Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Neversleeps

Monument Valley, Near Navajo Territory, Northbound on the Northwest Pacific Express, 120 years after the Awakening

There were three Pinkertons. There were always three. One was a white man, one was black, and the other was a Celestial. They may have been something else before, but now they were Pinkertons. Same brownish-grey tweed suits, same bowler hats, same obese-caterpillar mustaches lurking below their noses.

Simon Leslie was playing hold-’em in the parlor car when the train slowed between two mesas in Monument Valley with a puff of steam and a sigh. Through the window he saw the Pinkertons get off and march in a flawless triangular phalanx up the nearest brick-red ridge. From the looks of it, they emerged from the express car in the center of the train; maybe the railroad kept them stacked in crates with the sacks of parcels and the safe where they laid, stiff-necked, their tattooed eyes open and unblinking, waiting to be needed. They were nicknamed “Neversleeps” for a reason. Simon Leslie knew. It had not been so long since he was one of them.

“Your bet, Si. Come on! You’re growing cobwebs.” The futures trader who got on with Leslie in New Orleans wasn’t nearly as funny as he thought he was. Leslie reflexively looked at his hand: it was still the Ten and Page of Pentacles. The turn had just been set down, so the Eight of Wands, the Tower, the Empress, and now the Queen of Cups showed on the table. He had a modest gut-shot straight draw going, so he bet half the pot.

“Christ on a Crutch, will you look at that,” said another player, a fat lawyer taking his pretty young third wife to the West Coast for their honeymoon.

Everyone looked out the window: An array of Navajo warriors lined the ridge astride soot-colored ponies, the feathers tied to their spears a-flutter in the breeze. They looked like they had materialized out of thin air, but Simon spotted the shaman among them, an emaciated crone wearing nothing but a cloak of raven feathers, shaking a gnarled rattle of bone. No doubt they had been standing there the whole time, cloaked in spirit, awaiting the train and the Pinkertons.

“They’re—they’re not going to attack, are they?” asked the lawyer’s wife, a short, befreckled redhead who had been giving Leslie smiles he probably should have been ignoring the whole game. He’d given her smiles in return he definitely should not have. He didn’t have time for it. Not this trip.

“They wouldn’t dare,” the futures man said. “There’s been peace with the Four Corners tribes for a generation.”

There was a time, not so far distant, at the beginning of the Awakening, that the Navajo and the Ute and the Zuni and the Hopi would have hungered for war, along with all the indigenous and oppressed peoples of five continents. The ancestor-worshippers and dream-walkers and totem-bearers thought they could feel the yoke and heel of the European easing from their collective necks, once all the spirits and spells from the days before the Age of Reason returned in a joyous shriek to the world. The native had been in touch with Supernature far longer than the colonizer, their touch with the Invisible had not atrophied from millennia of smelting and steam engines and monotheism. The Awakening, to them, was the first day of their inevitable return to power.

How wrong they were.

They forgot how adept those who seize power are at retaining it, no matter how outré the circumstances. Within a few years the enchantments and sorceries long suppressed by European churches thrust back into prominence and were ruthlessly employed by those already in charge. There would always be those maddening fools who love the bosses, who love a firm, guiding hand on their nape and revel in the harsh disciplining of those who try and buck it. The Neversleeps were among the most feared of these servants. Though outnumbered by stony-faced braves twelve to one, the trio marched unafraid up the ridge to the lead Navajo warrior, resplendent in buffalo horns, to receive what they believed, without any hesitancy or doubt, was always rightfully theirs.

Simon Leslie said, “What they’re doing now is avoiding a war.”

The poker players watched as the braves parted so two squaws could deliver to the Pinkertons a handcuffed, hooded figure and accompanying baggage.

“Is that . . .” The redheaded newlywed squinted at the captive. “Is that a woman?”

“Not just any woman,” Leslie said. “That’s Nicola Tesla.”

His fellow players turned and gaped at him. “Not the atomist? The descendant of . . . of you know? Him?

Simon Leslie nodded.

“The savages were harboring her laboratory on their reservation? That’s where she was hiding out?” Since the raid on her experimental cyclotron in Colorado Springs, Nicola Tesla had been the West’s most wanted Science Criminal, with a million-dollar bounty on her head. The Four Corners chieftains no doubt delighted in frustrating the will of the Bureau of Animist Affairs by hiding her. Finally, though, a headman competing for tribal supremacy had ratted her out, able to sow enough uneasiness with the elder matriarchs about the risk of death raining down on them from Washington for the sake of some white woman practicing electrical heresy that was as taboo to their faith as it was to that of the hated Federals.

Fortunately for her, someone in the Bureau had, in turn, leaked news of her capture and details of the prisoner exchange to Simon Leslie’s comrades in the White City.

“Poor girl,” the fat lawyer tutted as the Pinkertons enveloped their prisoner in the center of their phalanx and returned to the train. “They’re taking her to San Francisco, no doubt, to be burned at the stake.”

“Or shipped to the prison mines of Alaska Territory,” Simon Leslie said.

“Ain’t you just a font of useful information,” the futures trader said. “I don’t rightly recall what you said you did for a living.”

“No?” As he said it the trader slapped down the river card: the Nine of Swords. He had made his straight.

“I’m a gambler.”

The men at the table blanched. The redhead grinned.

“All-in,” Simon Leslie grinned back.

Once the Neversleeps were safely on board, the twisting, cord-like dragon towing the train spread its wings with a snort and a roar and launched itself back into the shimmering ley line coursing across the horizon and beat its leather wings toward California.

• • • •

The redheaded bride’s name was Marion and she had spent her whole life until her wedding day in Lafayette, Louisiana. She told Simon her new husband made love to her like it was a necessity he tried to get over with as soon as possible, for she stood between him and sleep.

When she stole into Leslie’s private sleeper berth, he pulled her nightgown over her head and left it there as he kissed every inch of her freckled skin and once she was covered in goose bumps he picked her up by her bare thighs and lay her on the tiny bed and made sure that she knew she was a rare delicacy to be savored and adored and pleasured. She was not a means. She was an End. And she bit her long red hair to keep from crying out.

After, he thought maybe he should wake her and send her back to her snoring husband for her own safety, but she looked so peaceful lying in his bed he couldn’t bear to. Instead he opened his trunk and popped open the false bottom to reveal The Clockwork Chrysalis. He had waited long enough. They would be nearing the point in the Sierra Madre—according to his guidebook and compass—where the Donner Party made a miserable repast of itself all those years ago. He had chosen this as his disembarkation point for a reason.

The Chrysalis creaked like an old battleship when he peeled it over his naked body, most of it thick rawhide that somehow felt no heavier than a thin layer of oil on his skin. The boots slipped silently over his feet and he pulled the hood down over his head. He flipped through lenses of the brass goggles over his eyes and set them to the widest aperture; within moments the great proboscis of the filter over his mouth began straining his breath, bringing only the purest air into his lungs, free of the stink of Enchantment.

The atomists of the White City originally designed the Chrysalis to prevent any skin scales or stray hairs from leaving agents’ bodies while conducting anti-sorcery operations, to say nothing of blood or saliva. Everything the body shed or excreted could be turned against it by the enemy; scryers could find you anywhere in the world; diviners could predict your next move with unerring accuracy; necromancers could cast sudden death on you from hundreds of miles away.

But soon the White City realized that the suit could be so much more.

Leslie snapped the gun braces over his arms and strapped the brass duck’s-foot pistols onto them, combustion-based projectile technology, simple possession of which had been a capital crime for nearly one hundred years. He stepped gingerly over the naked woman in his bed to the sill, slid the glass open and pulled himself onto the roof of the train car, closing the window with his heel before the whistle of wind could rouse Marion from her slumber.

The train cleaved through snowcapped peaks and rolling carpets of pine with nary a sound, except the occasional sheet-on-a-clothesline flap of the Li Ying Lung dragon’s wings. The night air lashed at him but even though he felt as naked and vulnerable as a newborn he did not feel any cold. The paucity of oxygen at this altitude made his lungs clench but after a few seconds of crouching atop the sleeper car, carefully listening to his heartbeat, he brought the rhythm of his breath under control. The brass electrodes studding the inside of the Chrysalis helped greatly with that. They captured his bioelectric field and redistributed it inside the suit, where it could not be hijacked by mediums or magic-users.

Such a manipulation of the psychic lacuna led to depression and erratic behavior in all but the most mentally disciplined operatives; Simon Leslie had had to spend a year mastering meditation techniques all but unheard of in the West to endure the sense of insignificance and hopelessness that enveloped him once he cloaked himself in the Chrysalis’s self-contained, absolute reality. He was cut off from self-deception, unmoored from myth, the caul of perception was ripped away, leaving nothing but what truly is, independent of him, in its stead. Unless his mind correlated most or all of its contents, the experience could crush his soul, by convincing him in an instant that he did not have one.

On the plus side, the Chrysalis also rendered him completely immune to magic.

He bounded from car to car. Innumerable (highly illegal) micro-filament wires crisscrossing the Chrysalis turned his second skin into a giant eardrum; vibrating through his soles he could hear snoring widows, the squeak of hip flasks being unscrewed, the tinkle of lantern glass: a parlor car. Then, the clatter of plates, the laughter of dishwashers trying to out-mock each other: the dining car.

Then, he bounded to the next: He heard silence beneath his feet. This would be the express car he had seen the Pinkertons return to when the train stopped in Navajo country.

He flexed the tendons in his wrist, rotating the guns that crowned them until, with a pneumatic hiss from a catch pressed in his palm, a tiny projectile sprang out of the multi-barreled pistol and stuck in the car roof. He hopped back to the car edge as the clockwork timer on the top whirred to detonation.

The split second right before: his breath catching, pulse racing like a thoroughbred, thrilling to the randomness of life without thaumaturgy, the keenness of a skate down the razor’s edge, without horoscopes that definitively told him what the next day would bring, without love enchantments to spark others’ desire, without the certainty magery’s manipulation of reality brought. The joys of not-knowing: This was why he risked his life and the eternal servitude of his immortal spirit to serve the White City.

He hadn’t really lied to his fellow poker players when he told them he was a gambler.

He just didn’t name the game he played.

The (obscenely illegal) plastic explosives inside the bolt blew a hole in the roof of the express car three feet in diameter; Leslie leapt through boots-first with the last cascade of wood and shingle.

Inside, the Pinkertons were ready for him; their heads had transformed beneath their bowler hats into blazing phosphorus eyeballs—a metaphor-made-flesh, embodying the advertisements of their detective agency prior to the Awakening: We Never Sleep. They blasted him as one with a ghostly fire that would have ignited anyone else into a screaming bonfire of agony. But he wore the Chrysalis, with the shaded lenses snapped over his goggles, so he didn’t even get spots in his eyes.

He leapt toward the nearest Eye and flicked his wrists a different direction and twin Tamil katar blades shot out of the brass braces. With the left dagger he sliced through a retina the width of his face and was already moving away as gelatinous white burst out of it, turning and spinning and burying the right dagger up to its hilt in the chest of the second Eye next to him.

The third Eye, intuiting further attacks against the Chrysalis would be useless, turned the stream of his spirit-fire onto the floor of the car, blowing a hole in it nearly as big as the one Leslie’s explosives had blown in the roof. Though the Chrysalis rendered him immune to magic, those people and things outside it were still very much mune. But Leslie pinwheeled sideways away from the eruption and unloaded the explosive rounds from the fan-like pistols into the Eye’s midriff. He was dead before the blowback smashed him against the wall.

Nicola Tesla sat on the railroad company safe, amidst bags of mail inside the express car cage, handcuffed to the bars, hood still over her head. Leslie dug the keys out of the jacket of the Pinkerton slumped against the wall and opened the door.

When he pulled the bag off her head she sneered at him. “Edison stooge.” Slight Serbian accent, darkly beautiful, same knowing baleful gaze as her famed ancestor. She spat on the floor at his feet.

Leslie groaned through the small speaker set in the front of his mask. “Ms. Tesla, I am nobody’s stooge.”

Doctor Tesla.”

“Mr. Thomas Edison may have founded the White City, but we operate solely on the universal principle of returning science to the world. We should be allies.”

“Your Edison publicly recanted science to save his neck. My great-grand-uncle did not and he burned. Your secret society was founded by a thief and a coward and nothing good will come of it.”

He jangled the keys in front of her. “I take it then I am too morally compromised for you to accept my help?”

She pouted. She was beautiful. “Go ahead,” she said, turning her face away.

She sprung to her feet as soon as he unlocked the cuffs and opened a medium-sized steamer trunk in the corner of the cage. Leslie recognized it as one of the pieces of baggage the Navajo had turned over with her. “I’m afraid we need to leave your things behind,” Leslie said.

“Not this.” She removed a long mahogany rifle with a steel sphere at the end of a filigreed brass barrel.

“What do you have there?”

“An apparatus for generating, intensifying, and amplifying electrical force in free air.”

“Ah.”

“A lightning gun,” Dr. Tesla said slowly.

“Yes, thank you, I know what a lightning gun is.”

“How should I know? I am sure you have received all sorts of erroneous notions from the followers of that degenerate Edison.”

“Ma’am. The War of the Currents ended over a century ago. This is no time to declare that hostilities between your family and the Edisons have resumed. We have mutual enemies to unite against.”

She sniffed. “It would appear I have no choice but to accept the aid of my inferiors. Very well, then; take me to your White City. I have no doubt your clock-punchers and patent lawyers will benefit greatly from someone with genuine scientific knowledge.”

“No doubt,” Leslie said dryly.

He helped her through the hole in the roof, then hoisted himself up. As soon as the mountain air hit him, he was brought up short by the crackling of the wireless in his ear. The White City always maintained radio silence during delicate operations such as this.

“Si. Si, can you hear me? Our three on the train went blind, so you must be there. Say hello to your old friend.” Morgan Ash’s deep mahogany laugh froze Leslie’s blood. Ash was the First Ward Boss in Manhattan. His former employer.

“Possession of wireless radio technology is a Class A felony which carries a sentence of up to twenty years in prison,” Simon Leslie said. Tesla looked quizzically at him, but he held up a finger for the explanation to wait. “Ah, but that’s right—the rules don’t apply to you, do they?”

He could almost hear Ash ensconced in his suite in the Dakota Hotel overlooking Central Park, a cigar in whichever hand wasn’t holding the receiver. “For your information, Si, I am not violating our sacred ether with electromagnetic radiation in order to transmit sound, but rather a spell cooked up by the boys in Applied Thaumaturgy that resonates with your transceiver in much the same way.”

All this talk of “ether” was, of course, pseudoscientific nonsense. But with magic, the bosses had the power to force their pseudoscience on the world and make it true. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to chat, Morgan. Kind of in the middle of something.”

“So you are. But I don’t believe you’re quite aware of what that something is.” The chuckle again. “The leak inside the Bureau of Animist Affairs that told the White City where the handoff for Dr. Tesla would be, and which train? The source of that leak would have been me.”

Simon Leslie stood up straight as a roar echoed from the rear of the train. He looked down to the caboose and saw a second dragon, a Ying Lung Wang, an enormous purple-blue creature with a long funnel-like snout, as it oared its sea-turtle flippers through the borealis of the ley line. Pinkertons covered its leather-plated shell, enormous head-eyes glowing beneath bowler hats.

The sky above them rippled and flashed and an airship descended from the clouds—a gondola swarming with Pinkertons hanging from a sinewy P’an Yin Lung, fur-like licks of white fire straggling from its jaw.

Dr. Tesla grunted, and Leslie looked at her, and was surprised to find her smiling.

“You have fallen for a trap, Edison man,” she said. “I was just bait. They want your Chrysalis.”

• • • •

The Neversleeps poured over the turtle dragon and dropped from the sky, spitting gouts of white flame and whirling sigils of burning gold. They were mostly humans, but he saw Sidhe and dwarves mixed among them too, and that made Simon Leslie think of the Homestead Strike, in which Morgan Ash had ordered him, as leader of the local Neversleeps, to summon the dwarves’ ancestral enemies from their former home in the Nine Worlds: the monstrous two-headed Ettin. The giants had scooped up diminutive miners six at a time and popped them into razor-lined mouths and crunched down on them like popcorn. After that day of horror, Simon Leslie resolved to find a better way to live, or die trying. Fortunately the White City found him.

But now it seemed like he would die anyway.

“I would strongly advise giving yourself up, Si,” Morgan Ash purred in his ear. “Ain’t no shame in it. We sent numbers enough to crush the Four Corners, much less one traitor and one extremely misguided Slav bitch.”

Tesla yanked back the lever on her lightning gun and cried out a curse in Serbo-Croatian (“Nabijem te na kurac!” he thought he heard) as blue tines crackled out of the metal sphere, zigzagging through the night and finding the Pinkertons wherever they were with the unerringness of falcons and stiffening them with electric fire.

“Seeing as how we have history, you and I,” Ash rambled on, “I promise you, once you get to The Tombs, the inquisitors won’t torture you too much. Sure, the judge’ll order a requisite number of Hexes of Excruciating Pain, but beyond that the severity of the interrogation is largely up to the discretion of the presiding officer. Which, just so you know,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “will be me, regardless of what copper’s name is actually on the register.

“I’ll only ask you to name a few names,” Ash continued. “Five? The main atomist leaders. Where the White City is. How you’ve managed to keep an entire hive of damn heathens invisible from our scrying mirrors.

“And, of course, our experimental thaumaturgians will be going to town on your leather jumpsuit. They’ll crack it. Trust me, they’re smarter than a barrel full of Teslas. If they can’t find a spell to get past the Chrysalis’s defenses, shit, they’ll write one. Don’t think they won’t.”

Down!” Leslie cried, and Tesla ducked dutifully, allowing him to blow the Pinkerton who had landed behind her off the train with a booming round to the chest. The cloud dragon overhead had managed to overtake the dragon pulling the train and was dropping off Neversleeps to outflank them. They could not survive a two-front war. Leslie leapt forward, grabbed a protesting Tesla and bounded back to the express car, dropping through the hole he’d made so they could regroup behind the imposing iron safe.

“This doesn’t look promising,” Leslie said in an off-handed way. He could barely hear himself over the throbbing pulse in his neck. He nodded at Tesla’s silently steaming lightning gun. “Busted?”

“Bite your tongue. Overheated. Give it ten seconds of cool-down.”

The roof erupted in a roar of unearthly flame that blackened and ripped whole chunks off in plumes of embers. Within seconds it would be gone, and they would be fully exposed.

The man and the woman looked at each other. Their short destinies were written plain on each other’s faces.

Then, the woman had a spark.

“Your Chrysalis, it self-generates a localized bioelectric field, yes?” She feverishly snapped open compartments and undid screws on the lightning gun.

I’m generating the field, the suit just keeps it in continuous circulation in a closed system . . . Hey, don’t break that down, we can still use it—”

“No, no we can’t. We need to eliminate more of our enemies at once.” She removed a small metal box from the side of the gun. “We’ll use the cavity resonator. It can expand the Chrysalis’s bioelectric field.”

“But the field is self-contained. How can you attach your resonator to it?”

“We need to breach the—”

“No!”

“Listen to me—”

“The first rule of the White City is you never breach the Chrysalis—”

She slapped him. He barely felt it inside his leather mask, but she kept talking. “That’s Edison talking! Use your imagination, man!”

Before he could respond, the flaming roof of the express car collapsed and the room filled with Neversleeps. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her through the far door into the adjoining car. Passengers already awakened by the sounds of chaotic battle all around them began screaming once they saw the mosquito-like proboscis of the Chrysalis. They rushed to fill the aisle to get away from them; the fugitives managed to hop and weave around the masses but the column of Pinkertons slammed into them, forestalling pursuit.

Morgan Ash radioed, “Hellfire and damnation, boy, don’t you know when your bell’s been rung? I promised my kids I’d read ’em a bedtime story before their nanny puts ’em to sleep.”

Through two more sleeper cars and a combine they ran, to burst through into the first and final car, little more than an open platform in the center of which the driver sat in the Lotus position. He was a Celestial, of course, communing with the dragon in a single conjoined mind to keep its simple lizard’s brain calm and pliant. The Celestial sprang to his feet when the intruders burst through the door and launched into a high-pitched call in Cantonese for Fire, the Element of Greater Yang, but Simon Leslie scissor-kicked him sideways off the train before the third syllable. The Chinese hit a fir tree by the side of the ley line and dropped like a stone to the ground.

Nicola Tesla crouched by his waist with a utility knife, pressing down on the Chrysalis, probing for a good place to make the incision. “We are doing this, yes?”

He was taken back when she looked up at him for his response. It was the first time she had solicited permission from him; perhaps it was the first time in her life.

“What about the other passengers?” he asked.

“What about them?”

Simon Leslie shook his head. It was insane. The whole thing was insane.

“Go ahead,” he said.

He groaned as if it was his own flesh cut when Tesla made an incision in the Chrysalis just above his pelvic bone to remove an electrode from its underside. This she inserted in the box-shaped resonator, which she then hooked to his belt. From inside the second skin he could feel the nature of himself alter; the breath caught in his throat. Though the bioelectric field was invisible, as he pulled Nicola Tesla closer to him he could feel it envelop her; her cheeks suddenly flushed looking at him, and he knew she felt the same way too. A sudden conjoined intimacy, not born of word, deed, or desire, but real all the same, and it moved both of them deeply.

A small ladder led to the ceiling hatch of the “engine,” and from there they hopped onto the muscular ripple of the dragon’s back; its scales were cold and shiny and impossibly smooth; he lost his footing several times until he started to grab onto the ridges of the lizard’s vertebrae and use them as handholds to pull himself along its back. A Li Ying Lung was mostly a serpent, with two vestigial limbs dangling on either side of its undulating expanse. Uncoupled from the mind of its human handler, the dragon huffed and roared with irritation at the two pests skittering across its skin, amber eyes roiling with confusion, but the leather harness attaching it to the great bulk of the train prevented it from flexing its back and hurling the interlopers off.

Leslie reached the base of the lizard’s head and peered over its snout at the ley line coursing beneath it. A gently spinning cylinder of infinitesimally narrow beams of blue, gold, and green light coursed from horizon to horizon. Below he could see they were just now crossing a massive ravine through which coursed the Humboldt River.

“This is where I was going to have us jump off anyway,” he yelled over the thunderous whomp of the dragon’s wings. “Are you ready?”

Of course not,” Nicola yelled back. She wrapped her arms around his neck, nearly choking him. “Do it anyway!

A Pinkerton’s ocular blast shot past him. Already the Neversleeps had reached the driver’s car; already they were climbing across the lizard’s back in pursuit.

“Fuck it,” he said to no one in particular.

He planted his foot on the skull ridge between the dragon’s hate-filled eyes and leapt over its snorting nostrils. The expanded field of magic-annihilation from the Chrysalis met the psychic resonance of the ley line, and confronted it with its own impossibility.

And in that instant, it ceased to exist.

• • • •

The enormous dragon did not need the ley line in order to fly, of course; it had wings for that. But the enchantments cast on the ten train cars it towed required interactions with the line to stay aloft. And when the ley that cut through the Sierra Madre abruptly winked out of existence, the train plunged like a ponderous chain into the canyon below, dragging the screaming, spouting dragon down with it.

Leslie hit the water first, dislodging Tesla from his neck. Even the breathing apparatus built into the Chrysalis could not keep the wind from getting knocked out of his chest. Gasping, the first thing he did was unhook Tesla’s resonator from his waist, for he could feel it overheating, trying to burn a hole in his side as he fell.

As he pushed it away from him he saw out of the corner of his eye, in what little light could be stolen from the murky brown by his goggles’ enhancements, Tesla’s curls trailing behind her as she sank unconscious into blackness.

At the same time out of the corner of his other eye, the shadows of the dropping train cars blotted out the surface of the river above him.

Then a great invisible hand swatted him out of the way just as the train crashed into the water in the exact spot where he had been; the river vomited him upward onto a stony heap of slate in a shallow narrow.

He watched the Li Ying Lung dragon crashing down atop the heap of compartments jutting from the water. The wyrm wriggled and ripped its way free of the damaged harness, then sprang into the sky with a breathless shriek of terror; it disappeared with frantic flaps over the nearest peak, the two dragons that had brought the army of Pinkertons instinctively chasing after it.

Leslie spotted Tesla lying facedown in the water near the edge of the shale bar, sputtering and coughing. He raced to her and picked her up from behind, gripping her abdomen and forcing her to cough up as much water as he could. He saw bits and pieces of the resonator floating past on the current and he realized what had happened: the device overheated and exploded, creating a shockwave that hurled its creator and him to safety.

“We’ve made ‘atomist’ synonymous with murderer and anarchist in the headlines,” Morgan Ash chuckled in his ear. “Thank you so much for providing the newspapers pictures to match.”

The bodies of Pinkertons floated everywhere around him as glass-ravaged passengers splashed out of the train through shattered windows and took turns in desperate dives below the surface to rescue those trapped in the two or three fully submerged cars. He burned with regret and nearly dropped Tesla to dash and help them.

But descending all around him were Neversleeps and All-Seeing Eyes. Their stunt had killed many, even most, but not all. Not enough. And when Simon Leslie had torn off the resonator, he’d exposed the breach in the Chrysalis to the outside air; he might as well have torn it to shreds for all the protection it provided him now. The Pinkertons knew it, too; they were just waiting for Ash’s orders to boil his blood, to turn his skin inside out and dump his organs out onto the river rocks like wet sacks of garbage.

“For what it’s worth . . . I’m sorry it had to end like this, Si,” Ash said. “As I’m sure you are too.”

The Eyes closed in a tight circle around Leslie and Tesla. “Don’t tell me what to think, you preening ass. This is exactly how I wanted it to end.”

Ash’s mahogany chuckle. “Si, Si. Cocky little shit to the last, huh?”

“Oh, no. I’m serious. Don’t you read the guidebooks?”

A gust of wind howled through the canyon. The Neversleeps hesitated, spinning their great ocular globes an extra few revolutions.

“You ever hear about the Donner Party, Ash?”

Wendigos!” somebody cried. But it was too late.

The Cannibal Spirits dropped from the edges of the ravine, their spindly arms spread out to envelop the Pinkertons like a net. Jaws retracted to head-width and sank themselves into the meat and bone of the Pinkertons, ignoring the ectoplasmic eyes. One Neversleep was able to blast back a Wendigo with a manna missile but he was immediately dropped with a claw swipe from behind.

Leslie could feel Tesla tense beneath his arms and he pulled her close to him, hoping he could seal off the breach in the Chrysalis with her body—not enough to fool the sophisticated spells of the Neversleeps, but to confuse the primitive senses of the Wendigos. One came near Nicola trailing long, straggling corpse-hair and sniffed her cheek with his noseless skull, but Leslie put a gloved hand over her face, hoping that would make her partially invisible to the Cannibal Spirit.

With a snort and a dissatisfied shake of the head, the Wendigo turned, spotted a Pinkerton with his left leg ripped off below the knee trying to crawl across the crimson-choked river to safety. The spirit gave up on Tesla and launched itself atop the fugitive and commenced to feast.

“Better luck next time, Morgan,” Leslie said, but silence was his only reply. He ripped the receiver out of his hood in case the bosses figured out how to track that, too, and, keeping Tesla close to his body, fled up the ridge through the pines to safety.

• • • •

At dawn they stumbled across a ghost town on the side of the mountain: pale gray timber shells like giant wasps’ nests. It had been settled since its abandonment, as one might expect, by ghosts, mindless revenants acting out the routines of life: children chasing hoops, women hanging invisible clothing on non-existent lines, men fighting in the streets over long-dead causes.

Inside the largest intact structure, half-burned and festooned with meadow heath, Simon Leslie ripped off the Chrysalis in a stream of muttered self-denunciations.

Tesla watched him with a furrowed brow. “Whatever is the matter?”

“What . . .?” He looked at her, astounded and naked, sweat slick on muscles still taut for battle. “Did you not see what just happened? How many innocent people did we kill with that stunt?”

Tesla shrugged. “The train couldn’t have been traveling more than forty-five, perhaps forty-eight kilometers an hour. I’m sure there were far fewer fatalities than you think.”

One is unacceptable. You hear me? One innocent life is far too many.”

She laughed at him. “You are trying to remake the world, Edison man. How did you hope to accomplish that without blood and thunder? You think our enemies give one thought to these ‘innocents’ of yours, whoever they are?”

“We’re supposed to be better than they are. We have to be. Otherwise, what’s the point of any of it?”

An exasperated sigh exploded out of her. “My great-grand-uncle had a laboratory in Colorado Springs, just after the Awakening. You heard of it?”

“Yes. He was conducting wireless telegraph experiments. Before magic rendered them obsolete, of course—”

“No. No, no, no. That’s just what the Inquisition wanted everyone to believe, after they arrested him, and he burned. He was working on the wireless transmission of energy. My uncle wanted to generate free power for all, everywhere around the world. That’s what scared them. Not the science. Not the difference of philosophies, whether faith or facts is the superior basis for living. The people who run the world have no use for such trivia. All they want is control.

“That is why you are better than your enemies, Edison man. Not because of your body count. Because you are fighting for what is real and true and natural. The world behind their veil of lies and superstition . . . The common man, the worker, the peasant, does not need oracles and magicians to get ahead in that world. All she needs is what she was born with. That is what makes us different, Edison man. That is what makes us different.” She jabbed a finger into his bare sternum. “And that is why we will win.”

Simon Leslie couldn’t stop grinning. “I think I love you, Nicola Tesla.”

“I would not be surprised if you did. I am quite attractive by conventional standards.”

She turned away from him, and began to remove her still-soaking blouse and her dress to wring them out. Soon they would both be naked inside the burnt empty building, chests heaving, breath not yet caught.

He heard a sound, and looked to the corner of the room. They must have been in a former saloon, for the ghost of a guitar player sat on an invisible crate and stared at nothing and moaned out a song:

I’m, I’m coming home
’Cause I feel so alone
I’m coming back home
And meet my dear old mother
’Cause that’s where I belong

Soon, however, the sun had risen all the way, and the light crept in through the open doorway. The phantom faded with all the others, burned away with the morning fog.

Fred Van Lente

Fred Van Lente is the award-winning, bestselling writer of comics and graphic novels as diverse as Amazing Spider-Man, Conan the Avenger, Marvel Zombies, The Comic Book History of Comics, and the graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens, the basis for the film. His darkly humorous mystery novels Ten Dead Comedians and The Con Artist are available now.