A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

by Firerose


To 'MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse)' by Michael Nyman

Lexa would have loved the Louvre.

In fact that was how it all started. Me and Lexa. She'd been so excited when I'd said at the office that I was going to take my accumulated three rotations' leave at once, that I was going to take Mirrie to Earth, see all the sights.

We took to sharing coffee breaks, poring over all the cultural artefacts on show in the Northern Terran Dome on my clunky old data-viewer. Planning itineraries on the backs of discarded plans, then spilling coffee all over them and laughing. Lexa and laughter go hand in hand.

And then... Well...

It wasn't the sex. I mean Mirrie... Let's put it this way, I was a bit out of practice, really.

But Lexa understood why I wanted to spend three rotations' leave and nearly all our savings seeing the places and the things that had shaped our society here on Demeter in so many ways.

And I was glad to have seen them. Proud, even.

It wasn't as if we had anything much to save for.

Mirrie'd just said, 'These marble floors may look very fine, but they make my feet ache.' Somehow Mirrie's feet always contrived to ache, despite the sensible shoes she always wore.

'Can we go to the canteen now?'

'Mirrie, dear, they call them cafés here,' I'd said, for at least the sixth time, but Mirrie hated new words.

'They serve food, don't they?' she'd said, as she'd clumped along. 'Well they're canteens then,' she'd said triumphantly. 'Not that their food is up to the standard of my home cooking, mind you,' she'd added.

Earth food was also on her list of dislikes.

In fact it was hard to recall anything she'd liked. Except once, in the huge New Presidential Park -- which the guidetext entry said '...rivalled the great parks of the Pre-Atomic Era, for example, Versailles, Hyde and Central' -- she'd said, 'It feels a little like that copse near Lorrie's place, you remember, out by Dad's farm.'

And now she wouldn't even look out of the window.

I understood that she wasn't interested in the magnificent arched monorail that wound round the whole Northern dome like, well like the necks of those extinct white birds in the Nature Museum. What were they called? Swans, that was it. Nor in the supercooled herculaneum rail above which the monotrain floated serenely, almost silently. After all, she'd never shown any interest in my work back on Demeter. But didn't she even want to look out at this Earth that we'd come so far, spent so much, to see?

Lexa would have looked out of the window.

'I'm tired,' she said. 'Why can't we sit down over there?'

And I had to explain for the sixty-sixth time that the seats were only for Alphas -- yes, even though there were only three people in the Alpha section -- while my guts shrivelled remembering that first time, when we'd sat on those comfy black seats, proud explorers of this old new world. I don't think I'd ever felt so small before. Back on Demeter they wouldn't even put cattle in the Delta areas, and the Gamma section -- remember, 'Green for Gamma', the official had said -- was hardly better.

She did look tired, actually. Tired and old, though she was younger than me. Tired and careworn, though it was my labours that paid for the farmhouse she insisted we lived in, me that had to commute three hours every day into the office. She'd never liked the city, she'd said.

And looking at her, framed against the moving backdrop her mind was too closed to see, I decided. Why should I be tied to this woman I'd married so many years ago when we'd both been different people? It wasn't as if...

I didn't know whether Lexa would have me, but at least I would have tried. Tried to be more than an ignorant peasant on some back-of-the-woods planet.

Late. Again. I regularly stayed after hours to chat with colleagues on the team, and just as regularly, thought I could make the fifteen minute walk in seven if I ran. Reached the station, chronometer reading 19.99, monotrain doors beeping -- forced my aching lungs into one last spurt to sprint up the rolling stairs, across the empty platform, got my shoulder into the door before it clunked shut. Just. Christ. Heart pounding, breaths in gasps, legs forgotten how to walk. Usually I stood in the service section, an inadequate gesture of solidarity, but today my legs told me that they needed a rest. Plonked down on the nearest free seat and settled back into its body-hugging comfort. Spent a moment or two, eyes closed regaining some control over my breathing, then fiddled in my coverall pockets trying to dig out my id card.

The movement must have unsettled the woman to my left, I heard a muttered curse and somehow my hand shot out fast enough to catch her data-viewer before it hit the ground. As I handed it back I glanced at her and smiled. The black tunic dress barely covering the tops of her thighs and the heavy leather jacket with its out-of-proportion fur collar were standard enough student wear, as was the dead-pan white and purple make-up. But I guessed her scraped-back bob of blonde hair -- the colour people sometimes called corn-gold, though I'd never visited any of the agricultural planets where corn was grown -- was actually natural.

The smile froze on my lips at her look of contempt. I turned away, careful not to meet the eyes of the dark-haired man opposite. The flashes on his coveralls told me that he was several grades my senior and his mobile face was twisted in an expression of amused disdain he could not quite conceal.

Not for the first time, I wondered what kind of figure I must cut: pouches under my eyes from too many late-evening meetings, thickening belly from the combination of a desk job with a total lack of spare time. That and over-eating in the free canteen, I suppose. I'd always been fairly solidly built, but now... Well, I was too young to succumb to middle age just yet. She was probably only five or so years younger than me. I'd better investigate the project gym -- with the deputy team leader promotion my credits should stretch, even if I really should send more home for Rheanna's college course.

As the monotrain decelerated for my stop, I vowed -- no more excuses, I would get some more exercise.

Just my luck, that man who'd bounded onto the mono at the last minute was lurching towards me as if I was wearing some kind of homing beacon round my neck. Then he had the nerve to sit next to me -- I mean, the Alpha section was almost empty! Looked like an engineering technician, probably worked in one of those hideous sheds that entirely spoiled the view from the library windows. I had to squeeze right up on my seat to avoid his thighs touching mine. I could feel his warmth -- and smell his sweat.

'Shit,' I said, as my DV slid gently off my lap. Before I could reach it, the man intercepted it, his hand brushing my thigh just above the boot, and then was actually smirking at me as he handed it back. I suppose he thought he'd done me some sort of good turn. Urgh. Not that I didn't like men with curly hair, but the way his stomach strained against the belt of his coveralls... I turned away. Only one of the boring lit texts, anyway. Well, the whole fucking course was boring. I could hardly remember why I'd enrolled -- probably to get away from home and Mother always inviting the sons of the hags in her Penta club round to dinner to meet 'my darling daughter'.

The man opposite, well, he was a different matter. He had the kind of eyes that other people wrote poetry about. His lips were pretty cool too. Knowing my luck, though, bound to be gay. I was beginning to think all the sexy men in the bloody Northern Dome were gay. And that smile -- well, it looked like it needed more rehearsal in front of a mirror.

Maybe I should take up Aunt Jesca's offer? Last time she'd visited, what four years ago now, she'd taken me aside and said that if I ever got bored with high society on Earth, as she'd put it, I could always visit them out on Scandium Five. 'I'm sure that Foster would teach you to fly,' Jez'd said, probably little guessing how long I'd remember her words.

I'd always wanted to fly. Ironic really, only child of the owner of the largest commercial carrier company in the Northern Hemisphere, and Dad would never let me go near a flyer. Let alone pilot one. I suppose it was because of Reesar, but no-one ever talked about him. Sometimes I wanted to say, 'Hey, he was my brother too!'

I wondered how much the bracelet they'd given me for my twenty-first would fetch. Enough for the fare? And I'd been saving my allowance for months and months. Well, there was nothing much to spend it on really.

And I was sure that the men would be more interesting on a frontier world like Scandium Five.

The monotrain was running 21.4 seconds behind schedule. Four minutes, 34.3 seconds elapsed travel time, six minutes, 22.6 seconds remaining. Approximately.

I avoided the eyes of the cause of the 21.4 second delay. Though he wore project coveralls, I was certain that he didn't work in the computing section. He was a fool if he thought that the blonde seated adjacent to him would notice him. Her pure calf-skin mid-thigh boots alone probably cost more than he earned in a month, not to mention the heavy bracelet that she was fingering, her eyes tight closed. If it was real gold of course -- which had a reasonably high probability: while a girl like her was probably empty-headed enough to be content with gold-effect plasteen, her father was unlikely to share her lack of discernment.

No-one else occupying the Alpha section. In fact, the mono was almost empty, one of the advantages of leaving relatively late in the evening. Once I'd remained in the lab because the research in which I was engaged had filled my whole attention. Now, I marked the time like any Beta admin clerk. Best not to analyse why I did not leave earlier in consequence.

Time to seek another appointment? One that would utilise my intellectual skills more fully. Not to mention one that would allow me to purchase black calf-skin thigh boots. And freedom from the tedium of communal monorail travel. Everything could be purchased, at one price or another.

Banking, perhaps. I was certain that there would be opportunities, shall we say, for a man of my particular talents in the banking arena.

Perhaps I could even purchase someone to come home for.

Across the carriage, in the service section, my eye was arrested by a solitary grey-clad man, leaning against the central pillar. That dingy Deltan nonentity actually had the temerity to be staring at me. I glared back, and his gaze nonchalantly slid on to the woman opposite. A pickpocket, I guessed, casually assessing his potential prey. I smiled -- there were richer pickings to be had in other spheres of criminality.

I flipped open my data-viewer and initiated a search through the recently advertised commerce appointments, on a whim prioritising those in the North-Eastern Dome. A change of residential location-yes.

There was certainly nothing to keep me here.

Almost empty. Dunno why I bothered -- not nearly enough cover. Still, no harm in looking. I might just hit lucky. Good preparation was the mark of a skilled professional.

The dark-haired bloke, the one on the right. Now his cred-chit was in his top left inner breast pocket. One advantage of covering the same route every day was that I'd got to know the exact locations of the inner pockets on the uniform they mostly wore, all six of 'em. Right sourface, that one. That look, it'd have frozen the balls off me if I'd been closer. I'd leave him alone. He'd probably been touched so little in his life that even my magic fingers would have a hard time of it.

Now, the blonde girl. With that skirt and those legs, she'd have no trouble finding people to cuddle up to! I'd offer my services, but I didn't think she'd be interested. Looked like the guy sitting next to her would as well. I could certainly find a use for that bracelet, not to mention her ear-rings. Tart like her, they were bound to be genuine. Bit heavy though, the bracelet. Hard to lift without her catching on, and anyway she could hardly keep her hands off it. Looked like she was scared of losing it.

The guy next to her, the one with the curly hair. His wallet, I could just make out its outline, snuggled into his lower inner pocket. The way he was wrapped up in the girl, I could've lifted it easy where he was sitting, but with this few people, there really was no excuse to wander right across the tram into the Alpha section.

And that was it, at least for the Alphas, and there was hardly anyone else on the tram, either. I might as well've gone home hours ago. Tara'd have liked that. She was always going on at me to chuck in the thieving and get a real job. I kept telling her it was a real job -- she had no idea of the years of training it took to learn to lift properly, the skill, the sheer talent.

But I didn't really believe it any more.

Tara wanted to settle down, have kids. She'd be quite a catch, really. Pretty -- no, not like that blonde tart, softer, bouncier. Friendlier. And she was a Gamma. She thought she could get me a job, the post clerk in the government office she worked in. It'd really just be lugging boxes, writing labels, but it sounded posh, 'I work for the government.' Sure, I could write. Well, it'd only be copying, anyway. And it had prospects, Tara said. Might even get re-graded. More money, shorter hours, no risk. No dodging patrols, no waiting for the hand on my shoulder to haul me off for what they inaccurately called 'questioning': I could still feel the bruises from the last time, and there'd been nothing on me! Nothing!

Some days it felt like a good idea.

Like today. Fourteen bloody hours back and forth on this bloody tram, and what had I got, one cred-chit -- only Gamma, hardly anything on it, a handful of browns from a factory worker who'd fallen asleep -- I almost felt ashamed to nick 'em, but ... you've gotta be professional about these things, and a wedding ring from some Beta office girl -- fake. What's the world coming to when people start wearing fake wedding rings?

If I got the post job, I could buy a real ring for Tara. Women like that.

So, I'd chuck the thieving? Go straight? Yes. I'd decided. Today. Now! Suddenly I couldn't wait for the next stop; I'd go home, give Tara a big squeeze, bury my head in that chest that smelled of forget-me-nots, then surprise her by saying, 'I've decided about that job, love.'

Something must've shown on my face, because an enormous guy on the other side of the tram caught my eye and beamed at me. He must be a tourist -- no real Earthie would ever smile at a stranger like that. Next thing you know, he'd walk across and say something! I caught myself thinking automatically, tourist equals easy game. Then firmly reminded myself of Tara's ample charms, not to mention the joys of working for the government, returned the smile, thrusting my hands in my pockets. I started to amble across the carriage towards the tram doors. Only a few minutes now.


To 'Danse de la Terre' from 'Le Sacre du Printemps' by Igor Stravinsky

I don't know much about monorails -- there isn't much call for them on Demeter, really -- but I don't like the sound of that noise. There, that whining noise. And surely there wasn't nearly this much vibration last time we came into a station?

And I have time for one thought -- thank God we're almost in the station -- and one action -- to shield Mirrie's fragile body with my solid one -- before we slam into the wall of sound.

And when we come out the other side, when the train stops its bucking and rolling, when the screeching stops and the screaming begins, Mirrie is dead, still in my arms. Pierced through the chest with a stray piece of metal railing.

I didn't mean it, Mirrie, I say. I love you, Mirrie. Let me explain. Forgive me, Mirrie.

But she doesn't answer.


To 'After the War' from 'Different Trains' by Steve Reich

Argh! That wasn't funny. I wonder if my arm's broken? I flexed it gingerly, seemed to move ok. There'd be terrible bruises though. And my ribs... Ouch! Perhaps I could get financial compensation for my injuries? But then, since I hadn't paid for the transport, I'd best keep my mouth shut to avoid any trouble.

The guy I'd landed on wasn't making any noise at all. Perhaps he was dead? I disentangled myself hastily, moved away. Perhaps just unconscious? I groaned and turned back. It was the curly-headed bloke, the one with the hots for the blonde girl. There wasn't any blood, not that you could tell on all that black, but he did look ever so pale. I stretched down for his wrist, avoiding looking at his face. Dare I touch? Dare I find out whether I'd just been lying on a corpse? Oh go on then.

Phew. Alive.

I looked around, we seemed to be trapped in one end of the uptilted tram. The Alpha end. Hang about -- how'd I got to the Alpha end? Must've fallen a long way. I massaged my ribs again.

The rescue people seemed to be ignoring us. Christ, just my luck to be trapped with an unconscious man in this carriage. It could blow up any moment. Or catch fire. I didn't know which was worse, to be blown to pieces or roasted alive. I didn't fancy either, not right now. What about Tara? What about my job? My children? Well, all right, my future children?

I prodded at the nearest plastiglass window, the one that wasn't pressed into the side of what looked like the platform. Solid. Picked up a seat that had been thrown loose. Typical! Shoddily put together, even in the Alpha section. Now...

The crash of splintered plastiglass was very satisfying. I just love breaking other people's property -- so long as there wasn't likely to be any comeback.

I was half-way through the window, when I happened to look back at the curly-headed bloke. He still wasn't moving. I sighed. No sign of it blowing up or catching fire, yet. Maybe I could just lift him out? Looked safe enough. Maybe there'd be some kind of bravery award? I could just see myself on all the newscasts saying something humorous but self-effacing, Tara in the background sporting a glazed look of admiration, accepting the gold medal hand-engraved 'For Service to the Federation' -- well I could always sell it -- not to mention the thousand credits that went with it...

God, but he was heavy. This'd be good practice for lugging boxes ... uh ... working for the government. I managed to get him half over my shoulder, then stumbled back to the window. Possible to clamber through it, though not entirely trivial. Still, they say heroism is never easy.

Yes! There we go, easy does it. Not entirely comfortable either. I could feel something hard digging into my shoulder. My instincts came together and I realised it must be that fat wallet I'd noticed earlier. It was almost begging me to lift it. Please, I could hear it saying, please... I lowered him down onto the platform, gently and slowly, didn't want to damage him any further. I bent over him -- just to check he was still breathing -- and somehow, as I was doing it, the wallet just slipped out of his inner pocket and into mine. Well, he wasn't going to be needing it for a while. Waste not, want not.

I stepped back, glanced around rapidly. Shit. That guy, the dark one with the murderous glance, he'd seen me, I was sure of it. Look down. Alphas never notice Deltas, anyway, we're invisible. Now, let's just walk out of here. Cool and calm. The wallet felt very heavy against my stomach. Breathe! I was nearly shitting myself. Stealing a whole wallet from an Alpha -- given my record, why, I could be transported for less. Transported! Cool and---'

'Now where do you think you are going?'

My guts dissolved.

That miserable little Delta pickpocket had just stolen the wallet from one of my fellow passengers while he was unconscious!

Well, he wasn't staring smirking into my face now. Looked like he was about to vomit, actually: his skin as grey as his coveralls, his eyes glued to my feet.

'I didn't mean it,' the object in front of me whined.

I wondered what would become of him if I reported his action, like a dutiful Federation citizen. Theft of items over two hundred and fifty credits in value was a category-five offence. Given the circumstances, clemency seemed unlikely, he would probably face transportation.

'Look it just dropped out, mister, honest...' He glanced up at me, probably to see how I was taking his lies. His face, under its sheen of sweat, appeared soft, child-like. His eyes, despite his grey complexion, were a surprisingly dark shade of brown. His lank hair could have been any colour, it needed a wash so badly. And his fingernails... I involuntarily stepped a pace backwards. I couldn't remember when I'd last been this close to a Delta.

I'd spoken to the Gamma who cleaned my office. Once. I think.

Transportation. Rumour had it that it was essentially equivalent to execution: few of the prison planets were capable of supporting subsistence agriculture, or even had drinkable surface water.

So: was I a dutiful enough citizen to sentence this fellow citizen to death?

What did I care about the Administration, anyway? What had the Administration ever done for me? Nothing but a succession of dull and unlucrative posts that mocked my intellect.

And if I felt my talents were above the law, might not he feel the same?

I gestured abruptly sideways with my eyes, watched him scutter off, like a woodlouse seeking its damp hiding place, leaving behind that characteristic but indescribable unwashed Delta odour.

The medics finally arrived, began to fuss around my unconscious, wallet-free, fellow passenger. The blonde woman who'd been sitting opposite me also appeared to have been slightly injured. Her face, in so far as one could discern under the make-up, looked very pale. Drops of blood were splashing onto her gold bangle from a minor laceration near the elbow. I wondered if I should do something -- what? -- then a medic broke free of the horizontal male, who seemed to be showing signs of regaining consciousness, began to comfort the woman. Not that she seemed to need comforting, no feminine hysterics at the sight of her own blood from her.

Strangely, the person who was behaving in an unseemly fashion was a man, a tall bulky man -- an Offworlder by his clothes -- kneeling on the ground by a grimy tarpaulin and weeping openly, publicly, rocking his upper body back and forth. I disliked personal contact, but deemed it expedient, as the only conscious Alpha male, to try to terminate this spectacle.

Suddenly I was aware of a shadow, a black figure hovering over me a few metres away. Black meant Alpha, I'd learned that much, and those silver epaulettes denoted high rank in this super-stratified society. I dragged myself back to the present -- another official to deal with. The man looked uneasy for some reason, his arms clasped behind his back in a slightly unnatural pose.

'Is something wrong?' he enquired, his voice cold and shiny like a polished granite pebble.

And I wanted to cry out at the top of my voice, my Mirrie's dead, my beautiful betrayed Mirrie's dead, and they want to take her away! But I thought of home, of the self-respect that I'd had on Demeter that I seemed to have lost somehow travelling here to Earth, and said only, 'My wife is dead,' with all the quiet dignity I could muster.

Then when he continued to glare at me, I focused on the one thing in the churning heap occupying my head that might be changeable. 'And they won't let me take her body back to Demeter to bury. I don't have enough Terran credits for the ... freight.' I bowed my head.

'Officer. Officer!' The official who'd been avoiding me since I'd refused to give up Mirrie's body strolled over to us. 'There seems to have been a misunderstanding. This man's wife...'

'Mirrie ... umm ... Miriam Gan.'

'... was killed in the accident. He wishes her body to be relocated to Demeter. I'm sure that I can rely on you to see to the necessary paperwork, Lieutenant...'

'Holden, sir.' The man had straightened up, now he clicked his heels together and added, 'Lieutenant Holden, 20153, sir. Pleased to be of assistance to you, sir.'

The first man silently held out a small black plasteen card. For a moment I gaped, not sure what to do, then remembered that we'd been issued with plasteen cards -- though ours were green with an oval symbol in one corner -- and a tiny metal reader when we first arrived at the spaceport. Apparently there were so many people in the Earth domes now that the law required everyone to carry identification. I fished in my pockets, dug out the reader, stood fumbling with it. Which way up did the card go?

The man took it from me, ran his card over it with practised ease and returned the device, saying, as much to Lieutenant Holden as to me, 'If there is any difficulty, contact me.' Then added in an undertone, 'Someone in your hotel will be able to show you how to use the reader.'

He nodded his head once and stalked off, hands again clasped firmly behind his back.

I turned back to the officer, took a deep breath, pushed thoughts of both Mirrie and Lexa to the back of my mind, and started, 'Lieutenant...'

'Are you all right?' An unfamiliar voice penetrated the cottonwool that surrounded me.

All right. What did that mean? What had happened?

'The way you looked I thought you must be a goner. But then they didn't cover your body with a tarpaulin like the one over there.' Female. Young. Posh.

I opened my eyes. A blonde head slowly swung into focus. She was dabbling at her cheeks with something I couldn't see, scrutinising the results in a compact. I didn't know her.

'Don't you remember? Short-term memory loss, that's it. You were sitting next to me on the mono.'

Mono? Monotrain?

'The last thing I remember is sprinting up some rolling stairs,' I said.

'That's right, you nearly missed it!'

It was coming back to me now. I sat up. The light hurt my eyes. I was sitting on a stretcher, on a platform, in the open air, or at least the nearest dome equivalent. The slight breeze invaded my coveralls through a rip in the arm.

'We're waiting for a medic to sign us into the hospital transport,' she said, with a pout of her painted lips. 'Bureaucracy...'

Bureaucracy, that I understood. But something was wrong. Not just my head, my ribs, my arm. Something else. Fuck. My wallet. I could no longer feel its comforting presence against my waistband.

'Someone says it was a fault in the track. If my father knew I was injured, he'd probably sue them for millions of credits.' Then she paused, looked a little confused. 'But as soon as I get out of hospital,' she added confidingly, patting her bandaged arm, 'I'm going to Scandium Five.' I guessed the woman must be in shock, she didn't look the type to confide in strangers.

I lunged -- ouch! -- and managed to brush the front of my coveralls with my one free arm, before subsiding in a coughing fit. Fuck. It really had gone. Maybe one of the medics had taken it? Or, more likely, someone had stolen it while I'd been unconscious. Shit.

'It's a frontier world, you know.'

There were all those downloaded credits, ready to send home for Rheanna. What the fuck was I going to do about Rheanna now?

'I'm going to visit my aunt there.'

Rheanna. Christ. What on Earth, or Scandium Five even, was I going to do? So much for spending credits in the gym. Where could I ever get another three hundred credits from?

I turned away from the lieutenant, and a voice cut through my muddled thoughts.

'My uncle's going to teach me to fly!'

Suddenly I was back home on Demeter again, under the sloping eaves of the attic, the spring sunlight slanting in through the open casement the way you never saw sunlight here in the domes, and in my cupped hands I held a bird with Mirrie's head and Mirrie's bright green eyes. And it flew through the window and up and up and up towards the sun.

Then swooping down, faster and faster, plumage dark and glinting against the sun. Pecking Lexa's eyes out.

Lexa was still laughing.

The title derives from one of two Fanfares for Orchestra by John Adams

Feedback welcomed at firerose@fireflyuk.net

Firerose fiction