It proved to be a disappointingly simple task to exchange at the station our bartered tickets to Madrid for two returns to Marksville. During the transaction I tried to probe the ticket clerk for details of this so-called ‘conflict’ taking place at our destination, endeavouring to determine whether Sturridge’s reassurances were in any way reliable. But the railway employee proved irritatingly officious in his replies. Yes, he conceded, he was aware of some slight trouble in that particular region but it was the railway company’s policy never to get involved in any hostilities occurring anywhere along its operating routes. All he was prepared to say was that the daily scheduled train had been leaving at 2pm prompt for Marksville every day for the last six months and he had never seen any passengers back at his window complaining about the service they’d received en route.
Having been obliged to settle for this somewhat less-than-hearty endorsement of our proposed journey, we were then obliged to endure a lengthy wait upon a cold and draughty platform before the train to Marksville – a grand old steam engine trailing a seemingly endless parade of carriages – duly arrived. There were few other passengers waiting and we were fortunate enough to secure a comfortable compartment to ourselves. If there was one thing to be said for the imaginary landscape it was that on the whole it generally offered a superior kind of rail service, a point I mentioned to Michael as we settled into the well-upholstered seats and waited for the off.
“Well, I suppose,” mused Michael, cheerfully stretching out his long legs, “that the railways of an imaginary landscape have to be designed to cater for romance and adventure. And they’re unlikely to get either of those by following the British Rail model.”
“Hmm, you may be right there,” I conceded. “But I think it should be our aim to avoid anything in the way of adventure on this particular journey,” I added after a moment. “Let’s just get to Marksville, get the travel device upgraded and get back to Sturridge. No diversions, no distractions, no getting into trouble of any kind.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” returned Michael, “it’s generally the trouble that finds us and not the other way round.”
“Well then we ought to just sit in our compartment for the whole journey and not budge an inch,” I suggested. “Trouble can’t very well find us if we hide out in here for the duration.”
“If you say so,” replied Michael, sounding far from convinced.
I looked out over the empty platform, wondering what was taking the train so long to get started.
“And actually,” I then added rather abruptly, “I think I ought to tell you that once we’ve delivered this device back to Sturridge I intend to tell him that’s it as far as I’m concerned. If he wants to go chasing the Explorer’s Club halfway across the landscape then that’s fine but I’ve got other concerns.”
Michael lifted an eyebrow. “And they are…?”
I swallowed hard. “Well, finding a way back home for one,” I replied. “I think perhaps it’s time I gave that some proper consideration.”
Michael continued to regard me with that raised eyebrow but said nothing.
“I mean, I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed our adventures here,” I blustered on. “Well, the times when we haven’t been almost killed at least have been quite fun. But I have another life to get back to and we’re no nearer to finding a way back out of this landscape than the first day we set foot here. And I’m afraid the longer I leave it the harder it will be to go home.”
Michael smiled a gentle smile. “I understand,” he said.
“You don’t think it sounds like I’m leaving Sturridge in the lurch, do you?” I said worriedly.
“Of course not,” insisted Michael. “You’ve every right to go your own way. If anything, I’m a little surprised you didn’t say something to Sturridge in the café. You’re under no obligation to take this trip for him.”
I directed my gaze back out of the window for a moment whilst I tried to formulate a response. To be perfectly honest, I was rather wondering just how I had come to agree to this expedition myself. Did I feel that, having come this far, I somehow owed something to Sturridge? Or was it that I simply couldn’t bear to face the look of disappointment that would inevitably show on his face once I said I was no longer able to help. After all, he was the CJ Sturridge, literary hero – in my pre-landscape days I would have moved heaven and earth just to hear him speak and would never have passed up the opportunity to join him on a quest.
But things were a little different now. From the moment he’d made contact back in Constantinople I’d been wrestling with a growing conviction that this vendetta with the Explorer’s Club may be the right quest for Sturridge but it wasn’t for me. I had a feeling I was going to have my hands quite full enough just trying to get back home. But whilst I was determined that I wouldn’t be cowed into thinking that I couldn’t say no to Sturridge, I still preferred to give myself a little time to work up to delivering the rejection.
Looking back across at Michael I finally said with a light shrug, “I guess one last venture on Sturridge’s behalf can’t really hurt.”
Michael merely smiled in reply.
“Of course, just because I’ll be heading for the exits there’s no need for you to follow,” I quickly told him. “I mean, obviously things are a bit different for you with you not having so much of a life to get back to… Or maybe you do… Some kind of after-life possibly. Or maybe you’d just prefer to hang out in the landscape. I’m sure there are other folks around here in need of a travelling companion.” I paused, aware that I was rambling on somewhat. “What will you do once I’ve gone home?” I asked after a moment. “Is there somewhere for you to go back to?”
Michael hesitated and then responded with a gentle shrug of his own. “Let’s find an exit first and then we can worry about that,” he said lightly.
Just then we heard the shrill blast of a guard’s whistle. With a painful shudder the engine started up and the train began to grudgingly pull away from the station.
“Marksville first then,” I said, gratefully watching the station platform slowly recede from the window. “And let’s just have a nice quiet journey for once, just sit back and watch the scenery go by.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Michael, obligingly reclining back in his own seat. “Here’s to a singularly uneventful trip.”
Unfortunately my plans for sitting back and watching the scenery go by for the whole journey were soon scuppered by a distinct lack of scenery. Once we had left behind the straggling suburbs of Marston the landscape settled into a flat, arid wasteland stretching away as far as the eye could see. Beneath a bright, cloudless sky there was absolutely nothing in the way of features, whether natural or man-made, to be spotted. I soon tired of gazing out upon this parched scrubland and closed my eyes, intending to while away the journey in peaceful slumber.
My attempts at sleep however were quickly disturbed by a familiar gnawing sensation welling up somewhere deep inside my stomach. All of a sudden it seemed like an awful long time since breakfast and an even longer time until we might think of dinner in Marksville. I struggled manfully for some time to ignore my hunger, hoping that the gentle rolling motion of the train might yet rock me to sleep, but it was futile. Even counting sheep was of no use.
At the point where the growls from my increasingly ravenous stomach finally threatened to drown out the sound of the engine I reluctantly opened my eyes. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a buffet trolley passing our way anytime soon, is there?” I casually asked Michael.
He responded with a wry smile. “I believe refreshments are only available in the dining car,” he replied.
“The dining car?”
“It’s at the very end of the train.”
“Oh,” I said.
There followed a couple of minutes silence during which I tried to quell my increasingly noisy belly whilst Michael watched me expectantly. Eventually I gave in. “I don’t suppose you fancy…?” I began.
“And what happened to staying in our compartment and avoiding all trouble?” responded Michael with a teasing smile.
I glared at him sourly. “Well, it’s no use avoiding trouble only to starve to death before we get anywhere near Marksville, is it?” I pointed out.
“No use at all,” replied Michael with an air that came uncomfortably close to smugness. He then stood up and, with an exaggerated show of gallantry, gestured towards the compartment door.
I stood up but paused and turned around before the door. “It’s straight there and back though,” I told him sternly. “No chatting up any strangers on the way.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” returned Michael innocently.
I opened the door and tentatively peeked out. To my relief there was no sign of life in either direction and so we both slipped quietly out of the compartment and headed for the rear of the train.
Fortunately the train seemed to be pretty sparsely populated and we managed to reach the last carriage unmolested by any other passengers. On entering the dining car we swiftly located an empty table and sat down. Whilst we waited for the steward to acknowledge our presence I couldn’t resist a surreptitious look around at the few other travellers currently occupying the car.
I was relieved to note that they appeared on the whole to be a largely unremarkable bunch. Just behind us a young mother was watching her ten year old son greedily wolf down a bowl of ice-cream. Directly opposite sat a young man with the look of a trainee accountant gazing wistfully out of the window. A little further down were two men in tweed suits, their faces obscured as they were both engrossed in reading the same large newspaper. And closest to the door sat a middle-aged businessman who was currently occupying the steward’s attention by delivering a loud and lengthy harangue about the state of the soup.
A quick perusal of the menu card rather dampened my expectations as far as the food went. The choice seemed neither very fulsome nor appetising but then I suppose it is always a mistake to expect too much from railway cuisine no matter how well-appointed the train in which you are travelling. The steward, finally tiring of the businessman’s harangue, simply walked away, leaving him muttering unhappily to himself, and came to take our order. We settled on the relatively safe option of tea and sandwiches, which were finally delivered after some delay.
If I had stuck closely to my own guidelines then by rights we should have returned to our own compartment the moment we had finished our meal. However, the gentle rolling motion of the train, now allied to that contented glow that only comes from a full stomach, combined to bring on a rather languid state that disinclined me towards any immediate movement. Michael too seemed in no particular hurry to return to the solitary confines of our compartment and so we lingered for a while, lazily watching the world go by. In fact my eyelids were just beginning to droop shut when the somnambulant air of the dining car was suddenly pierced by a long and loud squeal of brakes and the train unexpectedly juddered to a halt.
I immediately jerked awake, glancing around in surprise and concern. There were no scheduled stops along the route before we reached Marksville and according to the timetable we were still a good few hours short of our destination. A ripple of consternation ran along the whole of the dining car, passengers looking up and down in search of some explanation for the unexpected interruption. It was the young mother who finally voiced aloud the question on everyone’s lips. “Why have we stopped?” she asked in a decidedly worried tone.
“It can’t be to pick up any passengers,” said the accountant, peering closely out of the window. “There’s not a soul in sight.”
He was right. A detailed examination of our surroundings revealed nothing more than dry wasteland as far as the eye could see.
“Well this is a bit of a turn-up,” came the clipped English tones of one of the tweedy gentlemen from behind the newspaper he was now laboriously folding up.
“Perhaps we’ve broken down,” suggested Michael.
“Maybe somebody pulled the emergency cord,” I offered.
“This is outrageous!” declared the businessman, apparently taking the unscheduled halt as a personal insult. “I have a very important appointment in Marksville and I demand an explanation for this delay.”
It was only in the silence that followed that it occurred to me that the businessman was unlikely to get such an explanation due to the lack of any member of officialdom to deliver it. “Where did the steward go?” I asked of nobody in particular.
“Perhaps he’s gone to find out what’s happening,” suggested Michael hopefully.
“I doubt it,” sniffed the young boy unexpectedly. “He left about ten minutes ago and pretty sneaky he was about it too, if you ask me. I was watching him.”
“Nobody is asking you William,” rebuked his mother mildly. “Don’t be so melodramatic.”
“He was so,” muttered William defiantly under his breath.
“Either way it’s damn poor service, running off like that in an emergency,” said the businessman. “His first duty ought to be to his passengers.”
“Why don’t I have a wander down the corridor and see if I can’t find him?” suggested the accountant amiably. “Or at least someone who can tell us what’s going on.”
This having met with a general murmur of approval, he disappeared smartly off down the corridor, leaving the rest of us to stand around somewhat awkwardly. For a while we all glanced around at one another, nobody quite knowing what to say, and it was here that I noticed for the first time that the two tweedy gentlemen, having now fully emerged from behind their newspaper, looked rather familiar.
It’s easy to forget whilst travelling the landscape of the imagination that most of the people within it are fictional. They all started life as characters in books or ballads, films or songs, or even just a half-remembered day-dream. The imagination being a pretty broad place, the majority of those that you meet will have sprung from artistic endeavours you are unlikely to have heard of and probably never will. But I suppose by the law of averages it signifies that every now and then you will come across someone you might recognise from a novel you’ve read or a drama you’ve seen.
So it was now. After a second glance I was quite convinced that I recognised the two fellow travellers from a film I had watched several times. In fact it happened to be the very last film I ever saw in the real world before I fell through the door in the wall into the landscape. What made this occasion more intriguing than usual was the fact that the film in question also happened to star my current companion. Which possibly explained why the two gentlemen were now staring closely at Michael with an intense curiosity.
After a brief, murmured consultation the slightly shorter of the two stepped forward. “I say, it is you, isn’t it?” he said to Michael.
Michael, clearly flummoxed as to how to reply, hesitated a second before saying, “I’m sorry?”
“It is you, I’m sure of it,” insisted the second chap. “We met before on a different train journey, travelling back from Bandrika to Blighty. You must remember. My name’s Charters and this is my friend, Caldicott.”
Michael paused again, throwing a swift uncertain glance in my direction. I could only offer a slight shrug of the shoulders in response. What do you say, after all, to two entirely made-up characters who automatically assume you to be another made-up character they’ve previously encountered within the confines of a fictitious scenario dreamt up for a British film of the 1930s? It’s fair to say there are certain kinds of awkward social situation that you simply never encounter in the real world.
Michael eventually opted for the path of least resistance. “Ah yes, I remember,” he said. “How nice to see you again.”
“I’m terribly sorry but I can’t quite remember your name,” said Caldicott.
This brought on another uncomfortable hesitation before Michael tentatively replied with, “I’m Michael.”
This, it immediately transpired, was not the right line to take. “No, that wasn’t it,” returned Caldicott with a confused shake of his head.
“No, really, it’s Michael,” persisted Michael.
“Perhaps it’s the surname you’re thinking of,” Charters amiably suggested to Caldicott.
“Perhaps,” said Caldicott doubtfully. “What is your surname?” he asked Michael.
Clearly deciding it was too late to change tack now Michael wearily gave his surname.
“No, that wasn’t it either,” insisted Caldicott. “I swear I’ll remember if you just give me a minute.”
“Please, just call me Michael,” my colleague entreated.
Charters and Caldicott exchanged a significant glance. “Very well, if you say so old man,” Caldicott eventually replied.
Michael breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“Quite an adventure, wasn’t it, that Bandrikan ride?” continued Charters cheerfully. “Do you still see anything of that feisty brunette who was involved? Rather an attractive looking creature, I thought…”
Caldicott interrupted him with an embarrassed cough. “Best not go there old man,” he said in a low tone. “Didn’t we last see her on that night train to Munich with Dickie Randall?”
“Oh yes, so we did. Bad luck old sport,” Charters offered soothingly to Michael. “Still, possibly for the best. Pretty enough but rather highly strung I thought. And you don’t seem to be travelling alone…”
“This is Natasha, a friend of mine,” said Michael hastily, placing a stress on the word ‘friend’ in an effort to allay further embarrassment.
“Delighted to meet you,” said Charters.
“How do you do,” offered Caldicott.
I had barely time to offer a polite smile in return when the attention of the whole dining car was distracted by the sudden return of the accountant. He burst through the carriage door looking rather red-faced and decidedly alone. He was obliged to hold for a moment before speaking in order to recover his breath.
“Clearly the steward wasn’t man enough to front up and explain this mess himself,” complained the businessman loudly, taking advantage of the pause. “You ought to have been firmer with him.”
“I couldn’t be firm with him because I couldn’t find him,” retorted the accountant, his face still rather flushed. “In fact, I couldn’t find any staff anywhere on the train. They’ve all disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” echoed the young mother worriedly.
“I went all the way along to the engine,” explained the accountant. “Even the driver and engineer have vanished. There are only the passengers left aboard.”
Expressions of disbelief and disquiet rippled along the carriage. “I don’t understand,” said Caldicott. “Why would the driver leave the train?”
“Maybe he wanted to get away from that,” piped up William unexpectedly. I turned to see him kneeling on a seat, his face pressed up against the window. Intrigued, we all shuffled over to take a look out of the train.
Somewhere over towards the horizon an enormous cloud of dust, looking something like a horizontal tornado, stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see. It rose several feet into the air and, rather more alarmingly, appeared to be moving towards the train at a steady pace.
“What in God’s name is that?” demanded Charters.
“Is it some kind of storm?” asked the businessman, a note of alarm sounding in his normally strident tone.
“It doesn’t look like any kind of natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen,” I felt compelled to point out.
There followed a minute or two of silence whilst everyone stood and gawped, nobody knowing quite what to say. But as the strange cloud continued to move closer it became possible to make out something within it, something shiny and metallic, glinting beneath the bright sunlight. Slowly, as they continued forward, these glints gradually took on distinct shapes – the shapes of hundreds of different individuals marching uniformly forward in steady lines. When they reached to within about thirty feet of the train they came to an abrupt halt.
“Good grief, what are those?” exclaimed Caldicott as we all anxiously peered out. “Men in armour?”
The dust around the metallic figures gradually began to settle.
“Actually,” I said, “they appear to be men made out of armour.”
Indeed, as the gleaming shapes finally emerged from the settling cloud each could be seen to bear a human shape though they were very clearly not human. Each one stood about seven feet tall, comprised of a metallic skeleton threaded through with ligaments of wire. For faces there were just blank silver masks in which two red lights blinked where you might normally expect to find eyes. Each figure had a round metal shield welded to its left arm and on the right some kind of large fixed gun. The whole effect looked to me like one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings constructed and brought to life by Mercedes-Benz, with perhaps a few optional extras thrown in by an arms manufacturer.
William, I think, probably spoke for the feelings of most within the carriage when he let out a long, low cry of “Wow!”
I was still standing, transfixed, when a sudden thump to my left alerted me to the businessman collapsing into the nearest seat. “Oh sweet Lord!” he exclaimed in a half-strangled voice. “It’s the Viborg!”
“The who?” said Michael.
The businessman glared at him. “Have you never heard of the Viborg?” he remarked incredulously. “Are you entirely ignorant?”
Michael merely shrugged lightly in response. Though to be fair to him the blank looks emanating from several in the carriage, myself included, indicated that if he was to be deemed ignorant then he was at least in good company.
Fortunately the accountant swiftly stepped in to remedy the deficiency in our knowledge. “The Viborg are the terror of the sci-fi heartlands,” he said softly. “They exist purely to wage war on towns and cities up and down the region – murdering, plundering, enslaving wherever they choose. They’ve been laying siege to the town of Marksville for the last six months.”
“But they never attack this far out,” interjected the businessman, grasping the nearest table in agitation. “They’ve absolutely no right to stop this train.”
“It’s true,” nodded the accountant. “The Viborg are notorious sticklers for the rules of war. They would never assault neutral citizens without a formal declaration of war and that has to be delivered in writing at least six weeks prior to attack. I’m certain no such declaration has been issued.”
“Well there’s something,” I murmured, not however feeling entirely reassured.
“Then what are they doing here?” asked Charters, not unreasonably.
Before anyone could offer an explanation there came a noise from outside our window, a strange high-pitched whine that came somewhere between a whistle and a screech. From the Viborg line a single warrior directly opposite us stepped smartly forward. I was not the only one in the carriage to instinctively flinch at this manoeuvre. I scarcely noticed out of the corner of my eye that several other Viborg had similarly stepped forward at intervals all down the line facing the train – my attention was too intensely fixed on the hulking great brute of metal steadily making his way towards our carriage.
“Whatever they want,” said Michael as it approached the door, “I think we’re about to find out.”
To be continued…