tagSci-Fi & FantasySteam Ch. 02

Steam Ch. 02


Steam | Chapter Two | Departures

Snow drifted in fat flakes from the sky, gathering into soft, cold piles that they marched through in lines. A geomagus led the procession slowly through the hip high drifts, holding his metal gloved hand out before him to feel for fissures beneath the endless field of white. The falling powder built up atop the shoulders and heads of the men and women in the formation, sometimes falling off in thick, soundless chunks and leaving depressions beside the trench they marched through. Sylvia had no idea where they were going, and nobody was going to bother telling her.

She had been trussed up together with six other prisoners, six other sad faced survivors of the Lady Turandot, with a dirty bit of cord some red-cloaked soldier had pulled from the wreckage. It chaffed at her wrists, but they had been bound loosely enough to rub warmth into themselves as they walked the top of the Granger Pass to some unknown destination.

Nobody spoke. The only sound beside the constant soft rush of the cold wind was the crunches of snow compacting beneath heavy boots. On the occasions when they stopped, Sylvia could hear the steady beat of her pulse in her ears. She latched onto the sound, trying to imagine the steaming heat of her blood, and the constant mechanical pounding of her heart. Humanity had its own clockwork. She tried to remember warmth and failed.

One of the other prisoners, a man, yelped and fell to his knees in the snow, jerking painfully against their tether and forcing the other five to stop. He moaned feebly as one of the guards pulled him back to his feet. Sylvia kept her eyes forward, like the other prisoners. There had been eight of them when the group had left the site of the crash. Trying to help would be pointless. They began to walk again.

Sylvia couldn't see much of the range around her, buried as it was in the snow and fog that poured down from the high peaks around them. The raiding party walked in three lines across the flank of some high ridge. She estimated their number at around 80, perhaps more, though even with their red cloaks they were hard to pick out in all the blinding whiteness. None of them had talked since Foucault had waved her away, passing orders between each other by snapping their fingers and waving their arms and hands about. The last of the prisoners that had spoke was slowly being buried by the falling flakes a mile back, her glass eyes fixed on the dusky mountain sky. Sylvia shuddered.

The woman had broke formation to pick up her friend, the first of the prisoners to fall. His leg had been broken in the crash and fitted with a makeshift splint. She refused to move without him, so the guards had killed them both, dragging their bodies out of the trench so the soldiers behind them wouldn't trip. The woman never took her eyes off her dying friend, lying on his chest as they both bled to death in the snow. The slack went out of the cord wrapped around Sylvia's wrists, nearly dragging her down.

One of the guards brushed by her and pulled the man on the ground to his feet. His lolled forward and then back, his eyes staring madly out of his head at nothing. The man's face was completely colorless. The guard slapped his cheek, a single loud crack that made a few of the other prisoners jump. The guard looked back up the formation and shook his head. Another soldier responded with a quick hand gesture and turned to keep walking. The guard nodded, hoisted the prisoner onto the snow bank beside the trench and then shot him once in the temple, cutting the cord off his wrists and returning to formation.

They pressed on.

Sylvia tried not to think about the blood running in a heavy, black stream out of the side of the man's head, and the sad, confused look in his eyes as his brain bled to death. She did anyway, and had to force herself not to throw up.

They pressed on.

Hours passed, and the weak light of the day gave way to the glowing moonlight of the night. The snowfall petered out shortly after nightfall, and she could soon see the jagged outline of the mountains around her. In particular, she could Mount Granger, carving it's twisted, spindling path through the fat ball of the rising moon. One of the prisoners behind her started sobbing. Another one of them tried to console her with quiet shushes. She could hear the soft pat of a gloved hand on a shoulder.

They pressed on.

Something deep, deep inside her was beginning to give out. The pace of the march had made her start sweating hours ago, but she was not sweating anymore. Her tongue stuck to the dry roof of her mouth, and every attempt to swallow became more difficult. Her feet were numb. She forced herself not to cry.

They pressed on.

Their number had dwindled down to four. Sylvia didn't even bother looking back, instead using the distraction to try snagging a mouthful of snow from the side of the trench. The binds on her wrists were too taut to for her to use her hands, so she leaned to the side and tried to bit into the drift with her mouth. The cold of night had frozen the snow into ice. She nearly wept from frustration.

They pressed on.

Sylvia could feel herself dying. There was no more warmth in the world, and there never had been. Heat was lie, like mercy and fresh water. Her knees buckled with every other step and still the silent march across the mountain continued. The moon had crossed the sky, and now she could see the back of Mount Granger in greater detail.

The mountain rose, tall and impossibly twisted, into the sky, like a bent grey nail. Her tombstone, a tombstone for the world. The sun would rise behind it soon, but she didn't expect to see it. Sylvia would die with the moon in the hills. She thought she could smell fire on the wind.

The procession came to a halt. Her vision swam and she stumbled, and then fell to the side. Her brain didn't even process the pain of having her arms jerked to the side. The others made no move to help her, and she laid there, her face in the ice, and prepared to die.

The guard cut the cord around her wrists and hoisted her onto his back. She felt infinitely heavy, like a great boulder of lead, but he moved her onto his back with hands of granite and steel. She closed her eyes and let the man spirit her off. When he set her down the snow felt hard, flat and warm. I must be going into shock, she thought, wondering if she would feel the bullet hitting her. If should hear the gunshot. If it would hurt.

"Stand Sylvia Messerschmitt, and behold your salvation."

Sylvia opened her eyes to see a massive fire burning in front of her. It cast light and long shadows away from it. She crawled toward the heat, letting her affinity fill her with warmth. The red-cloaked Caanish soldiers stood in wide rings around the flames, their eyes hidden by shadow. The ground beneath her was clean, dry stone, carved with intricate patterns and worn smooth by age. She stood and rubbed the raw skin of her wrists.

"Sylvia Messerschmitt," said the voice. She turned around saw Foucault standing opposite the fire with his arms crossed. An enormous stone staircase, lined with burning braziers, rose behind him. An old, graying man sat in the carved throne at the top of the stairs, flanked on either side by spear bearers. He sat casually in the chair, propping his head on his fist and regarding Sylvia with a casual smirk.

"We offer you the Embrace of Caan," Foucault said. He held his arms out wide and the soldiers roared in response, slapping their gloved fists against their chests three times. The sound was deafening. Sylvia looked around, confused. Foucault approached her. His face was unknowable. She flinched when he raised his hand and set it on her shoulder. It was heavy, but warm.

"I don't understand," she said. Her eyes met his, and she saw nothing in them.

"You are being given a chance," he said, softer than before, "to survive this ordeal. Cast aside your old life, become a daughter of Caan, and you will live. You will find purpose in our cause. You will march with us, to purge this land of its mad, tyrannical oppressors."

"Join you?" She asked, looking around. She clutched her arms, remembering the cold. "You killed those people on the train, executed prisoners. We... we were on a peaceful transit mission. You people are..."

"Evil?" He asked bluntly. "No, there is no such thing. We are at war. Unforgivable decisions are made every day. As for your train and its occupants..." He paused, searching her eyes for something. "...there is much you don't know. That four of you live now is a miracle, though you may not see it for what it is for some time." She shook her head again, dropping her gaze.

"I'm no traitor..." She said softly, her words trailing off into the wind. Foucault narrowed his gaze and set his left hand on her other shoulder. She felt small in his grasp.

"The Imperium is a heresy," he said. His eyes glinted when the name rolled off his tongue in Caanish. Plazekt. Imperium. "It cannot be betrayed, only destroyed."

"I...I can't ever go home," she said. Her lip quivered. This was entirely too much.

"No," he replied. "All that you are and have been will die tonight." He lifted her chin with his finger. "But you will become kin, and all that Caan is or ever will be will be yours, just as it is ours. You will find purpose in us, Sylvia. You will find your name." He stepped back from her, placing his arms behind his back. "But first, you must accept our Embrace." She paused.

"Ok," she said, rubbing her arm nervously just above the elbow.

"You accept?"

"Yes," she said, a bit louder. "I... I accept."

"Then strip off the vestiges of your old life," he replied. "Take off your clothes, cast them into the fire and stand before Caan, reborn." She looked around nervously, and then bent down to untie her boots. They were slippery, cold and awkward, and she had to sit down to pry them from her feet. Then came her socks, the heavy canvas uniform shorts and shirt, and, finally, the black thermal singlet. She stood to remove it, pulling at the wet hem of the elastic neckline. The ring of soldiers stood, watching stoically, if they were looking at all. She caught Foucault's eye and he gave her the slightest of nods.

Sylvia pulled the elastic over one shoulder, and then the other, relishing in the feel of the fire wicking the moisture off of her exposed skin. Her thermals had been holding in the cold, not repelling it. Blood rushed to her cheeks as she pushed the black cloth past her breasts, down the taut line of her stomach to her hips. She paused to roll up the cloth, and then rolled it down over her legs, her knees, and then her ankles. She stood naked, her newly thawed hair dripping water down her back.

Slowly, she collected the articles and brought them to the massive central fire. She closed her eyes and let the heat wash over her, and then threw her clothes onto the coals. She pushed a bit of silver hair away from eyes and turned back to Foucault. He motioned toward the stairs with his hand. She walked across the warm stone floor and began her ascent. Around the circle, the soldiers began to beat their chests in rhythm, their metal gloves clanging loudly against the steel of their chest plates.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

What the hell am I doing?

Bang. Bang. Bang.

What are they going to do to me?

Bang. Bang. Bang.

She neared the top of the steps, trying to walk with dignity despite the deep, scarlet blush on her cheeks. The old man in the chair watched her every step, until she was standing before him. They were far away from the massive fire now, and the cold winds of the mountain leaked through the cracked stone columns of the ruins. Behind the man's chair, she could see the outline of Mount Granger curling into the sky. His eyes never dropped below her neckline, which was somehow worse than him gazing lower. She covered herself with her arms.

"Your dignity is safe with us, Sylvia Messerschmitt," the old man said with the faintest hint of a laugh. "...though you'll understand that soon enough I suppose." He gestured to the ruins around them with an upturned palm. "Do you know where you stand?"

"No, sir," she replied, shaking her head slowly. Old age had taken the color out of the old man's hair and eyes, but he had the arrogant, animalistic fearlessness of a younger man. He felt powerful, and very dangerous. Even more so than Foucault. He smiled.

"This," he said, "is my castle. My birthright." He shrugged. "It's not very impressive nowadays, but, from what I've heard, it was quite the feature a few centuries ago." He chuckled at something, but the joke was lost on Sylvia. He narrowed his eyes and smiled fiercely. "Would you like to help me rebuild it?"

"...yes?" She responded. He nodded and stood.

"Then it is done," he said. "Sylvia Messerschmitt, you stand before Caan." The soldiers beat their chests and howled, startling her. "Will you stand beside him?"

"Yes," she said, trying not to look as scared and naked as she was. He took a red cloak from the guard to his left, spread it out and stepped forward, wrapping it around her shoulders. It was warm and heavy, and it smelt like fresh hay. The fabric was much softer than she thought it would be. He pulled the cloak tight around the front of her, covering her body completely, and fixed the clasp shut.

"Sylvia Messerschmitt," he said, turning back and sitting again in the carved throne. "Walk the rest of your life without shame, woman, for you are now a daughter of Caan." The soldiers roared and applauded. Embarrassed, she pulled the cloak tighter around herself.

Behind Caan, his chair and Mount Granger, the sun began its slow climb into the sky.

"Gets awful quiet quick after this sort of thing, wouldn't you agree?" The woman asked, snapping her fingers to produce a tiny yellow flame. It was almost invisible in the bright noontime light coming in through the bank's dusty windows. She held it to the tip of a freshly rolled cigarette, dragging the smoke in through her pouty brown lips. The man she was talking to, a finely dressed young banker, answered with a terrified nod.

"It's rude not to answer a lady with your voice when she's talking to you young man," she added, pointing the glowing end of the cigarette toward him. She uncrossed her legs and stopped leaning against the worn down edge of the teller's window. The thick heels of her boots reverberated through the loose wooden floorboards as she walked over to him. He cringed as she got closer. "And son, considering my reputation, I'd think rudeness would be the last inconsideration you'd make at this juncture."

"Yes, yes ma'am," he said, having to wet his lips substantially before speaking. "It is very quiet ma'am, very quiet indeed." She smiled, wrinkling the freckled bridge of her nose, and patted his shoulder.

"There's a good boy," she said. She walked behind him and rested her fingers on his shoulders. She gave a bit of a squeeze and felt him tense up. "Oh now darlin', what's the matter? You afraid of me?" He nodded and swallowed. Fat drops of sweat spread dark across his white linen dress shirt.

"Yes ma'am, I am," he said. The leather bands tying his wrists to the back of the chair squeaked as he tried to adjust his position in the chair. "I am very, very afraid right now." She chuckled and walked back around in front of him, trailing her finger along his neck, just above his collar. She sat on his lap, resting her hands on his shoulders.

"Now why is that, little dandy?" She asked, pulling the cigarette out of her mouth. She exhaled through her nose, filling the space between their chests with smoke. The cloud lingered. "Why would you be afraid of little ol' me?" She slid a finger up his neck, and directed his eyes to hers when it reached his chin. Her cigarette cherry hung precariously close to his skin. Soft, blue eyes, she thought, her own chips of jade set squarely on them. Soft, blue eyes for soft, blue city boys.

"Could it be that you know who I am?" She asked, cocking her head to the side enough to skew the wide brim of her hat a bit left. He nodded. She returned the cigarette to her smiling teeth. "Well?"

"You're miss," he said, swallowing, "miss Brass Buckle Betty, ma'am." Betty grinned harder, biting into the back of the cigarette and squeezing his shoulders. "And those outside, with... with the men who... used to work here are your Dirty Leg Gang."

"Ah ah ah," Betty said, waggling the cigarette in front of his face. "The Dusty Leg Gang." She clutched a handful of his silver hair in her hand. She stood and pulled back gently, leaning over him so closely he could feel the heat of her face against his.

"There's a difference," her dusky voice whispered. Their lips nearly brushed. He blinked and swallowed again. She let go of him and stepped away, picking up a crumpled sheet of paper off the teller's desk. The teller herself, an adorable little blonde thing that cried big old crocodile tears when she was scared, had been trussed up and led outside with the others when Betty and hers and come through the door. The paper unfolded with a crackle.

"Do you know the difference, dandy boy?" Betty asked, her eyes fixed on the paper.

"No ma'am," he said, "I'm afraid I don't."

"City boys," she scoffed. "Out in the colonies, 'dirty leg' is slang for a beggar, and 'dusty leg'..." She paused, running down the list on the paper with her finger. She found what she was looking for and folded the paper to mark her spot. "Dusty legs are riders, horsemen as it were. But..." She turned back to him and cocked a hip to the side, resting her hand on it and rolling her eyes. "It's also slang for prostitutes, on account of their proclivity to, ahem, ride for living." A short shrug.

"When me and mine got invested in our current trade," she continued, "the powers that be deigned to name our new company after our old profession." Betty slapped the dandy on his shoulder. "Course some of my party were a bit miffed." She pursed her lips and nodded, blowing out another cloud of smoke. The heady scent of the burning tobacco filled the room. "But, I say, let 'em make their little jokes. Long as me and mine are taken care of, what does it matter?" She squatted down in front of him and chuckled.

"Maybe when I retire I'll be bank man like yourself," she said, "and they'll call my outfit the Old Bandit Trust. Haha! That's truth in advertising if I've ever seen it." She slapped his knee for him, and he just smiled and nodded.

"Now down to business," she said, sitting sideways on his lap and throwing her cigarette arm around his neck. She held the piece of paper up to his face, pointing out a name in the tiny, printed list on the page. "See that, right there?"

"Yes ma'am," he said.

"That's your name, isn't it?"

"Yes ma'am."

"And what does... this say right here, is that your title?" She pulled her cigarette to her mouth, purposefully pushing his face into her breast to do so. He tensed up and she chuckled. Scared, soft blue eyes glanced up at hers and then back to the page. He swallowed and nodded. She crossed her legs and used her boot heel to scratch at her calf through the high wall of her boot.

"Executive branch manager, ma'am," he responded.

"Executive branch manager," she echoed, nodding as though she was impressed. "That sounds very important." She turned his face toward hers and tucked down her chin to get a closer look in his eyes. He didn't resist. "How does a cute, young thing like yourself get such an important position..." Betty took another quick look at the ledger. "...Jeffery?"

"My... my uncle is a lawyer for the firm," he replied slowly. His eyes stayed focused on hers.

"Oh," she said, "then you must be very, very important." Their faces were close enough to share the shadow from the brim of her hat.

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