The Van Wessel Brothers in Hell on Rails

Michael Panush

Note: The characters of the Deranger and Judas the Train are the creations of John LaRocco, known on Fictionpress as Jave Harron They originally appeared in his story entitled 'A Train to Nowhere' and are used here with his permission.

The town of Lost Junction, Arizona had once been the thriving center of a dozen intersected railroads. In the center of the red dusty plains, orange rock towers rising from the desert around it, Lost Junction had bustled with traffic, passengers getting off and on various trains, buying supplies at the numerous stores, and patronizing the city's grand hotels. But that time was gone. Now, other railroads bypassed the city and it was abandoned, a deserted ghost town in every sense of the word.

That wasn't quite true. Lost Junction did have one resident, but whether or not he was of the living or dead seemed up for judgment. He stayed in the lobby of Lost Junction's Grand Central Hotel, living in the lobby, now transformed into his home and workshop. A large king-sized bed rested in the corner, tables covered with oddly printed tomes, dust settling on their open pages, pieces of desert animals, rare plants and dozens of odd implements and trinkets, surrounded a large armchair in the center of the room.

In this armchair sat the only man in Lost Junction, a pale faced vulture of a man with piercing dark eyes, skin the color of curdled milk and snow white hair falling down his shoulders. He wore a top hat and a dark suit, and his long-nailed fingers rested on the pages on one of his books, tapping over a grisly illustration of a some ancient heathen sacrifice.

Suddenly, he looked up. The sound of hooves pounding on the dirt made his ears prick up and his pale tongue moisten his dry lips. He came to his feet and listened as the sound drew closer. One horse, approaching quickly. He heard the horse stop, a man dismounted outside of the Grand Central, and then he saw fine dress shoes and white trousers under the swinging doors of the hotel.

"Who are you, traveler?" the pale man whispered.

The newcomer pushed open the double doors and walked in, the doors swinging shut behind him. He was dressed in a neat white suit and vest with pearl gray pinstripes, a silver tie tucked under his collar. He had light blonde hair under a white bowler hat and a thick blonde moustache. He walked over to stare at the pale man. "The name's Nero Van Wessel, of the East Coast Van Wessels. I've come to have some words with you, Theolonius Gar."

"The name is familiar to me," Theolonius Gar said, his voice a low hiss. He pointed to a dusty chair, rarely used. "Please, sit."

"Thank you, good sir." Nero sat down, crossing his legs. He carried twin pearl-handled revolvers on his waist. "I'm not here on family business, but on business of another kind." Nero looked at the odd assortment of objects covering the table. His eyes fell on the open book in front of Gar. "Doing some reading, eh?"

"Research into the sacrificial rites of the ancient Aztecs," Gar hissed. "They would in some cases, strip the skin of a willing victim, don it, and dance before the blood-crazed crowd, all for a good harvest. Amazing what some will do for a little profit, isn't it Mr. Van Wessel?"

"Indeed," Nero agreed. "That's why I'm here in fact. You control a sizeable amount of the criminal activity in the South Western United States, Mr. Gar. Not a train that gets robbed from here to Tucson does so without your permission or without you getting a hefty portion of the proceeds. You rule all smuggling along the Arizona territory's border with Mexico and receive profits from banditos south of the borders as well. In fact, it seems that everywhere there is a rail line that passes through Lost Junction, you have some influence."

"You speak the truth, Mr. Van Wessel," Gar said. "What of it?"

"I represent a man named the Harlequin," Nero explained. "No doubt you have heard of him. He controls a network of crime that reaches around the world. In short, he wants in. He sent me to discuss this and work out a deal. You will give the Harlequin access to your operations and in return, he will become your willing and beneficial business partner. You can negotiate all the details through me." Nero grinned and held out his hand. "Well?"

"No," Gar replied quickly. "That is my answer." He sneered at Van Wessel. "Crawl back to your lord, errand boy. Tell him he can drown in his bath tub for all I care. Tell him Theolonius Gar rules his territory through dark energies that he cannot comprehend, and tell him that I will unleash them upon him unless he keeps his nose out of my business."

"Oh." Nero gulped. "Well, Mr. Gar, may I ask you to reconsider? You see, I've been working for the Harlequin for just a little bit, and I haven't exactly done my best to endear myself to him. He asked me to retrieve a Mayan artifact for him. I failed. Then he asked me to locate a diamond rich valley in Rhodesia. Again I failed. Now he asks me to secure an alliance with you, Mr. Gar. He didn't state it exactly, but I think I will need to fear for my safety if I fail."

"You are a useless dandy," Gar said. "And you deserve nothing but death!"

"There's no need to be rude," Nero said, coming to his feet. "I warn you, Mr. Gar, if you will not act more peaceable, I will wreak havoc on your operations. I am a man of violence, despite my calm and handsome appearance."

Gar merely laughed. "Will you spill hair tonic on me, fancy man?" He came to his feet and held out his hands. "I don't rule this territory by being a fool, Mr. Van Wessel."

"Is that so?" Nero asked. "You don't have a single man under your employ. You have no visible weapons on you either. It is a most perplexing mystery."

"Isn't it?" Gar spread his arms, pointing to the railroad. "My weapons are all around me, boy. The rails that crisscross this land, like blood vessels within the body, carrying everything the country needs to live." He walked to the window and stared outside. "Nobody quite understand the rail. The Indian fears it, as the fire-spewing Iron Horse. The Chinese that built it, they littered the caverns and valleys with their dead and buried, rituals whispered over each hasty grave. Those that follow Voodoo lay sacrifices upon it for their gods. The white man thinks he can control the Iron Horse, but he's more foolish than all the others."

Nero stared in surprise at Theolonius Gar. "I don't understand," he said.

"You will. Ride out of here and never return or I will make sure you understand." Gar looked at him. "Leave now."

"Very well. But I will return tomorrow, and I will expect you to behave yourself in a much more courteous manner, Mr. Gar." Nero reached into his coat as he walked for the door. "And I will show you just what a nuisance I can be when angered." As he stepped outside, he withdrew a black metal disc the size of a cracker tin from his coat, a small gramophone affixed to its midsection and gold filigree inscribed around the sides and top.

Quickly, Nero began winding a tiny crank, holding it with two fingers. A voice echoed from the gramophone. "Hello, Mr. Van Wessel!" it said, sounding tinny and small. "How may I help you? Did the negotiatons go well?"

"Our friend Gar needs a little demonstration, Dr. Torrent," Nero explained. "Can you see where I am standing?"

"I'm sitting in the passenger cabin with your younger brother, Mr. Van Wessel, and we are watching Lost Junction through a large telescopic sight of my invention. What do you need?"

"The building across from me, an abandoned bank I believe. Destroy it."

"Will do!" the voice responded.

As Nero walked to his horse, Theolonius Gar stepped out of the Grand Cental Hotel. He looked into the distance, and saw a gray shape smudged against the horizon, a faraway train perched on the faraway railway. From the top of this train, a single gray bolt shot into the sky, followed by a plume of white smoke. The missile soared towards Lost Junction, and Theolonius gasped as it crashed down into the old bank across the street from the Grand Central, demolishing the bank in a curtain of red flame and smoke.

Gar turned to Nero, his top hat falling from his head. Nero grinned at him. "Yes," Nero said. "Quite a nuisance indeed. Do change your mind, Mr. Gar." He spurred his horse and rode off, leaving Lost Junction behind.

He rode away from Lost Junction, heading to the grayish shape in the distance. Nero's horse pounded over the dusty plains, never straying far from the railway, until the gray shape became clear, revealing a large armored train. It consisted of three cars behind the sleek engine. At the rear was the armament car, from which the rocket had been launched. This train car had sloped sides, with firing ports from which Maxim guns and stranger weapons projected, as well as a firing tube on top from which rockets could be fired.

Before that was the car which provided the energy for this odd armored train, for no fumes of steam powered this vehicle. Instead, there was a crackling electrical generator, sitting naked on top of the flatbed trailer. It was an odd trio of long coils, each topped with a silver ball, and sending electrical currents crackling into wires that latched into areas around the train. The passenger car was before that, a luxurious Pullman car purchased from one of their trains, and before that was the engine itself, a sleek vehicle, with no smokestack and a sloping front, golden scrolls set on the silver sides. This was the Electropede, an invention created by Nero's friend and associate Doctor Julius Torrent.

The train was sitting at rest, and a door in the armament car opened, into which Nero rode. After securing his horse, he walked from the armarment car, carefully skirted around the generator car, and entered the passenger compartment.

"How did it go, Mr. Van Wessel?" Doc Torrent asked, greeting Nero was he walked inside. The interior of the Pullman car consisted of a large desk in the corner, two armchairs and a table, bed in small compartments at the side, and a kitchen section towards the rear, the door closed.

Nero sat down in one of the chairs and yawned, pulling off his shoes and sitting them on a small stool. "Reasonably well, I thought. He disagreed vehemently, I blew up one of his buildings and here we are."

Doc Torrent gulped. He was a thin man with an explosion of graying dark hair on his head. He wore a disheveled white lab coat with a vest and bowtie, spectacles askew on his face. "I don't want there to be violence, Mr. Van Wessel. I surely do not. The Electropede was created to carry people around in absolute safety and comfort, and I spent every cent I recieved from the expedition to Tunguska to create it."

"You don't have to remind me that, Dr. Torrent. And I do thank you for agreeing to assist me in this endeavor." Nero sat up. His voice lowered, losing its normally brash tones. "How is Claudius?"

"I'm all right, Nero!" a small voice piped up from the side of the car, where a bed was nestled in an small alcove built into the wall. Nero walked to the bed and looked at his younger brother Claudius, a boy of eleven years. The boy had a pale face and thin wafts of blonde hair, and he was dressed in striped pajamas under the covers. "I'm feeling a bit better."

"Well, continue your rest," Nero said, petting Claudius's thin hair. "And do not hesitate to ask for water or food or soup or anything you may need." He looked at the small copper globe, the size of a billiards ball, sitting on the pillow near Claudius's head. The globe sprouted glassy wings from its sides and fluttered upwards, glowing green holes for eyes and a Torrent Labs 'T' inscribed between them, looking somewhat like a nose. Nero stared at the little automaton. "Has Bee been a good companion to you?" he asked.

"Oh yes," Claudius said. "He's a nice little fellow. He goes to the kitchen and refills my water glass when it is empty." Claudius sat up and held out his hands, letting Bee buzz into them.

Torrent smiled at them. "I think Bee has grown fond of you, dear boy! Most surprising, for the majority of my automatons have but one feeling towards people – an inexhaustible source of hatred. Speaking of which, I would not go into the kitchen. Model X is trying to cook."

Nero looked at the kitchen door and saw reddish liquid sinking out from behind the door. "Is that…"

"Tomato juice and berry jam," Doc Torrent explained. "I think Model X likes it because of its similarity of human blood."

"I don't like it," Nero said. "Having a murderous automaton like X aboard. I know he saved your life in Tunguska, but he was designed for murder and that is what he does."

"You're right, I suppose," Torrent said. "But I know there is some good in him, even so. And if he can only destroy, then the fault is mine, for I created him, and am twice the monster for it." Torrent walked over to the kitchen and pulled open the door. Model X stood inside, holding a bowl in his steel arms and stirring mechanically with a large wooden spoon. Model X was a mechanical man with a cylindrical chest, a round head with two glowing light bulbs for eyes, a large X engraved on his chest, and several gunbelts wrapped around him, two rifles slung over his back.

Model X held out his spoon, and Doc Torrent stared at the reddish liquid that clung to the wooden implement. "I'm sorry, X, but I am not very hungry at the moment," Nero said. Model X merely pushed the spoon out further. Torrent gulped and stuck out his tongue, licking the spoon. "Delectable!" he announced, smiling. "Keep up the culinary skills, X and you will be a master chef in no time!"

After X walked back into the kitchen section and closed the door, Doc Torrent grabbed a glass of water and slurped it down. "I think I could taste prairie dog in there," he whispered. He looked at Nero and Claudius, and saw them close together. "It's just a cold, I think," Torrent said. "Or some tropical disease, fatal in most cases, but he would be dead by now if that was the case."

Nero looked back at Doc Torrent, patting Claudius's head again. The boy had curled over and fallen asleep again. "He's a sickly child," Nero said softly. "And clumsy, and of poor strength and painfully, painfully shy. Sometimes I think he's an even bigger disgrace to my parents than I am, and that makes me hate them all the more."

Doc Torrent stood next to Nero. "You do him dearly, Mr. Van Wessel, I can see that."

"He is my only true friend in the world," Nero whispered. He turned away and sat back down in his chair. "Well, we'll give him some time to rest, and then I'll ride back to Lost Junction before the evening and see if the good Mr. Gar has changed his mind. He was really an odd fellow."

Theolonius Gar stepped out of the Grand Central and walked to the center of the street, a squawking chicken nestled in his arms and a sickle knife in his hands. He walked to the railroad tracks and held out the chicken, holding his blade above it. "O rider of the forgotten rails, O terrible and great one who delivers the dead, o bloody-handed one who walks between worlds, I do leave this blood for thee."

He slashed open the chicken's chest and tossed the dying bird onto the railroad tracks. Gar slashed at his own chin, letting his own blood trickle down. He took a pouch of red Arizona dust from his belt and trickled some to the rusted steel of the abandoned railway. "And with my own blood, and with the dust of the earth, and the do I summon thee!"

The various elements rested on the rails and the old steel hummed and grew red hot. A cold wind blew through Lost Junction and Theolonius held up his hands and closed his eyes. "I do call the train and the driver. I do call the steed and the rider. I do call the bringer of terror, the betrayer of all life and the deranger who pilots it."

Something came down the rails, roaring out of nowhere and speeding down towards Lost Junction. Gar smiled as he gazed upon it. At first glance, it looked like a train, but it was something else entirely, something of flesh and sinew. Its wheels were hardened chitin, its steam was a white spraying mist, and its windows were fleshy eyes. Blue veins pulsed beneath its pale skin. Others cars rumbled behind it, long fleshy intestinal ropes holding them together. Gar nodded. "Judas," he whispered. "The Betrayer of Souls. The Chewer of Lives."

"Reckon she's one nice rig." The voice came from behind Theolonius Gar. He turned around and looked at the Deranger, the entity behind Judas. The Deranger was a tall man with a face like a tanned scab. He wore a dark leather coat, a broad-brimmed hat, a belt of twisted metal and held a disgusting pistol of flesh and bone. "What you need us for this time, boss?"

"The usual," Gar answered. "Someone's giving me trouble. I want him removed." He pointed to the gray shape on the horizon. "He traveled here on horseback, probably from that private train. I want you to ride out and destroy him. Devour everything he has and all the people around him."

"Ain't no big thing," the Deranger replied. He looked at Gar. "You sure do like to call on me for favors, boss. Getting to work up quite a tab, if you follow me."

"What do you mean?" Gar asked.

"You're gonna have to pay the piper, come one of these days." The Deranger walked past Gar and headed to the train. "Course, everyone's gotta do that sometime. Looks like this poor fellow your sending me too is next." The Deranger clambered onto the top of Judas, standing on the roof of the grotesque engine.

Gar stared at Deranger. "Are you saying you dislike my summoning you?"

"Hell no," Deranger replied. "You're just telling me to do my job. And I love my job." Deranger slapped the side of the train with his boot and it set off, speeding down the track towards the other train in the distance.

After making sure Claudius was comfortably asleep and having a small meal, not made by Model X, Nero Van Wessel walked back to the armament car and mounted his horse. The automated door slammed open and Nero rode out, his horse's hooves pounding on the dust. He rode away from the Electropede, still riding near the railroad tracks as he headed back to Lost Junction. And then he saw another train, coming from Lost Junction and speeding towards The Electropede.

Nero slowed his horse and stared at it. "What a weird contraption," he whispered, and then his eyes widened as it drew closer. He saw the oozing vehicle rolling towards him, the fleshy skin rippling as the train moved and he felt his stomach lurch. He sagged in the saddle, fighting the urge to puke.

"Y'all ready to die!" There was a man standing on top of the train, holding a large pistol. "This here's Phetal! It's gonna blow you to pieces that'll be nothing but a morsel for Judas, my engine! The name's Deranger, and you're looking at your own death!"

The train's front spat a long stream of white liquid out, and Nero turned his horse around and galloped away as it splashed down around him. Some of the liquid seeped onto his pants leg, and Nero hissed in pain as it clung to him, burning like acid. He shook his leg and the liquid off as the panicked horse galloped back towards the Electropede.

The Deranger ran to the front of the train, drawing out his pistol and firing. A pointed barb flew out from the mouth of the odd weapon, nearly missing Nero's shoulder. The Deranger fired another shot, the barb sinking into Nero's horse. The animal shrieked in pain and tipped forward, rolling over and spitting out a seething mass of blood and organs as it died. Nero dashed away from the dying animal.

He twisted around and drew out his revolvers, firing at the Deranger. His bullets cracked into the Deranger's legs and the creature fell backwards, landing on the back of the train and sinking into the flesh. The disgusting flesh-train steamed to a halt. Nero looked back at the Electropede, already moving forward to his side. When he looked back at the train, he saw that the Deranger's body was sinking into the flesh, the veins wrapping around his thin body.

"Holy Hell!" Nero whispered. The sides of the fleshy train split and cracked open, and another Deranger poked his loathsome head out. The same thing happened in the top and other side of the train, and soon there were half a dozen Derangers riding on the fleshy engine, aiming their pistols at Nero. Just as the barbs shot off, the Electropede sped to Nero's side. The door to the engine opened and Doc Torrent pulled Nero in, the barbs thudding into the steel of the door.

Doc Torrent looked outside the main window at the flesh train. He pulled a lever, sending the Electropede into reverse. "Did Gar send this odious engine?" he asked Nero.

"I think so," Nero said, catching his breath. "Things like this aren't normally just driving around the prairie. It seems to be some living creature made in the shape of a train." He turned his head to the back, looking at the armaments wagon. "If it lives, then perhaps it can die."

"Head on to the armament car, then!" the Doc cried, pulling another lever. A panel opened in the side of the engine, a cannon reaching out and poking forward. Torrent yanked the lever and it fired, spitting lead in the direction of Judas. Flesh and bone erupted from the train, and it squealed in pain, but continued riding forward. Nero stepped outside of the engine, moving alongside the edge of the train to the armament car.

He twisted around and saw the fleshy train drawing closer, the blood-flecked mist spraying from its front. Out of the mist, the Derangers leapt into the air. They landed on the front engine and moved forward, some moving into the engine while others heading to the passenger car. They fired down at Nero and he pulled himself out of the way, his feet kicking out as he nearly fell off of the train. He secured himself with one hand, drew out his pistol and fired upward.

One of the Deranger's heads exploded in a shower of gore, and the body turned to red dust before is eyes. "Serves you right," Nero whispered, and pulled himself onto the generator car. He looked back and saw two Derangers smash open a skylight in the passenger car and leap inside. Nero gasped, the only thought on his mind being his convalescing brother.

Claudius sat up when he heard two pairs of boots fall heavy on the carpeted floor of the passenger car. He looked over and held his breath, staring at the two dripping cowboy creatures looking back at him.

"Howdy," one said, his voice a harsh Texas twang. "Always do like young ones. Nothing like taking a way a life from one who don't realize its coming. Like the way they holler too." Deranger grabbed Claudius and hauled him out of bed, throwing the boy to the ground. "You gonna start hollering, boy?"

"No…" Claudius whispered, trying to step away. Bee rose off of his bed and buzzed in front of him. A panel in Bee's rear opened, and a small needle projected out, twisting around to face the Deranger. It send out a small blast of electricity, Bee's own 'sting' into Deranger's face.

The Dranger hissed in pain and pushed Bee away, slamming it against the wall. The Deranger ran forward to Claudius, who was frozen with fear on the ground and planted his boot on Claudius's chest. He pressed down, grinning cruelly. "Gonna die bad, boy!" he laughed. "Gonna die bad!"

Just then, the kitchen door opened and Model X stepped out, a Winchester repeating rifle in each metal hand. The automaton fired two shots into the first Deranger, taking the monstrous man from behind and easily shooting through him. The second Deranger turned from Claudius and fired his pistol into Model X's chest, but the barb stuck into the metal armor and did nothing. Model X pulled it out and crushed it in his fist. The Deranger grabbed Claudius and pressed his pistol to the boy's head.

"You're gonna let him die, metal man!" he shouted. "You ain't nothing but tin and smoke! You're just a wind-up toy and you don't care one way or the other whether this little fellow lives or dies!"

In answer, Model X fired his Winchester, blasting the Deranger in the head. The body fell backwards, turning to dust as Nero kicked open the door. Nero looked at Claudius, the poor kid shaking like a leaf, and ran to hold him.

"Are you well?" he asked. "Are you hurt, Claudius?"

"I'm…I'm fine," Claudius said. He walked back to his bed and sat down, as Bee fluttered to his side. "X saved me."

Nero looked at X and nodded his head. "Thank you, sir," he said. X remained impassive. "Now, I fear the good doctor may be in the same dire straits. Come quickly." He ran to the front entrance to the passenger car and kicked it open, then pulled aside the door to the engine and stepped inside.

Doc Torrent huddled in the corner, holding up his phlogogun, but not firing it for fear of burning a blast of energy through some vital part of the engine. Two Derangers were shooting barbs towards him, the pointed organic thorns sticking deep into the metal and spilling out white liquid."Nero!" Torrent cried. "Help me!"

Nero leveled his pistols as the two Derangers faced him. Nero fired first, taking one in the chest. He ducked low and the barb passed over him, the needle point nearly scratching his shoulder. Nero rolled over and fanned his revolver, pumping two shouts into the Deranger. The Deranger turned to dust as he fell.

"What the hell are these things?" Nero asked. "They seem to have strode forth from a nightmare!"

"A supernatural origin, then. Damn it all, I do hate dealing with the occult. It's so…unscientific," Doc Torrent replied, moving over to the control panel and pulling two levers back. The Electropede was speeding away from Judas the flesh-train, but the horrific engine was approaching fast. He fired more cannon shots at the approaching flesh train, but they sank harmlessly into the fleshy folds of the train, slowing it slightly, but not stopping it.

The Deranger appeared again on the top of the train, laughing as he brought up a lasso composed of the same fleshy intestinal ropes that bound the train cars together. "Gonna hogtie you boys!" the Deranger shouted.

Torrent sneered as he yanked a lever out and twisted around. "Let's see how they like this!" he shouted, pushing the lever to the side. The Electropede sped off the tracks, the rails on its wheels lifting up and turning the train into a fully mobile vehicle. Nero laughed as the Electropede sped away from the fleshy train.

"This is brilliant, Doc!" he said, slapping Torrent's shoulder.

"One of the more favorable words used to describe my inventions," Torrent said, grinning. "Now we can easily outrun that disgusting engine and proceed to safety."

They both looked back at Judas and saw the Deranger slapping his spurs into the fleshy roof carriage. Judas let out a loud squeal and twisted around, going off the rails again. The wheels unfurled like pillbugs, each revealing a number of spiky feet. The insect-like legs churned under the dead train, sending it screaming forward towards the Electropede.

As they watched in horror, Judas crashed into the center of the Electropede, jolting the steel under their fleet and causing the train to rock back and forth. Judas spat streams of white acid from its front, which splashed down and corroded the steel sides of the Electropede. Torrent yanked at the levers, cringing as he saw the acid leaking in from the walls and heard his invention sizzle.

Nero ran back into the passenger compartment and saw Claudius hiding under the table, acid dripping around him. He ran to the boy's side and held him close. "What's going on?" Claudius asked. "Is that monstrous train going to burn us in half?"

"Don't worry!" Nero shouted. "The good doctor has a plan! I'm sure of it!" He looked out to the engine car, where Doc Torrent was frantically yanking on the levers and twisting the knobs. "Don't you, Dr. Torrent?"

"Indeed!" Torrent pushed all of the levers upwards. "Run away!"

With a screech of metal, the Electropede flew forward, flying away from Judas. The front of Judas was still pressing against the Electropede's side, and its sprayed out acid as the Electropede slid past. Acid splashed into the passenger car, cutting through the walls and burning holes in Claudius's bed and the other bits of furniture. Nero felt some drip on his back, but he held fast to Claudius and merely gritted his teeth against the pain.

The acid-spraying engine of Judas crashed into the generator car, and the fleshy protuberance touched the flashing coils. The electricity slid into Judas, rippling under its fleshy skin and making the engine writhe in pain. The living train sped backwards, screeching an ear-splitting cry and carrying the Deranger along with it. It zoomed away from the Electropede, moving as fast as its multiple legs could carry it, and headed back towards Lost Junction.

Slowly, Nero stood up and looked at the fleeing train through the large open gash in the side of the passenger car. "Hmmm," he said. "It seems we bested it."

"But we didn't really destroy it," Claudius whispered. "We just sort of hurt it. It will come back, won't it?"

"And we'll find some way to stop it," Nero said. He held out his hand and Bee flew landed on his palm. "Oh, hello there?" He handed Bee to Claudius. "Your friend made it through okay."

X stepped out of the kitchen, a smudge of acid searing its front and revealing the workings within. Doc Torrent stepped gingerly into the passenger car and looked at the damage. He shook his head. "By all the golden lights of intellect," he whispered. "It certainly did some damage." He opened a drawer and withdrew a welding iron and mask, then looked at X. "Come here, Model X. Let me see if I can't weld that shut, and I'll seal it with an iron plate."

Claudius stood up and looked at the large gash that had been carved in the side of the Electropede. "I'm sorry, Dr. Torrent," he whispered. "If you hadn't been carrying us, the fleshy train wouldn't have attacked yours."

"And have you and your brother face that monster on your own? I think not, dear boy!" Doc Torrent shook his head. "No, I am with you until the bitter end! And I think it will be bitter indeed, unless we find some way to wreck that damned Judas-Train."

Nero Van Wessel stared outside, looking at the electrical coils. "The electricity gave it pause," he said. "It doesn't like that."

"Oh?" Torrent clicked on his welding torch and seared the wound in X's chest shut. Nero saw the attention he gave it, the same way a father would care for a beloved child, or the way he cared for young Claudius. "An interesting observation, but how could we use that to our advantage? Another such engagement would do us more damage."

"Is there some way to increase the power of the electric charges?" Nero asked. "Raising them to go out further and strike with greater voltage, perhaps?"

Torrent shook his head. "Well, I could use some nitroglycerine and other chemicals from the armament car to detonate the generator, and the entire train would act as conductor. It would then, of course, explode."

"So it would be destroyed?" Claudius asked. "Your wonderful invention…"

Doc Torrent looked at Nero and Claudius. "Oh, what does it matter?" he asked. "I would gladly sacrifice a thousand inventions for a good friendship!" He patted the sides of the Electropede. "And I can easily build another. Well, I would need another fortune, but I could figure something out."

"Fortunes are a little easy to acquire when I'm involved," Nero said with a grin.

"Then it's settled." Torrent walked to the side door of the passenger car and pushed it open. He looked at the electric generator, the coils sparking and sending out bolts into the dry desert air. "Let's ride this train straight into the mouth of the beast."

Theolonius Gar waited on the deck of the Grand Central for Judas and the Deranger to return. He was surprised when he saw Judas speeding hectically towards Lost Junction, sliding off and on the rails with reddish mist spraying behind it. There were blackened burn marks sprayed across the sides of the flesh train, and the Deranger sat aboard with his heads in his hands.

Judas came to a screeching halt before the hotel and the Deranger leapt off, his boots landing hard on the dusty ground. The Deranger ran to Judas's side, petting the fleshy sides and comforting his train.

"Hush now, darling," he whispered, stroking Judas gently. "Just hush. I know it hurts something awful. Don't you worry though."

The train squealed slightly, but seemed to calm down. Theolonius Gar stared at the out sight, and then walked forward. The Deranger turned to stare at him. Gar saw the look in the Deranger's inhuman eyes and gulped.

"What happened?" he asked.

"A goddamned trap!" the Deranger shouted, grabbing Gar's shoulder. "They had their own train, right there waiting for us, and they fought us off, and just old Judas was closing in for the kill, they sprang some goddamned lightning on us!"

Gar stepped back. "Did you kill the man I asked you too?"

"No," the Deranger shook his head. "Bastard slipped out of my fingers. But I'm gonna go on back and get him good, you got my word on that." The Deranger walked back to Judas and stroked her sides again. "It's all right, darling," he whispered. "You're gonna get your strength back, all of it." He looked at Theolonius Gar. "Time's come for you, boy."

"What do you mean?" Gar knew exactly what the Deranger meant, and his mind was racing. He knew things had gone bad the second the flesh train returned without an air of victory about it. Gar reached into a pouch at his belt, focusing his mind as he grabbed a fistful of white powder. "I summoned you. I brought you forth. You cannot turn on me."

"Now if that ain't a load of bull, I don't know what is." The Deranger laughed. "I ride the coach of death, boy. I'm Hell on the Rails. I'll do whatever I want!" He pulled himself onto the back of Judas and reached for his pistol. "Best start running."

Without another word, Theolonius Gar turned around and started running, reaching his closed fist out of his pouch. The Deranger fired, letting the barb zoom over his head. "Don't worry!" the Deranger said with a laugh. "I like me a good chase!"

Theolonius Gar pounded away down the main street of Lost Junction. True to his word, the Deranger gave him a head start, and then Judas the flesh train squealed to life and came after him, running off the rails and running forward, spraying out streams of acid and pale ichor from the burns in its side. The Deranger sat atop Judas's main engine, swing the bloody intestine lasso around his head.

"Yeee-ha!" the Deranger shouted, and the lasso snaked out from his hands. It wrapped around Theolonius's leg, tightened like a pair of lips slamming shut. Gar fell forward, landing hard in the dust. He turned around as the fleshy train came to a stop.

The Deranger walked forward, his bone spurs jangling as he approached. The fleshy train chirped in anticipation of the coming meal. The intestinal rope tightened, drawing blood and seeming to grow fat, like a leech. Gar twisted around in the dirt and looked up at the Deranger. "Quite a chase, boy!" the Deranger said. "Had me a hell of a time!"

Quickly, Gar opened his fist, showering the Deranger with the powder. It was crushed human bones, and the Deranger fell to his knees, howling with delight. The raw death fed the Deranger, giving him pause, and giving Gar the chance to come to his feet and start running.

He got another couple feet before the intestinal rope tightened and knocked him down. He was right at the outskirts of Lost Junction, nothing but the plains running wide before him, and a single line of rails, stretching out to the horizon. He saw a gray shape, crackling over with lightning and coming fast.

The Deranger walked up behind him, planting a boot on Theolonius Gar's back. "Whooweeee! That was a smart move, boy, tossing up them bones. Too bad it didn't do nothing to get my appetite up." The Deranger pointed to Judas, which was creeping forward on its spindly legs. "Course, when I get hungry, it's the train that gets fed."

He hauled Gar up and started dragging him back. "I'm gonna have old Judas chew you slow, boy!" he said. "All them juices dripping over you, melting you down, gonna get you to do some real hollering!"

Gar looked to the horizon and saw a metal train driving forward. "Help me!" he shouted. "The Harlequin can have everything! Save me and it's all yours! I swear this on my soul, may the devil take me if I lie!"

The Deranger pushed Gar down, kicking him in the chest. He walked back to Judas, staring at the coming Electropede. "Hell," he muttered, petting Judas's side. His hands stuck into the flesh, mixing with his arms as he embraced the train. "All right, darling. Let's give them a fight." He stepped forward, and was sucked into the side of the train.

Judas let out a large bellow, spraying white fog from its front, and rolled forward over the rails.

Nero Van Wessel, Doc Torrent, Model X, Claudius Van Wessel and Bee were in the front cabin of the Electropede, holding on to the handrails tightly as the Electropede zoomed forward. Behind them, the generator car was full of lighting, sparks and bolts crackling around it and burning the armament and passenger cars.

Doc Torrent stared forward through the viewing portal and saw the flesh train riding towards them. "Oh dear," he whispered. "I think we may have a problem."

Nero and Claudius exchanged a glance. The younger Van Wessel had dressed in one of his school uniforms, wearing a suit, vest, knickers, checkered tie and straw boater's hat. He was still a bit shaky on his feet, but a hand from his brother kept him upright. "What sort of problem, my good doctor?" Nero asked.

"That odious engine is coming towards us," Torrent replied. "And its armed."

Nero leaned Claudius against the wall, Bee hovering near the boy's shoulder, and walked to the viewing portal. He saw Judas the flesh train speeding towards them, an army of Derangers riding on the sides and tops of the living cars. They were armed with pistols and intestinal lassoes, as well as longer rifles made of thickened bone and poised stingers. Judas itself was spraying out streams of acid from its front and sides, melting the track in front of it and behind it, and squealing like a stuck pig.

Doc Torrent looked back at Nero. "They'll pick us off before we get close enough."

"Then we blast those bastards off," Nero replied. "Can you control the missiles in the ararment car from here?"

"Ah, the guided projectiles!" Torrent rubbed his hands together, but then his smile vanished. "Regrettably, no. The generator overloading has shorted the controls for their activation. I could guide them from here, but they'd have to be set off first."

Nero walked to the end of the compartment. "Then I'll do it myself. X, my good metal man, will you cover me? And Dr. Torrent, keep an eye on young Claudius while I'm out."

Before Torrent or Claudius could stop him, Nero Van Wessel stepped outside and leapt to the side of the passenger compartment. He inched forward, turning to see the fleshy train drawing closer. A barb whistled past him, nearly knocking him off of the train. Nero raised a pistol and fired back.

Then Model X stuck his steel head out from the window of the engine car, leaning out and taking aim with two Winchester repeaters. He opened fire, spitting death from both guns, working the levers single-handedly, and mechanically raking the sides of the fleshy train with gunfire. The Derangers went down, blasted off the sides of the train and turning to dust before they hit the ground.

Barbs whistled past Model X, one sinking into his head and cracking a light bulb eye. But still Model X kept shooting, blasting more and more of the Derangers, and drawing attention away from Nero. The older Van Wessel had reached the electric generator car, and was looking for some way around the sparking electric coils.

"Damn it all," Nero whispered. "Have to time it just right…" He waited for the energy to stop and then leapt forward, leaping to the next car just as the electricity hummed to life again. His hair stood on end as he felt the energy crackle through him, but then he was free, kicking open the door of the armament car and stepping inside.

He looked around, seeing the sleek steel missile tubes in the corner, but had no way to activate them. Instead, Nero grabbed one of the missiles and held it in his hands. He propped it on the window of the armament car and drew a match from his coat pocket. "No trouble," Nero whispered, lighting on the match on the wall and touching it to the projectile's rear.

A fuse burst to life, spraying Nero with smoke. Nero fell back, letting go of the missile. It landed on the ground, flying into the other packed missiles and setting them off. Nero gulped as he heard dozens of other fuses burning away. "Oh dear," he cried, pulling himself to his feet and running towards the door. He dove through it, pushing the door aside and landed hard in the dirt. Nero rolled over as the armament car exploded behind him, sending dozens of rockets flying into the sky.

Nero rolled around and saw the missiles flying upwards, a plume of white smoke following each one. Then they turned, speeding towards Judas. With a cataclysmic thunder they rain down around the train, blackening the pale flesh and blasting the Derangers off of the train. The engine screamed out loud, blood and flesh flying in all directions.

"Now!" Nero shouted to Torrent. "Hit him with the electricity!"

In the front cabin, Doc Torrent grabbed onto two levers and pulled them up. "Hang on, my friends!" Torrent cried. "We will be airborne!" The lock with the other cars disengaged, and the front engine leapt into the air, fire from a dozen of jet boosters holding it aloft.

The other cars sped under it, the passenger wagon first and then the generator wagon. The passenger wagon crashed into the still reeling Judas. Wood splintered and steel groaned as the passenger car shattered.

The Deranger appeared again on top of his train, pointing his pistol at Nero. Beneath him, his train was screaming like a hurricane. "You done hurt my steed!" the Deranger cried. "You hurt her bad!"

Then, the generator car crashed into the fleshy train and the Deranger fell off. Electricity shot from the metal coils to the fleshy train, and Judas reared up off the ground, great gouts of blackish blood and flesh falling away from the vehicle. The Deranger fell to his knees, howling in pain along with the train. Nero saw the flesh stripped away, and the grotesque skeleton of both the Deranger and Judas laid bare to the Arizona sun, and then they were gone as well.

Silence reigned on the prairie, until the engine car of the Electropede slammed down with a clank of steel, its wheels popping off and its front engine busting. Doc Torrent opened the door and helped Claudius out, followed by Model X. Both of them walked on the ground, shaking slightly.

"Alas, for my creation cannot airborne for long," Doc Torrent said.

Claudius sat down in the dirt. He smiled up at Doc Torrent, Model X, Bee and his approaching brother. "Well," he said. "I think I'm feeling a little better now, I guess."

Nero smiled. "Glad to hear it."

Theolonius Gar left Lost Junction by his own means, keeping his promise to Nero. The Harlequin was to have the town, and all the territory along with it. Nero watched him go, walking alone into the desert, before coming to a handcart perched on the rusted rails. Claudius sat on the pump trolley, Model X at one handle and Doc Torrent at the other. Bee buzzed around the cart excitedly.

Nero walked over to the car and sat next to his brother. "How about this, Claudius?" he asked. "Ever travelled by Kalamazoo before?"

"No, Nero. I don't think I have," Claudius said as Torrent and Model X started pushing and pulling the levers, sending the rail car away from Lost Junction. Model X worked fast and mechanically, his smashed eye bulb replaced by Doc Torrent, who was nearly thrown off the pump trolley with each of Model X's pushes. "Where will we go next?"

"Wherever the Harlequin sends us," Nero answered. "I'm not sure if the good Dr. Torrent will wish to remain by our side, considering we did destroy his lovely train."

"Pish posh!" Torrent said. "You know, that is where the reprehensible Gar is weakest, and even the Deranger and his bizarre train friend were stronger! Without good companions, be they steel or the upper class or disgusting flesh, a man is nothing!"

Nero nodded as they sped away from Lost Junction.

-The End-