The Price of Dedication (First Draft)

THE PRICE OF DEDICATION

by Gordon S. McLeod

 

The train glided down the tracks through the northern mountains with sinuous purpose. She was a long train, part passenger, part freight, and ran on tracks a good 3 meters wide. The engine was a massive powerful beast with an electrite reactor converting huge quantities of water to steam, powering the immense locomotive along the well-worn rails.

In the back half of the train, that part devoted to passenger space, Archerd Dolet relaxed in a spacious seated alcove with an array of scrap spread out before him. At least it looked to be scrap, if anyone was paying attention. A tiny lead-lined box was strung with thin copper wiring, next to some sort of brass-edged wooden enclosure. An array of small gears and rods were lined up near by, along with what must have been dials and toggles and several small crystals.

They were laid out in neat rows, sitting unmoving on the table; the wide build and huge weight of the train and cars made for a very smooth and stable ride, which the young man took advantage of gratefully.

Nimble fingers would snatch up a piece of the complex puzzle and make fine adjustments inside the enclosure with various screwdrivers and tiny wrenches, then return to the table for more. Occasionally those fingers would flit up to the glasses perched on his nose, which were themselves complicated, with no less than 3 lenses for each eye that could be flicked up and down to change the magnification they provided. Currently the two extra lenses for each eye were carelessly folded up part way, standing like ridiculous horns over his head.

His attention never seemed to waver in the slightest, his hands darting about his makeshift worktable with grace and speed, his eyes never leaving his project, but when a uniformed steward wheeled a cart laden with plates of meat, bread and cheese, he’d barely had time to begin slowing down when a hand whisked a plate from the cart and, just briefly, his head turned to offer a smile of acknowledgment and thanks.

The steward nodded his head respectfully and continued to the next alcove. There were a scattering of other passengers in the car; Archerd had counted at least 5, one couple and 3 other individuals occupying another 4 alcoves of the 10 in the car.

The last piece of the machine clicked into place and he tightened the last connection, then snapped the enclosure closed and secured it with a sigh of pleasure. Archerd Dolet had gone to the Academy at Holdswaine, as had his father Altman before him, and graduated several years past. Like his father he had studied the sciences, intent on following in his father’s footsteps. As it happened, he had entered a slightly different branch of the sciences. Altman Dolet was one of the most prominent minds the world knew in geoscience, the study of the minerals and energies of the earth and a specialist in the properties of electrite.

Archerd was well grounded in that field as well, but had discovered early in his studies that he was gifted with mechanics and the flow and use of power; steam power, electric power, even radiation such as his father studied. He switched his focus with his father’s blessing and hadn’t looked back since.

He studied the device on the table before him, tracing the brass facing, the dark wood panels, the fine circular mesh grille, the knobs and switches, then pulled out a matching device from a pocket of his coat. He laid them both out and inspected them carefully for radiation leakage with a third device, a detector of his own device that he’d made the year previous while working with his father.

The device clicked and hummed with a sound some might find ominous or eerie, but which inspired only reassurance and relief in him. The needle on the detector’s display remained unmoving; his shielding design was sound, and the new device’s readings matched those of the other he’d made earlier. With another pleased sigh, he put the detector back in his pocket.

He held the newer device up to his head, with the speaker grille to his ear. He flipped a toggle on the side with his thumb, then tapped experimentally on the one still laying on the table.

AUGH!’ he almost vocalized, wincing in pain. Volume! Down. Way down. He turned a dial on the receiving unit, then looked around somewhat sheepishly to see if anyone else had heard.

An elderly couple sat two alcoves ahead of him, oblivious. A distinguished looking older gentleman in semi-formal attire sat at the alcove across from them, facing away from him and apparently paying him no mind. One alcove across and back was a shabbily-dressed young man, probably younger than he himself was. He was sprawled in his alcove and snoring gently. Finally, towards the back of the car—

Archerd forced himself not to stare. Towards the back of the car sat easily the most beautiful woman he’d seen in his life. She had hair black enough that it shone blue, and kept it tied behind her head in a loose tail, a face of porcelain paleness and delicacy and a light cream-colored jacket over what looked to be an ornate green dress. She sat in the row opposite him, but turned away to look out the window across from her as the train implacably made its way south.

He turned away slowly, dazzled, and began his own study of the windows. Large and rounded, they occupied much of the walls of the cabin and afforded the passengers a brilliant view of the landscape beyond. They were passing over a mountainside, and he noted with a start that it was dark; not the dark of night, but the dark of a midday covered over with deep gray, snow-laden clouds. Large flakes were beginning to drift lazily downward onto the mountaintops and through the blueish evergreen woods below.

The train was traversing the pass at about 25 kph, a pretty good clip for a such a massive train with so many cars in such terrain. The tracks curved slowly around the side of the mountain, and even the great width of the cars couldn’t completely prevent some slight rocking. Lights shifted a little as the gas lamps tilted ever so subtly.

Archerd watched the snow fall over the alpine forest contemplatively for several minutes, feeling the calmness of the scene sweep through him, then blinked, shook himself mentally for a moment, and returned his attention to the device still clasped in his hand. Double-checking the volume knob, he returned it to his ear and tapped at its counterpart once more.

TAP-TAP-TAP. He grinned slowly to himself. Success. So far, at least. He swapped the devices one for the other and repeated the experiment.

TAP-TAP-TAP. With relief, he set them both upon the table. It worked! Two-way transmission of sound from one to the other. Such things were well known of course; the Conclave had known ways to accomplish it for several decades at this point. Archerd had seen the devices and understood as well as any how they used the unusual properties of electrite to accomplish it. No, his personal innovation on the concept was condensing it to such a small handheld-unit. Every such device he had seen elsewhere was too large and bulky to move easily on its own.

He slipped them into his pockets, then drew out a simple polished brass pocket watch. Snapping it open, he frowned; 1:30. It was about point he realized he was absolutely famished, and he’d finished off the bread, beef and cheese without even noticing he was eating it. Closing the watch, he turned to rise just in time to see a swirl of cream-colored skirts pass his table. She made her way to the front of the car where the door lead farther up the train to the dining car. As she stopped to open the door, her eyes, an amazing electric green color, met his and she smiled. Before he could blink, she was gone.

The clunk of another door behind drew his attention; the disheveled young man, retreating to one of the cars further down.

He rose and headed toward the front of the car himself. The elderly couple were chatting quietly to themselves over drinks and plates of food as he passed. Reaching the door, he was certain he detected the lingering traces of jasmine in the air, distinct even over the rich smells of burning wood, roasting pork and the yeasty smell of baking bread.

Crossing between the cars, he was hit full on with the wonderful aromas upon entering the dining room. Roasting onion and vegetables joined the mix, and he cast his gaze around; half of the car was filled with the kitchen, cooks bustling busily preparing dishes to be ready for any passenger who felt the need. The other half was filled with tables laid out beautifully with white tablecloths and fine silverware. Though the ambiance called for candles, he thought, even the gentle swaying of the train’s cars around bends made that a risky proposition, and the car bore the same gaslight that graced the other cars. A set of stairs led upstairs to a second floor; all the passenger cars were two levels high.

The perfume traces were gone here, and he ascended to the second floor to sit in the relative quiet that came from separating himself from the kitchens. This room too was empty. He took a seat by one of the windows away from the mountainside so he could look out over the view once more.

The sky was darker, and the snow had picked up considerably; it was blowing fiercely and at times he found it hard to make out the trees beyond the train. The glass of the windows was chill to the touch, and he shivered a little as the cold reached out fine tendrils into the air of the car to grip at him.

He hadn’t been seated more than a minute before a steward appeared. “Good afternoon, sir. A spot of lunch today? The chef just finished a wonderful braised pork and vegetable stew. It’s just the thing on a …” His eyes flicked to the weather outside and his mouth quirked. The snow now effectively blocked the whole of the view, leaving the window a swirl of white. “… On a freezing day such as this.”

“That sounds wonderful, thank you.”

The steward disappeared and Archerd passed the time inspecting the casing of his communication device idly. A shadow fell over him abruptly, and the scent of jasmine filled his nostrils.

“May I join you?”

He looked up with a start, green eyes filling his vision, pulling him in.

“Um,” he said articulately. “Yes, yes, of course, please do, Ms. …?”

“Witherow. Sunniva Witherow. It’s a pleasure to meet a man of your talents, Mr. …?”

“Ahh, my apologies! I am Archerd Dolet, and the pleasure is all mine. But you speak of my talents; it sounds like you have me at something of an advantage.”

She smiled, leaning in closer, not to him so much as to the device in his hand he thought. “Yes, I believe so. I saw you working on this device earlier; it’s a very impressive piece of workmanship, Mr. Dolet. Am I right in suspecting you can use it to communicate with another, similar instrument?”

Archerd grinned, forgetting to be distracted for a moment. “Why yes indeed, this one right here.” He slipped the other communication device out of his pocket. “You must be familiar with the more typical form they take if you recognized the function of these so quickly. I’ve not had a chance to test these properly yet, but my initial test was a success. One should be able to transmit a voice from anywhere to the location of the second, without limit or degradation of quality. Remarkable, isn’t it? I’ve been fascinated with the technique since I learned of it at the Academy …”

“I knew you must have been an Academy student! I graduated from there myself last year.”

Archerd blinked. It certainly wasn’t unheard of for women to attend the Academy, the oldest and most prestigious institution of science learning in the land, but it was rare enough that he was slightly taken aback.

“My congratulations, Ms. Witherow, on graduating then. I know how brutal the final testing can be. May I ask what branch of inquiry you studied?”

“Oh yes, it was dreadful, but so worth it. I was a student of physics and mathematics. I trust you,” she nodded at the devices, “took electrics?”

“Electrics, yes, and some geosciences for the electrite work, and of course a lot of mechanics. I’m afraid I never had much of a head for the mathematical branches.”

The server returned this time, and Archerd noted he bore not one, but two steaming bowls of the stew, which he set before them with a flourish. “Can I get you anything else? Drinks, perhaps?”

“Wine sounds just dandy to me. You, Ms. Witherow?”

“Not for me, thank you.” The steward nodded and withdrew. “And you may call me Sunniva.”

They chatted pleasantly as the sky grew ever darker outside. Notes were compared on the activities at the Academy, and changes in staffing since Archerd had left several years earlier, and finally the conversation turned to their travel purposes.

“After the conference gathering was over with, I decided to stay on for several weeks to learn more of the area, and of course to begin working on this,” he indicated the device that sat between them on the table, “which occupied most of my attention. I’m afraid I didn’t get to see much of the city!”

“Oh, that must have been wonderful … I wish I could have attended myself, though much of it would have been over my head I’m afraid. But the physics of electrite and the quantum properties it expresses, that sounds like it must have been fantastic! I’m so sorry I missed that. The Conclave won’t be sending me to events like that for several more years yet, I’m too junior in my position.”

Archerd felt a chill work its way through him that had nothing to do with his proximity to the window. “You’re … with the Conclave.”

She noticed his change in tone, and the merry smile that lit her face so delightfully slipped. “Why yes, of course. Surely you must be as well?”

He cursed himself for a fool; the assumption had been there throughout his Academy days, so all-pervasive he’d never given it a thought at all, and then he’d returned home to Dolesham where he’d been well insulated from the Conclave’s influence. It was virtually unknown for any practitioner of the scientific arts to not work for the Conclave; they worked hard to ensure that.

His father had in fact founded Dolesham specifically as a haven against the Conclave’s influence, fearing that they held too much power and locked away too much knowledge and too many unobtainable resources from the rest of the world. His plan had been wildly successful, at least so far, as even a majority of the people in Dolesham were completely unaware of the reason for the town’s existence, but those who did know also knew it couldn’t remain that way forever. What was the point of creating a town to fight the hiding away of information if the town’s own resources remained hidden? They’d be nothing but another Conclave.

The first steps were underway back home to open the town up to increased trade, making the critical electrite found in the region available openly to others, and plans were underway to open a new university of science outside of the Conclave’s control. If ever there were a time for the Conclave to become aware of the threat to their dominance, it was now.

He was spared having to answer by a great lurching CRASH that shook the car and knocked both of them into the window. All the gaslights abruptly went out at once, and an ominous creaking echoed through the car as it plunged into darkness. Only the faintest glow of light got through the storm outside to the windows.

Archerd sat up with a groan. Sunniva looked about like he felt; she held a hand to her head with a pained, sour expression as she raised herself up from the seat opposite him. “What … was that?” Her voice was breathless.

“I don’t know, but we’d better move fast and find out. All the lights went out at once; something must have happened to a gas line during … whatever that was.”

They got to their feet and started towards the front of the car. There was no sign of the steward. “Let’s go down.”

They made their way down the forward staircase, a narrow affair neither enjoyed in the dark, but which Sunniva had the worst of with her long skirts.

“As I feared.” Archerd frowned, sniffing. “Gas is leaking. We can’t stay here. If there are flames still burning, or if anything sparks anywhere, we’re cooked like a goose.” He moved toward the forward door.

“Be careful!” Sunniva’s melodious voice was edged with anxious caution. “The doors are metal. If it sparks when you open it …”

His mouth went suddenly dry. “Damn,” he whispered. “You’re right. We could kill ourselves leaving.” The gas was getting thicker in the air, tickling his throat unpleasantly. Then something else caught his attention that both scared him and gave him hope. “We’re not moving!”

“What! Why … I do think you’re right!” The gentle rocking and swaying of the train in motion was gone. They’d come to a complete stop.

“Let’s head back up, at least far enough to get a few decent breaths of air. We’ll have to hold it as long as we can, come back down, and try to break out a window.”

Once at the top of the stairs again, they took in as much oxygen as they could, then quickly descended again. The gas smell was stronger, but not as thick as he’d expected, and it was colder too. They moved swiftly through the dining section, seeing nobody; no cooks in the kitchen, no steward.

The nearest large window proved to be the source of the cold; it had been broken outward. It wasn’t open enough to let a man out, but it was likely the reason the gas wasn’t thicker inside. Archerd gestured to the window; Sunniva carefully put her head out long enough to breathe deeply, then Archerd followed suit.

“Stay here a moment,” he said, pulling his head back in. “I’ll check on the kitchen staff.”

It was too late, unfortunately. Archerd wasn’t sure how many people should have been there, but he recognized the body behind the divider as the steward who had gone for his wine. There was no sign of the chef or any other staff. The gas was much thicker there; if the steward had lived, he must have suffocated by now. He took the time to do what he could to make sure the man wasn’t still alive, but he had no training in the medical sciences and was forced to turn back to fresher air.

Sunniva looked a question at him, but he shook his head. Taking a moment to breathe deeply outside, he then turned his attention to getting out. The windows were large plate glass, thankfully, and the one already broken should be easy to break further. The dining car chairs were heavy oak, solidly built. With an involuntary grunt for the weight, he hefted one and hurled it at the broken window. It flew through the glass with a satisfying crash. Sunniva looked at the cracked and broken glass lining the edge doubtfully, but Archerd grabbed a second chair and did his best to knock out the remainder of the glass, smoothing their passage as best he could.

They both leaned out to breathe, and Archerd levered himself out and down, extending a hand to help Sunniva as he got himself stable in the shockingly deep snow that had gathered in the ground. They stood shivering, trying to see anything in the frigid white wasteland. They weren’t dressed for this, and were going to have to get back inside soon. “We can’t stay out here!” Archerd had to shout to make himself heard over the howl of the wind.

“No kidding!” Even over the wind, there was no mistaking the subtle bite of sarcasm in her response. He offered her an arm and they started toward the front of the train, or at least the front of the car, as that was all that remained that they could see. The train’s engine and cargo cars were nowhere to be seen, and the connecting apparatus and bridgeworks that let passengers and crew cross between were twisted wreckage.

“We will have to check the cars farther back! Let’s hope they aren’t also filling with gas!” Sunniva nodded, or at least he thought she did; they were both shivering so bad it was hard to tell. They drew close together as they pushed through the snow around to where they’d passed from the lounge car to the dining car earlier. It was painful to grab hold of the freezing metal, but they managed to climb up and into the paltry shelter of the car-crossing.

Sunniva looked up at him, face pinched with cold. “If this car IS filled with gas, we’ll know soon enough, but I don’t think we have a choice. We either freeze to death or we risk burning when the gas inside ignites. I’m quite willing to risk burning rather than take the certainty of freezing!”

“Agreed. We have precious little to lose. Here goes …” And he shoved down on the handle and pushed inward. The door flew open and they stumbled inward together, greeted by the glorious smell of gas-free and reasonably warm air. Archerd whirled around and slammed the door closed again.

They clung together for several long minutes as they warmed up and cleared snow from their feet and skirts, respectively. Finally, as blood began to flow again, they separated and breathed more easily. “How could something like this happen? And how did we not go off the rails and crash after it did?”

“How this happened I couldn’t say beyond speculation; it looked like some explosive was used to separate the cars. It must have damaged the gas lines of the dining car in the process. As to the latter, all train cars are equipped with hydraulic brakes that are meant to safely stop the car in the event of accidental disconnection … though this certainly doesn’t seem to qualify as accidental in my book.”

“What did you find in the kitchen? You looked so grim.”

He sighed. “I don’t know how many were supposed to be there, but I found only our steward, and he was beyond my help. I do not know if he lived, but I think he was probably already dead. In any event, I couldn’t stay longer than I did to be sure, and couldn’t get him out fast enough to avoid collapsing myself. This means we may have a problem.”

“Indeed we do. He should have had plenty of time to get to a door or window, so it couldn’t have been gas that got him, which begs the question, who or what did?”

“Exactly. Someone had to have set the explosives as well. What bothers me is that whoever it was stayed with this side of the train—assuming it was a someone and not a something that killed the steward—which is by no means certain.”

There was no answer; he turned to look at her only to find her standing, wide-eyed and staring. He followed her gaze to see the elderly couple he’d noticed earlier slumped over in their seats. The old man was face-down in the remains of his food, while the woman looked like she’d tried to get up or fight, but a pair of stab wounds to her chest and cuts on her arms showed how she had failed.

“Or perhaps it is certain at that.”

He stared at them helplessly for a moment. What on earth was happening? “We should check the rest of the cars. There were others here earlier.”

“Any of whom could be behind this! What are we going to do if we find them? We’re unarmed.”

He stopped short a moment, considering. “Take this. It certainly isn’t a weapon, and I think under the circumstances, we should stay together, but I’ll feel better if you have this.” He handed her one of his pair of communicators. “Let’s hope we don’t need these.”

Sunniva nodded and lead the way to the stairway, heading for the second level. “I should hope we won’t, but thank you.”

The second level was a similar leisure space to the alcoves below, but more open, with several tables in the center for games, drinks or conversation, and a variety of arm chairs arranged next to side tables with elegant brass gas lamps for reading; books were available on a variety of subjects in book cases along the car’s sides. Nowhere were any other passengers in evidence.

“I don’t suppose you know how many passengers there were on the train? I believe the number was quite small for a trip of this length on a train of this size.”

She considered for a moment. “It never occurred to me to count heads, I’m afraid. I know there was … the elderly couple. And a somewhat ragged young man, rather cute otherwise, though with the unfortunate habit of staring a bit too long.” She quirked a smile to herself. “I thought there were at least four others when we boarded the train. Three men and a woman. I haven’t seen the woman or one of the men—I think they’re together—since then, however.” She frowned.

“As to the last two men, was one of them not in the lounge downstairs earlier? I am almost certain there were more of us in that compartment than just the two of us, the raggedy young man and the elderly couple.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. There was someone else, though for the life of me I can’t recall who.” They finished walking the length of the lounge, finding it was indeed empty.

“Nothing, and nobody. Next car, I suppose.” Archerd looked at the first-level door to the car crossing with a touch of apprehension.

“Yes … though I wish we had a clearer notion of what’s going on.”

“I know. Or what they — or he — is after. But without more information we can’t guess at that, and we’re not likely to get more information just standing around.”

She eyed him just a touch askance. “For all we know it could be YOU they’re looking for. Or your devices.”

His mouth gaped and he was about to protest, but … “I … have to concede the possibility. Of the devices, any way. I’m of no importance.”

“You give yourself too little credit; you created the devices. Anyone who values them will value you all the more.”

“At any rate, this is no time to stand around speculating while someone who’s clearly no stranger to murder is lurking about.” He eyed the door a moment longer, braced himself, and pushed through, Sunniva close behind.

The door to the next car stuck a bit; at first Archerd thought it must have been locked, but a quick, close look revealed that there was a touch of ice forming in the door frame gap. His breath already freezing practically solid and teeth chattering, he backed up several steps and ran at the door, jamming down hard on the handle as he slammed into it. It burst inward, knocking a chair into a table and setting a vase of flowers crashing to the floor where the vase shattered.

Sunniva rushed into the room as well, and Archerd closed the door after her. “That’s your idea of being cautious in the presence of murderers?”

He scowled; he wasn’t sure where all of this sudden hostility was coming from, but they didn’t have time for it. They also lacked time for him to respond to it in kind. At least one thing was going in their favor; they were in the sleeping car. There was only the one needed to accommodate the small number of passengers, so it was also the last car. They would find whoever was responsible for this, and—

A fist flew out of the nearest sleeping cabin, catching him on the jaw. His head rang even before it snapped aside to crash against the oppose wall of the narrow passageway down the car’s center. A dark shape rushed out into the hall, tackling him to the ground.

Archerd recovered quickly; though he was certainly no trained warrior, he WAS the son of the Huntress of Dolesham. His mother had ensured her boy could take care of himself, and even with head ringing he was able to lock an arm around his attacker’s neck and start squeezing hard.

—BANG!—

The body went limp on top of him; Archerd struggled out from under the man, whom he now recognized as the elegantly dressed gentleman from the lounge car earlier. Sunniva was standing over them, a small pistol smoking in her hand.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Archerd.” Her voice was a touch wary.

“You said we were unarmed.”

“And you never answered my question.”

He frowned. “Question? What — oh.”

“Yes. Are you with the Conclave? But there’s no need to answer now.” She lowered the pistol, slipping it back into a pocket. Her vivid green eyes were dark, troubled. “You clearly aren’t. And what’s more, I know that he is.”

She bent over him, careful not to trail the edge of her skirts in the small pool of blood gathering on the floor. Pushing him over onto his back, she took a pin from his lapel; a hemisphere, bisected with a stylized lightning bolt, in the middle of 3 overlapping narrow ovals forming a perfect 6-pointed star. The symbol of the Conclave. She pulled aside the lapel of her cream-colored jacket to reveal an identical pin on the emerald blouse beneath.

“And you …”

“Yes. I suppose I’ve thrown in my lot with you now, for the time being at least, so I hope it’s a good lot.”

“Why would the Conclave do this? What could they possibly gain by sabotaging a train and killing the passengers? Do you really think they’re after me?”

She sighed and looked at him; her eyes were clouded with uncertainty. “I don’t know. I’ve only been with them for a year, and frankly I’m very junior. They don’t exactly let me in to the grand strategic meetings; I only just graduated last year after all. But nothing else makes sense, it has to be you. If they were after the train’s cargo, why stay here? The only explanation is you have something they want.”

“And what of you? Shouldn’t you be helping them? I’m a threat to you somehow. I hold knowledge that it seems the Conclave is willing even to kill to keep out of the hands of outsiders.”

She wrung her hands and stepped back a little; her face twisted with indecision. “I know, I should. But … how can I now, after seeing this? After doing this? What are we? What are … they?” Her hands were shaking badly; the twin Conclave pins dropped to the floor with twin clicks.

“You know if you side with me and word ever gets back to them, you’ll be outcast for life.” He looked down at his assailant. “And I’m guessing they’ll do their best to ensure that that’s not a long time.”

“I know.” Her voice steadied, and while her hands didn’t stop shaking, they were calmer. He guessed with a sudden pang that she at least among the Conclave probably didn’t make a habit of assassination, and she’d just killed a man. “We have to check the rest of these rooms. There’s still one more. If he’s still in here somewhere, he must know we’re here too.”

They stuck close together, Sunniva with her pistol reloaded and ready. It was a small thing, holding only a single shot, but it was the only real weapon they had.

They were halfway through the first floor when they found the unkempt young man. The Conclave agents had found him first, however, asleep in his bed, and he was now long beyond their assistance. There was little they could do but carry on.

They checked room after room, being extra cautious when they came to their own rooms, but there was nothing, nobody else. Archerd’s room had been thoroughly searched, his bags emptied across the bed. Changes of clothes, a heavy winter coat, sundry components of common types, and a notebook, laying open on the bed, several pages torn out. Sunniva’s room was untouched.

“You were right, of course you were right. And now they know what I’ve been working on.”

“Do they have all of your notes on these devices?”

“No … that book I keep on my person. But they have enough to work out the rest themselves. The principle remains the same as in any larger unit, the key is in miniaturizing the … well, there’ll be time for that later.”

She nodded and swept her eyes along the hall thoughtfully. “If he’s not here, he must have left before we arrived. They’ve already been through all the passenger cars.” She sighed. “But there’s another possibility. We’re assuming they both remained with the passenger cars, but what if the other hasn’t been here? What if he stayed with the freight car and engine?”

“But if they are after me, why would he do that? Surely he can’t have thought I’d be wandering over the cargo cars.”

“No … No, but they’ve taken the time and effort to kill all of the passengers. I still cannot imagine why they’ve felt that to be necessary, unless it’s to cover up what they planned to do to you. In that case, simply separating the train wouldn’t be enough. There will be at least 3 other people with the engine who would have noticed the disconnection all too quickly, and then they’d have to investigate.”

Archerd nodded. “So then we must take a risk. We will try to reach the train’s engine and warn the engineer and his men. But first I suggest we recover our winter coats; I’m not eager to freeze again.”

“Agreed!”

They stayed together, Sunniva keeping the pistol at the ready just in case they were mistaken and the second Conclave agent was double-checking the passenger cars after failing to find them on the first sweep. When both were as warmly dressed as they could manage, they made their way forward to the front of the lounge car; there was no sign of the other agent.

There was also no sign of any letup in the weather. If anything it was worse; the sun was lower in the sky, the shadows a bit deeper, the snow thicker and piled much higher on the ground.

“Ready?” Archerd had to shout to be heard over the wind. Sunniva nodded; Archerd had a sudden thought. He fumbled around the pocket of his heavy overcoat and pulled his communicator device out. He pointed to it; she looked confused for a moment, but then her eyes flashed understanding and she drew the one he’d given her out as well.

It was awkward in the heavy winter gloves they wore, but he taught her the controls. Each held one device up to their ears; she yelled, “Can you hear me?”

The volume was a bit low, but her voice was clear as if she were talking directly into his ear. He adjusted the volume up a little , then thumbed the transmit switch. “Yes, I can hear you perfectly!”

“This is a marvel!” She shouted. “This will change the way people communicate forever! It works at any range?”

“Yes, just like the larger versions! Are you ready?”

“Let’s go!”

They set out into the white gloom; it was hard to believe barely an hour had passed, but it got dark fast in the mountains and the sun had apparently slipped behind a peak.

“We’ll have to follow the tracks, we won’t be able to see for much longer!”

“Not that we can see all that much now!”

They made their way past the dining car and onto the tracks. Archerd was intensely grateful for the heavy clothing. Even with their protection, the bitter wind was starting to slowly work its way inward, but the effort of slogging through the rapidly accumulating snow kept them warm enough for the time being.

The going was slow; though the tracks made for fairly flat and even ground, they did have to keep to the wooden bracing beneath the rails to ensure they didn’t stray off. Visibility was such that they could well have found themselves walking straight to the mountainside without realizing, and if there happened to be a steep drop ahead, the fall would be swift and very cold.

The forced one foot after another into the ever-deepening snow; it was up to their knees now. Sunniva had changed out of her long skirts and into pants and a long, thick coat with a cloak. The coat and cloak dragged, slowing her progress further, but kept her warm enough, probably warmer than Archerd, who was doing okay in a heavy fur jacket but had no extra protection beyond his pants for his lower body. His legs between the heavy boots he wore and the bottom of the jacket were starting to feel the effects of the cold and wet even in spite of the exertion.

“How far away do you think the rest of the train is?” Sunniva shouted over the device.

“It’s impossible to say for certain! But it can’t be too far, they would have felt that jolt at disconnection as surely as we did, and they won’t have simply carried on in spite of it!”

Every step seemed to take a minute to complete, and the cold was well and truly finding its way through the seams and openings in their clothing, leaving them slower and shivering by the time a large dark shadow became visible on the tracks ahead.

“That must be it!” Her voice was shaky and shivering, the strain audible over the device’s speaker.

“Yes … just a little farther.” It felt like they’d been freezing for hours, but his pocket watch insisted they’d been walking for less than half an hour. Unless it too was getting slow from the cold.

The first of the several freight cars slowly came into view, step by slow, freezing step. The freight cars were monstrous, like houses on wheels, right down to the pitched roofs they used to keep exactly this type of heavy snow from accumulating on top. As they got closer Archerd saw how effective it was; there were already piles running down the side of the car where snow had accumulated on top and slid off. The train had apparently been stopped for some time.

The remains of the car crossing was no better off than the dining car’s had been. Mangled metal trailed behind, though the door looked intact enough. He laboriously hauled himself up to what was left of the walkway in front of the door and tried to push down on the handle.

“Locked!” he shouted. “No way in here! We can walk between the car and those side drifts! It might help cut out some of the wind!”

“You don’t need to tell me twice!”

Archerd winced as he jumped down off the back of the car; he was starting to feel as brittle as he was cold. Sunniva was waiting for him as he hobbled over between the car and the partial shelter of the fallen snow drift. “This storm is unreal! I’ve never seen this much snow all at once, let alone seen it build up so quickly.” He was able to speak without the communicator now; it was quieter in the channel between the car and the drift. The snow was almost up to their waists out in the open, but here it was only ankle deep and the ridge was almost shoulder high. On the windward side of the car he was sure it’d be much deeper.

“I grew up in Braceton.” Sunniva was visibly fighting to keep her teeth from chattering. “It’s not far from here. We were warned as children about the winter storms even in the city, and there were always stories of hunters in the mountains who never came back. This,” she looked out into the white emptiness, “isn’t even a particularly bad storm as judged locally.”

“Remind me not to buy a winter home in the area,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s keep moving before we freeze on the spot.”

They moved forward much faster than they’d been able to out in the open, and the speed helped them warm up a little more too. There was a similar channel next to each of the freight cars, of which there were 8 in total.

“Here it is, the engine.” Archerd had never seen one up close before, though he’d traveled by train a few times in his life. It was the largest chunk of iron Archerd had ever seen, and he lived in a town founded around mining.

The engine of any train locomotive built in the last several decades was powered by electrite. The radiation emitted by electrite was relatively easy to convert into heat energy in a very stable, even fashion, which in turn made it ideal for heating large quantities of water, creating mechanical energy from steam and hydraulic pressures, and there was no need to constantly fuel wood- or coal-hungry furnaces. It provided more than enough power to move such weights around.

Archerd was very familiar with the idea; his father had worked on more than one engine design during Archerd’s life, but he’d never had the opportunity to board one himself.

Sunniva drew her weapon as they walked alongside the engine. It was slower going here; it lacked the peaked roof the other cars possessed, and so there was little fallen snow to offer protection.

The ladder up to the interior was about halfway down the length of the locomotive’s body, past 4 monstrous close-set solid iron wheels nearly as tall as Archerd himself was. He grabbed hold of a frigid rung, brushing piled up snow off it in the process. Nobody’s climbed this in the last little while, he thought. For that matter they hadn’t seen any tracks at all on the way over, not that footprints would last long in snow this heavy.

He hauled himself up to a small platform jutting out from the side of the locomotive by the door and made room for Sunniva to join him. “Let’s hope this one isn’t locked too.” He was counting on the door at the end having been locked after the explosive decoupling of the train, a safeguard against door damage causing it to open.

“Ready?”

She pulled her pistol out and nodded, palming it, face resolute and either brave or doing a very good job of faking it. Taking a deep breath, Archerd shoved down on the door handle and into the locomotive simultaneously, and the door swung open, thankfully much more quietly than the last one.

The interior was dim; there were lights, but not many, and the windows higher up that normally provided illumination were dull gray from the storm and built-up snow. It was quiet, with only a faint hum that spoke of the engines providing power for the massive boilers and electrical systems. It smelled of sweat and lead and iron, of ozone and grease, and, Archerd noted with a sinking heart, of blood.

They passed through to the interior and Archerd nearly slipped. Sunniva caught his arm. A large pool of blood proved to be the source of the coppery odor they’d caught at the door; next to it, the body of an engine tech, throat neatly cut. A second body, more roughly stabbed, wore the uniform of the train’s engineer. He’d risen from his station and made it several steps, a short staff in hand.

“He must’ve been trying to confront the attacker,” Sunniva commented. Her face had taken on a bit of a green tinge, and Archerd nodded.

“There should be one more though. Where would he be? And where’s the man who did this?”

“Right here.”

The deep, rough male voice jerked Archerd around to see Sunniva standing rigidly in the grasp of a tall, heavily-built man. He wore a gray suit under a heavy overcoat and had heavy chiseled features and a jaw that could crush stone. His eyes were flint-black chips of ice that made the temperatures outside seem positively balmy. Archerd’s gaze was drawn to the gleam of light off a thin blade held at Sunniva’s neck; her eyes were wide but strangely calm.

Archerd took a step back involuntarily. “That’s right, keep it slow, now. Y’don’t want to startle me into doin’ anythin’ you might regret. She’s a right pretty one, be a shame to have to change that.”

“From the looks of your previous handiwork, I get the impression we’re not leaving here either way.”

“No, you definitely ain’t leavin’,” he said frankly. “The question is how’re you gonna go? Fast-like and pain-free? Or are we gonna have to drag it out past its time? I’ll be honest with ya, I’m feelin’ a might generous after you saved me the trouble of huntin’ you down. I gather y’must’ve dealt with ‘ol Tanner, and I never was too fond of ‘im anyways. But now play time’s done and I’ve got a few questions before I off yas.”

Archerd kept his tone neutral. “What do you need to know?” A little flick from Sunniva’s hand caught his attention; she still had her tiny pistol palmed. It was in her off-hand, and she was slowly, so slowly working the glove off her firing hand, a difficult task given her inability to use both hands to do it.

“I’m glad someone on this train knows ‘ow to be civil! These gents were right unfriendly. Now Tanner ‘n me were sent here on the Conclave’s business. Someone said ‘r did somethin’ at some conference that they shouldn’t a said or done or somethin’. Some sort ‘o communications gadget, had the Conclave gents all in a twist. What I need to know,” he said gravely, “is if that’s one ‘o you. I ‘ope it is, cause if it ain’t I gotta go finish Tanner’s job for ‘im.”

Archerd cursed himself silently. Stupid, stupid! He must’ve let something slip that tipped off one of the Conclave scientists that his work was pushing boundaries the Conclave themselves hadn’t approached. Now he was on their radar, and they’d undoubtedly track him back to Dolesham shortly if they hadn’t already.

Sunniva had her glove just about off, but was going to have a hard time switching the pistol to the freed hand. “This communication device you speak of, they really assigned you to kill everyone aboard for it?”

“Ain’t your concern what they ‘ired us to do, now is it? You just be worried ‘bout tellin’ me what I need an’ then I’ll think about tellin’ you before you’re ‘istory.”

Archerd nodded slowly, casting a glance at Sunniva, willing her to understand. “Fine. As it happens, it must be that I’m the one you’re after. I designed this.” He reached into his pocket suddenly; the large man straightened and took a half step back, raising the knife to Sunniva’s throat. She used the sudden movement to drop her glove and switch the pistol from palm to palm, and Archerd dared not breathe his relief; he simply froze. “No, wait …”

Moving very slowly, he drew the communication device out of his pocket so the man could see.

“Well now, alright. Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. Seein’ as you’re savin’ me just all kindsa trouble today, I’ll tell. No, actually killin’ wasn’t no part of our orders. They just wanted us to grab everythin’ we could about the device and ‘specially the one who designed it. Most of ‘em did anyway. Bring it all back to ‘em.” Sunniva’s nostrils flared and Archerd saw anger in her eyes. “The killin’, that was optional. You e’er tried searchin’ a train with people aboard and havin’ to be all quiet and secret-like? I ‘ave, and y’know, it really ain’t easy. Ain’t half as much fun neither.”

“So you aren’t going to kill me then. What about her?” She was giving him a glance of her own, eyes pointing down at the communicator. Her still-gloved hand was slipping into the pocket she kept its twin in.

“Oh no. Much as I appreciate your obligin’ and all, I’m still gonna off ya. Might’ve reconsidered if Tanner were still in the picture but I ain’t watchin’ you all on my own on the way back. Nah, you fought back ‘n died in the fight, then yelled, and Tanner ‘n me had to fight everyone else.”

That was his plan? Clearly not an elite Conclave agent, Archerd thought, nor one with much in the way of long-term career prospects.

But he was still here, and still extremely dangerous; a bright line of scarlet now decorated Sunniva’s throat where the blade pressed close. She held the communicator out of her pocket now, and across the short space he could see the volume was at maximum. Far louder than it’d been even during his first fingernail test.

“As fer this one, I’m afraid I’ve no use for her.”

He lifted the blade away, hand moving up to reposition it for a killing slice. Archerd scraped a rough seam of his glove’s thumb across the grille of his communicator; Sunniva’s emitted a horrible rasping sound. The man cursed and let go in surprise; Sunniva broke free and twisted around, jammed the pistol in his face and pulled the trigger.

She went limp as he fell, crashing to the floor in the pool of his previous victim’s blood. Archerd rushed forward and caught her, but she seemed uninjured.

“Thank you,” she whispered, face pale. That was two men she’d killed, and in less than two hours.

He held her a moment and she gathered herself, gave a wan smile, and straighted herself out. “So,” she continued after a moment. “I don’t suppose you happen to know how to drive a train?”

<> <> <>

The next day the train, or at least the front half of it, pulled into the station at Holdswaine. It was under the control of a driver from the city; a crowd gathered around the locomotive door as the temporary crew climbed down.

Archerd and Sunniva slipped quietly out the back of the rear-most freight car after they stopped. They’d made use of the bulky communications equipment aboard the engine to “call for help” on behalf of the slain crew and hidden themselves amongst the freight the train was hauling.

They crossed the tracks to the far side and slipped round the side; all eyes were on the crew who’d brought the train home, so nobody paid any attention to them. They joined the crowds on the street in front of the station.

“You’re sure you won’t come with me back to Dolesham?”

Sunniva smiled, sadness swirling within her eyes. “I can’t … not yet. I have to come to terms with what’s happened, and … with what I’ve done. I have to figure out what all this means for me.”

“When you figure it out,” he said with a glint in his eye, and leaned in to kiss her suddenly; it felt like an hour. “Come find me. You know where I’ll be.”

She grinned, a sparkle in her eye, but then the grin slipped. “So will they, Arch. If not now, soon. They may be slow and dull, but they are methodical and implacable. And now they’ve painted you a target.”

“Not just me. If they’re that thorough, it won’t take them long to learn the significance of Dolesham.”

“Perhaps you should come with me then, if it’s to become such a dangerous place?”

“I am sorely tempted,” he smiled, “but they need to know the secret is about to come out and will need my help. I can’t abandon them to save myself.”

“Then I’ll leave you with a promise,” she said, and kissed him again. “For the future.”

 

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