by Jay Lake
March 17th, 1827
Mister George Stephenson
this letter finds you well. Forgive my unaccustomed bluntness,
but I am writing on a matter of some urgency to Mr. Canning the
First Lord of the Treasury, as well as Mr. Richards and his
colleagues at the Bank of England. More to the point, His
Majesty has elected to take a particular interest in this issue.
Our men in
America have found that a Colonel John Stevens of the city of
Hoboken, New Jersey is working at a feverish pace to complete a
prototype of an American-designed 'steam waggon.' This vessel
is very similar in concept to your own Locomotion Number One so
celebrated in its introduction to service these two years past
on the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
work under way in His Majesty's dominions, the Crown would be
pleased to assist you in bringing Colonel Stevens' enterprise to
a swift halt under the provisions of patent law. As it takes
place in the country of our cousins, so to speak, sheer
commercialism must prevail. While other, more extreme measures
might in principle lie within our reach, they do not apply in
this case for reasons of state.
The nub of
the problem presents itself in the matter of locomotive
performance. As you know, the Reverend Doctor Lardner, one of
England's pre-eminent experts on steam engines, has stated
unequivocally that high speeds are not possible, as the induced
vacuum will deplete the breathing air of the passengers.
Preliminary experiments conducted by the Royal Navy, the
Greenwich Observatory and selected Fellows of the Royal Society
working in confidence have initially verified the substance of
the Reverend Doctor's prediction, with a speed of approximately
twenty-eight miles per hour being sufficient to introduce
partial vacuum in a well-enclosed railway carriage. This would
lead to the asphyxiation predicted by the Reverend Doctor, as
well as various unpleasant physical effects on the corpus
of the departed.
Stevens were to succeed in his efforts and adduce the full and
correct principles of high-speed motion and concomitantly
induced vacuum prior to His Majesty's government possessing that
same information, there is every reason to fear that our
American cousins might pass that information on to inimical
foreign powers. I am therefore authorized to convey to you a
purse of 5,000 pounds sterling and communicate to you His
Majesty's sense of urgency in this regard. I will expect
regular reports and your utmost secrecy in this matter.
Servant in support of Dame Progress.
Grimes, Treasury Clerk
* * *
September 12th, 1827
Mister George Stephenson
me to report that Colonel Stevens of New Jersey is rumored to
have achieved a success similar to your own in the course of
this year. I hope that your motivations and funding are
sufficient to ensure success for His Majesty's government in
these matters of force-of-arms and commerce.
accept my most profound thanks for your kind offer. It was not
my intention in our recent correspondence to advance myself as a
human observer in the matter of high speed transit. Perhaps I
inadvertently created confusion with my own small suggestions on
the value of sapient perception in lieu of scientific
instruments. Even if it were within my heart to participate in
such a great scientific adventure, my duties to the First Lord
and His Majesty require me to stay here in London.
Providence was watching over me in the matter of the
miscommunication, given the unfortunate outcome for the
Berkshire hog placed within your rail cart as part of the
reported testing effort of August the 2nd. It gladdens my heart
that you were at the least able to share the resultant
vacuum-shredded pork with your workmen. If there are any
eruptions from the local farmers, please advise me. I shall
dispatch a suitably titled representative to deal with such
to read that your experiments in velocity have not progressed
well since the Berkshire hog incident. The perils and
advantages of vacuum are but poorly understood even by the
Reverend Doctor Lardner and his colleagues. There is
restiveness here in official London in the same regard,
especially on the part of His Majesty. Nonetheless, I have not
yet been instructed to abandon the project.
question why you are attempting to acquire the entire English
supply of Mr. Peal's vile caoutchouc.
The sticky stuff has little commercial value other than its
mediocre powers of resistance to moisture. Furthermore, it is
costly due to the exigencies of transport from its native climes
in Spanish America. For my own part, I cannot understand what
you see in Spanish American tree sap. While reluctantly
endorsing your project, Viscount Goderich, the late Mister
Canning's successor, has made it clear that additional expenses
should be fully accountable.
is difficult to account for, Mr. Stephenson.
advise me as to your intentions in sufficient detail for me to
make positive representations to my superiors.
Grimes, Asst. Under-Sec.y to the First Lord
* * *
January 19th, 1828
Mr. George Stephenson
understood! Your delivery to the Court of St. James of the
vacuum apparatus, including pump boy and hog handler, was most
well received. Even His Grace the Duke of Wellington, the new
First Lord, confessed to being overwhelmed by the explosive
nature of the demonstration. Or perhaps I should say
'implosive', if you will pardon the essay of a simple jest on my
part. Certainly the rapid vacuum-induced motion of the hog
along the caoutchouc-coated canvas tube was a surprise even to
many of the learned men of the court. That you have repeated
this experiment on the bottom of the River Tyne is a wonder,
most presumably to the animal.
Majesty was quite taken with the whole affair and has proceeded
to despatch a fast vessel of the Royal Navy to acquire
additional stocks of caoutchouc at the
understand as well that you propose improvements in boiler
design which may result in a locomotion engine of higher
performance within a relatively small weight, important for your
efforts to harness the Lardner vacuum effect as an asset rather
than a liability to high speed transport. I have shared your
sparse comments with the Reverend Doctor Lardner, who, while
skeptical, endorses the principle of your innovations. I
believe he may be in communication with the manufacturers in
order to better his understanding.
requested, the marine engineer William James is being dispatched
to your workshops, along with a team of Royal Navy sailmakers.
My meager learning is stretched to its bounds by my efforts to
understand how the pressures of the waters can create an
environment corresponding with the lack of pressures in a
vacuum. If Mr. James' diving suits further your efforts, so
much the better. I cling to the hope of future elucidation.
After the happy conclusion of the caoutchouc affair, your word
is bond here in official London.
furthermore told that Boulton & Watt will soon deliver the new
boiler which you had ordered. I am at a loss as to understand
the confluence of submarine pigs and high-pressure boilers, but
as always I remain eager to learn.
await news of what miracles you may next wreak.
prosperous New Year to you sir,
* * *
August 17th, 1828
Mr. George Stephenson
undone, I fear. The Americans' uncouth President Adams has made
a general announcement at their benighted capital that this past
twentieth day of February, Colonel Steven's steam waggon
'Friendship Seven' has breached the thirty miles-per-hour
barrier with a human observer aboard. This was one
Mister Glenn Johns of their Ohio province, who was to all
appearances recruited for his rough frontier ways and
fortitude. Mister Johns is reported to have been wrapped in a
canvas suit similar to your own designs, layered with silk and
lacquered to achieve some resistance to vacuum.
Majesty was devastated and waxed wrothful about the court for
several hours upon being apprised of the news. Since the
dreadful American announcement, our own persistent fellows from
The Times and other Fleet Street parasites have besieged
Government with requests regarding our own stratagems for
countering this terrible American advantage in military and
civil affairs. I am afraid the secrecy surrounding your own
operations in Newcastle cannot persist much longer.
therefore came as news of great import that you have wrought
another miracle. A sustained track speed in excess of thirty
miles per hour! And survival of the test subject! Though the
accident with the caoutchouc lining of the vacuum-suit was
certainly regrettable. I now see the worth of your adaptation
of our latest marine engineering to the problem at hand.
Perhaps the design flaws will work themselves out soon. In the
matter of the unfortunate hog, I assume you mounted another
feast for your workmen.
that Mr. Dalton's improved barometric instruments indicate the
predicted partial vacuum inside the carriage does indeed come to
pass, at approximately twenty-eight miles per hour. I have
conveyed this information to Reverend Doctor Lardner, who
replies with his compliments and good wishes for your continued
success. He promises to forward a description of his theories
regarding vacuum, atmospheric pressure and the best means to
viably achieve higher speeds.
Our man in
New York has passed the word that Colonel Stevens continues
working with American Naval men. On instructions directly from
His Majesty and His Grace in joint consultation, I must charge
you with ensuring that His Majesty's Admirals and Generals fully
understand the employment of your new technologies.
you could create a vacuum cannon that would cause enemies'
bodies to erupt as have those of the unfortunate hogs? Such a
weapon would be so terrible that upon first demonstration, His
Majesty's enemies must needs renounce their military ambitions
for fear of its application.
For my own
part, I must confess that I find it a blessing to live in such
rapidly advancing times as ours.
addendum, I forwarded your request for a battalion of Royal
Engineers to the Board of Ordnance at Woolwich with an
endorsement from His Grace. I remain curious as to your purpose
in employing such expertise in your works.
* * *
January 30th, 1829
Mr. George Stephenson
Felicitations for the New Year. Your most recent missive
arrived on Christmas Day and caused great consternation at the
have turned the problem around, from managing a vacuum inside
the carriage to managing a vacuum outside the carriage,
is a stroke of genius worthy of a modern Newton. It seems that
if one is to dress a pig in a vacuum-suit, one may as well
manage the vacuum to one's own convenience. My compliments also
to whatever artillery veteran it was that suggested you should
clad the locomotive like a shell ready for firing. The
sketchwork is most impressive.
Lord is of the opinion that Mister James, Major Xavier and
yourself have perhaps been enjoying a bit too much vacuum in
your diets. Nonetheless, beyond any bounds of rational
expectation, His Majesty has looked favorably upon your request
for use of the mountain Ben Nevis as a site for a full-sized
have been dispatched to Fort William to clear the area in
accordance with your wishes, with especial attentions to the
eastern slopes. Six shiploads of convict labor are being sent
from Ireland, with a sufficiency of troops to control the
savages should they prove unruly. All available tonnage of Mr.
Aspdin's Portland cement is being shipped to Fort William. As
it happens, His Majesty’s ship Viscount Moreland has returned
from the Caribbean heavily loaded with caoutchouc. The
Admiralty has directed the vessel to call at Fort William and
offload directly there.
For the love of
God, Mr. Stephenson, I hope you know what you are about. The
diversion of resources to your project has become substantial,
to the alarm of the Exchequer. Parliament threatens the First
Lord with Questions. The hordes of Fleet Street are approaching
and all the eyes of the Empire will shortly be upon you.
miracle would not be remiss.
* * *
July 17th, 1829
Mr. George Stephenson
certain that word has reached your ears of the Vacuum Riots in
London, Bristol and Belfast. While your launching of the
Berkshire hogs across the Irish Sea via the vacuum-tunnel may
have been an engineering success qualified only by the poor
condition of the animals upon arrival, the outcome in social
costs has been a terrible burden on the Crown and upon the
people of Great Britain. Half a block of Belfast shops ruined
in the arrival of the hogs, not to mention so many Irish
injured, was most unexpected.
militias were turned out against British citizens; something it
was to be hoped might never have come to pass in our lifetimes.
That dreadful termagant Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is reputed
to be at the head of the mobs crying for an end to the vacuum
slavery of the free peoples of the world, especially women. The
Pankhurst sisters have gone over to the widow Shelley’s side,
and she is supported as well by Reformists agitating against the
so-called rotten boroughs, thereby binding two groups of
radicals into one force.
your progress, sir? I must warn you that your silence, except
for terse requisitions brought in by messengers, imperils your
continued freedom of enterprise. The absence from London of
both Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and the Reverend Doctor Lardner
has been noticed by the Royal Society, which has been making
inquiries of the First Lord’s office. If not for the threat of
Colonel Stevens and his works now at Mt. Vernon, Virginia, you
would likely already be answering before the bench of His
Majesty's justice for misappropriation of funds.
I implore in the name of all that has gone between us, show your
hand before it is too late for all concerned.
* * *
October 1st, 1829
Mr. George Stephenson
I am in
receipt of your invitation of the 4th ult. to travel
to Ben Nevis for an October showing of your enlarged vacuum
tunnel project. Even in my enthusiasm for your efforts, I must
confess that what you hope to accomplish is simply beyond me,
seen Major Xavier's latest diagrams, and read the reports, both
of your efforts and those of Colonel Stevens. The giant Boulton
& Watt boilers with their mighty pistons that Reverend Doctor
Lardner has helped you erect upon the withered heath must be
picturesque, a very temple in iron to Dame Progress. The miles
of tunnels leading up the slopes of Ben Nevis, pumped out to
dark vacuum, are like unto the labyrinth of the Minotaur. The
canvas hoses, sealed with caoutchouc, that stretch those miles,
are like the arteries of the body.
I see the
beauty, the metaphors, the empire-killing expense of it all, but
damn my own eyes man, I do not see what it is for. I
suppose I shall learn shortly, as by express order of His
Majesty I will be in attendance at Ben Nevis. It pleases our
monarch that I, who have watched over this project since the
beginning on behalf of the privy council, should now come and
witness the final bearing of fruit in person.
I do not
believe I am remiss in observing the none too secretive hand of
the Duke of Wellington behind my assignment to your benighted
Scotch quarters. He has always resented my agency on your
behalf in this unprecedented drain on His Majesty’s Treasury.
If I may be permitted a terribly impolitic remark, it is the
drear minds of Government that sometimes most retard the
progress of Science. You may expect me within a week of your
receipt of this letter.
me, it would appear that half of England shall be there. I
believe the First Lord plans to attend in person, and His
Majesty will also send several personal representatives. Almost
the entire Royal Society is already under way in your
direction. Even Mr. Trevithick, overcome with jealousy, travels
in their van.
much hope you are in full command of your faculties and
intentions. Were your project to fail, the embarrassment to
both England and to yourself would be nearly fatal.
has announced from her headquarters at Bristol that she and the
New People's Army will be attending under flag of truce. I
should heartily recommend to you to stay out of any
lines-of-sight in which she may stand. There are many in Horse
Guards who would be pleased to dispatch her even on pain of the
noose for themselves. The widow Shelley is a mortification to
all of us. It is to your luck that her adventures among the
countrymen distract attention from the fiscal and social
consequences of your unprecedented and mysterious efforts there
on Ben Nevis.
appreciate your forwarding of a hundred pounds of salt-cured
shredded pork. The significance of the viands with respect to
these enterprises is not lost on me, as good Berkshire hogs have
given their all for England time and again. Hopefully the final
flaws in your vacuum-diving suits will shortly be resolved.
Even in the face of potential engineering perfection I still
insist, however, that I shall not stand as your human observer
in your first, great test of the enlarged vacuum tunnel.
will never leave England's soil.
* * *
October 31st, 1829
Mr. George Stephenson
wrought a miracle! I swear that I could almost touch the Sun.
Though I fear I am Icarus to your Daedelus, still my current
condition is a glorious state unsought even by the dreaming
mind of man. I am grateful to the First Lord for offering me as
a volunteer in this noble effort. It is an honor to surrender
my life for the betterment of England.
I write now for
the most part only because it is my habit to think of you as a
correspondent, even though we finally shook hands this past
October the twelfth in Fort William. I fear that my time is
limited. I have completed the instrument observations that
required a keen human eye, and have placed the log book in its
armored box. Would that there were such armor to shield my
person on landing! I shall place this letter with the
instrument log before sealing the box, in the event that our men
in America can retrieve anything of the wreckage to come.
forgive the mediocre penmanship. I have always despised those
men who write with pencils, for that is the mark of a poor
copyist, yet your Major Xavier was perfectly correct in his
speculations. My quills are worse than useless here above the
roof of the sky.
vacuum-diving suit is not such a terrible burden, though my
bladder itches abominably, if you will pardon my directness on
such a personal matter. It was well that Major Xavier advised
me not to eat this past day or more. I shall not elaborate
further except to say that while a condemned man is normally
granted a last meal, I am now glad of forgoing such privilege.
would have dreamed of lining canvas with caoutchouc to shield
against the vacuum of the aether? You are genius, sir, this
vacuum-diving suit only one of many great marks in the ledger of
your life and work.
importantly, even as I gasp out my life before this view of
unparalleled strangeness, the tight bonds of earth, against
which we all strain without ever knowing, have released me to
flight as if I were the most gracile bird. I see oceans and
clouds below me as the world curves away beneath these diamond
hard stars, all the works of man and England so tiny as to be
less than the hills of ants. If only I were not so cold here, I
might enjoy it more.
I shall momentarily arrive in America. If I survive the
landing, which I seem certain not to, they are more likely to
imprison or hang me than to send me back. Nonetheless Mr.
Stevenson, I adjudge your rocket a success.
mean so little now that you have delivered the ballistic arts
into England's grasp. I only hope my own missile is so terrible
and wasteful of life in its impact with the earth that the
Americans will foreswear their own works in the face of such
destruction. Thus would your efforts to secure the frontiers of
the aether through vacuum for the good of the crown be also
successful in binding the world to peace.
approaches, but I have no regrets. I die in the arms of Dame
Progress, serving England with my last breath.
About the Author:
Lake lives and works in Portland, Oregon, within sight of an 11,000 foot
volcano. He is the author of over two hundred short stories, four
collections, and a chapbook, along with novels from Tor Books, Night
Shade Books and Fairwood Press. His current novel is Trial of Flowers
(Night Shade Books). Jay is also the co-editor with Deborah Layne of the
critically-acclaimed Polyphony anthology series from Wheatland
His next few projects include The River
Knows Its Own (Wheatland Press), Mainspring (Tor
Books) and Madness of Flowers (Night Shade Books). In
2004, Jay won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He
has also been a Hugo nominee for his short fiction and a
three-time World Fantasy Award nominee for his editing. Jay can
be reached via his Web site at
by email at email@example.com.
Story © 2006 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.