Back with the BPO

Our thanks again to Hamish Spiers for a very fun and very thought-provoking series of shorts. The last installment really pulled them all together well and left me with a nice block of linked ideas to consider. Thanks Hamish!

Our latest By Prescription Only: Themed Writing series will start in October, this time with the theme of Regret. You can check out all our previous BPOs here, or by using the category button to the right. Here’s to happy reading, and the end of summer (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway, but the same sentiments go out to you Southies).

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 8: A Year in Utopia

This week is the final installment of “Trans-Atlantic”, and a big thanks to Hamish Spiers for the last eight weeks. You can read more of Hamish’s stuff on his website by clicking on his name (above). We’ll be back some time in late September/early October with our next By Prescription Only, which has the theme of Regret

 

TRANS–ATLANTIC
By Hamish Spiers

Part VIII. A Year in Utopia

 

The article on Marakaz that Bob gave me deserved a wider circulation than it received. But, with the author’s permission, I am able to reproduce an excerpt here:

***

“The governing principles of life in this place seem to be contentment and happiness. They do what needs to be done. They share their labours. And they enjoy their lives.

One day, my host told me we were going to the farm. As it turned it, no one wanted to be a farmer in this part of Marakaz but since food was something everyone needed, people pitched in, taking it in turns. Most people did about five days of farming each year.

Sometimes, my host told me, when a job needed to be done, the community would welcome all hands and many people would volunteer. Other times, people couldn’t participate unless they were specialists. With some jobs that only a certain few people could do, those people occasionally did them in exchange for getting out of other things.

Joyce, the lady who ran the fish and chips place by the beach wasn’t required to do anything else she didn’t like. She loved making fish and chips and since she made the best damn fish and chips in town, everyone was happy to cover other jobs for her so she could go on doing it.

It was the same with Mike the garbage collector. He liked getting up early, he enjoyed driving his truck, and if he could be guaranteed no other duties, he’d be happy to collect the garbage every week of the year. And since no one else wanted to collect the garbage but everyone thought it was essential that it was done, they all agreed it was a fair arrangement.

When I got to the farm, it wasn’t that bad. There was a good sized crowd there. We gathered corn and we talked and laughed. And most of the difficult work was automated. There were some very efficient labour saving devices all over the country; due to the constant rotation of people working the farms, a number of engineers and robotics experts had seen how they were run and had made a few inventions to improve them.

Actually, despite some misguided ideas in the media about the people of Marakaz living like the Amish, they’re quite innovative. Anything that can save time and energy is gladly adopted throughout the country.

Their education programs are worth a mention as well. In school, kids focus on whatever role they’d like to play in society when they’re older. The fact that they won’t get paid for whatever work they ultimately decide to do, whether it’s specialist work or just lending a helping hand in a range of tasks whenever it’s needed, seems to have little effect on their motivation to pitch in and help out. When everyone has a roof over their heads, plenty of food, entertainment and lots of free time to do with as they please, they don’t need to be motivated by money.

When things need to be done, people do it. When enough people want things to be done, they get done. And everyone does things in the most efficient way possible. Rather than cutting costs by heaping work on fewer and fewer shoulders as is the norm in so many parts of the world, the case in Marakaz is just one of many hands making light work. Then those many hands knock off for the day and go to Joyce’s for fish and chips.

At one point during my stay, I wondered whether the locals ever wanted to see big international movies and how, if they weren’t participating in a monetary society any more, they could do that. As it turned out, they weren’t missing out on any of these things either.

I learned that there are communal funds that come from the profits that are made from selling the country’s excess products overseas. And once a month, everyone’s invited to put in their requests for little items they might want.

Nobody asks for much but it seems everyone can get a few little imported luxuries each month. Fancy clothes, toys for their kids, CDs and DVDs and things like that. They put in their requests and a handful of people order the goods. Then, as they come in, people come and collect their orders.

At the end of my stay, I was a little sad to leave but my host told me that even though the people of Marakaz keep their population small so everyone’s needs can be met, they’re not adverse to some migrants joining their community. But perhaps, rather than flocking to them to enjoy their way of life, it may be better in the long run if we look at changing our own.”

***

“Well?” Bob asked when I had finished reading the article.

I put it down. “I think those people get it.”

“And I think the man who wrote that got it too,” he said. “If you want to enjoy a piece of Marakaz, you don’t need to move there. You can make your own piece of Marakaz at home. Need someone to fix your gas oven? See if you can do them a favor in exchange. Your neighbor’s destitute? Put an extension out the back of the house and put them up. Have a barbeque every weekend and invite the neighborhood.”

“And just leave the corrupt elite off the invite list?” I suggested.

Bob smiled. “Exactly. And as for the rest of the details, I think people can figure them out. If they want to.”

“If they’re not disconnected, you mean.”

Bob nodded. “If they’re not disconnected.”

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 7: An Interesting Call

“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 VII. An Interesting Call

 

Well, that was the first and last time I traveled through one of the oceanic tunnels. They haven’t gone anywhere but they’re just relics now. Nowadays, most people use the new airplanes with their various means of propulsion or, if they’ve got the time and the money, they travel on a cruise ship.

However, not everyone’s fallen in with the new trends. There’s a man out there who designed a motor yacht that uses anything available to get it going. If it picks up speed, it glides over the surface of the water like a hydrofoil. If it really picks up speed, wings fold out and it gets airborne, flying five or ten meters over the water. It uses sails, wind turbines, solar panels and, if the man’s not in a particular hurry, he lets it drift.

He never patented the design. He made one working model that he spent most of his life savings on and now he travels the world, going from place to place in quite reasonable comfort. Far more comfort than anyone in an oil–era plane or the new variety.

As for speed, he says he always gets where he’s going in good time. His yacht may not be as fast as the new airplanes of today but it’s never too far behind.

So if you’re thinking of a trip abroad and you’d rather not shell out for a plane ticket or go on a cruise ship, ask your local port authorities if that man’s stopping by any time soon. You’d be surprised. He gets around. And he always enjoys company. You won’t be able to pick your own destination of course but he’s always going somewhere interesting. After all, the world is still an amazing place.

***

So anyway, that was the end of my little string of experiences on the Trans–Atlantic. Soon after the scene in the dining car, I was in New York. But it’s not quite the end of the story. About a year and a half after I arrived in New York, I got a call from Bob.

It was something, I tell you. Because after ditching his job at Trans–Atlantic, he was well on his way to becoming the celebrity he is today. But it turns out he remembered me. And he was also in the dining car when that worker came in and, since I stood up for the guy, he decided I was a decent fellow. And he tracked me down so he could catch up with me.

We met for lunch in a modest café.

“So what did you want to talk about?” I asked him. “Saving the world again?”

“Something like that,” Bob said. “I was just wondering if you’ve figured out what I tried to tell you on the train. A friend of yours says you’ve been working on a short story about it.”

I shrugged. “I have. But it isn’t easy to change the big things. The powerful still exploit the rest of us, hoard resources and charge the rest of us a king’s ransom for the bare necessities of life.”

Bob just smiled as he listened.
“And the people in government won’t regulate the madness ’cause that would tick off the people who funded their election campaigns.”

“So?” Bob prompted me.

I smiled back. “I guess we can’t rely on the governments of the world to make things better.”

Bob nodded. “That’s a start.” He then pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and passed it across the table. “Here. I printed this out for you.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a little story. I thought you might like it. Do you remember that stuff in the news a couple of years ago about Marakaz?”

***

Marakaz – the young country not the instruments with similar sounding name, and not to be confused with Mauritius, Mauritania or Madagascar – came to the world’s attention after the last global financial meltdown. About six months before I left Amsterdam.

Most governments went through the usual routine. They bailed out the people responsible for the mess and made the rest of the population pay for it. But in Marakaz, something interesting happened.

The president of the country outlined his austerity measures. People from the poor and middle classes would pay levies on top of their medical expenses, wages would be slashed… all the usual measures. But the people rejected them. The debt was not theirs, they said. It belonged to the bankers and the stockbrokers and was their problem. A large crowd blocked the entrances to the houses of congress and prevented the president from entering.

He responded by calling on the highest ranking member of the police force to disperse the group, a grizzled man in his sixties who’d been through a lot in life, including a stint in the military. In the president’s mind, he was the man for the job. So you can well imagine the president’s surprise when the man said, “No. I won’t disperse the people.”

The president said to him, “Do you know who I am? I am the leader of this whole country.”

And the man replied, “You’re not a leader. You are a servant. And not a very good one. With the people’s consent, you will be dismissed and we will run the country without you.”

The president was furious and he called in the army. To his chagrin however, the army backed the police and the people. It seemed they had more in common with the people than the bankers and the stockbrokers.

A temporary government was then formed and the president, along with the bankers and the stockbrokers, were deported.

“You’ll regret this,” the president said to the people before he stepped onto the plane that would take him away from Marakaz forever. “Without my guiding hand, this country will go to the dogs.”

Those in the temporary government then pondered what form their nation’s future government should take and it was decided that a draw would be held every three months. Ordinary citizens would be selected and asked to come forth and participate in a committee that would oversee any decisions that needed to be made. They would have to discuss, negotiate and come to agreement on the matters that affected the whole country. And a new committee would be selected every three months.

It worked. And life in Marakaz continued as normal, except without the anxiety that comes from having someone threatening the entire populace with austerity measures. Then the central committee was replaced with smaller committees that served cities and towns directly, although all the cities and towns would still share ties.

To spectators on the other side of the globe, particularly those who viewed the events in Marakaz as a potential catalyst for sweeping world changes that could threaten their own immense power and wealth, this was interpreted as a sign of weakness. In their minds, it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people of Marakaz were incapable of governing themselves. It was in their view the beginning of the end.

Many media groups, with strong financial ties to these wealthy spectators, took great delight in ridiculing the people of Marakaz and holding them up as an example to everyone else, a warning about what would happen if they tried to usurp the authority of the wealthy elite and the governments who were in bed with them.

For a while, the blitzkrieg of propaganda had the desired effect but only for a while. Reports began filtering back to the global community that Marakaz was getting on just fine. In actual fact, Marakaz was thriving.

Then questions started flying in. How did the people maintain their infrastructure? Who ran the farms? Was the whole place now a hippie commune with everyone living in tents?

One journalist decided to stay there a year and answer some of these questions. And Bob gave me the story he brought back.

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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.

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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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