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Dark Side of the Tracks

by Christopher Cooper 5 days ago in science fiction
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The future isn't always bright.

Dark Side of the Tracks
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It’s always the worst kind of sleep that’s the longest.

Peter wasn’t totally sure why he felt so terrible, but the sensation was familiar. A long shift in the trainyard could take a toll on both the body and mind but it was relaxing afterward that made it worse. Peter knew his last shift had been particularly awful, but the details were fuzzy, kind of like a hangover. It doesn’t matter, thought Peter. In a few minutes his alarm would screech, forcing him to get out of bed and figure out what he could get done during his 18 hours off.

Strictly speaking, Black Rock Station was not a city as much as it was an industrial center with a lot of people. The trainyard was certainly the hub, but it was also the one place people least wanted to go. Hope Station, as it was founded, was originally an outpost meant to serve the various mining efforts on the dark side of the moon, but it had snidely become known as Black Rock because of the eternal darkness and lack of even the faintest attempt at luxury. Peter knew that he could put in for a transfer from the trainyard but to what point and purpose? The mines were worse. Deep space transit would mean an extension of his contract with the company for additional years. At least the trainyard was something he had come to know well and he only had seven years left before he was a free man.

As he continued to lay there not fully awake, not fully asleep, he noticed his bed seemed to get less and less comfortable. What had he done after his last shift that would make him feel so achy and off-kilter? Alcohol was an accepted norm amongst most off-world laborers, the question was quality. Some of the senior workers took to making it themselves rather than spending their hard-earned money on the watered-down liquor from the company store. Peter always drank the same stuff, more out of habit than any kind of joy or even loyalty. Brand 16 was an old earth whiskey that could, if one wasn’t careful, give you a splitting headache for days. But, Peter couldn’t remember drinking when he got off shift.

The boss had him training a new guy to replace low gravity breaks for the cargo trains. This Peter remembered clearly because the kid seemed to be almost willfully negligent and uncaring about the task. What was his name? Peter figured his best course of action would be to let the supervisor know and they could ground those cars before anything happened; but he could do that on his next shift. As Peter waited for the alarm to go off, he became increasingly aware of the sensation that he was moving. Great, I’m still drunk, he thought as he fumbled around for his bedside table where he always kept a small container of pain pills and canteen of water. He figured that if he could hold the pills down and get to the shower he could sober up before trying to get something done during his time off.

Strangely the table didn’t seem to be there. Perhaps he’d drunkenly knocked it over when he got in last night. He moved his hand to his chest. He muttered under his breath, he must have stayed out pretty late, because he was still dressed for work from the shift before. What time was it? Where’s the money? What happened last night to cause so much pain now? All of the questions seemed to fade into background noise as he opened his eyes to find, not his cell in the company housing block, but what seemed to be the auxiliary crew quarters on one of the trains!

While this was certainly not a good thing, it would probably be alright, depending on if he got caught and who found him. The yard manager or one of his company stooges would not be good for Peter, but if it was one of the supervisors he might be ok. Taking a moment to collect his thoughts, he decided the best thing to do was find out what shift was working. Perhaps he could find somewhere to sleep his headache off and pretend he didn’t realize this wasn’t his shift to work. Or, even better, maybe he could sneak out between shifts and leave none the wiser. It all depended on where he was and what time it was.

Opening the door to the compartment, Peter froze. This was worse than he’d thought. The movement he felt earlier was not just the hangover, the train was fully underway. This is going to be a little more difficult to explain, he thought, but as long as the train was still at Black Rock he was probably okay.

Peter looked around, trying to gauge his surroundings. Trains came into the yard for a number of different reasons; refit and repair being the principal reason, but there was also a section of the yard dedicated to decommissioning old cars, and even a small commuter hub. Most of the trains went to Xi9 the de facto capital of the moon where resources were stockpiled or loaded onto spacecraft for distribution to the colonies or back to earth. Some went back out to the mines, both independent and corporate. The more Peter thought about it, the more he realized the train was moving way too fast for him to be in the station still.

Peter walked out of the cramped and dirty crew cabin. He had to find the nearest train terminal to at least figure out what train he was on and its destination. Like so many other things on Black Rock the first terminal was clearly out of service. Peter rubbed his temples and considered his options. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going, he wasn’t clear why his head hurt so much, and he couldn’t remember last night. He shook his head to try to clear it. No matter, the one thing he did know was that he needed to get off the train, and soon.

Peter decided to look around the car he was in before trying to make his way further up to the engine where they would certainly have a way of contacting someone, anyone. Peter still wasn’t sure how best to handle the situation, being late to a shift was bad enough but being late for getting drunk and ending up on a train without a pass was far worse.

Maybe I do have a pass, Peter suddenly thought. He fumbled through his heavy canvas work suit. Afterall, he didn’t remember not purchasing one. Actually, he didn’t remember a lot of things. His hand landed on a scrap of paper, pulling it out of his front shirt pocket, he noticed there was an address on it, written in his handwriting. With no memory of writing it, he tucked it away and patted himself down once more for good measure. No pass.

Deciding to press on and figure out where the train was going, he walked up the corridor to the car transition. His ID badge allowed him access to most areas on a train when it was in the yard, but he’d never tried it with one that was underway before. He held the badge to the scanner and the light turned from yellow to green as the door popped opened a crack. It was a maintenance car, full of tools and equipment. Usually these cars were towards the end of the train but Peter shrugged it off and kept moving. In the next car he noticed a terminal like the first one he’d tried. It was underneath some old tarps, but the soft glow of the screen indicated that it still had power.

As he brushed the tarps and equipment from the terminal his hopes sank; the screen was locked and requiring a password. On a whim he tried to log in with his Black Rock employee credentials, thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to try. Surprisingly, it worked!

Peter punched a couple of buttons and looked up the date and time. It was a matter of habit, trying to figure out how long he had until his next shift. It was 0500 and it wasn’t his day off, he was due to report to work in only an hour. Well, this sucks, Peter thought, I guess I’ll have to burn a sick day and hope the doctor is a good sport about it when the company demands a sick note.

A couple more buttons and he found the destination, the train was an Xi9 inbound deposition supply yards. Skimming through the other technical information, Peter disregarded the remaining data as irrelevant, gross tonnage, total cars, values, etc. One bit of information stuck out to him though, the identification number of the car he was in. Wasn’t 10022388 the number of the car he was working on with the new guy? Even if he could remember the last 18 hours and wasn’t hungover, it was hard to be certain, but this was the car that he and the new guy were working on. The one that may or may not have breaks on it.

Well, hell, thought Peter, I better get to the front of this thing and call someone. Who do I reach out to? wondered Peter, as he started moving forward along the train as fast as he could. The transit authority? Security? His boss? How did he end up here in the first place? His mind raced as he pushed further and further forward along the train. Peter wondered if anyone else was on the train. It was hard to tell if a train was fully automated or had some crew. He hadn’t seen on the console what the train was moving or where they were going and that information was crucial to knowing if there was any crew onboard.

As Peter moved from one car to the next, he became increasingly confused by what he saw. Some of the cars had a variety of cargo, others were in total disrepair, and yet others looked like the luxury cars used by upper management on inspection runs. Perhaps someone is playing a prank, thought Peter. If that’s the case, it certainly isn’t a funny one. For a brief moment he considered the possibility that he had been called back to work early for overtime and been tasked with something and somehow blacked out.

Upon arriving at the first of two engines his heart sank. The train was clearly automated, and he was the only passenger on his way, somewhere. If only he knew how he came to be here, then he might be able to figure out where he was going and what to do about it. The engine was run by a very sophisticated computer, capable of making its own judgments using specific criteria, but it was by no means a flawless decision maker. The computer in this car, and every other one, was supporting the one in the engine up front, per the normal setup.

As Peter made his way toward the primary engine, the situation was finally becoming clear to him. His situation was dire. The destination on the primary control screen read “Surplus Value Deposition.” The destination was the scrap yard on the edge of a large crater. This scrap yard was more of a dumping ground for things to be forgotten and only occasionally salvaged for base scrap. The trains themselves weren’t parked in a neat and orderly fashion so much as they careened over the edge of the crater in low lunar gravity only to come crashing back down in twisted heaps. He was set on a collision course. A collision course there was no chance he could survive amongst the twisted metal of the train.

As Peter tried to raise the communication array and reach out to someone, anyone, for help, his focus shifted from how he got into this situation to how he was going to get out of it.

His palms had begun sweating, his heart pounded, and his mouth had gone dry as he plugged into the all-call emergency channel. The frequency was used by the mines, trains, and spacecraft alike so odds were good that Peter’s S.O.S. would be noticed, if they were not already busy. The government and company cared primarily about the resources coming from the moon, rather than their staff, so the emergency services crew were only lightly staffed. As the standby signal bounced back, Peter switched to the company frequency for Black Rock yard workers. If they were in range, and if someone was listening, they may be able to stop the train.

A long moment of silence passed before the yard worker frequency came alive. A wave of relief flooded over Peter. He wasn’t sure how much further the train had before its tragic end, and his with it. None of it mattered though if one of the yard workers could stop the train remotely.

To his surprise, the voice on the other end was a familiar one. The kid he’d been training answered and Peter’s blood went cold. “You weren’t supposed to be awake for this,” the voice muttered softly into the microphone.

“What?” Peter gasped with growing unease.

“The guy who gave me the stuff said you would be out for like two days. You weren’t supposed to be up for this.”

“What? Why? How did-?” was all Peter could manage as he tried to wrap his brain around the realization that he’d been deliberately placed on this train by the trainee whose name was just, finally, coming back to him. “Freddy, what the hell did I do to you!?” shouted Peter.

“It was the breaks. I couldn’t let you go to the supervisor and have me shipped back to the mines. I’m not going back there.” Silence crackled through the line before one final connection, “you weren’t supposed to be awake for this; I was doing you a favor.”

Peter blinked. What now? his mind begged.

Looking around, he realized there was a slim chance that if he could escape via the emergency pod on top of the engine, he might get picked up by the emergency crews or a salvage team.

He clambered up the ladder hoping there was an emergency pod more than expecting one. Luck was finally on his side, a small craft designed for five people to survive several days on the lunar surface was now his only hope.

Peter slipped inside, closing the hatch behind him. As he strapped himself in and hit the jettison lever next to his seat, he wondered if perhaps he hadn’t been better off on the train careening towards a quick end, rather than slow starvation and the madness of isolation on the lunar surface with little real chance of rescue.

science fiction

About the author

Christopher Cooper

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