Platform Number Eight

Inhaling as if someone had been trying to suffocate him, Steve gasped as he found himself in a room that he couldn’t recognize. In front of him was a face and its mouth gaped open and he could smell stale breath. An additional odour of mint did not disguise this.

‘Are you alright, young man? You were shouting in your sleep for well over a minute just then.’

The face receded as its owner stood up and Steve saw the strip lighting of the late evening train that took him home every evening after his overtime in the factory and he recognized the uniform of the guard who was looming above him.

‘Yeah, all the other passengers were becoming a trifle concerned about you, I have to say. Try to take it easy in the future, okay?’

Steve neither replied nor looked around to confirm what he knew would be the other commuters’ expressions mingling concern and distaste. As he walked away, almost under his breath, the guard muttered something.

‘You’ve got problems, Steve…’

But Steve had not told the man his name and he realized that he must have misheard what the guard had said. A mobile phone began to ring and its sound, a pulsing note, ascended in pitch as if it were a warning device. No one answered it and the noise continued for a minute before it ceased. An electronic voice resonated through the carriage.

‘Next stop, platform number eight…platform number eight…platform number eight…’

The phone began to ring again and he heard someone make a tutting sound to his right and imagined that sitting on the other side of the aisle there would be an irritated commuter travelling home after a miserable day and evening at the office or warehouse or wherever it was that this worker toiled. But he didn’t look round. If you could avoid it, you didn’t look at people on the late evening train unless you were seeking trouble. And aside from the social customs of the transport system, Steve was too preoccupied with his own problems to worry about the grievances of a fellow traveller. Apart from the throbbing of the freshly made incision behind his right ear, he had to concentrate on finalizing the details of his plan, the plan that would let him live a little. Steve hated having to organize anything and just wanted to move on as quickly as he could to the practical stage of the project.

A voice from the same location as the tutting sound interrupted his thought sequence. Steve closed his eyes and pretended to sleep in case the man expected a response.

‘Bloomin’ cheek of it. They can afford a fancy new mobile phone but they can’t afford the time to switch it to silent. When’s it going to ring next? That’s what I blinking want to know. Can somebody answer that one question for me?’

Another voice said, ‘All tickets please with any supporting documents required, everybody get their papers ready for inspection in the next few seconds, I’ve not got all night, work with me people, let’s go.’

Steve opened his eyes to see the guard grinning at him.

‘No more disturbing dreams so far, my friend?’

Steve remained silent and unsmiling and held out his ticket. However impolite it seemed, he was too tired to be jovial on the train home in the evenings. The guard snatched the ticket, clipped it, returned it and then tapped the side of his cap two times with his forefinger and shook his head before he moved on. Blood trickled from the incision around the newly inserted socket behind Steve’s ear and felt warm on his skin but he tried to focus on the project that would lead him from the tedium that comprised his life.

‘Action…to be taken by corporations…against fraudstersss.’

Someone behind him seemed to be reading out a newspaper headline. The voice hissed on the last word, reminding Steve of a talking snake. Someone else murmured a reply.

‘What’s that all about then, darling?’

‘One of the field work companies has been ripped off ssso many times that it’s going to start defending itself, sssweetheart.’

Steve felt adrenalin surge within him. The job he was going to start with one of the so called ‘field work’ companies formed the basis of his plan.

‘How will they do that, darling?’

‘They’ll use the same technology they use for testing advertsss and…’

The rest of the reply was lost as the ascending tone of the mobile phone returned and the man to Steve’s right reacted.

‘I’m going to blazing well lose it, I am. In a moment I’m going to lose it big time. I’m just trying to get an honest forty winks. I need to get some sleep before I crack up.’

The phone continued to ring for a minute then stopped again. The never-ending stress and hostility that Steve saw all around him every day was one reason why he wanted out of the system. He needed to stop feeling trapped like an animal on a wheel inside a cage. He glanced out the window and saw the myriad lights of a gated community passing by. He knew that soon he would have so much money that he would be able to afford to live in a place like that. He shuddered in pleasurable anticipation of his future. He just wanted to get through the remainder of the day and then he would initiate the plan. Another announcement butted in on his inner dialogue.

‘Next stop, platform number eight…platform number eight…platform number eight…’

Feeling almost hypnotized by a combination of exhaustion after a double shift in the factory and the sound of the train wheels on the track, Steve closed his eyes again and continued to rehearse his next step. He had completed the preliminary requirement of the field work company for the surgery to insert the socket and the circuitry behind his ear. Once he got home, he would follow the procedure and connect himself from his home terminal to the company computer. But he would only comply with the first stages. After that, he was not going to do what the company expected him to do.

The mobile phone began to ring again and this time Steve could not ignore his neighbour on his right as the cuff of his suit and its sharp-edged buttons trailed across the top of his head. He opened his eyes to see the man striding down the narrow aisle to locate the source of the sound. Commuters awoke then cowered away. Steve watched the muscles on the back of the man’s neck ripple as he rotated his head. The phone hunter turned and stared in Steve’s direction then swivelled his gaze back towards the end of the carriage and walked on. More blood trickled down Steve’s neck. Behind him, the snake man and his companion continued their conversation.

‘You know what I really think, darling?’

‘What’s that, sssweetheart?’

‘I think anyone who works for a field work company must be a bit desperate and…’

‘Perhaps, sssweetheart.’

‘…and I think that all that money lures them in but I think these companies are exploiting them. And it doesn’t seem right or natural to control people’s dreams when they’re sleeping, especially when it’s dreadful adverts that the company’s going to cram their heads with…’

‘Well, sssweetheart, there has to be some way to research the response to new products, doesn’t there? At the end of the day, that’s just businesss, isn’t it?’

There was no reply but Steve knew that he wasn’t in the slightest bit desperate because he knew that he was going to trick the company. His previous job as a computer engineer, before he became redundant, had supplied him with the technical knowledge he required. Once things were under way, for the first time in years, he would be really living and not just doing a dead-end job while obsessing about a plan of escape. He would have the money to travel and see new places and if he wanted to he could climb mountains and cross deserts and swim in blue seas.

Somewhere in the carriage the mobile phone emitted a burst of white noise then stopped ringing. The phone hunter was arguing with somebody and berating them with details of the amount of overtime he had to do to put food on the table for his family but Steve was more concerned with what the couple behind him were saying.

‘…and employees have tried to sssteal from the field work companies and now the companies want to punish them and I think esssentially it’s a good idea.’

‘Well, darling, do you want to know what I think? I think you’ve changed. Since you had that operation, you’ve changed ever so much.’

There was a pause.

‘But…sssweetheart, I did it for you, for us I mean. I’m not getting any younger and I have to compete and ssshow them that…’

The reverberation of the engine and the electronic voice filled the carriage as the train passed through a tunnel.

‘We will shortly be arriving at platform number eight…platform number eight…platform number eight…’

The train emerged from the tunnel and slowed down to a halt and the doors hissed open. Commuters got off and on but Steve paid no attention to them. He was too preoccupied with his plan. He wasn’t intimidated by the companies attempts to protect themselves as he knew that his strategy was too sophisticated to fail. He accepted that he would have to start the job as any regular employee would do by plugging in the cable at night while he was asleep and enduring a night of adverts circulating in his dreams while the company recorded his responses. But nobody knew that in his flat he had set up a simulator, a device that he had programmed with a copy of his own neurological profile. It would deceive the company’s computers and cause them to think he had continued to plug himself into their system every night. They weren’t so smart after all. Capitalism wasn’t as invulnerable as it seemed. Steve knew that soon he would be on a lifelong vacation while the wages flowed into his bank account.

The engine started up again and the train trundled out of the station before it began to accelerate. Steve was still lost in thought but his reverie of foreign lands was interrupted as the irate phone hunter approached him.

‘Here mate, does that infernal mobile belong to you? Hand it over. C’mon, stop playing games or I’m going to chin you.’

Steve whimpered. More than anything else, physical violence was what he feared. He fanned out his fingers in a gesture of placation and the man became angrier.

‘C’mon mate, don’t try and soft soap me. I’m tired and I’m at the end of my tether. Hand over that phone, buddy. Where have you hidden it?’

Before Steve could answer, the man lunged forward and his hand brushed against a strand of wire hanging from the socket behind Steve’s ear.

‘What’s all this then, mate? Some sort of hands-free?’

The man grabbed the strand of wire and tugged on it and Steve felt a strange sliding sensation deep within his skull. In the background he heard the snake man continue to describe developments in corporate retribution.

‘…a punishment they call ‘the rodent wheel.’ It’s a loop of a sssubject’s memories that the company programmers edit and add fictitious elements to in order to cause insssanity.’

Immobilized by dread, Steve watched the man frown as he pulled the wire taut and pain ricocheted inside Steve’s head. Somewhere nearby, the mobile ringtone began again. Other passengers turned to see what was happening and someone screamed. The guard re-appeared beside the phone hunter and adopted an expression of grave concern before he spoke.

‘In the final analysis you’ve only got yourself to blame, Steve, and you were unwise, to say the very least, to think that you could steal our property and get away with it.’

Steve managed to sob out the beginning of a sentence.

‘But I hadn’t even started to…’

The flow of blood from the socket behind his ear thickened and formed a pool in his collar and, as the train entered another tunnel, the pain increased until a wave of darkness engulfed him…

Waking up and not knowing where he was, Steve panicked. There was a face close in front of him and the mouth began to move.

‘Are you alright, my friend? You were shouting in your sleep just now.’

Then he heard the engine of the train and saw the exhausted passengers of the evening commuter express service sprawling in their seats and he felt the relief of having emerged from a nightmare. The person in front of him stood up. He wore a guard’s uniform and Steve felt good that he was somewhere that he knew. At least he was safe even if he was stuck in the same old routine. Maybe his life wasn’t so bad.

He relaxed and shut his eyes and started to think about his plan, the plan that would free him from his low-paying job. Soon he would be able to stop living in a daydream about the future and start to live in the moment and broaden his mind with a lot of travel, perhaps even go to live somewhere with a warm climate and good food and friendly people. Soon he could just enjoy himself and live life one day at a time. Soon but not quite yet. Somewhere further down the carriage, a mobile phone with an irritating tone started to ring. It sounded familiar and Steve tried to recall where he might have heard it once before. He was sure he knew that sound from somewhere. The sound of the mobile phone was drowned out by the noise of the announcement system.

‘Next stop, platform number eight…platform number eight…platform number eight…’

The electronic voice boomed through the carriage. There was nothing to stop him getting off at platform number eight and there would be people that he knew sitting in the cafes in the area around the station. He could abandon his plan for tonight and just go out and socialize instead. And maybe he needed to spend more time on his plan. Perhaps it wasn’t perfect. He wondered if there was any chance it would not succeed. Maybe he was being arrogant and there was a possibility that he could get caught. As the train moved past the ragged skyline of the city, he inhaled the soft warm air of the May evening and he realized that he had a choice. A few seats away, he heard the mobile phone ringing…

Ruairi MacInnes currently lives in Valencia, Spain, but previously lived in London. An altered version of commuter life in London forms the setting for this story. Ruairi’s previous publication credits include MicroHorror, Murky Depths and Eunoia Review.

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