Twice a day a train full of gods stopped at the station just before the bridge. The official name of the bridge was the Number Five Lerna Crossing. The locals and commuters who were used to crossing the bridge and stopping at the nearby railroad station coined the nickname ‘The Three Buddha Bridge’ on account of the local frontier managers, all three of whom were named Buddha.
For five months the new bridge had carried the commuters on the replacement trains. The old bridge sat unused, making it the Vacant Three Buddha Bridge. That track hadn’t been officially declared derelict yet, but it was only a matter of time. With the community of Avalon growing so rapidly, the old tracks and even the old trains hadn’t allowed enough travel.
The railroad station had hired a number of new maintenance men and grunt workers. The local frontier work was still overseen by the three Buddhas though. The opening of the new track had spawned puff pieces in two Pantheon City newspapers about the frontier trio. Some of the people that crossed the bridge did so out of curiosity, as tourists more or less. Their disappointment in the bridge and station was laughable to most of the genuine travelers. The Three Buddha Bridge and the Three Buddha Station were growing, but it was still just a rural train track. Maybe one day Avalon would become a major town. Until then it was just an extension of the simple communities outside the city of the gods.
A visit from the central office was overdue. No one minded that. The Argos Railroad Company was in constant battle with Pantheon City’s monopoly company, The Jormungandr. In typical City fashion, the major company wanted no part of the number five tracks and especially none of the responsibility for the number five crossing until the commuter population increased. With the increased traffic, and now the new bridge, it was a given that the territorial disputes would begin.
No executive was going to make an appearance until the station was fully commissioned. That’s when the reporters and cameras would arrive. The station had been in operation the whole time. It hadn’t changed suddenly. But now the order was signed and the corporate battle would begin again.
He Xiangu Feather was the Vice President of general operations. As high ranking an official as might ever visit the Number Five Lerna Crossing. Athena High, the station master introduced the Vice President to the three frontier men. “They’re not official railroad personnel, of course, but we consider them part of the team all the same. Without them, the railroad tracks wouldn’t be stable enough for any bridge to be built. This is Bud Water, Bud Night and Bud Lost. He doesn’t like being called Bud though. He insists on being called by his proper name.”
He Xiangu shook his hand rather than the other two. She didn’t even seem to notice the missing finger on that hand. “There’s nothing wrong with being reverent about one’s purpose.”
“Yes, ma’am. Although I don’t take much issue with longer names being shorted. Buddha is short enough with lopping off a syllable.”
She smiled. Bud Water and Bud Night didn’t. The vice president didn’t take much time with them, since she had so many people to meet. As soon as she and the reporters were out of earshot, Bud Water grumbled to Torah, the girl from the ticket booth, “Figures. The biggest jerk in the station gets in good with the V.P. just like that.”
Torah didn’t like Lost either, but she couldn’t help poking a bit of fun at Water. “I don’t think he calls himself Buddha instead of Bud just to get in good with executives he hasn’t met.”
“No.” Water backtracked just a bit. “It’s just his whole attitude. He acts like he’s too good for the rest of the world, so people who don’t know him think he’s reverent and respectable.”
“Y’know, I don’t think it’d hurt the man to act a little more like a god and a little less like a graven image.”
“Hah! That’s funny.”
Buddha Lost wandered back over. He wasn’t sure that it was the sound of laughter that attracted him. In fact, it probably wasn’t. As much as he tried, he just didn’t have a sense of humor. “I think that went well.”
“Oh, did it?,” Water said sarcastically.
Lost heard that and gave him the usual indifferent look that prompted them both to drop their personal enmity. “We’ve got to get out to the south side for some surveying now that we’ve got word about a shift. Before we can do that, we’ve got to talk to a few of the reporters. Who wants to do that?”
Water and Night looked at each other like it was a given, and of course it was. Night said, “You probably ought to handle that. You got a statement written up?”
“It’s rehearsed up here,” Lost said, tapping the side of his head.
With that, the topic of conversation switched to less ambitious things. Water said to Night, “Hey, Hera and I were planning on a cookout this weekend. You want to come over? You’re welcome too, Torah, if you have the time.”
Night hunched his shoulders. “Yeah, sounds good.” As soon as Buddha Lost was a little ways away, Night said, “Why do you gotta do that?”
“You’ve got to dig into him like that. Invite everyone around except him.”
“Well he’s not invited.”
“Yeah, but can’t you wait until he’s not standing right there?”
“Look, Bud, I don’t think he cares.”
“No, I know he doesn’t want to go, but isn’t it insulting to have friendly invitations offered to anyone around except him?”
Water shook his head slightly. “No, I think that’s what he doesn’t care about. I don’t think he cares that he’s the only one not invited. I think he probably likes it. I’ve never met a more uptight, arrogant jerk than Buddha Lost. He’s good at his job. I’ll give him that. I won’t even hold it against him if he gets promoted, but I don’t have to act like he’s a friend. Screw him.”
Bud Night felt a strong urge to give up Buddha Lost’s big secret. He couldn’t do that though. Night knew what the others didn’t. He and Water were relatively minor points of view, perspectives of the Buddha that received perhaps enough mortal devotion to live off of, but not much more. Buddha Lost was different. He was a widely held point of view. His followers sent him enough devotional revenue to make him filthy rich. He didn’t have to take a job as a frontierman for money or prestige. He didn’t have to live out of the city where a severed finger took so much longer to reform. He didn’t need the tough kind of work that had physical dangers to it. He didn’t have to work at all. But Lost didn’t want to live among the wealthy in the expensive parts of the city. He took a job that contributed more than just surplus devotion for the economy. He helped tame the wilderness. He did what he could to extend the lives of the gods beyond Pantheon City. He lived a rugged life by choice. When Night had stumbled onto that secret, Lost had practically begged him to keep it to himself. It was strange seeing someone as stoic as Lost panic like that. How could Night tell anyone? If Lost wanted to be known as just another frontier worker, then that was his business. It didn’t make Lost any more likable in Night’s view. He couldn’t get along with him any more than anyone else could. Night felt a very real respect for the secretly wealthy god though. “So how long do we wait for the graven image before we head out?”
“Oh leave it up to him.”
That wasn’t going to happen though. There was a loud, horrible sound from outside and a sickening tremor that moved through the station. “What’s happening?,” Torah said.
Neither Water nor Night knew, but they could tell it was serious. “Let’s go.”
Outside the building, Buddha Lost was watching the bridge, but less than half the bridge was there. Derailed train cars were on the ground at the side of the bridge. It had collapsed, falling into the Lerna Chasm. The sound of the bridge creaking was even louder than the screams of panic among the people watching helplessly. Photographers were getting the shots they could. Railroad men were shouting back and forth. All that was clear was that no one knew what to do. “Where’s the station manager?,” Night said.
Athena High was neither as wise or as strong as her name implied. The Buddhas could all tell in an instant that she was too bewildered to do her job. Lost grabbed her by the shoulders, “Get inside and get a telegraph to Pantheon City right away. Get rescue teams out here now.”
She started to get ahold of herself. “W-wait, wouldn’t Avalon be closer?”
“The collapse broke the cables. We can’t get a telegraph to them. The City. Do it now.”
“I-I’m on my way. What, what do we do?”
“Water, Night and I will go take a look. Get someone in the station to bring us ropes and tools right away.”
“You’re not going down there?”
“Someone has to. We don’t have time to wait.”
Before she could question that a second time, Lost led his fellow frontiermen in the direction of the bridge. As they headed that way, they could hear the crash of another big part of the bridge falling away into the chasm.
Water and Night could hardly keep up. Night told his friend, “I’m, I’m sure she’s okay.”
Buddha Lost didn’t break stride as he threw his question over his shoulder. “Your wife was on that train?”
“She should be,” Water said.
“Let’s move a little faster.” Lost was surprised that Bud Water was holding up that well if his wife was a part of this disaster. If there was one thing about Water that Lost appreciated it was his wife. In fact it was the only thing Lost envied about his coworker. She was beautiful, bright and charming. Lost could never understand what a goddess like her was doing with someone like Buddha Water.
A third tumble sent more of the bridge onto the fallen train. There was still enough of it to be a threat to anyone who might try to climb down. They all knew it. This was not the city. Gods living in Pantheon City rarely died in accidents. They rarely died at all unless they were forgotten by the mortals entirely. Outside of the safety of the city limits things were different. Injuries were harder, pain was more real and death was closer.
The Buddhas had been followed by a few other station workers. Eros the janitor was the one who asked, “Can you even get down there?”
Bud Night was studying the situation while he said, “We’ve done it many times. How do you think the bridge got built?”
“Well yeah,” Eros said, “but this is different.”
The fact was the same path that they had used before was still easy to follow, at least for the three of them. This time there was a broken bridge ready to rain metal into the chasm at any moment. Lost looked back. “Where the hell are those supplies?”
“They’re coming,” Eros said. “I’ll go hurry ’em up.”
The three frontier gods all observed the fallen train silently, working out their own particular plans. Each of them wondered how the other two could be so calm.
For a broom pusher, Eros turned out to be very good at giving orders and getting people to listen. So much so that Bud Night put him in charge of the supply line. As the Buddhas descended down the zig zagging path to the bottom, they needed other gods to follow, both to maintain a feed of supplies and also to bring any victims of the disaster up.
“Is this really the best way to do this?,” Night asked when the three of them were ready to head into danger.
“I don’t honestly know,” Lost told him. “But this isn’t something I’ve done before. We can’t wait for help to arrive from the city.”
There wasn’t any more talking. A lot of passengers were already outside the train cars, huddled onto rocks, some of them holding on to keep from being swept along by the flowing water. The stream wasn’t a powerful one, but it was constant. The real problem was that a passenger car was partially submerged. There were still gods inside. If it shifted, then those people could drown. It was possible to die by drowning in the city if you were under long enough. Out in the frontier it was a serious danger.
Bud Night started getting the closest survivors. Lost had to tell Water, “I don’t see Hera right away. You know that we have to focus on getting everyone out.”
“I know. Don’t worry. She wouldn’t want me to ignore other gods in trouble. We’ll get everyone out as timely as we can.”
Night got as many gods as he could to the path where the station employees gradually helped them to the top. Lost and Water were the ones to actually make their way into the precarious passenger car. Water had to ask, “The engine and the aether cars are pretty far away. Can we get to them?”
“I don’t think so. I’d like to help the engineers, but I don’t think we can. They’re going to have to hold out until the experts get here. Look.” Lost had counted the people he could see. Less than a fourth of the gods were still on the car. Everyone who could get out had. These people were all stuck. Some were unconscious. Others trapped by crushed metal or fallen objects. The first ones out were the ones nearest the door. Lost and Water checked the unmoving ones for pulses. They weren’t going to waste any effort saving corpses. One was killed by a broken neck, another from a blow to the head.
The others were carried out, fastened with ropes to make certain that Night could get them to the path, and that the gods there could haul the slumped bodies up. A couple of them woke up from pain when an injury was aggravated from the movement. The rescuers couldn’t afford to be gentle. There were too many people waiting.
Bud Night brought crowbars to break some stubborn pieces of the train free to get some of the victims out. The three of them tore into the twisted metal carefully. The train car had moved more than once while they worked. They had thought that the threat of death from above would be the most frightening thing. They had all but forgotten it after feeling the shakes and slides of the train car shifting. If the car slipped underwater, then escape would be difficult even for the able bodied.
The gods nearest the water were the ones they helped first once they realized that the car was descending slowly into the stream. If the stream kept rising then any god trapped there would die. They could see one drowned body staring up at them lifelessly through the water.
The struggle kept the recognition of Bud Water’s wife from being dramatic. “Hera. She’s here.” Water saw that her leg was caught between two pieces of metal. He tried to work her free, but it wasn’t possible. “Don’t worry, baby. We’ll get you out of here. Just hold tight and don’t move.”
She let out a gasping chuckle that was stained by fear. “That’s funny.”
He couldn’t help a smile. “I meant don’t struggle. Just lie still.”
Night shouted, “We’ve got a guy over here, Water. We need a hand.”
Hera whispered, “Go. Just be fast.”
“Damn!,” Lost screamed. “The car’s slipping again! We have to be fast.”
After several attempts at freeing the lowest god in the car, they had to admit defeat. Night told him, “I’m sorry. We can’t get you out. We don’t have the time.”
“Don’t you leave me here!” There were shrieks of admonition from the half soaked god. The time it would take to get him free would keep them from rescuing anyone else. They had no choice. Even as they heard the threats and begging, they turned away to get the others out.
“Hera’s next,” Lost said, moving to her. He got in Water’s way deliberately. He wanted a clear head to do the work.
She told them, “I can last. Get the others.”
Lost smiled. “Don’t be an idiot. Right now you’re the closest to the danger. Bud! Hand me that crowbar.” Buddha Lost pried at the metal. It gave, but it would not push away from the goddess’s leg. It just twisted in place, making her groan in agony. After a few tries, Lost decided that it was no good. “I can’t get this raised to get her out. Night, hand me that saw.”
“Stars!,” Night said. He did as he was told, hesitating only slightly. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No, but we don’t have a doctor handy. I need something to make a tourniquet.”
Hera was desperately trying not to black out. “What’s a tourniquet?”
He didn’t answer her. “This is really going to hurt. You have to try to stay still. Water, get over here and hold her.”
The screams of fear from the god they had abandoned were nothing compared to the screams of pain as Lost began cutting into Hera’s leg. It was a sickening sensation to saw through her flesh, but it got worse when he reached the bone. Hera passed out almost immediately once he started slicing through that.
Once she was freed from her own appendage, she fell back fast like a nail that had been pulled loose. Water’s voice moved almost musically through his crying. “Thank the Cosmos.”
Night told him, “Hand her here. I’ll get her to the path.”
Hera was not the last. Apart from the one man they’d had to leave, the Buddhas rescued everyone. It wasn’t certain that they were all going to survive, but they weren’t going to die at the bottom of the chasm.
By the time the real rescue workers arrived, all that was left was to do a headcount and search for anyone missing.
The reporters were all over. None of the frontiermen said a word. They let the survivors tell the story. Night had a gash on his arm, so the rescue workers insisted that all three of them had to go to the hospital with the survivors. None of them were really hurt, and they said so. There was no point arguing.
A couple hours later Bud Water found Buddha Lost in a waiting room that the police had barred the reporters from. “Here you are. Night told me that I needed to thank you. I guess you’re responsible for the medical treatment.”
Was that the price? Was Lost’s wealth common knowledge now? “What did Night say?”
“He said that you knew a few people in the city. The medical expenses are all covered. I didn’t know you were connected like that.”
So Night had managed to keep it quiet after all. “I’m not really. This is one hell of a news story though, so it wasn’t hard.” Lost took a drink of coffee. “How’s she doing?”
Water couldn’t talk about it easily. “She, uh, she’ll live. It, she’s not going to be walking for a long time, obviously.” He pointed to Lost’s incomplete hand. “How long is it going to take for her leg to reform?”
Lost looked at his hand. He didn’t really mind the wound. To him it was like a trophy. The finger was severed in a stupid accident, but it showed that he was really doing the job. “This is going to take a long time. That’s because we’re out here. Honestly, Bud, you probably want to move back to the City. It’ll take four to five times as long for her to heal out here on the frontier.”
“The doctors said something about it. They didn’t say it would be that long.”
“I know you don’t like it there, Bud, but some things are important. Get your wife back to Pantheon City until she can walk again. The years you spend there won’t be as bad to you as the extra years she would spend in Avalon on wheels and crutches.”
“Yeah.” Water paused a moment. The way Lost was talking to him, it was like he was glad to say all that. Water didn’t want to resent Lost at all, but it was hard. “I heard that they’re offering you a promotion.”
“That’s right. I’m not taking it.”
“I don’t want to run some frontier office. Maybe in a couple hundred years, but right now I want to do what I’m doing. I am moving to a different position. There’s an opening farther out. Untamed land. No roads, train tracks, towns or anything.”
“Sounds kind of isolated.”
“I think that might be okay for me. Don’t you think so, Bud?”
Water didn’t answer that. “So I guess we’re both leaving the Number Five.”
“It won’t be the Three Buddha Station anymore.”
“I bet the name sticks for at least a century. Look Buddha, I don’t know when you’re leaving, but as soon as Hera gets home we’re having a get together. We kind of already decided to head back to the City. All our friends in Avalon will want to see her before that. I thought maybe you wanted to come.”
Lost tried not to smile. He took another sip of coffee. It was lousy hospital coffee, but in that moment it was deeply fulfilling. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Look, Water, I don’t like you any more than you like me. That isn’t going to change just because I cut off your wife’s leg.”
“It’s more than that. You were the first down into the chasm. You put yourself at risk.”
“No more than you did. You were right behind me, and if I hadn’t been there, you would have rushed in as fast as I did.”
Water thought about being humble, but the truth was, “Yeah. I would have.”
“Before the bridge fell you were talking about a cookout or something.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. You didn’t know it, but I heard what Night said and what you said. You said that I didn’t care if I was invited, and that I didn’t care if you openly let people know that I wasn’t welcome. You were right. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. You don’t owe me that.”
“Well damn, I owe you something.”
“Respect. Nothing more than that. Maybe gratitude, but my time has taught me that gratitude isn’t worth much.”
“But respect is.”
“You know that.”
“All right then. I’ll always speak well of you. As much as I can.”
“Likewise. Whatever else is true, remember this. The time we spent in that sinking train car? That was the best time we ever had together. It’s the best time we’ll ever have in each other’s company.”
The world of Pantheon City is the setting of a detective story called