Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Midnight Confederacy - Part 1

Izzie Meyer was glad she wore black.  Even miles from the black clouds over the border, ash fell from the sky like black snow and covered everything.  She stood in line to board the train, the only young woman in a long queue of elderly passengers.  Priests waved crosses on long poles at the passengers from beyond the fence, calling out to everyone to repent, to turn back, to stay out of that heathen land.

A conductor with a moustache over his sneer and a heavily-polished, gold medallion stopped and stared at her.  She looked away, pretending to be fascinated by the dirty, black steam train she was waiting to board.  He didn’t take the hint, and approached her.

“Miss, may I see your ticket?”

She turned and gave him her coldest stare.  She had always found the look useful when dealing with uppity servants.

“Miss, you don’t belong here; this is the train to the Midnight Confederacy.”

“I know.”

Another conductor announced the boarding had started.  The line moved and the conductor, thankfully, became too busy to bother her.  She climbed on board the tenth car, relieved to find an empty compartment.  While she placed her single bag above her seat, a stooped, balding man entered and sat across from her.  She sighed with annoyance but smiled at him as she sat down.  He tried to smile back but was wracked with coughing.  He brought a handkerchief to his mouth until he calmed himself.  When he brought the cloth away from his face, it was red.  Izze considered moving cars, but the train was already pulling away from the station, so she decided to stay.

“Don’t worry, it’s not consumption,” the man said.

“Oh,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t tell her his life’s story.  She looked out the window, but all she could see were smokestacks filling the sky with black clouds.  It would be dark as night soon.

“It’s a tumor.  I’ve got them in both lungs.  The doctors gave me two years.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, not looking away from the window.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?  Then why are you going?”

“I was invited.”

She reached into her purse and held up a golden medallion like the kind worn by the railroad employees.  The man reached out to touch it, but she snatched it back.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I’ve just never seen one with those engravings before.”

She glanced at the marks around the outside of the medallion then shrugged and put it away.

They sat in silence for a few miles before he tried talking to her again.

“So, why did they invite-”

He fell into another spasm of coughing and was too out of breath to bother her again until the train pulled to a stop.  Outside it was pitch black, except for the glow of the gaslights.  She got her bag down and carefully unlatched the door to the frigid world outside.

Smoke and freezing cold air poured into the cabin, and she, too, coughed as uncontrollably as her companion.  It took several minutes before she got used to the feel of the soot in her lungs and could step outside.  By then, the conductors were pushing the crowd towards a narrow, fenced-in area.  An official wearing a long wool coat adorned with a gold medallion stood by a table at the head of the line.

“I am Officer Harris of the Customs Division,” he said in rasping voice.  “Before you are allowed to enter the Midnight Confederacy, you must leave all your religious artifacts and submit to a search for prohibited items.”

One by one, they walked past the table, some dropping crosses or stars onto the table.  A man with a limp was patted down and they made him give up a glass bottle filled with water they found.  Izzie’s companion from the train held up a cross when he came to the table.

“I’ve had this my whole life,” he said to Harris.  “It was my father’s.  Will I get it back?”

The official gave him a funny look.

“If they accept you, you can’t have it.  If they don’t, you won’t need it.  Now drop it on the table, or go home to die.”

The man stared at him for a moment, then threw his cross on the pile with the others.  Izzie was next, but the officer barely looked at her papers.

“Let me guess” he said, sizing her up with a strange leer.  “Lover’s quarrel?  Or do you fancy going out in a blaze of glory like the famous Miss Summers?”

“I’m just a dancer,” she said, using the cold look that dispatched the conductor, earlier.  It didn’t work.

“I’m going to have to hand-search you,” he said, standing up eagerly.  “Might take a while.”

She pulled the medallion out.  He stopped and took it from her, staring at the inscription carefully.

“From Lady Rice herself!  Where did you get this?”

“I was invited.”

He stared at it for a moment longer and then took a clasp from his pocket.  With practiced hands, he hooked it to the medallion and pinned it to her overcoat.

“You must wear this at all times; do you understand?  In bed.  In the bath.  All times.  Understand me?”

She nodded, and he waved her on.  She walked through the gate into a large, cobbled courtyard lit by a circle of lamps where the others were waiting.  There were buildings outside the circle of light, but she could barely make out their silhouettes.  The travelers from the train all clustered together in the center, looking outward.

“Good luck to you,” Officer Harris said as he swung the gate shut with a clang.  Then he turned his back to them and walked off into the gloom.

The night was silent except for the nervous breathing of the group.  Izzie felt warm despite the chill, they were pressed together so tightly.  Someone coughed and the sound echoed.  Another person gasped and everyone turned to look.

Lights were appearing in the alleys between the shadowy buildings.  There were just a few twinklings, but more and more appeared like fireflies.  As she stared at them, she realized the lights were grouped into sets of two, as if the people were carrying tiny, two-taper candleholders.  Eyes.  They were glowing eyes.

Figures walked out of the darkness.  Men and women, tall and cold.  They made no sound as the came forward.  A woman on the outside of the group spoke.

“My name is Cynthia Bram.  I teach college.  I could teach you about science.  I wrote a thesis on elementary parti-”

The man closest to her bounded forward, his mouth opening wide, impossibly wide, like a snake unhinging its jaw.  Huge, white fangs sprouted out of his face and he grabbed her by the shoulders.  He bit down on her whole head, cracking her skull open so a giant gout of blood showered into his throat.

The other vampires were bounding at them now, some running on all fours like wolves.  The crowd screamed and cried.  Some broke from the group and ran.  Most stood their ground and shouted about their accomplishments.

“I can cook!” someone shouted as he was pulled off.

“I can make engines.  I’m the foremost authority on combustion!”

“I know how to care for children!”

“I travelled all over the world.  You won’t believe what I’ve seen!”

“I’m a good person!  Everyone says so!”

The vampires didn’t seem to care.  They ate them all: ripping them apart, dragging them off into the darkness, chasing them around the courtyard until they collapsed.  Soon, Izzie was the only one left alive.  She couldn’t see colors in the darkness, but she knew blood ran in rivers between the cobblestones beneath her feet.  One by one, the vampires stood from their prey and slowly, as if in a daze, turned back to the alleys.  Izzie reached up to touch the medallion pinned to her coat with trembling fingers.

A man burst into the courtyard as the last vampires were leaving.  He stopped and stared at the corpses all around him.

“What?  Already?  It’s only half past four!”

One of the vampires, a man with a bowler hat, shrugged.

“What did you expect, Matheson?”

Matheson turned and looked at Izzie with a disturbingly intense stare.  The other vampire put a hand on his shoulder.

“She’s Rice’s,” he said.

Matheson shrugged the hand off.

“Accidents happen,” he said, and reached for her.

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