First Contact: The Iron Horse
By James Curtis Snyder
Lily Sloane gripped the aft railing and clenched her jaw tightly, refusing to vomit. She welcomed the refreshing downpour overhead but cursed the boiling Atlantic Ocean below her feet. Her fingers were of steel; her stomach of jelly as the tiny Erlkonig chopped on westward through the gray day.
"Doctor Sloane!" called a heavy Russian voice from behind. It belonged to the man-mountain Verda, her junior physicist from the two-classroom Sloane Institute of San Francisco. He’d insisted on escorting the warp physics pioneer on her perilous outing.
Their overseas rendezvous with the representatives of NASA, the Planetary Society, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, (SETI) the British National Space Center, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and a host of others was truly exhilarating.
Lily had spearheaded the collective years ago, following the events of First Contact with Vulcan some fifteen years prior. Her friends from around the world were eager to industrialize a generation of registered starships, and improve the warp drive technology Dr. Sloane had helped to create. These would be the goals to shoot for while they taught fresh new minds at the proposed United Earth Starfleet Academy.
The twenty-four members of the new United Nations of Terra, along with the Global Transport Affiliate and the Terran Credit Monitor, had deliberated for six weeks on the proposal to fully fund the Academy. This would require substantial resources; personnel, industrial concerns and commodity lines that were already stretched thin while keeping the fledgling global democracy moving forward.
The good news came first. The citizens within the UNT offered many volunteers and ample donations for the effort, ready to relocate to San Francisco. The GTA had endorsed the Academy’s potential for deep space exploration, and pledged to relocate key persons and material for the project.
But the final decision of the Credit Monitor was not so flattering. These were still desperate times. There were many post-atomic horrors to banish from the Earth before humanity could reach for the stars on such a grand scale. No credit was available for the new blood Lily needed to build the Academy. She pondered the project would now take decades to complete and would break the backs of its founders.
Lily was grateful for the people’s support but was truly upset by the lack of funding. Her enthusiastic cadre had been quieted by the news, and they parted with solemn but friendly words as they made their separate ways home, unsure of what would come next.
Verda respectfully approached Lily and offered her a steaming two-pint steel mug with a plate lid.
"Earl Grey tea, Miss Lily. Hot." She remained frozen to the rail; he set the mug on the deck and quickly reached in his coat for a small flask. "And vodka, if you wish. I find it helps." The Erlkonig rose and fell, rose again and fell again, endlessly.
Lily nodded slightly and whispered over the ocean. "Thank you Verda. Leave me alone, now. Please." She was just fine with the storm; she didn't want tea or booze or
anything in the world but to make the churning stop. She knew she was going to puke, oh God there was no way around it....
Verda nodded his head and stepped back.
"Make it so, Doctor. There is no shame."
Lily felt like a great burden had been lifted, and for a few seconds she nearly disappeared as her torso leaned over the ocean. She coughed deeply and spat in the seawater, feeling a little better. She slumped to the deck and leaned her forehead on the rail. Seawater rushed over the deck in sheets, soaking her further.
She turned her head slightly to finally acknowledge her student.
“I’ll have that tea now, thanks.” She closed her bleary eyes and focused on breathing steadily. He held the large cup steady as she sipped.
She nodded lightly. “Help me inside, please.” Verda lifted her as he would a sleeping cat, easing her to her feet. He brought the teacup along and deftly moved her inside.
It was dark and dank below deck, but Lily’s stomach was more receptive to the atmosphere now. Verda hoisted Lily to a fireman’s carry and moved carefully through the dim light.
“Here we are,” he whispered. He unlatched the door and gently set Lily down on her own two feet. She shuffled a few steps into her tiny quarters and crashed on the lower
bunk, soaking wet and already fast asleep. Verda swept a rough but clean blanket from the top bunk and covered the exhausted scientist. He turned the lock and stepped out.
Lily was in much better shape eight days later, when the Erlkonig arrived in the colorful port city of Corpus Christi, Texas. Teeming with an international jumble of travelers, merchants, mercenaries, pirates, mutants, thieves and so many others, Corpus Christi had survived the War and returned to its roots as a renowned trading post. The afternoon sun was bright and hot after a brief rain-shower, baking the populace and steaming the roads comprised of broken asphalt, mud, and manure.
Lily and Verda left the docks and its transients behind, and moved on toward the Market along the Bayfront Science Park. Today was a Sunday, and the Shoreline Boulevard was bustling with global travelers and Texans from miles around.
The gulls and birds sang while distant church bells rang for afternoon service. Street performers lightened the air with instrumentals; balladeers told stories as spectators flipped quarter-ounce coins into upturned hats. Children darted through the muddy streets, chasing a day’s adventure. Horse-drawn carriages loaded with goods navigated carefully down the broken venues that were long bereft of traffic signs and signals.
Canvas awnings provided welcome shade, colorful banners gave a cheerful lining to the wonderful emanations of roasting meat, fresh fruit, ice, and ale, all of which were too enticing to pass up. The travelers enthusiastically agreed to upgrade their provisions.
Texas was considered to be the hub of the new American Frontier. The Fifteen Optimal States of the East and the Ten United States of the West had both claimed the Lone Star territory. However, the nuclear devastation of Dallas / Fort Worth twenty-five years earlier in 2053 had poisoned the state’s central mass and made controlling the area difficult. Texas had become the de facto Neutral Zone in the Cold War between the States.
Verda pointed to a long line near a merchant of dried meats and cheeses.
“I think I will get in line now, the merchant may close soon.”
“Good idea,” Lily replied, as she studied a fresh fruit stand across the street. The vendors were making ice; pouring water into a tub to be micro-filtered clean, misting through a solar cell freezer into a large transparent aluminum serving case, ready to be scooped and blended with bananas, citrus, cream, or syrup. Imported, expensive stuff, but honest-to-goodness iced cream was rare and made her mouth water.
“Verda, I think we deserve something good, and it’s on me. It’s a short line over there,” Lily patted his shoulder. “Wait here.” She skipped off, weaving through the crowd.
Neither Lily nor Verda noticed the sharp eyes tracking them, following and detailing their every movement from the moment they disembarked from the Erlkonig. The watcher was Gifted, born of mutation from ancestors rooted in the Wastelands.
Despite this man’s impish and pitiful appearance, his gift of observation and memory found him very lucrative employment as a spy. Over time he had mastered the art of invisibility through prose and act. He was remarkably confident among pure-strain humans, a rare trait for a mutant.
The docks were an excellent place to spot fugitives coming or going from Corpus Christi; his sharp eyes were analyzing the dozen faces walking the gangway of the Erlkonig. He crept along the dock from a safe distance, beyond the range of clear human sight, never losing her profile. He followed the lines on the woman’s face, observed her walk and her body language. Everything matched the snapshot in his perfect memory. Then, he saw her large companion address her, mouthing the name, “Doctor Sloane.”
He had the positive ID. He scampered off.
UNT Credit wasn’t good here, so Lily paid four of her twenty gold dollars for two iced drinks served in oversized grapefruit rinds, and smiled at the vendor.
The vendor didn’t return her smile; instead he was alerted, looking over her shoulder. Lily felt a shadow fall on her back; she spun around to see two very large men towering over her. They were fast and made a grab for Lily, but she was faster and ducked the two giants. She stumbled and dropped one of the drinks, and in a heartbeat of anger flung the other squarely in one of their faces. The other brute got hold of Lily’s wrist and arrested her flight.
Her captor had the grip of a steel trap, she shrieked with rage as she struggled.
“Come on then! Bring it!” Lily thrashed with all her might; connecting a solid kick to the groin, dropping him just as the fruit-covered brute secured her in a bear hug from behind.
Lily heard a great roar, then she was free; her captor now rolling in the mud with Verda, grappling and gouging. The crowd in the street had cleared a wide spot for the spectacle and began heckling and cheering the bout. Professional gamblers began to bark odds on the fight. This kind of thing happened often here, no one would interfere unless property damage resulted.
The first brute was curled up nursing his family jewels, so Lily whipped around to see if she could help Verda, who didn’t need it. He was an exceptional fighter in his day, trading blows with the man and getting in some good hooks. Lily cheered him.
“Yeah! Get’em, Verda! Kick his ass!”
Lily had just cracked a smile of victory over the unknown assailants when the world suddenly flashed white with a great shock of pain. The mud rose up to meet her face as she splashed down in a convulsion. Her mud-splattered opponent had recovered, standing over her with a buzzing shock baton in his hand and a satanic smile on his lips. The baton found Lily a second time and she screamed, splitting the air.
Verda was growing winded but had the advantage over his rival. With another great roar he head-butted the fellow on the bridge of his nose, shattering the bone. The brute howled and fell with muddy hands clapped to his face, spouting blood and tears between his knotted fingers.
Verda turned, breathing hard, to the face the man between himself and Lily. The fresher brute had recovered from Lily’s assault completely, wielding the baton lightly in one hand and began taking long swipes at Verda. Lily remained inert in the mud.
Verda ducked a hard swipe of the baton and made a grab for it. The men began to struggle over the weapon. And then, the broken-nosed brute stumbled up behind Verda and struck him in the base of the skull, hard and with great savor. Verda sprawled from his grapple and fell to the earth, gasping and seeing stars. He rolled in the mud as the baton came down thrice in a final rain of blows.
“YAHH!” The Broken Nose goal-kicked Verda in the ribs with his heavy boot and laughed, spurting fresh blood. It was over now; the crowd began to break up. The air buzzed with amusement and pity, gold coins clinked as bets were laid off.
The Baton Wielder had turned to Lily and was gathering her up.
“Whad abouth dith one?” Broken-Nose grunted, gesturing to Verda.
The other lifted Lily on his shoulder and made for their horse-drawn cart nearby.
“He’s not worth anything. Let’s go.”
A half-hour later, Verda sat alone, contemplating what to do next. He pressed handfuls of ice to his eye and held it, thinking.
“You poor man. They took your friend, I saw the whole thing.”
Verda lowered his handful of ice and looked up at the impish mutant. “Da? And what concern of yours, wretch? Leave me alone.”
“Please, sir. I only want to help you. I have information about your friend. Who the men are, and maybe where they are going. All yours for a price, stranger.”
“Piss off, creature!” He flung ice at him. The mutant only flinched.
“It’s ten gold dollars, if you have it. A good price. Want a free taste? They’ve already left town, stranger. Decide now, weary traveler...last chance...”
Verda locked eyes, judging whether to trust him. Honest or not, the mutant was confident. He reached in his coat and withdrew a fist of gold coins. He opened his palm but kept the treasure nigh.
“Ah, very good. The abductors who took the woman are bounty hunters, you see, employed by the Caretaker of Amistad City, along the Great Wall of Texas.”
“But why did they take her?”
The mutant smiled, bearing a mouthful of misshapen teeth.
“Don’t you know? She is wanted for treason! Her name and face are widely posted in the Badlands and are known to any bounty hunter that hails from the Optimal States. She was easily recognized I’m afraid.”
“Why Amistad City?”
“Amistad is an Optimal stronghold, built all around and inside the Great Wall itself, near the hydroelectric dam. The two bounty hunters are residents of the City, on their way now with your friend. They are traveling in a diesel transport and will arrive at Amistad by nightfall. The Caretaker is powerful, his words are the law. Colonel Green has given him absolute power, there is no question he will find her guilty of her crimes.”
Verda narrowed his eyes. “How do you know so much?”
“I have keen eyes and ears, friend. Information is my business.”
“Your information is false! Doctor Sloane is not a criminal!” Verda scowled in frustration and spat congealed blood to the side. “What else is there? Speak.”
The mutant turned up his palms and shrugged. “All I can say is that you’ll need help to reclaim her, you couldn’t possibly do it alone.”
Verda stood and withheld the stack of coins above the mutant’s open hand.
“What’s your name, mutant?”
“Elijah,” he humbly reported, collecting his coins and bowing his head. “My name is Elijah. Good fortune to you, friend.” He grinned and scampered into the growing afternoon shadows.
Verda watched him vanish, and realized that he was certainly right about one thing: he was going to need help.
End Of Book One