Beyond the Cold Steel Rails – a flash steampunk story

railway-908277_640A world of old rocks and dead trees rattled past outside Elenna’s windows, as the cold steel tracks led her inexorably onward from one town to the next. The train shook around her and through her, each vibration running from the levers and pulleys among which she hung, along her uselessly dangling legs and her slender arms, like another pulse beating alongside her own. For a moment, the hills to the east parted and she saw a flash of green, so much brighter than the unhealthy trees that survived alongside the smoke-shrouded railway lines and manufacturing towns. She longed to see those glorious colours up close. But if she could not walk then she could hardly leave the tracks. She kept the train running, and it in turn carried her from place to place.

They passed a long abandoned siding, and she noticed old abandoned rails heading off to the east. Their rust gave them a warmly comforting look compared with the hard grey of her regular rails. Maybe they could lead her beyond these steep-sided valleys that protected the trains from weather and attacks. Perhaps then she could see the world.

“Samar?” She swung around in her harness to face the Cabin Man, one of the few train staff allowed up here, men and women who constantly attended upon her, both to tend to her needs and to supervise her decisions.

“Yes?” he asked, peering up from his newspaper across a pair of half-moon spectacles.

“Could we turn off at one of the old sidings?” Elenna asked. “I want to see something different.”

“Perhaps,” Samar said. “You could put a request to the Train Committee. They might allow it.”

The doubt in his voice told her everything she needed to know. The Committee were old and set in their ways. They would allow no disruption to the all-important timetable. Elenna could try that route, make request after request in the hope of eventually wearing them down. Or she could try something else.

She made a retching sound and curled her body over as if in pain.

“Is something the matter?” Samar laid a hand against her forehead. “It isn’t a fever again, is it?”

“No,” Elenna mumbled. “Fine, I just…”

She let the words trail off and her head hang slack.

“Oh my Gods and Gears! I must fetch the doctor.” Samar rushed out of the cabin.

The minute he was gone, Elenna reached into the narrow brass tube containing the cabin controls and flipped a switch. The door slammed shut and the lock clicked.

Smiling and humming to herself in excitement and pride at her boldness, she looked for the next junction she could take. Half a mile ahead, a signal indicated a choice between keeping going and turning down the rusted rails towards who knew what. She yanked on a pulley, and a moment later the signal changed.

“Elenna?” Samar was outside the door. He rattled the handle. “Elenna, why is the door locked?”

The whole train shook as they went left, off the main rails and towards a gap in the hills. The tracks here were not well maintained. The cabin shook up and down. The train lurched, and looking back through a system of lenses and mirrors, Elenna saw a buckled track give way beneath the rear caboose, which stayed on the rails only through momentum and the power of the carriages pulling it.

Several people were beating on the door now, shouting at her to stop. She didn’t listen. She had come this far, and she wanted to see what lay beyond. Already they were passing cleaner rocks, greener trees, and the bright colours of flowers she had only seen in picture books.

“You’ve going to doom us all!” someone screamed as rotten sleepers snapped beneath them and rails bent inward, screeching against the wheels as Elenna forced more steam into the pistons, determined to keep them going.

Everything was shaking. Her teeth chattered against each other and her vision blurred. The hammering against the door had turned into loud, steady clangs as someone brought a sledgehammer to bear.

The track headed up a hill. Straining on levers and pulleys, Elenna kept the valves open, kept the train running at the limit of its power. Steam poured from a ruptured pipe, scalding one of her legs. She didn’t care. This was it. This was her moment.

The door burst open with a deafening clang just as they crested the hill. Elenna pulled on the break lever, venting the steam that had poured into the pistons, and stared in wonder at what lay in front of them.

The hillside was green with grass and bushes. It ran down to a length of golden sand, beyond which blue ocean stretched to the horizon. Tears welled in her eyes at the wonder of it all.

Samar grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around.

“What were you thinking?” he snapped. “What have you done?”

“We can go back now,” Elenna whispered.

She closed her eyes, remembering the green, gold and blue she had just witnessed, the openness of a world without limits lying beyond her cabin.

She would always have that sight.

* * *

 

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The Revelation of Brother Rufus – a flash steampunk story

railway-908277_640The hillside shook beneath Brother Rufus’s feet, dust rising in a cloud around him. Three trains roared towards each other in the valley below, two black and bearing the white cross of the Knights Hospitaller, the other green and emblazoned with heathen heraldry. Smoke poured from their stacks as they roared across the tangled rails towards each other, cannon roaring and shot clanging off their sides.

The very sight of the heathen train, powered as it was by the blood of demons, made Brother Rufus shudder. Could the demon train see into his soul from down there? Might it taint him or tempt him from the righteous path?

The three trains met at the heart of the valley. Though no larger, the demon train was more powerful. Its ram tore down the side of one of the Hospitaller trains, flinging it over in a trail of tangled metal and screaming men. The other turned aside, the trains running parallel as they bombarded each other. Rufus’s hopes for his fellow crusaders crumbled as their engine was pierced and the boiler exploded, ripping the train apart. A chunk of its shell sliced into the cabin of the heathen train. That too shuddered, rocked, and fell with a crash into the dirt.

His brothers had not died in vain. The enemy had fallen.

Filled with trepidation, Brother Rufus walked down the hillside into the valley. He was only meant to be out here collecting botanical samples, and it was unlikely that anyone had survived that carnage, but if there was any way he could help then he should.

Reaching the valley floor, he approached the remains of the second crusader train and the heathen one beside it.

Corpses were littered amid the broken machinery. One of the heathen bodies rose, bloodied and ash-streaked, wide eyes staring at Rufus. Fear loosened his bladder as the man pointed at him, uttering words so alien and ugly Rufus was sure they must be a curse. He expected demons to carry him off at any moment, or that the man would lunge at him, possessed by whatever power had brought him back to his feet.

Instead, the heathen turned and limped hurriedly away.

Rufus’s eyes were drawn irresistibly to the remains of the demon train. He had seen those of the righteous up close, but never been so near to one like this. Ashamed at the cowardice that had dampened his robes, he determined to redeem himself. He would see what he could learn from the cursed hulk.

Demon blood poured, thick and black, from the tanks on the side of the engine. Brother Rufus took a trembling step closer. He drew one of his sample jars from his bag, unscrewed the lid and let out the butterfly. His excitement at finding a citrus swallowtail this far north was nothing next to the holy cause.

Careful not to let his fingers touch the unclean liquid, he dip the jar into the stinking demon blood, wiped the outside with his sleeve, and screwed the lid down on this new sample. No-one had captured the blood before, as it burst into flames when it touched the feet of the righteous. Surely this would aid the order’s martial members in understanding the enemy machines.

Turning, he saw to his horror that the demon blood had spread. He stood on a small island of dirt amid a lake of the thick black liquid. It had almost reached as far as the flames still flickering in the ruin of the Hospitaller train’s fire box, a terrible reminder of the conflagration that would shortly engulf him.

The blood crept closer, Rufus’s island of safety shrinking. There was only one hope. As Christ had walked on the water not far from here, could he now walk atop the blood without sinking in and so igniting it with the heat of a righteous soul?

Rufus closed his eyes and prayed, more to ensure a swift journey to Heaven than out of any belief that he might survive. Then he took a step forward into the blood, expecting fire to consume him.

The only heat was that of the desert wind.

Eyes still closed, Rufus kept walking until the ground sloped up and his footsteps no longer raised wet slaps. Opening his eyes, he looked back. The place where he had stood was covered in demon blood. It surrounded the ruins of the Hospitaller train and was about to dribble into its firebox.

“Praise be to God,” Rufus said with conviction.

Then flames swept across the blood, racing towards him. With a squeal of terror, Rufus ran off up the hill, his precious sample pot still in his hand.

* * *

 

My friend Gareth suggested that I combine the diverse subjects I’ve been writing about recently to create a single scenario – “Hospitallers driving armoured steam trains through the Middle East battling demons real & imagined…” Always up for a challenge, I took that idea and wrote this story. Thanks for the inspiration Gareth! Maybe next time I’ll try to work in The Archers as well.

If you’re after more steampunk, my Epiphany Club books are still going cheap (and even free!) in the Smashwords summer sale. You can find them at this link, but the sale ends at the end of July, so go grab some cheap steam-powered goodness while you still can.

Broken Rails – a steampunk flash story

Picture by amanderson2 via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by amanderson2 via Flickr Creative Commons

“Go left!”

The train jolted, smoke billowing into Flywheel’s face, as Georgo made a last minute swing at the junction lever.

“Gears dammit, Flywheel!” Georgo bellowed, glancing at the track they had nearly taken as it ran arrow straight through the cratered debris of the plains. “We can’t jump away from every splinted rail you see.”

“Can and will!” Flywheel screamed over the roar of the Silver Bolt’s engine. “We hit one at speed, this whole pile of junk goes down, and us with it!”

“We don’t win this race, we don’t get the scrap,” George replied. “Then the whole town starves.”

To their right, the Crimson Inferno roared along another of the tangled tracks that crossed the old warzone. For a moment it vanished behind the armoured carcass of an artillery train. When it reappeared it was a dozen feet ahead of them and gaining.

Georgo cursed as he surveyed the tracks, while Flywheel flung coal into the furnace, sweat pouring down her face. Tracks screeched by beneath their wheels, but as the trains drew toward another junction, the Crimson Inferno was a whole carriage length ahead.

“Here!” She flung the shovel to Georgo and grabbed a wrench. Swinging at a signalling lever, she sent them careening onto a track set to merge with their opponents. They could hold their nerve and risk a crash, or they could starve.

Across the dirt and rubble, she saw shock on the other driver’s face. Then determination took its place. Casting aside his wrench he picked up a shovel, forcing more speed from his screaming engine.

There was one more junction before the tracks merged, one last chance to chicken out and avoid catastrophe. The Inferno rushed straight through.

Flywheel swung at the junction switch with her wrench. The Silver Bolt turned onto a side track, any hope to catch up gone. Shaking her head, she watched the other train head down the straight line toward victory.

“Shit.” Georgo sank to the floor. “We’re gonna regret this.”

“Not us,” Flywheel said. “The thing about fearing splinted rails more than most folks, you get better at spotting them coming.”

With a screech of tearing metal, the straight track twisted and snapped beneath the Crimson Inferno. One end leapt up, twisting into the wheels and dragging the engine from the track.There was an almighty crash, then a crack like lightning and a woomph as super heated steam burst in a scalding cloud from the boiler.

“Slow down.” She took the shovel from Georgo’s hands. They both stared in shock as a figure emerged screaming from the steam, then collapsed in the dirt. “No way we can lose now.”

 

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