Suburban Station

Written in response to Angela’s photo prompt for Tell the Story Challenge. Her beautiful poetry can be found at Heartbreathings. As I’m in the midst of, and bogged down on both my works in progress, I was happy to attempt this piece of short fiction as an alternative. So based on the photo below, here is my story: Suburban Station.

I was a pop superstar. I had an agent and a stage name. I got discovered at age 16 when I made the cut for Next American Star and spent most of my twenties either in the studio or on the road. I was a household name. I had all the girls I could want but I never fell in love. I had a house in California and an apartment in New York. I owned three sports cars before I even got my driver’s license.

You know what comes with that kind of life. It’s a cliche, really. Late nights, parties, booze, drugs and then other drugs the next day just so you can get up to do it all over again. And of course, the inevitable hangers-on, the leeches that form your entourage, managing your affairs so you can concentrate on being creative while they suck away your fortunes. I still have some of mine. I guess I was lucky.

It’s been two years. I’m thirty-one now but I look a lot older than that. The drugs and the pills and everything else have taken a toll. One morning, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. A hotel, yes, but what city? I had stumbled to the bathroom and puked, only to find, when I pulled my head out of the toilet, some dude sleeping in the bathtub. I didn’t recognize him. Nor did I know any of the other partiers passed out in the room. Was it even my room? I checked the closet. Yeah, those were my clothes. I had to get out of here.

I left the hotel room, found out I was in Miami, and vaguely recalled playing Hard Rock Stadium the night before. I took a cab to the airport. Tour canceled, the star is unwell. That concert was my last. I fired my manager, I sold both my homes, all my cars and hoarded what was left of my wealth.

I went home to Philadelphia and bought a small townhouse. I go by my given name. At rush hour I take my guitar to Suburban Station and play for the passengers boarding the trains. Sometimes people look at me funny –like maybe I seem familiar or something. Nobody’s ever asked. The rest of the time I volunteer to teach music in after school programs for inner city kids. That’s where I met my girlfriend, Jill. She’s a teacher, too. And she’s the only one who knows my secret. I’m not sure how long my money will hold out, but for the first time in my life I am happy.

***

Frozen In Time

A short story by Meg Sorick.

Bright. Blindingly bright. He felt awful —his head was pounding, his stomach was roiling and his mouth tasted like blood and bile. And he was cold. Very, very cold. Alex shielded his eyes from the sun and tried to remember what had happened. The party? Yes. The fight with Valerie? Oh, yes. He couldn’t remember leaving and —god, he hadn’t actually tried to drive in that state, had he?— crashing the car.

He tentatively opened his eyes. The front of the car seemed undamaged. A look in the rear view mirror told another story, though. The back windshield was a spiderweb of smashed glass and the trunk of the car was pushed up and backwards so as to obscure the view. Alex returned his gaze forward. The sun was just coming up over trees that shimmered with a thick glaze of ice. It had apparently snowed heavily overnight, though he couldn’t remember that either. The effect was disorienting. He couldn’t get his bearings. Where was he? The car hadn’t gone into the ditch, rather it seemed to be stopped in the middle of this unfamiliar road. He tried turning the ignition. Dead. Not even a cough. Wishful thinking.

Where was his phone? He found it lying on the floor in front of the passenger seat, screen cracked but operational. He sliced his finger trying to swipe it open. Cursing, he stuck the bloody digit in his mouth. To his dismay, he discovered that he had no cellular signal. How could he have driven so far away from the party to lose coverage? He checked again, moved the phone in all different directions but it was no use. He wondered, without much hope, if Valerie would be looking for him.

After checking himself over to assess the extent of his injuries, Alex unbuckled the seatbelt and tried the door. The impact had jammed it forward but with a huge shove and a creaking groan, it finally opened. He gingerly stepped out into the snow and looked around. Behind the car, the faint imprint of his spin-out was just perceptible beneath the deep snow cover. Further beyond, was the apparent cause of the accident —a train, stopped on the tracks that crossed the road.

“I must have run through the crossing and nearly made it,” Alex said aloud as he examined the back of the car. Twisted metal and plastic protruded from the wreck. He turned his gaze to the motionless behemoth, its engine quiet, just a residual trail of smoke rising from it’s stack. Smoke? A steam train? “What the…? What is this, some kind of tourist attraction?” Alex muttered as he stared in confusion. “Where is everyone?”

He took a step forward, struggling in the deep snow. “Hello?” he called out. Only the soughing of the trees was the response. A chill not from the cold crept up his spine. He checked the phone and again got only a bloody finger for his trouble. By the time he reached the train, the cold air breathed in through exertion was hurting his lungs and he’d lost the feeling in his feet. Soon, he realized, the cold would turn deadly. He either had to find help here at the train or find a spot where his phone picked up a signal. Surely, the train, even if it was an antique, would have some sort of modern communication system.

As quickly as he could manage, Alex trudged to the front of the train. Finding a step and hand bar to grab onto, he hoisted himself into the engineer’s compartment. The space was empty but fortunately slightly warmer thanks to the coal still burning in the firebox. He saw no electronics, not even a radio that he might use to call for help. Alex took a minute to thaw out and consider his options. He could only assume that the engineers had gone back into the passenger cars to check on the people.

After he’d warmed himself sufficiently, he once again braved the cold and snow to forge a path to the first car. Pulling himself up by the handrail, he pushed the doors open into the compartment. The cold penetrated to his bones as he stared into the blank, frozen eyes of the passengers. Every single one of them was dead. Not just dead, frozen in time. Frozen with newspapers in their hands, teacups raised to their lips, leaning over to whisper in their neighbor’s ear. Nothing in nature could freeze a living, breathing human so quickly. Alex slumped against the doorway of the last car to steady himself. As the cold stiffened his limbs and thickened his blood, his last thought was of Valerie and he wondered if she’d ever forgive him.

Inhuman (8)

To read from the beginning: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.

A chill ran up Amanda’s spine. A new life form? Nathan held a hand up to interrupt. “Leo, let her tell you about the nightmares.”

“I’m sorry, dear. Go on,” Dr. Knight said.

“Every night, after Brian asleep for a while, he’d begin to thrash around. At first, it was just tossing and turning but then it started getting worse about a year ago. He would punch and kick like he was fighting off an attacker. He… he hurt me. It got so bad I had to start sleeping in another room.” She touched her healing nose. “This time was the worst. He broke my nose. And finally, that convinced him to go see the doctor.”

Dr. Knight sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. He looked at Nathan and back at Amanda. “I am sorry, Amanda. Believe me, I am not unsympathetic to your experiences. And I realize that giving the AI’s their freedom was a risk. I’m still convinced it was worth taking. I can’t bring them back here to be destroyed. The director doesn’t just want me to fix this fault with the sleep cycle, he wants them reprogrammed to be cold, emotionless killing machines.” He shook his head. “And now… now they have lives. How could I possibly take that away from them?”

Nathan said, “Leo don’t you see how dangerous it is for the AI’s to be on the loose? They could hurt someone else, maybe even kill someone unintentionally. We need you to bring them home. Amanda is all the proof you should need. Their fate at the hands of the agency is certainly better than the one they might face at the hands of the police or even an angry citizen.”

Dr. Leo Knight laid his hands palm down on the table and stared across at Amanda’s bruised face. “I realize that. Believe me, I am frightened for them, but bringing them back just to be purged… I can’t do it, Nathan. It would essentially be murder.”

“Can you fix the fault?” Amanda asked. “Do you know what causes it?”

The doctor nodded slowly. “Yes. Well, I assume so, at least. I would need to access the program while it’s running, but that’s besides the point. The director would never allow it.” He sighed heavily. “And I’m afraid that for as long as I refuse to comply, or until the other AI’s are somehow recovered, I’ll be kept locked away in this room, unable to continue my work.”

Amanda looked at Nathan. “You said they were being reset to the default program. What does that mean exactly?”

“It’s the original program designed tor military use. It’s still adaptive, so the ‘mercy’ aspect will eventually surface and make them unfit for use in combat. But the ‘memories’ Dr. Knight gave them will have been wiped out. The rest of the AI team is trying to find a way to disable it but no one knows the program like the doctor, so his help would certainly expedite things.”

Amanda swallowed hard. “And then what happens?”

Nathan frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Will they ever let him go? For that matter, what about me? Am I ever going to be allowed to leave?”

“Ah, I understand your concern. Rest assured Amanda, you are not in danger.”

“Really? I find that hard to believe. When you’re finished with me, you’re just going to let me go? Knowing what I do about this, this… program? And how am I supposed to explain to my family and my friends what happened to my husband?”

“Brian will suffer a fatal accident, yet to be determined. I’m very sorry,” he added softly at her look of anguish. “But a plan is in place for your return to a normal life. Providing you agree, of course. As with many government agencies, their employees are given security clearances and must keep the nature of their work and their employers’ work confidential. This is what the director has in mind for you.”

“Are you serious? You’re offering me a job?” She shook her head to clear it. “And if I don’t agree?”

“It’s really your only choice, Amanda,” Nathan said grimly. “The agency must keep you close. But they will also compensate you very well.”

“So I come to work for you or what? I suffer a ‘fatal’ accident, too?”

“No, of course not. We aren’t murderers. But I’m not sure your life would be worth living. Suppose you tried to go to the authorities or the news media with this story, do you think anyone would believe you? The minute anyone looked into your background, they would find a history of mental illness and criminal activity. Your current job would be lost, and your chances of finding a new one nearly impossible. I’m afraid you would end up homeless, penniless and alone, Amanda. You have no idea how far reaching the agency’s influence goes.”

“He’s right,” Dr. Knight confirmed. “If you acquiesce, then hope remains alive.”

Nathan spoke softly again, “And besides, if you remain on the outside, you can help. If you agree, place your left hand on the table.”

What choice did she really have? Amanda slowly laid her left hand on the table and waited.