Flash Gold–A Steampunk Novella
Here’s the blurb and an excerpt:
Eighteen-year-old Kali McAlister enters her steam-powered “dogless sled” in a race, intending to win the thousand-dollar prize and escape remote Moose Hollow forever. The problem? Fortune seekers and airship pirates are after her for the secret to flash gold, her late father’s alchemical masterpiece.
With her modified rifle and a pocketful of home-made smoke bombs, Kali wouldn’t normally hide from a confrontation, but taking on a whole airship single-handedly is a daunting task. Unfortunately, the other racers won’t assist her–they’re too busy scheming ways to sabotage her unorthodox sled.
When a sword-slinging stranger shows up, wanting to hire on as her protector, she’s sure he has ulterior motives, but he’s the only one interested in helping her. The question is…why?
Flash Gold: Part I
Kali McAlister tapped a wrench against her thigh as she contemplated her invention. She had stripped every extra piece of metal she could from the “dogless sled” and had even debated removing the brush bow, but that seemed unwise. Besides, it’d been cold enough the last week men were complaining of pee freezing before it hit the ground. The ice on Forty Mile Creek ought to be thick enough for the heavy steam sled. If it wasn’t…winning the race would be the last of her worries.
Hinges creaked, and a gust of frigid air hurled snow into the workshop. Kali spun toward the door, her long braid whipping around her shoulder.
A fur-clad figure loomed, head an inch shy of the top of the frame. With those broad shoulders and that height, she assumed it was a man, though a cap buried his eyebrows and a scarf swaddled most of his face. He gripped a rifle in one gloved hand, and the hilt of something—a sword?—poked over his shoulder. Who in tarnation brought a sword to the Klondike?
Kali’s grip tightened on the wrench. Another thug who wanted to interrogate her about her father’s alchemical masterpiece, probably.
“If you’re going to hold the door open that long, you could at least bring in some wood.” That sounded cocky, especially since the wrench was the closest thing to a weapon she had handy, but bravado went a long way in Moose Hollow.
Meanwhile, she sidled closer to the workbench and the panel of levers on the far end of it. The man’s blue eyes were the only thing visible between the cap and scarf, and they narrowed, watching her.
“The stove’ll have to work double time to heat the place again,” Kali said, hoping to distract him from her movement. “Not that this drafty hole could aspire to warm anyhow.”
The man stepped inside. Kali tensed, ready to spring for a bronze lever with a billiards-ball knob.
He did not move past the threshold though. Without taking his eyes from her, he pushed the door closed. He removed the cap, revealing thick tousled black hair, then tugged the scarf down to his throat. Kali might have called him handsome, but a scar gouged one cheek, as if someone had tried to remove one of his eyes. The beard stubble darkening his jaw would do little to warm his chin in the cold. He must be new to the north.
His cool gaze skimmed the shop, resting briefly on the unorthodox metal sled before settling on her.
“You Kali McAlister?” he asked, voice smoother and more pleasant than his rough exterior hinted at.
“Ma’am.” She propped her hands on her hips by way of disguising another step toward the lever. “It’s polite to call a lady ‘ma’am.’ Even if she’s a half-breed wearing man trousers with tools sticking out of all her pockets.” Not to mention she was only eighteen and covered in grease. She would collapse in surprise if anyone called her ma’am without the ulterior motive of needing a favor.
He stared at her for a long moment. “You Kali McAlister? Ma’am.”
“I reckon that depends on who you are.” She pretended to scratch her knee and took another step.
“Your identity changes depending on your caller?”
“Sometimes it does.” Another step.
“That’s not a name,” she said. “That’s a tree.” Though at his height, children might mistake him for the latter.
“And what are you here for, Cedar?” Three more steps and she would reach the lever. He might plow through her “security measures,” but they would distract him and give her time to run.
He strode toward her. She lifted the wrench threateningly.
“The job.” His free hand delved into a pocket. Paper rustled. He pulled out a sheet with writing on it.
It was Kali’s turn to stare. “What job?”
Wordlessly, he held out the flyer.
ASSISTANT MUSHER FOR BARTON’S RACE
Experienced pugilist preferred. Inquire at Kali McAlister’s Tinkery.
Kali scratched her head. “Where did you get this? I didn’t post it.”
“Nelly’s Good-Time Girls.”
“Nelly. Oh.” Kali puffed out an annoyed breath. While it had been nice having someone step in as a big sister after her father died, sometimes Nelly presumed too much. At least this meant the man was probably not there to rob or interrogate her. “That’s a mistake.” She waved at the flyer. “I can’t afford to hire help. I’m going alone. Sorry to have wasted your time.”
Cedar lowered the paper, but did not leave. “If you win, there will be prize money.”
“Yes…. One thousand dollars hard money goes to the first-place finisher, thanks to Francis Barton’s lucky claim. The old sourdough’s spending like a drunk.”
“Then you’ll be able to pay me.”
Kali’s suspicions toward her visitor returned. Only gold miners worked for the possibility of payment, and most of them were addled in the head. More, nobody in town thought her steam sled would do anything except crash through the ice and disappear forever. Francis wouldn’t have let her enter the race if anyone believed otherwise.
“If I win, I’m using that money to build…something I’ve wanted to build for a long time,” Kali said. “And I’m getting out of Moose Hollow to go somewhere warm.” And where nobody knew about her crazy family or called her a witch.
“One hundred,” Cedar said.
“Are you truly trying to negotiate with me over money that odds are against me winning?”
“You believe you’ll win.” A hint of impatience hardened his jaw.
“Everyone believes they’ll win or they wouldn’t risk their lives in this Godforsaken endless winter to run their dogs up a river. Look, Mister—”
“Look, Mister Cedar. I appreciate you coming—”
Something shattered upstairs. Kali froze. That sounded like the ceramic-pot booby trap she had set up in front of her bedroom window.
She scowled at her visitor, suspicions deepening. He did not appear surprised. His head was lifted, eyes toward the open stairway at the back of the workshop.
“You know anything about that?” she asked. He was probably the distraction while his cronies—
The front door slammed open. Three men charged inside, six-shooters leading.
Cedar whirled to face them. Metal rasped, and his sword appeared in his hand.
Hoping the men were focused on him, Kali darted for the bank of levers. She yanked the one with the billiards-ball knob.
A door along the wall slid upward, revealing two bulky figures in a shadowy cubby. Gears whirred, and a pair of four-legged mechanical constructs clanked out. Though comprised of a patchwork of spare parts and metal scraps, they had cohesive, canine forms. And they were big.
Her guard “dogs” angled toward the intruders, issuing growls that sounded like knives rasping against sharpening stones. Two of the men noticed the metal hounds and stumbled backward, eyes wide. The dogs’ steel maws gaped open, and iron teeth snapped.
A shadow fell over Kali. The intruder from upstairs. He vaulted over the railing and landed in a crouch beside her. A leer split his beard and displayed a row of tobacco-stained teeth. He raised a Colt Peacemaker toward her chest.
Kali hurled her wrench at his jaw and spun, intending to run for cover behind the steam sled. A second man dropped into her path from above, and she crashed into his chest.
Before she could jump back, massive arms wrapped around her in a bear hug.
“Got her!” her assailant yelled.
She squirmed, finding room to angle a knee into his crotch. His grip slackened, and a startled grunt flew from his lips. She yanked free, but the first man had recovered and grabbed her from behind.
As quickly as he snatched her, he released her. A howl of pain assaulted her ears. One of her dogs had clamped onto the man’s leg with those iron fangs.
“Good boy,” she caroled while jumping to the side to avoid the man still behind her. He caught her braid though and whipped her back so roughly pain erupted in her neck. He spun her to face him. Sharp, cold steel pressed against her throat.
“Mongrel bitch,” the man snarled. “I’ll send you to the bone orchard for that.”
A rifle fired.
Shock widened her attacker’s eyes. He stumbled back, dropping the knife. She shoved him, and he collapsed.
Her mechanical dog still harried her other assailant. The three men who had charged in the front door lay unmoving, blood spattering the floor around them.
Cedar crouched on top of the boiler on her steam sled, rifle balanced across his knees, while the other dog clanked about below. He glared at the last man standing, but that fellow had noticed his comrades were all down. He raced out the front, slamming the door before the dog could chase after him.
Kali gave the bronze lever a shove. She wanted the metal guardians back in their cabinet before Cedar had a good look at them. She told people all her constructs were simply steam-powered machines, but anyone familiar with the technology would guess more than punchcards directed their actions.
Cedar watched through narrowed eyes as the hounds clanked toward their kennel. “Interesting.”
“A girl who lives alone up here has to have security measures,” she said, not sure what to make of the speculation on his face.
His blue eyes shifted to study her. They were clear, like the purest ice, and a striking contrast to his dark hair. They could have made her uneasy, but the speculation was not unfriendly. The scar and beard fuzz notwithstanding, she wagered he would be popular with Nelly’s girls. Not that she cared. A handsome man would not swindle her again.
“They say you’re a witch.” Cedar hopped to the floor, landing lightly. He pulled his sword from the belly of one of the downed men without the faintest change in expression that might suggest the killing bothered him.
Kali looked away. “How lovely. The local rumormongers have decided to share their theories with the cheechakos passing through.”
Cedar cleaned the long, thin blade on the dead man’s jacket. “It seems your friend is correct. You need the protection of a pugilist.”
Whatever this fellow was, she suspected he was far more than a simple pugilist. After cleaning the sword, he walked from downed man to downed man, considering each face. He rolled one fellow from belly to back and stared for a long moment before shaking his head slightly.
“Have I proven my capabilities sufficiently so you’ll hire me?” he asked.
“For all I know, you’re one of these bandits, eager to rob me for…whatever they think I have.”
“Would I have shot them if that were the case?”
Kali shrugged. “I haven’t noticed that criminals care overmuch for other criminals.”
He walked toward her. She tensed, but he stopped a few paces away and stared her in the eye.
“I’m no criminal.”
“Then what are you?” she asked. “Why do you want to go with me?”
“I’m a simple traveler seeking adventure.” He nodded toward the sled. “I believe you are someone whom adventure finds.”
Kali snorted. In the aftermath of Sebastian’s betrayal, those words were proving too apt for her tastes. Yet it might be useful to have such a capable fighter along, if he did not mean to betray her himself. At the least, she could put him to work loading and unloading supplies.
“Fine,” she said, hoping she was not making a mistake. “We leave at eight A.M. Bring food for yourself for several days and kerosene for the lamps. Since it’s dark most of the day, we’ll travel through it when the trail allows.”
She headed to a coat tree and bundled up. She would have to visit the new Mountie headquarters to report the incident. Things had been easier before the law showed up, representing the “Dominion of Canada.” Criminals’ bodies had merely been tossed out for the wolves.
“Where do I sleep?” Cedar asked.
Kali stopped at the door and gaped at him. “Uh, the Blue Moon Saloon has a couple rooms.”
“You’re not paying me enough to cover lodgings.”
She wasn’t paying him at all. No holes or frayed sleeves marked his clothing, and he bore quality weapons. Surely, he was no penniless pauper without coin for a room. “You’re not sleeping here.”
She did not want him roaming around her property while she slept. The flash gold was hidden and booby-trapped, but what of her other valuables? Her tools?
“Are you always this warm and demonstrative to men who just saved your life?” Cedar asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the first who’s bothered.”
“Then perhaps you should consider displaying gratitude, thus to encourage others who may consider similar acts.”
Kali scowled at him. Why did she have a feeling he was going to be trouble?