“Snowrunner” (13.8k)

As of this writing, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. are in the icy grip of yet another record-setting blizzard. This comes not long after a record drought in California last year. This repetitive cycle of lots of snow with nowhere to go in the Northeast followed by the increasingly parched, arid landscape of the American Southwest every year made me wonder just how long it would be before companies and governments started shipping New England snowmelt to SoCal cisterns. “Snowrunner” is the result.

***

“Snowrunner”

The Aquarius steamed into Boston’s Grand Junction just before sunrise. Carter Bloch was cutting it close; the transport hub was already packed rail to rail. But years of snowrunning did come with a few perks, the least of which being that all but the most veteran engineers would make way for the Aquarius. The dual-reactor engine chugged its way to loading bay 96 and came to a hissing stop. Carter straightened up in his captain’s chair before bringing up his comm screens with a flick of his wrist. Barney “Big Steam” Reese was the first face that popped up.

“Well as I live and breathe,” Barney wheezed, his ample gut pressing down on his lungs with every inhalation. “Thought you weren’t going to make it this year, Old Timer.” He wiped crumbs from the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand and offered Carter a greasy smile.

“Wouldn’t miss it for all the water in the world,” Carter answered, returning the fat man’s smile with a proportionately thin one. His eyes flitted over to his dashboard where a picture of a young blond woman holding a little girl in pigtails and Pampers was tacked up; the picture was fifteen years out of date. Carter forced himself to look back at Barney at least until someone more palatable hailed him. “What’s the word on the rail?”

Barney pulled a steaming plate of dumplings from somewhere off screen and laid it on top of his gut as if it was a serving tray. His fat fingers tested the temperature of the dumplings, temporarily dancing away from the scalding steam before his hunger prevailed.

“Hm, plenty to fall and plenty to haul, as usual,” he said around a mouthful of dumpling. “Super Nor’easter coming in a few days; a few of the Scrappers are sticking around to pick up a bonus run, but most of the fleet’s headed out before the station gets snowed in.” Barney laughed like a cannon; bits of dumpling sprayed onto the view-screen, sliding down it in greasy streaks. “Wouldn’t that be ironic.”

It wasn’t a question, so Carter left it where it was. Instead, he prodded the fat man for more information.

“Say, Barney, you still keep up with your folks?” Carter busied himself checking gauge clusters and manifest readouts, the better to mask his anxiety and the truth behind his asking. Barney’s answer carried enough weight to sink Carter’s season, perhaps his career, but that wasn’t his greatest concern at the moment. “They still out in the Dust? Doing okay, I hope.” If Barney was surprised by this question, it was lost in his desire to clean his plate in record time.

“Eh, Mom’s starting to get a bit dusty in the head herself, and Dad’s still working nightshift offloads at Miles-Up, the old freight elevator outside Lincoln, but I check in on Jesse from time to time to see just how much trouble he’s gotten himself into.”

Here was Carter’s opening. He flicked a hidden switch under the dash, one he’d rigged himself for just such occasions. His comm screen flickered and went fuzzy for a second before clearing again. On the screen, the word anonymous stamped itself across both men’s faces.

“And just how much trouble is your brother causing, Barney?” Carter asked. “And could I convince him that it would be worth his while to look the other way should I come to town?”

Barney choked on his dumpling and sputtered to clear the doughy fragments from his windpipe. He heaved forward and horked a lump of extruded dough and meat paste onto the floor. Carter watched the color in Barney’s face recede from an asphyxiated purple back to his regular cardiac red.

“If you’re joking, Carter,” Barney said, struggling to catch his breath, “it’s not funny.”

Carter kept his cool.

“No joke, Big Steam. I aim to make the Nebraska Run. And I’ll need your help to do it. Now I’m not asking you to ride the Tri-Line with me, but if you’re up for it…”

“Hell no!” Barney shouted, his face climbing the color scale once more. “Count me out. That’s a suicide run.”

“Maybe,” Carter considered. “The winds I can weather, and the quakes are in God’s hands, but the bandits … well that’s where I need your help. If you can get word to Jesse and his gang to lay off the Aquarius, I can promise him … 40% of my earnings.” Barney didn’t look convinced. His chest was still heaving, his body trying to normalize. “And another 10% for you. For a run this size, that’s a lot of dumplings.” Carter broadened his smile, though his heart wasn’t in it.

Barney drummed his fat fingers on the arm of his chair. Carter could see the calculator running behind the glutton’s eyes. A few hundred thousand credits for literally only having to lift a finger.

“Alright,” Barney sighed. “You’re crazy, you know. I just want that on the record.” A smile creased his ample cheeks. “I’ll get back to you. I have a few calls to make.”

“Same here. Thanks, Big Steam. Ride well.”

“Ride well, Carter.”

Carter flipped the privacy switch back to neutral. His screen flickered again and cleared, showing Barney shaking his head with a jowl-jiggling laugh. The screen closed.

“So far, so good,” Carter said to himself. He knew Barney would never have the stones to make the Nebraska Run, not when his piddling coastal trade kept him fat and happy and relatively safe. Ten percent from a run of this size would be more than Barney brought in all season; Carter just hoped the fat man’s appetite didn’t overrun what little good financial sense he had.

But just in case it did, Carter needed a veteran runner by his side. He needed a hardened fighter, a level-headed strategist, a calculating risk-taker, and most of all, a trustworthy partner, and he needed those traits all wrapped up in one person. Carter took a deep breath and brought up a second comm screen. He hailed the Iron Nail. Its conductor appeared and unleashed a long-expected tirade.

“You rust-headed son of a bitch, you and that broke-axled, square-wheeled, piss-pot of a boiler you call an engine, what on God’s sun-blasted Earth do you think you’re doing hailing me? If I could reach through this screen and throttle your sorry chicken neck, it’d be worth all the contracts from Biddeford to Biloxi and back. Carter, if you were side-rolled in a dusty ditch with an army of bloody bandits setting fire to your hull to cook you like a crab, I wouldn’t waste a piss to put it out. Why, If I…”

Carter let it go on for a few more minutes, wincing and smiling in equal measure at the regret and nostalgia the words evoked. When the verbal abuse had finally subsided, he spoke up.

“Hello, Gloria. It’s been a long time.”

Gloria Rose was what Carter’s generation referred to as a firecracker. Though the years on the rails had deepened the lines in her face and tinged the edges of her red hair with frost, her spirit was just as he remembered it twenty-five years ago.

“Twenty-six years,” Gloria said. Carter made a mental correction. Time was easily lost on the rails. “Twenty-six years and not a hail, not a word, and certainly not an apology. So to what honor does the great Carter Bloch now bestow upon me, gracing me with his presence?”

Carter smiled, a true smile, hoping it held as much charm now as it once had all those years ago.

“I need your help, simple as that,” he said. Gloria scoffed, but waited for him to go on. A good sign. “I’m making the Nebraska Run.”

Gloria barked a harsh laugh. “If you want to kill yourself, Carter, there are simpler ways to do it. And you don’t need me to help with that, although I wouldn’t mind a front-row seat.”

“Now Gloria, that’s a bit unfair…”

“Unfair?” Gloria slammed her fists on her armrests. “Unfair was you leaving me high and dry in the Sonoran!”

Carter sighed. “I had no choice, you know that. I had a contract, same as you. We’ve been through this.”

“We certainly have, Carter,” Gloria said, regaining her calm. That disturbed Carter more than her tantrum. He knew he’d have to swallow his pride down hard in order for this to turn his way. “And it seems nothing has changed. Good luck on your suicide run. I hope you run dry.” Gloria reached for her comm switch, but Carter cut in.

“I’m sorry, Gloria. Truly. If I could take it all back, I would,” he said, training those steely blue eyes of his dead center on his camera lens. “I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I hope that you’ll help me because I need you. There isn’t anyone else who can make this run.” He hadn’t convinced her yet. “There isn’t anyone else like you.” Gloria hesitated. Carter sighed and let a little more line off the reel. “And this run isn’t even for me; it’s for Lorelei.”

Gloria’s hard frown appeared to soften for the briefest of moments before she replied.

“Gotta go, Carter. It’s sunrise. Ride well.”

“Ride well, Gloria,” Carter started, but Gloria had already severed the connection.

Carter pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. When he opened them again, a display from an exterior camera showed the scene laid out before him in Grand Junction: Dozens of engines were lined up on the rails awaiting their haul for the coming weeks. Scores of tanker cars of all shapes, sizes, models, and designs waited in rank upon rank upon rank in the storage fields beyond the hangar bays. Fleets of bulldozers scurried between the trains like worker ants, lifting, hauling, pushing, and dumping mound after mound of dirty snow into a series of hoppers and conveyors. The grayish masses passed through melters, screeners, filters, and funnels, eventually pouring out of a huge spigot as empty tank cars were rolled beneath it in succession.

The deep blue twilight that touched every bit of metal and ice gave way to bright red flashes, sparkling yellow flares, and a sharp white glare as the morning sun rose over the first day of snowrunning season.

The start of his 35th season was just as chaotic as the 34 that had preceded it, but there were some major differences this year: Carter had taken on three times his usual number of contracts, he had yet to find two co-runners to share in the haul, and he was locked into making the Nebraska Run. The first two bits of unfinished business preoccupied Carter most of the morning, which he spent conferring with the associates of the water barons to convince them that, yes, their bosses’ money and confidence were both well-placed in the Aquarius, going over the details with his automated navigation system in order to plot out the most efficient course, and convincing the refuelers and resuppliers to take advanced payment on credit, a deal made easier to swallow with the promise of a hefty interest rate. Carter’s margins were razor thin, but if his epic gamble paid off, it would be far worth it. But he wouldn’t even get out of the station without his co-runners. Luckily, word of Carter’s ambitious attempt had spread, and the snowrunner forums were positively lighting up with chatter.

No one had yet successfully completed the Nebraska Run in the industry’s forty-year history, but that didn’t stop at least a few engineers from trying it each season. The 3,000-mile, three-day journey ran from coast to coast, Boston to Los Angeles, cutting across the Northeast, to the Midwest, and breaking out into the open plains of Nebraska before carving down through the mountain passes of the Rockies and across the scorching, arid sands of the Sonoran desert. From sea to shining sea, a passage fraught with terrorist bombers, rail-hoppers and water bandits, fracking quakes and monster twisters, sandstorms and earth-slides. Many who attempted it died, a few survived to make it to Los Angeles, but no one had yet managed to complete the run with their cargo intact. The engineer who had come the closest was Carter himself, albeit a Carter who was twenty-five years younger, dumber, and with only his pride on the line.

Outside the Aquarius’ impenetrable hull, station workers in their ZeroProof suits scurried along the rails to attach and detach a variety of hoses that delivered concentrated food pastes, liquified CarMonDi scrubbers, friction sand for the rails, and fresh coolant for each engine’s nuclear reactors. Company men attended to the needs of their employers’ engines, grinding chips and dents out of the railwheels, buffing out drag-inducing divots on their sleek hulls, and shoring up the all-important couplers and draw gear; engineers who ran independently were at the mercy of the station workers’ schedules. Luckily for Carter, his status as a veteran Snowrunner and, more importantly, the buzz surrounding his attempt at the Nebraska Run, had gotten him plenty of attention from the station hands, all wanting to claim a part of his story. No matter how it turned out in the end, their efforts now earned them a story that could be retold over drinks for years to come.

Carter’s comm screen was cluttered with manifests, schedules, contract addendums, financial displays, and pop-up messages from other engineers loading up at Grand Junction. One such message came from a grizzled gentleman wearing an eyepatch that just about covered a jagged scar running from brow to cheek.

“Captain Steele of the Peps-Coca Rush here. Best of luck, Bloch. You’ll need it. Ride well.”

“Ride well, Captain,” Carter said, though what he really thought was, Easy for you to say, you pampered dandy. Snowrunning’s easy when the company employs their own water baron with access to a private rail flanked by military escort. It’s a milk run. Carter knew the former soldier from his own time running supply for the military. He also knew that Steele’s rough appearance stemmed not from a victorious battle, but from a drunken bar fight, one that he’d lost. Carter wouldn’t have asked the man to accompany him even if Steele had been able to escape his iron-clad corporate contract, though the military escort would have been a nice insurance policy.

“Dude, are you the rusted nut that’s doing the Nebraska Run?” Without waiting for an answer, a pimply-faced, greasy-haired teenager who ran an engine with the delightful moniker of Chumbucket69 kept on talking. “Just wanted to see your face before you bit dust out there. Ride well, old man!” Carter muttered, “Ride well,” and blocked the engineer’s comm from future access.

“I hear you’re looking for a co-runner,” said another unfamiliar voice. Carter had fielded more than a few of these messages already, all of them wastes of precious time. “Look no further, because I’m your man!” The engineer was decidedly less manly and more boyish, though Carter appreciated his enthusiasm.

“What’s your name, kid?” Carter asked, even though he’d already pulled up his profile.

“Hiro Sun, of the engine LocoLoco.

“What’s your story, Hiro?”

“I’ll be honest, sir. I’m a Scrapper. Put this engine together myself a few years ago and have been hauling Seconds ever since. Contracts are few and far between these days … Damn the Line.”

“Damn the Line,” Carter replied reflexively. Hiro continued.

“I need a solid run to establish myself and get a Union card, so if I can help you complete the Nebraska Run, well then I’ll be set for life,” Hiro finished excitedly. “Besides, I’ve been following your career since I was a little kid, Captain Bloch. It would be an honor.”

Carter tried not to let his pride get the better of him.

“You might be set for life, kid, but more than likely you’ll die out there. This isn’t an out-and-back to Philly or a Pit run, this is a trip through Hell. If you’re lucky enough to come out the other side, it will change you, and not for the better.” Carter took a deep breath. This kid was too much like Bobby. “What’s the furthest you’ve run, son?”

“St. Louis,” Hiro answered instantly. Carter’s screen flickered and the anonymous stamp reappeared without his doing. “During the riots. I made the blockade run and managed to make it out of there in one piece before the bombs dropped.”

A smuggler then, Carter thought. Not likely to have a lot of friends among the water barons. But if he can get the job done…

“St. Louis … so you know Penny Daniels then?” Carter asked, testing him. Hiro nodded.

“Of the Polar Spirit, yeah. Ran with her and Sergei Ivanov of the Shatter Hammer. They were more than mentors to me, they were like family,” Hiro said. He shrugged as if those memories were in the distant past. The anonymous stamp disappeared; any risk of treasonous talk had apparently been abandoned. “And so I’m on my own now.”

Carter took a quick liking to Hiro, but knew it wouldn’t be wise to let him know that. He kept him stringing along a bit more.

“Well, I’m still taking applications, Hiro, but I’ll keep you in mind. Let me run a few checks and I’ll get back to you by day’s end. No promises,” Carter answered, grinning despite himself.

“Thank you, sir!” Hiro exclaimed. “I’ll be here waiting!”

Carter closed out Hiro’s screen and spoke directly to his navigation system instead.

“Charlie, bring me everything you can find on Hiro Sun of the LocoLoco, if you would.”

Within a few moments, the screen was littered with news reports, images, schematics, and more data breaking down Hiro’s short but dynamic career. He’d been all over the Eastern seaboard running water and supplies for guerilla groups and separatist armies hidden behind the corporate blockades. He was as far from being a company man as you could get, but he also had one hell of an ability to survive in the thick of it.

“Charlie, what’s the LocoLoco running?”

“His primary engine appears to be a Model X1 reactor, with a diesel-electric generator back-up.”

Carter’s own bitter laugh caught him by surprise.

“Kid’s running a pocket nuke and dragging a fuel tender along with him.” He shook his head. “If he’s going to make this haul, he’ll have to shed the dead weight.” Hiro’s lack of horsepower and his questionable motives would normally have been red flags for Carter’s scheme, but there was something about the kid’s enthusiasm and downright lucky streak that reminded him of his early years, those lean and hungry times when Carter himself was just starting out. Carter, and Gloria … and Bobby.

Time was running out. Carter had to make good on his contracts now or risk defaulting before he even got started. With his skill, the Iron Nail’s power, and Hiro’s luck, they just might make it through this. He issued Charlie a directive.

“Send Gloria her portion of the contracts. If she declines, send them again. If she turns us down a third time, send them over to Scottie Reddington of the Barrel.” If he’s sober enough to even see straight, Carter thought. He took another deep breath. I’ve gambled a lot so far, so what’s one more longshot? “Then send a third of the contracts to Hiro Sun. Make it the least of the load; I don’t want to tax the kid’s engine before he’s even out of the gate.”

“Very well, sir.”

Carter shut down his screen and allowed Charlie to take over. While Aquarius meandered around Grand Junction on auto-pilot to pick up its share of the contract load, Carter Bloch took a restless nap in the engine’s sleeping compartment. He hoped for pleasant dreams, knowing the next three days would be a constant nightmare.

Carter awoke to gale-force winds and subzero temperatures; the super-storm had arrived early. His external cameras captured the near white-out conditions outside and the frenzied workers rushing to get the last of the tankers filled up before the lines froze solid. Carter watched as one of the overhead spigots burst. A torrent of chemically treated snowmelt rained down on an unsuspecting railhand. The water froze on its way down, impaling the man with icicle spikes and entombing him in a sub-zero sculpture that crystallized all the way back up to the busted pipe. Despite the worker’s ZeroProof suit, he became the first casualty of the season.

“Hell of a start,” said a voice on Carter’s dimmed comm screen. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Carter brought the Aquarius up to its operational mode in order to run diagnostic tests and reply to the hail. It was not the engineer he had been hoping for.

“Nature of the work,” Carter said, cold and practical, as he would need to be from here on out should they hope to survive the Run. “Hello, Hiro. All ready to go?”

“Yes, sir!” Hiro replied. He actually saluted Carter through the camera. The veteran forced back a smile, and Hiro settled down. “Dumped my back-up generator and fuel car, just like you said.”

Carter respected the fact that Hiro hadn’t second-guessed him on this order, moreso that he hadn’t even bitched about it.

“We need every drop we can haul,” Carter said. That wasn’t exactly true, but he’d be keeping the particulars of the delivery to himself for the time being. “When we arrive in the Basin to cash in, you can buy ten new ones if you want.”

“Don’t take anything he says too seriously, kid,” Gloria chimed in. “You’ll be lucky if you survive. And if Carter pays you your fair share, it’ll be another miracle.” Carter brushed off the insult; he was just happy to have Gloria by his side again.

“Hiro, meet Gloria Rose of the Iron Nail. Gloria, this is Hiro Sun of the LocoLoco.

“Wow!” Hiro said. “It’s an honor, ma’am! A real honor!”

“Yeah, yeah, let’s just get steaming before Carter’s blood freezes up,” Gloria said, with a glower that turned up the corner of her mouth just enough to become a smirk.

“Ride well, you two,” Carter offered.

“Ride well!” Hiro exclaimed.

“Ride well,” Gloria said, before muting her comm.

Despite the cold shoulder, Gloria did as Carter directed as the three Snowrunners made their way out of Grand Junction. The Iron Nail led the way with its heavy-duty plow clearing the rails. One-hundred cars behind Gloria Rose was Carter Bloch in his streamlined, water-bearing Aquarius pulling 70 cars of liquid gold. Hiro Sun’s rattling, scrapped-together steamer LocoLoco brought up their rear, hauling 35 cars on the single line of track out of Grand Junction and across the storm-blasted Northeast.

Along the way, the rough weather kept most of the bandits inside, huddled together in their particle-board and plastic-sheet railside shanty towns, warming themselves over a styrofoam fire. The occasional hoodlum popped out of the winter scrub brush lining the rails to take a pot-shot at the engines with an antiquated rifle, more out of boredom than anything else.

“How’s it look up ahead?” Carter asked. The low, sprawling shanty towns gradually condensed into stacks of trailers, buses, and even rail cars, cobbled together into some semblance of post-industrial apartment buildings. Some of the slapdash towers leaned threateningly toward the rail. Stack-dwellers poked their heads out of pallet doors and hubcap windows to watch the water trains roll by, some throwing bags of waste at the cars just to watch them splatter and freeze.

“No problems,” Gloria said. “Wait … hold on. There’s something across the rail up ahead.” Gloria patched a video feed back to Carter, who just shook his head, and Hiro, who cackled.

“Oh those sorry sons o’ bitches,” Hiro said.

“Throttle up,” Carter ordered.

“Don’t tell me how to run the Nail, Bloch,” Gloria answered, though she pushed a lever forward to pick up speed. The three engineers watched as the Iron Nail‘s plow smashed through a rickety barricade of sawhorses, sandbags, and the burned-out shell of an old station wagon. The Nail shoved the car down the rails, sending up a shower of sparks that caused the few armed bandits waiting in ambush to drop their assault rifles and dive down into the gully. The beat-up car finally caught on a rock and flipped to one side, clearing the path for the trains and leaving the wanna-be water-robbers behind.

“If that’s the worst thing that happens to us…,” Hiro started.

“It won’t be,” Carter cut in. “We’ve got the Appalachians and the Pit to clear before we can make up some time on Ohio’s Two-Line. Then the farther West you go, the smarter the bandits get.”

“Don’t forget the quakes, twisters, and slides,” Gloria added. “And that’s before we even get to the Rockies and the Sonoran borderlands.” Hiro kept his mouth shut.

The Appalachians proved slow going. A rockslide had wiped out a whole section of track along Pennsylvania Pass, keeping the Snowrunners bottled up for a few hours before a company repair team could lay down new rails. If the StarDunk Ethos hadn’t been snowrunning along the same line, Carter and his crew would have had to double back down the treacherous mountain path. Carter and Gloria ordered up a steaming mug of coffee from their dash and toasted the captain of the company train with their thanks; Hiro opted out.

When the trio approached the Pit – a hard-living tangle of railroads and waterways that crisscrossed an industrial wasteland – Carter had them all snap to attention.

“Stay sharp,” he said. “Bigger crews than ours have been waylaid in this maze.”

Despite his warnings, they met no trouble on the rail. The trouble had already come before them. A heavily armed gang had taken over one of the city’s roundhouses and its knot of connecting rails, waiting to ambush the first trains that arrived. Bad luck for them. Not only did the ExxoNoco Pegasus Valdez and the McKing Happy! trains show up at the same time, they had brought their military escorts along with them. As Carter, Gloria, and Hiro rolled through the carnage, they turned off their video feeds, ignoring the charred bodies, bomb-blasted buildings, and smoking debris left behind in the wake of the company trains. They kept silent, gliding forward on shiny new rails laid over the scorched bones of the old.

When they reached the Ohio border a few short miles later, Carter had Gloria split off onto the northern-most rail, while he and Hiro ran along beside her on the southern line. The sun was setting behind a gray veil of storm clouds out in front of them.

“It’s been a long first day,” Carter said, breaking a silence held since the Pit. “Let’s grab some chow and get some shut-eye. Let the Nav do the work until we get to Chicago.” Neither Gloria nor Hiro argued the point, but before Carter could shut down for the night, he received a private hail from the Iron Nail.

“Evening, Gloria,” he said, as casually as he could. He knew he might be in for a long talk or a short fight, but couldn’t quite tell which just yet.

“I’m not going to ask you why you’re doing this,” Gloria started. “That’s your business.”

“I told you, it’s for Lorelei.”

Gloria held up her hand and squeezed her eyes shut before continuing.

“I just want to know what your intentions are for Hiro.”

Here it comes, thought Carter. He shrugged just hard enough to convince Gloria of his nonchalance.

“Hiro’s green but enthusiastic. He deserves a chance to prove himself,” Carter offered before adding, “Plus he’s the luckiest damned engineer I’ve ever come across.”

Gloria studied his face for a long moment.

“Bullshit,” she said at last. “He’s gullible, he’s expendable, and you know it. There’s a reason you put him at the end of the line, Carter.”

“Somebody has to bring up the rear, Gloria. That’s all there is to it.”

“You mean somebody’s ass has to be flapping in the breeze. Funny that it’s never yours. You haven’t changed a bit, Carter,” she fumed. “I hope Bobby haunts your dreams tonight.”

Gloria severed the connection and left Carter alone in the glow of his comm screen. She was partly right, of course; he had to admit that. Hiro he could lose. Hell, he could even lose the 35 water cars if it came down to it. Not a car more, though, not if all his debts were to be paid in full, which was the whole point to this mad endeavor. Losing Lorelei was not an option. She was family. Everything else was just business.

The morning sun colored Chicago’s snow-covered skyline a bright pink. The super-storm had moved off to the east, still battering New England but leaving the Midwest free to pick up the pieces and assess the damage. Carter had planned to pick up additional water cars – or even engineers, if need be – to replace the ones he might have lost on the trip out, but things had gone relatively smoothly for them so far. Instead, they would now hum right past the Windy City’s island metropolis and make up some time on the Tri-Line. He pulled a fresh jumpsuit from its vacuum-sealed packaging, broke the seal, unfolded it, and stepped into it like he had done countless times before. The old went in the incinerator, its molecules broken down to replenish the reserves from which the printer would assemble another jumpsuit, or his morning’s breakfast of powdered eggs, or any other thing he might need. Carter had long since stopped being impressed by the technology; it simply existed. He let the others sleep a bit longer while the rails were still quiet enough to allow his memories to bubble up to the surface.

He had been about Hiro’s age, five years into the Snowrunning business and already making a name for himself. He and the Aquarius had braved the Northern Passage on iced-over rails and through shrinking tunnels bored through the hearts of receding glaciers. Then, during his service in the Water Wars, he had weathered the crippling month-long blizzard that shut down the rails in the heart of the Yukon, surviving on grit alone. And he had almost succeeded in making the Nebraska Run…

Gloria had been riding the rails with him for the better part of a year before attempting the Run. There were no secrets between them and no reason to keep them. The only thing that kept Carter and Gloria physically apart were the smooth-hulled confines of their locomotive prisons and the iron-clad contracts that tethered the captains to their chairs. A Snowrunner was a Snowrunner for life, a commitment inked in a pact stipulating the inescapable bonds of financial and personal security at the cost of one’s freedom. Every Snowrunner had a reason for signing on, and most would tell you about it without your asking; it was a badge of honor that ranked up there with what model engine they ran and how many cars they’d hauled. Life on the rails was a lonely one, and Carter and Gloria found that they could put aside that loneliness together. At least until Bobby came along.

Thoughts of Bobby shook Carter out of his daydreams. Gloria’s comments from the night before still stuck in his craw. He hailed Hiro in an attempt to make himself feel just a little less shitty about the whole thing.

“Morning, kid,” Carter said. “Know where we are?”

A groggy, sleep-haired Hiro blinked his eyes awake and looked at his Nav map. Three blinking indicators appeared just east of the Iowa border, on the edge of the Mississippi Sea. Hiro’s eyes widened.

“Once we cross over,” he said, “this will be the farthest West I’ve ever been.” His voice had a reverent tone to it, not directed at Carter but to a more general sense of awe.

“Not just that,” Carter said, “but we’re coming up on the Tri-Line. See it out there on the horizon?”

Hiro switched to a view of the wide expanse of gently rolling land out ahead of them. Not too far in the distance was a gleaming triple line of rail stretching out to infinity. To its south, on the far side of the sea, a great cloud of dust hung in the air.

“What’s that about?” Hiro asked. “Another storm?”

“A storm of sorts,” Carter answered with a frown. “That’s the AquaLine, kid. And once they connect it to the sea here, and link it up to its western half in Kansas, that’ll be the beginning of the end for us.”

“Kansas?” Hiro asked. “Isn’t that place mostly a crater?” Carter shrugged.

“Land’s cheap, and the water barons’ pockets are deep,” Carter said. “Don’t believe everything you read about politicians putting a stop to it. The companies own Kansas.”

“Damn the Line,” Hiro responded.

“Damn the Line,” Carter answered.

“Damn the Line,” Gloria added. “And if you two chatterbirds don’t mind, I’d like to get through this forsaken state before someone craters it, too.” Their Nav systems announced to each of them that the Tri-Line station was just ahead.

“Agreed,” said Carter. “Gloria, you take the northern line; Hiro, take the south; I’ll stick to the middle,” Gloria shook her head in disgust, “for now,” Carter added. “We’ll talk strategy closer to Omaha.”

The three Snowrunners cut across the Great Plains in a flying V, with Carter taking point on the central rail to minimize drag for his co-runners. They had passed through Omaha without incident. Lincoln, too, flashed by in the blink of an eye without so much as a dust devil stirred up to complicate their passage. Carter had begun to think that Big Steam’s connections might well have been worth the steep price. He was so confident, in fact, that he had offered to move to the front of the pack rather than seek shelter between the heavily armored Iron Nail and Hiro’s unwitting decoy. Fifteen miles west of Lincoln, Carter received a hail that cashed in whatever good grace had carried him this far.

“Well, well. Carter Bloch. I heard you were coming to town,” said a raspy voice through a scrambled, static-ridden image on the comm screen. “I must say I’m a bit disappointed you didn’t stop to say, ‘Hello.’”

“C’mon now, Jesse,” Carter replied. “You can at least do me the courtesy of showing your ugly mug.”

The static on the screen resolved into a man’s face hidden behind a pair of dark motorcycle goggles and a black bandana that covered his nose and mouth.

“It’s courtesy that kept me behind the mask, but if you insist.” The bandit leader untied his bandana, revealing cheeks sunken down to the jawbone, ragged-edged holes in the skin around his mouth, and teeth laid bare to the gums because he had no lips to cover them. “I usually don’t show my pretty face unless some city boy gets uppity, or some fool gets the idea to be playin’ a hero.”

“No city boys here,” Carter answered, trying not to show his disgust. “No fools either, and damn sure no heroes. Just an old Snowrunner out to earn a living. I’m sure your brother told you all about our little deal.”

“Oh Big Steam laid out a deal, all right. Me and the boys give you a free pass through Lincoln, and I get 10% of your haul,” Jesse wheezed.

Dammit, Barney, thought Carter. You fat, greedy bastard.

“What say we cut out the middle-man and call it 40% for you and your crew,” Carter offered. If Jesse accepted, and that was a big ‘if’, he’d actually be saving money. The bandit scratched his patch-skinned jaw with the barrel of a big bore pistol.

“I was thinkin’ more like 100%, not accountin’ for any losses due to skirmishin’,” the bandit threatened. “Attrition and all. You know how it is.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Jesse,” Carter pleaded. “50% of a Nebraska Run, and you can call it a rail tax. Hell, do the same to any other Snowrunner that comes along and after the word spreads they’ll likely hand it over to you all peaceful-like.”

Jesse considered this a moment, scratching at his scarred and stitched-up scalp with the gun.

“Hm, that’s not a bad idea.” For a moment, Carter thought his luck would hold. Then Jesse smiled. “But I reckon we’ll just tally up the corpses and sort the whole mess out after.” Jesse closed his comm screen. Carter tried to get him back, but the bandit was hellbent on a fight. Carter aimed to give him one.

“Okay, crew,” he started. “Fight’s comin’ our way and it looks like a nasty one. We can try to mow through, or put up stakes and defend ourselves wagon-train style. What do you think, Gloria?”

“Jesse Reese grew up in the Dust, and he’s been marauding with the Railsplitters almost as long as we’ve been Snowrunning,” Gloria answered. “He knows how to take down a running train like a pack of dogs hunting a deer. I can’t imagine too many engineers tried to fight them off without a military escort, so it might just be crazy enough to work. I say we circle up.”

Carter nodded. Gloria he could rely on. As for Hiro … he wasn’t so sure.

“Can you handle yourself in a fight, kid?”

Hiro grinned and gave a big thumbs-up to the camera.

“I’m a Scrapper, remember? Don’t you worry about me.”

“All right then.” Carter glanced at his heads-up display, which revealed three, then six, then ten plumes of dust streaming toward them across the plains. “Full stop. Then it’s just like we discussed. Any questions?” Gloria and Hiro both shook their heads, their full attention trained on the approaching threat. “Okay crew. Let’s earn our keep.”

Carter trusted his co-runners to hang tight and stick to the plan. He had no other choice. If they ran headlong at the bandits, Jesse and his company would take out their engines, and likely the engineers themselves right along with them. If they tried to slip past and outrun them, the Railsplitters would just pick off water cars from the backend until they had all the liquid currency they could handle. Carter’s hope was that, if the Snowrunners stood their ground, they might just be able to cause enough damage to make Jesse think twice.

The Railsplitters’ vehicles came into clearer view, emerging from the cloud of dust of their own making. Quick little one-seater Sprint Buggies zipped back and forth in front of the pack, their underinflated tires giving them purchase in the pockets of shifting sand. Behind them were the Smokers: big, bruising beasts of muscled steel and choking diesel, fueled by the raw energy siphoned from the drilling and fracking grounds Jesse’s crew controlled.  Pulling up the rear was a trio of Wreckers, each hauling an off-rail engine. Carter smiled.

“Don’t worry about the other gnats,” he ordered through his secure channel. “Without those tow engines, Jesse can’t haul the water tanks anywhere. We take them out, and we frustrate his plan to the giving-up point.”

Gloria shrugged. “It’s as good a target as any,” she said. “As long as I have something to shoot at, I’ll be just fine.”

“Should we make our move then?” Hiro asked. Carter was watching the approaching line of vehicles closely, waiting for something.

“Not just yet,” he said. Carter watched as the gang split into three distinct groups: one to the north and one to the south, with each of the Wreckers taking up positions on the rails themselves, though back a ways and safely behind the other groups. “Change of plans,” he said, cursing under his breath. Gloria scowled but listened, and Hiro went straight-backed with attention. “We bring our engines up to speed and take the fight to those tow cars. If they want to leave them on the line, fine; we’ll mow right through them.”

“What about the others?” Gloria asked. “Our flanks will be wide open.”

“Let me worry about that,” Hiro said. He was busy firing up his reactor to full and manipulating an array of gears and switches.

“Gloria, hop rail if you have to. Otherwise, just knife through those suckers. Hiro, will you be able to…”

“I got it, boss!” Hiro shouted, now running along the length of his compartment. “Let’s get moving already.”

Carter gritted his teeth and had Charlie bring the Aquarius up to speed. He didn’t have the brute strength of the Iron Nail or whatever wizardry the LocoLoco had hidden away, but he did have an ace up his sleeve.

The three Snowrunners began their slow chug up to top speed, still hauling their cargo behind them. The sprinters were on them almost instantly. They buggies buzzed along the length of the trains, counting cars as they went. A few hovered near the engines like bloodflies, dipping in to taunt the rail-bound behemoths before scurrying back out to safety once more. What Carter didn’t know, and what the solo drivers were about to find out, was that Hiro was prepared for just such an attack.

The top of the LocoLoco slid open to reveal a cavity lined with a dozen drones, each outfitted with a camera and an impressive arsenal. At the flick of a switch, Hiro sent the drones skyward. They split into groups of three, each homing in on a separate Sprint Buggy. A few well-aimed laser bursts were enough to blow a tire on one of the Buggies, causing it to spin out and stall in the sand. Another drone managed to rupture a Buggy’s gas tank. It disappeared far to the rear of the trains in a ball of flame. The remaining Buggies retreated and rejoined the rest of their gang, but not before a driver got a lucky shot on one of the drones’ rotors sending it crashing to the ground.

“Two of theirs for one of mine,” Hiro said. “I’ll take that any day.”

The remaining drones circled above each of the engines in a defensive orbit while the Railsplitters regrouped. Carter refocused his team as well.

“Good work, kid. We’ll take Round One, but there’s a lot more fight to come. Stay sharp.”

Right on cue, the Smokers joined in the fray. Bandits clad in bullet-proof armor and spiked helmets hung from every bent and blackened bit of metal. They bristled with weapons, either holstered on their body or mounted on their vehicles. A plume of diesel fire arced out from the nearest Smoker and melted two drones in mid-air. One of the trucks attacked from the northern flank with a spray of machine-gun fire that riddled three of the drones protecting the Iron Nail, dropping them into the sand in pieces. One of the drones’ explosives detonated and left a crater in the dirt. A Sprint Buggy vaulted out of it as it raced its way toward the back of the trains.

“The Buggies are going after the water cars!” Carter shouted. “They’ll start peeling them off one by one while we’re piddling around up here. Hiro, send the rest of your drones after those damn go-karts and see if they can’t finish them off.” Carter checked their speed. Gloria was maxed out, but he and Hiro could push it faster if they had to. He hung back and let the Iron Nail steam ahead. “Time to go off-rail. Let’s give these bastards a surprise.”

Hiro flashed him a thumbs-up and Gloria cracked her knuckles in anticipation. As the Smokers kept pace with the churning engines – the stationary Wreckers with their tow engines looming ever closer on the rails up ahead – the ear-piercing sound of rending metal filled the air. The Iron Nail disengaged from her water cars at speed, and a sheath of metal folded itself around her wheels. Its plow blade bit into the sandy earth as it veered right off its track and steamed forward on tank treads, making a beeline directly for the nearest Smoker. The driver was either too stunned or too slow to avoid the off-rail train, but the result was the same. The Iron Nail split the truck in half, clean through its megablock engine, cooking its riders in a huge fireball.

Not to be outdone, Carter disengaged the long line of water cars behind him and prepared for battle. He fired up the engine’s put-down sequence, flipping a series of levers and switches that turned the Aquarius into what looked like a monstrous, six-armed, metallic beetle. Three pairs of hydraulic arms sprouted from either side of the engine. The front of the Aquarius became a gaping mouth that spit a length of pre-formed track out of a hidden compartment just above the Aquarius’ wheel carriage. As the engine rolled off-track and onto this newly laid section of rail, it spit out another length laid down just in front of the first. When the Aquarius had run its course over the new rail, the arms at the back of the engine picked up the temporary track and fed it back through the feeder to be used again. The system wasn’t as quick or maneuverable as the Iron Nail’s treads, but it gave Carter the freedom to go off-rail and cause some havoc of his own.

“How’s your throwing arm, Charlie?” Carter asked his Nav system. A Smoker was fast approaching the Aquarius, gobbling up all the empty sand in between.

“An 89% chance of a direct hit at this angle, velocity, and distance, sir. Now 91%. Now 92%. Now…”

“Charlie, just throw the damn thing!”

“As you wish, sir.”

The second pair of hydraulic arms hefted a spare piece of rail in their iron grips and heaved it at the approaching Smoker. Despite the diesel vehicle’s superior agility, it was too close and moving too fast to avoid the projectile. The steel bar smashed into the truck head-on and ripped its passenger compartment clean off, taking the top halves of the bandits with it.

“A direct hit, sir.”

“We’re not out of the clinch yet. Hiro, you’re gonna have to get clear of the rail or blast your way through. Those tow rigs are coming up fast!”

“I’m trying,” said Hiro, exasperated, “but I can’t get my tanks to disengage!”

“Calm down, kid,” Gloria chimed in. “Scrape those bandits off the rail in front of you and then you won’t have to worry about your cargo. Can you manage?” A loud boom echoed in Gloria’s mic and her screen rattled before settling again. “I’ve got my hands full as it is.”

“I can manage, just watch!” Hiro said. And watch they did. As the LocoLoco steamed ever faster toward the sedentary tow rig that squatted on the line like a bullfrog awaiting an incoming fly, a huge laser cannon pivoted up and out of the top of Hiro’s engine. A plume of smoke puffed out of the Wrecker as its driver took notice of the deadly weapon, but it was far too late. A pair of bright flashes lit the plains before the tow rig was nearly disintegrated, leaving only a few twists of forged aluminum and cast iron behind. The other two rigs fired up their own engines and sputtered and puttered their way off the rails. Jesse and his bandits gathered to the West, whether to give up the fight or just regroup, Carter wasn’t sure.

“Great shot, Hiro, but keep that bandit-killer ready to pop,” Carter warned. “This might not be over…”

The sand dropped out from under the Aquarius. It wasn’t a new sensation for Carter, but it was one he’d never gotten used to.

“Frack quake! Hold your line!” Carter shouted. “Gloria, back to the rails!” Carter was already twisting the Aquarius back to the relative safety of the proven railroad, and his Nav system told him that Gloria was doing the same. Hiro slowed the LocoLoco on the southernmost rail.

One by one, Jesse’s bandits winked out of existence. Faint plumes of dust were all that marked their disappearance until a thick, greasy black column of smoke rose up from a hole in the ground, a place where no hole should have been, a place the Tri-Line traveled straight through.

“Hiro, full stop! Now!” Carter screamed. He brought the Aquarius alongside the LocoLoco, and maneuvered his port-side hydraulic arms outward in an attempt to snag the runaway locomotive and slow it down, but to no avail. Two of the arms snapped like dry kindling. Carter imagined he could hear the shriek of the LocoLoco’s brakes through his soundproof engine, to smell the sharp tang of metal sparking on metal, to feel the shudder-stop of thousands of tons of rail cars and precious water slamming into the back of the engine. In reality, all was quiet and serene inside the Aquarius. Even Hiro was calm, calmer than he had any right to be.

“Too much weight and not enough rail,” the young engineer said, punctuating his statement with a sigh. “On the plus side,” he said, smiling, “I finally got the tanks to disengage.” Hiro laughed. “Ride well, Carter. Ride well, Gloria.”

“Ride well,” Gloria replied.

“Ride well,” said Carter, his voice thick. The Aquarius and the Iron Nail had come to a dead stop on their sections of the rail, but were by no means at a safe distance. Carter’s screen showed a yawning chasm opening up before him. The quake itself had subsided but the earth continued to fall away. A jagged canyon now split the Plains, one of its lightning-strike forks ending just past Hiro’s section of rail, sparing the other two lengths of the Tri-Line.

For a moment, Carter thought that maybe speed would be his ally, that if Hiro was going fast enough he might just make it over the newly formed geological blight on the landscape. Carter let go of that hope as the LocoLoco broached the edge of the chasm, its weight bearing down on the supporting rail, snapping cold-rolled and riveted steel as easily as if it were built of nothing but toothpicks and glue. Even as the water cars came to a stop at the canyon’s edge, Hiro rode his engine down into the rocky abyss, smashing and rolling and flipping in a dizzying and disorienting one-way trip to join Jesse and his bandits down in the deep.

Carter and Gloria did not … could not know his condition, they only knew that he was beyond help and that his comm was out of commission. They sat a moment in silence. They watched as the surviving members of Hiro’s drones buzzed above the ruined locomotive in the crater below. Carter imagined them as vultures circling a fresh kill or flies buzzing about a corpse, but neither image felt quite right. They were loyal pets awaiting their master’s return, and they would hover there until their batteries ran dry or someone scavenged them for parts. He imagined he could hear their mournful humming, which was worse than the pressing silence. It was Carter who spoke first.

“He was a good kid. Deserved better.” Another moment passed. “I’ll hop lines and pick up his haul.”

“You’ll never change, Bloch,” Gloria said, her grip like wrought iron wrapped around the throttle, her jaw clamped shut like a sprung trap.

“Best get on,” Carter muttered. “Daylight’s wastin’.”

It had taken Carter the better part of the day to haul each of Hiro’s water cars across the bare expanse of sandy soil separating the ruined line from the viable ones. Gloria didn’t lift a finger to help, but neither did she leave Carter behind, and for that he was thankful. He just kept his mouth shut and went about his business. As soon as could be helped, the Iron Nail and the Aquarius steamed southwest, each carrying about a hundred water cars, having lost a spare few to the bandits.

Just before nightfall they crossed through the northwestern corner of Kansas. The Tri-Line ran parallel to an imposing triple fence topped with razor-wire and populated by heavily armed mercenaries in armored suits with orders to perforate anyone who should come nosing by. Every twenty yards a placard hung on the fence flashed by; it read: “AquaLine – Delivering Tomorrow’s Water Today!” Below the nonsensical statement was a list of a few dozen of the world’s major conglomerates who had sponsored the project. Some of the signs had been tagged with graffiti; some were riddled with bullet holes and blood.

Beyond the fences and the armed guards, the watchtowers and the drone patrols, lay a pockmarked wasteland that was once home to wheat, corn, and cattle, and down-home girls who occasionally got spirited away on magical twisters. Now, the crops were gone, the cows were gone, and the girls were gone. Even the blown-out hulls of train engines and tanker cars had been scoured down to nubs by sandstorms over time. Only the storms remained. For all their power, even they couldn’t keep out the company men.

“Behold, the corporate state of Kansas,” Carter muttered. If Gloria heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Damn the Line,” he said instead. Gloria simply switched off her comm and the screen went black. The pair of Snowrunners ran alongside the AquaLine fence for its part before turning south into Colorado. By sunrise, the weather had turned right along with them.

A Plains storm is a helluva thing. Despite the relative size and safety of the Snowrunners’ locomotives, in the face of one of Mother Nature’s rages they might as well be cheap plastic toys on the playground. Even with Carter’s Nav system patching in local radar, satellite imagery, and weather station data, all of that info only told them just how much of a pounding they were going to take, not how to avoid it. There was no shelter on the rail, no turning tail and running from the storm, and no waiting it out. An engine and its tanker cars were just as likely to be tossed off the track sitting still as they were at full gallop. Carter liked to take a storm head on, to punch through the wall of wind and chaos like a seaworthy fisherman turning to face down a rogue wave. They faster they got through it, the sooner they’d be on their way.

“Looks like a nasty one,” Carter mused. He knew as well as Gloria that the purple wall of clouds that they were steaming towards held only misery within its sodden folds. But he needed Gloria to talk, or at least to listen. Albuquerque was coming up fast and its cross-rails promised a decision that Carter had been dreading. He’d planned to spring the detour on Gloria closer to their destination, but the storm was intent on changing that plan.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he started out, “and if those winds get to throwing sand around like chaff it might knock out our comms. So before they do, here’s what I have to say,” he flipped a switch that stamped anonymous over his screen, though what good it accomplished, he wasn’t sure. “Come south with me in Albuquerque.” Gloria’s eyes snapped front and center on her screen, but she stayed quiet. Carter held back a smile, knowing he had her attention. “Come south. We can make ten times what the water barons are offering and keep their hands out of our pockets for once. Come south and we can be free of these contracts, free of these cages,” he punched the ceiling of the Aquarius for emphasis. “Come south and we can live.”

Gloria didn’t move. She just stared, boring a hole through the screen. She saw Carter, better than he saw himself. “I don’t know whether you’re cowardly or crazy, but I want no part of it. I signed on to this run for the money, and the money’s in the Basin, Carter. West, not south, that’s where I’m headed.”

Carter knew better than to argue. Letting Gloria convince herself was the only way he might yet win her over.

“What, did you think we were going to run away together? Live happily ever-after, sipping tequila and watching the tides rise higher and higher as the years go by?” she asked, striking perilously close to Carter’s actual fantasies. “Your brain is fried, old man. You must have a leak because those fumes are messing with your head, and you’re going to wake up dead one of these days. ‘Come south…’”

Carter chuckled to himself and shrugged. He wanted Gloria, but he didn’t need her. Truth be told, that had always been their problem, and they both knew it. He had hoped the lure of money and freedom would be enough, but he didn’t honestly expect her to break, not when he knew he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the money or the freedom himself. The water barons did not treat amicably with contract-breakers.

“Think on it,” Carter said, his message getting fuzzy as the winds picked up outside. “At least until Albuquerque. We can sort it out then.” Whatever Gloria said in response was lost to static as gale-force winds met the locomotives head-on and rocked them nearly off the rails. Hail the size of cantaloupes thundered down onto the protective hulls before shattering on impact. Lightning scorched the sky and blasted anything that moved out in the wasteland, which was only the long, metal snakes of the Aquarius and the Iron Nail. Though the charge was dissipated, Carter imagined a sharp whiff of ozone and the warm, heavy scent of impending rain. When the rain broke, it came down like an Arctic wave in a winter storm. Impossible torrents shot Earthward as if fired to the ground from heavenly hoses, spigots turned to full blast just to remind the fragile humans that there was yet water in the world, but the price to claim it had become sacrificial. The scouring rain did nothing to the sleek and impenetrable hulls of the Snowrunners’ engines, but the sheer force of it would have split skin to bare bone.

Carter blessed the rain – the driving, stinging rain – for it was life-giving even in its brutality. With the flip of a few switches he opened topside funnels that would collect the priceless liquid and shunt it into available tanks. Some of the cars had lost water due to slow leaks and evaporation. Once those were filled to the brim, Carter rerouted the freshwater into his emergency life-support systems and coolant tanks, replenishing the stale and irradiated supplies. He laughed in the face of the storm. Even in its fury that he had the audacity to exist, to challenge the tempest, it gave him the means to do so. Carter simply had to be strong enough to take the beating and claim the rain.

The blessing of the rail was that you could never veer of course. Straight and true they steamed through the heart of the storm, passing through its heavy curtain wall, using the lull inside its city-wide eye to run diagnostics and check for changes in the weather forecast before plunging back into the maelstrom’s rotating backside. Fierce north-south winds threatened to topple the long trains on their sides so, to Carter’s frustration, they throttled down. Another hour or two and they’d be through the worst of it; another hour after that and they’d be in Albuquerque, if there was anything left of it.

Albuquerque. It hadn’t been much of a cross-rails town for as long as Carter could remember but rail traffic was about the only legal means of revenue keeping the town going, it being the last watering hole before the long dry run through the Sonoran. Albuquerque had done decent rail business over the years, a business that would all but dry up once the Line was connected. Carter hoped that the old ghosts that haunted the town would dry up with it. As they approached Desert Junction, Gloria made it plain that she didn’t feel the same.

“So here’s where we part, Carter,” she said without a hint of hesitation, pity, regret, remorse, or any of the other emotions Carter hoped she’d been able to tap into on the long run. “Looks like I’ll be making the Nebraska Run on my own from here on out. If you survive your fool’s journey, you might even hear about it in the forums.” She shook her head. “Just … why, Carter? That’s all I want to know.”

Here was Carter’s last chance. A good old-fashion tug on the heartstrings. “For Lorelei, like I said. She’s got some sort of bug, the particulars of which are far beyond me, but she needs new organs wound up, a heap of ‘em, or she’s dust. Winders cost money. Big money.”

Gloria studied his face a moment before responding. “That’s not what I was asking, Carter.” It was Carter’s turn to pause and think.

“Bobby?” he asked, already knowing the answer. Gloria shook her head.

“We’ve been over that. You know why I run: for the money, which goes to my family. Plain and simple. You’ve never been half as direct,” she accused.

Carter grinned. “Come south,” he said, knowing he’d already lost her. “Come south and you’ll find out why I run.”

Gloria shook her head and laughed, a sound that took them both back twenty-five … twenty-six years. “The thing is Carter, I know why you run, but you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t. And until you stop foolin’ yourself about what you’re running to and cop to what you’re running from, you’ll never get it.”

“Come south,” he said, one last time. Gloria’s face hardened again, like the dead-dry desert floor.

“Goodbye, Carter. I’ll give my regards to Bobby for you when I pass him by. And good luck to your granddaughter; she’ll need it. Ride well.” She did him the courtesy of hearing his response before cutting the connection.

“Ride well, Gloria.” As soon as he’d said it, she was gone. The Iron Nail continued west along the Tri-Line, taking its full share of the contract with it. Carter watched her go as Albuquerque’s down-on-their-luck railhands busied themselves patching and polishing the dings, divots, and scorch marks the Aquarius had accumulated in her travels. When they were finished, and when the Iron Nail was just a hazy smear across the sun-blasted horizon, Carter Bloch turned south.

It wasn’t a long rail to the border, not relative to what he’d covered already, but it was certainly a risky one. Rather than relying on the surety of the Tri-Line and the support of his co-runners, Carter ran on a rickety little-used track half-buried in the sand, and he did it solo. Before the end of the line in El Paso, he’d make a riskier move still, but that time was a little ways away yet.

His companions were now the cacti and tumbleweeds. As they waved by, Carter found his memories drawn to the decisions made in Albuquerque in what felt like a lifetime ago. He had been in his mid-twenties, the height of his career. Gloria was by his side, just out of her teens and with no inhibitions on the rails or on the comm screen. And Bobby, the fresh-faced rookie they’d picked up back in Columbus. All of them were after money, adventure, and glory. They would have had it, too, had Carter made a different decision in Albuquerque.

The city of Flagstaff had been under siege. A lone corporate Snowrunner and its military escort had gotten itself surrounded by a united front of desert bandits and union separatists. The bandits wanted the water, the separatists wanted the weapons, and the Snowrunner wanted to keep his contract; neither side had budged for days which left the townsfolk caught up in the middle of a hostile situation. Carter and his crew had been fast coming up on it.

“I said we avoid the whole mess. Head south to Phoenix, and straight into the Basin from there,” Gloria suggested. “No more than a few hours delay.”

“A few hours and a few thousand credits,” Carter said, balking at the idea. “We’re already cutting it short. If we’re going to make the run at all, it’s got to be direct. No more detours. What do you think, kid?”

“I say we mow right through the whole mess at speed,” Bobby offered. He laid back in his chair with his feet propped up on the dash, one ankle crossed over the other, his hands interlaced behind his head. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked with an easy smile.

“The worst that could happen is that both sides of the stalemate mistake us for backup and start unleashing their arsenal on each other. We might squeak through, but not without a lot of damage and a lot of unnecessary casualties. I say we go around,” Gloria tried again. “But it’s your call, Carter.”

Carter was tired of waiting. He wanted the payday, he wanted the glory, he wanted to celebrate with Gloria without the contracts hanging over their heads, and if he was being honest, he wanted the admiration of Bobby. The kid looked up to him like no one else had, and that gave Carter a sense of control, of power; the sense of responsibility wouldn’t begin to weigh on him until it was much too late.

“We punch through,” Carter said. “And we do it now. Full throttle.”

The Iron Nail churned along the northern line while the Aquarius gleamed in the center and Bobby’s Luck Dragon sped along to its south. There was a haze hanging over the city of Flagstaff, a stillness. No sooner had the trio of Snowrunners hit the eastern city limit than the sky erupted into fire. Tracer streams lit up the rail station in front of them. Mortars and rockets arced from both sides of the city, landing amidst townhouses and apartment complexes and businesses and schools and churches, leaving only charred craters.

“Full speed, don’t stop!” Carter ordered. “There’s nothing we can do now!”

They plowed their way through the center of Flagstaff, pushing aside shoddy railblocks, knocking stunned soldiers and bandits and bystanders from the tracks, the wheels of the train rolling, bouncing, grinding over whatever fell beneath them in the chaos. Smoke filled the air. The trains roared through it like valkyries, promising a glimmer of hope to some but offering it to none. After a few short bloody minutes, Carter and his crew could see the western edge of the city clear out ahead of them. It was this moment that the national military showed up in force.

“Shit,” was all that Carter could hear Bobby say before a barrage of carpet bombs fell from the sky. Flagstaff shook all around them, its foundations turned to mud in a blistering instant. Vibrations rocked the engines of the three Snowrunners, nearly knocking them off the rails as dozens of their water cars were annihilated. But they were still running, they were still better off than the bandits and separatists and soldiers and townsfolk stuck in the burning, ruined city.

“Almost there,” Carter whispered, unsure if either Gloria or Bobby could even hear him. Their comms had crackled into useless static amidst the violence of the bombing run. It was with the exhalation of a long-held breath that Carter welcomed his co-runners when they hailed him once again.

“We made it!” Bobby yelled.

“All those people…” said Gloria.

“Couldn’t be helped,” Carter offered. “And it had nothing to do with us anyway. It was bound to happen sooner-”

A massive explosion cut him off. The Aquarius lurched to its right, nearly blown off its track by the force of the concussion wave. When Carter regained control and silenced the engine’s multiple alarms, he found that Bobby’s comm had flat-lined.

“What the hell…” Gloria exclaimed. Carter turned his cameras to where Bobby’s Luck Dragon had been seconds before. Now, there was only a crater with bits of metal shards glinting in the sand all around it. Carter collected himself before responding to Gloria.

“Bobby’s gone,” he said. “Nothing we can do except get out of here before the same thing happens to us.”

“We can’t just leave him here!”

“We can and we will. And if you don’t like it, you can stay. I’m going on to the Basin.”

“Damn you, Bloch!”

“Don’t damn me, Gloria. Damn the Line.”

Gloria cut off communication with Carter and slowed her engine to a stop. What happened after that, Carter didn’t fully know. All he knew was that he rolled into the Basin a half-day later, his water cars smoking and smoldering and blown half to Hell, but he’d arrived just the same. The Iron Nail rolled in a few days later with all but one water tanker gone, lost to the bandits or the separatists or the military, he had no idea. Gloria had never given him the chance to ask. When they had next talked, years later, it had been on her terms, and her terms were all about Bobby. Carter had no time for ghosts. Recently, they seemed to have nothing but time for him.

El Paso was an hour out. Carter’s detour was just around the bend behind a rocky outcropping that hid an ancient, winding rail not used since the first time the country was at war with itself. It’d be slow going, but the payoff would be worth all the trouble. Going through El Paso meant customs and questions; a few hours spent wandering through the serpentine canyon would lead him to a Coyote who would pay him ten times the going rate for snowmelt in the Union, and then shepherd him across the border all peaceful-like. That was the plan anyway.

The plan was about halfway to being fine when it all went to Hell. The Aquarius had entered a narrow pass in the canyon, barely wide enough for the engine to get through without scraping its sides on the sharp tumble of rocks stacked high on either side of it. Fully half of the water tanks had followed the engine into the corridor when the Nav system’s cameras picked up puffs of smoke high above the rails on either side of the pass. A moment later, a series of huge booms buffeted the train. A moment after that, the walls of rock and dirt and gravel gave way and came a’ tumblin’ down. Carter came to a full stop and threw his engine’s hydraulic arms up to stem the flow rockslide bearing down on him, but they were of little use. He’d have been better served by keeping them secure and then using them to dig himself out, but he thought about that a little too late to do anything about it. The arms that had survived the fight with the bandits now snapped like twigs as the rocks held the Aquarius in an earthen embrace.

Aside from being stuck fast in the borderlands with a few million credits worth of water tethered behind him, existing somewhere between the protection of the water barons and the lawlessness of the open rail, Carter was in decent shape. The rockslide had battered the old engine, but she held. While he tried to think of a way out that didn’t just rely on brute force, so as not to risk debilitating the engine further, his mind started to play tricks on him. He could hear small pebbles bouncing along the outside of the hull. Huge masses seemed to shift and grunt and give way of their own accord. And then came the voices; hot, sweaty, angry and excited voices. That shouldn’t be. Not out there. And even if they were out there, Carter shouldn’t be able to hear them from within the hull of the Aquarius. Underneath it all, a high-pitched whine grew louder and louder. As a white-hot flare of light pierced the ceiling of Carter’s engine compartment, he knew he was in big, bad trouble.

Carter ran the length of the engine car and back looking for anything he could find to defend himself. It had been so long, so long. Could he still breathe the air out there? Could his skin stand the sun? Would his eyes shrivel and die in the arid wasteland? Would he even be able to match the strength of those who spent their lives eking out an existence in the dust? He grabbed a small fire extinguisher and held it like a club, already breathing heavily.

The plasma torch continued cutting its arc. It curved, and curved, and curved, not circling back to its point of origin until it was four feet across. A huge disc of carbon-fiber shell reinforced with titanium-alloy honeycomb, stuffed full of five-star thermal insulation and threaded through with bundles of fiber-optic and copper coaxial cables fell to the floor with a boom and a rattle. A moment later, a man landed on the disc with a dusty thud. He was more dust than clothes from the worn boots up to his patched and threadbare bandana. The dust clung to the creases in his hide jacket, filling the crevices and wrinkles; it snowed from his shoulders to mix and mingle with the Aquarius‘ pristine electronic components. As the man straightened himself up and removed his dust-caked goggles, Carter swung the extinguisher at his head.

The man stopped it as easily as he’d stopped the train. He pulled the extinguisher from Carter’s grip, and then socked him square in the chin for good measure. Carter dropped to the floor and scrambled back to the far wall of the Aquarius, putting space between himself and the bandit.

“What do you want?” he asked, not picking a fight, but hoping for a bargain. “If it’s the water, just take it.” The man smiled down at him and Carter saw him, really saw him for the first time. One side of his face was a ruined mass of raw, puckered skin, all knotted up as if someone had set his flesh to boiling and then cooled it quickly to congeal in ridges and craters. On that side of his face, his eye was gone, cooked out of its socket and replaced with a dusty wad of rag. His teeth, what were left of them, were yellow on his good side and full-black on his bad. How the man had survived this ordeal and not succumbed to infection was beyond Carter’s knowledge. What the rest of him looked like was too strong for Carter’s imagination.

“Hello again, old friend,” the man said, his voice a dry, vibration-less whisper, a tumbleweed over sand.  He looked at the extinguisher, his expression caught somewhere between curiosity and contempt. “You know, these things don’t do a damn bit of good when the Union drops neo-napalm on you. When that happens, even the air is fire. And this,” he hefted the extinguisher, “is a party favor.” He threw it over his shoulder. It landed on the floor with a clang. Carter’s body shuddered.

“What do you want? I’ve done nothing to you,” he said. Then he remembered who he was, his legend, his track record, his name. He was Carter Bloch, dammit. He’d faced more than some middle-aged, half-burned bastard in his time. This was his engine, his home. He found his spine and stood. “But I’ll damn sure be happy to return the favor for cutting a blasted hole in my ship.” The bandit laughed, a dry skull’s laugh. Dust shook from every inch of him.

“Now there’s the Carter Bloch I remember.”

Carter squinted, as if that would bring the ruined man’s face into focus. “Who are you?”

“Who I am is a stranger to you, and who I was is dead.” The bandit pulled a wicked blade from a scabbard on his hip, its rusted – or bloody – edge ending in a keen skinner’s hook. “Now, strip.”

Carter laughed despite the situation. “You’ve got my engine, my reactor, and my cargo, and you want my clothes?” He laughed again. The bandit smiled back.

“Stubborn as ever. Gloria said you hadn’t changed.”

The name hit Carter like ice water. “Gloria? What’s she have to do …”

“Ah, he’s starting to understand.” The bandit’s half-rotten smile grew wider. “She told me you might come this way, might double-cross her again. Gloria never did believe that bullshit about your sick grandkid. She thought maybe I’d like to relieve you of your cargo and your engine while I was at it. As a bonus, I’d get to level the scales for all three of us.” The bandit scraped a layer of grime off of a patch on his chest. Though it was worn and discolored, the name and number were just visible, as visible as the ones on Carter’s own jumpsuit.

“It can’t be,” Carter muttered, staring at the word ‘Bobby’ printed on the bandit’s patch. “You can’t be! I saw him-”

“Saw me what, Carter? Burn? Whatever you saw, you saw from your rear-view camera. Now strip!” Bobby pointed the hooked knife at Carter’s throat. “I won’t say it again.”

In a stupor, Carter obeyed. He muttered Bobby’s name over and over again as he peeled the engineer’s jumpsuit from his body and let it fall to the floor. “Drawers, too. And the socks,” Bobby ordered, his face set as hard as bedrock. Carter complied. “Look at yourself, old man. Pale, and wrinkled, and feeble. You’re a man of the world on rails, but an infant to the real world.” Bobby gestured toward the hole in the ceiling with his knife and Carter shuffled toward it. “I’m here to cut you free from your steel womb and bring you into this world.”

Two pairs of strong, leather-gloved hands reached down to haul Carter out of the Aquarius. The light, the heat, and the dry vacuum of the desert land assaulted him at once. His eyes saw nothing but blaring white, his hair grew brittle, his skin baked in the unforgiving sun, and his bare feet stuck to the metal of his engine like a slab of ham on a hot griddle. He was surrounded by Bobby’s bandits, but for all Carter knew, they could have been demons from Hell itself who had just dragged him down into the pit. This world was no world for the living, but only the damned and the dying. Bobby hauled himself out of the air-conditioned engine car and joined Carter in this new world.

“Help him down,” Bobby ordered. The two bandits who had helped Carter out of the Aquarius now picked him up and threw him bodily from its full height. He landed on the hard-packed sand, sprawled out between the sizzling rail and the baking rocks. Sand scoured his raw, pink skin and filled in his body’s crevices like a swarm of flies seeking refuge from the ever-beating sun. Carter raised a hand to shield his eyes, to see Bobby and his bandits standing above him, laughing.

A throaty, roaring sound caught Carter’s attention. His last desperate mad hope teased him into thinking Gloria had returned to save him after all. But it was not the Iron Nail that churned down the rail towards them, but an ugly, scarred lump of raw steel and iron, a cobbled-together beast that belched fire and poured oily smoke from exhaust pipes laid all along its length like the devil’s pipe organ. As it slowed, the monstrosity approached the Aquarius, in all its shining, shimmering beauty, and punched a hole straight through its nosecone. The lumbering beast reversed its gears and began brutally pulling the ruined Aquarius and its load from beneath the rockslide. Bobby and his bandits glided slowly by Carter where he lay on the ground. Bobby threw a small ratskin of water to him, then he pressed a strange device to his throat. The voice that came out when Bobby spoke wasn’t Bobby at all, wasn’t even human, but something artificially thrown together like the coal-black behemoth sprawled across the rail. It was smoke and iron amplified, and it rumbled right through Carter’s bones.

“That’s more than you left me, Carter. I must be getting soft in my old age. If you’re lucky, a group of wandering bandits might find you and decide you’re worth more alive than dead. Hell, it’s happened before. But I’d wager you’re still too stubborn to ever beg for help, so the sun or the snakes or the sand will get you first. You’ll wander ‘til you die, Carter.” The big engine roared and lurched into a higher gear. Bobby’s augmented voice thundered louder. “You’ll wander ‘til you die.”

The bandits road the top of the Aquarius away to the south. Carter watched his water cars roll by. He couldn’t have reached out to grab ahold of one even if he’d had the guts to try. His limbs betrayed him, sapped of their water and their strength. He took a swig from the dusty ratskin, pouring enough mildew-tainted water into his mouth to get his mind right. Carter forced himself to stand and braced his body against the pressing heat. He stared at the rail.

Carter had three choices: follow the rail the way he’d come, back to the world of his family, his memories, his debts, his regrets, the world he knew; or he could follow the rail in the other direction after Bobby and his bandits to some unknown hideout stocked with plenty of provisions, and the promise of death; or he could turn away from the rail completely and set off into the desert sands.

Maybe the third option was for the best. Gloria would be well rid of him with a hefty contract to cash in at the Basin, Bobby would feel vindicated by justice done, and even Hiro could torment him in Hell if he happened to meet Carter there. And once the Company found his bones, or at least wrote him off as a lost asset, Lorelei would get the tidy death benefit as stipulated in Carter’s contract. It was much more convenient to everyone to have him dead rather than alive.

He took another swig of irradiated water and straightened up. Wind heated to a blaze by the desert sun blew back his brittle hair as he turned to face west. Carter Bloch stepped forward and left the rail behind.

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