Kaigun: Steampunk Chapter 4


Anjin listened to a low wind-moaning and tossed another pine twig into the snapping fire. Meat smelled good, roasting; it would be done soon. The sun was just down and so that wind was almost done for the day. As usual, it would blow softly all night, imperceptible in this sheltered lee of a little granite outcropping. Imperceptible that is, except for the sound, as it wound through the tops of pine trees higher up the hill.

Ahead beyond the grove of aspens, beyond the fire, endless waves of tall grass held secret schools of antelope, floated solitary ships of elk, but none to be seen now. A curling smoke of birds puffed up, cycloned upwards, feinted and settled again, like dust from some huge invisible footfall. Evening’s first bats zigged exploringly through accumulating gloom as the rivers of air finally relaxed to a sluggish evening pace. A sprinkling of hulking black rocks in the distance must be a herd of bison. This was a great land, she thought, even better now without all the commerce and smoke and paperwork. Hard to believe there was danger out there

A jabber arose as the boys returned from the creek. There, clay urns lagered beer and they’d carried a big one up to go with the roast and potatoes tonight. It was comfortable, but maybe too familiar and she did not join in the conversation, but smiled and poked at the fire. Soon, she’d have to pick one of these boys, and she was not looking forward to it. Less than fifty villagers all together meant there were a half dozen interested older boys to choose from and most left her thinking of something else. Nothing wrong with them! Good strong reliable men, they’d turn out to be, which was the problem. There was nothing not to like and soon would be no excuse when they started asking in earnest. Anjin knew was attractive and would be asked soon enough. Desire pulled at her, too, but that only encouraged them so she mostly held back to avoid entanglement. Maybe she should aspire to a little cottage, children, and a cow . Yes, she should, and it could happen, too. When they stopped travelling, a family would begin for her.

She liked Michal, the smart one, but he had no idea she existed. Anjii worried, too, that he was damaged goods. Not the arm, the hook did not repulse her or keep him from working, but he’d taken the loss of his family so hard, and was not recovering. Even now, he sat at the edge of the fire, scanning the horizon for trouble. It was enough for Anjin to be quick, have a bolt hold picked out, and be otherwise fatalistic about the monsters. Dinosaurs, she thought. ...may as well call them that. They are dinosaurs and we are their prey. She could think of them like lightning, dangerous, sudden, partly avoidable but to be regarded with some fatalism. Russians were good at that, but not Michal. He called them by some disparaging chicken name which fit the picture but failed to acknowledge the new hierarchy in the food chain.

“Michal, when we stop, will you build a house?”

“Yah, a stone one, big enough for everybody.” He lowered his gaze from the horizon to the fire. “With cannons.”

Anjin was hoping for a more personal vision but he was thinking of the whole town. “That sounds great! We can have a moat just like the old days, and I’ll ride a charger with a lance, and dogs, and we’ll hunt dragons for sport. You can build me a drawbridge!”

“I’ll build a goddamn gatling gun for the chickensaurii and we’ll stay inside the fortress and raise normal chickens and We’ll eat Them for a change, just like the old days.”

“Sounds kinda boring.”

“Safe, though.”

Too boring. Could she make him into a man before summer’s end when they would have to settle down for winter, before she would have to accept some boy’s claim? Maybe she should try more direct techniques...

Such as fucking. Anjin tried a sideways glance but he didn’t notice. She looked to the horizon, a day’s walk away and it still seemed like a fence to her.

Under her breath, Anjin mumbled, “I need to get over that, I guess.” She shielded her eyes from the sunset’s last gleam, realized she wasn’t sure whether she was mumbling about sex, or adventure generally.

While Anjin watched the sun sink under the edge of the world, a triangular black silhouette rose from the distant prairie, surged across the boiling red glow and then slipped back down into the gloom like a shark’s fin. Her blood ran cold.

“Oh no! There: a landship!” ...pointing. “Everyone!”
“You’re crazy, where?”
“Somebody smother the fire.”
Anjii collected herself, “I just saw it far off, but I’m sure, ...I think. It looked big. It was going from left to right.”
“That’s not possible, it’s practically upwind: they can’t DO that,” said Sylvie, an older girl.
“Some can, if they’re schooner rigged, what did it look like?”

Conversation continued, but Anjin didn’t really know anything for sure, except that it had been a tall triangle, and moving too fast, at that distance, to be anything else. Even in this light breeze, a landship could outrun a horse, so they said. And a ship meant trouble. Loss of some cattle at best, piracy at worst: rape and burning and men would die. Someone was already running uphill to warn everyone, the fire out, the roast forgotten. Probably they would have seen lights though. Everything depended on what they wanted.

Probably nothing, because after a tense night of waiting high up the hill in a disused cave, the men gripping bows white knuckled and unsleeping at the verge, nothing happened and the ship did not reappear, if indeed it was not an apparition Anjin imagined. By dawn, nobody was worried, but not allowed to ride anywhere either. Two men set out riding for the horizon to look for tracks. A landship would leave tracks for a year, grooves torn through the turf by immense weight, iron wheels in a line supporting a wooden city with a hundred men, and cannons and fire and purpose. But their purpose must have been elsewhere because Geoff and Halse came back in the late morning, reporting tracks that went straight on North forever, coming from equally forever to the south.

Everyone decided they should move on just in case, the next morning, heading West for Novosibirsk.

Already packed, Anjin decided she’d walk out and see the tracks for herself, and talked Michal into it too. He wanted to take a couple of goats too,

“Chickenfeed, just in case” he’d said though she thought it paranoia.

Sylvie and her boyfriend Dmitri wanted to come too, so it was shaping up into a date. They set off before noon and walked three miles before coming to the tracks.

They were unmistakable. It looked as though a giant plow had cut a single straight furrow all the way around the earth. The cut was three feet wide and half as deep. Somehow it seemed wrong that there was nothing else. Men were here, still made machines do their bidding, but they were gone. Already not even an echo, it felt like the distant past, notwithstanding the wet groove. Unconsciously they’d bent their tracks to follow the landship’s course and one wanted to catch up, to run and wave and be picked up, hear iron wheels screeching, sails cracking and wooden timbers groaning under load.

Instead there was only wind susurrating through grass around her waist.

“Let’s eat and then go back, or are we gonna follow this ditch to the North pole?” Sylvie asked. “Who knows, they’re probably a hundred miles away by now.”

Exactly, thought Anjin, “More like 200, I’d guess.” She’d been doing the math, and it beat walking. “I wonder where they are now?”


“Nope,” it was Michal, always watching, who saw. “They’re right there! North.”

Coming back along their course, impossibly fast, it looked like a small forest of white trees, oddly still but growing.
“We’ve gotta run!”
“No, we have to hide: they can’t have seen us.” Dmitri said that.
“But they will, and they might run us over!”

Michal thought a second. “Look, they’re obviously retracing their tracks, let’s run a little then hide. This way! They’ll be looking into the sun” He started West, holding back his hand to beckon.

Everybody ran, but there was not much time. Already Anjin could see the sails nodding as the landship surged over unseen swales. They couldn’t see the hull yet, but soon. “We’ve got to get Down!”

“A little further, come on!” After about 200m Dmitri plopped down and so did they all. You couldn’t resist poking your head up to see it go by, like a ship but with giant spindly arms reaching out to either side for stability like a trimaran. They’d been seen: people on the deck were pointing, sails were flapping, and the whole giant beast was rearing around towards them and slowing down.

“Oh God! Run!”

Anjin stood, and stood her ground. “Like that’ll do any good? We’re in the manure now.” Her heart was pounding. They’d all heard stories.

Men were jumping off now, two and three at a time as it circled, laying a net of people around the small group of captives. The ship finally came to rest pointed almost into the wind, sails roaring as they flailed loose while the men approached, smiling but armed and watchful.

1 comment:

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