by Alex Jackson
Mr. Baxter had promised Kirsten that the end-of -day cleanup was a big operation, and that had put ideas in her mind. She had anticipated a flurry of trains, maybe a quarter of an hour apart at most, nestling themselves into end platforms after a long day’s work. She expected an exodus of passengers, swarming for the taxis or the last Metro train, before total silence across the station. Then a race against time for her and the rest of the cleaning staff, gutting each train of every last scrap of rubbish, rushing to polish them up for their all too soon return to service, all the while clock-watching to ensure they weren’t stuck on unpaid overtime with trains still to clean.
That would have taught her the value of her work, what it was to be organised and efficient and hard-working, how to be an adult in the workplace, but in his boasting Mr. Baxter had forgotten that this wasn’t London and that she worked for a small commuter company.
She lay down on the bench like a homeless woman resigned to her fate. She didn’t fear being collared for her laziness. There was no one here to collar her. No line manager, no night-time cleaning team, they had all gone home. The only people in the station were her, the grinning faces on the advertising boards, and the people staring out of the window of a passing mainline train, hands resting over their possessions as they passed through this alien landscape their guidebook hadn’t told them about.
Kirsten sat up again once it had rolled away. Four trains, that was how many had passed through since she had begun her extra hours, and only two of them had actually stopped. Of those two only one had been Tynerail stock, and at a rough estimate that had been well over two hours ago.
Yawning, she rose to her feet and ambled over to the arrivals board, but found it blank. It had been turned off for the night. She checked across the station, and found the boards over there blank too. Puzzled, she glanced up at the station clock. Five minutes to midnight. Five minutes until the end of her shift, but the boards were off, the kiosks were closed, and even the pub embedded into the station wall had chairs stacked on tables.
Rage bubbled in Kirsten’s head. They’d kept her here for four hours for no reason! Teaching the value of hard work? It was nothing more than straightforward punishment!
“Mr. Baxter,” she seethed. Now she knew why he looked so inhuman. His entire persona was an act. That sympathetic guy, determined to help Kirsten thrive in her first job and help her grow into a fully-flourished adult, was nothing more than a lying, sadistic slimeball. His face was just a mask to cover it up, and after this she would rip it off, one way or another. It didn’t matter how big or powerful he was, he would pay for this. This was the end for her and Tynerail, no question about it, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to let it end on their terms.
The sound of trundling train wheels dragged her out of her thoughts. She kicked her trolley hard enough to tip it over, screaming in frustration. Great, just great. Five minutes of her nightmare shift left, and here was a train. She had her back turned to it, but she knew that it was a big one. Probably the biggest Tynerail operated, that, knowing her luck, had just played host to the World Food Fighting Championship.
She righted her trolley and threw it in the direction of the platform, but didn’t follow it. As she slid her foot back to turn her ears caught the sound of the slowing train. A slow, hollow whine, like that of a dying monster. Her foot rooted back to the floor. Trains didn’t sound like that. Certainly not Tynerail’s ancient clunkers, but not the mainline trains either. Cars and planes and trams and horses didn’t make that noise either.
Nothing she had ever heard made a noise like that.
The train slowed to a stop. Kirsten nervously licked her lips, then turned to face it. She hadn’t seen a train like it before. For a start it was modern, unlike every other train that came through here, but no other train looked like it had been woven from metallic thread. No other train shone brilliantly under the gloomy station lighting. No other train had a perfectly sloping cockpit and edges so smooth that the entire thing looked like one continuous whole, and definitely no other train had the words Sarvala Express printed on its side in stark lettering.
A light illuminated above the doors, and they hissed and slid apart with an ethereal hum, flooding the platform with bright light. She squinted against it, trying to see who or what was about to make an appearance, but nothing got off the train.
Kirsten watched the minutes tick by, but all the while the Sarvala Express just sat there. She looked around for someone to talk to, anyone to offload her growing unease to, but she was alone with the train. Just her, the open, inviting doors, and the lights painting a carpet on the concrete that stopped at her feet.
She started to squirm. What should she do? The Sarvala Express clearly wasn’t going anywhere, but it didn’t belong here, and Mr. Baxter probably wouldn’t be too pleased if the first train of the day found its route blocked by an unscheduled arrival.
“Hello?” she called to the open doors. “Is there anybody there?”
No answer. She shouted louder.
“You can’t stay here. You need to go.”
The engine only seemed to grow quieter. Kirsten chewed her lip. Maybe they wanted her to clean it? Maybe this was why Mr. Baxter asked her to stay here alone until midnight, to give this no doubt secret train a once-over without letting too many members of staff in on it. That made sense.
She took a step forward. Slow, tentative, unlike her usual assured stride. Thoughts in the corner of her mind held her back, thoughts of that old trainspotter grabbing her by the shoulders and warning her not to go near the Sarvala Express. Sure, he was a lunatic, but he’d been right about the train existing. Would it be wise to go near it if he’d been right before?
The train’s lights burned her blind. She raised her hand to her brow to protect her eyes, then took another step closer. She’d just take a quick look. She couldn’t leave until she knew exactly what was going on, but she’d make it quick. Straight on, straight off, too fast to be caught in anything dodgy if the trainspotter turned out to be right again.
She put a foot inside the Sarvala Express. Plush carpet enveloped her shoe, and claimed the other when she found the nerve to push the rest of her aboard. Inside the bright lights she could see the interior clearly. The organic-looking walls, smooth and undulating like her skin, the lights bulging from the ceiling like a spider’s egg sac. The luggage compartments were equally pristine, curved at a perfect angle and shining like soft plastic, but felt cold and solid when she laid a trembling finger on it. On the wall next to her was a poster displaying a route map, but both the route and the geography of the land it crossed were alien to her, as was the script it was written in. She frowned at it. Whatever it was it wasn’t English, but it didn’t look like any other alphabet she’d seen either. It didn’t even look human.
A hiss suddenly broke the silence. Kirsten’s fascination with the poster delayed her reactions, and by the time she jerked around she could only watch in horror as the doors sealed shut. She pounded the door release button, but they refused to budge. Panicking, she raised her fists and began banging on the tinted glass.
“Help!” she screamed, “Help, I’m stuck! Please help me!”
“You called, ma’am?”
Kirsten spun on the spot, and let out a scream that almost ripped her lungs in two. Someone had joined her in the doorway, someone in a conductor’s uniform, and someone who wasn’t human.
He had green skin, or possibly scales, or maybe even a mix of both. He also had a snout, and while he stood upright like her he had claws on the ends of his fingers and toes and a tail wound around his leg. He lifted his cap to her, exposing a membraned crest atop his head, and smiled a toothy grin.
“Welcome aboard the Sarail Sarvala Express,” he said. His voice was warm, though his face was anything but, “May I see your ticket?”
“Erm, h-hi,” Kirsten stammered. She blinked rapidly, convinced her mind was playing tricks on her, but when he remained unchanged she was forced to come up with an answer. “I’m not a passenger, I’m just here to clean the train.”
“We are in the middle of a service, and we only have the trains cleaned once they reach a terminus.”
“Oh, do you? Sorry, my mistake. You’d better open the doors to let me off then.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do that, ma’am.”
Kirsten’s pulse spiked. “W-Why not?”
“Surely you’re aware of the contract?”
“The contract that states that any customer who sets foot on a Sarail train has agreed with the company to use the service and pay the associated travel costs. We place posters around every station Sarail operates at to make sure passengers are aware of this.”
“Well I haven’t seen any posters, and I don’t want to travel with you, now let me off.”
“I’m sorry, but by boarding this train you are telling us that you have a valid ticket for the journey, and unless you present me with one you will have to pay a fine.”
Kirsten’s desperation reached levels she’d thought impossible. She turned to the window and hammered a fist against it.
“Help!” she screamed, pressing her face to the glass to make herself as loud as possible, “Someone help me, please! I’m stuck on this train! Someone, anyone, please help!”
No one answered her pleas, and when she clawed at the doors in the hope of prising them apart she only succeeded in breaking a nail.
She slumped against the door defeated. Her fall turned her just enough to see the lizard man, stood in the same spot and unmoved by her plight. The sight of him made her shudder, but she forced herself to stand up straight and put on her best smile. There was no other option. If no one would save her, she would have to talk her way out.
She leaned in closer to the creature, placing a friendly arm around his shoulder.
“Listen,” she said as cheerily as she could. She studied his nametag, but it was in the same unintelligible script as the poster. “What’s your name, mate?”
“Good name, Sigmund. Or how about Sig for short? Let’s call you Sig.” She patted his shoulder. “Look Sig, you can tell from my uniform I’m not a customer. I’m just a lowly, minimum-wage cleaner who thought that your train was in need of a cleaning. Now that I know it’s not, I don’t want to waste your time. You probably have a tight schedule to run to, and arguing about this is only eating into it, so how about you ignore ‘Sarail’, whoever they are, and let me off, just this once?”
She spoke with her best Geordie charm, but Sig’s unimpressed look told her he was having none of it.
“Sorry, ma’am, but the rules are the rules. If I let you off I get it in the neck once we get back, so I’m afraid I must see your ticket.”
“But I don’t have a ticket.”
“Then I’m afraid you will face punishment once we reach our final destination.”
Her mood plummeted again. “Look, is there any way you can let me off this train? I don’t want to go where you’re going, I want to go home.”
Sig rubbed his chin. “I can’t let you off here and now, but I can sell you a flex ticket to cover your journey aboard this train, and once we reach a connecting station you can use it again to travel on a train returning to this destination.”
Relieved, Kirsten plunged her hand into her pocket and pulled out her wallet. “Great, how much?”
Kirsten extracted thirty pounds and handed them to Sig. He studied them in the light, then shot her a sympathetic look.
“Sorry ma’am, but I’m afraid we don’t accept this currency.”
“We only accept Froine aboard Sarail trains.”
“The official currency of Saranova.”
“What’s Saranova?” said Kirsten in despair, but Sig was oblivious to her suffering.
“I assume you do not have the money with which to pay the fare,” he said, handing back her notes, “In which case you will have to appear before Sarail executives so they can issue you with a fine. They won’t be able to see you until we reach our final destination, however, so in the meantime I suggest you find a seat and make yourself comfortable.”
With a helpless nod Kirsten slinked past him and into the carriage, falling into the embrace of the first seat she saw. Its unusual material didn’t even register with her. What was going on? She tried to dissect the last ten minutes in her head, but it was all too abnormal to do anything but gawp at. All of the questions numbed her. Where was she going? How much trouble was she in? What in the ever-loving hell were these lizard people and why were they here? All of them filled her stomach with dread, and the stream was only broken by Sig’s voice over the tannoy.
“Welcome aboard the Sarail Sarvala Express 00:11 service to Geltpor, calling at Newcastle and Geltpor. We hope you have a pleasant journey with us this evening.”
The message ended, filling the carriage with silence. Only then did Kirsten notice she was alone. Unnerved, she leaned out from her seat and peered as best she could across to the next carriage. She couldn’t see much, but it appeared to be empty too. Was she the only person aboard this train? It seemed that way. She settled back into her seat and shivered.
The engine whined, and slowly they crept out of the station. She searched the carriage in vain for a fire alarm or emergency stop button, but there was nothing.
With a heavy heart she pressed her face to the window and watched as they left Newcastle behind. Hopefully this wouldn’t take long. Once she’d explained this misunderstanding they’d let her go, that she was certain of. It was all a case of how long it took for her to be seen by these executives in Geltpor. Wherever that was. Probably Eastern Europe, but then she remembered she was sharing a train with a humanoid lizard and shut out the thought before it confused her too much.
The Sarvala Express slinked over the Tyne and onto the straight section of track that arrowed it south. The train slowed, and Kirsten leaned against the window to try and find why they were stopping, but was thrust back into her seat when the train rapidly accelerated.
The engine screamed like a predator, and the entire carriage lurched backwards as they gathered speed at a phenomenal rate. G-Forces pinned Kirsten to her seat, pulling tears from her eyes and streaming them backwards across her face. She gripped the armrests with white knuckles as the train rocked on the rails. They were going way too fast. They were going to derail. She shouted for Sig to ask him what was going on, but her voice was lost under a sonic boom.
Kirsten squeezed her eyes shut, adamant she was about to get a derailed carriage in the face, but the only thing that followed the sound was calm. The train stopped rocking, as did the screech of wheel on rail. She turned instinctively to the window, and her jaw dropped. They were in a tunnel of colours. Thousands of hues swirled around the window, shades she had never seen before mingling with the familiar, following them down a path only they could see. She craned her head as best she could to look at the ground, but there was none. Just a black void, the colours the only thing keeping them from falling into it.
“Sig, what’s going on?” she shouted, but her plea fell on deaf ears.
The roar of the engine abruptly came back, and the train slammed with a squeal down onto rails again. The colours evaporated into blinding light, forcing Kirsten to shield her eyes. She blinked them into focus, and when the world came back her jaw dropped even further. Outside it was night, but it was impossible to tell from the army of city lights at all levels, from the houses on the ground to the peaks of several vast skyscrapers, and many more on the tiers between.
The train rolled into the multi-storey city, running alongside streets of what looked like grooved metal. Kirsten looked up to the tiers above, hundreds of them, peering through whatever gaps she could find at the streets and houses and parks and stadiums and nightclubs piled on top of one another, and the swarms of lizard people and hovercars that flitted between them.
Then the train turned away. Other rail lines sprouted up alongside it, telling Kirsten they were approaching the station, but her mind was on a gap that had opened up in the landscape and the immense view it revealed. Layers of light all the way up to the horizon in a thousand different shapes and colours, clasped to the sides of clean metal rigs and towers that shone brilliantly in the clear, cloudless night. A triumph of design, stretching for an infinite amount of miles, yet exposed in all its glory from her meagre viewpoint. She couldn’t help but feel amazed by this clean, futuristic city. This alien city.
“Welcome to Geltpor, capital of Saranova,” Sig said suddenly. Kirsten jumped out of her skin.