Vignettes

Uncharted Waters

The wind was a ghost’s whisper across the water. It fluttered along the boards of the hull and streamed backwards, a swallowtail behind the thirty foot copper-clad sloop. The fishhook moon smiled up at Kel from the black water flowing past to starboard. He gave a tremulous smile back at its reflection and twisted to look forward. 

“Down to twelve feet, captain,” Arnie hoarsely whispered from the bow. Kel could see the glint of her silver rings in the moonlight as she hauled up the depth line and prepared for the next toss. He tensed his fingers around his oar and readied for what he knew was coming.

“We’re at the neck now, friends,” the skipper’s call was barely audible above the soft splash of the depthline’s charge slipping back into the channel. “I don’t need to remind you what happens if we don’t do this fast, quiet, and smart.” A jabbing finger, sharp nailed and glittering stabbed at the night-cloaked shoreline. Here the trees loomed in towards the river like hulking bodyguards ready to shoulder them out of an Essex bar. The dark obscured what Kel knew lay under their scraggly branches - long low bunkers and a prodigious amount of men with guns and arrows who would not be pleased to see them slipping by in the dead of night without paying the levy.

“Arnica, report.” 

“Nine feet.” 

A low rumbling started along the rowing benches. It was the end of the burning season and the waterways were shrinking. Much lower and The Alligator would be in danger of wallowing in the mud like its namesake. Kel’s pulse hammered in his temples, half dehydration, half adrenaline. This was his first run into the Punkerport and the marshy stink of the polluted water made him yearn for the briny tang of the open sea once more. He narrowed his eyes as a sudden flash lit the darkness.

BANG

“We’re spotted!” he yelped as a projectile whistled overhead and continued into the water beyond with a splash.

“All hands pull!” the skipper growled, and The Alligator surged forward as the oar crew stretched their backs into the thrust. Arnie’s readings at the bow came as fast as she could throw the weight now.

“By the mark, Eight and a half. Eight now,” her voice was punctuated by the whistle-shriek of bullets, and the flashes on the shore were close enough in the narrowing channel that Kel could see the faces of the shooters in the flare of the discharge. He felt a trickle of sweat tracing its way between his heaving shoulder blades but he didn’t dare pause. 

“Five degrees to port!” Arnie shouted. The captain nodded, twitching the rudder to the right - his jaw stony, eyes staring down into the dark water, trying to keep the craft in the deepest part of the channel. The shore seemed to inch by in slow motion and the range was closing. An arrow skimmed over the gunwale and buried itself in the bare mast, missing Kel’s shoulder by a hair. 

“Heave to!” a cry from the shore came crisply across the water. “Surrender your cargo and we’ll let you live.”

“Think I’d trust the word of a Long Berth?” The skipper shot back, and the crackling of firearms increased, punctuated with a few choice insults from the fighters on the shore.

“By the mark, seven!” Arnie hollered and the rowers doubled their intensity. The keel wouldn’t clear much past six feet in depth. 

And then it happened - an awful grinding sound beneath their feet and their speed slowed. They were scraping the bottom now, and in this narrowest part of the waterway, the treeline was only a few yards away on each side.

A shout, and Kel looked up to see the skipper doubling over, a dark stain spreading across his sleeve which now hung limply at his side. A body pushed past him - Arnie diving to seize the rudder and shoving the skipper down into the cockpit. 

“Kel! We need you in the water! You too, Cleat!” 

He dropped his oar into the locks and turned towards the bow. The Baywalker next to him did the same, JP tattoo dark beneath the hollows of his eyes. The grinding on the hull was louder now, reverberating through their feet and throwing him off balance as he lunged towards the prow. Arnie was muttering to herself as they went, “Told him we was too heavy with this metal. Should have taken the plastics instead I said. Not been enough rain.”

The wood of the railing was silky beneath his feet, ground smooth by years of scraping and sanding and bare feet. Kel snagged a sheet as he went, wrapping the end of the rope twice around his hand and hoping the other end was tied to something solid. He didn’t have time to check before he jumped.

The water was warmer than he expected with the sun down for hours, and the force of his jump carried him down beneath the surface, his ankles sank into the soft mud at the bottom of the channel. Kel tugged at the rope above his head and heaved himself upwards, breaking into the warm night air as Cleat slammed into the water next to him. Immediately they both began to swim, pulling the rope taut and tugging the boat through the water. It was scraping less now, with their weight offloaded, but still dragged sluggishly behind. Kel’s free hand splayed wide, the translucent webbing between his fingers and toes scooping hard into the water. He kicked with all his might, feeling the resistance of the boat pulling him backwards with the current. The shouting on the shore intensified and arrows pierced the water near them, bobbing back to the surface harmlessly.

The sky above was suddenly illuminated. The Long Berthers had lit their arrows on fire, content to haul the scrap out of the bottom of the channel after they had all burned and died. His legs were starting to cramp up from the constant kicking. 

And then miraculously the boat was surging past them. They had cleared the bar. The rowers cheered as The Alligator once more sprang into crisp motion. The swimmers drifted back along the side, hauled along by the very rope they’d been tugging. A fire arrow thudded into the hull next to Kel’s head and he splashed water on it before it could light up the tarred wood above the copper cladding. Something beneath the water brushed against his legs and he shuddered.

“Get us up!”

Hands reached over the side and hauled them upwards, depositing them as soggy lumps in the center of the boat as something smooth and scaled broke the surface of the water they’d just left. The shore was retreating once more, the crack of firearms fading into the distance. Kel dashed back to his spot and picked up his oar, resuming his rowing until Arnie shouted “Rest!” long minutes later. Panting, he collapsed forward and chugged on the waterskin beneath his seat. When he finally had a chance to look around, he realized how far they’d come. A broad lake stretched into the darkness on either side, its surface choppy with a stiffening breeze. Beneath the dark waves faint glowing shapes moved and far, far ahead there were torchlights sparkling and distant across the water. He thought he could hear off-key singing. 

“The Punkerport.” Arnie affirmed, looking up from bandaging the skipper’s arm. 

“Is it always like this?” he asked incredulously. “Getting here, I mean.”

“Not always.” Arnie shook her head with a sharp, toothy grin. “Sometimes it’s worse.”

 “Welcome to Bravado, Kel.”


A Junkerpunks Vignette by A. Garcia

Thumb On The Scales

Things were easier when I was a ranger. thought Nettie Jack Russel in the cattails and reeds that peppered a riverbed, dry and dead this far into the burning season. Her nose itched but she dared not scratch it. 

The sun was low in the sky, just a few rosy fingers caressing the horizon while the rest was so deeply blue it might’ve been purple. A few scattered clouds rolled lazily eastwards and the way the sun lit them up from underneath reminded Nettie of the brushfires she’d needed to circumvent this far into the Blastlands - only much much prettier. 

Her knees ached. She’d hidden in these reeds since the sun was so high in the sky it threatened to bake her scalp raw, shaved as it was. But what skin she did have was thick and leathery - where it wasn’t peeled back to expose muscle and bone. Nettie surreptitiously wiped her brow on a handkerchief and a few chunks came with it. 

You’d think, she monologued in the way the terribly bored tend to, that contracts would make it easier to determine who the bad guy is. It doesn’t. It makes it easier to figure who broke a deal; which is good enough for most folk these days. 

Someone laughed. Nettie froze. Her eyes, red and watery after nine hours of silent observation, flickered to the tallest man in the group whose mouth was wide and grinning. Hers pitched downward in a tight frown. 

Some forty feet from the Law Dog were a band of nerdowells she’d been tracking for the better part of a month. Bandits, these days. But when they’d worked for the Railroad Commission they’d been caught smuggling goods off of the Ox. Now the word to describe them was “breachers” and it was a Law Dog’s job to bring them in. 

This was the Viper Gang. They’d picked up the name recently after their leader survived a nasty snake bite by manifesting psionic powers and purging the stuff right out of his blood. Nettie thought it was a little stupid. No vipers in the Lonestar. 

The leader in question was one Jeremy Scales, a burly remnant fellow who looked like he might’ve been Saltwise if the dice rolled different. But life hits you hard and so the tough green plates across his face and shoulders looked more like ugly callouses gone septic. He was generally understood to be a charming psychopath - Nettie could see that in the way his crewmates followed his laughter with their own. He knew how to coach a room. 

The sun had all but disappeared behind the horizon and velvety darkness descended. The Viper Gang sat comfortably around a campfire and as the evening progressed they grew drunker. Wild and ugly tales poured out of their mouths as quickly as they filled them up again with booze. Nettie listened, diligently taking notes in the little brown journal that had lead her to this hiding place to begin with. 

Fetters make men of us, she wrote absently, without them we descend into base animalism. So cyclic is the wickedness of man that I knew these to be monsters before I preyed upon them for a night and a day. Contracts might be useless if we’re figuring some higher morality - but folks that break them generally turn out to be shitheels.

“Alright, girl.” A voice called cheerily from the camp. “Come on out now.”

At first Nettie did not register what Jeremy Scales had said. Or that he had said it to her. Until a rough hand clamped around the back of her throat and a powerful blow to the head dimmed her vision and turned her limbs to jelly. Ahh Hell. She dropped the book. 

That rough grip dragged her from her uncomfortable place among the reeds and into the firelight. She saw a few flecks of blood hit the dirt where it dripped from her scalp. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder when the thug who hit her tossed her dangerously close to the coals. They disarmed her handily and broke her arms.

“Another cocker spaniel come to chew at my heels, eeh?” Scales mocked, kneeling in front of her. Nettie’s eyes wept from pain; bewildered. “Guess the RRC didn’t tell you, yeah? That you’re the fifth pup they’ve sent after me in half a year.” Nettie’s stomach dropped. They most certainly had not.

“Poor kid.” Scales commiserated and stood again. She noticed her book in his hand - when had it gotten there? Nettie blinked, in shock. “Good notes.” he said, flipping through it.  “But it’s too bad you called me a shitheel here at the end. I’ve got a real prideful streak in me. S’from my mother’s side.” 

Nettie gritted her teeth. She could already feel the infection reknitting the bones and muscle. If she could keep him talking long enough-

Jeremy Scales flipped his duster back, exposing a snub barreled silver shotgun. He unholstered it, took casual aim, and shot Nettie Jack Russel right in the teeth. Her body hit the ground with an unceremonious thud. 

The grim faced bandit  handed the book off to one of the thugs in his gang. This one was named ‘Handsome’. Jeremy understood this to be ironic. “Keep that.” He ordered, “And move the body. She smells like my sister.”

The last of the sun disappeared below the horizon. Scales looked up and away from the fire. His expression was mild. 

Another dead dog, he mused. How long ‘till they’re tired of this game and sic the ‘hounds? 

He’d need to finish his work before then.

A Law Dog Vignette by S. Lindley

Quota

Huckleberry leaned with arms crossed against the tree that tried and failed to provide shade to the cut that the work detail was mired in. The track they laid for the Ox was heavy; even the Irons strained under the weight of the rails and ties as they laid them down along the muddy ditch dug out by their peerage. The Law Dog’s eyes were locked on a particular digger, smaller than the rest, whose slower pace had held the work crew’s progress back from making quota for the last two weeks. Huckleberry had been told the shiftless drudge’s name, but he hadn’t cared enough to commit it to memory. Once he’d seen the dude, the burly Iron had known which way this would go. 

The waifish Remnant handled his shovel clumsily. He was too small to leverage it properly, and anyone with sense could see he didn’t belong on this detail. The Commission had been clear that the work would be demanding. The contracts had specified the length of track that would need to be laid daily. Even the conditions The Commision expected had been researched and included in the formal agreement that every one of these miserable fucks had signed or made a mark for. Some of them couldn’t read. Like as not the Breacher was among those. But Huckleberry didn’t care. His pity for them as weren’t capable of looking out for themselves was nonexistent. Their eyes had all been full of currency, and this part, the negligence for their own ability, was a consideration that hadn’t occurred to the idiots.

At some point, the Breacher felt the Blood Hound’s eyes on him. He began to look up from his work periodically , his already abysmal pace lagged even more. The piss-reek of fear wafted in the air and Huckleberry curled his lip into a snarl at the stink of it. When the Breacher saw this, he flinched, as though the expression had reached out to strike him physically. Those toiling around him didn’t seem to take notice, but neither were it they that Huckleberry had his eyes on. In fact, to all but the Breacher, Huckleberry may as well not have existed. The Law Dog let his hand slide down onto the pommel the rifle holstered on his hip and down the length of his leg, and he let the Breacher see him do it. 

A few things happened next. The Breacher’s shovel hit at the wrong angle, and the distribution of his weight caused him to slip and stumble into his neighbor; a Retrograde digging at a much more acceptable pace than the Breacher. They both tumbled to the ground, and the second man fell against a third, an Iron who had been struggling in the rear of a line of lifters carrying rail up the cut. He lost his balance and the rest of the dominoes fell, along with the rail. All because of this useless little moron. It was the moment Huckleberry had been waiting for. The one he’d known would come. The moment when the cost in time that the Breacher represented overcame the meager contribution to the project. 

Huckleberry’s rifle had cleared the holster before the rail hit the ground, and the deafening crack of the shot split the air. The Breacher’s brains splattered against the mud and the diggers and lifters in the vicinity scrambled to make distance from the fresh corpse. Their eyes turned to Huckleberry as he slid the gun back home, waiting for an explanation, or instruction. Huckleberry let that linger long enough that the cost in time for their gawking wouldn’t outweigh the value of the intended message before he spoke. 

“Y’all’s all signed your contracts. Y’all’s all had quota. And y’all’s all had termination agreed to for missin’ it. Get the fuck back to work.”

And so they did.

A Law Dog Vignette by J. Newman

Sales Pitch


It was already over. They just didn’t know it yet.

The couple was seated in the ramshackle office outside the rail station, and the bustle of the camp outside was simply dim background noise.  The repeated clanging of the workers laying track outside was a spiking rhythm that cut through the walls, but the repetitive nature made it easy to tune out.

“Like I was saying, you both know that the Firebrands have been pushing further east.  There have been three reported attacks in the last week, and it’s all the Tribes can do to keep the railways clear.  I can only imagine the worry that has caused both of you.”

He leaned in a bit, and rolled up his sleeves, half-listening to their stories of raiders and zed.  A comforting smile, and he was back.

“The Railroad Commission wants to help ensure your safety.  With the upcoming construction of the greenline, it will be possible to get from Essex to Waking in just under a day.  The wastes have never been closer, or more connected. But I really feel like I need to ask you a question.”

One of the prospects took the bait.  “Sure, I guess?”

“Are you a man of vision?”

“Uh.  I think so?”

Sure he was. He moved in for the kill.

“No, I don’t just think so. I know so.  You knew the dangers out there, but you realized the importance of having a place to rest your head safely on the trip south.  It’s been profitable for your farm, and you’ve been able to reap the rewards of that foresight. You’ve set aside a nice nest egg for the future, and only a man of vision knows what it takes to protect their family and provide for their future.”

Here it comes.

“I think you are an honest man.  A reasonable man. You know the truth as well as I. The raiders and zed don’t stop. It’s only a matter of time before a horde is a little bit too big, or that steel door takes one too many hits to stay on the frame.  But you have options now, and that has to be such a good feeling to have.”

“Uh.. What do you mean by options?”

Gotcha.

“Opportunity, my friend.  Your farm is something that we at the RRC have a need for.  The engineers tell me we can shave off a month off the construction if we route past your farm. You’ve named your price, and I’m happy to say that the Commission decided it was worth the investment in our shared future.” 

The couple shared a glance to each other.  Of course they were impressed.

“We also have a shining new opportunity in the Bravado Camp.  You’ve heard about what we found there, haven’t you?”

Of course he had. Everyone had.

“The RRC is paving a path forward to the future.  Imagine a world where you don’t have to worry about those raiders breaking down the door, because you are safe in your bed, letting us keep watch at night.  This world is more connected that you can imagine, and there are opportunities that I know a man with your intelligence has already considered.” 

A little effortless flattery never hurt.

“Imagine a world where you can delve into the ruins to find fortune and glory, and then be back in Essex by nightfall to join your family for dinner.”

A gasp. Right on cue.  

An interested murmur between the two meant that he had sparked the man’s imagination.  A grin crossed his face, as he wrapped this one up.

“That’s not a fantasy.  It’s a reality.” The prospect leaned closer.

“I want to help you with this favor. Why stay in this farm, hoping you can survive another Burning Season, when you can help the Lonestar become something better?  Our contract will ensure that your investment in this farm is tripled. You will have the funds to provide a better life for you family, enough to fund your expeditions into the ruins, as well as a little left over.”

He pushed the contract forward, so the prospect could appreciate the sum that they were talking about.  A pittance really compared to what the RRC would gain from being able to build without a fuss from the locals.

“When this railroad is connected, thanks to your vision to know that selling your land now, while the moment is right, you will be part of something more.  Who could argue if you pocket a few extra Brass for yourself in the process?”

The prospect eagerly agreed. Who could blame him?  It was easy to be forward thinking when you were the one profiting.

“I’m so proud to have been part of this monumental contribution to our future. Thank you sir.  With your help, this great railway will connect the entirety of the Lone Star.”

He was particularly proud of how his eyes seem to water, seemingly overtaken by emotion at the idea of the prospect’s contribution.  Hook, line, and sinker.

“Just sign on the dotted line.  I’ll have Agnes go over the terms and conditions with you outside.”

A smile, a handshake, and it was over.  He grinned, and called for the next prospect.  Man, he loved this gig.

The future was bright indeed.


A Railroad Commission Vignette by J. Loyd

Death and Taxes

It was nearly sunset.

The graverobber stood a few paces away from the couple, silently observing their relief and joy at being reunited. His hands were still covered in the sticky black dirt from the morgue, and he was exhausted from the effort.

Time passed as they continued their reunion, but his work would stretch long into the night.  Another town, another morgue, another soul to guide back to the land of the living. He brushed the dirt from his hands and gathered his tools to leave. He didn’t feel much emotion anymore, but there was a particular satisfaction of a job well done that he still enjoyed. He had a purpose, and that was enough.

“How much do we owe you, sir?”

The woman had broken her embrace with her wife, and turned tearfully to the graverobber. He could see the tinge of fear in her eyes. The common folk always believed the stories.

“There is nothing owed today. The Collectors will assess your grave tax, but I assure you it will be a pittance. Your wife’s death was an accident.”

She nodded, thankful, but still tried to press a few Brass into his hands.  He would need to record the donation to make sure their contracts were updated accordingly, he supposed. 

Outside, the light was dimming but still bright enough. He blinked and shaded his red eyes.  Normally this kind of work happened in the dead of the night, and he never really adjusted to the light of the surface.

A man stood across the road watching him leave, obviously drunk. A Texican perhaps? Maybe a Baywalker.  But probably a Texican. The graverobber turned and headed back to his caravan.

“Tax man here to collect his blood money! Tell me tax man!” Spittle flew from the drunk’s lips on each word of the insult.

“If an apple keeps the sawbones away, what keeps you Council fucks away?” The drunken man’s words were slurred, but the challenge was clear.

Not every doctor was sanctioned by the Grave Council, but he was. Gathering his anger, he composed it into a fiery, dead-eyed stare and turned deliberately to face the man.

“Stephen. Joseph. Clark.”

The blood rushed from the face of the Merican as he realized his taunt had been successful. Most graverobbers would have ignored him.  Not today.

“How.. how.. do you know my name?”

The graverobber took a menacing step towards the man. The graverobber’s eyes seemed to glow with a pale deathly light.

“We know what happens in the night, Stephen.”

A step closer.

“We see your dalliances. We assess your crimes. We remember that night in Essex.”

Another step.

“The tax will come due.”

Another step. The graverobber could smell the stench of the cheap hooch on the man’s breath.

“All will pay the tax when it is due. Perhaps when your pitiful life is over, cut short by a life of booze or even a raider blade at your neck in the night when you forget to lock your doors...”

A step closer.

“A hand like mine will reach out to help even the likes of you, Stephen.”

A final step. He could smell the bitter tang of piss. The terrified man had pissed himself. It figured.

“But the tax will come due.”

A long moment passed, and then Merican was alone once more, shivering in a pool of his own urine.  The graverobber stopped, and looked back at the pitiful retch.

“Remember Stephen. There are only two things certain in this life. Death and taxes.”

The final words whispered across the road. 

The sun was setting, and the balance was once again restored.


A Grave Council vignette by J. Loyd