Paula Shablo: The Last Train

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The Last Train

Paula Shablo

Within minutes, “The Underground” became the whole world.

Rebecca had screamed and sobbed as Megan and Ruben hit buttons and switches that would bring down iron gates and slam airlock doors shut.

All over the city, people trying to flee into the subway stations were thwarted. Those who were already on the platforms were prevented from going to the lower levels, where shops and food courts could be found.

Ruben cursed under his breath.

“What? Megan demanded.

“No time to get the outsiders up to the platform,” Ruben said. “We’re stuck with them, whoever they are.”

Rebecca stared at her screen, which showed the area around the Broadway entrance, the station her husband and kids exited each morning on their way to work and school. The gate had come down, but it hardly mattered; the street was nothing but rubble and bodies, intermingled and bloody. Particulates — either dust or smoke, probably both — hung in the air.

Rebecca leaned forward, staring. Tears coursed down her cheeks; a single tear hung, trembling, from the tip of her nose. She made no move to wipe her face, just stared at the ruination of Broadway, her breath hitching in that after-sobbing hiccough Megan associated with small children.

Ruben, in the meantime, was monitoring the screens that showed the shops a level above them. Customers were still lined up for coffee or bagels, just beginning to show signs of awareness that all was not right over their heads. There weren’t a great many of those whom he’d just labeled “outsiders,” not in their section of the underground. He was thankful it wasn’t a rush period of the day.

Megan lifted the handset of her phone and called Mark, who was supposed to be sleeping before his shift. He answered before the first ring could be completed. “How’d you know?” she asked.

“I was talking to Larry. He’s — uh, he was — heading for the Stuart Avenue station. There were a lot of big… bangs. I lost him, Meg. I don’t think he made it.” Mark’s voice faded a bit at the end.

Megan bit back a sob and took a deep breath. “We’re going to need the whole team,” she told him.

“How bad is it?”

“It’s…” Megan’s eyes shifted from screen to screen: the entrance on the surface above them; entrances to other stations on the East/West line; the capitol building; City Park. “It’s bad.”

“Shit. I’ll round ’em up. On my way.”

There was a clatter on the metal stairs beyond the security room door. Megan turned to look, and saw the daycare workers leading the little ones down, single file. She could see that they were calm and in control. They worked their way down the hall and knocked on doors, delivering the children to their parents before going to their own little apartments.

Tony, the daycare supervisor, stepped into the doorway. “Hey, Meg. Things turned a bit wild up there all of a sudden. Thought it best to bring the kids down now.”

Megan motioned him over. “Did you lock the stairwell door?” she asked.

“Better believe it,” Tony assured her. “We don’t need outsiders down here.”

Ruben grimaced. “Those outsiders have just become insiders,” he declared. “We can’t open the outer doors.”

Rebecca sniffed loudly and pointed at her screen. “They’re going up to the platform,” she said. “Our east side door didn’t close.”

“What the — ?” Ruben snapped. He pulled up video of the east door, hit a couple of buttons and watched as the metal barrier began to slide down. A couple more people managed to get under before it slammed shut.

“Let ’em go,” Tony said. “Look, the train just arrived.” He pointed at Megan’s screen.

Ruben hit another button and the terminal appeared on the main overhead screen. Sure enough, the train was on the platform. People were lined up to get on when the doors opened, and a few could be seen hurrying toward it from the east side.

“Not all of them went up,” Tony remarked, tossing Ruben an accusing glare.

Ruben glared back. He was more concerned that others might try to come down.

“No matter.” Megan, beginning to shake with delayed shock, stared at the train. The doors were still closed. Passengers on both sides of the doors and windows stared at each other. “We can’t let them…”

After a pause that seemed eternal, Ruben said, “We can’t let them what? Get off? Get on? Leave? Stay?” He slapped a palm on his desktop, making them all jump. “Do what, Megan?”

“Shut up, Ruben.” That was Mark.

Oh, thank God! Megan was never more glad to see anyone. He was followed by seven other members of the security team.

Rebecca had gone an even whiter shade of pale than she’d previously gone, and Megan left her seat to go to her.

When Megan placed her hands on Rebecca’s shoulders, the young woman gave her a grateful look. “Why are the doors still closed?” she whispered. Then her eyelids fluttered, her irises slid up in a slow motion eye roll, and she fainted.

Mark and Tony moved her from her chair to the floor and covered her with their jackets. Ruben shook his head and Megan resumed her seat. “She lasted longer than I thought she would,” he sighed. “Her whole family… damn!”

Damien, head of security patrol in this area, was still standing outside the observation office space, near the door. He was talking quietly into a radio. Megan strained her ears, trying to eavesdrop, but could only make out about one word in ten.

She began scrolling through camera feeds along the subway route. Broadway East/West showed several people on the platform, milling about confusedly. There was no train in that station.

The stairwell gates kept anyone else from going down from the street; people on both sides of those gates were working frantically to pull them open. Megan manipulated that camera enough to look past the people at the foot of the stairs; beyond a couple of layers of living people, she could see the dead lying in unnatural poses on the steps.

She switched to Stuart Avenue Station, a North/South line, and the sights were much the same. Ruben followed her lead, and they checked location after location. Mark watched over their shoulders. “Where are all the trains?” he asked.

Damien came inside. “We have a motorman on the platform,” he said. “He wants to know if he can open the doors.”

“No,” Ruben said.

“Yes,” Mark said.

Damien sighed dramatically. “Riiiiight,” he drawled. “Look, guys. I haven’t been able to raise any of the other motormen on the lines. What’s going on?”

“Trying to find that out,” Megan grumbled. “Cameras are active on all routes, but I can’t find a single train…”

“What are you talking about?” Damien cried. “They have to be somewhere.”

Megan swiveled in her seat and glared at him. “You want to search, Damien?”

He raised his hands, chest high and palms out, and waved them in surrender. “No, no,” he said. “I’m going to have to go to the platform and deal with that situation.” He pulled a keyring out of his pocket and started sorting through them. “I don’t think I’ve ever used the emergency stairwell.”

“What are you going to do?” Megan asked.

“Ask a lot of questions.”

Megan raised her eyebrows enquiringly.

“I need to know, first, how many people are on the train already. If there aren’t many, I suppose we could let them get out and stay here…”

“No!” Ruben interrupted. “We don’t have room —”

“Ruben,” Mark said.

“We don’t have the resources to add more people down here!”

“What about the people waiting to board?” Megan asked.

“We don’t have room for them, either!” Ruben was red-faced.

Rebecca stirred, moaned, and sat up. “Jesus,” she sighed shakily. “To quote someone or other, did you get the licence number of that truck?”

“Stay still, Beck,” Megan ordered.

Rebecca started to cry. “Dear God,” she said. “My babies…”

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Megan said.

Mark and Tony sat at the terminals on each side of Megan and began their own searches. They were bypassing the platforms and looking at en-route tracks throughout the metropolitan area. “I don’t see any signs of cave-ins or track damage…” Mark’s fingers flew across the keyboard. “All the lights are on…”

“Where the hell are the trains?” Tony cried.

Megan was still looking at platforms, counting heads — sort of. There were other security stations throughout the area, folks who looked after their own platforms and apartments and sales kiosk floors. They patrolled and checked camera feeds, just like Megan’s people did. But they didn’t have the authority to do a city-wide lock down. Megan and Ruben had made that decision, and now…

Now it was what it was. At least no one else could get down now.

No one could go up, either.

Damien hadn’t moved. The security team milled restlessly, unwilling to interject any opinions or offer suggestions. All of them were intelligent enough to know that one answer was going to come with a hundred questions or concerns.

Megan pulled up camera feeds along the routes at street level. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” she chanted, barely a whisper, but heard by all. The split screenshots all showed different versions of the same chaos: bodies, fires, rubble, crashed vehicles. There was an occasional glimpse of a live person, staggering or crawling. Megan’s tears, unabated, soaked into the collar of her blouse.

Tony, meanwhile, was doing a camera-by-camera search of the tracks. They were clear — and empty of trains. Platform shots showed waiting patrons milling about in increasing levels of stress. Terminal gate shots showed others trying to get in or out; panic levels were rising.

Mark was on the phone. “Look, Alice,” he said, “we’ve got our own situation right here, including a train on the platform with people inside.” He listened. “Yes, we closed all your gates. We closed everyone’s gates. Did you want even more people down there? Alice… Alice! Stop yelling at me, or I’m just going to hang up. I have other people to call… No, we’re not opening the gates. Look at your monitors, Alice. Is anyone topside alive?”

Mark covered the mouthpiece on the phone and sighed loudly.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Megan chanted. It seemed the only thing she was capable of saying as she monitored the streets above.

“What are we going to do?” Tony asked, speaking to no one in particular.

Ruben swiveled away from the monitors and faced the room. “The tracks are clear,” he said. “Load that train up and send it on its way.”

“On its way to where?” Megan demanded. Ruben’s suggestion had managed to pull her away from her chanting.

“Wherever,” Ruben replied. “They can’t stay here. We don’t have room for more people. We already have outsiders in the shops — we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves for long, let alone extra people! Whoever made it to the platform — they have to go!”

Damien stared at him. “You’ve lost your damn mind,” he declared in a flat, implacable voice.

“Have I?” Ruben snapped. “Are you going to invite them to stay in your apartment? Are you going to feed them?” Ruben pointed at the ceiling with both hands. “Everyone up there is dead!” 

Mark spoke into the phone: “Alice, we’re not letting people down here with us… No. We can’t do it. We don’t have room. We don’t have resources…. Well, you and your people will have to decide that yourselves. We can’t get to you, Alice. You can’t get to us…. I — okay, well, let me know. You can — whatever, Alice, just let me know. Goodbye!” He restrained himself from slamming the receiver down, but it was a close thing. He stared at the others. “She thinks they can walk out,” he told them.

“What — on the tracks?” Megan gasped. “They’re still live!”

“There are walkways,” Tony mused.

“Walk out to where?” Damian demanded. “To the same place he —” he pointed at Ruben “— wants to send that train?”

Mark put his face in his hands and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Train goes west,” he muttered. “Goes to the surface for the last two stops, right?”

“Yes,” Rebecca whispered. “Belview, then Park Place, past the freeway.” She rose to her feet and sat in an empty chair.

“Meg, bring up the end of the line.” Mark sat up straight and swiveled around to look at the big overhead screen.

“I already tried,” Megan told him. “The last few cameras are down.”

“What about end of the line to the east?”

“Same.” Megan’s tears kept flowing. “North and south, too. I can’t get a look at any of the surface platforms.”

“But the eastern end is clear out of the city,” Rebecca said. “It could be fine out there!”

“This one came in from the east. What does the motorman say?” He directed this last to Damien.

Damien shrugged. “Zero perspiration the whole trip, he claims. But he did say he never passed the east-bound train that should have been at Fremont Station.”

Mark spun around in this seat a few times, staring at his feet and pondering. Finally, he said, “We have no way of knowing what that means.”

Megan blurted, “It means there are no other trains!”

“We don’t know that, either.”

“Of course we do.” Tony sighed. “The underground cameras are functioning all along the line. We haven’t located a single train.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Rebecca cried. “That’s just not possible!”

“If we send the train out — ” Mark began.

“We can’t!” Megan cried.

“If. If.” Mark glared at her. “If we send it out, we send it back east, where it came from.”

“Because?” Damian prompted.

“It’s like Beck says. The last stop is way outside the city; it’s all fields and farms out there. It could be totally safe.”

“But we have no way of knowing that!” Megan protested.

“They can’t stay here,” Ruben growled.

Rebecca frowned. “Could people really walk out?” she asked.

Tony shrugged. “Any one of us could use the walkways to go station to station,” he said. “It would be a long trip. And,” he added, “it would be platform to platform. All the gates and doors are locked. No food. A couple of water fountains maybe. Not all platforms have them. Here and there a vending machine.”

Megan sighed. “No one at those stations are any more likely than we are to open up and let anyone in.”

“Not if they’re thinking about the ones who live there,” Ruben said.

“Okay, Ruben,” Mark commented crossly. “We get it.”

“Hey, I got a wife and kids to — ”

“Shut up.”

Ruben snapped his mouth shut and glared at everyone.

Mark stood up. “Okay, people. This sucks. It’s not going to be pretty, I’d say. But…let’s head up there.”

As they filed out, he continued. “No one gets off the train. All those on the platform have to board. We send them back to the east and pray they’ll get off in a safe place. It’s all we can do.”

Rebecca stood up abruptly and ran after them. “I’m getting on the train!” she cried.

“Becky, no!” Megan jumped to her feet.

“I’ve got nothing left here,” Rebecca told her, walking sideways to keep up with Mark and look her last at Megan. “I’ll take my chances.”

“Probably for the best,” Ruben remarked.

Megan whirled to face him. “Will you, for hell’s sake, just shut up?”

Ruben shook his head sadly as the security team, Rebecca included, turned a corner and disappeared on their way to the emergency stairwell. “Megan,” he said. “I’m right about this.”

Megan scrubbed at her face, finally aware of the tears that had soaked through the top of her blouse. “I know,” she said. “Shut up, anyway.”

Ruben shut up.

They stared at the monitors. Megan brought the platform up on the big screen. Security appeared.

Over the next few minutes they watched as security argued with people on the platform. People inside the train were moved away from the doors and into seats. One at a time, loading doors slid open and passengers were ushered inside. When the platform was empty, Mark, Tony and Damien motioned the others to step back.

For several more minutes, Damien could be seen talking into his radio.

Megan sighed and brushed away more tears. She could only imagine what sort of conversation was going on between their head of security and the motorman who was expected to drive the train away into the unknown.

She felt sick with guilt. But she knew she could have done nothing else besides close the doors. Ruben was right, damn him. There was no room. There were no resources; they were going to be in a world of trouble themselves before the next week passed. If they couldn’t return to the surface soon, they were as dead as the people above them.

Briefly, she considered running out of the room, up the emergency stairwell and onto the platform, where she could board the train herself. But even as the thought crossed her mind, she saw Mark turn and face the camera lens. She read the tension in his face; he wasn’t going anywhere.

The train started to move, heading back the way it had come.

Ruben pulled up cameras of the track. Clear.

As the train moved away, the cameras picked it up, on and on down the line, and then… it was gone!

“What the hell?” Ruben and Megan both leapt to their feet.

“Are the cameras out? What happened?”

Ruben bent and flipped switches, pushed buttons. There was the track. Empty. Clear.

They stared at each other, aghast.

They could hear the footfalls of the remaining “Underground” people, and the few outsiders who hadn’t gone to the platform. Soon everyone was standing with them, watching as shot after shot of track showed them… nothing.

The last train was just… gone.

“Jesus Christ, what happened?” Damian cried.

“Rebecca!” Megan screamed. “Rebecca!” Mark threw an arm around her waist to support her, and led her out.

One by one, they left the observation area.

They still had homes. For now.

Please visit Paula on her blog: https://paulashablo.com/

3 thoughts on “Paula Shablo: The Last Train”

  1. Oh wow, Paula. I’ve just been re-reading ‘The Machine stops,’ and this reminded me of that great story. My nose was getting closer and closer to the laptop screen as I followed the train. Great story. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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