Zeitgeist Preview: Chapter 2

It's time for the second chapter preview from my forthcoming novel, Zeitgeist 1919, a tale of magic and machines, star-crossed lovers and mythical monsters set against the backdrop of an alternate-history First World War. You can pre-order your copy for 50% off the list price for a limited time and read teaser passages and the first chapter (in case you missed it) on the Zeitgeist book page.

Available November 17, 2017

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CHAPTER 2

Rory stood at attention on the wall, conscious of the crowd in Battery Park below. Stiff boots pinched his tingling toes and gripped his calves. His fingers felt like ice inside his gloves. Hundreds of eyes were watching him, maybe thousands. But not him alone. Distantly, above the thundering rush of blood in his ears, he heard the sergeant barking orders, the thunder of boots as the veteran battery crew sprang into action. He kept his eyes fixed forward, staring over the city he was now sworn to defend. He didn’t remember the speeches, barely remembered giving oaths and saluting the dignitaries in the gallery beside the cannon, wreathed in the mist of their own breath.

Aunt Eva was in the gallery. She had arrived with a small pack of her fellow technomancers, hair pulled back in a severe bun, head strangely naked without the goggles she always wore. Odd that he would notice the missing goggles more than the fact that she was wearing a dress. It made her look older. Sadly, the uniform failed to do the same for Rory. Somehow it made his reflection in the mirror look younger, like a child playing at being a soldier.

Was Aunt Eva watching him now, wondering what she had done by getting him assigned to the battery? Not that she was solely to blame. His sister-in-law Nora had helped as well. Together, they conspired to override his brother’s efforts to pin Rory to the boring safety of a desk at Defense HQ. Aunt Eva’s voice carried weight with Defense because she helped maintain the Tesla cannons, and Nora’s father was high in the chain of command. The two women would have to share the blame when his mother found out.

Back rigid, eyes focused blindly on the skyline, Rory’s mind drifted.

Dinner at Aunt Eva’s last night had been predictable. Mother’s birdlike eyes had followed Aunt Eva, no doubt fuming that her sister-in-law claimed the head of the table ahead of her eldest surviving son. Not that James seemed to mind. He was busy regaling the family with yet another story of the Air Wing and their feats of aeronautic daring.

Nora sat beside her husband, trying to mask her worry with a smile. But Rory saw her hand shaking as it held the fork, saw her other hand touching her belly. Pregnancy was supposed to make a woman glow, but Nora seemed to be fading, growing more gray with every passing hour. Her features had always been more stark than beautiful, but there had been life in her eyes before, a playful curl to her lips…

Heat had blossomed on Rory’s cheeks as he looked away. He imagined every set of eyes around the table focusing on his flushed face, aware of the guilty train of his thoughts. Surely if Nora harbored any concern for him, she would try to get him assigned to the relative safety of the general staff. She had made such an effort to protect James, only for her father to turn a deaf ear. General Keane seemed intent on putting the Donnelly boys firmly in the line of fire. Rory on the cannon battery. James in the Air Wing. And Patrick…

Rory’s gaze had been drawn to the framed photo on the sideboard. James and Rory flanking Patrick in his doughboy kit, hat tilted rakishly, the ghost of a smile haunting his face. Patrick had abandoned his apprenticeship at Tesla’s lab to enlist. Off to Europe to take the fight to the Kaiser as part of General Keane’s Expeditionary Forces. In training, he’d met the general’s daughter, Nora, and in the weeks that followed she’d joined the Red Cross in secret so she could accompany the Expeditionary Forces and thus remain near Patrick. But her father had found out and forced her to return home.

Then he assigned Patrick to the first group of Americans destined for the trenches.

Rory remembered his mother’s face when she received the telegram confirming Patrick’s death, the shuttering of her eyes, the way she seemed to shrink in on herself, to age a decade in mere minutes. So much potential lost. Patrick had paired their father’s natural intelligence and talent for magic with charisma that made him stand out in any crowd. Rory and James had worshiped him almost as much as their mother had. They had wanted to be him. Still did. Wasn’t that why James joined the Defense Force? Wasn’t that why he pursued Nora so hard when she returned from Europe? Theirs had been such a short courtship…

James had half-risen from his chair, hands chasing each other as he described some aerial maneuver he’d accomplished in his biplane. His mother watched, a small smile chasing about her thin lips, knife and fork poised over her plate. James turned to Nora, but his wife was looking at the table, her shoulders trembling. 

Had she married James just to spite her father, or had something about James reminded her of Patrick? They had married within weeks of her return. Before her father could interfere. Maybe before she could entertain second thoughts…?

Rory watched her push food around her plate. She was obviously terrified that something would happen to James. Was that because she loved him or because she didn’t want to raise their child alone? And why had she helped get Rory assigned to the Tesla Battery? Why wasn’t she afraid of what might happen to him?

James started to reach for her shoulder, but turned and touched his mother instead. She caught his hand, pressing her lips to his palm. Her eyes twitched toward Aunt Eva. Little spots of color dotted her cheeks.

No mystery there. Rory had seen that look often enough since they moved in with Aunt Eva. In that look were all the reasons why Mary Donnelly had encouraged her eldest son to abandon an apprenticeship with Tesla to go fight in the old country, why she now took joy in her middle child risking life and limb in a mechanical, flying death trap rather than a technomancer’s laboratory.

And why she would keep her youngest son, Rory, far from anything that carried even a hint of magic.

Her husband had died in the pursuit of magic. An accident in Tesla’s laboratory had ravaged Eamon Donnelly’s body and mind. It took weeks for him to die. Aunt Eva had not left her brother’s bedside until his last breath. She shouldered the blame for the accident, promising her dying brother that she would care for his family, that she would abandon the recklessness of her youth. Mary Donnelly had not forgiven Aunt Eva or thanked her for her help. Nor had she forgotten the part that magic had played in her husband’s death.

Rory had stifled the urge to brush the cannoneer’s pin in his pocket. If his mother found out…

Rory’s scalp prickled, bringing him back to the present. The Tesla cannon’s accumulator was beginning to whine, and the wall vibrated beneath him, shaking his boots and rattling his bones. He sensed the heads of his battery-mates turning, discipline amongst the volunteers breaking down as their excitement built. Rory fought to keep his gaze fixed forward. Nobody would be watching him. All eyes would be on the great cannon. Nobody would see. Just a brief glimpse.

His gaze flickered past the gallery to devour the gleaming metal surfaces of the gun. His father had helped Tesla design it. Rory’s heart thudded against his ribs.

Most of the cannon’s workings were hidden from view. The only exposed portion was the large cylinder cradled by the mechanism that connected it to the wall. Cables thicker than a man’s thigh carried vryl current from concealed accumulators in the wall. The battery crew swarmed around the cannon, checking the cables for leaks, cranking the massive gears that brought the weapon’s barrel to bear. The sergeant, still shouting through a bristling mustache, stared at the indicators monitoring power levels and targeting information. There was no specific target today. The firing itself would provide ample demonstration of the weapon’s potency.

The wall grumbled, transmitting the steady thrum of the hidden accumulator coils as they pulled vryl energy from the air. Every hair on Rory’s body stood at sharp attention. His skin crawled as if spider webs were being drawn across it. Arcs of pale lightning flickered around the cannon’s barrel, and the sergeant’s voice became impossible to hear as the weapon shrieked and growled. 

The firing rocked the wall.

It shook the city and rippled the bay for half a mile in every direction.

Rory spread his feet to maintain his balance. His jaw went slack as the air in front of the barrel shimmered with the passage of thaumaturgic energy bound to super-heated particles. The fact that the beam was only faintly visible did not make it any less destructive or deadly. Rory had never been this close to a firing, had never seen the beam as anything more than a faint line stretching off into the infinite distance. He had heard the boom when the firing ceased of course. Nobody with ears in the city could have claimed otherwise over the past eighteen months. But this was different. It was one thing to read about the fell energies harnessed by technomancy in dime novels, but witnessing the real thing shifted his fascination to terror. He stared with wide eyes, every hair on his body trying to pull free from his skin. A warm breeze caressed his face.

He became aware of a commotion.

Near the cannon.

Rory turned, astonished to see Aunt Eva racing from the gallery, arms waving. The cannon’s crew could not see her. They were focused on the destructive passage of their weapon’s energy beam. Rory saw faces in the gallery behind her, some looking with horrified expressions at the horizon. Evangeline Donnelly tumbled into the battery crew, shouldered the sergeant aside, and tugged fiercely at the massive firing lever.

Thunder jolted the wall as air rushed in to fill the vacuum left in the deadly beam’s wake. Rory clapped his hands over his ears.

Too late.

The beam was supposed to be stepped down gradually in a test firing, so the new recruits hadn’t been issued the helmets with ear protection that the battery crew wore. In ringing silence, Rory watched the sergeant struggle to decide if he would strike the woman who had manhandled his cannon’s controls. The sergeant loomed, his face purple behind the straw bristles of his mustache as members of the gallery rushed forward. He was shouting, but Aunt Eva had both ears covered. She took one hand from her ear and pointed at the horizon. 

Rory twisted around. Distant shapes wheeled in loose formation above Brooklyn, producing flashes of color—yellow and blue, red and green. Painted wings.

The Air Wing.

Biplanes swooped and dove as they came across the water. They passed just over the wall, the pilots’ scarves flapping as they waved to the spectators below. The wood and fabric bodies of their machines were garish with color, and James’s yellow-winged fighter was in the lead.