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Behind the Curtain

by Dennett Fortess about a month ago in Adventure / Short Story / Sci Fi
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Belching, driving, flying, munching, waste, gas, junk.

Consumption and expulsion.

“This is the future. A state of the art, clean living solution. No more sprawling cities occupying valuable space, no more unnecessary travel. All you need within walking distance. Welcome to the Track - a linear city where you can live free - let’s get back on Track”

***

Adam didn’t feel the cold pressure of the window against his forehead until he did, all at once. Fuck. Opening his eyes slowly as if his fledgling headache wouldn’t notice, he looked beyond the glass. Blurry green and blue. It made him nauseous enough to grab his seat, the rough cloth grounding him. Grey plastic fixed table. Indented circle. A train?

You might feel a bit groggy when you come to. But don’t worry, the sedative will wear off and you’ll feel yourself again. Welcome to the Track, Adam.

The doctor had reminded Adam of his mother. A sort of cold, dutiful care, administered efficiently.

Welcome to The Track. The Track. He’d made it.

Let’s get back on track. He smiled to himself, the line he’d heard a million times. So fucking cheesy. Ever since he left school he’d had the singular mission of saving enough to buy his one way ticket out of misery. And he was finally here.

***

Clarrissa shifted in her seat. She crossed her legs, and used the opportunity to wipe her clammy hands on her skirt, “And why does it need to move?”

She’d run hundreds of interviews before this one. All of her features, her readers, her awards. But this was different. The Jacob Rhodes. The CEO of Track. Only a handful of people got to be in the same room as him.

Track had been the largest contributor to greenhouse gas reduction in the 23rd century. This had made Track the darling of tech media and Rhodes one of the most powerful men in the world. And at this moment, Clarissa was sitting face to face with him.

They were surrounded by glass walls, in an office at the very top of Track’s headquarters. AMA, ask me anything he’d said. Well, ask me anything my attorney allows. AMAMAA. Although to be fair to Rhodes, his attorney had barely said a word so far and was content to sit in the corner scrolling through her phone.

“Surely you could have saved billions of tonnes of emissions by just letting it sit in one place?”

“Excellent question,” Rhodes boomed, his response to most of her questions so far. No doubt something his PR advisor would have suggested to him a long time ago, a device to give him some time to think of an appropriate answer. But probably just involuntary at this stage; the man seemed to think so fast.

“When the Track was initially launched over two hundred years ago, it was indeed stationary. It barely resembled a train actually. No enclosure, no rails, no engine. Just a block of flats but built in a linear fashion. With everything a person would want barely twenty metres away from them. Their shops, their cinemas, their hairdressers: it was all just down the Track. By letting people live life within walking distance the Track eliminated any need for travel or emissions. It did what it had set out to do.

“But then something strange started to happen. Inhabitants started reporting severely high levels of stress and anxiety.”

His eyebrows pulled together as he frowned. Clarissa had been surprised when she had first walked into the room and shook his hand. He looked exactly like he did in his photos, it was almost uncanny. Like a cartoon character that’s always wearing the same clothes. Same black suit, same blue tie, same perfectly parted dark hair. Of course time had still come for him, a few lines here, some greys there. But overall he looked like the same ambitious young man that had inherited the company 40 years ago.

“See, it turns out that the human brain needs to know it’s moving. Seeing the same view day in and day out made it stagnant and stressed. There needs to be a sense of progress. Without progress it feels lost. I’m sure you especially can relate given your meteoric rise as a journalist, Ms. Clark - we’re both titans of our industries aren’t we?” he smiled as he went for another sip of coffee and carefully placed his mug on the table between them. “Of course we tried different things to make it seem like it was moving. Simulations, rolling projections of idyllic surroundings, moving screens, even a grand conveyor belt. But the sickness was still there. You can only trick the brain so much before it sees past the charade; before it itches to pull back the curtain and find the real thing. So the only solution was to-”

“Give it the real thing.” Clarissa finished for him.

***

Adam’s mind was getting clearer by the minute, he sat up in his seat and his eyes focused on the scenery through the window. The grass was so green out here, thriving. He could actually see the sky, it was as blue as he thought it would be, blue-er even. Not a single murky cloud.

He thought about how he’d felt at Track station, moments before boarding. There was only one every year and though it was the first time in his life he could afford a ticket, he almost didn’t get on. What if it wasn’t what he wanted? What if he wanted to get off? If he stayed in the City he probably could’ve used the money to buy enough food for a year. But the money had always just been a means to an end, and the Track was the end.

Besides, it was too good a deal. Sure you have to stay on the train for the rest of your life, but at least you get to see the world. You get to eat clean food, sleep on a soft bed, breathe clean air and finally have some fucking space to yourself. You get to be comfortable. He took in a deep breath, and let it all go.

The scenery kept whizzing past. He finally felt like his legs could take the weight of standing up. Peering over the seat in front of him, he noticed the other passengers in the carriage for the first time. Closest to him was a young, rotund man roughly his age wearing a silly grin that Adam couldn’t help but return. It was time to say hello to his new life.

***

“Our residents, voluntarily,” Rhodes’s eyebrows shot up to punctuate the word, “take a sedative to slow down their nervous system. Couple that with the feeling of real motion and we can run the trains around the world at a slow enough pace to give negligible emissions - but still have the residents believe they’re travelling at high speeds,” he smiled at Clarissa as she scribbled.

“You have a few critics, Mr. Rhodes. Critics that say the Track exploits certain lower-income demographics. Gives them false hope; the promise of a fuller life than the ones they have. A ticket out of there so to speak.” Clarissa paused before adding, “...a ticket with a hefty price tag too.”

She wondered if Rhodes’s attorney would ever stir from her open-eyed slumber in the corner. But no stirring. Just Rhodes, cool and calm as always.

“The Track feeds and looks after its residents for the rest of their lives. We believe it’s a fair price for a lifetime of serenity. You haven’t had any of your tea, did we get the order wrong?”

“No no, it’s perfect, thank you”

Unhearing, he called his assistant in and ordered a fresh cup. For our guest. This time with some biscuits for god’s sake, this is an award-winning journalist. He hadn’t been unkind or demanding - always smiling in fact, but his assistant hurried away and hurried back with purpose all the same.

“I was asking-”

“Yes I remember,” Rhodes interjected calmly. “At one point in our shared history, Earth simply couldn’t keep up with our way of life. And we wouldn’t change our ways, so they were changed for us. When our population skyrocketed we lost everything. We crowded ourselves into the bits of land that were safe from flooding, we built down instead of up to escape the soaring temperatures, we even ate less to make sure we had enough to go around. Did you know the average human was two inches taller only three hundred years ago?

“Listen, some of us” he gestured between them, “could afford to tough it out here and some of us couldn’t.” The cool, clean room. The glossy table between them with drinks and newly-arrived biscuits. The clear blue sky outside. “And for those who couldn’t, yes, the Track was a great deal! Would you rather live on top of eachother in dark, subterranean colonies, or would you rather see the sky? See anything other than the sector you were born in? Be free? If I were them, I would grab that chance with both hands too. We don’t exploit anyone, we give them another way. It’s only false hope when it’s false - this is the real deal.”

***

The Viewing carriage is where Adam had woken up when he Onboarded, just like all the other residents. He’d learnt that name later when he looked at a map on the wall of the train. It was all there. The Viewing carriage, the Entertainment district, the Food court, the Residences, the Chapel, the Shopping mall, the list went on. There must have been hundreds of sections all perfectly laid out in one long train.

The Viewing carriage was the only one that actually looked like a train carriage though - something about the familiarity of a train helps with the adjustment when first experiencing the Track - that’s what the pamphlet said anyway. The other carriages were a lot more spacious, more like giant buildings that moved. Adam’s favourite was the mall. It was grand and open with high ceilings and a lot of light, especially if it wasn’t raining outside. Of course, it was only a mall by name. There were shops, but everything was free. There was no money on the Track. He had never known what it was like to want something and just be able to have it.

The Food court was the busiest carriage. The food was all made of the same uniform, nutrient-rich grey paste, but they came with different taste enhancers. The pills would make the food taste like anything you wanted: hamburgers, french fries, lobster, curry. They’d run out of food eventually but it would be well after the youngest person on board had lived out their natural lifetime.

The Food court was where he had first met Sarah. Her eyes had been wide with surprise at the food she was eating, telling anyone who would listen that it was the best pizza she had ever tasted. It was a lump of paste but boy did she sell it; he had gone over and asked for a spoonful. 4 seconds. Adam guessed that it had taken all of 4 seconds for him to fall in love with her.

“Get your own!” she snapped at him, not unkindly. “Finally enough food to go round and you still want mine?” But even as she was saying this she was moving her bags off the seat next to her, giving him space to sit. She pointedly moved the spoon over to his side so he could have a taste.

“What do you think?” she had watched excitedly as he helped himself to pizza paste.

“It’s perfect!” He barely registered the taste.

“Isn’t it amazing? Everything you dreamed it would be?”

“The paste?”

“Everything!”

Adam noticed that she punctuated her sentences with wild gestures of her arms. He felt like he needed to give her clearance, move out of the strike zone. But no part of him wanted to move further away.

“The rolling hills, the water, the skies. I just never dreamt I would see any of it. I could look out there forever.”

“Forever is sort of the plan”

“Yeah, I guess it is,” she smiled and looked at him. Up until then she had been mostly looking at the food, or out of the window. Now she was looking at him. His shirt collar had inexplicably turned into a small furnace, but she didn’t seem to notice and went on.

“What do I call you anyway?”

4 seconds for Adam to fall in love with her. 4 hours is how long they talked that night. 4 months is what he guessed it took for Sarah to feel anything at all for him; she always begged to differ on that however.

He learnt more about her than he ever thought he could about a person. She had saved up to get on board just like he had. Except she had brought along her mother and her sister. She wanted the best for them, the outside world wasn’t good enough and one way or another she was going to get them on the Track and by god she finally did it. They talked for hours on end almost daily. She was so different to him. Unlike him, Sarah had had no doubts when she Onboarded - she had made her decision and that was that; Adam thought she didn’t have any doubts about anything at all. Her comforting assuredness combined with her boundless, infectious optimism would see him bouncing back to his home carriage every night. Light as air and dreaming of their future.

***

Adam’s home was in Carriage 54: a room with a large bed and enough space for all of his belongings ten times over. His own space. He hadn’t personalised it much but he did allow himself a small photo display on the dresser. He was peering into it, his eyes switching between the young brown-haired boy beaming up at him and his older reflection in the glass of the display. It was taken when his mum and dad had bought him a bicycle. It was the only mode of transport that had been allowed in the City - well for them anyway - so it was almost a rite of passage in their neighbourhood for every 7-year-old to get their first bike.

His dad’s face, not that different from his own right now, looked back at him with a wide, warm smile as he crouched next to the bike. His mum was standing up, a little further away from them. A hard woman in all senses of the word, she looked into the distance, unsmiling. Maybe she had known even then that there wasn’t really a happy ending for them.

It wasn’t a secret that his mum never had plans to start a family. Her own life had been hard enough, why give an innocent child that life too? Well, that’s what Adam had pieced together throughout his childhood anyway. No one really knew what she thought and Mrs. Bates would never lack the discipline to slip up and tell anyone.

You mind your own business, you put in hard work and get through each day - that’s all there is to it, Adam - those days amount to your life.

Her parting words to him when they had all gone their separate ways. Words she lived her own monotonous, hard-won life by. Even Adam was just a temporary blip in her straight line.

Adam snapped out of his circular train of thought with a firm: that’s her ending, not mine. He had his friends, he had Sarah. It had been just over three years since he woke up in the Viewing carriage and he wasn’t just surviving, he was doing what his mum could never do: he was living.

***

“Isn’t it just prolonged death? Sure the train is moving, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It just goes round in a circle until you’re back exactly where you started.” Clarissa stared intently at Rhodes.

“My residents are living life. They’re not rushing anywhere, they’re not late, they’re not stuck in work - they’re just living. People have time on the Track, find life-long friends, get married for goodness’ sakes! Prolonging death?” he scoffed. It was the first time he let on that he was even a little bit annoyed. “That’s what any of us are doing, isn’t it? Circling the sun and feeling like we’ve achieved something? At least my residents enjoy the journey.”

“You can dress it up, sure, but to me it sounds like you’ve productised death and profited off of it” she responded quietly.

***

Three people attended the wedding. Sarah’s mother, her sister and Brian.

Brian was the grinning fool Adam had first met in the Viewing carriage when he had Onboarded. He had been an engineer before Departure and was infinitely curious about how the train worked. He also ended up being Adam’s closest friend. Brian. A happy man, always laughing and always ready to eat. Adam liked that about him. For all the fretting and worrying that he was known to do lately, all he had to do was sit down with Brian for a couple of hours over a meal to soothe his soul.

The five of them had stood in the Chapel carriage filled with joy. The best day of Adam’s life. This was the only other photo display he had allowed himself to decorate the room with over the years. The happy faces laughed up at him. “25 years,” Adam muttered with a small smile before replacing it down on the dresser. As he did, his eyes scanned over the old bicycle photo. He hadn’t thought about his mother or father in a long time but he felt the familiar pang of longing.

“I get worried about you,” Sarah had walked into the room that they had now shared for those 25 years. He hadn’t noticed. “You’ve got that look on your face, again.” He hadn’t noticed that either.

“We could have done it, you know?” He placed his hand on her knee as she sat beside him on the bed. “I was 19 when I Onboarded. I didn’t know squat. Life had been nothing but inhabitable, and then I saw all of this,” he gestured to the meadows whizzing past in the window with one hand and gave her knee a soft squeeze with his other, “and then I met you.”

She smiled at him sadly. “We both knew what we were signing up for, honey.”

She was right. It made sense to him back then; there’s only enough food for the residents. There simply can’t be more generations, more mouths to feed. It’s protocol, every resident has to go through the procedure. She reached up and gently stroked the thinning hair at his temples, in the same way that she’d done countless times before.

“You would have been a great dad.”

He frowned.

“You know, I always thought you looked like your father.” Now she was looking at the display herself. “But lately I see more and more of your mother’s face,” she said thoughtfully. He definitely hadn’t noticed that.

***

“You’re right, we had to change our ways. But things are better now. Today’s kids see grass and sky that I never got to. I see more planes in the sky every day. Hell, there are new roads being built along with the cars to fill them! Why still run the Track? You’re content to let people live out their lives on trains when they could be out there, in the world. Why still run this evil?”

Clarissa was surprised at the intensity of her own words. She didn’t think she was this invested. Sure, something about the Track had always irked her but this was strong. She could feel the hotness in her chest. Anger even.

He shifted in his seat to cross his legs. His attorney did perk up for this one and went to open her mouth but Rhodes waved her silent.

“You write your piece with what you’ve got so far, Ms. Clark. Write it and send it to my PR team for approval. But I can see you’re bothered - how about we speak off the record…”

***

“Do you ever regret it?” Brian asked him quietly.

They were having another one of their lengthy chats but this time at the golf course in the Entertainment district. It wasn’t an actual golf course, but the 200-foot screen in front of them looked realistic enough to make Adam believe it. Besides, he had never actually seen a real one before to tell otherwise.

“What do you mean?” Adam asked as he bent over and placed his ball on the tee. He knew exactly what he meant but he was surprised that it was coming from Brian.

“We woke up here 52 years ago, Adam. What do we have to show for it? I’ve spent my days eating paste and my nights sleeping in a cabin.”

“What about all those years with Amanda? Didn’t they count for anything?”

“Sure, sure,” he said quietly. “You know, I think of her and I think of all the conversations we had - the ideas, the dreams. But that’s all they ever were. Dreams. We never had the third thing”

“The Third Thing?”

“Hall. Pick up a book, Adam - you’ve had plenty of time to do it,” he smiled up at him. “It’s this idea that marriage needs a third thing after the two of you. Something to look at, something to share, something to talk about and look forward to-”

“A kid?”

“Yeah a kid, or anything. A pond we can visit on our own. Not something we trundle past, but where we get off and sit down and feed the ducks. Jobs that we can go to, spend some time apart, all the while looking forward to coming back so I can fill her in and tell her about my day. Hall got it wrong though, it’s not just for marriage you know. It’s for everything. Passions, dogs, crowds, houses, a roast chicken - nothing but skin and bones if they’re anything like the ones I used to have, but still something I can sink my teeth into. Real things I can point to and say, hey that there was my life.”

They both stood in silence for a moment. Brian finally broke it.

“I want to get off this ride, Adam.”

***

“You talk of green grass and clear skies. It took a hundred years of the Track to be running before we saw those things in the world again, and a hundred more to be as it is today. Why do you think things are better now?” Rhodes had stood up from seat and was now pacing back and forth. Arms animated.

“15 billion. That was the earth’s population before the Track. We were over capacity. People could see the devastation all around them but they didn’t stop, did they? You call the Track evil. I call it necessary.

“If we stop now we’ll just be back where we started. There’s your prolonged death. We needed to prune for the sake of the tree. The only alternatives were to let people starve or even worse, resort to violence. The Track was the only way back then and it’s still the only way now. The Track is mercy”

He had an intensity in his eyes that Clarissa hadn’t seen in all the photos. The words flowed out of him with precision but also with an edge, rehearsed but never said out loud. This is what Rhodes had been saying to himself every day for the last 40 years.

“I’m not productising death, I’m making it palatable”

***

Brrrr.

The mechanical, whirring vibration of the train numbed Adam’s thoughts as they slipped in and out of focus. He was in the Viewing Carriage. In the same seat he had woken up in almost 60 years ago. He spent most of his days here lately. He liked looking at the world passing by outside. He didn’t much have the stamina to walk around the Track, and even if he could, it didn’t hold the same wonders it once did for him. It was clear this particular train was heading towards its destination. He barely bumped into any of the other residents anymore. There weren’t many left.

Brrrrrr.

Truth be told, even the Viewing carriage was less engaging now. There were a few quiet but happy years where he would come here with Sarah and Brian in their collective old-age, talking about life and dreams as the world sailed on by just outside.

But that was before. Now alone, Adam spent most of his time looking inward.

Brrrrrrrrrrr.

He looked back on his life as a line. It had been a calm one. No turbulence. No downs, so by definition not many ups either. Just the gentle swaying from one moment to the next.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The problem with each day being exactly the same as the one before, was that he had trouble remembering them individually. They were more like large blocks of time at first.

Before Sarah. After Sarah.

But wait long enough and even those blocks wanted to clump together like water droplets on a flat surface.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

One day Adam looked back and his line had collapsed into a point, suddenly all he could see was the carriage around him.

***

Clarissa had heard Rhodes out. Let him finish his speech. Her mind was whirring away at everything he was saying, and for the first time, she felt the beginnings of pity for him.

Rhodes, still breathing heavily from his tirade, looked at her questioningly. “So tell me, what would you have me do?”

She didn’t answer for a long time, but instead stared at the clear blue sky peeking through the glass walls behind him.

AdventureShort StorySci Fi

About the author

Dennett Fortess

Someone told me to do the things I loved doing as a kid. So here I am. Hope you enjoy.

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