Charlie Slawson sat alone in the transit station, watching a set of empty train tracks and wondering why the train was late. Truth be told, he hadn’t known until just then that temporal trains even could be late.
He looked around the underground station—its old, brick walls lined with gaudy digital displays, advertising exciting trips to next year, next century, and beyond—before noticing a man stepping onto the platform from a little door beside the tracks. He wore navy blue coveralls and a tall pair of work boots. His close-cropped, grey hair was half hidden beneath a faded baseball cap.
“Excuse me,” Charlie called. “Any idea when the train will arrive? I think it’s running late.”
The man stopped and frowned, then walked over to the bench. “You sure you’re in the right place, son? Which train are you waiting for?”
Charlie nodded and motioned to the marquee above the tracks. “Train to Wednesday. Just like it says.”
“Hmmph,” the old man grunted. “Wednesday’s never been one of our peak destinations. Especially not a Wednesday that’s just a few days away. What’d you want to do a thing like that for?”
Charlie turned the tablet in his hands so the old man could see the picture on the screen. That day, years ago, when Dad took him fishing out west of Cambridge. The first time he’d ever been to the train station.
Dad tried to keep the trip going every year after Charlie left home, but life got busy, then they drifted apart. Charlie had always assumed they’d have time to catch up later, but he would give anything to have that day back, now.
“Your father?” the man asked.
Charlie nodded. “His funeral is this Wednesday.” He thought of the tearful video message he’d received this morning from his mother, his siblings already bickering in the background over funeral venues and seating arrangements.
It was foolish, all of it. It would make no difference to Dad if the memorial dinner served chicken or beef, or if the service was held at the church on High Street or Main. What Dad would have appreciated was more time with his son, but Charlie hadn’t given him that. And no memorial, however perfectly it was planned, could do a thing about it.
More time at home would just mean more time to feel guilty. More awkward conversations with distant relatives, more photographs and memories, more reminders that Dad had always been there for him, but he hadn’t done the same.
“I loved my Dad,” Charlie said. “Even if I wasn’t the best at showing it. I wouldn’t miss his funeral for the world, but I’d just rather skip all the mess in between.”
The man nodded and fished a hand into his coveralls, coming up a moment later with a small, silver pocket watch. Inscribed on its cover was the looping infinity symbol of the Temporal Transportation Administration.
The man opened the watch and tilted it so Charlie could see. Dials and arms littered the watch face, twisting together in an intricate dance that Charlie struggled to make heads or tails of. The man tapped the glass faceplate and made a sound which fell somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh.
“Well would you look at that,” he said. “Seems you’re right. Train should’ve been here at least thirty seconds ago.”
“Is that normal?” Charlie asked.
“Nah. But it ain’t unheard of either.” The old man bit his lip. “These tunnels have been around almost as long as I have. Every once in a while the track is bound to run a little slow.”
Charlie looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. “Okay. Any idea how much longer it’ll be?”
“Doesn’t work like that.” The old man shook his head. “A little hiccup on the other end might mean just a few extra minutes here, or it could mean a few days, or more. No way to tell without heading down the tracks and finding where the train is stuck.”
“Christ,” Charlie mumbled, staring down into the empty tunnel at the end of the station. “Is that safe?”
The old man shrugged. “Life ain’t safe. But there’s no reason it should be especially dangerous, provided we’re careful.” He turned and started to walk towards the tracks.
“We?” Charlie asked.
“Course.” The old man climbed down onto the railway and motioned for Charlie to follow. “Any extra delays stack up real fast down the line, so once we get her going again, the train won’t stop until the next station. You’ll have to board wherever we find her.”
“You’re joking,” Charlie muttered, glancing down at his dress slacks and new oxford shoes, then at the puddles and mud waiting for him beside the tracks.
Then he thought of his father, and the nightmare the next two days would be without him. He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hopped over the edge of the platform.
Charlie tiptoed along the rail line, as close to the man and his flashlight as he could manage. Above their heads, aging brickwork dripped water and something much darker in thick, black droplets that clung to the floor.
“You sure it’s safe to be in here?” Charlie asked. “These walls don’t look like they’re holding up so well.”
The old man grunted in agreement. “Been around a long time. It’s a wonder they’ve held up as long as they have.”
Somehow, that didn’t comfort Charlie. “Why hasn’t anyone bothered to replace them?”
“Ha!” The old man laughed, then turned back to face him. “When are you from, son?”
“When?” Charlie asked, shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “Don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“Course you don’t,” the old man replied. “Because you don’t remember when they put these things in.” He patted the brick wall with obvious affection, then turned down the tunnel and started to walk again. “It ain’t just something you can go and replace. Takes a lot of time, and a lot of lives to dig a set of tunnels through spacetime. To pull the two apart so that you can move through one by moving through the other. It also took a lot of problems to make men and women willing to take that risk. Problems that you couldn’t just hop on a train and skip.”
Charlie grimaced. He wasn’t skipping the problem, just the mess. “So how does this work?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. “Aren’t we traveling back in time?”
The man laughed again, like Charlie was a child. “Course not. Trains can only go forward and so can we. Can walk down the tunnel as long as you want, but you’ll never reach a previous station.”
“And what if you managed to get outside the tunnel?”
“Wouldn’t want to do that.” The man pointed his flashlight at a pool of ink-black liquid. “The tunnel’s old enough here that some of the outside’s dripping through. All you’d find out there is a big sea of black.”
“Unless you found another tunnel?” Charlie asked.
The old man shrugged. “Suppose so, but you wouldn’t last that long. Just the tunnels and trains that can survive in the void.”
As they walked down the tracks, the dripping grew more frequent and louder, until the darkness spilled from the walls in neat little rivulets.
“Careful now,” the old man muttered. “Better keep your feet on the tracks and avoid them puddles altogether.”
“Otherwise?” Charlie asked.
The man’s voice was stern for the first time since they’d met. “Otherwise I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”
The train was near wrecked when they finally found her. That much was clear the moment the old man’s flashlight beam fell onto her engine’s crumpled exterior.
“Well that doesn’t look good,” Charlie managed to mutter.
The man shook his head and wandered closer to the engine. He pointed his flashlight down onto the ground, stepping carefully around the small, black stream which poured from the brickwork where the train had collided with the wall. The engine was lodged halfway through the wall itself, the only thing plugging a massive hole to the void.
The old man crouched beside the damaged tunnel and ran his hand along the bowing stone. Little waterfalls of thick, black liquid flowed from the brick around the sides of the train, pooling into a narrow brook which ran both ways along the tracks.
“Well?” Charlie asked. “What do you think?”
The old man grimaced. “I think we’ve got a big problem to deal with.”
Charlie looked at the line of train cars behind him. Aside from the engine, the rest of the train was largely undamaged. Passengers milled about inside, uninjured, pressing their faces up against the small, dark windows. A woman in a floral dress and an ancient-looking hat leaned her head out of one of the passenger car doors and began to climb down the emergency ladder. A young, mustachioed man in a charcoal-grey suit followed closely behind.
“The train doesn’t seem so bad to me,” Charlie said. “Just needs a new engine, probably.”
The old man nodded, then noticed the couple exiting the train. He wagged his finger like a grandfather scolding a pair of children. “And what exactly do you think you’re doing?” he called.
A guilty smile crossed the woman’s face. “Just coming to have a look. Maybe see if we could fix whatever’s the matter.”
The old man sighed and dipped a finger into one of the pools of black. The liquid crawled quickly up his hand, until he withdrew it from the puddle. He held his arm in the air a moment before pressing it against the edge of the train. The blank, dark space where his hand had been simply passed through the metal as if nothing was there.
He fixed the couple with a glare. “And what exactly are you going to do about that?”
The woman’s smile vanished and she mumbled a half-hearted reply.
“Exactly,” he replied. “Now you two get back inside and close that door, and let the experts handle this.”
Charlie chuckled. He certainly didn’t feel like an expert.
The old man frowned at him, then pulled a small, silver rag from his coveralls and wiped his hand clean. The black which had coated his palms seemed to simply fade into the fabric. “It ain’t the train that I’m worried about. This wall gives any further and the whole tunnel will be swimming in the black. Station too. Maybe the next station down the line. Nothing to stop it moving forward once it reaches that point.”
“Christ,” Charlie muttered. “What can we do about it? I imagine there’s someone that we’ll have to call?”
The old man glanced at his pocket watch. “No time for that. It’d take ‘em at least as long as it took us to get down here. But we can start by getting this engine out of the way.”
“What?” Charlie asked, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten at the idea. “The engine is the only thing plugging the hole. If we pull the plug, the entire tunnel will flood.”
The old man shook his head. “Don’t work like that, kid. The tunnel isn’t any happier about it being broken than we are. Given the chance, the hole would seal itself right up. As is, the train’s the only thing keeping it open.”
He pointed at the spiderwork cracks running through the tunnel wall. “It’s like a knife in a wound. Might bleed worse for a minute when we pull it out, but the longer it’s in there, the more damage it does.”
The cracks seemed to grow even in the short time the man spoke, new drips and defects popping up around them. “Well that’s easy then,” Charlie replied. “We just put the train in reverse and pull the engine out.”
“Mmhmm,” the man replied. “Provided she’s still working.”
Charlie sat in front of the train’s aging control board, horrified that humans had ever trusted their safety to technology so primitive. Although digital networks had replaced the engineers running the rails decades ago, the engines were built in a time long before then and still sported a panel of manual backups, littered with dials, levers, and other relics of the past. Charlie glanced over his shoulder at a small, dim screen that showed a live feed of the passenger cars. Come to think of it, most of the train’s passengers were relics as well.
Out the cabin’s small side window, the old man stared at Charlie and gave him two thumbs up. He’d stayed outside to make sure the hole sealed shut, his hands full of minor patching equipment which Charlie was entirely sure would be insufficient if actually needed.
Initially, he thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal. But now that he was inside the engine room, with only inches of glass separating him from the horrible emptiness which stared back through the front windshield, he wasn’t so certain. The darkness in front of him swirled and writhed like a pile of living shadow, feeling and squirming its way towards the cracks in the tunnel wall. Charlie couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Felt it the same way he felt this might not end well. But what choice did he have?
He could climb back outside the engine and tell the man he’d had enough. Walk straight to the station and wait out the rest of a painful week at Mom’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be tearful and frustrating, but certainly not deadly.
But it had taken nearly an hour to walk this far down the tunnel, and there were no guarantees the wall would hold long enough for him to get back. Besides, if the man was right, and a spill on this end of the track could creep into the future, who was to say he’d make it to the funeral at all?
At the end of the day, those thoughts didn’t matter. The only one that mattered was of Dad, standing on the train platform all those years ago, bending over to pick up a piece of crumpled paper from beside the trash can.
“Never walk past a mistake, Charlie,” he’d said, his quiet, certain voice rising over the sound of the station’s bustle. “Not when it’s in your power to fix.”
Dad had lived his life by those words, and Charlie would be damned if he couldn’t live up to them, especially today. It was the least he could do.
“Alright, Dad,” he muttered, staring down at the large, red lever on the control panel. He glanced out the window and gave the man a thumbs up in return, then threw the lever into reverse.
Behind him, the engine whirred to life, rumbling and shaking as it struggled to throw the massive weight of the train backwards. Charlie gripped his seat and stared out the window at the man beside the tracks, but the train didn’t move.
The man shouted something that Charlie couldn’t hear, but he knew what it must mean by the waving of the man’s arms. Turn the engine power up. Charlie nodded and spun one of the dials to full.
The knot in his stomach tightened even further as he felt the train start to shift backwards. Its metal walls screeched and scraped against the brickwork as it pulled itself back from the hole. Then, just as soon as it had begun, the train slammed to a halt.
“No, no, no,” Charlie mumbled, spinning dials left and right. Despite his attempts, the train wouldn’t budge. Outside the window, the man motioned madly for him to kill the engine, rushing out of the way of a sudden onslaught of black liquid.
Charlie stared at the river and raced through his odds. A portion of the wall must have broken loose as he reversed, lodging itself behind the rear wheels and holding the train in place. The void was coming in, even if he stopped the engine.
He looked at the growing stream of black with mounting certainty. Even if he stopped now, it would be enough to flood the tunnel. The only chance to stop it was to get the engine out, so the hole could close.
Through the windshield, the void tumbled over itself with anticipation. Nothing but black in its horrible depths. Nothing but black…and was that a streak of silver?
Charlie stood up from his chair and pressed his face to the windshield, struggling for a better look. Somewhere below, in the sea of emptiness, a small line of silver glimmered brightly. Charlie traced its path until it ended in a box, so far below it only looked like a little dot.
But it wasn’t a dot, of that Charlie was certain. In that moment, he knew it was a train station—some other year, some other century, lingering in the darkness below.
It was a train station, and he had a plan.
Charlie sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, then one final peek out the small side window. The black stream had grown into quite a torrent already, pouring both ways down the tunnel. The old man still motioned for Charlie to stop the engine, but he was standing pressed up against the opposite wall to avoid the darkness as best as he could.
Charlie tapped a small red button on the dashboard, feeling a clunk behind him as the engine detached from the rest of the train cars.
“Alright, Dad,” he muttered. “I’ve never been one for walking anyways.” With that, he gripped the engine’s lever and shoved it towards the waiting void.
The engine lurched forward with a tremendous screech, and Charlie turned around in time to see the wall snap closed behind him and the world vanish from view.
The engine crashed through the station ceiling some time later. How long, exactly? Charlie wasn’t certain, and he doubted he ever would be. It felt as if he’d spent no time at all in free fall, and yet it felt as if he’d spent his whole life. All he knew was that he was happy when the collision threw him forward against his restraints and he was suddenly staring into someplace bright and living again.
The moment the engine came to a rest on the empty platform, Charlie unclipped his restraint and scrambled to the door. He climbed awkwardly out of the twisted, tilting vehicle, prepared to shout at any bystanders about the need for evacuation. Instead of spotting a stream of black liquid behind him, however, he noticed that the engine had fallen straight through the ceiling, which had, indeed, sealed itself right up behind him.
The few commuters on the platform stared at him with surprise, but not dismay, until a middle-aged man wearing dark blue coveralls shouted at him from a across the platform.
“Hey! Hey you!” he called. “What the hell is going on?”
Charlie stared at the brightly colored baseball cap atop the man’s head and smiled. He ran across the platform and wrapped the man in a tight embrace.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the man grumbled, shoving him away with a confused frown.
“What year is it?” Charlie asked suddenly, catching sight of the posters which lined the station walls. He remembered seeing them years ago.
“Oh Jeez,” the man muttered. “Don’t tell me you got yourself lost somehow.”
Charlie felt the knot return to his stomach as he shook his head and grabbed the man by the shoulders. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I just need to know the date, or at least the day of the week.”
The man stared at him for a moment without answering, but Charlie already knew the answer. On the tracks, a train was waiting, its doors preparing to close. Inside, a young boy and his father were too busy staring at the fishing guidebook they’d brought along to notice the commotion outside.
“Wednesday,” the man muttered, but Charlie was already running towards the train.
© 2019 by Steven Fischer
Author’s Note: I spend most of my life waiting for moments. Counting down the days to big events like graduation, or the minutes to small ones like the end of a shift. Too often, I’m so busy looking forward that I forget to look around, and I find myself wishing later I could have those moments back. Time-travelling trains might make for fun scifi, but even in fictional worlds time only moves one direction, and in real life you can’t cheat your way around that.
Steve is a resident physician in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn’t too busy cracking open a textbook (or a patient’s thorax), you can find him exploring the Cascades by bike, boat, or boot. His stories have appeared in places like F&SF, Grimdark Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. You can read more of his work at www.stevenbfischer.com, or find him on twitter @stevenfischersf.