A familiar sound, motion, and feeling hit me first, before I could open my eyes and look around the dark room with blurry vision. That steady rhythmic chug, metal wheels over solid track. I was on a train I couldn’t remember boarding.
I panicked after waking up a bit, since I didn’t know where I was, and I had just left a sleepless darkness to find myself on a cold metal floor. The car was completely empty. It must’ve been a cargo hold, at least at some point. I was alone, the lighting was dim, and if not for the white noise of the train to give me something to just simply experience, I might have gone mad then and there.
At least an hour passed, maybe more, before I was conscious enough to start thinking about my predicament, or try to recall what happened in the last twenty-four hours. One of the first few solid thoughts I had, was that I couldn’t remember my name, or where I was born, or who I might’ve pissed off. I was able to understand that I had been drugged, with something strong enough to give me amnesia. No telling when, or if, I’d get my memories back.
I searched myself and my surroundings for a gun before I could walk, thinking I had one. But I had nothing on me, other than a pair of jeans, a shirt, a dark gray jacket, and a pair of sneakers. My abductors took my wallet, so I didn’t have a license or other form of ID to give me back my name and maybe jumpstart the other half of my brain. My muscles still mostly asleep and feeling completely helpless, I laid there against the wall like a sack of potatoes. The movement of the train was all I had to give me any sort of comfort—that, and clinging onto the possibility that I wasn’t in any imminent danger.
I think another hour went by before I felt like I could stand. My legs wobbling, I leaned against the side of the car and made my way to one of the doors. My sense of motion was also not quite all there, as I didn’t realize until I reached the door that it was the very last one on the train. It was windowless, but I could tell through sound that there wasn’t another car being pulled behind it. Nowhere to go but forward. Assuming the other door wasn’t locked.
My strength still a way off from returning, I only barely managed to press down on the latch enough to open the door. Trying my hardest to stay upright and balanced, I crossed the coupling to the next car, getting no sense on the way if it was day or night since the space between the cars was sealed tight.
The next car held the train’s kitchen-café. It was just as dark and empty inside as the cargo hold. Whatever drugs in my system that were only starting to wear off ruined any appetite, and I couldn’t know how hungry I might’ve been. I took the chance to scour the fridge, cabinets, and pantries, not expecting to find much, if anything. But to my surprise, the place was well-stocked, at least with non-perishables. Cans of soup and dry noodles primarily. I grabbed a couple of cans and stuffed them in my jacket pocket for later, a cold can of Coke from the fridge, and then drank some water from the sink.
Whoever had taken me didn’t seem to mind me wandering around stealing food, but I had to figure that I was still in danger, and I wasn’t going to take risks by falling back asleep and letting more time pass. I wanted to continue going through the cars until I was stopped by a locked door. It would just be a good idea to wake up as much as I could before continuing.
It felt absurd to do so, but I made myself a pot of coffee in the kitchen, while I eyed the next door and expected someone to barge through it any moment. It tasted awful, there was no cream or sugar, and in the end my queasiness made me throw it up in the sink and lose all of it anyway. After managing to hold down some water afterwards, I actually went ahead and made a second cup, which I barely kept inside my stomach. The surge of caffeine mixed with the dissipating drug in my body and made me feel terrible, but at least I also felt more awake.
As I sat and recovered at one of the tables where riders might have once had a quick breakfast, I looked around at my surroundings and explored the car. It was aged, but then again, so were most of the trains that operated in the country. The stylings of the furniture, counter, dusty cash register, and of course the food packaging, all told me that I was going down some track in America; so I was somewhere in my home country—if I was remembering correctly that I was American. It felt like I had been on a familiar train in the Midwest once, or maybe frequently. The car looked like it was from the 1970s, perhaps late ’60s. Built long after the last glory days of rail travel, definitely.
But the next car made this mysterious train suddenly feel very confused about what era it came from. The dining room looked like it belonged in an Agatha Christie novel. The tables and padded classical seats might have once served the wealthy back in the 1930s, and the ornate lamps, all of them lit up with warm, low wattage modern bulbs, set an almost welcoming ambience, when compared to the cold sterility of the two rear cars.
Almost. Because while the original burgundy-colored window curtains were still in place, the windows themselves had been replaced by metal plates that blocked all outside light and reminded me that I was essentially on a prison train.
The table lamps trembled as the train chugged along, subtly changing the lighting in the car every few seconds like a flickering oil lamp would. Not long after I had entered the place, the lights lit up the face of a figure on the other end of the car for a split second, startling the hell out of me. I knew that it was quite possible that he was a threat, but on the other hand, he was the first other person I had seen onboard. Cautiously, I walked up to him, keeping my hands outs of my pocket and trying to appear non-aggressive.
“Hello?” I spoke up once I was close to him. “Sir, a-are you…”
He was a thin older man in a business suit, with a thousand-yard stare; it looked like he was off in his own world. I considered it rude to do so, but I ended up waving my hand in front of his eyes just to see if he was “all there,” or blind. He still didn’t acknowledge my presence, but I didn’t want to go on without making an earnest attempt to get some answers from the guy, or his opinion on our predicament, or if nothing else, get to hear another human voice’s grunt.
I took a seat at the table across the aisle, placed my hands on the tablecloth, and waited patiently for the man to do something. My eyes drifted to the two chairs on the other side of the table. They were dusty, made of old brass and royal blue fabric. The damask rose pattern that covered their cushions was unlike any I had seen before. It was a strange thing to fixate on, but the lighter blue floral shapes on the woven fabric were intricate, and almost foreign somehow. It came to me that my dad worked in a furniture store. I thought I had spent hours a day roaming it as a kid. I had grown up around new and antique chairs, tables, and everything else. Now, looking at every little detail of the furniture and designs in the train car, from the carvings in the wood to the patterns of the aisle carpet, it was like…
“We’re going to die, you know,” the old man suddenly spoke before I could finish my thought. “None of us are going to leave this train alive. Not anymore.”
“You know something about this train? I wasn’t sure if you were awake, even with just your eyes open. Why didn’t you respond?”
He shrugged half-heartedly. “Didn’t see much of a point in talking. It’d be like trying to get to know the man alongside you at the gallows.”
“Talk to me anyway. I’ve never been on this train. My memory might be a mess, but I know that much. None of this is familiar to me.”
His eyes finally looked over to my face, and swept over me up and down.
“I suppose you may be right. I don’t recognize you…” he said with a sigh. “What did you do to get his attention? Did you make him angry? Go digging around someplace you weren’t supposed to? You did something to make him go after you, I’ll tell you that. Still obeying commands from the dead…”
“Who? Who are you talking about? And where are we heading?”
“Nowhere. This train doesn’t go anywhere, it just goes. It never stops.”
“Bullshit. Even if it went past every station, it still has to refuel at some point.”
The man glared at me and responded, “There’s no need for such language. Have the courtesy to die like a gentleman. That’s the only thing he seems to respect. Yes, once a year it does stop. But I doubt we’ll make it that far.”
About to give up on getting any solid answers out of him, I asked one more time, “Who is he? Is he on this train right now? What does he look like?”
“He’s punishing us, for all our many sins. Perhaps it’s justified. I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know who you are or where you came from, and with the chemicals he put in your veins, you probably won’t remember enough to tell me before our end, anyway. Best just to manage your thoughts, or write a note if you believe it will make you feel better. It won’t be long now.”
I stopped, seeing that the peculiar man had sunken into his own world again, muttering something incoherently that was similar to, “If only we had been nicer people, spoken to each other more, unshackled ourselves from fear…”
Figuring it was best to leave him alone and go on ahead, I left the table and went into the next car. Inside were five first class cabins, partitioned from the corridor by dark red wood with more ornate carvings and brass embellishments. Like the dining car, it was a large moving antique in nearly immaculate condition, other than the dust. Even the crystal-like windows in the rooms’ doors looked straight out of a Tiffany’s catalog.
Every room was unlocked, and I checked them all to find that they were empty, of both other passengers and any luggage. Again, the outer windows were all covered by metal, turning their glass into dark mirrors that reflected the warm wall lamps in the hall. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but it felt like the cans of soup in my pockets were just weighing me down and I wouldn’t need them anytime soon, so I hid them in the small closet in one of the rooms before moving on. Just in case I’d need food later.
The next car was basically a duplicate of the previous, except its carpet was red instead of a blue. Now feeling a bit desperate to find someone else so I wasn’t only sharing the train with the brooding businessman I couldn’t rely on for help, I opened one door after the next, briefly peering into more first-class suites and feeling disappointed every time I found them empty.
In the room at the end, just before the next car, I finally opened a door and saw someone on the other side. There was a middle-aged man with a graying mustache, hunched over on the seat with his forehead in his palms. His plain t-shirt and pants suggested that he wasn’t in the same social class as the guy in the dining car. I hoped that he would be more willing to talk to me, but I was the one who had just barged in on him and must’ve looked aggressive about it.
“Who… Who are you?” he muttered after looking up at me.
“I’m not sure yet,” I exhaled back and tried to catch my breath.
“I haven’t seen you before. Are you one of the higher-ups? Can you help get me off this god damn train?”
“You think I… Hold on. That older man—do you work with him or something?”
“I was just the janitor. I don’t know anything—I don’t belong here. I barely even saw any of you people. I came in late to clean the floors for Christ sake.”
I remember thinking to myself, Am I trapped in an allegory? Was I on a train to hell with all the worldly characters out of the Divine Comedy or something?
“I don’t work with… ‘those people,’ either. I have no idea why I’m here, or what’s going on, or where we’re going—nothing. Even when the sedatives they gave me wear off, I probably still won’t know anything.”
“Wait, you’re not with the company? Then what are you doing here?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. And what company? Is this how it treats its employees, its idea of a corporate retreat?”
“If you’re an outsider… I can’t tell you anything.”
He held his head in pain and grumbled, “I… I want to… You might be my only chance, but… It would be hard… Hard to…”
“Hey, are you all right?” I asked him, honestly concerned about his health.
“You don’t understand… They… make it so… To tell others causes agony.”
“You mean, like, what—mind control? Some sort of mental conditioning?”
I had no idea where the thought had come from; it just felt like I was somehow aware of some manner of government program that pursued such a thing.
“It’s how they kept it all a secret, underground, out of public view…” He let out a painful laugh and said with a whimper, “I was the janitor. I stayed out of the way. I shouldn’t be here… Those sons of bitches. They can’t do this to me…”
Worried that the guy was heading towards a psychotic break, and I would be partially to blame, I shut his door and left him alone. I wasn’t ready to press on, or force information out of anyone if it put their life at risk. I had more train cars to check, and I figured I still had a chance to piece things together myself. If some shadowy corporation really was behind all of this, and owned this train, then surely there had to be information about them onboard. I just longed for a weapon of some kind, anything I could use to defend myself.
Unfortunately, the next door was locked. I was expecting it to be a coach car, seats only, and nothing of great importance, but the door latch refused to budge. I actually tried knocking, but got no response and quickly gave up and turned around. At this point, I was still hoping that I could find someone in charge to talk to and calmly explain that I wasn’t supposed to be a passenger on this prison train, naïve as I was. I knew that my life was at stake and my options of escape were dwindling or already non-existent.
Thinking that maybe the older man had a key, knew of one, or there was one stashed away somewhere, I headed back towards where I woke up, double-checking each room on the way for anything at all. What a miserable place this was turning out to be. And the fact that no one could give me a straight answer why I had been knocked out and forced onboard was the worst of it.
“You can’t tell me anything either, can you?” I asked the old man as soon as I was back in the dining car, finding him still lost in his own world at the table. “I met the janitor. But at least he told me something.”
“We were going to change the world,” the man sighed.
“Yeah, I bet you were. But I’ve never heard of you people or your company, or its troubles, so I’m guessing you were into something nefarious and got taken down by some other shady group or fell apart through inner strife. Am I getting warm? Can you nod? Anything? Or will your head explode the moment you do?”
“You mock us, but you have no idea where we came from, and what we were trying to do, and how close we were to achieving so much.”
“And now it sounds like you’re all about to disappear without anyone knowing a thing about you. Is that how you thought it’d end?”
“You’re an outsider. You’ll never comprehend what we—”
“Then help me comprehend it. I’m not expecting you to tell me anything if doing so will give you an aneurism in the process, but can you at least tell me how to get through that locked door up ahead, and give me a chance to find out why I’m here on my own?”
“He isn’t far past that door. If you wish to prolong your life as much as possible, it would be best to stay towards the back.”
“I’m still waiting for memories to return, but I’m fairly sure by this point that I’ve never been one to sit around and wait for a bad situation to come to me.”
He looked up at me with those sunken, small, dark eyes of his, and without any further hesitation, he reached into his smoking jacket’s front pocket and took out a metal keycard. Peculiar, I thought—I hadn’t seen a slot for it.
I had a more immediate need that came up just after I pocketed the key. My appetite had finally recovered over the last few minutes, and I had realized that I was starving—it felt like I hadn’t eaten in days, and I was starting to feel the weakness in my muscles as a result. Not that I exactly trusted any of the food on the menu, but I didn’t have any other options. So I instead headed back to the kitchen, not even getting a curious glance from the old man on the way. I had come close to begging for the key, and here I was, going in the opposite direction. By this point, he probably thought I was crazy, anyway.
I was soon digging around in the pantry again, hoping that there was something else other than canned soups or stews, which I was never really a fan of. It looked like my only alternatives were vegetables or beans, so I’d have to go with something that, if anything, had some variety. I felt like I could inhale two full cans of the stuff. It was just a matter of picking a couple of “favorites.”
The relevant memories came back, and images reemerged, of one of the many nights where I ate home alone without my dad, having to pick another can out of dozens to heat up on the stove while he tried to make a living at the store. That’s right… I had grown up poor, my father in constant debt, my absent mom living in another state… It all made me independent at an early age, and I eventually felt like I had to join the military if I wanted to be able to support myself as an adult. But what exactly I did for the government still eluded me. Perhaps I had gotten into some state secret and wound up here for it.
The soup cans lacked variety. Cream of chicken? Tomato? Onion? I mean, damn, where was the substance, the chunky crap? These were all ingredients for bigger recipes, or at best, side dishes. I began tearing into the pantry angrily, scouring every shelf for chicken noodle or even some Alphabet. This whole act of looking at Campbells cans was burned into memory, it turned out. Another night of grabbing red and white cans, just like when I was a kid. I would never forget the simple design of the labels. No wonder Warhol couldn’t, either. They were equally iconic and mundane.
I settled down ever so slightly when I reached the bottom shelf. For whatever reason, it seemed to hold the top tier soups, the premium recipes that actually almost felt like a meal. As I debated between a minestrone and a vegetable soup, I parted cans to reach the back of the pantry in my effort to find a good old chicken noodle to compliment my other choice. I found one quickly, but…
There was something else that caught my eye during my search. In the back corner of the bottom shelf, even in the darkness, I made out a label that didn’t match the others. I pulled out the can and held it in the kitchen’s dim light. The label itself looked somehow ancient, but the can, while aged and dinged up a bit, didn’t show any signs of rust, and the fading expiration date had a year of 1985.
Wait, I still wasn’t sure of the year. I was missing such basic knowledge.
Maybe I wasn’t sure of the current date, but 1985 didn’t feel too long ago to me. This can of chicken noodle was expired, yes, but the label looked outdated, anachronistic, like it was something that had been printed over fifty years ago and yet found its way onto a more contemporary can.
But there had to be a more logical explanation. As my other two soups warmed up on the stove, I examined the label more closely, at first figuring that it might’ve been some knock-off brand that hadn’t gotten sued into oblivion before one of its products made it onboard. And yet, everything looked official about it. Made by Campbell Soup Company. General Office in Camden, NJ.
It could’ve been a special occasion label, and I could’ve been way-overthinking it. The red on the paper took up much more space than the white, and the seal of quality/medallion graphic was silver instead of a gold or bronze. Strange, maybe interesting at most, but nothing to waste time worrying about considering everything else. I had mostly pushed it to the back of my mind minutes later as I was slurping down some grub, which tasted just like how I remembered.
After my meal, the benign peculiarities about this train kept coming. The food was helping me on my way to feeling much better, so I figured I could give myself another boost by washing off a bit with the kitchen sink, just to wake up a little more. I still had no idea how long how I had been knocked out on a cold floor, either, so all the more reason for a quick rinse. I turned the faucet and began splashing the cool water on my face and arms, anything to get some sense of cleanliness. But, for some reason, the water started getting hot.
I didn’t know how it was in other parts of the world, but if we were supposed to still be on an American train, then the knob to the right of the faucet was definitely not supposed to give you hot water. Turning the one on the left made it lukewarm, as expected. Either the train or its components were built incorrectly, or this was for some reason all intentional—purposely askew to contribute to the mind games being played on the passengers. These small details were unnerving, and the thought that I could easily discover more of them began to run rampant in my mind, when I should’ve been solely focused on just surviving the next few hours and getting off of these tracks.
I gave the kitchen a quick look-over for anything else out of the ordinary, but didn’t really find anything noteworthy before I heard the train whistle go off, my first time hearing it. Moments later, the sound of a railroad crossing alert went by outside. We hadn’t slowed down at all, so we must’ve been passing through a small town or a rural area. Hardly clues at all. Until I could get a glimpse of the outside, I would never figure out where we were or even the time of day.
Feeling more perceptive to any other oddities that could provide the slimmest of hints about the train and its origin, I prepared myself mentally, tried to shrug off the lingering chemical effects of the drug, and started heading forward again.
The old man was no longer in the dining car. I didn’t expect him to ever leave his table, so I thought that he had been taken away by the person who had put all of us on this train. The idea didn’t help my rising anxiety, but I continued to the locked door, and hoped for my sake that he had simply retreated to one of the first-class rooms—though I didn’t bother checking them again on the way.
But I did peek into the janitor’s room again, to make sure he was still there. I didn’t want to feel like I was suddenly alone.
“You again…” he muttered tiredly when I opened his door, and saw that he was trying to get some rest. “You still running around? I told you, there’s no escape. We’re already at his mercy. My brother… Maybe… He could be our last hope.”
“Your brother? Is he on the train?”
“No. No, he shouldn’t be. You didn’t see a guy who looks like me, right?”
“No, but… The old man disappeared on me.”
“Don’t worry about him. He was always an asshole.”
“I get that, but he gave me a key to the next room.”
“There’s no point in going any further. There’s nothing ahead that will help. The back half of the cars… If anything, they can make you feel somewhat safer.”
“I’m not sitting around and waiting for us to get to our destination.”
“There might not be one. If he wants the train to keep going, it keeps going.”
“He said that, too. I’m not buying it. Coal and diesel both run out eventually.”
He smirked and looked at me incredulously. “You’d be waiting for a long time.”
“The hell do you mean by that? Or is that something else you can’t talk about?”
“Just leave me alone and let me sleep.”
I did as he asked, closing his door and returning to the locked one waiting for me. On closer inspection, there really was a semi-concealed card slot in the box that held the latch’s locking mechanism. I dropped the card into the slot, heard the door unlock, and proceeded through without hesitation.
There really wasn’t a coach car on the other side. Seeing what actually took up the car’s space took me by surprise. Its walls were lined with computer consoles, TV screens, radio equipment, reel-to-reel units, other unidentifiable data processors, and all manner of other monitoring tech, including a glowing map of the world like you’d find on a modern submarine. Some of the gear was vintage; other equipment was cutting edge. It looked like a mobile intelligence agency.
This car was split in two by a grated metal partition, and familiar rock music was coming in through the other side. Upon passing through a flimsy fiberglass door, I entered into a room that was in stark contrast to the other half of the car. Where the first room was sterile and professional, this one looked like it belonged in some tech geek’s garage. Parts, wires, and disassembled electronics littered the floor or were hanging off of the racks on the walls.
The middle part of the floor had been removed, its panel leaning against the wall. It looked like it had been taken off forcefully; its corners were badly bent outward, and the large screws that had kept it in place were stripped and cut into. A younger man, maybe in his late twenties, was digging around in the car’s undercarriage with a wrench and hammer, pulling out wires of various colors from a large cluster. He didn’t even seem to notice me, nor was he paying any attention to the small television on the floor next to him or the nearby stereo blasting an audio cassette. I hadn’t forgotten the music.
“You the new guy?” the electrician asked me.
Not knowing how to respond to that, I replied, “I, uh… I guess so.”
“Met the man in the business suit already? He’s usually in the dining car.”
“Y-yeah… And the janitor.”
“Hated working with that guy. Wouldn’t leave me alone, so I stole his key and booted him out of here. Don’t let him in. Unlike those two, I’m actually trying to get off this damn train. Feel free to follow me, if you got the guts.”
“Do any of you have names, or is that also something you can’t talk about?”
“Figuring it out, are you?” He pulled out a wire that shot out sparks, let out a “Shit!”, and yanked it free from its other end and tossed it away like a snake before replying with a groan, “Yeah, that’s something else they took from us. We can only share our names to other employees. Well, that’s what they wanted. But I’m a little different. I can fight the conditioning. Somewhat.”
“And why’s that?”
He looked at me and answered as he cleaned his dirty glasses, “I’m something of a masochist. Got the job without telling them that. And while it’s not a pain I enjoy, I can tolerate it better than the others. I might even let a few secrets slip, if I think you’re worth telling them to.”
“Pain? Something that triggers if you try and talk about this company?”
“Yeah. Like electric shocks through your entire body. Feels like you’re burning from the inside. It worked, too. No one in the world knows about us.”
“Are you trying to pull wires out until you force the train to stop or something?”
“Nah, no chance of that. I’m trying to dig my way through the undercarriage. Thing’s built like a tank, but this maintenance crawlspace is the only ‘weak point’ I have to work with. Got a backup plan if it doesn’t work, though.”
“It feels and sounds like we’re going at least fifty. Is that survivable?”
“If you drop onto the tracks straight on your back and don’t bounce under the wheels, maybe. But there should be a point coming up where we slow down.”
“How do you know? Been on this route before?” I asked, half-jokingly.
“If we’re heading where I think we are, then trust me. We’ll slow down.”
The audio cassette playing in the stereo seemed to be a mix tape, playing various artists and albums, mostly classic rock from the ’60s and ’70s. After a Led Zeppelin song ended, Back in the U.S.S.R. began playing. For the electrician, it was all just background noise, even if they might’ve been his favorite songs. For me, though, these were the first sounds I had heard on the train other than its rhythmic chugs and the dour voices of the old man and the janitor. Getting a chance to listen to some classics was a welcome reprieve, and brought back the memories of my own collection.
“This your music?” I asked as I watched him work on more wires.
“Huh?” he grumbled without looking back up at me. “Uh, yeah. I used to make mix tapes of all the music we once had on this train. Now we’re down to a few blank cassettes. I try to make more tapes by recording songs when they play on the radio, but it means the first few seconds are always cut off.”
“I don’t suppose we can communicate with the outside world from this car…”
“You think I haven’t tried everything? If we have a Ham Radio, it’s locked away somewhere. What’s in the car is all surveillance; it’s a sponge—not a faucet.”
Weird analogy, but I got what he was saying. As I thought about it, my ears picked up the latest skewed element on the train, and this one seemingly had no reason to exist. I couldn’t understand why someone would put all the time and effort to pointlessly alter a song’s lyrics.
I knew my White Album, and Paul McCartney definitely does not sing, “you don’t know how lucky you are, guys.” It’s boys. One hundred god damn percent.
“What’s with this place?” I asked over the music.
“What do you mean?”
“Why is everything slightly wrong? Soup, the faucets, even The Beatles is off.”
“Oh,” he exhaled and briefly stopped his work. “You noticed.”
“Is it some psychological crap or something? What’s the point of it?”
“Y-yeah. That’s all it is. The company train is designed to be… different.”
“But just to mess with people?”
“Look, don’t waste time and energy thinking about it right now. Focus on getting off this thing. We weren’t all drugged up and put onboard at the same time—I’ve been here about two days longer than the others, and you, so my memory’s probably better than yours. He made a mistake coming after me. I’ve run maintenance on this beast for too long. If I can’t get through the floor… I know how to rewire all this to force the engine door to open.”
“And then you can hit the brakes? Cut the power?”
“Screw that. If I get in there, I’m derailing this thing, even if it kills me. The train gives him all his power. He needs to be stopped. He’s killed too many already.”
“Jesus. Why? This guy you’re all afraid of—what’s he after?”
“It’s complicated. But he’s been cleaning house for a while now. We might be all that’s left, the people onboard. We all thought we could get away. I never had the hope. I was mentally prepared to see this damn train one last time.”
“Tell me something, anything. I can’t keep wandering around not knowing why I’m here, or where we’re going, or why this train exists.”
He paused his wire-work again, looked up at me, and gave it some thought. I watched as he grimaced and braced himself, before sharing with me the smallest of classified information.
“The train is…” he took a deep breath, “nuclear powered.”
Just by saying that, he nearly collapsed into the mess of wiring and fuses that surrounded him as he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead in agony.
I asked a stupid question, “Shit, are you okay?”
“I can… tolerate it… Augh… Damn, that hurts…”
I didn’t want to try and get him to elaborate, for fear of what it might do to him. A nuclear-powered train, as absurd as it might’ve been, was something I had to accept as the truth, if it caused him so much obvious pain just by telling me. It would explain why it supposedly didn’t have to stop to refuel anytime soon. Potentially, it might travel the rails for months, or years at a time.
I gave him some breathing room, grateful that I finally got even a small answer out of someone. My eyes turned to the nearby small television sitting on the floor. Its reception wasn’t great, but I could see the ongoing news broadcast from Germany well enough. I watched for a minute or so as Berliners joyfully tore down a graffiti-covered wall. It didn’t occur to me at first that it was the wall.
“You seeing that?” my new acquaintance groaned and watched it from the pit at my side. “Ever thought you’d see the day? Soviet Union’s losing its legitimacy—probably on its way towards complete collapse. Happened so damn fast.”
“Is this real?” was my first response to the images on the screen. “Or is this just another trick?”
“Oh, that’s real. Feels like it came out of nowhere, and at the same time, you could see it coming. Been keeping up on the story since I got here.” I then heard him mutter, “If we had just… It was only six years…” he trailed off.
Whatever he was saying, even if only to himself, seemed to be close to triggering the pain again. He shook it off and then stared at me.
“You really think that’s fake?” he asked.
“With all these mind games, I don’t know anymore. I worked in the government. Can’t exactly remember what part of it yet, but I think it was in intelligence. The Reds would’ve been a daily part of the job. I would’ve been trained to doubt at face value any story involving the East.”
“You’re a fed? I had no idea. I admit, I searched you for some identification when you got tossed aboard. Thought you worked somewhere in the company, some part of it where we would’ve never met. So… now the old bastard’s taking outsiders. And don’t bother asking me about him. I tell you anything, and it’ll probably kill me. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon enough. Small chance he might even let you live.”
No longer seeing much point in dwelling on the figure in control of all this for the sake of my own mental well-being, I changed the subject and inquired about the nearby wall safe, its contents locked behind an imposing dark gray keypad.
“What’s in there?” I asked, eyeing it.
“Nothing that will help free us. I think it’s just a black box—a voice and data recording from the old train. You probably noticed that the cars are a patchwork from various eras of rail travel. The engine’s the… newest part.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” I questioned, as pieces of Berlin’s great separator were turned to rubble a few feet away.
“Not much that wouldn’t rip my head apart. If he’s feeling generous, he might tell you something. He doesn’t have the conditioning.”
“What about the next car? Is it safe to go in there?”
“Armory. But don’t get excited. Everything’s locked away. After that, the rec room. And that’s as far as you can go. It’s got a pool table, though. Only place you can really relax. And you might want to try. The stress from all the waiting isn’t good for you.”
I got up to continue my exploration, and suddenly the train’s movement slowed drastically. Within minutes, it was lurching forward, and it felt like it was turning.
“Crap…” the electrician groaned and doubled his efforts in the hatch. “We’re going through the mountains. Won’t be long now… Running out of time…”
I didn’t want to stress him out any further, so I got up and headed into the next car. As he had said, it was an armory, and one of some size. To either side of a narrow aisle were grated metal cabinet doors, each of them sealed with a hefty padlock. They were full of weapons and ammunition, everything from pistols to rifles and shotguns, to blades and explosives. It looked like the company could wage war on a small country if they wanted. I was never going to get any of the guns in my hands, so I continued onto the recreation room.
It was even older than the others. It seemed to be a refurbished 1920s train car, complete with the hard lines of art deco on the walls and a cold industrial metal floor and window frames, which were sealed off like all the others. It was in such good condition, that it had to have been in a museum most of its life.
The billiards table in the center also looked era appropriate, with its green top faded and showing wear and tear. A small lounge featured old red leather chairs surrounding a marble table with a ceramic green ashtray. A weight-lifting bench and barbells were off in the corner, with a rowing exercise machine nearby.
The rest of the objects were a hodgepodge, both in the decades they came from and their condition. There was a modern darts board, a cigarette dispenser probably from the 1970s, a cabinet stereo console from the 1950s, and framed photos and hanging artwork from all across the century. This train really must have been running across the country for decades and acted as a mobile home, to at least one person. Most likely, the man the others feared so much kept on the move in the metal monster, only stopping to grab one of his targets.
Hell, maybe it didn’t need to stop. It could be that others did the drugging and kidnapping for him, then drove up alongside the train and tossed in the victims. Anyone who knew about this vehicle of future urban legends must’ve feared living anywhere near a railroad track. But they were taking a ride regardless of how much they tried to hide. And now, somehow, I was involved in their affairs.
I examined the next door, which was locked and needed an old-fashioned key. With nowhere else I could go, I took a seat in the corner lounge, where I found a pack of cigarettes seemingly waiting for me by the ashtray on the table. The cancer sticks were old, but I couldn’t complain about getting my hands on some mood stabilizers. I used a provided matchbook—that looked like it had come from a lodge in California—and lit up some decades old tobacco, pocketing the matches just in case they could prove useful.
Truth was, though, I was already feeling defeated by that point. Like the other passengers, I was starting to accept that I probably had no way off the train. My only chance now seemed to rest on coming to an understanding with the guy in charge, and hoping he’d be reasonable. Or merciful. I couldn’t remember getting on anyone’s bad side recently, especially not someone powerful enough to own the world’s only nuclear train, so maybe I’d only have to answer a few questions.
There was a packed magazine rack by the table full of worn, dog-eared publications from throughout the years, like everything else onboard—although I didn’t see anything printed past 1983. They were mostly Time and Life magazines, with a few National Geographic issues and lifestyle rags in the mix. I skimmed through them to try and find anymore oddities, like articles and stories on historical events that I had no memory of, or that had altered details, or flat-out incorrect facts. I even checked all the advertisements for anything “off.”
But nothing really stood out. It didn’t seem that they had been messed with at all. Or rather, almost. I wasn’t an avid weekly reader of any of the magazines, but I could remember always grabbing a newspaper on my way to work in whatever city I lived in, and that I had kept up the routine for years. There were some covers on the issues that seemed unfamiliar. The headline stories meant to attract readers were the same; but it was like the editors had chosen a different photograph than the one I could remember seeing.
Of all the things that didn’t make sense so far, the seemingly meaningless changes to the familiar were turning out to be the most disturbing. And I was running out of excuses in my mind that could explain them away.
As outlandish an idea it might’ve been, I was almost starting to believe…
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” a female voice crackled on the car’s speakers, one above each door. It sounded automated. “We are approaching our final destination and will arrive within the hour. Please be prepared to collect your luggage. On behalf of…” The message suddenly cut off.
My first thought was one of relief—that whatever was about to happen to me, at least the dreadful waiting would soon be over. But then the electrician came bursting through the door a moment later. I only recognized him by his gray jumpsuit, as his face was covered by a gas mask.
“Put it on,” his muffled voice told me, as he tossed me his spare. “Hurry.”
I didn’t ask questions until I did so, since I couldn’t think of a way putting on a gas mask could be harmful or a trick within the first few seconds. I couldn’t remember having a need to wear one before, and I hated it. It was heavy, hot, hard to see through, and it was old and stunk like hell.
“I’ve heard that message before,” he explained. “About a minute later, gas knocked me out.” He looked up at the small air vents lining the ceiling corners and asked, “You hear that hissing?”
Now that he mentioned it, I did. I could also see the faint distortion of the light near the vents as a colorless vapor was pushed into the room.
He continued, “This is what he does. I didn’t want to scare you too much before, but he’s been disposing of my coworkers on this train for years. Makes us do some sick trust exercise. Dumb luck I survived last time. Not doing that again.”
“Then what do we do?” I replied through my air filter.
“I can’t get through the floor in time. But I prepared for this. When he comes out of that door to collect us…” I watched as he reached over to his back and pulled out a small pistol, then showed it to me like a kid who got into his dad’s gun cabinet. “I’ll end the bastard myself.”
“How did you get a gun? And do you know how to use it?”
“It doesn’t matter where I got it. And, yeah, I think I can get off a few shots into his chest before he can touch his watch,” he said and put the gun away.
“His… watch? What are you talking about?”
“It’s our necks. He—”
He didn’t have a chance to tell me. One second he was talking, and the next, we were both being electrocuted. Burning pain ripped through us, seizing up muscles and making removing the gas masks a painful but necessary endeavor.
The damned things were rigged, or booby trapped, and he hadn’t noticed. It felt like the shock was originating from somewhere on the top of the mask, shooting right into my forehead. Before I managed to pry it off, I made the conscious effort to take in one last deep breath of clean air. It seemed that he did not.
Once his mask was off, he started coughing and choking on the noxious fumes in the car and quickly collapsed to the floor. It burned my eyes, but I managed to keep it out of my lungs long enough to make it back to the armory—which was also filled with the gas, as were the sealed connectors. I was making a run for the hatch he had been digging around in, hoping to find an air pocket.
I made it back into the comms car, ducked down into the maintenance hatch, and looked around for some kind of crawlspace. But whatever was being piped in was heavier than air, meaning that there really was no safe place to be.
Thinking that there might still have been something that could help me among all the wires, fuses, and connections, I explored the work that the electrician had done before I would inevitably have to gulp in the gas. Nothing was officially labeled, but he had left pieces of marked tape above several electrical sockets.
It looked like every major system in the train ran through the hatch, and it occurred to me how odd a configuration that had to be, when usually you’d expect each individual car to have its wiring isolated and accessible on the exterior instead. Maybe it was the nature of the train; a necessity to reroute everything through a single car due to the age variety of the others. And if the train was almost always in motion, it would make sense to have wiring repairs and adjustments be done on the interior instead.
Not that I had more than a moment to ponder all of this at the time. What I took away from the current configuration, was that it looked like he might have actually done something big. However many hours of planning it likely took him, the end result was a wire getting plugged into the socket marked “engine door”, leading from the central electric bus for the power-hungry surveillance car. I was no engineer and didn’t know if that would just short the door or overload it entirely, but it was easy to assume that he knew what he was doing.
Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t make the run all the way to the front of the train even if I did I have a key for the next door. My lungs, desperate for air, forced me to gulp down the bitter gas now permeating the car. My throat was scorched as I coughed, and everything faded to black seconds later.
I didn’t lose consciousness completely. I could still perceive the passing of time as I passed in and out, and it didn’t feel like more than a half hour went by before I was quickly waking up again. I had actually been forced to; I got quite the jolt. Smelling salts must’ve been used on me—on all of us.
The other three passengers were with me, tied to wooden chairs with their feet and hands bound to the legs and arm rests. As they groaned, fluttered their eyes, and looked around, I studied the car calmly and tried to keep my racing heart under control. This one was a large suite with just about everything except a bed. It was dimly lit only by the gas fireplace on the right, casting an orange glow on one side of the older man in a pitch-black duster taking his seat in front of us. Behind him was a dining table, two small rooms by the door—a bathroom and a closet, perhaps—several bookshelves, and dozens of framed paintings. Hanging above him was a chandelier, the many facets of its crystals reflecting the light of the fire. For a few moments, no one said a word.
The others were reacting to this roundup in different ways. The businessman was placid, like he had already accepted whatever fate awaited him. The electrician was feigning confidence, and couldn’t help but grin and even let out a snicker every few seconds. The janitor seemed furious and was the only one struggling to break free of the tight, cutting ropes keeping him in place.
“There you are,” the electrician muttered snidely. “Was wondering when you’d show. We’re doing this again, are we? Bring it on. I’m ready.”
“Shut up, shut up!” the janitor barked at him, with fear in his voice. “Don’t piss him off!”
“He doesn’t get pissed off. Look in his eyes. You weren’t here last time—you don’t know how much of a cold, unfeeling bastard he is until you’re up close.”
“I’m not scared of you,” the businessman said calmly as he looked our captor in the eye. “I’ve made my peace. Do what you will.”
“You’re one to talk,” the electrician scoffed. “You’re as bad as he is. You can die first. You shouldn’t get the pleasure of watching the rest of us go.”
“That isn’t up to us.”
“Nah, it still could be. See, he’s going to make us play out a game. That’s how he justifies what he’s about to do to us. You’ll see—”
“It’s not a game,” the businessman said with a sigh. “It’s an agreement.”
“Insanity is what it is.”
“Ex… cuse me, s-sir?” I finally spoke up once there was a lull among the others. “I don’t… I don’t think I belong here. I never worked for this company. I don’t know any big secrets, either, if… if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You all assume…” our captor spoke at last, his voice deep and gritty but with a hint of a European accent, maybe German, “that I brought you here to punish you, to kill you. In truth, I’ve only brought you here for the annual company meeting. Two years overdue, yes, but the three of you chose to run and hide. I was beginning to think that we wouldn’t get this chance again.”
“How did you find me?” the janitor asked him. “I was careful. I—”
“I contacted him,” the businessman interrupted, and immediately got glares from his former coworkers. “And I told him how to locate both of you.”
“What?” the electrician exclaimed. “What the hell are you talking about? You backstabbing piece of… Is he paying you? Is that it?”
The businessman formed a sad kind of grin and replied hopelessly, “I thought that if the three of us were onboard together, and worked together, that we could end it all. Put it to rest. The company, the train, the regrets… all of it.”
“Like I would ever work with you again, you sick asshole!”
“I couldn’t take it anymore… Hiding in the shadows, always looking over my shoulder, waiting for him to appear again, flinching at the sight of every railroad track… I thought that, together, maybe…”
“You were working on that demented kids’ game, with the stupid rabbit!”
Upon saying this, he seemed to experience a brief seizure and intense pain. He must’ve revealed another corporate secret, and in my presence, it hurt him.
“Wanted to give them nightmares…” he huffed as he recovered. “Kids, man.”
“I only sold the technology to a Russian company and supervised—”
“Oh, go to hell. That doesn’t make it any better. Worse, more like.”
“It doesn’t matter now, anyway. I was prepared. I had made plans for how we could take control of the train.”
“By working together, yeah, sure. The last board meeting was a god damn bloodbath. You were the only man to walk out of it alive. You killed someone.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The situation and everything I had heard about this underground group terrified me, but now I was learning about a massacre, some sort of round table gone wrong. But, how? Did they just take out guns and start shooting? Something was… very ominous about all of this.
“You weren’t there,” the businessman said. “You didn’t see how wrong it went, so quickly. There was no time to think… That came later. That was all I did while we hid. Please, believe me. I wanted us to—”
“All you did was let him find us. Your plans mean shit. Just get it over with. You both know how this works. One of you just say it.”
“Say what?” I shouted, fearing I would be dead in the next few seconds. “Will someone tell me what’s happening?”
“You…” the host spoke to the electrician, “are not the one who is vulnerable.”
“W-wait, what?” he replied, now almost as confused as I was.
“I didn’t want to…” the businessman said remorsefully. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“He has killed one of our own,” the old man explained. “Does anyone here no longer trust him, or will we hear that the death was justified?”
“It was in self-defense,” the accused stated plainly.
“Who was it?” the janitor replied. “When? Where?”
“I thought there was no one left,” the electrician added. “I thought we were it.”
The businessman said meekly, “We woke up in the same car, at about the same time, and I started telling him my plan as soon as I could remember it…”
“Who?” the janitor continued. “Who was it?”
“But he was enraged, he tried to strangle me. I… I didn’t know what to do…”
“I’m afraid that it was your older brother,” the old man said to the janitor. “Only briefly employed, perhaps, but I had to pick him up as well when he saw me approaching the door to your apartment. I’m sorry for your loss. It is a shame that he couldn’t join us.”
“Y-you…” the surviving sibling looked close to sobbing. “You did all of this. We were only trying to hide from you people. It was bad enough just to live thinking that another war could break out any time, and now my only brother…”
“Don’t do it,” the electrician suddenly pleaded. “You’d be right to, but don’t. He might be our only chance off this train. Let’s at least hear his plan.”
“I’m not stopping you,” the old man said. “After all, I’m only the mediator.”
“Do it,” the janitor ordered, tears streaming down the stubble on his cheeks. “End the son of a bitch. Give him what he deserves.”
“N-no, let’s talk about it first.” The electrician turned to the old man and tried to reason with him next, “Haven’t enough people died? What’s the point of taking it any further? All of the bosses are gone already—who are you even obeying?”
The old man ignored him and asked the janitor, “Are you certain?”
The janitor nodded, replying barely audibly, “He deserves it. Not… trustworthy.”
“I’m sorry,” the businessman repeated.
Without saying another word to anyone, the old man, with no hesitation, reached for the brass watch on his left hand, turned the crown with two fingers, and pressed it back in. I heard a faint sound like a camera flash warming up, and then the businessman suddenly spasmed for a brief moment before going limp.
He was dead in an instant, and I was too shocked for words. Simply by tapping on his wristwatch, the old man had taken his life.
“It is done,” he said, and turned his focus to the electrician. “I do believe that you are next in line and now own the company.”
“What company…” he murmured. “God sake, man… There’s nothing left…”
“That isn’t for me to judge.”
“That’s what you’ve always said, but, come on, you have to have some sort of conscience in that twisted head of yours…”
The old man turned to the janitor and told him, “Your request was fulfilled. You’re now—”
“Just shut up!” he shouted over him. “I know! We know how it works. Enough with all the damn formalities. He’s right. There is nothing left. B-but…” he eyed his last remaining coworker, “it can stop now, right? All the company heads, the research department, everyone, everyone is gone. We were at the bottom. We can stop this now. He got what he deserved. We can agree on that.”
“Not trustworthy…” the electrician said with a sigh.
“Let’s go home and leave all this behind. We’ll renew our NDA contracts, and—”
“Please just kill him.”
“No—no, you don’t have to—”
Another turn of the watch, and the janitor was dead in his chair before he could finish his cry for mercy.
“Stop!” I begged. “No more!”
“There can’t be more,” the last survivor said, and looked at the old man. “Right? He doesn’t work for us… He can’t make a request… Tell me I’m right.”
The old man’s gaze met my eyes as he replied, “He could find out if he desired.”
I shook my head listlessly. “I’m not… No. Not going to try. I don’t know what to make of any of this, I just want to know why I’m here.”
“You could always join us. And then your new friend here would be able to answer your every question about this fine business.”
“Don’t do it,” the other man cautioned me. “Even now, it isn’t worth it. I wish I could wipe my memories of everything I’ve ever seen involving what we did.”
“You don’t have to make your decision right now,” the old man said and held up a clear mask with a breathing filter to his face. “We’ll arrive shortly. Rest.”
The room’s air vents hissed, and I instinctively tried to struggle free once more. But there was no way either one of us was going to break out of our binds.
As the old man got up and left, and the bitter fumes hit my nostrils, I muttered out, “Not again…”
I woke up not long after—like last time, I don’t think it could’ve been a long sleep, and the rope burns still felt fresh on my wrists. Once I came to, I realized that I had been moved, upright, onto one of the seats in a first-class car room. The electrician was opposite me, looking like the gas on him had only worn off a few minutes ago. He grumbled some expletives tiredly and rubbed his eyes.
“Is that guy your boss or something?” I asked, coughing since the gas had really burned my throat. “Drugs us, knocks us out, kills people, knocks us out again… What the hell is he after?”
“He’s not the boss. I guess I am, now. Inherited a dead company…”
“Does that at least mean he’ll listen to you? Obey your orders?”
He chuckled sardonically. “It doesn’t work like that. He… I still can’t tell you much of anything.”
“Then how am I supposed to help both of us escape all this insane shit?”
“I mean, I could… make you an employee. If you earnestly accept a position, I should be able to tell you… at least a few things without my head exploding.”
“I don’t know. I just saw how your meetings seem to go. How did he just drop those two like that? Can he do it to me?”
“That wasn’t even a real meeting. More like… a ‘social test.’ And, again, I…”
“Fine. If it’s my only chance… How does this work?”
“Technically, you have to sign an NDA at our headquarters first. We call it that, but it’s really more like a vow of silence, agreeing to a prison sentence—selling your soul, even. But it always began with a simple handshake.”
I couldn’t believe I would have to join these people, who seemed to work as something more like an underground cult than a business.
What the hell did they even make and sell?
I held out my hand and asked, “What positions are available?”
“I think I could start you out on… senior vice president?”
We shook on it, his grip firm on mine. We did it for a good few seconds before he eventually exhaled and tested if he could reveal anything without pain.
“Call me Sam,” he said, looking expectant for agony that didn’t come. “Not my real name, but we… very rarely ever used those.”
“All right. Sam. Good to finally have something to call you. What did your coworkers go by?”
“Does that really matter at this point?”
“If I survive this after they didn’t, I would prefer to be able to call them something other than ‘the janitor’ and ‘the businessman’.”
“… Hector and Beaumont. I never really cared for either of them. I… I didn’t want them to die, but after Hector made his request, I just… I knew I couldn’t trust him anymore. Beaumont was the last big shot left, the head of the R&D division. There were about sixty of us originally. Hard to believe I’m probably the last one.”
“What do you mean originally? When the company started, or…?”
“Never mind. Too complicated to get into.” He pointed to the back of his neck and explained, “All employees got a tiny explosive surgically implanted right here. It goes off, destroys a small part of your upper spine, and you die.”
“Also complicated. Short of it is, the business was doing some sick shit and we all got more and more paranoid about getting discovered or ratted out, betrayed by someone inside. Eventually, trust issues got so bad that we worked out this bizarre system where that man in black could drop any of us if we got out of line. And that was after the mental molestation they already did to us.”
“God sake, man, why all the extreme measures? Who were you selling to?”
“Governments. Any country that could afford a technology only we could provide. We didn’t have many customers. But they paid well.”
“And these ‘kill requests’—if you make one, someone else gets to put a hit out on you? So, what, you just hope all the others don’t dislike you?”
“You got put on the list for acting against the company, harming or threatening a coworker, attempting to share secrets… The rules go on and on. But someone still had to make the request to end another’s life. In turn, no matter how guilty the other party might’ve been, the requester puts their own life on the line.”
“It actually worked… for a few years. Forced us back together, until tempers and emotions got the best of us and we fell like dominoes. Half the company died in a single day. All the while, our ‘mediator’ fulfilled every request, dialing in a time on his watch, each one sending off a unique radio signal that sets off the kill device. Memorized all of the times in that twisted head of his.”
I felt the back of my neck.
“I don’t know if he stuck one in you. Sorry that I can’t give you a solid answer. He’s always been impossible to read. Guess it depends what his plans are with you. You think of anyone that would pay for your train ticket yet?”
I shook my head. “But who is he? Some former Paperclip scientist, or…?”
He shrugged and sighed. “Lost to time, now. The guys at the top who hired him, set the rules, and gave him that watch are long gone.”
The train slowed down and its inertia changed. Sam looked worried.
“We’re on the last big turn before our arrival. You’re running out of time. If he takes you down into what’s left of our headquarters, you might never get out. He isn’t going to take orders from me no matter what position I officially step into. I think… he has his own agenda concerning you.”
“Is that surprising?”
“He’s never really acted on his own before. You got any other questions? Because we need to get moving again.”
“Two more come to mind. But you’re going to think I’m going crazy with the first one. I just have to know for sure, so I feel… grounded again.” I took a deep breath, thought about how best to phrase it, and asked, “Is this… Am I in some sort of alternate universe? It’s not just that so many things are ‘off.’ It’s also the news report I saw. For some reason, I still can’t actually believe that the Soviet Union is really collapsing. Or is this all just some… elaborate joke?”
He stared at me for a few seconds, then smirked and assured me, “Everything on this train is designed to feel otherworldly and make you feel perturbed. That’s all. Don’t let it get to you. News was real, though. Hard to believe, sure.”
“What’s the point?”
“Who knows. Might be another part of the mental conditioning, making you question what’s real when you ride and descend into the otherworldly cold hell that is our home. I worked there enough years to really get how it’s designed to make you feel disconnected from the rest of reality.”
“It sounds like your company belongs in a Stephen King novel. Does it actually have a name? That’s my last question. For now.”
“Yeah. But you never would’ve heard of us. It’s Neptune.”
“Just… Neptune? Like the Roman god?”
“I think the reference is closer to the planet… Somewhere far away, in a frigid, dark, distant corner. But something still orbiting the sun. I wish I could tell you more, but all I did was replace fuses and repair cables until just recently.”
“But your headquarters must still have a library of company history.”
“Maybe. But like I told you, you don’t want to go there. Neither do I. I never wanted to see the place again. So, here’s what we do. I still have my gun—I hid it away before I passed out so he wouldn’t find it on me. I’ll use it to blast off the locks and get us up to the engine and derail this beast.”
“I already rerouted the power down in the hatch. Thought I might’ve had to make some last-ditch run if I got the chance. Do you think it actually worked?”
“With any luck.” Sam opened the door, peeked out into the hall, and turned to me with a question of his own. “Do you trust me? Trust was central to us, as you’ve seen. Until it all fell apart. Still. Has to be worth something.”
“I do,” I replied without hesitation. “I have to.”
We stepped foot into the corridor and began walking towards the front again, wary of our captor. Once we got to the other first-class car, Sam briefly lamented about days gone by.
“It used to be a nicer. Better kept, more lights. We would even take it on company retreats, have drunken days’ long cross-country parties to help with the stress of always hiding and keeping secrets. It wasn’t all bad.”
“But how’d you get your hands on a nuclear-powered train?”
“Prototype stolen from the government, actually. The cars were sourced from… all over, but the real tech is in the engine car. We can send out signals that override rail traffic systems, even let us shut down other trains temporarily if they were in our way. Quite something how we’ve kept it hidden but moving for so long. But it can’t last. World’s changing, with privacy harder to come by.”
We entered the armory. Metal security shutters had been rolled down, blocking off the weapons entirely. And here it somehow felt like the lone pistol between us wouldn’t be enough to take down the third man on the train. He had directly killed so many others already. It felt like we were powerless against him.
The surveillance car had been similarly locked down, with shutters covering all of the monitoring and media equipment.
“Has he been through here?” I asked quietly.
“The shutters always trigger when we get close to home,” Sam explained. “‘Closing up shop,’ we called it. It’s security lockdown crap.”
“And what do you call that?” I exclaimed as we reached the maintenance hatch.
Its metal cover had been hammered back into shape and welded on. There was no easy way to get through it again anytime soon.
“Ah, hell…” Sam muttered. “Can only hope the door electronics really did get fried already. There’s no way in otherwise.”
“Doesn’t he have a key for it?”
“Can’t count on it. The train can be remotely operated. Could be no one’s even gone into the engine for years.”
“Don’t worry, bud. I swear I’ll get you off the train. You’re innocent as far as I see. He never should’ve brought an outsider onboard. Rec room’s next…”
“Why don’t I just charge on ahead by myself? I shouldn’t have a bomb in my neck. I don’t feel a fresh scar or anything back there.”
“But it’s still possible. And he probably has other ways of killing you.”
“Will he do that without a request?”
“He’s allowed to defend himself. You think no one’s tried taking him on because he offed one of their friends? No one likes that bastard.”
He barged through the next door, made sure no one was around, and then dug into one of the magazine racks for his pistol, buried in an old issue of Life. After he checked his clip and chamber, he looked at me and nodded in a reassuring way.
“He’s going to be in the next car or the one after that. I know you’re unarmed, but be ready. If I don’t take him out, then do what you can. Pin him to the ground, knock him out, hold his arms so he can’t use his watch. Whatever you think you can pull off. He can’t kill us both. But he’ll go after me first.”
“Don’t get fatalistic on me.”
“I’m just saying. Whatever happens… I’ll be okay. But I have too many regrets.”
“Whatever they are, you’re the only passenger that’s helped me.”
“I’ve been trying to make up for everything I’ve been a part of. Always thought, if I just worked up some courage, I could’ve done something… But our company could erase and alter memories—even implant new ones. It’s too late to stop or take back what we’ve already put out in the world, but if it were possible to find and operate that tech… I’d like you to help me forget the past decade, maybe give me a new life. I don’t want to grow old with the secrets in my head.”
“If you really do get me back on solid ground and far away from all this, I’ll owe you.”
“I still don’t even know your name. You remember that yet?”
“Afraid not. Other details are coming back, but not everything.”
“The mem wipes can be insidious like that. I’m sure it’ll come to you eventually. All right, you ready?”
Though he didn’t strike me as someone combat trained, Sam took up a ready position at the door and looked ready to rush in.
But the door wouldn’t open. He raised his gun and was about to try blasting off the lock, when the lights suddenly flickered and shut off, leaving us in complete darkness. We held our ground and tried to keep quiet and calm.
The lights came back to life several seconds later, to reveal that a third person was now in the car with us. The man in black stood at the other end of the car, blocking the door, his hands clasped together in front.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked plainly.
“Stop this train and let us off,” Sam ordered fearlessly—but kept his gun at his side. “I’m the boss now, aren’t I? So do as I say.”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Not until you sign your annual contract. Until then, you retain no official position within the company.”
“I don’t give a shit about the paperwork. I’m dissolving what’s left of Neptune, immediately. So, you’re fired. Position terminated. Whatever you want to call it.”
“If that’s your plan… Then I will gladly resign immediately before you can make it official. Thank you. Now I don’t have to answer to anyone.”
I whispered, “Sam, what did you just…”
He looked at me, then back at the old man. His grip on his pistol tightened. Our captor pulled back a sleeve to reveal his watch.
“I may be out of a job, but I still made an agreement to handle the liquidation of all our assets should no one be left to handle company matters. All of the assets. Including anyone that knows anything about us, or attempts to find us.”
“You go first,” Sam shouted back and raised his gun.
He fired five shots across the car. I couldn’t tell where they landed. I heard empty casings hit the carpet, but his target barely reacted at all. It seemed unlikely that he had just taken a bullet.
“Disgraceful,” the old man muttered and reached for his watch.
My only companion looked at me as if to say goodbye, and then fearlessly rushed ahead, gun still in hand.
I heard the high-pitched sound again.
A moment later, he seemingly tripped as life left him in an instant. He ended up running into the pool table, the pistol flinging itself from his hand and hitting the rack, where it knocked about the pool balls. For the next few seconds, I watched as he steadily slipped off of the table and crumpled onto the floor.
The poor guy was fully prepared to go down fighting. He wasn’t afraid of death; maybe he hadn’t been for many years. I still retained that fear.
Even so, acting out of emotion, I angrily reached across the green of the pool table and grabbed for the handgun, my fingers barely touching its metal. I wasn’t thinking straight, and it didn’t even occur to me to go around the table instead. Not that having a weapon would’ve made much of a difference.
“Don’t,” the old man said threateningly. “I may have a time on this watch for you as well.”
I retracted my hand and kept my distance behind the pool table, feeling just as helpless as I did when I first woke up on the god forsaken train. Sam was at my feet. I couldn’t make myself look at what was left of him.
“I… I never worked for the company…”
“Are you sure? Maybe you haven’t, but does that mean your life isn’t in my hands?” He tapped at the glass on his watch. “Could be that I replaced the bullets with blanks. Maybe I’m wearing body armor. Or, perhaps… I simply can’t be harmed via conventional means. Either way, do you want to tempt fate?”
“Don’t screw with me.”
“Your new friend there was no angel. He may have found his conscience again at the end, but no one I worked with held onto a sense of morality.”
“Just get to the point. Why did you bring me here?”
He dug into his duster pocket and took out a pocket watch. I grimaced and took a step back, taking it for another lethal tool. But he merely opened it and checked the time. I still had no idea what it might be.
“We’ve just about reached our terminus. And it looks like we’re also at the optimal time to start asking you a few questions.”
“I’m not telling you shit.”
“You wouldn’t even know what’s important to keep a secret right now. The cocktail I gave you makes you open to suggestion. And alters hormone production, so that sharing information actually gives you a rush of dopamine. You must’ve felt it by now while getting to know the others.”
He was right. Thinking back, the moments I talked to those on the train and shared what little I could remember about myself had felt like the only bright spots of the nightmarish ride. But I wasn’t about to give into its conductor’s demands. If he brought me here to interrogate me, I’d be sure to disappoint.
“You had a partner,” he began. “You must remember her by now.”
I said nothing.
“I would prefer to be speaking to her right now, but she’s eluded me. You were my only other option, and not as difficult to track down.”
“Several years ago, the two of you had an assignment in the cold barrens of Alaska. I need to know about your involvement and what you may have seen there, Isaac. At the risk of espousing patriotic duties and other trite nonsense, I can earnestly say that this is a matter of national security.”
“The hell do you care about anyone’s security? I’ve heard about a few of the sick things your company did to itself and put out into the world.”
“I wasn’t involved with any of those projects, and our downfall was brought upon by those that employed me as their only arbitrator.”
“And what does any of that have to do with bureaucratic field work out on the ice? I hated that job. It felt like I was being punished. And afterwards, she…”
I had to force myself to stop. The god damn drug really was effective. I was spouting off crap that could endanger a friend I promised to protect, and whose daughter I had failed to. That’s right… Her kid was in some sort of custody now, and might never get to see her mom again. It didn’t matter how little I actually knew about any of that. Even the smallest detail might help him find her. For her sake, I couldn’t say another word—if I could help it.
“Specifically, she may have been in contact with someone,” he continued after a few seconds of silence between us. “And it’s likely that their conversation resulted in his… Well, his death. He was a very unique, valuable individual, and I can’t let what they may have said to one another be lost to time. Does any of this ‘ring a bell,’ as they say? Did she mention anything before vanishing?”
“She… she was very upset after her last visit to…”
“The early warning station, LIZ-4, I know. But you both were never meant to go there. I can’t explain why you were sent. For all I know, it could have been an egregious clerical error—perhaps as simple as a Pentagon lackey tapping the wrong number on his keyboard. Did she happen to give you a journal, a diary?”
“No, but…” I stopped again and felt my willpower strain.
But it was like I had become addicted to telling the truth, at least as much as I could. The drug’s effects were insidious and hard to resist. It was as if I were already moments away from betraying her.
“What did she tell you? Did she leave the country? Did she have any friends or family that might have sheltered her? Have you had any contact with her child?”
I gripped the edge of the pool table so tightly that my fingers began to bend the wood inward and leave an impression. All the while, I slowly made my way along its side, and did everything in my power to keep my eyes off any of the game’s hard, round objects that could potentially be used as a weapon.
“You’re going to tell me something, now,” he continued. “The most useful piece of information you believe you can provide. If you refuse, then I can promise you that I have access to more invasive techniques at our arrival point.”
“She told me she was going to roam Canada’s back roads for a while.”
“It’s easy to see that you’re lying. Where did she really go, and what did she tell you? Give me the name of the officer that sent you to Alaska.”
I had bought myself a few more seconds, time I needed to get closer. He was so invested in his interrogation—desperate, even—that he seemed to fail to consider just how much of the distance between us I had closed.
“I always learn what I need to, Isaac. Within the next hour, you—stay back!”
He had finally noticed that I was almost in striking range. And he was fast. He already had a finger on his watch crown and was adjusting the time. I couldn’t tell if it was a scare tactic. I couldn’t say for sure that I wasn’t some deep undercover agent for these people. I didn’t have the time to ask.
I hit him with a pool ball just as he was about to press the crown back in with his index finger. Feeling like a cornered animal, I struck him again, knocking him to the floor. I got down and hit him a third time, as hard as I could, and the bloodied eight ball cracked in my hand. Panting, I stared at his motionless body and the blood dripping from his head. I had never so much as hit someone before, and now I might’ve just killed a man. Even though my own life was in danger, the act almost made me feel sick to my stomach.
Without checking his pulse as I did so, I carefully removed his watch. The time had been set to 12:00. I tried not to dwell on the idea that I could drop dead simply by pressing in the crown. I twisted it around to advance the hours far ahead, smashed the durable watch as much as I could with another pool ball, and then dropped it into one of the pool table’s holes, where it disappeared into the game table—thinking it was a good enough hiding spot. I then searched the old man’s pockets, found a brass key, took Sam’s gun, and headed towards the exit.
I didn’t give either Sam or his killer another glance before leaving the car. My focus was solely on surviving. Regrets and reflections on this bizarre turn in my life could be had later, during late-night benders while alone in my apartment.
I passed through the suite car, barely giving its details a second look. The train was starting to slow down again, and I had doubts that it would speed back up before the end. I was almost certainly out of time.
The old man’s key opened the way to what appeared to be his bedroom, taking up the length of the next car. It was a drab, almost ascetic place, featuring little more than the bed itself and a small kitchen and dining area.
In the back corner was a writing desk, warmly lit by a flickering oil lamp. There was a bulky, old suitcase-shaped computer running atop it. I got close and examined the machine. An Osborne 1, from the early ’80s. It was portable, but had no battery of its own. Seeing a chance to get some quick information despite the risk of spending time on anything, I took a look at its postcard-sized screen and saw that it was locked and needed a password. I wasn’t even sure if the old clunkers normally had that feature. There weren’t any floppy disks to be found nearby, either. So I would get nothing from the machine, other than the thought that it must have been in use for quite a while and was likely modified.
No matter, though. It would have only been a dangerous distraction.
As I approached the next door, I could hear the hum and feel the vibration of a powerful engine. I was nearing the front of the train. One more car separated me from having a chance to fulfill Sam’s mission.
And that next car was the worst of them all, one that I wished I didn’t have to pass through. It was metal, with no furniture, and its only feature was a large industrial incinerator, currently dormant. A crematorium on wheels. A way to dispose of the bodies and make passengers disappear from the world forever. I barely kept from retching upon seeing the three body bags on the floor, resting in the car’s low light—one of them must’ve belonged to the janitor’s brother, who I never had a chance to meet.
The door out of the death car wasn’t locked, but the following one looked formidable. The engine was strong but strangely quiet, shaking the air in the sealed connector but running no more loudly than a diesel engine on low power. The last obstacle was a windowless thick metal slab with an inactive keypad. A faint smell of ozone lingered in the air, possibly indicating that something had just recently been burnt.
I dug my fingernails into the thin crack between the door and the frame and began to pry as hard as I could. Several of my nails broke in the process, but after a few seconds, it began to grind and groan open. Once I could stick my entire arm through, I was able to force the door open enough to slip inside. Sam’s efforts had worked, and I felt obligated to survive and one day tell his story so that he wouldn’t vanish completely.
The engine cabin was quite small, but every inch of space was used, filled with consoles, dials, levers, gauges, and all sorts of other indicators, including temperature readings for the dual nuclear reactors deep inside the beast. The cabin also had the only two remaining windows on the entire train, one on each side. It was dark and cloudy outside, with nothing but distant rural lights to illuminate the night. An LED clock put the time at about four in the morning.
The engine car was much different than all the rest. It wasn’t only the newest and most advanced of them all—it was also cold, lifeless, and sterile, with no sense of use or history. I didn’t even see any dust or scratches. And in the cabin was one final aspect of the entire train that didn’t make any sense.
A tiny computer screen that monitored the reactors had a date on it that read July 10th, 2002. There should be no purpose for more mind games in a place no passenger was meant to see. My rational side tried to explain it away as a result of a possible system reset that put the date on January 1st, 2000 for some reason. Or maybe there had been a system error at some point. It could be that leaking radiation had damaged the hardware—or that there had been too much voltage and it caused severe clock drift of more than a decade.
Whatever the reason, my attention had to be on figuring out how to derail the train. There were dozens of controls to look at, this being both an engine cabin and a nuclear powerplant. But there was a surefire way to run it off the track, so long as there was at least one more turn coming up. I searched for the throttle.
I caught light in my peripheral and gazed out the window again. The light pollution of a major city was on the right, and its glowing skyline was coming closer. I assumed we would soon be turning toward it. The horn blared on its own and I watched as a flashing rail crossing sign passed by outside. It looked like I was going about thirty miles an hour, which I confirmed once I found the speed gauge. A high-speed derailment would be bad enough and put my survival in question, but I had another worry.
If I was about to possibly cause a major radioactive leak, I couldn’t put tens of thousands of lives at risk by jumping track close to the city. That meant I was truly out of time. I had to prepare myself and get the speed up immediately.
I stayed focus and quickly found the main throttle. It was moving on its own, since the train was still on autopilot. I couldn’t get it to budge, so I had to waste another few seconds looking for a button to engage a manual mode. Outside to my right, I saw blinking red lights in the distance; another crossing was close. I thought about shooting into the controls or bashing them with the gun, anything to release the throttle—because I didn’t see how else to do it.
Then I found something that barely stood out on the dash: a small key slot, labeled LOCK. With nothing else to try, I stuck in the old man’s brass key and gave it a twist. A warning chirp went off, and the throttle began to steadily drop. I pushed it up to full and the train reacted, accelerating so quickly despite its size that I could feel it in my gut. But then, one final challenge showed up. The throttle worked as a dead man’s switch, and would slow the train to a halt if an operator didn’t stay to hold it. That wasn’t going to work for me.
Luckily, the space under the lever was just the right size to accommodate Sam’s pistol, which had yet to serve a purpose. It was a tight fit, but I managed to jam in the firearm and keep the throttle at full. The more traditional steam engine deep inside the car roared as the fuel rods blazed, and the MPH indicator lit up in bright red. It would soon reach a dangerous speed.
I gave the cabin one last glance to burn it into memory, then ran back into the crematorium to do what sounded like the stupidest thing possible. I opened up the incinerator’s door and hopped right into the oven. But I figured, as long as it didn’t activate in the derailment, its sturdy and confining walls, built to tolerate intense heat, would provide me with the safest place to be in a crash. I closed the door and hunkered down in the small space, and the old car began to wobble from side to side as its wheels struggled to keep on the track.
It happened about a minute later. As the engine noise became deafening, I suddenly took to the air and hit the roof of the oven, before slamming back down. All of the train’s sounds changed in an instant. It was no longer chugging on metal rail, but rather, tearing through dirt as a cacophony of twisting metal and shattering wood erupted farther back. I was jostled about in my life pod, hitting the sides hard but not hard enough to break bone.
The lights went out, and gravity changed as the car toppled onto its side. The entire oven was torn loose, and I was flung forward inside of it, with the hefty industrial piece of equipment bursting through the front of the car, taking to the air briefly before slamming into the ground and cratering into the earth. Behind me, the other cars eventually came to rest after slamming into each other, breaking into splinters, and tossing deadly debris in all directions. All of those old cars were not designed to take the brunt of a modern, high-speed derailment. Most of them were completely demolished into unrecognizable scrap heaps.
Once I was certain nothing remained in motion, I kicked open the dented oven door and stumbled out. Fires were spreading and illuminating the impact craters in the early morning darkness. Bits and pieces were strewn all over, most of it too small to remain familiar. Shards of furniture, the internals of the old man’s computer, one of the reels from the surveillance car, soup cans leaking their contents… But I couldn’t find the old man’s body in what little time I had to search. I didn’t see anyone else’s body, either—but his was the only one I really worried about. Part of me still doubts that he died that night, because I never fully confirmed it. Now I regret not letting myself be absolutely certain while I had the chance.
The engine itself was the only part of the train that had substantially survived the wreck, well-built that it was. The thing didn’t even seem to be leaking fluid. But I didn’t linger around in its presence. Before I ran off, I looked for something, anything at all that could be used as proof of all that had happened—of the company existing at all.
The wall safe stood out. It was in one piece, and was just small and light enough to carry. I would have to get it open, but it felt like I had all the time in the world if I could just get away from the crash site before anyone showed up to ask questions. I also felt like I couldn’t trust anyone at the moment, including the first responders who were flashing their vehicle lights on the horizon.
I grabbed the safe and disappeared into the night. I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t knock on any of the doors of the nearby farmhouses. Everyone nearby must have been woken up and most of them would have likely helped a survivor of such a disaster, but I didn’t want to get anyone else involved or stick around to see news vans. I found an unlocked pickup truck, hotwired it, and as my adrenaline finally started to dissipate, I drove to the next nearest town.
As dawn broke, I left the truck by a diner and swapped it for another, and then later one more, each time quietly apologizing to the owners and hoping they’d be reunited with their property. I didn’t stop until I was in the next state over by around sunset and was able to use some of the money I had also “acquired” to get a motel room for the night, and finally get a deserved night’s sleep.
I had lost my wallet on the train, and having no identification made it difficult to get to safety, but by the next morning, most of my memories had returned, and with them the phone numbers of a few old friends who could help me out.
Suffice to say, I did eventually make it back home, though I quickly thereafter moved, and didn’t feel safe until I had done it several times and years had gone by. I made sure each new house was a good distance from any railways.
News of the derailment never made it to television. I would later find out that the area surrounding the train wreckage was closed off for a week and the blame was placed on a chemical spill, but word didn’t reach far past local newspapers. It sounded like a good old-fashioned government coverup. Rumors about a nuclear-powered train weren’t a thing you’d want spread around.
A little over a year after that night, I finally cracked open the safe with a torch and retrieved the black box inside, which had been taken out of a previous train for some reason. Its voice recording isn’t something that most people should ever need to hear if they value their grip on reality.
But, creators and editors of the Cold Relics website, considering the nature of its stories which have spanned decades, I’ll share it with you.
I spent years writing and rewriting my recollection of that night. I’ve left out sensitive details about the location of the derailment and some information about the people I met just before it happened, but I’m presenting the rest as best as I can remember. One of the side effects of the drug I was injected with seems to have been increased memory sensitivity while under its influence. In other words, the events wrote themselves solidly in my head, and I can still freshly recall most of what happened, even down to trivial conversations.
Assuming all of your other stories are true, which I have read after finding out about your group and before sending this to you, then I can easily say that I agree on how dangerous these people were, or possibly still are. Be careful in any future investigations. I do hope that you’ve left it all behind, and that this document has answered some of your lingering questions without you putting your lives at risk to find the answers yourselves.
I suppose it’s better that this is out there, instead of rotting away on a floppy disk that I’ve kept in a safety deposit box since 1995. Good luck to all of you, but don’t put yourselves in further danger on my behalf.
And thank you for finally giving me a way to read her journal and understand what an old partner and friend went through a long time ago. I’ve already changed the name I originally gave myself to Isaac, for continuity’s sake. Also, medical scans never revealed anything in my neck, but I still worry sometimes.
The following is an edited transcript from the recording, which lasted about five minutes before ending abruptly.
[As the tape starts rolling, the sound of a diesel train engine reaching full power is heard, along with communication between the engineer, a traffic controller on the other end, and a third man guiding passengers.]
System check complete. How’s it look out there?
Controller [barely audible over radio interference]
Not good. [unintelligible] says we’re out of time.
Are the tracks clear?
All rail traffic cleared to the tunnel.
Conductor [shouting from farther away]
Can we cover three miles?
If we get moving. Is everyone inside?
Everyone who got to the station. We’re still missing five or six others.
They aren’t going to make it. Close the doors.
Conductor [after a pause]
Are the company assets secured?
Since this morning. [the sound of a door closing] Christ. It’s really happening.
Get everyone in their seats. We’re going to start moving.
[There is about a half a minute of mechanical sounds. The air brakes audibly release and the train begins to lurch forward.]
You’re in the clear. All local civilian service has been suspended.
God forgive us.
Cincinnati was just…
It’s nothing. I’m seeking shelter. Good luck out there. Signing off.
Conductor [stepping in through the door]
Are we going to make it?
If only barely. Have everyone in brace positions until we reach the tunnel.
[Distant air raid sirens can be heard as the engineer mutters a prayer]
I can see it! Nine o’ clock, on the horizon!
Come on, come on… Go…
[There is suddenly a low rumbling sound and a flood of screams from the passengers. The recording drops all of its audio a few seconds later.]
Thoughts from Tyler
Imagine how I felt when I got this story in my inbox at three in the morning after a long, boring day. I reread it several times and went to bed at dawn.
Thing is, I have no way to confirm its validity. It was sent to me through an obvious burner email. Compelling as it is, it could very well be an elaborate fan work.
What this sequence of events is suggesting (with a bullhorn) is understandably difficult to accept. I didn’t want to write anything at the start, as the way the story progresses, I thought it would be best if I just let the reader figure out the identity of its narrator and the time period on their own as they’re taken for a ride. I couldn’t think up a good preamble to all this, anyway.
If this actually is real—and I’m putting it up to let you guys and the other readers decide—then… I mean, damn. The origins of the Umbrella Man, a name for the company, possibly even the reason for the train tracks by the fake Kiddie Land. And, of course, the out-there idea that there is an alternate reality where the Cold War ended a little differently. The more I thought about it, the less sleep I got over these past few days. This story blows open so much. It’s easy to get why anyone would think it was too good to be true. Not that anything good would come out of this sort of experience.
Until we can prove or disprove the events in this submission, I’m going to leave it up as an official story. Tell me what you think, guys. It’s not like there’s much else going on right now. Other than real life for the rest of you, maybe.
I’m going to try and get a response to Isaac, or whoever is claiming to be him. And try to find out where a train might’ve derailed back in 1989. I respect the advice he gave us, but you all know I could never let this go.
At this point, I know I might be alone in this old pursuit. You all may have gone dark and are lying low, or just trying to live your lives, but I still feel like I have a calling to find the truth.
I’ve never actually been on a train. Not even a subway or a tram car.
Don’t think I’ll start now.