It was an odd-sized casket – too small for a man, too large for a child. A small flag had been draped over the casket as it was borne by four uniformed men, although from a distance it was hard to tell what uniform they wore or if all of them were, indeed, men.

The size of the casket meant there was no room for the usual cohort of six pallbearers and the spare soldiers joined the ranks of many others in uniform who stood beside the small open grave. The officiant wore a robe instead of a uniform and whatever he said caused a sudden burst of laughter to punctuate the long silence.

High above the ceremony a murder of crows floated like cigarette ash on the thermals, their cries a symphony of desolation. Far below a boy watched the ceremony from a distance, remote as an island. Axel was pale, almost albino. Erectly postured, his hair was combed in a rocker’s ducktail, sleeves rolled above his triceps, his smoke-blackened denim turned up to show his boots. Behind him a small town crouched in the shadow of a jagged mountain range bordered by dense forest.

The settlement was built around a sprawling workshop topped by an observatory with a huge brass telescope protruding from the dome like an accusing finger. Steam-powered cars wheezed around the narrow gas-lit streets – but most citizens were attending the funeral.

A couple walked arm in arm, their clothing anachronistic. The man wore a long coat and top hat, his face covered by a beetle-black gas mask giving him the appearance of a well-dressed insect. The woman wore a bustled gown, her eyes hidden behind brass-rimmed goggles tinted emerald green. Axel stared at the small object in his hand, a roughly carved wooden globe displaying the world’s continents.

He sighed, his breath a tide that swept him further from himself as time’s frozen spiral uncoiled and the lost years whispered sibilantly in his ear. He felt haunted by the feeling he would be a perpetual outsider – in life and in death. Axel’s memories carried him back through the years to his father’s workshop.

His father, Bundersnatch, was the 35th Steam-Lord of Flatterstown, a stagnant, insular place bound tight in a straitjacket of elaborate, hierarchical structure. The boy was heir to the Steam-Throne, a tiny empire of furnaces, valves and fluid dynamics. As tradition demanded, Axel was seven years old when he began training in his father’s workshop.

It was a childhood of arcane equations, suckled on fire and brass, weaned on iron and steam. The workshop was reminiscent of the inside of a submarine, sheathed in brass with portholes and giant cogs in the ceiling. A chalk board was covered in scribbled hydrodynamic quantum analogues surrounding a huge diagram showing the world as a flat disc with launch trajectories arcing over the plate-like planet.

A clockwork computer lay on a desk, a matrix of spinning, clicking wheels and gears, alongside a pile of scribbled notes, some books and a half-eaten apple. As Axel moved past the table he picked up the apple, nibbling at it as he continued his work, carefully biting the edges until the half-eaten fruit resembled a globe.

Crimson light

The boy followed the sound of clanging into a larger room, its walls heraldic with blueprints. A monolithic brass cylinder dominated the room, reaching upwards, its tip disappearing through a hole in the roof, reaching up to threaten the sky. A furnace painted the room with crimson light as Bundersnatch toiled in the smoky glow.

He had the air of a mad scientist, the intensity of a man tortured by his own intellect. Sporting a prophet’s beard, his eyes were hidden behind multi-lensed goggles set in an elaborate clockwork mechanism. Axel approached his father, hesitating before raising his voice above the clanking cacophony.

“Sir, I beg you. Abandon this idea. Think of the scientific evidence.”

“Careful boy, you come close to heresy,” his father replied with the mania of someone robbed of sleep for 100 years.

“But father…” “What care I for Glober science? I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the shape of rocket nozzles and thrust. The sacred formulae of the Steam-Lords.” As Bundersnatch spoke the clockwork mechanism on his goggles clicked and whirred, the lenses changing hue from blue to red to green.

“Do you have the equations I asked for, Axel?”

”No sir, not yet.” His father didn’t deign to reply but shambled back to his toil, submerging himself once more in the elemental depths of fire and iron. Defeated, and with his father’s imposing presence dulling his sudden itch for rebellion, Axel returned to his desk. Picking up his apple, he stared wistfully at its tiny continents and then at the mantelpiece, heavy with representations of flat earth.

Hearing his father in the doorway, the boy wolfed the apple before his heterodoxy could be revealed. Axel’s memory pulled him to the more recent past, to the town square a few days before and his father’s great speech to the people. The square brooded under a sullen sky as smelting iron tainted the air with the taste of blood. A stunted and cantankerous population of 70 citizens were watching, faces hidden behind gas masks, goggles and bejewelled respirators.

A stage had been erected, festooned with small, sky-blue flags bearing the green disc of the flat earth. A band in blue uniforms and insectoid masks, vaguely resembling Napoleonic toy soldiers, played a dreary march.

Madame Maldetete was the town’s mayoress and matriarch, a redoubtable woman who tottered awkwardly on clockwork legs, her original limbs lost in a boiler explosion many moons ago. Her bosom preceded her like the bow of a battleship as the cyborg Brunhilda took centre stage, the crowd reflected in the mirrored discs of her mask. Raising her opulent arms with arthritic slowness, the watching throng fell silent.

Axel loitered in the wings like a rockabilly rebel from the 1950s, staring across the sea of top hats, bowlers, bonnets and deerstalkers. Madame Maldetete was his great-aunt, his mother having died at childbirth. The boy had never seen a picture of his mother, all portraiture, casual photography and art had been prohibited by the Steam-Lords as a distraction to their endless quest to prove the flatness of the planet. In fact Axel had yet to see a woman’s eyes in his 16 years except through goggles or a gas mask.

His father, head weighed down by his brass crown, took to the stage and addressed the crowd: “Tomorrow will see the glorious dawn of a new era. With the Great Launch we will prove once and for all we are righteous and correct. Those blasphemous Globers on the mainland will grovel when we prove the earth is flat. Soon the day will come when we return to the motherland and reclaim our rightful place at the table of plenty.”

In the smoky half-light of the square his father’s voice had a flat, concussive quality that slapped against Axel’s head. Despite being the only one barefaced, Axel increasingly felt his face didn’t fit, as if he was wearing an ill-fitting Halloween mask. The moon was invisible, surfaces dissolving in shadow.

Under cover of darkness the boy stole from the town, bound for a place only he knew. His body bent under the weight of the clanking bag he carried. Thoughts of the outside world colonised his mind, piercing him, driving him into the darkness. Coming to a small makeshift bender deep in the forest, Axel crouched down and disappeared inside. By the time he slipped back into the workshop the fire was in its middle age.

Zero hour

His father was sunk deep in his armchair, his fingers entwined to support his chin, his goggle lenses glinting in the firelight. His father didn’t seem to notice Axel until he spoke. “Please, I’m imploring you father,” he said with unaccustomed familiarity. “At least postpone the launch, we aren’t even sure the new valves will work.”

After a monumental pause his father unstrapped his goggles and laid them on the arm of his chair. Then, with his fingers clasped beneath his chin once more he shut his eyes and sighed gently. This was his style, his tiresome, unchangeable way. Finally he addressed his son. “The launch at zero hour is the crucible that dissolves all insincerity and false bravado.”

“But sir, no Steam-Lord has survived a launch.”

”Then I will be the first. It is my life’s work, as it will be yours.”

The boy was woken on the morning of the launch by the sound of his father tinkering with the rocket. Could he detect another noise somewhere? A brass-knuckled future battering on the walls of the workshop? A heartbeat later he was downstairs helping his father. He wondered if the old man had slept at all. “Some of the spare tools and scrap parts are missing. I had a bucketful to send to the smelter.”

The boy was grateful to have a wrench in his hands as he focused on the pentangle of lug nuts in front of his face. He tightened each, grunting while studiously ignoring his father’s questions. Before his father could continue his interrogation they were interrupted by a knock on the door.

“It is time,” his father said before noticing the concern on his son’s face. “Design leads inexorably to execution, it is the way of the world.” Seeing his words had failed to reassure his son he stepped close and put his hand on Axel’s shoulder. The Steam-Lord’s face cracked like an old biscuit as he smiled in what seemed the first time in a thousand years. “Don’t look so serious boy, none of us are getting out of life alive. This is my moment, I embrace it with a light heart.”

The whole town joined the procession to the launch site, falling in behind a wheezing steam-tractor that pulled a wooden cart bearing the rocket. The boy rode in the cart with his father, the rocket towering above them, its shadow startling a small dog into frenzied yapping. The band leading the procession tried to play a jaunty tune but became hopelessly confused until, after a few moments of discordance, they returned to their usual, mournful drone.

The boy stared at the masquerade that followed in their wake, convinced they were all dead inside – twitching, empty carcasses with souls switched off like lights. It took an hour for the boiler to heat the 70 gallons of water in the steam-rocket’s copper tank. Speeches droned on but the boy never heard a single word. His father was strapped into the rocket, donned in his flight-suit of padded leather and wool.

Evidence the world was flat

The accordion lens of an ancient camera protruded from his chest, ready to finally capture evidence the world was flat. The safety valves started to spit and hiss as the pressure reached critical. As Axel ushered the crowd back from the rocket he locked eyes with his father.

The old man almost smiled, nodding to the crowd before reaching down to grip the brass launch lever. Bundersnatch disappeared in a cloud of steam as he pulled the lever, the steam-rocket trembling, tanks bulging under the pressure. A heartbeat later the rocket streaked upwards, skewering the ether with a hiss like a million cobras as the crowd emitted a mask-muffled cheer.

Axel tracked the rocket’s journey through a telescope and was the first to see the puff of white smoke as one of the tanks blew out. The rocket suddenly scudded sideways, acquiring a lethal new trajectory. From that point Axel experienced the event in terms of altitude and descent rather than time as the rocket plunged towards the ground like a spear. The slap of the impact drove his flesh down like thunder as shockwaves rolled over him and the smell of burning filled the air as great flames licked up at the sky with gold and red tongues.

Following a moment of stunned silence the crowd became hysterical as the crash tore open the day like a can opener. None of the rules applied any more. Axel didn’t rush towards the crash site, what was the point? Not even the mighty Bundersnatch could have survived the apocalyptic impact. A gigantic voice had been silenced forever as Axel felt agony stir in the foundries of his soul.

By the time the funeral parade was ready the sunset had turned a tortured pastel, a molten interlude between light and dark. The townsfolk collected what was left of Bundersnatch and placed the pieces of flesh and bone alongside fragments of the rocket in a hurriedly built coffin of bizarre geometry. These weren’t bad people, evil people, in their ways they were as innocent as children. Under a sky the colour of blood people lugged themselves like laundry towards the huge crash crater.

Twinkling shreds

Tradition demanded the Steam-Lord’s grave be dug in the centre of the blast. Delicate rain started to fall through the half-light as the procession maundered through its twinkling shreds. Led by the marching band, a choir followed wearing whiskered gas masks with long black leather rabbit ears attached, their arcane singing muffled by their breathing apparatus.

Unavoidable as death, Madame Maldetete accosted Axel as he followed the procession, her clockwork prosthetics clicking like typewriter keys as she hurried to keep up with him. “Steam-Lord,” she shouted, the unaccustomed title making the boy flinch. “I have talked to the elders, you will be inducted as the new leader tomorrow. The townsfolk need to see the great work goes on or morale will suffer.”

Axel halted, letting the procession pass him. Tin horn prayers on a dirt road. As he watched them go, surrounded by souls he didn’t know, he woke to the world on its true scale. Not a tiny town or even the mythical motherland but an entire world that had been lost. He walked away. Madame Maldetete became unzipped, her voice frantic as her words chased the boy. “What about the legacy of the Steam-Lords? What about the Great Truth?”

Axel stopped, looking at the old authoritarian for the last time and seeing the chains of tradition and ritual that bound her. “I will forge my own legacy and find my own truth,” he shouted as he strode towards the forest.

The boy paused on the edge of the dark sprawl of trees and turned to look back at the town for the last time. The procession had almost reached the grave and from that distance their slow progress resembled involuntary insects unconnected to him. The things he thought he’d miss seemed small.

Axel rolled the little wooden globe in his fingers and clutched the key that dangled from it. Reaching the bender he yanked back the tarpaulin covering its willow frame to reveal a steam-powered motorcycle – a mighty machine of nightmare-black cast iron and polished brass. The front of the bike was wrought in the likeness of a snarling stallion, eyes glowing red with the furnace heating its boiler, steam snorting from the valves in its nostrils.

Rolling into the night

Turning the key, pistons trembled with power and steam-turbines whined as the pressure built. Rolling into the night, Axel surveyed the road ahead and felt adventure grow beneath him. His body trembled from the powerful vibrations as he opened the throttle. With a roar of heavy metal thunder the steam-cycle leapt forwards.

Scenery blurred, smeared by speed, as the boy’s leather jacket flapped in the slipstream like the wings of a giant bat. The spirit of the truth had just been reloaded. There seemed to be nothing left of the world but the sanguine sky. The shadow of the planet’s curve tracked the boy uphill as the sun went down. Axel didn’t know where he was heading but he was heading right for it.

Moments later he disappeared over the horizon never to be seen again in that dismal vista. The grave wasn’t ready until sunset so the whole event was rushed and disorganised, except for the final part.

The grave was a massive affair, more of a crater than a grave, and it took until dark to roll the casket down to the bottom. If any prayers were said they couldn’t be heard over the dull thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below. It was an odd-sized casket – too small for a man, too large for a dream – but just right for a dynasty.