Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Octavia’s foot dully struck the cab floor unrelentingly. It would have been an attractive polyrhythm when juxtaposed against the deafening strokes of the locomotive pistons – if only it were audible at all. Kiril casually slid a piece of coal toward the tender pile, further clearing out the area around his modest perch.
The rest of the cab was filthy, coated with oil and soot. Kiril sat in the middle of a clean circle about two feet in diameter, having patiently slid away the coal balls and scraped off the worst of the grime from the floor. (He realized far too late that he was exchanging the cleanliness of his own soles to this end.)
Octavia sat on one of the window-side seats, eschewing the view and facing into the cab. She glowered at the engineer, clearly unsatisfied with the services rendered. “Driver, how long now?”
“Gia, for the third time, Gia.” The engineer spared no glance for Octavia, tapping her finger on one of the dials instead. Her gaze flickered a moment to another dial; she seized her shovel and brushed past Kiril to scoop a generous helping of coal. “We passed Lower Derrynoose about thirty minutes back, so that puts us twenty out from Ballymore. You’ve got a map, you can work out the rest.”
Octavia kicked a stray piece of coal across the cab and off the train. Gia indignantly stabbed the floor with her shovel. “Them’s the rules. This is regular passenger service. This locomotive can’t go much faster than this, anyhow.” Gia walked back to the coal pile to grab another scoop.
“There’ll be a lot worse than a missed timetable if they send someone after us right now,” muttered Octavia, kicking another coal ball overboard.
The access door to the frontmost carriage opened without warning. All three cab occupants turned to look. A concerned, bespectacled face poked up over the top of the tender. “Hey, we’ve got – “
WHAM. A low clap of thunder rang in Kiril’s ears as the whole train leaped forward a bit.
” – trouble,” finished the passenger, reseating his spectacles, which had slipped badly from the collision.
Octavia leaped to her feet. “Driver – ” (“Gia!“) ” – you’d better be pretty damn sure that them’s the rules you want to die by.”
Octavia and Kiril clambered over the tender and alighted on the passenger gangway. Octavia jumped up the access ladder and poked her head over the lip of the carriage roof. Kiril stared up, watching her expression.
“Mmm, yeah, that’s bad.” Octavia looked down at Kiril. “They’ve sent a locomotive after us. Looks beefy.”
“They’re trying to catch us?” Kiril yelled up at her.
“No, it’s just the locomotive.” Octavia returned her gaze to the pursuing engine. “They’re trying to wreck us.” She raised a hand, pointing two fingers down the length of the train. She murmured something Kiril couldn’t hear, but his field of vision went white a moment later as a blinding beam of light jumped across the carriage roofs.
Far away, a dull thunk sounded. Octavia frowned and repeated the incantation. Kiril closed his eyes this time, and the dull thunk reprised itself.
Octavia shrugged and dropped to the gangway. “Did you get it?” asked Kiril. “Yeah, but it’s no good, not after I gave it two direct hits to the smokebox,” grumbled Octavia. “It flinched quite a lot, but it’s definitely been buffed to deal with this.”
Kiril glanced at Gia, who had taken a seat by the firebox, unflapped by the fact that her train was being pursued by a murderous locomotive. “What do we do?”
Octavia grabbed Kiril’s hand and began tracing symbols into his palm. Kiril’s hand began to glow like an ember, and Octavia traced faster. “Delayed fortification seal with a mass multiplier. Evacuate the last carriage and apply this to its floor – then decouple it. For pity’s sake, don’t touch anything else with that hand!”
Octavia finished off the seal. Kiril’s hand glowed brighter for a moment, then dimmed as the seal sank in. Kiril made a fist, nodded, and dashed into the frontmost carriage.
Octavia climbed up back into the tender and dropped into the cab. “Gia. You’re not going to like this.”
Gia looked up from tending the firebox and snapped its wing-doors shut. “What the hell do you want with my engine?”
“I want it to survive, much like I want me to survive,” growled Octavia. “And believe me, if I don’t do this, the train’s not going to survive.” Octavia squatted down and began tracing symbols on the firebox doors, keeping her hand about an inch off the searing-hot surface.
Now Gia was the one glaring at Octavia. “I’ll concede that driving her faster is better than being rammed by…whatever demon you’ve visited upon this train, but just remember that I’m the one with my hands on the throttle.”
Octavia grinned. “Well, Gia, by your leave, I think we’d best be passing Ballymore in under ten minutes, then.” She sat in the engineer’s window-side seat and leaned out of the cab, facing the rear of the train. Peering down the line, she took aim again with her right hand and fired off another two beams of light.
“‘Scuse me, sorry, sorry, coming through, ‘scuse me…” Kiril pushed through the throngs of panicky passengers, a lone salmon swimming upstream against a powerful current. Two flashes streaked past the windows on his left. “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, don’t panic, don’t panic, but also, please don’t open the windows for now, not if your heads are fond of your necks.”
The densely packed passengers thinned as Kiril approached the rearmost carriage. He tore open the door and stepped in. The few remaining passengers (curious gawkers, staring agape out the rear door, which had been smashed ajar by the first impact) looked up at his sudden arrival. Kiril rolled his eyes.
“What do you think you’re doing? Out! Out! Into this carriage, please!” Kiril stepped aside and gestured to the door, motioning the stragglers to vacate this rearmost car.
The last passenger to leave paused to take a passing glance at his hand, still glowing faintly. “What’s with your hand?”
Kiril groaned exasperatedly. “It still punches the same, want to see?” He seized this last passenger by the scruff of his neck and single-handedly threw him into the car ahead.
Kiril ran up and down the length of the carriage, making sure that nobody was left behind. He took note that the pursuing locomotive, despite being knocked back twice now by Octavia’s beams (two more flashes of light – thunk, thunk – three times now), was still closing the gap menacingly. Its smokebox bore an unnatural ruddy hue, and the smoke blowing out its stack was too thick to judge as unenchanted.
“Right, then.” Kiril squatted at the center of the car and touched his glowing hand to the floor. His hand glowed brighter, then dimmed to nothingness.
Three streaks of light went past his field of vision, impacting the pursuing locomotive loudly and pushing it back a bit further than before. Kiril sprang to his feet and dashed to the carriage gangway. The train was gaining speed, but so was the pursuing locomotive.
Kiril ignored the gawking passengers gathered at the door to the carriage ahead. He grabbed hold of the doorframe and squatted down on the gangway, reaching underneath with his casting hand. He closed his eyes and blindly traced two each of the seal of delayed action and the seal of undoing. He could, at the very least, draw these reliably without Octavia’s guidance. He topped it off with a seal of closure.
Kiril stood and entered the carriage ahead, not being shy about pushing passengers back. “You lot seem like you’d be gawking if your own parents were being guillotined,” he muttered. He braced both hands on the doorframe, waiting for his seals of delayed action to wear off.
Clank! The coupling holding the rearmost carriage to the second-from-the-rear came undone. The rearmost carriage began to separate idly from the rest of the train, no longer being pulled forward. Before it could separate so far as to pull the brake lines taut, snap! the second seal of undoing came due, and the brake piping was disconnected.
Kiril’s seal of closure activated in response to the second seal of undoing, ensuring that the air brakes remained pressurized in this car (and for the rest of the train). The rearmost carriage, though, was fully detached, and without a pressurized link, entered its failsafe mode in which the airbrakes were fully applied.
Finally, Octavia’s delayed seals now took effect. The car became instantaneously heavier and stronger; the latter change was not obvious, but the former was immediately apparent. Momentum-scaling seals are both finicky and time-consuming to draw; by happy coincidence, it was to their advantage that total momentum was preserved when mass was scaled up. Scaling up the mass of the rearmost carriage as Octavia had done would scale down its velocity. This manifests a natural and powerful braking action.
The rearmost carriage, with its mass greatly amplified and its brakes at maximum, shot violently away from the train. The pursuing locomotive, still doggedly gaining speed, jumped forward hungrily to meet it.