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Bewildering Stories

Colin P. Davies,
Tall Tales on the Iron Horse


Tall Tales on the Iron Horse
Author: Colin P. Davies
Publisher: Bewildering Press

Tall Tales on the Iron Horse is the first collection of short stories by Colin P. Davies and represents over twenty years of work in the science fiction and fantasy fields. He has been published in Asimov’s, Spectrum SF, Andromeda Spaceways and elsewhere and is a regular contributor to Bewildering Stories.

His stories have achieved two Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, two nominations for the British Science Fiction Association Award, and his story “The Defenders” appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, vol. 22.

For more information, excerpts, latest news, and links for purchase, please visit his website.

In this excerpt:

Clifford and the Bookmole
The Girl with the Four-Dimensional Head


“Enlighten me, Em,” Mandi said, as she shuffled along the sidewalk in her heavy boots. A backbone of leafless dead elms stretched down the central island of the boulevard. “Why do I give a damn about who sleeps with my father?” She skipped to catch up with the doll, leaping over a small green snake which slithered across her path on its multiple miniature wheels.

“Asking me that question, Miss Mandi, would suggest you’ve forgotten I’m just a toy.” The doll did not break its stride or look back at Mandi.

On a stone gatepost a mechanical robin sang, twitching its head to watch Mandi as she passed.

“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re just a doll, Em.”

“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re just a little girl.”

“I keep telling you... I’m not a little girl!”

Then Mandi laughed. The doll was winding her up — that was it. She folded her arms tightly. It must have been at least five below. She hated these long winters. “I’d like to meet your designer one day... and poke her in the eye.”

Mandi glanced over to the center of the boulevard. On the grass lay the body of a man, his clothing frosty-white and scruffy. No doubt another doll, drained and lifeless. You could see them everywhere. Nobody bothered with bodies anymore.

A pizza van purred swiftly towards them and in its wake came a horde of yapping puppy-dolls — growth-arrested strays; toys of flesh and blood, as much dolls as any animatronic construct. When they spotted Mandi, the dogs abandoned their attempt to catch the van and bounded towards her. Mandi had to stop, as the animals threatened to trip her up. She recognized these as Labrador pups, and all colors: black, tan, white, green...

They were harmless, but a nuisance. They nuzzled at the doll, panting, sniffing, growling. The noise was so intense, and so funny, that Mandi did not become aware of the whirring of the approaching balloon until it was almost too late.

She recognized the familiar propeller sound of the toy zeppelin at the same moment that a shadow fell upon the brick wall to her right. Years of suspicion and distrust had given her lightning reactions to the unexpected. She fell to the side. Puppies scattered. She bounced on one hip and rolled onto her knees, glancing up as she came to a halt against the wall.

Only meters away the small helium-filled toy hovered. A fine spray was falling through the air below it, precisely where Mandi had been. The puppies began to yelp and snap at the air, turning in rapid, distressing circles. Then they dashed off, tumbling over each other in their panic.

Some type of chemical, maybe acid, Mandi realized — and intended for her.

The motor whine rose in pitch as the airship turned, bringing its camera around to target on Mandi.

“Em! It’s after me!”

The doll had been outside the danger area and now ran towards Mandi.

The airship began to close the distance.

Mandi sprang to her feet, scooped up the doll, and ran. A moment later she reached a gap in the wall and turned down the path to the canal.

“It’s trying to burn me, Em,” Mandi gasped as she ran. She held the doll in front of her face. “It wants to scar me.”

“That would seem unlikely, Miss Mandi. What would be the purpose in disfiguring you?”

Mandi rapped the doll on the head with her knuckles. “The pageant of course! Someone wants to win... really badly.”

The path zig-zagged down the hill towards the canal. The airship, following a straight line, was gaining on her.

Mandi glanced backwards and slipped on the icy surface. She stumbled into a faster run, but kept on her feet. She leapt down a flight of brick steps to the towpath and hurried along the edge of the frozen waterway.

The zeppelin was only a short distance behind. The whirring sound grew louder as they moved between the towering walls of the warehouses. Mandi’s footsteps echoed as her heavy boots slapped against the cobbles. She followed the canal as it swept around a corner. Then she came upon a tall mesh fence. It stretched completely across the canal; the buildings ahead were to be demolished. Mandi could go no further.

She turned, went to run back, halted, hesitated... Her legs were trembling. She could see the gondola clearly now, a gray box hung on wires below the balloon. The box had three propellers and a central eye which must have been the camera. The propellers slowed.

No time to weigh the dangers; the ice seemed her only choice. If she could just outflank the airship, move faster and get behind. Grasping the mesh fence with her one free hand, she placed a foot upon the frozen canal, then transferred her weight. The ice creaked and cracked. Her boot vanished up to the ankle. She yanked it out, sending chunks of ice skidding across the frozen canal. Her grip on the fence held, but her arm was shaking.

She held the doll up. “I’m trapped, Em. I can’t escape.”

The airship was too close. She expected the acid spray to come at any moment. But the remote pilot must have known Mandi was trapped and was not going to waste a hasty shot.

“Spread your weight, Miss Mandi.”

She had no other option. She released the fence and, in a swift, fluid motion, swam forward on the surface of the canal. The ice held. She tried to wriggle away, one hand dragging on the ice, the other still gripping the doll. But the airship turned again to cut her off. She began to cry. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Would they really try to burn her, to destroy her prettiness? If only she was as agile as the doll...

“Em...” Mandi held the doll up.

“Yes, Miss Mandi?”

“Hold on tight!”

Clifford and the Bookmole

“I am,” whispered Clifford, “rather cunning for my age.” As the front door clicked shut behind his parents, he abandoned the homework that he’d told them could not possibly be left till tomorrow. He had the house to himself.

It had been a simple — though brilliant — idea to copy Auntie Flo’s handwriting from his birthday card and write a note to his Mum and Dad. Less easy had been the placing of a twenty pound note in the envelope. He hoped it would be money well spent.

His father had found the note half-hidden under a cushion, and Auntie Flo’s suggestion that this surprise gift should be spent at the pizzeria down the road had been too much to resist — as Clifford had known it would be. His only disappointment was that there was no one here to admire his ingenuity.

That was about to change.

He dashed upstairs to his room.

The sun was setting in a flaming sky and orange light fell across his Vallejo posters. It was the sort of Hell-colored evening which could make him believe he’d made a deal with the Devil rather than with an eccentric sorcerer named Godfrey. A fine evening for magic.

“First take one bookmole,” he said, attempting a cackle which came out more like a car with starting troubles. “One properly prepared, hungry bookmole.” Though the creature was asleep, he kept his fingers clear of its mouth as he lifted it onto the bed.

“Add a sprinkling of freshly-published third volume of a trilogy.” The book was on his bedside cabinet. Clifford flicked through the pages. “Unread, virginal,” he added with regret. Hesitating only a moment, he tossed the book in front of the creature.

“And stand well clear.”

The bookmole snapped its teeth upon the book. Even though he’d been prepared, Clifford jumped back. The gnawing and rustling of paper and Clifford’s harsh breathing were the only sounds in the room. Now for the words. Once again he gave the command, this time without hesitation. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and waited.

A shadow crossed the sun, laying flickering patterns upon the walls. But the shadow was inside the room. Clifford stiffened. The bedsheets were clenched in his fists. In front of the window the air thickened, grew dark, took the shape of a woman.

Clifford forgot to breathe.

Zondra Amazon stared at him. Her expression was not entirely one of pleasure.

As Clifford’s brain was currently feeding no words to his mouth, he lifted a hand and wiggled his fingers in a feeble wave.

“Who brought me here?” she asked. She glanced about the bedroom. Her hand was clasped upon the hilt of her sword, knuckles white with the promise of violence. “Let him give good reason, for I am sorely vexed.” Her voice was feminine, but resonated with restrained power. It thrilled Clifford right down to his adolescent toes.

He gasped and sucked in air. “Er... Clifford... it was me... I did it.” He felt a blush burn across his cheeks.

She fixed those beautiful blue-green eyes — one blue, one green — upon him. “Are you a sorcerer?”

“Yes, that’s it. A sorcerer.” Now his mouth was working without the aid of his brain. He made a mental note to kick himself later.

“Then you are indeed a mighty one.” She bowed slightly; a restrained gesture of respect. But her hand remained upon her sword. “For my ring protects me from all but the greatest.”

“Yes, I am a mighty sorcerer. Yes, indeed. Wise. Powerful. Yes, mighty is the word.” Clifford tried to maintain the grand timbre in his voice, despite the conviction that at present he sounded like an absolute idiot.

Zondra pouted with those ruby lips, those sensual, ample beauties which lately had teased and trembled through many of Clifford’s dreams and, in one particularly terrifying nightmare, had threatened to suck him to death.

He examined this woman of his dreams. Her soft yellow hair stroked across her forehead as she looked about in confusion. Tall and muscular, she was garbed in a short white linen blouse, even shorter brown leather skirt, and knee-high laced leather boots. Such style, thought Clifford, feeling slightly ashamed in his faded sweatshirt and saggy jeans.

“Tell me then, sorcerer. Why did you bring me here? You must have a purpose. All sorcerers have a purpose, even if only to antagonize a hard-working warrior. Why did you summon me?”

Ah... Now this could be difficult to explain without employing words like love or sex or others which could bring Clifford out in a rash. He stood up from the bed. “I like you.”

She nodded, as if that simple statement had explained everything, and began to loosen the laces on her blouse.

“I... No! I don’t mean like that.” Clifford waved his hand madly. “Well... yes I do.” He held his head in his hands. “I don’t know what I do... I mean think.”

Zondra stopped.

Clifford tried to keep his voice steady and his legs from shaking. “I just mean I like you. You know... like.”

Zondra twisted strands of her yellow hair in her fingers. “Are you seeking marriage?” she asked.

That threw Clifford. “Marriage could be difficult.”

“But you have powers...”

“My Mum’s powers are greater.”

“You have other plans for me then?” Her hand was again on her sword.

“Can we go back to where you unfastened your blouse?”

“You are no doubt a mighty sorcerer,” she said. “But you are also most strange.” She slipped her blouse off one shoulder.

His decision made, Clifford felt much better. For a moment then, he’d almost ruined the evening. Things were looking up. He dashed to the door and jammed the chair under the handle. His parents might be out, but he was taking no chances.

When he turned back, Zondra had gone.

The Girl with the Four-Dimensional Head

The aircar returned one hour after midnight.

Lansdown was in a foul mood after his scoop turned out to be no more than an imaginative doctor and a one year old with an accomplished line in gibberish.

Percival had driven us to the field just outside the tent. He wished us success and departed, his haste associated with the dinner-jacket he wore. In the pressurized auto, the cologne overkill had been oppressive.

Lansdown sat at the aircar controls. He grunted a welcome, then paid more attention as Madelaine slid into her seat. She fidgeted with her undersized environment suit. The tan material was stretched taut — her body appeared in a continual state of compression.

“How long till we get there?” I asked. My seat buckled me in.

Lansdown kept his gaze on Madelaine, but his words were directed at me: “We’re going to be together for three hours, so let’s be nice to each other. I won’t talk about today, and you won’t trespass in here.” He tapped his forehead with a fingertip. He didn’t look at me once. I guessed I made him nervous.

Through the front screen the stars were piercing white and close enough to touch. The aircar lifted its nose and took to the air. There was a brief pressure of acceleration, then we were high and cruising.

I turned to talk to Madelaine, but she’d put on a pair of headphones and was lost in music that I’m sure would not have been to my taste.

I gazed at the back of Lansdown’s head. His hair was grayer than last time I’d seen him. “How long have you been working for Oddities?” I said.

“Longer than you.” He didn’t look around.

I smiled. “Tell me about the Camel.”

* * *

The journey would take three hours.

I settled back and tried to exhale the tensions of the last few days. I thought about what Lansdown had told me.

Artifacts were nothing new. Barely a year went by without another being discovered beneath the arcane sands. But all had added up to zero. False alarms and hoaxes — nothing to prove Mars had ever supported more than simple mosses and bacteria. And we were heading towards the greatest artifact of all, the huge glass tunnel of forty degrees north, which present consensus had declared to be the result of an unknown geological mechanism.

The Camel was different.

The Camel was a man.

He had wandered out of the desert, impossibly naked, with no environment suit to protect him from the sun, the cold, the near-vacuum, with no air supply, and no voice. They were holding him now in a secure facility at the United Prospecting Industries base at the tunnel. The hastily-arranged plan was that Madelaine would attempt to learn about his past and present. I was there to record her emotions and to back up her story, whatever that might be — and because, when it came to pulling strings, Oddities was a master puppeteer.

I slept for a time, then awoke with my stomach attempting to displace my lungs as the aircar dropped down for landing. I’d swear there was a smirk on Lansdown’s lips.

Madelaine glanced over at me, then turned her attention to the front screen. There was puzzlement in that glance, I was certain, and later, as we took coffee with the Chief of Security in his cabin, Lansdown whispered to me that I’d been talking in my sleep. I’d been calling out one word, one name — Madelaine.

* * *

We left Lansdown playing poker with the Chief.

I followed Madelaine down the corridor and out into the darkened observation bubble to gaze into the vastness of the glass-like structure. The diameter of the tunnel was just over a kilometer and the observation bubble perched unnervingly on a makeshift balcony halfway up the side wall. The sun would not rise to illuminate the walls for two hours. For now, the tunnel’s shape could be discerned only from the ghostly green latticework of ricocheting survey-lasers.

“It’s the most stunning building I’ve ever seen,” she said.

“It’s not a building,” I reminded her. I found myself less in awe of the alien structure and more captivated by Madelaine’s profile, silhouetted against the pearl light of a bioglobe hung outside the bubble wall.

She was still for some time. Her eyes scanned the tunnel again and again.

Then she turned to look at me. “Can you hear the voices... the whispering of ghosts?”

“Cute... but sorry. No voices for me. Although I know what you mean.”

“Where does this tunnel go? Has anyone followed it?”

“No more than five kilometers. And it goes deep. It gives me the creeps just to think about it.”

“I would have thought you were familiar with distressing situations.”

“That’s people. I can deal with people.”

Her gaze had returned to the tunnel.

Nothing moved out there. The workers were in bed — a good, sensible place to be, I considered, as I hadn’t seen a bed for thirty-six hours.

“I love silence,” she said. “When I started school, I was already two heads taller than any of the other girls — and they didn’t let me forget it.”

I wasn’t sure why she wanted to share this with me, but I was glad we seemed to be over our initial difficulties. “I used to cry a lot in school,” I said. “I think I was picking up even then. I don’t think they were always my emotions.”

“They called me all sorts of names,” she said. “I used to press my hands to my ears. I preferred to hear nothing than to hear those names. I learned to treasure silence.”

“Kids can be cruel.”

“I used to hide in the greenhouse in the vegetable garden.”

“And that’s how you grew even taller.”

She smiled. “I felt safer behind glass. Me this side... them, everyone, on the other.”

“You’re not behind glass now.”

She pressed a fingertip into the observation bubble. The flexible wall funneled around her finger. “No...” She laughed gently. “It’s plastic.”

She brushed strands of hair from her eyes. She was gazing down at my face. I’d never seen her look so comfortable. Maybe she was getting used to me.

I had a sudden urge to touch her, and my hand reached out for hers.

She snapped her hand out of my grip, but that moment’s touch triggered dormant memories. As a teenager, I’d dreamed of Madelaine, the mystery woman of my adolescent imagination, my dreams — the result of her time-skip across my life.

“You’ve done things to me,” I said. “In my head. Your intrusion...”

“ a fact you’re going to have to deal with.” She moved to leave the bubble. I shifted to block her exit.

I stared up at her. She glared back without flinching.

“You really messed me up,” I said. “You planted a seed of intimacy just sufficient to play havoc with a teenage boy’s emotions.” Relationships had never worked out. I was always dissatisfied, no doubt because no-one could measure up to Madelaine. “Ridiculous as it may seem, I feel closer to you than I’ve ever been to anyone. I think you understand what I’m saying.”

“I understand nothing. Now I’d like to leave.”

“You’re running again... still behind that glass, still hiding from the rest of us.”

I had a vision of her then, a solitary Goddess encased in a crystal column, secure as a statue, hands clamped to her ears to shut out the roar of the world.

“You’re not the only one who doesn’t like people much,” she said.

She was even more messed up than me.

Copyright © 2008 by Colin P. Davies

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