The Stars Above & The Soil Below
Beyond the walls of the valley, the mountains began, piercing and stoic, monolithic in their sloping shoulders, with the great western sea farther on and all the curiosity and doom that came with it. Between the cliffs, the desert was long and dry, stretching forever for those trapped without relief, beaten by the twin suns. The driftgrass spiraled up towards the harsh sun, begging for mercy. Clifford dug his heels into the black mare beneath him, prodding the beast on as they raced towards the horizon. Each step brought him closer to the steel-roofed plaza that sat alone in the far distance.
Looking back, he saw the gang behind him, gaining ground, hollering in the afternoon air. He turned forward and leaned down, pressing his body against the slick back beneath him, trying to make the wind go over him faster. He heard a crack and saw a clump of dirt off his right shoulder explode, sending shards of golden quartz into the air. He wasn’t used to gunplay. There was a second crack and his horse fell out from underneath him, her legs crumpling into the hard ground. This went south fast, he thought.
Flying through the air, he thought back for a moment to how he’d slipped up. He’d needed money to get back to the coast and thought he could milk a quick game of keelback at the local tavern. The dealer had been holding onto a second set of dice and when Clifford tried to force the man to admit it, he realized the gang surrounding him was in on the rig. The leader had realized Clifford’s gift, seeing through his weak protestations and pleadings for fair play. He’d seen the far away look that Clifford got when he looked beyond. Broken bottles and a flipped table had gotten him out of the bar with a headstart, but it was all coming to an end.
Landing on his right shoulder, Clifford heard the bones break and the muscles tear. White pain shot across his eyes, offset by the adrenaline of the chase. He clambered up, crawling on his knees and his one good arm. He could see the shadow of the pavilion in the distance. He didn’t dare look back at his pursuers, every ounce of his being straining for the darkness and safety of the structure.
Far off, miles away to the north on the Taik Plateau, he knew the desert tribes would be there. In their constructed tongue, they called the formation the Table of the Away From, the highest point they knew of in their world, but shied away from direct conflict, preferring night reiving and lightning raids, yet if a group could come now, could just happen to pass by the haven, Clifford knew that he could convince them to fight for him. It would only take a small show of his gift to turn them, but the desert was silent beyond the gang, the basin empty except for coyotes and hares and they were no good to him now. He thought he could just see the ruins of Fort Annan to the west, but he knew the refuge was abandoned, just a shell from the war.
The ground rumbled beneath him, hollow and eternal. He could hear the other horses’ footsteps, louder, overlapping with each other, thundering over the desolate hamada of Kydington. He pulled himself forward with his left arm, tan dust covering his beard, clinging to the sweat of his forehead. The men yelled at their horses, brought them to a halt behind Clifford. He could feel their movements in the air, the hooves reverberating through the ground. His arm slid under the shadow of the steel roof. The stones were cool. The men yelled amongst each other, dismounting in a hurry.
Clifford’s fingers grasped the mottled cobblestones surrounding the blue flagstone of the floor. He rolled sideways past the threshold, tumbling over his destroyed shoulder. He winced. His body entirely inside the haven, he lay still for a second, his eyes closed. The structure was spare, fifty feet across by thirty feet back. It was kept clean, but probably by the wind since there were no flowers or bundles of branches that were usually left by local keepers. Havens were often forgotten when the nearby caretakers died or the surrounding towns closed as mines were tapped or rivers ran dry.
On the ground, he tried to remember the geography of the area from the map he’d seen on the wall of the tavern, but it all slipped away in the pain. I got ahead of myself, he thought, clutching his arm. His chest throbbed from the fall.
The footsteps in front of him stopped. “Get up,” one of the men said.
He pulled himself up using one of the great chestnut posts that supported the roof. He looked at the men across the cobblestone line. Haggard, unkempt. He knew they were highwaymen, but of what background, what cause, he was unsure. He looked at the one he thought was the leader. Their eyes locked. “I invoke safe haven under the Treaty of Ceton and the customs of the West,” he told the group.
The leader looked at one of his men, a slow smirk pulling at his face. “Those laws are for men. Made by men for the protection of other men. Is this a man before us?”
“Some kinda damn freak,” one of other men shouted.
“Paulson here says you’re a monster. I’m inclined to agree. Tell us about that trick you did back at the keelback table.”
The pain in Clifford’s arm caused it to begin shaking violently. He almost tipped over in pain. He thought about pretending to faint. If he could only look away for a second, he could peer into the group without them seeing his eyes turn.
“I’ve heard about kinds like you before. Too damn close to the cities swallowed up by the Glow.”
It was nothing like that at all, Clifford thought. He hadn’t been anywhere near the destruction. He set himself to speak, but was cut off by a train whistle squealing far away into the Esther Cut, the thin, curtained opening that led into the valley. Clifford knew it was his chance, but even still, he paused for a moment to remember the locomotives of his childhood as they roared across the country, his salvation from the wary crowds, the leering suspicions of those around him. The trains were the highest operating minor goods left in the world and they’d always held an interest for him, while others his age had been drawn to the mysterious hulking ruins and broken devices of the greater goods.
Pushing the thoughts aside, he closed his eyes. He tried to keep his head in the direction of the train like the other men, but once he was under he could guarantee nothing. Suddenly, his eyes fluttered open, his pupils now the deep green of spring rosemary. He turned his other vision towards the six men, their bodies only thin lines of haze, thicker outlines showing the denser objects that hung around them. The first man carried nothing, not even a knife. The second had only his military-issued shortsword and a small dirk. The third and fourth, leaning against their horses in the back, had their sabers on their packs on the opposite sides of their steeds. They weren’t used to fighting. The one called Paulson had a large clip-point knife on his hip.
The leader held the pistol. Guns were scarce, Clifford thought. Minor goods from the old days. Most had been collected and destroyed and those left behind were made inoperable from the dwindling supplies of powder. He hadn’t personally seen one in years. He looked over the rest of the leader’s body and opened his eyes as the train whistle tapered off.
The leader took a step closer. He saw the ragged gear tattoo on the inside of Clifford’s wrist. “It’s a shame,” the highwayman said. “All those trains you’ve got going, all that progress you’ve supposedly made. You damn industrialists. It’s all lost when the sea rises, unless we get a president that’ll leave the Dome to come help us. This one we got now, he’ll get his.”
Clifford thought he could soften the men by talking. “Nobody’s seen the president in years. What could happen to him?”
“They have to move him, right? Summer and winter, north and south, Dome and Stamen.” The man stared off into the distance and pretended to pull the trigger. “Pow!”
Clifford thought of the old newspaper articles that had come out after the migrations. The presidential palaces were great public works projects to protect the government in case of another disaster. The Winter House in the south, bright and open for summer sojourns, called the Stamen for its unusual leaning vertical towers. The Summer House far to the north, hunkered low in the taiga, nicknamed the Dome for its hardened surface. He’d never been to them, but surely they must be impenetrable.
“It can’t be that easy. They must have decoys, shades, routes that double back.”
“There’s more than the six of us in the movement, you fool.”
Clifford knew his goodwill was gone. He slid down the chestnut post, his back straight as he held his broken arm with the good one. Blood had stained his shirt and ran down his wrists.
“Let’s get him and get out of here, Jackie,” Paulson said as he pulled his blade out. He softly fingered the edge.
Jackie held the man back with his arm. “One minute,” he told his comrade. He turned to Clifford. “It’s a revolution. Everything’s too far gone, too far away from what we once were. Stagnant and withered and useless. Too much pity leftover from the Glow.”
Clifford sat up straight. “You waste all these words about men, real men. But you haven’t even told your gang here about your fake—”
The leader hit Clifford in the face with the handle of the pistol. He reached into the front pocket of the injured man’s jacket and pulled out three falcons, seven kites, and an eagle. The other men in the crew peered over to inspect the find.
Clifford look up at Paulson, a step behind Jackie. His eyes were wild. “Let me get him, come on, come on, lemme get him,” he said to the leader as he oiled his knife in the dying suns.
Jackie stooped to one knee, eye to eye with the quickly fading man. “I think you ain’t right. I’m a man of my word and I’ll tell you that right off. But in our field, we could make use of someone like you. Would you come work with us? Ten ospreys a week, plus a cut of whatever we take.”
Clifford swallowed some of the blood in his mouth. Past the shoulder of the leader, he could see a carving on one of the posts. “Kiko, Stay Positive,” it read. He wondered how Kiko was doing. He exhaled long and hard, swallowing the pain of his arm and all the knowledge within. “If your plan is to overthrow the government, end this president, I wouldn’t fucking join you for all the eagles in the world. That water rising, hell, you think it’s just flooding you have to worry about. You take out the command, there’s nothing that can protect you from the depths. All while the suns pull apart. You’ve already lost. Just let me here, it ain’t like I’ll follow you.” He nodded towards the body of the horse crumpled behind them in the sand.
“I tried to give you a chance,” Jackie said to him as he stood up. From his own pocket, the leader pulled a purple hyacinth flower and placed it on the injured man’s forehead. He nodded to Paulson.
“I’m just wanting to die in peace,” Clifford said. When he’d closed his eyes and looked the other way, he’d seen the tear below his heart and now he felt the blood rushing into his chest. The impact had been too forceful and he was too far from the town for any help. He turned to see Paulson rushing towards him. Behind the short man, a gnarled yucca tree rose into the sky. A flock of crested flycatchers swooped through the air in one body, their entire form settling onto the bare branches. This is a nice way to go, Clifford thought.
The short man was perched on his knees in front of Clifford. He took the knife and turned it, holding the pommel with both hands. In his eyes were pure madness, bloodlust of the highest order. “Yes, yes, yes,” Paulson softly said to himself as he pushed the knife closer.
Clifford looked directly into the man’s eyes as the knife blade entered his thin shirt. He began whispering to himself. “The stars above and the soil below. The stars above and the soil below.” The steel glistened. It seemed almost wet to Clifford as he looked down at his chest. He turned his eyes back to the sky. “The stars above and the soil below. The stars above and the soil below.”
A small red dot formed on the surface of the cotton shirt. The short man pressed harder. “The stars above and the soil…” Clifford trailed off. Paulson pushed the knife in up to the hilt. Standing up, he laughed in excitement at the killing. As he bent to pull the knife out, the world went silent for a moment. There was a great whooshing of air in towards the dead man on the flagstone floor and as the men stood there frozen, a blinding white light exploded from inside the haven.
The dust hung in the air a moment before settling. Belts and knives and gold teeth fell to the ground, the bodies that held them obliterated by the flash. The pistol clattered softly onto the sand. The horses had been farther away and galloped off separately into the horizon. One of the flycatchers called into the bleak expanse and the flock took off into the setting sun.
All around the haven, the gold of the desert seemed to take on a majestic air, and beyond, the cliffs and mountains surrounding the valley changed, as well—taller, nobler, content with being the only eternal watchers of the turmoil below.
Far away, the rain stopped. Ruth sighed and folded her arms. The doctor, ancient in his wisdom and soft in his words, stood up and place his hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to her. He picked up his worn leather bag from the side table. “I’ll have someone come to help you.”
Ruth, vacant, stared out the window and swallowed hard. It seemed strange for it to be morning. Things like this, they should happen at night, she thought. “No, I’ll do it,” she said. She reached into her pocket, trying to find anything to pay the man with. He grabbed her shoulder and turned his head.
The doorframe shook as he left. The whole house seemed so empty and quiet. A bird chirped outside. Ruth sat on the edge of the bed. It had taken nine years, almost a third of her life, but her mother was finally gone. She felt a great weight lifted from upon her. Her back straightened and she lifted her chin. There would be no more crying, no more caring for another, no more belittling or sadness. Wrapping the woman’s small frame in the same sheet she died in, Ruth was able to carry her mother down the oak stairs of the old farmhouse and out into the back yard.
The ground was still wet with dew as she set her the body down. From the porch, Copper, her brown retriever, followed her solemnly, aware of the heaviness of the morning. Ruth walked to the shed and got a shovel, throwing it over her shoulder in the slanting morning sunslight. The autumn ground was soft as she slipped the tip of the shovel into the soil beneath her favorite hickory tree, the leaves loaded down with yellow slivers of leaves. Soon, winter would come and the ground would freeze, entombing her mother in the soil until the roots of spring could take hold.
Copper sat atop one of the piles of slowly-accumulating dirt. Ruth could hear over the fence her neighbors hanging laundry and emptying trash cans, but she didn’t bother to walk over to tell them. She didn’t want to see anybody that she didn’t want to see. The piles of earth grew taller. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. Calf deep in the cut, she looked over and saw Copper gnawing on his paw. She rubbed his head and climbed up out of the hole. No words came to her as she dragged the body into the grave feet first. It seemed so subdued to her, more quiet than moving a body should have been.
She walked back to the shed and pulled an axe from the hook on the wall. Her arms were tired from digging and she simply dragged it back to the grave, the steel head clinking as it hit the rocks and pebbles of the yard. She stared at the body in the sheet. There was nothing left to say. Don’t stand out, she could remember her mother always saying to her. Don’t stand out.
Hefting the axe above her head, she came down hard with the mighty steel blade upon the top of the sheet. The shock reverberated through her arms. A spot of soft crimson wicked up through the cotton. With her foot, she pressed the handle down towards the body instead of pulling it out. There was no use in removing it.
“Move, Copper,” she said to the dog, flinging the piles of dirt back into the earth. She wondered if the dog knew anything was different, but then realized he must. His eyes said so much. When the soil sat only a few inches higher than it had in the morning, Ruth stuck the shovel into the ground and walked back to the house, the dog nipping at her heels.
Don’t stand out, she could hear her mother saying. She’d hated that, hated fading away into the world, hated the grey and the dull and the forgotten. Taking care of her mother had forced her not to stand out. It had been imposed on her from afar, by the decaying family line she’d inherited. Nobody had been here to help her, nobody had come to shoulder the burden that had been her’s for so long as her youth quietly drifted away.
Wiping her boots on the porch, she opened the yellow birch door and glided up the stairs to her room, so much lighter than she’d felt in years. She could still feel the house encroaching upon her, yet her sanctuary at the end of the hall stood vigilant, protecting her. She’d only been able to steal small scraps of time at night to slip away and enjoy her own privacy while her mother slept, but now, as she looked over the shelves of books, she felt the whole world beckoning from beyond the four walls.
She fingered the paper and leather spines on the shelf. It would be a shame to leave them all behind. Waiting for the mail to arrive, packages from the houses on the far coast or traders from other towns, had been the light of her life. This was how she’d learned of the world, how to talk, ways to get by, what people her age did. She packed them into a box and took them down to the sidewalk for somebody to find.
Returning upstairs, she grabbed a duffel bag from her closet and filled it with a few bits of clothing for her journey. There were a handful of photographs of her parents in their youth that she placed inside a small wooden box along with a notebook, pens, and a folding knife. She opened her window and let the air in. The sharp spice of the firs along Kiyada Lake weaved its way through the air from the west.
Sitting on the edge of her bed, she watched the late morning sun rise over the rooftops along the street. Wisps of smoke rose from her neighbor’s houses, dimly making a mark against the great blue of Mount Azerac to the northwest and the spire of the fractured greater good behind it. She pulled her camera from the drawer and took a photograph, including the frame of her window and the curtains her mother had sewn all those years ago, capturing forever the view she’d never have again.
“Come on,” she said, standing up. The pair bounded down the stairs. Ruth took his leash off the brass hook on the wall before stepping outside. She looked up to see the trolley ahead of her. “Just missed it, Cop.” She stretched her arms up, knowing the walk would be good for her.
Bungalows and mansions and even little shacks stood sentry all along the road. I won’t miss this, she thought. In her mind exploded the western ocean, warm and vast and elemental. She’d never seen such a body of water. The Niner Lakes to the east weren’t the same, all broken up and shifting. The ocean was enormous, unfathomable, and she could lose herself in it. She knew there were answers there.
The post office came into view. The squat building was surrounded by thick pawpaw trees, heavy with fruit. She tied Copper to a hydrant and went inside.
“Ruth, I’m so sorry,” the man behind the counter said. News spread fast. The man wore a thin pair of glasses on his nose, the eyes behind holding a genuine sadness. “You’re mother was a beautiful woman.”
She knew this was a lie having experienced all the woman’s last years had to offer. She surely was at one time, when she first came to the small town from the east, before the Glow. Ruth had seen the letters and heard the stories to prove it, but it was hard to see past the decline and remember how her mother once was. “Thank you, Les.” She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. “I need to get a temporary mailbox. Out west, the coast.”
His fingers had been flipping effortlessly through the stack of letters on the counter, sorting and restacking them to be sent out. He stopped, a letter between each finger of his left hand and two between his index and thumb, all for the neighborhoods to the north.
“West? Don’t tell me you’re leaving, Ruthie.”
“Some things I need to clear up out there, family things. You understand, right?” Ruth knew that Les had lost his wife five years ago to consumption and there had been a long fight with forgotten relatives over the mansion and other holdings. It had taken years off his already ancient frame.
“Sure, sure, estates and such. Do you know where you wanna set it up?”
“Furnace, Third Divide, Gastin.” She’d picked the city at random from an atlas. Big enough to blend in, small enough to not feel crushed. It had once been the capital of Anatarch, for a few moments during the war, but had fallen since the executive move to Heardingrock. She thought it was a good choice for a new start.
“Let me call them real quick.” The old man stepped through a door into the back. Ruth could just barely hear him talking. He came back out. “Four hawks,” he said.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the slim pieces. “Here, Les.” He pushed a piece of paper across the counter for her to sign.
“Was a dry year for them out west despite the yeilds. Almanac says the suns will keep pulling apart, make it hotter. Seems it would be less light, but what do I know? Are you going to be long?”
“Don’t know, can’t say,” she answered. “Thanks for you words about my mother. Take care.”
She untied Copper and the pair walked along the marble sidewalk. She took her mother’s war checks to the grocery, bought two bags of groceries, then took them to the corner market and resold them for hard currency. She smiled at the people she passed in the street, letting them pet Copper, making small talk and not caring if she fumbled a word or seemed too optimistic.
The sky was a brilliant blue as she paused for a moment in the square, looking up at the Soldier’s Monument in the town green. A white marble sculpture with grey and blue veins, the monument rose in swirls and angles into the sky, an offering for the dead of Ettikam. Ruth knew similar statues dotted all the towns and villages of Tremont, a small concession against the monolithic Anatarchian government to the south. Things had been quieter after all the riots during her childhood, but Ruth knew they’d always be considered rebels to the power in Heardingrock, that it would take generations to close those wounds.
She went to the bank and closed out the small account she held, taking it in a mixture of harriers, hawks, and kites. She could feel the weight now of the money in her pockets. It felt liberating. She glanced up at a clock as a bell chimed from city hall, letting her know the work and school days were over.
Stepping out into the street, she walked to a corner cafe and ordered a drink. The aroma of coffee mixed with cardamom and cinnamon wafted through the air. She grabbed the thick, white-walled ceramic mug from the counter, a thin stream of steam rising into the afternoon air. She would miss that blend that they’d delivered to her house all these years, sweet and bitter and warming. Copper found a stick to gnaw on as Ruth stared across the small town, a languid steel guitar ballad playing over the radio.
Ettikam had barely changed since she’d been a kid. The green square in the center, the government and court buildings looming large behind, the flanking wings of lawyers offices, restaurants, stores. But there just wasn’t anything here for her anymore. No reason to stay except her attachment to where she’d grown up. Her friends were moved, married, or heavy with children. She’d wasted so much time already, carrying trays and washing clothes and scrubbing floors. The characters in her books lived large, brash lives, taking what they wanted and fighting if they didn’t get it. She thought of her mother’s “don’t stand out” and shook her head.
Bodies began to pour into the downtown, the streets coming alive for the fall festivals before harvest. Slowly, the strings of lights along the pin oaks and red maples of the district came on, guiding giddy, masked children down the avenues. She saw someone she recognized from her youth, surrounded by two toddlers. Life had been good for some people.
“Cop, let’s go,” she said, standing up. A chill set in from the mountains to the north. Ruth followed the marble sidewalk back to her house. Stepping inside, half a day away from the death, it was easier for her to remember the good times, the times from her childhood before her mother had changed.
She threw open the closets, dug around for the knit sweaters her mother had made. She climbed into the attic and found the pillowcases and quilts the woman had sewn. The great green vase near the front door held a cane that she’d carved from a magnolia branch. Ruth took all these to the back yard. In the far corner, a slim hatchway was covered with branches and leaves. She brushed them aside and threw open the metal door, a blast of stale air coming up to greet here. A previous owner had put the shelter in and now Ruth felt glad it was there. She’d been barred from playing in it as a child, the mysterious sanctuary forever off limits. You’ll get locked in and suffocate, she could hear her worried mother saying. She smiled, hearing the woman’s voice in her younger days.
None of the lights worked anymore, but the layout was embedded in her memory and a bit of the gold from the alley streetlamps illuminated a small sliver of the underground chamber. Past the shelves on the right and one of the set of bunks, there was a giant chest built into the wall. In four trips, Ruth was able to store everything her mother had made, all the knowledge that Ruth had been too careless to learn when her mother had been able to teach it. Now it was gone and she could only come back later and try to reverse engineer how her mother had been able to do it all alone.
Closing the hatch, she saw Copper staring down at her, a ragged hambone hanging from his mouth. He must have found that in the alley garbage, she thought. Climbing out, Ruth looked up at the night sky, the great firmament glistening with millions of pin pricks. She found the brighter spots and traced the form of the Blue River Bear constellation. There’d been a book when she was a child that gave all the star patterns, tracing their cartoonish arms and legs and filling in the blanks with fine clothes or fur, but it was lost now. She tried to remember the locations of the Mountain Cat, the Engineer, the Shepherd and Dog, but she’d forgotten most of them. A silent owl watched the pair cross the back yard to the porch.
Back in the house, she finished putting together her bag. Don’t stand out, she could still hear in her had. Don’t stand out. All of the past day she hadn’t stood out, she thought. Her life hadn’t stood out. She’d change that.
She put her money in her pockets and buttoned her coat. With her duffel bag on her shoulder and Copper at her feet, she stepped out into the infinite darkness. Above her swirled countless galaxies, other worlds worth exploring like the all the ones along the train lines and the myriad others in the territories she’d never be able to visit. All of them, every one, beckoned to her.
She pulled the lighter from her pocket that she’d gotten years ago from the junk shop on Talliman Street. The body was hand-stamped with a punch set. It read “DENY EVERYTHING,” a joke from some soldier during the war. She flicked the top and reached through the open window, setting the lace curtain ablaze.
A trolley car pulled by just as the flames were beginning to take hold. Copper followed beside her as she ran towards it. The great magnolia tree in the front yard shielded the scene from the driver and the car carried on into the night towards the train station, taking her downtown, alive, ready to reject the darkness and feel the sun of the south on her skin.
The night was so dark the train almost disappeared into the desolate landscape, black on black, each trying to force the other into submission. The Wiles was headed northbound, tearing across the landscape, taking the cliffs and hills of the plains in stride, the steel cars pulling forward against the draw of the earth.
Like most of the trains crisscrossing the land, the locomotive had been built decades before, but still held an elegance that was missing from the newer builds. Copper piping surrounded each seam, a bit of reddish gold to set off the train from the desert around it. The steel body had been reinforced for a military use that never came and was eventually painted black by the very prisoners that it transported between facilities. To prevent escape attempts, the windows had been replaced by metal panels so the men couldn’t see where they were going or where they’d been.
Frank sat near the middle of the longest car, the one holding the prisoners bound for the Tallenstine work camp in the north of the Seventh Divide of Gastin, near the border with Cedón. The red velvet of the seats belied its previous use as a passenger train and Frank took this bit of comfort as a blessing from his seven years of bound life. The ceiling was trimmed in a rich mahogany leather and strips of curly maple ran laterally along the interior of the car with brass sconces punctuating the space between the non-windows. These lights were covered in green glass, giving the car a tint of nature, of the outside, of the beautiful world beyond each of the cells he was shuffled between during his sentence.
Frank looked at Marcún to his left, the man he’d shared a cell with for the last four months. Short and powerful, the sleeping man, as a teenager, had killed a cardon somewhere near the Barrens after a botched bank robbery and had never once let on to Frank that he was sorry or even regretted it. These kinds of prisoners always set Frank on edge. He felt a vast gulf between himself and the ones like Marcún. They were the kind that thrived in prison, setting up small hierarchies based on smuggling contraband in and out, flexing their power to the newer inmates. He had been useful, though, coming through for Frank with the wire and rods for a makeshift lock-picking kit.
The entire car was full of these government men—convicts shuttled around like cattle and used for capital projects to save costs—and most were asleep, lost in the rumble of the car and the new air. Murderers, rapists, con artists. Frank couldn’t be one of them, couldn’t let himself become part of their world, another minor thug, but he couldn’t straddle the line forever. He’d gained influence for being level-headed, but eventually someone would push him and he’d come up against an entire faction.
He exhaled softly and looked at the space where the window was, imagining the land as it went by outside the cars. Even in the enclosed car, it felt like night and in his mind he could see the herds of buffalo that usually roamed the plains asleep in their herds, the owls and coyotes owning the night, watching the iron leviathan as it tore across the landscape.
As a child, he’d rode the trains often, each year of youth accumulating thousands of miles across Anatarch. Locked in coal cars, talking with other travelers, he learned how to feel the distance go by in his bones. He figured they were somewhere near New Caraway by now, if they’d been going dead straight. At one point, the train had stopped as another passed on the tracks and he listened intently as the trains greeted each other with their whistles. He imagined the east-west pathcrosser was the Donhoca Caravan, a mighty red steam locomotive overbuilt to hulk itself up the mountain passes.
At the very least, he knew he was in the Sixth Divide and it was getting close to his chance. He swallowed and looked down at his handcuffs. An iron chain ran through brass eyelets on the seats and through a center circle in his lap. He flexed his wrists and felt the tightness of the irons.
Lifting his head, he turned to see where the guards were. Four were in the back, two with their short swords over their shoulders, two with their swords sheathed. A door in the rear led to another car built specifically to hold the prisoner he’d heard the guards refer to as Renscott, but who in whispers he’d heard called “the Heap.”. Frank had been on the crew that had been tasked with wrapping the inside of the car in electrical wires for this strange prisoner that nobody had even seen. He didn’t know why that had to be done to a car or what it would do to somebody if they tried to escape, but even after all the years he’d spent sharing a cell with murderers and other criminals, that name gave him the chills for the weight of the unknown that it carried.
He looked to the front of the car and saw two more guards up at the door, eyeing the prisoners. A thousand scenarios played out in his mind’s eye and none of them were successful. This isn’t the time, he thought.
The handcuffs felt like they were tightening around his wrists, the blood moving rhythmically under his skin as he focused inward. He thought back to his misspent youth and how he’d ended up here, what choices had taken him from a simple life of farming or mining to becoming a regular on the prison trains. It always came back to his autumn with the logging crew up the Braganca Pass. The summer of clearing had been calm, even enjoyable, surrounded on all sides by the massive ancient ranges. They’d worked their way across the landscape, taking the oldest trees with the purest hearts. Winter came early with a sudden snowstorm, trapping them in the valley in a small town paradoxically named Vinegar Hill. The trains were unable to get up through the storm, so the crew waited with the small number of townsfolk, slowly starving as the supplies dwindled.
Nobody from the company ever arrived as the snowdrifts rose and the storms continued on, week after week. They chose to hike down the pass themselves, following the train tracks, setting up small caches of the few supplies that had remained in the town. The cold tore into them. Most of the crew simply gave up. He’d made it to Tellene with half a dozen others from the crew.
He could never say what changed in him during that early winter. He hadn’t been one of the ones that killed, hadn’t stolen from anybody. But to be that close to the end, to be surrounded by so much death, to see the life of a person simply leave their body like cold winter breath, it had made everything seem so insignificant. A regular job hadn’t been an option after that.
He looked down again at the chains, heavy on his wrists. His eyes followed their linkages through the hooks on the walls, down to the outer prisoners, through to the inner prisoners, and up the center aisle. He pulled his right leg up to his hand and began to pull at the seam. As the grey thread gave way, he rubbed the skin on the inside of his thigh and felt the lock-picking tools he’d stored inside of his leg. He’d boiled and burned the tools before slicing his leg open and sliding them in, but there had still been a terrible infection. They were going to hurt coming out.
Frank figured that in an hour they would pass through the Run, the nineteen-track channel separated by earth and stone bulwarks from the surrounding land. He knew that he’d be able to feel it by the slowing down, the track changes, and the speeding up. All the trains going north-south in this section of Anatarch passed through the Run and the rumor was that trains were always forced to do it at night for some reason. There’d be dozens of cars moving livestock, produce, machinery, and whatever else and if he could get out into the massive train yard at night, the confusion would be his best chance of getting away.
Frank leaned his head against the side of the car, the leather handstrap attached to the wall rubbing against his right ear as he tried to slow his heart for a moment.
Marcún woke up. “Man, oh man, did I have a wonderful dream. We weren’t headed to no Fleet Plain, man. I was on the beaches. A nice cold drink. It was nice.”
Frank nodded. “That’s nice, Marc.” He knew the inmate wouldn’t see a beach for thirty years, but it was enough to let him dream.
“There are still frontiers if you know where to look, Frank.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Why you gotta be like that, man?”
“Just keeping to myself, is all. Long train ride.”
Latmen, a hulk of a monster of a guard, smashed his baton against the wooden chairs of the train. “Quiet, Carson. Next time it’ll be your head.” Frank nodded. Marcún twisted his lips in a face of embarrassment for the guard. It was a look Frank had grown used to in sharing a cell with the murderer. Marcún would use it if a particular idea of someone else’s, even a guard, didn’t suit his fancy, but it was always Frank’s silence that made other people angry.
Latmen paused and turned to face him. “You think you’re a tough guy,” the guard said, staring down at Frank. “Carson’s worked himself a degree everybody!” He turned towards the rest of the car. “Frank Carson, double murderer, got himself a degree in bathtubs and sandcastles. Think about that one!”
Frank nodded again, slowly. His studies had been in water and wind processes, but it didn’t matter. He just nodded.
“You worthless lowlife,” Latmen grumbled. He pushed Marcún back against his seat and brought the baton down onto Frank’s left hand as it gripped the armrest. He heard the knuckles crack before he felt it. He thought about yelling, cursing at the dumb oaf of a guard, but saw all the possible outcomes in his mind. He swallowed and stared ahead, waiting for the Run. Another guard came and pulled Latmen away. They argued near the front of the car.
Frank closed his eyes. The years had dragged in prison. There had been half a dozen times he’d thought about taking his life. He had been a machinist at points before coming in and the warden had always needed something done. This leeway allowed Frank access to all sorts of ways to off himself, but he’d always stopped just short. There was always a bit of the outside world nagging at him, telling him to wait a while longer.
He thought of the letter that had arrived seven months ago. There was no return address, no letterhead, no closing. It was cryptic and there was a bit of a code to it, but he noticed it, pulling out the first letter of each line on the left of the page. He knew it was telling him that his daughter Addie was alive, that she’d been whisked away from the house before the cardon had arrived and found the murder scene. Frank had been off drinking, leaving his wife alone with the girl. He’d always been involved in crime, lots of it, but he hadn’t killed them, hadn’t done what everyone in town said he did. The judge had been especially hard in light of Addie never being found. Knowing that his daughter might still be alive gave him a reason not to bring his hand down upon himself.
The Wiles slowed and came to a stop. A whistle blew in the night. Frank saw the map in his mind, knew the crossing was about twenty miles south of the Run. Fifteen minutes. He looked left and saw Marcún drifting off again. With his right hand, he pulled open the hole in his pants and found the bulge of the lock pick set inserted above his knee. He bit his lip as he pressed on the packet from his upper thigh, forcing it through the skin in his knee. With a slow tear, the skin opened up. He pressed his knees together to staunch the bleeding as he opened the packet.
There were several bent pieces of wire and metal that he inserted into the locks, twisting and twirling them, waiting for a click. He could feel the blood pumping out of the wound and running down his leg, soaking into his socks. The lock popped. His heart froze as the sound amplified in his ears, bouncing off the steel walls of the car, sounding for all the world like the loudest sound in the universe. He lifted his head up, but nobody had heard.
Slipping off one of the cuffs, he quietly undid the other one and untangled himself from the convict chain. Marcún’s head fell and snapped up rhythmically as he dozed. Lifting his body up a bit farther, Frank looked around the car. There were two guards in the rear and two in the front. Latmen and the other guard had stepped into the forward car after his outburst.
Time slowed down as Frank looked around. Images swirled in his mind, all dependent on what thought he had at the moment, what route he would take to escape the car as it pulled into the Run. Each possibility spread before him, showing what would happen if he went to the rear of the car or the front, whether he tried to grab one of the guard’s swords or simply fight them with his hands, even small changes like what foot he took his first step with. Everything played out differently and none looked great, but a few gave him a small chance of escaping out the center door and diving past the rest of the oncoming train.
The visioning exhausted his mind. His leg throbbed. He hadn’t anticipated so much blood. The train was still several minutes from the depot, from his escape. He pressed harder on the wound with his pants to staunch the flow. Marcún woke and saw Frank moving.
“Your handcuffs—” he started to say. Frank grabbed his mouth, blood smearing across the convict’s face. His eyes told Marcún to keep quiet, but one of the guards had heard, turning back from the front and seeing Frank’s blood-covered hands.
“Convict out!” the guard yelled. Marcún bit his hand and Frank yelled. The two rear guards were making their way to the row of seats holding Marcún and Frank as Latmen and the guard that had escorted him made their way back through the door in the front of the car. The convicts began to yell, hollering and spitting at the guards, stamping their feet.
“Lockdown the doors!” another guard yelled over the din as he entered from the rear, unaware of what was going on in the car. “There’s something coming across the plains—” He caught himself as he saw the fracas unfolding. “There’s no time for this!”
Frank stood up and saw all the options before him. They weren’t good, but he was ready to fight. He stepped over Marcún into the center aisle, wiped his hands on his pants, and froze as he heard the rumble outside the car. Everyone turned right, staring into the solid steel wall that faced east, struggling to make out what the earth-shaking sound was without windows to see through. Rocks began battering the side of the car and exploding, hitting the body with such force that the broken shards skittered across the roof.
The car was lifted up off of the tracks and froze for a moment before the full blast tore into the train, sending it westward. Frank felt himself tumbling over as the cars rolled sideways across the landscape. The sound of metal rending exploded in his ears, mixing with the screams and cries of the prisoners. A thousand possible futures flashed into his mind, most of them showing his death. One vision had him holding on the rails attached to the seats and surviving. He reacted, reaching out for the rail, his fingers grasping in the air. To his left, the front locomotive exploded, sending a second blast through the rear cars and changing their trajectory. Frank grabbed the rail he’d seen in his mind and held on, the car now twisting apart from the concurrent blasts.
The train hit the ground and slid for what felt like minutes to Frank before stopping. He opened his eyes. The car was upside down. Mangled bodies hung above him, still strapped into their seats and handcuffs. He found Marcún and saw his dead eyes staring off into the beach he’d never reach. Frank tried to stand, but his legs gave way. He realized his left arm was broken, shattered in the crash, finishing what the guard’s baton had started. There was a dull glow from the few remaining lights that lined the inside of the car. Pulling himself forward, he found a giant gash that had been opened in the side of the train.
Crawling out, he saw all the men he’d known in prison—the gamblers, the jokers, the killers, the conmen—their bodies destroyed by the dual concussions or by the rolling of the train and the fragmentation of the car. The guards were sprawled out on the ceiling, their bodies battered by the destruction. Nobody moved.
Strength came to Frank’s legs as he pulled himself out of the wreckage, the dry shortgrass enveloping him. He stood up. A copse of giant cottonwoods stood sentry all around the site, their yellow leaves clattering in the night. Surveying the path that the train had carved from the trails through the trees to its final resting place, he struggled to understand what had caused the wave that had tore into it and lifted it off the tracks, but there were no answers in the empty night. Yet for some reason, fate had been kind to him.
The locomotive burned intensely in the dark, giving off enough light that he could see back to the rear car, the one made for the prisoner named Renscott, the Heap. It was sheared open the same as his had been, but Frank couldn’t bring himself to go check on its contents.
Wolves would arrive soon, drawn by the noise and the blood, followed by cardons and medics, inspectors and repairmen. He was miles from where he wanted to be, but knew he had to get away. In the confusion of the Run, he’d anticipated hitching onto another train, but now, the whole Plain of Jena opened up before him. People would be coming. He had to run.
In the night sky, he looked up and found the constellation of the Bear Sloth, its nose a pole star to guide his way. North or south along the tracks was too obvious. He could go west to the cities of the coast. He’d be able to slip away, but the authorities would expect him to go there. Or he could head east, into the plains. It would be more difficult to survive, but he’d face fewer pursuers. Either way would be a struggle. The constellation sparkled in the firmament, holding a million possible futures. He closed his eyes, hoping he could see the choice to make, but everything was too far out. All of his options were hazy. The vision faded out, used too much for one night.
He tore his pants and bandaged up his leg and hand. He took one more look at the train, the yellow and orange flames still licking up into the black night. He thought about Addie and made his choice. Flush with adrenaline, he slipped into the night as the leaves of the cottonwoods continued to rustle, a soft whispering that spoke of everything lost and found in the great no-man’s land.
There was none truer than you.
Each day the sun rises and each day I find myself smaller in body, but larger in heart. The earth becomes a part of me as I walk the roads, holding out hope, heading away from the horizon with only my thoughts. I can see better now, but lo, I still cannot find you.
Clouds ripple over each other and I wonder, where have you gone? Does the sea hold you as it once held your imagination? The whale looms large above me, forever, no matter how far I stretch out my arms.
Everything has existed before me and there is comfort in that. The way surrenders itself before the path. I no longer fear the warm future.
Take care — I shall see you soon and all the world will be revealed.
A field of red poppies passed by the train window as a flock of meadowlarks took off in the morning sun, their yellow bellies heavy with fresh seed. Ruth looked out and sighed. She missed her mother. All the years of caretaking—the indignities, the mental anguish, the boredom, all of it—melted away as she rode the train away from Ettikam. She forgot her mother’s sickness, what it had done to the old woman, the way it had made her treat her daughter. She lost it all as the train went on, only remembering the beautiful summer mornings of her childhood, waking up to pancakes and orange juice, her mother rhyming to the cats and dogs, setting out elegant vases of bright red mums and ancient strains of daffodils and perfumed pink peonies for the day.
The Stradler stopped on the tracks as horns and chimes carried on outside. It was the beginning of harvest time and the rails were dominated by freight cars moving the tons of grain and livestock across Anatarch for the coming winter. The rains hadn’t been as good as previous years, but there were more freighters than ever, causing more stops for the passenger trains as the miles of moving steel crossed ahead of them.
To the east, just over the small bank of hills, was the mighty Kawtuba, the river that came from the farthest reaches of the north and delivered water all the way to the bottom of Anatarch, the bottom of the livable world, splitting the land in two. As a child, Ruth had imagined sailing up it to the Falling Wall and crossing the ocean to mysterious Oppolarch, but they’d only been dreams. Nobody came back from the far northeast. It wasn’t even known how far the Glow extended. Don’t stand out, her mother would have told her.
The train car ran along the outer edges of Clarington, a small town known for its wool blankets and heavy coats. It was much more compact and wholesome than she’d remembered on her few visits as a child, the small multi-colored houses clustered in a tight grid around the factory. Just beyond the brick chimneys of the wood-covered mill, she knew that the amphitheater that had once brought talented performers from all over the country sat in its all its grey marbeled glory. The whole place looked beautiful and picturesque as it shrank behind the fleet of engine and steel.
A man pushed a cart by with breakfast and handed Ruth a pastry and a coffee. The coffee was nutty and served in a thick white mug with the logo of the train name on the side. The pastry was warm and flaky, softly dusted with a mix of sugar, ground sumac, and dried lavender flowers. The first bite was invigorating.
As she sipped the dark coffee, Ruth slipped a photograph out from between the center pages of her book. She’d found it in her mother’s dresser one day as a child and had kept it for herself all these years. It showed her mother and father—the man she never knew—smiling as they sat on a checkered blanket, their backs against a fallen oak tree. Langhorne Park, read the partial wooden sign affixed to a post in the background. The camera was just a bit too far away and the quality just a shade too low for her to really study her parents’ faces, but she could see how happy they’d been together.
There was only one other photograph of her father, still kept in her bag. It showed him during the district skirmishes after the war, his face hard and thin, his arms muscular. He’d scrawled ‘Antona—Off to Edena. As Ever, C.’ on the back in pencil as he’d left to go fight the Federals in one of the smaller skirmishes after the government had moved to Heardingrock. White flecks of paint on the back showed where it had gotten stuck to the edge of bookcase, eluding her mother’s desperate bid to remove everything there was of the man Ruth had never known. Her mother had never spoken of him, but the war must have changed him, the atrocities he’d seen burning forever in his mind. Maybe that was why he’d never come back. Maybe she hadn’t let him.
The man’s left hand gripped a black pistol, while a heavy artillery sword lay across his lap, the hilt carved in a diamond-patterned relief. It was a much more elegant weapon than the guns, she thought. His right hand held a smaller clip point knife. He stared off through the photographic paper, into an uncertain future, hungry for what lay ahead.
A man coughed and she returned to the train. The Stradler ran the whole perimeter of the habitable parts of Anatarch, from Tremont in the central north down the Great River to the Barrens and the minor sea, then west through the desert and the heart of the Gastin, before climbing up the western coast to Cedón and turning east through the Wilderness and the Primitive Regions before starting over again back at Ruth’s home. Smaller spurs were set up to go into the dusty interior or south into the rough lands or north into the tundra wastes of Sumanth, but didn’t see the use that the main circulator did.
Dakib, the capital of the Tremont district, grew large on the southern horizon. Giant limestone buildings, lifted up with columns and weighted down with domes, reached up monumentally towards the sky. Rumbling into town, the cars pulled into the majestic depot the provincial government had built for travelers. Beautiful cast iron gates separated those on the platform from the rushing train and beyond, inside the station, Ruth could see ornate carved benches for the riders and the families waiting for their loved ones.
A man reached up to the rack above the seats and pulled his luggage down. As he turned down the aisle and stepped through the doors, Ruth noticed a leaflet had fallen from his bag. She stood up to find the man, but he was lost in the crowd. She looked down at the folded purple cover, the title Deliverance to the Cause gilded across the top, a cluster of flowers stamped underneath. She slipped it under her book to read on the long stretch between the district capital and the border.
There was a chiming, both from the train and the station, and one of the porter’s came by and told Ruth they’d be waiting for fifteen minutes. She thanked him and stood up, walking out onto the platform to stretch her legs and arms. The sun warmed her sienna skin and she watched as people moved all around, checking their schedules, hugging their families, buying one last bit of food. She made her way to the second-to-last car. There were a few small windows on the side and she stood on her toes, peering into to see Copper in a bronze cage, his sleeping body splayed out on a red plaid blanket, his tongue hanging out just a bit from between his teeth. Looks comfortable, she thought.
She walked into the train station and looked across at the downtown through the leaded glass windows. A cleared plot in the town square held pine scaffolding decorated with five nooses, the frayed ropes swaying gently in the wind. Ettikam hadn’t had much crime like the rest of the district. It had been slower there. Ruth wondered what she’d gotten herself into.
The train let out a double whistle, indicating five minutes until departure. She looked down and saw white marks on the ground that showed where the birds of the town congregated during the day.
“Your spot doesn’t look too lucky,” a voice said, coming up to Ruth from the side. She turned and saw the man, his suit crisp in the afternoon sun, his hair combed back behind his ears.
She turned her gaze toward the hangman’s field. “Doesn’t look like this town’s too lucky.”
The man smiled. “Cattle rustlers mostly, horse thieves. The desert is wide and the Stamen is far.”
“Heardingrock is so far away. They’ve secluded themselves there and left us to carry out the law ourselves.” The man looked over at the gallows. “If the big government’s not going to help, than we have to take justice into our own hands sometimes. As long as you don’t have any livestock in your luggage, you should be fine.”
“I’m traveling light.”
“Is that so?” The man stood up straighter and buttoned his suit jacket. At his wrist, Ruth could see the tail end of the grain tattoo of Tremont’s government class, the symbol that should have represented the farmers. The train whistle blew again.
“That’s me,” Ruth said. The man turned as she made her way to the train.
“Can I get your name?” he asked, stifled probably for the first time in years, somebody uninterested in him.
She tried to think of something witty, a name that one of the characters from her books would have used that only revealed deceit in the minutes after hearing it, but nothing came to her. He stared, watching as she got back onto the train. After a minute, the rest of the strangers filed onto the car. The man kept watching as the train pulled away. If this was what the rest of the world was going to be like, Ruth didn’t know how happy she was going to be. But she was on her own now. The desert was wide and the Stamen was far.
Miles and hours passed underneath the revolving iron wheels of the cars. All the towns that glittered by in between the pastures and fields of grain set fire to her imagination. Ruins of abandoned forts stood solitary over the land, eternal reminders of the wars. She’d only known all these places from maps and atlases and the occasional travel guide that she could find at the bookstore. Even the well-known towns had only existed as stories and weathered photographs, but now they exploded into existence, each one tailored to fit its location and industry.
She described all of them in the thick book she’d brought from home. She wrote of the marvelous buildings cut into the granite hillsides of Asin, the air heavy with mining dust, each particle glistening in the setting sun like a thousand stars. The occasional wooden door set into the dark hamlet of rock grounded each home to the architectural world she had grown up in, yet still, it was so different. But this was how the world worked. There had to be mining towns.
Later on, the train slowed down as it trundled through Jeanston, a village of solariums and immense glass domes, capturing every ray of light to feed to the plants that had once grown so easily on the eastern coast. Now they had to be feted and preened over to give up their bounty to the hungry nation.
Manda felt the most like home, the endless fields of wheat and corn and rye stretching on into the horizon. The train passed through quickly to avoid any slowdowns for the harvest, but she took in the small village, the thin red houses clinging to the side of the only hill in the miles of plains. Fieldstone stairs ran all along the shoulders of the mount, the blue slabs carrying the farmers to their houses after a long day in the field. A crumbling fort stood a mile beyond, silent and dead. But then it was gone, the train moving on, always farther south, always away from home.
A cart came by with the midday mead, the honeyed alcohol flavored with bay leaf and allspice. Flushed with warmth, Ruth thought about all she’d seen. The world was different, but the ways were the same, families carrying on their ancestors’ work, carving out their own niche in the world. Ruth’s mother had been a seamstress, and her mother before her, and probably all the way back as far as the tree could go. So that is what Ruth had done after school ended. It hadn’t been what she had wanted, but it let her stay at home with her mother and still make money to take care of the house. She rubbed her hands and felt the thick callouses on her fingers. They were there and would be there for some time longer, a reminder of her family’s past and the future that she had left.
She loved her mother, truly she did, but everything had been so hard and nobody had been there to help her. She could see the woman in her memories, sick, delirious with fever, telling her to find her other brothers and sisters. She knew the timeline of her mother’s life fairly well and had the photographs to prove it all, so it only left her father to have sired these supposed half-siblings. How she’d find them, she couldn’t know. When her mother’s sickness cleared, she had denied it all and told her to forget it, but it was impossible, not then and certainly not now as she traveled away from home, the thought always inching into her mind that she could pass a brother or sister in a tavern and not know it. To find others like her, she had to chance it, had to find her father.
Running east, the train skirted the saline Jarra Lake to the west before threading through the small bit of land separating the body of water from the Kawtuba River. Ruth could just make out the resort towns on the lake that were served by a small spur of the railroad, the boxy white buildings hugging the ground like prairie dogs. “Looks like a postcard,” she wrote in her book. Even secluded away back home, she knew Jarra Heights on the north coast was a hedonistic retreat, nudists and free spirits coming from around the country to soak in the supposedly mind-altering salt water. Jarra Flats, on the southern coast, was a haven for the rich, the uncommon barons that had carved out a fortune in mining, refining, agriculture, or some other industry. Ruth wondered if they ever mixed out there in the water.
Passing near the great river, she watched the turbulent water spraying against the abandoned bridges that once linked both sides of the nation. Thin golden scrub had grown on the other shore and pine trees had struggled up the land from the Barrens to the south. It looked peaceful to Ruth, never belying the terrible atrocities on the far bank. Much of the ground was still covered in the new glass of the Luminescence and as the sun was setting, she could see bits of the purple sky reflecting off of their fractured surfaces. Ruth had read adventure stories of desperate people pushing out into the sea of glass and beginning to carve out a life. Sometimes she even heard real rumors of it. How they did this if it was real, what they could grow or forage or make to trade, she had no idea. It didn’t seem possible.
In the darkness, the train swung in a wide arc around the top of the Barrens. Small red and orange dots hung in the far night to the northwest, the only marker of Marrill Gap, its ironworks going full bore day and night, jets of gas always alight, dark plumes forever going into the sky.
All around on the trip, Ruth had noticed the dozens of small towns that dotted the landscape, their denizens eeking out meager livings on the fringes of the greater places. Small clapboard houses standing strong against the dry wind, slim shacks that bore the brunt of the river’s floods, earthen hovels dug into the ground, watching the impregnable dead land to the east—all had their sadnesses, their joys, their secret histories. These in-between lands bore little excitement, only the occasional muskrat in the spring tributaries and the lonesome jackrabbit in the fields, but for the residents, they held all the world and more.
They trundled through the night and Ruth wondered if her father had ever stopped at any of these towns, ever met any of the woman. Could a sister live here? How similar would they be? It seemed now, traveling, that so much was dependent on where one grew up, the work one took to, the life and family that formed them.
South the train went, turning back east and again returning to parallel the river before turning away to the west, skirting the edges of the shadowy pines of the Barrens and the Kantan Spread to the southeast along the coast of the mighty sea. Ruth had just begun to doze off when an explosion rocked the front of the train, the shock reverberating back towards the passenger cars. One of the boilers had exploded, ejecting hot shards of steel deep into the dark night, the white hot pieces lighting up the sky against the starred backdrop. Murmurs moved through the cars as she worried about Copper. He was probably terrified.
With a jerking start, the train again came to life, limping through the inky night towards Issey. A woman came down through the aisles assuring everybody of their safety. Ruth looked at her map. There was a northwestern connector, the Catbird, that came through the town. Maybe she could take that if she needed to get moving.
The passengers unloaded off of the injured train. Stepping down from the car, Ruth looked around at the small town of one-level brick homes, built low and sturdy to withstand the tornadoes that were always a possibility. She pulled out her guidebook and flipped to the page for the village of Issey. It was a small grain town, farmers for miles to the north and west supplying the base for the factories to the north and feedstock for the waves of cattle herds to the south. Some of the other passengers had just laid on the benches in the depot for the night, but Ruth walked back to the yards and found one of the workers.
“I got my dog in one of the cars back here. Can you help me get him out?”
The kid nodded, his clothes covered in the dark grease that all mechanics wore like armor. He was probably half her age and had probably been all over the country.
“Where’s the farthest you’ve been?” she asked.
He closed his eyes together, thinking hard. “Rexet, I suppose. North of the Dome, just below the Primitive Regions. Can’t say I’d go back. More Cedónian than Sumanthi.”
He’d been far, she realized. “Any ideas on where I should stay here?” she asked.
The mechanic was spinning through keys on a giant ring. Finding the correct one, he slid it into the lock and pulled the iron latch over, sliding the heavy door open. Copper’s eyes slowly opened and he blinked twice before seeing Ruth in the blue light of the railyard. He leapt off of the bed and jumped towards her, rubbing his muzzle over her legs. The mechanic bent down to one knee and petted the dog, smiling through the exhaustion of his long day.
“There’s an inn up the road, Penny’s. Tavern on the bottom. Shouldn’t run you too much.”
Ruth put the leash on Copper. “Thanks. Here, take it easy.” She handed the mechanic a kite from her pocket. He nodded back to her before disappearing back between the rails and cars and dark depths of the night.
Copper sniffed everything he saw as the pair followed the main road down to the inn. A few faces lit up the windows, not used to passenger trains stopping in their town. Fires crackled behind thin curtains. Ruth stopped at a giant wooden sign that hung over one of the doors, perpendicular to the wall. It was carved and painted and showed a green scythe against a golden yellow field. On the ground near the threshold, she saw a clump of purple thyme that was tied together with a whole cumin plant, its roots long and dry and facing away from the building. Groundwork and its rituals seemed far more popular to Ruth in these small towns than it had ever been back home in Ettikam. She’d have to find a book on it.
Reaching down for one last pat on his head, she tied Copper up to a post in the front and followed the smell of onions and beef to the dining room in the back. Finding Penny, a slim wisp of a woman in a thick apron, she bought a room a few falcons and an extra kite to cover Copper. Inside the small space, she recognized a few from the train, but most of those packed in seemed to be residents of the town or nearby ranches. Duck cloth coats and wool pants kept the townsfolk warm in the cool night. Ale flowed from a heavy cask behind the bar and laughter and yelling emanated from all the men and women gathered around the tables.
Ruth took a seat quietly in the back, watching and listening, eating thick slices of rye bread made from the bounty of the surrounding plains and slowly working on a fried steak. She’d been near sleep on the train, but it was easy to stay awake around all the raconteurs when all she had known was the slow town of her childhood. Don’t stand out.
Gradually, towards midnight, the room emptied. She realized from their interactions that the innkeeper’s husband was the bartender. She studied his broad shoulders, the thick muscles on his forearms and knew that bartending had come only late in life. His wrist tattoo of a gear gave away a previous vocation in mechanics. He looked up and saw her. “Come on over,” the man said, genial in the way of a grandfather that has done well in life. Ruth stood, waiting a moment to gather her legs, before making her way to the high chairs of the bar.
“Zeke,” he said, pouring her a small glass of whiskey.
“Ruth. Nice to meet you.” The man studied her face, her accent. Even her haircut gave him clues to her origin.
“From up north?” he asked. She nodded. “Saw some action up there in my younger days. Beautiful in the spring, but the winters are hard, damn they’re hard.” Ruth saw a wave of remembrance pass over the man’s face. He had probably lost friends up in Tremont during the siege to subdue the district. Soldiers never seemed to forget.
Reaching below the counter, he pulled out a bottle, the brown shoulders covered in a soft grey dust, and turned it so she could see the label. “I liberated this from a real bad man that used to live in town.” The honey-colored liquid slid up the sides of the glass as the man poured it out. “The wheat it was distilled from was grown during a comet year. I’ve heard that cults have formed around it, but, whew, I don’t know much about that.”
She could feel the thin rivulet burning in her throat, sweet and mineral tasting, but rounder, filling. “It’s good,” she said, trying to feign interest in the spirit. Ettikam had been an ale town, the winter wheat there growing strong and nobody having enough patience to wait for distillation and aging.
“What are you doing all the way down here? Things seem to be getting more and more dangerous each day.”
“What do you mean?”
“The train explosions. The attacks out in the desert. People say there’s something brewing.”
“Hmm. I hadn’t heard anything. Seems safe enough so far. Anything’s better than back home.”
Zeke nodded. “I know how that is. Restlessness.”
“I thought I’d maybe try and collect stories on the Glow. My parents were born in Bloodmark. I only knew the place through photographs.” She took a sip of ale to cover the lie. “How old are you?”
“Just old enough to remember it. But I’ve lived out here in the Amphere Field for most of my life, except for the skirmishes. You won’t find a lack of stories from the older ones in this lot, though. One’s that were there, one’s that just say they were for a free drink. Sympathy can run thin coming sixty years on.”
Ruth dropped her glass as a crash reverberated through the building from the upper rooms. The glass shattered as it hit the marble top, exploding backwards behind the bar. Zeke was already gone. “Those two damn idiots,” he said, grabbing a thick wooden pole from near the small swinging door that led to the tables. Ruth got the impression that Zeke knew the brawlers intimately, growing tired of their constant bickering.
A pair of men tumbled out of one of the doors on the upper balcony. Ruth looked up, studying the drunken combat. Both had knives, the long steel blades glinting in the light of the chandelier near the top of the stairs. They were mumbling and arguing. She could make out bits and pieces of the yelling. Both had thought they owned a strip of land that they believed the government would need for a coming river project.
As the men evaded each other and made their way down the stairs, Zeke watched, sizing up the two combatants, leaning against the pole he planned to use to separate them. Copper barked outside, aroused by the commotion. In a flash, both leaned in, knifepoints digging into the soft flesh of the other. Ruth was surprised by how quiet it all was. The men fell backwards, one on the stairs, one on the landing near the door. Zeke shook his head and walked towards a back room. “Damnit, damnit, damnit,” he muttered.
Ruth stood wide-eyed, flush with the whiskey and adrenaline. Blood seeped out of the men’s cotton shirts, running down the oak treads and pooling on the floor near the coat rack. Their mouths were open and their eyes were glassy, lost staring into a future they’d never see. She could see the flesh peeled back through the hole in one of the men’s shirts. It was so much blood. She tore her eyes away.
Nobody that came in the first few minutes claimed their bodies and Zeke took it upon himself to settle the two men. He dragged one out by the feet and Ruth followed with the other. A clean square of golden light spilled onto the road from the doorway, illuminating the carnage. He walked solemnly towards a shed behind the inn, flipping a switch and grabbing an axe in the pale yellow haze of the bulb. He walked back and drove the axe deep into the skulls of each man, cleaving the tops of the skulls in two. “I’ll wash the blade in the morning,” he told Ruth as she stood at the front door, watching silently. “It never ends,” he muttered to himself and the great silent walls of the inn.
Penny exited a back room with a bucket and towel to clean the blood on the floor. “Another stairway back through there,” she said, pointing. Ruth grabbed Copper and led him through and up to their room. She pulled out the rest of the steak that she’d wrapped in a napkin. The dog ate quickly and turned sideways on the bed, full of everything he could want.
Sleep came fitfully for Ruth, every sound a portent of disaster. Flipping on the bedside lamp, she studied her train schedule. She could continue on the Stradler west or catch the Catbird for a slight detour through the upper middle of Anatarch. The desert is wide and the Stamen is far. Maybe a journey through the depopulated center would help her clear her mind.
She woke early after a small bit of sleep that came just before dawn. Looking out the back of her room, she could see the secret alleys of the town. The two bodies sat against the tavern’s wall and, except for their heads, looked to all the world like just two drunks that were taking a break after a long walk. Ruth wondered if anybody would bother to claim them.
She grabbed a few biscuits for herself and Copper from the tray set out on the bar. Penny and Zeke were nowhere to be found. Before leaving for good, Ruth wrote Zeke a letter, telling him she’d like to hear his own story of the Glow. She left her mailbox number in Furnace for him to write and slid the slip of paper under a bottle of whiskey on the back bar.
As she grabbed Copper to leave out the front, she could hear a woman in the back alley screaming for her dead husband, begging anyone to tell her if his skull had been split quickly enough. Don’t stand out, she heard in her head.
“Cop, sit,” she told the dog. Ruth made her way through the kitchen to the back door, consoling the poor woman, telling her what she needed to hear. She walked back to the front and left with the dog, heading back down to the train depot. A chill had settled on the small town, unusual for the summer. Ruth talked to one of the attendants, had her tickets switched and her luggage moved.
She pulled a sweater out of bag, no longer able to tolerate the damp coolness. An old couple beside her watched.
“Summer months and frozen to death,” the woman said, smiling.
“What’s that?” Ruth asked.
“ ‘Summer months and frozen to death,’ “ the man beside her repeated. “Something we said growing up back in the northeast. When we were kids, there was a terrible snowstorm one summer. Ruined the crops, killed the livestock, hit us real hard come harvest. Lots of people died. Those of us that hung on were eking by on rats and roots. Anytime it gets cold outside of the winter months, that’s what my wife always says. Ain’t exactly summer, but still feels colder than usual.”
The old woman smiled. Ruth handed Copper off to one of the attendants.
“I like that,” she said, nodding at the old couple as she made her way to her car on the Catbird.
To the west lay the vast dry land of the interior, unconquerable, the way of the escaping multitudes, indiscernible in its ever-changing face to the world. Beyond was the iron wall of the mountains, blocking the way to Cedón, and further still, the vast and depthless ocean of the west, the place to wash away it all. She sat in her seat and pulled out her guide. The Stamen was far.