The Pneumatic Zeppelin descended into the heart of the sprawling valley once known as the San Fernando. Low, brown foothills loomed to the south and east, their rough backs striped with rivers of snow and ice. Buckle sniffed. Despite hundreds of years, the place still stank of ash. He did not like this—going to ground when a cunning enemy like the Founders might be on the move. There was no easier target than an earthbound zeppelin. It was little more than a bounce, yes—Buckle would have his feet in the snow for only a minute or two—and the likelihood of the reclusive Founders being anywhere near the Boneyard was almost nonexistent, but a little needle of anxiety stabbed him nonetheless.
Pluteus and his grunts had better be on time, on target, and ready for evacuation.
Buckle clamped his teeth. Once Pluteus and his soldiers were aboard, they would be on their way to the City of the Founders, the most powerful clan’s fortified citadel, considered impenetrable to attack, on a desperate expedition to save their leader, Admiral Balthazar Crankshaft, from the clutches of the Founders, who had abducted him.
It was also of no small matter that Balthazar was Buckle’s father by adoption, and really the only father Buckle had ever known.
“Airship sighted!” the aft lookout’s voice rattled down the chattertube. “North northwest, five miles off the stern!”
Buckle leapt to the stretch of open sky at the starboard gunwale, pulling his telescope from his hat and whipping it out to its maximum length. Looking back, he caught the tiny black dot over the mountains with his bare eyes and trained the scope on it. The slipstream of passing wind dragged at the glass, making it difficult to see, but the bulky form of the magnified sky vessel suggested that she was a tramp, a trader guild steamer, and no threat to Buckle and his airship.
“Tramp!” Sabrina shouted, peering through the powerful main telescope affixed in the nose dome. “Heading east.”
“Aye!” Buckle shouted back into the gondola. Due east meant the tramp was probably on her way to sell her goods in Gallowglass territory. And judging from how she lumbered, her holds were packed, probably full of ivory, fish, and whale oil from the coast.
Still, Buckle hated having a foreign airship of any kind at his back.
Pluteus and his grunts had better be on time.
Buckle looked down. As the Pneumatic Zeppelin descended to the earth, the blasted corpse of the Valley came into sudden, wince-inducing focus. The ground was a mess, a crumbled catastrophe of architectural ruin: endless miles of gutted buildings and abandoned suburbs collapsed down around themselves in a porcupine’s back of naked girders, walls, and chimneys. The street grid was still visible under the debris, making aerial navigation easy.
But what made the place ghostly beyond description were the endless bones. The sea of bones. Ice-rimed skulls and ribcages, femurs and spines. Human bones, mostly, with surely some dog bones, cat bones, horse bones, bird bones, rat bones, possum bones, and squirrel bones mixed in.
They called it the Boneyard.
Unimaginative, but accurate.
Scouts reported that skeletons still sat inside the caved-in cars, bony fingers still clutching the steering wheels. Frozen bones snapped under one’s boots with each step, the scouts said—an ocean of skeletons under the snow. Exposed bones were a pearly color, picked clean by crows, hawks, and vermin, the tattered remnants of their clothes long since carried off to line nests and burrows. An endless glut of rusted cars still lay locked in a traffic jam on both sides of the freeway, all heading northward; the tires had been an excellent source of salvaged rubber until exhausted only a few years before.
No official clan lived in the valley now, even three hundred years later. There were still pools of heavy stinkum gas lurking about, squirting out of unused pipes or suddenly surging up from toilets and sewers. But that was not the real reason: it was simply too spooky to live in that snowy swamp of bones. But some people did live there. People who didn’t mind the horrors. People who stripped the cars and skeletons of valuables and traded the goods, all of them stained telltale yellow, with their fingers stained yellow, in the markets to the south.
Scavengers. Yellow-fingered Scavengers.
And Scavengers didn’t like visitors unless they were coming to buy.
Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders © Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. 2013
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