The furnace is hungry this night. See how the flames lick and devour. Ahh, hear how she roars. And outside! The wheels of the train scream out into the night sky where stars dance like shards of broken glass. From out front comes the spectral sapphire glow of conjured rails. Freedom to run!
Young Chester shovels peat and coal as the Chief Engineer cackles. A madman in the furnace room, the Chief.
“Keep on boy! Keep on!” The Chief paces restlessly. In one hand is his flask, in the other he waves his iron. “The sea, boy! We must reach it!”
Chester recites a silent prayer to St. Stockton. Prays for this trip to be a success. It had begun as a rescue, an escape from the seas and bondage. But now? Now he is a disciple. An acolyte to the rails. And this was to be their final pilgrimage.
Over the intercom, Captain Bezentine’s voice is a static thing. “May steel guide us tonight,” she says. “Gunners to the roof! Chief, full power to the engines! There’s an Imperial god on our tail and naught but darkness ahead!”
An Imperial god? So, not a mission then. But desertion.
Chester imagines the captain in her chamber. Glass of brandy in hand. A record, something sad, spinning beside her. Decadent, plush upholstery. Everything in crimson reds, of course. And mounted on the wall: her coat of arms. Cavalry sabre in its ornate sheath, its golden basket hilt sparkling in the lantern light. And her rifle. A repeater. Custom made by Old Bellwhistle himself. Dark oak stock. Gold inlay. Boxes of witching cartridges stacked neatly on the shelf beside. Even with just the one eye now, the captain is a crack shot.
The report of rifles from above interrupts Chester’s dreaming.
And are those the screams of dying guards? Or is it just a trick of his mind? Chester shovels and shovels and shovels.
His muscles protest with each fling of peat. But the engine is hungry and the engine must be fed.
What cargo is worth this exile? What cargo is worth this cost?
The day before this final ride, the crew met at the Wrought Iron Pub. It sits nestled beneath the busy streets of Highmarket, and if one does not know to look for the rusting cog hammered into the pub’s door, it would look no different than any other basement rat-hole.
It was an Irregulars’ bar. Train battalions, sappers, mercenary wings, hedge mages, and more gathered there in the dim light to drink and swap stories and complain, like all soldiers do.
On this day though, the day before the Horizon ran, the doors of the Wrought Iron were locked to all those but the train’s crew.
Pints were poured on the captain’s coin. As always, she enjoyed a glass of wine as red as her jacket. War stories were swapped. The Chief hauled his considerable girth upon a tabletop and reenacted some battle from a campaign fought in his youth. By the time he had reached the climax, he held a waiter in a headlock with one arm and was guzzling from a pitcher with his free hand.
When the Chief returned to his chair amid raucous applause, the captain raised a gloved hand into the air.
The room silenced.
“Enjoy your drinks. Enjoy one another’s company. Tomorrow, we are leaving.”
Looks of confusion abounded. Just days ago, they had returned from a months-long voyage. Chester had just gotten rid of his rail-legs. Had just gotten used to the feeling of a ground that wasn’t constantly moving forward.
“Another mission?” a gunner asked.
“Yes,” the captain said. “Our last.”
The crew openly murmured now. Last? The Horizon was a legendary locomotive, a symbol of the Empire’s iron might. To retire it made no sense. Chester placed his small beer down in front of him.
“Tomorrow, we ride for the sea and we do not return. Likely ever. If that is not for you, then I apologize for taking a choice away. For if you stay here, you will be branded a traitor. You will be hunted down. And you will be hung from the windows of Mason’s Square.”
Hard glances abounded. The drinking turned serious.
“The sea,” the captain said. “We make west for the sea.”
“And then?” A voice from the crowd.
“Yes,” the captain said. “And then.”
“Chief!” the captain’s voice again crackles to life through the voice pipe.
“Here!” The Chief jams a meaty fist on the response button.
“Young Chester. Send him forth.”
“Right, on the double then Chester.”
“What?” he asks. “Huh?”
“Good thing we don’t pay you to do the thinking around here. Your captain calls. You go.” The Chief holsters his iron and snatches the shovel from Chester’s hands.
Chester makes to protest, but the Chief holds up a hand and cuts him off.
“You’re new, as far those things go. You’ve never seen her truly angry. You do not want to be the one who makes her angry. Trust me.”
Chester nods and opens the door at the back of the engine car. Pauses outside, an interloper between worlds. The dirge of rifle-fire fills the night. Ozone and cordite ride the wind. Lightning arcs and thunder reverberates beneath a cloudless sky. The Horizon’s engine-elemental roars back.
The captain’s car is usually locked, and those traversing from the rear of the train to the cab are expected to use the small wrought iron balcony that skirts around the car to get to their destination.
This night though, the captain’s door is unlocked.
Chester steps inside, and this war is left behind.
The captain is loading shells into her repeater. There is no brandy. No record playing some dirge. Just a woman loading her rifle.
“Chester,” she says and looks at him with her one eye, her hands continuing to load with practiced precision. “You’re how old now, boy?”
“Thirteen,” he says.
Her eye narrows.
“Next month, that is.” And then he adds, realizing he’s forgotten, “Captain.”
“Old enough. I remember the day we pulled you off that rotting excuse for a privateer,” the captain says and nods. “Rails over water. Dangerous. But we sunk her, and saved you.” Lightning flashes and thunder rattles the train. Chester sees something in his captain that he has never seen before: doubt. Maybe a bit of fear.
She takes something from around her neck. A key on its silver chain. Hands it to Chester.
“Go to the secured cargo car. It is freshly ensorcelled. Stay inside until this is over.” She places the rifle down on her divan and sets to tying her sword belt. “When it’s over, lead the survivors to Carson’s Landing. There’s an awful little man there who works as the harbormaster. You’ll find him skulking around the docks. I’ve bought a ship. A little cutter loaded with provisions and a few crates of silk and spice. Tell the harbormaster what happens here. He’ll honor our contract.”
“Captain,” Chester says. “I want to—”
“An order, Chester.” Her voice grows hard. She stands and takes her sword belt from the wall. “Now go. Before I lose my temper.”
Chester nods and leaves the captain’s car opposite the way he entered but not before chancing one more glance back.
The captain sits back in her chair with her head in her hands. One silent sob racks her body. Then she is up and out, swinging onto the ladder and ascending to the roof of her car.
Chester makes his way through the Horizon’s dining and bunk cars. They are empty but left in sudden disarray. Here a half-eaten hunk of bread. There an unmade cot. A place of ghosts, it seems to Chester.
But then cannon-shot resounds from above. The crack of lightning and percussion of thunder. Not ghosts, then. Vengeful spirits. Furies.
Chester steps out between a dining car and the cargo car. Glances up at the sky. Sees something there. Something too-large and serpentine and cutting through the air as if mocking the natural way of things. In the east, the sky is turning grey.
The god glows a faint coruscating blue. Chester can feel the hair on his head rise. Sparks shower from above down like snow flurries.
He digs the key from his pocket and unlocks the cargo car. Sees no valuable cargo. No golden trinkets from far-away empires, no rune-blades forged of cold iron, no elementals bottled and chained and howling in servitude.
Only scared eyes. Snot-smeared faces. Children. Small. Thin. Alone.
From above lightning arcs from the beast. The train jumps on tracks that shimmer in and out of existence. Loses speed. Wobbles. More sparks drift down. Chester enters the car. Locks the door behind him as darkness rushes in and thunder shakes the world and the Horizon dies.
The world turns upside down, and Chester knows that the train has gone off the tracks, that the fire has failed, which means the Chief has failed.
Chester’s body slams into those of the children. He feels elbows knock into the side of his face. Tastes blood. Gets kicked in the groin. But the walls of the car? Those that should be buckling and splintering with each impact, and if not buckling then splattering the bodies of Chester and these children inside? It gives. It cushions their tumbles. It’s not near as soft as a bed, but it’s enough.
When the rolling stops, Chester lies there for a while. His head hurts. His ribs hurt. His heart hurts.
Children sob and cry and the sound grinds on his nerves like the squeal of a rusted break.
“Shut it!” he hollers.
They cry louder. Chester rubs at his eyes and rises to his knees.
“Hush,” he says. “I’m sorry I yelled. But I need to think. Hush.”
Those close to him quiet down. Soon this spreads among the rest of them until only the occasional sniffle and sob fills the darkness.
“Okay,” Chester says. “Okay.” From the split-second he saw of the children, they were young. But they weren’t infants. Four years old, perhaps? Five? Chester hasn’t spent a lot of time around children, so he isn’t sure.
“You’re old enough to talk?” he asks.
“He thinks we’re babies,” says a high-pitched voice from the darkness.
“We’re not,” another says. “I’m seven!”
“Fine,” Chester says. He takes a deep breath. “I want you all to stay in here while I go outside and see if it’s safe.”
“You’re not our dad!” Another voice from the dark.
“Our dads are dead.”
“Our moms too.”
“Stockton’s Whistle,” Chester mutters. He moves through a garden of bodies until he feels the cool ensorcelled steel of the car’s wall. As he slowly makes his way around looking for the door, he thinks of the captain and the day she took him. The day she saved his life. She had broken the law. There were to be no prisoners in the Pirate Wars. None. Yet, she pulled him from the water herself. In those eyes, Chester saw compassion for the first time. She still had two eyes those days.
He finds the latch for one of the doors, thankful that the car did not land on its end and leave one door blocked by the ground and the other unreachable in the air.
Grey dawn light slants in as Chester opens the door. He looks back at the children, not quite ready to step out into whatever awaits him outside.
He sees it then. Doesn’t know how he missed it before. The white shocks of hair. The tribal tattoos that climb their bodies like flowering blue vines. Outlanders, then.
The gears of Chester’s mind slide into place.
The captain has saved these children from a life of slavery or worse. They had heard news of the Emperor’s edict upon their return to the capital. All outlanders, those nomads of the hills and plains, were to cease their wandering immediately under threat of death. An easy scapegoat for the Empire’s recent economic woes and food shortages.
Most tribal groups made reluctant camp. Which left it all too easy for Imperial legionnaires to round up the adults and execute them. The children were taken back to the capital for, as the high councilors put it, processing, reeducation, and blessed servitude in the noble houses.
Servitude. Chester knew what horrors that word portended.
How had the captain secreted so many away? How had she done it unnoticed? And at what cost? At what damned cost?
As authoritatively as he can manage, Chester says, “Stay here. I’ll be back.”
If there was a Hell beneath, like the Chief had always said there was, then Chester has found it among the wreckage of the Horizon.
Fires—the fading remnants of their engine-elemental—burn. Metal is twisted and snapped. Dead and dying crew are scattered like a child’s toys left upon the floor.
He wanders among the wreckage. Does his best not to look at the faces of the dead. At his friends and family. He tries to focus instead on the yellow grasses and ice-heaved boulders of the Imperial hinterlands. He fails.
Chester finds the captain dying, slumped against the side of the engine. She runs a gloved hand over its silver flank and leaves a streak of blood, muttering something about gears and grades and smoke.
Chester tries not to look at the metal rod jutting from her chest. He tries to give her water from his canteen, but she just sputters and chokes and froths and dies.
Her sabre is nearby. Snapped near the hilt. The scabbard is nowhere to be seen.
Chester tears a length of his shirt and wraps his captain’s sword in it.
He walks numbly back towards the cargo car and children. You weren’t supposed to outlive your entire family.
He gathers the children.
They find the god that had chased down the Horizon. It is dead, its many-eyed visage pocked with bullet holes and cannon wounds. Electricity yet crackles and arcs from its many still-undulating tendrils, filling the air with the smell of ozone.
Its girth and size are staggering; at thrice as wide and many times as long as the Horizon’s largest cars, Chester must crane his neck to look upon its face.
Do the gods rot? Chester wonders. He hopes they do.
They wander westward from that hell.
What else can they do but walk? What else can he do but lead?
They leave the hinterlands. Leave behind those ice-heaved boulders and yellow grasses. The grief though, that stays.
The land slopes upwards as they enter the thick pine forests. Some complain that their legs hurt, that they miss their home, that they want to sit down and stop and give up.
Chester rubs his eyes. His head pounds with dehydration—he gave what remained in his canteen to the children—and they have leagues to travel still. Leagues. He turns. Opens his mouth to speak. One of the children beats him to it.
“Keep walking,” she says. She’s bigger than most of the others. Her broad shoulders and sturdy frame are the perfect trellis for her wandering tattoos. “Keep moving. Your parents didn’t die for you to give up here!”
Chester nods. This one, he’ll watch. A bit of the Chief in this one.
Late that evening, they find a creek and drink deep. The water is cold and tastes like minerals.
They build a fire and huddle close together.
Chester has done his best not to think of his friends. Especially the Chief. But now, he can’t help it. He turns from the fire, a great sob racking his body. It’s not fair. None of it.
“Tell us a story, Chester.” A small hand tugs at his shirt.
“Leave me alone,” Chester says. “This is your fault.”
The hand lets go of his shirt.
Chester tries not to cry. He knows the Chief would tell him to stay strong for the children. But thinking this makes him hurt more, makes him curl up on the dirt and cry until snot runs from his nose and his head pounds.
He feels a bit better when he’s done this, so he gets up and rejoins the children at the fire.
They sit together and watch the fire burn down to embers.
For two more days, they travel through the hills and woods, always west. Their stomachs are painful knots of hunger; the only food they find to forage are smattering small, hard pine nuts that sit like rocks in their stomachs.
On the third morning, they leave the forest and see farmland and the walls of Carson’s Landing, and beyond it the sea. After days of browns and dark greens and greys, the sparkling blue of the sea is a diamond, a sapphire.
They arrive at the city-state’s gates sometime after noon. The Empire’s flag does not fly here. Yet. The children, Chester hopes, will be safe.
It doesn’t take Chester and the children long to wend their way through the city’s alleys and streets and to the docks.
The piers smell like dead fish and brine, and for Chester, the smells bring back memories, not all of them pleasant. Days spent on ships sewing the rigging, emptying chamber pots, and cooking stews for men who clouted him when he did wrong. Or when he did right and they were in a bad mood.
He doesn’t miss that.
The cutter is a beautiful little ship. A spry young lady in comparison to the lumbering cargo vessels and ships-of-the-line that she is nestled between. She sits light on the water, and her furled sails hold the promise of speed. The captain knew how to pick her vessels.
Chester finds the harbormaster easy enough among the seething bustle of stevedores and sailors. He is a rotund little man—indeed, a head shorter than Chester—with a face like a prune, but he struts like someone used to getting his way. Two armed bodyguards in chain flank him.
Chester and the children stand in their path.
“Best get out of my way before I knock you orphans into the bay. The eels are always hungry,” the harbormaster says.
“Captain Bezentine said to find you here, that she bought a boat from you, and you would—”
The harbormaster snickers. “You know, I don’t like liars. And I especially don’t like liars who consort with tattooed savages.” He nods at the guards. “Toss him and as many of the other brats as you can catch in.”
The guards smile and step forward.
Chester unwraps his captain’s sword from its swaddling. The guards’ smiles vanish as their hands go to their own blades.
A hush spreads among the nearby stevedores. There’s no mistaking that golden basket. The harbormaster raises a hand and stays the blades of his guards. He reaches for the golden basket hilt, stops his hand before touching it.
“It really is hers,” he says quietly. “So she’s...”
Chester nods sadly. “The boat? It’s ours to take?”
“Ha!” The harbormaster’s shrill laugh reminds Chester of the bark of some vermin-dog. “She is dead. As far as I’m concerned, the contract is voided.” A hungry smile spreads across the harbormaster’s face. He claps his hands on the backs of his guards. “Tonight, boys, tonight we get drunk. Drunk enough that even the women in this town start to look good! We shall raise our mugs to the corpse of that insufferable she-captain!”
“But...” Chester begins. “That’s not—”
The harbormaster sighs and turns to his guards. “Take the hilt. We can melt the gold. Then into the harbor with the whole pack of them.”
“Run!” Chester commands. They scatter, ducking beneath the grasping arms of the guards, bounding over crates of this and that, and are gone into the twisting alleys of Carson’s Landing.
Once they’ve found each other a few hours later, Chester leads the children on a scramble to the roof of a raucous pub on the edge of the harbor. The sound of clinking glass, riotous laughter, and belted shanties rises from open windows.
The sounds of the pub make him miss the Wrought Iron and the crew of the Horizon. Chester feels hopeless and adrift, like his whole life has gone off the rails.
There are so many of the children, and just one of him. They look at him with expectant eyes and hold hands to hunger-gnawed bellies.
Perhaps come nightfall they can pilfer scraps from the pub’s kitchen. But darkness is hours away and they are hungry now. What would the captain do? The Chief?
Chester looks down at the sword hilt still clutched in his hands. “How about I tell you a story? To pass the time. A story of a woman who saved my life by breaking Imperial law.”
As he begins his tale, an idea forms in his head. Bold, crazy, and reckless.
They wait until night falls, until the harbormaster and his strongmen are deep in their cups—Chester spotted the trio two bells past entering the very pub on which they were perched.
Chester asks the girl from before, the one who kept the others moving, her name.
“My parents called me Starlight.”
“Well, Starlight,” Chester says, “you’re my new Chief Engineer. You know anything about grades? Gears? Navigation?”
She looks ready to cry at the question.
“No matter. We’ll teach you.” Chester taps his chest. “It’s what’s in here that matters anyways, when it comes to being Chief. In any case, Chief certainly didn’t have it up top. I have a job for you, Starlight.”
“Pick the child best suited to thievery. Have them pilfer a bottle of wine or brandy from the tavern. Nothing more. We will eat soon, and I don’t want any unnecessary risks. Tell our thief to meet us at the docks when they’ve done it. Got it?”
She nods and immediately pulls aside a scrawny young thing who is all legs and arms. Whispers in their ear.
Chester gathers the rest of the children in front of him and explains his plan.
Minutes later, they slip from the pub’s roof under the cover of night and make their way back to the docks. They stay low and move with the quiet grace possessed of all furtive children. A patrol of guards, with their jangling armor and too-bright lanterns, never sees them as they sidle up next to the cutter and leap over the bay and onto her deck.
The captain’s blade may be broken, but what steel that remains is sharp. Chester slices through the moorings effortlessly.
Small figures scamper fore and aft.
From the ship’s wheel, Chester relays orders to Starlight, explaining what must be done. In turn, she shouts them on to the crew. The Chief lives on.
The thief appears aside Chester so stealthily that he didn’t see them board. Chester nods thanks and takes the bottle of wine. Red, he notes.
“Join the others,” Chester says.
“Aye captain,” the thief responds. The title makes Chester feel embarrassed and mournful, but he does not correct his thief.
The sails unfurl with a whispered sigh and catch the wind. Chester feels the rest of that old nautical knowledge coming back to him.
The cutter slices through the water, leaving the docks and city lights behind.
Guards shout. There is a clamor from the shore. A pair of crossbow bolts whistle and splash well-short of the boat. Starlight looks nervous, and then cackles as Chester tells her that there is not a chance any of those bloated merchant vessels or ponderous warships will catch their lithe lady. They’ll sail west, Chester decides. He’s studied Imperial maps. He knows the trade routes. It’ll take years to raise enough capital to buy a good locomotive. But if there’s one thing Chester’s new crew has on their side, it is youth.
Chester shatters the bottle of pilfered wine against the hull of the ship as he anoints her New Horizons.
Casks of water are broached. Crates of hard bread and salted fish are cracked open.
Cannons are loaded with half powder. Once they’ve reached a safe distance, Chester instructs his crew to light the fuses. They’ll give the captain her salute. They’ll wake the damned city up. Ha! Enjoy the hangover, you rat-faced harbormaster!
Smell the sea on the wind! Feel the spray of the sea! Stockton’s Whistle! Hear those cannons thunder! The Horizon runs again!