Derailed

Ogilve Train Station

You've been sent here to investigate last month's train derailment. Of course there was footage of the wreckage and official statements and all those things, but your editor wanted a more personal look at the people involved.

Information Attendant

I wasn't here that day. You want to talk to the conductor? Yea, he's over on track 16 right now, leaving soon I believe.

Between the Trains

A Conductor

Oh yea, you just missed him. I was just handing off his route. You saw that? Yea, computers are no good now. It's like we went back in time but no one knows how it used to be done. This train right over here on 15, that's the route that crashed. Probably find some of the original passengers on there if they didn't all get scared off for good.

On the Train

You get a few funny looks initially, but it doesn't take long to realize most of these people were on the car that crashed. A few still wear signs, a cast here, a bandage there. But their demeanors are surprisingly calm until you get them talking. They recount memories of the day.

It was the inbound train, about as full as it gets these days.
Most of the way back in to the city, where the tracks get congested.

The Passenger in Front of You

You can tell he is shaken to the core, he doesn’t even bother to turn around before beginning.

“I woke up to a nightmare. Not that the dream I had before the crash was much better. Floating voices, with faces I could no long remember, calling to me. Asking me questions I no longer, or maybe never, knew the answer to.

The screeching of the train’s brakes woke me. The engineer had tried to stop before hitting the train in front of us. Like so many of us have experienced, his attempt to avoid disaster was futile. As soon as the train turned onto the wrong track, the crash was inevitable.

As I learned later, though, the loss of 87 lives was set into motion earlier. An unactivated switch had put us on the same track as a stationary freight train. 40 tons of metal, glass, bone, and flesh were sent crashing into the mud due to the wrong answer to a binary question. Left or right? On or off? Right or wrong? Regular or decaf? Life or death?

That makes it sound like it was the switch’s doing. Of course it wasn’t the fault of an unthinking, unliving mechanism. It was human error. The man at the switch was asleep, having worked a double that day. Apparently, sitting at a lever and moving it back and forth whenever a train comes is tiring work. The bastard had laid down on the hood of his car between the passing locomotives. I guess he assumed an approaching train would wake him up. But it didn’t. I sometimes wonder what did wake him up. Was it the screeching of the wheels as the train turned? The squealing brakes? My train colliding with the one in front of it? Or the wailing of the older man who sat a few seats in front of me after his leg snapped in half?

It’s strange to think that the switch operator and I were asleep at the same time - though, of course, my drowsiness didn’t cause seven train cars to derail. What caused it was the reliance on human beings. Inexperienced humans because of the discontinuation of automatic switches that occurred after the singularity. Overworked humans because of the decision by so many workers to get uploaded rather than spend the rest of their lives on the tracks, inhaling fumes and braving the biting weather.

But in the moment that our world teetered to one side, none of us were thinking about the singularity, or artificial intelligence, or the upload. I know I thought about Daniel, my hand instinctively reaching for my pocket, even though I hadn’t been able to reliably send a text message in months.

When they put me in the ambulance I thought of those that left. I cursed them as I surveyed the bodies in front of me, as I listened to the screams and whimpers. On the surface I felt rage for those who took the easy way out, who didn’t have to watch as their world crumbled around them. But deeper down I felt jealousy. I didn’t know what it was like to be uploaded, or whether you felt emotions the same way, if at all.

I knew it couldn’t be worse than this.”

Credits

Words and Images by Chris Duesing
"The Passenger in Front of You" by Seth Miller