Edition 19: Riding a Runaway by Andrew Knighton
A runaway train hurtling toward the imperial palace. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms have to run the gauntlet of automated foot soldiers of a madman bent on vengeance. This pulp-fiction style steampunk was another finalist in 2014’s Story Quest competition. SY
Dirk Dynamo braced himself as the train roared towards him out of the darkness, the cacophony of its wheels and the harsh light from its lamps filling the tunnel. The air was thick with coal smoke and the smell of deep earth. He was tense, coiled, ready for action.
“What a splendid sound!” Timothy Blaze-Simms shouted to be heard.
“Get ready.” Dirk’s hand dropped instinctively to his belt. The reassuring cold steel of the Gravemaker was secure in its holster beneath his fur coat. Down here he was sweating like a Prussian in the sunshine, but he’d be glad of the warmth when they got back up into the Moscow snow.
The train slowed as it neared them, losing speed so as not to lose balance on this bend in the track. The speed of its passing sent their coattails flying and snatched the top hat from Blaze-Simms’ head, but the Englishman didn’t seem to mind. He gripped a case tight in his hand and followed Dirk’s lead as he leapt.
Dirk landed in the open back of the rearmost carriage, grabbing the coarse ropes that held its cargo and fighting to regain his balance. Timothy was sprawled beside him, flat on the carriage but grinning.
“I say, isn’t this exciting?”
“It’ll be a damn sight less exciting if we can’t stop this thing.” Dirk bit down his frustration and grabbed his friend’s hand, hauling him to his feet. “You think Professor Paragus really means to destroy his train?”
“From what his colleagues said, yes.” Timothy swayed with the motion, arms wide to keep his balance. His words were snatched away on the wind. “And if there is a bomb on board then who knows what he might destroy.”
“This is what happens when rich folks throw money around.” Dirk stalked between the crates to the end of the freight car. “Tsar should have known better.”
He leaned precariously across the shifting couplings. The carriage jolted and flung him into the air. For a moment he hung suspended, his heart in his mouth and the ground blurring by like a buzz-saw beneath him.
He grabbed a railing, rough metal biting his palm. Pain jolted up his arm as he swung his whole body to safety. Feet secure beneath him he took a deep breath and opened the door into the next carriage.
This one was a passenger car. The seats were cushioned in rich red velvet but someone had been through with a jagged knife and a furious temper, ripping them open and spilling pale stuffed innards like guts across the floor. A portrait of the Tsar smiled with surprising benevolence upon the opulent destruction. Somewhere in the carriage a clock was ticking.
“Come on,” Timothy said, giving Dirk a shove from behind. “We need to get to the front before it’s too late.”
“Wait.” Dirk held up a hand. “Something ain’t right.”
It wasn’t just the ticking of a single clock. It was of three or four, counting down towards an unknown deadline, and the soft hiss of pistons on the verge of jerking into action—the song of technology about to be unleashed.
“Get that thing ready.” Dirk took a cautious step forward, and another, looking around for some unseen threat. Was he just paranoid, or was some menace lurking here? Behind him Timothy clicked the case open. A third step and a heap of torn cushions burst upwards. Dirk darted aside as deadly mechanical arms lashed the space where he had stood but a second ago.
A door burst open and a spiked body swung from the ceiling, and suddenly he was surrounded by automata. One looked like a serving trolley, teacups on the top and a gleaming carving knife strapped to the front. Another, shaped like a deadly jungle spider, was covered in soot from the pipes it cleaned with it pointed arms. A third closed like a bear trap around a seat—its jaws, originally designed to hold luggage, now over-powered and turning the surroundings to splinters.
Dirk’s instincts took over. He rolled over a seat back and got clear of the luggage-thing’s crushing bite. The Gravemaker was in his hand, roaring defiance. Two bullets bounced off the serving trolley while a third sent the cleaning spider flying.
“Now!” he yelled, leaping clear as the luggage-thing closed, its teeth ripping the edge of his coat.
“Got it.” Blaze-Simms’s words were followed by a click and a hum. The machines froze and the Englishman looked up with a child-like grin from the elaborate mechanisms inside his case.
“We’d better move on fast—the magnetic field only freezes their mechanisms for a short time, it varies from machine to machine, and…”
“Got it.” Dirk gave Blaze-Simms a moment to close the case then they were off into the next carriage, leaving the automata behind.
Of course it wasn’t that simple. Each carriage held more of Professor Paragus’s crazed creations than the last. Soon Dirk was down to his last bullet, muscles straining to their desperate limits as he grappled hand to piston with a ticket-punching construct.
“The machine,” he called out as the construct twisted his arm in agonizing new ways. “Turn on your damn machine.”
“About that…” Blaze-Simms sounded embarrassed.
Dirk risked a glance over his shoulder as metal limbs squeezed tighter on his chest. Black spots danced across his eyes as he fought for breath. The case lay on the floor in front of his friend, smoking and sparking.
“It has never had extensive field trials,” Blaze-Simms said. “I’m afraid that we may have over-strained it.”
“Do something, before this thing over-strains me.”
Blaze-Simms swung the smoking case into the automated conductor. There was a shower of sparks, a gout of oily smoke, and the machine let go of Dirk.
“Guess that’ll do.” Dirk extricated himself, wincing as he did so, and glanced towards the front of the train. They must be nearly to the engine by now. “You got another weapon?”
“Frightfully sorry, but I didn’t have a hand free, what with the leaping on board.”
“Figures.” Dirk glanced around, picked up a hefty wrench that had been lying by a half-assembled machine. “Take this. It’s better than nothing.”
He opened the door and stepped out into the fiery glow of the engine cab.
It was bigger than any other train cab he’d been in. Half a carriage long, its walls crowded with controls for the automata and digging devices, the vast drills and the spinning shovels that let it dig tunnels. Some levers hung limp, a ceiling panel swung precariously above his head, but the place still vibrated with the awesome power of machines at work.
“Stop right there.” Dirk raised his pistol.
A dark figure turned to face them, silhouetted against the flames from the open firebox. Professor Paragus was a huge man, his leather apron straining around his waist, a loaded shovel held up by one muscular arm. His wild mass of hair made his head seem vast, like his mind was bursting free of the skull’s restraints.
“No more step, yes?” The professor held his spade above a switch, from which wires ran down to a mass of thick sticks of dynamite.
Dirk froze. That many explosives could level a mansion. Hit the switch and the three of them would be nothing but paste.
“We’re all good,” Dirk said, biting back the terrible tension he felt. “Aren’t we, Timothy?”
Blaze-Simms stepped out beside him, smiling the polite smile aristocrats could whip out to cover any occasion.
“Absolutely.” Blaze-Simms held up his hands. “See, I don’t even have a gun.”
“Is my spanner?” Paragus glared furiously at the tool in Blaze-Simms’s hand. “No one touch my spanner.”
The professor’s spare hand shot out to yank a lever beside him. A plate swung down from the ceiling and hit the back of Blaze-Simms’s head with a sickening thud. He flopped to the ground, eyes glazed, unmoving.
“Don’t do this Paragus.” Dirk felt sick to his stomach but he kept his voice steady and the pistol even steadier. “You blow up a bunch of innocent folks, you’re just one more mad scientist on a killing spree.”
“Not scientist,” Paragus screamed indignantly. “Engineer. Tsar at least understand that, if not glory of my work. Too much accident, he say. Too much cost. I show him. I show him cost of stopping Sirca Paragus at moment of glory.”
The firebox flared, light reflecting off the cab’s metal surfaces, and Dirk saw the professor’s face for the first time. There was a wild gleam in his one eye, made all the more intense next to the puckered scar where its partner should have been.
“How’s blowing up folks gonna show him anything?”
“Not folks. Tsar. Marx and Engels right, time has come for change.”
“OK.” Dirk felt nauseous. He believed in Marx’s revolutionary principles, hated to hear them used to justify this. “But not like this. It’s got to come from the people, not one man blowing up palaces. How you gonna unite the working classes when you’ve blown a bunch of them up?”
“Not them! Tsar!”
“And the ordinary folks who cook and clean round the palace?”
“Lackies! Stooges of corrupt imbecile. Paragus show them all.”
A red flag flipped out from the wall. With his spare hand Paragus yanked a lever and then spun a wheel. The floor tilted beneath Dirk’s feet. Loose coal rattled down the metal panels towards him, while a noise like mountains falling roared out from the front of the train.
“Feel that?” Paragus shouted to be heard above the racket. “We going up now. Dig tunnel straight to Palace, mechanicals lay line as we go. Earth here soft, easy, yield to Paragus. Soon all Russia yield to Paragus, yes?”
His body shook with laughter. A coal fell from the shovel, missed the bomb’s trigger by a terrible inch and bounced off the mound of dynamite to the floor. Dirk stared at it in shock and relief.
“How’re they gonna yield to you when you’ve blown yourself up?” Time was running out, but Dirk was desperately forming a plan. His fingers stroked the reassuring steel of his pistol. He needed a distraction, just long enough to draw.
And with one bullet left he needed to hit.
“Escape hatch.” Paragus gestured towards a section of wall. Now Dirk looked he saw the handle and hinges that made it a door. “Leap out at surface, leave train to finish course.”
“Your automata do repairs?” Dirk asked, eyes darting across the controls, judging angles and distances.
“Of course! Great automata.” Paragus frowned in confusion. “Why you ask?”
“Cause you wouldn’t have welded that door shut.”
“What?” Paragus turned in alarm towards the door.
Quick as a rattlesnake Dirk drew his pistol.
Bang! His last bullet hit the steering wheel, sent it spinning wildly and ricocheted towards the bomb. Severed wires pinged apart as the bullet tore through them. The floor tilted again, left and upwards this time, the train veering onto a new course.
“No!” Paragus stared down the barrel of the smoking gun.
He dropped his shovel on the bomb’s trigger. There was a click and a spark from a severed wire, but no explosion.
“Sorry Prof,” Dirk said. “But I don’t plan on dying.”
“No!” Paragus lunged towards him, swinging the shovel.
Dirk ducked, rolled across the floor next to Blaze-Simms. The shovel clanged off the wall.
The noise from the front of the train leapt from a low roar to a high whir. Daylight burst through the windows, cold and pale as ice.
Dirk grabbed Blaze-Simms and flung the groaning Englishman over his shoulder. He darted towards the door, flinging it open. A snow-spattered wind rushed in around them.
The square outside the royal palace lay below him, blurring past as the train accelerated up into the air. Losing momentum the machine tipped, veering down towards the cobbles.
Paragus’s hand grabbed Dirk’s ankle. Dirk kicked himself free and leapt, rolling to protect Blaze-Simms, landing in a mercifully soft heap of snow. He scrambled to his feet, scooped up Blaze-Simms and ran. Behind him came an almighty crash, an angry howl of pressurised steam escaping, and then a deafening roar. He flung himself to the ground, shrapnel scything over him and hissing into the snow.
When the blast had passed he turned his head. Where the train had been, a crater filled the centre of the square. Bewildered Russians gawped at the destruction.
“W’happened?” Blaze-Simms mumbled, stirring in the snow.
“Hot coals and explosives,” Dirk replied. “And a little justice for the Russian people.” He looked through the swirling smoke towards the palace, still standing proud behind the devastation.
Regret fluttered in his chest. “Though maybe not enough.”
Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steamunk anthologies. His own steampunk anthology, Riding the Mainspring, is available now on Amazon, and you can get a free copy by signing up to his mailing list at http://eepurl.com/1dlc1. You can find out more about his writing at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.