Officer Jack Traven locked eyes with his opponent, his arms extending in front of him down the centre aisle of bus 2525, terminating in the muzzle of the gun that he prayed he would not have to fire. This wasn’t a complication he’d anticipated. The frightened young man before him clearly didn’t want to pull his own trigger, aimed directly but uncertainly at Jack. He was panicked, believing himself to be a cornered animal. He had no way of knowing that Jack wasn’t there for him. For beneath their feet, attached to the underside of the bus moving well above 50 MPH over the scorching Los Angeles freeway, a bomb was armed to explode.
He hadn’t even hesitated. The moment Jack received the phone call from the bomber, he did not consider confronting him, rushing to headquarters, or attempting to trace the call. He simply jumped into his car and headed directly for the bus. He had no doubts about putting himself on board, making himself, in essence, just another hostage. Yet he should have realized that pulling his badge on an LA city bus would cause a different kind of explosion.
If he were honest, Jack would say that he couldn’t remember the last time that life didn’t feel like a runaway bus set to explode. Only two short years ago, the streets of LA had erupted into violence after a traffic stop on the highway got out of hand. It was all caught on tape by the news helicopters circling overhead. Those goddamn choppers, those goddamn eyes everywhere, making it difficult to act in the dark, illuminated only by the flashing red and blue lights of a patrol car. Jack was still a rookie, and hadn’t been out on the streets that night, but was only too aware of what had occurred afterward. A population that had enough and finally exploded. But what had they been so angry about?
For that matter, what was the bomber angry about? Jack would later tell the brave passenger who’d take over driving duties that the terrorist had no political agenda, that he was just a guy who wanted money. But that was difficult to believe. How could anyone be so motivated to do something so horrific and still claim to be neutral? Perhaps his only political position was to maintain the status quo.
That morning would be spent in constant motion, keeping the bus from slowing down until the 11 am deadline when the ransom was due, lest it explode from dropping below the minimum speed of 50 MPH. It would have been a simple matter to unload the passengers to safety while in motion, but the bomber would see. The choppers. Those goddamn choppers, broadcasting everything in broad daylight.
Jack wracked his brain. He’d managed to cultivate a balance between taking initiative and not stepping on toes, thinking outside the box while following the rules. He was no loose canon, and understood that as a police officer, he was accountable to his commander. Didn’t every officer feel that way? Wasn’t every cop devastated at every loss of life?
Jack continued to stare down the barrel of his gun at the Hispanic boy before him, who was trying to sound confident and in control despite being clearly terrified. Jack had only ever shot one person before- his own partner, in the leg, strategically and with consent. He’d hoped to go his entire career without ever firing his gun at another living soul.
His partner, Harry, had suggested a hypothetical scenario to Jack to see what his answer would be. They’d been examining another bomb, the first left by the mad bomber who presently held bus 2525 hostage. It was attached to an elevator, a box full of people held aloft above a deadly drop down a tall shaft, a box that Harry and Jack were lucky to be outside of. Jack had suggested that the answer to the quiz was to shoot the hostage, and couldn’t understand why Harry thought he was nuts. But now he understood. When you’re looking into the eyes of a scared young man, surrounded by innocent, terrified people, they’re no longer simple puzzle pieces. Jack was in the box now, and his clever answers wouldn’t save anyone.
Over the course of the day the bomber would take at least three more lives, and Jack felt the loss of each one, each citizen he failed to save. There is no acceptable collateral damage. A high body count doesn’t make a situation exciting, only tragic. Jack would comfort the frightened, saddened, traumatized passengers as best he could, and they, in turn, would be strong for him when he needed them to be. When he found out that Harry was one of the three.
Jack was no superhero. There’s no shame in being human, in being vulnerable, yet he couldn’t help but feel that he’d failed them somehow. He would look at their faces, a diverse array of ages, genders, and ethnicities, and understand that he was as mortal as any of them. He was not superior to them, and their lives mattered.
It would be discovered that the bomber was a mad named Payne, a retired bomb squad officer from Atlanta. Payne himself would explain that he felt that his retirement benefits were a pittance and that he was entitled to the 3.7-million-dollar ransom. He’d earned it, he said. He’d spent his life earning it. He was an old white cop who believed that the city owed him, not the other way around. He had no political agenda, he claimed, he just wanted the money that he believed he deserved, and he was willing to go through the lives of everyday citizens to get it.
Jack looked into the dark brown eyes of the man in front of him, so filled with anger and fear, and he finally understood. For people like him, life is always like a runaway bus, ready to explode at any time. The streets and highways of America are dangerous place, and stopping your car because a cop tells you to could mean the end of your life. It wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve this. Jack wouldn’t shoot the hostage.
Jack put away his gun and dropped his badge. He didn’t raise his voice. He spoke to the gunman with compassion and empathy, telling him that the two of them were equals and needed to work together. Jack promised that he would do whatever it took to save each and every one of them. Because they were all in this ride together, and there was no slowing down.
Rae Matthews is a writer, artist, and performer based in Toronto. Bad at sports, Rae has put their excess energy into watching the same movies over and over and going for very long walks looking for neighbourhood cats to pet. They can usually be found quite drunk.
Follow on Twitter at @Rae_209