Sebastian Riley has one goal: Help the citizens of his floating Outer City to survive the Ashen Croup, a terrible affliction that drowns victims in their own lungs. But help comes in the form of the infamous Lady Blackburn, a woman wanted for treason who is determined to run headlong into destruction to prevent a coming war—even if it means reaching out to those who want her dead.
Pursued by the shadowy Order and hunted by the furious Reaper clan, Riley and Charlotte brave the monstrous hordes of decaying Tremblers and the terrors of the Wasteland to stop the bloodshed and secure a mysterious calculating engine—a device that can bring about the destruction of an entire nation.
With brutal forces gathering against the unsuspecting citizens inside the Tesla domes, a vicious scientist intent on capturing Charlotte for his experiments, and the whole of the country in deadly peril, one of them must make a sacrifice too terrible to comprehend.
They launched from the deck like dark creatures soaring from the fiery depths of our broken world. Men with membrane wings affixed to their outlander fatigues shot whip-fast from the catapult mounted on the Wind Reaper’s platform. They tore across the thermal winds, banking and riding the heated waves of air high above the immense sails of the lumbering metal structure. Eight two-story-tall legs bent and beat the sand like giant spider appendages as the massive metal vessel clattered along the dune. A terrifying sight the first time I’d laid eyes on it, the superstructure of a Wind Reaper outpost was massive. At least a block long with four levels, it housed as many as three thousand men, women, and children. Yet in the time I’d spent living here, I strove to explore every rusted rivet and squeaking hatch.
I sat against the warm metal siding of the lookout tower watching through the pitted glass. Razed by constant sand storms, the window afforded a blurred view of the sentinel passes. After months aboard the haphazardly welded vessel, the constant clattering now only registered as background noise.
It had been so long since I’d been at a ball with a gown and a proper gentleman asking me to dance. To me, the timeline seemed skewed. Distorted by the months I’d slept, lost in oblivion only to wake aboard this welded warren so far removed from who and what I had been. The metal chain bracelet in my hand felt heavy, and I pooled the links in my palm. I had not seen Ashton for months. Snippets of rumor in the mess hall or on the flight deck gave no consolation. The Order of the Sword and Scroll hunted him for defecting. The Peaceful Union wanted his head for fighting with Defiance. I just wanted him safe. So far, no one was getting what they wanted.
On the deck below the lookout tower, a group of men and young boys fought with the howling wind in their attempt to secure wooden casks into rope netting for storage. Another cluster of men scraped the metal joints of our loading cranes free of gritty ash. Young boys stood beside fathers learning the art of capturing the thermal winds in the Wind Reaper’s vast sails. They swayed with the lurching of the metal vessel as if they’d been born to the sea of sand. I guessed that some of the younger ones had been aboard this behemoth their entire lives.
Created by the military just after the quakes to troll the rubble for survivors, the vessels proved too time consuming to finish in the panic and chaos in the aftermath of the disaster. Abandoned in the wastelands, the clans that formed the Reapers, men and women from southern estates and bayous that no longer existed, made these iron walkers their fortresses.
A small child stood just outside the circle of fathers and sons. Kasava, a young boy whose father died in a recent raid, held a rope hook in one of his small hands. Though his face shield hid his expression, the inward roll of his shoulders brought an ache to my throat.
He’d lost his father. I knew that pain. The deep hollow that crushes the breath from you. My gaze went to the blue of my fingertips; the signs of infection. The faint color rode up my palm fading as it reached my wrist. These hands had killed my father. I shook with the memory of his crazed gnashing as the Trembling Sickness clenched every muscle in his body even as it broke his bones. A terrible disease that now crawled in my own veins. Yet, I’d had years with my father before that terrible day.
Kasava was nine at most. Minutes passed and no one noticed him. No one asked him to join in the work or even looked up to acknowledge his existence. He took a step back from the group, then another, the hook toppling from his little hand.
I pulled my gloves and gas mask on and pushed through the lookout tower’s door. A foul, hot wind whipped at my hair and skirt, the sand scraping at the exposed skin of my wrists and neck. Descending the ladder, I hopped down next to Kasava. “You dropped this.” Plucking the rope hook from the deck, I handed it to him. “Do you think you could help me with something?”
“Me?” Grinding metal nearly drowned out his small voice. He turned to the group of men and boys, and then back at me. Behind the glass of his face mask, his eyes were large and moist. “You want my help?”
“Yes.” I nodded to some crates arranged in a haphazard grouping near a support post. They were the weapons the Reapers designed and traded for food and supplies. Of the eight total Wind Reaper vessels, this clan’s vessel did the most trade. “Those are too large for just one person to move on their own.”
He held up his hook. “I−I can tug and you can push?”
“My plan exactly.”
Together we jostled and shoved the crates into a more presentable formation. Though only outside the protection of the Wind Reaper’s metal siding for a short time, the heat of the wasteland quake seams and lava on the sands below left me exhausted. I thanked Kasava, accepting his small arms around my waist as he gave me a quick hug before running to a nearby hatch. He disappeared inside.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement inside the observation compartment at the far end of the Wind Reaper’s long platform. A man stood at the window peering out at the flying sentinels. Perfectly parted hair and thoughtful tugging of his mustache told me who it was. I smiled to myself.
Nikola Tesla, the man who saved my life, who kept my dark secret, pivoted on the mechanical braces enabling him to stand on paralyzed legs. He started talking the moment I pushed through the thick metal door.
“The more you reveal yourself to these people, the more you invite danger, Charlotte.”
“They were ignoring him.” I lifted the gas mask from my head and blew into its sweaty interior. “All Kasava wishes is to be a part of what he misses. He is grieving. He is lost.”
Tesla turned his piercing gaze on me, and I avoided whatever he was about to say by tapping the window.
“Ajala seems to be ordering more reconnaissance sweeps lately. The downed aero ships and pirate vessels here are picked dry of any metal or supplies. Only one smelting station was working today. At least eight men went out over the hour.”
He regarded me silently for a few moments, before answering. “Not all returned. They lost another one this morning,” Tesla’s tired voice pulled my gaze. He was watching a banking sentinel waver in the wind like a ragged kite. “Poor man somehow wandered over an active seam.” He dragged on his moustache, shaking his head. “The gasses ignited and he went in a cloud of fire. No warning. Nothing left.”
“They have short careers,” I muttered, adjusting the large shawl wrapped around my upper torso in an attempt to hide the minute trembling of my long muscles. “Doesn’t seem to be a lack of volunteers, however.”
“Not with the rations they get for doing it.” Tesla poked around in the toolbox at his feet, and grabbed a wrench. The metal frame encasing each of his withered legs creaked with his tinkering. “Ah, this sticky, how you say…?”
“Not goop.” He gritted his teeth, pulling on the wires that fed power to the mechanized legs. “Venom?”
Poisonous gas mixed with the constantly drifting ash created a residue that clogged gas mask valves, metal works, everything. Toxic and harsh on the skin, I had to agree with the scientist’s assessment. It was indeed the venom of the earth. I’d been told, in my former life inside the protection of the Tesla Dome’s grid, that the wasteland was a no-man’s land where hideous creatures crawled out of the quake chasms and devoured anything they came across. As it turned out, our own fractured landscape posed the greatest threat.
The Great Calamity had set off chains of underground faults, breaking our world apart like a stone through glass. In the decade that followed, we huddled under Tesla’s electric grid domes that sheltered the capitals of our thirteen city-states. But even those were faltering. The relentless need for coal to power the steam work engines carved out even more of our unstable earth, and we were running out.
“Almost night.” I peered out at the sun stained crimson through the blanket of ash, its lower half pocked with black clouds. Magma bubbled in a pool just off the port side, the lava spurt into the night, burning bright, before cooling and hissing to the ground. “They should call them in.”
The Wind Reaper lurched, one of the appendages sinking into a dip in the dune. The metal door wrenched open flooding the cabin with eye searing gas.
Tesla toppled from his seat, and I moved, catching him as his wrench skidded across the floor and out the door. It slipped under the cable railing and off into oblivion. He sighed next to me, his face sweaty, dark gaze moist as he coughed against the onslaught of the toxic air. I pulled the shawl over my mouth and nose and fought the slant of the room yanking the door shut.
“They must adjust the sails,” Tesla croaked, gathering his tools. “The buffeting wind that drives this beast is too unstable. We will topple if we do not take care.”
I shuddered at the thought of the nearly three thousand souls aboard this vessel spilling out onto the burning sands. “Let’s get inside. You’ve lost your wrench and can do no more.”
We pushed through the rear hatch and into the dark corridor leading to the berthing rooms. Bed frames welded and stacked four-high crowded compartment after compartment. I slung Tesla’s arm across my shoulder, helping him navigate the swaying floor with his whirring leg braces.
Children played in the hallways, running into rooms and upsetting their mothers. Men cleaned weapons and tried to win rations with cards. Too many bodies in too small a space made it easy for no one to notice me.
“The filters are failing,” Tesla said and nodded into a room. Red ash piled up against the threshold and splayed across the small table within. It hung in the air and stuck to the damp linens the women hung from the ceilings to catch it. The fine ash clung to the rough walls and formed a film over lanterns and glasses. “Do you see?” He nodded to a sick room where at least a dozen people, mostly children, huddled and coughed and sweated through a new sickness. “There are more every day. The red blight clogs their lungs. I tell Ajala this.”
“It’s not the filters.” I smoothed the powdery ash between my fingers and thumb. “There’s more of it lately. The storms are worse…longer.”
“Something must be done.”
“That was the agreement.” I reminded Tesla of his deal with Ajala, the leader of this Reaper clan. “Your brain for my life.”
“Yes, well, a moment of weakness, I imagine.” Tesla winked at me, and I flashed on the younger man he used to be. The one barely able to shave who made my father’s mechanical leg. The one who’d saved our crumbling world with his protective domes before the Peaceful Union turned on him.
“You put yourself at great risk for me. I don’t know how to thank—”
“Sestrica,” Tesla cut across me, his dark eyes holding mine. “A man without enemies is worthless.”
Men wrapped in flowing swaths of fabric, women with their hair and faces covered, walked by us the opposite direction.
I pulled my head shawl down to my brows and looked away as they pushed passed us, hiding the strange black streaks that marred the pale blue of my eyes. A sure sign of the Trembling Sickness, the striking symptom would give me away. The flickering candles in mismatched sconces lining the walls were not bright, but better to not take chances.
A cluster of men stood in rappelling gear near the exit to the outside platform. They tested the harness buckles on their chests, wary of falling beneath the trampling feet of the Wind Reaper.
“Another night run,” Tesla hissed. “We must be near the city-state pipe works.”
“Or they need to grease the gears in the legs.” I pretended to cough, covering my face with my shawl as we passed the men.
“Your compassion will be your downfall.” He stopped us in our tracks, leaning in. “Someone will see you up close and they will panic. Ajala believes I treat you for your burns in the cavern. She does not suspect your true condition. Do not let your actions invite closer scrutiny.”
I pulled him with me, not answering. Faded posters, the edges gone dark with dirt, hung skewed on the corridor walls, bringing me up short. They displayed symbols of the rebel group, Defiance, and the outlaw, Blackburn’s Daughter, hastily painted and distributed by street vendors.
My likeness stared out at me with piercing blue eyes, long black hair flared out, as the girl in the picture brandished a gun at an unseen foe. I took in the flowing skirt, leather bodice, and goggles atop her head and nearly laughed. Their version of me was fierce, unafraid, almost heroic. I ground my teeth, moving past.
More propaganda posters stuck up hastily in a moment of fervor now listed on one nail. Someone had drawn a noose around my neck with coal. A bull’s eye adorned my forehead on another poster torn in half. Revered and reviled. My alter ego elicited strong emotions.
Sentiments aboard this ship I was eager to avoid facing. The longer I remained anonymous, the safer for both myself and Tesla. Not just because of who Blackburn’s Daughter was to the Reapers, but because of the affliction coursing through my body; the dreaded Trembling Sickness.
I flashed on the terrible scene a week ago when a family had been discovered harboring a child stricken with the infection. Happening by, I stood in the hallway, my breath caught in my throat as Ajala’s guards broke through the door and dragged the child from underneath the bed. Her mother and father cried, pulling on her little legs as the guards yanked her down the corridor.
The girl snarled and snapped, her jaw slamming shut over and over as she shook. Full bodied tremors wracked her small frame as she wailed with deep agony. Skin blue as if she’d been pulled from a frozen lake, eyes gone completely black, the child was monstrous and the thought of that being my end sent a wave of panic through me. They hauled her out to the deck and hurled her over the side. Her tortured shriek as she toppled into a lava pit still haunted my dreams.
“You moaned.” Tesla muttered. “You will give yourself away.”
“What?” I hadn’t noticed I was doing it again. The involuntary sounds my condition evoked. I clenched my fists against a tremor. They could not see. They could not know.
“Something is happening,” Tesla gripped my shoulder. “Listen.”
A warble of voices echoed down the corridors from above. Thumping boots and the clatter of metal.
“What is it?” My voice caught in my throat as a muffled blast rocketed along the outside wall. I flinched and turned to Tesla, his wide eyes confirmed my fears. “We’re being attacked.”
“It is but another skirmish.” He clasped my arm.
The Wind Reaper lurched, the walls groaning with the stress.
The hallway dissolved into melee. Children, men, and women ran and shoved as they fought to get to their rooms or to their weapons.
I dragged Tesla with me, as we tried to make it to his workshop. Another blast threw us to the floor and we skidded against the wall with a sickening tilt of the Wind Reaper. I looked up, trying to get my bearings, and froze.
The far end of the corridor stood in darkness, the candles long burned down. I nearly didn’t’ see him, he was so still. A solitary figure against the wall. Something in the stature or the tilt of his head sent my heart beating fiercely. I blinked, my breath coming in hitches. It could not be. He could not be here.
Tesla’s pained voice broke my gaze and when I looked back, the figure was gone. I scrambled over, helping him to his feet. I kicked and cajoled the metal braces, manipulating his steps, as we made our way to the workshop threshold. Once inside, I helped Tesla to his seat and stood panting, my arms wrapped around myself, shaking.
Men armed with rifles and revolvers, and the weapons of their own design, streaked past the door to the platform. The war chant they shouted as they ran to meet the battle filled the dark halls. Another volley of explosions rammed against the outer hull sending shockwaves reverberating through the room and toppling Telsa’s equipment.
An invading horde of wasteland pirates attacked, threatening the lives of everyone aboard, yet only one thing seized my mind. It was Ashton.