TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 6: A Connection

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

 

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part VI. A Connection

 

There are plenty of other people who’d be happy to take your place. What an awful thing to say. However, hearing these words in the dining car, I had an epiphany. What Bob had told me was absolutely right. We are disconnected.

People take what the empowered offer them because they fear that if they hold out for something better, then others will take what’s on offer and they’ll be left with nothing at all. But if, to give just one example, everyone unanimously agreed that they wouldn’t sign another one–sided contract ever again, the empowered would have to offer something better.

Now at this point, the worker was obviously having a break down and I felt like slime. My own troubles on the trip paled in comparison to what these maintenance workers endured so that privileged jerks like me could use the tunnels.

“You can’t do this,” the worker said to Mr. Henderson. By then, he sounded tired more than anything else.

Mr. Henderson shrugged. “Don’t see why not. It’s a free country.”

There’s another expression to be wary of. Nobody ever says “it’s a free country” in conjunction with anything good. No one says, “It’s a free country so I’m going to take my kids for a picnic in the park.” Also, since the train was still under the Atlantic, we were technically in international waters so the whole “free country” thing didn’t make much sense anyhow.

“You types are all the same,” the worker replied. “It’s never about what’s good or bad. It’s only ever about what’s good or bad for business.”

As I write this, I keep thinking about Bob. But the thing is, I can’t tell this story without him. He’s inseparable from it. Because my short conversation with him had a bigger impact on me than I realized. People are disconnected. And what that maintenance worker needed in that very moment was a connection.

What happened was this. First, one of the other passengers in the dining car spoke to the worker.

“Hey, buddy,” he said. “Are you done now? Because I’ve got an appointment in New York and I don’t want to be late.”

And then I stood up. The bartender also came to my side.

“Screw your appointment,” I told the other passenger.

Other passengers spoke up too and the man had the good sense to keep quiet. However, I’ll always remember the look of gratitude the maintenance worker gave me. I didn’t do much for him, I think. At least, it didn’t feel like I did. But the way he looked at me, it was as though I had given him everything that was mine to give. It was the power of connection.

Then the worker turned to the passenger who had acted like a jerk. “Yeah. I’m done.” And he left the train and spoke to his fellow maintenance workers outside.

There was a change in the room. Almost everyone felt it, apart from three people. The first was the passenger who had so badly let down his fellow human being and the second was whichever Alliance Airways goon had been keeping watch on me at the time. They both beat a hasty retreat from the dining car. And the third was of course Mr. Henderson, who didn’t appear to have any sense of the mood at all.

“I’m going to press charges against those men,” he said to the dining car at large. “That little stunt was blatantly illegal.”

We all said bully to Mr. Henderson on that one. While the law occasionally coincides with ethics, there isn’t always a clear correlation between the them. And in the case of dispute, I’ll side with ethics any day of the week.

“You’re not going to do a thing to those men,” I told Mr. Henderson. “Because if you do, I’ll go to the press and tell them just how you treat them.” There was a chorus of assents. “Maybe your reputation can take it,” I continued. “But I think you could live without the publicity, don’t you?”

Mr. Henderson shrugged. “Fine. Go and have your little group therapy session or whatever the hell it is you’ve got going on down there. But none of you are allowed to travel with Trans–Atlantic again.”

I shrugged. “We’ll live.”

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 5: What Happened in the Dining Car

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part V. What Happened in the Dining Car

By the time I was on my way with Brett to the compartment of one Terry–with–a–T Ferguson, I had almost forgotten about the three clowns who’d been threatening to break my legs. But once my brain kicked back into gear, the faces of the three characters who had accosted me came back to me as clear as day.

They must have known a ticket had been issued for Terry Ferguson but it was obvious they didn’t know what their man actually looked like. Handy for him.

So I, Jerry Ferguson with a J, met Terry Ferguson with a T. He worked for Meridian Horizons, which sounded like the perfect name for a retirement village but it was of course another company banking everything on the resurgence of commercial air travel. Anyway, I won’t bore you with the details of our conversation but he checked his ticket and, sure enough, he had mine.

With little smiles, we exchanged our tickets and Brett didn’t try to fine Terry, arrest him or say a single bureaucratic thing about it. Amazing really.

However, the exchange of tickets didn’t solve my problem with the Alliance Airways goons. I could hardly drag Terry over to them and say, “Here’s the guy you’re really looking for!” But there was an easy way to avoid any more problems. All I had to do was just stay in the dining car until we got to New York and I’d have nothing to worry about.

It worked too. The goons poked their heads in a few times to see if I was showing any sign of leaving but after three or four hours of this, they took to watching me in shifts. One goon would sit somewhere in the dining car for an hour, scowling at the back of my head. Then an hour later, another goon would relieve him. But I didn’t worry about them anymore. I just sipped drinks and snacked on munchies. Actually, I quite enjoyed myself.

And so I was on the dining car when it happened.

First, there was a very noticeable shift in what had been until that point, a background hum. And there was a screeching noise of applied brakes and the train came to a stop.

Then an announcement came over the speakers. “Attention passengers. This is your driver. There is an unexpected delay as the track has been blocked off. I will contact the maintenance board to sort out the problem. Thank you for your patience.”

Then there was another announcement in a different voice. A very short announcement.

“Don’t bother.”

In the silence that fell over the dining car, the voice carried on. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no maintenance work taking place here. This is not a safety barrier my colleagues and I have put up. We are stopping this train. And we will move this block when I have spoken with the CEO of Trans–Atlantic, Mark Henderson. I am coming aboard the dining car between carriages thirteen and fourteen now. If the driver of this train is listening to this, open the doors and get me the CEO on the main screen.”

There was a click and everyone in the dining car exchanged glances.

“That’s us, isn’t it?” I asked the bartender.

The bartender nodded. “Yeah.”

“You don’t look very surprised,” I observed.

“I’m only surprised this hasn’t happened sooner,” he replied.

I then watched the doors at either end of the room. It wasn’t long before one opened and a thin man in greasy overalls and a hard hat stepped inside. He was also carrying a portable radio. He walked past the patrons, speaking into it. “I don’t see the CEO yet, driver.”

“He’s coming up,” a harangued voice replied over the loudspeaker. “Hang on.”

The sports game on the TV screen dissolved and a middle–aged man in an expensive suit appeared.

The tunnel worker took off his hard hat and looked at the man on the screen with an expression of weariness and sadness.

The man on the screen for his part glared. “What the hell is this?” he demanded. “My time is immensely valuable, I’ll have you know. And I do not have time for childish games with people who –”

“Mark Henderson,” the tunnel worker cut him off. “Without people like myself, you don’t have a company. No tunnels. No–one to maintain those tunnels. No one to build your precious trains. No–one to maintain them. No–one to drive them. No–one to clean them. So shut up about how damn important you think your time is.”

“What do you want?” Mr. Henderson snarled.

“Right now in our contracts,” the worker said, “the maximum length of time we can be posted in the tunnels is three months. That’s three months away from family and loved ones. Three months in a closed cramp environment. Three months without seeing daylight. Three months worrying that at any moment, a crack could open in one of these tunnels that could bring the whole damn ocean crashing down on us. And we always get posted out here for three month stints. All I’m asking is for the clause to be changed. A maximum of one month instead of three.

“Now, we have exhausted every channel of communication trying to get this request through. The managers above us turn it down. The managers above them reprimand us for trying to bring the matter over their subordinates’ heads. Your secretaries laugh at us over the phone. They don’t know what it’s like to miss the birth of a child. To not be there for the annual family holiday. They don’t know, Mr. Henderson. They don’t care. So now I’m asking you to show a shred of decency and make the lives of the many workers who keep your tunnels safe just a little more bearable.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence.

Mr. Henderson looked at this worker, a man on the verge of a breakdown. A man in need of any form of compassion. Just a token of sympathy. However, Mr. Henderson could only inflict more pain, a cruelty that was worse for the fact that it was so casual.

“I’m afraid it’s just not economically viable,” he said.

The worker was crestfallen. “What do you mean, not viable? You and your friends take home billions of dollars in benefits and you can’t even make a few more trains run so we can change shifts a little more often? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Well,” Mr. Henderson replied, “if you don’t want to work in the tunnels, there are plenty of people who’d be happy to take your place.”

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TRANS-ATLANTIC, Part 4: A Vexing Problem

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part IV. A Vexing Problem

So I had just run into the Alliance Airways goons, I’d met Bob, I’d run into the goons again and now I was, in effect, in the custody of a Trans–Atlantic rail guard.

I followed the guard into a room at the front of the carriage with a fold–out bench, a computer and a coffee machine. I eyed the coffee machine longingly, as right then I could have really gone with one. However, I thought it’d be better to hang onto my remaining loose change in case I got another fine.

“All right,” the guard said. “I’m going to call Amsterdam. But you are not allowed to leave this room until I say so.”

“Fine,” I replied. “By the way, who are you anyway? Just in case I want to file a complaint.”

“I’m Brett,” the guard replied in a hurt tone.

“Great. Now stop being a jerk, Brett, and sort this mess out.”

“You can’t talk to me like that,” Brett said. “It’s against regulations.” He pulled out a familiar booklet of paper and reached for a pen.

I yanked the booklet from his hand before he got any further. “And stop writing out fines.” Then I ripped the booklet in half and threw what was left on the bench beside him. “What are you, some kind of robot?”

“This is bullying!” Brett protested again. “You’re not allowed to talk to me like that.”

“No, this is intervention,” I told him. “You need help. However, right now, I need more help. Now, call Amsterdam and sort out this nonsense with the tickets or else I’ll think of something nasty to tell your supervisor.”

I then waited, resigned to the boredom, as Brett explained the problem to a stuffy sounding lady he reached in Amsterdam.

“I have a passenger here with the wrong ticket,” Brett said.

“Well…” the lady replied. “Regulation 593–7 is perfectly clear on the requirements in such a case.”

Brett sighed. “Yes, I’m aware of regulation 593–7 but apparently, he has paid for a ticket in his name.”

“Then why doesn’t he have it?”

“It was issued to a passenger with a similar name by mistake and that passenger’s ticket was issued to him,” Brett said.

“Well…” The lady liked this word far too much. “They’re clearly both in violation of regulations 593–7 and 129 through to 146. Why didn’t they report the discrepancy?”

Brett looked at a loss so I helped him out. “We didn’t notice the discrepancy,” I told him.

“They didn’t notice it,” he repeated for the benefit of the lady in Amsterdam.

“Well…” Now the lady sounded quite flustered. “I don’t know what to tell you. We have two passengers with the wrong tickets…”

I then decided to interrupt, sitting myself beside Brett. “Look, Ma’am. Both myself and the other passenger are on the same train. I’m Jerry Ferguson with a ‘J’ and the other passenger is Terry Ferguson with a ‘T’. I was given Terry’s ticket by mistake and he was given mine.”

“Who is this?” the woman demanded.

I thought I had already covered that. “Um, Jerry Ferguson? Jerry with a J?”

“Well, Mr. Ferguson, this system is for the sole use of Trans–Atlantic employees. And if you do not hang up this instant, then I am going to have to lodge a formal complaint with both the central security branch and the communications division.”

“What if I put the guard back on?” I suggested.

“Um, this is Brett,” the guard said, taking over. “I apologize for the interruption. I have asked Mr. Ferguson if he would kindly refrain from using the communication equipment and he has agreed to restrain himself.”

“Well, make sure he does,” the woman said.

I tell you, that innocent word has never been more abused.

“I take it he is one of the passengers?” she asked.

“He is,” Brett said.

“Are they both supposed to be on that train?”

“I assume so. I was rather hoping you could double–check.”

“One moment,” the woman replied. There was a short pause. “According to my records, Jerry Ferguson boarded the train and was issued a ticket in his name. Terry Ferguson also boarded the train and was issued a ticket in his name. I’m sorry but I don’t see what the problem is.”

“It seems,” Brett told her, “that while according to the computer system each man was issued with the correct ticket, that’s not the case. Jerry has Terry’s ticket and Terry has Jerry’s.”

“Well, this is a serious problem,” the woman said. “We’ll have to notify records and inform them of the error. Then I’ll have to contact our telecommunication staff and have them phone New York. Perhaps the station staff there can issue replacement tickets and we can put a flag in the system. That way, when your train reaches New York, we can have staff on the platform ready with the tickets when these passengers disembark. Now, you’ll have to inform the drivers and make sure that when the passengers disembark that it’s all controlled and orderly. The two Ferguson passengers need to exit the train well before any other passengers do so. If they do not –”

“Can I make a suggestion, Brett?” I murmured.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ferguson,” the guard replied. “But I’m trying to listen to the lady.”

“I’m trying not to,” I told him. “Listen, you don’t have to do any of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Terry Ferguson and I can just swap our tickets.”

There was a long pause but at the end of it, Brett found a fragment of an epiphany.

“I suppose that would work.”

Meanwhile, the woman was still outlining her intricate procedure. “… full cooperation of passport control. Now, according to the regulations pertaining to the –”

“Um, can I interrupt for just a moment?” Brett asked with some trepidation, as if he expected the woman to break his neck for his sheer impudence.

“Yes?” she snapped. “Yes?”

“Um… couldn’t the two passengers just swap their tickets?”

There was another long pause, during which I died a little inside.

However, at last, the woman gave in. “I suppose that would work.”

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 3: Passenger Etiquette

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part III. Passenger Etiquette

 

I found myself in an empty compartment with a hand around my collar.

“Let go!” I shouted, trying to tear myself loose. “I’ll call the guard!”

“Where are the designs?” one of the goons demanded.

I shoved him away. “Why can’t you get it into your thick heads that I’m not the guy you’re looking for?”

At this juncture, the door to the compartment slid open and a guard stepped in.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” I told him.

However, the guard didn’t reciprocate my feelings. “Are you the one making all that noise?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “You see…”

It was as if a switch had been flicked.

“All passengers are requested to refrain from unduly boisterous behavior,” the guard said, the words coming out like a recording, “or any other activities that may disturb fellow passengers.”

Then, coming back from whatever planet he’d gone to, he shook himself back into the there–and–then. “And you, sir, are creating a disturbance.”

“Yes,” I said. “I get that. But –”

I stopped and shook my head. The goons had taken this opportunity to pull a runner and I was alone with an insane employee of the Trans–Atlantic. And he was holding out a piece of paper.

“Consider this a warning,” said the man with the mind that could not be fathomed.

I took the paper and inspected it.

“You can pay it now or at the end of your journey,” he told me.

“That’s very generous,” I replied, eyeing the amount. “But I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. Those men were threatening me.”

“What men?” the guard asked.

I gave up. I reached into my pocket and pulled out some credits. “Here. I’ll pay you now.”

The guard took the money. “Now, I need to see your ID and ticket.”

Rolling my eyes, I produced the documents. “Here. Maybe you can tell me if it says Jerry or Terry on those things.”

The guard inspected them. “Both.”

I scowled. “What do you mean, both?”

“Here,” the guard said, showing me. “It says Jerry Ferguson on your ID and Terry Ferguson on your ticket.”

“Well, it’s probably just a mistake.”

“If this isn’t your ticket, then you shouldn’t be on this train at all,” the guard said.

“What?” I asked. “Listen, I paid good money for that ticket. There’s clearly been a mix up. In fact, I think there’s someone else on this train with a very similar name to mine and they’ve probably got my ticket. Look, can’t you call Amsterdam or something?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me,” the guard said.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll come with you. But can you get someone to call the station in Amsterdam and sort this nonsense out?”

“We have a manifest of everyone who’s supposed to be on the train,” the guard told me.

“Well, good!” I said. “Why don’t you go and check it?”

At this, the guard shook his head and pulled out another piece of paper.

My mouth dropped open. “Oh, come on.”

But it was too late. The guard had already gone to whatever dimension he went to when the voices took over.

“All passengers are requested to refrain from…”

***

At this point in the narrative, I’d had my last run in with the goons from Alliance Airways so it feels like an appropriate juncture to throw in some of the dirt I’ve since dug up on them.

The one capable of speech, if not sentient thought, was a guy called Ralph Carter, while his buddies were Mike Anderson and Jack Burns. Ralph Carter was a goon from way back when – probably kindergarten – and he used to work for a fellow named Thomas Hayes. Hayes was a dirty lawyer in the pocket of a tobacco giant. He argued that damage to the profit margins of his client was a sufficient cause to block measures for fighting tobacco epidemics in Asia. Kind of like how outlawing arson ticked off all the pyromaniacs out there.

The judge in that case, John Evans, had several million dollars worth of shares in Hayes’ client’s company. And he was a former employer of Mike Anderson, goon number two.

Now some would argue that having someone like that presiding over that case would represent a conflict of interest. Evans, that is, not Anderson. Having Anderson presiding over a court case would just be stupid. However, Evans got away with it because he was backed by Warren Crawford, who was president at the time. And Crawford backed Evans because Evans had thrown out a case involving Crawford’s now well–known vote tampering. And Crawford once employed Jack Burns, goon number three.

Then tragedy struck our three goons. Evans was jailed for manslaughter after drink driving with a trunk full of narcotics. Crawford was impeached for tax fraud and embezzlement – rigging the election would catch up with him later – and Hayes, in an act of bravado, legged it for the nearest tax shelter.

So Ralph Carter, Mike Anderson and Jack Burns found themselves out on the street with no transferable skills aside from their unpleasantness. And it was then that they caught the attention of the up and coming Alliance Airways, a company built entirely on a speculative industry.

Now you have to remember what traveling was like just after the oil–era ended. People could travel between continents on ships, sure. Sailing ships. Solar powered ships. Bio–fuel powered ships. And they got you where you wanted to go. And, of course, the tunnels were being dug out then too.

But what everyone really wanted was commercial air travel. Sure, they could get planes in the air easily enough but it was expensive or the things wouldn’t go far enough.

Emerging airlines banked everything on this. If they could get commercial air travel off the ground again, they’d have it made. They headhunted every expert on bio–fuel, wind powered propulsion, solar panels, you name it, and they stole each other’s ideas as well.

But for all these speculators, their financiers and their investors, there was only the dream. And that was whichever company first made commercial air travel a viable business again would have the world at their feet. Or several thousand feet under them. And there were people who would have done anything to be the first to succeed at this. I doubt Alliance Airways was alone in its dodgy practices.

However, interestingly enough, I later discovered that the CEO of Alliance Airways was a fellow called Lloyd Jenkins and his sister was Warren Crawford’s wife. And he was also a good friend of Thomas Hayes and John Evans. Small world.

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 2: Bob

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues this week. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

 

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part II. Bob

A few hours after setting off from Amsterdam, I went to the nearest dining car and had a steak sandwich for lunch. A luxury, I’ll admit. With land rates at a premium, the few remaining cattle farming conglomerates charge a hefty fee for meat. Then, as I was going back to my compartment, I was approached by three men who looked like trouble.

“Can I help you?” I asked them.

“Terry Ferguson?” one of the men asked, answering my question with one of his own.

“Um… it’s Jerry Ferguson,” I said. “But yes?”

“Terry Ferguson,” the man began.

“Jerry,” I corrected him.

“You don’t know us,” the man plowed on, knocking over all the barriers in his way. “But you know who we work for.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “And my name’s Jerry.”

“Now, company loyalty is all well and good,” the man said, “but is it worth getting your legs broken?”

I thought of the job I’d just quit in Amsterdam. “Not really. No.”

The man smiled. “So we understand one another.”

“I think we’re talking at cross purposes.”

“Excellent,” the man said.

“You realize I have no idea what you’re talking about, right?”

The man gave me a conspiratorial wink. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ll do this, as they say, off the record.”

“Do what?”

The man’s grin remained fixed. “Exactly.”

He thought we were being conspiratorial. I thought he was being an idiot.

“So,” I said, trying a new tact, “you want the…”

“The designs for the new bio–fuel engine prototype your company is working on.”

I nodded. “Of course. Well, if you and your mute pals here want to wait a minute, I’ll go and get them.”

The man stepped forward. “Oh, we’ll come with you.”

I smiled and tapped my nose. “Ah, but we don’t want anyone to know about this, do we? After all, this is going to be strictly… ‘off the record’?”

“It’ll still be off the record,” the man said. “We’re just old friends going to join you in your compartment for a drink.”

“Right,” I said. “I get it.” I turned to lead them back to my compartment, then whirled around, shoved the nearest one out of the way, and ran for it.

When I was out of sight, I ducked into a little doorway to an unfamiliar part of the carriage where I found myself in a somewhat cramped but, at the same time, rather cozy room where a single occupant was eating his evening meal.

A glance at this grey man with somewhat flattened features and, if you’ll excuse the description, ‘otherworldly eyes’ was all I needed to tell he wasn’t human. Sitting down a respectful distance to the alien’s right, I decided to break the ice.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

The alien sighed. “If I got a job with Trans–Atlantic, you could probably assume that. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Sorry, it’s just that you’re…”

“Not human? Well spotted.”

“I did say I’m sorry.” I then tried starting over. “I’m Jerry,” I told him, glancing at his name tag. “Um… Bob?”

“My actual name’s Xanafaeir,” he said. “But most people find Bob easier to remember.”

I nodded and looked around. “And what’s this place supposed to be?”

“Off limits to passengers,” Bob said. “It’s a staff lunch room.”

“Well, I’m sorry about barging in then,” I said. “I just had to find somewhere to hide. Some guys out there want to break my legs.”

Bob smiled. “And some guys who come in here might want to give you a fine. Still, why do these people want to break your legs?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some rubbish about bio–fuel engines. They think I’m someone else.”

Bob shook his head. “I don’t understand human beings and their love of violence. Why do you want to maim? Why do you kill?”

“Well, I don’t make a habit of it,” I said, feeling a little taken aback.

“You don’t kill?”

“Of course not.”

“Didn’t I see you eating a steak sandwich in the dining car a few minutes ago?”

“Ah. I see what you mean,” I said. “But having a steak sandwich isn’t the same thing as killing a cow.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“All right. I see your point.”

Bob sighed. “That’s the problem with human beings. You’re all so… disconnected from everything. And you’re disconnected from your responsibilities. To yourselves, each other, future generations, and everything and everyone around you. It’s the reason for all your problems.”

“Because we’re disconnected?”

“Yes. You’re oblivious to how you affect the world around you. You chow down on steak sandwiches without a second thought for the cows. You melt your world’s ice caps and cause mass extinctions. You tear up the countryside and turn it into mines and roads. Do you want me to go on?”

“I wish you wouldn’t. But most people aren’t like that. Well, okay. I’ll give you the point about the steak sandwiches, but the other stuff… It’s the politicians. The CEOS. The industry lobbyists. They’re the ones tearing up the planet.”

“You’re the majority though,” Bob pointed out. “Why do you put up with it?”

“Look, I don’t know. I’m tired.”

“It’s because you’re all disconnected,” Bob said. “No one wants to speak out against the tiny little group that’s got you all under its sway because you think if you speak up, you’ll be alone. And you know why?”

I sighed. “Because we’re disconnected.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

I sighed. “Yeah. You want me to change the world and I don’t even know if I’m going to make it to New York with both my legs.”

Bob shrugged. “I was just making chit chat.”

“You’ve got a funny idea of chit chat. Anyway, it was nice meeting you but I think I might just go and stay somewhere nice and public instead.”

“Suit yourself,” Bob told me, “but you’ll miss out on all the fun when the chef drops by.”

“I’ll live.”

“All things being equal, of course.”

“Yes, thank you for that.”

“By the way,” Bob said, “it’s not really my concern because I really don’t care one way or the other what humans do amongst themselves… But if these guys are really trying to break your legs, why don’t you just tell a guard?”

“I will when I find one,” I replied. And then I stopped. “Hang on a second. If you don’t care one way or the other what we do amongst ourselves, isn’t that a bit… I don’t know… species–ist?”

“I guess it is,” Bob replied. “Tell that to a cow.”

***

I didn’t realize this at the time of course but it was something of a privilege running into this man before he was well–known. Since I met him, Bob has become well–known for his numerous designs for interstellar space faring vessels, every one of them patented to prevent members of the human race from possibly developing them at a later date.

When I first met him however, he wasn’t even on the public radar, although his people had made something of a media splash when he and several thousand of his kind stopped on Earth to repair their interstellar cruiser.

Unfortunately though, they couldn’t find any trydium here, whatever that is, and that’s why they decided to fill in their immigration forms and stay. Oddly though, the only people who paid any genuine attention were immigration officials and employers. And wtih Bob’s qualifications as an engineer who designed space vessels capable of traveling billions of light years in a matter of days, he found employment with very little difficulty, landing a cleaning job on that train.

***

Anyway, to get back to the story, I left Bob to his lunch and went to find a guard. And I actually made it five paces before I got mugged again.

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part I: Amsterdam

This week we begin our serialization of “Trans-Atlantic” written by the author of the Star Frontiers series, Hamish Spiers. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

 

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part I: Amsterdam

I didn’t always live here in New York. When the oil dried up and the old airlines went belly up along with the petroleum industry, my grandparents on my father’s side were in the Netherlands and neither of them could afford a ticket on the next cruise ship home. So, because that’s where my father was raised and where he met my mother, that’s where I grew up too.

I was always intrigued by America since large tracts of it had been unaffected by the big freeze when melting Arctic ice choked up the Gulf Stream and another ice age hit Europe. Now, I wasn’t living in one of Amsterdam’s underground neighborhoods thankfully. I lived in one of the city’s climate controlled domes so I could see the sky and be warm at the same time. But the idea of not even having a dome overhead had its attractions.

Then eventually the oceanic tunnels had come into play and intercontinental travel was no longer a privilege exclusive to those rich enough to ride on the cruise ships. Regular people got interested in traveling again and I began to think about seeing America for myself. And then one bad day at the office decided the matter.

A new manager had joined the company, one of those guys who thought the whole point of management was to make changes and leave a mark. And nothing makes a more lasting impression than the widespread anarchy that follows a heap of useless and poorly thought–out departmental policies.

It was time to get out. And the next day I entered Amsterdam’s Trans–Atlantic station.

It was huge and going down all the escalators was a trip in itself. Growing up a European, I was no stranger to being underground. I knew a few friends who lived down below because they couldn’t get a place in a dome. But I had never been so far underground before. Still, the escalators did come to an end and I soon found the check–in desk.

After getting my ticket, I went down more escalators and through even more checkpoints before stepping into a cavern so large that its ceiling was lost in the dappled light of thousands of gigantic bulbs far above me. I was on the platform and stretching out before me was the train, the biggest I had ever seen.

The carriages were all bi–level, like the Dutch DD–ARs that were still in use back in the city, except twice as high and four times as wide. They all had restrooms, shower facilities and sleeper compartments and there were multiple dining cars. And apparently, somewhere amongst the massive line of cars and carriages that would be undergoing this six thousand kilometer trip were two cinema cars and three casino cars. I was impressed.

I then looked at the various fluorescent numbers shining out in the distance to guide passengers to the right carriages. I was in car thirteen.

I jumped on a travelator which took me most of the way to the edge of the platform and then it was a short walk to the doorway. An attendant checked my ticket and then I stepped into the carriage and looked for my compartment. I found it on the second level, a generous three by two meter room with a comfy couch that folded out into a bed.

There was also a drawer underneath it where I put my carry–on. And across the room, there was a power switch, along with a wash basin and a screen that doubled as a TV and a computer monitor. Underneath it was a small fold–out table with a pull–out tablet PC. All in all, it looked very comfortable.

I then looked out the window at the cavern outside. Then I wondered why there was a window. After a while, I got out a book. Then, a little a while after that, there was an announcement that we would be departing in forty minutes and that the journey would take approximately thirty hours, depending on power flow.

I pondered that for a moment. Then I flung aside my book and pulled out the passenger information manual in the magazine holder under the window. From a quick perusal of the leaflet, I learned that the tunnel trains traveled at an average speed of two hundred kilometers per hour. And while this was not as fast as some of the bullet trains on land were capable of reaching, it was still very fast. Especially for trains so large and heavy.

However, occasionally, there were power problems. These were an obvious risk with supply cables that stretched thousands of kilometers through tunnels under the ocean floor. And the solar powered generators they were hooked up to were based on land; there were no back–up generators in the middle of the ocean. However, the leaflet assured passengers that there were local back–up generators on board the trains. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about things like being trapped for weeks or the tunnel being flooded.

However, once the train pulled away, most of my misgivings subsided. And my initial impressions were quite good. Better than my initial feelings on my first plane trip two years later, when commercial flight got off the ground again. There was no business class and economy class division on the train, and all the passengers paid the same amount. It wasn’t cheap but it didn’t break the vault. And nobody got squashed up like sardines in a tin. You see, the train didn’t need to get off the ground – quite the contrary – so all that stuff about weight and space wasn’t an issue.

And it wasn’t pitch black outside as I’d expected. It was bright. For a while, I wondered why the tunnel was lit, just as I had wondered why a train traveling under the ocean floor had windows. The train was on a track, after all, so it wasn’t as though the driver could get lost. But I supposed if there were any obstructions, like fallen slabs of concrete or the rushing water of the Atlantic Ocean, it’d be a good idea if the driver could see them.

Then I noticed that there were maintenance roads running alongside the track as well. And then after a little while longer, I saw a maintenance station. A large self–sustaining underground bunker where a group of workers were sitting around drinking coffee. An hour later, I saw another one.

Posted in Interviews & Guests, Short Fiction | Tagged , | Comments closed

This summer and the next BPO

This summer we’ve got a special treat lined up for you: Drugstore Books will be hosting a weekly serialization called “Trans-Atlantic” by the author of the Star Frontiers series (and much more) Hamish Spiers. We’ll be running a new installment every week so be sure to drop by regularly.

Also, don’t forget that the deadline for our next By Prescription Only: Themed Writing showcase is fast approaching. See below for the details and send us your stuff here: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Regret
  • Length: 1,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2015 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“regret”) with embedded single quotes (‘regret’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 07 July

Remember that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it.

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Browsing through boxes

One of my favorite ways to find new authors is by accident. It might even be my favorite way, come to think of it. I recently came across a real gem in this manner, and it got me thinking about browsing, both in the standard (for those over a certain age) way of picking things up and looking at them, and in the newer way (well, again, new only to those over a certain age) of digital browsing.

The book in question is Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation by Paolo Virno, which is a collection of three essays by the Italian philosopher translated into English and dealing with, especially the central main essay, linguistic praxis (primarily how language forms thought and thought norms, actions, etc.). Of particular interest was his look at applying Carl Schmitt’s ideas on decision to Wittgenstein’s writings on language games. I picked it up because I thought it would help with my own writing, and while it hasn’t done that it has got me thinking a lot and I’ve learned a lot about Wittgenstein in the process too. I suppose that I could have just cracked open my copy of Philosophical Investigations but that would only have been half the story that Virno provides. (My copy of PI, by the way, is the bilingual English-German one which I bought because I stupidly thought I’d start studying German. My reasoning, I guess, was that it would be useful and fun and after years of getting Japanese under my belt how hard could it be? I have no idea since I never found the time to even start. Alas, the clock and the calendar.)

Here’s how I happened upon it: I was in the foreign language books section of a pretty good bookstore here in Tokyo and found a couple of cardboard boxes on the end of one aisle with a mix of French and English stuff of all sorts of genres inside. This excited me because the only place I know in town with used foreign language books is this place called “Good Day Books” which after two terrible experiences I refuse to ever set foot in again (the woman who runs it is one of the rudest people I’ve ever come across). It was of course great fun digging around through the boxes and although my decision was hurried somewhat by my not-yet two year-old daughter it reminded me of the beauty of making space for serendipity in our lives.

Now I know that the same process can unfold digitally on any one of the many sites that feature large numbers of books (from Amazon to Goodreads to Smashwords to fill in the blank), but that process seems to me to miss out on a lot of the enjoyment of finding a book the way I did Virno’s. You can run across authors and titles you’ve never heard of by clicking around and following links (but there will be no links in this post), but what is mostly missing in that process is the holistically human element even if the randomness is preserved. When you go to a bookstore or a booksite you are setting yourself up to find something, even if you nevertheless come away with nothing. What you’re not getting with a booksite though are the tactile and aesthetic experiences you get from a bookstore. Yes, if you do find something you want to download you can then hold your Kindle or iPad or smartphone when you’re reading the ebook in question but you’re still interacting with a plastic screen-based device that displays words instead of being embodied by words. It’s clearly not the same and emotionally feels differently too as with a book you’ve got a device that is solely devoted to its contents whereas even with a Kindle (which unlike an iPad or smartphone is only for reading) you’ve got a device that is devoted to potentially thousands of titles at once. Where’s the love for that one book that has struck you so profoundly? As for the aesthetic element, think of how a book’s cover can absorb you when you first handle it, turning it over, checking the spine, noting the details, color balance and distribution, image placement and alignment with title and other textual elements. Some covers are works of art in their own right (and I’m most definitely not thinking of the movie poster wannabe covers that are smeared onto the latest mass market pulp). Even if you use the zoom in feature on a booksite how much can you really appreciate a cover when it’s a thumbnail on a page teeming with other images?

I realize that this is a bit like a medieval scribe bemoaning the advent of the printing press, and that the convenience of these devices shouldn’t be downplayed nor the significance of the fact that, despite all of the mind-sucking developments of the internet age, people are still reading, but I can’t shake the thought that experiences like the one I had with Virno’s work are an integral part of what it is to be a lover of books. When the written word just becomes one more excuse for avoiding the material world we inhabit I think we’ve lost something very precious. I hope that in a decade’s time my daughter is still able to find books that interest her on shelves and in cardboard boxes at the end of aisles.

Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 4 Responses

Pictures in the Pages (Part 2)

Last time I blogged about standalone illustrations in children’s and adult literature. This time I’ll explore illustrations that interact directly with the text.

As I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections earlier this year, I’ll take a quick look at a few of his visual tricks first. For those who haven’t read it, The Corrections focuses on an elderly Midwestern couple and their three grownup children who’ve all fled to the East Coast. It moves around in time from the 1950s to just before the turn of the millennium.

Before the reader arrives at the first real textual illustration, Franzen has already played around with typography. For example, embedded within the text there’s an excerpt from Chip’s (the youngest son) failed screenplay that’s formatted in movie script style, indented, double spaced and set off by the script’s page number (Picador version, p.27-28).

Chip is reviewing the screenplay (and why it failed) and the word breast is bolded throughout. It appears very frequently and allows the reader a wry smirk at male writers who drop women into a story merely as sex objects. It also shows us exactly how Chip writes drama (flatulently) and, more importantly, how he thinks (a lusty and unravelling ex-academic).

In a similar vein, Franzen uses a pair of pilcrows (¶) (p. 45) to bullet point Chip’s thoughts. As already stated, Chip is a likeable but rather pretentious ex-assistant professor and this device does a lot to characterise him without words. (After all, who thinks in pilcrows?) The lesson here is that you can play with typography (sparingly) to get a reader deeper into the story. Old Modernist tricks still work well.

The following illustration in The Corrections connects and intersects with four characters out of five. Chip is inspecting a prescription pill (street: “Mexican A”) on a short road trip (p. 55). He believes the drug is embossed with:

 

20150518_204801The pill may be real, but  the “Midland Pacific Lines” logo is purely a figment of his imagination. His father  spent his entire life working for that railroad company and this simple illustration implies so much about the fraught dynamic between father and (estranged) son. For the writer to take the necessary time and words to describe the pill (the logo is a sun, something like a bargain sticker in a dime store with Midland Pacific Lines set in the centre) would flip the reader out of the scene and therefore lose immediacy and impact. Furthermore, Chip’s already wasted so seeing it from his point of view without authorial comment is highly effective.

The drug (minus the Midland Pacific logo) reappears in the story when his mother visits a doctor on a cruise ship to combat her depression, and then once again when a pill ends up being placed inside an advent calendar on December 24th by his sister. Regarding the connection to his father, Midland Pacific Lines is never far from the old man’s thoughts as he is defined by his past work, hence his youngest son seeing his father’s now defunct employer embossed into a pill while stoned and immediately prior to copulating with one of his students. It’s enough to send anyone on a guilt trip.

Moving on, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and the Trystero (a muted post horn) is worth a mention as it jumped from being a reference between the pages to becoming the symbol of the book, not just with the designers of various editions but with fans themselves. The muted horn represents the Trystero/Tristero mail system, an organisation defeated by Thurn-und-Taxis Post (a real mail company, although German not American, this, after all, is Pynchon) before the organisation moved underground and began using waste bins as collection boxes (W.A.S.T.E. being an acronym for: We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).

The protagonist sees the Trystero pop up everywhere on her travels, and this is rendered in illustration within the novel. Back in 2012, Penguin Press designed a hunt using stickers showing the novel’s Trystero and a URL that contained a coded clue. This would’ve been a lot more interesting if it’d been organised by fans rather than a corporate marketing campaign, but it does at least show how a simple illustration can take hold of the public imagination.

I’ve run out of time, but a very honourable mention must go to Kurt Vonnegut who not only used illustrations in many of his novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five spring immediately to mind, but who actually penned the illustrations himself. This being Vonnegut his doodles were always crammed full of wit, and although he was a good sketch artist he prioritised getting his illustrations in character over good penmanship. Take a look.

If that fails to impress you then this might: In 1999, a newly-discovered minor planet was named “25399 Vonnegut“. It might only be an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars, but, some rather major physical discomforts aside, I imagine it to be an excellent place to light up a Pall Mall. I’d like to see a Ralph Steadman sketch of that.

Until next time.

Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , , | 3 Responses

Sales, charts, and egos

As any writer who is not already famous can tell you – and I mean anyone, trad-pub or self-pub makes little difference here – marketing your book is probably the toughest nut to crack. If you’re going trad-pub you have to pre-market it to agents and/or the in-house gatekeepers before standing on street corners and going door to door with a suitcase full of signed copies, but at least the traddies will help you with the suitcase. If you’re going self-pub you can skip that step but then you’re on your own for absolutely everything else, and if you’re as bad-looking as the three of us are then you won’t find the going easy. What to do?

There are some options. To fill the niche that opened up when self-pubbing became the preferred way to go for a huge number of new and established authors companies that offer marketing services have sprouted and grown. Check out Smith Publicity for an example. Getting reviewed, making use of keywords, and thinking about how you present your book are ways you can help yourself; check our archives for posts on those topics and this page too may be useful for some general advice. There’s also the line of thought that marketing is a waste of time as it achieves so little for all the effort put in, explained here with the rebuttal that reviews, at least, are worth going to the trouble to get. (If you only click on one link in this post make it that one; it’s well worth reading.)

Then for those who still have money left to burn after hiring a marketing company there’s the other option of buying up lots of copies of your own book to give yourself a sales boost, make it into the top charts, and let the residual magic of being noticed do the rest. Kurt Vonnegut’s wife famously bought boxes of his books to help him get started, Brian Epstein less famously apparently bought 10,000 copies of “Love Me Do” to help out the young Beatles, and Sarah Palin used her SuperPac (called “SarahPac”) to donate at least $63,000 to HarperCollins to buy copies of her memoir.* Now, I have never read anything by Sarah Palin and given the content of her speeches and her public political persona I probably never will, but I like both Vonnegut and the Beatles. 2/3 ain’t bad, right?

Personally I’ve found that making my ebooks available for free through Smashwords and my personal site has been most helpful, but I know that Mark Porter has had a lot of success with, shall we say, guerrilla marketing techniques done locally via local connections. So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is any one way to go about this in the times we find ourselves living in – and that’s quite fitting, isn’t it?

__________
*The Palin tidbit is from Deborah Friedell’s “Dialling for Dollars”, London Review of Books 37:6 (2015), 31-33. The link is here but you have to be a subscriber to read the article. The book under review in the piece (Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout) seems to make many of the points I did in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies but without all the fancy extras that that book has. (And there’s some more marketing for you!)

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , | 4 Responses
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