This poem came out of the February 21, 2012 bonus fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from siliconshaman, siege, and my_partner_doug. It belongs to the Steamsmith series, and you can read more about that on the Serial Poetry page. I've already done the British English spellchecking, but please let me know if you spot any other inconsistencies.
Here we have two historic figures, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, rendered as steamsmiths. If you know anything about their personalities, you can imagine how well they get along. Enter Maryam, into a heated discussion of alchemical engineering ...
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Isambard Kingdom Brunel was holding court
at one end of the long table
when Maryam Smith walked into the lounge
at the Steamsmith Guild one rainy Sunday evening.
"Why is he still here?"
Maryam muttered to Old Henry.
"He usually spends Sunday evenings at home."
"He rode his skycycle here
before it started raining,"
Old Henry explained.
"Marvellous gadgets, but there's
no way to put an umbrella over one."
"Not as long as the propeller
stays above the cyclist's head," Maryam agreed,
"and nobody has managed a functional underfoot model yet."
"By the way, the Iron Duke is here too,"
Old Henry warned her.
"He and Brunel have been at it for hours."
Maryam groaned quietly.
"-- all the way from London to Bristol!"
Brunel finished loudly.
"It can't be done," the Duke said.
"Well, I'm doing it anyway,"
"I really like the Duke, but I wish
he wouldn't stomp on other people's ideas so much,"
Amused by the altercation,
some of the rowdy young men of the guild
crowded closer to enjoy the entertainment.
George Cavendish edged in,
his blond curls and blue eyes standing out
against a background of darker heads,
an onyx ring with a silver buck's head
glinting on the little finger of his left hand.
"You know, it's a pity we can't just
go straight across to Ireland,"
"If you're going to dig a tunnel to Ireland,
you should do that across the North Channel.
St. George's Channel is too wide,"
Maryam pointed out.
Cavendish glared at her.
His friend William Percy joined in the fray,
all reddish-brown hair and enormous nose.
"If you want to go somewhere useful,
dig a tunnel to the Continent,
under the Strait of Dover," said Percy.
"For my current miracle,
I am building a railway from London to Bristol.
Applications for my next miracle
may be placed at the end of the table,"
Brunel snapped, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
The two young men stalked down to the far end,
dragging a large sheet of drafting paper with them.
Maryam edged a little closer to Brunel,
trying to get a look at his plans.
He might be an arse,
but he usually had interesting plans.
Brunel and his admirers
pored over the railway designs
and doodled ideas for new engines.
There was even something about a tube train
that worked without an engine.
"What's that one?" Maryam asked, pointing to it.
"Atmospheric railway," Brunel said.
"I'm not sure it's viable, though -- material difficulties."
"Maybe if you made it smaller?" Maryam suggested.
"You could send message capsules through it;
handy thing to have in a manor or a bank."
Brunel stood up and faced her,
which put his face level with her chest,
which always seemed to annoy him.
"That would only reduce the scope of the problem,
not solve the underlying deficiency," he growled.
"Why don't you go play with the boys down there
and stop looming over my project?"
Maryam glanced down the table.
"Don't look now, but I think they might be
onto something," she said to Brunel.
A cluster of people surrounded Cavendish and Percy,
peering at their sketch.
Brunel turned to his nearest admirer and said,
"Buttons, go fetch me that paper."
Interestingly, Cavendish let the paper go
and soon it was spread out for Brunel's perusal.
There was the beginning of a blueprint
for a Channel Tunnel linking
Folkestone, Kent with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais.
Cavendish had pencilled in outlines of the tunnel
and its support structures, abetted by
Percy's notes about train schedules and logistics,
although neither had signed his name.
Brunel began filling in plans
for the alchemical engines needed
to keep water out of the tunnel, and air moving through it,
plus of course the drilling itself, based on
earlier examples from his work in the Thames Tunnel.
"I hate to be the one of point this out, old chap,
but it's going to spring a leak again," Maryam said,
spearing a weak spot with her finger.
"It will not," Brunel said,
batting her hand away.
"As long as you use borasco, it will," she said.
"The slightest breach in containment, and ge gets in,
at which point the Wet fuel will crystallise violently,
just like it did in the Thames Tunnel."
Those ruptures had killed several workers
and delayed construction for months.
"Well, what would you suggest, Your Majesty?"
"Switch to kryos," Maryam said calmly.
"It will be slower but safer, and still
give plenty of control over the surrounding water mass.
You won't have to worry about pyra causing a shutdown
because there won't be any fire in the tunnel."
"Then how will we light the bloody thing?"
"You can either use phos lanterns --"
"That's too expensive!" Brunel protested.
"-- or lenses and mirrors, which is what I'd do,"
Maryam finished, sketching an example.
"That's ridiculous," Brunel said.
"Now, lad, you're not the only one
who can do impossible things,"
Old Henry said to Brunel.
The Iron Duke reappeared,
took one glance at the expanding design,
and said, "It can't be done."
"That's what you said about
the Thames Tunnel --"
"Which sprang a leak and nearly killed you."
"--and the Great Western Railway."
"Which is not even finished yet."
"Oh, don't get him started about the gauge again!"
several people chorused.
"Well, Brunel is right about that one.
The wider gauge is more comfortable
and more efficient," Maryam said.
"The Great Western Railway is too expensive,"
the Duke insisted. "It can't be done."
He rapped his walking stick on the floor for emphasis.
"Oh, shut up, Arthur!"
"You say that about everything."
"Play nicely, children,"
Old Henry said gently,
and the shouting stopped.
Brunel rolled up the sheet of paper.
"I'll run this past the chaps at Great Western,
and see what they think," he declared.
"There might be some promise
in running a line east later."
Then he trotted away, minions in tow.
Percy seemed about to protest,
but Cavendish held him back
with a quiet hand on his arm.
Maryam's eyes narrowed as she watched
the byplay between the two young men.
"I wonder," she murmured,
"what Cavendish thinks to gain from that."
Old Henry chuckled and
twirled the gears on his pipe.
"They rather cleverly got their project
backed by an older, experienced steamsmith,"
he pointed out. "It never would have got off the ground
with them promoting it by themselves."
"I should like to know if Cavendish
has any interests in tunnelling equipment or such,"
Maryam said. "Brunel was right about expense.
That tunnel would make Great Western
look like petty cash."
Cavendish and Percy saw them talking
and sneered from their end of the table.
Old Henry saluted them with a wave of his pipe
and blew a hazy cloud of angle brackets.
"Those two are trouble, all right,"
he said around the pipe stem.
"Best watch yourself around them."
Maryam could not help but agree with his assessment.