On the West-Bound Passenger Train
rating: +25+x

On a different line, in a different place, a train runs through a tunnel. The tunnel is carved out of the mesa's natural rock, twisting brown and orange as little gaps of light pierce through the ceiling. For a few seconds, there's a flash and a riot of sudden darkness.

This train's route is more clearly defined than the Multiversal Cargo Train. This train begins in Kansas City and ends up in California. It weaves through little townships, villages, states and territories. It melts through soft mesa, dripping rock in the light of the sun, in the mind's eye.

It rattles. 19th-century suspension isn't up to much, even at the slow pace of a steam engine. There aren't compartments. This isn't that kind of train.

The people are dressed in that odd 19th-century kind of scruffy neatness, a Sunday best that was never replaced. They sit quietly, holding on to handbags and books, filling the carriage with boardwalk smoke, idling the time away in a strange stasis.

One of them stares straight ahead. She does not belong there, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her. She is impeccably dressed for the time.

She is thinking about names. She has one, of course, but she doesn't like to use it much. Simon has a name, Irene has a name, the new Administrator probably has a name. They are good names. They pin them into the corners they want to be in.

She does not want to be anywhere, though. Her physical location means nothing in an infinite multiverse she can blur through almost at will. She is an agent of the Foundation, connected to a telepathic cortex that does not understand the limitations of space-time.

If she wants, she could find the nearest Way - conveniently located halfway through the fourth carriage, just for her convenience - and fall through it, into a dark oblivion, only to land and wake up somewhere else. An island floating in the south Sahara. Treelines across the Infinite Ridge of Sand. And so on, and so on.

The train shudders again. She looks around. She knows the mark is sitting four feet to the left and on the other side of the train, but there is no point in looking at him.

The task is simple. The mark's future is written out, and cannot be avoided by placation or removal. He will invent a multiversal transmitter, and use it as a pirate, sending coded messages throughout a whole cluster of timelines to send wealth back to him. And she is here to stop this, to dump his corpse somewhere in the Mojave.

He isn't that pirate yet. He is just a man, scrounging, surviving. He is sitting on one side of the train, staring out of the opposite window. She doesn't know what he is thinking.

What if he is redeemable? What if there is another way? She has killed seven iterations of this man in seven different timelines, each one slightly unique - a gunshot between the eyes, a shovel to the face. Tied to the train tracks and made to wait. She almost feels like she knows him, like his inner life was revealed in each shocked expression or twisted sneer.

There she is, splitting from herself, walking in the mind's eye, wandering and feeling its boundaries. There he is, talking with her with a couple of beers on a foggy porch, 1980-something. "So you dragged me here, huh? Through time, so you wouldn't have to kill me?"

"Yeah. Seemed easier." The moon is crescent, and he nods sagely.

"Right. I get you."

And another, she tells him to run away with her, promises him money, anything, whatever is necessary, and they rise above the Haricot Line and arc-blink to some distant town, evading the Foundation's agents in vast laser-battles over suburbs in Athabasca, a tawdry universe full of pirates and members of a Hand, as they desperately claw a way to the Library…

Riding a whale over a sunset sea, taking the train to California and living as husband and wife in the gold rush, he committing adultery with the vicar's daughter and her dust-sodden face spilling tears over the children, or falling through time to the highlands of Ethiopia, Occidental curiosities to be paraded at Eastertime. On and on they come, bleeding, branching, curling, twisting around one another forever.

And they form a structure, winding, winding, a labyrinth of stone and aether, another side to the puzzle of this man, this set of bland souls, this set of potentialities, endless moments moving through time instead of being stuck -

The train jerks. She blinks. The man has got up, and is heading to the exit. She feels her revolver in her petticoats, and follows.

What shall it be today, then? Simon would tell her to mix it up, to think of a thousand ways to make the moment last. Irene would tell her to do it fast, base of the neck - the way an experienced agent like her would do it. The Administrator wouldn't care.

He closes the door on an empty carriage. She opens it again. He is leaning out of the window, tantalisingly easy to push. She creeps closer. It can't be this easy, can it?

He jumps. She gasps, and runs to the window. His body lies, bruised and bloody, curled by the side of the tracks.

She curses, and jumps after him. The body isn't important; it's been getting worn anyway. She crawls through her splinters of bone towards him, dragging herself, getting blood among the sand and cacti. It is a beautiful day.

His body is dead. It is confirmed. She leans back, exhausted, as the track rumbles on with the departing carriages. She looks up at the sun and feels it bake her.

Soon she will reload, reconstitute, in some random time and place, all fixed up and patched together. She will return to this place, bury the evidence, then jump through the Way and find the next one, kill him, go to the next, continue suturing the wound as a thousand of these men died, one after another, a statistical anomaly the great counting machines of the Harran universe would mark on some distant file. Another universe saved.

How many thousands of other agents are doing this? A vast history, cattle and gold, moving over these plains, the bison ebbing and flowing - would the Sioux win this time? - and all of it spiralling in on itself, the same people in different movements making them into different people. It is enough to wish for a cascade, for a -

A shadow moves across her. Rasping for air, she turns her broken head towards the corpse.

"Thought you were clever, didn't you," sneers the man, standing above her. "Thought you could kill me. But there are more of us, you see. Whole other worlds. He got it the second I told him. Told him what to do. Well, you won't get m-"


She reconstitutes in a - is that mud? Yes, yes it's mud, slipping all around her. She moves her hands and feels grass. She is alive, as usual when a body expires. The cortex moves her consciousness from place to place, reconstituting, rebuilding…

But almost always at random. She is cold. She gets to her knees, hugging herself, shivering. The sky around her is grey, but familiar. Sol? Orchard? Another variant universe or timeline, another variation on that same theme of Earth?

She groans. Her back hurts - deferred pain from the past body. There are always kinks with each new iteration. Is there a Way? Where is there a Way here?

A mountain. Sky covered in clouds - wind blowing hard. She gets to her feet, unsteadily. The cortex tells her she is in her own universe, the Earth of the Orchard reality. She's in Daevastan… in the centre of a boundless field, mile upon mile of open steppe.

It will not take her long to return to the Sol variant and kill the man, once she finds a Way. But the nearest one is in Karakorum, a hundred miles to the east.

She is naked, hungry and alone. She shivers. An eagle circles overhead. She reaches down and touches the grass, picks it up, and stares at the vista. A patch of land between two mountains, each carved of rock and trees.

She looks to where the sun must be, and begins to walk. She can't walk the whole way, but where else can she go? The grass will cut her legs, and she'll walk on, a pinprick set between two ranges, walking on.

Maybe she'll be mauled by a bear. She looks up at the sun, as it continues its parabola across the sky. She doesn't want to be mauled by a bear.

This is the true Orchard Universe, her home. History here is real and solid, and it matters to her. The colours of it descend, reminding her what being stuck in Daevastan means. Treaties fly past her face, past her eyes, remind her of the weight of the ground as she treads. She looks down, and sees her leg bleeding.

As night comes, she rests by a cave. A wolf howls in the distance; lightning strikes distantly. She sees it, the light emerging from clouds, there and not-there. The land before her is truly vast, spreading from horizon to horizon. Whole cities could fit there, reaching up in steel and glass to touch the sky, but there's none of that here. Just an empty grassland, the horses grazing and running in time.

She wonders what kind of man would, when faced with an exact copy of himself, do what he was told and throw himself out of a train. It showed a dedication to self-preservation that acknowledged the existence of multiple selves. It was remarkable, but it did ruin the mystique somewhat.

Two bodies, buried under earth, somewhere in - where had they been? Utah? Arizona? She supposed it didn't matter. Two bodies, and the worms, and the train striking on as trains do. There were more and more crisscrossing the desert each year - somehow keeping their walls together, avoiding derailment as the hiss and crush of wheels rolls by.

She watches the thunder for a while more, as it strikes yellow against the purple, making new colours, swirling in and out of each other. Her leg hurts, and is so very sore.


She is killed, of course, of a combination of dehydration and wolves many, many miles from the city. This time, she reconstitutes in the cyberpunk wire city of Bliss, in the Overmay universe on the Western Wing of the multiverse. A hub. Easy to get to and fro.

So once again, she is on a train rattling through the west. It is two weeks later, and the man - apparently getting a headstart on multiversal travel in this iteration - believes her dead. She sits, eyes down, unnoticed as he sits on the opposite side of the carriage, staring out of the window.

She knows what's in his head now, the same thing as in all heads. A sense of the ache of day. A petty desire to claw.

The train stops, and the man gets up, smoothing down his waistcoats. She casually gets to her feet, stroking the revolver in her petticoats, feeling the cold of metal against her skin.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License