Another wonderful thing came in via the Ætherbox, proving once more Steampunk is alive and well, the creativity unbroken. Even better, here comes a novel aimed at younger readers, so this is an ideal way to introduce youngsters to the worlds Steampunk creates and spend their time reading instead of, you know, summoning Elder Gods or something. Right, maybe what happens in my family does not happen that frequently in other families, never mind…
Cog and the Steel Tower is a middle-grade novel set in an alternate-world steampunk setting. I wrote it as both something for my daughter to enjoy and to have fun with the steampunk setting. I really enjoyed taking these old technologies and outdated concepts like aether and alchemy and projecting a society in which they thrive. I have a particular fascination with airships and one of them, the GRD Birkenhead, plays an important role in the story.
If she can keep her identity a secret despite her best friend developing a crush on her alter ego, unravel the deadly conspiracy, and keep the demanding master engineer happy, then maybe she can have the future she’s always wanted. Keeping hidden identities and saving kingdoms may not be the same as fixing a steam wagon or an auto-mechanical potion mixer, but Cog has a set of precision screwdrivers and she isn’t afraid to use them.
Follow Cog’s rollicking adventure as she uses her wits and ingenuity to find friendship, trust, and justice in a colorful but sometimes unforgiving steampunk world full of mechanical mayhem.
An interest in programming started back in middle school where he wasted time in computer lab writing video games on one of the school’s Apple IIe, learning a lot more than the class was teaching. He still has the Atari 400 he parents got him back then. With that kind of nerd potential he naturally gravitated to reading lots of science fiction and fantasy.
Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption.
Currently, he lives in the Kansas City metro with his wife, two kids, and three dogs. Normally he goes by Erik Larson, but had to use W.E. Larson since there is already a well-known author named Erik Larson.
“I reckon it’s one hundred ten yards. What do you think?” Cog handed her spyglass over to Winifred.
Winifred slithered on her stomach to get a better view from the bushes before putting the long brass tube to her eye. “One hundred thirty.”
“I’ll need to make some adjustments.” Cog scrambled over to the device they had lugged all the way to Farmer Hemsworth’s fields. It looked like a small cannon with brass and copper tubing entwined around it. She checked the pressure gauge and turned the dial. “Okay, I think that’ll do.”
Together, they propped up the cannon just the right amount with an old log. Winifred took another look through the spyglass. “We need to turn it more to the right.”
Cog rotated it until Winifred held up her hand. “Perfect!”
“Powering up.” Cog flipped a switch near the base. Sparks played along the copper coiled around the barrel, and the brass tubing hissed like a bucket of angry snakes. The pressure gauge swung ominously into the red.
Winifred took a few steps back. “Are you sure this won’t blow up?”
“Sure, I’m sure,” Cog said, grinning. “We’ll only have one shot, though.”
“I’ll make sure the target is still there.” Winifred returned to the bushes for another look. “We have a problem.”
“See for yourself.” Winifred held out the spyglass, and Cog lowered herself to look. The ground was damp and slick, but she hardly worried about getting her workshop overalls dirty.
Cog put the instrument to her eye. The target, Polly, hadn’t moved from the bench in Mrs. Hemsworth’s rose garden. Polly was fifteen, two years older than Cog, and very pretty. She delighted in teasing Cog about her cropped hair, workshop clothes, and greasy hands. As the unofficial leader of the girls in the village, Polly also made sure that nobody else treated Cog too nicely. Only Winifred broke ranks.
Winifred’s problem was immediately obvious: a boy had joined Polly. Not just any boy either, it was Lawrence Hemsworth. With his good looks and his family’s wealth, he was the most popular boy in the village. Worse yet, Lawrence was only one of a couple of boys who didn’t take Polly’s lead in tormenting Cog.
“You still want to do this?” Winifred asked.
Cog watched him sit next to Polly. They looked good together—Lawrence with his crisp, white shirt and Polly in a flattering, light blue dress. Lawrence leaned in and they met lips, closing their eyes.
“Definitely!” If Lawrence insisted on kissing pretty, precious Polly… well, he’d have to face the consequences.
“Who gets the spyglass to watch?” Winifred asked.
“Rock, paper, scissors.”
They pounded their fists into their hands and counted. “One… Two… Three… Go!”
Cog kept her hand in a closed fist, but Winifred held hers open. “Paper covers rock,” she said, grinning.
“Lucky.” Cog handed her the spyglass. “Ready?”
“I have them in sight,” Winifred reported.
“Firing!” Cog flipped a switch and the machine made a crackling sound followed by a tremendous phoomp! A ball shot out of the barrel—a ball of the slimiest, smelliest mud Planter’s Creek had to offer. Cog had designed the mud electro-cannon to apply a powerful electrostatic charge to the moisture that kept the slimy mass intact as it hurtled over the field.
Cog settled next to her friend to peek out from the bushes. Even at this distance, she could see that Lawrence had slipped his arm around Polly’s shoulders. Polly adjusted herself to face him. They moved toward each other again and… splat!
“Direct hit!” Winifred shouted before exploding into giggles. She clutched her sides and rolled into a ball, laughing so hard her eyes watered.
Cog snatched the spyglass. Mud covered Polly. It was in her hair, on her dress, and smeared across her face where she’d tried to wipe it off. She stormed this way and that, searching behind rose bushes. Cog watched her shove some of the rose canes aside only to quickly clutch her hand, apparently too angry to remember thorns.
Lawrence hadn’t been spared—muddy spots now marred his shirt and face. Unlike Polly though, he merely looked befuddled. Maybe he’d noticed the mud had fallen from the sky.
Polly turned and her mud-soaked hair swung around to smack her across the face. Cog dissolved into giggles and soon joined Winifred, rolling on the ground and scarcely able to breathe.
By the time they recovered, Cog’s stomach hurt, and she had to wipe tears from her face. “That should teach Polly to stop teasing me about my hair.”
“Only if she figures out we were behind it,” Winifred said as she stood and made a futile effort at brushing off her dress.
“She knows,” Cog reassured her. Who else would Polly suspect of making mud fall from the sky? “Help me get this back to the workshop.”
With Winifred holding up one end and Cog the other, they began their trek into the village. Cog hoped to get her invention back and at least partly disassembled before Papa returned. He wouldn’t consider a mud electro-cannon a good use of his stock of parts.
They took a path along a long wind-break of trees to Papa’s workshop. Cog peeked in a window of the white-washed building. “C’mon, Winny, it’s clear.”
As always, the shop was tidy with racks of tools on the walls and shelves filled with well-organized bins of parts and fasteners. Two large tables took up the rest of the space, one covered with parts and the other empty and clean. They shuffled the device onto the empty table, and Cog immediately started loosening bolts.
Winifred cleared a little space among the steam wagon parts on the other table and hopped up to sit, swinging her dirty feet. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Polly that mad before.”
“You made a perfect call on the range,” Cog said, grinning back.
“Too bad we got Lawrence, too.”
“He’ll probably be laughing about it by tomorrow,” Cog said. Maybe she could have waited for Polly to be alone, but that would’ve risked missing the chance.
“Getting the mud from the creek made me think,” Winifred said. “If we made a raft, maybe—”
Polly burst into the shop like an unwelcome locomotive, her face still smeared and her hair in dirty strings. She jabbed a finger toward Cog. “You!”
Polly tugged on a particularly muddy part of her dress. “Lawrence said this mud came out of the clear, blue sky.”
“That’s odd,” Winifred remarked, looking as innocent as a kitten.
“There’s only one person who could make that happen,” Polly turned her sharp gaze toward the disassembled mud-cannon. “Is that what did it?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Cog tried to hold back a guilty grin.
“Oh yes, you do, you and your stupid gizmos.” Her lips twisted in anger. “Nobody is ever going to hire a girl to fix machines. All this playing around with junk is a waste of time. Your uncle just wishes he had a son instead of some freak girl his sister didn’t want.”
“Shut up!” Winifred yelled, jumping down from the table.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten the freak’s mousy accomplice.” Polly turned to Winifred. “You’ll both pay for—”
The workshop door’s bell jingled, and Papa came inside. He looked pale.
Polly turned toward him, pointing to her dress. “Look at what your niece did to—”
He waved vaguely toward the door. “You can come back and play with Cog later, Polly.”
“Hmmmph…” Polly shot one last scathing glare toward Cog before flouncing out the door.
She vanished from Cog’s mind as quickly as she had from the workshop. What had Papa so upset?
“Is it Gran?” Cog asked. Her grandmother had taken ill a couple of years ago and still hadn’t recovered.
Papa shook his head. “No. It’s… well… she’s come back.”
“Come back? Who?”
“Your—” He turned to Winifred. “I need to talk with Cog, Winny. Maybe you two—”
“Albert, that’s where you went off to,” a woman’s voice came from behind him. “Is this the old workshop? You must have expanded it.”
“Yes, business has been good.” He stepped to the side as a woman slid past him.
She had the same chestnut hair as Cog, though hers trailed down her back in lustrous curls instead of being cropped short. But the eyes made Cog freeze to the spot. They looked exactly the same as her own: large and dark-brown in color. In her well-tailored lavender dress, the woman looked beautiful, elegant, and completely out of place standing next to a rack of tools.
“I was just telling—” Papa started.
“Oh, this must be Corinna,” the woman cooed, sweeping over to Winifred. Her gaze took in Winny’s dirty dress, scabbed knees, and filthy feet. “What a beautiful young lady you’ve grown into.”
Winifred turned her gaze back and forth, her eyes wide. “Um…”
“That’s not Corinna,” Papa said.
“I should go,” Winifred whispered. She crept to the door, shooting Cog a glance that clearly said she’d want a full report.
The woman turned back to Papa, “Where is she?” She peered around the room before settling on Cog and smiling. “Is this your son, Albert? He looks just like you. You never said anything about—”
“Abigail,” Papa said, putting a hand on Cog’s shoulder, “this is Corinna.”
“Corinna?” Her mouth fell open.
“You’re Papa’s sister?” Cog supposed her mouth must be hanging open too. She’d never suspected the teenage girl that gave her up would be the elegant woman in front of her.
Abigail regained her composure and opened her arms. “Come here, My Little Princess.”
Cog took a few unsure steps before holding up her grimy hands. “You probably don’t want me to—”
Abigail frowned at the dirty fingers. “Perhaps you should keep those behind your back this once.” She closed the distance as Cog kept her hands out of the way. Abigail gingerly pulled her into a loose hug.
What should meeting your mother for the first time feel like? Her mind had jammed from trying to be happy, angry, curious, nervous, and a hundred other emotions all at once.