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.”
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 3 - Day 17
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 3 - Day 17