Chuck’s challenge this week is another Random Title challenge, which is always so much fun.
My title was “Screaming Comet,” for which I had a couple of ideas right away but none of them seemed to fit. I pondered on it for a few days before finally arriving at this one, which was at least influenced in its inception by Stephen King’s short story, The Jaunt.
I don’t know what it is with me and kids, but they’re having a run of bad luck in my stories of late. Nonetheless, I actually quite enjoy the idea behind this one and the society I started to build for it, even if … well. I guess I’ll just let you read it.
Here’s “The Screaming Comet,” at 1499 words.
The Screaming Comet
“…reaches over two thousand miles per hour before it leaves the tracks and turns skyward…”
A pencil jabs Brian in between the shoulder blades, and he spins around from his doodle to see his friend Jessica looking at him with big deer eyes. “My Gran is going on the Comet tomorrow,” she says, “isn’t your grandpa going, too?”
Brian nods proudly. “He doesn’t have to go for another three years, but my Grandma went last year, and he says he’s ready.” He puffs his chest out as much as is possible in the confine of his Edu-enforcer. “He’s showing me the train.”
“…achieving a top speed of over twenty-five thousand miles per hour as it delivers our Elders on their final voyage…”
Jessica stifles a snort. “Big deal. I saw the train last year.”
“And perhaps Mister Roberts can tell us,” Miss Remnand asks pointedly, as every head in the class snaps around to stare at Brian, “why the train is called The Screaming Comet?”
Brian whirls in his seat and his face darkens. He knows it’s something to do with the speed…
Eddie Verner shouts out, “Miss Remnand, I heard it was because everybody inside starts screaming as they go into orbit.”
“Nonsense, Eddie. Nobody would be able to hear anybody inside the train doing anything. No, the sound is a combination of the train breaking the sound barrier and the friction on the tracks…”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Brian silently thanks Eddie for saving him, even if Eddie is an idiot. The Comet carries people to the Great Beyond; nobody would scream because of that.
Final departure will commence in t-minus twenty minutes.
As his grandfather points out the features of the train, Brian runs a few steps ahead, running his hand over the shiny vinyl seats, pressing his face to the big panoramic windows, staring at the sparkling array of digital displays and the wide-mouthed air vents that dot the aisles.
“Here we are,” Grandpa says, pointing to the aisle seat just a few rows from the back.
Brian plops into the seat, buckles the belt and starts kicking his legs. “Aw, why couldn’t they give you a window?”
The old man laughs, mirthless and empty. “Some of us just aren’t so lucky.”
Packs of people mill about, mostly silver-haired men and women moving quietly to their seats, a few adults giving hugs or listening as the elders whisper in their ears, a handful of kids like him moving about the car in wonderment. “Grandpa,” Brian says, his voice hushed, “Eddie Verner says they call it The Screaming Comet because the Elders scream when it leaves the station.”
Grandpa’s face creases with concern, and he sits next to the boy, squeezing his shoulder and mussing his hair. “Don’t listen to your friend. The Comet is the best gift our old world has ever given to people like me.”
“It looks really cool. I want to ride it someday.”
“Not for a long time, son.”
Brian nods to himself. “And Eddie’s not my friend. He’s stupid.”
On the loading dock, a commotion has broken out — pushing and shoving and shouting — at the center of which is a gaunt, bald and wild-eyed Elder. His family can’t be found, and he’s waving an old knife around at anybody who gets close. It’s only moments, though, before a tiny dart sprouts from the side of his neck and he collapses, drooling and babbling. A contingent of white-clad attendants shoulders through the crowd and ushers him onto the train.
…no cause for alarm. All non-passengers, please exit the train at this time.
It’s orderly, but it’s chaos as the aisles jam with people evacuating the train at the announcement and the appearance of the drooling, nonsensical man being hauled into a seat. The attendants buckle him in as a sudden crowd of people surges past, seeking the exits.
Grandpa kneels next to Brian, his faraway, mist-veiled eyes piercing through the boy. “I love you, grandson. You take care.” And Brian feels himself yanked into a bone-crushing embrace. He thinks he hears the old man sobbing at his shoulder, but the moment Grandpa releases him, his wrinkled hands spin Brian around and point him toward the front of the train. In a heartbeat, Brian is lost in the close press of people emptying off the train. Grandpa dabs at his eyes and straps in.
The initial stir has ceased, but now a general unease has settled over the loading dock, a foul miasma that the onlookers are breathing in. Nervous chatter breaks out here and there, then voices raised in argument, and the attendants as one cock their heads at the directive streaming in through their earpieces. They share a nod and then, as the last people debark the train, seal the doors. It’s seven minutes ahead of schedule, but they’re sending The Comet off early.
The face of Grandpa’s dearly departed wife floats to the surface of his memory as a leaf across a pond. He steals a glance across the woman next to him — smiling in her sleep, hands clutching a weathered picture — and spies the onlookers. Some look angry, others anguished at being held back from the train by the outstretched arms, and in some cases, batons, of the attendants. Not supposed to be this way. Old fool on the dock ruined this nice moment for all of them. The thrusters begin to fire, one after another, at first sounding far away up by the engine, then growing closer and louder, until all is a dull roar muffled by the tin walls of the Comet, like a kidnapping victim screaming in a trunk.
It’s at that moment that Brian peeks his head out from underneath the seat in front of him. Sure he’s seeing things, Grandpa blinks his eyes again and again, until the boy speaks and dispels all hope that he was an illusion: “I’m stowing away, Grandpa!”
The elders are slow to react, and it’s hard to hear over the roar of the engines, but first Grandpa’s seatmate wakes up, then the pair across the aisle, and in moments the traincar is alive with shouting and protesting: “A kid… just a boy… where’d he come from… open the doors…” it all bleeds together in a growing torrent of disbelief and panic.
The crowd on the docks is unruly now, some of them with tears streaming down their faces, some pointing furiously at the train. One attendant takes his eyes off the crowd for a moment and steals a glance at the Comet — sure enough, the Elders in there are pressed against the glass, banging on the windows and shouting soundlessly. Rare for it to go this way, and a shame, too. Better when they go with dignity, but it looks like it’ll be a Screaming Comet this year.
Then the locks disengage, the train lifts up on its hover-rails, and in the space of a breath the Comet winks away into the distance, a sound like shearing metal and a thousand voices in pain dissipating on the dock as it disappears.
Brian watches, his eyes the size of bowling balls at the window as the houses fade to dots, the cities turn into a formless blur. The entire landscape resolves itself into one huge patch of green and blue as the Comet streaks into the upper atmosphere. The Elders, all their sound and fury spent and useless, sink back into their seats, some of them grasping Grandpa’s shoulder with heavy hands before they do. Some are crying. None of them will look at Brian.
Brian pulls himself away from the luminescent panorama and stares at the Elders. “Why are they crying?”
The words seem to tangle in Grandpa’s throat. “Because you’re not supposed to be here.”
“But I wanted to go to the Great Beyond with you.”
Grandpa wants to explain to the boy. But the sun is shrinking over the radiant blue curve of the earth. It won’t be long now. He chokes back tears and flashes the biggest smile he can manage at Brian. “Then let’s go together. Have you ever seen anything like that?” And he smiles and laughs with his grandson as the sun disappears from view, the last sunset they’ll ever see. And it’s such a marvelous sight, this final gift to the Elders, with the inky black of space behind and the infinity of sprawling starscapes ahead, that the Elders forget their rage and fury that Brian has to take this journey with them and they smile silently. The cabin fills with the boy’s innocent laughter as the vents release the numbing gas, and the passengers of the Screaming Comet drift off to sleep.
In the seconds that follow, the hatches on the Comet open and its contents are ejected into the void to begin their final journey into the Great Beyond, while the Comet begins its balletic descent back to the Earth.