Billy Gostman climbed the last few feet to the top of the rock and sat himself to gaze out over the city as the last light faded from the sky. The shadow of Pike’s Peak here from the Garden of the Gods hid him in effective absolute darkness. He extracted the field glass from his jacket pocket and aimed it at the lights of the town below.
Billy was twenty-nine years old, and beginning to feel his age. He’d been out of shape for the climb up the rocks, but he had to see Merkam’s secret. It had taken him days to figure out how he was going to see inside the thirty-foot walls around the two-block compound, and had struck upon a view from the heights west of town as the only possible solution.
While the town itself was lit with dim gaslights, the Merkam compound shone brightly—the new-fangled electric lights cast a pillar of illumination into the otherwise darkening Colorado night sky.
“Got you!” he whispered to himself.“Jumping Gilas. That thing is huge.”
A broad, silvery cone poked a needle-like spire above the surrounding rooftops. That’s all anyone else could see from anywhere in the town or within a mile or more outside it: the needle. The whole town wondered what it might mean.
The rumor running around the saloons and markets and even the churches was that Merkam was going to blow them all to Kingdom Come with his invention. He’d destroy the whole town and everyone in it. But the other rumor, the one that few but himself had heard, was that Merkam had constructed a vessel that would not only fly, but that would fly to the moon and back again. It was such an incredible whopper that Billy believed it. It was always the biggest lies that seemed to have the most truth in them.
“I’m hitchin’ a ride with you, Dr. Judah Merkam. The Kid is going to fly.”
He could see far more of the immense ship at this height, although it was indistinct. Beside it, a zeppelin unloaded its wares. The black figures of the stevedores moved crates by chain and rope from the blimp to the ground, where they were lifted by winch into the yawning side door of Merkam’s ship.
He caught a new sliver of light in the darkness of the door. Billy moved the glass to it and saw a figure inside, holding what appeared at this distance to be a blade of focused light. Nothing like the gas street lights or miners lamps with their diffuse rays, but one so bright and clean-lined it almost seemed solid. It wasn’t, because the light didn’t have a finite end. As long as something didn’t block it, the beam continued, never widening, just continuing. Billy’s heart thumped once when the light wobbled above the walls and, even at so great a distance, lit his position brightly enough that he cast a shadow on the rocks behind him. It stayed only a second, then continued its drunken, weaving path down the mountain and once more became secure inside the enclosure.
Billy watched it until the light blinked off. At the last instant of visibility, the beam lit the figure holding it. Billy’s eyes widened, “Huh.” It was a woman. A beautiful woman. He smiled and collapsed the tube of the small brass monoscope and put it in his coat pocket.
Billy had always had a way with the ladies. When he slipped into Colorado as an undersized youth on the run, it had been the good will and affection of women that bolstered him, kept him alive. Over the years his luck improved in the class of women who wanted to take care of him, and in 1885, when John Jacob Astor’s favorite illegitimate daughter, Cynna, put her head on his shoulder, everything changed for the better. She pampered him, clothed him, and taught him proper etiquette. Her mansion had a library of five thousand books and Billy practically lived in the room. With Cynna’s personal chef preparing meals and treats six times a day, Billy’s stature also increased. He grew three inches in height, bringing him from short to average, and his musculature improved so that the emaciated look was no more.
But the biggest change was when Cynna sent him to Denver to her personal Doctor of Dentistry. A genius in his field, the Doctor spent two days measuring and calibrating every facet of Billy’s lips, teeth, epiglottal depth, and tongue length. He spent hours on the front teeth, the ones he tsk-tsked as “those bucks”. Billy held his mouth open for so long that his jaw joints creaked when he finally closed them.
When the Doctor showed him the Dental Regravitator—his own personal invention—that would realign enamels to an Adonis-worthy symmetry, Billy almost pulled his Colt Peacemaker from the shoulder holster. The Regravitator was a plaiting of thin brass wires and numerous small gears no larger than the eyes of a small mouse. The Doctor said, “Once attached to your teeth, the kinetic action of talking and eating will transfer your mandibular movements through the gears and wires to adjust your teeth to their desired placement. It will take place slowly, over a period of three months. And it will be painless, I assure you.”
The good Doctor had been so wrong on that point.
Four months later, after the Dental Regravitator was removed and the sore mouth healed, Billy looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the man looking back. His teeth were even and white, and his lips no longer pushed out like a duck’s, but looked nice, full. The weight gain made his cheeks fill to give his facial shape a pleasing look. His eyes were the same, though. Blue and clear. And from all his time in the sun here in Colorado, his hair was now a dark blonde. He looked nothing like the scruffy, buck-toothed youth holding the barrel of the Winchester and posing in the tin-type photo taken in 1880.
Cynna had been delighted. She cooed and patted and touched his face, saying “I may have to call you my Adonis.” She slipped her arm in his, “But I am glad your voice is the same. I could listen to you read the most atrocious passages ever written and still be enthralled.”
Billy didn’t know about enthralled, but women did like to listen to him. He thought it was because he listened more than he talked. The change in his smile also started the change in their relationship. Cynna became more possessive. That progressed to jealousy, and from that to her thinking wealth and power allowed her to order him to do this, or not do that.
Being on the streets for the last three months was still better than having someone boss him. Billy had a good work ethic and was dexterous with his hands, small as they were. He used the knowledge gained from Cynna’s library to tinker with mechanisms that others, with larger hands, less nimbleness in the fingers, could not. The wages were enough to feed him and buy drinks when he needed.
Albert, the bartender was a friend and let him sleep in the storage room when weather was bad, so there was that, too. But he could not continue this way of life. So it was either befriend the woman he’d just seen through his telescope and use her to get on board as a hand, or find a way to become a stowaway. It didn’t matter which way, because he would be on the ship. And no one would stop him.
Billy headed back to town. He checked the Colt in the shoulder holster to make sure it came out fast and easy, then he walked down the street to a place where he could watch the guarded gate until the woman with the light emerged.
Once in town, he leaned against the wall of the mercantile and watched the zeppelin lift above the walls as the crew peered over the edges of the frigate dangling below the projectile-shaped, gas filled ascender. Painted in shamrock green letters on the side was Bonnie Brae. Billy knew this old ship and her owner, for it was the air-ship of Irishman Sean O’Bannon, a drinking friend. Billy said to himself, “If the woman won’t passport me, I may have another way.”
The huge gate opened at that moment and Billy caught a glimpse inside the compound. It was a bustle of activity, and nobody was going to walk in uninvited. Two enormous, bearded men guarded the gates, armed with the newest Velociter-Magnus rifles. The brass and copper shone on the weapons as if newly forged, and the multiple barrels looked as deadly as a dozen spitting cobras. No sir, Billy thought, I won’t be charging in there all bravado and horns and pawing the earth.
At that moment, the woman emerged from the compound. Billy stared, then caught himself and tried not to look directly at her. This was a female of heroic proportions, and not some frail waif or one prone to the vapors in moments of tension. Her bare arms and shoulders were muscular, but not manly by any measure. She was dark- haired and olive-skinned and carried a hint of far off places. The brass-studded brown leather corset showed a trim body. She wore no blouse under the corset, and the tops of her bosoms were full and high. A small pistol rested on the front of her right hip for a cross draw, and Billy realized she was left handed. A brass cylinder, maybe a foot long, hung by a leather loop from her belt. Billy thought it might be the strange light lantern he had seen her use. His eyes continued down and saw that her slim canvas pants disappeared into the tops of black, knee-high lace-up boots.
As she walked closer, Billy could see she was two inches taller than he was. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the brass goggles. She pulled a folded paper from her pocket and pushed the goggles up on her head when she was two steps from him. She stepped onto the boardwalk beside Billy and looked up from the paper.
Billy looked into liquid brown eyes flecked with gold, and with whites so clear they had the faint bluish tinge that indicated exceptional vitality. He smiled and tipped his hat, saying, “Howdy.”
She looked at the side of his jacket that hid the Colt, then glanced at his face before entering the mercantile.
Billy’s eyebrows rose and his respect for her went up a notch. He said, “She’s no pilgrim, this one.” When he turned to go into the mercantile, Billy noticed he wasn’t the only one following her. Two men wearing dusters were paying her a lot of attention.
The woman talked to the store clerk, who nodded and went to the back of the store. He returned with a plain brown box about two feet wide and a foot tall. She paid him and picked up the box, which took both of her hands. Something clinked inside when she turned with it to go out the door.
The two men stepped in front of her. One had a red beard and said, “Hold on there, missy, we’ll be taking that.” The second man, younger and smooth-faced, started to say something, but Billy was already moving, and so was the woman.
She dropped the left side of the box and let it swing down as she snatched the brass tube from her side, all the while trying to hold the box with her right arm, but failing. Billy changed direction and slid across the wooden floor on his legs and back. He caught the bottom of the box with one hand as he drew the Colt with the other. But it was already over with the two men.
The woman had pointed the end of the brass tube toward the men’s faces and flipped a lever. A blaze of light hit them and was so white and strong it seemed to punch the men backward. Both turned their heads away and covered their eyes. The woman blinked off the light and hung it back on her belt. She drew her pistol, and waited until the men regained their vision.
Billy held the bottom of the box and he knew she was aware of him, but she didn’t look his way. When the red bearded man blinked and looked her direction, she said, “It will be best if we never meet again, do you understand?”
The man blinked, trying to see her better, and said, “We won’t bother you or him no more.”
She didn’t lower the pistol, “You misunderstand. Let me make this very clear for you and your friend. If I see you again, I shoot. On the street, in a restaurant, riding by, I will shoot.”
It soaked in. “Maybe me an’ him will go visit Californy. I hear it is nice out there.”
Billy spoke, “People live longer out there, that’s a fact.”
The red beard glanced down at him and paled when he saw the Colt. “Californy it is.” The two men left, with the red beard leading the other out the door.
The woman put her pistol in the holster and picked up the box in both hands. Billy rose to his feet and said, “Glad to be of assistance, Miss…?”
The woman looked him over and, although she didn’t smile, her eyes crinkled an atom’s worth at the corners. “Ekka Gagarin.”
Billy reached for the box, “May I?” Ekka let him take it and they left the store, walking to the compound.
“You’re part of this assemblage?” Billy said, nodding his head to indicate the compound.
“Rumors are rampant about what Doctor Merkam is constructing in there.”
“You’re just a little jaybird aren’t you? Can’t shut you up.” He grinned.
They reached the gate and it opened without Ekka hailing those inside. She turned to take the box and said, “Thank you.”
He gave it to her and said, “Any chance I could come in?”
“Not something I can allow. Only those who work here or are delivering supplies are allowed inside these walls.”
“How about hiring me? I could use some work.”
She shook her head no, and started inside, then stopped and turned back to him. “What can you do?”
“You name it.”
She nodded towards his coat where the Colt resided. “Can you shoot, or is it only for show?”
Billy smiled and held his hands out to his sides, “I’m the best there is.”
Ekka said, “Come by tomorrow morning at ten.” She nodded to the guards and they closed the gate.