The Breaker Rig – Part 1
Well people, the truth is I have not read anything of late. I have traveled a little, worked a little and written a little. But I have not been reading. So, to follow in the footsteps of others, I am going to foist my short story upon you.
Sophie’s stomach lurched upward as she gripped the edge of her seat with white knuckles. Her knees curled tightly around the chipped, hard edge of the two-person bench she blessedly shared with no one. With strained determination Sophie stared straight ahead.
The dark red carriage-car shuddered. Worn wooden benches shook against wrought-iron feet bolted to the floor. Glass windows rattled and the entire conveyance dropped suddenly before settling at its new altitude.
‘Mama, mama!’ The child on the opposing bench giggled. ‘Look. I can see trees.’
‘Indeed. See the ribbon of blue? That is the Kalska River. Can you spot any boats?’
From the corner of her eye, Sophie saw twin-braids bob as the child shifted in her seat. The girl pressed her snub nose to the glass. Bracelets of small dangling charms clinked as the child’s hands were placed to either side of her face. Her breath fogged the window in a gentle aura spreading out from the girl’s face, no doubt obscuring her view of the land below.
Sophie fretted her bottom lip between her teeth. The carriage-car and its collection of passengers held steady. Beneath the hum of conversation, there was the gentle whirl of the steam-powered engine propelling their transport north. Very cautiously, she relaxed the muscles in her hands. Gradually, she eased their hold so the edge was not as painfully biting.
‘Incredible is it not?’ The mother said directing her warm brown eyes to Sophie. ‘To believe we will reach Dawn City in only one day’s flight from White River!’
Sophie grimaced. ‘Air carriages are certainly much faster.’
‘Indeed, it would have taken us a week by steam ship. My husband made the journey this spring. They make you bring so many supplies when you move North. The Territory Guard are quite particular when it comes to immigrants. Every man heading to the gold fields must bring enough to last the winter. Inconvenient for those who will only prospect during the summer.’
The air carriage jostled in some unseen breeze. Sophie’s stomach knotted.
The woman continued to chatter, oblivious to the turbulence. ‘As family, we of course don’t need to bring as much. Besides I hear you can find anything you want in Dawn City, just as you could in the major cities farther south. Yes, Yuki, that is the river and the trees. No, child, it will be some hours yet before we arrive.’
The girl twisted on her seat in a manner Sophie assumed was designed to garner a better view of the earth. The earth that was so far from them at present.
‘You must also be meeting someone,’ the woman prompted.
Sophie pried her jaws apart enough to answer. ‘My sister.’
‘Of course! How lovely it is to have siblings in other parts of the country. I was always so delighted to visit my older sister, Suki. She married and moved back east; to the coastal capital Bington. What an adventure it was to cross the entire continent; it had such varied scenery to enjoy. I was fascinated by the wide sweeping plains, so flat you could see for days in any direction. That is the spread of our family: coast to coast. Of course, we didn’t have these marvellous creations when I was younger. Just regular rail-carriages running on tracks.’
‘I like rail-trains.’
‘Naturally, there is much to like about an entire string of carriages speeding along a well laid track. I will concede the level of comfort in the sleeper and dining cars is far superior to our limited confines. But this view’–the woman gestured to the window–‘is incomparable. This is like an adventure you would read in the papers. Oh, how exciting it is to be part of history. Is this your first time North? Of course, it must be.’
The woman nodded at Sophie’s rigid posture. ‘Well, welcome. I know, I know. I too am new to the North, but I can just feel it. Dawn City is going to be wonderful.’
‘Mama, what’s that?’
The woman shifted on the bench–sweeping her skirts to the side–she half stood to peer over the head of her child at the distant ground. Sophie saw the carpet bags stowed carefully under the seat. There was also a food hamper, likely obtained from their hotel in White River just for this portion of the journey. Sophie’s stomach gurgled softly, torn between nausea and hunger.
‘That appears to be some rapids. Yes, I do remember your father mentioning something of the kind in his letter home. They have cables; I believe they help the ships navigate this stretch. Slow going, another reason why it is better to travel by air than water.’
Sophie thought of her own letter, neatly folded in a similar carpet bag stored at her feet. It was well creased now. Only two months old and already it was showing signs of age.
‘What brought your sister North?’ The woman resumed her position demurely on the opposite bench. Everything was proper about her appearance, Sophie noted while keeping her eyes from roaming.
The brown hat with its fabricated flowers was pinned to a large, thick bun of dark, glossy black hair. The colour reminded Sophie of Anika, though her sister hated long hair. She complained it took too much work to keep nice. The woman’s dress had the structured bodice and military cut reflecting a war that raged across an ocean. The skirts were full but clearly lacked the extra crinoline layers favoured by fashionable women in the large southern cities. Sophie felt drab and poor in her faded brown cotton dress.
‘Did she move with her husband, or…’
‘She had a letter from our father,’ Sophie replied keeping her voice steady and factual. Anika received a letter and then was suddenly gone. ‘He found his way to Dawn City and started working a gold-field.’ At least that was what Sophie remembered. She didn’t have that letter anymore, only the echo of Anika’s words two days before she was gone.
‘Claim, the term they use is a claim. Though, I suppose in a way the gold is harvested from the ground. A family reunion, that is wonderful! I am certain you are most excited and nervous too no doubt. We give up so much to support our families. As exciting and adventuresome as it is I confess I was hesitant to leave everything familiar for the great unknown. It will be worth it though, when we are a family again.’
Yes she was going to be with her family too. She was going to see Anika again. Sophie thought of her sister, of Anika’s large brown eyes and energetic personality. Anika loved to move. She hated to sit still. Soon, they would be together again. The tension in Sophie’s shoulders eased. Anika was always good at taking care of things. Everything would be sorted once she got to Dawn City.
‘Sadly my husband is at the claim now. It is not so easy to move between the various claims and the town. There are no air carriages, only unkempt dirt roads.’ The woman sighed. ‘It seems like he left an age past, though of course I know it has only been a matter of months. I do worry though.’
Sophie watched as the woman’s fingers rubbed absently at the red bead charm on her left wrist. She recognized the worn protection charm. Everyone had one or something similar. It was one of the first charms attached to a child’s bracelet. It was a charm to keep the wearer safe; it offered general protection from the small accidents in life. There were other more specific charms. Sophie wore one to protect against disease and falling. Anika had another charm to protect her from sharp blades as she was prone to nicking her hands in the kitchen.
‘Mining is such dangerous work,’ the woman sighed.
‘I thought they were plucking gold from river beds.’ Anika had been interested in the gold discovery from the moment the stories appeared in the papers. Anika, who hated to read, was inspired to pour over the broad sheets twice daily for any scrap of information she could find. Any hint of gold or even of the far North was enough to still her restless body for a few minutes.
‘If only it were that easy. I suppose it must have started that way. Certainly the papers described the first discoveries as happenstance: gold nuggets glittering from beneath the creek’s trickle of water and awaiting discovery. If the gold was only found in rivers and streams then I am certain we wouldn’t be heading North now. No, I am sure all the gold hunters would have already stripped every once from the land. Indeed, there is nought by dust left in the waters and little enough of that.’
‘But Dawn City is growing. Anika, my sister, said it was a bustling place filled with – well everything. Tons of people still line the docks in Chesico to catch a ship.’
‘Is that where you are from? Chesico is a beautiful city. I love the spectacular views of the bay you get from the surrounding heights.’
Sophie nodded absently. She didn’t want to think of her home, now so impossibly far away. Sophie had never left Chesico before. Absently, Sophie’s fingers found the small silver charm. The precise strokes spelt the city’s name.
‘Is there no gold left in the North?’ Sophie wondered.
‘Oh, it is still there,’ the woman said leaning back in her seat. Her gaze drifted for a moment to a distant spot over Sophie’s shoulder. ‘It is buried deep within the land. It is a game now, trying to find it and then extracting it. That is what a claim is: a section of land leased from the government on which the hopeful dig for their riches.’
Sophie frowned. ‘It sounds like a lot of work.’
‘Dangerous work too.’ A shadow passed over the woman’s features. ‘There have been accidents on the claims and moving between the claims and town. The North is wild country filled with all sorts of challenges. Freezing cold, long winters, wolves, bears…’ The woman cast a sidelong look at her daughter, still happily peering out the window at a never ending ocean of wavering pine trees.
‘There are charms,’ Sophie said. ‘Protection against cold and wild animals.’
The woman shook her head. ‘Charms might help but the digging for gold… there is danger in the process. The mechanicals they use, well no one is entirely certain how well charming and mechanicals work together.’
‘Charms only enhance,’ Sophie said, the words of her teacher flooding through her mind. ‘They are a way to direct our actions and our futures. Charms have been sung into existence for thousands of years. If mechanicals fail, then how can we know it was a result of the charm and not the contraption?’
‘Spoken like a charmer.’ The woman smiled at Sophie. ‘I always thought charmers were a mysterious breed, cloistered away in churches and low ceilinged shops.’
Sophie laughed weakly. ‘There is nothing particularly mysterious about what I do.’
‘You must have a beautiful voice. I always wished I was better at singing. Yuki, though, has potential.’ The woman turned a fond look on her child.
A lull fell between them. Only now Sophie wished her companion was busy chatting. The constant stream of words had been a good distraction for all the uncertainties that lay before her. Sophie shifted in her seat. The cushioning had worn to threads. It did nothing to soften the hard wooden.
She could feel her eyes drawn to the window. The deceptive beauty of an azure sky lay beyond the stuffy confines of their carriage-car. With effort, Sophie resisted the draw of her thoughts out of the carriage and the immediate future. Instead she thrust her arm awkwardly forward and plastered a smile on her face. ‘Sophie Tammerik,’ she said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Mrs. Lynda Yamata and my daughter Yuki. The pleasure is mine.’
‘We are falling!’ a passenger shouted.
‘Of course not, you old fool. We are descending. Just go back to sleep and everything will be fine.’
Sophie’s mind estimated the damage that would be done to the carriage-car should the two altitude balloons release all their gas without pause. Would the main bladder hold enough air to slow their descent? Would they crash in a splintering mess of metal and wood and bone?
‘We must be almost there, for I am sure those are cabins I can see,’ Mrs. Yamata said softly.
‘Look Mama, there are houses and streets and…’
‘And what my dear?’
‘Trees and water and rocks. There are piles of rocks, big ones.’
‘Ladies and Gentleman, please hold onto your hats we are approaching the platform for Dawn City.’
The voice rose above the general chatter of the carriage-car, stilling conversation to a low hum.
‘Who was that?’ Yuki asked twisting in her seat.
‘That was the conductor,’ Sophie supplied grateful for the brief distraction. ‘There is a bronze horn half way down the carriage. It connects to a mouth piece in the cab perched atop the car. The conductor, navigator and propulsion engineer are up there flying the air-carriage.’
‘Oh, have you been on an air-carriage before?’ Mrs. Yamata was just as calm as before.
Sophie shook her head. ‘I studied the model during boarding. They have an extremely accurate miniature of the air-carriage, complete with three canvass balloons and panelled interior. It is a superior charm,’ she added in appreciation for the craftsmanship that went into making the model.
Pressure built up in Sophie’s ears reminding of where she was. She moved her jaw in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. As her heart rate increased, Sophie scrambled to focus on something beyond the end of her short life. She hummed the charm for general protection. It was old and familiar: a child’s song. She had not actively sung its chords for some time now; her focus was on more advanced charms. The familiar notes loosed her tongue, until she was softly singing the words that accompanied the music.
The final drop slowed. With a jarring thump, the air-carriage landed.
‘Ladies and Gentleman,’ came the conductor’s brisk voice. ‘We have arrived at our final destination, Dawn City. Ensure you have collected all luggage before disembarking.’ Pause. ‘And thank you for flying with Northwind Transit.’
Sophie stood on shaky legs. Around her people unbuttoned coats and collected their bags. The car was quickly becoming hot and stuffy now they had reached ground-level. She followed the shuffling chatting crowd off the conveyance and into a clearing.
White and pink wildflowers added colour to the carpet of weeds which spread out to the boarder of wavering pine trees. The air was brisk and filled with foreign smells; tree resin, wood smoke, and crushed grass. It was different from the city, though not unpleasantly so.
The single platform was crowded with laughing and shouting people. Passengers, in crumpled clothes and wilted hats wobbled forward. Their movements were hampered by arms loaded with bags and packages. Townspeople, Sophie guessed, stood welcome before them. They were different from the travellers. Their clothing was rougher, dirtier and muted in colour. They stood with causal confidence watching the spectacle of new arrivals.
All around her, the constant throb of chatter was punctuated by shouts of joy as excited greetings were exchanged. Sophie searched the waiting faces for some familiar signs. She felt her stomach slowly sink as Yuki squealed and rushed forward into the waiting arms of an older man. Beneath the wide brim of his dusty hat, Sophie saw the scraggly edges of a beard a moment before the man embraced Mrs. Yamata.
Caught by the crowd, which had grown too large for the rough plank platform, Sophie spun trying to orientate herself. Behind her was the air-carriage, the late afternoon sunlight glinting off brass fittings and glass windows. A crew of uniformed workers were busy cleaning the interior and making ready for tomorrow’s departure.
Before her, along the western edge of the clearing was the station house. It was a log-structure, presumably made from the local pine. The round logs had been cut with notches at the corners and the town’s name had been carved into a sign that hung over the wide front stairs. The covered porch wrapped around the building, the only building. Where was the town?
Sophie’s eyes followed the shuffling mass of people, who appeared to be heading around the station house rather than into the building. Readjusting the handles of her carpet bag, Sophie followed. Though it seemed unlikely an entire city could be hidden by a single structure.
As she moved, Sophie checked each female face in view. Could she have forgotten the shape of her sister’s eyes or the pull of her mouth? Had it only taken a few months for Anika to become a stranger? None of the people in sight looked like Anika and certainly none stepped forward to greet her.
Around the back of the station house, was another platform that jutted out over the steep slope of a hill. From glimpses she caught between the trees, Sophie could see painted buildings at the base of the hill. She had not yet arrived in Dawn City. Hopefully the city would be more modern than the station house.
As she waited with the crowd, a heavy cable pulled a large basket to the edge of the platform. The metal wheel clinked to a stop and the man inside the basket called for people to load up after paying the required fee.
‘What is that?’ Sophie wondered, not realizing she had spoken until her neighbour answered.
‘The cable-basket,’ the older woman replied. ‘It ferries people between the town and the station. There are actually two. One will currently be loading people at the bottom, while this one loads them at the top. Then the cables will pull one up and the other down.’
‘How do they know when to move the baskets?’
‘The ferryman there,’ the woman said pointing a bent finger at the man collecting fees. ‘He rings a bell when everyone is loaded. There is a third man in the powerhouse operating the cables.’
Sophie swallowed. ‘Is that the only way down the mountain?’
‘You could always walk. I hear there is a narrow path that winds its way down, somewhere over there.’ The woman waved a dismissive hand back towards the station house. Sophie frowned and bit back her next comment. Instead she watched the full basket bob and bounce as it started its descent.
It was a slow process. Stuck in the middle of her basket, Sophie swayed and rocked with the constant movement. She bumped into the people around her, unable to keep her balance. While most were too dazed by their first ride in a cable-basket, several of those she assumed were townspeople scowled at her.
Welcome to Dawn City, Sophie thought glumly. The man standing with his arms crossed over his barrel chest nudged her away from him. They were more than halfway down the hill when the trees thinned and the city came into full view. Unfortunately, Sophie could see little past the tall shoulders of the other passengers.
In the small spaces that appeared between swaying people Sophie caught sight of buildings, streets and the glitter of light on water. What she did see was not evidence of a bustling city like Chesico, whose streets were paved with stone. Chesico’s downtown had buildings rising four and six stories tall. Dawn City looked small. It did not look any bigger as Sophie was pushed from the basket.
From the smaller platform, Sophie left the cable-basket and entered into Dawn City proper. People and wagons shuffled along packed dirt streets. Individuals with determined looks stood beside massive packs and crates. A year’s supply of rations piled together blocked the street to wagons. The raised boardwalks on either side were crowded with the better dressed and cleaner looking members of society. Men in dark trousers and white shirts watched carts of goods and people pass. Women in long skirts and wide-brimmed hats fanned themselves as they chatted with each other.
Timber buildings were painted in a myriad of different colours with garish trim around the windows and doors. False fronts made the buildings closer to the river appear taller and more imposing than the structures hidden behind.
Sophie walked in a bewildered daze through the streets. The press of bodies seemed to close in on her. It had looked so small from her position in the cable-basket. Yet walking from one full hotel to the next made the town feel expansive.
Her carpet bag grew heavy and banged awkwardly against her shins. The smell of bread and grilled meat wafted through the air causing her stomach to grumble loudly. How long had it been since she ate? Looking at the sun was of little help. The orange ball of light sat low on the horizon, a swollen orb that refused to surrender its place in the sky.
Fatigue and worry pulled at Sophie’s nerves. Her fingers played over the charms on her wrist. She needed help and rest; food and shelter. She turned down another smaller side street and spied the vibrant pink building. The fourth hotel Sophie had stopped at in search of a room had recommended the boarding house. She read the pealing orange letters painted on the side of the building: Patal’s Palace Lodgings.
Sophie rubbed the charm on her wrist as she climbed the wide front stairs towards the dark opening. She smiled at the miniature house nailed to the right of the front door. The carefully constructed replica of the boarding house shared the same garish paint job. It was also chipped and peeling. A nail had loosened and the miniature tilted on its perch just as the boarding house listed to the left.
The wide front door hung open. Inside the dim interior the front hall was painted golden yellow. The floor was scuffed green painted wood.
‘Hello,’ a young man said. Blue eyes sparkled curiously at her. ‘Are you new here?’
‘I hope so,’ Sophie replied licking dry lips. ‘Do you know where I can find the proprietor?’
‘I think Ms. Patal is in the kitchen,’ he waved his hand towards the back of the building, the charms dangling from his wrist jingled musically.
At the end of the narrow hall was the kitchen. Aromas of curried stew wafted out. Three young girls moved purposefully around the space from work counters to sink. The clatter of dishes and pots filled the air. Sophie salivated as leftover food was put away and dirty plates were cleaned for the night. At the centre of the dance was a tall woman dressed in bright pink and gold. Her long black hair fell in a single braid down her back. She wore a long sleeveless tunic over a split skirt.
Dislodging herself from the kitchen, Ms. Patal flowed toward her. ‘A recently arrived adventurer? What has brought you to our magical land?’
‘I have come after my sister.”
Ms. Patal smiled. ‘Come to join your sister?’
‘To find my sister,’ Sophie amended.
‘So you will not be lodging with her.’
Sophie shook her head. ‘I … I don’t know if she is in town. I think she said she was working a gold-field–I mean a claim.’
‘Of course, of course. No doubt she will be here to greet you shortly. Until then you need a place to stay, yes? Well, let me think. I don’t know if I have any rooms left, summer is a very busy season for us…’
‘Where else can I go?’
‘There is no place like Patal’s Palace,’ the landlady sang. ‘I have just the thing. Follow me.’
Ms. Patal lead Sophie up three flights of stairs to a room stuffed in a small corner of the attic. The roof sloped. The bed creaked and sagged. The window was permanently shut in its orange frame. Atop the chest of drawers was a chipped ceramic washbasin and mismatched jug.
The landlady smiled as she gestured exuberantly at the room. ‘Meals are included: breakfast and dinner. The cost is paid by week.’ She looked expectantly at Sophie as she noted the price.
Sophie sputtered. ‘You want how much? For this miniscule space! I could easily get three times the space back in Chesico.’
Ms. Patal’s smile faded. ‘We are not in Chesico, now are we? If you don’t want the room, I am sure someone else does.’
‘No, no,’ Sophie hurried. She had already been turned away from several hotels. ‘I will pay.’
‘Don’t worry, I am sure we can fit the rest of your supplies somewhere,’ Ms. Patal said as she left.
‘I don’t have any other supplies,’ Sophie told the room. ‘And that is a good thing. I am glad Dawn City isn’t any bigger. I don’t think I could afford to stay here another week.’ She moved over to the window. ‘Don’t worry Anika, it shouldn’t take more than a day to find you. Then we can be on our way.’
Slipping out of her shoes, Sophie curled up on the bed. She let the fatigue of the journey pull her into the sweet oblivion of sleep.
Outside, the sun skimmed along the horizon. The sky dimmed but never fully darkened even Sophie drifted away in the realm of dreams.