NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 3 - Day 18

 


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.”