Tim Sanderson wakes in a panic, his chest constricted, his arms pinned at his sides. His mind gropes for where he could be. Nothing. He can’t see a thing. He gulps for air but his throat is too dry to swallow.
That’s when he remembers: he’s in a sleeping bag, in a tent, in the middle of nowhere with his brother Travis. Tim borrowed the sleeping bag from his girlfriend, and though she assured him they only come in one size, he is certain his sleeping environment is more constraining than the one in which his brother lies, snoring peacefully. And he has to go to the bathroom, which means extricating himself from his polyester-lined cocoon, putting on his boots, and going out into the freezing night to urinate against a tree, during which he will no doubt be eaten by a bear.
Tim hates camping.
Still, he swore he would be a better brother after Travis’s divorce so here he is. What the hell, Tim tells himself, he’d do the same for me, though he’s not sure that’s true. Tim struggles out of the sleeping bag and starts lacing his boots. Unzipping the tent flap, he waves his flashlight around and, not spying any bears, ventures out to find a tree that won’t mind a minor defacing.
It’s actually a nice night, the moon near full and a mass of stars overhead. Tim picks out Orion’s belt but can’t remember the rest of the constellation, whether this is the one with the archer or the man on a horse. Through the trees, he can discern two distinct patches of light, one brighter than the other. The bright one suddenly disappears, then reappears a few seconds later.
That doesn’t make any sense. They’re miles from the nearest road. Tim can’t imagine what those lights could be. He ducks into the tent and shakes Travis awake. “What the hell?” Travis asks.
“Come here.” He beckons Travis out of the tent and points at the light.
Travis sticks his head out and squints. “Congratulations. You found the moon.”
“Nope, that’s the moon over there,” Tim says, pivoting his pointing finger.
Travis looks from one light source to the other. “What is that?” he asks.
Travis studies it for a few seconds. “Probably nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“Come on, let’s check it out.” Travis groans but Tim is already shrugging into his coat so Travis resignedly puts on his boots. Tim grabs the hunting rifle he’d insisted on bringing. “Told you it’d be good to have.”
“And I told you there was zero chance we’d see a bear,” Travis says. “So we were both right.”
They start through the trees toward the lights, Travis adding, “Besides which, you Army guys don’t know nothing about guns. You shoot a bear with this thing, you’re just gonna make him angry.” Tim ignores this, as he did when Travis said the same thing, word for word, the day before. One light disappears, replaced by a sound, the light whine of a power tool, but it’s so faint Tim thinks he may be imagining it. They walk slowly, shining their flashlights on the ground a few feet in front of them to avoid tripping over roots. Suddenly the remaining light in front of them extinguishes. The noise stops. Tim wasn’t imagining it. Travis stops walking, holds up a finger to signal Tim. “What’s happening?” Tim whispers.
Travis shakes his head: No idea. He beckons Tim onward and they continue moving.
The light restarts and with it, the noise, louder now. It reminds Tim of the tile saw he and Travis used to refinish their mother’s kitchen counter. They are much closer now, and the trees only extend a few yards in front of them. They slow as they reach the tree line and turn off their flashlights, a tacit acknowledgement that, whatever they are stumbling into, it might be better to avoid identifying themselves. Beyond the trees is a clearing, grass for maybe fifty yards, then some kind of elevation. The light and the noise seem to be coming from there.
“Construction?” Travis asks.
“At one in the morning?” Tim bends to retie his boot, handing the rifle to Travis. “Hold that a second.” Tim finishes tying and holds out a hand to take the rifle back but Travis hands him the flashlight instead. Typical. Travis mocked him for bringing the gun but isn’t about to relinquish it.
They venture out from the safety of the trees, moving more slowly despite the easier terrain. Travis holds the rifle in front of him as he walks. A shape slowly comes into focus within the sphere of light, the shape of a man.
The light abruptly goes out. Tim quickly shines his flashlight toward the man. He is seated on a pair of railroad tracks, looking straight at them. “What’s going on over there?” Tim yells.
Silence for a moment, then the guy calls, “Who are you?”
“We got the gun, we’ll ask the questions!”
“I’m supposed to be here! I’ve got papers!”
“Papers for what?”
“Right here.” He motions to his left. Tim plays the flashlight in the same direction, revealing a red wagon sitting alongside the railroad tracks.
“Hold on a sec, there,” Tim yells but the man is moving toward the wagon.
“Right here, right over here!”
“I said don’t move.”
“Don’t move!” Tim screams. The man lunges out of the light. Tim jerks the torch to find the guy again but before he can, a gunshot explodes to their left. “Holy shit!” he shouts, dropping to the ground.
Another gunshot. Tim yells, “Shoot him, shoot him!” but Travis is just standing there. “Travis!” Tim shrieks but his brother is frozen. Tim grips his ankle and tries to pull him to the ground. A third gunshot. “Get down!” Tim screams as Travis crashes down, the rifle clattering to the ground next to him. Tim grabs the rifle and puts his eye to the sight just as the man fires his fourth bullet, the flash illuminating him for a split-second. It’s enough. Tim squeezes the trigger. The guy sprawls backward, upending the wagon with a clattering of metal. Tim rises slowly, shining the light on the man and seeing blood blooming across his torso. He’s not moving. Tim glances down at his brother, still on the ground. “What the hell, man? You nearly got us killed!”
Travis lumbers to his feet, his eyes glassy. They both start toward the man, Tim holding the rifle ready to fire at any sign of movement. “You still alive?” he calls.
Tim becomes aware of his heartbeat hammering as if about to break free from his chest. He places a hand over his heart, finds to his surprise it’s beating normally. He can feel it pounding in his ears. “I can’t believe…” he starts to say but stops at a glare from Travis and an inability to finish the sentence because, well, he can’t believe anything. He can’t believe they just shot a man. He can’t believe they’re walking across a field in the middle of Giant City State Park when he could be home in his warm bed. He can’t believe his feet are continuing to take steps toward the person they shot while his brain is screaming at him to run the other way. They walk the rest of the way in silence, slowing as they get closer. The man lies on his back on the other side of the tracks, the wagon partially covering his torso. He is not moving. “Check his pulse,” Tim says.
“I’m holding the gun,” Tim says, meaning he is holding the gun in case their victim is faking it and is about to spring up and shoot them, but he doesn’t mind if his brother hears it as: Check his pulse or I’ll shoot you too.
Travis lifts the wagon slowly, watching the hands for movement. Tim winces at the blood; the guy’s neck and shoulder are soaked. Travis bends to feel for a pulse. Tim can see the chest moving slightly. “He’s alive,” Travis says.
“I can see that.”
Travis bends closer. “Hey, buddy, you’re gonna be O.K.”
“Don’t talk to him!” Tim hisses. “He tried to kill us!” He comes closer. “Let’s lift him.”
The brothers get four hands under the man’s back and raise him so they can see the exit wound. The bullet entered above the left shoulder blade and came out the other side. Travis says, “We can bind that.” They lay him back down and Travis uses a pocketknife to cut a long stretch of fabric from the unbloodied side of the guy’s sweatshirt, revealing a large swastika tattooed on his stomach.
“Let’s don’t worry about that for now,” Tim says as Travis starts tying the cloth from the shirt around the wounded shoulder. There’s no movement; Tim takes in the blood on the tracks and the rocks surrounding it and realizes his brother had lied: this guy is not going to be O.K.
“Keep the light here,” Travis mutters.
Tim, realizing he’d let the flashlight beam wander, turns it back on the patient. “What the hell was he doing out here in the first place?” he wonders aloud. A wallet has fallen out of his pants pocket. Tim opens it, examines the driver’s license. “Benny Wriston,” he says. “Arkansas.”
Travis finishes his first aid. Tim shines the light all around them. Benny Wriston’s gun and flashlight lie on the tracks next to two oddly-shaped chunks of steel. They must have been in the wagon and fallen out when it toppled. Tim picks one up. It is mostly triangular, about a foot long and three inches high, with a rectangular tab extending several inches from the long side. The other one is the identical shape. “The hell is this?” Tim says.
An oxyacetylene torch lies beside the tracks, connected to two gas tanks. Tim realizes this was the second light they saw and the source of the noise. He shuts the valves on the tanks. The light illuminates a crack in the rail. On closer inspection, he sees that Benny Wriston had used the torch to bore a straight line through the track. “What the fuck?” Tim looks to his brother to share his stupefaction but Travis is staring at the chunk of metal.
Directly opposite this break in the rail, the other rail sports a two-inch gap, like a smile with a tooth missing. A rail section of identical length lies on the ground. The brothers stare at each other. “Guy was trying to derail the train,” Tim says, sounding dazed at the prospect. “We better call the police. Got your phone?”
Travis shakes his head. “Me neither,” Tim says. “O.K., I’ll go back to the tent, call the police. You stay here, keep an eye on things.”
“Me? Why don’t you stay, I’ll go back.”
“No phone service at the tent, probably have to get in the truck, drive a ways.”
“So it’s my truck.”
“I can drive it!”
“I can move faster,” Tim says.
“Fine, give me the gun.”
“I’m not giving you the gun!”
“I’m not staying here with this guy without it!”
Tim points his flashlight at the gunshot victim. “You’re worried about him?”
“Guy tried to derail a train, yes I’m worried about him!”
“You see how much blood he lost?”
The brothers are suddenly awash in light even though Tim’s flashlight shines downward at their bleeding friend. He whirls to see the source of the light.
A train is coming.
“Holy shit!” Tim yells. “Clear the tracks!” The brothers scramble to move everything off the tracks: the torch, the chunks of steel, the wagon. They lift Benny Wriston’s unmoving body and move him a few feet further away. Then Tim remembers the gap in the rail. He scrambles forward, picks up the missing steel chunk, and places it in the gap.
It falls through.
With no wooden railroad tie under this section of the track, there is nothing for the metal to rest on.
Tim looks around frantically for something to prop up the loose rail section. Tightly packed rocks lie under the ties. They’ll have to suffice. Tim starts moving the rocks to create a makeshift floor under the gap.
“The hell are you doing?” Travis demands.
“Help me!” Tim says.
“That’s never gonna work,” Travis says but crouches to help. Tim looks up; the train is coming. The brothers shift rocks around like they’re building a sand castle. They assemble a mound at the same height as the railroad ties and slot the missing chunk into the gap.
It tumbles out.
“Make it even!” Travis says.
Travis grabs one of the rocks and throws it to the side. “We need more, not less!” Tim says.
“That was the wrong shape!”
Tim looks up again; the train is getting closer. He starts waving the flashlight beam back and forth in front of the oncoming train’s front windows. “Stop!” he yells. “Stop the train!”
It has no effect. “Forget that!” Travis says. “I think I’ve got it.” He balances the chunk of rail delicately on his rock pile. It fills the gap like a puzzle piece. He backs away slowly. “Be careful,” he says to his brother, who follows his lead, both men walking backward away from the rail, one deliberate step at a time, as the train bears down on them.
The chunk of rail tumbles down the rocks.
Tim leaps forward but Travis clutches him, saving him from certain death as the train screams through, clocking sixty miles an hour, passing over the two-inch gap in the rail as if it weren’t there. Tim and Travis watch in disbelief, their heads swiveling like fans at Wimbledon, as cars glide past. The train finally clears them and recedes into the night.
Unfortunately there are no rifle-wielding brothers camping beside the train tracks near Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, or Hutchinson, Kansas, or Connersville, Indiana, or Fargo, North Dakota, or Holdrege, Nebraska, or Blacksburg, South Carolina, so no one is at those particular spots to interrupt Tariq Mansoor, Javed Izfahani, Saam Alyousfi, Frank Swoboda, Brock Johnston, or Richard Clarkson, the men who have received the same instructions as Benny Wriston who, despite the brothers’ attempted life-saving measures, does not survive to witness Travis’s return in a four-wheel drive ambulance.
Richard Clarkson has been assigned the most photogenic spot, the railroad bridge that crosses the Broad River outside Blacksburg, South Carolina. The bridge is fifty feet above the river; the tracks start to rise from street level nearly two miles back from the river crossing so Richard has a longer walk than the others.
The tracks cut through dense trees, rising slowly to reach the trees’ height at the river’s edge. Though the moon shines brightly over Giant City State Park, the sky above the Broad River is overcast so Richard illumines his path with the flashlight in his left hand, the wagon handle in his right. At his stopping point, a quarter of the way across the river, he shines the flashlight down at the water below, then in a circle all around himself. He is alone out here. He lights the oxyacetylene torch and, while it heats, draws a pair of chalk lines on one rail, two inches apart, between neighboring railroad ties, and then a pair of matching lines on the opposite rail. He patiently cuts a straight line downward from each chalk marking. This is painstaking work, and the instructions were clear: Each cut should take no less than two full minutes. A faster pace would risk damaging the torch.
His cuts complete, he removes a two-inch chunk from each rail and offers it to the river as tribute. Next, he takes one of the steel ramps from his wagon. The ramp is identical to the ones Tim and Travis found, even down to the two-inch tab extending from the bottom. The tab fits perfectly into the gap Richard has cut in each rail. He inserts the ramp into the gap so the triangular part rests on the rail, rising from zero to three inches during its foot-long span. The tab was cut at an angle from the rest of the ramp, so the triangle slants to the right, with its apex not actually over the rail but slightly to the right of it; a marble rolling along the track would ride up the ramp and fall off at the top, dropping not onto the rail with a ping but rather next to it.
Richard slots the other ramp into the other rail and steps back to make sure they’re even. He uses the torch to attach the tab of each ramp to the rail. He does this quickly, knowing the binding will not last long. It won’t need to.
His co-conspirators are all on the road, heading home, when the first train hits, outside Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. It’s the Texas Eagle, with one hundred seventeen overnight passengers, heading south from Chicago before veering west toward Los Angeles, a destination it will not reach. It hits the ramps at just over sixty miles per hour. The first two cars actually jump the rails like a kid on a skateboard, tumbling onto their sides as they pull the rest of the train over. There are no survivors. The Empire Builder is next. Javed Izfahani, recently expelled from Minneapolis’s Masjid An-Nur mosque for distributing jihadist literature, placed the ramps fifty yards in front of a tunnel through Mount Uriah; the front car flips on its side and skids all the way into the side of the mountain while the other cars accordion into each other. There are no survivors. Saam Alyousfi, who studied bomb-making at the Al-Waleed terrorist training camp in Syria but learned to use an oxyacetylene torch watching YouTube videos, inserted the ramps meant to raise the Southwest Chief off its rails backward, offering a three-inch high steel wall to the first set of wheels rather than a gradual upward slope. The train snaps the ramps right out of the rails as if they weren’t there, but one of the chunks of steel wedges itself against one of the wheels, causing an abrupt slowdown in the first car too sudden for the coupling to the second car to sustain. The coupling wrenches apart with a horrible whine, the second car barrels into the first right as the tracks are curving to the west. The train does not make the curve. There are no survivors.
During a reconnaissance mission the prior month, Frank Swoboda, whose home sports a Nazi flag that would have made Benny Wriston jealous, had clocked the California Zephyr at forty-five when it hit the chosen spot west of Holdrege, Nebraska. However, on this particular night, the cargo traffic in Iowa is particularly light and the Zephyr is running ahead of schedule, so it is only moving at thirty when it reaches the ramps. Though barely enough to clear the three-inch height, it is still a sufficient speed to create a horrendous scene. After the first set of wheels reach the summit and come down next to the tracks without creating any visible air, the train lists to its side and each car follows in succession like dominoes. One hundred four passengers plus thirteen crew; thirty-two survivors, several of whom manage to call 9-1-1 from their cell phones.
The call is too late for the Cardinal, heading west from Cincinnati, which reaches its chosen point four minutes after the California Zephyr, but luckily for the Cardinal’s eighty-seven riders, Brock Johnston, in a development that would surprise exactly none of his high school teachers, inserted the ramps into the eastbound tracks. The train zips past, most of its passengers sleeping peacefully, all of them unaware of the idiotic mistake that is the only thing standing between them and a violent death. The eastbound train is not due to reach this point for another four hours, which is not too late for the 9-1-1 call. By that time, all train traffic in the United States will be halted.
The Amtrak Crescent is the last train to derail. Richard Clarkson should be fifty miles away by now, heading back toward his bunk in the Forthright Survivalist Compound in Georgia but, unlike the others, he has finally disregarded his meticulous directions. He needs to witness what he has wrought. He is standing in the woods at the edge of the river, watching as, over his head, the headlights of the train approach from the east at sixty-five miles per hour. The train slows as it climbs to tree height but it’s still going fast enough and he has the perfect angle to see as the first wheels hit the ramps and rise, coming down straddling the rails instead of riding them. The car leans to its side and topples, crashing through the girders of the bridge with the noise of someone taking a chainsaw to a lamppost. Richard watches, awed, as the car pulls the next several cars with it and they plunge, one after the other, into the river fifty feet below.