Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari. Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.
Buffalo Soldier is a steampunk adventure from Maurice Broaddus—available April 25th from Tor.com Publishing!
Move Out of Babylon
Desmond Coke pinched a clump of chiba leaves from his pouch and rolled it into the fine pressed paper. He was down to his last few leaves, perhaps enough for one or two more sacraments before he’d be down to stems and seeds. He sat alone underneath a cotton tree, lit his spliff, and dreamt of home. Exhaling a thin cloud of smoke, he leaned against its gray trunk. The dried brown vines draping it crunched beneath his movement. Under the strange western sky, the dark and loathsome trees crowded the hillside. Before bedtime, his mother used to tell him stories of how duppies danced among their branches or hid among the caves. If he’d been particularly troublesome that day, she’d tell him of the powerful spirit, Old Higue, and how the creature would hang her skin along the branch of a cotton tree before she went about her grim business. The tree reminded him of home, but he was far from the shores of Jamaica. They both were.
From a distance, the mountains reminded him of Garlands. Homes tucked in clusters, their boarded windows empty and dark. Beneath the midnight foothills, a town spread out like an uneven smear. Without the constant tropical sun, without the music, without the sea air, without the smell of jerk chicken or rice and peas or ackee and saltfish, without the people, it was just another craggy hill. A fading ghost memory of another life.
A river bordered the vast forest. Desmond inched down the hillside. His footing slipped in a slide of mud, stopping just above the riverbank. They followed the river through the Tejas Free Republic, dressed as a migrant worker and his son. The plan was to elude any Albion intelligence by becoming lost within the seaport in Louisiana, ease across the border, and follow the river north into the Five Civilized Tribes territory. Perhaps travel up into Canada. Wherever they could start over, unknown, without a past and without pursuers. He had not counted on tensions between Albion and Tejas flaring up again. The local newspaper declared that Regent Clinton threatened to mobilize federal agents in the Tejas standoff. They barely eluded the Tejas militia that sealed the borders. A week into their trek, as they kept from major roads, doubt crept in.
Desmond tromped as loud as he dared while nearing their camp. He’d found that the boy was easily startled and sudden noises were prone to sending him into keening fits. The more he could let the boy know that he approached, the smoother things would go. “I’m glad we decided to camp near the water. It’s nice here. Plenty of trees for pickney to play in.”
Lij Tafari looked up at him with his large, alien green eyes—those not-quite-right green eyes, Desmond once called them—as if struggling to understand the concept of the words. He stroked the fine dirt. “Sand.”
“Yes, it looks like sand.” Desmond worried about him. He touched Lij on the shoulder to draw his attention. “You need to look me in the eye when you’re talking to me.”
“I hear you.” Lij focused on the dirt, running his hands through it.
“I know you hear me, but…” Desmond scrambled for the right words and tone. He never imagined conversation with a child could be so difficult. “I need to know you’re listening to me. You’re helping me by letting me know you’re paying attention to me. Do you understand?”
“No.” But Lij lifted his head to meet the man’s eyes.
Desmond nodded. “Thank you.”
“I want to go for a walk now,” Lij said.
“A walk would do you well.”
Desmond waved him off. Lij took off his shoes and ran his toes through the grass. Soon the boy dug in the mud and explored the woods, finding hidden designs and searching for the mysteries of childhood long lost on Desmond. Lij was a gift. Because of the life he had chosen, Desmond never bothered to dream about the possibility of children of his own. Very few things scared Desmond, but only a couple weeks into being a guardian, the very notion of fatherhood terrified him. He had no idea if he was doing it right. All he wanted was to keep Lij safe. That was why they fled Jamaica in the first place. But children needed fresh air, room to play and be children. It was Desmond’s burden to worry about food, water, and what kind of life he could provide for his charge.
Desmond emptied their knapsacks and proceeded to hand-wash their clothes. Though Jamaica was a technological rival to Albion in the west, in its hills, in the heart of true Jamaica as Desmond thought of it, some of its people still struggled. He recalled the memories his mother used to share. Of walking six miles to collect water. Of bathing in rivers or showering in rainstorms. Of doing laundry and hanging clothes on the line for the sun to dry. Although, to be fair, his mother wasn’t above exaggeration to make her point.
It seemed like a lifetime before when Desmond posed as a servant to draw close to a prominent Jamaican family. Becoming their attaché to better glean their secrets. Living out someone else’s mission and calling it his life. He admonished himself when he dwelt too long on his old life. It sent him spiraling into a melancholy mood, one which he couldn’t afford if he were going to protect Lij.
“Come nuh,” Desmond called out. “It’s time to get ready for bed.”
Lij trudged back. He checked his shoes as if they might have wandered from where he left them. He lined them up again. Desmond took a washcloth and wiped the boy’s face.
“We should figure out how old you are for when people ask. What’s a good age?”
“Five.” Lij closed his eyes and stiffened when the washcloth went over his face.
“You don’t look five.”
“How old are you?”
Desmond never knew his own birthdate, nor how many he had celebrated. They had that in common. “Well, let’s just say that I’m old. How’s seven?”
“Seven. I like seven.”
“Seven’s a good age. I played in the trees a lot when I was a pickney.”
“It’s different. There’s so much…outside.” Lij studied the trees as if suspecting that they snuck up on him if he didn’t keep a watchful eye on them.
“They didn’t let you play?” Desmond had long waited for the opportunity to broach the topic of the boy’s captivity.
“They had a lot of rules. I couldn’t go outside. I mostly stayed in a special room.”
“What did they have you do?”
“Listen. A man who sounded like me except more…”
“…grown?” Desmond imagined endless speeches. Indoctrination, subliminally learning the speeches and cadence of the man they wanted Lij to become.
“Yes. Old like you.”
“Now I’m old, am I?” Desmond smiled.
Lij touched Desmond’s mouth and traced the curve of his lips and then mirrored his smile.
“Did they do anything else in the room?”
“Needles.” Lij held his breath and closed his eyes like a boy expecting an injection. He opened his eyes and moved on. “Listening to the man was like listening to music.”
“Do you like music?”
“Yes. I miss that.”
The wind screamed, buffeting the lean-to Desmond had constructed. Having once been a soldier, he’d slept in worse places. But this was no life for a child. He patted his lap. Lij neared him, like a deer checking for the scent of a predator, before laying his head down. Desmond wrapped a thin blanket over him and shut his eyes. Tomorrow would be different. They would foray into town. Perhaps he would look for work. Maybe carve a space for them where they would be unknown, unburdened by their pasts and their history.
The storm-wracked sky held back its rains. Lightning fingers scraped the clouds, threatening in the distance, eventually followed by a low rumble. But that wasn’t what kept Desmond awake. It was the dreams. He could never remember them upon waking, only snippets of images and the vague sense of unease. He heard a voice, barely a whisper, though soft and melodic. A woman approached, though he couldn’t make out her face. His limbs froze in place. A weight pressed against his chest. Then she was gone, like an errant breeze. He imagined what it felt like to be in myal, to have a spirit take hold of him and ride him, like when his people called to their ancestors. When he woke, Lij stared at him, his eyes wide and knowing. The boy rocked back and forth, comforted by his own ministrations. Desmond closed his eyes.
Desmond dreamt of fire.
Under the overcast sky, a pall settled over the town. Heavy plumes of smoke issued from a machine parts manufacturer just outside of town. Any town considered a potential boomtown had encampments whose tents fluttered in the breeze like a squad of sailboats coming to port. People flocked to a town such as this for an opportunity for a factory job. A cloister of lean-tos, bivouacs, and canvas sheets stretched out for shelter formed a tent city that nestled against the town proper. In their travels, Desmond and Lij had run across the occasional barn at night filled with people sprawled along the bales of hay. Entire families huddled together to stay warm. The occasional loner on the hop, following the train lines. A sign swung over the main road.
Welcome to Abandon.
A giant steamman stood under the banner. The occasional oversized steamman dotted the border of Tejas, like huge statues, monuments as warning to trespassers. The units were part of every militia outpost. Over fifteen meters high and seven meters across, the bright silver of the massive structure reflected the sun with such intensity, an overhang had been constructed so that its glare didn’t blind drivers. Steam puffed from its back and poured from the chimney that formed its hat. Four men attended it. Their construction fairly crude, such steammen required four people to work the gears and valves to control their lumbering movements. Sweat soaked through the blue uniforms of the attendants, but they remained at parade rest under the afternoon sun like grimy versions of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
His cane tapping along the bricked streets, Desmond strode across the mud-sluiced street, holding Lij’s hand. Knapsacks tossed over their shoulders, they accumulated stares as if the townsfolk had never seen black people before. Lij gripped his hand tighter.
A man jostled Desmond as they passed on the walkway. Desmond nodded and kept moving. The man, not satisfied, stopped and doubled back after them.
“You got something to say?” the man asked after him. His face was pocked and rugose. Bulbous, bloodshot eyes, like ebony marbles swimming in a skim of yellow, tracked him. Alcohol wafted on his breath.
Desmond kept walking. The man quickened his steps to get ahead and cut Desmond off.
“I’m talking to you.” The sentence stopped short as if leaving a blank for Desmond to fill in with the unspoken word “boy.”
Perhaps Desmond wasn’t deferential enough in how he carried himself. The townsfolk expected him to avert his eyes rather than meet their gazes full on. He recognized the looks and the ruffled sensibilities. He had only pretended to be a servant back home but had learned the rules of social engagement with one’s “betters.” Though back home, servants were often treated as extended family, here the spirit of servitude seemed taught as well as ingrained. Borne in the very air to where its spirit was expected in every interaction. Desmond breathed a different air.
“You bumped into me. I excused you. What more was there to say?” Desmond measured his words with care, removing as much of his accent as possible.
“You excused me? You the uppity sort, ain’tcha?” Anger and resentment undergirded his words, like he’d been waiting for an excuse, an opportunity, to vent both.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“You got a smart tongue on you, boy. I may just have to cut it out of you.”
The man let his jacket coat fall to the side to reveal the Colt hanging in its holster. Desmond was not dressed; he hadn’t carried a weapon since he left Jamaica. Not counting his cane. On some men, a gun was a tool. On others, it was a crutch they depended on too much which gave them a fool’s courage. Desmond counted six ways to disarm the man from this position, one of which involved shattering the man’s hip in such a way as to give him a permanent limp.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Another man sidled toward them. With a green vest and a matching tie, his long jacket a swirl of light green patterns, he seemed a bit of a fop. Yet he carried himself like the top ranker of a gang. “It’s too beautiful a day to sully with gratuitous violence. Can’t we just agree that we all have a big one and get along?” The fop turned to the rude man. “Obviously, this man is a visitor to our fine city. Is this any way to introduce him to our hospitality?”
“No, Mr. Hearst.” The man spoke in a low, apologetic grumble.
“Why don’t you head over to the Redeemer and let them know you’re drinking on my tab?”
“Yes, Mr. Hearst.” The rude man backed away from them, bumping into the wood column supporting the awning over the walkway, before turning in the opposite direction.
“I apologize for that, gentlemen.” The man knelt down to meet Lij’s gaze and outstretched his hand. “My name is Garrison Hearst. And who might you be?”
Lij scooted behind Desmond, keeping his guardian squarely between him and the stranger. Desmond felt him tense behind him and slightly tug at his pants leg. Lij had a way of studying people. Like he paid attention to them not quite when he found them interesting, but rather when they were being… them. Honest. Real. And his scrutiny had a weight behind it, as if every part of him, every sense, poured over them. Vivisecting them. Mr. Hearst took a step back and withdrew his hand.
“He is my charge,” Desmond said. “I am Desmond Coke.”
“Pleased to meet you both. I’m as close to the Chancellor of this place as there is. Are you planning on settling in around here?”
“We’re passing through.”
“The road is a hard life for a boy. You’re welcome to stay a spell.” Mr. Hearst possessed the well-practiced charm of a politician.
“We’re just looking for a room for a night or two. See how things go.”
“I recommend the Fountain Hotel. And I insist that you join me for dinner at the Redeemer.”
“Having met some of its clientele, this… Redeemer doesn’t sound like the proper place for a child.”
“You are a guest of mine. You have my personal guarantee.” Mr. Hearst tipped his top hat so low on his face, it shaded his muttonchops. They watched him amble towards the building across the street.
A row of storefronts lined either side of the main thoroughfare. A series of vendors rose in chorus as they passed, hawking everything from fresh fruit to cleaned chickens. At the end of the street was the city square, with the courthouse, Chancellor’s office, and Sheriff’s office. On one side of the square stood another imposing steamman. On the other, a gallows. A body dangled from a noose.
“Lord have mercy,” Desmond said.
“Strange fruit, indeed.” A woman pushed blond strands from her face. A young waif of a girl, no matter how much makeup she wore, whose face hadn’t lost all of her baby fat. Her eyes, though, were green and hard. They had a cynical maturity to them, the haunted look of someone who had been alone for a long time. With a blue dress trimmed in fur, despite the heat, she kept the cuffs of her sleeves pressed together, forming a hand muff.
“The body. They found a Pinkerton agent trying to pass as a citizen. That was their judgment.”
“Pinkertons work in pairs. They probably left him as warning to the other would-be infiltrators.”
“Yeah, remind folks of the limits of the Pinkertons’ reach here,” she sighed.
“What a world we live in,” Desmond muttered, ready to whisk Lij off the street.
Scooting around him, Lij reached up to touch the fur lining of her dress. She kept her eyes on him while she reached into her purse to retrieve a small music box. She opened it. Clockwork gears spun a tiny ballerina. The tinny strains of “Beautiful Dreamer” began.
“Are you new to town?” she asked.
“I must be wearing a sign.” Desmond tipped his broad-brimmed, cream-colored straw hat.
“You look like you come from money.”
“What makes you say that?” Desmond turned about to study his outfit. A long-sleeve shirt and dungarees with large patch pockets. With his bead necklace, his clothes were like any other laborer from home.
“The way you carry yourself, mostly.” She smiled a toothsome grin as if attempting to not embarrass him. “In my profession, you get good at sizing people up quickly.”
“And what profession is that?” A high-priced escort was certainly the image she went for, but the way in which she carried herself played more like a story within a story.
“Manners.” She swatted him with her fan. “Besides, the accent doesn’t help.”
“I thought I was doing a passable Albion accent.” Desmond stepped back as if smelling his own breath, now self-conscious of his slightly accented English. As an attaché, he often dealt with businessmen from all over the Albion Empire, especially delegates from the Albion colony of America. At the thought, he longed to hear the familiar sing-song patois of his people. From the moment he stepped from the airship depositing them on the United States soil, he’d worked at losing his accent. He had soon tired of the entreaties from perfect strangers for him to “speak Jamaican” for them, as if he were the quirky object for their study. Or amusement. Still, with his accent growing softer and softer with each week, he felt as if he were slowly erasing himself.
“It’s passing only if you’d never actually met an Albion citizen.”
“But I have. Quite many, actually.”
“You’re thinking the United States proper, not that what you’re doing would fly much out there. But you’re in Tejas now. You might as well be speaking a foreign language.”
Desmond altered his pitch and cadence. “I’ll have to work on it.”
The woman scrunched her face as if hearing someone tune a poorly kept instrument. “You can find me at the Redeemer. I’m there often. Any time you want a listening ear, come see me.”
As the woman sauntered away from them, Lij relaxed.
“Let’s find a room.” Desmond gently yanked at his hand. “Get off the streets and away from so many people. These Tejans, they love chat too much.”
Excerpted from Buffalo Soldier, copyright © 2017 by Maurice Broaddus.