Happy World Storytelling Day! ✍🏼 To celebrate this wonderful day, one of our team members has written a short story. This particular short story takes place on Victoria, our Steampunk world. You'll follow Commander James Kenworthy, who operates the train that takes workers across the Great Plains to build railroad tracks. Their day could be good, and they'll install a few hundred meters of tracks. Or their day could be bad, and that means hiding in terror and fighting for their lives against the ever-present horrors roaming those treacherous plains. Will the crew survive?
“Attention, all passengers and crew:” the voice through the intercom announced. “This is Commander James Kenworthy speaking, prepare to arrive at the endpoint of the H.R.M.S.T. Earl of Foyle, E.T.A. five minutes from now. All military personnel, prepare to secure a perimeter around the endpoint. All work crews, prepare to start working as soon as we come to a full stop. May we make good progress today.”
The train was still thundering across the open plains of Victoria, about three hundred kilometers south-east of New London. It was almost dawn, and the workers were ready for a long day of building tracks. On a good day, they were able to install a few hundred meters of tracks. A bad day meant hiding in terror for most and fighting for their very lives for the others, battling against the ever-present horrors that roamed the Great Plains. No one knew where they came from, where they slept, or what their motivations were. But everybody had nightmares about the grotesque creatures that made life on Victoria difficult at the best of times, and nigh impossible outside at night.
The train started to slow down gradually. The steam engine in the front was a monstrous construction made from Nautilus steel, with a seven-meter high vertical blade in the front, designed to cut through anything that would get in front of the train. In the three years that the Earl of Foyle had been in service, this had happened only once. But that one time, the blade had worked perfectly, slicing the towering horror in half like a butcher carving up meat.
The engine pulled eight carriages and another engine, facing rearward. The first carriage was a tender carriage that carried coal and water to power the engine. The second carriage was an armored car that acted as a mobile bunker. It had thick steel walls with gunports in it, ammunition stores and on top there were two turrets that could each swivel 360 degrees. Both turrets had two large-caliber belt-fed rotary machine guns that chewed up ammunition like there was no tomorrow, but the stopping power of these guns could not be denied. Many horrors had been cut down by these guns, one as recently as four days ago. The third and fourth carriage were passenger carriages, designed to transport passengers from one city to another. This, however, would be several more years from now, as the tracks between the cities of Victoria were not completed yet. Carriages number five and six were flatbed carriages loaded with steel rails, sleepers, and tools. The lucky number seven carriage, as the crew affectionately called it, was another armored car. Carriage eight was the tender that serviced the steam engine at the rear of the train, which would pull the train on its journey back towards New London. This particular set of tracks was destined to connect New London to New Newtontown in the future, optimistically estimated to be about three years from now, while pessimistically inclined people, of whom there was an abundance on Victoria, said that the work would never be completed. The latter thought found resonance with the Neo-Vatican, whose clergy openly raised questions concerning the need for a railway system, even going so far as comparing it to building a new Tower of Babylon.
The train came to a full stop and the engine hissed as it purged some excess steam. Immediately, the passenger car doors opened and soldiers started to jump out. They were armed with large-caliber rifles and between them, they also carried two mortar launchers that had an effective range of around two kilometers. Spreading out in a cross-shaped pattern, they looked for any signs that horrors might have passed by recently. It took about half an hour to scout the area in a one-kilometer radius from the endpoint, which was about the visual range in today’s mist. It was also about the time the work crews needed to unload the equipment and the materials needed to build the railway tracks. Every part of the track, including rivets, was made of the space-age-grade steel from the Nautilus, stronger than any steel that could be produced on Victoria with the technology available to the people.
“Alright grunts, begin hauling rails and sleepers!” shouted the foreman of the work crews, a short, stocky man called Bingham Rudd. “I want every one o’ ye carryin’ somethin’! Riveting crew, connect yer pressure hoses and start checkin’ yer hammers! Engineer corps, set all yer markers fer definitive placements and continue ta measure ahead when the first five sections can be laid! Let’s go!”
Commander Kenworthy had to admit being impressed by foreman Rudd. A former military engineer, Rudd was able to make people listen and follow orders without question. It was rumored that he was a combat veteran who had fought against the abysmal horrors dozens of times during the first years of the settlement of Victoria. But on this world, the mental condition of even the toughest soldier gradually declined from fighting one nightmarish horror after another until, eventually, the inevitable signs of PTSD set in and he became too much of a liability for active combat. It was the tenth year that humans lived on Victoria and many veterans of combat had already passed the breaking point of the human mind. There was only so much horror one could endure and still keep one’s sanity.
Seeing the riveting crew ready, the Commander flipped a switch, diverting steam pressure from the main tank to a set of external sockets. With their pressure hoses connected to the sockets, the riveting hammers could drive finger-long rivets through holes in the rails and the sleepers, binding them together firmly and, hopefully, forever.
He tried not to show it, but Bingham Rudd always flinched slightly when the riveting hammers were test-fired. Damn those horrors, he thought by himself. There’s a finite amount of nightmares you can bear in one lifetime. And I’ve seen enough for too many lifetimes. Still, he managed to compose himself, and walked seemingly unnerved to the front of the train, where the first sleepers were being positioned. Commander Kenworthy knew his foreman better than most, as both men had been among the first waves of people to scout the surface of Victoria. He had lobbied, as was a Commander’s prerogative, to have foreman Rudd on board his train as the commanding officer for all people, except the train crew. Kenworthy knew full well that Rudd was a few cards short of a full deck, but also knew that the only thing Rudd feared more than the dreadful monsters of the plains was being in an enclosed space for prolonged periods of time. Living locked up inside a city, hidden behind walls, slowly ate away at what remained of his sanity. Out here on the great plains, the wide-open space gave Rudd peace of mind, clearing his thoughts enough to make him a capable officer again, one who could inspire courage in his men. A job he did admirably, as his men never saw him climb into the safety of the train, always choosing to hold his ground. Kenworthy deduced none of the men knew about Rudd’s claustrophobia, and concluded that he was simply choosing the lesser of two fears, but he kept this conclusion to himself. Any military commander was only as effective as the degree that his men believed in him.
The workers worked at a steady pace, always glancing over their shoulders. There was no sound on the plains, except the sounds that they, and their equipment made. The absence of echoes made every noise somewhat unnerving, while the mist also seemed to dampen everything even more. Every man who worked outside became more jittery by the hour, knowing that he was hundreds of kilometers away from a safe place, with only the train as his lifeline. The men did not need any other motivation to work as accurately and hard as they could.
Onboard the rear engine of the Earl of Foyle, meanwhile, Kenworthy drank a cup of tea while he monitored a wall of gauges and dials. The most important values, shown by large copper-coloured dials, were the fire temperature and the steam pressure in the main boiler. Both values needed to be within a narrow range, and it was the Commander’s duty to keep them there. Next to these dials was a thick borosilicate glass window slit that allowed a view into the main boiler. While standing still, the water was just a fraction below boiling point. It took a lot of coal and wood to keep the water at that temperature, but the tender carriages were enormous, as the train was designed to run a thousand kilometers without the need to refuel. Preparing the behemoth for a run took a lot of time, however, with the boiler being fired up in the middle of the night if it were to run in the morning. It needed to be heated gradually and evenly, never too fast or in one place, running the risk of mechanical leaks in the boiler or the kilometers of pressurized pipes. But James Kenworthy had a Master’s degree in physics and had studied mechanical engineering as well back on Old Earth, and knew these things well. He was, by all accounts, probably the most qualified person on Victoria to pilot a train.
Just as he was looking into the boiler, he saw the tiniest of ripples in the water. They ran from the outside to the center and the outside again, forming a standing wave. His blood froze. Almost spilling his tea, he jumped from the engine and ran to Bingham Rudd.
Seeing the Commander running towards him, Rudd immediately knew there was something seriously wrong. And on the great plains of Victoria, that meant only one thing:
Kenworthy, while running, made a gesture with his hand towards his neck. Rudd knew what it meant.
“OI!” he screamed. “Everyone shut yer traps and drop yer tools!”
The work crew immediately stopped working, while the soldiers were anxiously looking around in the distance, which was mostly obscured by the mist. A few men dropped on the ground and put their ears to the ground. And then they heard it. The faintest of thuds, likely far away, but anywhere outside the safety of the city was too close for comfort. Some men desperately clung to the hope that the horror might not have noticed them, and that it would simply pass by. The others knew better. Every time one of the demonic creatures showed up, it went straight for the crew, no exceptions.
“Bakersfield, Henderson, front guns!” Rudd bellowed. “Hargreaves, Jenkins, rear guns! Mayweather, Portman, Connolly, McAllen, mortars! The rest of ye grunts, on top of the train, and fer the love of God, save yer ammunition! Move out and hope fer the best!”
The men all went into action. Commander Kenworthy jumped back onto the engine and flipped two levers that immediately caused the release of coal into the furnace. Frantically, he turned other gears, closing off the external pressure valves, pressuring the brake lines, and diverting steam pressure to spin up a turbine that supplied oxygen to the furnace. Next, he released the brakes and watched the dials of temperature and steam power. He knew that within two minutes, both dials would indicate a significantly higher boiler pressure and furnace temperature. The work crews, meanwhile, had huddled into the armored cars, and the soldiers were either standing on top of the carriages, guns ready, or standing on one side of the train. Kenworthy wondered from which side those men hoped the horror would come from. Rudd was standing on top of the train, signaling his men to be quiet. This made the eerie silence only worse and seemed to make the actual air thicker. It was almost a relief to hear the very soft, but unmistakable thud from a heavy footfall, followed by another one, and another one.
“Contact!” shouted a man, frantically pointing his finger sideways and a little upwards “South, about one kilometer and closing.”
All men looked south and saw a vast shape looming in the distance. It had the general shape and size of an apatosaurus. But where the apatosaurus had probably been a peaceful herbivore, this nauseating horror most definitely was not. On top of its neck, relatively unobscured because the mist was markedly thinner a few meters from the ground, was an overly large head with two massive stalks on the lateral sides. Through his binoculars, Kenworthy saw that the stalks were covered with eyes that looked disturbingly human. For a second he thought that the eyes were looking at him, and he quickly lowered the binoculars. The horror did not just look at him, but peered into his very soul. He shivered involuntarily. This horror looked very much like one of the first he had ever seen, only that one was much smaller. On this particular creature, the gaping maw in front had no visible teeth, but around it there were serrated mandibles like a crab, only more of them, many, many more, running down the neck looking like a demonic conveyor belt to feed the hellish horror. Its skin was waxy pale and practically translucent on the neck, but the body was covered in irregular armour plates varying in color from brown to green. When it moved, the men saw that each of the four legs had two sets of knees, and instead of feet, it had flat soles with claw-like pincers, giving it an awkward walk that only added to the unnatural look of the abysmal creature.
“Mortar teams, set fer three-quarters of a click and fire!” Rudd shouted. He slid down a ladder from the train and walked a few paces in the direction of the horror, facing his fears as he had done so many times before. Yet every time he did, something died inside of him, as if the horrors slowly killed at a distance. A double ‘thump’ sounded behind him, and seconds later he saw two explosions just left of the horror. It reared, emitting a low, rasping roar, and tripled its speed, going straight for the train.
“Compensate fer the wind and fire again at will!” Rudd shouted. “All men, on the train! Commander, full speed ahead! No sense in risking an engagement at close range!”
In the engine cabin, James Kenworthy flipped two switches, diverting steam power to the wheels and the train slowly started moving.
Too slow, Rudd thought, while climbing on a ladder. He estimated that the horror could reach the train in less than two minutes. And he knew Kenworthy could not make the train go faster, as the wheels would simply slip and wear down. He had to give it maximum usable torque, and not one newton-meter more. The mortars fired again. This time, the shells landed just in front of the horror, which did not seem to be impressed by the explosions, although it made a slight misstep in a crater. But still, it came closer. The train was not accelerating fast enough, and the men started to feel that something was off. Had Rudd made a wrong call and called for a retreat too late? They looked at him for guidance.
“All guns, prepare to fire on my command!” he shouted. “And not one second earlier! Do ye understand that?”
“Sir, yes sir!” in unison confirmed that the men, in fact, did understand it. The train was slowly picking up speed. But the horror was faster still. Rudd felt elated about it and immediately chastised himself for the thought. But he knew where the thought came from. Running away from this fight meant going back to New London. Where, upon arrival, the iron gates would be shut behind them. And Rudd would drink himself into a stupor to deal with his inner demons, which, at this point in his life, seemed worse than the ones outside the gates.
The horror was within three hundred meters now, still gaining ground.
“FY-ARE!” Rudd shouted. It felt like an apotheosis. Out here, you could fight your demons, with any weapon you had at your disposal. And fire, the men did. Streams of liquid metal from the belt-fed machine guns impacted on the body of the horror. Fighting on Victoria, with limited ammunition supplies, meant that one couldn’t afford to waste bullets. Military doctrine was to fire on the largest chunk of flesh to avoid misses and once the target was killed, scavenge every bullet that could be found.
Yet the horror did not relent easily. Although the train was picking up a little more speed now, the horror was still closing in. And Rudd knew what he had to do. Not just for anybody on this train. Not even for the Commander. But for himself. Jumping to the rear end of the train, where the armored car was laying down suppressive fire, he slid down the hatch and grabbed a forty-pound crate used to store mortar shells. There were still four shells in the crate. He slammed the crate shut and lifted it by the strap, carrying it up the ladder.
“Are you okay, Sir?” private Hargreaves asked, seeing Rudd’s eyes blazing.
“Going to buy ye time! Make it worth it!” he replied, and with the crate hung from his left shoulder, his rifle from his right shoulder, he climbed down the ladder that hung from the side of the carriage. The men stared in disbelief. By now, the train had reached a speed of almost thirty kilometers per hour and Rudd knew it would be a rough landing. But his mind was steeled with a resolve he had not felt in years, given in by the thought of having to retreat to New London. Before letting go of the ladder and touching the ground, he tried to run with the train and found that he was just able to keep up, although it would be no more than a few seconds. He let go of the ladder and turned around, seeing the train move away.
Now he stood alone on the plains, the horror a mere hundred meters in front of him. He aimed his rifle at one of the eyestalks and fired a few shots. To his excitement, he saw that he still had the marksmanship skills of a well-trained soldier because the horror definitely flinched. It looked at him, at his body, his mind, and his soul. It saw the zeal in Rudd’s eyes and felt the depth of his rage. But it did not detect fear. That little man on the plain, fully at the mercy of a gargantuan horror was completely devoid of fear.
From the train, the men saw the horror slow down and move toward Rudd. They panicked and shouted at Commander Kenworthy to stop the train. But the Commander was the supreme authority on the train, having no obligations except to bring home the train with all cargo and passengers safely aboard. They saw the horror stoop down, roaring at the small man in front of it, both slowly disappearing in the distance, as it had stopped moving and the train was picking up even more speed. Just as it was about to disappear into the mist, a thunderous bang echoed across the plain, and the men on the last carriages saw the neck of the horror bending double halfway as its knees buckled and the massive bulk of its body hit the ground.
Although protocol dictated that a retreat should always be completely back to New London, the eyewitness reports of the men of Rudd’s actions changed James Kenworthy’s mind. He slowed down the train, making it come to a full stop, and walked the whole length of the train to operate the other engine, reversing course once more. He instructed other crew members to keep the boiler pressure and the furnace temperature in the first engine at operating levels, ready to make a quick getaway if necessary. The train slowly crept to the end of the tracks, while all men were standing either on top of the engine, or hanging out of the windows. There, on the plains, lay the massive hulk of the horror, its neck twisted and broken halfway between the head and the body.
A few of the bravest soldiers went out of the train and investigated the wreckage of the horror. Through the translucent skin of the neck, right below the fatal wound, they saw the mangled and broken shape of a man.
Two hours later, Commander James Kenworthy held a moving eulogy for all the men, commemorating the bravery and the self-sacrifice of his friend, Bingham Rudd, who had saved all of their lives and managed to keep the train safe by giving up his own life.
At the end of the day, when a few more sections of rails had been installed, and hundreds of bullets had been salvaged, the train was thundering again across the plains of Victoria, leaving behind only the carcass of the beast and the lonely grave of Bingham Rudd. At Kenworthy’s request, they had buried Rudd where he had fallen, out in the great wide open. Some men had initially frowned on this, preferring to take his body back for a heroes’ funeral in New London. But they knew the Commander and the foreman had been friends for a long time, and yielded that Kenworthy probably knew Rudd’s last wishes best.
The truth was that Kenworthy did not know any of this. But he knew what he saw when they cut open the neck of the horror and salvaged Rudd’s body. It was damaged, torn, and broken, except for his face. And Kenworthy knew then that Rudd had never intended to go back to New London but chose to stay behind. He had committed suicide by horror, facing his final, largest demon, defeating it while rescuing many souls. That was a story people could tell for years. After all, a military commander was only as effective as the degree that his men believed in him, even in death. Kenworthy decided that this was the final act of friendship he could bestow upon his old friend, taking his secrets and fears to the grave. He knew that Rudd would probably agree.
In death, Rudd’s final facial expression had been a smile.