The Dream Makers
by John R. Plunkett
"Hey, Avlar!" Curtis said, waving his bottle. "Wanna drink?"
"No thank you," Avlar replied, politely but somewhat frostily. Curtis seemed to feel that just because they had to work on New Year's eve was no reason not to get in a little celebration. Avlar didn't agree; he'd heard too many stories about train crews getting into horrible accidents because of "demon likker." Bedsides, he and Rosalind had their own little celebration lined up for when he got home. A wicked grin spread across Avlar's face as he thought about it; prudent or not he wouldn't touch so much as a drop of alcohol between now and then. Inebriation would only diminish his ability to partake in other pleasures.
The signal turned green. "Wo hoo!" Curtis shouted, waving his bottle out the window. "Highball!"
Avlar released the brake and notched up the controller. #L4021 and the consist behind it eased into motion, rumbled across the switch, and onto the main line.
"You sure about this, Charlie?" Joachim Clyde, known as Scrub among his friends, nervously inquired.
"This'll be the best damn show you ever seen," Charlie Rimmer replied. "Hand me that wrench, will you? This thing won't fit."
Scrub passed up the wrench. Charlie used it to loosen one of the bolts holding the track joint together, then to hammer a spike into the gap between rail ends. That done he stepped back to admire his work. Approximately two thirds of the spike's length stuck out; the rest was held firmly by the rail ends. For good measure he tightened the bolts back down. "Come on!" He slid down the embankment toward the trees. "This'll be the best damn show you ever seen!"
"Watch the curve," Curtis said.
"I've got it," Avlar replied, but made no adjustment to the controls. At the moment he trusted his own judgment more than Curtis'.
"Got an evening lined up with your girl, Avlar?" Curtis inquired, grinning lasciviously.
"Yeah," Avlar agreed, and couldn't help smiling in return. Thinking of the sensual delights Rosalind's flesh would awaken in his own made him shiver.
"Lucky bastard," Curtis growled.
"Luck has nothing to do with it," Avlar replied archly. "Maintaining a happy home takes training and dedication. Anyone can do it if you're willing to expend the effort." He turned his head to speak directly to Curtis and something flickered in the corner of his eye. His head snapped back around, trying to pick up whatever it had been.
"Yeah-" Curtis grumbled, the rest of his comment cut off by the air compressor coming on.
Yeah, that's why you spend your evenings jacking off by yourself, Avlar thought, a sentiment he'd never express aloud. For all his foibles Curtis was a close and dear friend; for one he let Avlar operate when, strictly speaking, he shouldn't.
"What's up, Avlar?" Curtis asked, suddenly appearing much more sober and alert. He'd even sat up in his chair.
"Dunno," Avlar replied, scanning the rails ahead. He opened the cab window, despite the cold, and leaned out. He couldn't see a single thing out of order: the rails and overhead wire stretching out ahead, unbroken and unblocked-
Suddenly Avlar saw it. A dark shadow, glimpsed briefly against the shiny railhead. Much too large to be a normal joint gap. He yanked the controller off and slammed the brake on full.
The problem, of course, is that something weighing a thousand tons can't stop quickly. This being the main line Avlar had notched the controller up all the way, which brought the train to about forty kilometers per hour. Brake shoes grabbed with a chorus of hideous screams, the cars slamming and banging as they inevitably decelerated at different rates, but it wouldn't be enough. The train would still be going at a pretty good clip when it passed whatever it was. Now Avlar could see it: the head of a spike thrust into the gap where two rails joined. That couldn't possibly be an accident; such a thing could only happen by a deliberate act of sabotage.
Steeplecab #L4021's wheel struck the upthrust spike, which broke with a tremendous bang. The whole locomotive shook and the wheel actually lifted into the air. The fish plates holding the rail snapped as a result of transferred force; the joint buckled slightly. The wheel came down on the railhead, skittered to the outside, and dropped to the ground. When the second wheel on the leading truck hit the broken joint it too went off the tracks. Though the brakes were on the locomotive kept grinding forward, driven by the momentum of the train behind it.
************* . The locomotive leaned drunkenly as the fallen wheels sank into the roadbed, steering it sharply off the tracks. The rear truck walked off the rails just as the lead one had.
Avlar screamed, though he couldn't hear himself over the terrible racket. It was all he could do to keep from getting thrown out of his seat. The worst part of it was knowing that there was nothing he could do, nothing he could had done, to avert tragedy. Only by spotting the sabotage well before it would have been visible to the naked eye could he have stopped the train in time.
The locomotive's deck tipped sharply as it slid off the embankment. The trolley pole whipped off the wire with brilliant flash and a shower of sparks. The coupler slipped loose and #L4021 continued its death roll, landing upside down in the soft, wet earth at the foot of the embankment.
The window on Curtis' side of the cab was open. He didn't remember opening it; he was almost certain it had been closed- winter in West Mazama could be quite bitter- but he wasn't going to wonder about it just then. For a brief second #L4021 balanced precariously on its roof; in that instant Curtis slithered out into the icy mud. There'd been a heavy snow a few weeks back, then a sudden thaw; the snow melted but deep down the ground remained frozen, trapping runoff on the surface and turning the surface into a sea of frigid muck. The drainage ditches by the tracks were no exception; black mud sucked at Curtis' limbs as he scrambled up onto the gravel embankment.
Relatively safe on firmer ground, Curtis looked back. "Avlar!" he screamed, unsure that Avlar could hear in any case. Air screamed from a ruptured pipe and freight cars were still crashing down from above. Curtis shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the cold; Avlar was still in there and Curtis would have to go in to get him out. Already mud and standing water were flowing into the cab through shattered windows; a pair of sturdy frames around the front and rear bulkheads would support the locomotive's forty ton weight but the wooden roof wouldn't, not on this soft ground-
The roof tore loose from its mountings with a drawn out groan punctuated by sharp snaps. The cab walls sank right into the ground, until the hoods hit the mud and helped distribute the weight. Above, the freight cars stopped falling; ones that had already gone off the tracks blocked those behind them and brakes held those still on the tracks. The last of the air escaped with a sigh like the death rattle of a corpse. An eerie silence fell, punctuated only be the occasional ping of cooling metal.
The mud belched loudly as a bubble of air from the cab made its escape. Curtis fell in heap, sobbing; right then he didn't care what this accident would do to his safety record or what might happen if it came out that he'd been drinking. He could only think of having to tell Rosalind that her husband wouldn't be coming home.
Scrub crouched in the bushes, shivering violently. He'd been ready for good show, sure, but this was a bit too much. He glanced hopefully at Charlie but got no help there; that worthy lay sprawled on his back, a trickle of blood running down his face.
There was of course no possible way that Scrub could have known that, at the moment of disaster, Curtis had thrown his bottle out the window so it wouldn't be in the cab when the accident investigators arrived. All Scrub did know was that a bottle had come whistling out of the early evening darkness and smacked Charlie right in the forehead. Scrub didn't consider himself a religious person- he only went to church because his parents made him go- but this felt too much like some sort of retribution from On High. He jumped up and fled into the trees, abandoning Charlie to his fate.
"He's coming around," someone whispered. The words echoed quietly through a shuffling group.
Avlar opened his eyes slowly. He didn't feel good. His head hurt like a sononvabitch. And someone was shining a light in his eyes. He tried to push it away but he couldn't lift his arm, so he looked away instead. The light vanished, or at least aimed somewhere else.
"You okay, mate?" an oddly accented voice inquired.
The speaker leaned close to Avlar's face; he could feel its presence. "No," Avlar croaked. He felt like he'd been run through a mangle.
"Here, mate. A dose of this'll perk you up."
Something touched Avlar's lips. Liquid dripped into his mouth... and suddenly he was extremely, painfully, alert. He sat up suddenly, eyes bulging. The liquid seemed to course though him like liquid fire; he'd tried various spirits in his time but nothing had ever hit him like that. "What the Hell was that?" he shrieked, then coughed.
"A drop of sunshine," the voice replied. "The very cure for whatever ails you."
Avlar blinked to clear his watering eyes. He sat on a rough stone floor in a low ceilinged chamber shored up with timbers, like a mine. Around him clustered a group of... people. Like humans but smaller; though he sat and they stood they were only a little taller. They had oddly distorted proportions; wide, stocky bodies and over-large heads, with protruding noses and long beards that, if long enough, they tucked into their belts. Several of the older looking individuals had tucked up several loops. "You... you're dwarves," he managed.
"Gnomes, actually," the giver of the liquid responded.
Avlar focused on the speaker. He wore denim pants with leather chaps over them, a flannel shirt, and a dome-shaped helmet with a lamp attached. Around his waist he wore a thick leather belt hung with tools, and heavy boots shod his feet. In his hand he grasped a black bottle with a glass stopper. Avlar grabbed the bottle and pulled the stopper; a blaze of light shone out, dazzling Avlar's eyes.
"You wanna go easy with that sunshine, mate," the gnome said, taking the bottle from Avlar's hands and re-stoppering it. "Strong stuff, y'know."
Avlar rubbed his eyes, attempting to clear the flickering after-images. "Yeah," he said weakly. "Um... where am I?"
"Dreamstuff mine head six-A, shaft ten," one of the gnomes promptly responded.
"Dreamstuff?" Avlar asked, blinking rapidly. He could see after a fashion but purple and gold highlights covered everything he looked at.
"This." One of the gnomes held out his hand.
Avlar still couldn't see clearly. What the gnome offered appeared to be a chunk of granular, pocked material not unlike pumice. It seemed to be a mix of bright, dark, and grayish flecks. Avlar took it in his hand; it felt light and crumbly; scraping it with his fingers dislodged a dusting of fine particles that winkled in the pale light. Oddly enough, the dark bits seemed to glitter as much as the bright ones, but somehow remained dark. "If this is dream stuff," Avlar heard himself say, watching the sparkly flecks run between his fingers, "Then why aren't I dreaming?"
"You are," the first responded. "That's where this is. Dreamland."
"Dreamland." Avlar rubbed his head. He felt a sore spot; he'd taken a nasty bump recently. "Wonderful. How did I get here?"
"Beats me, mate. We came along at and there you were."
"Oh." Avlar returned the hunk of dreamstuff and staggered to his feet.
"Watch the overhead there, mate," the first gnome cautioned, catching Avlar's arm.
Avlar froze, groping upward. His hand slapped ceiling much quicker than expected; rising to his full height would have earned him yet another crack on the noggin. "Thanks for the heads up," he said.
"Let's get you outa here," the gnome with the flask declared. "This way."
Avlar shuffled along behind the gnomes, bent almost double to clear the very low roof. Occasionally they passed work faces, where gnomes chiseled away at seams of dreamstuff with chisels and picks, loading the ore into metal carts. Box lanterns cast a pale glow on the scene, but as he shuffled along Avlar couldn't help think that something was wrong with it. Finally he looked at one of the lanterns... and stopped dead. Light from the lantern flickered, but not, as Avlar had assumed, because of a flame within. It flickered because several tiny figures, each only a couple centimeters long, flittered around inside the glass on diaphanous, insectile wings. Because they glowed it was difficult to make out details, but Avlar could have sworn they were tiny, winged humans.
"Like 'em?" the gnome with the bottle asked, grinning. "Lay out a pan of sunshine just after dark-" he shook his bottle- "and they come flocking. A few drops'll keep 'em going. But don't worry; we change 'em out every shift."
"Oh." Avlar leaned as close to the lantern as he could. The tiny figures pressed up against the glass, apparently looking back at him. Each one seemed to be a slightly different color. Reluctantly he moved on, blinking away the after-images. "Do you use them in your helmet lights too?"
"Naah." The gnome shook his head. "These are sunshine-powered." He tapped his helmet.
"What's your name?" Avlar asked.
"Theoderic, at your service," the gnome replied, tipping his helmet.
"Bessas, at your service," another said, tipping his helmet.
"Huneric, at your service."
"Lampridius, at your service."
"Roderic, at your service."
"Gundehar, at your service."
"Hisarna, at your service."
"Odovacar, at your service."
"Agiwulf, at your service."
"And that's Vincent over there," Theoderic concluded, pointed out a gnome who walked with a cane and whose beard looped no less than four times through his belt. Vincent waved.
"Um... Avlar Thistlewick," Avlar replied, glancing around the group. Except for Theoderic and Vincent he couldn't link any of the names to any of the faces. Then he looked around slowly, his gaze lingering on the- literally- fairy lanterns. "Why am I here?" he asked.
"You're asleep," Theoderic replied.
"But-" Avlar groped at his chest, then pinched the flesh of his forearm. "I don't feel asleep. And... I've been asleep lots of time. I never came here before."
The gnomes stopped, shuffling and looking at one another significantly. "Well..." Theoderic scratched his head. "It's like this, mate. You're really asleep. More than you've ever been in your life."
Avlar straightened up. Fortunately his head was already close to the ceiling so all he did was bump it. Now that he thought about it he could recall some recent events. He remembered #L4021 going off the tracks... and rolling over into the ditch. His blood turned to ice.
"No no, you aren't dead," Theoderic assured hastily. "If you were you wouldn't be here."
"How do I get back?" Avlar demanded.
"Easy," Theoderic replied. "Wake up."
"Wake up," Avlar growled. He pinched himself, hard. It didn't work. "How can I wake up if I'm already awake?"
"Go to sleep?" one of the gnomes suggested.
"Let's get outside first," Theoderic cut in, hustling the gnomes along and glancing uneasily at Avlar, whose eyes had narrowed and whose ears had laid back.
Avlar followed; there wasn't much choice. They arrived at an elevator; he and the gnomes piled in and rode upwards. The cage broke out into daylight so bright Avlar blinked. Theoderic led him out. When his eyes cleared he looked around at what seemed to be a typical mine head. The elevator cables ran over huge pulleys at the top of a high tower. Donkey engines pushed ore carts along networks of tracks, emptying them into separators that filtered the ore. Avlar left the group of gnomes, hurrying up to the machines. It appeared to be a two stage process; the first conveyor took off sparkly material that seemed to be gold, silver, or white, depending on how the light hit it. This went into hopper cars, shunted by a steam powered saddle-tank 2-4-2 switcher. At the second stage material identical in texture but black, blue, or purple in color was taken off and loaded into a different set of ore cars. Finally, gray tailings went onto a pile downhill from the site.
"I'd love to show you around, Avlar, but it's getting late and we have to be out of here by sunset," Theoderic said, hurrying up. "There'll be time to explain everything in the morning."
Avlar lifted his gaze. Gray tailings paved the area around the mine head. Beyond it he saw... bright green grass. Speckled with a riot of wildflowers. Birds twittered and butterflies fluttered. In the distance, against a line of trees, he saw a pair of deer. Up on their hind legs, dancing. "Why?" Avlar heard himself asking. "Don't you work at night?"
All the gnomes in sight stopped dead in their tracks. The switch engine screeched to a halt. Even the machinery shut down. "We do not work at night," Theoderic declared, shuddering. All the gnomes shuddered with him. As one, every gnome pulled out a flask and took a hit. "Now come along. The crew train'll be along any minute. Since we're first out we have to set up." He led Avlar across the shunting yard.
"Hey, Theoderic. Who's your friend?"
Avlar stopped and turned. The voice didn't sound like a gnome; it had a decidedly feminine timbre. But somehow breathy at the same time. He found himself looking at the shunting engine... and noticed, for the first time, that it had a face.
"Hey, Rosalind," Theoderic replied. "This is Avlar Thistlewick. He's from the waking world."
"Wow," the engine replied. "A skunk-man!"
'Skunk-man' would be a proper description for Avlar. He stood upright, having a humanoid body, but it was covered with silky black fur, except for a white patch on his throat. Without his shirt and overalls it could have been seen that it covered the whole front of his body, and even the insides of his upper arms and thighs. His face came forward into a point, not unlike a weasel's, but somewhat wider. A pair or round ears perched on top, peeking out from an unruly white mane he trimmed short and kept tucked away inside a billed cap. A white blaze ran from his forehead to just short of the tip of his nose. From the base of his spine sprouted a voluminous tail, black with a white patch on top. He'd wrapped it with hair netting to keep it from getting in the way while he worked. "Don't have many skunk-men around here?" Avlar asked. He felt slightly dizzy.
"No," the engine replied. "Just skunk-skunks."
"I work on the railroad," Avlar said. "I'm a fireman. But sometimes Curtis lets me operate."
"Wow!" The engine's eyes grew wide. "Can I talk to him? Please please?"
"Oh-" Theoderic glazed into the distance, shading his eyes. Avlar followed the look to a signal tower with an old-fashioned semaphore indicator. It changed from all clear- straight up- to caution, slanted at a forty-five degree angle. "Sure. If you can finish your work while you're doing it."
"Okay!" the engine exclaimed. "Hop up, Avlar!"
Avlar had hardly stepped onto the locomotive's fender when it started backward. He caught a handrail to keep from falling. "Hey, slow down," he admonished. "You shouldn't be backing without someone spotting."
"Oh, I'm sorry." The locomotive slowed. At the opposite end of the yard she stopped, concentrating for a moment. The switch threw. She eased forward, against the line of cars being filled. A gnome with a paddle stood by the separators; he raised it, turning the green side out. The locomotive pushed the train forward, moving the next car into position.
"Well done," Avlar commented. "Very smooth."
"Thanks!" The locomotive beamed happily.
Avlar bit his lip. "I'm sorry; you're name is-"
"Rosalind," the locomotive interjected.
"Oh." Avlar's face fell.
"I'm sorry," Rosalind said softly.
"No, no." Avlar shook his head. "It's just... my wife's named Rosalind."
"Oh." Rosalind considered that for a moment. "Is she a skunk-man too?"
"Well, a skunk-woman, I'd say," Avlar replied.
"Oh, of course."
"Well... maybe not if you knew some of my clan brothers," Avlar put in. "But I wouldn't want to bore you with that," he added quickly.
"Do you drive a locomotive, Avlar?" Rosalind inquired.
"A small electric," Avlar explained, then grinned. "It's a shunting engine. Like you."
Rosalind giggled. "You must have great fun."
"Well..." Avlar shrugged. "The hours can be long... but yeah, it's fun. Mostly." He sighed. "I wanted to be an engineer as long as I can remember."
"Aren't you?" Rosalind inquired.
"No. I'm just a fireman."
"But you said Curtis lets you operate?"
"Sometimes. He's not supposed to but he does. He's... a good friend. Though he is... a little flaky sometimes."
"You must be good at it."
"Dunno." Avlar shrugged.
"He wouldn't let you do it if he didn't trust you, would he?" Rosalind pointed out.
Avlar bit his lip. His first response to that would be that Curtis, at heart, was a slacker and would do anything to get out of some work. But he'd never hesitated to act as fireman while Avlar was operating. "I guess so," he whispered.
"Would you like to drive?" Rosalind asked.
Avlar blinked. "Me?"
Rosalind smiled. "Sure. I trust you."
Avlar stepped off the fender, then hesitated. "You sure?"
"Absolutely." Rosalind smiled. "You're full of happy dreams, Avlar. You practically sparkle with them."
"Oh." Avlar glanced at his hands; to him, at least, they looked the same as they always had. "Thanks," he added, laying a hand briefly on the boiler. Rosalind, he would swear, blushed. He dashed back and climbed up into the cab. He'd never operated a steamer before but it couldn't be too different, could it? Besides, the locomotive herself could explain how it was done. That was obviously the brake and that looked like the throttle. He reached for it-
The scream of a whistle sent Avlar to the cab window. The semaphore had dropped to the "stop" position, fully horizontal. He heard a locomotive coming; a moment later it lumbered into view, a majestic 4-6-2 with smoke baffles. It also had a face... a very dour one, Avlar would have to say. Behind it came a train of cars, some of which had windows.
"That must be the crew train," Avlar observed.
"Yep," Rosalind concurred.
The crew train slowed to a crawl. As the engine eased past Rosalind and Avlar it gave a pointed sniff.
"What a crab," Avlar commented.
"That's Titus for you," Rosalind responded.
"Then I'm glad I met you first, Rosalind," Avlar declared, patting the window sill. "You're much nicer."
"Thanks!" Rosalind giggled.
The crew train stopped. Gnomes swarmed up out of the mine, pushing wheelbarrows and carrying bundles of tools. Other gnomes already on board helped them stow the gear. Avlar climbed up onto the cab roof to get a better view. The last empty ore car went into the marshalling yard, and the last gnome out of the mine closed the gate on the elevator and locked it with a big, brass key. Avlar glanced at the sun; it hung low in the sky. He noticed too that the birds and butterflies seemed to be headed out as well. Even the wildflowers slowly folded up into buds. "Rosalind," he asked, "What's the difference between the white stuff and the black stuff?"
"The white stuff is happy dreamstuff, which we use to make liquid sunshine," Rosalind explained. "The black is nightmare dreamstuff. We burn it to power the refinery."
Another whistle blast heralded the arrival of a second locomotive, this time a 2-8-2, who smiled warmly as he approached. "He seems like a pleasant chap," Avlar observed.
"Prospero is," Rosalind agreed. "He's not all snooty and stuck up like Titus."
Prospero came off the main line and into the shunting yard. As he passed Avlar leaned out of Rosalind's cab and doffed his cap. "Good day to you, sir!" he shouted.
"And a hearty good day to you too, my boy!" Prospero called back. "I judge by your dress that you're a railroad man!"
"Yes sir, I am," Avlar concurred.
"Then we must some time and swap stories," Prospero declared. He pulled behind him a bright red caboose, which he dropped at the end of the yard. "Be a dear, Rosalind, and hook that up for me, will you?"
"Yes sir!" Rosalind replied breathlessly. She lurched into motion so quickly Avlar had to hold on. She collected the caboose and attached it to the end of the train of filled ore cars.
Prospero backed up to the opposite end of the train. "There we go," he announced as the couplers engaged. "Say, Rosalind. Why don't you go first today?"
"What?" Titus exclaimed. "You can't be serious!"
"Oh, don't be such a pill," Prospero replied breezily. "She never has any trouble keeping up, and I'd like a word with her young man while we're heading in."
"Yes sir!" Rosalind exclaimed, shooting forward and deftly slipping between Prospero and Titus, who glared. Avlar stuck out his tongue, which only made Titus glare more. Prospero smiled and some of the gnomes giggled.
Avlar looked. One of the gnomes- possibly Theoderic- lofted something. Avlar caught it reflexively; it was one of the black bottles. "Thanks!" he called, waving.
"T'aint safe to be out this late without some," the gnome replied, glancing at the sun. "Not that there's any danger, mind you. Just to be safe, y'see. If you really get in trouble, siphon some out of Rosalind's tank."
"I'll take care of him," Rosalind announced haughtily.
"Sure you will, darling. Now get a move on; we're all itching to hit the barn." He jogged back along the train and swung himself up.
Avlar leaned out. All the gnomes were aboard the crew train. Up ahead he saw another signal tower; it read all clear, straight up. "Okay, let's get moving!" he called.
"Care to do the honors?" Rosalind inquired coyly.
"If you insist."
"Then far be it from me to refuse a pretty lady." Avlar jerked the whistle cord twice; Prospero answered the call but Titus remained obstinately silent. Avlar reached for the brass throttle lever.
Before Avlar's fingers touched the handle bright sparks jumped between them and it. He jerked his hand back with a yelp but the throttle came as well, as if they were attached together. Avlar even felt the drag on his arm. Rosalind let out a yelp; her drivers spun, then caught, and she leapt forward more rapidly than Avlar would have believed possible.
"Hey, wait for us!" Prospero called, starting forward. But he was already far behind.
Avlar hung on tight as Rosalind flew down the tracks at what was surely an unsafe speed. He still hadn't actually touched the throttle but bright arcs flashed between his fingers and the metal, apparently binding them together because they resisted his efforts to pull his hand away. He glanced out the window and saw terrain whizzing past; they had to be going as fast as the high-speed Electroliners that ran out of Mazama. He gritted his teeth and pulled; the arcs snapped with a series of loud pops and he sprawled on the cab floor. Rosalind decelerated so hard he rolled against the firebox. As he picked himself up he realized that she was laughing. "Do it again!" she shouted. "That was fun!"
"But-" Avlar protested.
Avlar bit his lip. This Rosalind used almost the same tone the other Rosalind, his Rosalind, used, that he could never refuse. "Oh, what the Hell," he said, and grabbed the throttle.
Rosalind took off with an exultant yell. She flew along the rails so fast that sparks sprayed from her wheels. They flashed along straightaways and around corners, over hills, through tunnels, and across trestles. Until-
Avlar slammed the throttle forward and yanked the brake full on, working it to keep the wheels from locking. Rosalind screeched to a halt barely a meter short of the tower with its arm lowered in the "stop" position. "Oops," he muttered, leaning out the cab window. "Should have checked for other traffic, I guess."
"But there shouldn't be any other traffic," Rosalind protested. "Everyone's heading back to he barn!"
Avlar's gaze shifted to the grass beyond the signal tower. The shadows were long. Very long. He glanced at the sun; it had almost vanished behind a distant ridge. "Um... Rosalind, what does happen after dark?"
"Oh, no!" Rosalind shrieked, lurching backwards. "We missed the barn! We can't be on the line after dark!"
"Why?" Avlar demanded.
"They come out!"
"They? who are they?"
"The Nightmare Makers!"
"Oh," Avlar said hollowly. The sun sank out of sight. Shadows reached across the land like grasping talons. Suddenly the trees, now shrouded in darkness, seemed menacing. He thought he could see ruddy eyes peering at him. Somewhere an owl hooted ominously. "That's what happens to the dark dreamstuff," he muttered. "The Nightmare Makers use it." Rosalind didn't answer; she was whimpering in fear. "Don't worry," Avlar said with more assurance than he felt. "All we have to do is get back to the barn."
"But it's too late!" Rosalind wailed. "They won't let us in!"
"Bugger that," Avlar snapped. "They'll let us in or we'll bash down the gate!" He reached for the throttle-
A horn blast echoed through the growing night. It reminded Avlar of an Electroliner or one of the other fast interurbans but it sent a chill down his spine. Leaning out the window he could still make out the signal tower. The semaphore didn't show well in the darkness but he could see the red lens, glowing like a evil, red eye. Finally his brain kicked into gear: if the signal was red when they hit it then there was already a train in the block. "Hoo boy," he muttered.
Far off ahead, ruddy light illuminated some trees by the track side. A moment later another locomotive swung into view. An odd looking thing it was, neither steamer nor electric. Smooth sided, with a curved roof, a rounded nose, and sloping cab windows. At first he thought it had three headlights, then realized that the lower two were its eyes, gleaming malevolently in the darkness. For an instant Avlar entertained the hope that the red signal might stop it, but even from here he could tell that it wasn't slowing down.
"Puny steamer!" the other locomotive bellowed. "I'll break your wheels off and drag you back to my shops! A little work with torch and saw, mill and lathe, and we'll make a proper engine out of you!" He laughed.
"Catch us first, you big lummox!" Avlar retorted, glancing back up the line. He couldn't see; Rosalind, not intended to work at night, didn't have a head lamp on either end. He reached for the throttle; at high speed he'd no doubt they could escape but doing so blindly didn't seem wise. If only-
Avlar grabbed the bottle of sunlight in his back pocket. He yanked out the stopper and poured it down the back of Rosalind's coal bunker. The stain gleamed brightly; not as focused as Avlar would have liked but better than nothing. He reached for the throttle again, then pulled his hand away. "Rosalind," he asked, "Is there a spigot for your sunshine tank or I have to siphon it?"
"Small brass faucet on the left," Rosalind replied. "Why?"
"I've a mind to give Ugly Face a little what for," Avlar replied, holding the bottle under the spigot and opening the valve. Bright sunshine replaced what he'd poured out. He slipped the bottle back into his pocket, then slithered out the cab window onto the running boards attached to the boiler.
"Be careful!" Rosalind called.
Avlar grunted. Because of the saddle tank, Rosalind's running boards were little more than toe holds. With the rumbling drivers and thrashing push rods right below him he didn't need any other reminder of what would happen if he slipped. Carefully, but as quickly as possible, he edged along until he reached Rosalind's nose. He climbed down onto the fender, keeping a tight grip on the railing with one hand. He hoped to Hell that if he slipped the fall would kill him before the engine coming up on them turned him into paste.
"What's this?" the other locomotive called. "And exactly what do you think you can do, skunk-boy?"
"Come over here and find out!" Avlar shouted. "Your mother was a donkey engine and your father a drill press! I've seen sewing machines faster than you!"
The engine roared and put on another burst of speed. "Ease off just a bit," Avlar whispered.
"What?" Rosalind exclaimed.
"Like you're getting tired or something," Avlar explained. "I need him a little closer."
"Okay." Rosalind slowed just a bit.
"Getting tired, my pretty?" the other engine said. "You should know better than to play with the big boys!"
"Big boy my hairy ass!" Avlar shouted. "She could whip you with one wheel tied behind her back!"
"Hah!" the locomotive retorted. "Let's see if you smell half as bad as regular skunks after I've turned you into a smear on the tracks!"
"Just a bit more," Avlar whispered. The other locomotive had closed to within a dozen meters; he could see dark figures pressed up against the windows of the red-lit cab. They even seemed to be gnomes... of a sort. "You gonna quit boring me and do something, you tin can?" he shouted.
The other locomotive inched closer. Five meters, four-
Avlar whipped the bottle of sunshine out of his pocket and lofted it. The other locomotive's eyes crossed as it tried to follow the trajectory that ended right on its forehead. The bottle shattered... and sunlight blazed forth like a miniature dawn.
The other locomotive screamed like a thousand band saws cutting sheet aluminum. It braked so hard sparks sprayed from its wheels. It didn't have train, or had dropped it, or surely it would have derailed. "In yer face!" Avlar shouted, waving his fist. A signal tower flashed by; Avlar noted that it had two branches, one showing red and the other green. "Uh oh," he muttered, twisting around and looking back. Another horn blasted through the night. "We ain't outa the woods yet. Rosalind, there's a switch coming up. Take it!" He considered a moment. "Then stop."
"Stop?" Rosalind protested.
"Yes, stop!" Avlar insisted. "We need to make sure they don't follow us!"
Rosalind braked hard, then rumbled over a switch. She stopped just clear of the frog.
"Good-oh!" Avlar jumped to the ground. He could see the headlights of another locomotive coming down the tracks; they'd gotten off the main line just in time. Rosalind had a tool box just under her cab; he tore it open, grabbed a crowbar, and dashed to the switch stand. He set the bar under the rod that moved the points; if he could pop it loose-
Bright sparks flashed from the crowbar's tip. Metal popped and sizzled, glowing sullenly. Avlar blinked; the points had welded themselves in place. "Well, hot damn," he muttered. "Am I good or what?" He dashed to Rosalind's cab and swung himself up; she lurched into motion even as his feet left the ground. The Nightmare Makers couldn't follow- at least not without repairing the switch- but neither could he and Rosalind come back, for good or ill.
"Avlar?" Rosalind asked.
"Yeah?" Avlar leaned out the cab, keeping an eye out ahead. The sunlight he'd poured out earlier seemed to have evaporated or something; it merely glowed instead of blazing.
"I'm... not used to all this," Rosalind gasped. "I'm... running low on sunlight."
"Oh." Avlar glanced behind them. They clearly weren't on a main line; the tracks dipped and curved quite a bit. "We need somewhere to hide out," he muttered. A station building loomed up; it was dilapidated and partially collapsed.
"I don't like this place," Rosalind whimpered.
"I don't either, but I don't see we have much choice," Avlar replied.
Just past the station the tracks split again. Down one branch the rails looked rusted and disused, partially overgrown with weeds. "That way," Avlar said. Rosalind threw the switch and proceeded. The trees closed in tight, their branches scratching on Rosalind's flanks. "Stop," Avlar said. "Back to the switch."
"What? Why?" Rosalind wanted to know. But she stopped.
"They know we went this way," Avlar replied. "We have to put them off the scent." He hopped down from the cab. Go on now."
Reluctantly, Rosalind returned to the switch Avlar followed on foot, kicking the weeds she'd cut back over the tracks. The result looked like someone had deliberately done so... but that's what he wanted. He nodded in satisfaction.
"Now what?" Rosalind wanted to know.
"Throw the switch," Avlar replied. "Go up that way." He pointed along the other branch.
"Okay," Rosalind said doubtfully, rolling past the switch. Avlar rubbed his hands together, then crouched and grabbed the rails. Sparks flashed; the points welded themselves in place just as they had before.
"But now the switch is stuck our way," Rosalind protested.
"Right," Avlar replied. "They'll think we went that way." He pointed up the abandoned spur.
"Oh!" Rosalind actually smiled. "That's clever!"
"I sure hope so," Avlar muttered, climbing up into Rosalind's cab. She headed on down the line.
They seemed to be headed into the mountains; the tracks twisted and wound, crossing rickety trestles and passing through narrow tunnels. At each junction Avlar chose their path more or less randomly. Three times they had to turn back, twice because the tracks ended at a bumper and once because a trestle had collapsed. The sunlight on the coal bunker faded away, leaving nothing but starlight and a flickering glow from Rosalind's firebox to combat the impenetrable dark. Then the trees opened out; Rosalind clattered across a switch. They'd entered a yard of some sort; Avlar saw the dark shapes of freight cars sitting on other tracks. They hadn't been used in a very long time, though; weeds and even small trees grew on the roadbed. The metal cars were all rusty, the wooden ones bleached, their windows shattered. Something else loomed up, something too large to be an individual car. Avlar leaned forward, trying to make it out, and almost missed the pit yawning open in front of him. "Stop!" he shouted. Rosalind did so with her rear fender hanging over nothing.
"Whew." Avlar let himself down carefully. The light from Rosalind's firebox showed a gently curving wall, and something like a bridge off to the left. Avlar frowned, then smacked his forehead. "Oh course!" he exclaimed.
"What?" Rosalind asked.
"It's a turntable," Avlar explained. "That's an engine house."
"Oh." Rosalind said nothing for a moment. "What should be do?"
"Go in, I think," Avlar replied. "Unless you have a better idea?"
"No I don't," Rosalind admitted. "But the turntable isn't aligned."
Avlar rubbed his hands. "We'll just see about that." He picked his way carefully out to the center of the turntable. As expected he found a control cab, but any controls it might have contained had been stripped out long ago. A couple sawed off pipes poked through the floor; he knelt and touched one. A spark flashed; the turntable groaned to life, swinging ponderously. When it aligned with Rosalind Avlar took his hand away and it stopped.
"How do you do that?" Rosalind asked, rolling onto the turntable.
"I don't know," Avlar replied, rubbing his fingers. "And right now I don't particularly care. It's enough that it works.Come on." He beckoned Rosalind onward.
Rosalind eased cautiously onto the turntable. Avlar stopped her there, then rotated the table again. "Why do that?" she asked.
"I'm hoping that if the table isn't aligned, it'll hide the fact that we've been here," Avlar replied. "Go on back into the shed."
The brick walls of the round house had remained standing but the wooden roof had partially fallen in. Windows gaped emptily, glass broken or missing. A drift of leaves and other debris covered the floor. Even in the pitch darkness Avlar couldn't help thinking that Rosalind's shiny metal and bright paint stood out like a searchlight, but they had to lay low for a while. And there was the firebox glow. He realized suddenly how comforting it was... but also it was a beacon to their enemies, as well as a drain on the precious sunlight. "Rosalind," he asked quietly, "Could you... shut down for a while? We need to... conserve our sunlight."
"I... I'm scared, Avlar."
Avlar swallowed. He walked up to Rosalind's front and gently stroked her cheek. "I know you are. I am too. But... we have to do the best we can."
"Okay." Rosalind closed her eyes. The firebox glow faded, along with the myriad sounds of a working engine. In its absence the sounds of the night moved in: leaves rustling, night birds calling... and things skittering through the undergrowth. Avlar hoped they were ordinary night creatures but, given the nature of this place, he doubted it. He thought of returning to Rosalind's cab but decided against it. From here at least he could see out the roundhouse doors, for what good it did. What could he possibly do if he saw anything? He sighed, settling as comfortably as he could on Rosalind's bumper. His mind wandered; he couldn't thinking of his Rosalind. In his mind's eye he could see her, beaming happily as she welcomed him home. He'd rush up, give her a hug and a kiss. And maybe a little grope; he never could resist. She'd giggle, slap him playfully and call him fresh, but she wouldn't pull away. Often as not she'd feel him up in return. Arm in arm they'd retire to the kitchen for dinner, which she usually had prepared for him if she got home first. If he got home first he'd prepare it; he wasn't nearly so good a cook as her but he was learning. After eating he'd help her clean up; with only two of them it wasn't hard. Then it was bath time; she'd lead him off to the bathroom and set him on the stool, deliberately bending over while she adjusted the taps. Avlar grinned; the sight of he big, round, fleshy buttocks never failed to set his blood on fire, no matter how long and difficult a day he'd had. With the tub full she'd undress him and gently lower him in, then massage the day's tension from his arms and shoulders. Then she'd teasingly shed her own clothing, and-
Avlar sighed. He could almost hear her voice whispering in his ear, her warm, soft flesh pressed ardently against his own-
Avlar's eyes snapped open. He almost cried out; even in his dozing state he knew he was being pulled away from his Rosalind yet again. Another sound stilled the cry in his throat: the growling rumble of the Nightmare Makers' locomotives. And he saw one, creeping through the abandoned yard toward the round house. Its eyes cast back and forth, sweeping the area like a pair of red lensed spotlights. Several Nightmare Makers rode on the roof, carrying an actual spotlight. It too was red, like a darkroom lamp. The locomotive eased up to the turntable, gazing intently at the tracks, then stopped. One of the Nightmare Makers jumped down; the two held a quiet conversation. Avlar could only hear the locomotive's responses, short and guttural. The Nightmare Maker whistled and pointed; the spotlight swung toward the round house.
For a terrifying instant Avlar thought they were caught. But, due to their relative positions, the beam didn't shine straight into their bay. Instead it struck at an angle, coming mainly through the door the next bay over... and something on the adjacent track shielded them. It was the badly rusted, partially stripped-out hulk of a steam locomotive. Avlar blinked; in the darkness he hadn't even noticed it. Still, it was a piece of luck; if not for it the Nightmare Makers would see-
In retrospect Avlar would allow that, for Rosalind, it must have been like waking up next to a rotting corpse. That, on top of everything else that had happened so far, would be a bit much for anyone. At the moment however, her loosing it was the worst thing that could happen. He let out a venomous curse.
For an instant all the Nightmare Makers froze, eyes turned toward the round house. Then the locomotive let out a horrible booming laugh.
Rosalind lit her boiler and charged out of the round house. Avlar, who hadn't been hanging on, tumbled to the ground. She shot across the turntable... and into the gravel. She ground to a halt only a meter or so from the other locomotive's side.
"Ho ho, what's this?" the Nightmare Maker engine boomed. "You're a long way from home, my pretty! But don't worry, we'll take good care of you!" He laughed again.
Nightmare Makers leapt out of their engine, whooping gleefully. They swarmed over Rosalind like ants, howling and giggling. One of them climbed up on top of her boiler. "Get the wrecker, Voltimand!" he shouted. "And a lowboy, so we can move this one to the shops without a lot of nonsense!"
"With pleasure!" Voltimand He backed away down the line, quickly vanishing from sight.
The Nightmare Maker climbed down. As near as Avlar could tell the fellow was a gnome just like Theoderic and his lot. Instead of denim and flannel, though, he wore a heavy, black oilskin and kept his beard trimmed short. He seemed to represent the lot in both regards. He pulled a hammer from his belt and, casually twirling up, stepped up by Rosalind's face. "So," he began in a conversational tone that fooled no one, "Where's your skunkie friend?"
"He's run far away from here by now!" Rosalind shrilled.
"Wrong answer!" The gnome smacked Rosalind in the forehead with his hammer. She yelped; her boiler rang from the impact. "You're a bad liar, teakettle," he continued. "You lot!" He pointed out a number of his cohorts. "Search the barn!"
Avlar hadn't wasted his time. While the Nightmare Makers occupied themselves with Rosalind he'd crawled back into the round house. But there wasn't anywhere to hide except the junked locomotive. The front of its boiler had been cut away, leaving an empty hole; he could easily fit inside but the Nightmare Makers had helmet lamps too, though they cast dark red beams. Avlar couldn't rely on darkness alone to hide him. He crept along beside the hulk, ascending as quietly as he could into the cab. This had once been a large engine, a 4-6-2 like Titus and Prospero. Avlar peered into the tender; the coal bunker didn't offer any cover. The water tank might do, but he wasn't sure he'd fit through the spout or be able to climb out afterward. For the heck of it he gripped the handle that opened the firebox door, though he knew it to had to be rusted solid by now. A couple muted sparks flashed from his palm and the handle moved easily, as smoothly as it must have straight from the factory. The door swung open without so much as a whisper.
Avlar grinned. He didn't waste time, either; he slithered into the firebox and pulled the door shut behind him. There was a faint spark as it shut and he heard the latch dropping back into place. Now all he could do was wait... and he didn't have long. Someone climbed up onto the cab. They walked around, probably looking into the coal bunker. They tried opening the firebox but it was, of course, seized up solid. They kicked the cab wall in disgust and climbed down.
Avlar wafted as long as he dared in the stifling blackness. The rumble of Voltimand or some other Nightmare Maker locomotive approached stirred him to action. Hopefully they'd be busy with Rosalind. He put his hand on the firebox door... and it swung open, as easy as could be. He crawled out.
Voltimand- Avlar recognized the unit number printed on his nose- came up the track, pushing a lowboy flatcar and a rail-mounted wrecking crane before him and towing several equipment cars behind. Nightmare Makers piled out of the equipment cars with armloads of tools; quickly they ran out the wrecker's spuds and set them firmly on the roadbed. Avlar still didn't like them for a damn but he had to admire their efficiency. Other draped Rosalind in massive chains, setting hooks in her frame. Avlar would guess her weight at somewhere around sixty tons, and the rail crane seemed more than equal to that challenge. The boom swung out; Nightmare Makers attached the chains to its hook. The cables tensed, slack came out of the chains... and ever so slowly Rosalind rose out of the gravel. With enough height the crane swung slowly, while Nightmare Makers walked along to keep Rosalind properly aligned. Ultimately the crane set her down as gently as could be on the lowboy. The Nightmare makers hooted and howled in exultation, then packed up their gear.
"Oh, quit sniffling, teapot!" Voltimand shouted as he backed the train out of the yard. "Your stripey friend's run far away, remember? Must be that stripe on his back is yellow instead of white, hmm?" He glanced aside, beams from his eyes flicking across the yard. "He can't help you now! You belong to us! Get used to it!" His laughter echoed long after the train had vanished from sight.
Avlar slumped against the wrecked engine's cab wall, shivering violently. Voltimand's taunting had landed, without a doubt. It had been all he could not to run screaming out there, to wipe the smirk off Voltimand's face with his bare fists if necessary. But that's what he wanted; he had dozens of Nightmare Makers to back him up, armed with a variety of tools they could improvise as weapons. Alone Avlar wouldn't last a minute, no mater that his opponents were, individually, only half his size. He needed- he needed-
Help. A crew of his own, to back him up.
He needed to find the barn, where the Happy Dream Makers holed up. To do that he needed a ride. He couldn't guess how far he and Rosalind had come in their wild ride, but without a doubt it would take him days or weeks to walk that far, and he didn't think he'd have the time. He cursed, pounding the bare metal window sill of the wrecked locomotive's cab with his fist. A fat spark jumped, illuminating the cab like a flash bulb.
For a moment Avlar stared. Then he grinned, a terrible, wolfish expression. Even in near pitch darkness his hand unerringly found the locomotive's corroded throttle lever. Sparks flashed as he curled his fingers around it. He didn't do it but he knew that the handle would move as smoothy as the firebox door had if he chose to pull it. He let go and scrambled down, aligned the turntable with the wrecked locomotive's bay, and hurried back. He took a deep breath, placing his left hand on the brake and his right on the throttle. He felt them both come loose, ready to move at the slightest pressure. He tightened his grip on the throttle and pulled it open.
The lever didn't move easily. Avlar grunted; he seemed to be straining against a tremendous weight. But move it did, ever so slightly. Sparks raced along the lever, dancing across the firebox. Through the empty cab window he saw them race across the corroded boiler, collecting around the piston seals and push rod bearings like St. Elmo's Fire. A hideous groan awoke from somewhere deep inside the old locomotive, and steam burbled from broken and cut-off pipes. The throttle inched a little farther and, with a Hellish chorus of moans, squeals, and clatters, as befitting a thing long dead brought to hideous un-life, the rusty drivers started turning. The turntable started into motion, apparently on its own, even as the locomotive eased to a stop on it. It kept going, lining Avlar into the yard backwards, exactly as he'd intended. That way he'd be headed forwards going back the way he and Rosalind had come. This time the throttle moved more easily, and Avlar's undead machine rolled smoothly backward into the abandoned yard.
Avlar couldn't resist. He reached up; the whistle cord had disappeared long ago but when his fingers passed where it should have been a bright blue discharge flashed along where it had once hung. The whistle screamed like a thing in torment, and the bleak hills threw the sound back and forth until it sounded like an army of the damned. Avlar found himself pulling the throttle farther and farther, despite the steep, winding roadbed and the poor condition of the track. Nevertheless his demon locomotive kept its footing, speeding through the night until its push rod bearings glowed red and sparks showered from its wheels. Electric blue fire raced across the tender and boiler, piercing the darkness with its eerie glow.
Not until he noticed that he was out of the mountains did Avlar realize that he'd crossed back onto the main line. He brought his engine to a halt and started back the other way, watching carefully for the switch. As he approached it threw itself, blue sparks flashing between the points. Just beyond he saw a signal tower: all clear. "Highball!" he shouted, leaning on the whistle and hauling the throttle full open.
The undead locomotive picked up speed, faster and faster, until the wheels glowed bright red. Sheets of blood-red flame spouted from the stack, seething with strange, eerie shapes. Plate edges and rivets in the boiler glowed, as if heated by some Hellish fire from within. Avlar tugged constantly at the whistle cord but even its soulful scream could barely be heard over the engine's own cacophony. Avlar laughed; he wasn't afraid of the Nightmare Makers any more. No dark terror they could craft would be more terrible that he himself.
Avlar didn't even notice the red signal when he blew past it. Not until he came around a bend and saw the blinking anti-collision light on the back of a caboose did he give a thought to what other traffic might be out on the line. He grinned and retarded the throttle, but only a little. He closed with frightening speed on the train ahead; he could see the caboose- and a couple Nightmare Makers on the platform, watching him come- from the glow of his own engine. The gnomes fled inside, which was prudent; Avlar's locomotive struck the caboose almost hard enough to smash it off the rails. The other train was picking up speed but slowly. Avlar bashed it yet again. The caboose's chimney fell off.
A signal tower flashed by. It had two indicators so Avlar decided to take a chance and backed off. Sure enough, it turned out to be a siding. He roared onto it and hauled the throttle wide open. His engine leapt forward like a meteor, leaving a trail of smoke and flame behind it. It seemed he'd intercepted a Nightmare Maker crew train; he saw the same wooden cars with windows as he screamed past them. At the end of the siding he slammed back into the main line with only meters to spare; his locomotive's firey tail scorched the Nightmare Maker engine's paint. Looking back he saw sparks as the train braked hard; he closed the throttle, letting his own engine coast. It didn't matter; they couldn't get away now. He let them get out of sight, then braked to a stop and started backwards. He came upon them well before they'd reached cruising speed in the other direction; he played the throttle, getting just the closing speed he wanted. His engine crashed into the nose of the other, and this time the couplers locked. He hit the brakes; his engine slid to a stop, bringing the other one with it. The train broke loose from behind it; properly the safety air brakes should have stopped it but blue fire flickered in the sheared off hose. The train rolled on out of sight.
Avlar took his hand from the throttle but this time there were no sparks; his locomotive remained alight with its bloody glow. Casually he climbed down and sauntered back. The Nightmare Maker engine watched him fearfully.
"You are pulling a crew train," Avlar declared, climbing up onto the locked couplers. "That means you know where the shops are."
"But-" the locomotive protested.
"Did I tell you to speak?" Avlar demanded, tracing his finger across the locomotive's cheek. It left a trail of glowing metal, like the tip of an arc welder. The locomotive screamed. "Now." He held his finger right up in front of the locomotive's eye. "There's two ways we can do this. The quick way... and the slow way. The quick way is that you answer my questions without a lot of nonsense. The slow way... well, lest just say that's where I cut you until you look like that fellow there." He hooked his thumb at the undead engine. "And even then you don't get away. A touch of my hand on your throttle and you'll serve me for all eternity, day or night!"
"All right!" the engine screamed. "I'll tell! don't hurt me, please!"
"Then make sure I haven't any reason to," Avlar snapped, shaking his finger. "What's your name?"
Avlar flinched. His mother had been very strict on how a man should treat a woman. Nor was it merely a matter of upbringing; he took pride in being a gentleman. Being gentle had brought Rosalind- his Rosalind- to him and kept her at his side. Now he'd done this. All the gnomes he'd seen so far had been men, and his mind had been full of Voltimand's taunts and mocking laughter. Octavia might be a locomotive, and she might work for the Nightmare Makers, but that in itself didn't excuse uncivil behavior on his part. He composed himself with an effort. "Right," he muttered. "What is it that fuels you kind of engines?"
"C- condensed darkness," Octavia stammered.
"Where is it stored?" Avlar demanded.
"I- in a tank. Underneath."
Avlar jumped down and walked along Octavia's flank. She had motor trucks like an electric, but a much larger body. He found the tank, and what was obviously a filler cap. He opened it and discovered a dipstick. Drawing it out he saw it coated with slimy darkness that dripped on the gravel. He put it back and secured the cap. He opened his mouth to ask where the drain cock was but closed it instead. Draining out all her fuel and leaving her helpless could easily be something he'd regret later, for a variety of reasons, a great many of them personal. He walked back up to her face. "Your pal Voltimand took a friend of mine," he said. "Because if that I'm taking you. You go back to your friends when she does. Understand?"
Octavia looked down. "Yes sir."
"Good." Avlar returned to the cab of his own engine and set it in motion. It occurred to him that, without Rosalind, he had no idea where the Happy Dream Makers holed up for the night. But he had a theory, and he suspected that dawn would be coming soon. He left the main line at the first opportunity, this time heading away from the mountains. Here they passed through shady glens and open fields, past still lakes that glittered in the starlight. All in all it was beautiful country, not like the dark and menacing mountains. In due course dawn turned the sky from black to purple to very dark blue. Suddenly the undead engine's throttle lurched against Avlar's hand; he pulled back but it wouldn't come. Inexorably it closed, and the engine ground to a halt. As the first rays of the sun reached out across the land the Hell glow faded and once again the old locomotive was nothing but a rusty, partially stripped out hulk.
Avlar let go of the throttle with some effort. Where all else was corroded the handle was brightly polished... and imprinted where he'd gripped it, as if his hand had softened the metal. "Sorry about that, old boy," he whispered, patting the boiler. "I'll send someone to look after you properly just as soon as I can." He climbed down- and froze in shock when he saw Octavia in the light of day for the very first time.
Octavia was not black, as Avlar had first thought. Her body was a dark green, her streamlined nose smoky silver. Her fittings, which he would have expected to be brass or at least polished, were instead blued or acid blacked. He did think she'd look better in a brighter scheme but this one was still attractive, in a striking sort of way. As he approached he saw that she had her eyes tightly shut... and the scar he'd cut in her cheek looked even more hideous than he could have imagined. "Please, I- the light, it hurts," she stammered.
"It's all right." Avlar gently stroked Octavia's flank. "Just keep your eyes shut. I'll look after you." He hurried back, looking at Octavia's stern. Regrettably she was a single-ender; he'd have to back her if he couldn't turn her. Her streamline configuration would make that difficult; he'd have to lean out the window or some such. He climbed up to the cab and inspected the operator's station. Except for an increased number of gages and a lot of extra switches and knobs the basic controls seemed very like what he'd see in an electric. There was even a chair, upholstered in leather. He settled into it, moved the drive selector to reverse, released the brakes, and notched on the controller. Octavia started backwards as smoothly as he could have wished. He opened the cab window and looked out; craning his head around was tiring but he did it. Thankfully he came across a wye junction before too long and got Octavia turned around the other way. Now at least he could drive in comfort. But where could he drive to? "Octavia," he began, "Do you know where the Happy Dream Makers do their mining?"
"Yes," Octavia replied. "It's the same places we do, for the most part. After all, they leave the darkstuff for us."
"Ah." Avlar nodded. And no doubt the Nightmare Makers put the lightstuff back, where the Happy Dream Makers collected it in the morning. This all was staring to make sense, in a twisted sort of way. "Take me to one, please."
Octavia slowed suddenly. "I... I'm scared. They... they use liquid sunshine. It burns."
Avlar winced, thinking of the bottle full he'd broken on that one locomotive's face. Then he smiled ruefully; it became difficult to hate when your enemies stopped being faceless baddies. Though some people- like Voltimand- made it easier. "Don't worry," he said gently. "I won't let them hurt you. I promise."
"Okay." Octavia picked up speed.
Riding with Octavia was very comfortable. So much so, in fact, that Avlar found himself drifting off, thinking once again of his Rosalind's sensual charms. When he noticed it happening he forced himself awake; now wasn't the time. Rosalind- this one- and Octavia both depended on him now. Eventually they came back out onto the main line; Avlar stopped there for a bit then urged Octavia onward. They'd just have to trust luck and the signal system to steer them clear of conflicting traffic. "How many trainloads a day come out of the mine, on average?" Avlar asked.
"Four, maybe five on a good night," Octavia replied.
"The first two are darkstuff left over from the day, right?" Avlar ventured.
"So they'd go straight to the mine head and back, as soon as they're loaded," Avlar surmised. "Then the other trains leave spaced out during the night as they fill up."
"Yeah, that's usually how it works."
"Then I'd say we've missed the first two of the day," Avlar concluded. "We ought to get in between the second and third."
"Yes, but track gangs and supply trains go out in between times," Octavia cautioned.
"Then we'll just have to keep an eye out," Avlar replied.
In due course they met a track gang, which consisted of a vertical boiler steam engine and a work car, half flatcar and half caboose. As soon as the gnomes caught sight of Octavia they abandoned their work and took off at a much greater speed that Avlar would have credited to such a tiny engine. "Well, they know we're coming now," he muttered. "How much longer?"
"Not far," Octavia responded.
"Take it slow," Avlar advised.
Avlar didn't recognize the terrain around the mine head until it actually hove into view. Then he realized that they were coming up on it from the same direction he'd seen Titus and Prospero come. He blinked; he didn't think they'd gone that far... or had they somehow circled past it? He found he couldn't clearly imagine the system in his mind; there were too many twists and turns, too many branch lines going off this way and that. It could be that some of the branches connected at their far ends, forming great loops.
There's be time to worry about that later, though. Right then Avlar had more immediate problems: such as the row of grimly determined looking gnomes who'd arrayed themselves across the tracks, armed with what looked like fire hoses. Dark goggles protected their eyes.
Octavia stopped dead. "They're gonna spray sunlight on me," she whimpered.
"Oh, no they won't." Avlar kicked open the cab door and climbed down. He stepped onto the tracks, directly ahead of Octavia, and walked forward, hands raised. "It's all right!" he shouted. "It's me, Avlar! Don't worry about Octavia! She's with me!"
As he walked it occurred to Avlar that three things might happen other than he and Octavia being welcomed with open arms. One, the Happy Dream Makers might decide to douse them both with sunlight on general principle. Second, Octavia might take the opportunity to run him down... or she might just back away and run off. He wasn't sure she'd do any better at getting home during the day than he and Rosalind had during the night, but whether or not she succeeded the attempt would reflect badly on him.
One of the gnomes straightened up a little, lowering his hose and raising his goggles. "Avlar?" he called. "It's me, Lampridius!"
"Oh, thank God," Avlar exclaimed, dropping to his knees and clasping his hands together.
The other gnomes relaxed a little but kept a wary eye on Octavia. "What're you doing with one of those engines?" one of them demanded.
"I-" Avlar began. He meant to explain that he intended to trade Octavia for Rosalind, but that meant explaining everything. Some things he'd done last night, which seemed entirely reasonable enough then, now seemed... less so when viewed in the warm light of day. "Um..." he finished lamely.
Lampridius dropped his hose, set his goggles up on his forehead, and marched forward until he stood face to face to face, or at least face to chest, with Avlar. "You stayed out past sunset with nothing but a switch engine and a bottle of sunshine, and this morning you show up with a Nightmare Maker road engine," he said. "Furthermore, it's quite apparent that she's more afraid of you that she is of us." He sat down right in the middle of the tracks. "Why don't we have a sit and you can tell me all about it, friendly-like."
Avlar swallowed, then sat. After taking a deep breath he spilled out the whole sordid story.
"Um." Lampridius tapped his chin. "Um," he repeated, shifting his gaze. Avlar couldn't help thinking he was looking at the scar on Octavia's cheek. "Well... I'm not sure it's what I would have done, but I wasn't there. Can't very well fault you for making the best of a bad situation."
"I- I'm sorry," Avlar blurted. "She trusted me, and I- I-"
"Don't beat yourself up, lad." Lampridius rose, putting a hand on Avlar's shoulder. "Let it be a lesson for the future, but don't waste time with it now. Let's think instead about how to get Rosalind back."
"All right." Avlar nodded. "And... we should get that old locomotive. He deserves... a decent end, at least."
"He does," Lampridius announced. "At least that. You may be assured that we'll send a team around for him straight away. In fact, I think you and your new friend here should go along."
"Okay." Avlar nodded. "But... could I get something to eat? I'm famished."
"Sure, no problem," Lampridius declared. "Move your gal off onto that siding there and we'll lay on a little picnic."
The gnomes allowed Avlar to move Octavia onto the tail track but it did not escape his notice that they spiked the switch and set a derailing shoe on it. For all that they gave her- and him- the benefit of the doubt, they took no chances. For which he couldn't blame them, under the circumstances.
At least the promised meal arrived quickly and in abundant quantity. Several gnomes from a commissary car set up a table and loaded it with food. Basic fare, yes: pot roast with potatoes and carrots, greens, bread, and soup. But very tasty. The meat practically melted in Avlar's mouth, the potatoes and carrots cooked just right, not too hard, not too soft, and even throughout. Then Lampridius poured a shot of sunshine and offered it.
Avlar hesitated. He couldn't look directly at the glass; it was too bright.
"Come on, lad." Lampridius wiggled the glass. "You need a pick-me-up after what you went through last night."
Avlar demurred but Lampridius insisted. Eventually Avlar gave in and took a sip, keeping his eyes shut tight against the glare. When the liquid hit his tongue his eyes snapped open, irrespective of the glare. Rather to his surprise the liquid did exactly as promised: he really did feel awake. Not the tingling, over-stimulated sort of wakefulness that came from drinking excessive amounts of coffee, but real wakefulness, as if he had got a good night's sleep. He finished the shot and giggled.
"Careful with that," Lampridius cautioned. "That stuff hits awfully hard if you aren't used to it."
Avlar blinked several times, shook his head, then scrubbed his face. "That's for sure," he muttered, then finished his meal. "My compliments, by the way. This stuff isn't just good, it's absolutely incredible."
"We do our humble best," the commissary gnome replied, grinning broadly. "Here, have a little more. We've got plenty."
With only token resistance Avlar accepted another helping. Halfway through it- with his fork halfway to his mouth- he stopped. Octavia sat on the siding where he'd left her, eyes squeezed shut and looking miserable. Suddenly he felt terribly guilty for enjoying himself while she suffered. "Lampridius," he said, "She isn't used to the sunlight. Can you get her some goggles or something?"
"Hmm." Lampridius rubbed his chin. "We don't have any that size, and it'd take more than a day to make some. Let me talk to the lads; maybe we can improvise something."
While Lampridius and some other gnomes considered strategies and Avlar finished his meal, the signal on the main line changed from all clear to caution. Curious, Avlar watched; in due course Prospero rumbled into view, towing several work cars and a rail crane. "Ho, Avlar!" he shouted. "Hear you had an exciting evening!"
"That's so," Avlar responded softly, looking at Octavia. Lampridius and couple others had trimmed a piece of sheet metal into a rough mask, with a horizontal eye slit cut in the front. Now they were debating how to best secure it to Octavia's nose. Prospero eased past on the outside track, giving Octavia a thorough looking over. One of the gnomes suddenly came up with an idea: they fastened the mask in place with loops of wire secured to the handholds leading up to Octavia's cab. "Is that better?" Avlar asked, walking up.
"Yes, thank you," Octavia replied, sounding genuinely relieved. "With the slit I can still see a little, and the glare doesn't hurt."
"That's good." Avlar patted Octavia's side. "Lampridius... I don't suppose you could lay your hands on any of that distilled darkness she uses for fuel?"
"Not on short notice," Lampridius replied with a shudder. "We only use it to make our goggles." He waved his pair. "And that doesn't take nearly so much as she's likely to need."
"Ah, well." Avlar shrugged. "I had to ask."
"Say there, my boy," Prospero called. "Help me water, will you?"
"Oh, sure." Avlar hopped up into Prospero's cab step while he detached from his train and rolled forward to the fueling depot.
"You didn't have to ask," Prospero commented while Avlar climbed up onto his tender and opened the cover to the water tank.
A chain lowered the fill pipe attached to the side of the tank. Avlar paused in the act of reaching for it. "Yes I did," he said tightly. "I... didn't treat her very well last night."
"There's some who'd say that's no more than what a Nightmare Maker lackey deserves," Prospero observed.
Avlar's face tightened. "Maybe so, but I'm not one of them. Too many people have treated me and mine like shit for that very reason."
"Don't worry, lad," Prospero said. "We'll get Rosalind back."
"I hope so," Avlar replied, pulling the chain. He didn't add that he meant his Rosalind, not the one who'd been captured.
"Ready to go, there?" Lampridius called, leading a small group of gnomes.
"Always," Prospero responded cheerily.
"Excellent." Lampridius rubbed his hands together. "Let's get started, shall we?"
"Let's." Prospero backed up and reconnected to his train. "Avlar, why don't you and Octavia lead the way? We'll come on behind you."
"Are you- I mean-" Avlar began.
"I think we can trust you, Avlar," Prospero responded.
Avlar smiled. He climbed down from Prospero's tender, pausing briefly to pat the locomotive's flank. "Okay then. Let's get rolling." He rode the cab step while Prospero returned to his train, dropping off as Octavia came abreast of him. He personally supervised the removal of the derailing shoe and the un-spiking of the switch. "I need to turn her around," he asked. "Where can I do that?"
"There's a wye a few kays up the line," one of the workers replied, pointing.
"Thanks." Avlar ascended to Octavia's cab and took a seat at the operator's position. It had an upholstered chair, as opposed to the plain, hard stools typical to the freight motors that were his usual ken. He reached for the brake handle but caught himself. "Octavia," he said, "Can you find your way back to... where we stopped this morning?"
"Yes, I think so," Octavia replied, somewhat hesitantly.
"Good." Avlar leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Go on, then. Prospero'll come on behind. I'm told there's a wye up a bit where you can turn."
"Okay." Octavia backed out of the siding, then headed out up the main line.
"We'll wait for you here," Prospero called.
Avlar waved in response from the cab window. Prospero and his train were already aligned in the proper direction.
Octavia maintained a slow, steady pace. Since she clearly had things well in had Avlar allowed himself to admire the scenery. Around here that consisted mainly of meadows, streams, and small lakes. After a bit he frowned; the thought had come to him that the landscape seemed to have been cleared, as if for farms, but he saw none in evidence. As if the land had been cleared long ago. then left fallow. But if so, traces should remain... and there weren't any. "Octavia?" he asked.
"What happens out there?" Avlar gestured at the passing fields.
"What happens where?"
"In the fields," Avlar clarified. "Away from the railroad."
"I don't get out there much," Octavia responded, perhaps a touch tartly.
"Well... I suppose not," Avlar allowed. "I mean... does anyone live there? Are there roads? Houses? Anything?"
"I... don't know," Octavia responded after a thoughtful pause.
"Does anyone ever go there?"
"Not that I've ever heard of."
Just then a building hove into view, but it was clearly a control tower for the wye built around it. A couple gnomes watched from the windows; Octavia waited at the entrance signal, then proceeded when it cleared. After backing through the top of the wye she headed out, back the way she'd come.
"Octavia," Avlar began, "How do your people keep the Happy Dream Makers away during the day?"
"We have fire engines set up to spray them with distilled darkness if they do," Octavia responded.
"That's the stuff you use for fuel, right?"
Avlar nodded thoughtfully. "I'm starting to see a trend here," he mused.
"Oh?" Octavia prompted.
"A... symmetry, of sorts," Avlar replied. "The Happy Dream Makers only come out during the day. They mine the pleasant dreamstuff and refine it into liquid sunshine, which is both fuel and a weapon. The Nightmare Makers only come out at night. They mine nightmare dreamstuff and refine it into liquid darkness, which is also a fuel and weapon. Let me guess: those goggles they wear are made with liquid sunshine, aren't they?"
"Why, yes," Octavia replied, clearly surprised by Avlar's perspicacity. "They let you see at night. But if you use them in the daytime, they're too bright."
"Thought so." Avlar nodded, then frowned. "Octavia, is all the liquid darkness used to fuel engines and make things?"
"Oh, no," Octavia replied. "We wouldn't need but a fraction of our current output for that. Most of it goes into the Nightmare Factory."
"Oh," was all Avlar said. Somehow that too made perfect sense, given how things appeared to work around here.
Octavia passed the mine head. Once she cleared the switches Prospero set out behind her. After cruising for an hour or so the rusted out hulk hove into view. Octavia stopped suddenly. Prospero stopped behind her.
"Now ain't that a sight," Lampridius commented, coming up along the roadbed with a crowd of other gnomes.
"Can you do anything?" Avlar asked, climbing down from Octavia's cab.
"The running gear's in good shape, so we should at least be able to get him back to shops, where we can fix him up proper," Lampridius replied. He and the others gave the old engine a thorough inspection, then pulled out what appeared to be oiling cans. Except that they put on dark goggles before using them, and the fluid discharged glowed brightly. Liquid sunshine, obviously. They applied it as if it were oil, to the wheel and push rod journals. Other gnomes produced tools and set to work in the cab and under the front of the boiler. Avlar, who'd worked only with electrics, didn't understand what they were doing, but they went about it briskly and, to all appearances, competently. After a few hours they stopped and laid out an ornate picnic on brightly colored cloths they unfolded in the fields by the tracks. With that done they got back to work.
"There, that ought to do it," Lampridius announced, removing his goggles and wiping his hands on a rag. "Bring your lady friend up here and let's head back to the barn."
"No!" Octavia scooted backwards until she bashed into Prospero's coupler.
Avlar sighed. He walked up and lay a hand on Octavia's cheek. "It's all right," he said softly. "This isn't like- like before." His voice quavered ever so slightly. "Besides, there isn't much we can do, is there? What with you being in the way, Prospero can't hook up. You don't even have to do anything. Let him do the work. Just... close your eyes and hold on." His face lit with inspiration. "I tell you what. It'll probably be near dusk when we get back. Once we get this old fellow to the shops, I'll turn you loose."
A flick of light from behind the mask indicated that Octavia's eyes had focused on Avlar. "Will your buddies allow that?"
"They'd better," Avlar replied shortly. "Or we will have words." He snapped his fingers; a bright spark jumped.
The corners of Octavia's mouth turned up, ever so slightly. "Okay," she said quietly.
"That's my girl." Avlar stroked Octavia's side tenderly. "Prospero!" he shouted, leaning out. "Ease us forward, won't you?"
"Gladly!" The train crept forward.
Avlar rode on Octavia's step until her coupler engaged that of the hulk. The gnomes packed up and climbed aboard. Prospero started backwards... and the hulk came along, groaning and squeaking but rolling. The noise actually diminished as the train moved along. Avlar climbed up to Octavia's cab and sat in the operator's chair, gently stroking the control panel.
Something caused Avlar to glance to his left. He couldn't tell what it was but he felt it as Prospero suddenly cut power. Avlar moved to the opposite side of the cab and peered out the window.
In the distance a brilliantly glowing mushroom cloud climbed into the sky. It faded to sullen black shot with flame, then gradually dissipated into a column of smoke. At which point an even more incredible thing happened: the sunlight suddenly dimmed, like a gas lamp on the verge of going out. The sky darkened to a sullen red, brightened a bit, flickered some, then brightened again to about half its original level.
"What in the blue blazes was that?" Avlar shrieked, his voice cracking.
"I don't know!" Octavia wailed.
Prospero accelerated, pushing the train's speed to more than what Avlar would have thought prudent for running backwards... but far less than what Avlar and Rosalind had achieved last night. "You just hang tight," he said to Octavia. "I'll take care of this." He dropped into the operator's chair and grabbed Octavia's throttle. Sparks flashed from his fingers as they closed around the handle. Octavia let out a yelp, but the train suddenly accelerated. Drastically. In less than half the time they had spent on the outbound trip they flashed past the mine head, which was deserted. The wye flashed by a short time later; the train roared off along one of the spurs.
The shrilling of Prosper's whistle reminded Avlar that he was on the wrong side to see the block signals. He yanked the throttle to off and applied brake, bringing the train back to a more reasonable speed. Then he let Prospero take over and leaded out the window. He could see an immense cloud of smoke billowing into the sky, but the train blocked his view of whatever caused it. He ran to the opposite side of the cab.
The train had entered a yard next to what looked like a refinery complex. Which was almost completely engulfed in flames. A few gnomes fought the blaze with fire hoses, but many more were simply fleeing. Avlar didn't blame them; given the intensity and extent of the fire, he wasn't sure they could have done anything away. The train stopped; Avlar dropped to the ground and ran toward the crew car.
Lampridius and a bunch of gnomes dismounted, but they only stood there, staring dumbly at the destruction. Just then the first of the refugees arrived, most of them gasping for breath, their clothes and faces black with soot. Avlar grabbed one. "What happened?" he demanded.
"The... the Nightmare Makers came out of the woods," the gnome gasped. "They attacked the pump house. Disabled the sunshine pumps. Then a train came barreling up the spur. The gate guards tried to turn it back but there wasn't any pressure in the hoses. A locomotive- a big one- came in at full honk, pushing a tank car. It dropped the tanker and went to full emergency brake; it barely stopped before crashing into the loading terminal. The tanker didn't; it slammed into the buffers at a good seventy-five or eighty klicks. It cracked like an egg, and spilled liquid shadow all over. It smashed a bunch of takers in the loading terminal, they spilled too, and..." he gestured vaguely toward the flames.
"Is that what happens when liquid sunshine and liquid shadow mixes?" Avlar asked.
"Yep." Lampridius nodded. "They're both plenty safe on their own, but mix 'em and it's boom."
"Oh, my God," another of the refugees exclaimed. "The Nightmare Makers got away with two whole strings of tank cars full of liquid sunshine. Everything we were gonna send up to the factory tonight."
"Why did the, the sky flicker?" Avlar asked.
"They must have damaged the feed pumps for the Dream Factory," Lampridius speculated.
The first refugee nodded. "One's down for good, and Three's offline because of a ruptured manifold. Can't bring it up 'till the spill is cleaned and the break repaired."
Lampridius frowned. "You mean the factory's only running on one pump?"
The refugee nodded. "Yes, and we've lost nearly a week's worth of refined fuel to boot."
Lampridius said nothing. He looked, Avlar felt, like a person who doesn't curse because no invective could possibly do justice to the situation. "This is terrible," he said hollowly.
"I'm sorry to appear ignorant, but what is the problem?" Avlar demanded.
Lampridius faced Avlar squarely. "It's very simple," he said. "We mine the dreamstuff. We convert the happy dreamstuff into liquid sunshine at the refinery. We keep a reserve in tank cars here in the marshalling yard, and pump the rest up to the factory. As for the sky-" he paused, taking a deep breath. "The reason it's day is because of the factory. As it burns sunshine it glows. Without the factory there wouldn't be any light at all. It would be night all the time. But we have to shut it down every twelve hours for cleaning and repairs. Now we're really in a fix because we may not have enough fuel on hand to keep it running. If that happens we won't be able to collect dreamstuff and we'll get even further behind."
"The Nightmare Makes havea factory too," Avlar said, more to himself than not. "It uses liquid shadow to make it night."
"Exactly." Lampridius nodded. "I can't imagine what they'd do with all that sunshine, though."
"It's obvious," Avlar replied. "All they have to do is keep it away from you. Then they-" he fell silent. "I assume they use liquid darkness on the same scale as you use liquid sunshine?"
"Yes," Lampridius agreed.
Avlar rubbed his chin. "
To Be Continued