Authors: Skies of Gold
The Ether Chronicles
To Zack, for all the battles we fight together
pecial thanks to Suleikha Snyder for her language assistance, and Glossaria for her help with ship terminology. Any inaccuracies in this book are entirely my own, and shouldn’t reflect on these awesome women.
And thank you so much to Amanda Bergeron, for believing in the world of the Ether Chronicles.
The Outer Hebrides.
dark serrated shape pushed up from the gray horizon. Were she a more fanciful sort of person, Kalindi MacNeil might have imagined the shape to be an ancient beast, the sort that legend told lurked in the cold waters off the western coast of Scotland, eager to drag ships down into the sunless sea. Standing in the prow of the small steam ferry, she shivered, drawing her cloak more tightly around her.
Don’t be a grease brain. It’s only an isolated island. Exactly where you want to be.
The boat chugged closer, spewing peat smoke into the air. Tetrol fuel didn’t make its way into isolated places like the Outer Hebrides, and coal was just as rare. She might be able to tinker with the ferry’s engines, design a way for it to process its fuel more efficiently and without churning black smoke into the atmosphere. Before she’d left Liverpool, she’d been in the process of analyzing new engine designs for seafaring vessels so they could compete with airships in terms of speed and productivity. Airships were strictly in service to the military at the present, but some day in the future, they’d certainly be used for commercial purposes, and Kali had been planning for that time ahead.
But then the world had turned to flame, and all thoughts of tomorrow burned with it.
She pushed the thoughts from her mind. All that mattered for the foreseeable future was the island ahead of her.
The ferry passed a few miniscule outcroppings of rock jutting out of the sea. Some were furred with long grasses, and one even had a tree of some sort growing out of it in a display of brave defiance. But aside from half a dozen seabirds perched on the tiny islets, she’d have no neighbors. None within a dozen miles over choppy waters, anyway. And she didn’t have a boat of her own.
“Certain of this, lass?” The ferry’s captain—and sole crewman—called from the wheel. She didn’t want to stand beside him. Captain Campbell smelled of peat smoke and brine and a woolen jumper seldom cleaned. “Ain’t nobody lived on Eilean Comhachag in near fifty years.”
“Thirty,” Kali corrected him. “The last member of my family left the island almost three decades ago. Sought their fortune in Skye and never went back.”
“Can’t say as I blame them. Nothing out here but wind and solitude.”
Kali smiled. “Perfect.”
She glanced over her shoulder to see Campbell eyeing her warily. Was it because of her odd answer, or was it because he’d likely never seen a woman of half white, half Indian blood before? It didn’t matter. All she cared about was reaching Eilean Comhachag and being blessedly alone.
The captain fell silent as he steered the boat closer to the island. As they neared, details emerged. A rocky beach faced an eastern bay, one of the only places a vessel could approach safely. The beach sloped up, disappearing into thick gorse. Sharp hills jutted in a line from north to south, forming the island’s spine. Rowan trees gathered in clusters along the base of the hills. As they had approached, she had noticed the high, jagged cliffs plunging into the sea on the island’s western shore. Eilean Comhachag was longer than it was wide, somewhat kidney-shaped. But most of it remained a mystery, including its size.
Sailing closer, she studied the vague map her father had drawn for her. The map itself was over fifteen years old, and shaped by her father’s hazy memories. Alan MacNeil had only been to Eilean Comhachag once, as a very small boy.
“Dismal place,” he’d said to her when she’d asked him about it. “Only rocks and bogs and trees that moaned with the wind. Cold as the Devil’s arse.” Then he’d grinned beneath his gingery beard. “Not like our comfortable home here in Nagpur.”
Her father had been one of the few British soldiers who’d loved the heat of India. Kali missed its warmth, too, but she wouldn’t go back. Not to Nagpur, not to her mother and father. How could she . . . now? If she returned to Nagpur, it would be too easy to become simply her parents’ daughter. But she needed to know who she was now, and she couldn’t do that if held too close in the sheltering embrace of home.
The faded map she held revealed few clues about her future home, so she stuffed it into the pocket of her cloak. She’d just have to explore it, once she’d gotten set up. Hopefully, the terrain wasn’t too rocky. That’d prove a challenge.
Campbell guided the boat into the bay, slowing and then stopping the engine before the vessel’s hull hit the beach. As expected, the only occupants of the shore were a small number of wading birds, who took to the sky as soon as the boat stopped.
“Where are the owls?” Kali asked. “It wouldn’t make sense to name this place Owl Island otherwise.”
Dropping anchor, the captain said, “Night creatures, they are. I expect you’ll hear ’em after the sun goes down.” He glanced back and forth between the pile of Kali’s belongings lashed to the deck and the beach. Some twenty feet of shallow water separated them. “I don’t have a dinghy, lass, and, begging your pardon, you don’t seem strong enough to help me carry that lot onto the shore.”
“I’m not,” she answered. Between her trunk and numerous mechanical devices, only the burliest of stevedores could transport her things. A Man O’ War could do it without any problem, but one seldom found the technology-enhanced men on tiny Scottish islands. Either they were in the skies serving their countries, or they’d gone rogue and used their strength and airships in the service of their own desires, turning mercenary. Fortunately, no rogue Man O’ War would ever bother with a dot on the map like Eilean Comhachag. Neither would a Man O’ War in military service. She was safe. But she still had twenty feet of shallow waters to negotiate before she’d be truly secure.
Back on South Uist, it’d taken four brawny shoremen to load up the ferry with her belongings. “I’ve got a way to get everything safely, and drily, to shore.”
The captain watched her with bald curiosity as she bustled around her belongings. Everything was fastened together with lengths of steel-enforced cords onto a large wooden pallet, ensuring that none of the ropes would snap from the weight of her possessions. Though everything was well secured, she was able to open one of her traveling cases, and the captain cursed softly when she produced four tiny brass-encased ether tanks.
“How’d you get those?”
A corner of her mouth curled up. “Connections.”
She secured each of the tanks to the corners of the pallet using leather straps. A small metal box was mounted to one of the tanks, with a long insulated wire tethered from the box to a handheld device. Mounted in the center of the handheld device was a dial, with a brass pin sticking out of the side. She pulled on the brass pin, and the box she held suddenly hummed to life.
Campbell swore again when the ether tanks began to glow. They seemed to struggle for a moment, and then the wooden pallet rose up, lifted by the tanks. Setting the box aside, she crossed to the small tetrol engine affixed to the pallet and pulled on its starter cord. The engine growled to life, and the pallet moved over and beyond the rail of the boat. Picking up the control box, she used its dial to guide the pallet over the shallows leading up to the beach. Louvered fans were attached to the back of the pallet, pushing the whole thing toward the shore. She frowned in concentration, hoping none of the ether tanks suddenly lost buoyancy and sent her belongings plunging into the water.
Slowly, the pallet drifted closer to the beach. The cord attached between the device on the tank and the control box stretched tight. Kali sighed with relief when it finally reached the shore, and she set it down onto the rocks. But the length of the cord wasn’t quite long enough, and it tugged from her hands. At least the cord and the box were both waterproof.
“The name of God was that?” Campbell asked, awed.
“Something we’d been working on in Liverpool,” she answered. “To help loading and offloading cargo ships.” But she and her colleagues hadn’t gotten too far before their work had been interrupted. Destroyed. A half dozen tanks and a handful of the control boxes had survived. Given the state of Liverpool now, it’d be a long time before the docks would need anything like the loading devices. Guilt had gnawed at her as she’d taken a few for her own use—but it’d been more important to get out of the city and as far away as possible, so she’d grabbed what she could and fled.
“Saali kutti,” she cursed now. She’d safely transported her possessions to the shore, but hadn’t thought about how to get herself from the boat to the beach. The water was only a few feet deep, but she couldn’t risk it.
She turned to Campbell. “Captain, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask a very great service of you.”
He grinned knowingly. “’Course. Fine ladies don’t much like water.”
I’m not a fine lady and I don’t give a damn about water, she thought. Her father had taught her to swim in Shukrawari Lake. Now, however, she wasn’t certain she’d be able to make the trip to the beach. Anger rose up, red-tinged. What had once been so easy, even pleasurable, was fraught with possible danger.
“There’s an extra sovereign in it for you,” she answered.
At least he looked offended by her offer. “As if I’d take money for doing the honorable thing.”