The ‘Shroom Job
A Tale of the Ephemeral Cartographers
by Ryan Pierce
“I can’t believe you tried to kill me,” Violet said.
Eli pretended not to hear her. He had been doing this a lot since the encounter with the Toad had left him deaf in one ear. Given the confined space of the train car, and the fact that she spoke loud and clearly, she wasn’t buying it. That and she saw his left eye glance at her before flicking back toward the train window and the lush jungle speeding by.
Violet sat back, frustrated. The socket where her right used to be itched something fierce. She clenched her hands and crossed them in front of her.
Don’t go poking at it, she told herself, repeating it several times in case she forgot. You’ll only make it worse.
Violet forced her mind to focus on something else, but the only thing it went to was the huge hole at the end of the gun barrel that Eli had shoved into her face, and the sound of the hammer falling on an empty chamber.
Click. Such an irritating sound to have rattling around in one’s head, though some small part of her surmised that it was better than BOOM. Yet, had it been BOOM, she supposed she wouldn’t have a head for the sound to roll around in, rendering the point moot. Either way, she lost.
Outside, the train left the jungle behind and sped out onto a bridge spanning a mile wide ravine. A field of lush green glowing brightly under the afternoon sun spread out far below her. A wide ribbon of river ran out of the ravine, over a fall, and bisected the thick canopy below. In the distance, it spread out into a three-fingered delta that melted into one of the great southern lakes, whose names she presently could not recall.
After their meeting with their handler in Renalto, Violet had opened the envelope he had given her to find a train ticket. The ticket had been for the train they presently occupied. Nothing else had been in the envelope except for a meager amount of South Imperial script, which was next to worthless, even in the Southern Empire. However, it had been just enough to bribe the ticket man to look the other way so Eli could join her, as well as six rounds of ammunition for their revolvers.
“I only did it because I thought you were going to shoot me,” Eli said, pulling her attention back to the train car, and the irritation in her right eye socket.
“And I only hesitated because I thought for sure you wouldn’t shoot me!” Violet paused, mulled that statement over, and couldn’t help but laugh. “How incredibly stupid of me.”
Eli didn’t immediately respond to that. Violet considered for a second that perhaps she wasn’t giving him enough credit, until she remembered another little detail.
“The cartographers essentially set you up to fail, and die in the process. You know that right?”
Eli thought about it, and looked like he was about to answer, when the train shuddered violently on the tracks. A sharp squealing sound ripped through the air as the locomotive’s brakes kicked in. The sudden deceleration sent Eli flying toward Violet. She twisted reflexively out of the way and he landed face first in the back of the wooden bench. She heard wood and bone alike snap, and Eli came away with a bloody nose, cursing.
Violet winced and looked out the window. They were still on the bridge, high above the ravine. Through the window, she saw smoke billowing outward from the front of the train. However, the track curved to the left and hid what might have been going on up ahead.
“Stay here,” Violet said to Eli, sitting on the ground and nursing his bloody nose.
“Where are you going?”
“For a better look.” She turned back to the window and undid the latches, then tried to pull up. Nothing happened. She then pushed against the glass and it angled outward from the bottom. That was not going to work. She pulled one of her newly awarded revolvers from her gun belt then smashed and cleared the glass with the grip. Violet replaced the gun and squirmed halfway out the window. She looked down, and despite only having one eye the sight of the drop below made her squeamish.
Violet turned toward the front of the train, but still couldn’t see anything. She looked around for purchase and saw a thin copper rail running along the top edge of the car. Thinking to herself that she must have lost half her wits along with half her vision, Violet reached up, grabbed the rail, and pulled herself out of the window. She stood up with her feet on the sill, and found that she could peek over the top up to her chest.
The engine was now visible. It hung half way off the track and tilted a little to the left. Violet did not think it would fall with the rest of the train holding it in place, but had to fight the urge to think about what would happen if it DID fall.
Something exploded from the rear of the train, rocking it once again. Violet began to fall back and quickly wrapped an arm through the railing. She heard Eli inside the car, yelling something at her, probably telling her to get back. Perhaps that was a good idea.
Violet carefully let go of the rail and began to lower herself into the car. A shadow fell over her. She turned, freezing in place as a medium sized airship rose up from under the bridge. A large group of disheveled men stood on the deck, shouting obscenities and waving various weapons in the air.
Violet scowled in disgust.
“Pirates,” she said, and slipped back in through the window.
As soon as Violet returned to the compartment she heard several heavy thumps hit the roof of the train. Eli pulled his hands from his bloody nose long enough to look around, confused.
“What the hell was that?”
As if in answer, a large, heavily muscled pirate swung into the train through the window. His bulk propelled him forward and he barreled into Violet, lifting her off her feet and through the door behind her.
Other passengers had been in the process of running down the hall when this happened, and one poor sod had been in front of the compartment door when Violet burst through. Violet landed on her back on top of him, and she could feel him struggling underneath. She tried to roll away but the blow had knocked the breath from her lungs, leaving her preoccupied with remembering how to breathe.
The pirate stalked through the door, drawing a flintlock pistol from a dark red sash tied around his waist. He lowered it toward her face, scowling.
“I had this whole vision of crashing through the window and smashing down the door, all heroic like. You got in my way. You smashed down my door. No one gets in my way. No smashes down MY door.”
Still struggling to breath, Violet reached down to her gun belt to draw her own weapon, but her fingers found their way into an empty holster.
Dammit, she thought, staring up into the barrel of the flintlock, fighting to breath one last time before–
A loud BANG rang through the hallway. Violet froze, staring up at the pirate. Had he missed? No, he hadn’t even fired. Nothing had changed, except for a red hole in the left side of his head, and the tiny wisps of smoke leaking from his nose and mouth.
The pirate’s hand loosened around the flintlock and it fell, landing on Violet’s stomach, its hammer still cocked back. The pirate fell limply to the side, propped up in the doorway.
Violet looked to her left and saw a woman with a rifle. She worked the bolt on the rifle deftly and came forward, keeping the barrel up and trained down the hall.
Violet finally regained her breath and sucked in air. Down the hall, behind the mystery woman with a rifle, another door burst open and a man stumbled out, holding a wounded shoulder. Two pirates poured out after him, one wielding a bloody knife. The rifle woman turned and shot the knife wielder point blank. The second didn’t flinch, rushing forward during the split second in which the rifle woman had to work the bolt and chamber another round. He grabbed the barrel and pushed the woman up against the wall, using the rifle to choke her. The man with the wounded shoulder stopped to see that his pursuers were now otherwise occupied, and ran away, vaulting clumsily over Violet in his retreat.
Violet remembered the unfired flintlock that had fallen across her chest, reached up, and grabbed it. She took aim with her one (thankfully, dominant) eye, and pulled the trigger. The powder ignited and hissed, and the flintlock thundered in the small space of the hall, filling it with smoke. The power of the weapon, the likes of which Violet had never used before, took her by surprise. Unprepared for the kick, the weapon jerked up and hit the pirate in the top of his skull. A chunk of it disappeared, but the shot did not kill him. He fell away from the rifle woman, however, and blundered down the hall making an ear wrenching, staccato squeal. He hit the wall and spun around as he fell to the ground, convulsing.
The rifle woman pushed away from the wall and leveled her weapon at the pirate, but did not fire. Instead, she spun around and came toward Violet. She held out one gloved hand. Violet took it and pulled herself up. The unfortunate man trapped beneath her scrambled to his feet and ran.
Violet watched him go, and then turned toward the woman with the rifle.
“Are you Violet?” the woman asked. Violet’s gratitude turned to confusion.
“Uh, yeah,” Violet said. “How do you…”
“Where’s the other one?”
No sooner did she ask it than Eli flew out of the room and landed on the floor between them. Violet looked and saw another pirate standing in the compartment. He was unarmed, but his bulk filled the compartment and blocked the window. The rifle woman wasted no time in shouldering her weapon and firing. The round struck the man’s massive shoulder with a wet smack, spinning him around. Violet tossed the flintlock up and caught it by the barrel, then chucked it at the back of the pirate’s head. The blow sent him stumbling forward and halfway through the window.
“Son of a bitch!” Eli shouted, popping up to his feet and rushing forward, planting his foot in the pirate’s backside and giving him the final push needed to complete his journey through the window and into the great, open emptiness beyond. The man’s screams faded to nothing.
Eli turned and Violet saw his attention lock on the rifle woman, who had taken to reloading a few more rounds into her rifle. His eyes gave her a once over before turning to Violet.
“Hester Dowd,” the woman said before Violet could answer. This was for the best, because Violet hadn’t really had an answer to begin with.
Hester looked down, saw something and bent to pick it up. It was Violet’s revolver. Violet reached out to take it, but Hester held it close.
“When you choose to wear your six-guns, you wear both of them,” Hester said. “And when you wear them, you make sure they are secure.”
Violet’s skin rippled. “You’re a Cartographer–”
“Neither of those should have been a problem, because we only wear our guns in battle, or when we want to make a statement. Never in public, on a train on our way to an assignment.”
Hester presented the weapon, and Violet reached out to take it. Before she could even brush the gun with the tip of her fingers, however, the senior Cartographer brought the gun up and bonked her on the forehead with it. It wasn’t a severe bonking, but it took Violet by surprise and was hard enough to convey that Hester was trying to teach her a lesson.
Hester presented the weapon again, and let Violet take it. She slipped it into her holster, and Eli took a spot next to her.
“Told you,” he said. Violet sneered.
“Now is the time to wear them,” Hester said. “Where are your weapons, boy?”
“In the cargo hold,” Eli said proudly.
“Idiot,” Hester said, and Eli deflated. “Just because we don’t wear them openly doesn’t mean you don’t keep them close at hand.”
“Well…where are yours, then?” Eli said.
“In the cargo hold.”
Violet and Eli shared a quick look, then returned their attention to Hester. She hoisted her rifle, an intimidating gesture, as she was a full head taller than both of them.
“But I brought this,” she said. “Let’s get moving. There are things more important than our guns in the cargo hold, and I have a hunch those things are what the pirates are after.”
Hester stepped off, leaving the room and stalking down the hall. Violet holstered her weapon and followed.
“How many rounds do you have left for that thing?” Hester asked, leading them to the rear of the car and squeezing herself into the tiny space between the door and the wall.
“Three,” Violet said, somewhat embarrassed. The feeling only grew when Hester fixed her with a perturbed gaze.
“I can only hope the other three rounds now reside within the corpses of three pirates,” Hester said. Violet’s failure to reply prompted a frustrated roll of Hester’s eyes.
“Brilliant,” she said, then turned her gaze to Eli. “What about you, kid? How many rounds are in your guns in the cargo car?”
Eli snorted, shaking his head. “I’ve got nothing.”
Hester closed her eyes, her lips moving silently. Violet didn’t know if the woman was saying a prayer, working out a plan, or swearing to kill them.
“Stay close to me,” she said and opened the door. She leaped through the open space between cars and took position beside the next door. Violet followed and took position on the opposite side. Eli looked about to follow and was already moving when Hester stopped him. He slid to a halt just an inch from the platform. He must have seen down through the tracks at the jungle canopy far below, because the color in his face disappeared.
“You…stand watch back here,” Hester told him. Eli nodded with a resolve that may have been endearing, if only his assignment wasn’t meant to keep him out of their way.
Because you’ve proved so very useful, Violet thought.
“Ready?” Hester asked. Before Violet could even nod, Hester kicked in the door and slid inside, rifle at the ready. Three pops sounded from inside before Violet even registered what was happening. She raised her own gun and followed.
Splinters of wood erupted around her immediately upon crossing through the door. Violet threw herself to the ground, more on instinct than any training, and heard a fourth report from Hester’s rifle. After the skirmish, she heard only silence, except for Hester’s voice.
“Maybe you should stay here with the boy?”
Violet scowled and pushed herself up, scanning the car as she did. It was a leisure car, open-spaced and filled with little round tables. Most lay in broken heaps of splintered wood, but the few that remained standing had ashtrays on them.
Hester walked over to one of these that still had a lit cigar resting on its edge, picked the cigar up, and lifted it to her lips. She puffed, letting the smoke drift out in a fine cloud that stood in contrast with the even haze of gun smoke still hanging in the air.
“That’s some fine leaf right there,” Hester said, stamping out the cigar. “From the Torregian Keys. Shame to put it out”
Hester continued toward the rear of the car, stepping over a body Violet assumed must have been the man that the cigar belonged to, once upon a time.
“Get the boy,” Hester said, reloading. Violet turned and saw Eli already peeking into the car. She waved him in and he followed.
“Holy shit!” he said when he saw the carnage. There were four dead pirates, all thanks to Hester, and about five dead men in suits, all thanks to the pirates. Violet urged him to follow and started after Hester. The woman knelt next to the last of her kills, examining his weapon.
A silver six-shooter, not unlike the one Violet held tightly in her left hand.
“Is that yours?” Violet asked. “Did they already get to the cargo?”
Hester didn’t answer, just continued looking at the gun, her face a solemn mask. She recognized the gun. That much was apparent. Violet didn’t think it was hers or Eli’s.
Hester snapped out of whatever reverie she was in and looked up at them. She stood and turned to Eli.
“Here,” she said, tossing the gun underhanded to him. Eli caught it, with no small amount of fumbling, and cracked the cylinder.
“There’s only one bullet!” he protested.
“That’s one more than you had before. And you…” Hester turned to Violet. “Call me Hester again and you’ll be spending your first year’s wages on a nice set of wooden teeth. You will address me as Surveyor Dowd. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Violet said, her body automatically going to attention. Hester smiled.
“I wouldn’t go as far as ma’am,” she said, and continued toward the rear of the car. They were nearly half way through when they heard an explosion from the front of the train.
“What the hell?” Hester said, and rushed back to the front of the car, pushing past Violet and Eli both. Curious, Violet followed. Eli continued toward the rear, gun at the ready.
She followed Hester out onto the platform. Hester found a ladder that went up to the top of the car. She slung her rifle around her shoulders and started up the ladder. Half way up, another explosion rocked the train. The shock might have knocked anyone else off in her surprise, but Hester immediately braced herself, waited for the tremor to subside, and continued up. She paused at the top of the ladder and turned around to get a look.
“Well, damn,” she heard Hester say, despite the wind whipping past her ears. Another explosion sounded from the front of the train, and everything buckled again, much more violently. There was a moment of silence as the echo died, followed by the sound of snapping wood and screaming steel. Hester slid down the ladder, a look of panic in her eyes. She didn’t explain what she had seen as the entire train jerked forward on the track. Only one word escaped her lips.
Violet had already started moving before Hester hit the platform. The sudden movement of the train caught her off guard, however, and she stumbled. Hester, being much more graceful, hopped over her and kept going.
Violet scrambled to her feet and found it hard to keep them under her. The train was definitely moving forward, and gaining speed quickly. The collapsing steel and wood structure of the train track roared throughout the valley. She dared not look back as she found her balance and pushed forward.
“What’s going on?” she heard Eli say from somewhere up ahead.
“Shut up and move!” Hester barked. Violet looked ahead and saw the outline of Eli in the rear door as he rushed forward into the next car, and out of sight.
Violet pushed herself into a sprint, keeping her eye trained on Hester’s back, which grew smaller with each passing second. She put her head down, focusing on keeping her balance. It helped a little bit. Once she found her caught-in-a-falling-train legs, she looked up and found her self nearing the rear door.
The angle was all wrong. She had been able to see the open door of the next car in line a few seconds ago, but now she saw the edge of the next car’s roof, just below the top of the doorway, and a rapidly increasing amount of sky. Running had also gotten more difficult.
“Lift your knees and push!” Hester screamed as she reached the door and jumped, disappearing into the light. Violet was just behind her. Despite running up an incline, the last few feet of the car sped by. She got to the door and jumped.
Violet expected to land in the safety of the next car, but she didn’t. She landed on the roof, a roof that buckled and began to slant down ward, pulled by the car from which she had just escaped.
Violet risked a look behind her. A sickly brown cloud of smoke filled the space where the track had been. Hovering above it were two small airships, one of which she recognized from when she climbed out of the window.
“Quit gawking and run!”
Hester’s voice cut through Violet’s thoughts, beckoning her to get moving again. None too soon, either, as the car had begun to tilt upward. Up ahead, Hester leapt over the edge and disappeared. A few seconds later, Violet did the same.
She landed and rolled, springing back up onto her feet to continue her sprint. Textbook form. It was a small victory, but she held onto it. She needed to, especially when the air ships sped by overhead, toward the rear of the train.
Then, one of them stopped, hanging over the track. Violet watched it intently.
Please don’t turn around, please don’t turn around, please don’t…
It began to turn around.
Up ahead, Violet heard Hester’s voice echo her thoughts aloud, in much harsher terms. The ship turned slowly and lowered itself parallel to the track. It drifted toward them. Violet saw men on the deck, waving their arms and weapons, pointing at Hester.
She had stopped running and shouldered her rifle.
What the hell was she thinking?
Smoke spewed forth from the bore of the rifle, and a split second later Violet heard the report. Violet caught up to her and stopped. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noted that the train had stopped sliding backward and the track had stopped collapsing.
“What are you doing?” she asked, out of breath. Hester fired again.
“Jump,” she said, working the bolt of the rifle. The casing hit the roof of the car with a clean, high-pitched clinking sound, like a punctuation mark.
“Jump?” Violet said dumbly. “It’s a four hundred foot drop to the tree tops, and who knows how far below that to the ground.”
“Look behind you,” Hester said, and fired the rifle again. So far, the airship had made no response, unless one counted the distant mocking laughter of the pirates a response.
Violet turned and saw the edge of a plateau running out from under the track. It was still a twenty-foot drop, but they had made it across the valley.
“You still there?” Hester asked. The sound of hissing fuses and exploding gunpowder nearly drowned out the question. Violet turned and saw several tendrils of smoke leading away from the air ship. A rocket lay at the head of each, corkscrewing their way straight toward the train car.
Hester slung her rifle and turned, said, “Better decide quick,” and then leapt over the opposite edge of the car. Violet watched the rockets rushing toward her, captivated for a moment by the chaotic beauty of the smoke trails coupled with the fear of impending doom. She eventually found her senses, turned, and leapt, just in time for the train car to explode behind her. Flaming bits of splintered wood flew by in the space around her. Far below, at a distance that suddenly seemed much greater than twenty feet, she saw a field of green rushing up to meet her.
Eli froze in place when he heard the train car explode behind him. He scrambled over one of the benches lining the car and looked out a window. Flames and splintered wood filled the sky.
Where were Hester and Violet? He had lost sight of them shortly after the track buckled and began to collapse. It had since stopped. Eli wondered if he should go back and find them.
The sound of propellers whipping through the air outside put that notion away from his mind. He looked up and saw one of the pirate airships speeding by, toward the rear of the train, toward the cargo car.
Eli knew he had to get there first.
If Violet and Hester were still alive, he had confidence they could take care of themselves. Even if they couldn’t, both of them would likely rip his head off for abandoning the mission to come back to them. He swallowed his pride, turned back to the rear of the train and started running.
Two more cars stood between him and the cargo car, but it felt like he was running the entire length of the train. When he arrived at the platform for the cargo car, he had to force himself not to run in headfirst. The pirates were likely already swarming the thing and he would get nothing but a face full of lead for his trouble.
He edged up to the rear door of the final passenger car and peeked through the tiny window set at head height. The platform was clear, so he opened the door and stuck his head out. Two air ships circled overhead, taking positions above. Ropes began falling over the side, and he saw the first of the pirates begin their descent.
It was then or never, so Eli darted out of the passenger car and through the door into the cargo car. Inside, he found himself face to face with a wall of wooden crates, stacked wall to wall. He couldn’t go around them, but he could see a space between the top of the stack and the ceiling.
Eli jumped up, grabbed the edge, and hauled himself up. The wall was four crates deep, so he found himself in something of a crawl space. He started crawling. Halfway to the edge, one of the pirates came down hard on the roof and left a huge dent, forcing Eli to change course.
Behind him, he heard voices.
“Aw, hell,” a man said. “It’s a blasted wall.”
“Think you can climb over?” a second voice asked. The first voice snorted.
“Nope. Only a woman or a kid could fit through that.”
Eli frowned at this remark and kept crawling.
“So, what do we do?” The second voice asked.
“Blast our way through,” a third voice said.
Eli began scrambling. He was nearly to the edge when the fizzling sound of a dynamite fuse crept up the space behind him. These idiots were actually going to try blowing through the crates!
He turned his body parallel to the edge of the stack and began rolling. There was just enough space at the center of the car for him to do this. He made good speed, and rolled over the edge, falling eight feet straight down.
Eli pulled his legs under himself and managed to land only halfway on his face. He stood and meant to scramble to the back of the car, to get as far from the impending explosion as he could. The sheer emptiness of the space caught him off guard, however. Only one crate sat at the center of the car, held down by heavy chains and bolted to the floor. Emblazoned on its side in big red letters in fourteen different languages was the word WARNING. This had the opposite of its intended effect however, only stoking Eli’s curiosity.
Eli remembered the dynamite, that it should have gone off by now, and that he should probably be dead. Instead, he heard voices over the top of the crate wall.
“…rocks for brains? You want to blow up the entire stash? What’s wrong with you? You two are lucky the Captain didn’t find you.”
“How do we get in then?” The first voice asked.
“The others are rappelling down the side and cutting through the locks on the loading doors. Let’s go.”
The loading doors? Eli heard banging on either side of the car. He saw that the sides of the car were indeed two large sliding doors, held shut by chains. Muffled voices filtered through, someone shouting orders. The chains began to rattle.
Eli needed a place to hide, and fast. The only option available was the crawlspace. He ran to it, jumped up, and grabbed the edge of a crate. However, this crate was empty, and light enough that when he tried to pull himself up, he pulled the crate down instead. Eli fell back on his ass, and the crate fell on his leg. A sharp pain shot up his shinbone from his ankle, and Eli nearly roared with pain. He managed to turn his head and muffle the cry with the sleeve of his jacket. Sweat broke out on his forehead and ran down his face from the strain.
When the initial shock wore off, he sat back and examined the crate. Tears in his eyes, he leaned forward and lifted the crate off his ankle. This caused a fresh pang of pain from the shattered joint, and he cried out again.
All activity outside of the train stopped, and Eli heard a rush of muffled voices that sounded like questions. A few seconds of silence passed, then shouting. Eli thought he could make out the words, “Get in there and see what that was, hurry!”
Eli gritted his teeth and stood on his good leg. He used the fallen crate as a step stool and aimed at the now empty space it had once occupied in the wall. The extra height of the crate, plus the extra lack of height in the wall due to its absence, made it much easier to climb back up, even with the broken ankle. It still hurt like hell, but Eli managed it without making any noise.
He crawled into the space and rolled back to the center of the stack. Spots of light floated in front of his vision. Down below, he heard the clink of the chain falling and the roar of the sliding door opening.
“We’re in! Tell the captain!”
Eli turned back on his chest and inched toward the top of the stack. One of the pirates, a large, shirtless man covered in intricate, intentionally inflicted scars stood above the fallen crate with dagger in hand.
“Looks like it was nothing,” he said. Another pirate joined his side. This one was fat, and short, with small, mean looking eyes.
“Must’ve fallen during the barrage,” he said in a tinny, high-pitched voice. Eli instantly felt dislike for this mean-eyed man. “Come on, let’s check on the loot.”
The two pirates turned their attention to the big crate in the middle of the car. More pirates came through the door.
“What is it?” one of them asked. The scarred one smiled and leaned against the crate.
“These here are Sarnwainian green caps,” he said. “Mushrooms. Very potent. A little bit will make you fly. A lot of it will make you die.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
“Worth a fortune, in Crowndon,” the scarred one said. “But we ain’t using them to get high. The captains got other plans.”
The disliked one grinned widely, and said, “We’re going to use them to start a war.”
Eli watched the pirates leave, his mind still trying to process what he had just heard. The idea of using hallucinogenic mushrooms to start a war was something akin to what the Cartographers were in the business of doing, not a band of freewheeling pirates whose plan to raid a train included utterly destroying the track said train was on while over a 400 foot drop.
He considered for a moment the appearance of Hester Dowd. She had already been on board and seemed to know more about their assignment than they did. The Handler had made no mention of another Cartographer on board, but Eli had assumed that she was some sort of watcher, sent to keep them from royally botching their job.
Was it possible she was some sort of rogue agent, working with or using the pirates to meet her own ends? He’d heard stories of such agents before, fanatics who had their own ideas on the paths the Cartographers should take and the means with which to accomplish those paths. Most had been excommunicated, but this did little to stop them in most cases. Many believed they still acted for the leadership, their unofficial capacity providing wiggle room for the leaders to carry out their most unsavory plans while disavowing any knowledge of the actions these rogues committed.
99.9 repeating percent certainty, Eli reminded himself. The Cartographers knew everything, and a bunch of rogue agents acting independently seemed like much more than .1 percent uncertainty.
None of this mattered, for the moment. Violet’s orders had made no specific mention of what they were supposed to be escorting out of the southern empire, just that they were meant to ensure the train’s arrival. This task now failed, he decided that it was up to him to find out more about the pirates’ plans for the mushrooms.
How he planned to do that was now the question presented to him. He needed to find a way onto one of the airships. He knew they were planning on taking the crate. He decided he needed to be in the crate.
Eli began to move, his broken ankle protesting every little movement. The broken limb was going to be a problem. His chances of surviving any of this were next to nil. Still, he would try.
Why should I, though? He wondered, pausing for a moment. Why should I continue to carry out my task for the Cartographers when they tried to kill me?
Eli remembered the pirate’s words. “We’re going to use them to start a war.”
Eli had his answer. He wasn’t going to do this for the Cartographers. He was going to do this to prevent a war from breaking out for a really stupid reason.
He slipped out from his hiding spot, taking extra care not to land on his bum ankle. He kept close to the crate wall and shuffled to the edge of the sliding door. One of the ships hung in the air above, burping black smoke from the exhaust of its boilers. He heard shouts from the deck and saw thick chains being cast over the side.
On the roof, Eli heard the heavy thumps of boots as pirates ran the length of the train. Amidst the chaotic din of footfalls he heard a more rhythmic sound, like something being hammered into place. Sprinkles of wood and metal fell behind him in a pile, and Eli looked up. A large bolt, about the thickness of his thumb, came through. Something clicked and four metal fingers blossomed out from the sides of the bolt, holding it in place. He heard the ratcheting sound of a wrench, followed by the harsh rumble of chain being run through a metal hook. From the back of the train, he heard the soft whoosh of air as first hydraulic lines were cut, then the sharp snap of the couplings being separated. The same sound repeated from the front of the car.
“Oh, shit,” Eli said, realizing that the pirates had no intention of removing the crate. They were planning on taking the entire car. His initial response to this epiphany was one of panic, until he remembered that his initial plan had been to stow away inside the crate, a task he still had no idea how to perform. Now all he had to do was stay put.
Eli saw a rope draw down in front of him, and voices from the roof above. He ran back to the crate wall and climbed up with no problem, though his ankle still pained him.
I’m getting quite good at this, he thought as he boosted himself up and rolled back into the darkness, just as two pirates rappelled down into the car and took up positions beside the crate. They said nothing as they sat on top of it. One of them broke out a deck of worn playing cards and began to deal, while the other prepared a pipe.
Outside, the car Eli had come from crashed into the ravine as the pirates pushed it over the edge. The car behind them squealed as it was pushed farther down the track. A moment of silence followed as the last of the pirates either returned to the ship or braced themselves on top of the train.
The train buckled, groaned in protest, then lifted off the track. Eli felt his stomach drop and resettle as the airships lifted it into the air. From his hiding spot he could see outside, and watched as the sliver of ground outside fell away, replaced with nothing but clouds and the golden hue of the evening sky.
Violet opened her eyes to a blurry swirl of orange and green. She rolled over onto her back and pain shot through her body from her right side. Her teeth grit against the pain and tears welled up in her eyes, further blurring her vision.
Trails of smoke led by bits of flaming wood still arced through the sky above her. The sky itself had deepened to shades of red and purple. The shape of a person limped into view above her.
“You alive, kid?”
Hester reached out one gloved hand. Violet tried to move her arm to take it, another bout of pain racking her body for her efforts.
“Yup,” Hester said over her cry of pain. “You’re alive. Come on.”
She bent down, grabbed Violet’s arm and hauled her to her feet. Violet’s legs threatened to fold under her. She braced herself against Hester until the worst of the agony faded and found her footing.
A fog horn sounded in the distance. Hester turned toward it, giving Violet no choice but to move as well. Every step sent fresh waves of protest from her side, but what she saw overcame it.
The airships lifted away from the track with one of the cars suspended between them. She was no expert, but it appeared to be a baggage car.
“Have you seen Eli?” Violet asked.
“Who? Oh…the boy. No.”
The complete disregard for Eli’s existence bothered Violet a little bit, but she kept it to herself, instead pulling her arm back from around Hester’s shoulders and backing away from her.
“You good?” Hester asked.
Violet nodded, still not speaking. Even the simple act of breathing hurt.
“Alright.” Hester unshouldered her rifle, looked it over, and then held it at the ready. “Those airships are making off with what we came here for, and we need to make tracks.”
Violet looked over in the direction of the airships. They were little more than tiny specks now in the distance, the train car dangling between them above the tops of the trees. A few more seconds and they would be out of sight.
“Do you have another airship stashed away somewhere?” Violet asked breathlessly. “Because I don’t think we can keep up on foot.”
“Don’t need to,” Violet said. “I recognize the ships. We need to get to Mission Isiarro, the next town on the line. If we hurry, we can make it there before tomorrow evening.”
Violet frowned at the prospect of walking all night and day. Hester saw it and came over.
“Look, you’ve got at least two broken ribs,” she said. “I’ve been there myself, and I know it hurts like all hell, but you can take the pain. There’s going to be times when it feels like you’re on fire and can’t take another step, but you can push through it. I can tell. Or am I wrong?”
Violet didn’t speak. She instead took a few tenuous steps forward, found a pace, and walked past Hester toward the tracks.
Only one car remained on the track, another baggage car, from the look of it. Violet stopped and did a quick scan of the area. There was no sign of human life, and no sound except for insects buzzing through the plants around them.
Hester looked back at Violet and nodded curtly in the direction of the car, then flicked her eyes down to Violet’s hip. Violet looked down and saw that by some miracle, she still had the six-gun. She drew it and followed Hester to the baggage car.
Hester clambered up onto the platform, turned, and then helped Violet up. It didn’t hurt so much anymore. Violet didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
They took up positions by the door, weapons at the ready. Hester’s eyes met Violet’s in a question.
Are you ready? her eyes asked. Violet nodded, and Hester opened the door, going in low. Violet took a deep, numbing breath and followed, scanning high. Nothing but bags and crates lined the inside of the car.
“Wait here,” Hester said, and crept further inside. She did a quick sweep, stopped about halfway in, and lowered her rifle. “Come in!”
Violet joined Hester. The senior cartographer had opened a box and was rifling through it. She stopped, reached in, and pulled out two gun belts. The revolvers in the holsters were dull, but not unclean. Violet’s misgivings of the weapons’ condition must have shown on her face.
“Look,” Hester said, shoving her rifle at Violet to hold while she put on the belts. “A pair of silver revolvers looks flashy and all at parties, but that same flash can get you killed in the field. I’ll show you how to get a nice patina going so people you’re trying to get the drop on don’t see you coming from a mile away.”
Violet didn’t much care for the idea of mussing up her six-guns, not after just receiving them, and recognized the sentiment as foolish. Until now she had regarded them as trophies, a badge of her commitment to the organization, a symbol of her status as a Cartographer.
However, the six-guns were also tools, first and foremost. A thing to be used. And, watching Hester strap the guns to her hips, Violet saw that the worn out, dull metal of the guns could be a badge unto itself. It spoke of work in the field, of past jobs done well, of experience and wisdom.
“Careful, girl,” Hester said, buckling the second belt and taking back her rifle. “Your eyes are liable to pop out of your skull.”
“I-uh…” Violet stammered stupidly. Hester smirked and turned back to the cargo.
“Where’s your’s at?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Violet said. “They’re in their box.”
Hester shook her head and said, “Well, we best get looking. Sun’s going down quick and a box that small is like to be hard to find in broad daylight. It’ll probably be up top, though.”
They searched and searched, but found nothing. The top of the sun sunk below the tree tops outside, leaving them in twilight.
“We need to go,” Hester said. The words felt like a punch in the stomach to Violet. It was bad enough that she had already lost an eye and broken her rib. And she had failed her final test, when she hesitated to kill Eli.
Now she had lost her six-guns.
“Come on!” Hester urged. The older cartographer didn’t seem to care, which was somehow worse. Violet followed, feeling like a failure with every step she took.
“There’s more to Cartography than running around with a couple of irons in hand, mowing down things that are trying to kill you,” Hester said when they were further down the track. “But it is a pretty big part. The guns are just a tool, though. They can be replaced. And besides, that one on your hip?”
Hester pointed to the gun she’d pulled off a dead pirate.
“That gun in particular, well, let’s just say it’s special, and leave it at that.”
Hester walked ahead a few paces, not far enough that Violet would lose sight of her in the night, but far enough so that she could have whatever served as privacy at that moment. Violet wondered what Hester meant about the gun being special, but didn’t press the matter.
Up ahead, the seasoned vet cried silently.
The jungle came alive with a myriad of sound that Violet had never heard before. Some sounds were familiar, crickets and the like. Many were down right alien. Hester kept to the center of the tracks, away from the tree line on either side of them, and Violet followed suit.
The moment Hester had spoken of, when it felt as though fire covered her entire body and she wouldn’t be able to carry on, had come and gone. And come again, and gone again. Four times the wave of pain hit her, and each time proved more difficult to push through than the last.
Hester slowed the pace when these pangs hit, but did not stop walking. Violet wasn’t sure if it was out of genuine concern or a feeling of safety in numbers.
“I’m just slowing you down,” Violet said after the last. “You should go on ahead, find out where the ships were headed, and find Eli.”
“If I felt we were in jeopardy of losing the trail, I’d ditch you in a heart beat,” Hester said. “But we’re still making good time, so I don’t need to do that just yet. As for Eli, he isn’t the mission. If he’s there, and by some miracle he’s still alive, we’ll do what we can. Until then, shut up and walk.”
Violet did so.
Several times through out the night they came across other survivors of the attack on the train, following the tracks to the next town in the same fashion they were. Many were alone, a few were in groups. Hester watched them all with the same steely suspicion, racking the bolt of her rifle whenever somebody got too close. There fellow travelers took one look at them and made way.
Well, one look at Hester, anyway. Violet doubted that she, hunched over with a patch on one eye and a hand clutching her side, was capable of intimidating anyone.
Violet had never met anyone like Hester. The woman could be invisible if need be, or she could exude a presence as big and powerful as a bear. Violet watched her in these moments, studying Hester’s posture and attitude, learning.
This is who I want to be, Violet thought to herself. This is the ideal Cartographer.
Eventually, they ran out of stragglers to encounter. Day bled into night. As the rising sun began filtering through the canopy, Violet felt a renewed sense of vigor. She tried to restrain herself. Despite feeling better, she knew she was exhausted and severely dehydrated. A sudden burst in activity would take its toll later.
It didn’t take long for the air to heat up. It had already been warm, and humid, as was expected. However, even Hester gave pause at the heat.
“We need water,” she said, reaching down to her belt. She opened up a pouch and pulled out a small flask, unscrewed the top, and tipped it over. An amber liquid poured out in a thin stream that spoke to Violet’s thirst, despite knowing the whiskey would do her no good.
Hester shook out the last few drops, then walked over to the tree line. She searched the foliage at medium height, her hands brushing the tops of several broad-leafed plants. She checked her fingers periodically, frowning each time.
They continued in this fashion, with Hester grazing the tree line and Violet following on the tracks. Eventually, the sun came over head and shined straight down, and Violet moved closer to the trees for shade. I didn’t do enough to stop the heat, however.
First, her head began to pound, followed by a strange cooling of her skin. The vision in her good eye receded, and the jungle became a green and yellow swirl around her.
“Vi–I–can–g–any–mm–more,” she said, not entirely sure what it was she’d been trying to say, and fell face first to the ground. The pain in her side was nothing more than an after thought now.
Violet thought she heard footsteps coming toward her, and a voice telling her to sit up, not to fall asleep. She didn’t care, though. The pain was gone, and she was floating. If not for the nausea, she’d describe the experience as pleasant.
Sense crashed back down on her more quickly than it had left. The darkness in her vision vanished and the world became brighter than it had been. Her side pulsed steadily with pain, making every heartbeat excruciating.
Hester helped her sit up.
“Keep your head down,” the veteran said.
“Wh-what happened?” Violet asked, barely able to formulate the words.
“You overheated.” Hester put a hand on top of Violet’s head. “Nearly fried your egg.”
They sat together in silence for a moment, Violet taking deep breaths and regaining her bearing. Eventually, she turned to Hester.
“This is it, isn’t it?” she asked. “I really am holding you back now, aren’t I?”
“Go on, then. Get to town, find the pirates. Finish the mission.”
“Finish the mission,” Hester said. “Right. And save Ali.”
Hester stood, brushing dead leaves and dirt from her bottom.
“I’ll send someone back to find you. Just try not to get eaten.”
Violet felt her eye widen and looked up at Hester.
“Hey, I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t a real possibility. I any case, you have your guns. And jaguars are mostly solitary and territorial, so worst case, you’ll only have to shoot one.”
Violet nodded and said, not entirely sincerely, “Thanks.”
“Alright, then,” Hester said, turned and began walking away. Violet watched her go, and pulled the revolver. She checked to make sure everything was in working order, and checked again. When she looked back in the direction Hester had gone, the woman wasn’t there, having disappeared around a bend in the track.
“Well, Violet,” she said to herself. “Here you are, injured and alone in the middle of the jungle. What would your sister say, now?”
Violet lost track of time. The sun had reached its peak and was now falling again. She guessed it was around three o’ the clock in the afternoon. She had found a stick and begun drawing little figures in the dirt, an old past time from when she was a kid. She remembered sitting on the bank of a river near her child hood home, doing the same thing in the mud. She always came home covered in filth, much to her mother’s chagrin.
A new sound drifted on the wind from the direction Hester had gone. It was a soft, churning sound. Violet turned her ear toward it, but lost it. Her eye fixated on the train track as she strained her hearing. There it was again, closer now.
What could it be? It didn’t sound natural, whatever it was.
She noticed movement in the dirt around the track. It was slight at first, but eventually picked up in intensity and the dirt began to slide down. The sound became louder. Violet identified it as mechanical. She looked down the track again. A trail of steam rose above the jungle canopy. A few moments later, a rail car rounded the bend. Hester hung from the side, scanning the tree line. She saw Violet and waved. Violet waved back, and Hester disappeared into the car. Violet saw her through the window, talking to the man driving the rail car. It began to slow, and rolled to a stop right in front of her. Hester hopped down and came over to help Violet to her feet.
“Found a ride,” she said and led Violet into the car. The engineer smiled at her, said something pleasant in Monteddorian, and started to get the car rolling forward again. Hester said something, and they argued. The argument didn’t last long before Hester pulled one of her own revolvers and held it to the man’s ear. The man capitulated, throwing the rail car in reverse.
Violet tried not to think about the other survivors on the track the man had surely been sent to check on as they rolled toward the next town on the tracks.
The Shroom Job, Part IX
Eli had no way of knowing how long they’d been in the air. The sun had gone down long ago and showed no signs of rising anytime soon, as far as he could tell.
The two pirates had brought a lantern and set it up on the crate between them. It cast just enough light to see the cards by. Moths swarmed around the weather beaten thing, trying without success to get to the tiny gas flame inside.
The pirate with the pipe reached out and plucked one of the moths out of the air. He crushed it in his palm and looked at the powdery white carcass.
“Ay, Gola,” the pirate said in an accent that indicated he was from somewhere in the southern provinces of Crowndon. “Ya think I’kin smoke this buggy?”
Gola gave the pipe smoker an exasperated look and said, “Don’t know. Don’t care. If you’re so curious, why don’t you put it in your pipe and try it.”
The pipe smoker regarded the carcass a bit longer, removed his pipe from his mouth, and tilted the moth’s remains into the bowl. He took a pinch of leaf from a pocket on his shirt and packed it in good and tight. Gola watched all of this with a vague amusement as he shuffled and dealt the cards.
The pipe smoker struck a match and lit the pipe. One, two, three puffs of smoke. He sat there, as though deciding what he thought. After a few seconds, he began hacking violently.
Gola laughed at his comrade. When the pipe smoker vomited, Gola laughed even harder. The pipe smoker regained himself and tapped his pipe out on the floor. He kicked the remains toward the open cargo door.
“Nawp. T’aint smokable.”
Gola shook his head and continued dealing. A gust of wind blew in through the door. This had happened several times through out the night, and every time the cards scattered about the car. This was the first time, however, that the wind blew one of the cards up to the top of the crate wall, a few feet down from where Eli lay.
Shit, he thought to himself. The two pirates went about picking up the cards. They checked the cards as they did. Gola paused.
“There’s one missing,” he said. “The Whore of Rains.”
“Ah, that’s no good,” the pipe smoker said. “I quite favor the picture on that one.” The pipe smoker did another quick scan along the floor, while Gola started back to the crate.
“Come on back, Pabyo,” Gola said. “The cards gone.”
Pabyo, who had moved to the side of the car opposite of where Eli lay watching, turned and started back toward the crate. He was about to sit down when another moth flew past his face.
“Ay!” he said, swatting at the insect. His eyes followed the moth, darting up and down. And then, they stopped, fixed on a point at the top of the crate wall. Eli felt like Pabyo was looking straight at him.
“There she is!” Pabyo said, pointing.
“Huh?” Gola said, and looked up. “I don’t see nothing.”
“Right there!” Pabyo said, hurrying toward the wall with his bony elbows bowed outward, working tirelessly as he moved. He stopped at the base of the crate wall, where one of the boxes had fallen earlier. He stepped up on it, and Eli saw his head pop up over the edge.
Long, gnarled fingers reached up and grabbed the card. Eli tried to fold in on himself, as if such a thing was possible. Pabyo was so fixated on the card, however, that he didn’t notice Eli. He just stood, grinning at the card, teeth gleaming with a yellow-brown sheen in the faint gas light.
“Yup!” he said, “That’s her–”
He stopped. Now he really was looking at Eli. The dumb look on his face twisted into a horrifying mask of fierce wrinkles, his dull eyes flashed with violent intent. Pabyo the stupid pirate had become Pabyo the blood thirsty monster.
“Who’s you?” he demanded. Eli didn’t reply, struck dumb by the shock of being spotted and the sudden change in Pabyo’s demeanor. Pabyo’s thin arm shot over the edge of the crate wall and grabbed Eli’s collar. His grip was like a rusty bear trap. He pulled Eli out and Eli fell, hard, to the ground. His broken ankle banged against the floor and the pain brought bright spots in his vision.
“Pick him up and toss him!” Gola snarled. Pabyo picked Eli up and dragged him over to the door, but he did not toss him.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Throw him and be done with it!”
“Nah, not yet,” Pabyo said, and brandished a knife. “I wanna smoke his right eye.”
Eli saw the point of the blade move toward his eye and turned his head. He waited for what felt like an eternity for the knife to bite into the soft flesh of his eye, but it never did. Instead, he heard Gola shouting.
“Stop, Pabyo!” he said, rushing forward. “Look at his hip.”
Eli opened his eye and saw Pabyo’s gaze move down. The dumb look returned. What were they looking at?
“He must be the guy,” Gola said. “Pull him in, set him down.”
Pabyo pulled Eli in and pushed him toward the crate. Eli stumbled toward it and sat down. When he did, the revolver in his right holster scratched against the wooden surface of the crate.
“You a cartographer?” Pabyo asked.
“Y-yes,” Eli said, straightening himself up and trying to sound assertive.
“Kind of young for a Cartographer, ain’t you?” Gola said. “Or at least, young for a traitor. Usually only ones go bad are the ones been around long enough to know every thing they been told is a crock.”
Eli didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. He could only hope that his surprise about being right didn’t show.
Well, perhaps being “right” wasn’t the best descriptor. He’d just been speculating about rogue Cartographers based on rumors he’d heard.
However, if Hester was a rogue agent, wouldn’t they have been expecting a woman?
“How much do you know about me, and how I operate?”
Pabyo and Gola shared a look. Pabyo raised his shoulders.
“Captain Delamore didn’t say nothing to us, ‘cept that he has a Feral Cartographer in his pocket,” Gola said. Eli nodded, satisfied with this answer, but Gola went on.
“Come to think of it, he didn’t say nothing about you being here.” Gola’s eyes became suspicious. Pabyo’s hand worked around the grip of his knife.
“Wasn’t supposed to be,” Eli said. “I came back here to check the cargo when you all attacked, so I decided to wait. It took you idiots so long that I got bored and fell asleep.”
Pabyo and Gola’s heads snapped back as though they’d been slapped.
“B-but, we didn’t know you’d be here!” Pabyo said. “Knowing might’ve given us the proper motivation!”
Eli fixed him with his eyes and smirked. The speed with which he was constructing and falling into the character of a rogue agent didn’t surprise him. He’d always been a good liar.
“Motivation? Do you really need motivation to do the best work you possibly can? Don’t you take pride in your work, man?”
Gola snickered and said, “I’ve been telling him for years, ever since we was kids in Dux-”
Eli snapped to Gola, shutting him up.
“Since you were kids? And he still doesn’t listen?”
“And you still put up with it? What the hell does that say about you?”
Gola’ s mouth worked up and down, but no protest came out. He put his head down and walked away, muttering to himself.
“It ain’t his fault,” Pabyo said. “He’s like a big brother to me. I’m a bit slow in the head.”
Eli responded only by pulling the revolver and giving it a quick inspection. Pabyo got the hint and moved over to where Gola sat, his feelings hurt.
The surface of the revolver was flawless, with nothing to distort his reflection except for the shape of the gun. It had been Violet’s. He wondered if she’d somehow survived, and if she did, would he? This was a game he didn’t know how to play.
Pabyo cried out from where the two pirates had been sitting. Gola stood over him, yelling in Monteddorian, and reached down. He grabbed Pabyo by his hair and dragged him to his feet. Pabyo’s pipe fumbled out of his hand. Gola caught it and jammed it bowl first into Pabyo’s mouth. As Pabyo choked on it, Gola hauled him over to the open cargo door, grabbed him by the front of the shirt, and threw him out of the car. Eli watched in stunned silence as Pabyo disappeared into the night, trying to scream and unable to.
Gola turned and said, “Been waiting to do that for years. I guess I just needed the ‘proper motivation.'”