Black light express, p.1

Black Light Express, page 1


Black Light Express

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Black Light Express


  “Reeve’s writing never flags, with moments of pathos and magic seamlessly interwoven… Reeve has crafted something at once weirdly familiar and marvelously original. Thank the stars there’s at least one sequel planned already.”

  — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

  “Featuring gorgeously described alien landscapes, sharply drawn characters (some not even vaguely human), and genuinely awesome technology, this thrilling and imaginative escapade will captivate the Carnegie Medal–winner’s many fans.”

  — Publishers Weekly, starred review

  “With adept and thoughtful hands, Reeve constructs a big, sprawling, and thrilling universe… Sci-fi fans will delight in this lightning-paced and satisfying read.”

  — School Library Journal, starred review

  “Reeve (Fever Crumb, 2010) carefully builds his world, balancing the plot’s action with politics, history, and inventive technologies… meatier topics act as counterpoints to Zen’s exciting exploits, all of which come together at the threshold of a new universe.”

  — Booklist

  “Above all, [Reeve] delivers an unflaggingly propulsive narrative that is never derailed by world-building. Rather, it rattles along like an interstellar express, leaving you eager for the next thrilling ride.”

  — The Guardian

  “[Railhead] is brimming with a sense of wonder and mystery… The book reads much like the Interstellar Express hurtling through the K-gate — it’s fast-paced, exhilarating and brilliant.”

  — SF Signal



  Praise for Railhead

  Title Page

  PART ONE: Web of Worlds Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  PART TWO: Popsicle Girl Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  PART THREE: Broken Moon Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  PART FOUR: Railwar Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  PART FIVE: Strange Stations Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  PART SIX: Black Light Express Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  PART SEVEN: Sunbird Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49



  Back Cover


  The tunnel was only a few minutes old. Its walls still steamed, and even glowed in places, as if it had been bored by something intensely hot. Along its floor ran twin railway tracks, stretching for more than half a mile into the heart of the mountain, where the tunnel ended abruptly at a blank rock face. Something was fused into the walls and roof there: an archway made from a substance that looked a little like bone, but not much like anything.

  The arch began to glow. The light had no color, and seemed to have no source. It filled the archway like a gently billowing curtain. A breeze blew through it, bringing a scent that mingled with the smell of scorched granite from the tunnel’s still-warm walls. It was the smell of the sea. A breath of air from another world.

  And suddenly, where there had been nothing, there was a train. An old red locomotive towing three cars, pouring itself impossibly out of nowhere through that curtain of light. Trainsong and engine-roar rolled ahead of it along the tunnel. In the first carriage a lean, brown boy named Zen Starling and a girl named Nova, who wasn’t really a girl at all, pressed their faces to the windows.

  At first they saw only the seared, glassy rock of the tunnel walls rushing past. Then they shot out of the tunnel mouth; the walls were gone and the train was running across an open plain. Looming shapes flashed by, weird hammerhead things rearing up on either side of the train, scaring even Nova until she realized they were only rocks. Wide lagoons like fallen mirrors reflected a dusty blue sky, several suns, and a lot of daytime stars.

  This was not the first time Zen and Nova had ridden a train from one world to another. They came from the Network Empire, whose stations were scattered across half the galaxy, linked by K-gates through which trains sped from one planet to the next in a heartbeat. But the gate through which they had just passed was a new one; it was not supposed to exist at all, and they had come through it not knowing where it led.

  “A new world,” said Nova. “A new planet, under a new sun. A place that no one but us has ever seen…”

  “But there’s nothing here!” said Zen, half disappointed, half relieved. He was not sure what he had expected. Mystic cities? Towers of light? A million Station Angels doing dances of welcome? There were just lagoons, and low islands of grass and reddish rock, and here or there a cluster of pale flaglike things standing in the shallows.

  The train spoke. The old red loco Damask Rose had a mind of her own, like all the locos of the Network Empire. “The air is breathable,” she said. “No communications that I can detect — I’m getting no messages from signaling systems or rail traffic control…”

  Nova was a Motorik: a humanoid machine. She scanned the wavelengths with her wireless mind, looking for this world’s Datasea. There was nothing. Just static rolling like surf and the mindless warble of a quasar a million light-years away.

  “Maybe this world is empty,” she said.

  “But there are rails here,” said the Damask Rose.

  “Real rails?” asked Zen. “Ordinary ones? The right gauge and everything?”

  “Hmmm,” said the train. “There’s a simple test we can do that will tell us that. Are we crashing? No. So I’d say the rails are just fine. Just like the rails at home.”

  “But where did they come from?”

  “It’s the Worm,” said Nova. “The Worm is laying them…”

  The Worm was the alien machine that had pried open the fabric of reality to form the new gate and melted that tunnel out of the mountains’ heart. As it sped away from the mountains it let out its sleek new rails like spider silk. Soon Zen and Nova could see it on the Rose’s cameras, a cloud of dust moving steadily ahead of them. Inside that cloud, sometimes the waving spines and colorless lightning crackle of the Worm showed, and the hunched mass of it, like an immense half-mechanical maggot, a rolling cathedral of hi-biotech, spewing vapor and weird shears of light. Within it and beneath it, huge industrial processes were happening at dizzying speed. It wasn’t just a matter of laying the ceramic crossties like eggs and running the rails over them and bolting the rails down. There were ridges that needed cuttings or short tunnels melted through them. And there had to be some foundation for the tracks to lie on, so something was being done to the ground beneath the Worm, leaving it harder and shinier than the ground around, and fizzing with odd motes of light that danced awhile then faded, and were mostly gone by the time the Rose reached them.

  “It is slowing,” said the train at la
st, and she slowed too. “It’s moving off the line. It’s making a siding for itself…”

  They went past the Worm at walking pace. It had lost its iridescent sheen, that restless movement. It seemed burned out: a black hill, cooling like clinker. Somewhere inside it lay the dead body of Raven, the man who had built it, entombed on this new world.

  The sound of the wheels changed.

  “Are there still tracks?” asked Zen.

  “Let’s see,” said the Damask Rose. “Again we must ask ourselves, ‘Are we crashing?’ Ooh, and again, no…”

  “I mean, how are there tracks?”

  The Worm had fallen behind, lost in the hazy light that hung above the alien lagoons, but on the Rose’s screens the rails still stretched ahead, not quite so shiny now. They ran all the way to the horizon, where perspective pinched them together like an arrowhead.

  “These rails were here before,” said Nova. “The Worm made a spur to join the new gate to a line that was here already.”

  With a rattle of dry wings a big insect launched itself sleepily from a luggage rack and started battering at the glass in front of Zen’s face, as if it were eager to get outside and explore this new world. A Monk bug. Zen flinched. He had been through some bad stuff recently, and some of the worst had involved those insects. If enough of them got together they formed a hive-intelligence, and one of those hives had attacked him back in Desdemor. This bug must be a survivor from it. Mindless without its million friends, it had blundered aboard the train.

  Nova caught it gently between her cupped hands. Zen thought she should kill it, but she said, “That’s mean. Poor thing. We can let it out when we find somewhere suitable…”

  So he went to find a box to put the bug in.

  The train’s three carriages had been prepared by Raven. Zen and Nova had not yet had time to explore them. The front carriage was a grand old state car with a bedroom and bathroom on the upper deck, living quarters downstairs, a small medical bay at the rear. The middle one was a dining car, its freezers packed with food. In the rear car was a store of things Raven must have thought he’d need: an industrial 3-D printer, a small flatbed truck with off-road tires, two shielded compartments stacked with spare fuel cells. There was a locker full of spacesuits, a dock where flashlights and butterfly drones were charging. There were racks of guns, and ice axes, and coils of rope, and box upon box of other supplies.

  Just glancing at all that heaped-up stuff was enough to make Zen feel a warm glow of ownership. He’d done it, made himself rich, the way he’d always dreamed of. He had his own train now. Except that there was no one he could show it off to. The Guardians, the wise artificial intelligences who watched over humanity, had not wanted a new K-gate opened. Raven had done terrible things in order to open it, and Zen and Nova had been his pawns. They had wrecked the Emperor’s train, and the Emperor himself had been killed. They could never go back to the Network Empire. Zen’s mother, his sister, and the people he’d called his friends were all cut off from him as surely as if he’d died. Running his fingertips over the smooth surfaces of Raven’s livewood cabinets, he sensed the first sharp twinge of homesickness.

  He tipped some packets of Railforce emergency rations out of their plastic box and went back with it to the state car. Nova was standing where he had left her. The trapped bug made rattly, rustly sounds inside her cupped hands. She had tipped her head to one side.

  “What is it?” Zen asked.

  “Voices,” she said. “Way down around seventy-five kilohertz. Very primitive radio transmissions. I think they’re voices…”

  The Damask Rose cut in. “I hear them too. And there seems to be a station ahead…”

  She opened a holoscreen and showed them the view from a forward-pointing camera on her hull. A low hill rose from the mirror-lagoons. The line ran toward it, and Zen could see other lines converging there, curving across the lagoons on low embankments, one crossing a long white bridge that looked like fish bones. There were more white things all around the edges of the hill — maybe trees, or maybe buildings. And up on the hill’s top were larger structures, strange angles shining.

  “Raven was right,” said Nova quietly. For her, saying “Raven was” instead of “Raven is” seemed stranger than anything this world could show her. Motorik did not have parents, but she thought that she felt about Raven the way a human being might feel about their father, if their father was brilliant, secretive, and rather dangerous. She had not exactly loved him, but she had never imagined herself outliving him. She wished he could have seen all this.

  The insect fluttered impatiently between her hands. Zen held out the box and tried not to look as she bundled the bug inside and sealed the lid. It gave him a nasty thought about the approaching station. The Station Angels, those mysterious light-forms that appeared sometimes near the K-gates of home and had told Raven how to open his new gate, had looked a bit like insects themselves: giant mantis shapes made out of light. Perhaps they would be waiting here to welcome the Damask Rose. But Raven had said they were just projections — so what if the real Station Angels were actual giant bugs? Insects as big as jungle gyms?

  Nova had put the box with the bug in it into her jacket pocket. Now she was standing at the window, gazing out. Zen went to join her. She did not take her eyes away from the sights sliding past outside, but her hand found Zen’s, and he twined his fingers through hers. Back on Tristesse, in the desperate hours before the new gate opened, he had told her that he loved her, and they had kissed. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that now. It was a strange thing, wanting to kiss a Motorik. It was probably just as strange for a Moto to want to kiss a human, and he wondered if she would want to do it again. He had always hidden his emotions, even from himself. In the type of places he came from you never showed that you cared about anything, because other people might take it from you, or smash it just to hurt you. He felt almost frightened by his feelings for Nova. But he was very glad that she was there.

  Outside the window he saw pale, spindly trees with plate-shaped leaves spinning in the breeze, and between them… were those buildings? Were those people? Apart from the trees there was nothing that looked like anything Zen had seen before. And then a long shape moving…

  “Is that a train?”

  “It’s a Worm,” said Nova.

  “Not quite,” said the Damask Rose. “It’s smaller, and simpler.”

  It had the same half-built, half-grown look as Raven’s Worm. A silvery shell through which long spines stuck up, waving back and forth as if they were feeling the air. There were patterns on its flanks like the markings on cowrie shells, and a horny plate beneath it that seemed to be bolted to sets of metal wheels. It was towing a line of wagons. When Nova opened the window a crack they heard a deep, discordant, wavering call.

  “Trainsong?” asked Zen.

  “If it is,” said the Rose, sniffily, “it’s not very good.” But she replied with a song of her own, and the alien train slowed to let her pull ahead. She drew to a stop beside something that could only be a station platform, seemingly made from a single slab of ancient glass. Upon its frosted surface the people of that world were gathering to stare curiously at the Damask Rose. Their voices spilled through the window, squawking and hooting, like birdsong, like a jungle at dawn. Nova frowned and set her translation software to work.

  “Someone is jibber-jabbering at me on a very obscure channel,” the Damask Rose announced primly. “I have no idea what they want.”

  “I bet we’re messing up their timetables,” said Zen nervously. “If they were waiting for the next train to Planet X, they must be annoyed to have us turn up instead.”

  The platform was filling fast. There was nothing humanlike or even human-shaped out there, and such a wild variety that Zen knew he must be looking at creatures from a dozen worlds, not one. There were a lot of three-legged antelope things with indigo robes and black glass mas
ks, and some transparent giant newts whose internal organs he could see fluttering and pulsing in their misty insides. A squid that had somehow learned to walk on land oozed its way to the front of the platform and started reaching up to feel the Rose’s windows with its tentacles. If it hadn’t been for Nova’s hand in his, Zen would have thought he was lost in a bad dream.

  But Nova just turned and smiled at him and said, “Come on! Let’s introduce ourselves!” And before he could ask her to wait, or run to the rear car to fetch one of Raven’s guns in case these clustering creatures tried to eat him, she had opened the doors and they were stepping out, still hand in hand, into the noise and the smells and the light of the alien station.


  The mass of beings drew back a little, as if shocked by the strangeness of the travelers. Then some things that Zen had thought were old, bleached tents came suddenly to life. They were the same creatures he had seen standing in colonies out in the lagoons, only he hadn’t realized that they were creatures then. They crowded around him, making buzzing, rattling sounds by quivering the papery swags of skin that stretched between their bean-pole limbs. They reached out little starfish hands to feel his clothes and face. He shrank back from them, wondering if he should be afraid. It was like being a tiny child, new to everything. Except even a tiny child had instincts, and Zen’s instincts were useless here. Were the tent things attacking him or just being friendly? He wondered if he should bow, or smile, or say, “We come in peace.” But with no mouths of their own, how would they understand a smile? Bowing might be a deadly insult, and his words would be no more than noise to them.

  Then Nova opened her mouth, and the same buzzings and rattlings that the tents were making came pouring out of her.

  The aliens went still, quivering, opening and closing their little hands. Dark eye-spots that lay like seeds inside the outer layers of their skin slid to focus on her. The crowd fell silent, listening. Nova turned and let out hooting, whinnying sounds that seemed to please the three-legged antelopes; they raised their triangular heads, and dim lights flickered behind their masks.

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