Outside the train we wordlessly shuffled ourselves into a line, standing with our hands upon our heads as ordered. I found myself in the centre of our little group, with Michael to my right and Charters to my left, staring directly ahead, somewhat transfixed by the blank, expressionless face of the Viborg soldier directly opposite me. All along the train the other passengers were alighting from their carriages and similarly offering themselves up to their new Viborg masters. There were no further attempts to make a break through or beyond the Viborg line – it seemed the lesson of the earlier escapee had been well-heeded.
Biggins swiftly reappeared. He marched up and down in front of our group, eyeing our manner of supplication with grudging approval. Each of the carriages had apparently been issued with its own version of Biggins and these clucked and fussed around their charges, like so many mother hens trying to get their broods in order.
After several ponderous turns up and down our line Biggins paused to address us. “Right then, we’ll be moving off soon so do pay attention,” he instructed briskly. “When I issue the command you will all make a left turn and proceed forward as directed. Single file all the way – no slouching, talking or deviating from the ranks.” He paused and offered an encouraging smile. “We have a long way to go so do try and keep up.”
Satisfied that his orders had been fully noted, Biggins took a couple more turns along our line before he evidently tired of playing Sergeant-Major and wandered off a little way to consult with one of his colleagues. This was our cue – as soon as he was out of earshot a series of messages began to pass along the line in discreet whispers.
It had escaped no-one’s attention that a left turn would take our march up alongside the train, offering just a glimmer of hope that there might yet prove an opportunity to sneak back aboard and retrieve the businessman’s guns. “The guns are in a grey case in the third carriage along from the dining car,” came the whispered message from the businessman stationed at the far left of the line.
This was duly passed all the way along to the accountant standing at the opposite end. “One of us should try and create some kind of distraction when we draw level with that carriage,” came back his whispered suggestion.
Charters immediately volunteered for this particular duty. When pressed on what kind of distraction he had in mind he confidently asserted that he “would think of something”.
A moment later a whisper was passed down from the right that William had volunteered to be the one to sneak back on board under cover of Charters’ distraction. It was thought that, being the smallest, his absence was least likely to be noted. This offer, however, had barely travelled the length of the line before it was counter-manded by a directive from William’s mother that he would do so “over her dead body”.
I can’t really say what it was that prompted me then to speak up myself. Perhaps my sense of derring-do had been piqued by the willingness of both Charters and William to put themselves forward, or perhaps the nervous tension of the moment simply got to me. But for whatever reason I now found myself leaning slightly towards Michael and whispering up to him, “I guess I could have a go at getting back on board…”
Michael risked a sharp glance in my direction. “Are you sure?” he hissed.
I hesitated. Almost the instant I had voiced the proposal out loud I had begun to have second thoughts. “Well, I guess I am the next smallest after William,” I murmured uncertainly.
Michael, unfortunately, entirely failed to pick up on the element of doubt in my tone. He merely shrugged and muttered, “If you say so,” before leaning away to pass my offer back up the line. I had little choice then but to whisper to Charters and pass my suggestion down the opposite way. By the time the message had travelled the length of the line in both directions I was already beginning to thoroughly regret my impetuosity.
There was no time though to rescind the offer for a second or two later Biggins was back in his Sergeant-Major’s post, a sign that our moment of departure was imminent. Sure enough he had barely time to stand up straight and puff out his chest before there came a shrill whistle from the Viborg phalanx.
“Right then,” called out Biggins promptly. “Left… turn!”
It was scarcely the most well-drilled of military manoeuvres but somehow we managed to shuffle our way round to face the direction required. A moment later and the Viborg line showed us how it was done, performing their own take on the same move in one sharp, crisp turn. The turn had put us at the very end of a long line of Viborg prisoners stretching the entire length of the train. We now had a short wait as each carriage-worth of captives were given the order to move off before finally it was our turn. Eventually Biggins called out, “And… march!” and our group stumbled forwards after them.
It can’t have taken much more than a minute before we drew level with the third carriage along from the dining car but it was plenty of time for regretting ever having opened my mouth about trying to get back on board. For a start, instead of marching straight ahead our route was directed at a slight angle away from the train. So while we had started with a gap of no more than a few feet between ourselves and the train, by the time we reached the third carriage that gap now yawned like an immense chasm. Whatever distraction Charters had in mind I couldn’t possibly see how I might cover the distance without being spotted. As we walked I could almost fancy I could already feel the searing heat of a Viborg ray burning through my skin.
It was too late to back out now though. The plan, such as it was, had been agreed upon and Charters now set the ball rolling by somehow contriving to trip over his own feet, collapsing to the floor in a highly theatrical dive. Our small group instantly stumbled to an uncoordinated halt. The prisoners ahead of us carried blithely on with their Viborg guards but Biggins and the three Viborg soldiers marching beside our section drew to an immediate halt alongside us.
“What are you doing down there?” barked Biggins, glaring irritably at the prone Charters. “Get up!”
“Not sure I can,” replied Charters smoothly. “I think I may have sprained my ankle.” For added effect he rubbed at the offending joint with a melodramatic grimace. As dramatic performances go it was scarcely Oscar-worthy but I suppose it just about served its purpose.
“Nonsense, it’ll be fine,” retorted Biggins. He threw a nervous glance at the stationary Viborg. “You’d better get up – they won’t tolerate stragglers,” he added darkly.
“Alright, alright. Give me a minute,” muttered Charters, making a feeble effort to rise. First Caldicott and then Michael and the accountant crowded round him, ostensibly trying to help but mostly just serving to get in the way.
This, I realised, was my cue to action.
Unfortunately, I now found that my legs seemed to have turned to lead. The three immobile Viborg soldiers alongside us loomed ominously and I was caught in a quandary of indecision – would it be better to edge stealthily towards the carriage or just make a run for it? Either way, the train seemed to recede further into the distance every time I glanced over in that direction. But, as Biggins harried and my comrades fussed around the fallen Charters, I caught a worried look from Michael and realised it was now or never. Feeling a sudden surge of nervous energy I made a dash for the carriage door.
I covered the ground in a few seconds and I can distinctly remember reaching out my hand to take hold of the door handle when I heard a sharp Viborg whistle behind me. Instinctively I swivelled round, just in time to see the foremost of the three Viborg soldiers step out of line with a single clanking footstep and raise his right arm in my direction.
There are two versions of what happened next.
The first is an oft-told story, a staple in my ever-expanding repertoire of traveller’s tales. I usually preface it with a brief digression upon the notion of a basic survival instinct lurking within each and every one of us. There is evidence, I’ll say, that in times of extreme danger a sort of primeval intuition takes over, imbuing us with almost superhuman levels of skill and awareness. Once my audience has swallowed that concept it is but a short step to explaining how, in the moment I turned to face the Viborg warrior, I instantly understood that there was no way to outrun or dodge his fire. That the only way to escape with my life was to somehow deflect the imminent blast away from myself. Consequently, in the millisecond before the Viborg fired, I swiftly slipped my bag from my shoulders and tossed it high into the air as a distraction.
That, my friends, is Version One.
The second version is a tale that I tend to keep mostly to myself. In fact the only other person to have ever heard it spoken aloud is Michael and that was only after the consumption of an excessive amount of bathtub gin in a speakeasy we stumbled across during a trip through the Gangsters’ Quarter. This version begins by conceding that all notions of survival instincts and primeval intuitions are absolute bollocks. That, when faced with imminent death, the natural tendency of the human mind is towards absolute panic. And it was in such a state that I rather ludicrously imagined that the best way to subdue the attacking Viborg was to throw my bag at him. Due to the afore-mentioned panic however I somehow contrived to cock up even this simple manoeuvre by trying to launch the bag before I’d actually remembered to loose the straps from my shoulders. As a consequence, rather than flying direct to its target as I had intended, the bag merely looped harmlessly into the air.
There you have the second, and possibly marginally more accurate, version of the story.
Whichever version you happen to hear however, the outcome is exactly the same. Whether by accident or design my bag really did fly up into the air the moment before the Viborg fired and consequently he actually did divert his aim onto this new target. The blast hit my backpack just a few feet in front of me, the canvas instantly disintegrated and the myriad contents fell harmlessly to the ground.
For a moment afterwards time really did seem to stand still. I was dimly aware of the remainder of the prisoners and their Viborg guard disappearing in a cloud of dust over the horizon but for the time being our three remaining Viborg warders, together with Biggins, the fallen Charters and the rest of our carriage gathered around him, seemed transfixed by my life’s effects now lying scattered across the railway tracks in front of me. I can’t say that the snapshot they provided of my current existence proved a particularly edifying sight. There were several relics of my life in the real world (purse, keys, mobile phone), a broken umbrella, a spare set of underwear and an out-of-date tin of Imaginary Emporium salmon that I had been saving for an absolute emergency. My own eyes drifted to the inter-dimensional travel device, lying in its protective cloth between two sleepers. I could only pray that it hadn’t suffered any further damage in the fall.
This mutual reverie was finally broken by a sequence of sharp whistles from the nearest Viborg soldier, apparently directed for Biggins to translate. Biggins looked uncertainly from the Viborg to the contents of the bag and back again before eventually turning to me. “What’s in the box?” he abruptly demanded.
“The what?” I said, still somewhat stunned.
“The box,” repeated Biggins firmly. “The Viborg demand to know what you are carrying in that box.”
In the drama of the moment I had completely forgotten about the small wooden box given to me by Sturridge. It lay where it had landed, slightly obscured by the rail it now nestled against.
“Oh, er, that,” I spluttered. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
This was greeted by several high-pitched Viborgian whistles.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” complained Biggins. “You must know what it contains.”
I shook my head. “It’s not mine,” I protested weakly. “I was just asked to deliver it to somebody.”
“Somebody in Marksville?” said Biggins with narrowed eyes.
I reluctantly nodded.
There came another Viborg whistle.
“Open it,” instructed Biggins sternly.
Now, perhaps if my nerves weren’t still twanging from the experience of very nearly having my insides displayed for all to see I might have had the presence of mind to deflect this Viborg request. I’m sure that, on top form, I could easily have come up with a cunning and perfectly plausible excuse as to why I couldn’t possibly open the box right here and now. Unfortunately, I was at this moment feeling considerably far from top form. My nerves were indeed still twanging, my brain had slowed to a virtual standstill and all I could think of was the deadly gun attached to the Viborg arm still pointing rather threateningly in my direction.
Under such circumstances my hands automatically felt in my pocket for the keys to the padlocks. I glanced across to my fellow passengers, all watching with an intense curiosity, before reluctantly stepping forward and kneeling down by the box. It certainly looked innocent enough, lying quietly beside the track. But what was it Sturridge had said? Something about the contents being rather volatile if not handled correctly. A thousand alarming images of various ways to be maimed, blinded or killed began to run through my mind as I slowly slid the keys one by one into the padlocks. Once the final one had fallen away I laid my hand on the lid and hesitated.
I heard a great clanking thud and looked up to see that the nearest Viborg had taken another ominous step in my direction. Oh well, I thought, if I am to be blown sky high by the mysterious contents of the box I might at least take one of these metal monsters with me. I took a deep breath, screwed my eyes tight shut and then flipped open the lid.
I cautiously opened first one eye, then the other and finally leaned forward, peering curiously into the box. At first sight it appeared to contain nothing more deadly than five shiny metal buttons, each about the size of a £2 coin. I gazed curiously down upon them for several seconds, wondering just what all the fuss could have been about. Intrigued, I reached in and picked one out. Hearing the Viborg soldier take another clumsy step forward I held it out in the palm of my hand for everyone to see.
It was while I peered suspiciously at it from all angles that something suddenly seemed to take possession of the button. It began to vibrate, at first gently, but then faster and faster, before a strange rippling effect came over the back of the object and then six legs suddenly sprung out from somewhere inside. This was immediately followed by a head poking out from the front, from the top of which two long slender antennae curled elegantly outwards. Suddenly I no longer held in my hand an inanimate button but a living breathing beetle with a shiny metallic abdomen.
The beetle sat still in my palm for a moment, turning its head curiously this way and that, before it suddenly stretched out one of its antennae and jabbed it into the flesh of my palm. This produced a sharp, stinging sensation that caused me to give out a slight yelp. After this first dig the small creature seemed disinclined to take its probing any further but as a precaution I instinctively shook it from my hand nonetheless.
The creature landed on the other side of the rails, apparently none the worse for wear as it immediately began to scurry about over the ground. I watched with interest, shaking my still throbbing palm, as it hurried about aimlessly for a few seconds before running up against the large metal foot of the foremost Viborg soldier. Here it once again flicked out its curious antennae, bringing forth a disturbingly high-pitched shriek from the Viborg. Before the metal warrior could react though, the beetle, clearly finding its metal frame more inviting than my fleshly palm, leaped up onto the Viborg foot and began to scurry up his leg.
It could be seen in flashes, darting between metal joints and beneath wire tendons and ligaments, as it hurried purposefully up the great metallic body. Whatever it was doing as it moved swiftly in and out of sight around the metallic torso it didn’t appear to be beneficial to Viborg health. As it climbed there were more dramatic shrieks, sparks began to fly and the soldier began to judder and shake quite alarmingly.
As the Viborg staggered back and forth, brushing ineffectually at himself, I instinctively jumped backwards out of his way. In doing so I inadvertently knocked the wooden box which tumbled forward, spilling the remaining buttons out onto the ground. I looked down to see these buttons also begin to vibrate, before they suddenly sprouted legs, heads and antennae of their own.
Having come to life the new beetles set off over the ground themselves. For a moment or two their movements seemed aimless before, almost in unison, they appeared to catch on to the presence of the other two Viborg guards standing a little way back and they made an abrupt scuttling beeline for them. The Viborg, seeing and hearing the distress of their malfunctioning colleague, were clearly not inclined to welcome this new plague and made desperate efforts to get out of the way. Unfortunately whilst the Viborg warrior clearly possesses many strategic advantages on the battlefield manoeuvrability isn’t one of them. Their stumbling footsteps were no match for the speed and agility of their tiny assailants. The beetles soon hopped onto a foot each and began to scurry their way upwards.
The furthest two Viborg now juddered and shook as they tried to pluck the beetles out of their metallic skins but the small insects were remorseless. The frantic Viborg shrieks were soon trumped by a prolonged high-pitched whistle from the first Viborg soldier. As I turned my gaze back to him I caught a glimpse of the original beetle as it disappeared behind the mask-like face. The Viborg froze for a minute, there came an unpleasant crackling sound and then suddenly the red lights of his eyes shattered. The great hulking metal body swayed back and forth for a few seconds before crashing down with a sudden lurch. I just managed to jump out of the way as he fell, utterly lifeless, across the railway tracks.
I might have been inclined to stand, staring down at the dead Viborg for some time but an urgent shout from behind me of, “This is our chance – let’s go!” brought me back to my senses.
I whirled around. Whilst the rest of the carriage were still watching, awe-struck, the death throes of the remaining two Viborg, the accountant had directed his attention to the spot on the horizon over which the rest of the Viborg force had so recently disappeared with their prisoners. “We’d better get out of here before they come back,” he urged. He turned to Caldicott. “Can you get the train started?”
“We can give it a try,” replied Caldicott. “What do you think?” he said, looking anxiously to Michael.
Michael threw an uncertain look up towards the head of the train. “Like you say, we can only try,” he replied with a shrug. As Caldicott began to make his way up towards the engine Michael paused to bestow a worried glance in my direction. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine. Go on,” I replied.
Michael nodded and hurried on after Caldicott.
“Everyone else had better get on board,” instructed the accountant.
The businessman didn’t need asking twice, hurrying over to the carriage door and scrambling aboard in an instant. William’s mother was soon after him, dragging her reluctant son along with her. Biggins hesitated, his eyes flicking uncertainly between the train and the juddering, flailing bodies of his Viborg overlords. As the remaining two warriors finally crashed to the floor he turned and made a dart for the train. Nobody thought to make any objection to his sheltering thus, being rather too wrapped up in our own prospects for escape.
Having hastily scooped up the essential items from my disintegrated bag (hesitating for just a moment over the tin of salmon before stuffing that too into my jeans pocket), I followed Charters and the accountant into the nearest carriage. As we scampered up the steps there was the sound of a painful wheezing chug from the engine before it settled back into silence.
“What was that? Is it broken?” exclaimed William’s mother, temporarily letting go of her son in order to peer anxiously out of the window towards the front of the train.
“Dear God, we’re finished,” murmured the businessman melodramatically. “The Viborg will flay us all alive once they come back and see what we’ve done to their fellows.”
“Don’t worry, they’ll get it going,” insisted the accountant as a sequence of bangs and clatters were heard from the head of the train.
“Shit!” I suddenly exclaimed. “The inter-dimensional travel device!”
“The what?” said Charters.
I was too busy checking my pockets to answer him. There was my purse, my keys, mobile phone, spare underwear and tin of salmon but no inter-dimensional travel device. Somehow in the collection of my belongings from the track I had completely overlooked it. I hesitated for just a second before dashing back to the door and jumping down from the train.
“Where the hell are you going?” yelled the accountant as I scurried back across to where my bag had imploded.
“Just give me half a second,” I called back to him. There came a sequence of fresh wheezes from the engine before it fell back for the moment into silence.
“We can’t wait – the Viborg might be back any second!” cried out the accountant anxiously.
For a moment I despaired before I spotted a tuft of gingham cloth poking out from beneath the first fallen Viborg. That explained why I’d originally missed it – the Viborg soldier had fallen across the device when he had collapsed. I hurriedly dropped to my knees and peered beneath the body. There it was – nestled in a hollow beneath the shiny metal crotch. I quickly reached out for it but found that I couldn’t get my arm through the narrow gap beneath the Viborg torso.
I could hear a fresh set of stronger, more persistent chugs from the engine and Charters shouted from the carriage, “Whatever it is, leave it!” as I struggled to lift the solid steel body out of the way in order to get to the device. But the Viborg was a dead weight. I knelt down as low as I could and, heaving upwards with all my might, just managed to edge it up a few inches. I could now see a clear path to the travel device but with all my strength needed for lifting I had no arm free with which to stretch for it.
The train engine chugged louder and louder as I gazed helplessly at the device. It was right there, quite within my grasp but I couldn’t pick it up. My shoulders were beginning to ache and my cheeks were burning from the effort of keeping the Viborg belly aloft as I desperately tried to conceive of some way of retrieving the device.
My strength was just beginning to give out when suddenly a slender white arm appeared from nowhere. It slid under the Viborg body, grabbed the travel device and pulled it clear just seconds before my arms gave way and I dropped the Viborg back to the ground with a deadly thud. I turned, red-faced and out of breath, to see young William peering curiously at the gingham cloth. “Blimey, what’ve you got here then?” he asked eagerly.
“William!” I exclaimed breathlessly.
“William!” came a much louder, frantic yell from the direction of the train.
We both turned to see William’s mother standing in the carriage doorway as the train at last began to slowly pull away along the track.
“Oh hell, I’m in trouble now,” muttered William, hastily thrusting the inter-dimensional travel device back into my hands and jumping up.
I scrambled up onto my feet after him and we both ran towards the open carriage door. Unfortunately, now that it had got started the train began to pick up speed at a quite alarming rate. It was hard to believe that such a cumbersome vehicle could go from a standing start to any kind of speed so quickly but by the time we’d drawn alongside it the train was already threatening to outstrip our efforts to keep up.
William was just ahead and, with a nifty burst of speed, he somehow managed to reach the open doorway and was swiftly scooped inside by his anxious mother. Clutching the travel device awkwardly under one arm, I struggled after him. As the train continued to pick up speed, Charters appeared in the doorway and threw out a hand to me. With my legs aching and my lungs bursting I threw myself forward, stretching out my one free hand. In a final desperate lunge I somehow just managed to grasp hold of Charters’ arm. He gave a determined tug as I jumped up onto the steps and I rolled into the carriage over the top of my stumbling rescuer.
Rather flushed and breathing heavily, I somehow managed to peel myself away from the flattened Charters. Still clutching tightly to the inter-dimensional travel device I painfully sat up to find my fellow passengers gazing down upon me with a series of expressions that ranged from baffled curiosity (the accountant) to outright hostility (William’s mother). I made an effort to smile. “Well then,” I said in a bright if still rather breathless tone, “next stop Marksville I guess.”
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return shortly with Episode Eleven…