Chapter 2

Naon Sextus Solstice-Rising Engineer 11th always experienced a little death when he took his hands off the drive lever. Post coital. He coyly shrugged the thought away — exaggeration — but that first time when his own father Bedzo 10th had taken his hand and laid it on the drive bar, when he lifted it off again, had there not been a tiny damp spot on the fly of his pants?

Twenty years rodding and railing had made him acute to every whisper and vibration of his machine. The fusion fires ebbing in the magnetic pinch-torus was a languid decay, a sorrowful limpening. Flaccid. He was never truly himself while the fusion engines slumbered. He grew distracted and irritable. All his family had learned this decades ago and were wise.

He called up a track report from North West Regional Track at Suvebray. The mottled quartersphere resolved in the projector focus, the mainlines a web of throbbing vessels like the arteries of a womb. The fast Northern Lights Express was still twenty minutes down despite its Engineers rattling every valve up into the ochre on the long Axidy incline. Derailment at Perdition Junction, down to a single track. Damn locals, jammed with commuters and roof-riding goondahs, stopping at every hole in the hedge. Woolamagong! Serendip! Acacia Heights! Atomic Avenue! Naon Sextus was not a man who bore delays with grace. Every lost second felt pared from the exposed end of his life, like hard salt cheese. As a child he had read and memorised timetables. For fun. He snatched the monocular from its peg, peered impatiently down the branchline but even the vantage of the bridge of Catherine of Tharsis could not penetrate the haze.

‘Tcha!’

Casting around for an object on which to flog his annoyance, he noticed through the grille of the catwalk overhead a pair of yellow desert-boot soles. He turned his lenses on them.

‘Mother of plenty, has that child no shame?’

A woman’s voice answered from behind him: Child’a’grace, Mrs Asiim Engineer 11th, floury to the elbows, folding samosas in the domestic galley.

‘What, dearest?’

Firmness was as much a part of Naon Sextus’s character as good timekeeping. Many a time the unexpected voice of his wife had almost tricked him into speaking but he had never lapsed, not once, in four years. He tightened his lips, gave the nasty cough that was the sign for his wife to look at him. Naon Sextus turned from the control board, enough to glimpse Child’a’grace, but not so much that she might think he was looking at her.

No underwear! his fingers said, shaking with indignation.

‘It’s a fine day,’ Child’a’grace commented, deftly sealing a pastry triangle and flipping it into hot fat.

The shame! Naon Engineer signed.

‘Who’s to see?’

Every staring soul on the thirteen twenty-seven Northern Lights Express! For something was emerging from the liquid light dazzle. Due in three and a half minutes! As a coda, his thumbs added, What will they think?

‘They will think,’ said Child’a’grace breezily, here fishing samosa from the fry-bath with a chicken-wire scoop, ‘that there is a fine young woman of nearly nine with the body of an Avata and the impatience of a rat whom you and I both know, husband, should long since have been married.’ She drained the golden oil back into the pan. ‘And if by some chance, the passing winds should blow that skirt up — which they might, for if I remember, it is quite short and floaty — and they see that she wears not underpants, then the more fortune to them and I hope their sleeps are tormented by wants for many a night.’

Before leaving her family at an unnamed water stop under the volcanoes, Child’a’grace had been Susquavanna, a catering people who for two long centuries had hawked hot savouries up and down the platforms of the north-west quartersphere. Pastry was in their genes, like steam in the blood of the Engineers, but she resolutely refused to observe the proprieties of caste, namely the eternal distinction between track and platform. This was deeply grievous to Naon Sextus, a son of his father and his line before him. Truly, the dowry had cleared up the matter of the remortgage, but he frequently wished that Grandmother Taal had matched him with someone a little less platform. But after eleven years, the food was still exciting. The sex can go, the conversation will go, the respect may be trodden into a familiar track of predictability, but by the Mother of Mercies, cooking endures.

But the girl had no underwear, and one under-dignified marriage was enough. Women with no knickers ended married to Bassareenis and dropping their sprogs in the caboose. His fingers prepared to riposte this to Child’a’grace but the shapes were blown away by the sudden slam of the express train’s passing.