The viewpoint character of Cleopatra’s Ironclads is not your standard Cleopatra, and one sure sign of that is the lack of Naughty Bits as traditionally construed. To make up for that, there are geektastic scenes of engineering, in which Cleopatra’s design team takes Murphy’s Law (not sure whose name it bore in her day) as a design principle.
And yes, there are kinks to be worked out in my understanding, but this is NaNo-fun. And it’s NaNo-raw, so be warned.
So without further ado, here’s the prototype. Let me entice you with the following: steam-powered clockwork fire-ships, and explosions. We’re watching a demonstration with scale models in the atrium pool of a disused palace in the Royal Quarter.
The automaton rowed across the pool, in and out of shifting sunlight, in gorgeous synchrony, which would convince her it were a boat propelled by the splendidly trained royal rowers. An amazing bit of craft—
And then another bit of demonstration, the ram.
“There’s a design consideration that’s always forestalled certain developments,” said the chief shipwright, somewhat pedantically, “and that’s the business of getting the ship unstuck again once it’s rammed an enemy vessel.” He smiled. “But this is a different affair entirely. Timaeus has set us on entirely a different track, with Your Majesty’s question of ‘What can go wrong?’”
She motioned for him to continue, impatient and at the same time amused—all artificers were theatrical, it would seem, for he’d paused to make her hungry for the next revelation.
“The worst that could go wrong, one thinks, is to get stuck while ramming. But we asked, how might this be a good thing? Well, our second model, Your Majesty, that’s the one with the true matter aboard. Fire, you see, for that’s the worst aboard-ships, and in the late engagement in the Harbor, we saw that flaming hulks are themselves weapons.” He said, “So if one launches the fire-bearing ship, here—“ he gestured as his assistant brought the second model, and then placed a larger model of a standard war-galley with its two banks of rowers and its great sails, and he placed them so that the bow of the fire-ship came at the war-galley broadside—“well, to disperse the fire, then one wishes to be stuck. Well and properly stuck, until such time as the task is accomplished—“
She frowned. “But what happens? If they put out the fire, they can recover our automaton—“
“Oh no, Your Majesty. We took your hint, you see—the worst that could happen—and remembering the first of our prototypes, that blew up in the harbor, see…” He said, “These boilers, they’re the very cauldron of disaster, they are; run dry of water, or build up too much steam, and they explode.” Another dramatic pause.
“So it happens on purpose, and that’s more for them to be attending. Draw attention, and then the others can come in for the kill. Not that I’m a naval tactician, Your Majesty, but that seems a thought…”
And then the demonstration commenced.
The crack of the ram slamming into the model galley, in the middle of the atrium pool, was most impressive, and then the fire—which launched itself she saw not how, but covered the model in flame, and the whole lot flared and burned to the waterline.