Read Prehistoric Clock Online

Authors: Robert Appleton

Prehistoric Clock

Prehistoric Clock

By Robert Appleton

Airship officer Verity Champlain is well-respected by her crew. But after a vital mission nearly goes wrong, she is having second thoughts about her career.

Lord Garrett Embrey is on the run. The Leviacrum Council, the secretive scientific body that holds sway over the Empire, executed his father and uncle and now they want him dead too.

Professor Cecil Reardon is consumed by grief. Since his wife and son died he’s been obsessed with his work, and now he is on the verge of an extraordinary scientific breakthrough: his machine is about to breach time itself, to undo fate’s cruel taking of his loved ones.

But the time jump doesn’t go according to plan, and part of London winds up millions of years in the past. Verity and her crew—Lord Embrey, Professor Reardon and others stranded with them—must pull together to survive in a world ruled by dinosaurs…and to somehow get home.

59,000 words

Dear reader,

It’s not that I love winter, but I love some of the things that come with winter. Here in the States, February brings some of the coldest temperatures of the winter, but it also brings the promise of spring right around the corner. So I don’t mind hunkering down in my living room next to the fire with a blanket, a kid or a dog on my feet, and a mug of hot chocolate or hot tea (or even a hot toddy) beside me. And, of course, my digital reading device of choice in hand.

There’s something permissive about cold weather that makes it easy to laze away hours at a time reading a great book without feeling guilty, which makes February one of my favorite months. I know I can always indulge in plenty of guilt-free reading time!

This month, Carina Press offers a new selection of releases across the genres to aid you in your own reading-time indulgence. Romantic suspense favorite Marie Force is back with a new installment in her Fatal series,
Fatal Flaw.
Newlyweds Sam and Nick discover that they won’t get the normalcy they were looking for post-wedding…because someone has other plans for them. Also look for author Dee J. Adams to follow up her adrenaline-packed romantic suspense debut with her sophomore book,
Danger Zone,
which delivers thrills and action.

Two steampunk titles will get your gears whirling in February. Look for
Prehistoric Clock
by Robert Appleton and
Under Her Brass Corset
by Brenda Williamson to take you back to a time altered by steam and clockwork. Also in the science fiction and fantasy realm, author Nico Rosso offers up
The Last Night,
a post-apocalyptic tale of romance, while Kim Knox takes us into the future with her futuristic science fiction romance,
Synthetic Dreams.

And for those of you with a yen for the paranormal, we have several authors joining us for their Carina Press debuts.
Blood of the Pride
by Sheryl Nantus and
Pack and Coven
by Jody Wallace hit the virtual shelves in mid-February.

Portia Da Costa will heat up your day with
Intimate Exposure,
a sexy and intense look into the world of BDSM.

Rounding out our amazing and genre-packed February lineup are books from Claire Robyns, Charlie Cochrane, Debra Kayn, Shelley Munro, Amie Denman, Crista McHugh and Susan Edwards, with everything from historical and contemporary romance to m/m romance to a fun romantic caper. February offers a little something for everyone’s reading pleasure.

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

www.twitter.com/carinapress

www.facebook.com/carinapress

A special thank you to my intrepid editor and airship co-pilot, Alissa Davis, for helping me navigate across skies, seas and epochs, and for making sure
Prehistoric Clock
took all the time it needed.

Chapter 1
Red Fire, White Steam, Blue Ocean

1908. Somewhere over the English Channel…

Verity collapsed her brass telescope and winced as the pyre of yet another British airship blazed on the rough waves. The odds of surviving this suicidal folly dwindled with each crimson flash. She shielded her face from the sting of lateral rain. All around her, metal warped and canvas groaned as the storm gathered fury. What she wouldn’t give to be back in Angola right now, even in that godforsaken heat she was famous for griping about. Anywhere but here! Gusts battered the
Empress Matilda’s
bullet-shaped, hydrogen-filled envelopes like a flurry of fists, swinging the deck and veering the airship away from the line of buoys below. Verity lurched against the taffrail, bit her tongue.

“Tangeni,” she yelled for’ard through the pain.

Her stoic coxswain spun round. “Yes,
Eembu
?”

“Commence separation. Have Mbenga’s team man the upper deck for you. Burton and Kwame can steer. Have Kibo meet me in the bell house.” She clung to her sou’wester’s chin strap with pruned fingers, and grinned bitterly. “It’s time to divorce the
Empress
.”

Tangeni grimaced at their private joke, baring his too-many white teeth, and then shook his head. “English women crazier than English
men.

“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”

He snatched up the megaphone and bellowed orders to the crew. His oversized silver-blue slicker made him look like a fat sea lion leaning over the brass railing—a far cry from his hunting days in the wilds of Namibia.

A lull in the wind allowed her to dash safely to him across the poop deck. After placing her hands on his shoulders, they touched foreheads—perhaps for the last time. Her mission, they both knew, was now a halfpenny short of impossible. For years Tangeni had looked forward to seeing England for the first time. Only six miles shy, he would probably never be closer than he was right now.

The image of Captain Naismith hanging over the side amidships, burning to death in the steam jet from a ruptured boiler below as he reached for those poor drowning sailors, seized her heart. That was the moment she’d inherited this responsibility, this…countdown to oblivion.


Enda nawa,
Tangeni,” she said. Regret ached through her shivering frame.

“Goodbye,
Eembu.

As she hurried down the iron steps to the quarterdeck he called after her, “When rain stops, I buy us ice creams in Piccadilly.”

The awful weight of finality squeezed the air from her lungs. Salutes from Reba and Philomena, the two statuesque Kenyan girls who maintained the balloons’ canvas and lines, steeled her resolve, quickened her descent to B-deck. This crew was so far from home on a mission so alien to their lives in Africa, she at least owed it to them to give her very best, to reward their faith in English ingenuity. The admiralty’s emergency telegram had snatched away their promised vacation and sped up their transfer to the London fleet—rotten enough circumstances for her first command
without
the threat of imminent death.

BAC EMERGENCY ALERT STOP EMPRESS MATILDA PROCEED TO TRANS CHANNEL PIPELINE BUOYS SIXTY TO SEVENTY FIVE WITH UTMOST DISPATCH JOIN GANNET FLEET STOP OVER DOZEN ENEMY VESSELS SUNK OR SINKING BELIEVED TO CARRY FRAGILE FRZ THREE EXPLOSIVES EXTREME RISK TO PIPELINE STOP DEFUSE BOMBS AT ALL COSTS

At all costs?
Those callous words hammered home as Verity ran to the square bell house in the centre of B deck, her heavy boots thumping across the wooden floor, then clanging on the riveted iron plates upon which the diving bell stood. At all costs? Granted, a rupture in the Dover-Calais petroleum pipeline would grind British industries to a halt for days, possibly weeks until it was repaired, but was that really more important than the lives of several good Gannet crews? Countless British Air Corps personnel had already drowned or been blown to bits tonight whilst trying to recover and defuse those enemy explosives safely aboard British vessels. The storm was simply too volatile, the waves too punishing for that kind of retrieval.

She had no choice but to take the fight to the sea bed.

Alone.

She remembered the words in her sister Bernie’s final telegram from Angola, the last words she’d ever written before the rebel attack. “Come join me, sis. You will love it here, I promise.” And in the top corner of the telegram, the ubiquitous British Steam Age motto stamped by the authorities, “Ambition Soars. The World Is Yours.”

Bernie had believed utterly in the empire, and Father had given a proud, heartbreaking eulogy at her funeral. If those two people she’d always looked up to in her life reckoned the flag was worth dying for, if they measured humanity’s progress with such sacrifice, who was Verity to argue? This was a vital mission. It was her chance to prove her worth to the cause.

No pressure, Verity.
She eyed the diving bell’s dull, copper curvature behind the square storehouse.
Literally, no pressure. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Sea spray whipped through open seams all around as crewmen piled up from C-deck to help rotate the iron capstans fore and aft, cranking A-deck up to the clasps’ tensile limits. As soon as the
Empress
’s hull touched water, A-deck would lift free and Tangeni would try to fly it home through the storm, leaving the remainder of the vessel, a ship in its own right, to anchor to the buoy line and complete the mission. But so many things could go wrong with an uncoupling in
calm
weather, let alone in such an hellacious brew.


Eembu,
give me your hand,” Kibo urged as he clung to the sturdy bell house rail. She gripped his arm just as the
Empress
thumped bow-first into the sea. The impact threw her against his broad shoulder, winding her. The capstan teams were floored like ten pins.

“Tell them to…hold steady…crank on my mark,” Verity struggled between gasps. Kibo relayed her commands, held her while she doubled up to recover.
Christ,
of all the times to be winded…in the run-up to a crucial dive, when air meant everything.

The
Empress
listed dangerously to port. Howling gusts, yells and the sound of groaning metal filled B-deck. “Stop engine,” she said. Now Tangeni had solo propulsion as well as lift—A-deck’s propellers hummed faintly astern, above her. The vessel righted and she screamed to the signalman coordinating the two teams, “Lift her free!”

The heavy, zip-like
clak-clak-clak
of the rotating capstans quickened her pulse. She watched the signalman’s tongue wag nervously in rhythm between his tight lips. A deafening clatter from every direction made her cover her ears. The iron clasps had uncoupled. When she looked up, the ceiling was alight. The dirigible banked away above, tilted to forty-five degrees by the strong wind, its propellers spitting streams of rain behind it.

The full weight of the storm heaped upon exposed B-deck.

“Kibo—” she now had to shout again through the fury, “—move those men from the capstans to the bell winch. As soon as I’m in, have them lift me over the side. You remember the drill?”

“Yes,
Eembu.
The captain went underwater plenty in the Indian Ocean. I oversaw all his dives.”

“Good man. When I’m down there, you’re captain here.”

The big man’s nose flared and his eyes bulged. He puffed his cheeks, saluted and then hurried aft, his familiar splay feet holding an amazingly straight line given the ship’s tilt. Of all the officers on board, Verity had dealt with Kibo the least, as his duties tended to confine him to the steam engine rooms. His time spent maintaining and driving steam-powered automobile racers on the European circuits had inspired his brilliance in the ship’s engine room. He had to dress the smartest—he wore a waistcoat at all times—and his subordinates had to be drilled to a level of efficiency unsurpassed in the fleet. Anything less and he would launch into his racing diatribes, and one might be forgiven for thinking he’d not only designed those cars, but invented steam locomotion as well.

Verity closed her eyes, prayed that he was as good as he boasted, then with her bell partner, Djimon, set about transferring diving gear from the storeroom to the diving bell. All too heavy, all too unwieldy—all indispensible. Only two other officers on board the
Empress Matilda
were qualified for both deep sea diving
and
defusing explosives. Captain Naismith was now dead, Tangeni airborne—but she would have volunteered anyway.

Father, Bernie and Britannia were watching over her.

But tonight, alas, Britannia did not rule the waves.

She pinched her nose and swallowed several times as the diving bell descended, its thick copper shell groaning. Her ears clicked, signalling she’d equalized the pressure. “Djimon, you’re sure you know what to do?”

“Yes,
Eembu.
I haul you back up when you pull on lifeline.”

“Exactly. But not too fast. I don’t want the bends when I come up.”

“Don’t worry none, Lieutenant. I pull Captain Naismith up plenty times. He never gave cross word to Djimon. You in good hands.”

Verity believed that about him, as she did about Kibo and Tangeni before him. These were some of the most capable men she’d ever met—diligent and unflappable in the line of duty. It steadied her nerves a little, knowing she had such strong arms waiting to pull her up if things should go pear-shaped. The confined space, too, helped focus her on the incremental suiting-up procedure she’d practised dozens of times, and away from the overwhelming odds of the mission.

She sucked in a crisp breath. Inside the greening copper sphere smelled of rubber and wet beach towels. She stripped to her white brassiere and tan jodhpurs, and Djimon helped her into her closed, waterproof rubber suit, the valves of which would let water out but not in. Heavy rubber bands sealed the suit at the wrists, leaving her hands free. She could barely move a step in her leaded diving boots, which weighed around thirty pounds, added to which Djimon fastened lead weights to her chest and back to maintain equilibrium. Lastly, he affixed the clunky metal helmet with side and front windows to the neck of her suit. It quickly grew warm inside, and her heavy breathing became the noise of her whole world. All told, she weighed more than her huge African partner. Even standing was exhausting.

She tapped her knuckles on the helmet, signalling for him to attach the non-collapsible umbilical. Air pumped through this hose would give her oxygen to breathe, as well as regulating the pressure inside the helmet, keeping the water level below her head. A much bigger hose from the
Empress
fed the diving bell in exactly the same way, ensuring seawater never rose above the moon pool—the open, central access point in the keel. If she or the bell tipped too far from the vertical, she would drown. If either pump stopped working, she would drown. Indeed, the thread of her existence underwater was so slender, so fragile that a few cubic inches of second-hand air were all that kept her alive by proxy.

Inches—inches versus an eternity of deep, dark unknown.

Djimon feverishly wound the dynamo handle and the hull lights blazed on, illuminating the moon pool to a turquoise hue. She sat on the brass rim and lowered her heavy boots into the freezing water. Clutching her umbilical, Djimon pretended to blow into it for her, a joke that gave her such levity before she sank, it almost made her cry. She patted the tool belt on her waist for good luck, nodded and slid into the Atlantic.

Cold seized and throbbed through her as though she had entered the liquid heart of a glacier. Directly below, tall, wispy green stems drooped over a bed of murky sand. The bell’s lights revealed the wreckage of a medium-sized coalition freighter a short distance ahead, mere yards from the large black pipeline. A crew of thirty to forty enemy souls had been lost here—terrorists smuggling explosives into England, yes, but still a terrible waste of life. She shuddered. Her fingertips tingled icily. But Kibo’s undersea lookouts had done well to pinpoint this site for her, and he had anchored the
Empress
to the correct buoy cable. Now it was all up to her.

Ice creams on Piccadilly,
she recalled Tangeni’s parting words.
Easy does it.

Her boots gently touched the bottom. The suit’s top-heaviness gave her forward momentum as she leaned. Her clumsy steps formed an ungainly trudge but she didn’t care. Her every breath amplified to a gasp inside the helmet but the rhythm kept her company. She reached the mangled brass bulwark and walked around it, mindful to keep her hose from snagging on a jutting end. Through her right window she glimpsed a tiny crimson flash. Moments later, a school of eel-like fish darted across her path and sand fidgeted all about, as though a distant but powerful impact had rippled the ocean bed.

Verity swallowed hard. A bomb had to have just exploded somewhere close to the pipeline. Had a BAC officer, just like her, been blown to bits while trying to defuse it? Too late to back out now. She looked up. The black cylinder stretched deep into the gloom on either side. Unmoved, assimilated by weeds and crustaceans, it resembled the charred remains of some colossal leviathan skeleton from ancient times.
A kraken…which must not be cracked.
Thank God her reliable bad puns were still intact.

She located the aft hold, partially collapsed, and crept through the splintered iron hatch. It was too dark inside, so she lit a flare from her tool belt and dropped it at the hatchway. Rose light flooded the hold, skewing the shadows of strewn boxes against buckled walls. In the middle of the floor, a shiny silver-and-black clarinet lay untouched. The last object she’d expected to find there. Silver bubbles from her valves collected on the sloping roof and rolled above a stack of long metal boxes marked
EXPLOSIVO.

Christ.
There were at least six boxes! FRZ-3 clockwork explosives were not difficult to defuse—the detonating coil could be removed with a screwdriver and a portable oxyacetylene cutter, both of which she had in her belt—but the explosive material itself was quite unstable. A heavy blow to any FRZ-3 bomb would explode it without the need for a detonator. Therefore she must be careful not to let anything hit the device or—
God forbid—
let one of the boxes spill.

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