The world, as far as the eye could see, was flat and green. The tall grass bent and bowed at the merest hint of a breeze, creating an effect no unlike that of waves on a sea. It was noon and while the sun was shining there were clouds on the horizon promising heavy rain later in the day. It was very warm.
Across the vast plain a train was hurtling. Its track cut through the landscape, straight as an arrow, from Torsleen in the southeast to Summer Lake in the northwest. The train hadn’t changed direction since it left the platform five hours ago and it would keep going straight for the next two and a half days. It’s the longest stretch of straight tracks anywhere in the world. Those in the know call it one of the greatest feats of dwarven engineering known to man. Those who regularly travel the route call it the dullest journey one can possibly make.
The train was very long; two enormous steam-electricity hybrid engines pulled several dozen oversized cargo cars with a few passenger cars tacked on at the end, like a distracted afterthought. At the rear end of the last car Roy had a coupe to himself. He’d known it would be a long ride and rather than risk having to spend it in annoying company he’d paid up enough to allow for some privacy. The coupe was supposed to have air conditioning but it must have broken and it was hot and humid inside. The window didn’t open, but he’d locked the door in its open position to try and let some air in. It hadn’t helped much, but it was better than keeping it shut.
He’d had two visitors since he opened the door. One was someone’s kid who wandered in and asked if he had a dog. When Roy confessed that he hadn’t the kid had proceeded to tell him all he knew about dogs and about the puppy he’d been promised for his birthday. Fortunately the kid’s mother had come looking for her son before Roy lost his patience. She’d made some polite excuses and then dragged the boy with her off to their own part of the train.
Roy didn’t have anything against kids as such, but he was hot, tired and irritable and after two straight weeks of travel his patience was worn thin indeed. The other visitor was far more appreciated, but then she also brought him refreshments. Dragging a small cart of cold drinks and snacks with her the train’s hostess showed up once an hour. She’d introduced herself as Alene, provided pleasant conversation and always left him with an extra bottle of ice-cold water free of charge.
Short, blonde and pretty in a slick little International Rail staff uniform she was easy on the eye and somehow managed to seem untouched by the heat. Roy himself, uncut and unshaven, felt a stinking sweaty wreck and had no illusions about looking anything but. He’d decided to ask her if there was some trick to it before her last visit already but hadn’t actually gotten around to it. There just hadn’t been an opportunity to raise the question. She somehow ended up running the conversation while at the same time having him do most of the talking. That was definitely a trick, only Roy didn’t realize until after she’d left again.
Somehow she’d known from the very start what he was and hadn’t been shy about admitting. It was unusual, a little unnerving but also refreshing. He normally wouldn’t reveal or discuss his condition with people he didn’t know; he also wouldn’t use his status to take advantage of his fans, not even the attractive and affectionate female ones.
Admittedly, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d done it, more than once even, early on, but it had never turned out well and these days he tended to avoid fans as best he could. It wasn’t as if he was any proud of what he did; he just happened to be very good at it.
Perhaps that was why he opened up so easily to Alene. She didn’t care what he did and didn’t judge him for what he was. She just seemed to ask the right questions at the right time and for some reason he talked. There was definitely a trick to it.
For the umpteenth time Roy looked out the window. The plain outside looked exactly like it had done last time he’d checked three minutes ago as well as all the other times before that. It was green and flat and covered with grass as far as the eye could see.
Where the land was dull and modest, the sky was preparing for what promised to be a spectacular show. Clouds the size of oceans were rising from beneath the horizon. Enormous spires, incredibly white in the sunlight, stretched up out of dark grey carpets slowly being rolled out over the land.
“There will be rain.”
Alene had once more appeared with her cart and was standing in the doorway. She too was looking out at the plain and the approaching clouds.
“We’ll be fine for now, but if the wind picks up we may have to wait it out in Forest. We need to stop there anyway to take care of some deliveries. It’s safer to wait out a storm there than to drive through it on the open plain. You don’t want a train to derail out here. That would be bad.”
“No?” Roy nodded the question at her, immediately feeling stupid for questioning such an obvious statement. The girl didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps it was her turn to be talkative and he didn’t want to jinx that by saying too much.
“No – definitely not. The plain may seem quiet and peaceful from up here, but there are things out there you don’t want to meet with a pack of tired passengers.”
That’s when he knew. That’s when he realized that she was like him and that that’s how she’d known him right away. He felt the fool for not having figured it out sooner, for not knowing. He prided himself for being attentive, but she’d stood there right in front of him, even talked to him, and he hadn’t noticed a thing. Was he so out of sorts that he’d been that distracted by a pretty face and a friendly word?
Roy was flustered. He stammered and stumbled on the words but eventually made sense of himself.
“My apologies! I only just realized. I’m terribly sorry. What are you?” Then he winced as he realized what he’d said, how incredibly rude it was and started to apologize even more. He even stood up and bowed as was customary when addressing a superior or an unknown equal back in the south. He was extremely embarrassed.
The girl just laughed.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m a rainbow coyote, it happens all the time with us. I won’t hold it against you if you come keep me company in the bistro car tonight when I have to keep the bar open. Just make sure you get cleaned up a little first.” She smiled and made to leave again, a bit sooner than the last times. Roy felt a sting of disappointment. He’d looked forward to their little chat and then he’d made an utter fool of himself and rushed her off again.
“I’ll be back again in a bit. The suits in car two have had a bit too much and I need to keep an eye on them before they make too much of a mess.”
Roy made as if to rise and offer his assistance. Putting unruly drunks in their place was something he’d done more times than he cared to remember but he wasn’t about to let this slip of a girl deal with a bunch of intoxicated business men on her own, coyote or not.
“Sit down. I can handle this.” Her face turned stern and he sat down again. Looking like that he had no doubt she was up to the task. Her stance and glare broke no objection and Roy almost felt sorry for the poor bastard who’d try anything with the girl.
“Here, take this and try and relax." She reached into the cart, produced another bottle of water and placed it on the little shelf by the door. " I’ll be back in a bit, don’t you worry, and I’ll promise I’ll scream for help if I need you.”
That last thing she’d said stung a little. It was too obvious a ploy to placate him and make him feel better. There was no way she’d need his help and even if she did she’d not be one to scream at the top of her lungs like some damsel in distress.
He sighed and sat down again, turned his eyes on the plain outside and tried to collect his thoughts. The girl Alene reminded him of Toivo and it bothered him more than he was really willing to accept.
Toivo was the reason he’d undertaken this journey. He’d thought her dead and gone for years and then suddenly her sister, Paivi, had sent him a text saying she was back. After a sleepless night he’d withdrawn all of his accessible funds and stepped on the first train north he could find.
It was the second time he’d pulled up his roots and put his old life behind him for that woman and she didn’t even love him. She hadn’t back then, all those years ago, and there was no chance in hell she did now. That didn’t matter. He still had to see her. He had to know she was okay, look her in the eyes and apologize for what he’d done. It was all that mattered. He didn’t want forgiveness, but he wanted to say he was sorry. That’s what he kept telling himself.
Roy felt the dark mood creep in on him, not wholly unlike the dark clouds rolling in from the north and east. He thought maybe it would feel good to cry a bit but he knew he wouldn’t. He hadn’t cried since he was a young boy and his dad’s favorite uncle had died.
His thoughts were in chaos. He was worried and upset. Images of two women filled his head; one a memory from a decade ago and one an acquaintance from earlier this morning. They were both short and blonde but that was about all they had in common as far as appearances went. Yet Alene was more like Toivo than any other woman he’d met throughout the years. He couldn’t say what it was, but he also couldn’t let go of the thought that the two of them were very similar.
The train kept rolling, the clouds crept closer and Roy starred out over the plain with unseeing eyes.
A few hours later, as the afternoon was turning into evening, the first raindrops hit the window. Alene had been by a few more times, always with a smile, always with an extra bottle of ice cold water, but with nothing of any consequence to say. They’d made small talk; the drunk business men in the other car had calmed down and were no longer a nuisance, the train was making good time, the little kid who’d visited Roy earlier had fallen asleep and it really did look as if the evening would bring quite a storm. Nothing of what Roy really wanted to talk about was said.
The weather reports had come in. The storm was expected to bring high winds and they’d be weathering it in Forest; the train should be rolling again by first light. He was expected to stay the night in his coupe but was free to leave the train to walk around outside to look at the little town and visit the local pub.
Forest was a small settlement about a days train ride out on the plain. It served as a supply depot and community hub. There were people living out there in the grass, nomads, herders, loners, elves and probably others as well. To them, Forest was the big city and it was where they went to meet others, to hear the latest news and to get the few things they needed but couldn’t get from the plain itself.
The name of the place came from a group of trees planted by one of the first settlers in the area, an ambitious doctor and apothecary with dreams of an orchard. The apothecary was long gone, but some of the trees he planted still remained.
The main feature of Forest wasn’t the old orchard though; it was the train shelter. A great and unforeseen weakness of the train route across the plain was the tendency of the winds to reach speeds high enough to blow a speeding train off its tracks. The green sea was the largest flat expanse of land in the known world and winds could reach incredible speeds. The tracks and trains were dimensioned for what was estimated to be regular weather conditions in the area and wind shouldn’t have been a problem.
What wasn’t accounted for was how the spirits of the land, the Untanni, had reacted to the tracks and the trains. As the trains started running regularly the winds picked up, became stronger and wilder and the weather patterns became a lot less predictable.
Continuous attempts were made to calm the spirits but none had met with any long-term success. For the time being all trains running across the plains had their own shaman on staff. The shamans were usually able to calm the spirits and the weather down enough for the train to make it into shelter, but were not able to prevent the storms entirely.
To protect the trains large windbreaker walls had been built in several locations along the tracks. The majority of these were unreliable at best and often in various states of disrepair. The one at Forest was always well maintained though. The proximity to the settlement ensured that any damage to the wall was quickly repaired.
All of this was news to Roy. He’d heard of the plains and about there being trains across them but that was as far as his prior knowledge went. The rest he read in a little informative pamphlet about the region he’d found in the coupe along with a safety brochure, the menu for the bistro car and some other informative papers. He’d read them all but the one about the settlement at Forest was the only one he’d found actually interesting.
He watched the window as drops of water hit it, making patterns on the glass. The train must be moving very fast; the streaks from the raindrops were almost horizontal. It was quiet too. Most trains he’d been on there was a faint but regular thunking sound as the wheels hit the seams in the tracks but it was missing here. He’d read about that in the pamphlet too. The rail had been laid to be virtually seamless. At the time it had been done using a new and experimental method and while it had worked it also turned out to be far too expensive and complicated and it was never used again anywhere else.
It worked really well though. The train itself made no sound at all and while he could hear the wind outside it was faint and sounded far away.
It was getting darker. The rain was picking up, the clouds were thick in the sky above but if he looked out through the window in the corridor outside the coupe Roy could still see the sun as it was setting in the west. The approaching darkness in the right window and the light straight in from the left conspired to create an atmosphere in the coupe that was almost surreal.
As the rain began in earnest the heat receded and the air grew less oppressive. Maybe it was time to freshen up, get a shower and put on some clean clothes. Technically, Roy didn’t have anything that was actually clean, but he’d had the opportunity to air some of his things out a few days ago and he’d not worn all of them again since then.
There was a shower room at the other end of the car and he made his way there to get refreshed. Once back he felt a new man, clean and comfortable. He’d even bothered to shave and that was a rare effort. His facial hair grew something fierce and he’d be sporting a shaggy black beard when he woke up in the morning. He sat back and for the first time that day was able to enjoy the ride; the train hurtling across the plain with rain whipping at the grass and wind hammering at the window. There were even a few forks of lightning at the horizon. It was a spectacle of nature and he reflected over how it would have made a great photo in some glossy magazine.
A few hours later he was sitting at the tiny bar in the bistro car nursing a cold but watery lager. Alene was at the other side of the bar preparing a meal for one of the other travelers; rice from a pressure cooker, some kind of meat from a little sealed plastic bag heated in the microwave and greens from a big box of pre-mixed salad.
The little restaurant was nearly full but most of the guests had already eaten and were about to leave. The businessmen had sobered up and while they were a large group, they’d eaten mostly in silence. The kid and his mother had already left but another little family was still around finishing up their meal.
Other travelers occupied the handful of remaining tables. Most of them were regular humans travelling alone but a pair of elves made a very notable exception. One of them might have been female but the way they looked and dressed made it difficult to tell.
Even for elves these two were odd. Rather than the long manes and flowing robes usually favored by elves these two wore their hair cut short and dressed in immaculately tailored black suits. On humans the look would have spoken of old money, enormous wealth and good breeding. On the elves it looked strange and ominous, almost sinister.
Roy had no idea what their appearance signified; he’d never seen elves like these before. He also wasn’t about to ask. He usually didn’t have any issues with elves and even knew a few well enough to call them friends, but these two were something else entirely. Cold and distant their bearing discouraged anyone from approaching them and other than ordering their meals neither of them uttered a single word.
She had been polite and courteous when taking their order and serving them, but despite this Roy couldn’t help but notice something wasn’t quite right. The other humans in the car ignored the elves but every now and then he caught Alena starring in their direction with a very unpleasant look in her eyes.
It was quite clear she disliked them beyond the usual disapproval most humans had for elves. She’d not said anything about why, but he’d ask her about it later, once things quieted down a little.
“Bastards! It's their fault I am what I am.” The two elves had been the last to leave and towards the end Alene had been near bursting with impatience and anger. They’d finally left and the girl was now busying herself cleaning up the place and muttering under her breath.
“How do you mean? Was it one of them who turned you?” Roy was a bit unsure of what she’d meant. Elves were almost never afflicted by theriantropy and it was even rarer that one of them would turn a human. It had happened, of course, but not in his lifetime.
“No, don’t be silly. They didn’t turn me.” She almost sneered at him as she was attacking a stain on a table with a wet rag. “They created my animal, my entire species. My animal isn’t real, it’s just a construct; we’re some elf’s bloody experiment.”
Roy didn’t know what to say. He’d met many a strange theriantrope throughout the years, but none of an animal stemming from genetic engineering. “Oh…” was all he eventually managed to say. “That must be difficult.”
“You have no idea. We have no natural habitat. Our instincts are completely messed up from all the crossbreeding and there are so few of us we might as well be extinct.” She sighed in exasperation and went to grab a mop from a cupboard behind the bar and started cleaning the floor. “In fact, there haven’t been any non-terry rainbow coyotes for generations. The last one died before I was even born. There’s just us afflicted humans left now and there’s few enough of us.”
He’d never heard of something like this before. He knew elves liked their breeding and experimentation and creating new species, but he’d never heard of any of these experiments being the base of theriantropic affliction. Roy sipped his beer and reflected on what he’d just heard. As a wolf he had both a natural habitat and very clear animal instincts. He’d known from early on how to hunt and how to behave in a pack. Not that he’d been in a pack or in his natural habitat for years, but at least he knew - this girl didn’t. “I’ve never heard about that before.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. The elves don’t talk about how their experiments fail or break free and there are few enough of us we can’t make a fuss about it. I know six more rainbow coyotes and as far as I know there aren’t any others, anywhere.” She put a bit of extra emphasis on the last word, as if to challenge him to defy her, maybe hoping he knew something despite him just having said he didn’t.
She scrubbed ferociously on the floor, even though she’d already cleaned that spot a moment ago. Roy didn’t say anything and they were both silent for a while, he with his beer and she with her mop.
The sun had long since se and it was fully dark outside now. The rain was still falling, insistently tapping on the windows. The wind could be heard as a low keen howling. Suddenly it picked up and grew into a deafening roar. The entire car shook. Roy grabbed hold of the bar to keep his balance. Alene staggered but remained upright. Plates and glasses rattled behind the bar and something hit the floor with a crash and the sound of thousands of little pieces of glass being scattered all over.
“And that’s why we’re stopping in Forest for the night.” Alene’s smile was grim after the car stopped shaking. “Better make sure the hatches are secure and then I’ll do the rest of the cleaning later.” She sighed and went back to the bar, put the mop into the cupboard and started sweeping up the broken glass.
“You’d better get back to your coupe and get some rest. I’ll come and get you once we’ve stopped in Forest. You’re coming running with me tonight.” Her tone and smile were ones of mock command but Roy thought he could detect a pleading edge to her.
He gave her his best submissive face and told her he’d do as his mistress commanded. They both laughed. She said not to worry about the rain and that she’d bring extra towels for afterwards and then he was on his way back to the coupe.
Alene was a strange creature. Despite her tragic fate she seemed a strong person. She kept up appearance and her human aspect appeared respectable and in control of herself. He wondered how long it had been since she was turned, a couple of years at least, but no more than full hand.
It struck him again how alike Toivo she was, just younger and skinnier and, well, different in all kinds of ways but still very alike. He knew he wasn’t making any sense but then, when it came to Toivo, he rarely did. In the same way, changing into a wolf to go running across the plain with Alene probably wasn’t the sensible thing to do.
He didn’t know how he could refuse though, not after what she’d told him. Roy was used to running on his own but he knew what it was like to be part of a pack and he knew that if he wanted to he would be able to find and join one. That wasn’t possible for Alene. There were too few of her kind and from what she’d said they didn’t have the instincts needed to function properly as a group.
He had no way of knowing how often she got to go running with someone else but he imagined it wouldn’t be that often. It might be a good experience for her to join up with an old wolf like him he thought and tried not to feel too proud of himself. He had to acknowledge she probably knew the plains a lot better than him. He’d never been here before and she’d most likely been running them in the past, probably with others she also met on the train.
At the thought of Alene running with others Roy felt a sting of jealousy and as he realized he scolded himself for being a fool. He wouldn’t be any different from any other theriantropes she’d encountered on her trips across the plain and he had no claims on her. He shouldn’t even be feeling jealous. His journey had a goal and a purpose and getting involved with some girl he met along the way, however unlikely it might be, wasn’t part of the plan.
Thoughts in complete disarray Roy folded down the wall-mounted bed in his coupe and resolved to try and get some sleep. He didn’t know how much time he had until they arrived in Forest, but he knew that if he was to turn wolf and go running he’d better be well rested.
Part 2 - Running With Fishes.