Monday, 28 March 2011

TRAINSONG - A short story

Another short story then. This one's not quite as weird as the other ones. But it's still weird. It also won a prize! Ken Macleod (proper actual SF writer) thought it was 'perfectly decent' if I recall his wording. Damning with faint praise and all that... Like some of the events of the tale, this one may still be 'in transit.' It was written to a wordcount and perhaps could benefit from either an extension or a pruning... you decide.


Ariadne glanced irritated at her mobile. The time was 11:37 PM.
The night was pushing her down. Fucking hell. Ten minutes. Wasn’t supposed to be. Still time, though.
She hurried down the steps into the drear alcove of the station. The main forecourt was as cold as ever. The only people around were a faintly confused looking couple, weighed down by enormous backpacks. They were squinting up at the time-display screen with looks of mild confusion on their faces. As Ari looked over at them their countenances took on a sheen of crestfallen disappointment. She heard raised voices; probably Polish, but God all those Eastern European accents sounded the same. She wasn’t clever enough to say for sure. She had always been one for picking up on other peoples’ emotions; although this wasn’t something which normally did Ari any favours. She usually tried to avoid it.
Like that girl at work. The unspellable name. Ari hadn’t had any idea what she had been talking about, in English or Polish, so everyone had ignored her. This had made Ari cry one night. It had been so very frustrating.
Said it was about the rent. Gave him the fucking rent. That wasn’t the fucking issue.
They’re lost, she thought with a mild upset that flitted in and out of her heart in a few passing seconds; pushed aside by other concerns. Go and tell them but come on. Ten minutes.
The possibly Polish people turned and started to head for the ticket barriers. Ari strode in the same direction, fumbling in her pocket for a ticket; hoping one was there.

The carriage was empty and all the lights were out. This seemed a little weird to Ari; at this time of night, things were always activated and there was usually at least a handful of people besides herself. Just last week the conductor had had that business with the drunk woman who had been shouting incoherent insults: Ari had been at the other end of the carriage. Thank fuck. You really don’t want to be dealing with lunatics.
He’s at home though
She picked a window seat facing a table and slumped down. This bit always filled Ari with a warm sense of relief that she had made it - even though it had been six years of this bloody commuting and she had never been late or missed her train. Was this why she had that recurring dream about running into the station to realise her train had left hours ago?
Perhaps. Self-psychology was not her strong suit.
His though. Clever clever.
After a few moments the carriage shuddered. The lights flashed on and the route display on the roof began rolling LED messages. There was life after all.
More minutes passed. Nobody else came into the carriage.
Ari looked idly around her, seeing an abandoned coffee cup and sandwich carton on the opposite aisle. People coming and going.
The train finally started up. Ari went to search around for her iPod but sure that it was lost in the cavernous depths of her bag, gave up with a half-arsed pfth of exasperation. Divorced from the usual white noise of commuter chatter, the somnambulant rumbling of the train bordered on soothing.
Might get to sleep.
Outside of the window, distant yellow lights began to careen past her. Flying by so fast.
More moments passed. Ari’s head began to nod.
No sleep tonight. He’ll be on about it. Why don’t you like it when I talk to you?
Would you rather
rant rant. stop listening after the fourth philosophical
do you want me to touch you i mean as if fucking hell
The train shuddered to a stop. Ari’s head jerked back up.
She was aware of a voice speaking quietly behind her. A low mumble.
Someone else’s come through. Doesn’t matter.
Look at the time he keeps saying. Why do you have to stay out all night
Jason’s gorgeous though. He so would
Actually meant it. Five years. Five years just gone snap like that gone
There was no point in trying to hold it off. Ari felt the floodgates pending.
Not here. Someone in the carriage. Ticketman’ll come, I’ll look a fucking mess. Look a mess anyway
A few tears hit her lap. The weight began pushing up.
The throat was always the first to go. Had anyone been sat in front of Ari, they would have seen her composure going; the shoulders already starting to tremble.
why am I so angry all the time
why won’t he just do it I’ve had enough too much
‘Of course,’ the voice in the seat behind her said, louder and clear now, ‘this is a side-effect. We are but side effects of one another.’
Ari swallowed hard and closed her eyes. This’ll go this’ll stop, she thought. Not this time. Not the knife tonight. Know it's wrong
‘An education forged in pain. Such things can be bypassed. But never overlooked.’
Ari opened her eyes. A shock hit her; forcing the blackened feelings clean out of her mind.
The owner of the voice had moved. He now sat in front of her on the other side of the table.
‘We have seven minutes,’ he said to her, as Ari struggled to take in his bizarre appearance, ‘to save the world from who you are. This is nearly the Madonna song, no?’
The man’s accent was almost the same as that girl at work; but surely not. He was tall; slim yet muscular: shaped like a dancer, and inexplicably dressed in what appeared to be an extremely close-fitting one piece outfit, the surface of which was a dull, unreflective silver.
His features were aquiline; angular. His white hair was close-cut. His mouth twitched the tiniest hint of a smile at her: as if he had never smiled before and was trying to figure out how to start. The stranger’s eyes glinted: something that stuck Ari as placing him somewhere between sinister menace and unending compassion.
Stuntman, Ari thought, her brain battling to hold onto something concrete and explanatory: circus
‘Agnieszka,’ the silver man said. ‘There is such a thin line between love and hate. My name is also different, so I will not tell of it.’
Ari felt her stomach sinking and then turning over. She suddenly needed the toilet.
Details. Saskia thought she got raped. Changed her mind. Remember. Face. Databases
‘What’s your name?’ Ari said in a very small voice; poorly-researched defence strategies scattering through her mind.
‘You could call me anything,’ the silver man said. ‘What I am does not come into play here. But the name is key. Yours come from a variety of sources. Very holy: utterly pure. These are expressions you could read. A weaver; Queen of snakes: Mistress of the spider. Through powers of your own you helped him escape from the labyrinth. These things in legends. We are what our names make us. We become them, and they become us. Agents of change.’
The man held out his arm and spread his palm. The ambient lights of the train seemed to dim slightly.
‘All can change but some must first acknowledge. Here.’
In the air above the man’s outstretched hand a blue globe of light about the size of a football formed. Ari found herself gazing into its fluttering texture, wondering why the object’s apparent brightness was not dazzling her; but instead drawing her in.
‘The book of lies,’ the man said. ‘Now look inside.’
And then Ari was flying again. Continents moved beneath her.
She had arrived inside a room. No, not a room - this was too large to be a room.
Before anything else, Ari noticed the thin, rubbery cable that seemed to extend from somewhere around her midriff. Although still fully clothed, Ari got the overwhelming sense that this was her umbilical cord.
A sudden hot flash of panic hit her. She was floating; hanging suspended inside a wide vertical tunnel that extended upwards for a seeming infinitude of miles. It was coolly lit from on high by the distantly bright lights of some far-off surface Ari was sure she would never glimpse in the dim lights of this lifetime. All around her and as far as she could see on the inside surface of the strange edifice were small doors about the size of car doors.
Ari couldn’t see where the ground was. The umbilicus stretched off into nowhere. She felt further panic welling.
Please do not be alarmed, the now-familiar voice echoed in her head: The connective tissue. A thread that binds worlds.
Ari drifted close to the nearest circular door. It appeared to be made out of burnished wood and was pitted and marked in some places; as if worn down over ages.
On the door was a small piece of paper. It appeared to have been affixed with sticky tape. On it was written her name.
She checked the door next to it. This also held her name.
The machine and the mechanism. The nucleus in the cytoplasm.
The door on the other side featured messages in a further indecipherable language. Had she been properly asleep, Ari would have instantly recognized one as Jewish Middle Babylonian Aramaic; the other door marked out in post-flood Pangaean Atlantean would also have been clear. At least; clearer than most things.

We are entering the protoplasmic shift, the shining man said, as Ari hung suspended in time. Certain decisions have been made and others remain. Your future is a cloud. Continents still drift outward; one day they will all meet again. The world is a bubble. Will it be this door or the next?
Ari thought then of Riz. Manners maketh a man. Sweetness and light.
And the other hand; Jase - Companion of the dark. Reliably unreliable. Summed up in one word.
He was something. Without him, the knife. With him, the union of souls.
Ari opened the first door. Inside was a small cupboard area. In its centre was a ring made of paper. Ari reached out and touched it.
She fell back inestimable miles. The gulf between cold stars swallowed her like a friend: while the sullen shiny blacks and incomparable colours of infinite lives lived so far away and yet closer than knowledge said hello, then goodbye again, for ever.

Ari heard the tinny beep of the old watch which always lay for security purposes in the bottom of her bag. Pulled back to relative normalcy and oddly compelled to look for it, Ari reached in and raked around.
Her hand alighted on something unfamiliar. Something round. She pulled it out.
‘This is Agnieszka’s wedding ring. A name so often forgotten.’
Ari realised her mouth was hanging open but did little to rectify the situation other than move her lips and tongue to form words.
‘She told me… she’d lost it. At reception. I… wasn’t really listening…’
‘It is not real gold. But imbued with all that is needed. Return it to her.
this will give you something to talk about. Perhaps for weeks.’
The man stood up; his mouth finally resolving itself into a smile. ‘Look at the time. Morning. Another world beginning without compunction. This is the trainsong; on and on. Getting off but always back on again. Arriving unleashed to begin again.’
A final though drifted into Ari’s head as she roused herself and headed for the door.
All of this is over now.
Never having faltered in its journey, the train came to a halt. Ari pressed the button and the door opened.
For the first time in what felt like a very long while, Ariadne Somerville knew exactly where she was headed. For once, this was quite enough.

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