The Conductor [9/9]
I'm a conductor on a train that runs an unusual route; a ghost voyage, with no passengers... Tonight, however, there's someone on the train...
I stare into the Engineer’s eyes, and he presses suddenly forwards. The pincers tucked tightly into his face begin to tremble.
I scream, staggering backwards into the engine room.
“Conductor!” A breathless cry from my right; from the woman, held tight and drawn away from the wall, her arms locked behind her back by an Engineer. I look all around me wildly, slipping on the dark stained floor. Engineers scramble away from the walls, clicking furiously, cracking. One of them locks itself around my right arm from behind. The great mouth wails hungrily.
Act. It’s time to act. Now. Act NOW.
I relent, ever so slightly, giving in to the Engineer, moving backwards with it; then I push hard, throwing it off, though not completely- I still feel its sharp grip scrape down the side of my arm, tearing my jacket- and I lurch forward, slamming into the Engineer in front of me and sending him staggering backwards, half-falling into the previous carriage.
I take in a deep breath, raising my head up high, and I shout as loud and as clear as I can, down into the carriage with the full force of my lungs:
“ATTENTION, ALL PASSENGERS!
“I, A LEGITIMATE CONDUCTOR ABOARD THIS TRAIN, DEMAND PROOF FOR THE VALIDITY OF YOUR JOURNEYS!
“EVERY ONE OF YOU, SHOW ME YOUR TICKETS, SHOW THEM NOW!”
I feel a heavy pair of pincers tear into my shoulder blade from behind, and I gasp out in shock, no breath left for a scream, and it drags me back into the engine room.
For a terrible moment, nothing in the carriage beyond seems to stir.
And then, there is chaos.
The red passengers, few as they are, dutifully lift their arms to reveal their tickets; but the shimmering men, bloated, inhuman, shifting and trembling- they burst, almost as one, into dozens upon dozens of disgusting, crawling, shimmering spider-crabs. Some large, some small. Some more lobster-like than crab-like, but screeching and clambering around the carriage all the same.
Some burst through the door into the engine room, and I feel the pincers detach from my shoulder. I stagger to my knees with a cry of pain as the Engineers all scramble around in disarray as the hordes of shimmering creatures surge across the walls, the floors, the ceilings.
Some of the Engineers push through into the carriage beyond, some remain to throw themselves around in the engine room after the spiders that have gotten in. The mouth of the train roars and cries, and I stagger to my feet, grabbing a tight hold of the woman beside me and dragging her through the carriage as fast as I can. Slamming aside Engineers, gritting my teeth against the strange and sickly feeling of the legs of the shimmering spider-crabs, crawling all over me, brushing against me, I break into a run and she runs with me, and we tear through the carriages, carriage after carriage through the chaos.
On, we run, leaving the swarming, bloody thrall behind us- but they will follow, I know it.
The train begins to slow, and I skid to a breathless halt, slamming into a wall as the woman does the same.
“We’re- we’re coming up to your stop, aren’t we”, I say to her through pants, pain surging across my back, the muscles in my legs aflame.
“We are” she chokes back, through breaths, “yes”.
“Then go”. I force open an emergency door, grunting as I do so, the whistle of the wind loud.
I look out.
We are on land, now. White-grey sand below; broken columns and pillars and strange cone-like towers in the distance rush by.
“Maybe… maybe I should wait until we come to a complete stop…” she begins.
“Now approaching-” the intercom crackles, and spells out the name of a place I could not repeat- many syllabled, like a hiss, it’s gone from my mind almost the second I hear it.
“You’ll be fine” I say, desperately, “they’ll be after you. They could be coming right now. Do you want to take that chance? Please- just go! Your friends- keep an eye out for them, they- they might have survived being thrown from the train!”
She nods anxiously and steps to the edge. The train decelerates, but we’re still travelling at significant speed.
She looks back at me, and smiles.
“Thank you, conductor”.
I smile back, exhausted, and she turns, and she jumps.
We’re still going too fast for me to see her hit the ground, but it’s sand… it’s soft sand….
…She’ll be okay.
I pull the door shut with a grunt and look behind me; no sign of the Engineers yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t after me. I press on through the carriages, legs aching, until I begin to wonder if my trek is completely necessary.
…Am I still able to travel between them by the way of pressing the button?
I try it.
At the next intersection between carriages I run my thumb around the door button in a circle, repeating the motion I made to enter this section of the train, and it glows, a soft white this time.
And I head through the door.
On the other side I find I am no longer bathed in the strange red, darkroom light. The walls do not appear to be made with any kind of flesh or bone, and the windows are as they were, clear and large.
I breathe a sigh of relief, though I am not sure why, entirely. The Engineers could just as easily follow me through, but… but I do feel slightly safer, somehow.
There are plenty of empty seats here, and I slump into one, exhausted, looking out the window as the train chunters to a stop. My shoulder and arm throb in monotonous, painful bursts.
The intercom crackles, and the name of the station is announced, but once again, I cannot keep a hold of it in my mind.
I sit for a while in silence.
With a hiss and a groan, the train continues along its journey.
I stay seated for another hour, perhaps. I sob to myself for a while during this time. I try my phone again, to no avail. I try the radio. It gives me only static.
I get up. I walk down the train. I have no idea where I am now, in relation to the front… if that was indeed the front… or to my original position. So I just walk.
I walk and I walk, and as luck would have it, I see ahead after a while another conductor. A true conductor, hovering down the aisle in the carriage ahead.
I’ve had plenty of time to think since departing from the chaos of the front carriages, and I believe I’ve formulated a weak, but not altogether hopeless sort of plan.
I’m a conductor myself, after all. And what would I do if I was approached by a passenger without a ticket?
It isn’t much to go on, but I have little else.
I approach the conductor, heart hammering. If this goes wrong, then I’m going to make a break for it. I won’t fuck around, I’ll take my chances with the jump into the realm beyond. I won’t allow myself to be taken to the front, I won’t. I struggle to think of a fate worse than being chewed up by that leaking, moaning, grinding mouth in the train.
I press through the door into the carriage, and before I have a chance to psyche myself out I say, calmly but clearly:
“Excuse me… conductor. I would like… I would like to alter my journey, if possible. I would just like to get home, please”.
The conductor hovers before me, writhing slowly. The low, droning buzz of the thing sets my teeth on edge, but I hold my ground.
It is silent, for a moment, then:
“Your journey cannot be altered passenger. Your journey has been marked”.
My heart hammers, I want to leave; I want to remove myself from the situation before it asks me those dreaded words, before it asks me for my ticket… but I need more, I need some hope, so I ask again:
“Could I... purchase a second ticket? I would like to amend my journey, conductor”.
But I am given the same response.
“Your journey cannot be altered passenger. Your journey has been marked”.
My journey has been ‘marked’.
The conductor starts to drift towards me and I step back and out of its way. It hovers on through the aisle and into the next carriage. I watch it ask a red passenger for her ticket. She raises an arm and the conductor stamps it.
…It MARKS it. It MARKS the ticket. The ‘R’. That same symbol, marked into the passenger’s ticket. …The passenger’s ‘skin’.
I look down at the symbol on the back of my own hand. The hastily carved ‘R’. The one that the junkie gave me.
…And an idea forms. It’s not the best idea. It makes me feel sick, in fact. But it’s my only idea.
I watch as the conductor shimmers and disappears from view, and I set out, down along the carriages, with a renewed but bitter sense of grim purpose.
I walk for hours. Hours upon hours upon hours.
I sit a few times to avoid groups of Engineers.
I pass a human couple, who refuse to talk with me.
I pass the red passengers, silent and staring.
I pass shimmering men and shimmering monsters.
Hour after hour I march through the train, my eyes weary, I’m desperate for some rest, for some sleep, but not yet. Not just yet. Keep on walking.
My steps become jarring. My muscles are seizing up. But I walk on.
The view outside has long since changed. Up, the train climbed, up into the night sky, high, high above the ground, and colossal, twisting, whirling towers of wind and glass roar and spin in the distance through the air. Clouds rush by, dark and furious.
I come at last to something I recognise. The broken, roofless carriage. Jagged, torn walls, missing chairs, passengerless. The wind is ungodly now, and I stagger on down the aisle, my eyes watering, gripping at the remaining chairs, using them to pull myself forwards, deafened by the scream of the howling winds and the towering cyclones beyond. I don’t want to get too close to the edge, but I try to peer over, to see if I can see the ground…
I push on.
I head through a carriage splattered with dark and shimmering stains, with edges of the chairs torn, a piece of railing slightly bent. Evidence of a scuffle.
I pass through a compartment with an out of place fire extinguisher. The glint of the light reflecting off of it catches my eye.
…It’s exactly where I left it. Against the wall by the mashed spider-crab carcass.
On I go, through the carriages; I pass through the one in which I saw the teenage boy, though he is gone now, until I am certain, certain beyond all doubt that I am back to where I started. The dried blood stains across the floor and up the seats is proof enough.
This is where the junkie carved this infernal symbol into my hand.
Except, on reflection, he probably wasn’t a junkie at all. He was probably just as terrified and almost as uncertain about his surroundings as I was.
…He was still a cunt though.
I get down onto my hands and knees and search across the floor of the carriage.
When the Engineers threw the non-junkie off the train, one of them had had his knife wedged precariously in the side of its head. …But when they approached the table where I sat in terrified silence with the woman, the knife had vanished.
Which means they either took it for themselves… or it’s somewhere still on the train.
I search each chair with real, dedicated focus. I push aside the feet of the red passengers. And in the shadows, I find it. The blade. I squeeze my fist in triumph, reaching below the seat and drawing it out into the light. The junkie’s knife. And my heart starts to pound as I realise that my plan, what had up until now been just a ‘theoretical’ plan, now had to be put into brutal motion.
I sit in the aisle, my back against a rail, and I turn the blooded knife slowly over in my hands.
I look at the symbol on the back of my hand. The ‘R’. The ‘mark’. The mark of my journey. I have no hope of getting a ticket home whilst this mark is emblazoned across the back of my hand. That’s what I understood from the conductor.
…I admit, my original plan was to try and sever the entire hand.
But as I walked, I began to doubt the necessity of such a brutal measure. I came up with an alternative.
I tear off a strip of my sleeve and create a makeshift gag for myself. Something to bite down on, to stifle my groans of distress, and shakily, desperately, I begin to slice the blade into the skin on the back of my hand.
I release a grunt, the edges of my vision flash.
This is going to be really fucking difficult.
I move myself into a chair by the window, opposite an unsympathetic red passenger.
“What are you staring at?” I mutter to it as fresh blood leaks over my arm. I look down and drive the blade in deeper. Then deeper still. It has to be deep enough to remove all trace of the ‘R’. The carved symbol. The mark.
So I slice. I push the knife through the back of my hand, hacking away at pieces of flesh. In some parts my trembling arm betrays me and I cut too deep. Dark blood gushes onto the little table in front of me and over my shirt and jacket and I start to feel light-headed. But there is no alternative, that’s what I keep telling myself. There is no alternative.
Get it done.
So I do. Sawing away, sweating, whimpering, I slice off the necessary flesh.
The back of my hand becomes a wreck. Throbbing. Leaking. Hanging bits of messily cut skin.
But eventually, all trace of the symbol is gone.
I tear off a larger piece of my sleeve, wrap it tight around the hand, unable to help myself releasing a bitter cry as I do so… I wipe sweat from my eyes, taking some deep, shuddering breaths.
Calming myself as best I can.
And I wait. I wait for a long, long time.
It’s three weeks before I see a conductor again.
I went around asking red passenger after red passenger if I could see their tickets, and when I found one without a stamp I sat by it, and waited.
I hear that familiar droning buzz. I stand. I see it shimmer down the aisle towards me, and I approach.
“Conductor”, I say, softly, the moment of truth having finally arrived, “I would like to purchase a ticket home, please”.
For a minute, the conductor says nothing. Then, it speaks, and its mouthless voice vibrates around my head:
“To which station are you headed?”
My stomach lurches.
“To St Joseph’s Stand, England”. I say, clearly. Then, “the station on the route that begins in London, and ends in Edinburgh”, I add, just in case.
Another moment’s pause.
“The price for this ticket will be one year and one month. Will you purchase?”
A year and a month? What does that mean? A year and a month off my life? A year and a month on the train?
But these questions are trivial, really. I have been offered a way home, and I’m taking it, by Christ.
I’m fucking taking it.
“I will purchase”, I whisper.
The conductor bids me raise a hand, and I choose my good hand. The conductor touches it with a writhing, pale arm, and it starts to itch, it starts to sting, like a wasp sting, but slow, not sharp. A ticket, one like those of the red passengers, begins to form between my fingers.
Webbed, stretched skin forms, with text and typeface visible across it. I grimace as it comes into being.
“Please take your seat, passenger”, the conductor says, and then he’s off. Hovering away down the aisle and into the next carriage without another word.
I look at the ticket between my fingers, and sure enough, a seat is written there, below the cryptic lines and half-circles, the same I’d seen on the fire extinguisher. LKP90.
So I head in the opposite direction to the conductor. I head towards my seat.
It takes me a few hours.
And when I find it, I sit.
I sit and I watch the strange realms roll by through the window.
I sit for a long time. A long, long time. With nothing but my thoughts- mostly of how bad a father and a husband and a man I’ve been in my life back home- and the view beyond the glass.
I remain on the train for ten months.
Coming up towards the eleventh month now.
A lot happened to me during that time.
…Stories for another day, perhaps.
I met a young girl though. I shared with her the secret of the ticket in my hand. She asked if it would work for someone who wasn’t employed by the rail industry back home, and I told her I didn’t know.
I did cut her symbol off for her however, at her request. We decided to flee the carriage after she started to cry, but luckily the Engineers didn’t come for us. Once she’d calmed down she thanked me, and she left. Off on the hunt for a conductor.
I never saw her again.
…I’ll tell you just one more thing I did see though. Something you may find of interest. I saw the red passengers move.
All of them, at once. It scared the absolute hell out of me when they all shot up, rising to a stand with no prior warning at all.
I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I remember how I gripped the rail of the seat, my knuckles white, watching in disbelief as they turned as one and marched robotically down the aisle, veins bulging as they stood to wait by the doors, how they waited so patiently for the train to come to a stop.
“Plexus”, the voice over the intercom crackled simply. ”Now arriving”. And the train rolled out of a long, dark tunnel and into a world of swirling scarlet mist and taut, stretched webbing of crimson and wine, pulled tight between the landscape’s strange segmented towers of off-white and the dark mountains beyond.
Alien lights flickered and sped the length of this webbing, thousands upon thousands of them, all shooting in different directions, and all beneath a deep and unsettling red sky.
The passengers all left the train in an orderly fashion in a dead and eerie silence… yet somehow positively pulsating with anticipatory electricity.
Some of the shimmering men, I did not fail to notice, departed with them.
The train remained at this particular stop for longer than the others, much longer; granting enough time for the passengers’ replacements to board in their stead. Silent, red-eyed and blank-faced, settling programmatically into their seats before the doors drew to a welcome close and the train continued on along its way.
I thought about that day for a long, long time. I was never able to make much sense of it, however.
I had grown to believe, over the course of my journey, that my ticket’s ‘one year and one month’ payment related to the time it would take to get home. But this theory dissipated when my station was announced one night over the intercom, just under a week before the beginning of the eleventh month.
I sat up straight at once. Adrenaline surging.
Did I hear correctly?
Yes, yes I did, I’m sure of it; I definitely, definitely did.
“Now approaching St Joseph’s Stand, England. That’s England… St Joseph’s Stand”. The intercom says, before crackling into silence.
I rise to my feet, giddy, my legs trembling. I’d been sleeping, but I’m wide, wide awake now, and I stare out the window; I see the hills. God, I see the moors! The fields! The wildgrass fields! I recognise this route! It’s MINE! It’s MY ROUTE!
I could jump for joy, I could explode, but I don’t, I hold steady. I remain quiet, and I go to stand by the door, shaking with anticipation. The train slows, and I hear the gentle drum of rain upon the carriage roof.
The train chunters to a complete stop, and with a trembling finger, I press the button for the door to the outside.
The end of the line.
And I step out onto the platform, hit at once by cool, country-night air, and I look up into the rain.
I dance, then. I dance in a spontaneous circle, grinning, wooping, hollering, laughing, louder than I’ve ever laughed before. I crouch down and touch the wet ground- concrete- CONCRETE! I haven’t felt concrete in such a long time!
I look at my hand, the ticket hand. I watch as the webbed ticket dissolves into dead, flaky skin, watch it drift off in the damp breeze.
I look up and make eye contact with the station’s lone occupant- a man in a hoodie and a leather jacket, smoking, leaning against one of the narrow pillars that support the little station’s low roof.
“…You alright there pal?” he asks, after a moment.
I stand and jump a few steps closer to him, “can I borrow your phone please Sir?” I ask, my voice wavering with delight.
I’m HOME! I’M HOME I’M HOME I’M HOME! This miserable little shithole never looked so beautiful!
The man looks me over in silence and breathes out a puff of smoke. He takes in my scarred, wrecked hands. My torn, blood-stained jacket. My eyes, wide and wild.
“…Uh… yeah, no. No I don’t think so. Sorry mate”. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a coin, flicking it onto the floor by my feet. “Go buy yourself a hot drink”.
He chuckles and turns for another drag.
The train behind me begins to chunter away, slowly, off to its next station.
Still grinning, I march right up to the man, closing the distance between us in a quick second and grab him by the collar, slamming him hard up against the little pillar as his cigarette tumbles to the wet ground. I lean in close.
“It wasn’t really a request, mate”, I mutter through clenched teeth.
The man, speechless and panicked, reaches into his jacket pocket and hands me his phone with trembling fingers, and I take it, releasing him and moving a few steps back.
“I’m not a thief”, I assure him, “I’ll return it, just give me a second”.
I walk a little further and punch in my daughter’s number, calling it. I press the phone up against my ear.
“..Dad?” she says; she sounds tired. “Why… why are you calling me so late? Is everything okay? Are you still at work?”
“Yes”, I begin, “oh God, because I love you. Everything’s fine”, I beam, and I wonder if she can feel the radiance of my smile through the phone. “And no, as it happens, I’m not still at work”.
I unbuckle the radio from my belt, and I fling it down onto the tracks, where it breaks.
“I actually just quit”.
The first episode of There’s A Girl In My Backup Camera will be posted 12/4/2020
Written by Darkly Gathers