Eventually Erik arrived in the observation carriage. It was somewhat surreal to him: rows of comfortable chairs set up for viewing nothing but a featureless landscape.
He passed through quickly, exiting the far door into a new carriage the he had not seen before. The interior was brightly lit, which only highlighted the abnormality before him. The carriage was completely empty. Holes in the floor gave testament that it had once been filled with some manner of dividers and chairs, or so Eric assumed. Yet such things were long gone, leaving behind a cavernous vacuum.
In the far corner was Violet, leaning against the back wall and staring out over the fields of trampled carpeting. Cautiously Eirk walked across the expanse and leaned against the wall beside her.
â€œWhat are you looking at?â€
â€œLetâ€™s get to the engine,â€ Eric said, reaching over and tapping the door to the next carriage. â€œFind out whose causing this madness.â€
â€œWhat of Penelopeâ€™s message?â€ she asked, â€œWhat of what happened to Jeff? Eric, I donâ€™t care who or whatâ€™s behind the controls; I just want off this goddamned train.â€
â€œHow can we hope to do that, unless we find out whatâ€™s at the front of this train?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she replied, shaking her head. â€œMaybe, maybe we can just wait until we reach the station?â€
Her words rang hollow, yet the unspoken fear behind them did not. Eric glanced at the door, suddenly feeling uncertain himself if he ought to continue. His mind began running through what he might find at the end of the train, each image cutting further dampening his will to continue.
Unable to move forward, Eric stood still for a time, trying to formulate his next move. Eventually he settled on the idea of rummaging through the luggage for supplies. Though a vestigial fear of repercussions remained, Eric felt that he had to adapt and accept the realities of the train.
â€œLetâ€™s see if thereâ€™s anything useful in the luggage,â€ he murmured.
Violet nodded, walking across the barren carriage in silence. Eric took a final glance at the opposite door, feeling a twinge of curiosity. He batted it away, instead following Violet back towards the luggage carriage. They made it as far as the main sleeper carriage where they found a scene of chaos. Pendleton leaning over Finnegan, who was lying splayed on the floor with a nasty gash on his forehead.
â€œHeâ€™s loose!â€ Pendleton screamed. â€œThat madman is loose! I warned you!â€
Without another word Violet took off running, rushing into the dining carriage with Eric two paces behind. Penelope and Jeff were cowering in the corner, their frightened stares telling the whole story. Eric and Violet ran through the coach carriages, knowing upon entering that the escapee was not inside them.
They slowed approaching the baggage carriage, knowing that he was inside. When Eric tried to take the lead Violet pushed him back, shaking her head. With that she opened the door and crossed the void. Inside the baggage carriage they found who they were looking for.
The escapee was huddled by the rear door, clutching a strange object in his hands.
â€œYou want out, donâ€™t you?â€ Violet said softly.
He looked up, fear in his eyes. A moment later he rose to his feet and brandished a flute like a sword. â€œYouâ€™re one of them.â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m not,â€ Violet said, approaching him. â€œI want off this train too.â€
â€œPlease, believe me,â€ she said softly.
â€œHow can I?â€
â€œGive me a test, and Iâ€™ll follow it.â€
The man thought for a moment, lowering the flute as his face contorted. â€œUncouple this car.â€
â€œDone,â€ she said, turning around.
â€œYou heard him,â€ she said, starting towards the door.
â€œNo, no!â€ Eric said, grabbing her.
A flash of anger crossed Violetâ€™s face. She smacked him across the cheeks and shoved him back. â€œGet to the other side then,â€ she snarled. â€œGo, because Iâ€™m done with this ride.â€
Stunned, Eric retreated from the baggage carriage and across the howling void. By the time Violet leaned out the door to uncouple the carriages her expression had turned around. She smiled at him, her lips trembling.
â€œGuess weâ€™re about to find out which way the train is going,â€ she called, her voice barely perceptible above the wind. â€œSee you later, Eric.â€
â€œSee you,â€ he murmured, sliding the door shut.
The train shuddered a moment later, the floor rocking as the carriages uncoupled. The gap grew quickly between them and within a minute she had been swallowed up by the void. Alone and without purpose, Eric flopped down into one of the seats. He felt defeated, his mind going over the series of events and searching for the fatal mistake.
A while later he picked up one of the pieces of luggage that he had tossed to Violet. Inside he found a bag of fancy chocolates and some swimming gear. After tossing the swimming gear aside he dug into the chocolates, eating half the bag before he knew what he was doing. Panting, Eric stuffed the candy under his jacket and walked away.
In the dining carriage he was confronted by Penelope, who appeared quite worried.
â€œYou donâ€™t have to fret anymore,â€ Eric assured her. â€œThat man is gone.â€
â€œOh good,â€ she said, breathing a sigh of relief, â€œlike he looked super scary.â€
Eric nodded, trying to step around her.
â€œSheâ€™s gone too,â€ he replied, producing the bag of chocolate. â€œWant some candy?â€
â€œCandy!â€ she cried, â€œlike, did she die or something?â€
â€œNo, she decoupled the carriage.â€
â€œBut, like, wonâ€™t she be lost then?â€
â€œProbably,â€ Eric muttered, shoving past her, â€œout of the way.â€
In the next carriage he found Finnegan back where he had originally found him, though he appeared a worse for the wear. He was lying across the bench with a makeshift bandage wrapped around his head. Pendleton was sitting across from him, keeping an eye on the old manâ€™s vitals.
Pendleton glanced at Eric, giving him a contemptuous look before returning to the wounded man. Eric did not begrudge his fellow passengerâ€™s opinion, holding a similar view himself. Out of the corner of his eye Eric saw the door to the next carriage closing, which alarmed him as everyone on the train had been accounted for.
Preparing for a fight, he crept along the hallway and through the doors. in the next carriage he was confronted by a little girl in a yellow dress. She looked up at him expectantly, smiling a real smile.
â€œOh good,â€ she said, â€œCould you help me find the conductor?â€
â€œWhat?â€ Eric said, confused.
â€œPen wouldnâ€™t let me leave our cabin,â€ she replied, â€œsaid it was too dangerous. But, if we find the conductor then he can sort this whole mess.â€
â€œHeâ€™s not at the rear of the train, I can tell you that,â€ Eric said, glancing over his shoulder. â€œAnyway, Iâ€™m not sure that exploring further is the best idea.â€
â€œWhy ever not?â€
â€œBecause, there might be mysteries on this train that should be left alone.â€
â€œThatâ€™s silly, every mystery should be solved,â€ she replied giggling. â€œCome on, letâ€™s meet the conductor.â€
After hesitating a moment, Eric fell in behind her, hoping that she had the right idea. Around the longue carriage he suddenly remembered who she was.
â€œYouâ€™re Abby, right? Pendletonâ€™s sister?â€
â€œMhhmm,â€ she replied, nodding.
â€œPerhaps we should get your brother along too?â€ he asked, worried that Pendleton might get the wrong impression from their joint venture.
â€œNo, heâ€™s a stick in the mud.â€
â€œHe might get upset at us, you know?â€
â€œOf course I know that,â€ Abby said dismissively, â€œbut I want to solve the mystery too much to worry about that.â€
Eric fell silent, having been defeated by a ten year old. Past the observation carriage was another couch carriage, though this one was littered with discarded debris. Paper cups and plastic containers crunched beneath his feet.Â When Abby opened the door to the next carriage Eric was struck by the stench of grease and diesel fumes.
Abby appeared hesitant on the threshold of the next carriage. Eric leaned over her and opened the next door, howling wind buffeting them as they were exposed the night air. Intertwined with the wind was the hum of engines running just ahead. A small sigh of relief left Eric as one of his nightmare scenarios crumbled into dust.
His young friend rapidly regained her footing and then jumped across the gap, pulling herself onto the exposed walkway around the engine. She turned around and shouted something at Eric, and though her words were lost in the wind he understood completely. He braved the gap, battling his way along the walkway towards the door ahead. It was already open when he arrived, the cramped interior offering a respite from the wind.
He leaned against a wall, breathing a sigh of relief. The relief vanished when he took a good look around. Abby was seated in a chair before the windows, spinning around absentmindedly. There was only a chair, Eric realized. Where the controls ought to be there was only a sheet of vertical metal. No one else was there, and a glance at the back of the cab revealed no access point to the diesel engines themselves.
For a time he quietly took it in, his mind going blank. it was almost a relief when the furious Pendleton came barreling through the door. He picked Eric up by his lapels and rammed him against the wall.
â€œWhat were you thinking!?â€ he screamed, his voice reverberating through the cabin.
â€œPen, calm down!â€ Abby yelped, rushing over to grab her brother.
â€œStay out of this Abby!â€ he roared, his fingernails pressing painfully into Ericâ€™s shoulders. â€œThis doesnâ€™t involve you!â€
â€œOf course it does,â€ she said, â€œI lead him here, and we solved them mystery.â€
â€œWhat are you talking about?â€
â€œThereâ€™s no one in control of this train,â€ Eric said, nodding towards the nonexistent controls.
â€œYep, itâ€™s an auto train Pen.â€
Pendleton stared, his mind reeling from the sight. He stepped back several paces, accidentally crossing the threshold. The wind knocked him over and sent him falling backwards. Eric jumped forward and grabbed him, pulling the hapless Pendleton back from oblivion before his Sisterâ€™s initial scream was half done.
The fright knocked the wind out of Pendleton, who slumped to the cabin floor and curled up into a ball.
â€œPen?â€ Abby said softly, leaning over her brother. â€œYou gonna be alright?â€
â€œFine,â€ he gasped, â€œIâ€™ll be fine Abby.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good,â€ she said, cradling his head in her arms.
Time passed slowly in the cabin, though Eric now wondered if time was passing at all. Eventually Pendleton gathered himself enough to make the trek back to into the main body of the train. By the time they arrived at the diner carriage everyone was present. A slightly woozy Finnegan beckoned them towards the table, holding a bottle of wine.
â€œWhere did you get that?â€ Eric asked, pulling up a chair.
â€œOne of the bags you tossed over,â€ he replied.
â€œInteresting, I found some chocolates,â€ he said tossing the bag out onto the table.
His fellow passengers took a few of the sweats apiece. Minutes later Penelope snuck out and retrieved more food from the baggage. Fine cheese and a package of dried fruits were added to their feast. Slowly their spirits improved. So much so that it was awhile before Eric noticed that the landscape was slowing down.
He pointed towards the window, the rest of them understanding what it meant. The rattling of the train coming to a stop and the total silence which followed where more unsettling than anything that had come before.
Eric rose from his chair, everyone else following suit. They cued up before the door to the outside world, carefully exiting onto a lonely station platform build in the middle of nowhere. The lights from the roof above were bright enough to blackout the surrounding scenery into nothing more than a featureless plain stretching out forever in all directions. There was no writing anywhere to hint at where they might be.
While standing dumbfounded beside the train, a light appeared far out in the darkness. It winded its way along the landscape, becoming a silvery bus as it drew near. The bus stopped on the other side of the platform, its door opening invitingly.
Slowly they made their way up to the door, crowding around the threshold. Inside was a friendly looking driver in blue overalls and a composition cap.
â€œEvening folks,â€ he said cheerfully.
â€œEvening,â€ Eric said, glancing at everyone else. â€œWhere are we exactly?â€
â€œLast stop,â€ he replied, offering a broad smile. â€œNow, how about yaâ€™all get on board now so I can finish my run? You look tired and banged up.â€
Eric looked at the nervous faces of his fellow passengers, then back at the now familiar train.
â€œMind telling us what bus company is this?â€ Pendleton asked, â€œIâ€™m not sure I can afford the fee.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry about no fees, sir. Itâ€™s all taken care of.â€
â€œActually, I think I left something on the train,â€ Pendleton said, pulling Abby away.
â€œLike, I did too, dude,â€ Penelope said, joining the retreat.
â€œIf you insist,â€ the bus driver said bemused, â€œIs anyone getting on my bus?â€
â€œNah,â€ Eric said, walking back across the platform.
With a sigh the bus driver closed the door, before driving off into the night. The passengers settled back into the dining car, the train soon getting back underway. Exhausted, Eric retreated back to a sleeper cabin, settling in for a long nap. The first rays of dawn sunlight flickered through the windows, colors flooding back into the outside world just as Eric fell into dreamland.