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July 04, 2022

End of the Line

By Mel Trent

The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: End of the Line

I.

Kumiko steps out into the middle of a dusty street. The sun sits directly over her head. The heat is merciless. There's not even a hint of wind. She looks around. She has no idea where she is. The buildings on either side of the street are dark and quiet. She's alone. I must be dreaming, she thinks.

Her chest begins to ache. She presses her hand to the pain. It feels wet and hot. She pulls her hand away and stares down at it. Her palm is covered in blood. The ache goes deeper and becomes a crushing sensation. She can't breath. She sucks at the dry, hot air and gets nothing. Blood soaks the front of her shirt. Darkness begins to edge into her vision. She falls to the ground.

Footsteps come up behind her. She struggles to turn towards the sound. She feels something hot leaning over her. A warm finger touches her neck, her cheek and her wounded chest. She blinks, trying to clear her eyes. The fingers close briefly on the heart shaped pink glass around her neck. She sees a blurred face surrounded by a cloud of blood red.

"Too young," a man says. She can't tell if it's the one leaning over her or if the speaker is somewhere else. "Send this one back."

The wound in her chest begins to burn. The darkness closes in on her again. In the darkness, a hand reaches for her. Silver feathers drop onto her wound from wide cuts in the fingertips. Flashes of white pierce the darkness. Pieces of her life begin to run through her mind. The hand wraps around her. She shivers in its cold grip. It begins to pull her up.

Kumiko wakes up with a start. She tries to sit up, but the pain in her chest forces her back down. Dim blue light pours into the room. She can't see much of anything, and she can't look around without hurting herself. She feels something cold on her right and turns her head.

Iai is sitting in a chair next to the bed. His eyes are closed, and his head is down. His face, chest and arms are covered in deep gashes. Only half the silver tube that Grisha gave him is on its leather cord. The jagged edge leaves its own marks. His wings are folded tightly against his back. His hands, covered in blood and feathers, rest in his lap like wounded doves.

"Iai," Kumiko whispers.

Iai opens his eyes. The color of his irises is different somehow, but she can't tell what it is. Maybe it's just the light. He seems to be glowing all over. "Thank you," he says. He smiles wearily.

"What?"

"For being strong. For not giving up."

"What happened?"

"You were dead for several moments."

"I was?"

"I thought I wasn't going to be able to save you."

"I think I got kicked out. I had a dream ... or maybe it wasn't a dream. I heard someone say to send me back."

"I'm glad. You should be fine. I was able to remove all the shrapnel, and the damage wasn't extensive. But you will need to rest for a while. I didn't have quite enough energy to heal you completely."

"I don't think I mind a little rest. Thank you. What happened to Kaine and Jynx?"

"They're all right. Kaine is still unconscious, though. I think he just wore himself out. The flare blinded Jynx, but he's almost back to normal. Getting him to stay still and stop worrying has been the hardest part."

"What about the demons?"

"They're gone."

"For good?"

"I doubt it, but coming back will probably be a harder trick without bodies. I'm not sure what keeps them coming back anyway. I suppose I'll find out when I go down there."

"Down where?"

"Hell."

"Are you saying you're gonna die?"

Iai doesn't answer. He studies Kumiko's eyes for a long time. When he speaks again, she knows what he's going to say. "I think I'm already dead."

II.

McBride pulls the door shut behind him and lets his shoulders slump. He's tried not to worry, but it's been three days. He wants to believe that Kumiko and the twins will make full recoveries, but he can't shake a deep sense of loss or at least of something ending. It's not that he doesn't trust Iai or Iai's power. He's always had this problem with death. He's always been able to feel it creeping closer, and every time he's felt its claws grazing the skin of someone he cares for, he leaves. He can't stop it, so he won't watch it. This time, he can't tell to whom it's closest. He's too tired to run now, and he owes it to Gloria and Jacob to stay. He leans back against the door. It's not over, he thinks. There's still Michiyo.

A little further down the hall, Iai emerges from Kumiko's room and walks towards McBride. He seems somehow less than he was before, but McBride can't tell what's changed. Iai still carries himself with an almost careless grace. His back is straight; his shoulders don't sag, but there's weariness there. It's in his eyes and in his hands.

"Ya look like shit, boy," McBride says. "Why don't you get some rest?"

"What good would it do?" Iai asks.

"Yer not gonna be much good to them if ya keep running yerself into the ground like this. Look at you. You can't even heal yer own wounds."

"These are superficial. Besides, I feel nothing."

"You still need to get some rest. Go lay down."

Iai just looks at McBride until McBride almost feels guilty for suggesting sleep.

"All right. Don't listen to me. But at least come down and have a drink with me. Relax a little."

"How are they?"

"Jynx was getting a little bit of a fever. He's asleep now. Finally. And Kaine ..." He shakes his head and stares into the distance ahead of him as if that might make some difference. "There's no change."

"He will wake up."

"When?" McBride is surprised by the urgency in his voice, and he wishes he could disguise his concern a little better. He doesn't like being reminded of how deep his emotions run.

Iai smiles. "In time," he says. "He put a great strain on himself. He wasn't ready for it."

McBride thinks for a minute. "You think that's kind of like what the Conductors did?"

Iai doesn't answer.

"You think it's that kind of strain that corrupted Michiyo's power? What would happen if Shaman got corrupted that way?"

"I would kill him before I would let something like that happen to him."

For a moment, McBride is surprised by Iai's answer. Then he smiles and lifts his left hand, in which he clutches a silver shrouded bottle of Boherboy black whiskey. Iai glances at the bottle skeptically. "Come on, boy," McBride says. "You only live once. Well. Maybe twice, but that's a tricky thing to pull off."

Somewhat reluctantly, Iai follows McBride down to the empty dining room where they sit at a table in a corner and drink in silence.

III.

Jynx opens his eyes. He blinks. He feels strange and can't figure out why. He shivers and pulls the blankets tighter around him. His skin prickles with chills. His forehead feels damp, and he vaguely remembers being feverish before he fell asleep. The fever must have broken, and that's why he doesn't feel quite right. Satisfied with that explanation, he closes his eyes again. A few seconds later, he sits up and stares around the room. It's dark. The last of the white glare has finally faded from his eyes.

Jynx slips out of his bed and creeps across the room to the bed where Kaine is lying. "Hey. Wake up," he whispers. He expects no answer and gets none. Kaine's breathing is sluggish and shallow, and his face is gaunt. He looks like someone who is dying of a slow, painful disease. Jynx sits down on the edge of the bed. He bends down until his forehead is resting on Kaine's. He closes his eyes and looks for whatever might be in Kaine's mind.

At first, there's only an oppressive and silent darkness. It's not like anything he's seen before. It clings to him with clammy fingers covered in murky oil. He brushes it off, but it doesn't let go. It pulls at him. He tries to shake off its grip. It pulls harder. He feels himself going down. The murk collapses in on him, swallowing every last bit of light.

A single voice whispers a single word. Jynx can't make sense out of it. The voice is too soft. He feels a solid surface under his hands. He can't tell what it is. He sweeps his hands across it. Sharp things bite into his palms and his fingers. He pulls his hands away. Whatever it is, it hurts. The voice keeps whispering. It gets a little louder, a little clearer. The surface begins to vibrate beneath him. He still can't tell what the voice is saying, but its rhythm is that of a train approaching quickly. The surface vibrations intensify. The voice continues to escalate. Then it screams, and he turns just in time to see the headlight of a train rushing at him.

His body, perched on the bed with small white feathers tumbling over his lips, convulses with the impact.

He clings to the front of the train as it roars along the track. His hands leave bloody smears on the train's nose. He waits to fall off. The train slopes downward, gently at first, and then sharpening to a ninety-degree angle. He falls.

As he falls, the train recedes. He hears many voices, all low and distant. Images begin to flit past him. It takes him a while to realize that he recognizes a lot of the images. He watches the ones he doesn't recognize with a kind of stunned wonder. He hadn't realized that the visions weren't like regular memories. He thought they would fade over time and get jumbled up, but each vision is like an insect in amber. A little smile touches his mouth. Now he has a better understanding of Kaine's seriousness.

Jynx stops falling. He doesn't quite land or hit anything. He's just standing all the sudden, and the images and voices are gone. He can't tell where he is. He walks for a little way and then stops, turns and walks in what might be a different direction. He can't see anything, and the space he's in is completely empty. The place is somehow familiar. He turns to his left and walks in a straight line. He hopes it's a straight line anyway.

He hears a low growling sound, and a cool breeze puffs against his face. He smells the ocean. He remembers going to a beach in a city called Fenway Park when he and Kaine were maybe ten years old. Kaine hadn't liked the crashing grey-green waves and the muscular current. He had stayed at the shoreline and played with the sand fleas. Jynx wouldn't have listened if Kaine had warned him about the water. He was too excited just to be at the beach. The beach was cool, and he was there, so he was cool. None of the other kids at school had been to the beach. He had wandered too far out, and the undertow pulled him down. He struggled upwards, screaming. It felt like a bony hand had clamped around his ankle and was dragging him down and further out. The next thing he remembered was sitting up near the sand dunes, wrapped in a towel and shivering. After that, he didn't think the beach was so cool.

Jynx follows the sound until he finds himself standing at the edge of a whirlpool. The water is black. Grey froth spatters Jynx's face. He can feel how cold the water is without getting any closer. It makes his bones ache.

Kaine is at the center of the whirlpool. He tries to swim out of it, but the current is too strong. It holds him firmly at its heart and pulls him down. His arms thrash desperately. His head goes under but comes right back up, still wheeling his arms and gasping for breath. His eyes and mouth are only black hollows in his face. A sinister light seeps from the hollows and wraps itself around him.

"Kaine!" Jynx shouts, and without a second thought, he dives into the whirlpool.

The current knocks him around, and he fights with it. After a while, he realizes it's pointless and lets the current carry him to the center. Kaine's struggles are dwindling. Jynx wraps his arms around Kaine, and before he can start to think of how to get them out of the whirlpool, it vanishes. A bonfire flickers in front of them.

Jynx puts Kaine down on the sand as close to the bonfire as he can get. Kaine's eyes and mouth are still black hollows, and the black light is still trying to twist itself around him. Jynx grabs a strand of it and pulls. It comes away with a dry snap and dissolves in his hand. He pulls more of them off and is soon tugging gobs of black gunk out of Kaine's eyes and mouth.

When all of the stuff is gone, Kaine draws a deep breath. He sits up, wobbling a little. His eyes are unfocused.

"Are you okay?" Jynx asks.

"Where am I?" Kaine asks.

Jynx feels his heart sink.

Kaine coughs. He turns away and vomits black water onto the sand. When he's done, he sits back and stares at the fire. Then he looks at Jynx. "I think I'm all right now," he says.

"You sure? Do you know where you are?" Jynx asks.

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Don't scare me like that, moron."

"I didn't do it on purpose."

"Did too."

"Did not."

"I don't even know what the hell you did."

Kaine puts his hand to his neck. Kumiko's collar is gone. "Is she ?"

"She's all right. It didn't look good for a while, but Iai got her back."

"She died."

"For a minute. It's nothing you haven't done before."

The twins are silent for a while. They huddle close to the bonfire and stare deep into its flames. The chill of the black water slowly leaves them.

"Iai isn't coming back here," Kaine says.

Jynx picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall back to the ground. "He's been acting awfully strange since you turned yourself into a nuclear bomb," he says.

"I can't really feel him any more."

"I know. It's like ... he's there, but he's so far away."

"The way Samurai feels."

"I don't want him to leave."

Kaine says nothing. He knows too much. He's seen too much. "I'm ready now," he says.

IV.

The trains, the ones that are left, are ready. They idle on the glimmering rails at five different locations. Dogtown, Algebra, Whynot, Home and Steelrain. There was supposed to have been one at Grave, but that train was murdered. It's taken a long time to fix the trains and pull the track together. A very long time. Most of that time, Michiyo worked alone. The ones who tried to help her were incompetent. They annoyed her, and she fed them to the trains or else they got caught after trying to steal money and bits of technology for her. In the end, Michiyo didn't need any help. She had all the help she could ever want in the shadows that pooled at her feet like rain running off an umbrella. She never needed anyone but her shadows.

She pulls the shadows around her like a blanket and watches the eastern sky. Phoenix doesn't show herself to Michiyo like she did to Kaine, but Michiyo can see faint auroras of purple and orange hovering over Rune. She can hear the soft sounds of footsteps in the sand as the strange spirit children return to their mother to witness the birth of their newest sibling. As they go, they pull the leylines with them. Michiyo scowls and lets her teeth show. They're taking her main energy source. She needs it. She has to help the trains run. She clenches her fists. Otherwise ... otherwise, I'm nothing! she thinks. She is a Conductor, just like her father. There's no other life for her.

She doesn't remember when it happened, but one day, her shadows cracked. When she was younger, they only swirled about her body, feathering across her flesh like strands of silk. She had loved the way it felt. Then they put her in the Conductor's box. It was sort of like a coffin, and that made her smile. When she was inside the box, she felt like she had something in common with her mother. "Look, Papa!" she would say, heedless of the heavy straps and wires that held her in place and linked her to the train's systems. "I'm like Mama now! I'm in a box just like Mama!" Papa would only smile sadly.

The Conductor's box had a little window about eye level. It was a little higher for Michiyo. She had to stand on a chair in the box to see the lower half of the window. Inside the window, she could see the train's systems. Its heart, brains, bones, muscles and skin. In a small corner of the display, she could see what the train was seeing.

One day, that little corner went black. She couldn't tell why. In the passenger cars, she could hear the metallic din of screams ringing off the inside of the train. Something began to move the train. She had fought with it and fought and fought, and eventually, she blacked out, like the screen she watched, just winked out and saw nothing. When she woke up, she couldn't remember anything.

Years after the war was over and she found herself alone, she found that train in the underground rail yard at Angel City, and she could tell what had happened to it. A sandstorm had come up, one of the worst ever seen on Phoenix, and it had derailed the train. The coffin-like Conductor's box had saved Michiyo's life.

When she looked at the ruined train behind the engine car, she had felt something she couldn't describe. She hadn't been well since the accident, and then she lost her father in the war. She had known what she should do all along, but when she saw that wreck, there was no longer any question. The trains would run again.

Michiyo turns away from Rune and faces Steelrain. They will come soon. The angels and the feather. They will hurt her trains and take her shadows away from her. They don't understand. The trains must run. She could explain it to them, but they wouldn't let the trains run even then. They only see one side. Their side. Well, they're wrong, she thinks. "You're wrong!" she screams. Her voice is flat in the open desert. The wind shifts. The five trains blow their whistles.

To be continued...

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-09-08
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