Authors: D. Dalton
Author: D. Dalton
Editor: Nia Shay
Cover Art: Dennis Saputra
Copyright 2013 D. Dalton. All Rights Reserved.
This work’s copyright has been registered with the US Copyright Office.
First Edition, published July 2013
This book or parts of this book may not be distributed or reproduced or sold in any form without express permission from the author who is the sole copyright holder. Fair Use Doctrine excepted.
This is a work of fiction. None of it is real or based on real persons. There is no intentional correlation between what is written here and any other works of fiction, events, places and/or persons in the real world, and any similarities are purely coincidental.
“Where is that girl?” Jing Li turned on his steampowered leg, all metal and gears from the thigh down. The mechanical knee whirred and clicked as it twisted at an inhuman angle when he moved. The heavy heel clanked down on the wooden floor.
Across the teeming taproom, Drina de Avila cupped her slender hands around her mouth and called, “Where is she?” But the noise of the crowd swallowed her voice.
Jing held up his hands uselessly. She shook her head in frustration and shoved past the people between them, her black silken mane flying out like a banner behind her.
She wore a coquettish brown corset over her white blouse, with clockwork keys instead of lace to keep it tight. However, she was too skinny to be considered pretty by most of the men in this place. She paused to put on a smile as she neared Jing.
“Where’s our boss?” He stamped toward her on his habitual limp.
“I never know where she is.” Drina’s brown eyes probed the throng. Her focus whipped to the few mops of red hair in the crowd, but none of them belonged to their employer. Instead, they were all hungry customers. And she was the only cook.
The gaslights were glowing against the polished counters, and someone was playing a fiddle somewhere in the crowd, although only a few hints of any musical notes managed to tread above the noise. Towering over the mob was the late owner’s massive grandfather clock, a wonder of glass and metal sheeting with its whirling gears shining in the lamplight. Jing buffed up the copper exterior twice a month.
He pushed his way through the crowd. His size helped, being that he was easily over six feet and barrel-chested. Drina fell into step behind him. She fired a look through the window to the twin railroad tracks. Another approaching whistle sounded.
The wood beneath their feet vibrated as the northbound engine rolled into the station, pulling up for a meal for its passengers and to refill its water tank. They’d built the Pitchstone Waystation with a pullout so that the north and southbound trains could pass each other. This was the only place in the mountains with dual tracks, and it wasn’t uncommon for one train to be stuck for hours until the other finally slid by.
Passengers from the train on the pullout track could only exit to the west, and then climb through the other train. To the east was a two-thousand foot drop into the absolutely scenic valley below.
The waystation perched halfway up an ancient volcano on a rocky shelf in the Riverrock Mountains between Codic, the capital of Eliponesia, and Valhasse, the nation’s current industrial heart.
The second train slowed to a full stop on the parallel track. Off to the side of the waystation, the lone dirigible’s crew hauled their sandbags over the ship’s railing as they lifted away from the Pitchstone’s tiny air-dock, trying to outrun the oncoming storm.
Overhead, the aether bands in the sky shone in all the colors of the prism. The fifth element, aether, only became visible when in contact with one of the material four, and then only in large concentrations. High up in the atmosphere, higher than airships could venture, bands of the element twisted together in their mix of ever-changing colors.
Above them, the two moons coasted in the daylight as the clouds rolled in. One was a cold, dead world, but the other was pure diamond, determined by spectral analysis from Industrial Future University’s best scientists. They’d said it was a failed star that had turned to precious stone.
Back inside, Drina nodded her head in the direction of the kitchen. “All these people need feeding.” The pressure cookers were hissing under the stress and she could see them wobbling against the countertop. “Not to mention managed, but where’s our manager?”
In the closet, where the noise of the world dimmed, a single candle flickered and made ghostly reflections in the steamy air. Solindra Canon, seventeen-years-old, poured some more water on the coals. A cloud puffed up like an angry retort.
The steam curled around her like mist. She held out her hand and watched it cross her palm, twisting as it coasted across her hand like a ballerina. Deep blue and purple blossoms surrounded her where she had packed them around herself. The steamflowers only opened in the presence of steam.
She closed her eyes and rocked back. “Father, I hope you can hear me.”
Solindra gasped and jumped, accidentally knocking the candle into the water pitcher. The light in the room immediately darkened to only the simmering glow of the coals.
“Drina!” Solindra grabbed her chest as if trying to push her heart back down inside her suddenly heaving torso. The cook had slipped into the room without a sound, without even disturbing the steam floating about the space. Solindra, so deep in concentration, hadn’t even noticed the light changing.
The young woman yanked the candle out of the water and struck a match. Then she glared at Drina with eyes as silver as the steam surrounding them. She sat back, hovering in front of the huge stack of travelers’ abandoned magazines that she hoarded with the same care as a collection of rubies.
Drina’s gaze softened and she brushed Solindra’s fiery red hair away from the girl’s face.
“We all miss him.” The cook looked down at the coals and sighed. “But what are you doing?”
Solindra dropped her gaze and muttered something.
“What was that?” Drina asked, an edge glistening somewhere in her voice.
“Ghosts in the steam.”
The woman bit down against a second sigh. “Cylinder, the steam isn’t full of everyone who has died. It’s just a story.”
“So then how does the steam power everything?”
Drina inhaled sharply. “Because the aether that is dissolved in the water only reacts, or comes alive if you will, in the steam and the mechanical force of the steam itself. I know you know this because I taught you.”
“I still don’t know how you got a microscope up here,” Solindra mumbled.
“You’ve had a better education than most kids in the cities. Your father–”
“No!” The girl pushed her away. “Drina, I can do it. I can talk to the ghosts in the steam. I know it. I can find my father.”
“Everyone who lives in the Steamscape countries has tried, Cylinder. It’s just a myth.” Her chocolate eyes unfocused. “I remember the day your father brought you home to our makeshift family. Said you’d been abandoned.” Drina tugged Solindra’s blouse straight. “But he’s gone and you’re the proprietor of Pitchstone now. He left it to you.”
“Right.” The girl squeezed the creases back into her blouse again.
“And it’s overrun with customers. Jing and I need you.”
Solindra’s face bloomed as red as the sizzling coals. “Maybe I don’t want to bother with customers anymore. I’d like to meet real people someday.”
Drina rolled her eyes and pushed open the door. Lights and sounds flooded the closet. “You meet new people every day.”
“Not the ones who I want to meet. I read about airship-jumping players. Or maybe even Steam Princess Adri.”
Drina’s mouth twisted further down. “Whose father, Boras Saturni, owner of Steampower,
this civil war. And there are worse than him out there, too.”
“What? Like crypters?”
Drina scowled. “Even crypters can be explained by science. If they’re real.”
“Or the Hex?”
“That’s enough, Cylinder.”
The teenager folded her arms. “But the war isn’t
The cook gently pushed her shoulder, guiding her through the crowd. “That is fine with us, little Cylinder.”
Solindra growled. “Drina, I’m not little anymore!” She stomped off, or at least she tried to, but got stuck in the wall of people. Drina waved at Jing, who started toward them.
A group of soldiers slouching in front of the fireplace stopped the large mechanic’s progress. The gray and gold flag of Eliponesia hung on nails above the fire. The soldiers splashed their beers together and leaned back in their salutes to it so much that they looked as if they would fall over.
Drina pushed through them, with Solindra trailing further behind.
“Hey!” the cook yelped as one of the soldiers yanked on her long hair. Her thin fist smacked him in a roundhouse punch with all the momentum of her spin. Her short skirt flared out around her.
The man staggered back, his backside dangerously close to the flames. He shrieked and grabbed his ass. The other soldiers’ faces immediately darkened.
Jing loomed over the offender, cutting between Drina and the soldier. Solindra slipped right behind him, staring in fascination. The men coalesced into a wall of six warriors.
Drina held up her fists and tossed a flashing smile at the growling men. “Your choice, lads.”
“Men, stand to!”
Jing, Solindra and Drina whirled. An Eliponesian major shoved through the crowd toward the soldiers. His fierce scowl knocked the bravado from the privates. “Get back to the train. Now!”
The troops dropped their gazes. “Yes, sir,” they mumbled, and then shuffled past the waystation employees without looking back.
The major brought his blue eyes up to the pair and then looked directly at Jing. “My apologies. They just can’t seem to recognize a veteran.”
“What?” Jing forced out a laugh. “Oh, no. I was never a military man.”
The officer raised an eyebrow, causing his mustache to shift upward like the rising double moons. His gaze traveled over to the practiced and comfortable way Drina still held her fists. She slammed them down to her sides and glared.
“Any news of the war?” Jing asked quickly, sliding in front of Drina.
The major answered after a long moment, “No.” He clicked his heels and dipped his head. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m sure you must be busy.”
“Oh yes!” Solindra squeaked and whipped her gaze back toward the overcrowded taproom.
When he had gone, she turned around and blew her nose at the flag. “That’s my respect!”
“Cyl, no.” Jing sighed and glanced at the pipes along the ceiling overhead. Steam was leaking at the joints again, but he couldn’t help it. The hot springs, heated up by the volcano, provided all the steam to the waystation. He had constructed the piping system to bring that natural heat and water down in order to power the waystation, as well as provide train water and hot baths. And it worked perfectly. Most days. Some days, anyway.
The mechanic stretched his hands near to the leaden pipes, feeling the heat. “I’d just like a little place of my own where the steam is constant, you know?”
Drina chuckled. “I’d like a boss that I don’t have to boss around.”
“Hey!” Solindra said.
“Alright, I didn’t mean it, Cyl.” The cook thumped on the steampipe. “Something wrong with the springs again?”
Jing raised an eyebrow. “Do you think I can fix the volcano by banging my wrench against it?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes, I really think you can.”
Drina and Jing exchanged a look before turning back to the crowd. Solindra was watching the two of them for cues. The mechanic ran a hand through his hair. “The conductor said that the south train needs some work on its cattle-catch.”
But Solindra didn’t hear him. She was watching the crowd. A man in black drifted in front of them, seemingly at ease in the forest of people. He wore a bowler hat and carried a slender glass cane underneath his arm.
Solindra’s steam-colored eyes followed him for a moment before the swell of the throng overwhelmed her. She could see the two different cities in the taproom. The women from Codic wore shorter, ruffled skirts and thick, high stockings that were the newest fashions. Meanwhile, the women from Valhasse wore dirty shirts and trousers. Soot stains smudged their faces and they tended to shuffle away from the capital’s women, who conveniently twirled their parasols between themselves and the working folk.
The men from the capital wore creased, crisp vests and jackets, as if there were no war. The men from Valhasse looked as if they’d just come off the factory line. Their eyes were sunken and outlined by dark lines.
A nearby man, obviously from Codic, checked his gleaming pocket watch, attached to his vest by a golden chain. It bore a scene of a hunting stag on its cover. Despite the war, intricate artistry was still coveted.
The Pitchstone didn’t have much art, just the grandfather clock and a couple of antique gears on the wall as decoration. All the other gears were at work, either pulling in steam from the hot springs, turning the waystation’s conveyor belt that Jing had rigged up for faster dinner delivery, or one of a hundred other everyday things.
Drina nudged Solindra, bringing the young woman’s focus back to the moment. “Any ideas?”
Jing shook his head, trying to squeeze a few drops of grease out from the corner of his shirt. “I think we’ll be overrun like this for a while, especially since the capital has to rely on Valhasse now.”
Drina nodded. “Steampower provided everything to Codic–”
Solindra frowned, her brow furrowing. “Why would the company that makes nearly everything for everyone want to take over the government?”
Drina and Jing exchanged a glance. The mechanic shrugged. “I guess they got sick of paying taxes?”