But Sham left, thinking of the insults & those beetles pointlessly crippling each other & the scared animals waiting their turn.

THEY PASSED ANOTHER moler, diesel-powered like the Medes, its flags announcing it from Rockvane. The crews waved at each other. “Wouldn’t know how to mole if a suicidal moldywarpe talked them through it,” the Medes crew muttered through their smiles. Rockvane this & that, they went on, creative imprecations about their southern neighbour.

The rails here precluded an easy gam, a social meet-up, exchange of news & letters. So it was with surprise that Sham saw Gansiffer Brownall, the glum & intricately tattooed second mate, unroll a hunt-kite of the type they flew in Clarion, her austere far-off home.

What’s she doing? he thought. The captain attached a letter to the kite. Brownall sent it coiling like a live thing through the air, under the roiling shadowy smear of the upsky. Two, three swoops, & she dive-bombed it into the Rockvane train.

Within minutes, the Rockvaners threw up a final pennant. Sham stared as they receded. He was still learning the language of flags, but this one he knew. In response to the captain’s question, it said, Sorry, no.

FOUR

IT WAS COLD BUT NOTHING LIKE THE MERCILESS FRIGIDITY of deep Arctic. Sham watched the rumbustious ecosystems of burrows. Peeled-looking loops of worms broke earth. Head-sized beetles. Foxes & bandicoots hurried between clots of treeroots & the perforated metal & glass of up-thrust salvage. Fog closed in, obscuring rail after rail.

“Soorap,” Vurinam said. The trainswain was concentrating, experimenting with a new hat. New to him, that was. Vurinam shoved his black hair beneath it, cocked it variously with & against the wind.

“Did you not hear me at the betting?” Vurinam said. “Didn’t you want to watch?”

“Sort of,” Sham said. “But that ain’t reason enough, sometimes.”

“You’re going to have a hard time of it in this line of work,” Vurinam said. “If a bit of animal argy-bargy upsets you.”

“It ain’t the same,” Sham said. “That ain’t it. For one, we don’t go for moldywarpes for the laugh of it. & for two, they’ve got a good chance of getting us back.”

“Allowable,” Vurinam decided. “So it’s about size? If Yashkan was put up against a couple of mole rats, or a thing his own scale, you’d have no objections?”

“I’d lay a bet myself,” Sham muttered.

“Next time you should stick it out,” Hob said.

“Vurinam.” Sham made himself go on. “What was it the captain asked the Bagsaft? & when we caught the big one, why did she ask what colour it was?”

“Ah.” Vurinam stopped tweaking his headgear’s brim & turned to look at Sham. “Well.”

Sham said, “It’s her philosophy, ain’t it?”

“What would you know about that?” said Hob Vurinam after a moment.

“Nothing,” Sham mumbled. “I just sort of supposed she’s looking for something. Of a certain colour. So she must have one. She was asking if they’d seen it. What colour is it?”

“So very slow at back-gammony,” Vurinam said. Glanced at the crow’s nest & back at Sham. “So ill- suited to climbing.” Sham shifted, uncomfortable in Vurinam’s gaze. “Wistful at the sight of antique trash. Ain’t much of a doctor. But that right there is a good deduction, Sham Soorap.”

He leaned in. “She calls it ivory,” Vurinam said quietly. “Or bone- hue sometimes. I heard her describe it once as tooth-like. Now me I’d not backchat or argue for a treble-share of the moleprice if that’s what she wants to call it but if it were me, what I’d say is that it’s yellow.” He straightened. “Her philosophy,” he said, speaking into the wind, “is yellow.”

“You seen it?”

“A flatograph is all.” Vurinam made a humpback motion with his hand. “Big,” he said. “Really … big.” He whispered, “Big & yellow.”

Philosophies. Time was Sham’d wondered if that was what he wanted in his life, to surrender to a philosophy, hunt it implacably. But as he learnt more about the moletrains, it turned out they raised in him a queasiness, philosophies. A sort of nervous irritation. I might have known, he thought.

SHAM WAS RARELY TEMPTED to do anything at night but sleep. But after that conversation, he was too jittery to surrender to his dull dreams. He sat, so far as the bed-cubby would allow. Listened to the grind & snort of wind & metal of the resting moletrain. Thought things through. At last got up.

He crept shivering through the cabin & its sleepers. Not easy in a space so intricate & equipment- cramped. Every step a negotiation of bundled rope & rags, clattery iron, tin tools, the tchotchkes by which sentimental trainsfolk made rolling stock homely. From low ceilings dangled all sorts of things on which a head could bash. But days at rail had changed him. Sham was no longer a landlubber.

Up. Night-shifts moved on other roofdecks, but Sham kept low. Into the middle of the huge cold railsea dark where nightlights swung in line, each queried by its own loyal moths. There were glints on iron lines alongside, racing shadows on the ties. Sham saw no stars.

He wanted to make a way along the traintop, to the ropeladder, to the crow’s nest. Then he wanted to make a rude gesture towards where Vurinam slept & climb into the wind, to the platform where whichever poor soul on duty crouched by a two-bar heater & stared towards the unseen horizon.

Only the maddest captain would hunt, switch rail-to-rail, at night. The lookout was watching for lights, which might be other hunters, might at worst be pirates—or just very possibly might be current-running salvage. That, Sham told himself, was what he wanted to see.

Not merely—merely!—to spot one of the looming loops of concrete-scabbed girders or a broken black dome or rubbish or plaster-glass-&-circuitry artefacts that broke the railsea. But to find one powered, running by whatever occult source ran the rarest salvage. Emitting sound or light, obeying forgotten plans. He wanted that, not some captain’s stupid philosophy.

Sham looked at the dangling ladder. Swore. As if it weren’t too cold & he too scared. & if he did get up there & see anything, nothing would happen. Captain Naphi would mark it on a chart, to pass to others. The Medes would keep hunting moles.

I’d rather find nothing, Sham thought, as sulkily as a child. He crept his freezing way back to bed, refusing to feel ashamed of himself.

THE NEXT DAY when a lookout announcement made Sham’s heart surge, it wasn’t the call for a moldywarpe, but it wasn’t really salvage either. It was something he hadn’t even considered.

FIVE

THERE ARE TWO LAYERS TO THE SKY, & FOUR LAYERS to the world. No secrets there. Sham knew that, this book knows that, & you know that, too.

There’s the downsky, that stretches two, three miles & a biscuit from the railsea up. That high, the air suddenly goes dinge-coloured, & more often than not roils with toxic cloud. That is the border of the upsky, in which hunt oddities, ravenous alien flyers. Mostly unseen in the dirty mist, thank goodness, except when the cover clears & makes watchers shudder. Except when their limbs & bits reach down to grab some ill-advisedly

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