The Puzzled Isles: Chapter One

As I mentioned in the Prologue, this is a cooperative novel with QuadL. Note that the engine room scenes aren’t final at all. The way the train flies probably will change before we finish writing.  I give to you now the first chapter of The Puzzled Isles.

Chapter One
Keane O’Fergus spun the last wheel, then hollered to his father, “We’re ready for descent!” As his voice slowly drifted away, he ran down the hall to the engine. The dials that lined the walls were familiar to him. There was the one that told him what the temperature of the water for the passengers was, then one that told how high the train was, and to many others to focus on right now.
His father, Fergus, son of the Fergus Verbon-Sun had given the train to, was at the front, holding onto the altitude wheel, affectionatly named ‘AW’, pronounced either as a sigh (awwww) or four syllables (Ay-Double-You). “How’s she holding up, Pa?” Keane asked. Fergus flashed him a grin.
“Beautifully, as always, Keane. Now, this is going to be tricky. I need you to give me signals. Got it?” Keane gulped: giving signals was never fun. It involved going on the outside of the  Ad Hoc and watching the ground for various disruptions. But he nodded, and grabbing one of the parachutes from the rack, slipped out the door.
“Is your harness on?” Fergus called over the sound of the rushing wind.
“I work better without it, Pa. You know that!” Keane made his way down to the front, and grabbed onto the chimney pipe that extended from the roof. The ground was quickly approaching, and he had to use all his will power so as not to run back into the cab.
Out of his coat pocket he pulled the red flag, holding it up. His father responded by twisting AW slightly. Keane lowered his hand until it was directly away from his body, showing that they were supposed to hold it steady.
This was the tricky bit. The track stretched underneath them, but it was a matter of stopping at the right time, and the right spot. ‘A little over,’ thought Keane. He motioned his hand to the left, and he felt Ad Hoc move that way as his father twisted DW (Direction Wheel). He took a deep breath, not wanting to time it wrong. He counted to three, then dropped his hand.
Ad Hoc dipped, and Keane raised his hand just as quickly. It leveled out, and Keane smiled. Then Ad Hoc hit the bump. It was common, but Keane hadn’t been expecting it. He was thrown from his perch, and knew that at the height they were at, he would be laid up for weeks if he hit the ground. His hands fumbled for the cord, and he pulled it in desperation. The parachute exploded behind him, and he was suddenly jerked into the billowing smoke of the Hoc.
Keane held his breath as long as he could, then put a arm up to cover his mouth. He took a slow breath, but the sleeve filter did little, if anything, to block out the smoke. He coughed, and swung himself to try and maneuver out of the smoke. A few minutes later, he was standing on the ground again.
He slipped the parachute pack off, then ran to catch up with the train, which was slowing by the dock in Nubian, the capitol of the Curridin Desert. Some of the local boys ran past him, calling his name. He recognized some of them, and hailed them back.
Keane climbed up the back of the Hoc, then opened the door. Boris, the brakeman/bouncer, greeted him from the inside. The caboose was the smallest car on the Hoc, and Boris filled about half of it. The other half was filled with the controls to slow the Hoc if it was needed, as well as a small cell fro the troublemakers. “I knew you would be okay,” Boris said, standing from a chair that was two sizes to small. He had to duck so he wouldn’t hit his head on the ceiling. “But it was foolish of you to not wear a harness.”
“I tell you, I don’t need it,” Keane complained, and Boris chuckled, his large frame shaking.
“Then why did you fall off?”
“I had a parachute!” Keane returned, and Boris laughed.
“You had better be getting up to the engine. And no using the top, understand?” Keane nodded, then opened the door to the outside. A wave of blistering hot air hit him. It was always hot in Curridin.
Keane made his way through the next car, which was filled with different dignitaries from different islands and their families. The car was abuzz with noise, everyone talking about the strangest things. Keane only caught snippets, such as “But you look good in pink!” and “…very foolish of you.”
He moved to the next car, for those who had reserved a personal box. The next car was the dining car, then the next three were for the regular people. Then it was the fuel car, and the engine.
Fergus had finally moored the floating train to the platform, and now was having the crew go through and open the doors. He met Keane as he came back into the engine. “We’re ready to get off o’ this wreck,” Fergus said, grinning at Keane. They went down to the platform together, Keane picking up his tweed cap from where it lay on the ground.
The people of the town gathered to greet them, and Fergus grinned in delight as he saw the ruler of Curridin, Cleo, coming towards them. Cleo had long dark hair, and a pair of the brownest eyes in the world. The two friends clasped hands. “How are ya?” Fergus asked, and Cleo smiled, her eyes crinkling.
“I am doing much better now that the Hoc is here. What about you?”
“I’m doin’ well, thank ye. But I be needing some drink, if you don’t be mindin’.”
Keane smiled as the adults walked off together. He wouldn’t have been surprised if his father got down and proposed on the spot. Cleo was single, which was strange for the ruler of any country. And his father admired her a lot. He wasn’t sure what it was that kept Fergus from marrying her, but he suspected that it was because of him. Keane wasn’t old enough to fly Ad Hoc by himself, but the wizard Verbon-Sun had commissioned the train directly to Fergus and his family. Other could fly on it, and other could help fly it, but only Fergus and his son could actually fly it.
Turning from the train, Keane set off in search of something to eat. His father, he knew, would soon be filled with wine, the main source of alcohol in these parts. And that meant that he wouldn’t be capable of taking care of Keane, or the Hoc for that matter. Keane put his hat on backwards, then started sprinting down the street.
It was dark by the time Keane dragged himself back to the Hoc. His father had taken a room in the hotel, but Keane felt like the Hoc was his home, and he didn’t want to sleep anywhere except it. He dropped into the bed and instantly fell asleep.
The next morning, he felt refreshed. It might have helped some that he slept in ’till noon. He made his way to the Crystal Hotel, where his father was staying, and joined the crew for lunch.
“Afternoon,” Boris rumbled, grinning at the younger man.
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” Keane laughed back. He sat down beside the Firebox twins,, who were both digging into a pile of eggs. No one could remember which one was which, and anytime either one of them tried to tell anyone, they were cut off rudely.  Reaching out, he grabbed a piece of bread, then some butter. Both were hard to find in the Curridin Desert, so he ate sparingly.
They had almost finished when a boy ran in. “Sphinx spotting!” he crowed, then dashed back out. Immediately, everyone around the table leapt up, almost knocking the table over in their haste. Sphinxes were rare enough for locals, but for people who were from off island, it was a sight to behold.
It was also a sight to behold the entire crew and passengers of Ad Hoc run through the streets to the edge of the city. Keane had to hold onto his hat to keep it from flying off as he was rushed along by the crazed people.
The sphinx, in all it’s majesty, stood on the edge of the town. It was like a lion, but had a human head, and was larger than a horse. “I will ask you a riddle,” the beast said. “If you answer correctly, I will take you to the most precious thing in the world. If you answer incorrectly, you will die. Understand?”
There was a murmur around the crowd, and most started backing away. “There are two doors,” the sphinx continued, “One leads to Life, the other; Death. There are two guards. One of them always tells the truth, and the other always lies. You can ask one yes or no question to one of the guards. What is the question you must ask?”
The murmuring grew louder, and this time, everyone turned and fled back into Nubian. As he ran, Keane glanced back. The sphinx had disappeared.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. They stocked up on fuel, helped Fergus get over his overhang, then loaded the passenger’s luggage. Keane knew the drill: at the first light of dawn, they would start loading everyone on, then head out for the Capitol, So-Terri, for the big convention of the Islands’ top officials.
It was nearly dark again when Fergus found him sitting atop the caboose. “What be ya doing up here?” he asked, and Keane shrugged.
“Not really sure, actually. I was bored, so I climbed up here and just watched everyone doing what they do. It’s fascinating what you can see.”
“Truly it is, son. Truly, it is.” Fergus sat next his son, one hand cocked over his knee. “You know, I could learn to love this place,” he said, taking in the view.
“I could learn to love Miss Cleo, but not as a mother,” Keane said without thinking.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Fergus asked, turning to look at him.
“You love her, don’t you?”
“I admire her. I’m not sure you’d be calling that love.”
“Pa, just give it up. I can run the Hoc by myself. You know that. Please, let me.”
“You’re but sixteen. I can’t let you take that on yourself.”
“I’ll have Boris, and the Firebox twins, and all the rest!”
“But you’re the one who has to fly it. You know that. And if anything happens to you, I’d never forgive myself.”
“Pa, I can do it! Let me show you!”
“You can’t, and you know it!” Fergus’ voice snapped across the quiet city, and many people looked up to see what the disruption was. Fergus shook his head, then stood and left the roof. For a few more minutes, Keane sat in silence, then a dirty head poked up over the edge.
“Is it safe now?” the head asked. Keane’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he clambered over to the edge.
“Who are you?” Keane asked as he reached his hand down. The boy accepted the help, standing unsteadily once he had reached the roof and shaking Keane’s hand.
“Todd’s the name, stowin’ away’s the game!”
“You stowed away in Ad Hoc?” Keane asked, and Todd nodded.
“Yessir. Me uncle’s your brakeman, I think.”
Keane’s eyebrows shot up again. “Boris?” He sized the boy up. He was small, but looked wiry. His face was freckled, or at least it would be if it wasn’t covered in dirt. His hair was a light brown, and two green eyes twinkled mischievously. In other words, he looked nothing like the dark haired, brown eyed, massive Boris. “I find that hard to believe.”
“I can go get ‘im if you’d like,” Todd said, making as if to go over the side again. Keane shook his head quickly.
“That’s fine. Even if you aren’t his nephew, you still need to get some food on that body.”
“That’s the best idea anyone’s had all day, sir,” Todd answered, grinning widely.
“How old are you?”
“Not exactly sure. My Aunt Peregrine says I’m her little boy, but Uncle Boris says I’m on my way to becoming a man. My parents died when I was young, you see, sir.”
“I’m sorry,” Keane said. “My mother died giving birth to me.” He glanced at the metal roof, then looked up brightly. “Now, Todd, let’s see if we can find some food for you.”
He led the boy down the ladder and to the hotel, where he sat down at one of the tables. A waiter came over, and studied the young boy covered in dirt. “Are you sure that this is where you’re supposed to be dining?” he asked.
“I’m paying good money to have him eat here,” Keane answered, standing. “If you think that he shouldn’t be here, then perhaps you should get yourself a new job.”
“That won’t be necessary, Master O’Fergus. I’ll take your order now.”
“Water for both of us. And some bread. Then we’ll take a baked fish of some sort, it doesn’t matter what.”
After the waiter left, Keane winked at Todd. “That’s how you deal with them persnickety types. Act like you’re better than them, and they’ll bow right away.” Todd grinned back like he had just learned the secret of eternal life.
An hour later, the two boys were stuffed. Keane let Todd take the bed, then let unconsciousness wash over him. Within moments, he was fast asleep, dreaming of another day aboard the Hoc.

Want to read the second chapter? Just follow the link:


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