One was having her check up on the Canadians periodically. He said he thought it would be good for her, though he didn’t specify how; Amelia was much more comfortable with the thought that he just wanted someone to keep an eye on them to see how their unusual dual-number situation worked out, and it was a task not too important to delegate to the human.
They were being idiots, mostly, careening down the train through arguments and rolled eyes, moments of blistering tenderness cut off by a pointless remark or a sudden regression. One said they were on the train to learn to communicate, which made sense, but they were also so blatantly in love that it was frustrating to watch. They were wasting their time, almost saying something but holding back, flinching away. It was infuriating.
She mentioned her irritation to One, once, and he said that that was not why they were there; whether they expressed romantic feelings or not was none of his concern so long as they learnt to trust one another again. The little ball didn’t seem to understand love, not really, which was almost a relief— he didn’t try to give her soft, squidgy sympathy or tell her he knew how she felt. Nonetheless, watching a couple of fools waste opportunities was irritating. Didn’t they understand that people could die, on the train?
Didn’t they understand that people could die?
She kept a closer eye on them after she and One had returned the passengers’ things; she switched back and forth between various passengers somewhat, wondering what they would do, but because the lads were her particular charge she felt that she needed to watch closely.
This is why she noticed immediately when the feed glitched out.
The young men— and she did know their names, Akagi and Park, but they were neither her friends nor her colleagues so she didn’t particularly want to use them— had been in the green room of a truly absurd car, some kind of party venue stuffed full of astronauts, and they’d sat across the low table from each other, one strumming his guitar and the other cradling a toy synthesizer. The stylus had barely touched the keyboard when a sharp tone took over the sound and the video glitched into neon static. Amelia shook her monitor— an impressively compact thing, about the size of her own torso, that emerged from the wall on an articulated arm. The feed had never run into this kind of issue before; the interface was rubbish but the connection was always good. The horrid whistle wasn’t stopping, though its pitch did awkwardly modulate. It sounded almost like a tune, though its harmonics were painful to listen to.
When the tune petered out, the rest of the audio came back, though the video remained impossible to make out at first. It started to fade in again, slowly, recovering from its glitch, and she could see that the young men were talking, something about songs written in childhood and pressure and being ready— and then the synth came in again and the shrieking came back, the video cutting out once again.
Amelia stared at the screen, realizing what had happened, and then started to laugh. She wanted to tell One, to tease him for this absurdity: the surveillance of his impossibly complex extra-dimensional engine ran on the same frequency as a toy synthesizer that couldn’t be worth more than five pounds. This twenty-year-old Canadian was inadvertently phreaking the entire feed with his Stylophone. She couldn’t tell him, though— if she did, he would see it as a danger, and he would take everyone’s things back. Not only that, but he’d be less likely to listen to her next suggestion, because he would consider this one a failure.
Fine, then. The glitch would remain a secret, and she would keep it in the back of her mind that if the surveillance could be phreaked, the rest of the train probably could as well. She’d have to experiment with tones, search the passenger lockers for any flutes or whistles left behind by passengers who had died in the wastes.
Amelia tilted the monitor so that it couldn’t be seen from the doorway. Although One could sneak up behind her if he so chose, she’d impressed upon him her human desire for privacy, especially around when her circadian rhythms decided it was time to go to bed, and so he’d cleared out (or created?) a little side room and placed a cot in it for her. She had shifted towards a twenty-five hour cycle, as there was no true day or night on the train, and he generally didn’t bother her when she was sleeping. How he knew she was sleeping at any given moment she didn’t want to consider; the best case scenario was that he could monitor her heart rate, while the worst was more along the lines of further surveillance in her small room. As fond as she was of the little ball— and she genuinely was— she didn’t want his eye on her when she couldn’t see him watching.
She settled in to keep her own eye on the monitor, turning the volume down and waiting for the video to clear up, however briefly. There was some great disappointment on the stage, the taller boy failing to join his cohort, holing up in a wretched little loo that reminded her very much of the one in the lab building, back in university. They passed words for a while, encouragements and vulnerabilities, and then they started playing again and the feed cut out.
Amelia was growing weary; she’d retired into her side room an hour before and ought to sleep. The feed cutting out again felt like a signal that it was time. She tilted the monitor to face the wall— she wasn’t a superstitious person, and the monitor did not, as far as she was aware, contain a camera, but changing in front of it felt wrong nonetheless. She stripped out of her clothes industriously, rubbing briefly at her aching calves where they disappeared into the irremovable boots, and pulled on the nightgown she’d appropriated from the passenger lockers, left by a long-lost visitor. It felt appropriate, somehow, to be a dead woman in a dead woman’s clothes.
She’d never been a religious woman, and this place only made the whole notion all the more absurd, but she did wonder now and then if some poor bastard’s memories of the train had inspired tales of purgatory. She herself, of course, was in hell. She had chosen to die, been intercepted, and now was in an infinite state of in-between.
There had been a time when she’d never have thought something so melodramatic. Alrick had always been the one who understood and cared about metaphor.
She checked on the monitor again before turning out the lights and getting into her cot, and saw that the musicians’ numbers had dropped to 127, their lowest point yet.
They hadn’t zeroed out, so there must have still been something to sort through, but the drop was so high they had to have made some breakthrough after the tones interfered with the monitor. Amelia hoped they talked things through; shared words spoken only in whispers in the world outside. She hoped they made love right there in the bathtub and fell asleep in each other’s arms, she hoped they’d wake with cricks in their necks and warmth in their hearts, sharing skin and breath and body heat.
Amelia was, herself, very cold in her small cot despite the vague heat that seeped into the Engine from the wasteland outside. Wrapping the thin sheet around herself, she was sharply aware of exactly how Alrick’s body should fit into her own: his chest against her back, his arm across her waist, his breath softly ruffling her hair. There was a pit in her stomach and an ache in her back, her feet heavy and cramped in those horrid metal boots, and her husband’s absence in her bed was as painful as it had been every single night.
She consciously took the time to imagine his body against hers, every time she lay down to sleep. The idea of forgetting the contour of his chest or the line of his nose was terrifying, more so than anything in the wasteland that surrounded her now. Right hand shoved deep under her pillow so its light won’t keep her up, left clutching tightly at the sheet, Amelia drowned in the memory of her husband’s touch. She sought no relief in the thought; her hands didn’t wander. Instead she indulged her grief, her loneliness, quietly torturing herself with thoughts of his broad hands sliding down her body, how he had always been so tender even after they’d long since stopped being shy with each other.
Her tears wetted the pillow under her head as she silently ran through one night back in university, how he’d come to visit her in her dorm and she’d lowered him to her bed, how he’d gazed up at her in awe and they’d both laughed. She breathed slowly, each expansion of her ribs betraying her by not having his warm hand against them, and indulged herself in the memory of his kisses, the horrible, aching loss of him.
She heard the slight whirring under the pillow of her number ticking up a few points. It always did. She didn’t mind being here forever. There was nothing left in the other world for her; there hadn’t been since those three aching days sleeping in a folding chair in the hospital room, staring at the ruptured, bandaged figure of her husband, waiting for him to wake up. He never did, and she’d been asleep when he died, for which she would never forgive herself.
Occasionally, she wished she’d reacted fast enough when she saw the train coming to throw herself under it, but it was too late for that now.
The Canadians would get off the train, she was sure they would. They had each other, after all. Somehow, eventually, they would make their way home. They would live their lives out, and their lives might be rough and poor, disowned and rambling, and they’d probably get their teeth kicked in at some point, but they’d at least have time.
They’d have time.
They’d have time.