Skies of Fire


The Ether Chronicles:
Book 1
From Avon Impulse
ISBN (e-book): 978-0062109149
ISBN (print): 978-0062184498

Find Skies of Fire Here:
Amazon

Barnes & Noble
BooksaMillion

AllRomance Ebooks
Powell’s

Man made of metal and flesh

Captain Christopher Redmond has just one weakness: the alluring spy who loved and left him years before…when he was still just a man. Now he’s superhuman—a Man O’ War, made as part of the British Navy’s weapons program—and his responsibility is to protect the skies of Europe. If only he could forget Louisa Shaw.

A most inconvenient desire

Louisa, a British Naval Intelligence agent, has never left a job undone. But when her assignment is compromised, the one man who can help her complete her mission is also the only man ever to tempt her body and heart. As burning skies loom and passion ignites, Louisa and Christopher must slip behind enemy lines if they are to deliver a devastating strike against their foe . . . and still get out alive.

“The RITA Award–nominated Archer skillfully weaves adventure and romance into the first of a new steampunk series…Fans of “The Blades of the Rose” and of Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke will devour the latest from this rising star in the romance industry.” – Library Journal

“With the first story in The Ether Chronicles, author Zoe Archer welcomes readers into a wonderful new steampunk world.” – RT Book Reviews

The skies above the Carpathian Mountains.

The deck of the airship HMS Demeter rocked from the force of another concussive blast. The hull took no damage, but the crew lurched like drunkards as they fought to keep the ship steady. A direct hit to the engines from the enemy’s ether cannons would send the Demeter plunging down over a mile to the jagged mountains below.

“That was a bit close, lads,” shouted Captain Christopher Redmond. The din of cannon and deck-mounted Gatling guns nearly drowned out his voice, gone hoarse with yelling orders.

“Let’s make ’em earn their gulden. Hard to starboard!”

He was loud enough for the crew to hear. Dawes, the helmsman, turned the wheel, and the ship banked sharply to the right, narrowly missing another blast from the Hapsburgs’ ether cannon.

Through his goggles, Christopher stared at the enemy ships. Bad odds. Five-to-three in favor of the Huns, and one of the Hapsburg dirigibles was a dreadnought, carrying thrice as many guns.  The corvette class Demeter was tiny by comparison, only as long as two railway carriages.

A convoy of Russian and British seafaring vessels had been attacked by a Hapsburg airship as they’d traveled across the Black Sea. The Demeter and two other British airships were there to respond and had flown to the aid of the convoy. Fighting among the vessels had ranged all the way into enemy territory. Over the Carpathian Mountains, four more Hapsburg dirigibles had joined the fight, resulting in this disastrous battle.

No British reinforcements would fly in to lend support. All he and the other British captains could do was fight, and hope they made it out alive.

Which might not happen. The Danae and Psyche were taking heavy hits, and, faintly over the boom of gunfire and roar of the wind, Christopher heard the airships’ captains bellowing orders to their crews.

“Looks like they’re beating a retreat,” noted Pullman, the Demeter’s first mate.

“Which means we have to do the same,” Christopher said. “Damn it.” He hated retreating. The Man O’ War part of him rebelled at the thought alone. He battled to keep down his impulse to fight—a continual struggle, since the telumium implants that had made him into a Man O’ War fed his already strong aggression. Retreat was counterintuitive to men such as he, men who had been transformed into amalgams of flesh and metal.

But sometimes retreat was the only option. Strategy took precedence over gallantry.

He smiled grimly to himself. Sounds like something Louisa might say.

The middle of a disastrous battle was no time to think of her, of the curve of her neck or the way she picked her morning rolls apart before eating them in discrete bites. A cunning strategist, his Louisa.

She’s not mine any longer. She made her choice.

“Prepare for withdrawal!” he yelled. Right now, he had to get his ship and crew to safety. Perhaps if he survived, he might allow himself a conciliatory dram of whiskey in his quarters, permitting a rare foray into regret and self-pity. A good deal of gunpowder and ether lay between now and then, however.

Turning to issue another command, he paused for a moment, catching a faint whine—a sound undetectable to the normal ear. He threw himself to the deck, taking Pullman down with him.

Both men looked up to see a bullet hole in the bulkhead just behind them.

“You’d been any slower,” Pullman breathed, “that bullet would’ve drilled right through your head and mine.”

Another reason to thank the telumium implants. The rare metal stimulated his adrenal glands, making him stronger and faster than an ordinary man, and sharpened his senses. He could see the rivets on an airship half a mile away and hear a bullet seconds before it made impact.
The implants also made him a target. If he was killed, his airship would lose its most important source of power—him. The metal plates that were fused with his flesh powered the batteries that ran the engines, a reaction which created the ether that kept the ship aloft. Snipers armed with ether rifles always accompanied airships into combat, counting on the fact that a Man O’ War captain was impelled to stand above deck and put himself in the heat of battle. Christopher knew two captains who had been taken out by snipers.

Damned ungentlemanly, the use of snipers. Ten years ago, no naval force would have ever considered such ill-mannered tactics during combat. But ten years ago, the Man O’ Wars didn’t exist. Warfare, and tactics, had changed since then.

Grabbing his own ether rifle from its mounted scabbard on the ship’s central support, Christopher took up position at the rail. He sighted the would-be assassin on the deck of a Hapsburg ship, his enhanced vision bringing the enemy into perfect clarity. After drawing a steadying breath, Christopher fired. Moments later, the sniper dropped.

“Good shot, sir.” Pullman grinned as he collapsed his brass spyglass.

“They’re all good shots, Mr. Pullman.” Christopher jammed the rifle back into its holster.

“Aye, sir.”

Christopher cursed when he saw three of the five Hapsburg ships position themselves between him and the retreating British airships. If he wanted to join his comrades in their withdrawal from the battle, he’d have to get through the Huns. Including their massive dreadnought, with its superior firepower. Trying to break through their line would see him and his ship blown out of the sky.

His alternate route didn’t look much better. Two Hapsburg ships advanced from the other side, a high rocky ridge behind them. But these airships were smaller frigates. There just might be a chance . . .

“Bring her about, Mr. Pullman,” he ordered. “Until we’re facing those two enemy ships. And prepare to vent the ether tanks.”

“Captain?”

Christopher grinned. “We’re going to show these Huns a little British audacity.”

After giving Christopher an answering grin, Pullman shouted the order to the venters, who made the necessary adjustments to the large tanks at the back of the ship. They signaled their readiness, and Pullman yelled, “Make ready for venting!” He repeated his command into the shipboard auditory device so the crew below would know to prepare themselves.

Like the other members of the crew, Christopher braced himself, taking a bit of rope from a capstan and wrapping it around his hand. He secured his footing.

The wooden-hulled airship turned, placing her side to the three enemy ships as she was aimed toward two more Hapsburg ships. It was a risky stance to be in, but the Demeter had to be positioned for her flight.

He had to time this just right. At any moment, they could be fired upon.

A few seconds more, and then—

“Now!”

The venters threw the levers. Three things happened simultaneously. The Demeter dropped lower, a fast plunge of twenty feet. Enemy ships fired, blasting the area where his ship had just been. And the ship rocketed forward, pushed faster by the rearward release of ether from the tanks. Christopher was grateful for his goggles, as brittle wind scoured his face. That had been one of the first adjustments: speed. Even at its slowest, an airship was damned faster than any seafaring vessel, including a clipper. He allowed himself a smile. There was something deeply thrilling about racing through the sky with the velocity and view of a god.

The forest below became a green blur, smeared with gray from rocky outcroppings.

Gravitational force shoved at him as the Demeter sped forward, but he kept himself from falling, his legs wide-braced, his grip secure on the rope.

The ship raced forward, right toward the two Hapsburg frigates. Between the two enemy craft was a distance of barely a hundred feet, making for a tight squeeze. If the Demeter cleared the narrow space, it would be a feat worthy of a dance-hall ballad.

“Hold straight and steady, Mr. Dawes,” Christopher shouted at the helmsman.

Though Dawes had turned chalk-white, his eyes wide behind his goggles, he did as he was ordered, keeping the Demeter on course. Some of the crewmen on deck crossed themselves, and a few took out lockets that held photographs of wives and children.

Christopher had no locket with a sweetheart’s photograph. As a member of Naval Intelligence, Louisa had been protective of her image, not wanting any record of her face that could possibly fall into enemy hands. When she left him, all that had remained behind were memories and anger. And one kidskin glove. She had a habit of misplacing gloves.
As the Demeter sped toward the enemy ships, the spiky mountains just beyond them, Christopher wondered if Louisa would learn about his death in the papers. No—she abjured newspapers.

If there’s information I need to know, she had said one afternoon over tea, I’ll ferret it out.

Do you know what I’m thinking right now? he had asked.

She had smiled, her slow, wicked smile. I’m a very good spy. And I do enjoy a thorough interrogation.

An extremely pleasant afternoon had followed. More than a few long, lonely nights patrolling the air had been spent in contemplation of that afternoon. Anger had always been quick to follow his memories. He couldn’t think of the times they’d shared without recalling the way it had ended. The empty bed when he’d awakened. No letter, not even a note. She was just…gone.

One way or the other, if he didn’t survive, she would know. Was it petty of him to hope she’d be saddened by the news? He was a Man O’ War—not inhuman.

The ship gained speed, getting closer and closer to the two Hapsburg frigates. Christopher could see the astounded enemy crewmen scurrying across the decks, and the captains—Man O’ Wars like him—bellowing orders. They were making the guns ready to fire on the Demeter.

“Prepare to return fire,” Christopher roared.

The gunners acknowledged the order, and, fighting the force of the speeding ship, readied the cannons. They all stared at him, waiting for the command.

He waited, too. Everything needed to be timed perfectly. Closer. Closer. The Demeter was almost between the enemy ships.

“Fire!”

Guns from both sides boomed. The Demeter shuddered as some of the enemy fire slammed into the hull, but the ship held strong. The enemy ships also took hits, and Christopher noted with satisfaction that several of their ether tanks and guns were damaged.

The Demeter sped through the narrow passage between the frigates. As it raced past, a wake of air knocked into one of the enemy ships. It listed, then thudded into the mountain just behind it. Crewmen scrambled out of the way of rocks tumbling free from the mountainside. One sizeable rock slammed through the deck, scattering men and splinters of wood.

There was no time for celebration, however. The mountain was just ahead. If Christopher’s ship couldn’t make the crest, it would smash into the massive pile of rock.

Here was one of the times Christopher wished airships were built of metal, like their seafaring ironclad brethren, but wood was far lighter. Airships sacrificed hull strength for the ability to fly.

Christopher raced to the wheel. “No offense, Mr. Dawes,” he said, taking the wheel from the helmsman.

“None taken, sir.” In truth, Dawes looked relieved that Christopher would assume responsibility for guiding the ship over the dangerous peak.

The wheel in one hand, Christopher grabbed the shipboard auditory device. “Give ’em everything,” he ordered the engine crew. “Flank speed!” He hoped that, between the turbines and the venting ether, they’d have enough power to make it over the mountain. Switching the auditory device to shipwide, he shouted, “Everyone, hold tight!”

Just before the Demeter crashed into the rocks, he pulled back hard on the lever that controlled the vanes behind the turbines. Gritting his teeth with effort, he fought to keep the airship climbing. The jagged face of the mountain sped past. Cold blue sky gleamed beyond the prow. Crewmen shouted as the ship rose up, almost completely vertical. Every muscle in Christopher’s body strained with effort. Even strong as he was, he still had to fight gravity.

Heat sizzled through him as the implants drew on his energy, both feeding off of and building his power. He hadn’t liked the sensation at first, the strange symbiosis between him and machinery, but now he reveled in it, knowing he needed as much strength as he could muster in order to ensure this ship and crew’s survival.

It might not be enough. They weren’t going to make it. The top of the mountain rose too high up. They’d lose power and careen into tons of stone, raining wood, brass, and canvas down onto the valley below.

No. By God, if he had to die, it would be in combat against the enemy, not smashed against unfeeling rock. Louisa might claim to value cunning over valor, but his values were different.

Groaning, he pulled harder on the wheel, turning to correct the sudden tilting of the ship. Then—the Demeter just crested the peak. Rocks scraped against the keel. The ship juddered. Suddenly, they were over.

And plunging downward. As tough as the climb upward had been, now the ship took that force and rushed down the other side of the mountain. They plummeted into a valley.
Wind tore at Christopher’s face and clothes, his coat flapping behind him, as he steered the ship down the face of the mountain and into the heavily wooded valley. With another groan of effort, he pulled back on the vane-controlling lever right before the Demeter crashed into the ground. The ship shot forward. Into the forest. He piloted the ship between huge, ancient trees, their massive trunks stretching toward the sky. With the ether tanks vented, the ship didn’t have its normal height. Flying low was the cost of their speed.

Had the woods been any younger, there would have been no room to fly the ship. But the forest—what he could see of it past the green, shadowed blur—seemed older than time itself, exactly the place where giants roamed. Christopher zigzagged through the woods, whipping around trees, keeping the ship racing onward.

Even with his precise piloting, tree limbs snapped against the speeding hull, and the crew shielded themselves from falling branches.

“Throttle back,” Christopher shouted to the engine crew.

Details of the forest emerged from the blur as the ship slowed. The wooded valley appeared uninhabited, no sign of chimney smoke or a clearing. Wherever the Demeter was, the known world—and friendly territory—was far behind.

“All stop,” Christopher ordered.

He brought the ship to a hover just beneath the heavy forest canopy.

“No one move,” he hissed. “No one speak. Not even a scratch or sneeze.”

“Aye—”

“Quiet!”

Everyone, Christopher included, kept still and silent. The shadows of the Hapsburg ships passed overhead. Breath held, he watched the frigates lingering just above. Searching for the Demeter. With any luck, the Hapsburgs would think they had crashed, and move on.

Christopher didn’t believe in luck. If a body wanted something to happen, only effort would make it come to pass. That’s how he rose from a midshipman to a captain in such a short period of time. He worked his bollocks off for it.

Yet he wouldn’t mind a dram of luck right now. As he kept his gaze upward, a drop of sweat worked its way down his back.

Hours passed. Or minutes. But after what felt like hundreds of years, the enemy ships flew on.
He didn’t permit himself a sigh of relief. Several more minutes passed as he made sure that the frigates did not return. At last, reasonably certain that they were in the clear, Christopher gave the order to power up the engines.

After guiding the ship toward an open patch of sky, he brought the ship up above the tree line. More mountains lay all around them. Aft of the ship was the battle they had just fled, and presumably the remaining Hapsburg ships. Retracing their route meant the possibility of finding themselves back in combat, and being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. Doubtless the two British ships were already hightailing it back to friendly airspace.

Which meant that the Demeter was deep in enemy territory. Alone.