|The Transformation Story Archive||Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...|
In Her Majesty's Service
Wimbledon Station was usually busy, but at 2 a.m. everything was pretty well shut down. Matthew had brought the last train in himself, ending another eleven-hour shift for South West Trains. Now he was rolling his bike through the deserted yard, already dreading the long ride home. Even so, he almost didn't notice the sounds.
Hissing was pretty common around the yard, coming from the pneumatic brake systems. However, there was a very different sound to this, and it was coming from the Carriage Shed. Odd, since the Shed should have been shut down hours ago. Curious, he propped the bike against the building and looked in.
The closest train was a Mainliner, one of the older types that he drove on his route. A newer 455 occupied the track beyond, easy to spot with its smoother profile and sliding doors. Furthest back was a dark shape looming over both of the first two units. Working his way around the back of the 455, Matthew almost gasped as the source of the hissing came into full view.
A steam train! Even in the unlit Carriage Shed, he could see polished metal and gleaming black paint of what was obviously a recently restored engine. Close up, the hissing was joined by groans, pops, and cracks of a boiler under pressure. Either the old girl had just come in, or she was ready to leave any time.
The presence of such a relic was really puzzling. Steam engines weren't unknown, with at least a half-dozen he knew of carefully preserved and run occasionally by historic societies. But they were always scheduled far in advance. As far as he knew, nothing like this was expected in at all. A special run of some kind, apparently. That would explain the timing. SWT had almost nothing running locally for the next few hours, so the old girl would have the tracks to herself.
"Hello?" He looked up into the cab, and was surprised to find it empty. The furnace door was open, illuminating brass gauges and levers with a flickering red glow. He smiled a bit, savoring the odors of hot metal and burning coal. Even sitting still, the engine was a feast for the senses. Not like the modern electric trains, which tended to stink of dusty rubber and cigarette smoke.
The crew must be checking the carriages further down. He wandered back, anxious to get a little information about the train. Just behind the engine were two passenger coaches, all polished wood and gleaming paint. Some sort of crest was painted on the sides, though he didn't recognize the markings. There were no signs of light or movement from within, so he continued towards the end.
At first, the next car looked like a large baggage coach. Odd. There was no door on this side. Just some narrow, open windows near the top. A faint whickering from inside identified it instantly. A Horse Box! He'd never actually seen one, even though Epson Downs race course was just a few stops away. Livestock wasn't usually carried by rail anymore. Like the engine and passenger coaches, this carriage was a beautifully restored antique. An awfully expensive way to move animals around. Which indicated some awfully expensive animals inside.
Really curious now, he continued back to the last unit, a passenger coach somewhat different from the first two. There were windows only in the back half, with solid walls in the front. The same coat of arms appeared on both the Horse Box and this last carriage.
Still no sign of a crew. Repeated calling out brought no response. Puzzled, he walked around the back and looked down the opposite side of the train. No one was visible. He couldn't imagine anyone leaving such an antique unguarded like this. Some vintage carriages had been vandalized just a few months ago in a yard much more secure than Wimbledon. If anything, he'd have expected security to be overboard, especially with horses on board.
He was of half a mind to go back to the maintenance depot and find a supervisor. That was probably the proper procedure. But it wouldn't get him inside, and he was dying to see what kind of horse rated such fancy transportation. Besides, he worked for British Rail, and there was a sort of unwritten rule that anything in the yard was fair game for employees.
The ramp for the Horse Box was up and locked, apparently from the inside. There was no door between the forward passenger coach and the Horse Box, and the space between the rear coach and the carrier had an accordion-like seal made of canvas. Which meant the only access was through the rear coach.
Matthew pulled himself up onto the rear platform and tried the handle. The door opened easily, and swung on oiled hinges. He was surprised to find the coach illuminated by brass lamps containing a bluish flame in elaborate glass globes. The flickering light hadn't been visible outside, yet the interior was clearly, if dimly, lit.
His first impression was that of luxurious accommodations. Red velvet cushions, polished mahogany paneling, oil paintings on the walls at each end. On second look, the compartment was actually fairly small, and the seats under the cushions weren't much more than fancy benches. The tables between the benches held fitted ashtrays, something you didn't see at all on the current trains. Although even they were spotlessly clean, the odor of cigar smoke lingered in the air. It was the paintings which caught his attention most.
Horses, done in a realistic manner. The style was as period as the railroad carriages, but he couldn't help admire the handsome animals portrayed. Some sort of large riding horses, hunters of some kind. Which reminded him. The back door of the compartment led to what was obviously a barracks. A military barracks at that. He had to smile at the level of detail someone had gone into. Three narrow bunks were fitted to each wall, each carefully made with old-style woolen blankets and linens. A small shelf by each bunk held period shaving gear, and there was even a cast-iron stove in the center for heating.
Beyond the bunks were six wardrobes, again three to a side. There was yet another door in the back wall, flanked on one side by an antique washstand under a gold-framed mirror, and a brass-trimmed, but crude, privy on the other. A separate, open case on the right held a number of rifles, revolvers, and swords. He was surprised to see that there was no form of lock or cover. With the recent ban on handguns, even the antiques weren't really legal anymore.
Not that anyone who could afford this rig would be much worried about legalities. The lighting system might be authentic, but it was also a fire hazard which broke most of the safety rules he was aware of. And now that he thought about it, there hadn't been any of the external electrical warning lights he'd seen added to all the other vintage trains he'd seen. Perhaps there was some special historical significance to this train. You could get exceptions for some of the items from the Ministry of Transportation, though he'd never seen one without the exterior lights before.
He opened one of the wardrobes. Although he'd only seen them on TV, he recognized the red and black uniform as being one of the Royal Guard's outfits. From the amount of gold frills and polished leather, this was a ceremonial outfit. A black helmet with gold trim sat on a shelf above the uniform, and he couldn't resist trying it on.
Turning towards the mirror, he grinned at himself. "Right-O, Suh!" As he did his best impression of a formal salute, he frowned at the reflection.. It seemed blurred, out-of focus. Blinking cleared his vision, but now the image wasn't his. A young soldier in full uniform stared back at him, only the expression of shock matching what should be there. One of the blank-eyed, cookie-cutter kids they always had suffering the tortures of dealing with tourists.
Duty. And the honor of serving the Crown. The idea had always seemed a bit ludicrous to him before - wasting your life playing tin soldier. A symbol of the nation. Of the British Empire. Of her Majesty, Queen Victoria. "Jeremy?" That was the Sergeant. The others were waiting for him in the day compartment. Absently pushing a stray blonde hair back into place, he started to turn away from the mirror, only to pause in sudden confusion. Jeremy?
"No!" Matthew tore the hat off his head, slamming against a bunk as he recoiled in horror. Spinning, he found himself looking at plain wooden frames. No bedding, no blankets. Confused, he looked towards the wardrobes. The one hanging open was empty. And there was no hat on the floor. A hasty glance at the mirror confirmed his normal, dark-haired reflection. Eyes wide, he almost bolted for the rear exit. Only a soft whicker from beyond the next door stopped him.
Remembering his original reason for entering the carriage, Matthew edged slowly towards this last barrier. It was difficult to beat back the fear which still had his heart pounding. At the same time, he felt silly. Letting his imagination run wild like that. It had to be the late hour, and the strange surroundings.
As before, the door opened easily. Pungent odors of animal sweat and waste mixed with the lighter scent of fresh hay. He breathed in deep, savoring the rich atmosphere. Some people found the smell offensive. To him, it was a familiar and welcome perfume.
"Hello? Is anyone there?" This time there was a response. A loud whinny. Apprehension vanished and he moved eagerly into the main car. Although the construction and style of this rolling stable matched the rest of the train, there was something more real about it. Perhaps because the wood wasn't quite so polished, and the flooring was covered in loose straw instead of woven rugs.
The Horse Box was well designed. Supply cabinets were braced in the center, with a saddle rack and tack hooks along the right wall. There was even a large water barrel and a bin for feed. And five deep stalls with velvet-covered pads cushioning brass side rails. He frowned, listening to the telltale shuffling of hooves. The light was dim, but not so dark he shouldn't be able to see at least a couple of the animals.
There was a thud behind him. The door! "Hey!" He grabbed the handle, only to find it locked. "Who's there?" He pounded on the dark wood. ""Open the door!" Then he barely caught himself as the floor lurched under his feet. The car surged forward, swaying a bit at first, and then settling into a rhythm which increased steadily.
They were pulling out! Whoever 'they' were. And not sparing any steam. From the steady acceleration, the old engine was already past the yard speed limit. The Yard Controller would have a screaming fit when they went past the Shunter's Cabin, and then he'd be on the phone to… Wait a minute. Matthew concentrated on the sounds and vibrations. He knew every inch of this track. Where were the switches? Just leaving the yard, you had to cross at least a half-dozen track connections. All he felt was the regular beat of expansion joints. Odder still, there was no sensation of curves or turns.
After waiting long enough to be sure the train wasn't stopping any time soon, he went back into the Horse Box. Something seemed different. Black leather saddles shone softly in the rack, with silver-trimmed tack swayed from each peg. Had they been there before? Remembering the strange hallucinations of the barracks, he reached out and touched one of the leather straps. It felt real enough.
There was shuffling and a nicker from the stall he'd started to look into before. Approaching carefully, he peered into the darkness. He could smell the horse, feel the heat of its body. But nothing was there. The back wall was clearly visible, as was the floor. Just as he was about to dismiss the sound as another hallucination, bristled lips brushed against his face.
Instinctively jerking back, Matthew stared at the empty air in front of him. There was a snort, and the sound of jaws working. Curiosity won out over terror, and he cautiously extended a trembling hand. Velvet nostrils caressed his fingers, the familiar sensation not quite so frightening this time. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on touch. The invisible animal seemed friendly, snuffling his arm and shoulder. It was big. He traced the solid jaw, and stroked a thick, solid neck. The paintings in the rear carriage came to mind. This could certainly be one of the animals shown.
Matthew drew back suddenly, staring at empty space. This was insane. He was imagining things again. Yet the sounds continued all around him. Not just one horse, but several. If anything, this was even stranger than his experience with the uniform hat. Funny thing was, he wasn't scared at all. Confused, yes. Bewildered, and a bit worried about his sanity. Despite all that, he was fascinated.
Turning, he walked to the stall behind him. Sure enough, there was another horse here. Not so friendly, though. Although it didn't try biting him, he could sense animosity radiating from the seemingly empty stall. No point in risking injury from teeth he couldn't see. Moving to the center stall, he reached out and touched an equine rump. This one was indifferent to him. Well, that beat outright hostility. The final stall was silent. He listened carefully, reaching out as far as he could to find any possible occupant.
After a few minutes, he was relatively sure the space was unoccupied. However, he also noticed an odd flickering of light on the wall. Not from the antique lamp, but the open vent set into the wall above. It was like a fast strobe, except that the light was softer. More like a glimpse of daylight. At 2 a.m.? This he had to check out.
Opening the gate, he stepped in and examined the wall. The vent was too high to reach from the floor. But if he stood up on the rub rail, he should be able to peer out. He was able to pull off the velvet padding, but the polished metal underneath wasn't much of an improvement. Using the tack pegs set in the wall, he pulled himself up and balanced awkwardly on the rail.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the flickering images. When they did, he couldn't quite believe what they reported. The train wasn't moving at all. He could see the walls of the Carriage Shed, even a few of the other carriages. A Mainliner was on the next track for a moment, looking shiny and new. It vanished, to be replaced by the dusty form of another antique engine, a 1937 SUB unit. This one wasn't restored, though. It had the worn, tired look of many of the Mainliners he drove.
Daylight suddenly got brighter. The Carriage Shed walls had disappeared! Buildings which should have been visible were missing. And as he watched, one of the newer houses seemed to deconstruct in a matter of seconds. Not fall apart. He was seeing the construction process in reverse.
In reverse. Matthew felt a cold chill. The train was moving after all. It was just going elsewhen instead of elsewhere. Well, if you could accept vanishing hats, changing reflections, and invisible horses, what was time travel in the grand scheme of things? Now that he knew what to look for, he could trace the rapid regression of Wimbledon Station. The 1940s went past with a flash of bombs and searchlights. Then the Thirties. At this rate, they would reach the beginnings of human history before morning.
He swallowed. If his eyes were to be believed, the train had long since passed the point where Matthew Webber's history had begun. What happened when the train stopped? Assuming that it was going to stop. As if on cue, the train suddenly braked. Not that he had much time to appreciate the timing. The resulting lurch caused him to lose his precarious footing, and he ended up falling face-first in the straw.
He was lucky on two counts. First of all, the bedding was thick. And second, it held no evidence of prior use. Groaning, he struggled to get up. Ouch! He must have hit a little harder than he thought. His shoulders and hips ached fiercely. Maybe he'd just lay here for a little bit.
>From this vantage point, he could see into the stall on the other side. It seemed darker over there, especially in the center. More like a thick cloud than a shadow. A cloud which adopted a distinct shape. Blinking, he stared as the misty image solidified into a large horse. The animal gave him a curious look, and then dropped its head to gather a mouthful of straw.
Such a beautiful creature. Even in the flickering light from the vent above, he could see it clearly now. Chestnut brown, with a white blaze on its forehead. On her forehead. That much was also obvious from this position. Her coat was glossy, her hooves trimmed and polished. A healthy, well-cared-for mount and partner. The part of the Horse Guard which he had always admired.
Shifting around a bit, he found a position on his side that didn't hurt. Actually, he felt pretty good now. He extended arms and legs in an exaggerated stretch that seemed to go on forever. In fact, it didn't stop until one of his hands hit a wall. Startled, he twisted his head up and stared at his arms. Or what had been his arms. Lengthening forelegs emerged from shoulders already lower on his chest. His shirt was stretched tight, and he felt a few of the buttons popping off as size and shape altered. Similar changes were going on further down, straining the seams of his pants as his legs deepened. He was turning into a horse.
The realization brought a sense of amazement and wonder. But no fear. Unlike the sudden change in the Barracks Carriage, he was fully aware of what was going on. And this time, he welcomed the transformation. His self-image had always matched the paintings in the rear compartment, not the photo of his ID card. The dark lumps at the end of his forelegs were supposed to be hooves, not fingers. And the pull of newly-formed muscles at the base of his spine was somehow familiar.
Flaring nostrils drank in the rich scents of his stable-mates. Three mares, and another stallion. The belligerent one, obviously. Must have known Matthew would become competition. Funny how easy it was to think of him as 'another' stallion. Of course, growing awareness of his body left no doubt as to his maleness. It was more than just a sexual thing. There was a growing sensuality to his entire body quite unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
Rolling up to all fours, he rose awkwardly on the swaying floor. Twisting his head around far more easily that a human neck would allow, he watched white fur spread over his skin like a soft fire. The increasing mass of his muzzle began to obscure forward view, but his field of vision was expanding dramatically. The entire stall was visible to him now, as was most of his own body. Still, he longed for a mirror to observe his transformation.
And then an image filled his mind. A white stallion , clean-lined and agile, yet possessing the solid build and mass of a draft horse. Larger than his aggressive stable-mate. The animal was wearing the black saddle and polished tack of the Horse Guard. On his back was the soldier he had almost become. Jeremy. The name combined with a familiar scent in his mind to become Rider. And an even stronger and more familiar odor mixed with the sound of 'Matthew' to form his own identity.
His mind was starting to adjust now, making movement on four legs not only easy, but natural. Even so, he knew he could refuse this as he had the soldier's image. If an equine throat was capable of it, he would have laughed. Refuse? He embraced this new life with wild joy. And as he did, there was a curious disorientation of mind and body.
The stallion shook his head and pawed the floor in anticipation. His ears could already pick up the faint strains of music being generated by a brass band in the station ahead. The Rider would come soon to prepare him, and they would join to perform their duties as a team. And afterwards, they would return to the home place, where there was room to run, and mares to greet.
In Her Majesty's Service copyright 1997 by Bob Stein.
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