Lindsay Buroker


Part I

In a cave on a hillsideabove Dawson, whale-oil lamps spat and guttered, creating dancingshadows against the wooden frame of a ship, an airship. Still in the earlieststages of construction, it was perched on a row of wooden bracesstretching the length of the earthen chamber.

Kali McAlister bent over a sawhorse, sweatdribbling from her temples as she concentrated on cutting thelumber she had laboriously ported from town on a sledge draggedbehind her self-automated bicycle. When she had first imaginedbuilding an airship, she had dreamed of designing the engine,crafting clever weapons systems, and-of course! — flying the finishedcraft. Dreams of hours upon hours of measuring and cutting woodhadn’t come a-calling in her mind. As the bandages on her fingersattested, she didn’t have an aptitude for carpentry.


Kali froze midway through a cut and staredat the row of bells laid on the muddy cave floor near the exit. Atiny hammer flicked against the third bell, resulting in a secondding.

“Now what?”

Another curious wolf or fox had probablytripped it, but Kali couldn’t assume that, not with the number ofpeople after her these days. Thanks to her late father’s invention,an alchemical power source called flash gold, a number of connivinggangsters had set bounties for her capture.

Kali set the saw aside and reset the alarm.She grabbed her 1873 Winchester and a pair of smoke nuts,pocket-sized shrapnel-flinging grenades that she’d invented. Readyfor trouble, she jogged outside, heading down the slope towardBooby Trap Number Three.

She followed a game trail that meanderedthrough the undergrowth. Rain pattered onto ferns, spruce trees,and moss, creating plenty of mud to squish beneath her boots. Froma lookout point above her cave, one had a view down to the marshylowlands where Dawson sprawled, but here, in the thick of thewoods, she could see little more than trees.

As Kali drew closer to the trap location,she veered off the trail so she could approach under cover. Shepicked her way through damp fireweed and ferns, and soon soaked thecuffs of her overalls. The calendar said late June and there wereonly three hours between sunset and sunrise, but so far themosquitoes and flies were the only ones who thought summer hadcome.

Movement stirred the branches ahead, andKali hunkered behind a stump for a long look. Twenty meters away, aman dangled ten feet above the ground, one ankle caught in hertrap. So. Not a fox this time.

He was big and broad, and for a moment shethought it might be her bounty-hunting business partner Cedar, buthe knew where her traps were, and this fellow’s hat had come off,revealing hair a few shades lighter than Cedar’s tousled black.

As Kali watched, the man swung himself upand grabbed the rope, trying to free himself. That would take him awhile. Kali had used rope threaded with steel and made a knot thatwould only grow tighter if someone fiddled with it.

The man’s bowler hat lay in the mud beneathhim, along with a Colt Peacemaker. There was also a rectangularcase with the lid flung open and round ivory chips scattered allabout. The revolver drew more of Kali’s attention. Nearly everyman-and more than a few women-carried firearms in these parts, sothe Colt didn’t necessarily mean this fellow had villainousintentions, but it was a good reason to be careful.

Kali nestled the butt of her rifle into hershoulder and crept closer. “Looking for someone, mister?”

The man let go of the rope and, danglingupside down again, craned his neck to see her. “Looking for a girlthat’s supposed to be the best tinkerer in Dawson.”

“She’s awoman, not a girl.” Kalifigured she could, at eighteen, make that claim legitimately,though the man had a few gray flecks in his hair and might notagree. “And she’s got a shop in town. If you asked abouther, that’s wherefolks would have sent you.”

The man hung silently for a moment beforesaying, “Does that mean you’re not she?”

“That’s right.” Kaliglanced over her shoulder to make sure the cave-and her futureairship-weren’t in sight. It might be hard to deny she hadtinkering tendencies when she was building such a craft.

“But you must know her,”the stranger said. “Someone modified your rifle.”

Kali frowned at him. She had indeed alteredthe Winchester to reload automatically without her needing tomanually chamber the rounds, but most people wouldn’t notice thesubtle changes from a distance. “You’re powerful observant for aman hanging upside down.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He touchedhis head where the brim of his hat would have rested if it were notin the mud below. “I’m a gambling man. Having a keen eye pays in mybusiness.”

So those were poker chips on the ground, andthe box likely contained cards, dice, and other gaming gear. Thegun made sense too then. For obvious reasons, knives and firearmswere part of many a gambler’s kit.

Kali lowered her rifle, though she kept bothhands on it. “Why’re you looking for a tinkerer?”

“Got in a fracas a spellback, and somebody busted my pistol ring. I’m looking for someoneto fix it.”

A pistol ring? Kali hadheard of the tiny weapons, but she’d never seen one. They werespecialty items, custom-made by a few European masters. She surewouldn’t mind taking a look at one, but she was not yet ready tobelieve his story. How had he known to come up here looking for her? Only Cedarknew about her cave, and she had not seen him in days.

“I checked,” the man wenton when Kali said nothing, “and the best smiths in town have closedshop and taken to the river to work their claims.”

That part of his story rang true. The twosmiths that shared a street with her tinkery had been closed forweeks. It seemed like everyone had gold fever and was out muckingabout, which was why she hadn’t been able to find a carpenter, oranyone halfway decent with a hammer, to help with her ship.

“Pistol ring, eh?” Kalisaid. “Five, six shots? Five millimeter custom bullets orthereabouts?”

“Yes, ma’am. Won it in agame of five-card stud poker down in San Francisco. I reckon Icould show it to you if you’d cut me down.”

“I reckon you could do alot of things if I cut you down.”

“Less than you’d think.Thanks to that rather tight knot up there, my leg has gone quitenumb, so I’m not aspiring to do more than stand again today.” Hesmiled ruefully.

Kali gave him the squinty eye. He seemedamiable enough-most men would be cursing and swearing at her to cutthem down-but the fact that nobody was supposed to know she was uphere continued to make her suspicious. Maybe he had been watchingher shop and had followed her out of town that morning. If hisintentions were honest, why hadn’t he simply asked for her help inDawson?

“Grab that rope with bothhands.” Kali pointed above his ankle.

The man did so, which lifted his head andhands high enough that Kali was sure he couldn’t grab her.

“Now what?” heasked.

Before he finished the question, she slippedbeneath him and grabbed the Colt. She left the rest of the kit,though she glanced at the velvet inlay of the open case. A plaqueread, “Preston Somerset.”

“I didn’t think you hadthe look of a thief,” the man said, his voice cooler.

“I hope I have the look ofa cautious woman.” Kali stuffed the revolver into her overallsbefore pushing aside a stack of rocks and fiddling with themechanism hidden behind them. She cranked a wheel, and the anklenoose released.

The stranger twisted in the air and landedfeet first in a crouch. It was the sort of move Cedar could makelook easy, but not many others could. Kali pointed her rifle in theman’s direction again.

“I suppose caution is wisearound here.” He-Somerset-flicked his gaze toward her Winchesterand held his hands out, but his stance was relaxed, his face calm.“Do you think you could talk to your tinkerer friend to see if shemight work on my piece?”

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