Lisa closed the last folder on her desk with that restrained enthusiasm that came at the end of a work day. She neatly tucked it atop a stack of finished reports that sat in her left side draw and reached for her keys. She glanced at the clock as she stood up and grabbed her vest from the back of her chair.
Five o clock. The work day was over. No more did she have to review repetitive reports on various aspects of public transport safety. She loathed them with a passion; she had almost sworn aloud when her boss somehow managed to send a new stack to her that morning. Reports like those often flooded in during "inactivity periods" as her boss called them; they stockpiled when she was doing what she thought was her real job.
As deputy Director of Accident Analysis at the National Transportation Safety Board, her job only ever got interesting when there was a major public transportation accident. Whenever such an incident occurred, it was her job to investigate the causes and faults, and report her findings back to her boss, who would in turn report them to his superiors.
Lately however, the only high profile transportation accident was a month ago when a school bus carrying forty children drove off a bridge in Denver, killing sixteen and injuring twelve—and it never got as far as her desk.
She crossed the room and opened the door. It was good to finally be done with those damn safety reports. She stepped into the hall and faced the elevator a few yards away, but her right hand remained inside and rested on the light switch. She never flicked it off.
Her boss, Carson Reagan came thundering down the hall, toward her. For a brief moment, a wave of panic swept over her as she wondered if she had been late on one of her reports, but then it dawned on her that the round man of fifty-two cared just about as much about those reports as she did. So the panic turned into excitement as Reagan's puffy face and creased eyebrows drew nearer; the Director of Accident Analysis only came down to her office in anxiety on two occasions, and today he had nothing to express dissatisfaction about.
There had been an accident...a big one.
He waved a yellow folder and slapped it into her palms once he close enough to do so.
"Do you recognise this, Miss Vanloo?"
Lisa's heart sunk. It was one of her reports. It read:
REVIEW OF THE MAGLEV TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM AND ITS SUITABILITY TO TRANSPORT UNITED STATES CITIZENS.
"Yes, the maglev report," Lisa replied after a glance. She knew this report well, having been very interested in the Magnetic Levitation train system when it was first proposed. She had worked very closely with the engineers, manufacturers, line workers and safety inspectors, and she had compiled this report herself instead of just reviewing it.
"Did you prepare this yourself, like you asked to?"
"Yes, why?" She didn't have to ask; she knew where this was going. Something was wrong with the report and her boss was looking for the right person to blame.
"You personally prepared this report?"
"Mr. Reagan, is there an error in this report?" she asked. She highly doubted it. She had triple checked that one because of her special interest.
Carson Reagan widened his eyes with fury. "An error? No, Miss Vanloo; this whole goddamn report is flawed!" he said with flared nostrils.
"Sir, with all due respect—"
"Turn to the last page and read the last sentence," Reagan snapped.
She did have to. "The maglev transportation system is fit for the transportation of United States citizens," she recited.
"That's what's wrong with this report!" said Reagan, "the fucking thing derailed just ten minutes ago."
"I..." She was truly lost for words.
The first maglev link had been opened just the day before, running from New York to California. Now she understood why Reagan was furious. When the system had been proposed, she had taken a professional interest since after studying the technology she had been impressed with the safety record. It had been her professional opinion that the maglev be recommended by the NTSB. Those in charge of the NTSB, however, had seen things differently. They seemed to have had something against trains in general. It had taken Reagan's help to convince his superiors to recommend the system, and had ended with the NTSB boasting that the "maglev system will have one of the best safety records in the history of public transportation."
And it was all because of Reagan and her.
"It's the goddamn thing's second day!" yelled Reagan. He ran his fingers across his balding head. "Do you know what this means, Miss Vanloo?"
She did. It meant that the accident fell right on their asses...on her ass.
Reagan continued. "I vouched for you! The only reason the soups ever changed their mind about that goddamn train was because of us!" The soups was what they called those who sat at the very top of the NTSB. "You studied that thing, Elizabeth; you swore it was safe!"
She had truly thought so, and she still did. "Perhaps there was an anomaly..."
Anomaly was the term they gave to faults that weren't caused by the actual vehicle.
"There damn well better have been!" Reagan screamed, his neck flushed red. By then, many of Lisa's co-workers on that floor had opened their doors and were peering out. "I'm charging you with this investigation, Miss Vanloo—right now! It's...five fifteen. I'm calling you in twelve hours and you'd better have some damn answers!"
Reagan snatched the folder from her hands and stormed back to the elevator.
"What happened?" asked the Deputy Engineer General. Michael Walters, a single middle-aged man with short and brown hair, stepped from behind his office door and approached Lisa. They had a history of cheap dinners and one night stands.
"The maglev derailed."
"Jesus Christ." Michael said with widened eyes. "Are you sure? When?"
"Some minutes ago," said Lisa. "I'm going to need to make sure I can reach you over the next few days. Office, home, cell—everything."
"As always," said Michael. His expression of shock turned into a crooked grin. "Guess this means dinner tonight is off, huh?"
That annoyed Lisa. A train had derailed God knows where between Los Angeles and New York on it's second day in operation, and she was going to have to find out what happened to it—soon—or pay the price.
And all he could think about was sex.
He awoke to the sound of chaos, a sound he was used to. He could hear shouts and screams all around, and perhaps even sirens. In a brief moment it came back to him; the explosion; being hurled out of the train's window and through the air. It had really happened.
Kenny opened his eyes. The first thing that he noticed was the intense pain that shot down his spine, and the headache that seemed to match it. How fast was that train going? How did he survive? Did he survive? His mind began racing—fast—as his eyes focused and a scene of catastrophe unfolded before him.
Scores of people clamored on the grassy plain. Some wore uniforms—paramedics, policemen—and others wore suite, but many were just ordinary passengers, some covered in blood. They all seemed to be filing to and from the same place. Kenny couldn't see it, but he knew what was there. He could tell from the pillar of black smoke that rose into the sky above their heads. The train wreck.
He took a breath. He began to wonder if the woman that had been alone with him in the cabin had made it. An image of her formed in his mind. Her silky blonde hair blew in the wind as her body hurled through the air, her beautiful smile flipped upside-down into a look of pure horror. She landed on her neck, with a loud crunch, and blood dripped off her cherry lips onto the grass beneath her. Kenny squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again.
He decided that she had not died. And he was going to have to shut his imagination off for the time being; it was time to start working. He took a quick look around, noticing ambulances scattered chaotically across the plain—he was in one of them, but there was no one there with him. He chuckled. Scarce resources meant that even with an accident like this the paramedics were overworked shuffling through victims, and only had time to make sure that one would be okay for the time being before moving on. At least that meant there would be no one to make him lie down and take pills, and he could do his job. With some struggle, he stood up from the gurney, allowing himself to grunt as the pain intensified, and climbed out from the ambulance. He was bare chested. The paramedics must have removed his shirt to treat his wounds, which he could tell from the stinging pain on his back, were plenty. He couldn't work like that,
He turned back into the ambulance and looked around hoping that maybe there were spares. After only a few moments he got lucky. A few white tee-shirts were folded neatly and stacked to the side; not exactly classy, but it would have to do. He pulled one on and then went on his way. His first task would be to find out what happened, and why.
As he made his way through the crowd, he began to get an odd feel of the situation. There wasn't as much panic as he had thought. Very few people were injured, it seemed, and those that weren't were perfectly calm—as though nothing had happened. Kenny had covered enough accidents to know that almost everyone involved, even though not even injured, would be at their nerves' ends. Only very few people could keep their cool in the most intense of situations. His eyes fell on one of the newlyweds that had been sitting across the aisle from him. Her hair was dampened and red around the roots. She was screaming for her husband, Jeremy.
His eyes moved again, and fell on a tall brunette in a pants suit. He recognized her. Her name was Elizabeth Vanloo, and she was deputy Director of Accident Analysis at the National Transportation Safety Board. He had spoken to her a few times before and gotten a strong sense that she didn't like him. Maybe it had to do with the difficult questions he always seemed to ask her; they always took it personally. Still, he knew she loved her job and took it seriously, and had a tendency to get the bottom of things at the end of the day. If anyone here knew what had happened to that train, it was going to be her. All he had to do was convince her to share.
She frowned when she saw him approaching. The last thing she needed right now was to have to deal with that asshole. He represented everything that she hated about reporters: good looks that often came with shallowness to match, a sense of entitlement, annoying arrogance, and the ability to ruin an entire day without even trying all that hard.
"Miss Vanloo," he said curtly as he reached her. He was such a phony, "bad day, is it?"
What the hell do you think? "Mr. Booth, I think you would understand if I'm too busy doing my job today to talk to reporters."
Booth flinched, but smiled and nodded, "no problem," but he kept standing there. It was that arrogance. Did he expect her to just give in?
"That means I have to speak to people who were actually involved in the accident," she explained, "as a start."
"Good," he said, grinning now. Was he enjoying this? "You can start with me."
Lisa scowled. "Were you on that train, Mr. Booth?"
"I was," he said, "so you can start with me."
Lisa could feel the annoyance bubbling in her chest, and the scorn stinging in her throat. "Fine, tell me what you remember."
Booth's face became serious, as though he was struggling. He'd better not have amnesia. Or maybe he should, then she could just move on...
"There was a tremor," he said, "a small one. About ten seconds later there was an explosion..."
"There couldn't have been an explosion," said Lisa, "There's nothing that could have caused an explosion on a maglev system."
"I'm just telling you what I heard," he said, "Whatever it was it caused the train to jerk really bad; I think I was flung through the window. I got knocked out after that."
Lisa glared at him as she tried to make sense of what he had said. What could have exploded on a maglev train and cause it to derail? Nothing she could think of. "Before the...incident, was the train making any odd sounds, or movements?"
"No," said Booth, "except for that little tremor about ten to fifteen seconds before the explosion. Not even so sure if it was a tremor or just me being clumsy."
Lisa began to wonder if she was supposed to know what that meant but dismissed it altogether. If he felt shaking, there might have been an earthquake that caused the train to derail. It was a highly unlikely scenario, but still possible. That still didn't explain the explosion, and why the wreck was on fire and severed in two locations though.
"So what can you tell me, Miss Vanloo?" he asked.
She sighed. "The train derailed at around five o clock, eastern time. The wreck was found toppled, and severed about a hundred meters from the line. Several passengers have been found injured, some very seriously, but no deaths as yet. As to the cause, well if you'd let me get back to my job, I'll find that out."
"Sure thing," said Booth, but he didn't mean it. "Just one thing, what do you mean 'toppled'?"
"The train was found on its side."
"You mean, as in it rolled?"
"Well I can't say with certainty, but..."
"And derailed trains don't do that, do they?"
"Not under normal circumstances, no."
"Even if there was an explosion?"
"It depends on the type of explosion, but the maglev system has no characteristics that would cause such an explosion."
Booth raised his eyebrow and she saw her mistake. He was fishing for a story, and she had given him a lead. "So you're saying the explosion could have been from something else?"
Lisa scowled. He was putting words into her mouth. "No. There's not enough evidence to suggest that there was even an explosion."
"The wreck is on fire," he said in a smartass tone.
She felt like slapping him with the yellow notepad that she held in her hand. Thankfully, one of the paramedics approached her just in time to save her from doing anything that she might regret.
"All the passengers have been accounted for," said the paramedic.
Lisa's eyes widened in disbelief. The train had rolled.
"Wait," said Booth, more to the paramedic than to her, "are you saying that they all survived?"
The paramedic nodded, and then Lisa turned to him and formed a bashful smile. "Sorry, looks like you have nothing to be sensational about this time. Now, if you'd excuse me."
She turned and headed away, not sure whom to next, but in the opposite direction of Kenny Booth was good. She allowed her smirk to grow into a satisfied grin as she imagined him standing behind her, speechless and puzzled. She'd already gone a meter or two when he called after her. She was nearly tempted to ignore him.
"Wait," he said.
She turned toward his again, her patience thin. He limped up to meet her, looking stupid in that white tee-shirt that squeezed more on his upper body than he should care for.
"Just a few quick questions," he said, "just so I have it cleared up."
This was the part she hated. She knew she should have ignored him, hell, she should just walked away right then, but she stayed.
"The maglev system was recommended by the NTSB, wasn't it?"
"Yes," she replied with deep regret. She could already see where this was going.
"In fact, I recall you predicting that the system would have one of the best safety records in history, is that correct?"
"Does the NTSB stand behind that claim?"
She was in no position to say. "Yes."
Booth raised his eyebrow.
"You heard it yourself; no one died," Lisa said, realizing how foolish the statement was only after she had said it.
"And that was very fortunate," said Booth, "but surely you don't think the safety of American citizens should be left up to chance?"
Still an asshole. The accident hadn't changed him one bit.