The Titan-Metropolis line was one of the most heavily traveled train routes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It ran from the East to West coast and was valued for its speed, making relatively few stops. It offered the height of modern amenities and luxury to the captains of industry that had willed it into being. In 1902, during a routine crossing of the Rockies, a switchman absented himself from his post for reasons lost to history and the Titan-Metropolis collided with a circus train carrying performers and animals speeding to their next engagement. There were no survivors.
There would never be any survivors. That was the appeal of the very reasonably priced Titan-Metropolis package offered by Peaceful Destinations. Complete with scenic views and dinner service, the Titan-Metropolis provided a luxurious and richly historical exit from the mortal coil. Group rates available, vegetarian meal options by request. Please consult your insurance carrier for first, second, or third class options.
“You have no idea how many people ask about Jonestown.” The counselor at Peaceful Destinations had said in a hushed, gossipy voice as she handed Isolda the Titan-Metropolis pamphlet at the end of their confirmation interview. “It can get a bit ghoulish, but the Titan is a very popular choice. Classy. Almost like a cruise.”
Isolda had nodded and acted like she had painstakingly chosen the Titan after arduous thought instead of it simply being the only destination option her insurance might even possibly cover. Even after her deductible, she was still buying a ticket at the lower rate group rather than one the private cars the terminally ill and terminally wealthy could purchase. A seat in the dining car, a table for six. Five strangers sharing a final intimate moment together.
Even at that initial meeting, it was not lost on Isolda that the irony of Peaceful Destinations was that there was no destination. Which, when she thought about it, made her piercingly angry. She’d never been particularly driven prior to diagnosis. And during her initial treatments, she’d felt downtrodden and disconnected, then ultimately resigned. But now, especially when talking with toolheads like the representative from Peaceful Destinations, she felt a kind of rage she’d rarely experienced in her earlier life. Almost like a cruise? Shut up. Just shut the hell up.
The restrooms of Nineteenth Century trains weren’t as cramped as Isolda had expected as she vomited into the sparkling commode. The three-hour orientation she’d taken prior to departure hadn’t prepared her for the head-spinning effect the swaying of the Pullman cars had on her meds-addled body.
But she wouldn’t need the meds anymore. They’d been left behind at the departure center, along with her handbag and her house keys and her cell phone. She’d read the instructions carefully and had known not to bring anything sentimental, it was too risky to bring extra items. A clean exit, they called it.
Isolda did feel lighter, but it may just have been from all the vomiting.
Exiting the restroom, Isolda kept one hand trailing along the corridor wall for balance as the train swung too-and-fro on the tracks. A serious-looking young woman in a straw hat and wire-rim glasses stared at her as she passed. Isolda had a moment of anxiety that something was wrong with her clothes or overall manner, despite her training, that gave her away. But then she realized she simply must look a fright and took a moment to smooth back her hair before carrying on. A moment of anger again that she was even bothering to blend in with these doomed people. But it passed as Isolda concentrated on steadying herself. She was doomed too, after all.
When she returned to the designated table in the dining car, the soup course had been served. Isolda’s fellow travelers were contemplating their bowls, spoons in hand, but no one was eating.
The compact table in the dining car seated the six guests like tidy puzzle pieces in a feat of fin de siècle engineering. The travelers sat inconspicuously in the period-appropriate clothing they’d been assigned at the departure center, which created a strange sense of playing dress up. As though the events unfolding couldn’t possibly be real. They had also been provided with temporary identities for the duration of their voyage. The cloyingly titled Orienteers at Peaceful Destinations had explained the necessity of this in a cheerful presentation about passenger logs, body counts, and the continuity of linear time. But there had been no mention of where the real owners of the names were or why their seats were now being sold through what was callously known in some circles as the death tourism industry. Isolda was fairly certain she didn’t want to ask.
The crisp white place card reserving Isolda’s seat at the dining table had the name “Mrs. Felix Bartolomey” written neatly on it. The seat next to her was occupied by a man with an amused smirk on his face. His card identified him as “Mr. Bartolomey”.
He paused until the waiter had pulled out Isolda’s chair and stepped away discreetly before extending his hand, “I haven’t decided if you’re supposed to be my wife or mother or what, but since it’s only for the next couple of hours I think it’s only fitting if you call me Caleb.”
“Is that your real name?”
Isolda’s newly minted family member gave her a wan smile.
She took his hand and shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Caleb. I’m Isolda.”
“Do you think that waiter was one of the Caregivers they told us about?” Caleb asked in a hushed tone, curiosity lighting up his hollowed face.
Isolda snuck a glance over her shoulder. The waiter stood white-aproned and blank faced at the door of their car.
“I don’t know, maybe? It could be anyone. But they told us not to try to spot them…it looks too obvious to the other passengers.”
A third member of their dining table, who had prior to this conversation appeared to be sleeping with his chin collapsed over his high collar, stirred and opened one cynical eye.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, do you really think any one on this train is looking at us? They haven’t even looked up from their plates since the soup arrived. Which is inedible, by the way.”
Isolda noted that his place card read “Dr. Samuel Larkspur” and she wondered how many Dr. Larkspurs had ridden the Titan before this one and if they had all been so ill tempered.
When no one agreed with Dr. Larkspur, he slumped back into his napping posture and proceeded to ignore the rest of the table. They’d clearly been judged and been found wanting.
The waiter was still watching them, but it was hard to say if he was simply providing excellent service or if he actually was one of the plain-clothes Caregivers stationed on the train to ensure none of the “Graduating Guests," as they called them, caused too much of a stir or had a hysterical breakdown. Neither, Isolda had been told, was terribly uncommon. “The end of life often brings heightened emotions,” the counselor at Peaceful Destinations had told her with practiced sincerity. They excelled at stating the obvious at that place.
Even though they had all boarded the train together, Isolda did not know how much time her fellow dinner guests had already spent together. Her own insurance company had a strict policy on destination deaths and did not cover any non-mandatory classes. But there were many groups and programs that offered extensive training to those fortunate enough to have more comprehensive coverage. The other guests could have known each other for some time already. Regardless, the other five at the table all seemed weary of Dr. Larkspur.
Isolda ignored him as she sampled her soup. She instead took in the remaining members of their table. “Jordan Jones” was just a kid, maybe early twenties, with an unhealthy pallor but expensive clothes and a well-maintained haircut. His pedigree screamed wealth and privilege, but there was a darkness in his darting eyes and sallow skin that betrayed where he might have gone astray. The barest trace of blue ink was visible across his knuckles where the well-concealed tattoos must have been. The people at Peaceful Destinations truly thought of everything.
An older woman, sitting directly across from Isolda, had graying hair, cut close, with a beautiful face that was gathering character with age rather than losing beauty. Her dark eyes stared unwavering at Isolda, but unlike the withering gaze of Larkspur or the piercing judgment of Jordan, this woman’s eyes had a softness to them that made Isolda feel calm, despite her rising anxiety. There was something in the older woman’s demeanor that invited trust.
“I’m Janice,” said the woman, who had to shift a cane from her hand to her lap before she extended a hand across the table to Isolda. “I’m a little broken but my mind is still sharp.”
Her place card said “Bedelia Corcoran.”
“A healthy mind trapped in a failing body is the cruelest blow of all,” intoned Dr. Larkspur with barely lifted eyelids, clearly not having exited the conversation as completely as his prior dramatics had implied.
Janice’s wise but piercing stare sized up Larkspur across the table before responding in a dry, even voice. “The cruelest blow will be coming in about ninety minutes by my watch, Doctor, and I intend to use every one of my faculties until then and be damn thankful that I can. You may be a doctor on this train, but I promise you I actually earned my PhD.”
The Doctor sniffed and responded by turned his body as far toward the window and away from Janice as the narrow seating would allow. Isolda got the distinct impression that whoever Janice had been in her life, she’d been a virtuoso at stopping blowhards like Larkspur in their tracks without breaking a sweat. She could learn a lot from this woman. Well, she could if either of them had time.
Not for the first time since she’d been diagnosed and begun this journey Isolda greedily wished for more time.
“Are we going to talk about why we’re here or is that not going to be a thing,” said the last member of their dinner party, a blonde woman, middle-aged, with friendly blue eyes that were slightly blurred from what Isolda counted as her third cocktail, almost finished. “’Cuz I’m good to play that game if you all are.”
“Darla Smull.” The blonde woman announced, thrusting a hand out as if inviting the entire table to shake it at once. When no one obliged, she waved cheerily instead. Darla, at least, was feeling no pain. There was a quality to her boisterous behavior that dared the rest of the guests to have as good a time as she was determined to.
“If I weren’t already going to die today, my family would never speak to me again,” Caleb answered Darla’s prompt, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen over the table. “Choosing to die in a foreign time, far away from them, is my final disappointment in a long line of increasingly unforgivable transgressions.”
The young man called Jordan groaned loudly and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I can’t believe they didn’t let us bring our sunglasses.”
“Fashion is one of the easiest ways to give ourselves away, you know,” piped up Darla helpfully. She took a huge swig of her drink. “Sunglasses are one of the most subtle but recognizable accessories when you’re out of time. It’s really hard without modern material to replicate a…”
“Out of time is right, Ms. Smull,” interrupted Dr. Larkspur.
Caleb stared at his soup again, his confessional moment successfully hijacked. Isolda gave him a sympathetic smile and shrugged. She felt like she was in a very strange play, but no one had given her a script.
“Yeah, well it’s bright in here and I have a headache,” whined Jordan. “They could have at least given us some sunglasses that worked here.”
Darla continued her enthusiastic problem solving to an unresponsive Jordon. “Well, they gave me a hat you could borrow, but I seem to have misplaced it somewhere already…who wears hats, am I right?”
Isolda turned to Caleb, choosing to ignore the scene between Jordan and Darla. “Your family thinks you’re a disappointment? How so?”
“Oh, you want the whole list? I’ll give you the abridged version, seeing as we’re short on time.” Caleb began ticking points off on his fingers, “Late walker, bedwetter, poor student, chronically ill from the age of twelve, foulmouthed, agnostic…So really, this is just the icing on the cake.”
Isolda nodded knowingly, “My family found it hard to understand as well, but they came around to my choice. Your family must be very traditional?”
“That would be a gross understatement.” Caleb smiled and shrugged, “It would have been nice to live long enough to do something really well, something that would surprise them into being proud of me. But that’s not the way things worked out.”
Another long silence followed. Janice had a faraway look on her face. Darla kept drinking and hailed a waiter for yet another. Larkspur appeared to have fallen asleep again. Jordan had taken a pencil left on a nearby table by the waitstaff and scratched out the name on his place card and scrawled “Donnie” on it instead.
The waiter had now seated the serious-faced girl with the straw hat at a table across the aisle from them. She sat alone, eating methodically and reading a book. There was something odd about it, Isolda noticed. Something practiced.
“I think I see one,” Isolda whispered.
“One what?” asked Caleb.
“A Caretaker,” Isolda answered. “That woman with the straw hat over there, with the book. And maybe she isn’t one but I don’t know. I saw her outside the bathroom. Watching me. And now she’s here.”
“That’s sinister,” slurred Darla. “Maybe she’s a dodger.”
“That’s an urban myth, there’s no such thing as dodgers. But it does feel like we’re being watched,” said Caleb. “It’s creepy.”
“Jesus H.,” chimed in Dr. Larkspur finally. He gestured across the table wildly. “It’s what you signed up for and we’re not even supposed to be talking about it.”
“Like it matters,” Donnie mumbled.
“You continue to annoy me,” spat Dr. Larkspur.
Donnie grabbed Larkspur’s place card and wrote “Arse” on it.
“They told us the rules so we would be more comfortable,” Janice explained with an air of authority. “But no one’s paying that close attention to what we say.”
She smiled at Isolda.
“How could they be?” she continued.
“Well, one of us could be one of them, that’s how,” brayed Darla loudly.
“In my circles, we’d call that paranoid,” Donnie mumbled.
“What circles are those?” condescended Dr. Larkspur. “Drug dens?”
“We call them nightclubs now, you arse,” Donnie spoke with vitriol dripping from his hoarse voice. “And ‘drug dens’? Seriously? If I didn’t know better I’d think you were one of the original passengers on this deathtrap, you talk like you already died in nineteen-whatever-something.”
“We’re all about to die in nineteen-whatever-something!” Darla chimed in a little too loudly, drawing a sharp glance from the woman in the straw hat.
Donnie continued unabated. “And I don’t owe any of you an explanation of why I’m here, because you’re all here for the same reason. The only difference between me and the rest of you is that I should be in first class right now, but my family didn’t think it was worth the ticket price to be get rid of what’s left of me.”
“I can’t believe I paid money for this,” Larkspur took a drink.
Darla narrowed her eyes playfully at the unresponsive Donnie. “What you need is a drink, mister. I don’t want to see any frowns at my last supper.”
“I’m not supposed to,” Donnie retorted with an expert eye roll. “Seltzer with a wedge of lime gets me high on life.”
Caleb dabbed his napkin at his lips, inclining his head toward the table where the woman in the straw hat had returned to her reading. “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but she hasn’t turned a single page in that book since we’ve been talking. Maybe she is one of them…”
Isolda knew she shouldn’t feel the mounting sense of panic that was rising in her throat. The Caretakers were there to do exactly what their title implied: To take care.
“Okay, I’m going to guess,” announced Darla, sounding for all the world like a hostess whose morose guests were refusing to play a party game. She wagged a finger at Donnie. “I’m guessing drugs or substances of some sort with you but that’s not why you’re here. It’s something else, right?”
Donnie just stared at her. For a moment, it looked as thought he was deciding whether or not to spit at her.
“And you,” Darla pointed at Janice. “Bone thing or neurological?”
“Excuse me,” said Isolda, pushing her chair back. The chaos was reaching a fever pitch. “I need to...”
“The Big C!” Darla cooed at her across the table in a sing-song voice.
“I’ll go with you,” Janice said, struggling up from the table.
Isolda was already walking away.
“Me tooooooo!” Darla was yelling after her.
When Janice knocked softly on the lavatory door, Isolda was already washing her face at the basin. The ladies room may have fit both Janice and Isolda comfortably in modern clothes, but their period dresses filled the space to capacity. With their heads bowed close together in front of the small mirror, Janice spoke in a low, urgent voice.
“I told myself that I wouldn’t do this for anyone, but I took an oath swearing to do no harm and I can’t let you make this decision without knowing the truth.”
It crossed Isolda’s mind for a moment that this might be a trick, that Janice might be a Caretaker planted to test her resolve.
Janice forged ahead, “I’ve been watching you since we boarded this train and what you have? There’s a treatment for it.”
“No, no there isn’t. It’s terminal, that’s why I’m here.” The words were like a cruel joke to Isolda, some twisted wish fulfillment that she’d long since given up on ever hearing.
Janice shook her head resolutely. “I know your symptoms, I’ve seen them before. I was a research scientist and spent my career working on classified projects that have never seen the light of day for a great many reasons. The public knows nothing about these projects, but I do and I’m telling you right now: You don’t have to die of this.”
“But, it’s too late. Even if…” Isolda trailed off, feeling her world spin as the train thundered forward.
“Don’t be an idiot, if it were too late I would have left you to eat your dinner in peace and never said a word about this. But there is a possibility, there is another option…and I’m taking it. There are people on this train who will help us. Colleagues of mine — people like us — who’ve dodged their destination with the hope of finding a world and a time where they can be treated. And I’m telling you, a world where you survive is not as far away as you think.”
“So they’re real, dodgers.” Isolda still wasn’t sure she could trust Janice, but if this were all a ruse, well, Janice was one hell of an actress.
Janice was nodding her head, the feathers on her hat bobbing up and down. “Mostly refugees from the scientific community, people who’ve known how close we were to treating their diseases. People who knew there was hope and hated this tarted up death industry as much as I do. They suppress the research — Peaceful Destinations, the insurance companies, the investors. If our diseases were eliminated, their business would disappear. We’re dying because of them and they’re letting us pay for the privilege.”
It was too much. Isolda wanted to reject this woman’s story as the misguided denial of a crazed conspiracy theorist, but Janice didn’t sound crazed at all. She sounded calm and furious and efficient.
“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in and you don’t have to believe me.” Janice continued, seeing right through Isolda’s doubts, “If you want to go back to that table and sit down quietly and wait to die, I’m not going to stop you. But you have a choice.”
“What happens if I decide to live?”
There was no change of expression on Janice’s face, her eyes were completely without judgment or coercion. “A friend of mine, Dr. Vangeshi, is on the car immediately behind this one. He’s waiting for me, but I’ll vouch for you. If we get separated —”
“Why would that happen?”
“On a death train filled with undercover guards? I can’t imagine.” Janice’s lack of sugarcoating was a cold comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. “When the crash occurs, you’ll have a very short window of time to get to the next car, more than a few seconds but definitely less than a minute. We’re far enough from the engine that the impact won’t strike instantaneously, but it will hit quickly and with great force. When it begins, run for the end of the dining car with me. Vangeshi will take care of it from there. Keep an eye out for Caregivers and Janitors, they’ll be swarming like flies by that time.”
“Why are you torturing me with all this? Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying our last moments? Not dwelling on the fact that we chose to die in a train crash?” Which, Isolda realized, was at this moment a choice completely ludicrous, irresponsible and uncertain when she considered Janice’s description of it. What if she just ended up lying outside injured, waiting for one of the ominous Janitors to finish her off? What had she been thinking? Was this really better than ending her days in a hospital bed with a morphine drip? It had seemed like it, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“Because it’s the closest I can get to healing you.”
A knock on the ladies room door ended their conversation abruptly. Isolda held her breath as she cracked the door open, expecting a Caregiver and imminent arrest. Instead, she found the woman with the straw hat, arms folded across her chest and looking impatient.
“Excuse us.” Isolda made her way back to the table while Janice paused at the observation window at the end of the car, feigning interest in the snowcapped mountains as they sped by. The woman with the straw hat stood a few paces away, watching Janice watch the mountains.
“Helloooooooo,” Darla’s voice heralded their return. “We’re on the home stretch now!”
Isolda’s stomach hurt though she couldn’t tell if it was from her illness or the knot of sheer terror that had taken up residence below her ribcage.
“Anxiety on high, everybody?” Darla was relentless, still refusing to let the table fall into melancholy.
“Please,” said Larkspur, less acerbic than before.
The waiter began to serve the main course while a busboy scurried around the table and cleared their soup bowls. The entire table fell silent. The last course, Isolda thought.
“Waiter!” Darla called out. “Another round for my friends.”
She looked at everyone seriously. “We’re all drinking. Even you, surly.” This directed at Larkspur who was sweating now and visibly shaking.
“You’re family.” Donnie said, out of the blue. His gaze shifted between the cheerful drunk and the curmudgeon, as if trying to figure out exactly what the connection was between Darla and Larkspur.
“You’re a sly fox,” Darla confirmed with a smirk. She winked fondly at Dr. Larkspur across the table.
Darla’s last round of drinks arrived. The waiter moved on to another table, leaving steaming plates of food in front of the them. No one made a move to eat. Their drinks arrived in slow motion. The nearness of the end was palpable.
Isolda felt a hand on her arm.
“I think I’d like you to be my wife, if that’s ok,” Caleb proposed politely, nodding to their name place cards.
Isolda took his hand, not sure what else to do and certainly not sure what to say.
“Good-bye, Mrs. Bartolomey,” Caleb said with a tremor. “It was so nice meeting you and…marrying you and all that.”
Isolda squeezed his hand tightly.
“Good-bye, Mr. Bartolomey.”
Donnie let out an audible sob and took a long drink from his glass, slamming it down.
“Four months sober gone like that,” he choked out, voice cracking.
Darla put her arm around him. “That’s the least of it, honey.”
Dr. Larkspur let out an animalistic moan. He was holding onto both sides of the seat of his chair with his hands.
“Drink up, Doctor,” said Darla. “This is what we paid for, after all.”
The sun was setting now, casting a ruddy light through the dining car’s observation windows as trees whipped by and cast lashing shadows on the dinner companions. The Titan-Metropolis surged ahead, ever faster, toward its destination.
From across the table, Janice stared at Isolde questioningly. It was now or never.
Isolda was reaching for her glass when the first impact struck the front of the train. The glass slid away from her grasp and off the edge of the table, which was tipping very suddenly at a strange new angle.
She never heard it hit the floor, because the screaming had already started.
The firecracker pop of the window shattering was first, Isolda threw her hands up instinctively to shield her face, but not before she saw Donnie open his eyes very wide, his mouth forming a surprised “o” as a shard of the window embedded deeply in his throat and the light went out in his eyes.
There was a rumbling underfoot, the sensation of the entire train car beginning to lift and contract, no longer restrained by the tracks as it shifted off the rails with a shrieking groan of metal and sparks.
Plates and silver were skittering off of tables and, as the horror of the situation dawned, passengers tried to run but lost their balance and rolling bodies became part of the flotsam and jetsam that tumbled inside the dining car.
Janice was right about the timing of tragedy. It seemed fast and slow at the same time. But really, in about three seconds from the first ping, their train car had become a cacophony of noise that propelled Isolda into a sense of lost time. As the sounds of destruction whirled around her, she slipped from her chair.
Wedged under the table, Isolda watched the scene unfold through a curtain of unpinned hair. There were feet and desperate hands scrabbling through the treacherous terrain of shattered glass, porcelain and blood that covered the floor. Amidst the chaos, two pairs of men’s boots stood conspicuously still.
Janitors. They must be here to retrieve the bodies, Isolda realized, aware that by the rules of Peaceful Destinations, she shouldn’t be alive right now.
As Danny, Larkspur, and the Darla’s bodies were lifted and dragged away, the two Janitors chatted in rough voices. Isolda dared not move a muscle or make a sound, even when she recognized the clean-up men as their waiter and busboy from dinner. So Caleb had been right after all.
“This one’s still conscious,” one of them said. “Get Ralph over here.”
“Forget Ralph,” said the other. “We need a Caretaker.”
“Yeah, but Ralph likes to caretake them himself if you get what I mean.” A cruel laugh.
“Gross, man, I’m calling one of the Caretakers. Ralph knows that’s against the rules.”
Isolda was sure they were talking about her and was frozen in place until she realized the men were pulling Caleb out of a pile of rubble. Caleb was mumbling something inaudible as the Janitor’s hauled him out of the dining car. Isolda almost cried out before she felt someone’s hand roughly grab at her bloodstained sleeve.
“Get up!” Hissed Janice in a hoarse whisper. “They’ll be distracted with him and we have to go.”
Janice’s clothing was tattered and torn and she had a nasty gash across one cheek, but her resolve was ironclad. Her grip on Isolda’s arm was reassuring and the younger woman found her footing and stood on legs that only trembled a little. With Isolda’s arm in one hand and her walking stick in the other, Janice lead the way toward the exit on the far end of the car, which seemed impossibly distant.
Smoke was pouring in the shattered windows and the smell of blood and metal swirled thickly in the air. Isolda could see prone bodies and rubble on all sides, spilling beyond the windows and across the gravel that surrounded the tracks they were no longer astride. She could see where the crescent of the train’s tail arced around the mountainside behind them, and she could also see where the cars had detached from one another, some overturned, some aflame. The surreal horror of the landscape was chilling.
Drifting lightly down from the sky were brightly colored wisps of…something. Isolda squinted through the haze. Feathers. In shocking shades of pink, blue and yellow. The circus train. The crash was over. Isolda and Janice were alive. The realization prompted a burst of adrenaline and renewed strength. Alive. And staying that way.
Janice yanked Isolda down behind a pile of splintered wood.
“Play dead.” Janice ordered as she pushed Isolda down. Pebbles of glass bit into Isolda’s cheek as she lay behind the debris, still and silent. There were large gaps in the side of the train here, gnarled splits had opened up in the steel during the crash and offered morbid glimpses of the world outside. There was a lone shoe lying below her in the gravel and Isolda briefly wondered if it was truly a period shoe, or a shoe manufactured in her time to look like a period shoe. What size would Darla have worn?
Beyond the possibly fraudulent shoe, Isolda could see a steamer trunk on its side. Billowing white petticoats had spilled out and caught the wind like a dancer. The smoke parted and her eyes focused on something else, a small animal with a silver chain wrapped around its neck lay next to some kind of mannequin or wax figure, eyes staring at her blankly. Isolda almost gasped as she realized that the figure was not wax at all, but a man. A man in bloodied greasepaint. A clown.
Again, it struck Isolda that she was supposed to be dead by now. She shouldn’t be seeing this.
But she was.
A shrill voice broke Isolda’s trance and she looked up from the lifeless clown to see Janice, breathing heavily, facing off against a figure that had appeared amongst the smoke and dust of the dining car.
“I’m afraid you’ve reached your destination. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t stay in your seat. It’s faster that way and that’s what the Janitors are there for. Quick efficient clean up. It wouldn’t do for them to find you somewhere unexpected.”
Janice dropped her cane, which clattered down noisily, rolling across the tilted floor.
“You’re not going to be very much trouble, are you?” said the Caretaker.
Janice clutched at the destroyed furniture around her for something to support her in lieu of the fallen cane. But her mind was more defiant than her ailing body.
“My fight isn’t with you, little girl. Step aside and your employer will never know I didn’t die here.”
The silver-topped cane was only lying an arm’s length away from Isolda’s hiding place.
The Caretaker, whose straw hat and wire-rimmed glasses were now plainly visible, cocked her head. “Those simply aren’t the rules for Guests, ma’am. I’m afraid this isn’t negotiable. I’ve already summoned the Janitors for you. Please be seated.”
But there were no seats left intact to take. Janice, as if realizing the complete uselessness of the Caretaker’s well-rehearsed but oblivious to the situation training, started to laugh. It was a wonderful, warm laugh that cut through the horrors of the wreck and woke up something in Isolda that had been waiting for just such a signal.
Isolda leapt up, grabbed the cane, hoisted it above her head with a shout and swung. She barely clipped the Caretaker’s jaw but it was enough to send her staggering backward, away from Janice.
The door on the opposite end of the train burst open, exploding clear off its remaining hinges. The Janitors came thundering in, this time with a third man, presumably the dreaded Ralph. Isolda spun around to face them and instead found Janice standing between her and their assailants. Janice looked back quickly, shook her head and pointed toward the exit behind Isolda. Isolda reacted to the wordless look as if it was a shove, sending her careening toward the door no longer blocked by the straw-hatted Caretaker.
The sounds behind Isolda as she fled told her that Janice had sacrificed herself to the Janitors to give Isolda this chance. This wasn’t borrowed time anymore, it was a stolen moment that had been given to her… Isolda the thief ran toward the open door.
As the mix of shocking daylight and acrid burning air hit her face, she peered into the vast dazzling nothing, afraid to move. When Isolda’s eyes adjusted, she realized if she’d stepped once more foot forward, all of Janice’s sacrifice would be for naught. The train was perched precariously on the narrow ledge of the mountainside. Below it was an abyss that had already claimed the adjacent car and the unfortunate souls trapped within. Panicking, she spun around to the look at the other side of the balancing train car. The slightest movement caused a creaking that made her heart drop like a stone. Even if Janice had delayed the janitors, no one on this train would survive. It was going to go down, just as they’d all known it would. Then, through the smoke, she thought she could make out the blurred shadow of a person in the distance. Could it be that someone was standing on a large outcropping of rock, a few feet away from Isolda’s teetering car? The figure, silhouetted against the smoky sky, wore a top hat and a long coat that flapped wildly about in the wind.
Dr. Vangeshi? Isolda allowed herself to hope. She had no other choice. If she moved to jump toward the man who might be Vangeshi, she could jostle the already unruly train car. Though it was going to fall soon, with or without Isolda on it. Janice had given her a few precious seconds, but there were more to be claimed. It was a glimmer of hope. It was enough. Even if she trusted that the man in the top hat was Vangeshi, she’d still have only a slight chance of surviving, escaping the inevitable descent.
But in those few seconds, she would be alive. She wanted that more than she’d ever realized.
There really is no other choice, Isolda thought.
Isolda hiked up her borrowed skirts and gathered her courage. The man on the overturned train car was holding his hand out to her. If she put all her strength into one leap, she would reach him. She could reach him. She might reach him. She braced one foot against the train car to steady herself and felt her fears manifest. The train lurched. The grind of steel against stone was sharp and shrill. She had to jump.
So she did.