I suppose that we should have been more prepared. But really, I don’t know if it would have made much of a difference. How do you prepare for such a thing? We hadn’t been on the train for much longer than a few hours. The fog was far behind us, but my mind lingered there with the children we left behind. It seemed like there should have been more.
The only warning we received was a loud bang. Everyone’s head snapped up and the train lurched beneath us. I tried to brace myself, but there was nothing around me with any kind of grip or purchase. Nobody had breath to scream, it happened so fast. We were no longer moving straight forward, but sliding across bare dirt in a diagonal line. I was floating the next moment as the train tipped.
The world became a mess, a blur of bodies and limbs and crashing walls. I tumbled and slammed into soft people and hard furniture. We stopped spinning. There were windows below showing the ground rushing past and windows above opening up to gray skies. And now people screamed, a terrified, desperate wail. I found myself thrown up against a bank of chairs hanging sideways to where they ought to be. I hooked my arm underneath the bottom and clung with all my strength.
We slid this way for a great distance. Then the train started to tilt again, and I knew it wanted to roll. We slowed, and the whole body of the train leaned. Just as we tipped past the balancing point, the train stopped sliding. We hung there for a moment, and then slammed down to the earth. The train rocked as though it might go back down onto the other side, but then steadied itself on it wheels, not quite level.
My body hurt everywhere and I was breathing in fast, shuttering gasps. I had ended up on my back when the train righted itself. It was some kind of miracle that we hadn’t run up against anything. People groaned and cried out in pain all around me. I sat and supported myself on the palms my hands.
The train car was smaller. Both sides and the roof had been crushed and pushed in. All the glass had broken and it glittered upon every surface. Nothing was smooth anymore, but bent, crumpled, and cluttered with debris and people like rag dolls. People hung halfway off the plastic chairs, laid in unnatural contortions in the aisle, or clustered in lurid heaps. I shouted senselessly.
“Is everyone alright?”
It was a ridiculous question, and I knew it as soon as it came out of my mouth. Yet most people in my vision stirred in response. Bodies untwisted, the heaps untangled, men and women sat or stood. We looked ourselves over and found that we were sore, but largely uninjured. The doors were inoperable, but I climbed out of a window.
The landscape was wet and mossy. Gray rocks pushed up in jagged shapes across rolling hills. There were no trees or grass, but only dirt and small, green shrubs. Clouds hung low and dark in the sky. Again, I marveled that we hadn’t hit anything as we had derailed and crashed. I looked back at the damage the train had caused behind us.
I could see the point where the train tracks simply disappeared under the encroaching land. This place must have been neglected for a very long time for such a thing to happen. Between the tracks and where we stopped, the ground was raked up and scattered with metal and glass. The slope of a hill had arrested our sliding and rolling.
Not far from where I stood, there were long rows of some kind of cabinets. I walked uphill to look closer. Long abandonment had settled upon these as well. Moisture and dirt sat on the top of the cabinets. Rust covered over instrument panels and bits of exposed wiring. Banks of enclosed handles projected above the low top. A man stepped up next to me and pulled on one of them.
The handle and shaft came away in his hand. I heard a high pitched sound, power flowing into capacitors. He hoisted the thing up and I saw the barrel and grip. It was some type of gun. I pulled out my own, and others around us did the same. They charged menacingly, we were armed. There were not quite enough for all of us.
I moved around the equipment that sat exposed upon the ground, now understanding that it was a charging station for these weapons. I looked up at the crest of the hill in front of me and wondered where we ought to go. This was supposed to be the last station, but it was obvious that we were still far from home. I did not have long to think, because the hill suddenly swarmed with movement. Ramshackle people poured over and down the hill like water spilling from a bowl. The hillside quickly filled as they sprinted in our direction. There seemed to be no end of them, more and more appeared at the crest of the hill even as those in the front drew closer.
As they approached, I saw them more clearly. They moved in quick, jarring motions, running into each other and scrambling over whatever was in their path. Dirty and unkempt, they reminded me of me of toys left out in the yard. Something was dreadfully wrong with the people rapidly closing upon us. Panic filled my heart and my stomach clenched into a tight knot.
In a moment, I could see the crazed expressions on their faces. There were so very many of them. The situation looked hopeless, but I raised my gun anyway. When I pulled the trigger, a blue ball of electricity spewed out and sped toward the mob. It made almost no sound, and I suddenly realized how quiet everything was.
I watched the ball strike a frenzied man in the chest. He staggered and slowed momentarily, but then continued on. I didn’t hesitate, but began to pull the trigger as fast as I could. Taking my cue, the others around me did the same. A line of blue, a constant hail, erupted from us. The people kept coming. Only a few of them fell after absorbing several shots.
Then they were around and among us. Desperate and almost hysterical, I fired and fired. The rush of people separated us from each other. I couldn’t see what was happening to anyone else, but I still stood unharmed. They came up close to me, but then ran on past. Shuffling feet and grunts were the only sounds. I kept pulling the trigger until I heard a cry raised into the eerie quiet.
“Stop! Stop shooting! They’re friendly!”
I paused for but a moment, and was immediately surrounded. Fear rose up again from hope and choked me as they moved in. But the hands that reached out toward me only patted me on the back, or tore my hand away from my gun to pump it in greeting. Eyes looked into mine, crazed, but overjoyed. They were jubilant, not malicious. Malice would come later.
Almost as soon as the crowd reached us, they began to move us back the way they had come. We had no will or say in the matter. They pressed in and simply took us where they wanted us to go. All the while, they glad-handed us and chirped away like cheerful little birds. All of them spoke at once. Those around me talked to me, talked to each other, interrupted, finished each others’ sentences. And yet, somehow I understood them.
Nobody complained about those we had shot, they were just elated to see us. And their elation was contagious. Their faces were overly expressive and they gestured wildly with their whole arms, often smacking whoever walked next to them. It was almost cartoonish. I couldn’t imagine where such a collection of people could have come from. But I didn’t have to ask, they soon told me.
It would be impossible to convey the story as it was imparted to me. The information came from every quarter as an unbroken narrative, built upon, explained, elaborated and progressed simultaneously. I put it together as we walked. For years beyond lifetimes, these people had been using an incredible technology. A computer took and stored backups of their brains. These backups could somehow be restored into new bodies, if it became necessary. Though it wasn’t clear to me where these new bodies came from, this technology essentially allowed these people to live forever. But something had gone wrong.
The machine, they expressed, was evil. The people who came to meet us at the train were those who had recognized that something was amiss, and left off using the machine many years ago. But there were others who refused to acknowledge the problem, or to stop using the machine. The machine was changing these others. Their minds were deteriorating, they were not the people they once were. The machine was making them its own.
I believed their story, parts of it anyway. I think I understood more than what they were saying. Their behavior made sense, if they had all been using some device that altered their brains in some way. I doubted that the machine was evil, however. Perhaps it simply didn’t function as it was intended to. I imagined how one small defect, some little malfunction, could cause the slightest damage to a user’s mind. This could bring out major personality changes when projected over decades, or even centuries. The evidence was all around me. I wondered what the others must be like, who had done much more harm to themselves than those who were ushering us up the hill.
We found out soon enough. The top of the hill was an artificial plateau. It was a desolate and neglected place. The whole of it was paved under, an attempt at keeping nature itself in check. But nature is one thing that can never be restrained for long. The concrete lot had been allowed to crack and crumble under the weight of years. Weeds, and even small bushes had burst forth in these patches. What remained still whole of the ancient pavement was nearly buried and lost under grime and castoffs. In the center of this lot was a long, low building, perfectly in keeping with its surroundings.
The creatures that milled about this lot were also consistent with their setting. I hesitate to call them people, for their semblance to humanity was nearly gone. They moved about in slow breaks in inactivity, walking hunched over with their arms swinging below their shoulders. In contrast to the herd mentality of those who led us, the others separated themselves from each other. They were scattered to the far ends of the paved lot, but did not venture beyond it. Many of them were naked, or nearly so. Those that wore clothes did so as though the last shreds simply hadn’t yet worn out or torn away. The hair on their heads was thick, tangled, and long. Beards on the males were about the only way to distinguish them from the females.
Our hosts pushed us out in front of their mass. The others eyed us with stupid, lazy suspicion, and then dismissed us. We led the way across the filthy lot toward the lonely building. The structure bore the same signs of disrepair we’d seen on everything and everybody. Shutters swung free on broken windows and the double front doors stood open on their hinges. We passed inside and paused to let our eyes adjust to the darkness. Our hosts didn’t come in, but clustered outside, their dirty faces all crammed together at the door.
The interior of the building was unsettling. Steel pillars rose to the ceiling. The floor held no other permanent fixtures, only filth and debris, a bit of rotting cloths here, a pile of rusted metal scraps there, and further off there was something that could have been a body. Scattered throughout were more of the others, shuffling around in the half light without a purpose. The whole place had the reek of an untended hospital full of putrid meat.
The back wall was all blinking blue lights and control panels. The machine towered over the room, menacing us and drawing itself up as though preparing for a fight. I took it in, feeling those who had come with me shrinking back.
“Kill it,” came the voices behind us, not in unison, but all at once. I turned to look, but they said no more, silent for the first time since they ran up to greet us. But their eyes spoke volumes in dejection, regret, and entreaty. I considered them and their request of us, weighing the justice of their circumstances with the risks we would be taking to help them.
The weapon in my hands became heavy, as did the gaze of both our suppliants and my fellow passengers. I had become their leader, like it or not. Mercy rose up in me, coupled not with obligation, but nobility. Tears came to my eyes, hot and unexpected. I tucked the butt of my gun firmly into my shoulder and raised my chin with resolution.
When I faced the machine again, a short cheer went up. Perhaps it came from the passengers, or from our hosts, maybe it even flew unbidden from my own mouth. I stepped forward and fired, and every gun fired with me. We showered the blue-lit machine with our own flashes of electricity. A moaning grunt erupted from the others, and they turned their empty eyes upon us.
At first, they did nothing to us, but ran in random patterns around the interior of the building in obvious panic. That which they depended upon, which had become their only love, was under attack. The machine bore up well under our weak weapons, but I could tell that we were having an effect. Panels popped and sprayed down their glass screens. Smoke seeped out in thin wisps. Lights began to fade.
And then, one of the others ran up into our group. It grasped the man to my left by the shoulders and froze, looking at the rest of us with bitter, feral eyes. Its mouth hung open as though it didn’t understand what it was doing. The man yelped and shot the thing in the chest, but it spun and threw him like a cannon shot. I didn’t hesitate, or marvel at the strength that could toss a man so effortlessly. I pointed my gun at the creature and pulled the trigger five or six times. It fell, and I stepped over it.
More passengers stepped forward with me. While we tried to keep the others at bay, the rest fired their guns at the machine. Emboldened by the initial attack, several more others rushed in. And then more. We did the best we could to stop them before they got to any of us, but sometimes they were just too fast, too strong. They seized their victims and tossed them just as high and far as the first had. Meanwhile, the machine was dying. More and more smoke billowed out of it and sparks flashed from inside.
Our hosts took courage from our success and began to ease in through the door. I’m sure they kept out more others who would have attacked us from the outside through their sheer numbers. They spread and flowed around us, their bodies a buffer to protect our sides. But I was out front. Suddenly, I found myself in the grip of an enemy. Its hands were like steel clamps, its eyes dead and hateful. I couldn’t fire my gun, I couldn’t free myself from it’s grasp. My heart sunk and my lungs stopped working.
But at that moment, flames leaped out of the face of the machine. I saw it over the shoulder of the other. We had won, and I felt the other knew it when the grip that held me relaxed . Any longer, and the bones in my arms would have shattered. As it was, I came away with deep purple bruises. It turned its head to look, holding me still. Fire licked over the machine. It popped, and began to melt. When the other turned back to me, it was different.
Sadness and loss were in its eyes, but also confusion and a forlorn accusation. It was as if the creature had forgotten a time without the machine, and didn’t know what to do with itself now. I tried to speak, but it dropped its hands from my arms and turned to leave. Our hosts surrounded us as before, and their cheers filled the hollow building. The other was lost from sight, and we were carried outside.