A 'gridpunk' Wierd West adventure, with cowboys, aliens, & Tesla trains—
Kimolijah Adani, genius gridTech and engineer, was set to change the world with an impossible train powered by gridstream locked in a crystal. Instead, he ended up dead.
Directorate Tracker Bas Eisen has finally found a way to run Kimolijah's killer to ground. It's taken him nearly three years of played-out leads, and it means he has to go deep undercover as a hired gun, in an isolated desert barony run by a madman. A small price to pay—or so Bas thinks. But even the twisty, malicious path that has brought him to Stanslo's Bridge is no preparation for what—and whom—he finds there.
"Blue on Black by Carole Cummings ... is a fresh new take on the Steampunk genre, combining imaginative technology with mind twisting mystery and adventure. A character driven story, there's plenty here for readers to enjoy."– Amazing Stories Magazine
"Everything in this novel is layered—the colors, the characters, the setting, the Tech, the grandiose scheme which has brought the outlier Stanslo's Bridge and its robber baron, Petra Stanslo, to the attention of the Directorate—with a subtlety that makes you look just that little bit deeper to make sure you don't miss a thing."– The Novel Approach Reviews
"This book is absolutely one of my favorites... It's full of danger and intrigue. Amazing world building that's unlike anything I've ever read before."– It’s About the Book
It doesn't start like this:
See, the thing is, it isn't supposed to go this way.
He's a goddamned tracker, he's a goddamned good tracker, better than anything else the Directorate's got, and the swagger that comes with that has been earned a hundred times over, sometimes in blood, though, okay, let's not get all maudlin and dramatic. The point is, he's not supposed to be caught wrong-footed. And he's certainly not supposed to be staring down eight barrels of a spin-housing street cannon in the back of a train station in godforsaken Harrowgate.
That's supposed to be the agent's job. Poor guy. Stupid fucking idiot.
"You Barstow?" the man with the gun asks. He's tall and rangy, rough-looking and sallow-skinned. It's dark and Bas can't see the rest of his face very well, just a stubbled sloping chin beneath the shadow cast by his wide-brimmed hat. He looks tough as rusty nails and just as pleasant.
Steam hugs the ground and wreaths the hem of the man's long dirty coat, clings, and thickens the reek of dirt and sweat that wafts out every time he moves. Bas can even smell it through the fug of smoke and engine grease coming from the station, and all of it combined pricks at his eyes and makes them water.
There's no cleaner, deeper sense of Tech beneath any of it—no thick, sundrop yellow mutters of "psyTech" hazing at the periphery of his vision and scattering something earthy on the back of his tongue; no blue edging that says "kineTech" and somehow tastes of wet cedar. Bas's mind decides "nonTech" before his eyes bother to fully assess his current situation. Still, though, the gun—Bas can see that just fine.
"Who's asking?" Bas says from his crouch. He's somewhat pissed off, so it comes out a growl.
Smooth, Bas, he tells himself. Keep it smooth. He can still salvage this.
"I en't playin' games." The housing of the barrels turns and the strike-stud clicks into place. "Are you Barstow?"
Bas peers down at the agent's body, blood still seeping in a rivulet from the knife in his throat, the heat catching the chill of the desert night and wisping steam. Aaron, Bas thinks. The guy's name was Aaron.
Bas didn't know him well. Hadn't cared to get to know him. Just another Directorate agent who'd maybe gotten a little too cocky. It happens.
"Yeah," says Bas. "Yeah, I'm Barstow."
He isn't. No one is, not really. It's a cover, a standard one used by trackers when they need a ready-made thug reputation as an in with bands of thieves and murderers, and then that same cover is handed over to the agents along with the case once the tracker's job is done. That's the beauty of Jakob Barstow—he's a chameleon; he can be anything the agent wearing his skin needs him to be.
Bas is a tracker, not an agent. Trackers track. They don't do the set-them-up-then-take-them-down part. They do the sniffing out and the pointing, and then they let the agents take over.
Bas knows the Barstow cover well enough to fake it. He's been Barstow plenty of times. Hell, he'd done most of the legwork on this particular case, and he'd done it as Barstow. And someone needs to get into Stanslo's Bridge.
"Well, Barstow." It sounds like a sneer. "Ye picked up a tail." The man jerks his chin down at the dead agent. "Thought you was supposed to be all…." He smirks. "Well. Better 'n this."
Bas doesn't let it sting. Because the agent got a touch careless in his relative inexperience with this kind of assignment, and this guy got unbelievably lucky but is just too stupid to know the difference. What a fucking waste.
Bas doesn't answer the insult; he merely gives the man a slow blink, flat and unimpressed. And he stares. And stares.
It unnerves the guy. It always unnerves the blustery, petty, wannabe-tyrant types. Bas can see the man trying not to shift, but he does eventually. And when the man realizes he's on the edge of squirming, he sets his scruffy jaw and glares.
"Name's Fox," he says, trying for arrogant. He gives a pointed glance at the agent's body. "And yer welcome. Fer takin' care o' yer tail." He lifts his chin, smug out of all proportion. "Followed ye all the way from the inn, that 'un." He grins, mean and with teeth that make Bas want to rear back and grimace. "Not very saddle."
Bas is pretty sure the guy means "subtle," which, yeah, okay, Aaron had maybe slipped up, contacting Bas one too many times while they were in Harrowgate pretending not to know each other, and if Aaron had been more careful, Bas wouldn't have even seen him unless he'd looked for him. So, okay, not subtle, but fucking hell, saddle, and why are all the stupidest ones the ones with the biggest guns?
"Uh-huh," Bas says, bored, and starts going through the agent's—Aaron's—pockets. "Tell me, Fox," he says, casual, as he digs out Aaron's billfold and the silver pocket watch the guy never seemed to stop fiddling with. He slides them into his own pockets and waves down at the body. "This guy look like a cutpurse to you?"
Bas watches Fox's eyes as he—for the first time, Bas would wager—takes in the fine cut of the trousers, the heavy nap of the coat. Fox's face slides into confusion first, then annoyance. Bas doesn't wait for him to think up a clever retort. Because he'd likely be waiting a good long time. Saddle, for fuck's sake. With a disdainful grimace he doesn't try to hide, Bas pulls the palm-sized flat oval of obsidian out of Aaron's breast pocket and lets it catch the greasy light coming through the cracks in the boards behind the train station.
"That's a scry mirror," Fox says.
Bas rolls his eyes. "Not quite as stupid as you look."
Fox looks Bas in the eye with a crooked set to his jaw. "He was scryTech."
He was. Class 5. One of the reasons the Directorate had insisted on sending him here, inexperience be damned. Harrowgate's relay office had been unreachable for months, and only a scryTech of the highest class could hope to get a message across the span of the Territories without a relay.
Bas rubs at his mouth and sighs. Because it's all part of the mystery he'd thought had been confined to Stanslo's Bridge and hadn't found out any different until he'd gotten to Harrowgate. He'd seen hints the moment he'd stepped off the train, but the semi-mummified body nailed to the Relay Office doors was what made him understand that, whatever malevolence Stanslo's Bridge was exuding, it was leaking and spreading. There was no way to tell if the body had been the scryTech the Directorate required every Relay Office to employ, but it wouldn't really matter in the end. The place had been boarded up and caked in dust, and the body had been wearing a Relay Office patch on the sleeve of its torn and rotting coat; Bas is no necroTech, but he doesn't think he's too far off in guessing the body had been there for months.
"They're trying to cut off communication," Aaron had said—whispered it, really, urgent and avid-eyed in the back of the tavern where he and Bas pretended to have just happened into a game of darts between two strangers new in town. "The only way to get word in or out of here now is the train, and Stanslo owns the line."
Bas blows out a long, heavy breath and surreptitiously makes sure Aaron's fake papers are still in his breast pocket. It's possible his body will be found and sent home, in which case the Directorate will know something went wrong.
"Yeah, he was scryTech." Bas shrugs. "Which means you've just made the Directorate dreadful unhappy, 'cause when it comes to dead Techs, they don't fuck around." He gives Fox a level stare. "Well done, you."
Fox's eyes narrow down to slits. "He was following you."
"And he would've lost me once I got on the train to Stanslo's Bridge, wouldn't he." Bas lets it rumble into a low snarl, brusque. It shuts Fox up, so Bas shakes his head and says, "Look, we'll keep it between us, but if there's shit coming down from the Directorate for this, I intend to stand well clear of the stink."
Fox seems to chew on that for a moment before his thin mouth stretches out into a smarmy, brown-toothed grin. "Fuck that. Where we're goin', Techs en't no better'n anybody else and the Directorate en't got no reach."
Bas merely lifts an eyebrow. And waits. And stares some more.
Fox apparently takes it as a challenge this time, because he puffs up and snaps, "Yeah, you'll see, smartass. You'll see things that'd make coddled Techs and Directorate fucks cry for their mams. Stanslo's Bridge en't got room for the delicate."
Okay. So Fox is the kind of stupid that'll turn out to be useful, and all Bas'll have to do is get him just the right amount of riled. Because with one brash outburst, Fox has just pretty much confirmed all Bas's suspicions and several of his theories.
Before this part of the Territories was part of the Territories, there were such things as Tech hunters and hired guns and slave traders, and it isn't like it's ancient history. It had been happening in Bas's grandparents' youth, and eradicating it is part of the reason the Directorate came into the power it now enjoys. A hundred years ago, Bas's talents as a tracker might well have been pressed into service hunting down Techs for the auction block. So it's not exactly a stretch to imagine it hasn't been entirely stamped out in places where the Directorate's presence isn't much of a presence. At least as far as the Tech part of the population goes, it's why the Directorate exists.
It's why Bas signed with the Directorate right out of the academy. When you have a little brother who's not only psyTech but Class 4, you learn to recognize and guard against exploitation and abuse at an early age. Their parents had been careful, and Mo is more than capable now of taking care of himself, but there was a time when Mo was small and unskilled and he'd needed a big brother who knew what kind of gleam to watch out for in another's eyes.
Bas sees that gleam in Fox's eyes a little too clearly.
"So," Bas drawls, sliding it into more syllables than it needs and letting the corner of his mouth pull down, impatient. "Do I get to see all this sometime this century?"
Fox doesn't answer, just keeps staring at Bas, gaze narrow and shining in the dark. Bas stares back, because what the hell, it's worked so far.
It works this time too. Fox looks away with a grunt and an annoyed jerk of his head toward the station. "Got any bags?"