Into the Sun
Riding the Bullet in Death Valley
Acidic whiskey burned my stomach as I woke to a desert sun that pierced through the train’s window, a train that I had no recollection of boarding. I panicked for a moment as scattered memories flashed back. We had been doing shots in the Bellagio suite, then the craps table, back to the bar-
I searched my rumpled suit’s pockets and thankfully still had my phone with a text from my business partner:
Sent you home early :( Call your sponsor. Will cover things here.
I checked the time. 6:00 AM. Yesterday I’d ridden this same train and marveled at the new compartment’s state-of-the-art design. But today I was sickened by the smell of its new varnish. Typical that my partner would just dump me here so that he could schmooze the potential clients (even if the commission was rightfully mine). I was the only reason we’d been invited to the conference.
After a decade of lobbying and construction, it was finally all aboard the Brightline Bullet, the United States’ first bullet train. At 200 mph, the BB traveled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in eighty-three minutes flat. To celebrate, Brightline hosted a VIP launch weekend for transportation experts, like me, to firsthand experience the monumental achievement.
I was in the dining car, so I dragged myself to the counter. The attendant’s back was to me.
“Hey, you serving Bloody Marys?” I croaked.
The attendant turned with a nametag that read Hinata, my father’s name. Despite my self-imposed exile from Tokyo, I bowed out of habit.
I felt his disapproval of my request, disapproval to which I was well accustomed. “Er, a bottle of water, please.”
Hinata looked me up and down and nodded. He presented the water bottle, then reached into his pocket and produced two antacids. “I keep these handy for my ulcer,” he whispered.
In my former life, I’d been a senior engineer on the shinkansen (Japan’s bullet train system). Growing up, my father would let me ride on his routes as we shared bags of sour plum candy. I’d only signed up as an engineer to please him. Sometimes, I think if I’d simply chosen my own path, I wouldn’t have these self-destructive tendencies with an ever-present need to escape.
Now, in my raw and pathetic state, the kindness from this stranger that shared my father’s name was enough to summon frustrated tears of self-pity that I tried to hide.
“It’s ok, Kenji-San,” Hinata read my name off the BULLET2032 VIP badge still hanging from my neck, “Your friend told me to keep an eye on you. You were at the conference. No ticket needed.”
I reached to pay, but I must have lost my wallet during last night’s debauchery. I vaguely remembered taking it out for a lap dance.
“Sorry, I don’t have my wallet either,” I mumbled. “Bit of a wild night.”
Hinata nodded, “Perhaps it's better to avoid places like sin city.”
I turned to slink away. But suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the train whizzed by the next stop, Baker station.
“Hey!” someone yelled from the vestibule. A young man poked his head inside. “Doesn’t anybody work here?!”
Hinata raised his eyebrows. “Sir?”
“This train just missed my stop!” the man blurted. “Who do I talk to about getting off?”
“The next stop will be Barstow” Hinata looked at his watch. “In approximately five minutes.”
“You sure about that, pal?” the exasperated man spat.
Hinata picked up a red phone behind the counter and dialed with no answer. He tried two more times, but no one was on the other end.
“This is very strange,” Hinata hung up. I could tell he didn’t want to alarm the other passengers, but he practically ran to the next car abandoning the snack bar.
The angry passenger eyed me, “Seems like they’ve still some bugs to work out.”
Even though my hangover still pummeled me, I stood a little straighter. The emergency line was malfunctioning, and the train had just completely blown through a scheduled stop. This was not normal.
Above the snack counter, I could see the morning news crawler:
BRUTAL SUMMER HEAT WAVE SENDS POWER GRID OFFLINE...BLACKOUTS IN PARTS OF CALIFORNIA AND NEVADA
Hinata still hadn’t returned. My heart started to pump faster as I made my way to the vestibule. In the next car, things appeared normal. A couple was waiting at the door, likely for the Barstow station. Hinata had said in five minutes.
“I know it goes fast, but shouldn’t we be slowing down?” the woman asked.
We all watched as we shot past Barstow so fast I could barely make out the sign. Something was very wrong. I checked the LA Times on my phone:
POWER GRID CRASHES, GOVERNOR ISSUES STATE OF EMERGENCY
A tense announcement came over the BB’s loudspeaker, “Everyone, return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Our train is experiencing a technical issue. We will keep you updated.”
Sleeping passengers awoke with a growing murmur that something was not right. I pushed my way up the aisle to Hinata and another BB employee, who spoke tensely.
Before I could even think to offer any assistance, Hinata was already pulling me through the next threshold.
There was now outright panic in the “Employees Only” section as we continued to barrel faster.
“Mom, I’m sure everything will be ok, but I just wanted to tell you I love you,” a woman’s hand shook the cellphone it gripped.
Hinata rushed to the train’s security agent. “We’ve located a passenger with bullet train experience. Please allow him access to the driver’s control room!”
The security agent whipped around to both of us, “Hinata, are you crazy? We’re dealing with an emergency. This guy reeks of booze!”
“Please,” I showed him my name badge, “My name is Kenji Kobayashi, I work in consulting now, but I used to drive these.”
The security agent placed his call on hold and started to type, “K-O-B…”
“AYASHI,” Hinata snatched the phone from the security manager and plugged in my name plus bullet train.
Five years later, it’s still the first search result:
DRUNKEN BULLET TRAIN ENGINEER CRASHES CAR INTO STATION ENTRANCE
At that moment, it came back to me: My horrible downward spiral, my hatred of my father for choosing my career, my drinking, my crash. I’d served three years in jail. My entire family wanted nothing to do with me. I had moved to the States to try and reinvent myself. But I was still the same screw-up who just wanted to go numb.
But at this moment, I was electric with fear for my life.
“Please, trust me, I have some expertise here!” I pleaded.
The security agent had no better option and unlocked the control room door. Inside, the BB driver frantically pulled levers and hit buttons. Both the train’s emergency phones were on the ground.
“No passengers! Why is the door open?!” the driver screamed.
“Jesse!” the security agent snapped. “Please try to stay calm. This man may be able to help us,”
I moved toward the driver, “I’ve driven Japanese bullet trains. Blackouts are affecting the power grids. We must be on solar emergency power right now.”
The driver’s wild eyes met mine. “It could have been a power surge, but the AI we use can’t get back online!” The driver futilely banged on the controls.“People are going to die!”
“Copy.” a voice from the security agent’s cell rose up. “We are mobilizing emergency teams immediately. We are unable to regain control of the power grid situation. Our engineers estimate you will arrive at LA Union Station, Track 7, in approximately fifteen minutes. Prepare passengers and employees for Code 17.”
Ice cold chills ran through my body. Code 17 is code for a collision on the track - at 200 mph.
The young driver tried to steady his voice. You could see the fresh creases in his uniform that he’d probably only worn twice.
“Attention, passengers,” he took the mic. “We are dealing with an emergency malfunction. Please immediately proceed to the back of the train in an orderly fashion. All crew prepare for Code 17. I repeat, all passengers report to the last car. Crew prepare for Code 17. This is not a drill.”
Immediately you could hear the screams and the crashing of bags.
The driver turned back to us. “We can get everyone to the back and brace for impact.”
“How many passengers?” I asked.
“I estimate about seventy, plus a crew of fifteen.” the security agent responded numbly.
The Union Station voice returned, “We’re clearing the tracks and platforms. Are there any updates?”
“I think you all better head to the back.” said the driver solemnly. “I’ll stay on the line with Union.” His tears welled up as he took out his own phone. “I need to call my family now.”
Hinata grabbed my shoulder. “I knew they’d rushed to get this thing online. There must be a failsafe, Kenji?!”
My mind ran back over the presentations. There had to be a way to short-circuit the power. If the overrides were malfunctioning, there’s only one thing left to cut that’s running the battery - the pantographs.
Like the trains in Japan, the BB had an overhead wire system with devices called pantographs that form the electric circuit. Most people are familiar with trolley cars powered by cables above, and the same was true of the BB.
But someone would need to climb outside to reach it, and I quickly realized that I was the only one who knew what to look for. My father let me cut a line loose as a kid, but he had known those lines were dead. This time they’d be live. And the moving train would be a rocket in a wind tunnel.
I looked at the others in the power car. They all must have had families and reasons to come home. If I went back to the last car and hid under a seat, I may get lucky enough to go home to an empty apartment, back to an AA meeting and a lifetime of hating myself.
Or I could try to save us all.
“We can cut the power from the pantographs directly,” I pulled off my suit jacket.
“Are you crazy? The pantographs are outside!” the security agent pointed above to a hatch.
But the driver instantly dove into opening the floor’s emergency compartment. An industrial wire cutter would’ve been a standard issue, and there it was at the bottom of the pile with a pair of thick rubber gloves. At least Brightline hadn’t skimped on the emergency equipment.
“Open the hatch,” I ordered as I pulled on the gloves.
Maybe the others knew it was a suicide mission. Or perhaps they thought I knew what I was doing, but they didn’t protest. The driver climbed on top of the controls and pushed the hatch open. The blaring sun came through as the wind screamed above us. We were running out of time, and I knew it was now or never.
Like the driver, I climbed up onto the controls. The moment I stuck my head out, the wind ripped at my face like a hyper-speed rollercoaster. I saw I’d have to get my whole body out to reach the wire.
Using one of the pantograph’s steel beams for leverage, I pulled out far enough to wrap my arm around it. My face was already getting windburned as the pressure knocked all the air from my lungs. The roar of the wind deafened me. I beckoned with my other hand, and the driver handed up the wire cutter.
I caught Hinata’s eyes for a moment and thought of my father. I took comfort in realizing that even if we crashed, no longer would the first search result, my legacy, also be my greatest mistake. Today I had done the right thing. I died trying to be the man he always wanted me to be, a man of honor.
Closer and closer, I reached the wirecutter up with my free hand. The wind’s force was so great I thought my arm would break in two. C’mon, I begged, as the blades kept failing to get in position. In a final desperate move, I wrapped my legs around the pole so I could use both hands to bring up the wire cutter to steady it.
The second I caught the wire, I did not hesitate. I clamped down with all my rage, self-loathing, shame and selfishness. I poured it up like poison through my hands and squeezed the demons out of me. The wire separated with an explosion of sparks.
Next, there was an incredible lightness as all those things left my body. I knew it then, as I lost my grip and flew through the wind and into the sun.
I was redeemed.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
This was an amazing read. You really know how to set up a character, his father issues and flaws had me hooked. The article title had me confused for a moment due to the absolute sounding nature you wrote it, but it somewhat helped the story. It could have heightened your writing if it had been executed perfectly. The passengers calling their families in the seconds in between were an excellent touch and I’m personally glad it had a somewhat happy ending. This was a good story and I’m glad I got to read it before it was swallowed up in the numbers.
Great story, totally cativating!
Really nice build up of tension! I enjoyed reading this :)