QSFer BJ Sikes has a new queer steampunk/alt history book out: The Vitruvian Mask.
1881: The electric lights of Paris have been extinguished.
The Naturalist revolution is over. Adelaide was on the losing side. Once the Royal Scientist Doctor for the now-dead cyborg monarchs of France, she’s now a fugitive, hiding from the new king’s Police Sécrète.
Pregnant and alone, she seeks refuge in a Parisian hospital but things have changed there too. What was once a cathedral of Science is now a bastion of ignorance and superstition.
The battlefield veterans whose Augmented prosthetics she once created are shunned by the new regime and come to the hospital for her help. But her nemesis, the father of her child, has returned to France and threatens to reveal her illegal activities to the authorities.
Can Adelaide repair her Augmented patients without losing her freedom … or her life?
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Excerpt (1000 words max) Adelaide rested her hands on the cold metal chest of her creation, her skin pale against the gleaming brass. The Automated Dauphin lay upon the worktable before her, inert, needing her to secure its future life, and that of France itself. The mechanical engineers she had fled with were of no help. Adelaide could hear the three of them now, toiling away in their own workrooms in the farmhouse. Later, no doubt, they would supply her with more of their concern ‘for her condition’ or, in the case of Dr. Gregoire, his derision. Then, their obligatory male behavior dispensed with, they would resume their argument over how best to restart the Weather Machines. As if the new regime would not immediately destroy any of the devices found to be operational.
The ache again filled Adelaide, the familiar, urgent craving for that which she had been raised to desire in the Science Academy. All else faded, as meaningless as her compatriots and their endless tinkering. Even the child in Adelaide’s womb could not inspire her to action beyond her immediate needs. None of it mattered, because none of it could make France whole again. Only the Automated Dauphin could deliver that promise, and only Adelaide could make it function. And so she went to work, to restore France. Her France. Not this untidy, chaotic mess the new king had created. She unscrewed the chest plate, looking for the source of the Dauphin’s most recent malfunction. Her back ached, tired with the weight of her huge belly. She paused to rub it and took a deep breath. The child in her womb, an unintended consequence of a rash decision, didn’t stir. He only seemed to move at night when Adelaide tried to rest. With her eyes, she admired her mechanical child on the scarred wooden table then caressed his cold metal face. The profile, sculpted to look like the old king, would be enough to have her executed for treason. “Why won’t you speak to me anymore? Was that cursed orb the only method you could use to communicate?”
Months ago, before her belly had grown so big, before the ruins of a farmhouse had become her refuge, a strange man had convinced her that he had a device, an orb that would function as a brain for her automaton. Installing it had been a disaster. The Automated Dauphin under the control of the orb had spouted false prophecies, not the words of wisdom she had hoped for. Adelaide had disconnected the orb and tossed it into the Seine, thinking her troubles over. But her creation, so briefly alive, had ceased entirely to speak.
The only response to her question was the hum from its servometers. At least his movement functions were still operational, although she would need to recharge his electric batteries soon. And she had nowhere to do that on this forlorn little farm in Picardy, miles from the bustle of Paris. The farmhouse itself was barely habitable, without running water or even gaslight, let alone electricity.
Adelaide exhaled a weary breath and continued opening up the chest plate. She squinted into the interior of the automaton’s chest cavity, looking for loose wires, and jerked away with a gasp. Deep in the workings, a bundle of rags served as a bed for squirming baby mice. A rodent had made a nest inside her creation. Adelaide growled under her breath, then gently lifted the intruders and their messy bed out of the automaton.
What damage have those little creatures done? How many wires will I have to replace now?
The adult mice squeaked and leaped out of her hands to the floor, scampering into a hole in the ramshackle wall. Adelaide followed with the nest of their tiny, squirming, pink babies. Huffing, she lowered herself to one knee and placed the bundle on the floor near the hole. The parent mice could take care of the rest. She moaned and heaved herself back to her feet, leaning heavily on the splintered wooden wall. It creaked under her weight.
Adelaide grabbed a dripping tallow candle and held it above the automaton, trying to get better light to see the damage. The molten tallow dribbled onto the table and Adelaide held her hand to catch the drips from touching the metal figure. The gleam of polished metal tubes in the chest cavity was duller than it should have been, but she couldn’t see any damaged wiring. She traced a delicate finger along the primary nerve-wire bundle to the processor. And there it was.
She groaned. The wires were chewed right at the connection point. Couldn’t the mice have gnawed anywhere else? It would take hours to repair what they had destroyed. Adelaide opened her small chest of machine parts, the only pieces of her former life that she had time to scrounge before her escape from Paris. The soldiers had been so close to discovering her hiding place in the Montmartre garret full of the wires, tubes, servos, and batteries she had hoped would be useful in finally making her automaton fully functional.
But she had not had time to complete her work in the garret. The Naturalist revolution brought a swift and sudden end to her former life, as the new king’s soldiers searched Paris for any Scientists, and especially those closely connected to the former regime. Adelaide had watched in horror from the secluded safety of her garret as people tore Watcher Spheres from the eaves of public buildings and trampled them to the ground. Monsieur Noyer, one of the Scientists in hiding with her at the farmhouse told of escaping a mob tearing apart a Weather Machine. Adelaide knew that none of the Weather Machines remained working in this region. They had endured too many daytime rain storms, complete with dripping ceilings and now moldering window frames, for them to still be functioning.
BJ Sikes is a 5’6″ ape descendant who is inordinately fond of a good strong cup of tea, Doc Marten boots, and fancy dress. She lives with one large cat, two sweet teenagers, and one editor-author, plus an array of chickens. Her fave genre is historical fantasy with steampunk leanings.
After writing a dissertation on avocado root rot, she was drawn back to her first love, fiction. Her debut novel, the Archimedean Heart, is the first book in the Roboticist of Versailles world, a French Belle Epoque that never was. A follow-up novella appears in the anthology The Clockwork Oracle. The Vitruvian Mask is the second full novel set in that world.
She was the chief cat-wrangler /editor/contributor for three short story anthologies (Twelve Hours Later, Thirty Days Later, and Some Time Later). Her most recent short story was Riverhag, a solarpunk piece in the anthology Next Stop on the #13.