But most of all for the romantic in everyone a nighttime flight should not be missed. The gentle clouds, the soft glow of Europa's moon, and the soft lights below, so unlike the hard lights that offend the night on most worlds, make such a flight an act of magic. It is an experience not to be missed.
Fodor's Guide To Europa, 85th Edition
Tara felt the cold, greedy wind pull at her until she leveled out with her arms and legs just so. Then she felt the tug that meant William was on line above her. She fought for balance as she tried to concentrate on the light of the engine on the speeding train below. She could feel her body start to tumble.
"It's impossible," she said into the uncaring night.
She was falling again, the brake line on the tether point wasn't secure. Kami was falling too fast. She'd screwed up. Then the ground hit her and stole all her air. When she looked up Sergeant Wanatabe was looking at her like something he should scrape off his boot.
"What the FUCK was that, Maclay?" he bellowed. "Did you want to get your clerk killed?"
"No s-sir!" she'd gasped.
"Well by God that's what it looked like to this Marine!" Wanatabe had roared. "You never reassessed your fall rate or your target point! You just kept shoving a bad set in front of you until it bit you on the ass! Is that what I taught you, Maclay?"
"And then to top off your fuck-ups you tied a shitty line!"
"S-Sor-" Tara couldn't choke out the words. She'd have killed Kami if the safety protocols hadn't called for the twice-wounded woman to be in an anti-grav harness.
"Save sorry for nuns and numbnuts, Clerk's Assistant Maclay!" he'd growled. "By the time you leave here today the very least you're going to do tie this rig right in your sleep! On your feet, shit bird!"
Reassess, Tara thought to herself. I know the lines are right this time.
As if to confirm her thoughts she felt the last two weights come onto her line. Now everything felt not just balanced but solid. She closed her eyes to clear the last image while flying her position straight. Suddenly she knew where Willow was. Tara concentrated and she knew she was right for nothing else had ever felt like this. She opened her eyes and saw she'd already adjusted and was on line for that almost-spark that was Willow, dozens of meters behind the light of the locomotive.
Cordelia Chase felt the car buck slightly. That shouldn't have happened with such force unless...
"We're going too fast!" she said looking at the armed men. "What have you done to the crew?"
"Everything is in hand, Miss Chase," Bernelle said in a bored tone. "You can't expect destiny to keep a timetable."
"You can expect it to derail!" she snapped as she looked out the window at a building that flashed by. "That was Switch Station Three and this is the Oldenberg-Morlaix Interchange. There's dozens of points in long sets. We come off one of those wrong at this speed and destiny is going to be squashed flat."
The Aquitaine officer looked at his Oldenberg counterpart. They spoke for a moment and Klems went forward.
One gone, for all the good it does, Cordelia thought bitterly. Then she noticed the too buxom dye-job blonde next to Beth look distracted for a moment and actually cock her head like a listening dog. Then the trollop took a breath in that brought out her only assets. Two of the nearby men edged a bit closer.
I could do that if I wanted, Cordelia thought with a sniff.
In the locomotive's cab Arthur Bend laughed as he leaned on the whistle as the train bore down on the single post across the entry to Morlaix. This was the most direct way and the switches had been thrown to make it faster in the spoiled daughter's name.
"Fire me, will you?" He shouted as he rent the stillness of the night with the shrieks of steam. "You bastards!"
He wished they had sent one of the older processed wood fueled 4-6-2 models. Those were engines with style.
Tara was nearby. Willow knew it. She looked down the length of the train and tried to think of what the Imperial citizen would do.
Something heroic, Willow thought.
The redhead looked at the nearest armed man and touched Buffy's knee just casually. Then she looked at him quickly and then back to her friend. Buffy's looked at Willow and nodded so carefully only Willow caught it.
She'd better not do anything too heroic or I'm going to...
Tara flared and brought down the glue post with a hard thrust. There was a bang and the lines became taught. She slapped the safety webbing through the carabineer and gave the heavy woven straps a hard tug just as William landed behind her. Then Riley slapped onto the roof of the railcar and rolled toward the other end. Tara darted for the other end of the car as they had planned.
"I did it right, you bastard," she muttered with a satisfied smile as she reached for the railing next to the small ladder each car had.
Then the train gave a lurch and Tara was sailing out into the night with only her webbing safety strap between her, the rushing track, and the multi-ton killing knives of the wheels below.
In the railcar Anya took another deep sigh. When she heard the noise on the roof she balled her fists just like she'd seen Alex do in the gym. But when she brought them up to the noses of the men beside her she did it inhumanly fast. The two men staggered back stunned with flattened noses and cracks in the sinuses underneath.
Tara was arcing back in over the rail of the small platform at the end of the car. She gasped as her boots slammed into the door at the end of the car. The door sprang open followed immediately by a thud. Tara landed hard, half in and half out of the car proper.
Liam was unsteady on the roof. Riley had slipped out of the rope and darted for the engine side of the railcar. Then the roof Liam was on seemed to leap up. He had the impression of the off-planet girl flying and then he was grabbing for the small ridge on the side with all his might. He felt himself falling and pulled hard on his safety line and hoped the material was as strong as he had heard. He saw the window coming at him and just had time to get his feet up.
Riley landed perfectly on the small platform on the engine end of the railcar. As he stood up he realized the cigarette butt on the floor was still smoldering. Then a ham-sized fist hit him in the solar plexus. The armor took most of the blow but it drove him back. He grabbed his safety line and pulled it. The big man who had been smoking on the platform huddled out of the wind threw another punch. This time the mercenary wrapped the wrist of his opponent and pulled him forward into a head butt. The other man was not wearing a helmet. As the big man reeled backward he reached out and hooked his hand into Riley's harness. The weight pulled the mercenary off his feet and he grabbed the platform railing as the stunned man leaned backward into the rushing night.
When the train hit the points William was ready for his descent. The rumble started him off balance. He grabbed his safety line and pulled as he slipped off the car's roof. He was just a meter and half from where he wanted to be, but the platform was just out of reach. He looked at the ground below and tried to swing himself to Riley's aid. He couldn't get enough purchase on the side of the car. He looked at the rails below and tried to remember which line he was supposed to use to lower himself slowly. He pulled down his goggles to see better.
In the car Willow saw Bernelle grab Dawn just as one of the off-worlders grabbed Willow. The leader of the off-world team reached for his concealed pistol and Buffy at the same time. Willow lowered her shoulder and swept at her attacker's legs. He moved gracefully out of the way. Then the rear door swept open and clouted him in the head. As he stumbled the window on the far side from her exploded inward as the sash gave way under the weight of a jumpsuit-clad figure. The leader took the brunt of the new intruder's force and left the unknown man half in and half out of the window. The leader was off balance and flailing. Buffy made a move that Willow had never mastered and helped him along. On the way the leader hit the man who had grabbed for Willow as he staggered upright. Both men were barely on their feet when Tara, Willow knew the smaller figure had to be her, lurched upright and out of the door at the rear end of the car. With Buffy's leverage both men went past Tara, out the door and over the railing to the tracks below.
Dawn grabbed at the small revolver the Aquitaine officer pulled from his coat. She was going to twist and punch him when desperation and the motion of the train suddenly seemed much too familiar and memories, fragmented and confusing, rushed through her.
Don't mess about girl! Harold growled in her memory. It ain't like those books of yours. You ever go against a man with a gun, forget all the rest of what's going on and control that gun! Use both hands and bend it against his fingers. A gun is life and death, Dawn.
Dawn grabbed the small barrel and started to twist. She heard the man curse and felt the buffet on the side of her head but she held on. The hammer drew back and then fell forward on the web of her hand. She bit back her yelp and kept pushing.
Cordelia saw the last of the off-worlders still aboard and upright pull a knife and advance on the tangled figure in the window. She stepped up behind the advancing man and, with twelve years of dance training, four years of Buffy's tutelage, and all of her righteous indignation kicked him right in the knee. As he fell she grabbed the wonderfully carved crystal vase and slammed it into the back of his head. There was a sickening thud as sixteen pounds of leaded crystal smashed him to the floor; it was intact when she put it back. Then she grabbed the flailing man in the jumpsuit. He grabbed her with desperation and it was all she could do not to be pulled out the window as he scrambled inside.
Buffy turned to see Bernelle clout her sister on the side of the head again. Dawn stumbled and fell but she held on. Buffy let her wave of rage become a punch that slammed into the man's throat. There was a crunching feeling under her fist that she would remember for the rest of her life. Then Willow was beside her and ramming a pen into his wrist above the handgun and using it as a lever. A gasping wheeze was all the sound Bernelle could make as he let go of the weapon and staggered back.
Anya looked at all of the people in jumpsuits. She looked up suddenly at as a figure flailed helplessly outside the farthest window.
"Alex!" she said in a frightened shout.
Klems was almost at the cab of the engine. The dolt at the controls finally let off the whistle and he heard an odd noise above him. He looked up in time to see the outline of an airship lifting away. He looked back at the car and could just make out movement in the gloom. Then the train seemed to ripple under him and his feet lost their grip on the very narrow walkway on the outside of the tender. He pulled himself back with his hands aching from the effort. His sword in its scabbard slapped into him but he did not let go to steady it. Then he saw one figure dangling on the same side of the train. When the man pulled off his goggles and swung briefly near the light Klems saw the profile of William of Oldenberg. Klems smiled, or at least bared his teeth.
"Alex!" Anya said again as she rushed to the front of the car.
"Are you all right?" Tara shouted as she looked at the blood on Willow's sleeve.
"I'm fine," Willow assured her. Their eyes met and both girls smiled shyly.
"Dawn's hurt!" Buffy said urgently.
"There's another one up front!" Willow said as reality finally grabbed her attention.
"Where's Riley and William?" Liam asked Tara as he pulled off his helmet.
Riley pried the large man's fingers off his webbing and saw his opponent lose his precarious balance. As the man fell away Riley started to get to his feet. There was an unexpected kick in the small of his back and he felt himself falling forward after his opponent. He grabbed and caught the last bit of railing. He managed to hold on as his body pivoted and kept the toe of one boot on the platform. He looked forward and saw a slim barrier across the tracks with the base on his side. He pulled with all his might. His other boot now had a toehold. He looked back at the platform and could see a man in a suit with a sword looking off the other side of the platform.
"Good evening, Your Highness," Klems shouted over the noise.
"Klems!" William snapped as he saw the gloating face of the demoted officer.
"Let me help you, Prince William," Klems said as he drew his sword.
William tried again to reach his holstered pistol. Klems made a clucking sound that barely carried over the wind.
"A pistol against a sword?" the bitter junior officer asked disapprovingly. "Hardly honorable for a man who has made so much of honor."
"Meet me on the ground, then," William shouted. "Sword to sword!"
"I'm afraid I don't have the ti-" Klems started. Then he sailed past William with a look of astonished fright.
Klems brushed by William and spun him on his line. The Prince just had time to see Klems tumbling along the side of the track before he felt someone pulling him aboard.
"Alex!" he heard Anya say as he was spun around.
"Thank you!" he said breathlessly as the ache of hanging in the slipstream of the train became a series of small stabbing pains. Those pains became secondary as he smashed into the floor of the platform and Anya sat on his chest. The construct grabbed his jumpsuit and lifted him as much as he could bend in this position.
"You're not Alex!" she hissed. "Why aren't you Alex? What have you done with him?"
"Please, Miss Anya!" William gasped. "I'm sure he's all right!"
Alex clutched the messenger's bag as he stepped up to the door. The wind seemed to pull at him with evil intent. He looked at Giles and nodded weakly as the sound from the engines changed and the wind lost a bit of its power.
"There's no night landing spot in Morlaix so keep a good grip until you're on the ground," Giles said loudly. "There's a bit of wind that might make the ship lurch."
"Hold on tight," Alex said worriedly. "I can do that."
"When you get down let go immediately," Giles reminded him.
"The ground is my friend," the young man replied with what he hoped was confidence.
"To the ladder, Mr. Harris," called out the crew chief.
Alex swallowed and stepped onto the ladder. He tried to think of something to say but hanging in the dark night had taken away his ability to speak. He wanted to tell the two burly crewmen winding out the ladder to slow down, but he was already gone, hanging far too high above the ground. The ladder swayed as a breeze caught the airship. He started to swing away from the open path straight to the river. A slight upward lift left him on a level with the arch of the bridge. For an instant he was over the bridge and low enough, he thought. Alex let go of the ladder.
Just as he did the airship was caught in an updraft. Alex's step became a flip that took him over the railing and into the river below. He started to scream as he fell. The cold water of the river made him gasp and his lungs took in the liquid. He floundered to the surface, coughing and sputtering as the bag's strap pulled at him as if it were lead. He seemed to be headed under the bridge in the current. Alexander tried to swim to the side of the river. There was a sting on his face as a rope struck him. He grabbed it and held on for dear life. Then he felt stone under his feet and stood up, still coughing.
"What is this all about?" A man in the uniform of the Bishop's Guard demanded.
Alex held up the sodden bag with Oldenberg's seal on the flap as more people arrived and looked at the departing airship. Alex looked up as well, even as he tried to remember how to breathe. From here the airship was pretty, a silver leviathan swimming in a sea of stars. Finally he had enough air to speak.
"Message-King-Oldenberg," Alex said as he coughed again. "It's urgent. Raiders."
Then Alex coughed the last of the river from his lungs as the Guard called for his commander.
Cordelia caught the sound of wood splintering and heard a brief police whistle. She looked up and realized they were over the border. Some girl in a jumpsuit was tending to Dawn and Buffy was hovering nearby. In the corner the Aquitaine officer was gasping and turning blue. She looked over at the young man she'd pulled in. He was nowhere to be seen.
"Typical," Cordelia muttered. "Willow, we need to stop the train."
For some reason Willow looked at the girl in the jumpsuit. Cordelia heard the stranger say "go on". Willow stood up.
What's that all about? Cordelia wondered.
"How many are in the cab?" Willow asked.
"I don't know," Cordelia admitted. "This is a Matheson 4-4-2..."
"Johnson bar on the right, standard throttle and brake layout," Willow said quickly. "So normal is an engineer and a fireman, but you could run it with just one"
"That was one summer trip," Buffy said shaking her head. "Do you ever forget a machine?"
"Um, do we need not breathing guy as a witness?" Dawn asked pointing at Bernelle.
"We might," the young man she'd rescued said from the door. Now Cordelia saw his brown eyes and the way he was helping another tall figure in a jumpsuit. When the Prince of Oldenberg staggered in behind them on Anya's arm Cordelia barely noted his presence.
Willow watched as Riley knelt by the now still figure of Bernelle. She looked back at Cordelia who was staring at Liam. For his part the tall young man was being just about as useful. His mouth opened a couple of times but he didn't speak. Dawn was trying to stand up and insisting she was fine while Buffy kept at her to stay down. Then the train swayed a bit.
"Guys!" Willow yelled. "Train? Speeding? Danger? Does any of this sound familiar?"
"Oh!" Cordelia said suddenly. "We've got to get to the cab."
"Right!" Liam said heading for the door. "I'm on it!"
Cordelia smiled and turned to Willow. Then the heiress looked back at Liam as he stepped for the side of the fuel tank on the tender.
"No!" she called but he was already out of earshot in the wind. "Men! Why do they have to do everything the hard way?"
"There's a not hard way?" Willow asked.
"Come with me!" Cordelia said urgently.
Cordelia rushed to the platform and reached for the back of the tender. Willow could see a small handle where she was reaching. Cordelia pulled the handle and a section of the rear of the tender swung open. The door bridged the gap between the tender and the Special's single car easily. She looked back at Willow.
"It's a converted wood carrier," Cordelia said as she stepped onto the small gangway over the fuel and reserve water tanks. Both girls hurried forward. They arrived just as Liam swung into the cab. The rogue engineer swung a wrench at him. Liam ducked but took the blunt object on his shoulder and stumbled. Willow looked down and found the shovel most trains still carried "just in case". She grabbed it as Cordelia shouted "No!"
The man looked up at the top of the tender just in time to catch the flat of the shovel from Willow's enthusiastic if inexpert swing with his face. He dropped to the floor as Liam staggered up and looked at the controls. Both girls dropped into the cab.
"Grab the Johnson bar!" Cordelia ordered as Willow as she herself reached for the throttle and the brake. "He's got it too far forward. Bring it back slowly and give the auto brake a quarter turn."
Willow grasped the big reversing lever and closed the top grip, then she eased it back while she moved the smaller brake lever back. Liam watched open-mouthed as Cordelia and Willow grasped levers and dials. The engine started to chuff in new pattern and he held on as the train slowed and finally shuddered to a stop. They looked out and saw the southern border of Morlaix. Cordelia looked behind them and signaled Willow to pull back the lever and send the train back up the tracks a bit as the Bishop's Guards from the station waved a red lantern. Finally she stopped it and purged off the built-up steam.
As they looked around the cab Willow saw the two Peninsula Railroad employees tied in the cubby at the back of the locomotive. Liam tied up the unconscious man as the girls freed the real engineer and fireman.
"Give him to the guards and then send them back," Cordelia ordered. "Keep a head on her but don't move her without my permission." Then she looked at Liam. "Could you give me a hand getting up there?"
What's that all about? Willow wondered. It's an easy climb.
"How-how did you get here?" Dawn asked as Tara helped her into a chair with Buffy steadying her sister.
"We, umm, we flew," Tara explained. "We used the diplomatic airship."
Dawn stared at the off-world girl with wide eyes. She took in the goggles around Tara's neck and the high tech jumpsuit she wore. The harness looked like it belonged a Marine, not the quiet girl in front of her. Dawn looked up as Willow and the others entered the railcar.
"Willow!" Dawn said excitedly. "Do you know how they got here?"
"They jumped out of an airship on a string and a prayer," Willow said angrily. "What were you thinking?"
"Umm," Tara said as she straightened up and floundered for words under the sudden powerful mix of emotions coming off the redhead.
"You could have been killed!" Willow wailed.
Then she grabbed Tara by the jumpsuit and pulled her close for a kiss that didn't stop for a long moment.
Buffy gaped at the sight of her best friend and the off-world girl in a passionate kiss. Next to her William and Cordelia did the same. Riley just sighed. Dawn looked at Buffy with a sophisticated smile.
"Kind of obvious, didn't you think?" Dawn said casually.
"Well, of course," Anya agreed with a nod and a bright smile.
Near the border of Oldenberg a coach stopped near a meadow full of tents. The orderly camp was lit by lanterns and with a merry bonfire at the center. There were songs coming from the youngsters around the fire as Travers stepped out of the carriage. A young man approached him.
"May I help you, sir?" he asked with wary politeness.
"I wired Herr Schneider earlier," Travers said calmly.
"And didn't sign it," the short man said as he stepped out of a nearby tent. "Most unusual."
Travers looked at the young man and then at Schneider. "Go get the company commanders, Eric," Schneider ordered. When the young man was gone Schneider looked sternly at Travers. "What is this urgent matter?"
"I cannot tell you how I know, nor why there will not be any response by Oldenberg in time to save Morlaix from the French," Travers said tiredly.
"What?" the balding man almost shouted.
"Partisans of Prince Etienne's radicals are going to attack the Bishopric of Morlaix tonight," Travers said evenly. "I don't know why."
"They're a bunch of Frogs!" snarled Schneider. "Who can tell what their filthy hands will do to that holy place. I know why you've come to me, and by God they won't get away with it!"
"I knew I could count on you," Travers said with a nod. "I must be away."
"We will handle this from here!" Schneider said as a dozen young men ran up.
Travers nodded and walked away. He climbed into his coach as the night was filling with drums and trumpet calls. As the carriage headed down the road that would take them toward the border of Oldenberg and the Duchy of Mortagne they passed four older men in Oldenberg uniforms approaching the camp. As they watched young men from the camp leapt out of the bushes and took away their rifles. Tyrell chuckled lazily and stuck his head out into the night.
"Havoc!" he shouted.