“It is as ambrosia; the taste of man’s flesh be like nothing you can imagine; but you’ll know it for truth soon enough. Judge me now, but yea, your own judgment cometh this moon,” I read.
I flipped the dog-eared paperback’s cover over: Street and Smith, c. 1890, New York.
“Poor bastards,” I sighed. “Twenty years gone . . . did you end up in the bellies of the werewolves when the world went to hell, or wearing the fur yourselves?”
I glanced up from the battered book; the moon sat full and gloating in the afternoon sky. A sudden updraft threatened to send me tumbling from my perch, causing me to shut the old dime-store novel tight before its pages were torn away. My legs, honed by years of clambering all over the Heaven’s Grace while she thundered through the air, locked down hard and clutched the collection vane as the errant wind buffeted me. The extra weight from my metal-lined work clothes helped to keep me steady on the swaying column. Closing my eyes, I reached out with senses sharpened by years of working the storms, feeling for any hint that the curse of clear skies would be broken soon, any tickle of humidity on my skin or face. But the wind was dry, harsh, and unaccountably hot for April. The hundreds of vanes and lightning rods jutting up from roofs across the city were like the skeletal, cobweb-strewn branches of a dying forest begging for the rains to come and give them life once more.
As the parched wind died down, I heard my name called out. “Eli! What are you doing up there?”
I craned my neck and looked back over my shoulder. Twenty feet below, Henry, the other brakeman that shared my berth on the Heaven’s Grace, inched his way up the back of the towering vane’s main column toward me. I’d been so intent on reading about the beasts that I hadn’t heard him climbing up. Whereas I’d barely even bothered to secure myself when I ascended, Henry was using every nook and cranny that he could to anchor his tether. Despite the fact that our jobs called for us to cling to the side of a steel behemoth barreling through the air a mile up, my friend had an incredible fear of heights.
“Oh, just enjoying the sunlight and a good book.”
Truthfully, up here was also a good place to die if you weren’t careful. Although there were belaying loops spaced along the length of the three hundred-foot shaft, it wasn’t exactly sane to climb the huge vanes. We were actually safer working on the windswept sides of our Thunder Train, what with her complicated safety system of cables and pulleys.
On the moisture vanes, you had to free climb between the various anchoring points. The flimsy, almost invisible sails of leaching silk stretched between the crossbeams would never save a man falling through them; it’d be like trying to catch a horse with a spider’s web. Not that the vanes themselves were much better. While the steel shafts of the city’s air wells were fairly thick, they were hollow to allow the condensed water to flow down into the reservoir within Wardenclyffe. Each footstep set the vanes to wavering, and it was a deadly game just predicting when the wind would pick up and add to the fun.
“I wouldn’t use that one,” I said as Henry’s foot fumbled for a rust-covered protrusion.
Wardenclyffe was the first of the salvation cities, designed and built by Tesla before he went missing during the Blood Panic. The fifteen years since it had lifted off the ground hadn’t been kind to it. Rust had an unholy love for the city’s superstructure, spreading faster than fire through dry grass and outpacing the constant efforts to repair the damage. It was a wonder the old girl was still aloft at all. None of the cities had been meant to stay up this long, but that didn’t matter much to the residents when allowing it to crash meant more than just bracing for impact. The same critters that had sent us high-tailing it for the clouds still stalked the Earth below, and none of us were too anxious to meet them nose to muzzle.
For a moment it looked like Henry was going to ignore my climbing advice with mulish stubbornness. His boot tip scraped against the errant edge, sending a shower of grime and corroded metal flakes down. It was enough to make him reconsider putting his weight on it.
“Where shall I put my foot, oh ascended one?”
“Try that beam yonder.”
Henry snorted in disbelief at where I pointed. “That’s a four foot jump over thin air!”
Shrugging, I leaned back, making a show of hoisting the yellowing paperback up to read, using it as a distraction so that I could I click the hook at the end of my tether into a belaying loop behind me. It felt odd to be anchored when I was used to being so free up here, but I was already going to take a chance with both our lives. “Suit yourself. I’ll just go back to enjoying my afternoon reading while I still got some light left.”
The blood drained from Henry’s face when he recognized the book. “Where did you get that?”
“This old thing?” I asked, holding out the paperback so I was sure he could read the title on its wrinkled spine: The True Confessions of the Beast. “I found it lying on my bunk. I’m just lucky I ain’t counting on getting in good with the Tellurians. They do seem to take a dim view on this kind of reading material, don’t they?”
“Give it back,” Henry demanded, the color returning to his cheeks when he realized I was teasing him.
We both knew that the book was his; if he was caught with it he’d endanger his upcoming apprenticeship with the secretive scientific order. Although works like it weren’t exactly illegal, most decent folks looked down their noses at such things. In particular, the storm prophets seemed to have an aversion to the lurid true-horror stories, as if they thought ignoring the werewolves lurking in the forests below would make them disappear.
“Sure thing,” I said with another shrug. I closed the book and dangled it above him like bait on a hook. “All you got to do is come and get it.”
Henry cussed me out for a good minute, and I smiled through the whole tirade. We’d been friends for almost eleven years―ever since Maude had landed the Heaven’s Grace on the grounding trestle of a very startled Wardenclyffe―and in all that time I’d tried again and again to break his crazy fear of heights. Maude said it was the Lord’s own prank that the majority of people living on a city that drifted through the sky had a knee-quaking fear of being reminded honest dirt was a couple of miles down.
“I can’t make that jump,” Henry growled through his gritted teeth.
The terror of what I was asking him to do was etched across his face, yet I was damned if I was going to let that fear roost in his heart forever. I might lose him to the Tellurians soon, but I was determined to give him a going-away present, even if it was one he didn’t particularly want. If I could break Henry out of the terror’s grip, I was sure his life would be better for it; I figured no man should go through life skittish like that. Fear robbed your backbone of its stiffness and had a habit of creeping into every part of your life once you let it in the front door.
“Sure you can. If I can make it wearing forty pounds of this damned hot-suit then you’ll be fine. How do you think I got up here in the first place?”
“My first guess would be the Devil gave you a boost out of professional courtesy,” Henry grumbled as he unhooked himself. Tensing his legs, he gauged the distance to the ledge, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he dry swallowed a few times. With a strangled cry, he leapt.
Before his feet had even left their perch I saw the hesitation, the unconscious betrayal of his muscles to fear. Henry held back, leaping with less strength than needed, guaranteeing he’d come up short and plummet to his death. I could see on his face as soon as he was in the air that he knew he’d misjudged his jump.
I’d figured fear might turn his legs to jelly and had launched myself downward at the same time he jumped. Henry came up a full foot short of the ledge as I plummeted toward him, grabbing for his flailing arms. I caught the coarse linen of his shirt as the tether yanked painfully at the harness I wore under my jacket, bringing us both to a sudden, agonizing stop as gravity took over. While he jerked around in sheer terror, I scrabbled to get a more secure hold on him, his weight nearly tearing my arms out of their sockets. But he realized quickly enough what was going on, and his fingers latched onto my forearms like iron vises.
“Damn your eyes, you stupid bastard!” he shouted into my upside down face as we swung back and forth from the leftover momentum of his jump, my booted feet wrapping around the line above and keeping our arc under control.
Henry used every curse word in the book and created a couple of new ones as I used my feet to swing us toward another crossbeam below. Still upside down, I hooked his dangling tether’s hook into a belaying loop. He clutched the crossbeam, his eyes closed against his terror. Henry was quietly weeping, trying to keep me from hearing. With a leaden feeling in my gut I realized I’d gone too far and only worsened things. Damn it.
“Give me the book, Eli,” Henry pled, burying his face in the rusting flakes of the vane’s support to hide a sob.
I’d pushed him too hard, and I felt like a horse’s ass thanks to it. I found myself hoping he’d punch me; it would have been preferable to the muffled misery I was hearing. I’d have eagerly taken a bloody nose in exchange for seeing him beat his fear.
Without another word or taunt I swung to him, righting myself by shifting my weight against the canvas-covered steel cable of my tether. I held out the book, and he loosened his grip on the moisture vane enough to snatch the paperback from my hand and tuck it into his coat.
“You’re an idiot,” he sniffled, getting his bearings back and loosening his grip slightly on the support. Although we both knew I’d seen the tears, it was an unspoken agreement that it’d be better if we both pretend I hadn’t.
“Yeah, pretty much,” I agreed, relieved that he was angry with me. I’d take that over terror any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. My hangdog tone elicited a snort of laughter from Henry; brief, but enough to let me know he’d be okay. “What were you doing with that potboiler anyway? You study hard to become a Tellurian just to give it up the next day?”
“None of your business.”
“Aw, come on,” I wheedled, eager to keep his mind on other things. “Who am I going to tell? I’m too much of an ass to have any other friends. Where did you even get a copy? I thought they burned all those kinds of ‘werewolf confession’ books a long time ago. Even the Library doesn’t have them.”
A sly grin slipped over Henry’s face. “You’d have to pass the Tellurian tests for me to tell you.”
I snorted in disbelief. “One of the storm prophets gave it to you? Don’t shovel that shit my way and say it’s roses.”
Despite his precarious position, Henry still managed to look smug. “Believe whatever you want, Eli. But knowledge is power, and no one’s got more of both than the Tellurians. They’ve got quite the collection of lost manuscripts about the beasts.”
“This? Seriously? A throwaway, dime-store piece of trash? This is the best they got? Hang on, I’ve got a ‘lost manuscript’ about Billy the Kid’s underwear stains somewhere under my bunk that’ll make you the envy of the schoolhouse.”
Despite my mocking, I suspected that somewhere in Henry’s egotistical boast there was a kernel of truth. It made me queasy with the implications. If he’d really gotten the book from them, it meant the Tellurians weren’t just hoarding technical knowledge, and their snootiness toward horror stories written during the Blood Panic was a blind to cover them snatching the books up for themselves. A phrase that Maude had once spit out at the chow table to the other engineers about the storm prophets echoed with ominous overtones in my head: ‘the man who wants you stupid is the man who wants to be your master.’
The Tellurians had used their monopoly on the inner workings of Wardenclyffe to pretty much dominate everything, tightening their grip as more of the machines that kept the city aloft malfunctioned and fewer storms were harvested. Obviously the power core of the city still worked, caressing the giant squall tubes underneath with constant bursts of lightning, or we’d all be on the ground and easy meat for the furbacks.
But parts of Wardenclyffe had clear rusted off in the last few years, falling away from the aging superstructure and creating a couple of gaps in the city that had to be cordoned off. Maude figured the storm prophets let the pieces drop to intimidate folks, and damned if it hadn’t worked. The lawmen steered clear of Tellurians, and they were pretty much untouchable.
Church bells interrupted my ruminations and startled both of us, nearly causing Henry to let go of the vane. There were no services to be called; ever since the Brimstone Riots brought down half the salvation cities in 1899, religion had kept to itself for the most part, private and out of sight. There was only one reason for the bells to ring these days: company had come calling.
“Where is it?” Henry asked as we both scanned the cloudless sky in all directions.
I pulled my tinted flight goggles down to block the glare of the dying sun reflecting off the city, cursing the fact I’d left my blinders back on the Heaven’s Grace. Without the treated engineer lenses that let me see the tell-tale pulse of telluric echoes, it took a few minutes to finally detect the glint of steel and lightning far in the distance that heralded the arrival of a Thunder Train.
“There, it’s coming in from over there!” I hollered.
It had been a year since we’d lost telepulse contact with Carnegie City, and longer still since we’d heard from any of the other sputtering beacons of humanity. There were ugly, vicious rumors that festered round the saloons that claimed the rest of the cities had crashed. It was a chilling thought that we might very well be the last people left in the world.
In addition to breaking our isolation, the arrival of a Double T brought with it the essence of life itself: storms. Tempests trailed the flying trains like hungry hounds, drawn in by the electromagnetic wakes to the cities that leached them dry for power. We’d passed over the Sierra Nevadas during winter, and that was the last we’d seen of any storms, leaving us high and dry as we drifted listlessly across the Sacramento Valley.
If someone else had found us, it meant they’d flown through lightning-drenched skies to stay airborne, which meant our damned drought was going to end soon as the clouds caught up with them.
“Wait a minute; something’s wrong. She ain’t supposed to be listing like that . . .”
Henry was right; the incoming Thunder Train’s flight path looked a bit squirrelly. Instead of the graceful arcs back and forth as it rode the echoes of the telluric currents below, the newcomer was shuddering, the engine car shaking visibly even at this distance. As she jackknifed to the side, I saw the train was missing most of her load save for the fuel tender and one cargo car, shorn raggedly in half. I couldn’t hear the tortured screams of her steel frame as it twisted back and forth through the air, but it was obvious the old girl was out of control and tearing herself apart, coming in way too fast.
The train bulled her way through the sky toward us, growing disturbingly larger every second. Although she twisted under a lack of control, it was clear that some idiot had stoked the furnace. The pistons churned madly, spinning the wheels that powered the ancillary generators. She was still crackling with the energy of a recent pass through the clouds.
“They’re insane,” Henry said, shaking his head.
No Double T was meant to run without lightning’s caress for long. The boiler system was a backup for clear skies, a useful relic of back when the trains had actually run on rails instead of thin air. Only a blasted fool would use both the furnace and the storms at once. Even though together they were capable shooting a Double T ahead like greased lightning, it’d blow out the squall tubes that kept the hundred tons of steel aloft and barreling ahead. The tubes going critical would end with a spectacular explosion that could tear a new hole in the Devil’s ass.
“Holy shit, she’s heading right for us!” Henry yelled, eyes wide with terror as we braced for the deadly impact.
The air groaned with dread weight and dread as the Double T grew to fill our sight. She passed so close to us that I could read the lettering on her engine’s side: Shrieking Sally. I almost reached out to touch the hundred tons of steel flashing by before the shock wave from the violent passage hit me, nearly yanking me off the collection vane and sending me spinning in her wake. Henry wailed in terror as the tender and ruined cargo car passed by in the blink of an eye, missing us by scant inches.
The Shrieking Sally lived up to her name, plowing into several of the crowded brick buildings below with an awful sound. The Double T slammed through them at a forty-five degree angle, shattering brick and wood like a giant’s fist through glass, and throwing up a wall of debris in her wake. The train came to a sudden and violent stop when she hit the steel superstructure of the city’s skeleton beneath the buildings. Her boiler buckled under the pressure of the impact and exploded, sending hot shrapnel far and wide as the Thunder Train tore herself apart.
Thankfully, the squall tubes hadn’t reached critical overcharge yet, or it would have been much, much worse. Scalding steam, shattered brick, and hot metal peppered the base of the collection vane we were clinging to, which was already groaning from the near-miss. Somehow, the swaying column didn’t give out and send us plunging to our deaths.
Other folks weren’t as lucky.
Space was at a premium on Wardenclyffe; people built up more than out, with only the edges of the city having any kind of free space. The buildings that the Shrieking Sally had plowed into were bound to be filled with people. Although I couldn’t hear their screaming this high up, my belly turned at the thought of how many had just died. The impact alone would have been devastating, but the boiler explosion made it much worse. How far had she penetrated through the city’s base? Wardenclyffe was only a couple of hundred feet of metal and wood in some spots, and if the damage was bad enough, we might actually be facing a structural split that could down the whole salvation city in one go.
“Come on, Henry. We got us a job to do.”
Even if we had to use spit and bailing wire, somehow we had to keep Wardenclyffe together. There’d be emergency crews on the way, but we were right there already. I was damned if I’d sit idly by while the city and her people died.
Rather than argue with me, my friend nodded in agreement.
Our descent was dangerous, and I refused to coddle Henry. We set up a series of swing-downs where each of us acted as an anchor point for the other, tethered together with one man hanging on to a crossbeam as the other swung out and down to a lower spot in the structure, before doing the same over the new lower anchor man. It was a brutal impact when we hit the column, and more than once I nearly lost a few teeth from it. Henry impressed me by not whimpering once; he just set his jaw and went to it. I swore then and there to never make fun of his fear again. When the chips were down, he had the courage needed. You couldn’t ask more of a man than that.
The moans of the wounded greeted us as we covered the last hundred feet to the close-set wooden planks and crowded buildings that served as Wardenclyffe’s ground level. There were bodies lying motionless everywhere around the hovels the Double T had crashed into, flung all over by the boiler’s detonation; it was cold comfort that the train hadn’t hit the Heights nearer the center of Wardenclyffe, with its buildings piled on top of each other hundreds of feet in the air. This far out toward the city’s edge there were less places built up, so not as many dead and dying.
It was still a scene straight out of hell.
My brain refused to show it to me all at once as I instinctively recoiled my tether. Around the perimeter of the impact area there were a few folks that stirred, although they’d been horribly burned and torn up by scalding steam and shrapnel from the explosion. We dragged the injured clear of the tangled, burning wreckage of buildings and train as best we could, working without words. Motionless bodies lay everywhere, outnumbering the living ten to one. While part of me screamed to check the city’s structural integrity, no decent man could walk by another person writhing on the ground in agony and just look away. Frantically ringing bells in the distance told us the fire brigade and lawmen were on their way, but they’d be clogged up in the narrow streets with confused folks who’d rushed out in panic at the city-shuddering crash. Around us locals emerged from their concussion-rocked homes, glassy-eyed and staring around with shocked expressions.
“That’s the last,” Henry gasped, letting go of an unconscious man’s arms he’d hauled free. In five minutes of furious activity, we’d pulled nearly a dozen wounded people out of the twisted mess of brick, wood, and steel. But there was nothing else we could do for them. They bled and twitched, and some even woke up long enough to scream a bit before falling back into blessed darkness. I had no clue how to help; vaguely I remembered something about bandages and hot water, but I’d never been much interested in doctoring. My ignorant ministrations would have been as bad as the explosion itself.
“Has to be. Can’t be anymore. Can’t imagine anyone closer lived through that,” I wheezed, exhausted.
A crashing sound deep in the tangled wreckage called me a liar. With a groan, I exchanged a knowing look with Henry.
Despite our weariness, we began to pick our way through the labyrinth of collapsed buildings and debris around the impact crater.
“Watch it!” Henry warned, grabbing my arm and yanking me to the side as a girder gave out underneath my feet.
I whistled in grim appreciation as the rusted beam crashed down twenty feet below into a nasty-looking knot of iron and steel. After scrambling over a collapsed brick wall, we found an open area around the actual impact point of the Shrieking Sally, a fairly open area cleared by the boiler’s explosion. The Double T’s wrecked cargo car loomed over us as we approached, bent at an odd angle and jammed straight through into the tender car like locomotive lovemaking gone hideously wrong. The oddly-mated cars had been blown clean off from the engine when the boiler blew.
We rounded their mess to find the remnants of the engine itself deeply embedded in a collapsed section, mostly hidden from sight and surrounded by a growing fire whose heat made us sweat like the Devil in church. Broken squall tubes leaked out their viscous, black fluid into scattered puddles. Around us corpses lay twisted and broken, their mangled, half-cooked bodies splayed and roasting in the growing fires.
“Anybody there?” Henry called down to where the engine’s wreckage lay while we tried to work our way through the bodies and debris. It seemed impossible that anyone could have survived this close to the blast. I tripped over a body half-buried in the rubble that wore a reinforced jacket and britches like mine. He’d been a fellow brakeman, one of the doomed crew of the Shrieking Sally.
“Lazy bastard,” I muttered absent-mindedly, thinking of the salt-crusted squall tubes I’d seen studding the doomed engine. If his engineer was half as worthless as he, it was no wonder they’d rammed the city with an out-of-control Double T.
Despite the growing heat, I felt my stomach grow cold in terror when I realized the corpse’s wounds weren’t from the crash.
“Let go of my arm, Eli,” Henry mumbled irritably as I tried to pull him down and stop him from calling out again.
“Shut up!” I whispered. Not that there was any point. The damned thing had to know we were here. I pointed down to the corpse I’d fallen over. Henry went silent, his eyes wide.
The man’s flesh had been flash-friend when the boiler had exploded, but something else had sent him on to his maker before that. Jagged rips in his hot-suit went through skin and down into muscle to the bone in a way no explosion could have produced. His shoulder had the meat gnawed away, and his midsection had been excavated like some grisly miner had gone to work at it.
A sound of tearing metal, this one louder than the first, came from the nearby crater, followed by the racket of something trying to wrench its way free of the wreckage. The fading light of the setting sun was bolstered by the full moon overhead and the growing fires around us, but none of them penetrated into the heart of the dark pit where the noises were coming from. Both of us broke out in cold sweats when a throaty howl echoed out to greet the dying of the day. We crouched, rooted in place, our breathing ragged, knowing without a doubt that we were dead men. One of the beasts that had driven humanity from the surface of the Earth had found its way up here.
There was a werewolf loose on Wardenclyffe.