On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.
“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying as utterly as any windblown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.
Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour at nothing.
The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. The boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he. & they are cheerfully singing.
The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he knows not what.
We’re here too soon. Of course we can start anywhere: that’s the beauty of the tangle, that’s its very point. But where we do & don’t begin has its ramifications, & this right now is not best chosen. Into reverse: let this engine go back. Just to before the boy was bloodied, there to pause & go forward again to see how we got here, to red, to music, to chaos, to a big question mark in a young man’s head.
A meat island!
No. Back a bit.
A looming carcase?
Here. Weeks out, back when it was colder. The last several days spent fruitlessly pootling through rock passes & in the blue shadows of ice cliffs, late afternoon under a flinty sky. The boy, not yet bloodstained, was watching penguins. He stared at little rock islands furred in huddled birds plumping their oily feathers & shuffling together for comfort & warmth. He’d been giving them his attention for hours. When at last there came a sound from the speakers above, it made him start. It was the alarm for which he & the rest of the crew of the Medes had been waiting. A crackling blare. Then from the intercom came the exclamation: “There she blows!”
An instant frantic readiness. Mops were abandoned, spanners dropped, letters half-written & carvings half-whittled were thrust into pockets, never mind their wet ink, their sawdusty unfinishedness. To windows, to guardrails! Everyone leaned into the whipping air.
The crew squinted into the frigid wind, stared past big slate teeth. They swayed with the Medes’s motion. Birds gusted nearby in hope, but no one was throwing scraps now.
Way off where perspective made the line of old rails meet, soil seethed. Rocks jostled. The ground violently rearranged. From beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
Amid strange landforms & stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill. & up something clawed. Such a great & dark beast.
Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion it came. A monster. It roared, it soared, into the air. It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap. As if surveying. As if to draw attention to its very size. Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.
The moldywarpe had breached.
Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks.
No, this was not the first moldywarpe he’d seen. Labours, as their playful groups were called, of dog-sized specimens constantly dug in Streggeye Bay. The earth between the iron & ties of the harbour was always studded with their mounds & backs. He’d seen pups of bigger species, too, miserable in earthtanks, brought back by hunters for Stonefacemas Eve; baby bottletop moldywarpes & moonpanther moldywarpes & wriggly tarfoot moldywarpes. But the great, really great, the greatest animals, Sham ap Soorap had seen only in pictures, during Hunt Studies.
He had been made to memorise a poemlike list of the moldywarpe’s other names—underminer, talpa, muldvarp, mole. Had seen ill-exposed flatographs & etchings of the grandest animals. Stick-figure humans were drawn to scale cowering by the killer, the star-nosed, the ridged moldywarpe. & on one last much-fingered page, a page that concertinaed out to make its point about size, had been a leviathan, dwarfing the specklike person-scribble by it. The great southern moldywarpe, Talpa ferox rex. That was the ploughing animal ahead. Sham shivered.
The ground & rails were grey as the sky. Near the horizon, a nose bigger than him broke earth again. It made its molehill by what for a moment Sham thought a dead tree, then realised was some rust-furred metal strut toppled in long-gone ages, uppoking like the leg of a dead beetle god. Even so deep in the chill & wastes, there was salvage.
Trainspeople hung from the Medes’s caboose, swayed between carriages & from viewing platforms, tamping out footstep urgency over Sham’s head. “Yes yes yes, Captain . . .”: the voice of Sunder Nabby, lookout, blurted from the speakers. Captain must have walkie-talkied a question & Nabby must have forgotten to switch to private. He broadcast his answer to the train, through chattering teeth & a thick Pittman accent. “Big boar, Captain. Lots of meat, fat, fur. Look at the speed on him . . .”
The track angled, the Medes veered, the wind fed Sham a mouthful of diesely air. He spat into railside scrub. “Eh? Well . . . it’s black, Captain,” Nabby said in answer to some unheard query. “Of course. Good dark moldywarpe black.”
A pause. The whole train seemed embarrassed. Then: “Right.” That was a new voice. Captain Abacat Naphi had patched in. “Attention. Moldywarpe. You’ve seen it. Brakers, switchers: to stations. Harpoonists: ready. Stand by to launch carts. Increase speed.”
The Medes accelerated. Sham tried to listen through his feet, as he’d been taught. A shift, he decided, from shrashshaa to drag’ndragun. He was learning the clatternames.
“How goes treatment?”
Sham spun. Dr. Lish Fremlo stared at him from the cabin threshold. Thin, ageing, energetic, gnarled as the windblown rocks, the doctor watched Sham from beneath a shag of guncoloured hair. Oh Stonefaces preserve me, Sham thought, how bleeding long have you been there? Fremlo eyed a spread of wooden-&-cloth innards that Sham had lifted from the hollow belly of a manikin, that he should by now certainly have labelled & replaced, & that were still all over the floor.
“I’m doing it, Doctor,” Sham said. “I got a little . . . there was . . .” He stuffed bits back within the model.
“Oh.” Fremlo winced at the fresh cuts Sham had doodled with his penknife in the model’s skin. “What unholy condition are you giving that poor thing, Sham ap Soorap? I should perhaps intervene.” The doctor put up a peremptory finger. Spoke not unkindly, in that distinct sonorous voice. “Student life is not scintillating, I know. Two things you’d best learn. One is to—” Fremlo made a gentle motion. “—to calm down. & another is what you can get away with. This is the first great southern of this trip, & that means your first ever. No one, including me, gives a trainmonkey’s gonads if you’re practicing right now.”
Sham’s heart accelerated.
“Go,” the doctor said. “Just stay out of the way.”
Sham gasped at the cold. Most of the crew wore furs. Even Rye Shossunder, passing him with a peremptory glance, had a decent rabbitskin jerkin. Rye was younger &, as cabin boy, technically even lower in the Medes order than Sham, but he had been at rail once before, which in the rugged meritocracy of the moletrain gave him the edge. Sham huddled in his cheap wombatskin jacket.
Crews scrambled on walkways & all the carriagetop decks, worked windlasses, sharpened things, oiled the wheels of jollycarts in harnesses. Way above, Nabby bobbed in his basket below the crow’s-nest balloon.
Boyza Go Mbenday, first mate, stood on the viewing dais of the rearmost cartop. He was scrawny & dark & nervily energetic, his red hair flattened by the gusts of their passage. He traced their progress on charts, & muttered to the woman beside him. Captain Naphi.
Naphi watched the moldywarpe through a huge telescope. She held it quite steadily to her eye, despite its bulk & despite the fact that she hefted it one-handed in a strong right arm. She was not tall but she drew the eyes. Her legs were braced in what might have been a fighting stance. Her long grey hair was ribboned back. She stood quite still while her age-mottled brown overcoat wind-shimmied around her. Lights winked & exhaust settled in her bulky, composite left arm. Its metal & ivory clicked & twitched.
The Medes rattled through snow-flecked plainland. It sped out of drag’ndragun into another rhythm. By rock, crack & shallow chasm, past scuffed patches of arcane salvage.
Sham was awed at the light. He looked up into the two or more miles of good air, through it into the ugly moiling border of bad cloud that marked the upsky. Bushes stubby & black as iron tore past, & bits of real iron jagging from buried antique times did, too. Atangle across the whole vista, to & past the horizon in all directions, were endless, countless rails.
Long straights, tight curves; metal runs on wooden ties; overlapping, spiralling, crossing at metalwork junctions; splitting off temporary sidings that abutted & rejoined main lines. Here the train tracks spread out to leave yards of unbroken earth between them; there they came close enough together that Sham could have jumped from one to the next, though that idea shivered him worse than the cold. Where they cleaved, at twenty thousand angles of track-meets-track, were mechanisms, points of every kind: wye switches; interlaced turnouts; stubs; crossovers; single & double slips. & on the approaches to them all were signals, switches, receivers, or ground frames.
The mole dove under the dense soil or stone on which sat those rails, & the ridge of its passage disappeared till it rose again to kink the ground between metal. Its earthwork wake was a broken line.
The captain raised a mic & gave crackling instructions. “Switchers; stations.” Sham got another whiff of diesel & liked it this time. The switchers leaned from the walkway that sided the front engine, from the platforms of the second & fourth cars, brandishing controllers & switchhooks.
“Star’d,” broadcast the captain, watching the mole alter course, & a lead switcher aimed his remote at an incoming transponder. Points snapped sideways; the signal changed. The Medes reached the juncture & swerved onto the new line, back on the trail.
“Star’d . . . port . . . second port . . .” Amplified instructions lurched the Medes deep into Arctic wastes, tacking zigzag across wood-&-metal from rail to railsea rail, rattling over connections, closing on the mole’s fast-moving turbulent earth.
“Port,” came an order & a switchwoman obliged. But Mbenday yelled, “Belay that!” The captain shouted, “Star’d!” The switcher thumbed her button again but too late; the signal rushed past gleefully, it seemed to Sham, as if it knew it would cause havoc & relished the fact. Sham couldn’t breathe. His fingers tightened on the handrail. The Medes hurtled on for the points now sending them to whatever it was that had Mbenday frantic—
—& here, Zaro Gunst, riding the coupling between fifth & sixth cars, leaned out with a switchhook & with swagger & a jouster’s precision swiped the lever as it went by.
The impact sent his pole shattered & clattering across the railsea but the points slammed sideways as they disappeared below the figurehead, & the Medes’ front wheels hit the junction. The train continued, back on a safe line.
“Well done, that man,” said the captain. “It was an ill-marked change of gauge.”
Sham exhaled. With a few hours, industrial lifting & no choice you might change a vehicle’s wheel-width. But hit a transition full on? They’d have been wrecked.
“So,” Captain Naphi said. “He’s a tricksy one. Leading us into trouble. Well grubbed, old mole.”
The crew applauded. A traditional response to that traditional praise for such quarry cunning.
Into dense railsea.
The moldywarpe slowed. The Medes switched & circled, braked, kept a distance as the buried predator sniff-hunted for huge tundra earthworms, wary of pursuers. It wasn’t only trainsfolk who could read vehicles in their vibrations. Some beasts could feel the drum & pulse of train motion from miles off. Cautiously, the traintop cranes lowered jollycarts onto nearby lines.
The cart-crews gunned their little engines, switched points gently. They closed slowly in.
“Off he goes.”
Sham looked up, startled. Next to him, Hob Vurinam, the young trainswain, leaned out enthusiastically. He snapped up the collar of his battered finery with practiced cockiness, his thirdor fourth-hand coat. “The old velvet gent can hear them.”
A molehill rose. Whiskers, a prow of dark head emerged. It was big. The snout went side to side & sprayed dust & spittle. Its mouth opened, very full of teeth. The talpa had good ears but the double switch-rattling confused it. It growled dustily.
With sudden violent percussion, a missile slammed down next to it. Kiragabo Luck—Sham’s compatriot, Streggeye native, truculent harpoonist—had shot, & she had missed.
Instantly the moldywarpe upended. It dug at speed. Cart Two’s harpoonist, Danjamin Benightly, moon-grey yellowhaired hulk from the woods of Gulflask, yelled in his barbarous accent, & his crew accelerated through the scattering soil. Benightly pulled the trigger.
Nothing. The harpoon gun was jammed.
“Damn!” said Vurinam. He hissed like a spectator at a puntball match. “Lost it!”
But Benightly the big forestman had learned javelin hunting dangling upside down from vines. He had proved himself adult by spearing a meerkat at 50 feet & reeling it in so quick its family had not noticed. Benightly grabbed the harpoon from its housing. Lifted it heavy as it was, his muscles bunched like bricks under his skin, as the cart rolled closer to the digging behemoth. Leaned back, waited—then hurled the missile right into the mole.
The moldywarpe reared, the moldywarpe roared. The spear juddered. The harpoon rope whip-unwound as the animal thrashed, blood on the soil. Rails buckled & the cart careered, tugged behind the animal. Quick—they knotted a soil-anchor to the line & threw it overboard.
The other cart was back in the game, & Kiragabo didn’t miss twice. Now more anchors scraped the ground behind a bellowing hole & furious earth. The Medes juddered to a start & followed the molecarts.
The drags kept the burrower from going deep. It was half-in half-out of the ground. Carrion birds circled. Bolshy ones flew in to peck & the moldywarpe shook its shag.
Until at last in a lagoon of stony steppe, a dirt space in the infinite rails, it stopped. It quivered, then settled. When next the greedy railgulls landed on the furred knoll of its body, it did not dislodge them.
The world silenced. A last exhalation. Twilight was coming. The crew of the moletrain Medes readied knives. The devout thanked the Stonefaces or Mary Ann or the Squabbling Gods or Lizard or That Apt Ohm or whatever they believed in. Freethinkers had their own awe.
The great southern moldywarpe was dead.”
Railsea © China Miéville 2012