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Steam and sensibility

Kirsten Weiss

Steam and

sensibility

Chapter 1
San Francisco, California Territory. 1848. Sensibility Grey gripped the brass rail between her gloved hands. Groaning, the steamship strained against its anchor chain, pinioned to the bay floor. It was all wrong. The fleet of wooden-hulled ships, deserted, their masts piercing the twilit sky was wrong. The village of San Francisco, lying lifeless, without so much as a barking dog to break its silence? Wrong. And most wrong of all, her mourning garb. Sensibility was too young for sorrow. Her gown, black as a ravens feathers, whipped about her limbs in the salty breeze. She leaned forward, slim hips pressing into the rail, and shielded her eyes against the sun setting behind the bay. Fog drifted over rolling, green hills. Its tentacles stretched, grasping, as if to consume the village, the ships. Unease rippled up her spine. Could it be plague? The thought struck like a blow. Plague. It had cut through Europes population like a scythe. But that had been centuries ago, and this was the modern era, 1848. She rubbed her thumb across her copper pocket watch. It dangled from her brown leather waistcoat, the only
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garment she had not dyed to mark her fathers passing. Its soft, chocolate color brightened her English-rose complexion. Her uncle waited for her somewhere on shore, in San Francisco. This barren place was to be her new home, and a leaden depression weighted her heart and shoulders. A strand of black hair whipped from her bun, lashing her skin. She thrust the errant strand behind her ear, her bottle-green eyes straining for a sight of the ships master. His tiny rowboat lay beached upon the shore, and he and his men had been gone for over half an hour. Had they been ensnared? Caught in the same trap that had captured the men from all those abandoned ships? Shifting her weight, Sensibility subconsciously adjusted to the movement of the waves. She stared at the ships, forced herself to think of the puzzle at hand rather than her recent bereavement. Dozens of them filled the harbor too many for such a small place. San Francisco could not hold more than five hundred souls. The presence of so many ships cluttering its bay was unnatural. No, she was not paranoid. It was all wrong. And as she could do nothing about whatever was wrong, there was little sense imagining herself into a state. Making an exasperated noise, Sensibility turned and leaned back against the rail. She gazed absently at the smokestack, regretting the end of her life on board. The speed of the ship had amazed. The size of its great steam engines had awed. And she was certain the engines could be even more efficient with only a few small improvements. Her brow creased, more pressing concerns crowding her mind. Her uncle her new guardian was to meet her at
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the dock. Would he know she had arrived twelve hours early? And if not, how would she find him? Why had her uncle come to the California Territory? He was an Englishman, like her father, and had been born in the worlds great capital, London. Why come here? Perhaps he was a solitary man, a scientist like her father. Or an explorer at heart. Unable to resist any longer, she returned her gaze to the village, still and silent. An Indian attack? No, that would not account for the empty ships. Unless they were lying in wait on the shore for passengers and crew to disembark A thin tangle of gray smoke rose from a chimney, and the muscles between her shoulders loosened. Shed been fanciful. San Francisco wasnt abandoned. And there was no doubt a logical explanation for its empty streets that did not involve plague or Indian attacks. Indian attacks. Really! She snorted. Were there Indian attacks in the California Territory? After an interminable thirty minutes, tiny figures appeared on shore. The ships men had returned, and she loosed a soft sigh. They clambered into the rowboat, ships master first. Two sailors pushed the boat from the shore, waves splashing about their thighs, and they jumped inside. Strokes smooth, regular, they pulled toward the steamship. Male passengers jostled to the ships rails. Crewmen pushed them back, clearing a path for the ships master. He clambered up the rope ladder to the deck. Removing his hat, he combed his fingers through his tangled white hair. Well be disembarking by boat as planned. Passengers should prepare their baggage. He cast a look toward Sensibility. Not you, of course, Miss. One of my men will assist you.
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She nodded her thanks. As the only female on board, and a young one at that, the ships master had taken her under his protective wing. In the weeks aboard ship shed grown accustomed to the attention, perhaps because shed received so little of it from her distracted father. Her throat tightened at the thought of that loss, and she cleared it. Before she could ask what theyd found in San Francisco, the ships master and his first mate disappeared into the masters quarters. The rest of the crew began the business of organizing the passengers. But soon a strange buzzing vibrated through the ship. It began as a whisper, a word that drew men together into groups of two and three. Sensibility walked toward one cluster of passengers. The men broke apart as she approached, their eyes wide, faces ruddy, muscles taut. Gold! Sensibility whipped her head toward the cry. One of the sailors cuffed another in the ear, and the victim scowled. The ships master burst from his cabin, his expression thunderous. A red-headed passenger strode to him. Is it true, Sir? Gold? The ships master glared. Which one of you cussed fools told them? One of the sailors whod gone ashore ducked his head and applied his efforts more vigorously to knotting a rope. So its true then! The red-head pushed through the crowd, knocking a sprightly old gentlemans hat askew. He tossed his traveling valise over the ships side, and a cry of pain rose from the rowboat lowering into the water. The man vaulted over the rail. There was a splash, and a roar from the crowd. The passengers pressed forward, shouting. Sensibility gripped her pocket watch, her stomach fluttering.
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A hand grasped Sensibilitys arm. The ships master. Im sorry, Miss, he said. Id hoped to get you ashore first, but it might be best to wait until this lot gets off my SHIP! Appalled, Sensibility backed from the growing press of men. They banged into each other with their carpet bags, shouting and shoving. Then the dam burst and several men toppled into the water with a splash. Sensibility pressed a hand to her breast. Good gad. She was accustomed to the managed chaos of her fathers laboratory, but this human anarchy disturbed her, set her nerves on edge. She fled to her windowless cabin below deck, slamming the door behind her, muffling the din above. The air inside was close and carried a faint overlay of coal smoke. Fumbling for a match, she lit the oil lamp beside the door. The room leapt to flickering life, polished wood gleaming. A cot sat wedged in a corner beside several large crates. Her paisley scarf draped over one wooden box, a makeshift side table. A miniature automaton, six-inches high, rolled about the floor on brass wheels. Sensibility tugged off her leather gloves and picked it up. She smiled at the tiny woman, built from spare parts found in the engine room and other odd places. Lightly, she brushed her palm against its soft broom skirt, enjoying the feel on her skin. Sensibility had designed it to whisk the coal dust into a pile in one corner, halt, and alert her when the task was complete. Her father had often teased her over the practical nature of her creations. But if an automaton did not complete a household task, then she would have to do it herself. And all in all, she would rather leave the sweeping to the mechanicals.
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Sensibility tapped the brass maid on the head. We have arrived in San Francisco and into a state of chaos. Good gracious, the automaton chirped. Sensibilitys smile widened. I quite agree. She regarded the tiny thing for a time, and her expression turned serious. Have I made a mistake coming here? But the automaton said nothing, humming with clockwork life. But you never make mistakes, do you? Sensibilitys eyebrows gathered in. Shaking her head at her own folly, she unhooked the automatons metalwork back and depressed a lever, disengaging the gears. The tiny figure went still. Sensibility packed it in her trunk. Masculine shouts continued to rain down from above. With little better to do, she sank on the narrow cot, folded her legs beneath her, and focused on her breath. Learn to meditate, her father had said, and should you go into debtors prison, you shall never lack for employment. She suspected he had told her this only half in jest, as her father had frequently been pursued by creditors. But his advice had been sound. Today, however, peace led her on a merry chase, her head thrumming with worry and curiosity. Finally, the first mate knocked on her door and led Sensibility onto the deck. To her surprise, the sky was full dark, the Milky Way a silvery path through the heavens. Across the bay, several windows in the village glowed. They lowered her trunk into the rowboat. Two men helped her down the rope ladder, its fibers cool and slick beneath her gloved hands. Grasping the rowboats edge, she fumbled her way to one of its benches. She turned to sit, and the boat lurched, struck by a wave. She fell onto the bench, her insides jarring like a clockwork automaton with
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loose gears. Embarrassed, she lifted the hems of her skirts from the puddle of water at her feet. Her heel bounced on the floor of the boat, a nervous rapping. She checked her watch. What would her uncle be like? Would he approve of her? Straining at the oars, the sailors powered the boat across the waves. The rowboat ran aground, and a sailor leapt out and carried Sensibility through the water. He deposited her none-too-gently on the beach, glowing in the light of a crescent moon. Another sailor slung her trunk over his back and toppled it onto the shore. Sensibility squeaked at this rude assault, and she staggered through the sand toward her few, precious belongings. He dragged her trunk up the beach to a dirt road that paralleled the water. Clambering up the bank behind him, her booted feet slipped in the loose sand. Panting, she gained solid ground, reached the road, and hurried after the sailor. He strode to the pier and dropped her trunk beside a rickety wooden shack. It stood on stilts, a comma to the attached pier. A crudely painted wooden sign on the shack proclaimed: PRIVAT. Frowning at the misspelling, she turned to him to express her gratitude. Thank The sailor hurried off. you, Sensibility finished, deflated. Deserted ships clunked and strained against the wooden dock. She sat on her trunk and flipped open the cover of her pocket watch. Colorful planets circled its face, marking the planetary hours. The watch was one of her fathers inventions, but at Sensibilitys insistence, hed added an hour and minute hand to track more mundane time. Her father had explained the magic of the planetary hours to her
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not that she believed in magic. But hed never explained how hed managed to create a watch that never needed winding. Her hand went to his final journal, tucked beneath her stays and the waistband of her skirt. Shed managed to grab it and the broken compass tucked inside before the creditors had swooped in. Her father had likely been using the compass as a bookmark. Sensibility hadnt the heart to throw it away. Wood creaked behind her. She twisted, hair prickling on the back of her neck. She was alone, sailors and passengers vanished into the depths of San Francisco. A cold wind knifed through her gown. Shivering, she rose and buttoned her worn, black riding jacket. Perhaps her uncle hadnt learned of her arrival. Perhaps hed caught gold fever and forgotten her. The dark street, empty, its silence unnerving, stretched along the waterfront. Squat wooden buildings, gray shapes in the night, crouched at random intervals along the dirt road. She swallowed. Should she go in search of him? The village was small. Surely she could find someone who knew him. But Sensibility had the trunk to contend with. It was too heavy to move on her own, and it anchored her to the spot. Heat rose between her shoulder blades, that creeping, prickling feeling of being watched. She clenched her fists. It was her imagination, nothing more. California was in the midst of a gold rush. Ships lay abandoned in the harbor. San Francisco was a near ghost town. With gold on the horizon, why would anyone spy upon her?
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Want to read more? You can buy Steam and Sensibility on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Steam rising. California Territory, 1848. Gold has been discovered, emptying the village of San Francisco of its male population. Steam-powered technology is still in its infancy. At 19, Englishwoman Sensibility Grey has spent her life tinkering in her fathers laboratory and missing the finer points of proper British life. But when her father dies in penury, shes shipped to San Francisco and to the protection of an uncle shes never met. The California Territory may hold more dangers than even the indomitable Miss Grey can manage. Pursued by government agents, a secret society, and the enigmatic Mr. Krieg Night, Sensibility must decipher the clockwork secrets in her fathers final journal, unaware shell change the world forever. Magic, mayhem, and mechanicals. STEAM AND SENSIBILITY is a pre-Steampunk novel of paranormal suspense set in the wild west of the California gold rush.

Steam and sensibility

About the Author Kirsten Weiss worked overseas for nearly fourteen years, in the fringes of the former USSR and deep in the Afghan war zone. Her experiences abroad not only gave her glimpses into the darker side of human nature, but also sparked an interest in the effects of mysticism and mythology, and how both are woven into our daily lives. Now based in San Mateo, CA, she writes paranormal mysteries, blending her experiences and imagination to create a vivid world of magic and mayhem. Kirsten has never met a dessert she didnt like, and her guilty pleasures are watching True Blood and drinking good wine. Follow her on Twitter @RigaHayworth or on her blog at http://kirstenweiss.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter.

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