The prompt from Reddit: “The world is an infinite flat plane. The furthest known points of this realm take days to contact by telegraph. Slowly communication ceases from the far west, and slowly the silence pushes closer and closer to home…”
Simmons stabbed his walking stick into the snow, brushed the powder from his wool gloves, and pulled a leather map from his coat pocket. The cold wind snapped at the loose ends, and the map fluttered as if it were a bat trying to break free. He squinted as snowflakes clung to his eye lashes. “Well, I reckon that’s it,” he said. “I know it’s been awhile, but Allu isn’t what it used to be.”
Williams drew beside him, his snowshoes puffing with each step, and glanced at the markings on the map. He lifted his goggles to get a better look at the small cluster of buildings huddled together in the valley below. “Looks right to me. But you’re right, town should be bigger. How many years since your last visit?”
“Sixteen if I recall correctly. But,” said Simmons as a soft smile formed under his grizzled beard, “my recollection becomes more truant with each year.”
Williams chuckled. “Between the two of us, we should have enough recollection to get the job done.”
“Aye. Come take a look, Mr. Holt,” he said, turning his head. “It’s important to practice your navigation in this business, even when you know exactly where you are.”
Holt replaced the cap on his water skin, tucked it inside his coat to keep it from freezing, and jaunted toward them. A thick handlebar mustache curled out toward rosy-red cheeks that were already being nipped at by the cold, and he wore a smile that looked to suffer from a touch of numbness. Williams laughed. “Boy, why is your face still bare?”
Clouds of breath plumed from his mouth. “I’m just taking your jests to heart, Mr. Simmons,” Holt said as he took the map into his own gloved hands. “How else am I to cure myself of this terrible case of baby face?”
Williams shook his head with delight. “Mr. Holt, the intention was to goad you into growing a proper beard and be rid of that whimsical mishap above your lip.”
The numbed smile on Holt’s face grew as far as it could while he sniffled and looked at the map. He moved his thumb along the leather and pointed with his index finger. “So as I understand it, that’s the Frosteen Ridge there, along the north. We’ve been following that for nine days now.” His thumb continued traveling while he analyzed the markings. “This would be the previous valley, the one from this morning.”
Simmons nodded. “Yes. And what leads you to believe that?”
Holt wiggled the finger pointing toward the small town. “The river in this valley serpentines extensively. The map notes that to distinguish it from the previous valley where the river traveled with less anxiety. But Mr. Simmons? Allu?”
“Station A-1-1-U,” said Simmons with a nod. “The locals refer to it as Allu.” He tugged the map from Holt’s hands and placed it inside of his wool coat. “An acceptable reading, Mr. Holt.”
“We should continue on,” said Williams as he brushed collecting snow from his friend’s shoulder. “The storm darkens and whitens your beard by the second.”
Simmons could hear the smile in the voice mocking him. “I hate to bear bad news, Mr. Williams, but hiding your face beneath that scarf will not retain your tenuous youth.” He grabbed his walking stick and pointed it at the telegraph line weaving through the thin trees. “We’ll shelter in Allu and talk with the townsmen to learn what they know. Hopefully tonight’s storm will show more mercy than the last. Mr. Holt, if you don’t mind making trail for the rest of the afternoon?” He gave Williams a playground shove. “I’ve been informed I’m approaching elderly age and feel I should spare what strength I have left in my legs.”
The three men laughed and traveled inline down the sloping hill. Behind them, the falling snow attacked their tracks with fury.
“Anything else?” asked the aging hostess. Urgency held her eyes prisoner. “Please, don’t be shy. We’re awful glad to see Walkers finally make it to these parts.”
Simmons held up his hand. “You’ve been more than hospitable, Ms. Carrie. Thank you.”
Carrie nodded her head quickly and wiped her hands at her apron. “Just Carrie,” she said. Her eyes darted between the three men as she watched them taking in warm food and drink. “You’ll need your strength, and your government credit is always good here. Are you boys heading west in the morning then?”
Simmons took a drink from his pewter tankard and let the hot water soak into his core. The heat matched that of the fire burning in the large hearth beside them. “That’s our intention. We’re well aware of the anxiety the silence from the west has wrought on you fine folks. The sooner we walk that part of the ‘graph and make repairs, the sooner Allu can rest easy.”
Carrie’s fidgeting hands slowed their assault on her apron, but did not cease. “Yes, well, hopefully that’s the height of our trouble and nothing more. Nothing more.”
Simmons met her worried eyes with the steel calm of his own. “Mr. Williams and I have been Walkers in this region for quite some time now, Carrie. Not usually this far west, no, but this region none the less. I assure you, this winter has been unusual and cause for many failures in the ‘graph. I expect nothing more.”
She eyed the three men, particularly the curled mustache of Mr. Holt, and snorted. “Unusual? Mr. Simmons, I would not call a winter that runs three years something so simple as unusual. It’s an omen, sir, and a dire one at that. Mark my words,” she said, pointing a finger, “no natural winter runs so long or cold as this one. No, sir. This is a winter born of dragons.” She stepped forward and started to open her mouth wider, as if preparing to unleash a feverish rant, but instead snapped her jaw shut, turned and walked away. She stopped at the door leading to the back room of the small inn. “I’ll have my boy dry every inch of clothing you have before morning. And the telegraph worker, Mr. Crane, should be in shortly. His shift ends at sundown.” Carrie gave one final stare at Simmons, the light from a hanging lantern showing hints of fiery red hair now all but overtaken by gray, and disappeared into the back.
“Dragons?” asked Holt when the room was empty.
Williams, his dark skin gleaming in the firelight, stretched clawed hands toward Holt. “Dragons!”
Simmons sighed. “Easy does it, Williams. Let’s not sour our stay by insulting the fears of those that maintain us.”
Holt reared back from the mimed claws Williams extended toward him. “But dragons are a myth,” he said. “Right?”
“Depends on who you ask,” said Williams, recovering his arms after nearly falling from his chair. “According to our esteemed government, dragons do not exist. But Simmons knows their true nature first hand. He’s been this far west before, and then some.” He watched Holt’s eyes go wide and took a satisfying bite from his potato.
“You’ve seen a dragon!?” asked Holt.
“Keep your voice down, Mr. Holt,” said Simmons. “And Williams, you keep shoving potatoes into yours.” He turned his chair to face the two men. “The answer to your question, Mr. Holt, is no. I have not seen a dragon, nor do I maintain the position they exist. Williams here is taking stock of your gullible nature.”
A groan of disappointment mumbled from Williams’ mouth.
“Furthermore,” continued Simmons, “if you wish to become an esteemed Walker like myself, you’ll do what’s in your power to ease the minds of those brave enough to settle on the Exterior. These are kind and hardy people, but education is not their strong suit and superstition can often take advantage of them. From here on, no talk of dragons.”
The door to the inn opened, and a man covered in thick furs entered while under heavy assault from the snow. He was quick to shut the door, and when he finally shed his covers, he was reduced to a thinness that was surprising. He approached the three men sitting by the fire wearing a gray uniform with yellow striping running along each side.
Simmons stood and extended a hand. “Mr. Crane, I presume.”
Mr. Crane took the hand, its warmth feeling like a furnace against his own, and nodded. “Tis me. Ya Simmons? Ya the three Walkers going west on the ‘graph?”
The three men nodded. When Crane’s eyes landed on Williams, he took a step back in surprise.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Crane?” asked Simmons.
“No, no,” said Crane. “No, no. I just—uh. I ain’t never seen one before.” He looked at Williams. “I mean I’ve heard of ya, sure. But never seen one plain as day like this.” Crane saw the confusion in the men’s eyes. He placed a hand on his heart. “A negro. Apologies, negro-man. Apologies.”
Williams rolled his eyes and shoved the rest of the potato into his mouth, to which Simmons privately celebrated. “Quite alright, Mr. Crane,” said Simmons. He pulled a chair from a nearby table and completed a small circle by the fire. “Please, join us.”
Crane sat in a rigid way with his palms flat on his knees. “You leave tomorrow?” he asked.
“We intend to,” said Simmons. “Has contact to the west been restored during our travel here?”
“No,” said Crane, as if offended by the question. A glare shaped his narrow face. “Course not. How could it?”
Simmons shrugged. “Sometimes breaks in the ‘graph can be restored by local technicians. It was an off chance, but it never hurts to check for good fortune.”
“Good fortune?” asked Crane in a combative tone. “Good fortune? How can there be good in this? The west screams with howling winds that pour ice and snow into our valley. With each week, the freeze on the river worsens. It’s harder to find fish. Harder still to find flowing water. This is no natural winter. Something is coming,” he said, thumbing toward the outside world, “and it comes breathing ice and flying on frozen wings.”
Simmons raised a calming hand. “Please, Mr. Crane. Please. Now is not the time for rash conclusions.”
Crane skittered out a laugh. “Rash. Those stations are squelched one by one, step by step. Allu is next in line, Simmons. We’re next on the ‘graph. And if that ain’t the worst of it—but we all know it is—even if it weren’t dragons causing this, the town is dying. Man can’t live like this. God pushes us from the Exterior. We’ve drawn too close to His doors.”
Williams slowed his chewing despite the softness of the potato in his mouth. He feared the words that would leap from his tongue if he swallowed. Simmons saw the fear in Crane’s eyes, could smell it flowing from his meager body, and abandoned his attempt at pacification. “Is there any information you can give to help us on our way?”
Crane scowled at the question as his memory grinded away for results. “The last message that came was a warning,” he said, tapping a finger on his boney knee. “It wasn’t complete, but it was a warning. It was cutoff before they could finish. ‘Mountains screaming. Ground shaking. Black clouds over Frosteen Ridge. Something is.’”
Holt waited Crane to continue. “Something is what?”
Crane sliced his fingers across his neck and let the silence in the room answer the question. He stood, walked to the door, and began donning his heavy furs. “You mind yourselves on your way, Walkers. Keep your eyes to the skies. By the way, did you see a supply caravan during your travels?”
“We did,” said Simmons. “I wager it’ll find Allu in three days. He planned on arriving sooner, but mentioned having trouble with wolves along the way.”
“Too bad,” said Crane as he opened the door to an onslaught of falling snow. “When he gets here, he’ll have to turn right around.” Crane slammed the door behind him.
The three Telegraph Walkers looked at each other in silence.