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Coast Sunset Express

Alice Towey is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry based out of Northern California. A graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, her work has appeared in Asimov's, Fireside, and Deep Magic. When she's not writing, she works as a civil engineer specializing in water resources management.
After the war, Emily takes the train to Seattle.
The trip would be faster by boat, but the train is more practical, and the war has made her a practical person. (Once she would have flown, but she puts that thought from her mind.)
Besides, she's just as happy to delay her arrival and all that it entails. It's been four years since she traveled anywhere, and she appreciates the scenery rushing past: emerald forests backed by mountain shadow, rocky bluffs above crashing waves.
The compartment door jitters and swings open. A Jellena stands in the corridor, long yellow tusks protruding from its grey, flabby face, wearing an approximation of a suit. It gestures at the empty seat; a question.
Emily forces herself to relax, to smile and nod. After all, it's only because of the Jellenae that the war is over and she's riding a train, rather than starving in some Pteryn work camp. It's just hard to trust any aliens after what the Pteryns did to Earth.
The Jellena shuffles in and seats itself with a huff. It stares out the window. "Beautiful!"
Its voice is rough and low, but easy to understand. "Yes," Emily says, "I love Northern California."
"I travel to P-por-portland," It struggles with the city name. "It is a beautiful city."
"I've always wanted to go to Portland," In fact, Emily had been planning to attend graduate school there, until the Pteryn fleet popped into Earth's orbit and attacked Tokyo. Then she had put away her personal dreams, like an old sweater folded and tucked in a drawer. "I'm on my way to Seattle."
She leaves unspoken the reason for the trip: she needs a job. After the United Earth Defense disbanded, closing the factory in Oakland, she received a 500-credit severance and a form letter of reference. Her sister offered a spare bedroom until Emily gets back on her feet, but Emily could tell she wasn't thrilled. Her sister has a wounded veteran husband, three children, and a full-time nursing job. She doesn't need to take care of her younger sister as well.
"We had such mountains on Jellen." The raspy voice startles her from her self-pity.
Emily hesitates, unsure of what is polite. "What was Jellen like?"
The Jellena puffs its cheeks. "Like Earth, but more. Taller mountains, forests of giant trees. Endless seas with drifting ice. All gone now. "
Emily swallows. There were no aliens to swoop in and to save the Jellenae from the Pteryns; their homeworld was largely destroyed, leaving the survivors to flee and regroup. It was a source of endless debate back in Oakland, whether the Jellenae came to Earth for vengeance, or from an altruistic desire to protect humanity. "I'm sorry."
"I was fortunate. To see it. I was a child, when the Pteryns came." The Jellena makes a whistling sigh. "Human or Jellena, you never know what waters life will guide you through. I never thought I would see mountains again. But here...."
She can't read the expression on its face, but somehow she understands exactly how it feels: sad, but grateful. Amazed to still be alive. "I'm glad you got to see mountains again," she says, surprised by her own sincerity.
The Jellena places a paw on its chest. They watch the Cascade Range come into focus as the train heads north, snow capping the distant peaks. Eventually, Emily dozes off, dreaming of alien forests lit by twin suns.
Hours later, she awakens as the train jerks to a halt. "Portland," the intercom announces. The compartment is empty; the Jellena must have already headed for the exit. Rubbing her eyes, Emily notices it left its jacket on the seat. She lifts it with hesitant fingers, and a small device--a two-inch metal cube--falls from the pocket. It lands on the floor with a click and a small round portal on the side slides open. Suddenly light blossoms from the device, forming a hologram on the train floor, an image of a strange city surrounded by mountains. She realizes that she's looking at a memento of the Jellen homeworld.
The train jolts forward, preparing to leave the station. Emily picks up the device, studying the intricate detail of the hologram: the jagged peaks, the beautiful, curved buildings. She wonders how the architecture of Portland compares, and how the city has changed since the war; she heard that the Williamette Valley has started producing wine again.
Her sister is expecting her in three hours. She has a room, her husband has a lead on a job. Emily knows what is practical, what is sensible.
The hologram clicks off, the tiny porthole closing.
Emily yanks her suitcase from beneath the seat and grab the Jellena's coat. The train begins to inch forward as she leaves the compartment, but there's still time to get off and find the Jellena.
She's alive, after all. There's still time to find whatever mountains await her.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 17th, 2021


This story was inspired in part by a comment from another writer about using writing to heal. It got me thinking about my hopes and dreams for life after the pandemic, and about what it will be like to have lived through an event of this magnitude. Also this story has a train, and who doesn't love trains?

- Alice Towey
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