Over the Broken Banks of Bannock Part 1
I’ve been teasing pieces of my second novel, the Clockwork Caterpillar, and recently wrote a short story set in its world and ostensibly with some of its characters. It was for a competition which, sadly, I didn’t win but that just means you fine folk get to visit Bannock earlier than expect. So there’s a silver lining there.
Over the Broken Bones of Bannock
The whistle gave its forlorn cry. It was the shriek of a bullet right before it tears through flesh and finds mortal rest deep in the bosom of a mighty warrior. The metal wailed as brakes ground against wheels; a morose dirge for the fallen accompanied the sparks hissing into the air as a final rifle salute. It was a cry for the end of a journey. The abrupt stop, though expected, always came too early. It caught its passengers off guard no matter what preparations they took. And no matter how often Felicity went through it, each time still stung as harshly as the first.
A cloud of steam puffed from the vents creating a shrouding fog that rose from the ground about the warm steel. But heavy was the itching smell of burnt coal that carried in the wind to sting eyes and rasp throats. The metal groaned as the great sectioned leviathan came clanking down the track. With a final, resolute shudder the steel beast drew to its rest. The feet of its passengers went to work about her but they were like ghosts drifting in and out of her memory. Faces blended together and echoing voices took on different names. She could see people that no longer worked the line. Some of them were faded and indistinct, just wisps of fleeing memories. One was a young soldier, his hair tinged with the first greys and clinging to a sweaty face struggling against the consuming flames. The next was a missionary, the wide brim of his cappello romano dotted with holes that cast soft beams on a pallid face.
She then felt a hand on her shoulder, its size and warmth causing her to jump in her seat. But when she turned, it wasn’t a golden face that looked down upon her. Instead, it was the blue eyes of her engineer looking concerned from a coal smeared and sweaty face.
“We’ve arrived, captain.”
“Thanks, Laure. Best tell Schroeder to get him then. Should look to replenish our supplies while we’re here too.”
She grabbed for a gun no longer there, cursing her absent mind. She settled on her wide black hat and threw on a long duster stained with the dirt and blood of the trails. It was a wild frontier beyond the steps of the tracks and very little of it could ever be scrubbed off those that wandered it. She looked at the indistinct shades while adjusting her collar. Some of those stains were her own. Many were not. Those were left from the holes she dug and only the darkening off the cuffs remained of their passage.
She shook the door open.
The station master stepped forward. He was clad in the faded black and white stripped shirt common for his profession. A worn cap pulled over wiry white hair and a spotted forehead. Dulling eyes followed the soft ticking hands of the pocket watch, waiting for the final whistle cry before dried lips shouted the announcement.
“Fourteen and two to the hour and nay a second more!”
He clapped the watch closed, tucking it into the breast pocket as he clasped his aged hands behind his jacket. The formality of his posture tickled the back of Felicity’s mind and it was easy in the clinging steam to see another person in the fog. The long shadows looked like thick feathers drained of their once vivid colour. Curls of smoke filled a frame until it created the outline of a giant man bound with thick muscles and adorned in faded jade of the southern tribes.
Then the steam disappeared and the aged station master turned to the door. His polished shoes tapped the smooth wood of the station’s deck while an anxious finger picked at the tail of his short jacket. He smiled at the sight of his first visitor.
“Greetings and welcome to the grand shores of Bannock.”
Felicity still held the door half in its frame. With the last wisps of smoke clearing from her long black hair, the master looked at the woman’s expressionless face.
“You… are the party Metticia?”
“S.J.!” she called, turning her thin neck towards the machine’s innards.
“Care to deal?”
The navigator appeared behind her shoulder, adjusting the thick spectacles upon his nose.
“Oh!” S.J. cried fumbling the papers in his hand. “Lord’s Graces, forgiveness I plead. Forgiveness!”
Felicity pressed to the side as the navigator stumbled down the steps.
“That’s right, we’re the scheduled ship. But, see, Metticia isn’t my name. We’re on the sheriff’s business. Fulfilling a request of his, we are. I’ve got the papers!”
The final declaration was committed after but a moment’s pause. He shuffled through the clutched stack, offering one but quickly rescinding as the station master’s hands began to settle.
“Sorry, forgiveness Graces, that’s for the Expanse. Bannock, right? You’re a Schroeder, nay, Nicolai line?”
He turned to the station for an answer. While the name of the town was displayed prominently in bold letters above the main double doors, a number of names and lists were posted on its wood exterior.
“We’re Nicolai,” the station master confirmed as he craned his neck to look over the papers in the other man’s hands.
But S.J. kept them from sight. The master’s shoes tapped an impatient beat, one that echoed in Felicity’s ears like the last shudders of a dying heart. The tap flooded her hands with the warmth of memory, the touch of blood covering her fingers while she cried vainly into haunting winds.
S.J.’s sheets fluttered between his fingers until he produced the permit. The station master took it, clearing his throat as he held the paper to the light of the afternoon sun. He scanned the document, eyes drifting over the letters themselves but paying closer attention to the seals and signatures for signs of duplicity or forgery.
Felicity shook her head of the clinging thoughts and stepped from the engine. She gave her navigator a pat on the back.
“Make sure this is properly sorted. And take care to see we lay in port for a good while. We wouldn’t want to rush the magnate.”
“The magnate?” the master asked. “You’re here to see him?”
“I would hope,” Felicity said. She snapped her fingers and gave a quick whistle. To the master’s surprise, a young man appeared as ridiculous as he was stylish. His hair was slicked and immaculately placed. A crisp suit with full breast pockets, polished shoes and high banded collar clasped his slender frame. His guise was professionally cut and more befitting the busy streets of the Old World than the dusty steps of a frontier station. But it wasn’t the allusion to wealth that stayed the master’s tongue but the long barrelled rifle slung over the sharpshooter’s back and the thick cord in his hands. With a tug, he produced the other end which bound an unsettling man in bloodied skins and a great bandage about his shoulder.
The station master looked questioning.
“We assist with deliveries,” Felicity explained.
The man was yanked unceremoniously from the train and the woman led their small party across the station’s deck. The master couldn’t help but stare.
“Is that him, then? Dirty Hopkins?”
The station master didn’t even wait for a proper response before spitting upon the man’s filthy clothes.
“If you had any decency, you’d have thrown yourself off the Glorious Belt and into the Lord’s arms!” the master shouted. The bound man snapped against his restraints. Felicity simply whistled and S.J. quietly lead the master inside to work out their details. She gave a sharp tug on the rope to bring her captive to heel.
“You best behaving. Caused enough commotion at the bridge and I don’t need to hand you over to the magnate. It ain’t too late to grab some rope, turn around and drag you behind on the way out.”
Hopkins ceased squirming and Felicity turned to the town. A great mound towered intimidatingly, casting a long shadow over the frontier shops and homes. Most were simple, squat structures with false fronts and single stories. Between them snaked thin lines leading to small metal plates with dangling glass bulbs. The crackle of electricity filled the air and the lights flickered with the timely beat of the currents. Uneven pools winked in the dark, overbearing shadow of the soaring earth.
One building loomed over the others, a veritable bastion of tarnished steel rising in defiance of the great bulge opposite it. Its metal façade dominated the neighbouring wood, like a steel plant had grown up from the rail running through the centre of town as if the connection with the extensive network snaking the plains was a great iron root. Steady white bulbs washed the bold name of Bernhard Nicolai L.P. printed in golden letters. Thick columns of steel imitated the Doric style of antiquity. Their trunks supported a wrought balcony fringed in gold leaf and wreathed with simple ivy. The front entrance itself was a great piece constructed of bright swirls with heavy iron handles. It was like approaching the entrance of a great fortified keep rather than a place of business.
Felicity waved the slicker and captive on and the three stepped carefully over the rail and to the front steps. Their boots struck against dried wood and she looked with surprise to her companion.
“Expected it to be steel too.”
“These men love their false finish,” Schroeder said. “Almost better than the real thing. At least if it’s cheap.”
She raised a hesitant hand to the iron front and pounded a loud greeting.
Her knuckles stung from the iron and she idly rubbed the bone as they waited. After a few minutes, they could hear movement on the other side. The footsteps proceeded a great screech of metal against metal as the door opened like the thick front of a vault. Felicity stepped out of the way as the interior was revealed before them.
Standing in the centre of the foyer was a man wearing a fine suit and a congenial smile.
“Ah, you must be honoured Felicity,” he said, stretching out his arms. His voice was thick with a heavy but unidentifiable Ilian accent. It was a curious blend of central eastern influences.
“Mr. Nicolai?” Felicity asked.