the train conductor

Written for Bean’s birthday.

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Once upon a time, in a very polluted and dusty world, there lived a train conductor.

He was surrounded by people who loved to go to great parties and festivals just to show off their new clothing or possessions, favouring bright colour and flamboyance over ordinary things. They always made a fuss about how they looked and what other people thought about them.

Nobody paid the conductor much attention because he was quiet and liked to look at the stars. He constantly snuck books into the train to read during his breaks, and was often found with an expression of deep thought on his face. According to everyone, he spent too much time thinking, and not enough time doing.

(In his opinion, this world was too much about doing and not enough about thinking.)

He didn’t really think that he belonged, because he didn’t like how noisy Earth had become, or how everyone was always talking and never listening.

The train conductor’s train would circle around the country every day, its little compartments being filled beyond bursting, then abruptly emptied, of loud, complaining people. The train conductor didn’t like his job in the least – but he loved his train, and in the early hours of morning he would lean out of his seat and look up at the sky above him, his book hanging from his fingers.

One day, after he escorted a particularly grumpy person out of the train, he sighed and looked up at the sky again. Instead of a dark, shimmering curtain peppered with stars, the heavens above him were amber and filled with smoke. What would it be like to explore the universe? he wondered. He wished he could find out. How large were the planets, really? How many languages were spoken out there? Was there an end to outer space, or did it go on forever? He hoped he could see for himself one day.

Suddenly, a little hand tugged on his shirt.

He turned, and his mouth immediately turned down in a tired frown.

It must be one of those Neptunians, he thought dismally when he saw the person’s face. Long, neat hair; a perpetually irritated expression; a nearly glowing aura; there was no question. Of all the aliens that had come to Earth, Neptunians were the most luminous – and most irritating.

“No,” said the little girl very severely, as if she’d heard his thoughts. “I’m not a Neptunian. I’m the Constellation Orion.”

I thought Orion was a male Constellation! the conductor thought, mildly surprised. The exhausted exasperation that had currently occupied his head was slipping away, like water running off a leaf.

“No, that’s my father,” she told him, and he started. Then again, that just proved her point; he didn’t recall Neptunians to have telepathic powers. “Everyone in our family is named Orion, except for Mama. She’s Mrs. Orion. I’m Orion’s fifteenth daughter, so everyone calls me ‘the youngest girl’. That’s dull, though, so you can call me Number Fifteen, if you like.”

“What do you need, then, Number Fifteen?” The conductor was understandably confused. And rightly so: astronomical parenting isn’t exactly something one can grasp immediately.

“Astronomical parenting isn’t hard to grasp,” the girl said even more severely. “And I’d like to make your wish come true.”

The conductor stared.

“I’m a Huntress of Orion,” said the girl. “I have to find or hunt down things. And Auntie Andromeda’s been whining about light-year hopping for millennia now. She says it hurts her back. So I was sent to find a pilot of some sort of transportation. The universe is far too big to light-hop from one end to the other, and those newfangled speed jets are uncomfortable.

The train conductor opened his mouth to ask if she was joking or not, because it didn’t seem like a laughing matter at all. Was he supposed to take her seriously? No, he shouldn’t. Right?

“Good,” Number Fifteen said, looking satisfied, and closed her eyes, snapping her fingers.

It was like the train conductor was being stretched between two magnetic poles. For a moment, his face grew tight and his toenails ached. A stinging sensation ran up and down his spine. And suddenly, it was gone, and Number Fifteen was smiling smugly up at him.

“Welcome to Outer Space,” she said as he gripped his suddenly aching back, wincing. “Inner Space is to the left, but I don’t think you want to meet Auntie Andromeda at the moment. She’ll fuss all over you, and you won’t be able to get in a word edgewise.”

The train conductor couldn’t speak. He looked up and saw shimmering people sitting on thin air, chatting and singing and zooming away – light-hopping, he supposed vaguely.

There was noise, but it wasn’t as disturbingly loud as the noise on Earth. The conductor gaped at the slowly revolving planets in their orbits around a blazing golden sun, where several binary stars and a comet were roasting marshmallows. A slight wind from a rushing Mercurian made his hair ruffle. He pinched himself just to see if he was dreaming, but he wasn’t.

Then he looked back down at Earth, the busy, people-swollen Earth with its people staying stubbornly affixed to the ground. The galaxies had come to their own doorsteps, offering a hand to venture into the unknown, and they’d slammed it shut, only to continue living in their little world. How could they do that, when there was so much happening out here?

“You don’t want to go back, do you?” said Number Fifteen, looking quite disappointed. “Auntie will scold me. Light-hopping will be the only option for transportation except for those jets, and no one wants to use them.”

“You mean, you really want me to stay?” the conductor asked, astonished.

Number Fifteen nodded. “I even light-hopped your train here.”

Two meteors and an Ambassador – from Venus, from the look of it – skidded past them, and the conductor looked around him. Planets whirled, moons glittered, constellations spun around on themselves. It was a completely new galaxy, and he was about to explore it, just like he’d always wanted to.

He closed his eyes and listened.

Beneath the low hum of conversation, the occasional laugh piercing the darkness, and the hissing of marshmallows being burnt to a black crisp, he could hear the song of the universe, vibrating, glowing, and radiating in his ears.

“I think…” he said, and Number Fifteen blinked at him hopefully. “I think I’d like to… stay.”

“Good,” she said again, putting a hand against his train. She gave it a pat, and smiled. “Then let’s go visit Father. He’ll introduce you to all the major constellations, and then you can go explore the universe as much as you’d like.”

“Really?” the train conductor said, not even trying to hide his excitement.

Number Fifteen mistook his excitement for dismayed shock, and puffed out her cheeks, her eyebrows drawing together.

“You can’t change your mind now,” she said, frowning. The train conductor stared at her, confused, and Number Fifteen poked the middle of his chest with her finger. “You just said yes, you know. You can’t decide otherwise!”

He laughed, helped her into the train, and they sped away serenely into the stars and beyond.


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