The loser cruiser

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It's odd how threads migrate from topic to topic on news. Here's one that started off on the subject of public transport and buses in San Francisco, and look where it wound up!

Subject: Re: The Loser Cruiser
From: (Charlie Stross)
Date: Mon, 09 Oct 1995 21:56:53 +0000
In article <>, (Angus McIntyre) wrote:
>But as you say, there's the tube - if someone hasn't killed themselves
>under it, if it's still running, and if the government don't decide to
>axe it permanently - and the buses. As to Night Buses, now there's a
>peeve ...

London, Angus, is the Metropolis. A veneer of relative sophistication coats the grisly bones of public nighttime transport. For some reason it is presumed that right-thinking citizens hie themselves off to bed as the hour approaches midnight, leaving the streets to ghoulish and insomniacal life-forms that wouldn't know a hard day's work if one bit them on the leg; such life-forms need not sleep, and therefore do not deserve the luxury of civilized transportation and may be sacrificed on the sanguinary altar of the dreaded Night Bus.

But in other parts of the kingdom that Empire forgot, things are much cruder.

As a case in point, consider the last MetroTrain from Bradford to Leeds on a Saturday night. Leeds and Bradford are two cities in Yorkshire. In the mid-nineteenth century both of them grew from villages to provincial centres of industry: but from the mid-twentieth onwards, one of them prospered while the other turned into, er, Bradford. Were Bradford an adjective rather than a noun it would be put to most constructive use in the vernacular of military personnel: "we hit the enemy bunker with GBU-47s then went back and bradforded it with our miniguns until nothing moved." Bradford is the archetypical depressed English city, with added curry. Three hundred curry houses supply a population of half a million with their daily dose of chillies, presumably on the grounds that a good capsaicin-induced endorphin rush keeps you from getting too depressed about your surroundings. Leeds, on the other hand, is famous for two exports: financial services and the most terrifying soccer fans outside of Milwall.

The two cities intersect in one phenomenon: the BBC. This is not an acronym for a well-known television and radio broadcasting company, but for the Bradford Beer and Curry circuit beloved of the LUFC supporters (and their compatriots). Bradford is twelve miles from Leeds, and every weekend there is a migration of short-haired thugs who travel in packs, searching for cheap lager and cheaper vindaloo.

English pubs being English, there is a strict chucking-out hour -- eleven pm. At the appointed hour, bells ring, bouncers bounce, and a human tide of epic, indeed toxic, proportions swills out onto the cobbled hilly streets of Bradford. At this point, every curry house in the city becomes preternaturally busy, removing money from wallets and emptying buckets of slops down the throat of the great inebriated horde. This to some extent irritates the lower life forms among the crowd, who have not yet figured out that it is possible to drink on a well-fed stomach and ensure a better meal to boot ... and thus they become fractious, rowdy, and ever so slightly destructive.

I once had the misfortune to be consigned to the Last MetroTrain to Leeds one Saturday night. It was like something out of Mad Max VII: The Train to Hell's Bad Neighbourhood. The scene: a well-lit, somewhat decrepit platform jutting out of the strange, geodesic excrescence that is Bradford Interchange. Assorted quasi-human anthropoids grunt and gibber on the concrete, scratching their nether regions and sniffing, while a gaggle of stilt-heeled crow-like females (resplendent in the black plumage that typifies the species) squawk encouragement from the sidelines. There's a mournful hoot from the end of the platform, then a noise not unlike an expiring whale as the train heaves into sight. It's a MetroTrain -- a pair of hacked busses welded end-to-end and dumped on top of an ancient locomotive of dubious provenance that was probably acquired by British Rail as part of an exchange deal with an obscure Columbian mountain railroad company run by gentlemen from Medelin.

The contraption squeals to a shuddery halt at the buffers on the platform, directly adjacent to the crowd of leather-and-stonewashed-denim clad creatures, who jump and whoop and holler as the doors hiss and slide open. Masquerading as one of them, I tug my EastGerman army-surplus greatcoat tighter, adjust my mirrorshades, pull the brim of my hat down over my eyes, and do my best to look absolutely unlike anyone you could possibly conceive of asking for a light on a no-smoking train -- indeed, to try to look so intimidatingly unapproachable that even the crows wouldn't dare risk a grope. To be human on this cattle-car voyage is to be meat.

The driver escapes the cab and makes a dash for the station office. Baying howls of rage rise from the swarm of apes, who have now been waiting for all of thirty seconds. But he's fast -- he knows this crowd, and before they have a chance to get really mad he's into the door marked STAFF ONLY and -- being very English anthropoids -- they won't risk venturing beyond a threshold anointed with the spoor of Management.

Thick-set animals bounce up and down on their tatooed knuckles, aching for blood. A dark-skinned one snarls abuse at a small crowd of yellow short- furred stone-throwers clustered around an alpha male, who throws his head back, howls, and then screams his existential rage at the interloper. The train wheezes tiredly, steam and condensation oozing from the oil-dripping underbelley of the drug-runner's cattle car. A gaggle of crows gather on the sidelines and shriek abuse, the sickly sodium vapour light reflecting bloody highlights from their lip-gloss. The scene is one out of Bosch, if Hieronymus had had access to a time machine and a shark-diver's cage for the close-observation bits.

Finally, a new driver emerges from the office, knees knocking and face palid. He's been a bad boy, I can tell just by looking at the sickly expression on his face. (Maybe he had his fingers in the till; siphoning off diesel fuel for his car, overcharing for tickets. Or maybe he's been too smart, answered back to the station master once too often. Whichever, there's no doubt about it; this is punishment duty.) He knows he's in bad trouble from the moment he sees the swarming menace on the platform. The train's now two minutes late and the life forms are getting excited. (Maybe he refused to go under and renounce union membership in the new, bleaker light of the privatized era. Maybe he's an authentic working class hero, stranded out of time in an industry that refuses perversely to die, even as it writhes in the death agonies of thatcherism.) He tightens the straps on his flak jacket determinedly, adjusts his night-vision glasses, and jumps down onto the shit-strewn track next to his vehicle. He lopes along beside it, then hops right up into the driver's cab via the door on the far side of the train from the platform. Good driver! (Maybe he's done this run before, and survived.) There's a busy clattering as he installs the deadbolts, rams the padlocks through their eyes, arms the Mac-10 he keeps beside him for emergencies, and turns over the big diesels.

With a cough and a splutter the train burps forth a thick blue plume of half-burned fuel oil. The doors gape wider, and the cabin lights flicker on like the ghostly corpse-glow of a million fireflies. A crackle stirs dust from the cones of the speakers high overhead: "The train now at platform one will depart at twelve-oh-five, calling at New Pudsey ..." inaudible "... and Leeds, where this service will terminate."

Screeching and gibbering, the nightlife packs itself into a single congested, heaving mass at the doors. The train shakes and rolls from side to side as metric tonnes of hot smelly flesh surges down the aisles between the knife- slashed seats and grafitti-sprayed walls. I wait my turn, keeping my distance, the eternal observer. A terrified middle-aged couple, a bit too tipsy for their own safety, stare at me, the crowd, then back at me; she smiles tentatively, unsure whether I am Safe or -- like the crowd -- pose an immediate threat to her continued metabolic function. "Busy, isn't it?" she simpers, by way of defusing the imminent crisis.

I nod, sombrely, attempting to portray through gesture the nice home-boy candour of the freshly-minted serial killer, safe and friendly in the right public context but by no means anyone you would want to introduce your daughter to -- a boy called Geoff with a cupboard lined in flayed human skulls will do nicely for my avatar on this voyage of the damned. She recoils instinctively, clutches at her plumber-husband's arm, and looks elsewhere. Good. Then it is their turn to board the train. I follow, and the door sighs shut behind me.

There are two carriages in this train. At either end there is a driver's cab, padlocked and bolted shut, decalled over with signs depicting graphic electric death for anyone who should so much as think of taking a crowbar to the door. The doors open behind the cab, into a small vestibule lined with seats: the main body of the carriage is separated from this vestibule by a sliding glass partition. At the opposite end of each carriage, in the middle of the train, there is a joint, rubber-walled, with a toilet in one carriage and a bicycle compartment in the other. Each chamber is unspeakably defiled in a manner I hesitate to describe.

The suburban couple (too wine-emboldened or cash-impoverished to do the sensible thing and pay the twenty pound fee for a kamikaze muslim taxi driver to drive them home at breakneck speed), huddle in full view of the passenger compartment, clutching at each other as they sit on the seats in the vestibule. I wait for the doors to shut then stand in the legwell of the doorway, knowing that my head is below the level of the window -- useful if anyone attempts to deploy a quick-loading crossbow or pump-action shotgun. (The walls of the train, with the exception of the driver's cab, are thin enbough that such a projectile could easily slice right through me.) I grin up at my companions humourlessly, quite happy for them to draw my fire, as the turbocharger on the diesel spools up to a banshee whine and the train grinds and crankily jounces away from the buffers.

The first leg of the journey is uphill, into a railway cutting that slices like a knife blade through the colon of a patient rotten with Crohn's disease. Putrefying sores of wasteland glow as if radioactive beneath the moon's chancreous face. Great rusting memorial mounds of cars rise overhead as the track cuts deeper into the hill, where sleeping wrecker's cranes gloat over the bones of their prey. A gasometer squats amidst the devastated anus of an industrial city buttfucked by recession, rendered brown and shiny as a fart-bubbling turd by the omnipresent orange light. Even the tattered clouds glow red and poisonous overhead as the train's wheels squeal their agony on the uphill bend.

Back in the zoo compartment it's feeding time, and the main dietary supplements are racism and strong lager (laced with a scattering of whizz and angel dust). Hoots and roars: the train shakes from side to side as the alpha male and his crowd try to mob the dark-skinned interloper, who bares his teeth and screams defiance at them. Crow-like harpies perch on the passenger racks, hurling abuse in voices like torn tins of Bud. A low-grade riot is brewing. Someone has done something unspeakable in the toilet; as the train slows on the uphill gradient I catch a whiff of something that makes me gag.

I am now fully cognizant of my predicament, and conclude that even with maximum concealment and the full use of my sphere of intimidation I am unlikely to survive this experience unscathed. Perhaps it will be necessary to conduct a blood ritual to avert the shedding of my own -- I am not sanguine about the prospects, but I eye up the builder and his mate cautiously while attempting to strop my knife one-handed in the pocket of my coat. It feels sharp. However, there is sharp and there is Sharp -- and in this situation little short of shrapnel from a claymore mine would prove sufficiently devestating. My chosen weapon is usually a razor-sharp simile -- not much use against a crowd of creatures whose idea of an expression codifying their beliefs, aspirations, and hopes is "'ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ERE WE GO!!!" (followed by a choral rendition of that charming ditty, "you're gonna get your fucking 'ead kicked in"). So I keep eyeing my chosen sacrificial victims, but consider that my main hope lies in keeping my head below the parapet and my hands firmly in my pockets. Even anthropoids as primitive as Leeds United supporters have been known to pause in the face of the trick-or-treat spectre of a geek with an Uzi in either hand.

The train rolls over the top of the hill then gathers speed as it chugs downhill towards New Pudsey. New Pudsey is a sleepy village, midway between Leeds and Bradford, that has been colonized by cellphone wielding yuppies in search of a suburban paradise, and by branches of famous chain stores who have staked out an airfield's worth of space for their out-of-town mall development. The train squeals to a stop beneath the floodlit gaze of the security surveillance cameras and razor-wire fences on the fully robotized station. Doors hiss open. A blast of hot, wet, noisesome air eructs from the cabin, followed closely by the flying body of an asian youth. I do not have time to see whether his throat is really cut from ear to ear, or whether it is a trick of the light: I join with the refugees from suburbia in grabbing the glass partition door and sliding it shut, trapping a stray claw that writhes and twitches before withdrawing.

The next stop is somewhere anonymous, a suburban development of glowering council flats and cheap, nasty Barrett blocks on the edge of nowhere. No security systems here: nothing worth protecting from the twelve o'clock special.

As the train pulls into the station it shudders and a terrific roar of rage and pain goes up; something's happening. I risk a glance over the seat backs and what I see makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The dark-skinned interloper is faced off against the blonde alpha-male in the middle of the carriage. Great apes gibber and bounce up and down with excitement as they spit and drool and roar undiluted rage and hate at each other. There's a scuffle as they close, then the dark-skinned one is lifted on a wave of paws and raised helplessly towards the ceiling. A window opens: they're going to defenestrate him! The window's a bit narrow -- I tense, waiting for them to try to hack him limb from limb. Then the doors open. The blonde tribe and their dark-haired victim spill out onto the concrete in a hail of claws and fur, and a couple more dark- skinned ones follow suit. They begin breaking lumps of concrete off the side of the platform and throwing them at each other. A crowbar appears from nowhere.

The driver knows enough to see in his mirror that the situation has begun to escallate. The doors hiss shut and he guns the engine, even as the first guns come out on the platform. Someone is screaming into a microphone, calling in an artillery strike. The big diesel pounds beneath our feet and the platform slides behind us in a flurry of bright flashes. This is only a small commuter train but the driver, spooked, clutches the dead man's handle in a grip of rigor mortis all the way to the junction with the East Coast main line.

We pause at the junction for a minute, as the great dark shadow of an InterCity 225 slides by, grinding in from London and other enlightened places that bask under the aegis of civilization and riot control squads. Then the driver lets out the brakes, and I breathe a sigh of relief as we drift towards the platform at the edge of Leeds station where the police watch from behind their riot shields, tear gas grenade launchers shouldered and ready.

"We made it," grins the female suburbanite, inanely smiling. In the wreckage of the compartment behind us, the anthropoids are hooting and picking their nits. Later, the decontamination team will come by in their white body- suits, armed with body bags and hose pipes to flush away the spoor of the night people. But for now we are arrived, alive. The doors open. It is a fine, cold night and the moon is ringed with a halo of ice crystals. "Isn't it lovely weather?" she simpers at me.

I nod. "Lovely weather."

For the survivors ...

-- Charlie Stross

"Sheep are seriously underestimated creatures when it comes to spirituality and religious feeling. For the first time, this book recognizes their huge potential and offers every ovine student of buddhism the opportunity to focus their skills and follow the path to enlightenment. From meditation to the essential concepts of zen, all the fumdamentals are set out here in a series of concise interpretations of buddhist teaching. For the sheep in your life, this groundbreaking book will be essential reading."

(Buddhism for Sheep, pub. Ebury Press, 1995)

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