Flash Fiction: Heralded By Iron
My thrilling week of daily flash fiction continues apace! Well, a second pace at least. If you missed Monday’s story, you can read ‘Wanderlust’ here.
Today’s flashfic is mostly an attempt to refresh my memory and to evoke a certain atmosphere or sense of place. It’s written in the same setting as, although it’s not contemporaneous with, a long story I wrote several years ago titled ‘Entropy in the Clockwork City’. That story has been sitting at first draft stage for some time and I keep meaning to return to it. It would be nice to get it polished up and try for publication. It’s been a while since I collected a rejection slip, after all.
I hope you find something to enjoy in this short piece.
Heralded By Iron
The expanses of the desert are not endless, bordered as they are by distant glimmers of mountain ranges, the shore, and the heat-hazed towers of the Clockwork City at its heart. But they are vast, and to the untrained eye they are featureless. Sand, alternately yellow and grey as illuminated by sun or moonlight, yields little to the casual observer.
But to look closely is to recognise life at its most tenacious and desperate. Small clusters of species of cacti dot the landscape, clinging to any area where even the tiniest drops of moisture can be eked from dry beds. Birds wheel and flock overhead. Most are simply passing through as they migrate between breeding and feeding grounds, but some have evolved to prey upon the equally specialised creatures that live below them: scorpions, snakes, desert mice, and the quasi-organic automatons that emanate in evolutionary waves from the City. In sheltered areas, marked by rocks and intermittent shade, small eco-systems thrive where primitive grasses and other fauna offer sustenance and shelter to a few larger animals, both predators and prey.
Life can be found here, as with anywhere else upon this planet. It is scattered and sparse, but it is persistent. But it is not without change.
One month, like any other, sees fine lines sprouting from the desert sand. Beginning from a distant point toward the eastern horizon, iron runners sprout from the sand. At first they are thin, frail, and only possess partial form, but in a matter of days they strengthen into solid and precise rails. The Clockwork City is stretching its fingers, and the railroad has come to the desert.
It is followed, in time, by new life. Workgangs follow the lines, laying the hardwood sleepers that will regulate and maintain the gauge of the rails. It is an endless task, and a thankless one for most – many of the workers have been pressed into service through some means or another. They are refugees and prisoners, deserters and debtors, traitors, rapists, and thieves; men, women and youths alike. The strongest-looking workers, the paid men, hang toward the back of the construction caravan, keeping to the easier tasks.
Not all are human. From the City’s cornucopia of residents come the sluggish but powerful igyaks, little more than indentured beasts of burden hauling the unpowered wagons that house workers and supplies. Surrogates, the dog-faced clockwork automatons that enact the oft inscrutable desires of the City, watch over the caravan. They act rarely but are interminably attentive. Atop one wagon a solitary sapient arachnid manufactures disposable clothing and blankets for the workforce, spinning its own silk and weaving it with delicate forelimbs. And then there is religion: the tongueless, hand-signing Seekers who listen to the woes and confessions of the caravan, and the aloof Augurs – farseers who carefully avoid the attentions of the Surrogates, even as they make a pretence of predicting the railroad’s path.
In a single day the caravan moves a kilometre. With the rails growing from the minerals of the sand and rock beneath their tasks are simple, and progress is rapid. From the perspective of a stationary observer the caravan moves into and out of sight within a fortnight. Once it has passed it leaves in its wake rails and sleepers and detritus and the dead.
And, for a time, the denizens of the desert return.
But then comes trade and migrants, wanderers, missionaries, and soldiers. And in time come settlements: diviners unerringly seek out those oases where deep water can be found, and fresh workers drive wells into the sand. Settlements grow as the desperate and dispossessed are drawn to them, erecting simple shacks and tents which in time are replaced by more permanent dwellings. The desert’s bounty, small and cautious, is harvested before the railroad villages have truly begun to grow. The surviving creatures are driven away, and ecosystems held in delicate balance crumble. Disease and violence, hallmarks of transitory settlement, come to characterise these crude communities. Intelligence and all the follies it entails spread across the desert, sprouting along and around the criss-crossing railroads.
Life and death alike have come to the desert, heralded by iron.