|Series||The Amtrak Wars|
|Publisher||Severn House (UK)|
|Followed by||First Family|
Almost a thousand years ago, the Old Time ended in the War of a Thousand Suns. The cities of humanity burned, the air turned to poison, the grass and trees turned the colour of blood and most of the population of the world died. On the surface, the survivors adapted to the radiation and became stronger through a process of mutation, becoming known as the Mutes. Another group of people survived in vast bunkers buried under the state of Texas. Emerging onto the overground several centuries later, this faction - the Amtrak Federation - began a war of conquest against the Mutes, vowing to annihilate them and retake the surface for themselves. Having conquered most of the clans of the Southern Mutes, the Federation is now poised to move into the territory of their northern brethren, the Plainfolk.
Setting the scene
April, AD 2989. The clan M'Call is on its traditional home turf in what used to be the state of Wyoming. The clan's wordsmith, Mr Snow, is telling the younger children of the clan the legend of how their bloodline, the She-Kargo, became the strongest of the Plainfolk. Mr Snow's apprentice, Cadillac, listens to the story but is also concerned over reports that the 'sand-burrowers' are moving further north, and their iron snakes and arrowheads will soon reach Plainfolk territory. After the story is completed, Mr Snow confirms this. The Sky Voices have told him that the sand-burrowers' first incurstion will come within three months, and the M'Calls must face it. This is the beginning of a time called the Great Dying, which will be heralded by the arrival of a warrior from the underground cities, Cloud Warrior.
Hundreds of miles to the south, in the Amtrak Federation, rookie seventeen-year-old pilot Steve Brickman is facing the final series of tests before he becomes a fully-qualified Skyhawk wingman and can graduate from the Flight Academy. Steve, a perfectionist driven to excel, scores top marks in the Snake Pit, a difficult obstacle course, and also fares well on his first overground flight. Steve is briefly captivated by his first sight of the overground, to the extent of accidentally switching off his telemetry recorder, but is confident this will not have affected his scores.
However, to his disbelief Steve discovers he only came fourth in the rankings, behind Donna Lundkwist, Gus White and Pete Vandenberg, all of whom he is convinced flew more badly than he did. Steven concludes that he has been shafted for some reason, and vows revenge on those responisible, if he can figure out who they are. Unbeknown to Steve, he is actually right. CFI Bob Carrol was ordered to mark Steve - who had come close to scoring the first-ever perfect score in the Academy's history - down by higher-ups in the Federation for unknown reasons.
Near the M'Call settlement, Cadillac decides to go hunting deer, or fast-foot as the Plainfolk call them. His chosen soul-mate, Clearwater, accompanies him. Cadillac is concerned that, although his role as apprentice wordsmith is an honourable one, he does not have standing in the eyes of the warriors of the tribe, as wordsmiths do not fight. Clearwater attempts to show Cadillac the honour accorded to him for his skills and his guardianship of the Talisman Prophecy, but Cadillac yearns instead for the respect that can only be earned in battle. This leads him to taking risks on the hunt, such as crossing into the turf of a neighbouring clan. Unfortunately, this clan is of the D'Troit bloodline. The D'Vine and She-Kargo are old enemies, and although they have not been at war since the She-Kargo victory at the Battle of the Black Hills (where Cadillac's father fell), there is no love lost between them. Cadillac brings down a mighty stag, but the claim is disputed by several D'Troit warriors of the D'Vine clan, led by the fearsome Shakatak. Shakatak and Cadillac fight, but Shakatak's superior experience soon tells, although Cadillac fights well for one not trained as a warrior. At the moment of Shakatak's victory, Clearwater is suddenly filled with the powers of the summoner and is able to use earth magic to kill Shakatak. The other D'Vine warriors flee, but are brought down by arriving M'Call reinforcements. At Clearwater's urging, Cadillac claims that he killed Shakatak, thus earning him his much-desired standing.
The graduation party for the Class of '89 is held and Steve attends. His kin-sister Roz attends, along with his guard-parents Annie and Jack. Jack, an experienced Trail-Blazer lineman who's achieved a rare 'double-six' tour of duty, is now suffering from advanced radiation-induced cancer and is confined to a wheelchair, a not-uncommon fate for soldiers with lots of experience on the overground. Jack expresses his pride at Steve's accomplishments. Annie's brother Bart Bradlee also congratulates Steve, but is unimpressed when Steve suggests he was shafted by the system. Later on, Steve is cornered by Donna Lundkwist. Despite his misgivings about how she got a higher score than him, she talks him into a sexual liaison. She also reveals she has been posted to the Federation's flagship wagon-train, Red River, whilst Steve and Gus White have been assigned to the Lady from Louisiana, herself a distinguished wagon-train of many years' fine service.
At the M'Call settlement, Cadillac, Clearwater and Mr Snow discuss the emergence of Clearwater's new powers and Mr Snow agrees to teach what he knows (he is also a summoner) to her. Cadillac also reveals that he has seen visions in certain stones on the ground, and Mr Snow confirms that he is a seer. These revelations are tremendous assets to the clan, and also intriguing, for the prophecy states that the Talisman will be the Thrice-Gifted One, wordsmith, summoner and seer. According to the Sky Voices, Cadillac and Clearwater know - or will come to know - the Talisman, a revelation that leaves Cadillac reeling.
Steve gets some R&R in his home divisional base of Roosevelt/Santa Fe, but his sister Roz corners him with some odd talk about how maybe the Mutes have a right to live as well, which Steve finds unfathomable. As the Manual says, the Mutes cause the poison in the air through their very existence, and the Trackers cannot reclaim the blue-sky world until every last one of them is dead. More unsettling, Roz claims that during his overground flight she felt everything he felt and saw everything he saw through some kind of mind-link. Steve is dubious, but her descriptions of the experience are spot-on.
Steve and Roz travel to Houson/GC, where Roz is enrolling at medical college. Leaving his sister there, Steve travels on to Nixon/Fort Worth, where he joins the crew of the Lady from Louisiana, which is about to pull out on a long-range fire-sweep. The Lady has been ordered to make a deep-penetration reconnaisance of Plainfolk territory, the first wagon-train to do so. Steve and Gus White meet their flight-leader, Jodi Kazan, and the train's Wagon-Master Bill Hartmann and Trail Boss, Buck McDonnell, as well as the other pilots and crew. The Lady pulls out on her mission.
As the Lady rolls northwards, Steve and Gus hear from the more experienced hands tales about the Mutes sometimes being responsible for 'odd occurrences' in battle which can't be easily explained. Steve asks Jodi Kazan about it, and she gives him the official word: that all tales of 'Mute magic' are lies spread by malcontent officers to cover up their own incompetence in the field.
The M'Calls gather to discuss strategy, as their scouts have reported arrowheads to the south, marking the approach of the iron snake. Mr Snow boils their choices down to two: they can retreat north into the hills where the snake cannot follow, but this will mean abandoning their crops and facing possible starvation; or they can attack the wagon-train and attempt to destroy it, although this could result in their total destruction. After some debate, the clan elects to attack, and begin formulating a battle-plan.
The Lady approaches the Colorado/Wyoming state line. During a forward patrol, Jodi, Steve and Gus detect signs of a Mute settlement and cropfields in the area. Hartmann decides to push forward and launch simultaneous attacks on the cropfields and the nearby woods where he believes the clan has taken shelter. However, at night Cadillac, Mr Snow and several bodyguards slip behind the Lady and locate a seeing-stone in its wake. Using this, Cadillac is able to make an estimate of the crew size, learn its weapon capabilities and identify Hartmann, an image he is able to pass to Mr Snow.
The Battle of the Now and Then River
The next morning, a thick mist surrounds the Lady on all sides. Hartmann pushes on, using Skyhawks as the wagon-train's eyes and ears, but the mist refuses to burn off with the morning. Hartmann realises that they are dealing with Mute magic and puts the train on alert. He has the train follow the remains of what appears to be Interstate 80, running from navref Cheyenne to navref Laramie, but, thanks to Mr Snow using his magic to fog his mind, he inadvertantly directs the train into a dry river bed, drawing the train off course. As Mr Snow and his bodyguards draw closer to the shrouded wagon-train, they come under aerial assault from Jodi Kazan and her two wingmen, Booker and Yates. Fifty-one M'Calls are killed and Mr Snow is briefly knocked out by a grazing wound, but when he comes round is able to summon lightning out of the sky to destroy Booker and Yates' aircraft and damage Jodi's, who tries to make it back to the wagon-train.
Mr Snow is then able to enact the next part of the plan by summoning a fierce storm to assault the Lady. As the river-bed fills with water, Hartmann has the train attempt to climb out, but it gets stuck on the muddy banks and then pinned against rocks by a flash-flood. During this Jodi attempts to bring her Skyhawk down, but the wind, the tilted flight deck and other elements make it impossible for her to land safely. As several crewmen, inluding Steve, try to drag her Skyhawk down, it gets carried off by the gale and explodes as its napalm cannisters hit the ground.
With little choice, the wagon-train's Trail-Blazer troops disembark and go into action. They form a perimeter whilst repair teams try to free the train from the rocks and repair the damage, but they come under extremely heavy attack by the M'Calls. The train's guns provide some cover, but they are mostly elevated out an effective firing line, meaning the fighting comes down to some heavy close-quarters combat. The train sustains significant losses, but the M'Calls are far more bloodied.
As the fighting continues, Hartmann decides to launch the planned attack on the M'Call settlement, hoping it will draw off the attackers. Launching the Skyhawks proves dangerous and several pilots are killed before they can take off. Hartmann halts the operation and recalls the ground troops. Once they are aboard and the Mutes are close to the train, he actives the steam-jets located under each ramp, flaying dozens of the attackers alive. The remainder flee. As they escape, the remaining Skyhawks are launched, with Gus White and Steve directed to attack the cropfields and Fazetti and Naylor ordered to attack the settlement hidden in the forest.
Gus and Steve drop their napalm bombs and torch the cropfields, but come under fire from the ground. Cadillac fires a crossbow bolt that injures Steve and forces him to crash-land. Gus's gun jams and he flees from the area. Steve is pulled clear from the wreckage of his Skyhawk and promptly loses consciousness. Gus's plan to rendezvous with Fazetti and Naylor and get them to provide cover for a rescue attempt is thwarted when he sees their two Skyhawks lying wrecked in the forest.
At precisely the same moment in Inner State U, 950 miles away in Houston/GC, Roz Brickman sustains substantial wounds to her arm and head and starts bleeding profusely. She is rushed to the medical wing, but the wounds have already vanished and left no visible trace behind, to the befuddlement of the medical staff.
Gus White returns to the Lady to find that the Lady has escaped from the river bed, but the losses sustained have been tremendous. Nine of the wagon-train's twelve Skyhawks have been lost along with their pilots. Over a dozen killed in the defence of the wagon-train and its repair. With little choice, Hartmann is forced to pull out and send the wagon-train rolling back towards Federation territory. Steve Brickman is written off as PD/ET/BNR (Powered Down/Enemy Territory/Body Not Recovered). According to confused radio signals, Fazetti apparently turned on and attacked Naylor, and the two pilots seem to have shot one another down.
Jodi Kazan wakes up, having been thrown clear of the destruction of her Skyhawk.
Prisoner of the Mutes
Meanwhile, Steve recovers to find himself a captive of the Mutes. There is no protocol for Trackers taken prisoner, as it has simply never happened before, so Steve instead converses freely with Mr Snow and Cadillac, startled by their mastery of Basic. Steve tells them about life in the Federation and its reliance on machines, which Cadillac and Mr Snow hold in disdain, whilst they tell Steve about their own myths and legends of the War of a Thousand Suns, which Steve recognises as a different account of the event known in the Federation as the Holocaust. The conversations become exchanges of information and also of ideology. During these conversations Steve learns of the Talisman Prophecy and eventually of the existence of Mute magic, and is shown proof of its effectiveness.
Mr Snow tells Steve that he is not going to be killed, but Steve is puzzled. The old Mute also questions him about his unusually fast acclimitisation to the overground and his apparent resistance to the radioactive atmosphere and easy adaptation to Mute food, finding Steve's explanation that all Tracker wingmen are trained to operate as lone guns unsatisfying.
Steven concocts his own regime of physical exercise, and soon heals from his injuries and regains the use of his legs. Mr Snow lets him know that he knows that Steve is planning to make a break for it, but Steve's plans are thwarted when he discovers the Mutes' amazing ability to run all day without tiring, not to mention their elite skills at tracking and hunting. These abilities seem to make any escape on foot impossible, so Steve starts thinking about alternative plans. He hits on the idea of using parts salvaged from the Skyhawks downed during the battle to build a glider. With no way of hiding such a project from his captors, Steve offers to teach Cadillac how to fly and wins Mr Snow's approval to build an aircraft.
Biting the arrow
Despite their success in driving the Lady from Mute territory, the M'Calls still feel shame at their flight from the battlefield and hold a 'biting the arrow' ceremony to regain their honour. Steve watches, horrified, as the assembled Mutes drive an arrow through one cheek and out the other, then bite on the arrow until it breaks, by doing so proving their strength and courage. The clan's paramount warrior, Motor-Head, is enraged by Steve's presence and tries to kill him with a stone hammer, but Clearwater destroys the hammer with her magic. Steve is compelled to bite the arrow to prove his own worthiness: fortunately, he has been fortified with a narcotic substance called dream cap beforehand, provided by Cadillac and Mr Snow. Steve passes the test and the remainder of the Mutes treat him with greater respect, although Motor-Head appears to now be an enemy for life. Steve takes to carrying around a quarterstaff and knife for protection.
During an exploration of the surrounding territory, Steve stumbles across the dwelling place of Clearwater, and becomes fascinated by her. He also learns that she and Cadillac are super-straights, Mutes born without any blemishes or deformities at all and who could pass as Trackers once they remove the body paints they use to fit in with their brethren. As the killer of Fazetti and Naylor, Clearwater was also given their surviving possessions, and Steve finds a map of the Lady's operational area amongst them. Using this, he identifies the location of the M'Call camp in the foothills of the Wind River Range and is able to plot a course by air to the nearest Tracker way-station at Pueblo, Colorado.
Construction of the glider gets underway in earnest. Steve is surprised to see Cadillac employing relatively sophisticated metal tools which would seem to be beyond the Mutes' primitive manufacturing processes. Cadillac tells him they come from the Iron Masters, an engimatic race who live in the far east, beyond the Fire Pits of Beth-Lem. Once a year the Mutes trade with these people, swapping food and volunteer workers in return for crossbows and tools. The Mutes otherwise know very little about them.
Unbeknown to Steve, Mr Snow has made a deal with the Iron Masters to deliver a Federation pilot into their hands in return for favoured treatment, but rather than sending Steve directly Mr Snow has had Cadillac use his powers to 'take' the required information from Steve's mind, and plans to send Cadillac instead, impersonating Steve.
Mr Snow, Cadillac and a small escort leave the village travel east to a place Cadillac has seen in his dreams, Twin Forks, the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers in Nebraska. There Cadillac picks up a seeing stone and sees that in less than one year, the M'Calls will face an iron snake at this place and Mr Snow will fall in battle. Mr Snow, although unhappy at the thought of leaving the scene of the action just as things are getting interesting, bears the news stoically, and they head back to the village.
On the way back to the village, Mr Snow and Cadillac discuss Steve's situation and agree that they will have to help him escape back to the Federation. To this end, Mr Snow despatches a message to Clearwater for her to help him in that task. However, in the stones Cadillac also saw that Steve will take Clearwater from him, an in a fit of jealousy tells Motor-Head. Motor-Head agrees to keep Steve grounded and runs back to the settlement ahead of the main party. Cadillac confesses this to Mr Snow, who dismisses it as the will of Talisman.
Back at the settlement, Clearwater seduces Steve and they spend the night together. Aware of the danger of his situation and encouraged by Clearwater, Steve decides to escape and attempts to launch Blue-Bird. Motor-Head and his two companions, Black-Top and Steel-Eye, arrive to intervene. In the resulting struggle, the Mutes gain the upper hand but all three are then buried by a landslide caused by Clearwater. Motor-Head pulls himself clear and jumps on Blue-Bird as Steve launches the glider, but is then knocked clear and falls to his death.
Mr Snow and Cadillac arrive in time to see the aircraft depart. Clearwater asks if Steve will return and Cadillac replies that he will, in the time of the New Earth Steve will come in the guise of a friend with Death hiding in his shadow and will bear Clearwater away on a river of blood to the dark cities. But Mr Snow tells her that she will live, as will Cadillac, for they are destined to become the sword and shield of Talisman.
- Steve Brickman, a newly-qualified wingman assigned to the Lady from Louisiana wagon-train.
- Cadillac, apprentice wordsmith of the Clan M'Call of the Plainfolk Mutes.
- Clearwater, Cadillac's soul-mate and an apprentice summoner, also of the M'Calls.
- Mr Snow, the M'Call wordsmith. A respected advisor to the clan elders and both Cadillac and Clearwater's mentor.
- Roz Brickman, Steve's younger kin-sister, a medical student.
- Jodi Kazan, chief wingman on the Lady from Louisiana, a respected and decorated officer with five years' experience.
- 'Beaver', real name Dave Kelso, a Tracker renegade operating in the Wyoming area.
- Stu Barber, the First Engineer of the Lady from Louisiana.
- Baxter, Flight Operations Officer aboard the Lady from Louisiana.
- 'Beaver', a Tracker renegade operating in the vicinity of the Now and Then River.
- Booker, a veteran wingman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Bart Bradlee, Annie's kin-brother and State Provost-Marshal of New Mexico.
- Annie Brickman, Steve and Roz's guard-mother.
- Jack Brickman, Steven and Roz's guard-father, a former Trail-Blazer with twelve years combat experience.
- Bob Carrol, Chief Flight Instructor at the Flight Academy.
- Caulfield, a veteran wingman aboard the Lady from Louisiana.
- Virgil Clay, Junior Field Commander of the Trail-Blazers aboard the Lady from Louisiana.
- Jim Cooper, Deputy Wagon Master of the Lady from Louisiana.
- Rick Fazetti, a newly-assigned wingman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Ford, deputy systems engineer on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Ginny Green, a lineman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- William Hartmann, Wagon-Master of the Lady from Louisiana.
- Keever, chief surgeon on the Lady from Louisiana's blood wagon.
- Bad News Logan, a Lucky Six lineman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Donna Lundkwist, a class-mate of Steve's at the Flight Academy.
- Buck McDonnell, Trail Boss on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Moore, Senior Field Commander of the Trail-Blazers aboard the Lady from Louisiana.
- Murray, crew and maintenance chief aboard the Lady from Louisiana's flight wagons.
- Lou Naylor, a veteran wingman aboard the Lady from Louisiana.
- Ryan, second-in-command of the wingmen on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Pete Vandenberg, a class-mate of Steve's at the Flight Academy.
- Webber, a newly-assigned wingman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Gus White, a class-mate of Steve's at the Flight Academy and posted with him to the Lady from Louisiana.
- Yates, a veteran wingman on the Lady from Louisiana.
- Air-Supply, a M'Call clan elder and woodcrafter.
- Average-White, a M'Call warrior.
- Black-Top, a M'Call warrior.
- Buffalo-Head, a senior den mother of the M'Calls, in charge of food stores and supplies.
- Burger-King, a M'Call warrior.
- Camp-David, a M'Call warrior.
- Cannonball, a warrior of the D'Vine clan.
- Curved-Air, a M'Call warrior.
- Death-Wish, a M'Call warrior.
- Fort-Knox, a M'Call warrior.
- Freeway, a warrior of the D'Vine clan.
- Good-Year, a M'Call warrior.
- Gulf-Oil, a M'Call warrior.
- Henry-K, a M'Call warrior.
- Hershey-Bar, a M'Call warrior.
- Iron-Maiden, a clan elder of the M'Calls.
- Little Feet, a newly-raised warrior of the M'Calls, only fourteen years old.
- Motor-Head, paramount warrior of the M'Calls.
- Night-Fever, a She-wolf of the M'Calls.
- Osi-Bisa, a M'Call warrior.
- Seven-Up, a M'Call warrior.
- Shakatak, paramount warrior of the D'Vine clan.
- Snake-Hips, a She-Wolf of the M'Calls
- Steel-Eye, a M'Call warrior.
- Sting-Ray, a clan elder of the M'Calls.
- Rolling Stone, the chief clan elder of the M'Calls.
- Three Degrees, a clan elder of the M'Calls.
- Torpedo, a warrior of the D'Vine clan.
- Ultra-Vox, a She-Wolf of of the M'Calls.