Virhem held the head of the sleeping train conductor in his hand gently, with the same sort of attitude an orderly would hold their patient, practiced and dispassionate. The white noise of the train whispering on its tracks, hovering on the cushion of electromagnetic repulsion, softened the sound of the reflexive struggle as the train conductor’s body fought, for a moment, to wake up. The narcotic mixed in with the paralyzing agent was too strong, smothering Virhem’s victim inescapably. The train conductor’s eyes fluttered, never quite opening before they relaxed for good. He kicked weakly for a few seconds longer, strapped into the small folding chair built into the bulkhead, leaning into Virhem’s hand. The white noise muffled the choked cough as the middle-aged man’s lungs seized, mouth gaping open for air once, twice, and then stopping.
The Terra Novan landscape rushed past as the MagLev train sped through the badlands. Nothing else stirred and the train’s hum became deafening. Rolling dunes of yellow sand were beginning to mix with the rust colors of mineral oxides. Boulders and rock spires flashed past the windows like milestones marking the end of one desert and the beginning of another.
Virhem looked away from his victim, pretending he was checking the hallway, rather than feeling disgusted by his own hands. No one was there; no one heard a thing or stumbled out of their cabin to see the conductor, in his brass-buttoned, blue and white caricature of a uniform convulsing his last. They didn’t come out to see Virhem holding a hypodermic injector in one hand, and the conductor’s head in the other.
He caught the shift in the desert’s palette through the window. He had half an hour left, at best. He had to move quickly, but that anxiousness was slow to move. It had to erode the numbness that had solidified in him already. Instead of going, he found himself catching his own eye in the reflection on the door he had to go through. He saw the entire scene of his crime on it. The conductor’s expression was unnervingly placid, as though he was getting the best sleep he had in years. Meanwhile, Virhem could barely recognize himself. Sun-beaten rather than tanned, with his brown hair darkened, and just long enough to hide the errant scars along his scalp. His stubble made his features harsher, making him look as though he was being consumed from the inside out, though he was still broader of shoulder than most. He looked like a killer through and through, like a stray dog in a vaguely human shape. The respectable suit he wore did little to hide it.
Unbidden, his stare focused on the reflection of the dead man’s face. In Virhem’s mind, that face settled into place amongst the rest he tried under lock and key in the back of his mind. That lock burst open now. The conductor became a new performer to a chorus that was getting ready to sing some somber refrain, taking his place at the very end of a line. He stood shoulder to shoulder with other corpses.
“Not now”, Virhem muttered to himself. He was running out of time, he couldn’t wallow in his memories.
The head lolled to one side unnaturally when he let it go. The hallway was still empty when he reached around to the keycards tethered to the conductor’s belt, holding it to the reader next to the door. The door itself was labeled ‘FREIGHT CAR 4’. The card chirped, demanding a passcode through a cheap holographic display. He got past that by holding the card face-down the personal communication device strapped to his wrist. The keycard and his device wrestled for half a second before the door slid open.
Virhem paused at the threshold after he picked up his briefcase from the floor next to the conductor’s boots. Lights came on in the freight car, one by one. He thought about the conductor’s face one last time before he stepped through, locking it away with the rest. He didn’t look back. The door shut behind him.
TransRail Guard Captain Yelena d’Mar drank her coffee devotedly. Caffeine was a routine, and yet an inviolate tenet of her faith. As long as there was steam rising from her cup while she paced the length of the ready room, there was peace. The coffee-maker was in the armory, next to the weapon lockers and far away from the monitoring terminals where guardsmen Galvez and Tanis sat watching the security feeds. They represented each extreme of the veteran to fresh recruit spectrum, with dark-skinned Galvez on the experienced and disillusioned end of things. He had one of his screens tuned in on a news report. Tanis, meanwhile, had just learned how to be bored, arms crossed on his chest, leaning back in his chair as far as it would go. Merrick, Vollmann and Isaac were playing cards on the table on the opposite wall. That left just enough space for Yelena to work a groove in a straight line from the door leading to the bunks where the other shift was asleep, and the door leading to the steps connecting them to the rest of the maglev.
“Anything?”, Yelena asked when she came to hover between Galvez and Tanis’ shoulders, just as she had an hour ago.
“All clear, captain”, Tanis answered, learning how to speak in a suitable monotone, revealing neither annoyance or distraction as he snuck a peek over to the newscast Galvez was watching.
“Carry on”, Yelena muttered before she took another sip, drifting past.
Galvez glanced over behind her. “Another cup and she’ll be asking every mile”, he muttered, “All that drinking makes her twitchy.”
Tanis chortled half-heartedly, catching himself before he actually chuckled. He still couldn’t get away with the same sort of insubordination Galvez was able to pull off. That perk was still a few years in the offing.
Merrick looked up from his cards and up to the screens. “Can’t you get some sports channel? I’ve got paper riding on this season’s qualifiers.”
“Usually, I’d be happy to oblige”, Galvez replied over his shoulder, “but everything else is getting filtered. I think the Port Arthur grape-kids are running some kind of interference.”
Tanis’ brow furrowed. “This far out? We’re in the middle of nowhere. Why would they go through the trouble?”
“Sports unsettle them”, Merrick shifted his cards thoughtlessly in his hand as he replied, “All that competition and excitement. It disturbs the peace with all of those test-tube soldiers cooped up in their garrisons. They’re just not genetically built to enjoy it.”
Tanis frown deepened as he turned the thought over in his head. “I don’t think I want to try to get into the mind of one of those things. They’re things, right? You know, genderless?”
“Well, yeah”, Galvez ventured as he gave Tanis a quizzical look, “but they don’t have a monopoly on being messed up in the head. There’s plenty of ways of make a broken human being without tooling with chromosomes. It’s their urges that are really out of whack. Compared to the rest of us, that is.”
Isaac looked up at Merrick from his mismatched cards, rubbing his stubble along his jaw. “You’d be the man to ask about messed-up urges”, he said cryptically.
“See, now I won’t be able to let you keep any of your money. Your partner is going to have to cry on my shoulder about how you don’t buy her anything nice”, Merrick shot back, smirking like a proper bon vivant, “I’ll do my best to make her happy.”
“Not with a pair of eights you won’t”, Isaac snorted.
“Can’t you two stop flirting and just get on with it?”, Vollmann growled as he tossed a card onto the table brusquely, snatching one from the pile with the same amount of displeasure.
Merrick chuckled along with Isaac, even as he took another look at the newscast over Galvez’s shoulder. There was no audio, just an overly dignified couple greeting a cheering crowd. The groom looked like a bandit prince, grinning as he waved, while the bride presented herself as a perfectly refined doll, bordering on frigid.
“Shirow and the Masao woman from Thebes?”, Merrick asked.
“Looks like it’s peace in our time for the Emirates. Didn’t think it’d happen, with the mess Patriarch Masao made” Galvez said, watching the bride wave with all the grace and warmth of a music-box ballerina.
“The end of an era of corruption and dehumanized rule”, Isaac remarked, adding as he played his hand “You want to talk messed up human beings? The whole Patriarch bloodline was as broken as you can get. Insanity’s written right into their genes.”
“Now the people of Strathchylde will be able to starve in the streets without being quite as oppressed”, Vollmann mused, pleased to be de contrarian. “In the meantime, can we just play some goddamn cards?”
Isaac’s narrowed glare made Vollmann lean back from the table, pretending to be engrossed with his chips. Merrick knew better than to do anything but pretend he didn’t notice.
“Try to keep some of your money, Isaac.” Tanis laughed, oblivious to the shifting mood behind him. “I want to fleece you when my break comes up—hm… That’s odd” Tanis went from a half-chuckle to a tone of concern.
Yelena swooped in behind him, zeroing in on that worry. “What?”, she asked tersely.
“Old man Roger’s vitals are fluctuating”, Tanis said, pointing to the screen where various lines wobbled and peaked unevenly. Tanis’ own vitals were on the same screen. The line depicting his heartbeat spiked.
Yelena stood there, fascinated by the implications of the jagged lines. Roger’s lines quickened, reaching a crescendo before collapsing entirely. “Where is he?” she asked urgently. “Portside bow entrance to freight car four”, Tanis replied. The room behind him had gotten dead-silent.
“Raise him on comm”, Yelena told Tanis. His fingers flew across the keyboard hologram. Tossing a glance over her shoulder at the suddenly alert card players, she nodded towards the armory. “Suit up”, she said, “take the medi-kit with you.”
“Yes captain”, the three of them echoed in unison as they rushed past her.
Meanwhile, Tanis spoke into his microphone.
“Guardsman Harper, guardsman Harper, this is Post. Do you read?” Tanis paused for a moment, repeating the hailing. His voice was the only sound in the room. “Guardsman Harper, guardsman Harper, this is Post. Do you read?”He shook his head after a moment, looking up to Yelena.
“Signal strength?”, Yelena asked as she put her coffee down.
“Eighty nine percent. One tenth fidelity drop”, Tanis replied.
“Force his channel open, pipe it in”, Yelena ordered him.
“Yes captain”, Tanis replied. The room was flooded with the sound of white noise from the speakers when he complied. The amplification gradually stepped up until the static was a continuous, grainy whisper. The trio in the armory stopped to listen as well, assorted pieces of gear in their hands.
“Can you hear that?”, Galvez whispered as he squinted while he looked up at one of the speakers in the wall. Yelena’s stare slashed across to him. Nobody in the room breathed. Galvez barely did more than mouth out: “Someone is there”.
A far-off, distorted voice spoke through the speakers, just on this side of intelligible. “Not now”, it said.
“Captain, Roger just used his card to open the door!” Tanis exclaimed, his tone threaded between elation and horror. The snarl on his Captain’s face erased the positive side of that ambivalence.
“Second stage alert!”, Yelena barked as she placed her coffee cup on the table and stormed for the armory. “Wake up the other team and get them in here! We’re moving out. Now!”
Galvez was on his feet before she was done, crowding in behind Yelena while she caught a pair of flak vests Merrick tossed at her. Tanis was still at his console, typing madly while he spoke into his microphone. “This is Maglev Beta. We are declaring an emergency on board. Possible attack with a presumed casualty. Guard team is deploying to the aft, I repeat, aft section of the train…”
Yelena, still pulling on the straps of her body armor, marched into the portside hallway with her team, waking up the train as they passed with the sound of their boots.