William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with over thirty novels published in the genre press and more than three hundred short story credits in thirteen countries. He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles, and icebergs for company. When he’s not writing he drinks beer, plays guitar, and dreams of fortune and glory.
The two strangers walked out of the desert the same day the carnival came to town; I don’t know what caused more chat in the saloon that night. The arrival of the carnival had been anticipated for weeks, a welcome distraction from the heat and the flies of the hottest summer anyone could remember. But two men walking out of the desert?
That was a thing of wonderment.
We had no luck getting them to talk of it though. The taller one seemed happy to sit in a corner and drink beer. He only had one hand, the other being little more than a wrinkled, cauterised stump. But the good hand never strayed far from the butt of his pistol, and he had the look of a man who would welcome some trouble. The other man looked shorter but no less heavily built. He was more forthcoming, but he would say nothing about the desert, where they had come from, or what they were doing here in this town on the edge of nowhere.
“I’m Isaac,” he said in a soft East Coast accent as he took an old fiddle from a case that he had slung across his back. “I’m mostly here to make you dance.”
And that he did, with a selection of jigs, reels, waltzes, and polkas that had the bar whirling till well past midnight. Everyone had such a grand time that we plain forgot to ask the pair any more questions. But given the look I had seen in One Hand’s eyes when I gave him a beer, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know any answer they would give.
In the morning, the carnival was set up and ready to go, and any thoughts of the two newcomers were washed away in anticipation of the swirl of carousels, games of chance, and tents behind whose flaps all kinds of wonders awaited.
But once again, we were to be disappointed…at least initially. In place of the gaudy colors of a regular traveling show, we went out to the corral beyond town to find constructions of timber and brass, shaped like little boxes, dotted over the area. Over on the far side was something larger still, but in the heat haze I couldn’t quite make it out.
The barker started to call us forward. He was a tall, almost cadaverous man and, despite the heat, he wore a black wool coat from neck to toe and a stovepipe hat that made him look like he had a chimney on his head. Despite his apparent ill health his voice carried clear over the corral.
“Come one, come all. Welcome, to the future.”
As chance would have it, I was standing next to One Hand and the Fiddler at the entrance when the barker stepped on a button on the ground at his feet and the earth below him seemed to open up. One Hand had his pistol drawn and raised before I could blink, but I saw Isaac, the Fiddler, motion him to hold his peace, and again, almost faster than the eye could follow, One Hand had put the pistol away again.
The rest of the gathered townsfolk, about thirty of them, had seen nothing untoward. They were too busy staring, open mouthed, at the spectacle unfolding in front of us.
A tangled construction of wood and brass rose up from the ground with much clanking and groaning. Steam hissed and metal stretched. What, at first, looked like little more than discarded pieces, seemed to knit together and grow, higher and higher into a tall archway that hung over our heads. A song started up, a jaunty dance number and, embedded in the archway, silver lettering started to roll across what was obviously our entrance way.
“The City of the Future.”
The crowd applauded, the barker bowed, stiffly, at the waist, and we walked forward. One Hand and the Fiddler were slower than the rest to enter. I was intrigued enough to hang back and I caught some of their conversation, but it just confused me further.
“We were right,” the Fiddler said. “There’s part of the old one here. But it’s hidden. We need to be careful that no one gets hurt.”
One Hand nodded, and patted his pistol.
“You know me,” he said, and smiled. “Careful is my middle name.”
We walked through into the strangest carnival any of us had ever seen.
Most of the townsfolk had already gone on inside and were dispersing through the site, but I hung back again. I don’t rightly know why, but something had made me wary, and I decided to stick beside the two newcomers until I figured out what was what.
I didn’t regret my decision as we came to the first attraction. It wasn’t a tent or a ride, but a twelve-foot square box. There was a doorway, but no one there to take our money, and no sound came from within. The Fiddler looked at One Hand.
I followed them as they moved inside.
We were in an almost empty area, enclosed inside a wood and brass box. Another box, a four-foot cube, sat in the middle of the space.
“Ladies,” a voice said out of nowhere. I nearly shat in my pants, but the two strangers seemed to take it in their stride, so I stood my ground, although I was now of an even firmer opinion that disembodied voices should be restricted to the spook tent.
“Ladies,” it said again, although there were certainly no ladies present, just the three of us. “What if you never had to go to the wash-house again?”
The box on the floor clanked and whirred, and a door opened to show a glass window to its interior. Inside, it seemed to be filled with dirty laundry. The voice spoke again.
“Welcome to the future.”
The box almost leapt off the floor, and behind the window the clothing started to spin. There was a loud whoosh and steam came from the top of the contraption. At the same time the cloth inside it got splashed with soapy water. The whole contents churned and rolled in a motion that made me quite queasy to watch.
We stood there for long minutes. The machine kept churning, steam kept hissing, but there was no sign of any climactic ending, and still there was no request for money. It was certainly the strangest carnival I’d ever seen. There seemed to be no immediate payoff coming. One Hand moved to take out his pistol again, but the Fiddler stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“It’s too soon to show our hand. Let’s see what else is on show.”
We left the machine to chug along on its own and went to the next box. Two men came out as we went in, shaking their heads.
“It’ll never catch on,” one said to the other. “Who wants something like that in the house?”
We found out what he meant a minute later. We went inside another twelve-foot square box, with another box in the center, much smaller than the washing machine we had seen in the first.
“Ladies,” a voice said again. “What if you never needed another broom?”
The central box whirred and hissed. A brass hand curled into a fist rose up from the top and dropped a handful of dust on the floor. The whole box started to vibrate. It clanked, whirred, then started to trundle backward and forward over the dropped dust, all the while accompanied by a loud sucking commotion. Within seconds the dust was all gone. The box continued to meander around the floor, and yet again no one asked for money, and there was no sign of anything more dramatic happening than the floor getting a good sucking.
The rest of the rooms in the corral contained more of the same. There was a machine for shaving, although none of the three of us felt inclined to take part in the free demonstration that was offered. There was a box that played music which, although it sounded right pretty, was too loud for my ears and left a sick, throbbing feeling in my stomach. There was a box whose only purpose was to keep food cold, and I could scarcely see the point of that at all.
After the first two boxes I noticed that the Fiddler was checking carefully around the perimeter of the larger structures, examining the walls and trying to pry underneath; I guessed he was trying to understand the trick as to how the things worked. But the creator, although lacking in the showmanship I would expect in a good carny, was obviously highly skilled. There were no signs that would give any clues away.
As we got nearer the furthest point in the corral things got even more outlandish. A small crowd of around a dozen was gathered round a fenced-off area. Inside the fence something low to the ground scuttled on six legs in an ever-decreasing circle. It seemed to be made completely of polished wood and brass. It ticked loudly as it scurried, and smoke came out of its rear end. A voice, again from everywhere and nowhere, echoed around us.
“The pet of the future will require no feeding,” the voice said.
Somebody to one side of me shouted out.
“Where does it shit?”
“Anywhere it wants to,” the voice said, and got a laugh from the crowd.
Folks had been on the point of being somewhat disgruntled by the seemingly meager fare on offer up to that point, but perked up as we moved to the next fenced-off area. As we approached it a shot rang out, and once again One Hand had his pistol drawn before I could move. He put it away again quickly as loud laughter immediately followed.
We joined the crowd already formed around a ringed-off area. It looked like everyone who had come to the carnival was now gathered here.
Now they’ll start asking us for our money.
At first I thought the area was set up for some bare-knuckle fighting, but then I saw the figure standing on the far side from us, and for a second I forgot to breathe.
It was as tall and thin as the barker that had welcomed us, but where that man had looked ill, this did not look like a man at all, apart from having the required number of limbs and heads. It was dressed in gunfighter style, with an East Coast suit and a smart pair of pistols. But the face that stared impassively at us was made entirely of brass and was as stiff and emotionless as a corpse. It stood stock-still, but I sensed something, sensed there was a power there that I didn’t want to mess with. Suddenly I wanted to be back in the saloon nursing a beer. Indeed, I might have left there and then, had the voice not echoed around us.
“Try your luck, gentlemen,” it said. “If you can beat my man here to the draw, you shall have fifty dollars in your hand to take away. Who feels lucky?”
One Hand went to step forward, but was beaten to it by three lads at the front of the crowd, local hotheads who could be guaranteed to be first in line to do something stupid.
“Step right up,” the voice said. “Put your toes on the line, and take your stance. Draw when you’re ready.”
The three lads had a row among themselves, and finally Davy Brown’s boy stepped forward. He fair swaggered into place and stood with his toes on a white line that had been painted on the ground.
“Ready when you are, mister,” he said.
The tall figure opposite didn’t move.
“I said draw, mister,” Brown said.
Still the figure stayed still.
It was obvious to me that the boy had no patience for a standoff. I knew he would go for his pistol first, so I kept my eye on his opponent. I heard the Fiddler beside me gasp at the same time as the tall figure drew, fired and holstered the pistol again before the crowd could even register it had happened. I turned to look at the Brown lad. He had his own pistol halfway out of the holster. There was a red blossom over his heart.
He’s been killed was my first thought, but the lad didn’t fall, merely looked down at his shirt in puzzlement. He drew a finger through the red and raised it to his nose to smell it.
“Paint,” he said. “My shirt’s ruined. Ma is going to give me hell.”
That got the biggest laugh of the day so far. It also encouraged many more to try their hand. None succeeded, and all went away with red paint marking their failure. One Hand moved again to step forward, but the Fiddler stopped him.
“It’s still too early. Besides, it’s too fast, even for you.”
One Hand smiled.
“I can take it.”
“Maybe,” the Fiddler replied. “But we don’t know if a bullet will do the job. Besides, this is just another tool. We need to talk to the clockmaker.”
One Hand allowed himself to be led away, but I could see in his eyes that he was none too happy about it. I looked back, just once. The tall figure still stood there, stiff and unmoving, but as a shadow crossed the sun it seemed that his face moved, the features sliding into a mocking smile. It was an image I couldn’t shake from my mind as we walked the short distance to the extreme far side of the corral and the last, biggest, exhibit.
I was unsure what I was looking at, as were the rest of the crowd of townsfolk. A long, wide, oval of material lay on the ground, some twenty yards long by five or six wide. Behind that, and attached to the material by what looked like metal rope, was a brass and lacquered wood basket, big enough to hold half a dozen people. The barker in the stovepipe hat stood inside the basket.
“We come to the last exhibit,” the tall man said, and once again bowed from the waist. “Who would like to take a ride?”
There were no takers from the townspeople. Getting their togs splattered with red paint had been enough for most of them, and they were reluctant to volunteer for anything else that might lead to ridicule. One Hand and the Fiddler had no such qualms. They stepped forward and I, being too nosy to have any sense, stepped with them. No one else came out of the crowd.
“Climb aboard, gentlemen,” the barker said. “And prepare yourselves for the trip of a lifetime.”
We stepped into the brass and lacquered wood basket alongside him. He pulled a lever…and the material on the ground in front of us started to swell and grow, slowly at first, then ever faster, a huge balloon that within a minute bobbed and danced, taking flight until it hung over our heads, straining at the metal cables. I ducked, involuntarily, and the crowd laughed, although I couldn’t help but notice that they had all taken several steps backward away from the balloon.
“No more takers?” the barker asked. “Then I will need some more weight.”
He snapped his fingers, and I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. The tall gunslinger left its position in the ring and walked across the corral toward us. I damn near shit my pants again, and was ready to jump back out of the basket. The Fiddler put his hand on my shoulder.
“Stay, friend. We will need you to bear witness,” he said.
I didn’t like the sound of that, but somehow just the touch of his hand on my shoulder had soothed away any nerves I had been showing. I was able to stand and watch the gunslinger come forward and climb into the basket alongside us.
“Last chance,” the barker said.
Two women crossed themselves and muttered prayers. No one else in the crowd moved. The barker nodded.
“So be it.”
He pulled a lever on the side of the basket. One of the taut metal cables fell away to one side. There was a series of clangs and screeches. A cage of varnished wood and brass seemed to grow up around us as fresh steam hissed and the balloon, or should I say, airship, started to rise up, and away from the upturned and incredulous gazes of the townspeople below. The sense of falling and rising at the same time made my knees grow weak and I stumbled, almost fell, and was only stopped from tumbling out of the thing altogether by the Fiddler’s helping hand.
Even then it took me a long minute to regain my composure. By the time I plucked up the guts to look at the view below we were already heading over the top of the town. Someone, I think it was Joe the Barkeep, stood in the middle of the road waving. I waved back, but it felt like waving at a fly. In seconds the town fell behind us and we moved, at a fair lick, over the rough lands that lay between the town and the desert.
After five minutes of this, with no one speaking, I was really starting to worry. We were fast approaching the border of the badlands, beyond which was only desert, then more desert. I didn’t want to even think about what would happen should we be forced down by something unforeseen. The Fiddler seemed to read my thoughts. He spoke up.
“Say, mister,” he said, addressing the barker. “What makes this thing move?”
“It is a hot air balloon, sir. It rises due to the heat expanding the…”
The Fiddler waved him to quiet.
“I get that. That’s what makes it rise. We’ll get, eventually, to what made the air hot in the first place, and to what drives all those gee-gaws in your exhibits. For now, I just want to know, what makes this thing move?”
One Hand’s good hand rested on the butt of his pistol. I looked up at him and he winked at me. “Hold on,” he mouthed.
The barker did not seem to understand the Fiddler’s question.
“It is a hot air balloon sir, and it moves at the behest of the wind and…”
The Fiddler cut him short again. I saw the tall gunslinger stiffen and straighten on the far side of the basket from us.
“The wind is coming straight from the east,” the Fiddler said. “And we’re heading due north. How’s about answering my question, mister?”
Things happened fast after that. I just happened to be looking at the gunslinger when it went for its pistol. It drew and fired. There was another shot at my ear at almost the same instant. The gunslinger’s brass face crumpled inward in a hiss of steam. Someone grunted behind me. I was also aware there was a struggle going on to my right as the Fiddler and the barker waltzed around the small basket in a clinch that rocked the whole airship and threatened to send us all tumbling earthbound.
The gunslinger tried to raise the pistol again, but something seemed to be broken inside it. Over on my left, the barker started to sing in a high, off-key chant that grated in my ears. The airship started to move faster. The gunslinger’s movements speeded up, and he raised the pistol again. One Hand was ready for him this time. Another shot blew the pistol, and the brass hand holding it, into the air to be pulled quickly away overboard by the now rushing wind. I had to grab hold of the railing as we sped, ever farther, heading north where the mountains seemed to be rushing toward us. A second, and third, and fourth shots sent the gunslinger rocking and falling. It tried to grab the railing with its good hand. Timing his last shot to perfection, One Hand shot it high in the chest at exactly the right spot to send the automaton tumbling out of the basket where it fell, soundlessly, out of sight. One Hand turned and, with an obviously long-practiced motion, loaded his pistol while carrying it in the crook of his maimed arm. He walked over to where the tall barker and the Fiddler were still locked in a clinch and put the now-loaded pistol to the barker’s head.
“Take us back.”
That was all he said…all he needed to say. The barker stopped singing; the airship slowed its vertiginous travel north and slowly started to turn. The Fiddler rolled a smoke as if this was an everyday occurrence and passed me a cigarette with an accompanying wink.
“Now, aren’t you glad you came?”
It was after noon by the time we arrived back at the corral. The exhibition, I cannot bring myself to call it a carnival, was empty, the townspeople, bereft of any further entertainment, scattered back to their work and homes. The airship landed us in an open area and immediately started to deflate with the sound of a wet fart. One Hand hadn’t taken his aim off the barker, and only did so now as we stepped out of the basket. It was then that I noticed the man had been shot, high on the shoulder. He refused to let me have a look.
“It’ll keep,” he said with a grimace. “Trust me, this is not my day to die.”
The Fiddler waited until we were all on firm ground, then turned toward the barker.
“I think it’s time for some straight talking, mister,” he said. “Now will you tell me what’s going on here?”
The barker seemed completely unperturbed by the turn of events, his face showing no emotion as he replied.
“It is the city of the future, sir,” he said. “All that you see here will come to pass, and it will come more quickly if you just accept it as the progress it is.”
“Progress?” One Hand said, and spat in the dirt at the barker’s feet. “If that is what is coming, I want no part in it.”
The barker smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I don’t believe you have much choice in the matter,” he said, and started to sing again, the same high, dissonant chant as I’d heard before. From all around the corral came the clank, hiss and whir of machinery starting up.
One Hand walked forward, raised his pistol, and put it to the barker’s head. Without the rest of his torso seeming to move, the barker backhanded One Hand in the jaw, sending him sprawling, out cold in the dirt nearly ten yards away. The singing didn’t falter and the clanging of machinery was getting closer. Brass and lacquered wood boxes trundled across the corral toward us, belching steam and hissing like a pack of animals. A six-legged thing scurried in an ever-decreasing circle around the outside of the approaching machines.
We were surrounded.
The Fiddler seemed singularly unperturbed. Ignoring the growing cacophony around us he slowly took the fiddle case from over his shoulder. He took the instrument and bow out and started to play, a low, almost mournful tune, slow but strangely compelling; a song that completely drove the barker’s chant from my head and left me with a feeling of deep peace.
The barker chanted louder, and the brass and wood boxes clanked along in time with him in a grotesque dance that whirled and capered across the corral until they circled around us at dizzying speed.
The Fiddler laughed, and upped the tempo of his tune, the fiddle’s notes seeming to soar and sing over and above any chant the barker could muster. The swirling machinery slowed, then faltered. The Fiddler, in mid tune, brought the bow across the strings in a screech that was almost deafening.
The spinning machinery all came to a crashing stop at the same time, the boxes smashing into each other, tumbling and spinning in a flurry of cracking wood, buckling brass and hissing steam. Seconds later there was nothing left of them but splinters and scrap metal. The six-legged thing ran in a circle for a few seconds before its legs buckled beneath it and it fell, immobile in the dust, wheezing out one last, pitiful jet of steam.
Suddenly everything was deathly quiet.
The Fiddler put the instrument away, drew his pistol and strode over to stand within arm’s reach of the barker. The tall man’s hat was slightly askew and leaning, but otherwise he seemed unperturbed, unconcerned by the destruction of his exhibition.
“You cannot kill the future,” he said, stiffly.
“No,” the Fiddler said, and raised his pistol to aim squarely between the barker’s eyes. “But I can kill you if I don’t get some answers. Now tell me, what is your purpose here?”
“I believe you know that already,” the barker said.
“I believe I do,” the Fiddler replied. He fired a single shot that knocked the stovepipe hat from the barker’s head. There was a metallic clang. The tall hat fell aside…and revealed a chimney, sprouting out of the top of the man’s head, a thin plume of smoke rising to be immediately dispersed in the breeze.
The Fiddler fired again. His bullet stripped flesh off the right side of the barker’s face, revealing a set of cogs and wheels below. He fired again, and bits of copper and brass flew. Black smoke came from the stovepipe and the barker stumbled, almost fell before pushing himself upright.
“You cannot stop me,” the voice said. This time it sounded like it came from the barker’s chest. The Fiddler fired again, two shots in the spot where the voice had come from. The barker fell to his knees. Something harsh and metallic ground and clattered inside the chest. More smoke, thick and acrid, came from the stovepipe.
“I am legion,” the barker shouted.
One Hand stirred, shook himself like a dog shedding water and got unsteadily to his feet. He joined the Fiddler in standing over what was left of the barker.
“And we will fight you, fight your future. One piece at a time,” the Fiddler said. They fired simultaneously. I’ll never know whether I blinked, or whether I got the sun in my eyes, but it looked to me that lightning, not bullets, flew from their pistols. The thing that had been the barker fell in on itself with a crash.
A final plume of black smoke rose from the spot and was quickly lost in the wind.
One Hand kicked at the crumpled remains of the barker.
The Fiddler nodded.
“It’s done. Time to go.”
They turned, and showed every sign of just walking away.
“Hey,” I finally managed to call out. “What just happened here?”
The Fiddler turned back.
“We fought the good fight, fought the future. And it looks like you just chose your side in the battle.”
“What battle?” I said, confused.
One Hand laughed.
“The oldest one there is. You could say we’ve been giving the Lord a hand.”
He waved his stump at me, and they turned and walked off.
The remains of the exhibition burned behind me but I stood there for a long time watching the two men until they were gone, lost in the heat haze in the far distance.
There was always a chance I’d see another carnival burn. But watching One Hand and the Fiddler walk back into the desert?
That was truly wondrous.
Copyright © 2020 by William Meikle.