Coulter and the Gray Man 1

Coulter and the Gray Man

The engine purred into the station, all glittering bright and new in the midst of an urban nightmare. Sixteen driving wheels the color of bronze, in four articulated sets. Smooth and slick and painted like a rainbow with a single coach following. Every driver was powered by a flux engine activated by the thorium pile that ran along behind.

Two persons were holding hands in the shadows, sheltered by fallen beams and girders. The wind that swept the platform was harsh and cold, and smelled of decay.

In the side of the pristine coach, a door appeared, with soft light and inviting upholstery beyond. The two rushed forward, darting glances behind them. The conductor stepped aside as they entered.

He looked at them carefully, but he could not tell which was man and which was woman, or even what either had been when they started out. Not that it mattered; there was affectionate touching as they stood together, and a clear mutual regard.

The conductor asked, “Where and why?”

One of the pair spoke up and said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it is earlier. Life is not worth living here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”

They were jostled aside by a young man who leaped to the platform and looked around. He was skinny, with buzz cut hair and wearing a black Westercon tee-shirt. The skin that showed was heavily tattooed. His face was a study in apprehension and wonder, but he looked ready for anything. He would need to be.

Just before the door closed, another figure, all in gray, slipped aboard and hurriedly took a seat beside a figure in buckskin. There was a whine from the pile and a hiss as the door slid shut. The train began to move, through the darkness and the smoke.

#         #         #

Morning dawned on the taiga. The rails curved between the pines. The Russian P36, 2-4-2 laid a smoke trail across the sky, and tore needles off the trees to send them spiraling down into the snow as it passed. The sky was dark with storm, and flurries of sleet rattled against the windows.

In the dim light of morning, the train broke out into a miles long clearing that flanked an icy river. Ahead was a village, onion domed, brightly painted. The brakes sent a shiver through the coach that caused the gray man to slump against his companion and awaken. The man in buckskin had been staring out the window. He said, “It looks like the Madison.”

“It isn’t.”

“I know that! I’ve seen a thousand rivers since I last saw the Madison. I would hate to leave them behind, but I would love to ride my own rivers again.” He scowled at his seat mate. “How many times have I seen you, and I still don’t know your name.”

“You don’t need to know,” said the gray man.

“I always need to know. That’s what got me into this.”

The train screamed into a station and stood panting impatiently. Three young men, bundled into anonymity, came aboard, and two more left the coach. The conductor said, “Where and why?”

The youngest newcomer said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it isn’t Russia. Life is cold and short here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.” more tomorrow

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