Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fiction: Ganglion Trains by Sean Monaghan

Lett opened the throttle and the train leapt across the synapse. The controls rattled.

"Slow it up," Sally called from the nav console below. "Those boundaries are looking dicey and we don't want a bad transition."

"Just let me drive here for a minute." They were coming up on a squeeze and he had their speed at one hundred fifteen percent. He'd pushed the ship over one twenty-five before, but never through a transition.

"Have you lost your mind?"

"Too long in the axon network, Sugar." One eighteen.

"Pull right point three," she called. "And don't call me Sugar."

Lett edged the throttle down.

"Fourteen seconds," Sally shouted.

Through the forward viewport, Lett saw the crackling of the synapse ahead. "How far behind is he?"

"Realworld, about eighty miles,"

Lett calculated in his head. That made their lead about a minute and a half in the synaptic transit network. They had to make this jump.

"Three seconds."

Lett clicked the throttle off to let them coast across the boundary. The screen crackled.

"Darn it," Sally said.

The cab popped through the electrical arcs and they rode into the next ganglia. Lett tossed the throttle back up to full. "What's the problem."

"They took a branch."

"Have you got a map on that?"

"Calling it up."

Lett shoved the throttle up again. The network was so complex that standard maps were useless, it took a biological cubix to project likely connections. That was why they travelled in wide ganglia-analogues, the narrow threads were too ephemeral. Lett's console started to light up with warning points. The curl acceptors were over-heating, and the fuel pipes showing excess clogs. He knew he should have put in new impellers on the last upgrade. Saving money always costs more, eventually. So long as their synaptic gyroscope stayed intact, they could remain in the network avoid dropping back to real space. Likely they'd pop out over the ocean or inside a mountain, get crushed either way.

Still, if they pulled this job through then they could pay off the last of the loan, even have some spare cash towards a second train. Just for delivering a few paintings. More than a few, Lett thought. A museum's worth. Stolen paintings.

"O.M.S.," Sally said.

"What's up?" The synaptic flickered orange, then dropped to green. He tapped the LED. The throttle was at 125. They were through the transition.

"I think they've done some fit-up job on the network. Our strand is looping back."


"I don't get it. The network all braids, like a river, it never loops back. What've they done?"

Lett imagined the train twisting and returning to their starting point, hitting negative flow and crumpling like a wad of paper. "Ideas?" He tapped his own pool to lift Sally's map. It showed a big twist in their path, rising and turning back towards France analogue.

"Drop into the normal world?" Sally said.

"Isn't that like a two percent survival chance? Random return?"

"More like half a percent."

"Other ideas then."

"You'd prefer to take our chances back in Paris?"


"Crap, slow down."

Lett pulled the throttle back, seeing what she'd seen. The other train had come up from a narrow branch and was skimming along the basal network just ahead. Lett opened the vanes and pushed the cab close to the network walls.

"Careful," Sally said.

The cops drifted close, pinning them in, forcing them to slow. The port vane scrapped through the wall.


"I'm trying." He began winding the vane in and flicked the starboard compensators open.

"Uh-oh," Sally said. "The vane is in real space."

The network-virtual display showed them losing attachment. Down to fifty-seven grade. If it dropped under fifty they would pop right out of the system. "Come on," Lett muttered.

"We've got a transmission," Sally said.

Lett kept pulling the cab back.

"They say to heave to. They will cable us and take us back to Paris."

Lett watched as his console returned to green. "Are we under arrest?"

"They didn't say so."

"They're just repo men," he said. "They want the train, not the cargo." He'd worked so hard to keep off the police grids that he'd completely forgotten about the repossession order.

The end of the vane had been sheared off from that moment's connection to real space. That meant that wherever they were it was in open air. Just back there. If it had been underground the impact would have dragged the cab around, forcing it to nose through the ganglia wall, ending their trip with concussive speed.

The network was so elastic that determining exact locations was tricky. Only at fixed and concentrated junctions was it safe to drop out. La Guardia, Charles De Gaulle, LAX. There were a few minor network drop points, by coincidence. Mojave-Randsburg was Lett's favourite. Far enough from LA to be ignored, but close enough for him still drive home.

"What's that up there?" Lett said, watching the network. In another corner of his pool he could see the magnetic block snaking out from the repo engine on a long cable.


"On the left." Lett put one hand on the throttle, the other hand on the vane control. "Just past their cart."

Sally hesitated. "It's just a narrow branch. One of the structural anomalies that keep the flow going in the network."

"Think we can fit?"

"Not a chance."

"Hold on." Lett shoved the throttle up. He twisted the vanes over, hoping there was enough control surface left to maneuver.

"Stop, stop," Sally yelled.

The back end slewed out. The grapple smacked into the cab, just below his viewscreen. Not yet magnetized, it rattled along the side, taking out one of their docking cams.

"This is going very badly," Sally yelled.

The cab clipped the repo vehicle's stern, sending it spinning away. The throttle was already up at ninety percent. Lett angled for the narrow branch.

"Much too small," Sally said.

"How many carriages have we still got?" They were only a couple of seconds from entering the branch.

Sally hesitated. "Fifteen," she said. "All of them."

"Decouple the last two. One at a time."

The cab hit the branch. The whole vehicle shuddered.

"Got it," Sally said.

Lett felt a sudden jerk as they lost the last carriage. Then a second jerk. Van Goghs, he though, maybe some of the Monets too. "Thanks," he said. He kept the throttle up.

"Don't thank me. Just keep your eye on the width."

Lett kept the vanes out and fluttering. The branch really was narrow and parts of the train's exterior kept brushing against the sides.

"You better hope this widens out," Sally said.

"That's what I'm counting on." Every light on the panel was either red or orange now. The edges of real space were tearing away at the corners of the cab and carriages.

"They're hovering back there," Sally said. "I don't think they want to come down here."

"Uh-huh." He tried to keep the train close to the centre of the tubeway.



"They're smaller than us."

"Sure. Can you plot this path through?"

"It only gets narrower." Sally's voice was pitched and thin.

"Branches? It must link to something. Something wider."

"Gimmee a second."

Lett's panel was a blaze of red. Some of the lights began winking out as their sensors were ripped from their housing at the train's margins. "Quickly," he said.

"Okay. Five seconds on. Ten o'clock, but it's a nasty angle. The couplings won't handle it at this speed."

Lett yanked on the yoke and aimed even before he'd seen the opening.

"Lett, Lett," Sally screamed.

He could feel the carriages banging and clanking as he tried to drop speed and make the tight turn at the same time. The panel kept losing lights.

The branch arced with electricity.

"Lett, it's a full synapse."

They were committed now. He pushed the throttle up again, cracking the panel.

Lett saw the dial. One hundred and fifty percent.

The synapse wrapped around the train.

Lett's panel shorted. Every light died.

Even if the sensors were still operating, there was no way he could tell the condition of the train.

They fell into blackness as the cockpit halogens failed. The gyroscope whine decayed, the sound quietening off.

"We've got problems," Sally said.

"You think?"

"Totally offline."

Lett unbuckled his harness and stood. The whole network was predicated on being powered up. If they'd damaged the train to the point of killing the gyroscope, then they should have dropped out and fallen back into real space. The network circled the globe, but unpredictably, a direct trip from New York to Paris might traverse Antarctica or Singapore, so different was the space within the ganglia. Without the synaptic gyroscope operating they should have dropped out.


"What?" Lett felt his way forwards looking for the manual winders to open the viewport shutters and let in some light.

"We dropped out of the network."

"I figured that." He found the handle.

"I'm triangulating us near Catalina," she said.

The shutters began moving up and Lett looked out over a glistening ocean, haze in the distance. So close, he thought. At least we float.

"Crap," Sally said. "Coast Guard's picked up our transponder."


"Yeah, we-"

"Get Healy on the phone. He can chopper out here." Lett grinned. The train would float long enough for Healy to get the paintings. Then they could switch back into the network and let the train dry out in Mojave. The cops had never tracked them, the repo men might, but Healy's money would already be in their account.

Sally clambered up beside him. "Healy's on his way. Says he's docking the cost of the flight."

"Fair enough. But we made it. Just like last time."

"Just like every time," Sally said.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for publishing my quirky story, Scott.

- Sean

Jodi MacArthur said...

OMS- this is one wild ride here. I love the sci fi carnival rides you take us on, and this one delivers!