Edition 19: Final Journey by Stephen C. Ormsby
A last trip, the last time as nGeneer, the last of a bond with the metal behemoth. When one is relegated, removed from a position of usefulness, how do they survive? A finalist in the 2014 Story Quest competition. SY
I am a part of this train, and the train is a part of me: I am nGeneer. This steel behemoth is not just connected to me; it is part of my DNA.
My forefathers were engineers and ran the trains, but then scientists decoded the human genome and built the technology to create unfathomable cross bred machinery. At an early age, I showed the same aptitude as my father and grandfather, and my body became this joined beast of metal and skin, an nClass 21 diesel locomotive transporter unit.
It nourishes me and I guide it, and together we travel across the Australian landscape, supplying fuels and foodstuffs to the major cities. Merged, we separate only out of courtesy for the workers who have not grown accustomed to this interbreeding.
My smooth metallic panelling warms in the early morning sun, as the passengers board and shuffle for seats. Energy builds as my diesel engine heats, until I have the strength of a dozen machines. The hills will challenge my wheels and my axle yet again, but this will be the last time.
My final journey will begin in a matter of mere minutes.
It will be a short journey. The comptrollers and mKanics think I have become unstable. I am still as strong as the metal that supports my frame. I know that I can go on for many years. My retirement should not be so early in my life. My wet body is only in its forties, though my metal body is closer to sixty. My life, and body, has been devoted to this job ever since I was young, since they changed me. The metal in my veins helps me feel every component of the train. Its metallic skin is just as well known to me, for I have spent as much time in it as my own. I am not ready to stop doing this.
But today, it ends. Today they decommission the engine; me. I am scared.
The blast of a fanfare starts the proceedings, and the thrill of the trip begs me to join it, to surrender to the hills and valleys, rivers and streams, the hot breath of my engine. I surrender to my programming, and the pre-trip algorithms flow through my mind.
The driver’s seat absorbs my wetware, and my bodyplugs accept the tentacle-like cabling that spirals out. Each connection stings, but the ache is so familiar that I smile.
The final checks indicate trip readiness. I lose the sensation of my soft skin to the rigidity of my hulking one thousand tonne frame. The perception of arms and legs give away to carriages and passengers. Feet transform into wheels, so many wheels, each finding purchase on the track. I shut my tiny eyes to visualise through windscreen-sized windows.
A whistle blows. The stationmaster waves his flag.
I strain my body to make the first small movements. If I had my wetware skin, it would be sweating. As it is, my funnels blow thick, black smoke from the effort. But, slowly, my wheels stop spinning and start gripping, until I pick up speed. The cheers envelope me, and I feel the love these people have. My diesel engine sings in return.
It is all over. The passengers have long departed. Now I am in the mKanic’s repair workshop, waiting for the doctors. My engine has gone cold, and my metal panels have also cooled. The chair has released me, but I still feel the clickety-clack of the tracks upon my toes. The roar of the engine ripping from my throat.
I already feel the loss.
The thumping of boots on the floor. My time is here, and they will clean my DNA of all train residuals, leaving me…just me. I barely remember that sensation.
The door opens, and in walks a team of smiling men and women. I try to smile back, but it fails to materialise. They are too polite to notice, as a second team brings in banks of surgical machinery. A nurse walks up, and gently guides me to a gurney I had not noticed before.
I lay down, and I close my eyes. The sting of a needle penetrates into my soft skin.
Air blows through my stacks.
Nothing but open tracks
That clack beneath my wheels.
I blow my horn,
And hear it echo,
Far out across the valley.
The children cheer, and yell for more,
I oblige them with a longer blare.
My metal skin warm from work and sun.
My engine hums.
I close my eyes,
Let the breeze blow through me…
Vibrating. Is it the track under my wheels? Am I on a bridge? Are passengers disembarking? No.
The shaking is a physical thing upon my shoulder. In slow movements, I open my eyes to see the same nurse that had been so kind to me earlier. I wonder how long ago that was.
“Three days, Mr Smith. It has taken almost three days for the procedure to complete. For some reason, it was more difficult than usual, but the doctors have assured me that it was very successful.
“I have run scans this morning to verify the results, and I have absolutely no trace of the locomotive in your system. You are clean, and now allowed to go home. Congratulations, and thank you for your many, many years of service. Your retirement comes with many benefits and bonuses. We hope you enjoy them.”
I open my mouth, but no words issue.
“Don’t worry, Mr Smith. That is a by-product of the operation. Some of the tubing necessary for the operation went down your esophagus, leaving your throat somewhat raw. It will return to you over the next week. In that time, we recommend rest.”
This time I nod, and notice how different I feel. There is a loss of movement, but also an increase. I feel individual components of this wetware body, and remember that this carcass comes with arms and legs, instead of wheels and carriages. No longer nGeneer, I am empty.
It takes time to coordinate them. In slow motion, I move away from the bed and the nurse. In a tangle, I manage to pull on sufficient clothing to be able to leave.
So, this is freedom? I suppose so, as I don’t feel anything else but me.
Me. A strange concept after so many years of being joined. I walk towards my apartment, and in the distance I hear a train whistle—probably a buddy of mine.
Loss rips through me. I yearn to feel that strength again. As a consequence, I feel drained of all emotion. The smell of diesel upon my skin, of smoke, the churn of metal on metal, the relief of a water station; none of these things are a part of me anymore.
It is not freedom.
Again, the train whistle blows, and this time it’s closer. I know the route and the track. I am not that far away, and I decide to watch it pass.
With a quick shuffle, I move through the city, realizing how much longer it takes to do without dozens of wheels. But I stumble through and around the wet bodies looking for my hard-shelled friend. I bump and knock into walls, feeling the injuries on my soft skin. It surprises me just how delicate this frame is.
With my head in the air, listening for the next whistle, I run into something soft. It stops me.
“Idiot. Watch where you’re going.”
All I can do is nod, as I fall towards the hard concrete footpath. Thrusting my hand out, I feel something snap when they connect. Pain.
“Serves you right, arsehole.”
There, the whistle. I am close, so close.
I run, my hand now dangling loose upon my arm. The pain is intense, but that can be fixed later. I run fast; I have already learnt to avoid people. The fourth whistle, the last whistle, means they have reached the underpass.
Only another minute, and I will be there too. Will there be enough time? I climb onto the train tracks, and can see the road traffic on the bridge. The tracks below my feet do not feel right. I do not feel right.
But I stumble over rocks and sleepers, and fall. I get up and run again, only to fall again. Now though I see the light in the darkness. My quarry is just ahead, and I can hear the engine. I hear it in my heart and in my head. I feel it, and I don’t feel it enough.
I need to be it.
I stand at the mouth of the tunnel, as I hear the 5:15 approach.
Stephen C. Ormsby is an author of two novels, but for the last year or so has been concentrating on Satalyte Publishing, which he and his wife set up. His first novel ‘Long Lost Song’ will be republished by Clan Destine Press in the near future.