science fiction and fantasy writer

The Beetle Road

“Josaiah!”

Mr Kneebone’s voice sounded like he was just the other side of the tall boulder that Josaiah crouched beside. Further away, he could hear fainter calls of “Master Hollanbosch!” and “Young sir!” Mr Kneebone was the only one of his mother’s men who had the status to address Josaiah by his given name.

A three-foot-long metallic beetle – a ‘bugger’, as the workmen called them – crawled around the side of the boulder and peered up at him with its blank, bulbous eyes. This one’s carapace was like polished silver. Josaiah could imagine it as a master tinker’s clockwork, rather than a living thing. His own distorted face looked back at him from the bugger’s reflective forehead.

This one had no harness, embossed with spells of binding, to hold its wings shut. Not one of his mother’s railroad builders, then. It was bigger, too, than most of those at work on the railhead, he thought.

The beetle waved its antennae at him.

“Yes, you’re very impressive,” he told it. “But not what I’m looking for.”

He sighed, even though there was no-one but the bugger to witness it and ask him why.

“Just a glimpse,” he said to the jagged peaks that reached up on all sides, bare except for their threadbare shawls of snow. His breath plumed in front of his face. It was a sunny day, but the warmth didn’t reach into the shade. This high in the mountains, the air was too dry and thin to hold any heat.

“Josaiah!” It sounded like Mr Kneebone had moved a little way off.

They had been searching for him for some time. Josaiah sighed again. It was probably time to give himself up – damn it all, anyway, all he wanted was to see one of the fair folk.

“Just one would be enough,” he said to the bugger.

It trundled past his feet. Josaiah had to look away when it stepped into the sunlight and turned back to face him again. Purple afterimages danced in front of his eyes.

He straightened, dusting off his knees and the seat of his pants, and stepped out of the boulder’s shadow as well. The sun was fierce enough to prickle his shaved scalp.

“I’m over here.”

Mr Kneebone’s head snapped around. His nostril slits flared. Josaiah had spent enough time in the company of saurimen to recognise irritation in his expression. Kneebone tipped back his head, filled his throat sack with air and boomed, “I found him!”

His fixed Josaiah with another reptilian glare, stepping up onto the shelf of rock between them and stalking across. The whip-like tip of his tail lashed from side to side behind his legs. “Your mother wants you,” Kneebone growled.

His painted bamboo vest rattled as he hopped down beside Josaiah. Like all the human rail workers, Josaiah had thermals on under his moleskin coveralls, with the addition of a sheepskin coat over the top. Kneebone was naked aside from his vest, gunbelt and the brass codpiece that covered his cloaca, getting sun on as much of his skin as a lizard’s dignity would allow. His skin was tattooed with sauriman ideograms over the cardinal energy points of his body – joints, arteries, palms, brow, below his earholes, nostrils and eyes and, under his vest, his vital organs.

Mr Kneebone’s inner eyelids half-closed, the equivalent of a human’s brows drawing together. “Looking for fairies again, luusthas?”

“The fair folk are real,” said Josaiah, hotly. The mountains were supposed to be infested with fairies, but all they had found were the damned beetles.

Kneebone snorted. “Come along, luusthas. She’ll be impatient.”

Josaiah fell into step behind him, grinding his teeth. ‘Moonchild’, the nickname meant – the sauriman term for a dreamer and a fool. There was a loud buzzing and the silver bugger launched itself past them. Josaiah stopped to watch it labour skywards, bright as a falling star that had changed its mind.

A deafening bang, close at hand, almost jumped him out of his skin. Reflexively, he clamped his hands over his ears.

Mr Kneebone stood with his pistol held two-handed in front of him. He thumbed the hammer back, squinting down the revolver’s sights. A moment later, with a dissatisfied grunt, he eased the hammer off again. “Should’ve brought my rifle.”

“God’s bright hearth, man!” Josaiah cried. “Why are you shooting at it?”

Mr Kneebone showed him a mouthful of pointed teeth and re-holstered his pistol. “Come.”

#

From high up on the side of the cutting, Josaiah could look down on the whole railhead and work camp. Smoke drifted gently from the funnels of the two matte-black steam engines, idling quietly until the next section of track was laid for them to crawl forward. Even from a distance, Josaiah could read the huge, brass runes of warding and containment riveted onto the boilers of each engine. In front of the foremost and smaller engine were lined the dormitory coaches, where the human engineers and sauriman overseers slept, and the more luxurious sleeper coach Josaiah shared with his mother.

Behind the rearmost and far larger locomotive was the long train of flatbed trucks, loaded with wooden sleepers and sections of iron track, high-sided tub wagons full of crushed rock and, at the very back, the food vans. Alongside the tracks by that furthest end of the train were lined the white tents of the human work crews.

The labourers themselves were up at the railhead: swinging their hammers to nail down the newest-laid tracks, raking the new rail bed, laying sleepers. Others worked back along the train, lowering sleepers and tracks from the trucks.

All around scuttled bright metal buggers – reds, blues, greens and purples alongside others coloured gold, brass, silver, copper and gunmetal. In pairs, they carried sleepers and rail lengths, laid across the padded tops of their work harnesses, up to the work crews. Singly, they carted sacks of gravel for the rail beds, only their single-toed feet visible beneath their loads. Under the watchful glares if the sauriman overseers, they swarmed all over the rubble pile left by this morning’s detonation, clearing aside the loose rock.

At least today the buggers were working again. Recently they had been going slower and slower, which had put his mother in a foul temper.

‘The Mundinovan Transcontinental’, she called her railroad. ‘The Beetle Road’, the work crews had dubbed it. The newspapers had taken to the latter name, after a journalist and photographer had come up to see the work, two supply trains ago. Josiah had been very pleased with the picture of himself that they had used for their front page – swinging a hammer, with his shirt off and his coveralls rolled down to the waist like the workmen. The only blemish in it was that they hadn’t cut Kneebone’s ugly mug out of the frame.

Unusually, today there was a third locomotive lined up at the rear of the supply train, just a small engine with a single, roofed wagon behind it. A party of workmen, with an escort of sauriman guards, was walking up beside the trains, carrying a large iron-bound wooden box on four stout poles.

“What’s that?” Josaiah asked.

Mr Kneebone didn’t answer.

Josaiah followed the sauriman down the slope to the end of the cutting. At the foot, he wrinkled his nose at a group of crows, bickering over the carcasses of several dead buggers. Kneebone and the other saurimen typically tossed any unmoving buggers, dead or not-quite, upside down at the side of the worksite for the birds to clean up.

Josaiah averted his eyes. When he was small, his mother had taken him on a tour of one of her manufactories. He had been shocked to see children as young as himself at work on the assembly lines, shocked by their hollowed-out faces and the news that they worked there ten-hours a day, six days in seven. Since then – until his mother dragged him up into the mountains for the building of her thrice-damned railway – he had assiduously avoided any further contact with the actual work that underpinned his mother’s vast wealth, lest it spoil his enjoyment of his good fortune.

“They should be called a squabble of crows, not a murder,” he said to Mr Kneebone’s back, seeking refuge in drollness. Once again, the sauriman didn’t deign to answer.

Josaiah tried a put-upon sigh. Kneebone just pointed ahead, to where Josaiah’s mother was talking with – or rather, at – her clustered engineers. Mrs Hollanbosch had her head shaved the same as Josaiah and all of the human workers. Unlike Josaiah, she had done it voluntarily. Lice, was the reason, and for Josaiah’s mother pragmatism trumped dignity. Josaiah was still in mourning for his chestnut curls, for which so many girls in Delphi had professed lasting fondness. He had argued for a protective amulet. “It simply wouldn’t be as effective,” had been his mother’s final, definitive word on the matter.

No other well-born woman could have done any such thing without a scandal. Mrs Hollanbosch didn’t even wear a scarf or hat. Even worse, on the railhead she habitually wore a gun belt and holstered pistol, slung mannishly low on her hips. At least, Josaiah reflected, she hadn’t gone so far as his cousin Winsome and given away her lady’s dresses for a man’s pants. Yet.

His mother looked up as Mr Kneebone approached, Josaiah trailing behind. Kneebone jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Chasing fairies again, missus.”

All of the other men addressed Josaiah’s mother as ‘Mrs Hollanbosch’ or ‘Milady’, as befitted her status. Mr Kneebone had been with her since before she was Mrs Hollanbosch.

Her expression when she shifted her gaze to her son changed, if anything, even less than Kneebone’s had but, for Josaiah, the cues were even clearer.

“Gentlemen,” she said to the assembled engineers, “you have your instructions. Be about your business.”

Hearing the edge in her voice, the men retreated with muttered ‘Milady’s and much forelock tugging.

“Thank you, Mr Kneebone, that will be all.”

“Right you are, missus.”

“Walk with me,” she said to Josaiah.

He slouched into step beside her. The box from the third train was just reaching their sleeper coach. Kneebone had gone ahead and was now supervising the operation of manhandling it aboard. All of the buggers nearby had stopped to watch.

“What’s in the box, Mother?”

A sauriman overseer came along, whacking and kicking the buggers back to work.

“You were supposed to be supervising the detonation this morning,” his mother said, “In the not too distant future, this will all be yours.” Dead buggers and brain-dead factory brats, Josaiah thought with distaste. Marvellous.

“You’re not a child anymore, Josaiah,” Mrs Hollanbosch continued. The edge in her tone suggested that she had read his thoughts in his expression. “You must cease acting like one.”

As they passed the sleeper coach, Josaiah peered over the shoulders of the men to get a better look at the mysterious box. It wasn’t just bound in iron, it was enveloped in etched magic seals – seals comprised of sauriman ideograms, he noted.

“Josaiah,” his mother snapped. “Look out there.”

He obeyed. ‘Out there’ was the vista of gradually descending peaks through which they had already brought the rail. The thread of it could be seen in places, wending its way between the mountains. Their present elevation was such that he could glimpse the dark humped backs of the distant foothills.

“It isn’t simple ego that has driven me to build your father’s fortune to the extent that I have,” she said.

Nonsense, thought Josaiah. He suspected that his mother viewed even he as no more than an extension of her own ego.

“Everything I have built will be yours,” Mrs Hollanbosch continued, “including this, the means to transport the wealth of a continent – of the world – from one ocean to the other.”

Yes, and if this railroad doesn’t pay off, there won’t be anything for me to inherit at all. Aloud, he said, “I’ve heard that they’re making another attempt to find the north passage.” His friend Corvin had even talked, if only to impress the girls, of joining the latest expedition to try and map an ice-free route between the maze of islands to the continent’s north.

His mother’s eyes flashed. “The north passage is a fiction. There is no path between the islands because the mainland extends all the way to the permanent ice. The only sea passage between the Occidental and Oriental Oceans is a sixteen-thousand mile round trip south.”

Josaiah didn’t pursue the point. With so much of his mother’s considerable wealth – and his inheritance – invested in the railroad, it was in his interests for the search for a shipping route in the far north to be proven fruitless. He had only raised the matter to try and deflect her from the forthcoming lecture about his responsibilities.

“Your cousin Winsome,” she went on, “is bringing the railroad up to meet us from the other side of these mountains. She has grown up.”

“Dear Winsome,” Josaiah murmured – Cousin Winsome, who like his mother hadn’t let a dearth of cock and cod get in the way of her chosen career.                                           

His mind wandered while his mother talked on. What was in that box, that neither his mother nor Mr Kneebone would even mention for long enough to tell him to keep his nose out?

Secrets, he reflected, knowing better than to sigh while his mother was talking, were such a tedious business.

He brooded over it all afternoon, sulking his way through his nominal responsibility to supervise the afternoon’s rock blasting and clearing.

At dinner, which was taken in the sleeper coach with his mother and Mr Kneebone, he asked again about the box, now resting on a coffee table in the small lounge area outside his mother’s sleeping compartment.

“Look, Mother, what is inside that?” he demanded. “You lectured me today about growing up. Well an important part of growing up is having the opportunity to prove myself trustworthy with secrets.”

His mother continued on with her meal as if he hadn’t spoken. Kneebone gulped down a slice of rare meat – unchewed, in the sauriman fashion – and fixed Josaiah with his flat reptilian stare.

Mrs Hollanbosch put down her fork with a click. “You can prove yourself by accepting that this secret is not yours to know.” She arched her brows, holding his gaze. “We can’t tell you. Answering your question would weaken the spells.”

Josaiah looked from her to Kneebone in amazement. “What a load of superstitious nonsense!” He threw down his knife and fork and pushed back his chair. “Have it your way, then. I shall see for myself.”

He rose with every intention of marching over to the box and doing just that. He got halfway there before Mr Kneebone caught him, grabbing him across the throat and kicking his legs out from under him to unceremoniously dump him on his back. The breath whooshed out of Josaiah’s lungs.

Gasping, he stared up at the sauriman in disbelief. Kneebone had threatened him with an imaginative range of violent acts over the course of Josaiah’s life, but this was the first time he had ever actually done more than cuff him about the head or twist his ear.

“Mother! Did you see what he just did?”

Mrs Hollanbosch regarding him calmly while Kneebone stalked back to the table and resumed his seat. She picked up her napkin and dabbed at the corner of her mouth before speaking.

“It’s locked, anyway, Josaiah,” she said. “Come back and finish your dinner.”

#

He slept fitfully that night and awoke in darkness. The coach was silent. His thoughts went immediately to the iron-bound box, at the opposite end of the coach.

What was in it, and why would his mother and Mr Kneebone not even talk about it? To test him, plainly – to see if he could let the matter rest. He didn’t believe for a moment that his mother actually subscribed to that old sauriman superstition about loose talk compromising the efficacy of magic spells.

He was tempted to pad down to the other end of the coach and take a peek – or, at least, find out if it was indeed locked. But not with his mother and her preternatural senses in the next room. And not after her complicity with Kneebone’s frankly shocking display at dinner.

The thought of getting out of bed in the cold triggered an urge to urinate. The coach’s built-in drop toilet was in the ensuite off his mother’s compartment. There was a chamber pot under the bed – which he would have to empty himself, ugh! – but he recognised well enough the jiggly feeling that would need to be worked out before he could get back to sleep. At home, he would have tickled whatever girl was sharing his bed that night into sufficient wakefulness to service him with sex. Here – unless, again, he wanted to clean up after himself – he would have to walk it out.

With a sigh, he swung his feet over the edge of the bed and rummaged around in the dark for yesterday’s socks and his boots. He grabbed his coat from the peg and shrugged into it on his way out.

The cold night air bit straight through the legs of his thermals and snuck up under the hem of his coat. Josaiah shivered and headed for the latrines. His unlaced boots crunched on gravel. Beetle cages stood a short distance from the track, the buggers piled on top of each other inside. Every so often there was a faint rustling as one of them shifted position, causing a cascade of adjustment.

The engineers’ carriage was dark, as were the windows of his mother’s sleeping compartment. Red light showed around the shutters and doors of the carriage Mr Kneebone shared with the other saurimen. What his mother saved in food by employing lizards, Josaiah reckoned, was more than made up for by the extra coal they burned to keep their braziers going all night. Not to mention that they were next to useless if the weather turned both cold and cloudy.

A bugger stood in his path. In the moonlight it was difficult to distinguish its colour, other than that it was pale. Josaiah was surprised to see it outside of the cages. Then he saw that it had no harness.

“You again,” he grunted. “Kneebone shooting at you wasn’t enough to keep you away, then?”

There was a ripple in the air, as of something translucent being shaken out, and suddenly a girl stood in front of him. She was as tall as he was and clad in a dress of some shimmery, reflective fabric that clung to the curves of her hips and legs in a manner that made Josaiah’s jaw drop open. Her long, pale hair glittered, dancing snakelike around her head and shoulders although there was no breeze to speak of. There was a hint of gauzy wings in the air behind her shoulders.

Not a girl, Josaiah corrected himself in amazement. A fairy.

He gazed into her dark-in-dark eyes. Her face was the most perfectly beautiful visage he had ever seen. He blinked. He could see through her, as if she was made of smoke.

Was she a fairy or a ghost?

She spoke, then, her voice a whisper that seemed to come to him only partly through his ears.

Help us. Free the queen.

And then she was gone. Only the bugger remained.

Josaiah stared at it.

The bugger lifted the two halves of its carapace and spread its wings. It buzzed up off the ground and hovered in front of Josaiah’s face, dark eyes only inches from his. Then it rose higher, and launched itself into the night.

“No, wait!” he belatedly thought to call. “Come back…”

An instant later, red light spilled across the ground where Josaiah stood. He blinked up at Mr Kneebone, standing in the doorway of the sauriman coach. Speaking of preternatural awareness of Josaiah’s comings and goings.

Luusthas, what are you doing out?” The lizard man’s voice slurred, the cold making him sound like he was drunk.

“Going to take a leak.”

Kneebone peered into the dark but didn’t step down from the coach. “Who were you talking to?”

Josaiah spread his hands. “Who do you see?”

Mr Kneebone glared at him suspiciously. “Get back to bed.”

The door slammed shut and Josaiah was left once again in moonlit dark.

Slowly, with a sick feeling in his stomach, he turned to look at the bugger cages.

“Oh, Mother, you’ve outdone yourself this time.”

#

The fairy girl haunted what remained of Josaiah’s sleep. He dreamed that she came to him in his bed. When he reached out to touch her translucent skin, he felt not the pliant warmth of human flesh but the unyielding smoothness of beetle chitin. When she touched him in return, he felt the crawl of clawed beetle toes. He awoke in a sweat, half expecting to find his bed full of bugs.

Her face stayed with him when he closed his eyes again. Help us. Free the queen, she had said.

Said, and then turned back into a silver bugger. Was there a fairy’s spirit trapped inside every beetle forced to labour on his mother’s railroad? Josaiah felt queasy, thinking of all the dead and dying the overseers had tossed aside for the crows.

He stayed in bed in the morning, pleading a headache and the possible beginnings of a cold – a result, he told his mother, of his over-exertions the day before. As expected, this final embellishment infuriated her enough that she just slammed the door, rather than berating him.

When he heard Mr Kneebone’s voice in the lounge compartment next door, he slunk out from under the covers and pressed his ear against the thin dividing wall.

“I told you, we should not have brought her here,” Kneebone was saying.

“You saw how they were working,” replied Mrs Hollanbosch. “It was necessary.”

Luusthas was out of his bed last night, and there are mountain folk about. Unharnessed. There was one nearby when I found him yesterday. Might have been a young queen.”

“Did you kill it?”

“Flew away.”

A pause. A young queen? Josaiah thought.

“I do wish you wouldn’t call him that.” Josaiah was annoyed to hear that his mother sounded more amused than outraged by Kneebone’s use of his insulting nickname. “It doesn’t earn him respect with the men.”

He doesn’t earn respect with the men,” Kneebone retorted.

There was another pause, then his mother murmured, “He’ll grow up,” quietly enough that Josaiah barely caught the words through the wall.

Grow up? Josaiah thought. I’ll show you grown up, mother. Where are all the fair folk, eh, mother? Well, I know. And I know what you’ve done.

#

Knowing what his mother had done was one thing. Knowing what to do about it was quite another.

Josaiah thought hard while he stalked around the railhead, the former an unaccustomed exertion for him and his presence on site an unaccustomed surprise to the human and sauriman work crews. Were the beetles watching him too? Certainly, wherever he went there seemed to be at least one pair of beady black eyes fixed on him. Was that normal? He couldn’t decide.

So, he thought, his mother had enslaved the fair folk of the mountains to help build her railroad and, somehow, turned them into beetles. It had to be the fairy queen in the warded box outside his mother’s sleeping compartment – presumably also trapped in beetle form, given the size of the container. Josaiah had never heard of such a curse – some black sauriman art from the islands, it had to be.

Many people back in Delphi had said to his mother that the fair folk wouldn’t tolerate the building of a railroad through their territory. Most of those people, it was true, had never ventured further West than Bridge City, but this, evidently, was his mother’s response. It was, he had to admit, elegant to the point of genius.

Would releasing the queen from the box lift the curse? The silver fairy certainly seemed to think so, and Josaiah knew enough about magic to know that it hinged on such simple principles.

But should he release the fairy queen? If he released the fairies, would they immediately wreak their vengeance on his mother and all her workmen? He didn’t particularly care for any of the men – human or sauriman – but he didn’t want to be responsible for their deaths, either. And if he released them, surely the fair folk would indeed block the completion of the railroad. Given how much of her own wealth his mother had sunk into the project, that would be the end of Josaiah’s own inheritance. He had no desire to be poor or – horrors! – to have to work for a living.

The silver fairy’s beautiful face swam in front of his eyes – that and the perfect curves of her breasts, hips and thighs, so clearly visible under her sheer dress. An awkward pressure built inside the front of his pants as he walked. Certainly, she would be grateful to be released from the curse. Perhaps she might even offer him a hero’s prize. He adjusted his crotch. Now that would be a story to take back to his friends in Delphi.

But even if he did decide to release the fair folk, there was the matter of the lock on the queen’s box prison, the key to which he frankly had no idea who, of his mother and Mr Kneebone, had in their possession.

And Kneebone seemed to be following him everywhere.

When the lunch bell rang, Josaiah joined the general exodus from the railhead down to the camp. He infiltrated himself amongst a party of tall Hillevionese engineers and then, as they passed by the idling locomotives, ducked into the gap between the two engines and out onto the other side of the track. Walking quickly, while trying not to look like he was in a hurry, he set out along the supply train, glancing casually about now and then to check that Kneebone hadn’t followed him.

The sauriman would expect him to head up into the surrounding peaks, as he had on his previous excursions. Instead, with a last look to confirm that he wasn’t watched, Josaiah stepped off the embankment outside the end of the cutting, and down among the pine and spruce trees of the forested valley below. He bounded down the slope, skidding now and then on the loose, dry soil and needle litter. When he was out of sight of the train, he stopped.

Panting for breath, he looked around. Would she find him down here? He could only hope. He found a fallen trunk to sit on and perched nervously, more than half expecting Kneebone, rather than the silver fairy, to turn up and take him back to camp.

It wasn’t long that he had to wait, and she came to him in her fairy form, rather than as the silver beetle. His heart tripped. She seemed less ghostly in daylight, more solid, although still drained of colour.

She stopped a short distance away. Will you help us?

“I don’t know how,” he blurted, and kicked himself mentally.

Release the queen, she said. She moved closer and, seated as he was, he found himself at eye level with her breasts as they gently rose and fell. With her clinging dress, he barely had to exert his imagination to envision her unclothed. The compression of his stiffening cock was compounded this time by his seated pose.

“It is not so simple…” he began.

You will be rewarded.

His mouth was suddenly too dry to speak. He tried to work some moisture around his teeth with his tongue. “What’s your name?” he croaked.

My name? she seemed confused by the question.

“I’m Josaiah.”

She lifted her head, sharply, and looked up the slope towards the train, then returned her black-in-black gaze to Josaiah. I will reward you. She reached out a slim arm and brushed his lips with her fingertips.

Then she vanished. Her disappearance was so abrupt that Josaiah almost fell off his log in surprise. The silver beetle launched itself into the air and buzzed off between the tree trunks.

Josaiah stared after it in stupid amazement. His lips burned from the touch of her fingers. Her touch had felt like electricity – like the sting of those static devices they showed at carnivals for a penny a try, that made all the girls squeal. His erection was excruciating.

He heard footsteps coming down the slope. It was Mr Kneebone, a long rifle cradled in his arms. The sauriman stopped by Josaiah’s log and regarded him for a moment, his tail whipping back and forth behind his legs. With a dissatisfied growl, deep in his throat, Kneebone lowered himself to sit beside him.

“Well?” said Josaiah, truculently, when Mr Kneebone didn’t immediately speak.

“She shows you what you wish to see, luusthas,” he said. “It is an illusion.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Josaiah.

The sauriman shrugged, a human gesture. “What you see is different to what I see.”

“Oh? And what do you see? Just an ordinary bugger, I suppose,” said Josaiah. “Don’t lie to me, Kneebone, I know what you and Mother have…”

Kneebone bared his teeth in a growl, silencing him. The sauriman composed himself, flicking an imaginary speck of dirt from the barrel of his rifle with a thumb. “What I see,” he began, in a faraway voice. “Ah, luusthas, her neck frills, they are red like blood, full of the heat in her. Her tail is long, the longest I have seen, and its tip quivers, just so.”

He gave a little shiver, then grinned broadly at Josaiah – another imitated human gesture, but this time done deliberately for its horrible effect.

“I don’t believe you,” said Josaiah. “That can’t be true.” But his eyes were hot and his stomach tight with doubt.

#

He followed Kneebone back up to the camp and returned to supervising the work at the rock face. Could it be true? he wondered, watching the bright metallic beetles heaving and hauling at the rubble. Were the fair folk really nothing more than these buggers, playing tricks?

But she had touched him. The thought of it still tingled his lips. How could that be, if she was just an illusion? And how could she show him one illusion and Kneebone another, both at the same time?

No, he thought. It can’t be. Kneebone was lying, trying to deflect him.

A sauriman snarl caused him to turn. One of the overseers was carrying an exhausted beetle away from the rock wall by its hind legs.

“Hey!” Josaiah strode over to the surprised sauriman. He grabbed the beetle and slapped the sauriman’s hands away. “Leave it.”

The sauriman’s nostrils flared angrily, but he backed away.

Conscious of the eyes suddenly fixed on him – human, sauriman and beetle – Josaiah carried the worn out bugger to the side of the railhead. Its legs collapsed loosely underneath it as he set it down. This one’s carapace was a fiery red. Josaiah ran his hand over the smooth chitin.

He looked around. His mother and Kneebone were back towards the trains, watching. On an angry impulse, Josaiah pulled out his belt knife and with several sharp strokes, sawed through the harness binding the beetle’s wings.

The bugger didn’t move. Its antennae remained still. It was dead.

Josaiah’s eyes filled with tears. Another dead fairy. Damn you, Mother.

He wiped his face. This couldn’t go on.

#

He was shocked when, after dinner, his mother put down her napkin and said, “You’ll be confined to your quarters from now on. When the supply train goes back for fresh materials, you will return to Delphi.”

Protests queued up on Josaiah’s tongue. All useless, they remained unspoken. With as much dignity as he could muster, levelly meeting both his mother’s and Mr Kneebone’s eyes, he rose from the table.

“If you don’t mind,” he said. “I’ll use the latrine before I retire.”

She examined him closely before replying, searching his face for some hint of deviousness. He gave her none. “Very well,” she said. “Mr Kneebone will accompany you.”

Without waiting for the sauriman to follow, Josaiah turned and stalked to the door. Outside, the temperature was already dropping.

He walked passed the beetle cages, with the buggers piled inside, out into the deeper dark by the latrine pits. He roved his gaze over the steep sides of the cutting, searching for the lip above. Would she be there? Was she watching? If she was, would she know that he was now a prisoner?

Mr Kneebone’s footsteps crunched behind him. By the time they reached the latrines, the sauriman’s feet were dragging slightly with each step. Slowing down, Josaiah thought. In the cold, he could probably overpower Kneebone.

Did he dare?

And to what end? To escape? He was hardly dressed or equipped to survive alone in the mountains. To free the bugger-beetle-fairy queen? Even if he ran back to the coach his mother was there and she had a gun.

Would she shoot her own son? Absolutely. Probably only in the leg, but she wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in him to stop him. And even if she didn’t, the box was still locked and he didn’t have a key.

What if he took Kneebone’s gun? Did the old lizard have the key?

He glanced over his shoulder. Mr Kneebone was a couple of yards behind him, turned half away to look back at the train. There was activity around the sleeper coach. Josaiah swore under his breath. A quartet of saurimen were unloading the box. His mother was silhouetted in the doorway.

Mr Kneebone turned back to him. “You going to piss, or not?” His words slurred.

Biting back a terse retort, Josaiah turned back to the task at hand. Sour-smelling steam rose in front of him. He hoped the silver fairy wasn’t watching now.

Where were they moving the queen to? The sauriman dormitory coach, he thought. It had to be.

What was he going to do now?

#

He barely slept and was already up and pacing his sleeping compartment when Mr Kneebone arrived with a breakfast tray. Kneebone looked him over, but didn’t comment. Josaiah pointedly ignored the tray until the sauriman had left, locking the door from the outside. Only then did he sit down on the bed and tuck into his meal.

At least they were still feeding him.

A rough sawing sound caught his attention. It sounded like it was coming from underneath him. He listened. It was coming from underneath him – from under the bed.

Josaiah set the tray aside and knelt to peer beneath the bed. The carpet was moving, something pushing it up from below. Quickly he pulled the bed aside, then rolled back the carpet.

There was a ragged hole in the floorboards. The silver beetle clung to the underside of the coach, peering up at him as it delicately brushed wood splinters from its mandibles with the tips of its antennae. Josaiah sat back and it climbed through the hole.

Almost immediately, the silver fairy stood before him.

Josaiah held up a hand. They show us what we want to see, Kneebone had said. “Show me yourself as you really are. Don’t try to fool me, if that is what you are doing.”

She stared at him for a moment. Then she vanished again and the beetle stood before him once more. Josaiah had to look away, his heart aching with a sudden painful intensity. He re-gathered his composure. “Your queen has been moved to the sauriman coach.”

Yes. It is guarded outside, but not within.

Josaiah looked at the beetle unhappily. It was a different shape to the others, as well as larger, he noticed abstractly. Its back seemed flatter and its head more bulbous. “How do you know?”

I watched, listened. You must help. Open the box.

“Must I?” Josaiah folded his arms. “And how am I supposed to get there in daylight without being seen?”

Under.

The hole the bugger had come in through was big enough for him to pass. “But then what? Even under the train, I’ll been seen easily.”

Guards will see only what they wish.

The words were close enough to Kneebone’s to leave Josaiah feeling like he’d been kicked in the gut. He gave a bitter laugh.

“Here,” he said to the beetle, “have some salt to rub into my wound.” The bugger just stared at him, antennae waving slightly. “Why should I help you?”

We die.

Josaiah swallowed. He waved a hand at the hole in the floor. “Lead on, then, if you will.”

#

The silver bugger was true to its – her? – word, although when it said “under” the train, Josaiah hadn’t realised it meant that they would go along clinging to the undersides of the coaches. His arms burned from holding himself up, the blood pounded at his temples.

It made perfect sense, of course. They were far less conspicuous that if they had been on the ground, and therefore it must have been far easier for the beetle to works its mental deceit. Knowing it hardly made the journey more comfortable, though. Josaiah’s fingers were cramping long before they reached the sauriman coach at the other end of the train.

The scaled legs and tails of a pair of sauriman guards flanked the space where the sliding door was on the side of the coach. Josaiah dropped down with a gasp between the coach’s rear set of wheels, where he would be sheltered from view, even without the bugger’s illusion. The pain in his fingers was excruciating when his flexed them. His legs had fared well enough, but the muscles of his arms and torso felt like they were on fire.

“Now what?” he said. “If you try making a hole in the floor, the guards will hear.”

There is already a hole.

Josaiah looked around. “I don’t see a…” But he did. The dormitory coaches had squat toilets that were left as open drop holes when the train was moving. In the work camp, they had buckets underneath for night soil. It would be tight, but Josaiah would probably fit through one of the squat holes. The night soil bucket for the saurimen hung close by, under the end of the coach. Josaiah shuddered.

The silver beetle watched him in silence. He sighed. “Well, I guess I’m committed now, aren’t I?”

Holding his breath and averting his eyes, he took down the bucket and set it aside. He peered up through the hole, half expecting to see the open cloaca of a squatting lizard, about to crap on his face.

The coast looked clear. The bugger crawled up through the hole ahead of him. Gingerly, Josaiah gripped the edges of the hole. Fortunately, saurimen were more fastidious defecators than their human counterparts. He got his head and one arm through, then squeezed the other arm and shoulder up. He almost wedged as he tried to get leverage to pull himself the rest of the way through. Then he was up and crouched inside the coach.

It was stiflingly warm. A rough curtain separated the squat hole from the rest of the coach. Cautiously, Josaiah pulled it aside far enough to peer around. A scaled hand grabbed him by the hair and wrenched him forward.

Josaiah sprawled heavily on his front. Tears sprung to his eyes and his hands came away bloody from his stinging scalp. A foot caught him hard in the ribs and knocked him over onto his back. Mr Kneebone stood over him, ragged bits of Josaiah’s hair sticking out between the digits of his clenched fist. In his other hand he had a pistol.

“Should have chained you up, luusthas,” he said. “I said so to your mother. Said it would keep you out of trouble. Keep you safe. Said you would not leave well enough alone, otherwise.”

Josaiah backed up on his elbows and heels, dragging his backside over the boards. Mr Kneebone stalked after. The curtain flapped behind him. The sauriman whirled.

For an instant, Josaiah glimpsed the silver beetle, then something seemed to boil out of the stove-lit gloom of the coach. He had an impression of darkness and lightning.

Mr Kneebone evidently saw it much more clearly. He staggered back with a wide-mouthed hiss of terror and tripped over Josaiah’s legs. He fell. The pistol bounced between them, Josaiah grabbed for it, missed. Heart in mouth, he scrabbled after it.

Mr Kneebone was swearing and spitting, realising he had been tricked. Josaiah’s hand closed on the barrel of the gun. Kneebone was rising, going for his belt knife. Josaiah pushed himself up and swung the pistol. The butt connected between Mr Kneebone’s eye and ear. The sauriman’s limbs jerked spastically.

He caught himself on one hand, raising the other in defense. Josaiah knocked it aside and hit him again, this time on the base of the skull.

Kneebone collapsed bonelessly, like a puppet with its string cut.

Josaiah sat back, chest heaving. Mr Kneebone didn’t move, except for his tail, which twitched a rapid tattoo on the boards.

“Is he dead?”

Release the queen, said the bugger. Free us.

Josaiah looked around. The warded box stood on the floor at the end of the coach, past the folded sleeping nets of the saurimen. His eyes fell on the brass locking plate on the front of the lid.

Free us!

The words had a compulsion to them that jolted Josaiah into motion. He had to fight to hold himself still long enough to think. “Stop it!” he said. “Stop!”

The pressure in his mind eased.

Gingerly, he reached over to the pouch hanging from the side of Mr Kneebone’s gunbelt, loosed the ties and felt inside. He gave a little, hiccupping laugh of relief, holding up the key, etched with ideograms, for the bugger to see.

It watched expectantly as he rose and walked over to the box. He knelt and slotted the key into the lock, then paused, struck by a moment of doubt. As far as he had come, was he doing the right thing? Releasing the buggers would ruin his mother – and him.

Something struck his mind, pummelling the last of his resistance. His arm jerked, his hand turned the key. The box lid swung up.

Inside was a beetle. Its carapace was as metallically polished as any, but blue-black in colour. It was at least as large as the silver beetle, filling the box, and the difference in its proportions from a normal bugger was even more marked. Its bulging head was fully a third the length of its body.

Darkness exploded out of the box. As he sailed backwards through the air, an odd, clear little part of Josaiah’s mind reflected that if the buggers’ alternate forms were indeed illusions, they were damned solid ones.

Daylight smacked into his eyes as the roof and walls of the coach exploded up and out. He hit, bounced, gasping and winded and with barely enough wit to curl into a protective ball as bits of coach roof rained back down.

The hail of debris stopped. Cautiously, Josaiah raised his head.

The mountain queen towered above him, twenty feet tall with blue-black skin. It was impossible to tell where her black robes and black mane of hair started and finished as they both billowed and whipped around her.

A sauriman’s rifle cracked. Where the bullet went, Josaiah didn’t see, but the queen raised an arm. The guard was lifted into the air. He cried out, struggling in the invisible grip, then vanished in a pop of greasy smoke. All around, the enslaved buggers were bursting the harnesses that bound them and rising, fearsome figures of bright metal. Human labourers and engineers sprinted away past the parked trains. The queen swept an arm after them. Her long fingers made grabbing motions. In quick succession, a dozen men at the back of the fleeing crowd were picked up and reduced to greasy wisps.

The silver fairy stood at the queen’s side, dwarfed by her but far taller, now, than Josaiah. She was all silver, except for her eyes, and no more resembled a human girl than a sauriman did.

“Stop her!” Josaiah cried. “Let them go!”

The silver fairy looked down at him. Why?

You! the queen thundered.

Josaiah’s mother stood at the centre of a huddle of her saurimen, shoulder to shoulder with their weapons pointed outward. A pathetic last stand.

The queen raised her hand again, flicked her fingers. The saurimen were flung to the ground. Forefinger and thumb pinched together. Josaiah’s mother was lifted from the pile. The queen shifted her grip and Mrs Hollanbosch let out a snarl of pain.

“No!” Josaiah cried. He leapt up, the world spun around him and he fell off the side of the coach. Desperation got his feet back under him. He staggered sideways, arms raised, trying to put himself between the queen and his mother.

The terrible figure paused, peering down at him.

“Please.”

The only sounds were the receding shouts of the fleeing human workers.

Josaiah turned his attention to the silver fairy. “Please. Don’t make this my reward.”

For a breathless moment, the queen didn’t move. Then she tipped her head towards the silver fairy. Her gaze didn’t leave Josaiah, and neither did the silver fairy’s, but he was sure some communication passed between them.

The queen straightened. So be it. She opened her fingers. Josaiah spun to see his mother fall. He lunged, thinking somehow to catch her, got a flailing forearm across the mouth for his trouble and ended up sprawled in the dirt beside her. He scrambled up, reaching out to try and help her to her feet. She slapped him away.

Leave our mountains, said the queen, and you will be spared.

Josaiah’s mother raised her voice. “What of our people on the other side of the ranges? How will they know?”

They will be told. The queen swept a hand towards the west. One comes.

Josaiah had barely more than a heartbeat to wonder what she meant. With dizzying suddenness, the queen vanished. The black beetle rose into the air. The drum of wings was deafening as all of the other beetles followed at once. The sunlight caught their many coloured metallic shells.

Josaiah fell to his knees. He looked for his silver fairy, wondering if perhaps she might linger, just for a moment to say goodbye. He was unsurprised to find the place where she had stood empty. He thought perhaps he could pick her out, flying near the queen.

Ah, well, he told himself, you wanted to see fairies.

Something struck him hard between the shoulder blades, knocking him onto his face in the dirt. He rolled, hurting and bewildered, and saw his mother, holding one of the guards’ rifles, the butt towards him.

He watched the gun as she swung it around, the muzzle wavering in his direction. Her jaw worked and he thought she might be too angry to even speak. Then she choked out, “You are not my son.”

She swayed for a moment, as if she was going to fall. The gun slipped from her fingers. Then she turned away. There was a catch in her first step but she didn’t stumble. Her stride steadied as she marched away.

Josaiah heard her barking orders to the surviving saurimen. A quartet hurried over to the exploded dormitory coach. He watched them clear the rubble off Mr Kneebone and, after a brief check, fashion a makeshift stretcher from a couple of broken posts and a sleeping net. Josaiah lay his head back down on the ground, squeezing his eyelids shut on sudden tears.

His mother raised her voice again, calling the workers back to the train. A short while later, he heard the chug of the locomotives building steam, followed by the squeal of brakes unlocking and steel wheels beginning to turn. He pushed himself up to his knees and watched the trains pull away.

There was a moment when he might have run and leapt aboard the wrecked sauriman coach, but he couldn’t find the strength in his legs. She really meant it, he thought, numbly. He was no longer her son and she was abandoning him without a backward glance.

In short order, Josaiah was left alone. The buggers were gone from view. A few crows hopped about the worksite. The mountains looked down from all around.

A laugh bubbled up from his chest. It passed as quickly as it came.

“Just one fairy,” he said, “would have been enough.”

He sat a while longer, then slowly, painfully, picked himself up and staggered down to the work camp. He found an abandoned rucksack and took it into the kitchen tent to begin filling it with food. He was just buckling the straps, trying think of what else he would need – blankets, coat, was there anything else? – when he heard the crunch of gravel outside.

Hooves.

He burst out of the tent, startling the horse so that it almost bucked its rider. The rider pulled its head around, wheeling it until it settled. Josaiah stared.

The rider was just as surprised once she calmed her mount enough to look at him properly. “Josaiah?”

“Winsome?”

His cousin was dusty and filthy, her shirt stained yellow with sweat inside her open coat. Her eyes were shrouded with the dark bags of someone who had gone without sleep. Dried foam caked the corners of her horse’s mouth. Its legs trembled as it stood.

Winsome raised an arm to encompass the abandoned camp. “Where is everyone? Did you get the news already? Why are you still here?”

“News?” he asked, baffled.

“They found the north passage.”

The north… He thought his legs might give out. All for naught. He could have just left it all alone, could have not been left behind.

“Josaiah? What happened here?”

He ran a hand over his face, uncertain whether to laugh or cry. “I let the fairies go.”

Her jaw dropped slowly open. “Oh, Josaiah, you…”

Luusthas,” he finished.

“You luusthas,” she agreed. The corners of her mouth twitched as she shook her head. “Oh, Josaiah.”

“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Mother’s on the train, so you won’t catch her. Your horse looks like it’s ready to drop, and so do you, if you don’t mind my saying. I can offer you food and shelter, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a ride in the morning.”

She considered him from under the wide brim of her hat, lips pursed. For a moment he thought she would decline. Then she nodded. “I expect you’ll need me to cook, too, won’t you?”

He tried to look abashed, but his relief wouldn’t let him.

She dismounted and tossed him her animal’s reins. “You can at least look after the horse.”

He hesitated. She watched him expectantly. “People died, Winsome.”

She nodded. “Go see to the horse, luusthas,” she said. “Then you can tell me about it.”

<END>

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