I’m going to try and post more short stories on here, because I like writing short stories. Constructive criticism is most welcome.
The Mass Transit System
“The last train always feels like it takes longer to arrive than the rest, doesn’t it?”
Margaret started, she had thought she was on the platform on her own. The man talking to her was tall and impossibly thin; he looked, Margaret thought to herself, like he was made of pipe cleaners. He wore an immaculately clean, white suit that seemed to radiate light, and, Margaret noted with a feeling of discomfort, what looked like flying goggles, hanging loosely around his neck. Oh great, she thought to herself, a lunatic.
Everyone who has spent any amount of time travelling on the underground has a story to tell about a lunatic; it’s almost a right of passage. You’re not really a City dweller until you’ve met one of the swathe of cranks and crazies who haunt the tunnels once the sun has gone down. Margaret already had her story, about a woman who had followed her, shouting the names of dogs and pulling her hair, and she had no desire for another. She mumbled something non-committal, then returned to staring at the adverts on the opposite side of the tunnel.
“It’s because it’s colder, all the joints and cogs and levers and gears are contracting, so everything takes a little bit longer to move.”
“You mean on the train?” Margaret asked, in spite of herself.
“If you want to look at it that way, then yes, I suppose.” The tall man stretched out and, for the briefest of moments, Margaret was sure that the top of his head was going to touch the roof of the tunnel. She blinked, realised how ridiculous she was being, and the man shrank back to his original, gangly height.
“What other way is there to look at it?” Margaret couldn’t figure out why she was engaging with the tall man, she knew better than encouraging lunatics. But there was something about him, something she couldn’t quite fathom.
“The right way.” He shot her an infuriating grin, that seemed to fill his whole face. “Would you like a job, Margaret?”
“How do you know my name? What is this, what’s going on?” Margaret clutched her bag tight to her chest. “I’ve got mace,” she lied.
“No you don’t.” The tall man smiled again, though only with half of his mouth this time. “You need some time to think about it. Don’t worry, I understand.” He reached inside his white suit and pulled out an equally white business card, placing it on the bench next to Margaret.
“Th-think about what?” Margaret replied, shrinking back from the card as though it were cursed.
“The job, silly.” The man bowed so low that has pale nose almost scraped the tiles on the platform. “It has been a wonderful pleasure to meet you.”
He straightened himself with a sweep of his extraordinarily long arms, then smiling still, took three strides to the edge of the platform. “I shall see you again in three full circuits of the earth. Good day.” Without another word, he sprung down onto the electrified tracks.
“No, wait there’s a…” The arrival of the train made Margaret’s next two words redundant, but she said them anyway, “…train coming.”
There was no sickening thud, no shower of viscera or screech of brakes. The train came to a leisurely stop and the doors hissed open. Margaret’s heart was in her mouth, and her mouth was agog. There was one person in the carriage, who was now staring at Margaret with a quizzical look on his face. In the weeks and months to come, Simon would proudly recall his tale of the crazy lady on the last train, who was adamant that a man had jumped in front of the train just before it arrived. He felt like a real city dweller now, with a lunatic tale of his own to tell. It’s hard to say how Simon would have felt had he known that the woman was telling the truth, but then, some truths are only true if you’re stood in the right place at the right time.
Margaret passed the experience off as stress, although she had to admit that prior to watching a man walk in front of a train, she had not felt particularly stressed at all. Overwork then, although work had been quiet recently. Maybe she was just going mad, that would certainly explain it. As explanations went, it was her least favourite. Over the next three weeks, life, as life has a habit of doing, overtook the meanderings of her mind. She didn’t forget about the tall man – no one who had seen him would – but being a rational sort, she buried him under jobs and travel and the minutiae of day to day life. Something strange had happened, there was more than likely a perfectly logical explanation for it, but Margaret would leave the exact details of that explanation for someone else to figure out. That plan of action was made slightly unlikely by the fact that she told no one, apart from Simon (who she did not know was called Simon), about what had happened on the platform. At the end of the third week, Margaret had to work late again, and again, she found herself alone on the platform, waiting for the last train. She reached into her bag, to check the time on her phone, and felt her fingers brush against smooth, rigid paper; a business card. She pulled it out of her bag, covering it with both palms as she did. Slowly, carefully, she moved her left hand away and stared at the little slip of card. In embossed, gold type it said “Mr. Langdale, The Mass Transit System, Co-ordinator 1486”. No contact number, no web address, no additional information. Margaret flipped the card over, feeling aggrieved; the reverse side was blank.
“Well, at least this proves I’m not going mad,” she mumbled to herself. “Or it proves I’m going very mad…”
“I think maybe, we are all a little mad, from time to time,” said Mr. Langdale, whose spindly form was now twisted into the seat next to Margaret’s.
“You should be dead,” Margaret snapped without thinking. “Whatever this is, I want no part in it, do you understand?”
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry. I am rather fond of showing off the first time I meet a prospective employee.” Mr. Langdale gave a half smile, but it did little to placate Margaret.
“Showing off? You think risking your life is impressive do you? You could have been mince meat.” Margaret crumpled the business card in her hand and threw it back into her bag.
“No, I could not, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First things first, have you had time to think about my offer?”
“Work for you?” Said Margaret, exasperated. “Do you think I’m insane?”
“Well, of course not,” replied Mr. Langdale, serenely, “otherwise why would I have offered you a job? And you wouldn’t be working for me, you’d be working for the Mass Transit System.”
“You mean the trains?”
“I mean the Mass Transit System.”
“Look,” said Margaret, flustered and angry and confused, “I don’t know who you are, or what you want with me, but will you please just leave me alone.”
Mr. Langdale let out a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a hummed note. “I think, all things considered, it would be easiest if I just showed you.”
“Showed me what?” Margaret adjusted her hands slightly, ready to wield her handbag as an improvised weapon.
“The Mass Transit System.”
“You mean the trains.” Margaret said, annoyed.
That strange sound again. Huuuuuoooooom. “Take my hand, Margaret, and I will show you why this city is unlike any other in the world.”
Margaret hesitated, torn between her rationality and the simple fact that, in spite of herself, in spite of all her years and experience, she couldn’t help but think there was something magical about Mr. Langdale. Not magical in the sense that adults use the word, but actually magical.
“I promise I won’t throw you in front of a train,” said the long, thin man, although there was a sudden twinkle in his eye that made Margaret think that that was exactly what was about to happen.
Tentatively, she reached out her hand, and felt Mr. Langdale’s long, slender fingers wrap gently around her own. He stood up, and she followed, then he reached into his white coat and pulled out a vial of sparkling blue liquid. It looked to Margaret as though it was made from glittter and the glimmer of oil in water. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Langdale deftly unstoppered the bottle with his long fingered hand, and let a single, glistering drop fall onto the platform. The drop seemed to slip through the air in slow motion, catching every possible shard of light as it fell. When it landed it didn’t splash, but sat in a comfortable, perfectly circular pool.
“This may feel a little strange,” said Mr. Langdale.
Margaret wanted to say ‘What will feel a little strange?’ but all she got out was “Whu…” before the world became a shifting blur of colours and concepts. Margaret tried to close her eyes, but found that she couldn’t. The pressure of the spin was too great, a whirling maelstrom of thing and nothing that was as beautiful as it was absolutely terrifying. Margaret felt like the breath had been punched out of her lungs, that her heart was pounding so hard to keep her alive that it might force its way out of her chest, that her skin was on fire with the worst pins and needles she had ever experienced, that if this didn’t stop soon she would throw up the late lunch she’d eaten six hours before all over Mr. Langdale’s suit. At the exact moment she thought that, the spinning stopped and she lurched forward into cool air and solid ground.
“What the hell did you just do?” shrieked Margaret in between gasping lungfuls of air.
“I thought it best not to take you along the lines at first,” said Mr. Langdale, calmly. Much to Margaret’s annoyance, the tall man was utterly unruffled by the whole affair.
After a few more gulps of air, Margaret stood up straight and took in her surroundings. Then she gasped. Then she fainted.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Langdale in a soothing tone, “almost everyone faints the first time they see the System.”
“Did you?” Asked Margaret, shakily.
“Of course not.” Replied Mr. Langdale with a grin.
“But it’s…” started Margaret, trying to sit up too quickly and regretting it immediately.
“Yes, it is.”
“Because it is.” Mr. Langdale reached over Margaret to a small table and passed her a vial of greenish liquid. “Here, drink this, you’ll feel much better. Then we can get on with the tour.”
Margaret’s inhibitions about taking liquid from strange men had all but dissipated in the spinning frenzy that brought her here, so without thinking she downed the green medicine. Mr. Langdale was right, it did make her feel better. Margaret looked around. When they had arrived, they had been in a huge chamber, but now they were in a small room with a single bed and a reassuring smell of cleanliness, baking and aniseed.
“If you are ready,” said Mr. Langdale, standing up and straightening his already immaculate suit, “I shall explain.”
Margaret swung her legs off the bed, steadied herself, then followed Mr. Langdale out of the room, back into the chamber where she had fainted.
“This,” said Mr. Langdale, with an exaggerated sweep of his long arms, and an undeniable sense of pride in his voice, “is The Mass Transit System.”
Margaret took it in slowly, followed the curve of Mr. Langdale’s arms with a deliberate and paced movement of her head. The system was enormous, a sweeping, cave-filling mechanism built out of cogs and wheels, pulleys and levers, enormous slices of metal, all of them gleaming and polished to a mirror shine. It was breathtaking, the size and shape, the ingenuity of it. The way the parts moved, it wasn’t like a machine, it was like a living, breathing thing. And silent, so silent as its well oiled parts twisted and turned, linking with precision into one another and just as easily moving away. The joints of this behemoth had never and would never creak, because it was tended at all times by a tribe of Co-ordinators, all of them dressed in the same uniform as Mr. Langdale, all of them performing their tasks with the same precision as the system they worked. It was as though they were part of the machine, forever linked into the beautiful mechanics.
“Do you see what it does?” Asked Mr. Langdale, pointing Margaret to a particular part of the machine that seemed to grow out of the rock of the cave.
Except it was the other way round, the system had grown into the rock, not out of it. With a dawning realisation she saw other pieces of metal attaching the system to the rock walls, saw that all of the pieces could move, had to move, must move. The pieces disappeared out of the cave, smooth arms clutching onto the rest of the world.
“It’s not the trains…” she whispered to herself.
“No,” said Mr. Langdale. “It’s the City that moves. Or more accurately, it’s the City that we move.”
“But that’s impossible.” Margaret furrowed her brow, convinced she must be drugged or dreaming or both.
“The impossible is entirely determined by the position you find yourself standing in. With a modicum of belief and a drop of help…” Mr. Langdale pointed at two huge, glass cylinders, both of which were full of the amazing blue liquid he had used to transport them to the cave. “Watch.”
A klaxon blew and the machine sped up, flashing with silver brilliance. The Co-ordinators moved in time with their creation, long fingers dancing on dials and switches, making sure the machine ran as smoothly as possible. Above Margaret’s head, the ceiling of the cave was moving, pulled along by the spinning, purring machine. Jets of pure white steam slipped out of exhausts, filling the cave with the sweet scent of spring flowers and exciting ideas.
“The last train,” said Mr. Langdale, pointing to a huge clock on the cave wall. Its hands clicked to twelve, another klaxon sounded and the machine slowed down, hissing out a final plume of enticing steam before settling to a stop. The Co-ordinators congratulated one another on a good day’s work, then slipped down ladders, poles and scaffolds, leaving the great shining, clockwork thing alone.
“How long have you been here?” Asked Margaret, turning to Mr. Langdale, who had a broad smile on his face.
“Longer than you have,” he replied, cryptically.
A thought flashed in Margaret’s mind, an uncomfortable thought that she had to let out. “But people die. People are hit by trains and they die. It happens all the time.”
For the first time, a look of sadness crossed Mr. Langdale’s long face. “It is unavoidable,” he said, and Margaret felt genuine sorrow behind his words. “The human mind is too strong. It makes the impact real, or real enough to kill. We have tried to find ways around it, but it is beyond our comprehension. We build machines, we understand machines.”
“Why me? Why choose me for a job?”
Mr. Langdale smiled, a broad, warm smile. “We watch the topside, watch how it moves and the people who move through it. Some people move with their eyes fixed on the ground, or on the past or on the future. You always have your eyes fixed in the sky, in the clouds perhaps your people would say. We need people who can see the sky, see new possibilities and chances.”
Margaret shook her head, trying to take in the vastness of the machine, of the lie she had been living for years. “Okay,” she started, “but I should warn you, I am not wearing a white suit.”
The station rattled onto the train and Margaret stood up and took a few steps towards the edge of the platform. The great concrete thing slowed, undetectable, and came to a halt perfectly aligned with the carriages. The doors hissed open and Margaret made to step inside. Before she did though, she glanced back at the blue spot on the floor, faded now after two years, but still a more beautiful blue than anything else in the City. She reached into her bag and took out her own vial of the liquid. As she slid onto the train, with the deftest of moves, she removed the stopper and let a single drop fall in the gap between the carriage and the platform. There was no one to see what she did, but as she sat down on one of the seats, she whispered something to herself. Smoothly, the station slipped away, the impossible City spun by the impossible machine, and Co-ordinator 2546 smiled to herself.
“It’s amazing what you can achieve with a modicum of belief and a drop of help.”