Story by Jon Price, Illustration by Ron Sanders
To anyone who asked, I was a postman waiting for the train. Nobody at the railway station suspected otherwise, since I wore the trade’s dark uniform and peaked hat.
The crate was harder to explain. Despite what the captain had thought, it drew everyone’s attention. And why shouldn’t it? It was half my height, twice as wide and loaded onto a handcart. Letters bound for the capitol wasn’t a strong enough lie and I wasn’t a convincing enough liar to tell it.
“You require a handcart to carry letters?” this wise-guy in a bowler hat commented, while he adjusted his glasses at it.
“They’re heavy letters,” I muttered with a scowl. “Now scram, you’re bothering me.”
He made an exaggerated “hmph” and excused himself. My hard expression melted, but my bitterness wouldn’t. I fished Pa’s star-shaped medal out of my coat and stared at it to calm myself. Though its luster had tarnished, the engraving read clear: In honor of Jannard Laird, Valorous soldier of the 14th. Protector of our Renbourne Republic.
Sure didn’t feel like I was being honorable, valorous or a protector.
I tried to remind myself that all this subterfuge was necessary. Our republic had a bigger, surlier neighbor in the Confederacy of Gestolt. Their fast expansion made them hungry for land, and the mana within, so they started conquering the surrounding countries. We were next.
Unlike Gestolt’s past conquests, we matched their mana tech with our mundane tech spell-for-gear. Inside this crate was the Anti-Magic, a weapon that could neutralize airborne mana for miles, forcing those damned mages to fight on our terms.
The Anti-Magic was classified, but somehow its existence had been leaked—we suspected a confederate mole. So long as our military caravans were compromised, getting it to the capitol required a little…creativity. Namely, sneaking it aboard the morning train.
“So you kept the medal.”
I nearly leapt out of my suspenders. But when I snapped my gaze up, it was only JJ. “Hey, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Jannard Jr. was our other “cargo”, the inventor of the Anti-Magic. He’s also my brother, but you wouldn’t guess it from looks. I was the blond and broad-shouldered younger, he was the gangly, chestnut haired elder. For this operation he posed as train conductor: black vest, white collared shirt, watch and all.
He crossed his arms. “Isn’t my fault you’re not watching your surroundings.”
I exhaled and pocketed the medal. Still coddling me like a damn kid. “Yes, sir.”
“Don’t be like that, Aron.”
“Is our cover secure?”
JJ sighed and leaned close. “Captain’s already fed the word through the lines,” he muttered. “Far as the confederates are concerned, we boarded at the military station thirty minutes ago. The other men are in disguise and in position.”
“I don’t like this.” I eyed the impatient men, women and children that buzzed about the station. “We’re puttin’ an awful lot of civvies in danger. If anything went wrong…”
JJ cracked a smile and stepped away. “You really are Pa’s son, you know that? If he were still around, he’d have been beside himself, too.”
“More of us could stand to be like him.”
“That why you have his medal?”
“It’s a reminder of what a soldier should be.”
His smile faded. “Even soldiers need to get their hands dirty, brother.”
That’s classic JJ, lecturing a lieutenant on the military. When I didn’t respond, he patted me on the shoulder. “Trust me, it’s for the greater good. You’ll see.”
“That’s the only reason I’m doing this.”
The station bells tolled. The distant clickety-clack of the train swelled to a roar. We turned to see the engine rolling in, its numerous tubes shimmering blue with mana. It screeched to a halt and then hissed, releasing columns of azure smoke from its funnel.
“Go on, load up,” JJ said. “I’ll prepare for boarding.”
I nodded, and then lugged the handcart to the front of the train. Men in suspenders and flat caps were hard at work loading the cargo. I spotted one of ours, lean and wiry Warner, observing the proceedings in a similar outfit. He gestured me to a freight car and sent workers to help load the crate.
Once the Anti-Magic was secure, one of them turned and grinned at me. He was tall and slender, but his arms bulged with muscle. One of his ears was pierced by a silver earring—a little girly I’d reckon, but I wasn’t judging. “Heavy for a bunch of letters,” he said, between breaths.
“We’re backed up,” I said, more standoffish than I intended. “I’m ridin’ with this one.”
His eyes glinted. “Hey, so are we. You good at Poker?”
“Maybe we’ll invite you for a round, Mr. Postman. See you on the train.”
When he turned and started off, I got a good look at the back of his neck. That’s when I spotted it: the black streak that started at his hairline and disappeared into his shirt. A mana burn?
Mana burns were the mark of a magic user, someone who drew mana into their bodies and let its heat char their skin. Magic was outlawed in Renbourne. The Confederacy on the other hand…
The train whistle sang and I clenched my teeth. “All abooooard!” shouted JJ from the first caboose.
I needed to find the captain. Right now.
He was posing as pilot engineer, so he’d have already boarded. I started for the train, hurried at first, but kept to a walk. A rising panic urged me to shove past the crowd, but I couldn’t risk causing a rise and alerting the confederates.
The boarding line stretched down the train platform. I swept the caboose with my eyes and spotted that pierced worker boarding ahead of the line. Don’t look conspicuous, my rational mind begged me as the agonizing minutes passed.
Finally, I reached my brother. I stopped next to him. “Got a problem. Where’s the captain?”
He kept his gaze on the crowd behind me. “Said he’d rest his feet in the sleepers for a bit.”
Once inside, I rushed through the train, vestibule to vestibule, until I reached the first sleeping car. Without knocking, I threw open the first door I encountered.
And found Captain Erekson’s corpse sprawled across the floor.
My mouth went dry. There he was, still in his pilot engineer uniform, face twisted in anguish. A hole had been seared straight through his heart. The clothes and skin around the wound were cauterized. A mana weapon had done this.
I crouched next to Captain and pressed my fingers to his neck, despite his obvious condition. No pulse, of course, but his skin was still warm.
Within minutes, a shadow eclipsed me from behind, and JJ gasped. I didn’t turn around.
“What in blazes happened?”
“I…I found him like this.” My words came out throaty and hoarse.
“How could this be?” JJ was on the floor next to me now. He gawked wide-eyed at the captain’s body. “I’d just talked to him on the platform.”
“Who else boarded before me?”
“After the captain was our men, then the workers, some civvies…”
A heavy silence hung between us, until he finally said: “Aron, what does this mean? We avoided all the usual channels. Nobody knew about our ruse but the highest capitol officials.” He paused and eyed me. “And your men of course, but…”
Right. Much as I hated to think it, if the confederates were here, then somebody had spilled. If it wasn’t me or JJ, that only left…
“It’s gotta be one of the men.”
JJ peered at me quizzically. “W-what?”
“Warner, Bucky or Big Tom. One of ’em’s the mole.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I wish I weren’t.” My frown hardened and I slowly stood. With Erekson dead, I was acting captain. It was time to take control. “All right, first thing’s first. We need one of ours drivin’ this train. I gotta know who else I can trust.”
JJ rose next to me. “I’ll do it.”
I blinked at him. “Are you crazy?”
“I can operate a mana engine Aron.”
“That ain’t what I’m talking about. Your survival is key to this mission. You gotta stay somewhere safe. Besides, if you got killed, I’d—”
“Listen!” He grabbed my shoulders and glared me in the eye. “We’re in danger now. You can’t afford idle hands. If I take control of the engine, that gives you time to gather the men and eliminate the mole, right?”
I opened my mouth to retort, but stopped when I realized he was right. With a frustrated grunt, I shrugged out of his grip. “Hurry. Stay alive.”
He nodded and left.
— ♦♦♦ —
My first target was Private Bucky. He was supposed to keep an eye on the rear cars, but I scoured every sleeper and couldn’t find him. Failing that, I described him to the civvies and they mentioned seeing him move up the train. Suspicious.
The lounge car was my next stop. If I couldn’t find Bucky there, then that’s where I’d surely find Warner. The fellow loved to drink, even though he shouldn’t while on assignment.
I opened the vestibule door and ducked inside, through a thick wall of cologne and tobacco smoke. The car was packed to the brim, every seat occupied. The chatter fought the piano to be heard.
A quick glance around and I caught Warner standing by a table, hands in his pockets. At the table sat the worker men—and that confederate with the earring, too—laughing over their poker game. That Warner was hanging around them didn’t bode well.
With gritted teeth, I tried to find the others. Big Tom wasn’t so hard. He was all ritzed up in a suit and tie, but his hulking figure and caveman chin would betray any impression of class. I caught him sitting cross-armed at the bar, scowling at people.
No sign of Bucky.
For now, I thought to ask Warner about his new “pals.” I approached their table. “‘Scuse me, sir.” He, along with the men at the table, glanced at me. “Could use help lifting a trifle, if you’d be so kind.”
Warner blinked, then nodded.
“Mr. Postman,” the confederate called. “You need a hand?”
I grinned at that fox best as I could muster. “Why, thank you kindly, but this man’ll be enough.” I yanked Warner toward the freight cars by the arm. “This way, my good sir.”
Warner followed with little protest. I opened the vestibule and passed into a freight car, then shut the door behind me. Once we were out of sight, I grabbed him by the collar and slammed him into the wall. He yelped.
“What’re you playing at, Warner? Eh?” I glared into his widened eyes.
“H-hey, what the blazes?”
“Answer my question.”
“I wasn’t drinkin’, sir. I swear. Let me go!”
“This ain’t about drinkin’. You’re with those guys, ain’t ya? You know they’re burned.”
His jaw dropped. “Wh-what’re you talking about?”
My voice rose. “You the mole, Warner? You been telling our business to the mages?”
The vestibule door slid open and Big Tom stomped into the car. He glanced at me, then at Warner. “Hey, what’s the big idea? Break it up.”
Warner turned pleading eyes at him. “The lieutenant’s nuts, Tommy. Get the captain!”
Get the captain? It took a moment for those words to sink in. But before I could respond, a shrill screech filled the car. Was that the train’s brakes?
The train jerked and shuddered with such ferocity that we nearly tumbled into each other. Finally, it stopped.
“Wh-why’d the train stop?” Tom broke the silence.
That was a damn good question. There was no reason for JJ to stop the train, unless…
My eyes widened. Now I finally understood what was happening. The captain was killed so the murderer could take control of the train. That way, the confederates would be able to stop along the route and unload the Anti-Magic.
Bucky had been seen leaving his post. He wasn’t in the lounge. The only cars past it were the freights, baggage and…
Poomb. Poomb. Gunshots, from the direction of the engine. I released Warner and whirled in the direction of the sounds. “JJ! Shit!” I exchanged a glance with my two baffled—and loyal—men. “Listen up. Bucky’s the mole. He killed the captain and JJ’s in the engine with him. Move it!”
We drew our pistols and made for the engine. There were only three freights and one baggage car, but it felt like a hundred. With each door I burst through, my fear intensified. I was sure I’d sent my brother to his death. St. Myra help me.
I threw open the door to the engine room.
There was JJ, collapsed against the right wall heaving, with smoking pistol in hand. Just next to the brake lever was the fallen Bucky. The traitor bled a puddle from a bullet wound on his chest. Right next to him was a confederate gun, its tubes still brilliant with mana.
“H-he’d gotten the jump on me when I entered,” JJ said between heaves. “Told me to drive the train. Tricked him by pretending the break was stuck—”
I sighed in relief. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”
JJ’s stare intensified. “What about the Anti-Magic?”
“I won’t let the confederates have it.” I glanced back at Warner and Tom. “Guard the path to the Anti-Magic. You see confederates, shoot to kill. You hear me?”
They dispersed, leaving me alone with my brother. I threw my arms around the big lug in a brotherly embrace. “That was a risky move, you damned idiot.”
JJ returned the hug. “Brother, without the captain and Bucky, we’re outnumbered.” We separated and he leveled me a defeated frown. “We should leave that damned thing and go, before—”
Male cries and gunfire echoed from the Anti-Magic’s freight car. We snapped our heads towards the vestibule.
“Stay here,” I said, cocking my pistol. “If you hear anything you don’t like, run. Don’t matter where.”
I stepped towards the exit. My hands trembled. For the first time, I realized I might die at the end of this.
Honor. Valor. Protection.
I recalled the words from Pa’s medal. His honor pushed him to see the mission through. He had the valor not to back down, even while death stared him in the eye. And he fell protecting his country. That’s what a soldier would do, dammit.
And I was a soldier, right?
My eyes met my brother’s. He pleaded silently with me not to go back. Not by myself.
But I forced a smile. “There’s no reason that both of us gotta die on this train, right?”
I stepped onto the vestibule, ready for anything.
— ♦♦♦ —
I entered the now-open freight car to a scene that should have inspired terror.
Big Tom and Warner were piled atop each other like a stack of bloodied boxes. Their pistols were scattered on the floor next to them. One worker, a confederate, was sprawled before the opposite vestibule door. Dead as a doornail.
That pierced confederate and an accomplice were halfway out the car with the Anti-Magic.
My rage churned. Roiled. Three good men, slain by these damned mana-suckers and left to rot. I aimed my gun at the nearest mage and roared, then shot him. And again. And again. I watched his form twitch with each bullet, and his body collapse, then turned my gun to his pierced partner.
The mage dropped his end of the crate and threw down his arms. Blue light pooled into them.
I dove behind the nearest pile of boxes. Mana ripped into them like lightning, tearing fiery holes. The stench of blood and smoke invaded my nostrils while I scrambled into position.
He ducked behind some crates on the opposite wall and I cursed. No clean shots, even though I could see the glint of his earring.
“Seems we’re at an impasse, Mr. Postman! Can’t torch the car, or I’ll risk the payload.”
“You killed my men,” I shouted back. “I’ll never spare a murderer.”
He laughed. “The murder was your friend’s idea. I’d have taken a hostage and kept this clean, but he insisted we don’t hurt the civvies. Said he’d take care of your lot himself. Now the train’s covered in blood anyway.”
Maybe it was hysteria, but I felt the urge to laugh at that irony with him. Real standup guy, that Bucky.
“He’s right, you know.”
JJ’s voice rang through the freight. I glanced back to see him emerging from the vestibule, Bucky’s mana gun in hand. He regarded me with a forlorn frown.
My jaw dropped. “JJ! Take cover, now!”
He aimed the weapon at me. “This hadn’t worked like I hoped.”
Before I realized what was happening, he fired. A blue bolt shot straight into my gun arm. The raw mana seared into my flesh, bit deep into muscle and bone.
At first, I felt only the shock of his betrayal. My now numb hand dropped my pistol while the other flew instinctively to the wound. The pain crept up, building to an agony so raw that I screamed.
The real traitor, the orchestrator of this massacre, my own brother, stared me down. He looked tired. Drained. Like his humanity had just lost an intense struggle.
“I didn’t want this to happen,” he finally said. “That’s why I needed you to leave.”
“There’s no turning back now.” The confederate’s voice seemed a million miles away. He appeared next to JJ with his glowing arms crossed. “I lost two men, so you’d better still want to go through with this or so help me…”
“I’m not having second thoughts.” JJ didn’t look at him.
The mage eyed me. “Then let’s tie this loose end and go.” Energy crackled into his hands.
“Hey!” JJ snapped, glaring at him. “The deal was to spare my brother.”
“Hmph. I don’t see the resemblance.”
“Just give me one minute. That’s all.”
The confederate threw up his arms. “The carriage is waiting,” he snarled, before stepping away.
“I…get the captain,” I had to croak out the words. “But why Bucky? He your fall guy?”
“It was unavoidable, Aron. He’d have witnessed the captain’s murder if I hadn’t sent him to the engine. I set him up out of necessity.”
That backstabber sighed and knelt in front of me. “Listen. Gestolt is too big, too powerful. Even without their mana, they outnumber us four to one. You know what’d happen if we fought them? Utter destruction. They’d take what they want and leave a smoldering path in their wake.”
He placed a hand on my shoulder, like he still cared. I tried to withdraw, but had nowhere to go in this corner.
“The Anti-Magic would inspire the capitol to fight. It’s stupid. Senseless.” His expression hardened. “When they realize Gestolt has their ace, they’ll see their folly and surrender peacefully. I’m making sure nobody else has to die, damn it!”
He stood and turned away. “I… hope you’ll understand someday.”
That was that. JJ walked to the crate and lifted it together with the mage. And they began to carry it outside.
I watched them, hurt and helpless in every sense of the word. My brother was about to give the enemy our best hope of defeating them.
I was supposed to be a soldier, like Pa. I wanted to get a medal, just like him. Those words, those dreams, were so distant compared to the danger here and now.
You can still stop this, Aron. My inner conscience pleaded with me. You’d forsake your mission, your entire country, to that turncoat?
But he’s my brother…
Tears streamed down my cheeks while I clawed for my pistol.
If Gestolt gets the Anti-Magic, it’s the end for all of us. Do it.
I raised my trembling arm and put JJ’s blurred figure in my sights.
This…is what Pa would do…right?
I pulled the trigger.
The crate hit the ground with a slam. My target stumbled into it, blood gushing out of his conductor’s vest. He clutched the wound with both hands while his head turned, just briefly, to stare at me. You really did it, his bug-eyes told me, before he crumpled to the floor like a doll.
The mage dropped his grip and threw down his arms for a mana blast. Adrenaline pushed me to turn the pistol on him and fire. He tumbled backwards into the boxes. He didn’t get up.
And the car fell silent, save for my violent sobbing.
— ♦♦♦ —
One month later, the capitol held a ceremony in my honor.
I stood at a podium, squinting at camera flashes. I resisted the urge to guard my eyes. Not that I could—the president of Renbourne was aggressively shaking one hand while the other was in a sling. He spoke proudly of heroics and sacrifice, but I wasn’t listening.
The president reached into his coat and produced a golden star, just like Pa’s. The sort of medal I’d only received in my dreams. He forced it into my hand and urged me to read the engraving aloud.
With everyone watching, I held it up and cleared my throat.
“In honor of Aron Laird, Valorous soldier of the 10th. Protector of our Renbourne Republic.”
Cheers and applause erupted around me. I tried to keep smiling, and I think I did my best in the face of this farce.
By the end of the night, I was alone again. And grateful for it. I poured myself a drink in my house—a home that JJ and I once shared. I twiddled the medal between my fingers, while the radio droned an update on the war.
It had been just as JJ had predicted. Once the capitol could neutralize Gestolt’s advantage, we drafted the biggest army our country could muster. But the mages mobilized faster. Their mana weapons had already torched our borders by the time we deployed.
The Anti-Magic should’ve made for certain victory. Instead, we routed the mages only for them to adopt mundane weapons and bounce back. What would’ve been a swift loss became a bloody standoff, one that Gestolt’s raw numbers were slowly winning.
The newscaster solemnly detailed every bit of ground the confederates gained and each life that ended on the battlefield. Let us hang our head in prayer for the brave men that died today.
I flung my medal against the floor. It rattled uselessly across the room.
Stefan Petrovich writes a gut wrenching letter to the mother of young woman who traveled to Serbia to research the ritual of Lapot, which is the ancient Balkan practice of senicide, practiced mostly in Romania and Eastern Serbia. In other words, the practice of the village killing one of its elderly to preserve food and other limited resources. Petovich recounts how things took a very bad turn when she was determined to follow up on a lead about a village that allegedly still perform Lapot.
This story reads like a train wreck. You’ll want to turn away, but you just can’t!