The Plains only looked flat. Rain and melt water etched gullies across the landscape. The larger were steep edged chasms, the smaller hid in the seed grass and could trap the unwary rider or crack the axles of non-tracked vehicles.
One of these lesser cracks had run up to the express rail tracks across the Plains. Water from a flash downpour had gouged the easiest way toward lower ground, until it met the steel, wood and gravel barrier. Culverts had been built under the tracks to funnel the wash into an ditch that ran along the western side of the tracks and fed several irrigation reservoirs. However, several of the culverts were clogged up with dirt and waterproofed hides. It had been a wishful attempt at sabotage. Any half thorough check would reveal it before any damage was done, but no such check had been forthcoming.
The water pooled for hundreds of spans along the track’s length until it reached the top of the bank and took the path of least resistance. As the flow rate increased, the wash began to carry fine silt, then coarse sand and finally the gravel itself away from the rail bed. Eventually the rails and sleepers were resting on a bed of air for a distance of twenty spans.
The next work crew was due in a few days time, but there were two huge freight trains to come before then. Each carried a days produce from Reff- rolled steel, tubing, cutlery and more- to the fabrication plants south of Cora and Munss. Four locomotives were necessary to pull the great weight of the train, and its inertia once up to speed was legendary. There were ships that could come to a halt faster.
Since the invasion, attacks against the express tracks- especially this eastern one- had been a regular occurence. Hence a defensive wagon was coupled to the front of the great train. It was about the size of a standard coal carrier, but with a squat pyramidal shape of slanting armour. Heavy autoguns protruded from all sides and the forward corners and there was an anti air cupola on the top that doubled as a spotter’s perch. Every so often the captain of the anti-air would interrupt his scanning of the Plain to stare ahead to where the tracks distorted and disappeared into the heat haze.
He spotted the stain of washed out gravel far too late, and hesitated before reporting it to the chief driver. The collaborator in the front engine quickly guessed what the stain was. He swung the great steam brake lever into the full lock position. Steam was purged from the drive system and the engine disappeared in it’s own cloud. Then the shoes jammed down on the drive wheels, raising sparks and glowing red then yellow.
The second locomotive pushed hard into the first, hard enough to trip its own braking system. The crew of the defensive wagon were shaken and battered as the signal rippled along the length of the train in a series of collisions. The anti air captain was thrown from his position, stood on one of the gun’s seats for a better view. He hit the angled bank of the ditch and slid and twirled down it.
The unsupported rails bent under the weight of the defensive wagon, but didn’t buckle or throw it off. Just as the crew began to believe they were safe, the front locomotive hit the gap and sank into the hole. The wagon reared up as its rear was pulled down, then twisted and flipped over. The anti air cupola became so much scrap before the locomotive mounted the wagon, collapsing the armoured compartment and pushing the remnants along like a wrecker blade.
From his resting place in the ditch, the anti air captain could see his former office tearing up sections of track. Eventually the second locomotive kicked out and twisted the wreckage before it around. The third locomotive hit the second side on. The steam explosion threw it up into the air, where it twisted around to land upside down. The fourth loco slewed into the ditch and slid along on its side.
Wagons were rushing past him, brake blocks sparking but not keeping them from the the carnage ahead. Derailment was transferred up the line as wagons hit the backs of each other. There was a crash and shriek and the captain’s position was blotted out by shadow. The ground shook as the wagon hit the ground on the far side of the ditch and tipped over. Mere spans ahead of the captain chunks of coal the size of his head rained into the ditch.
There were other crashes and rumbles receding into the distance. Hands over his head the captain wept with terror. Eventually he noticed the relative silence of spinning wheels and fires. Rising to a crouch he reached out and touched the body of the wagon above him. His left arm was broken, and blood and mud coated his face from a gash across his scalp, but he could walk. After a number of false starts he managed to drag himself up the edge of the ditch and survey the damage.
Some of the rear wagons, about a quarter of the train’s immense length, hadn’t tipped over or spilled their loads. Figures were swarming from the rear engineers’ car. Some spotted him and started running in his direction.