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The Flight of a Village in the Midst of War

A writer, reader, runner, parent, and teacher, Daniel Ausema's stories and poems have appeared previously in Daily Science Fiction, as well as Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, and many other publications. His steampunk-fantasy serial Spire City is now available in collected book form. He lives with his family in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.

We used to think the trains, half wild and skittish, would be the most difficult part of our escape. We'd seen brave Myron try to mount a train as it raced through, only to die when it threw him down onto the rails. It hurt when he fell, terribly so, but a pain we thought we might endure. Surely once on board the train cars, the rest would be easy. It was a matter of convincing ourselves that there were no other options. And even when we knew it, to act.
Maybe there was some other way around. We played at plans, marking routes across maps that no longer mattered. We could swim--until troops cut off that route. We might fly--until someone bombed the runways. Friend? Foe? At times there was little difference. Other routes? But herds of tanks moved through and groves of guns sprouted everywhere.
War came closer, closer. The screams of frightened bullets, the dying shrieks of war machines as they crumpled into scrap. When the deadly gases slithered into our village with their reptilian hiss, coiling around our houses, strangling old Qira almost to death, then we admitted we'd waited too long. We had to brave the trains.
We stalked close to the tracks, watching for the right time. In the mornings the trains were fresh and alert. Little chance of sneaking on then, so we spent our time checking our knots, readying our grapples. By midafternoon they would be slow and heavy, but the heat would make their metal hides dangerous. So a bit before midday we crouched a short ways past an old station. With luck, a train might still slow down out of instinct or an ancestral memory of water and fuel.
Three trains passed as we waited for such luck, but as the old saying goes, luck fears war. It was the first refugee to escape our homeland. So when the fourth train came barreling through, we jumped at it.
It was a smaller train, one of those with the angled headlights that hint at wild bloodlines more recently than most. Not the one we would have chosen. With ropes and spears we grabbed onto its heaving sides. Stieb fell, silently; Armone slipped less quietly, his screams alerting the train to our presence. Its sides shook and bucked, trying to dislodge us. Too late, though. The rest of us had made it.
At last, escape and safety.
We imagined.
We made our way inside. The feral train was inhabited. The residents eyed us with anger, pointed their guns at us, and spoke a language of train sighs and whistles. They kicked Iray when she tried to request help. No permanent damage, we suspected, as long as we could make it to safety quickly. The bruises stood out against her legs though, black and green, and the pain wouldn't fade soon, if ever.
A few, leaders of their train-bound society, spoke a halting form of our language. They offered Iray no sympathy, cursed us, warned us to cause no trouble, told us we were lucky they didn't throw us right off.
The train people herded us to a single car near the rear of the train and locked us inside. It stank of old oil and new rot. Not to mention ourselves. Near evening we managed to open the front door enough to at least get a good flow of fresh air.
Just in time, too. Some of the train people had decided to cut our car off. They were sawing away at the connective tissue with rusty blades when we first looked out. The train jerked and shuddered at the pain. We pushed our way through, fought them off the switch. But then others came, those who spoke our language. They punished us for causing trouble, swatting and whipping and driving us back into the car. They sealed it with better locks, and the air grew even more stale.
Time is a fickle thing on journeys. We rode for a year, a generation, perhaps only a few days. We could not keep track. We died and were born and fell again to death. Or only slept and were the same people, only different. Definitely different from who we'd been. Maybe journeys, especially journeys taken in fear, create deaths and new lives with every twist and wrinkle of the path. Who can say or explain the mysteries of flight and despair?
When the train stopped, no one let us out. We cried for release, tried again to find a weakness in the locks that kept us in, begged for help. The train growled and quivered as if wanting to attack. If it could have twisted enough to get us, would anyone have bothered to stop it?
Another day or decade passed before light entered the car. We stumbled out, blind, into a crowd of angry people. They beat us as we tried to walk forward. They yelled in a language of gun barrels and dog snarls. Busses that might have carried us skittered away, made anxious by the crowds.
We became separated.
Each strand of our village stretched until we couldn't keep track of who was where, or who lived and who fell victim to the journey. We lost our sense of self.
One day we hope to unite enough of those strands, hope to draw ourselves together into consciousness. Enough, at least, to tell our story, even if only for a brief time before we fade away ourselves into that nothing where old villages go. For now we are only fragmented glimpses of life and death in a dozen cities and towns, surfacing briefly into awareness. Splinters of life trying to journey into some form of remembrance.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 19th, 2016

Author Comments

It's probably no surprise that this story was inspired by the stories of refugees that were especially visible back in 2015 (not that the stories or difficulties have ended, but the media attention has faded as of summer 2016). Rather than being any overtly activist story, this one took more of a surreal or magical-realist turn as I wrote it. As far as its writing went, one thing I've long been fascinated with is the idea of using a plural narrator. There's something cognitively weird about hearing/reading a story of "we did this" and "we did that" without ever resolving down to a single narrator instead. For it to work well, I wanted to keep that unresolved feel, and once I figured out how and who that plural narrator was, it informed the shape of the story as a whole.

- Daniel Ausema
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