1879: Samsut Necropunk
The Samsut have battery powered undead. This is well established. How this works, not so much from a magical/technical point of view, but rather from a sociological and physical standpoint, is something of a mystery.
Let’s back up a little. The British are still not quite on board with germ theory. Don’t let The Ghost Map fool you, Dr. Snow and Rev. Whitehead did not turn the nation around with their work on the cholera outbreaks. They did prove that removing the pump handle halted it, and were able to convince a number of very important people that the pump and the water system and the lack of sewage disposal were at fault, but this in many cases simply convinced those people that their ideas were correct. Britain at the time subscribed to the miasma hypothesis, the idea that bad smells carried disease. The massive sewer project under Bazalgette was funded largely by people who were convinced that the bad smells, and the filth that was the source of those smells, needed to be got rid of, and who dismissed the idea of germ theory as some newfangled Continental idea with no solid backing from science.
The British military have had considerable difficulty with the zombie shock troops of the Samsut. They refer to them, quite accurately, as stinkers, and can detect an incoming zombie charge by the smell if they’re downwind. The troops have been equipped with miasma masks, essentially an early form of gas mask, to protect them from the stench. Not only does the stink of a platoon of zombies nauseate the soldiers, some to the point of incapacity, but it’s believed, quite firmly and by a significant percent of the rank and file and high command both, that the stench itself carries horrible diseases. The masks are therefore a form of health protection. The fact that the masks are partly effective at halting the spread of airborne contagion is really incidental, but contributes to the conviction of the miasma hypothesis believers.
This raises a serious question. When the British first met a Samsut noble, he was carried on a palanquin borne by a dozen zombies. Why wasn’t he gagging from the smell rising up around him? Why don’t the Samsut troops require miasma masks, or Mentholatum across the upper lip, or something? How is it the Samsut city-states can have dozens, maybe hundreds, of zombies doing the drudge work, harvesting crops, sweeping the streets, doing the heavy lifting, without turning into plague pits from all the corpses shambling about? How does the average Samsut get through their day without being incapacitated by nausea?
Make no mistake: Samsut city-states have the same underlying stink as a funeral home or mortuary, that smell of long-present decay, that whiff of death that all the flowers and carboliic acid just are not going to get rid of. Their civilization is partly powered by animated corpses, and it smells like it. Where are the rats? Where are the clouds of insects that should be laying eggs in those mobile piles of rotting flesh? Why aren’t there swaths of disease in the wake of every zombie plodding around in the city? Why don’t the Samsut seem to notice the stink?
The British would seriously like to know. The Samsut have made some discoveries about living with the dead that could be fantastically useful in Europe’s overcrowded cities. London just two generations ago dug up its infamous charnel houses and overflowing urban cemeteries and created the Garden Cemeteries in the outlying regions, with special funeral trains to reach them, to get the stink out of the city and get the dead properly interred in honest earth instead of piled atop each other in a stone building next to the market square. The British military would like to know why the living Samsut troops don’t need miasma protection, and how they can operate alongside dead troops without nausea and without disease. Contagion rips through British army camps like wildfire when it flares up, regardless of its origin, due to the close quarters and unsanitary conditions in the field. The Samsut don’t seem to have this problem. How?
Find the secret, find leverage in the war, find a way to reduce disease in Earth’s cities. The fundamental question: What have the Samsut discovered that allows them to desecrate their dead by standing them back up and putting the corpses back to work, without their civilization collapsing from the resulting unsanitary conditions?
Something to think about.