Voyager Designation Fifty-Seven
By Matt Doyle
“Thomas,” Granddad sighed. “You are going to cause panic if you keep checking for cracks. Do you not remember what your parents taught you?”
“Of course I do,” I reply. “But I also remember what you taught me; that a curious mind is something to cherish.”
“Cherish, yes, but …” He trailed off, absently scratching at an overlong tuft of hair sticking out from the side of his otherwise neatly brushed beard. “There are times and places, and there are ways to embrace your natural tendencies without risking repercussions.”
I shake my head and throw my arms out in defeat. “So you keep saying. But that’s just the problem; I am naturally inquisitive. I understand that we can’t always do as we want, but I need to know the reason why to be happy about it. But you won’t tell me what the risks are, will you?”
“Repeat the Oath,” Granddad says, his lack of acknowledgement for my question giving me all the answer that I need.
“My name is Thomas Rent, first born of the seventy-fourth generation of Carriers on board Voyager Designation Fifty-Seven. As a Carrier, it is my sworn duty to provide the necessary emotional support needed to ensure the safety of my fellow travellers. To listen and advise as necessary and within the rules of our society. To assist with peacekeeping by interjecting in and attempting to prevent the escalation of conflict. To apply the legal recognition required to mark birth, marriage and death. And, at the end of a person’s journey, to ensure that the Pale Ones are provided assistance in the disposal of the deceased’s body in a timely fashion. These are my burdens to Carry, and I shall do so to the best of my ability. This, I do swear.”
Granddad nods and pats the old book that rests on his lap. “Today, we shall review the rules around new found material. Can you guess why?”
From my vantage point behind the pedestal at the back of carriage six, I can see that the flock has decreased again. I know for a fact that at least three of those missing are dead, because I helped dispose of the bodies yesterday. How many is that now? I can’t honestly remember any more.
You remember your first removals though, I tell myself. Had I not already been an adult, Granddad would have spared me the burden of moving my parents. Or tried to, anyway. Instead, he simply watched as I used the single metal stick in carriage twelve to submerge them in the absorption pool. And he pulled you away before you could start asking questions.
I clear my head with a shake. No matter what he’s not telling me, there’s a truth to when Granddad says that there are risks to trying to learn the secrets of our home and transport. I’m certain of that, or he wouldn’t push so fervently against my searching for ways to see the outside. Some of those that are here may be seeking the same things as me, and some that are missing may be doing to same, even now. Not knowing what this place truly is, or even what the Pales Ones are means that a mass search for holes could prove disastrous. I have to ensure that the majority keep in line, at least until I know more myself.
“Welcome, brothers and sisters,” I say, forcing a well-practised smile to my lips. “As always, we begin today’s service with a memoriam to those that we did not know, but who fought to guarantee us this life. Who would like to begin? Sarah Ronden?”
A middle-aged lady with prematurely greying hair stands up with a grateful bow and says, “In the times long gone, humans lived outside Voyagers. There were many of us, too many perhaps, and many animals too, just like in the movies. But one day, a disaster befell the planet.”
“Good,” I nod. “Who’s next? Scott Beale, perhaps?”
“Thank you, Carrier Thomas,” Scott replies, rising to his feet and readjusting his bright red cap. “The news reports that remain are from the beginning of the disaster, when we didn’t know what was happening. I know it’s not part of the official lines, Carrier, but the fact that no other reports were saved could mean that whatever happened happened quickly and we didn’t have time to truly prepare, I still believe that.”
The crowd lets out an aggravated mumble of dissent at Scott’s theory, but he continues undeterred, moving back into the regular part of the tale. “The survivors gathered themselves into large, armoured trains called Voyagers. Each was equipped with the tools required to survive; food growing facilities, shelter, and so on.”
“Thank you, Scott. Now, one of our younger brethren, I think …” I scan the room and nod to a small ginger haired girl clutching a stuffed toy in the shape of a cat. Since Seamus’ passing, her toy is actually the last cat on board that isn’t confined purely to the historical documents and videos. “Lee, would you like to continue?”
Lee rises to her feet, her thumb nervously rubbing the cats already worn-down ear. “The, uhm, the trains were a gift from the Gov’ments. We think they were for something else, but they had to be used when the bad stuff happened. They keep going, so they might be aw … auto …”
“Automated,” I prompt.
“Mmm-hmm,” she continues. “Autumn-hated. We don’t know when they’ll stop or if there are others still running, but Voyager Des … uhm, Fifty-Seven is our home.”
“Very good. Thank you, Lee. Yes, these twelve carriages are our home. The space is adequate, providing we follow the rules, and the food is plentiful if we all help out in carriage nine when we’re asked. The power never fails, and no matter what befell the outside world, we at least survived. For that, I think that we can all be thankful.”
I power up the video screen behind me and slide the pedestal out of the way so that everyone can see. “Now, today’s movie is an interesting little one that we recently found stored in one of the older file folders. During his reviews, Carrier Robert discovered that there are a few titles that were incorrectly mislabelled as historical documentation. And you know what that means, don’t you? No repeats, for a little while at least. So, I give you, The Life of Pi.”
I sit back with my fellow travellers and watch the screen. The entertainment videos that we still have are truly marvels. The glimpses of a past that we never knew, and the stories far more exciting than our own confined living draw people in far better than a single Carrier with a speech as old as our collective journey can. Today though, something else sticks with me: how much the tiger sounds like the intermittent horn blasts of our home.
“The numbers are still falling,” I say, slumping into my seat opposite Granddad.
He nods sagely and replies, “It happens. There is a lot of sickness about.”
“It’s not just that though.”
I shake my head. “More and more, people are turning away from the actual meetings, but still coming to me for advice. They tell me about their worries and their desire to see the outside. They’re restless. Like me.”
“Restless …” Granddad repeats, a tear coming to his eyes. “Your mom was the same, at the end.”
I chuckle. “I think that your memory’s going. Mom was as loyal to the rules as any Carrier. Dad too.”
“They did what they had to to keep order. Tell me, Thomas, what are carriages one and two, and how do they fit with out role?”
I frown. “One and two are the final two carriages at the rear of the train. Two is our living quarters and private meeting space, and one is the central hub for the main computer system. The role of Carrier has been passed down through our family line since the beginning of the journey, and the responsibility to maintain these two carriages comes with it. No traveller has ever questioned it, and no one ever asks to take on the role themselves.”
Because it is a thankless task, I add silently. Perhaps that will change if I ever find love.
“You mentioned the central computer system. Explain to me why it is important that things are set out as they are.”
“It’s not lesson time, Granddad. Why are you asking all of this?”
“Please Thomas. Indulge me.”
“Fine,” I sigh. “The public access computer in carriage six contains only what is needed to assist with public matters. The only other computer, the one in carriage one, contains all the historical files that we have. We don’t know for sure, but we think that it may be partly responsible for keeping Voyage Designation Fifty-Seven running. If the public were to access it, they get too curious about the outside, and the resulting friction among travellers would potentially lead to disaster either at our own hands, or we suspect at the hands of the Pale Ones. On top of that, if the computer really does link up with the running of this place, public access would open us up to a higher risk of someone breaking something.”
“So, despite your own curiosity, you agree that the public should not be given full access to the files?”
“No. Not unless we knew for certain what allowing such a thing to happen would mean. If there was a way to ensure everyone’s safety and, I don’t know, give them the world they see in the movies, then maybe.”
Granddad fixes me with a probing glare and asks, “Have you been practising your silent meditation?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I reply, waving my hand dismissively.
“I had hoped to have a little longer to rest first,” he sighs, coming to his feet and placing a wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “But waiting was the mistake that I made with your parents. Come, Thomas.”
Granddad starts to shuffle his way across the carriage towards the shadowed door at the back. “Strang place to meditate,” I grumble, but stand up and follow anyway.
Granddad leads me towards the central computer in carriage one, ignoring the written texts stacked against the walls. I wasn’t allowed to use this particular computer unsupervised for a long time. It’s like I said, we couldn’t risk shutting the train down and ending life as we know it. So, my first runs at scouring the hard drives built into the machine were guided journeys. That wasn’t so bad given the sheer number of files stored on the machine though. Back then, I would have gotten lost searching for the most mundane things, and not just because of my desire to learn about our world. Now, I can find the answers to most reasonable questions from my fellow travellers without getting too side-tracked.
Granddad sits himself down in front of the screen and switches the base unit and monitor on. I place my hand on his shoulder to get his attention, and he snaps his head around, a finger pressed to his lips to silence me. Confused, I watch as he turns back to the monitor, reaches behind it, and quietly slides a panel aside. When he pulls his hand back, he’s holding something that makes me frown: a USB Flash Drive that I never knew existed. We have three that we use to transport files to carriage six, but they’re all blue. This one is black.
Granddad reiterates silence with his finger and pushes the stick into one of the free slots, immediately causing a folder to open on the screen. He opens a file titled Typing_Suite.exe and a blank document pops up. With a quiet sigh, he types the first new document that I have ever seen.
‘I knew that your parents were curious about our world. I knew that I would have to show them this eventually, but I waited because I thought that they weren’t yet ready. I waited too long. I do not wish to make the same mistake with you.
These files are the culmination of what our family has found out. Summaries of files long buried on the main drives, copies of things that we have wiped from the system, theories, descriptions, and the reasons that we do not try to defy the Pale Ones. They all stay on this drive. IT can hear us if we discuss them out loud, and that can be problematic. If you read silently though, this may satiate some of your curiosity. Provided you tell no one, you can add to the files to your heart’s content. Just don’t delete anything.
If you wish to read, I will return to carriage two and deal with any travellers that may stop by. It is best if you are not interrupted, I think.’
I nod silently, and Granddad shuffles away from the room to leave me to my own devices. There’s far too much to go through in one sitting, so I start at the beginning. According to the first Carrier, the train is not what the title once referred to. Glancing across the page, a mass of scientific terms muddy my understanding and leave me unable to follow anything close to a linear narrative. There’s a reference to a Government contract to feed the invaders in return for safety, and a theory that the deal would be reneged upon by both sides to one degree or another, but it is unclear what invaders the file is talking about or what they eat.
Two hours pass and I lean back in my chair and cross my arms behind my head. The whole file is a confusing mess. It no doubt made sense when the memory of the events were fresh in the mind of the author, but now? Perhaps, given time, reading the on and cross-referencing with some of the later files will make it all easier to understand.
I glance at the clock. Technically, it’s time to rest now, but there is one thing that I want to see first. Swallowing hard, I scroll through the files until I come to one written by my parents. It’s a lot shorter than the first one, and it’s worded the way they used to speak, which forces a tear stained smile to my lips.
The morning comes with another death. An elderly man named Dante O’Rourke passed in his sleep. By the time that I get to him, the Pale Ones are already waiting, decked out in their usual black suits. The one positive to this is that the other travellers have already cleared out rather than look at the visitors. I nod respectfully and they proceed to lift the body and start walking us towards carriage twelve.
The Pale Ones stand the height of average humans, but they’re thinner, almost paper thin in fact, and they move in strange, unstable strides. Their name is a reference to the near transparent colour of their skin. We know that they come from and return to carriage twelve, and that they only appear when a body is ready for absorption, but that’s about it. According to what I read last night, there are a few different theories about what the Pale Ones are. My parents believed that the absorption pool is a feeding mechanism for the train, and that the Pale Ones are made from the remaining layers of skin after it breaks down what it needs. They thought that they move and behave as they do because they act as a sort of internal defence system, like our own antibodies.
My Mom added to this, noting that after she and Dad were caught trying to glance out of a small opening in carriage twelve during an absorption, the Pale Ones pulled them back. She wrote that they both felt needle pricks when the creatures touched them, and that they fell ill shortly after.
They died of a mystery illness.
I follow, just like I was trained to, uttering condolences to those that we pass. We enter carriage twelve and I watch the body as it is lowered into the open, green pool of jelly-like liquid, assisting with its submersion with the stick that sits beside the door. And, once the ritual is done, I walk away from the carriage, just as I have done many times before.
The last thing that my parent’s file said was that they wanted to hide things from me until I was ready. Such as the fact that if I were to lift the handle to the carriage slightly as I shut the door, it would ensure that the lock remained depressed, negating the normal need for the Pale Ones to unlock it. Then, they advised, I simply had to wait until I heard a sucking noise.
The noise comes quickly, and just as the file recommended, I re-enter carriage twelve as soon as it subsides. Relief washes over me when I realise that I am alone, with just the gently bobbing green pool for company. Quietly, I creep to the far corner of the room and, shaking with a mix of fear and excitement, press my head to the back wall. There, right in front of me, is a small hole.
I lean closer, and my breath catches.
I can see outside.
It’s just like my parents described.
The land is barren, bar for the mass of tracks that run along the gravel and burnt grass. There’s nothing left for us outside the carriages of Voyager Designation Fifty-Seven. I stay still and stare, hoping for some sign of hope to appear, but the emptiness simply goes on and on.
After what feels like an eternity, we start to pass what I assume is another train. In a way, the carriages look similar to the old videos and pictures; they’re metal, long, and all joined up with air tight seals. Unlike the transport of old though, they are covered in a pulsating spider web of a veiny, flesh-like substance. As we pass the sixth carriage, I have to turn away. My hand comes up to my mouth and I run from the room, stopping only to lock the door before dashing to the toilet facilities in carriage ten.
I try and try, but I can’t get the images out of my mind. The train that we passed had run into another. The front of the other train had the same flesh covering it, though more thoroughly. Its whole bottom section was open, revealing gigantic jagged teeth beneath grotesque, bulbous lips. It was eating the other train, and all the people on board.
Somewhere outside, Voyager Designation Fifty-Seven lets out a mechanical, tiger-like roar.