Chapter 9 – Troubled Homecoming

<– Chapter 8

The explosion was a blossom of roiling flame in the twilight that lit the darkening evening with a terrible glow. It grew from nothing to be a short-lived, orange sun, some 20 ft from the back of the speeding Factory train. The concussive detonation was deafening. The accompanying shockwave threw Koyomi back against the rear door of the armored, ‘defense post’ caboose. She threw up an arm to protect her face, as shrapnel scored her cheek, and forearm through her linen shirt. Fortunately, the bulk of the flying metal thudded harmlessly into the flack jacket she’d won from the Train Mercs, in a card game the night before.

For Koyomi, the world had suddenly intruded on her thoughts with all the subtlety of a speeding factory train. Moments before, she had been standing at the very back of the train, hands on the railing, staring back along the tracks that sped away from under her and into the gathering gloom like a snake across the barren landscape of the northern plains. She had been thinking wandering thoughts about going back to Iron City. With the death of Tanji, and what might have happened to Hugo, she had some unfinished business that would decide, one way or the other, if she’d stay in Iron City or move permanently to Farm 23. Koyomi had spent two months there and felt healthier for it. She’d also picked up some ‘skills’ from her cousins, who didn’t have the Motorball games to keep them entertained, and so had taught Koyomi to gamble – something they’d soon regretted. It turned out she was very, very good at it, and had used these newfound skills to good advantage so far on the train trip back to Iron City. 

Koyomi in happier times

Farm 23 had treated her well. The air was better there, dryer, and things were far less complicated. Or they had been, until word started coming in of raiders from the north, calling themselves the Barjack, that had begun hitting the outlying Factory farms. Koyomi had just started thinking about how she was glad to be avoiding any direct confilct, when she just managed to make out a whistling noise over the clatter of the train wheels on the tracks…

Another detonation ripped through the darkening night off to the right of the train. It was a muted, baso ‘krump’ to Koyomi’s still-ringing ears. Shrapnel peppered the side of the defense post and made the caboose sway on the rails, forcing Koyomi to fight for balance.

“Crap,” Koyomi felt herself say as she spun to work the old door handle. It swung freely, and dismay colored Koyomi’s face as she realized the mechanism was damaged. Maybe I broke it when I hit the door? Koyomi considered. Adrenaline was hiding pain from her, but that wouldn’t last long. She yanked at the door handle, her eyes wide and teeth bared, but it wouldn’t budge.

Koyomi knew her hearing was improving slightly when she noticed the sound of the cobbled-together attack car before she saw it. The noise of the struggling engine drew her concentration away from the door handle, to see the vehicle cresting a rocky outcrop before becoming airborne, and then crashing down to the ground, in the deeper shadows of the ridge some 30ft from the train, almost level with Koyomi’s position. The car, some older design with a wide wheelbase that was so different from the vehicles in Iron City and the farms, recovered well from the jump and speed along next to the rear of the train. 

In the fading light, she could still see a man with a feral grin, way too many piercings, and a piecemeal cyberarm at the wheel. Another raider, this one almost a full TR with many bulky, armored components suggesting he was a combat model, was stowing a grenade launcher inside the cupola in which he sat, occupying the back half of the converted sedan. Koyomi gulped as the hulking cyborg clutch the handles of the biggest, nastiest mounted chain gun a young woman from the streets of Iron City had ever seen, attached to a sliding mount on the attack car’s roof.

Eyes going wide at the whir of the chaingun powering up, Koyomi threw herself prone as the TR opened up on the back of the train. The flash of the rotating barrels and the tracer rounds it unleashed lit the evening around the train as the Barjack attackers hosed down the caboose hardpoint. The noise of armor buster shells tearing through tortured metal was deafening, and Koyomi put her hands over her ears as shells flew over her head and pelleted fragments of glass and molten shards of metal rained down on her. 

Over the din of the incoming fire, a new sound emerged; a siren, calling the Train Mercenaries to battle. As the glass rain slowed, Koyomi looked up to see the attack car accelerating up the right side of the train, and a large, red emergency light flashing above her, somehow miraculously undamaged.

“Emergency, emergency! Threat detected,” the amplified, mechanical voice of a Deckman stated. “Deploying defensive measures.” Koyomi didn’t know what that meant, although it was about damn time. But then, it probably involved a lot more bullets – not something she wanted to be involved with! There was a clunk and metallic grinding sound, like electric winches pulling or pushing something heavy. It was coming from above her, and inside the carriage. Koyomi remembered a large metal bulge in the ceiling behind the now-shot-up door she’d been trying to get through, and glancing up, she saw the internal bulge moving up through the ceiling of the hardpoint caboose. 

“Oh geez,” Koyomi said and pulled her head back down, hands over her ears as the attack car swerved back into view and dropped back behind the train. She was sure the next fusillade from the raider’s chaingun would shred the back of the caboose, and not be slowed even slightly as the high caliber rounds tore a young Asian woman to tatters. Koyomi grit her teeth, tensing as the whining of the chain gun speeding back up reached a painfully high note.

Yet the hail of death and destruction never came. Instead, a deep, rhythmic chug announced shells from a mounted autocannon turret that was now extended above the caboose. The heavy munitions scythed through the attack car and its occupants, to thud into the dry, sandy soil along the train line and throw up sprays of gravel. Koyomi looked up to see the demise of the car, as it too was engulfed in a spectacular fireball, throwing dented and punctured armor panels in all directions. Koyomi saw the occupants, thrown clear of their disintegrating car, were but flailing shadows against the fireball before they too were engulfed, mid-flight, and disappeared as the conflagration expanded. Koyomi felt the shockwave and the heat of the blast wash over her, but was surprisingly – to her anyway – unharmed.

‘Huh,” Koyomi breathed, still trying to process what she’d just witnessed, and was just getting to her feet when another two attack cars and several bikes crested a ridge the train had just passed. With howls and jeers Koyomi could only just hear as her ears were recovered from the explosions, they gunned their engines and chased after the train.

‘I’ve had enough of this!’ Koyomi thought to herself and gripped the door handle with both hands. Working it frantically, she pulled, pushed, and rattled the mechanism, all to no avail. She stepped back, broken glass crunching under her feet, and grabbed the handrail. She was about to start kicking the door when it unexpectedly flung open, and a burly, cybernetic arm reached out to grab Koyomi by the collar of her flack jacket, eliciting a surprised ‘eeep!’ from the young woman as it dragged her roughly inside. The vague outline of a military man with an assault rifle attached to a harness took one step out, looked around, and then stepped back in, slamming the door shut again.

Koyomi staggered inside the caboose, looking around at the mess the normally orderly space had become. Red emergency lights bathed the smashed seating and torn hammocks of the ‘Rear Sector’ Train Mercenaries quarters. Ammo boxes were tipped over, and at least half the  Mercs were on the floor or huddled up against the remains of the furniture. Their clothing was glistening in places, and it took Koyomi a moment to realize they were wounded and bleeding, the color of the blood hidden by the red light. The remaining Mercs were milling around, glancing nervously at the side of the caboose. Koyomi followed their gazes and saw the myriad of holes in the side of the carriage, made by the chain gun attacks of the now downed attack car. Through the holes, lights flickered from the headlights and spotlights of the second wave of Barjack attackers as they closed in.

Everyone in the carriage looked toward Koyomi, many of whom she’d had occasion to get to know, thanks to the card games and gambling that had put her in the bad books of some of the Mercs. She was suddenly very self-conscious until she realized that they weren’t looking at her, but at the big cyborg behind her. Having personal experience in what damage a powerful cyborg body could do to her, Koyomi rubbed the arm above the copper bracelet that meant so much to her and never left her wrist. While healed, the arm still ached at the breakpoint from time to time, and glancing over her shoulder, she quickly slipped out of the way to let Sergeant Lutes address the Train Mercenaries unhindered. 

He stepped forward, and the red light showed off his impressive build. A TR, Lutes was clearly a combat model, and the nicks, scratches, and bullet impact dents on his heavily used yet well cared for frame attested to his experience. The red light gave him an even more menacing appearance, but Koyomi had found him one of the nicest, most decent Mercs on the train.  He had a hard, confident look to ‘his’ face, if it was even the face he’d been born with. With TR’s it was so hard to know, unless you shocked them out and went exploring with a knife – not something Koyomi had ever even desired to do.

“Listen up, Meatheads,” Sergeant Lutes snapped at the milling Mercs from around his cigar butt. “Didja think all these trips would be paid holidays? It’s time to get busy and earn ya Chips. You are weapons-free…” On speaking those words, which Koyomi quickly realized were a command code, the submachine guns locked to the backpacks the Mercs wore detached with a metallic, wiring sound, and swung under their right arms to present the weapons in a forward-facing position on a movable gimbal arm, ready to be held and fired. As each suited merc took hold of the handgrip of the weapon, a targeter sight swung from the backpack, over their shoulder, to cover their right eye. 

Some of the Mercs were elated to finally get to shoot something. Koyomi saw Carson and Hernadez start leaping around, pretending to shoot at each other. Trigger discipline was non-existent, causing other Mercs nearby to shy away. While others, like the quiet Benson and the one the other Mercs called Nervous Nash, were sweating and shaking, looking at the proffered weapon like it was a snake coiled to strike. Koyomi felt none too comforted by either reaction, and rolled her eyes with exaggerated slowness. 

“Just don’t go shooting each other, or me for gawd sakes!” Sergeant Lutes continued. “I’m looking at you, Carson and Hernadez!” Several of the Mercs gave a nervous chuckle, and Lutes flipped the butt of the spent cigar in his mouth to the other side. “Spread out, two forward, two back, and two to the roof, don’t get in the way of the autocannon turret, unless you like the idea of your guts decorating the lerverly countryside we find ourselves traveling through.” 

The men started to move, and Lutes threw out an arm to stop Carson and Hernadez, who were heading for the mangled back door. “Just one more word of advice to y’all. You might think that jumping from the back of the train and taking your chances with the hard ground might be a better bet than fighting these raiders,” Lutes almost spat the last word. “Weeelll don’t! The packs you have locked to your bodies provide you with armor, ammo and coms, but also come with a… let’s call it a ‘deterrent’ for dereliction of paid duty, as stipulated in the contract you signed to get this gig. Get more than 30 feet from the train, and your packs will detonate, after a 15-second warning. Seems the Factory don’t want your kits falling into enemy hands. Or you running off with them. Or you running off, period.” Lutes took the cigar butt out of his mouth and poked the nearest merc in the chest with a metallic digit. “So defend the train. All your lives depend on it. Go!”

The last word was like a starter’s gun. The Mercs stopped looking at what was effectively the bombs clamped around their torsos and started moving toward their stations. Koyomi went over to the nearest injured Merc, Malc was his name if she remembered correctly, looking to help in any way she could. He was holding his side, below the now activated battle vest, and there was a deeper red oozing between his fingers. She’d learned how to do rudimentary first aid since the broken arm, and was reaching for a first aid bag when the turret above their heads started firing again, and then three loud ‘thumps’ sounded from the shot-up-side of the armored caboose, followed by the whine of drill bits biting into inch thick armor. 

All eyes turned toward the sounds of drilling in the wall, and at almost the same time, four new holes appeared in the side of the caboose, in a roughly 8-foot by 4-foot rectangle, through which clamps expanded and spread out across the perforated armor. With more sounds of protesting metal, a ragged hole of the same dimensions was torn in the carriage’s side as chains attached to the clamps retracted, taking the framed section of wall with it. The damaged armor panel hit the sand behind the train with a thump, and the remaining Mercs stared out the hole, looking at the attack cars headlights and spotlights, those without flash suppression blinding themselves to what would happen next.

Shielding her eyes from the glare with a free hand, Koyomi could just make out another large TR cyborg in the open back of the largest attack car, hoisting a long tube with a lump on the front onto his shoulder. A moment later, it became obvious that this was a rocket launcher as the munition sped across the relatively short distance between the car and the train, to impact above the caboose with yet another deafening explosion. Koyomi watched, dumbstruck, as flame and the mechanics of the turret fell back through the column it had been raised up through shortly before. It crashed down on Carson and Hernandez, who disappeared under the avalanche of flaming metal and debris with screams that mingled with the sound of the cascading, mangled parts. 

Koyomi saw what would happen next, even if the flash blind Mercs in front of her did not, and she leaped into action. She sprang over a metal rations transport cube away from the armor breach as gunfire erupted from both the mercs spotlighted within the carriage and the raiders in their vehicles. She ground her teeth and tried not to scream, hands over her ears, as the world fragmented from a hail of bullets. Just when she thought it would never end, a sudden impact in her side made her see stars, and the ferocious stab of pain drove her battered mind into the relative safety of unconsciousness.

***

The caboose was quiet when Koyomi groaned, rolling over and feeling pain in her side. She listened carefully over the still-ringing buzz of her tortured ears, and hearing no reports of gunfire, gingerly sat up to find a large, but deformed slug embedded in the side of her flack jacket. It must have ricocheted off a solid object before hitting her, Koyomi reasoned, as it’s size suggested it would have torn her in two, otherwise. Checking herself over with a hastily retrieved penlight from one of the pockets in her cargo pants – amazing the old, and useful fashions coming back in again – she discovered she was relatively intact. Not wishing to test her luck any further, Koyomi began climbing out of her refuge to discover the scene of devastation in the rest of the caboose.

Most of the lights were either out or smashed by bullets or shrapnel, and the floor was slick and sticky in patches, caused by fluids Koyomi did not want to contemplate. The smell was raw, metallic, and gut-churning. But what Koyomi saw as she panned the small penlight around made her spin to throw up. Wherever she looked, she saw the shredded remains of Mercs… people… people she recognized. People she had laughed with, played cards with, and some she had feared when she beat them. Nash, tangled with three other eviscerated mercs, so it was hard to work out which remains belonged to whom. Benson, sprawled back on a transport crate, his side missing, guts dangling free, and a hole neatly drilled through his head at his right temple. Hernandez, just a dismembered head, the rest of him smashed and burnt under the wreckage of the autocannon turret. And so many more.

She had to hurry to find a corner that didn’t have a body sprawled in it. She couldn’t bring herself to throw up on the scattered remains of humanity within the carriage, just in case one of them was still alive. After evacuating her stomach, she wiped her mouth on a handkerchief from one of her many pockets, and drawing several deep breaths through her mouth, she moved gingerly through the splayed bodies to peek out the jagged hole in the side of the train. 

There was no sign of the attack cars, but she could just hear them over the ringing in her ears, so they weren’t far away. She decided to check the more intact forms for life, in hopes of being able to help them, when she felt a strong hand grip her ankle. She started to scream, but caught it, as she shone the light down and saw Sergeant Lutes, prone, with his hand around her ankle. He was missing his right arm, torn off near the shoulder, and Koyomi could see the end of his metallic spine protruding from where his torso ended above where the hips would be on a biological man. He was struggling to speak, and Koyomi noticed a number of large caliber holes in his torso. His left eye was smashed out, but his right eye, with its distinctive red cybertargeter, wobbled back and forth as if it was having trouble locking onto her.

“Ge..” Lutes began, but he didn’t seem to be able to form the words. Brow furrowed, Koyomi fought back tears as she leaned closer to make out Lutes’ horse whispers over the sound of the train and the sporadic gunfire. “Get a helmet,” Lutes finally managed, thrusting a helmet into Koyomi’s hands with his remaining arm, “and, uhhh, get out… of here. They… they are going to be… blowing the couplings. If you’re here when that happens…” Lutes stopped talking, and Koyomi turned her head a few seconds later to look at the slack face of a dead man.

“No,” Koyomi mumbled, tears trickling down her face to patter on the dead cyborg’s carapace. “You were one of the few who was genuinely nice to me.” Koyomi stayed there, head bowed for a few moments, until closer gunfire and shouting gave her the motivation to move again. If Lutes knew it was dangerous to stay in the caboose, she had to make her way back up the train. She stood up, putting on the helmet that wasn’t quite far too big for her and over-tightening the strap. Koyomi wiped her face, determined and angry that her plan to leave before the raiders started operating anywhere near Farm 23 had turned out to be the worst idea she’d ever had. 

She moved toward the engine-ward door, striding purposefully and trying not to glance back at the carnage, and so was totally unprepared when someone came rushing through the door she was heading for and ran headlong into her. The only thing Koyomi was able to discern as she fell backward towards the floor was that this person might be the only one on the train that weighed less than she did! Considering child conscripts a possibility as soldiers in the depraved Barjack, she gripped her assailant and rolled, coming up on top quickly and drawing back a fist.

“Nooo!” a young woman’s voice cried out from beneath Koyomi, arms drawn up over a face ringed with blonde hair. “Please don’t hit Shumira. Shumira is soooorrryyy!” The last word melted into a wail of fear, and Koyomi dropped her fist.

“You’re not a Barjack raider,” Koyomi said, fetching out her penlight and shining it in this girl’s face. Koyomi was instantly struck by how pretty the young woman looking around her hands was, with fine features, wide, brown eyes, some type of native complexion, and voluminous, straw-blonde hair that she kept back with a patterned bandanna. Her jacket was functional, but damaged in places, and would be exactly zero protection from the bullets wheezing around the train as the two young ladies stared at each other.

“Are you a Train Merc?” Shumira asked, realizing that the person on her hips was far lighter than she would have expected. She still couldn’t see Koyomi’s face.

“Ah, no,” Koyomi said, deciding to climb off this attractive girl, as their predicament necessitated a speedy exit. “But we need to get further up the train, fast.”

“But Shumira came here to get help from Train Mercs,” Shumira said, climbing quickly to her feet. “Bad men are on the train.”

“Well yes, that much is obvious,” Koyomi retorted, “but I have it on good authority that it is very, very dangerous to stay here.” Koyomi was bustling the young woman toward the door she’d just entered by, but stopped at the lockers and quickly searching through them, and found a very small flack jacket that obviously hadn’t fit any of the Mercs, so was not in use. “Here, put this on. You are going to need it.”

“But Shumira not fight,” she insisted, as Koyomi, holding the penlight between her teeth, fitted the flak vest over Shumira’s own jacket as it was that big on her.

“The Barjack won’t care,” Koyomi insisted, tightening the straps, “they’ll hose down anyone not with them, and some of their own for good measure.” Koyomi had been regaled with stories of failed attacks on trains going to outlying farms. At the time she hadn’t known she’d soon be on one! Koyomi was about to start pushing this Shumira toward the door again, when she spun quickly, snatched the penlight out of Koyomi’s hand, and shined it into her face. It was Koyomi’s turn to blink as she was momentarily blinded. 

“Why do you care what happens to Shumira?” the girl asked, pointedly. Koyomi could tell Shumira was regarding her with an evaluating stare, trying to work out if she was trustworthy, and Koyomi respected that.

“Because you and I are the least able to defend ourselves on this entire train,” Koyomi responded, and then quickly snatched the penlight back, turned it off, and returned it to her pocket in the gloom. “And most of those that could are dead, at least here. We stand a much better chance of living by working together.” Koyomi sighed. “Look, I know you don’t know the first thing about me, but I want to live. If you want to live, we have a shared goal. Let’s achieve that goal, together. Are you with me?” As her night sight returned, Koyomi could see the diffuse light glistening off the young woman’s wide eyes.

“Shumira is with you,” the girl said finally, nodding. “We live… together.”

“Great,” Koyomi responded, almost flippantly, as she spun Shumira around and started marching her towards the door.

“Wait wait!” Shumira almost whispered over her shoulder, and Koyomi stopped pushing just short of the exit. 

“What is it?” Koyomi responded, her tone low to match her charge.

“Bad men, right outside.”

“Oh damn,” Koyomi sighed again.

Shumira

***

The two Barjack Raiders, one a skinny, almost malnourished meatboy dressed like a deranged hermit, and the other, a lithe but powerful looking TR with spikes protruding from every available joint, were standing over the coupling outside the door. The girls watched on through the door window as the meatboy began climbing down across the buffers with the aid of torchlight provided by his accomplice.

“Where did they say it had to go?” the meatboy asked, looking under the large coupling holding the caboose to the final boxcar. 

“Under the coupling, near the compression bolt,” the TR said, his voice modulating and cutting in and out as he spoke. 

“And what does a compression bolt look like?” the meatboy asked, shining the penlight he held in his teeth around as the TR handed him a small lump of something malleable and a small box with a number readout attached to it.

“How should I know, idiot?” the TR said, standing up and thumping his free hand on his hip with an audible ‘clang.’ “They just said to blow the coupling, blow the bolt, then the caboose and all those guns and ammo are ours.”

“So, under here?”

“I guess.”

Koyomi watched the two bumbling raiders over Shumira’s shoulder. The shorter girl was almost vibrating, she was shaking so much. Koyomi put her hands on Shumira’s shoulders to try to calm her, and to her surprise, the young woman rapidly settled, then reached up and put a reassuring hand on Koyomi’s own. It was warm, and pleasant, and… Koyomi’s thoughts threatened to go to places that would most definitely distract her from their dire and life-threatening situation. Koyomi shook herself, gently withdrew her hands – did Shumira slump slightly when she did so? – and turned back to the locker area.

Koyomi searched while Shumira watched her silhouette move around the small space. It was almost pitch black, so it felt like it took her far longer than it probably did, but finally, Koyomi stood back up with a hard case with military markings on it, and a short metal pole with a knob on the end, just discernible in the gloom. Putting the box down on a shelf, Koyomi flicked the clips up and opened the padded case. Inside were two oddly shaped lumps, that when lifted into the diffuse light resolved into night vision goggles. Koyomi bid Shumira turn around, which she did, and Koyomi fitted the goggles around her blond locks, over the rimless helmet. Shumira seemed uncomfortable, but with some whispered instruction, got the hang of the goggles quickly. 

“And lastly, don’t get too close to solid objects. Your head now sticks out further. Oh and turn the flash suppressor on – or you’ll be blinded by an even average light source.” Koyomi saw Shumira nod in assent as she secured her own pair of goggles. Thank goodness Sergeant Lutes liked showing off his ‘good gear,’ Koyomi silently gave thanks. A good man ‘til the end. Finally able to ‘see,’ Koyomi handed Shumira the metallic rod. 

“What does Shumira do with this?” the plucky blonde asked from behind her somewhat-bulky goggles. Koyomi took the rod back, and finding the button on the end without the ball on it, pushed her thumb in. The rod extended suddenly to become a staff, and with another push it retracted. She handed it back. 

“What is Koyomi going to use?” was Shumiria’s next whispered question. Koyomi’s grin in the darkness was feral. She flicked her wrist and the paralyzer bolt she kept strapped to her forearm slid down into her palm. She lifted it and thumbed the activation stud, resulting in a few sparks of blue dancing around the business end, causing a flare cutoff in both their goggles. “Oh” was Shumira’s response.

“Let’s go take our train back, one bad man at a time,” Koyomi said, her face stony.

***

“Quit taking so long,” the TR said, glaring down at his accomplice. “Those Train Mercs might be morons, but if they catch us in a confined space like this…”

“I think I’ve got it,” the meatboy said, wiggling around to start climbing back up from under the coupling. “Damn thing was slippery with grease. Compound wouldn’t…”

Suddenly, two small, dark shapes spilled out of the caboose door. One moved left, and the other right, spreading out like some well-oiled military unit. The TR glanced up, not used to being threatened by such small shapes, but regretted his lack of reaction time when he felt a painful shock in his side, just above the hip joint. His voice modulating and moaning, he seized up – a bad thing on a swaying, speeding train. He tottered sideways, falling away from the coupling and disappearing off the side of the train in the darkness, with a muffled thud. The meatboy was quicker, but was trying to dodge in the dark now his light was gone with his accomplice, and didn’t see the ball on the end of the staff as it telescoped out, striking him between the eyes, and knocking him senseless for a few moments. But that was all he needed to lose his grip on the buffers. The sound of him falling under the wheels of the caboose was thankfully drowned out by the speeding train, and gunfire further up the row of boxcars.

Koyomi slumped back against the side of the caboose, panting with exertion and adrenaline. She looked over at Shumira, who was looking confused – a combination of surprise and horror showing in the curl of her mouth, her eyes hidden behind the goggles. Koyomi patted Shumira on the shoulder – it was never easy to fight for your life, and she felt that Shumira hadn’t had to do that before.  But now they had another problem to deal with.

“Down there,” Shumira pointed toward the coupling between carriages. “Bad man put bomb under there.”

“Well, we have to get it out and stop it, before it blows up the coupling,” Koyomi said.

“Shumira can do that!” the blonde girl said, brightening, and started climbing down over the buffers. Koyomi went to stop her, thinking of all the dangers she was putting herself in doing that on a speeding train, but then caught herself. Shumira was in a fight for her life already. What were a few more dangers at this point?

Thankfully it wasn’t long before Shumira squeaked in surprise. “Found it,” she said cheerily, and after a few more seconds of exertion noises she pulled back and handed the lump of whatever sort of explody stuff it was and the timer to Koyomi. As Shumira was climbing back up, Koyomi turned the bomb around and got her first look at the timer. It had just ticked down from double to single digits.

9 – 8…

“Oh hell!” Koyomi exclaimed, and considered throwing the munition, but they really needed some sort of advantage. She looked at the top and saw three buttons, the one in the middle depressed.

…7 – 6…

One must be to stop the timer, and the other? There was no time to ponder. Shumira was back up on the platform now, and as Koyomi desperately pulled up her night vision goggles with her free hand, Shumira did the same.

…5…

Koyomi lifted the bomb, and angled her head to get the last light from the glow to the west. It was just enough to see that the left button was blue, and the right was red.

…4…

Out of the corner of her eye, Koyomi could see Shumira smiling at her. She really was beautiful. Koyomi shook her head, and made a choice.

…3…

She pressed the red button, and the countdown stalled. She let go of the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Shumira, making out Koyomi’s face in the final light of day, stopped smiling and her eyes grew tense. Koyomi turned the timer around, and Shumira took a sharp intake of breath, but settled again when she saw the timer was not moving.

“Too close,” Koyomi said, “but we now have a distinct advantage. Let’s see if we can scare up any more.” Shumira’s smile was more cautious, this time.

***

Koyomi dropped the last two feet off the ladder to land next to Shumira. “Well, that’s not going to work,” Koyomi said to her new companion. “I could see several shapes moving along the top of the train, exchanging fire with others further along. I’m pretty sure they’re Barjack.”

“Bad men, right,” Shumira said, then nodded. Koyomi, back on a flat surface, was checking her paralyzer bolt. With the time it had been since the last charging, and the use it had just been put to, the charge was spent.

“Damn. Looks like my paralyzer bolt is flat,” Koyomi told Shumira who was looking quizzically at the device. “It’ll be no more help until I can get it charged again.” Shumira nodded as Koyomi reattached it to the forearm holster, then the pretty blonde brightened.

“Shumira show Koyomi a better way to move up the train. Look.” The blonde grabbed a protruding knob on the end of the boxcar, and slid it to the side. It opened a slot, some two feet wide and eight inches high. “This is how Shumira gets around,” she said, and went to wiggle through the opening. However, the extra bulk of her flack jacket and helmet wouldn’t let her fit through. Koyomi gently pulled her back, took off the offending articles of protective gear, and then Shumira slipped through the small hole like a rabbit down a burrow. Koyomi handed through the gear, the bomb, and then her gear which was hastily removed, and then started wiggling. She was slightly more ‘ample’ than Shumira, so it was a tight squeeze, but she did manage to get in. 

“So what’s the deal with the slot?” Koyomi asked as she closed the slot with a click, and was reduced to groping around in the dark, the near-total absence of light reducing the night vision goggles to deadweight.

“They are access to feed animals being transported,” Shumira replied, picking up a lantern off to her left, and activating it. The two girls gladly flipped up their night vision goggles, and Shumira headed for the other end of the boxcar between two walls of stacked, oblong metal boxes, taking the light source with her, “and handy Shumira, and now Koyomi access. Everyone else gets to climb over the boxcars.” 

Shumira turned back and gave Koyomi a self-satisfied grin, then kept moving. Koyomi rolled her eyes when the other girl wasn’t looking, and glanced at the metal boxes. They looked vaguely military, but she couldn’t make out any markings with the light moving away, and considering it likely unimportant, followed her younger guide. Koyomi’s stride was longer than Shumira’s, so she caught up quickly, and then ran into the back of the other girl while looking at the stored foodstuffs at the forward end of the boxcar. Shumira had stopped suddenly and was looking down. Koyomi looked around the shorter girl and saw a puddle of what had to be heartsblood. Both girls slowly tiled their heads to look up, and saw, in the darkness near the roof of the boxcar, a body slumped through a partly open, sliding skylight, perched precariously on a short length of ladder.

Koyomi looked at the stacks of crates and barrels, all tied in securely to rings attached to the walls. Her gaze flowed up the stacks. “You know,” she said, her tone contemplative, “I reckon I could climb up the boxes and barrels, and get onto that bit of ladder.”

Shumira turned to Koyomi, her eyes wide and face pailing as Koyomi re-secured her flak jacket and helmet. “But why would Koyomi want to do that?”

“Oh, I don’t want to do anything of the sort,” Koyomi retorted, testing her first handhold and pulling herself up, “but we need to check to see if he’s still alive, and if there is anything we can do to help.” She quite deftly hopped up onto the next barrel. “And either way, he’s got a gun. We might be able to clear the Barjack from our path, and reach the Train Mercs at the front of the train.”

“Oh,” said Shumira, a hint of sadness in her voice, “but…”

“Give me a minute, this bit is tricky,” Koyomi cut her off, so focused on her task she didn’t notice the other girl’s reaction. Koyomi reached the highest barrel, balanced on it for a few seconds, then leaped across to the back of the ladder section. The old ladder groaned under the added weight, and Shumira gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Sir? Sir?” Koyomi asked quietly as he climbed up next to the stricken Train Merc. “Can you hear me? Can I do anything to help?” When that elicited no response, she put her first two fingers to this side of the man’s neck as the nurse at the first aid course had shown her, but there was no pulse, and the man’s neck was cool to the touch. “It’s no good, he’s dead,” she spoke quietly down to Shumira, who grimaced back up at her. Koyomi looked around. The man was less than average build, and was latched onto the ladder with a cable and hook arrangement from his battle kit. His head and shoulders were still slumped above the roof of the train, as was his weapon. The blood was dripping from the edge of the partly open skylight.

Koyomi climbed higher, aware she wasn’t latched to the ladder like the Train Merc and managed to climb high enough to stick her head out of the skylight. She flipped down the night vision goggles, and looked back up the train. “Oh no,” she said, after pulling her head back in, flipping up the goggles and looking down at Shumira. “There are at least three Barjack coming back this way along the train. Maybe they expected to hear the bomb go off, and are coming to investigate.”

“Get down then! Shumira and Koyomi have to hide,” Shumira implored in an almost whining tone. But emboldened by their success outside the caboose, Koyomi had another idea.

“I’m going to wait until they get close, and then hose them down with this Merc’s gun!”

“Noooo,” Shumira wailed quietly, and slumped down next to the food crates. “Don’t get killed. Shumira really like you.” Koyomi looked down at the sweet, blonde teen and felt bad for her. She must be so not ready for this. She couldn’t have lived on the streets of Iron City like Koyomi had.

“I’ll be fine,” Koyomi stated in the most self-assured tone she could muster. ‘I think,’ she added silently, and went about getting organized with the dead Mercs gun.

‘It’s not like I have much of a choice,’ Koyomi thought to herself as she slid back up through the skylight, careful to keep her silhouette as low as possible. She slid between the Merc’s corpse and his gun, glad that it wasn’t a gutshot that finished this poor guy. It was also helpful that Koyomi was very empty after the caboose incident. ‘I either try doing something, and risk dying, or run and hide, and risk dying, or worse… if we’re discovered.’ 

On that thought, she looked down at the huddled Shumira. The poor girl was almost in tears, staring up at her with wide, fear-filled eyes. Koyomi swallowed hard. If she messed this up, she might get out of it with a clean death. But Shumira… these animals would do horrible things to her. Koyomi couldn’t let that happen. She gritted her teeth, flipped the night vision goggles down, and gripped the SMG.

The gun came to life, made a quiet ‘boop-ba’ noise, and a red telltale lit up on the trigger guard. But Koyomi didn’t catch any of this. She was focused on the shapes moving toward their boxcar, down the train. They were huddling low, avoiding wild sprays of fire from further up the train. There were three of them, Koyomi realized, and her mouth went dry. Two mostly meatboys, and a larger, possibly full TR in the back. Flipping to thermal vision, she could see the heat emanating from the exposed bodies of the two lead Barjack, except for some cold areas – the arm on one and leg on another – that suggested cyber replacements. The larger, TR cyborg shape was much colder. What wasn’t cold was the shapes of their guns. All three had weapons with glowing barrels – a clear sign they were recently used, and would be again if Koyomi messed this up.

She remembered the instruction she’d been given with hunting rifles by her cousins out on Farm 23. She had no idea if an SMG was like a hunting rifle, but from what she’d seen, this was more a case of ‘pull the trigger, spray and pray.’ She could do that. If they were close enough, she’d have to hit them. Right?

They were on top of the next boxcar now, moving quickly toward her position. “Douse the lamp,” Koyomi called down to Shumira as loudly as she dared, and the young blonde quickly obeyed. Koyomi didn’t want to give their presence away with absent-minded light. Just as the raiders reached the gap between the boxcars looked like the best spot to open up on them. Close enough to be fairly sure of hitting, but not so close they’d see her and fire first.

As the two meatboys were several paces from the end of the next car, Koyomi released her held breath as she’d been taught to do, and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened!

Was it jammed? She quietly racked the slide, and it moved freely. Then she took the grip in her hand again, and this time heard the unhappy sound the gun hand made. Koyomi’s head spun. Was it coded to the wearer? What could she do? She moved to try to get the man’s arm toward the gun, but with her own body in the way, it was just not going to work. While shifting, she absently put her right hand in the flow of blood from the deceased Train Merc, and took a sharp intake of breath in revulsion. She was not cut out for this. She looked at the Barjack. They were getting ready to jump to her boxcar, only yards away. Once they landed they’d surely see her by the light of the moon slowly rising in the east. 

Then a thought struck her. ‘I have this man’s blood on my hand. Perhaps the gun will recognize that?’ She gripped the SMG again as the two meatboys jumped. Mumbling a prayer to whoever was listening, she squeezed the trigger.

The report from the SMG was high and rapid. It kicked, and Koyomi lost the grip of one of her feet on the ladder. She pivoted, and the gun tracked across the two meatboys who were in mid-jump. Koyomi would never forget the moment. The sickening feeling of losing her grip on the ladder, and the sight of the rounds cutting a swathe across the two jumping Barjack. Whether the bullets killed the raiders or not, their flight was interrupted. They fell to either side of their intended marks, and tumbled off the side of the boxcar, disappearing into the rushing scenery beside the hurtling train.

Not so the TR. Several SMG rounds had ricocheted off his carapace, each with its own spark, but ‘he’ paid them little mind. With the increasing light coming from the moon, Koyomi could see a wicked grin split across the hulking cyborg’s face as she struggled to get her loose foot back on any rung of the ladder. He took a few steps back, safe in the expectation that the SMG rounds, at anything but point-blank range, wouldn’t do more than scratch off the last shreds of paint from his battered armor.

Koyomi finally got the toe hold she’d been searching for, and gripped the SMG again. She hoped it still had some load left in the clip, and her hand was still wet enough with the blood. She had no time to check either. If the TR got to her… if he was right and the SMG rounds wouldn’t stop him. Koyomi was almost hyperventilating as she squeezed the trigger.

Time slowed. There was a single ‘chug’ from the SMG and then a clunk of the breach flicking back, empty. Koyomi could see the bullet leave the gun, and she immediately knew she’d missed. It raced away, just passed the left hip of the jumping TR, through a clump of thin, regular sticks attached to his belt…

The explosion reminded Koyomi’s addled brain of the one at the back of the train that had started this crazy nightmare. She was deafened again, but the night vision goggles protected her eyes both physically and with the flash suppressor. She became aware, an indeterminate time later, of hanging just off the ladder, cradled by the corpse of the Train Merc who was held by his secure line to the ladder. Koyomi grabbed back hold of the ladder, and shook her head a few times to clear it. She touched her face, feeling new nicks and bruises, but it didn’t feel burnt. She must have been knocked back inside the hatch by the shockwave before the fading blast reached her. If it wasn’t for the helmet, she’d have singed hair for sure. She felt sore, and rattled. Koyomi desperately hoped the immediate danger was now passed, but she had to be sure. She also needed the dead Merc’s gun if she was going to do anything about any remaining danger near them on the top of the train.

Koyomi crouched on the ladder rung and pulled the dead Merc’s arms over her shoulders. With significant effort, her muscles and joints protesting after the mistreatment they’d sustained, she managed to push herself and the dead Merc back up, and out of the skylight until the weight of his head and upper torso could be laid on the roof of the boxcar. She took a quick, 360 degree look around by eye, the night vision goggles smashed and useless, and couldn’t see any sign of the TR or other raiders by moonlight. But Koyomi wasn’t taking any chances. She found the clips for the SMG on the man’s belt, and it took her a few goes to reload his weapon. Seeing a green light when she took hold of the grip, she felt somewhat more comfortable.

But it was the ringing in her ears that was her undoing. She didn’t hear the dirtbike as it revved up, accelerating along a ledge near the train line to jump onto the roof of the very same boxcar that Koyomi occupied. She felt the impact of it’s landing, and realized when she was bathed in its headlight from behind that she was in all sorts of trouble.

“What do we have here?” the Barjack rider proclaimed, reaching down to grab Koyomi by the back of her flack jacket. She didn’t hear what he had to say, but just one look into his drug-fueled gaze was enough to drive Koyomi into a flurry of activity. She couldn’t reach the SMG down on the rooftop, and she was held from behind, by… the flack jacket! Loathe to be parted from it, but not wanting to be mauled by this creep, she did the only thing she could do. She flicked the quick release clips down the side of the protection and threw her arms up. The Barjack seemed surprised when she suddenly slid away, and he was left holding the jacket. He threw it behind himself, and reached to rev the bike’s engine, ready to give chase. But Koyomi wasn’t going anywhere. She crawled over to the SMG, grabbed the grip, swung the barrel around, and squeezed the trigger.

And nothing happened!

“Shiiii-” Koyomi exclaimed, and released she couldn’t hear herself. She looked down at her right hand and saw the blood had dried in the evening air and was flaking off in places. ‘No more SMG, then,’ she thought, rational thinking taking over in the face of certain doom, or worse. The bike rider moved to close on her, not bothering to get off his machine. She quickly heaved on the dead Train Merc, hauling his body onto the roof and detaching the hook that had held him to the ladder, it being pulled up instead of down. As the Barjack reached for what he presumed was a helpless girl he would soon be having his way with, Koyomi did two things very quickly. She grabbed up the hook, snagging it between the spokes of the front wheel of the bike, and kicked the body of the Train Merc, causing the hapless corpse to slide off the top, flat section of the boxcar, and onto the curved edge, where it picked up speed and fell off the edge and into the night.

The Barjack’s eyes went wide and his mouth parted slightly, as, too surprised to react quickly enough, the front wheel of the bike was whipped out from under him by the weight of the corpse. Bike and rider slide down and off the side of the roof, to smash into the ground flashing past in the moonshadow of the train below. There was some muffled digital dialogue from the direction of the corpse, which Koyomi’s ringing ears didn’t catch, and then some 15 seconds later, an explosion lit up the night, near the tracks beyond the back of the speeding factory train.

Koyomi slumped down on the roof of the boxcar, not wanting to garner any further attention from any Barjack. But in truth, she was exhausted. She was breathing heavily. Her ears were ringing. Her arm where it had previously been broken was aching. She checked the associated wrist and was glad to see that the copper band with the green, glass faux gem in it was still, somewhat miraculously, attached. She would give it back to Hugo if he was still… able to accept it when she got back to Iron City. It had done its job as a good luck charm impressively well.

Koyomi saw a lump further up the boxcar roof, the edges flapping in the breeze of the train’s movement. She crawled up to it and found it was her flack jacket, caught in the grip rail that ran along the length of the roof. She freed it, and bundled it up like a pillow, and lay her aching head on it for a quick rest.

As the adrenaline ebbed, the pain intensified. She knew she needed to move, but she felt so tired. “Just a short rest,” she promised herself, and was glad to just make out her voice over the ringing. “No one will mind.” She was just fading out when she sat bolt upright. Shumira!

It took Koyomi several minutes to get down to the floor of the boxcar from the ladder and the stacks of stored foodstuffs with only the reflected light of the moon to go by. She called out quietly for Shumira, but there was no response. She was getting emotional when she noticed light coming through the open slot in the forward end of the boxcar. 

‘Ah, you crafty little minx,’ Koyomi thought, ‘you’ve moved further up the train. Good girl.’ It took several more minutes for Koyomi to climb through the slot out of the current boxcar, and into the slot in the next one. She was just getting up to surveil her surroundings when she felt a metal ball strike her in the side. After everything she’d been through, she tumbled to a heap on the floor, which saved her from the next strike.

“Shumira!” Koyomi called through teeth clenched in pain, “It’s me. Stop!” Koyomi hoped desperately that she was right, and when the lamplight came up and her eyes adjusted, she found the pretty blonde girl standing over her, eyes wide a tear-filled, shaking, and wringing her hands, the extendable pole dropped behind her.

“Shumira is soooo sooorrryyyy!” she moaned, and fell to her knees next to Koyomi. “Shumira thought… you were bad men!” Koyomi was rubbing her side and working her way to a sitting position. She ached in so many places now, she could almost understand why some people replaced it all with cybernetics. Almost. Koyomi had to just sit and breathe for a time, to get the pain under control, and then she struggled to her feet, helped by Shumira. Koyomi looked back at the slot.

“Shumira, while I appreciate your willingness to defend yourself, you yourself said that no one besides the two of us would be able to fit through that slot. So why didn’t you check it was me first?”

Shumira’s cheeks flushed and she started to sob. “Shumira is so sorry. Shumira heard gunfire, and bombs, and thought for sure Koyomi was dead.”

“Fair call,” Koyomi responded, her face softening. “I thought for sure I was dead a few times there, too.”

“Shumira was sure they would come for Shumira next,” the blonde girl said next, “so Shumira hurried into this boxcar, to make a…” she paused, searching her mind for the right term, “last stand.” She said eventually. “Shumira was so scared, Shumira didn’t think to check who was coming in first. Shumira is sooo soooorrryyyy for hurting Koyomi. Koyomi has to let Shumira make it up to her.”

“That can all wait until later,” Koyomi said, noticing the large quantity of foodstuffs packed in the forward end of this boxcar, while the back end was bare. It was an even better assortment than in the previous carriage, and all tied down with care. It had to be bound for Zalem, Koyomi considered. “We have to keep moving up the train, and I’ll need your help to get through the slots, now.”

Koyomi stopped speaking when Shumira stopped walking. She looked down at the blonde girl’s face and saw an angry pout lodged there. Koyomi’s brows furrowed. She had no idea what she’d done.

“Shumira will NOT go any further up the train,” Shumira said, planting her fists firmly on her hips. She stood there for a moment, doing her best to look immovable, and then she started to cry. Koyomi was dumbfounded, and although it hurt, and she had to move slowly, she took the other girl in her arms and hugged her gently.

“Tell me,” Koyomi asked gently when Shumira’s sobs subsided. “Why do you need to stay here so badly?”

“Because this is why Shumira is here,” the girl said, looking up pointedly. “Shumira was sent to farm 23 to buy food for the Warm Welcome Soup Kitchen in Westside. This food will feed all the refugees getting off the trains for three months. If the bad men get hold of it, many poor people in Iron City will starve!” Koyomi looked down on her new friend’s anguished face with genuine admiration. How this little slip of a young woman – Koyomi wouldn’t think of her as a girl anymore – could travel out to Farm 23, negotiate the purchase of all this food and its transport back to Iron City, all by herself, with her limited vocabulary, was astonishing.

“Well then,” Koyomi began, straightening even though it hurt, “we’d best make sure it makes it back to the Soup Kitchen, then.”

A huge grin split Shumira’s face and made her eyes sparkle. Koyomi was spellbound by the sight of her new friend’s beauty. Shumira grabbed hold of the shoulders of Koyomi’s now torn and grubby shirt, pulled Koyomi closer to her, and kissed Koyomi dead on the lips! Before Koyomi could react, it was over, but the tingle of the contact lingered on her lips. And Koyomi found that she liked it. She liked it rather a lot.

Koyomi was still trying to pull herself together when Shumira came back from where she’d hurried off to. 

“Here is the bomb from earlier,” Shumira said, her eyes aglow. “Can this help protect the food?”

“Just maybe it can,” Koyomi said, when they heard the ‘clump’ of three heavy pairs of boots landing on the train end of the boxcar roof.

*** 

It had taken Koyomi some time to get to the skylight of this boxcar. They’d waited until the sound of walking moved down the roof of the boxcar and away, and then Koyomi had climbed painfully up the stacks of crates and out the skylight, after checking the coast was clear. She couldn’t see or hear – the ringing had receded to just a dull buzz – any more gunfights around the front of the train, using the other set of night vision goggles she’d taken from Shumira, who was waiting quietly in the boxcar. Back the other way, she could see shapes moving around on the roof of the caboose. She expected they would be Barjack. Maybe the ones that had walked back down the train, or others. The attack cars must have been either destroyed or driven off, but it seemed there were still a few raiders determined to get some plunder out of the shot-up Factory train yet.

Koyomi climbed carefully out of the skylight and crept down the length of Shumira’s boxcar. She stopped short of the gap, as she heard muffled swearing below her.

“Is it secure?” she heard a gruff voice say.

“Are your nuts secure?” she heard a rather pissed-off feminine voice reply.

“Well, I think so…” was the response.

“Shut up and get moving,” the woman said. “We need to get out of here before that charge goes off.”

That was it, Koyomi decided. They were blowing the coupling between Shumira’s boxcar and the final two carriages of the train. They would be climbing back up any second, and all Koyomi had was the bomb they’d rescued from the last coupling. 

Out of options, Koyomi hit the middle button on the timer, tossed the bomb in the gap between the carriages, and ran…

***

Shumira was sitting on a barrel of salted fish and listening hard to the muffled conversation outside the rear wall of the boxcar. She had the extendable staff in her hand, which she hoped she wouldn’t have to use again. She just had to get the food to the Soup Kitchen. If it didn’t get there, they’d have to close down. So many people would go hungry. Shumira’s attractive face took on a hard look. She would do anything she had to to save the soup kitchen food, even letting her new infatuation, the lovely, talented, and beautiful Koyomi, risk her own life to save it.

Shumira was shaken from her musings by the sound of light feet running up the roof away from the end in question.

And then the end of the boxcar blew in…

***

Shumira felt gentle hands lifting her off the floor where she’d landed. She didn’t know if it had been moments or minutes since the blast, but she was glad Koyomi had insisted she put the flack jacket and helmet back on. Her arm was sore that she’d thrown up to protect her face as she fell backward, and it had some drops of red on it that Koyomi said were splinters she’d pulled out, from the wood of the now missing back end of the boxcar! 

Both young women were looking out the large hole, and Shumira decided that only moments had passed as, thanks to a slight curve in the track, she could still see the other boxcar and the caboose behind it, about 20 yards behind them, the distance slowly increasing as the two carriages, disconnected from the train, slowed. The young women could make out at least five raiders dancing on the roof of the boxcar, howling and hollering their success to the moon.

Koyomi’s lip curled in distaste, until she picked up the faint sound of a digital recording. It was very hard to make out because it sounded like it was being repeated over the top of itself, at least a dozen times. But what she could follow was the countdown that came after it. Also, while staring at the other boxcar, it too missing it’s facing wall, she spied the dark shape of the stacked metal boxes in the back of that boxcar, and a concerning thought struck her.

“Shumira,” she said loudly so the mildly shell-shocked young woman would hear her. Shumira turned to face Koyomi, a weary but happy smile on her face. “Those sheet-metal boxes in the back of that boxcar we are looking at, did you see anything written on them that you remember?”

“Um, Shumira thinks it was some chemical name, but Shumira doesn’t know what it means,” the pretty blonde responded. 

“But what was it?” Koyomi pressed. The recorded countdown was at 10, and Koyomi felt a distinct sense of unease twist her stomach.

“Um, Shumira thinks it was something like, Ammonium Nitrate.”

“Oh gods!” Koyomi blurted out, dragging Shumira back behind some solid-looking crates and a pile of rice bags.

The recorded countdown reached zero.

A rippling explosion erupted from the caboose. It worked its way from the back of the smashed hardpoint to the front, the remaining walls holding in the blasts, while the gaps let the explosive gasses fountain out like some sort of demented firework.

“So pretty,” Shumira said, not able to stay down as Koyomi bid her. Koyomi’s own resolve weakened, and she too couldn’t help but watch. 

Then it happened. The shockwave funneled out the front door of the caboose smashed into the back of the boxcar the Barjack revelers were now racing to leave. The concussion obliterated the back wall of the boxcar, and tore into the stacked boxes of highly explosive fertilizer. 

The train was just leaving the stricken, separated carriages behind around the curve when the ammonium nitrate went up. The shockwave bounced off the canyon walls and buffeted Shumira’s boxcar, rocking it on the rails. But it kept moving, outrunning the worst of the blast. The Barjack were vaporized, to a man, and their prize as well. The last the girls saw of it was the front bogie wheels of the boxcar smashing into the canyon walls some 50 yards away, safely behind the rest of the onrushing train. All Koyomi could think of as she was knocked over yet again was ‘Lutes was right, sooo right!’

When the noise and light and sound subsided, Koyomi found herself lying face down on something soft behind the rice bags. As her senses recovered from the most recent onslaught, from the dim light of the lantern somewhere else in the boxcar, she made out Shumira grinning up at her from inches away.

“Shumira and Koyomi should really stop meeting like this,” Shumira whispered to the young woman above her. Despite the pain, Koyomi hurriedly climbed off the prone young woman she was becoming far too fond of, seeing an obvious look of disappointment on the other young woman’s face at the action.

“We have to make sure there are no more Barjack on the train,” Koyomi said to cover the awkward moment, and Shumira nodded. But before they could move to do anything else, the skylight slid open, and a head popped through. Koyomi was startled! She looked around for anything that she could use as a weapon, and came up empty.

“Just what mary hell have you two unleashed on this end of the damn train?” the Train Merc Commander demanded when he’d worked out the women were definitely not Barjack. “We’ve lost 20 Mercs AND two carriages. That’s going to cost you.”

“Cost Shumira and Koyomi??” Shumira shot back, leaping to her feet, balling her fists and glaring up at the Rail Merc Commander. “We saved Factory train. You are lucky to have anything at all.”

“Whatever you think you did, you cost the Factory two carriages, 20 men, the armament contained within, and the contents of the destroyed boxcar,” the Commander shot back. “The contents of this boxcar should just about cover it.” 

“Noooo!” Shumira wailed, her last nerve shredded. “This is for the poor, you can’t give it to the Factory!” 

“Sorry, luv,” the Commander said slyly, “just followin’ orders.”

Shumira put her face in her hands, sobbing loudly. Koyomi took her into a cuddle, and looked up at the self-satisfied Train Merc Commander. “Well, I guess you are only doing what you have to,” Koyomi said, her tone smooth and understanding, “but perhaps you’d like a little more ‘on the side,’ too – completely legal.” The Commander was looking interested. A wry smile curled the left side of Koyomi’s mouth. “Let’s play a few friendly rounds of cards, say the contents of this boxcar for the stash of chips I have in this flack jacket. Koyomi undid a zipper at the bottom of the jacket and a rain of chips fell from the open seam to clatter all around the floor.

“What do you say?”

***

It wasn’t long after dawn when the damaged Factory train from Farm 23 limped its way into the Western Iron City goods yards, and safety, such as it was. The cyber loaders began quickly and efficiently emptying the boxcars, transporting the goods into the sorting houses for the best to be separated and sent up to Zalem, and the cast-offs to be sold to the dirges in Iron City. 

However, no loaders came anywhere near the final boxcar of the train.

Koyomi awoke from a deep, if short slumber. She couldn’t remember what she’d been dreaming, but the feelings were still there – and they weren’t good. A deep seated fear and loathing was seeping away from her, but as she blinked her eyes to clear them, she felt like the funk of sleep would not leave her. Her head ached in several places, but when compared to what her body would tell her as soon as she sat up, Koyomi considered it negligible. She’d played 7 hrs through the night to win back the food for Shumira’s soup kitchen, running on leftover adrenalin and elation at still being alive. She hadn’t been sure the surly Train Merc Commander would keep his word, but when it looked like his men would lynch him if he didn’t, he’d finally acquiesced, saying he’d report that it was lost in the explosion. 

Koyomi didn’t want to move. She was comfortable, and knew that movement would equal pain for quite some time. She thought about visiting Doc Ido for some pain meds. She’d see how bad it really was when the time came. 

Koyomi finally gave in and turned her head, realizing she was snuggled under a blanket with – Shumira! Extracting herself carefully from the other young woman’s sleep embrace, she got shakily to her feet, and shuffled away a few steps and checked herself over. Flack jacket, check. Chips, check. Bumps, bruises, scrapes, sore ribs (in two places) and many cuts, check. But she had all her fingers and toes, limbs, eyes, hair. It was all still there. She felt amazed, and vaguely empowered. And so very, very lucky.

“This must be how Alita feels,” Koyomi said to herself, stretching carefully. “Well, the elated part, not the beat to a pulp part.” Suddenly, she was consumed by a wide yawn. Still very tired. 

“Who?” a sleepy voice asked from the direction of the blanket. Shumira poked her head up, bed hair very much in evidence.

“Oh, just someone I know,” Koyomi replied, ‘and need to speak with,’ she added to herself.

“You can introduce Shumira later,” Shumira said, straightening her hair with her hands and settling the bandanna back into a position Koyomi thought was a very regular sight with this young woman.

“Um, OK,” Koyomi said, a little surprised that Shumira didn’t think they were going their own separate ways now they were back in civilization, such as it was.

“Great,” Shumira said, gathering her meager belongings, including, Koyomi noted, the extendable staff. “Shumira needs to get the Soup Kitchen staff over here to unload the boxcar, and then Shumira and Koyomi can go back to Shumira’s place to get cleaned up and have a well-earned rest.”

Again Koyomi was a little taken aback by Shumira’s assertion that they would stick together now they were back in Iron City. But Koyomi didn’t actually have anywhere to stay, at least until she talked to one of her many aunts or uncles to let her crash on their floor.

“I should probably go stay with one of my relatives…” Koyomi began as she staggered her way up to the mangled, open end of the boxcar. She reached the edge of the blasted timbers, and her mind jumped back to the turmoil of the night before. Koyomi felt dizzy, and the world started to tilt, until she felt a small hand grasp her arm and spin her around so she was looking at the determined face Shumira used when she wasn’t going to be budged.

“No!” Shumira said, firmly yet gently. “Shumira owes Koyomi so much, and Koyomi is still a bit wobbly on her feet.” The shorter blonde pointed to the edge that Koyomi was leaning out over, only being stopped from falling by Shumira’s timely intervention. 

“Oh,” Koyomi said, and steadied herself, leaning on the boxcar wall while Shumira continued.

“Shumira owes Koyomi for teaching her how to survive, for saving the food for the soup kitchen, and for saving Shumira’s life.” The shorter blonde young woman threw her arms around Koyomi’s shoulders and sobbed gently into her shoulder. Koyomi could do little but pat her on the back in a conciliatory fashion. “Shumira has to pay Koyomi back. Please let Shumira do this!” She kept sobbing until Koyomi agreed.

It was like a switch was flipped in the young blonde woman. She immediately brightened, and began helping Koyomi down off the back of the boxcar, talking all the while.

“Shumira lives in a really nice apartment,” she began, “Koyomi will love it! It has a great shower, or a bath if Koyomi wants to soak the aches away. There are comfortable beds, air conditioning…”

“Wow,” Koyomi couldn’t help but utter.

“…great food, all the channels on the flat screen.”

They began walking through the goods yard, toward the cues of refugees indicating that the Warm Welcome Soup Kitchen was that way.

“Shumira will just tell the soup kitchen people that the food is in the boxcar, and then we can go get cleaned up.” Koyomi nodded. Still a little too tired to argue, her head buzzing. Shumira reached over and took Koyomi’s hand. Koyomi didn’t feel like stopping her.

“I need to check a bounty kiosk before we go too far,” Koyomi said, her tone a little slurred.

“There’s one near the soup kitchen,” Shumira responded. “And when we get to the apartment,  you can meet Shumira’s brother! He’s famous!”

“Your brother?” Koyomi responded. The day had only just started, and it was getting weirder and weirder.

To be continued…

Author’s Note: I do not make any claim on the IP of Alita: Battle Angel, the characters used here as a homage to the original (movie, novels, OVA or Manga), nor intend to make any money from this fanfic.  Consider it free advertising, and getting the fandom interested in a sequel. Which we all want. So much so I’m writing one myself!

And to Cameron’s Lawyers – please don’t shut me down!