15-20 minute read.
Downline is the story of a train ride Nat will never forget. It was loosely inspired by my experiences of being stuck on a train at peak hour, as well as my journey with a network-marketing company for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek story with some unexpected twists.
Nat hated her name.
She exited through building security and joined the muted throng of the city’s post-work exodus. Winding her way through the near dark city streets, wind whipping her hair free from a loose ponytail, onward she trudged. A podcast anxiously prattling on to ears that had long since tuned out. The sounds of cars and busses crawling through traffic combined with her general malaise and fatigue, which only served to remind her that home was a long way away. Everything seemed a long way away. Holidays, weekends, home and especially summer. The evening was cold for autumn: touched by the ghost of winter past. Or coming, Nat supposed. She huddled down into her jacket and shivered despite the jeans she was glad of wearing.
“…Your life is yours! That’s the problem, we feel like we have no choices – but say with me: My Life, My choice!…” Nat stabbed a finger down and silenced her phone with irritation. Who named their child Nat anyway. Not Natalie, or Natalia, or Natasha – just Nat. She imagined the exotic lifestyle all the Natalia’s in the world might be living right now. Natalias were sun-baking on the decks of sailboats, somewhere in the Mediterranean, she was sure of it. Shopping in Milan with their husband, or Moscow or Montreal or Madrid, or… she ran out of M names. Madagascar? Maryland? Midland? Probably not. She started as she found herself already descending the steps to the train platform. The outgoing tide of city workers had safely choreographed her weary steps without her even realising, united behind a single mantra: Heads down, phones up, earphones in. A strange, sinuous, multi-headed beast of cotton, wool and leather – flowing rather than walking through the city streets, depositing her like a piece of flotsam off the escalator and onto the shores of her train platform.
Nat queued amongst the crowd, alone with her phone and in thought. Familiar chimes from the platform announced the arrival of her train, and she boarded at the far end of the platform. She got the back-most seat, in the second-to-last carriage, next to the window. She hated trains too, but at least she had the twin seat all to herself. The carriage stunk of a combination of disinfectant and an elusive smell it couldn’t quite mask.
Doors slid, speakers announced their litany, and the train slid away from the station, picking up speed as it whistled along the station tunnel and up into the median of the city’s major arterial road. Nat stared out the window past the fast flickering poles and at the slow-moving sky as the train clicked and clacked up to full speed. Someone had scratched a small triangle into the window’s corner, and she picked at it with her finger while four lanes of cars stuck in peak hour traffic flitted past and disappeared from view. She could always be stuck in traffic, she supposed, and sighed, closing her eyes whilst she lowered her head onto her elbow.
The train jerked and began to slow. Nat opened an eye. “Sorry passengers, we’re in for some delays this evening” apologised the intercom, this time with a human voice. “It appears there’s been an incident downline. Please be patient”. Brakes whined as they bit and slowed the train, and her elbow slid off the sloped window ledge, leaving her head pressed against the glass. Yep, this was what Nats did. This and possibly drooling whilst asleep on the train. Not that there seemed to be much chance of this happening, as the train lurched to a stop and then crept forwards again. Locked in their devices, nobody seemed to notice. Or care.
Natalias probably drove in a car like that, she supposed, looking at the fancy European SUV stuck right outside her window. And didn’t have to sit in trains after work. The car looked brand new and was probably worth twice her yearly salary. Now traffic and train had both stopped. She started as the mirrored window suddenly wound down – the driver was looking right at her, a mere five meters or so away. She blushed in embarrassment and looked away. Shit – but he was waving at her, and smiling. She recognised his face and waved hesitantly back. Did they once work together? Five years ago maybe. Or ten, it was a long time. She wasn’t so sure that they were on waving terms.
She decided to ignore him and looked away, pretending she hadn’t noticed unt- “Ping”, her phone announced a new message loudly and buzzed.
“Hey Nat, is that you? Long time no see! ?” the notification appeared from an Alan Jeremy. Oh yes… She remembered. That’s who he was, and they were already connected, apparently. Some acquaintance from an old workplace, in some forgotten corner of her social media accounts, where they had shared contact details once upon a time and had never gotten around to removing the connection. Leaving him unread was probably best, she thought, and she stared deliberately inside the carriage. But her eyes itched, and she just couldn’t stop herself from glancing over at him. He was watching, smiled, and exaggerated raising his phone to his head and…
“Rrriiiiinnngg” her phone chimed loudly and she jumped. Shit. He would have seen that. She couldn’t pretend to ignore him now. She didn’t want to speak to him but didn’t want him to know that she didn’t want to speak to him. That just wasn’t polite. So, she answered, hunching into the corner, her body a dome trying to smother her voice from carrying.
“Hey Nat, it is you! I thought so! I also thought it would be easier if I gave you a call. How have you been?”
“Uhh, good, I suppose.” Nat breathed into her phone, trying to talk as quietly as possible. No one in the carriage even looked at her.
“Oh, that’s terrible Nat!”
His voice once so full of excitement and energy, dropped into concern. She peeked over the window sill and saw his matching expression staring back at her. She sighed, decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him and sat a little straighter. No one was bothering to look at her anyway.
“No, I said I was good – perhaps you misheard me.”
“You said you were good, you suppose” he corrected her, “and that’s a big difference. It sounded a little like a question, like you weren’t even sure yourself.”
Nat was having a hard time keeping up, and the sudden change in tack in his questioning caught her off guard, she had vague memories of work conversations with this guy – and he was nothing like the confident, sanguine voice she heard on the other end of the phone. He smiled a lot and didn’t say much, so far as she could remember. He had only worked there for a month or so, some kind of traineeship or something? It was so long ago.
“I’m not sure how to respond to that?” She laughed, hoping to distract him from his question. When he just smiled at her and waited for another response, she laughed self-consciously again. “Wow, Allen – it’s been a while but I don’t remember you being like this. You’re so direct!”
Allen grimaced. “Yes, I remember who I used to be when we first met. Quite a change, I suppose, hey? I finally know who I am. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’m happy to tell you about it – but forgive me – I don’t think you’re sure about if you were good. Why?”
Nat made an exasperated sound and stared at him. In part amazement, part incredulity at the ridiculousness of this conversation. Allen smiled at her from his gridlocked car – and waited.
“Uhhhh, Allen that’s a very deep question to ask an old work colleague.” He nodded encouragingly. “well …” she began slowly, “you know what it’s like. The 9-5 job, sometimes longer and then you’ve got to do networking once a month to keep up your KPIs and then volunteering occasionally, dealing with managers and clients and work dramas, all before commuting home, day-in-day-out to an empty house.”
She didn’t mean to say that last bit. He didn’t need to know that. But peering out at Allen, who nodded again, gave her some determination. There was something annoyingly disarming about him, something honest and genuine. Surrounded by so much that was grey, he felt so… vivid and real. She couldn’t help smiling as she went on, “I mean, it’s a career, isn’t it? The daily grind is something everyone faces, and it’s okay, I suppose – I shouldn’t complain really, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, or anything – there are so many other worse things happening in the world. So many.” She thought about the Natalia on her Mediterranean boat and glanced back at his car, her momentary bout of inspiration fading. “Not that you look like you know what I’m talking about anymore… you seem to have done really well for yourself. And you seem really happy.”
Allen just kept smiling at her. “There is a lot there Nat! Can I tell you about my journey?”
Of course, she didn’t really have a choice. He was going to tell her anyway, so Nat nodded and listened to him talk. He spoke about how he worked hard for a few years after they worked together in the corporate world, but nothing ever seemed to click. He was in a long-term relationship and working hard, and it all just got to him. When his partner left, he developed depression and went to see a counsellor who recommended him to a life coach. He spoke about the challenges of intermittent work, his family getting old and not having much money, and his desire to do something meaningful. Grief at a personal loss. The painful lessons he learned at another point soon after. Nat became engrossed in his story and forgot about being on the train, and being stuck, and her job and even about sunbathing on ships in places starting with M. It was clear to her, that he had something she did not. Purpose, and meaning – “his great journey”, he called it. He spoke eloquently, and with the smoothness that comes from the retelling of a well-worn tale. Whilst he talked, she tucked her phone between her ear and shoulder, and surreptitiously dug her laptop out of her bag. She opened her social network and searched for Allen. She saw photos of him speaking at conferences, partying with friends, and relaxing on white beaches. Hundreds of likes and comments on each post – he was certainly popular, and he certainly seemed to be living a good life.
“And so, I realised that working for myself gave me the power and the freedom to do what I want, whenever I want. I sell the company to people, get them to join and get paid in ten ways. Cash, bonuses, reward holidays and not to mention conferences and training. And the people I work with are the ones I choose to work with – which was the final big lesson for me in my journey. There’s a big world out there, and I want to explore it. But I’m glad for my journey, and where it’s led me.”
Allen was silent for a moment and stared from his car up at the train as she hurriedly put away her laptop and looked back at him, guilty at her stalking.
“Nat, if you really truly don’t know if you’re good – and you want out. I have an opportunity for you.” Nat stared at him through the train window, wondering where this was going to go. She felt like she was on the edge of a precipice. Half of her wanted to find out what would happen if she jumped, and the other wanted to step away from the edge and back into the familiar. “It’s not for the faint-hearted.” He warned.
“You’ll need to be prepared to grow, to do things way outside of your comfort zone. To be vulnerable, and open – willing to learn, and admit mistakes and journey with us through the good and the bad.” He went on, his voice becoming earnest and lively. “But there’s freedom, and choice and an amazing team I can introduce you to – but most importantly, you can grab hold of your future and change it. Actually change the direction you’re headed, and mould it – force it into something you actually want.”
He paused, eyes fixed on her. “Nat, I’ve talked a lot about me – what about you. I know you’re not good, at least not really. It’s your life – your choice – what do you want to choose? If you want it, I can help you work for it.”
Nat smirked at his turn of phrase. “You sound like a podcast I was just listening to.” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “I suppose that’s just it. I feel like life is choosing for me, rather than me choosing for myself.” She lapsed into a thoughtful silence. “I suppose it feels a bit like riding on this train, I’m not making any active choices right now, I’m sitting here waiting for someone else to make them for me. I, uh, don’t know why I’m saying this” she added, blushing again. “But I hope you don’t mind me saying, that this feels like… oh I don’t know. It sounds really stupid. Destiny. It feels like destiny.” she finished lamely. She could see him smiling in his truck. Oh shit, I’m an idiot. What the hell am I saying? I barely even know this guy. “But I don’t even know what you do?” She blurted out, to fill the silence, scrambling to cover her embarrassment. Aw hell, third time’s a charm, right? “I’m not normally this open with ex-work colleagues.” She finished lamely.
“It’s ok – I have that effect on people. It’s why I love my job. Don’t feel bad.” Perhaps he did at that, Nat groaned inwardly, berating herself. Allen went on “I work for a company called Omnia.” Nat watched, blankly. Not something she’d heard of. “When I joined Omnia, they sold home products and jewellery. We were really small, but we were focused and driven and we grew fast. We received a large capital investment. And we invested far and wide. Bitcoin, shares in many other small ventures, solar, battery research companies, and more companies like ours. Some very smart and lucky decisions meant that we made it big. Really, really big. Now we are probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of. Everything we touched turned seemed to turn to gold. We own outright or have majority shares in shipping, construction, logistics, pharmaceuticals, tech, insurance, electronics, automotive, skincare, music studios, energy and gas, telecommunications and more. More – much more. And I help connect people to what they need. If it’s insurance people need, we have several options that are superior in every way to our competitors. I can connect them to the right product – and then, of course, they’re super happy – and there are so many options we can assist them with. Energy plans, meals, clothing, electrical, airfares, even skincare. They earn rewards for purchasing with us, and our products are superior. In almost every category. We don’t advertise. We don’t spend any money on marketing, all our money goes to reward our employees and towards research on new products. We invest on behalf of each and every employee too and invest well. Oh and that reminds me, we own several investment firms too. And a few banks.”
“Uhh, Wow… I err. Allen, um, that’s a remarkable story for a business I’ve never heard of.” She realised she was picking her fingernails and stopped.
“Omnia doesn’t advertise or do any kind of promotion outside these in-person meetings. It just sits behind the scenes and lets its people be its identity in the market. It’s easier that way.”
There was a pause as Nat tried to figure out what to say. “Oh, I see.” Was all she could think to say. Multi-level marketing? She thought, am I really considering this?
“You’re not sure you believe me.”
“You’re really good at that.” She paused and added. “Figuring out where I’m going.”
“I’ve had a lot of experience. I work with a lot of people, from all walks of life. I have had this conversation with quite a few of them. They’ve had a mixture of responses, and most don’t believe it. At least at first. But in the end, we have a great community of people that get together around a purpose, and we support each other. We helped one lady with accommodation when her partner left her and she couldn’t afford the rent. Another lady had cancer and we came up with a meals roster – it really is amazing to do this job.”
She couldn’t put her finger on what finally did it, but simply, in an instant, she found she had decided. “Ok Allen. I think you’ve convinced me.”
Allen sounded a little sceptical, a cat confronted with a suddenly compliant mouse. “Really? Just like that?“
“Yeah” She made her voice firmer and commanding. “Yes. I want in. What’s to lose, right? How do I sign up.”
She could feel Allen’s surprise as he laughed self-consciously at the sudden pause in the conversation.
“Well, yes of course! To be honest, I thought I’d have a much harder fight on my hands!”
“Oh yeah, normally we book a Zoom call, or meet in person and talk you through it in more detail.”
“Oh, um Is there a problem?”
“No, no – I think it’s just that our stuck-on-the-freeway scenario is a little different than the training talks about. If you’re sure, then no problem. I can hook you up right now – in fact. “And he paused and appeared to be waving to someone else on the train. “I think I have someone who I work with, from my downline, already in your carriage. I just sent her a text message asking her to help me. First, we’ll get you signed up to our network as a user, and then we can set up your distributor account. All the details about pay and bonuses, rewards holidays and the like will be on your induction email which I can walk you through.”
Nat looked up, and sure enough, a blonde lady in a pale blue overcoat turned from reading her phone to smile and wave briefly to her.
“Oh! Well, that’s a nice coincidence.” Even as she said it she wondered at how small a chance of a coincidence it was.
Allen smiled at her. “It sure is. Her name is Lucy, and she can come over and take you through the sign-up process. It’s mostly automated, so you only have to create your login, give permission for us to reach out on your behalf, and we’ll do the rest, and connect all the accounts at our end.”
Allen waved at her. “Any questions, let me know – you’ve got my number! It’s been great chatting with you Nat, I look forward to working with you.”
Even as Nat waved out the window and ended the call, the train lurched and continued forwards. “It’s as if the train was stopped just for this conversation”, thought Nat. There was some muted cheering from a few passengers, and Lucy made her way through the carriage towards her, carrying an iPad. Blonde hair swaying.
Lucy was interrupted by a woman and a man who suddenly stood up in her path and barred her way. She hissed – ACTUALLY hissed at them, and tried to shove past. A low mutter of stifled conversation burred, out of earshot, threatening to escalate into something else. Something violent. All the while, the intercepting couple fended her off and settled themselves in the middle of the corridor, backs to Nat, who was now becoming increasingly alarmed.
The altercation ticked up a notch in volume. Was this some kind of trouble? Should she call the guard? The couple in question wore business attire and looked like the kind of people you would find in any city office. They didn’t look like the kind of people to cause trouble on a train. She looked down to see her phone buzzing in her lap. It was Allen again. She looked out the window to see him frantically waving at her, as someone sat in the seat next to her.
“I see we have a mutual friend”, the stranger exclaimed and waved at Allen, who was gesturing wildly for her to pick up the phone. He grinned boyishly at her and gave her a salute with two fingers. “Hi! The name’s Paul”.
Nat hunched away, back against the window, at a loss for words. What the hell was going on? She glanced up, making eye contact with a furious Lucy, still attempting to get past her two assailants. No one was intervening. A few people watched with interest, but nobody seemed like they were going to come to Lucy’s rescue. Not that, at this point, Nat thought she needed rescuing. Lucy looked like a miniature, active volcano in mid-eruption.
“Hi Paul – look this isn’t a good time. Shouldn’t someone do something?” She half got to her feet.
“Oh with Lucy?” Paul looked over and smiled brightly at Lucy, waving enthusiastically. Lucy’s left eye began to tick, and she renewed her efforts to get past her human wall. “We’re all friends here. Even Allen out there.” He added, nodding out the window at Allen, who was still gesturing to her to pick up her phone.
Paul stuck his tongue out at Allen, pulled his legs up and lounged cross-legged on the chair next to her. Nat leaned closer to the window and looked at him. Looking at him, she was suddenly reminded of fairy floss. Fairy floss and her grandfather.
As a child, her grandfather had a machine that would make the sickly sweet stuff – and it would get everywhere. Fine sugar spun just as easily onto hair and clothes as onto the stick and when her grandfather would finish, there were strands of the stuff everywhere. He would grin at her, hand her the fairy floss and vigorously brush his arms in the dust-speckled afternoon light streaming in through the shed’s only window. She remembered wisps of detached, silken sugar threats shining like spiderwebs, winding and unwinding as they fell. He had died a long time ago when she was still in school. It was her favourite memory of him. She had also been there, in the hospital just after he passed, with her family, before they all stopped talking to one another. She would never forget the frozen, waxen way his face looked. It looked like someone else, like a photocopy of an original.
Maybe it was the fineness of his dusty blonde head of hair that curled past his ears, the sparkle in his grey eyes – grey! Or the soft edge of roughness about him. Or the perpetual way his lips wanted to keep turning up into a smile. Allen was winning and charming – but Paul just oozed charisma. Allen was like instant coffee, but Paul… Paul was the barista who knew the secret wizardry behind coffee magic.
“Ahh, so old mate Allen and Lucy mean to make your acquaintance, giving you all the things, eloquent in their speeches, and offerings and… “ He waved his hands theatrically. “You know”. He sat forward suddenly intense. “But of course, you don’t know do you?” Nat shook her head automatically, glancing nervously around to see if anyone was going to intervene. No one even looked at her, save for the gesticulating Lucy. “Actually, I think, you’re THE only one who doesn’t know.” Paul’s grey eyes stared into hers. Intent, lively and searching.
He wants me to ask thought Nat, as they sat in silence, Lucy’s remonstrations unheeded in the background. But I won’t. I’m sick of games. Her phone started vibrating again, but she ignored it and stared back at Paul, and shook her head in defiance
Paul broke first, nodding in respect. “Ha! Yes. Very good. Very, very good. You’ve got some moxy in you. I do like that. I do indeed.”
His maze of thoughts suddenly found its way through and snapped back on task, making her jump. “OK, let me tell you anyway. The thing you don’t know that everyone else does.” He rubbed his hands with glee and cracked his interlocked knuckles above his head in a single motion. “You see, we have training on how to talk to new people, how to approach them – oh yes!” he chimed in, noticing her raised eyebrows, “Yes, I’m part of it too. But, also not part of it. I’m a bit of an oddity. Never done anything wrong, so they can’t kick me out.” He beckoned her closer and whispered conspiringly. “Well, never done anything wrong they can track back to me. Trade secret.” He winked again, leaned back and carried on, at a pace. Leaving no room for interruption. “Where was I? Training. But I didn’t like their rules, and did things my own way.
They didn’t like it, but I’ve got a friend in management. So long as she’s there, and I don’t stick my neck out too far – they dare not touch me.” Paul looked distracted for a moment. “Some debts are not the kind of debts you can pay off.” He said, knowingly. “And when head office pay me what they have to, all so I can annoy and frustrate them,” he chortled with delight. “That is quite something!”
A mobile phone interjected suddenly. And then another started ringing. Then another. Then another, and another, and soon dozens of phones were ringing, and people answering, up and down the train. Time seemed to stand still for Nat as she wondered when she had fallen asleep, for surely this was now part of some weird dream.
“Ooooh! Things are getting interesting!” said Paul, as Nat absently pinched her arm, confirming reality. “The point is, is that Allen only told you half the story. There’s a bounty out for you.”
“For me? What have I done?” Several pairs of eyes were now turning to look at her, phones to their ears.
“Nothing!” he laughed. “But you’re the last one! The very last! The bottom of the pyramid! The final note! The last sign-up! The final possible member in any downline! Everyone else is already a part of the business – and I do mean everyone. Politicians, CEOs, mums and influencers and teachers and lawyers! It was Corporate Office’s last bonus. The last windfall, their last offering before complete and utter victory! A lottery with you and a bunch of money for their jackpot! You want freedom, Nat? You want to change who you are? Then don’t sign with Allen, he won’t help you become anything other than a different version of who you are now. Richer, maybe, but riches never gave anybody freedom. You get to choose who you work for, remember? I have another proposition – work with me! I’m a much better boss than him and his speeches on freedom and reinventing yourself!” As he spoke he got his own ringing phone out and shoved the screen at her, grinning.
“See? Corporate Office ringing me.” He hit the red button and made a buzzer sound, like on a game show. “Survey says, umm No!! Ha, I’m too smart for their tiny corporate brains. Can’t be given a warning if I don’t get the memo, and apologising is far easier than listening to them lecture on ethics!”
Nat looked around, and what she saw started to make her feel truly alarmed. The whole carriage and the next now seemed to be staring at her, and several men had now gotten to their feet. She heard more ringing further up from the next carriage. She looked around in consternation, trapped in her corner. Cornered in her trap.
Paul suddenly uncurled himself, stood, and started stretching. He perched one leg on his seat and started bending and twisting, all the while with that ridiculous grin on his face. Behind him, from the final carriage, a dozen men and women across a variety of generations; all wearing corporate attire, appeared around him, briefcases, bags, and plastic water bottles in hand. None of them looked at her, and they all had looks of grim determination on their faces. The couple who had herded off Lucy earlier, were now themselves being cornered by a mob of angry commuters, who were still on their phones, forcing them to back up towards Nat and Paul, and a growing ring of people in a protective ring around them. The ringing of phones started to cease as the aisled filled with bodies. All the bodies. The aisles were now full to capacity, and silence descended onto the carriage.
Nat urgently grasped Paul in alarm. Her whisper cut through the palpable tension in the atmosphere, “Paul, Paul, will you please say something that makes sense to me! What the hell are they all doing?”
Paul laughed as he and his gathering band suddenly rushed forwards down the aisle. “Welcome to the glorious battle for the final downline signing!” He shouted, as in an instant, chaos was unleashed. Paul’s group formed a wall, giving her a buffer from the fighting. She still had to keep her eyes open though. Water bottles flew with fists and bags and laptops and any other impromptu weapon the commuters could muster. The group surrounding her was not the only group, it seemed, as the whole carriage erupted into violence. Nat squirmed further back into her corner.
It was completely, utterly pandemonium. Teams of people fought each other. A lady wearing a pearl necklace and an expensive-looking pantsuit had a beautician by the ponytail and was trying to sit on her head. Ties were removed as padding for fists, as she noticed two middle-aged men squaring off. An expensive laptop, frisbee across the carriage, and cracked a glass pane, as a young man in casual attire ducked underneath it. Nat was splashed with water cascading from a broken plastic bottle that tumbled into the window near her. It was mayhem. For a moment, she forgot her questions, and fears and just watched the quite obviously amateur brawlers’ violent fumblings. Women and men and teens and seniors, straining and yelling, and grunting in the struggle over what? Her? Fear had quickly been replaced by incredulity. These were obviously not people trying to truly hurt each other, she surmised. Things were being thrown around, but nothing truly dangerous, and nothing really came close to her. She was safe and protected in her bubble.
As the brawling continued, she felt the train begin slowing into the next station. Oh finally, thought Nat. Surely security will be here, ready to break this up. She jumped to the window, and pressed up against it, searching through the sea of faces on the platform, looking for someone, anyone in charge that looked able to do something, anything about the rampaging carriage. She heaved a sigh of relief. Security were ready, waiting at the doors.
As the doors opened, she realised that security weren’t waiting. They were already fighting those on the platform and each other. The train doors opened, and the fighting spilled out onto the platform. The platform fought back, madcap, trying to pull people off the train. A grandmother with a walking stick, and a wicked grin, ululated loudly and swung her stick wildly about her like a mace, keeping five full-grown men at bay. She thought she saw a woman tackle her from behind, but then she was swallowed in the crowd.
Nat had seen enough. She snapped into action, jumping up from her row, and headed behind her to the now-empty final carriage of the train. It looked like its doors hadn’t opened, and it was empty.
She looked back into the tumult and made eye contact with Paul, who was swinging from the hand straps into a group of brawlers with their backs to him, having the effect of a bowling ball into skittles. His tie was now wrapped around his head, like some kind of corporate Rambo – and one of his jacket sleeves had gone missing. “One minute Nat!” He chimed enthusiastically, as he disappeared from view, appearing again on his hands and knees as he crawled back through the legs of chairs and fighters strewn this way and that.
He stood and brushed himself off, panting and tucking his shirt into his pants.
“Very sorry about that, but don’t let it bother you. It’s just business politics. Inescapable and unavoidable, unfortunately.”
“Paul, this is insane. I just want to leave. I don’t want to be involved in any of this. I just want to get off the train.”
As the fighting continued over his shoulder, Paul glanced at them for a moment, rubbing sweat from his forehead with a sleeve. What a sight they looked, thought Nat. Two strangers, standing shoulder to shoulder watching the next carriage through the connecting corridor as if it were a television. Like one of those unusual Japanese game shows, mused Nat. After a while, Paul broke his gaze away, sombre, and nodded seriously at her. “That’s the trick, isn’t it. Getting off the train. Rails are like any structure or system. They often have the appearance of freedom – but the destination is predetermined. Our choices, who we are, who we present ourselves to be; we think that freedom means freedom to choose – but it’s all just changing rails. And changing rails just takes you to someone else’s idea of a destination.”
“I thought I could make some money and be someone different” Nat said softly. “Someone better, with more freedom. But looking at all of this makes me think that maybe I don’t need this after all.” She turned to Paul.
“So you think that freedom is just an illusion?” She asked.
“Not at all! But most of the things we choose in pursuing freedom are. You’ve just got to open your eyes to see it. ”
“So why choose anything different? If we’re not free and it’s just choosing a different train track – as you put it.”
“I’d say that the closest we can get to true freedom comes from accepting truth, rather than fighting it. Accepting that freedom is an illusion is the first step. After that… who knows? I’m not free either, remember? I signed up too don’t forget! But just maybe, I’m a little freer than those who peddle from the freedom wagon. One thing I know for sure is that more money and a new career aren’t it. They just help distract you from really seeing, and the truth.“
As Nat processed all of this, the fighting continued in the background. A mother with a pram was holding her toddler in one hand and using her pram as a battering ram in the other, fending off a marauding gang of seniors. Nat had a sudden insight. She’s just like me. She watched the mother flinging used diaper bags at them and grimaced in distaste. She held her future in one hand, her present in the other, trying to escape the past. The seniors regrouped and tried to surround her. Or maybe her future?
“You know, maybe we’re just asking the wrong questions.” mused Nat.
“STOP!” She said loudly. When no one hears, she took a deep breath and screamed, at the top of her lungs. “JUST STOP IT!!” Paul jumped. The carriage nearest to her paused in mid-swing, all panting and heaving with all eyes focussed on her. The ripple of her shout spread outside onto the platform and down the train until she started to feel the blood rush to her face and embarrassment kick in. “I’ve decided,” said Nat firmly, unsure at what volume to keep talking at, hoping her red face wouldn’t betray her conviction.
She turned to Paul. “Maybe you’re right Paul”, she said. “And maybe Allen is. Or maybe what I actually need is the illusion of freedom so that I believe I can choose something, anything, that will get me out of this rut I’m in. If freedom is truly an illusion, then why choose anything at all?”
The train breathed in her monologue, as still as actors anticipating curtain rise. Their hands hanging in space, paused, holding hair or weapons, or braced to fend off blows – some kind of bizarre, wax-work menagerie. Paul left her final question unanswered, a knot too tightly pulled to attempt to even unpick.
“I think what you’re saying is, that freedom isn’t external – it’s either inside us or it’s of no use at all. If freedom is from external sources – it can be taken away and it’s not really freedom. I can see your point.”
Nat shrugged and eyed Paul out of the corner of her eye. “So maybe I don’t need to sign up for anything for anything to change.” She was watching for a reaction, but Paul’s eyes sparkled in amusement at this idea. He waited in silence and watched.
Nat looked over and saw Lucy’s battered iPad, screen cracked and lying in the corridor. She walked over to it, bent and picked it up. It was on the signup screen for Omnia, her details entered already – Lucy sure was efficient – waiting for her to accept and sign.
As the carriage watched, she stared at her name typed in the form field. Nat. This was all on her, she realised. Trying to be someone else. Trying to run away from herself, complaining about and focussing on changing the scenery. If she denied that arriving at her current circumstance was by any other hand at the tiller than her own, she knew deep down that she was truly lost. She couldn’t help feeling that Paul was right: freedom has to come from inside or it’s not really freedom at all. But how can you generate freedom, how can you grow to be free when you feel so far from it? She wondered.
As she stared into the signup screen, absently scrolling, she thought about Paul and Allen. So different but both had made her really think about her life. Both likeable, even admirable – in their own ways – and both living lives freer than she was, although again in very different ways! She looked around at the people on the train. Mums and dads and grandfathers and grandmothers. Yes, all fighting – certainly not their best day – but something linking them to one another, something that on a better day, would connect them with more than just greed for a prize.
“I think I know what it is,” Nat said suddenly. She looked up at Paul. “Questions of freedom, and finding out who you are – you’re right, you can’t find them through external things. But it doesn’t come from inside us either, because it’s only through my conversations with you and Allen both that I’ve been forced to acknowledge I’m not really growing and I’m certainly not free. I think finding yourself and growth, and all of that – requires finding others who are prepared to do the journey with you. I think freedom has to be shared. So I suppose, although I don’t need to sign up to anything, I do need people committed to the journey that I think I need to take.”
“And” she grinned, “there’s no harm in earning rewards while I do it. I can still grow and save some cash.” She looked at the signature field and sign-up button. Nat felt like she had taken the first tentative steps towards growth into a big new world, but after all of it, she still hated her name. So she changed it on the form. Natalia. Why not? She ticked the box, signed her initials and clicked “Sign Up”.
The form changed to a processing screen, it started displaying all the services it was connecting to; banks and power, cloud computing and software companies, and gas and water, her mobile provider and travel and shopping centres; even the transit system she was using on the train she was riding right now – and dozens more, all primed and waiting their last user, waiting for a Nat to sign up. But the last user signing up wasn’t a Nat. The screen on her iPad suddenly displayed a blue error screen.
As people saw her sign on the train, there were a few tired cheers as the factions brushed themselves off and eased themselves apart. Recent enemies awkwardly helped each other up off the ground and made apologies. Violence evaporated into an embarrassed camaraderie.
“Great stuff,” said Paul, smiling and shaking her hand. “I never thought of it that way. I almost hoped you wouldn’t sign at all in the end.” He paused. “But out of curiosity – who did you end up signing under?”
The train lights went suddenly dark, just as the platform lights did the same. Escalators stopped running, like a train running the other way, also with lights out, failed to stop at the station and slowly lost speed. Several phone calls on the train were suddenly disconnected as telco’s crashed. A hundred kilometres away, water station systems failed even though backup generators kicked in, causing a massive pressure spike. Computer cloud server systems failed as water burst through overloaded building pipes – flooding cable runs, and maintenance closets; corrupting the files and backups of financial institutions and investment banking firms, governments and emergency services.
Transformers overloaded, causing spot fires, as self-navigating cars failed to connect to their servers and ploughed into oncoming traffic, while remote pilots were disconnected from aircraft which went dark and started dropping altitude. System failures cascaded, which more often than not caused redundancy systems to also fail like a global game of digital dominos.
Natalia walked outside with the rest of the carriage, stood next to Paul and watched in silence as the new name she had chosen caused fire and destruction, darkness and death and the end of an age.
As screams echoed, sirens wailed and civilisation toppled, she turned to Paul. “So, uhh – when do I get my first reward holiday?”