Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders (Excerpt)

Take a peek at Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.’s Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders coming out on July 2 from 47North:

In a post-apocalyptic world of endless snow, Captain Romulus Buckle and the stalwart crew of the Pneumatic Zeppelin must embark on a perilous mission to rescue their kidnapped leader, Balthazar Crankshaft, from the impenetrable City of the Founders. Steaming over a territory once known as Southern California – before it was devastated in the alien war – Buckle navigates his massive airship through skies infested with enemy war zeppelins and ravenous alien beasties in this swashbuckling and high-octane steampunk adventure. Life is desperate in the Snow World – and death is quick – Buckle and his ship’s company must brave poisoned wastelands of noxious mustard and do battle with forgewalkers, steampipers and armored locomotives as they plunge from the skies into the underground prison warrens of the fortress-city.

Captain Romulus Buckle must lead the Pneumatic Zeppelin and its crew of never-do-wells on a desperate mission where he must risk everything to save Balthazar and attempt to prevent a catastrophic war which could wipe out all that is left of civilization and the entire human race.





Buckle took hold of the wooden handles on the forward gyroscope housing as the Pneumatic Zeppelin plunged into her stomach-lifting drop. In his mind’s eye he saw his huge airship swing down from the clouds, a razor-backed, torpedo-shaped monstrosity nine hundred feet long and one hundred and sixty feet in height, its fabric flanks fourteen stories high.

The sudden descent placed considerable stress on the airframe but, as always, Buckle’s airship handled it well: her thousands of yards of canvas skin rippled in thunderous snaps over the circular metal airframes, every girder groaning in its flexible joint. Everything was pinned to the keel, which shuddered, sending a dull vibration into the decks of her three streamlined gondolas, piloting, gunnery, and engineering, all tucked tightly in line underneath, nestled inside endless miles of rope rigging and antiboarding nets.

From below, Buckle’s ship looked like something of a shark, with the entire length of her underbelly encased in bronze and copper plates bolted and screwed together into a tight Frankenstein skin. Weight was always a concern for airships, so the metal plates were quite thin, but they provided an excellent defense from ground-fire “pottings.” The piloting gondola under the bow looked like a long, gold-copper pod, its glass-domed nose reflecting the weak orb of the sun now forever locked behind a permanent overcast. Under its belly was slung the pneumatic turret and the long barrel of its cannon.

The air vessel’s main cannons, housed in the gunnery gondola amidships, would have their muzzles showing, run out and ready to fire: ten firing ports lined the gun deck, five on each side, an ambitious number for a time when blackbang cannons—good ones that did not threaten to blow up both you and your entire tea party when you fired them—were rare and expensive. The Pneumatic Zeppelin carried five cannons—four twelve-pounders on the gun deck, plus a long, brass four-pounder in the bow—still a quite respectable set of artillery for any clan airship.

Between the backside of the gunnery gondola and the nose of the engineering gondola, the 150-foot-long hull of the Arabella, the launch, would be visible, tucked up inside the belly of the Pneumatic Zeppelin and slightly offset from the main keel.

At the stern of the sky vessel, under the shadows of the cruciform fins and rudder, the four main driving propellers whirled, four colossal razors slicing the sky, churning against the whistling updraft of the wind as they thrust the behemoth forward. Dozens of exhaust vents, tubes, and scuppers—the “Devil’s factory”—thrust straight out from the rear of the engineering gondola, snapping upward above the propellers like the legs of upturned spiders, spewing white steam, belching black smoke, and hissing water.

The Pneumatic Zeppelin was a machine of fire in a cold, cold world.

Slowly, evenly, Romulus Buckle descended, one with the Pneumatic Zeppelin, his mechanical monstrosity, a feather-light colossus, and as it came down it rotated slowly to port, casting a huge, equally rotating shadow on the blasted white landscape below.




Chief Navigator and First Mate Lieutenant Sabrina Serafim kept a careful eye on her instruments, measuring the Pneumatic Zeppelin’s altitude, pitch, and rate of descent. She occupied the forward portside chair in the nose of the cockpit, with Romulus Buckle’s station at her back and Assistant Navigator Wellington Bratt seated on her immediate right. Sabrina was a perfectly slender version of a full-grown wood nymph, with a graceful, narrow, elfin face, its tendency toward Asian angles softened by hints of baby fat, and nothing less than pretty. Her skin was pale with a yellow hint to the pigment, clear except for a light smattering of freckles on her nose, but the constant flow of cold air through the gondola always pinked her face—the exposed cheeks between her goggles and silk neck scarf—into a pleasant glow.

What was most striking about Sabrina in the physical sense was her bright red hair, which she kept long but wore pinned up under her derby hat, with the exception of two flaming locks that always escaped above each temple and dropped down to brush her cheekbones. Her jade-green eyes inside her goggles brimmed with perceptiveness—a sort of sixth or seventh sense if you like—that could be disarming at times. Her derby, like Buckle’s top hat, housed a stupendous contraption of gears, winder-cranks, and steam tubes, which puffed and rattled when she was plugged into the airship, which she was at the moment.

Sabrina dressed with drawing-room style, normally wearing leather gloves and a long, tapering leather coat lined with mink fur and sporting cuffed sleeves ringed with silver buttons; she loved fine details and had commissioned the best Crankshaft seamstress to embroider fine silver fleur-de-lis into the high collar and lapels. Under the coat she wore a white blouse with lace bunched at the throat. Her breeches were black with a red stripe like Buckle’s, though hers were jodhpurs, which flared at the hips and narrowed at the knees where they disappeared into midcalf boots in a fashionable tuck.

The stylish accoutrements notwithstanding, it was a bad idea to cross Sabrina Serafim.

Her nickname was not “Sabertooth” for nothing.

But no one called her that to her face: she didn’t like it.

Sabrina also owned a sword, a red-tasseled saber she kept slung across two old horse-head pegs above her head, and she knew how to use it—in spades. She was left-handed and that was an advantage in a battle of blades, for it tended to confuse an opponent.

A light crosswind kissed the Pneumatic Zeppelin with the bump of a butterfly’s wing; the titanic airship shuddered ever so slightly, so imperceptibly that no one aboard except the captain and chief navigator sensed the innocent tug of drag.

“Crosswind from the northwest, starboardside, Captain,” Sabrina said as she reached for a wooden-handled lever, slowly sweeping it sideways as she watched her drift-measuring dial, as intricate as an Austrian grandfather clock, wavering in front of her. “Adjusting for horizontal drift, helm. Two degrees to port.”

“Two degrees port, aye,” De Quincey repeated, nudging the rudder wheel a tock or two. He was a big man and taciturn, rarely speaking of his own accord. His black hair swept about his long, stern face where his deep-set eyes and chestnut-brown skin offered a somewhat sinister countenance until one recognized his gentle nature. Sabrina liked him.

Buckle kept his eyes locked upon the rapidly approaching earth through the round observation window at his feet. Kellie circled the decking around the window, sniffing, tail wagging, anticipating high activity. “Keep your eyes peeled,” Buckle said.

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Sabrina replied, familiar with Buckle’s thousand-yard stare, the intense functioning of his mind’s eye just before the call to action. The maneuvering propellers responded to the drift controls and she felt the shift in their vibration ripple through her body.

“Descending, ninety-eight feet per minute,” announced Welly.

Sabrina eyed Welly as he leaned over the drift telescope, calculating their rate of drift, his pencil scratching furiously across his navigational maps, pinned to the dashboard. The kid could have easily rounded up, described the rate of descent as one hundred feet per minute, but he was striving to impress and that was fine.

“Maintain dive,” Buckle said, sounding almost annoyed.

“Boards steady, Cap’n. Aye,” Nero said. It was Nero’s job to bleed the hydrogen out of the cells at the correct rate to maintain the steady descent.

Sabrina mumbled the words she often mumbled, even though afterward she always regretted mumbling them, but she was by nature something of a cynic. “We’re sitting ducks.”

“Piece of cake,” Buckle responded absentmindedly, as he had many times before.

“Sure, a real peach,” Sabrina answered. She peered down at the shattered landscape and then leaned over her navigation table to check her map. She tapped her derby at the brim, where a little copper arm with a magnifying glass swung out of its nest among the valves and tubes, its miniature gears whirring with steam power, and dropped in front of her right eye. The map was old and blurred, stained yellowish by exposure to the mustard, as many things that survived The Storming were; enlargement was required to make out the smudged small print.

Sabrina peered into the drift-telescope eyepiece affixed on the instrument panel in front of her. “Magnolia Boulevard intersection with Hollywood Way. One Three Four Freeway running east-west, due south. Right on target,” she announced, with more than a smidgeon of pride in her voice. “Welcome to the Boneyard.”




The Pneumatic Zeppelin descended into the heart of the sprawling valley once known as the San Fernando. Low, brown foothills loomed to the south and east, their rough backs striped with rivers of snow and ice. Buckle sniffed. Despite hundreds of years, the place still stank of ash. He did not like this—going to ground when a cunning enemy like the Founders might be on the move. There was no easier target than an earthbound zeppelin. It was little more than a bounce, yes—Buckle would have his feet in the snow for only a minute or two—and the likelihood of the reclusive Founders being anywhere near the Boneyard was almost nonexistent, but a little needle of anxiety stabbed him nonetheless.

Pluteus and his grunts had better be on time, on target, and ready for evacuation.

Buckle clamped his teeth. Once Pluteus and his soldiers were aboard, they would be on their way to the City of the Founders, the most powerful clan’s fortified citadel, considered impenetrable to attack, on a desperate expedition to save their leader, Admiral Balthazar Crankshaft, from the clutches of the Founders, who had abducted him.

It was also of no small matter that Balthazar was Buckle’s father by adoption, and really the only father Buckle had ever known.

“Airship sighted!” the aft lookout’s voice rattled down the chattertube. “North northwest, five miles off the stern!”

Buckle leapt to the stretch of open sky at the starboard gunwale, pulling his telescope from his hat and whipping it out to its maximum length. Looking back, he caught the tiny black dot over the mountains with his bare eyes and trained the scope on it. The slipstream of passing wind dragged at the glass, making it difficult to see, but the bulky form of the magnified sky vessel suggested that she was a tramp, a trader guild steamer, and no threat to Buckle and his airship.

“Tramp!” Sabrina shouted, peering through the powerful main telescope affixed in the nose dome. “Heading east.”

“Aye!” Buckle shouted back into the gondola. Due east meant the tramp was probably on her way to sell her goods in Gallowglass territory. And judging from how she lumbered, her holds were packed, probably full of ivory, fish, and whale oil from the coast.

Still, Buckle hated having a foreign airship of any kind at his back.

Pluteus and his grunts had better be on time.

Buckle looked down. As the Pneumatic Zeppelin descended to the earth, the blasted corpse of the Valley came into sudden, wince-inducing focus. The ground was a mess, a crumbled catastrophe of architectural ruin: endless miles of gutted buildings and abandoned suburbs collapsed down around themselves in a porcupine’s back of naked girders, walls, and chimneys. The street grid was still visible under the debris, making aerial navigation easy.

But what made the place ghostly beyond description were the endless bones. The sea of bones. Ice-rimed skulls and ribcages, femurs and spines. Human bones, mostly, with surely some dog bones, cat bones, horse bones, bird bones, rat bones, possum bones, and squirrel bones mixed in.

They called it the Boneyard.

Unimaginative, but accurate.

Scouts reported that skeletons still sat inside the caved-in cars, bony fingers still clutching the steering wheels. Frozen bones snapped under one’s boots with each step, the scouts said—an ocean of skeletons under the snow. Exposed bones were a pearly color, picked clean by crows, hawks, and vermin, the tattered remnants of their clothes long since carried off to line nests and burrows. An endless glut of rusted cars still lay locked in a traffic jam on both sides of the freeway, all heading northward; the tires had been an excellent source of salvaged rubber until exhausted only a few years before.

No official clan lived in the valley now, even three hundred years later. There were still pools of heavy stinkum gas lurking about, squirting out of unused pipes or suddenly surging up from toilets and sewers. But that was not the real reason: it was simply too spooky to live in that snowy swamp of bones. But some people did live there. People who didn’t mind the horrors. People who stripped the cars and skeletons of valuables and traded the goods, all of them stained telltale yellow, with their fingers stained yellow, in the markets to the south.

Scavengers. Yellow-fingered Scavengers.

And Scavengers didn’t like visitors unless they were coming to buy.


Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders © Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. 2013


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