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a story

By Madoka MoriPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 22 min read
Photo by Mike Hindle on Unsplash

It took the porter forty-two minutes and seventeen seconds to carry the screaming woman from carriage 194 all the way forward to the Conductor’s car, which was immediately behind the engine itself. This was almost half the length of the entire train, a distance of 3.22 kilometres.

Each pass between carriages was a clattering rush of wind as the train careened along its track. The route took them through passenger cars and engineering decks; along the rickety, swaying gantries allowing passage past tenders of water, fuel-oil, wood, and coal; baggage cars and storage wagons; then finally up into the control cars of the great train, hives of activity filled with jostling functionaries furiously writing in ledgers and timetables, engineers toing-and-froing bearing great hammers and wrenches and tools of yet stranger providence.

The clamour of industry and thudding machines and steamwhistles rose above the constant clatter of the train itself to create a hubbub that was quite thoroughly deafening.

The woman never once stopped struggling. She scratched at where the porter's eyes should be, tearing her fingernails on the cold, iron-rimmed glass lenses that had been sutured in their place like the headlamps of a locomotive.

The porter paid little mind. He held her under an arm like she was a box to be delivered uptrain. This arm — the right one — was an outsized metal contraption of black iron and wheezing steam, designed for hefting luggage and engine components; the weight of the woman gave him no pause at all. His other, unaugmented human arm he used to open carriage doors and occasionally swat the woman’s questing nails away.

When the porter arrived at the Conductor’s cabin he did not knock nor hesitate an instant, but slid the door open and entered immediately. The Conductor had told the porter what time and where the girl would be found. The Conductor knew to the second how long the porter would take to carry the girl from carriage 194 to his cabin. That was the Conductor’s role. Formalities such as knocking were a waste of the time so precisely accounted for by the Conductor.

The Conductor did not need to be informed that someone had arrived; he already knew.

The porter carried the struggling girl into the ornate grandeur of the Conductor’s carriage where another porter stood waiting next to a metal table fitted with a drain, out of place in the plush carpeting and teak panels of the car. This second porter aided the first in manhandling the struggling woman onto the table and strapping her down: leather bands across both legs, waist, arms, and forehead. She fought them the whole while, wriggling like a fish in a boat, but their piston-driven musculature could not be resisted by mere flesh and in moments she was pinned in place. The porters withdrew from the carriage and closed the door behind them.

Besides the rattle of the train’s motion there was little sound.

The girl could not move her head, but probed the depths of the room as best she could with wild, swivelling eyes. She could see little in the gloom. “Hello?”

Inside the windowless cabin, a single gas lamp swung from the ceiling on a chain: back and forth, back and forth with the sway of the train on the rails. Its light splashed upon the charts and timetables which covered every inch of wall and desk space in the cabin with tiny, crabbed writing.

The train thunked and clattered along its track but the clamour from the shopcars behind and the monolithic locomotive ahead seemed hushed and far away.

There was a whispered scratching from up near the ceiling. The woman peered through the swinging shadows to see its cause. There, up near the rafters, was the figure of a man writing on a timetable high on the wall. He clung there like some gigantic spider on hissing claws of polished metal, his body a distended lump of steam-engine bulging from the good linen of his suit.

“Just one moment,” he said without turning around. His voice was a chorus of trainwhistles forming the shape of words, shrill and hollow. “...there. Now. Let’s have a look at you.”

He descended from the corner of the rocking cabin on his metal spiderlegs, each claw-tip placed neatly and exact like a cat navigating a cluttered shelf.

The woman started screaming again.

“Now, now,” said the Conductor, “no need for that.”

A tray of implements stood next to the metal table to which the woman was strapped. He reached without looking and selected a glass hypodermic.

Invective and pleading tumbled from the woman in an uninterrupted stream as he tottered around behind her and with strong incessant hands turned her head to one side, exposing her spine. With a deft, swift motion he slid the needle of the hypodermic between the vertebrae of the woman’s neck, and the screaming stopped.

“There,” said the Conductor, “much better. Let’s have a look at you while we wait for that to take full effect.”

The woman’s meagre accoutrements had been placed at the foot of the metal table. A heavy and much-patched leather jacket, a frayed backpack. The Conductor opened the backpack to find it filled with coal. He took out a lump and examined it.

“Of course. A coal thief. A veritable Robin Hood. Pilfer from the train which has so much, to provide for your family which has so little.”

He held the black fragment up to his eyes with slender fingers tipped with nails of black iron. He looked for all the world like a jeweller appraising some night-black gem.

“It’s funny to think, isn’t it, that such a little thing could alter your life so much. There’s a finite amount of coal, you know. It forms one single layer in the strata of the world. For a time after woody plants evolved there was nothing that could break them down after they died, so they couldn’t decompose. The strata below the coal line are from the time before trees. The strata above are after microbes evolved the capacity to break down lignin and cellulose.”

He held the piece of coal before the woman’s face now, as if encouraging her to inspect it for herself. As if these details could be seen if scrutinized closely enough.

“Now consider the millions upon millions of years between that era and the Anthropocene. Think of the generations of human development needed to create the industry that had both the need and the capacity to dig coal from the ground at scale.

"Consider the machines built and carried down the mines into the deep bowels of the Earth. There was one specific machine that was built and transported and maintained in Shanxi, or Chhattisgarh, or Irkutsk; the machine which dug out this one, specific piece of coal.”

He let it fall from his fingers to shatter on the floor below.

“Consider all the people who made that possible. The engineers, the miners, the bureaucrats. Think about the web of global commodity they sold it into. Think of this piece of coal nestled among trillions of others like it in the hold of a ship which brought it to a port which loaded it on a truck which took it to a depot. Think of it sitting in that depot through the war, denied its original purpose. Then rediscovered, and through an equally-complex web it ending up here, on this train. Where it sat, waiting, for you to sneak aboard and pilfer.

"Do you think that coal has a memory? If stone has a memory then could it remember events both backwards and forward? Could it see each of the steps in its journey before it took them, when it lay dreaming in the dark depths of the earth?

"Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

He took a pair of clean and gleaming scissors from the tray of instruments and started to cut at her clothes, sliding them along the length of sleeves and grubby jean-legs. The woman’s eyes darted to and fro in consternation, but the Conductor paid her no mind and continued speaking the while.

“You might think that you know the reason you boarded my train — to steal coal — but you don’t; not really. You think you came here because you want to help your family through the next winter. In reality you are here because we have added another mid-train pusher locomotive and we need more stokers to fire it. You will be one of those stokers. Ironic. You came for coal, and coal you will indeed get.

"Though perhaps not as you envisioned.”

He pulled away the filthy clothes and put the scissors back in their tray. Each movement was precise as a dance rehearsed many times. Next he procured a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a folded pad of gauze, which he used to wipe clean points of the woman’s right arm, left leg, and face.

“For your new purpose I’m going to make a few modifications. I hope you don’t mind if I talk during the procedure. I find it calming. And, of course, I rarely have time to socialise."

He finished sterilising and disposed of the gauze in a metal pail which stood underneath the table.

"But yes; the reason you came here. In fact you are here in this room due to three specific causes: a broken credit card machine, a magazine cover, and a pothole.”

He picked up a long scalpel from the tray and examined it in the lamplight. Apparently satisfied, he made an incision into the meat of her calf, high up near the back of the knee.

“The broken credit card machine was at a buffet visited by a man called Jason Embleton. Due to the credit card machine being broken, the staff at the buffet were busy punching in credit card information by hand, and were unable to rotate the chafing dishes as often as they were supposed to, which was already the minimum they felt they could get away with. As a result, a colony of Escherichia coli O157:H7 was able to grow to dangerous contamination levels in the restaurant’s selection of sweet and sour shrimp, which was the favourite buffet selection of Mr. Embleton. As a result he came down with a severe case of food poisoning, for which he had to be hospitalised.”

He found and clamped the artery. This done, he now sliced all the way around the shin, cutting down to the bone.

“Jason Embleton worked at the same IT company as your grandfather, where they were colleagues in the sales department. Due to his illness Mr. Embleton was unable to go on his scheduled business trip to a client’s office in Chicago, and your grandfather went in his stead.”

He placed the scalpel in a dish of antiseptic and picked up a powered orthopaedic saw. It was connected by a rubber hose of high-pressure air to a socket in the ceiling. He switched it on and a piercing whine filled the room. The note grated and deepened when he brought it down to cut into the tibia.

“As you know, your grandfather was in Chicago when the bombs fell. You know because your grandfather was a gifted storyteller, and often told his rapt grandchildren about what he did to survive in that colossal, cut-throat ruin in the immediate aftermath of the war. Which was usually stealing. Stealing from those he saw as unfairly hoarding more than they needed.

“This imprinted on your developing brain as a moral code: it is acceptable, even praiseworthy, to steal from those with when you-and-yours are without. This gave you your reasoning for boarding the train.”

The Conductor pulled away the severed lower leg and placed it in the pail with a heavy thud. He drew a piece of cloth covering a sideboard to reveal three newly-forged prosthetics: a pegleg with a curios locking-claw attachment for a foot; a heavy, featureless mask of black iron; and a cambered, coal-shovel arm. He picked up the leg prosthetic and carried it back to the paralyzed woman. He fitted the end housingcap over the protruding nubs of bone and screwed it in place.

The prosthetic would allow a stoker to lock themself in place before a furnace, providing a fulcrum for the constant twist-shovel-twist required to feed the engine. The Conductor misted the join between metal and flesh with antiseptic and wrapped it with gauze.

“The second cause, the magazine cover, is what gave you your motive. When your younger sister was fourteen she joined your father on a scouting party to investigate the ruins of a small town upriver from your village. In the remains of a gas station she found a magazine stand, and on that magazine stand among the stained and water-damaged fare she found an intact copy of the final edition of People Magazine, which had a picture of Lorenzo Bautista on the cover. He was the lead actor in a drama called Pinch Hitter, which was popular when the bombs fell.”

The Conductor now picked up the mask of heavy, black iron and placed it over the woman’s face. It fitted perfectly. There were a total of eight holes spaced evenly about the brow and cheek-ridges, which the Conductor now examined to confirm they lined up correctly over the points where bone rose closest to the skin.

“Your sister, born in the hardscrabble years after the Last War, had never seen such a beautiful male as of Lorenzo Bautista. She tore off the magazine cover and secretly brought it back with her, where she kept it under her mattress. For years, when nobody else was around, she would take it out and stare at it. Lorenzo Bautista was not your sister’s first crush, but he was the most enduring.”

Satisfied with the holes' placement the Conductor now took a pneumatic screwdriver from the same shelf as the bonesaw. In a second tray of sterile fluid next to the one containing the scalpel he retrieved a stainless steel surgical screw. He lined it up in the hole, applied the screwdriver, and slowly buzzed it in.

“Two summers ago a trade caravan came through your village, and the son of one of the caravan drivers bore enough of a resemblance to Lorenzo Bautista to attract your sister’s attention, affection, and lust. It was her who initiated their dalliance, and two months after the caravan left — taking with it the driver’s son — your sister was forced to confront the fact that she was pregnant.”

He continued inserting screws into all eight holes.

“You adore your nephew, and would do many things for him that you normally would not. If it was just the adults in your house going cold this winter it would be one thing, but you could not bear to risk him becoming sick during his first winter. Motive.”

The Conductor gave the mask a little tug, shaking it from side-to-side to test its bond to the bones of the woman’s skull. It was good. A few small trickles of blood ran from beneath the mask, which he wiped away.

The thick metal would protect her face and eyes from the titanic heat of the constant blast of the furnace.

One more prosthetic lay on the table. The heavy arm attachment, the ratcheting extensible limb ending in a coalshovel.

The Conductor moved around the table and undid the strap holding down the woman’s right arm. He picked up the long scalpel once more and examined the underside of her arm, then made his incision.

“The final cause which brought you here was the pothole.

"When your grandfather eventually made his way out of the Chicago ruins, two years after the bombs fell, he was trying to return to Boise, which is where he had flown from on the day of that fateful business trip. He had, by that point, scrounged together enough to provision him for the trip. He loaded these provisions into a handcart he built himself out of some bicycle wheels and scrap metal.”

Again came the clamping of the artery, the slicing through of the muscle, and the application of the saw to bone.

“He only made it two weeks into his journey before a pothole in the road snared a wheel and broke the axle of his cart. He had been avoiding the main roads — and the bandits which preyed upon the travellers which plied them — so there was little he could do except move his provisions off the road and conceal them as best he was able.

"That night he saw the lights of a settlement not too far off, in the foothills of the mountains. He weighed his options and ultimately approached them and — finding them friendly — found room and board in exchange for work as a nightwatchman and fieldhand. He originally intended to continue his journey to Boise, but it was in that settlement he met your grandmother, and thus where he stayed and started a family.

A family of which you, of course, are the product."

The arm joined the lower leg in the pail beneath the table. They drained their fluids through gravity alone, like a sponge. An inch and a half of blood pooled at the bottom of the bucket, sloshing heavily with the rocking of the carriage in time with the gaslamp on its chain above.

The Conductor hefted the metal arm with both hands over to lay it beside the woman with a heavy thunk. He lined it up to the bone and the whine of more surgical screws being driven into place filled the carriage.

“Your village is unremarkable except for the fact that it is within a day’s hike of where the railroad enters the mountains. The incline and switchbacks make it one of the few places the train — this train — slows enough to where a determined individual can grab ahold and board, if they possess the courage and timing. Which was, of course, your method.

"If any of these three things were not present in you — reasoning, method, and motive — then you would not have boarded my train, and you would not be here now.

"Just imagine how each of those causes themselves relied on a whole confluence of causes, which in turn had causes of their own. It’s quite marvellous to think of, isn’t it? The beauty of it. The complexity. Time itself as a great machine, ticking and clicking each event into place exactly. All of it finding confluence here, in this train.

"For what is a train but a million million parts, brought together for purpose? Think of all the industry and toil required to create the societies which would create the technology which would create the components. The chain of cause and effect which brought them all together. The effort to keep it running.

"This train is the acme of human endeavour. It is the end point of all creation. A whole universal chain of causality ticking and clicking into place to move this train along its track.”

He stood back and admired his handiwork. The back iron of the coalshovel, mask, and fulcrum pegleg contrasted with the white of her skin, grown pale as a grub beneath the layers of clothes required by her hardscrabble existence.

“One last procedure. One last thing to replace. People such as yourself, unfortunately, do not appreciate the great chain of cause and effect. They believe it diminishes their place in the world, to be part of the great web of causality. They speak of free will, and will then go to great lengths to do things out of the ordinary to prove that they are not abiding by a predetermined chain of events, but rather that they are in control of the universe.”

The Conductor let out a sharp blast from his steamwhistle voicebox, a simulacrum of a laugh.

“Please forgive me, but you must agree it is a truly ludicrous notion. One must either perform an action for a reason, in which case it is predetermined; or for no reason at all, which is chaotic and random and thus not a display of free will.

"But they still insist on such displays of chaos and disruption, which is why I must remove that part of you which stubbornly insists upon itself.”

He picked up a set of hair clippers, similarly attached to an airhose. Their burr mingled with the rattle of the train as he shaved her head.

“Free will. Hah. There is a fable told by those who value it which I have always found interesting, perhaps you would indulge me in the telling of it.

"An experiment in organisational culture was performed once, by some research psychologists. They took a group of monkeys and placed them together in a communal cage. In the centre of this cage they placed a ladder, and at the top of the ladder a basket containing some food. But this cage was also rigged up with water jets that the psychologists could activate with a switch, which would douse the entire cage in a deluge of ice-cold water.”

He put the clippers down and examined her newly-bare scalp, his fingers questing and probing the contours of her skull.

“Every time a monkey made to climb the ladder to get to the basket of food, the scientists would trigger the water system. The monkeys soon learned to not approach the ladder. If any monkey got hungry enough to make a try for the food, the other monkeys would attack it and chase it off, to avoid being sprayed with ice-water.”

With a fat blue felt-tip pen he marked a point on her head with a small ‘x’.

“Now the interesting part of the experiment is this: the researchers replaced the monkeys one at a time. They would take a monkey out, and put a new monkey in its place. These new monkeys did not know about the water jets, so they would of course go to the ladder to acquire the basket of food. The other monkeys would attack them and chase them away from the ladder. So the new monkey learned to avoid the ladder, although it had never been sprayed itself.”

He lifted the final instrument from his sterile tray: an air-driven powerdrill.

“Then the researchers replaced another monkey.”

He placed the tip of the drill with great care against the centerpoint of the ‘x’. Again the adenoidal whine of powered tools biting bone cut the air of the carriage.

“At the end of the experiment they had replaced all the original monkeys in the cage, but the troupe still attacked any individual which attempted to climb the ladder… even though none of them had ever been sprayed. The monkeys occupying the cage by the end were not even aware of the existence of the water system.

"You can see the attraction this parable holds for the rebellious and the anti-establishment. Look at these stupid monkeys: squalling and screeching at each other, desperate to attack those falling out of line with a rule that they do not understand and of which they don’t even know the root cause. It is used as a parable showing how tradition and methodology can be established and unthinkingly followed. The root cause behind the maxim, ‘that’s just how it’s always been done.’”

The Conductor judged the depth of the drill precisely, and upon reaching this depth he stopped the drill and carefully, smoothly, drew it out. The small hole in the woman’s head bubbled out blood like a stewpot overboiling.

“But that’s a shallow reading, I think. However the monkeys reacted, however foolish they might seem to be: the water was still there. Them not being aware of the inciting cause for the guarding of the ladder was irrelevant. The cause, and the effect, is what matters. Not one’s understanding of it.”

He placed a wad of cotton over the hole to soak up the blood, and then an adhesive gauze to hold it in place.

“You are much the same way. You boarded this train with a goal in mind, but the true motive force behind your actions stretches back from you, branching and unseen. Like the journey of the coal. The broken credit card reader, the magazine cover, the pothole. Here you are. Unaware that the whole of human history has conspired to bring you, here, to me.”

The Conductor looked at the woman’s eyes behind her black iron mask and saw that they were closed. She had passed out. He replaced the instruments on the tray, lined up neatly in their original places, and washed his hands in a basin by the wall, the water turning pink. He dried his hands with a handtowel of thick Egyptian cotton.

By the time a porter slid open the door to the cabin and stumped over to unstrap the woman from the table he was back at his desk, his pen scratching entries into a timetable without hesitation, doubt, or pause.

The porter arrived precisely when the woman regained consciousness, the pain from her epidural wearing off prodding her awake. This, too, had been accounted for.

The porter helped the woman up and she stood, swaying, while he covered her with a rough gown of hessian. She followed obediently when he led her from the room, her metal prosthetic clanging against the floor on every other step. Another porter fetched away the tray of instruments and pail of severed limbs, to clean and prepare them for the next person to be processed.

The new stoker (for that is what the woman now was) made her way toward the rear of the train, where she would be shown her post and berth. The time it took her to walk there was accounted for in the Conductor’s ledger, as was each minute of each day hence. She passed other stokers, and engineers and functionaries and porters too; each of them following the course laid down for them in a timetable. Thousands of people each with thousands of tasks to fulfil in a particular order, at a particular time, the tasks of each fitting together like cogs in a machine, one task pushing the next before it like a great engine.

Evening had come while the Conductor performed his work, and the train had reached the mountains. As it muscled its way up an incline sparks flew from its great stacks, carried up into the darkling sky amidst the roiling black smoke of the furnace. Watching a single spark one could easily track its course, but with so many together they fizzed in apparent chaos.

The mountains gave a broad view over the plains below, tinged deep red by the setting sun. The trees were uprooted and the rivers sucked dry, all to fuel the industry that in turn fuelled the train. As the train moved inorexably along its track more and more would be fed into it, more cars added to it; the whole of humanity focused to this one point in space and time, as if it were the only thing with true agency in the broad sweep of existence.

The sun slipped below the horizon and the train carried on into the dark. The effort of the world entire conspired in its motion, its path laid down in metal that veered not a single inch, and the train’s progress along that track exact to the very second; always, forever.


About the Creator

Madoka Mori

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (33)

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  • Aphotic8 months ago

    Your stories never cease to impress. Love it.

  • Maite Landa8 months ago

    I love stories like this. Just enough creepiness to hook the reader without being gory and overly gruesome. Well written. Read it in one breath and immediately recommended it to a friend who is a fan of gothic and sci-fi stories.

  • Paul Martyn8 months ago

    Vivid imagery and an interesting setting, well done 👌🏻

  • AGB8 months ago

    Wow, that was very interesting and creepy! Great job. I love your vivid imagination. Here is the link to mine, let me know what you think :)

  • Alex Fontaine8 months ago

    I really enjoyed this! The dialog is very well written and the imagery is so vivid

  • Sarah G.8 months ago

    Loved the use of the credit card machine-magazine-pothole device to carry the story along and reveal more about the woman

  • Joe Patterson8 months ago

    Truly amazing.

  • Chezney Martin8 months ago

    Great flow of information; the talking while operating was lovely to see played out, back and forth. You went above and beyond the prompt for sure. Fingers crossed for your piece!

  • Oooo my favourite part was the pail of severed limbs and blood. Would have loved to see more gore and blood, lol! Very clever use of the monkey story. Yours was a brilliant take on the challenge. I loved this fantastic story!

  • Anna8 months ago

    Such a creative spin on the prompt! I love it!

  • Signe Paige8 months ago

    Ew, lol. I hated it but I loved it.

  • Meagan Dion8 months ago

    Okay…lol I’m going to have nightmares. You are a freaking genius and a masterful artist. Kudos, you knocked it out of the park again. I’m sure I’ll be reading your name in the winner list. *applause*

  • EJ Ferguson8 months ago

    Incredible work, nicely done

  • Murry Haithcock8 months ago

    This was a cool snippet of a world I would never like to take part in. Thank you for the cool story. Though the conductor reminded me of a drawing of a mechanical spider like man I drew as a kid. So thank you for the memory as well.

  • Jordan Twiss8 months ago

    Horrifying, and such a creative take on the challenge. The way you effortlessly inject such big ideas into your work is nothing short of masterful.

  • Ashley McGee8 months ago

    We have some philosophy to discuss! Have you ever read Gene Wolf? This story reminds me of the scene in the last Book of the New Sun where Severan learns the meaning of existentialism.

  • Made in DNA8 months ago

    Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

  • Monique Hardt8 months ago

    Wow! The concepts of this story combined with the research experiments used to back it up, this was a real proper debate, with supporting evidence for your points! Brilliantly done!

  • Jenna Delp8 months ago

    Thought provoking and sensuously descriptive. A very unique story!

  • Tony Galbier8 months ago

    Holy smokes stacks, Madoka! Amazing, as per usual.

  • C.D. Hoyle8 months ago

    Awesome read. Good luck! ❤

  • Like a criminal who spouts his reasons, just before getting caught...This was fabulous, from her swiveling eyes to the description of the chorus of train whistles. Being prepared for free will itself and the process of: "this is how it's always been done" (The killer of change.) Remarkably done. I would love to see the victim prevail, eventually in the chapters to come. Free will is goal. Just some thoughts. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Carol Townend8 months ago

    This was absolutely brilliant! It gave me a lot more than chills just reading it.

  • Cathy holmes8 months ago

    uhh. Jeez, girl. I think you did it again. Bravo.

  • Veronica Coldiron8 months ago

    I kept hearing the Borg, from Star Trek... "Resistance is futile". LOL! This one hurt to read, but there certainly felt like there was a social and/or political undercurrent. Totally reach in and got me. GREAT job!

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