Terminus

Photo by Dhaval Tejlavwala on Unsplash

Here’s an interesting curiosity – a piece of short fiction that contains seeds for parts of what became the Black Iron Legacy. Jon Hodgson and I were throwing ideas around for a new RPG setting, which gave rise to this little orphaned fragment. Enchanted Victorian engineering is a big thing for me… and the idea of living among the remnants of a broken past.


Jory’s so old, he remembers when Bridge went somewhere.

I don’t know if that’s true. He’s old, but this place makes you old. The wind, the rain, the salt water… faces and bones erode like the pier supports, ruddy worn skin spreading like rust. He does have contacts, though. Gets us jobs, and that’s why we’re here at Shelter Bay, waiting for him.

Shelter Bay’s the last stop on the landward side of the bridge. Go east of here, and you’re within range of the guns on Fort Terminus. When I was young and stupid, I tried sneaking across the no-man’s land on street level, hiding behind rubble and bullet-riddled skeletons, and I saw the barbed wire and the machine-gun emplacements and the soldiers in gas masks. They say we’re all diseased, infected, no-one gets past. No-one leaves the Bridge.

Like I said, I was stupid. Got shot. Took my arm off at the shoulder. That’s why I first took up with this gang, years ago, to pay for a replacement from the Manufactory. 

Like I said, stupid.

There was me, and there was Henry, and Ally, and the Ticker. The locksmith, the bruiser, the witch and the machine, with Jory to find us marks and sort out the bartering. Our man in Shelter Bay.

Only this time, he walks into the Graceful Exit and tells us he’s coming with us.

(The Graceful Exit’s the worst shit-hole bar in Shelter Bay. There’s a hole in the floor that drops right down past the Rails, past the utility pipes, all the way down to the sea. They say that back when the Bridge stopped being, y’know, a Bridge and became a prison, people who couldn’t take it stopped here for a last drink, then jumped. If the fall to the iron-dark sea didn’t kill them, the warship patrols from Fort Terminus would. No way out.)

Henry jumps up, knocking the table aside like it weighs nothing – they grow them big down in the lower levels, feed them on fish and seal blubber and lichen and weird mushrooms from the Westspan – and starts arguing with Jory. It’s too dangerous, Jory’s too old, the Bridge is getting worse, but underneath it all he’s scared. He doesn’t think we can keep Jory alive out there. He waves his big machete for emphasis. 

The Ticker just keeps bobbing his metal head, peering through scratched glass lens and trying to fit our argument into its clockwork-gear brain. Who knows what it makes of us? 

I glance at Ally, but she’s got her eyes closed. She’s from the far end of the Bridge, and you know what that means. I can’t very well ask her to do her spooky routine here, in front of Jory, though. 

Anyway, I drag Henry down, and we put the table back, and send the Ticker to the bar for another round, and Jory explains the job. He’s cagy about it, but it boils down to a smuggling run.

Remember how I said no-one leaves the Bridge? That’s true. Goods get to go, though. Stuff from the Manufactory for the most part, salvage or prototypes or treasure, but also strange things from the Westspan, from the Far Side. I don’t know how they arrange deliveries, that’s Shelter Bay’s business. It probably involves messages flashed by torchlight, codes banged onto pipes that echo underneath Fort Terminus. Maybe pigeons, I don’t know. 

They come in small boats, fighting through the waves that crash against the piers, and we lower the goods down to them. We’ve done that job lots of times. I agree with Henry, there’s no need for Jory to come with us. He just needs to tell us what they want, and where to make the drop-off.

“No,” says Jory, and he looks me dead in the eye. “I come, or they won’t deal.” And then he puts a bag on the table. “They gave us some travelling expenses.” The Ticker picks it up, and I hear gold jangling against his metal fingers.

* * *

The ruined tenements west of Shelter Bay are full of unfriendly eyes, so we drop down a level at Pier 12. The stairs there are strong enough to take the Ticker’s weight, although they creak like an old man’s bones. Far below, I see the white wakes of patrol ships, plumes of steam like low-lying clouds over the ocean. Bridge-gulls circle below us, looking for the rust-crabs and sticklers that now infest the bridge. Ally’s people can divine the future in the flight of Bridge-gulls, and I wonder what she’s seen for us.

We spent more than half the coins on a reliable trainspotter. The steam-trains that run on the middle level still work. Their mechanical brains keep them racing back and forth, switching from track to track. You don’t want to spend too long on the middle level (or anywhere below the surface, to be honest), so a good trainspotter’s report can save your life. We know that the Kingsway Express was sighted in the turning warrens under Terminus two days ago, and that it’ll be stopping in the automated station at Pier 12 to take on water.

So, we descend into the half-light of the middle realm. Here, the waning daylight’s filtered through the gridwork of girders and shrouds of tattered canvas and sea-weed. Stalactites and icicles of rust hang from the ceiling. We’re still too far east to run into anything really nasty, but I’m worried about meeting some of Henry’s cousins. Some of the tribes have turned cannibal, and go hunting up here. 

The information’s good. The Kingsway Express comes roaring into the station, a crazed zombie train trapped in an endless nightmare loop, and drinks thirstily from the rainwater pipe. We climb on board. There’s a bit of argy-bargy with some other hitch-hikers, but we’re heavily armed bastards and they’re in our seats. Close-quarter fighting, so Henry takes the lead. That big knife of his comes in handy. Once it’s safe, Jory follows us on. He’s carrying a big heavy pack that clanks as he walks.

Back before the Bridge became what it is today, the Kingsway Express was a luxury train, straight from… well, somewhere important and wealthy beyond Terminus right to the Manufactory. You’re some rich baron, travelling west to buy the latest model of clockwork servant – you’re going to want to travel in comfort. This train used to be all velvet curtains, cushioned seats and walnut paneling. Some previous traveller ripped out most of the furnishings for firewood, but we find one carriage that’s still intact. Someone was living here for years, from the look of the stockpiled supplies. 

The Kingnorth finishes watering itself and takes off, raging and roaring through the underways. You’d think that getting lost in the Bridge would be impossible, but this is the biggest structure ever built. In places, it’s miles wide, and even when it narrows, it’s a maze of tunnels and tubes below the surface level (and the surface is a stretched-out city). Still, the train knows where it’s going – the Manufactory. 

We take turns keeping watch as we rattle onwards, and I make sure that I’m on with Ally. The Ticker doesn’t sleep, of course, but none of us are quite comfortable with him watching over us. Oh, he’s reliable enough most of the time, but you can’t help worrying that he’s going to slip a gear and decide we’d look better without our skins or something. 

I make a fire, boil some water, make tea, while Ally checks the carriage doors and the roof for crawlers. All’s secure – she sits down in a chair by the window. 

I see her face reflected in the glass. She looks worried. The eyes of her mirror image glimmer like a shower of sparks.

See something?” She can’t miss the emphasis on my voice. She snorts.

“No. I just followed Jory when he met his contact.”

“And?”

She purses her lips and blows the steam from her tea at me, and I breathe in an image. Jory, in a dark cellar in Shelter Bay, and opposite him a figure in a gas mask, a rubber diving suit, completely sealed.

Our client. Not from the Bridge. Important enough to come in person instead of arranging the delivery through normal smuggler signals. 

“What do you think?” I ask her. 

She shrugs. “The money’s good. It all depends on what we’re picking up.”

“We’re heading to the Westspan. It’s got to be something from the other side, right?”

This time, the sparks are in her real eyes, not her mirror-self. “Nothing from there is right.”

* * *

It’s an express train, so we reach the Manufactory quickly, thundering into the cavernous Central Station. 

You’ve heard all the stories, right? They still tell the stories to kids in Shelter Bay or Skydock or Carousel, I’m sure. Once upon a time, a rich man called Steam built the biggest factory on an island off the coast, and he built the Bridge between the island and the mainland. He invented wonderful things, and now the Manufactory’s full of clockmotleys and steam-men and talking kettles. And if you’re a good little kid, then one day Lord Steam will come down your chimney and bring you an umbrella or a clockwork dog or a crust of bread. 

(If you’re naughty, then he’ll take you away and make you work in the mines under the Manufactory.)

I’ve been inside the Manufactory before. The parts I’ve seen were more like a madhouse for machines – it’s where we got Ticker – but I won’t swear the stories aren’t true. Someone’s living in that big mansion on the top of the island, and why couldn’t it be Lord Steam? Lots of people call the Bridge home.

Right now, though, we just want to get through as quick as we can. That’s why we’ve got Ticker. He can talk to the other machines, open up routes normally blocked. We pass through the steam tunnels that run under the Manufactory, stopping our ears with cloth to block out the din of clanking and shouting and screaming and laughing from the madcap factory overhead. Henry takes Jory’s bag – the old man can’t manage the weight of the thing. 

And then we come to a door that Ticker can’t open. He goes spectacularly nuts at this, throws a complete sprocket at the uncooperative door.  Hammers on it with his steel hands, kicks it, then tries his cannon, but it doesn’t even dent it. 

It does, however, send red-hot shrapnel blowing back at us. Henry wrestles the machine to the ground. I pop Ticker’s head open and fiddle with his brain-gears until I find a calm-looking cog and –

And he sits up, and gives us a thumbs-up, and his eyes are glowing blue and friendly. 

One of the cogs fell out in the struggle. A nasty-looking one with sharp teeth. It’s hot to the touch, and smells like a shell casing. I pocket it.

Ally does one of her divinations, and we get out of the Manufactory without too much trouble.

All right, we actually spend three days in a labyrinthine death-trap run by this child-thing that might have been an eight-year-old girl. She claimed to be Lord Steam’s grand-niece, and that she’d turn the best of us into her new playmate “because Roger’s bits have rotted off and he smells now”. We end up blundering into a turret on the upper level, overlooking the Westspan. We blow a hole in the wall, then climb down to the Bridge below. 

The Westspan’s the newer half of the Bridge, although it’s still decades old. Maybe older – time’s a bit fucked here. See, originally there was the Manufactory and the mainland, and the Eastspan between them was the whole Bridge. Then someone – Lord Steam, in the stories – starts building another bridge west, out into the empty ocean.

They keep building, and building, a titanic Bridge to nowhere, a Bridge studded with cryptic factories and crackling electric machines.

And then they arrived at the Other Side.

It’s not Hell, but you can see there from here.

* * *

We’re not going to the Other Side, says Jory. 

Thank fuck for that, says I. 

We’re actually not going that far past the Manufactory, but we’ve got to go down. Past the train level, past the utilities, down nearly to sea level. On the Westspan, that’s tricky.

See, we’re not alone on the Bridge. The Eastspan’s ours (mostly), then Westspan’s their territory. The Othersiders. They’re insects, or at least that’s the closest comparison. That, or sea-spiders. Some sea-creature, anyway, covered in armoured plates and quivering, twitching, moving in ways that aren’t wrong, but are downright unrecognizable. You know how a crab scuttles sideways? Like that, only sidestepping our reality.

Oh, and they don’t like us.

They make this clear when one of them takes Henry’s spine out through his chest. 

The insect skitters into our reality, claws scissoring through flesh like ghostly glass. Henry’s dead before he realizes he’s been hit. 

Jory falls backwards, slipping down the iron staircase where they ambushed us. 

More of them fade in, but sort of get stuck halfway, thrashing like flies on flypaper. It’s Ally – static electricity jumps from her body to the metal around her, and her hair’s a corona around her head. Her eyes are on fire, I swear.

Ticker just stands there, twitching. He’s stuck. I boot him in the back to reboot him as I draw my guns. We blaze away at the stuck guys, lead balls blasting through chitin, ichor and green goo spraying everywhere. The one who got Henry appears again and goes for Ally, but Jory grabs its leg and pulls, and it topples down on top of him at my feet. 

My pistol’s out, so I flip it around and bring the butt down on the back of the creature’s neck with all my might. Something gives way obscenely with the insect’s anatomy, and it goes limp.

“Run!” and we do, scrambling down the staircase that’s now slick with blood and slime as well as rain. Ticker, helpful soul that he is, picks up Jory’s heavy bag and stumbles along after us. Ally takes Henry’s knife. They say her people can bind souls into weapons, that you don’t even leave the Bridge when you die. Henry always had a soft spot for her, so maybe he won’t mind having his soul stuck into a knife. 

We make it down to a balcony overlooking the sea, and there’s a steamer down there. I barely glance at it as we pass the balcony  – I’m a bit more concerned about the pack of dimension-shifting bug monsters behind us – but later, as we’re pelting down an access gantry, I think back. The ship’s like a scab in my mind that I keep picking at.

The Manufactory has its own fleet of ships. Like the trains, they’re alive, autonomously controlled by clockwork brains, and like the trains, they’re crazy. Any ship that gets too close to the Manufactory gets shelled. That suits the quarantine blockade just fine – they don’t need to patrol the area around the middle of the Bridge. This ship below us, she’s not a Manufactory clockwork and she’s not a Fort Terminus patrol. She’s a tramp steamer, a smuggler. She could be our contact… but we haven’t found anything to smuggle yet.

“Ally?” I ask. Her eyes are still full of fire. 

“They’re close. One level up, I think. Lots of them.”

“It’s all right!” shouts Jory. “This’ll do!” He stops at a large trapdoor in the floor. It’s rusted shut, but Ticker obligingly kicks it open, and suddenly we’ve got our backs to a yawning chasm, a hole in the world leading to black water far below. The lights of the steamer come into view, and Jory answers them with a torch of his own.

“Hold them off!” he orders. He produces a compact mechanical winch from his heavy bag, and a long length of cable. We take up defensive positions – Ally whispers that she can stop them from materializing right on top of us, and we’ve got Maxim guns, and they have not. We should be able to hold for a few minutes, and I’m already eyeing up potential options for a retreat. There’s a walkway running along the underside of the bridge near here, and the Other don’t like the open air. It’s like too much of our reality corrodes them, and they can only survive in the strangeness of the Bridge’s innards.

The cable snakes down. Far below, they connect the two ends together – distant flash of a welder – and the winch starts up. They signal again, and the cable goes taut as they attach something heavy to it.

They’re smuggling something onto the Bridge, not off it.

Ticker shrieks. It’s like a steam whistle, and it gets my attention. They’re here. Once again, Ally’s done her fuck-your-magic-door spell and they can’t just phase in on top of us, so they come crawling down the gantry and we start shooting them. My little pistols give a good accounting of themselves, but it’s Ticker’s big guns that really do the damage.

For at least fifteen seconds there, we give the impression of being really competent. Lots of alien bugs exploding, the whole Bridge echoing with the thunder of our gunpowder and testosterone. 

Then…

Then Jory grabs onto the descending cable. He’s got some sort of metallic gloves that lock on, and suddenly he’s out, off the bridge and spiraling down towards the ship, the counterweight for whatever they’re winching up to us.

That distracts Ally. It also distracts me, but I’m not the one concentrating on the spell. One of the creatures appears behind Ticker and claws him. Ticker goes down, hard, slumped across his machine gun – and when you’re a big metal man, “slumping” tends to crush whatever you slump across. The gun breaks.

I shoot our immediate problem in the face and kick it out of the hole. It falls past Jory, falls past the rapidly ascending mystery, vanishes in the sea below. 

Relieved of the need to concentrate on the spell, Ally joins the fight. Of all of us, she’s got by the far most experience fighting these things. She knows them – she can tell where they’re going to appear. Those born in the Westspan, close to the Other Side… well, I’m glad I’m on the right side of her guns. 

Ticker first. The attack scrambled his brain, knocked his gears awry. I could probably fix him, but it’ll take time.

Then I remember the cog that fell out earlier, and I jam that straight into his brain. It turns out that whoever built Ticker decided to include a homicidal killing spree cog. That’s nice. He springs up (literally) and charges into the fray. 

In the distance, far overhead, I hear the sound of an approaching train. There’s something weird about it, an eerie wail that undulates slightly faster than my racing heartbeat. The insects look up, back off slightly, as if killing us is suddenly no longer vital. 

I look back, and the package from the ship has nearly reached the Bridge, which means Jory’s nearly down at sea level. Smugglers rarely allow visitors onto their ships, out of fear of the quarantine laws, but the black-clad sailors help him on board – 

– so I grab Henry’s knife from Ally and I cut the cable. The knife cuts through steel cord with impossible ease. The package tumbles down; far beyond, so does Jory, and the sea swallows him.

There’s a Bridge-shaking explosion as the package hits the boat. Suddenly, there’s a wide crater in the water for a moment before the sea floods back in. The mysterious train passes overhead. If we’d winched that bomb up to bridge level, it would have taken out the train – and us, too. Jory sold us out. He would have sacrificed us all to escape.

But you don’t leave the Bridge. It’s our home. 

A large chunk of Bridge falls away just to my right. This whole section’s worn and rusted, and the explosion broke something vital. I grab Ally and shout at Ticker to follow us, then dive for the gantry below. 

As we run, the gantry pulls away from the superstructure, swinging out wide, and for a moment I get a glimpse of that strange train as it speeds towards the Manufactory, and it’s a silver serpent, impossibly beautiful and alien, starlight transmuted into metal, butterfly wings drawn in glass and smoke. Whatever Jory’s mysterious clients wanted – and I figure they have to be Fort Terminus, to have gotten hold of firepower like that – it’s too late. 

I don’t know if the insects let us go, or if they left with the train, or if Ticker’s mad rampage drove them away, but we make it off the crumbling gantry. It’s almost like the Bridge welcomes us back, shelters us from the madness of the world outside.

It’s home. 

You don’t leave your home.

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