Close
May 25, 2015

Excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Gauge War

Metalheads Who Read, Writing Runes

steff metal books

I don’t have a cover for The Gauge War yet, so here are two of my novels on my bookshelf.

It’s getting closer!

The second book in the Engine Ward series, The Gauge War, is in the final stages of editing. If all goes according to plan (and it’s a seriously ambitious plan, so I might fall flat on my face, here!) I’ll be releasing this book in paperback and ebook in mid September.

The official launch will be on 12 September at AetherCon – NZ’s steampunk convention. If you’re in Auckland, it would be awesome if you come along. There’s going to be amazing steampunk gear, clothing and accessories to buy, and some pretty cool entertainment. And I’ll be there, signing books and talking about the world of Engine Ward.

I’m pretty excited to finally be able to get this book out into the world. I’ve been sidetracked over the last few months with some other projects, but now it’s time to come back to my first love – fantasy/science fiction. Today I wanted to share with you a little excerpt from the WIP.

This text is copyright S. C. Green 2015, and is not to be copied or published elsewhere. It is in a raw, unedited state, and may be changed in whole or in part in the final edition of this book. Remember, my legion of vikings hunt down content thieves!

***

They rode as far as Newbury on the new broad gauge line built by Boilers only two weeks before, before disembarking to switch to a half-complete standard gauge line – Stephenson’s first foray into the South of England before Brunel had demoted him and cut off his funding – which would take them to Exeter and the beginning of the atmospheric line.

Aaron had never been outside London before. He leaned against the supports and stared at the countryside – endless green hills rolling away, towns with medieval walls blanketed in soot from nearby factories, industrial wastelands littered with scrap metal. His soul soared.

They disembarked in Exeter and boarded the atmospheric train, which currently ran only five miles out across the vast swamps that covered the majority of southern and western England. The locomotive – still only half-built, but made by the Stokers already stationed in the swamps, not Boilers – quickly accelerated to an unprecedented speed. Rather than the usual clatter of rails, the train seemed to glide over the countryside, interrupted by a jolting thump each time the train skidded over the vacuum pumps.

Aaron sat in the first carriage with the Stoker council members and priests. The workmen and their families crowded into four open-roofed carriages behind. He sat by the window and stared with joy at the encroaching swampland – the reeds brushing against the cutting, the damp, acrid smell which wafted in the open windows.

And the life! How he’d longed to hear it pounding against his ears with such vibrancy. Thoughts threw themselves against every corner of his skull, the loneliness of a young iguanodon, left behind by its herd because of a broken leg, the determination of a group of compies scrabbling for insects in a nearby pool, the watchful eyes of carrion birds soaring overhead. He leaned his head out the window and drunk it all in, ignoring his wife Chloe’s pleas to get back in the carriage lest he be decapitated.

The train carried them to the last stretch of complete track, and the Stokers poured out onto the damp, boggy earth, their faces strained and nervous. The older workers – those who remembered their parents who’d worked as ivory hunters in these same swamps, smiled and chatted with excitement, but most looked wet, miserable and cross.

As Aaron disembarked and sucked in that first breath of fresh country air, even more voices jumped inside his skull. Every creature for miles around seemed to deposit their thoughts within him, and he yelped in surprise as his own thoughts drizzled away under the onslaught of senses.

He reeled, swaying on his feet and grabbing his wife’s arm for support. One of the Stoker priests saw his strange behavior and shot him a reproachful glare. His head spinning, Aaron jogged after the priest, who was on his way to talk to the driver.

Hunger, pain, anger, joy, envy, exhilaration, fear … every tenet of animal emotion flooded his mind, pushing out his other senses, till he could no longer feel the thick droplets of rain pelting his fact, nor the soft ground squelching underfoot. He stared, eyes glazed over, swaying on his feet, while the driver gestured to one of the priests. Faded snippets of conversation penetrated his consciousness. “… Stoker camp …” said the priest. “… Oswald and Peter-”

“Last I heard,” said the driver, pointing in a south-westerly direction, “there was a work camp thirty miles that way, but you’ll …”

The priest nodded, satisfied with whatever the driver had said. He clapped Aaron on the shoulder and ordered everyone to pick up their bags and begin walking.

Aaron followed the others, clutching his temples and trying once again to regain control of the sense, trying to sort through the multitude of voices, to recognize species, sex … to pick out individual thoughts and follow them. He linked arms with his wife and he allowed her to pull him onward while he attempted to sort through the voices in his head. Chloe stared at him, her face concerned.

I’ll need to practice thinking them away, thought he.

In almost single file, the Stokers followed the half-finished atmospheric line for another ten miles. The rain didn’t let up, and they had to stop several times to dislodge boots and walking sticks that had become stuck in the mud. In places, their boots sank knee deep between the sleepers. Groups of compies, the tiny reptilian scavengers that been introduced from the continent as noblemen’s pets and had multiplied at an alarming rate, chattered from the reed beds at either side of the track. The compies had systematically solved England’s rat problem by replacing the rats with creatures even more intelligent: themselves. Scavengers of the worst sort, they could smell the packages of salted meat the Stokers carried to sustain themselves, and followed along, unafraid, waiting for their chance to steal a free meal.

Their thoughts – mostly hungry pangs and inquisitive questions about the strange party of humans wandering through the swamps – popped in and out of Aaron’s skull. He pressed his fingers to his temples and tried to will them gone, but the effort made pain shoot through his head. Now I understand why Nicholas sought comfort in machines. I need to gain control of this, and soon, or I’ll go insane.

They travelled slowly, for there were many women and children with them and the thick rain weighted every step. It was another hour before Aaron spied a square signal tower and pump station peeking over the horizon. He picked up his feet, splashing across the track till he could clearly make out the shape of it. He stopped, spying the butt of a rifle peeking over the lip of the control room, and called for everyone to halt.

He cupped his hands over his mouth and called out. “I’m Aaron Williams. Brunel sent us to join the Stokers working on the atmospheric railway.” The gun remained pointing at them, and was shortly joined by another.

“Get back!” Aaron pushed Chloe back into the crowd. “Move back across the tracks. I’ll go and see what’s happening.”

He hung a soiled white kerchief on the end of his knife and held it above his head as he walked toward the station. No one shot at him, but the men didn’t lower their barrels.

As he walked, more and more little minds filled him, till a great swarm of compies buzzed against his skull. Frenzied, devouring, crazy with bloodlust, these compies had found food, and nearby. His mouth watered as he tasted raw meat sliding down his throat. Fear crept into his stomach.

He reached the rotting wooden door and recoiled in horror. He’d found the source of the compies’ excitement. Hundreds of them swarmed through the lower story of the turret, their lithe bodies darting along the walls, across the wooden benches, along the rafters, and surging, scrambling, crawling over each other in a great compie mountain, each beating aside it’s brothers and sisters for a morsel of what lay underneath.

He cried out as the voices grew louder, as the putrid smell of rotting meat suddenly became delicious, as he sensed his own presence, and the thought passed from mind to mind that together, they could take him down.

They’ll eat me alive. Run, I’ve got to run.

He willed his legs to move, but the screaming of the compies pushed aside his commands. Compies turned toward him, their eyes gleaming as they raced toward him, down the rafters, across the walls, pulling on the legs of his pants.

Run, you idiot, run!

In the rotting wooden ceiling, a trapdoor clanged open, and a heavy wooden ladder clattered down. “You’re gonna want to move mighty fast, boy.” A voice from upstairs growled.

His blood surging, Aaron leapt for the ladder. The tiny lizards leapt too – clawing at his trousers and tearing splinters from the rotting wood in their frantic quest to reach the upper storey. He cried out as three scrambled through his hair, darting up the ladder toward victory.

A pair of strong hands reached down and yanked him up, scraping his belly painfully against the splintering floorboards. He rolled across the floor while one of the men lit an oiled rag and tossed it down the ladder, shook off the screaming compies with his knife, pulled the ladder up, and slammed the trapdoor shut.

“I saw three of those buggers race up here, you good-for-nothing blagger, and you’re not leaving this room till you’ve wrung every one of their necks.”

Aaron laughed as he looked up into familiar eyes. “Quartz?”

The old man grinned. “Aaron bloody Williams. Why aren’t you back in the city, obeying his Lordship’s every command?”

“He’s no lord of mine, not anymore. He’s replaced every Stoker in Engine Ward with Boilers. He murdered the king, Quartz, and took the credit for destroying the Sunken–”

“The what?”

“Men and women the King imprisoned in the castle and fed on lead and flesh till they became cannibalistic monsters. We called them the Sunken because their skin shrank around their bones, is if they were sinking into themselves. You know that secret railway I built? It was to bring the Sunken into London. The King locked every gate on the Wall, and released those monsters into the streets to gorge themselves on his own subjects. Brunel knew all this, and he did nothing to stop it. He had me work on this, knowing what it would be used for … I couldn’t stand it. So I convinced William Stone and several others to come with me into the city and we set about destroying the Sunken. We must’ve killed hundreds of them, but then Brunel’s Boilers rolled in and took out every last one, and that’s all the people remember. The machines who saved London. Brunel manipulated the city into believing he is a hero, and now he’s calling himself the Lord Protector, and the whole country is worshipping him. He sent me here, along with every last Stoker in London, to get us out of his way. He’s razing our houses to the ground to build workshops for his Boilers. We’re to hunt animals in the swamps and send him back live specimens, apparently, and complete the atmospheric railway right up till Plymouth.”

Quartz spat on the ground. “It seems you were right. Isambard Brunel is no longer a Stoker. But I told you not to come to the swamps, Aaron. Things are no better here. This railway is a disaster from start till finish. It will never run a line all the way to Plymouth. And as for hunting, we’ll not be sending him another specimen, not after last time-”

“Got one!” Without lowering his gun, the boy at the window held up a scrabbling compie by its long tail. He slammed it twice against the brick sill till it stopped screeching, and tossed it out the window.

“What’s wrong with the railway?”

“Did you see what’s going on downstairs? At the centre of that writhing shitstorm is a barrel of tallow. The buggers love the taste – and what do you suppose his holiness wants us to use to seal the leather flaps on the valves of this monstrosity? The little blisters are multiplying by the day – soon they’ll be devouring the flaps as fast as we replace them.”

“That frenzy downstairs … is over tallow?”

“Mostly, and a rotting iguanodon carcass we tossed down there this morning. It keeps them off our case.”

“Have you brought this little design flaw up with Isambard-”

“I wrote a letter. Got no reply. Talk’s a fine thing, lad. But if he’s sent you out here with the rest of us, you know he’s not in the mood to listen.”

Aaron peered around Quartz to the young boy who diligently held his post by the window, the gun aimed at the Stokers below, still waiting outside in the rain. He saw William cup his hands and yell something up at them, but the din of the compies carried it away.

“Could you lower your weapon, boy?” Aaron said. “They’re Stokers like you and I. They ain’t gonna hurt no one.”

The boy shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry, sir. It isn’t loaded.”

“What kind of a guard are you running here, Quartz?”

“The priests won’t let us have ammunition. They says we’re too dangerous.” The boy lowered the gun, and pulled out a rusting telescope from the pocket of his jacket.

“I rather thought that was the point of having a guard.”

“Your pox-riddled brothers seem to believe we’d kill the lot of ’em if we had the chance.” Quartz’s eyes twinkled. “Perish the thought.”

“I told you to stay away from my brothers.”

“I’ve never listened to a Williams before, boy, and I don’t aim to start now. Now, you can tell your people it’s okay for them to continue along the Narrow, but Great Conductor help them if they get in the way of the compies down there. And you, Aaron Williams, should come back after supper tonight, and you’ll see something real special.”

“You old scallywag, what have you done now?”

“Tonight, my friend, if they don’t flay you alive beforehand. Be careful down at the camp – it’s not like it was in London, you know. Out here, it’s wild country. And we’re all wild men.”

***

A half-mile through the swamp they entered a long cutting, its rough sides dribbling with clinging water. Every hundred feet piles of wooden sleepers lay beneath sodden canvas covers, the protruding ends blackened with rot.

They splashed through this miserable canyon for a couple more miles, till it came to an abrupt halt. Two Stokers worked with spade and shovel, dislodging the sticky peat in tidy brick shapes and piling it onto waiting canvas mats. They stopped work when they saw the group approach.

Aaron left the group back around a bend in the narrow, hoping the men couldn’t count their number from their vantage point, and stalked forward. “Aaron Williams, I’m the new foreman. Brunel has sent me here to-”

The man fell to his knees and kissed the mud.

“What are you doing?” Aaron bent down to pull the man to his feet, but as his hand brushed the man’s shoulder, the terrified worker pressed himself even lower, burying his entire face in the peat.

“You!” Aaron pointed to the other worker, whose face froze in fright, his knees sinking further into the mud. Aaron grabbed him by the collar and heaved him to his feet.

“Get up, right now!” Both men lifted their heads, their eyes filled with terror. “Why are you burying your faces in the mud? Look at me! Answer my questions!”

The men exchanged terrified glances. “You’re a-a-a Williams,” the older man finally stuttered.

“I am. What’s that to do with anything?”

“You’re a priest, an vassal of the Metal Messiah.”

“I most certainly am not. I’m a foreman, a worker, just like you. Brunel’s not a god. He didn’t expect you to bow to him back in the city, so what’s all this nonsense?”

“The priests … they says bowing is proper, an honour of the Messiah’s exalted position. Sir, are you here to punish us? Honestly, it ain’t our fault that Southern section slipped down – the walls are so slick, and without the proper supporting struts-”

“We’re sorry,” the other man stammered. “We’ll pay for the repairs from our wages, just as soon as we get some wages. We promise we will. We didn’t mean to cause offense-”

“I’ve come for nothing, and you owe me nothing. I ask, as a man to a man, if you could point me in the direction of the Stoker camp?”

“It would be our honour to escort you, and your followers.”

“I don’t need escorting-” but the men had already thrown down their shovels and began scrambling up the slick sides of the Narrow. Aaron sighed, trudged back to the group, and gestured for them to help each other out of the Narrow.

When the men saw the familiar faces emerging from the Narrow, all carrying rucksacks and dragging children, all weary and soaked with peat, their faces broke into broad smiles, and they bowed before Aaron once more. He pulled them to their feet and growled that if they wanted to be useful, they could help the women navigate the steep-sided trench.

“I don’t like what we’re walking into,” he whispered to Chloe. “I’m afraid for what my brothers have done.”

“With you looking after us, I cannot feel afraid,” she whispered back, but she clutched his hand extra tight.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, on Amazon now!

Be the first to grab a copy of my new book, The Gauge War, when it hits in September – Sign up for the mailing list.