We’re passing through one of my favourite places. It has a name I cannot pronounce, so I have named it ‘The Sea of Mountains’. I must admit, for all my travels, I am still restricted to English. We’re thousands of feet in the air at the moment, held up by little more than expensive magnets. Almost level to the road, even spilling over in places, is an endless expanse of cloud. Dyed blue, it is a weightless sea held up as water vapour. The mountains are massive, distant and silent. The air is saturated; the indigo from the sea and the greeny-greys of the mountains dance together around funnels of warm air rising from the underworld. Although the view is hazy, the landscape is distinctly beautiful as we float by. My co-pilot and I are the only ones on board. He usually plays his music but now he is quiet. I don’t know what it is – tiredness, despondency or something else entirely, but something halts his almost unremitting desire to fill his ears with foreign sounds and I am happy when it does. Silence is music to me. It fills my ears and cuts through everything else.
The radio crackles like the careful rustling of paper and a man billions of miles in front whispers through us, like we’re the string between tin cans, to a carriage depot billions of miles in the other direction. His voice is soft, almost imperceptible. Like us, he hates to speak and cut through the quiet that surrounds us like velvet. The walls come down when there is no sound, and our minds begin to wander at ten thousand kilometres per second, then faster. We fly level with them for a while and then they edge ahead of our hands folded across laps, feet in black boots on the dashboard, past the levers and dials and through the quadruple glaze polymer windscreen out into the space beyond. Then they move faster than the speed of light through bright places and the big dark and they fill the universe all at once. They do this because we are mirrors and our introspection explodes out in every direction impossibly fast and the walls are down and then we can hear the universe breathing. It is heavy upon our eardrums and it is surreal. The driver on the radio whispers hoarse and when he signs out his voice is tight with inexplicable sadness. He is alone, and he is far away. He is alone in the universe. We are alone in ours. My co-pilot appreciates the silence too, but he is new and I think it unsettles him. He is standing on a cliff edge, looking down into a very dark, very cold abyss and his world sways like he’s on the verge of falling out into the sky and never coming back. We are all on the edge of reality here, but there is a horizon above the abyss and we learn to look beyond it. Us older guys can see a great many things and feel a great many feelings that not many other people do. The speedometer ticks and I’m compelled to ask. He is slow to stir but then tells me.
‘Eighty thousand kilometres an hour.’
Now I’m quiet for a while.
‘You’ll be alright,’ I say.
‘You’ll get used to it.’
Today is day two of our journey across ‘The Sea of Mountains’. We’re approaching the transfer to the next planet now. I’m sitting on my bed as I write this. I expect we’ll be taking passengers before we go through. We’re flying through deceleration panels and the air is thudding against the walls – it starts off as a drone and slows right down to a contented “shoomf” as we roll into the terminal twenty minutes later, as if to say ‘Welcome home. Welcome back to reality, isolated as it may be.’
A little diesel engine rumbles and we climb an elevator shaft, wobble to a halt then pass through a maintenance check with bleak panel lighting dictating our path through mechanical arms and sullen-faced belt operators. We’re swiftly returned to the sunlight and find ourselves up against the stone platform inside a massive sun-drenched terminal. People move in every direction across the central plaza of the station with fedoras cocked to one side or lace parasols, slipping past each other like hundreds of carriages in a carefully orchestrated rail junction. Everything is made golden and the clocks are actually gold, making telling time blindingly difficult. The two rails skirt opposite edges of the plaza and another carriage is opposite us, loading heavy freight. My co-pilot sighs and swings his legs out of the door. ‘Thirty three minutes ‘til we leave, Jim’ he says, and starts walking away, squinting up against the vast glass ceiling and yawning.
I climb out after him but he is already gone into the crowds - perhaps already lost in the jumble of streets below, looking to make the most of his time in some café or side street flea market. Before I can make my own exit a man appears beside me, wearing a company cap and carrying a clipboard. ‘You’re the pilot of this carriage?’
‘Yes sir I am’
‘You’ll be carrying medium freight as well as passengers today,’ He scribbles in his clipboard as he talks. ‘Are your airbrakes and rail treads appropriately calibrated?’
‘No sir, we didn’t know about any freight, sir. You’ll have to send her back down.’
‘Very well.’ He frowns and his sentences are a blur across the page. He taps the paper with his pen. ‘You’re leaving in thirty one minutes, be punctual.’
The terminal is an elevated structure and when you get out of its shadow the town is a very pleasant place. Yellow brick houses with red tiled roofs have crammed themselves into alley-like streets, and are for the most part heavily adorned with coloured window shutters and potted plant balconies. There are no automobiles or public transportation systems but only cobbled streets down which boys in knickerbockers and caps roll hoops or play skittles. Shoe shiners call from their boxes on every other avenue so the men’s loafers are all like metallic beetles, slicing through the stone with each step.
With twenty four minutes remaining I get a coffee then sit under striped awnings, watching the sun slowly ignite each pane of glass and grow stronger with each new centimetre of stone it draws from. This place is a relatively new French colony, established something like sixty years ago. They designed it as a holiday resort for its wealthy founders - a sort of haven several solar systems away from life on Earth. It’s taken on a spirit of its own since then but remains influenced by its ancestry, passing up the majority of modern technology in favour of a throwback to the terrestrial era in a distinctly Amish fashion. As I watch a barista haul a wooden pail of milk behind the counter to use in the electronic cappuccino machine I wonder how convinced they are by their own historical charade. Is it possible to convince yourself of the authenticity of a life constructed from a textbook patchwork bastardised from a dozen different eras? It’s pleasant no doubt but I struggle to see myself in the shiny shoes of these smiling men, standing on street corners fingering thin moustaches and mahogany canes. They tip their caps as I walk back and I can’t help but smile as I see their pocket watches and handkerchiefs, thinking of their grandparents - the employees of the tourist industry who scrubbed toilets so that their descendants may live as aristocrats.
There is a huddle of passengers around the doors when I return and my co-pilot is standing by the cockpit door rapidly selecting and replacing different items and tools, seemingly a random, while glancing around. ‘Cutting it pretty fine Jim! Six minutes.’ I climb in and through the back, pushing my way through a few fibreglass crates (medium freight – my favourite kind) before reaching the passenger compartment. There are seven passengers in total, but only two from around here judging by their dress – a man and a woman. He beams down at me as I punch his ticket and scoops up the young woman, propelling her along in front of him like a balloon with her round face trembling and slowly rotating as she occasionally bounces off of his outstretched hands. ‘Don’t mind her’ he chuckles from behind a handlebar moustache. I get a glimpse of teeth. ‘She’s suffering from a slight nervousness, is all. Plenty of sleep and some foreign airs will do her a world of good, wouldn’t you agree?’
He grins again and they proceed inside. The rest of the passengers file in: a couple of industrial workers coated with soot and with heads half swallowed in tattered caps (‘Going out to the borders for them new mines being sunk – good money in progress son, don’t forget that.’) then two young women and a guy on vacation dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, carrying big rucksacks and shiny eyes. They’re polite but don’t say much and quickly collapse into seats by the window, looking like angels with their laughing faces illuminated while the rest of us sit in relative darkness. My co-pilot calls from the front. ‘Fifteen seconds!’
‘We’re ready Mike’ I say, ‘set her off.’