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“Crossroads” by Neve Talbot

“Crossroads” by Neve Talbot

Crossroads” may perhaps be the most difficult short story to write about the process of writing because there is so much truth in it, although it is not a true story. I guess it’s like a one-hundred-year-old house one decides to renovate. One decides it has “good bones” and wishes to preserve the craftsmanship and character of the place. But then, when one gets right down to it, the structure is stripped down to the studs and if anything of the original is left, it’s the decorative bits . . .  and the foundation and the load-bearing-struts that have reinforced with concrete and steel to stay erect.

The skeleton of this story is, when we had been marriedless than ten years, my husband’s alcoholic brother died in the southern Colorado desert when drove out onto a ranch road to get some sleep but inadvertently left his car lights on and his batter died. Ill and isolated, vomiting blood, he had no way to reach help. We have no way of knowing how long he suffered before the end came, but he had been sick for months without telling anyone. He was thirty-six.

We did receive a call at 4 am, and his parents were out of the country at the time. They were all the way in Fiji, in point of fact, on a service mission for our church, and would not return for another nine months. My husband did drive his brother’s El Camino home, but to Utah, not Texas, and it wasn’t his brother’s ashes he carried, but his lead-lined coffin filled with his unseemly-to-discuss remains. (His parents didn’t believe in cremation). His sister (now deceased in an untimely car accident) was very pragmatic that way. Why pay someone else to do something you could do yourself?

We did get married very, very young, my husband was forced into a career change due to an economic lurch in the aerospace industry, and we have three sons. Other than that, everything is pure fantasy . . . more or less. I believe more strongly in the ghosts in this story than I do that my husband acting as Rob did ultimately in this story. His actions over the previous thirty-six years prove he reached the same conclusions, but Freemans are a stoic sort. They don’t talk about  feelings.Neither is Rob the only embodiment of wishful thinking. I was the polar opposite of sleek and sexy at that age. But, we need to reward Rob at the end, right? And, being starkly truthful at that moment would have crashed through the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. One can only press credulity so far.

This was the third anthology Xchyler published and, still shy on acceptable entries to our contest, we needed a bit of filler, but I couldn’t think what to write. I don’t really “do” ghost stories. I’m not into horror. I don’t like scary movies. But then, Dan’s story came back to me, as it tends to do, even after nearly thirty years. I guess you could say it haunts me, and all of the sudden it had to be written. And, it had to be written from Rob’s point of view. It was probably the most tortuous to write of any that I have submitted to a Xchyler contest, but it proved cathartic, perhaps because of the truths that gurgled up in the process. I guess some demons had to be exorcised.

“Crossroads” isn’t a true story, but it’s full of truth . . . so much that I wouldn’t post this here if I expected any of my connections to read it. But, after three years in print, they still haven’t, so there’s no reason for them to start now. Internet, I think the secret’s safe with us.  goes here

An excerpt from Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology


by Neve Talbot

Rob understood his brother’s love for the road, especially, as then, in the dead of night. Like himself, Nate had never been one for large crowds. On the road, one was utterly alone. The growling 454 V8 of his brother’s cherry 1977 El Camino Classic and the steel-belted radials humming on the blacktop lulled to silence all the demands that sucked the life out of him. They slipped away like the endless blur of the dotted white line that streamed beyond the windshield.

Except, there he was, bringing up the rear of that cross-country cortege, behind his sister Sarah’s Suburban, driven by her ass-of-a-son, Bertie; returning home with Nate’s ashes, hurtling at 75 miles an hour toward the madness: the boss, the job, the mounting bills and overdrawn bank account, the constant chaos of three small children he couldn’t afford. The labyrinth of life with no easy way out.

Toward Annabelle—his own sweet Nan—and that look of dread in her eyes: anguish that assaulted him, and reticence that held him at arm’s length. Pleading for answers to questions she dare not voice, nor even understand.


Rob jerked awake, jolted from a deep, dreamless sleep by something—the baby? He couldn’t remember. Nan had started whining just before ten, which degenerated into a fight, as usual. To avoid another relentless demand to hash it out, he put off going to bed until he was certain she slept.

He turned in very late, and the fog of his fatigue melded to his brain like his kids’ sticky hands to his skin. Scarcely lucid, he ignored his transient bob to the surface of consciousness, and surrendered again to the depths of slumber.

Her voice prevented it, however . . . a low murmur . . . hesitant . . . wary—scraps of sound distorted by the cobwebs of his sleep-deprived brain. He rolled over, pried open his eyes, and forced the numerals of the digital clock into focus. 04:00. Good grief. He had to be up in two hours. Couldn’t she cut him some slack?

He turned toward the wall and faked unconsciousness. He was tired of bending over backward to make her happy, and for what? No matter how he tried, he couldn’t figure out what the devil she wanted.

He recoiled from her touch as she reached out to him. “Rob.” She spoke gently, a catch of tears in her voice. Blast. He couldn’t do this tonight. This morning. She could sleep all day if she wanted, but he had to go to work. He moaned incoherently and pulled the spread up around his shoulders, blocking her out. The light on her nightstand shattered the darkness. He swore beneath his breath and dug in. Not tonight. He’d get his own way for once.

“Rob,” she insisted, jiggling him. “Baby. Wake up.” She prodded him in the back with something hard. Pushed beyond his patience, he hurled a glare over his shoulder at her. She flinched with the force of it but fought to appear unaffected. “Honey, you need to take this.” Was that pity in her eyes? Pity?

Rob looked from her face to his mobile phone in her outstretched hand and back to her face. He felt his stomach drop through the floor. Good news never called at 4 a.m. He watched her blink back her welling tears, but she could not hide the fear and heartbreak. That look he knew only too well.

“Bobby Daniels?”

“This is Rob.”

“Mr. Daniels—” the tinny voice on the other end of the line hesitated. “I’m sorry about the hour.”

Rob flung his legs over the side of the bed, turned on his lamp, pushed the mop of unruly hair back from his face, and hunched over the receiver. He knew Nan couldn’t help reaching out. It was who she was. He felt her drawn to him, then hesitate, repelled by the palpable shield of animosity pulsating around him.

Blazes! He needed some space. He couldn’t breathe.

“Excuse me. Who is this?”

“The sheriff of La Plata County, Mr. Daniels—Durango. Durango, Colorado.”

“How can I help you, Sheriff . . . ?”

“—Gutierrez. Tim Gutierrez. The reason I’m calling you is . . . well . . . your wife tells me you have a brother by the name of Nathan Daniels?”

“That’s right.”

“The thing is, your name has ICE next to it in the phone we found.”

“What kind of help does Nate need, Sheriff? I’ll do anything I can.”

“That’s just it, Mr. Daniels. If what we found is your brother, he’s beyond anyone’s help now.”


Ahead, Sarah’s Suburban drew up to the flashing red signal at the intersection, the headlamps lighting up the reflective signs at the junction. “In fifty feet, turn right onto Highway 288,” the GPS on his phone instructed.

Rob slowed the El Camino and saw his sister glance over her shoulder to ensure he obediently followed. In the rearview, from the glow of the dash lights, he could see Bertie’s vigilance—his eyes peeled for Rob’s least deviation from protocol. Defy his mother? That would never do.

It had played out the same that entire expedition—Rob tagging along, doing Sarah’s bidding, her perfectly trained terrier properly at heel. They both treated him as if he hadn’t a brain in his head, and maybe he didn’t since he ran her errands and put up with Bertie’s laziness and smug superiority.

And for what? To return home for more of the same. To endure Sarah’s constant criticisms—so she could put him properly in his place. So Bertie could gloat over his failures. All while Nan silently castigated him for not standing up for himself. Why wouldn’t he grow a pair?

She thought he should man up? Rob agreed. For once, he would make his own choices. He wouldn’t be their doormat for the sole purpose of keeping the peace. He had that one golden opportunity to break free without answering to anyone, and he meant to take it. If he didn’t right then, he knew he never would.

Rob flipped on the blinker and turned left.

“Recalculating,” the electronic voice announced with disgust.

Rob picked up the phone to discontinue the navigation, when it blared a Twisted Sister riff. He cursed under his breath but answered it.

“What are you doing?” Sarah demanded without ceremony.

“I got an engine light,” Rob lied. “There’s a gas station a couple of miles up the road.”

“We’ll follow you. Bertie, turn around.” He watched in the rearview as the Suburban made an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the highway. Just like Sarah. The world always bowed to her convenience.

“No. It probably just needs oil or something. You go on. I’ll meet you at the motel in Santa Fe like we planned.”

“We shouldn’t split up. Nathan’s dead because that car—”

“Don’t you lose your deposit if you miss the check-in time? It’s already ten.” Rob smirked at the silence on the line. Remind Sarah how much more her own way cost her, and you won the argument. The Suburban slowed again and pulled over to the side of the road.

“Keep your phone charged and don’t get lost,” she finally ordered. “We have to be at Galveston when the folks’ ship docks.”

“I’m a big boy now, Sissy,” Rob answered caustically. “Long pants and everything.”

A barked command, more grousing from Bertie, and the Suburban squealed through another U-ie, then peeled out down the road. Rob floored the gas. The engine roared, the tires sang on the asphalt, and he watch as the Suburban’s taillights quickly vanished into the night.


Their cramped townhouse sat a single flight of stairs higher than the street. Rob stood at the bottom, with his duffle in one hand, the doorknob in the other. He gazed at his wife who stood at the top, the baby balanced on her hip. By the time he finished his final phone call that morning, spreading the bad but truly unsurprising news, Nan had anticipated both Sarah’s plan and timetable, and had begun managing the unmanageable.

A large cooler sat at his feet, stocked to feed an army: hoagie sandwiches, lettuce and tomatoes packed separately to keep them fresh, carrot and celery sticks he wouldn’t eat, apples and oranges peeled and sliced like she fixed for the boys, granola bars, animal crackers, little bags of corn chips and tiny fruit cups she put in Luke’s lunch box, anything else her trolling through the pantry could produce on the fly.

He’d rather just stop at McDonald’s, but he couldn’t deprive her of her busyness. He couldn’t have stopped her if he tried.

But, there she was, gazing down at him with that look, and he had nothing. “There’s really no need for you to go.”

“I know,” she answered. She lied. He knew she believed he needed her to hold his hand. To wipe his nose and dry his tears when he cried, and cradle his head on her breast while she murmured, ‘He’s in a better place,’ or ‘He’s free now. Free from everything.’

Lucky stiff.

“I’d just be in the way.”

Rob blinked at her and remained silent.

“There’s not room enough for me anyway.” Another lie. Sarah’s Suburban could seat nine comfortably and still have room for the State of Delaware. ‘The last thing your sister wants is me there,’ she left unsaid. ‘The last thing I want is eighteen hours trapped with all fourteen of Bertie Mulligan’s groping hands.’

Nan knew herself the outsider in that family affair and it stung. She grieved for Nate as much as anyone—probably more than most. They would never let her in, though, no matter how often she proved herself worthy of their respect. They all knew Bertie smeared her reputation as payback for her rejection, but they hid behind that holier-than-thou excuse to freeze her out of their little clique.

But, Rob couldn’t give her what she wanted just then. He scarcely held things together as it was. He didn’t have the strength to take on her grief as well. Let Sarah insult her with her distance and spare him the effort.

Just that once, he could put to good use Sarah’s disdain for her sister-in-law, and her demon spawn’s lust for his uncle’s wife. He would take Sarah’s officiousness and Bertie’s hypocrisy over a cloying, self-sacrificing little wifey assaulting him with cow eyes for a thousand miles, needing so desperately for him to need her.

The kids needed her. Let her dote on them. Blast. He thought he would suffocate.

“I’ll go with you, Dad.”

Rob attempted a smile and ruffled Luke’s thatch of straw-colored hair. Seven years old and already trying so hard to be a man. How could he look at him with eyes that understood everything? Or, at least thought they did. “I’ll ride shotgun.”

“No. You need to take care of Mom and your brothers.”

“Matt can watch Charlie.”


“Luke,” Nan instructed at the same moment. “Take Dad’s duffle out to the truck.” The boy squared his shoulders as he hefted the burden, nodded firmly to Rob, and then disappeared out the door, leaving the pair staring silently at one another. Sesame Street nattered in the background.

Rob knew he should fix this—thing—between him and Nan, but he couldn’t get a firm grasp on it. She needed him to apologize, but how could he when he didn’t know what for? “Annabelle—” He couldn’t find the words.

But then, actions always spoke loudest between them. He found it so much easier to speak with his touch. Then, she would answer with her response: the slight quiver of her skin as he grazed his fingers over the softest places, the catch in her breath, the arch of her neck, her dark, hooded eyes surrendering to his assault. Impulses washed over him as, from ten feet away, the friction between them melted in the crackling heat of pheromones that drew his feet to the first step.

The horn from the Suburban shattered the early morning stillness. “Go.” The word caught in her throat and he knew not from grief. He swallowed hard when he met her sultry gaze. She would have given and taken the life affirmation they both needed so desperately just then, even if he had only ten minutes to spare. But he didn’t, and the horn blared.

“I’ll call you when we get there.”

“It’s probably not even him. The sheriff said he had blond hair.”

The words offered Rob no comfort, but rather the reverse. He hadn’t told her everything Gutierrez said. He could never do that to her. The thought of his brother’s dark hair bleached blond by the blistering desert sun had churned in his stomach all morning.

Despite the comfort Nan couldn’t offer him, at least her words dispelled his mood. He wouldn’t have to endure Bertie’s knowing leer. Sarah wouldn’t give him that look—the one that said, ‘you’re nothing but a randy kid who was hot to get into some trashy girl’s pants. Anything that would hold still would have done.’


Rob downshifted, released the clutch, and laid on the gas at the apex of the turn. The El Camino leapt out of its coast and attacked the mountain. Its high-beams split the night as they flashed over stone and through the trees as the road banked around the side of the canyon. The breezy, brisk night purged the stench of vomit, blood, and sweat—the final remnants of his brother’s last hours—from the cabin as it streamed through the open windows. Rob felt renewed, refreshed, clean. He felt free and laughed out loud.

A sharp turn, and the cardboard box holding Nate’s ashes slid across the seat. Rob reached out and grabbed it, then settled it more securely in its place with one hand. “Sarah should have sprung for the urn at the mortuary,” he told it. “Mom would have liked it. Who knows if they’ll ever send that monstrosity Sarah ordered on eBay?”

Another turn. Clutch. Downshift. Gas. Power through the arc. Another purr of the engine as the muscle car responded to Rob’s deft handling. It hugged the curves like a cat winding around its owner’s ankles. Like Nan, when he came up to her from behind and—

He shook his head to break free of the thought. “Remember that road trip we always meant to take?” he said instead. “Remember how you promised to teach me to drive a big rig—between spring and fall semester, after I finished my first year at UT? Remember? Back before I messed up so bad? . . . But, I trashed all that and you . . . you didn’t do so well either, did you, bro?”

Rob downshifted as the grade steepened. The sound of rushing water from a nearby creek, coupled with the night breeze washing through the trees, prevailed over the low growl of the engine. The mountain air, sharp with pine, sweet with aspen, and smooth with sun-warmed stone, rushed over him and eased his agitation.

“I’m sick and tired of ‘someday’ always meaning never,” he complained. “Maybe it’s time we just drive and see where the road takes us. You were the smart one, Nate. You knew enough to leave the baggage behind.”


Gere always called Nate “little brother.” He was five years older. But, no one ever called Bobby that. Gere and Nate just called him ‘the kid’—the kid that came as a surprise nine years after Nate. To Sarah, he was ‘The Embarrassment.’

Bobby and her son Bertie were both ten. Of course, to Sarah, Bertie did everything better. He was smarter, faster, taller, stronger, more coordinated, more . . . everything. Even two months older.

Nate filled his pad above the garage with the cool stuff Mom banned from the house and Dad swore would mean Nate’s ruination. Bobby wished he hadn’t bragged to his best friend, Todd, that he could get it, but, if he didn’t show up, Todd would tell Bertie that Bobby was a coward, then Bertie would go running to Sarah.

And, Sarah never lost an opportunity to tattle on Bobby. She was a full twenty-one years older, but she would tell Dad for certain sure, and then Bobby would really catch it.

So, he pressed himself against the wall inside the apartment door as he hesitated. With one final glance through the glass toward the house, he shoved the stuff up his shirt, took a deep breath, then sprinted down the stairs and away from the fluttering curtains of the kitchen windows.

Bobby headed toward Dad’s workshop beyond the garden, at the back of the lot. Nate always lit up behind it—Gere too, that one time a year ago when they made a rancid sweet sort of smoke from the tiny cigarette, when Gere was home from the Army.

When they caught him watching, Nate snapped at Bobby to get lost, but Gere laughed and sent him to raid the pantry for munchies. Nate got angry. He said Bobby was the smart one. Gere quit laughing.

Nate never had much use for Bobby, but he always stuck up for him. Always.

Bobby ducked around the workshop to where Todd promised to wait for him. “Nothing to it,” he crowed to his friend. He sat next to Todd and pulled the chilly cans from beneath his shirt.

He shouldn’t have been surprised when Bertie stepped through the back gate. He only lived two doors down, and Todd had never been able to keep a secret from him. Bobby tried to love Bertie, but . . . Dad said Bertie was Bobby’s cross to bear.

Bertie was—Bertie. Like grabbing a beer, then spraying the rotten-smelling foam all over them. That was Bertie. Swigging a mouthful—that was Bertie. Choking on his own swagger was Bertie, too.

Bertie tapped the Marlboro on its end like they did in the movies. Then, he flicked the lighter and took a long drag. He looked about to hurl, but if they chickened out, Bertie would never let them live it down.

All of the sudden, a jet of water knocked the cigarette from Bertie’s lips. He jumped to his feet yelling dirty words Bobby had never heard before. Todd looked about to pee his pants.

Bobby forced himself to look up: first the scuffed leather boots, then the faded Levi’s. The choke chain clipped onto a belt loop and tucked into the back pocket that bulged with a wallet. The garden hose in the grease-stained hands and the pressure nozzle shooting water past him.

He looked beyond the frayed denim jacket and oily blue work shirt, into Nate’s stern face. Those fierce eyes peered from beneath a thick hank of black hair and pretended to see nothing but Bertie.

“Cut it out,” Bertie hollered. “I’ll tell—” Bobby wished he could raise one eyebrow like Nate. It shut Bertie up.

Silently, Nate turned off the spigot as Bertie and Todd scampered out the back gate. He smashed the pack of sodden cigarettes in his fist. He dumped both cans of beer out onto the ground, then crushed them and tossed them into Old Lady Mitchell’s aluminum collection over the fence. He cuffed Bobby upside the head. “You’re the smart one, dimwit.”

Bobby thought how Nate’s eyes looked like Dad’s whenever Bobby disappointed him. Bobby scuffed at the dirt and Nate ruffled his hair. They walked through the garden to the house. Nate paused at the bottom of the garage stairs. “Hey, kid,” he shrugged. “Wanna learn some riffs on my guitar?”

The remainder of this story can be read in Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology (2013) Xchyler Publishing.

Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology

. . . each story is brilliantly executed. I loved the Night-Gallery type spookiness paired with intelligent writing and surprising plots. Awesome story telling all the way around.

Mae Clair

Amazon Reviewer

. . . especial favorites included Scott E. Tarbet’s “Tombstone” (loved the old farmer’s narrative voice), R.M. Ridley’s “Cost of Custody” (a P.I. adventure that had my adrenaline going), and Neve Talbot’s “Crossroads” (which I started out thinking I’d dislike, due to the protagonist’s attitude about his family, but ended up absolutely sucked in).

Danielle Shipley

Amazon Reviewer

Great characters, great situations and some really interesting outcomes. Overall a lot of fun to read wether you’re in the Halloween spirit or just missing that tingle at the back of your neck!

Jeremy G

Amazon Reviewer


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“West End” by Neve Talbot

“West End” by Neve Talbot

The idea of “West End” came to me when we decided as a company to produce a sequel to Mechanized Masterpieces, our best-selling anthology and one of our all-time best-selling titles. With American literature as our point of reference, my love for the original made Little Women the natural choice for my source material. Again, the greatest challenge in writing this story was keeping within the required length. Even now, as I read through it more than a year after the final edits, I relive the deleted scenes and mourn their passing. The themes of war, imperialism, greed, and unfettered technology running rampant are rich veins to mine, and the Steampunk palette provides vivid colors and stark contrasts with which to paint.

As mentioned in my previous post, “Tropic of Cancer” will one day become a full-length novel, of which the characters of Little Women will be an integral part. However, unlike my pastiche of Jane Eyre which held true to the characters’ ultimate fates, in my treatment of Little Women, I could not help but take the fan-girl approach. At the time of its publication, the book was actually published in two separate volumes, with the first ending immediately after Meg’s engagement to Mr. Brook. Miss Alcott’s fans were desperate to know what happened to Jo and Laurie, and so she wrote the succeeding volume, only to disappoint her audience when the pair failed to wed.

Granted, Miss Alcott’s version is by far the more adult ending: not every story ends in pink-cloud-shrouded castles in the sky, doves on wing, and peeling wedding bells, and that’s a good thing. For most of the world (and the literature it reads), the best endings are those true to life: common sense and ordinary, with affirmation of love that is deep-seated and abiding, solid and mature, rather than ablaze with passion but all too fleeting. Such is the Professor Bhaer Allcott gives Jo March. Life consists primarily of the mundane, broken intermittently with the apexes of elation and the nadirs of despair. Just think how exhausting it would be if it were otherwise.

But, I didn’t read Little Women as an adult. I read it as a ten-year-old girl who had just finished reading every book Laura Ingalls Wilder had ever written, and could see and had learned to watch for the seeds of love for Manly developing within the heart and soul of her autobiographical character over the course of several installments (or so it felt at the time). To come off that high—that solid affirmation of my own hyper-romantic notions—and tumble into the heartbreak of Little Women was too much for my tweenie heart to ever recover from. Beth died. Jo rejected Laurie, and while she at least eventually gained the satisfaction of an intellectual equal (if not superior), poor Laurie was forced to settle for shallow and self-centered Amy! Alcott sold Laurie down the river!

It was too much to be born.

Then, with maturity comes the increased understanding that Little Women bears some strong autobiographical elements itself, and with that realization comes a bit of melancholy knowing that Alcott never found her Professor Bhaer . . . at least, not that she was free to wed. One has to wonder if there was a Theodore Laurence in her youth, and if she ever regretted turning him away.

Thus, for a good forty years, the Laurie in my heart has demanded a better fate than afforded him by the author, and when the opportunity arose for him to join forces with Edward Rochester, it was a temptation too great to resist. And, of course Rochester being the man he is, accustomed to getting what he wants . . . well, Laurie’s fate was pretty much sealed the first time the Cassiopeia landed in the March family’s cow pasture.

Do-overs: Not much, really, but there are some fine deleted scenes that will flesh out the book nicely. “West End” will be the second act, so to speak, to “Tropic of Cancer’s” first act. When I figure out the third, I’ll write the book.

An excerpt from Mechanized Masterpieces 2

West End

by Neve Talbot

Styled after Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Theodore Laurence loved Josephine March. That was the cold, hard truth. He had loved her since that first time he laid eyes on her. Sitting at his desk, he had stared out over the hedge, and there she had sat in her attic window next door. Her laughing eyes had reached out and claimed him. His mates all called him Laurie, but she began calling him ‘Teddie’ when he was but sixteen, as if she owned him, and he knew then and there she did.

Thoughts of that day five years gone filled his mind as he closed the door and left his grandfather’s house behind him. Before him, a new life, a new adventure, and the Cassiopeia: a massive triple-envelope airship unlike anything else in the skies, then tethered not a hundred yards off on the March family’s farmland, out of reach of milling crowds and prying eyes. The legendary inventor, Edward Rochester, had developed its revolutionary alloys and unique design; the crystal arrays that captured the light of the sun and transformed it into power; and the engines that translated that power into speed with maximum efficiency.

Laurie would depart that very hour. He had graduated with the highest honors from the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the process gained the notice of the genius Rochester who made himself Laurie’s mentor. Laurie would continue his education at Rochester’s foundries in Great Britain. It should have been a day full of joy. He should have been giddy with anticipation.

Should have been.

Laurie followed the automaton that propelled a trolley overladen with steamer trunks and bandboxes across the garden lawn. Such menials were hardly new, but the machine before him resembled nothing ever before put into service. Sleek and graceful, strong and durable, with technology unmatched elsewhere, the Mandroids could accomplish nearly any physical task capable of man—all but intentionally harm or inflict death. That they would never do.

The warmongers had their rail guns and cannon, their armored trains and incendiary devices, their fifteen-foot-tall mechanized monsters with Gatling guns for appendages, euphemistically dubbed ‘Peacekeepers,’ that mindlessly trammeled friend and foe alike. After the devastation of the American Civil War, in the face of British, French, and Dutch empiric brutality and conquest, Rochester swore the world needed no help from him to slaughter wholesale. He would never invent a weapon nor allow his technology to be used as such. He maintained an uneasy peace with the British Empire by allowing his foundries to remain in its territories; they smelted the alloys and fabricated the shells, but nothing more.

Instead of selling killing machines, he sought the help of Laurie’s grandfather, Mr. Laurence, and Jo’s father, Reverend March, in giving away the Mandroids to the war-ravaged refugees of the New American Alliance, the tattered remains of the United States, still destitute and starving two years after the end of the war. The two friends had become integral to the operation and true partners in the venture. Profit would come after the devastated nation got back on its feet, but the Mandroids would first change the world. They would plow fields and harvest crops, build roads and clear away rubble, and provide much-needed manpower for the decimated population.

Laurie pressed one of several glowing crystals set in a small brass box that he held, and the machine immediately halted at the gap in the hedge between his grandfather’s estate and Orchard House, the March family property. Since his first day in Concord, Laurie had known he belonged there. How many hours over the past five years had he spent snug in the attic with Jo and her sisters, acting out Jo’s ridiculous plays? Meg and Beth were like his own sisters. Little Amy was his pet. But Jo—Jo was part of him. She ever would be.

Not even her denial of him the previous morning would change it, and therein lay the rub.

Laurie huffed at himself and his pining, and reactivated the Mandroid. A simple sequence of commands directed it through the hedge, across the Marches’ kitchen garden, and into the cow pasture to the Cassiopeia. Another flick of a switch, and the machine effortlessly moved its burden up the cargo ramp and into the hold. As he stood at the bottom, staring up into the cavernous expanse, it felt empty without Jo’s luggage beside his own, despite it being filled with rack upon rack of factory-new Mandroids awaiting dispersal.

Laurie would never begrudge Beth the support of her sisters, but she made a terribly convenient screen for Jo. They all had come to take their leave: Jo, Beth, Amy; even Meg had dragged her new husband, John Brooke, away from his morning coffee to be there. Mrs. March—Marmee to the girls—stood with her husband, the good reverend, as he consulted with Rochester.

Laurie deeply felt the family’s notice, but Jo’s dodge sent him a clear message to keep at arm’s length. But then, he didn’t need her words to understand her. Her thoughts came across perfectly clear.

Well, he would do her one better: never mind arm’s length. He refused to see her at all.

He could be too busy to notice. His old school chum, Freddie Vaughn, made that easy enough. Laurie had to brief him on preflight procedures. Freddie only got the nod for the venture to England because Mr. Vaughn, a major investor in the Mandroid project, demanded it, but Freddie was thick as a brick. Rochester carefully chose his battles with the father, and Laurie must suffer the son.

Rochester’s experiments with mechanical prostheses and neuro-electric implants fired Laurie’s imagination, and he considered medical school as another option across the pond. Whatever he did, he would follow in the footsteps of the brilliant young inventor. Like Rochester, he would do some good in the world. With Jo by his side, he knew he could not fail.

Except, Jo had no interest in England or Scotland or taking the Grand Tour—at least, not with him. She had always dreamed of going, but when he asked her to accompany him, she turned him down flat. As she put it, she didn’t love him—not enough, not that way, and she had no interest in playing wifey with a ruffled pinafore and a calico cat, sitting alone by the fire for who knew how many years while he engrossed himself in his studies yet again.

All through university, whenever he returned home, Laurie could not disgorge what he had learned fast enough for Jo. If she could not go herself, his attendance was the next best thing, or so she said. He felt he went to university for her as much as himself.

But that wasn’t good enough any longer—he wasn’t good enough—and not even the promise of Europe could tempt her to accept him. It had never before occurred to him that she would deem his offering unworthy of her, and the stark realization blindsided him. Of a sudden, they were strangers, and Laurie’s expansive, glorious horizons felt dark, gloomy, and hopeless.

Laurie tried to focus on Freddie, but his thoughts would turn to the sisters haunting the periphery of the field. Even so, he had his pride, however wounded; he would not go begging—not again. England and the Empire beckoned, and he would show her nothing but defiance, while he inwardly prayed she would somehow change her mind.

“Will you not part well with me, Teddie?” Laurie wheeled at the sound of Beth’s gentle voice. She looked too pale. Jo, so strong and hale beside her, accentuated Beth’s air of frailty as she clung to her sister’s arm. “Do you mean to go without saying goodbye?”

“You should not have come out, Little Bit,” he chided. “The morning damp will do you no good.”

The trace of an impish grin flitted over Beth’s face. “If Mohammed will not go to the mountain—”

“I would have come to you had you given me half a chance.”

Beth wagged her head and clicked her tongue in mock severity. Laurie felt the heat rush to his cheeks. To cover his prevarication, he took Beth’s free arm and threaded it through his own, despite Jo’s continued support of her. “Come with me, Miss Insolence, or I’ll bodily remove you to the house.”

Beth acquiesced far more easily than her brave front should have allowed, and within a few steps, she leaned heavily upon him, although she stubbornly maintained hold of her sister. The uneven terrain of the cow pasture caused her to stumble, and put her in constant danger of falling to the ground. “Shall I carry you, darling?”

Beth denied him but leaned her head on his shoulder. He slipped his arm around her waist to keep her on her feet, and knew Jo resisted the urge to do the same. “You should not have come out,” he chided. He shot a look of indictment at Jo for allowing it.

“Mr. Laurence,” Beth answered, “I am not so vain as to believe that your love for me is stronger than your . . . disappointment—than your awkward situation with my sister. You would not have come to the house, and I could not allow matters to remain thus between you. I will not have it. So I came to meet you halfway.” She gave a little shrug. “She could attend me or stew in the attic—a simple choice, really, for I know she loves me quite nearly as much as—”

“Beth, you go too far,” Jo snapped, the first word Laurie had heard her say all morning.

“—as much as she will miss you when you’re gone.”

Laurie eyed Jo askance, although he avoided revealing the weakness. “You mistake her, Beth. She’s glad to see me go so I will no longer hang about to bother her.”

“I am right here,” Jo protested.

“There you are wrong,” Beth persisted. “She already misses you.”

Laurie jerked his chin in denial and let the matter drop. Jo still glared at the ground as she plodded along beside them. For all of Beth’s good intentions, the ploy accomplished nothing.

Beth tripped once more, and Laurie scooped her up in his arms. “Don’t bother to protest,” he growled softly.

Beth buried her face in his neck. “Don’t let Marmee see.”

Laurie hurried to Orchard House in great, ground-chewing strides and Jo scampered along beside him. Of all the injustices in the world, Beth’s bout with scarlet fever and subsequent weakened heart angered him the most. There had to be something someone could do. The medical profession could perform miracles. Why had they not yet invented a mechanical heart?

Jo bustled about in the kitchen putting the kettle on as Laurie gently laid Beth on her sofa beside the fire. He quickly had her tucked snugly in a counterpane, propped in pillows, and breathing more easily. Next step, a roaring fire.

Laurie realized the house had gone silent but for his own muttering at a bank of stubborn coals. He looked up—straight into Jo’s tender eyes, the silence rich and redolent between them. If he could bottle that look that professed all her voice could not, he could endure his time away—the time she needed to reconcile her mind to her heart.

The fire popped and a clinker bounced out onto the hearthrug. Jo dropped to the floor to fetch it, but he scooped it up and threw it onto the grate before she burned herself.

She reached out to warm her hands. “I think the fire is hot enough.” She smiled gently to soften her words.

“Perhaps,” he answered, “but we want it to last.”

“We do,” Jo murmured.

“Just the kindling catching the flame isn’t enough.”

“No . . .”

“A good fire takes time. It must get hold of the logs.”

Jo nodded, her words scarcely breathed. “It will. I am certain . . .”

“I can wait,” Laurie whispered.

Each word had drawn them closer, until the space between them charged electric, like one of Mr. Tesla’s famous coils. Her swimming eyes bespoke her wishes and Laurie leaned to close the distance, but she ducked her head and rested her forehead against his, as much surrender as she allowed herself.

Far too soon, she moved to rise, but he took her hands to retain her. “Marry me.”

“I just can’t,” she whimpered.

“No. Of course not.” His words fell harshly—more harshly than he intended. He tried to force it back, but the surging anger and frustration propelled him to his feet. “We belong together. You know it, Jo, as well as do I, but your blasted pride won’t allow you to admit it. Well, I wish you the best of luck with it, but it has brought me naught but heartache.”

He turned to storm away and met the sight of Beth on her sofa, feigning sleep. His sadness washed over his anger, dampening the flame. He bent to kiss her head. “I’m sorry, Bethy,” he breathed, but his words caught in his throat. Beth opened her eyes and threw her arms about his neck and he dropped to his knees to hold her. “You’d best be here when I return, or I’ll fight the archangels themselves to fetch you back again.”

The Cassiopeia’s steam whistle blew, demanding his return to the ship. Beth released him without a word, offering only a sad smile. “Goodbye, you scamp,” he murmured softly. He kissed her once more, then strode away, leaving Jo and his hopes behind him.


Four years. How had four years come and gone in that instant—less than a blink of an eye? The first year felt as if it flew by as he and Freddie Vaughn studied metallurgy with Rochester’s partner, Rottstieger. That is, Laurie studied. Freddie primarily took up with lordlings and courtesans, and only caused trouble when he did show at the foundry.

Laurie marked the time by posts from home, letters Jo sent him that allowed him to hope. Long, chatty, light-filled letters that between every line seemed to count the days until he would return to make her his own.

But then, as that year drew to a close, the University of Edinburgh came calling. They had seen his designs. They liked his ideas. The advances in metallurgy and electricity made them more than fanciful dreams. Surely, he wished to expand his studies into medicine and press his theories as far as they would go.

Such opportunities did not simply fall from the sky. Laurie never imagined they would come seeking him out. Surely Jo would understand. Surely. Surely she would now join him.

Surely not.

Instead of Jo, only a cold denial met Laurie and his roses at Liverpool, in the form of her passage refunded by the booking agent. Her formal answer to his cable came after weeks of waiting. The letter left no doubt of her intent and dispelled the last of his self-deception.

Laurie occupied his mind with his studies, but his heart felt a lead weight within his chest. For three years, he plodded through the damp and dreary cold of Scotland, enveloped in the darkness. The long winter nights felt eternities. The short span of long summer days were only torment.

Freddie Vaughn remained in England as he polished his libertine credentials, paid lip service to the company, and advanced from lazy and spoiled to corrupt and malignant. His friendship with Laurie grew caustic, and soured more whenever business took Laurie to London and they met in society.

The letters from home stopped coming. Even Laurie’s grandfather had become terse and uncommunicative. The news that did come, which should have given Laurie comfort—given him joy—bored a canker in his soul. Meg had given John twins. Twins. That should have been him. That should have been him and Jo.

But all that was over and done, just like medical school. He had to move forward. He had no other choice. And, when push came to shove, he could move on to places far worse than Jamaica. The crystal blue seas, clear skies, and verdant hills leeched the tension from him and scrubbed the taint of martial, mechanized, greasy, smoke-choked London from his soul. Powered by Rochester’s sootless solar arrays, free of slavery and oppression, clean and sunny Kingston seemed an Eden by comparison.

An army of orderlies swarmed the Cassiopeia once it touched ground, and Laurie stood at the bottom of the gangplank handing out credentials as each ex-soldier amputee filed past. He admired Rochester for purchasing their freedom; enslavement of debtors more evidence of the Empire’s oppression. As the agents for the absentee buyer, Laurie hoped they had filled the commission well, for he hadn’t the least inkling of Rochester’s plans for them. He supposed he would find out soon enough. Surely, the man would meet the flight.

“Quite the entourage, Doctor. Fifty-three new patients . . . ambitious.”

Laurie turned to the deep voice that assaulted him from behind. Not overly tall but broad of shoulder and ramrod straight, Edward Rochester made Laurie think of a bulldog: not the most comely breed but compact and strong, elegant in its own manner. Coupled with his dark, saturnine features and high, intelligent brow, he appeared severe and aloof despite his mere thirty years. His changeable moods and erratic actions made him difficult to know, but he was a good man, benevolent, passionate, fiercely protective of his friends and his inventions, stalwart in his beliefs, a formidable foe to cross. At that moment, he wore a smirk of self-satisfaction.

Laurie hesitated. “Of a truth . . . we brought fifty-six.”

“Do tell.”

Laurie nudged his chin the direction of the three men detained at the top of the gangway: one small, wiry miscreant whose eye-patch enhanced his sinister air, and two sidekicks.

“We were halfway to the Azores when we discovered them. After all the burglaries at the foundry and the fire at the warehouse, we felt you would wish to see them. It’s the closest we’ve come to any answers.”

“We know Vaughn has been lobbying for the Empire for four years,” Rochester growled. “We know that blighter will stop at nothing to achieve his own ends, and none else but that worthless son of his had the necessary access to get as far as they did. I trusted Freddie and he betrays us all. He makes himself the Empire’s stooge. We know the answers, Dr. Laurence. What I need is proof!”

“As I said, these blokes may be worth interrogating.”

“No papers. Stowaways.”

“Indeed, sir. And certainly spies. We found several restricted areas breached.”

Rochester’s looks darkened. “And the schematics I sent Julian to collect?”

“Safe and sound, but we redoubled security and strengthened protocols.”

A storm brewed on Rochester’s visage. “Get them off my ship,” he snarled at the guard. “Throw them in the gaol—what in Hades is that?”

Laurie need not follow Rochester’s gaze to the cargo ramp. He had anticipated that moment for days. “A Mandroid, sir.”

Rochester strode to the automaton. “Mandroid,” he barked as he closed the distance. “What is your designation?”

The thing turned its head, then the rest of its body to face its Maker. “Mr. Rochester?” it answered in a tinny, mechanical voice.

“Your designation, now.”

“Mandroid 69-0257NA-D, under contract to Mercedes March, Plumfield, Concord, Massachusetts.”

Rochester spun on Laurie. “March’s blasted aunt took my Mandroid—my Delta to London for the Empire to get their hands on?”

Laurie fished into his pocket and surrendered the machine’s large control crystal hanging from a long silver chain. “Yes, sir. She took the Mandroid with her when she and Amy embarked on the Grand Tour. We discovered it the evening of our departure. The old lady knew well enough to keep it out of sight when I visited Amy, but apparently, showing off to society outweighed any sense—”

“What need has the Empire of thugs and felons to commit industrial espionage when vain old dowagers deliver my secrets to them hand over fist?”

“When we confiscated hers, she complained that the Vaughns yet had their Delta in London—”

Rochester’s upraised hand brought Laurie’s briefing to an abrupt halt. His steely eyes locked Laurie’s own as he produced a newspaper tucked beneath his arm, then carefully unfolded it. A blazing headline and a Daguerreotype of a mighty conflagration filled the space above the fold, dated a week since. “EXPLOSIONS ROCK SKY-HARBOR, SABOTAGE FEARED!”

“Tell me, Dr. Laurence,” he demanded, his voice menacing. “Where exactly is the Vaughns’ Delta model?”

“We speculate that it has been decommissioned, sir.”

“Tell me I am imagining it. Tell me this catastrophe”—he jabbed his finger at the paper—“was not the product of a Mandroid self-destruct.”

Laurie stood firm. “We have every reason to believe it was, sir. We activated the universal recall function as soon as we confiscated the March Delta, but the countdown expired before the Vaughns’ machine reported to the Cassiopeia. . . . Then, BLAM! We scarcely got away. Another moment’s delay and we would have been caught in the sky-harbor lock-down.”

Rochester scowled first at the newspaper, then at the Mandroid, then at the paper again. Laurie watched as his visage softened and his eyes began to twinkle. “Blazes! I wish I had been there to see it. Was it as terrific as I imagine?”

“More, sir. It seemed they stored it at a munitions dump.”

Rochester barked a laugh. “Serves them right, the fools!” he snorted. “What will it take for the Empire to get the message? My Mandroids will never fight their wars for them.” He looked up from the paper. “What of the warning signals for the self-destruct? They had not disabled them, surely.”

“We heard them, sir, and we were a half mile out. Anyone closer would run away just to escape the sound.”

Rochester nodded in satisfaction. “Blasted Brits.”

Laurie wondered exactly when he had ceased to consider himself a citizen of his homeland. Rochester spun on his heel and strode away. “Come!”

Laurie fell in beside him just as Rochester stopped abruptly to look him in the eye. “Tell me: are you content?”

Laurie hesitated as his mentor set out once again for the low bungalows which skirted the landing field. “I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning.”

Rochester eyed him askance. “It has been four years since we made these plans. Men grow, change. You have been abroad, seen a bit of the world. Is this still what you want?”

“I would have wasted a great deal of time and money were it not.”

“Indeed,” Rochester smirked. “So, how do you like the Royal London? What of Edinburgh?”

“Frankly, they lack vision, sir. They would never attempt what you did when Julian Meeks broke his back and lost his leg. They would have written him off, but you put him back on his feet. You restored his future.”

“The man is my friend. Should I live to be a hundred, I’ll owe him a debt that cannot be repaid.”

“But that’s just it, sir. It’s about quality of life. I do not mean to solely follow either metallurgy or medicine. The two together should be taken more seriously. Those Edinburgh chaps believe if they strap steel and brass and gears and leather onto a man, with no regard for what he suffers, he should be grateful. But that is not enough, sir. It is inhumane, inefficient, and barbarous.”

Rochester grinned. “And you believe you could do better. You would marry the disciplines.”

“Aye, sir. I am here because of what you did for Julian. You did better with him than they ever could, and you never went to medical school. Perhaps that makes you more qualified than any of them—you are not limited by preconceptions.”

“You are correct, Mr. Laurence, I am no physician. I am most fortunate that we didn’t kill Julian in our efforts to help him. The doctors I brought here didn’t know enough, and I was arrogant and reckless, but we muddled it out. But that was six years gone.

“We have learned a great deal since then. I have brought likeminded physicians, metallurgists, electrochemical engineers, all to my estate at West End to study the matter. But you, my friend, are the only one who has studied both metals and medicine. You are uniquely qualified. Julian’s patch job begins to wear down, but with your help, we will be ready—well and truly ready—when he needs us again.”

“It seems too good to be true.”

Rochester grinned. “Wait until you see West End.”

They had reached the largest bungalow and made their way through open, airy rooms, and past segregated offices. Rochester paused with his hand on the latch of a louvered door. “I’ve pressing matters to attend. Wait for me here, and when I return, we’ll discuss your new discipline of physiological metallurgic engineering.” He turned the handle and pushed open the door, then strode down the passage without another word.

Laurie stepped into what seemed an antechamber of some sort, with a broad bank of windows opening the prospect directly before him, chairs against the wall to his right, facing a desk on the left, which sat before several cabinets beside a second door. His back to Laurie, a young man absorbed himself with filing stacks of manila folders and accounting ledgers in the drawers.

“Pardon me,” Laurie hesitated. “Mr. Rochester told me to wait.”

“We’re all in an uproar because of this new doctor just arriving,” the boy answered without turning from his work. “Make yourself at home.”

The voice fell with comfortable familiarity on Laurie’s ears, and he cursed himself and his weakness. Despite the intervening years, now and again some random sight or sound reminded him of Jo, and the old wound would ache.

However, the thought forced him to look beyond the cropped riding pants and tall boots the boy wore, to the curves that filled them out so nicely, and the loose blouse that revealed not the slight form of a sprouting youth but the shapely form of a young woman well grown. She wore her hair in a short, loose mop of curls, and a leather jacket and goggled helmet hung from a hat rack in the corner.

“We are all in a muddle, but feel free to help yourself.” She waved a file over her shoulder toward the general direction of a sideboard. “There’s no telling when Mr. Rochester will return.”

Laurie attempted to say something, but he could only think of Jo and how she would have reveled in the freedom of such attire. Jo, who was three thousand miles away and hadn’t thought of him from one year to the next.

Rather than indulge in a useless bout of self-pity, Laurie turned to the windows. The airfield resembled a kicked anthill as all the workers scurried about and unladed the Cassiopeia’s cargo.

“I suppose you’re quite used to this sight.” He nodded at the bustle of enterprise. “For you, that is business as usual.”

“Of a truth—”

Laurie turned at the sound of stacks of paper hitting the floor. The lady, his own Josephine March, stood and stared at him, dumbstruck. He blinked at her, willing the vision away. He had been from home for far too long. His eyes surely conjured that which he most desired. “Of a truth?” he choked.


“Whom did you expect?”

Jo blinked at him, and Laurie watched as she flushed as pink as she had been pale but a moment before, but a visible act of will pushed back her astonishment, replaced by a familiar consternation. She set her jaw, her shoulders stiffened, and her voice took on a decided edge.

“Of a truth, Mister Laurence,” she pecked out, as if her tongue had become the hammers of the typewriting machine on the desk before her, “I never gave it a second thought, except to curse the man who brought this down upon our heads.”

Her eyes shot daggers as sharp as her tone, then she dropped to the floor to collect the records. “This is not business as usual. Fifty unexpected soldiers in need of immediate medical attention have strained our facilities to breaking.”

“What are you doing here?” Laurie managed. He hurried around the desk to assist her. “Jo, what are you doing here?”

“Mr. Laurence—” she replied coldly, “or is it Doctor Laurence now? I’ve lost track of the time.”

“Which you would not have done had you come to me.”

“Which I need not have done had you returned when you promised.”

Laurie bit down on his angry reply. “It is Doctor Laurence,” he said instead. “It has been for some time. Surely Amy told you.”

“But of course,” Jo laughed bitterly. “Amy. How could I possibly forget Amy? How is my dearest sister?” She scooped up the remaining papers to prevent his reaching them, then threw the shambles onto the desktop. She began slamming the packets, one atop the next, in cadence with her words.

“Beautiful Amy, charming Amy, Amy the pet of Aunt March. Amy, who stole my Grand Tour because she is beautiful and elegant and worthy. Amy would never shame our family. You finally finish medical school and what do you do? Rush straight to London—to Amy, the perfect match for you and all of high society!”

“I finally finished medical school and moved on to my exams at The Royal London. Amy just happened to be there. I was there scarcely three months—”

“And spent every spare moment with her, escorting her into society. Making a great show of sporting her about town.”

“I have no idea where you get such preposterous notions.”

“Where else would I get them? From Amy, who writes once a week specifically to tell me how much time you spend together, how charming you are, how brilliant in society, and how intimate you have grown. Surely by the end of your residency there, you will be ready to settle down.”

Laurie forced his jaw shut. Her accusations left him stymied. “I spent twenty hours a day at hospital, Jo. When exactly was I supposed to be this gadabout?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. Why don’t you ask Amy?”

“What the devil do I care about Amy?”

His exasperated tone brought her up short. She blinked at him. He pushed back his hair with both fists and stepped away. He folded his arms across his chest, his legs braced for impact, and stared out at the Cassiopeia. “And my residency is here,” he muttered. “At least get your facts straight.”

Stillness settled over the room, he knew not how long—probably only moments. It felt an eternity. “If you do not care for her, you should not toy with her thus,” Jo said at last. An angst-riddled mixture of empathy and compassion weighed heavily in her soft tone. “You will break her heart.”

“Perhaps Amy interpreted things the way she wanted to see them,” he told the windows. “Perhaps she would have done no matter my actions.” He turned to her. “Or, perhaps what she wrote and what you read were two different things. But by my life, Jo, I never courted your sister. She only made me want . . .”

Laurie bit down on his accursed tongue. He refused to make a fool of himself yet again. After her three-year silence, he owed her nothing. She lost the right to be jealous of anyone after his disappointment at Liverpool. “What are you doing here?”

“Surely Amy kept you well enough informed,” Jo retorted.

“Apparently she felt no need. Perhaps she assumed we communicated. Perhaps you never told her of your directive to stay away.”

“My directive? You mean to put the blame on me?”

“Forgive me, but it sounded very much a directive to me. When a man asks a woman to be his wife—”

“Your wife? You booked my passage and sent me a cable that said ‘come.’ ”       

“—when he asks and gets nothing but an empty cabin and silence in reply—”

“What are you on about?”

“Do you know what it’s like to search a luxury liner for a bride who never boarded it—who never so much as declined the invitation?”

“I wrote, Laurie. As soon as your cable came, I wrote.”

Laurie wagged his head in denial. “Whatever you did, I waited for two months for word, and ‘I value your friendship more than I can say, make sure to keep in touch,’ at the end of it left no doubt of my banishment.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Indeed I am, for once upon a time I believed your words and your intent were one and the same.”

“Once upon a time, we required no words to understand one another.”

“And just see how well I profited from that bit of felicity.”

“What would you have me say?”

“Was ‘yes’ too much to ask?”

“Was your presence?”

He proffered no reply, and she turned again to mutilating Rochester’s reports.

“Jo,” Laurie insisted. “Jo!” He took her shoulders to turn her to him, but her look was all fire and ice. Her eyes scalded to the touch, and he dropped his hands. “Jo,” he said more gently. “Why didn’t you tell me you were here? I would have come as soon as I had word.”

“And make me responsible for you giving up your studies? I think not. You got on with your life. I got on with mine.”

“There are places far more suitable for a young lady to exert her independence—places close to home, where her family can protect her, or come to her rescue when she gets herself into scrapes.”

Jo’s eyes grew narrow and flinty, her voice low and still. “Do I appear to need rescuing, Dr. Laurence?”

Laurie blinked at her. She appeared strong and self-confident, a vision from heaven, bloomed into full, breathtaking womanhood, the glow of the tropical sun golden on her skin and setting fire to her thick brown hair. He drank in the sight of her, and she again flushed and turned to her filing.

“Perhaps I should have said, where fools can reach you when they stand in need of rescuing—fools rather prone to getting into scrapes.”

“I have no time for fools,” she spat, and slammed another drawer.

Laurie placed his hand over hers as she reached for another file. “Miss March,” he said gently, “pray, what draws you here, of all places?” He eyed the door that he felt certain led to an inner office. “What would induce you to accept such an unprotected situation?”

She clutched several thick ledgers to her breast. “We brought Beth,” she finally conceded, “to see what could be done. They can do things here no one else can.”

Laurie blinked, startled, but before he could produce aught to say, she had pushed past him and assaulted the unexplored door. She shoved it open so forcefully, it bounced off the wall, but she caught it as she stood on the threshold and glared into the adjoining room. “You have done some low-down, despicable things, Edward Fairfax Rochester,” she accused, “but this is positively the worst. I will not be managed thus.”

A burst of deep laughter answered her indictment; her look professed she expected as much. She slammed the ledgers in her arms onto the floor. They scattered at her feet. “You think this is so funny, you clean it up. I am not your secretary.”

She spun on her heel and marched from the room, sparing a volley of javelin looks for Laurie as she grabbed her coat and helmet. He yet stood, dumbfounded, when she appeared out the window a moment later. Parked just outside the window, a motorized velocipede—the most elegant two-wheeler Laurie had ever seen—sprang into life as she climbed aboard, opened the throttle, and sped away in a hail of dust and gravel.

“How do you like my handiwork?” Rochester grinned from where he stood in the doorway. “I’ve just about got that filly trained to the bit.”

He chortled, deep and throaty, but paused as he turned back to his office. He gestured with his cigar to the scattered documents in both rooms. “Clear away your mess, Laurence. We’ve got work to do.”

Continued in Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology (2015) edited by Penny Freeman

The final story, West End by Neve Talbot was also quite interesting, and should please steampunk fans in a big way. I really liked the alternate history in Talbot’s story.

Paul Genesse

Amazon Reviewer

. . . take a classic work of American literature, reimagine it, and give it the Steampunk treatment. The Xychler crew really stepped up to the challenge on this one.


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Bam! See you in the funny papers.

“Tropic of Cancer” by Neve Talbot

“Tropic of Cancer” by Neve Talbot

Regarding “Tropic of Cancer”: from the first time I read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the off-stage romance between Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason intrigued me and was something my imagination wasted no time in fleshing out. Thus, when the opportunity arose to include a short story in Mechanized Masterpieces: A Steampunk Anthology, I knew exactly which classic I would expand.

The fact that I had never before heard the term “Steampunk” before I came to work at Xchyler Publishing proved no deterrent. Attempts to define the genre are ambiguous and fleeting, but as soon as one realizes someone has put a name to it, they understand that Steampunk has permeated popular culture. “Wild, Wild West” (the original) is the first that comes to mind. It was one of my favorites growing up. The list goes on and on, but suffice it to say, writing to suit that audience gave me no pause.

However, I did want to capture the right aesthetic while still remaining true to my own style. That was the tricky part. I take objection to the over-sexualization of women in any genre or medium, but Steampunk seems rife with it. Also, a lot of Steampunk delves heavily into the realm of the supernatural, often growing very dark and satanic, which neither do I write. On the surface, when one considers Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, the sheltered and faith-filled Jane Eyre, the two elements seem a dichotomy that can never logically cohabitate. However, Bertha Mason provides that bridge. She is made to order, and getting her right without growing overly offensive proved a challenge.

I found it interesting that as lightly as I painted her, some reviewers felt my portrayal of Bertha’s actions gratuitous, and Edward Rochester uncharacteristically harsh. However, in Miss Eyre’s work, the husband describes his wife thus:

“Jane, I will not trouble you with abominable details: some strong words shall express what I have to say. I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she had tried me indeed: her character ripened and developed with frightful rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty could check them, and I would not use cruelty. What a pigmy intellect she had, and what giant propensities! How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.”

Do overs: So, three years and one very critical review later, would I write Bertha the same way again? I don’t know. I have come to realize more fully (thank you, Fifty Shades of Grey) that what more sheltered people view as mere fashion statements others interpret as visual cues of a lifestyle choice that is probably beyond the writer’s intent. So, I probably would have dressed her a tad more conservatively, at the very least. I most definitely would have omitted the attempts at phonetic dialogue. That was a huge mistake, and I apologize for it in advance. But . . . there it is. You write and you learn and you write some more, hopefully with some improvement.

The most difficult thing about writing “Tropic of Cancer” was shortening it to anything resembling a short story, although, in truth, some may call it a novella. Like too many of my secondary characters, Julian took on a life of his own, and there is much more of Edward’s story to tell. It will become a full-fledged novel one day, but right now, it has to wait in the queue.

an excerpt from Mechanized Masterpieces

“Tropic of Cancer”

by Neve Talbot

My father went to his grave without a word of praise for me falling from his lips. He never truly knew me. Even so, he knew human nature, and therein lay his genius and my downfall.

My father knew the profundity of the fable “Sun and Wind.”

Sun and Wind argued over who wielded more power. They determined to settle the argument with a competition. They spied a traveler walking down the road, wrapped in a cloak. The contest: wrest the man’s protection from him.

Wind accepted Sun’s invitation for the first go. It blew and loosened the man’s wrap. Then, Wind blew harder, forcing the man to struggle to keep his mantle. However, the stronger Wind blew, the fiercer the traveler held to his cloak. At long last, Wind prevailed by blowing his victim from his feet.

Despite Wind’s self-satisfaction, Sun took its turn with confidence. It shone upon the wayfarer. The air warmed. The man loosened his grip upon the cloak as he walked. Then, he removed it and slung it over his shoulder.

Thus, my father wrested my dreams from me.

A passionate youth, a lover of all things mechanical, I fancied myself a changer of the world—an inventor—and so earned my father’s patrician contempt. I nursed great ambitions but assumed no generosity on his part. I knew the entire Rochester fortune portioned to my elder brother, Rowland.

I desired only two things from my father: the freedom to make my own way in the world without interference from my family, and his ward and niece, Yvette Fairfax, as my bride. My father bequeathed me neither.

My attempts to keep the latter concealed from him failed. My father’s actions professed him perfectly sensible of the attachment between Yvette and me. However, he never mentioned it.

Instead, the man sent me into the sun.


As my father’s agent, I traveled from London to Spanish Town, Jamaica, in the prototype airship of my own design. My father assured me linking my fortunes with Jonas Mason, a wealthy cane planter, would set me for life. My friend and partner, Professor Heinrich Rottstieger, accompanied me. Afforded little choice, we resolved to make my father’s dictates serve our own ends.

All manner of airships abounded at that time, but with Herr Professor’s metallurgic discoveries, and my own invention, a sunlight-dynamo power source, our design would revolutionize air travel. In Jamaica, I would conduct further investigations into the energy-retentive powers of crystals.

My sweet Yvette provided the impetus for every scheme. My hopes in her propelled me forward. And, lest my recollections of her fade, the engraved crystal that hung about my neck continuously brushed my skin and thrust her to the forefront of my thoughts.

Not yet one and twenty, I had never before traveled beyond the shores of Great Britain. The trappings of “progress” and “civilization” defined my world: coal, steam, copper, and steel. Creation seemed made up of these things.

However, in every port of call—Lisbon, the Azores, Bermuda—the greater the distance from my homeland, the more alien and strange the world became to my limited experience . . . the stronger Nature clung to that which is rightfully her own: clear skies, blue sea, unpolluted shores. The breath of life.

We had nothing but ease on our journey: fair winds and a furrowing sea, so to speak. In clear skies over deep waters, with the silver of our triple envelopes gleaming in the sun, our image shone back at us. Our configuration, long and sleek—the fins and rudders, the stern propellers and engine houses—created what appeared a strange creature of the deep running beneath us.

We cleared the emerald-green mountains northeast of Kingston on the morning of the fifteenth day. The absence of man-shaped mechanoids patrolling the streets grabbed my attention. Where were those brutal implements of totalitarianism? Those clockwork weapons with head, arms and legs, but no conscience or compassion?

I realized nothing of mechanization had invaded that island—no airships, no dreadnaughts, no rail guns or steam engines. No sub-aquatics patrolling the deep in an illusion of absolute control. No steam-sweepers or horseless carriages chugging and puffing, filling the air with their noise and soot. The light shone pure and clear, the sky as azure as the sea.

Heinrich circled low over Spanish Town. Children raced the Andromeda to her landing site. At the broad expanse of lawn before the Mason mansion, they hesitated. When the airship belched our engineers from the hold, and they rappelled down the lines to anchor us to terra firma, the children cheered. The adults who trailed after them seemed only slightly less eager.

Not the least trace of soot smeared the pure faces before me. Likewise, the weary existence and unending toil of the downtrodden in London seemed absent in Jamaica. In this sea of humanity, their black skin a grace of Nature, rather than the curse of industrialization, I could yet see hope.

Did I see poverty? In abundance. The need for reform? Without doubt. But unlike Mother England, I saw happiness in the faces of the poor. I saw dignity; belief in themselves. I felt myself the serpent in the Garden of Eden with my hold full of cargo and my brain full of technological marvels. I wondered what mischief I had wrought in this island paradise simply by bursting onto the consciousness of this people.

Thus, the inescapable paradox of my life lay bared before me: mechanization had long since become my great passion, but I detested its natural consequences. Young, sincere, and green as new spring, I swore Jamaica would not suffer the fate of England.

As I copiloted the airship in its final descent, a pair of women on the veranda of Mason’s home caught my eye. They stood on the balcony; an old crone leaned heavily upon a cane. Her weathered, ebony skin stood in sharp contrast to her hair of brilliant white. Her bright eyes shone sharp and quick. An aura of calm surrounded her.

She stood beside a young lady at the balustrade, a statuesque beauty whose complexion glowed like aged ivory. A gossamer robe provided token coverage of her nubile form. Her jet black hair hung in loose curtains down her back, and along with the folds of her dressing gown, ruffled in the morning breeze.

She appeared intent on the windscreen behind which I sat, which bubbled out from the cockpit of the airship. Eventually, the heckling of the old woman gained her attention. She then glanced at herself, tugged at her wrap, and turned into the house.

As we landed, Yvette’s crystal burned with an icy sting against my chest. I failed to understand the significance at that time, but with the chill, I relived the occasion when Yvette presented the gift, as I often did in future days.


We lingered, just we two, in the Andromeda cockpit. Yvette sat in the captain’s chair, fiddling with the knobs arrayed on the consoles before her. I knelt beside her, drinking in her lovely, grief-stricken face.

“I dread your departure, Edward,” she murmured softly. “I fear you will plunge into darkness and never escape. I cannot . . . It must not be so.”

“I told Father one year, Yvette. I go to make my fortune—our future. All of this is a means to an end—a bridge to my heart’s one desire. Tell me you—”

Her fingers on my lips silenced my tongue. Her looks forbade my speech. She held my gaze, her eyes swimming in tears.

She took my hand and held it. She turned the ring upon my finger. She had woven it of her own silken tresses. It shone like pure gold. “Promise me you will never remove this ring. No matter what else happens. Give me your sacred honor.”

I searched her features, unsettled by the desperation which laced her tone. “Never. I promise.”

“And yet, it is not enough,” she murmured. A look of firm resolve added complexity to the sadness and loss upon her face. Then, warm stone and cold metal settled into my hand. I raised into the air Yvette’s prize crystal hanging from a silver chain. The sunlight refracted through the stone and projected upon the bulkhead an image of the Andromeda herself, ablaze in rainbow colors.

 “I had it done. A crystal from your workshop could serve, but this stone . . . you need it for protection.”

More than a mere line etching, a master craftsman had carved a relief of our airship onto the stone in minute detail. Deep in the recesses of my mind whispered the certainty that Yvette had employed forces I would never understand to accomplish what, I dared not speculate.

Yvette loosened my collar, clasped the chain about my neck, then tucked the crystal beneath my shirt. Her hand rested upon my bare chest as she whispered her instructions. “It must rest here, next to your heart, touching your skin.”

I riveted my eyes on her, willing her to meet my gaze. She busied herself in setting my attire to rights, yet would not look into my face. Her lips whispered some silent invocation I could not hear. Then, she gave her final instructions. “Use this to remember me. A token of my . . . friendship. To keep you afloat. To light your way home.”

I took up her hand and held it to my cheek. “I shall never remove it.”

Tears again welled in her eyes. “See that you don’t.”

“Edward! What the devil are you about?” Herr Rottstieger’s intrusion brought me to my feet, and one glance at the lady’s ducked head caused him to hesitate.

He harrumphed to clear his throat. “Well, then, mein junge. We must weigh anchor tout suite.”

Yvette rose and stepped to the hatch. I moved to follow her. “Just as soon as I see Miss Fairfax home.”

Yvette wheeled on me. “No, Edward. No. I have Rowland.”


“Please, Edward,” she breathed. “Let us part here as we are, the best of friends.”

My whole being revolted at the notion of such a cold parting. I would take her in my arms and bespeak my heart. I would profess my undying devotion, secure her to me. But I knew she meant to avoid such a scene. I could not discomfit her.

“The best of friends,” I repeated, forcing a smile. She extended to me her hand, but I leaned and kissed her cheek.

“Remember your promise,” she whispered, and then was gone.


At Spanish Town, Rochester coin opened the doors of the colony’s finest families. Naturally taciturn and unsocial, I found answering the demands of society a most onerous duty, but I got on by degrees. I dare say, I became good at it . . . at least, I gained confidence. I became, so it was said, the most popular young blade on the island.

 Every now and again, Miss Bertha Mason—for such was the beauty on the balcony—would flit across the social stage, but remained otherwise elusive. I scarcely knew her.

Even so, she wormed her way into my consciousness. She battled with Yvette for my dreams. In them, the breeze which caressed the nymph’s soft skin with silken tresses, which flirted with her robe and offered teasing, tantalizing glimpses of a round of breast, a length of thigh, also wafted jasmine around me. It encircled and enfolded me until I awoke in a sweat, the scent still palpable in the air.

But then, the crystal would again cool my skin, and the fever which fought to control me receded at its touch. The clouds lifted, my mind cleared, and dreams of Yvette, fresh and clean and pure, would fill my mind. It felt a brisk early morning after a suffocating, sticky, and stultifying tropical night.

My father’s plans progressed apace. Within three months, I shared ownership with him and fully managed West End, a cane plantation at Negil, on the westernmost extent of the island. Within six, I had completed the initial phase of our planned rum distillery. Within nine, I had established myself as a member of the West Indies elite. Investors lined up to underwrite our airship manufactory. The sunlight dynamo in both distillery and sugar mill proved an unqualified success.

I wrote to my father and begged Yvette’s hand.

At the end of a year, I had done with waiting. My father’s silence on the subject and Yvette’s failure to write caused me no small amount of concern. I would attend Herr Professor on a three-month publicity tour of the East Coast of the United States, and from there, we would go to London. I would return with my bride.


Twenty hours and counting. I itched to be gone, but last-minute business at the governor’s mansion detained me. There, an acid etching illustrating a newspaper article on the notice board caught my attention.

I burst into the offices high in Hanger One and slapped the yellowed clipping onto the desk in front of Herr Rottstieger. “Look at it! Just look at it! Tacked up with the notices in the lobby like some tawdry bit of gossip!”

Lately, All Souls Church, Langham Place, London: Mister Rowland Fairfax Rochester, son of Rupert R. and the late Camilla Fairfax Rochester of Thornfield Hall, —shire, wed to heiress and society beacon, Miss Yvette Fairfax, daughter of the late Colonel and Mrs. Harrison Fairfax, last of Hyderabad, India. Couple to honeymoon on the Grande Tour before returning to their home on Wimpole Street.

My friend eyed me warily, without a single glance at the paper. I stepped back, undone by the truths I read so plainly on his face.

“You knew.” The words stuck in my throat. Herr Professor winced. His eyes fled mine. “By the devil! You knew and you hid it from me!”

He flinched as my palm hit the desk, a tiny jerk of the head as he stared at the floor. I pushed my hands through my hair with both fists to press back the whorl of disjointed thoughts that assaulted me. Tears rushed my eyes. A leaden weight sat on my chest. I could draw no air.

I stepped away from the violence bursting to free itself. My back to the man, I leaned against the windowsill, my outstretched arms pushing hard against it, as if somehow I could hold back the cataclysm. I stared blankly through the glass, wrestling with a gale of sensibilities, resolves, reckless, insane schemes to make her mine, struggling to cease my trembling and stifle a wail of despair-laden rage. A knock at the door at last shattered the silence. Herr Professor rebuffed it. Footsteps scurried down the wooden stairs.

“I didn’t hide it, junge.” He spoke softly, feeling his way. “You never read the papers.”

“You just neglected to tell me, is that it?” I turned to him. He no longer sat, but propped himself against a file cabinet situated against the wall. “How long ago was ‘lately.’ There is no date here.”

“Six months.”

I felt kicked in the chest by a mule. Herr Professor surely read my outrage. “I have not known for six months, Edward—only three months, perhaps. It has been six since the day.”

Realization of the truth settled over me like an arctic blast. “My father told you . . . That blasted bounder wrote and told you when, exactly.” Rottstieger again winced. “And all this time—all this time you have pretended to be my friend—pretended to encourage me, to share my joy! You played me for a fool!”

“No, Edward. When you wrote and asked Yvette to be your wife, I knew nothing of the matter. The letter from your father came after you told me what you had done.”

“And so for three months, every time you delayed our departure—all of it was a lie to put me off!”

“I delayed because Rochester told me he would write—they would write. They would tell you themselves in their own time. In their own way. I kept waiting for that letter, Edward—for Rowland to do the honorable thing. I had resolved to tell you . . .”

“When? When, exactly, were you planning to extend me that courtesy?”

“Before we got to England.”

“But after we left Boston,” I spat. “It would not do to spoil your precious tour.”

Herr Professor closed his eyes in capitulation. “No. It would not.” His pulse throbbed at his throat and he swallowed hard. “I never wanted this to happen, Edward. I never expected it to end like this.”

I peered at him. “What are you not telling me?” He heaved a sigh and I felt the last piece of the puzzle drop into place. “You have been in on it all along,” I whispered. “You took his part.”

“No, Edward. I never took his part. Anything I did, I did for you.”

“For you, you mean to say!”

“No, junge. For you.”

“How much? How much did he pay you to get me away from Yvette so Rowland could marry her? How much to properly merge the Fairfax and Rochester fortunes?” He hesitated, tongue-tied, and I slammed my fist on desk. “How much, Heinrich?!”

“The matching funds. If I could get you to Jamaica, he would match whatever other investors gave you—gave the corporation.”

The matching funds? His club dues are more than his precious matching funds! You should have asked me, Heinrich. I could have got you better.”

“You have no idea what it meant to have Rupert Rochester invest in us. He is respected, known for his perspicacity. His endorsement gave us gravitas. That he would not invest in his own son’s inventions—it damaged our cause more than you can imagine. But what harm could a trip to Jamaica do, eh? How much good would come of it . . . at least, so it seemed to me.”

I snorted, then flopped to a chair and dropped my head into my hands. A storm raged within. I gripped my hair fiercely, clinging to something—anything—to keep from going under.

My friend sat beside me and placed his hand upon my shoulder. “Mein sohn,” he ventured after a long moment, “no one could see you together and not know she loved you. That day—the day we left—when you were together in the cockpit, with the door locked and Rowland so frantic to get inside . . . I thought you had secured her promise. By my life, I thought you were secretly engaged.”

The pall of his words settled over me and I looked up. I could not deny the overwhelming sadness in his eyes, a mere glimmer of the grief my new clarity gave me. “No, Professor . . . No. She would not hear me. She sent me away.”

My anger vented, the resentment seeped from me. In the fog of my self-deception, I believed with all my heart she would wait, but the cold, stark truth revealed my folly, and I could not begrudge Herr Rottstieger his own.

I leaned back in my chair and pushed the hair from my face. I heaved a sigh. “What now?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Besides hurl myself from the highest cliff?”

Junge . . .”

“What is there for me now, professor? Everything—everything I have done has been for her, for our future together. What good are my dreams without her to share them?”

“Edward, without you, I would be nothing but another iron monger, an engineer forging the inventions of other men without enough mettle to build my own. But with you—I became bigger than myself. Like all the men you employ, who now earn a fair wage and can send their children to school instead of into the fields, I flourish because of your dreams. If not for yourself, junge, soldier on for these people. They dare to dream because you live yours.”

I could not say how deeply his words sunk into my heart then, but they have since become my mantra—more or less. Then, as now, I felt the caveat: I lived the dream I managed to scrape together from the rubble of my castles in the air. But that had to be enough. I had to prove to them all—to my father, the blasted blighter, to Rowland, to Yvette herself—that they had not inflicted the mortal wound to my soul that then bled bitter tears—and bleeds still.

I rose to my feet and moved to collect the scrap of paper, but my hand hesitated over the desk, distracted as I was by an envelope edged in black sitting on the blotter. I glanced at Herr Professor. “Heinrich? Have you lost someone?”

His brow furrowed with concern. “Nein, junge. That came for you this morning.”

He must have moved a chair behind me, as I did not hit the floor when my knees buckled. The letter rattled in my hand. The black border hissed, rearing and ready to strike. I forced myself to rip open the envelope and read my brother’s smooth hand.

I snorted. “The old buzzard popped off.” A bitter, ironic laugh surged through me. “He gives me precisely one hour to curse him to the devil, and then denies me the pleasure of hating him for the rest of his days.”

“The man was the picture of health!”

 “Apparently, a rogue mechanoid didn’t like the cut of Old Man Rochester’s jib. He stepped from his carriage and . . . Do you recall, Professor, my outrage over their use as peacekeepers? He derided me for a stupid boy who could not understand such things. What do I know, eh?” I snorted my disgust.

“And Yvette? She is well?”

The name leeched a bit of acid from my soul and my manner softened. “Yvette is in indifferent health. They have taken a house in Athens for a time until . . . until she is safely delivered. Rowland will not leave her, thus requests that I see the solicitors myself.”

Herr Rottstieger peered at me. “And you, Edward? You have just lost your father.”

I flapped the papers at my friend. “And gained full ownership of the plantation and all of my father’s interest in the corporation.”

“There. Do you see? He always intended—”

“No, Herr Professor. I will not temper my feelings. Rowland had a momentary flash of guilt, not my father. My brother has relinquished the rights, and now fancies he has purchased absolution for his greed and treachery.”

Silence descended over the office. I again stepped to the window and gazed at the horizon, where the sky melded with the sea. I felt Herr Professor’s eyes upon me . . . the only thing I felt. It seemed as if the loss of Yvette and the loss of my father canceled one another. The tidal wave of grief left nothing in its wake—not even the flotsam and jetsam of the cataclysm. I felt . . . blank.

“So? Now, what will you do?”

I turned and headed for the door. “Today, West End. Tomorrow, the Cubans; then, on to conquer the Yanks. Then, to England to do the dirty work while my precious brother enjoys his spoils.”


 I had no real business at West End, but I would have gone mad rattling about Spanish Town for the remainder of the day. As my sleek sailboat skirted the island, I found a bit of peace.

The sun lowered in the west as I slipped into the inlet where we harbored the plantation watercraft. I paused at the path to the bungalow, on the cliffs by the lighthouse. The palms rustled above my head. The scent of jasmine and gardenia wafted on the breeze. How many evenings had I sat upon the veranda drinking in that very sight, imagining Yvette at my side, holding my hand, basking in the joy of living?

As so often before, I found myself clutching the crystal she had fastened about my neck what seemed a lifetime ago. I wondered at the number of times I had felt a warm glow from it, encasing my heart, protecting it—protecting me. I recalled how its cool touch reached out and rescued me from what, I knew not. I had come to feel incomplete without it, and yet, in a matter of moments, it became a weight I could no longer shoulder.

 I watched the sun sink into the sea, setting the sky ablaze. I yanked off the chain and held the crystal up to the brilliant light. It seemed to sing in the evening air as it splintered the glory of Sol into a million shards of color.

“No, Yvette,” I murmured above the hum. “I will never heal with this piece of you piercing my soul.” I hurled the crystal out over the Caribbean. It whistled as it flew, and a too-familiar voice wailed in my ears, ‘Oh, Edward! No, dearest Edward!’ as it shattered the surface of the sea.

Continued in Mechanized Masterpieces: A Steampunk Anthology (2013) edited by Penny Freeman

The stories range from twenty to sixty pages, written by top-notch writers and polished by top-notch editors. The stories share commonalities of the genre, but also stand out as unique pieces of fiction. I was immediately captivated by steampunk’s originality.

Amazon Reviewer

. . . particularly memorable for me were ‘Tropic of Cancer’ – a rare admixture of florid writing and well done storyline, which alone was worth the price of the book . . .

London Fog

Amazon Reviewer


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