By the time they reached the stables, Alek’s only concern was tripping in the darkness. The moon was less than half full, and the estate’s hunting forests stretched like a black sea across the valley. At this hour even the lights of Prague had died out to a mere inkling.
When Alek saw the walker, a soft cry escaped his lips.
It stood taller than the stable’s roof, its two metal feet sunk deep into the soil of the riding paddock. It looked like one of the Darwinist monsters skulking in the darkness.
This wasn’t some training machine—it was a real engine of war, a Cyklop Stormwalker. A cannon was mounted in its belly, and the stubby noses of two Spandau machine guns sprouted from its head, which was as big as a smokehouse.
Before tonight Alek had piloted only unarmed runabouts and four-legged training corvettes. Even with his sixteenth birthday almost here, Mother always insisted that he was too young for war machines.
“I’m supposed to pilot that?” Alek heard his own voice break. “My old runabout wouldn’t come up to its knee!”
Otto Klopp’s gloved hand patted his shoulder heavily. “Don’t worry, young Mozart. I’ll be at your side.”
Count Volger called up to the machine, and its engines rumbled to life, the ground trembling under Alek’s feet. Moonlight shivered from the wet leaves in the camouflage nets draped over the Stormwalker, and the mutter of nervous horses came from the stable.
The belly hatch swung open and a chain ladder tumbled out, unrolling as it fell. Count Volger stilled it from swinging, then planted a boot on the lowermost metal rung to hold it steady.
“Young master, if you please.”
Alek stared up at the machine. He tried to imagine guiding this monster through the darkness, crushing trees, buildings, and anything else unlucky enough to be in his path.
Otto Klopp leaned closer. “Your father the archduke has thrown us a challenge, me and you. He wants you ready to pilot any machine in the House Guard, even in the middle of the night.”
Alek swallowed. Father always said that, with war on the horizon, everyone in the household had to be prepared. And it made sense to begin training while Mother was away. If Alek crashed the walker, the worst bruises might fade before the princess Sophie returned.
But Alek still hesitated. The belly hatch of the rumbling machine looked like the jaws of some giant predator bending down to take a bite.
“Of course, we cannot force you, Your Serene Highness,” Count Volger said, amusement in his voice. “We can always explain to your father that you were too scared.”
“I’m not scared.” Alek grabbed the ladder and hoisted himself up. The sawtooth rungs gripped his gloves as Alek climbed past the anti-boarding spikes arrayed along the walker’s belly. He crawled into the machine’s dark maw, the smell of kerosene and sweat filling his nose, the engines’ rhythm trembling in his bones.
“Welcome aboard, Your Highness,” a voice said. Two men waited in the gunners’ cabin, steel helmets glittering. A Stormwalker carried a crew of five, Alek recalled. This wasn’t some little three-man runabout. He almost forgot to return their salutes.
Count Volger was close behind him on the ladder, so Alek kept climbing up into the command cabin. He took the pilot’s seat, strapping himself in as Klopp and Volger followed.
He placed his hands on the saunters, feeling the machine’s awesome power trembling in his fingers. Strange to think that these two small levers could control the walker’s huge metal legs.
“Vision at full,” Klopp said, cranking the viewport open as wide as it would go. The cool night air spilled into the Stormwalker’s cabin, and moonlight fell across dozens of switches and levers.
The four-legged corvette he’d piloted the month before had needed only control saunters, a fuel gauge, and a compass. But now uncountable needles were arrayed before him, shivering like nervous whiskers.
What were they all for?
He pulled his eyes from the controls and stared through the viewport. The distance to the ground gave him a queasy feeling, like peering down from a hayloft with thoughts of jumping.
The edge of the forest loomed only twenty meters away. Did they really expect him to pilot this machine through those dense trees and tangled roots … at night?
“At your pleasure, young master,” Count Volger said, sounding bored already.
Alek set his jaw, resolving not to provide the man with any more amusement. He eased the saunters forward, and the huge Daimler engines changed pitch as steel gears bit, grinding into motion.
The Stormwalker rose from its crouch slowly, the ground slipping still farther away. Alek could see across the treetops now, all the way to shimmering Prague.
He pulled the left saunter back and pushed the right forward. The machine lumbered into motion with an inhumanly large step, pressing him back into the pilot’s seat.
The right pedal rose a little as the walker’s foot hit soft ground, nudging Alek’s boot. He twisted at the saunters, transferring weight from one foot to the other. The cabin swayed like a tree house in a high wind, lurching back and forth with each giant step. A chorus of hissing came from the engines below, gauges dancing as the Stormwalker’s pneumatic joints strained against the machine’s weight.
“Good … excellent,” Otto muttered from the commander’s seat. “Watch your knee pressure, though.”
Alek dared a glance down at the controls, but had no idea what Master Klopp was talking about. Knee pressure? How could anyone keep track of all those needles without driving the whole contraption into a tree?
“Better,” the man said a few steps later. Alek nodded dumbly, overjoyed that he hadn’t tipped them over yet.
Already the forest was looming up, filling the wide-open viewport with a dark tangle of shapes. The first glistening branches swept past, thwacking at the viewport, spattering Alek with cold showers of dew.
“Shouldn’t we spark up the running lights?” he asked.
Klopp shook his head. “Remember, young master? We’re pretending we don’t want to be spotted.”
“Revolting way to travel,” Volger muttered, and Alek wondered again why the man was here. Was there to be a fencing lesson after this? What sort of warrior-Mozart was his father trying to make him into?
The shriek of grinding gears filled the cabin. The left pedal snapped up against Alek’s foot, and the whole machine tipped ominously forward.
“You’re caught, young master!” Otto said, hands ready to snatch the saunters away.
“I know!” Alek cried, twisting at the controls. He slammed the machine’s right foot down midstride, its knee joint spitting air like a train whistle. The Stormwalker wavered drunkenly for a moment, threatening to fall. But long seconds later Alek felt the machine’s weight settle into the moss and dirt. It was balanced with one foot stretching back, like a fencer posing after a lunge.
He pushed on both saunters, the left leg pulling at whatever had entangled it, the right straining forward. The Daimler engines groaned, and metal joints hissed. Finally a shudder passed through the cabin, along with the satisfying sound of roots tearing from the ground— the Stormwalker rising up. It stood high for a moment, like a chicken on one leg, then stepped forward again.
Alek’s shaking hands guided the walker through its next few strides.
“Well done, young master!” Otto cried. He clapped his hands once.
“Thank you, Klopp,” Alek said in a dry voice, feeling sweat trickle down his face. His hands clenched the saunters tight, but the machine was walking smoothly again.
Gradually he forgot that he was at the controls, feeling the steps as if they were his own. The sway of the cabin settled into his body, the rhythms of gears and pneumatics not so different from his runabout’s, only louder. Alek had even begun to see patterns in the flickering needles of the control panel—a few leapt into the red with every footfall, easing back as the walker straightened. Knee pressure, indeed.
But the sheer power of the machine kept him anxious. Heat from the engines built in the cabin, the night air blowing in like cold fingers. Alek tried to imagine what piloting would be like in battle, with the viewport half shut against flying bullets and shrapnel.
Finally the pine branches cleared before them, and Klopp said, “Turn here and we’ll have better footing, young master.”
“Isn’t this one of Mother’s riding paths?” Alek said. “She’ll have my hide if we track it up!” Whenever one of Princess Sophie’s horses stumbled on a walker footprint, Master Klopp, Alek, and even Father felt her wrath for days.
But he eased back on the throttle, grateful for a moment of rest, bringing the Stormwalker to a halt on the trail. Inside his piloting jacket Alek was soaked with sweat.
“Disagreeable in every way, Your Highness,” Volger said. “But necessary if we’re to make good time tonight.”
Alek turned to Otto Klopp and frowned. “Make good time? But this is just practice. We’re not going anywhere, are we?”
Klopp didn’t answer, his eyes glancing up at the count. Alek pulled his hands from the saunters and swiveled the pilot’s chair around.
“Volger, what’s going on?”
The wildcount stared down at him in silence, and Alek felt suddenly very alone out here in the darkness.
His mind began to replay his father’s warnings: How some nobles believed that Alek’s muddled lineage threatened the empire. That one day the insults might turn into something worse… .
But these men couldn’t be traitors. Volger had held a sword to his throat a thousand times in fencing practice, and his master of mechaniks? Unthinkable.
“Where are we going, Otto? Explain this at once.”
“You’re to come with us, Your Highness,” Otto Klopp said softly.
“We have to get as far away from Prague as possible,” Volger said. “Your father’s orders.”
“But my father isn’t even …” Alek gritted his teeth and swore. What a fool he’d been, tempted into the forest with tales of midnight piloting, like luring a child with candy. The whole household was asleep, his parents away in Sarajevo.
Alek’s arms were still tired from fighting to keep the Stormwalker upright, and strapped into the pilot’s chair he could hardly draw his knife. He closed his eyes—he’d left the weapon back in his room, under the pillow.
“The archduke left instructions,” Count Volger said.
“You’re lying!” Alek shouted.
“I wish we were, young master.” Volger reached into his riding jacket.
A surge of panic swept into Alek, cutting through his despair. His hands shot to the unfamiliar controls, searching for the distress whistle’s cord. They couldn’t be far from home yet. Surely someone would hear the Stormwalker’s shriek.
Otto jumped into motion, grabbing Alek’s arms. Volger swept a flask from his jacket and forced its open mouth to Alek’s face. A sweet smell filled the cabin, sending his mind spinning. He tried not to breathe, struggling against the larger men.
Then his fingers found the distress cord and pulled—
But Master Klopp’s hands were already at the controls, spilling the Stormwalker’s pneumatic pressure. The whistle let out only a miserable descending wail, like a teakettle pulled from the fire.
Alek still struggled, holding his breath for what felt like minutes, but finally his lungs rebelled. He scooped in a ragged breath, the sharp scent of chemicals filling his head …
A cascade of bright spots fell across the instruments, and a weight seemed to lift from Alek’s shoulders. He felt as though he were floating free of the men’s grasp, free of the seat straps—free of gravity, even.
“My father will have your heads,” he managed to croak.
“Alas not, Your Highness,” Count Volger said. “Your parents are both dead, murdered this night in Sarajevo.”
Alek tried to laugh at this absurd statement, but the world twisted sideways under him, darkness and silence crashing down.