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Authors: Chris Paton

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BOOK: Metal Emissary
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“No time for daydreaming, British,” Hari appeared out of the swirling snow enveloping them. “The emissary does not rest. There is a caravan ahead. They are well beyond the head of the pass and on the road to the abandoned village of Gushtia. I have seen the emissary. It is gaining on them. The controller must be in range now.”

“We can catch up with it then,” Jamie grimaced as Hari pulled him along the path, forcing him to move his left leg faster.

“No, they will not slow it down, it will not stop.” Hari hurried Jamie as the first cries of alarm drifted on the wind toward them. “It has no time for people, just direction and purpose. It must deliver its message, or worse. That is the only thing that matters to it, and its controller.” More cries on the wind made Hari stop. “If you cannot run, British, then give me your rifle.”

“What will you do?” Jamie shrugged the rifle case off his shoulders. “A bullet cannot stop it. You know that.”

“Truly, British,” Hari pulled the Baker rifle from its case and held out his hand for the horn of gunpowder and half a palm-full of musket balls, “but I must try.”

“I will come with you,” Jamie slipped the empty rifle case over his shoulder.

“You will be too late,” Hari stared at Jamie and then disappeared into the wind.

Shielding his eyes, Jamie squinted into the gathering snowstorm. He flinched as he caught sight of the emissary as it drove powerful metal legs along the track. Steam melted the flakes of snow falling on its metal torso. Camels bolted, the goods and packs secured to their backs cascading in the path of the emissary to be crushed beneath its iron feet. The pop of musket fire, the scream of a mother as her child tripped in the path of the emissary, such fell sights and sounds. Jamie dumped his pack on the ground, pulled out his flintlock pistol and forced himself into a trot toward the carnage ahead of him. He recognised the crack of the Baker rifle and scanned the path ahead for signs of Hari. He found him, running parallel to the emissary. Kneeling, firing, standing, reloading, Hari paced the emissary, plastering the metal monster with British lead.

He will run out of musket balls soon,
Jamie realised. Pausing for a moment at a sudden splinter of pain in his leg, Jamie watched Hari discard the rifle and draw his Kukri, the steel of the bent blade glinting desperately in the grey light shadowing the plains.

 

Chapter 5

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Stumbling in the wake of the emissary, Jamie stopped and kneeled down in the snow by the side of a child. The saddle bags either side of the little boy’s body were flat, the contents smeared into the path, spices colouring the snow in vivid yellows, oranges and greens. Jamie lifted the child into his arms and tugged back the boy’s hood.

“It’s okay. It’s gone now,” Jamie tried a smile. The boy smiled back, his eyes darting to his mother’s face as she rushed in, between the crushed packs and scattered goods, to pluck the boy from Jamie’s arms. Cuddling the boy to her breast, the woman nodded at Jamie. She stared at him for a moment, her soft, brown eyes lingering on his face as if capturing his image, and then she retreated to the tent the caravaneers had erected to shelter from the snowstorm. Here they gathered their possessions and cared for the three men injured when caught in the emissary’s path.

“Are you okay, British?” Hari reached down to help Jamie to his feet.

“I am fine,” Jamie hobbled to a standing position. He looked at the mystic. “You are bleeding, Hari.” Jamie pointed at Hari’s scalp.

Hari brushed a hand through his wild hair. “Yes,” he wiped his hand on his robes.

“What happened?”

“The camels were tied to one another. Too many to move all at once. The emissary wouldn’t stop,” Hari shrugged and repositioned the Baker rifle slung around his shoulder. “I had to slow it down, give them a chance to cut the ropes, move the camels.” Hari laughed and pointed to his head. “It took me for a ride, British.”

“You are a brave man, Hari.”

“Brave?” Hari shook his head. “Not me, British. It is not brave to just hold on to something.”

“That depends on what you are holding on
to,
Hari.”

Hari looked at Jamie and smiled. “Come, British. They are putting up more tents. We will sleep here tonight. Have some hot food; follow the emissary in the morning.”

“It won’t stop.”

“No, but you cannot keep going, not tonight,” Hari pointed at Jamie’s leg. Blood seeped out from the bandage and stained the trouser leg above and below the wound.

“I suppose not.” Jamie turned to look at the tents. “Will you help me over there, Hari?”

“Of course, British. We are partners. I will help you always.”

“You’re a good man, Hari,” Jamie leaned into Hari’s shoulder.
If only there were more like you in the service of Her Majesty
, Jamie thought.

Jamie let Hari guide him the short distance to the tent. Round like a yurt, the caravaneers’ tent was woven from light cotton, heated by an open fire with blankets and sheepskins circling the kettle bubbling over the flames. Hari lowered Jamie onto one of the skins and handed him his rifle.

“I left my pack back there when I gave you the rifle,” Jamie made as if to rise.

“I will fetch it, British. Rest now. They will bring you food.”

“Hari,” Jamie beckoned the mystic closer. “What manner of people are these?”

“You are safe here,” Hari stepped back to make room for a woman bearing a rough-fired clay pot. It steamed with a soup that reminded Jamie of the smells from below decks on
Magnificent
. He received the soup and nodded his thanks. “Eat up, British. I will return with your pack.”

Hari thanked the woman in her own language and waved to Jamie as he slipped out of the tent. The woman waited until Jamie lifted the bowl to his lips and tasted the pungent broth. Jamie smiled at the woman as the soup scalded his tongue.

“It’s good,” Jamie lifted the bowl in thanks. The woman smiled and returned to the large pot by the side of the tent wall opposite Jamie. Dishing out soup into three more bowls with a large wooden ladle, the woman buttoned her quilted jacket and wrapped her scarf around her head before taking the bowls outside. The tent door flapped shut and Jamie was alone.

Jamie sniffed at the soup and tried another mouthful. Wrinkling his nose he dribbled the soup back into the bowl and placed it on the ground. Jamie fished a piece of dried goat meat from his coat pocket and leaned back on his elbows. With a sigh he slipped onto the sheepskins and closed his eyes. His plans to reach Adina Pur were falling rapidly apart. With a through-and-through musket ball wound in his thigh and their quarry, the metal emissary, always one step ahead of them, Jamie wondered if he would reach Adina Pur before Christmas. On the other hand, he reasoned, the chance to intercept the emissary and discover how it was being controlled, and by whom, presented an opportunity to gather additional intelligence that would please the Admiral.
Yes,
he thought,
I might be able to salvage something from this situation.
With Hari’s help, I might even come out on top.
Resting on such thoughts, Jamie didn’t hear the tent fly open with the soft scrape of canvas.

 

҉

 

At the campsite Bryullov helped Najma tether the three horses for the night and carry the gear to their tent. With an eye on the darkening horizon, the Russian insisted on taking the time to erect the tent. Najma protested, the weather was clearing and they would need to start early the next morning if they were to make up for lost time. Bryullov listened, nodded and then proceeded to unroll the tent and assemble the wooden poles.
No matter how tough the princess pretends to be,
he thought,
she will be glad of the shelter from the wind.
He watched as Najma prepared the fire, cupping the flame of a match to hide it from the wind. Najma struck three matches before she succeeded in lighting the fire with the fourth. Bryullov chuckled, the smile dying on his lips as he wrestled with the tent.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Najma took the tent poles from Bryullov’s hands. “Lay the tent flat on the ground, crawl in and push the poles into place.” She waited until Bryullov flattened the tent and found the opening. “You don’t have tents in Russia?”

“We don’t have
this
tent,” Bryullov lifted the flap at the entrance. “In you go. I will help from outside.” Najma crawled inside the tent. Bryullov guided the poles into place as the wind increased, whipping the fire into a fury, adding another layer of soot to the black kettle. As Najma pushed the tent poles flat against the canvas sides, Bryullov pulled the guys taut, tying the lines around rocks and boulders. Najma crawled out of the tent. She grinned at Bryullov, the moonlight shining white on her teeth.

“See,” she gestured at the tent.

“Don’t get so cocky,” Bryullov nodded at the fire. “Your fire is blowing out.”

Najma scoured the ground around the tent. Selecting the flattest rocks, she built a low wall around the fire. The flames licked at the rocks and her hands as she warmed them.

“Bryullov?”

The Russian looked up. Holding the last guy line in his hands he took a step away from the tent to see Najma.
That’s the first time she has used my name,
he thought. “Yes?”

“Where will you sleep?” Najma pushed at branches and sticks turning black in the flames.

“Where will I sleep?” Bryullov tied the guy and walked to the fire. Crouching opposite Najma he pointed at the tent behind her. “In there.”

“Fine,” Najma nodded. “It is expected.”

“What is expected?” Bryullov sat down next to the fire.

“I will sleep outside.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bryullov pulled on a glove and reached for the kettle sitting on a flat rock inside the stones circling the flames. The water steamed out of the spout as he lifted it. “You cannot sleep outside,” he looked at the sky. “It will snow again.”

“But I cannot sleep inside the tent. Not with you.”

“Is that some kind of honour thing?” Bryullov poured water over the tea infuser inside his enamel mug.

“Yes. We are not married.”

“No,” Bryullov smiled, “we are not.”

“And unless you plan on marrying me,” Najma picked at the small stones by her side with her fingers.

“Najma,” Bryullov handed her a mug of tea. “I am not going to marry you.” She stared at him. Bryullov held her gaze.
Such fire,
he thought.
She would make a good wife.

“Then it is settled. I will sleep outside.” Najma placed the mug by the side of the fire. Standing, she smoothed the dust and snow from her pantaloons and began picking her bedroll and blankets from the packs and saddle bags.

“Najma,” Bryullov stood. She raised her hand. Finding the Russian’s bedroll she tossed it inside the tent along with his pack. “Listen.”

“I have listened to you enough today already,” she lay her bedroll flat on the ground by the fire. Carrying a pile of blankets, Najma lay down on the bedroll and crawled under them. Making a tripod with her riding stick and branches from the fire, she draped the last blanket over it, raising the wool from her face. From beneath the makeshift tent, Najma’s hand searched for rocks under which she tucked the corners of the blanket. Bryullov shook his head as her hand scrabbled on the ground for one more rock. He shoved one over to her with the toe of his boot.

“Goodnight, Najma,” Bryullov finished his tea and placed the mug next to the kettle. Picking up the saddle bag with his personal belongings, he entered the tent. Laying on the bedroll, Bryullov opened the saddle bag and pulled out the smooth wooden box with rounded edges. He drew a second item from the saddle bag, a leather map tube. Unsnapping the lid he pulled out a bundle of wooden shafts engraved with a continuous spiral of copper wire. The ends of each shaft were capped with copper male and female threads. Bryullov joined them together, fished a triangular connector adapter with three attachment points from inside the lid and fastened them all together. The base was a copper stand with a free strand of eight thick wires woven together. This he plugged into the rear of the box.

The box, as tall as the pullstraps on his boots and only slightly longer than the outsole, was locked. Bryullov reached inside his shirt and slipped the chain from around his neck, the small iron key dangled at the end of it. The wind flapped at the canvas and the tent trembled. Bryullov unlocked the box.

Inside the deep lid spun the innards of a multifaceted machine, layer upon layer of cogs and springs and coils. Where one layer ended it meshed with a second and a third in a self-repeating spiral of motion between the layers. The cranking handle, redundant, was secured in a leather pocket attached to a wooden wall inside the main compartment, to the left of the keyhole. Bryullov lifted the stiff leather flap protecting the main compartment and stared at two tiny green images reflected in glass spheres mounted in the wood. Side by side, they revealed distant mountains rolling before the transmitter as if the objective lens was mounted in the bow of a ship rolling upon the waves. Bryullov unscrewed a metal lid threaded into a raised cylinder mounted inside the compartment. Placing the lid on the bedroll, Bryullov squeezed his fingers inside the cylinder and gripped the tip of one of two tiny levers. Drawing the lever one twelfth of an inch on the horizontal plane, Bryullov kept an eye on the images projected on the glass spheres. Satisfied, he checked the lever on the vertical plane was locked in position, screwed the lid on the cylinder and closed the lid of the box.

BOOK: Metal Emissary
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