It is the height of the industrial revolution, and the Roman Empire has stood for thousands of years. Airborne fortresses and mechanically remade soldiers guard against threats outside the empire’s vast borders—even as it rots from the inside.
As an ambitious senator rises to power, and a mysterious agent plots the downfall of the gods, a motley crew of exiles assembles to stop the rising fascism of the state: an excommunicated Praetorian Guard, her remade muscle, a spy, a pilot, an ex-slave, and a noble boy disgraced, experimented on, and remade with a clockwork heart.
But smashing an authoritarian state is no simple fistfight in a taverna. Nor can one easily repair a machine that has been rusting for so long. As oppression takes hold across the Empire, the crew must find each other, find their fire, and find the agent known only as Servius—before he leads the world to destruction.
The Clockwork Empire will be out in the world on June 28! Add it to your tbr here. Pre-order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. You can also request The Clockwork Empire from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order for good.
Lucas J.W. Johnson is an author, game designer, and entrepreneur. He’s published several short stories, and is the founder of Silverstring Media Inc., a narrative design studio working primarily in videogames. Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game design, and emergent storytelling for his whole life, writing stories and running tabletop roleplaying games since he was young. With Silverstring Media, he has written several critically-acclaimed and award-winning games including Glitchhikers (finalist for Best Indie Game of 2014 at the Canadian Videogame Awards), Extrasolar (Indiecade finalist), and Timespinner. Lucas lives with his husband and cats in Vancouver, BC. You can find him online at his website, lucasjwjohnson.com, and on Twitter as @lucasjwjohnson.
When asked about this novel, Johnson said:
The Clockwork Empire is about a found family of disabled queer folk coming together to fight the rise of fascism in an alt-history steampunk world where the Roman Empire never fell. The novel came together from a handful of disparate stories that Fireside Fiction published over the years; it was a fun challenge to bring those threads together into a cohesive narrative, highly influenced by events in our world over the last little while... I hope it can offer some hope to folks in the face of overwhelming political and existential challenges.
An Exclusive Excerpt from The Clockwork Empire
Chapter 1: Blood
Remaker, Remaker, make me a key to these chains...
And in a way, he had.
Julian had woken to a faint tick, tick that he felt more than heard, and a pain that radiated from his chest throughout his body. And he’d woken to blood.
The doctor had stood over him, pensive, when he stirred. His smile, slowly breaking as he realized his success, was short-lived. Julian had lashed out instinctively, like a caged animal.
Now Julian stumbled through the streets of Rome. He was still addled by the poppy juice that had been slipped into his drink. He couldn’t remember where he was, which direction to run.
His mind may have still been addled, but the pain wasn’t being held back. His chest burned. Felt heavy.
He knew what was there, though he hadn’t yet let himself look. He’d wrapped a coat around himself when he ran out of the workshop. He’d run so far already.
And he wasn’t tired.
He’d run for blocks, past warehouses and tiny shops and people going about their business—had they stared at his passing? He didn’t know—and yet he wasn’t tired.
He finally stopped, down an alleyway. Dropped a bag on the ground—he’d grabbed it on his way out, stuffed it with papers and whatever was on the desk, some part of his mind needing supplies or evidence or something. He sank back against a wall.
But his breathing came slowly, calmly. No panting. No wheezing and rasping. No racing pulse from the run.
His hand moved instinctively to check his heartbeat, to feel for the telltale signs of a problem.
He recoiled when it touched warm metal.
When Julian was born, the only son of a family of landed nobles in the Southern Greek Province, one of the slave girls was also birthing a boy. The good timing, attributed by Matron Maria to the kindness of Juno, allowed the slave girl to be Julian’s wet nurse. Moreover, the family decided that her son would be Julian’s own servant. Soon after their births, though, Julian sickened, barely surviving a wracking pneumonia that left his body weak and his heart damaged.
He never fully recovered. He never grew strong, as he grew up.
So the slave boy Gaius became his guardian as well.
There was a window nearby, facing into the alley. Julian approached it slowly, his footsteps unsteady even as his blood pumped with such calm regularity.
The face in the reflection was sweaty, haunted. His hair ragged. A smear of blood on his cheek.
He didn’t care about that. Slowly, he opened the coat he’d thrown over himself.
His chest glinted brass back at him in the reflection. A finely hammered sheet of metal embedded in his thin body, fused with his flesh, covering his entire left side. A pressure gauge sat in place of his pectoral. A translucent window showed gears ticking methodically within, regulating the pumps and the release of steam that now powered him. Thaumaturgy moving through the fine systems.
A dribble of blood seeped from a seam where the metal met flesh. The edges were searing pain, the dulling of poppy wearing off.
Julian stared at it, the line of blood falling slowly down across his belly. He couldn’t look away.
Then he saw another face in the window. Inside. Staring.
Julian jumped, pulled the coat back over his chest, grabbed the bag off the ground, and ran.
What had they done to him?
He hadn’t wanted the doctor’s hands on him. Not after what he’d seen the doctor do. It had started innocently enough—but even then, there was always so much blood. Then the soldier. Then the children—Martin had tried to hide those. Julian had known.
But he’d had no escape.
Until now. Until the doctor had turned his attention to him.
Julian had known it was coming. He’d figured out what the goal was. What Servius wanted for him.
But the doctor’s hands were stained with blood that would never come out.
So Martin Fullius had slipped the poppy into his drink. And with it, the key to Julian’s cage.
He ran, and his heart did not tire.
The remaker had made Julian strong.
When they were children, they were always together. Gaius was a strong, active boy, but when Julian was forced to stay indoors for his health, Gaius stayed with him. They read, or played games together. They spent hours and days exploring the old tunnels beneath the villa, hiding from angry parents—or, more likely, servants and maids. They became friends immediately, never strayed from that friendship. To them, it didn’t matter that Gaius was a slave. Julian never ordered him around. He was a friend, and Julian treated him that way. He was part of the family.
To their parents, however, things were different. Julian’s mother would never let Julian forget who he was.
“You are the son of the Praefectus Meridianus Graecus, Julian. You are destined for great things. You have people who will do anything you ask because it is your right.” Then she’d turn to Gaius, sitting nearby. “Boy! It’s getting damp. Fetch Julian a blanket.”
Gaius had to obey.
But for Julian, he would have done it anyway.
The two boys schooled together along with the other noble children of the town. A tutor was hired from Italy to instruct them in the usuals: history, Latin, rhetoric, geography, mathematics, law. Julian was smart, taking quickly to philosophy, politics, and language, while Gaius more easily grasped the less theoretical subjects like geography and history. They each helped where the other lagged.
The boys helped each other in different ways as well.
“Hey, Julian! Come and play in the rain! Or won’t your slave boy let you?”
“He can’t. He’ll get sick and die if he gets wet.”
“Splash him, splash him!”
“I hear he even needs his little slave boy to wash him!”
Gaius had heard enough. “Bugger off!”
“Yeah? What’re you gonna do, slave boy? You hurt us, we’ll have you flogged!”
Gaius made a move to attack anyway, but Julian stopped him. “Gaius, don’t. They’re right. They’ll hurt you.” His breath rattled in his throat; his chest was starting to hurt.
Gaius stopped, but hurled words right back at the schoolboys. “Yeah, well, at least he has the help. Or do you like your little cloud of flies, Alex? And Helephes, I hear the Delphic Oracle predicted your birth—told your mother she’d have a new pig on the property!”
“Gaius—” Julian wheezed. The pain was increasing, like a vise around his small chest.
“No, they can’t say that and get away with it. Hey Quintus, how’s your dad? I hear he spends more time at the stables than his own bedchamber, but the boys there said it wasn’t for them. He buggering the horses, then?”
“I’ll show them,” Gaius began, then turned and saw Julian. He’d fallen to the ground, hand on his chest. He felt cold. He tried speaking again, but nothing came out.
Gaius’s eyes widened and he ran to Julian’s side. “Jules, you okay?” Julian tried to respond, but couldn’t. “Help! Someone get help!”
He felt a hand on his chest—Gaius feeling for a heartbeat.
As Julian began to slip into blackness, he felt Gaius begin to pound on his chest. “Beat, damnit!” Tears were in Gaius’s eyes. He leaned over, put his mouth to Julian’s, forced air into his lungs, pumped harder at his heart. “Come on, Jules! Come back to me!”
When the doctor arrived, running, Julian gave a gasp and began to breathe again. Gaius sank to the ground beside him, exhausted, held him close in relief. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
They were eleven.
But Julian was alone now. He had been for over a year. Since he was taken from his family, his home. Since Servius took him in.
He wondered what had become of Gaius. The boy who’d been with him his whole life. Disappeared into the aether when it all came crashing down.
Julian had been so powerless to stop it. He hoped he’d at least saved Gaius.
He continued to run through the alleyways of Rome, though his pace slowed now. He didn’t feel tired, wasn’t gasping for breath as even a long walk would have left him before. But his legs had started to hurt. They couldn’t keep up with the heart. Not yet.
He’d watched the doctor work on limbs. Helped, even. Learned the basics of thaumaturgical theory. He wondered what it would be like to replace his legs. He’d already replaced his heart. He could replace his whole body, become a machine.
Maybe then he’d forget the blood.
He almost ran right into a legionary.
“Whoa there, friend. What’re you running from?”
Julian froze. Were they looking for him? Had the doctor called the guard already? Had Servius found out what had happened?
He turned away, tried to keep moving. But the legionary grabbed his shoulder.
Julian panicked. Spun around. Lashed out at the soldier.
The man, twice Julian’s size with steel grafted to one arm, was pushed back hard, tripped over his own feet, and landed on his rear with a grunt.
Julian looked at his hands.
He was strong now. The thaumaturgical lacings that bound this heart to his flesh—it couldn’t work in a body that couldn’t keep up.
He looked at the stunned legionary.
And he ran.
The man called after him, but he didn’t stop, clutching his bag to his chest like it would hide the brass and steam from the world. He took turns at random, running carelessly through Rome.
He was strong in a way he’d never been before. He was alone, but he could protect himself now. Maybe he could survive, alone.
Then he emerged from an alley into bright sunlight. Crowds and voices and buildings towering over him.
He’d run into the Forum.
They were fifteen. Julian had harboured secret thoughts for months—thoughts he was “entitled” to but shrank from, unsure, unwilling to risk alienating his only friend.
“Jules?” A knock on his door. Gaius’s voice.
“Come in,” Julian called. He lay in bed still, naked under the covers, the curtains closed against the bright day. Shivers and sweats had been trading places through the night; he was finally feeling better, but he had no desire to leave bed yet, not if it meant facing other people.
He did want to get outside, though, and go to the shooting range his family had set up on the property. It was where he’d been when the bout of illness had hit, where he went when he felt most helpless. He abhorred the idea of violence, would never consider using a gun against anything but a target—but holding the pistol, practising at this one physical skill, gave him a sense of control. It was something he could do, something he was good at.
Gaius carried a tray into the room, glancing at Julian’s half-covered form before lowering his eyes. “The senator is here, visiting your parents,” he said. “He wishes you could join them.”
“Caesar’s shit,” Julian replied, slowly sitting up as Gaius approached. Gaius always knew when he was just prolonging his apparent recovery—not that he would tell anyone. “You know what they’re doing?”
“He’s here to discuss the local taxation policies with the praefectus, to talk about some new initiatives.” Gaius set the tray down on the bed, and finally looked at Julian. His eyes were soft, beautiful in his strong face.
“No,” Julian stated, ignoring the soup and cheese. “He’s extorting them. He’s making them pay him off so he can keep funding his little side projects. You know what he does? He researches perverse kinds of remaking, and tests it on slaves. He’s trying to make a personal army of steam-powered people, Gaius, and when he fails, he just throws the latest body in the junk heap and tries again.”
Gaius frowned, sat at the foot of the bed. “Why don’t your parents do something about it?”
“Like what? As soon as they try, he’ll punish them for it. He’ll dig up some obscure legislation and nail them with it. He has the power. They’re all corrupt in Rome.”
The two fell silent for a moment. Julian’s hand clenched reflexively, yearning for the familiar feeling of the pistol grip, before relaxing.
“Anyway,” Julian said, softening. “Thanks for not telling them I’m feeling better. I couldn’t face him.”
Gaius nodded. “Of course.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gaius,” Julian continued, almost to himself. “I couldn’t handle it all. You keep me... grounded.” He looked towards the windows, though the curtains were pulled shut. He wanted to say something else, something more... But he couldn’t ask for what he wanted. His words would always be a command. He suddenly felt very conscious of his nakedness.
He turned to look back at Gaius, saw Gaius looking at him, though he quickly turned away. He moved to stand up, but Julian grabbed his wrist.
Gaius turned. Julian was looking at him intently. Had he imagined that look?
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Julian said.
Gaius frowned. “About what?”
“Something has to be done to stop them. He can’t be allowed to keep on doing this. But I don’t know what I can do.” He felt empty all of a sudden, defeated, emotions flying between two extremes. “I pretend I’m better, I do my studies, I try to lead a normal life, but I can’t. I don’t have the strength. I can’t fix it!”
Gaius moved closer, put his hand on Julian’s arm. “We’re still young, Jules. You may not have the strength physically, but you have it deep down. You can make a difference in your life.”
Julian had looked away, and when he looked up at Gaius again, there were tears in his eyes. “I just don’t know how. I feel like I can’t do anything with this damned body!”
Gaius gathered Julian close, held him. “You can. You will. You have all the strength you need in that body.”
Julian’s heart pounded, and he looked up at Gaius.
Gaius looked down, then back into his eyes. “...I can show you.”
Julian wrapped his arms tighter around Gaius, and nodded into his shoulder.
As he learned, he had not been alone in his secret thoughts.
Someone touched his arm as they passed, and Julian recoiled.
Voices assaulted him from all sides as soapbox orators shouted their uninformed political opinions or tourist scams. The walls of the grand government buildings seemed to loom over him. The garishly painted marble statues of Emperor Geminius rose authoritatively over the proceedings, hand pointed into the sky where airships floated like lead clouds. The monorail screamed with steam and power, passing overhead towards the Colosseum. At the opposite end of the Forum, the Curia Julia, seat of the Senate, sat like a patriarch at the head of a table.
Julian backed away from it all, overwhelmed. His back hit a wall—he heard a soft clunk of metal against brick when it did.
The seat of power of Rome for so long, the place Julian had associated with everything wrong in the Empire. He’d only ever seen it once before Servius had brought him to Rome. That image had burned itself into his memory.
He remembered feeling powerless.
How could anyone do something against the sheer inertia represented by this grand scene?
Servius’s voice came to him. They’d been in Martin’s lab, watching the doctor at work.
“It’s always fascinated me, how remaking can take something so... imperfect as the human body, and make it... better,” Servius had said. “Take out what is weak or rotten, replace it with something infallible.”
Julian hated Servius’s views on remaking. The focus on trying to “fix” people. People weren’t “broken”—society was. But all he’d responded with was, “Even clockwork needs maintenance.”
“Yet so much easier to deal with than people. It follows rules. People are so subject to the whims of the gods...”
“It can’t fix everything,” Julian said. He’d said it bitterly. He’d thought of the corruption, of his parents. Of Gaius.
“Can’t it?” Servius asked. Then, “The Senate meets this month to determine new legislation for remaking. To discuss dropping some of their old regulations. Perhaps we shall see what clockwork can yet fix.”
Now Julian looked towards the Senate building. They’d be in session soon. Senators coming from all over the Empire. To discuss war and industry and power. Probably thinking of all sorts of ways to exploit the technology.
What could one person do against such power?
But Julian was strong now. Maybe he could make a difference somehow.
A clockwork walker pulling an empty pallet turned its lensed head towards him.
Julian turned suddenly, stumbling back towards the alley.
He couldn’t do something here, not now. He was being watched. Searched for. He’d escaped with Servius’s greatest work—
His mind stopped mid-thought.
He’d been the success the doctor had been working towards.
And now—he was a fugitive.
He had to get out of Rome.
If he was near the Forum, the train station wouldn’t be far away. Not with his newfound stamina. He broke into a run once more.
His legs were burning again by the time he got there. And his mind had started to burn with questions, problems, barriers. How would he get a ticket? He was surrounded by crowds again, but these people couldn’t care less about a bedraggled youth clutching a single bag. Julian found a small alcove, crouched to tear through the things he’d taken from Martin’s lab.
Papers, mostly. Notes he’d taken for Martin—and now taken from Martin. His clothes, taken off his poppy-unconscious body.
And then, a small bag that jingled lightly. Denarii.
He sighed in relief. He’d already started concocting ideas, plans to mug someone or steal what he needed. After all, he was strong now, physically. Part of him could have done anything to get out of here.
The other part was glad he wouldn’t have to.
He pulled out a shirt, wriggled out of the coat while trying to shield his body from the view of the crowds. Blood still oozed thickly from around the metal. His running was not helping the healing process.
He could rest soon. Once he got out of Rome. Once he got away from prying eyes...
The clicking of metal drew his attention. A clockwork crawler. A spy. Had it seen him? He threw the shirt on, pulled the coat back over to hide the bloodstains already seeping through cloth.
He had to get out of here.
He tried to compose himself. He didn’t know how successful he’d be. At least his heart didn’t race with nerves or exertion. He felt strangely calm, physically.
Mentally—well, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be calm.
He walked towards the ticket counter.
The soldiers arrived at the villa early, that morning. They knocked, demanding to be let in on order of Senator Vivarius. His parents began to scramble, gathering the slaves and servants, arming them, hiding them in case there was a fight.
Julian and Gaius heard the commotion from upstairs, where they clung to each other in bed. They were eighteen now.
“They did it,” Julian said. His voice trembled. “They finally struck back against him.”
A crash downstairs as the door burst open announced the entry of the soldiers. They heard yells, couldn’t make out what was said.
Julian and Gaius stumbled out of bed, grabbed clothes. “I told them it wouldn’t work,” Julian said, throwing on a tunic. “They’ll seize our assets, take everything from us.”
“What about you?” Gaius asked.
Julian went to the door, put his ear to it. “They’ll arrest my parents—probably execute them.” He tried to speak matter-of-factly, but his heart was pounding, tears springing to his eyes. “Any of the slaves who survive will be sold. They’ll likely insist our assets don’t cover everything, and anyone left will be put into indentured servitude. I’ve seen it before.”
Gaius looked horrified. “They can’t do that!”
“They can, and they will,” Julian said. In a sudden anger, he threw a lantern across the room with a clatter. “Damnit! Why can’t I stop them? Why do I have to be so useless?” It wasn’t even his heart holding him back now. What could he even do against the power of the Empire?
“You have to get out of here,” Gaius said.
Julian shook his head. “They’ll just chase us down, and then execute me when they catch us.” He turned, paused, looked at Gaius, and became thoughtful. “But you can get out. You don’t have to be a part of this.”
“What? I’m part of this family, too. I’ll stay with you. We’ll get through it together.”
“You’re my slave, Gaius!” Julian said. “You’ll be seized like the rest of the assets and sold!”
“Well, I can’t just leave. I’ll be killed! I’ll be a runaway—”
“No,” Julian interrupted. “You won’t be. I free you.”
“I’m freeing you! As of right now, I no longer own you. This family doesn’t own you. You’re free. You don’t have to go through this.”
“I can’t just leave you, Jules!”
“You have to. Or you’ll die. Just—please, promise me you’ll come back to me, someday.”
“I—” Gaius hesitated.
Julian didn’t want him to leave. To be left alone. But he had to save Gaius. There was no choice.
Julian smiled a bit, wryly, though tears were in his eyes. “I’ll make you come back if I have to.”
The train shook as it came to life. Julian huddled in a cabin, blessedly alone.
Alone. He was truly alone now. His parents had been taken away. He’d sent Gaius away. He’d run from Servius and Martin.
Everyone had left him.
All he had left was himself. And the endless ticking of his heart.