stood on the isle. She paused long enough for me to take a picture:

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Museum of Unnatural History

When I recently visited the new Duchy of Burroughs, one area was still undeveloped: that of the Caledon Museum of Unnatural History. Caledon has had a great deal of history, much of it unnatural, so I was quite curious to see the museum when it opened.

I received word from Dr. Garth Goode that the museum had, indeed, opened, so I took the earliest opportunity to visit.

Outside the museum I saw no one. On the ground was a piece of paper. Stooping down to retrieve the paper, I found a pamphlet entitled "CMUH Museum Guide," which I reproduce below:


Welcome to the Caledon Museum of Unnatural History. I sincerely hope that you enjoy your visit. Be assured that every precaution has been taken to ensure your safety. However, I do strongly suggest that you refrain from taunting or otherwise harassing the Exhibits, including the undead or non-corporeal specimens. Because, as a wise man once said, You Never Know.

Upon taking up residence in Caledon Burroughs I began a geological survey of the islands. Much to my surprise I discovered a cavern sealed from the elements by an
iron door. Tingling with anticipation (and no small amount of trepidation) I explored the cavern by flickering torchlight.

I will spare you the terrifying and grisly details of that night. Suffice it to say that I survived if with somewhat less dignity and somewhat more soiled undergarments. What should cause such a reaction in a famously stout-hearted example of Manhood such as myself?

Merely this: The previous denizen of the cave was a latter-day Doctor Moreau, possessing what I can only describe as a disturbed mind. More than a mere engineer of genetics, this madman appears to have been a collector of strange, unnatural creatures. No doubt these things were to be used as raw materials for his ghastly experiments. At least, that is my supposition. What notes this anonymous lunatic left behind are largely unintelligible or half-eaten by the Creatures.

Creatures? Oh, yes, there were Creatures.

This museum has been established as a monument to scientific achievement, for even a genius madman is still a genius. I have done my best to reconstruct the origin and purpose of these Exhibits using the information at hand. The blanks in the record have been filled in by deductive reasoning, guesswork, and no small amount of imagination.

Yours in Science,

Dr. Garth Goode, Curator

Who could resist? I entered the museum carefully. The interior was pitch black. I saw two red dots nearby and gasped. As my eyes adjusted to the stygian darkness, I saw that the eyes were attached to a...cow.

Not just any cow, mind you, but the Bovidae Vampirus, or the Vampcow. A helpful brochure explained the origins of this unfortunate creature and its progeny.

Across the way was a sight even more horrifying: Luminaria Blingus, or the Wild Bling. Fortunately, the creatures were captured and quite secure. Shuddering, I moved on, past Rattus Cavoritus (the Cavorat, difficult to see that high up in the cage), Avatarus Newbus (the Newbie), encased in ice and murmuring horrid come-ons to me, Tinius Gigantus (the Jumbo Tiny, grown to a grotesque size), and Mermaidus Furrus (the Furmaid, pictured below).

One could only imagine the smell of the wet fur.

Near the Tinius Gigantus was a bottle. Now I knew how Dr. Goode withstood the horrors as he constructed his museum.

I ventured upstairs, only to find... well, I'd best leave that for the next visitor, hadn't I?

Suffice it to say I made it out alive, and look forward to return visits to the museum, a much-needed addition to the scientific education of Caledon.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Heart of (Mainland) Darkness, Part 5

(The big finale. Continues from here. Part 1 may be found here.)

From the Journal of Katherine Melissa Jameson:

Having left Governor Linden's mansion, I could not help but notice that I was in an old, old part of the land. One plot after another was owned by people of ages quite incomprehensible. For example, MadameThespian Underhill, of Hep Cat Central was born 12/18/2002 (while Gov. Linden was born 9/1/2002). (Bear in mind that these people clearly use some odd method of numbering the years, as everyone knows it cannot be the twenty-first century.) Even by the ancient standards of Caledon, this land was old, and felt quite primitive.

Not nearly as old, but as alien as anything I had yet encountered: Miss SoNaTiKa Pixelmaid.

Miss Pixelmaid glowed in the darkness, and wore a sign bidding others not to touch her, as she was "full of scripts." Her calling card said something about "Battlestar Galactica," but this reference was equally bewildering to me. The people of this continent have strange ways indeed.

Leaving Miss Pixelmaid, I looked up to see a very large tower which, upon closer inspection, proclaimed itself to be the Ivory Tower Library of Primitives.

Its entrance was marked with the Lindens' special insignia.

It was clearly a place of power - raw, untapped power. I knew that this was my destination.

As I stepped inside, I was astonished to see the priest who had sent me on this mission. How could it be? I stared at him, noticing subtle differences. Where the priest had a scar on the left side of his face, from mouth to ear, this man had a scar in an identical location but on the right side of his face. He was, in short, the priest's mirror image.

He looked at me and nodded almost imperceptibly. "Ahh, you have arrived at last." He swept his arms to indicate the displays behind him. This will take you back to when the world was new. No bling, no particles, no garish signs, just...primitives. The building blocks of the world."

Well, yes, certainly, primitives, building blocks, and all that. Quite useful, or so I've been told. But, ah, don't we know this already?

"Behold!" he said, "The plywood cube!"

"This is the powerful secret I have been sent to bring back to Caledon? I can't help but say I'm rather disappointed."

"No, you fool woman! These are merely the most base of the the states of matter. The real power is smaller, much smaller."

"Microprims, you mean?" I laughed. "We already have those, too. Caledon has a Mr. Alastair Whybrow, a jeweler by trade, whose specialty is microprims. Have you seen his thousand-prim tiara?" It was quite a pretty thing, though I could not see myself wearing a tiara. I moved my head a bit so the not-really-a-priest could see the spider earrings from Mr. Whybrow's Sparkle of Sound shop.

He looked exasperated. "This is what they send me?" he muttered. "Not microprims - something much deeper, much more fundamental, much more powerful." He intoned the last word so forcefully that I took a step backward. This turned out to be a good thing.

"And that would be...?"

Before he could answer, a red dot appeared on his chest. The expression on his face turned from exasperation to shock as a loud crack! rang out. He crumpled to the ground, blood pooling around a large wound.

I threw myself to the ground. The shot had obviously come from a powerful rifle positioned some distance away. The gunman had an amazing eye to hit his target so precisely, and I did not want to test his marksmanship by continuing to stand. When no second shot came, I crawled toward the priest's near-double. He was dead, and if there was a secret to be told, it died with him.

I scoured the tower, looking at the tutorials, seeking a clue to what the man had been about to tell me. I found nothing.

Having failed in my mission, my thoughts turned toward home and what might await me there.

Later entry

I made my way back to the coast and found a seaport. I bribed my way aboard a merchant vessel heading toward Steelhead, whereupon I returned eventually to Caledon, many weeks after I left that fair nation. My final leg was on a Caledon Air Transport airship that took me to the Downs mooring station.

In my absence, my heartbroken Viscount had moved on to a younger, titled plaything, while his father, the Earl, had found himself in a substantial legal mess when his business partners in a housing scheme discovered that the Earl was keeping a separate set of books from his partners in order to hide the massive amounts of cash he was keeping for himself. I was the least of his concerns.

"So, all's well that ends well?" Rhianon said when I was safely ensconced on our couch, a brandy by my side.

"How can you say that? I wrecked my beautiful airship, not to mention lost weeks out of my life and saw a man shot to death in front of me!"

She smiled. "I can't do anything about the unfortunate man, but the walk was good exercise, you saw many new things and gained insight into the ways of the Mainland, and..." She stood and opened the curtains, then handed me a spyglass. "Take a look at the Downs landing strip.

I did as she asked. There, in the distance, was a brand-new Steamray just in front of the hangar door at Mr. Daniels' airfield. I squealed with delight. "But how...?"

"When word arrived that your airship had been destroyed on a Ban Line, I threatened to deploy against the property owner the most powerful weapon of which I knew: lawyers. He agreed immediately to replace your airship."

I toasted her. "Rhianon, you're the best little sister a girl could have."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Aether Salon: Phantasmagoria!

Sunday found me in New Babbage once more, at the season's first Aether Salon. I was nearly late, and quite out of breath when I arrived, as the hansom cab let me out a considerable distance from the Salon itself. I suppose I should have been more specific in my instructions to the driver, but how was I to know he had no knowledge of the Salon? Shocking!

In any event, the speaker this month was young Master Loki Eliot, who was to enlighten us on the subject of film-making. I will admit to being somewhat skeptical of the medium. Oh, certainly there have been short films, some made by Master Loki himself, that capture the essence of the Steamlands and have a profound emotional affect on the viewer. However, one can see the slippery slope already: these "motion pictures" will become increasingly expensive in order to attract a large audience; yet to attract the audience, the films will also become increasingly bland and blatantly emotionally manipulative. The final collapse for the art form will be the genre that will be called the "Romantic Comedy." At any rate, that's my musing on the subject. I could be completely wrong.

Miss Serafina Puchkina introduced the Salon. I made a note to ask where she bought that lovely ensemble.

The Salon was well-attended, with around 36 souls present, including Miss Ceejay Writer, Mr. Salazar Jack, and Miss Darlingmonster Ember.

Master Loki attracted a number of his fellow Goonies, the urchins of Babbage. For the most part, they were well-behaved, though most looked as though they had not had a good scrubbing for some time.

Miss Viv Trafalgar introduced the speaker.

Master Loki started by describing the Phantasmagoria, a precursor to the modern film:

Apparently invented in France in the late 18th century, [the Phantasmagoria] gained popularity through most of Europe throughout the 19th century. Loki Eliot: A modified lantern was used to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move and change size on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images.

The magic lantern has been credited to both Athanasius Kircher and Christiaan Huygens in the early to mid-17th century. Huygens’ magic lantern has been described as the predecessor of today’s slide projector and the forerunner of the motion picture projector.

(For some reason, Master Loki's shirt would remain gray to my camera the entire time.)

He went on to show examples of short films, including some of his own, and excerpts from larger productions, describing the interplay between the action on the screen and the musical accompaniment.

Below, Dame Ordinal Malaprop waits to ask a question, with Baron Klaus Wulfenbach to her right.

I sit and listen.

Miss Breezy Carver stands in the back of the Salon.

The crowd was quite enthusiastic and, despite admitting to some butterflies in the stomach beforehand, I have no doubt that Master Loki feels pleased with his talk and the reaction to it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Heart of (Mainland) Darkness, Part 4

(Continues from here. Part 1 may be found here.)

From the Journal of Katherine Melissa Jameson:

Governor Linden's mansion! This seemed a likely spot to find the something of great value of which the priest spoke. Military secrets of the ruling Lindens? Perhaps something of scientific value? I eagerly started to search the premises.

Something was odd, however. If this was where the Lindens kept their most valuable secrets, why was it not well-guarded? I was able to walk up to the door and into the mansion with nary a word from a guard, human or otherwise. I was gratified to see that the Governor had indoor plumbing.

The first and second floors seemed oddly sterile, as though they were not used, or had not been used in many years. I descended into the cellar with high hopes, but those hopes were quickly dashed. The cellar had a number of old photographs depicting places and people - I assumed they were citizens of the Linden Empire. The people looked and dressed so oddly that the photographs must be ancient indeed.

One could certainly see the Lindens' imperial ambitions, however, as several of the photographs were captioned "Linden World." Fortunately, as we all know, their power remains concentrated in the Mainland continents, allowing peaceful governments such as those in the Steamlands to continue unhindered for the most part.

The only other objects in the cellar were artifacts of a bygone era. I looked carefully at each one, particularly the cylinder with green ends, which at first glance could have been some sort of explosive, but they were all harmless. Indeed, the contents appeared to be the sort of rubbage one often stored in one's cellar.

I felt deflated. This was obviously not my destination. With a weary sigh, I picked up the leather carry-all once again and continued walking.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Heart of (Mainland) Darkness, Part 3

(Continues from here. Part 1 may be found here.)

From the Journal of Katherine Melissa Jameson:

The trouble was, the priest was not specific as to what I was looking for. I asked, but his enigmatic reply was that I would know it when I saw it. Harumph! Would I really know my goal when I reached it? I had my doubts, but I pressed on.

The warmer climate appeared to be more hospitable to homes and businesses. The barren landscape had given way to commercial developments, some residences, and many, many signs, generally garish advertisements for clothing or (no surprise) the ability to advertise.

Instinct again bade me to make a left turn at the improbably-named Outy's Particle Paradise and continue until I reached a large body of water.

A sign proclaimed it to be the Bay of Space Pigs, a name that made no sense to me, though I was becoming used to such things. Perhaps my instincts had failed me, for I saw no way across...until I saw a small motorized boat. Naturally, I borrowed it. For a mission given to me by a priest, I thought, I was certainly racking up the crimes.

I soon came across a large, sprawling structure that proclaimed itself to be Governor Linden's Mansion. The "Governor" - tyrant that he is, "Emperor" would be a more accurate honorific - ruled this land with an iron first. Was this my destination at long last?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Heart of (Mainland) Darkness, Part 2

(Continues from here.)

From the Journal of Katherine Melissa Jameson:

The next day I awoke cold and stiff on the floor of the castle. I could see no solution other than to start moving and hope I found civilization. Outside was still cold, but not as much as the day before, and the weak sun felt good on my back as I walked to the north and west, skirting more of the horrid ban lines.

What seemed like several hours later, I saw in the distance what seemed to be railroad tracks. What luck! As long as the tracks were still in use, perhaps I could avoid walking the entire journey! I found a rail car barn that proclaimed it was the Berthould Pass car barn for the Okemo, Nakiska, & Southern Railway. Even better, a train - a sleek, modern car that appeared to glide on the track under its own power - appeared shortly, slowing and stopping briefly at the station. I leapt aboard, throwing the leather satchel into the car ahead of me, just as the train took off again.

I snuggled against the cloth seat and watched the countryside speed by. Snow still covered the ground as we made our way north, first toward the west then veering east again. The train occasionally stopped at a station, but no one else ever boarded. At this rate, I thought, I would be to the center of the continent in no time!

Alas, this was not to be. All too soon the train stopped and powered down. I looked out: the tracks had ended. This was the end of the line . I hopped out of the car and the train powered on again and started its journey south. As for me, I picked up my satchel and started walking again.

Shortly afterward, the road forked. East or west? I chose east, gasping for breath in the thin air as the road rose in altitude. The countryside was largely barren, with a few cottages and even fewer businesses scattered along the roadside.

Another intersection, and again I let my instincts choose the way. Golden heart? I don't think so. And I felt even less like a winner. But night was falling fast and I pushed on. I had sat much of the day, so I was not tired. Oddly, I did not seem to be as cold. No, I wasn't as cold - the air was definitely warmer than it had been, the snow cover thinner and dotted with grass.

Another turn and I found myself on a long bridge suspended above a wide channel of water. "Bridge May be Virtual"? A phrase as close to philosophy as I'm likely to get.

Shortly thereafter, I found a map on the side of the road - owned by Caledon's own Carl Metropolitan! - showing that I was close to my destination. If only I knew what it was.