Special treat today! Brooke Johnson is a steampunk author whose first book, THE BRASS GIANT, is a wonderful tale of clockwork, young love, and a hard-nosed female protagonist up to her neck in trouble. The second book in her series, THE GUILD CONSPIRACY just came out yesterday, and Brooke has been so kind as to allow me to post an excerpt of it for you all to read. Check it out!
EXCERPT from Chapter 2 of THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:
Petra reached the University square and crept toward the student entrance, hiding in the shadow of a nearby steam duct. Tucking her hair into the brim of her hat, she glanced down at her pocket watch, grazing her fingertips over the intricate C that decorated the case—just a few minutes before ten. She peeked out from her hiding place and searched the empty square, but no sign of Rupert.
With a sigh, she pressed her back against the warm metal of the exposed ductwork and waited, listening to the rush of steam hissing through the pipes. The machines of the subcity rattled and whirred beneath the stone street, synchronized gears and linkages ticking a rhythm of mechanical perfection beneath her feet. She inhaled a deep breath, catching the scent of coal and gasoline amidst the humid air billowing through the grates. It smelled of home.
A few minutes later, the lock above the student entrance unlatched, the gears knocking and grating as ratchets shifted the deadbolts. The door creaked inward, and Rupert’s blond head peered out, his face lit by the flickering gas lamps at the bottom of the stairs.
“Petra?” he called, his voice barely above a whisper. “You out here?”
She slipped out from behind the steam duct and met him atop the stairs. Rupert closed the door behind her. He removed his student key from the lock, and heavy gears ratcheted the deadbolts back into place, locking the door with a resounding clunk.
Petra leaned against the smooth brass-plated wall and breathed in the familiar air of the University, the lingering scents of grease and metal polish putting her at ease. The usual bustle of engineers, students, and professors was absent from the dark, empty lobby, the echo of distant machinery lurking in the shadows like haunting ghosts. It had been months since she’d been here after dark—when Emmerich was still here and her only worry was keeping their automaton project secret. It seemed an eternity ago now.
Rupert touched her shoulder. “Come on,” he whispered. “Or we’ll miss it.”
He took her to the lift and used his student key to propel them up to the eighth floor, the whirring belts and pulleys singing as they ascended. The lift slowed to an abrupt stop, and the lights above the gates spilled across the hall, startlingly bright in the quiet darkness of the University.
“So what’s this meeting about?” she asked Rupert.
Their brisk footsteps echoed off the hard floor as Rupert led her down the hall toward the student lounges and recreation room.
As they approached, a muffled cacophony met Petra’s ears—shouts and curses, cheers, a clash of metal on metal, the clear sound of a combustion engine igniting. Petra’s heartbeat quickened, and she pressed her ear to the door, feeling the vibrating hum of a purring engine in the room beyond, the sigh of exhaust, the smell of burnt fuel reaching her nose.
Rupert nudged her aside and keyed into the room, the clash of metal rising to a deafening thunder as he opened the door.
Inside, the billiard table, chess tables, chairs, and sofas had been pushed to the walls, the usual carpets and rugs thrown over the furniture. A spotlight illuminated a few dozen students near the center of the room, surrounding a hulk of moving brass, its shiny surface flashing in the glow of the electric light. The crunch of crumpling metal and subsequent jeers echoed off the walls, and the metal beast reeled out of Petra’s sight.
Leaving Rupert behind, she elbowed her way through the crowd of students and stumbled headlong into the center of the ring. A quick hand caught her by the collar and yanked her back into the crowd just as a metal arm swiped through the air, inches from her nose.
Petra stumbled into the student next to her, gaping in delighted disbelief at the scene before her. Two imposing metal figures stood in the center of the ring—a squat trapezoidal machine and a grotesque humanoid—dripping oil and smelling of exhaust. Jagged trenches cut through the outer shell of the larger machine, exposing a mesh of combustion enginery and electrical wiring inside, while the smaller, wheeled contraption had a stump of shredded linkages and twisted gears where its second arm should have been, its stout body half-crushed and front wheels bent.
The bipedal machine lunged, much to the crowd’s delight, and there was a terrible, teeth-grinding crunch as the metal shells crumpled and warped on impact. The biped hammered its fist into the smaller trapezoid, the squat machine’s outer shell buckling under the assault. Yet the contraption held its ground, wheels spinning forward as it pressed against the hulking mass of metal, its remaining arm buried halfway into the biped’s central system, pulling wires and tubes from its body like rubber intestines, oil and hydraulic fluid spilling onto the floor.
With a sputtering whine, the combustion engine rumbled to a halt, the spin of gears slowing to a groan as the mechanical biped powered down. The heavily damaged trapezoid pushed the biped away, and the mutation of combustion enginery and electricity toppled over with a resounding crash.
And then the room erupted in cheers.
From the far side of the ring, a young man stepped forward and waved the crowd into silence. Petra recognized him by his long, narrow face and shrewd eyes—Vice-Chancellor Lyndon’s son, Yancy. He spread his hands wide.
“Gentlemen! I believe we have our winner!”
The winning engineer stepped forward and swept into a low bow, tucking a metal control box behind his back. Petra noted the thick cord trailing from the brass case, snaking across the oil-slicked floor to the back of the trapezoidal machine. So that was how he controlled it.
She suppressed a smirk. Rudimentary technology.
Rupert squeezed in beside her. “What do you think?”
“It’s brilliant,” she said, her voice nearly lost amidst the cheers and shouts around them. “How long has this been going on?”
“Started about midterm, last semester. You know about the failed automaton project, right? Some of the boys who work in the armory found the remains of it and got the idea to start a mechanical fight ring.”
Petra pressed her mouth shut and nodded. So they had kept it then, the ruined prototype that Emmerich had so expertly smashed through the floor of his workshop—now collecting dust in the armory. The failed automaton project. That was what the rest of them called it, not knowing she had helped design and build it, not knowing what her involvement had cost her.
“Where do they get the parts?” she asked.
“Discards and surplus from the workshops,” said Rupert. “Some of the richer blokes buy parts offshore and have them shipped in. Most of it is scrap, though.”
In the center of the ring, Yancy quieted the crowd with a wave. “That concludes the inaugural competition of our mech fights.” Another boy brought forward a table and handed Yancy a pad of paper and a pencil. “If you wish to participate in the next tournament,” he said, waving the paper over his head, “sign up by the first bell tomorrow and have your mech ready for the first round sometime next month, date to be decided. Entry fee is a pound note—or equivalent—the sum of all entries to be rewarded to our next winner.”
He dropped the paper and pencil onto the table, and a handful of students stepped forward to enter. Petra watched as they scribbled their names, one after the other, knowing she could outmaneuver every single one of them with a machine of her own.
For six long months, she’d been stuck in boring classrooms, listening to dry lectures and permitted to do nothing more than pointless busywork. She missed the feel of a screwdriver in her hand, the smell of grease under her fingernails, the late nights of working with her hands deep inside a machine.
She yearned for it.
Rupert nudged her with his elbow. “Go on then. Sign up.”
Petra considered it, absently twisting the stem of her pocket watch between her thumb and forefinger. She could enter, write her name down and fight in the next tournament, finally have the chance to build something again. Yet . . . she knew they wouldn’t let her. They’d only laugh at her, mock her for thinking she could compete with them, for thinking she was their equal.
She stared at the sign-up sheet, the determination to prove herself burning in her chest.
To hell with them.
She released the breath she’d been holding and stepped forward, heart beating faster. Leaning over the table, she took the pencil into her hand and pressed the point of graphite to the paper, quickly scribbling her name at the bottom of the list of entrants before she second-guessed herself. She belonged here, building machines alongside the best of them.
She’d win the damn tournament, and then they’d see.
THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:
In the face of impossible odds, can one girl stem the tides of war?
It has been six months since clockwork engineer Petra Wade destroyed an automaton designed for battle, narrowly escaping with her life. But her troubles are far from over. Her partner on the project, Emmerich Goss, has been sent away to France, and his father, Julian, is still determined that a war machine will be built. Forced to create a new device, Petra subtly sabotages the design in the hopes of delaying the war, but sabotage like this isn’t just risky: it’s treason. And with a soldier, Braith, assigned to watch her every move, it may not be long before Julian finds out what she’s done.
Now she just has to survive long enough to find another way to stop the war before her sabotage is discovered and she’s sentenced to hang for crimes against the empire. But Julian’s plans go far deeper than she ever realized … war is on the horizon, and it will take everything Petra has to stop it in this fast-paced, thrilling sequel to The Brass Giant.
Release Date: August 9, 2016.
About the Author:
BROOKE JOHNSON is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving writer. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes to one day live somewhere more mountainous. You can find her on Twitter @brookenomicon.