The Rail Dwellers (part one)

Author’s note: One of my favourite pastimes is to cycle around Singapore late at night, when it is less frenetic and when there is time to think and reflect. One of my routes leads me past Pasir Panjang Container terminal, and I am always fascinated by the gigantic concrete piers that straddle the container storage yards, stretching for kilometer after kilometer (see picture below). Seeing them lit up at night was the seed for this story, which explores a future in which mankind has been forced to live above ground in rail cars that serve as mobile dwellings.

Pasir Panjang container terminal concrete piers circa 1999.

The Rail Dwellers

A short story by B.G. Luse

It was night. The rain kept falling, incessant as the clouds that had blanketed the landscape for days now. The rain splashed on the dull grey concrete of the towers and piers, running down in small rivulets to the dark earth beneath. It seemed a long time since it had done anything but rain.

“Is there any mail?” Evan’s voice came from one corner of the dull metal container that served as a home for the family. It had once been red, the paint now faded to a colour between that of rust and burnt earth. The rain drummed on the metal roof and bounced off in little crown-shaped splashes which eventually also succumbed to gravity.

“No I don’t think so…” came Elsa’s voice from the corner near the stove. She was waiting for some water to boil. It was dinner time, at least when it had been called dinner. Now it was simply called the eighteen hundred.

“Ok, I’d better get ready for the evening move,” said Evan. He crossed over to the master control panel and flipped the big grey isolator marked ‘MAIN SERVO’. A muted rumble-whine permeated the building as the generators started up. It usually took them about a minute to come up to speed. Outside the rain continued.

“Here comes number twelve,” said Elsa. She had spotted another unit moving along the line towards them. “They’re moving early, I wonder why.” At the control panel Evan was waiting for the four green lights to come on that would show each bogey assembly had the correct voltage for them to start the move.

It had been like this for two generations now. Move, stop, lock, sleep, wake, eat, move. Always on the rails, always at night. Since the great contamination anything within ten meters of the earth’s surface had died or mutated, only the great concrete roadways in the sky had preserved mankind. Just as well they had been built to last.

Unit twelve had reached them. They heard a metallic clack and squeak as its coupler interfaced with theirs. Now they just had to wait for the maintenance drone to arrive.

“It’s ready Evan,” said Elsa. She passed him a mug of steaming ‘dinner.’ He thanked her perfunctorily, there was no time to sit down for this meal. The four green lights had appeared and they were all set. Right on schedule, they could hear the low hum of the approaching drone.

“I wonder what sector we’ll be working in today?” Evan wondered out loud. The drone didn’t have a vocaliser module so it wouldn’t be able to answer their question even if it could articulate it. Almost as if to confirm his thoughts, the words PREPARE FOR DOCK appeared on the screen above the movement controls. The drone arrived from the northwest and slowed to a hover, scattering the raindrops in all directions as its bulk intercepted their path from sky to soil. They could tell this one was very old, it had the old constitutional markings on its hull – the scroll and the scythe, with the six commandments of Rayson stenciled in neat letters. Evan often wondered if these drones ever developed personalities. He pushed the ACKNOWLEDGE button to allow the drone to commence its landing.

The ‘dinner’ was beef flavoured tonight, not a bad simulation. Of course neither of them had ever tasted real beef and the cows that had been saved now were much too valuable to be food. They had tried some rabbit once, but that apparently tasted like chicken. Elsa had seen pictures of a chicken once, it looked rather funny.

Outside the drone had settled onto the track in front of them. They heard the sound of its engines change as the repulsorlift drive was shut down and the rail wheels were extended. A muffled CHUNK. Touchdown. A slight metallic smell entered their container, ionization from the drone’s exhaust. TRANSMITTING came the message from their robotic companion. Several lines of text appeared on the screen, their assignment for the next beta period. Evan and Elsa both looked it over. It seemed routine – check track plates 3425 through 4500, inspect static discharge towers, monitor radiation levels, repair power coupler 635A.

“Hold on,” said Evan, “What’s this last one?”

The last item read “High Priority: Beam launch malfunction in sector 984, inspect and report back.”

“What’s a beam launch malfunction?” queried Elsa. Evan was already looking through the datapad they had been issued several weeks ago when they began working this sector.

“Here it is – a beam launch malfunction occurs when the secondary supporting arm of a rail truss or turntable fails to engage in the locked position, caused either by a servo failure or debris contamination of the receiver socket. Oh I see, it’s one of those triple V armatures.” A triple V armature was a type of junction on the rail network that was generally very reliable. They were normally only used in high risk areas and Evan and Elsa had never actually worked on one before. No doubt their nonhuman companion would walk them through what needed to be done when they got there.

A low chime came from the master panel to remind them that the drone was waiting. Evan glanced at the monitor for the front camera – he liked to see that the drone was actually there, given that the container had no windows. He did a double take as he realised this one was armed – the front mounting points that normally supported the winch pylons were located to the rear and two railguns now occupied their place. A slight blue glow around the barrels announced that they were energised. Where were they going?

Evan decided he needed to know more. He quickly ran the interrogation command on the panel and cross patched to the drone’s mission module. He needed to know why their companion for the evening was so unusually equipped.

INITIATE MOVE PLEASE came the request from the metallic presence outside. Haha it even knew how to be polite, it must be very old indeed. The new ones had only monosyllabic vocabularies. Elsa had finished clearing up after the meal and was looking at the monitors. She could see the navigation lights on the drone slowly change from red to amber and back again. “Any news?” she said to Evan.

“It says we’ll be briefed on the way” Evan replied. “We’re supposed to get moving anyway.” He pressed the INITIATE button on his console and the drone responded with a soundless THANK YOU. Outside they could hear the couplers engage and the little convoy of two containers and one drone started to move through the still falling rain, across the grey concrete towers and steel rails. They were heading northwest.

To be continued.

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