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39. The fear of the gods

The planning complete, materials hastily collected, the group and volunteers were on their way to the ambush point.  As The Molly and the old diesel travel away from Omoko, preparations wre being made.


“Hold still.  The train is rocking enough without you adding to the wonkiness of these lines,” Rain complained, pulling Bruce’s head roughly to the front.  Bruce said nothing and continued to sit patiently as Rain first painted his face and neck in Silver Frost paint.  Following Bruce’s angular features, he created the illusion of metal plates outlined and riveted in charcoal. Lastly, he adding smears and drops of red paint like blood from Bruce’s eyes and mouth.  The whole look on Bruce was of a murderous robot, and with everything else they were planning, Rain hoped it would help tip the balance in their favour.

But right now, he had other things on his mind.

“You gave your dad a pretty hard time when we arrived,” Rain said conversationally.


“You didn’t think how that would make us look?”

“You weren’t in the conversation,” 

“My point exactly, it was a private conversation, and you aired it in public.” 

 When Bruce didn’t respond, Rain put down the paintbrush and looked Bruce in the eye, for once on the same physical level.

“He’s the hero of the town, their saviour.  To them, he can do nothing wrong.  And then you show up, an unknown quantity, a possible enemy even, and abuse the hell out of him. Who do you think that looks poorly on?  Him?”

“We shook hands,” Bruce replied, nonplussed.

“Look, I can only do my job when we’re at least neutrally accepted.  Unknown is fine, though I was hoping that the rumours of you and the Dreaming Sable would have preceded us.  But to make us look bad out of spite…”

“Hey, doesn’t it look better if from a tense moment we came together in the end?”

“Don’t go all Shakespearian on me,” Grumbled Rain, picking up his brush and continuing to working on Bruce’s face.  It was obvious he wasn’t convinced, and moments of silence hung heavy between them.

“Ish-Ma-El is going to make an excellent Avenging Angel,” Rain started again, conversationally in tone.

“Wouldn’t have them come into combat with me if they weren’t good.” Added Bruce, pleased at how the scruffy salver they’d found in the old theatre had turned out to be a first-rate fighter, planner and Captain.

“Yeah, really great.” Rain agreed with a bitter edge.  


 “I can’t do that, right?”

“Because you don’t want to,” Bruce replied, and before Rain retorted that Bruce was just making it his fault, he added, “And we like that about you.”

Rain’s self-righteous posturing deflated—all pretence of painting forgotten.

“Really?” He asked doubtfully.

“Yes, really.”

“Then why am I being pushed out?”

Bruce shook his head, unsure he’d heard correctly, “What?”

“At the planning meeting.  It was all you were going to do and then the assumption I wouldn’t be in the fight.”

“You’ve never wanted to fight.”

“No, but when we’ve needed to, have I ever sat on the side-lines?”

“No, but who said you would?”

“You have your new fighting buddy, “ Rain sighed, “It just felt like it.”

Bruce scowled, making his murder robot makeup look even more menacing.  Rain was many things Bruce appreciated, but his emotional outbursts and neediness were not some of them. 

“Do my makeup!” Bruce said, and in silence, Rain complied.

“Your talents are needed and irreplaceable,” Bruce said a few minutes later as he examined Rain’s work in one of two large circular concave mirrors Rain had insisted they bring, “I look like a harbinger of death!”

“You worry me,” Rain replied as he packed up the paints and brushes, “The theatrics, the larger than life Bruce is fine, I can use that…but you give the impression you can do all on your own.”

“No, he can’t do it on his own,” Ish-Ma-El walked in, already painted from head to foot in silver paint, charcoal outlining their eyes and shadowing their features.  The wings, also painted silver, were already strapped to their back with Peggy’s homemade fountain fireworks bound to their leading edges. The twin hilts of Ish-Ma-El’s swords stuck out up above their head.  Even casually walking around the train, Ish-Ma-El looked every inch the terrifying avenging avatar of railway gods they portrayed.

Rain, whose back was to the door when they entered, stiffened, then turned to smile at Ish-ma-el.

“Thank you, my angel, of death,” He turned back to Bruce, who was strapping his armour back in place, “I’m just worried that you may…do a Halloween.”

The cryptic phrasing baffled Ish-Ma-El, but Bruce paused in his dressing.

“I’m worried that your ego will drive so far ahead of us that we won’t be there to help.”

Without looking up or making eye contact with Rain, Bruce shrugged on his coat and walked out the carriage door Ish-Ma-El had just come in.

“Well, he can’t.  Not without me!” Ish-Ma-El smile back maliciously.  Ish-Ma-El was looking forward to murdering the Ironside Roar crew for what they did to their train.  With their natural confidence, Ish-Ma-El exuded an air of righteous malevolence. 

Rain went back to cleaning up the brushes in turpentine and stowing the paints,

“I wanted to ask, what are we doing with the Ironside Roar when this is all over?” Ish-Ma-El asked, changing the subject.

“Nothing.  It can be blown up or given to the resistance.  We certainly have no use for it,” Rain replied, thinking that Railsea was interesting to visit, but it was a little too small to live there.

“Fair enough,” Ish-Ma-El replied, deep in their own thoughts.

“Ish,  as a citizen of this world, I stand behind you in determining what happens to the train and the weapon.  Whatever you and the leaders of Omoko decide,”  Rain suddenly said, seemingly out of the blue.

“I…appreciate that,” They acknowledged and inclined their head back the way Bruce had gone, “What does Bruce think of that?”

Rain went back to cleaning up, now only an exercise in keeping his hands busy, “Ah, you’d have to ask him.”

Busy with the last minute preparations, it wasn’t long before the old diesel from the Omoko and The Molly were at the pinch point and unloading equipment and personnel.  Most of the crews of the Molly and the Almighty Bruce were there, setting up more of Peggy’s detonators (these a little less explosive than the first batch) moving the old diesel and carriages on the tracks as planned. When completed they took to the mesa around the ambush point with the catapult, piles of rocks and concave mirrors.

The switch’s lever was removed, and wedges inserted to force the Ironside Roar from one track to the other.  Once in the trap the Ironside Roar would need to slow down or ram into the back of the old diesel.  As soon as the Ferro-navy were in range, both Ish-Ma-El and Bruce (with Algernon’s help for the later)would swoop down from the mesa and attack.  Rain would come up behind supporting the fighters. Peggy and Algernon would deal with the weapon and disconnect it from the rest of the train.

Bruce derailed the lone carriage with the help of his formidable strength.  The old diesel’s brakes were firmly on.  The ambush was set.

At least that was the plan.

Hiding around the old diesel with Rain and Algernon, Peggy asked the Strange what the Ironside Roar had prepared for them.  Instead of the usual reply made in her own voice, she saw an image of two trains, the larger Ironside Roar and a smaller steam train. Ish-Ma-El’s old engine and remaining carriages.  

“Oh!  They have two trains now,” She told Rain and Algernon, who thought a moment.  It could mean more marines.  But, forced into a single file at the pinch point, the trains could only attack one at a time.  Going around was not an option.

“There’s smoke.  I think the Ironside Roar is here,” Algernon pointed out the tell-tale black oily cloud of diesel smoke floating above the mesa.  He unslung his crossbow and notched a bolt.  Peggy hefted the grappling hook and rope she’d acquired, and Rain checked his pockets for the remainder of Peggy’s fireworks and gently blew on the burning end of a cord in his hand.

On the mesa itself, Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were ready.  From their vantage, they’d seen the Ironside Roar and the smaller steam train coming.  As Bruce turned to tell the others on the ground, a cylindrical silver something floating through the sky caught his attention.  The thing had wings of sorts, but unlike a bird, the stubby wing-like appendages did not flap.  As it moved closer, it was clear the item was made of metal, cigar-shaped and smooth, but unlike an aircraft or missile, the thing moved standing on end, a thin metal slit in the sky.  As Bruce and Ish-Ma-El watched, it descended to the damaged rail switch in the middle of the ambush.

“That’s an Angel…an actual Angel!” Rain cried out as the cigar-shape craft slowed to land near the jammed switch. Spindly metal limbs extended and the Angel settled balancing on one end as other limbs extended to work.  No one saw Peggy run down the length of the carriage behind the old diesel until the grappling hook flew through the air, catching hold of the Angel around its cylindrical body.

“Wha…!” From on top of the coupling between the old diesel and the carriage, Algernon could barely believe what he was seeing as Peggy was pulled out onto the open sand as the Angel fought its bindings.  She quickly wrapped the end of the rope around a railing on the carriage and pulled.  The rope tightened even further around the Angel, it stopped fighting the restraint.  Now its attention was torn away from the repair job to the rope binding its limbs.

“Peggy!  What the hell!” Shrieked Rain, his eyes flicking between the Angel, the oncoming cloud of diesel smoke and Peggy, eyes-wide and gleeful.

“I want…I want to learn about it!” She replied manically, her whole focus on the machine that now withdrew its repair tools and extended a sharp blade.

“In the middle of an ambush!  It’s an Angel! Railsea myths are full of how they run down and destroy the wicked!”

Seeing the Angel cutting itself free , Peggy quickly tied off the rope and ran across the tracks towards the machine.

“Peggy!”  Both boys screamed as the Ironside Roar turned the corner into the ambush, heading straight for the switch.

Shaking his head at Peggy’s lunacy, Rain turns to the crews on the mesa. “Light it up!” He yelled, pointing to the Angel on the tracks.  To himself, he mumbles, “Maybe something can be salvaged out of this,” As he broke cover and ran after Peggy .

Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were waiting their moment to leap as the Ironside Roar turned the corner .  Seeing the old diesel and the Angel on the tracks, the Ironside Roar instead squealed, applying its brakes.  Behind them, a small steam engine also started braking.  The crews on the mesa maneuvered the large mirrors they brought from the mines of Omoko.  Usually used to move sunlight down into the mines as free safe light, the reflections moved across the sand like giant spotlights to find the Angel.  It glowed and sparkled like its namesake in the shadows of the ravine.

Seeing Peggy dash across the ambush, Bruce called down to the old diesel, “Algernon, can you lift her out of there?”

Peggy, a look of sheer joy on her face, dashed up to the Angel just as it broke free its ropes.  

“You are so beautiful…” She said, stretching out a hand to the machine as its cutting blade pulled back and plunged into her shoulder. Blind to everything, including the pain, she mentally grabbed hold of the physical link to create a mental one.  

Awe! She projected, soothing the Angel, Excitement!  Curiosity!

Something like a mind stated its imperatives, FIX RAIL. ALARM!  CALLING ASSISTANCE!

Allowance for repair.  Danger Ahead! She answered physically and mentally, pointing out the Ironside Roar screeching to a halt only metres away. The Angel seemed to accept her response, and the alarm ceased.  Peggy cooed and smiled as you would to a baby, embracing it while still impaled on its blade.

The Ironside Roar was finally in jumping distance.  Bruce went to go first when Ish-Ma-El put out an arm to stop him.

“You may be the harbinger, but I’m the freaking Angel of Death!” They said, lighting the two fireworks attached to their wings and leaping off.  Wings fully extended, silver paint glowing warmly in the late afternoon light, a shower of golden sparks cascading from the end of each wing, Ish-Ma-El descended on the officers of the Ironside Roar.  Caught in a knot on the command deck, the group of officers could do nothing but watch as the Angel hovered overhead and pronounced its judgement.

“Foolish mortals!  Your time is up!  For services rendered, I have come for payment with your souls!” The figure reached up and extracted two wicked blades from behind its back and flourished them, ready for the kill.

Stunned at Peggy’s insanity, Algernon had not moved from his spot on the old diesel.  Bruce’s call snapped him back to the present.

“Which she?” He said to himself, knowing full well there was only one ‘she’ that needed saving at that moment.  He focused his levitate on the real Angel and pushed it back into the Ironside Roar.  The blade in Peggy’s shoulder wrenched free as the Angel was thrown backwards by an invisible force.  Crying in pain and loss, Peggy screamed, “Don’t hurt it!  We’re communicating!” The Angel’s polished metal skin hit the heavy metal body of the Ironside Roar.  The engine buckled in,  but no real damage marked the Angel. With a whimper of concern, Peggy ran to its side once more.

Running along the tracks, Rain pulled out a number of the fireworks and lit them.  Using the canyon’s natural acoustics, he projected in his street performer’s voice to the Ironside Roar crew.

“See the… Angels of Vengence here to collect the souls of those who murdered the crew of the G.V.!  They will take you all to Beeching’s firebox where your souls will stoke his engine forever!

“Repent now, and the Angel may yet spare your lives!  Those forced into this life of pillage and murder, kneel and confess, and the Angel will pass over you!”

Coming after the crash with the Angel, his voice echoing off the ravine walls, gained every crew member’s attention.  Many looked up to see the Avenging Angel swoop down on their officers.  Others saw another figure leap down from the mesa and roar in their direction.

The Angel extracted itself from the damaged engine as Peggy rushed up to soothe the machine.

This is danger! She relayed to the Angel.  As the engine had just crashed into it, the Angel was inclined to agree.  Turning to face the Ironside Roar, the Angel clamped its legs to the sleepers and lifted the train’s front end.  Having come to a complete stop, the engineers were busy trying to put the Ironside Roar in reverse only to find their drive wheels spinning in mid-air. 

With a childish giggle, Peggy started asking questions of the Angel, how it was able to lift such weight and its nature as a mechanical being.

Bruce pulled out his crowbar, “I’m coming, kid!” He yelled down to Algernon before stepping back and running off the mesa.  Algernon caught Bruce part-way through his fall, bounced him off the carriage of the old diesel and sailed him across the sands in a backflip to land squarely in front of the officers, astonished by the angel.

“Fear the Champion of the Angels, the harbinger of death.  Surrender and live!”  Rain preached to the well converted.  He glanced at Peggy as he ran past as she stared lovingly up at the mechanical monster holding up the front end of the engine.  With a shiver he put her out of his mind and started climbing up the Ironside Roar after the fighters.  As he reached the top, he saw Bruce swing his crowbar up. 

“If you hold fast to the Ferro-Navy, Die!” Bruce roared in his  best preacher’s southern accent, bringing the crowbar in a jarring attack that sent the Captain to his knees, “If you were conscripted, made a slave to this foul life, flee and live today!”

The officers fled, leaving their crumpled and wounded Captain behind. The Captain was terrified. He tried scrambling away on all fours, but it was the Angel of Vengence’s turn, and with a precision snicker of twin blades, his head flipped up into the air and over the side.  His body soon followed to be lost to the sand.

Behind Rain, the engineers saw their Captain’s demise and leapt from the cab onto the sand.  Better the molerats and other monsters of the sandy depths than these terrible creatures from faith and myth.  Rain quickly changed direction and climbed down into the cab and shut it down.  The Ironside Roar was theirs!

“Peggy, we’ve got the engine!” 

Power down, less threat,  Peggy praised and soothed the Angel.  Her direct link and clear instructions accepted, the Angel dropped the train back onto its wheels. 

Algernon flew past the spectacle that was the Ironside Roar. The crew were fleeing the train from all carriages, many running for the reversing steam train, the G.V. that had once been Ish-Ma-El’s home.  Others just ran blinding into the sands, ocassionally being snapped up by opportunist predators drawn by the commotion.  He sailed smoothly above the chaos to the coupler behind the first carriage, the one carrying the weapon.  Now, seeing a real-life Angel of the Railsea hold up the engine, he recognised the resemblance to the salvage Ish-Ma-El’s crew had been unlucky enough to find.  This, however, was a weapon of war; something meant to destroy, not repair.  Well, so was he.  Touching the coupler, he forced the Strange between its molecules, and the solid cast metal coupler disintegrated into dust under his fingers.  

A movement in the sky caught his attention.  Two more of the Angels floated above the battle. Disinterested in the quarrels between the flesh-creatures they’d been drawn to the cries of alarm from their friend.  Algernon acknowledged the sentiment. With his job now done, he flew back along the train to where Rain was fussing with the controls.

“The weapon is free. We’re ready to move forward,” He said and headed to the cab of the old diesel.  His job done, he looked back at the Ironside Roar, Peggy now climbing up the Angel, Rain restarting the diesel, Bruce clubbing another defender off the train, and even Ish-Ma-El swooping up and diving on their next prey.  They were fine.  He faced the controls of the old diesel and started it up.

“Stand and face your death, you creatures of the Ferro-Navy, or flee and save your lives!”  Bruce continued his speech as officers and railmen alike fled before him.  Bruce found this a little frustrating.  He’d turned on an armour cypher specifically for the purpose of ploughing through and getting face to face with some Ferro-Navy scrubs.  Revelling in the power of the moment, but with no apparent outlet for his energy, he clambered over the engine and jumped down onto the next carriage where the weapon lay.  

Up close, it looked like a big, thin tin can, nothing as terrifying as the Avenging Angel beside him.  He thought it was something like the two hovering over their heads at that moment. It was something that no one should have.  He swung his crowbar back and forward as he walked the length of the carriage, intent on at least doing some damage to the thing.  But, when he reached the end without touching it, he found more resistance in the form of a big muscled Ferro-Navy man wielding a sword.  Without a second thought for the weapon, a manic grin plastered on his metal-painted face. He lunged for the defender.  The crowbar found the man’s head, and he fell from the train and into the sand.  The moment gone, Bruce continued his climb through the train looking for more opposition.

Ish-Ma-El was also looking for prey.  Most fled before them, some even killing themselves in their panic.  They rose above the Ironside Roar to get a better view and spotted two daring Ferro-Navy crew preparing the ballista.  

“Spare the innocent, Oh Angel!  Strike the wicked!” They heard Rain from behind and felt the tingle of the Strange.  Sliding their blades carefully back in place, Ish-Ma-el pulled out their hand crossbows and shot both.  The bolts hit true but didn’t stop the crew members from firing the ballista in return, straight for the Angel of Vengence.  In a moment’s thought, Ish-Ma-El dropped one of their hand crossbows and caught the shaft of the ballista.  Pirouetting in the air, they sent the bolt flying back.  It bounced off the frame of the ballista and spooked the already terrified railers into running…straight into the crowbar of Bruce.

Permission to climb you?  Respect. Curiosity, Peggy projected to the Angel still at the head of the Ironside Roar.  The Angel gave her the impression that it didn’t know why she would but agreed to her request.  Using its legs as ladder rungs, she clambered onto the body and shimmied up to the top.   There she could see over the engine and into what was left of the battleground.  Ish-Ma-El had just thrown a ballista bolt at a couple of rail crew before she and Bruce descended on them both.  Bruce sent one flying off the carriage in one direction before dropping out of sight. The other’s head and body were both flung back by Ish-Ma-El’s twin blades in two distinct pieces.  She heard Algernon talking to Rain about the weapon being free, and it was time to move.  

Threat nullified!  Good work!  She told the Angel before slipping back down to the rails.  The Angel acknowledged her message and returned to its original purpose, fixing the switch.

Looking for new enemies, Bruce had spotted the two on top of the third carriage, working on the ballista.  Inside the third carriage, he could just see the ladder leading to the roof. Jumping across the gap where the coupler had been, he worked his way through and up the ladder.  As he reached the top, Ish-Ma-El let go of a ballista bolt in his general direction.  The rectangular frame of the ballista caught the bolt before it could reach either of the operators who now took their opportunity to flee…straight into him.  

“The Ferr-navy will no longer be tolerated!” He roared once more, swinging up his crowbar.

In the one-sided struggle that followed, Bruce bashed one off the carriage roof and into the sand while the other had to face Ish-Ma-El and their terrible twin blades.  He left them to it, dropping down to the next carriage still hunting more resistance.  As he did, first a head and then the rest of the body fell on top of him, nearly sending him over the edge into the sand.  

It was the last enemy any of the group were to face. The battle was over and with it the beginning of the end of the Ferro-Navy’s stranglehold on Railsea. With a signal from Algernon, the crews left their posts on the mesa and made their way to the three trains, the hidden Molly, the old diesel and the newly acquired Ironside Roar.  Peggy stayed by the Angel’s side, asking it questions about its design (for which it had no information) to maps of Railsea (supplied as an image in Peggy’s mind) and where it went for repairs (Upsky, the poisonous altitudes above Railsea).  Once the switch was cleared, it left behind the two other cylinders that had watched from above the whole fight.

Later, no could say what had really happened.  Early in the trip back, one of the crew replaced Algernon in the drivers’ cab of the old diesel.  It is supposed he flew back to the Ironside Roar as twilight fell as he was seen later with the group astounded at what had happened.  What is not in dispute is the large chunk of a mesa that went missing in a flash of yellow light.  There was no explosion, no flying rubble or scorched remains.  A plateau that had weathered the winds and sands of Railsea for countless centuries lost a third of its mass in seconds.  Later, people would say that before the gods’ light stuck, a voice was heard calling an unusual cry.


A great victory had been won, and the gods proved to be on the side of the rebels.  Omoko settlement celebrated and lauded the victors, the strangers from the yellow train, the son of Captain Johnson,  the Avenging Angel and their peerless crew.  What was not clear to all,  was that there had been a cultural and political shift in Railsea that would have effects for years to come.  The Angels were on the free-traders’ side, and they had left their weapon to protect the faithful.  

 The signal flags had told the community of the victory as it happened, so when the trains arrived in town, the party was already in full swing. Bruce wound his way through the crowds of miners, railers and civilians, all celebrating their freedom from the Ferro-Navy.    Celebrating, Bruce would do later, but at that moment, he wanted to speak to his father.  He found him talking with his crew from the Almighty Bruce and quietly pulled him aside.  

“You need to know what happened,” Bruce said as Jimmy led both of them to a side room out of the noise and bustle of the celebrations.  He gave a detailed debrief on how the ambush had gone, the Angel’s role in the fight and what it meant to Railsea as a whole.

“Now that you have your freedom, the protection of the gods no less, I want to talk to you about the weapon,” Bruce said, and his father sat back, ready to listen.

“I’m not comfortable giving you this weapon.  It’s a gamechanger. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, ” Jimmy acknowledged, not giving anything away.

“Do you have the guts to destroy it?”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes and sipped on a drink someone had handed him earlier, “Are you kidding? I didn’t fight the Ferro-Navy for my amusement.  That thing will keep us safe long after you and your troop of miracle workers are gone.”

“Look, you scored a big win here today.  If you follow this up, get out there and start rallying more trains to the cause, you won’t need this thing of destruction.”

“You said they were planning a big push before you arrived. Your group worked in thwarting those plans, and for that, I am thankful, but who says the Ferro-navy won’t try again?  We can never be sure.”

Bruce leaned over his folded hands.  It would be so easy to beat this man into submission.  Only two things stop Bruce; this was his father, and that when he left Railsea, he wanted the job done.  Jimmy had to believe it was the best way if it was ever to happen.   Bruce took a deep breath and tried again.

“And when the balance shifts and the Ferro-Navy are no longer a threat?”

Jimmy sat back and looked up at the ceiling.  His eyes flicked as his mind moved from scenario to scenario.  Eventually, they came back to settle on Bruce’s. The same eyes as his.

“We will destroy it,” Jimmy replied simply.

Bruce held his father’s gaze daring the man to renege, but Jimmy returned his gaze steady and sure. Bruce had to admit that this was not the same man who had left his mother alone twenty years ago.

Bruce broke the contact first, looking out a nearby window and to the view of the Railsea to the horizon.

“Pa.  Ma’s never stopped loving you,” He said without returning his gaze to the man sitting opposite.

He heard his father’s intake of breath, the sudden reminder of what he’d left behind.

“A fine woman,” He replied, and his voice held a tension, as if holding something back, “I never planned to leave her. I just never knew how to get back.  I guess I can go home.”

“Oh, she’ll slap you in the face,” Bruce qualified as they both envisioned the strong, loving woman who had held her family together and both smiled, “But, then welcome you back with open arms.”

Jimmy nodded, and they sat in silence a moment, thinking over what everyday life would look like after Railsea.

“You know Pa, you’ve manned-up. I think you’re the man she always saw in you,” Bruce said, and Jimmy’s eye’s narrowed again at the backhanded compliment.

“I mean it.  You were in a pickle, but you didn’t just weasel your way out of it and leave someone else to fix things.  You stepped up, led people and kept them safe.  Can you leave it behind?”

“I can find a replacement.  I didn’t do this alone,” Jimmy replied, and the phrase so like Rain’s rebuke from that afternoon made Bruce think for a moment.

“Find people you can trust.” 

Down at the docks, the rest of the group gathered around the weapon.  As Rain fielded questions from the joyous crowds, Peggy was hip-deep inside the cylinder as Algernon looked on anxiously.

“It’s no good. I can’t see the reactor for all the propulsion system in the way.  I’ll have to dismantle it if I’m to have any hope of understanding how this thing is powered.”  Peggy climbed out from under the cylinder and pushed her curls away from her face. 

“Rain, don’t let Peggy pull apart the Pew-Pew,” Algenon called to Rain. Seeing his friend distress, Rain left the crowds to find out what was going on.

“I don’t think you realise how important this is to science… life as we know it.  If I can only understand how the reactor works, I may find that elusive power supply that has been holding back Hertzfeld. It could be a small fusion reaction. Imagine that!  All the power a city would need in a package the size of a suitcase!” Peggy exclaimed, patting the metal skin of the broken Angel.

“Yes, but when you talk about it to Bruce, you may want to refer to the dangerous reactor you don’t understand as a battery,”  Algernon suggested innocently as usual, and Rain smiled.

“Yes, you know Bruce, any thought that it could be dangerous, and he’ll throw that reactor into an antlion pit out in the wastes,” 

“Ohh, so wasteful!” She complained and sulked off find a quiet spot to contemplate humanities loss.

“Now, now, picking on the Angel Speaker,” Ish-Ma-El, still wearing most of the Silver Frost paint, but now back in their regular Captain’s coat and hat, “We should make her a priestess of a new religious sect, not pick on her for her love of their innards.”

Rain let them in on Peggy’s plans as  Algernon went off and found a small pot of paint and brush from inside the Molly. By the time he’d told the story, Algernon had finished writing PEW-PEW on one side of the weapon, and Bruce had just strolled up. 

“Surely, we’re all men and women of science. Can’t we all share in Peggy’s excitement over her discovery?” Ish-Ma-El said and with an impish grin, added, “Besides, what’s a fusion reactor?”

“What…?” Bruce said.

Rain left the others trying to talk themselves out of the hole Ish-Ma-El had purposely drop them in.   As Peggy complained about the whole lot of them being Philistines, a man Rain had been waiting to talk to was waving him over into the crowd.

“Sul-E-Mun, I presume?  So good of you to drop by tonight,” Rain welcomed the man and drew him to one side. 

“They say you want a stone carved, though as far as I know, you and people won the day without loss,” Said the middle-aged miner looking confused.

“Yes, a good day all round.  This is a memorial. There will be no body.  Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all.  I’d dare say that if you wanted to fill a grave with that broken Angel of yours, no one’s likely to say no,” He glanced over Rain’s head back at the weapon.  Peggy had spotted Algernon’s graffiti and added a touch of her own.  It now read:


“I doubt that, sir, “ Rain laughed gently at the man’s joke and pulled out a scrap of paper.  Suddenly his expression was serious, and he was surprised to see his hands shake as he handed the instructions across.

“It…it should read as follows, just as written if you don’t mind. I know it doesn’t follow the usual format for names, but this person lived a long way from here, and they’re customs were not the same as your own.”

“Nevermind that. I put on what the family wants and just what the family wants…er they were family, weren’t they?”

Rain paused for a moment, “We were very close once,” He said and smiled weakly at the man, “when can you expect to have it ready?”

“Oh, a few days.  The mines on holidays on account of your victory.”

“We will be in town for at least that long. Please let me know as soon as it’s ready.”

The man tipped his cap and rejoined the crowds of happy villagers, miners and railers.

The next few days were full for the group.  Besides chatting or avoiding well-wishers, each seemed busy with their own tasks.  Ish-Ma-El was getting ready to leave with their crew on the Molly.  They would have left for the open sands sooner, but a promise to Rain held them in port at least a few more days.  Their crew certainly appreciated it, and several had already come to their Captain with reasonable offers from the miners to ship ore to friendly cities.  The wings had yet to be returned to the group, and Bruce took the opportunity one morning over chicory to bring up the subject.

“While I remember… the wings, hand them back,” He said to Ish-Ma-El, who bridled at his rough tone.

“Why should I?  In fact, no!” They retorted, leaning across the table to push their face into his.

“Ah, Ish, I’d appreciate it if we could have the wings back,” Rain asked quietly from beside them, and they sat heavily back in their seat, “  I know it’s a wrench, but we’ll to need them.”

“Oh, okay,” Ish replied sweetly with a smile and drank their drink.

“I will miss you Ish, how can we get in contact if we ever need you?” 

“A red smoke signal over Omoko, I intended to stay local for the time being,” They said.

“Remember, you are not just a clever Railsea Captain and brilliant salver,” Rain leaned in close, “You are a  citizen of the multiverse, and you’re future doesn’t have to be in this desert world.”

“Railing between the stars?” Ish-Ma-El said, the hint of their old cynicism showing, “You talk in dreams, Rain.”

“Well, I, for one, would like to say it’s been a privilege, “Bruce put one of his meaty hands-on Ish-Ma-El’s thin shoulders.

“Don’t touch me!” Ish-Ma-El rounded on Bruce, who was now standing and had the advantage of height and leverage.  Out of spite, Bruce placed the other hand on the remaining shoulder and Ish-Ma-El visibly shrunk away from the touch.  Their eyes went distant as Ish-Ma-El’s mind drifted away from the moment to read Bruce’s.

Don’t make this uncomfortable for both of us. He thought back, and Ish-Ma-El quickly released the link.

“Say, how come I don’t get the wings?” Peggy asked, breaking the tension building between the two scrappers.

“You’d only pull them apart,” Algernon replied, quickly adding another tablespoon of sugar to his already sweetened chicory, “It’s why we can’t have nice things.”

Algernon also has his own ideas about the weapon and its uses.  He sought out Jimmy as their one contact who knew about the mines and Le Pew-Pew’s capabilities.

“Sir, I was wondering if you thought about the weapon as a tool to aid in mining.  In the right circumstances, it could be very beneficial at removing unwanted tailings in a single flash.  If you like me to set up a demonstration…”

“Oh, I want in on that,” Said Peggy interrupting the spiel Algernon had rehearsed, “A Pew-Pew fo science!”

Dusk, their third day in town, Rain gathered the group together and led them out to the small graveyard beside the mine.  There, a white stone neatly engraved and embossed with the Silver Frost paint read:

Amir Ademovich

??? – 11 July 1995

One of the 8,372.

From Allah, you came, and to Allah, you return.

Ish-Ma-El went to ask about the dates on the stone but was quickly hushed by the other. 

Rain had no flowers to place on the grave.  He’d spent the last few days asking everyone in town for white flowers with green centres.  He even asked outgoing trains to keep a lookout. The best the town could do was a stem of plastic daisies, faded and worn.  He’d thanked the villager, offered to pay them for the stem and hid it as soon as possible. 

He now reached up to his neck and broke the leather thong that held the transparent piece of resin containing a small embroidered daisy with eleven petals.  He looked at it for a moment before bending down to bury the piece of resin in the turned earth.   A wave of vertigo hit, and he let himself sink to the ground on one knee.

Hands shaking, he combed his fingers through his hair, catching on the scar well hidden all these years.  He’d always tried to hide his scars, but it hadn’t done him much good.  Hounded by terrors he couldn’t put words to, he had run his whole life. If there was ever to be peace, the dead needed burying.  Taking a shuddering breath, he spoke his eulogy.

“I never knew you.  It seems odd to say.  You lived, grew, learned and explored your world for seven years, and I never existed.  All we have in common is one moment, one morning in a dirty patch of waste ground outside Srebrenica.  At that moment, you ceased to be, and I began, Tobias Cudo.”

“For many years, I wondered, who you were? What had happened? And who I was?  For many more, I tried to forget, decorated it in the colours of a story I told myself.  That changed the moment I heard your name spoken. 

“Goodbye, Amir Ademovich,  return to Allah and find peace.”

Still from the ground, as he didn’t trust his legs to hold him, he turned back to the others.

“Since coming back to Railsea, I’ve been a little confused. Here I was, Havel, but a simple mistake meant I had to reevaluate a certain practice of mine.   I have been many people in my life. Still more since meeting you and travelling the Strange.  But, hiding behind a name doesn’t make any sense when surrounded by people that know me better than I know myself.”

“So, I’m reclaiming the name, Tobias Cudo.  From now on, that’s who I will be.”

Rain looked to Algernon, who he knew wrote down each name as he adopted a new persona, “No need for your list anymore, “ He smiled wistfully, “Though my friends can always call me Rain.”

Bruce was first to move.  His heavy hand resting on the thin man’s shoulder, making his start.

“Proud to know you, Tobias.”

Tobias nodded and, using Bruce’s hand, got shaking to his feet.

“Now, Ish-Ma-El, let’s try out that hangover cure of yours.” Bruce turned to the Railsea Captain with a grin, “And I know just the place, in Seattle.”

“Seattle for the wake?” Peggy added, wiping her face with the back of her oil and grit stained sleeve, “Thank god, I don’t think I could stand another drop of the local moonshine.”

“Seattle?” Ish-Ma-El asked, “I don’t know where that is, but if there’s booze and a story that explains all this, then I’m in.”

“Good,” Bruce replied as they headed down the hill, “Be prepared to have your mind blown!”

38. Vigilantes

Out on the docks of Manihiki, after a clever sabotage plan was successfully staged and completed, the group gathered at The Molly for their next move.  It seemed obvious to most that the Ironside Roar is out on the rail with a deadly new weapon and needed to be stopped.


“Nice goggles,” Bruce said as he saw Rain and Peggy strolled down the dock to The Molly later that evening, “All the better to see you.”

Rain couldn’t resist a little last-minute shopping and had found a pair of leather and brass-framed goggles with glass lenses.  Eating bugs was an occupational risk of flying the wings, but being able to see while speeding fifty metres above the ground was beneficial to sustaining life. 

“Well actually, they’re all the better for me to see you,” Rain acknowledged the compliment, “I agree they do look dashing.”

Just behind Bruce, Algernon and Ish-Ma-el were having what looked like a staring competition.  At the same time, they blinked, turning away simultaneously to frown in confusion and disappointment.

“Don’t look now, but I think our two savants have mind-swapped again.” Rain pointed out the two as the Captain ( now piloted by Algernon), climbed into the engineer’s cabin beside Peggy and the stoker.

“Don’t look now, but I think the Ferro Navy has come to get Peggy back,” Bruce pointed over Rain’s shoulder. Rain turned to see a group of Manihiki Ferro Navy officers marching towards the dock The Molly now stood.

 “All Aboard!” Bruce yelled, and the crew snapped to, taking up mooring-lines and locking carriages for the trip out.  

“All Aboard!” Captain Ish-Ma-El repeated, unlocking the brake and releasing the steam.  The train started reversing from the dock.

Algernon, (with Ish-Ma-el now in control) stormed towards the cab, “Get out of my body!” He roared leaping to the side of the cab and throwing a clenched fist at The Captain’s face.

“Deckhands takes this disreputable young man down to his quarters and lock him in!” The Captain cooly ordered as a deckhand sprang into action. 

“Let go of me, you idiots!” Algernon glowered, as another two crew stepped into help and started dragging him away.

As they passed Rain, he shrugged apologetically, “I’ll make sure he’s not left alone with it.” He said before leaping into the cabin doorway and holding onto a hand rail.

“Goodbye, gentleman! “ He waved to the navy officers that were already running back up the jetty.  On the navy wharves, wreathed in steam, the two engines stood ready to depart.  Rain turned back to his companion, occupying the Captain’s body, “You know I won’t be leaving your side until you give back that body.” 

From the Naval Dockyards, a bullroarer revved up, roaring out over the whole of lower Manihiki.  Crew and engineers swarmed to the two steam engines, the Red Myrmidon and The Slicing Raider.  Slowly they too reversed out of the dock and along tracks after The Molly.

“I’d be more useful in a battle than in my room!” Algernon yelled as he was pulled down into the train.  The Captain shrugged as if they didn’t think much of the young man’s argument.  As they continued to guide The Molly away from Manihiki however, both Peggy and Rain noticed the Captain’s eyes turn glassy and unfocused.  Their body slumped away from the controls, only to catch themselves before falling into the coal-filled tender.  

“What are you doing just standing around, I need you at the head of the train switching lines!” Ish-Ma-El turned to see where they were and barked at Rain.

“Aye Captain!” He smiled, extended the wings and jumped back into open air.  Grabbing a switching lever as he sped along, he flew off to the last carriage, currently the head of the train. Ish-Ma-El was right, as soon as he reached the last carriage, he could see the line they were on was leading them in a slow arc back to Manihiki.  Flying ahead of the reversing train, he found the next point and shifted the track.  

Peggy, working her magic in the engineers’ cab gleaned a little extra steam out of The Molly, and she shot forward onto the new rail, now heading away from town.  The little engine that had only a week before been nose down in a hole was outrunning the Ferro Navy!

“Smoooooke on the wa-ter…” Bruce sang from the top of the train as he watched the two navy train’s trying to keep pace.  The Red Myrmidon steaming up behind The Molly.  A movement along the boiler drew Bruce’s attention.  Two crew were climbing out to the front of the engine with a rope and grappling hook.  Loosening his crowbar in its scabbard, he too started climbing down from the carriage, across the tender to the engine.  Once at the front he held onto the boilerplate with one hand, withdrawing his crowbar with the other.  Looking past the two crew preparing themselves with the grapple, Bruce could just see the engineers in the cab behind frantically stoking the fire.   

“…fire in the sky!” He sang out again, gleefully anticipating the moment of destruction.

The Red Myrmidon crew swung the grappling hook back and forward, until the two engines were within range.  The hook flew across the intervening gap.   Bruce’s crowbar met the hook midair batting it away to fall uselessly into the sand.

“Ha-ha!” He laughed, allowing his reckless side, full expression.  He watched, holding onto The Molly’s rolling wild-eyed face as the Red Myrmidon sped closer and closer.  A flash of fire in the engineer’s cabin and the Myrmidon jutted on the tracks.  Then fire licked along under the engine, sparks and smoke sprayed out of the pistons instead of steam and the whole train shivered. 


The Red Myrmidon leapt from the tracks as steam and fire forced their way through weakened firebox and boiler.  The engine derailed, pulling the rest of the train around with it out into the deadly sands.

“Yeah!” Bruce screamed in triumph as the first of their pursers was left in their steam.  His job done, Bruce started climbing back, keeping his eye on the second engine, The Slicing Raider, coming up on their starboard.

Rain was flying out to switches and back to The Molly on the other end of the train, tacking in a north-easterly direction away from Manihiki.  He looked up scanning the track ahead for the next point when the sound of a foghorn bellowed out of the empty desert like a challenging monster bull. And monster it was, shimmering on the horizon and coming fast was a large diesel engine.  On a flatbed directly after the engine, a shining metal cigar-shaped something was strapped down at an angle, propped up on crates and the boards of carriage siding.

“Ironside Roar!” Rain yelled to a crewmember further down the train for passing back, “Six miles off the port bow!”

The message echoed down The Molly to the Captain.  Ish-Ma-El climbed nimbly up out of the cabin and onto the observation deck.  There, they and Bruce clearly made out the Ironside Roar and its new upgrade.  Ish-Ma-El seethed, pulling out their hand crossbow to fire on the train obviously well out of range.  Bruce pointed out the Slicing Raider coming up alongside, drawing the Captain’s attention back to the more immediate threat.

“What would happen if we shot their switcher?” He said, pointing out the specific crew member on the Slicing Raider.

Ish-Ma-El didn’t reply but sprinted for the ballista sitting empty and turned it around to face the Raider.

“Hard to port!” They cried, and Rain at the bow responded flying out to find the next switch to take them in that direction.  The Molly reversed into port, cutting ahead of the Slicing Raider and bringing the ballista within range.  Ish-Ma-El fired the massive bolt, the recoil rocking the carriage.  The more acute angle brought the target closer, but narrowed the field of fire, and the bolt skittered into the sand missing its mark.

Following a crewmember on the Slicing Raider with another grappling hook, Bruce positioned himself once more to knocked aside the projectile as it was flung across the dividing sand.  Now safe from being grappled for the moment, he pulled out his crossbow and fired on the switcher leaning out from the engineers’ cab.  His shot hit, taking the fast young crew member by surprise.  They fell from the train onto the sand and were soon left behind.

Inside his cabin, Algernon was getting fed up with being left out of the action.  One moment he’d been in control of The Molly, a moment of grey later and he’d found himself pacing the floor of the too tiny space.  Turning on his force shield, Algernon quickly bypassed the lock on the door and joined the others upstairs.  As his head breached the top of the carriage, he saw the Slicing Raider beside them shudder.  Sparks flew from under the engine, from the chimney and out the pistons.  It lept forward on the track, a last sudden burst of speed before…


The boiler finally exploded, sending the engine and the first carriage flying into the air.  With a sigh of satisfaction for a job well done, Algernon climbed the rest of the way onto the carriage. Behind them and gaining quick, he spied the Ironside Roar and it’s deadly cargo.

“Bruce, take this and shoot the engine!” Captain Ish-Ma-El ordered, and Bruce took their place on the ballista.

“I could have done that,” Algernon said as Ish-Ma-El stepped back to take in the new threat.

“You?  You’re nothing but trouble,” They complained, frustrated that their tormentor was back.

“Can I shoot the train then?” 

“Yes!” Ish-Ma-El agreed and Algernon pulled out his heavy crossbow.

Aiming down its length, Algernon lined up his shot.  Even at the distance, on the top of a rocking train, the bolt flew straight and hit a crew member operating the device.  As they fell from the train, two others took their place and the metal contraption stolen from Ish-Ma-El’s train was powered up.

“We need to take out that weapon, could Rain drop me on the Ironside?” Bruce asked joining the others on top

“I think that’s pretty reckless,” Said Algernon readying for another shot, “Can we spread detritus on the tracks?”

“Explosive detritus?” Bruce added before all three called out at the same time,


Leaving her job keeping The Molly steaming ahead to the other engineers, Peggy quickly pulled together an assortment of items leftover from the sabotage plan to create railway detonators.  Usually, coin-sized and meant to alert drivers and rail maintenance workers of each other, Peggy’s pressure-sensitive explosives were enough to take a wheel off a moving train.  At least that was the hope.  Once made, they were passed forward to Rain with instructions to lay them on all tracks following The Molly.  With the amount of crisscrossing tracks, the task would have been impossible for a crew-member on foot.  Flying from one track to another, Rain quickly placed the explosives and flew back to his position now at the train’s end.

Rain watched as the Ironside Roar slowed in anticipation. Sparks flew from the rails into the early morning light.  But no matter how they tried, the massive diesel engine couldn’t stop fast enough and eventually rolled inexorably onto a detonator.  Not as impressive as a Ferro-navy steam trains self-destruction, the flash did light the desert and bring the Ironside Roar to a screeching halt.  Soon the Ironside Roar was left behind in the gloom of the early morning, and The Molly continued her journey into the Railsea.

It was late morning by the time The Molly and her crew found themselves tacking through narrow canyons between steep-sided mesas.  The sand of the Railsea here was a distinctive rusted orange colour and coated everything that passed through it.

At a narrow passage between two monoliths of rock, Bruce, Algernon and Peggy all spotted people aiming a giant catapult in The Molly’s direction.  Algernon ran across the top of the train to get into position.  With a distant twang, the catapult’s payload was released, sailing over the distance from the mesa to The Molly. Once it was within range of his levitate Algernon pushed it aside, deflecting the boulder side projectile.  It bounced once off the mesa’s side before exploding, sending broken pieces of metal and rock raining down onto the sand.

“Get a white sheet or cloth!” Ordered the Captain and crew scrambled, looking for something to use as a flag. 

“What are we afraid of?” Rain asked until someone pointed out the people now working on the catapult again, “Is that all?” And launched himself into the air and over to the mesa.  In the meantime, both The Molly and the defenders found white flags.  When  Rain finally landed it was to a group of nervously curious individuals instead of aggressors.

“Greetings, from Captain Ish-Ma-El of The Molly to the Commander and people of Okamo, and the Captain of the Almighty Bruce,” He announced, as if in a royal court and courtiers rather than on a dusty mesa to a bunch of miners.

“What of the Almighty Bruce?” One defender, unsure what to make of this messenger tried playing dumb.

“Captain Ish-Ma-El wishes to align themselves with their fight,” Rain teased back.  Two could play this game.

“Against who?”

“The Ferro Navy, of course.  We only escaped three of their engines this very morning.  The Red Myrmidon, Slicing Raider, and the Ironside Roar.  Of the later we have vital information our Captain wishes to impart.”

“A message has already been sent of your arrival.  Tell your Captain that they will be given safe passage to Okamo.” The speaker pointed to a signal mast already being strung with a string of colourful flags.

True to their word, The Molly passed several more catapult emplacements.  No more shots were fired and within an hour they were in sight of Okamo.  Bruce, grandstanding on the top of the Molly, was drawing all attention.  Even from a distance, it was clear that people in the crowd were looking from the Mighty Bruce to a middle-aged man waiting for them on the dock.  They had found Jimmy Johnson.

While all attention was on The Molly and its surprise passenger, Ish-Ma-El took a moment to read the older man’s surface thoughts.  A profound sense of surprise dominated a relatively curious mind. It had been ready for anything from this odd little train, but not the fact that his son was aboard.

Before The Molly was properly berthed, Bruce jumped off and walked up to his father, ahead of the party’s Captain.

“Bruce!  Son!  How did you get here?” Jimmy said to his son, stepping forward.  It said something about both men that neither held out their arms to embrace.  Rain watched every moment in silence as Algernon found popcorn and offered it around to the others.

“Hi Pa,” Bruce casually said as if greeting his father for the first time that day, not the first time in more than two decades, “Watch ya doin’ here?”

The older man chuckled self-effacingly, “Leading a revolution, it seems.”

“Not leading a family,” Replied the younger man critically , “What happened?”

Jimmy looked around at the people gathered.  All of his crew were here and much of the mining community’s two hundred residents.  All had come to rely on him, most even trusted him. It was a shame his son was neither.

“A man I knew owed me money, “Jimmy sighed, dredging up a past he’d rather have forgotten, “When I confronted him, he knocked me out.  Next thing I knew I was in this place.  Without anyone to vouch for me, I was press-ganged into the Manihiki Ferro Navy.  I saw how the navy treated the people of Okamo and trains out on the Railsea.  The first chance I got, I decided to do something about it.  I escaped, made my way here and with what little knowledge I had I got an old train and diesel crane working.  Been giving the Ferro Navy a hard time since.”  The older man finished his story squaring up to the stranger that was his son.  The crowd stirred, unsure what was going on and not understanding the tension between their saviour and this young man that happened to look just like him.  

“You know what Pops, you taught me everything I know about duty and obligation.  You taught me by never showing any,” Bruce didn’t even acknowledge that he’d heard his father’s story, just continued as if reciting a long practiced speech.  

The crowd hushed and murmured at the ungrateful stranger before them.  On the train, the speech was like a physical slap, and the group all winced in response.

“Oh!  That’s some damage!” Ish-Ma-Eh exclaimed, grabbing a handful of popcorn from Algernon’s supply.

Each muttered their opinions—some that he deserved it, some that it was to be expected.  Only Rain held silent and still and horrified.

“I never had a chance to leave, to get back,” Jimmy explained as best he could.  Many in the crowd made approving sounds. Some though, could be heard to murmur that for family he should have tried harder.

“So, what’s the mission?” Asked Bruce after letting the murmuring of the crowd settle down once more.

“Stay free.  Help these people stay free.” 

Bruce nodded, “We might help you with that.”

With that one reply, the tension relaxed.  They were allies, of sorts, and had a common enemy.  Captain Ish-Ma-El saw it as their cue and climbed down from The Molly join the conversation.  The rest of the group followed behind, Rain last of all.

“You need to know the Ferro Navy have got themselves a laser cannon, it cuts trains in half,” Bruce informed his father who slumped where he stood.  The crowd looked on concerned but confused. In a world only recently introduced to gunpowder, what was a laser?

“From where?”

“Alt tech?  They stole it from our Captain’s first train. Captain Ish-Ma-El, this is my Father Jimmy.”  Bruce now introduced the group, “Rain…where are you…” He dragged the little man forward, “You are Rain today?”

“Ah…that will do for now,” Rain replied, turning to shake Jimmy Johnson’s hand, “Very pleased to meet you, sir, I heard a great deal.” Their eyes met, and Rain gave an apologetic expression.

“Algernon, our crack shot and master saboteur,” Bruce’s expression became more animated and cheerful now that he was introducing his crew,” He’s only three and a half years old, long story.  And Peggy, our resident genius and The Molly’s engineer.”

A movement at the signal mast as new flags fluttered into position.  The crowd murmured concern. Some cried as rail crew returned to their train,  miners their defendable positions.

“The Ironside Roar is on its way,” Captain Johnson informed the group turning back from the mast, “If you’re offering help, now is the time.”

“Great,” Bruce replied, ready for the battle, “Rain give me the wings.”
“Why?” Rain suddenly defensive clutched the harness to himself.

“I’m going to fly the Ironside Roar and drop bombs on the artefact.”

“Don’t let him break the Pew-Pew!” Algernon exclaimed, adding his thoughts to the argument.

“Do you have another solution?” Bruce retorted displeased that Algernon would want to keep such a deadly weapon.

“Is there a map of the area including the rails through the mesas?” Peggy asked, and Captain Johnson nodded, leading the way.

The group were ushered towards a warehouse on the docks used for strategy meetings.  On the wall a large map of the entire region. The mesas were small islands dotting the desert. The rails were like stitches holding the whole area together.

Rain and Peggy studied the map and found the narrow passage they had to come through that morning.  It was the only way to the mining town without going the long way around and seemed a perfect spot for an ambush.

“Why not set up an ambush at the pinch point, something to slow them down.  We can get in close and decouple the train from the engine, then attack the train with catapults.”

“I could disintegrate the coupling,” Algernon suggested, and more than a few heads turned at the surprising revelation.

“What, like crumble to dust?  How long would it take?” Ish-Ma-El asked incredulously.

“It’s pretty quick, a few seconds,” Algernon nodded, then rethought the idea, “Though I would have to be touching.  Peggy, what would be the vulnerable parts of a diesel engine?”

Peggy went through a few more sensitive areas, including the wheel and the vents where the engine cab metal plating was weakest.

“Do you have a busted up old engine and train we can use to block the tracks, maybe go head-on with the Ironside Roar?” Bruce suggested turning to Ish-Ma-El.

“What?  You want me to play a game of chicken with the Ironside Roar?”

“We have to stop that weapon from getting to town, “ Now he turned to his father, “I don’t think the weapon is safe in anyone’s hands, what do you say?”

The older man listened carefully to the question and nodded, “I understand your concern, but as someone who’s had to defend a town with just scrap metal, force of will and luck I can tell you that if I can get a hold of a decent weapon, I’d keep it.  Every weapon is a deterrent.  It will give them a reason to be afraid to come here.”

Bruce’s expression darkened, and he shook his head. Concerned for Bruce’s intentions for the weapon, Algernon started reading his surface thoughts. A list of Bruce’s inventory, showing Bruce was trying to work out what he had, but not necessarily what he wanted to do.

While Algernon’s attention was drawn to Bruce, Ish-Ma-El took the opportunity to do the same to Rain. Instantly they were plunged into chaos as a churning maelstrom of terror, crying, quietly pleading in a language they didn’t understand assaulted their mind.  Scrambling away from the madness, Ish-Ma-Eh found themselves staring back at Rain who until that moment had been carefully listening to the ideas go back and forward.  Ish-Ma-El stillness caught Rain’s eye, and he glanced in their direction. Tilting his head in an unspoken question, he watched as Ish-Ma-El blinked, shook their head and tried to return their focus on the discussion at hand.  A worried look passing over Rain’s face before he too returned to the planning.

“Rain, you won’t need the wings, why don’t you give them to someone who can make the best use of them,” Bruce asked again.

“Why won’t I need them?”

“Well,” Bruce scoffed, looking around the group for support, “It’s not like you’re going to go in with knives flying or something.”

“I help…” Rain replied defensively, but couldn’t finish the argument. It cut too close to the thought that he’d harboured since the party started finding their powers.

“You’re disregarding…” Peggy started, but Algernon interrupted her coming to Rain’s rescue.

“What about when he inspires and simulates…and then in dreamland he made a real dragon!” 

The defence was so unexpected and at the same time completely undermined itself that Bruce didn’t reply.

“We have to get Bruce out there in front of the train,” Ish-Ma-el offered as if nothing had happened, “He’s a distraction.”

“No, he’s the destruction, I’m the distraction.” Rain replied jokingly and turned to Bruce to see his response.  Bruce was too deep in his thoughts to respond.  Leaning in so only Bruce could hear, Rain said,  “Bruce, you need all of us. You can’t do this alone.” 

Bruce scowled and turned away disregarding Rain’s admonishment.  It wasn’t like Bruce to discount what Rain had to say.  The brush-off so soon after the unsettling moment with Ish-Ma-El, got Rain thinking about what was going on in his friend’s head. Bruce didn’t like the idea of the weapon in anyone’s hands.  Would he do something reckless to make sure it was destroyed once and for all?  Adamant he would have to stay close to Bruce, he vowed to make sure the wings did not go to him. 

“Ish, what if you used the wings.” Rain finally suggested to the group,” You’re fast and agile, you can bring down your two swords on an enemy then zoom off to another part of the battle,” He glanced up at Bruce and saw his expression sour even more, “I’m sorry Bruce, you’re pure melee, you need to stay on the ground, the wings would be wasted with your style of fighting.”

“Bashing away in the centre of the fight?  Sure, I see your point,” Bruce said lightly enough to allow the discussion to go onto other topics.  Rain was deeply agitated.  For the first time before Christmas, he wanted the peace of his puzzlebox.

“How long have we got until the Ironside Roar gets to our pinch point?”  He asked Captain Johnson as Bruce swung the discussion back to the fight.

“We have about two hours.”
“And how long to get back out to that spot from here?  An hour?”

“About forty minutes.” The elder Johnson confirmed.

“Well, whatever we’re going to do, we better get planning.” 

37. The rebellion begins

On their way to Manihiki to find Bruce’s father, the group found a new ally in a quickened native of Railsea, Ish-Ma-El, a Salver of extraordinary abilities.  They returned the Molly to the rails and are now only two days out from their destination, Manihiki.   They are hopeful of meeting up with the Captain of the Almighty Bruce.


Clear skies and empty sands had made The Molly’s journey smooth railing.  When not entertaining the crew with stories and songs, Rain was spending his downtime revisiting his Spiral Dust mind map excluding all details to do with Bywandine and that end of the drug trade.  The information left was sparse.  In Crow Hollow, two families traded in the raw product. One was initially through Railsea with an agent called Caw Ek Carve and one directly to Earth through Linda Lance.  The only other piece of information was the name Nakarand and this mysterious entity’s connection to the Spiral Dust users.  It seemed the being could see, hear and act through users creating the spiral-eyed zombies the group had encountered in Nederland.

Now it was clear Ish-Ma-El was quickened, Rain informed them of the group’s adventures in The Strange and what brought them to Railsea in the first place. He was also selling the idea of the new Captain joining them on their travels through recursions.

“Your ability to read minds is a sign you can travel The Strange like us,” Rain informed them one morning in the train’s mess, “Recursion mining is a real thing, and some places like Graveyard of the machine god would provide great salvage opportunities.”

“Besides being dangerous and the fact that anything you find translates to fit the world you return to,” Bruce said as he joined the duo at the trestle table.

Ish-Ma-El gave the two men their now-familiar suspicious glance, “Really?  I’m just supposed to believe that powerful beings just showed up out of space and offered me the chance to travel with them?”

“It seems ridiculous to believe it can all be a coincidence, I agree.  We didn’t come here looking for a quickened. We’re supposed to be rare, but here you are.” Rain turned to Bruce who sipped his chicory coffee in contemplation, “I’ve been saying this all along, something is guiding our path, bringing us together, and we don’t know what.”

“And when we find it, we’ll kill it!”  Algernon with a plate of roasted mole meat joined the group at the table.

“Do you think we could ask it a few questions first?” Rain asked with a smile.  

Previous to their latest adventures in Ruk, Algernon’s attitude to the subject of such powerful beings was to find a safer place to hide. The more aggressive attitude was new and proof that Algernon now had full control of his own mind.  Rain couldn’t be happier for his sociopathic friend.

“Smoke, smoke on the horizon!” Came the call from the lookout above their heads.  Captain Ish-Me-El, their black coat flapping, ran from the mess, the others following quickly after.

A thin stream of black smoke rose vertically into the sky on the horizon.  A train would create a long low cloud of white or grey smoke, at least a moving train would. Without a thought, Rain leapt up into the air, wings extended and started for the smoke.

“Not alone!  For God’s sake, how many times!” Bruce called out ready to drop onto the rails and chase after the flyers.

“Just a little look, there and back.” Rain waived and sped off across the sands.

The fire wasn’t a train, but three carriages still smouldering from a fire lit earlier.  The engine was nowhere, and the carriages looked like they’d been picked clean before setting alight.  As Rain swept over the wreck, the flames and smoke cleared from the middle carriage for a moment revealing a deep rectangular wedge cut out of the centre.  It was like someone had tried slicing the boxcar with a giant hot knife.  The cut did not go below the bogies, but all the wood above was still a chard and smoking mess.  As promised, he looped back over the wreck and returned to The Molly and Bruce’s scornful look.

“Do we need to see if we can help survivors?” Bruce asked the Captain and Ish-Ma-el nodded seriously calling for the Switcher to change their course for the wreck.  As The Molly moved in, all could see the damage done to the carriage.  Ish-Ma-El leaned out over the handrail of the lookout as if searching for something.

“I wonder what did that?” Algernon asked, pointing out the long clean slice, “I want one.”

“Pull up alongside,” Peggy ordered as she made her way up to the lookout, ignoring the presence of Captain Ish-Ma-El.  

“Captain?” Bruce said, fallstalling any mutinous movement the Switchers may feel they need to make.   The Switchers dutifully waited for Ish-Ma-El’s for confirmation.  

Ish-Ma-El nodded distractedly, “Tack in alongside.”

On top of the carriage with the ballistae, Rain and Algernon both saw something under the last carriage not burning wood and twisted metal.  A flutter of material and the exposed skin of an unconscious woman.

“Bruce, I’m going there!” Rain called before leaping into the sky and swooping down towards the woman.

“Godammit, Rain! Where?!  Bruce called in reply, leaving the Captain’s side to run across the top of the train.  Algernon pointed out the woman under the carriage to him as he unslung his crossbow.

“You spend so much time chasing after him. You should just tell him how you feel.” Algernon ignored Bruce’s outrage grumblings and looked back to the front carriage where the engine should be.  The coupling was there and in good order, showing no signs of wrenching or violence.  As Bruce dropped off the front of the Molly, Algernon’s attention went to the skies.  Experience taught that at least one giant owl loved snatching up engines and dropping them on unsuspecting theatres.  When nothing showed itself, Algernon busied himself, watching the unconscious form lying on the tracks through the sights of his crossbow.

Ish-Ma-el joined the chase behind Bruce, his three-sleeper-strides eating the ground. Ish-Ma-el moved quickly, long skinny arms and legs pistoning madly like their prized Molly.  A rumble under their feet and the sand below the ties shimmied away to form a 20-metre wide funnel.  Two massive pincers the size of Ish-Ma-El alone reached out of the sand and turned to the vibration of running feet.  The exposed rail sagged as sleepers started falling into the pit to be knocked aside by the eager claws.  Bruce leapt the last few metres to firm ground, but Ish-Ma-el was trapped on the now twisted rail above the hole.  The rail finally snapped with a jarring twang and knocked Ish-ma-el off their feet.  Pinwheeling, they caught the rail, safe for the moment from the jaws, but only while their grip held out.

“Algernon!” Yelled Bruce as Algernon ready with his crossbow let a bolt fly for between the jaws.  There was a squeal, and the antlion revealed its bristly flat head skewered with a bolt.

Peggy sent a plasma bolt at the antlion’s exposed head before hunting the equipment lockers for a rope and grappling hook. The antlion, now pierced and burnt, attempted to grab the hanging prey.  It pulled its bulbous body out of the sand and snapped at Ish-Ma-El’s flailing legs.  The jaws snapped shut on air, and it fell back to the safety of the sand once more.  

Reaching out with his levitate, Algernon lifted Ish-Ma-El, so it looked like the Captain was swinging themselves up onto the rail.  With a flip that would have had Olympic champions standing for an ovation, Ish-Ma-El found themselves balanced on the rail, their hands-free now to attack.  Without thought the hand crossbows were out and firing, one bolt following the other into the exposed folds of skin behind the antlions head.

Bruce’s yell made Rain turned to face him in the air.  By the time he stopped to see what had happened, Ish-Ma-el was back on the rail and shooting the giant antlion from a safe distance with Bruce beside them.  However, the woman was still under a smouldering carriage, and he didn’t spend any more thought on his Captain or friends.  Landing beside the wreck,  he pulled the woman out from under the carriage and onto an empty rail.  She was still breathing but looked to have been left for dead by whoever had destroyed the train.

“Medical aid, Bruce!” He yelled as Ish-Ma-El reloaded and fired once more into the antlion nest.  Once more the antlion tried to reach its prey.

Thock! Thock! Each bolt found it’s target.

It’s wounds now more than it could bear, the antlion slid down to the bottom of its hole and sunk into the sand.

The Molly slowed and stopped alongside the three carriages, and the crew started spilling out to see what they had found.  In the lookout, Peggy tried swinging the grappling hook onto the lead carriage of the wreck.  It landed on the roof but slid off, failing to catch hold.

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

As Bruce started first aid on his patient, Ish-Ma-El walked up behind him and stopped, recognising the woman.

“Ish?” Rain said, recognising the change in the captain, if not it’s origins. It was like they’d seen a ghost. Ish-Ma-El waved away his concerns as Bruce gave his assessment.

“Dehydrated and suffering exposure. Seems like she may have taken a hit when the carriage was attacked.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

He tended her in silence for twenty minutes until the woman’s eyelids fluttered open and saw her saviours for the first time.

“Ish-Ma-El?” Came a harsh reedy croak from the woman’s lips.  A little water helped soothed the parched throat, and her voice gained a bit of its strength.

“What are you doing here?” Ish-Ma-El asked unsettled by the sight of someone they knew.

“When the navy came, and they started rounding up the crew…well, I hid.  I could still hear the crew as they fed them to the antlion,”  She swallowed a little more water and continued, “I stayed hidden until the screaming stopped and then I stayed where I was.  I had some rations.  But then the navy came back.  They’d been tinkering with what they’d stolen from us.  They turned the things on,  and the carriage…I…I don’t remember anymore.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“The thing we found?  That’s what they had on their train?” Ish-Ma-El asked coolly, all the time their hands were clenching and unclenching

“Yeah, had it rigged to it somehow?”

“They took it?” 


Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“A mighty beefy weapon,” Bruce commented, looking back at the smouldering slice out of the middle carriage.

“Ish, maybe you can introduce us?” Rain said to Ish-Ma-El who ignored him, instead of returning to the woman.

“I…I’m pleased to see you again.” They said now with genuine feeling.

“Is the life of a Salver always like this?” The woman asked with a laugh that started a bout of coughing.

“Yeah, usually, maybe not so much of the murdering navy.”

“Hi, my name’s Rain,” Rain interrupted their conversation, frustrated at being ignored,” Can I ask yours?”

“Han, Han Fara Rung,” She replied automatically.

“Well Han, a friend of Ish-Ma-El is a friend of ours,” He assured her, and she relaxed a little.

“It’s nice to be among friends again.”

“Better than being among antlion.” Bruce joked.  No one found it funny.

Chink!  Twang! Peggy grappling line caught a low rail and caught fast. She tied it off to The Molly.

“Oh, did you want me to fly you over?” Algernon now said, and he felt the slap of Peggy’s hand against the back of his head.

“Well, we certainly have room for one more,” Bruce said helping Han Fara Rung carefully onto unsteady feet, “We’re only a day or two out of Manihiki so tight quarters won’t be too much of an issue.  Anyone else left alive, Han?”

“No,” Han Fara Rung replied shakily, “I think I was pretty lucky finding my hiding spot when I did.”

After making sure his patient was comfortable and had plenty of food and water, Bruce scoured what was left of the carriages.  The carriages by now were weak from the attack and fire, and parts were still alight.  Rain called across from the safety of The Molly.

“Bruce, you complain about me!  What are you doing risking your life for a few odds and ends?”

“I’m looking for people,” Bruce replied, doggedly.  If one person could survive this attack, then maybe there were more. He had found a stash of cyphers probably hidden by the Captain, but even he had to admit it, there was no one else left to save and returned to The Molly.  Algernon identified the cyphers Bruce had found:

A permanent bonding glue

Force armour projector

A Nutrition and Hydration kit

A Hangover cure.

The Molly slowly pulled away from what was left of the carriages. Algernon, Peggy and Rain quiz Han Fara Rung about the weapon.

“So, what sort of weapon made the hole?” Rain asked as the patient watched what was left of their first train disappear out of view.

“I don’t know, just something the salver’s found.  It was about a metre to metre and a half long.. Metallic… none of us had seen anything like it before.”

“It was a heat beam of some sort, but with such a strange square profile.  Very odd,” Peggy added her observations.

“Imagine if you could mount it on a ballista,” Algernon thought out loud.

“It cut through the carriage like a bread knife,” Rain shivered as Ish-Ma-El walked into the carriage,” Ish, you had more to do with the weapon that Han, what was it like?”

They stopped and considered their answer before speaking,” A device, we never got a chance to work out what it was.”

“ Certainly doesn’t seem like the type of device we want in the hands of the Ferro Navy,” Rain mulled over seriously, “Especially if they’re after the Almighty Bruce.” 

Almost simultaneouslyAlgernon and Bruce spoke up.

“Could we have it?”

“It should be destroyed.”  They eyed each other across the carriage as the discussion continued without them.

“Han, what direction was the Navy train heading?”

“Tacking around towards Manihiki.”
“And your engine, it was missing, where did it go?”

“The navy took it.”

“What engine did they have?” Peggy asked, now interested in the conversation.

“Deisel, a big one.” Han-Fara-Rung supplied 

“That would make sense,” She mused, “A heat ray would need a lot of energy, and a diesel could provide that if they found a way to connect it to the system.”

“Do you remember its name?”

“Yeah, the Ironside Roar.”

“Captain, would you like to go hunting?” Rain finally turned to look up at the Ish-Ma-El who had been standing, listening the whole time.

“Any monetary gain?” 

“Probably not, but we’d be hunting the Navy, not a bad recompense I’d suggest.”

The Captain pondered the idea a while as the group just watched.

“Knowing the crew’s indifference and my own love of the navy, I don’t think that’s a problem,” They finally said, turning to the group.

For the next two days, the stout-hearted Molly chugged across the wastes of Railsea, hardly stopping the whole way.  Everyone was busy with duties and discussing plans for Manihiki.  On top of that, the group was involved in getting the crew on-side for a push against the most powerful organisation Railsea had seen since the mythological builders.  The Captain took the crew aside and told them in general terms their story and what they had planned.  They said up-to-date letters weren’t even enough to save a train the navy wanted disappeared.  By this time the crew thought they knew the Captain’s story well enough that no one questioned their seemingly outlandish proposal to go against the Manihiki Navy. 

Rain also started telling new stories about the group and their scrapes against impossible odds.  If the crew believed the stories or not, it didn’t seem to matter as the message to perseverance against injustice was quickly picked up by all.  It also helped that he’d changed the wording and added another verse to the Song of Ishmael,

Song of Ish-Ma-El (Revision)

 (To the Tune: Do the “Loco-mo-tion”)

Last of their cr-ew their friends and family

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

They were left for dead by wicked Na-vy

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Now Railers everywhere, please take heed

“Never say, die!” Became their creed.

So, come on and follow.

Ish-Ma-El, Wand’er of the Railsea!

Three lonely we-eks, Alone but not lonely

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Followed by the dead crying, “Vengence only!”

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

A tiny flag of red, against the sand

Leads to ancient riches lost under land

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Captain Ish-Ma-El!

Fears no one!

Not mole!

Not man!

Not even Ferro-Navy Grand!

Wow oh wow oh!

Four days and nights, they worked on Molly.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Reclaimed her from the dust, the moles and the vermin

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

A hoard of giant rats came to cause havoc.

Crossbow and twin swo-rds

Flashed through the dark

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Following the sm-o-ke, they found their old train.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

The crew fed to an antlion, the navy to blame.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Now the Ferro Navy is their phil-oso-phy

And they won’t stop un-til all Railsea’s free!

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!


The largest city-state in all of Railsea was a smudge of the horizon. As quietly as a yellow steam train can, The Molly pulled up at a pier, paid its dock duties and started unloading.  Besides the original cargo, the Gliding Vulpine had been transporting, there was three or four tons of molemeat, and a massive quantity of silver-grey hide from the Dreaming Sable.  From the proceeds, The Molly resupplied and paid her crew handsomely, boosting their spirits even further. Once the business of running a train was sorted out, the group went out into town to hear the latest gossip and spread a little of their own.

“I feel like a target is painted on my back, “Bruce complained as they walked up through the city proper. Rain turned and looked at the group as a whole.  Though Bruce did stand taller than all of them and was twice as wide, Algernon walked around with a giant crossbow across his back, same too for Ish-Ma-El and their double blades.  Rain himself wouldn’t be part from the wings, and Peggy’s suspicious stares were enough to give anyone passing by a second glance.  In comparison, Bruce was almost invisible.

They listened to what the rumourmongers had to say about the Ironside Roar (sent to hunt the Almighty Bruce), the Almighty Bruce and the Onoka mining community.   In return, they shared their rumour of the Captain’s son searching for his father.

Rain made a discovery when he stumbled across a group of Ferro Navy Officers well into their cups in an inn he had inquired.  After a few more rounds of drinks and an appreciative audience, the officers started telling their new best friend, all they knew about events out of the Railsea.

“Of course the Ironside Roar is part of the hunt to find that Almighty Bruce, as is half the navy.  The big push is clear for a few days from now, that is if the Dread Baron doesn’t get it first.”

“The Dread Baron?”

“One of the most powerful trains in the whole Ferro navy.  Not the flagship by any means, but big!  They’re expected back any day, and then ….the hunt is on!”

“I think we need to sabotage some trains!” Algernon said as soon as Rain had informed the group what he’d learned.

“And I for one, think you should have the chance to do just that.” Rain beamed, “So how are we going to do it?”

“What?  Walk into the navy dockyards and demand to see the engines?” Ish-Ma-El said, their usual sarcastic nature getting the better of them.

“I was thinking more distraction and sabotage.  We still have a good supply of mole steaks and a Captain to mourn, a man who was a paid-up supporter of the Ferro Navy…” Rain suggested merrily.

“We have a BBQ…” Bruce added, “No engineer is going to pass up a free meal.”

“A free steak meal,” Algernon finished with pleasure, “ So, you guys put on a BBQ and distract everyone while Rain and I sneak in and disable the engines.” 

“Rain’s going to be needed at the BBQ to stir up the interest,” Bruce burst Algernon’s vision of the events.

“I’m afraid so,” Rain agreed, “I’d love to go with you, we can run our technician and boss routine, but I wouldn’t be much use to you if something technical came up.”  

Rain looked at Ish-Ma-El noting how well they dealt with the crew, and even with him and Bruce that first day at the theatre.  

Bruce was thinking the same thing it seemed, “Ish-Ma-El should go with Algernon. They’ve proven their quick on their feet and if things aren’t what you expect can probably jury-rig something on the spot.”

“Er…sure, I can do it.” Ish-Ma-El agreed reluctantly as Algernon pulled Rain aside.

“But I don’t want to do this with Ish-Ma-el. I don’t trust them,” 

Algernon’s suspicion of strangers had been a hindrance in the past, but usually, Rain saw it as the balance to his own more than generous acceptance.  Not everyone could be an ally, as hard as he worked at it.  Still, Ish-Ma-el was an exception. They’d prove their worth and had more than a few stakes in the game.

“I can’t see how we have much choice, “ Rain said in the end, “You know how to destroy things, and they can get you in, I’d only be in your way.”

“We could at least fly out if we needed to,” He brooded on the subject, “If I have to, I’ll just leave them behind.”

“It won’t come to that.  Look, I’ll give you a boost before you leave the gate, that will make the first engine easy.  If you have to, you can come back for another shot.”

“It feels a bit like cheating,” Algernon confessed, the first time the most power of Rain’s abilities had been discussed between them.  

“Now whose being silly,” Rain laughed, ”You know better than I do that it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught and I don’t intend for any of us to be caught.”

“Yeah,” Algernon agreed, as reluctantly as Ish-Ma-el had, “I guess.”

“So, tell me.” Rain asked with a mischievous grin, “How are you going to wreck these trains?”  

The rest of the day was spent acquiring and preparing materials.  Clothes, similar enough to the Ferro Navy greys, were purchased. Quantities of powdered aluminium and the worst of the rusty iron that could be found with salvers.  Several barrels of cheap naval rum were bought, and recently acquired supplies for The Molly were dipped into.  That evening in front of the iron gates to the naval shipyards, they set up and started their BBQ.  

Bruce was the cook and looked at home over the hot coals and sizzling fat of the meat. Peggy was in charge of the drinks and kept them flowing for as long as the rum lasted.  Rain gathered the crowds, at first talking to individuals and groups to encourage them to let others know.  He quickly found a stack of crates to stand on and excited the forming crowd for the feast about to begin.  Algernon and Ish-Ma-El stayed back until the mass of engineers vying for a free meal was thick at the entrance.  

“Engineers and brave heroes of the Manihiki Ferro Navy, “Rain started his ringmaster routine with the crowd, “We mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Captain Al-Ram-Kuno, late of the Gliding Vulpine.  As a loyal and fully paid supporter of the Ferro Navy, it is only fitting that we note his life and passing with this small tribute to you, courageous crews!”  The crowd cheered, some already into their cups.  The noise attracted more engineers from the docks, and a constant stream of rail crew now trickled out to the party at the gates.

Soon the steaks served on slabs of fresh bread, and a cup of rum quickly started moving through the crowd.  Two figures, seemingly ignoring the spectacle, walked calmly up to the gates. As they walked past his perch above the crowd, Rain clapped each on the shoulder verbally encouraging them to enjoy the meal as he sent them jolts of The Strange.  

“State your business?” Said the marine on duty more than a little harassed and put-out by the impromptu BBQ.

“Engineering specialist sent down to oversee the overalls for the…uh…big push,” Ish-Ma-El said the last just low enough for only the guard to hear.  

“Oh…er…right!” This was someone in the know, and he didn’t stand in their way a moment longer.

There were currently two steam trains in the docks, and the saboteurs had come prepared.  While Ish-Ma-El scattered handfuls of thermite pellets made to look like lumps of coal throughout the tender, Algernon set to work on the machinery itself.  Steam trains are brutally simple, especially compared to what Algernon was used to tinkering.  A few pins in pressure gauges to stop the needle from rising too far, wadding stuffed down the safety release valves, and they were good to go.  The idea was that the trains would leave, as usual, all systems working normally.  Then they would hit one of the thermite lumps taking the firebox temperatures from 1,300 degrees centigrade to 2,200 degrees.  It was hot enough to melt out the firebox and any other steel in the vicinity.  In the meantime the pressure in the boiler would rise to dangerous levels, but the engineers’ gauges and safety valves wouldn’t register a problem.  Enough pressure and the boiler could explode, possibly derailing the whole train. 

As Peggy has said during the planning session, “A pressurised explosion is nothing to sneeze at.”

Halfway through their sabotage and  Ish-Ma-El and Algernon were feeling pretty pleased with themselves.  Looking like they belonged, they left the first train and started for the second.

That’s when chaos descended onto the dockyards.

It had been limping in for a while, a dark smudge on the darker night sky. It wasn’t until the Dread Barron’s hulking wreck rolled into dock billowing black smoke from various locations that the naval dockyards burst into action.  Engineers ran from the BBQ, food and drinks still in hands sprinted for the dock where the engine released the last of its boiler pressure in a huge gout of steam, obscuring even the Barons’s massive bulk.

“Oi, you!” Came a call, and Algernon and Ish-Mae-El were confronted with the gate guard, “You said you were some specialist engineers, they need you at the Baron!”

“Unfortunately, my companion has hit his head in all the excitement of the Baron’s arrival,” Ish-Mae-El  lied convincingly as Algernon looked vaguely out to the distance with a strained look on his face, “I need to take him to the hospital.”

“Right, but hurry back,” The guard replied, clearing their path, his expression grim.

At the gates, Peggy was putting down the last of the cups she’d been pouring and pulled off her apron.

“I want a closer look at that thing,” She said as she stepped by Bruce and Rain.

“No, Peggy you’ll get shanghaied!” Rain moaned knowing as soon as they saw her talent she’d been taken.

“They can try,” She replied simply, slipping away amongst the crowds of other engineers swarming through the gates, just as Ish-Ma-El and Algernon appeared back at the BBQ.

“Going well?” Rain asked, handing Algernon a sandwich and zapping him once more.

“Yeah, all engineers are being called to help out of the Baron though, and we’ve only done one train.” Explained Algernon as Rain did the same for Ish-Ma-El.

“This is the perfect timing if you can swing it.  Peggy’s just gone to look at the Baron herself on the back of all this chaos.”

“We’re on it,” Ish-Ma-El nodded, and they headed back in amongst the crowd.

This time when guards tried to direct them to the Dread Baron, Ish-Ma-El rounded on them, ”I know better than you the state of the Dread Baron and don’t you think headquarters do too?  Now more than ever we need those two trains in top condition now that they’re all that’s left to protect us.”

“ Very well, “ The marine stepped aside, sure they had met another know-it-all with headquarters backing.  The second train sabotaged, they were soon walking out past the BBQ and out into the city streets to be lost in the crowds.

Peggy was another story.  The Dread Baron was a mess. Whole chunks had been smashed out of the engine and train.  Peggy stepped inside the diesel compartment to see the largest engine she’d had seen, certainly the largest she’d been able to work on and must have, at some time, come out of a ship. She already noted that a massive timing belt, many times longer than herself had been damaged in the fight and been jury-rigged to get the train back to port.  She helped pull off the old belt but didn’t give suggestions on improvement as she would normally.  These were the enemy.

“What caused all this?” Peggy asked conversationally of one of the navy engineers working alongside her.

“A fight with the Almighty Bruce, ” She replied, taking the opportunity of the chat to have a moment’s rest, “They have a cannon and a huge catapult that throws bombs.”

“The Almighty Bruce?  I thought that was a legend.”

“We don’t like to admit it, but it’s real, alright.”

Peggy estimated that the work required to get the Dread Baron back on the rail would take two or more weeks.  With any luck, the Baron would have to sit out the rest of the fight.  Having found out all she thought she could, Peggy climbed off the Dread Baron and started for the gates. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” As a marine watching over the engineers crawling all over the stricken train blocked her way.

“Food, I hear someones giving away steak sandwiches,” She replied, continuing to walk by only to be stopped by a spear across the body.

“The navy will supply you with all your needs now,” He replied and pointed out a barracks where a camp mess and rows of beds had been set up.

As feared, Peggy had been conscripted into the Manihiki Ferro Navy.

At the gates, Bruce and Rain were getting worried. Algernon and Ish-Ma-El were out and long gone, their task done.  The crowds of engineers were thinning, but Peggy was nowhere to be seen.  Taking the last of the sandwiches on a vast platter, Rain walked straight through the gates as if he belonged there and down the docks to the Dread Baron.  There he handed out sandwiches to the engineers who had come in on the stricken vessel and kept an eye out for Peggy.  It didn’t take long to spot her arguing with a marine.  

“Good food for a hero of Manihiki? “ He said, handing her a sandwich.  She took it, touching his hand in return and creating a mental link.

What’s up? He asked, continuing to hand out the food.

I can’t leave


Watch, Peggy said through the mind link and tried walking past the marine again.

“Come now. You belong to the Navy now, hop-it’” The marine said with no malice and shoved her back.

Just get ready to run, Rain said before turning to the guard himself and offering him a sandwich.

“I suggest this one is needed at the gate,” He pushed, gesturing to Peggy. 

The marine’s eyes glazed over for a moment before he realised Peggy was standing in front of him.

“You’re needed at the gate, better get moving.”

Peggy did just that, stepping past him she marched towards the gate, the marine guard in tow.  She made it to the gates as Bruce was packing up the BBQ.  Peggy made a gesture, pointing out her escort to Bruce as she inspected the well-oiled and maintained gate.  When Peggy felt the distance was enough, she bolted through the gate and down the dock.  The guard, surprised by the sudden movement, gave chase, only to collide into Bruce carrying crates of BBQ supplies.

By the time the marine stood up to looked after Peggy, she had melted into the crowds. He swore, probably having lost a commission for bringing in a new engineer.  He turned on Bruce.

“Didn’t see you there, sorry about that.  Here have a steak,” Bruce handed a sandwich to the marine who snatched it up belligerently.  Behind them, Rain walked nonchalantly through the gates and joined Bruce in the cleanup.

Where are you? He asked Peggy hidden somewhere in the city.

I don’t know, safe. 

Stay where you are and stay connected. Algernon and Ish-Ma-el are out, and Bruce and I are nearly finished here.  We’ll come and find you.

36. The raising of The Molly

Looking for information on Bruce’s father, the group are in Railsea chasing a train called ‘Almighty Bruce’. On their trip across the Railsea, Bruce himself has proven to be just as Mighty when taking down of the giant molerat, ‘The Dreaming Sable’. Unfortunately, the Gliding Vulpine, the train they were riding, was destroyed in the battle.


As dawn rose over the Railsea, a few of the group spotted a very familiar red rag flapping in the morning breeze.

“Hey, that’s my flag, we’re near the old theatre,” Rain said, and Peggy’s demeanour improved considerably.

“Molly!”  She cried and scrambled out of the wreckage that had once been the Gliding Vulpine

“Molly?” Rain asked, sure they’d seen no one in the lost theatre but a couple of giants rats and spiders.

“The engine.  I called her Molly.” Peggy replied self-consciously.  She looked over the desert to the flapping red rag, “I wonder if we wrap a good heavy chain around the drive wheel if we couldn’t pull her out onto the rails…”

“Only one way to find out,” Launching himself into the air on the wings he’d not managed to part with, he circled the stricken engine and Peggy, “ I’ll go out and see if she’s still there.”  Anything to get out of the menial work he’d been dodging all night.

The movement over the train caught Bruce’s attention who had been busy overseeing the rendering and breaking down of the molerat carcass.

“Hey!  Where are you off it?”

“The theatre, Peggy thinks she can use the old engine,” Rain pointed in the direction of the flag.

“Don’t go alone,” Said Bruce, “What if there’s someone with a crossbow?”

“Then I’ll say, hello!” Rain flipped in the air for the sheer joy of it.

“Don’t make me come and save you!” Bruce yelled after the little man who had turned the wings towards the fluttering red streak.

“Ha! Since when!” He could just hear over the woosh of the steam-powered wings.

Forgetting the work on the mole, Bruce hefted his crowbar onto his back and raced along the tracks in Rain’s wake.  His training at the Estate had improved Bruce’s both strength and speed.  He bounded over three sleepers at a time keeping pace with the flying man though he tacked back and forwards keeping to the safety of the rails.  Rain landed lightly at the lip of the large hole where a steam engine had crashed down into the theatre.  Bruce could see  Rain scan the ground around the hole before calling.


“Too late for caution then,” Bruce came up behind Rain who did a double-take looking back over the rail Bruce had crossed to get there.

“What do you mean, I am being cautious,” Rain replied, pointing to the footprints, “There’s someone down there, and I don’t want to surprise them.”

“Hello down there, we don’t mean any harm.”

A figure stepped out of the shadows, clearly holding a hand crossbow up at Rain and Bruce silhouetted against the grey-green sky.

“Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot!” Said the figure stepping into the light so the boys could get a clearer view.  The person was slim dressed in working clothes of heavy cotton and wool.  Their scruffy blonde hair was pulled back roughly from an androgenous face that didn’t identify the person as either male or female.  What was clear was the person was well-armed.  Besides the hand crossbow now pointed at them, both Bruce and Rain could see two swords strapped to their backpack, another crossbow in a holster on their hip.

Ish-Ma-El the Salver

“I wouldn’t shoot if I were you,” Bruce said coolly, “You’ll just make me mad.”

“You don’t intimidate me!” The salver replied just as confidently with a gritty determination, “I saw all my friends and family die, what are you two to an entire train of murderers?”

Rain and Bruce glanced at each other.

“We’re sorry to hear that,” Bruce said seriously.

“Our sympathises,” Rain kneeling to see the person better.  

The figure in the hole slowly lowered their crossbow, “Thanks.”

“Look, do you think we could come down and have a chat?” Rain called, tiring of the yelling conversation so far.

“I supose, if you’re alone,”

“Ur…full transparency we are with a train, but at the moment it’s just us two,’ 

The figure shrugged giving up the fight for now as, first Bruce dropped the twenty feet to the stage and rolled to a stop, and Rain glided down and landed beside him.

The train looked a little different from the last time they’d seen it.  It now had a good coat of yellow paint, and many working parts shone in the dim light of the underground theatre.  

“How long have you been down here?” Rain asked, admiring the work already put into The Molly.

“Four days and four nights,” The salver replied matter of factly with an air that claimed ownership without actually stating it.  They were right too. They had the rights of salvage.  If the group were to use the engine to get to Manihiki, they would have to negotiate.

“Well, we came for The Molly, but we can see that you have a claim,” Said Rain.


“The engine,”

“It’s mine, what do you want it for?”

“A talpa destroyed out engine last night,” He pointed to the surface, “We need The Molly to get our train to Manihiki.”
“You fought a talpa?” They replied doubtfully.  Bruce brandished his bloodied crowbar.

“Well, he did anyway,” Rain replied, very aware of the tensions building between them and the lone figure.

So was the salver, as they shifted the conversation back to The Molly, “Strange name for a train.”

“Yes. Peggy, our engineer, named it. Though come to think of it she usually isn’t one to get sentimental and name things…” He trailed off realising they hadn’t introduced themselves, “Speaking of which, what’s your name?”

“Ish-Ma-El,” They replied.

“Bruce,” Said Bruce introducing himself.

“And I’m…” It was now that Rain remembered he was Havel Maximillian in Railsea, though he had signed on to the Gliding Vulpine as Rain.  The thought of trying to reestablish the Havel persona seemed a waste of time, and he stalled in his introduction.

“Rain?” Bruce asked, not sure what was going on with his friend.

“Yes, go with that for now,” Rain sighed, “I’m Rain.  Look, you’re going to need help getting The Molly out of this hole, and we need transport. If we respect your right to the engine, can we work together to get her to Manihiki?”

Ish-Ma-El stepped back and looked at the engine.  Nose down in the splintered wood of the stage. It would be a lot of work alone to get the engine out, maybe even impossible. They looked with distrust at the two strangers who literally flew in over the sand.  In the end, more pressing needs took precedent as their stomach rumbled and reminded them they hadn’t eaten in a few days.

“Do you have food?” Ish-Ma-El asked tentatively.

“We have a whole moldywarpe of food!” Rain exclaimed, “Thanks to our Mighty Bruce!”

“You’re the Almighty Bruce?” Ish-Ma-El  turned to Bruce who seemed to grow a few more inches on his already lofty height, “But, I thought it was a train.”

“Ah, what do you know about the Almighty Bruce?” Rain asked, still keen to find out all they could about the renegade train and its captain.

“Ur…it’s a legend.  Supposedly it’s defending a mining town somewhere north of Manihiki.”

“Hmmm, “ Rain replied, disappointed, “Well, the food’s on the surface. Unless you’d like me to bring you down something?”

“Err, no its alright, but don’t try anything or you’ll see that these swords aren’t just stylish,” Ish-Ma-El agreed grudgingly. 

“ I assure you that I would never do anything to make you draw your swords,” Rain replied with such honesty that Ish-Ma-El finally put away their hand crossbow.

The rope the group had placed months ago still hung from the rail above, and Bruce now grabbed it, holding it steady for Ish-Ma-El.

“Want a leg up?” Bruce asked the diminutive character and gained nothing by a scathing look.


“I’m sorry I can’t fly you up,” Rain admitted and gained the same defensive look in reply.

“I can get there myself.”

With the proposition of seeing the theatre and the engine again, Algernon and Peggy had also started travelling towards the flag.  Algernon taking the faster route levitated himself above the sand at speed.  When Ish-Ma-El made their appearance, Algernon came to a screeching halt, creating the sounds of skidding rubber himself, and quickly flipped his crossbow off his back.  Just as fast, Ish-Ma-El had their crossbow out and trained on Algernon.

“Who the hell are you!” Ish-Ma-El yelled.

Rain popped up over the lip of the hole to see his friend and Ish-Ma-El aiming very deadly weapons at each other.  Landing heavily between the two he turned to Algernon.

“No, no!  This is a friend.  Algernon, this is Ish-Ma-El.  Ish-Ma-El, my very dear friend Algernon.”

Distrustful of Rain’s latest find, Algernon reached out to listen to the new person’s surface thoughts and found himself…looking back up at himself down the jawbone crossbow.  He watched as his body wobbled uncertainly in the air before crashing to the ground with a heavy thud.  A streak of electrical pain shot straight up his back, and for a moment he could do nothing by stand there, a hand crossbow held loose in a numbed hand.  He watched as Rain ran and crouched beside his body.

“What the hell!” Algernon heard his body say, and Rain started.



Rain turned to look him in the eyes and groaned, “Uh, we’ve seen this before.”

“Did we Lang? Algernon asked, his voice sounding odd and shrill.  Bruce climbed to the surface behind him and tried to make sense of the scene.  

“Yeah, you Langed,” Rain replied, turning back to help Ish-Ma-El in his body up off the sand, “You’ve mind-swapped with our very talented Algernon.  It seems you have a gift in common.”

Algernon’s free hand started exploring the new body just as Bruce realised what all the shouting was about and grabbed Algernon, in Ish-Ma-El’s body, by the collar.

“What’s going on, who are you and why are you pointing a crossbow at Algernon?” Peggy stormed up, having walked the rails and got to the hole last of all.

“Let them go,” Bruce said low and quiet in a tone that allowed no argument, “Let them go, Algernon.”

“I can’t, it’s stuck,” He said in that odd little squeaky voice that wasn’t his.

“Well then try doing it again, maybe that will clear it,” Bruce suggested and lowered Ish-Ma-El’s body, so the feet touched the ground again.

“Yeah, but not yet…” Algernon murmured, but Bruce was having none of it. 

“Before Peggy shoots you,” Algernon flicked his eyes to Peggy, her hand crossbow pointed directly at his chest…Ish-Ma-El’s chest.

“Ok-ay…” He looked at his body slouched and defensive beside Rain and projected back.

It worked, his view resolved to behind Rain, looking back at Ish-Ma-El who was intently watching him.  Algernon gave the newcomer a grim little smile and started singing in his head.

“This is the song that doesn’t end….”

“Oh, gods!” Ish-Ma-El cried and lunged to strike him with their fist.  Rain was in between again, spoiling the fun.

“No, no!  Friends.” He said now to Ish-Ma-El who huffed a frustrated breath out and put down their hand, “Speaking of friends, Peggy, our illustrious Engineer and of course you’ve met Algernon.”

“Oh, supposedly the engineer,” Ish-Ma-El turned to look at Peggy, taller, dark with curly hair, Peggy was everything they weren’t.  

Except for the attitude.

“Supposedly?  I am the Engineer, and as I don’t know you, you don’t count.” Peggy bit back showing that she no longer saw Ish-Ma-El as a threat by putting away her hand crossbow.

“And we don’t take kindly to threatening violence,” Bruce added, threatening violence with every muscle twitch.

Ish-Ma-El stared up at Bruce, making him turn and examine the newcomer.  They impressed him with their courage, and he felt that it wasn’t misplaced foolhardiness. 

“Bruce!  Friend!” Rain exclaimed, and Bruce broke eye contact, “I’m sorry, It’s so hard to make friends these days.”

“Yeah, don’t I know it.,” Ish-Ma-El replied sullenly.

“Er…look I’m going to make up for everything with that food I promised, maybe a picnic while you and Peggy discuss how to get The Molly out of the hole?” Rain said as the metal wings on his back open themselves, “Please try not to kill each other while I’m gone, okay?” 

Ish-Ma-El quickly outlined what they’d done to the engine including replacing a cracked cylinder, straightening out boiler tubes bent in the fall and testing the boiler’s seals ready for use. All that and the natty yellow paint job.

“And you did all that just with salvage?” Peggy asked in her most matter of fact way that to the group meant she was impressed.

“That’s what I do.  That’s why I’m out of the rails,” Ish-Ma-El replied defensively, “Besides, the theatre was full of supplies for building and repairing the stage and scenery.”

Peggy, who’d had more time to think over the problem, outlined her plan for getting the engine out of the hole and back on the tracks. Using a heavy A-frame above the hole, the engine would winch itself out of the theatre.  From there, elbow grease from the ship’s crew would maneuver the engine onto the tracks.  Simple in theory, but it took the two of them, Peggy’s knowledge of engineering and Ish-Ma-El’s uncanny ability with salvage, to make it work.

Peggy and Bruce stayed on the surface, organising the A-frame construction with several crew members.  Ish-Ma-El and two others scavenged for parts and attached The Molly to the frame using heavy chains and ropes.  Algernon kept himself busy being the group’s elevator, lifting people and supplies up and down the hole.  Rain found himself doing the job he’d been avoiding all night, shuttling back and forward on menial tasks.  At least he got to fly. 

Even Captain Al-Ram-Kuno came over to provide…support in the way of unhelpful advice and yelling at the crew, which was his ways of boosting morale. It wasn’t required.  Under the competent eyes of both Peggy and Ish-Ma-El backed by a firm word from Bruce, the crew snapped too.  They knew raising The Molly was their best chance of escaping the Railsea alive.

And it was working.  The engine lifted from the stage in a groan of metal, a cloud of falling sand and broken floorboards and was soon ten foot off the ground and halfway to the top.  The stack and the engineer’s cabin were above the surface, and things were going well until a squeak from deep in the theatre caught Ish-Ma-El’s attention. 

“Oh, rats!” They growled, leaving what they were doing and pulling out both hand crossbows.

 Peggy, on the lip of the hole, heard it too and pulled out her crossbow.

“Incoming, rats in the hole, we need covering fire!”

Rain and the two crew members down in the hole ran to  Ish-Ma-El.  Each crew member had armed themselves, one with a sturdy crowbar, the other with a heavy club made from a points lever.  Rain’s hand’s were empty, the wings extended.

“What are you going to do, dance them to death?” Ish-Ma-El got out before four giant rat bodies leapt off the broken balcony’s above and down towards them.

Bruce threw down a pick he was using to enlarge the hole and leaped down to join the battle in melee as one rat caught a crew member by the leg and started pulling them away. Another missed his chance at easy meat, the crew member stepping out of range of the creature’s teeth.  One rat ran towards Ish-Ma-El, but Rain flared out the wings before it could reach them and did indeed seem to dance in front of the rat.  Keeping the rat’s attention, he flicked the wings back and forward so the rat was never sure where the next attack was coming from.  The third rat ran for Bruce as he landed amongst the thick of battle. He dodged around it and sprinted towards the crewman a rat had caught.  A firm crack across the head and the rat let go. The crew member crawled away flailing their club giving the rat a glancing blow. The crew member with the crowbar lashed out, but the rat caught the crowbar and wrenched it from their grip.  The fourth rat dove for Ish-Ma-el. They shot it twice with the hand crossbows before throwing the weapons aside and pulling out their duel swords with a snicker of sharpened steel.

The crew tied off the train on the surface and started grabbing rocks to cast down on the rats twenty feet below.  One was knocked in the head by a stone. It bounced away as if hitting concrete, the rocks did nothing to stop the rats’ advances. Seeing the battle joined, the Captain bravely stepped away from the hole, letting others do the fighting.  Peggy launched a plasma bolt at the rat Bruce had just smashed.  The rats sizzled and snapped, and the smell of burning fur filled the theatre.  When the smoke cleared, the rat was still, its brains boiled in its skull.

Rain continued to distract his rat, getting into the rhythm of the taunting moves.

“Rescuing?  I don’t need rescuing.” He laughed as the rat seemed completely confused about where to attack.

The rat Bruce dodged had better luck snagging itself a crew member.  The man screamed, drawing Bruce’s attention to that quarter.

On the surface, Peggy and the crew turned to a movement in the sand as two more rats breached and attacked.  One leapt at a crew member’s face sending them both back over the hole and down into the theatre.

There was no time for thinking about those in the hole as another two rats followed the first.  Peggy kicked one away as another rat missed their target, but a third caught a prized morsel. Before anyone knew what was going on, the Captain was screaming already knee-deep in the sand and disappearing fast.  The crew ran for the hole and pulled weapons, billhooks and long pieces of wood to poke down the rat hole after the Captain’s assailant.  Algernon picked up a rat from the surface and threw it down the hole, hoping to hit another fighting in the theatre.  Though the captured rat made a satisfying thud when it fell, it missed the one on Ish-Ma-El by inches and landed near Bruce.  Peggy sent a plasma arch to the rat dragging the Captain away.  It singed its head, forcing it to duck under the sand, the Captain sank in up to his waist.

In the hole, Bruce brought his crowbar down on the rat dragging the crew member away.  A crack and brain splattered across the dusty broken seating of the theatre.  

Splat Rat!

“NEXT!” Bruce yelled as the crew member and the rat fell from above onto Rain.

Focused on his rat, Rain was oblivious to the falling couple until they landed on squarely on him.  The injured crew member crawled off and found a piece of wood as their chosen weapon, leaving a stunned rat and Rain desperate to get up off the ground.

Another rat fell near Bruce, and he looked up, gave his thanks and went to work.

Ish-Ma-el prepared their stance and waited for the rat she’d shot previously to attack.  As it lunged, terrifying teeth extended, they brought the two swords down in a double attack, slashing through the thick hide of the beast to the bone. Muscle no longer propelling bones, the heart’s blood pumping on the sand, the rat died.  Ish-Ma-El swung her swords wide, clearing her weapons of the beast’s blood and readied for the next attack.

Rain rolled smartly away from the stunned rat.  The movement caught its attention, and it lunged without thought.  Almost as long as he was tall, the rat pinned Rain to the ground, its teeth snapping at his face.

“Okay, really need that rescuing now,” Rain called across the theatre to Bruce.

“Coming Rain!  Little busy!” Bruce replied, his crowbar finding the head of the rat dropped to him by Algernon. 

Splat Rat!

“Are you looking at teeth the size of your face?!”

The injured crewman who fell with the rat smashed it with his piece of stage. Another hit it with his crowbar.

Upstairs, the Captain’s screams suddenly silenced as he sunk beneath the sand. Peggy knocked another rat aside in an attempt to get to the Captain, but everywhere she and the crew dug, there was nothing but more sand.  Algernon, seeing Rain in trouble, went to levitate the rat off his friend.  Feeling the sensation, the rat dug its claws into the stage’s wood, and Algernon couldn’t lift it away.  The moment’s interaction did give Rain a chance.  Now the claws were busy, Rain flicked a knife into his hand.  When the rat opened it’s mouth he jammed the dagger in behind the giant incisors.  The point stuck into the roof of the mouth, the pommel pressing down on the tongue and held fast. The rat could not close its mouth to bite. Instead, it thrashed its head from side to side, trying to dislodge the knife.

Fighting beside him, Ish-Ma-El found a second rat.  Their first sword swing missed the fast-moving rodent, but the second found its mark and cut deep.  The rat stumbled as messages from its head no longer seemed to be followed by the limbs and it fell into a twitching heap.

“Someone drop a rat on me!” Ish-Ma-El yelled, and from high above, Algernon responded.

“Aye, Aye, Captain!”

A rat launched itself at Peggy but bounced off her shielding, sliding to the sand.  Algernon deftly picked it up with his levitate and dropped it down the hole to Ish-Ma-El.  The crew tried their billhooks in the hole, and Algernon even sent a crossbow bolt into the sand, but a bloodied epaulette off the Captain’s uniform was all they found.

The falling rat met sharpened steel down the hole as Ish-Ma-El sliced it in two before it had even hit the sand.  Bruce finally made it across to Rain and brought his crowbar down on the rat’s head.  The dagger lodged against the roof of its mouth shot straight through its skull, splattering Rain below with blood and brains.  

“You alright there, Rain?” Bruce asked, but no reply came.  He pushed the beast off his friend and found Rain frozen in place, his dagger still in his hand, his eyes wide and staring. “Come on, get up, you’re alright.”

Mutely Rain complied, the hand with the dagger still shaking.

“T-t-hanks!” the little man finally said, closing his eyes to the horror around him and cleaning his blade on a silk handkerchief. 

“See now,” Bruce said gently as if speaking to a child, “In the future, you’ll go with your friends.”

“I-In my d-defence,” Rain replied, glancing at Ish-Ma-El, as they swept the area for more enemies to slay,  “I didn’t need rescuing f-from people.”

Bruce shook his head and held Rain’s steady as he too turned to Ish-Ma-El.

“Nice moves, good work!” He said, “You managed to kill a couple.”

“Now do you believe me when I say I can kill anyone of you?” They panted in reply, cleaning off their swords before carefully returning them to sheaths.  The hand crossbows, too, were retrieved from the dusty ground and returned to their holsters.

Once the injured were treated, and the loss of the Captain noted, the work of raising The Molly continued.  The crew did as they were told as before, but there was no energy to their work. They were afraid. They’d lost their first mate and Captain all within twenty-four hours. From their perspective, there was no one now left in charge that could get them back to safety.  The mood got so bad that even Peggy noted it and called all the crew to her and Ish-Ma-El.

“This is Ish-Ma-El.  By right of salvage and by right of the work of their own hands they have claimed The Molly.  They are the Captain.  They have promised to get us to Manihiki.  From there you can decide what to do with your lives, but not before!” She barked in a way the crew were very familiar.  They looked at the slip of a creature that was Ish-Ma-El, doft their caps in respect and went back to work.

“Me, Captain?  But, I don’t know anything about being a Captain!” Ish-Ma-El said, starting to panic after the crew had gone back to their duties.

“Do you think that fool we had before did?” Replied Peggy and turned back to work herself.

“If it’s any consolation, “ Algernon said, the sweetest expression on his youthful face, “Captain’s don’t have a long life expectancy aboard our trains.”  He handed her the bloodied epaulette and walked away.

“If you want to be a Captain, you may want to think about a philosophy,” Rain suggested and was surprised at the violence of Ish-Ma-El’s response.

“Philosophies suck!  Love songs to mindless killing beasts! Idiots!” They spat, making them forget their panic, if only for a moment.

“I wouldn’t say that too loudly around the crew, they think highly of Captains with a passion,” He said quietly so only they could hear, “But there are other ways to win hearts and minds.” He winked and went off to ignore the pleas for food and water a while.

Several hundred tons of metal lifted vertically from the theatre and delicately placed on the rails was achieved over the next few hours.  The Molly was a vision in the dying light of the day, bright sunflower yellow with two giant eyes taken from stage props affixed to the boilerplate.  These so amused Peggy set to work creating a small geared motor to roll the irises back and forth. The Molly looked the part, but could not leave the track just in front of the hole.

“We’ve used all the water supplies we had to get The Molly up, “ Peggy said that afternoon, “How are we going to fill the tanks for the trip across the desert?”

“Wasn’t there water in the men’s toilets?” Bruce remembered from his fall into the washroom that had initiated their discovery of the theatre.

“A sluggish, muddy trickle,” Peggy agreed, “We’ll need pumps and a decent filtration system to make it clean enough to put through the boiler.

“Now if only we had someone good at salvaging useful parts and jury-rigging a pump and filtration system…” Bruce mused looking directly at Ish-Ma-El.

“Yes, yes not need to nag,” They replied prickly before happily scrounging through the theatre for the necessary parts.  A hand-cranked wind machine, several hundred metres of artificial rain pipes and an assortment of materials lining a giant megaphone cone and Ish-Ma-El had a working system for moving and filtering water.  The water supply gave out just as The Molly’s water tank gauge hit full. It was the best they could do.

“Which way to Manihiki?” Asked Rain whose knowledge of the town’s and cities of the Railsea didn’t extend to navigation. 

“I have a map,” Ish-Ma-El replied, pulling out a worn calfskin imprinted with the only pieces of hard land in the known world.

“Well, you tell us where to go, and I’ll switch the tracks,” Rain said, cheerily now that they were finally on their way.

Once The Molly and her new carriages were attached, and the course laid, Algernon slunk down below decks and made his way into the Captain’s quarters.  He didn’t find much there.  Captain Al-Ram-Kuno hadn’t had much to his name:  the Gliding Vulpine’s log including its manifest, a second uniform, a few coins, registration paper for the Ferro Navy (only for the Gliding Vulpine) and a large portrait of himself.  Algernon took a few coins, not all of them, he didn’t want it to look like a thief had been through, and scrawled a short note on the back of the painting.


When not on duty as a switcher, Rain spent his time below decks telling tales of Is-Ma-El.  The last survivor of their train, who’d trudged alone across the Railsea wastes on foot for weeks until they found the theatre and the final resting place of The Molly.  Four days and four nights they worked to get The Molly working, fighting off vermin with hand crossbow and sword.  They raised The Molly saving the crew from a long hard death on the open sands.  His most appreciated creation was the ‘Song of Ish-Ma-El’ which quickly caught on with the crew because of its catchy tune. The stories were mostly true. The crew were there to see some of it, some was gathered by Rain from the snippets that Ish-Ma-el themselves mentioned, other parts he wholly embellished.  It didn’t matter. It gave Captain Ish-Ma-El character and presence that the crew could understand and put their faith.  Slowly they began to rally behind their Savler Captain and heart was restored to the train.

“Peggy, if someone was to harness a steam-powered piston to propel a harpoon, how would they go about it?” Algernon asked one lazy afternoon only a few days out from Manihiki.

“I’d need parts, and it would have to be mounted to the engine for easy access to steam…”  Peggy mused, pulling her pencil from her hair and drawing a brief sketch on the roof of the carriage they sat on.

“Did someone say salvage?” Ish-Ma-El asked, striding by, now resplendent the Captain’s uniform.

“I’ll have a set of plans and a list of required parts ready for you tonight, Captain,” Peggy said, a small quirk to the side of her mouth showing how pleased she was.

“Could be useful where we’re going,” Rain said thoughtfully, “Captain, could I ask you your view on the Manihiki Ferro Navy?”

As usual, Ish-Ma-El’s dislike was violent and unambiguous.  Between the expletives and curses, Ish-Ma-El gave a ten-minute colourful tirade on the Navy and their devilry. It was enough to make a railman’s beard curl if any nearby had had a beard.

“Sure you’re not a spy for them?” Bruce laughed, as Ish-Ma-Ek had exhausted their collection of foul language, “Well, you’ve certainly found the right crew.”

“I think we can work with that.” Rain agreed with a nod.

Song of Ish-Ma-El

 (To the Tune: Do the “Loco-mo-tion”)

Last of their cr-ew their friends and family

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

They were left for dead by wicked ban’try

Ish-Ma-El,Wanderer of Railsea

Now Railers everywhere, please take heed

“Never say die!” Became their creed.

So, come on and follow.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Thr-ee lonely we-eks, Alone but not lone-ly

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

Followed by the dead crying, “Vengence only!”

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

A tiny flag of red, against the sand

Leads to ancient riches lost under land

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Captain Ish-Ma-El!

Fears no one!

Not mole!

Not ma-n!

Not even Ferro-Navy Grand!

Wow oh wow oh!

F-our days and ni-ghts, they worked on Molly.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Reclaimed her from the dust, the moles and the vermin

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

A hoard of giant rats came to cause havoc.

Crossbow and twin swo-rds

Flashed through the dark

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

35. Expecto Patronum

After a successful trip to Ruk, the party are preparing for their next trip to Railsea. Following the clues to the disappearance of Bruce’s father, the group is focusing their efforts on the Manihiki Ferro Navy.  Though most of the party is ready to start flexing their Strange powers in Railsea, Bruce is more reticent to go.


Katherine Manners, Lead Operative and founding member of the Estate pulled up a report.  She had been Earth’s representatives on foreign shores.  And that was when the less theatrical of the party wrote the report.  This last Ruk trip had been no exception, with the discovery of secret genetic labs, the recovery of kidnapped Earthlings for experimentation and the destruction of a whole mountain along with the death of a serious opponent of Earth, Doctor Strangelove.  She confirmed the facts through channels, found them accurate, and called in Bruce Johnson, the group member she was directly responsible for in for a chat.

As usual, Bruce was prompt and prepared.  There was something else she noticed as Bruce entered her office and sat down.  A quiet assurance.  The confidence of someone who had gone through hell and come out the other side stronger.  She approved.  

“Bruce, you and your group have had quite the adventure in Ruk,” She prompted turning her screen with the report displayed.

“Did what we set out to do.  Got into the kid’s head, got him fixed.  His brothers too, though Mortimer is one to keep an eye on,” 

“Noted, though we hope great things for him if he proves himself reliable,”

Bruce nodded thoughtfully, “He’s sharp, and he’s fast.  A dangerous combination.”

“As too were your group, blowing up a large tract of Ruk,”

“Ah well, I believe you’ll find that was the build-up of a highly explosive gas that was being created by Strangelove,” Bruce started to defend the group’s action until Katherine waved his arguments aside.

“In doing so, destroyed a secret base and one of the Karum’s major players all while leaving our allies on Ruk out of the frame. This is a significant victory that will have implication for years to come.”
“Yeah, the Allsong said she was dead.  Algernon asked,” He said, unconvinced, “But who’s to say she was alive at all.”

“Whose to say with Ruk,” She flicked to her screen to the other reports from Ruk, “Still there’s no sign that she’s alive and the Karum is in a panic.  I think it’s fair to say she is no longer a threat to Earth.”

Bruce nodded, mulling over his thoughts.

“Anything to add before I file the report for good?”  

“Ah no, nothing directly related to Ruk, only what we discovered.”
“Go on,”

“How hard is it to deliberately get into a story-based recursion that you have an idea may be out there, but have no links or key?”

“Some do it.  It requires a high concentration level and not a little luck if you don’t know if the recursion exists.  Translations go bad every day.  I can organise for some advanced translation coaching if you like.”

“Could you bring anything back?”

She shook her head, “Everything is translated.  Whatever you find in the recursion will only change into something mundane to this world.”

“How about we use an anapposite gate? Like we did for the Martins?”

“Anaposite gates are rare things.  We have no way of making a reliable gate.”

“We have the artefact from Ruk. Maybe we can rig that up.”

“Perhaps.  May I ask what recursion you would try to get to?”

At this, Bruce became a little more circumspect, “Ah, I know of a specific shrink ray that we could put to use.”

“Truly.  Would you like me to organise the coaching? Or would you like to think it over?  You may find other options open up to you in your travels.”

”Huh?” Dumbfounded, Bruce stopped in his tracks as he was about to leave.

“Railsea, I believe a number of your party mentioned it was your next trip out.”

“Oh yeah, tidying up loose ends.” He recovered quickly, but Katherine could tell Railsea wasn’t Bruce’s idea of destination.

“Foresee any difficulties?”

“No…no.  As I said, following up a few loose ends,”  He shook his head as he reached the door, “And do keep an eye on Mortimer, I worry what he might get up to while I’m not around.”

Algernon and Rain were also visiting with their direct supervisor.  It had become a bit of a tradition for both of them.  Algernon was obliged to ask for a highly specific and useful item of equipment, a rocket launcher.  Keating turned it down as usual.  Rain had better luck, as he didn’t bother asking.

Walking into the administration centre as if he owned the place, he greeted the staff by name and seemed to loiter around Keating’s office door, as if waiting for him to arrive.  Behind his back, he carefully picked the lock, not having a lot of luck.  The lockpick had jammed, and as he was about to check what was hindering its progress, Keating walked into the office.  Some would suggest this would be a good time to slink away, hide, and try again later.  That wasn’t Rain’s way at all.

“Mr Keating, I’m so glad I caught you,” He deftly stepped away from the door as if he hadn’t been standing there for minutes. He walked up to Keating, hand outstretched and Keating complied to the customary greeting. It gave Rain the chance to turn Keating around, so he did not see the door and the jammed lockpick.

“I have been remiss in keeping you abreast of my group’s activities if you have a moment I’d love to fill you in.”
“Rain, what a surprise.  Ah, yes that would be good…” Keating mulled over his current tasks, “ I can spare you a moment or two in my office…”
“I was hoping for a walk .  You will be pleased to know I have been availing myself of the Estates excellent councillors. They suggest more physical activity and sunlight, and it is such a lovely day,” He looked out the second storey office windows to the usual heavy leaden sky of Seattle.

“Unfortunately I have quite a bit of paperwork to get to…”

“No really, I Suggest we go out for a walk,” Rain pushed, embedding the suggestion into Keating’s mind.  He hadn’t wanted to do it.  He didn’t know the penalties for altering the mind of an Estate official, but at that moment it felt more likely he’d be caught for the attempted break-in than manipulating his supervisor’s mind.  He watched Keating’s face slacken as the push took hold.

“I promise not to keep you long, the walk will do us a world of good,” Rain steered Keating towards the door.

The two walked around the Estate commons to the far side of campus, near the library.  Having timed his story to finish at that point, he left Keating there and once out of sight, sprinted back.  There he found the lockpick still in places.  Now he could see the jam, Rain unlocked the door and quickly stepped into the office.

Keating’s bottle of bourbon wasn’t too hard to find. Rain knew he kept it near his desk for easy retrieval and disposal and soon found it tucked into a bottom draw.  Keating’s long legs had returned him to the office earlier that Rain anticipated.  His silhouette through the frosted window of the office door sent a jolt of adrenalin through Rain. He only had one option.  Carefully tucking the prized bottle away in his long black coat, Rain opened the window and leapt through.

For some, falling is just flying over short distances. The twenty feet to the ground was a very short flight.  Pushing his legs out in front of him, they took for the first brunt Rain’s landing.  He allowed momentum to roll him back onto his feet and walked away before Keating even had a chance to notice his window was open.

Rain was worrying over the bourbon bottle in the mess when Algernon and Peggy came in for lunch that day.

“The box I can get, I’ll ring around a few bars in the city and see who has one on their shelves, but I want to make this bottle spectacular.”

“A half a bottle of alcohol?” Algernon asked, bringing his lunch to the table, now both were looking through the bottles amber glow.

“Exactly, that could be any half bottle of bourbon. I want to make it clear it’s his half bottle,”

“Well there’s plenty of room to put something in with the bourbon. You can get Peggy to try out Hertzfeld’s glove.  She could get something inside without cutting the glass.”

The suggestion had the desired effect, and Rain’s face lit up, “Golf balls!  Peggy!” He called the Doctor over and gestured for her to sit down.

“If I got a number of golf balls, possibly two…?” He asked his technical advisor, Algernon.

“Three would fit nicely,” Algernon replied thoughtfully gauging the available space in the bottle.

“Three balls, would you be able to use Hertzfeld’s glove to put them inside?”

“Yes.  I could also break the bottle.  Can I ask why we’re doing this?”

“It’s a Christmas present,”  Rain replied as if it were self-evident.  

Peggy nodded, “Very well, bring them to my lab as soon as you acquire the balls.”

After a few days trip out to see Ni’Challan, Rain stopped by Keating’s office again.  This time the supervisor was in, busy with a project of his own.

“Sorry to trouble you again, I was wondering if I could ask your advice on something rather important,” Rain poked his head around the door.  He noticed a step ladder dominating the room and a security camera mounted into the corner facing the desk. Wires hung from the camera, and false ceiling tiles gave access to the services above.

“Security camera?s  You know Algernon is very good at installing those.  He used one very effectively in  Ruk just recently,”

“I am rather busy at the moment, can it wait?” Keating grumbled over the directions to the camera installation.

Rain could see Keating would not be so patient with the usual nonsense, so he brought up a subject that he’d been considering for some time.  He slipped in and closed the door.

“I’m considering my future.  I don’t think it’s a surprise to discover I am not the corporate type and my building relationship with Ni’Challan has me thinking of life after The Estate.”

“You’re thinking of leaving?” Keating looked up incredulous, “I know your methods are unorthodox, but you are a very fine agent.  The Estate would be poorer without you.”

The compliment, genuinely given, gave Rain pause.

“That’s very kind of you to say, and I do want to still be of use to The Estate, but possibly in not such a formal capacity,” He stepped in front of the golf bag, deeply moved by what he’d heard.

“And you intend to work with Ni’Challan?  We could do with a liaison out in the Graveyard of the Machine god,” Keating now sat down and mused over the possibilities, “We have such individuals all over the shoals. Still, there are very few inhabitable places in the Graveyard…yes, that could be very useful…” 

The two of them chatted about a future role for Rain outside the confines of The Estate proper.  Rain was impressed by how insightful Keating’s vision of his future.  A contact in the Graveyard for information and to represent the Estate to the community in that area.  Rain found himself enjoying the conversation, even as three balls somehow made their way from the golf bag and into his pockets.

He thanked Keating, apologised for taking up his valuable time and raced over to Peggy’s lab via a stop at the dormitory to pick up the bottle.  It was a moment’s work for Peggy to phase the glove through the glass of the bottle and deposit the three balls in the bourbon, Keating’s signature clearly visible in black Sharpie through the clear amber liquid.

Bruce looking for the group, found them all circling the bourbon bottle, Rain goggling at their new creation. 

“You’ve been up to mischief again,” Bruce said, walking over to see what all the fuss was about.

“How is this news to you?” Peggy replied as Rain was about to hide the bottle from Bruce’s sight.  He thought better of it and let the upright citizen examine their handiwork.

“Is that Keating’s signature?” Bruce pointed as a ball floated lazily passed his finger only millimetres off the bottom of the bottle.


“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not.” Rain smiled, and changed the subject, “So, already for Railsea?”

“I have training in the dojo this afternoon. The martial arts master has agreed to train with my crowbar, fully padded of course.” Bruce deflected, but his friend was a magician and con man.

“Naturally, and then after?  Tomorrow morning.  That would give me time to find a box and gift wrap the bottle.” He said, tucking it away.

“I have concerns over Mortimer and the triplets.  I know you don’t think of them as real people, but I have a deep concern for their welfare…” Bruce sent the conversation down a misdirected quagmire of blame that even Rain felt he had to defend himself.

“I never…you know me, I love the boys… “ He looked to Algernon and Peggy before realising Bruce’s scheme, “Mr Johnson, was that you trying to steer the conversation away from Railsea?” He looked proudly at Bruce as Bruce’s face turned red.


“That was very good, you had me wondering what I’d said to make you think such a thing,” Rain replied, and then returned to the subject at hand, “So, tomorrow morning then.” 

“We need more information,”
“Now you sound like Algernon,” Peggy commented, and even Algernon had to agree.

“All the information is in Railsea, we just have to get to Manihiki from Bollons,” Rain countered, “Come on Bruce, you do realise you’re the last enigma amongst us.  Let’s go save your father and clear up that blot on your past.”

Bruce agreed grudgingly, and Rain didn’t push the subject. He remembered the private conversation they’d had in the Dreamlands.  Bruce harboured legitimate grudges against his father and was unsure he wanted the man back in his life. He kept that little snippet to himself, keeping the privacy he had created in the dream.

Instead, Rain informed Algernon that Keating had installed a surveillance camera.  Instantly, Algernon pulled out his laptop and hacked into the one camera system via wifi.  He left his computer to record whatever random video it picked up for future use.

The next morning, as promised, the group gathered in Peggy’s lab for the translation to Railsea.  Bruce was wearing the wings Algernon had ‘acquired’ during his time with Doctor Strangelove. A real work of Ruk science and art, the wings were light weight and fitted well to his broad back.  He fiddled with the strappings not used to the restriction on his shoulders and waist.

Algernon led the translation this time and the party without fuss, found themselves dissolving into the Strange.  The first things they could see as they arrive were the greys and dull browns that dominated Railsea.  They were standing in their blood-splattered clothing in the one-room bedsit once owned by Caw Eh Carve.  The furnishings were different, though in the same dreary time-worn fashion of all of Railsea.  Bruce’s wings here were even more impressive steampunk versions of themselves.  All brass with gauges and dials looking more at home on a steam engine with details picked out in gold gilt and glossy black.  He was about to protest their gaudiness when the front door opened and a hairy man dressed only in a bath towel entered the bedsit.

“What?  Do you mind?” He asked, grasping his defensive towel with one hand, looking around him for a weapon for the other.  

Algernon raised his crossbow in readiness.

“Yes we do,” Peggy blustered, pushing passed him and through the front door, “Propriety sir!”

“Sorry to have disturbed you, “ Bruce acknowledged the man’s genuine complaint, “We’ll be on our way.”

They were back, walking down the street of Bollons, smelling the dust in the air, taking in the industrious human activity amid a dessicated world. Above, the sky was a thick grey covering of cloud that unlike Seattle, never lifted.  From vantage points around the city, a sea of sand surrounded Bollons,  crisscrossed by train-track, creating random geometric shapes out to the horizon—the Railsea.

“Oi!” A voice yelled.  Rain turned to Algernon.

“Know anyone called, Oi?” As they slowly turned to see an artist drop his paint pots and run across the road and into an alleyway.  Giving chase were the yellers, three Manihiki Ferro-Naval officers who seemed to have taken offence of the artist’s work. Walking back to the mural, for it was too large and detailed a work to be called graffiti.  All one side of a building had been bisected laterally the top painted the same grey-green as the sky, the bottom the unique yellow-brown of the sand around Bollons.  To the left, a shape was blocked out ready to paint in the details.  The text on the sign was obvious for all to read.

Almighty Bruce

“Like the movie?” Rain asked as the four of them stared amazed at the mural, “Or was that the other way around?”

“What is this?” Bruce asked, feeling very exposed.

“Your past exploits?” Peggy suggested, “You did capture the Dreaming Sable.”

“Harpooned, he never caught it.” Algernon corrected, “Though that shape to the left looks like it could be a moldywarp diving into the sand.”

“Why would they take offence at that?” Peggy asked, referring to the Naval officers well out of sight.

“It has to be a recent development,” Rain dredged up what he knew of Railsea history, “There’s no historical significance that I can gather.”  

He looked around them as the party studied the mural for more details.  People in the street were giving the mural, and them, a wide berth.  It seemed it was dangerous to take an interest in the Almighty Bruce.  The wide berth didn’t stop Bruce himself, reaching out and grappling a passing stranger.

“What’s this?” He asked again, as the shock had robbed him of speech.  

“I don’t know, a picture,” He replied, a smug little grin on his face.

“My friend means, why would the Ferro-navy take offence at this mural?” Rain supplied the required context.

“Oh!  Bruce has been kicking their arses all over!”  He chortled, then caught himself and glanced around them to see who’d noticed.

“So who is he, a Captain?” Rain asked and was rewarded with a dismissive look from the stranger.  There was a disconnect. Bruce wasn’t a train Captain, but then who? Or what?

“You’ve been such a helpful fella, what if I buy you a drink and you can tell us all about it?” Rain suggested, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Er…if it’s all the same, I’d rather go…”

“I really do Suggest you join us for a drink,” Rain pushed, but was stopped by a familiar heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Let him go,” Bruce said simply.

“But, oh very well…” Rain grumbled and turned back to the man, “Thank you for your time, you have been very helpful.”  The man’s eyes cleared of the Suggestion and scuttled away, confused and bewildered.

Algernon, unrestrained, walked up to another random person and scanned their thoughts,

“Hello, who’s Bruce?” He asked, pointing to the mural.

Bruce, odd name for a fella, Thought the woman, who verbally apologised and also scampered away.

“Not a person,” Algernon informed the group.

“Well, we can find out all that later,” Peggy finally said once it was clear there was little more to gather from the mural, “I need new clothes, let’s got to the market and we can ask there.”

The Bollons markets were the heart of Bollons itself with anything and everything on sale, even rumours.  Here Peggy found the first pair of pant that she thought may fit and asked to buy them.  It was a rare, but not unheard of thing for a woman to go around in men’s clothes and Peggy’s money was as good as the next gentleman’s.  Rain was a little more choosy and wove in and out of the clothing stalls until he felt suitably dressed and the party had heard several different versions of the legend that was the Almighty Bruce.

“Fight the power!   Almighty Bruce!” One shopkeeper proclaimed a little loudly and scared himself, checking who had heard and ducking back into his clothing racks, “Yes, the captain was a deserter from the Ferro-Navy.  He found himself a train out on the Railsea and liberated the tiny mining community of Omoka.  Almighty Bruce has been hunting the  Ferro-Navy trains ever since.”

“Regardless of what you think of him, he never forgot you,” Rain said quietly, as he adjusted the fit of a worn but serviceable gold and brown silk striped vest. From a stand, he snatched up a yellow silk scarf and tied it loosely like an ascot around his neck. 

Bruce glanced back as Rain completed his dressing with a long blonde frock coat that had seen better days, “There’s nothing to say that it’s him.”

“Your unusual name and him being a navy deserter says it is,” Rain murmured back and went to pay.

“Anything else we should know?” Bruce asked the stall owner.

“Nothing really, just don’t mention the Bruce around the Navy.” The stall owner added unhelpfully.

Omoka was north-west of Manihiki.  The group would need to take passage on one of the trains heading north to find the Almighty Bruce, her Captain and hopefully Jimmy Johnson.

“We need to get on a Navy train,” Algernon stated adamantly.  If the Bruce were attacking Navy vessels, they could do worse than book passage on one.

“Yes, let them come to us,” Rain said as Bruce shook his head.

“That’s the hard way. I want to know more about this Captain first.”

“To the rumourmarket then, “ Rain clapped his hands together and led the way.

The rumourmarket of Bollons was famous.  It was a great place to find out information, but more importantly, it was a place where information could be disseminated and spread.  As they walked, they prepared a little rumour of their own, so when Bruce and Rain discussed terms with the rumour mongers, they had something with which to barter.

“Good day, I’m looking for information on the Captain of the Almighty Bruce,” Rain announced to the rumourmonger, “I have a trade, information pertaining to the Captain’s son.”

“The son of the Captain of the Almighty Bruce?” She said in disbelief, “I have to hear this so, for what little I know, you’ve got a deal.”  

They moved through the rumourmarket talking to every rumourmonger they could.  In exchange for whatever snippet they could offer, Rain and Bruce told them, “The Captain’s son is on his way to Manihiki.”

They came away knowing less for certain about the Captain than they had previously.  No one in the rumour market knew the Captain’s name, though the story of him being a press-ganged deserter was by far the most common tale about the man.  One rumour had him as an old Naval Admiral seeking some personal revenge of his own.  The most ludicrous was that there was no Almighty Bruce and that it was, in fact, a Ferro-Navy conspiracy to raise money.  

They were heading back through the market when they spied four Ferro Navy Officers heading in their direction. 

“These damn stupid wings,” Bruce said as he realised they had been spotted by the brass wings glittering on his back, “They’re too flamboyant for this.”

“Nonsense,” Rain smiled and stepped up to greet the officers, “ There’s no such thing as too flamboyant.”

“Gentlemen, what can we do for you today?”

“What do you know about the son of a certain Captain?” One demanded, obviously seen as the most intimidating of the four.

“Captain?” Rain asked

“Captain who?” Bruce added hoping these log-heads would drop that snippet of information to show how clevers they were.  

“You’ve been sharing a rumour about his son all over the market, what else do you know?” The officer flexed.  Yes, these officers were used to bullying people for what they wanted.

“Oh, the rumour wasn’t that we knew the son, the rumour is that the son is heading for Manihiki,” Rain explained as if it were all a simple misunderstanding.  

“Huh,” The officer grunted and looked to his fellow navy men for help, “Know any more?”

“‘Fraid not, gentleman, that’s what brought us to the rumour market in the first place.”

The four officer’s seemed to deflate at the news.  Their hot tip had turned cold.

“Uh…if you hear anything, we’d appreciate it if you could let the Navy know,”

“Anyone we could get in contact with? Maybe someone we can put in a good word for “…four upstanding officers…” of the Ferro Navy?” Rain asked, and received the name of an Admiral As Lac Grel as well as the calling card for the most talkative of the four officers, Ro Ban Ottmer.  Offering their best of luck, Rain and Bruce headed back through the market sure that if they saw those officers again, it would be too soon.

Peggy and Algernon were also busy.  Peggy was going from bar to bar talking for train Captains heading to Manihiki and seeing if they were interested in hiring-on.  It was true that Peggy was a first-rate engineer and Algernon and Bruce had more than proven their skills as gunners, but Rain’s talents were always harder to define.  She offered Rain’s services as a general hand.

Algernon was scanning the stalls for cyphers as usual.  Looking carefully through the offerings, he could feel the presence of the Strange on the items that didn’t belong and were hiding in plain sight.  He was offered a potion by a  stall keeper, didn’t think much of it and moved on.  At another stall, he found a handle which he identified quickly as a monoblade, a collar which seemed to change its wearer’s appearance and an odd block that he discovered was a salve with healing properties.  The first two, he paid the asking price and was able to get the third for free.  Algernon walked away, feeling he’d won the trade game and found the others as Peggy was sharing what she had organised with Bruce and Rain.

“General hand, I’m not a general anything,” Rain grumbled.  Peggy ignored his protests and continued.

“The train is the Gliding Vulpine, a diesel heading out tomorrow morning.  The captain’s name is Al Ram Kuno and has agreed to take us on as crew in exchange for transport, food and board.”

“We’re not getting paid?  You alone are worth more than transport,” Algernon said to Peggy as he stowed his treasures in a hessian haversack referring to her knack at improving engine performance.

“Yes, well I’d do it anyway, but this way I have permission,” She replied looking forward to getting her hands on the inner workings of the Gliding Vulpine.

That night they found lodging at one of the taverns and early the next morning they were down at the dock boarding the Gliding Vulpine.  Bruce and Algernon were surprised to discover that though the train was equipt with ballista, they were the only gunners.

“We’re a trading vessel, we usually don’t need heavy defences,” Captain Al Ram Kuno replied smoothly.  Knowing the dangers of the Railsea, Algernon wasn’t so sure.  A quick investigation of the gunnery deck soon proved his suspicions.  Though the deck itself was neatly scrubbed and train-shape, they’d missed dried blood left in the cracks and seams of the carriage roof. The Gliding Lupine had undoubtedly come across some adventure.  Algernon and Bruce organised their shifts to ensure they wouldn’t become the next blood smear.

Peggy went straight down to the engine, greeted the current engineering staff with a nodd and got to work even before the train had left the dock.  Rain alone slunk around the train, dodging work until the Captain spotted him and put him on as switcher.  The speed and timing required to shift the train onto a new track amused Rain as did being at the helm beside the Captain as decisions of navigation were made through the wild tangle of the Railsea.  

The group’s first day onboard was uneventful.  Getting used to the train layout and its crew idiosyncrasies kept them busy for the most part.  Bruce made a point of feeling out the crew and Captain about the Almighty Bruce and the Ferro Navy.  The crew, in general, were ambivalent about the Ferro navy and its dealings. Most felt that it was best not to get involved with whatever the Navy considered its duty.  The Captain, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for the Ferro-navy.

“They keep the Railsea safe for honest traders such as ourselves,” He boasted, though Rain felt that was more because he paid for protection and had no fear of being attacked by the Navy.

The day slipped passed like the Railsea’s sands, and with the evening, Bruce found himself alone on the gunnery deck.  Now without the cumbersome wings, he felt at ease scanning the seemingly empty Railsea for signs of activity on the rails or below.  A soft shifting of sand, the appearance of bow wave as something large broke the surface.  Silently slipping through the sand beside the train, the velvety grey hide of a massive moldywarpe kept pace with the train.  Thirty metres long from nose to harpoon riddled rear the creature turned its eye on Bruce, and a blue spiral glow lit the night.  It was the Dreaming Sable!

“Mole Breech!” Bruce roared as he brought the trains Ballista about.  The Dreaming Sable rolled, the bolt flew wide of the mark and skittered away into the darkness.  With an economy of movement, the talpa swung into the train, shoulder checking the carriage Bruce now rode. Taking the opportunity, Bruce leapt from the train onto the mole itself.  His crowbar in hand, he used his forward momentum to smash it down onto the back of the mole.  

A roar from the mole broke the night as the train’s crew also scrambled to their posts.  Peggy was flung from her hammock and smashed into the bulkhead winding her as Algernon and Rain grabbed crossbow and the abandoned wings respectively.  As they climbed up on deck the mole attacked again, this time rolling into the train.  Algernon deftly made it to the gunnery deck, his jawbone crossbow ready as Bruce ran with the rolling mole keeping his footing for a second swing at the creature.  Rain leapt as the train jolted, rocketing into the night’s sky on brass wings as he watched Bruce now run along the spine of the beat to its head, the glowing eyes leading the way. Bringing the crowbar down between the creature’s glowing orbs, the mole rolled again and threw Bruce from its back, into the darkness of the sands.  This time, the roll derailed the carriage dragging the engine with it.  

Rain could only watch as he saw first Bruce and then the Captain and helmsman thrown into the night. It was no contest. Bruce needed to get off the exposed sand and back to the mole.  With a thought, he tilted forward, and the wings took him out across the sand to where Bruce was already picking himself up.

“Here, take the wings, why you weren’t wearing them I’ll never know,” He complained already unbuckling as he landed.  The sand below their feet shifted and rumbled ominously.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Bruce acknowledged his friend’s gesture but stayed Rain’s hands on the buckles with his own.

“Well, then…” Through the touch, Rain pushed the Strange to Bruce making the big man gasp, “Hit the thing from me!”   Energised, Bruce raced across the tracks towards the mole as Rain shot back into the air and out to where the Captain and helmsman had fallen. 

Back on the train, Algernon focused the Strange on the Dreaming Sable’s wedge-shaped head.  The powers twisted and shifted the mole’s view of the world, distracting it and slowing it down.  Bruce caught up and climbed up the hill of a creature aiming for the head.  Through the cracks in the upturned carriage walls, Peggy focused her thoughts on the Dreaming Sable.  Understanding its weaknesses and feeling its proximity to the prone engine, she too drew the energies of the Strange to her and bided her time, waiting to make her strike.

Now the train had stopped, the mole took advantage of its fallen prey and rose into the air twenty feet before crashing down, breaking the back of the engine.  A cracking blue plasma arc snapped out of the carriage and connected the mole to the diesel engine.  Suffused with the blue webbing of energised gasses, creature and machine were bound together to the same fate.  The plasma found the fuel tanks.  A heavy thud, a flash of light, and the whole world shook with the explosion as the engine blew up under the mole’s massive body.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered and moaned, its end was nigh as Algernon and Bruce readied their attacks.

Out on the sand, the Captain and helmsman were running for their lives.  Drawn by the activity of the Dreaming Sable, humps in the sand glided in from all quarters.  Smaller mole rats, though still the size of Alsations grabbed and nipped at their boots.  From the air, Rain dove, snatching up the Captain and dragging him to the relative safety of the rails as the helmsman tripped and fell to the razor teeth of a dozen rodents, tearing him apart.  Rain screamed into the night as, at the train, Algernon and Bruce delivered their final blows.  Algernon’s bolt sank deep into the flesh of the beast now exposed by the explosion as Bruce, now back at the head of the beast delivered a mightly blow into one of the glowing spiral eyes.  A crack of bone, the crowbar sunk deep, breaking the creatures’s skull.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered, the blue glow from the eyes dulled and disappeared as the creature fell, the mountain of fur and flesh finally defeated.

“I am Mighty Bruce!” Bruce roared, from the head of the beast.  The sound of it echoed across the empty desert to where the Captain and Rain stood.  A reply rose from the stricken train, as the crew cheered the hero of the moment.  The Captain did not cheer, just scowled and started walking back to his fallen train, the horrified Rain on his heels.

The night was long, dirty and anxious as the crew got to work.  Under Peggy’s expert eye, half righting what was left of the train and returned it to the tracks.  The other half, overseen by Bruce and Algernon butchered the Dreaming Sable before it, and they, were food for lesser mole rats.  Peggy dolefully salvaged what she could from the engine, but it was a wreck only good for scrap.  The Captain awarded the kill to Bruce, asking Bruce to refrain from referring to himself as the ‘Mighty Bruce’. It didn’t matter, the crew all knew, and once they made landfall, it would be a moment’s work for the legend of the Mighty Bruce to spread.

As dawn rose over the Railsea, a few of the group spotted a very familiar red rag flapping in the morning breeze.

“Hey, that’s my flag, we’re near the old theatre,” Rain said, and Peggy’s demeanour improved considerably.

“Molly!”  She cried and scrambled out of the wreckage that had once been the Gliding Vulpine

“Molly?” Rain asked, sure they’d seen no one in the lost theatre but a couple of giants rats and spiders.

“The engine.  I called her Molly.” Peggy replied self-consciously.  She looked over the desert to the flapping red rag, “I wonder if we wrap a good heavy chain around the drive wheel if we couldn’t pull her out onto the rails…”

To be continued…

8: In the Shadow of the Crows

After following Caw Eh Carve to his apartment to retrieve a key to Crows Hollow, the group were confronted by a vision from Rain’s past, in the form of Elvin Lightfeather, a mafia heavy.  The group fled with most of their lives intact from Elvin Lightfeather and his goon through the streets of Bollons. Peggy was badly injured and needed a place to rest up before the group can move on.

    *      * *     * *  

Peggy winced and stumbled as they wormed their way through the crowds of the main street of Bollons.  Instinctively, Bruce stepped her side, supporting her and protecting her from the buffetting of the crowd.

“Where does it hurt?” 

“Where I was stabbed, “ Peggy replied in her usual curtness, now without the energy.  Shock was setting in.

“Okay…okay…okay…” Rain, a whirlwind of panic, threw the cloak from the phantom of the opera costume over Bruce, the hat he gave to Peggy and the mask to Algernon.  Bruce shrugged off his makeshift disguise in disgust.

“Oh, can I wear the cloak, I have to hide this thing.” Algernon pointed behind his back to the large crossbow.  The cloak was thrown over his shoulders and Rain sighed at Bruce standing out even in the crowd.

“Ah..We need a place to hold up for a while.” he looked around trying to see above the heads of the busy city at the shops and buildings, “I think there were some Inns closer to the docks, I”ll go see.”

“Do I need to hog-tie you to keep you with the group?” Bruce said stopping the little man in his tracks, “What if those guys find you and I’m not there?”

“I’ll go with him,” Algernon suggested, Bruce shook his head sternly. In the end they travelled together walking down the hill to the docks, Bruce supporting Peggy.

Even in a panic, Rain was aware of what he was looking for.  Somewhere that had rooms to rent but also a bar full of customers that wouldn’t notice them arriving and staff too busy to interfere.  Fortunately, with a few trains in at the docks that day, it didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. Rain paid for the room overnight and ushered everyone upstairs and behind the safety of wooden walls.  That done he collapsed into a corner, eyes closed and clutching his puzzle box to his chest.

As Peggy laid out on the only bed in the room, Bruce pulled out his first aid kit and went to work patching up the knife wounds inflicted by Lightfeather.

“Okay, so what’s our next move?”  Bruce asked when he’d finished, “Is there anything we need to do here or can we report back?”

“Yes, “ Rain whispered from the corner defeated, “We need to report back.  I can go without selling my rumour now.”

“No, “  Algernon spoke up, “ I want to see the rumour markets and talk to people in town.  Maybe there’s something we can find out before we leave.”

Waxen faced, Rain opened his eyes and looked up at his younger protege in surprise. 


“I think we need to go.”  Algernon held his gaze, and Rain gave a faint smile. 

“Ah…you’re becoming a bad influence.”

“Well, can we can go while Peggy rests up and Bruce stays with her.”  Algernon added looking to the other two for support.

“Right and how long do I wait before I have to leave here and come rescue your sorry asses.”  Bruce folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “You know they could be out there looking for you right now, they know Rain and may want to tie up loose ends.”

Rain slumped again clear he was now a liability to everyone.

“You don’t have to.  If we don’t come back translate with Peggy.  Rain and I can translate back by ourselves.”

“That’s not going to happen,”  Bruce shook his head, then stopped as what Algernon suggested sunk in, “Wait, could we do that?”

“Both Algernon and Peggy can initiate translations.  If we were to split up, that would make the most natural partnerships.”  Rain added from his corner with no real hope that it would help.

The discussion went backwards and forwards, but Algernon wouldn’t be put off the chance of seeing the town with the hope of finding out more about Lightfeather and Caw Eh Carve.  In the end it was settled that they would rest up overnight and all go as a group. At least that way if they were attacked they’d be together.

A cramped uncomfortable night eventually gave way to morning and the group started waking.  Without their favourite stimulant both Algernon and Rain were sluggish. Bruce suggested push ups and demonstrated by doing a few himself before giving the floor to someone else.  Rain wasn’t interested, but Algernon always ready to try something new, got down on his hands and attempted the push ups. Supported by locked arms he thrust his hips up and down in what he thought simulated Bruce’s movements.

“You have to bend your arms.  Press down onto the ground.” Bruce instructed and though the results were slightly better, of course it was harder to do.  Rain now stepped in with his putter, wrapping the shaft under Algernon’s chest he helped pull up, from above, but now he was straddling the thrusting Algernon in a pose that no one needed to see including the now rested Peggy.

“Peggy, “  Rain pulled her aside for a moment as the other two talk about morning exercises and quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m good now, thank you.” she replied in her usual curt way without humor or bitterness.

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?  For what?”

“Don’t mind him, he just feels guilty for a  misspent life.” butted in Bruce. He and Algernon had been listening in the whole time. “Nevermind Rain, remorse is the first step to redemption.”

“Well, it had never been a problem until now.”  Rain mumbled morsley.

“Was it misspent?  Did you live a deliberate life?”  she turned to Rain with her odd turn of phrase in complete sincerity.

“It’s been a very deliberate life so far.” he smiled, despite how he felt about her being injured, “It was pretty good at the time.”

“Did you throw a dagger at me?”

“He threw a dagger, but to try to save you.” Algernon added in defence.


“Then, you have nothing to be sorry about.”  she finished and left and headed down to the common room to find breakfast.

Breakfast was substantial with a bacon made of molemeat, eggs, beans and bread.  For those with more adventurous tastes there was also naked mole rat (of the standard size) on a stick.  Bubbling away on a stovetop, a black beverage drew both Algernon and Rain to it with little thought for anything else.  The Louisanna locals who regularly added chicory to their coffee knew the smell as soon as they hit the common room, but kept that knowledge to themselves until first Rain then Algernon complained about the quality of the coffee.

“That’s because it’s chicory and not coffee at all.”  Bruce replied enjoying their looks of dismay and disgust.

Rain forgot breakfast after that and talked to some of the bar’s customers who either hadn’t left from the night before or had come in for an early morning pick-me-ups.  From them he was able to glean the way to the rumour markets without too much problem.

“Okay, so if we’re doing this, we should agree to a set of safe words, so if those guys turn up at the market we can all run in the same direction.”

“Oh, I know about safe words, “ Algernon added with some of his research into Earth culture, “they use them in the porn films.”

Bruce and Peggy stopped and stared at the youth before them.  Peggy in particular looked shocked. Her stunned face moved from Algernon to Rain.

“Don’t look at me.  Yes its my laptop but….”  Peggy’s eyes narrowed, “I said, don’t look at me!”

“I was thinking more substitutions for left or right, or up and down as in the case of Bollons, as it’s all on a slope.”  Bruce moved the conversation back on topic much to Rain’s relief. “Maybe Canada and Mexico?”  

The discussion moved through several ideas from substitution to actual cardinal points or their mnemonic replacements.  Eventually it was brought down to simply warning of danger.

“Danger, Will Robinson!”  Algernon parroted from one of his many ‘documentaries’.   This was shortened to the name, Will Robinson.

“Will Robinson, is a good safe word.” Rain agreed when it was finally chosen,   ‘Oh look there’s Will Robinson.’ ‘Hi, my name is Will Robinson.’”

Fed and now equipped with a new safe word, the group headed into the morning streets to find the Rumour Markets.  Bollons was famous through Railsea for the Rumour Market that was only second to the Salvers markets on Scabbing Street, Manikiki.  Here salvers could buy and sell information about almost anything from prominent members of society, where good salvage could be found or where the molling grounds were abundant.  

Everyone came to the Rumour Markets at some time and even in the morning the place was full of foot traffic, carts of salvage and stalls all ready to sell.  Rain moved through the crowd looking for something specific. He ignored the first two tents that advertised rumours for sale and spotted a third. The tent was older and worn at the edges, but had an air of prosperity about it shown by the brightly painted sign and quality of the furniture.  The stall looked like it had been there a while and was doing well.

“Good morning, buy or sell?”  The owner greeted the group as they all tried squeezing into the tent.

“Trade actually.  I have information on a unique salvage site that has only just been uncovered.  In return, I’d like some information on some individuals in town.” Rain cleared his throat, now unsure he wanted to voice the next part of his spiel, “Tell me …do you have information on either a Caw Eh Carve or Elvin Lightfeather?”

The trader thought for a moment, 

“Eh Carve, I do.  Nothing about Lightfeather, but I’d be willing to give good currency to know what you know.”

“Hmm, how about a place called Crows Hollow or even stories about individuals travelling between worlds.”

At that the trader started, 

“Funny you should say that… crows, yes…but I don’t know what use it will be to you, though.”

Rain agreed and told the Rumourmonger about the theatre, it’s contents (showing the quality of the items found as worn by Algernon) and its location.  In kind the Rumourmonger gave Rain a small collection of copper and silver coins and the requested information.

“Caw Eh Carve arrived out of the blue a few months ago, no one seems to know from where.  With him he brought two things, money enough to get a broke Captain by the name of Alaventi back on the rails and his cargo of chalky blue rocks.  Where the rocks come from nobody knows but he pays well to have them shipped over Railsea. He has an apartment here in town, neighbours say that he can spend days in there when he’s here and keeps mostly to himself if he’s not here in the salvage markets looking for trinkets.” The Rumourmonger then coughed as if nervous to even take good money for the next piece of information.

“As for your crows…a drunk by the name of Gurf has been spreading a story about being transported to a world where crows walk around like men.  Where there are giant trees.” He gave a description of Gurf and where he usually hunts through trash for things to sell. “But surely that’s just a drunk’s fantasy.”

In return Rain gave a loose story of Elvin Lightfeather, saying he was a known organised crime figure from Manikiki instead of the truth that would not be believed anyway.  

As the group walked away, Rain sidled up beside Peggy.

“Crow people.  Could be important.”

“I don’t know.” she replied non committedly.

“If there are bird people there  could be fish people.”
“I never doubted it.” 

“One step closer?”

“I’ll have to see them to know.” she finally relented.

“Then crow people are important.”  Rain announced to the group, sounding more like himself again after this small success. 

“I want to look around the markets.” Algernon announced and Rain promptly handed over the small bag of coins he received from the Rumourmonger. The markets were array of all sorts of junk from familiar Earth garbage to unidentifiable items, even materials that were labeled Alt-salvage.  Of all bits and pieces on offer, Peggy was drawn to three items that seemed to have a touch of The Strange about them. 

The store owner had the three items on display in different corners of their shop.  The first was a plastic Jack-o-Lantern bucket which looked in remarkably good condition for being, as listed, arche-salvage and from the ancient past.  Another was an empty med-kit box, the third a signet ring with the symbol of crossed sword and hammer etched into it.

“I think these are recursion keys, simple ones.  Maybe one use.” Peggy commented almost to herself, but everyone including the store owner heard her.

“What did you call them?”  Asked the owner sensing a sale.

“Ah, slang from where we’re from.” Rain butted in as Bruce drew Peggy aside,  “Just one use simple trinkets, but she’s taken a liking so how much for the three?”

 “I’ll take a silver for the three, rare items those.” The store owner offered and Rain tried to counter offer without success.

“No really they’re obviously only worth 5 copper.”  Peggy barged back into the conversation annoyed at being left out. She planted five copper from her own money supplies onto the counter, “I have that.  You can take it or leave it.”

“Well if you say so, I trust your judgement.”  Rain encouraged her. A look came over her and she stared the store owner in the eye with a poise she rarely showed.

“As the lady says then, “ the storeowner grumbled and took the offered coppers, “Five coppers it is.”

The group took their treasures and headed for the dock, to hunt out the drunk called Gurf and see if there were any more details to his story.  He wasn’t hard to find, scavenging around in garbage behind one of the dockside pubs. Algernon went to the pub and bought a cheap bottle of whatever was on offer.  When he returned to the group it was confiscated by Bruce.

“You’re too young.” Bruce handed the bottle on to Rain. 

“Don’t worry about his puritanical leanings.” Rain commented, a cheeky glint in his eye,   “You have to remember they’re whole country had no alcohol for years, it’s a bit of a phobia for them.  You could always try with Keaton though, he’s not afraid of alcohol.” He walked away to talk to Gurf.

“No alcohol?  But how did they clean their wounds?” Algernon asked unsure of why someone would fear alcohol.

“You’re too young to drink it, buy it or possess it.  Do you know at your age it will actually hinder the growth of brain cells?”

“Drink it?”  Algernon seemed genuinely disgusted at the thought initially, but then his natural curiosity took over. “Why?”

“The moderate intake of ethanol lowers inhibitions which is usually  considered beneficial in some social settings.” Peggy commented interested in expanding Algernon’s knowledge of their world.

“Oh.  What’s it like?”

In the meantime, Rain had made contact with Gurf, gaining his attention by brandishing the Algernon’s bottle.

“Hi I’m Havel.  I understand you can tell some amazing stories about giant crows?”

The old bum,  lured by the offer of a drink, started at the mention of crows.

“I was…um… fossicking ‘ere… among the stuff they leave behind when I touched somethin’ and found myself in another place.  There were tall trees full of market stalls, a whole city. And the crows, giant crows walking around. Some of them saw me and chased me.  I hid and then… I was back here again.”

“You touched a thing, do you remember what it was?”


Rain looked at the bum critically, there was something missing from his story.  He handed over the bottle.

“You know I’m not the law or anything.  If there’s something about the story that you’re not proud of you can tell me, I won’t tell anyone.”

Gruf took a swig from the bottle, gathering some dutch courage and nodded his head sheepishly.

“Well yeah, there’s this dude called Eh Carve whose hardly home. I went by his place when I knew he wasn’t there and had a little look around.”

Rain nodded, this made more sense.
“And the thing you touched?”

“It was a pebble, a dumb stupid pebble with a clawed foot engraved on it.  I just touched it as I was reaching for a coin with a crow on it.”

“Good. And how did you get back from this other place, you were hiding and ….”

“That was it, I found myself back in the apartment and I ran out of there.”  Gruf looked past his bottle to the little man asking questions, “Do you believe me?”

“Let’s just say that it’s a great story.  Thank you Gruf, enjoy your drink.”

One last stop in Bollons, back to where it started at Caw Eh Carve’s apartment.  As they turned into his street Bruce noticed a suspicious looking character lurching outside the apartment building. He was new to the group, though his distinctive large hooked nose gave him an almost family resemblance to Caw Eh Carve,  Lightfeather and his goon. 

“Do you  think their noses look like beaks?” Algernon asked the group and Rain groaned.

“Uhh…Light-feather.  Caw eh Carve.”

“Oh no,” Peggy picked up on the connection,  “they’re all crow people.”

“They’re beaks must translate into large hooked noses.  Why didn’t we see that before?”

“Well do we talk to him or what?”  Bruce wanted to know, as standing in the middle of the street was getting them noticed.

“What if Peggy and I go around the back and wait for you and Rain to open the window.” Algernon suggested as Rain watched the guy noting his body language and posture.  

“Yeah, he’s just a bouncer.  We can get past him, eh Bruce?”

“It’s your show, do your thing.” he replied, readjusting his sledgehammer on his back in preparation.

“Don’t worry, “ Algernon added, “I’ll plug him full of lead if he looks like a threat.”

Rain with Bruce behind, walked confidently up to the man on  guard as if they had every right to be there.

“Mr Lightfeather sent us.  We need to get into the apartment.” Rain said quietly so only the guard and Bruce could hear.

“Huh, he never sent word.”  the guard replied. He wasn’t suspicious as yet, but he was certainly taking an interesting their story.

“Yeah, new information just in.  It seems it has something to do with that group that were working with Caw Eh Carve. We’ve been sent to let you know to keep an eye out and to let us in to look for clues.”  Rain’s patter fell on the guard and he shook it off uninterested.

“Yeah, yeah whatever.” he waved them both in.

Once inside and the window opened the group were reunited in the tiny apartment.  It looked no different. One room with a bed, a chest of draws, a small kitchenette with the cupboard door open from when Caw Eh Carve had searched for the key.

Peggy closed her eyes and used her other senses to ‘feel’ for signs of The Strange in the space. Nothing.  Algernon and Bruce used their eyes and searched everywhere for a pebble with a crow’s claw imprint or the coin but all they found were impressions in the dust where they had once lay.  There was nothing left for them there.

Now sure they’d tied up as many loose ends as they were likely to in the backwaters of Railsea, the group locked the door and window and formed their circle for translation.  For once Bruce did not argue the holding of hands as Peggy focused her thoughts on Earth and home.

The translation was swift and painless and they all found themselves back in Peggy’s old lab now empty and dark.  There was nothing to show how much time had past or they had been away at all.  

Rain and Algernon went straight to Lawrence Keaton’s office.  They quickly debriefed, informing him about the world linked to the mole rat skull and the shipments of Spiral Dust as chalky rock from a recursion called Crows Hollow. 

“We know of Crows Hollow.” Keaton informed them, “It is one of the older Earth-based recursions.  It is a society of crow people governed by a number of families, think of the mafia. Don Whitecliff is the head of the Drood family, one of the largest and most powerful families in Crows Hollow.”  

Rain laughed almost hysterically as he shook his head in disbelief.

“It is…interesting to discover that the Droods are caught up in all this.  The Lightfeather connection is a good lead. Well done.”

“So how do we take him out?”  Algernon, straight to the point sobered Rain and focused Keaton on him.

“You need more firepower than you currently have.”

“I’m pleased you mentioned that, I realise that an anti-tank gun….”
“You’re not getting an anti-tank gun.”

“So you said, but what about a crossbow?”

The question was such a departure from  what Keaton was expecting that he stopped and thought for a moment.

“Why a crossbow?”
“I got used to handling one out on the Railsea and I’d like to keep training with one here.”

“He did practise a lot while we were travelling to Bollons.” Rain added supportively.

“I guess.  I’ll write up permission for you to train with one here in the gun range.” Keaton started filling in a note to the master of arms. “Anything else you gentleman want?”

“Yes, several things.  Lightfeather is a figure from my past that I would be interested in knowing more about.  Please, and yes I am asking, please could I have access to any records on Lightfeather and his operations?”

“Yes, I think that would be appropriate, you said several things?”

Rain looked at Algernon and took a breath.

“While we were out in Railsea the other three, Algernon, Bruce and Peggy, all displayed extraordinary powers all linked to The Strange.”  Rain said quickly as if ripping the bandages from a wound. “Does the Estate know about such…abilities amongst those who are awakened”

Keaton sat back in his chair and watched Rain for a moment, 

“Just the other three.”
“Yes.”  Rain replied curtly sure he’d shown a weakness to this Keaton he may come to regret.

“You must understand that those who are awakened are a very small number.  But it has been noted in those rare individuals, that overtime they gain…an affinity with The Strange that allows them to do some amazing things.”

“I would like to study all The Estate has on those powers if I may?”

“Certainly.  You’ll want to talk the Hertzfeld about that.”  Rain nodded and Keaton made a note, “There was something else?”

“You said you’d looked into pay for Algernon and myself?”  Rain replied somewhat more cherrily at the prospects of being liquid again.

“Ah yes.”  Keaton got up and went to a small safe he had inside a cupboard.  From it he withdrew two slim envelopes, “The boffins in admin put their heads together and made you both bank accounts in false names.  It seems word of you two has got around as they thought it all highly amusing.”  

He came back and handed one envelope to Algernon labelled Bank account:  Fred Weasley and the other to Rain with a label, Bank account: George Weasley.  Rain just laughed as Algernon looked up the significance of the names on his smartphone.  Inside was a bank receipt for several thousand dollars (their pays to that date) and a debit card.

“I see us more as Kanada and Tetsuo, but I’ve never worked out which one of us is which.  It seems to change.” Rain commented referencing Algernon’s favourite ‘documentary’, Akira.

“Yes, “  Algernon replied looking thoughtful, “those names do seem more suitable.”

“Now if there’s nothing else, “ Keaton moved around the table to usher the two out of his office, but Algernon had one more request.

“I understand you could offer an alcoholic beverage.”

Keaton looked to from the innocently looking young man to the smiling silent crook beside him with a meaningful glare. 
“I’m sorry Algernon, regardless of what you’ve been told, you’re a little young for hard liquor.”
“I’m 15.” Algernon retorted frustrated by his lack of years and how much it meant.

“Sorry, too young sonny.”  Keaton patted his head patronisingly and Rain could only shrug his shoulders.

“I’ll come back then.  In a few days?”

“Try a few years.”

At about the same time Bruce had made his way to Katherine Manners’ office and was having a similar debrief with her.

“….if seems that Lightfeather is known to Rain, some sort of mafia connection.” Bruce concluded, “And now we’re back.  Is there anything that we should be doing now? Any Advice on what to do about Crows Hollow and Lightfeather?”

“I think my advice at this time is to step back.  Crows Hollow and Alvin Lightfeather aren’t going anywhere. Earthside, you have a few loose ends to tie up.  The individual you call the Cowboy is still loose and unidentified and the cameras your group set up at the docks are still in operation.  Though that smuggling route has been closed down there are undoubtedly many more. If that is not enough to keep you busy I do have other tasks.”

“I guess there’d been a backlog of footage from those cameras after a ten days in Railsea.”  Bruce replied thoughtfully at all there was still to do. 

“Ten?  You’ve only been gone four. Don’t worry about it, it’s a hazard of translations. Not all recursions time flows the same as here.”

“You mentioned other tasks?”  Bruce changed the subject quickly, sure heard such disturbing talk from the others.  

“Yes…” she referred to notes in front of her, “Liza Banks, our Chief of Public Relations,  would like some staff to give a Morrison Fellowship prize to a surprising young woman called Gwendolyn Wurtz.  It seems she’s able to power a smartphone through only body heat.”

“Oh…?” Bruce replied a little confused.  He wasn’t sure how doing a public relations job would keep the world safe.

“We do this from time to time when The Estate comes across unusual stories .  The Morrison Fellowship is a cover that allows us to go in and investigate. You’re to make sure Gwendolyn’s discovery is what it claims to be and not the result of a cipher or some other world interference.”

Bruce nodded, now understanding a little more the importance of The Estate for world safely.

“Before I go I wanted to ask about the story we got from the drunk, Gurf?  It seems when he touched the stone he was temporarily transported to Crows Hollow.  I seems the stone was a one use key that then teleported him back.”

“Yes, that was an interesting point in your story.  Please remember to put that into your report.”

“Oh, and I feel I need to report that Algernon is trying to get himself drunk.”  Bruce added as a passing thought as he stood to leave.

“Young men and their idle thoughts.”  Katherine shook her head and saw Bruce out.

7. New and Old Business

The group, finding themselves in the deserts of Railsea, walk towards black smoke on the horizon and are rescued by The Limness, a moling train out of Bollons.  Things are looking up as their target, Caw Eh Carve, is a valued passenger aboard.  After giving directions to a fabulous black mole, the Captain welcomes the group to the Limness.

    *     * *    

Algernon spotted Captain Alavanti’s cabin boy and introduces himself.  Desperate not to let Algernon out of his sights and keen to learn the language of this new place, Rain follows along quietly.

Peggy followed the sounds of the engine down ladders into the darkened interior of the engine itself.  Black smoke meant leaking oil or insufficient burning of the fuel, either was inefficient and detrimental to other systems.

Bruce found himself alone on the top deck with the Captain wondering where everyone had gone.  

“Captain, need anything wrecked?”  Bruce asked hesitantly, unsure of the roleplay and lies the party had agreed.

The Captain looked the big man over and nodded sagely, 

“Let me introduce you to someone.”

Leading the way, Captain Alavanti walked back along the engine and down a ladder to the lower deck of the crew sleeping quarters.  Here the night shift were trying to sleep as others like the Captain and Bruce used the carriage as convenient passage to the rest of the train. From the second to the third carriage and up another ladder to stand on top  of the currently stationary train. Bruce looked around for the usual safety equipment he was familiar with from working on construction. Scaffolding, harness or something for the inevitable fall. Nothing but a wielded railing that looked like it could just about hold Algernon in place.  Walking along the top of the third carriage Bruce couldn’t help but hum the James Bond theme. Though the carriage roof was not flat but round and still swayed even when the train was still, he felt perfectly at ease and matched the Captain’s confident gait. They passed by two large crossbows that he was informed were ballistae.  Each was crewed by two heavily built characters whose job it would be to train their harpoon ladened ballista on whatever creature the Captain chose to pursuit. Right now, it was the Dreaming Sable.

The third ballista was crewed by only one strongly built woman with arms that rivaled Bruce’s own, covered in fine black tattoos.

“We lost someone a few days ago.  This is Taki, you’ll be with her while you’re on board.  Taki, this is Bruce. Show him the ropes.”

This is useless being parked up here –  this is not the job we’re here to do. Bruce thought to himself.  He looked at the contraption, a mix of metal, wood, rope and sinew and internally sighed.

“So, what do we shoot?”

“The …Mole.”  The Captain replied simply and left Bruce and Taki to get to it

Peggy had found the engine, a huge block of metal surrounded by two sets of stairs that lead down either side and in turn, were surrounded by a metal housing that was all that was visible from the outside.  It was twice her height and three times her length and accessed via attached running ladders on both sides.Here she found the engineer, a greasy runt of a man with an immaculately trimmed handlebar moustache.

“Engine burning low, why?”  She blurted out, her phrasing truncated from exhaustion from days of travel.


“You’re wasting twenty percent of your fuel as black smoke, I followed it for six miles across this mole infested place.”

The engineer shrugged, 

“Diesels are smokey.”  This response did nothing to improve her mood.

“Who are you?”  She demanded as she walked the engine taking note of everything that needed doing.  When she reached the front of the engine, she stopped and closed her eyes, just listening to the engine as it idled on the spot.  The little engineer, not use to the technobable, slouch along behind cowed.

Through the constant and unceasing clack and growl of the engine she could hear the irregular rhythm of the engine as each piston pumped in sequence.  There was a timing issue with one of the pistons. It would need a tuneup and that would mean turning off the engine completely.

“Follow me, apprentice.”  She beckoned and the engineer complied.

“Make a list.  Get permission for an overhaul, a day minimum.  Replace all oil and resump. Replace this….” she said pointing to something streaked with residue from broken seals.

“Replace with what?”  he replied looking completely dumbfounded, “Do the Captain look like he’s made of money?”

“Right, well then we’ll just do what we can.”  She turned back to the engine and contemplated her next move.

“Hi, Elvin El Fawhl, is the name, “ said the young man about Algernon’s age extending a grimy hand, “welcome aboard The Limness.”

“Thank you Elvin.”  Algernon replied politely then steered Elvin away from the  rest of the crew, “How long have you travelled with the Limness?”
“Oh, this is just my first trip out of Bollons, just a few months now.  What happened to your train?”

“It fell through some weak rail a ways back, “  Algernon replied falling into a similar pattern of speaking as Elvin. “The crew were attacked by mole rats, we were the only ones to survive.”

“Mole rats!  We get our fair share of moles too. Caught ourselves a smaller great southern only just last month, plenty of meat in the chiller carriage.  What was your train?”

“Um…er…merchant, “  Algernon was starting adlib now in earnest as he tried to fill in the gaps of their lie.  “Yeah, we had a load of fine costumes.”

“Fine costumes?  Who’d want that?”

Algernon shrugged, “Someone with money.”

“I bet they’d be going to Manikiki, that’s where all  the money is.” Elvin nodded sagely now the expert in this conversation.

As the two talked, Elvin good naturedly gave a guided tour of the train from engine to the third carriage looking back onto the fourth and last in the train.

“We stays clear of the fourth carriage unless we really need to.”

“Why that?”

“Dunno, before my time. Er, fancy a meal?  Mess will be open ‘bout now.”

As they walked back Algernon had got to the heart of the matter, 

“So as cabin boy, what are your duties?”
“Stuff for the Captain, sometimes the trains Doctor, sometimes for the passenger.”

“If I’m to help you maybe I should be introduced to the passenger, what’s his name?”

“Er…sure, he’s Mr Caw Eh Carve, nice enough, keeps to himself mind.”

“Does he disembark much when you get to town?”

“No, not really.  Mostly just stays on board.  That is when we’re not picking him up or dropping him off at his tiny island in the middle of the Railsea.”  Elvin dangled out that tidbit of gossip like some sensational secret.

Caw Eh Carve was in the mess, sitting alone when the three of them arrived and Elvin pointed him out.  He was a thin gentleman with an impressive hooked nose made even more prominent by the addition of a pince nez. He wore a waistcoat and long sleeve button up shirt and looked nothing like the Cowboy as confirmed by Kamn Sharn.  If anything he looked something like a fussy business man on an enforced holiday.

Algernon steps up to Caw Eh Carve’s table, 

“My name is Algernon, I’m here to be your cabin boy.  It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”  

Rain gave an audible groan.  He’d had a plan for confronting Caw Eh Carve and now he was seeing the result of not sharing that plan.  With a defeated look, he sat down with a group of train’s crew and with his newly acquired Railcreole chatted to the like a native.

Bruce on the top deck of the third carriage was wondering how long until break.

“What do you do for a meal or a drink up here?” he asked Taki who, he had found out, was a woman of few words. She opened up a small compartment meant to for storing rope, spare bolts or harpoons and tools for the ballista.  Here she had stowed a bottle of warm cloudy-water and a few snacks from the mess. Bruce eyed the water, figured it was no worse than he’d had on other building sites and took a swig. It tasted of barrel but otherwise hit the spot.  Now he realised there were other bodily needs that were pressing.

“How about the facilities?”

She replied with a gesture to a patch of the roof where the railing was missing and a sturdy pole had been welded.  It seemed that the pole was a safety feature.

“Right.”  Bruce nodded and sat back down.

Rain was feeling better about chatting with the crew.  Once he’d opened them up, the crew were full of gossip about their infamous passenger.  It seemed that Caw was a regular on the Limness and the Captain often called in at the little rock island of his to drop him off with a load of cargo or to pick him up empty handed.  Though the crew were clear that moling was good money, they were sure that it wasn’t enough for the sort of travelling the Captain could afford and gossiped about whether the Captain was in on whatever Caw was.  They were also very informative as to why no one travelled on the fourth carriage.

“Ah well, see the Captain makes Eh Carve put his luggage there don’t he.” said one of the master butchers hired by the Limness to deal with the molemeat and make it ready for sale. “After last time, hey boys?”

There was general laughter and they all fell over each other to tell the tale how the Captains philosophy, the Dreaming Sable, was particularly fond of whatever is in Caw Eh Carve luggage and nearly wiped out the whole train trying to get access.

“Now we leaves it at the back of the train, less likely to derail the whole thing if the talpa gets a hankering.”

They also had a lot to say about almost anything.  Rain, by training, was a good listener and encourage talk on all subjects including the myths and legends, the gods and above all the Godsquabble that had created the Railsea.  Two gods particular caught Rain’s attention as they were described. The first and greatest of the gods was That Apt Ohn, a fat man dressed in black with a chimney stack for a hat.  The other was Rail-Hater Beeching. As the two gods were introduced, Rain smile widened as he realised the first was a clear description of the Fat controller from the Thomas the Tank Engine books he’d read as a child.  The other was a real person who had been infamous for closing down a lot of smaller lines all throughout Great Britain in an attempt to nationalise the Rail. Instantly Rain burst into a ditty:

Oh Doctor Beeching,

What have you done.

There once were lots of trains to catch, 

But soon there will be none.

I have to buy  a bike for I can’t afford  car

Oh Doctor Beeching what a Naughty Man you are!

Silence followed his song as it sunk in that the new chap has just called one of their gods a ‘naughty man’.  Taking the hint, Rain left the table and join Algernon with Caw Eh Carve.  Algernon applauded loudly at this sudden and surprising little song from his friend. It was the first time he’d heard live music and encouraged Rain to continue.

“Play it again!” he said as Rain slunk into the seat beside him.

“Maybe later.” Rain replied sotto voce, before turning to Eh Carve now all business.  

“I see you’ve been talking to my associate, that’s good Mr Eh Carve, because we have quite a few things in common.”  From his coat pocket, Rain pulled out his puzzle box and opened it to the only compartment that he could. It was full to the brim was a sparkling blue dust.

“So. You didn’t get that off me.”  Eh Carve bluffed.

“Sure we did, Kamn Sharn was so very helpful.  You see we took all that was left, and we took over the warehouse and we now own the other side of your little venture.”  Rain gestured to the dust and put it away, the impression made.

“You come here threatening me…” Caw Eh Carve started shouting getting the attention of the crew still in the mess.  Rain held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. 

“Never threaten, not I.  I want to give you…advice.  My Earth does not need this stuff and so my advice to you is that you move on and pursue…other markets.  You are a well travelled gentleman, you must know of other places?”

His words had the desired effect and Caw Eh Carve seemed to deflate a little where he sat.  Now it was his turn to be conciliatory.

“Be reasonable.  Surely we can come to some arrangement.  I have a person I need to keep happy.”

Rain zeroed in on this.  Another person, someone bad enough to scare Eh Carve?

“What if that person wasn’t a problem.  We are also pursuing a murderer. Now I believe, Mr Eh Carve, that is not you.”

Caw licked his lips nervously as he weighed up what he had been told in the last few minutes. 

“I don’t think you realise what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Maybe, but surely that is up to myself and my associates to decide?”  Rain leaned back, he had his fish was just reeling him in. “Rest assured, Mr Eh Carve, we control the globe and the skull, you will no longer be doing business in my Earth.”

The silence between the two of them was physical.  Rain held the other man’s gaze with the full confidence of someone who had no idea of the consequences.  Eventually, Caw Eh Carve relented, taking off his pince nez to clean them on his sleeve.

“Don Whitecliff at Crows Hollow.  But I didn’t tell you.” He finally whispered low and painfully, like pulling a thorn from a deep wound.

“And Crows Hollow, where is it?  Here or…” he left it hanging unsure what talk of different worlds would mean to the crew.  Caw Eh Carve said nothing, but gave a withering expression to show that whatever Railsea was, it was not where people that frighten Caw Eh Carve lived.

“No, not here. Very well Mr Eh Carve.  I knew you could be a reasonable man.” Rain got up to leave Eh Carve when a cry echoed across the train.

“MOLE BREECH!” The cry filled the whole train and was repeated from mouth to mouth along its length.  The mole had been spotted! It’s breached! All hands on deck!”

Taki jumped up from her resting place leaning against the ballista and searched the sand either side of the track ahead.  Bruce stood up too in time to see the massive mountain of beast fall from breech to crash into the sand one side of the line, dive under and pop back up the other side.  It was in line with the train now and moving fast. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Bruce could see along the creatures flanks a line of harpoons broken, spears and trailing rope from previous altercations.

“How often have you shot this thing?”  Bruce asked trying to determine the best spot to hit the beast to have the most effect.  

“A few.  One time he pulled a ballista clear off the train.”  Taki tapped the bolts and metal plate holding the ballista in place. “But the Captain, must have his philosophy.”


“I took you for a seasoned hand.  First time on the rails? Sheltered life?  The beast that gives the Captain’s life purpose.”

“Star’b!” A call from the Captain rang out over the ship and the train clattered across the switched in pursuit of the Dreaming Sable.

“Maybe we should aim for a soft target, like the face or maybe an eye.” Bruce mused as the creature leaped once more out of the sand 100 yards off beside the train.  It was heading straight for the last carriage. From his view on the third, Bruce couldn’t see the face, but another soft target was presenting itself.

Between the two of them, Bruce and Taki moved the ballista around until it lined up with the creatures behind.

“Come on you bastard, I want to take your temperature!”  Bruce roared as the ratchet was released and the limbs threw the harpoon straight and true.

“Bullseye!”  Burce cheered followed similar cries all over the train.  The beast was harpooned!

In response, the mole arched skywards.  As it fell it brought its entire weight down on the last carriage.  The train shuddered and rolled and the squeal of tearing metal could be heard.  Tossed sideways, Bruce lost footing on the carriage roof and was saved from being thrown off completely by grabbing the piss-poll.  Tika stumbled but also righted herself as she looked back to Bruce.

“Yeeha!”  Bruce cried again, swinging back on the carriage as the train tacked again.

“Port!  Port!” Came the cries over the train, once more the clatter of switches and the harpoons were back in range again.  None too soon as the ballista assembly groaned and yawed sideways under the strain of the beast and finally…

SNAP!  Like a gunshot the metal gave way and the harpoon and its ballista sailed through the air towards the monster.

Like a flash Bruce ran back up the train to the next ballista.  Its crew had difficulties in bringing the ballista to bear the first time the beast was in range.  Now, with four of them, they pulled it into place . The sable now free of the line rummaged in the fourth carriage for the luggage as Bruce released the ratchet.  The aim this time was a little off. The harpoon penetrated the skin on the flank but couldn’t burrow deep into flesh to hold and was quickly broken off. The line dropped and the talpa, its prize of crates in its mouth, flipped and dove directly down, back into the depth.

Inside the train, the few crew and the train’s passengers picked themselves up and assessed their bruises.  No one was badly injured, though from the look on Caw Eh Carve face, he had taken a fatal blow. He looked out blankly at what was left of the last carriage as the train pulled up alongside.  

“I guess that’s where your stock was kept, Mr Eh Carve.”  Rain commented making the connections.

“What makes you say that?”  Eh Carve vainly tried to bluff again the con man, more out of habit.

“Something the crew said.  The mole has a taste for your wares, this venture was not going to last long with those sort of loses.  You need us to deal with… your employer, if only to give you a chance to find another business.”

Caw Eh Carve said nothing but stare at the passive faced little man and then back at the ruin of this spiral dust empire.  

While the last carriage was assessed and hauled back onto the rail, news of Peggy working on the now silent engines had started spreading through the crew.  Opinions were mixed, but it was said the bullied engineer was abusing her name and praising her knowledge in a single breath which impressed many that heard him.

“Should we let Doc Peggy work on the engine?”  Algernon pulled Rain aside as the crew made themselves busy getting the Limness train-shape for travel.

“I don’t know anything about engines, better her…” Rain shrugged, just glad to have a moment to talk to his young associate.

“But we’ll end up going through a portal!” 

“I don’t think that’s likely here,“ he smiled relieved that Algernon’s fears were all the old reliable ones.  He changed the subject, “While I have your attention, when were you going to tell your bro’ about all these powers?”

Rain may have dropped the subject for the sake of survival, but he’d not forgotten that everyone in the party, to the exclusion of himself, had only the day before manifested superhuman powers.  It particularly galled him that Algernon, what he considered his partner against bureaucracy and mediocrity, had not once mentioned his theories.

“I…I’m sorry…”

“Like I know the word brother couldn’t possibly mean the same to you as it does to…”

“I wanted to…”

“And you talk to Peggy first?  You? I should at least be happy it wasn’t Bruce!”

“I was hoping she could help me work it out my theory.”

“Well, when we get back, we’re going to work it out.” Rain looked pointedly at Algernon who nodded wholeheartedly.

“It’s part of what we all do, even you.”  Algernon insisted, but was only acknowledged by the slow sad shake of Rain’s head.

“No, no Algernon.”  he held up his slender clever hands as if to demonstrate, “Nothing, nada.  It’s very nice of you to say, but don’t think I haven’t tried?”

The exploits of the new ballista crew member swept through the train as was the fact that the Captain himself was very pleased with the skill and commitment the recently trainwrecked, Bruce had shown in the hunt.  While the train lay idle on the tracks as part of Peggy’s stellar repairs, the Captain welcomed Bruce and Peggy, as well as their other associated to his dinner table that night. It was a small affair, the Captain, the four companions and Caw Eh Carve, quiet and withdrawn over his meal.

“With all your good work on the engine we’ll be ready to limp back to Bollons by the morning, eh Engineer Peggy?”  Captain Alavanti tried drawing the preoccupied scientist into conversation.

“Hmmm, yes.  I was wondering if you wouldn’t be interested in a duel engine system for future travel.  Crew could do repairs as required while still maintaining at least half power.” Peggy had been putting her sizable brains to the problem of keeping a training moving while also keeping up her heavy maintenance schedule.

“Duel engines!  Why I never…” the Captain replied flabbergasted.  And that was the problem, there were very few people in this world that ever thought outside of their preprogrammed existence.  It made Rain think of the difference between those with the spark who could travel The Strange, and those without. He turned to speak quietly to Eh Carve.

“You are well travelled man, I wonder what do you know about the awakened?” 

“Not much.  The awakened are more myth than fact.”

“So you’d have no information on spiral dust and its effects on the awakened?”

Caw Eh Carve looked up at Rain silently reassessing the little man.

“Toast.  To a brilliant shot and may there be many more until that black rogue is finally caught!” the Captain stood and raised his glass of rum.  The rest of the party did likewise. 

“I bet he’ll feel that one in the morning.”  Bruce added enjoying his new found celebrity.

“What we need sir is a stronger cable, maybe chain?” the Captain mused as they sat back down, now talking about his favourite subject.

“With all due respect sir, it wasn’t the line that gave way, but the wielding holding the ballista to the carriage.  What we need is to figure out some way of hurting it.”

Rain handed Bruce the Spying grenade, 

“That has an explosive. Not much, but get it in the right place…”

“What about that other cipher, the freezing one.” Bruce looked to Algernon who pulled out a small cipher that when connected to ammunition caused a cold effect.

“We could freeze it’s nuts off with that.” Bruce proclaimed making the Captain laugh.

“When the beast comes at us head on, you won’t know what to shoot, sir.”  Which made the table laugh, except for Eh Carve who silently drank his rum.

“Excuse me Captain,” Algernon interrupted, “the crew mentioned this was not the first time the Dreaming Sable had gone for the cargo.”

The Captain lost his jolly glow and glanced at Caw Eh Carve  nervously.

“Ah, that is correct.  We needed to move the goods to protect the train.”

“Does the creature hang around the source?”  

Now the Captain looked perplexed, 

“The source…?”

Rain made an intuitive leap, 

“Another recursion?” he suggested to Caw Eh Carve who replied with two words.
“Crows Hollow.”

“You speak plainly enough, but I can not make sense of your meaning.”  the Captain said and Rain turned back to the Captain, topping up both Eh Carve’s and the Captains rum.

“As I said when we first met Captain, fortune was indeed smiling on both me and Mr Eh Carve when you stopped to pick us up, we have much in common.”

Eh Carve scoffed and drained his glass.

Algernon also swigging down the rum was almost bursting with an idea and once again engaged with the Captain.

“Sir, on the …island I come from we attach large hooks to chains, baited with meat.  These we throw out into the sands and draw back, in the hopes of attracting a mole to our line.  This we also call moling. If we were to scale up the process, possibly use some of Mr Eh Carve product as bait…?”

“What and interesting thought!  What do you say Caw, how much would it cost to get some of your stock?” 

“Cost is not the issue sir, it is getting new supplies.” Eh Carve replied now more than a little drunk.

“Eh-Carve, are you really going back to Crows Hollow?” Rain asked again quietly once the talk moved back to the mechanics of fishing for the Dreaming Sable.  

“I’m thinking of looking for another place.”
“Probably wise.  Your key, could I take it off your hands?”

Caw Eh Carve shook his head in disbelief and laughed,

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into but, sure you can have the key.”

The limping trip to Bollons took less than a week in which the companions entrench themselves into life on the Limness.  Peggy spent her time on the engine for which she was showing her usual focus and ingenuity. Algernon spent time on the top deck of the carriages in crossbow practice,  shooting and whatever he could spot. Sometimes Rain would hang out here and at those time Algernon noted that the conman did not show any of his nervousness around the crossbow as he did with the gun.  As for Rain, he spent a lot of time with the crew learning and teaching railshanties. His Beeching ditty had taken on a notoriety among the crew who were not as strictly religious and they were keen to learn more.

Railsea Shanty

(Bound for Botany Bay)

Alavanti, is our gracious Captain, 

There’s the first mate and all the train’s crew

There’s Eh Carve and any train passengers

What will us poor trainwrecks go through.


Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Shrae

Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak

We follow the molin’ rail.

Dreamin’ Sable, the Captain’s philosophy, 

Will make all the Limness Crew proud.

When they catch it and take it back westward,

To ac-o-lades and great renown.


Miss Peggy she works on the engine,

Making it work smooth and slick.

She won’t care a toss for your favours, 

And she knows how to land a good kick.


Algie’s a crack shot on crossbow,

And Bruce smashes giant rats blind.

Havel can chat up wholesalers, 

Gaining best deals for mole meat you’ll find.

Bruce alone seemed the only one not content with life on the rails.  There were constant discussions of translating back to The Estate, which all lead to the inevitable problem of the globe being many miles behind them.  After days of being the “…train wreck survivor that hit the Dreaming Sable…”, Bruce was growing tired of telling the tale. He found satisfaction in helping Peggy in engineering, though mostly it just felt hot and crowded. When Algernon and Rain were on the top deck he sought them out trying to build a rapport. The rest of his time was spent on top of third carriage with Taki in companionable silence. Here he could exercise himself to exhaustion, practice with his crowbar and keep his deeper thoughts at bay.

On the sixth day after rescue, his keen eyes first glance land ahead even before the lookout at the bow of the train.  A long stretch of plateau covered in tiny buildings rising from docks down at the sandfront up to larger stone fronted buildings on the higher ground.  Bollon’s was a city of 50,000 souls and was the home of the Limness and much of its crew.

“Land ho!

The group, first off the train, followed Caw Eh Carve through the crowd of dock workers and family waiting  for the Limness. He lead them confidently through the main streets and thoroughfares as they made their way to his home in Bollons, a dingy one room apartment only just off the docks. It consisted of a bed and a small kitchen and a window opposite the only door.  As the group waited, Eh Carve pulled items out of his kitchen cupboard to reveal a false back. The back was removed to reveal…nothing, the space was empty.

“Ur…who has access to this place?”  Rain asked as someone knocked on the door.

Algernon’s crossbow came up and ready.  Bruce’s crowbar the same. Rain got the door.

“Yes…?” Rain stopped as present and past crashed together on the other side of the door.  Two men one tall and thin the other stocky, both in bowler hats. Rain’s eyes were only for the thin man with the cold stare. He clearly remembered numerous occasions when the gentleman before him was respectfully, almost reverently welcomed by Rain’s boss at the time, a gangster by the name of Louis Astra.

“Ah…Mr Lightfeather, what a surprise.” Rain said very politely almost bowing.  The thin man started at being recognised.

“It’s nice when my reputation precedes me,”  Mr LIghtfeather now focused on Rain who clutched at door for support. “How do you know me?”

“I worked for Mr Astra at The Last Shot, sir.  We were very impressed with your work.”

As Rain stumbled over his own racing thoughts, Algernon turned to Caw El Carve who looked desperate to find a way out.

“If you were to run, what would your key look like?”

“What?  Er…it’s a coin, with a crow.”

“Do you need to run?”

“That sounds like a good idea, yes.” Eh Carve agreed as Algernon put down his crossbow and opened the window.

“We’re here for Caw Eh Carve, give him to us and we won’t say any more.” Mr Lightfeather said from the doorway as Rain recognise the telltale bulges of hidden knives in his sleeves.  He turned to look at Algernon as the window opened and a silent decision was made. Rain slammed the door shut in Lightfeather’s face and locked it.

“I shut the door on Lightfeather!  Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.” 

Caw Eh Carve dove through the window followed by Algernon as Rain bounded across the room. Bruce and Peggy looking dumbfounded between them.

“What’s going on, why aren’t we fighting them?  Why were you all weird and polite all of a sudden?” Demanded Bruce, as Rain climbs out the window.

“Later speak, now run!” was the only reply as Rain dropped out of sight outside.

The party all follow Eh Carve out the window and down the alley between two buildings towards the busier main road ahead.  Behind, Lightfeather and his brawy companion, gave chase. Bruce and Rain were only just behind Eh Carve, Rain clumsily keeping up as he lept over mounds of waste and crates.

“Use to be good at this, I’ve got rusty at running away.” Rain thought,  “Damn, Bruce was right, I need more practice!” Two cries from behind made him and Bruce stop in their tracks.

Both Peggy and Algernon were caught each by their arm by the thick set man who was whipping them around to face his boss.  Peggy gave one of her piercing screams that rocked the thug on his heels, leaving him stunned. She then kicked him expertly between the legs before both she and Algernon continued to run down the alley.  

Faster than most could see, Lightfeather threw two daggers one towards Algernon and the other at Peggy.  Horrified, Rain and Bruce could only looked on as Algernon dodge his, Peggy screamed in pain and stumbled.  Again Lightfeather threw two daggers. This time Rain tried to deflect Peggy’s with his own, but Lightfeather’s daggers were too fast and both found their marks.  Peggy stumbles again, only just keeping on her feet. Algernon puts his hands up in surrender.

Desperate and searching around, Rain was surprised when Caw Eh Carve came to the rescue.  Pulling a device from his jacket Eh Carve threw it and a thick cloud of smoke settled on the area.  Beside Rain, Bruce looks down at him and smiled grimly before hefting his crowbar and running into the battle.  Lightfeather had by this time caught up with Peggy as Bruce rushed in, bringing down the crowbar in what would normally be a devastating blow.  Lightfeather brushed the attack aside, but it was enough time for Peggy to get away and around the corner out of sight of Lightfeather and his daggers.

The Bruiser dragged himself off the ground and squared up to Bruce  swinging with a haymaker that would have taken Bruce’s head off his he hadn’t dodged it in time.  As it is, a fist the size of Rain’s head whistles past Bruce’s own making it very clear how uneven the match was.

Lightfeather’s daggers flew once more.  Algernon and Rain dodged and together they ran up the alley to Peggy.

“Love your work Bruce, but the better part of valour and all that!” Rain calls to Bruce.  Peggy screams once more focusing her thoughts on the man who caused her so much pain. Lightfeather’s hands went numb and the dagger he had poised to throw fell to the ground as he was physically rocked by her attack.  While Lightfeather was distracted, Bruce made his escape and the party, now sans Eh Carve, ran out into the busy streets of Bollons.

“I think we’ve provided sufficient cover for Eh-Carve to get away.” Algernon said moments later as the group slowed and collected, trying their best to patch wounds on the move.

“Who the hell was that!” Bruce demanded again of Rain.  This time the smaller man obliged.

“His name is Elvin Lightfeather.  When I worked in a nightclub owned by a man named Louis Astra, Mr Lightfeather would occasionally come by and see him.”

“And…what was all that ‘love your work, sir’ stuff?”

“Look he scared my boss and Louis Astra didn’t take shit from anyone!”  Rain exclaimed, hoping to end the conversation. Bruce stared at him silently, the steely gaze more gripping than any bowler hatted thug’s.

“Alright.  Louis Astra, he liked to call himself King of the Stars…” when there was no obvious response from that revelation he took a deep breath, “…he was a mob boss. He had a lot of scary people who worked for him but everyone was polite to Elvin Lightfeather, even Louis Astra.”

“So, why didn’t we kill him?”  Peggy complained holding her wounded side.  Blood seeped slowly through her fingers and her face was deathly pale.

“We just tried to do that, “ Algernon retorted just as testily, “I don’t think we have a chance.”

“I can’t even comprehend the thought of fighting Elvin Lightfeather.” Rain said his face as pale as Peggy’s though he was uninjured, “These are people you run away from, not face off against in dark alleys.”

“But why did he attack.” Bruce wanted to know and Rain could only shrug.
“We got between them and Eh Carve.” Algernon supplied.

“No we weren’t, the door was open.” Peggy retorted as Rain moaned in horrible realisation.

“And I shut it in his face!” If it was at all possible, Rain went even whiter, “What did I do?”

“I don’t know why you didn’t go on one of your stabby-stabby attacks.” she rounded on Algernon ignoring the cowering Rain.

“I don’t know what you mean?” Algernon replied wanting the discussion to end. Rain looked from Algernon to Peggy now aware of his companions fighting.

“You know, the way you did with that mannequin in the wasteland.”

“I didn’t!” Algernon exclaimed harassed and…was that a little guilty?  Rain decided to step in.

“Now Peggy, you only say such things when you’re poorly.  Let’s get you somewhere quiet to rest.”

“No I don’t.  I always speak my mind.” she barked back noticeably swaying on her feet.

“Exactly.”  He replied as he looked around for a place for the group to hide, heal and rebuild.

To be continued….

6. Life on the Rails

The group made a thin rope line over the ties as they marched the empty desert traced with the railway lines.  Bruce in the lead kept his sharp eyes on the smoke on the horizon. Rain skipped and hopping along side, using his recently ancient golf club as a walking stick, trying to draw the bigger man into conversation.  Bruce’s attention was dominated by the shifting sand around the tracks, the smoke on the horizon and the indeterminate miles of track in between. Peggy was walking behind the first two going through her pack with a disappointed expression.  Many of her chemical testing kits seemed not to exist in this place. The engineering tools, a smattering of lab favourites and the never-ending rail, gave her the impression that she should start revising what she knew of engineering and locomotion.  Algernon grudgingly made up the rear of the convoy, his newly acquired crossbow almost as long as he was tall, locked and primed for action.

“You know, you look pretty comfortable out here, “ Rain, talking to Bruce, looked out of the empty expanse of dustbowl desert and rock. “You look like you belong.”

“Well, I’ve been working on the railroad…” a rich baritone reverberated from Bruce’s frame.

“That’s what I don’t get…” Rain’s thought process faltered as the rail started singing to vibration of the ground.  Slowly, an island grew out of the sand some distance ahead, dust raining down like sheets of water as a dark mound of fur and teeth and claws breeched the sand.  It’s black fur shone indigo in the hazy sunlight, silhouetted against the churning clouds above until it seemed it would touch them. Finally, when its bulk seemed like it would engulf the world, it stopped and collapsed back into the sand crashing, sending further ripples through the desert.  When the shaking ceased, the rails stopped their singing and the dust cloud diffused enough to see, the desert was as empty as it had been before the mountain of flesh had appeared.  

“What…?”  Rain asked as Bruce realised the party had stopped in their tracks at the sight of the massive rodent. He ushered the group forward again, but no one gave a voice to an opinion.

 Eventually, with the earworm previously placed, and because the rhythm matched their steady march, Rain started singing in a clear tenor, 

“I’ve been working on the railroad, All the live long day.”

Bruce picked up again, adding a base harmony.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away.”

Algernon tried to follow on, but his adolescent voice cracked and skipped out of tune.

“Can’t you hear the whistle blowing rise up so early in the morn.”

“Algernon, you sound like my uncle.”  Bruce finally said as he took a step onto a rotted tie.  Before anyone could respond, he leg went through and the ground around the tie collapsed into darkness. With crowbar in hand, Bruce reached out and hooked the silvery lifeline of track now stretched unsupported above the hole he was falling into. He swung, metres above a sloping tiled floor, his head only just visible to those still on the surface.

Rain quickly locked down the rope between his putter and the rail, as Algernon and Peggy carefully move to the hole and looked down.  

“Quick, do to him what you did to me in the lab.” urged Peggy of Algernon as the later trained his crossbow on unseen monsters below Bruce’s dangling feet.

“Why, he’s holding on.”  

Bruce looked around at the room that he’d broken through.  The tiled floor was relatively clear of sand and rubble beside what had fallen in with him.  At one side of the room four doors that lead to tiny cubicles stood at varying degrees of openness.  The other end of the room porcelain sinks and chrome tap fixtures glinted in the weak light from outside.  On the side with the row of sinks was a closed door Bruce couldn’t see beyond. With one hand on the crowbar he untied himself from the rope line linking him to the surface and dropped down the couple of metres to the tiles.  The floor took his weight with a solid thump as he steady himself on the uneven surface. 

Now at floor level the scene around him came into confusing clarity.  He was in nicely appointed men’s toilet. As he walked around he tried the taps, cisterns and hand dryer surprised to find them still working, albeit just.  Turning on the taps set up a groaning followed by a loud hammering in the walls before thick black water dribbled into the dusty bowl. Even the hand dryer, a tube connected to some central air supply pumped out a gust of dusty air into his face before he closed the valve with a choking splutter.

As Bruce explored his subterranean discovery, a loud screech echoed off the empty plain.  Peggy looked up and saw a bird circling high above, but seemingly very close too. With closer attention she identified that the bird was an owl and was not very close, just of a colossal size.  Now scrambling as carefully as possible. Peggy, Algernon and Rain made their ginger way down the rope to join Bruce.

“Well I’ve been in some shitholes but this seem to be stretching the metaphor.”  Rain quipped.

  Now with the party assembled, Bruce opened the door onto a dimly lit corridor.  The door displayed a male symbol on a small brass plaque that glowed warmly in the darkness.  Another plaque, further along the passage, buried in rubble showed its female counterpart. The only light came from their open door and feint blue strips running along the corridor beside wall to wall red carpet. 

Ruined by time, dust and the smaller vermin, the red carpet ran discreetly up to each of four openings. The first was another corridor that disappeared around a corner to a t-intersection. 

The second opened out onto a balcony, once furnished with plush seats and rich wood polished furniture. From this vantage point the whole space was laid bear. The other openings lead to their own private boxes. Across a large empty space two boxes remained intact while a third had broken away from the wall and crashed into seating below.  In front of lower floor seating, was a large wooden stage filled with light from a hole in the roof above it. Partially filling the hole with boiler, ram rod and wheels was a steam engine.

“What a wonderful specimen, I must have a look at it.”  Peggy gaped at the engine seemingly missing the lost grandeur of the theatre all around her.  As if in response, Algernon unties himself from the diminished rope chain and jumps off the balcony into thin air. Both Bruce and Rain leap to catch, but Algernon did not fall, instead hovered out over the stalls.

“Oh, me!  Do me now!”  Peggy held her hands up as if to be picked up as the other two men gawped, stunned at the power on display.

“Hey, nice trick kid.”  Bruce eventually said as Peggy now lept up and was caught midair by an invisible force.  Rain had to move quick to untie himself from the floating Peggy before he too was dragged into the air.

“That’s no trick.”  Rain replied clawing at the leather covered bannister of the private box, “I know tricks, I know levitation.  That was not a trick.”

“I meant in the colloquial sense.”  Bruce glanced at Rain with concern. The smaller man was in the midst of some internal war. 

Rain turned yelling at Algernon, who was now slowly dropping himself and Peggy down to the stalls of the theatre, 

“What was that, what did you do?!”

“It’s the Strange.  Peggy and I can use it to change the rules, to do things.”  Algernon replied as Peggy started picking her way across to the train, “Like the thonics in that recursion.  How did they fly? Not with wings, but with their connection to the Strange. We all have it, us four. I just don’t know…”  Algernon’s words trailed off as his eye attracted by movement up on the stage. He followed Peggy who was even now investigating deep scratches  in the boiler.

“I think the kids going all Obi-Wan on us.” Bruce commented quietly to Rain who was barely paying attention.

“But how?  What is it? And so help you if says Magic…”  Rain was incensed completely self absorbed to notice Algernon swing his crossbow up and shot.  A squeal echoed all over the theatre as something large and hairy leapt up in the air on the stage beside Peggy. Bruce did not hesitate, but started climbing down from the balcony to the stall seating below. Peggy screamed as she saw the two giant rats crawl out from under the prone engine.  Energy vibrated the air, shaking the theatre and sending dust flying, but without focus it did nothing more.

“What did you do, you tricky bastard?!” Roared Rain collecting the rope and running down the hall to where he knew stairs would lead to a foyer. A frisson of energy hit Algernon making him feel just that little bit sharper, that little faster and just a little more daring. 

The rats, one with a bolt sticking out of its shoulder, split up and took an enemy each.  The injured one turned on Algernon the other stalked Peggy. Both found the tasty meat of the invaders.  Bruce slipped in his climb catching his hand on the broken brass decorations of the once luxurious theatre. 

With the fight to the death in front of the stage in progress,  Rain raced down the staircase to the foyer. Using his own momentum he propelled himself down the banister which in usual circumstances would have taken the weight. Buried theatres aren’t maintained as they should and the railing, only held in place by rust and luck, gave way.  Rain tumbled into a mess of limbs and rope as he spotted Peggy swiped defensively at the rat with her equipment bag.

“No!  Bad lab rat!”

“Peggy!  Give it one from me!”  Rain called out, the acoustics of the old theatre carried his words to her and she too felt a frisson of energy.  Bruce was finally in place, the shaft of his sledge hammer slick with blood from his own injury. He looked to Algernon facing his injured beast, and Peggy, the damsel in distress.

“I don’t know who to save.” he said out loud before finally swinging his mallet down to Peggy’s aid. It smashed into the rat’s skull with a shuddering crunch.  The rat had no idea what had hit it, it looked up at him one last time then slumped to the ground dead.

Algernon’s physical attack missed and the rat lunged for him, it’s torturer.  Peggy, free of her rat now turned her attention on the one in front of Algernon. Her mind clear of fear or pain she channelled her new found powers into the beast, screaming  her way into its mind, boiling it in its brain case. The creature shuddered and died. Algernon unaware or uncaring descended on the body with his combat dagger. Gouts of blood sprayed over Algernon.  When Bruce finally pulled him away, Algernon was covered in rivets of red from his face to his feet. 

“What is going on here?” Rain bellowed into the theatre, his voice echoing around the perfect acoustics, “What’s with Fly Boy and Mistress Scream!” Rain now stared at Peggy like he’d never seen her before.

“What Fly Boy did there?” Bruce commented swinging his mallet back onto his back, “My ma would’ve said the kid was touched by a miracle of God. But all that we’ve seen? … That just… doesn’t make sense any more. ”
“Its the Strange.  Some of us carry a little bit of it around with us.”  Peggy replied simply going back to look over the perpendicular engine on the stage.

“Ur…oh!”  Bruce exclaimed quietly. It was such an unusual sound from the big man that everyone turned to see what was up. He was looking down at his injured hand as the tissue reattached, healed and eventually disappeared. 
“Woah. Uh, guys? My hand just magically got better.” Bruce slumped into a nearby seat sending up a cloud of dust staring at his now whole hand.

“You too! Its not magic! ”  Rain turned on Bruce and his healed hand, “But what is it? How is it you can all touch the Strange without Spiral Dust or anything?”

“You do it too, when you translated us here.”  Still covered in blood, Algernon spoke up. Rain cringed and turned away at the sight of him.

“Nah nah nah, don’t talk about that Strange nonsense, I don’t do magic, that’s just mental discipline. Discipline!” Bruce stated confidently to room. Rain rolled is eyes.

“Firstly, I can’t look at you Algernon when you’re… like that.  Secondly, we all do that…” And that was the point. Suddenly unthinkable miracles were being performed by Algernon, Peggy and even, inconceivably, Bruce.  Things Rain had spent his whole life making thin illusion of…and none of them were happening to him. He rubbed his face realising he was suddenly exhausted, “I’m tired, I need to think.” Rain dragged himself to a corner of the stage and rested.  

Peggy, fascinated with the engine, was equal parts concern with how it ended up nose first in an underground stage, and excited at the thought of claiming the machine and riding the rails instead of walking them.  The concern was confirmed when she identified the punctures and scratches on the boiler. As astounding as it seemed, it looked like the giant owl they had seen had picked the engine off the track and dumped it here.

“Could we use the power of the engine itself to winch it up to the rails?”  Peggy mused as Algernon tried to dig his bolt out of the body of the dead rat.

“If we can get it running it would have enough of torque.” He yanked at the bolt and a broken haft came free of the body.  He threw it away with disgust.

“Maybe some good strong chain and access…” she looked around the engine, “I wonder if we can get underneath it?“

She started poking around on the stage, looking for hollow pockets where a trap door could be found. Rain dragged himself out of his sulks long enough to give her a hand.

“The controls for the trap doors are in the wings here, “ he got up and pulled one.  It just so happened to connected to the trap door that Peggy was standing on at the time. With a startled yelp she disappeared below stage, Rain chasing after her. The trap door emptied into a fabric lined shoot that sped Peggy down to a room full of costumes.  Everywhere Peggy lay her eyes, huge spider’s webs hung over fixtures, boxes, lockers and clothing racks. Just as she was about to carefully move, Rain crashed into her from behind. They both landed in a heap of rotten cloth, dust and spiderwebs wrapped around each other.

“Well this is awkward.”  Rain smiled, the ghost of his usual mischief.

“Get off me!”  Peggy kicked out as her brother had always taught her and caught Rain in the groin.  He rolled away and she stood up to come face to face with the owner of the massive webs.  It had been hiding in upper corner watching them the whole time. Now eight legs tip-toed its dog-sided body through the webbing and towards her.  

Peggy screamed, this time she knew how to focus the Strange.  It hit the spider who fell from its web. Now on the ground it went for the easiest target, Rain.  Prepared for the attack by Peggy’s scream, Rain battered away the spindly grasping legs with his putter and rolled out of the way.   Once up on his feet, Rain took the opportunity to wrap the spider in its own webbing, using his ancient putter to hook and drape the webs over its carapace and around its legs.  

The spider now confused and restrained, Peggy picked up an old locker door as a club and drove it down into the spider’s head.  There was an audible crunch of carapace and the beast slumped to the floor.  

Though Bruce and Algernon had been making their way to the stage, when the screaming started, Bruce clambered down the trap door on a rope and Algernon waited with his crossbow ready.  Bruce made it to the costume room in time to see Peggy slam the heavy door down on the giant spider’s head.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asked assessing the two of them for injuries.

“Are they dead?  They’re probably dead.”  Algernon called from above.

“She’s fine.”  Rain slowly straightened, still breathing hard from the kick, “She can defend herself.”

“You look injured, do you need first aid?”  Bruce edged towards Rain with his first aid kit ready.

“Ah no, I’m fine.  Just landed badly…from the slide.  It was the slide.”  

The costume store was a treasure trove of old Earth productions, many that could be distinguished through their costumes.  Rain was enchanted when, from out of a locker long forgotten, he pulled out a crumpled, but intact, Phantom of the Opera costume, complete with mask. He rolled the costume into a swag as Bruce also went hunting and came back with two ciphers. One created weapon projectiles (bullets, arrow or bolt) that did ice damage.  It was quickly handed to Algernon as the only one of the group with a projectile weapon. The other was a spy tool that could be detonated by a command. Bruce gave it to Rain who appreciated the spy technology, but didn’t think the explosive was such a great idea.

Peggy, Algernon and Rain spent another hour searching backstage and taking in the old theatre, theorising as to how old it could be. Was it older than the desert or younger?  Did the desert blow in and cover it or was it remains of a once great subterranean civilisation. All the while Bruce grumbled about being on task.

“Aren’t we suppose to be finding drug dealers or something?”  

He did keep himself busy though, attaching a rope to the rail above the stage hole and climbing up to see where it led.  The sky was clear of giant birds and the smudge on the horizon was still there for his keen eyes to see. Apart from that, the desert was an empty and inhospitable place and Bruce eventually climbed back down the rope to rally the group once more.

“There’s some good stuff here, “Rain mused while picking through backdrops and random props, “it would be worthwhile marking this place so we can tell someone in town.  I bet it would be worth something to someone.” So they collected rope, wood and cloth to create a flag to mark the theatre on the surface. Algernon found a red cape and swung it around experimentally a few times until he realised it made him a bigger target.  It was tucked away with the other goodies found.

Inevitably, the party did make it back to the surface and planted their flag.  It was much later in the day and the breeze over the barren landscape had a chill.  With his keen sight, Bruce spotted another island of rock, a plateau above the sea of sand, that looked to be within walking distance of nightfall.  Without food or water the group set out following the track and reached a cave on the island just as nightfall descended.  

Huddled in a cave once more, this time of their own free will, they shared the scraps of snacks the group had to hand and settled into a restless but uninterrupted night’s rest. In the morning though, their lack of supplies bit deep with Algernon and Rain. Barely human in the mornings, they both missed their coffee.  To their rescue, Peggy pulled out a thermos she had been carrying for just this occasion.
“You… have coffee?”  Rain looked up at Peggy like an avatar of salvation.

“Yes.” She replied simply twisting the lid off the thermos, letting the complex bitter smell waft through the cave.

“I love you!” exclaimed Rain, leaping to her side.

“I love you too!” Alergnon called from the mouth of the cave where he was tying a rock to one of their salvaged ropes.  Peggy handed out cups of coffee, notable leaving Rain until last who didn’t seem to mind in the least.

The point of Algernon’s contraption soon became clear as he cleared the lip of the cavern and swung the rock out into the sand.  It splashed into the dust sinking deep before Algernon drew the rock slowly back to the entrance to the cavern. Once back at the mouth of the cave and the short enough to swing, he threw the rope out again and drew it back.  It didn’t take long for something in the sands to take a bite and Algernon was almost pulled off his feet.

“Don’t make me angry.” Algernon growled through gritted teeth as he leaned back.  The something pulled back and Algernon was dragged along the ground. This time both Bruce and Rain grabbed the rope and lent their weight.  Slowly the rope travelled through the sand, until two pronged jaws broke the surface, followed by a square flat head covered in coarse bristles.  

“Let it go!” Bruce cried as a giant antlion, its bloated and bristled body broke the sand.  Algernon just shook his head and continued to pull in the line.

“Don’t you want to eat it?” He asked as he started moving out of the cave to pull his catch up onto a clear piece of rock.

“God no!” Bruce made a disgusted face, but continued to help the other two with the catch.

Having swallowed the rock, the antlion thrashed against the rope leading out of its mouth.  With a thought, Algernon levitated the antlion from the last of the sand and onto the hard packed earth of the island. With a steady aim, honed over hours in the gun range, he calmly put a bolt through the monsters head and the beast lay still.

“I’ve heard it tastes like chicken.”  He cooly turned to Bruce who walk back into the cave in disgust.  Rain follows Algernon up onto the rock averting his gaze at the sight of the dead and bloodied beast.

“Do you even know what chicken tastes like?”

The antlion, with a cooking fire provided by Peggy, was edible and eaten gratefully. Algernon and Rain spent sometime deciding what the creature tasted like, definitely not chicken.  Bruce, scans the horizon for the smudge of smoke that seems to not be where he expected.  He and Peggy spot it at the same time, it had moved further south than last he made a check on its location. 
“It’s got to be a train,”  Peggy suggested, pointing to the black smoke trail in the breeze, “and one that could do with a little T.L.C.”

Now ready for another full day of walking the group set out as before, switching and changing lines to keep with the smoke and not walk on the bare earth.  By early afternoon it was clear it was indeed a train, a large diesel pumping out plumes of black oily smoke. All around the engine and carriages the train was decorated with rope, nets, harpoons, cannons and other smaller mounted guns.  It was a machine of war, but not against other machines but the warm bodies of the desert sands. For all the smoke the train was travelling backwards and forwards along the same stretch of desert at a good clip. It would be impossible to catch the driver’s attention at that distance and even less likely that the group could catch up at those speeds.  

Peggy rummaged in her diminished pack and withdrew several chemicals, a mortal and pestal and a brass tube.  Crushing the chemicals together, she then packed them into the brass tube with a load of wadded fabric from the theatre.  When the train was as its closest she touched a match to a hole in the brass tube and the wadding and a bright light shot up into the grey sky.  It burned bright for a few seconds before falling to earth spent, but it had done the trick, the train was tacking through the switches and heading straight for the party.  Within minutes the giant engine was pulling up with a squeal of brakes and Rain called out.

“Ahoy the train, we’re a group of train-wreck travellers seeking rescue on the rails.”  he said, drawing on a story they’d organised while waiting.

“Ahoy there travellers. Aid to the needy is always provided by us molers out on the rails.” called a voice from on top of the engine itself and a man appeared dressed as a naval officer. “My name is Captain Alavanti and this be the The Limness, the best moler out of Streggeye!”  The captain’s exaltation of his train was followed by a chorus of cheers coming from crew climbing out of carriages and windows to see the new arrivals.

A gangplank was lowered to an adjacent set of rails and the party scampered across and up the plank to board the train.  Rain extended a hand and introduced the party to the Captain. 

“This is Peggy, first class engineer and alchemist, Bruce deck-hand and breaker, Algernon and I are passengers but he’s a crack shot with his crossbow and I well I’m Havel Mordenkainen, simple merchant and dealmaker.  My friends and I are grateful and ready to assist in anyway we can Captain.”

“Yes, I don’t like the look of your smoke Captain, excuse me.”  Peggy pushed past and down into the bowels of the engine followed by a good natured laughter from the crew. 

“So what brings you out here Captain, we’ve seen nothing but your smoke for two days.”

“Ah, glad you asked.  Only the most prized, the most confoundable black-hearted talpa of the lot, the Dreaming Sable.  You wouldn’t have seen it on your travels would you’ve? Coat like velvet midnight?”

Bruce looked confounded and Algernon was silent in thought of what they had seen during the last two days, but Rain made the leap to the mountain of a creature that had breeched their first day out.

“Indeed we have Captain, it’s hide gleamed indigo in the daylight.  I would gladly share that information with you for a little of your own if you have it.  I am looking for a gentleman who goes by the name of Eh Carve, Caw Eh Carve. Would have heard of such a gentleman?”

The Captain looked at Rain darkly at the name and squared up to Rain as if reinstating his authority,

“Yes, I know the man. He is a passenger on board and as such under my protection.”  He said eventually, expected some sort of argument, “As for payment, if your information results in the capture of the beast you and your companion will receive a share as appropriate.”

Rain smiled, “Captain, you have saved me a great deal of worry and grief this day.  This is wonderful news.”

“Alright then, “ the Captain replied satisfied for the moment, “Welcome aboard the The Limness.