Free Fiction! “The Alighieri Incident” by Yours Truly

Look, free story! Here’s one I like, but it’s a little niche–cyberpunk, trains, and ghosts all mash together into one supernatural shit show. Hope you like it!

***

The Alighieri Incident

The electromagnetic field reader in my arm chirped, so I shut my eyes. Not here, not again, I thought, but I’d had the damned thing installed for a reason. Every time my train, The Alighieri, approached the Warren Street crossing, there she’d be. Driving a named train usually held a lot more prestige than one with a couple of random numbers, but not this one. Most considered the route haunted. Others, cursed by the Devil himself.

Either way, I should’ve listened.

Most times, my co-conductor and I could face the presence together, one watching her while the other watched for idiots who might try to drive around the gates and ‘beat the train’ through the intersection, as if the train wouldn’t always win. Today, Riley stepped out to check tickets, so for the first time, I faced the ghost alone.

Jewel called out with a virulent illness, and it wouldn’t be great to have her stumbling up and down the aisle, sneezing all over the passengers. Plus, she’d get us all sick, and I’d never forgive her. Short staffed as we were, Riley couldn’t spare me from having to conduct the train through it myself.

Warren Street was the same as every other railroad crossing, except for the spirit floating there. The same gates, the same impatient cars with their impatient drivers, the same tracks, the same run-down buildings near it because no one wanted to deal with the noise of living next to the tracks. The only change was the translucent girl who shimmered like a heat mirage, standing right there in our way until we passed through her without a sound or smear along the ground.

Others saw her too. Three conductors had asked for reassignments. Two quit when they were told to keep driving the same route. I needed the work to pay off medical debts, so there I sat, stuck on the haunted tracks.

“Alert: High electromagnetic field readings. Be cautious.” The speaker built into my prosthetic arm warned as we grew closer. The EMF reader and warning system were to help find electrical problems during maintenance, or so I told my bosses, which was somewhat true. Really, they served a helpful secondary purpose. That ghost gave off a lot of energy.

I looked everywhere I could, but once she appeared, she drew the gaze in like a maelstrom. Probably fifteen years old. School uniform. Long hair. All gray, except her faintly glowing yellow eyes. The tracks seemed to float beneath her, like I stared at them through water, but tore my eyes from her. I couldn’t keep looking.

“Alert! Dangerous electrical activity! Please exit the area.”

My eyes flicked down from the tracks to my arm. Joint wires and servos gleamed under the setting sun, the usually black ‘skin’ glowering, aflame. The EMF reader clicked against the uppermost limit of its gauge, straining as if to break itself apart, then started jerking back and forth erratically as the cabin lights flickered. Our train systems crackled with electricity, starting to malfunction. I tried accelerating, braking—nothing worked.

Cold enveloped me as two icy hands laid themselves on my shoulders. The chill ran through my body, straight into my heart. My veins froze as I broke out in a nervous sweat. Hands gripped tighter. A young woman’s ragged breathing grew closer until her ethereal mouth pressed right against my ear.

The cabin door opened, and the cold was gone. Lights blared bright overhead and Riley’s sure-footed steps resounded through the cabin as she took her place beside me, plopping down into her seat.

“Huh. Lights off, you’re breathing heavy… Hope I didn’t interrupt something,” she teased.

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t do anything more complex than gripping the dashboard frame tight with my one organic hand. The other didn’t want to cooperate—a consequence of the ghost’s electrical activity. It had temporarily shorted out.

She leaned over, a fiery eyebrow curling up toward her red hair. “What’s going on?” After another beat of silence, she stood up again, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Dude, talk to me. You all right? If you’re having a stroke, let me know. Do you smell toast?”

I shook my head. “The girl. The ghost. She… She was here. In the cabin.”

Riley didn’t so much as flinch. “Here? For real? Tell me what happened. Every detail.”

There didn’t seem to be a good way to tell this story without coming across as a coward or insane, but she’d seen the spirit, and despite her inclination toward teasing people, generally kept a serious head on her shoulders when people brought up real issues.

“We approached the intersection, like always. I watched her for a moment, then looked away. The reader alerted about dangerous activity, then the lights started going out, our controls locked up, and she had her hands on my shoulders. Breathing right in my ear.”

At five-eleven with a toned frame and sharp features, some wondered why Riley chose to be a conductor and not a model or actress, but her father had been one. Add in her brilliance, along with an engineering background, and it was a wonder she hadn’t built our train from scratch. My report troubled her, eyes on our controls. A look on her face combined eagerness with worry: A new puzzle to solve alongside Lives could be at risk.

“You’re absolutely sure about the controls?” Her eyes stared into the distance, her mind running faster than the train.

I nodded. “Tried braking, got no response. No acceleration either.”

Riley looked through the window in our door, observing the next passenger compartment. A sunset ride usually meant lower passenger numbers, but being a Friday in January, we were full of people just getting out of work. Normally, this meant money for the company, but if the controls locked up again, it’d mean casualties.

“I think it’s because we weren’t together,” I ventured. “Normally, one of us watches it, but today, I looked away.”

“What do you think it wanted?”

She didn’t need to ask. My EMF reader spiked again, and my prosthetic arm jerked forward, slamming against the controls. I threw myself back, but not before it could damage both the main panel and my arm, cracking both and sending the train hurtling forward with a sudden jerk. Grabbing my new left wrist with my original right, I held it tight to my chest as it attempted to pull away.

“Hey! The hell do you think you’re doing?” Riley jumped over to see what still worked. The computer system shouldn’t have been heavily damaged by such a brief assault, and trains mostly ran on computers these days, but the lights were flickering again.

“That wasn’t me!” My left arm became increasingly impatient.

She spun around, gaze sharp, darting between myself, the lights, and the door to the main cabin, where people began clamoring about the sudden increase of speed. These people were regulars. They knew the cold, dark ride home from work. We were a bullet at a shooting gallery, flying true, always the same speed and destination. The sudden acceleration wasn’t part of the plan, and they damn well knew it.

The lights went out entirely, leaving only the moonlight and streetlamps to guide us. We both looked up. Big mistake. My arm shot up, curling its fingers around my throat, the cracked casing of its fingers pinching into me as it squeezed. I choked, tried to make a sound, couldn’t, banged on the wall to get her attention. She looked between myself and the computer, swore, a lot, and I would’ve been swearing too if I could speak, or had air in my lungs, but all I could think about was the car accident that took my original arm, how much it had cost to have the doctors carve up the stump and make it presentable, the way I’d fumbled around, a no-left-handed person in a right-handed world, until I met Riley, and she designed me a replacement. I’d been so grateful, and now my vision swam as she ran over, attempting to pull it away.

Master engineer that she was, Riley designed this arm too well. Even with the broken bits from the sudden slam against the controls, it was too strong to simply be pulled away, and it was held to me by a series of straps, wires, and other components that couldn’t be removed that quickly. Even if we removed the straps, it still would’ve been holding onto my throat.

“I’m sorry about this.” Riley spoke through a foot of water, voice distant and echoing, but it didn’t make sense that I’d be underwater when my lungs were on fire, my heart kick-starting like a poorly driven motorcycle, the wheels below us no doubt sparking as our speed began reaching unacceptable levels. Banging came from the door as our other staff members yelled to us, but I couldn’t respond, and don’t know if Riley did.

If I died here, I’d surely go to Hell. It’s a conductor’s cardinal sin to lose control of the train. Sometimes there were legitimate reasons. Faulty wiring. Corrupted computer systems. I never once blamed the engineer behind the CSX-8888 incident, considering all the maintenance issues, the misaligned switch, and the disconnected components. Plus, it got made into a movie with Denzel Washington. That alone might’ve been worth the trouble.

This? There’d be no excuse for this.

God, I swear, the train was haunted!

A REAL conductor would’ve had training from the Vatican to perform an exorcism on his cabin, sparing the lives of his passengers from his gross negligence! Everyone knows you don’t break eye contact with a demon. Once they know you’re afraid, they—

The stupor of my fading consciousness vanished, air surging back into my lungs with a clang. Even as an impact struck my chest, threatening to knock each breath away, I gasped, grateful, trying to swim back to the surface of reality. Riley brought down the fire extinguisher on my arm, repeatedly, smashing it to pieces. I sucked down cold air through a burning trachea, falling to the ground as much from relief as from a lack of the strength to stand.

Satisfied that I’d survive, she turned back to the controls, hands flying over every button, lever, and computer available to us. I couldn’t see the panels, but judging by the passengers’ screams, we were in some serious trouble.

Stumbling to my feet, I took my usual place beside Riley. “What’s going on?”

“Throttle’s maxed out. Dynamic brake’s offline, independent and automatic air brakes are off line, Deadman’s switch is inoperable, radio’s off-line.” Her voice fell to a flat, cold monotone, all her energy directed to thinking.

I checked my phone. “No signal. Guess everything’s offline.”

She checked hers. “Damn it all.” Riley chucked her phone over her shoulder, not appearing to notice the clatter as it hit the ground. “Why does everything have to be run by computers now? What happened to good old fashioned manually controlled speed?”

“Never thought I’d hear a Millennial say we need less computers, but I agree.”

“Screw this. You ready to lose your job?” Her emerald eyes turned on me, glinting like gemstone daggers in the rapidly passing street lights.

“If the other option is everyone on board dying, then sure. Why?”

In our closet, she’d stashed her personal work kit. The railroad didn’t need us to carry our own tools and supplies, but she loved tinkering, always working on some side project or another. She brought it over, plopped it down, and handed me a crowbar, grabbing a second from the tool-laden duffle bag.

“Pry! Pry the damn panel off and we’ll cut the circuits. If the ghost can’t control it, the Deadman’s switch should reactivate, but we gotta work quick.”

“Right, because the heat will melt the brakes.” I rammed my tool under the lip of the control panel as best I could with just one arm.

“I didn’t even think of that! Crap, go faster!”

The PA system crackled to life, clearly operated by the spirit. It didn’t speak, just hummed. Not any kind of recognizable song, not a tune that made sense, just… hummed.

We managed to get the panel off quickly enough. Without real lighting, we had to more or less guess at what we were doing, fumbling around for specific fuses even as we approached what had to be one hundred and twenty miles per hour.

“Hey, just rip them out! Forget doing it right, just destroy it all!” Riley shoved her hand in and started yanking out fistfuls at a time, creating snaps and sparks as the train let out strange retaliatory noises. The girl on the PA shrieked and fell silent, so I joined in, taking that as the first sign of success, yanking as best I could at the components and hurling them to the floor.

The train buckled. The wheels stopped howling their max-speed scream, and a new groan took their place as the brakes kicked in. We were hurled forward by the sudden change of speed, but I kept my footing. Riley didn’t. She fell into the exposed wiring, seizing and jerking as the crackle of electrocution filled the room. Our systems weren’t designed to carry that much voltage. They weren’t designed for ghosts, either.

I screamed for her, but couldn’t pull her out. I’d have been electrocuted too. All I could do was stumble back, helpless, sliding to the floor, surrounded by the shards of the arm she’d built for me. The arm she’d destroyed to save me. Now, saving us all had gotten her killed.

I’m not sure if I cried; the sizzle and pop of her flesh, and the rapping of her flailing limbs against the sides of the compartment, overpowered any sound I could’ve made. The small storm that enveloped her threw lightning flashes along the walls, a thousand bolts striking one young tree.

People outside yelled for us, ramming against the door. They seemed to know what happened already. Couldn’t have been hard to figure out.

By the time the train ground to a stop, the other workers managed to pry the door open. Feet crunched over the broken pieces of my arm as someone hoisted me up. A few others raced to help Riley, now that the surge ended and her smoking body would no longer electrify them, too. I knew it was far too late for her, even as the hands under me carried me outside.

Air hit me harder than anything else. The earth kept spinning, the wind blowing, and feeling the cold gust of approaching night against my face hurt. It hurt down through my skin into my heart, hurt in ways don’t come back from. Life would go on without Riley. It’d go on without me, too. Seven billion people on earth, and maybe a few dozen would feel sad for her loss. Then they wouldn’t feel anything.

Someone escorted me to the back of an ambulance, but the responders were inside, looking at Riley. I looked up at the city around me. A familiar, sleepy, run-down city.

A sign caught my attention: Warren Crossing.

Feet crunched over gravel, and I whipped my head around, not caring who it was. “Hey. Where are we?”

A face I didn’t recognize looked me over. He wore a black coat, long, hanging to his knees, and peered over his glasses at me with a sense of disdain. A detective, maybe, or an official from the train company—too well composed to have been on the train, or near it.

“You are at Warren Crossing, in River’s End. How, exactly, does a conductor lose sight of where he is while driving his locomotive?”

I didn’t want to ever hear his voice again. It sounded… wrong. What he’d said was worse. It wasn’t possible. We were right back where we’d started, like the train hadn’t gone anywhere, or maybe went somewhere it had never been intended to go.

“Been a long night, I guess.” I shook my head, hoping he’d leave.

“I suppose. Fortunately for you, it looks like your friend is waiting to take you home.” He raised an arm, pointing down the tracks without turning his head, keeping his eyes trained on me.

I followed his finger and saw someone standing on the rails. Like always, she appeared somewhat darkened, grayed out, translucent, a sepia-tone see-through phantasma of who she used to be. But this was the wrong woman. Riley stood there, watching me, yellow eyes glowing in the darkness.

Even as the stranger walked off, heavy footfalls resounding over the scene, and even when the paramedics came out with Riley’s body, I kept my eyes on her. This time, I knew better than to look away.

***

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