York City, Fort Hamilton Stockade
It was autumn in Shenandoah
Valley, and the air was thick with the reek of smoke. Second
Lieutenant Richard Walters of the Grey Steel Regiment, Fifth Company,
stared out over the scorched wasteland. Shenandoah Valley was a rich
and fertile jewel before North fought South up and down the length of
it. Wherever the Yankees passed, they burned crops and slaughtered
farm animals. Without the ability to supplement their food stock, the
Confederates' wagon train supplies were nearly exhausted. Walters'
whole company was on half-rations and ravenous with it. There was
something very bad about that, though he couldn't quite remember
He tried to remember what was
so bad as his batman*
dropped the war harness over his shoulders. His batman tightened the
buckles, loaded the tank of bone aether onto his back, strapped the
brass contacts into place, opened the valves to precisely the degree
recommended, and pressed the activation button. Walters gritted his
teeth when he heard the familiar clink of the needle covers sliding
back. A dozen wide-gauge steel needles jabbed into him at the contact
points, tearing through the scar tissue that formed unnaturally
quickly between battles. He breathed. As bone aether began trickling
into his system, the pain subsided and strength poured into him.
Walters tried to say. Wait. Remove the harness. That's an
order. His mouth said, "Thank
you. Check with the platoon leaders to make sure our boys are ready
A feeling of boundless energy
and power surged through him. His sense of foreboding deepened.
Something very bad was going to happen, and he had to stop it. He
tried to flip the activation switch off. Instead his hands moved to
his camp table, picking up maps with battle lines and possible
strategies drawn on them.
He stared at his knobbly hands.
Ridges of scar tissue marched across his flesh. Lumps and bumps
tented his skin where bone spurs pushed upward. Fingernails thickened
and lengthened into claws. He stared at the scars and bone-bumps and
had the odd feeling that he wasn't looking at his own hands. They
shouldn't look like that anymore.
In the early days of the War,
when they all believed it would be over quickly, those manifestations
would have invalided him out. Those had been the glory days, when the
Confederacy's brave boys in the Grey Steel Regiment were the toast of
every ball and the desire of every belle. Victory had seemed certain.
The North was struggling to build their war machine. The South didn't
have nearly the materiel manufacturing capability, but that wouldn't
matter because the War would soon be over. How could it be otherwise,
when a single soldier in the Grey Steel Regiment could leap over
skirmish lines, sprint faster than a Northern soldier could aim his
rifle, and take out an entire company by himself? No fortifications
could stand against them.
That was before the Yankees'
fire-spitting tanks. Before the "steel killers." Before the
Confederacy lost the ports. Before the food and munitions shortages.
Before the burning of Atlanta. Before the North began to win. Before
the South's beautiful boys returned home as monsters.
Walters didn't look so bad as
some of his regiment, though he chose to avoid the mirror and let his
batman shave him.
Some soldiers had harnesses
that delivered higher doses of bone aether. Natural variations in the
valve manufacture, the generals said. We must all make sacrifices.
Some soldiers deliberately self-administered higher doses, from
misguided valor or because the rush of power that came with it was
addictive. Some simply lived long enough that they began to manifest
signs of the excitation of bone aether: growths of scar tissue or
bone, deformities of the flesh, flashes of temper, ravenous hunger,
and an irrationality that sometimes bordered on madness.
His batman pushed aside the
canvas tent flap and stuck his head inside. "The boys are ready,
Walters wanted to say. No, they're not. They have no idea.
"Thank you," he said.
"I'll be out in a minute. For the glory of the Confederacy, eh?"
His traitor hands gathered the battle plans and stuffed them inside
his uniform jacket.
He had to stop his platoon from
making a skirmish line and going into battle, but his feet lifted and
fell, his lips pulled back in a smile, and his hands beckoned his
squad sergeants to him. His sergeants showed the same minimal
manifestations that he did. He insisted on self-discipline in his
subordinates--and they'd been lucky.
Stop them, he thought
urgently, but he heard himself outlining the battle plans.
no, no no no. . . .
platoon assembled. All his boys were there and harnessed-up, even the
ones who would have been invalided out a year ago. Even the ones who
had been invalided out
but hadn't been transported away to a Confederate hospital yet. Men
their own mothers wouldn't have recognized. Men with tumors
distorting their skin and horns erupting from their bones. Men who
jerked and twitched. Men who spoke too loud or didn't speak at all.
Men who laughed and cried for no reason. Brave men all, who for the
sake of their homes and their families had sacrificed everything.
Some would say they'd even sacrificed their humanity.
His face smiled. He should have
been proud, but all he felt was dread and a bone-gnawing hunger.
His mouth moved, rallying the
troops. They needed rallying. Morale was shit. As was common in the
Grey Steel Regiment, Walters' company had been detached to duty with
the Thirteenth Regiment. That didn't mean the Thirteenth Regiment
liked it. The days of the Grey Steel Regiment being seen as heroes
were long gone. They were monsters, and they were treated no better
than the lowest foot soldier. Food supplies were short, terribly
short--you tried not to look at what you were eating, because the
salt pork was blue-green, the cornmeal full of weevils, and fresh
vegetables nothing but a fading memory.*
Walters' stomach churned with
Time skipped, and they were in
the thick of the battle against the Yanks. He led the skirmish line
forward, bounding across the battlefield. One leap, and he was over a
defensive cluster of soldiers surrounding their captain. The
blue-belly captain raised his rifle, but he was slow, so slow.
Walters stretched his arm out and grabbed the captain's
throat. His elongated fingernails scored deep gouges in the captain's
When Walters pulled his arm
back, a chunk of the captain's throat came with it. Walters bounded
away, leaving the captain convulsing on the ground and gasping for
was how it started, Walters
thought. No. I don't want to see what comes next.
But he couldn't close his eyes and he couldn't stop the surge of
triumphant power that raised goosebumps across his skin.
His appetite whetted, Walters
leapfrogged across the field of engagement, empty hands outstretched
to grasp the enemy. He destroyed emplacements. He broke reinforced
positions. He killed officers. He twisted heavy cannon into scrap. He
panicked cavalry horses. And his boys leapt with him, sowing chaos in
The bluecoats fought back. It
wasn't like the first engagement at Shiloh when they'd fallen back in
confusion before the Grey Steel Regiment. The Union knew what they
were up against, and they'd developed devilish war-weapons in the
factories of the North. Fire-spewing tanks stalked across the valley
on their giant mechanical chicken legs. Weapons loaded with
"steel-killer" ammunition were aimed and fired at Walters'
boys. Thanks to the accelerated healing excess bone aether allowed,
the Grey Steel Regiment could shrug off ordinary injuries, even ones
that would kill a regular soldier. But if one steel-killer crossbow
bolt or bullet punctured their bone aether tank, they died. Walters
hoped if he died on the battlefield, it would be by an air aether
bullet. Those deaths were quick and, he hoped, relatively painless.
I didn't die then, he thought.
Despite the Union's weaponry,
the Confederates were winning.
Walters was so hungry it was
hard to think, even though he was chewing on something. Must have
still had a scrap of salt pork in his pocket. He found himself moving
from place to place with no memory of the in-between. And then--it
all went wrong. The skirmish line fell apart.
Screams rang across the
battlefield behind him. There was always screaming on the front
lines--and shouting and swearing and the sobs of wounded men--but
this sounded different. He spun around.
Bill Buckford, of the Virginia
Buckfords, stood spraddle-legged over a corpse as grey- and
blue-coated soldiers alike scattered. He brandished something above
his head. A ripped-off leg.
Whorls of activity circled both
sides of the skirmish line, where the boys of the Grey Steel Regiment
hunted. There was so much screaming. Something was terribly wrong,
but it was hard for Walters to think above his rising hunger. And
I don't want to remember.
Bill Buckford hunched
possessively over the corpse of the officer he'd killed. His
shoulders moved as he did--something. Walters leapt closer. A couple
of other Grey Steel Regiment soldiers followed him. Bill glanced over
his shoulder, revealing the mask of blood smeared over the lower half
of his face. He smiled, and his teeth gleamed red. Somebody's stomach
A rain of flaming
naphtha-soaked arrows plummeted out of the sky. One pierced the tank
on Bill's back. Unseen inside the arrow's shaft, a fragile vial of
fire aether shattered on impact. The fire aether saturated the shaft
and mixed with the bone aether in the tank. The mix of bone and fire
aether was sucked up the pipeline and injected into Bill's muscle
With it went the fire.
Bill arched his back and
screamed as his flesh cooked from the inside out. His skin
turned bright red. Steam wafted from his body. It smelled a lot like
died then, and thank God for that. Many of my boys died on that
battlefield. But I didn't.
Ex-Second Lieutenant Walters
shuddered up out of the nightmare. His eyes flew open and he stared
up into the darkness of the stockade cell. The taste of human blood
lingered in his mouth.
few miles from New York City
or no turban? The bloody thing made Martin Smythe's head itch,
but it was part of the disguise. He'd worn it for three weeks
straight when he first joined the circus, until the circus members
all accepted him as Rajesh, the Indian mahout.
Anyone who'd ever read a penny-dreadful recognized the Indian mystic
type. Give them a turban, a few cryptic statements, and a yoga pose
or two, and they'd fill in the rest.
Most of the disguise he liked.
He enjoyed practicing yoga again--it hadn't been quite the thing at
Cambridge, though he would have appreciated a good revitalizing
stretch after some of those cricket matches. And though his thick
Indian accent might be a bit over the top, it made a change from
having to disguise all hint of his mother tongue. That dratted turban
was another matter.
sighed. When the Maharana of Udaipur*
gave you a mission,
you did a pukka*
job of it. You tried not to doubt whether there was still a Maharana,
or an Udaipur, or a British India. You tried not to wonder if your
widowed mother still lived, if she still brought her sari up to cover
her mouth when she laughed, if she still made chapatis*
for the neighborhood kids.
Martin reined his thoughts in
with an effort.
At least the bloody turban was
so conspicuous that nobody seeing it would ever suspect he had
anything sneaky in mind. He squared the turban on his head, slid his
Gurkha knife inside his embroidered waistcoat, and slipped out of his
Against the rich blue of the
sky before dawn, trees stretched their skeletal limbs up to the
heavens. The circus wagons were dark, quiet lumps. The morning air
carried the shifting of the horses, the yawns and grumbles of the
menagerie animals, and the first chirpings of the dawn chorus.*
In the distance, the skyline of New York City loomed like a distant,
dark mountain range.
Martin felt a cold foreboding
in the pit of his stomach as he stared at the darkened city. What
awaited them there? What awaited him there?
He shrugged it off and wound
his way through the maze of circus wagons. Pre-mission jitters, that
was all it was. Collywobbles. He should have taken care of this
earlier, as soon as he saw those coded pages from the ringmaster's
trunk, but it would seem more natural now. Besides, he
admitted to himself, I was shaken by the catastrophe. Thrown off
my game. Who wouldn't be? It was like the lord of death himself had
come to earth.
Martin passed under the shadow
of his mechanical elephant and knocked on the door of the wagon
beside it. Last night, he'd been careful to position the beast beside
this particular wagon.
No sound came from inside. He
knocked again. He heard muffled grumbling and the creak of the
floorboards. A match hissed, and light seeped from under the crack in
the door. The door swung open, and the skeleton man squinted out.
"What do you want, Rajesh?" he asked, shining the lantern
into Martin's eyes. "It's hardly the time for a social call."
Martin waggled his head in that
yes-no Indian gesture he knew foreigners found so annoying. "I
am having these sausages," he said, "but my religion is
forbidding me from the eating of cows, and I am wondering--"
"Come in, come in!"
the skeleton man said, all smiles at the mention of sausages, even
though Martin's hands were empty.
He'd taken the lure. It even
happened to be true. After years of eating beef in England, Martin
felt a sudden rush of freedom at being able to say so. Trying to
persuade himself that only Indian cows were sacred hadn't helped
much. He'd made such sacrifices for his country--and he didn't mean
As Martin stepped up into the
wagon, he thought he heard a rustle nearby. But when he scanned his
surroundings, he saw only the dark blotches of wagons.
The inside of the skeleton
man's wagon appeared to be half the size of the outside because of
the jumble it held. Stacks of books and newspaper broadsheets and
candy tins rose to the ceiling. Bric-a-brac nestled in the nooks and
crannies. Silk flowers and ribbons dangled from the ceiling and
spilled across the floor. Martin took a step further inside, closed
the door, and had to duck as the movement sent a ham dangling from
the ceiling to swinging in a hazardous arc.
skeleton man asked, holding out his hands. Those long, thin fingers
"Not yet," Martin
said. "I am wanting a trade, yes? You are finding papers in the
ringmaster's cabin?" His accent slipped a little, but it hardly
skeleton man said warily, backing away. "I gave them to the
fortune teller and the equestrienne when we reached Boston."
"I am trading the sausages
for the other papers."
The skeleton man shook his head
quickly. "There were no other papers. And where are these
Martin ignored the question.
"You are lying." He let the last traces of his thick Indian
accent slip away as he backed the skeleton man into the corner. He
slid his Gurkha knife out of his waistcoat, angling it so the lantern
light ran along its blade.
The skeleton man kept shaking
his head, his eyes riveted on that on that sharp gleam of light. From
the direction of the wagon window, Martin heard a faint scratching
sound, as if a short person were trying to pull themself up to peer
in the window. He spun and dashed to the door.
When he threw open the door and
leapt out, knife in hand and ready for an ambush, he found--nothing.
The person, if person there had been, was gone.
The scuffle of footsteps inside
the wagon behind him gave him enough warning to dive forward and
seize the door before the skeleton man could slam it shut and throw
the bar. The door still slammed, but on Martin's hand instead. Red
pain seared through him, but he bit back both the pain and the urge
to scream or swear aloud.
He reached around with his
other hand and muscled the door open despite the skeleton man's
attempt to hold it shut. It wasn't difficult. The skeleton man, well,
he was thin and stringy and mostly made of brittle bones.
Once inside, Martin shut the
door quietly and slid the bar across it. The skeleton man's eyes
widened. "Where are the papers?" Martin asked.
The skeleton man shook his
head, backing away. Martin felt a bit sorry for him, but he didn't
let it show in his face as he closed the distance, knife in hand.
"Where are they?" he asked again.
The skeleton man's eyes
flickered to the corner his bed was wedged into. A chocolate tin lay
beside the bed. Martin crab-walked sideways, scooped the tin up, and
shook it. They both heard the hissing sound of sliding paper. Careful
to keep an eye on the skeleton man, Martin braced the tin against his
hip and pried the lid off. He smiled when he saw the papers scribbled
with code. "Did you take anything else?" he asked.
The skeleton man shook his
"Think, man! Was there
anything else with these?"
"Just a King James bible."
Martin felt a rush of
excitement go through him. "Thank you. Sorry for the scare I
must have given you. Here, sit down." He gestured to the bed.
The skeleton man perched on the
edge and smiled back at him tentatively. Martin picked up the blanket
from the bed and wrapped it around the skeleton man's shoulders. Then
he took one quick step closer and rammed his knife between his ribs.
The skeleton man's face whitened. He pressed a hand to his chest.
"You. . . ."
"Sorry, old chap."
If 'twere done, 'twere best done quickly, and all that rot.
Martin jerked the knife out and brought it up in a smooth stroke
across the skeleton man's throat.He pulled the blanket up as he did
so. The thick wool soaked up all the blood. A gurgle, a gasp, and
then Martin was the only living person in the wagon.
Into a burlap sack went--as
best he could judge--the skeleton man's most prized possessions, the
ones that would be obvious in their absence or conspicuous in their
presence. In these uncertain times, surely it was reasonable to think
that a performer or two might run away to join the city? He avoided
looking at the tintype photographs as he swept them into the sack.
Finished, he blew out the
lantern and opened the wagon door a crack. He listened. Nothing. He
peered out. Nobody.
He slipped out the door and
went to the bone elephant. A sequence of taps with his mahout's
stick along the brass keys arrayed between the elephant's ribs, and
the elephant reached up with its snakelike leather trunk and pulled
off the extra rug he'd thrown across its back last night. He wrapped
the skeleton man's body up in the rug, tied the ends up with rope,
and hustled the parcel outside. Then he climbed up to sit on the
elephant's back, had the elephant lift the body, and breathed a deep
sigh of relief. The riskiest part was past.
He'd always practiced the
elephant's act with a toss-tool of a rug wrapped around a log, to
prepare for just this eventuality. The first time people saw
something body-shaped wrapped in a rug, they'd look close at it. The
dozenth time, they wouldn't even spare it a glance. Martin had hoped
never to need the ruse, but he supposed that after the ringmaster
grew suspicious, it was only a matter of time.
He tapped his stick, and the
elephant twirled the body, tossed it high in the air, and caught it.
Another signal, and the elephant lurched forward, its ponderous
dinner plate-sized feet crunching over the thin crust of snow. The
rug-wrapped body twirled, swooped up into the air, and fell again,
caught at the last moment by the elephant's trunk. After the first
mile, Martin stopped the show. Two miles farther away, he stopped in
a copse of trees and dumped the skeleton man's body and the bag of
his precious possessions in a hollow. He covered the body with stones
and fallen branches and then covered it with frozen leaves. He made a
thorough job of it, despite his injured hand slowing him down. When
he was done, nobody would have suspected a body lay there. The area
still looked disturbed, but the next snow would cover that. He
squinted at the grey-streaked sky. Perhaps even today.
After he'd finished disposing
of the body, he returned to the skeleton man's wagon. He knelt and
studied the ground next to the wagon window. He thought he saw
something, but it was hard to be sure in the cool blue light of early
dawn. He took a chance and lit the lantern.
"Bloody hell," he
There were boot prints under
the window, small, neat ones with square heels. He studied them for a
moment, imprinting the image into his mind, and then he blew out the
be continued in Episode 9: The Peculiar Case of the Fortune
Teller's Veil, Part II)