Specters, Automatons & Evil, oh my!
The Great Storm of 1900 changed Ernest Warren's life.
Destroying Galveston, Texas, the storm took the lives of thousands of people—including the love of his life. Vowing to steer clear of love and devote his life to saving the lives of others, Ernest sets out in his steam-powered airship with his trusty automaton crew, determined to unravel Mother Nature's deepest secrets.
But when strange and disturbing storms begin to brew in unpredictable places, Ernest must face his grief head-on. Reluctantly, he accepts the help of inter-dimensional time traveler, Prudence Pinkerton. Together, they must act fast, as time is running out. But trusting a woman might even be more impossible than fighting the storms for a man like Ernest. Clocks are ticking faster than usual as the world is on the cusp of a life-altering change. Can Ernest and Prudence conquer Mother Nature and weather the storm together?
Pauline Baird Jones' is known for writing smart, quirky, funny fiction. Check out her venture into a steampunk time-bending paranormal detective story with Specters in the Storm.
I first "met" Pauline online. She helped organize a limited edition boxed set that included one of my books. She was easy to work with, something I always look for in a StoryBundle partner, but more importantly, she's a heck of a writer. USA Today bestseller, an RT Reader's Choice winner (twice!), and more—with twenty books to her name. Pauline's steampunk novel not only adds specters and evil to the mix, but she sets everything in one of my favorite historical events—the Great Storm of 1900 that nearly wiped out Galveston, Texas. (That part is real.) So hang onto your hat for a grand adventure with steam, wind, and an automaton. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"The author's vivid descriptions of the storm, lightning, specters and the evil being that resides in the storm give this tale a real horror story feel. The horror and dimensional time travel aspects of the story remind me a bit of Baird's Steampunked. Specters in the Storm is a stand alone story though and it was well worth spending a few hours out in the elements!"– Whiskey with my Book
"…well written and edited and SMART…"– Amazon Review
"…full of suspense, humor, mystery, drama, secrets, lots of action…"– Amazon Review
"…awesome paranormal detective story…"– Amazon Review
He saw the fog first, then the storm looming above, its dark expanse occasionally cut by flashes of light. The fog rode the storm's wake, billowing and curling like diaphanous bits of feminine clothing. In places the fog wrapped around the storm, long white fingers reaching out, then spiraling back in to cling to the dark mass. In constant motion, the storm itself spun in rotating shades of black and gray, except where the lightning pulsed, like a heart beating in its center. The white fog ebbed and flowed at times, teasing with glimpses of where the storm rode over the strangely calm sea.
As his airship drew closer, the salt-tanged air also brought a hint of metal that left a bitter residue on his tongue. And a hint, no more, of burning wood, teased his nostrils. There must be another ship out of sight, he concluded. If his calculations were correct, they were one to two days from making landfall.
The sight of the sullen storm off the prow of his airship, and the oddness in the air lifted the hairs on his arms and sent his instruments into a frenzy of random readings that made a mockery of his many months of careful observations, not to mention his belief that Science could provide the answers to all questions.
Dr. Ernest Warren lowered his spyglass, handing it to his automaton ship handler to hold while he extracted his log book and noted his observations. All of them, even the ones that offended his sense of logic, were recorded. His task was to observe and report, not to pass judgment on the data he did not like. Later he would attempt to find points of similarity buried within an admittedly incomplete historical record, or in the findings of colleagues. One thing his travels had taught him, the true scientist does not ignore anything, particularly he does not ignore the data that did not fit one's thesis.
He extracted his pocket watch to note the time. But it was as useless to him as his instruments, the hands tracking around the face at close to twice their normal speed. Despite these unusual observations, The Weatherman steamed forward with only a moderately increased instability as it rode the air currents. Below him, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico appeared mostly indifferent to the storm, as if sky and water operated separately from one another.
Ernest had not believed the reports that reached him in Europe, had reluctantly turned his airship toward his native soil when the reports became too numerous for a serious weather scientist to ignore. The more lurid of the reports he put down to fear-driven mass hysteria and the remnants of superstition. But when a respected colleague such as Dr. Sebastian Masterson wrote him about the storm, Ernest felt compelled to take note. If this was what his friend had seen, Ernest could see why he was so, he paused his thoughts in search of the right descriptive, disquieted. This storm certainly had many unusual characteristics. But, he reminded himself, serious scientific weather observation was a somewhat modern undertaking. In his studies, he had come across mentions of weather events that he had not personally observed nor had they occurred in his lifetime. That he had never read of a storm such as this one did not mean it had not happened before.
He had the heart and mind of a scientist, but he could concede that Mother Nature was intransigent and precocious. She would lull one into complacency with her sameness, then vary her theme rather violently and abruptly. She did not like to be ignored or taken for granted; hence, the reason she was a Mother and not a Father. Despite this, he still believed that she didn't act without warning, even though it seemed so from their too limited knowledge. He would find the key to her secrets. All of them, so that never again—
His thoughts flinched away from that storm. The past that had driven him from his quiet life as an inventor to his quest to finally and completely understand the vagaries of the weather. To defeat its irrationality and its random cruelty, or at least provide a warning when Mother Nature was about to go on the rampage so that adequate precautions could be taken.
He pocketed his notebook and extended his hand for the spyglass. Once secured, directed it at the storm, tracking slowly from side to side, then up, trying to gauge its height. When he could not, he moved his attention to the gap between the storm and the surface of the water. If his eyes did not deceive him, the seas beneath the storm were as calm as those they rode upon.
"Curious," he said aloud.
"Yes, sir," Niles said, with no inflection in his voice. He'd not been programmed for curiosity.
Ernest considered the benefits and risks of a closer look. Though his instrumentation was not behaving, The Weatherman itself appeared unaffected by the storm. If it was the storm causing the problems with his instruments, it could be completely unconnected, he reminded himself.
Concluding too quickly closes the mind to further, possibly critically important information. Never assume you know, even when you know. Words of Dr. Masterson to newly anointed weather scientist-to-be, Ernest recalled rather wryly, wishing Masterson were here with him now.
The lightning flashes interested him, and yes, they tempted him. Early testing of his Blizablighter 3000 had been promising but limited by his inability to get beneath enough lightning strikes for sufficient energy collection. He'd rather hoped to encounter a moderate storm during the crossing, but how accurate would the results be in an atypical storm? This storm was bigger than what he'd looked for as well. If his device collected too much charge, could he safely discharge it when water was so highly conductive?
"Let's reduce altitude, Niles," Ernest said, lowering the spyglass. He was most curious about the perceived gap between storm and water. Did his eyes deceive him? The sea liked to play tricks on those who dared to cross it.
"Yes, sir." His automaton used the speaking tube to contact Crispin, his automatonic counterpart, in the engine room.
This change in altitude triggered a threat response in Winston and Fred, bringing them up on deck. Winston still wore the apron of a valet and Fred that of a cook, but those were side functions. They were both higher functioning automatons, primarily programmed to act as research assistants and bodyguards. At the sight of their calm, blank gazes, Ernest found he missed—for the first time—human companionship. Someone who could share the complicated mix of messy emotions roiling his insides. The desire to understand warred with the need to flee this unknown. One might take a vow to be a scientist first and always, but one was, in the end, still human.
"Is there a problem, doctor?" Winston inquired with unruffled calm.
Ernest opened his mouth to explain, but closed it again. They did not have the programming to understand. He did not have that programming. He studied them. "Are you both functioning normally?"
They were also instruments, even if higher functioning than a watch. Both automatons showed the slight eye movements associated with system checks.
"Yes, doctor," Winston said, this echoed by Fred.
Would they know? It was true that the automatons had surfaces resistant to the atmospheric changes and to electrical shocks, but it still seemed odd that they appeared fine, while his other instruments were clearly not.
"Is there a problem, doctor?" This time Fred asked the question, the tenor of his voice pitched just different enough from Winston's so that Ernest could tell them apart.
They had been programmed to be persistent. This worked for Ernest most of the time, but today, less so. He looked at Winston, then Fred. Was there curiosity in the question? Nothing showed in their eyes, but their programming had been designed to adapt and change within certain limits. He'd needed them to learn if they were going to be any help. And they had been of considerable help. They'd saved his life more than once, and they were able to store input for him, both visual and auditory, allowing him access to much more data than his senses could provide.
"This storm may prove to be a problem," he finally said. "It is not behaving…predictably."
Both automatons turned to observe the storm as the airship continued its gradual descent.
"It does have unusual features," Winston said.
Fred nodded agreement, adding, "I am experiencing difficulty in processing the data. It falls outside known parameters."
"I am aware," Ernest said, somewhat dryly. Is this what Mother Nature did to one experiencing hubris? He would not have chosen to return to the Gulf Coast, not now or ever. But it was to this coast that Masterson had asked him to come. Masterson knew his story. He would not have asked if it were not important. The invitation to lecture at the Institute of Meteorological Knowledge in New Orleans had come from Masterson, he suspected. He could not think how else they would have learned of his research. Four years of weather research did not make him an expert by any standard of measurement. Ernest had left these shores, not to satisfy the curiosity of men, but to save lives. He'd been certain that research could and would triumph over dogma and superstition. What price for all his efforts now?
He frowned, considering his options. He'd set this course to avoid Galveston—his brain flinched again—hoping to make landfall at Mobile or Biloxi, then cutting across to New Orleans over land, thus avoiding the locus of his loss. But each time he'd adjusted course to fly around the storm, it had seemed as if it shifted to block his path. It was an illusion, of course. Storms lacked the ability to self direct. For whatever reason, the storm was in his way. He studied the "path" beneath the storm. The fog thickened and thinned, alternatively revealing and hiding the apparently calm seas beneath. It appeared that the gap between water and storm was sufficient for the passage of the airship, though it would leave little maneuvering room for them between sea and sky if something changed unexpectedly.
Was it possible that the storm truly did not interact with the ocean surface? He felt a stirring of scientific excitement, one tempered by the reports he'd perused about the storm. They were troubling and caused him to hesitate. However, the reports he'd read were from land-based encounters. He almost let himself get sidetracked into wondering how it was possible for the storm to appear and disappear in such a wide variety of locations. And why did some people vanish while others were untouched? Such reflections were fruitless and would not get him to his destination. He hated to admit it, but curiosity warred with fear, a wholly natural fear based on learned respect for the forces of nature.
There was one other immutable reality. His fuel reserves. He lacked enough to make it back to Cuba. And if he attempted to fly over the storm and failed, he might not have enough left to attempt passage beneath.
He gave the order, then turned to study the storm again. Would he, he wondered, see the specters in the storm? Or—his personal preference—would he find the proof to dispute what appeared to him to be exaggerated reports.