Beyond the Veil – Red Engine
Folks passing through on the naked rock under the high sun would joke that Stonehenge had somehow gotten moved to Arizona. But if they walked closer to the double circle of what they thought were stones, they would see that each marker was actually compacted metal, the crushed carcasses of motorcycles and cars. Intuitive travelers wondered what kind of man would build such a place and what kind of magic he worked there.
There were two men standing in the circle at noon of that day, the day the Red Engine ran wild. The man wearing only cutoff jeans, tattoos and scars, the one who had built the place, was called Spur, not without a sordid story behind it. He was hairless, middle-aged, muscles still working but starting to sag under his sun-cracked skin.
The scruffy young man with the black hair and gray eyes was Grief Tanner. He patted dust off his riding leather, glanced around, taking in the dilapidated tent and grimy Winnebago sitting on the far side of the circle as well as whatever lurked under a dusty tarp a few feet away, and shook his head. He didn’t belong to any bike club but he was a member of the Hallowjacks, the men who walked the borders, the cheaters supreme. That meant he didn’t want to be here.
“This is a real nice setup you’ve got here. Maybe you should have a realtor out to appraise it. It’s missing a bean bag in the center though. That would really complete it.”
Spur didn’t smile when he rasped, “It’s safe here. Nothing can get me in this place, my Steelhenge. I’m glad they sent you. I asked for you. The others aren’t riders.”
Grief shaded his eyes. “Yeah, well the others aren’t exactly itching to come running whenever you cry for help. Why don’t you just get to the point before I die of heatstroke, okay?”
The older man bent his head and cleared his throat of what sounded like gravel. “I rode with Mad Frank Madison, kid. I was part of his crew. The things we saw on the haunted roads of America. . . the things we did. . .
“I would take the Throttle Wolves over your Hallowjacks any day of the week, kid. We all of us had the skills, you know? But old MF was the powerhouse. Never seen anyone like him.”
Spur was silent a moment, lost in time, unaware that his desert-dry lips had cracked and started to bleed. He went on. “Didn’t save him though. Not when we ran into the Red Engine.”
Grief took a step closer to Spur. “Are you telling me you’ve seen it?”
Spur smiled, widening the split in his lips, and his eyes watered. “Oh, yes. I was the only one who escaped. And I never wanted to see that thing again but I have.” He waved a weary arm towards the markers surrounding them. “At night, the stars speak so clearly to this place. They’ve told me of it every night for the past three weeks. The Red Engine rides again and it’s going to be close tonight, to the east.”
“There’s a whole lot to the east. Where exactly?”
Spur’s face suddenly twisted up into fury. “You know damn well it doesn’t work like that! Exactly? Exactly? But I think. . . I think it’s going to be coming down Interstate 17. That’s my best guess.”
Grief turned and began to stride back to his ride. “Then I’ve got a few hours on the road ahead of me.”
“Wait, Grief. Wait a minute, I’ve got a basket case for you to use.” Spur turned to the object under the tarp and revealed it to be the ugliest, most piecemeal motorcycle Grief had ever seen.
Grief squinted at Spur as if he had lost his mind. “Why would I want to ride that piece of crap when my own crotch rocket is right over there?”
Spur stomped right up to Grief until his leathery face was just inches from the younger man’s. “I built it from the bikes of the Throttle Wolves. Went back when I was sure the Engine had moved on and got what I needed. Every single one of them is in this bike. I’ve been working on it off and on for more than twenty years. Every single way I could make this thing a talisman, I have.”
Grief stepped around him, approached the bike and ran a gloved hand across it gingerly. A series of chrome amulets had been bolted to its sides and sigils were etched into every surface. Grief removed the glove, touched the handlebars and felt a deep throb, a dark frequency of magic.
The older man continued, “I want that thing destroyed. I’m not a hero, though. I’ve got a little piece of the damn critter in the center of this circle and I built it so it can’t see inside or enter it. I’m not leaving here until the job is done. But I do want that thing destroyed.”
Grief looked from the bike to the man to the bike again, considering. Something wasn’t quite right and he couldn’t sense exactly what protections Spur had put on the bike. That was troubling but winging it was never a problem for Grief; some people find a little thrill in being less prepared than they know they ought to be.
A minute later, he was thundering away from the circle of steel on that cursed machine while Spur watched him go without the slightest trace of guilt or regret or anything on his face.
Hours passed before Grief found himself flirting with an older waitress in a diner off of I17. He had needed a break, Spur’s creation was only a slightly smoother ride than a jackhammer, and she had a smile he liked, the kind that looked like a chagrined frown with the edges turned up.
She was wearing it when he told her his name and she said, “So that’s your handle, huh? Grief. What’re you sad a lot?”
Grief spoke around a gushing mouthful of greasy hamburger. “Nope, it’s my given name. I’ve got a brother named Lament and my sister is Sorrow.”
She cocked an eyebrow in amused disbelief. “Yeah, right. If that’s true, then your parents need Prozac, big time.”
He shook his shaggy head. “Naw. My parents were mostly just weird on the surface. People were always surprised at how sunny they actually were. You ever hear of Mister Twisted and Little Miss Morbid? They were kind of like Elvira but —”
“Oh yes!” she said, clapping her hands in delight. “They used to host that one horror show! And she was in all those goofy movies! She was your mom?”
“Yep. And those movies are classics, okay?”
She leaned back, crossed her arms and inspected him, looking for signs of insanity. “Man, growing up under them must have been weird. Were they like that all the time? Did they actually think they could do magic?”
Grief shifted uncomfortably on his counter stool, glazed out the diner’s window to see a hulking semi pulling in. “Only the harmless kind. But it did get me wondering, wondering what was really out there, if there was any real power to be had, y’know? Started me on my path.” His voice trailed off and his grey eyes became distant for a moment before suddenly coming back. “But not them. They’re just good people.”
The waitress, whose name tag said Sarah, looked towards the window herself and glowered. “What is this asshole doing?”
The semi was positioning itself across the front of the diner, its trailer completely blocking the window’s view of the interstate. The hairs on the back of Grief’s neck rose and without knowing exactly why, he glanced around the diner, taking in almost a dozen other customers, including one family of four.
“Is there a back door to this place?” he asked Sarah and when he didn’t get an answer, he turned just in time to see her drop down behind the counter, limply flopping across the floor tiles. Thuds and clattering sounded all around him as the cook in the kitchen and the customers at their tables dropped like puppets with their strings cut.
A bell tinkled as the front door swung open and the man from the semi stepped in with a double-thump of his big black boots. Then there was only the sound of heavy breathing as Grief and this man, wearing a flannel shirt in the Arizona summer heat, stared at each other.
When he spoke, the movement of the man’s lips was barley visible beneath the tangles of his wild beard. “I smelled you. I smelled you and I remembered you. You crossed me and escaped me long ago but I never forget. And now I’ve found you.” The man gripped his shirt with both hands and tore it open, revealing a mangled mingling of flesh and metal and wire.
Grief rose slowly to his feet as two realizations hit home at the same time. First, the Red Engine, like a few other predators of the Torment Countries, could take human avatars, which meant the creature was much more powerful than he had wanted to believe. Secondly, Spur’s motorcycle wasn’t built to protect its rider but to tag him as a decoy and a sacrifice.
Grief didn’t have time to be flummoxed by either revelation. He turned and leaped over the counter just as the man from the semi bolted forward in a blur. When the man followed suit, leaping behind the counter, Grief leapt back out in front of it, keeping it between them.
The man laughed, rumbling phlegmatic sound, and the smell of cooking meat wafted from his mouth. “You really should let my proxy finish you. The true me is tearing this way and it won’t be long now. You don’t want to die that way. Some of your kind are at this very moment finding that out.”
Grief felt something try to grip his mind but he sloughed it off easily enough. “Look, I’m not the guy you think I am. You have eyes, right? Look at me.” It was silly, trying to reason with a nightmare like this, and Grief wondered if this was what it was like to panic.
The man plucked a gleaming vegetable knife from behind the counter, his runny pink eyes locked on Grief’s. “Roads. Roads turn a land into a nation, a planet into a world. I have ridden camels and horses and cars and turtles and beetles and men and so many others on so many worlds and the roads between worlds.”
He wagged the knife at Grief, his reflection flitting across its blade like a ghost. “Roads carry the men and their dreams just as arteries carry blood and I am the infection chasing you on the arterial tide.”
With savage suddenness, the man dove down and came back up with Sarah gripped by her neck in his left hand. A flick of the knife slit the unconscious woman’s blouse and bra and a rough jerk spilled her heavy breasts, so pale against the tan of her torso. With the flat of his blade, the man traced the contours of her left breast. “I ride the blood straight into the red engine of man. Under here. The most perfect part of you. I sing its praises.”
Grief cocked his head, weighing options, calculating, then bolted for the door. As expected, the man dropped Sarah and leapt over the counter with a joyous snarl. But Grief spun around before reaching the door and tossed a small object, a sliver of glass encased in amber on which an ovoid spiral-like symbol, a word from a language not invented by man, was etched. As he threw the object at the man and himself to the floor, Grief spoke the word aloud.
All of the diner’s windows shattered. Every glass, every light-bulb, every pair of spectacles and even the faces of every watch in the diner shattered. And all of it, every shard, converged on the man from the semi with the force of a hurricane wind. The spray of blood even reached the ceiling.
Grief was appalled to see the man still on his feet, swaying, the shards jutting out from every part him. But then he collapsed with a sickening explosion of crunches. He lay there twitching, still trying to drag himself towards Grief in the slick lubrication of his own blood.
But Grief was already out the door.
He hesitated before the bike and briefly considered ditching it, wondering if it might not be too late, if it had stained him with Spur’s aura so completely that the Red Engine would chase him even without the bike. Either way, it didn’t matter. Spur had betrayed him and that had to be answered. What better way than the lead his enemy to him?
He brought the bike to life with a roar and sped back the way he came.
The sun was nearing the horizon when they caught up with him on Black Canyon Highway dead in the middle of Phoenix. It was a disaster. When the cars finished crumpling and the metal stopped screaming, Grief was amazed to find himself still whole and alive. He couldn’t credit his own skill with his miraculous escape from the pile-up, so the bike must have been good for something.
He sat there, straddling the bike, gaping at the mess he had somehow weaved through, hearing the sobs of the injured, trying to get his breathing under control, trying to figure out how his luck could be so bad that this could happen now, when the driver-side door of a nearby shattered Volvo burst open. The man who stepped out didn’t seem to mind his broken arm, he just kept his gaze fixed on Grief as he limped towards him.
Grief gazed back in dawning horror. Proxies had just caused a smash-up on a major highway, injuring or killing God knows how many, in an attempt to get him. Muttering a non-stop stream of obscenities, Grief spun the bike around and escaped down Camelback Road, then turned onto a side street.
The proxy dove back into his Volvo and soon the half-wrecked car was limping after the Hallowjack. A dilapidated green van disengaged itself from the tangle of cars and joined the pursuit, its driver and passengers all flesh puppets of the Red Engine. The driver of a formerly sleek corvette also tried to serve his master’s will, but his vehicle was a crippled lost cause.
The chase was a darting, reckless one, serenaded by the blaring horns of outraged drivers. Grief cleared his mind of all concerns except speed and gave himself over to the motorcycle, the world tilting and blurring past him. The Volvo ended its run with a brutal collision with an SUV but the van would not be stopped. Still, it was too slow and disappeared from Grief’s rearview after a couple minutes, but he knew better than to think they weren’t still on his trail. They didn’t have to see him to find him.
The place for a stand presented itself: a gas station and car-wash, side by side.
He swung into the lot and skidded to a stop in front of a pump. The green van rounded the corner at the end of the street just as he jerked the gas hose from its holster. It took too many precious seconds to spray a barbell-like symbol on the pavement in gasoline. This was another word of the Omerta Tongue, the language of the Outer Roads.
The van, filled with dark and menacing silhouettes, swung into the lot just as Grief lit a match, dropped it onto the symbol and spoke the word. The match winked out when it touched the gas and the van exploded as its fuel tank ignited. Grief and two other men, who had been filling their tanks and trying to ignore the weirdo with the bike, were thrown to the ground by the blast, eyes burning and ears ringing.
Grief pushed himself into a sitting position, physically exhausted from what he’d done. He didn’t know whether to cry or scream when the van’s two front doors opened and a pair of flame-engulfed figures stepped out. One of them tottered, took two steps and then succumbed to the flame, collapsing to the pavement. But the other kept coming, lurching and flailing.
The horrified screams of the other two men, both of them frozen and disbelieving their eyes, snapped Grief out of his stupor. He wrestled the fallen bike back up to a standing position, mounted it and brought it to life just as he began to feel heat at his bike. The Hallowjack took off with a squeal of his tires and the proxy, so close but now defeated, collapsed. One roasting arm landed in the growing puddle of gasoline from the hose Grief had dropped at the van’s explosion.
The gas pumps erupted and the two stricken bystanders were washed away in tides of flame. Grief was not so far away that he did not hear the thunder and know what it was.
The sun had touched the horizon and lit the sky like an inferno by the time Grief had left Phoenix heading west on I10. The cost of this game blurred his eyes with tears, turned his stomach with nausea but he did not slow down. He had to win this thing now, not just survive it. He swore to himself that he would.
He didn’t know that this bad night for Phoenix wasn’t over yet, that the Red Engine itself would shortly enter the city, following Grief’s path, and triple the carnage and chaos already done. It would be a night of sirens and fire, a night of hell that the newspapers would never be able to explain.
The pale full moon and a crowd of stars lit the desert and witnessed Grief’s return to the circle of steel. He kicked up a spray of dust and dirt as he braked, tried to dismount and just flopped to the ground in exhaustion. But there was no time to rest, no time. The last few miles of his run had passed in terror; he could feel the Red Engine bearing down on him.
And now, a cloud of dust was just visible in the distance as something inhuman tore across the desert.
Coughing, aching, he got himself upright and stumbled towards the circle, calling, “Spur! It’s right behind me!”
Spur met him at the outer edge of the circle and leveled a shotgun at him. “That’s why you’re not getting in here, bro.” His words were ever so slightly slurred and his eyes were bright and glassy. He reeked of alcohol.
Grief dared to walk right up to the barrel of the shotgun. What did he have to lose? The small dust cloud in the distance was now less small and less distant. “You tried to get me killed. I came out here to help you and you tried to get me killed.”
Spur bared his crooked yellow teeth in a skeptical leer. “You came out here to help me? Nah, you came out here for the same thing we all did, thrill-seeker.”
“You got others killed. A whole bunch of folks in Phoenix —”
“People gotta die so that others feel alive, boy. Gas is a fossil fuel, you know. We burn the dead so that we can chase the dream, whatever it may be, so that we can feel alive. And I wasn’t even in Phoenix. You were.” As he spoke, the older man stared out past Grief, mesmerized by what was coming.
Grief turned to look and saw a shape in the dust cloud, a hulking figure on an enormous, jagged motorcycle. It made not a sound but ran silent as a shark. Grief broke out into a cold sweat and felt his knees weaken. If he didn’t get into that circle now he was going to die.
He turned back to the older man and forced himself to speak in a calm, almost soothing voice. “You know this isn’t right, Spur. That’s why you had to get drunk off your ass.”
But Spur didn’t look at him, just gasped, “All those flies, even more than last time.”
Grief spun around again and saw that the cloud around the creature wasn’t just dust. He could hear a low buzz that wasn’t in any way mechanical. It would be on him in a minute.
He turned back to Spur and said evenly, “Just be a man, look me in the eye and tell me this is right. Tell me this is what MF Madison would do.”
Finally Spur locked eyes with him and there was genuine sorrow in his faltering words. “Kid, this is the way the world is, y’know? Everybody’s gotta fight to survive. Somebody’s gotta lose.”
The buzzing sound began to distinguish itself into a thousand insect voices. In the same gentle monotone, Grief answered, “But what about when we met? You had woken the Starving Men and I got the other Hallowjacks to help you. That’s how people survive, by helping each other.”
The buzzing was loud, almost maddening, but Spur was caught in Grief’s imploring gaze and didn’t look away. His words were thick and hard to understand when he said, “I’m sorry but I can’t. I’m scared. I’m bad. Can’t let you in.”
The awful smell of rancid meat wafted over them and the rising hairs on the back of his neck and arms told Grief that he had seconds. He said simply, “Then we’ll both die. You took a step outside the circle, Spur.”
“What?” Spur started and jerked his head frantically, looking to his feet, then to the markers on either side of him, and he didn’t even have time to register that it wasn’t true before Grief had slammed into him, driving his knee up into Spur’s groin.
A motorcycle built of steel and bone and gristle, trailing a comet tail of flies, came skidding to a stop mere feet away from the struggling men. An massive figure clad in a long stitched coat of pale leather that had to be the flesh of men, dismounted and roared, its voice sounding like a lion’s from the bottom of a well.
Grief gave Spur a savage crack across the head with the butt of the shotgun and dove into the circle. Spur had just enough time to realize that the struggle had landed him on the wrong side of the border when a hand made of dull gray metal and bare red muscle landed on his shoulder.
“You lied to me!” shrieked Spur as the Red Engine pressed him down and began to dismantle him. Again and again, punctuated and interrupted by cries of agony, he screamed, “You lied to me!”
But Grief wasn’t listening. He had an oath to keep. He ran to the center of Steelhenge and found a small mound of dirt with a protective circle drawn around it. A few swipes of his hand cleared the grit away from the little glistening fragment of the Red Engine. Grief pulled a pen-knife from his pocket, pricked his finger, and traced the ovoid symbol onto the fragment in blood.
Grief looked back to see that the beast had paused in its work on Spur’s corpse and was peering into the circle, perhaps intrigued by this barrier to its senses. But it wouldn’t cross, couldn’t cross. There were rules that even beings like the Red Engine were bound by. It parted its mismatched jaws, the lower might have come from some kind of dog, and hissed.
Grief spoke the word and then howled in pain, clutching his finger. The Red Engine howled too when it felt itself suddenly jerked forward into the outer boundary of the steel circle.
Grief spoke the word again and the agony spread to his other fingers. The Red Engine struggled mightily but slid a couple more feet into the circle. Its flesh components began to run and sizzle like cooking fat.
Grief spoke the word a third time and felt as if his entire left hand licked by the unfathomable cold beyond death. The Red Engine, its talons dug into the dry dead ground, inched past the inner circle of markers. Its final hateful snarl echoed across the desert as its body erupted, flinging fragments of bone and metal and spraying liquid meat across the impassive faces of the markers.
Grief tumbled into unconsciousness.
The rude insistence of the morning sun’s heat woke him. Sun glinted painfully from the gleaming markers. Buzzing flies explored the remains of Spur and the creature that killed him. Dust and dirt caked his leathers and rained from his hair when he sat up.
He got himself a beer and some jerky from Spur’s Winnebago. He had to open them both using only his right hand. His left was numb and limp. He worked with it for half an hour, trying to get some feeling, some movement. He knew it was pointless but he had to try.
After his breakfast, such as it was, he took stock of his options. His own motorcycle was still in one piece, standing right where he left it, but riding it with one hand wasn’t a smart idea. There was the Winnebago but he didn’t intend on using any vehicle that Spur had a hand in ever again. As long as his right hand still worked, there was always traveling by thumb. He decided to hike the long miles on that unmarked dirt road all the way back to I10 where he’d hitch a ride.
He found a duffel bag in the Winnebago and packed it with some beer and food. He slung the bag across his back, took one last look around old Steelhenge and hit the road.
Beyond the Veil is a regularly appearing column featuring fiction, including occult, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. If you’d like to contribute a story, please contact email@example.com and we’ll be happy to review your submission.
©2009 Bret Tallman
Edited by Sheta Kaey