Excerpt: ROMULUS BUCKLE & THE ENGINES OF WAR by Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. (+ Giveaway!)
Here is the book description:
The frozen wasteland of Snow World—known as Southern California before an alien invasion decimated civilization—is home to warring steampunk clans. Crankshafts, Imperials, Tinskins, Brineboilers, and many more all battle one another for precious supplies, against ravenous mutant beasts for basic survival, and with the mysterious Founders for their very freedom.
Through this ruined world soars the Pneumatic Zeppelin, captained by the daring Romulus Buckle. In the wake of a nearly suicidal assault on the Founders’ prison city to rescue key military leaders, both the steam-powered airship and its crew are bruised and battered. Yet there’s little time for rest or repairs: Founders raids threaten to shatter the fragile alliance Buckle has risked everything to forge among the clans.
Even as he musters what seems a futile defense in the face of inevitable war, Buckle learns that the most mysterious clan of all is holding his long-lost sister in a secret base—and that she holds the ultimate key to victory over the Founders. But rescuing her means abandoning his allies and praying they survive long enough for there to be an alliance to return to.
And here is the excerpt. Enjoy!
(Book 2 of The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series)
by Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.
The snowdrifts in the ravine shallowed, making the movement of the horses smoother, and within twenty minutes Buckle and Pinter crested the northeast end of the ravine. Buckle found himself overlooking a wide, gentle slope leading down into a snowbound valley curving between two craggy peaks. Even if he was as odd as a square peg, Pinter proved, pointing his heavily gloved finger, that he was no liar. For there, nearly in the center of the valley floor, flattened except for one towering stretch of her starboard-side girders, lay the sprawling wreck of a gigantic airship that once had been nearly the size of the Pneumatic Zeppelin herself.
“There she lies in her grave,” Pinter announced, lifting his canteen for a swig of something unlikely to be water. “Dead as dead as dead be-but the dead always be a mystery.”
Pinter offered his canteen but Buckle shrugged it off. It took him a moment to find his voice in his tightened throat. “No thanks, Pinter.” Buckle rasped. “You are a poet as well as a scout, I see.”
“Sometimes I rhyme, perhaps. But only by a happy accident, sir-a strange tripping of the brainpan,” Pinter said as he screwed the cap back onto his canteen, thought better of it, unscrewed it, and fired back another swig. Buckle caught a sharp whiff of the gin.
Buckle heeled Cronos in the ribs and the big horse accelerated into a gallop. It did not take much coaxing-the animal was happy to run: the open slope, where the wind had scoured away all but a small crust of snow, was a relief after the deep drifts of the ravine. Pinter released a sudden snort, as if he had been caught off guard by Buckle’s taking of the lead, and spurred his horse behind, awkwardly attempting to replace his canteen cap while balancing a burning torch and the musket across his saddle.
Buckle found himself grinning: it felt good to be aboard a horse at speed, even if he was somewhat uncertain of the huge animal, and the air was bracing and clear. Drifting snowflakes occasionally sparkled here and there, floating down from the sky, falling with such ease and curling gyre that they resembled snow fairies of lore, denizens of the mountain, wafting in to see what machinations consumed the mortal men below.
As he closed the distance to the shipwreck, Buckle’s heart began to pound. The enemy airship had come down brutally, out of control and apparently tail first-the port-side superstructure collapsing upon impact, splitting apart every hydrogen cell that had not already been afire, igniting the volatile gas and gutting the machine in a final conflagration. Half of the iron superstructure, the starboard flank, still pointed at the sky; its black girders, curved like the ribs of an animal, were wrenched and scorched and painfully reaching for their port-side sisters, which now lay in jumbled, icebound heaps on the ground among the ruin. It was difficult to see the entire wreck as a whole now that Buckle was so close: the tail section had been blasted and flattened beyond recognition and the crash had displaced the port side of her frame from nose to stern.
Buckle remembered the old zeppelineer’s “Tale of Woe.”
My wretched fate so be,
Bury not my bones
Nor weep nor moan
Nor tear thy hair to mourn me.
Rather set to bended knee
Gather up my scattered scree,
Hammer and nail
To the Bosun’s rail,
And set my sail to eternity.
Buckle spurred Cronos to the left, circling the collapsed nose of the wreck to swing around on the starboard flank where the fabric skin still clung in great swaths to the ribs. He wanted to find at least a shred of the clan emblem-the iron cross he had seen that terrible night of the raid. And he wanted to discover the airship’s name. Even if the arch board was gone, the name should be everywhere-engraved on the captain’s door, chiseled into the prows of the gondolas, inked in the logbook, and painted on the midshipmen’s plates and mugs. Still, it might be difficult. The gondolas were crushed under the girders and nearly every inch of machine was charred black, but surely some evidence remained.
The air on the slope was crisp and unnaturally full of echoes. The sounds of Cronos’s hooves across the snow and the jangle of his tack seemed as loud as a charge of cavalry. Buckle could not escape the impression that he was circling the remains of a great monster, fallen facedown upon the earth, its innards incinerated and bones scorched in a death by fire, felled by a lightning bolt cast down from the heavens.
Buckle yanked back on the reins and Cronos released an indignant whinny as he slid to a halt, working his bit. Towering over them, nine stories high, loomed the partially-buckled midsection of the airship, where the skin still clung to the girders, ripped and blackened but somehow largely intact, and there, black against the fire-seared, light-gray canvas, loomed the Imperial iron cross.
Exhilaration rose in Buckle: now he would prove Katzenjammer Smelt a liar. “Here!” he shouted back at Pinter as he slid out of the saddle, his feet landing hard on the snow. He wound Cronos’s reins around a twisted girder, securing the snorting horse.
“I’m on yer tail, boy!” Pinter called out as he galloped up. “But mind yerself! The ground is spoilt with cutting jags! And mind yer musket, there!”
Buckle heard the mountain man’s warning but he did not heed it. He was already at full stride through the jumbles of twisted iron and frozen ropes and wires, each footfall disturbing the ground, each boot print revealing black-and-gray ashes beneath the white snow.
Buckle had his evidence. In his mind, he plotted his revenge. He would tear down the flimsy wall of canvas and cut a section of the iron cross free, roll the swath of fabric into a bole, and carry it home. Then he would unfurl it in front of Smelt for everyone to see in Pinyon Hall, in front of Balthazar, Horatio, and the ambassadors. It was damning evidence, unassailable proof that the Imperials had been the ones who had bombed Tehachapi and killed the innocents, killed his mother, Calypso, and either killed or kidnapped Elizabeth.
Buckle’s blood boiled. His ears burned despite the freezing air.
Buckle would demand that Smelt admit his guilt. He would demand that Smelt release Elizabeth from captivity in some Imperial dungeon. And if Smelt refused, if he even hesitated one whit, Buckle would draw his sword and run the devil through. He would stand over Smelt as the man lay dying upon the skin of his own airship, his lifeblood seeping across the iron cross, and there he would promise the chancellor that his clan would be destroyed, his legacy ground to dust. When Smelt had choked out his last miserable breath, Buckle would ship him home on a tramp with a declaration of war pinned to his bloody shroud.
Buckle reached the base of the zeppelin’s starboard side and halted, looking up at the towering curve of the envelope’s flank. He clutched two handfuls of the loose canvas-it was stiff with ice but its doping left it still pliable-and yanked downward with a furious twist of sinew and muscle, as if he were attempting to pull the sky itself down from the very heavens.
With a shuddering rip, high up on the curving girders, the whole of the skin fell in one massive wave. It came down hard and fast with the roar of snapping rope hooks, tearing fabric, and splitting ice. Buckle, hearing a muffled shout from Pinter and the startled shrieks of the horses, had to lunge backward, stumbling over broken wood and iron, lest he be buried alive under the avalanche of canvas.
The flank skin collapsed into a long pile at the base of the superstructure, sending up a wall of airborne snow and ashes that forced Buckle to duck and hold his breath. The wave of debris passed over him, and he lifted his head.
The envelope skin of the dead airship and its black iron cross had completely fallen away. But another skin remained, having been hidden beneath it.
And upon this age-yellowed, once white skin towered a great silver phoenix.
Buckle stared at the gigantic emblem of the phoenix. It rippled and rustled ever so slightly along its sweeping length-a hint of a breeze had come up, and the snowflakes fell with a hair more density.
“Well, ain’t that a kick in the arse!” Pinter shouted, coughing in the cloud of ashes and snow that was quickly settling out of the air. “The Founders’ bird, eh? I didn’t see that one comin’!”
Buckle just stared. Katzenjammer Smelt had told the truth. It was not the Imperials who had attacked the Crankshaft stronghold at Tehachapi, but the Founders, who had disguised their airships as Imperial ones. In their treachery the Founders had planned to set the Crankshafts and Imperials against one another and it had worked. Buckle had taken the bait. Bitten down hard. Had he been left to his own devices he would have declared war on the Imperials and bled both clans, making them easy prey.
And it meant that Elizabeth, if she truly was alive, was now in the hands of the Founders.
Curse the devils!
Buckle charged forward, clambering atop the mountainous heap of fallen canvas. He wanted one more piece of evidence. He wanted the airship’s name.
“Where are you going, Cranker?” Pinter yelled with a sudden anger. “It is time to take our leave! Aye! It is time to go!”
Buckle halted atop the stack of canvas and glared back at Pinter, who was allowing his horse to make small, nervous circles. Pinter was anxious, and he was making his horse anxious. “Stand fast like a good lad, Pinter,” Buckle said. “I’ll be just a moment.”
Pinter pointed at the churning snow and ashes beneath his horse’s hooves. “You see this, boy? You see it? With yer eyeballs? Look!”
From Buckle’s elevated perch on the canvas wall, perhaps seven feet up, he could see exactly what was making both Pinter and the horse so agitated. On the ground in front of them lay a scattering of human skeletons, perhaps a dozen in total. Buckle’s boot prints tracked right through the middle of the skeletons-he had not noticed the bones, so struck was he by the wreck-and the rib cages and femurs were badly cast about, still wrapped in bloody black tatters of clothes, partially drifted under by blowing snow.
Buckle felt a pang of sympathy for the stranded survivors of the enemy crew-but only for a split second. Served them right. Fogsuckers. Murderers. “We figured that we would find some bodies, Pinter,” Buckle said. “Looks like the ones who survived the crash did not make it. Serves them right.”
“But look at them, boy!” Pinter snapped. “Look at them! You see any skulls? No, you don’t see any skulls! Why? Because they ain’t got no skulls! They ain’t got no heads!”
Buckle scanned the macabre remains. He certainly did not see any skulls in the graveyard, no.
“They ain’t got no skulls,” Pinter said breathlessly, as his horse finally stopped spinning. “Because them beasties, the sabertooths, they take the head, you see? Bite it right off and crack it like a walnut to feast on the steamin’ brains! Then they come back and gobble up the rest.”
“The beasties are not here now,” Buckle said. Pinter was crazy. Of course the beasties slunk in during the night and made a meal out of the vulnerable humans. That was what beasties did. Buckle had been raised in Tehachapi. He had even lived in the same mountains as a child. He was well familiar with the nature of the alien sabertooth and its preference for human heads.
“We must go!” Pinter bellowed.
“The dead are no concern to us as long as we do not join them.”
Pinter shook his head. “No, no, no, sir! You are no captain on this mountain, you hear me? Where is yer weather eye, lad? Look up! The sky grows dark. The wind is up. The snow comes thicker and thicker until the world becomes a murk! A twilight! That’s when the beasties wake up. And we need to be off the mountain or in a cave by then.”
Buckle looked up. Pinter was right. A colossal stretch of low black clouds was rolling in over the northern peaks like an ocean wave. The soft gusts of the wind were noticeably more blustery than a few moments before. And the atmosphere was growing darker by degrees; the torch in Buckle’s hand seemed to burn a fraction brighter with each passing second.
“Just one minute, I said!” Buckle replied, plunging through a gap in the airship skin and emerging inside the ruin. He cursed himself for not having noticed the turn of the weather. A sky captain had no right to ever allow himself to be as blinkered as he had just been.
“One minute, boy! That’s all!” Pinter yelled from outside, his voice already muted at the edges by a low whine of wind. “But one moment longer and you’ll find yerself alone here, brass buttons or no, damn your hide!”
Buckle ducked and wove his way through the guts of the foreign-built wreck. He peered through the labyrinth of collapsed girders, ropes, and wires-a crushed grappling cannon caved in from the roof-all charred black and crusted with ice. There had to be a clue-there had to be-that might lead him to Elizabeth. Buckle stopped to dig at the jumble where the piloting gondola might lie beneath. Sharp metal tore his gloves and he cursed. His right forearm ached where the steampiper had cut him in battle three weeks before, and Buckle was certain he could feel the bandages becoming wet. If he had broken the stitches again, well, Surgeon Fogg could sew him up and chew him out yet another time.
But none of that meant anything to Buckle in that moment, especially the pain. He knew one minute was all Pinter was going to give him. He brushed aside snow and clawed at a loose catwalk grating. He found the shards of a chattertube hood and a tinderbox. No name. He found a wad of papers covered in handwriting: they were partially burned and brittle. He stuffed them inside his parka. He jammed his hands beneath a splintered wooden hatch-what looked like it could be an access to a flattened piloting gondola beneath-and heaved it aside.
Buckle had lifted the lid of a coffin. The mummified body of a man, withered and desiccated by a year of relentless cold, his skin gray and shriveled, his eyes sunken away beneath the closed lids, his face stern and horrible, teeth gritted and glimpsed behind shrunken lips, lay trapped in a tomb of crushed wood and metal. His sunset-reddish-orange hair and heavy sideburns apparently had not lost any color in death. His uniform was ridged with frost and ice, but it was black, Founders black, and judging from the amount of silver and red piping on the collar and cuffs, he was a high-ranking officer, perhaps even the captain.
Buckle gazed at the dead man for a moment, the face ghastly under the shadows cast by his torch. The fellow was somewhat lucky, entombed in the bowels of his airship as he was-at least the beasties had not had at him. But Romulus Buckle felt no natural kinship with this fellow airman-not for him, and not for the rest of his treacherous Founders breed.
Buckle grasped the frost-rimed silver phoenix pip on the dead officer’s collar. The metal was cold, the collar cloth rough and stiff against the backs of his knuckles. He ripped the insignia loose, snapping it off its securing post, and jammed it into his pocket.
Buckle had his evidence.
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