“Okay, so a train is heading for an intersection, and if you don’t do anything no one gets hurt. But if you pull the lever…”
“Wait, what? Why would I pull the lever?”
“I haven’t even told you what it does yet! So if you pull the lever, the train gets switched to another intersection, where there’s a second lever…”
I kicked absently at the shale while Lana went on, outlining her preposterous idea. Somehow, she would always come up with these convoluted ‘thought experiments’ that felt like they’d been run through a bad translator one too many times.
“…and so the second man on the tracks ends up with quite an interesting predicament. Does he pull the lever and save the cows upon the tracks, or sacrifice the passengers to the canyon?”
“Let me get this straight. If I don’t pull the lever, nothing happens. If I do pull it, I endanger everyone on board.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed Lana, happily. “It’s a conundrum, isn’t it?”
I sighed, staring hard at a tiny iridescent rock crab climbing out of a hole between two slates. It was gently raising its legs one by one over the lip, an eyestalk poking out like a quizzical periscope. I thought about Lana’s proposition, trying to see if maybe there was some clever philosophical angle I was missing. I came up blank.
“What’s the incentive, though? Why wouldn’t I just walk away and save everyone the trouble?” Lana seemed unimpressed by this.
“Because pulling the lever makes the whole thing more interesting! If you don’t, you’re being boring.” I groaned inwardly. These sort of ‘twists’ were typical of Lana’s philosophical offerings – her moral quandaries seemed designed more to keep philosophers from being sent to the Outregions than to pose any actual dilemma.
“Call me boring, but I would choose to save people’s lives.” The rock crab had succeeded in levering itself out and was now stutter-step scuttling towards a little pink pebble perched upon a wide chunk of shale. My scuffling kicks sent little tremors through the rocks, tiny vibrations that made the crab pause before darting forward again, like a video that kept freezing.
Lana screwed up her face, and I knew she wasn’t happy with my answer. I intervened before she could launch into another of her tirades about how lame I was.
“What business do I have pulling levers, anyway? That stuff’s all automated by people in locked control rooms, you know. The real question here is do I break into a government facility just so I can mess with their train timetables?”
“See, now that’s a real hypothetical to consider. If you got caught doing that, they’d flush you for sure.”
“Really? Yunsi tried something like that, and they didn’t flush her.“
“No, Yunsi tried to find out if any of her birth siblings were in her college by hacking into the university records. Now she has to attend a behavior program once a week.”
“Oh.” We fell silent for a moment. Then Lana asked the question we’d been avoiding all morning.
“Ally, do you think Niles is alright?”
“I’m not sure.” Obviously, the pebble had been the crab’s goal, because now it was climbing all over it, clacking its claws. The pebble was twice the little crustacean’s size, and it looked funny clambering around with its awkward crab-walk. What do crabs eat? I didn’t know.
“It’s a shame about their dad.”
“Yeah.” One of Niles’ care-givers, Dad Warner, had been discovered harboring a collection of beautiful prints given to him by an artist who was neither a registered close friend or partner. Private gifts like that should only be given within your inner circle – to hide art of that caliber from the greater public unlawfully was to deprive them of a group-positive experience and a chance at bonding. They were shipping Dad Warner away to the Outregions today, and Niles was there to see him off.
“I mean, it was his own fault, but still…” Lana’s voice lacked conviction – many people had such unlawful collections, treasure troves of valuables or stories given to them by people just outside their inner circle. Dad Warner had only been unlucky enough to be caught. We weren’t so stupid as to say that aloud, though.
“Niles must be pretty upset. Imagine if it had happened to one of our own parents, like Mom Addison or Carer June-Bloom.”
“Yeah… I hope they don’t take it too hard. At least they’ll have the two days off for emotional recuperation, since it’s one of their carers.”
“And we’ll still be here for Niles when they return. They’re one of our close friends, after all. We’ll help them through it.”
“It’s still sad. I liked Warner. He shared his baking with me, sometimes.”
“Lana, it’s not like he’s getting flushed. It’s only the Outregions – he’ll be back before you know it.”
“Will he, Ally? They could do anything, and we wouldn’t know. How do we know they’re not flushing him, huh? How would we know?”
“Lana!” I reprimanded her sharply. Even though the stretch of beach we sat on was empty save for us and the inquisitive little rock crab, talk like that was dangerous. You never knew who could be listening in, or where the treacherous sea breeze might carry our words.
“Sorry, Ally.” We fell silent again as the sea-wind picked up, beating up the water into short, choppy surf. It was turning cold – nowhere near wind-wrack levels, but enough to set us shivering. The hem of my long skirt flapped erratically, rippling and snapping against my bare legs and the stone embankment we were perched on. I was glad I’d thought to bring a jacket.
Niles was the third member of our little group, which we’d whimsically termed the Dystopian Philosophy Club. The name itself was enough to suggest mind-expanding conversations and worthy self-improvement, and we’d been easily able to get the concept approved as a suitable hobby for each of us at Central Office. It wasn’t a complete fabrication, though probably no one would have cared if it were – we did often go on philosophical tangents, debating ideas of right and wrong, or discussing moral and ethical quandaries that had occurred to us the day before. It’s just that wasn’t all we did – the DPC had become a safety net for us, a space where we could air ideas that bordered on the controversial without too much fear.
This semi-sheltered stretch of Pebble Beach served as both our headquarters and our meeting-place, secluded enough to offer some degree of privacy but public enough to defuse suspicion of subversive aims or dissidence. We were lucky that each of our officially registered passions or callings were sufficiently flexible to enable our irregular but frequent meetings. Over the past few years, the DPC had become a home away from home for each of us. I’d seen Niles upset before, but I could hardly imagine what they were going through. The most traumatic thing still to have happened in my life was the normal sibling purge at the age of five – I had never lost a carer, like Niles was now. Temporarily or otherwise.
“Look, we should probably get going. I have to be at rehearsals by one, or my director will flush me. She’s mad enough I was late last week thanks to that train breakdown near Junction 11.”
“Alright, Ally. See you Thursday?”
“Hopefully Niles will be back then.”
“I’ll send them a message tomorrow.”