some unheard query. “Of course. Good dark moldywarpe black.”

A pause. The whole train seemed embarrassed. Then: “Right.” That was a new voice. Captain Abacat Naphi had patched in. “Attention. Moldywarpe. You’ve seen it. Brakers, switchers: to stations. Harpoonists: ready. Stand by to launch carts. Increase speed.”

The Medes accelerated. Sham tried to listen through his feet, as he’d been taught. A shift, he decided, from shrashshaa to drag’ndragun. He was learning the clatternames.

“How goes treatment?”

Sham spun. Dr. Lish Fremlo stared at him from the cabin threshold. Thin, ageing, energetic, gnarled as the windblown rocks, the doctor watched Sham from beneath a shag of gun-coloured hair. Oh Stonefaces preserve me, Sham thought, how bleeding long have you been there? Fremlo eyed a spread of wooden-&-cloth innards that Sham had lifted from the hollow belly of a manikin, that he should by now certainly have labelled & replaced, & that were still all over the floor.

“I’m doing it, Doctor,” Sham said. “I got a little … there was …” He stuffed bits back within the model.

“Oh.” Fremlo winced at the fresh cuts Sham had doodled with his penknife in the model’s skin. “What unholy condition are you giving that poor thing, Sham ap Soorap? I should perhaps intervene.” The doctor put up a peremptory finger. Spoke not unkindly, in that distinct sonorous voice. “Student life is not scintillating, I know. Two things you’d best learn. One is to”—Fremlo made a gentle motion—“to calm down. & another is what you can get away with. This is the first great southern of this trip, & that means your first ever. No one, including me, gives a trainmonkey’s gonads if you’re practicing right now.”

Sham’s heart accelerated.

“Go,” the doctor said. “Just stay out of the way.”

SHAM GASPED AT THE COLD. Most of the crew wore furs. Even Rye Shossunder, passing him with a peremptory glance, had a decent rabbitskin jerkin. Rye was younger &, as cabin boy, technically even lower in the Medes order than Sham, but he had been at rail once before, which in the rugged meritocracy of the moletrain gave him the edge. Sham huddled in his cheap wombatskin jacket.

Crews scrambled on walkways & all the carriagetop decks, worked windlasses, sharpened things, oiled the wheels of jollycarts in harnesses. Way above, Nabby bobbed in his basket below the crow’s-nest balloon.

Boyza Go Mbenday, first mate, stood on the viewing dais of the rearmost cartop. He was scrawny & dark & nervily energetic, his red hair flattened by the gusts of their passage. He traced their progress on charts, & muttered to the woman beside him. Captain Naphi.

Naphi watched the moldywarpe through a huge telescope. She held it quite steadily to her eye, despite its bulk & despite the fact that she hefted it one-handed in a strong right arm. She was not tall but she drew the eyes. Her legs were braced in what might have been a fighting stance. Her long grey hair was ribboned back. She stood quite still while her age-mottled brown overcoat wind-shimmied around her. Lights winked in her bulky, composite left arm. Its metal & ivory clicked & twitched.

The Medes rattled through snow-flecked plainland. It sped out of drag’ndragun into another rhythm. By rock, crack & shallow chasm, past scuffed patches of arcane salvage.

Sham was awed at the light. He looked up into the two or more miles of good air, through it into the ugly moiling border of bad cloud that marked the upsky. Bushes stubby & black as iron tore past, & bits of real iron jagging from buried antique times did, too. Atangle across the whole vista, to & past the horizon in all directions, were endless, countless rails.

The railsea.

Long straights, tight curves; metal runs on wooden ties; overlapping, spiralling, crossing at metalwork junctions; splitting off temporary sidings that abutted & rejoined main lines. Here the train tracks spread out to leave yards of unbroken earth between them; there they came close enough together that Sham could have jumped from one to the next, though that idea shivered him worse than the cold. Where they cleaved, at twenty thousand angles of track-meets-track, were mechanisms, points of every kind: wye switches; interlaced turnouts; stubs; crossovers; single & double slips. & on the approaches to them all were signals, switches, receivers, or ground frames.

The mole dove under the dense soil or stone on which sat those rails, & the ridge of its passage disappeared till it rose again to kink the ground between metal. Its earthwork wake was a broken line.

The captain raised a mic & gave crackling instructions. “Switchers; stations.” Sham got another whiff of diesel & liked it this time. The switchers leaned from the walkway that sided the front engine, from the platforms of the second & fourth cars, brandishing controllers & switchhooks.

“Star’d,” broadcast the captain, watching the mole alter course, & a lead switcher aimed his remote at an incoming transponder. Points snapped sideways; the signal changed. The Medes reached the juncture & swerved onto the new line, back on the trail.

“Star’d … port … second port …” Amplified instructions lurched the Medes deep into Arctic wastes, tacking zigzag across wood-&-metal from rail to railsea rail, rattling over connections, closing on the mole’s fast-moving turbulent earth.

“Port,” came an order & a switchwoman obliged. But Mbenday yelled, “Belay that!” The captain shouted, “Star’d!” The switcher thumbed her button again but too late; the signal rushed past gleefully, it seemed to Sham, as if it knew it would cause havoc & relished the fact. Sham couldn’t breathe. His fingers tightened on the handrail. The Medes hurtled on for the points now sending them to whatever it was that had Mbenday frantic—

—& here, Zaro Gunst, riding the coupling between fifth & sixth cars, leaned out with a switchhook & with swagger & a jouster’s precision swiped the lever as it went by.

The impact sent his pole shattered & clattering across the railsea but the points slammed sideways as they disappeared below the figurehead, & the Medes’s front wheels hit the junction. The train continued, back on a safe line.

“Well done, that man,” said the captain. “It was an ill-marked change of gauge.”

Sham exhaled. With a few hours, industrial lifting & no choice you might change a vehicle’s wheel- width. But hit a transition full on? They’d have been wrecked.

“So,” Captain Naphi said. “He’s a tricksy one. Leading us into trouble. Well grubbed, old mole.”

The crew applauded. A traditional response to that traditional praise for such quarry cunning.

Into dense railsea.

The moldywarpe slowed. The Medes switched & circled, braked, kept a distance as the buried predator sniff-hunted for huge tundra earthworms, wary of pursuers. It wasn’t only trainsfolk who could read vehicles in their vibrations. Some beasts could feel the drum & pulse of train motion from miles off. Cautiously, the traintop cranes lowered jollycarts onto nearby lines.

The cart-crews gunned their little engines, switched points gently. They closed slowly in.

“Off he goes.”

Sham looked up, startled. Next to him, Hob Vurinam, the young trainswain, leaned out enthusiastically. He snapped up the collar of his battered finery with practised cockiness, his third- or fourth-hand coat. “The old velvet gent can hear them.”

A molehill rose. Whiskers, a prow of dark head emerged. It was big. The snout went side to side & sprayed dust & spittle. Its mouth opened, very full of teeth. The talpa had good ears but the double switch-rattling confused it. It growled dustily.

With sudden violent percussion, a missile slammed down next to it. Kiragabo Luck—Sham’s compatriot, Streggeye native, truculent harpoonist—had shot, & she had missed.

Instantly the moldywarpe upended. It dug at speed. Cart Two’s harpoonist, Danjamin Benightly, moon-grey yellow-haired hulk from the woods of Gulflask, yelled in his barbarous accent, & his crew accelerated through the scattering soil. Benightly pulled the trigger.

Nothing. The harpoon gun was jammed.

“Damn!” said Vurinam. He hissed like a spectator at a puntball match. “Lost it!”

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