You make it around two hundred cars with your grappling equipment before the one you're on slowly rises up and shoots forward. For a brief, unspeakably hopeful moment you think Hazel, but this car isn't ejecting. This car moves at a fairly tranquil pace.
You're being summoned.
The engine room is spacious and white, and there's a girl inside. Her red hair is like a beacon amongst the blank, and even as she lowers herself from some sort of platform you don't feel afraid. You weren't afraid of Amelia, either.
"'Sup," the engineer says, her voice scratchy with puberty. It sounds familiar. Too familiar. "Sorry about the rough treatment, but once we decided you were probably heading up here One-One and I figured it'd be quicker to bring you home."
You hesitate a little. You expected robots, or angry old women. This girl looks younger than you. "Are you... a denizen?
The engineer's face shifts a little, then settles. "Ehhh, it's kind of complicated. I guess you could call me a part-timer?" She looks at her hand- flat and numberless- and shrugs. "I was a passenger like you, once. But after that the train decided it liked me, so I come here in my downtime to learn to fix it up." As if remembering her manners, she stuck out her hand for a shake. "The name's Tulip. You're Grace Monroe, right?"
You don't take it. "Grace. Just Grace."
"Gotcha. What can I do for you, Grace?"
"I just..." You start, then stop, flustered. This is going all sideways. "I wanted to speak to One."
"Sure," Tulip replies, "but it might be awhile- he got a new car idea and, well, it's impossible to drag him away until it's done. You alright with waiting a coupla days?"
"No," you admit. Tulip hardly blinks. "I just wanted to- report the death of a passenger, I guess? I figured it would be best to tell y'all before you noticed the number drop."
Tulip hums and leads you over to a computer. Faces and numbers sit there, frozen in time, as Tulip pulls up a search bar. "Name? And do you know what their last number was?"
"Simon," you say, "and it was... really high."
Simon's face pops up almost instantly. The green number trailing offscreen is only made worse by his childhood photo. Tulip whistles. "Didn't think they got that high without war crimes," she says softly; which, frankly, is opening up an entirely different can of worms. "I'm, um, I'm sorry about your loss."
"Mm," you grunt.
"I'm not great at the whole comforting thing, soooo... Anything I can get you? Food? A ride?" She turned back to the console. "I could probably find a for-realsies therapist and schloom you on over to them."
"A ride would be nice."
"Alright. Pick your poison." Tulip's face softened. "And be careful, okay?"
"The metal girl!" you realize, making her blink. "Sorry, I just... knew your face from somewhere."
"You know, that happens more than you might think."
A familiar urge to cause carnage rises within you when you close the red door behind you. The Cat's Car has a wide walkway but is cluttered all up the sides, making it difficult to keep directions right. You wonder, belatedly, if there was ever a challenge to this car, and what it would've been. Maybe a scavenger hunt?
"Cat," you say, because you know she hears you. In this car, The Cat hears and knows all. "We need to talk."
There's a delicate pause, only broken by the click-click-click of claws as she hops onto a boudoir nearby, tail tip flicking. "How nice of you to come barging into my home, Grace," she grumbles. "It's one thing for clueless passenger's to do it, but would it have killed you to knock?"
The Cat holds up a paw. "I've heard all about your little redemption scheme, girl. A noble effort. But don't think it'll wash away the past. Any help you get from me will be double, no, triple the cost."
Her ears flattened. "What, Grace?"
"It's about Simon."
Her features softened.
You watch with building anxiety as The Cat jumped down onto a little side table, reluctantly gesturing for you to take the stuffed armchair beside it. You do so with great reluctance, unused to the soft texture after years of metal benches and linoleum floor beds.
"What did he do this time?" she asked, blunt. "I suppose it has something to do with that memory watcher, yes? I told him to respect your privacy, but when has anyone ever listened to me?"
"He's dead, Samantha."
The Cat's fur fluffed up in an undignified manner, starting with her tail and working up to her muzzle and down to her toes. Her yellow eyes grew to the size of saucers as she studied you, waiting for a punchline of some kind. You don't blame her. You've been pretty cruel in the past.
Finally, she chokes out, "You're wrong."
"He's not dead," she spat. "Tell me where he vanished. Tell me what car it was. I'll- I'll find him. I'll save him this time. I swear, Grace, I'll find him, just..." Her face fell. "He didn't vanish, did he?"
You slowly shake your head, overwhelmed by the passion the denizen showed. You knew, of course, that Simon had meant a lot to her, just as he had meant a lot to you, but you didn't imagine that death would shake her after being alive as many decades as she had. "It was... it was a Ghom."
"Oh, mon chaton," she whispered, eyes falling shut. Her words became strangled and wobbly. "Blasted cockroaches. Amelia made them powerful, you know. Once there was only a few. But then she came, and everything went rotten and sour. Simon deserved better. Simon..." She broke off with a hiccupping laugh. "Who am I kidding? Simon probably did it to himself."
Your lips purse, halfway to telling her exactly what Simon had done, when you paused. It wasn't doing any good to reminisce about it. Besides; you wanted to forget that day forever, not relay every painful part of it. "He was confused. And hurting. And the Ghom... it's gone now, too."
"I gave him my everything, but it wasn't enough." The Cat's lips drew back in a snarl. "I failed my boy."
It's almost instinct, driven by years of comforting nightmares. You reached out and drag The Cat to your chest, Tulip's voice buzzing in your ear like a wasp. Anything I can get you? Food? A ride? The feline froze for a fragile second before collapsing with a little squeak, sobbing into the line of your elbow. Her words phase in and out, broken snippets of French and English. And you, remembering a lullaby Simon had taught you, half-mumble and half-sing in a lackluster attempt to be comforting.
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
Grief doesn't make The Cat's mind any less sharp, or her tips any easier to finagle, but you manage. Amelia has a job, and she does it- or so you assume- but she has favorite hangout spots. The most recent of which was a present to her from One-One: The Phonebooth Car.
Amelia is fiddling with half a dozen random gizmos as you approach. She must hear you approach, but she doesn't seem to care much either way. The false street beside them has no cars to drown each other out.
"I need to talk to Hazel," you start, ignoring how your heart constricts at her name.
"And I need a new spanner," she responds, with absolutely no inflection. "What's your point?"
"Please, Amelia. I just need a moment with her."
She finally turns toward you, eyebrows raised. "I already told you lot; I'm not a daycare. If you want to talk to Hazel, go find Hazel. I sent her up a couple of cars to get readings a few days ago now."
"On her own?"
"Not. A. Daycare." Amelia punctuated each word with a sharp tap to her screen.
You want to. Stars, you want to. But you also know that Hazel probably wouldn't feel comfortable meeting up with you alone like that. It's why you bothered with Amelia in the first place; to make Hazel feel safer. "If you can't be a daycare, would you mind being a voicemail machine?"
Amelia let out a long groan. "God, I hate children. You're all so needy. What?"
There was a short pause. "Well, at least it's short."
"She'll be- not happy, but glad."
"Mm," Amelia said. "I heard about her little monkey friend."
You tense, somewhat. It's hard to hear Tuba being referred to so dismissively. "Have you ever done that? Killed a denizen?"
She stares you down a long moment. "I'm the last person you should ask that question to. You know damn well what I'll answer." As if on cue, she reached up to scratch her neck, revealing a row of numbers. "The way I see it, denizens are numbers. But so are people, and this train, and the clouds. It's all numbers. Every person gets to decide how they add up, is all."
"Well, Simon added up dead," you respond, a bit stung.
Amelia laughed. It was a sharp, barking thing. "People tend to do that. Especially people we love."
You turn away. "Fine. Just tell her for me, alright?"
"You're allowed to be sad, you know?" Amelia called behind her. "He might've been a bad person, but he was still a person. And people have numbers, and mass, and names. Even the bad ones."
"I don't need advice from some fake conductor."
She shrugged and went back to her work. "You do you."
You've just barely turned the corner before the pitter-patter of bare feet catch your ear. Heart thundering in you throat, you let your back press into the brick wall and you just. Wait.
"Thanks," says Hazel.
"You better be," says Amelia, with the exact same tone, as if she hadn't just attempting to impart theological advice. "Don't expect me to cover for you again. We're here to work, not babble on about personal issues."
Hazel paused. "Is Simon really dead?" she asked, her voice so soft and fragile it made everything twist horribly inside of you.
"I doubt she'd come all this way on a hunch."
"Just means one less number running around. And that only lasts until some kid stubs a toe, or develops mommy issues."
"I hope Tuba knows," she responds, and then equipment shuffling noises. "I'll go get those readings you wanted."
"You do that."
And then she's gone.
And it's all over. You have no one left to tell.
And you cry.
Finally, you cry.