Phaethon Universe: Tracks

  

"Tracks"


~

This story exists in the universe of the Phaethon books. If you haven't read book one yet, you can find it here. Book two is coming soon, so now is a good time to catch up. There will be three books in the complete series.

 ~


“This was supposed to be easy,” Rosie said, shifting her grip on the iron railroad spike. “Half a dozen times we’ve done this, Jack. I started to think of it as a date. A nice long walk outside. Like picking berries or something.”

“We could pick berries,” Jack said, “but when I suggested it, you said it was white nonsense.”

Pleasant. I said pleasant white nonsense. That didn’t mean ‘no.’” Rosie sighed. “There would probably be bears anyway.”

“Are bears better or worse than this?”

Rosie sized up the beast in front of them. The fae dog’s black fur matted into whorls. Its eyes shifted between them, rheumy and all but crossed. The control collar buried in its neck had driven some of those who wore one half-wild, but the black dogs, sometimes called grims, seemed to adapt well to the instructions, which apparently boiled down to attack anything that smells like fae. Leftover instructions from a deceased cabal of iron fae, trying to take over the world. And the grim still followed.

It wasn’t growling, but it was showing more teeth than Rosie cared to see.

“Better or worse than bears…I’m not sure. I’ll get back to you when I fight my first bear.”

The grim feinted towards Rosie, then bunched up its hindquarters to spring at Jack. He cuffed it with his own railroad spike and it spun, dancing around practically on its belly, away and then back to their feet. Now it was growling.

“Did you bring any of the good toys?” Rosie asked.

“What did you have in mind? The taser?”

Rosie dropped her arms, and weapon, to her sides in sarcastic exasperation. “No, Jack, the tennis balls. Yes, the taser.”

“I did not. We haven’t seen anything bigger than a dustbat in months. I got careless.”

Rosie raised her spike again, reining in her frustration. “Me, too. So now what?”

“We’re probably going to have to kill it. It will definitely follow us home if we don’t, and there’s a lot of people between here and home. At least we’ve got the spikes.”

Collecting railroad spikes was, at this point, mostly a hobby. Jack and Rosie would walk the tracks outside the city looking for the iron scraps of a hundred years of industrial transportation. The spikes served as barriers as well as weapons; the windows and doors of the apartment were always lined with them to protect against malicious fae, unless their brownie roommate needed them to move one for her to get in and out. Even with them in place, Lassie knew to jump over. A strange fae, like the grim, wouldn’t know to avoid them if it came through the door. Contact with iron would give any enemy second thoughts, at the least. Most fae blistered and burned after touching it. Some risked death.

The dog shuffled forward, snapping for Rosie’s shins. She tried to smack the collar controlling the thing with the flat end of her spike, but missed and bopped it on the head instead. It grumbled before twisting and scraping its teeth across her wrist.

“Ow! You cabrón, I’m trying to help you.”

It barked, a noise that had more in common with a tree exploding in a ice storm than a Labrador warning the mailman, and launched itself at her face.

***

Jack was ready for this. He shoved off of one foot, shouldered Rosie out of the way, and stuffed a railroad spike between the black dog’s teeth. Its flurry of shocking barks stopped abruptly. It tried to spit out the spike, but the iron was wedged in. Jack reached down for Rosie’s arm and they ran.

“You didn’t have to push me down like some jerk on the playground!”

“You were trying not to hurt it!”

How is that bad?!”

“It’s trying to hurt us!” Jack punctuated this by reaching over and swiping the bag of spikes off Rosie’s shoulder in midstride. It was too heavy for her to run with, but she would never say so. They pushed on a little faster.

“We need something to climb,” Jack thought out loud. “Dogs can’t climb.”

Rosie pointed. “Train car.”

There was a old green freight car rusting slowly off to one side of the tracks ahead, with a ladder up one side, but it was farther away than Jack would have liked. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Rosie did so in sync.

The black dog had freed the spike from between its teeth and was getting up speed. Seeing it run, Jack noticed the enormity its paws…outsized, webbed wide in the toes…meant, maybe, for spreading weight over soft graveyard dirt. Still, they were outpacing it for the moment. It was slowed down by tossing its head every few loping steps, trying to shake off the effects of iron.

Ahead of him, Rosie veered off the tracks and grabbed for a ladder rung, which broke.

She fell only a few inches, but he could hear her cursing it as he came closer, kicking his way through sparse city limits plant life.

Behind them, the grim jumped off the wooden ties, over the outer rail, and kept coming.

Jack laced his fingers together and leaned down in front of Rosie, waiting for her to put a foot in it so he could boost her.

“What are you doing?” She squinted at him.

“I’m going to throw you so you can reach the top. Put your foot in my hands.”

“I’m five foot almost nothing, Jack! You’d have to launch me into the fracking atmosphere for me to reach that.”

“You’re five foot almost nothing and I’ve been lifting literal iron for months. I can launch you into the atmosphere if I have to.”

The dog was almost on them.

“Do it, please!”

“Fine!”

She stuck her foot in his laced fingers, put a hand on his head, and he struck upward with his knees and arms at the same time. Rosie ended up half sprawled across the top of the dirty train car.

The black dog closed the last of the gap between itself and Jack. He swung the bag of iron spikes and caught it in the nose, which discouraged it just long enough for him to find a ladder rung that wasn’t rusted through and use that to propel himself awkwardly up top.

There was a hole in the middle of the roof, but the seams were good. He and Rosie perched on the edge where it was sturdy.

He watched the dog try to scrabble up the side for a minute, burning its paws on the corrugated steel. Then he turned to Rosie.

“Right,” she said. “Now what?”

***

They stayed up there until the sun went down.

Rosie was prepared to wait longer. She didn’t want to kill anything she didn’t have to. The black dog was a nuisance, like mice, or ants. Lassie, their brownie roommate, had emphasized Rosie’s feelings about treating ‘nuisance’ animals with some respect.

The dog was more likely to do serious damage to her, but still.

It was also more persistent.

She pulled an iron spike out of the bag and threw in into the distant twilight. “Fetch!”

The black dog stared up at her with wild eyes, reflecting gold discs in the dark.

“Rosie…darling dear…I don’t think it would go after a railroad spike even if it played fetch. And we might need those.”

She looked in the bag. “We have a dozen left. What good was the thirteenth going to do?”

“Fair enough.” Jack looked tired. He was laying across the edge of the roof, eyes half closed.

She knew they couldn’t stay up here forever. If the thing wasn’t going away, they were going to have to deal with it. They had tried waiting it out, spending hours up here talking about nothing in particular, but it was obvious by now that that wouldn’t work.

“Okay,” she said. “I concede that we may have to hurt or kill it in order to get off of this railroad car. What do we have?”

Jack sat up, revived at the hint of potential action. “Twelve iron railroad spikes. Our clothes. My iron necklace and your assorted jewelry. Our phones. Uh….” He grabbed for the slim backpack he always carried, which he had set aside to lay down. “A laptop. A multitool. Charging cables. Protein bars―”

“Ooh, protein bar, gimmie.”

“―half a bottle of water―”

“That, too,”

“―keys, plastic Furby keychain, paracord bracelet with compass,” he continued, handing over the edibles.

“Wait! We’ve got it already.”

“Got what?”

“How long is your paracord bracelet?”

“I don’t know. Twelve feet?”

Rosie grinned at him. “Amateur.”

She pulled at the hem of the comfortable flowy pants always she wore for long walks, ruching them up to her knee. Around her ankle was a paracord bracelet significantly larger than the one on Jack’s backpack. “Twenty feet. Wrapped it myself.”

Jack stared at it. “How have I never noticed you wearing that before?”

“Oh, who are we kidding, I’m always covered in weird stuff. I’ve got a usb stick around my neck with the Anarchist Cookbook on it.”

“I’m hoping the plan isn’t out of the Anarchist Cookbook.”

“The plan is…” Rosie smiled again. “A net.”

***

Jack’s fingers were going numb. The night was warm for April, but that didn’t mean much. A light fog was coming in.

After a few tries, he and Rosie had gotten their knots straight and a net was finally beginning to take shape. An iron railroad spike was tied into each place the ropes met except on the outer edge, where a long tail came through a loop on one side so they could pull it tight. The last of the sun was gone. They worked by the light of their phones.

“If we didn’t think out way out of this, do you think anyone would ever find us?”

Jack considered this. “Probably not. We’re way outside the city. Trains still come through here, but they’re lightly staffed. And the staff wouldn’t be looking for people. Or bodies. Our best chance would be a trainhopper, but then the black dog might eat them.”

“Hm.” Rosie rubbed her hands together, then went back to work threading her paracord into his. “Makes you wonder.”

“Wonder what?”

“About what happens to people, I guess. When there aren’t other people around.”

Jack stopped tying, then stuck his hands under his arms for a minute to warm them. “Ah. Well, I mean, there’s a certain point where you don’t care anymore, right?”

“Maybe.” She was looking down at her work. “But people have expectations. A funeral. An autopsy, maybe. That’s probably not going to happen for us. We’re going to be somewhere like this, and we’re just going to disappear. No one would even understand what happened to us if they knew.”

Now that his hands were warm, he reached out and took hers, which were ice by comparison. She made a happy cooing noise when he wrapped her fingers, which made him smile.

“That’s not what’s going to happen to us,” he said. “I have every expectation of us retiring. Somewhere warm. Maybe we’ll even get lucky and Social Security will still be a thing. Either way. We’re going to have long, happy, warm lives, and near the end of them, we’re going to relax.”

The moon came out from behind a cloud.

Below, the black dog started to howl.

Jack and Rosie winced.

“But not today,” Jack said. “Today, we’re going to catch this jerk and go home.”

“Right.” Rosie went back to tying knots.

***

“Three…two…now!”

Rosie did her part and turned the flashlight from her phone directly into the dog’s eyes below them. It blinked, and Jack threw the net, which bonked it in the side and made it shy away briefly but didn’t encircle it.

Jack pulled the net back up by the tail. “We need to get closer.”

“That’s just what I wanted to hear,” Rosie said, rolling her eyes.

“Not too close.”

“I promise, Jack, I have no desire to get too close.”

“Okay, we’re going to hang down the side and each throw a handful. Ready?”

“Ready.”

They got down on their bellies. Rosie’s feet hung into the hole in the middle of the train car. Jack’s legs were half off the end of the roof. He handed her a fistful of paracord, and after some untangling, they both held a side over the edge.

“Once more with feeling,” Rosie said, setting her phone on the edge in the hopes that it would still obscure the dog’s view. “Three…two…now!”

They tossed the net again. This time, it dropped over most of the beast. Jack yanked on the tail of rope that was wrapped around his hand, and the dog yelped in surprise as the paracord swept three of its legs, tipping the rest of the animal into the net.

“Yes!” Rosie said.

The dog panicked. Yowling and thrashing, it started staggering away from the train car with the feet it had managed to poke through holes. Jack couldn’t unwrap the paracord fast enough. It dragged him over the side.

“No!” Rosie yelled.

“I’m okay!”

She moved the flashlight towards the sound of Jack’s voice. He was hanging onto the edge of the rusty ladder, still a few feet off the ground, trying to pull the dog closer. “I need to tie this to that! Can you get it to come here?”

“Uhhh…” Rosie searched their pile of stuff for a plan, but not for long. They’d used everything that was any good. She swept it all into the two bags they had and threw them over the side. “Hold on!”

She jumped down.

“Here, doggy doggy! Good pupper!” She still had her phone light, but a lot of things were moving in front of her and she wasn’t sure where the teeth were. She hesitated.

The black monstrosity howled again.

Rosie covered her ears.

“Oh, screw it,” she said out loud, but she couldn’t hear herself over the fae.

She dropped her hands, grabbed the screaming thing around the waist, and heaved.

They moved a few feet towards Jack, who tied the paracord to the ladder rail as high up as he could, but Rosie went down with the dog in a tangle of ropes and iron. A spike scratched her neck. Her arm was pinned under a hundred pounds of writhing beast. She reached out to push away from the grim but almost stuck her hand in its mouth. Her phone and its light skittered away. Straining to sit up, Rosie tried to get her legs under her and failed.

After a few seconds of tossing and turning, she looked up into the dark. “Help?”

Jack’s hands grabbed her free arm. His palms were sweating, even in the cold, but he gripped tight and yanked her arm hard enough that she felt it in both shoulders.

The dog was still howling in her ear, but at least as long as it howled, it couldn’t close teeth around her. The iron was driving it to distraction.

Rosie twisted her arm. Jack kept pulling. Finally, they worked it free and got far enough away from the black dog that they could hear themselves think, picking up their things as they walked away.

“Can we just leave it there?”

“It’s going to work its way free eventually. But the iron will have done enough damage that it won’t be on the hunt any time soon.”

“Okay. That’s the best we can do tonight, I guess.” 

Using his phone flashlight, Jack checked her over, while she did the same for him. She had a shallow gouge in her arm and a scrape on her face from the spikes. His hands were stripped of some skin by the paracord. They needed showers and bandages and time, but otherwise, they were okay.

She hugged him, then backed away. “You’re one hundred percent sure we’re not going to end up lost in a ditch somewhere with no headstone.”

“No. We’re scientific minds, Rosalita, we don’t do one hundred percent sure. But if there’s you, and there’s me…whatever else there is, I am ninety nine point nine percent sure we can take it.”

Rosie nodded. “That’s as good as it gets.”

They went home.

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