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September 26, 2022

Way Station

By Mel Trent

The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Way Station

I.

It is because of Iai, and only because of Iai, that Kaine is still alive. He doesn't mind being alive, but he doesn't like to be dependent on anyone that way. It's not a burden for Iai. Iai doesn't even seem to notice, but Kaine worries that it might make Iai more vulnerable. Not that Iai would have difficulty defending himself if he lost all of his unnatural ability and was left with only his skill with his sword. It's just not fair to ask one person to give so much.

Kaine looks towards Rune and considers leaving the others. It won't make a difference. He'll end up alone either way, but it might be easier to leave while they're still alive to be left.

Something white and wispy flutters in his face. He shakes it away, and it disappears. He hears the faint laughter of children. Another wispy thing brushes against his cheek. He waves it away, but it comes right back. It tickles. "Quit it," he mutters. Then a whole fog of them descends on him.

He's not sure what they are. They have long slender bodies, six legs and two pairs of wings. Their human faces startle him. In the flat afternoon light, they're almost completely translucent. They smile at him and flutter around his head. "Hey, stop it. That tickles. Cut it out," he says. He tries to push them away and realizes that everyone is staring at him.

"Are you okay?" Jynx asks.

"You can't see them, can you?" Kaine asks.

"See who?"

"The ... things. I don't know what they are."

"You've been in the sun too long."

The swarm flickers and darts across Jynx's face. He feels them, but he doesn't see them. He staggers as they make another pass at him and then form a spinning circle a foot above Iai's head. Iai looks up at them.

"I think you've all been in the sun too long," Kumiko says.

Jynx coughs. White feathers spray from his mouth. Firefly doesn't say anything. Instead, he hears children laughing and singing. "What the fuck?" he asks.

Iai reaches towards the halo over his head. The creatures, which to him resemble dragonflies, disperse and rush east. He watches them, wondering why he thinks they look like something he's never seen.

"Did McBride put some kind of hallucinogen in the coffee?" Jynx asks.

"I didn't see a damn thing," Kumiko says.

"What are they?" Iai asks.

"Her children," Kaine says.

"You mean ..." Jynx says.

"Phoenix is alive. Everything on this planet comes from her. I saw her last night. That way." Kaine points towards Rune.

"The leylines shift that way."

"Yeah."

"She's ..."

"Pregnant," the twins say.

"Who's the father?" Kumiko asks.

"I don't think it works that way," Iai says. "I doubt that it would matter anyway."

"So what are we supposed to do?"

Kaine shrugs.

"Perhaps we should head for Rune," Iai says.

"No," the twins say.

"We have something we need to do in Angel City," Jynx says.

"Hara Michiyo isn't in Rune," Kaine says.

They start walking again. The empty town of Grave is in sight. Beyond Grave, the walls of Angel City jut up from the horizon like broken black fingers.

II.

Kumiko sees pieces of metal glinting under the sand as they reach the outskirts of Grave. She doesn't think much of it until she trips over something.

"You okay?" Kaine asks as he helps her to her feet.

She gazes into his eyes for a few seconds before answering. "Yeah," she says. "But ..." She bends down near the spot where she tripped and brushes sand away. "Railroad tracks."

"Broken ones?"

"No. Look." She brushes away more sand to reveal at least two feet of track that looks brand new.

"Maybe it just got missed," Jynx says.

Kaine follows the path of the tracks several feet away from where they stand. He kicks away a layer of sand. The track is whole. Chills crawl up his back.

Jynx's face has gone white. She's putting the fucking tracks back together, he thinks.

Why? Kaine thinks.

Jynx has no answer for that. He's starting to fear the worst. He hasn't been afraid of anything in a long time, and he doesn't like feeling it now.

"I don't think I like this place," Kumiko says.

"Neither do I," Iai says. The hair on the back of his neck is bristling, and he can't see any reason for it. "Why are we here? This place is abandoned."

"Not quite," Jynx says.

"Well, can we do whatever it is we need to do and get the hell out of here?" Kumiko asks. "Please?"

"Um ... I don't remember where it is."

"This way," Kaine says.

They follow Kaine further into the town. The doors and windows aren't boarded up. There are still chairs and barrels out on front porches. The saloon is still advertising a dart tournament. In the clothing shop, the racks are full of rotting fabric. It's as if the people just picked up and left.

"What happened here?" Kumiko asks.

"Dunno," Jynx says.

"It was right at the end of the war. Everyone was just gone," Kaine says.

"They might have been killed."

"Or they might have just left."

"I think they went underground."

"Underground?" Kumiko asks.

"There's a rumor about a city near Steelrain that's under the earth. People went there to escape the war."

"That's a bullshit story," Jynx says. "How would they live underground? Where would they get food? And if it's such a great idea, why didn't every town on this planet get built underground?"

"They weren't smart enough. They didn't see it coming."

Iai reaches out and grabs Kaine's arm just as Kaine's next step takes him over the edge of a huge hole in the center of the town. For a second, Kaine's weight threatens to take them both down, but Iai digs his heels into the dirt and pulls Kaine back up.

"I really don't remember that being there," Jynx says. He inches towards the edge and looks down. He can't see the bottom.

"It wasn't there last time we were here," Kaine says. He kicks a clod of dirt into the hole and waits for the sound of it hitting the bottom. No sound ever comes.

"I see a light down there," Iai says.

"No way," Jynx says.

"How the hell can you see anything down there?" Kaine asks.

"I don't know," Iai says. "But I can. It's small. I can't tell what it is."

"Is it moving?"

"No."

"Is it human?" Jynx asks.

"No."

"Is it a train?" they ask together.

A train whistle blasts. The ground begins to shake. They back away from the hole, but they can hear the unmistakable clacking of a train speeding down its tracks. Then as soon as it starts, it stops. The ground is still, and the only sound they hear is the scraping of wind blown sand against the stones of the buildings.

"Okay, I think I really might just want to go home now," Kumiko says.

"Yeah, me too," Jynx says.

"You go on. I'll go down there and find out what it is," Iai says.

"No," the twins say.

"Not by yourself," Kaine says.

"We'll all go down there," Jynx says.

"Are you out of your fucking minds?" Kumiko asks.

No one answers Kumiko's question. There's no need to. They walk around the hole in the ground. Kaine stares down into it and thinks of the vision he had of a train ripping a body in half. It happens here, and the body is Iai. Kaine wonders if there's any way to stop it.

They reach a small building that looks like it used to be a storage shed. The windows on either side of the door are covered with slatted shutters. A heavy chain and padlock secure the door. There's a faded welcome mat in front of the door, and Kaine pulls a key out from under it. As he unlocks the door, the wind begins to howl and the sky gets dark.

"Sand storm," Jynx says.

Kaine pulls open the door. "Get inside," he says. The wind threatens to rip the door out of his hands.

They rush into the building, and Kaine secures the door behind them just as the sky goes black with thick clouds of swirling sand.

Jynx fumbles around in the dark until he finds a pair of lanterns on a countertop. One sputters into life when he presses a button on its base. The other gave up years ago. The wind bangs against the shutters.

"What is this place?" Kumiko asks.

"It's a way station," Jynx says.

"Anyone traveling through the desert can stop and get supplies here as long as they leave something in return," Kaine says. He pulls on a rope attached to an iron ring in the floor, revealing a flight of wooden stairs. The stairs are new. They can smell the freshness of the wood.

"We should stay here until the storm passes."

In the basement of the building, they find cans and jars of all kinds of food. There are piles of clothing, a row of boots, stacks of worn, yellow books, blankets and an electronic news slate. Jynx picks it up and turns it on. It flashes the name of the news company, Global Media and Information, and yesterday's date. He sits down on the floor and begins to read. He reads the second headline out loud. "'Demon Attacks CrimeNet Headquarters; Seven Killed, One Taken Hostage'," he says.

Iai's arms go cold and his legs buckle. He wants to run out into the sand storm, but he can't make his legs move. He sits down. The locket tumbles out of his pocket.

"What's wrong?" Kumiko asks.

"Nothing," Iai says. "I just ... nothing."

"You don't look like nothing's wrong. You look sick."

"It was a star demon. It's ... she took Roland."

"It says that a demon in the form of a woman entered the CrimeNet building at midnight four or five days ago when a group of security workers were returning from a shift at the port in Roswell. She killed seven of them and took the eighth to a small hovercraft that was waiting outside. His name is Roland Lockhart. He started working for the company four months ago. The demon hasn't contacted the company or Lockhart's family for ransom money, and a spokeswoman for Superior C & D said Lockhart may have been romantically involved with a tracker's apprentice with a questionable background," Jynx says as he skims over the article.

"Is it really questionable, or did you just not bother to tell them anything?" Kaine asks.

"Somehow I didn't think they would believe me if I told them the truth," Iai says. He closes his fingers around the locket and slips it into his back pocket. He thinks Kaine saw it, but Kaine doesn't say anything.

"How do you know it was a star demon?" Kumiko asks.

"I just know."

"Samurai had visions, too," Jynx says.

"I don't really have visions. I just intuit things. I knew something was wrong anyway."

"We'll find him," Kaine says.

Iai knows that Kaine is right, but he doesn't have much hope that Roland will be alive when they do find him.

III.

The sand storm lasts well into the night. They decide to wait until morning to head out again. They could all use the rest, but only Jynx and Kumiko get any sleep. Iai goes back upstairs and paces. He's too anxious to even sit still. Kaine lies on his back and listens to Iai pacing. His chest throbs with dull pain, and there's still the matter of the huge hole in the center of Grave.

When the wind finally stops sometime after midnight, Kaine goes upstairs and lowers the floorboards into place.

Iai stops pacing. "What are you doing?" he asks.

"Something bad is gonna happen to this place," Kaine says. He pushes a heavy crate over the trapdoor.

"Shouldn't you be down there with them?"

"No."

"You can't protect them if you die."

"I'm dying anyway. My heart's torn. You know that. You tried to heal it, and it didn't heal."

"I'm sorry. I tried."

"I'm not worried about dying. I've kinda been waiting for it all my life. I was born dead. Maybe I shoulda stayed that way."

"So you were born with a vision?"

"Yeah."

"Do you remember it?"

"It was a little white building on a hill. The sun was just coming up, and the walls turned red. I remember being able to feel Firefly but not Shaman. When I could feel Shaman, I started climbing the hill, and then the vision was gone."

"That was me."

"I wish I'd known that a long time ago."

"I would have been of no use to you back then. I'm afraid I'm of little use as it is."

Kaine shrugs. "So you've had a few bad days. I'd be dead right now if you weren't here. That's pretty useful. And we will find Roland. I promise you that."

Iai looks at the tops of his boots. They're both silent for a while. Outside, they hear the whining howl of a desert dog. Sand scratches at the shutters.

"So," Kaine says. "About that hole in the ground ..."

"If there is a city underground and they've survived there since at least the end of the war, there's no reason to think Michiyo didn't also go underground," Iai says. "Certainly there was at least one train yard underground so that repairs could be made without the sand interfering, wasn't there?"

"There were two I think. One at Angel City and one at Nineveh. Or it might have been at Stallion Run, I'm not sure. It was one of the towns further out."

"At any rate, they existed. Michiyo was never found, nor was the man in black who supposedly destroyed the tracks and ended the war."

"And if she's got track that's reassembled here, she needs a way to run a train on it."

"So she excavates herself a new train station."

"Hmm. I wonder how much a ticket to Rune would cost."

"I'm sure the rates are insane. Let's go find out."

IV.

The hole is more than two hundred yards wide, and the lip is too smooth and regular to have been dug by shovels or machinery. The sides are also smooth as far down as they can see, which isn't very far despite the fat yellow glare of the western moons. The tracks they had uncovered when they first got to Grave lead right up to the hole, but they don't go down into the hole.

"So how would you run a train from down there to up here?" Kaine asks as he and Iai stare into the hole.

"It would need tracks," Iai says. "That's the easiest way. She must not be done putting the track together."

"But she moves things. She could move the trains. They don't have to be on tracks for that."

"That would be a great strain on her power."

"Not if she's drawing on the leylines. Is that light still down there?"

"Yes. I don't think it's moved."

"What d'you think is the easiest way down there?"

"Probably falling, but I don't think that's advisable."

"No."

"If we could find enough rope, perhaps we could rappel down the sides."

"But we don't know how deep it goes. We'd run out rope."

"And then fall."

"Which is what we're trying to avoid."

They keep staring into the hole. Iai scratches a sudden violent itch on his back.

"I think what you boys wanna do is avoid the damn thing altogether," McBride says as he comes up behind them.

Kaine shakes his head, and the bell on his collar rings. The sound echoes down the hole. "Can't," he says.

"Why didn't the sand storm fill it in?" Iai asks. "Is it so deep that that much sand can't fill it?"

"Don't ask questions you don't really want answered," McBride says.

"No one asked you," Kaine says.

"Don't sass me, boy."

"Whatever."

Iai turns away from the hole and faces McBride. "Perhaps you could clear something up," he says.

McBride takes a step back. He doesn't like the intensity on Iai's face, and he has no desire to start answering the questions he knows Iai is about to ask him. "What kinda creature are you anyway?" he asks. He hopes that Iai will give him the standard answer because saying "I don't know" always seems to put Iai in a more contemplative mood. It doesn't work.

Iai pauses, as if he's about to say what McBride wants him to, and then he smiles such a stunningly charming smile that McBride feels as if his eyes are suffering from deep tissue bruises. "What kind of creature are you?" Iai asks.

Kaine suddenly grabs Iai's arm and shakes him. "Iai, that light," he says. "It's moving. It's coming at us. Really fast."

The ground begins to shake under their feet. The light rushes towards them. The train's whistle shrieks. McBride pulls Kaine and Iai away from the edge of the hole just as the train rockets up out of the opening. He looks up as the train bends and plunges back down towards them. Red lights wink in the windows of the engine car like menacing eyes. "Move!" he screams. He draws a shotgun and stares up at the train. The red eyes seethe anger and hatred. He fires, but his shot only bounces off the metal skin in a spray of sparks.

Kaine empties Getsuei into a window. The whistle screams again, and the train turns towards him. He scrambles out of the way as the engine car dives into the sand. The impact knocks him off his feet, but the train is dazed, too. It rears back and shakes itself. Kaine darts for shelter behind the post office and reloads. "Shoot out the windows!" he shouts to McBride as he reloads.

The train rises again, blasting its whistle. Kaine peeks around the corner of the building in time to see Iai leap onto the back of the train. "That's not good," he says to himself.

"Get down!" McBride screams at Iai as he fires another shot. He takes out one of the winking red eyes, and the train jerks back violently. Iai stumbles and slips out of sight. "Damn it."

Kaine rushes out of his hiding place. "Iai!" he shouts.

"Stay back, boy," McBride says. He takes out the other eye. The train thrashes. Feathers drift down into the hole from the small space between the engine car and the first passenger car. Kaine doesn't listen. He runs towards the train. McBride shakes his head and reloads. "Just like your father," he mutters.

Shattering glass has torn a wide gash across Iai's cheek, but he's got the doors at the back of the engine car open. Once he gets inside, thick bundles of wires stab at him and try to grab him. He fights his way towards the front of the car. He keeps falling as the train, now blind apparently, thrashes like a snake with its head cut off. He buries his sword in the floor and hangs on until the train's movements throw him towards the front. Then he cuts through the panels that hide the train's circuitry and slices all the wires. Sparks fly at him. The train whips around, the whistle screaming.

Iai climbs over the mess of metal, wires and glass onto the nose of the train. He looks down. Jumping from that height probably won't kill him, but it is likely to shatter several bones in the process if he lands wrong.

"Iai!" Kaine shouts. The train suddenly snaps towards Kaine as if it knows his voice. It wavers for a second then dives towards Kaine. Kaine stares up at the oncoming train, unable to move. His heart clenches and is still. He tastes blood in the back of his mouth. The last thing he sees is Iai tumbling off the nose of the train.

Iai hits the ground just seconds before the train does. It's enough time for him to grab Kaine's suddenly limp body and push him into McBride's arms. He feels the shadow of the train descending on him. He feels impact somewhere on his body. It's hard to tell where it hit. The pain is everywhere. Somehow he manages to turn onto his back and shove his sword through the train's headlight. The whistle blares as the train twists. Iai feels the bones at his elbow snapping as he struggles to pull his sword out. He's conscious only for a moment once he gets free, and he sees the train fall backwards onto the way station. Dust rises in a mushroom over the still and silent corpse of the train. He feels a burst of panic from Firefly and dimly hears Jynx and Kumiko shouting. He tries to sit up to see how badly mangled he is. He feels a hand on the back of his head, and then there's nothing.

McBride has to pry Iai's fingers open to get the sword out of Iai's hand, and once McBride has the sword, Iai's fingers snap closed again as if the sword were still there. From the look of the rest of Iai's arm, that hand shouldn't be doing anything at all, but the reflex to grip a sword is so ingrained in Iai's muscles that even unconscious and broken, his body is ready to fight.

McBride studies the blade. It's been a long time since he's seen a weapon like that, much less one of such high quality. He wonders where it came from. He wonders where Iai came from. It's not anywhere in this universe. He slides the sword into its scabbard and gently lifts Iai onto his shoulder.

He kneels beside Kaine and presses his fingers against Kaine's neck. There's a pulse. It's faint and unsteady, but it's there. Blood trickles over the corners of his mouth. "You with me, boy?" McBride asks.

Kaine opens his eyes for just a second, but McBride only needs that second to see that there's nothing there. Kaine's eyes slip shut as he tries to speak. Blood bubbles over his lips. McBride isn't sure what Kaine is trying to say, but his mouth seems to be vaguely forming the words "I do." McBride chuckles and wipes the blood off Kaine's mouth. "First ya try ta die on me, and now yer dreamin' about girls," he says. "All right. Let's go." He lifts Kaine onto his shoulder and glances at the demolished way station. He can hear Jynx and Kumiko shouting and pounding on the trapdoor. They'll get out by morning, and he thinks it's more important for him to get Iai and Kaine somewhere where he can take care of their injuries. He adjusts the unconscious boys on his shoulders and starts walking towards France.

V.

Finally, whatever was blocking the trapdoor gives way as Jynx rams his shoulder against the door. He stumbles backwards a few steps. Kumiko puts her hands on his back and steadies him. They can tell right away that something is wrong when they see the horizon instead of the walls of the way station. They step out into the glaring morning. The way station is in splinters around them.

"What the hell happened?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx surveys the damage. There's too much broken glass to have come from the windows in the way station, and it looks as if something has been dragged through the wreckage. He had thought last night that it sounded like a train had fallen on the way station. He doesn't like the fact that it looked as if he'd been right. There are deep gouges in the ground that lead back to the hole. "I think a train fell on us," he says. The sand around the mouth of the hole is littered with broken glass, blood and white feathers.

"Where are they?"

Feathers tickle Jynx's throat, and he coughs them out. "McBride has them," Firefly says. "He will keep them safe."

"They're gone," Kumiko says. "Where'd they go? Are they ..." She drops to her knees and starts digging through the debris. Splinters wedge into her fingertips.

Jynx bends down beside her and puts his arms around her as she begins to sob. "Hey, stop that," he says. "I think they're okay. I don't know where they went, but ... but they're safe. Firefly just told me. Firefly doesn't lie to me."

Kumiko pulls the splinters out and rubs her eyes with the backs of her hands. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. We'll find them again. They're okay, I promise."

"If you're lying, I will hurt you."

"Hey, if I'm lying, I'll hurt myself. Come on. We need to get out of here."

"Should we look for them or just keep heading for Angel City?"

"If we head for the city, we'll find them. If we start wandering all over the damn place, we won't."

"But what if they're hurt?"

"They're not alone."

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-03-17
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