When the sun went down the temperature plummeted. Inside the train, stranded motionless on the tracks, a thin frost crept up the windows and breath hung in delicate clouds upon the air. Outside, a bright, chilling moon threw its stark light over the parched, featureless plain. There was no sign of life, no prospect of rescue or comfort visible in any direction as far as the eye could see. Under the circumstances it was perhaps no surprise that the conversation turned to the question of which of us, should circumstances eventually dictate, we ought to eat first.
“I can’t say I entirely agree with the basic idea,” remarked Caldicott, pausing in his efforts to tear the carriage door from its hinges, “but if someone absolutely positively has to be eaten then, speaking from a purely practical point of view, I ought to be exempt as I’m needed to operate the engine.”
“Well that’s me out too,” added Michael, breathing heavily as he tugged at the door from the other side.
“You two may have operated the engine so far,” responded the accountant genially, “but there’s nothing to say that one or more of the rest of us couldn’t manage it if we had to.” Having made his point he turned back to smashing a chair to pieces with an axe he had found in the guards van.
“If the question is to be decided on a practical basis then clearly we need some impartial method for measuring each person’s worth,” suggested Charters, taking a breather from ripping the stuffing out of seat cushions. “Comparing batting averages, for instance, or golf handicaps.”
Not seeing how I was likely to come out all that well from a comparison of golf handicaps, I stopped in the midst of wrenching a luggage rack clean off the wall and looked round. I wasn’t entirely sure how the handicap system worked but I didn’t think that having once completed a crazy golf course at a HaylingIsland holiday camp scored all that highly. “Actually, I think we’re going at this all wrong,” I said. “What we really want to consider is what each person can bring to the pot, so to speak. After all, there’s no point in going to all the trouble of doing someone in only to find there’s barely enough meat on them for a small casserole.”
“Size matters, you mean?” said the accountant.
“But does that mean nobody is going to want to eat me?” interjected William, sounding positively downcast at the prospect.
“I don’t know, you might make a nice appetiser,” suggested Michael with a wink.
William seemed so entirely cheered by this that his mother felt compelled to cease her stacking of broken chairs and tables to assert, “Nobody is going to eat you William, don’t be silly.” William ignored her and merrily resumed his stacking alongside her.
“If we’re deciding on size then it’s quite clear who’s the tallest,” Biggins unexpectedly piped up from the corner. He was instantly rewarded with such a succession of sharp looks that he instinctively retreated behind the pile of discarded suitcases he had been sorting through. He couldn’t fail, after all, to be aware that popular opinion would have had him thrown off the train long ago if it weren’t for an uneasy awareness that his Viborg knowledge could yet be an asset to the group.
After a moment of awkward silence everyone’s gaze automatically turned in the direction Biggins had indicated. It was indeed quite clear that when it came to height my travelling companion stood a good couple of inches clear of the pack. Michael promptly bent his knees in an effort to stop himself from towering quite so conspicuously over his neighbours.
“Tallest perhaps but not necessarily meatiest,” mused William’s mother, examining Michael with a critical air. “In fact, you look rather lean to me. No offence intended,” she added as a hasty afterthought.
“Who then?” demanded the accountant.
Slowly all eyes in the carriage swivelled round to focus on Charters.
“Well, really!” he protested. “A chap may not be quite as sylph-like as he was in his younger days but that’s no reason to bung him straight onto the menu.”
Before any further evaluation could be made the door at the far end of the carriage swung open and in sauntered the businessman, his RJC Mark IV rifle slung casually over his shoulder. He surveyed the group with disdain and frowned. “What’s going on here then?” he demanded loudly. “We’ll never get going again if you keep stopping for a tea break every five minutes.”
The reason for our current spree of destruction was in fact the same reason for the current motionless state of the train – a lack of fuel. It was quite clear that someone had known all along that our journey to Marksville was not expected to be completed for the coal stocks in the tender had run out some way short of our destination. Now our only hope of getting off this barren, parched, Viborg-infested plain was to cannibalise the carriages for anything that might burn. It was a task to which everyone had shown themselves willing to pitch in, with the noted exception of the businessman who had preferred to patrol the corridors in a self-important fashion.
“We’d get going a whole lot sooner if everyone pulled their weight,” remarked William’s mother archly.
“Someone has to keep an eye out in case the Viborg catch up with us,” announced the businessman pompously, patting his rifle.
I was about to express a doubt over just how effective the businessman and his solitary rifle might prove if ever brought face to face with an entire Viborg army but found myself distracted instead by a sudden awareness of the ample waistline of the man in question. Indeed, I was not the only one to notice his fuller figure as gradually all eyes in the carriage fell upon the businessman’s portly stomach. Soon enough the man himself couldn’t fail to be aware of the degree of attention he was attracting, even if he couldn’t quite figure the reason for it.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded. “What are you all staring at?”
“Nothing,” replied the accountant casually. “I don’t suppose you’d have any idea how much you weigh, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” returned the businessman haughtily.
“About fourteen stone I’d say,” suggested Charters after a moments contemplation.
“Nearer fifteen probably,” corrected William’s mother.
The businessman turned from one set of quietly calculating eyes to another, growing redder and redder. “Fools,” he finally muttered with a shake of his head. “Absolute fools.” He then added, “Just you get on with the business in hand,” in a loud commanding tone before turning on his heel and flouncing back off down the train.
There was a moment of silence after he left. “Well, at least that settles that question,” remarked Caldicott contentedly and everyone cheerfully returned once more to the task of stripping the carriage clean.
Finally up and running again, we chugged fitfully on into an increasingly dark and shadowy night. Not long after the engine had, with the assistance of our carefully gathered ‘fuel’, reluctantly wheezed back into life a bank of low cloud had rolled in, limiting the moonlight and smothering the landscape in a dense blanket of sheer black. There wasn’t really room for all nine of us up here on the footplate but in the cold and the dark everyone gravitated naturally to the warming glow of the boiler. Somehow we all squeezed in as best we could, leaving the solitary bare carriage we had left coupled to the engine rather redundant.
The accountant leaned precariously out of the side of the engine, peering anxiously into the gloom. “We should be coming across the outskirts of Marksville any time now,” he advised.
“You said that twenty minutes ago,” grumbled the businessman.
“Well, it’s hard to measure distance when our speed is so erratic,” returned the accountant.
“And it’s hard to maintain a steady speed without proper fuel,” protested Michael, dubiously examining a couple of broken shards of chair leg before tossing them into the flames.
“I know. I was just saying…” began the accountant.
He was interrupted by an excitable shout from William. “I can see something,” he called down from his vantage point on top of the tender.
“What is it? What can you see?” demanded the businessman, anxiously clasping his rifle a little tighter.
“I dunno. Something just up ahead there.”
Everyone peered nervously out into the surrounding shadows. For a moment there was nothing to be seen but then the cloud momentarily rolled away and suddenly we caught a glimpse, an outline on the horizon. Then another. And another. They were still little more than dense patches in a darkened landscape but already we could sense something unnerving and incomplete about them. The air seemed thick with an atmosphere of ruin and decay.
“The suburbs!” exclaimed the accountant. “We must have hit the outskirts of the city.”
“William, you get down from there right now,” commanded his mother promptly.
“But mum I’m lookout,” protested the youngster.
“You can lookout just as well from down here,” lied his mother. Sensing the futility of further argument, William reluctantly slithered down the ladder to join the crowd in the cab below.
The shadows were becoming more frequent now, clustered together in small groups, and as the cloud continued to roll back the shapes were becoming clearer. Shards of moonlight now illuminated broken down walls, charred tree stumps and crushed fences, a whole community laid to waste. It looked like Godzilla had just trampled through a Norman Rockwell painting.
“Good God, do you suppose there’s anyone left?” murmured Charters.
“The population all moved within the city walls some time ago,” announced Biggins in a neutral tone. He alone had disdained to scramble to the edges of the footplate in order to gaze out upon the devastation, preferring instead to lurk at the back of the cab.
“And the Viborg?” asked William’s mother, reaching a hand out to prevent her son from toppling right out of the engine in his eagerness to see. “I presume they must be somewhere out there too.”
“Somewhere,” agreed Biggins with an enigmatic shrug.
“Keep going!” urged the accountant, indicating the boiler. “We have to get beyond the city walls ourselves.”
Michael and Caldicott, who had momentarily neglected the engine in order to gaze out with the rest of us, immediately began shovelling in fresh fuel.
“How do we know the people of Marksville are going to let us inside their city walls?” I asked, a disturbing thought suddenly entering my mind. “They’re hardly likely to be expecting us now.”
The accountant glanced worriedly around the cabin in search of an answer before his eyes alighted upon the ladder fixed to the tender down which William had scrambled not so long before. “We have to make ourselves known,” he suddenly said determinedly. “Let them see who we are.”
“Up there? Are you mad?” retorted the businessman. “You’ll be a sitting target for the Viborg.”
The accountant swallowed hard. “That’s just a chance we’ll have to take,” he replied. He moved across to the ladder and placed his foot on the bottom rung. “Anyone with me?” he called out over his shoulder and then began to climb.
William’s mother instantly shot out an arm to pull back her eager son. “Oh no, you don’t,” she said.
Charters hesitated for just a moment, gazing unenthusiastically at the swaying ladder, before struggling up after the accountant. The businessman and Biggins had already slunk back into the shadows. With Michael and Caldicott still carefully nursing the boiler that left just me to lend my support. I too gazed unhappily up at the jolting and jerking tender, where the danger seemed to lie as much in tumbling off as being shot down, before scrambling reluctantly up to join Charters and the accountant.
From our precarious position perched on a narrow ledge overhanging the empty tender we were at least treated to a spectacular view. The scarred suburbs were laid out all around us and now, up ahead in the distance, I caught the first glimpse of what I assumed must be the city walls of Marksville. They sat somewhat incongruously in their surroundings, great medieval slabs of pale grey stone – a hangover from a much earlier incarnation of the city – looming up impregnably above the scenes of devastation. A couple of tiny, dim lights bobbed ethereally above the distant fortifications.
The accountant began to wave, hoping to attract the notice of these distant lights. Charters and I joined in.
The line swayed gently to the left and I caught my first glimpse of an opening in the walls, a solid dark gateway standing directly in our path. We redoubled our efforts, waving and shouting as loudly as we could. More and more lights began to spring up along the length of the wall. Our approach had evidently been noticed.
“Keep her going!” the accountant called down to the cabin.
I had one eye now on the rapidly approaching gate whilst the other still warily scanned the unnervingly silent suburbs, still half anticipating the shrill screech of a Viborg warrior rising up from the shadows. There was a flurry of activity now along the Marksville city walls, a number of lights hurrying urgently to and fro.
“They’re opening the gates!” cried Charters excitedly.
He was right. The solid oak doors were slowly parting. And not a moment too soon as our train continued to jolt and rumble onwards at an ever-increasing speed. Another slight turn in the line and we lurched through the narrow opening with barely centimetres to spare. In a few seconds our severely depleted train had squeezed through the gap and I heard the creak of the gates being pushed back into place.
Once inside the city walls the buildings crowded in on us instantly, taller and more densely packed than those without, a blur of offices, shops and apartment blocks whizzing by in rapid succession. There were still signs of damage – battered, blackened walls and shattered windows – but nothing to compare with the utter devastation of the suburbs without. The city was eerily quiet. Here and there we glimpsed a dim or shaded light or a ghostly figure in the shadows but the streets were mostly silent.
“You’d better apply the brakes now,” the accountant shouted down. “The station must be just up ahead.”
In the cab below Michael turned and looked blankly at Caldicott. Caldicott in return looked blankly back at Michael. Both then turned and looked blankly at the vast panel of instruments, gauges and levers encircling the boiler.
“You do know how to apply the brakes, don’t you?” demanded the businessman anxiously.
“Well…” said Caldicott.
“How can you operate an engine without knowing where the brakes are!” spluttered the businessman.
“We’ve never needed them before,” countered Michael. “We just ran out of fuel last time.”
As the train continued to fly between homes and offices, jigging first one way then another, it was quite clear that wasn’t going to work on this occasion.
“Don’t worry, it’s got to be one of these,” insisted Caldicott and he swiftly began to hopefully pull at various cords and levers. Michael quickly joined in.
“Oh Lord, we’re going to crash!” cried out William’s mother, grasping tightly to her son with one hand and the edge of the cabin with the other.
The train jolted violently over a crossing and I thought I caught a glimpse of what looked worryingly like a station up ahead. I could just make out a broad iron canopy covering the tracks and what appeared to be a cluster of engine sheds beyond.
“Got it!” cried out Michael.
There was a sudden loud screech and the engine lurched violently, tipping the accountant straight off the top of the tender and down into the cabin below. I thought I heard a muffled cry from Biggins suggesting that he had been unfortunate enough to break the accountant’s fall but I was too busy grasping tightly to Charters as we tried to avoid following suit. A shower of sparks flew up from the wheels as the brakes gripped tightly and the train began to slow.
But it wasn’t slowing quite quickly enough. As Charters and I continued to sway and lurch we ducked beneath the grand iron canopy of the station. The screech grew louder, the sparks flew more brightly. A platform appeared alongside us. Several benches slid past our view, a boarded up coffee stand and then a darkened waiting room drifted by but still the train wasn’t quite ready to stop.
We continued right on beyond the far end of the platform. I just had time to see a large, dark outline looming up in front of us before the head of the engine crunched directly into it. There was a loud crack, the train gave an almighty lurch and our journey abruptly ended with both Charters and I being unceremoniously pitched into the murky blackness of the empty tender behind us.
To be continued…