Here’s another, from the back archive: I think I wrote the original version about 30 years ago; this is resurrected from a much-copied .wri format file, from the misty past. A homage to the SF greats who inspired me: Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Walter M Miller, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith….
A DAY AT THE STATION
A Sort of
I will tell you what this place is.
It is The Station.
It is, at once and separately, every type of station you could wish it to be. It exists in all times, all at the same time.
It is everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular. It is within your imagination, but probably outside of your life – unless you join us.
Joining us is not hard.
It is also extremely difficult.
You see, the act of joining is the easy part: it requires only the conscious decision. Ah, but getting to where one is faced with the decision – that is the difficult part. It is not hard to make beautiful music after a lifetime of practice; not difficult to create wonderful images when one’s life has been spent working to that point – so too, it is not hard to make the decision to join The Station, when your whole experience has pointed you towards it.
But joining us is forever.
We have many people here. People you may know, people you have heard of. People you have passed by and never noticed, people who lived their lives far away and long ago, and were known by very few. The man who walked around the horses at the inn and vanished, he is here. A writer of strange dictionaries, who went missing, also. Simple folk, too – here in the greatest number.
All with one thing in common. All here because of a simple realisation.
You know us, you know. You see us every day. We surround you, we walk beside you, we are in the next seat, the next aisle. We are your milieu in your travels.
Let me tell you a story, to illustrate this. This happened for me just recently; for you in ages past or just tomorrow, or in some time other than this.
Picture a branch of The Station. This is a small branch, for steam trains this time. Picture golden grasses as far as the eye can see, broken only by the straight steel lines, meeting out near infinity. A small wooden building in this incarnation, with a bent stovepipe chimney, a low platform, a small office.
And a Station Master.
This is one to inspire distaste in the powerful, unease in the prosperous, and fear in the humble ragged folk who huddle on the platform, as far from him as they can be. A glassy look to the eye, a habit of looking over your shoulder while speaking loudly in a harsh voice, of repeating things often, of muttering to himself and making jerky movements. An excellent recruiter, then. He had the manner of one used to command, of one accustomed to being listened to, and instantly obeyed. Perhaps he had been, somewhere, sometime.
And there was I, of course. A humble person in this place, a sweeper of platforms and fetcher of things inconsequential. A person deferring anxiously to the station master, yet gaining some small substance from the greater being. I have been greater than this, I have been less. I will not tell you where I come from before – it does not matter, here.
And the travellers.
A ragged crew, dirty with the grime that comes from too much wear rather than too little water. One old man, white-bearded, large felt hat; and six women, all with head cloths, all worn and lined. They sat in the close, motionless, silent huddle of dull despair, in the apathy that settles in when whether or not the train comes becomes a matter of indifference.
Almost there, then – all of them.
I industriously wield my broom along the platform, raising great clouds of unnecessary dust, pushing along towards the wretched huddle. As I frown at them to move, to remove their lowly selves from the path of one such as myself, I surreptitiously scan their faces, their postures.
There is one, I say to myself, there is one.
She sits slightly apart from the others, appears more hopeless even than they, yet more refined, more gentle. She has fallen further than them, then. She does not notice, rather than ignores, the dust falling now around her. She hardly notices the station master as he clumps up, harshly shouting at this scum to move themselves or be thrown out of this place; she is lost in some private, sad imagining.
Definitely a candidate, this one. I take up a position at the end of the platform, between them and the sun still low in the east. Yes, they have waited here two days now, and this is the second morning of hope. I whistle some tune as I lean on my broom, watching the woman as I idly scan the horizon. I know there is a train coming, I have seen the faint smudge of smoke blurring in the far east. I see the station master does too – he smiles to me as he comes officiously to glare at the passengers once more.
Presently they too notice the thickening smoke, and begin to come alive: little murmurs, and almost stealthy gestures begin, and the pathetic baggage is checked. All except for the patriarch, and the woman. He cannot permit himself this hope, this expectation; she does not care.
The train slowly, so slowly draws closer. A fine cowcatcher on the front, we see, and a tall funnel chuffing a thick black smoke. There are passenger cars, and freight wagons. The station master positively struts, now, and pulls his moustache fiercely, and consults his watch (to no purpose – there is no timetable, only a calendar, and this is mostly wrong). The train draws near finally. Two of the women stand, anxiously, twittering like faded birds. The others are busy pulling together bundles, even the old man stirs himself to pull out a pipe. Only The Woman (as I call her to myself) does not stir.
The train slows. It blows a shriek of steam through its whistle, once, twice. An arm swings out of a carriage, drops the mail sack. I swing another aboard. The station master waves once, abruptly. The train does not stop.
Consternation amongst the travellers. The women cry, weep, argue. The patriarch shakes his head, curses. The woman lifts her head to the retreating train, permits herself a small, sad smile that lingers as she returns her stare to the platform. The old man mumbles to himself a while, then plucks up the courage, his hat in his old, calloused hands, to approach me. I gently shoo him over to the station master, wordlessly, shaking my head and smiling. He heavily approaches this worthy, who still writes in his book. He stands before him, turning his hat. The station master writes on. The old man stands. The station master finishes. He closes his book. He looks up and through the old man, and turns to go. The old man reaches out a hand, with a little wordless cry. The station master stops, looks back. He shakes his arm. The hand drops off from its grip on the black, shiny cloth. The station master looks through the old man a for what seems a long, long while. The patriarch begins to blurt an apology. The station master goes to his office, closes the door.
I shrug as the old man turns to me, and continue with my sweeping. I ignore him as he tries to speak, and he hopelessly trudges back to his group. I observe the woman, then. She sees all this, she shakes her head, with the little smile a little twisted now. I catch her eye, once. She looks away. I stare. She looks back, away, back again. I will her to see. I will her to realise her potential.
She looks troubled. I stare into her eyes, trying to show her the way, trying to help her decision. She gazes back, like a rabbit at a snake. I smile, and point up and out with my eyes. Her gaze follows, returns.
I narrow my eyes. I sneer. I turn to the patriarch, then, and sweep more dust. I hear something, a little like a sob, then a soft cry. I look, sideways.
You would see the woman fold up like an old garment, slump to the platform, sigh as the air left her lungs, and her sphincters opened, and she died.
I saw her stand up, look about, smile at me, and step into –
You would see her lie like a sack, as her companions discover her passing and begin to wail; as the station master comes over and rages at them for the mess.
I see her pass with a graceful step, away from the rags lying untidily on the scarred wood, into the warmth and light of that part of our world we call the Tavern. Her face lights up, she reaches up a hand to be helped up, she turns and waves – and the rift between worlds closes, the warmth vanishes, and we are left with the grass waving in a cold breeze, the wooden platform, and the body.
We have an understanding, the Station Master and I. We both recruit for our world, he with the blind arrogance of authority, and I with the understanding look. We look at each other, smile. I turn to the pathetic passengers, speak slowly and loudly to them, gesture them to take the body away, to bury it, to remove it from our notice. Sobbing, they slowly obey. They are all very good candidates, these.
Maybe more of them will join us, further on this hopeless journey of theirs.
Perhaps you have guessed, by now. Perhaps now you know what is required to come to The Station, to stop by the Tavern of the World. Perhaps we will see you soon, apprehensively stepping over the threshold, coming in to join the old wanderer in rags, the big man with the beard and ornate signet ring, the monk who babbles of blueprints, the men who did not return from Borodino, from Stalingrad, from Kabul, from Gettysburg, and from Fomalhaut and Proxima Centauri. Perhaps you will soon relax with us, drink an ale, listen to stories from before you were born, and after you lived.
Then you will go out, as we do, into all of time, and mingle with those who are not of us, be part of the faceless background of their worlds. You are wondering if you have seen me before? You have. You will again. You will see many of us. You will know and talk to none – unless you come here.
It is very easy to get here.
Simply realise that your journey has no point, that you are beyond hope, beyond hoping, that the mere act of passage is futile. Then, in the calmness beyond despair, a simple realisation that warmth and light beckon you on – and you go.
Ah, but the training for such a step – a whole lifetime, or much shorter. A lifetime spent at a grey desk in a grey building, or the much shorter period it takes to dehumanise a prisoner; a lifetime of hopelessness, or a few weeks in a trench somewhere in France, in Iraq.
You see, we do not need to recruit actively. The World does that for us, quite efficiently enough.
I like to nudge, though. It gives me a sense of being useful. I don’t think I was much use, before. I smile at the Station Master. He gazes past me, somewhere into the awful depths of a classic retreat, or perhaps a grey retirement from glory. We both turn our gazes to the distant yellow horizon.
There is another train coming.