Cardilingos arrived on Winchett Four in the hold of a cargo ship. There was no discount for being jolted about in the emergency chair, observed by a crowd of robots. A4 robots guarding 28 crates, each labelled with a red cross for explosives. Contents prohibited on passenger vessels.
When the ship landed, the roof opened, and the long arm of a crane descended to lift the crates. Cardilingos stared up at the famous twin suns, adjusting his finger to local time. The crates went onto a trolley that carried them across the tarmac. The robots exited through the front of the plane and onto the runway. He followed, keeping inside the marked lines. Then he chose the ramp ahead of the stairs, reaching the top before the robots, and passing through a door emblazoned with danger signs.
Beyond was the air-conditioned terminal. Before proceeding to border security, he used a sterile urinal in a segregated toilet then followed the signs. Galactic Law prescribed directions in the universal language as well as spaceport design.
A green and white robot stood by gates of the same color. A5, humanoid. Cardilingos put his hand on the sensor, allowing the robot’s single eye to scan his. The gate opened. An identical robot waited on the other side. The robots from the ship passed without any checks. He extended his other hand, the one with the visa chip. The second robot scrutinized it carefully.
“Purpose of visit to Winchett Four,” it intoned.
Cardilingos looked around the deserted terminal. “Leisure,” he said hopefully.
The robot beeped. “Please be more specific.”
He hesitated. How do you explain passion to a creature without emotion? In the old days enthusiasts were mocked before galactic legislation preserved their rights. “I am travelling on the lunatic express,” he said proudly. The nickname was universally applied.
Another beep. “Please supply travel documentation.”
“You saw the visa.”
“Please supply travel documentation.”
Cardilingos looked uneasily at the gun built into the robot’s waist. “For the train?” he asked.
He reached inside his tunic and pulled out the gold token that the agent on Kablifurken had provided. It cost two months’ rent but he expected the proceeds from his story to fund the purchase of a house and clear all his debt. The robot studied the token. Cardilingos hoped it wasn’t forged. Hundreds of enthusiasts responded to the advert. He was selected because of a picture taken decades ago. His shot of a crowded winter train in Second New Delhi, using the same outdated camera currently in his tunic. Perhaps the advert had not been sent from Winchett Four but from a spaceway agent. All a con but it wasn’t his fault. The robot couldn’t blame him.
Suddenly it moved aside. “Authorized for one return trip on railway between spaceport and end. Service departs at 08:04 from platform 1, arriving end at 18:02. Return journey departs end at 14:02 following day, returning to spaceport at 00:00 following day. Not authorized to alight at other station. On return to spaceport passenger must wait for departing flight. Not authorized to travel elsewhere.”
“I have to spend four nights here,” he objected. “The agent said I could find a hotel in the citadel.”
“Do not trespass,” warned the robot. “Penalty for trespass is death.”
Cardilingos walked to the baggage carousel where his brown suitcase rotated in a lonely circle. He wheeled it to the exit door. Two robots, identical to the immigration sentry, appeared. One scanned the suitcase and asked if he was in possession of any illegal substances or items.
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Cardilingos.
“Ignorance is unacceptable. Please answer yes or no.”
“No,” he said.
“Please consent to a body search.”
The question was academic. Refusal almost certainly meant death. He lifted his hands in the air and let one of the robots hold a sensor close to his body. It beeped over his pocket.
“Please remove all items,” said the robot.
Cardilingos took out the token and the camera. The robot scanned them, pausing over the camera. “Purpose of device?” it asked.
The silver ultra-thin hand-held camera, disguised as a pencil torch, was originally designed for those who wanted to take surreptitious pictures. Targeted mainly at spies and voyeurs, it never sold enough to justify mass production. There was a chance that it would not feature in the memory banks of an A5 robot. Cardilingos flicked the button to turn on the light. “A torch,” he said desperately. “I will be outside at night.”
“Unauthorized artificial light during nocturnal hours is forbidden.”
He flicked the button off. “I apologize.”
They let him pass. He walked through two entrance halls with empty desks and machines, waiting for passengers who would never come. Blue arrows hanging from the ceiling pointed the way to the train. Several billboards displayed pictures of Citizen Cahmer, in green and white uniform. He had tired, slanted eyes and a well-groomed moustache. A serious, disciplined humanoid hated and worshiped across the galaxy in equal measures. Either the last tyrant or the last defender of freedom. He personally authorized the visa, giving Cardilingos the freedom to pursue his dream. The first tourist to travel on the legendary lunatic express.
The fourth escalator opened onto a platform. 06:02 said a digital clock. Cardilingos waited on a rough bench. There were no shops. No food or drink. He doubted that the robot who checked his token at the first escalator would allow him back to find out if the concourse retailers had lowered their boards.
At 07:58 he heard a low rumbling sound. Twin beams of light appeared in the tunnel. Cardilingos covered his eyes. Temporary blindness denied him a look at the lunatic express. Prevented the first image that would have cemented his fortune. The side view was less impressive. Two connected low carriages with curved roofs. Each carriage had a set of symmetrical double doors on each side. He went through one, counting sixteen seats along each wall with a space for the doors. Capacity of 64, plus about half as many standing. A narrow rack above the seats provided space for small bags but he opted to keep his suitcase on the adjacent seat. The train began moving. There was no sign of any entertainment and no automated welcoming voice. It was a commuter train. Not a tourist one. He wondered if the editor would allow him to criticize the legend or if Cahmer’s approval was needed. The leader’s face was on posters next to each door, free of graffiti.
Two minutes later the train glided into the next station, also underground. Suburb 4. Some people waited. Cardilingos became the first outsider to see the inhabitants of Winchett Four since the war began. They looked normal. Smaller than the average humanoid, with less hair. Some stories said that the two suns caused premature baldness. They wore tunics of different colors, mostly orange and blue. A few had sashes. The doors slid open. Twelve passengers entered his carriage, ten males followed by two women. He moved his suitcase to the floor but they all sat away from him. Not looking.
On other trains, on other worlds, they would download information or talk. Here they sat impassively, hands folded. Like the robots on the ship but more unnerving because they had eyes that started at nothing. None of them carried any bags. The robots hadn’t said anything to him about not talking. He addressed the woman nearest to him, with a polite “Good morning.”
No reaction. Not even a flicker of her painted eyelids. He studied her face intently. Outwardly calm. What thoughts lay behind the mask? “I am a visitor,” he said. “A tourist.”
This time the eyes moved. She spoke clearly in the universal language. “Tourists are forbidden. It is the order of Citizen Cahmer.” One of the men opposite bowed. They were all listening. Not daring to watch but wanting to join in.
“Citizen Cahmer has kindly allowed me a permit to travel on this train.”
“His kindness extends to us all.”
“You don’t pay for your journey?”
Silence. He wondered about free travel and the barriers. A chip in the hand perhaps to scan approved residents through. The train approached another station, Suburb 3. More people waited, at least forty. He smiled politely at the woman. No response. It reminded him of home where thirty-three attempts to pick up female passengers had failed. The next one might be interested in his tales of the lunatic express.
The newcomers stood around him, not looking. Avoiding the suitcase. The train never stopped more than a couple of minutes even at the termini. That meant it arrived and departed at a different time every day. Did the people time their working hours around this or was it a journey reserved for the days when the time was right? He could no longer see the woman through the melee of bodies and did not want to ask the others.
The next station was Central. Everyone else disembarked in an orderly fashion. He put his suitcase back on the seat. Two more stations were served, two and one, both underground. Nobody boarded. Nobody wanted to go to the jungle. Only the lunatic. Cardilingos smiled. Clearly the commuter demand justified the continuation of the service. Outside in daylight, the solar panels would pick up and store enough sunlight to power a full return journey. Subsidizing the residents. Once outside it could not turn back. The automated maxi gran system operated continuously from terminus to terminus. No provision for reversing midway.
The train extended. Cardilingos leant against the window in expectation. Cracks of light appeared, and the suns glared at him. He rushed to the other side, gazing at the vista below. The human citadel of Winchett Four, a mass of light grey skyscrapers arranged symmetrically with smaller dwellings dotted neatly around them. The centerpiece, the golden dome with six gates and a high wall, blinked at him. Above it all was the sky dome, almost invisible to the naked eye. Erected to shield residents from the suns it now protected them against invasion. Hands shaking, he took a photo, that when magnified, would show the seal in the dome.
Hundreds of black birds flew around the outside of the dome, pecking in vain. Stains from their excrement seemed frozen in the sky, streaky white goblets with bits of black. Most birds congregated around the door. A hole in the sky. The single track held up by enormous pillars headed to it. Cardilingos was now two hundred meters above the city. The birds tapped the gate impatiently then flew away as the train hurtled through. It felt like the speed increased but that was impossible. The automated maxi gran could not be varied.
The jungle was a mass of green and yellow stretching across 99.12% of the largest planet in the sector. In places, there were gaps where deracinated trees exposed mud and weeds. The pillars holding the line were consumed until halfway up by overgrown vegetation. Bombs could not be dropped near them.
851 humanoids died during the construction of the railway. Most were slaves, sent to succeed where robots had failed. A few were motivated by profit, drawn from the lower classes on surrounding planets. One, with a knowledge of human history, named the lunatic express. Cardilingos was grateful. They had given him the ultimate railway experience. A unique trip on a line that led to nowhere. It was intended to cross the planet, with various stops at hunting lodges. Then the war started and Cahmer ordered the terminus just a little way into the jungle. Due to a ban on visitors the expected tourists never came. Until now.
The black birds were joined by others of varied colors. Getting ahead of the train then returning to fly past it again. Some resembled those he had seen in holograms and aviaries. Others were new. He photographed as many as he could. Ornithologists would pay for the images and he would buy pictures of trains to decorate his new house.
The sky darkened, despite the absence of clouds. Enormous bats flew down. One clipped the window and a shriveled face with brown eyes looked in. Then the bats chased the birds. Cardilingos willed the prey to escape but the wings flapped savagely, and feathers dripped from their grasp.
As night fell the bats disappeared and he heard strange creatures calling in the jungle. How much louder would the sound be on the ground? He tried to sleep but the noise was too intense. He kept glancing at the blackness through the window, imagining shapes rushing to break in. Some of the builders went mad in the jungle camps. There were stories of unprovoked assaults and irrational acts of theft and petty crime. He lay across the suitcase with both hands covering the other ear.
Then the train stopped. There were lights outside. Two illuminated signs, proclaiming END. He got up, checked that the suitcase was still sealed, and stepped onto the cold platform. It fitted the train perfectly. He could not see a gate behind, but they must have passed through one, like the hole in the dome. The other end was a brick wall with a sensor that enabled the train to brake. He followed an arrow to a single lift and pressed the button with a single look back at the train. It left in a few minutes, returning to the citadel. He could go with it. His hastily made plans to photograph the jungle now seemed unwise, giving the noise which continued to reverberate all around. It was like a thousand drums being played and then some distant beast would roar, and a thousand birds sung as a hundred ground beasts fled for their lives.
He touched the token. A return. He had to exit and enter again. Otherwise the journey was invalid. An offence almost certainly punishable by death. The lift doors opened as the train doors shut. Cardilingos went inside. The door slid back. He pressed the only button. With a clanging sound the lift shot down, opening on the same side. Directly in front was a door with a sensor. Cardilingos held his token against it. The door opened. He went through, breathing real air for the first time in six months.
Sweat oozed down his body. Unable to see, without activating his torch and summoning predators, he pressed back against the door which was built into one of the pillars. He put his case down and tapped the sensor with his token.
“Passengers are not allowed in this station until one hour before the scheduled service departs,” said an automated voice.
He tried again. The message repeated, and it seemed that every other noise in the jungle ceased. Cardilingos was alone in enemy territory, with no food or water. He had to survive nineteen hours. Impossible.
Was it? Some of the builders survived for months, even years. They didn’t have to contend with a war though. Nor did Cardilingos. He posed no threat to anyone. Cahmer’s enemies were not his. But he was humanoid. Did they make that distinction? He took a couple of hesitant steps forward, thinking about food. There would be berries and edible leaves. Enough perhaps to sustain him until he got back to the spaceport.
He could see nothing except his suitcase and the carmine shape of the sensor, protruding like a breast to admonish him for his foolishness. What was the point of travelling on the lunatic express if he could not share the experience? Perhaps someone else would repeat the journey and succeed, stealing his credit. No, he had to be the first. Had to fulfil his boast to the committees and fellow enthusiasts. Had to fulfill the contract and provide suitable pictures or face bankruptcy. End his days in the galactic debtor’s jail on Berishumase. A jail that they planned to build on Winchett Four before the war.
He sat down, resting his back against the pillar in preference to the suitcase. The ground was soft, and the noises seemed distant. It made sense for animals to avoid the railway, as a symbol of human interference.
Cardilingos fell asleep, twice waking when his head nodded back and slammed into the pillar. Both times he felt cooler but continued to sweat. He woke properly when sunlight kissed his lips through the trees. He jumped up and tapped his token on the sensor. The same message played. He inclined his head unable to see the railway line that he knew was there. Multiple plants, some taller than him and others reaching to his knees, hissed as they swayed. Insects scuttled about. Some would have crossed over him in the night. He lifted his legs, checking for holes in his pants. Finding none he felt his confidence returning. Here was a new story to tell. Train enthusiast survives night in hostile jungle. That might earn a spot on the news vids. Several seconds of well-paid fame.
Then he saw a face looking at him. A pair of black eyes partially hidden. As he stared they moved and a large orange felid sauntered out. Its body held black dots with white stripes casually darting around them. Sharp incisors protruding through the symmetrical whiskers with large teeth behind. Cardilingos leant against the pillar, shaking hands tapping the token against the sensor. Was there a camera sending images back to the control room? Someone had to see that he was in danger.
The felid came closer, just as the automated message began again. Cardilingos lowered his hand and waited for the attack. He hoped it would kill him quickly, not letting him see the blood as it bit through his body. The felid stood on both legs, rising above Cardilingos. Its paws had sharp claws. One jabbed down. Pointed at the token. Trembling Cardilingos held it out.
“This gives you entry?” asked the felid in the universal language.
The bushes rustled. Eleven more felids emerged. They surrounded him, waving long tails and surveying his fear greedily. He suppressed an urge to urinate. “Well, brothers,” said the leader. “We have our passage to the citadel at last.”
They brought Cardilingos a dead uncooked rodent. Retching he picked it up and forced himself to eat. The leader took him to a stream, about half a kilometer away, and told him to wash. “Nothing will attack you whilst I am here.”
Cardilingos removed his clothes and got into the water. It stank of manure, so he didn’t put his head under and kept his eyes trained on the bank where his clothes rested. After a few minutes, he got out and dressed. Several leeches jumped off his body and darted back to the stream.
“You are not a soldier,” said the felid.
“Would I be alive if I were?’
“The others were kept as hostages until we realized that Cahmer was unwilling to negotiate.”
Cardilingos tied his bootlaces and checked his finger. Still eight hours to the train. “And then?” he asked.
“We ate them,” said the felid. “No point in wasting good meat.”
“Is that what we are to you?” he said. “Food?”
“Cahmer used to hunt us.” The felid lifted its right paw. “Some species believe that this has medicinal properties. He built the railway so that more like him could seek profit and pleasure. Is that what we are to you?”
It came closer. “Hunting is banned on my world,” said Cardilingos.
“Humanoids do not obey their own rules. Winchett Four is one of the galaxy’s last paradises. My ancestors were brought here to survive. Humanoids like you, feeling guilty, released the last breeding pair of tigers along with plenty of other wildlife.” It stood up again. “We evolved,” it said proudly. “Became a new species. One capable of fighting back, with a bit of help.”
Something swirled through the sky. A giant bat. It landed next to the felid then popped its head in the water and drank. Its head emerged and surveyed him with curious, hostile eyes.
“All the intelligent creatures in the jungle are threatened by Cahmer,” said the felid. “We overcame our historical rivalries and joined forces against a common foe. Did you know who the enemy was?”
“No,” he said.
It snarled. “He does not want to deter future tourists. Let the galaxy think that he fights terrorists. That way he gets support.” Cardilingos remembered the robots on his flight, and the crates. Bombs destined to be dropped in strategic parts of the jungle. Cahmer had the capacity to destroy the jungle and its occupants but couldn’t use it. He needed the money from future hunters. There weren’t enough rail enthusiasts or nature lovers to build an economy.
“The war has been a stalemate for years,” said the felid. “Until now we could not enter the citadel and Cahmer does not enter the jungle.” Cardilingos looked at his token, realizing its significance. “You will open the door and we will travel on the train.”
“We kill Cahmer and demand peace. Our terms are reasonable. Selected sections of the jungle to be off bounds to hunters and infrastructure in other areas to be limited.”
“If I refuse you will kill me and take the token anyway.”
“Only you can use the token,” said the felid. “There is a camera which records identification. The sensor only opens to the approved person.”
Cardilingos laughed. “Not true,” he said. “The sensor does not register the identity of the token’s holder.” He stopped, aware that the felids no longer had a reason for keeping him alive.
“We tried using the tokens taken from soldiers,” said the felid crossly. “None worked.”
“That’s impossible,” said Cardilingos. “It has to accept all valid tokens.”
“Then they were not valid.”
“Meaning that they were never intended to return.”
Cardilingos pictured the soldiers fleeing from the jungle. Arriving back at the place of safety and finding they could not enter. What emotions ran through their minds? His fear of the previous night was at least tempered by the knowledge of his imminent departure. For them there was nothing. Left to die in the jungle by their lunatic leader.
When his finger said that there was an hour before the train’s departure Cardilingos picked up his undamaged suitcase and pressed his token against the sensor. The door opened. One of the felids lay in the gap to keep it open for the others. Cardilingos summoned the elevator. He believed that it was not connected to the sensor and responded to any call. Just in case he made sure he squashed in the first run, with the leader and four more. On the platform, the lift successfully returned for the others. Then they waited. Without a train, he could see the transparent film covering the entrance to the tracks. The felid leader said that birds had tried to sabotage it from the other side, but it gave an electric shock. Some birds were hovering around now, occasionally breaking into a chorus. He took several pictures, hoping that one would walk along the track to the film. None did.
Eventually the line vibrated and the train appeared. It pushed through the film and slid to a stop. Cardilingos pressed his camera several times. He always felt unnerved by an empty driver’s cab. The design was in case of emergencies and for those planets that still had scruples about automations. In the Kingdom of Bratilelex, a deactivated robot sat in the cab just to reassure passengers. Cardilingos got in the first carriage. Some of the felids lay on the seats and the floor. Others went through the connecting door. He watched them sniffing everything.
The doors closed. The closest felid jumped back in alarm, scuttling onto a seat as the train moved. The leader reclined across two seats next to Cardilingos. “A few hours,” it said. “We can save the jungle.”
“Not we,” said Cardilingos. “You.”
“You will be rewarded.”
Cardilingos wondered how much wealth Cahmer had. Perhaps the ownership of the lunatic express could be transferred.
The leader raised his head. “Can you take some pictures of us?” it asked. “If this goes wrong, you can use them to highlight the plight of those who remain.”
Cardilingos pulled out his device and took several shots of the felids around the train, making sure to omit their teeth and claws where possible. They looked cuddly and harmless. Like playthings for children. Smiling at them he fell asleep, no longer troubled by the jungle noise far below.
Something touched his shoulders. Yawning he stretched, withdrawing his hand after it touched the whiskers of the felid leader. The creature removed its paw. “We are approaching the citadel,” it said. It was dark outside, nearly midnight, and Winchett Four lacked a moon. Cardilingos heard the click of the gate going back then remembered the steep ascent on the outward journey. “Hold on tight,” he said, as the train began to descend. It roared along like a forgotten fairground ride. Some of the felids twisted around the poles. The others were flung across the narrow carriage and back again. The train slowed. Cardilingos felt sick. He smelt urine further down. The automated maxi gran was not self-cleaning.
Now they were underground. The train had to stop at 1 and 2. He peered cautiously through the window as they slowed, remembering his theory about work being scheduled around the timetable. Nobody waited. The felid leader remained on his seat. “Aren’t you getting out?” asked Cardilingos.
“Central is the best stop.” It sounded like a tourist, not an assassin. Cardilingos did not question the virtue of killing Cahmer. It was war. His concerns were for his own future. Could he really trust the felids to let him go and what happened if they failed? Twelve against the estimated six million inhabitants did not bode well. Unless one of them got to the gates and opened them to admit all manner of animals. Larger creatures capable of dismantling buildings and destroying robots. The whole of the jungle fought against Cahmer and, possibly, some of the humanoids supported them.
The train stopped again at 2. Nobody waited. Winchett Four was minutes away from a new beginning. Aware that the doors only opened for a couple of minutes, Cardilingos thanked the felid leader. It seemed amused.
“We owe you,” it said. “We should also thank Cahmer for giving you access.”
“Why?” asked Cardilingos. The train started to slow. “Surely he knew the risk of my token being stolen?” He had sacrificed his soldiers rather than take the risk of their tokens falling into enemy hands. Why trust an unknown offworlder? The picture of Cahmer seemed to laugh at him.
The train stopped. The doors opened, and the felids piled out. The leader saluted with its paw. Cardilingos glimpsed a metal shape at the bottom of the escalator. He shouted a warning. The shape fired. One felid leapt back on the train. The doors shut, trapping its leg. Cardilingos tried to pull it, as screams echoed around. The train moved. He could not get the felid back inside the carriage. There was a massive thud as the body whacked against the tunnel wall and its leg shot out. Cardilingos was slammed into the closing door, falling into a pool of blood. He picked himself up, banging on the door in frustration and shouting meaningless obscenities at the silent face of Citizen Cahmer.
At spaceport he disembarked, watching for assassins at the bottom of the escalator. He went up, clutching his token. The robot took it, without comment. He was safe in the terminal where galactic law took precedence over local rules. They used him to lure the felids into a trap. An offworld lunatic. Dispensable. Bait.
Slowly Cardilingos retraced his steps, stopping to use the communal showers and drink from the public fountain. The departure boards, helpfully placed at strategic intervals and at eye level, informed him that ten cargo services were due to depart in the next seven days. He found his and went to the gate. A robot waited there, probably the same one he encountered on the way out.
“Is there somewhere I can get a drink?” he asked.
The robot showed him to a small alcove equipped with a vending machine full of beer in quaint yellow cans. It accepted tokens, so he spent the remainder of his overdraft, emptying the machine and pacing himself, with frequent trips back to the toilet. In a week no humanoids passed, just robots. One, an A5, crushed the discarded cans and stuffed them into a cleaning trolley. It or a companion came back every three hours. He started counting the trips. Ticking off the time he had left on the planet and dreaming about his article. He had decided that the felid sacrifice would not be in vain. Surely there was a galactic law prohibiting entrapment, not to mention killing one’s own soldiers. Someone would listen when he spoke about Cahmer’s real enemies.
Then it was time for him to be back at the gate, his mind awash with different ways of telling the story. Of exposing Cahmer. He stepped through the scanning device in front of the departure gate. It beeped. The robot ran a tracer over him and asked him to empty his pockets. He took out the camera.
“Purpose of device,” asked the robot.
He sighed and pressed the light.
“It is forbidden to activate artificial light during nocturnal hours.”
“I know.” He reached for the torch. The robot crushed it.
“Records show that you were previously advised not to activate artificial light during nocturnal hours. No second warnings are permitted”
He started to protest.
“Have a nice trip, Mr. Cardilingos,” said the robot politely.
Cardilingos boarded the plane and strapped himself in the emergency chair. There were only two A4 robots this time and a single crate, labelled with the blue cross for medicine and a sticker saying Organic Parts.
by Paul Williams