by Vajra Chandrasekera
There’s thunder far overhead. It’s going to rain soon. I’m almost glad.
The itching is worst when the train circumnavigates my neck, which requires me to bend and then slowly roll from side to side so the train has a consistently level surface. The tiny tiny ballast has a way of bouncing when a train is passing, rattling like grains on a drum.
But the neck is the worst of it; after that it’s just down the other arm. Once it’s all the way to my bicep I can scratch my neck with my other hand as long as I’m careful and discreet. If the rear guard sees me, or if the vibration travels and rattles the tiny tea cups in the tiny dining car and upsets the tiny masters of the world, I’ll be charged with reckless endangerment and maybe treason anyway. But the fact is that everybody scratches whenever they can get away with it, because there’s only so much god damn itching you can stand.
My shift’s not over for another week, on the timescale of the tiny masters. That’s just seven hours in our time, so it’s not as bad as it sounds, but we’ve been taught to always measure time on their scale, not our own, so as to prevent confusion. My jaw will ache by the time I go off shift because I’ll have been clenching it all week to ward off the itching.
When the train nears the connecting station at my wrist, I press palms with my line neighbor on the left, fingers pointed downward. It’s a painful posture to hold. Our wrists don’t quite meet, the skin of our lower palms dipping away into a chasm. The rail track unfolds to extend just a little distance beyond our wrists, so that its little connecting bridges can interlock over that emptiness. We have to hold our hands like that all day so that the train can safely cross over. The manual of operations says we’re not supposed to look at each other during this operation because even accidental eye contact might cause involuntary muscle spasms in our arms due to empathic resonance, and that would almost certainly cause a derail. In real life, line neighbors try not to look at each other at all, much less in the eye. It’s shameful to be a railway segment and it’s easier when you don’t have to think about it.
It’s still better than many of the alternatives, though. It’s much worse to be an apartment building, to have the tiny masters of the world burrow into your flesh and hollow out your real estate. I spent my first year in the civil service being an aircraft carrier — I was younger and smaller then — and in every moment of that service I was terrified of drowning in a wave that I wouldn’t even see coming. Being a railway segment is at least work that you do alongside others. There’s comfort in that.
It starts to rain. These are the reasons why rain is good: it helps with the itching; it soothes the inflamed skin of the track foundation; it’s water, which we can drink; it reduces visibility. We raise our faces to drink our fill, then lower them to breathe through our mouths. Even if we try to look around everything is indistinct and our eyes are blurry from lash-tangled rain.
I have very different relationships with my line neighbors, my left and right. My left worries me constantly. It’s her job to take the train from me and she’s always slow, always bringing her palm up to mine at the last possible moment. If our connecting bridges aren’t interlocked by the time the train reaches my carpal tunnel, then they might pull the brake and screech to a halt, which would result in disciplinary action for both of us. Or worse, they might not see the interlock failure in time, and the train will fall out into empty space. The tiny carriages will tumble, the tiny masters of the world will spill from them like baby spiders and splatter on the ungovernable earth below. The manual of operations doesn’t specify exactly what happens next. Line rumor has it that military trains will arrive within a week. They will stop on the offending segments, and they will swarm our bodies and destroy us with strange and terrible weapons. Segments killed for treason will be left where they fall to rot, so that the new segments who replace them may have their cautionary tales close at hand. I don’t trust my left to save us both from this fate. If I glance at her face — and quickly look away, of course — I can see the grim in her mouth, the set in her eye. She’s too close to open rebellion. She’ll probably get us all killed.
My right, on the other hand, is precise and conscientious. I always have my hand waiting, stiff and ready, before she puts hers into place. I don’t want her to think about me like I think about my left. I want her to think I’m like her. Reliable. Careful.
Days pass — the quick days of the masters, not our own slow days, but I am practiced enough that an hour really does feel like a day now. The rain persists. My shift is half over and there’s no sign of the next train. There should be one every day, relentless as a metronome.
These are the reasons rain is bad: sometimes it feels like drowning.
My right leans over. I’ve never talked to my left, but my right and I have talked before under cover of rain. When there isn’t a train nearby we can move more freely. We press our heads together, looking down at our hands. Our fingers are interlocked, palms up so we don’t displace too much tiny ballast from our forearms.
“It’s started,” she says. “Tell your left.”
I start to ask what, but she squeezes my hand and looks me in the eye and I know. This is the revolution. This is how we die. I don’t know how many uprisings there have been before ours — they don’t teach that in school, where our curriculum is directed by the tiny masters — but I know that they must have all failed, because here we are.
“Keep it short so we don’t mangle the words,” she says. “Today we fight.”
“They’re going to kill us all,” I say.
“It’s too late to save the apartments,” she says. “And they say we can’t hold out hope for the singletons. The aircraft carriers, the rockets and space shuttles, the hydroelectric dams. They’ve been isolated too long, they might not join up. But the rail will rise together.”
I didn’t expect it from her, but then it’s not just her. This is a message being passed down the line. How far has it traveled? How mangled are these words? What if it’s a mistake or a trap? I ask her these things, and she shakes her head. These words are her own, she says, but the message belongs to us all. Her face is still pressed to mine, a banked furnace in the cold of the rain. Her fingers are squeezing mine so hard that the skin’s turning pale. She’s turned her hands around, gripping my still-upturned palms.
“You’re spilling all your ballast,” I say, and she makes a noise like a sob, or perhaps that’s just what a laugh sounds like in rain.
“It’s really here and now,” she says. She lets me go and reaches up to the back of her neck and starts to flay the track out of its bed. “I’ve always hated this part the most.” Her neck is bleeding, but the track is coming off. Sleepers tumble out like matchsticks, before the bloodstained rails themselves. She flings them out into the murk. Visibility is very low in the rain. I think I can see movement behind her. People moving in ways that the manual of operations would consider extremely damaging to the integrity of the track. Even stepping out of line altogether. I think I hear distant shouting, laughing, crying.
I turn and peer down the line to my left. The train’s moved on past her, down to her left or possibly further still. The line to the left is still holding rail discipline, as far as I can tell. I can barely see any of them as silhouettes, arches in the gloom.
I ease over to my left.
“Listen,” I say, and she turns to me so fast it’s startling. Her eyes are wide, frightened.
“Has it started?” she says, gripping me by the hand. “Please, is it time?”
I can’t remember the words my right said to me, so I nod. She doesn’t seem to need words from me. I press her hands in mine. They’re shaking and at first I think these are the muscle spasms the manual warned of, but then I realize she’s crying. It’s hard to tell in the rain, but her mouth isn’t a grimace of rage, it’s terror. Or both, now.
I wish I had been the one carrying the train when the word came down. I wish I’d been the one to raise up my fist, train careening, and smash it into the mud.
“You always looked so angry,” she says. “I knew one day you would tell me it was time.”
“Tell your left,” I say, and the word goes down the line.
© 2018 by Vajra Chandrasekera, all rights reserved