Denouement Aboard the Disoriented Express
A significant journey en route to an inconsequential destination.
The droning buzz of indiscernible conversation awakens me; it filters into my mind like bees searching for their hive, spreading throughout my body until it reaches my heart and nestles there. I gasp, open my eyes and my heart beats for the first time. From the shadows, I take in my surroundings.
I am seated on the floor in a dark corner of a stately, Edwardian-era ballroom. The room smells of perfume, leather, spiced fruit — wealth. Elegant, green velvet and mahogany furniture is populated with glamorous guests dressed for a white-tie gala.
In straight-leg jeans, ankle boots and a long-sleeve blouse I am underdressed. Nothing is familiar — even my body is a stranger. I hug my knees to my chest and smooth my hair.
Dining tables are brimming with decadent fare, but the lively guests are ignoring the delicacies in favour of their drinks. My stomach gurgles at the sight of the uneaten food, yet I haven’t the strength to stand and sneak a bite.
A willowy redhead in a ruby gown is lecturing at the front of the room. Few people are paying attention. Her topic is a constellation: Cassiopeia, my mind readily informs me, though how I comprehend it is unclear. I have knowledge but no memories and no concept of where I am or why.
The carefree atmosphere is abruptly broken by a low, moaning steam whistle, and a pudgy man with a prominent moustache takes the stage, triggering the redhead to mutter under her breath and clear her presentation. Unperturbed by her reaction, he clasps his hands together and proclaims a buttery greeting,
“Ladies and gentlemen, I will be your Conductor this evening. Before we carry on with our itinerary, I must inform you that the Engineer has requested all guests of L’Express Conscient reverse their place cards for a ticket inspection immediately.”
A hush falls over the room, which allows me to eavesdrop on the guests nearest me.
“Ticket checking? But we did one two days ago!” complains a striking woman to her escort.
“Don’t question it — you know what happened last week.”
Sophisticated, mechanical ticket-takers burst into the room and scurry about on their single wheels, stamping their approval as they go until they reach an older woman who had been the centre of her table’s interest moments earlier. Something is not right with her ticket.
A stunning brunette in sapphire replaces the redhead. When she sits down at a baby grand piano, it surprises me how expertly she performs “Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor”. The bouncing chords and nonchalant attitude of the musician lend an eerie air of splendour to the grim scene.
Without pause, the machines hoist the old woman up under her arms and drag her to the edge of the room. Her shoes come off as she struggles, and beads tear from her golden sari; they trail after her in a shimmering wake on the marble floor, and the room falls silent.
“Put me down! My name is Lady Lovestoread! I am a founding member of this society!”
No one aids the woman.
No one responds.
As the mechanicals approach the edge of the room, the walls part. Fixtures and plates vibrate and rattle, and the damp, salty air of the ballroom rushes into the vacuum. Grey fog lit by radiant orbs stretches into infinity; there is no frame of reference for speed, yet I hear the repetitive chugging of wheels.
The steam whistle moans a second time, and the machines deposit the shrieking dowager into the mist. Then the wall fuses seamlessly; the rattling ceases; ticket-taking resumes, and the conversation volume returns as it was when I awoke, as though the incident never happened. The pianist hasn’t skipped a beat.
When the ticket-takers pivot towards me, my pulse quickens, and I dig through my crossbody purse. It’s empty. A hand drops onto my shoulder, accompanied by the scrape of a sword as it loosens from its sheath.
The hand belongs to a towering person in a black motorcycle suit with silver accents. They stand with legs apart, hand on hilt, their face concealed in shadow.
The mechanicals pull up to us.
Every head in the room turns when they speak, and the pianist slams several wrong notes, then stops playing altogether. The guests promptly clear the space, and we are left alone.
Despite the warning, the mechanicals continue to advance. The warrior draws their Katana and holds it vertically before their chest; it glints faintly with a bluish-pink sheen.
At the sight of the sword, the ticket-takers slam their brakes and reverse. The warrior slides the blade into its sheath and offers me their hand. It is slender and soft — not at all what I expected.
They are a complete contradiction: handsome and pretty, delicate and muscled, cropped, shoulder-length black hair, high cheekbones with a smooth, hairless face; if androgyny had a dictionary picture, this person would be the model.
As I rise, they steady me next to their body.
“Anima Animus, Archetype Class 1. You may call me Andie.”
I want to respond with my name, but I don’t believe I have one.
“Your name is Tephany814. Easy now. Here, take a sip.”
Andie passes me their flask and waits while I take a long drink. It’s hard to get my thoughts together. I manage to mumble, “Why only me?”
The muscles in their jaw clench and their answer is terse and weary.
“The Sentients’ fates are governed by the will of the Engineer. They assume the risk when they board. It's not within my powers to help them.”
The statement is so categorical that the words hit me like ice water.
“Board? Board what?”
They soften their voice and continue, “If I promise to explain, will you trust me?”
After a pause to consider the alternatives, I nod and follow them out of the ballroom. Instead of a lobby, we exit onto the rear of a railway train car at the connecting point to the one behind it. The fresh air clears my mind, but the transition is too surreal to comprehend. Sweat trickles down my spine.
“But, the ballroom — it, it can’t be a train. How is it a train?”
“The Engineer conceptualises the inside of that car as a grand hotel. And so it is. Each car’s internal design is as unique as the Engineer’s mind. No one comprehends their reasoning, and their authority is absolute.”
Adrenaline burns up my remaining disorientation. They block my attempt to turn around, and my stomach sinks to my knees in fear.
“The next time you’re found, it won’t be by those simpleton ticket-takers. We can’t stay here. Was there anything in your bag?”
The wind flips my unbound hair across my face, and I rake it aside, shuck their grasp and search for a nonexistent emergency brake.
“I don’t understand any of this. I don’t remember boarding a train. I don’t remember anything! I-I want off. Let me off!!”
Andie calmly grabs me by the hand. “Tephany, stop! Please, stop. There is no ‘off’.”
Their voice is muffled and blurry, like listening from underwater.
“Why am I here?”
“I’m not sure. But we’re going to find out together. Come with me.”
Andie guides me to the platform’s edge. The lurching movement plus low blood sugar makes my head spin. We are racing along faster than any regular train should travel, and what should be a safe leap is a league to me. Andie senses my apprehension and carries me as we cross to the other side.
A sign on the door reads “Staging” and has a pictogram indicating “No Humans”. We barge in anyways. The interior is bustling with activity; anthropomorphic machines of various constructions are busy with menial labour in a large kitchen. They whir to and fro in their duties. I cringe whenever they get too close, but Andie remains calm.
“These ones aren’t interested in us," they clarify, “They’re automatons, not robots, which means they have specific tasks. They won’t deviate from them.”
Andie scoops up a handful of apples, which they pocket and a couple of sandwiches, one of which they pass to me, along with a bottle of water. While I eat, they scan a clipboard by the door. It doesn’t have what they are after, and we continue onwards. Their legs are longer than mine, and I struggle to keep up until they slow down for me.
I'm able to make the jump alone this time, and at the end of the kitchen car we hop across the rickety connection and land in front of a flamingo-pink doorway that belongs in a suburb, not a runaway train. The car’s sign reads, “Please Wipe Your Feet!” Below it is a goofy hedgehog mat. The juxtaposition of this innocuous item with the ruthlessness of what happened earlier is disturbing.
“What is this place?”
Andie’s hand hesitates on the doorknob, and they exhale. “A place with answers. But, brace yourself; they aren’t exactly free.”
Behind the pink door, is a sophisticated suite of white with glass and silver accents: white, art deco furnishings, white floor, white ceiling, white piano — the only colours in the chic, modern library are an array of books, a loom and a couple dozen strange plants.
A splash of colour to my left catches my eye. It’s the redhead in the ruby gown; she is tidying her lecture supplies. The noise attracts a flurry of seven women in gemstone-coloured gowns followed by a matriarch in a silver tunic who kisses Ruby’s cheek. The matriarch heads for the loom after the greeting… on the far side of the library.
No one spots us at first, and I do my best to follow the conversation while Andie leafs through a binder.
Ruby says to Topaz, “I cannot believe it was Lady Lovestoread tonight. She’s practically an institution! Euterpe played on; she’s stronger than I am.”
Topaz shrugs, “You can’t let yourself get attached. You always get too attached.”
Emerald shakes her head, “You don’t evict a Sentient like Lady Lovestoread on a whim, Clio. And, she’s the fifth eviction this month.”
“It’s happening again, isn’t it? The vermin figments are multiplying in the stacks,” Garnet whispers.
Opal interrupts, “Oh, honestly, Melpomene. The automatons always act up when the tracks get bumpy. They’re probably just neglecting their cleaning.”
Amethyst refutes Opal, and the squabbling escalates until Peridot and Aquamarine exclaim, “Andie! You’re back!”
Andie groans quietly and greets the Gemstones as Peridot flounces across the room and takes their arm. She is flanked by Aquamarine, and Andie becomes the last piece of candy in the jar.
Then they catch sight of me.
In unison, the Gemstones freeze, twirl and tilt their heads at me. It is as though I am a dog, and they are the seagulls: all eight ladies squawk in protest of my entry and retreat to roost among the bookshelves.
“It’s not you. The Muses don’t do well with newcomers,” Andie mumbles.
“Hang on. Lady Mnemosyne? Lady Minnie? Miiiinie!”
With reluctance the matriarch, whose concentration has not been disturbed an iota by the bedlam, pads towards us and lowers her spectacles. She has the stealthy countenance of an experienced matchmaker, and she only addresses Andie.
“Hallo, darling. Little scrawny this one, isn’t she?” She raises an eyebrow and adds, “But such pretty eyes.”
“Not now, Minnie…,” Andie pleads, “Just insight — and quick. Her bag is empty. I already checked the itinerary and the manifest. She’s unregistered. We lost another Sentient during Ourania’s lecture: it was Lady Lovestoread.”
Minnie’s shock is sincere. “What on earth is the Engineer doing up there?!”
“The rules are the rules.”
“Yes, alright. Calliope?”
Opal sashays forwards. “Mother?”
“Which one of you harvested this Epiphany?”
Opal’s mouth gapes, and she doesn’t answer. Emerald gestures to the plants. “No Ideas have been ready to harvest in weeks, never mind an Epiphany.”
Minnie frowns and rubs her temples. “I see. Thank you, Thalia.”
Amethyst points to me. “Are you sure that’s even what it is?”
The Muses resume their gossipy bickering, and the pitch rises with each sentence. Returned from her performance, Sapphire perceives the uproar and herds her sisters into a bedroom.
Minnie sighs with relief and returns her attention to us. “The Engineer must have called her up. We’ll have to work backwards,” she says and pivots to rifle through a filing cabinet. Eventually, she grabs hold of a tray of cards and raises her voice. “There we are. What’s her code?”
“814,” I respond.
“No my dear, not your unit number. Your code. On your neck,” corrects Minnie.
Andie brushes my hair aside, “1618.”
The numbers enter the room like lightning, and Minnie drops the tray, spilling hundreds of catalogue cards. “1618!” she echoes, “Don’t wait for my research. Take her down to the panel in SubCar1 immediately and — .”
The matriarch’s words are cut off as the room pitches to and fro, and when the lights dim, Andie draws their sword. Smash! Minnie slams the panic button on the wall. Sirens wail.
Seconds later, a creature made of shadow materialises in the middle of the room. It takes on the form of a razor-toothed boar. Two other boars appear soon afterwards and go on a rampage, toppling plants and knocking down furnishings.
“Get off the floor!” Andie orders.
Minnie climbs onto the piano.
In a rapid thrust, Andie kills the first boar in a single plunge. The blade glows brighter when it contacts the creature and disintegrates it.
There’s hardly a pause between its death and when Andie whirls around on their heels with an effortless grace and slices the second boar in half.
The third boar assumes a running stance and charges at me while Andie is distracted. I scale the reference desk, but the beast doesn’t alter its course.
The Archetype takes three swift paces and levels the sword so that the creature skewers itself as it gallops for me — the boar squeals and vanishes into thin air.
Andie nods at us to indicate it’s safe to regroup, and I assist Minnie down from the piano and onto a chaise lounge.
“We’ve had so many figments of late — but these boars! Oh! Oh! And here of all places!” she cries.
Andie takes her hand, “Disturbances have been escalating for days; the evictions are the least of it. I should have sealed your doors earlier. I’ll do it before we go.”
The matriarch continues to breathe heavily and fan herself as Andie fulfils their promise. “There is another with your access permissions, Andie. If she finds out — .”
The Archetype shoots her a stern look and gestures with their chin to me. “We won’t be going to Sub1 via Sub2. We’ll take the roof. I’d use the bypass, but it shut down yesterday.”
“Gracious! Isn’t the girl a little raw to be scaling cars as long as Sub2?”
Andie flicks a switch near the panic button and summons a ladder from the ceiling that leads to the train top. “There’s no other option. I’ll teach her on this one.”
“But —,” A deep rumbling from the undercarriage overrides Minnie’s concerns. She blanches and says no more.
Andie kisses her cheek goodbye, and then motions for me to climb the ladder. My ears are still ringing from the alarm, and my feet refuse to move.
“Please, Tephany. You are the only one who can enter your code.”
I press my lips together and examine the devastation caused by the boars. Maybe it was too late for some, but it might not be for everyone else. The lights flicker, and I make up my mind, but before we leave, I grab a thread from the loom and plait my loose hair into a practical braid.
Andie smiles at me; it’s a good smile.
I am prepared for the noise and the cold; I am unprepared for the nauseating sensation of hurtling who-knows-where on a runaway train while neither the start, end, nor tracks can be seen. I pocket my question about what happens if it comes off the rails; the Lady’s removal is seared into my mind as one hell of a first memory.
We sit for a few moments to acclimate, and the orbs rush past us like stardust in a nebula. It would be dazzling if we weren’t rattling around on a deathtrap. As if it disagrees with my criticism, the train stutters and sends me scrambling for a handhold. The wind swallows my scream.
Andie catches my arm and nudges me forward along the horizontal ladder.
It’s a fight to move at the pace I want to, not the pace the tempest behind me urges me to. I plunge ahead into the humid, grey mist headfirst, convinced I’m entering a giant maw that will snap closed behind me at any moment.
At the end of the car, Andie ambles down the side, around the corner and onto the platform. They open their arms and shout above the turbulence.
“All you have to do is swing your feet over and slide down! I’ll catch you!”
It sounds simple enough, and I slink down feet first towards them until I’m hanging by my fingertips; the drop is barely a metre beyond my toes.
All at once, the train lurches forward and picks up speed. My hands slip, and I swing backwards, pitching Andie into the metal railing as I collapse into them; I hear the air in their chest escape as it’s punched out of their lungs. They lie lifeless, their head hanging dangerously off the platform edge.
With trembling hands, I pull Andie’s limp body to safety. There is no one around to help, and Minnie’s door is sealed. I jump to the next car. Its door won’t budge.
As I’m about to attempt a return climb to find help, Andie raises their palm and wheezes. Between coughs, they sputter, “I’m alright Tephany, but the tracks are destabilising. We need to hurry. Baggage is safe; it’s extensive, but it’s the soundest part of the train.”
Long-Term-Storage is so impish it’s hard to believe it was designed by the same vindictive authority figure who would dump a passenger into an abyss in the blink of an eye. Its sign reads, “If You Travelled The Way Your Luggage Does”.
I tug on the straps the automatons insisted we clip on before allowing us to sit in a pair of seats on the slowest moving rollercoaster ever invented. Hundreds of suitcases line either side of the car, everything from: ‘First-grade crushes’ to ‘That one time in band camp’. We float idly past them while elevator music drones on as if we’re on a theme park ride.
“Is this as fast as it goes?”
Andie nods. “If we walk, it’ll take us an entire day, and you need to save your strength for the climb. I have no authority in Sub2, and it’s not a place you want to show weakness. I won’t risk bringing you inside.”
Our stomachs growl in tandem. The apples were gone before the ride, and Andie offers me half a crumpled protein bar. “I wish I’d swiped more of that wasted dinner.”
I open my bag and show them the dinner napkins bursting with hors d’oeuvres I’d secretly collected earlier.
“Impressive, Teph. Got a better head up there than most.”
Mouth half-full, I mumble, “You look after a lot of us?”
“Quite a few, yeah. Sometimes the automatons get to ’em before I do.”
I gulp, and a cracker lodges in my throat.
Andie’s face bears instant regret, and they pass me the flask they refilled from the rest stop at the start of the ride.
“Well, that explains my name,” I tease, “And here I thought 814 was my birthday!”
The silly joke works, and we chat in easy leisure until the steady humming of the conveyor belt causes my eyelids to droop. Andie whistles, and the lights dim. Their sword acts as a nightlight and radiates a gentle pink glow. I point to it.
“Why does it do that?”
“It’s lithium laced. For strength against the figments. Get some rest; we’ve got about six hours more to go.”
I’m too tired to ask for a more detailed explanation. I yawn, and Andie lays their jacket on me.
It’s the slithering that awakens me, smooth scales across smooth tiles, but it’s the venom which drips onto my head that causes me to seize Andie’s dagger from their thigh and thrust it upwards to the source. The giant shadow-cobra recoils long enough for Andie to spring to their feet and finish it with their sword.
Andie kicks the deteriorating pieces away from us and runs a hand through their hair. “Bloody hell!”
The segments of the snake writhe much too long after they are severed, and I shiver. “I thought you said it was safe in here!”
“It should’ve been. A figment can’t creep into Baggage. Unless…”
“Nevermind. Hand me the dagger.”
I pass Andie the dagger, and they clean it with their sword-cloth, remove its sheath from their leg and put it on mine. “I can’t believe I didn’t think to arm you before we slept. If it — if you’d been — .”
Andie’s voice cracks, and I rest my palm on their shoulder.
After the stuffiness of Baggage, the step into the mist is refreshing. A gaudy sign on the next car proclaims it is the “Street Car of Desires” — Andie directs me past it and up the ladder.
Above the thunder of wind and wheels, Andie calls to me.
“OK, nothing to it, Teph. This is the same thing as the Inspiration Lounge, but a little longer. You got this! Don’t look anywhere but the next rung.”
We are roughly halfway across when it approaches. The figment is globulous and elongated with a mouth wide enough to swallow the train. Its squelching, creeping movement accelerates when it catches sight of us, and it screeches with delight, baring thousands of needle-like teeth. I glance at Andie, and their face has gone pale.
“We don’t fight this one. Hang on!”
Andie grabs me by the waist, stands us up and then we dash; we move as if the surface is safe grass instead of an out-of-control train in a fathomless void. We leap off the top and onto the platform seconds before its mandibles clash, and the worm roars with a fury that transcends the howling wind.
Andie hesitates for a split second, then clasps my hand white-knuckle-tight, rips open the door and pushes me inside. “Don’t speak, and follow my lead.”
The red lights strobe with a slow heartbeat and reveal in pulses that the car is filled with smoke, shouting, laughter, the clinks of rolling dice and full glasses, the thumps of landing fists, and hundreds of leering stares. Andie strides with swift, steady steps and shoulders squared, pulling me along so quickly, I'm practically floating.
Then suddenly, there she is: the Queen of the carnival, perched on a living throne of her subordinates’ muscular shoulders, clad in an ebony basque set two cup sizes too small, a whip at her waist, lengthy cigarette-holder perched in her hand and thigh-high boots.
In a honied, Parisian accent, she lavishes us with a welcome.
“Andie! I was hoping you’d come by today. And you brought me a new toy, how kind. What may I offer you? Ze usual?” She indicates a pair of twins wearing less than she is.
“Very funny, Eureka. Thanks, but no thanks. Bypass is broken, and I’m headed to Sub1 with the new technician to repair it.”
“Oh, la la! And with zis one for assistance? Oui, I’ll bet you’re eager to be alone together in that tiny submersible.”
Speaking from behind her hand to me, but loudly enough for everyone to hear, she adds, “Take my advice and skinny dip first. Wetter is always better.” She winks for emphasis.
I keep my face flat and deliberately oblivious, and she frowns.
If Andie is angry, they don’t show it. “Tips from an expert...Great. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
“But of course.” Eureka waves her arm, and the fleet of sinners parts like the waters of the Red Sea. “Time is against us all, mon chéri. À bientôt, Andie. And, Andie’s… technician. Bonne chance.”
She takes a long drag, narrows her eyes and flicks the butt.
We brush by her before the ashes land.
Eureka’s description of the submersible is not an exaggeration, and we huddle together on the seat as we descend into the ocean inside Subcar1. The Engineer’s artistry continues to remain an enigma. The train is such a mish-mash that it is as though a writer’s imagination has been let loose upon the universe.
There is a fine line between creativity and genius, leadership and tyranny, and it is clear the Engineer has been playing fast and loose with the rules of late. The figments do not appear to be a part of the plan, and I wonder if perhaps they aren’t a symptom of a brewing storm.
The water is dark as dreamless sleep. Every few metres, our path is marked by lamps. I wish it weren’t because all it does is give me glimpses of the creatures that lurk beyond the glass, most of which would put that worm to shame.
“There’s so many of them, and it’s so steep and dead,” Andie whispers.
“This isn’t normal?”
“No. Often it’s a bright coral reef with a shallow incline into deeper waters. Maybe one large figment, two at most — even when the train dislodged two years ago, and we lost power for three days — even then, it was nearly an empty ocean. Or so I thought.”
I sense there is more to the story, but they turn their head, and I decide not to ask. I rub my arms.
Andie puts their jacket around me and pulls me close to their side. I’ve had enough of watching the beasts yawn by, and I rest my head on their shoulder and bury my face in their neck. Andie pulls back a little in surprise, then lays their cheek on my crown.
“There could be trouble down there, in the area around the engineering station — and it’s wide open, no shelter. Stay close, but, Teph,” Andie turns my chin, so my eyes meet theirs, “If I tell you to run, don’t look back. I’m replaceable. You are not. You have to enter that code. You have to reset the train. Nothing else matters.”
Minutes drift by as years until the submersible finally clicks into its position at the ocean’s base. It slides into a depressurisation and drainage room, and the automatons assume the controls. Andie straightens.
“You remember what I explained in Baggage? How to enter your code? How to place your hand on the sensor? And the biometrics?”
“Yes, all of it.”
They nod and take a deep breath.
“Right. Let’s go.”
The basement of Sub1 is an open plane of luminous glass tiles under a starless sky. This bleak expanse is all that stands between the engineering station and us, between life and annihilation of the entire train, and we sprint towards the tiny shack on the horizon with everything we have left.
Each step evokes a ripple of lights and there is utter silence. Our destination is within a few paces when the silence breaks, not with the calls of a monster — no — our enemy murmurs with trickling, insidious drips.
The torrent comes after we close the door.
Ever my sentinel, all Andie can do is keep watch as the ocean, the one enemy they can’t possibly slay for me, breaks through the drainage room and submerges us into what might become our crypt if the code doesn’t reset the train.
I start on the instructions.
The code-box controls are complex, and it takes concentration to get through it all, but I manage to complete the requirements and hit the final button. Then we wait with bated breath while the machine processes the input.
All of the operators and operands are currently busy.
Please try your code again later.”
I freeze in horror, but Andie doesn’t bat an eye and pries open the “In Case of Emergency” locker. There is only one scuba suit inside, and they remove it, pass it to me, and test the tank.
The suit hangs heavy in my hands, and I set it down.
In a gentle tone, I intercede and place my hand over theirs on the tank.
“Andie, stop. I’m not putting on the suit.”
They stand up and step back in confusion, and their expression becomes grave when they comprehend my meaning.
“No. I can’t let you do that.”
I laugh lightly, raise my hands palm up and shrug. “There is no ‘off’.”
The Archetype looks down, pauses a long moment, and then laughs half-heartedly. “Yes. I remember.”
There are far worse fates than facing the end of your world side by side with a friend. I smile at them, and they smile back; it’s a good smile. The train races onwards while Andie holds me close, and together we wait.
For C Xx~
With gracious thanks to Dane, Rachel, Madoka, Scott, Cathy & Caroline and all the lovely folks in Great Incantations for their feedback and encouragement.
This story is entered into the Runaway Train Contest on Vocal Media.
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