Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. grew up in the United States and Canada but he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, met the sheep on Hadrian’s Wall, eaten at the first McDonald’s in Moscow, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War and Romulus Buckle & the Luminiferous Aether are the first three installments in his new steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. He currently resides in California. Find out more at hos website and follow him on Twitter as @RichardEPreston
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AN UNFRIENDLY PORT
Night fell and brought the Founders with it. The small, cramped port of Vera Cruz, a refuge for air pirates, sea scoundrels and plague-victims, was suddenly brought to heel under martial law.
Captain Romulus Buckle hurried through the shadows of the old brothel quarter fronting the quay, his boots thumping on icy boards. He followed close on the heels of his guide, a harsh-eyed woman with a veil across her face. She called herself Ursula but the word crossed her lips with such unfamiliarity Buckle doubted it was her real name. Ursula, or whatever her name was, further obscured her true identity under a rough brown cloak and hood as did Buckle and his two crew members: Lieutenant Sabrina Serafim and Ensign Wellington ‘Welly’ Bratt. The ancient Atlantean girl-automaton named Penny Dreadful, rescued from the melting pot in Spartak, accompanied them, strapped to Welly’s back. The burden wasn’t as tasking on the slender Welly as it first might seem—the robot was lighter than it looked.
Ursula paused at a junction where the boardwalk merged onto a main street. Buckle didn’t like how dark the town was; the few surviving street lamps, their sunken candle flames fluttering in the sea drafts, cast molten pockets of illumination upon a world where everything was worn down: the buildings, boarded-up and teetering ramshackle-wrecks of gray weathered wood, threatened to collapse on cobblestone streets rattled loose by decades of barrels hauled up from the pier.
A rotten fish stench assaulted Buckle’s nostrils—it came from the fishmonger tables—the head-chopping blocks and gutting boards shimmered silver-green in the weak moonlight, encased in a greasy layer of fish scales and blood which decades of buckets of water thrown across the wood failed to completely wash away. The hobnails of Buckle’s boots stuck to the ground—he felt the microcosmic sink of the leather into the filth—and it annoyed him.
Ursula hesitated, glancing back and forth along the street.
Buckle’s spine rose up. “Move!” he hissed. All he needed now was the guide losing her nerve. They couldn’t stay outside for long. The narrow, close-walled avenues of Vera Cruz were under curfew. As their small boat had slipped into the harbor Buckle had pressed his night telescope to his eye and glimpsed knots of heavily armed soldiers clad in steampiper black and Founder’s navy dark blue, brandishing torches in the faces of frightened passers-by, clearing the streets of rabble.
A flash of gold coins on the slum side of the quay wall had bought Buckle the services of Ursula who, sleek and sober and elusive in her motions, seemed perfectly at home in the hardscrabble world of Vera Cruz.
“One moment,” Ursula whispered. “We are almost there.”
Buckle clenched his teeth and glanced up. A yellow-skinned Founders airship floated one thousand feet overhead, boiler pipes issuing streams of black-gray smoke, the moonlight gleaming on brass cannon muzzles poking out of her gunports. Twenty minutes earlier the airship had released a platoon of steampipers, elite Founders soldiers equipped with maneuverable steam-powered flying backpacks. Buckle and his two mates had crouched low in their boat in the middle of the harbor and he had cursed their luck, head down in the vaguely rancid bilge water, listening to the knock of the waves striking the boat with what seemed like the loudness of gongs, feeling exposed and helpless. He had yanked a crumpled tarpaulin over Penny Dreadful to hide her glowing red eyes.
The steampipers had descended into some quarter or other, firing their guns at something in scattershot fashion. It was unlikely the Founders were looking for Buckle and his team specifically; the invasion of Vera Cruz was a logical stepping-stone in the Founder clan’s strategy of outward expansion, a well-placed port on the doorstep of the Pacific which up until this evening had been securely inside the Atlantean sphere of control.
Move, Ursula! Buckle thought, hedging against her back, his right hand clamped around his sword grip. He snorted in a deep breath of air and with it came the stink of mussel soup on the boil. The empty street beckoned, its cobblestones gleaming with black ice—there was a lot of sea ice but very little evidence of snow in Vera Cruz.
“Patience, dear sir, and have faith.” Ursula said. “If you die, I don’t get paid.”
Patience. The word galled Buckle. The search for Atlantis had thus far proved an utter failure.
The Pneumatic Zeppelin had been searching for six days and nights in their attempt to locate the great underwater city, all the time dodging Founders airships in the sea mists. Penny Dreadful’s directions, despite its certainty, had proven circular and quite half-mad. The talking machine, battered and childlike and growing ever more tiresome, was as unreliable as one might have expected, but even Buckle’s own abilities had failed him in the attempt to locate the submerged metropolis.
The search, the time wasted, had been a trying ordeal. Buckle had hardly left the bridge, spending watch after watch at his chair with the ship’s dog, Kellie, curled up at his feet, his hat plugged into the zeppelin’s steam system, its vents pumping warmth down his neck. Buckle’s unrelenting tensions ruined whatever ease he might have mined from such long, empty, eye-glazing hours. The weather over the Big Green Soup had been odd, unpredictable, snowy, both too warm and too foggy, and the density of the rolling fog banks had often forced the airship to halt her search because the lookouts couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, much less the surface of the ocean seventy-five feet below. Buckle dared not fly lower, for towering icebergs loomed in and out of the mists like the ice-bound peaks of great prehistoric mountains, mountains that would prove deadly in collision.
Long, sleepless hours gave way to a captain’s many worries. Staring into nothingness under the bright but indistinct spheres of the sun and moon crossing above the endless cloud cover, untasked by the familiar duties of the airship, by the regular reports of the fog-blind lookouts, by the turn of the hourglass and the ring of the watch bell, gave way to one’s darkest thoughts. A turn to melancholy was impossible for Buckle to avoid. His desperation at the loss of his sister, Elizabeth, and her captivity at the hands of the Founders, lived in the beatings of his heart. Seeking an alliance with the Atlanteans was a convenient excuse to chase Elizabeth and he knew it: but if Andromeda Pollux’s prophesy was true, that Elizabeth was the key to winning the war, he had no other choice. Granted, Andromeda was the leader of the Alchemist clan and considered by many to be a suspect oracle—she seemed to effortlessly hypnotize Buckle on some level whenever they spoke, her dark eyes hinting at a quantity of Martian blood in her veins. But he trusted her—that was the long and short of it—and Elizabeth had to be recovered at all costs, even if it meant his death and the death of every crew member aboard the Pneumatic Zeppelin.
The fate of the entire Snow World was at stake.
Elizabeth was in Atlantis. Every day Romulus Buckle had grown more certain of this.
And there was Max, his Martian Chief Engineer, who nearly lost her life to a sabertooth beastie as she came to save him on the Tehachapi Mountain. She now lay recovering the Punchbowl infirmary, far, far away, and he fretted for her pain. She had gladly risked her life in his protection. How could he ever repay such loyalty? He missed having her on the bridge, missed her terribly; he needed her there.
Valkyrie Smelt, the blonde Imperial Princess was there, acting in Max’s stead, manning her engineering position nearly twenty-four hours a day. By the third night Buckle had no choice but to order her to retire to her cabin and get some sleep. She was stricken, Buckle knew, by the loss of her brother in the destruction of the Cartouche, but her cool blue eyes never betrayed her emotions. Yet she radiated sadness and Buckle felt it. She was a member of his crew and he wanted to reach out to her, to give her a chance to open up and grieve, but he felt it better not to broach the subject if she did not come to him. There was no bridge to traverse between them.
And then there was the Penny Dreadful. The old automaton had been so sure of itself in the search, so certain that it knew the location of the great but mysterious underwater city of Atlantis. Penny had crouched in the nose dome for days on end, motionless, its red eyes locked on the sea. Sometimes in the long hours it had looked far too human, too much like a forlorn and determined child, and Buckle had caught himself worrying about it on several occasions.
Penny Dreadful’s faulty memory resulted in Buckle’s decision to venture to Vera Cruz, an island port town known to be within the Atlantean sphere of trade and control. In Vera Cruz there would be mercenary submariners, shady customers who knew the way to Atlantis. He just had to find one of them. And match their price.
“Here they come,” Ursula hissed, pressing flat against the wall as she reached back and planted her gloved hand in the center of Buckle’s chest. A group of Founders soldiers, their torches burning far brighter than the scattered streetlamps, passed along the main street.
Buckle held his breath, looking down at an uneven gutter running with filthy, slush-laden water. After the footfalls of the Founders faded away he whispered, “I’d prefer to be moving.”
“Just clearing the blind spots is all, Captain,” Ursula replied without looking back. Buckle could see nothing of Ursula but her hood. Her voice was steady but he wanted to see her face. He wanted to see if there was fear there.
“Are you sure he’ll be there?” Buckle asked.
“If he’s not on a job, he lives at the Sybaris—and I know he’s not on a job,” Ursula said. “Let’s go.” She struck out across the street, the folds of her robe flowing in the sea breeze, and Buckle hurried after her.
The dash across the street was quick and quiet and the stealth of it, the tapping of their leather boots on the cobbles and the flutter of their cloaks on their backs like crow’s wings in shadows, made Buckle feel better. Ursula paused against a large building with boarded-up windows; Buckle tucked in beside her with Sabrina at his side and Welly next to her, Penny Dreadful peering from the harness on his back. Penny’s metal face was dark; it had either shut off its glowing red eyes or sealed them somehow.
Buckle smelled the tavern-familiar stink of stale beer and sailor sweat but everything on the street was closed up and dark.
“We are here,” Ursula said, stopping in front of a large oak door.
“We are where?” Sabrina asked. “I don’t see any tavern.”
“Most of our social establishments go to ground when the authorities come, which hardly ever happens except when the Atlanteans send troopers for one reason or another, usually to collect unpaid debts,” Ursula answered. She rapped on the door, sharply, six times, in an odd pattern.
A door slat slid open, striking the end of its slot with a thunk, revealing two mean eyes fringed by red-yellow firelight. “Bugger off,” a muffled voice rasped.
“For the love of the bloody Martian’s knickers, open the door, Grady,” Ursula snapped.
“Why are ye such a bitch, Ursula?” Grady asked.
“I’m not your mother,” Ursula replied. “The Founders are afoot. Open the door!”
The slat clicked shut and the door swung back, flooding the blue-back depths of the street with amber firelight. Grady, a fat fellow with sweaty jowls and a head as bald as a child’s marble, eyed Buckle and his company with suspicion. “Get yer arses in here!”
Buckle turned sideways to squeeze past Grady’s mass. Hit by a wall of sour-smelling heat, he blinked, for though the low-ceilinged inn was poorly lit by candles and a sputtering fireplace it was still considerably brighter than outside. It was something of a feat of crude carpentry that the warping walls were sealed up so tight that not one hint of its internal light leaked out into the street. Grady slammed the door shut and threw the bolt, cutting off whatever fresh sea air followed Buckle and his party in. Buckle’s throat squeezed against the reek of gin, beer and body odor weighing down the overheated atmosphere.
Buckle stayed close to Ursula as she wove through a jumble of empty tables and chairs, the only occupied section of the tavern being the bar where a half-dozen grubby locals peered sideways at them from their stools. Ursula headed into the corner furthest from the door where a honey-colored man in a worn, black peacoat worked on a half-eaten slab of ham and a beer. The man sat at the table liked he owned it, eying them as they approached. Buckle saw the man’s right hand slip under the table to his pistol belt.
Buckle glanced at Sabrina.
“I see it,” Sabrina said, her hand already tucked inside her cloak, resting on the handle of her pistol.
Ursula arrived at the table and threw back her hood, showing a small head with a pale skinned, plain face framed by short-cropped black hair and obsidian earrings. “Captain Felix, I bring you customers,” she said.
“They look desperate,” Felix murmured through a mouthful of ham, casually replacing his right hand on the surface of the table. “I don’t like it when you bring me desperate ones, Ursula.”
“Your customers are always desperate, you mercenary,” Ursula retorted. “Otherwise they would pay two farthings for the ferry.” She turned to Buckle. “I’ll claim my finder’s fee now.”
Buckle drew a fat leather purse from his pocket and dropped it in Ursula’s hand.
Ursula stuffed the purse into her cloak. “I’m not stupid enough to count this here,” she said, firing a glance at the half-turned faces at the bar, “but if you short me, I’ll be back to collect the rest from your bloody corpse, you hear me?”
“Fair enough,” Buckle replied pleasantly.
Ursula glanced at Felix, then hurried away, exiting through a side door.
Buckle turned to find Felix studying him with a pair of big brown eyes that were childlike in comparison to the unshaven roughness of his face. “So you pay, at least the small fees, eh?”
“And the big ones,” Buckle said.
“Unless that was a purse full of slugs,” Felix added as if he might laugh.
“A pleasure to meet you, Felix,” Buckle said. “I am Romulus…”
Felix raised his hand abruptly, palm open, thumb folded over his fork. “No last names. There is no need for last names. Either we enter into a transaction or we do not. And your female companion can release her grip on her pistol as well—that might lighten up the proceedings.”
Sabrina slowly pulled her hand out of her cloak and rested it on her hip.
“What is it you want from me?” Felix asked, lifting his beer glass to his mouth. The mug was fantastic, a large nacreous nautilus shell halved and fitted into a carved wooden base; it looked far too fragile and expensive to survive the tables of the Sybaris and Buckle figured it was Felix’s personal cup.
“Passage to Atlantis,” Buckle said.
The fabulous beer mug paused in midair, the bottom dripping condensation. “Who told you that I could get you to Atlantis?”
“The young lady who just departed with a purse full of my silver,” Buckle replied. “How about we dispense with the dodging, shall we?”
“The Founders have blockaded the port,” Felix said.
“We are aware,” Buckle replied.
Felix took a big swig, replaced the mug on the table and winked. “If getting you to Atlantis was possible, and I ain’t saying it is or that I might have any means or knowledge of the means to get there, it would cost.”
“We can pay,” Buckle replied.
“What’s your clan?” Felix asked.
“Crankshaft,” Buckle answered.
Felix nodded. “Crankers, eh? Crankers are known to have deep pockets. But, if I were able to help you, and that is a big ‘if,’ I’d need to see the coin.”
“Of course,” Buckle said again. “But not here.”
“Of course not here,” Felix replied, jabbing a square of ham into his mouth.
“We’re not here to play games,” Sabrina said.
“Ah, but life is just one big game, isn’t it?” Felix said.
“Can you provide us with passage or not?” Buckle asked.
Felix turned serious. “Very well. Sit down. Let the negotiations begin.”
Buckle took a seat across from Felix, with Sabrina settling in on his left. He glimpsed her face in her hood, her small, strong chin jutting forth. Welly took a seat at the empty table on their immediate right, swinging Penny Dreadful from his back and lowering her to the floor as he did so.
“What the hell is that?” Felix asked, glaring at Penny.
“Our automaton,” Buckle answered.
“It looks like one of the old ones, the ones the Atlanteans made,” Felix grumbled, scraping a bit of fat to the edge of his plate. “They don’t like them. If we make a deal for transit I’d suggest you leave the thing behind.”
Buckle shook his head at a pang of disappointment; he had hoped that the presence of the Atlantean robot would prove an icebreaker with the Atlanteans but apparently not. “The machine stays with us.”
“Dig your own grave, then,” Felix grumbled. He glanced into the shadows and nodded. A woman emerged with a pistol at her side, the trigger cocked. She was squarish and middle-aged, probably of about the same age—thirtyish—as Felix, and of Asian descent. Her demeanor was serious and unpleasant, like a person who never smiled.
“I don’t negotiate with a loaded pistol at my back,” Buckle said.
“We all have our hands close to our pistols,” Felix answered, cutting what was left of his ham into impossibly tiny pieces, the knife blade squeaking on the ceramic platter. It was as if he wanted a reason to keep the sharp blade in his hand. “That’s how business gets done in Vera Cruz. If you don’t like it, you can take your leave.”
“You have a submarine, yes?” Buckle asked.
In went another bite of ham. Felix chewed and swallowed. “Perhaps. But if I did I would not be happy about taking on questionable cargoes when the current environment is as unfriendly as it is.”
“We have no cargo,” Buckle said. “All we seek is passage to Atlantis.”
“Oh, is that all?” Felix said with a false smile; several of his teeth were missing. “That takes a heap of silver on the barrelhead.”
Romulus dropped his heavy leather coin purse on the table.
Felix stopped chewing. His eyes flicked to the Asian woman and back to Buckle. He started chewing again. “The Crankshafts always have money. Few things are certain in life. But the Crankshafts always have money.”
“Good merchants,” Buckle said.
“Good pirates,” Felix countered.
“Former pirates,” Buckle said.
Felix nodded, then pointed his chin at the coin purse. “What’s in there?”
“Two thousand in silver,” Buckle replied.
“A lot of velvet,” Felix said, his brown eyes narrowing. “But it ain’t enough. You may have noticed that the Founders have seized the town. Just getting you out of port will be worth every halfpenny of that two thousand, if we even survive it, that is.”
Buckle tossed another leather purse onto the table. “A thousand more in gold. That includes return fare.”
Felix rested his hands on the table, his grease-streaked fork and knife gleaming in the firelight. “You want me to being you back to Vera Cruz now that it is crawling with Founders?”
“No. Another location. Not far off.”
Felix laid his knife and fork on the edges of his plate and nodded at the Asian woman. Buckle heard a click as she uncocked her pistol hammer. “This is Kishi,” Felix said. “My partner.”
Buckle turned and nodded at Kishi. She gave him a smile so big and mean it surprised him.
“We need to go and we need to go now,” Buckle said.
Felix stood up, drained his nautilus mug and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “Very well. Three tickets to the bottom of the sea it is, then.”
THE SEAGREEN BARREL COMPANY
With the Founders patrols everywhere, the journey back to the Vera Cruz wharf was quick, a hurried, snaking rush along gray-iced alleyways so narrow they were barely wider than Buckle’s shoulders. Occasionally he stepped over blanket-covered bodies, lumpy leper-shadows underfoot, beggars alive or dead it was impossible to tell but in a sorry state most certainly, lying as they were on stones dense with frozen mold, garbage and corruption.
They were losing the darkness; dawn approached rapidly—the Snow World dawn—the tumultuous pink glow of the eastern sky where the overcast heavens both muted and amplified the light. The Pneumatic Zeppelin was out there, keeping inside the sea mists two miles to the north, stationed for the rendezvous. Buckle’s brother by adoption, Ivan Gorky, was in command of the airship, assisted by the Imperial princess Valkyrie Smelt. Valkyrie was acting as chief engineering officer in the absence of Max.
Part of Buckle recoiled at the idea of a foreign clan officer on his bridge, but Valkyrie was first rate: her bravery under fire as they boarded the Bellerophon had won over much of the Pneumatic Zeppelin’s crew, her cool exterior notwithstanding.
At the southeastern end of the docks they passed through a long row of large, decrepit buildings, several of which had burned down to blackened posts a long time ago, and arrived at the reinforced door of a large, ramshackle warehouse. Felix drew a set of skeleton keys and began opening three massive padlocks. A sign creaked overhead, the dawn sea breeze rocking it on its rusty hooks: flaking gold lettering read THE SEAGREEN BARREL COMPANY and painted over that in thick strokes of red paint was the word ‘CONDEMNED.’
The padlocks clanked open and Buckle found himself descending a rickety stairwell into a large space reeking of tar, salt and rotting wood. Sunlight shot down through a broken skylight and gaps in the warping roof boards, riddling stacks of cobwebbed wooden barrels with gray shafts of light. Oily black harbor water gurgled in a forty-foot rectangular hole cut in the warehouse floor, lapping up against the teardrop-shaped conning tower of a small submarine.
Two chairs with high wooden backs and red velvet cushions, expensive and most certainly stolen, sat beside the submarine. The first chair contained an old man with a liver-spotted face and stubbly white beard, his body little more than bony protrusions under his denim coveralls. In the second chair lounged a young woman in a blue and white striped sailor’s blouse. They were both smoking pipes, and the curls of smoke formed lazy wreaths in the air above the chairs. They jumped to their feet when they saw Felix, their heads spinning the tobacco smoke in little tornadoes.
“Rachel! Husk! We are away!” Felix shouted. “With all speed!”
“Aye, Captain!” Rachel replied, knocking the contents of her pipe into the water before hopping onto the conning tower ladder. The old man, Husk, clamped his pipe between his teeth and began untying the submarine’s mooring lines from their cleats.
“I present to you the Dart,” Felix said without ceremony. “She’s a true submarine, small and fast. She’ll outrun the Founders tubs if necessary but stealth is her finest quality.”
“She looks leaky to me,” Sabrina said.
“And what does a sky dog know of sea boats, I ask?” Kishi growled.
Buckle appraised the iron hull plates and rivets of the steam-powered Dart, being most impressed by her two big copper screws surrounded with what looked to be a half dozen smaller propellers. She looked to be about fifty feet long. The crew likely totaled little more than a half dozen. “I like the cut of her,” he said.
Kishi smiled at him and this smile didn’t look mean.
Buckle followed Felix up the Dart’s conning tower ladder to the small bridge. The main hatch was open and they clambered down another ladder into the dark interior of the boat. The stink of boil and stale seawater hit Buckle as his boots landed on the metal deck of the control room. He stepped aside as Sabrina descended behind him, followed by Welly wedging his way down with Penny strapped to his back.
His nostrils full of the stink of leaking bioluminescent boil and stale seawater, Buckle shivered at the idea of being submerged—even though the submarine was only halfway down. Dark seawater lapped at the bottoms of two large, oval window ports at the front of the cabin and Buckle felt as if he were looking out the eyes of a great sea beast. Instruments of copper, brass and glass packed the control surfaces; Buckle recognized many of the gauges and dials—compass, chadburn, pitch pendulum, drift indicators, pressure tank indicators and on and on—the control of a submarine were in many ways similar to those of a zeppelin.
Kishi came down the ladder, closing the hatch and winding the wheel lock shut above her.
“Vessel ready for departure, Captain,” a voice rang down the chattertube.
“Lines are away,” Kishi announced.
“Dampers are open and boilers are being stoked, Captain,” Rachel announced from her post immediately to the port side of the helm wheel. “Minimum propulsion available in one minute.
“In one minute we take her down to ten,” Felix said.
Rachel watched the red liquid in her pressure gauges rise, then turned her head to stare at Sabrina.
“See something you like?” Sabrina asked.
Stone-faced, Rachel held her stare. She was pretty in the way a lioness was pretty, with a high forehead and the face that might belong to a noble. She looked to be a well-cooked mix of races, with wide-set eyes, a thick orb of densely curled reddish-brown hair and medium-brown skin. “And what trouble is this?” she asked Felix.
“Well paying trouble,” Felix replied.
“We have negotiated a passage to Atlantis,” Sabrina said.
“They won’t let you in with that thing,” Rachel said, flicking her eyes to Penny Dreadful as it dangled from Welly’s back.
“You have to forgive Rachel here,” Felix said with a smile. “She only makes friends with money and wealthy widowers.”
“It’s a pleasure, Rachel,” Buckle said with a nod.
Rachel turned back to her dials. “Engines are ready, Captain.”
“Take her down,” Felix ordered.
Kishi and Rachel spun hand wheels and the hissing sound of escaping air filled the cabin. The Dart sank into the water which surged and bubbled up and over the glass portholes until the warehouse interior lifted away and all Buckle could see in the darkness was the shadowy outlines of the warehouse pier supports.
Buckle’s stomach felt queasy. It was his first time in a submarine and he liked it.