Hey! It looks like you're new here. You might want to check out the introduction.

Message in a Bottle · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
آل دَرْب آل ظَلام
“First time you ride there, eh?” Amin, the station manager, asked. “You won’t be let down. It’s a beautiful trip! Gorgeous landscapes. And for the engineer’s eyes only!”

“So have I heard,” I answered noncommittally, smiling to him. I knew Amin quite well. He was the sort of guy to fuss over every occasion, provided it was slightly off the beaten track.

“Also, it’s awesome to experience the real trip rather than the simulated one. I’m sure you’ll love every single moment of it! I wish I could go with you!”

“You never took it yourself?” I asked.

Amin’s face crumpled a bit. “Unfortunately no. I mean, I love my job here as a manager, and I love being able to go home every night. You know, wife, kids, family and all that stuff. Counts for me. But I envy you, the engineers. Always on the move, free, no shackles, no moorings. You’re the kings of the tracks! Only masters on board after Allah.”

I smiled again. “That’s what you believe. But who do you think has to mend the engine under forty centigrades when Allah decided it should go on the fritz between two stations? Hmmm?”

“Don’t blaspheme!” Amin replied sternly. Then he broke into a loud laughter. “Bachir!” he said, “what a face you made. Did you think I was going to report you to the religious police?” he asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe you need a boost for a future promotion?”

“Bullshit!” He rummaged through the papers spattered all over his desk, and picked out a green sheet from deep down a slanted heap. He looked at it. “So you drive to Jeser-al-Wad?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “There someone else takes over to Madeena-al-Aksa. I’ll sleep over at Jeser and return tomorrow.”

“Madeena-Al-Aksa…” Amin repeated almost in a whisper, his eyes suddenly unfocused.

“The newly annexed territories,” I added. “Do you know anything about them?”

Amin’a eyes refocussed on me. “Little, if anything,” he said. “Not only are our own engineers forbidden to drive past Jeser, but any contact with the local staff is strictly prohibited too. That makes it pretty hard to know anything beyond wild rumors.”

“How’s that?”

Amin shrugged. “Beats me. I have no idea why the company has set up such a ludicrous rule. Who cares anyway? Not my business, not yours either. Do as they say, don’t ask questions, turn back here the day after, and you’ll be safe and sound.”

“I’ve heard they speak a strange language beyond the river.”

“I’ve heard that too. Maybe that’s it, they just want the engineer to be able to communicate with the local teams if something goes wrong. Seems reasonable, after all.”

“Yeah, fair enough.” I took a glance at my watch. It was four PM sharp. “Well, time to go, otherwise I won’t be able to run all the safety tests before departure.”

Amin rose from his chair, rounded his desk and came to me with a bright smile on his face. “Good luck! Enjoy the ride!” he said again, as we shook hands. “See you tomorrow afternoon?”

“Inch’ Allah!” I answered. I broke the handshake and made for the door.

I stepped out of Amin’s office and paused for a short while at the threshold. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I had always been fond of the smell carried by the air in big stations. Acrid wafts of burned oil and hot metal, released by the brakes, eddied around heady scents of perfume and sweat left behind by travelers. To me, nothing evoked the charm of railways more than this discordant concerto of molecules born out of the mating of man and steel.

But I was in a hurry, so I opened my eyes and strode straight to the platform where the train was parked. Pushing one’s way through Dar-el-Kebir’s station was never easy. From the departure of the first train early in the morning to the arrival of the last one late in the night, the halls seemed be always packed to the rafters with a motley, rumbustious throng.

The rolling stock I had been given was brand new. Jesir’s line had recently been given a makeover: ballast, rails, cross-ties, overhead power line, everything had been upgraded. The first engineers to drive on the new infrastructure had described the ride as “silky smooth”. Far from what I experienced as an ordinary suburban engineer, doomed to operate decrepit stock along bumpy tracks where speed was strictly limited lest one car derailed.

As I loped along the platform to the locomotive, I watched the travelers boarding the cars. A chic lady – noble? – accompanied by a couple of greyhounds, was gracefully climbing into a first-class car amid the fuss of her retinue. In stark contrast, three cars ahead, a group of tourists in T-Shirt and skimpy shorts were haggling with the conductor over the price of their tickets. Usually, I would have swung to greet the guy and exchange a few words with him, but I didn’t feel up to it this time, so I went by, outstripping the passengers who dragged their luggage towards the front cars. When I finally reached the locomotive, I climbed the two-rung ladder leading to the lofted cab’s door, opened it and leaped inside.

The decor was familiar to me. Although I had never taken the trip, I had spent hours in the simulator, which reproduced the cab’s dashboard down to a T. Only the landscape had not been duplicated. Too expensive, probably, and pointless for a training device. It had been modeled as a simple green-below blue-above fixed backdrop on which the image of the track was overlaid.

I put my backpack onto the floor, sat in the comfortable chair, flicked the various switches on and began sifting through the safety check procedure – braking system inspection and various electrical tests. Mostly wasted time on a single-month old piece of stock like this one, but the regulations were very stringent with security. When I got the green light from the test automaton, I fetched a pen and a notebook from my backpack and doodled while waiting for the departure signal the conductor gave from one of the cars’ doors.

Which came at the exact scheduled time: 4:30 PM.

As I pushed the speed handle and the consist stirred out of the station, I realized that driving has always been a weird experience to me. As the engineer, you have the power to move the train onwards, but you cannot steer it. It is bound to follow a path other people have laid out for you. While it doesn’t matter much when you’re dashing along an unbroken straight stretch, when you leave a major station, the train has to weave its way through a series of shunts. It had always been jarring to me to feel the machine being jolted left and right at random without any possibility to intervene.

However, once you have overcome the maze of the first hundred meters, the job settles into a comfortable routine. Your only task consists in paying attention to the lineside signals, the speedometer and, of course, what’s ahead of you. Every so often you must switch the mains off and on to make up for phase breaks in the overhead power line, and regularly you have to act on a horn signal by pushing a button, which insures you’re awake and vigilant. But those unobtrusive actions leave you much time to enjoy the view.

Dar-El-Kebir’s western suburbs are the richest of all its suburbia. At the very beginning, the high-rise grey buildings – which beetle over wide, busy tarmac avenues and stunted green bushes – give you a stifling sensation, but soon the urban sprawl loosens its grip and you trundle through woods and large parklands where luxurious bungalows reign over expanses of perfectly tended flowerbeds and millimeter-mewed lawns. It’s almost as if the railroad had cut a deep gash into an evergreen patch of paradise.

I like speed, and so I like driving expresses. Being abord a nondescript suburb train frustrates me. The stations are so close one to the other that the train doesn’t have time to gather speed before having to brake again — not mentioning the many days in which you crawl along the line because of congestion. Driving an express, however, is like flying over the track. The suburban stations flick past you and the people packed on their chock-full platforms retreat and bow prudently as you hurtle along.

Jesir’s line begins a few kilometers after Fakh. After a last diverging point, you quit a large trench through an elegant, wrought-iron overpass, and enter the new high speed track with its state-of-the-art infrastructure. There you can rev up the engines up to the 350 kmph cruise speed. What’s more, you don’t have to mind the signals anymore, since the speed limit gets displayed directly on the dashboard screen.

As I discovered, the first kilometers of the line lay on a dyke close to a motorway, before diverging as it entered a wide forest of dense undergrowth. A few minutes later and we exited the forest into the boundless flat openfield landscape of the Khayt, that some call the “granary”.

Many engineers complain that the Khayt is boring, and the only spectacle offered to their eyes is the unending sweep of the overhead power wire and the mad race of the lineside poles. But this not true. Each time I have been there, I found out there is always something new to see, provided that you search for it: an unknown group of wind turbines; a new granary; giant hay rolls left behind on the stubble after harvest; a renovated farm… Clouds or planes’ trails in the sky are ever shifting, too. Even if the overall impression remains the same, a slew of small detail change, and that’s enough to keep me interested. As the consist blazed its way in this golden ocean, I remembered the day I stopped by the wayside of a byroad, walked along a grassy path into the middle of a field and lay down there for hours, eyes locked on the heavens and ears lulled by the rustle of the ears. But my daydreaming didn’t last long. At full tilt, twenty minutes are enough to gobble down a hundred kilometer stretch. And the tracks went on.

There was no clear limit to the Khayt. As we continued westward, I watched the flat landscape crimp itself into a more hilly land. At first, the sunny side of the gentle slopes were still covered in wheat, but as we progressed, green freckles appeared, multiplied, until they finally nibbled away all the yellow velvet. Thickets then popped up here and there, and lazy cows endeavored to mar the grass with their calico hide. We had passed into another realm of existence, one where hornbeam hedges hemmed in verdant meadows, gurgling brooks glanced off the crimson rays of the setting sun and cozy whitewashed cottages whispered the melancholic stories told under their thatched roofs.

Half an hour into this landscape, the drowsy villages coalesced into a more modern, loose urban structure that in turn blended into a nondescript downtown architecture: we had reached Ras-el-Beida, the first stop of the trip.

One of the advantages of driving an express train is that you don’t have to supervise the merry-go-round of people getting off and on the train, and the inevitable luggage jam that ensues. That’s up to the conductor and of the local operatives. On the contrary, you can just relax in the cab waiting for the departure gong to ring. And in the most modern stock such like this one, you can even snatch a coffee from the onboard dispenser.

The stop didn’t last long. Fives minutes later we were through. Two more and we were already leaving the bland downtown behind us and entering the countryside again.

Shortly after Ras-el-Beida, the line bent towards the south and extended for miles through the same lush landscape. But forty minutes and a couple of hundreds kilometers onwards, the smooth knolls gradually rose and towered over the track, which soon ran into a deep, gloomy gorge. There, through a series of bridges and tunnels that became longer and loftier, we wove our way through the piedmont of the Djebel-al-Tahir range. And when at last we reached the foot of the highest mountains, we plunged into the long tunnel which pierced it from side to side.

Emerging from the tunnel, I realized the landscape had changed completely. Gone the cows, the meadows and the apple trees. As we descended into the plain ahead along the course of a lively stream, we skirted orchards where gnarly olive and citrus trees clutched desperately to the sharp edges of jagged boulders. And even though the sun was already low on the horizon, and the cab air conditioned, I felt the sudden surge in the outside temperature through the thick glazing of the cab.

I recalled from my former lessons of geography that the plain which surrounds Jeser-al-Wad is rocky and scorched by the sun. Hopefully, water descends from the snowy mountains in numerous torrents that merge into the Wad-el-Kebir, the big river, that flows further south to Jesir, and from there to the sea westwards. Since the first settlers arrived here, all the farmers have harnessed the bonanza offered by the river and dug many canals which bear the water to the fields and the orchards, turning the arid plain into a vast garden where vegetables and trees prosper.

From almost fifty kilometers away I was able to make out the lofty gilded minarets of the Al-Malik mosque. As we approached the city, we progressed at reduced speed through orchards and villages, before reaching the eastern bank of the river. At 7:45 PM we pulled into the main station, two minutes ahead of schedule. I let the loco glide to the far end of the platform, braked a last time, and shut the power down. My journey was done.

The sultry outside air almost overwhelmed me as I opened the door of the cab. I paused a few seconds, then climbed down the ladder to the platform and, disregarding the usual mess made by the crowd getting off the cars, strode to the manager office to report. So hot was the air that even after those few steps I felt almost soaked with sweat.

The local manager, a middle aged guy with gray hair and a dark moustache, was sifting through a heap of papers as I entered his office. He didn’t even look up as I stepped in. I walked to his desk, sat opposite him on the only chair, and introduced myself, giving him my name, my train number, and telling him I was supposed to sleep at the depot. Only when I was finished then did he seem to realize there was someone else in the room. He looked up at me.

“Bachir Abu-Jaude?” he repeated with a strong foreign accent, as if he was surprised. He scratched his head.

“I’ve been driving the express 5434 from Dar-el-Kebir. Someone else should now take over to Madeena-al-Aksa, right?” The feeling that something had gone amiss dawned on me.

He goggled at me as if I had just popped up from hell. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t—” he began, and suddenly hit his forehead with one hand. “Yeah! Of course, the express 5434 from Dar. What a dunce I am. I’m sorry, I was confused. You’ve just joined the squad, right?”

“Yes, that was my maiden voyage!” I replied, relieved.

“Right.” He frowned, opened a drawer and bent as if he was looking for something. “I’m sorry, we have a problem. The engineer who should’ve taken over from you has called in sick just a couple of hours ago. Since no one else is currently available, the company has decided you were to pull to Madeena yourself.”

”What?!” I exclaimed. “I thought it was forbidden for—”

“Necessity trumps regulations,” he cut in. He picked up a green sheet of paper from the drawer and handed it to me. I read it. It was a bulletin from the headquarters ordering me to carry on to Madeena in the absence of the regular engineer.

“But,” I said, “I will never be able to be back in Dar tomorrow at noon! How long is the trip to Madeena?”

“Eh.” He shrugged. “Who knows?”


He looked away, almost apologetically. “There’s no answer to your question, squab.”

“How so?”

“Well, for one, it depends on the speed at which the engineer decides to drive.”

“There’s no timetable?” I asked. I was flabbergasted.

“No. And the line is riddled with whistle stops at which you may, or may not have to halt. And…” he broke off.

“And what?” I insisted.

“Sometimes shepherds decide to let their herd graze in the middle of the track.”

“Wonderful!” I commented. This sounded like a ludicrous experience. Although no one was expecting me back at Dar, I was decided to avoid it at all costs. “Can I phone to the regulator?” I asked.

“What for?”

“I want that order changed,” I said. “I don’t feel like driving a train for an unknown distance at an unknown speed in an unknown territory. Too many unknowns here.”

The manager shrugged and pushed the phone towards me. “Take a crack at it. Regulator’s phone number is on the bulletin,” he said.

I dialed the five-digit number. At first, I thought it would ring forever as no one answered. Eventually, after a minute or so, a male voice yelled an angry “Yes?!” on the other end.

I apologized for calling, introduced myself once more.

“So what?” replied the guy at the other end in the same furious tone.

“Sir, a bulletin sent to Jesir-al-Wad a few hours ago commanded me to drive the express train 5434 from Dar-el-Kebir further to Madeena-al-Aksa in the absence of the regular driver. I would like that order be rescinded and someone else appointed.”

“Look my young friend,” the guy yelled on, so loud I had to move the handset away from my ear. “It’s past 8 PM. You don’t expect the regulator to be working at such an hour, do you? And certainly you don’t expect me to disturb him home for such a measly reason either, I suppose. So I’m afraid nothing can be done about your case tonight. Drive that train, as you were ordered, and call back tomorrow when you arrive at Madeena. Now, if you’d excuse me, I have other fish to fry.” And he hung up.

I sighed as I hung up too. The manager looked at me half-amused. “I had warned you,” he said in a condescending voice. “It’s no use. Even if you had phoned in the middle of the afternoon, you’d have gotten the same answer. The regulator is never available to speak on the phone. There’s a hierarchy, you know. Request must be filed correctly. Express traffic is not operated the same way as the suburban one.”

“When does the train leave?”

He took a glance at his watch. “Fifteen minutes.”

“What? Am I supposed to drive by night? This is totally in violation of the regulations!” I protested.

“Calm down, boy! Unwind! When you feel tired, you simply stop the train, and sleep in the chair. That’s all. You have no schedule to honor, and no other train is going to bump into yours.”

I didn’t find a single word to retort.

“Now, if I were you,” he continued, “I’d run out, snatch a sandwich or something else to eat and swing by the toilets before boarding back the loco. I’m not trying to get rid of you, but since you seem to be such a stickler for timetables… I mean, just saying, that’s all.”

“Alright,” I said, resigned. I sat up, shook his hand, muttered a hasty goodbye, exited his office and rushed to the station’s bar in quest of a snack to carry away with me.

Even now, I wonder why I did accept. I think I was completely stunned, trying to make sense of something which obviously had none.

I climbed the stairs back to the platform five minutes before the departure time, and rushed to the loco. All but one cars had been detached from the trainset and pulled away. The only left one had all its windows blinded and its doors closed. A local operative was waiting for me next to the loco. He informed me I was clear to go, as boarding had ended and the doors had been locked. I thanked him. He wished me good luck and I climbed to the cab. Ensconcing myself in the chair, I switched the power back on and pulled out of the station.

After a few points, we drove over the famous bridge the city is named after. For centuries, the Wad-el-Kebir had staked out the border of the country, until our government had decided to wage a war with our neighbors, fifty years ago. The short conflict had led to a complete victory of our side, and the subsequent annexation of a large stretch of land running from Jesir to Madeena. Paradoxically, as far as I had heard, the populations from both banks of the river had not mixed much during the last fifty years, probably because the new “citizens” spoke a language very different from ours. To be honest, I had never met in my whole life someone who had wandered past Jesir, and all I knew about the “new territories” was what I had been taught in my middle-school geography lessons, where those territories had been described as barren tracts of desert devoid of any interest, hardly inhabited saved by a few nomad shepherds who eked out their living from their herds of scraggy goats.

Why had our country been so interested in that territory it had decided to wage a war of conquest, I had no clue, and the schoolbooks didn’t even mention the question. Wild rumors about weapons testing and precious ore had circulated, but none of them had ever been substantiated. It had remained to everyone, barring perhaps the most powerful politicians, a complete mystery.

When I reached the other bank of the river, I felt the quality of the track was not the same. So far, the journey had really been silky smooth, it was true. But now I was sort of reverting back to my previous life of suburban engineer, trundling over worn-out rails nailed on threadbare cross-ties lying on uneven ballast. Who, I wondered, had laid out this track anyway, and for what purpose? Other questions left unanswered. So,without clear instructions, I set the speed to a conservative fifty, and watched, in the late twilight, the dark shape of the last buildings sweep by, as the track carried me into the desert which began right at the gates of the city.

Until midnight I drove on, with for only companion the sticky darkness that the headlights couldn’t dispel more than a few meters ahead. When I realized I was finally yawning, I did what the manger had told to me to do: I braked, and when the train had come to a still, switched the engine off. Stretching my legs and putting my feet on the dashboard, I awaited sleep, which took me sooner than I expected.

I slept seven solid hours. When I opened my eyes, the sun was still high in the sky. I was feeling sore from the crooked posture in which I had slept, so I stirred, sat up and went out the cab, if only to discreetly relieve myself. When it was done I felt better so I climbed back in, sipped a cup of coffee from the dispenser, nibbled a pastry I had bought the night before at Jesuit’s station, then sat back in the chair and resumed the trip.

I had hoped to come within view of Madeen by noon at the latest, but I was disappointed. All the morning the train progressed steadily in a landscape of sand dunes, high enough to bar any sight of the horizon. Even the track, it seemed, was laid down on sand. How could it stay level and not sink into it was another puzzle. More puzzling still was the obvious absence of the whistle stops the manager had mentioned. Maybe, I told myself, I had been too cautious and set the speed too low, so that I had pointlessly extended the duration of the trip. On the other hand, given the poor state of the track, any speed beyond fifty would’ve presented a fair risk of derailment. Definitely, fifty was a sensible choice. So I simply shrugged my disappointment off, and after a brief pause, carried on.

The sun reached its apex, and began to sink slowly: Hours passed, and nothing came into view. Sand dunes were all I was able to see. And except for the regularly spaced poles the overhead power line was attached to, I had encountered no installation: no signal, no shunt, no siding. The lone track ran on and on undisturbed amid a sea of tall sand waves. I pushed on, hoping for a change, but the sunset came without any. When the night had fallen I stopped the engine, sat up and walked around the cab pondering. I had driven more than fourteen hours today, plus four the night before, which meant I was about nine hundred kilometers away from Jesir, and still I had encountered nothing: no town, no man, not even an animal. Only dunes. How could that be possible?

Maybe, I reflected, passengers knew. Maybe a couple of them had already been there, maybe they where actually living there. But I feared it was already too late to disturb them – Allah knows how they survived inside the car. So I settled back into the chair, nibbled a few biscuits, and tried to sleep.

But I didn’t sleep that well. I kept being awaken by loud bangs in the loco, probably caused by the shrinkage of metallic parts as the temperature dropped. Then too many questions were spinning in my head. At 2 AM, I even went out to take a few steps. The sky was beautiful, studded with stars unnumbered, but there was absolutely no sound except for the light swish of my soles on the sand as I scuffed them. This utter silence was so eerie I felt compelled to go back into the cab after only a few minutes.

The next morning I set out as early as possible. And indeed, only after a couple of minutes I noticed some change in the landscape, as if the summit of the dunes were imperceptibly falling off. After an hour, that trend had become unmistakable: the dunes were actually shrinking as I progressed. Maybe, I thought, I was finally about to arrive to a more civilized area?

Around 10 AM, as the train skirted a last sand hill, I gaped in awe. Before me, a totally different landscape unrolled. A lunar landscape. A flat, barren expanse of grey earth extending in all directions up to the horizon. Nothing around me for kilometers, no fields, no buildings, just the bare earth but for the stubbornly straight double shiny line of the rails and the unending procession of the power poles which faded out in the hazy distance.

This was plainly wrong. I should’ve arrived long ago. Determined to get to the bottom of it, I stopped the train once more and walked to the only car. The blinders were still shut, probably to protect the passengers from the harsh sunlight. I tried to turn the handle of the door, but it was blocked — weird, because I was sure I had cleared the doors for opening before leaving the cab. Maybe the guys inside had locked it to fend off any intrusion during the night? Undeterred, I banged on the door, yelling I was the engineer and begging someone to open. But after five minutes of smashing my fist against the door’s window, no one has shown up and the door remained shut.

That situation had passed beyond anything tolerable. I walked back to the cab and picked up in the tool cabinet two jimmies. Turning back to the car’s door, I pushed them into the small cranny which separated the door from its frame and after a lot of effort, succeeded in prying a wider crack into which I could insert my hand. I groped for the inside latch, found it, spun it free and with a sigh of relief finally opened the door wide. I pounced into the car, but stopped short.

It was empty.

Allah only knows how long I screamed as I stood inside, helpless.

Eventually I quieted down and sat on the step outside the car’s door, head buried in my hands. It was now obvious I was lost in the middle of nowhere driving a ghost train. Who had sent me there and why? Was that some sort of nightmare? A divine punishment? Who had I offended? What sin had I committed? The questions turned round and round in my head. And, most of all, what was I going to do? I had, in the cab, water enough to survive a month long, probably. But no food. Driving back? It was impossible. I couldn’t drive the loco in reverse with the car ahead of me, it was sheer folly, and I was somehow convinced it would amount to nothing. Walking back along the track? I was more than a thousand kilometers away from the nearest town. Even if I had been able to carry with me one hundred liters of water, I would not have been able to make more than a third of that. The conclusion was inescapable: I was trapped. Forced to go ahead, as long as the track existed, hoping against hope it would eventually led me somewhere, into a village, a town, a shore.

Head lowered, I climbed back into the cab. Then it occurred to me I was pulling that empty car for no reason at all. So using the emergency tools, I detached it from loco, and, letting it stand absurdly at the edge of the dune sea, I pushed forward, speed set at fifty like all the days before.

And now, how many days have I been trundling onwards in that forlorn country? Ten days? Twenty? More? How many kilometers have I been through? I cannot keep the tally. The landscape never changes. An infinite tract of cracked clay, everywhere. No streams. No plants. No people. No animals. No birds in the sky. Only the track, the sun, the moon and the stars at night. And the humming of the engines as the loco moves on and on, en route to some unknown destination.

No, I’m wrong. Something had changed. The sun had sunken, day after day. When it rises, it hugs to the horizon and its light is wan and weak. The night is winning the war. I can see the stars, even in full daylight.

I feel numbed. Fatigued. When that veil over my mind lifts for an instant, I reckon something is clearly wrong with me. I do not recall sleeping last night. Did I? I’m not hungry anymore. Nor am I thirsty. How long since I drank my last glass? Since I ate something? And what was it? I cannot tell. But it doesn’t matter. I know I must simply go ahead, obediently, because there is no turning back.

Yet there is something in the offing, far away, something large that bars the horizon. It seems to be a range of high mountains. Yes it is. I can see the high tops rising as I inch towards them. They’re crowned with snow and stars, and their base is lost in darkness as they blot out the feeble sun. The track goes straight ahead towards them and, wait, now I can see the ground is not flat anymore. It should rise as I approach the mountains but… but no. Wait… It falls away. I enter into the darkness cast by the towering picks, fascinated by the sight.

The loco picks up speed as the slope increases. I shake off my numbness. What was I thinking of? It’s going to derail! Quick, emergency brakes. I smash the big red button on the dashboard and hear the clang as the clamps tighten on the axles. A loud screech erupts and fills the cab, but the loco hardly slows down, carried away by its momentum, the slope and its weight. It slips helplessly along on the track. The tinny din is unbearable, I cover my ears with my hands, but it’s still piercing my head.

A yellow light suddenly flashes on the dashboard as the cab light turns to red. Power failure. What? I look ahead, squinting my eyes. In the surrounding gloom, I can make out that the overhead wire has disappeared. There are no poles anymore.

Sixty… Seventy… I would break my neck jumping out of the cab at this pace. The loco barrels ahead as the track falls more and more rapidly to… To where? A sheer crag suddenly rises ahead. The track plunges towards it. The loco is doomed to crash into it, it’s… inevitable. Eighty… It’s anytime now. I close my eyes and curl up on the chair in preparation for the final crash.

Wait! Why this sudden silence? Did I see a tunnel? I —
« Prev   2   Next »
#1 · 1
· · >>horizon >>Monokeras
The setting is something different from the usual, so this had my interest.

After the initial scene, there's about three sections of exposition which nearly killed my interest. how to operate a train, worldbuilding, how to operate a train pt 2. Even though something's happening and the character is physically traveling, it felt to me like the story was being put on hold just to show off little details. To be fair, there's an interesting contrast set up here in the confrontation for the next scene - the manager and his harsh sudden demands - but that just made the tone of the previous train-driving narration feel even more weird. Instead of a tranquil slice of life, it was more like a dull lecture. There's potential here, though!

Then I got to the 2nd half of the story, and... what?


So all along it was a ghost story? I had no idea. The ending just fizzles out, and I'm not sure what this fic is trying to communicate. I'm more bewildered than spooked.
#2 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny >>Monokeras
Hi, author. I'm posting this back-to-back with >>horizon because I'd like to offer the same large-scale diagnosis (and the same reminders/caveats at the beginning of it), to a greater or lesser degree.

I was more engaged than >>Haze by all the train stuff; it seemed like an entirely reasonable hook to hang the story around (although I'll note that I was confused by it at the beginning: my first association with "engineer" was not with railroads, because I've been reading a number of other science fiction stories this round where the engineer is just a person who works on engines, and there was nothing specifying the vehicle was a train until several hundred words in). However, this feels like it derails — apologies for the pun — near the end, and I think answering the "What is this story about?" question would go a long way toward fixing that. The thing the story is about in that last scene is not the same thing it's about for most of its length. It was a big enough shift that I was just left confused.

Actually … I think this story jumped tracks more than it derailed. After crossing the river it's like nothing from before the river matters, and vice versa. (We were told there were shepherds that let their herds graze in the middle of the track; then the narrator leaves Dar-el-Kebir and suddenly it's endless sand dunes…?) So I can't really comment on the worldbuilding without knowing which half of the story is the one you want to focus on. Either the first half needs a lot more foreshadowing of weird supernatural happenings, or the second half needs to be largely discarded and brought back into the realistic Middle Eastern war-torn landscape of the first half.

Unrelated: I'm also curious if anyone knows what the title means. Google Translate just gives me "al darb al zalam", which is something like "the ???? the dark".

Thank you for writing!

Tier: Keep Developing
#3 · 1
· · >>Monokeras
horizon hits the nail on the head that more thought needs to be put into what this story is actually about. I would assume that the point is the ending, whatever it was that happened, but then everything that happens in the first half of the story doesn't set up or explain the second half. The train's operation, although a nice little bit of world-building, doesn't matter—the train simply goes fast, and the brakes don't work. The simulation note doesn't have any bearing. The people boarding the train don't matter. His being forced to take this journey might have something to do with what's happening, but no connection is ever made, and it's given a rather reasonable explanation instead—there's a hierarchy and the people in charge are asleep. Okay? But why is any of this happening?

The setting, which you dedicated a massive amount of words to, didn't end up mattering in the second half either. And I'm afraid it got rather purple to, which made it a task to read and recall exactly the environments he travelled through (a task I didn't complete, as I had to start skimming).

In the end, this story raises questions for its entire length and answers none of them. It could use an editing pass, which may reveal to you what you want the story to be, as well as catch a few of the typos.

Now, before, I go, I'm curious why you've chosen this culture to tell the story, unless you're from the middle east yourself, or there is some legend from there that I don't know about. And you've even gone into overdrive with your title, despite the script not appearing anywhere else in the story. At the end of the day, the culture doesn't seem to have any bearing on the story. This feels like a missed opportunity, because writing about other cultures gives you already built worlds that you can learn about and apply to instill your story with life, further than just the names of people and places and gods. But you gotta pick the culture because it matters to the story. At best, you might be told that you're only using it "because you think it's cool". At worst, someone might throw words like "cultural" and "appropriation" at you, which is never any fun. I wouldn't! But someone else might. Just something to keep in mind.

Thanks for writing!
#4 · 2
· · >>Monokeras


Which would be "darb" or "darab," means "road" or "path" in Arabic, so the title here would maybe be something like "The Road, the Darkness," but don't quote me on that...

Still, author, most of this story gives me a real nice Franz Kafka buzz--he set some of his bureaucratic nightmare parables in China though he certainly never visited there. But my favorite Kafka stories are the ones that end with little "kickers"--the Hunger Artist gasping with his final breath that he just never found any food that he liked, or Gregor's insectoid body getting thrown out by the giggling charwoman, or even the Bucket Rider getting swept off into the ice mountains. I don't know what you could do here, but right now, it just sort of runs out of steam, as it were. As much as I enjoy Kafka, I've never tried to understand his stuff...