Empire Of Steam: Chapter 14

Chapter Fourteen: The First Battle

 

Kirby put down the talking piece for the Tesla transmitter. It was the orders which he had been hoping for. It was time to bring down the whole corrupt capitalist structure. The comrades might have failed in Paris, a quarter of a century ago. But he would not. He would succeed, turning Britain into a Marxist state.

First thing in the morning. That had been his instruction. There was a part of him which wanted to go right now, and start the glorious revolution. If he had known, for sure, that it was feasible, he would have gone straight to the warehouses and climbed into one of those land ironclads, and see if he could pilot it. He had been told, many times, by Sir Edward Monk of how to operate one of these great, hulking metal monstrosities. But it was different being told how to do something and actually doing it for yourself.

 

Kirby climbed down out of the attic. His mother was there, wanting to know why he had been up in the attic again, telling him how useless he was, and how, since he didn’t have a job, he could go and do the washing up.

He walked downstairs, put his coat on, and walked out of the front door. He knew that he would get it in the ear from his mother when he got back. But he had to go and speak to his compatriots, and tell them that they were to act when dawn broke in the morning. If he did not speak to them then nothing at all would happen, and the chance would be gone. Kirby could not afford to miss this one chance.

“Where are you going?” Mrs Kirby shouted after her son, even though he was gone. But her voice was strident enough that it carried out of the front door; and through the walls to the neighbours on either side of this terraced house. The neighbours were fully aware of what went on inside the Kirby household, whether they wanted to be aware of such matters or not. They knew how little Mrs Kirby thought of her son.

Shouting through a closed door was not enough for the termagant. Mrs Kirby walked down to the front door and opened it, to continue berating her son as he walked down the road, his head down, his shoulders hunched.

“Where are you going?” she shouted out after him, although she knew that he was not going to reply. “You will never amount to anything, William Kirby. You are nothing but a slugabed. A slugabed, I tell you. I’ve told you time and time again…”

Mrs Kirby, noticing that she was not getting the slightest response from her son, gave up shouting after him. She slammed the front door with such vigour that the door trembled in its frame.

 

Kirby walked to the houses and lodgings of his associates. It would take him all evening to visit them all, even though they all lived in the same general area. But not one of these people had the device known as the telephone. And they certainly did not have any Tesla wireless devices, either.

By the time that Kirby got home his mother had gone too bed – and she had locked and barred the front door against him. No matter how loudly Kirby banged his mother would not come down to the door to let him in

As far as she was concerned it had gone nine o’clock of the evening, when she thought all God-fearing Christians should be home and in bed. Let her good for nothing son sleep in the gutter for all she cared!

Kirby swore under his breath at the woman he called his mother. Gong around and contacting his associates he had still had some doubts that it was the right thing to do; and, despite that he had said that it was on for the morning, he had considered not turning up, but hiding and letting the others carry on without him. He had felt fear when faced with the actuality of rising up with violence against the state. It was no longer just some idealistic dream.

Being locked out of the house had changed all that, though. He was angry. He would show his mother that he would amount to something in the world. She would not be barring the front door against him when it was him and his friends running the country. Oh, he would make sure that she respected him then!

He went down the passage between his house and that of the next door neighbours. He went through the gate at the back, and into the tiny yard where his Ma would hang out the washing on sunny days. Kirby had, long ago, discovered that one of the windows at the back could be eased up if he was careful. He was sure that his mother did not realise it, as he had used that window more than once. If she had known which window it was she would probably have nailed it shut.

William Kirby put his hands flat against the window, and slowly eased it upwards, until he could reach down with one hand and slide his fingers into the gap. He pushed the window upwards, and climbed through into the kitchen.

Now he was quiet. Now that he was sneaking into the house he did not want any confrontation with his mother. So he sat down on the floor of the kitchen and took off his shoes. He tied the laces together, and hung his shoes around his neck. He sat there for a moment later, in socks which were desperately in need of darning (not to mention washing). But, thankfully, the parlous state of his socks could not be seen in the dark) although they could still be smelled).

Recalling the layout of the small, terraced house Kirby sneaked upstairs, moving quieter than a mouse, into the tiny room which was only just bug enough for his bed. He got undressed, set the alarm clock (which has mother had bought him in the vain hope that he, one day, might have gainful employment), crawled under the thin bedclothes, and went to sleep.

 

Dawn came, and the call of the alarm clock. It was a clock which had been made by Monk Industries. Kirby had purchased it ready for this mission. Kirby knocked off the alarm as quickly as he could.

For once in his life he was awake before his mother; and he did not want to wake her. There was no way that he could think of to explain what he was doing up at such a time in the morning. And he was sure that his mother would have had choice things to say about the fact that he had been late back on the previous night.

He got dressed as quickly as quietly as he could. But he did not put his shoes on yet. There was no carpet on the wooden stairs and his shoes would have been too loud on them. His shoes were still tied together by the laces, from the night before.

Then he crept downstairs, put on his shoes, and slipped and out of his house, quietly closing the front door behind him.

 

The streets of London were still dark. It was not quite sunup, although it would be, very soon, certainly by the time that Kirby and his comrades got to the warehouses. The street lamps were still on.

It was an alien environment to Kirby. He could not recall when he had last been up at such a time. He could see men still sorting out the morning newspapers; ready for some still-yawning customers. He could see an early-morning tram, taking people on the way to their work. Kirby idly wondered if any of the people on those trams knew that London would very soon be at war. He supposed that they did not.

It was colder than he had thought that it would be. But, of course, the sun had not yet had the chance to warm this world. Kirby was left wishing that he was wearing a thicker jacket. He put his hands as deep into his pockets as they would go, hunched his shoulders and quickened his pace.

 

Kirby and his associates had decided only to go to two of the warehouses, rather than all of them, as in the plan of Sir Edward Monk. Kirby did not even like splitting his forces in two. But the fact was that he had nowhere near as many followers as he had led Sir Edward Monk to believe. He did not have enough people to simultaneously hit all of the warehouses; and not enough people to even man all of the land ironclads which had been produced.

But Kirby had not told Monk that, of course. Kirby had feared that Monk would not assist them if he had known how small the army of the poor actually were.

 

These would-be rebels had arranged to meet at the warehouses, as well. It had been suggested that it might look less suspicious if they did that, rather than go around in a couple of large groups.

Kirby got to the warehouse to find only one of the others standing there. Kirby nodded to him. The two of them hung around outside of the warehouse, trying not to look too suspicious, and failing utterly. But nobody going to work that morning remarked on the suspicious-looking individuals hanging around in front of a warehouse.

Slowly, over the next half an hour or so, another half dozen men turned up, all of them people who were enemies of capitalism. They did not chat to each other. They were feeling too nervous for that. They kept looking up and down the road to see if anybody else was going to turn up.

Kirby and his friends stood in front of the closed doors of the warehouse. There were now nine of them. The sun was now up in the sky. It was time to go inside the place. Nobody else was going to come. But none of the men moved forwards.

“It could be a trap.” a man by the name of Machen said. There was an agreeing murmur from a couple of others. Some of them were considering the possibility f going home, and not committing to this mad adventure.

“Why should this Monk help us?” another man, Bartlett, asked. “He is the enemy. He is one of the wealthiest of capitalists. If we go in there we might find the police waiting for us.”

The idea had occurred to Kirby, as well. But his conversations with Monk had convinced him that the old man was on the level. He might be insane. But Kirby did not think that the old man was a liar.

Kirby knew that this was something which he would have to do himself. He would have to be the first one into the warehouse. And that was the way that things were supposed to be. After all, he saw himself as the leader of the revolution to come.

Kirby stepped forward, walking towards the doors of the warehouse. The doors were wide; and could be pulled open all of the way, to create a space big enough for a steam automobile to enter. Or, for that matter, a land ironclad.

Kirby grasped one of the doors and pulled it open. It made a scraping sound on the ground outside. But Kirby was able to get the door fully open.

No policemen rushed out. There was nobody in the warehouse. There was not even a night watchman. As Sir Edward Monk had promised, the warehouse was open, but with nobody there.

The warehouse was not empty, though. Kirby could see eight land ironclads parked in the warehouse, in two rows.

That was not all, though. Nearly every conceivable small arm had been stored in the warehouse, awaiting an army. There were machine guns, of the same design as had featured in the Matabele War to such devastating effect. There were rifles, of the same make as supplied to the British Army. There were revolvers, again of the same make as supplied to the British Army. But there were more weapons: hand grenades; knives; swords; mortars; and new designs of weapons, some pf the last things to come off the drawing boards of Sir Edward Monk before the untimely death of his wife. There were automatic pistols, ones which could hold up to fifteen bullets in the clip. This was something which had not yet been tested in war. This would be its first test.

There were semi-automatic rifles, based on the idea of the automatic pistols. These, too, had never seen any action in any war. But they could fire quicker than any other rifle in the world; and their clips held a lot more bullets.

Kirby and the others gazed at the treasure trove in front of them. They could hardly believe their eyes. It was exactly as Monk had said how it would be.

“What do we take?” Machen asked.

“As much as we can.” a man by the name of Pagett said, and laughed.

“We will take three of the land ironclads.” Kirby said. That would mean three men for each of the metal machines: one person to try to drive the thing, and the other two to man the weapons built into the war machines. “We can fill them up with rifles and other stuff, should anything happen.”

They would have to leave five of the land ironclads behind. But that could not be helped. There was no point in taking the machines unless the weapons could be manned, as well.

They climbed into the machines, three men into each of the first three. Then there was some arguing, about who was going to operate what weapon, and who was going to try to drive the things. Even once that had been decided, the engines had to be started up. The great boiler had to be got up to steam, to power the machines. The land ironclads could not quickly be put into action.

It was hot inside the land ironclads once the boilers were producing power, little wisps of steam going up through vents in the backs of the war machines. It had been cold on the way to the warehouse. But Kirby soon had his jacket off.

Later than Kirby would have liked the land ironclads left the warehouse, rumbling east towards the centre of London.

 

Kirby led the attack of the land ironclads, standing up in the first of the great metal machines, his head and shoulders protruding out of the hatch in the turret of the war machine. At least he was a little cooler that way.

Behind his land ironclad there were two more. Each one had a driver and two men arming the guns. But these land ironclads were steam-powered, and the engine regularly had to be attended to, one of the men putting a little more coal into the boiler. Each time that the door to the fire was opened even more heat filled the inside of these war machines. The people inside felt almost as though they were being cooked alive. It was not exactly pleasant manning these machines.

Kirby looked left and right as the people on the streets of London scattered. It made him feel indefatigable to see how the normal people ran in fear. Yet he did not want all of them to run away – only the rich ones, the enemies of the people. He wanted those who were poor to follow behind him, forming a citizen army.

He was still on the outskirts of the west of London, going east from the warehouse. He was not in an area which he knew well.

He checked his map of the streets of London. But Kirby’s target was not Harley Street, the home of some of the most expensive medical practitioners in London. Kirby’s target was not any of the churches of London, either, despite the way that Monk had mentally berated the Christian church for the way that it had failed him.

Kirby had his own ideas of what made the best targets for this most uncivil of wars, and it was not Harley Street. At least not to begin with, anyway.

Kirby shouted down instructions into the body of the war machine as to what direction they should go in; what turnings they should take. The land ironclad slowly rumbled through Hammersmith towards Paddington, and then through Marylebone and into Holborn. And, yes, the land ironclad trundled down the centre of Oxford Street, just like in the dream which Sir Edward Monk had had.

There was no destruction, though. The land ironclads did not fire off their cannons at any of the shops and stores. They simply drive down the centre of the road, while traffic endeavoured to get out of the way of these hulking war machines. It was clear that if there was any collision that it would not be the land ironclads which came off worst. But all of the trams, buses and other conveyances managed to get out of the way, even if some had to reverse.

The people stared. The people stared as the war machines went by at only a few miles an hour. They looked out from the windows and the doorways of the premises. Never had the people seen such a thing as three land ironclads go down the middle of Oxford Street.

Past the Oxford Music Hall they went; past all of the other places where Kirby had never been inside, as he had never had any money: John Alvey Turner, where sheets of music could be purchased, as well as such instruments as auto-harps; the premises of Thomas Stephenson, who proudly described himself as a ‘Heraldic Stationer’ where, if you had a coat-of-arms, you could have that coat-of arms put on your writing paper, or on writing cases, or on any of the other bits of stationery which he sold; past Chas Baker & Co, who sold gentlemen’s clothing, of the sort which Kirby had never been able to afford. Past al those places the land ironclads went. And not one bullet was yet fired in anger.

 

They were taking too long, Kirby felt. These land ironclads might be powerful. But he felt that they were too slow and cumbersome. They had already taken well over an hour, from the warehouse, and they had not yet reached his first target yet. He kept fearing to see blockades and the army in front of him. But there was nothing like that, not yet. Monk’s rebellion had, so far, taken the capital entirely by surprise.

From Holborn the land ironclads went into Cheapside, past shops selling banjo strings; sewing machines; cameras; watches; and umbrellas. And past the Mermaid tavern they went. Oh, Kirby could have done with a drink just then, even though it was still very early in the morning. But his war machine still trundled on.

Kirby’s land ironclad rumbled into Threadneedle Street. Kirby was surprised that nobody had yet tried to stop him. But he supposed that he had surprise on his side. Nobody had expected to see land ironclads rumbling along the early morning streets.

It was as they turned into the street that the first resistance arrived, coming down the road behind the land ironclads. The first that Kirby knew about it was when he heard the sound of gunfire, and he was aware of bullets ricocheting off the metal armour of the land ironclads.

Kirby turned around to see what was going on. For some reason he had expected to see any resistance by the capitalist forces coming from the front, rather than from behind him.

But there were a few police officers behind him, armed with revolvers. Kirby laughed. Revolvers? The bullets would never pierce the armour of the land ironclads. Sir Edward Monk had explained to him that the armour of these latest models of land ironclads was immune to small arms fire. A man with a revolver might fire at a land ironclad for a hundred years and never penetrate the armour. He was invulnerable to them!

Kirby felt a sudden pain in his left ear. He put his hand to his ear, and he felt liquid. He looked at his hand. It was covered in blood. Kirby realised that the policemen weren’t firing at the land ironclad, they were firing at him.

With a scared yelp Kirby disappeared down the hatch down into the insides of the land ironclad, where he was safe.

“I’ve been shot!” he said to himself. He stared, again, at the blood on his hand. The police were trying to kill him.

Kirby felt scared, but also he suddenly felt very angry, as well. He would get them!

Kirby looked at the cannon. Yes, he would get them with the cannon, as the war machine was facing in the wrong direction to use the machine gun. The only problem was that he was not entirely sure how the cannon worked. Monk had spent a lot of time explaining how to drive one of these land ironclads. But he had not really bothered to explain its weapon systems. He had seemed to presume that people would know how to use them. Or, perhaps, he had simply forgotten to say anything.

Kirby swung the turret around to face to the rear, once he thought that he had worked out how the gun worked. He fired the cannon at the police officers – and he was more than a little bit surprised when the cannon worked.

Kirby had never fired anything like the cannon before, however. He had not even fired a revolver before. He did not hit any of the police officers. The shell went over the heads of the policemen, smashing into a building a lot further down the road. But Kirby saw the policemen scatter. He had sent them running away. They would think twice about trying to attack him and his men again.

 

Kirby then swivelled the turret back around to face his main target: the Bank of England.

The Bank of England had stood in Threadneedle Street ever since the 1730s, when it had moved from Grocers’ Hall. It was one of the most important financial institutions in the entire world. For the last six decades the bank had even been allowed to print banknotes.

It was this fine old building which Kirby now attacked, firing shell after shell at the building, until well over half of the shells were gone. By the time that the others in the land ironclad told Kirby that there was nothing left to fire at, and that they should move on, the building had been reduced to rubble. Kirby did not know how many people he had killed.

He felt excited.

He felt sick.

The land ironclad moved on.

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