STEAMY ADVENTURE AND MAYHEM
Ghosts. Gaslight. Gears.
Welcome to a wondrous age of steam where pirates, rust, and syphilis aren't all you need to worry about. Ghosts abound!
In this hissing and clanking steampunk anthology, there are moments that science just can't explain. All the mechanical geniuses scratch their heads and whisper words of ghosts and powers, of spirits and demons. Possessed automatons take on lives of their own. Superstitious pilots take all necessary precautions. Avant-garde machinists harness the spirits to power their creations. Revenge-minded ghosts stalk haunted gasworks. This is a mechanized playground for the souls of the dead.
Again and again, the spirit world proves itself inspiring and dangerous, useful and annoying. In rich steampunk worlds, chock full of gizmos and gadgets aplenty, these are the stories that go bump, clatter, boom in the night.
I've been really impressed by the work coming from publisher Broken Eye Books, and this book lives up to the expectations set by earlier publications. The mashup of steampunk and ghost story yields a number of intriguing and imaginative short stories, such as "Hiss" (Randy Henderson & Folly Blaine), "The Ghost Pearl" (Howard Andrew Jones), "Frank Askja's Silly Old Story" (Emily Skaftun), and "Clockwork of Sorrow" (Spencer Ellsworth). – Cat Rambo
Two stories from Ghost in the Cogs made Ellen Datlow's Honorable Mentions for her The Best Horror of the Year (vol. 8). Those two were Cat Hellisen's "Golden Wing, Silver Eye" and Nick Mamatas's "The Twentieth Century Man."– Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year (vol. 8):
"one of the more enjoyable anthologies I've picked up in a while."– Adventures Fantastic
"Really, by reading this book, you're just helping yourself."– RevolutionSF
"So yeah, if you like ghosts, gears, gents in goggles, gutsy gals, and gaseous gadgets, this one is a definite don't miss."– The Horror Fiction Review
That persistent squeaking you hear? Sometimes, it requires more than grease. This time, you're gonna need an exorcist. Or is the proper term ghost hunter? Undead acquisitions expert? Well, you probably get what we're saying.
This world is a special place, a clanking and industrious world where steam hisses and engineers beckon with pipes aglow. It's a world where ingenuity and possibility rattle ahead, hand in hand, at full steam. Delicately contrived clockwork determines the timing. Yet sometimes, there's something more, something whispering amidst the engines. Something other-worldly. These are the tales of the ghosts between the gears, of the clanking spirits, of the possessed and moaning gadgetry.
We hope you won't be too scared . . .
FIRST STORY: "Asmodeus Flight," Siobhan Carroll
The day she turned eleven, Effie's father showed her how to die.
"Even the best aeronaut can be taken down by a spark," he said, his hand tracing the air between the Asmodeus engine and the oil-varnished paper over their heads. Effie swallowed. The ground below the air balloon looked unreal now, falling away into a picture of farmland and houses. But the hot flame that licked and danced before her—that threat seemed real.
Effie's father hesitated, studying the engine's blue glow. Carefully, very carefully, he reached out as if to take the brass globe off its resting place. Effie braced herself but relaxed when she saw her father was not actually going to touch the engine's surface.
"Mr. Sadler, when he was going down, kept his wits about him." Her father mimed pulling at the two rolling hitches that tied the globe to the brass circle. "He undid the fastenings, and . . ." He pressed an invisible globe to his face and mimed blowing his last breath into the smallest of the three valves on the engine.
Effie watched, amazed. She had glimpsed her father making this gesture before, through doorways, when he thought he was alone. She had not realized he was rehearsing his death. If she hadn't been so captivated by his performance, the realization might have chilled her.
"And that's it," her father said, returning his hands to the sides of the globe, framing the flickering blue grate. "That's him in there. Mr. Sadler's ghost. Still flying after all these years."
At a thousand feet, the air around them was clear and cool. The sun glowed red and blue through the paper of the Dover, and below them, the world was spreading out like a map in green and gold. But what Effie noticed was the reverence on her father's face as he watched his old friend dance in the air balloon's hot engine.
Four years later when the news of the accident reached them, the memory of that moment made it easier for Effie to compose herself. She walked through the white glare of shock, past her sobbing mother, and approached the gentleman standing awkwardly in the entrance hall.
"Thank you for retrieving it," Effie heard herself say. She watched her hands pluck the globe from the stranger's hands. The engine's surface was cool to the touch, and for a moment, it felt unfamiliar. But peering down through the grate, she saw two blue undulations. The ghosts of Mr. Sadler and her father.
"Thank you," Effie said again. "It's what he would have wanted." And she hugged the globe as though she herself were already falling from the heavens, as though it were her own death and not her father's that she had been called to witness.
"It's no' for sale."
Effie didn't bother looking up from her knots. The redoubtable Mrs. Brown was as adept at dispatching gentleman buyers as she was in dealing with local tradesmen. Despite her limited height—Effie's assistant measured only four feet three inches to the objective gaze—Mrs. Brown somehow still managed to loom at people. Effie could practically hear her looming now.
"It's no' for sale young man—and don't you go shaking that puss a' me. D'ye think we're country faffle you can swindle with your sing-time songs? Off wi' ye."
"But Mr. Baxter—"
"Mr. Baxter'll be hearing his man's portuning puir wimmin like a common ragart!"
Effie straightened up in time to see the young servant cower away from Mrs. Brown, his face displaying the confusion that typically attended her barrages of (partly invented) dialect. He obviously wasn't sure what he had been accused of but suspected it was deeply improper.
Taking pity, Effie wiped her hands with the stain-rag. "Is that Mr. Stanley Baxter of Endsgate?"
"The same!" The young man's eager-to-please face dissolved in alarm when he realized he might have committed another faux pas. "Er, Madam—"
"You're new to service, I take it? I am to be addressed as Miss Mitchell. And you are?"
"Fielding, Ma-Miss Mitchell. Samuel Fielding."
"Well, Mr. Fielding," Effie said, "Please, tell your master that we are not entertaining offers for the engine, now or in the future."
"Miss Mitchell," Fielding shifted uncomfortably. "Mr. Baxter said you'd say that. He said to say . . ." (The young man closed his eyes, evidently trying to recall the message exactly.) "I cannot imagine my fleet without a high balloon like the Dover. Therefore, I am proposing to hire the services of Miss Mitchell, her assistant, the balloon, and the Dover's Asmodeus engine, for £2,000."
Mrs. Brown sucked in a sharp breath. Effie tried to keep her face still while her mind raced. Two thousand pounds! The balloon itself was only worth a hundred. The engine, true, was worth more—how much more was unclear these days, given Parliament's ban on West Indies aether and the old aeronautical families' reluctance to part with their engines. But £2,000! With that money, she could secure a land lease for her mother and still have years' worth of income set aside.
"Tell your master I will consider his generous offer." Feeling a flare of pride, Effie added, "Though my answer will probably still be the same." She flushed, wondering if she sounded childish.
Fielding appeared not to notice. "Thank you! Miss. Uh. Mrs." He slid out a rolled piece of paper—evidently a contract—and dropped it on the counter. He managed an awkward bow to her and a hesitating bob in the direction of Mrs. Brown before fleeing down the street.
"What's that about?" Mrs. Brown's dialect was sheathed now that combat was over.
Effie gazed after the servant, her mind racing. "It's the Exhibition," she decided finally. "Mr. Baxter has his aerial display planned for the solstice. To truly outdo Mr. Green, he needs to put a ship close to the Crystal Palace."
Mrs. Brown sniffed. "He wilna do it wi' those lumbrin' creechurs."
"Not the dirigibles," Effie agreed. The new inventions might be cheaper to fly than Asmodeus balloons, but they were clumsy.
"If he hadn'e wrecked his own, he wouldn'e be looking," Mrs. Brown observed.
Effie nodded. Mr. Baxter had lost his Witch of Atlas some years ago after launching his balloon in a brewing storm. Since then, he had gained a reputation as a man who had gambled much of his family's money away at card tables but then won it back with some clever investments in the colonies. A dubious sort of man.
"It would be a lot of money for Mother." Effie was suddenly aware that she had been toying with the rag in her hand, smearing her fingers with oil in the process. She re-wiped them, but it was too late: the telltale stains had crept into the cracks of her knuckles. "I'll have to consult with her."
As she turned away, two things flickered at the edge of Effie's perception that, in retrospect, she would wish she'd paid attention to. The first was the blue smudge the contract's seal left on the counter. The second was a figure in the crowd whose posture strongly reminded Effie of Mr. Baxter. But why would Mr. Baxter watch his own servant's delivery? Effie looked back. The man had vanished into the churn of the London street.
That night, Effie lay awake fretting over Mr. Baxter's offer. Her father's marriage bond guaranteed Effie's mother a small stipend, and Effie's aeronautical demonstrations brought in occasional tides of money. But a reliable source of income would be useful. Unlike the marriage proposals Effie had fielded in recent years, Baxter's offer would also enable her to keep flying. What then was the source of her unease?
Something kept turning at the back of her mind—a smudge of blue as though from a hex seal. Though that was impossible.
Around three in the morning, Effie realized her decision was already made. The Asmodeus engine was her family's legacy. She would not sell it for a million pounds.
Thankful for an excuse to close her eyes, she rolled onto her side.
She was woken by a clamor outside.
Lurching up, Effie saw the orange glow at her window and knew.
Effie plummeted down the stairs in a rush of dark. Figures clustered uselessly in front of the workshop, lit by orange and yellow.
"Fire!" someone hollered, but Effie was already running past them, her bare feet bruising the ground, her nightdress—improper, part of her noted—a frustrating drag on the night air. Sparks floated up from the workshop—Even the best aeronaut can be taken down by one, she thought—and she struggled with the massive padlock, forcing in her necklace key while some faint voice behind her cried "Miss! Please don't!"
The workshop was a blaze of heat, its walls moving fire. Eyes stinging, Effie dropped to her knees, where the pure air was thickest. She crawled toward the safe. No good saving the Dover's paper now. That and the galley she'd stained were gone, but neither of these things were the heart of an Asmodeus balloon.
Something crashed beside her, letting in a gust of air. I might die here, on the ground of all places—but Effie set that thought aside. The entire world came down to this: feeling her way to the mercifully cool metal of the safe.
It was empty.
Effie groped inside the space the Asmodeus engine should be. It couldn't not be here.
Suddenly, hard arms yanked her away. She struggled, trying to protest, but her burning lungs lacked air. She was dragged backward through the flaring dark. She was on cold ground, rolling and coughing while ice water drenched her body. Pushing herself up on a numb arm, Effie saw her father's workshop collapse in a shower of sparks.
"Today," Effie said grimly.
Mrs. Brown glanced sideways. Since the fire, she'd treated her young mistress cautiously, as though Effie was one of her mother's fine Wedgwood cups. "There's no proof Mr. Baxter had owt to do with the fire—"
Effie shook her head, unwilling to replay her frustrating conversations with Scotland Yard. "He offered that contract to cover himself," she muttered. "Nobody will suspect a 'gentleman' of stealing an item he was about to purchase. He knew I'd refuse. The contract seal was hexed. It silenced our alarms—"
"Oh aye," Mrs. Brown agreed, "but coppers want proof if they're to lay hands on a gen'lman." For a moment, Mrs. Brown looked abstracted, perhaps reflecting on some episode from her mysterious past. Then she said, "If you're caught filching, it'll be a hard sing. They won't drop you, miss, but—"
"I'll sell my confession to the newspapers," Effie said, her chin jutting defiance. "It'll be a scandal."
"He'll shirk about for a day or two," Mrs. Brown agreed. "They'll clap you in Bedlam a mite longer."
Effie had visited Bedlam once, and her recollection of that tour—which had, after all, only shown the Lady's Botanical Club the respectable cells—brought her up cold. "You think they'd do that?"
Mrs. Brown gazed at her with flat, hard eyes. "If you weren't respectable, miss," she said, "you'd already be there."
Effie swallowed, taking in Mrs. Brown's meaningful glance at her unusual dress with its flexible stays and higher petticoats. The sideways glances of the shuffling crowd suddenly struck her as menacing. It was one thing to attract such glances as a female aeronaut with a balloon—an outré figure to be sure, but one protected by the aura of British science. But as an oddly dressed woman without a balloon, she suddenly felt her vulnerability keenly.
"Still," Effie said, hearing the stubbornness in her voice and half-hating herself for it. "We're going to find it. Today."
She turned, craning her neck to catch sight of the aerial fleet bobbing behind the Crystal Palace. There was Mr. Green's Nassau, the largest Asmodeus balloon ever built, turning in the breeze like a glorious red-and-blue planet. There was an old-fashioned Montgolfier. There were passenger vessels, taking paying customers up in cautious trips to view the top of the palace. And then there were the detestable Mr. Baxter's dirigibles, hovering at a distance from the rest.
Effie and Mrs. Brown dutifully filed in with the shilling crowd. The Great Exhibition had attracted a seething mixture of nationalities—scar-faced Americans, queue-sporting Chinese, green-scaled Inner Earthers—even an odd Frenchman, the latter drawing suspicious glances from John Bull and continental exiles alike. But nominally, at least, the Pax Francia treaty still held. The Frenchman wafted through the crowd, an unhappy-looking security agent plodding in his wake.
Under different circumstances, Effie might have joined the crowd in gaping at the Crystal Palace's dazzle of fabrics, its pink diamonds and arching dinosaur bones. As it was, she and Mrs. Brown had one destination in mind: the great aerial docks, futuristically imagined.
The crowd entered the observation platform for the docks. Upturned faces gawped at the shadows of dirigibles and at the statues commemorating aeronautical luminaries: Joseph Priestly, whose quest for pure air had led to the isolation of the aetherial element; the Montgolfier Brothers, who had first demonstrated humanity's capacity for flight; and lastly, Sir Humphry Davy, who had successfully driven Napoleon from England's skies only to expire from his wounds in the Battle of Britain's final hour. A bouquet of flowers lay at Davy's feet. Two guards stood on either side of the display case for the Veritas's engine, scanning the crowd. No doubt they were looking for the usual dangers: foreign agitators and religious enthusiasts who mistakenly identified aether "ghosts" with immortal souls.
Forgetting herself, Effie pressed forward with the rest of the crowd for a glimpse of Davy's ghost circling its brass confines.
"Miss," Mrs. Brown whispered. Reluctantly, Effie pulled back. Now that they had actually arrived, she could feel an anxious pit forming in her stomach. She ahemed some distracted laborers out of her way. Behind her, she heard a series of surprised wheezes as Mrs. Brown, unconstrained by social niceties, elbowed her way to the front of the platform.
"'Ere you!" Mrs. Brown thundered. "What's this!"
Effie ducked under the guard rope as the crowd behind her exploded into shrieks of alarm. "Grenado!" someone shouted.
"He's workin' for Boney!" Mrs. Brown declared.
As Effie swung herself over the raised platform, she glimpsed a Vril'ya splayed to the floor by one of the guards, its yellow eyes wide with astonishment. Effie found herself hoping the guards would figure out quickly that the "grenado" Mrs. Brown had planted on the Inner Earther was a dummy.
In the shadow of the now-chaotic platform Effie whipped off her skirt, revealing the aeronaut's trousers underneath. She pinned the forged performer's ribbon to her collar, tucked in her pocket, and started forward, trying to look as though she had somewhere to be.
Nobody challenged her as she walked into the aeronauts' workshop. She strode between the benches, trying to glance surreptitiously at each station she passed. In her pocket, the Hobbs pick-lock chafed uncomfortably against her leg. "It'll open all but cold iron, miss," Mrs. Brown had promised. Under different circumstances, Effie would have been taken aback by her servant's familiarity with such devices, but now was not the time to ask questions.
Then she saw the gold-and-purple colors of the Donna Julia. Effie slowed to an amble, smiling vaguely at the young men sanding the tackle blocks. They did a double take when they saw her, eyes wide at the sight of a female aeronaut. Effie let her gaze float over the workstation. She saw no safe.
"I'm the new pilot," she said pleasantly. "Mr. Baxter's new engine wants airing. Where am I to get it from?"
It was a gamble, of course. But if Baxter had stolen her engine—and he did, Effie thought furiously—it had to be somewhere nearby.
The two men looked both amazed and blank. Then the first one waved his hand at someone behind her. "Oi! Fielding! The miss is looking for a new engine."
Effie turned to see Baxter's mop-haired servant bounding toward them. The air seemed to freeze around her. Fielding's pleasant face changed expressions in slow motion, first taking on a look of surprise and then one of happy recognition.
"Miss Mitchell! What a—I'm glad to see you're back on the field! That is," he said, remembering himself, "Mr. Baxter will be glad. He was terribly disappointed to hear you wouldn't be joining us. What a horrible thing! That fire! Did you lose much of the workshop?"
Effie stared. If Fielding was a liar, he was the best she'd ever encountered.
"The Dover won't fly this season, I'm afraid." She smiled, delivering the line she and Mrs. Brown had practiced. "One of my father's friends invited me to assist today. Alongside my chaperone, of course," she added, remembering balloons' dubious reputation as French inventions.
She blushed, and Mr. Fielding blushed. No progress whatsoever occurred until one of the sanders said, "The miss wants a look at the new engine?"
Fielding practically bounced with joy. "He told you about the engine!" Catching himself, he lowered his voice. "It's a remarkable innovation, Miss Mitchell. You have to see it!"
Smiling tensely, Effie followed Fielding out of the workshop and toward the looming dirigibles. They looked like something out of an antediluvian nightmare, huge and iron grey. It was hard not to believe the Nonconformists were right when they said the burning of fossilized aether—the very innovation that had permitted the elimination of the West Indies trade—infected their crafts with the souls of ancient beasts. Effie shivered in the bright sunlight, feeling as though she were indeed coming into the territory of massive predators.
"Mr. Baxter!" Fielding waved his hands toward one of the figures examining the strain on an almost filled dirigible. Baxter—a slender man clad in impractical ruffles—froze. His expression told Effie all she needed to know.
Certainty exploded into rage. She pointed at him. "Thief!" she yelled. "Arsonist!"
This was not part of the plan. Neither, however, was Mr. Baxter's reaction: to lean over the galley and order one of his men to cast off the bowlines.
Effie took off at a run. The bowline had just left its mooring post when Effie caught hold of it. Forgetting any pretense of propriety, she launched herself up the rope, hand over hand.
Below, she saw the shadow of the balloon drift away from the ground and a bewildered Fielding being pulled into the air by the bowline's loop. She hoped the man had the sense to let go before they were too high. Effie, having abandoned all sense herself, hauled up into the galley, almost at the feet of a frightened-looking Baxter.
"You!" she puffed. "Stole! My! Engine!"
Baxter raised his hands as if in protest. "I needed to show it could be done!" He gestured toward the dirigible's glowing engine. Following his gesture, Effie saw, to her horror, a familiar brass globe burning blue within the green flame of an Owen engine. He'd stacked the two devices, a combination of power that ought to be impossible and that would—she saw now—grant this dirigible more maneuverability than it had ever had before.
She realized her mistake a second later when a blow to the side of her head blackened her vision. Effie crashed onto the galley deck. Above her, Baxter wielded a heavy pole. "I didn't mean to kill you," he apologized. "If you only understood! I've seen the future, you see. In the emperor's telescope. Napoleon's got a new alliance. The men from Mars and their mechanical ships. They'll invade from the sky and turn England red."
A well-placed kick cut short the madman's rant. Effie scrambled away, her head throbbing. Somehow, in all her scheming, she had never envisioned the possibility of dying. If only I can get my engine back, she thought wildly, it'll be worth it.
Her hair was yanked backward. Effie had to clutch a cleat to keep from falling. In the corner of her eye, she saw the dark shape of the pole coming for her and turned away. But before it hit, there was a crash behind her, and the grip on her hair loosened.
Mr. Fielding, having pulled himself on board the airship, was apparently terminating his employment with his fists. "Working for Boney, is it?" He yelled. "You Frenchified villain!"
Effie hauled herself up. It wasn't just her head wound, she realized. The dirigible was listing. With a mind of its own, the monstrous airship was heading straight for the Crystal Palace. The sharp point of a British flagpole sailed into view.
"Brace!" she yelled, her training leaping to the fore. Effie pulled into four-point contact with the galley as the shatter of glass announced the worst. Glancing down, she saw Baxter push the overbalanced Fielding overboard—and was relieved to see the servant tumble onto one of the Palace's iron ribs, just missing a fall through its glass ceiling. The dirigible leapt free.
"No, no, no!" Baxter, his face bleeding, launched himself at the helm. "Why aren't you working?" Buckets of tools skidded down the deck as the dirigible's tilt increased.
Effie, hearing the hiss of air above, knew. Wasn't this the moment she'd practiced since she was eleven years old? Carefully, she reached for a loose line, found its tension, and slid down toward the engines.
All the fight seemed to have gone out of Baxter. He stared up at the dirigible's sagging envelope like a blind man. "It can't be."
Effie landed on the engine's frame. The heat from the fire was excruciating, but she had no time. Even as Baxter turned, she was already snatching the blistering Asmodeus engine from the flames, already raising it—
"No!" Baxter grabbed at her.
And suddenly he was falling, and she was following, the green ground rushing up to meet them both.
The wind was loud around Effie. Screechingly loud. She tried to drag the engine toward her face. This is how you die, her father had said.
The engine pulled away from her. It twisted underneath her, crunching into her abdomen, forcing her upward. The wind died.
Below her, a tiny figure—Baxter—hit the ground. Effie turned her face away. Her own fall had slowed to a crawl. The hard fist of the engine pushed her up, the fierce heat of her family's ghosts lowering her gently to Earth.
The engine deposited Effie, burned and bleeding, in the middle of Hyde Park. Energy expended, it settled in the grass beside her. She stared at it as the running people approached.
Something new has been discovered today, she thought dazedly. The Asmodeus ghosts were still conscious. And they could move independently, without flame. Shapes were aligning differently in her head: the famous dexterity of Asmodeus craft, the hideous accidents attending West Indies "slave" balloons, the alien ponderousness of the dirigibles. And somewhere, too, she was remembering what Baxter has said about the Continental Emperor and Mars and an invasion. She wasn't sure how it all fit together yet.
In later years, Effie would say she'd felt the shadow of destiny in that moment. That for a brief second, the Asmodeus engine had shown her the shape of things to come.
But the moment passed. A crowd raced across the green. The determined shape of Mrs. Brown led them, and behind her, a limping Fielding looked confused.
Effie glanced down at the gleaming engine sitting on the grass, its familiar ghosts circling contentedly.
"Thank you," the next aerial admiral said. And she clambered up to greet the future.