The train sat.
The Tube had lately been thrown into more chaos than usual by a spate of security alerts. The commuters fell silent and waited for the announcement explaining what they already knew. Pauline passed the time looking out the window. On the platform, surrounded by more than a century of accumulated grime, two backpackers stood arguing before a poster-sized Tube map. In harsh antipodean accents they yelled at each other gesturing pointedly at the poster. As the train pulled away the female of the pair gave her partner a shove and he fell on his pack. Pauline's last impression was him lying on his back waving his arms and legs like an upturned turtle on the platform of Westminster Underground Station.
"Must've been a false alarm."
"Pardon?" Pauline said.
"The delay. Must've been a false alarm. Security alert."
"Oh yes. Or something broke, most likely."
"Most likely." He chuckled. Pauline noticed he was trying without much success to flip and fold his Financial Times with the one-handed nonchalance of a long-term City worker. After several tries he gave up and, after placing his briefcase on the floor, used both hands. Pauline thought of The Guardian in her own case. She'd long ago given up tying to read the paper standing up in the Tube. It was easier and more satisfying to make love standing up in a hammock.
The train plied the District Line, ingesting and disgorging passengers. At Gloucester Road the suit with the FT tucked the paper under his arm and detrained. Odd, Pauline thought, we're miles from the City. Of course, not all suits work in the City. Some -- Her train of thought was derailed by the jolt of the train pulling from the platform and the thump of the suit's forgotten, and extremely heavy, briefcase falling by her foot. Halfway between Gloucester Road and Earls Court there was a roar and the world went dark. Then it was light again.
Pauline blinked at the sudden illumination. Although apparently underground, the carriage was a lot brighter than it was moments before. She glanced around circumspectly and concluded it was because the carriage was emptier and, somehow, decidedly cleaner. The train was, also running silently.
She shook her head. "I must be --"
"Dead?" a friendly voice asked from across the aisle.
Still trying to absorb the overall change rather than specifics, Pauline replied, "I was going to say `deaf', but --"
"Oh no, it's much more serious than that."
Pauline turned her attention to the speaker. His looks and bearing told her he was military, even though he was wearing a pullover and jeans. "How can I be dead? I have to be in the office soon."
"Which line are you on?"
"District," she said looking past her companion to the journey planner above the window. Gone were the yellow and green stripes of the Circle and District lines. In their place was a golden diamond. On the carriage bulkhead the intaglio of the Underground map had been replaced by two loops forming a horizontal figure eight. The right-hand loop was blue, the same shade as the Docklands Light Rail, and the left was Central Line red. Between them was a diamond whose golden hue was found in no LRT cartographer's crayon box.
Above the revised map was a video monitor. It was like a twenty-four hour news service concentrating solely on death and mayhem. As she watched, Pauline was assaulted by a stream of images so brutal and banal that the deaths had to be real. The soldier was silent and allowed Pauline to take it all in.
"How can I be dead? I've got a meeting at nine o'clock. That's why I didn't stop at the office and headed straight for Hammersmith. I'm going to Italy next week. I can't be dead." She paused. "I am, aren't I?"
He nodded. "Remember the briefcase? It was a bomb."
"No. That's not how the Paddies work. They'd phone first. This was the work of English nationalists. Remember how heavy the case sounded when it fell over? It was two kilos of Semtex surrounded by ball bearings, nails and broken glass. It shredded your carriage and brought some very expensive real estate down on the rest of the train."
"How do you know all this?"
He grinned sheepishly. "I just do."
"Down here," a voice said from the other end of the carriage. Pauline turned around and gasped. The speaker was exactly she conjured him in her mind in the split second after he spoke; grey suit, a ginger beard, ramrod posture.
"Down here," he repeated in the voice of and antebellum Southern aristocrat, "we know things. You knew what I looked like before you turned around."
"Didn't you?" I was a challenge, not a question.
"It's like that. We know. By the way, my name is Lieutenant Gaylord Beauregard-Belvedere. Of the Charleston B-Bs. And you?"
"Charmed, Miss Spence," Gaylord said. For a second Pauline thought he'd addressed her as "Ms", but realised it was his accent. A man of his class and upbringing, even in Pauline's time, would never use the term. The man Pauline'd first spoken to stepped past her towards the Civil War vet and took a seat and gestured for Pauline to do the same. Pauline was struck by the change. She'd died sitting down but somehow ended up standing.
"You realised it was a bomb a split second before it went off," he explained.
"By the way, I'm Lieutenant Mark Stephens, Royal Fusiliers."
"How charming," Pauline gave a wan smile, "two lieutenants, lieutenants." She used both pronunciations.
Silence fell and Pauline looked out the window. Outside was an indistinct smear of vermilion. Nothing was clear visually, but there was an overwhelming atmosphere of despair. "Where exactly am I?"
"In a soul train, a conduit, travelling through the depths of Hell," Mark said. "Really."
"He's telling the truth ma'am. This is Hell. Real and physical."
"Why can't I see anything?"
"It's a personal thing. No man's Hell is the same as any others. And it can't be explained. It has to be experienced. Like paradise. To each their own."
"But why is I on a train? What are you doing here for that matter?" Mark replied.
"We all want to know that when we first arrive. Isn't that right?" he glanced at Gaylord who nodded the affirmative. "This is the conduit between life and the afterlife. I'm going to visit the world of the living and waiting for my stop."
"I'm on my way back from a visit," Gaylord said. "And you're being picked up."
"You're going back?"
"As a ghost. Every once in a while, as you pass through the stages you get to go back and have a look for a while. It's sort of like AA, certain steps and then a reward."
"Funny thing is," Gaylord intoned, "the longer it is, the less inclined you are to return. Friends and family die. Things change. I don't recognise anything back there now."
"But why a train?"
"Got to go some way," Gaylord shrugged. "They probably thought Charon and his boat across the Styx was getting a bit worn. I was originally brought across in a covered wagon."
"Where will I end up? I'm not really keen on Hell at all."
"Can't say exactly," Mark said looking at her carefully, " but I suspect you'll be on the right side of purgatory. Wouldn't you say Gaylord?"
Pauline smiled with relief. "You can tell? How?"
"That's one thing I do know the answer to. People bound for Hell look pretty much like they did when they died," he paused as the train pulled to a stop.
The doors opened and a figure stepped aboard. Although Pauline couldn't place him he reminded her of either a Tory cabinet minister or a business baron. Whatever he was in life, in death he was naked and looked like an apoplectic toad with a rampant erection. Gaylord lowered his voice and they huddled together conspiratorially.
"He died in a compromising position. I think he's being moved, not on release. You see, he's in the state he was in when he died. Same thing happened to me ... took a shell at Bull Run. I did time in Hell with my innards dragging through the sulphur. You, on the other hand, are in one piece despite your mortal self being shredded by a bomb."
"I took an Argy bullet on Goose Green," Mark said. "I don't think I did a lot of time in Hell, but I did it with a hole right through me. You must have been very good."
Pauline laughed. "Far from it. But maybe a really horrible death, no matter how instantaneous, acts as a form of atonement."
Gaylord and Mark looked at each other.
"Good point. I never considered that," Mark said. "See, you are developing insight. I firmly believe it's part of the process." "I guess I am."
The TV switched to a story about a massive pile up on a motorway in Belgium. The train shuddered silently as it crossed points and emerged beside a dual carriage way strewn with vehicles and bodies. They didn't stop but Pauline saw the next carriage filling with passengers.
"I wonder why they're in the next carriage?"
Mark and Gaylord were no wiser.
"Because," their previously silent companion said with a marked Australian accent, "they have nothing to do with us and we them."
"What do you mean?" Mark asked.
"What do you think this plebian Comedy is all about? Redemption?" He snorted derisively. "We're being dragged through all this shit so we learn the lessons we never learnt while we were alive."
They considered the comment of their hell-dwelling companion as the train silently roared through its extemporal network.
"Funny thing is," he said, "although basically adhering to the Judeo-Christian paradigm of good-bad place duality with a purgatorial pivot, it's all very Buddhist."
"How so?" Pauline asked. Her unnamed companion -- it suddenly dawned on her that a name couldn't be spoken until the soul had passed through Purgatory and was in the realm of the Blue Line -- was looking less loathsome. She wondered if it were because she was growing accustomed to him or if he was gaining some redemption and moving away from the level of Hell he boarded at.
"The whole matter of proceeding through stages until you reach the pinnacle. If there is a pinnacle to be reached."
"An infinite progression of escalating bliss," Mark mused. "Surely it has to top out sometime."
"Perhaps that's what bein' a god's all about," Gaylord said. "You get to a point where you can come and go as often as you like for as long as you please."
The train emerged form the tunnel and pulled up at a platform. Outside was a vague shade of paradise. Gaylord alighted and the train moved into darkness again.
"I think our Confederate friend has a point," the Australian -- late-Australian -- said. "If you exchange his ideas of freedom with knowledge."
"Using that theory," Mark said, "the apogée would be knowing everything."
"Omniscience," Pauline murmured.
"Precisely. And surely, if you know everything, you have unlimited power -- ergo, omnipotence. QED."
Mark stretched his legs out along his seat and leaned back against the window. "Fine. Omniscience takes us closer to the top. That's no surprise. Ever since I took the bullet I've been gaining -- by osmosis, it seems -- knowledge. But, assuming that this is the Judeo-Christian paradigm (except, instead of being punished in these transitional stages, we are gaining redemption), where does original sin fit in."
"Ignorance," Pauline blurted. "Babies don't know much beyond the basics of survival -- which is what all living things have hard-wired into them -- and that's the stain on their souls."
"Unfair," the man from down under mused, "but plausible. I was an atheist before I died, but now I know there is more to it and something -- I'm not willing to commit myself to a god just yet -- good and merciful and looks after babies so they're not condemned for something that isn't their fault."
"It could be that part of the first knowledge that babies get is the knowledge of God's (I'm talking in the specific sense) love through baptism which takes care of the stain and all else that happens to our souls is our own doing," Mark paused. "I sound like my chaplain."
"Very good, nonetheless."
"I suppose this talk about original sin gets us back to the Immaculate Conception," Pauline said. "Mary was born without original sin -- ignorance, following this line -- so had full knowledge allowing her body to be assumed into Heaven."
"Bravo," the mogul cheered as the train once agin emerged from the tunnel and came to a stop in the world. The sight of the sun and signs of mortal life made Pauline's eyes water. She started towards the open doors. Mark grabbed her arm. "It's not for you."
The mogul moved to the vestibule. "Right. There are some bastards out here who are in serious need of haunting. Cheerio." He stepped out and the doors wheezed closed.
The train slipped into darkness and the screen kept up its litany of despair.
Robert Cox is an Australian-based writer and journalist and has had stories published in "Outrider", "Daarke Worlde", "Antipodean SF" and will soon appear in "Aurealis".