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Nocturnal Mechanisms

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The unspoken rule is that ship Captains go to bed last, wake up first, and as much as possible give the impression of never sleeping. That's not why you are on the bridge of the St. George during the blackest hour of the first night of its test voyage.

It's not an easy ship to sleep on.

The strangely shaped dials tell you part of the reason why. It's moving fast, faster than any ship you have ever heard of. Whatever new design Stark has used for its steam engines — and that's probably known at most by a dozen people in the Empire, and understood by a maximum of two — it's easy to excuse the rumors about something other than natural in its functioning. The common tale among sailors, as told by your officers with blustery skepticism, is that instead of his captors learning the secrets of British engineering from Stark, he had managed to learn some sort of Chinese sorcery from them, and that's how he had escaped them and found his way back to the Chinese coast and thence to England. The story also went that his burns and lost limb had somehow been involved in the ritual - and who knew what rituals were involved in the ships he was tirelessly designing and building for an astonished if nervously grateful British Government?

The official tale is one of a true hero who, unbroken by his capturers, used British courage and British ingenuity to prevail, and who had dedicated his mind, hand, and purse to making sure no fellow countryman would ever suffer the same. Having met the man one night in his study — a study he seldom left unless to go to his shops and laboratories, and that always, too, at night — you have a different theory. They had broken him, with torture and opium and worse and better things, and reshaped the mechanisms of his mind towards the building of weapons as they had wished. But the mechanism was not a sane one, maybe had never been, so he built and built and built until the things he built killed everybody around him, and then he walked out of the bloody ruins and back to his house and his factories. To build and build and build. Broken things have sharper edges.

It seemed you were not the only man who could not sleep, as the Admiralty representative on the tests entered the bridge, his unease poorly concealed. He nodded in some relief as he looked at the same speed gauges that had added to your unease. You could understand why. The ship was increasingly farther away from the place of its first test of the new weapons. It had been a success, if success meant the feeling of ashes in your mouth at the knowledge that someday you would have to decide whether to use them on a crewed ship or an inhabited place, and the certainty that you would choose to. Better to leave that behind and in the future.

"It's quite a ship, right, Captain?"

You assent, as noncommittal to its meaning as the Admiralty man.

"They say Stark is already building a better version, not even waiting for the Navy to finish testing this one."

Oh, you're sure of that. He'll never stop building "better" weapons. They had broken whatever part of the man's soul had once given him the ability to. With his help, you suspect.

"He's certainly an asset for the Empire," you reply instead.

It was the Admiralty man's turn to nod and almost fully repress a shudder. The only idea more troubling than that of Stark's factories in England was that of Stark's factories elsewhere.

There's a small hitch in the engines' sound, but before you can ask for a report, Stark's strange clockwork mechanisms do... something to the engines, and they go back to running smoothly, even faster. For the first time in twenty years, you are Captain of a ship you don't feel is yours.

You wonder if the Admiralty knows it's not theirs either.

Armored in black steel, its shape inexplicably terrifying like an opium nightmare, the St. George continued to slice the night.