Carmody missed the metropolis. The incessant buzz of motorised balloons, the hydraulic gait of carriage horses along cobblestone; horns and sirens, alarms and bullhorns, the ticking of a thousand clocks. The volume of a city in perpetual motion – loud and honest.
The silence of this landscape was secretive.
Golden plains, barren and unforgiving, stretched seamlessly around the train station. No town spawned from the depot – ghost or otherwise – it sat alone in the emptiness, exiled.
“The Last Outpost,” she whispered. Where you paid to cheat death for a chance to stare into the Pit. Ride the train, beat the Shovel-Man.
Steel tracks cut past the oversized platform and swooped into the desert, warping as they disappeared into the heat of the horizon, non-stop to the Edge of the World.
Carmody picked at the struts of the rusted water tank and watched the triumphant passengers from afar. Jostling for hierarchy of the platform, smug smiles on their faces, they waved their tickets high. So assured in their right to chase the next thrill in their idle, wasted lives.
She’d scrimped and saved every penny for a seat on the train; only the highest bidders got to ride. But even with Nate’s money she’d been outbid, put back in her place.
“Scrap Rats is what we are, what we’s always gunna be.” Her mother’s voice, weary from a lifetime of disappointment, stoked Carmody’s anger. “More ain’t for the likes of us. You’ll see.”
She slapped sand from her best trousers; the pinstripe was bright from years of meticulous care, the brass buckles down the sides, gleaming – chic… once upon a time, she’d heard them snigger.
All her life she’d watched them pass overhead in their motorised balloons, bestowing a wave like it were gold; listened to them haggle for the mechanisms her family scavenged as they screamed poor in their Angora coats and calf-skin boots–
“Crack! The whip struck Shovel-Man Joe! Back slashed red, blood and sweat flowed!”
Carmody snapped her head up at the voice. An Aeronaut, commanding attention from the station’s roof. His brown leathers, worn thin at the shoulders, sagged on his angular frame.
“Piled high at his feet were limbs and entrails! The shovel scraped loudly; the fire inhaled!”
The goggles atop his aviator cap glinted in the sun and she shielded her eyes against the glare.
“The throttle released with a hiss and a groan! The engine chugged forward on pistons of bone!”
Carmody watched the Aeronaut parade, transfixed. This was the reason they were here. To challenge the fabled warning to all pioneers there are some things best left undiscovered, but she’d never heard the tale told quite like this.
“First Class hurrah’d and raised glasses high!”
A cheer broke out from the crowd, and they slapped each other’s backs in feigned camaraderie. The Aeronaut saluted then leaned forward as if to impart a secret. The passengers responded in kind, craning their necks, eager for wisdom.
“The whore settled back, spread wide with a sigh!”
Women recoiled; men shouted: “Scoundrel!”
The storyteller wouldn’t be silenced. He crouched, beckoned them back.
“Listen well, listen well, one warning you’ll get.” Though loud, there was an intimacy that hushed the crowd. “The fire must be fed. ” He scanned those below. “Who amongst you will be paying the debt?”
The Station Master blew his whistle – three short bursts and the Aeronaut flinched. Carmody got to her feet as the pilot leapt to his. She wanted to hear the end of the butchered legend.
“Whispers in the halls. Scratching in the walls.” With exaggerated tip-toe he danced along the roof. “One-by-one you will surely fall.”
An awkward laugh floated from the passengers. “Bollocks,” Lord Hemsley shouted in false bravado, his hired brute glowering at the rooftop antics.
“Beware the Shovel-Man’s ire!” The Aeronaut cackled like an old witch. “Feed the fire! Feed the fire!”
Carmody’s skin prickled.
“All aboard! All aboard! Fresh meat, the fire roared!”
A train-whistle shrieked.
She scanned the tracks. A fuzzy, black stain in the distance. Closing fast.
“He comes! Can you hear?” He pointed to the milling crowd. “Who is the first to disappear?”
The passengers glanced at one another, asking themselves the same question before shaking it off. This performance was surely part of the adventure.
“Ride the train, it was writ! Be the first to The Pit!” He danced across the roof, the wooden slats keeping a steady beat. “But who can tell me this…?” He stopped suddenly and looked over the passengers. “Who has returned and spoken of it?”
Carmody ventured from the shade, her eyes locked to the Aeronaut.
Eyes closed, he lifted his arms, beseeching the sky. “Ride the train if you dare…” His eyes snapped open and he spun his face to Carmody. Eyes, black as coal, locked to hers. “You must all pay the fare.”
He yanked his cap off, exposing a scalp puckered thick with burns.
The looming train seemed to shriek in horror. Its black engine glistened. A red glow sat low in the windows.
Carmody’s gaze flicked between the Aeronaut and the train. Both were charging toward the platform.
The train bore down on the station like an angry bull.
The Aeronaut leapt.
Metal screeched. Sparks flew.
His flight was graceful. Arms aloft, eyes closed, he didn’t once look at the train. He’d timed the jump beautifully.
The whistle blared, drowning out the Aeronaut’s last words, but he mouthed them clearly. Pay the fare.
A woman swooned, delicate hand to head.
Carmody closed her eyes.
The crunch was wet. The screams distant.
The heat of the engine singed past Carmody and she counted to ten before opening her eyes. The desert shimmered, her vision swam. Shade. She stumbled back to the shelter of the water-tank and slumped on her travelling-trunk. Mouth dry, heart racing, she closed her eyes. Was that her fate? Would madness claim her if she couldn’t ride the train? There was no going back.
Raised voices and soft sobs drifted toward her.
“Miss? Miss? Are you all right?” This voice was close, soft and gentle.
Carmody forced her eyes open. The face before her was blurred around the edges, smudged in the centre. Dark hair. She blinked until her vision cleared. His hair wasn’t dark, it was blonde beneath a dark-blue cap. The same dark blue as his eyes.
He proffered a flask in his white-gloved hand. “Water.”
The flask trembled in her fingers as she raised it to her lips. Cool water swirled down her throat, soothing. She sighed, tipped a little water into her hand and splashed her face.
“Much. Thank you, Sir.”
He waved her off. “It is just water.”
“It was a kindness. Thank you.”
“You are welcome.” His knee joints cracked when he rose. His boots were spit-polished brilliance, his pants perfectly starched. Red letters emblazoned his wool jacket. Abaddon Rail.
Was he her chance for a seat on the train? “You work at the depot?” she asked, hope rising with her as she pushed to her feet.
Teeth white as sun-bleached bone crowded his smile. “No, Miss.” He pointed to the train. “I am the Engineer.” He held his shoulders proud. “I drive The Beast.”
His eyes darkened, seemed more alive. “Primitive, loud and hungry.”
This time his smile was more smirk. “She is not the magnetised trains of your city. Steam-power must come from somewhere, Miss…”
“Boone. Carmody Boone.”
Before she could ask his name, or for his help, he tipped the brim of his cap. “It has been a pleasure Miss Boone.” He dipped his head. “Safe journey.”
With military precision he turned on his heel and strode into the sunshine.
No. “I can’t make the journey,” she called after him.
He stopped but didn’t turn around. “Anyone can make the journey, Miss Boone.”
“Not true,” she said, taking a step toward him. “The train is the property of the rich, the elite. It’s their playground. Those of us who seek passage only are priced out of seats.”
He pulled at the cuffs of his jacket then dusted the sleeves. “The train belongs to those whose desire for the destination outweighs all else.”
Carmody took another step, stopping at the edge of the shade. She wouldn’t make her confession in front of the other passengers. “All the seats are taken and they laughed off my offers of purchase. I know the rules. No ticket, no ride.” She took a breath. “I’ll sell anything I have for the journey.”
He kept his back to her, silent.
“Please.” She regurgitated the word and the shame that came with its use.
He adjusted his cap, straightened his shoulders. “Where there is a will there is a way, Miss Boone.” He still refused to face her. “It comes down to how much you want to ride the train, nothing else.” He dipped his head again. “Now if you will excuse me, I must avail myself of a mop and bucket.”
He marched to the platform, the passengers parting like the Red Sea before him.
Carmody stood alone. Stranded. An outcast again. She pulled the time-piece from her vest pocket; it was all she had left of her brother.
The internal mechanism whirred as the clock face rose, flipped, then settled back into place. The green needle pointed due east. “Green always points home, Carm, so you never get lost again.” Nate had made it for her when she was five and wandered out of the junk-yard after a stray puppy. He was the only one who’d looked for her.
She ran her thumb over the brass casing. A year had passed since he’d died detaching a timer from a gas bottle.
Her father hadn’t smoked since.
She tucked the time-piece away and went after the Engineer.
* * *
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Carmody murmured.
The view through the carriage window never changed. Four days on the train, four days of endless desert and empty sky. The monotony of visual nothingness, the rhythmic rocking of the train and lack of sleep conspired to sedate Carmody and she sank deeper into the leather wing-back.
She’d tried to stay awake last night, had fought sleep hard, but she was alone when her eyes had snapped open at dawn. The man – Simon – was gone, but she could still feel the cold caress of his metal hand. “Be honoured,” he’d told her. His motorised limb was one of a kind.
“Not a Scrap Rat any more.” The bitterness in her voice, so like her mother’s, was directed at no one but herself. She’d made her decision. The time-piece was heavy around her neck, but it was safe.
The train jolted her gaze to the door and her heart stuttered. Had she locked it? She hurried across the compartment, sighed in relief. Resting her head against the mahogany, she closed her eyes.
Her eyes snapped open. A child’s voice.
The whisper sounded just the other side of the door. So close.
That name. Hissed like steam.
A shadow flitted beneath the door. “…whore…”
Branded again, the word flicked a switch inside her. The names, the insults, the superiority they believed protected them and made her sport had her lunge for the door. She twisted the key and threw the door wide.
Heart hammering, she glanced into the corridor. Empty. The clanking of the tracks and coughing of the steam-engine the only noise. She stepped tentatively from her room and scanned the doors to the other compartments. Closed. Locked, too, she was sure.
She lingered in the doorway; the windows opposite framed the same desolate view as her room. “See the world,” Nate had begged as his life pumped from the stump where his arm had been. She’d promised him better; she’d go to the edge of it. Death had tested them time and again as children, and finally claimed her brother. She wanted to know why.
She put her fingers to the time-piece again; she’d stopped looking at it four days ago, the morning the whispers started. Four names had drifted past her door as if on a breeze. Two she knew.
At breakfast, the Dining Carriage had been abuzz with gossip and speculation. Two couples gone, and rumour had it passengers in the lower priced seats were also missing. The excited murmurings, their bravado as it dawned they were living the legend, playing the game, hadn’t sat right with Carmody. When they raised their glasses to the Shovel-Man, she’d left. Their sniggers following her.
Another gone at lunch, two more at dinner, and the furtive glances in her direction gained momentum. They knew where Lord Hemsley had spent the afternoon. He’d heard the scratching before she had. “Rats,” he’d told her, spitting the word out like it were poison.
Carmody knew better, she felt the intent behind it. Sometimes secretive scrapes from the corner of her room tormented her for hours; other times they struck hard and fast, screeching like fingernails clawing down a chalkboard. They’d been warned.
No one spoke of it. Just as they no longer spoke of the dwindling passengers. But their glares let her know what they believed. She’d been dragged into the legend by their fear and suspicion.
She’d barricaded herself in when the whispers told her to. Now, no one left their room. Food was scarce, sleep too frightening to entertain.
Carmody yelped as the door of the first compartment burst open.
The widow Danforth stumbled from her room. Eyes wide with fear, her greying hair whipped about her face as she sobbed. “She’s gone! I fell asleep and she’s gone!”
Carmody slammed and locked her door.
Fists pounded the other side. “You did this!”
Carmody backed away. Widow Danforth had started that rumour, had spat at her feet when Lord Hemsley had disappeared.
“Open up!” The handle shook, wood rattled in its frame. “Open up you whore!”
Carmody slid down the wall.
The train-whistle shrieked. So did the widow.
Carmody scuttled from the wall and the train jerked violently, throwing her to the floor. A mirror shattered; fists kept pounding, the engine wouldn’t stop screaming. She crawled to the centre of the compartment, pushed to her knees and the train shrieked to silence.
No fists pounded the door. The handle was still.
The train rocked gently on its tracks.
“One-by-one you will surely fall.” The Aeronaut’s words haunted the room, scratches taunted through the walls. She looked to the door.
“No…” She shook her head. Every name whispered past her door took its owner with it. But she’d paid more for her fare than any of the others. She unlocked the door and pocketed the key.
The corridor was empty. The compartment doors were all open.
She was alone.
The horizon was aflame with orange and pinks. Dusk. To her right, the curtain covering the door leading to the Dining Carriage was drawn. It never was. Heart racing, her fingers trembled as she pushed the velvet aside.
Endless desert, empty sky.
“Who is the last to disappear?”
Carmody spun to the voice.
His face was in shadow. Uniform tattered, the red letters glistened like blood on his jacket . “Miss Boone.”
She backed against the door, grabbed the handle.
“Locked, of course.” He motioned to the window. “Where would you go?”
“Where is everyone?”
“Come now, Miss Boone,” he clucked his tongue.
She shook her head.
“We have been travelling a week without stopping for-”
“No. Four days,” she countered, like that made all the difference.
He dismissed her argument with a wave of his white-gloved hand. “The days tend to blur together out here.”
She edged toward her room.
“Your fate is sealed, Miss Boone.”
He leaned into the fading light. Blackened skin sloughed from his cheeks, his ears were melted against his skull. Lips gone, his teeth shone in a perpetual smile. “Pay the fare.”
She was closer to her room than he, but he moved as fast as his train and blocked the doorway.
“I paid!” she yelled. “More than anyone else!”
“Which is why you were saved until last. The others threw money, valuables, things they would not miss. Token payments. But you…” He ran a blistered tongue along his teeth. “You sold everything to ride the train.”
The time-piece burned hot against her skin.
He leapt, slamming her against the carriage door. She raked her fingernails down his face, ripping large strips of flesh from his cheek. He howled, backhanded her.
Knocking her to the ground was a mistake. She’d grown up fighting her way to her feet. She punched into the side of his knee with all her might and he buckled, the snap of his tendon like music to her ears.
She scrambled to her feet, but he grabbed her ankle, tripping her. She bounced off the wall and he roared as she raced up the corridor toward the engine room. He’d left the door unlocked. He hadn’t expected any resistance from her. She flung it wide. Hot wind buffeted her, the couplings clattered. She hesitated, the engine room was enclosed but there was no where else to go.
She fished the key from her pocket, took a step onto the buffer and her hair was yanked from behind, a hand closing around her throat.
“You can only enter in pieces.” His breath was hot against her ear. “Joe only feeds the fire.” He laughed softly, and Carmody twisted her head, swung her arm up and rammed the key into his eye. Nate had taught her everything was a weapon.
He shrieked, stumbled back. Carmody wrenched free, yelling as her hair ripped out in his fist. She ran to the engine room door. Unlocked. He was as arrogant as the others. She slammed the door shut, and slid the bolt as the engineer crashed into the other side.
She spun, looking for a weapon.
The legend was real.
His back, criss-crossed with scars old and new, glistened with sweat. Blood sluiced down his skin, staining his denim pants.
Veins bulged in his shoulders as he shovelled widow Danforth’s head into the fire-box.
The Engineer screamed for Joe, but the Shovel-Man was fixated on the fuel at his feet.
A liver-spotted hand tumbled from the slop of red, pink and white sizzling on the engine room floor.
Carmody spotted the whip and snatched it up.
The shovel scraped, empty, against the floor.
Carmody gripped the whip tight. The sun was almost set but she was determined to see dawn. She’d come too far, lost too much to stop now.
Joe turned. The skin of his face was filled with pustules, his lips like two strips of leather. Flames danced in the blacks of his eyes. He struck the floor with his shovel. “Feed the fire.”
The train jolted, but Shovel-Man Joe knew his Beast and rocked in perfect time with her.
His gaze flicked from her, to the fire, to the tracks stretched ahead. Her. Fire. Tracks.
The flames began to dwindle.
Her. Fire. Tracks.
The Engineer yelled for Joe to attack, but…. Carmody cocked her head. Joe only feeds the fire.
Hate burned deep in her chest. There wasn’t enough ‘fuel’. All of this. All of it, was for nothing.
The shovel clattered to the floor.
Joe’s left foot went in first. Embers flickered. He grabbed the fire-box. Skin sizzled. Right leg; the fire crackled. Joe peeled his hands from the scorching metal, leaving flesh behind as he manoeuvred his body deeper into the pyre.
The train jolted, picked up speed.
Flames surged up his back, eating at his shoulders as he squeezed them into the furnace.
Shovel-Man Joe turned, smiled.
The pustules burst. Skin melted from his face, his lips peeled back and he sank into his fire.
Fists pounded on the window behind her.
Carmody’s gaze flicked from the fire to the tracks to the shovel. Fire. Tracks. Shovel.
The wooden handle seared her flesh and she looked through the window to the tracks beyond. As the sun dipped below the horizon, her reflection rose. Eyes as black as coal stared back at her.
She pulled the time-piece from the chain around her neck, turned and smiled at the Engineer.
“Feed the fire…”