How We Survived – Land Of Enchantment (Nano 2016, Chapter 3)

Nothing that was poorly defended was ever worth stealing. The stuff they wanted to stop you from taking, now that had value. They’d lock it up, put it behind bars, surround the bars in plate steel, mount guns on it, and do everything possible to keep it out of your grubby mits. Because they wanted to keep it in their greasy grasp.

The domes were locked up, in a way, but nothing was so heavily fortified in this land as the trains that criss-crossed in the open air. The first hurdle to stealing from a train was its speed. At the first sign of bandits, they’d lean on the levers, crank all their engine cars up as high as they could, and they’d start rocketing across the land. To hear a behemoth like that pass by miles away was one thing. To ride a motorcycle right next to it while the giant steel wheels skipped and sparked under the torque was something else. The engines were the size of houses, propelling miles long trains, carrying towns and cities worth of people. It was the only way to keep the cities alive – filling an iron box with lifeblood and pumping it along steel veins.

Everything a man needed, from beggar to banker, was on those trains. Luxuries like fresh coffee, pure sugar, and clean alcohol was all in steady supply. From great cotton producing domes in the south came good bandages, from the north meltwater was pumped into tankers bigger than city halls, from the east came great loads of grain and livestock. And from the west came people. Each found its place on the train, and as the domes became entrenched as the solution rather than a short term cure, the trains got bigger. When simply adding another engine car and another mile became insufficient, they added another story. They added fifty feet in width. The great steel chains were now so large that news of an attack on the middle of the train might not reach the end for an hour. Size was the second hurdle.

If you manage to contend with the speed, and the size, you then need to counter the aggression. Trainmen are not a gentle sort. The constant vibration makes them permanently buzz. The high stress of live repairs on a running engine, with pistons larger than you, sets every one of them on edge. Couple that with the constant exposure to lubricants, greases, bio-diesel, oil, and solvents, and their brain circuitry starts to hardwire connections in there for fear of losing them. And it seeps into their skin. An oily black takes residence, first under the fingernails, and then into the hands. Within a few years of running the trains, it reaches the wrists. Lifelong trainmen were black as coal from the soles of the feet to the top of the balding head. If they’d managed to escape death, amputation, and madness long enough their eyes became black orbs.

“Never attack a train at night. You won’t see them striking from the shadows with pipe wrenches and long handled hooks. The glow of the train blows out your night vision, so as you stand on your seat, and throw your grapple, a gully or stone will sneak up right in front of you. We strike only in daytime. Easier to see a shiny trainman when there’s no shadow to hide in” Gregory advised, looking at the young guys gathered around the circle.

For many of them, this was their first raid on a train. A couple in the group were former trainmen, and had heard this story a hundred times. Gregory insisted on thorough prep before any raid. For three nights before a job, he’d circle the vehicles, light a fire, and pass along everything the group knew to anyone who didn’t know. Their only hope of success was sheer numbers. Even with the forty riders and drivers they had, there was no way they’d ever stop a whole train. All they needed was control over a couple of cars, and then the could toss the cargo, and the trucks would follow behind, picking up the spoils.

“Some of you will die” Gregory added, snapping everyone’s attention back to the circle.

“Between the mistimed jumps, the loose grapples, the resistance from the trainmen, the mounted guns, the patchy terrain, and the general chaos, we’ll lose at least one person.”

“Saw a breach leader catch a pipe to the head last time,” Roger added “He fell from the middle level to the bottom. The workings tore him to shreds right in front of us.”

“And that didn’t stop us,” Gregory was quick to add. “We might rule the land out here between the domes, but scavenging only gets us so far. They have things we need, and we can’t attack a dome. Too much ground to cover. So we attack them at their weakest point – on the train, way out here, right on the edge of the land of enchantment. This is the best chance we have. The train is due to pass by here somewhere around dawn.”

He scanned the group. Some were rubbing their feet in the dust, and escaping his gaze. Others were familiar with the stories. They’d raided before, and were setting their minds to the task. The fear is what got the others killed. That momentary glance at the ground, the split second hesitation, the shaking hand reaching for a door. A man had to be harder than a coffin nail to raid a train. If he wasn’t, then he might as well stand on the tracks and wait for the train to kill him regardless. In a raid, you could beat the train, or at least give yourself fighting odds of coming off better than it.

“There’s no parallel track here, so we can’t unload at speed. We just have to toss the cargo overboard and get it later. So hard cargo. Crates and boxes only, no bags. If it says fragile, we don’t want it. Most cars have side cargo doors, so once we’re inside we can unshutter them and start dumping. Given past experiences we’ll have time to hit maybe one or two cars. Once we get men on there, we look at the car we land on, and the ones to either side, no more. There is no hero moment here, where we break into a control room, and take a hostage. This is kill and take. Experienced raiders will have guns, the rest of you hand weapons.”

“Oh. Weapons are cargo priority number one. The more we have, the less they have.”

Gregory leaned on his bike on a crag overlooking the rail lines. A pre dawn haze had crept into the low parts of the sky, and there was no sight of a train. But he could feel it coming. When things that big moved, it was like running bulls. It transferred through the soles of the feet. He saw bright headlights fill a canyon miles away, and watched the faraway dust and smoke stir. It looked like a picture come alive, the stars fading, wavering, and being blotted from the sky by a column of diesel fumes. They had an hour.

When he rolled his bike back down the rocky slope he saw senior members waking and kicking younger members awake. Some were eating, or sharpening knives, or counting rounds of ammunition. Gregory was a fan of last minute checks. The more you were certain of going into a raid the better. He stood by the edge of the stirring camp and surveyed the group. He’d love a bigger group, but the mortality rate among raiders was higher than that of trainmen.

“We have an hour. There’s a bluff to the east about two miles that will provide us the cover we need to match speed. It’s close to the tracks, so we should be able to get alongside fast. This negates a lot of the guns – they won’t have the angle to shoot down at us. Once we’re alongside, we find the weakest point. Some passenger cars have suspension systems that aren’t armored on the bottom. The springs, joints and cantilevers are dangerous, but much less dangerous than trying to climb a flat steel wall. Grapple there, and board. Then left and right like we talked about. We’re only taking half the bikes, so pair up. Breaching party rides on the backs, good riders keep pace with us. Once we have what we need, get off. We’ll circle back for the spoils.”

The train shook stones loose from the bluff, as they rode hard before their stone wall. They let about a third of the train pass by before making their move. The first third was engines, passenger cars, and trainmen quarters. The meat was in the middle. The roar of their bikes was easily drowned out by the train, and they moved in fast. The sleepers whipped along to their right like a row of teeth, ready to bite. The strongest arms threw the best grapples and almost everyone made it on board unscathed.

They kicked in doors, and started to hack and shoot their way inside. A young trainman ran out the far end of the car, and alarms began to blare. It was a race against time now. The stouter members of the crew beat back security, caving in skulls like you would swat at flies. Dull blades shattered against heavy wrenches, and blood started to mix with the fluids on the floor. The raiders moves like a wave, crashing again and again against the trainmen, wearing their numbers down fast. Dropped weapons were put to immediate use, and wild flailing dictated the pace of battle.

Before long a beachhead was open on both cars, and crates started catching the wind and tumbling into the soft sand by the tracks. Crates of machine parts and ammunition were cast out, drums of coolant and oil, even handfuls of tools were tossed into the air like useful shrapnel.

Terry, a young wanderer on his first raid was relishing the battle. He had barely slept, captivated with the idea of getting him a head, or a scalp, or a hand. He kept swinging his machete into the wall of opposition, feeling it catch and then tearing it aloft for another swing. He was having so much fun that he didn’t even notice that he was standing in a loop of loose chain. The chain was attached to a row of drums, and had been holding them in place before the raiders started jettisoning them. The chain grew taught and bit into Terry’s bones. He never imagined this pain was possible, and he scraped at the slick floors trying to find anything to grab onto as he was ripped backwards.

The only thing he caught was the end of the door. His hands wrapped frame for a split second before his knuckles failed and he broke most of his fingers. His last moments were in the air, the pounding of the train in his ears, the land whipping by underneath him. Terry died hard against the ground. At least the drums made his corpse easier to find, they’d say later.

Their violent advantage was slowly lost over the next few minutes as reinforcements began to arrive. The wave pushed back felling raiders and tone of savagery became overwhelming, the frenzy deafening. Smarter raiders knew that the day was won, and now it was time to make it out alive. With each stab and slash forwards they took a step backwards, falling back to their boarding point. They stepped on corpses, kicked discarded cargo to the side, and never took their eyes off the darkened trainmen. The abyss of black eyes was gazing back at them.

Dismounting the train was the last hurdle to overcome. Some leaped onto the parallel bikes with grace, others hesitated and were hacked to pieces before they could jump. Others swung on ropes, or decided to take their chances with the ground. The gun advantage was about to come into play, so they had to slow down, while staying tight against the train. They dodged pistol shots and hurled lumps of steel and waited for the sign. Gregory told them ten times before they left.

“There’s a gulch that starts just on the other side of the border. You’ll see a sign that read ‘land of enchantment.’ If you can’t read, the sign is yellow, and it has red crosses on it. Once you pass that sign, cut North and ride the throttles hard. The land slopes down fast. Get in the gulch, it’ll provide you cover.”

This advice didn’t stop three riders from taking 30 caliber bullets to the back.

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