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Millard Fillmore,

Master of Steam

 

Episode 1: A Fair Lady and Air Pirates

by

Robert E. Vardeman

The hot, dry wind carried more than a scent of sterile desert. Millard Fillmore straightened in the saddle to settle his pear-shaped body, pulled down his goggles and cycled through the settings, going from a magnifying lens through various prisms amplifying the spectrum as he hunted for the source of the odious death smell. His heart raced when he reached the lens that revealed heat invisible to the naked eye. Not that far ahead he saw the eerie pale red plumes of a steam exhaust. Working back to the magnifying lens, he frowned. Although he looked directly at the spot where heat spires rose, he saw nothing.


"What do you make of that?" He patted his steamhorse's shining metallic neck.

"This horse sees nothing."

Fillmore turned and opened the hatch on the steamhorse's rump, bringing up a heavy electromagnetic gun that shot tiny iron harpoons. As his weight shifted, the steamhorse lost balance amid a grinding of gears and a whirring gyroscope that threatened to throw a bearing. He swung his leg over and dropped to the ground. The steamhorse's middle leg did not stretch out properly, curling up as if it hurt.

"Status, middle left leg."

"This horse leg needs oil."

"It needs more than that," Fillmore said, popping an access hatch to peer at the intricate clockwork mechanism inside. "You've stripped a couple gears."

"This horse asks if master can fix."

"Given time."

Fillmore shifted his goggles back to picking up the unusual heat. The distant plume continued to rise unabated. Pushing the goggles up over the brim of his bowler, he began fiddling with the mag-rifle until it was ready for action. Settling his bowler atop his nest of bushy white hair, he returned to stand beside his six-legged steamhorse. At six feet, he was almost as tall as his conveyance. It had taken him more than three months to build the horse and try to infuse it with a modicum of intelligence using his cleverest application of an internal Jacquard engine.

He had succeeded once beyond his wildest dreams. The procedure—the accident—that had given superb intelligence to a steam creature had eluded him since that fateful night in Washington, D.C. It had been the last night in the White House, before the sad affair had robbed him of everything he held dear.

"This horse sees."

Fillmore squinted and pulled the brim of the bowler down to shield his eyes from the fierce Monument Valley sun. Hot, dry, windy, it had to be an annex to hell. Even the mesa-capped spires of red and yellow layered rock that broke the desert's monotony could not compensate for the utter viciousness of the terrain. He had travelled through it for more than six weeks, and all he had seen were desiccated bodies, dozens of air pirates soaring above in their blimps and zeppelins, and miles of emptiness stretching in all directions.
"I see it, too," he said. He swung up into the saddle. The steamhorse listed a little, compensating for the damaged leg. Avoiding the trap that had been set in the distance was the prudent thing to do, especially if he had to endure the steamhorse's ungainly gait. "We're heading away."

"This horse sees her."

"What are you saying?" Fillmore swung about and looked back where the road agents had hidden their wheeled, steam-powered vehicle under a blanket and then covered up with sand to lie in wait. Pulling down his magnifying lenses he saw what the bandits had been waiting for.

The woman frantically snapped the reins on a team of meat horses. Every bump and hole in the rough track caused her wagon to fly into the air and land with a bone-jarring crash. She ducked and wove as she drove to get away from the road agents as they fired at her from hiding. The echoes reaching Fillmore told him that they used small caliber pistols with only an occasional rifle being fired in the woman's direction.

"This horse saves her." The steamhorse reared a little by stiffening its front legs, almost unseating Fillmore. He adjusted for the new angle to keep from sliding back into the mag-gun behind him. Not for the first time he wished the steamhorse either lacked volition or had a better developed sense for preservation.

"We have no reason to think she is in danger."

"This horse sees firing. Gallop now!"

"Wait!" Fillmore barked the order and froze the steamhorse. He heaved a sigh of relief that he kept some small amount of control. "Let me adjust your steam engine."

He fiddled with a complicated array of armatures and lenses that caught the sun and focused it on an internal boiler. The generated steam pressure built until released in small bursts that matched the horse's gait. The faster the release, the closer to a full gallop the steamhorse achieved.

"This horse feels wrong."

"Your self analysis is working. Good." Fillmore reached into the cavity and twisted a vernier to maximize power. He wished he had time to properly repair the damaged leg and do more fine tuning on the power plant. It had been a week or longer since he had adjusted the horse.

He found a slender rod bent just a little. The rod fed into a difference engine that gave the steamhorse its reasoning ability. Hundreds of the wheat-straw thin sticks moved up and down, giving thousands of possible on-off combinations for the internal Jacquard device to mimic intelligence.

"All ready," he said reluctantly. He had a mission, and rescuing a woman from bandits wasn't part of it. He had been told what he sought could be found at the Aerie, whatever that might be. Still, he felt chagrined that his steamhorse had a more acute sense of chivalry than he did.

The horse hunkered down, lifted and began an unsteady canter after the road agents in their wheeled vehicle. To his surprise, they overtook the vehicle quickly. Four of the outlaws fired at the woman, who had slowed as her horses tired. Whether she saw Fillmore rushing to her aid or simply chose that moment to make a stand hardly mattered. She drew rein, skidded about and came to a halt, her team nervously tugging at their harnesses.

She drew out a handgun and began firing. From the report, she fired a small-caliber gun that would do precious little damage even if she hit any of the road agents. When her pistol came up empty, she fumbled open a package strapped to her upper left arm. For a moment, Fillmore thought she sought more ammunition. He shook his head when he saw her pull out a deck of cards.

Had she been out in the burning sun so long that she thought she could engage the road agents in a game of chance, her life against—what?

Then Fillmore pulled down his goggles and flipped through several lenses to make out what she did with those cards. Half the deck spun about, caught up in a dust devil, those whirling miniature tornadoes that bedeviled the entire Monument Valley. But the cards swung about in blurringly fast orbits above her head. She tossed the rest of the deck into the air before her. Instead of being caught in the airy vortex or falling to the ground, they quivered about and presented their faces to the road agents in a strange shield.

Fillmore pushed up his goggles. Something went wrong with the intricate lenses. He saw more than one bullet ricochet off the cards now acting as the woman's armor. Bending low, he urged his steamhorse to even greater speed. As Fillmore galloped closer, he pulled attention away from the primary victim and became the bandits' secondary target.

Lead whined past. One bullet spanged off the steamhorse's flank and ricocheted into the distance. This prompted Fillmore to wheel around. The mag-rifle behind him hissed with power and whined as the steel harpoons launched. His aim was sufficient to reduce the outlaw band by half. As the autoloading device lifted more harpoons from inside the steamhorse, a third outlaw collapsed. The woman had found the range. The remaining bandit saw how alone he was and tried to drive away. Fillmore jacked in a new round and loosed it. This rocket snaked away on a smoky tail, wobbling about as it locked onto its target. When it steadied, the outlaw knew in a split second he could never evade it.

The man exploded in a bloody spray as the explosive detonated a few inches from his skull.

"Enough," Fillmore said. For a moment the steamhorse stood stock still. Fillmore touched the brim of his bowler in silent acknowledgment of their shared battle, then started to leave.

The steamhorse balked when the young girl called out for them to stop. She clapped her hands once, and the flurry of cards all around her folded down into a deck neatly squared in her hastily outstretched palm.

"Please, don't go away. I need you."

"This horse hears her plea." Before Fillmore could counter it, the mechanical horse walked to the woman's wagon.

"Thank you for helping," she said. A motion as adept as any gunfighter hid the cards once more in the box strapped to her upper arm.

"What principle do you use to control the cards? I am well versed in things mechanical, but never have I seen such a thing."

"The major arcana focus the power—" She stopped speaking abruptly and stared hard at him. "You are Millard Fillmore. The former president of the North Atlantic States."

He cursed under his breath.

"You have the advantage over me, miss." He touched the brim of his bowler.

"I am Virginia Dare," she said, averting her eyes as if embarrassed to admit such a thing. "The first white child born on this continent."

Fillmore shook his head sadly. The poor child had been out in the sun too long.

"You are hardly eighteen. That Virginia Dare would be more than—"

"More than two-hundred-fifty years old. Yes, that's so. I don't age as others." She looked around, a forlorn figure, small and helpless and abandoned. Hardly more than five feet tall and slender, dressed in a simple brown gingham dress with a scoop neck and high-button shoes, she begged to be held and comforted as he would a small, lost child. Then she turned and stared at him with narrowed polar-ice blue eyes, eyes that belied her apparent age with the look of ancient lore and ... cunning. A shiver went up his spine. He had seen such bale only once before, before the sad affair had left the White House in ruins.

"Why were they after you? The bandits?" Fillmore struggled to regain some semblance of coherence. He had been president, even if he had not been elected, and had mastered the art of small talk and even of negotiation with the rich and powerful. This woman-child stripped him of all lucid thought and tied his tongue in a bowknot.

She brushed back her jet black hair and stepped up, playing her hand on the steamhorse's flank. The mechanical traitor snorted a bit of steam and sidled closer to her, taking vain care not to show her his injured mid leg.

"This is a remarkable steed."

"This horse agrees." The steamhorse snorted more smoke from its nostrils and swished its wire tail in a full circle.

"It talks. And thinks!"

"What terrible mission brings you to Monument Valley?" Millard Fillmore felt increasingly apprehensive sitting tall astride the steamhorse. All the road agents had been dispatched, but the uneasy sense that someone watched proved unshakable. He pulled down his goggles and quickly studied his backtrail. Nothing. His foreboding remained unabated.

"I'm looking for shaman, Anasazi who know of things beyond this world."

He held in check his question about her tarot cards. Instead, he asked, "This has to do with your, uh, unusual longevity?"

"They live and work deep within Monument Valley. They are shaman and mathematicians and—other things, or so I have heard. Would you escort me? Or is it out of your way?"

"I, too, am seeking knowledge, but of a different sort. One of my mechanical creatures has escaped. I would find him."

"Fulton." The steamhorse shifted its weight to its undamaged side as it spat out the name with obvious distaste.

"We have to hurry." Virginia Dare lifted that knowing, old look to the sky and pointed. "There."

At first Fillmore saw nothing. Then he did when he shifted the heat lens down. An airship of some size drifted along, its steam engine idling. Although not producing forward thrust, that engine still trailed huge plumes of visible heat. Using his magnifying lenses showed why he failed to see the blimp. Its underside had been painted mottled white to camouflage it among the clouds against the bright blue sky.

"You're right. The blimp has spotted us and is descending." Millard saw the sparks from the engine clearly now. "If we are lucky, those cinders will set fire to their lifting gas." He started to ask how she had seen what he could only using elaborate optics, then held back his question.

His feeling of being watched had nothing to do with the descending airship.

The young girl rushed to her wagon and vaulted into the driver's box. She snatched up the reins and got her team pulling. The wagon creaked and moaned under the strain and the horses neighed in a fearsome manner, but she soon flew across the rugged desert, bouncing up and down so fast that Fillmore had to dial his steamhorse to full gallop to keep up.

"This horse saves girl."

"Shut up." Fillmore was in no mood for the wild flights of fancy going through the steamhorse's artificial intellect. He ought to name it Rocinante because he felt like Don Quixote on a futile mission he hardly understood. Or Dapple. He could name the steamhorse after Sancho's donkey and—

The desert all around erupted in tiny fountains of sand and rock as the airship's guns opened fire, strafing him and angling forward to blow apart the wagon's tailgate. Before the gunner found the range and turned Virginia Dare into a bloody corpse, the rapid firer jammed. Fillmore heard the gunner's ferocious curses as he tried to clear the blockage and once more torment those on the ground.

He slowed his steed and brought the steamhorse's hind quarters around so he could swing the formidable weapon mounted there upward. Before he sighted in, the steamhorse triggered the mag-rifle and sent a sporadic steam of metal harpoons into the airship's gondola.

"Careful! Hit the bag and ignite it, and we'll all be blown to Kingdom Come."

"This horse saves girl. Us."

Fillmore closed the hatch, hiding the mag-rifle, so they could gallop off at an angle. The blimp blocked the direct path to follow Virginia Dare, and he wanted to skirt the spot where the airship prepared to touch down. The steamhorse fought him.

"This horse after her. Save girl."

"You idiot hunk of scrap metal. You're taking us directly into the hands of the air pirates!"

The steamhorse bucked and sent its rider tumbling to the hard, hot ground. Millard Fillmore looked up at a pirate coming after him, cutlass drawn and ready for use. He fumbled for his sidearm but before he drew it, the pirate stopped, threw up his hands and grabbed for his throat. He toppled backward, dead. Fillmore looked behind, along his backtrail. An unknown sniper had taken out the pirate, but nowhere could he see the marksman. Then he had more to worry about. Three more pirates dropped to the ground and came for him.

The steamhorse bowled them over and raced away.

"Come back here! You can't disobey me. Come back!" His commands were drowned out by the sound of fighting aboard the airship.

Its prow dipped low and banged into the ground, sending a half dozen crew tumbling out of the gondola. He made a quick estimate of his chances fighting so many armed and angry air pirates, wielding nothing more than a derringer. Fillmore put down his head and ran as hard as he could for the line dangling from the prow. He caught it as the airship suddenly rose because another half dozen of the crew tumbled from the gondola, lightening the load.

He scrambled up the rope and flopped onto the deck, panting with exertion and, he hated to admit it, fear. Getting to his feet, he faced a mountain of a man, all muscle and gristle and mean. A patch covered one eye and scars striated the rest of the face. When the pirate smiled, he showed three front teeth, all gold inset with different precious gems.

"You think to seize the Fledermaus from ole Captain Blind? I don't know how you did it, gettin' the crew to bail out like that, but it'll be bits and pieces of you that joins them."

The blimp lurched as it rose into the sky. Fillmore caught himself, bracing against a railing. He lifted the derringer and cocked it.

"I have no reason to shoot you, Captain. Stand back."

The huge man laughed, the sound coming from deep in his chest and welling outward.

"I was a lawyer 'fore I was a pirate."

"The same profession, I would say." Fillmore aimed, going from a spot in the middle of the man's broad chest to his head, wondering which afforded the best chance of stopping his foe.

"Well you might. Either way, I'm takin' away 35 percent of you as my due. I'll start with your arms and ears."

Before he could fire, a metallic blur streaked toward the pirate. A raucous screech and flashing metal talons raked the man's face, adding to the scars—or would have if the mechanical owl hadn't been powerful enough to stagger the huge man and send him sailing over the railing. Fillmore glanced downward. Captain Blind tumbled over and over at least three times before smashing into a jagged spire and adding a different hue of red to the rock.

Millard Fillmore turned to the owl. It gripped the steering wheel with powerful claws and stared at him with eyes so intelligent he caught his breath. This mechanical bird possessed wit rivaling that of the steamdog he sought.

"I don't know where you can from, but I want to thank you for saving me the trouble of shooting him. Did you similarly remove the rest of the crew?"

"I did. They deserved it for mistreating me so grievously. They kept me chained below decks until I finally bit through a weak spot." The owl held out a leg with a short length of small-linked golden chain dangling from his mechanical leg.

The airship lurched again, listed to port side, and for the first time Fillmore realized the engine pumped out full steam, driving the blimp forward.

The airship flew directly into another of the magnificently craggy spires dotting the Monument Valley landscape. Without a course change, they would smash into solid rock more than five hundred feet above the desert floor.

"How do I steer this thing?" He staggered against the slanting deck to reach the wheel. His feet slipped, and he lost his balance, sliding back toward the prow.

"It requires a great deal of training." With that, the mechanical owl launched itself away from the blimp and flapped away, leaving Fillmore alone on the command deck.

He swung around, gripped the railing and stared at stony death rushing toward him.

Next time

Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam

Episode 2: Virginia Dare and the Anasazi Skinwalkers

Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam

Episode 1: A Fair Lady and Air Pirates

by

Robert E. Vardeman

The hot, dry wind carried more than a scent of sterile desert. Millard Fillmore straightened in the saddle to settle his pear-shaped body, pulled down his goggles and cycled through the settings, going from a magnifying lens through various prisms amplifying the spectrum as he hunted for the source of the odious death smell. His heart raced when he reached the lens that revealed heat invisible to the naked eye. Not that far ahead he saw the eerie pale red plumes of a steam exhaust. Working back to the magnifying lens, he frowned. Although he looked directly at the spot where heat spires rose, he saw nothing.
"What do you make of that?" He patted his steamhorse's shining metallic neck.
"This horse sees nothing."

Fillmore turned and opened the hatch on the steamhorse's rump, bringing up a heavy electromagnetic gun that shot tiny iron harpoons. As his weight shifted, the steamhorse lost balance amid a grinding of gears and a whirring gyroscope that threatened to throw a bearing. He swung his leg over and dropped to the ground. The steamhorse's middle leg did not stretch out properly, curling up as if it hurt.

"Status, middle left leg."

"This horse leg needs oil."

"It needs more than that," Fillmore said, popping an access hatch to peer at the intricate clockwork mechanism inside. "You've stripped a couple gears."

"This horse asks if master can fix."

"Given time."

Fillmore shifted his goggles back to picking up the unusual heat. The distant plume continued to rise unabated. Pushing the goggles up over the brim of his bowler, he began fiddling with the mag-rifle until it was ready for action. Settling his bowler atop his nest of bushy white hair, he returned to stand beside his six-legged steamhorse. At six feet, he was almost as tall as his conveyance. It had taken him more than three months to build the horse and try to infuse it with a modicum of intelligence using his cleverest application of an internal Jacquard engine.

He had succeeded once beyond his wildest dreams. The procedure—the accident—that had given superb intelligence to a steam creature had eluded him since that fateful night in Washington, D.C. It had been the last night in the White House, before the sad affair had robbed him of everything he held dear.

"This horse sees."

Fillmore squinted and pulled the brim of the bowler down to shield his eyes from the fierce Monument Valley sun. Hot, dry, windy, it had to be an annex to hell. Even the mesa-capped spires of red and yellow layered rock that broke the desert's monotony could not compensate for the utter viciousness of the terrain. He had travelled through it for more than six weeks, and all he had seen were desiccated bodies, dozens of air pirates soaring above in their blimps and zeppelins, and miles of emptiness stretching in all directions.
"I see it, too," he said. He swung up into the saddle. The steamhorse listed a little, compensating for the damaged leg. Avoiding the trap that had been set in the distance was the prudent thing to do, especially if he had to endure the steamhorse's ungainly gait. "We're heading away."

"This horse sees her."

"What are you saying?" Fillmore swung about and looked back where the road agents had hidden their wheeled, steam-powered vehicle under a blanket and then covered up with sand to lie in wait. Pulling down his magnifying lenses he saw what the bandits had been waiting for.

The woman frantically snapped the reins on a team of meat horses. Every bump and hole in the rough track caused her wagon to fly into the air and land with a bone-jarring crash. She ducked and wove as she drove to get away from the road agents as they fired at her from hiding. The echoes reaching Fillmore told him that they used small caliber pistols with only an occasional rifle being fired in the woman's direction.

"This horse saves her." The steamhorse reared a little by stiffening its front legs, almost unseating Fillmore. He adjusted for the new angle to keep from sliding back into the mag-gun behind him. Not for the first time he wished the steamhorse either lacked volition or had a better developed sense for preservation.

"We have no reason to think she is in danger."

"This horse sees firing. Gallop now!"

"Wait!" Fillmore barked the order and froze the steamhorse. He heaved a sigh of relief that he kept some small amount of control. "Let me adjust your steam engine."

He fiddled with a complicated array of armatures and lenses that caught the sun and focused it on an internal boiler. The generated steam pressure built until released in small bursts that matched the horse's gait. The faster the release, the closer to a full gallop the steamhorse achieved.

"This horse feels wrong."

"Your self analysis is working. Good." Fillmore reached into the cavity and twisted a vernier to maximize power. He wished he had time to properly repair the damaged leg and do more fine tuning on the power plant. It had been a week or longer since he had adjusted the horse.

He found a slender rod bent just a little. The rod fed into a difference engine that gave the steamhorse its reasoning ability. Hundreds of the wheat-straw thin sticks moved up and down, giving thousands of possible on-off combinations for the internal Jacquard device to mimic intelligence.

"All ready," he said reluctantly. He had a mission, and rescuing a woman from bandits wasn't part of it. He had been told what he sought could be found at the Aerie, whatever that might be. Still, he felt chagrined that his steamhorse had a more acute sense of chivalry than he did.

The horse hunkered down, lifted and began an unsteady canter after the road agents in their wheeled vehicle. To his surprise, they overtook the vehicle quickly. Four of the outlaws fired at the woman, who had slowed as her horses tired. Whether she saw Fillmore rushing to her aid or simply chose that moment to make a stand hardly mattered. She drew rein, skidded about and came to a halt, her team nervously tugging at their harnesses.

She drew out a handgun and began firing. From the report, she fired a small-caliber gun that would do precious little damage even if she hit any of the road agents. When her pistol came up empty, she fumbled open a package strapped to her upper left arm. For a moment, Fillmore thought she sought more ammunition. He shook his head when he saw her pull out a deck of cards.

Had she been out in the burning sun so long that she thought she could engage the road agents in a game of chance, her life against—what?

Then Fillmore pulled down his goggles and flipped through several lenses to make out what she did with those cards. Half the deck spun about, caught up in a dust devil, those whirling miniature tornadoes that bedeviled the entire Monument Valley. But the cards swung about in blurringly fast orbits above her head. She tossed the rest of the deck into the air before her. Instead of being caught in the airy vortex or falling to the ground, they quivered about and presented their faces to the road agents in a strange shield.

Fillmore pushed up his goggles. Something went wrong with the intricate lenses. He saw more than one bullet ricochet off the cards now acting as the woman's armor. Bending low, he urged his steamhorse to even greater speed. As Fillmore galloped closer, he pulled attention away from the primary victim and became the bandits' secondary target.

Lead whined past. One bullet spanged off the steamhorse's flank and ricocheted into the distance. This prompted Fillmore to wheel around. The mag-rifle behind him hissed with power and whined as the steel harpoons launched. His aim was sufficient to reduce the outlaw band by half. As the autoloading device lifted more harpoons from inside the steamhorse, a third outlaw collapsed. The woman had found the range. The remaining bandit saw how alone he was and tried to drive away. Fillmore jacked in a new round and loosed it. This rocket snaked away on a smoky tail, wobbling about as it locked onto its target. When it steadied, the outlaw knew in a split second he could never evade it.

The man exploded in a bloody spray as the explosive detonated a few inches from his skull.

"Enough," Fillmore said. For a moment the steamhorse stood stock still. Fillmore touched the brim of his bowler in silent acknowledgment of their shared battle, then started to leave.

The steamhorse balked when the young girl called out for them to stop. She clapped her hands once, and the flurry of cards all around her folded down into a deck neatly squared in her hastily outstretched palm.

"Please, don't go away. I need you."

"This horse hears her plea." Before Fillmore could counter it, the mechanical horse walked to the woman's wagon.

"Thank you for helping," she said. A motion as adept as any gunfighter hid the cards once more in the box strapped to her upper arm.

"What principle do you use to control the cards? I am well versed in things mechanical, but never have I seen such a thing."

"The major arcana focus the power—" She stopped speaking abruptly and stared hard at him. "You are Millard Fillmore. The former president of the North Atlantic States."

He cursed under his breath.

"You have the advantage over me, miss." He touched the brim of his bowler.

"I am Virginia Dare," she said, averting her eyes as if embarrassed to admit such a thing. "The first white child born on this continent."

Fillmore shook his head sadly. The poor child had been out in the sun too long.

"You are hardly eighteen. That Virginia Dare would be more than—"

"More than two-hundred-fifty years old. Yes, that's so. I don't age as others." She looked around, a forlorn figure, small and helpless and abandoned. Hardly more than five feet tall and slender, dressed in a simple brown gingham dress with a scoop neck and high-button shoes, she begged to be held and comforted as he would a small, lost child. Then she turned and stared at him with narrowed polar-ice blue eyes, eyes that belied her apparent age with the look of ancient lore and ... cunning. A shiver went up his spine. He had seen such bale only once before, before the sad affair had left the White House in ruins.

"Why were they after you? The bandits?" Fillmore struggled to regain some semblance of coherence. He had been president, even if he had not been elected, and had mastered the art of small talk and even of negotiation with the rich and powerful. This woman-child stripped him of all lucid thought and tied his tongue in a bowknot.

She brushed back her jet black hair and stepped up, playing her hand on the steamhorse's flank. The mechanical traitor snorted a bit of steam and sidled closer to her, taking vain care not to show her his injured mid leg.

"This is a remarkable steed."

"This horse agrees." The steamhorse snorted more smoke from its nostrils and swished its wire tail in a full circle.

"It talks. And thinks!"

"What terrible mission brings you to Monument Valley?" Millard Fillmore felt increasingly apprehensive sitting tall astride the steamhorse. All the road agents had been dispatched, but the uneasy sense that someone watched proved unshakable. He pulled down his goggles and quickly studied his backtrail. Nothing. His foreboding remained unabated.

"I'm looking for shaman, Anasazi who know of things beyond this world."

He held in check his question about her tarot cards. Instead, he asked, "This has to do with your, uh, unusual longevity?"

"They live and work deep within Monument Valley. They are shaman and mathematicians and—other things, or so I have heard. Would you escort me? Or is it out of your way?"

"I, too, am seeking knowledge, but of a different sort. One of my mechanical creatures has escaped. I would find him."

"Fulton." The steamhorse shifted its weight to its undamaged side as it spat out the name with obvious distaste.

"We have to hurry." Virginia Dare lifted that knowing, old look to the sky and pointed. "There."

At first Fillmore saw nothing. Then he did when he shifted the heat lens down. An airship of some size drifted along, its steam engine idling. Although not producing forward thrust, that engine still trailed huge plumes of visible heat. Using his magnifying lenses showed why he failed to see the blimp. Its underside had been painted mottled white to camouflage it among the clouds against the bright blue sky.

"You're right. The blimp has spotted us and is descending." Millard saw the sparks from the engine clearly now. "If we are lucky, those cinders will set fire to their lifting gas." He started to ask how she had seen what he could only using elaborate optics, then held back his question.

His feeling of being watched had nothing to do with the descending airship.

The young girl rushed to her wagon and vaulted into the driver's box. She snatched up the reins and got her team pulling. The wagon creaked and moaned under the strain and the horses neighed in a fearsome manner, but she soon flew across the rugged desert, bouncing up and down so fast that Fillmore had to dial his steamhorse to full gallop to keep up.

"This horse saves girl."

"Shut up." Fillmore was in no mood for the wild flights of fancy going through the steamhorse's artificial intellect. He ought to name it Rocinante because he felt like Don Quixote on a futile mission he hardly understood. Or Dapple. He could name the steamhorse after Sancho's donkey and—

The desert all around erupted in tiny fountains of sand and rock as the airship's guns opened fire, strafing him and angling forward to blow apart the wagon's tailgate. Before the gunner found the range and turned Virginia Dare into a bloody corpse, the rapid firer jammed. Fillmore heard the gunner's ferocious curses as he tried to clear the blockage and once more torment those on the ground.

He slowed his steed and brought the steamhorse's hind quarters around so he could swing the formidable weapon mounted there upward. Before he sighted in, the steamhorse triggered the mag-rifle and sent a sporadic steam of metal harpoons into the airship's gondola.

"Careful! Hit the bag and ignite it, and we'll all be blown to Kingdom Come."

"This horse saves girl. Us."

Fillmore closed the hatch, hiding the mag-rifle, so they could gallop off at an angle. The blimp blocked the direct path to follow Virginia Dare, and he wanted to skirt the spot where the airship prepared to touch down. The steamhorse fought him.

"This horse after her. Save girl."

"You idiot hunk of scrap metal. You're taking us directly into the hands of the air pirates!"

The steamhorse bucked and sent its rider tumbling to the hard, hot ground. Millard Fillmore looked up at a pirate coming after him, cutlass drawn and ready for use. He fumbled for his sidearm but before he drew it, the pirate stopped, threw up his hands and grabbed for his throat. He toppled backward, dead. Fillmore looked behind, along his backtrail. An unknown sniper had taken out the pirate, but nowhere could he see the marksman. Then he had more to worry about. Three more pirates dropped to the ground and came for him.

The steamhorse bowled them over and raced away.

"Come back here! You can't disobey me. Come back!" His commands were drowned out by the sound of fighting aboard the airship.

Its prow dipped low and banged into the ground, sending a half dozen crew tumbling out of the gondola. He made a quick estimate of his chances fighting so many armed and angry air pirates, wielding nothing more than a derringer. Fillmore put down his head and ran as hard as he could for the line dangling from the prow. He caught it as the airship suddenly rose because another half dozen of the crew tumbled from the gondola, lightening the load.

He scrambled up the rope and flopped onto the deck, panting with exertion and, he hated to admit it, fear. Getting to his feet, he faced a mountain of a man, all muscle and gristle and mean. A patch covered one eye and scars striated the rest of the face. When the pirate smiled, he showed three front teeth, all gold inset with different precious gems.

"You think to seize the Fledermaus from ole Captain Blind? I don't know how you did it, gettin' the crew to bail out like that, but it'll be bits and pieces of you that joins them."

The blimp lurched as it rose into the sky. Fillmore caught himself, bracing against a railing. He lifted the derringer and cocked it.

"I have no reason to shoot you, Captain. Stand back."

The huge man laughed, the sound coming from deep in his chest and welling outward.

"I was a lawyer 'fore I was a pirate."

"The same profession, I would say." Fillmore aimed, going from a spot in the middle of the man's broad chest to his head, wondering which afforded the best chance of stopping his foe.

"Well you might. Either way, I'm takin' away 35 percent of you as my due. I'll start with your arms and ears."

Before he could fire, a metallic blur streaked toward the pirate. A raucous screech and flashing metal talons raked the man's face, adding to the scars—or would have if the mechanical owl hadn't been powerful enough to stagger the huge man and send him sailing over the railing. Fillmore glanced downward. Captain Blind tumbled over and over at least three times before smashing into a jagged spire and adding a different hue of red to the rock.

Millard Fillmore turned to the owl. It gripped the steering wheel with powerful claws and stared at him with eyes so intelligent he caught his breath. This mechanical bird possessed wit rivaling that of the steamdog he sought.

"I don't know where you can from, but I want to thank you for saving me the trouble of shooting him. Did you similarly remove the rest of the crew?"

"I did. They deserved it for mistreating me so grievously. They kept me chained below decks until I finally bit through a weak spot." The owl held out a leg with a short length of small-linked golden chain dangling from his mechanical leg.

The airship lurched again, listed to port side, and for the first time Fillmore realized the engine pumped out full steam, driving the blimp forward.

The airship flew directly into another of the magnificently craggy spires dotting the Monument Valley landscape. Without a course change, they would smash into solid rock more than five hundred feet above the desert floor.

"How do I steer this thing?" He staggered against the slanting deck to reach the wheel. His feet slipped, and he lost his balance, sliding back toward the prow.

"It requires a great deal of training." With that, the mechanical owl launched itself away from the blimp and flapped away, leaving Fillmore alone on the command deck.

He swung around, gripped the railing and stared at stony death rushing toward him.

Next time

Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam

Episode 2: Virginia Dare and the Anasazi Skinwalkers

Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam

Episode 1: A Fair Lady and Air Pirates

by

Robert E. Vardeman

The hot, dry wind carried more than a scent of sterile desert. Millard Fillmore straightened in the saddle to settle his pear-shaped body, pulled down his goggles and cycled through the settings, going from a magnifying lens through various prisms amplifying the spectrum as he hunted for the source of the odious death smell. His heart raced when he reached the lens that revealed heat invisible to the naked eye. Not that far ahead he saw the eerie pale red plumes of a steam exhaust. Working back to the magnifying lens, he frowned. Although he looked directly at the spot where heat spires rose, he saw nothing.
"What do you make of that?" He patted his steamhorse's shining metallic neck.
"This horse sees nothing."

Fillmore turned and opened the hatch on the steamhorse's rump, bringing up a heavy electromagnetic gun that shot tiny iron harpoons. As his weight shifted, the steamhorse lost balance amid a grinding of gears and a whirring gyroscope that threatened to throw a bearing. He swung his leg over and dropped to the ground. The steamhorse's middle leg did not stretch out properly, curling up as if it hurt.

"Status, middle left leg."

"This horse leg needs oil."

"It needs more than that," Fillmore said, popping an access hatch to peer at the intricate clockwork mechanism inside. "You've stripped a couple gears."

"This horse asks if master can fix."

"Given time."

Fillmore shifted his goggles back to picking up the unusual heat. The distant plume continued to rise unabated. Pushing the goggles up over the brim of his bowler, he began fiddling with the mag-rifle until it was ready for action. Settling his bowler atop his nest of bushy white hair, he returned to stand beside his six-legged steamhorse. At six feet, he was almost as tall as his conveyance. It had taken him more than three months to build the horse and try to infuse it with a modicum of intelligence using his cleverest application of an internal Jacquard engine.

He had succeeded once beyond his wildest dreams. The procedure—the accident—that had given superb intelligence to a steam creature had eluded him since that fateful night in Washington, D.C. It had been the last night in the White House, before the sad affair had robbed him of everything he held dear.

"This horse sees."

Fillmore squinted and pulled the brim of the bowler down to shield his eyes from the fierce Monument Valley sun. Hot, dry, windy, it had to be an annex to hell. Even the mesa-capped spires of red and yellow layered rock that broke the desert's monotony could not compensate for the utter viciousness of the terrain. He had travelled through it for more than six weeks, and all he had seen were desiccated bodies, dozens of air pirates soaring above in their blimps and zeppelins, and miles of emptiness stretching in all directions.
"I see it, too," he said. He swung up into the saddle. The steamhorse listed a little, compensating for the damaged leg. Avoiding the trap that had been set in the distance was the prudent thing to do, especially if he had to endure the steamhorse's ungainly gait. "We're heading away."

"This horse sees her."

"What are you saying?" Fillmore swung about and looked back where the road agents had hidden their wheeled, steam-powered vehicle under a blanket and then covered up with sand to lie in wait. Pulling down his magnifying lenses he saw what the bandits had been waiting for.

The woman frantically snapped the reins on a team of meat horses. Every bump and hole in the rough track caused her wagon to fly into the air and land with a bone-jarring crash. She ducked and wove as she drove to get away from the road agents as they fired at her from hiding. The echoes reaching Fillmore told him that they used small caliber pistols with only an occasional rifle being fired in the woman's direction.

"This horse saves her." The steamhorse reared a little by stiffening its front legs, almost unseating Fillmore. He adjusted for the new angle to keep from sliding back into the mag-gun behind him. Not for the first time he wished the steamhorse either lacked volition or had a better developed sense for preservation.

"We have no reason to think she is in danger."

"This horse sees firing. Gallop now!"

"Wait!" Fillmore barked the order and froze the steamhorse. He heaved a sigh of relief that he kept some small amount of control. "Let me adjust your steam engine."

He fiddled with a complicated array of armatures and lenses that caught the sun and focused it on an internal boiler. The generated steam pressure built until released in small bursts that matched the horse's gait. The faster the release, the closer to a full gallop the steamhorse achieved.

"This horse feels wrong."

"Your self analysis is working. Good." Fillmore reached into the cavity and twisted a vernier to maximize power. He wished he had time to properly repair the damaged leg and do more fine tuning on the power plant. It had been a week or longer since he had adjusted the horse.

He found a slender rod bent just a little. The rod fed into a difference engine that gave the steamhorse its reasoning ability. Hundreds of the wheat-straw thin sticks moved up and down, giving thousands of possible on-off combinations for the internal Jacquard device to mimic intelligence.

"All ready," he said reluctantly. He had a mission, and rescuing a woman from bandits wasn't part of it. He had been told what he sought could be found at the Aerie, whatever that might be. Still, he felt chagrined that his steamhorse had a more acute sense of chivalry than he did.

The horse hunkered down, lifted and began an unsteady canter after the road agents in their wheeled vehicle. To his surprise, they overtook the vehicle quickly. Four of the outlaws fired at the woman, who had slowed as her horses tired. Whether she saw Fillmore rushing to her aid or simply chose that moment to make a stand hardly mattered. She drew rein, skidded about and came to a halt, her team nervously tugging at their harnesses.

She drew out a handgun and began firing. From the report, she fired a small-caliber gun that would do precious little damage even if she hit any of the road agents. When her pistol came up empty, she fumbled open a package strapped to her upper left arm. For a moment, Fillmore thought she sought more ammunition. He shook his head when he saw her pull out a deck of cards.

Had she been out in the burning sun so long that she thought she could engage the road agents in a game of chance, her life against—what?

Then Fillmore pulled down his goggles and flipped through several lenses to make out what she did with those cards. Half the deck spun about, caught up in a dust devil, those whirling miniature tornadoes that bedeviled the entire Monument Valley. But the cards swung about in blurringly fast orbits above her head. She tossed the rest of the deck into the air before her. Instead of being caught in the airy vortex or falling to the ground, they quivered about and presented their faces to the road agents in a strange shield.

Fillmore pushed up his goggles. Something went wrong with the intricate lenses. He saw more than one bullet ricochet off the cards now acting as the woman's armor. Bending low, he urged his steamhorse to even greater speed. As Fillmore galloped closer, he pulled attention away from the primary victim and became the bandits' secondary target.

Lead whined past. One bullet spanged off the steamhorse's flank and ricocheted into the distance. This prompted Fillmore to wheel around. The mag-rifle behind him hissed with power and whined as the steel harpoons launched. His aim was sufficient to reduce the outlaw band by half. As the autoloading device lifted more harpoons from inside the steamhorse, a third outlaw collapsed. The woman had found the range. The remaining bandit saw how alone he was and tried to drive away. Fillmore jacked in a new round and loosed it. This rocket snaked away on a smoky tail, wobbling about as it locked onto its target. When it steadied, the outlaw knew in a split second he could never evade it.

The man exploded in a bloody spray as the explosive detonated a few inches from his skull.

"Enough," Fillmore said. For a moment the steamhorse stood stock still. Fillmore touched the brim of his bowler in silent acknowledgment of their shared battle, then started to leave.

The steamhorse balked when the young girl called out for them to stop. She clapped her hands once, and the flurry of cards all around her folded down into a deck neatly squared in her hastily outstretched palm.

"Please, don't go away. I need you."

"This horse hears her plea." Before Fillmore could counter it, the mechanical horse walked to the woman's wagon.

"Thank you for helping," she said. A motion as adept as any gunfighter hid the cards once more in the box strapped to her upper arm.

"What principle do you use to control the cards? I am well versed in things mechanical, but never have I seen such a thing."

"The major arcana focus the power—" She stopped speaking abruptly and stared hard at him. "You are Millard Fillmore. The former president of the North Atlantic States."

He cursed under his breath.

"You have the advantage over me, miss." He touched the brim of his bowler.

"I am Virginia Dare," she said, averting her eyes as if embarrassed to admit such a thing. "The first white child born on this continent."

Fillmore shook his head sadly. The poor child had been out in the sun too long.

"You are hardly eighteen. That Virginia Dare would be more than—"

"More than two-hundred-fifty years old. Yes, that's so. I don't age as others." She looked around, a forlorn figure, small and helpless and abandoned. Hardly more than five feet tall and slender, dressed in a simple brown gingham dress with a scoop neck and high-button shoes, she begged to be held and comforted as he would a small, lost child. Then she turned and stared at him with narrowed polar-ice blue eyes, eyes that belied her apparent age with the look of ancient lore and ... cunning. A shiver went up his spine. He had seen such bale only once before, before the sad affair had left the White House in ruins.

"Why were they after you? The bandits?" Fillmore struggled to regain some semblance of coherence. He had been president, even if he had not been elected, and had mastered the art of small talk and even of negotiation with the rich and powerful. This woman-child stripped him of all lucid thought and tied his tongue in a bowknot.

She brushed back her jet black hair and stepped up, playing her hand on the steamhorse's flank. The mechanical traitor snorted a bit of steam and sidled closer to her, taking vain care not to show her his injured mid leg.

"This is a remarkable steed."

"This horse agrees." The steamhorse snorted more smoke from its nostrils and swished its wire tail in a full circle.

"It talks. And thinks!"

"What terrible mission brings you to Monument Valley?" Millard Fillmore felt increasingly apprehensive sitting tall astride the steamhorse. All the road agents had been dispatched, but the uneasy sense that someone watched proved unshakable. He pulled down his goggles and quickly studied his backtrail. Nothing. His foreboding remained unabated.

"I'm looking for shaman, Anasazi who know of things beyond this world."

He held in check his question about her tarot cards. Instead, he asked, "This has to do with your, uh, unusual longevity?"

"They live and work deep within Monument Valley. They are shaman and mathematicians and—other things, or so I have heard. Would you escort me? Or is it out of your way?"

"I, too, am seeking knowledge, but of a different sort. One of my mechanical creatures has escaped. I would find him."

"Fulton." The steamhorse shifted its weight to its undamaged side as it spat out the name with obvious distaste.

"We have to hurry." Virginia Dare lifted that knowing, old look to the sky and pointed. "There."

At first Fillmore saw nothing. Then he did when he shifted the heat lens down. An airship of some size drifted along, its steam engine idling. Although not producing forward thrust, that engine still trailed huge plumes of visible heat. Using his magnifying lenses showed why he failed to see the blimp. Its underside had been painted mottled white to camouflage it among the clouds against the bright blue sky.

"You're right. The blimp has spotted us and is descending." Millard saw the sparks from the engine clearly now. "If we are lucky, those cinders will set fire to their lifting gas." He started to ask how she had seen what he could only using elaborate optics, then held back his question.

His feeling of being watched had nothing to do with the descending airship.

The young girl rushed to her wagon and vaulted into the driver's box. She snatched up the reins and got her team pulling. The wagon creaked and moaned under the strain and the horses neighed in a fearsome manner, but she soon flew across the rugged desert, bouncing up and down so fast that Fillmore had to dial his steamhorse to full gallop to keep up.

"This horse saves girl."

"Shut up." Fillmore was in no mood for the wild flights of fancy going through the steamhorse's artificial intellect. He ought to name it Rocinante because he felt like Don Quixote on a futile mission he hardly understood. Or Dapple. He could name the steamhorse after Sancho's donkey and—

The desert all around erupted in tiny fountains of sand and rock as the airship's guns opened fire, strafing him and angling forward to blow apart the wagon's tailgate. Before the gunner found the range and turned Virginia Dare into a bloody corpse, the rapid firer jammed. Fillmore heard the gunner's ferocious curses as he tried to clear the blockage and once more torment those on the ground.

He slowed his steed and brought the steamhorse's hind quarters around so he could swing the formidable weapon mounted there upward. Before he sighted in, the steamhorse triggered the mag-rifle and sent a sporadic steam of metal harpoons into the airship's gondola.

"Careful! Hit the bag and ignite it, and we'll all be blown to Kingdom Come."

"This horse saves girl. Us."

Fillmore closed the hatch, hiding the mag-rifle, so they could gallop off at an angle. The blimp blocked the direct path to follow Virginia Dare, and he wanted to skirt the spot where the airship prepared to touch down. The steamhorse fought him.

"This horse after her. Save girl."

"You idiot hunk of scrap metal. You're taking us directly into the hands of the air pirates!"

The steamhorse bucked and sent its rider tumbling to the hard, hot ground. Millard Fillmore looked up at a pirate coming after him, cutlass drawn and ready for use. He fumbled for his sidearm but before he drew it, the pirate stopped, threw up his hands and grabbed for his throat. He toppled backward, dead. Fillmore looked behind, along his backtrail. An unknown sniper had taken out the pirate, but nowhere could he see the marksman. Then he had more to worry about. Three more pirates dropped to the ground and came for him.

The steamhorse bowled them over and raced away.

"Come back here! You can't disobey me. Come back!" His commands were drowned out by the sound of fighting aboard the airship.

Its prow dipped low and banged into the ground, sending a half dozen crew tumbling out of the gondola. He made a quick estimate of his chances fighting so many armed and angry air pirates, wielding nothing more than a derringer. Fillmore put down his head and ran as hard as he could for the line dangling from the prow. He caught it as the airship suddenly rose because another half dozen of the crew tumbled from the gondola, lightening the load.

He scrambled up the rope and flopped onto the deck, panting with exertion and, he hated to admit it, fear. Getting to his feet, he faced a mountain of a man, all muscle and gristle and mean. A patch covered one eye and scars striated the rest of the face. When the pirate smiled, he showed three front teeth, all gold inset with different precious gems.

"You think to seize the Fledermaus from ole Captain Blind? I don't know how you did it, gettin' the crew to bail out like that, but it'll be bits and pieces of you that joins them."

The blimp lurched as it rose into the sky. Fillmore caught himself, bracing against a railing. He lifted the derringer and cocked it.

"I have no reason to shoot you, Captain. Stand back."

The huge man laughed, the sound coming from deep in his chest and welling outward.

"I was a lawyer 'fore I was a pirate."

"The same profession, I would say." Fillmore aimed, going from a spot in the middle of the man's broad chest to his head, wondering which afforded the best chance of stopping his foe.

"Well you might. Either way, I'm takin' away 35 percent of you as my due. I'll start with your arms and ears."

Before he could fire, a metallic blur streaked toward the pirate. A raucous screech and flashing metal talons raked the man's face, adding to the scars—or would have if the mechanical owl hadn't been powerful enough to stagger the huge man and send him sailing over the railing. Fillmore glanced downward. Captain Blind tumbled over and over at least three times before smashing into a jagged spire and adding a different hue of red to the rock.

Millard Fillmore turned to the owl. It gripped the steering wheel with powerful claws and stared at him with eyes so intelligent he caught his breath. This mechanical bird possessed wit rivaling that of the steamdog he sought.

"I don't know where you can from, but I want to thank you for saving me the trouble of shooting him. Did you similarly remove the rest of the crew?"

"I did. They deserved it for mistreating me so grievously. They kept me chained below decks until I finally bit through a weak spot." The owl held out a leg with a short length of small-linked golden chain dangling from his mechanical leg.

The airship lurched again, listed to port side, and for the first time Fillmore realized the engine pumped out full steam, driving the blimp forward.

The airship flew directly into another of the magnificently craggy spires dotting the Monument Valley landscape. Without a course change, they would smash into solid rock more than five hundred feet above the desert floor.

"How do I steer this thing?" He staggered against the slanting deck to reach the wheel. His feet slipped, and he lost his balance, sliding back toward the prow.

"It requires a great deal of training." With that, the mechanical owl launched itself away from the blimp and flapped away, leaving Fillmore alone on the command deck.

He swung around, gripped the railing and stared at stony death rushing toward him.

Next time

Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam

Episode 2: Virginia Dare and the Anasazi Skinwalkers

 

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