“To catch a train, you’ve got to think like a train,” Nik’s brother said.
Alice scoffed. “Pull the other one.”
“He’s correct, you know.” A Librarian was consulting a train timetable of some description. It looked a little like a tesseract, continually twisting and unfolding in ways that were hard to follow and almost painful to look at. “Wild trains out there on the plains are pretty hard to catch.”
“You’ve got to catch them, train them and attach the reins. The reins on a train from the plains, they explain,” the fortune teller said, grinning broadly. Alice groaned in response. The puns were getting intolerable.
“Admittedly,” A Librarian continued, “the reins on trains are mainly for the Games.”
[You Are Quick To Assign Blame For The Reins On Trains.] She ‘heard’ Twelfth’s contribution to the cascade of assonance, tried briefly to suffer in silence and then spoke.
“How soon’s the train? You’re hurting my brain,” was the only dignity she gave the avalanche of puns.
“Fifteen minutes,” said A Librarian, ‘folding’ the multidimensional train timetable with a soft shoop, “so we’ll have a few minutes in hand when we get there.”
“Isn’t that cutting it a little fine?”
“Not really. The station’s just past the market, so it’s only a couple tiers up.” replied A Librarian, absently.
Alice looked up, but the space inside the trunk of Foyer was getting steadily denser with clusters of buildings and walkways, along with thickets of supporting struts, ropes and chains.
“Okay then, but w- gah!” she nearly collided with A Librarian, who had suddenly stopped.
“Oh ash and ink, I didn’t think about this,” he said, looking ahead at walkway that had just come into view. Or, rather, hadn’t. The path abruptly ended, before resuming something like fifty feet ahead. Between the ends, there was a dizzying drop – at the bottom of which, lying across the roof of a small building, was the shattered remains of the rest of the walkway.
“Is there another way?” Alice asked.
“Well, look.” He indicated an A Librarian who’d just reached the other side of the divide. Without missing a step, she walked straight across a thin rope strung across the gap – one that Alice had previously overlooked. She didn’t even look up from the futuristic-looking Kindle-style thing she was reading as she stepped off the end of the rope, hopping down onto the path and walking past them.
Alice gulped. “I-I, um, can’t do that.”
“Far be it from me to claim I can’t do a thing,” said the fortune teller, “but I can’t either.”
[Oh. I Can Help With That,] said Twelfth cheerily. [If I May?]
“Way ahead of you,” he replied, stepping up onto her offered hand.
“Er,” Alice said, gingerly sitting on one of Twelfth’s huge hands, “are you sure this is the best idea?”
[Hmm. I Have A Better Idea. A Librarian, If You Sit On My Shoulder, I Can Take You The Rest Of The Way To The Station.]
“Wait, wh-” Alice began, but Twelfth had started moving, leaping directly upwards from the platform, and her breath caught in her throat.
Cradling a whooping fortune teller and an extremely startled Alice in each arm, Twelfth caught one of the metal struts supporting a wide platform above them with a clang. With no visible effort, she heaved herself up into the branching forest of supports, ropes and chains, moving upwards through them with the practised ease of a giant bone spider.
Alice took a few seconds to get her breath back before speaking. “Okay. I wasn’t actually expecting that.”
[It Is The Most Direct Route. I Apologise If I Acted In An Unexpected Manner,] said the bookbinder, as she clambered up over the edge of the platform, revealing a densely-packed grouping of market stalls, surrounded by a busy foot-traffic of A Librarians and the occasional Bookbinder or Masquerade, milling about with various degrees of purpose.
There was a ceiling, a high and vaulted canopy stretching across the width of the hollow trunk, and the foot traffic wasn’t limited to the planked floor: the occasional Masquerade moved across the ceiling or walls like a wooden spider, nine or so limbs sticking out from their voluminous clothing, occasionally hanging from or swinging between the mess of chains and ropes that hung down from the ceiling like vines, or maybe roots. Flickering paper lantern jellyfish slowly drifted around, trailing paper tentacles on the heads of the people below. Manning the stores were a variety of merchants from species Alice hadn’t seen before hawking their wares – wares that varied from what seemed to be liquid light, sold by a harpy or something (but with far more eyes), to various strange and concerning visceral meats, offered by a man who looked an awful lot like a humanoid goat. A devil, according to A Librarian, from a Realm called Sheol.
Twelfth strode through the crowd, the very presence of a bookbinder parting the crowd as she made her way to a wide set of spiral stairs leading upwards, next to a sign that seemed to indicate a train, or maybe some kind of insect. Gently, she set her passengers down on the stair, and then the four of them made their way up to the next ‘floor’, Foyer Transit Central.
Bookbinders stood along the back of the platform impassively, each of them bearing a white sash patterned with grey train tracks atop their homemade-looking outfits. The platform was oddly sleek, seemingly varnished wood, and the central lift of Foyer came up in its centre. The train station was built in levels, each platform bearing a pair of tracks leading off into tunnels leading to outside the Tree, through which Alice could see a different Layer of the Library, one that seemed to be characterised by copses and clusters of gigantic, dribbling candles, flames in a baffling array of slowly-shifting colours.
Surely that’s a fire hazard, Alice thought; the Library’s mostly made of wood, after all. She was jolted from her thoughts by the sound of a steam whistle.
With a weirdly dissonant clickety-clack, clickety clack a train, looking much like an Underground train, slid through one of the arches. It moved too fluidly, gliding through the trenches besides the platform – despite the fact that there were no train tracks in the station.
Legs. The train had legs, thousands upon thousands of legs, like a millipede. From the jointed metal carapace of the train, low to the ground, insectile legs sprouted, painted metal scuffed by time, carrying the train along with its uncannily smooth gait. It reached its position, slowing smoothly to a stop, before lowering itself down onto its ‘belly’, bringing its doors into line with the level of the platform.
“Told you I wasn’t lying about the training of trains from the plains,” Nik’s brother said smugly.
“It’s a giant centipede. I’ll be inside the body of a giant centipede.”
“Well, not so much,” A Librarian said, “it’s kinda like inside a hollow in its carapace. There aren’t any organs in there, or anything. Mostly furniture.”
[Where Is Your Friend Nik?]
“He’s not gonna be late,” said the fortune teller.
Alice noticed something. “Wait,” she said, turning her head to the side, “the train’s still making a clickedy-clack noise. I thought that’d be its feet, but it’s only got quieter now it’s stopped. If it was its legs, it would have stopped entirely.”
“Oh, those are its mandibles!”
“Yeah,” A Librarian said, “trains use them to navigate, by echolocation, and track their prey, out on the plains.”
“They’re predators? Why do you use gigantic predators as beasts of burden?”
“Their natural prey isn’t enough like A Librarians to be much of a danger – they mostly hunt cars and the occasional bus if they’re working in packs.”
“Where is this? Cars and trains don’t seem to be very Library-thematic,” Alice asked.
“I think they’re originally from the Forge,” A Librarian explained, “but they’ve made their way through most of the known Realms in larval form. Given that they don’t eat wood or paper, they’re not much of an invasive species, along with their prey.”
[It Is More Of A Worry When Wild Trains Attack The Trains That Are Being Used For Public Transport,] said Twelfth, [Although, Tame Trains Tend To Be Bigger, Better Fed And Older Than The Wild Variety, So It Is Not Normally That Much Of A Worry.]
With a triumphant tooting noise, a different train stood and started to leave the station, echoed by a chorus of the whistles of the other trains, further up in Foyer’s station, bidding their colleague goodbye.
“This place is so weird,” she said, staring after the disappearing train in bewilderment.