He Who Controls the Line
A Dark Fantasy
This story is dedicated to my fiancee, without whom it would have ended before it even began.
He wakes with a start.
Within the eternal darkness of his mind, a guttural roar morphed into a high-pitched cacophony that he can now discern as a train whistle.
Other than the noise, the only other information available to him is that he is male and that he is slouched over in his seat. He has no memory of deciding to board a train, let alone an antiquated locomotive, and he certainly can’t remember ever purchasing a ticket. He’s certain that steam trains, last he checked, were reserved these days for the domain of tourism, and he doubts that he would have the money for something that extravagant.
At least, he thinks so. It’s the darndest thing; he can’t seem to remember who he is either.
“Ah, you are finally awake! Welcome.”
He bolts his neck in the direction of the speaker and receives his next surprise.
Sitting opposite is a petite lady with an attractive button nose and piercing eyes, garbed in a sunflower yellow, frilly Georgian-era dress that takes up most of the floor space, with a matching umbrella that she clutches in her hands like a cane. Funnily enough, it’s the hat that he can’t get over; an elaborate bouquet of flowers protruding from what he believes is called a parasol hat.
“We were wondering when you would stir”, she continues in her Queen’s English accent. He hesitates before replying. He has no recollection of how he’ll sound, and the eloquence of the woman’s speech (admittedly) does intimidate him a little.
He clears his throat just to be safe.
“I beg your pardon. We?”
She sweeps her umbrella in an arc. Embarrassingly, when he follows her gesture, he notices that there are other passengers who have been patiently waiting for his attention.
The man sitting next to him—whose face is hidden behind an immaculate handlebar moustache—wears the red uniform of the Empire. His lapel is so overburdened with various medals he could probably light his way through the dark without a lantern.
The final passenger appears to be a doctor, judging from the billowing laboratory coat he sports. But rather than having the trite cliché of a wild mane of shocked white hair, he is rather distinguished looking and carries himself as such, his dignity accentuated by the clean, round spectacles that adorn his bird-like nose.
The Sleeper, for the first time, catches his reflection in the glass of the compartment door. He spies the visage of a man roughly in his mid-forties with auburn hair slicked to one side. His reflection sternly glowers back at him with tired, icy-blue eyes that, combined with his squared jawline, produces a rugged leading-man appearance.
None of this means anything. Even more baffling is his choice of clothes. He winces at the combination of a purple red turtleneck jumper, and a black suede jacket laced with a cream-white edging. At least the beige chinos are a little more dignified.
“Don’t worry. You are not alone,” says the Doctor, “none of us had any memory of who we were either when we first woke up.”
“Scandalous, isn’t it,” pipes up the General, “but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. There’s a good chap.”
The Sleeper finds this all a bit much. He tries to back pedal the conversation.
“I’m sorry, but where am I?”
The Lady chortles.
“Why, aboard a train, dear!”
“I can see that”, he replies diplomatically, “but what train? Who are you all, and where are we going?”
“Going?”, asks the Doctor, “well nowhere dear boy.” The Sleeper guides his attention to the pine trees and gently sloping green hills racing by the window. He points this out to the Doctor, who furrows his brow in annoyance.
“There’s no need to be impertinent! I understand perfectly that the train is in motion. But that doesn’t mean there is a destination.”
The Sleeper turns to the Lady and the General for support.
“What does he mean by that?”
“Exactly what he said”, the General says, becoming impatient with the Sleeper, “we have been travelling on this line for as long as we can remember.”
“And it has never stopped”, the Lady finishes. The Sleeper begins to notice his stomach curling. The Doctor continues.
“To answer you’re other inquiries, we can’t tell you who we are because, as I have already explained, we don’t know (although I can tell you that, whoever I am, I am certainly not a man who likes to repeat himself!), and, as for the train itself…”. He pauses, and his dignified countenance suddenly drops to one of despair.
The Lady places a comforting hand on the Doctor’s shoulder. The General stares mournfully at his boots.
“What about the train? What are you not telling me?”, the Sleeper says, uncomfortable with the protracted silence. The Lady speaks first, but not before directing a look of reproval at the Sleeper.
“That is not so simple to explain, dear boy.” In this moment, a shadow fills the compartment. There is a general panic as the passengers let out a collective gasp. The Lady clings to the Doctor. The General steels himself for action. The Sleeper instinctively raises his arms to the window, anticipating an explosion of glass.
The shadow dims the train for a handful of seconds and then, like an airship, it passes away out of sight. The compartment slowly relaxes. The Sleeper darts to the window, searching every corner of the glass for a sign of their assailant.
“You may as well sit down”, the General sighs, “there’s nothing to be done now.”
The Sleeper turns to the crowd, his face contorted.
“What the hell was that?”
“Language! There is a lady present”, the Doctor barks, momentarily forgoing any sense of dread. The Lady, clearly losing patience with the Sleeper, still attempts to compose herself before speaking.
“That was the proprietor of this train.”
She watches the Sleeper collapse back into his seat. He allows the silence to draw out for as long as he can stand it.
“Madam, you’re not making any sense. Nothing anyone has said thus far makes any sense. Have you all taken a leave of your senses?”
“You witnessed the phenomenon for yourself, as we all did”, the Lady snaps, finally doing away with all pretence of manners, “do you mean to argue the evidence of your own senses?”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore”, the Sleeper admits, “but this surely must be some kind of collective madness.”
“I assure you, sir, this is not a case of Mass Hysteria”, the Doctor opines, “you saw what you saw. It happened. You must accept that, incredible though it may seem.” The Sleeper runs his hands across his scalp in a vain attempt to cope with the intensity of the situation.
He addresses the Lady.
“You said that was the proprietor. What proprietor?”
She braces herself.
“He Who Controls the Line.”
“He controls all”, the Doctor continues, “where we’re going, and for how long, and to what end.”
“We are at his mercy, I’m afraid”, the General says, “for all we know, he may very well have brought us into this world.”
“All we can do is sit tight and enjoy each other’s company, my dear sir”, ends the Lady.
His head begins to shake rapidly. A low moan emanates from the base of his throat and, lowering his head onto his lap, the Sleeper groans. His despair is complete.
The General is having none of this.
“Buck up son! Have some dignity, even in the face of overwhelming adversity.” The Sleeper reignites his anger.
“How can you all just accept this!”, he roars, losing his venom on them, “surely there must be something. Have you never even tried to escape?”
“Of course we have, you imbecile! But where could we go?”, the Doctor rebukes, “Look around you, sir. This is the middle of a God forsaken land, possibly not of this Earth.”
“And even when we tried”, the General joined in, “he would… God in heaven, he would lift us off of the ground!” He bows his head in shame at this. The Lady pats his knee in concern.
“He’s the bravest of us all”, she responds without looking away from the General, “he climbed through the window, and ran like a bat out of the jaws of hell. But He was greatly angered by this.”
“The poor man was kept in darkness for months before He would let him go”, the Doctor says, “when the General here was returned to us, He unleashed an earthquake. The entire train shook with such violence, I feared that it was the end.”
“Well, what about the front of the train?” quipped the Sleeper.
“What of it?”, the General asks gruffly. The Sleeper jumps to his feet.
“What if one of us was to make our way to the front of the carriage and apply the brakes? We could at least stop the train once and for all.”
“Impossible!”, the Doctor asserts, “and, even if it was, for what purpose? He will never let you go.”
“Surely it’s worth the gamble. Better to try than sit around here waiting for whatever nightmare may come next.” The carriage suddenly toppled. The Sleeper was flung to the ground. The Lady falls against the Doctor, pinning him to the wall. The General collapses in a heap at the end of the seats.
As spontaneously as it had veered to the side, the carriage rights itself. The passengers once again collect themselves.
The General hoists the Sleeper to his feet.
“He must’ve heard you. From now on, I’d keep thoughts like that to yourself.” The Sleeper makes a break for the door, but the General splays his arms across it in anticipation, barring the way.
“You are an even grander fool than I gave you credit for. You’ll put us all at risk of his Wrath!”
“Cower here all you want”, asserts the Sleeper, “but I’m putting a stop to this.”
“If he wants to go, let him”, the Lady says, readjusting her hat, “what difference will it make?”
“I will not go back into the dark. Not again!” the General cries out. He grapples with the Sleeper. In the midst of their struggle, the Doctor inserts himself between them, trying to pry them apart.
The Sleeper lands a right hook across the General’s face, sending his sprawling against his seat. Emboldened by his luck, he throws the Doctor aside, nearly crushing the Lady. Within a moment, the door of the compartment is slid open and the Sleeper disappears.
The Doctor is ready to give chase. The Lady detains him with the length of her umbrella.
“Let him go. He’ll be waiting anyway.”
Tearing himself past the ornate bass doors of endless compartments, the Sleeper catches sight of numerous other men and women looking out at him in terror. Others look away. Others still pull aside the door to their compartment, begging him to turn back.
He presses on regardless.
Coming to the end of each carriage, he hurls himself across the gap mercilessly speeding by underneath the coupling, spreading his entire body against the grain of the next door, fearing the drop.
As he runs for the locomotive, he rehearses a speech for this thing that controls the fates of the other strangers onboard. He will demand to be released. Most importantly, he will demand an answer. If this was the true nature of God, he reasons, then humanity was damned.
An iron door studded with rivets appears at the end of the final carriage. It must be his destination. Without hesitation, he pulls down the lever on the door with all of his weight behind his hands and throws the door aside.
There is no driver. Instead, an unwashed, greasy human hand encircles the entire steam locomotive, more gargantuan than the largest zeppelin ever produced, pulling the entirety of the train cars along the tracks at dizzying speeds.
The Sleeper falls to his knees, his hands clasped in useless prayer, begging to be released from this sight. The moon-sized face of a beaming child, eyes alight with fury and lips drooling profusely from the sides, eclipse the light of the sun as the monstrous child catches sight of the Sleeper.
“No! No! No! You can’t be here. You’re a bad boy, and you must be punished”. The giant seizes the scruff of the Sleeper’s neck between His thumb and forefinger. His laughter bellows out into the rest of the train, frightened passengers gripping each other for comfort.
The child lets the Sleeper flail his limbs for a while longer, enjoying the helplessness of His victim. The final thing the Sleeper will ever see will be the gaping void of a toy box as he is lifted high above its open chasm, finally realising what the General meant by the use of the word “darkness”.
“Naughty boys go back in the box until I say so!”, booms the Child as he watches the Sleeper fall screaming into his new home.
About the author
In the words of Rod Serling; I never chose to write, I succumbed to it. I wrote my first story when I was nine for a school assignment and have never stopped. If you love the macabre, then consider my work submitted for your approval.