The Train God


a supplemental short story from the novel A LATENT DARK

It wasn’t so much about the picture itself, it was about the principal, the proof. It was about getting away from the walled city, away from the crowds, the noise. He could still see the massive girdle of steel and copper that surrounded the city of Fort Dallas, now just a sliver on the horizon.

Cody Weaver breathed deep.

The camera he used was a relic, a giant boxy thing with copper rings and knobs. He had salvaged half the parts from a local trader. Most people didn’t have a lot of use for this kind of device, but to Cody, it was gold.

The camera rested on a wooden tripod, also salvaged. An unfolded umbrella, a wooden chair, a small table sat nearby, luxuries that had no place in the city-state, where houses and steam buggies brushed up against one another and the air smelled of machine oil and soot. Here the air was sweet. A gust of wind tossed a lock of his hair

Two sets of train tracks spread out before him, disappearing into the horizon, snaking along the hills and flats. It was important to make sure the tripod was anchored. When that train came by, he would get one chance. Then it would be gone for another year—or more, or ever. The Merciful Deliverance was the white buffalo of locomotives. The last thing he wanted was to lose the entire chance to a random breeze.

He fastened the tips of the tripod, adjusted the lens one last time, then stepped back.

“You’re mine this time,” he muttered.

He eased himself into the folding chair beneath the umbrella and pulled from his satchel a bottle of red wine and a glass. He poured and set it on the table. The sun had just begun to rise and if everything went well, if his information was correct, today he would capture the steel legend on film.

It wasn’t that people didn’t believe in the Merciful Deliverance. They heard it from the city miles away. Some traders had claimed to see it on occasion, a massive metal beast—more like a steam ship on wheels, if you asked some.Oh, there had been a few photographers who had blurred, grainy images.

Photography being the lost art that it was, these photos were often dismissed as fakes, or were simply too far away to see any real detail. One man had managed to capture the Merciful Deliverance through a rig of telescopes. Cody tried not to laugh until he was out of the gallery. You might as well have photographed a ghost. It was nothing but a blur with a smoke plume.

No, Cody was going to get it this time. He had paid well, very well, for his information. And if it was true what they said, he would leave today with the only known proof that the steel god existed at all.

The sound of hooves startled him and Cody turned. The dark eyes of Running Foot looked down at him from atop his saddle. His face was colored in streaks of paint and beads of war. A holstered revolver was strapped to his hip—a little too exposed for Cody’s taste.

“Morning,” said Cody, trying not to seem concerned with the armed apache hovering over him.

“You picked a bad day for pictures,” said Running Foot.

Cody looked up and shielded his eyes. “How so?”

“The train is coming through today.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Cody said.

The shirtless man dismounted and walked over to the camera, circled it, avoiding the lens in the front, still superstitious after all these centuries. Cody smiled.

Of course, it wasn’t like superstition didn’t govern his city either. Hell, it governed all the city-states. He had to file a hundred permits before the bishop would even consider letting him use such arcane technology. He had to practically sign in blood that he wouldn’t use it to
promote anything “immoral” whatever that meant. It wasn’t like he was going to photograph women in their bloomers. He just wanted to take pictures.

“Wine?” he offered the bottle.

“No, thank you,” said Running Foot. “You are right in the path, you know. Not a good place to be.”

“Naw,” Cody waved it away. “Twenty yards should be more than enough room. I want there to be no doubt.”

“You plan on capturing it?” Running Foot asked.There was a dual meaning to the statement, Cody knew. There were still some of the UAN who believed that cameras really did steal your soul, really did rob you of some essence.

“It’s just a train,” said Cody.

Running Foot gave a grunt. “If it’s just a train, then why take a picture at all?”

“It’s a machine,” said Cody. “It just happens to be a machine that is as rare as a blue moon.”

“You think machines don’t have spirits?” Running Foot asked. The edge of his mouth upturned slightly.

“Why would they?” Cody said. He took the glass and sipped, then placed it down. “They aren’t natural. They aren’t a living breathing being like we are.” He thumped his chest for emphasis. “You have to be born to be alive, to have a spirit.”

Running Foot gave another little grunt and looked away. “So machines are not born? You believe they just pop into existence? Magic?”

“We both know they are created… by us.”

“And human aren’t?”

Cody stammered a moment, then laughed. “Now you’re just being difficult.”

He had had these sorts of discussions with Running Foot before. As a trade ambassador for the United Apache Nation, Running Foot was a familiar face in the Fort Dallas city-state. It was also why Cody was a little concerned at the clothing—or lack thereof—which Running Foot now wore. This was warrior’s dress, not a diplomat’s.

“So, what’s with the getup?” Cody asked, trying not to seem too interested.

But Running Foot ignored the question entirely. “So, when a machine is manufactured,” he said. “Does it first not gestate in the mind? Then on paper? Before it becomes real, isn’t there a seminal idea?”

“Oh, I suppose,” said Cody. “What’s your point?”

“I have heard of other machines, out West,” said the Indian. “They say men have captured and imprisoned a great spirit in these machines. A cannibal, one that eats other spirits.”

“Well,” said Cody, “I hear lots of things too. Now if you don’t mind…”

He was irritated now. All he had wanted to do was relax, drink and maybe snap some pictures of the rarest machine known to man. He flopped back into his chair as Running Foot walked to his mount.

“You aren’t the only man who wants to capture the Great Train, Mr. Weaver.”

“You have a nice day too,” Cody said without looking at the man as he mounted and galloped off.

By noon, the sun was beating down on the plains and Cody had begun to think he had wasted his money on the information. His camera gleamed in the light, reflecting golden, arced patterns on the inside of his umbrella. A dragonfly landed on a nearby stalk. Cody considered it.

At least I’d get something out of today, he thought.

The dragonfly was a big one, almost eight inches long, the kind that sometimes go after birds or small bats. Its iridescent compound eyes looked back at him as it bobbed and weaved on the stalk of tall grass.

“You tell me,” he said to the insect. “Do machines have souls?”

He had pretty much finished the bottle. He poured the last few drops into the half empty glass and chuckled bitterly. That conversation had left him surly. The dragonfly lifted off and spiraled away, its wings pounding the air with the sound of a windup toy.

A plume of smoke and steam rose on the horizon, distorted by the summer air. Cody placed a hand over his eyes, shielding them from the sun. He honestly thought he was imagining it. It could have been the wine and the heat combined—

No, it was moving alright. And moving fast, from what he could tell. He heard a jingling and turned. The glass was rocking on the table. Small circular rings bounced around on the surface of the wine.

He turned back to the horizon and—God, had it gotten closer already? Now he could see dual lights, like demon eyes, one over each track. Twenty yards might have been too close after all.

Tremors began to rock his buggy, the umbrella, the camera. Oh right, the camera. He had almost forgotten what he was there for. He had planned on using a remote cable to activate the shutter, but now the tripod was rocking too much.

He leaned in, covered his head with the hood and waited as the beast came into focus. It was massive.

Easily the width of a house, the train was a rolling megalith of metal and spinning gears, a double-boiler monster armored with ten inch thick plate on all sides. It looked like an ironclad dreadnought run aground. The brass plates reflected scars and pock marked battle wounds, testaments to those who had tried and failed to slay it.

It rolled onward, its wheels doubling beneath it on a shifting framework, allowing the machine to straddle two, sometimes three tracks at once. Cody could see the steel of the railway bend beneath its girth as it plunged down the plains.

He steadied the camera as the juggernaut barreled toward him, growing impossibly big, throwing dust and debris aside as it went, vomiting smoke into the sky. Tall grass parted, whipped away as the machine sliced through the air, shoving everything aside like a snow plow.

There were other objects dwarfed by the train, small specks that cast up their own plumes of dust. Horses. Men on horses, Running Foot among them. They rode alongside the beast, waving guns, shouting. Cody watched in shock as men atop the train aimed long barreled rifles.

Puffs of smoke sprouted from the rifles, whipped away by the wind.

A man fell as his horse stumbled then vanished in the dust. But there were more, dozens more. They rode three abreast, lobbing lassos and cables onto anything that would provide a hold.

Thicker cables dangled along the sides, the failed nets of other hunters who had tried to snare the beast. They whipped in the air as the machine god thundered his direction.

Cody pressed the button again and again, the shutter snapping and clicking. Internal mechanisms whirred, rolling the film into a canister to be developed later. He mashed the button over and over as the train grew in his viewfinder. He rotated the camera catching the details of its flank, its scarred wounded flank, strapped by cables—

Realization almost happened to late. He flung himself away from the camera, out of the hood and onto his back as an inch-thick cable whipped by, whistling in the air mere feet from his head. It slapped the camera like some mad tentacle, shattering the frame and sending the lens box spinning end over end. Cody cried out, partially from the fear and partially from the pain at seeing his camera tumble into the dust, the lens flying off, the film canister disappearing into the smoke and noise.

The train was deafening. It screamed by, wheels the size of tractor tires screeching on the tormented rails. Windows flew by in a blur as the train plummeted past. Then there were horses. They stampeded by him, nearly naked men waving guns, firing at the soldiers inside. A bullet whizzed by

Cody’s head and he scrambled back to his buggy as the winds, brought by the train whipped his back like a mule.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The train, the men, the horses, the guns, his camera, all of it gone. Dust settled all around as Cody coughed trying to wave away the occlusion.

What had been a green prairie was now a strip of brown wasteland. Grass had been uprooted and flung into the air. A rock had been tossed into his buggy, smashing the windscreen and embedding itself several inches in the driver’s seat. One headlamp was gutted.

He stumbled through the wreckage like a tornado survivor, picking up his broken toys, a piece of umbrella here, and broken table there, a piece of lens.

The camera box was intact. Had he taken a picture before he jumped? He couldn’t remember. The canister was destroyed. A dozen or so frames were now exposed to the sun like loose leaves, grey and dead. Cody sighed and picked them up as well.

His buggy sputtered into town amidst stares and laughter. He recognized the comments, but ignored them. The walls of buildings seemed to press in on him as he circled the square and rolled up into his garage.

The camera box, he looked at it. Maybe it could be salvaged. He took it under his arm and walked into the house, through the kitchen, through the living area and into his bathroom. Every corner had been blacked out, every crack sealed.

Feeling blindly, Cody pulled a small chain and dim red light flooded the room, exposing buckets, trays, chemicals, lenses. He set the canister down on one counter and the lens box on another.

Sighing, he took the canister in one hand and disappeared behind a black curtain along with a handful of chemicals. A few moments later he tossed the entire stack of frames into the garbage, every picture, ruined. He looked at the lens box, broken, cracked. It was so unlikely that there would be anything worth using. He took the camera and disappeared into the curtain.Fumbling blindly with the film canister he was used to, but a broken camera took some time. Eventually he found the catch, and upon pulling it, felt the entire box fall apart in his hand.

Pieces clattered to the floor, but he managed to grab the slick plastic film between his fingers. He went to work.

Minutes later, Cody emerged from the curtain victorious, a solitary negative in his hand. He let it dry, sipping on some tea from the kitchen, checking on it to make sure there was no dust.

He couldn’t tell in the dim light what he had caught, if he had actually caught anything at all. He enlarged the image.

It looked as though the camera had taken a photograph on its own as it rolled alongside the train. The point of view was from the ground, looking up. The camera must have rolled along with the train, because the windows were not blurred. In fact, Cody saw people, faces, two girls and a man. The man wore a white fedora. The girls were brunette twins. They looked scared.

They peered out of the window, mouths open, eyes huge, their hands pressed wide and white against the glass. The man behind them only scowled.

Cody grinned as he looked at his sole surviving picture. Nobody would believe him of course. It could have been of the side of any train, unless you looked at the edges. Cody’s eye drifted to the ground near the wheels.

Light does strange things to film sometimes, but Cody had never seen this effect. He had seen the effect of light bleeding into film, making ghost images.

Along the ground and bleeding from the wheels was a shadow, thick as oil and crisscrossed with what looked like vines or claws. It was black as the night is dark, stretching behind the train
like a bridal gown full of sin. There were faces too, strange distorted faces, dragged behind the train like punished criminals.

It had to be a double exposure, he told himself. The actual shadow of the train would have been on the other side. He had checked the light himself. The sun had been at his back.

He stared at the image as a tiny laugh crawled from deep inside his throat. He began to wish he had spoken to Running Foot just a little bit longer.

©2011 Martin Kee (Marlan Smith)

3 responses to “The Train God

  1. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips and hints for newbie blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

    • I am honestly terrible at blogging. Like any writing project, my best advice is to write and read often. Sadly, I don’t really take my own advice, as I spend more time working on books than blogging.

      I appreciate the comment though. Glad you enjoy the stories.

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