Tuesday, 10 February 2015



A Journey by Train


Stefan stood on the platform at its midpoint. It had drizzled steadily through the night; the receding puddles left stains on the raised concrete strip. His fellow commuters were congregated at each end of the platform, close to the secured entries and exits. He hoped to get a window seat on one of the middle cars. For years every morning he’d ridden in the other direction, toward the Institute’s campus and away from the city’s core.


The train chuffed into the suburban station. The librarian boarded. The conductor studied his ticket and then handed him the morning edition of the Nation’s Eye. It was the duty of every citizen to stay informed and the skimpy tabloid was a public service initiative overseen and funded by the Department of Education and Human Resources. Stefan settled for an aisle seat and dutifully unfolded the newspaper. The news was all good.


The country’s World Cup side, though eliminated from the tournament, had performed heroically in the face of corrupt and incompetent officiating. An immensely talented actor had been signed to revive a moribund and once popular film franchise. The Department of Health and Wellness had recalibrated the Air Quality Index; the nation could now literally breathe easier. The Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correction gleefully announced a major breakthrough in scientific rehabilitation therapy. She predicted a significant reduction in the country’s prison population commencing almost immediately; specific details were scant.


Business as usual in the paper. The librarian looked past the profile of his seatmate and stared out the window. The rail right of way followed the path of the canal. There were barges on the calm water and working factories on the far bank. As the train climbed a modest grade he saw flat-bottomed boats waiting patiently to step up through the system of locks. The barges floated loads of bricks and scrap metal. 


Stefan had to give the Overlord credit. The country was making things again, rebuilding in the wake of the Great Crash. But to portray jury-rigged 19th century technology as advanced innovation was perverse. There was no reason to cover up the utter loss of all stored digital information and thought; everybody knew anyway: phones were useless, utilities browned out, school teachers had no canons to impart, travel was not recommended and national defense remained the priority regarding the distribution of all existing surplus resources.


By all accounts the Overlord was a gracious man. His personal charisma was common, generic knowledge, though few people actually circulated around the circumference of his rare circle. Designated insiders constantly reminded the tame press of the man’s self-deprecating modesty. So the biggest news of the day was carefully orchestrated to appear on page six of the Nation’s Eye. The Department of Heritage had released the details surrounding a grand scheme of public works, each one scheduled to be completed within five years’ time in order to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Overlord’s ascension.


The signature project was to be the Mall of Heroes, a proposed square kilometre of contemplative public art that would replace the pedestrian boulevard leading to the main entrance of the Capitol. Thousands of life-like statues would gaze upon visitors and remind them of humanity’s enduring achievements before the Great Crash; and each and every hero would point forward to the future. The Secretary of Heritage revealed that the Overlord would never view his own likeness on the Mall of Heroes: ‘He told me, “I’m not history yet!”’


The librarian leaned back against the worn upholstery of his carriage seat. At least our leader has a scripted sense of humour. Hard to hate a dictator when he comes across as a nice guy: But seriously, folks, all jokes aside… Execute my opposition, please!


There was nothing real in the paper. There was never anything real in the paper. Stefan snapped it shut and readied it for its return to the conductor. The librarian looked out the window again. Poles and wires zipped by, dipping and dancing, hypnotic, dipping and dancing. Once red rear factory brick walls blinked by like rainbows, spray painted evidence of crazy, courageous kids who should’ve been tucked away in their rocket ships. How had they worked out how to roam after dark amid the patrolling peace officers and the roaming packs of wild dogs while their parents remained inside at home paralyzed with fear?


Central Station was the end of the line. The librarian disembarked, his head down, minding the gap. He had not been into the city for a long time. He tried to remember the nearby streets and avenues and the most pedestrian friendly route to the Capitol. A man clad in a long grey duster materialized beside him. ‘Sir? The Secretary has sent me to collect you. There’s a car waiting.’


‘Thank you, but no need,’ Stefan replied as they exited the concourse. A chilly draft hit them through the open doors. The wind carried force. ‘I was planning to walk. It’s a fine day.’


The grey man paused and gazed up at the grey, overcast sky. Train riders broke and streamed around the two still men in their way. ‘But it really isn’t though, sir. Is it?’ Stefan shrugged. ‘This way, sir.’ Stefan shrugged again. Okay.

(Part two of 10)

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