Bullet Train

Silence. Astounding speed. Sheer, absolute calm.

100,000 kilometers to target.

The engineer pressed a button on his suit. Magnetic slivers on the center of his suit began, slowly, to reverse. The effect was two-fold: first, the color of his suit started to change from black to white. Second, the altered polarity reacted to the magnetic tunnel the engineer was traversing.

90,000. 80,000. 70,000. 65,000. 60,000.

More slivers joined the first strip, and the polarization started to spread out in a less linear – but still highly methodical – progression. Miniscule, spread-out changes presented minimal risk of injury to the high-velocity engineer.

The engineer’s eyes passed briefly across the view. While impressive for the first few hours, panoramas in space eventually lost their astounding charm. The stars were as beautiful as they were unexciting and constant. Planets looked more or less the same this far into nothingness. Smaller details of anything were indiscernible at such speeds. His eyes flicked back to his helmet’s screen overlay. The last information the station had relayed before sending him out was tagged red and locked at the top corner of the display. Anomalous vibration from left track of inward line. Cable slack at 0846 Earth GMT. Assigned engineer KL-33 to locate anomaly and repair if feasible, else commencing reel at 2030 Earth GMT.

KL-33 checked the time – 1858 Earth GMT – and then the distance again. 45,000 kilometers to target. A red light blinked on his right glove. The proximity light. KL-33’s eyes widened in horror. He flipped the safety off his brake button and slammed his whole gloved fist into it.

All the technology in the universe couldn’t have saved him – alone in a one-man space suit – from blacking out.

With magnetic protestation, his suit balanced itself in the magnetic field at 84% white and 16% black. He came to a complete stop. The top right of his display showed 43238.01868 kilometers. The proximity sensor on his glove remained lit.

After KL-33’s heart rate had slowed sufficiently, his suit recognized that he was unconscious, and delivered a quick pulse through him. A soft warning tone hummed in his ears as he regained consciousness.

He looked around. He told himself that it was too far from the target, and after checking that he was in no immediate danger, he very nearly resumed his trip. Then he saw the train.

The inward and outward lines were set two kilometers apart, and for good reason. Both were built out of thick cable, two tracks each, and had chair-sized magnets implanted at regular intervals in them at a forward angle. If the lines were too close, their opposing magnets would latch onto each other. The trains themselves were designed with loops on both sides of the front three sections. The track cables ran through these. Only the foremost section – nicknamed the engine simply because drivers and crew sat there – would actually be magnetized during travel; this helped avoid conflict if a carriage were to sway even slightly. The rear section was equipped for braking only, but relied on electromagnets to do so. Emergency brakes lined the entire train.

From KL-33’s perspective, though, one thing was immediately apparent: the train was almost completely horizontal. The tail end of the train was what had set off his proximity sensor – it was tugging at the magnets of the outward line KL-33 had traversed. The train wasn’t long enough to bridge the gap completely, but tug it did.

And all the lights were out.

KL-33 then noticed that the train was still moving. The front was nosing forward at an agonizing – he did a burst of arithmetic in his head – roughly 200 kilometers per hour. Judging from the train’s distance from his target point, the tail’s magnetism must have been slowing it for quite some time. At its current speed, the train wouldn’t reach Mars for another 5,600 days at least. Trains were usually equipped for a few months at best.

Then he caught a clear glimpse of the front of the train. It was thoroughly wrapped in track cable. The magnets had latched onto the carriage somehow. That meant that one of the cables had come loose or snapped somehow. With the lack of magnetic balance, it was no wonder the tail had swung out so far.

With his suit magnets balanced, KL-33 slowly pulled himself over to the line at his left – closest to the train – and wrapped his arms around it. He shifted his way around to the outside of the magnetic field, and adjusted his suit to cope with the change in polarity. Then he ran another calculation, lined himself up with the tail of the train, and pulled a trigger at his side.

A chemical reaction licked briefly out of a pack strapped to his back, and propellant sent him floating sluggishly toward the tail of the train. As he neared it, the magnets started to tug at him and pull him in faster. He compensated for the pull to avoid heavy impact.

When he connected to the tail of the train, he polarized his boots to allow himself to walk along the carriage. In this manner, he made his way to the nearest service hatch. He ensured no one was inside the transition chamber, then flipped open an engineer access panel and dialed a lock override for the outer door. The hatch slid open. KL-33 swung down inside, closed the hatch above him, initiated atmospheric restoration, ran quick verification that the air was safe, and slowly detached and removed his helmet. The carriage was empty of life.

The panels worked fine; the train appeared to be in working order. His wrist panel told him that the power levels were steady. He turned the train’s internal lights back on.

KL-33 went to the door to the next carriage and opened it. The first passenger carriage. The scene before him starkly contrasted from the one behind him; there were people in this carriage, and they were a mess. Blood, bones, and clothes formed a sickening heap on the forward-left side. Most would probably not be physically recognizable ever again. Nothing moved.

KL-33 staggered and squeezed his eyes shut. This was caused by the train’s sudden stop. There were supposed to be safeties for this kind of thing. Procedures. Knowing that those must have been in place on the vessel (the inter-planetary rail service was implacably strict) didn’t ease KL-33’s stomach. He took a deep breath and another step forward.

For the briefest of moments, a tiny eye blinked at him. His skin crawled. His heart battered his ribs. His mind flicked back to all the science-fiction he had read over the years, and he wished he had a lazer gun. And that they existed. Then he spotted the eye – a CCTV camera – and breathed again.

One of the twin chairs had a holographic board still switched on. A chess game. White’s turn. Four moves from white claiming check-mate, KL-33 noticed – if the player was cunning enough. He re-evaluated. No, not four. A single move. He considered making the move, to help settle his mind, but decided that the unfinished game might accommodate his mind better than the pile of corpses. He swallowed, and took another deep breath. He needed to find the train’s security footage.

He briefly disabled the gravity compensation in the carriage, then gently pushed aside the sticky compilation of what seemed to be the remains of three passengers to clear the doorway to the next carriage. He returned gravity to the train before proceeding.

This time he was a little more prepared for the gruesome sight; it nearly mirrored that of the carriage behind him. He returned his thoughts to the game. If he was playing as both players, he… no, the result would still have been the same. White had the upper hand. Black had been foolish enough to lose both knights. He wondered what turn they had been at when they died, but the movement possibilities were endless.

Then his blood chilled. He heard something.

His breath staled in his lungs while he listened very, very carefully.

Thud. Thud.

The sound was muffled. Cushioned. It was coming from the middle of the carriage.

Thud.

KL-33 steadied his breathing, steeled himself, and walked straight toward the source.

Thud-thud-thud.

One of the safety pods was sealed: a Type-10 Kulov with a modified strap. A child seat! Only a god – though which one was up for constant review – would damn fortune such that a child should see the ruin of its parents before their time.

He ran to the pod and pressed the emergency release. A young boy looked up at him with pale green eyes and a stark white face. KL-33 flipped through the passenger records on his wrist panel. Daniel K. Sarthers. Born in France. Four years old.

“Speak English, kid?”

The child made no response, in English or otherwise. The only indication he gave that he’d heard anything at all was by blinking.

He then looked around the carriage. “Maman?”

“Come this way, kid,” he said, and beckoned as he walked toward the next carriage. The engine. He hoped the boy wouldn’t go the opposite direction.

He checked the environment controls for the cockpit before opening the door. No breathable air. Pressure leak. Damn it. He motioned for the boy to wait, but found that the boy was still sitting in his pod. Glancing at the previous carriage to make sure it was closed, he put his helmet back on and sealed his suit, then opened the first door, stepped into the pressure chamber, and sealed the door behind him.

The second doorway hissed as the air was sucked out of the pressure chamber. The temperature dropped immediately. KL-33 stepped through the gap.

Debris clung to the back of the carriage. Shards of glass, dented metal mugs, a book, and the two drivers. A small cabin on the right housed the engineer, and a longer one on the left was for the steward, stewardess, snacks, and beverages. The front of the carriage featured the panels and instruments used to control the train. Most of these were shattered and splintered. The loose track ran across and through the middle of the train’s nose. The tail of this appeared to have pierced the engineer’s cabin, rending any emergency pressure system in that room non-functional.

KL-33 pounded his fist against the doors to the cabins. A faint ping returned from the left cabin. He opened the engineer’s door, pushed the floating corpse gently aside, and reached for a canister marked “Xeseal”. He then switched the environment controls to reboot and sprayed all the cockpit’s holes with the canister’s long nozzle. Air started to gush back into the room via the ventilation and hiss out through a couple of gaps he’d missed. He continued to layer the spray over all the shattered surfaces until the hissing stopped.

After half a minute, the environment controls beeped at him. He took his helmet off and opened the left cabin door.

A stewardess stared up at him from where she lay on the floor. Her left arm and leg lay limp and crooked.

“Do you know what happened?” KL-33 asked.

She shook her head slowly.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he recited.

He flipped open a medical pack on the wall, pulled out a stabilization needle – he didn’t know the technical term for the needles, only that they worked – and tossed it to the woman.

Then he went to the drivers’ seats and connected to a maintenance data port. He played the archived footage. Spinning, turning, winding through space. Hours of it. It had taken that long for the slack to be detected at the Mars port.

He rewound to until he found the crash anomaly. The train had been gliding along as normal, until – with the replay slowed to thousandths of seconds – he saw it. A snap in the track. The broken track latched onto the whole one. And the engine carriage hit it at full speed. A split thousandth of a second where KL-33 saw the jagged end of the track. He paused the footage. Impact damage. A comet, perhaps, or some other large debris. An unlucky hit. A near miss in the infinite expanse of space. A few billion dollars of repairs. Not to mention the cost in lives.

KL-33 set to work narrating his report while repairing what he could and preparing the ruined train to be towed home.

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