There were thirty incubas being liberated that day. Thirty tired used forty-year old woman that had more than earned their liberation. We were herded into a single carriage of an antiquated train, a train that was still - much to my astonished delight - powered by electricity; as a child I had seen pictures of these old vehicles, had not known they still existed. To be riding in one now seemed a welcome treat.
I stepped through the carriage doorway with a smile playing on my lips. All around me the other women were talking, laughing, joking. The air hummed with a festive holiday feel, but for a moment I hesitated. I had expected the train to smell old - musty perhaps - yet a strong clinical odour wafted around us; an odour of disinfectant I recognised from my regular visits to the medical unit. And beneath that a sweet sour smell I also recognised. Human vomit.
I turned to the woman standing beside me: "Can you smell that?" I said.
The woman raised her eyebrows, looked at me, the surprise of such a question evident on her face. "Disinfectant?"
"No. Not that. Another smell?" I paused. "Vomit."
The woman shook her head. "I can only smell disinfectant. Perhaps someone was travel sick."
Perhaps." She was probably right, but as I took my place by one of the windows, the first thin thread of unease squirmed in my stomach. I looked out through the glass at the enforcers on the platform. There were maybe a dozen all told, standing watching us. Arms folded. Dark eyes glinting. More than one was wearing a knowing smirk on his cruel face. My thread of uneasy tightened - knotted - then my attention was averted by the sudden hiss of the train doors sliding shut. Seconds later this was followed by the double clunk of what sounded like bolts shooting home.
Why would they lock us in?
More importantly - why were there no enforcers in the carriage with us?
With a shunt the train moved off. We had only been travelling a short while when a robotic disembodied voice drifted through the air above us: "This is your driver speaking. Welcome aboard the Liberation Express. Your journey will take approximately forty minutes and will terminate at Bethnal Green. Please make yourself comfortable during this time. Thank you."
A few of the other passengers had given a small cheer at the driver's words, and many others were chattering happily to whomever would listen.
I sighed and rested my head back against the seat. The trouble with me was I had spent way too long being distrustful of others. I had forgotten how to relax. All that was now in the past. I was heading to Bethnal Green and liberation.
I closed my eyes and sank back into the seat.
The motion of the train slowing down filtered into my dreams and I awoke with a start. For a moment my mind was befuddled, the last sticky strands of sleep clinging to my thoughts like cobwebs. Then I remembered.
Had we arrived?
Would my friend be waiting at the station as she had promised?
Even as this thought surfaced I became aware of the heavy silence that had fallen over the carriage; all the women were staring out through the dirty glass of the train's windows. Staring at the platform. I too looked.
The station was deserted. The windows of the ticket office boarded up. Clumps of coarse thin grass erupted through the cracks that had formed long ago on the neglected platform. A lone magpie perched on one of the blue metal litter bins, studying us with cool detachment.
The train gave a gentle shudder and came to a halt.
For a moment there was just silence. Into that silence came a muted hissss
of sound. We all turned as one.
Above our heads, through the small individual air-blowers, something was seeping into the carriage.
They waited a full hour, then gas masks strapped to their grim faces, the medics unlocked the door and stepped into the carriage. Wordlessly, in autopilot, they went from woman to woman; checking pulses, listening for heartbeats. When they were satisfied that all signs of life had been extinguished, they began to remove the bodies from the train.