by Charles Payseur
“Sand is threatening to clog my primary exhaust vent,” Twenty-Three said, walking in jerking steps through the sand.
Coal looked back, saw the outline of Far Point disappearing over the distance. Far Point, the last stop on the Great Rail and still not far enough. Beyond, in the wide blank of the map, though, were the promising words “Here There Are Dragons.”
The bundle in Coal’s arms chirped, and she looked down at the small, scaled creature, its posture finally content after a week of sullen anger aboard the Rail.
“Glad one of us is happy about this,” she said, and looked up. There were a series of caves in the distance, and she set a line for them, hoped that they could reach them in time.
“Sand is threatening to clog my secondary exhaust vent,” Twenty-Three said, stumbling again as metal feet struggled to find a solid path.
“No helping that now,” Coal said, finally responding to the series of complaints from her companion. “Ranston had to have been on that next train and no doubt by now he knows which way we headed. He has the scratch to hire a team of horses for him and the posse, so we’d best not be caught in the open.”
A moment of silence and Twenty-Three seemed to be processing the information.
“Sand is threatening to clog my primary exhaust vent,” the automaton said, and Coal groaned.
She gave up arguing and instead looked down at the dragon, which was glancing about, undaunted by the drifting sand. How it could still see when Coal had long since been forced to hide behind her heavy goggles she wasn’t sure, but if it came from this desert then it must have been born to handle it.
“Don’t suppose you know a way out of the wind?” she asked it, but it only chirped and almost seemed to smile as it settled into her arms like a prince being carried on a sedan chair. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
A sharp crack that could only have been a gun firing caused Coal to turn, her hand reaching for the shooter at her hip. It had been distant, though, and she squinted from behind her goggles and saw, far away, shapes moving from the direction of Far Point. Her jaw clenched: it had to be Ranston and his men.
When Coal had first met the man she had known it would be bullets to settle things, knew from the smile on his face and the appraising, lingering glance he gave her, as if he knew exactly the price she would fetch. She hated cages, had since she had escaped the flesh markets as a child. It was why she had smuggled Twenty-Three out of a mill even though the automaton seemed to have hardly noticed. It was the thought of the cage that made her palms itch for the comforting coolness of her shooters.
And when Ranston had offered to show her a delight of exotic animals, when she had seen the baby dragon crying away inside its cage, she had known she was getting into trouble again.
“A little faster,” she said, and increased her pace, gritted her teeth against the sand and wind.
“Sand is threatening to clog my secondary exhaust vent,” Twenty-Three said, but moved faster.
They reached the caves before the horses, though Coal knew it was close. Once out of the wind she shook herself and handed the bundled dragon to Twenty-Three.
“You’re going to have to take her into the caves,” Coal said. The passage was wide, looked deep. Twenty-Three didn’t eat or sleep, was fine as long as it didn’t run out of fuel or break down. And the dragon seemed resilient, could hunt for something in the dark. All they needed was time.
“I will require cleaning,” Twenty-Three said, and for a moment Coal almost wondered if it was trying to ask her to come with. She shook her head. Automatons didn’t have sentiment.
“You’ll have to make do for now,” she said. “Just keep her safe. I’ll hold off the posse.” And kill Ranston, she added silently. With him dead, at least, the posse wouldn’t press on after the dragon and Twenty-Three, not if it meant danger. Without their paymaster they’d be out for blood, and hers would have to do.
Twenty-Three hesitated a moment, then turned and walked into the cave. Coal turned back to the sands, hands on her shooters, and waited.
They materialized out of the sand and wind a few minutes later, twenty of them, all on horseback. They made a ring around the cave’s mouth, around her, and most dismounted. She let them, wanted to give Twenty-Three as much time as possible.
“Guess you all didn’t read the map,” she said loud enough to carry. “Here there are dragons. And if you don’t turn back now you’re going to have to face the fire.”
Her hands hovered over her shooters. She was fast, faster than any she had ever crossed, and even if she couldn’t take down all of them she would make their lives a bloody hell for one moment. She sighted Ranston, still on his horse, his mouth full with that same measuring smile. It would be an easy shot for her.
“No dragons here,” Ranston said back, laughing. “Just a soon-to-be dead thief.”
She took a deep breath. In a moment she would draw and it would all go red, and death would take her. But it wasn’t a cage.
Before she could move, though, there was a sound behind her, a rumble like the earth shaking. She didn’t turn, didn’t need to. She saw the men around her hesitate, saw them take a step back. Horses whinnied, threatened to bolt. And Ranston’s smile slipped into a mask of fear.
“I have found assistance,” came a mechanical voice from farther back in the cave, and Coal felt heat at her back. She smiled and drew.