16 July, 188x, New Babbage year 5
The conductor of the afternoon northbound express stood on the platform next to the train, taking alternate turns in looking at the passengers boarding the train and the minute hand on the large silver-cased watch he wore. They had made it into the Palisade Station on time, but he was beginning to get a little nervous as recoaling and rewatering the tender was stretching down into his buffer time. He was friendly to the oncoming passengers, even if the closing time made him get a touch more direct with each tick closer to departure time. He was just about to raise his hand to signal the engineer when a figure in a charcoal gray habit and coif stepped out from behind a group of Caledonian tourists on the platform. The nun was in the habit of a Sister of Theano, one of the more heavily cloistered orders of the Church of the Builder. The conductor paused for a second as the nun stepped up onto the car behind him. He pivoted to look at her and only saw dark glasses shaded behind the veil.
“You’re the last one Sister. You nearly missed the train.” He said, turning back to his task.
“Mais non frère. The Builder has it in his plans.” She replied, smiling to herself as she hoisted her valise and headed for her seat. The engine’s whistle broke into a plaintive scream as the line of cars lurched forward, heading north out of New Babbage into the mountains and beyond. The sister settled into her seat in the rearmost coach of the train in an unoccupied row near the door.
Emmanuelle leaned back and tried to relax as the train crossed the Fells Aqueduct and began the short climb to the first tunnel on the line. The coach plunged into darkness, and as it did so she tried to settle back and enjoy the ride to her destination.
The decision to wear the coif and veil as well as the habit turned out to be a good one. She had always heard that most of the Orders within the Church that covered their heads were typically the least chatty with the public at large, and this seemed to be the case as the day drug on. With the exception of one slightly tipsy penitent who decided he was ready to confess his entire life’s litany to the first person of the cloth he saw, Emmanuelle was undisturbed, nodding in and out of sleep with the rocking of the coach. The conductor walked past, and she tapped him on the arm. He smiled and turned to her.
“Yes Sister, what can I do for you?” She smiled as sincerely as she could, and looked at him over her tinted spectacles. “Can you tell me how long before we get to Bump?” He shot her a curious look and gave the watch in his waistcoat pocket a quick glance. “Probably another 20 minutes or so. See that mountain there?” He gestured out the window to a long snowcapped ridge in the distance, “That’s the Shinbone. Once we cross out of the last of the mountains, it’ll be a quick run across the Flat and the next place that isn’t just sand will be Bump. I have to ask miss, er, Sister, have you got business in Bump? It is a rough town by most accounts and normally…”
“…people don’t get off the train in Bump? I know, but sometimes we must be about the Builder’s business.” Emmanuelle tried to look sincere and friendly, but the look came across a little less so. The conductor nodded and mumbled something low under his breath as he walked away. She couldn’t help but grin a bit to herself, as a bit of seeming religious zealotry would be as good a bit of camouflage as anything.
Emmanuelle leaned towards the window and looked towards their destination. Across the flat grassy plain she saw a bare rise of land that shone against the grass like the top of a partially buried sun-bleached skull. The town was small and spare, much as one looked that she had seen out west near a played-out mine or a rarely used cattle trail. As the train drew closer, it became more clear the meanness of the town…a single siding, a short passenger platform that really needed a coat of paint, a water tower and a coaling station, and two rows of buildings along the central street. The train began to slow, and the conductor began walking the aisle and chanting a familiar phrase. “Only a few moments while the locomotive is being serviced. Stay on the train if possible, we should be underway in a few minutes.” As soon as he finished the sentence, Emmanuelle stood, brushing down her skirts and reaching for her bag. The conductor turned and looked, but before he could say anything else the lady in the habit was out the door and off onto the platform. He watched her walk down the center of the street and said a quiet word on her behalf to whoever heard the prayers of fools and railroadmen.