I am the most hated human being on the Train.
I know it, walking between two of the biggest guards, swaggering in their black armor and enjoying how these poor souls shrank away from them. No one would look me in the eye, some shuddered superstitiously as I passed as if I was the shadow of evil. Well, I am, aren’t I? The monster who steals their children. Taking their fragile hand and pulling them away from screaming parents, whispering in their ear and trying to distract the little ones from the meaty “thunk!” and the agonized wails of their mother or father being beaten into submission. Sometimes, to death.
And now the ragged souls that made up the tail end of the train shuffled and moved restlessly, like a herd aware that a predator had just crept into their midst. A monster searching for their youngest and weakest to carry away. The vision hit me like a fist, and I stopped for a minute, forcing down the self-disgust threatening to swamp me.
“Miss, are you all right?” It was the older one, Franco the Elder, the captain. He was looking down at me with a frown as his partner and pretty little boy-toy - as if that wasn’t obvious despite the rules against fraternization in the Snowpiercer Security - pouted and stared off into space.
I waved a hand. “I’m fine. Get moving, we’re on a schedule.” His face hardened again and I was glad. He didn’t know it, but I hated him as much as this crowd of filthy, hungry people did.
But they hated me even more.
Mason was standing on her little box, that irritating, querulous voice of hers yammering something about disobedience and punishment, the crazy witch’s two favorite words. As she started in on “Personnel needed in the front,” my hand tightened on my tape measurer and I gritted my teeth.
‘It’s the only way. No self-pity, you don’t deserve it.’ I never spoke during these excursions to the back. I’d stab a painted fingernail at one cowering child and then another, pulling the fabric length of the tape measurer down one short arm and then a leg. One ragged boy was the right size. I had to have another before leaving the tail section...
Another little one, a girl of maybe six, was staring up at me, wide-eyed. I gave her a brisk smile and shook my head. Her mother burst into tears of relief as she pulled the girl against her tightly. I searched the filthy train car. There had to be one … a right-sized one. I could see a woman shuffling slightly in the gloom, carefully keeping face-forward.
Two tiny legs are just barely visible under her long coat. I swallowed against my shame and self-loathing again and pointed at her. There was screaming, howls of anguish and desperation. Begging me not to take her baby. Ignoring the guards eagerly wading into the crowd to club and bludgeon, I leaned down and stared into the boy’s eyes, huge and brown, pupils dilated.
“You always calm them,” Wilford once chuckled, “you’re a snake charmer. You’d be admirable in a circus, making the animals tremble.”
I’ve never seen a circus. I was too young when Daddy and I boarded the Train.
When the little one took my hand, I reached for the hand of the other child and straightened to lead them from the car, from their families, and into the Hole. Only one man was brave - or stupid enough - to lean in threateningly. I knew him, I’d heard the guards complain about him more than once. Curtis something … very tall, close-cropped brown hair and a beard that ran up to his protruding cheekbones. He was handsome but not now, his face twisted with hate and his eyes … those ocean-colored eyes alive like an avenging angel's. He hated me most of all.
“I hear there was … unpleasantness today.” Wilford’s voice was smooth and musical, and he leaned back in his mahogany chair to savor a bite of steak, watching me closely.
Forcing a smile I shook my head, bracing myself to take another bite. I was probably the only other person on the Snowpiercer who had eaten beef in the last decade, but it tasted like ash.
He took a sip of his Cabernet, swirling it in the crystal glass, inhaling the delicate aroma. “Well?”
“No, Conductor. No. They were-“ I shrugged casually, “just the usual. The disgruntled unwashed.”
Wilford chuckled indulgently. “Finish your meal.” He took a perverse pleasure in keeping me plump, knowing my large hips and soft stomach made me even more disgusting to the tail section. As if I was flaunting my well-fed self in front of their desperate hunger. Just as much as he’d enjoyed starving me before, keeping me shrunken and stunted for as long as he possibly could before I could no longer take my place in the Sacred Engine. “You can feel it though, Jane. You do.”
I carefully swallowed my mouthful of steak and daintily wiped my mouth. Poor table manners upset Wilford.
“Feel what, Conductor?”
He had an odd, half-smile on his face. “Rebellion. It is imminent.”
The handsome, furious face of Curtis was the first thing I thought of, but I opened my eyes wide, snake-charming him. “They may make their ridiculous little plots, but no one would ever be insane enough to challenge you, Conductor. Never you.”
Wilford burst into laughter, a rich-sounding indulgent chuckle that scraped inside my skull and caused a headache to burst fully-blown from my cerebral cortex. Yes. I knew what the cerebral cortex was. I was allowed to read all of Wilford’s books in his huge library when I wasn’t with the children.
“Jane, Jane. Plain Jane. Didn’t I require you to read The Art of War?” His amused, contemptuous expression made my fingers grip each other in my lap.
“I did, Conductor.”
He leaned back, pressing his manicured fingertips together. “And my notes?”
“What life cycle takes place every seven to ten years in the tail section?”
Life cycle. He was a monster. “E-every seven to ten years, another rebellion forms, the Tailers rising up and trying to break out of their cars.”
Wilford had an indulgent smile as he looked at me, his trained monkey dancing for him. “And why do we perpetuate this cycle, Jane?”
“It keeps the population in the tail end of the train busy, crafting plans and scenarios. And when they finally rise up…” I swallowed hard, trying to keep dinner down. I couldn’t begin to imagine the punishment for throwing up his Wagyu beef. “Their numbers are culled to a manageable amount, put down by the Security forces to prove to all that no one can change the order of things.”
“And then?” Wilford prompted - oh, he loved hearing this part.
“Then your agent in the tail end brews plans for the next rebellion, and the cycle begins again.”
There was silence for a moment before the soft chime of a bell, a discreet reminder of “shift change!” as Wilford whimsically referred to it. I rose gratefully and he frowned. “Be seated. I did not give you permission to leave.”
I looked down. “Of course Conductor. My apologies.”
We sat, Wilford idly paging through one of his books while I gripped my hands together. They knew what it meant, the chime. They knew I would come for them, get them out of their holes, at least for a while. They were waiting for the hatch to open. They would be wondering why I wasn't there. Did I forget them? Did I not care? Would they be cramped in the monstrous bowels of the Snowpiercer until they died? Did they-
"You are excused."
Bowing my head, I whispered, "Thank you, Conductor. Good evening." Rising, I walked through his expansive chamber to a particular panel in the floor. Tapping gently, I opened it to see Manny, tiny for eight years old and dull eyes fixed on the complicated series of bearings in front of him. Leaning in to offer him my hand, I whispered, "Come on, sweetheart. Come get some rest."
Curtis was feeling adrenalized, bouncing on the balls of his feet with agitation. The guns. There were no bullets! This changed everything! "It's time, Gilliam, now!" The man before him was a spindly amalgamation of missing limbs and fierce gravitas.
"My boy. Everything must be in place, we have one chance, one opportunity-"
"Did you see what they did to Andrew?" Curtis pulled off his filthy stocking cap, restlessly walking the four paces it took to the end of Gilliam's tiny chamber, and four steps back. "Where did that bitch take his son? What are they doing to the kids?"
Gilliam took off his spectacles, rubbing his eyes. "We will get them back. We will find them."
Thinking of Tanya's agony as Timmy was ripped from her arms, the beating she took - Curtis ground his teeth together. They would kill that kidnapping bitch and every one of those guards. They would kill them all.
I was rocking Andy and humming when I heard the first reports given to Wilford, anxious, low tones speaking rapidly, his responses calm and measured. Nothing ever ruffled the Conductor's calm. Except for those times when ... I turned my face into the boy's greasy hair. No thinking. Not about then. I still bore the scars and often my back would throb like he was cutting into it again. So his long-awaited rebellion had begun. The tail-enders were rising up. They'd taken the worker's cars, gotten through the butchers who waited with their axes and knives - with torches! - and best of all, they'd captured Mason. She would be a strong hostage to get them through the next cars. I tried to remember. The aquarium, the gardens, ugh, the beauty salon cars. I was forced to go there three times a week to satisfy Wilford’s demands that I was always perfectly groomed, not a chip in my manicure, my hair shiny and styled just right. I hated the beauticians with the fake eyelashes so heavy their lids were always at half-mast. The rich passengers who went there every day, whispering when I came in. But they were too afraid of Wilford to say a word. My heart went cold. The school car. They wouldn’t hurt the children, right? They were all spoiled and believed the myth of the Sacred Engine, but they wouldn’t- not the little ones.
And then I heard the whispers, “Gilliam’s got some big fucker with him - Curtis Everett? He’s leading the rebels, and-” Burying my smile in Andy’s hair, I felt the first, cautious stir of … optimism? Even though I still had a part to play, I would gladly die. If they cut me down to get at Wilford, I would die with a smile on my face. Looking down, I could see my newest boy was finally asleep, tear tracks running clean stripes down his filthy cheeks.
“Jane. Jane, Jane. Plain Jane. Come here.”
Hastily smoothing my hair back after putting the child back in his compartment, I hurried out to see Wilford staring out the window, smiling at nothing. "Yes, Conductor?"
He glanced at me, "You heard the report, I know."
I folded my hands in front of me demurely. "Yes, Conductor."
He put his hands on my padded shoulders, almost paternally, unless you knew him. "You still have a job to do, don't you, Jane?"
"And why is this necessary, Jane?" He seemed almost amused, his tone light.
"Because..." I swallowed, wetting my dry lips, "Because the ecosystem must be preserved, Conductor."
I was sitting Andy and humming a rhythmic tune, shaping his fingers in a complex, repetitious pattern. Tapping my foot in the same rhythm, I murmured in a low, soothing voice to the little boy. He'd stopped crying a few hours ago, and I was anxious to teach him the system I'd created, how to work the pistons and levers while using self-hypnosis to keep him from all the things ... all the things that had happened to children before in the Hole.
I'd not heard Wilford raise his voice like that for years, and I scrambled up, hurrying into his chamber while smoothing my hair and the pink suit he was so fond of. "Yes, Conductor?
He was pacing in his blue silk robe, the belt swirling and fluttering as he walked. His eyes were alight, even though he held that urbane, self-assured expression he always had. “They are close, only a car or two away.”
I wasn’t sure if I should scream with joy, or start weeping with the knowledge I would likely be dead soon. Just as long as the children were freed first. “I’ll get ready, Conductor.”
My hair was shiny and perfect, flowing down my back and pulled back with a pink ribbon, the way Wilford liked. My suit: immaculate, no runs in my stockings. And the AK-47 I was gripping was cleaned and serviced and held a full clip. The rebels had already leaned by now, I was sure, that there were indeed still bullets left on the Train. Tucking myself into a corner that made me invisible, I waited for the tail-enders to burst through the last barrier. They didn’t know this yet, but the massive doors that led to the very front, to the chambers of the Sacred Engine, were bulletproof. Likely blast-proof, though there were no grenades on Snowpiercer. I could hear the shouts and screams getting louder and tightened my grip on the gun. And as the last connecting door ripped open and bodies began shoving their way through I laid down a line of fire, bullets sparking and clanging around the steel compartment. There were screams and a dark-haired whirlwind of a man rolled in and behind something. I recognized those black eyes- they’d pulled Namgoong the engineer from his stasis tube. They just might defeat Wilford after all. Nonetheless, I shot him in the shoulder, hearing him yelp as he went down. I cleared my throat.
“Mr. Everett. The Conductor would like to speak with you.”
The huge man stepped through the shattered remnants of the door, staring at me in confusion. “You…” he hissed.
I inclined my head to the massive silver doors that were sliding open. Jaw set, he strode in, I followed with another quick staccato of suppressing fire. It would be the last thing I ever did to assist Wilford. It was up to this filthy tail-ender now.
“Curtis, everyone has their preordained position, and everyone is in their place except you,” Wilford’s smooth voice greeted our ragged visitor.
I gripped the AK-47 tighter to keep my hands from shaking, watching the interaction between the men. My heart twisted watching Curtis’s horror when he realized his mentor Gilliam - the Sage of the tail section -was the second architect of the sick cycle that kept rotating through the desperate people trapped in the back, destroying everything he’d held dear. Wilford was focused intently on the younger man, his fascination, his fondness wavered between sexual and paternal. Just like with me.
I knew how this was going to play out- at least the vision from the monster who’d raised me. But no one had ever gotten this far before. Curtis’ vivid eyes shone out from his filthy face, enraged, then contemptuous. Then … teary-eyed, standing in the massive chamber, arms out wide without touching anything I am sure for the first time in the last 16 years we'd been on this steel prison. Then my heart started stuttering as Wilford put a hand on his shoulder, then the back of his head. And he let him. He let the monster touch him. Then Wilford said the thing I had never imagined. He wanted Curtis to take his role as Conductor.
“Without you, Curtis, humanity ceases to exist.”
It … oh, it almost looked like Curtis, this gigantic, furious man who’d survived fed by his rage and hate toward the front end was almost … he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t believe the filth Wilford was feeding him, please, he wouldn’t….
And then his head lifted, and his lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl and I knew he was the one.
“Mr. Everett!” I said urgently, ignoring the growl from Wilford. I kept the gun trained on the monster as I circled around them both. “There’s something you need to see.”
“Jane, Jane. Plain Jane. You will be silent, or you will take their place.” It was a hiss, not even actual speech from Wilford and his face was a death mask of fury.
I knelt clumsily - those stupid high heels! - and ripped open the hatch. It was Timmy wedged between the gears and cogs and he was mindlessly humming the rhythm I’d taught him as he looked up, vacant eyes trained on Curtis, who let out a hoarse sob.
“You- they- Jesus Christ...”
“It was necessary, Curtis.” Wilford was still trying to regain control. “The parts wore out. Small, but crucial pieces engineered from the wrong alloy. There was nothing to replace them, no metal that could do their job-”
One long arm had already hauled Timmy from his place. Instead of clinging to Curtis, he ran to me, wrapping his skinny arms around my waist. “There’s more,” I managed to speak calmly, edging toward the front, holding the little boy with one arm and the machine gun with the other.
“Plain Jane should know!” Wilford’s voice was rising. “It was her father - her father was responsible for the sloppiness, the stupidity. A pathetic welder, and he could have been the one to bring down the final ecosystem, the only life left on the planet? She was the first to enter the Sacred Engine. And now she is the one to bring in the children to this magnificent purpose.”
I managed to get my hand loose from Timmy’s desperate grip long enough to lift the second monstrous hatch. Curtis was there in a second.
I’d taken Molly two years ago, she was almost too big now, almost ready to escape this nightmare, her little fingers were bent and twisted like she had arthritis. She looked at me, piteous and confused, and I reached in a hand. “Come out, sweetheart.”
“I didn’t hear the chime…” she mumbled in her hoarse little voice.
“You’ll condemn all life on the Snowpiercer?” Wilford’s voice rose magnificently, focusing the power of it on his intended successor. “Allow the Sacred Engine to fail? Kill us all?”
“If you’ve talked with Namgoong,” I said urgently, talking over the monster’s voice, “you know that there is life on the outside. We can stop the Train in a stable section of track and-”
With a growl, Wilford pulled a gun. But … he was too elegant? The Conductor never raised a weapon? I stood there stupidly, a perfect target until Curtis yanked the AK-47 from me.
“The front end isn’t running the show anymore. It’s time you learned that.”
And he sprayed the monster with bullets, two of them blasting through the windows and into the shrieking howl of the wind. Then there was an explosion that knocked us all off our feet, sliding across the floor, no longer pristine white, painted red now with the monster’s blood.
“Goddamnit!” snarled Curtis, “I told Nomgoong to wait! To-”
Another explosion and we both began crawling rapidly for the door, pulling the children behind us. Sure enough, the engineer was busy fastening another chunk of putty-like substance to the outside hatch. Oh, no. He’d gotten his hands on Kronole. He was likely stoned half out of his mind. The blocks of poisonous green paste were not only a hallucinogen, but they were also highly flammable and he was trying to blow a hole in the train.
“He’s going to derail the Snowpiercer!” I screamed, frantically scrolling through my memory and trying to think of where we were on the track.
Without a moment of hesitation, Curtis lifted the AK-47 and shot him.