Fiction

Callum Stephen

The sun sunk. In its wake flowed titian skies. Followed by the encroach of the southern ocean’s chill. Sharp, orange light excited reflection in amber eyes. Scarlet’s body reacted. Instruments that lay around the cockpit translated her thoughts into motion. Her 96-tram slowed to a measured stop at the intersection of Princes and Nicholson, paralysed under the traffic light’s crimson stare.

 

Scarlet faced south. The same south that so many had taken before her. South, where it had once been known that the ocean fell into the abyss. These tracks took people to their destination all the same. The green lights commanded and the methodical execution of a route, years in practice, begun anew.

 

Figures stood in disorganised huddles. Their shelters of Perspex glass worn like hats, a protection from the sky. Throngs of people waiting for a service, waiting for Scarlet. They would tip toe over the tracks and peer down the road, using the rails as a map. Scarlet saw their anxiety. They saw the reflection of a dying sun upon the tram’s face.

 

Before Scarlet cut west, her vessel lingered below the steeple of St Patricks Cathedral. Parliament Station. Public servants rarely need public services. Their hands manipulated European gears in European cars. Wheels turned on stolen land. The tram flowed through the turn of the intersection and was interrupted by the volatile light of discharged electrical sparks. The sudden crack as the space between the grid overhead and the earth below divided and the connection faltered.

Like fair weather companions, her wards would sit like lead weights in her company then disappear without a glance. They would collect their baggage and take the plunge, left to fend for themselves in the cement tundra. The bobbing heads of those who remained were monitored on screens to Scarlet’s left. Metronomic pounding of metal on smooth metal lulled them to a deceptive sleep.

 

The evening’s horrors, some say, come in threes or not at all. Sit and wait, and a counting mind can spot far more. Shadows that snigger and snap. Knuckles painted white like teeth shown in threat. Danger rose from underground lobbies and dive bars, fuelled by the scent of exposed flesh and diluted poisons. In squads, youth would patrol the streets. They searched for the glory that existed only in epics of old. From the lips of aged relatives. Men grown senile by age and deluded by the shock of violence. The boyish wonder that left, never returned.

Behind her armoured walls, she sought to spirit away as many as she could. The loiterers, those with nothing better to do than to play at soldiers. And the innocents, those liable to be set upon like residents of a city laid to the sword.

 

Bourke Street Mall was a place where music was exchanged for chance charity. Past dusk, people pestered each other with obnoxious slurs, born of booze. Their hopes and lusts proud upon their clothes. Their hair pulled back, atop gowns too tight.

Carriages that remained hesitant to talk in the daylight, now boomed with a multitude of voices. Bouncing from wall to wall, vying for supremacy. At the edge of the CBD a couple alighted. One face crimson below the nose, toke bag in his red right hand. The other picking the former’s bloodied skin from beneath her nails. Both stunk of rage. The pair forced their way to the back of the carriage and out of Scarlet’s view.

 

Her concerns lay on the road and she controlled her speed with precision. A hand as steady as a surgeon’s, rested upon what looked to most like a joystick. When introduced to the controls of her E-class tram she was incredulous. How similar they looked to old arcade machines.

 

The cacophony of the carriage climaxed with a shrill scream. Scarlet’s mirror eyes could not detect the source. Yet her ears discerned a silence alike that of the morning run, where docile ghosts haunted sleeping hosts.

 

The couple jumped from the tram and landed in a sprint. An airborne bottle followed them. Its broken shards littered the tram stop like a field of bindies.

 

Normality resumed, the chorus of voices again picked up like foam from waves crashing. Scarlet’s mind lingered for a moment. But soon her instincts took over. Never count, forget and roll on. She deposited each of her passengers at their respective stops. Each wobbling a little from the night’s tribulations. Each eager for the release of sleep. Scarlet drove the last leg to the Nicholson. St Tram Depot devoid of passengers. Protocol didn’t dictate a search of the carriages; the cleaners came before dawn. Still, Scarlet walked the length of the tram, as was her ritual. Feeling the lingering impressions that her passengers left behind.

 

The iron stench of blood wasn’t lost in the carriage’s captured air. A splattered trail of footprints walked a quarter of the length of the tram and out the door. She knew where the couple had sat by the sticky red pool at the beginning of the trail. Blood had congealed into what looked alike to a red balloon, sunk into the floor. Upon the seat, a bag had been left behind. Its linen form distorted by stiff protrusions, jutting out at odd angles like a dislocated bone pushing against the skin.

 

She reached for the bag, unveiling the contents inside. The wail from before echoed inside her skull. It could fit snugly in her hands. That bundle of motionless, grey fur. Its glean too soft for maturity, its features too delicate. Its awkward form betrayed it to be a lifeless vessel. Scarlet stared at the discarded pet, abandoned but not alone. A shattered syringe its faithful companion to the final stop.

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