Chapter 1

Here comes Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. She is eight, and this is the manner of her coming.

First, you see the sand. It is red and of a particular grain type produced only by wind action. It smells electric; there is much iron in it. It draws lightning out of the occasional clouds; once or twice in a long year, rain. Where the lightning strikes, veins of slag-iron strike deep into the sand. This is rust-sand, strewn profligately about this contourless landscape. Red sand, rust-sand, red dust, a desert of iron studded with ugly stones. The wind never ceases out here on the plains of the high high north. It has teased the sand into steep-sided ridges, long meandering sifs, crescent moon barchans. This is a sinuous, sensual landscape, curves and seductions from the slip-sliding dune-faces to the curve of the close horizon.

A solitary hard erection confronts the soft northern desert of iron. Five metres high, a slim steel shaft, scabbed by the excoriating winds, scarred by summer lightning. It is a natural victim for summer lightning. On top of the shaft, three lights, red topmost, amber in the middle, on the bottom, green. Signal lights. In the middle of a rust-desert.

Now you see the rail. Two perfectly parallel lines of Bethlehem Ares steel, rolled in the mills of New Merionedd, married together by pour-stone sleepers, tied down by figure-of-eight tie-bolts: pinned, plated and bolted. Straight and absolute as a geometrical proposition. Get down. Hunker down — not too low, under this sun your cheek will stick to the hot rail and rip. Just enough to sight along them, gun-barrels aimed at the place where horizon and heat-dazzle meet and melt. Straight and absolute. You can go over the edge of the world and they’ll run straight and absolute for seven hundred kilometres. In the cabs of the big transcontinentals there are red buttons that the engineers must touch every twenty seconds or the brakes will automatically apply. It’s easy to fall asleep over the speed levers out here. It’s a hypnotic land. It draws your soul out through your staring eyes along the twin steel rails, to whatever dwells in the silver shimmer at the edge of the world. Occasional track-side tangles of sand-polished metal prove the dangers that lie in the long straight track.

But we drive ahead of ourselves here. We must stay a while at the signal light, and ask questions. Why signal what? What is there in this dust and rust of any significance? Two things. The first is the passing loop. This patch of desert is the only place within two hundred kilometres where trains may pass and gain access to the single mainline. Here crews exchange ancient brass tokens — part key, part shield — to unlock the line. Conversations too, news and gossip, sometimes family members, or body fluids, if they are the big slow ore-haulers whose timetables allow a little society. The second thing is that, if you look up the line, you will see it part company with itself. This is Borealis Junction: one line drives forcefully on into the snow country of the north pole, where the cold can glue an Engineer’s hand to the throttles as this heat will seal flesh to steel. Up and over the top of the world, and down into the old lands of Deuteronomy and Dioscu: green places replete with grazers and herd-beasts, where every village roof-tree is high and holy with prayer kites. The other line drifts to port until it curves out of sight among the thunderous chasms of Fosse mountains, spanned by treacherous trestle bridges and pour-stone viaducts, that disgorge nerve-wracked Engineers out on to the bleak mesa-lands of Isidy. For half a quartersphere the lines are drawn together by mutual magnetism until they meet once again at Schiaparelli Junction to run westward along the vast synclinorium of Great Oxus and the thousand towns of Grand Valley, where the Worldroof sparkles on the horizon like a reef of morning-lit cloud.

So this signal light is more than an arbitrary stop-go in the wilderness. It is the prefect of line safety, it is guardian of the line tokens, it is the gateway to new landscapes. And, no less than any of these, it is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th’s Uncle.

It is time she made her entrance.

You become aware that the rail burning the sole of your desert boot is trembling. Bend down — don’t touch! Yes. Rail humming. Train coming. You squint under the shade of your hand down the long straight line. What is real and what is potential is still undecided in that haze. But the rails are singing now: a deep, tight, harmonious keening. A sharp dry clack. You have to look around at the nothingness several times before you can see the small but significant change. The points have switched on to the passing loop.

Peer again: shapes moving in the haze, flowing so you cannot be certain it is one thing or many. Silver in silver. Then the shadows flow, silver out of silver: a winged woman, wing-arms folded back, breasts out-thrust, hair streaming in the wind. In your amazement you almost do not notice that the track is roaring. Red dust bounces up from between the sleepers. Now you realise your mistake. This is no angel. Its shadow flows out behind it into a shield of darkness: you are looking at the boiler-cap and figurehead of a great train. A very great train indeed: the faceless land has been playing tricks with your perspective. You had thought the winged woman pixie sized, maybe a medium-grade Amshastria, but close and manageable. No. This silver angel-woman is enormous, the curved prow of the boiler gargantuan. The train is kilometres away. But it is very very big. Airship big. City-block big. Ocean-liner big, if this world had oceans fit for liners. The buffer plates, held out like a prize-fighter’s weaving fists, are three metres across. The cow-catcher, baroquely ornamented with figures from the Ekaterina Angelography, could sweep entire phyla from its path. The eight bogies are each the height of a decent house: the spokes of the drive wheels are the crucified arms of windmills. The drive shafts, the thickness of a thick man’s body, pump with the regular, tireless ease of a Belladonna sweat-house laddie. The headlamp is a monstrous cyclops eye, furious with heat, all revealing. It is hooded now, but with the magic hour, it sends its sheer white shaft kilometres ahead of it, a vanguard of the divine. The steam that blasts from the sharply raked stack is so hot that it travels a third the length of the fusion boiler before it condenses into visibility. This train leaves a pure white contrail downtrack for ten kilometres.

Another glance at that smoke-stack. Down at the base, where it flares into the main caisson, is that a handrail? Are those staircases, is that a balcony? Those gleams of highlight, could they be windows? There, just above the halo of the Bethlehem Ares Railroads angel, is that an arc of glass, like the bridge of a ship? And balancing precariously on the swept-back piston housings, spilling steps and ladders over the buffer cylinders, what else can those be but low buildings? A swathe of bungalows clings to the skirts of Bethlehem Ares Railroads Class 22 Heavy Fusion Hauler Catherine of Tharsis. And there, on that perilous railed-in viewpoint underneath the smoke-stack, is that a figure?

Nearer now. Yes, a sun-brown lank of a female dressed in the uniform orange track vest of her clan over a flirty floral-print frock. A tousle of black curls tosses around her face, combed back from great cheekbones by the speed of passage.

And now you notice how close the train is to you. Too much time spent staring at the girl on the high balcony. It’s on top of you. You should — you must — run. But you cannot. The whole world is quaking to the pound of the engines, and you are transfixed in its track like a hopper in headlights. A steel avalanche rears over you. Crushing death pants in your face. The black and silver angel looms over you like judgement, and turns away. Catherine of Tharsis swings on to the passing loop, tucking her three kilometre tail neatly behind her. Brakes shriek, steel and grit bite and grind. It takes a lot of space for the big transpolars to stop. This is by no means the largest. There are triple-headers hauling ten kilometres out of Iron Mountain. The magic thousand trucks. Those mothers are visible from orbit, like steel rivers.

The caboose clears the points. It’s a frantic congeries of railroad utility and Cathrinist whimsy. No Step Here, with hand-painted round-eyed icons of the Seven Sanctas. Grit boxes and prayer flags, now windless and limp. The Bassareeni are a gaudy people. Socially below the salt, but the Engineers have always got on well with them, outside the Forma. There was a mingling of genes some generations back. The Stuards have never forgiven, never forgotten, but the Stuards are a notoriously anal Domiety.

A trickle, a creep, a hiss of steam. Thirty-three thousand tons of Bethlehem Ares steel balances on two ten-centimetre ribbons of metal under the hot, high sun.

Clunk. The points have switched over again, back to the mainline. The signal light has gone from caution to green. New train coming. But that is not part of your story. Your story is ended here. Your part as observer of these events is complete. Your eyes have shown us what only the desert things and God the Panarchic see, at this forsaken junction in the high polar desert. You are dissolved back into a greater story that begins here, the story of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th.