12 December 2013

#fridayflash: ice train

To the passengers, the train stops in the middle of nowhere, nothing to differentiate this patch of vast empty whiteness from the endless kilometres that came before it. The engineer, however, can see the Quonset hut with the wastingly thin strand of smoke hanging from its chimney. He eyeballs the distance, checks some gauges, and pulls on a metal lever with all of his strength.

The train shudders and groans like a large wounded animal. It slows and glides on its frozen-bright rails, the ghost of itself haunting the nothingness. Two hundred metres short of the hut it spasms and stops, throwing everyone aboard forward just enough to cause discomfort and worry. The engineer swears and braces himself against the control panel, careful not to hit any of the buttons.

Two dark figures exit the Quonset hut and make their way across the ice to the train. They are nearly as broad as they are tall, with huge flapping upper limbs like walrus fins. They clomp along the frozen water with a gait most similar to a penguin’s waddle. It is only when they are fifty metres from the train that it becomes obvious they are men.

And still, to the passengers, this is the middle of nowhere. They cannot see the two men waddle up to the engine’s door, they cannot hear the first man hammer upon it with his thickly padded fist. The sounds of the shouting and swearing between the two men and the engineer do not travel through the brittle-cold air, and the clangs of the men’s metal-cleated boots as they clamber into the engine don’t go further than the end of the dining-car. The passengers are swaddled in quilted upholstery and layers of furs, and they wait, anxiously scanning the white field of ice outside their windows.

“The sky’s green over there,” the woman says, pointing. She is “the” woman because she is the only woman on the train, and she has hired six bodyguards to ensure her person is respected for the duration of the journey.

“It’s reflecting open water,” says one of her bodyguards. He sits in the passenger seat next to her. “A blowhole. They open them up for the whales, so the whales don’t go trying to make their own and breaking up the railway tracks.”

“Does it work?” says the woman.

“In theory,” says the man. “Most of the time.” He frowns at the empty ice. "Some of those whales are over two hundred years old, you know."

The woman shudders and settles deeper into her furs. "And they remember?"

The man nods. "They remember. This would have been all open ocean when they were young."

"Is that why we're stopped?" says the woman. "Did a whale break the tracks?"

"I doubt it," says the man. "There would be a lot more activity. Probably we're just at a weather station. Do you want me to check?"

"No," says the woman, staring out over the ice as if she's already lost interest.

A man wearing a big red stocking cap speaks up. "You work for the railway?"

"No," says the man. "Just travel it a lot."

"This thing," the man with the stocking cap jerks his thumb in the direction of the engine, "they made it from a nuclear submarine, eh? So what do we need to refuel for?"

"We don't," says the man. "Like I said. Weather station. The name's Sam, by the way."

"Pierre," says the man in the stocking cap. "You were already on when I boarded at The Rock. Where do you hail from?"

"Great Lakes," says Sam.

"And you're going to?"

Sam's face tenses, he starts to say something, then he relaxes and allows he's going to Spain.

"Nice," says Pierre. "I heard they still have trees there. Vacation for the wife?" He nods at the woman, whose gaze out the window is now more deliberate.

"Business," says Sam. Pierre finally catches the hint and stops asking questions.

The train starts to move again with a screech of metal on metal. The woman startles and glances a question at Sam, who shakes his head "no" in answer.

"My great-great-grandfather used to fish in these waters," says Pierre. "The cod used to come this far north."

"Didn't the ice stop them?" says the woman.

"No ice, not back then," says Pierre. "Back then they were worried it was too warm."

"It was," says Sam. "That's what caused all this."

The passengers can't see from their windows, but the engineer can see. The Quonset hut is already sliding out of view of the engine windows. There's nothing between the train and Greenland's southern peninsula but a hundred kilometres of track laid on ice. To the northeast the engineer feels a shudder, and he instinctively reaches for the emergency brake. Then he spots the thin stream of vaporised water, calculates the distance, and adjusts back to his regular driving position.

"That one was close," he mutters to himself. "What the hell were they thinking?"

12 comments:

  1. Oh you created such a cold atmosphere here that I'm shivering - man seems to have ruined the world yet again hasn't he. I hope this is imagination and not a premonition of the future ^_^

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  2. they still have trees there - what a kicker line! Loved this.

    Have you ever read Anna Kavan's short/novella called "Ice"? it's rather good

    marc x

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    1. I haven't read it! I'll have to make a note to look out for it. Thank you for mentioning.

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  3. Great atmosphere - would love to know where they are really going.

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  4. Great mood-setting throughout: very ominous. You have me wondering what the walrus/penguin men were up to! Couldn't have been good.

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  5. This was haunting, even if it was really SF. Just to let you know, if the ice age starts, I'll make sure we leave a spot open for you when we take in the refugees. ;-)

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    1. Appreciate it! I do know how to do some basic stuff to make myself useful (and I can learn more). I just hope you're far enough south!

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  6. Like so many of your works, it has such a ring of truth to it, of believability. I sometimes wonder if you have the gift of premonition.

    This is a wonderfully atmospheric short, Katherine.

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    1. I don't know about premonitions, but this one came about when the American TSA introduced the infamous "porno scanners". Loads of people were saying, "that's it! I'm taking the train from now on!" and I thought, "hello, don't you ever leave the continental USA? how do you take the train overseas? what about the poor sap foreigners (like me!) who don't have a choice and have to go through border control no matter what?"

      Well, in the 19th century, in Canada, there were a few temporary train routes which were laid out over frozen lakes every winter, with the tracks laid directly over the ice, so...

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  7. I think this may be my favorite story this week. This dystopian ice world, if I may call it so, feels bigger when it reads. The conversation builds up wonderfully a background, that is nostalgic and ancient. I loved the legend-like whales and the mention of the still remaning trees in distant Spain, a land beyond the cold and dark. I loved it. Simply that.

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  8. Cryptic and fun entry into the world you've crafted, Katherine. Even to my tired mind it was a pleasure to ride along with them.

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  9. I actually felt cold reading this!

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