“Snatch and Grab”
Transporting the general’s son across the plains was supposed to be the most boring duty. An easy ride. Head north toward Branton, drop off the fourteen year old brat at boarding school for the spring, then back to the front down south. He didn’t even merit more than a handful guards, after all, he fighting at not reached this far inside the country. The route was far from scenic too. Dusty planes ahead, bald mountains as jagged as a rung out old boxer’s broken teeth to the east, a nearly vertical drop off to the west. A sparking steam waited below, you can see the line of blue-white water twisting if you leaned over to spit, along with the long fall to your death before an eternal drink. Amazing how such a small trickle could carve away the land, digging a canyon over hundreds of years. A slow process. Like this trip.
Dathan yawned, his shoulders slumping as he leaned forward in his seat at the head of the carriage transporting the general’s brat.
His jaw clicked, his muscles spasmed. Passing the two horses’ reigns to his lone hand, Dathan reached up with his free hand and rubbed the tightened muscles around his mouth, hissing against the twinge of pain.
That’s when he heard the clicking. This time not his jaw cracking. No. What he heard was the smooth turning of gears, like when you put a pocket watch up to your ear and could hear the guts counting time.
One of the other soldiers riding at the carriage’s left heard the clock ticking too. She spun around, searching for the origin of the noise, at once seemingly underfoot and then everywhere. People told stories of ghostly clock noises just before… but no, they were too far north at this point for an attack.
Then the ground shook, the quake only barely drowning out the mechanized sounds.
The earth exploded behind the carriage, rock cracking, spitting chunks of earth all around. One stray piece ripped across Dathan’s cheek, making him wish instead for the gnat sting of the muscle contractions. Dathan raised his free hand. Touched his face. His white gloved fingers came away painted with crimson, blood.
All around the horses panicked. Bucking wildly, crying out in terror while rising on hind legs, pawing air in defense to a threat they’d yet to see. Several soldiers were thrown. Dathan looked about, searched while struggling to get his own spooked mounts under control as they galloped for safety they not where, pulling on the reigns now with both his hands. Growing smaller in the distance as the carriage sped up, the two horses desperate to get away from chaos, were three soldiers sprawled about, unhorsed, bodies tangled in positions their corpse limbs were not meant to be in. Their mounts kicked up dust, scattering. From that dust cloud emerged the largest man Dathan had ever seen, running after his carriage.
Dathan got the barest glimpse of the man who’d sprouted violently from the earth to attack the transport guard. Both its legs were missing, and its left arm. Someone had replaced all three limbs with clockwork prosthetics, each one with cables running to a glowing engine on the abomination’s back, an engine spewing steam, burning with blue light at the bulbous top. Even the man’s eyes were gone, replaced by bug-eyed goggles. It had the pallor of the dead. Its cloths tattered rags. Its top hat discarded fashion in some of the country’s bigger cities.
Dathan heard tell of monsters like this. Gearboys. They were the twisted abominations of the southlanders in Jackmond. Enforcers for their invading army. Unstoppable wrecking machines the Jackers used to clear the front line before the infantry marched forward.
The gearboy’s prosthetic limps clicked and turned as it quickly gathered speed, pumping massive arms, broad chest not even winded and sucking air.
Are you faster than a horse you bastard? Faster than two fucking horses?! Let’s see, shall we?
Dathan snapped the reigns, urging the horses to hurry. The soldier didn’t need to push the beasts, they wanted away from the gearboy as much as Dathan.
His fellow soldiers–two of what remained of the original ten including himself–turned in the saddle, leveling rifles at the fast approaching abomination. Gunfire cracked. In response, Dathan heard the gearboy cackle mechanically, like a machine failing to impersonate a man, or a child unsure of an adult’s mature humor and laughing along at nothing.
Screams tore at Dathan’s ears, settling heavily into his mind where they could affect his dreams. He’d hear his comrades death throes in his nightmares.
If I live till tonight.
Teeth grinding, sweat soaking his cap’s inner band and streaming down his brow to sting his eyes, Dathan whipped the poor beasts pulling the carriage forward.
Closer and closer the clicking and grind grew, polishing Dathan nerves bloody raw.
Hairs on the back of Dathan’s neck stood straight up at attention.
Overhead the afternoon sun shone bright, or should have. A shadow shoved the sunlight aside, wrapping Dathan and the carriage in grim shade. Despite the sudden respite from the summer heat that had stained his grey and blue uniform, sweat stuck Dathan’s shirt to his back. He felt the pressure squeeze him, press down hard as a millstone grinding grain.
Dathan had a brief moment of thought for the general’s son. He knew he could not save the fourteen year old.
Dathan lept from the carriage’s front seat, narrowly avoiding the gearboy’s crushing blow as the monster dropped down from its own leaping attack with a hammer blow.
The scream from the general’s boy died even before the fourteen year old brat could utter a call for help. The cry smothered by the snapping of wood. The grinding of meat as the carriage wheel, the iron banding, bent. As the gearboy let go a death rattle andthe suspension in its clockwork prosthetic legs squealed.
Dust clogged the air around Dathan as he hit the ground hard, turning his poor landing into a roll that bruised his body and ripped his uniform. Some rocks bloodied his knuckles and a wrong turn tweaked his ankle. Yet Dathan was alive. At least he was alive. The general’s son… not so lucky. Kid wasn’t so bad. Didn’t serve the sudden death the gearboy had delivered. Dathan’s eyes were wet.
Summoning whatever ounce of strength remained in his body, Dathan dragged himself to his feet despite his unexpected grief for his comrades and the boy. Along the way he unsheathed the curved saber tucked into his sash. He would use the blade, shove the point into the gearboy’s nose, twist, and cut the abomination’s deeply slopping large beak open.
The gearboy barely noticed Dathan. It was examining the remains of the crashed carriage, dragging a teenager’s small body from the wreckage. A body not moving. Drenched in blood. The hair once sandy, now a bloody mess.
Like so much trash, the gearboy tossed the body of the dead brat aside, its work completed.
Dathan cuffed up his left pant leg, drew the knife strapped there, and in one fluid motion threw the knife. The blade stuck inside the gearboy’s grey flesh, sinking easily inside the meat of the shoulder. The gearboy regarded the blade with curious annoyance before wrenching the knife free and tossing it aside with the body of the general’s son.
It didn’t wheel around so much as it glided on a cushion of air, one knee bent, a prophetic leg pointed back, as it orientated itself in the direction where Dathan stood ready to fight. His comrades dead or dying, the general’s son, his charge, dead two hundred odd miles from his destination, Dathan would take the Jacker monster down with just his saber or die in the attempt.