A Very Sad Story About Something You’ve Never Heard Of

originally published December 1, 2013

First, I Fell in Love

I fell in love with Steampunk when a good friend opened the door to the 1800s, pushed me in and shut the door.

But, like so many affairs, it was short-lived. Steamy, mystifying, intense and then over.

steamyaffair

It all started when I met Lily Stargazer, Lord Byron’s lover, before her debut in Melanie Karsak’s Chasing the Star Garden

Melanie had contacted me not long after she self-published The Harvesting, a zombie apocalypse story with a strong heroine but a convenient plot. She asked me if I could read/edit a beta version of her new novel; she wanted it pristine before shopping it out to agents. She said it was “Steampunk.” I had no idea what that meant, but I said yes.

Four hours and a book later, I was as addicted to Lily Stargazer as Lily Stargazer was addicted to opium. (For those who know me, the fact that I was reading a book with heavy drug use – an “addiction story” – was in and of itself a complete miracle. I hate drugs in life and in fiction.)

This new “genre” – Steampunk – was giving me everything I’d been yearning for as a reader. Adventure. Historical information, both fiction and fact. Excellent characters who challenged my beliefs and made be believe in humanity. And so I was in love.

I loved Chasing the Star Garden. But did I love Steampunk?

I went looking for more Steampunk the next morning, but I wasn’t impressed. I read a few first chapters here and there from small presses and self-pubbed authors, and I found nothing equaling the little taste I’d gotten. Was this love affair over?

Empty Speech Bubble

I decided to ask some trusted readerly friends and trend connoisseurs I knew for their version of Steampunk. This is what I got:

“You think it’s up and coming? It’s actually outdated…”

“Yeah, it’s an old trend from the ‘90s,” my husband said. “You can see some of its influence in Firefly, but it never really went anywhere.”

From the 90s? Old trend? I thought it was a rising star. Apparently not.

“The cult following will annoy you.”

cult
“Oh god. My sister won’t stop talking about it. Add Hans Solo and goggles, and it makes a story ‘steampunk,’” my friend Michael ranted.

I quickly learned that some steampunkers are ex-gothers – the type always “committed to a cult.” As Michael’s comment suggested, I soon found the main audience for steampunk was a tad annoying to me.

“I’d never heard of it before, but here’s some awesome Steampunk jewelry I just found!”


“Nope, never heard of it. But funny you should bring it up,” my friend Vanessa said. “The open house at Oregon Kitchen this coming Thursday has a Steampunk jewelry artist coming in from Soho. She’s got some cool stuff.”

I went to Oregon Kitchen, a local consignment shop, and indeed found some cool jewelry. But no evidence of awesome literary Steampunk.

I kept looking

I kept researching, but I found no evidence of a viable Steampunk market at early glance. And the corners of the interwebs dedicated to Steampunk, to me, were cold and culty. I started to feel I’d been duped. The Stargazer series might be the only Steampunk I like.

And then this happened

I wasn’t sure how to talk to Melanie about this, but I soon after received from her more validation that I wasn’t the only one who’d never heard of Steampunk and who was confused by my first little taste.

A prominent – and very good – literary agent provided Melanie with a reader’s report after sadly delivering a rejection. It was a glowing report about how much the reader loved the story and how easily she fell into and devoured it because of excellent pacing and character development. But. Was it YA? Too much drugs and sex. Was it adult? Too fantastical. (How can she mash up a real historical character with fictional characters, and technologies that don’t belong in that time period? The report said.) Clearly, the reader had never heard of Steampunk either.

Bottom line of the reader’s report: the book doesn’t know what it wants to be and so doesn’t have a market. Reject.

I told Melanie the world just wasn’t ready for Lily’s story, that it was ahead of it’s time. She wrote back, sadly, she thought not. She said there was plenty of other stuff out there that was Steampunk and good. Since then, I’ve seen a few things come out that are promising, but they certainly weren’t available back in June.

Back then, I hadn’t found anything Steampunk that a) the general public knew about and b) I can truly say is as good of a story as Chasing the Star Garden. My experience working on this book with Melanie is what inspired me to start this blog. It’s meant to break down the silos that have naturally built in publishing (traditional and self) because we as readers needed genres to help define what we like. Well, maybe we don’t need genres anymore. We just need good stories. And who knows… maybe my love affair isn’t finished after all.


Since I first drafted this post, I was most humbly honored and surprised to learn that Melanie dedicated Chasing the Star Garden to me. It’s beyond an honor to have a writer that I respect so much tie me to her book in such a way. I will forever be humbled and grateful.


Buy Chasing the Star Garden on Amazon.

A Family of Three

Question Unanswered
“Mommy,” Jake said. “Why did you put gasoline in the watering can?” She shrugged. Later that night, her husband said, “Garden’s on fire,” and kept flipping papers.

No Response
“Why did you put gasoline in the Brita filter?” Jake asked. She shrugged. That evening from the den, she said, “Kitchen’s on fire” and kept clicking her needles.

After Dinner
Jake snuck out in the dark and found the garbage can filled with gas. His mother’s reading light glowed. His father’s office dimmed. He lit the match and walked away.

Waking Up Dead, By Margo Bond Collins

Chapter 1

(published with permission)

When I died, I expected to go to heaven.

Okay. Maybe hell. It’s not like I was perfect or anything. But I was sort of hoping for heaven.

Instead, I went to Alabama.

Yeah. I know. It’s weird.

I died in Dallas. I was killed, actually. I’ll spare you the gruesome details. I don’t like to remember them myself. Some jerk with a knife–and probably a Bad-Mommy complex. Believe me, if I knew where he was, I’d go haunt his ass.

At any rate, by the time death came, I was ready for it–ready to stop hurting, ready to let go. I didn’t even fight it.

And then I woke up dead in Alabama. Talk about pissed off.

You know, even reincarnation would have been fine with me–I could have started over, clean slate and all that. Human, cow, bug. Whatever. But no. I ended up haunting someplace I’d never even been.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, right? Ghosts are supposed to be the tortured spirits of those who cannot let go of their earthly existence. If they could be convinced to follow the light, they’d leave behind said earthly existence and quit scaring the bejesus out of the poor folks who run across them. That’s what all those “ghost hunter” shows on television tell us.

Let me tell you something. The living don’t know jack about the dead.

Not this dead chick, anyway.

It took me a while to figure out what had happened, of course. I came to, drifting along a downtown sidewalk in some strange little town. A full moon shone high above me, glinting off the windows of the closed stores. The only noise came from a little pub-like bar down a side street. I didn’t know where I was or how I’d gotten there. What better cure for that than a stiff shot?

Next thing I knew, I was inside the bar. Like I was having those fuges–the blackouts that people with multiple personalities claim to get.

Then I tried to order a drink. “Vodka martini, extra dirty. Lots of olives,” I said when the bartender glanced my way.

The bartender ignored me. I tried again. The bartender walked away.

That’s when I became Callie Taylor, Ghost Cliché.

I leaned over the dark oak bar and yelled after the bartender. “Hey! Down here! I want to order something.” I got kind of a funny feeling in my stomach–like a muscle cramp or something. When I looked down, I realized I was standing in the middle of the bar, drink glasses and all. That concerned me, so I stepped right through it and to the other side.

I won’t bore you with the rest of my moment of epiphany. Suffice to say, I figured out I could do lots of ghostly things–walk through walls, blow out candles just by passing over them, let people feel a chill when they moved through me. (I don’t recommend it; it’s kind of chilly on this side, too. Brrr.) But I can’t do much of the old live-person stuff. I can’t eat. I can’t drink. I can sort of smell food and drink, and that’s nice, but not nearly as nice as eating and drinking was. If I concentrate really hard, I can sometimes make things move just a little bit. Electronic stuff is easiest–I can make anything electric go haywire.  But I couldn’t talk to anyone.

I tried to. I used every ounce of concentration I had to make myself heard. I tried over and over again. I went all over town trying to get someone’s attention.

Sometimes, some poor schmuck caught a glimpse of me. One guy just about peed himself when I showed up in a mirror behind him, and that made me feel bad. So I pretty much quit trying to do that after a while.

And of course I tried to leave. If I had to be a ghost, I at least wanted to see how my family was doing back in Dallas. Find some way to let Mom and Dad and my brother know that I was okay, really.

To be entirely honest, I also kind of wanted to see my own funeral. See who was there. I especially wanted to know if Preston Davis had shown up at my funeral. Preston was a database administrator for a local hospital and had been my on-again-off-again boyfriend for a while. I wanted to know if he cried at my funeral. And how–or if–he introduced himself to my family.

Yeah. Okay. So it’s petty of me. So what? I’d had a rough week. Cut me some slack.         But apparently I couldn’t get to Dallas to check these things out. I couldn’t even go outside of the city limits. I’d hit the edge of town, take one more step, and pop! I’d be right back in the middle of downtown. Don’t get me wrong. Abramsville, Alabama is a lovely little town. Cute little downtown square with an ornate, nineteenth-century courthouse and shops selling knickknacks and jewelry and plaques with clever sayings on them. There’s a college, a couple of bars, some beautiful old houses.

But it’s not my town.

And it gets lonely, being the only ghost in town.

I know, I know. My best bet would have been to find other ghosts to hang out with. I tried it all. I hung out in hospitals, cemeteries, nursing homes, everywhere I could think of that other ghosts might congregate. I was even in the hospital emergency room a couple of times when other people died. All I saw was just a shimmer in the air above them, a wispy movement like light on fog. And then it was gone.

But as far as full-on, hanging-out-in-town ghosts?

Nothing.

This went on for weeks. And in that time, you want to know what I learned about being dead?

It’s boring.

Bo-Ring.

Until, that is, the night I saw some creep chop up Molly McClatchey.


Margo Bond Collins is the author of Waking Up Dead, international bestselling paranormal mystery, Solstice Shadows Publishing, 2013;  and Legally Undead, Vampirarchy Series #1, forthcoming from World Weaver Press in 2014


Buy it on Amazon, Read it on Kindle

Good Morning to Good Night

Good Morning

Hot oil. Early in the morning. Sugar, butter. Sprinkles. Cream. Chocolate drips into the smell of coffee, and I open the windows to let the fragrance out, to lure you in.

I line the trays with jelly-filled, powdered sugared, glazed rings and holes. Custard peaks from golden frosted dough. My sugar white hair is tucked under my sugar white cap, and I mix the dough in a bowl the size of a tub.

The cash register curls out its totals in little blue numbers. Ready for the day, quarters in change wait for my fingers to slide them out and drop them in your hand.

Ring-a-ring

They come. Father and son. One barely sees, bleary eyed in the morning. The other barely talks, but smiles and points from his perch in Daddy’s arms.

“Which kind would you like?” The father says, arms around his boy. Sprinkles. No, maple. No, sprinkles. They take a half dozen. I pour the dad a coffee. He laughs and says “Yes, thank you!” and drinks a sip right away.

One by two, six by ten and a baker’s dozen leave on plates or in paper boxes, my little fried friends. They’ll never go stale or dry. I won’t let them.

I’m not your grandfather. I’m not your dad. I’m not your neighbor. I’m not your lawyer, your dentist now retired. That’s you, there, though. Yes, you, just over there. You’re a teacher, determined in your ways. A musician out the night before. A grandfather yourself. A friend. Your own best lover. You can’t say no. You shouldn’t say no. Eat your salad. Eat your beans. But on Saturday morning, celebrate the day, eat me, eat my cakes, made for your delight.

Good Evening

Old Greeko comes in the window in the late afternoon. He sits with me as I sip my tea. He scavenges my muffin, pecking at the crumbs.

“Why do you come here Greeko?” I say. He hops along the table’s edge and cocks his head. Sunlight glosses the fine black feathers across his breast.

“Caw-aaaww,” he says, leaving his beak ajar.

He hops a few steps and looks out toward the garden.

Jonathan was out fishing. I could see him, in my mind, his boat atop the bay, Jonathan looking down through the cold clear water to the bottom. Little fish swirling near the surface, larger fish coming up to glug them, whole or in pieces. Jonathan, the whale from outside the sea, his fingers his teeth.

We’d eat well for dinner that night.

“Come Greeko,” I say and reach out my forearm. He hops on and up to my shoulder. We walk through the kitchen, and I nudge his talons, lift him to the sill. His legs skip across the long pot of soil and herbs, and I watch him skewer, swallow a worm, fast and whole.

I reach out to the vine to pick a feast. The tomatoes are firm and blood red, and I pluck two that are perfect together. My thumb pierces the third; pulp flows to my wrist. My lips embrace the gaping wound and I suck; seeds and rich red leak at the corners of my mouth. Greeko turns away.

After dinner we would stroll under the moon, our memories our servants, our stomachs our slaves.

Yes, we’d eat well for dinner that night.

Good Night

The spider’s web swelled with midnight dew, and the orb weaver spread her legs. Bugs fingered her sticky candy thread, slick with water, until they could no longer move.

What would she see if she could see in a mirror? With one of her eight eyes and then the next? What would she see by looking down her slim polished leg, before she pulled close her prey?

I curled inward, tucking my head into my knees. One shoe fell and flopped on the ground. My eyes pressed against boney joints, and nails bored into my flesh. My right palm wrapped my shoe, waiting, fearing.

I could feel her hugeness next to me. I could feel her unwrapping me from her web, her teeth sinking in to drain me dry. She would come into my house. I could feel her coming into me. I exploded outward and smashed her with the force of a million enemies, ripping apart her sticky weave, and I smashed her again and again and again until I knew without question she was dead, and I was saved from being eaten.

 

2014 Pure Slush – A Symphony of Story

January 2014Matt Potter’s Pure Slush monthly anthology gives you a new story for each day of the month. Weaved together by the number of days. It’s truly unique.

Each story is a fully contained flash, but follow a day (example, Jan., Mar. Apr. 29) and you’ll see that each flash for that number builds a larger narrative.

The monthly anthologies are a great way to have stories sing around you in symphony and to meet new writers who are pushing the boundaries of narrative and writing on topics as varied as the days of a month.

Read on Kindle

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

Glass Animals, By Stephen V. Ramey

Story 1: Into the Woods

(published with permission)

Billy stood in the scrubland, shivering from the cold. He carried a backpack loaded with his favorite things, Teddy the Wonderbear, a book: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss—Billy wished Tiger hadn’t shredded the cover, but he still liked the story fine—a peanut butter and tomato sandwich with the crust cut off. Ahead, tire tracks marked the ground into a tangle of scrubby trees. Beyond, the setting sun packed the horizon with shades of orange.

Daddy had driven his Jeep into the woods two days earlier. He hadn’t come back. Since Mom refused to talk about it, Billy had decided to find out for himself where the road led and why Daddy had gotten lost. It certainly did look like the sort of forest a person would get lost in. Billy found himself wishing he had saved pieces of crust to drop. That hadn’t worked too well for Hansel, but was better than nothing.

A crow cawed. Others answered until raucous laughter poured over the darkening ground. Billy’s gaze went to a tree taller than the others, its branch loaded with birds. The backpack dragged at his shoulder. He set it down, and knelt to pray.

“Thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the world so sweet. Thank you for the birds that sing. Thank you God for everything. Amen.” He crossed himself and started to stand, but thought better. “Please let me find Daddy,” he whispered. Tears stung his eyes. “And don’t let those birds get me.”

Billy started walking. It seemed to take forever to cross the sandy soil. A crow launched and fell toward him. “Caw! Caw!” were the sounds in his ear, “Go away!” the words he heard.

“I’m going to find my Dad!” he shouted. The bird flapped past his head, and flew back to the tree. A shiver shook Billy so hard it nearly dislodged the backpack. He clung tightly to the strap.

He couldn’t see more than a few steps into the woods. He thought of the Mickey Mouse nightlight plugged by his bed. There was another in the hall in case he had to go to the bathroom. Daddy had told him he was big enough to do that on his own. He didn’t feel big enough now. He wanted to run back to the house and jump into Mom’s fleshy arms. He wanted to hear her voice. He couldn’t do that. He had to rescue his dad. Daddy would never leave them alone. Something had happened. He sniffed. The forest smelled of vegetation, a hint of pine sap. No trace of Daddy’s Old Spice, or the Jeep’s acrid exhaust.

Biting his lip, Billy stepped into darkness. A chill settled over him, dense like a blanket, only cold. He stepped again. If he stayed between tire ruts he should be all right, but what if crows were not the only thing inhabiting these woods? He unzipped the backpack with trembling fingers, and took out his sandwich. It was a sloppy mess, the bread soggy. He tore at an edge. No. Scattering bread wouldn’t work; the crows would eat it.

What about tomato? Some of the chill left him. He tore apart a tomato slice and dropped a piece at his feet. His fingers slimed with peanut butter. He licked them clean, relishing the sweet smell of Mom’s pantry. The feeling that went through him was like opening his eyes to the nightlight after a bad dream. Emboldened, he took another step, dropped another tomato bit.

Sometime later, he held the final sliver of tomato on his palm. “Well, I can’t give up now,” he said. Hearing his own voice scared him a little. He fought down his fear. “I’m going to find my dad no matter what.”

“Who?” an owl hooted. Eyes glistened.

“My dad,” Billy said, puffing his chest. He dropped the tomato, and continued. It seemed like hours that he walked and, still, the woods went on. The sky dimmed, then darkened. He could barely see his feet now. At least the moon was almost full. It watched over him through the canopy of twisting branches.

The cold seeped into his toes and fingers. He stomped and flexed, but it did little good. Soon, the chill had seeped into his mind too, and even his heart shivered with every beat. In a way, it was good, though, because when something rustled beside the path, he was able to ignore it and keep walking. The only warmth inside him now came from the flame of his purpose. He would find Daddy, no matter what.

He barely noticed the sky brighten. All of a sudden the moon was gone, and blue sky filled the voids between branches. He had walked all night. He should eat breakfast. He opened the backpack, and found the sandwich gone. He must have eaten it while he walked.

Weird. It felt like he had lost something else overnight too, something important. But maybe he had gained something too. He was no longer afraid of the woods, no longer afraid of the dark. A grin overtook him. Dad would say that was part of becoming a big boy. He could hardly wait to hear it from Dad’s lips. His strides lengthened.

It was midmorning when he reached the forest’s end. He stepped into sunshine, the warmth of it soaking his skin. The numbing cold released. He had done it! He ripped the backpack from his shoulder, and whipped it into the underbrush. He no longer needed it, was glad to be free of its clinging weight.

The road continued as far as he could see. No jeep, no Dad, no sign of habitation. Another woods smudged the distance, another woods like the one he had crossed. It was too much. Fatigue flooded over him, knocked him to his knees.

“Daddy!” he screamed. “Daddy, where are you?” Tears ran down his cheeks. Snot sagged from his nose. He brought his palms to his face, and leaned into them.

Fingers gripped his shoulder. He shrieked. The hand pulled him around until he looked into Mom’s sad eyes. Her other hand held his backpack. It carried a few dead leaves, but was otherwise intact. Billy took it. It was heavier than he remembered.

“Daddy’s gone,” he said.

“I know, sweetie, I know.” She drew Billy to his feet. In the distance, a crow screamed, then another.

Without a word, Mom led him back along the tire track path. He clung to her skirt. She smelled of apples and cinnamon, of buns rising behind the oven door glass. But there was something more complicated too, some hidden scent Billy could not grasp.


Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, once the tin mill capital of the world. His work has appeared in many places, from Microliterature and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, to Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. He is the editor for the Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink and for the speculative twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at www.stephenvramey.com


Buy Glass Animals on Amazon or for Kindle

Steampunk – A Genre or a Style?

An acquaintance of mine very eloquently described Steampunk to me as a style not a genre. And he’s right. Steampunk style rocks. (Here’s what the NYT had to say about it in the fashion world in 2008.) Here are just a few places I’ve seen it used as a style recently:

Game of Thrones opening theme: Game of Thrones is more fantasy than sci-fi, but the opening theme no doubt has some awesome tinker-y gear action:

Disney’s Festival of Fantasy Parade, Spring 2014. An early look I caught of Mickey and Minnie’s Hot Air Balloon looks air-ship-y to me. Here’s an image from Hong Kong’s float in 2012. And look. Goggles!

Oprah wearing a bright full gown and a top hat. Victorian and then some.

Are you new to Steampunk? This is the book that made me fall in love with it. It might engulf you, too..

Steampunk. Always Ahead of Its Time. How Apropo.

My foray into Steampunk has me looking for Steampunk influence anywhere in our culture. Every time I find it, it’s trying to be part of mass culture, but it’s disconnected and ahead of it’s time. How annoyingly apropo.

Firefly: Released in 2002. Tanked. Ranked cult in 2005. Loved by 2009. Talked about in Entertainment Weekly by 2012.

What makes it Steampunk: Tinkering. Anachronistic language, dress and behavior. Technology that doesn’t exist – because it’s in a future time period. Goggles. Courtesan. Airships.

What makes it ahead of its time: It aired, flopped, failed and succeed years later.

Cloud Atlas: Released 2012 bringing in only ~$27 million against a $102 million budget (IMDB). Has huge names in the industry but was produced independently and with horrible marketing (IMHO). Seem to be gaining some interest in 2013; released through HBO and HBOGo just recently.

What makes it Steampunk: Alternative futures and histories. Story lines that defy time. The devil in a top hat. Airships.

What makes it ahead of it’s time: The movie Babel successfully intertwined multiple story lines similarly to Cloud Atlas, but the mass market may not be ready for multiple story lines across time. Cloud Atlas requires us to bend our concept of past and future lives, fate and time itself. But physicists are working on bending time… we might best well get used to the idea.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Released 2003 with an estimated budget of $78 million. Grossing £7,319,844 (IMDB). What? There’s a skip in the figures there, a skip across the pond, IMDB…

What makes it Steampunk: Everything. It’s set in an alternative Victorian age with sci-fi and fantasy characters coming out of nowhere.

What makes it ahead of it’s time: The UK and South Africa seem to get it, but the US still doesn’t (?). A few cultists probably do… So, well. This one may not every succeed here. But it’s a great example of steampunk at large that at-first failed.

Here are some more examples of Steampunk that pop up in story, books, movies, videogames, etc.: http://lettherebedragons.com/steampunk/

Are you new to Steampunk? This is the book that made me fall in love with it. It might engulf you, too.

Chasing the Star Garden, Melanie Karsak

Chapter 1 (published here with permission)

I was going to lose-again. I gripped the brass handles on the wheel and turned the airship sharply port.

The tiller vibrated in protest making the wheel shake and my wrist bones ache. Bracing my knees against the spokes, I tore off my brown leather gloves to get a better feel. The metal handgrips were smooth and cold. My fingers tingled from the chill.

“Easy,” I whispered to the Stargazer. I looked up from my position at the wheelstand, past the ropes, burner basket, and balloon, toward the clouds. They were drifting slowly left in a periwinkle blue sky. There’d be an updraft as we passed over the green-brown waters of the canal near Buckingham House. I locked the wheel and jumped from the wheelstand onto the deck of the gondola and looked over the rail. The canal waters were a hundred feet away. I ran back to the wheel and steadied the ship. If I caught the updraft, it would propel me up and forward and give me an edge.

“Cutter caught it, Lily,” Jessup yelled down from the burner basket below the balloon opening. “Up he goes,” he added, looking out through his spyglass. The gold polish on the spyglass reflected the fire from the burner.

“Dammit!” I snapped down my binocular lense. I saw Hank Cutter’s red-and-white striped balloon rise upward. At the top, he pitched forward with great momentum, catching a horizontal wind. I could just make out Cutter at the wheel. His blond hair blew wildly around him. He turned and waved to me. Wanker.

I was not as lucky. Just as the bow of the Stargazer reached the water, a stray wind came in and blew us leeward. The balloon jiggled violently in the turbulent air. I missed the air pocket altogether.

“No! No, no, no!” I cursed and steadied the ship. I had chased Cutter from Edinburgh across the Scottish and English countryside. He had been off his game all day. I’d had him by half a mile the entire race. With the bottom feeders lingering somewhere in the distance behind us, I’d thought the London leg of the 1823 Airship Grand Prix would be mine. That was until St. Albans, where Cutter caught a random breeze that pushed him slightly in front of me. Cutter had a knack for catching favorable winds; it was not a talent I shared.

“We’re coming up on Westminster,” Jessup yelled down from the basket. “Lily, drop altitude. Cutter is too high. Come in low and fast, and you might over-take him.”

The airship towers sat at the pier near the Palace of Westminster along the Thames. A carnival atmosphere had overtaken the city as it always does on race day. Colorful tents were set up everywhere. Vendors hawked their wares to excited Londoners and inter-national visitors. I could hear the merchants barking from their tents even from this far above. I fancied I could smell roasted peanuts in the wind.

I jumped down from the wheelstand, ran across the deck, and pulled the valve cord, opening the flap at the top of the balloon. Hot air released with a hiss. I kept one eye on the balloon and another eye on Tinkers’ Tower. At this time of day, the heat coming off of the Palace of Westminster and Tinkers’ Tower would give us a bump. I looked up. Cutter had started preparing his descent. It would be close.

I ran back to the wheel.

“Angus, I need more speed,” I yelled down to the gear galley, rapping on the wooden hatch that led to the rods, belts, and propeller parts below.

Angus slapped open the hatch and stuck out his bald head. His face was covered in grease, and his blue-lense monocle glimmered in the sunlight. He looked up at the clouds and back at me.

“Let’s giddyup,” I called to him.

“You trying the Tower sling?” he yelled back. “You got it.”

He laughed wildly. “That’s my lassie,” he yelled and dropped back down, pulling the wood hatch closed with a clap. I heard the gears grind, and the propeller, which had been turning nice and steady, began to hum loudly. The ship pitched forward. Within moments, we were coming up on Tinkers’ Tower. The airship towers were just a stone’s throw away.

I aimed the ship directly toward Tinkers’ Tower. Just as the bowsprit neared the clock, I yanked the wheel. The warm air caught us.

“Whoa!” Jessup yelled as the balloon moved within arm’s length of the tower.

The sound of “Ohhs!” echoed from the crowd below.

A mix of warm air and propulsion gave us some go, and seconds later we were slingshotting around Tinkers’ Tower toward the airship platforms. Gliding in on warm air and momentum, we flew fast and low.

Cutter had kept it high, but now he was dropping like a stone toward his own tower. Damned American. I didn’t blame him; I would have used the same move. His balloon was releasing so much air that I wondered if he would be able to slow down in time, not that I would have minded seeing him smash to the ground in a million pieces.

“It’s going to be close,” Jessup yelled as he adjusted the heat pan.

I guided the helm. The Stargazer was temperamental, but we understood one another. A shake of the wheel warned me I was pushing too hard. “Almost there,” I whispered to the ship.

The Grand Prix Marshalls were standing on the platform. Cutter and I had the end towers. I was going to make it.

“Cut propulsion,” I yelled toward the gear galley. On the floor near the wheelstand, a rope led to a bell in the galley. I rang it twice. The propeller switched off.

A soft, sweet wind blew in from the port side. It ruffled my hair around my shoulders. I closed my eyes and turned the wheel slightly starboard, guiding the ship in. Moments later, I heard a jubilant cheer erupt from the American side and an explosion from the firework cannon signaling the winner had been declared. My eyes popped open. I tore off my goggles and looked starboard. Cutter’s balloon was docked. I threw the goggles onto the deck and set my forehead against the wheel.

The Stargazer settled into her dock. Jessup set the balloon on hover and, grabbing a rope, swung down to the deck. He then threw the lead lines and anchors onto the platform. The beautifully dressed crowd, gentlemen in suits and top hats and fancy ladies in a rain-bow of satin gowns carrying parasols, rushed toward the American end of the platform to congratulate the winner.

I was, once again, a national disgrace. Lily the loser. Lily second place. Perhaps I would never be anything more than a ferrywoman, a cheap air jockey.

“Good job, Lily. Second place!” Jessup said joining me. He patted me on the shoulder.

I sighed deeply and unbuttoned my vest. The ten-sion had me sweating; I could feel it dripping down from my neck, between my breasts, into my corset.

“You did great,” I told Jessup. “Sorry I let you down.”

“Ah, Lily,” he sighed.

Angus emerged from below wiping sweat from his head with a greasy rag. He pulled off his monocle. He frowned toward the American side. “Well, we beat the French,” he said with a shrug and kissed me on the cheek, smearing grease on me.

“Good job, Angus. Thank you,” I said, taking him by the chin and giving him a little shake as I wrinkled my nose and smiled at him.

Angus laughed and dropped his arm around Jessup’s shoulders. They grinned happily at one another.

“You stink, brother,” Jessup told him.

“It’s a wee bit toasty down there. Besides, I pedaled this ship across the entire fucking country while you were up here looking at the birds. That, my friend, is the smell of success.”

I laughed.

“You pedaled the ship?” Jessup asked mockingly.

“Like Lil and I were just up here playing cards? If I didn’t keep the balloon aloft, your ass would be kissing the ground.”

“Now wait a minute. Are you saying your job is more important that mine?” Angus retorted.

I could see where this was going. “Gents.”

“More important? Now why would I say that? Just because I’m the one…” Jessup started and then his mouth ran.

“Gents.”

“… and another thing…” Jessup went on.

“Gentlemen! Our audience awaits,” I said cutting them both off, motioning to the well-shod crowd who waited for us on the loading platform outside the Stargazer.

I grinned at my crew. “Come on. Let’s go.”

I patted the rail of the Stargazer. “Thanks,” I whispered to her, and we exited onto the platform.

A reporter from the London Times and several race officials stood waiting for me.

“Well done, Lily! Well done!” the British race official congratulated me with a pat on the back. “Second place! King George will be so proud. One of these days you’ll have it, by God.”

I was pretty sure that the last thing I needed was the attention of George IV, the extravagant, unpopular lush. But I bit my tongue and smiled politely.

“Lily, how did Cutter beat you? You led the entire race,” the reporter asked. She was a round woman wearing a very thick black lace collar that looked like it was choking her. Her heavy purple walking dress looked hot under the late afternoon summer sun, and the brim of her black satin cap barely shaded her nose. I noticed, however, that she had a small clockwork fan pin attached to her chest. The fan wagged cool air toward her face.

I pulled off my cap, mopped my forehead, and thought about the question. “Luck,” I replied.

“Lily, that was some move around Tinkers’ Tower. How did you learn to do that?” another reporter asked.

“My father,” I lied.

“Make way, make way,” one of the race officials called, ushering a Marshall forward.

The Marshall looked like someone who lingered an hour too long at supper. The gold buttons on his satin, marigold colored vest would take an eye out if they popped. His overly tall top hat was adorned with a ring of flowers that matched his striking orange colored dress coat.

“Miss Stargazer, congratulations,” he said, shaking my hand. “The Spanish airship is coming in now. Will you please join Mr. Cutter at the winners’ podium?” he asked politely as he guided me forward by the hand.

From below there was a commotion. A man dressed in an unusual costume rushed up the stairs. The London constables, a full squadron of the Bow Street Runners, chased him. When he got to the loading platform, the man pushed through a crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, many of whom were gentry. It was then I could see he was dressed as a harlequin. He wore the traditional red and black checked outfit and a black mask. He scanned the towers until he caught sight of me. He jumped, landing on the tower railing, and ran toward me. A woman in the crowd screamed. Moments later the constables appeared on the platform. The race Marshalls pointed toward the harlequin who was making a beeline for me.

I let go of the Marshall’s hand and stepped back toward the ship.

“Lily,” Jessup warned, moving protectively toward me.

Angus reached over the deck of the Stargazer and grabbed a very large wrench.

Was it an assassin? Christ, would someone murder me for winning second place? I turned and ran toward the Stargazer. A moment later, the harlequin flipped from the rail, grabbed one of the Stargazer’s ropes, and swinging over the others, landed on the platform directly in front of me. Any second now, I would be dead.

He panted and muttered “Lily?” from behind the mask.

“Stop that man! Stop him!” a constable yelled.

“Get out of my way!” Angus roared at the crowd that had thronged in between us.

The masked man grabbed me, tugged on the front of my trousers, and leaned into my ear. The long nose of the mask tickled the side of my face. “Go to Venice,” he whispered as he stuffed something down the front of my pants.

“We got you now,” a constable said, grabbing him, raising his club.

The man shook him off, took two steps backward, and with a jump, leapt off the tower.

Several people in the crowd screamed.

I rushed to the side of the tower to see the harlequin lying at its base. His body was twisted, and his arms and legs bent oddly, contorted into three distinct points. Blood began pooling around him.

“Miss Stargazer, are you all right?” a constable asked.

“A man just killed himself in front of me. No, I am not all right.”

“I mean, are you harmed? Did he hurt you?”

I shook my head and looked down at the mangled body which lay in the shape of a three-sided triskelion. It was the same symbol that was painted on the balloon of the Stargazer.
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