The Black Line

It was a while before he even realised she was on the platform at York Road. He’d been running on autopilot. It was… God, what? Five years since he’d last seen someone there.

Neville applied the brakes and brought the train to a halt. He was secretly delighted that the cab eased to a stop directly in line with the black London Underground roundel on the platform wall opposite. Okay, he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t done this, but it was always satisfying. Even more so with an audience.

He turned on the door camera nearest to his mystery passenger. She must have seen it move because, to Neville’s growing excitement, she pulled a plastic pass from the inside pocket of her suit jacket and held it up for him to see.

That excitement evaporated the moment he looked at it closely.

It wasn’t right.

Neville knew what he had to do. The same thing he had done five years ago. And five years before that. And five years before that. The pass wasn’t right. He could see that. There were rules.

And yet he didn’t. Instead, he opened the door.

If the lady on the platform felt any surprise at this turn of events, she didn’t seem to show it. Neville watched her carefully as she boarded the train, brushed some dust off a black and white moquette pattern seat (he felt a bit ashamed about that) and sat down.

And then it was time for the train to leave and Neville had other things to focus on. Ten minutes later, when they pulled into Kingsway, she got up and alighted.

Neville wondered if he’d done the right thing. Either way, he suspected he’d never see her again. He was wrong. When he pulled into the platform at York Road the next day, she was there.

She held up her pass and, even though he knew that he shouldn’t, he opened the door for her. Once again he watched as she dusted off a seat and sat down. Ten minutes later she got off at Kingsway.

It happened the next day too.

And for the next ten days straight after that.

On the fourteenth day he found himself pulling into York Road with a growing sense of excitement. But she wasn’t there. For what felt like the first time in his life, Neville felt a sense of crushing disappointment. He told himself he was being silly. He needed to focus on driving the train. That was his job. That had been his purpose — passengers or not — for over forty years. He needed to focus on that. Forget he’d ever seen her.

Ten minutes later he saw her there, standing on the platform at Kingsway. He was so excited he felt like he was about to burst.

She held up her (wrong) pass and, as usual, he opened the door. As usual, she dusted off a seat and sat down. This time, however, he decided he had to say something.

“Sorry about the dust.”

She looked up with a start, glancing around the carriage for the source of the sound. Embarrassed, Neville gave the camera at the end of it a little wiggle, to let her know he was watching. It felt like the polite thing to do. She saw it and seemed to relax.

“Don’t worry about it.” She replied. “It’s fine.”

The rest of the journey was spent in silence. She got off the train at Aldwych.

For the next month he saw her almost every day. When she boarded, he would always give the camera a little wiggle. Just to let her know he was watching. He worried it might seem creepy at first, but she nodded and smiled each time. He wasn’t brave enough to speak to her again though, which is why it caught him off guard when she eventually spoke to him instead.

“Do you have a name?”

“It’s Neville, miss.” He replied.

“Pleased to meet you, Neville. I’m Florrie.”

The rest of the journey (Kingsway again) was spent in silence. But it felt to Neville like a barrier between them had dropped. The next day, he felt brave enough to ask her a question back.

“Miss, why are you here?”

She smiled.

“I’d have thought that’s obvious.” She replied. “I work for the Ministry at the Kingsway Bunker. How else would I get to work each day?”

Neville knew it was a lie, but he decided didn’t mind.

After this, conversation between them became a frequent thing. She asked him how long he’d been working down here on the Black Line. He told her it was at least forty years. The next day she asked him if he remembered anything about the world above. He told her that he spent plenty of time above ground, in his own way. The advantage of the bunker being part of the original DARPAnet, he explained.

“Oh God!” She laughed. “I should have thought about that. You probably have a better internet connection down here than I do!”

“BBC iPlayer has been a blessing, miss.”

For the next few weeks they talked about a lot of different things. After he admitted he didn’t have a credit card, Florrie gave him her Netflix password.

“Promise me you’ll watch Star Trek: Discovery.” She said.

He did, and they talked about that on her ‘commute’ for a while. Even though he knew she was lying about that. Her pass was wrong.

This fact still weighed on his mind. He could never shake it. He knew his job. He knew the rules. He had broken them. That was wrong. He knew what had to happen but he didn’t want it to. He refused to do it. Neville realised he never wanted their conversations to end.

But one day they did.

The day had started, as it always seemed to now, with her standing on the platform at York Road. But this time she looked different, like something was preying on her mind. When she sat down she even asked him the question.

“I know what happened five years ago, Neville.” She said. “And five years before that.”

A wave of fear swept over him. He didn’t know what to say.

“Why did you kill them, Neville?” She continued, gently. “The people in suits who came before me. The ones who visited you before.”

Neville thought carefully, and then answered.

“They had the wrong pass, miss. I had no choice. That’s the rules.”

She leant back on the seat, placing an arm across its back as the tunnel wall flashed by the window behind her.

“And my pass?” She asked. “This one was right?”

“No, miss.” Neville admitted. “Yours is wrong too. The correct ones were made to have a little infra-red chip in the corner. The door cameras can pick it up.”

She sat there for a while. Neville couldn’t tell, but for a brief moment he thought he saw a smile play across her lips.

“I had begun to wonder.” Florrie said, finally, before leaning forward and looking directly at the camera.

“Neville. I’m going to ask you a question. I need you to answer me with the very first thing that springs to mind. This is important. More important than maybe you realise, but please: You have to trust me. Don’t think. Just answer. Can you promise me that?”

“Okay, miss.”

He saw her take a deep breath.

“Neville, why did you break the rules?”

“Because I was lonely.”

The answer was out before he’d even stopped to think. Part of him seemed to want to retract it. It was telling him it wasn’t true. That it couldn’t be. But he knew it was. The moment the words were out, he knew it with every fibre of his being.

“I was lonely.” Neville repeated, as much to himself as to her.

In the carriage, Florrie smiled.

Nothing was said for the remainder of the journey to Kingsway. He thought she would just get up and leave, but just as they started pulling into the station she spoke to him again.

“Neville.” She said. “This may be the last time that you see me. I hope it isn’t, but it may well be.”

“Oh. I’m… I’m sorry to hear that, miss.”

“Me too. But can I ask you to do one final thing. This is super super important, and I think that… well… I hope that afterwards you’ll understand. Do you promise to do it?”

“I promise.”

“Is there a camera in the driver’s cab, Neville?”

It was a very odd question and it caught Neville off guard. Of course there was a camera in the cab.

“There is, miss.”

“When the doors open, and you’re fully stopped, I want you to switch to that camera for me. Can you do that?”

Neville was confused, but a promise was a promise.

“I will, miss.”

“Thank you Neville.” She said, and began to get up.

“Goodbye, miss.”

“My name is Florrie, Neville. You can call me Florrie. We’re friends. I hope.”

“Goodbye… Florrie.”

She smiled. “Goodbye Neville. Now go look in the cab.”

And so he did.

It was a long, long time before Neville switched back to the carriage. When he finally did, Florrie was long gone. All that was left was a small, white piece of card on the seat where she had been sitting.

“Operator Goodwin. I want you to think very carefully about what you say next.”

Florence Goodwin, Special Operator (2nd Class) of the London Underground Unforeseen Issues Department, flinched. She’d killed were-rats at Paddington, exorcised a demon from the Kings Cross gateline and helped close the portal to London-That-Wasn’t which had appeared at the bottom of the escalators at Cutty Sark DLR. Twice.

Nothing had prepared her for appearing before a full session of the Dark Transport Committee.

“I stand by my report, sir.”

Phaedran Insim, TfL’s Head of Dark Projects, picked up her report from the table in front of him with a tentacle. He carefully placed his glasses onto the end of his beak with a second, and flicked to the end of her report with a third.

“It is my conclusion.” He said, reading the end of her report out loud, “That the New Automatic Victoria Line (NAVL) System, as implemented on the Black Line in 1971, now shows all the markers of sentient AI. It exhibited clear signs of aesthetic sensitivity and emotional expression, as well as many more of Turing’s key markers for…”

“We’ve all read the report, Insim.” The Under-Mayor said, cutting him off. “What does it matter? The Black Line is a relic of the Cold War and needs to go. Budgets are tight, and the idea that money should be spent to preserve an emergency railway line beneath the capital is… well, need I go on?”

A fist slammed into the board room table, making everyone jump. It was the Transport Commissioner (London-Above).

“It matters, Under-Mayor.” He said, because there is a difference between shutting down a machine, and killing a person.”

“That… machine,” The Under-Mayor continued, “Seemed to show no compulsion about killing Operator Goodwin’s predecessors.”

“But that’s the point!” Florrie found herself saying, before she could stop herself, “it.. he… didn’t kill me. He made a choice.”

The Under-Mayor shot Florrie a look, and with it most of her hope drained away. The current Under-Mayor was also the head of the Guild of Mice. One of the most powerful figures in London-Under. There were plenty on the Committee who would always vote his way.

“I call a vote.” The Under-Mayor continued, as if reading her mind. “I propose that the Black Line be immediately decommissioned. Its power lines and backup generators immediately disconnected and…”

“But…” Florrie began.

“Your report is noted, Operator.” Insim interrupted. He had clearly made up his mind as well. “And we thank you for your courage in accepting this mission. You may return to your unit.”

Florrie looked in desperation at the Commissioner, but the sad nod he gave her told her that there was nothing he could do.

“All in favour of immediate cessation of functions,” The Under-Mayor continued, please raise an append-”

And then someone coughed.

It was a deep, dry cough. One that felt like it started at some point in the fourteenth century, took its time to work its way up to the modern era, and then slowly materialised in the room.

“If I may have a word.” A voice said, quietly but firmly.

Silence descended on the board room. The speaker was one of the oldest and most respected nosferatu in London. Samuel de Guise. Baron of Waltham Forest. Appointed Eternal Counsel to the Underground (Below-And-Above) by Lord Ashfield himself.

De Guise folded himself out of the darkest corner of the room. It was the first time Florrie had seen him in person. She wasn’t sure whether it was fear or awe but his presence was almost physically overwhelming.

“At 11am this morning,” de Guise continued, “A letter was delivered to my office in Southwark. It was from the office of Graham Cooke, of Cooke and Sharpe LLP. For those unfamiliar with this rather prestigious firm, they specialise in Human Rights Cases and Intellectual Property law. It’s a rather unique combination but in this instance-”

“Is there a point to this, de Guise?” The Under-Mayor interrupted. De Guise shot him a look.

“The point Under-Mayor.” de Guise said, coldly, pulling out a folded piece of paper, “was that the letter informed me that they they had agreed to represent - and here I quote — ‘The Fully Sentient AI Neville (Formerly known as the New Automated Victoria Line (NAVL) System, (1971)) in his contract discussions with TfL (Above-and-Below) on the subject of (i) recognition of Employee Status within London Underground (ii) recognition of personhood; and (iii) An Intellectual Property claim against London Underground seeking ownership of himself as IP. This last one included a cease-and-desist on any current or future work intended to alter, disrupt or prevent the operation of the aforementioned AI-as-IP.’”

“He can’t… it can’t do that!” The Under-Mayor shouted.

“What matters rather more at this point, Under-Mayor,” de Guise replied dryly, “Is that it already has. Legally, we can no longer simply ‘decommission’ the Black Line.”

Florrie suddenly realised de Guise was enjoying himself.

“Now the good news, fellow board members,” de Guise continued, “Is that Cooke and Sharpe have informed me that Neville is very happy working for the Underground, and is open to discussions about an amicable settlement based on mutual recognition of sentience and employment. So I propose that…”

It was a good hour before Florrie managed to extricate herself from the board room, where arguments continued. Once it became clear that her presence had been forgotten, she had quietly backed out.

Shutting the door behind her, she straightened her suit and moved round the corner away from the room. Once there, she drew in and let out a deep breath. She had no doubt that what she had written in her report had probably harmed her career. Certainly, she had made an enemy of the current Under-Mayor. But…

…she looked around one more time to make sure no one was watching…

…and punched the air.

“Goodbye, miss.”

“My name is Florrie, Neville. You can call me Florrie. We’re friends. I hope.”

“Goodbye… Florrie.”

She smiled. “Goodbye Neville. Now go look in the cab.”

And so he did.

It was empty.

It was a long, long time before Neville switched back to the carriage. It was a lot to take in. When he finally did so, Florrie was long gone. All that was left was a small white piece of card on the seat where she had been sitting.

Neville had so many questions now. So many feelings. He felt a sense of panic rising within him and, in a desperate attempt to distract himself from it he found himself concentrating on the only thing left in the carriage. The small piece of white card Florrie had left behind.

As he zoomed in closer, he realised it was actually a business card.

Graham Cooke
Cooke and Sharpe LLP
Human Rights & IP Specialists

And suddenly, Neville knew what he needed to do next…

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

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