Blue on Black

by Carole Cummings

Blue on Black - Carole Cummings
Editions:Paperback - First Edition: $ 17.99
ISBN: 1632169495
Pages: 380
ePub - First Edition: $ 6.99
ISBN: 978-1-63216-950-1
Pages: 380
Kindle - First Edition: $ 6.99
ISBN: 978-1-63216-950-1
Pages: 380
PDF - First Edition: $ 6.99
ISBN: 978-1-63216-950-1
Pages: 380

Kimolijah Adani—Class 2 gridTech, beloved brother, most promising student the Academy’s ever had the privilege of calling their own, genius mechanical gridstream engineer, brilliantly pioneering inventor... and dead man. But that’s what happens when a whiz kid messes with dynamic crystals and, apparently, comes to the attention of Baron Petra Stanslo. Killed for his revolutionary designs, Kimolijah Adani had been set to change the world with his impossible train that runs on nothing more than gridstream locked in a crystal. Technically it shouldn’t even be possible, but there is no doubt it works.

Bas is convinced the notoriously covetous and corrupt Stanslo had something to do with Kimolijah Adani’s tragic and suspicious end. A Directorate Tracker, Bas has finally managed to catch the scent of Kimolijah Adani’s killer, and it leads right into Stanslo’s little desert barony. For almost three years, Bas has tried to find a way into Stanslo’s Bridge, and when he finally makes it, shock is too small a word for what—or, rather, whom—he finds there.

Excerpt:

IT DOESN’T start like this:

See, the thing is, it isn’t supposed to go this way.

He’s a goddamned tracker, he’s a goddamned good tracker, better than anything else the Directorate’s got, and the swagger that comes with that has been earned a hundred times over, sometimes in blood, though, okay, let’s not get all maudlin and dramatic. The point is, he’s not supposed to be caught wrong-footed. And he’s certainly not supposed to be staring down eight barrels of a spin-housing street cannon in the back of a train station in godforsaken Harrowgate.

That’s supposed to be the agent’s job. Poor guy. Stupid fucking idiot.

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“You Barstow?” the man with the gun asks. He’s tall and rangy, rough-looking and sallow-skinned, with patches of beard going wild and scraggly. It’s dark and Bas can’t see the rest of his face very well, just a stubbled sloping chin beneath the shadow cast by his wide-brimmed hat. He looks tough as rusty nails and just as pleasant.

Steam hugs the ground and wreaths the hem of the man’s long dirty coat, clings, and thickens the reek of dirt and sweat that wafts from the man every time he moves. Bas can even smell it through the fug of smoke and engine grease coming from the station, and all of it combined pricks at his eyes and makes them water.

There's no cleaner, deeper sense of Tech beneath any of it—no thick, sundrop yellow mutters of “psyTech” hazing at the periphery of his vision and scattering something earthy on the back of his tongue; no blue edging that says “kineTech” and somehow tastes of wet cedar. Bas’s mind decides “nonTech” before his eyes bother to fully assess his current situation. Still, though, the gun—Bas can see that just fine.

“Who’s asking?” Bas says from his crouch. He’s somewhat pissed off, so it comes out a growl.

Smooth, Bas, he tells himself. Keep it smooth. He can still salvage this.

“I en’t playin’ games.” The housing of the barrels turns and the strike stud clicks into place. “Are you Barstow?”

Bas peers down at the agent’s body, blood still seeping in a rivulet from the knife in his throat, the heat catching the chill of the desert night and wisping steam. Aaron, Bas thinks. The guy’s name was Aaron.

Bas didn’t know him well. Hadn’t cared to get to know him. Just another Directorate agent who’d maybe gotten a little too cocky. It happens.

“Yeah,” says Bas. “Yeah, I’m Barstow.”

He isn’t. No one is, not really. It’s a cover, a standard one used by trackers when they need a ready-made thug reputation as an in with bands of thieves and murderers, and then that same cover is handed over to the agents along with the case once the tracker’s job is done. That’s the beauty of Jakob Barstow—he’s a chameleon; he can be anything the agent wearing his skin needs him to be.

Bas is a tracker, not an agent. Trackers track. They don’t do the set-them-up-then-take-them-down part. They do the sniffing out and the pointing, and then they let the agents take over.

Except.

Bas knows the Barstow cover well enough to fake it. He’s been Barstow plenty of times. Hell, he’d done most of the legwork on this particular case, and he’d done it as Barstow. And someone needs to get into Stanslo’s Bridge.

“Well, Barstow.” It sounds like a sneer. “Ye picked up a tail.” The man jerks his chin down at the dead agent. “Thought you was supposed to be all….” He smirks. “Well. Better ’n this.”

Bas doesn’t let it sting. Because the agent got a touch careless in his relative inexperience with this kind of assignment, and this guy got unbelievably lucky but is just too stupid to know the difference. What a fucking waste.

Bas doesn’t answer the insult; he merely gives the man a slow blink, flat and unimpressed. And he stares. And stares.

It unnerves the guy. It always unnerves the blustery, petty, wannabe-tyrant types. Bas can see the man trying not to shift, but he does eventually. And when the man realizes he’s on the edge of squirming, he sets his scruffy jaw and glares.

“Name’s Fox,” he says, trying for arrogant. He gives a pointed glance at the agent’s body. “And yer welcome. Fer takin’ care o’ yer tail.” He lifts his chin, smug out of all proportion. “Followed ye all the way from the inn, that ’un.” He grins, mean and with teeth that make Bas want to rear back and grimace. “Not very saddle.”

Bas is pretty sure the guy means “subtle,” which, yeah, okay, Aaron had maybe slipped up, contacting Bas one too many times while they were in Harrowgate pretending not to know each other, and if Aaron had been more careful, Bas wouldn’t have even seen him unless he’d looked for him. So, okay, not subtle, but fucking hell, saddle, and why are all the stupidest ones the ones with the biggest guns?

“Uh-huh,” Bas says, bored, and starts going through the agent’s—Aaron’s—pockets. “Tell me, Fox,” he says, casual, as he digs out Aaron’s billfold and the silver pocket watch the guy never seemed to stop fiddling with. He slides them into his own pockets and waves down at the body. “This guy look like a cutpurse to you?”

Bas watches Fox’s eyes as he—for the first time, Bas would wager—takes in the fine cut of the trousers, the heavy nap of the coat. Fox’s face slides into confusion first, then annoyance. Bas doesn’t wait for him to think up a clever retort. Because he’d likely be waiting a good long time. Saddle, for fuck’s sake. With a disdainful grimace he doesn’t try to hide, Bas pulls the palm-sized flat oval of obsidian out of Aaron’s breast pocket and lets it catch the greasy light coming through the cracks in the boards behind the train station.

“That’s a scry mirror,” Fox says.

Bas rolls his eyes. “Not quite as stupid as you look.”

Fox looks Bas in the eye with a crooked set to his jaw. “He was scryTech.”

He was. Class 5. One of the reasons the Directorate had insisted on sending him here, inexperience be damned. Harrowgate’s relay office had been unreachable for months, and only a scryTech of the highest class could hope to get a message across the span of the Territories without a relay.

Bas rubs at his mouth and sighs. It’s all part of the mystery he’d thought was confined to Stanslo’s Bridge, and he didn’t find out any different until he got to Harrowgate. He saw hints the moment he stepped off the train, but the semi-mummified body nailed to the relay office doors was what made him understand that, whatever malevolence Stanslo’s Bridge was exuding, it was leaking and spreading. There was no way to tell if the body was the scryTech the Directorate required every relay office to employ, but it wouldn’t really matter in the end. The place was boarded up and caked in dust, and the body was wearing a Relay Office patch on the sleeve of its torn and rotting coat. Bas is no necroTech, but he doesn’t think he’s too far off in guessing the body has been there for months.

“They’re trying to cut off communication,” Aaron had said—whispered it, really, urgent and avid-eyed in the back of the tavern where he and Bas pretended to have just happened into a game of darts between two strangers new in town. “The only way to get word in or out of here now is the train, and Stanslo owns the line.”

Bas blows out a long, heavy breath and surreptitiously makes sure Aaron's fake papers are still in his breast pocket. It's possible his body will be found and sent home, in which case the Directorate will know something went wrong.

“Yeah, he was scryTech.” Bas shrugs. “Which means you’ve just made the Directorate dreadful unhappy, ’cause when it comes to dead Techs, they don’t fuck around.” He gives Fox a level stare. “Well done, you.”

Fox’s eyes narrow down to slits. “He was following you.”

“And he would’ve lost me once I got on the train to Stanslo’s Bridge, wouldn’t he.” Bas lets it rumble into a low snarl, brusque. It shuts Fox up, so Bas shakes his head and says, “Look, we’ll keep it between us, but if there’s shit coming down from the Directorate for this, I intend to stand well clear of the stink.”

Fox seems to chew on that for a moment before his thin mouth stretches out into a smarmy, brown-toothed grin. “Fuck that. Where we’re goin’, Techs en’t no better’n anybody else and the Directorate en’t got no reach.”

Bas merely lifts an eyebrow. And waits. And stares some more.

Fox apparently takes it as a challenge this time, because he puffs up and snaps, “Yeah, you’ll see, smartass. You’ll see things that’d make coddled Techs and Directorate fucks cry for their mams. Stanslo’s Bridge en’t got room for the delicate.”

Okay. So Fox is the kind of stupid that’ll turn out to be useful, and all Bas’ll have to do is get him just the right amount of riled. Because with one brash outburst, Fox has just pretty much confirmed all Bas’s suspicions and several of his theories.

Before this part of the Territories was part of the Territories, there were such things as Tech hunters and hired guns and slave traders, and it isn’t like it’s ancient history. It had been happening in Bas’s grandparents’ youth, and eradicating it is part of the reason the Directorate came into the power it now enjoys. A hundred years ago, Bas’s talents as a tracker might well have been pressed into service hunting down Techs for the auction block. So it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine it hasn’t been entirely stamped out in places where the Directorate’s presence isn’t much of a presence. At least as far as the Tech part of the population, it’s why the Directorate exists.

It’s why Bas signed with the Directorate right out of the academy. When you have a little brother who’s not only psyTech but Class 4, you learn to recognize and guard against exploitation and abuse at an early age. Their parents had been careful, and Mo is more than capable now of taking care of himself, but there was a time when Mo was small and unskilled and he’d needed a big brother who knew what kind of spark to watch out for in another’s eyes.

Bas sees that spark in Fox’s eyes a little too clearly.

“So,” Bas drawls, sliding it into more syllables than it needs and letting the corner of his mouth pull down, impatient. “Do I get to see all this sometime this century?”

Fox doesn’t answer, just keeps staring at Bas, gaze narrow and shining in the dark. Bas stares back, because what the hell, it’s worked so far.

It works this time too. Fox looks away with a grunt and an annoyed jerk of his head toward the station. “Got any bags?”

 

 

THE TRAIN is nothing special. It surprises Bas. He’s seen the drawings and schematics Kimolijah Adani was working on, has seen the Tech working, the little model train zipping across the floor, impossibly powered by nothing but gridTech somehow locked in a tiny crystal attached to its chassis. No hooking into the Grid conduits, no wires strung to a gridstation with a dozen or more gridTechs powering it. A gridmotor running on gridstream that couldn’t be inside that crystal, because gridstream can’t be directed like that. Except it was.

“It can be directed,” Resaniji Adani had told Bas, almost sneering at him, like he should’ve known. Kimolijah Adani’s big sister was fierce in her still-vibrant grief for her brother and her da. And a little bit scary. “You just have to know how. Like bleeding, ’Lijah told me once. You cut your hand and you’ve got blood leaking down your arm. You can’t really aim it, right? It just sort of dribbles out and goes the path of gravity and least resistance. But what if you opened an artery? Instead of dribbles you get a geyser, and then it’s not about controlling the flow anymore, it’s about directing it.”

She’d flicked at the little train with its tiny motor and its tiny crystal making the wheels whirr and clack.

“’Lijah can open an artery and aim.”

This train… well. Bas has been expecting something else.

It’s a steam locomotive with a few boxcars hooked to it, and that’s it. Someone checks the last coupling and someone else pulls an empty trolley down the ramp of the last car and sends a wave to Fox. Fox turns to Bas. “C’mon, let’s go check for stowaways.”

There are none, and Bas honestly can’t imagine why there would be, but he checks among the sacks of grains and barrels of ale and feed. “Get a lot of stowaways, do you?” he asks Fox.

Fox rolls a gob of snot up through his sinuses and horks it out the door into the dust. “Not from here.”

Bas stands beside the car amidst the smoke that chugs from the idling engine and clings to the ground, and he thinks Well, this just keeps getting weirder and weirder. He doesn’t say it, though. Obviously.

They shut and lock the doors. With a smirk, Fox chivvies Bas up the metal steps into the cab and directs Bas to the stoke scuttles beside the fuel hatch.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Bas says, eyeing the shovel.

Fox shrugs. “You wanna drive, then?”

Bas squints at the dials and levers and various switches. He gives Fox a glare and picks up the shovel.

It’s loud once they get going, the thack-thack-thud of the wheels on the tracks rhythmic enough that Bas uses its cadence to dig-pause-chuck, dig-pause-chuck. The mindlessness of it is strangely soothing, settling Bas’s head and dulling the anger at the complete waste of having to leave that agent dead in an alley like a forgotten smudge of flotsam. Bas sinks into the rhythm and the buzzing silence in his head and decides not to notice how time just… slips. It’s good because the noise prevents talk, and the last thing Bas wants to do is talk to this Fox. He ignores the dark, shapeless whirr of desert vista winging by him and the passage of the minutes and then the hours, and thinks of nothing but his grip on the shovel, the blisters he can feel sprouting on his palms, the stretch and pull of muscle and sinew.

He resists the spiral of theories and conjecture that pulls him down a path that will inevitably and invariably lead him to thoughts of Kimolijah Adani. Because Bas has obsessed about it all for going on three years now, and there’s no point in wasting time pondering a dead man. Better to figure out how he got dead, and then, since Bas is here and all, planned or unplanned, figure out a way to make someone pay for it. Bas doesn’t have time or headspace for anything else. He needs to start being Jakob Barstow.

It’s the early hours when Fox gives Bas a “Ho! Belay the fires, now” and Bas abruptly thumps back into his own head, peers around him to get a look out the windscreen. He doesn’t see anything for a long spell—just blank, dusty landscape and the sporadic stubble of scrub—and then he does. A shabby shanty of a way station squats on a latticework of tracks in the middle of the desert.

Fox brakes with a concentration of which Bas hadn’t really thought him capable. “We switch here,” Fox says as they pull up to the station, and Bas doesn’t have to ask to what. He can see the other train even in the dark.

“Why?” he asks instead. “Why didn’t that train just come out to Harrowgate?”

“’Cause it’s how it works. If you don’t wanna walk, you’d best come on.”

Fox doesn’t wait for Bas, just jumps down from the cab and heads off to the other train. Bas follows, taking in what he can. He only really sees a black outline against a black sky, but he knows this is what he’d expected to see back at the station in Harrowgate. He can smell it.

It’s all laced monochrome in the dark. The silhouettes, when Bas blinks, are edged sharp behind his eyes in the blue-black of gridTech, so thin he almost can’t discern it with the not-vision of his tracking senses, but now that he’s not inhaling stoke smoke and rank sweat, he can almost taste the faint-faint-faint pepper of ozone, and he knows, he knows exactly what he’s looking at.

A dim blue current flitters in starts and stops over the skin of the cab, giving Bas a glimpse at something almost bullet-shaped and sleek; it loses the illusion of novelty and polish when Bas’s eyes adjust and he sees the quill-like projections and bulky… something-or-other mounted on the roof.

Bas doesn’t remember the spiky poles and conduit and sparking wiring that crowns this locomotive as part of the little toy train he saw back in Kimolijah Adani’s ruined workshop, but he remembers the drawings in the notes over which Bas pored while he was trying to catch a whiff of a trail. The poles and wires and flickers and flowing gridstream make the locomotive look like it’s topped by a lustrous blue crown. With, you know, weird spiky tines like a dilapidated fence and enough current to beef ten men on contact, but whatever.

It looks like it’s been thrown together out of spare parts. And it sounds like it’s on its last legs. The locomotive whines as Bas and Fox approach it, spitting filaments of blue sparks all over the skin of it, some of them shooting off in all directions and catching at whatever drift-scrub rolls by on the steady breeze over the flat hardpan. It revs for a second, then sputters out with a tinny, shrieking fizz.

“Don’t touch nothin’,” Fox cautions, motions for Bas to stop where he is, and ventures ahead. “En’t ye got this thing goin’ yet?” he yells, and someone inside the cab curses—a rather eye-popping stream of it—and throws a wrench out through the open door. It just misses Fox’s head. Bas can see Fox’s hand twitch toward the small four-barrel on his hip, but he only snarls, “Knock it the fuck off, princess, else—”

“What d’you think I was trying to do?” the other voice snaps. “Just hang fire, I’m almost there.”

Fox is pissed off, Bas can tell, but he doesn’t do much more than fume. He side-eyes Bas, as though looking for a reaction, and when he doesn’t get one, he calls, “Lowen?”

“Yeah!” comes another voice from inside the cab. Tools clank, and that other voice curses again, and then someone stands silhouetted in the dim light pouring from the open side of the cab. “He’s almost got it,” the man tells Fox. He’s big, bigger than Bas, and his skin is as dark as stoke.

“I already heard that one.” Fox leans to the side and spits. Again. “How long?”

The man—Lowen—shrugs and wipes his hands on a dirty rag. “Needs to be soon. Can’t run for powerful long in the heat, and night’s shinning out.”

“No shit. Why d’you think I asked?”

“It’s not like he’s not giving it his best go, Fox. He doesn’t want to be stuck out in the middle of the desert all day any more than you do.”

“Yeah, you keep coddlin’ the princess,” Fox grumbles and jerks his chin at Bas.

Bas would really rather get a look at that engine, but he can’t think of a good reason the hired gun he’s supposed to be would care. So Bas follows and does as Fox tells him as they maneuver the steam engine on the switch tracks and decouple the cars that hold the supplies they’ve hauled here. It’s not as complex as Bas thought it might be, at least not for him, since he’s not the one driving the engine. Fox looks like he knows what he’s doing, but Bas nonetheless makes sure to stand well clear of anything that looks like it might crush him or cut him in half when it moves.

The other train—the one Bas is already thinking of as “the gridtrain”—is still where they left it, still shooting off sporadic sparks and jets of gridstream, and there’s still the occasional spate of filthy cursing coming from inside it. So Bas assumes whoever’s in there hasn’t yet got it going.

“’S all we can do for now,” Fox says with a grim set to his mouth, and then he spits. Again.

Bas tries not to roll his eyes as he follows Fox to the tiny boxcar that apparently came with the gridtrain. It turns out to be a hobo’s notion of a passenger car. Two shabby, knob-legged couches that look like they came out of a brothel’s parlor line the sides. Fox flops onto one of them and kicks up his feet. With something close to a fond smile, he reaches behind the couch and pulls out a long, thick… gun, Bas supposes; has to be a gun, though not like anything Bas has ever seen. There’s only one barrel, to start, it looks more like ceramic than metal, and the trigger’s more like a toggle and it’s wired. Fox trades it for the big eight-barrel street cannon he’d been carrying, cradles it across his chest, and makes himself comfortable.

“Stay in the car,” he tells Bas. “You touch the wrong thing, you fry, and I’ll have wasted a pain-in-the-ass trip for nothin’.” He shoves his hat down over his eyes and doesn’t say any more.

Bas sits across from him with his leather pack at his feet and stares out the open door at the desert dark. He doesn’t try to engage Fox in chitchat. Bas thinks Fox is only good for the kind of information that comes through gossip and griping, and Bas is not in the mood. Also, he already thinks Fox is an asshole, and Bas has never managed to scrounge up the inclination to suffer assholes. So Bas keeps quiet and watches dust and more dust, and tries to pretend he doesn’t want to launch across the seats and rip Fox’s face off for whatever part he played in getting hold of the designs for that train and for what happened to the man who made them. Because that peppery scrim of gridTech has been on the back of Bas’s tongue for a long time now, he knows its blue-on-black shapes like he knows his own face, and he knows it came from a young genius gridTech whose experiments and designs came to the wrong attention and got him killed. The fact that these men are using those designs like they have the right makes Bas’s teeth tighten and his fists clench.

It gets dangerous very quickly, the too-real possibility that Bas will do something violent that he shouldn’t while Fox is just lying there like some dirty little desert lord kipping as his minions scurry to please him. But patience is the largest part of tracking, and though it’s the part Bas likes the least, there’s no denying it’s the part that nearly always pays off. And he needs to get into Stanslo’s Bridge. So Bas sets his jaw and eventually goes back to the door, leans out of it, and eyes the locomotive.

That can’t be safe, he thinks, watching the currents travel the length of the locomotive’s casing and wondering how anyone inside it isn’t cooking. He remembers Kimolijah Adani’s commentary on the drawings—safety and grounding and problems with containing the current—and Bas supposes he’s seeing proof that it’s all been gotten around somehow, but he can’t fathom how. Still, it’s happening, it’s real, it’s working.

Well. Bas supposes it’s been known to work, anyway—it appears to have gotten out here on its own power, at least—but there’s obviously a problem with it, or Bas assumes it wouldn’t be whining and stopping like it is.

The sound of metal-on-metal doesn’t let up, a steady clang-clang-clang ringing out over the bleak hardpan. Someone says something in a gruff, irritated tone—Bas is pretty sure it’s Lowen—and someone else answers back in a smoother, higher voice, young, but Bas can’t make out what either of the apparently two men are saying. The clanging rings again, faster and more urgent, then that second voice rises in both volume and intensity until the first voice bellows something and the clanging stops. There are a few mutters, and then Lowen throws open the side door of the locomotive and stomps out.

He doesn’t look as angry as his tone implied; he looks concerned as he turns back to shout over his shoulder, “You’re running out of time, damn it!”

“You think I don’t know that?” the other voice yells back. “You think I don’t fucking well know that?”

Lowen opens his mouth, as though to retort, but he pauses instead, shoulders slumping, head shaking in what looks like regret, and he looks up at the sky. The banging and clanging starts up again. There are sparks flying out from the open door now too. Bas can’t see much, but he can hear, and whoever’s in that cab can curse like nothing Bas has ever heard, and he’s lived on the road with rustlers and highwaymen, so that’s saying something. The low, grinding strains of “Motherfucking, cocksucking son—of—a—bitch!” in rhythm to the banging almost make Bas snort, but then there’s more commentary on sons of whores and doing things with dogs no one should know about, let alone do, and then there’s something about mothers and coyotes that makes Bas widen his eyes and blink away the sordid mental picture with a rather prudish grimace. So, all in all, it’s not hard for Bas to keep quiet, since he’s already pretty much speechless.

Fox snorts behind him, and Bas can’t tell if it’s in his sleep or in reaction to the filthy commentary.

More sparks fly out of the cab, and then there’s an almighty buzzing sound that segues into a whine, and a blue glow blooms out over the locomotive’s skin and the rigged lattice of wiring on its roof. The cursing cuts off in favor of an exultant “Yes!” as the engine howls to life, that blue glow narrowing into streams of crackling currents that feed outward from the cab and go spidering up along all the conduit and wirework.

Lowen abruptly jolts back from it and to the side, like it’s zapped him or something, but Bas thinks, if it had, any moves Lowen would be making would be the jittery death-dance kind. That’s a heap of current roping halfway freely all over the locomotive. That singular pepper-ozone taste blooms at the back of Bas’s tongue, fills his mouth, and the gridstream pulses with a blue-black phantasm underglow that Bas can’t see with his eyes but can nonetheless see. Bas has to make himself remain cool and detached, because he knew it, but to see it, to see what’s left of someone so promising, to understand a man had been killed for it, and to see it used by those that must be responsible….

Bas wonders if he’ll blow his cover if he just knocks Fox galley-west for no reason, or even shoots him. It would fit right in with the Jakob Barstow cover, surely, but it wouldn’t do the job he’d come here to do. It would probably only get him dead or left out in the middle of the desert, which is pretty much the same thing. Harrowgate is a long way behind when you’re riding shank’s mare.

Lowen has drifted back, eyes still on the sparking engine, when he pauses. With a sigh, deep and loud enough that Bas can hear it from where he hangs out of the boxcar, Lowen shakes his head and ventures closer to the engine. He stops when he reaches the door.

“Can you power it down so I can get those tools out of the hatch?”

There’s a long moment of nothing until the other voice says, “I don’t think I want to. What if I can’t start it again? And it’s getting close.”

“I don’t know.” Lowen takes off his hat and scrubs at his short dark hair. “Not exactly safe to—”

“Nothing about any of this is bloody safe, is it? Just leave it. They’re not in the stream, so there shouldn’t be a problem, and cutting the engine again isn’t worth the risk.”

Lowen squints up at the sky, eyes following a falcon that circles overhead. “It’s only an hour or so ’til dawn and you haven’t been wearing the bracelet since—”

“Yeah, I know, Lowen.”

Lowen pauses with a heavy sigh. “Can you make it?”

“I’ll have to, won’t I?”

Lowen seems to think that over for a moment, obviously unhappy with the answer, but he nods anyway. “I’ll ride back in the car,” he answers. “Could use the sleep anyway. Back ’er up and I’ll do the coupling.”

Bas doesn’t offer to help as Lowen directs the locomotive over the switch tracks and hooks up the supply cars Fox had hauled from Harrowgate. Again, it doesn’t take very long, so Bas can only assume it’s a routine well-practiced, and it’s finished with minimal fuss.

Aching for a chance to have a look inside that locomotive now that he’s watching it actually work—sort of—but afraid of getting anywhere near the seemingly wild gridstream flowing all over it, Bas only watches and thinks I was right.

“I think they killed him for his designs,” he’d told the Directorate wonks, back when all this was just the bones of a case submitted for analysis. “I think they got just enough information out of him in exchange for contraband crystals to understand the potential of what he was working on, and then they killed him for those unfinished designs half the gridTech academia were salivating over.”

The deputy minister had made grumbling noises about this is why Techs should fucking well listen when we tell them not to go walking into shitstorms. Bas had merely nodded agreeably and accepted when he was offered the case.

When the coupling is apparently complete and the freight cars secure, Bas backs up to let Lowen into the tiny boxcar-turned-passenger-car. Lowen gives Bas the once-over as he squeezes by and flumps onto the couch opposite Fox.

“So.” Lowen relaxes back into the leaking cushions and rubs his chapped hands together. “You’re the new guy.” He’s got one of those strange guns too, and he props it in the corner near his elbow.

Bas only gives him a look from beneath the brim of his hat and goes back to watching the gridstream quiver over the locomotive.

“Ah,” says Lowen, big white teeth almost glowing reflected blue when he smiles. “The talkative sort. No wonder Oleg liked you.”

Oleg. One of the “recruiters” for Stanslo’s Bridge. Bas had been working him and his partner, Dutter, for close to two years, gaining their trust and building on his own fake reputation as a highwayman and murderer, until Oleg had finally made the offer Bas had been waiting for.

“Suit yourself,” Lowen says then he too tugs his hat down over his eyes and settles into the couch. He doesn’t cradle his gun the way Fox does, but Bas thinks it would be a mistake to assume he couldn’t get to it quick enough to make it not matter.

Bas snatches at the edge of the open door when the train finally lurches into forward motion, and he leans against the side of the car when it begins to catch its swaying rhythm. He leaves the door open. The desert night air is cold enough he can see his breath, but he doesn’t want to sleep like the other two and he doubts there’s coffee service.

It’s different than any train Bas has ever been on before. Instead of the heavy ka-chunk ka-chunk of wheels on tracks, there’s more of a wheezy hum, smoother somehow, and it just has a lighter feel to it. Instead of the thick haze of stoke smoke and steam, there’s a hot reek of burnt gridstream and a charge to the air. It’s sort of exhilarating, because Bas has no doubt whatsoever he’s riding on a train that’s being powered solely by gridTech, and he’s pretty sure he’s one of a very few to even see something like this, let alone get a demonstration.

It takes a little bit, but it does eventually occur to him that that’s likely the reason for the switch and the way station. Harrowgate is isolated, yeah, and even more so now that there’s no more relay office, but people do live there, and rumors do find a way of traveling long distances. If Stanslo doesn’t want anyone outside of his little desert barony to know he’s got what looks to Bas like a train that runs on independent gridstream, then he’d do best not to let them see it at all.

I was right, Bas thinks again and blinks when his jaw clamps too tight and his eyes narrow down to angry slits. Kimolijah Adani was killed for his designs. And now I’m riding into hell’s teeth on one of them.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Ricky L. Brown on Amazing Stories Magazine wrote:

Blue on Black by Carole Cummings (author of Aisling and Wolf’s-own series) from DSP Publications is a fresh new take on the Steampunk genre, combining imaginative technology with mind twisting mystery and adventure. A character driven story, there’s plenty here for readers to enjoy.

Techs are specialists in various fields of technology. PsyTechs, scryTechs, and of course the gridTechs who wield the knowhow behind the blue current that powers locomotives and deadly weapons all play an influential role in. Not long ago, these techs were exploited, abused, bought and sold for their knowledge. But in this world they are accepted and utilized – unless you are unfortunate enough to be trapped in the uncivilized part of the land where the old ways still rule and the specialists are still oppressed.

This is where author Cummings pushes Steampunk back on its heels and gives readers a new wonderment. We still have the simplistic marvels of multi barreled weapons and gadgets, but this new grid technology takes deviousness to a new level. Gadgets and weapons are deadlier than those familiar to a steam powered world and the prospects of future uses could push the Steampunk genre into a Gridpunk genre.

Jacob Barstow is the alias name trackers go by. It is a façade established over the years of dangerous work by various trackers to the point it has become the failsafe identity of the trade. Barstow is a legend, a mythological gun slinging hero of sorts amongst the criminals of the land. If you’re a tracker, you’ve been Jacob Barstow.

Bartholomew “Bas” Eisen is a Grade 3 Tracker with the Directorate. Quickly established as our very competent hero, he is also the book’s narrator. His latest assignment finds him face to face with the notorious Baron Stanslo as he tries to solve the mystery behind a young Tech named Kimolijah Adani’s death. As tensions rise the deeper he infiltrates Stanslo’s barony, hidden passion for the victim and a surprising discovery could bring the mission to a disastrous end.

It’s obvious that the author likes to draw on the emotional ranges of her characters, which is one of the refreshing elements that separates this story from the typical shoot-em-up action common to the genre. Readers will find it easy to cling to the protagonist’s charisma and self-determination. His acute perception of this dark world mixed with his own complex and personal feelings of the people and places around him brings authenticity to his role. This, along with the technology being creative and pertinent, but not too overbearing as to make the plot cumbersome, the story becomes much more compelling and leaves the reader interested in what comes next.

If there is a down side to Blue on Black, it falls on the author’s insistence on explaining the nuance of every facial expression the hero decides to use or not use and why. Granted the character Bas is being secretive about his true identity and must be conscious of his appearance, but at some point the reader must be given credit for understanding this and allowed to make his or her own perception of the character’s intentions. This practice does not take away from the overall flow of the story, but at times it can be a noticeable unnecessary distraction.

Fans of Steampunk are going to enjoy Blue on Black by Carole Cummings. But fans of character driven stories that happen to take place in an imaginative world filled with mystery and action will not be disappointed either.

Lisa on The Novel Approach Reviews wrote:

If ever there was a book written that deserves to be an illustrated novel, it’s Carole Cummings’ Blue on Black, an alternate universe, twisted history, sci-fi/fantasy/steampunkish feast for the imagination and senses that sends readers on a synesthetic journey to an Old West-like place that, had it ever existed in reality, would have changed our own world dramatically.

Blue on Black is a story that’s not so much woven together from beginning to end as it is deconstructed and put back together again. What I mean by that is the plot and characters, and how they relate to each other, are constructed of a series of knots at the outset that must be untangled in order for us to see the “big picture” resolve itself in the end. Everything in this novel is layered—the colors, the characters, the setting, the Tech, the grandiose scheme which has brought the outlier Stanslo’s Bridge and its robber baron, Petra Stanslo, to the attention of the Directorate—with a subtlety that makes you look just that little bit deeper to make sure you don’t miss a thing. Who are enemies, who are allies, and who is simply looking out for number one? When does servitude represent freedom and freedom, servitude? It’s a web we’re snared in from the start, and we must decipher it right along with our intrepid hero.

Stanslo is both the Pandora’s Box and the Prometheus in the novel, dictator of a place where life often means death, where language is mind control, where double-think and its controlled insanity is delivered with a feral grin. Stanslo has opened up his twisted mind and spilled out an insane amount of narcissism upon his world, using people as leverage to oppress and fear to motivate them to carry out his plans, leaving the reader wondering where is their hope. He is predator and scavenger, exploiter and extortionist, both law and lawlessness, and he has stolen the spark (a spark he’s having trouble harnessing, by the way) necessary to unleash a technology upon humankind that humankind will not appreciate. Rather than a tool of progress, the technology in this novel is the agent of greed and lust and evil, and there seems to be no way to stop Stanslo before his delusions of grandeur give free reign to unchecked horror.

This is where Bartholomew Eisen becomes integral to the story. Bas is a Grade 3 Tracker with the Directorate of the Consolidated Territories, which is a fancy way of saying he can not only sense Tech but can taste its colors, and by taste, can tell what sort of Tech a man or woman possesses. He’s been assigned to track a missing weatherTech, a case which ends up intersecting with another, a murder case he’s been investigating involving one of the most promising minds in gridTech ever to be born, Kimolijah Adani, and Kimolijah’s father Ajamil. And this is how Bas ends up in Stanslo’s Bridge posing as a gunslinger called Jakob Barstow.

Narrated with no small amount of sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor, not to mention a flair that invokes comic book storytelling, Blue on Black is motion and movement in not only in its crafting but in the very magic of its Tech. Kimo’s power is all about the kinetic energy that flows through and from him, which draws all manner of attention to him, not to mention attracts the bad to him like a negative to a positive charge. “Everything that leaks from the Bruise goes after gridstream,” and poor Kimo is the target of the worst of it.

The Bruise itself is a place, a contusion in the skin of this world from which mutant beasts escape, a place where Nature has been made wild and toxic, a foe of the humans who, in all its karmic glory, are the ones guilty of corrupting it in the first place. It is the place that has offered Stanslo the means to control and the method to compel his madness and incite his avarice, jealousy, suspicion, and obsession with his most prized possession, playing god in his own little corner of hell. But, as with all oppressors, a day of reckoning awaits, and it’s one of the book’s greatest and most satisfying ironies when it happens.

There is action and suspense and danger between the covers of this novel, and while there is something building between Bas and Kimo amidst the destruction, Blue on Black is not a love story, though it is the story of two men who don’t know they’re falling into something that could be love, and doing it quite humorously, I might add. Really, how could they know, though, when one of them is in denial of his feelings, and the other is so full of anger and distrust that there isn’t much room for anything else? You’ve heard the idiom about someone having a burr under his saddle (or in other ::ahem:: delicate areas)? Well, the burrs in this book aren’t figurative, they are literal, and they play far too significant a role in Kimo’s life for him not to be more than a bit prickly. Plus, it’s hard to know love in the presence of fear, and it’s also rather difficult to recognize it when fear and love present some of the same physical symptoms—another lovely irony that.

Blue on Black is yet another outstanding novel by this author. I have had the pleasure of reading all her published work to date and can say without reservation that each of her books is an experience that may make you think a little harder, but the payoff in the end is always well worth the journey.

When you’re in the mood for an Alt U, Sci-Fi, Action/Adventure trip into an (un)reality of (un)imaginably fantastic proportions, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Blue on Black.

BA Brock on Queer Sci Fi wrote:

Blue on Black by Carole Cummings is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Go read it! Review done. *wink*

First thing I noticed: The writing was great, like, really super great.

Second thing I noticed: I had no idea what was going on half the time and I loved it. I understood just what I needed to at the time, but I was surprised at every page. There were plot twists and plot twists and plot twists. Holy smokes—trust no one. I also appreciated how the magic system wasn’t completely spelled out for me. By the end I still had questions. I love that.

The third thing I noticed was that the Blue on Black was striking some very familiar vibes, à la Steven King’s Dark Tower series. It wasn’t horror exactly, but it was steampunk, thrilling, terrifying in some respects (fuck spiders), and the plot and people were convoluted and diabolical. The cherry on top was the touch of magical realism.

The characters had their own motivations and acted consistently. I don’t usually reread novels, but there are layers upon layers, and now that I’ve read it, I want to reread it and catch everyone in their lies. Kimo was probably my favorite character, but Bas was was another great one. Both were complex, believable, sexy in unique ways, and interesting. When I was reading this, I imagined the characters as they would be in a graphic novel—I could picture them perfectly. Cummings draws them so well.

I didn’t classify this as a Romance, or erotic (no slash tags), but if you like those things, you won’t be disappointed. Trust me. At the same time, I’d recommend this to someone who doesn’t enjoy Romance, but loves spec fic.

Whit on It's About the Book wrote:

This book was so damn good. Like take a day or two off reading because I know it won’t be fair to whatever I pick up next type of good. I’ll admit the first 20 pages are a little slow going. From the first page you’re dropped into this complex world through the mind of a very distinct POV of one of the main characters Bas. He’s a tracker for the Directorate, which is basically like the FBI in charge of all humans with tech skills. Tech in this world refers to the person having something equivalent to a superpower that’s graded on a scale depending on how strong they are with their gift. Bas has been tasked to hunt down a class 5 weather tech who has all but vanished. He thinks he knows where she is and that it will also lead him to the murder of another brilliant tech he’s become acquainted with through the notes and studies he’s left behind. Bas believes the weather tech has been taken by the ruthless baddie we get too know all too well later in the book named Stanslo. Bas spends a lot of time trying to perpetuate a false persona to help get hired by the baddie’s recruiter and one day he’s plucked into service . He’s put on a train unlike anything he’s ever seen before. A train that runs off gridstream (that gets complicated so I won’t get into it) and defies everything he’s learned about how it works. When the train stops he’s been transported to a crap town in the middle of the dessert full of ruthless men all under the control of Stanslo. He trying his best to play the rogue gun slinging lawless type that got him hired. But this place is so strange and dangerous There’s really no way to prepare yourself mentally for being dropped into the town known as Stanslo’s Bridge What makes things all the more interesting is he also finds the young grid tech he’s become somewhat obsessed with after investigating his disappearance. The one they were all convinced was dead.

This world building here is so rich and vivid. It’s amazingly unique. If I had any advice for someone picking this up I’d tell you to just go with it. It’ll all click together as you read. I tried to absorb every tiny detail of the story from the first page but it’s a lot to take in. You learn everything as Bas does. It’s a game and he has to figure out the rules and roles of the people in that game. He has to watch his back and learn as much as he can as fast as he can. He’s all alone and in a world of trouble. As if figuring out the hierarchy and inner workings of this hell hole aren’t bad enough, he also has to figure out if Kimo is there of his own will or not. Again sounds easy enough but Kimo is a beautiful and volatile creature. He’s freaking epic! Like a live wire that burns too hot and too bright shoved into the small brilliant man. I totally get why everyone seems drawn to Kimo. He can do things nobody else can do. AND yet he’s at the mercy of Stanslo. He’s even apparently sleeping with him? But it that by choice or is it forced? The only thing you really know is Stanslo is evil and if they want to live Bas has to get them out. Thing is Stanslo isn’t stupid and he puts some crazy measures in place to make sure his people bend to his will. Including Kimo. This part of the story just adds to the mind games. I seriously HATED Stanslo. Hated him. He is a suave and charismatic baddie I wanted to die at the first opportunity!

The huge cast of characters was surprisingly easy to follow. I also felt like I knew them fairly well. They’re all so interesting. You really don’t know who trust. You feel you probably shouldn’t trust anybody but you know Bas will need an ally. Bas and Kimo are my favorite though. There is a love story but I would consider this a steam punk dystopian fantasy with a romantic story line. That story line however is so so good. Well worth the wait and frustration. Kimo doesn’t trust Bas either. They spend the majority of this long novel arguing. Neither can just come out and say what they want. Their back and forth was so so good. The dialogue was witty and sexy. Full of tension. Bas does a good job of holding his own against Kimo which is saying something.

This book is absolutely one of my favorites of 2015. It’s full of danger and intrigue. Amazing world building that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. A tumultuous but gripping love story. Crazy characters I loved and hated. Action packed. Creatures. Those fucking spiders! I can’t help but think this book was kind of like a western flavored Mad Max. Arrrghhh…there’s really no way to sum up all that this story is. What I do know is it is AWESOME! I freaking loved it. I absolutely recommend it.


About the Author

Carole lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Recipient of various amateur writing awards, several of her short stories have been translated into Spanish, German, Chinese and Polish.

Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is currently in the process of developing several other works, including more short stories than anyone will ever want to read, and novels that turn into series when she’s not looking.

Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room.

…Well. Not to her face.


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