An awed hush settled over the carriage as the steady drum of clanking footsteps drew closer. Everyone instinctively huddled in the centre of the car, all eyes fixed upon the door. William’s mother threw a protective arm around her son; Charters and Caldicott, standing shoulder to shoulder, drew themselves up to their full height; the businessman gripped the nearest table more tightly than ever and let out a murmur of dismay. Flanked by the tall, upright figures of Michael and the accountant I concentrated hard on the suddenly tricky business of remembering to breathe.
The footsteps paused momentarily, then there was the sound of the carriage door being not so much opened as wrenched clean off its hinges and suddenly it appeared – seven or more feet of lean polished steel looming towards us. The dimensions of the carriage forced the creature to hunch awkwardly and there was an unpleasant scraping noise as it’s head skimmed the roof. It stopped a few feet from our party, the red lights in the mask-like face blinking furiously at us, and we waited for this fearsome representative of the Viborg race to address us.
It began by clearing it’s throat.
At least that’s how it appeared, for this awkward, intensely human sound came to us from the direction of the Viborg. But a second cough from the same source then alerted our attention to the fact that another presence had entered our carriage in the wake of the Viborg and it was this presence that was now trying to attract our attention. Due to the size of the Viborg in his way he had something of a struggle to make himself visible but eventually, by ducking beneath an immense Viborg arm and half-scrambling over a table, he somehow managed to push past in order to stand before us.
He was a squat, rather red-faced individual, carrying a briefcase and a somewhat sheepish air about him. He paused to mop his glistening brow with a handkerchief before he finally appeared ready to address us directly.
“Good afternoon folks,” he began in a brusque yet cheerful manner. “My name is Biggins and I am an accredited spokesperson for the Viborg race.” At this point he flashed something which looked like an elaborate supermarket loyalty card but which I assumed was intended to prove his credentials. “Myself and my colleagues are tasked with the unhappy duty of informing all the passengers upon this train that they have been designated as hostile elements by the Viborg race. You are therefore invited, according to Section 7, Articles 4,5 and 6 of the Viborg Combatants Code, to surrender forthwith.”
Whilst we were still digesting this unwelcome piece of news Biggins reached into his briefcase and drew out a thick file of densely typed pages. “All details of engagement are clearly laid out in the Viborg Combatants Code,” Biggins added briskly, “a copy of which is hereby provided for your perusal.” With that, he abruptly thrust the file into Michael’s hands, Michael being by chance the member of our party standing closest to him. Michael looked down blankly at the vast wad of closely worded paper for a second and then passed the Code onto me. I promptly passed it to the accountant.
“I am compelled to advise that failure to surrender in a timely manner will result in the ascribed penalties being applied,” remarked Biggins officiously.
“What do you mean by ascribed penalties?” William’s mother nervously asked, clutching her son still tighter.
Biggins cleared his throat once more. “Any persons not accepting the terms of surrender will be promptly incinerated,” he informed us.
“You can’t do that!” spluttered Charters. “We’re British citizens. Show him your passport Caldicott.”
Caldicott promptly reached into his jacket pocket but Biggins quickly responded with a sharp shake of the head. “The Viborg will acknowledge no individual claims of nationality, race or religion,” he stated, refusing even to look at the passport. “As I said before all persons travelling within this train have automatically been designated as enemies of the Viborg race.”
“But that can’t be,” stuttered the businessman from the back of our little group. “We’ve done nothing against the Viborg.”
“Each and every one of you has willingly boarded a train destined for a territory at war with the Viborg race,” declared Biggins. “That makes you enemies of the Viborg.”
“Since when?” countered the accountant. “The Viborg have always permitted the free passage of neutral citizens across all territories.”
“Exactly,” piped up the businessman. “You want to check your own regulations.”
Biggins sighed. “I’m afraid it is your information that is out of date,” he said. “There was an amendment passed to Section 4, Clause 16 several weeks ago. It states that anyone travelling to or from a belligerent nation is liable to find themselves subject to a declaration of war from the Viborg race.” By way of illustration he pointed casually towards the thick file currently in the possession of the accountant.
“But there’s been no declaration of war,” protested the accountant, swiftly giving up his vain attempt to find the clause referred to amongst the dense type. “I should know, I’ve been checking the papers.”
“Yes, well, I’m afraid you’re a little out of touch there too. There is no longer any requirement to publish declarations of war in the local press,” explained Biggins, his sheepish air growing yet more distinct. “Section 9, Articles 7 and 8, covering those formalities were subject to a further amendment recently. Now it merely requires a copy of the full declaration to be posted in the designated public area.”
“And just where exactly is the designated public area?” asked the accountant suspiciously.
Biggins coughed awkwardly. “In the lower bathroom of Viborg Defence Headquarters,” he reluctantly confessed.
“That’s hardly fair!” exclaimed William’s mother.
The air was suddenly rent apart by an alarmingly loud shriek issuing from the Viborg warrior looming behind Biggins. It took a few moments before the windows ceased rattling and the ringing sound in my ears receded to a dull whine.
“I should be careful using words like fair in the vicinity of the Viborg,” cautioned Biggins once the reverberations had finally died away. “They understand quite well and they can be a bit, well, touchy when it comes to matters of honour.”
It seemed to me that any army which attacked a train on the authority of some declaration posted up in their downstairs loo hardly had a right to get sniffy about matters of honour. But I felt it wisest to keep that opinion to myself just for the moment.
Biggins leant forward. “Just between you and me,” he told the whole group in a confidential tone, “things haven’t been running entirely smoothly for the Viborg of late. For a start this siege at Marksville is dragging on far longer than expected. I mean, in the long run the Marksvillians are obviously no match for the Viborg but it really is surprising just how stubborn some people can be in the face of overwhelming odds.” He paused and allowed himself a wry smile at the temerity of it. “Anyway, a meeting at Viborg HQ concluded that perhaps their soldiers were being held back a bit by all this red tape that comes with the process of war. It was decided a selective reassessment of the Combatants Code was needed to, er, redress the balance.”
“Sounds very much like a case of bad sportsmanship to me,” tut-tutted Charters.
“Too right old boy,” agreed Caldicott. “It would never wash with the MCC.”
All attention was at this moment distracted by a distant scream wafting along from one of the other carriages. It seemed we were not alone in objecting to the terms presented by the Viborg.
“Just as a matter of interest,” said Michael when the scream had died away, “what are the consequences if we agree to surrender?”
“The details can be found in Section 12, Articles 5 through to 7,” explained Biggins with another nod in the direction of the Code. “Essentially all humans currently surrendering to the Viborg race are deployed as slave labour in the Viborgian silver mines.”
“The silver mines!” gasped the businessman, horrified.
“But that’s tantamount to murder,” objected the accountant.
“Not at all,” insisted Biggins with a brisk shake of his head. “Since the addition of Articles 11 and 12 to the Viborg Code of Slavery conditions in the mines have improved considerably. Life expectancy amongst the slaves is now considerably higher.”
“What exactly is life expectancy at the moment?” asked Michael curiously.
Biggins coughed a particularly sheepish cough. “I believe it currently stands at 12 weeks,” he was forced to admit.
“Twelve weeks!” cried the businessman, burying his head in his hands.
“But you don’t employ children, surely?” William’s mother piped up hopefully.
“Oh yes. They’re very useful for working in some of the tighter nooks and crannies,” replied Biggins breezily. “Though naturally their life expectancy tends to stand a little lower than the adults.”
“Oh Lord!” exclaimed William’s mother, gripping her son so tightly he winced in pain.
Any further objections were forestalled by another scream, this time much louder and more distinct, sounding a short way off. There followed a sequence of muffled shouts and then what I was beginning to recognise as the distinctive shrill Viborgian cry. A brief silence ensued, with everyone listening intently, before another shout and a crash that sounded something like a train door being flung open. Unable to resist any longer, our little group pressed up against the window, eager to catch a glimpse of the unfolding drama.
We were just in time to see a solitary young man, wild-eyed and frantic, dart out of a carriage a little way down the track. His progress being almost immediately brooked by the phalanx of Viborg lined up opposite the train, he skidded to a halt and looked desperately up and down. Seeing no other way out, he turned and began to sprint in our direction up the track parallel to the train. He had not got far when a single Viborg warrior stepped out of the line behind him. With no sense of hurry or concern, the Viborg steadily turned, raised the gun attached to his right arm and fired.
A thin ray of amber light shot out from the gun and struck the young man squarely in the back. There wasn’t even time for a scream before the ray had burned through both clothes and skin, exposing a bloody mess of muscle and bone beneath. It seemed to me that the skinless spectacle remained suspended in mid-action for a moment, like some particularly gruesome study of man in motion, before what was left collapsed into a messy heap on the track.
For a moment our whole carriage was speechless before William let out a particularly breathless cry of “Whoa!”. It was a sentiment that was hard to disagree with.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” muttered Biggins, stepping away from the window. “There’s always one, isn’t there?” He fixed us all with a look of mild annoyance. “I do hope you’re not going to prove troublesome.”
In the wake of what we had just witnessed it seemed impossible to frame an appropriate response to this.
“Anyway,” said Biggins brusquely, returning to business, “according to Section 3, Article 5 of the Combatants Code you are now entitled to a ten minute period to consider your options. We shall withdraw to the designated perimeter. When your ten minutes are up you will hear a single blast from the Viborg battle horn. Anyone not presenting themselves for surrender within 60 seconds of the horn will be adjudged to be acting with hostile intent and will be treated accordingly.”
“And I suppose by treated accordingly you mean shredded alive like that poor devil out there,” demanded Charters angrily.
Biggins chose not to respond to the accusatory tone. “I’m sure that after due consideration you’ll all make the correct decision,” he simply said serenely. “I’ll leave you the copy of the Combatants Code in case you have any queries in the meantime.”
There was a further unpleasant scraping sound as the Viborg soldier somehow succeeded in turning within the small space available and clanked away out of the carriage, leaving some minor damage to tables and seats along the way. Biggins followed but paused and turned just before he stepped out of the door. “By the way the acknowledged method of surrender is to form up in a line before the Viborg army with your hands on your heads,” he told us cheerily.
And with that he was gone, leaving us ten minutes to choose between the equally unpalatable fates of slavery or death.
Silence reigned once more in the carriage for a minute or two after the footsteps of both Biggins and his Viborg minder had receded, everyone trying to digest the severity of our plight. The sights and sounds we had encountered in the last few minutes were such that it seemed impossible for anyone to succeed in finding the words to express the horror of our dilemma. Though in the end I was forced to concede that William’s mother probably summed it up rather neatly when she finally broke the silence with a cry of, “Oh my good Lord, whatever are we to do?”
“We’ll have to surrender, there’s nothing else for it,” stated the businessman morosely. “You saw what happened to that poor sod who tried to make a run for it.” At this point he glanced worriedly down at his own slightly corpulent figure as if trying to picture what he too might look like with neither clothes nor skin.
“But the Viborgian silver mines…” said the accountant with a shiver.
“Better that than death,” asserted the businessman.
“Can’t say I agree with you there old chap,” retorted Charters briskly. “We may be in a bit of a tight spot but we can’t consider giving in.”
“Exactly,” Caldicott stoutly agreed. “What of Rule Britannia? Britons never, never shall be and all that.”
“I admire your sentiment but I fear we’re going to need something more than a few choruses of Rule Britannia to see off these Viborg,” I said.
“I can’t believe that the Viborg would change their Code just like that,” complained the accountant, gazing unhappily at the copy which had been left in his possession. “They used to be such sticklers for the rules.”
“Not quite the Geneva Convention, what?” put in Charters ruefully.
“Perhaps that’s the answer,” suggested Michael. “What if we plead our rights as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention?”
“No good I’m afraid,” replied the accountant regretfully. “The only regulations the Viborg adhere to are those of their own Code. If it’s not in here, they’re not interested.” He flung the Code down onto the nearest table with a sigh.
“Isn’t there something in here that we could use though?” suggested William’s mother, taking up the file. “I refuse to believe that any document with this many articles and sub-sections isn’t riddled with loop-holes.”
“Possibly,” conceded the accountant, “but I don’t fancy our chances of finding them in ten minutes.”
Indeed, after manfully scouring the first couple of pages, William’s mother also flung down the Code in despair. “Oh dear, it really is hopeless!” she exclaimed.
“Then there really is nothing for it but to surrender,” wailed the businessman. “Oh, that it should come to this!”
“It does seem a bit rum to think that one might end up the slave of some queer robot race just because one caught the train to Marksville,” mused Caldicott philosophically.
“As a matter of interest,” I interjected, feeling now was as good a time as any to satisfy my curiosity, “just exactly why are you going to Marksville?”
“I need to pick up my golf clubs,” replied Charters casually. “The annual tournament at the Royal and Ancient starts in just over a month.”
“You left your golf clubs in Marksville?” said Michael, somewhat disbelievingly.
“No, no, of course not,” returned Charters. “I left my golf clubs in the care of Bertie Lonsdale at the British Embassy in Budapest.”
“Only we didn’t seem to be able to catch a train direct from Marston to Budapest,” added Caldicott. “But a rather splendid chap we met at the hotel bar suggested we ought to be able to make a connection at Marksville so, well, here we are.”
“But didn’t you hear there’s a war on in Marksville?” I asked.
“Well, yes, we did hear something about some kind of trouble,” conceded Charters, “but what had that to do with us?”
“What indeed?” I agreed, unable to deny a certain admiration for the sublime savoir faire of the fictional British traveller of the 1930s.
“I wish I had my clubs with me now,” added Charters wistfully. “I should think a nine iron would be just the ticket for knocking one of those metal monsters off his feet.”
“It’s a pity none of us have weapons of any kind,” agreed Michael, no doubt pining for his medieval broadsword. “Then we might at least have made a stand for it.”
“I’ve got weapons in my luggage,” piped up the businessman unexpectedly. Everyone turned to stare at him. “Very good weapons actually. Two prototypes of the very latest RJC Mark V Armour-Piercing Rifle. Just the thing for blasting holes in a Viborg attack force.”
There was a moment of bemused silence whilst everyone tried to ascertain whether there might be anything to these claims or whether the businessman had simply flipped under the strain.
“Are you sure?” said the accountant.
“Of course,” replied the businessman casually. “That’s what I do you see – I’m an arms dealer.” He took a business card from his jacket pocket and passed it round the group. It read, ‘Maurice James, RJC Arms Manufacturers.’ “That’s why I was heading to Marksville. I was rather hopeful of securing quite a large order.”
“Do you have any ammunition for these guns?” asked Michael.
“About 200 rounds,” replied the businessman with a shrug.
“Then why the blazes didn’t you say so!” burst out Charters impatiently. “This could be just the thing.”
The businessman glared at him. “There must be a thousand Viborg out there,” he pointed out sourly. “Two guns – even my top quality guns – and 200 rounds will scarcely make a dent in their numbers.”
This undoubtedly served as a pin prick in the bubble of optimism that had been growing within the carriage. Maths had never been my best subject at school but even I could grasp that the odds were so unfavourable as to be overwhelming.
“But perhaps a dent is all that we need,” said the accountant slowly after a moment. “We don’t necessarily need to defeat the whole force. If we could just hold them off long enough to get the train started…”
“Then they’d only come after us,” retorted the businessman gloomily.
“But if we could make it to Marksville then we’d have the protection of the city walls,” suggested the accountant, his eyes lighting up as he began to consider the potential of his plan. “And they’ve been holding out there for months.”
“And just how do you expect to get the train started with neither a driver nor an engineer?” asked William’s mother, not unreasonably.
“Well, we could give it a go,” chipped in Caldicott eagerly. “We managed it before when they stopped that train in Bandrika, didn’t we?” he added, turning to Michael.
“Ah, yes, well I’m not sure this would be quite so easy,” stuttered Michael.
“Nonsense,” responded Charters heartily, “I’m sure we can work it out.”
Michael opened his mouth to object, hesitated for a moment whilst throwing me a helpless glance and then finally gave in with a shrug. “Well, I suppose it’s probably worth a try,” he conceded.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the accountant. “Now, if we’re going to pull this off we’re going to have to organise ourselves very carefully…”
He was interrupted by a long loud blast from some kind of bugle or trumpet.
“The Viborg battle horn!” cried the businessman with a shudder.
“Damn, it seems our time is up,” muttered the accountant.
For a moment everyone glanced frantically at everyone else, hoping for some spark of inspiration or grand idea but nothing came. Eventually, it was left to William’s mother to voice the unpalatable truth. “I suppose we’d really better go and present ourselves for surrender,” she said with a sigh. “Otherwise…” Neither she nor anyone else seemed inclined to finish the sentence.
“I suppose we’d better,” nodded the accountant unhappily.
Slowly, reluctantly, we all turned and headed for the carriage door. As I descended the steps into the bright sunshine I refused to lose heart entirely. There might yet be time to pull off a daring escape from beneath the noses of the mighty Viborg force, only any plan would now necessarily be less of the highly organised and more of the ‘make it up as you go along’ variety. Which, I consoled myself as I made my way towards the waiting Viborg line, was at least the variety with which I was most familiar.
To be continued…