unsnarlable connections, one of the two who had raised Sham, was not a trainsman. Voam kept house for a captain. The only people, however, he held in higher regard than molers were doctors. Which was not surprising, given how much of his time Sham’s other cousinish surrogate parent—stooped, nervy, angular Troose yn Verba— spent with them. & they were mostly kind, too, to the boisterous old hypochondriac.

Sham could no more turn down the work Troose & Voam had arranged for him than he could have trod dog muck & railsea earth into the old men’s clothes. It wasn’t as if he had anything else to suggest, wrack his brains though he did. He’d been fretfully kicking his heels long enough since ending school. His time at which had also been spent, if more youthfully, kicking his heels.

Sham felt sure there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellently suited. Which made the more frustrating that he could not say what it was. Too vague about his interests for further study; too cautious in company, perhaps a little bruised by less-than-stellar school days, to thrive in sales or service; too young & sluggish to excel at heavy work: Sham’s tryings-out of various candidate activities left him het up. Voam & Troose were patient but concerned.

“Maybe,” he had tried to venture, more than once, “I mean, what about …” But the two men would always catch & interrupt his drift on that topic, in uncharacteristic accord.

“Absolutely not,” said Voam.

“No way,” said Troose. “Even if there was someone you could train with—& you know there ain’t, this is Streggeye!—it’s dangerous & dubious. You know how many beggars there are tried & failed to make that a living? You have to have a certain …” He had eyed Sham gently.

“You’re much too …” Voam said.

Too what? thought Sham. He tried for fury at Voam’s hesitation, but only got as far as gloom. Too wet? Is that it?

“… Too nice a lad,” Troose had concluded, & beamed. “To try his hand at salvage.”

Eager to give him a gently caring shove, to be an adult bird nudging a fledgling into squawking terrified first flight, Voam had pulled a favour & secured moletrain-based apprenticeship with Fremlo for his ward.

“Life of the mind, teamwork & a sure trade, too,” Voam had said. “& it’ll get you out of this place. See the world!” When he told Sham, beaming, Voam had blown a kiss at the little clicking portrait of Sham’s mother & father. It cycled on a three-second exposure, an endless loop. “You’ll love it!”

SO FAR, love of the life had been evasive. But to his own surprise, when he woke after that night of butchery, though the first noise out of him was a yelp & the second a whimper, so stiff & bone-battered was Sham, & though he staggered out of the cabin as if in rusted-up armour, when out he came & saw the grey sun through the upsky clouds & the swirling railgulls & his comrades taking hacksaws to the hosed-down pillars of the moldywarpe skeleton, even still feeling like an imposter at he knew not even what, Sham was lifted.

A kill so big, the mood aboard was good. Dramin served breakfast molemeat. Even he, ash-coloured & cadaverous, a cook who looked like a scrawny dead man & had never liked Sham at all, slopped broth into Sham’s bowl with something almost like a grin.

The crew whistled as they wound rope & oiled machinery. Played quoits & back-gammony on the cartop decks, swaying expertly with the train. Sham hesitated, hankering, but blushed to remember his previous participation in the hoop-throwing. He felt fortunate the crew had let slide what had looked likely to become his permanent nickname, Captain Rubbish-Aim.

He went back to watching penguins. He took flatographs of them with his cheap little camera. The flightless charmers bickered & clattered their beaks on the islets they jostlingly inhabited. Hunting, they would dive into the inter-line ground, the earth of the railsea between the metal, & with their big shovel-shaped bills, their adapted clawfeet & muscled wings, they would tunnel aggressively for yards, burst squawking up again with some subterrestrial grub wriggling in their beaks. They might be prey in turn, chased by a fanged meerkat, a badger, predatory chipmunk packs, flurrying hunters at which Sham would stare, & which some of his trainmates strained with nets to snare.

THE MEDES’S JOURNEY was winding. Sham stared wistfully at each jag of salvage the switchers steered them past. As if one of them—that wire-wrapped stub of wheel, this dust-scoured refrigerator door, the glowing thing like a segment-missing grapefruit embedded in the shale of a shore—might wake up & do something. Could happen. Sometimes did. He thought his attentions were sneaky till he noticed the first mate & doctor watching him. Mbenday laughed at Sham’s blush; Fremlo did not.

“Young man.” The doctor looked patient. “Is this the sort of thing, then”—with a gesture at whatever ancient discarded object it was they left behind them in the dust—“for which you pine?”

Sham could only shrug.

They interrupted a group of person-sized star-nosed moles. The Medes snared two before the labour got away. Sham was bewildered that the sight of those kills, the squeals of those animals, made him wince more than the enormous slaughter of the bellowing southern moldywarpe. Still, it was more meat & fur. Sham snuck by the diesel car to see how full their holds were, to gauge how soon they would have to dock.

Fremlo gave him more doll-things to take apart & label & put back together again, to learn how the body worked. The doctor would examine the results of these macabre surgeries in horror. Fremlo put diagrams in front of him, at which Sham stared as if studying. Fremlo tested him on beginner medicine, at which Sham performed so consistently badly the doctor was almost more impressed than irritated.

Sham sat on deck, his legs dangling over the rushing dirt. He waited for epiphany. He had known soon after the journey started that medicine & he were not to be close friends. So he had auditioned fascinations. Tried scrimshaw, journal-keeping, caricature. Tried to pick up the languages of foreign crewmates. Hovered by card games to learn gamblers’ skills. These efforts at interest did not take.

Northish, & the frost grew less severe, plants less cowed. People stopped singing & started arguing again. The most robust of these altercations blossomed into fights. More than once Sham had to scurry out of the path of roaring men & women knocking bells & leather out of each other at the most minimal provocations.

I know what we need, Sham thought, as ill-tempered officers ordered the perpetrators to clean the heads. He’d overheard second-hand train-lore about what to do when tensions got great. We need some R&R. It was not long ago he had not known what those Rs might stand for. Perhaps bored women & men, he thought, needed Rice & Remembrance. Rollers & Restitution. Rhyme & Reason.

One drab afternoon under sweaty clouds, Sham joined a circle of off-duty trainsfolk hallooing on a cartop. They gathered around a rope-coil arena in which two grumpy insects lumbered at each other. They were tank beetles, heavy iridescent hand-sized things, solitary by nature & pugnacious when that nature was denied, so perfect for this nasty sport. They hesitated, seemingly disinclined to engage. Their handlers prodded them with hot sticks until they grudgingly charged, shells clattering like angry plastic.

It was interesting, Sham supposed, but their owners’ relentless provocation of their insects wasn’t pleasant to watch. In cages in his colleagues’ hands, he saw a burrowing lizard with anxious reptile sneer. A meerkat, & a spike-furred digging rat. The beetles were only the warm-up fight.

Sham shook his head. It wasn’t as if the beetles were any less press-ganged or unwilling than rats or rockrabbits, but even annoyed at the one-sidedness of his own mammalian solidarity, Sham couldn’t help feeling it. He backed away—& retreated right into Yashkan Worli. Sham staggered & careened into other onlookers, leaving a trail of annoyed growls.

“Where you going?” Yashkan shouted. “Too soft to watch?”

No, thought Sham. Just not in the mood.

“Come here! Soft belly & soft heart?” Yashkan catcalled, accompanied by Valtis Lind & a few others who could be bothered with the casual cruelties. A patter of slang name-calling, reminding Sham unpleasantly of school. He flushed beacon-bright.

“It’s only a joke, Sham!” Vurinam shouted. “Grow up! Get back here.”

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