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The Hungry Ones
By Elana Gomel
When the train entered the station, emerging from the tunnel with a soft purring sound, Kora gasped.
And yet, what else did she expect?
What else would the train be?
But there was something unnervingly human about its face, something altogether too quirky and animated. She had accepted the fact that the city was alive but only as a general notion. What she had seen of the exposed Pith did not seem too different from steel or stone: just another kind of building material. Toads and ducks were individuals, inhabiting the city. Flambeaus, she still had a difficulty in regarding as sentient beings rather than part of the urban infrastructure. But then flambeaus did not have faces. The train did.
The train had a large blunt head with a flat muzzle covered by dense, velvety fuzz like a mouse’s. It was huge, snugly fitting into the tunnel. Its eyes blinked lazily, the wrinkled papery skin sliding over the recessed discs with cream sclera and dull black pupils, as inexpressible as fish-eyes. There were two prominent lumps above the eyes. Its skin was loose, hanging in folds and pouches but it did not appear old: like a puppy, it seemed not to have grown fully into its own hide.
Besides the eyes, the only other feature on its blunt muzzle was what Kora at first took for a toothy gaping mouth. But then she realized it was something else: a square opening, shored up by a cartilage frame and louvered by tough-looking white filaments. Stuck among the filaments were soft, blood-flushed protrusions, leaves of tissue growing in the forest of organic stems. An acrid smell wafted through the station.
Kora fought to back off, but the surging crowd carried her into the car.
The Skybridge line was still blocked because of the rogue and so Daniel had to take a roundabout route: by the Golden Flower line to the Pit where he changed to the Bird’s Nest line that would take him to the base.
The train was surprisingly empty; there was not a single standing figure in the aisle. This made Daniel uneasy.
His eyes darted through the softly lit interior of the car. It was young and healthy: the inner skin moist and gleaming, the seats pleasantly plump, the loops hanging from the ceiling for the standing passengers to hold on to shining with the oily gleam of new derma.
He wished he had spoken to the train before boarding it. The Transit Authority’s rules prohibited trains from talking to the passengers, but this did not apply to him, surely. Chances were he knew this train’s family.
The train lurched and Daniel’s stomach lurched with it. Acid flooded his mouth.
Next stop – Bird’s Nest. The closest station to the Market. Nobody knew why it was called that since there were no birds’ nests in the vicinity. The carrion fowls that the khruts were so fond of nested in the countryside and on the barren slopes of the Peak above the urban habitation line. There was a silly rumor that some of them came from beyond the Divide. This was ridiculous since nothing came from beyond the Divide. Not after the Incoming led by Grandfather.
The doors whooshed open. Some people disembarked, more came in, shoppers burdened with bulging net satchels and derma-bags. One woman came in carrying nothing. He glanced at her: politely, from the corner of his eye as befits a citizen. But then he stared.
She was striking but this was not the reason for his shameless behavior. She was not his type: he liked his women small and petite, city-sophisticated, while she was big and strong, with wide hips and broad shoulders, saved from stockiness only by the deep curve of her slender waist. She was wearing a multicolored knitted dress that clung to her like a second skin, emphasizing her full breasts. But despite this alluring display, there was something off-putting about her; she was like a magnet whose poles kept switching, attracting and repelling at the same time. Her face was beautifully ugly, with slanted emerald eyes and a mouth so full it looked swollen. She looked like somebody you’d rather meet in a painting than in real life.
But Daniel was pretty sure he had in fact met her in real life. And he did not know when and how.
She was familiar and yet he drew blank trying to connect her to a name, place or circumstances. His city memory was excellent. He was not likely to forget somebody as distinctive as her. But clearly he had.
He suddenly felt claustrophobic, hemmed in, as if her presence drew oxygen out of the air. He got up as the train slowed down approaching the station and walked to the door, holding onto derma loops.
The woman’s eyes fell upon him and her face lit up. Daniel could not decipher her expression. Joy? Surprise? Fear?
The train’s headlights reflected off the fibrous walls of the tunnel. Suddenly, it shook, braking crazily, hurling the standing passengers forward. Somebody careened into Daniel, flattening him against the wall. And then the lights went out.
Inside, Kora began to relax, chiding herself for a fool. She knew that trains were sentient beings, for Grandfather’s sake!
The popular Market expression popping into her head made her wince.
She remembered Lola singing praises of MTT. According to her, trains were much more honest and reliable than the khrut Guards or the City Corps who were universally condemned as corrupt and ineffectual.
Nevertheless, she was relieved that inside the train its (or was it his?) personhood was not too obvious. The long car was brightly lit by the narrow strip running along its curving ceiling, which was not a separate flambeau but part of the train’s own anatomy. On both sides of the strip, leathery hand-straps hang down for standing passengers to grip. The car was not too full and she sat down on the warm red cushion.
Somebody was looking at her, practically burning holes in her with the intensity of his gaze. She looked back in irritation – men often stared but seldom so blatantly – and felt her breath stop.
She was struggling to her feet, a foolish grin spreading over her face.
And then the lights went out.
Chapter 14. The Rogue
Crawling in the thick darkness, Daniel was brought short by a blow to the head and instinctively lashed out.
His fist connected with something rotten-soft. Warm wetness splattered his fingers.
The car had been quiet at first but now a chorus of groans, cries and indignant exclamations was beginning to rise, a swelling music of fear.
He had been tossed onto the floor by a series of convulsions that shook the train after the lights went out. Somebody landed on top of him, a child by the weight of her, shaking and sobbing. He tried to comfort her, but she rolled off him and disappeared into the stifling darkness.
At least she could cry. Judging by the inert bodies he kept bumping into not every one of the passengers had been so lucky.
He tried to stand up, but his legs gave way. He gritted his teeth and crawled forward, a tiny insignificant parasite inside the body of a giant.
Something tickled the back of his head. It was a gentle tentative touch, almost caressing. He brushed it away, but it came back, more insistent that time.
He brushed it off again. His right hand was caught, pulled back and up, held at an unnatural angle to his body. He yelped and tugged at the restraint. The derma loop tightened around his wrist, cutting off circulation.
He hauled himself up, using the restraint as the leverage. His head hit the ribbed ceiling. He staggered but was held upright by the loop that was gradually pulling his arm away from him, threatening to wrench it out of its socket.
How could this be? The height of the car was enough to give ample clearance even to a man much taller than himself.
Who was he fooling? He knew exactly how this could be.
“Shut up, all of you!” Daniel yelled. “Shut up and listen!”
His voice rose above the hubbub of children’s crying, adults’ sobbing, confused unanswered questions flung into the void. Some woman’s piercing voice was repeating a single syllable: a name? And underneath this babel of fear was the cause of it all: a whispering uninterrupted purl like a soft leakage of some viscous fluid from a giant open valve.
Daniel wanted to scream. The pain in his twisted arm was bad and growing worse as the contracting muscles of the loop inexorably pulled it up and back, forcing him to stretch until he was standing on his tiptoes, his head pressed against the ribbed ceiling. He groped in darkness with his free hand, trying to reach the base of the loop but his fingers fell short just a couple of centimeters.
He let the scream come out as a commanding shout.
The volume of noise dropped down a notch.
“Stop panicking!” he yelled. “You’re making it worse! Help is on the way! Just stop moving around, hunker down where you are, and keep quiet! I repeat: don’t move around, don’t make a sound if you want to live!”
This got their attention.
“Who are you?” a cranky old man’s voice snapped at him. And overlaying it, a woman’s voice, as clear and familiar as an alarm bell: “What’s happening?”
“The train is going rogue,” he replied and instantly regretted his truthfulness as the voices erupted once again in a cacophony of horror.
“Shut up!” he bellowed again. “I’m a militiaman; I know how to deal with this! We’ll be just fine as long as we don’t whet his appetite! He feels live prey moving in his belly, he’ll crank up stomach juice so much that we’ll all be crap before you finish crapping your pants!”
A couple of gasps but the shuffle of movements went down. Daniel bit his lip, tried to pivot around so as to relieve pressure on his shoulder. His left hand brushed the back of a seat and he winced: it was as soft as a rotting fruit and feverishly hot; the tiny vibrissae that should have been lying down to form the plush cover were all standing up agitatedly. A stinging wetness clung to his fingertips. He swore and waved the hand in the air, trying to shake off the acidic juice. He hit a weave of fabric that was so inert it must be a person’s clothes. And then something clamped onto his free wrist, something that was not the guts of the train, and a voice whispered into his ear, so close that a warm breath ruffled his hair:
He jerked and cursed as the loop tightened again, cutting off the circulation even further. His hand felt like a blood-swollen balloon.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The person recoiled but now he could smell her: soap and shampoo and underneath it the heady, musky aroma of a woman.
“Never mind,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Help me get free. We have to get the hell out of here!”
“If they were to come, they would be here already!”
Amazingly, she did not flinch; she was so close to him that he could feel the swell of her breasts and the rapid beating of her heart.
“What can I do?”
“Feel up my right arm…careful…yes. Can you feel it?”
“Squeeze it hard at the base…yes. Harder. They have a reflex. If you do it right, they’ll relax.”
Her body pressed against his, her arm sliding across his face.
“Yes, like this. Careful, don’t let it loop you instead.”
He heard a hiss somewhere close in this dense darkness filled with the smells and whimpering of frightened people and the stink of the rising gastric tide. The loop tightened so much he was afraid his wrist-bones would snap.
And then it relaxed and he was free.
He jerked forward, almost bringing her down, but she balanced herself somehow.
“Don’t touch anything!” he hissed. “Especially the seats and the loops! And keep to the aisle!”
The darkness was so absolute he imagined his eyes had turned around, looking inside his skull. He blinked a couple of times, just to reassure himself it was not so. Was the entire system affected? Was the underground maze of MTT now a skein of lightless tunnels prowled by rogue trains?
Something splattered him, a spray of liquid from above, and there was a star map of stinging points on his face and bare neck. A child’s voice wailed in the dark:
“Mummy, it burns!”
He put his hands onto the woman’s shoulders, turned her around, so the swish of her long hair momentarily cooled the acid-burns on his face.
“There is a door about five seats from where we are,” he whispered. “Go ahead. Then turn right.”
He felt her nod and then she moved on and he followed, his right hand securely clamped on her shoulder, her fresh smell overpowered by the meaty stink of the train’s gastric juices.
“Get up from the seats but don’t move!” he yelled. “Don’t move! I’ll try to open the door!”
A scream  , then another. A woman’s frantic voice:
“My son…the seat won’t let him up!”
Kora – if this was her name – bumped into somebody and he was brought up short, bumping into her. It would be funny – were it not for the fact that they were about to be digested by the train like a bunch of fucking zombies!
He still could not quite believe it was happening.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
She just shoved the owner of the gruff voice out of the way. Daniel felt the swell of her muscles and the ease with which she cut through the press of bodies in the aisle.
A leathery tentacle whipped across his face. He pushed it aside and heard a gasp as it fastened around somebody else’s throat, a death rattle of suffocation that was quickly drowned in the rhythmical puffing that now permeated the car. The walls, the floor, the ceiling throbbed in unison, releasing gouts of acid that flew through the shrinking cavity. The hand-straps thrashed around, catching people’s arms, legs, and heads in their leathery embrace. Ducking and weaving in the dark, the panicky passengers congealed into a single hydra-like body, blindly flailing around, as the eager mouths opening in the swollen seats and dripping walls took bites out of them.
Daniel felt Kora push ahead of him like a battering ram, cutting through the chaos.
She stopped suddenly and he bumped into her again, hard. She molded herself to him.
“Turn right. Feel for the door!”
“What is this?”
He could hear it too: a liquid noise, like a loose-lipped mouth sucking drink through a giant straw, and then a grinding and a gnashing. He swore.
“He’s growing intestinal surfaces! Find the fucking door!”
A tentacle brushed his shoulder. Kora’s body shook.
“Don’t let it touch your face!”
A confused scuffle; he was pushed aside, careening into somebody; a body slid from under him and sunk into a pulsating blister of a seat. A man was choking within centimeters of him.
A hand found his, clasped. Kora!
“Where is the door?”
She pulled him forward and then his fingers found the familiar rubbery seal, the vertical mouth with its tightly pursed lips. Only now the lips were hot and bloated, leaking saliva and the gap between them was filled with tiny gnashing teeth. He jerked away, his fingers bleeding where the serrated edges took off skin.
He heard her heavy breathing as she explored the door. Her touch seemed to have driven the rogue into frenzy; the gnashing rose in pitch, becoming an intolerable drilling sound. The entire car shook.
He needed to be out, to talk to the train! He was sure he could calm him down, but he knew trains did not have ears on the inside. It was unbelievably frustrating, to die here like a zombie when all it would take was the sound of his voice. He knew he could do it!
But she was doing something; he did not know what – trying to pull the lips apart, perhaps. He wanted to stop her; she could not be strong enough…but then the car shook so badly that they were both thrown onto the floor, drowning in the effluvia. The acid on his skin was like liquid fire.
And then there was a gust of fresher air cutting through the stink.
The door was open! He clambered to his feet, grabbed the first handful of clothes his hands could find, and tumbled out, into the darkness of the tunnel, dragging a coughing, sputtering passenger with him.
Kora landed on her back, her wind knocked out of her, and as she was trying to orient herself in the pitch darkness, something else fell on her, strangling her, pinning her down to the hard floor. She pushed the burden away with all her strength; it cried out, smacking into…something and was silent.
She crawled forward and then scrambled to her feet, stepping in the yielding, twitching warmth. She was so disorientated that she did not even know whether she was still inside the train or outside, in the tunnel.
And then there was light!
She pivoted toward the bright spot that, just for a moment, made everything all right. It blinded her at first but as her eyes adjusted she realized it was quite dim and wavering. She stumbled toward it; stepped on a body; lost her footing and almost fell.
The light floated toward her. It was a flashlight held by a person. She squinted; the man was unfamiliar, thin-faced, in a long gray coat.
The beam swept away from her in a wide arc and she saw, with a shudder of revulsion, the blood-flushed worms of the rails writhing on the fibrous floor. Somehow, she had crawled clear of the back of the train that plugged up the tunnel with its asthmatically pulsating mass.
“Daniel!” She turned to go back but the man with a flashlight stopped her.
“It’s eating them alive!” he said in a hoarse voice.
Several moving shapes detached themselves from the clot of darkness. She felt rather than saw that one of them was Daniel.
She rushed toward him. Dappled with shadows, his face was splotched and grimy. He was half-carrying, half-dragging a bundle of clothes.
He turned away from her and addressed the man with a flashlight.
“Can you light the way? We need to go forward, to his head.”
“Why? This is the tail; we can just follow the tunnel back to the station.”
“I can talk to trains, calm them down.”
“If we get to the station, they can send a team…”
“Even if they do, there will be nothing left of the passengers by the time they get here.”
And as if to lend support to his words, the massive black body shuddered, and a faint echo of screams and moans wafted toward them. She imagined people trapped in the steamy darkness, crying out, beating on the swollen walls, their flesh being dissolved by the acid glop.
She wished for the thousandth time that she could feel nauseated.
“We have to do it!” Daniel’s voice, so thrillingly familiar, calmed her down. The man with a flashlight hesitated, then shrugged and turned around, squeezing himself into the narrow gap between the train’s flank and the wall of the tunnel. Daniel propped the body he was carrying against the wall – it was either a child or a small tenant – and followed him. Kora hurried after them, caught Daniel’s arm.
“I’m coming with you!”
He looked at her blankly, his face masked by crawling shadows. It almost seemed as if he did not know who she was! But then he nodded and went on, Kora following.
They could barely clear the gap. The flank was heaving moistly, exuding steamy heat. But at least there were no writhing rails underfoot; they walked on inanimate gravel. The man with a flashlight had it easiest: he was very thin, almost skeletal. In the uncertain light, it was hard to see whether he was human or tenant.
He suddenly stopped and raised his hand. They could see the gleam of the flashlight’s reflection on a train window, the transparent tissue puckering and twitching. It bulged forward as a fist slammed into it, again and again, from the inside. The window-skin stretched, limning the fist as if it were wearing a glass glove. And then the window snapped back with audible recoil, and its transparency was splattered by red.
“Should we try to open the door?” the man with a flashlight whispered nervously. Daniel shook his head.
“It’ll only provoke him,” he said grimly. “Trains can speed up their digestion…anyway, it’s almost impossible to force the muscles from the outside…they just lock.”
The train heaved again, its distended flank blocking their way.
“Give me the flashlight,” Daniel whispered. The man hesitated.
“OK, just keep it down. They have eyes in their sides.”
The man covered the flashlight with his hand, reducing the illumination to a weak admixture of gray in the black, and went on.
Eventually, they were in the open again. Daniel pulled on the man’s sleeve.
“We’re here,” he whispered. “It’s his head. Let me talk to him. What’s your name, friend?”
So, he was human. Kora remembered Alexandra telling her that this was an old-fashioned way for humans to address each other. Tenants did not use it; nor was it used toward them.
“Sergei,” the thin man mumbled.
“OK, Sergei. I’ll talk to him. Cover my back. Don’t make any sudden movements.”
“What about me?” Kora whispered furiously.
Again, it was as he had forgotten about her existence and was reminded of it suddenly.
“You…you just stay there. Watch out for anything in the tunnel.”
He rounded the flank of the train, stood in front of him. Kora, determined not to be brushed aside (I helped him inside the train, didn’t I?) pushed by Sergei and peered over his shoulder.
She could see Daniel, vaguely outlined against the darkness, standing with his hands stretched toward the train, open palms up. She could not see the train’s face and was glad of it. Those giant, flat, fishy eyes…
Daniel was speaking in a low, soothing murmur. She could not distinguish words because of the rumble that had started behind them, in the depth of the impenetrable darkness, and was steadily growing. The floor of the tunnel vibrated. There was a muffled scream coming from behind them, then another. Sergei’s hand shook, the flashlight’s beam dancing.
Daniel reached out slowly, his fingertips hovering in the air before the train’s face.
Dogs! They gentle dogs like this.
And then they sic them on!
The rumble grew stronger, but the screams stopped.
Daniel put his hand onto the train’s face.
And the train exploded.
The enormous creature buckled, humping up like a caterpillar, its back striking the ceiling. Its tail-end swished from side to side, hitting the walls of the tunnel with such brute force that sharp bone plates flew through the air. One whistled by Kora’s head and embedded itself in Sergei’s shoulder. He gave a high-pitched shriek and dropped the flashlight. In the crazy chiaroscuro of shadows, Daniel was lost: just another madly twitching black silhouette among many.
The train’s flank hit her, driving her sideways and down, into the stinking, hot mud that was flowing through the tunnel.
She crawled on all fours, aiming for the flashlight, shoving aside Sergei who was doubled up, crying in pain. Her hand tried to grasp a round object that slipped away but not before she knew what it was.
A skull. The train was disgorging the remnants of its meal.
Finally, her fingers closed on the dead metal cylinder of the flashlight and she stood up, her clothes soaked with the stinking, viscid substance. The train’s convulsions were dying down, but the rumble grew. The tunnel shook.
She bumped into him.
“He wouldn’t listen!” he repeated, sounding shocked. “He just wouldn’t!”
“What is this? The sound?”
He caught her arm.
“It’s another train! Also rogue, probably! We have to get away!”