On a crisp spring day in 1928, Liam
Mulcahey found himself sitting in the back of a sleek maroon Phaeton,
headed for the grand opening of the new flashtrain line.
Phaeton navigated the roads of the Chicago suburb, the driver glanced
into the rearview mirror with his glowing blue eyes. “Are you quite
certain it will be all right for me to attend, Master Aysana?” His voice
was slightly garbled, the speaker built into his faceplate in need of
repair. In the driver’s seat was a mechanika named Alastair, the
chauffeur of the Aysana family, whom Liam worked for.
beside Liam in the back seat was Morgan, son of the famous rail baron
Rajan Aysana. “I’m certain,” Morgan said with a placating smile.
Alastair had been giddy with excitement for days at the prospect of
seeing the new flashtrain debut.
“Because I can stay in the car if it would be too much of a bother,” Alastair went on.
no, Alastair, you’re most welcome.” Morgan was twenty-eight, the same
age as Liam. He had a round, freckled face and straight black hair with
long bangs he was often flicking out of his eyes, a source of
frustration for his doting mother.
“Well, then, that’s fine,
sir.” Alastair couldn’t smile as such, but Liam had been working on him
long enough to note the signs of his contentment. He sat straighter in
his seat. His head momentarily jiggled from side to side. “That’s fine
as raspberry wine.”
Liam didn’t like crowds-a predisposition that
had only deepened since war’s end in 1918-yet he had to admit, he was
excited too. Rajan Aysana’s accomplishments deserved recognition, but
more than that, Liam wanted to pay back the kindness and generosity that
Rajan and his wife, Sunny, had shown him over the years. So while the
grand opening promised to be cheek-to-jowl, Liam had vowed to stifle his
discomfort and raise his voice in celebration.
De Pere, the President himself, was set to give a speech. He had been an
Army officer during the war against the countries of the St. Lawrence
Pact: Germany, France, Great Britain, and Canada. Liam had served under
him, though all he recalled of the man was a speech he’d delivered to
Liam’s class of soldiers, fresh out of boot camp, at Fort Sheridan. Liam
doubted very much the president would remember him, but what an honor
it would be if he did.
Soon they were pulling off the main road
and entering the jammed parking lot of the gleaming flashtrain station.
Attendants waved them toward the front of the lot, where a line of
long-nosed limousines were letting out the VIPs.
itself was a small but impressive structure of rough stone, frosted
glass, and highly polished steel. Red, white, and blue bunting was
everywhere. A crowd of men, women, and children waited near the
entrance, cordoned by red velvet ropes into a long, snaking line.
Hundreds more had already been let in. Liam could see them standing
along the edge of the platform two stories above. He swallowed hard
while staring up at them; it was going to be much tighter than he’d
As the Phaeton reached the back of the queue, Liam realized Morgan had been staring at him.
“You can stay in the car if you want, old buddy,” Morgan said.
I’ll be fine.” Liam had meant the words to sound more convincing, but
he could tell by Morgan’s sympathetic reaction he’d failed miserably.
“Or Alastair could take you home if you’re not feeling up to it,” Morgan said. “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”
Liam shook his head. “I wouldn’t dream of robbing Alastair of the chance to see the President speak.”
Alastair glanced at Liam in the mirror. “Oh, don’t worry about me, sir.”
“No,” Liam said firmly. “We’re here. Let’s celebrate.”
Morgan paused, weighing Liam’s sincerity, then smiled. “We won’t stay long.” He squeezed Liam’s shoulder. “I promise.”
Phaeton pulled to a stop, and waiting attendants opened the passenger
door. After stepping out and being patted down for weapons by two
serious-looking government officers in black uniforms, Liam and Morgan
headed up the nearby ramp. When they reached the elevated platform,
practically every square inch was packed. And not just the near
platform; the westbound platform was half-full as well.
his breath growing shorter, Liam used one of the few tricks that helped
to calm his nerves: he studied his surroundings. High above, an arched
roof of steel girders and frosted glass shaded all from the bright,
noontime sun. Many of those in attendance had dressed up. They wore fine
suits and bowlers, frocks and cloche hats, but there were others with
simple coats and dresses, not to mention a few button-down shirts that
showed a wrinkle or two. Liam didn’t feel at home, precisely, in his
simple woolen pants, pea coat, and tweed flat cap, but neither did he
feel out of place.
Set near the tracks was a decorated wooden
stage with stairs and a raised speaking platform. Cordoning the area
around it were more stanchions and velvet ropes. Standing behind the
ropes were men wearing black suits with the initials of the Central
Intelligence Corps embroidered onto their breast pockets. More were
situated at the edges of the crowd. To a man, they stood at military
ease, their legs spread shoulder-width, their hands clasped behind their
backs as they scanned the crowd for signs of danger.
As the seconds passed, Liam’s heart slowed, and he breathed a short sigh of relief.
“One minute!” roared a burly cuss of a man, a porter with a push-broom mustache. “One minute remaining!”
the other porters, the man wore a long black coat, white gloves, and a
red cap, though in his case the cap was pulled so low one could hardly
see his eyes. The way he barked-indeed, the very timbre of his
voice-summoned memories of the war, of drill sergeants. Curiously, his
loping gait was accompanied by a faint, mechanikal whirring, likely from
one or both of his legs having been replaced with prosthetics.
was frustrated by his inability to remember more of the war, but he’d
long grown used to it. The head wound he’d suffered during one of the
war’s final battles had erased most of his memories of his time in
uniform. What was odd, though, and made it all the more frustrating, was
the fact that the erasure wasn’t absolute. Every now and again,
something would spur a memory, but the moment he tried to reach for it,
it would fly away like a startled goldfinch. Such was the case on the
train platform as Liam tried to recall who the porter’s voice reminded
He gave it up as useless just as Alastair, having parked
the Phaeton, joined them. Liam, Morgan, and Alastair were all of a
height, just shy of six feet, but Alastair was necessarily thinner, the
minimum amount of weight being critical for extending the life of the
power source inside his gut. “Have I missed it, sirs?”
“You’re just in time,” replied Morgan.
good, sir.” Alastair might be a mechanika made of steel and brass, but
at the moment he looked like an overexcited child-restless feet, eyes
constantly moving, his metal fingers tenting before him. “Look!” he
called in his garbled voice, pointing. “There it is!”
turned. Necks craned. The porter stormed along the platform’s edge
shouting, “Behind the yellow line, now! Behind the yellow line!”
on tiptoes, Liam saw a glint of silver to his right. Beyond it, visible
over the treetops, were the towers of downtown Chicago. The silver
shape grew, the sleek engine and its trailing cars becoming more
“Hold your hats!” shouted the burly porter as the hum of the train’s engines grew louder.
pinched the brim of his cap just in time. The platform vibrated. The
flashtrain blurred past. Liam felt himself tugged forward in the vacuum
of its wake. Then a gust of wind washed over the crowd like a wave off
the sea. Dresses lifted, exposing knickers. More than a few hats flew
into the air, sucked into the flashtrain’s mighty draft. Many laughed in
excitement. Others stared in awe as the train dwindled into the
distance. A few rows ahead of Liam, a red-haired girl sobbed in the arms
of her mother.
As the train’s thunder faded, the crowd hummed
excitedly. Many of those in attendance would never have ridden on a
train. Now they’d seen a wonder of the modern world, a train so fast its
speed rivaled the bi-planes from the war.
“So that’s it, then?” Liam shared a wink with Morgan. “Time to go home?”
Morgan let out an affected sigh. “Yes, yes, I suppose it is.”
Alastair looked from Morgan to Liam and back, somehow managing to look heartbroken. “But the President…”
smiled sympathetically. “Sorry, Alastair. It was only a joke. Father
wanted to demonstrate the train’s top speed. It’ll be returning
“I see.” Alastair’s eyes went dark several times, his equivalent of a blink. “Did you think your joke was funny, sir?”
A laugh burst from Morgan. “No, I suppose I didn’t.”
hum of conversation had only just started to die down when the crowd
shifted their attention to the westbound track. Moments later, the train
glided to a stop ahead of them. Behind the sleek engine were three
passenger cars, each bearing Aysana Lines’ bright yellow logo, a circle
with the letters AL inside it. Curiously, the third car had no doors at
all-apparently, it could only be reached from an adjoining car-and its
windows were blacked out, blocking any view of the interior.
Liam’s right, the burly porter dragged a truly massive sandwich board
toward the edge of the track. It read, Forest Park Welcomes President De
Pere! After setting it down near the last car, the porter turned to
face the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he roared, “I give you the
President of the United States.”
To a round of applause, the
first car’s doors slid open. Revealed was a strikingly handsome man in
his late forties with hazel eyes and golden blond hair parted to one
side. Standing behind him were Morgan’s parents, Rajan and Sunny Aysana,
a handsome Vietnamese couple who’d met in Chicago after emigrating to
the States some forty years ago. They departed the train car together.
As Rajan and Sunny smiled proudly, De Pere shook a few hands, waved, and
sent smiles over the crowd, then he took the stairs to the top of the
Liam recalled a much younger Leland De Pere, the
striking officer who’d given the speech in Fort Sheridan along the
shores of Lake Michigan. It had been a hopeful day, but for some reason,
seeing De Pere working the crowd gave rise to another of the few
memories Liam had of the war, one of a broken battlefield, of holding a
Springfield rifle, of trenches crisscrossing the shattered terrain. It
had been dusk, the air both chill and damp. Ahead, a thick bank of fog
had approached Liam’s position, and somewhere inside it, rhythmic booms
pounded the earth. Red lights swept the fog’s thickness, ruby scythes
Liam could never remember how he’d wound up in
that terrifying place. He’d trained and served in the 128th Infantry, a
grease monkey outfitting and repairing the battle suits used by the U.S.
Army. How he’d landed on a battlefield, holding a bayonet-tipped rifle,
he wasn’t sure. His best guess was that desperation had driven the Army
to reassign him. It had been a critical battle, after all, the last
major offensive of the war. He must have been reassigned to help in it.
was suddenly drawn back to the flashtrain platform when Morgan elbowed
him and said in a low voice, “What do you think happened to him?”
“Who?” Liam asked.
Morgan pointed to the shadows of the passenger compartment the President had just left. “The President’s aide, Max Kohler.”
from within shadows was an impeccably dressed man whose face was hidden
by an iron mask. Much of the mask was the dull color of pewter, but its
filigreed swirls shone like oxidized brass. It was all soft curves,
with no human features to speak of save three slits, where the mouth and
nose would be, and two eyeholes-one a circular red lens, the other
oval-shaped, revealing a bright blue eye. As the President spoke, Kohler
studied the crowd warily.
Liam stared at him a moment. “I’ve no idea.”
was likely Kohler had sustained some terrible injury during the war.
His demeanor was off-putting, as if he distrusted everyone and
everything around him. Leaning as he was against the luggage rack, his
jacket hung open to reveal a sidearm, a Webley revolver, in a black
leather holster. Like the burly porter’s barked commands, there was
something familiar about the cocky way he was surveying the crowd.
a moment, Kohler’s lone blue eye met Liam’s browns. He stared at Liam
hard, as if he too were having a moment of recognition. Or maybe it was
Liam’s imagination. In all likelihood he was only sizing Liam up for
threats to the President. Soon, his gaze passed over to others in the
What followed was the sort of speech a public official
gives at a ribbon cutting. That De Pere was a one-time military officer
and a West Point graduate was clear. You could see it in his posture, in
the precise way he spoke. He praised Rajan Aysana’s accomplishments as
an inventor, an innovator, and an industry leader, but he gave
compliments to his wife Sunny as well, who was bright, funny, and an
ever-present fixture at all of Rajan’s public appearances.
is,” De Pere said while waving to the red ribbon behind him, “that I
bestow the honor of opening Chicago’s newest commuter line to the woman
who supported her husband each and every step he took to becoming a
giant of American industry.”
Sunny and Rajan climbed the stairs
up to the platform where Sunny, her eyes crinkling with pride, picked up
a massive pair of scissors from a pedestal. The scissors looked
comically large in her small hands, but Sunny didn’t seem to mind. It
took her a few tries, and her efforts were accompanied by a smattering
of good-natured laughs, but eventually she managed to cut through the
ribbon. Then she, De Pere, and Rajan were walking onto the roof of the
train car, linking hands and raising them in triumph.
The crowd along both platforms cheered.
it was quiet again, and Rajan and Sunny took the stairs down. De Pere
remained and walked to the edge of the stage, where he spread his arms
wide and cast his gaze over the crowd.