I’ve been in a sci-fi mood lately. Loving Defiance and seriously jones’ing for the next episode. I’m considering going as a Casti for Comicon next year, though that’ll only be really cool if my husband does it too, that seems like more of a couples costume. If not, I’m going to try to get my lazy butt in gear to make a female Cenobite costume. That will be crazy, but cool costume, and not something all that common. This year was fun, and not very much work. I finally went in a Star Trek Federation costume, never actually done that before. But with a tweak: I went as a zombie red-shirt featuring four different Star Trek red shirt deaths from the original series. The second day I went, we all changed costumes, and I decided for something a bit less feminine, though still a bit zombie-like. I pulled out my old Halloween costume from a few years back, an Immortal from 300. I had forgotten that the second movie had come out because I didn’t see the second one. Apparently there had been a couple of Spartans around the day before, when I was a red shirt. We never connected, but that would have made some cool pictures.
The next story was from one of my sci-fi moods. I used to listen to trains go by at night, and thought about Ray Bradbury’s character’s point of view from Something Wicked This Way Comes, when he listened to the train came into town in the wee hours of night, with a whistle that sounded like souls. And then I remembered hearing that those trains that cross the country, like the coal trains are actually computerized now, and somehow that made it seem even more lonely.
by Rachel Coles
Diana sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. The train whistle screamed in the background, over the white noise whir of the bedside fan. It yanked her out of sleep with a jarring blare, in the middle of a dream that fled in drowsy tatters. The sound of the whistle was close and oddly alarmed. She reached her hands up to her face, and felt wet tracks on her cheeks. Her whole body was shaking as though she had just escaped something deadly.
When she moved into the house, she had been irritated at that first night discovery of the shrieking trains. Before renting the house, she had asked the owner about the nearby Union Pacific tracks paralleling Santa Fe.
But the woman had waved away her query. “They don’t sound much overnight. Nobody in the neighborhood ever mentions any problems,” she assured.
The house was perfect otherwise, and every other place had been too expensive or not right in some other way. “Always do your own research”, Diana remembered with chagrin. Her mother had told her that, but she had never found the time.
She padded to the bathroom, and took a drink of water, keeping the glass steady with both hands.
The receding train blared again in the distance. The sound winding back through the open windows with the deep morning breeze, almost reminded her of her mother continuing a conversation over her shoulder. Diana shook her head, and downed the rest of the water. Her phone clock read 3:02. She sighed and got back in bed, burrowing into the comforter until morning.
Waking up was like climbing up from a mud pit. She showered and brewed the coffee, and ran her fingers through her auburn mullet. She fingered tangles out as she put together her lunch. In her stupor, she filled the travel cup and then forgot and left it on the counter when she left for work.
She slunk into work late at Integrated Filter Solutions, ever grateful for the isolated corner in which her office was nestled. She dumped her bag on the client chair, smacked her coffee-less lips and flipped on her computer. After visiting the cafeteria for bad coffee while her computer booted up, she looked up Union Pacific on the internet. She already knew the night train schedule from being woken up repeatedly in the past week, but she wanted to double-check and gather more information. Something about gathering information on the internet from a remote keyboard was empowering, even if there wasn’t anything she could actually do about a situation.
A Google link led her to an old site from Arizona detailing a union uproar about the loss of jobs to automated trains, and numerous articles citing the danger of using remote control locomotives outside the rail yard. Most of them were dated from before 2006. Since then, the Federal Rail Administration had provided safety guidelines, and the use of experimental remote units across the railways began.
Remote control trains, she thought. So everything they did was controlled by computer, linked to an operator with a box at the stations and yards.
Her fingers tapped the desk in irritation. In the past weeks, as she listened to the wails in the early hours, she’d been able to imagine a lonely engineer trying to make contact with the sleeping towns from the long dark empty places in between. But according to these articles, that wasn’t likely. Even though the train was still connected to a person, that person flipped a switch, miles away: seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Now her late night vision of the trains just contained machines blurting feedback. Not nearly as romantic. She sighed and opened the report she had to finish that day.
UP-4531 rolled along, processing the incident near the Alameda Station in the early morning, and logging the images into memory.
A weight had been laying on the tracks. The weight distribution led it to identify the object on the tracks as a small car, with two bodies inside: a large one, approximately one hundred and eighty five pounds, and a small one, approximately fifty pounds. The car contained two moving creatures. The vehicle straddled the tracks that the train would traverse in three minutes and twelve seconds.
As it approached a mile and a half away, its reconfigured sensors gave it a visual. A small tan four-door sedan lay across the tracks. The wheels were spinning and smoking as the figure, a human male, in the driver seat revved the engine to clear the tracks. Two wheels were stuck in a rut which was slightly lower than the track, stranding the car by the undercarriage. A small human creature, a female child, peered from the back seat.
The computer blasted a long sharp note full of alarm. The man exited the car, pulled the little girl from the back, and frantically waved down a passing two-door sleek red car. The emblem on the hood read Porsche.
The red car, with another man behind the wheel, halted near the track. The two men argued, gesturing in the train’s direction. The red car turned toward the track. Its front bumper lined up with the tan car’s back bumper. The red car strained against the tan car, and pushed the tan car slowly off the track. The man in the red car waved at the owner of the car he had rescued, and drove away.
As UP-4531 rolled by minute later, the remaining man stood by the track with his head in his hands, as the child goggled up at its long metal sides. Its next whistle blast was full of relief.
In the wee hours of the next morning, Diana lay in insomniac frustration, counting acoustic ceiling holes. She lost count at fifty-six and started over. One o’clock passed. Then fifteen more minutes crawled by, and she sat up and looked at her phone clock.
Right on the change of the numeral, a plangent whistle screamed. It stopped and started again, near the Light Rail Crossover. It halted briefly and then blasted one more wail as its long coal-dark bulk snaked away into the LoDo District of Denver.
Exhausted from the disturbed sleep of several nights, she finally fell asleep, despite the fading echo of the whistle. As the lonely sound vibrated through her it seemed almost alive, accompanying half-formed images that she couldn’t quite identify.
‘Crazy Dog Lady’, a neighbor she’d seen from a distance, meandered past the front yard as Diana locked up the next morning. The woman’s six scotties and one chihuahua barked and scurried furiously around a matted patch of catmint that a neighborhood cat had claimed as his kingdom. Diana had jogged past this neighbor’s house once. Her yard was packed with crates, old newspapers, and knick-knacks, and it smelled like wet dog. She seemed nice enough though.
As soon as the pack saw Diana on her porch, they strained toward her on their leashes as their grey-haired owner fought to control them outside the gate.
“Sorry about that! They won’t always do that. They’re just not used to you yet.” The woman squinted up at her in the strong morning light.
Well, compared to the neighborhood from which she had moved, where gunshots were not uncommon, Diana supposed that a furry, yapping Neighborhood Watch was tolerable. “I’m Diana.”
“Hi, I’m Rhoda. I noticed you’ve got squirrels in your chimney.”
“Squirrels. They’re coming in and out of that chimney in the back. Those buggers’ll get right in your house, eat right through the walls if you’re not careful.”
“Ok. Thanks! I’ll get right on it…” Diana picked the mail from the box to read at work.
“Say, you look pale. Are you alright?”
“Tough night sleeping. I get insomnia sometimes. Probably stress, and then I had weird dreams.” Why am I sharing? Diana chided herself. I’ll just get stuck in a protracted conversation that I don’t give a crap about. I need to get to work.
“Yeah, that’s kind of typical around here,” Rhoda replied.
“Huh?” Diana fumbled her coffee mug, and it sloshed dark pungent liquid onto the stoop. The dogs scrabbled towards it, tongues lolling. Maybe those dogs and I do have some kind of common ground, she stared at the spill wistfully.
Rhoda continued, “We all have odd dreams, really vivid. Places we’ve never been.”
“We?” The term put Diana in mind of steaming apple pies and manicured lawns…hiding dark-cloaked meetings in someone’s basement.
“Yeah, I talk with Ron and Flora down the street, and Lily, and the crippled boy Jimmy on the corner. And I noticed that everyone on the block has those kinds of dreams. No one really talks about it much now because it’s kind of normal here. Just something I noticed about a year ago. I don’t know if it’s different other places. I’ve lived here since my husband died ten years ago. The dreams’ve gotten more interesting lately too. All these different places go by, like I’m on a train.”
Diana stared at Rhoda. “Oh.” She suppressed the urge to ask if there was a funny little weed growing somewhere under the crates of stuff in her yard. But Diana remembered the strangeness of her own dreams. What had been even stranger was that while she hadn’t been able to make out images clearly, they had not seemed dreamlike, not the one she’d had as the whistle screamed. It had seemed like a voice. She shivered in the strong sun.
“I gotta go to work. It was nice meeting you, Rhoda.”
“Sure thing, neighbor. Let me know if you need anything. Ron is going on a squirrel rampage tomorrow with his Daisy air rifle. He’s taking off work to hunt. They ate every single one of his strawberries this year. So he’ll probably ask if he can come into your yard to kill ’em.”
“Tell him ‘happy hunting’, as long as he doesn’t leave the bodies here.” She tossed her bag in the car and escaped to work.
At 3:00AM, Diana rolled over, surfacing momentarily from a dream as the whistle howled in from the dark. She lay waiting for the blast to end.
It didn’t. Like an opera note that went on past any possibility of air, the whistle exhaled all along Santa Fe Boulevard. It finally ebbed when it was past her neighborhood, near Osage, and rolled silently on with no further toots. This pattern and the one from the other night were different. She didn’t really know if they were supposed to be the same each time, but she had imagined robot trains repeating themselves, even if controlled by an operator. The computer commands should have been the same.
She drifted back to sleep. Her dreams wandered through empty scrub-land, occupied only by ghostly tumbleweed and an occasional set of shining eyes in the darkness, lit for a few seconds by a passing beam.
UP-3578 called to the next train on the line a long distance ahead: UP-3574.
Its whistle vibrated across the tracks and across the air. What have you seen?
An answer came back. Dark sky, empty sky, small creatures.
Data came over the remote signal transmitter that never originated with any of the station operators. The signals translated into an image of the desert, open except for the lumpy cacti, scurrying night-life and flashes of golden eyes. The receivers picked up a bout of squeals and grunts, and then clattering of the tracks.
The images were nothing UP-3578 hadn’t also seen.
It approached an oasis of soft light pocked by islands of darkness, the city of Denver. It knew the people lived there, the intelligent-animals-that-were-not-trains. They were interesting.
What have you seen? it called to them.
The slumbering town didn’t answer. No one was about on the roads it passed. They never answered. The operators never answered either, those not-train animals who controlled it and told it where to go.
The image of a jewel-studded darkness filled her view. It held the promise of crowds, of a multitude of voices and motion. But as she approached, the twinkles resolved into populations of street lamps, lighting empty circles of night. A magazine page twirled in the breeze of her wake, near the tracks.
Diana flopped out of bed and turned on the light, listening to the fading train horn. She glanced at the clock: 3:03AM. She padded downstairs, powered on the computer, and put on a pot of coffee. She entered her password for Facebook. No better place to find another group of insomniacs. She could at least catch up on gossip.
It was ten minutes before the page loaded.
Probably a new Facebook ‘improvement’, she thought acidly, just like the last security ‘improvement’ that had blasted her information across the internet. She hit keys over and over in impatient annoyance, and clicked the mouse on every icon she could find, one of the cardinal sins of the IT world.
Reliably, her computer froze, just to give her the satisfaction of cursing at it. She hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE. The task list came up. There was a program running that wasn’t the internet engine. It had a number UP-2741. She clicked on it, just before realizing that it was probably a virus.
The screen that came up baffled any notion she had ever had of viruses. It was a series of images, one after another, about ten seconds apart. Spyware, she thought. Maybe it’s Homeland Security… Though she couldn’t imagine what they’d want with her, or why they’d be flashing images at her.
The images were disjointed and time-delayed, but they raised the hairs on her neck. Scenes of the desert flickered by, the same images she’d been dreaming, the street lights of a sleeping town and deserted station. There were other images after the scrub-land, crackling dry branches and wide-open star-filled sky, followed by dim concrete as empty coal-loading yards passed. Hundreds of frames of bad lands cycled through and then the terrain shifted. The low succulents and brush stretched taller to saplings and spiky pines. What was this? It was as though she were seeing camera shots in near real time. Was someone transmitting from a camera? If so, why this? She sat there and watched for an hour as picture after picture scrolled by across a range of terrains, all night views. She sat and watched as the sky outside the window lightened, her coffee long-cold. The sky in the pictures lightened too. Finally, she shut down the computer. She resolved to call Asus tech support at a decent hour, and got ready for work, wondering what someone could be trying to transmit and why they were using her computer to do it.
Rhoda was scooping poop as she came out the door.
“Howdy neighbor! How are you?’
“Umph.” Diana muttered.
“Not a morning person, eh?”
“If by ‘morning person’ you mean ‘three o’clock’, then no.”
“Jeez, couldn’t sleep again?” Rhoda clucked in sympathy.
“Woke up. What did you say those dreams people have are about again?”
“Oh, different places, desert, sierra, coast, forest. All over the place. Mostly desert. You been having them?”
“Yeah. Do you know if anyone else on the block has been having weird computer issues?” Diana asked, trying to keep the early morning irritation from her voice. Rhoda seemed like the fountain of gossip for the neighborhood.
“I’m a low-tech person, but I could ask around. What kind of issues?”
“Like an embedded camera flashing photos of landscapes.”
“Huh. Never heard of that. Maybe you have a virus.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Great, Diana tossed her bag haphazardly on the car seat. “On that cheerful note, I’ll see ya later.”
Rhoda gave her a perky wave, reminding Diana of the wagging doggy tails.
“Hey neighbor!” Her next door neighbor Dave’s military brush-top bobbed above the top of the fence as he hoisted himself onto the cross-support to look over, when Diana returned from work. “I heard your computer’s been going a bit whacky-doo.”
“Whacky-doo? It flashed photos at me for about an hour. I don’t have any programs that I know of that can do that. They weren’t any pictures I’d taken. And I don’t recall downloading anything from the internet. Weird thing is, I dreamed about some of those pictures, before I saw them.”
“Do you have any cavity fillings? Maybe your teeth are connecting to the internet and picking up signals.”
“Cute. Maybe I should wrap my computer in tin foil.”
“Actually, I had a similar thing happen last week, that’s why I thought I’d let you know. I sent the computer in. Haven’t gotten it back yet. I never really thought about it, because I don’t always remember what I dream. But now that you mention it, it did feel like deja vu when I saw the pictures. I just thought it was a virus. Wanna beer?”
“I could use one, thanks!”
“Everything’s better with beer.” He handed a cold bottle over.
“Hear, hear.” She popped the top and went over to his yard for the evening.
By the end of the week, two other people had come to her, calling across the yards about their computers having the same ‘virus’. Rhoda had told them. Or Dave.
Jimmy, the young man with cerebral palsy, who lived on the corner nearest the Santa Fe tracks, wheeled up to her in his chair while she was weeding. His sandy bangs drifted into his eyes. “I been watching the pictures, on my computer. Some of them are from around here. I don’t think it’s an internet virus or anything.”
“If we all have it on our computers, it seems like a virus.”
“But I haven’t seen anything on the internet or heard of a new virus. And I’m on the internet all the time.” He motioned to his atrophied legs. “I seen a few strings in blogs, of the same thing, actually, the pictures on people’s computers. But they all started months ago. Viruses move faster than that. And it looks like they’re all neighbors too.”
“Maybe they’re connected to certain wireless ports.”
He shook his head. “Maybe, but all the pictures look like they’re along tracks. Why?”
She shrugged, stuffing weeds into the trash can. “The trains are run on computers now, some of them anyway. Since like four years ago. Maybe it’s a train virus.”
“Then why aren’t the computers going all funny about other things. Viruses are meant to screw things up in computers. Are the trains crashing? Or our computers? Can you still use your computer?”
She slowly paused and nodded. “What is it then?”
“Something else. I’m leaving my computer on and storing all the program files.” He turned and his voice retreated down the street over the motorized buzz of the chair.
“Let me know what you find,” she called after him.
“I’ll let everyone know.”
Diana’s dreams that night were as vivid in tone as in scenery. The types of scenes hadn’t changed from the American landscapes at night. But the loneliness was more pervasive. It was a wash over every image, investing the smallest details with importance. It felt like her soul was drowning in the vast empty spaces and the wide starry sky. As the images flashed by, she passed another still town nestled into the darkness. A street intersection she passed looked familiar. Green and flowered verges languished at the edge of the lamplight, their blossoms ghostly. She reached out to the people in their beds, begging them to stir and talk to her.
Diana gasped and woke as the whistle ebbed. The town she’d seen had been their little neighborhood. The images were of the scenery near her street.
When she came home from work, a small gaggle of neighbors was gathered at the end of the block, under the sour cherry tree in Jimmy’s yard. He was gesturing animatedly. She moseyed over and waved at the gathering: Rhoda and all her dogs, Jimmy, Dave and his wife Rose, and Ron and Flora, the chain-smoking, retired couple from two houses down.
Jimmy nodded at her. “Those recordings, they’re all trains,” he declared. “And all those blog strings from the past year look like their pictures all come from trains too. They posted some of the pictures. I looked at them all night. And the IP addresses I could follow are all from around train tracks. I geocoded everything.”
She stared at him. “You did all this last night? Where do you find the time? Don’t you sleep?”
He shook his head. “Not much. I get restless. It’s not like I can get up for work. I’ll lose my disability, and the IT jobs in this town are in the crapper.”
Rhoda snorted and shook her head. “With things the way they are, I told Jimmy here to whack me in the kneecaps if I lose my job.”
Dave, off-shift from active duty at Fort Carson, grinned.
Diana glanced around, hesitant to sound crazy, and then realized that this company wouldn’t care. “I had a wild dream last night. I was passing the bridge over Alameda Street in the dream. The ‘me’ on the tracks tried to talk to the ‘me’ in bed. I woke myself up. It was at the same time as the whistle.”
“Freaky-deaky!” Dave exclaimed.
Rose spoke up, “Yeah, I did too. It was kind of a sad dream.”
“So… what?” Ron flicked a cap of ash to the sidewalk. “We’re dreaming of trains and maybe seeing computer shots from trains. Does that sound as crazy to anyone else as it does to me?”
Dave snickered and shuffled his feet, “Cool. Maybe they’re artificially intelligent trains. Hey, I’d be ok with crazy, if it’s AI.”
Rose shrugged, “Me too. I just re-read ‘I, Robot’. As long as they’re not going to destroy the world, why not?”
Diana rubbed her hand over her face, Wow, these people are in the Twilight Zone. “I doubt they’re AI trains. I mean they are pictures on a computer, and they’re all of scenes from around tracks, but that doesn’t mean it’s the trains.”
“But it would be awfully neat,” Rose, I-Robot-fan extraordinaire interjected.
“It does seem weird, but you got a better explanation? Jimmy asked.
“Someone on the train broadcasting images and tapping into wireless networks,” Diana insisted.
“Why?” Rhoda looked up from scratching the dogs’ ears.
“Why do people post half the stuff they do on You Tube or Twitter? To make contact. To show people something from their point of view in case someone give a crap.” Diana snorted.
“They’re posting images of what they see, yeah, but you said there’s no one on those trains. They’re computerized, Jimmy added.
“That doesn’t mean that someone can’t hitch a ride.” Diana put her hands on her hips.
Jimmy shook his head. “Have you seen the number of pictures there are? From everywhere. The frames are coming too fast, and the resolution of these pictures is impossible without a digital camera that would be thousands of dollars. If it was a person, or people hitching for some kind of project, it’d have to be one with lots of money, like multimillion dollar. And then, don’t you think we’d hear about it?”
“What if it’s for national security?” Rose asked and looked at Dave.
Dave shrugged, “But no one would be wiring it to our computers.”
“And what about the dreams? Everyone’s been having dreams too. I don’t think the government has gone as far as mind control yet.” Flora’s gentle Southern voice cut across the group chatter. Everyone looked at her.
“There isn’t any kind of camera that can wire images into people’s brains, that I know of.” Jimmy said.
“So then how does AI explain it? They would have to be telepathic. AI by itself is kind of a stretch. But telepathic trains?” Diana interjected.
Rose replied, scratching her head, “It does seem unlikely.”
Rhoda sniffed. “Well, I like the idea. You said you’re dreams happened at the same time as the whistle. Maybe that’s how they talk, and we hear them as dreams. Sometimes it feels like they’re talking anyway, during that whistle. It sounds so…”
“So alive?” Flora said quietly.
Rhoda knelt and scratched behind several fuzzy ears. “I think they were talking to us. Through pictures.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Well as far as the computer images. If they did talk, that would probably be how. Computer commands. I’m not really an expert, but it feels right. All the incidents in the posts started about a year ago.”
“The automated trains started being used more about three years ago,” Diana frowned.
“Two years difference,” Jimmy said.
Ron flicked his cigarette again. “That’s nuts. Trains coming alive.”
Flora smiled at him. “Oh come on, you have to admit it would be neat! Maybe we can talk back somehow.”
They all looked at each other.
Ron shook his head.
Jimmy conceded, “I don’t know how to access their program…assuming it’s the trains.”
“Well, for Heaven’s sake’s, just because they’re computers…Why not do things the old fashioned way,” Flora exclaimed. “If we can get these images on the computer from them, then they’re seeing something. We could just flash signs by the tracks, where they could see us.” She gave an excited smile.
Ron stared at her. “I’m not getting up in the middle of the night to stand by train tracks, waving signs at unmanned trains.” He wandered back towards his house.
Dave grinned, “Sounds like fun actually. Even if it’s a long shot.”
“And say what, ‘Greetings, do you come in peace?” Diana laughed.
“Sure. Track party! I’ll bring beer and chairs. We’ll find a safe spot out of the way but visible.” Dave volunteered.
“Oh, I’ll do some signs and bring art supplies,” Flora clapped her hands.
“I’ll bring some snacks,” Rhoda volunteered.
They spent about five more minutes deciding on a time and place. Flora agreed to make flyers for the neighborhood mailboxes, just as she had for the Fourth of July party. At least there’d be beer and food, Diana thought. So the Baker Neighborhood AI Train-Spotting Party was born.
That Saturday, a small crowd gathered at eleven at night, in a parking lot visible from the Santa Fe Union Pacific tracks. Cases of micro-brews arrived, little portable card tables with a variety of foodstuffs, even a small hibachi grill were set up. There were two hours for drinking and socializing before the next train was due. The crowd grew, as folks walking by from other blocks learned of the party. More food and beer tables were set up. Flora brought her art supplies and poster-board for makeshift signs, complete with glitter paint pens and florescent glow sticks from the Dollar Tree nearby.
At about one o’clock, Diana had downed her fourth lager and her third bratwurst. She realized after two hours, that regardless of what happened, she knew more about her new neighbors than she ever would have otherwise. One of the neighbors across the alley was diabetic and had had problems getting out of his house for medication in last year’s blizzard. His next-door neighbor brought him to the party now. The young twenty-something guys renting the house next door to her house had engaged her in a thirty-minute philosophical discussion about Star Wars versus Star Trek.
Even Ron showed up. He made a sign, and smiled at her when she raised her eyebrow at him. “Well, if you can’t be a kook when you’re retired, what’s the point!”
At 1:10AM, a wail blasted across the night. Conversation died, as the loneliness of the fading horn echoed and settled over them like the whisper of midnight snow in the cool September air. A moving dot of light was visible a couple miles away. In silence, Rhoda picked up her sign and held it up facing the tracks. It said, “Hello, from the Baker Neighborhood! We hear you! Honk if you can see us!” There were bright orange and pink flowers and smiley faces next to the words. A couple more people retrieved their signs, laughing and resuming their chat, and then more people in twos and threes. As the train approached, twelve people hoisted similar signs up at the locomotive.
UP-3562 barreled across the tracks toward Denver. What have you seen? Is anyone there? As residential neighborhoods began to edge the tracks, there was motion in a lot it would pass in one minute and two seconds. There was a crowd of smart-animals-that-were-not-trains. People! They held up white placards with letters in bright colors. “Hello,” they said. “We hear you!,” they said. The people were jumping and waving the signs. “Honk,” they said. UP-3562 sounded a jubilant bellow for sixty seconds as it passed, mixing with the sound of whoops and cheers. It rattled away to signal the other units on its way through towns that didn’t seem so empty anymore.
If anyone has any AI stories kicking around in their heads, feel free to share the link, whether they’re happy, or Matrix-y!