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“I’m one of the few locals, if you could call us that. Born and raised, as was my son, and now his little girl too. That’s them over there, she loves riding around on his shoulders like that... Sorry, your name was, again…?”
I’d been ambushed by an older fellow after getting off the train. I would’ve called him a local even if he hadn’t so readily offered as much, strode right up to me from the direction of town. He had a miner’s air, an engineer run down by the endless grind. Didn’t seem to hurt his spirits much, just his memory. I introduced myself for the third time in as many minutes.
“Ah right, right. New faces are hard around here, we don’t get many. You picked quite a day to come out to Harrow, friend. We’re very…”
I was tired, and perhaps not as friendly as I should have been. Mostly I’d hoped that he’d leave me be during the one chance I had to stretch my legs. I stopped him short of another tangent, figured if he was going to talk I might as well find out what was going on.
“Oh, what’s that? You didn’t get the news…? Ah right, train came in from the Cinder, that explains it. Good choice of yours getting out of there, don’t mind my saying. Fine day to come through here, yes sir. They’re sending the cleaners out today! First time in a decade they’ve come this far east. Yep, they’re doing a central pass, all the way to…”
The Cinder. That jab at my home state was not particularly endearing. I let the old man continue as my mind wandered. Maybe old wasn’t the right word, I thought. Weathered, that’d be it. Much like the town he was standing in, itself a mirror of the blasted landscape that surrounded us. Made for a good stop, I will say that much; the winds on that side of the mountain kept the ash at bay. Engine had to take on water at some point, might as well be somewhere passengers could safely get out and decompress. And what do you know, we were passing right through a cleaner swath. I’d never seen one before, barely even knew what to expect save for stories I’d heard.
“...Grandfather was a cleaner himself you know, one of the first.” The old… weathered man returned me from my reverie. “Back then, they didn’t know about proper protection, about the sickness… But he was proud to serve, you understand! Proud. Nowadays, they have these newfangled machines, big as our mining drills! Well, wait, might be bigger than that. Hmmm, they’re… well…”
As he tried in vain to describe the size of the ships, I began to hear doors opening. Around town, people were exiting their houses, moving to get a good view of the setting sun. I could see confusion in the eyes of the little ones, shepherded outdoors as they were by their eager kin. They had been told, surely, of what was coming, but how could they understand? I barely knew myself, after nearly thirty years of living and learning. I figured that if I stood around long enough, that fellow would tell me their whole history. I’ll admit, at the time that thought had amused me. I couldn’t have understood the impact the cleaners can have on a man.
“...course they’re slow too, being that size. Used to take a crew of fourteen, but I hear the new ones only take three! Can you imagine that? Fascinating, it really is. They don’t even need to go out on the deck now, keeps them safe from the clouds. You know, I…”
At that point, an ear-shattering siren blared out over the town. I brought my hands to my ears in a vain attempt to stifle the sound, but the rest of the folk around seemed unaffected. The man just laughed, clapped me on the back, and said something I couldn’t possibly hear before going to join his kin. The siren was gone as quickly as it had come, and the equally deafening silence that followed was punctuated only by my own ringing ears. At first, it appeared that the townsfolk were all simply staring skyward. Towards the unchanging mass of black cloud that coated what we in the Daggerlands refer to as “the sky,” anyway. But a joyful cry from the throng directed their gaze, along with mine, and I realized the true magnitude of the spectacle we were about to behold.
Above us, the dense and unmoving choke of fog began to… well surely, I thought, it wasn’t moving. It rarely ever moved, even on the coast. But it was, in fact, slowly beginning to drift west. Not all at once, mind, just a thin strand that grew thicker as the minutes passed. Through the silence, a repetitive mechanical sound was barely audible, itself growing alongside the moving band of clouds. Suddenly, far in the distance, a shape began to emerge from the underside of the smog like some sort of upside-down submarine. It too was cloaked in clouds, but it was very apparently not a part of them. A cheer went up from the assembly, leaving little doubt as to what it could be.
As the machine drew nearer, I understood why the man’s words had failed when he attempted to describe its enormity. It was a great metal monstrosity, with an array of colossal baffled fans across the front. The blades themselves were easily twice the height of the tallest man, whirling at such a speed as could not be guessed. They consumed the smog greedily, like nothing I’ve seen before or since. The size of its front profile, though, was nothing compared to its bulk overall. The ship was easily half again as long as it was wide, most of the space taken up by an array of what I could only assume were colossal storage tanks. Lightning crackled around the belly of the ship, flung off by unseen dynamos. The noise it made as it grew ever-closer was like nothing in this world, almost like the engines we have to power our regional airships but magnified a thousand times. The sweeping of the great blades, combined with the vortex it was producing, was truly an incredible thing to behold.
When the cleaner ship passed overhead, it became apparent that something was falling from it. Not in great chunks, mind, but a sort of gentle mist. I knew the dangers of the acid rain that plagued the inland wastes, and I was sure the folk in Harrow were all too familiar with it. But they made no effort to hide beneath their iron eaves, seeing no apparent danger in this mysterious precipitation. It seemed to cake to the tanks on the craft, falling from them when enough had accrued. It floated gently on the wind, like the willow strands I knew from home. As some flecks landed on me I flinched, but I felt no pain, only chill. The children were dancing around in the fall, some even attempting to catch the little wisps in their mouths at the suggestion of their elders. Somewhat embarrassingly, I did so myself, and was surprised to find no foul taste. It was water, clean and pure, in a form like the ice I had read about. Snow, I’d heard it called; lands far to the north of the Daggerlands knew it well, here it was simply magical. But nothing like what had followed.
In the wake of the awesome machine, there was nothing. Well, perhaps that’s not the correct way to say… there was light. Across the width of the ship’s trail, there were only clawing tendrils of the fumes that blotted out the rest of the sky. Through this long window, facing the sun we so rarely saw, we were treated to a spectacle of illumination. With orange, red, and purple, a proper sunset greeted us. On the coast, I had seen the sun rise, but never had I seen it disappear below the horizon with such fanfare. Judging by the stillness of the town, neither had any of the locals.
As we stared at the majesty that was the sky, the real sky, with stars just visible in the coming night, the cleaner ship continued on its path. As it came level with the southern peak, it turned north, making for the coast. The droning sound began to dissipate, and so too did our window; the cloud grasped at the open air, healing the wound it had been so boldly dealt. As the last of the twilight disappeared behind the wall of blackness, which seemed now somewhat thinner, the townsfolk disbanded and began to walk back to their homes. The whistle of the train reminded me of where I stood, and I turned hastily to catch it lest I be left behind. As I made my way back to the platform, I heard the weathered man shout his parting.
“Bet you’ve never seen anything like that out in the Cinder!”
I remember smiling as I ran. No, sir, I surely hadn’t.