She never knew what it was, exactly, whether her copper skin or long black braid or some inflection in her voice that was not sufficiently deferential. And soon they'd be gliding through the nuclear desert.
Under a citrus slice of moon, the white train wound silently through the night. The third car was almost empty, holding only a few commuters in silk ties and wingtips and coiffed socialites with well-ordered weekends. Conscious of her nose-rings and clogs, Lela slipped into a seat at the end of a vacant row. For her birthday, Gwen had given her a ticket to a play in the City. Gwen had gone with her boy, who was fresh off nine months on duty and nuts about her, splashing her with movies, merengue, piano-bar dinners, unable to let five minutes pass without plastering his face against her shoulder and inhaling her skin. Seeing the two of them together, Lela was embarrassed but also happy, and sometimes she wondered what it was like to be loved and spoiled like that.
It was a good play, her friend said, so good he hadn't grabbed her but once in the dark. There was rain in it, real rain tipped from the catwalks, and sword fighting, and kisses, and a sonofabitch who didn't know how good he had it—this was how the friend had described it, big-eyed and waving her glass-ringed hands. You'll like it, you really will. Never having been to a play, Lela had tipped her head to one side and listened and smiled.
That day she had left her shift early. She had swabbed down the tables with cheerful emphasis, then shut herself in the bathroom and put jade drops in her ears and a slick of purple on her mouth. It was two hours by floating train to the City, so she brought along a ratty paperback to pass the time.
Every so often the train stopped and ingested passengers. Without noticing it, she borrowed their faces for the characters in her book: the hero, the king, the witch with slender hands. Businessmen and college students settled around her. Soon there was only one open seat in the car, to her left.
A man boarded the train, towing a small blonde boy behind him.
"There's Mom, wave goodbye," he said, and the boy dutifully did so. With a low soft sigh, the train slid into motion again. "How is she?"
"We went to the hospital yesterday."
"She cut her thumb."
"I dunno. Making dinner."
The man surveyed the car, then pointed his son to the empty seat and planted himself in front of Lela. His eyes went through her like a cold steel pin. She didn't look at him. Stares like that were six for a dollar in the white neighborhood where she worked. She never knew what it was, exactly, whether her copper skin or long black braid or some inflection in her voice that was not sufficiently deferential. In the restaurant she was quick, cold, and polite; on the street she glared right back, making her eyes wide and frightening. But her legs were sore from standing all day, and she was looking forward to a nice evening. She turned a page. The hero had learned his mission: to steal from the enemy's stronghold an enchanted mirror that showed things as they truly were.
Soon they were gliding through the nuclear desert. Outside the window ran miles of charred and desolate plains. Here and there, a faint green flame flickered up from the ash. No one knew what the glimmerings meant. Some said they marked the encampments of those who lived in the desert, irradiated and melted into grotesque shapes with too many hands and eyes and tongues. Some said they were the signal fires of extraterrestrials lured to Earth by its patchwork of radioactive wastelands. No one knew exactly, because no one had ever gone into the nuclear desert and returned. The train was clad in lead to protect the passengers, but as the small placards on the walls warned, riders were still exposed to low levels of radiation.
The man still stared at Lela, his arms crossed on his chest. There were no more stops before the City, so he did not have to balance against the overhead rail. He coughed. Her absorption in her book deepened. The little boy was glancing back and forth between his father and the girl.
A blue-hatted conductor came through the car for tickets, whistling tunelessly. His scanner flared red and cheeped over each ticket. Twit—twit—twit. He was the only black man in the car. He said to the standing man, "There's empty seats two cars down, sir."
"I prefer to stand," he said, frowning at Lela. She did not look up, but her spine acquired a greater degree of rigidity. Captured and shackled, the hero pleaded for his life, but she was finding it difficult to listen to him, to drop down from the bright white train into the high hall with its tapestried walls and rushy flags. She found herself reading the same paragraph over and over. The conductor shrugged, zapped their tickets, and moved on.
The train dragged a long plume of ash behind it as it went. The moon rose slightly in the sky then began to descend. The pressure of the angry eyes upon her had scattered the words on the page; they milled like ants and rearranged themselves. Finally the girl folded her book over a finger and said to the man, "What do you want?"
He opened and shut his mouth.
"You've been glaring at me for an hour. Why?"
"You should have given me your seat," the man said. "That would have been the polite thing to do."
"There were other seats." She opened her book again. "You were trying to intimidate me."
"Take your nose out of that book," he said, raising his voice. "Get a life."
The girl said nothing, flipping a page.
"You know what you need? A boyfriend. You'd be nicer if you could get laid."
The whole car could hear him. The other passengers looked fixedly through the lead glass windows at the drifts of ash.
He swelled. "You know what? You'd never be able to keep a guy, even if you could get one."
He turned and strode out of the car. Lela let out her breath and slumped. The oval of paper under her thumb was wavy with dampness.
"Sorry," whispered the boy, his blue eyes wide and worried. "I'm sorry. Sorry."
"It's not your fault," she said. "Don't worry about it."
Then the doors whisked open, and the father marched in with the conductor behind him. The boy fell silent.
"Who do you think you are?" the conductor said. "Harassing this man and his son? Not on my train!"
Lela's head jerked up in surprise.
"Thank you, sir. I trust you'll deal with her appropriately." The man was smiling.
The conductor took her arm. "You'll have to disembark at the next stop." He pulled her out of her seat.
"But there aren't any stops before the City," Lela said, stupid with shock.
"There's a local stop."
She stumbled, struggling against his grip. "But I haven't done anything wrong!" she cried. Fear peeled her voice.
"Now's not the time to change your story. You've had your chance."
The other passengers remained fascinated by the featureless scenery outside. None of them made a sound. None of them met her eyes. The airlock opened and the conductor forced her into the vestibule.
The train was slowing, although they were far from the City. The girl did not understand what was happening. They pulled up at a blackened platform, dark except for the light washing from the train. There were no buildings beyond the crumbling platform. The town, if there had been one, had been blasted into oblivion a long time ago.
She said, "There isn't another train tonight."
"Should have thought of that before making trouble," the conductor said. "None of the trains stop here, anyway."
The leaded doors opened, and the girl was pushed onto the platform. Before she recovered her balance, the doors snicked shut again. The faces that peered out at her were pale, pitying, curious, indifferent. The father never turned his head. The boy was standing on his seat, flattening his nose against the window. He and Lela stared at each other. Then the train began to move.
Through the windows that flashed past she saw the smooth gleaming interior of the train, brightly lit, each metal bar polished to a satin sheen.
When the train was gone, the ash it had stirred up settled heavily on her eyelashes and hair. She stood gazing after the vanishing point of light. Then she climbed carefully down the broken steps, tucking the book under her arm. Far away, she could see a dim, twisting flame, green as glass. If she squinted, she thought she could pick out dark shapes moving around it.
The girl put down one foot, then the other, into the ankle-deep ash. It was soft as milkweed and swallowed all sound. She began to walk toward the flame. Already she could feel herself changing.
This dispatch is from Terraform, our new online home for future fiction.