The Great Train Robbery37 min read
From high above the Escapement, from the perspective of a flying caique or other clown bird, the railway line appeared more like a sort of tangled mandala, following not a straight path but the twisting contours of the landscape; and it often doubled back on itself, crossing the former line with a new one, creating a series of curious knots. The terminus point of Kellysburg appeared as a smudged thumbprint in the distance. Ahead, the tiny engine puffed out a steady plume of smoke as it pulled the passenger cars and hoppers behind it. The hopping cars were loaded with sacks of crystalline Substance from the pits and quarries of the Kellysburg prospectors. A couple of cattle cars held horses, including the Stranger’s horse, who was munching sedately on hay.
From high above the Escapement, the train was nothing but a toy set, huffing and puffing its slow way along the narrow tracks. A flock of caiques, birds uneasy with flight at the best of times, settled themselves onto the branches of a tree high above the railway line, where they chattered animatedly and mimicked the whistle sound of the train to amuse themselves. The train struggled as the elevation rose. They were still only on the edges of the Thickening, and beyond lay the Doinklands and the Doldrums and the great graveyards of the wild elephant herds.
Far in the distance, one could almost imagine they could hear the sound of giant stone feet, treading softly on the earth …
The Stranger watched the landscape roll past from the window of the car. Mountains rose in the distance and their peaks were white with snow. The sky was a calm blue, and the air felt fresh and clear as the wind blew in. The train crawled along the ledge of a high precipice and the Stranger could see the Nikulin river down below, a wide expanse of cerulean blue, and the sunlight caught a leaping fish and reflected off its silvery scales.
‘I don’t like this,’ the Kid complained. The Kid and the Stranger had met up in Kellysburg, where a false clown terrorised the townsfolk. It had turned out the Kid was handy with a gun. Now they travelled together to Jericho.
The Kid kept fidgeting with a pendant that hung from a necklace round his neck. The Stranger had noticed it before. It was a silver thumb-tip, and on it, engraved, was the legend Vernaculus: it was an old word, and it meant both clown, and slave.
The Kid saw the Stranger looking at his pendant and put it back under his shirt, out of sight.
‘You mean we just sit here?’ he said.
‘That’s how it goes,’ the Stranger said. He was not in a hurry. He felt content for the time being to simply sit and look out on the ever-changing Escapement and not to think too much. It was soothing.
‘Listen,’ the Kid said. ‘In your travels, did you ever run into a conjurer?’
‘You know. White gloves. Black clothes. Wears a tall black hat. Makes ducats disappear. A fucking conjurer.’
There was a sort of pain behind the Kid’s eyes. The Stranger said, ‘I can’t think as I have.’
‘This one wears pistols with silver handles on his belt,’ the Kid said.
The Stranger shook his head. ‘I’ll keep my eyes open,’ he said.
‘Where are you from, kid?’
The Kid shrugged. ‘A small town called Bozoburg, on the Fratellini plains. The sort of place where nothing ever happens.’
‘A one-clown town.’
‘Yeah.’ The Kid reached for his pendant again, absent-mindedly. ‘What about you?’ he said. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you?
‘You’re from that other place.’
‘Ah,’ the Stranger said. ‘Well, that’s a question, isn’t it.’ He looked out of the window. High above, he noticed a line of Erlandson trees, tall, graceful trunks like vaulting poles and twisting branches shaped into hearts or arms or lightning bolts, and he thought he saw dark shapes dart between the high branches, but if so he could not make them out clearly. Yet they made him uneasy. The train continued to chug gaily parallel to the Nikulin down below. The air grew colder by degrees, and a flurry of snow blew down in a sudden gust of wind, never reaching the ground but bursting overhead in tiny flashes of sunlight and microscopic rainbows. ‘I mean, do we dream that other world, or does it dream us, do you think?’
Out on the Escapement, prospecting for Materiel, he had run into two agents of the pupae umbrarum and survived. Peering into their cart, for just a moment, he had seen something. A giant goldfish lay partially covered in dirty blankets. From time to time it struggled feebly against the bonds that held it down, and its giant black and gold head hit the floor with a powerful thump that shook the ironmongery all about it. It had two glass eyes and a mouth with many jagged teeth. It was about the size of a tuna. Its scales, even in that quick half-glimpse of the Stranger’s, nevertheless shone a bright gold light, and its intricate mechanism rattled and whirred as it flopped there on the floor.
The Stranger had never seen such a device, before, and it had made him uneasy.
The Kid shrugged, indifferent. ‘As much as I enjoy talking metaphysics,’ he said, ‘I think I prefer playing cards.’ When he spread his arms, tarocchi cards leaped between his fingers. The Stranger caught flashes of wands and swords and rings, of Death, of Temperance, and of the Hermit. He said, ‘You seem to have a little of the conjurer in you, yourself.’
The Kid scowled. He got up smoothly, making the cards disappear. ‘I’ll be in the dining car,’ he said, ‘if you’d like to join me.’
‘I might, later,’ the Stranger said.
The Kid grinned. ‘If only you played cards the way you shoot …’ he said, and shook his head in mock sorrow. He disappeared into the corridor. The Stranger turned his head back to the window. The motion of the train lulled him to sleep and yet he watched uneasily as the river expanded farther ahead, how the mountains loomed, how dark shapes seemed to fleet swiftly between the vines and high branches of the Erlandson trees. The snow had gone as quickly as it had come, and what remained now in the air was just the ghost or the idea of snow.
In time, the Stranger fell asleep. From high above the Escapement, the flock of caiques watched the little toy train with amused interest, and some of them surfed against the tree bark or the wet leaves down below, propelling themselves in play by their beak, rolling and wrestling with each other. But they were soon disturbed in their frivolity by the larger, fleeting shadows, and their chatter turned nervous and soon they took flight as one, an explosion of feathery colour, yellow and snow-white and green, as they followed the contours of the mountain.
High on the branches of the trees, the aerialists halted. They were dressed in simple whites or greens, and their lithe, strong bodies seemed impervious to the altitude and the cold. They paused, perfectly balanced. There were five of them. Their leader, Carl, followed the slender branch of a tree as it bent over the sheer drop above the Nikulin like a fishing rod. He stood with his arms at his side, watching the train.
‘Well?’ Loretta asked. She back-flipped lazily across her branch and leaped into the air, catching one of the Erlandson tree’s rings. She raised herself to a sitting position above the others and frowned. ‘But I don’t want to rob another train,’ she said.
Carl ignored her. His gaze traced the path of the railway line. Ahead were two low mountains, the Petit Philippe and the Grand Philippe, and the train would pass through the saddle to reach the other side. Beyond, the Nikulin snaked under the towering mountain range, until it reached a natural breach in the landscape, a deepening into which both the river, and the melting snows, drained, forming a wide lake, the Chagrin.
Beyond the Chagrin, the train would take a sharp turn away from the mountains and down to the fertile plains, heading away from the Doinklands and into the Thickening proper, far from the sounds of war and the pratfalls of clowns. But to make its getaway, the train would have to first cross the bridge over the lake …
The troupe of aerialists listened impassively as he outlined the plan. Then they once again took to the air, leaping from vine to hoop, from stilt to swing, traversing the Erlandsons that grew all along this side of the mountain, and only the little caiques watched them pass.
The knocks on the door kept repeating until, at last, the man had no choice but to get up off the sofa and fumble with the door. She stood there glaring at him before pushing past him. What have you been doing with yourself, she said. She began to move around, tidying up. She emptied the ashtray with a sound of disgust and she turned off the television set and opened the blinds. Sunlight streamed into the room, making his eyes hurt.
You don’t understand, he told her, speaking thickly, I am not really here, this is just the effect of Substance, I am looking for the Utnapishtim, the keeper of the Plant of Heartbeat—
She touched his cheek. It was so light and yet it burned through him and he turned his face away. As she tidied up she picked a book from where it must have fallen behind the sofa, it was The Fabulous Flying Banditti, he must have been reading it to the boy the last time—
The Stranger was jolted awake as the train took a sharp turn and passed back on itself and looped in a knot in the rail. It was a sort of ankh-shaped looping and as he watched he could see the back of the train and the front of the train converging upon one another, and it put him in mind of a giant worm, continually devouring itself. He could see the hopping cars with their sacks of Substance bouncing on their suspension, and the animal cars where his horse napped standing up, seemingly content. Overhead night had fallen. The snow that fell down now was as fine as ash. The Stranger rose and left the cabin. His feet trod on the soft worn carpet of the hallway. Half of the cabins on this car were empty, as few boarded the train at the Kellysburg end. He made his way to the dining car.
Hot air and the smell of tobacco and gun stew and bread hit him as he entered. Unlike the rest of the train, the car was packed, and the men and women who crammed around the low tables were on the main a rough and ready crowd. Bottles of moonshine and Sticks sat on the tables and the drinkers were merry but for the Sticks drinkers, who were slumped in their chairs with their eyes glazed open as they visited that other place. The Kid sat near the galley, with his back to the wall, playing cards with three others, two men and a woman, and there was a large pile of ducats before him and much smaller ones before the other three. He saw the Stranger and nodded, with only a hint of a grin, and then went back to his cards.
The Stranger squeezed his way among the throng. The only empty seat was across from the card players, near the warmth of the open galley, where a large doughy man and a small, compact woman were working. The man stirred a pot of gun stew that bubbled over a solid iron cooker, and the woman rolled dough with quick, violent turns. The man, from time to time, reached out and filled a small glass with moonshine from a large bottle, and this he would lift methodically to his lips, wet them, then drown the rest in one go. The Stranger slid into the one empty chair. Across the small table from him sat one solitary figure, apart from all the others. He was a short, squat man, in a worn black suit and a rumpled white shirt and a small and rather jaunty trilby on his head. He wore thick-lensed round glasses and a toothbrush moustache. His large eyes were a watery pale blue. The Stranger pressed himself into the seat, hemmed in between the wall and the thick, sweaty back of a woman in a thick chequered flannel shirt, smudged with pale deposits of Substance, who was laughing loudly with her companions. The man in the trilby hat looked at the Stranger’s travails with kind amusement in his eyes. The laughter on the other side grew loud in response to a joke the Stranger didn’t quite catch.
‘Everyone’s a comedian,’ the man in the trilby said. He reached across the table to shake the Stranger’s hand. His grip was strong. ‘I’m Mr Norvell.’
The Stranger shook his hand. He said, ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look like a prospector.’
The man’s eyes twinkled, and he said, ‘That’s quite all right, I’m not.’ He reached under the desk for a black and much-battered briefcase and placed it on the table between them, opening it with a click. ‘I am purveyor of nostrum remedium, that is to say, of patent medicines, elixirs, mugwump and snake oil. I, sir, am a commercial traveller.’
He said that with an air of quiet pride. When he turned his briefcase to face the Stranger, the Stranger saw inside it many curiously shaped bottles of small sizes, some made of rough glass, and some of clay and some of wood. Some of the glass was an opaque rich blue and some was colourless and grainy. The wood bottles were engraved with sigils and the clay ones with simple marks like craws’ feet.
‘I have all manners of medicines to cure every manner of ailment,’ Mr Norvell said. ‘And all for a mere handful of ducats. Yes, sir. In my time I have treated with the great and the good of the land. I have been to Xanadu and El Dorado, to Shangri-La and Zion, and even, sir, I have been to the Doinklands themselves, yes, sir, I have indeed, and I have healed the deathly wounds of the boss clown of the whitefaces. I could have been rich by now, indeed I could have, but it is not the desire for ducats which animates me, indeed it does not, but only the desire to help those less fortunate than I. And you, sir? You have need for succour? Does wart-tongue trouble you, or eagle’s claw? A sore tooth? My rates for teeth extraction are most reasonable. Perhaps a love spell?’
‘No,’ the Stranger said, shaking his head. ‘No, but thank you all the same.’
Mr Norvell folded his hands before him on the table and leaned forward, and pitched his voice low. ‘Curses, is that what you ask me? I don’t …’ he looked from side to side. ‘But perhaps …’
‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ the Stranger said. ‘But thank you.’
‘But what is it you seek?’ Mr Norvell said, frustrated. ‘You must seek something!’
‘I am looking,’ the Stranger said, ‘for the Ur-shanabi.’
Mr Norvell unfolded his hands and lifted his head and sat back. The motion of the train grew faster then, the cabin rocking from side to side, and looking out of the window the Stranger saw the twin mountain peaks of the Petit Philippe and Grand Philippe approach, as the train headed to cross over the saddle.
‘The Plant of Heartbeat …’ Mr Norvell said. ‘No, no, it is I who is sorry, stranger. That flower is beyond even my powers to give.’ His eyes filled with what looked like genuine sorrow. The glasses magnified them, and in their pale blue orbits one could almost imagine the formation of tears. There was something hypnotic about Mr Norvell’s eyes, as though behind their innocent vista of sky there was a melancholy, chthonic quality. It made the Stranger feel that if only he let himself wander for too long, if only he looked too deeply into those innocent eyes, he would find himself sinking, down into that liquid ocean and farther, into the tubular optic nerve that led not to a brain but to a place of shadow. And he wondered then about Mr Norvell; for the pupae umbrarum had agents among the ordinary and not so ordinary tenants of the Escapement, just as the Colossi did.
High overhead, shadowing the train effortlessly, the aerialists leaped and vaulted from branch to branch and hoop to hoop, and Loretta saw the tiny toy train as it puffed its way towards the mountain pass. Loretta had only vague memories of that other place, which she sometimes still visited, on the rare occasions that she used Substance. Such visits seemed very real when she was in the grip of them but later, as they faded, seemed cheap and tawdry, for over there she seemed to have been teaching school and returning, each day, to a flat in the city where she lived alone but for her cat. She did not miss the sound of the television and the ping of the microwave on yet another ready-meal and she wondered often why she kept illicitly taking Substance from time to time and visiting that existence, which both repulsed and fascinated her. As for the cat, it was often said that felines were neither entirely of this place or another, and could cross the threshold between the real and the not with ease. But for whatever reason, that cat in her visions never crossed over, and in fact, few cats ever visited the Escapement. Loretta had been with the aerialists for several years now, ever since meeting Charlie and Simone and Eduardo at Codona. It was a dismal little township and it had been devastated by the Titanomachy in past years, as Colossi and pupae did battle, so that its residents were all malleably transformed in unpleasant ways, men with violins for legs, women with aquariums for eyes, the houses all tessellated, and opening in on themselves, endlessly, and linked together by Piranesian drawbridges and the like – it was a marvel the whole place stood up at all. It was a grim grey place and she had danced there alone, for settlers who wouldn’t look her in the eye, nor at each other, and even the few ducats they threw to her would often enough change into sickly wasps or wounded birds and try to crawl away.
Then came Charlie with his handsome, laughing face; graceful Simone, who was always so kindly; and the small, intense Eduardo, who almost never spoke and was never still, whose feet never seemed to touch the ground.
They saw something in her. Unlike the others in that town they were whole and wholesome, filled with a controlled energy, and she came with them gladly. They travelled the small towns and outposts, performing, and she learned the adagio and the threefold way of silk, of climbs and wraps and drops, and how to walk a tightrope and how to juggle while standing on her head. Those were heady times, but it was only when the four of them returned here, to the mountains, that she met Carl, their leader who awaited them, and then she saw the faces in the stone.
The laughter and the smell of moonshine and the haze of smoke grew in intensity inside the dining car. Mr Norvell looked at the Stranger with his curious gaze, and he laced his fingers together, and cleared his throat. ‘That flower I only heard tale of,’ he said. ‘It lies beyond the Mountains of Darkness, beyond even the reach of Colossi or pupae. Yes, yes. I have travelled far, stranger, but never there. They lie beyond the great salt lakes, they say. There is a passage underground, where only the dead can walk. Or so it’s said.’ He shrugged. ‘I could help you forget it,’ he said. ‘Your quest. For a handful of ducats, I can give you the gift of forgetting. That much, I can do.’
The Stranger nodded. His fingers rested lightly on the butt of his gun, under the table.
‘What were you doing in Kellysburg?’ the Stranger said. ‘If you don’t mind me asking? It is a little off the … beaten path.’
Mr Norvell shrugged. ‘I go where there’s need.’
‘And was there? Need?’
‘Not as much as I’d hoped.’
‘Have you word of the war?’
‘The Titanomachy rages on,’ Mr Norvell said, complacently. ‘What more is there to say? Shadow battles stone. The lizard scuttles from the glare of the sun.’
‘I met a man in Kellysburg,’ the Stranger said. ‘I think he was looking for something. A sort of new weapon one side or the other had got hold of.’
Mr Norvell’s eyes hardened but he shook his head. ‘Of that, I do not know,’ he said. Then his look turned shrewd and he said, ‘Do you, stranger?’
The Stranger drew his gun and cocked it, under the table. Mr Norvell registered the sound and his lips pursed but he said nothing.
‘I don’t think I like you,’ the Stranger said.
Mr Norvell shrugged.
‘Take off your glasses.’
Mr Norvell reached up carefully and removed his glasses. He placed them on the table. The noise of the drinkers was all about them, engulfing them in a bubble of silence. In the galley the two cooks continued to work, oblivious to them. The Stranger did not look directly into Mr Norvell’s eyes. He turned his head, looking at the galley, at the woman rolling dough and the man stirring and stirring the gun stew, and he looked at the snake oil man sideways, from the corners of his eyes, and as he looked the eyes seemed to become two black tunnels—
At that moment the lights in the dining car dimmed and went out. The cook swore, softly. The train hit a switch and then the mountains filled the windows of both sides of the train as it entered the mountain pass. The Stranger’s free hand shot across the table but all he caught hold of was Mr Norvell’s soft felt hat. The train rocked from side to side and a moment later the lights came back on.
Mr Norvell’s hat, which the Stranger had grasped, was nevertheless gone, as was the man himself. Of his briefcase of medicinal samples there was, likewise, no trace. His suit, however, remained, as though mocking the Stranger, with its starched white shirt and its black formal jacket, and on the table, he now saw, wedged under a single, stoppered whalebone vial, was a little visiting card. The Stranger slid the card from under the bottle and turned it over. Under a stylised snake curled round a wooden staff, it said, Jefferson & Norvell, Medici and, below that in smaller letters, an address: Asclepius Gardens, Jericho. The Stranger turned it in his fingers thoughtfully, then slipped it into a pocket. He picked up the small bottle and saw that it was marked Lethe. He unstoppered it and sniffed, then made a face. He stoppered the bottle again and put that, too, in his pocket.
The train thundered through the mountain pass. Fat drops of snow fell beyond the windows, and the escaping light from the dining car caught them as they fell. On the other side from the Stranger, behind the aisle, a fight broke out between the card players. A large, sweating prospector roared in anger as he tossed cards in the air, and he pulled out a gun on the Kid, who was sitting with his back to the galley. The Stranger rose with one easy motion and his own pistol pressed against the man’s thick neck.
The man froze.
‘Is there a problem?’ the Stranger said.
The man slowly shook his head. The Kid grinned, swiped the ducats on the table towards him and began to put them away. ‘No problem,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘Me and Chalky here were just having a misunderstanding, isn’t that right, Chalky?’
‘S’right, kid,’ the large man said. There were white traces of Substance all over his overalls, and now and then he seemed to go out of focus, and the Stranger could see, fleetingly, bits of the room and the furniture through his skin. ‘S’right.’
The Stranger removed the gun from the big man’s neck. The tarocchi cards lay everywhere, on the table and the floor, and the Magician had fallen by the Stranger’s feet. He looked at it for a moment before slipping back into his seat and, a beat later, the Kid came over, carelessly pushed off the empty black suit of clothes, and sat down, still grinning.
‘Thanks for that,’ the Kid said.
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘He’s not a bad guy, is Chalky. Has three claims down in Kellysburg and environs. When he sells his shipment of Substance in Jericho he’ll be set for life. Eh, Chalky?’
‘S’right, kid,’ the large prospector said, stopping by their table. He scratched his pale forehead and a thin shower of white Substance fell down gently to the floor. ‘I’m just going to use the jakes.’
‘You do that, Chalky.’
The Stranger watched him walk away. He could see the door through Chalky’s back, and the vestibule beyond. The big man went through and shut the door. The train rocked on its bogies. The night and the darkness pressed against the glass. The train’s horn sounded a desperate, forlorn sound. The Stranger said, ‘Come with me,’ and rose from his seat.
‘Because the train’s going to be attacked.’
The Kid looked at him but said nothing. He got up too, and followed the Stranger out of the dining car and into the vestibule. The door to the jakes hung open, and rattled on its hinges. The Kid drew his gun but the Stranger shook his head, no, and pushed it open the rest of the way. The prospector, Chalky, was sitting slumped over the open hole in the floor. The track rolled below. Chalky’s eyes were wide open, his breathing even, but most of him was gone now, had become translucent and ethereal, and through the thick frame of his body the Stranger could see, as through a screen, into that other place. On that screen, images flickered incessantly, showing a lit city, moving cars, garbage bins, people walking, shop windows, a cat that stopped and glared at them through Chalky’s skin before slinking away, a boy furtively spraying the walls of an overhang with paint, a drunk in a clown costume urinating at the egress of an alleyway. They could see Chalky, or a version of him, walking down that city street, in a suit and a tie, holding a briefcase. The Kid wrinkled his nose and the Stranger quietly closed the door on the passed-out man.
‘Ever since we left Kellybsurg I’ve had a bad feeling,’ he said. ‘There’s something going on, behind the walls of the world. Tiny forms in huge empty spaces. I saw … something, out there in the Doinklands, and I think people are searching for it. A sort of weapon …’
He thought again of that giant golden fish he’d seen, for just a moment, out on the wild Escapement. But then he shrugged.
‘This train’s carrying too much Substance,’ he said. ‘I think we’re going to get robbed.’
‘Ok,’ the kid said.
‘Ok?’ the Stranger said. ‘That’s it?’
The Kid grinned and drew his gun. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Why not.’
‘Ok, then,’ the Stranger said. He pushed ahead and the Kid followed, into the next car and past cabins half-empty, and into the next car again. By the next vestibule they had reached the engine. The door here was a polished mahogany. The Stranger pushed against the door to open it but it wouldn’t budge. The Kid joined him and together they pressed with their combined force against the door until at last it gave.
They staggered in.
The first thing the Stranger noticed about the engineer’s cab was how very cold it was.
It was a clean, surgical sort of cold, and it soaked into the very essence of the room, into its clean white walls and its beige parquet floor. As he became aware of his surroundings he noticed the following in quick succession: the engine room down below and the stoker, working, the large windows in the nose through which he could see the tracks running ahead between the two mountains, and finally the small and irritable man with the stoop who turned from the board of shining metallic instruments with a frown and said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.’
The man had tufts of hair coming out from behind his ears and a bald dome of a head and he wore double-lens glasses, like an apothecary man. He only looked at them momentarily before returning to his instruments, muttering under his breath figures and measurements of a geometrical nature. But what arrested the Stranger’s attention, and made his skin run cold, was the sight of the firebox and of the stoker beside it methodically shovelling ghosts.
The car was divided into two levels. They stood in the engineer’s upper level, but to their left the floor dropped directly onto a second section, and it was there that, within a small, iron boiler, a cold white fire burned. It was not so much a fire as the antonym of one, an icy vapour that emanated from some mechanical freezer agent deep within the iron firebox. Next to the box stood the stoker, a tall and gangly figure with a skin as white as a Pierrot. Despite the intense cold the man was nearly naked, and in his hands he held an old and blackened shovel, and beside him there was a large and open drum containing pure crystalline Substance. The man methodically reached into the drum with the shovel and hefted up Substance and threw it into the firebox. When the material connected with the cold flame it came alive with all the stored and possible permutations of that other place, and the Stranger saw faces and torsos and arms emerge out of the firebox, mouths open in speech or cries, eyes looking—looking at him, now, noticing him—before they vanished, so quickly he could have almost imagined it. There were so many of them that men merged into women and faces became the fantastical representation of phoenixes and sphinges and all were consumed in the freezing hungry flames that had to be kept fed, over and over. The stoker never wearied from his task and his skin resembled marble and he kept shovelling the ghosts into the furnace of the train.
‘Great Harlequin,’ the Kid said, ‘Is that …?’
‘There’s enough raw Substance here to blow a hole from here to the underworld,’ the Stranger said.
The engineer turned on them again. ‘Get out! Get out!’ he said. ‘What are you doing here? You are not supposed to be here.’
‘Look!’ the Kid said. He pointed, but the Stranger didn’t need prompting. The train shot through the dark and suddenly the mountains on either side disappeared as the train cleared the saddle, and ahead of them, and lit by the broken moon, came the approach to the Chagrin.
The true and wild Escapement opened up before them then. In a blue-black sky floated the broken moon, wreathed in milky veil of clouds. The mountains loomed in the distance, fencing in the mighty Nikulin and half encircling the dark body of water into which it flowed. Straight ahead, the train tracks reached an embankment over the shores of Lake Chagrin, but they did not stop. Rising over the body of the lake was a bridge, mounted on spindly stilts that jutted out of the water, and beyond it the Stranger could make out the next pier, where the bridge connected to a small island that floated like a dismembered eye in the north eastern part of the lake. There the bridge sloped down before rising again from the pier on the distant bank, linking the island back to the mainland, beyond, at last, the oppressive reach of the mountains.
The train thundered towards the bridge.
The aerialists gathered against the side of the mountain. Carl had pressed his palms to the black rock and communed silently with what he called the esprit de corps. Then he nodded and, seemingly satisfied, returned to their group. Loretta watched the dark island in the lake. The two bridges rose out of it like some sort of malignant growth, not human-made at all but a natural part of the Escapement, overlaid with the train tracks, which seemed puny and fragile in comparison. Long, taut aerial rope-slides ran down from the mountainside and over the lake, terminating on the black rocks of the island. Loretta held on to the pulley and slid down, following Carl and Simone. Charlie and Eduardo followed her in turn. The small human shapes glided through the air over the dark water as the train emerged from between the Grand and Petite Philippes.
A rush of exhilaration filled Loretta as she rappelled away from the mountain. She filled her lungs and screamed, and in her scream there were all her hopes and fears and dreams, from the moment she was a little girl and first saw a woman do something impossible: leaping gracefully into the air and, for just a brief moment, flying. Her dreams were filled still with that other world and the doppelganger of hers there, the school teacher, who she barely remembered or knew. But it was her fears she was truly leaving behind her, for her fears had taken on a dark shape and a face, ever since she had followed the others to the mountains. She felt it now, its gaze at her back, the terrible thing that was neither human nor of that other place, but truly of the Escapement. And as the distance grew she felt more and more herself again.
They landed softly, like seeds, one after the other on the inhospitable black rocks. There were only a few common loons roosting on the island, and the only habitation, beside the train interchange, was a caretaker’s hut, really not much more than a booth. They moved soundlessly, and the unkempt old man who stood holding a lantern and watching the distant lights of the approaching train never even noticed them. Carl, with one graceful motion, drew a knife and threw it at the caretaker, burying it in his neck. Loretta watched the man die, and the blood that was so dark in the moonlight. She didn’t want this, she realised, she didn’t want to be here, all she ever wanted was to fly. They went to retrieve the stilts that had been hidden by the black rocks.
Loretta wanted to flee. Then she looked up, and saw the stern face of the watching mountain, and she did nothing.
Carl motioned for her. He took hold of the caretaker’s lantern and held it aloft. It flared brightly as he waved it and she realised it was thieves’ light, burned with diluted Substance. At Carl’s bidding, she went and pushed the switch that would shift the train onto the island’s internal loop. Please, she thought. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.
The others returned with the stilts and she donned a pair too. They began to move with purpose, as graceful as storks, across the water.
‘What was that?’ the Kid said.
The Stranger peered ahead. The train rushed towards the lake and then with a bump it hit the switch and was onto the bridge. The water fell on either side of them as they rose over the bent stalk structure of the bridge. He caught a glimpse of the mountains on their left, ringing that side of the lake which led on to the wild Doinklands. A dark rockface, for one awful moment, resembled an austere patrician’s physiognomy. He turned his gaze from it with an effort. A cold dread clutched at his heart.
‘There it is again!’
And now he could see it. The shifting shadows rose over the water, moving with unexpected poise. At first, he thought them huge birds of some kind. As they came closer, they separated, two to either side of the train, and he saw that they weren’t birds at all but stilt walkers.
Then they disappeared, their legs dropping into the black water, and he felt more than heard the dull impact of bodies on the roof. He drew his gun and the Kid did the same. The engineer cursed under his breath and the stoker kept feeding ghosts to the flames.
At that moment a flare burst up into the sky over the island. The engineer cursed again as he adjusted his instruments.
‘What is that?’ the Kid said.
‘An emergency flare,’ the engineer said. ‘Why are you two still here?’
‘We think the train’s about to be robbed,’ the Stranger said.
The engineer didn’t respond, but his shoulders tensed. The Stranger said, ‘What does the flare mean?’
‘The caretaker wants us to go onto the loop,’ the engineer said. ‘It’s an emergency measure in case the train needs maintenance or there are concerns about the bridge ahead. But I was not aware …’
‘Kid, cover the entrance,’ the Stranger said.
The Kid nodded. He moved quietly and stood guard, guns drawn. His cheerful grin was back on his face, the same one he wore when he was winning at cards.
‘Can you take her straight on?’ the Stranger said.
‘Override the switch? It’s too dangerous,’ the engineer said. He touched the controls and the train began to slow as it rose and then began its descent towards the island. He barked a command in a language the Stranger didn’t know. The stoker didn’t pause from his job but he began to feed the flames more slowly, and in half measures, and the ghosts seemed to last longer in that fashion, and their faces lingered in the Stranger’s mind, and their lips formed silent words he did not wish to interpret.
At that moment the door to the cab exploded inwards.
The Kid was thrown back and the door slammed against the floor with a heavy thump. The Stranger’s gun pointed at the invaders, but the engineer shouted, ‘No shooting!’ and he withheld his fire.
There were three of them who streamed in and one standing guard outside. They did not hold guns but rather small and lethal looking mechanical crossbows which they pointed at the Stranger and at the engineer’s back. The Kid was on the floor and a small woman stood over him pointing her weapon at his heart. He remained down.
‘Bring her down slow,’ the woman said. ‘This is a robbery.’
‘No shit,’ the Stranger said, wearily.
The engineer cursed softly, under his breath, but he did as he was told.
‘No one has to get hurt,’ Loretta said, more in hope than in confidence. Simone had her crossbow aimed at the kid on the ground and Eduardo now moved to cover the engineer, making sure there would be no surprises. Charlie stood guard outside, and it left Loretta to cover the tall gangly stranger who wasn’t even supposed to be there. No one paid attention to the stoker. ‘Just don’t try to be a hero,’ she said.
‘Trust me,’ the stranger said. ‘No one here’s a hero.’
‘We just want your cargo,’ Loretta said.
‘Shut up, Loretta,’ Simone said.
‘What cargo?’ the stranger said. ‘Substance?’
‘If he talks again, shoot him,’ Simone said to Loretta. Loretta looked at the stranger. He had sad eyes, she thought. The train was slowing down as it approached the island. Eduardo pressed the arrow’s tip into the engineer’s back. Everything was going according to plan.
At least it was until the stoker went mad and released the ghosts.
The man put down the book he had been reading to the boy and now he sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and his head pulsed with pain. The woman moved around with a distracted air as though she simply could not sit still, and the man winced with the bright daylight and with the sound of cars outside, and each time he heard a horn he winced.
I couldn’t, he said, I couldn’t stay there in the hospital with him anymore.
I had, I had this dream that I could do something, that even now, just sitting here, I should be elsewhere, searching for—
I know, she said. I know. And then she burst out crying. She cried quietly. The tears just ran down her face and she never made a sound or tried to wipe them away. She kept moving, kept pacing the small kitchen from side to side. He rose to her. He put his hand on her cheek, felt her skin wet with tears.
There’s nothing, she said, savagely. There’s nothing, there’s nothing, there’s—!
The Stranger came to with a rush of air. Ghosts kept streaming out of the boiler, mouths open in soundless screams. The cab felt freezing. The stoker was on the floor with an arrow through his chest. The drum of Substance had rolled and the crystal dust fell everywhere and the cold flames had latched on to it and filled the whole room. The Kid was on the floor, gasping for air. The train’s windshield was broken and the engineer was holding in vain to the instrument panel and cursing, over and over, in an unknown tongue. The island rushed towards them. Of the banditti, the man who had watched the engineer was thrown through the windshield and was somehow holding on to the broken glass with bloodied hands. The girl who had kept watch over the kid was dead with a bullet in the heart. The man who’d guarded the door was gone, and the only one remaining was the girl, Loretta. He tended to remember someone’s name when they were threatening to kill him.
Loretta looked frightened. She turned, still holding her crossbow, from him to the Kid and back again. ‘Step back!’
‘What are you looking for, on the train?’ the Stranger said again.
‘I don’t know!’
‘Is it the Substance?’
‘I don’t know!’
The Kid got up. The engineer was cursing as the train hit the switch on the island and shifted to the loop, slowing down.
‘Don’t brake!’ the Stranger said. The engineer mumbled something unintelligible.
‘I can’t shift her back!’ the engineer said. ‘There’s a—’ he subsided again into furious muttering.
The Stranger stared out of the windshield. The dark and desolate landscape of the island gave nothing away. The lake gloamed all around them, trapping them in, looping in on themselves. He pointed his gun at the girl and cocked the hammer.
‘Tell me what you are looking for,’ he said.
An explosion tore through the night. The caretaker’s hut was a ball of flame, and the fire snatched at the starlight, casting an eerie glow as the flames danced in a wild tarantella. He saw a small, lithe figure leap, impossibly, into the air, with unwholesome grace, and then the man was holding on to the broken windshield and then he was inside the cabin.
‘Carl!’ Loretta said. The Kid trained his gun on the man, who was unarmed. Carl smiled faintly at the Stranger.
‘The Dumuzi Device,’ he said.
Loretta stared at them all helplessly. She knew Carl, knew what he was capable of. A terrible fear squeezed her insides. The others were talking, they thought they had control of the situation. She wanted off the train. She longed to escape, to go anywhere but there. Even, she thought with a shudder, to that other place.
‘What?’ the stranger said. He seemed so slow and dim-witted then. It was happening, she could feel it.
‘A chthonic bomb,’ Carl said, carelessly. It was the way he did all things. It’s how the others ended up dead, she realised, Eduardo and Simone. Because he never cared, they were all just pawns, to him.
‘It’s a large piece of Materiel. We have reason to believe it is on this train.’
‘What does it … do?’ the kid said.
Carl shrugged. He brought his hands together, then spread them wide, in slow motion.
The train kept going round and round the island. The caretaker’s hut burned bright. It was coming, she could feel it.
The Stranger said, ‘It looks like your plan didn’t work.’
‘How so?’ Carl said.
‘Your people are dead. You’re outnumbered. It’s just you, and the girl over there.’
‘Loretta,’ she said. ‘My name is Loretta!’
But they didn’t listen to her. They were so arrogant, the men. With their useless guns and the casual way they pointed them about, like it didn’t matter! She could hear it, then, that awful laugh from far away, crazed and inhuman and big, so big.
It was too late.
They heard it too, now. That scrawny kid and the man who thought he was in charge of things. He said, ‘What is that?’
‘But that is it, don’t you see?’ Carl said. ‘You had it all wrong, stranger. It isn’t just me, and Loretta. It’s so much more than us, than any of us. They need it. They need the Dumuzi Device.’
‘Listen to me,’ Loretta said. ‘Listen to me, you have to get out of here, you have to get off the island!’
But they were so slow, so much without grace. They moved so stiffly. Their faces stupid with incomprehension. She looked out of the windshield and then she saw it.
It was coming, at last.
From high above the lake, they all seemed so puny. The little toy train running round and round on the track, trapped on that little baleful island. The bridges shone wetly to either side. They looked like wings, the island like a beetle. The loons chattered nervously on the black rocks and high above on the Erlandson, trees the caiques cowered in the leaves.
No, no, make it stop, make it stop, the Stranger said, but concepts like sound no longer existed. On the hopping cars, uselessly guarding the useless Substance, armed men went mad and fired shots into the darkness and mostly succeeded in killing each other.
It began to snow then, bit fat drops of snow as the great big mountain shook itself from its bond of rock and roots, triggering landslides, bringing down trees, as the Colossus took one giant step and then another, feet of stones slamming into the lake bed, causing the very earth to shake and triggering a miniature tsunami.
The moonlight caught its face, its terrible face, its blank and beautiful features, its classical angles of antiquity, and the loons cried on the island and the passengers tried to throw themselves out of the windows of the train, and the Stranger reached desperately into his pocket, for the bottle marked Lethe, to swallow the snake oil inside, to somehow stop this awful, unbearable sensation, to block his ears to the dreadful laughter of the Colossus, to find oblivion.
It was so easy from above to see their fragile, fleeting thoughts as dazzling fireflies flying in confusion, for they were nothing to the Colossi, these … people, mere irritants upon the body of the Escapement, ants that crawled through the cracks in the worlds.
On the train, their agent, their limb, this Carl, as the humans called it, shuddered as it responded to the Colossus’ demands. They had to find it, this thing of the pupae umbrarum, this device. But already they felt they had been misled, that it was not, had never been, on the train, and their rage grew and they took another step, and another, detaching themselves entirely from the mountain range, until the Colossus stood up to its chest in the black water of the Chagrin.
It was Loretta who saved them. She had to. The kid and the stranger were shooting at the juddering, inhuman thing that Carl had become. Furry and eight-limbed, it launched itself at them, knocking a vial from the stranger’s hand on to the floor, before it scuttled away, faster than a bullet could follow, into the train, scenting and hunting for its masters’ prey. What made her grab the bottle she didn’t know, but its contents seemed to sing to her, a faint white glow emanated from its insides, offering redemption. She leaped out of the broken windshield, landing near the burning caretaker’s hut. The snow fell over the flames, sparks shot up, she felt her hair singe and her hands grow cold. It was there, just within reach, the lever, and all she had to do was push it, and she could save them.
Then she turned her head and, under the glow of the moon, she saw it, she saw the face of the Colossus. What sculptor had formed that dark visage? That sneering mouth and that predator’s beak, the taloned hands resting in their opal throne? It never moved, it never lived or breathed, and yet the mountain was no longer in its place but in the water, and when she looked again it was closer, and then closer again. The snow did not fall on its beautiful and ageless face. It crowded her mind, it drove her out of it. There was only room for the Colossi in the world, there was no room for her in it.
Dark waves raced against the shore. They slammed into the island with the fury of elementals, and perhaps it was that, the spray of Chagrin water and the cold wind blowing in from the peaks that broke the spell, that let her finally, with the last of her power, push the lever.
In the cab, the engineer never stopped cursing but now he suddenly went quiet, as the track shifted, and the little toy train circled one more time round the island, but slow, too slow. The Colossus roared then with a laugh that was pure rage. It was so close, another step, two at the most. The Stranger barked at the Kid, who looked at him in mute horror, but had no choice but to obey. He climbed down to the stoker’s cabin and pried the shovel from the dead man’s hands. He began to feed the flames.
The Stranger sank to the floor. He could no longer hear, and there was blood coming out of his ears and his nose. He trained his guns on the open doorway, and waited. The Colossus took one more step, and then it was by the shore. The train gathered power and the engineer cursed one last time and checked his gauges and manipulated his controls and then the train hit the switch and was rerouted from the loop onto the bridge. The Colossus screamed its laugher again and the very rocks of the islands cracked, and sinkholes opened everywhere, and the caretaker’s burned hut disappeared into the ground. The mad ichoric thing that was Carl burst through the door then, its mandibles clicking and its claws scuttling against the floor, and the Stranger shot it, emptying both his revolvers into the creature.
It was not there, the Dumuzi Device. The Colossi had been fed false information, their ancient enemy had played them once again for fools. In the eternal war that is the Titanomachy, a score for the pupae umbrarum.
The Colossus yanked the now-useless lifeline from its servant-appendage’s form. The creature that was Carl, hit by the Stranger’s bullets, dropped to the floor, black ink ichor staining the walls and the floor as it died. The ghosts in the boiler screamed, soundlessly, and then the train was over the stalk of the bridge. Slow it climbed and then faster as it reached the topmost part and began the descent towards land. By then the Colossus had boarded the island and began to tear it apart. It cared nothing for the fleeing fireflies on their little toy. It merely wished to express its displeasure. The train fled – well, let it flee. The Stranger leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, for just a moment. The memory of that terrible face was etched forever in his mind. Then he forced his eyes open, and his limbs to move, and he climbed down to the stoker’s landing, to help the Kid with the boiler. The engineer, for the first time, smiled with grim satisfaction, and his fingers moved dextrously over the instrument panel. Then the train hit land and raced on, away from the mountains and the snowfall, away from the Chagrin, and into open space again, and the wide expanse of the Thickening.
On the shore, Loretta was still alive. She felt the destruction all around her, and the Colossus’ anger, and its image was forever in her mind now, crowding out all others, everything that was her. There was a thing in her hand, a vial of some sort. But even the word for vial now escaped her. Without curiosity or thought, but only instinct, she uncorked it and put it to her mouth.
She drank the waters of Lethe (bottled by Jefferson & Norvell, of Asclepius Gardens, Jericho). The water was colourless and flavourless, but the relief it offered was immediate and lasting. She felt her mind, everything she was, Loretta of the swift dance and the impossible flying, Loretta of the Fabulous Flying Banditti, she felt her go. Her outline grew faint as rocks flew around her, as the Colossus destroyed the island. All that remained for her now was that school teacher in her little apartment with her cats, the woman whose name Loretta no longer even recalled. She did then the last and the most terrifying thing an aerialist could ever do.
She let go.
From high above, the little caiques watched the destruction and they were sad, and scared, but they were also creatures of the Escapement, and therefore used to such things. They saw the outline of the woman on the island grow faint and fade, and knew that, when she woke, she would no longer remember them or their song, for she no longer belonged to the Escapement, and the people of that other place have forfeited wonder for the prosaic long ago.
The train raced away from there, and for a time it would be safe, away from the Titanomachy and the machinations of Colossi and pupae. For a time, at least.
The Kid paused from shovelling ghosts and looked at the Stranger mournfully.
‘Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,’ he said.