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by Emily Crawford 4 months ago in Short Story · updated 4 months ago
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A Runaway Train Tale From A Not So Distant Future

There was no rumble or rattle within the baggage car of passenger train e503 as it shot like a streak of white lightning, magnetically suspended through the vacuum tubes of the westbound hi-line. Electric blue light lined the aisleway bathing the space in cool serenity as the train traveled upwards of 300 kilometers per hour. Even the body lying in a crumpled heap at the rear of the compartment was a paradox of silent stillness but for the slow rise and fall of his subtle breath. The only sound to pierce the reverie came from the twinkling tones of the self-illuminated hologram rising in shivering static lines from a pile of disturbed luggage.

“Please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt.”

Her singsong request failed to illicit a response, hanging in the air with expectant buoyance.

“Please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt,” she said again after a predetermined period of inactivity. She was unphased by the disappointment.

“Please return to...”

The body on the floor jolted to life. It was an ugly, clumsy reanimation accompanied by sputtering snorts of apnea.

What is happening? Enzo thought, sitting upright; frantic to find anything that might spark recognition. His focus fixed on a barbie doll smile and a pair of eyes as bright and blue as the safety lighting beneath his fingertips.

“Please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt.”

His mouth opened to speak, but the unnatural cadence of her languid blinking stopped him short. Tunnel vision opened wider to take in her complete, or rather incomplete figure.

“Hologram,” he muttered.

His head hurt; badly. The throbbing above his left eye had steadily increased to a now searing pain. Tentative fingers reached up to probe the source. He was relieved to find no sticky wetness near the tender goose egg rising from his scalp just above the temple, but the crusty black he pulled from a few strands of curly hair told him there had been. He glanced again toward the various bags scattered like an avant garde gown around his concerned companion. He must have fallen and hit his head.

How long was I out?

Enzo clung to the suitcase rack to steady himself.

“Please return to your se…”

“Override passcode: three, one, one, eight, six, alpha. End program.”

She flickered out of existence, leaving the baggage car a shade darker and blissfully silent. He puffed a sigh of relief, resting his pounding skull against the vertical chrome tube of the nearest rack. The cold pressure was intoxicating.

His eye snapped up. “How did I know that?”

Enzo patted his torso, his eyes following the progress of his hands. He was wearing a dusty blue, short collared jacket, distinctly emblazoned with the abstract logo of a railway worker.

I need to find out what’s going on.

He lurched forward, stepping around the fallen luggage and relying heavily on the framework of shelves. At the front of the car, the round, robotic eye of a retina scanner glowed with anticipation.

Here goes nothing, I guess.

The door opened with a woosh, and for the first time, Enzo was able to perceive some evidence of motion. Clicking and whirring, though muted was clearly audible between the cars as electro-magnets shifted polarity, and though the drag of train was nearly nullified by its airless passage, a thin doppler whine of friction could still be heard. It was moving fast and accelerating.

He entered the next car, the dining car, and made for the service counter. The absence of any life was off putting, particularly in contrast to the velvet jazz that echoed through the corridor. Normally it would be barely perceptible above the din of voices and the clank and crinkle of meals and snacks. Now it was cacophonous.

He leaned over the synthetic surface, reaching into the cubbies under the lip of the counter. His blood rushed to a thundering pulse, and his vision began to go as he finally retrieved a small plastic box. There were med kits throughout the train, at every entrance and exit, but this was the good stuff. He flipped open the lid, shuffling through the contents before lifting a pistol shaped object with an exultant yelp.

Without hesitation he positioned the transdermal jet injector against his scalp, ejecting the contents with an icy rush. The relief was instantaneous. A wave of invigoration took hold of him as a cocktail of steroids and pain killers coursed through his capillaries.

“Oh”, he half sighed, half groaned. “Oh, that’s better.”

He turned his gaze to the line of tall, curved windows. What he was able to make out past the soft glare of the interior lights was definitely whipping past far too rapidly. He clambered across the nearest booth seat and pressed his nose to the pane. Through the distortion of the rail tube, trees, roadways and houses darted by in the apparent twilight of early evening. Trains did not travel this fast through residential areas.

Before Enzo could give it another thought, the scene transformed in a flash. There was concrete, bright light and people just beyond the tube wall. They must have been stunned as they stood frozen, watching the train they were supposed to be boarding fly past at speeds that most of them had never seen from the outside looking in. It was a platform; a station platform, and then it was gone.

Terror hit Enzo like a heart attack. He fell backward, reaching for his chest, desperate to breathe as the clenching pain reiterated to him in no uncertain terms that this was very, very bad. Scrambling to his feet, he ran back to the gangway and opened an indiscreet service panel in the lustrous white wall revealing a small keypad and monitor. His fingers clicked out a string of information kept somewhere within his subconscious.


Almost as soon as he depressed the enter key, the screen produced a single word response. Error. The hologram’s voice squeaked from a small, black speaker box, “This function has been disabled.”



“This function has been disabled.”

Feverishly, he gave it one last attempt.



A string of profanity and his fist on the wall stifled the verbal confirmation.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Enzo uttered, lacing his fingers into his sleek black hair and yanking the curls. Lucky for him, he was in exactly the right place. Returning to the keys, he punched out one last command.


This time there was no error. The gangway door reopened and two hinged manholes on either side of the black, diamond plate steel flooring sprung open with a burst of compressed air. Enzo made for the one to the left, but pulled up short.

It’s gone. How could it be gone? Did they use one and the service technicians just didn’t replace it? Or did someone else already…

“Hey mister.”

Enzo exclaimed with surprise. The voice came from behind him and he whirled to find a young boy of nine or ten standing in the doorway to the dining car regarding him quizzically. He had nut brown hair cut short on the sides with a duck feather flip in the front. He wore a royal blue, long sleeved shirt sporting a robotic cartoon hero Enzo was not familiar with. A lanyard terminating in a fat, round, acrylic tag hung from his neck.

“Are those the jettison pods?”

“Where the hell did you come from?” Enzo demanded, still a little stunned.

“I was in the bathroom,” the boy answered, nonchalant. “It’s the only place where that lady doesn’t follow you around and tell you to sit down. Then I heard you. Are those the jettison pods?”

“They’re supposed to be.” He was growing frustrated on multiple levels. “Why aren’t you in your seat?”

“I was, but all the people are crying and praying, and the guy next to me smells like my mom’s old suitcase and soup.”

While the boy was speaking, Enzo had shifted over to the other hatch. The pod was still there. He crouched down and swung his legs into the opening.

“Aren’t those for stowaways?” the boy asked.

“Yeah kid,” Enzo said over his shoulder. “They’re for stowaways and bad guys.”

“Are you a stowaway?”

Enzo gestured to his uniform.

“Oh. Are you a bad guy?”

Enzo was about to lower himself on bent elbows down and into the torpedo-like hull of the pod, but the question halted his motion. He turned to face the inquisitive young man. His chin tilted upward as his dark, round eyes waited patiently but without judgement.

“I don’t think so,” he said, trying to suppress the surge of guilt rising from the pit of his stomach. Shit. Shit. Shit. Squeezing his eyes tight he let out a long, slow sigh of resignation before hoisting himself back up and out of the hole. “What’s your name, buddy?” he asked rising to his feet.

“It’s Andrew, but everybody calls me Robbie.”

“Why do they call you that?”

“Because my dad’s name is Andrew too.”

“Oh, I’ll call you Robbie then.”

“My middle name is Robert”

“Yeah, I get it buddy.”

“You said you were going to call me Robbie.”

“Okay,” he inhaled, stepping back into the dining car and making a beeline toward the opposite end. Robbie clipped at his heels. “Where is your dad?” Enzo asked without looking back.

“Dunno. At home, I guess.”

He stopped. Curbing his exasperation, Enzo plucked two packets of cricket crisps from a display rack at the far corner of the service counter.

“Where’s your mom then?” He tossed one to Robbie who caught it with a toothy grin.

“That’s where I’m going. To see my mom.”

“All by yourself?” Enzo cocked an eyebrow and smiled inwardly as the boy attempted, unsuccessfully, to recreate the expression.

Robbie held up the tag around his neck for inspection. It read “Railway Escorted Minor.”

“Wow, they’re doing a real bang up job looking after you, aren’t they?” With a shake of his head, Enzo continued toward the next carriage.

“Well,” Robbie trailed after him, “everyone is pretty upset.”

He was wholly unprepared for just how accurate that statement was. Audible sobbing met their ears before they had even crossed the threshold of the first passenger car. Mothers rocked back and forth holding babies and small children to their breasts. Full grown men blubbered, tears and snot streaming with disregard. An older woman with short cropped, lavender hair sat to their immediate left mouthing unintelligible words while fingering prayer beads.

“Yeah,” Robbie said far too loudly as they cut a path through the distraught commuters, “a little while ago, some guy a couple cars up said there was no way this doesn’t end in a crash, and everything went kind of crazy after that. Then we blew past that first station.” A woman to the right who had been keeping her composure involuntarily choked with renewed terror at the boy’s words.

The first station? How long had he been out?

“Bud—I mean Robbie,” Enzo called backward, fighting down his own growing panic. “You’ve got to keep it down with the doomsday stuff, pal.”

Robbie jogged closer, presumably so he wouldn’t have to shout, though his next words came out at the exact same volume.

“Where are we going?”

“To the engine. We’ve got to see if there’s something we can do to slow down this train.” Robbie’s excitement was palpable. If he had a tail, it would have been wagging uncontrollably. What the hell was wrong with children?

In the next car up, people began grabbing at Enzo.

“What’s happening?”

“Are we going to die?”

“What are you people doing about this?”

He extricated himself from each desperate grip as gently as possible, though he soon found it necessary to put his head down and push past, ignoring the seemingly endless flood of frightened requests. As one patron grabbed hold of the boy in an irrational ploy for attention, Enzo was forced to put a hand into the man’s chest and shove him aside.

No wonder the conductor was nowhere to be seen. He thought they would be working to deescalate the situation, but it was already well past critical. Grabbing Robbie by the arm, he shoved him forward, propelling the boy through the next two cars while shielding him from any additional abuse with his body.

They paused for only a moment as Robbie pointed to a gentleman who looked to be in his early eighties and was miraculously asleep, his head nestled in the space between the high arching window and his tall-backed, micro-suede seat.

“That’s the musty soup man.”

“Robbie!” Enzo reprimanded.

“What? He won’t wake up. He took a pill and fell asleep like that before I even left.”

Before he had time to respond, they both slammed into the empty beige lounge beside the old man. The train had taken a minor curve, and at roughly 450 kilometers per hour, it had sent them sprawling. That “guy” was absolutely correct. If the train were to take any kind of serious turn at this speed, it would most certainly overcome the magnetic field and hurtle straight into and possibly through the tube wall.

Robbie was right. The man, who was still sleeping peacefully despite the boy being half in his lap, did have a distinctive smell, though he would not have called it unpleasant. Enzo was relieved to see his chest rising and falling in slow succession.

All at once, he found himself being helped to his feet. He recoiled, preparing to once again fend off the rabid fear that had taken hold of the passengers of train e503. Instead, he found himself gazing into the kind but alert gray eyes of a man in his mid-fifties with white hair that burst forth from his temples to fade into a handsome salt and pepper.

“Well?” the man asked. His crisp white shirt and dull blue apron indicated that he must be the dining car attendant. Do I know this man? How could he not? He was certainly looking at him as if they had met before, and recently. Enzo stared back, dumbfounded.

The man shook him by the shoulders, a gesture clearly meant more to rouse him than assault him.

“Come on, man! Pull it together. What’s happening? You and the woman you were with told me they were working on the problem in the engine room and that it would be fixed in a few minutes.” He gestured toward the seat that Robbie still occupied in ungainly disarray as if to say that things were clearly not fixed.

“We’re heading there now to see what’s going on,” Enzo reported truthfully.

“Fine. Good.” The man nodded. “I’m coming with you. I can’t sit here another minute.” He reached out with strong, wiry hands and pulled the discombobulated boy to his feet beside Enzo.

"And what’s your name, young man?” he inquired, resituating the acrylic tag that had found its way around to Robbie’s back, and holding it up to the light to read it clearly.

“My name is Andrew, but…”

“This is Robbie,” Enzo interjected.

“Well, hello Robbie. I’m Dean. You’re a lucky fellow to have this nice man looking after you.” He clapped Enzo on the arm and gave it a light squeeze. “And what was your name again? I don’t believe I caught it.”

“Enzo,” he supplied. “Enzo Loranti.” Apparently, he did not know this man. Not well, at least.

“Alright then Enzo, let’s go fix this thing.”

That woman you were with… The words ran on repeat in Enzo’s mind as the rag tag trio cleared the last passenger compartment. Dean couldn’t have meant the hologram. Any railway worker would be more than familiar with the standard unit. They performed the bulk of the customer interface on the trains. That woman you were with. He almost said it out loud. Who was she, and where was she now?

His eyes refocused on the task at hand just in time for another curve to send him hurtling into the glossy white surface of the final exit before the engine. He felt Robbie’s small frame glance off the side of his body, but Dean hit him full in the back driving him into the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign with such force that it was practically imprinted on his chest.

“If we hit the Lynfield loop at this speed,” Dean muttered pushing the air from Enzo’s lungs as he regained his footing, “it’s all over.”

Wheezing, Enzo braced himself at arms length against the plastic veneer. His cheek had left a round, matte smudge where it had smacked the unyielding material.

“How long,” he gasped, “how long until we hit the Lynfield loop?”

“At this rate? Fifteen minutes, tops.”

“No time to waste.”

Another retina scanner greeted the team, and this time Enzo was certain it would work. He had no idea what he could do to help remedy the situation, but so far the knowledge had come to him exactly as it was needed. He could only hope it would be the same this time. He steeled himself, imagining a chaotic scene of alarms, sparks, and smoke. What they found was the complete opposite.

Silence would have been better. Silence would have been ominous at least, but the industrial space they entered hummed and clicked with rhythmic precision. There were no squealing gears or leaking valves, and the air had a sterile smell with just a hint of grease. Power banks lined the walls and a full electrical spectrum of white, red, orange, green, blue and black cords roped about in neatly bundled coils.

Enzo glanced back at his companions. Dean simply shrugged, but Robbie was a wide-eyed boy on the field trip to end all field trips.

Pipes came next. Pipes and pumps and tanks and fans moving water and air throughout the train, but primarily powering pneumatic and cooling systems.

“Don’t touch anything, Robbie.”

Enzo was masking his own nervous tension with the authority of an adult. He was completely out of his element. Nothing about any of this made sense. There must be some component in this vast array of moving pieces that could stop the train in its tracks, but he was as naïve to it as Robbie no doubt was.

The pipes gradually decreased in size and number and the ever-present cords changed their color ratio to a predominant white. Cabinets stacked from floor to ceiling with blinking boxes flickered like fireflies on either side of the corridor, and Enzo suddenly began to feel not only more comfortable but oddly giddy.

“There it is,” Dean called, pushing past Enzo and sprinting to open the hatch that led to the engine cab. In the next instant, he was backing away with the stunned stagger of a man who had seen something truly terrible. He buckled at the waist, his arms wrapped around his stomach as if he might vomit. Robbie bolted for the cab as any inherently curious nine to ten-year-old would, but Enzo caught him by the back of the collar and pulled him into his chest. Enzo did not need to see what it was that had made his comrade go weak at the knees. He did not have to look, because the moment he glimpsed the small splatter of red through the open doorway, bright and bold on the stark white console, he remembered everything.

The detail was vivid.

“I do love watching you work,” a spry woman was saying. She was seated in the captain’s chair of the cab with her feet on the dashboard and her head back against the slumped torso of one of the two men she had just shot. She was dressed like a preacher’s wife, but even in her unassuming slacks and high-necked blouse, she was dangerously beautiful. Auburn wisps of hair, refusing to be tamed by the low bun at the nape of her neck, framed her heart shaped face still flush with adrenaline. A pair of green eyes flashed with mischief and flecks of gold.

Enzo was seated at one of several computer consoles, his adept fingers typing out code faster than he could read it.

“Your handiwork was a little more impressive.” He nodded toward the motionless bodies.

“Hmmm.” She sat forward and dropped one long leg to the floor, using the toe of her other foot to push her back and forth in the swivel seat. “Flashy maybe, but I wouldn’t call it impressive. How much longer?”

Enzo struck the enter key with a flourish of his pointer finger.

“Done. There’s no stopping this baby now. We’ll be halfway to Gemini 7 while they're still making heads or tails of the tragic train crash 500 kilometers away. It’ll take them a week to notice its missing.”

She pursed her lips.

“Perfect. See?” She licked her thumb, wiping away a droplet of blood on Enzo’s cheek with deliberate nuance. “All those months on the rails have paid off after all.”

They made it all the way to the dining car before anyone challenged their progress. By now the emergency protocols had activated, but few were taking them seriously, but the attendant behind the service counter was perturbed.


Enzo considered ignoring the burly though gentle looking man but thought better of it.

“Who are you?” he asked when Enzo turned around and lifted his head in acknowledgment. “What’s going on up there?” He gestured engine-ward.

“We had a partial shift change at the last stop. They’ve got a minor malfunction in the polarity unit, but it’s under control. Should be fixed soon.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“I’ve got to take this lady here to baggage. She needs some medication, and she packed it in the wrong bag.” He sold it with an eyeroll and proceeded to the last car of the train.

Once inside, his partner in crime immediately began rifling through bags and tossing them aside as Enzo opened a service panel to access the jettison pods. He could see she was grabbing the most expensive luggage first. She had processed about a dozen of them when she suddenly exclaimed in awe.

“Eureka,” she breathed. The gem in her hand was so reflective it appeared to produce its own light. “Did you access the pods?”

He nodded, stepping close to marvel at the treasure. She lifted it for his inspection.

“And did you disable the homing beacons?”

“Mmmmhmmm,” he confirmed, preoccupied by the play of light within the sheer depth of the diamond, but a hard, round point of pressure against his chest yanked his attention from the kaleidoscope of facets. Her gun was pointed directly over his heart. He followed the length of her arm with his eyes to the sardonic smile that spread across her lips. Was she joking?

“It’s nothing personal, Enzo. I’ve just never been very good at sharing.”

Amusement shifted to confusion before plummeting to sickening betrayal.

“On your knees please.”

He thought about making her shoot him right then and there, straight through the heart, but the drive to survive for even a few more seconds is a strong one. He acquiesced.

Perhaps she wanted to avoid creating a racket, or maybe there was some small nugget of authenticity in her feelings for him after all. Either way, before he could move to protect himself, she lifted the gun and and swung it into the side of head. The rest was blackness.

It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.

The realization was almost too much to bear. He was the reason for all of this. Every human being unlucky enough to be on this train was standing on the precipice of life and death because of him, including the young boy he was still holding against his body.

“You stay here,” he ordered, his bowed head nearly touching Robbie’s. Robbie shook his head up and down in earnest as genuine fear crept in past youthful curiosity.

Enzo crossed the threshold of the cab with conviction. The two men lay exactly as he remembered, though much of the blood had darkened. Unlike Dean, Enzo did vomit, willing the violent truth from his body with every wrenching heave.

“What happened?” Dean exclaimed beyond the door, his voice verging on hysterical. “What the hell happened?”

“I don’t know,” he managed, the pangs of his purge subsiding. The lie cut him deeply. Rising to his feet, he drummed his fingers across the keyboard of the console. There was no point in actually typing. The sequence was irreversible. He had guaranteed that, but he needed the façade of a noble attempt.

“I’m completely locked out. The system’s been hacked. I can’t stop this.”

“Who could have done this? Are they still on the train?!”

Enzo leaned out the doorway, relying on the frame to hold him up.

“There’s no time Dean.” His voice was flat; resolute. “There’s only one option left.”

Dean’s gray eyes were like those of a wild animal, but the mention of time seemed to ground him slightly.

“We have to uncouple the engine,” he said as if reaching into Enzo’s thoughts.

“We have to uncouple the engine.”

Every member of railway personnel was versed in a handful of emergency maneuvers, and this was one of those.

“At this speed, that’s a death sentence my friend”

I’m not your friend, Dean. He was right though. The tail end of the train would coast along on emergency levitation units, but the hapless mechanic lacking the benefit of magnetic attraction would be thrown by the jolt of separation with unsurvivable force.

“I’ll do it,” Enzo volunteered.

“No!” Robbie yelled, running and wrapping himself like a boa constrictor around Enzo. Though heavily encumbered, he extricated them both from the doorway, slamming home the button to close the door and seal away his sin forever.

The two men continued to talk over the top of the boy despite his desperate protestations.

“I can do it,” Dean offered.

“When was the last time you did it? Do you even know how?”

“Not as well as you, I’m sure,” he conceded.

“Fine then.”

“Wait!” Robbie wailed, “what about the jettison pods? Can’t we find a way to bring one up here? You could get inside and uncouple the cars from in there. It could take it, right?”

Enzo smiled to himself.

“You know what, pal? That’s actually a really good idea.”

Robbie loosened his grip.


“Really. You and Dean run back and get it. You can load it onto a luggage cart.”

Robbie nodded emphatically, grabbing one of Dean’s big, strong hands.

“You know what to do?” Enzo asked, locking eyes with the other man. Dean nodded curtly, leaving Enzo with zero doubt that should he fail, Robbie would be safely stowed in the single remaining pod. It gave him comfort as he retrieved the atmospheric suit from the tech closet and made his way to the gangway. He had no right to self-pity, but he could not repress the wave of heat that coursed through him as the countdown concluded, his heart beat reaching a fever pitch.

5.., 4.., 3.., 2.., 1

Much the same as the manholes to the jettison pods, a circular flap of steel exploded upward, only this time every molecule of air was sucked from the enclosure with nearly immeasurable speed. It was undetectable from within the confines of the atmospheric suit, though the inescapable sound of his lonesome breathing had its own eardrum torturing quality.

With as much composure as he could muster through the fog of his own raging endorphins, Enzo climbed down the curved safety ladder, clipping his external harness into the horizontal track running the length of the car. He was face to face with the object of his pursuit. The bulky knuckle of the coupler was within arm’s reach. He removed the secondary pin from the joint with relative ease and left it to dangle on six inches of delicate but strong chain. Withdrawing a razor knife from the tool belt at his hip, Enzo zeroed in on a strip of wire tape powering the magnetic connection.

Think of Robbie.

With one swift motion he severed the band, and his world was plunged into darkness.

As the blackness faded to gray, he became aware of a bright light wavering from side to side before him.

Am I dead?

A high frequency ring grew to a deafening roar before receding once again, as his eyes and ears began to work in tandem. A hollow-cheeked man with gold, wirerimmed glasses and a white lab coat was shining a spindle flashlight into each of his eyes.

“Rehabilitation simulation fifteen of two thousand, nine hundred and eleven is now complete.” The automated voice was painfully familiar.

“Hey, congratulations Loranti,” the man snorted. “You passed this time. Maybe you won’t be stuck in this hell hole for the rest of your life after all.”

Enzo attempted to move from his seated position, but he was restrained at the neck, wrists and ankles. Dropping his chin as much as possible, he could see that he was dressed in a stiff, orange jumpsuit. Cephalopod sucker electrodes peaked out from his open collar. Another white-coated figure sat on a tall, metal stool to his left, her thumb poised on the plunger of a syringe connected to the IV line sunk in the crease of his elbow. Her gold flecked, green eyes regarded him with something like sympathy.

He opened his mouth to speak, but he was cut short by the gaunt man.

“Let’s go again.”

She sent the pale yellow liquid shooting down the silicone line and Enzo was out.

“Rehabilitation simulation sixteen of two thousand, nine hundred and eleven initiated.”

Short Story

About the author

Emily Crawford

Emily is a New York native who has worked in various fields ranging from construction and manufacturing to end-of-life care. Having raised a family for the past two decades, she is eager to pursue her own passions once again as a writer.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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