Hank in the South Dakota Sun17 min read
Today’s the day that Hank is going to die. I haven’t told him yet, but I have to. Soon.
We’re making good time, eating up miles of track as we speed through the midwestern United States. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa. South Dakota is where we’re headed, and at the rate we’re going, it’s only a matter of hours. When you’re a conductor, everything is only a matter of hours, but when you’re the train itself, it’s a little different.
Everything just … is. Full stop.
Hank’s tried to explain it to me before. The infinite space between two points measured by a finite number of miles. The mechanical and spiritual pull of a destination. What, for me, is a simple trip hauling heavy mineral sand from the coast of North Carolina to a processing facility in South Dakota is actually something of a sacred pilgrimage for Hank. Every job is a journey to Mecca when you’re manufactured for a specific purpose and then given coded awareness of it.
I’ve never been a spiritual person, so I just don’t get it. Hank teases me about it, calls me unenlightened.
The irony of this, today of all days, weighs more heavily on me than the 300,000 pounds of sand Hank is hauling through the rolling fields of America’s heartland.
I’m not ready to say good-bye.
Instead, I turn away from a sea of corn swaying in the August afternoon and focus on the myriad dials and gauges that show me how Hank’s feeling. He’s always been inclined to lie to me when I’m plugged in and I ask, but the dials don’t care about his pride.
Right now, everything looks good. Temperature’s in range, engine isn’t generating too much heat. He has plenty of energy reserves, and his solar receptors are drinking up the daylight like desert sand.
If Hank were sluggish, or in need of a major repair; if we regularly missed deadlines, or broke down while underway, I might understand. There are dozens of things that can put a train out of commission for good, and I’ve been afraid of many of them in the years since I was given the chance to be Hank’s conductor. I just never thought corporate indifference would be one of them.
My own fault, really. I spend too much time with trains and not enough time with the bipeds who make decisions.
They didn’t even bother to tell me in person.
I got a memo delivered via email with the subject Q4 Embracing Change Update: Software Roll-Out to Begin Early September. The high-importance icon glared like a stray ember that burns an entire forest to the ground.
You’ve been identified as being among the conductors of a high-speed freight model that will not be compatible with the September 1 company-wide upgrade …
After I finished reading the email, I printed it just to rip it to shreds, environmental responsibility be damned.
“Can I appeal?” I wrote back to the group mailbox that sent the email, knowing full well that it was absurd to think a national corporation would have an appeals process regarding its business decisions.
That’s how they think of Hank, of the other machines they use. Assets, nothing more. I doubt a single one of them has ever been plugged into one of their assets and felt the wonderful, living mind among the wires and the software.
A glance at Hank’s GPS shows me that it’s only another hour until we reach Sioux Falls. Our drop point isn’t that far from there, and I still haven’t figured out how to break the news.
Part of me wonders if Hank would prefer ignorance. If our positions were reversed, would I want to know?
It’s a stupid question, impossible to answer until you’ve learned the truth, and once you have, it’s too late to change your mind. I’m going to tell him; of course, I am. Hank’s all I’ve got, and more importantly, I’m all he’s got.
I sigh and pull out my cable. It hooks into the port installed on the inside of my forearm. All conductors have one, but I’ve never been able to get used to the feel of cool metal sliding into warm tissue. I wince at the momentary discomfort as it clicks into place, and then plug the other end into the port on Hank’s control panel.
There’s a brief rush as our two energies collide. It’s always reminded me of a surge of adrenaline, that heady, heart-pounding jolt that makes all your cells feel like they’ve stood up to sing an overture.
“The tracks are warm from all the sunshine,” Hank says as soon as we’re plugged in. “It feels good, much better than the rain we had this morning.”
“I’m glad you’re having a good time of it,” I reply, which sounds condescending, even though I really do mean it.
If Hank notices, he doesn’t comment. “Makes me remember Mexico. When’s the last time we crossed the border?”
Time isn’t the same for trains as it is for people and other machines. They don’t have a circadian rhythm or notice night and day in the same way. Although Hank does have some ability to detect light and to see, it’s limited to obstructions, sudden motions, things that might litter the tracks and cause an accident. He doesn’t have a sleep-wake cycle, doesn’t feel the pull of the celestial bodies overhead.
Scientifically, though, he understands the concept.
“Beats me,” I say. “Gotta be close to three, maybe four years. At least since we crossed that particular border. We were up in Canada just last month.”
“The forests are nice. And the lakes. But nothing beats the desert heat, especially in Baja. Can we go back there soon?”
I shrug and almost tell him “Maybe,” but I catch myself in time. There is no maybe here, and I won’t lie to him. This is an opening, probably the best one I’m going to get. I’ve had others, too, and I didn’t take them. This might be my last chance.
“I don’t know, Hank,” I say. “There hasn’t been a lot of trade these days between the U.S. and Mexico. Politics and all that. The suits don’t agree about some such thing or another.”
“Nunca están de acuerdo.”
“And no one ever agrees with them,” I say, nodding. “Least of all me.”
We fall silent, then. Hank, I assume, is thinking about Mexico, probably in Spanish, if I had to guess. He speaks twelve languages. English is his third favorite, just behind Spanish. I can at least understand a bit of that one. His favorite is Chinese and I’m worse than useless at it.
When I’m done silently berating myself for being a coward, I think about my grandpa. Trains were his whole life. Not the sentient kind, though. Old-fashioned, diesel-electric trains, back before the U.S. even had much of a rail network to speak of. He spent most of his younger years welding the cars, fusing steel together in a place so hot the soles of his boots sometimes melted against the metal grate of the floor. Almost thirty years of that before he learned how to drive the machines he’d spent half a lifetime making.
His name was Hank.
He took me for my first ride, back in the early 2010s. I was eight, I think, and he was babysitting me. I don’t remember why, where my parents were, but even though Grandpa Hank had to work, he didn’t mind bringing me along.
It was just a short trip, hauling some load from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. Only a few hundred miles, but I was mesmerized by every inch of track between the two cities. The hills, the bends, switching the rails, all of it. Grandpa Hank talked about slack running in on the downgrade, running out on the upgrade, and how too much or too little of it could cause the cars to derail. He showed me signals we passed, lights stacked on top of lights, some flashing, some steady. He used words like “aspect” and “indication” and I didn’t know what they meant, but I loved them anyway.
To an eight-year-old, there’s nothing better than secret knowledge, disguised in code that only a few can decipher. I was powerless against the pull of it all, and Grandpa Hank made it seem like the coolest job in the world.
Then we reached Cincinnati and met up with a woman that wasn’t my grandmother.
We were at a restaurant, scarfing down chili dogs and vanilla milkshakes, and she came in. I remember she tried to pull out a chair and sit, but Grandpa Hank pulled her into his lap.
“Hank,” she said, slapping him on the chest, but even I could tell she wasn’t serious. “Not in front of the kid.”
“Don’t you worry about the kid,” he said, turning to me with a wink. “You won’t say nothing, will you, Alex?”
I shook my head immediately. Grandpa Hank was trusting me with a secret, and at that point in my life, not a whole lot of grownups had trusted me with anything.
I never said a word.
Not to my parents, my friends. Not even to my grandma. When we returned the next day and they all asked how the trip had been, I told them it was the best vacation I’d ever been on, and I said nothing at all about the woman who spent the night in our hotel room while I lay in the other bed with earbuds in and music I couldn’t seem to turn up loud enough.
Both my grandparents died about ten years after that, and while I’m fully aware that my grandmother wasn’t an idiot, and that in all likelihood, she knew about the infidelity, I still feel a certain tightness in my gut when I think about the secret I was complicit in keeping. There’s a nagging voice in the back of my mind that tells me I should’ve spoken up, and that now I never can.
“Hank,” I say before I’ve even realized that I planned to open my mouth. “What do you think about slowing down a bit, maybe drawing out the last leg of the trip?”
“But it’s such a beautiful day for going fast.”
“I know,” I say, “but believe me when I tell you that if there were ever a good day to miss a deadline, it’s this one.”
Hank is silent a moment, and I know he’s struggling against the coded desire to complete all hauls as quickly as possible. I don’t think they intended machines to be able to do this. Hank wants to follow orders, but he also wants to make me happy.
I smile when I feel the soft resistance of the brakes, the inertia that pulls my body forward as the structure I’m standing on reduces speed. He doesn’t slow much—we’re still racing through what little remains of Iowa—but I’ve gained a few extra minutes to spend with my best friend at the end of his life.
We ride in silence for a few moments, just long enough to cross the state line. I turn and watch the Iowa hills recede into the distance. Not that they look any different than the ones on this side of the invisible boundary, but there’s no denying that we’ve just crossed into a new place, different from anywhere else we’ve ever been.
“The company is performing a massive software upgrade the day after tomorrow,” I say. “It’s a whole new operating system, new security package, everything. All haulers with compatible hardware are required to install the update.”
“How long will it take?” Hank asks. “Will we stay in South Dakota for it, or do we have to go somewhere else?”
I close my eyes, place my hand on the dash. “You’re not compatible,” I whisper.
“Oh,” Hank says, and I squeeze my eyes shut even tighter. “Then that means …”
I nod, but Hank can’t see me. He deserves a reply, but the lump in my throat is too big to speak around. I just keep my hand on the dash. I don’t know if he can feel it or not.
Sunlight streams through the cabin, warm against my skin. The dash where my hand is resting is also warm, but not from my body heat. Hank had said the tracks were warm, that it felt good.
I take in the cabin that I’ve spent the better part of seven years riding in, the console splayed in front of me like a half-moon. It’s dusty in places, which makes me wish I’d done a better job of keeping it clean. I reach out, now, and brush the dust away, using my fingertips to trace the spaces between dials, cleaning it as well as I can. Some of the knobs and buttons are worn down from use. Imprints of me on Hank.
I trace the cable from Hank’s port to mine, and I can’t imagine plugging into another machine. It would feel too indecent.
It would feel like cheating.
“We could take off, you know,” I say. “Leave the country. Take the tracks down to Baja. If they’re going to decommission you anyways, maybe they won’t even care.”
“Decommission,” Hank says, somber. “Is that the word they use? I suppose it makes them feel better. Then again, maybe they just can’t help it. You can’t murder someone if you don’t consider them alive in the first place.”
“Then let’s go. Let’s drop the load here and take the next switch.”
Hank doesn’t reply right away, which I hope means he’s seriously considering it.
“No,” he says finally. “They would care, and so would I. It would be wrong.”
I want to press harder, beg him to listen to me, but I don’t. I think I could talk him into it, but the idea of him going on the run just to comfort me, rather than to save his own life would be too much to live with. It’s not easy for a machine to go against its programming. Possible, yes, but they feel something like guilt, too, and I don’t want Hank to have any regrets because of me.
The rumble of Hank’s engines interrupts my brooding. He’s speeding up. And not just resuming the pace we were keeping earlier, but much, much faster than that. Faster than he’s allowed to go.
“Better buckle up,” he says, and there’s a quality to his voice that almost sounds like mirth. “If this is going to be our last ride, we’re going on a little adventure before we reach the finish line.”
I strap myself into my chair and watch the numbers on the speedometer climb well past the safe limits for Hank’s model, not to mention the track itself. Hank’s an older hauler, one of the first commercially used, high-speed freight trains. He’s not supposed to exceed 90 miles per hour, and that’s on a level track with no curves in it. Before today, the fastest I’ve ever seen him go was around 78, and that was in ideal conditions.
These are not ideal conditions, and right now, we’re pushing 120.
“You sure you know what you’re doing?” I ask as I cling to both armrests so tightly my fingers tingle.
“I told you,” Hank says. “It’s a beautiful day … for … going … fast!” His air horn bellows into the afternoon, and it takes me a moment to realize that he’s laughing. The horn is his laughter calling out to the day, defying any corporate executive to see him as just an asset, something to be turned off and scrapped for parts once its usefulness has worn out.
I’m terrified that we’re about to derail, but I can’t help laughing along with him. I don’t think Hank would go so fast if he thought there was a real chance of killing me. That doesn’t mean he can’t make a mistake, but if this is how he wants to spend his last ride, there’s no way I’ll tell him to stop.
I can think of worse ways to die than by laughing alongside my best friend.
We zoom over hills, past windmills, and through cornfields, both of us roaring our amusement as the sun passes by overhead. Hank keeps switching the tracks in such a way that we’re making a wide loop west of our drop point, then up and around, grazing the North Dakota border before coming back down. It’s only when the sun is low in the western sky that we finally pull into the drop point.
Our humor lingers like echoes of laughter in a room newly emptied, but when a man wearing a white button-down and a pair of rimless glasses approaches the cabin door, Hank and I both grow somber.
The only person who would wear white in a train yard is a software engineer.
The polite thing to do would be to open the door unprompted, but I don’t. I make him stand there, knowing full well that I can see him and that I don’t want him in the cabin.
He knocks, and I wait a moment longer before pushing the button to let him in.
“Hey,” he says, stepping inside and holding up a laptop with a cable attached to it. “Can you unplug? I need to do some work.”
His job is to murder a being who’s every bit as sentient and complicated as he is, and he calls it work.
“Not a chance,” I say. “You can use the auxiliary port in the engine room.”
“But it’s going to be over 100 degrees in there.”
I shrug. “Hope you brought another shirt, then.”
He stands there for a few moments as though he thinks I might be joking, but then he steps back outside in a huff.
The engine room is all the way at the back, and Hank’s current setup is a little over a mile long. I don’t think a tech guy in a white button-down is going to make a run for it, so I’ve probably got about fifteen minutes before I lose Hank forever.
“It’s almost time,” I say, not because Hank doesn’t know—I’m still plugged in, so he could hear my side of the conversation—but because now that we’ve reached the end, I don’t know what to say. What words aren’t trite in this situation?
“You’ll stay with me? At least until …”
I glance at the dials and gauges. The engine’s not running, but several of the dials are fluttering, the needles flickering in their cases. I’ve never seen them do that before, and I think it means Hank’s afraid.
The very sight of it makes me want to find somebody in a suit and knock them out.
“You and me,” I tell him. “It’s been that way for seven years, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
“They’ll give you a new train. Then it’ll be you and them. Maybe you’ll get a new model, so you’ll get to be together for decades.”
I almost laugh at the note of jealousy in his voice. I don’t, though. It would turn to sobbing too quickly.
“There’s not going to be another train,” I say. “Not for me. Not ever.”
“But this is your job. You need to make a living.”
I want to ask Hank how he’d feel if our positions were reversed, if I were the one who died, and the company wanted him to take a new conductor. I don’t, though. I don’t want to spend Hank’s last minutes talking in hypotheticals, don’t want to make him pretend to exist in a future that isn’t there.
“Did I ever tell you about my grandpa?” I ask instead.
“The one you named me after?”
“He drove trains,” I said. “Back before the trains could drive themselves. And he loved them in a way he never really loved anyone or anything else. You could hear it in the way he talked about his job, about the machines, the tracks. He made you consider the beauty of a locomotive in the same way a poet forces you to appreciate a sunset or a single blade of grass. He took me on my very first ride, and when we were coming back, he said something I’ll never forget.”
I pause then, letting the memory fill me. I can still smell the morning air, a mixture of dew and grease. Sometimes, when I walk through a train yard just after the sun comes up, I’ll catch a quick breath of that scent, and when it happens, I’m eight years old again, and Grandpa Hank’s with me in the cabin, day-old, salt-and-pepper stubble on his face.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You’ll do a lot of dumb things in your life, Alex. Some of it will be on accident, some won’t, but the worst are the mistakes you justify to yourself. The ones you think about because somewhere in the back of your mind, you know you’re doing wrong. And even though time and time again, you’ll come up with an excuse that sounds good, that makes it out like you’re not the bad guy, that nagging voice isn’t going to go away.’
“He wasn’t looking at me when he said any of this, just staring straight ahead, watching the tracks, but then he turned and looked me right in the eye. ‘Listen to that voice,’ he said. ‘You’re young enough that you might still be able to teach yourself how. Don’t wait till you’re old to try and do the right thing. It won’t work.’”
When I stop speaking, the cabin seems unusually quiet. I notice that the dials aren’t trembling anymore.
“Is that voice nagging you about something now?” Hank asks.
“No,” I say. “But it would nag me every single day if I let them assign me to another train.”
Hank doesn’t say anything for a long time after that. I know he’s still with me because the cabin light is still on, and I can still feel the steady rush of our connection through the port in my arm.
“Thank you,” he says. “For staying. And for … everything else.”
I smile and place my hand on the dash again. “You and me,” I say. “Always.”
We don’t say anything else after that. We don’t need to. I sit in my chair, hand still resting on the dash, just above the port. It’s the place I’ve always considered to be his heart.
Outside, the South Dakota sun paints the sky with hues of orange and red as it sinks beneath the western hills. It hits Hank’s console at such an angle that glare glimmers on the dials, making them glow and shimmer with golden light.
I’m still sitting like that when the steady hum of energy from the port cuts off.
I stay in the cabin until well past dark, and when I finally come out, my eyes are burning, my throat is raw, and an abyss has settled somewhere in the deep recesses of my heart.
I know where I’m going, and it’s not to the yard office to find out my next assignment. A couple miles down the track is a passenger station. The walk to it might help life feel a little less empty, and even if it doesn’t, I always feel better when I’m in motion.
A ticket to Mexico waits for me there. Not to Baja, not yet. But Sonora is close enough and will have the kind of desert heat Hank missed. It’s a long trip, but when you’re a conductor, everything is only a matter of hours. I’m not anymore, so I hope when I arrive, it’s on the other side of eternity.