Have another chapter.
Chapter 2: The Bridge Over the Old Battlefield
The station employees and the police officers, on standby on platform 4; Wil, standing in front of a bench; employees watching from the station building; and other passengers who happened to be passing by. The transcontinental express slowly approached as though intending to take away every person in the station.
At the head of the train was a steam locomotive with an unusual design.
In most steam locomotives, the large cylindrical boiler was on placed its side. Underneath it would be large wheels propelled by the movement of the coupling rods. Behind the boiler would be a small driver’s compartment. And behind the locomotive, a box-shaped car called a tender, where coal was burned and water was boiled. In smaller trains, the tender was attached to the locomotive itself.
“I’ve never seen a train like this before…”
Slowly passing by his eyes was something completely different from the usual; an excruciatingly long steam locomotive. At the head was a box-shaped tender equipped with large headlights. Behind it was a chassis, where the boiler and driver’s compartment were. And behind it was yet another tender. Four wheels were installed side-by-side under the tender—and as there were only small mechanical devices under the boiler, the ground on the opposite side was clearly visible. It was a high-output locomotive with two power supplies instead of one.
The black locomotive whistled sharply under the cloudy skies, passing by the point where the rails diverged into platform 4. The three-part locomotive twisted through the junction, followed by the passenger cars.
The passenger cars were painted dark green, like a deep forest. But from the tops of the windows to the roof, it was white. On either side of each of the cars was a single golden strip that ran horizontally, with a large golden ornament sparkling in the middle. The ornament was designed in the form of the potato-shaped continent. At the very center shone a certain emblem. A beacon composed of a vertical shaft with a curved rod atop it.
On the wooden sign underneath the ornament were the words, ‘Roxche Capital - Sfrestus’.
Watching the cars make their way through the crossing, and listening to each bump of the wheels as they passed over the grooves of the rails, Wil remembered the layout and description of the train and the photographs he saw in the guidebook.
The first car, connected to the steam locomotive, was the freight car. It was used to store supplies needed for the tour. Although it resembled the passenger cars, it had smaller and fewer windows. On the opposite side from Wil—in other words, the right side of the train, which the hallway did not run through—were large doors for large pieces of cargo. The car also held a diesel-engine generator that provided the passenger cars with electricity, and there was a small chimney sticking out of the roof.
The second car was a sleeping car for the train crew. Excluding people like the conductor—who had private rooms—a crew of cooks, servers, and other staff members would sleep and rest in the car. The hallway was on the left side, and on the right side were bunk beds and a crew lounge.
The third car was the luggage car, which looked very similar to the freight car. Large quantities of passenger luggage and souvenirs that did not fit in the cabins were stored there. Wil, naturally, had nothing for that particular car.
The fourth car was the VIP car. Even in the already-luxurious train, it was a step up from the rest. Inside was a suite room, and the entire car was assigned to two VIPs. There was even a bodyguard lounge at the suite entrance, and the windows were made of bulletproof glass. The guidebook had explained that the car was reserved for high-profile politicians and the fabulously wealthy. For security reasons, the layout of the interior was not disclosed. But according to a magazine Wil had read, the suite was equipped with a bathtub that could be used at any time. It was even said that the sheer opulence of the interior was something for the history books.
“Well, it’s not like I’ll ever go inside… Although they wouldn’t let me in in the first place.” Wil mumbled to himself.
The fifth car was the galley. In other words, a kitchen. Exquisite meals were part of the joys of traveling—even more so during long trips on trains or ships. That was why an entire car was dedicated to a large and excellent kitchen where hand-picked chefs of the highest caliber could exercise their talents in full. The galley was even equipped with a large refrigerator and a storehouse for storing large quantities of food and high-quality wine.
The sixth car’s function was clear at a single glance. Behind the large windows draped with light red curtains, Wil could see pristine white tablecloths. Atop them were lamps, silverware, and neatly-folded napkins. It was the dining car, fancy enough to pass for a high-class restaurant.
The seventh car was also a dining car. This one, however, had cream-colored curtains with delicate brown patterns. Unlike the other dining car, this one’s interior was largely subdued—perhaps to keep the passengers from growing tired of the decor.
The eighth car was the lounge. Similarly to the dining car, it had large windows. Inside was a miniature bar, and on the wide floor covered with expensive carpet were comfy-looking chairs. And there was also a grand piano that had been brought in during the construction of the car, which meant that it could not be taken out without destroying the car.
“This one doesn’t have much to do with me, either. I’ll probably just end up passing it by.” Wil, who was not old enough to drink in either Roxche or Sou Be-Il, mumbled.
Cars 9 through 12 were standard passenger cars of identical designs.
‘Standard’, of course, belied the fact that they were still the most luxurious cars in Roxche. The hallway was on the left side, and the cabins were on the right. There were only two cabins in each car. Each car housed four passengers. Ordinary sleeper cars, where cabins were lined with bunk beds, did not compare.
Stepping in from the hallway, one would find a squashy sofa on the coupling-side. In front of it would be a folding table and a window large enough to offer an excellent view. Further inside would be a bathroom, a sink, and a shower.
Toward the middle of the car, where the sounds from the door did not carry as much, would be two single beds arranged parallel to the tracks. In front of the beds would be a deep suitcase shelf that kept its contents inside no matter how much the train shook, and a small dresser. Other than the fact that the rooms were long and narrow, they were little different from luxury hotel rooms.
Even counting the VIP car and the standard passenger cars, there would be less than twenty passengers on board the train. To keep the passengers’ belongings safe, each car was equipped with secure locks. The doors and windows could not be opened from the outside, preventing anyone from trespassing. When the train arrived at a station, the crew would open the doors from the inside.
Four passenger cars passed by Wil as they slowly came grinding into the station. Through the window, where the curtains were tied back, he could see an aging man walking down the hallway.
On either side of the cars were passenger doors, and steps to help passengers down onto the platforms. The small rooms next to the doors were lounges for the cabin crew—one crew member per car. There were also bathrooms segregated by gender.
On either side of the cars, pairs of buffers with dish-shaped discs stuck out and met like supports. In the middle was a chain coupling, the brake hose, and a power cable. A wrinkly cover provided footing over the coupling.
The thirteenth and final car was the observation car. The windows, even larger than those in previous cars, lined the walls. Metal piping covered the exterior like a basket to reinforce the wooden frame. It looked almost like a moving greenhouse or a glass box. Inside, two-seater sofas were placed in a row, facing the windows. There was a small bar that provided drinks. Passengers could sit comfortably in the sofas and enjoy the view from the car. The last three meters of the car composed a balcony of sorts that passengers could step out onto. Waist-high railings were installed to prevent anyone from falling, and there was a sunshade stretching out from the roof.
Finally, the three-hundred-meter giant of a train came to a stop. The locomotive at the front had already passed the platform. The ornate metal carvings on the railings of the observation car balcony were right next to the crossing. Platform 4 was concealed completely by the train.
“All right. Let’s go.”
Taking a deep breath, Wil took his suitcase and stood. Checking that the bell was no longer going off, he cautiously looked left and right before traversing the crossing.
His pace, though slow at first, gradually quickened. Realizing that, he slowed down again.
As he drew nearer and nearer, it felt more and more like the train was falling over him in an attempt to crush him.
“Hey! You there!” Someone called sharply, stopping Wil’s approach.
Wil turned away from the train and toward the voice. A young police officer looked at him from platform 4. Noting that he had Wil’s attention, the officer said,
“Yeah, you. This is a luxury transcontinental express train. You don’t belong here.”
Not knowing how to answer, Wil slowly approached the platform.
“Stop. No rubberneckers. Turn around this instant.”
For the moment, Wil stopped on platform 3. He thought of taking out his ticket, but he hesitated at the thought of suddenly reaching into his coat in front of a police officer. In the meantime, the officer crossed the rails and came up to Wil.
“If you really want to take a look, stay by the station lobby. Platform 4 is off-limits to anyone but passengers and authorized personnel.”
“Let me show you my ticket—”
“Back to the lobby, kid.”
Wil moved his suitcase to his left hand and reached into his coat for his ticket. But the officer snorted and turned him away by the shoulders. He began pushing Wil away.
“Hey, you! Officer!”
A young woman cried harshly.
The officer took his hands off Wil’s shoulders and turned. Wil turned as well.
The owner of the voice was on the observation car’s balcony. With the dark sky at her back, she held on to the railing with her left hand and was pointing at the officer with her right.
She was wearing a light yellow dress. Her golden back-length hair fluttered in the wind.
Repeating the officer’s lines word-for-word, she clutched on to the railing with one hand and leapt off the balcony.
The edge of her dress fluttering, her two legs cleared the railing. The railing was two meters away from platform 3.
The officer flinched. Wil watched indifferently.
A second before her dress fluttered too high up, the girl’s military boots touched down on the paved walkway. Bending her body forward, she landed without a hitch. Finally, her golden hair silently came falling onto her back.
She shook her head to clear her hair out of her face. Then, she walked right up to the dazed officer. Her clear blue eyes highlighted her piercing glare.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She asked reproachfully.
“Er… Miss? I… this is part of my duties…”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
As the girl chastised the officer, Wil took out an envelope from his coat and unfolded his ticket.
He showed his ticket to the officer as he turned around.
“Thank you for your hard work. But you can leave us alone now. Get back to your job.”
Sending away the crestfallen guard, Wil and the girl stood face-to-face on the edge of platform 3.
“It’s been a long time, Wil. How are you?”
“It really has been a while. I’m doing fine.”
Wil nodded. Allison Whittington grinned.
“Hey, you didn’t ask if it was me this time.”
She twirled elegantly. Her dress and her golden hair danced in the air.
“You’re the only one who’d jump out of a train while wearing military boots, after all.” Wil replied, looking at her feet.
“I see. So I can’t pull off a perfect disguise after all.” Allison said. She held up the edges of her dress and slowly bowed her head. The hair by her neck slid down her shoulders.
Then, she looked up.
“Welcome to the luxury transcontinental, Wil.”
Wil took off his hat and placed it over his chest.
“It’s really posh inside. Don’t get a heart attack as soon as you step in.”
“I can’t promise that.”
Allison and Wil went up to platform 4 as they chatted. Wil could finally see the other side of the long train. Several passengers had disembarked and were taking in the outside air. Workmen were loading cargo onto the galley and the freight car—foods, drinks, and countless bouquets to decorate the interior.
“Is that all you brought?” Allison asked, looking at Wil’s suitcase.
“Of course it is. All right—let’s get to our car.”
They walked side-by-side on the platform. The police officers threw Wil suspicious looks, but no one tried to question him.
“Where’d you get the dress?” Wil asked.
“One of the ladies in our unit is from a really rich family. Though she’s practically disinherited because she volunteered for service and had an affair with a superior. She told me that a lot of rich people look down on people who don’t dress nicely, and lent me some of her old clothes. She went to the trouble of asking a maid at her mansion to send them. Now I have all this extra luggage to drag around.”
“Huh… by any chance, is she one of the people who kidnapped me back in Mushke?”
“Yeah. Surprising, huh?”
Next to the observation car, an elderly man who had been vacantly gazing at the surroundings from the platform met Allison as she approached.
“Ah, good day, Miss.”
The man was probably well over seventy. He had white hair and wore a clearly-expensive suit with a bow tie. His back was slightly arched and he was holding a cane.
Allison smiled as she greeted him back.
“Good day, Mr. Orres.”
“And this must be the important companion you told me about.”
“Yes. As you can see, he made it on time.”
“Splendid. Why don’t you introduce us later? It’s going to be a long trip—it’s a pleasure to meet you, young man.”
Wil greeted the man back and passed him by. Allison explained.
“Mr. Orres is staying in the room next door with his wife.”
“Also, he’s the chairman of Orres Studios.”
Wil glanced back as he walked. The old man was still taking in the scenery. Wil remembered the biggest film studio in Roxche and asked, “You mean the Orres Studios?”. “The one and only.” Allison simply replied.
“Anyway, that’s the kind of company we have. Last night, this really rich-looking couple came up to me in the dining car and asked me who I was and what kind of family I was from.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That I’m from the kind of family where my father could send me on the tour for valuable life experience.”
“…In other words…”
“Everyone thinks I’m filthy rich. Leave it all up to their imagination.”
Allison looked at Wil from the side.
“Are you all right? Don’t get a heart attack, now.”
“I can’t promise that.”
As they chatted, they came by a sign that read, ‘Karen East Station’. At that moment—
“Excuse me, you two!”
A female voice called to them from the back door of car 12. Allison and Wil turned. There stood a woman holding a camera. She was wearing a white blouse, a navy cardigan, and a navy skirt. Her camera was black and boxy, with two lenses—one above the other. The silver frames around them made them look like a snowman. The woman looked down into the camera.
“I’m from the local newspaper. Could I ask for a photograph?”
Just as Wil spoke, there was the click of the shutter. Allison, who was smiling for the camera, turned to Wil.
“You moved a little just now, Wil. The photograph might end up blurry.”
“You’re right. Should I take another?” The woman asked, lowering the camera. She carefully stepped down from the door.
Wil looked into the woman’s face. She was about twenty years of age, and wore simple silver-rimmed glasses. Her long black hair was tied in a braid. The camera’s leather strap hung from her neck.
“Yes! Yes, please! Take ten, twenty, thirty more! Please!”
With Allison’s voice filling his ears, Wil stared at the smiling woman for a dozen or so seconds.
He exclaimed out loud.
“You finally noticed.” Allison said, amused. The woman beamed.
“But don’t say anything here. It’s supposed to be a secret. It’s been a long time, ‘Mr. Magician’.”
“It’s this car. Hop in.” Said Allison.
“Actually, it might be a better idea to get on that way.” Said the woman with the camera, gently raising her hand at the opposite side. Allison agreed.
“Let me go drop off my camera. I’ll meet you in your room.”
When she disappeared, Wil spoke.
“That was a surprise. It took me a while to recognize her.”
“Same. She’s really good at this incognito business, huh?”
They began walking down the length of the car. The distance was about 25 meters.
In front of the doors at the end stood a man about forty years of age, wearing a light green uniform with a standing collar top. He was the crew member in charge of car 12—at the moment, he was speaking to a workman who was connecting the car to the water main in the platform. Soon, the workman pulled himself onto the roof by a handgrip on the side of the door and began doing some work.
Wil watched curiously as he walked. Allison pulled on his sleeve to keep him from bumping into the car.
“You there. Boy.”
Out of nowhere came a woman’s voice. Wil and Allison turned. Wil was the only one on the platform who fit the descriptor of ‘boy’.
The woman who stopped Wil was standing next to the platform. She was in her mid-forties, wearing a grey suit with a skirt. Her long hair was tied neatly in a bun and secured with a net.
She was tall and stood confidently. Next to her was a mustached man of similar age. He wore a navy suit and was quite slender, looking rather soft-spoken in contrast to his companion.
“Yes, you. I’d like a copy of today’s paper. Could you go get me one from that pile over there?”
Wil looked at her without a word. Allison was indignant.
“Hey! Wil’s not your servant. And he’s not a station apprentice, either. He’s a passenger.”
The woman seemed a little surprised, but her composure did not waver.
“I’m terribly sorry. I suppose I’ll have to ask my darling husband to get it for me. Young man?”
The woman seemed amused by Wil’s show of politeness.
“Make sure to guide your companion’s hand well. Let’s talk again sometime.”
Then, she winked.
“Of course, ma’am.” Wil replied with a smile as he watched the couple walk away for the dining car.
Allison was annoyed.
“Those two boarded at the Capital District. Apparently the woman’s the president of some huge company.”
“She looks strong.”
“She’s way too arrogant!”
Afterwards, they sought out their cabin crew and showed him Wil’s ticket.
He welcomed Wil without showing a hint of surprise. He took Wil’s suitcase and led the way to the cabin. Wil climbed the stairs into the car first and held out his hand to Allison.
“Oh! Thank you. There.”
Allison took his hand, leapt over every step, and landed straight in the car. Wil managed to get out of the way before she crashed into him.
The door was facing another door on the other side of the car. Next to it was the hallway. There was a door in between to keep the cabins quiet, but at the moment it was held open.
The three of them walked down the hallway. The interior of the car was mainly brown teak, and was incredibly fancy. Under their feet was soft carpet. Around them were polished brass handrails and curtain rods. The curtains were thick.
“Don’t get a heart attack from this.” Allison advised Wil from behind,
The cabin crew unlocked the cabin with a key and sent Wil and Allison inside first. It was cabin 1 of car 12. Wil stepped inside and was floored once more.
The interior was larger than the dorm room Wil usually lived in. It was also more than a match for the hallway in luxury. There were no cheap stones, rough supports, or flimsy wallpapers. Bouquets of flowers and ivory engraved with birds hung from the walls.
To his left was an imposing sofa, and to his left, two perfectly-made beds. Between them was a curtain that could divide the room in two. From the calming grey ceiling spun a silent ceiling fan. The entire room was colored in simple, understated hues that made it look quite dignified.
There were two electric oil heaters installed in the room. The windows were large. The one next to the beds was fixed shut, but the one beside the sofa opened from the bottom up.
As Wil stood in a daze, the cabin crew put down his suitcase and asked if Wil wanted to hear an explanation on the facilities in the room. Allison replied that she would do the explaining. The cabin crew then asked if they wanted something to drink. Allison replied that the tea from the day before was delicious, so she wanted the same tea and three cups.
“The conductor will be here shortly to check your ticket. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to press the call button. If you’ll excuse me.”
With a bow, the cabin crew left.
“Here. That way.” Allison said, pushing Wil over to the sofa.
“You won’t need these anymore.”
She took off his hat and his coat, put them on hangers, and put the hangers into the closet.
“Oh… thanks.” Wil finally managed to speak, falling into the sofa.
“…What is this?” He wondered, surprised at the softness. Allison chuckled.
“It’s too early to be shocked, Wil.”
“This is going to be one incredible trip.” Wil mumbled.
“It’s not like all this luxury’s going to kill you.” Allison said nonchalantly.
With a knock, the conductor entered.
The man introduced himself as Welch. He was about fifty years of age, with thinning hair and a small stature. He had an amicable smile. The black uniform Welch wore was exactly the same as those worn by other railroad employees in Roxche—with the exception of the gold buttons of his double-button top, upon which were engraved the beacon from the mural. To add, he was also wearing a short-billed cap embroidered with a mark—though most passengers would not know—signifying that he had worked for the company for over thirty years.
Welch did not seem surprised in the least by Wil. He smiled and treated him with respect as he went over the boarding procedures. Welch checked Wil’s identification—his student card, issued by the Republic of Raputoa—and ticket, then placed the ticket into a binder.
Afterwards, he asked Wil about the luggage he brought and what station he would be disembarking at on the return trip. He also explained about regulations to keep in mind at stations, the kinds of whistles the train sounded, and that even if he were to miss the departure time, the tour would stop to make sure he came along. All Wil and Allison had to do as they listened was lounge in the comfortable sofa—large enough to seat four—and nod. Somewhere in between, the cabin crew entered with a long teapot and a platter with three teacups, placed them on the table in front of the sofa, and left.
Upon completing boarding procedures, the conductor handed Wil a key. It was the key to the cabin, and Welch explained that one key was given to each passenger. He also explained that the cabin crew had the key to their car, and that Welch himself was the only person who had the keys to every cabin on the train.
“That will be all, sir. Do you have any questions?”
Wil replied that he did not have any. Welch reached up to the bill of his hat, when a soft knock sounded.
“It’s me. May I come in?”
It was the voice of the woman with the camera. Allison gave the conductor a look; Welch opened the door.
“Oh, Mr. Welch. Thank you.” The woman said as she entered. She sat on the sofa as Allison instructed.
Welch took off his hat, bowed courteously, and closed the door softly as he left.
“Let’s celebrate our reunion with some tea.” Said Allison. Fiona nodded.
“Yes. To success.”
Wil asked them what they were talking about. They answered in unison.
“For a good trip.”
Allison got off the sofa and sat on a chair by the desk, facing Wil. To his left sat the woman with the camera.
“It’s been a while, Fi.”
“It certainly has, Wil. It’s so good to see you again.”
The woman who had photographed them on the platform—Fiona, or Francesca—smiled and nodded.
“Please just call me Fi while we’re on the train.”
“Of course.” Wil replied.
Allison handed him a teacup. All three of them raised their cups slightly. Allison spoke.
“We might break the cups if we clink them, so let’s just do this. To a good trip!”
The workmen finished loading the cargo onto the train. The tender was stocked with water, and the freight car and galley with supplies and ingredients. The engineer, having inspected the locomotive, decided that they would not be using the backup locomotive that had been on standby at the station. The engineer of the backup locomotive departed, crestfallen. The station’s maintenance crew climbed onto the roofs of the cars to check that everything was in order, and the cleaning staff quickly wiped all the windows. Once all the passengers on the platform had gone back inside, the cabin crew checked to ensure that everyone was present.
At precisely departure time, there was a long whistle. The wheels of the steam locomotive began to rotate as the steam escaped faster, and the train slowly began to move. After a slight delay, the force was applied to the couplings and every car was pulled behind.
The police officers saluted them, and the station workers waved. The massive train slowly departed from Karen East Station and headed north.
The rails continued in a straight line. Steam spouting from the head, the train moved along the rails leading through the forest.
The train shook as it ran, but not noticeably so when one was sitting. When standing, one only had to hold on to something on occasion. There was very little noise, as well.
“It’s much more quiet than the regular train I took yesterday. This is incredible.” Wil exclaimed. Allison admitted that everything sounded quiet compared to flying on an aeroplane.
Wil, Allison, and Fiona spent some time silently gazing out at the forest passing by. Then, they returned to the conversation from when the train was at the station.
They had been talking then about the man who planned the trip in the first place. It was almost funny how he had so suddenly sent the tickets, accounting for Wil’s spring break.
Wil was now in his final year of secondary school. He told the others that things were going quite smoothly for now. Stories about the aeroplane that landed without warning at the school the previous summer had been exaggerated and spread amongst the incoming first-years, and some seemed to believe that the aeroplane had landed as part of a training exercise and that the female pilot was an ace test pilot from the Air Force.
“I’ll make sure that happens one day. Otherwise I won’t be able to fly on an aeroplane unless a war breaks out.” Allison said.
Wil expressed his surprise that Allison had managed to get so much time off at once.
“It’s because my legs are broken.”
“At least, they’re supposed to be broken.”
Allison explained. That her aircraft transportation unit had conspired together—for the duration of the trip, they would falsely claim that Staff Sergeant Allison Whittington had carelessly fallen off an aeroplane and was injured, and that she was in such an emotional state that she was hospitalized in the countryside for an extended period of time. Wil listened, amazed.
When he asked Fiona how she had been doing, she answered optimistically.
That she was not yet officially Queen of Ikstova, leaving her in a rather awkward state for the time being. That she was living in the village in the valley as per a certain someone’s instructions, enjoying the same peaceful life as usual. That she had a surprising amount of things to learn, which made things quite difficult for her.
“The hardest thing to do is acting like a superior. I’m really not used to giving orders and commands.”
Fiona said that she learned many things from the villagers. Most surprising of all was the identity of the woman who first met Wil and Allison at the village entrance and sent them to the village hall. She was once a member of the royal guard, and before that, a detective with the Kunst police force. She was supposedly one of the cream of the crop, and a potential candidate for Police Chief. Having no family of her own, she had volunteered first to protect the newborn Princess Fiona as a villager of the valley.
Fiona also said that the valley received its first new residents in years—Captain Warren and his family. Though Warren was very eager, he was still being trained under the rigorous discipline of the other villagers.
She explained that she was still regularly exchanging letters with Benedict. Each time a letter arrived from him, a small commotion swept through the village. Fiona added that some of the villagers were against the trip, and that it took a bit of convincing before they finally agreed to let her go.
Allison and Fiona had both boarded at Niasham Capital Station the previous night—Allison, because she had been stationed at a nearby base, and Fiona, because there was a train that ran straight there from Elitesa. Apparently, Warren was in plainclothes and next to Fiona all the while, his eyes fiercely protective.
“To be honest, it was a bit tiring. I was really relieved to meet Allison.”
Afterwards, they had been seen off by Warren, who looked just about ready to follow them by clinging to the car. The train had continued overnight on its way. Because most of Roxche consisted of flat plains, Fiona saw the horizon for the first time in her life.
Wil asked about her camera. Fiona replied that she had hesitantly mentioned the villagers that she wanted a camera—even if it was cheap—so she could take photos as keepsakes of the trip. That the villagers had held a small conference on the matter, and finally took a bar of gold they had stashed away to Elitesa to buy her one.
“I also have this.”
Stating how much she treasured her camera, Fiona took out a leather pouch from under the belt of her skirt.
It was an object about fifteen centimeters long, and three centimeters wide and thick. At first glance, it looked much like a vertically-bisected glasses case. There was a hanging chain dangling from it. Fiona opened the case and took out a stick-shaped machine. It was shiny and metallic with a small dial, a button, and a lens.
“Is this also a camera?” Wil asked. Fiona nodded.
In her hand was the latest in miniature cameras. The camera had a reputation of being able to even take photos of documents from a tripod. The film was wound inside by opening a sliding door on the side of the camera.
Fiona said that she planned to take photographs of the interior with that camera, and took out a cardboard box from her pocket. Inside were extras of the lightbulb that was attached to the tip of the camera. The lightbulbs could only be used once, as the metal inside burned out in a blinding flash of light.
“Amazing. I’ve never seen such a small camera. I didn’t even recognize it at first.” Wil gasped, and asked Fiona to show him how she took photos sometime.
“Of course. One of the village men taught me how to take photos. He said that I was very good. Maybe I’ll become a professional camerawoman one day.” Said Ikstova’s future queen, sounding quite driven.
Soon, the conversation moved on to what happened in the dining car the previous evening. Allison, with her borrowed dress and flowing golden locks, was the center of attention in the car. But the lady Francesca, who wore relatively humble clothing, caught no one’s eye. Fiona added that she would not worry about being found out until someone actually did. Allison butted in.
“If someone finds out about you, I’ll tell them that I pretended to be the rich lady to fool them all.”
Allison and Fiona had considered going to bed straight after dinner, but because it felt lonely to be sleeping alone in such large cabins, Fiona had slept over in Allison’s cabin. They added that they ended up talking for hours, falling asleep very late.
“Oh, I borrowed your bed.” Allison said to Wil, pointing at a bed that was currently perfectly made.
Once the conversation tapered off, Wil moved over to the chair by the window and watched the world pass outside.
It was still cloudy. Because the sun was nowhere in sight, it was impossible to tell directions. All he could see were trees, the leaves only just now beginning to bud. On the ground were spotty clumps of dirtied snow.
“Apparently we’re heading north for a while. Wanna grab a map?” Asked Allison.
“I heard we’ll be making a sharp turn somewhere and heading west. So maps won’t be of any use.” Wil replied. Allison agreed. Fiona asked them what he meant.
“The rails that head westward were exclusively for military use, used for transporting personnel and supplies. Just like villages and roads, the rails in that area aren’t accurately marked on maps. In both Raputoa and Niasham, and other countries by the border, maps aren’t trustworthy.”
“I see. Living in the countryside, none of that feels very real to me. I really do need to get out and see the world.” Fiona said, sounding a little disappointed in herself.
“But that’s going to change pretty soon, isn’t it?” Allison chirped. Wil agreed.
“That’s right. Soon, ordinary civilians are going to be able to enter those areas freely. Things that aren’t necessary are bound to disappear in time. So that more important things can take their place.”
“Urgh… don’t remind me. I might get back and find out that the Air Force and my unit disappeared while I was out.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
Watching Allison and Wil chat with smiles on their faces, Fiona whispered quietly to herself.
“The ‘true heroes’… the two of you really are amazing. You’ve saved so many lives through your actions.”
The train continued unimpeded.
Allison called the cabin crew again and ordered more tea. The crew instantly brought her order. He had also brought a small, cold bottle of strawberry jam, presumably straight from the galley refrigerator.
The crew then asked them what they would do about lunch. Because the highlight of the trip—the crossing over the Lutoni River—was around noon, lunch that day was scheduled a little earlier. He explained that passengers had the option of eating in their cabins or going to the dining cars.
“Wil can make his high society debut in the evening.” Allison joked. They decided to eat in the cabin. The crew showed them the menu. Wil was daunted by the sheer variety. Allison ordered a lunch set that included pasta and lamb stewed in cream sauce. Wil asked for the same thing, but she scolded him.
“You should pick something different. I want to try other stuff, too.”
In the end, Wil ordered the train’s specialty sandwiches. Fiona ordered chicken stew wrapped in pie. They also ordered a salad to share. And as no one drank wine, they asked for more tea. When the crew asked what they would do about dessert, they said that they did not want any at the moment.
“I’ll get fat if I keep eating like this.” Fiona mumbled. She added that dinner was too filling as well.
“You can work it off later. Just run about ten times back and forth down the train.” Allison advised.
“Then she might bother the other passengers.” Wil warned her.
“Then how about the roof of the—”
“You’re the only one who could pull that off, Allison.”
For some time, they sat on the sofa as they watched the scenery zooming past. Once, another train passed by next to them. The transcontinental express must not have left the standard rails.
“Thank you for your patience.”
The cabin crew and a sever from the dining cars arrived with lunch.
They spread a tablecloth over the table, arranged the silverware, and laid out the food. And without even being asked, the cabin crew brought in a folding chair so that everyone could sit around the table.
“Please call us when you’ve finished. We’ll be here shortly to clean everything up. And please don’t hesitate to order seconds.”
Sitting in her seat, looking down on the already-sufficient amount of mouth-watering food, Fiona sighed softly. The specialty sandwiches Wil ordered were composed for two kinds of bread, stuffed between which were salami, smoked salmon, and a heaping helping of vegetables. They came with several varieties of sauce and were cut into small, easy-to-eat sizes.
They began to eat. Wil made a comment about his food—Allison picked up a piece from the edge of his plate and ate it.
“Mm. Everything here is fantastic.”
When Wil talked about how he had come by the night train the previous night, how he spent a long time on an uncomfortable bench in Karen East Station, and how he had a single bagel for breakfast, Allison could not hide her shock.
“I wanted to be there on time, above all else. Actually, I even thought of taking an express train yesterday afternoon and spending the entire night at the station.”
“Then again, if you weren’t at the station on time, I would have gotten straight off the train.” Allison commented, popping a cherry tomato into her mouth.
In the middle of their lunch, the train suddenly slowed down to a grind.
For some time, the train moved so slowly that it could stop at any moment. Then, it shook. Wil looked out the window, and told the others that the train was now on the military-use rails that headed westward. The rails that stretched north slowly grew distant.
The train slowly made its way along the curve and turned to the west. Forests spread out before them again. The train continued at a snail’s pace down the lonely rails surrounded by trees.
A soft chime sounded in the cabin. Allison pointed at a speaker on the wall.
<Good day, everyone. This is the cabin crew of car 12.>
Speakers were installed in every cabin so that the crew could make announcements. Though surprised, Wil nodded and stopped as he reached for the last piece of his sandwich. The announcement continued.
<If you would turn your attention to the right side of the train, we will soon be passing a post used by the Confederation Army. There are countless cannons, once placed to defend the banks of the Lutoni. Since the historic discovery last year, they have been slowly being moved back to a post further inland. We can finally see with our own eyes the transport of the weapons. Thank you for listening.>
After the announcement.
“Huh. I’m not interested.” Allison said indifferently in cabin 1 of car 12.
“Hmph. They have no idea how easy they have it.” Said a man in a different cabin, listening to the same announcement with a completely different reaction.
Another man replied in a rather mechanical tone.
“More gifts for the road to hell, it seems.”
“Yes. Perfect for the fools riding on this train. I hope they’ll give us an even better show.” Said the first man, who added, “this halibut is exquisite.”
After lunch, when the table was cleared and the extra chair taken away.
“I see them.” Wil, sitting in the chair by the window, said to the others in the sofa.
The trees that they had passed by thus far—with more branches than leaves—disappeared. The rails passed by a small security post and multiple junctions. Each time, the number of rails parallel to theirs increased. Eventually, they came across a gigantic post several hundred meters wide.
Countless vehicles were parked there. Most of them were transport trucks. Squarish vehicles with sides and roofs. vehicles with no roofs and only bases, or roofless railroad wagons covered on the sides with hoods on the sides. There were also tankers carrying fuel and vehicles for transporting personnel. They were all painted in camouflaging blacks and greens.
There were also armored vehicles and vehicles carrying weapons. One roofless car had a small cannon loaded on the back. Others had tanks and armored vehicles secured on them. Some were built for soldiers to fire from. There was even a steam locomotive that was protected on the sides by armor plating.
Perhaps the soldiers were ordered to conceal themselves ahead of time; there was no one there. The white-roofed luxury express train slowly passed by the frozen post under the grey sky.
Wil stared out the window with his face to the glass. Allison and Fiona remained comfortably seated on the sofa.
Wil’s expression shifted as though he had come to a realization.
“Something interesting?” Asked Allison. Wil nodded firmly.
“Yeah. Look over there.”
At that moment, a massive vehicle on another set of rails came into view.
There was a long, thick mass of metal bridging two railroad wagons. Atop it was a long, thin barrel lying on its side, the tip of which jutted through the wagon and into the air. The railroad wagon was about forty meters long—sixty, counting the barrel. It was so large that the freight car next to it looked like a miniature in comparison.
“It’s a railroad gun. I’ve never seen one in person.” Said Wil.
A railroad gun was a large cannon mounted on a railroad wagon. It was pulled by a locomotive to a designated location, from where it pivoted around a rotating mount to aim at a distant target and fire. Following the first gun came two more, lined up side-by-side.
“So, Punisher Cannons.” Commented Allison.
“Yeah. I never thought I’d get to see them with my own eyes.” Wil nodded solemnly.
“I’m sorry, but could you explain?” Fiona asked. Wil, eyes averted, apologized and explained with his gaze outside the window.
Train-mounted cannons had been around for ages, but railroad guns had become much larger and gained increased range in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.
Although the facts were a military secret, rumors said that railroad guns had a range of over 100 kilometers. In other words, it was possible to attack anything within a 100-kilometer radius of the Lutoni River. And if necessary, it was possible to open fire on the frontline of the enemy forces from the safe distance of 100 kilometers.
During the Lestki Island Conflict, the battle was limited to the island itself and the river; consequently, railroad guns were almost never used. But because it was often said that the first weapons to fire in case of another large-scale war would be the railroad guns, both Roxche and Sou Be-Il invested time and effort into developing better railroad guns and more effective placements. The two parameters were among both governments’ biggest military secrets. Even transportation of the weapons took place along military-only rails when the moon was at a sliver. It was said that civilians would never lay eyes upon them.
They were named ‘Punisher Cannons’ to mean that they would be used to bring justice to Sou Be-Il—in other words, to punish the West.
“...I don’t know if that’s sad or just idiotic. Maybe both.” Said Fiona. During the explanation, eight railroad guns passed by the windows, and only the transport trucks and tanks remained. The thick bundles of railroads converged again at every junction. And once they were down to five railroads, four of them split off into pairs and disappeared into the woods.
The transcontinental express gained speed as it followed its own rails to the west.
Wil finally turned his gaze from the window to the others.
“It’s incredible that we’ll be the ones going to Sou Be-Il instead of the projectiles.”
“It really is, Mr. Hero.” Fiona said. Wil was a little taken aback, then, embarrassed, then serious again.
“We still have no idea what will come of our actions that day. So I’d like to live as long as I can to find out.”
Another announcement came over the speakers. The train was soon to enter the buffer zone.
The buffer zone was an area agreed upon by both sides in the aftermath of the Lestki Island Conflict. It was a demilitarized zone that covered thirty kilometers from either shore of the Lutoni River. Inspection teams from the opposite side came regularly—or unannounced—several times a month to the area, and civilians were naturally forbidden from entering.
The steam locomotive expelled several long whistles. Soon, a large sign that read, ‘Lutoni River - 30km’ passed by car 12.
As Wil looked out the window without a word, the others remained quietly seated in the sofa. Fi spoke up once to ask Allison what she would do about her dress. Allison replied that she was too lazy to change and that she would keep it on until dinnertime.
Upon entering the buffer zone, and as they approached the Lutoni River, the woods began to thin out. Apparently, the Lutoni overflowed once every several decades, flooding the entire area. That was why there were few trees near the shore, leaving a flat plain. The vibrant carpet of green stretched past the northern horizon.
The rails were raised above the ground. About two meters over the plains, gravel was laid out. Over that were railroad ties and the rails themselves.
There were roads on either side of the rails. They had been used to build the rails, but now there was nothing but tire marks and overgrown weeds there. To the southern side were power lines that reached all the way to the island.
Occasionally, the locomotive expelled short whistles. A dispatch rider on standby in a security post by the rails reported the train’s arrival.
“We’re almost there. Once we cross the river, get to the island, then cross another bridge, we’ll be in Sou Be-Il. It’s been a while. And surprisingly, we’re going legally this time.” Allison grinned. Wil chuckled bitterly. Fiona, also laughing, remembered something.
“Allison, what about the flowers? Shouldn’t you get ready soon?”
This time, Wil was the one asking for an explanation. Fiona informed him that there would be a flower-giving ceremony for the Roxchean war dead on the bridge in front of the island. Family members were invited the previous night, and Allison had agreed to join.
In fact, Allison had tried to refuse, saying that it was a hassle. But Fiona was insistent that she take part.
“All right, whatever.”
At that point, there was a knock.
The cabin crew, who made an impressive habit of swiftly answering every need, arrived with a beautiful bouquet and a pen to write with.
Even upstream, hundreds of kilometers from the mouth, the Lutoni River was a staggering fifteen kilometers in width. Excluding the area of the mouth, there was only one island in the middle. In Roxche, it was called Lestki Island. In Sou Be-Il, Green Island. It was a long, narrow island—seven kilometers by fifty kilometers—with a raised center and gentle slopes down to the shores.
Over the slow, muddy currents of the river, a set of rails stretched toward the island. It was a truss bridge, with a concrete deck and rows of countless triangles. It was rather narrow—just enough for one set of rails.
Construction on the railroad bridge was agreed upon in the direct aftermath of the historic discovery in order to further relations between the two sides. East and West took on their respective sides of the bridge. And only half a year after the hurried construction began, the bridge was completed. Its name: ‘Trans-Lutoni Bridge I’. The name had bested more poetic monikers like ‘Peace Bridge’, ‘East-West Handshake Bridge’, and ‘Lutoni Oath Bridge’.
The quick construction was not due to each side wanting to best the other in effort or speed. In actuality, it was because both sides had long wanted to build a bridge across the Lutoni for the purpose of invasion, and had been researching such a project in secret.
It was blindingly obvious that, if war were to break out once more, there would be a fierce battle for possession of the bridge. There were even rumors that both sides had installed massive quantities of explosives on it. It was also said that the bridge was built so low for fear of enemy ships passing through.
“I’m not even surprised at this point.” Allison said, once Wil finished his explanation.
Outside the window was the sound of fluttering flags, the diagonal bridge passing by, and the murky waters beyond.
“But still, I never imagined I’d cross the Lutoni by bridge one day.” Wil said, amazed. Allison did not seem impressed.
“Aeroplanes are faster.”
The train came to a slow before finally halting near the middle of the bridge.
As per the rule that the island belonged to neither side, the memorial service for the Roxche side took place on the bridge.
“I’ll be right back. It won’t take long.” Allison said nonchalantly, and headed for the dining cars with bouquet in hand.
Asking Fiona for permission, Wil folded the table and opened the window. A cold but refreshing breeze swept the cabin.
Wil put on his coat, leaned outside, and looked around. Several cars ahead, to the right of the dining cars, was a small platform. About a dozen people were squeezed there. Apparently, even members of the train crew could take part in the ceremony if they had lost family in the conflict.
“Do you see her?” Fiona asked, leaning out the window as well. She brushed so close that Wil pulled back slightly.
“Oh… yes. There’re quite a lot of people. It might take a while.”
Fiona spoke, sounding nothing but plain.
“I didn’t pry too deep last night, but… I heard that Allison’s father passed away here.”
Wil looked out at the river next to Fiona and replied,
“Yes. Somewhere on that island.”
For about a year starting in the spring of 3277, East and West were involved in a conflict over possession of the island. In Roxche, it was called the Lestki Island Conflict. In Sou Be-Il, the Green Island Conflict.
On the shores of the Lutoni the two sides fired cannons, on the water they clashed on small vessels called gunboats, and on the island soldiers made landing and dug maze-like trenches. It was also the first time that aeroplanes were deployed into the battlefield.
However, neither side took full control of the island—yet the conflict never erupted into an all-out war. The battles dragged on tediously with no end in sight, only the number of dead increasing day by day. In the end, it came down to a stalemate.
There was a chance that the conflict could worsen—both sides could end up in an all-out exchange of railroad gun fire, leading to a second Great War. But such a thing never happened, and the conflict ended on a hazy note.
“Oh, Allison made an exception for me yesterday and told me about Madame Corazòn the defector.” Fiona said. Wil’s eyes widened in shock.
“That’s… certainly an exception.”
“Maybe it was because I told her about myself. In any case, I’m very happy that we’ve become closer friends.” Fiona smiled. The conversation came to a stop. Then,
“I… I once read the notice of death for Allison’s father.” Wil said quietly.
“When Allison first came to the Future House, her father was still missing in action. It was about three months later that the conflict came to an end and a search for bodies was conducted. Allison received a letter from the military headquarters, saying that they had found her father’s body—in other words, it was a notice of death.”
“It was three years later, when we were in our final year of primary school. Allison and I were cleaning out our things—actually, I was cleaning out our things under her orders—when I discovered the notice. I didn’t know if she wanted to keep it, so I asked. She said that she didn’t mind if I threw it out or read it. …In the end, I regretted reading it. I wondered if Allison really had to hear such a thing at the age of eight. Grandma Mut may have explained it to her so she could understand, but whatever the case, the letter told her something very cruel.”
Fiona gazed quietly at Wil’s profiled face.
“May I ask what it said?”
“Yes. I’d like you to know about it.” Wil replied. He continued.
“There’s a very good chance that Allison’s father was murdered by an ally. And, of all people, by someone Allison knew.”
A woman and a young man, leaning their heads out the window. They looked out at the gentle current of the Lutoni River and continued to speak quietly.
“Let me summarize the contents of the letter. ‘The body of Major Oscar Whittington of the Roxcheanuk Confederation Army was found on the shores of Lestki Island. His wrists were bound with wire and there were signs that he was shot in the head.”
“At the time, Major Whittington was working at the Main HQ in the Capital District. But he happened to go to the Roxchean base on Lestki Island to survey the situation, or maybe for another reason. That was near the end of the conflict, when the battles had died down somewhat. But unfortunately, the very day he arrived, Sou Be-Il launched an all-out offensive on the island.”
“What happened then?”
“The base was plunged into chaos, and Major Whittington, along with the subordinate who accompanied him from the Capital District, went missing. Of course, that’s almost a euphemism—the letter specifically said that the major was ‘under suspicion of desertion’. Apparently they received testimony from the surviving soldiers—that the major and his subordinate fled without trying to fight. That they ran in terror.”
“But anyone would be scared in a situation like that.” Fiona said firmly.
“I also agree, but the military doesn’t accept excuses. Desertion is a serious crime, and the sentence is usually execution by firing squad. Otherwise, anyone who wanted to run would flee on the spot. In any case, his body was found near that area.”
“But how did they know it was him?” Fiona asked. Wil paused. He slowly opened his mouth.
“It was thanks to his identification tag. The thin pieces of metal soldiers wear around their necks identify their names, blood types, and identification numbers. No one walks around with someone else’s tags.”
Fiona nodded several times in understanding.
“I get it. It’s just like my pendant. So what happened to the major’s subordinate?”
“He’s still missing. Allison said that he used to visit her and her father often, and that she remembers him as well. That he used to always buy her presents, that he was from the northeast and had blue eyes just like her and her father, and that he always wore round glasses.”
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the one who killed the major, right? Maybe the major was killed normally—I mean, killed by an enemy soldier like the others—and the subordinate just disappeared. Or maybe he was also killed and his body still hasn’t been found.”
“That’s not impossible, but the report pointed out an important piece of evidence. That the bullet holes in the major’s head were left by shotgun slugs. At the time, only the East used shotguns on the battlefield—Sou Be-Il complained often that they were inhumane. That’s why things are so suspicious.”
“Let me tell you one more thing. It’s about the work Major Whittington did back in the Capital District. When she just came to the Future House, Allison often said that her father was an important man who did secret work.”
“I don’t think she was being an attention-seeking child when she said those things. She was probably telling the truth. After all, Allison doesn’t own a single photograph of her father.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Ordinary photos a family might take at a studio once in a while. Allison didn’t have any pictures of her mother, who passed away young, or her father. Not a single one. So I came to a conclusion. Maybe Allison’s father worked in a special department in the military where he couldn’t easily let his photo be taken.”
“What kind of department?”
“This is just a hunch based on things I’ve picked up here and there, but… probably the intelligence department.”
“You mean… he was a spy?”
“Not quite. The only duties of intelligence agents at the Capital District Headquarters are to analyze and research collected information. Allison’s father was fluent in both Roxchean and Bezelese—he must have put his talents to use as an analyst or a translator. He never told his daughter any details about his work, but he never lied to her, either. After all, it’s better to provide a vague truth than a lie that might be found out through interrogation.”
“Back to the point. If the enemy were to take prisoner someone with access to such important intelligence, they would interrogate or torture him for information. And if he wanted to avoid that, but would also prefer not to face the firing squad for desertion…”
“…It might have been a better idea to willingly turn traitor… after shooting his ally to silence him.”
“That’s what the military HQ concluded. That rather than both of them being captured and killed by hostile forces, it was more likely that the subordinate, who was still single and had no family, betrayed the major. Allison also believes that her father was killed, not by enemies, but by the subordinate who often played with her in the past. Growing up at the Future House isn’t the only reason Allison holds little—no, almost no hostility—toward Sou Be-Il.”
Fiona sighed loudly at the window. The puffs of her breath were carried away by the wind.
Wil turned, checking to see if anyone was still on the platform.
“But Allison’s always spirited. I’ve never seen her cry at the Future House—at least, not for the reason that she lost her parents.”
Fiona fell into thought for a few seconds.
“Allison told me about you, Wil.”
“Ah. Did she get really angry?” Wil asked cheerfully. Fiona smiled, saying that she did not.
“But you know, neither Allison nor I…”
“Neither of us pitied ourselves for being orphans. We might look very unfortunate to other people—and we’ve been pitied, too—but I never thought that way.”
“Me too. I was never unfortunate, and I’m still not.”
“I wonder what it means to be ‘unfortunate’?”
“Hmm… I don’t know.”
“Sorry to make you wait, Miss.” Said Mr. Orres as he made room for Allison. Most had already thrown their bouquets and returned to the train. Allison thanked him with a smile and stood on the jutting dais.
That was the name written on the little piece of paper in her bouquet.
A chilly breeze sent her dress and her long blond hair aflutter.
“Er… ahem. Dear Dad, in heaven—or the other place—here you are!”
With both hands she threw the bouquet. It flew straight against the wind and landed on the surface of the murky Lutoni. It slowly drifted down the river.
Allison turned as she mumbled to herself,
“All done. Back to the trip—this time I’ll do it for sure.”