The Engineer

Magic & Steam: Book One

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Emporium Press

May 28, 2020

Cover art: Reese Dante

Genre: Steampunk, historical, romance

October 10, 1881

 

The trch, trch, trch of Gatling gun rotating cylinders had been my only warning before the gunfire began. Bullets pierced the sun-bleached façade of the gambling hall behind me, and splintered wood rained down like an unexpected desert shower. I held on to my bowler, dove behind a nearby wagon, and scrambled up against the wheel. By way of defense, it offered little, but I desperately needed half a second to gather my bearings. I’d just entered Shallow Grave, Arizona, hadn’t even flashed my badge yet, and already I was being shot at.

I yanked my traveling goggles over my head and accidentally dropped them as another round of shooting began. Windows shattered, a woman’s scream echoed from a few storefronts to my right, and the scorched red earth around me billowed up in miniature dust storms where bullets became embedded in the packed clay.

I lifted the headband and over-ear receivers of my Personal Discussion Device from my neck and fitted them into place. I raised the handheld transducer, punched in a code on the brass buttons that would connect me to my director back in New York City, and waited for Loren Moore’s smooth tenor voice to answer.

But nothing happened.

I tried again.

Not even static.

“Send Gillian out West,” I said in a self-mocking tone. I attempted contact a final time, but it was in vain. “Milo Ferguson won’t stand a chance against him. Of course not. But the utter lack of basic amenities and technology?” More gunfire, and I winced before sliding down farther and trying to make myself as small a target as possible. “Gillian will love it.” I wrenched the band down to rest around my neck again, then rolled onto my belly to peer under the wagon.

There was a sudden crackle in the atmosphere—the snap of aether magic being activated. The sensation raised gooseflesh on my arms, and I recognized the spell for what it was.

Manufactured.

Illegal.

Not magic invoked by a caster like me, but by a physical weapon and someone with the wealth in which to afford its use.

And then three near-simultaneous shots fractured the air like seven years’ bad luck. No doubt that had come from a triple-barrel Waterbury pistol. But it didn’t line up with the intelligence the Bureau had on Milo Ferguson. Yes, he was wanted for his improper use of steam energy to power unregistered innovations, as well as his amassing of aether ammunition, but he hadn’t once owned a Waterbury pistol or Jordan rifle, the only two weapons capable of firing magic-laden bullets.

Ferguson was an engineer. And mad though he might be, he was gifted at any sort of construction that had a lethal edge to it. His inventions were what had recently taken out half of Baltimore. His self-designed, magic-compatible monstrosities of brass and copper and iron were why I had been directed by the Bureau and the President of the United States to haul ass to Arizona territory.

So the shots in retaliation to the Gatling gun hadn’t come from Ferguson. They’d come from yet another individual hell-bent on breaking the law. And me with only one pair of handcuffs and no idea where the town jail was located….

I watched from underneath the wagon as a pair of black-clad legs—presumably the Waterbury owner—ran by like the hounds from Hell were giving chase. The man skidded to an abrupt stop in the middle of the dirt road, turned, and another shiver of manufactured magic creeped along my arms seconds before the Waterbury shot another triple round at a target somewhere out of sight to my left.

I scrambled to my hands and knees and moved into a crouch. Peering around the edge of the wagon, I raised a hand to shield my eyes from the setting sun and saw, standing against a fiery desert backdrop, a cowboy straight out of a dime novel. He was tall, like he could steal the stars from the sky at night. Not a big man—lithe was the word—but imposing nonetheless in head-to-toe black attire, including a Stetson hat hanging from his neck. He remained in a shooting pose and cocked the hammer on his Waterbury. But as the ammunition came to life for a third time, gunfire erupted from my left again and sent the cowboy running for cover.

Specifically, my wagon.

© 2015-2020 C.S. Poe