Downtown Train
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

 

          He’d ridden this train, he’d estimated, maybe a thousand times. Twice a day every day for the past five years, Derek Alston, took the tube train from Carter City to Tharsis. And in those thousand rides, cursed with the mind he’d been born with, he’d memorized every detail.

            Not of the scenery, of course, because there was none. Being an older colony, Mars’ transport facilities were entirely self-contained—heavily reinforced steel and concrete structures that kept the hard vacuum out and the people inside.

            But it didn’t give them much to look at. Being that the Carter City run was entirely commuters, the same people rode the same train to and from Tharsis, where they worked or did whatever the hell they did.

            Derek had never seen any of the commuters actually talk to one another. Despite being on this train at least five years (that Derek had been present for) he’d never seen one conversation break out. Instead, it seemed their eyes told the story: wide-eyed dread of what the day in the big would bring in the morning, hollow-eyed relief and exhaustion on the trip back.

            They stared straight ahead into nothingness, and no one ever looked anyone in the eye. Like ghosts whose distant eyes stared through the living in silent warning, they were strangers to each other.

            And they always would be.

            Despite the fact that this entire car full of people remained such an opaque enigma, he felt he knew them closer than members of his family. He knew what they’d do, and timed it down to the second.

            The old lady two seats in front of me flinches every time we pass through the lights at the signal junctions, he thought, eyeing the advancing rows of lights further up the tunnel.

 In ten seconds, she’ll start flinching, three times.

            He actually counted it down, just to make sure that he was right. Sure enough, she twitched three times as they crossed over the signal junction. One, two, three.

            With the lights strobing like that, she almost looks possessed, he thought, sighing. He stared down at the battered black leather satchel on his lap, gripping it tightly just to remember that it was still there and this wasn’t a dream.

            After noting with reassurance at 16:23 that the young girl in the seat closest to the forward exit was sound asleep, Derek closed his eyes. It was too easy to get lulled into a false sense of security, here in this limbo. Too easy to think that everything was the same and this was just another train ride home.

            Because it wasn’t.

            Derek couldn’t remember when it had happened, when he’d decided, but he had decided. He couldn’t ride this train, he couldn’t—he wouldn’t—live like this anymore.

 He wouldn’t let this train and his job suck the life out of him until he was one of the ghosts in this car.

            Derek Alston was getting out.

            He squeezed the satchel again, reminding himself that yes, it had actually happened, and yes, he had actually done it.

            For the past five years, Derek had gone to a certain building in a less fashionable part of Tharsis and dwelt in a world of numbers. Minutes turned into hours as he moved numbers—money—from one account to another, collating receipts, verifying counts. Every two weeks, the fat man who owned the building came by and left an envelope of cash on his desk.

            I was always good with numbers, he thought. Everyone always said so.

 I crunched the numbers one day, when I was looking at my paycheck, I calculated the exact amount of money versus what was being taken in:

One twentieth of one percent.

Being good with numbers, honest, reliable, never taking a sick day, never taking time off, eating lunch at my desk, for five years . . .

I was a decimal point inside a decimal point.

He blinked and stared down at his lap. He tried to remember what had happened then, but it was a little difficult, because his mind, usually a crystalline, efficient piece of mental machinery had . . . glitched a little. He didn’t snap, or burn out; he just . . . greyed out for a bit. In that limbo, he thought about how he was stuck in decimal points, in a job he hated but did because it was easy, in a train that seemed to bleed its passengers white.

And when I came back, I had to get out.

It was all I could think about. I thought about it on the train, I laid in bed thinking about it, I ate my lunch that day with it in my mind.

I thought about being trapped in Carter City, with a wife, and a kid, and a job and this train, and being like, you, old lady. Flinching every time the lights flickered, because that meant that the awful world I settled for and hung on to because it was all I had to believe in, and every time the lights flickered, I might actually see, in the dark, what a nightmare I was living.

And then I decided.

It was all so logical and rational, because Derek was a rational man. He always had been.

He’d needed a gun, he told the fat man who handed him his pay, because it was a rough neighborhood, and given the nature of the business and their clients, he needed some protection.

He remembered the fat man pressing the pistol in his hand, remembered the man’s gap-toothed smile as he told him, in broken English that Derek was very practical, and of course he should have one.

“Just don’t tell anyone where you got it,” he told me.

No worries. I don’t tell anyone anything.

Just like I didn’t tell you I downloaded five hundred thousand of your credits onto a stack of blank cash cards.

Derek squeezed the satchel again and smiled, the way a father would look down with approval on a newborn baby. It was an apt metaphor, as the satchel was the birth of a new future. A new Derek.

He glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes until the train pulled into Carter City for the last time.

Twenty minutes until he saw Cerise.

*          *          *

“Here, let me help,” the grey-skinned woman said, taking the woman’s arm and steadying her as she maneuvered herself down onto the bench, bracing against the wall with her free hand.

“Th-thanks,” she said, easing down on to the bench. She exhaled a long breath as she stared up at the sky, her hands going without conscious thought to her very pregnant belly, fingers curling around the perfect sphere of  life within her.

“Are you okay?” the grey-skinned woman asked her, her deep green cat-like eyes examining the pregnant woman.

“Yeah,” she wheezed. Strands of her blonde hair were stuck to her very sweaty forehead. “I just . . . I can’t do those stairs so good anymore. Not until he gets here.”

“Is he? I mean, is he almost--?”

“Couple . . . more weeks,” the woman replied, still trying to get her breath back.  “But with my luck . . . he’ll probably decide to stick around, drag it out a little longer.

“Kinda like his dad that way. Never does anything the way he should.”

“Oh,” the grey-skinned woman said. She maneuvered to the other end of the bench. “Is it OK if I sit?”

“Sure.”

She set down on her end of the bench with a good deal more poise than the other woman had managed, but it was to be expected. The two women were almost a study in opposites—one blonde, short, human, and pregnant, the other toned, tall, and anything but human.

“Glad to have someone to wait with,” the blonde woman said, looking over and smiling at her companion. The yellow vox collar she wore around her neck marked her as an alien, but she didn’t look like any that she had ever seen.

 “My name’s Cerise.” She tried to offer her hand, but it involved more movement than inertia would allow her to do easily so she gave it up.

“Jayla,” the grey woman responded with a smile, omitting the usual “2” on her name. No reason to complicate a casual conversation with numbers.

“Quite a name.”

“I was going to say the same thing about yours,” Jayla-2 said.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” Cerise said. “Are you waiting for someone?”

Jayla-2 nodded. “I’m just visiting,” she said. “It’s my first time on Mars.”

“Oh OK,” Cerise replied. “I’ve never seen an alien like you before—where are you from? The Frontier?”

Jayla-2 nodded.

“What planet?”

“Colony,” Jayla-2 responded. “Out on the fringe.”

“I gotcha,” Cerise nodded. “My father went out to the Frontier, years ago, now. He went to find his fortune, left Mom and I on our own and told us he’d send for us when the time came.”

“Did he ever?”

“Nahh. Got killed by the Syndicates or something. I think he was trying to hustle them. Mom always said he wasn’t anywhere near as smart as he thought he was. Told me whatever I did, make sure I find someone who’s exactly what he looks like.”

Jayla-2 nodded, half-listening to the story. She glanced out at the rail lines past the loading dock, picturing the train already pulling in.

“’The trouble with bad boys is—they stay the same age and you get older’ she said,” Cerise said, her eyes far away with her memories. “Told me if I ever brought anyone like that home, she’d disown me.”

“And is his father--?” Jayla-2 said, gesturing to her stomach. “Is he like that?”

Cerise smiled and looked down at her stomach.

“No, “she said, smiling and resting a hand on her stomach. “Derek’s a sweetheart.”

*          *          *

It was all a trap, Derek thought. The whole thing was a rigged game, and he’d fallen for it every step of the way in his life. From being good in school and being good with his numbers, to moving out and starting a life of your own, to starting a family, it was just one more set of chains that was supposed to hold you down.

First in my class. First in my god damned class in maths, and the only thing I’ve done with it since I got out of Rhea is this shitty job, that sweatbox in Carter City, and . . . Cerise.

I did everything I was supposed to, and I did it the way I was supposed to. I did well, got into the right school, I joined all the right clubs, all the right extracurricular activities—I should have been able to write my own ticket when I got out of school.

And if this is all I got out of it, I wasted so much time.

His mind drifted back to his childhood—nights spent with his nose in books, taking stupid practice tests when other kids his age were discovering girls or just given time to daydream and weren’t being drilled for a lead role in some big destiny.

Instead, he felt like the punchline to a not very funny joke. Derek was the great hope of his family. They’d poured everything into making sure he would go on and do well, and until very recently, as well as he’d done was to sit at a battered desk in a windowless room and count someone else’s money for ten hours a day, ride a train full of souls that were as doomed as him and go home to Cerise and be a different kind of miserable, but the same kind of trapped.

He stared out the window. His mind was dancing around Cerise, as though he wanted to give voice to something, but it was something so heinous, so contrary, that he was afraid to give voice to it.

He’d met Cerise two years ago. She worked at a small café in Carter City, overlooking the one garden that they’d terraformed and turned into a park. Every weekend he went to that café and she brought him carrot cake and tea and he’d watch the kids playing in the park from those black wrought-iron bistro tables the places had—uncomfortable as hell, but somehow, he didn’t seem to mind.

He was different then.

It took months and so much carrot cake that Derek would never eat another slice again, but he eventually worked up the courage to ask her out.

God, she was so beautiful, he thought, remembering the way she looked their first night out—all platinum blonde hair and flowered dresses and just so full of life in a way that nothing else had been since he’d come to Mars. She was everything he was looking for, and those first few nights, it really felt like she was a balm that could soothe the disappointment that was already causing him aches and pains and to dread waking up in the morning.

They became fast friends and faster lovers—and it was so perfect, for what felt like forever at the time, but in retrospect, was all too short a time.

Was it the baby? Derek wondered. No, the cracks had already become fissures by then. He wondered if getting her pregnant was something he or she had done accidentally on purpose—as a way of keeping her there, or vice versa--of enforcing a common bond.

Perhaps it was just the fear that intimacy bred contempt. They argued all the time now. They were two people, trapped in an apartment too small for them, and they were soon to be three, and Derek suspected they hated each other and had for some time.

Because they argued all the time now and argued about things Derek thought were illogical and insane. Saturday night had been devoted to a protracted three-hour argument about how he’d brought home the wrong kind of milk.

“It’s milk,” Derek had said, his voice wavering between calm and declaring and shouting. “It’s all the same, more or less! They put stuff in; they take it out, but it’s Milk! MILK!  IT’S GOD DAMNED MIIIIILLLLLLK!”

There’d been more shouting, and soon they were both shouting and not listening and nothing was making sense, and all of a sudden he’d thrown the milk against the wall, just inches from her face. The moment seemed to exist in some slow time in his mind, and he watched it burst against the wall and splash on her face.

Why did I do that? Why is this happening all the time?

He’d spent so many nights since she’d started to show, watching her sleep, sweating in the hot dark silence of the room on the far side of the bed, watching her belly rise and the feeling the walls close in.

And the thing that made him shiver down to the very core was that he didn’t feel there was anything he could do about it.

Until today.

He looked down at the satchel, touching it to reassure himself it was still there. He smiled and looked a little sad, as he realized he was touching the satchel in the same way as he’d Cerise touch her stomach, how she looked down and smiled, as though she were so proud of herself for what she’d done.

What she’d done, Derek blinked, frowning. I had something to do with it . . .

He looked down at the satchel again. A half-million dollars in credits, he thought. I can go anywhere, do anything, and when I see her, I’m going to show her this, and . . .

. . .and we’ll probably argue again, he caught himself.

But this will be this last argument.

Things are going to change.

Things . . .

Derek was acutely aware of the still air and tableau of his ghost train disturbed, like someone had thrown a stone in a pond that had been still for years. A man walked into the train car, brushing past Derek as he looked for an empty seat.

Whoever he was, he was dressed far too well to be riding a commuter train to the suburbs. His suit was the finest white silk—not a mark on it, nor on him. As Derek watched the man take a set four seats ahead of him (taking care to look up while keeping his head town) he took note of what he could discern about the man.

The man seemed to be about his age, with golden skin, and the longest braided hair he’d ever seen on a man.

It wasn’t until he caught the man’s glance and locked his eyes with the man’s emerald eyes that something clicked.

He knew this man.

That’s—

Oh God, that’s—

He swallowed hard, his mind greying out a little again. He suddenly felt like he was drowning, like he couldn’t breathe, and everything shifted on him—the familiar train of lost souls that hastened him on his journey became a waking nightmare for a moment, and Derek was falling, he was falling and—

He took a deep breath, felt like he was going to throw up, then locked his jaw and tightened his abdominal muscles.

His hands tightened on the satchel and he stared down at the filthy floor of the train.

I should have known, he thought, his mind frenetic and boiling with fear. I should have known.

Oh God.

*          *          *

“I knew he was the one,” Cerise said, staring at no one in particular. “I’d see him when I was working, every single day, hunched over his books or his laptop, just typing, so much into himself.”

She tried to turn to face Jayla-2, but in practice, it was more of a lean and a roll.

“You know that? When you look at someone, and you think ‘he’s the one?’”

Jayla-2 nodded, wondering if it was still a lie if you didn’t say it aloud.

“Well, I tried so hard to catch his eye, you know--to get him to say more than two words to me,” she continued. “It was like pulling teeth, but I started seeing him when I’d leave him another cup of tea and walk away he was checking me out.”

“You had to beat on the door that much?” Jayla-2 asked.

“It’s only natural,” Cerise said. “Derek spent his whole life alone, even when he was with people. His family drove him and drove him so much, he didn’t have a lot of time for fun. He just . . . walled that part of himself off, I guess.  If he didn’t see it, then he couldn’t miss it.

“He must have been so lonely, you know? He sure didn’t know how to talk to women. I did most of the talking the first few times we went out. I do that now—just talk and talk and talk, and he’s so quiet.”

Cerise smiled, touching her stomach again. “But I loved him.”

Jayla-2 nodded down to Cerise’s stomach. “When did you decide to have a child?”

Cerise’s face clouded over a little. “I don’t know that we really decided to—it just kinda happened. Derek wanted to wait until we were married, until we could afford it. He always says he wants to hold off until he can do it the way that I want—you know, the church, family, the princess kinda thing.”

“Not . . .exactly,” Jayla-2 said.

“Oh, right,” Cerise said, chuckling. “You seem so human, I kinda forget.”

Jayla-2 smiled and looked embarrassed. “It’s OK,” she said. “A lot of people do.”

“I tell him all the time, it doesn’t matter—I don’t need all that stuff,” Cerise said, leaping back into her point. “All I want is him . . . and his baby. I don’t really care if we’re married or not.”

“How’d he get the idea that you wanted all that?”

Cerise shrugged. “How does he get any of his ideas? He’ll get things in his head, like he knows how I feel or what I’m thinking—and he’s so certain-- and he’ll sit on it for weeks and if he’d just ask, I could tell him, reassure him.If I let him, he goes right back to being so mousy and quiet, and I can see the walls go up behind his eyes. We’d never have another conversation again, unless I pushed him.”

“You push him?”

“Well, not physically,” Cerise said. “Not now, anyways—I can’t even sit down on my own power. But . . . sometimes I argue with him just to make him talk to me. ”

Now Jayla-2’s face clouded over. “That . . . it seems like there should be another way.”

“Maybe,” Cerise said. “But I won’t leave him there, behind his walls. He wouldn’t come out, and if he stayed like that—too long alone . . . I don’t know.

“It’s not good for people to be that way, Jayla. “

*          *          *

It took such an amazing act of will and self-restraint on Derek’s part not to immediately throw up, and then to will his stomach to hold itself rigid and not lurch in terror that he actually forgot everything for a second.

Everything except that a man sent to kill him was sitting four seats ahead of him. Derek took deep breaths, slow and careful as be brought himself back up to a sitting position, trying to get his bearings again and try to get a handle on things again.

As the panic cleared, he almost regretted it, because for a moment, he had forgotten he’d ripped off the mob for a half million credits, forgotten about the pregnant woman waiting for him at the end of the line. . .the only problem he was aware of was the man sitting there, occasionally glancing his way, but now busying himself by taking a cigarette out of a metal case in the inside pocket of his white jacket.

That there was no smoking permitted on the train didn’t seem to bother him any, and Derek knew that this man had done plenty of things far worse than smoke outside in a designated area.

Everyone who worked for the people Derek worked for (and the people like the people Derek worked for—there were plenty of them, as there had always been) knew about Kienan Ademetria. He was the deadliest man in the galaxy, after all.

Derek stole a look at him.

Not that he really looks it, he thought. I thought he was supposed to be all superhuman or something—the gossip said he was this relentless engine of destruction that would tear through any obstacle to eliminate his target.

I didn’t expect him to just be a guy in a suit.

Derek looked out the window, staring at the blank grey tunnel as he tried to get a handle on his situation.

If Kienan was sent after me, he wondered, why didn’t he just kill me on sight? Does he not know who I look like? Could he be after someone else, and I’m just being paranoid?

Derek felt his hands involuntarily squeeze the satchel. He could feel his forehead beginning to sweat.

No, he told himself. He knows. He’s just toying with you. He can kill you any time he wants, but he wants you to think on it. He wants you to sit here and know there’s no way out.

Then, when he thinks you’ve suffered enough, he’ll kill you. It’s all theater—it’s just to prove a point to you because people like you are always under people’s thumbs, and when you try to get away, you get squished.

Why did you think it would be any different this time?

Derek swallowed.

What should I do?

He could feel the edge of the gun in the satchel, the corner of it between his left thumb and forefinger.

He was armed. As near as he could tell, Kienan wasn’t—there was no sign of a shoulder holster under his jacket.

He could kill him.

Except you’ve never fired a gun before, Derek reminded himself. You’ve never even practiced with this one. You hate—hated—guns.

Derek felt like there were two sides of himself arguing in his head, like the angel and devil he’d seen on ancient cartoons when he was small. Except that their advice wasn’t all that virtuous. It seemed that one side would suggest rash action—like walking up and trying to kill the deadliest man in the galaxy, and the other would try to talk himself into doing it.

Derek lost count of the amount of scenarios he’d dream up and abandon. Could he walk up to him, dump the money in his lap and say it was his if he’d just forget he ever saw him? No, that wouldn’t work. Kienan’s reputation was that he was well paid for his work, but money seemed to be a minor concern for him.

He considered putting the gun in his mouth and killing himself, a final “go to hell” for everyone—the man at work, Cerise, Kienan. “To hell with you all, I won’t let you destroy me, I’ll do it myself!”

But he was too afraid to.

Now the voices in his head were talking over one another, and Derek could feel the raw, naked terror grabbing hold of him again. His throat felt dry and soon began to feel like it was pulling closed on him, and his breath became more and more shallow. He could feel the sweat pooling and trickling down his back and his blood running cold and through it all the voices in his head were getting louder and louder and louder  . . .

And more voices joined the chorus—Mom and dad telling him how important it was to do well; the stupid gap-toothed fat man and his patronizing words about how he was good with numbers and so responsible; Cerise was shouting about the milk again; and Derek was shouting at himself about being a decimal point inside of a decimal point, and it was building into this crushing wall of white noise.

Derek started to shake, and he went a little pale. The noise was unbearable, and he wondered if he were about to die from fright. His thoughts seemed to flow out, away from the sound, away from himself, away from everything. For a few seconds that felt more like an eternity, Derek went away again.

He opened his eyes, and took a breath. He didn’t remember closing them, just like he didn’t remember he’d been holding his breath, but now he could do both.

The noise was gone, and what’s more, Derek felt things were different. Kienan was still there, of course, and things were the way they were still, but things seemed . . .do-able.

There was no point in worrying about it, there was no reason to worry, because the solution had been looking him in the face ever since Kienan boarded the train.

There’s just one thing for it, he thought, relaxing as he unzipped the satchel.

I should kill him, he thought. He’d never expect it. Not from a miserable nobody like me. I mean, I’m just a decimal point inside a decimal point, right? Not even on his radar.

I’m so far beneath his notice, he’d never guess.

His hand slipped inside the satchel, the edge of his hand brushing against the cash cards as his hand closed around the gun.

He nodded to no one in particular (not even the voices were talking anymore) and the sweat that had been beading on his forehead now cooled into a clammy, but not unpleasant, consistency.

His thumb clicked the safety off, and he tried to steady his breathing. He smiled a little.

It’s the only sensible thing.

*          *          *

“What’ll you name him?” Jayla-2 asked, nodding to Cerise’s stomach.

Cerise looked down, her hand still resting on her stomach. “I’m not sure,” she said after a time. “Derek and I . . . we really haven’t had a chance to talk about what happens next. Certainly didn’t get as far as deciding on a name.”

Jayla-2 was a bit puzzled. “What happens next? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”

“After the baby gets here,” Cerise clarified. “It’s weird—he and I spent so much time talking about the baby and when the baby’s coming, and I wonder sometimes when he’s actually here, if we’ll run out of things to talk about.

“Because it’s plain as day we’ve gotta move out of here,” Cerise said. “The place we have isn’t really big enough for two, never mind three. I’ve asked Derek about maybe finding a place in the city, so he doesn’t have to commute so much and we’d have some time as a family.”

Her expression darkened. “Doesn’t go so well lately. He’s  . . . he seems to get nervous when I mention work now.”

“You think he’s in trouble at work?”

“If he was, I’d know,” Cerise said. “Derek is terrible at keeping secrets. Just seems like lately, he just pulls back all the time. I don’t know what he’s thinking sometimes. I think . . . maybe he’s just scared he’s going to be a father soon. His family isn’t very close, and I guess he never had a good role model for what it means to be a good father. I can see that would be a little scary.”

“You think he’ll be OK?”

“I think as long as there’s love, people learn what they need to know,” Cerise said, sighing a little. She smiled again, but it was softer, a little more guarded.

 “I mean, I love my baby, and I’ll do whatever I need to take care of him. Derek will too. I mean . . .we kind of in it together.”

 Despite her words, her smile had faded and she was staring out at the train tracks. She looked tired and more than a little sad. Jayla-2 wondered what had changed—had it been the way the light hit her, or had she always looked like that and she just hadn’t picked up on it.

“He sounds like a nice guy,” Jayla-2 said. “I mean, he’s married to his job, sure, but who isn’t nowadays?”

“I guess so,” Cerise said, her voice neutral. “It’ll . . . it’ll all work out, I think. Sorry, Jayla—I don’t mean to go on like this. It’s just . . . hormones, you know?”

Jayla-2 nodded, even though she really didn’t.

Cerise looked over at her and offered a thin smile. Then Jayla watched as she turned back to look at the tracks. By the time she’d turned her head all the way around, the smile was gone.

“He should be here soon.”

*          *          *

When Derek pulled out the gun, he heard the murmurs of the people around him, followed the gasps of realization that there was a man with a gun in his hand on the train and then the thundering of activity as the passengers started clearing out, running to the other cars fore or aft.

Derek was rather impressed with himself. Look what I did, he thought. I made everyone wake up. For this moment, the car wasn’t full of ghosts—I made them all come to life.

“All” with two exceptions. The old woman who always twitched when the train passed through the tunnels was still sitting there, staring straight ahead. Looking at her now, in a place different from his usual spot on the car, she seemed to be buzzing, sort of.

Derek would have wondered what that was about, except there was one other person who was showing no recognition of the change Derek had wrought.

Kienan was staring at him, his eyes dark, and impassive emeralds. Derek would have expected him to be narrowing his eyes in rage that some nobody like Derek would get the drop on him, but if this perturbed him at all, he wasn’t showing it.

He leaned back, draping his left arm on the edge of the seat and putting his right hand on the back of the seat in front of him.

Derek twitched. His grip tightened on the pistol and he pushed it at Kienan.

“Move again, and you’re dead.”

Kienan cocked an eyebrow and then spoke.

“I was putting my hands where you could see them,” Kienan said, as though he were innocent. “That’s usually how these things go.”

“Usually--?” Derek said, his face clouding. This wasn’t going right, and the way Kienan was reacting was making it worse. He felt his nerve failing a little, and forced himself to get things back under control.

“Yes,” Kienan replied. “This isn’t the first time someone’s pointed a gun in my face.”

“Shut up,” Derek said/shouted. “Just . . . shut up.”

“I think this is the first time you’ve held a gun to someone’s face, though.”

“I told you to shut the hell up! You don’t know what the hell I’ve done. You . . .”

“I know what you’re doing now.”

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” Derek felt something give, and before he was aware of what he was doing, he squeezed off a round into the back of Kienan’s seat. It struck the seat and the stuffing and wooden struts bloomed outward, spewing all over the seat and pluming sawdust and wool into the air.

Kienan never flinched.

“I’m going to kill you,” Derek said. “I’m going to blow your head off, because you’re going to kill me and . . . and . . .I won’t let you. You’re not . . . you’re not going to ruin this for me—none of you will. Not anymore. I . . .”

Derek trailed off, staring at Kienan, who stared back with a placid, opaque look. Derek didn’t understand why it was going this way—why was he the one who was corpse-white, sweating buckets, and having a hard time keeping everything from going crazy, while Kienan, if he’d shown any expression at all, seemed only a little put out because Derek had shot his seat and the debris had gotten on his nice white suit.

He didn’t even seem like he was going for his weapon.

Why don’t I kill him now? Derek wondered. Why doesn’t he try to kill me?

Is he . . .

He’s taunting me, Derek thought, rage rushing through him and making his face feel hot. He doesn’t think I’ll do it, and he’s treating it like a joke, the son of a bitch, well, you don’t treat me like a joke anymore and I’m not going to let you ruin this and it’s just milk, dammit it’s just . . .

Derek missed Kienan popping up from the seat, and backpedaled down the aisle. He still didn’t seem to be going for his weapon, but he was walking towards him, his pace slow and steady and Derek was scared.

He pointed the gun at Kienan with his right hand as his left snaked out and snatched the old woman by the arm. It felt like pulling rope, and she screamed when he yanked her from her seat.

Derek noted with brief, fleeting, amusement, it was the first sound—indeed, the first reaction besides the flinching, he’d ever seen out of her. He positioned her in front of him, his left arm around her throat, keeping her between himself and Kienan.

Kienan kept walking.

“I didn’t tell you that you could move!” Derek screamed. The old woman moaned, as he’d done it right in her ear. “Stay the hell away from me.”

“No,” Kienan said, taking another step.

“G-get away!” Derek shouted, pointing the gun at the old woman to keep her still, and then at Kienan. “I’ll shoot.”

Kienan stopped.

Derek kept his gun on Kienan as he cinched his arm tighter around the old woman. He had that strange feeling that everything had gotten out of control, and that was so odd, as it had all been so perfect in his head just five or ten minutes ago.

He’d had the gun on Kienan, and he was going to kill him, and what had happened?

An insistent darkness flickered just behind his eyes, and the roaring in his head was back, only this time it seemed to be swallowing him, and time was all wrong and he’d somehow taken a hostage and that hadn’t been in the plan at all.

So, how  . . .did this happen? Derek wondered.

Things snapped into focus as Kienan moved in the periphery of his vision. There was a blur of motion and then things snapped into focus. Derek squeezed the trigger, aiming for the blur of white in front of his eyes.

He couldn’t tell if he’d hit anything, because all of a sudden, his arm felt red and very wet. White-hot pain exploded within him and he was certain he could feel the bullet from Kienan’s gun ripping through the old woman’s throat and slamming into his chest.

He felt his legs go dead and he tumbled backwards, the wiry weight of the old woman crashing down on top of him, so very heavy for some reason.

It was getting very hard to breathe and Derek tried to struggle against it and bring his gun arm up, but his arm didn’t feel like it was attached to his body anymore.

Everything burns, but at least it was quiet again, Derek thought. The lights in the train flickered –they were going through the final signal junction before Carter City.

Had he been able to breathe or move, he might have laughed, because he finally understood why the old woman had feared the sudden, flickering darkness:

Because it looked a lot like death.

*          *          *

The train pulled into Carter City about a minute late. Cerise and Jayla-2 had some notion that something was wrong when about six security officers swarmed past them, helping pale, terrified passengers off the train. Almost to a person, their eyes seemed wide with horror.

Something was very wrong.

“What happened--?”Cerise said. “Excuse me—sir? SIR?!” She tried to wave one of the security officers down, but she wasn’t able to catch their attention.

Jayla-2 had more luck, and whistled sharply at one of the officers before he could move too far away.

“Hey,” she said, gesturing to the line of passengers. “What happened?”

“We just got a report of a shooting on the train,” the security officer said, taking a step towards them.

 “Some nut went crazy—shot and killed two people.”

Jayla-2 flinched, then shook it off and gestured to Cerise. “Do you know who was killed? This lady’s husband takes that train every day.”

The security officer shook his head. “We’re getting everyone off the train so we can get in and learn more, but I don’t know anything, ma’am,” he said. He glanced at Cerise, and it was obvious he felt guilty he didn’t have a more accurate answer for her.

“Ma’am, what’s your husband’s name?”

“Derek Alston,” Cerise replied.

“Okay, well, when we’ve cleared the train, we’ll do a headcount, and as soon as I find him, I’ll bring him over to you, all right?”

Cerise nodded. “I’d appreciate it.”

The officer took off running to help offloading the train. Jayla-2 stood up, looking a little worried. Cerise could tell something was on her mind—whatever race she was, they clearly expressed worry the same way humans did.

“Hey,” she said, reaching out for Jayla-2’s hand. “You’re worried about your friend.”

Jayla-2 nodded. “I am. I should go find them. But I’m worried about you too.”

Cerise nodded. “I’ll be OK—the officer said he’d let me know what they found, and if I know Derek, he kept his head down—he’s not crazy. You go . . .find your friend, OK?”

Jayla-2 nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “I hope your husband’s OK.”

“Take care of yourself, Jayla,” Cerise said, smiling her warm, genuine smile. “Thanks for keeping me company.”

Jayla-2 smiled and nodded, hers a little sadder, and she walked away, turning her head to look back at Cerise until she was out of sight. Cerise took a deep breath, her hands going back to her stomach as she watched the commotion before her and waited, trying to pick Derek out of the crowd and hoping that she was right and if there was a lunatic on the train shooting people, he’d stayed out of it.

And she waited.