“No funny stuff,” I tell the bird.
Across from me on the train, catching a ride into Bela Lugosi Station from Monroe along the southbound rail of the Γ Line, one of those blind and featherless Metro pigeons is nesting its ample dark meat into the reupholstered LuvFoam®-cushioned seating. Fowlspreading, the bird has claimed the entire doorside seat as its own territory. The LuvFoam® kneads and massages its rump while a sassy voice from the seat compliments the firmness and curvature, arousing a few soft murmurs from the bird.
“Oh, do I have a fantastic feeling about today!” the seat says, hitting deep tissue now. “You are going to own it, girl. Really going to make an impression at the office!”
The train hits a dogleg in the tunnel and sends me swaying on the strap. I say, “You listening to me, pal?”
The bird wiggles its tail stump and settles in for the long haul.
Nearby, a human passenger shoots me a sidelong look of civic concern and moves further down the aisle.
“Don’t fool with me. I know what you’ve got up your…” I eye the animal top to bottom—a short trip. I really need a new job. “…sleeve.”
The bird doesn’t give a single coo. It doesn’t even acknowledge my existence. No respect for the badge. I’ve been on the force fourteen years and I can see this pigeon is a vandal, a lowlife veteran of the transit system. No passengers have bothered to shoo it off the seat. It’s too risky. The MTA advises its ridership to maintain distance since the pigeons are classified as biohazards. It’s better for everyone involved. As a species, these subterranean vagrants seem to live in a state of permanent diarrheic panic. Even if this one pigeon has found peace in the validating undulations of the LuvFoam®, any sudden movement and its startle reflex will throw open the gastrointestinal floodgates. But this bird is holding back, biding its time. I can read the premeditated malintent for MTA property in its eyespots. Either that or constipation.
In the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department, one of the realities of the job rookies pick up on early is the fact that ninety to ninety-five percent of all criminal activity you’re likely to step into in the Metro—incivilities, violent incidents, quality of life violations—can be traced back to something or someone being backed up.
Police brutality is no exception.
And it so happens, the train my partner and I find ourselves riding on the Γ Line this morning, a century-old Chrysler express called the Ameristream, is running twenty-nine minutes behind schedule.
In a situation like this, as a transit cop you must be at the top of your game. You shut off your prefrontal cortex, which no good cop needs anyway. You let your suspicions roam. Your glands and training will handle all the heavy lifting. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by specious profiling.
I give the pigeon one last, professionally honed I’ve-got-my-eye-on-you-pal sort of look, let go the strap, and head off down the car to find the Lud.
The a.m. crowd is packed into the Ameristream, providing for a generous 0.4 of the 0.7 square meters of Urban Isolation Space recommended by the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277. We’re so scrunched it’s like being swallowed whole by a hairy protoplasm. The commuter mass jitters and sways under the bank and sway of the train. Pores reek with the eggy musk of high blood pressure. The tap-squeak-tap of my cop boots on the nonslip flooring parts the spazzy, overly caffeinated amoeba so I can wind between the straphanging deltoids, carryon luggage, and protruding pseudopods of posteriors and foopas to reach the back of the car.
A pinnacle of patriotic wartime train design, the Ameristream is a masterfully economical deathtrap constructed of outdated Chinese plasteel, painted the color of freedom, and going senile.
In lieu of customary route info or freshly brewed morning block talk shows, the window displays inside the Ameristream are cycling through a mishmash of recordings from the train’s external sensors of previous trips it has taken through the Metro, hours, days, years, or decades before, while the train’s AI narrates.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll be so kind as to lend your gaze to the right side of the car,” the train asks its captive audience, calling up a blank expanse of lightless, vacuous tunnel on the displays, “you’ll be seeing the Gamma Line only days after it was first bored! Can you guess how many tons of bedrock were removed in its construction? Kiddos?”
The train bearhugs a hard curve not shown on its displays and swings the straphangers outward like pendulums. I grab a pole with one hand and something fleshy with the other that squeals until I let go. On the left side of the car, just above the snoozing, aseptically hairless head of a guy in a slick, stainproof medical professional’s onesie, several displays are linked together and running in reverse. Their timestamps tick down. Otherwise it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and those running forward. Destination/point of departure—everything is terminal in the Metro. Alpha or Omega.
“Wait, wait, wait. Or is that the Xi?” the train says. Its tinny, busted out voice hovers over the cramped headspace. The right-side displays go static. “That Gamma footage is here somewhere. Ha, ha. Just one second, folks…”
A springy flute-fraught muzak picks up on a few of the speakers. The train doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. Passengers sigh and leer at their phones and watches or stare into the dead space of augspecs. But no one panics. No one so much as maintains eye contact for more than the socially allotted two seconds. Dementia in our modes of conveyance is one accepted reality of underfunded public transportation. Nothing’s out of the ordinary.
Today is Monday.
I find the Lud planted at the rear door of the car leaning against a sadistically placed stanchion and muttering over the morning’s Delinquistat® report on his phablet. He’s been at it since before we left the stationhouse. He broods the way only a sergeant with a looming pension is allowed to brood. A few million generations of runaway primate brow evolution worked overtime, pegging away weekends and holidays, to produce a glare of this magnitude.
“What’s eating you?” I ask him.
The Lud grumbles unintelligibly under his mustache and keeps staring at the alphanumeric jibber-jabber of the report.
The neon smear of a station flashes by on the left-side displays. It isn’t Lugosi but there’s no other stations between it and Monroe. The train offers no comment. The muzak toots on.
“Okay, Lud, look if this is about the uniform… I didn’t have any choice.” I unzip my jacket and pluck the collar. “See, it’s still got all the starch in it. If you want, I’ll hand-scrub every sweat stain and trace of my DNA out of it before I hand it back over. So long as I don’t have to hear you…”
He glances up and scans the crisp, pristine crease of the collar. His lip curls.
“Or not hear you complain about it, as it goes.”
He grunts and turns his beady eyes back to the phablet.
Without warning, the train jerks. A noise like the end of the fucking world cranks through the passenger car. The whole carload—except for the Lud, who simply steps one foot into it and braces himself—is flung forward. Passengers toss themselves into a leggy scramble to stay standing and/or seated. I save a napping skell from skittering across the floor out from under a seat with my boot and cling to the stanchion for dear life.
The Lud never looks up.
About half a second later, the Ameristream skids to a stop. Every display shows an arrival in perfect unison, even those running in reverse—departures coming in like mirror images, commuters out in the stations years ago embarking and disembarking backwards as if the universe has somehow come back around. But not a single station onscreen is Lugosi. The train has no idea where it is.
The loudspeakers cut off the muzak and crackle. The Ameristream announces, “Here we are! Safe and sound. The time is now uhhh… Thank you for riding the Metro! And remember, when you ride with Chrysler, you ride the future!”
The doors slide open and the Ameristream’s passengers erupt outward like a clotted mass from a slit jugular, a manic coagulate of bodies pumped along the Metro’s darkened arteries and through its congested heart. The onboarding and offloading passengers flow past one another like a transfusion.
The pigeon lobs itself from its seat, strolls calmly ahead of the crowd, blind and entitled to its right-of-way, narrowly avoiding footfall after footfall, and leaves behind a happy little splatter of guano across the LuvFoam®.
“Mother…” Life is beautiful. “…fucker.”
Without a word, the Lud holsters his phablet, rolls up his sleeves over his Neaderthal forearms, and hauls himself bodily into the crowd.
I step in behind him, resigned to my fate. It’s another day on the beat.
In the MTAPD, beats are freeform. No rhyme or reason in methodology dictates a patrolperson’s path through the Metro. While Lugosi is a common stop on our beat, the Lud and I can conceivably, if never in practice, take our patrol anywhere underground. Most days, each cop will have his or her own primary assignment—a fixer, a train patrol, or a special assignment—but we’re free to improvise. The idea is so officers can, according to the MTAPD Patrolperson’s Essential Handbook & Guide to Subterranean Law Enforcement, 15th ed., Vol. 2, “respond dynamically to the economic, cultural, and criminal ecosystems for which the Metro’s nonlinear transit architecture provides niches.” But it also offers plenty of opportunity to Fuck Around.
Which is a big plus since Fucking Around is the unofficial modus operandi by which we beat cops familiarize ourselves with the ever-rotating cast of users on our patrols.
And nobody is better at Fucking Around than the Lud and me. When we Fuck Around, it’s professional.
The second the hardworn soles of my boots strike the platform I catch a squirmy knot in my stomach of that fishy sort of insidiousness for which a transit cop develops a special gland after about a decade on the beat, after any hope for promotion and better pay have soured and fermented into what’s called—for lack of a better term—damn fine police work.
Call it a hunch. Call it instinct. Call it experience.
Call it a feeling in the gut.
Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just something I ate. Maybe it’s that stinging nettle, pineapple, and Chickenoma® chimichanga I had for dinner last night at Tía Bruja’s Hex-Mex Cantina and Grill casting a blight on my middle-aged kishkes.
Whatever it is, it’s been building all morning.
I’d arrived at the stationhouse around 6:45 and immediately pigeonholed myself into a stall in the Locker Room. I breathed deep intestinal breaths, my stomach inflating and deflating like a baby’s, and attempted to separate my atman from my bowels. This is a little trick Colleen from our district’s psych squad has been pushing on me during lunch hour meditation sessions, which Captain Loomis ordered me to attend Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to maintain and regulate my duties. Meanwhile, of course, while I’m refining my downward-facing dog and arriving at whole new strata of enlightenment with my corpse pose, the Lud’ll be in the Squad Lounge porking down whole bentofuls of whatever slopping, calorie-rich rations his wife Maria packed him for lunch. Nothing fazes the Lud. You could punch a clock by the son of a bitch’s bowel movements. I had it on good authority—namely his wife—that the Lud drags himself home every evening on the Λ Line, steps through his apartment door, kisses Maria, pats his daughters’ heads, one by one, tallest to shortest, all six of them, and drops a prepackaged, heftily masculine load before sitting down to dinner.
The thought of it only made me all the more constipated.
At half past seven I’d given up. While everyone else on the morning tour was in Roll Call, I slapped together a uniform from fragments piled at the bottom of my locker. White socks, off-white tighty-whities, black pants, black boots, black hat, narrow black tie (permanently noosed for emergency exits), black carbon fiber cuffs, black whomper, an MTAPD Service Issue MetroCard, phablet, and badge. I couldn’t find a shirt so I took one out of the Lud’s locker and threw a windbreaker over it to hide the sergeants’ stripes.
Whompers are these spherical nonlethal parametric sonic emission and oscillation resonators which the MTAPD provides its transit cops as opposed to authentic, death-dealing phalloid ballistic armaments the likes of which the surface police pack. The idea is to limit potential harm to bystanders, but we make do, nonetheless.
I flipped over the badge and it snapped an up-to-date animated holopic, measuring my facial expression for heart rate, surface skin temperature, and estimated colonic pressure, all to calculate a general aura of intent to commit brutality—part of the department’s Measure Your Transit Officer’s Psychological & Emotional State 24/7 PR initiative. It caught me mid-swallow. I don’t know how long I stared at the pic, trying to determine if I represented a fascist threat to civil society. But there I was, distilled and codified into a three-by-five pattern of municipally owned pixels: Officer Ariel Josef Eichel, MTAPD, District 19, badge no. 188K7. I appeared lanky, shoulderless, and goat-necked. According to the date on the badge, yesterday had been my birthday. I’d turned thirty-eight. In the pic, my throat bobbed and bobbed like I was choking on something I could never bring myself to say.
But what’s worse, what really sets my innards into self-destruct mode, is that it’s clear to me the Lud feels something too.
Coming off the train, my partner drops a hand on his whomper and casts his beady, browbeaten eyes at the other users. He cases them for the slightest probable cause for suspicion. The lip hairs of his broomy, well-groomed copstache ruffle like the feelers of a deputized sea creature brainlessly sifting particles of criminality out of the Metro’s tepid waters.
The Lud hmmphs.
“Hmmph?” I say.
“Hmmph…” says the Lud.
It’s the closest thing to a word I’ve heard him utter since we left the One-Nine. It comes from deep in the throat. Prehistoric. Pre-language. A clacking of small rocks in a cave. It is the hmmph of humanity burning itself for the first time on fire of its own design.
His phablet piiings. He draws it, reads over the message, taps a response, and holsters it again without telling me what it says. He eyeballs the crowd like an old west sheriff scanning the bleak horizon. I stand blinking at him, waiting. He claps me on the shoulder once and beelines for the escalators.
Users take one look at the Lud barreling down on them and frantically mine their purses and pockets for their MetroCards—verification of legitimate usage of the Metro, legitimate behavior, legitimate existence.
Whereas I’m about as hardboiled as a plastic Easter egg stuffed with Laffy Taffy and rub-off tattoos, Sgt. Jeffrey Ludinski is a real cop’s cop. He operates on a subconscious casserole of beat cop machismo, an invertebrate’s lack of self-awareness, and a brand of mustache shampoo (for body and shine) which I swear is mutagenic, long ago wiring his copstache to his brain. He stands a head shorter than me, but he’s bulky, big-wristed, and built custom for the job. His father was a cop, his mother a dispatcher. It is a union so cliché that in a billion-billion parallel universes it would still only ever produce the Lud.
Before we’re even halfway across the platform, he’s has slapped a dozen or so hasty summonses on the all-too-suspecting ridership. The summonses are for offenses ranging from Criminally Misjudged Attempt at Ranged Disposal of Litter to Improper Engagement with Third Party-Sponsored Transit Artwork, when a guy wiped his frittata-sopped hand on a bucolic mural of aboveground parklife.
But the Lud’s not smiling. There’s no pep in his patrol, no pizzazz in the way he pecks out infractions on his phablet. A pitiful lack of cruelty underlies the tenor of his lectures on civic responsibility. His mustache is lusterless.
Along the northbound rail of the platform, a Ford economy class pulls into station. Over the station intercom, the bloodthick, disembodied voice of Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow eight forty-five. Sank you for riding ze Metro!”
Around the platform the user lifeform frizzes and frays, splitting, budding, and reproducing exact copies that board trains or hop onto the escalators. Under the brutal regime of numbers, all are swept along. Occasionally, individuals will take form, coalescing into shape, and wander off, confused and becoming somehow alone in the swarm. They gaze like stroke victims into the tangle of colored lines on Metro maps, drooling paralytic wonderment. The trains are antlike blips traversing the corridors of a hive. A few users locate something there, possibly themselves, possibly some likewise nameless thing they’ve lost, but others only blink and mutter, finding themselves nowhere and everywhere all at once. Each and every individual eventually dissolves, anonymously, back into the crowd. All the city’s collateral lives, with their ten thousand destinations and ten thousand points of departure, thread and overlap in the Metro. And the Lud and I weave among them. The Lud zigs while I zag. We slip like a loose strand in the users’ knotted itineraries, threatening to either unravel it or hold it all together. After fourteen years on the job, I’m still not sure which.
As far as I can tell I witness no felonies, no pickpocketing, no opportunistic stabbing or groping. Flow and setting inertia are optimal. Zero turbulence, acceptable levels of idleness. The stampede is casual. Users remain as calm as barbiturated MooCows® rolling eagerly to slaughter and inevitable burgerdom. By the MTA Hub’s standards, the traffic in Lugosi this morning doesn’t measure Heavy or even Mildly Burdensome, but it isn’t exactly Light or Stressfully Brisk, either. The station appears firmly planted in the goldilocks zone of public transportation. On a morning like this, an explorer from another planet might mistake the Metro as being inhabited by intelligent lifeforms.
I follow the Lud around a pillar obscured in the advertisement glow of a holographic bottle of Johnson & Johnson anti-itch powder being sprinkled liberally on the upturned pink rump of a giggling newborn. On the other side, a cadre of enviroflagellants are placing pamphlets full of bullet-pointed warnings against pscyhometeorology and the city above’s Climate Control Apparatus on a fold-out table. After they flash us their MTA-issued License to Proselytize, the Lud gives them the nod and they carry on. They strip off their matching sky-blue t-shirts—ones with puffy raincloud logos—and set about to whipping themselves with cats o’ nine tails lashed together out of hyperactived thermoelectric fibers while chanting demands for a 70% chance of scattered and thunderstorms and a corrective citywide dose of inhibited self-worth on Thursday afternoon.
There is such an edge to the normality in Lugosi this morning I could cut myself. So, of course, the Lud is having none of it.
He hits the escalator two steps at a time, bounding, heaving with flatfoot conviction, and strong-arms his way over anyone riding peacefully toward the concourse. Something’s up. An undercurrent of nervousness guides our beat. Something in the Delinquistat® report, something I missed during Roll Call. And it’s waiting for us on the concourse.
I step one foot onto the escalator, then the other, and ride dutifully in the Lud’s wake. The well-way is brimming with holograms of company mascots. Lombardi the Ludicrust Pizza LampreyTM showers me with buy-one-get-one-half-off coupons on feta- and calamari-stuffed crust mediums. The Nudelreich NudelfürherTM hails me with glorious free samples of Überspätzle®. Wally the WalrusTM, wearing his fur-lined arctic explorer’s getup, offers both of us a chance to win a personal concert from urban baroque sensation Charelz the First on the luxury-class Aston Martin DB9000 Des Moines, courtesy of Wally’s Winter Wonderplace, an arcology up in Sector 58 shaped like an iceberg. The Lud hikes right through the hologram, not giving it a second thought, while I wave Wally aside, saying, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Sign me up for two, whatever,” without considering the consequences.
The escalator dumps us right into the thick of the Lugosi Station concourse and my blood and bowels both run cold.
Gaping before us, the scene foretells unfathomable doom. Fog seeps over the concourse from a median of wintered, artificial plantlife. Stone and half-timbered franchise storefronts line both its sides and the broad, gothic mezzanine overhanging it, all to compliment the motif of ruined opulence in the Transylvania Trails super-tenement above Lugosi Station. The Lud staggers out into the rubber, cobbled thoroughfare, hand on his whomper. Strobing like a beacon in the fog along the molded arc of a Craft-A-Crotchling custom fertilization clinic’s signboard is a hologram reading GRAND OPENING TODAY!
The clinic’s pink doors have been folded apart to warmly welcome the squirmy queue of customers besieging the pale, mucoidal film of a force field that blocks the narrow slit of the vestibule. In half an hour, they will be loosed inside to be fertilized and/or implanted with Craft-A-Crotchling’s latest line of designer spunk and ova. The storefront emerges out of the faux medieval stonework like a portal to another plain of existence.
I hang back in the midst of the user flow and take it all in. I draw my phablet, hand trembling, and open up the morning’s Duty Roster. The Lud mutters to himself and paces in a tight, mean circle, his mustache aflutter, before working his way along the non-compliant ruin of tents and sleeping bags the customers have abandoned in the middle of the thoroughfare. The pressure is building. He can’t hold it in much longer. Giving the Craft-A-Crotchling, and with it the Metro, the city above, and the entire felonious universe, a single all-encompassing grunt like, You don’t think I know what’s going on here, bub? the Lud plants himself in front of the clinic’s vaginal entranceway with all the conviction of a judiciary tampon and says, “Mary, mother of God.”
“Certainly looks that way,” I tell him.
He glares back in my direction, beads of sweat huddling between his hat band and brow, but he’s looking past me. “Whaddya make of that?”
Across from the clinic, a chipper gathering of skinny youths, bedecked in loincloths, are holding hands and forming what looks like a prayer circle under the polystyrene boughs of a bare black oak in the concourse’s median. They close their eyes and sway and hum. Nearby they’ve strung handmade crucifixes depicting a profoundly browed Jesus nailed to a megalith along the lower branches of the fake oak. A sign offers the crucifixes for sale at $29.99 a messiah—a real steal, I guess.
“Paleochristians?” I say. “A Craft-A-Crotchling might fit on their protest agenda. Probably have to keep an outrage quota to maintain tax exempt status.”
“We should let them burn this place to the ground.”
“I have serious doubts, Lud, on whether they get enough sugars in their diet for any severe rabble-rousing.”
“It’s unnatural,” says the Lud.
“Not eating grains?”
“No, I mean…” He waves a hand back at the clinic and its customers. “Whatsamatta with making babies the old-fashioned way, you know? It’s tried and true, to say the least.”
“Like rutting in caves?”
“If you ask me,” he says, but I knew better, “what these people really need isn’t no baby.”
I wait. A beat passes, and I give in. “Okay, Lud, so what do they need instead?”
“Huh?” He looks at me, genuinely confused. “Search me, Ari. I’m not their fucking marriage counselor or their priest. All’s I’m saying is the last thing they need is any ill begotten Franken-spawn.”
“Ill begotten…? Lud, all right, forget it. Just tell me what the fuck we’re doing here.” I flick through the Duty Roster, searching for our assignments. “This says we’re supposed to be on train duty today—on the Ford K9000.”
“It’s not due in Lugosi for another hour. Gandy and his rookie, whatshisname…Benezi, were assigned fixers for the grand opening,” he says. “But they called in. Psych leave. Both of ‘em,” he says and shrugs. “So I reassigned us and put Dougal on the train.”
“You reassigned us.”
“I reassigned us.”
“To a fucking grand opening.”
“Gandy’s mother passed away.”
“Last time was a false alarm, Ari.”
“But he held a funeral… I sent flowers!”
“He says he got her mixed up with somebody else,” the Lud says. “Says he didn’t even know his mother was still alive until she died. You know how those retirement arcologies can be. The one my old man lives in has got so many geezers roaming around…”
“Are you saying they’d lost Gandy’s mom?”
“Half the time you can’t tell who’s who in the place and neither can they, not even themselves.”
“That’s because you never visit. No one does. Gandy probably forgot what his mother even looked like.”
“Ari, I’m not one to bemoan the state of elder care in this fine city, you know. Nor the depths of sleaze Tom Gandy is willing to dig himself through to get outta work. But I do know we got a job to do. So,” he says, drawing his phablet and stylus, “plan’s the same as always. We protect,” he says, pointing his stylus at the customers and protestors in turn, “and we serve, whether they like it or not.”
So as the Lud brings down his size twelve-and-a-half boot of justice onto the line of expectant mothers- and fathers-to-be, I zero in on the Paleochristians’ refreshment cart.
Pipe music swells over an exo-temporal radio pulling a tachyon feed straight out of the Late Pleistocene, adding a Lost World ambiance to the gathering at the edge of the median’s woodland. A campfire crackles and extinct animals caterwaul in the prehistoric wilderness. When I approach, a Caucasian twenty-something male wearing a headdress of papier-mâché bird feathers and a Hugo Boss loincloth cut to minimum legal coverage offers me a cup of cocoa.
Before I even have the opportunity to ask, he assures me the cocoa belongs to a genetic lineage untampered with by human cultivation. Non-allergenic. The cup itself is a cacao shell hollowed out by hand and by stone, he says, so it’s clearly legit as fuck.
“Sir,” I say, “are you attempting to bribe me with a hot, unsweetened beverage?”
He jerks the cup back, scalding himself. “Whoa, no way man, I… I mean, please officer,” he says and holds the cup out ceremoniously, “accept this offering of my tribe’s goodwill toward the MTAPD.”
I can smell the man’s unbrushed teeth when he smiles.
“For all the sacrifices its warriors, such as yourself, are asked to make whilst defending our Metro’s uhh…trailheads.”
“Trailheads,” I say. I take the cup and sip it. “I like that. Trailheads. Not so much the part about sacrifice.” The drink is sugarless and so hot it tastes like liquid brimstone. “Mmmmmm…” I smack my tongue in an attempt to defibrillate my taste buds.
“Pretty tasty, huh?”
“You do my tribe a great honor. It was my ex-wife’s recipe.”
“She must be proud.”
He weaves his fingers together solemnly and rests his elbows on the refreshment cart between us. “Please, tell me what it is this humble servant of the Chieftain of Man can do for the transit police this blessed morning.”
He identifies himself as Chief Len of the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid but I run his MetroCard for good measure. The MTA database has the chief’s real name as Lenny Russel, 34, “self-employed” but previously a “gastroneer” for Hoobajoob Wholesome Foods at their arcology upsector. Currently, he is receiving his Basic Municipal Income at an address in the Sweltering Brooks tenement complex in Sector 66 just above Danny De Vito Station. A parent’s place or an ex-lover’s, I imagine. Probably not his real address but being a transit cop, it’s none of my business where a man hangs his loincloth at the end of the day so long as he’s not letting anything untoward slip out of it on his daily commute.
While I’m running the chief’s info, I give other tribespeople a once over. The female members are industriously crushing flowers picked from the parklands into a colorful goop and painting their pulpboard protest signage with pithy sayings. Huddled together underneath a NO URINATING ideogram among a copse of evergreens, the men converse gravely, passing a single cup of cocoa among themselves. Every few seconds, the top half of one of their painted faces pops up from the huddle and gazes across the thoroughfare at the line of Craft-A-Crotchling customers like they’re a herd of plump gazelle. Either they’re planning an act of terrorism or what they’re going to hunt and gather for lunch later. Both seem like probable violations of the transit code.
“All right, Chief,” I say. “Can I call you Chief?”
“Tell me if I’m not mistaken here, but…” I almost take another sip of cocoa, out of a cop’s habit to imbibe whatever hot beverage happens to be at hand, but think twice. “Chief, I’ll get to the point.”
I narrow my gaze to measure his level of snark and unconsciously drink the cocoa. “Chief, I feel like it would be a violation of the rights ensured the citizenry of this city by such-and-such article of MTA policy for me to cite you and your fellow tribesmembers for this demonstration of your beliefs.”
“An honorable decision, worthy of your station.”
“So I’ll assume,” I tell him, “by the fact that you’re a man of the cloth, however scanty said cloth may be, that all the appropriate forms and permissions and sacrifices have been filled, filed, and offered unto the MTA to make this all legal.”
“Good, good.” I drink the cocoa. “I want you to do just one thing for me, then, okay chief?”
“For you…” He gazes at the nametag poking from underneath the jacket. “Sergeant Ludinski.”
“Eichel,” I tell him, zipping the jacket, and tap my badge, which projects my holopic. “Just Officer Eichel.”
“Officer Eichel,” the chief says, opening his palms to me, “for this honor you do us, I would offer my only daughter to you in marriage upon the day of her first blood.”
A swig of cocoa U-turns up and out of my nostril and I nearly double over. “A simple ‘thank you’…” I cough. “…will be just fine, chief.”
I take another sip to drown the cough. Above us, the fiberglass needles of a spooky pine beat softly in the busy air. Pigeons coo in the Styrofoam undergrowth.
I nod over at the Craft-A-Crotcling. “So just one more thing,” I say and swallow. “You see my partner over there, Lenny?”
Only the Lud’s ass end is currently visible to us, poking between the flaps of some customers’ tent.
“Yes?” Chief Lenny says.
“Then let us simply behold…”
The Lud’s tossing belongings haphazardly out into the concourse. Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, toilet paper, sacks of waste, carryout and delivery canisters, nanofridges, natural sunrise alarm clocks. He flings out a couple toddler-shaped bipedal Your Motherhood Starts Today!TM soligrams. They wail and babble on the floor in tantrums. The constructs have been preloaded with Craft-A-Crotchling’s fall catalogue so parents-to-be can test drive phenotypes—like blue eyes, red hair, or a grandfather’s nasal structure coupled with his mood disorder—before committing to an embryo. The soligrams would be easily mistakable for real human offspring if it weren’t for the hammer and screwdriver-crossed vulva logo of Craft-A-Crotchling stamped onto their foreheads.
Lying face down on the floor tiles behind the Lud is an elderly woman in handcuffs. She calls the Lud a cave pig. An older gent, who I guess is her husband, paces around her, his hands worming in his pockets. A young woman shouts at the Lud from her firmly held spot in line—daughter maybe—and demands to know if the elderly lady is being detained. She threatens to have the Lud’s badge if he doesn’t answer.
Briefly, my partner backs out of the tent, sees me looking his way, yells, “Got myself a three-three-eight-seven over here, Ari!” and dives back into the tent.
Where patrolleth the Lud so goeth the law.
“Now,” I say to Chief Lenny, sipping hard on the cocoa, “I want you to keep everything nice and lacking in holy war over here. Because trust me when I tell you, chief, that you do not want that cave pig will piss on your powwow so fast you’ll wonder who danced the rain dance.”
Chief Lenny pokes a finger in his ear and digs around. He flicks out something organic. “So whassa three-three-eight-seven?” he says.
Needless to say, I don’t have a clue.
Having the Lud around these fourteen years, I’ve never really bothered memorizing transit or police codes. Sure, the ones we get on a regular basis I’ve picked up involuntarily. They’re burned in, crystalized, got their own synaptic routes, almost spinal. I respond to them on reflex. Things like an eight-seven-eight (Disorderly and/or Raucous Commuters), a twelve-oh-twelve (Unauthorized Lifeform in Right-of-Way of Train), an oh-nine-thirty (Body of Unknown Character Found, Unclear Cause of Death), a five-two-five (Biochemical Spill of Anonymous Origin), a ten-eight-forty (Unsavory Homo sapiens troglodytes Transient Activity), or a two-two-two (Large Bothersome Flock of Pigeons), plus a handful of others—robberies, muggings, pickpockets, unsanctioned graffiti, etc. But no human brain should be able to call up every code in the MTA database willy-nilly. That’s the jurisdiction of panhuman intelligences like the Metro’s disembodied ego Central or the MTAPD’s dispatcher. Either that, or you could be a cop who, all through his childhood, listened to his dead mother’s voice call out codes over his father’s police comm. That’d work, as well. Then again, I’m not entirely convinced that the Lud has a human brain, per se.
I find myself sipping cocoa, again, as I check the MTAPD Infraction Index on my phablet. The three-three-eight-seven is listed under a section heading with the lively title of Transgression against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, which spans a range of criminal endeavors including, but not limited to, cannibalism, the use of weaponry banned by the 2197 Reunification Treaty of Topeka, and the offering of a payday loan service. In what way the Lud is interpreting this is beyond my capacity for judiciary sadism.
“You know what, don’t get your loincloth in a tizzy over it,” I tell Chief Lenny. “It’s police business. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
I cradle the cacao shell and sidle my way through passersby across the thoroughfare. The second I leave, the tribesmen swarm their chief. It’d take one underachieving rookie—or an MTAPD veteran the likes of Tom Gandy—not to smell something other than cocoa brewing, but between the Paleochristians, the Craft-A-Crotchling customers, and the Lud, the bits of pineapplely Chickenoma® and stomach acid rising in my throat tell me to worry the most over whatever it is the Lud’s plotting. Call it experience.
“So what’s the deal?”
The Lud’s elderly detainee blinks up at me. She looks like a geriatric turtle with her neck craned up under her osteoporosis hump. Her freshly permed hair is full of pluck. She and her husband have to be pushing hard on a century—clearly not wealthy enough to afford complete age reversal therapy but they’re on a telomerase regimen, at the least.
“You cave pigs make me want to vomit in my mouth!” she yells.
“That makes the two of us,” I tell her as I watch the Lud scavenge the tent for probable cause.
One of the soligrams toddles into my leg and calls me ‘Dada.’ I kick it hard and it slides off into the thoroughfare. The elderly detainee’s husband hounds in right behind the Lud, nodding to everything my partner is saying. The younger woman calls this “a miscarriage of the law.”
The perps’ names are Martin and Loma Lopez. According to the database, they live in a well-to-do tenement in Sector 12 called Sarasota Coves. It’s a swank place, a cluster of geodesics enclosing sweeping artificial beachfront. Clothing optional. Healthy pensions, not.
“This was supposed to be a beautiful day!” Loma squirms on the floor. “We were going to design our grandbaby this morning!” Her mouth puckers, jowls quiver, and her eyes well up, all on cue. “My dead son’s son! We never have this trouble with the surface police—the real police!”
Martin coughs hard and glares at his wife.
“Lady, you climbed down into this hole yourself,” I say.
“Please, please, please just leave us alone,” the younger woman begs from her firmly held spot in line. “My dead husband was a cop!”
The words DEAD and COP hang in the air like they’ve been printed there. The Lud crabcrawls out of the tent, looks up at the words, and snaps his head in her direction. “Who’s a dead cop?”
The tears tremble in her ducts. “And so was my father-in-law,” she says and points at the old man, who is suddenly seized by an acute coughing spell. “But he’s retired now. My husband, he… he… he died in the line of duty.”
“In the line of duty, even,” says the Lud, standing and needlessly brushing himself off.
“We had his sperm frozen when he graduated from the academy,” she says, “just in case.”
The Lud eyes the old man. “A cop, huh?”
He hacks up a lung, or three.
The Lud struts past the old man up to the widowed daughter-in-law. There’s a wiggle in his index finger, like he’s twirling a vestigial billy club. He lifts his head a bit and tightens his mouth, as if he’s about to let the mustache do the talking.
He says, “Where was he assigned?”
“Thirty-seventh…” she says.
“Thirty-seventh,” says the Lud. He glances at me. “And you’re telling me he died on the job?”
She sniffles in affirmation.
The old man staggers toward the woman, wheezing.
The Lud cocks his mustache, ready to fire. “See that’s funny,” he says.
“It’s,” she says, eyes brimming, “funny?”
The Lud scratches the back of his head, letting his hat fall a bit forward, and glances down the line of customers like he’s embarrassed. A couple behind the widow look excited, thinking they’re about to move up in the queue.
“Funny,” the Lud says, “‘cause the Dirty-Sevent, as we call it down here, hasn’t lost a man in forty-eight years. I should know,” says the Lud, “the last man killed in the line of duty was my own father.”
I check the time. We haven’t even been on the beat for an hour and the Lud is already going full Lud. It is going to be a long fucking day.
Hands in prayer mode, the widow brings her bare arms to rest on her childless bosom. “He…” she says, her voice catching in the pit of her throat. “My husband and father-in-law weren’t cave— weren’t, I mean, transit cops,” she says. “They were surface police.”
The old man stops coughing. For a second I think he’s died. He swallows hard, looking a bit woozy.
“Martin,” the old lady says, “are you feeling okay?”
The Lud turns on the elderly couple and draws his phablet and stylus so fast they seem to pop into existence. “Well, well,” he says, “this changes everything of course…”
“It does?” the widow says.
“For fuck’s sake, Lud!” I throw myself between my partner and his perps. “Your father didn’t die in the line of duty. Retired, fat, and miserable as he is, he’s still kicking. What’d these people do in the first place anyway?”
He nods at the daughter-in-law. “She didn’t do a thing, but those two…” He points the long accusatory stylus of the law at the husband and wife. “Their Sojourning Seniors Season Couples MetroCards are three days expired.”
“Three days expired?”
“Three days, Ari.”
“That’s your three-three-eight-seven?” I look deep into the beady hollows of his eyes. Soulless, pitiless. “How exactly, Lud, is an expired MetroCard a Transgression against the Moral Fiber of the Universe?”
“Against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, Ari.”
“Oh, I am sorry.”
He shrugs. “I was gonna just slap ‘em with a Notice to Renew on Punishment of Nine Months Pedestrianism, but accounting for their age, I thought it’d be cruel and unusual. Then the old bag,” he says, “starts to giving me lip,” he says, “so I’m thinking Conspiracy to Exploit the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277 for the Purpose of Unfair Ridership Advantages. But, you know, the three-three-eight-seven seems like a happy middle-ground.”
“Cannibalism. That’s your idea of a ‘happy middle-ground’?”
“It carries a more lenient minimum fine than Conspiracy to Exploit.”
Before I spit out cocoa and whatever reflexive obscenities are appropriate to the situation, a deep dull bell tolls nine times over the station intercom, like one in a Transylvanian castle belfry, and Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow nine uh’clock!”
The line of prospective parents outside the Craft-A-Crotchling issue forth a collective, pent-up animal squee. They hop and bunch like an epileptic millipede. Before either the Lud or I can register what’s happening, the force field barring the clinic’s entranceway powers down with a low wooooooooooommm—a sound like I imagine a life-altering epiphany would make—and droves of women, and some men, rush forward to be inseminated like it’s going out of style.
Speaker drones hover over the entrance and swell and thump with Charelz the First’s revamp of The Blue Danube as a hired performer in a powered exosuit shaped like a giant newborn, with blond hair twisted up in a unisex swirl, does a running knee-slide out of the clinic’s birth canal and initiates a breakdance. The performer’s face pants and reddens and heaves between the suit’s puckered, nipple-ready lips. The head on this thing is massive. An encephalitic subspecies of human. The neck is weak. The head bobbles with the rhythm. I wonder if this being is representative of one the designer phenotypes Craft-A-Crotchling is rolling out this morning. The end result of selection by parental one-upmanship in the baby genius department. The oncoming ruling caste of toddling super-geniuses able to jab color-coded 4-dimensional stars, hearts, fishes, and tesseracts through corresponding 3-dimensinal holes in a Fisher-Price Baby’s First Topology Sorter®.
Behind this nightmare a platoon of eager family planning clinicians stand along the clinic’s opening, attempting to control the flow of customers inside. The widowed daughter-in-law is in near panic, turning between her former in-laws and the Craft-A-Crotchling, but in the end, she opts for the next generation and powerwalks straight for the vulvar entranceway.
Maybe the Lud is right. Maybe we should let the Paleochristians burn the clinic to the ground.
Oh shit. The Paleos…
“Snap out of it. Time to drift off later,” says the Lud. He drags his elderly perp to her feet. “Protect! Serve something!”
From the opposite side of the thoroughfare comes a hornblast.
I turn and see Chief Lenny climbing one of the plastic oaks, an animal horn pressed to his lips. He puts all his non-fatty cardiological might into blowing. The trumpeting reverberates down the concourse as the tribeswomen line up along the median and shake their flowery protest signage: THE WOMB IS NATURE’S SACRED TEST TUBE and IF JESUS HAD INTENDED US TO DESIGN BABIES HE WOULD’VE MADE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS WITH DROP-DOWN MENUS!
The tribesmen, on the other hand, are nowhere in sight.
I cover the cacao cup with one hand to keep from spilling and ford the stream of Metro users moving down the thoroughfare. For their credit they just go about their business, ignoring or simply not noticing the Paleochristians or the Craft-A-Crotchling customers. I scan the median for movement. Nothing but a lifeless wall of plastic plants all similar shades of gothic.
“Tribal warriors,” I say to myself in hopes that naming my prey will actualize the hunt. Maybe they’ll come to me. “Tribal warriors. Batshit zealots with a primitivist fetish. Batshit zealots with a…”
And that’s when it hits.
A crawly ichthyoid thing flops over in my stomach and dies. My colon lurches. My diaphragm heaves. Neither end knows whether to open up or pucker shut. My gut and my head churn. My intestines knot. My brain uncoils and loosens. It squirms along my esophagus. Vomit slides up the back of my throat while the velvet autumnal leaves in the median surf along the currents of conditioned air blowing from vents hidden in the undergrowth. This plastic forest writhes. Layer upon layer of careful hues reveal themselves like the slow, complex rainbow of a blackened room. Depthless, entangled, evolving. The plastic displays all the symptoms of authentic plantlife. They breathe and bask. The untapped soulstuff of polystyrene. Synthetic beings conjured from the selfsame polymeric soup as all other creatures but eons dead and process manufactured. Chief Lenny toots his maddening horn from the treetop while the tribeswomen hold hands and throat sing guttural hymnals in sync with the open-handed drumming on the exo-temporal. The melodies ripple over me. Scenes of quaint Ice Age cave life play in my brain. Lazy Saturdays spent mowing or watering the front grassland. Children chasing the megafauna down by the glacier. The good ole days when men were barely taxonomically men and women were wild animals to be dragged by bone-knotted ponytails and over whose affections a guy might club out the brains of his best friend since third hunt with his brand-new Black & Decker Rock-Tied-to-a-Stick-with-Catgut®.
My eyeballs trace the ageless kilometers of what could only be my arm, to where the cocoa inhabits my hand. The chocolate liquid steams in its organic cup like a Precambrian ocean pregnant with lungless ecosystems. The cacao shell the vessel of the world.
I attempt breathing. Fishlike. Newly amphibious.
I take a breath through my skin. I take a breath parsecs deep and it becomes abundantly clear to me, in a true volume of clarity inflating my chest cavity, that the fucking paleos have spiked their cocoa with a hallucinogen.
“Oh,” I say, dragging out the sound, “fuuuuuuuuck me.”
And in this moment, at the intake, the warriors of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid break from the treeline.
They charge past in slowmo, whooping and frothing, infused with cocoa. Avatars of a prehistoric manger-born god of battle. Each of them wields a noodly weapon—probably a leftover of the Perpetual War scavenged from some forgotten underground cache—with a mouthlike killing end that squirts forth warmly glowing splooge whenever one squeezes its ammunition bladder. Globs of this discharge strike the customers and clinicians and splatter, plastering them to the walls of the clinic’s storefront.
One hits near the Lud and glues his boots fast to the floor. He’s yelling curses at me and pointing down the thoroughfare.
I turn, following his indicating finger, and the concourse expands endlessly away from me—so far that the distance is darkened like I am peering into the span of a reflection’s reflection. I blink and stretch my eyelids, attempting to shutter out the limitless geometries. Then I see them… The elderly perps are hightailing it in the direction of the Φ Line platform, the old lady still in her handcuffs.
Somehow the Lud slips out of his boots and foots it after them down the thoroughfare in his socks, his whomper drawn. He spins back and looks me dead in the eyes. His mustache evolves and crawls over his face. He—not the mustache—says, “Ari! You hold down things here until I get back. I’m gonna nab these two collars.”
“Lud! Lud, they’ve poisoned me!” I tell him. “I’m tripping my fucking beytsim off over here!”
“Just call for backup if you can’t handle it,” he says. “Once I catch these bastards I gotta take one mean piss. Be back in two shakes of a jiffy.”
“Can’t you hold— Two shakes of a what?”
The Lugosi concourse bristles with war whoops and screams. A crowd of gawkers have gathered along the concourse, sipping coffee and snapping pictures.
Working their way along the corridor into the clinic’s uterine customer service lobby, Chief Lenny and his tribespeople have left a wake of quivering limbs and heads and torsos stuck-fast in the jellied emissions of the weapons dripping from the walls and pooling across the floor. The men fire indiscriminately while the women sing.
I am soaked in sweat and itching. I drop the rest of the half-empty cacao shell into a trash receptacle, out of habit, and something squawks bloody murder. A pigeon leaps out, flapping its useless wings, its featherless skin smoking with hot chocolate. It skitters across the thoroughfare, cooing angrily, threatening lawsuits. I strip off the windbreaker and draw my whomper from its holster. Protect and serve, I tell myself, possibly out loud—it’s hard to tell at this point. “Protect and serve…”
The whomper hums in my head, ready to scream.
On the intercom, the station AI says, “Ve are uhxperiencing non-standard foot traffic near ze Gahmma Line escalator. Be uhdvized, evuhryzing will be okay. Do not wuhrry. Zank you for riding…”
The motherly reassurance of the Metro’s announcement drapes over me like a calming blanket. I let myself feel the groundswell of trains beating paths along the darkened Γ and Φ Line tunnels beneath my feet and I breathe.
“Pleeze be uhdvized,” Bela Lugosi repeats, “evuhryzing isz fine.”
I follow the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid down the Craft-A-Crotchling’s birth canal.
On either side of me and above, the pink walls and ceiling throb and glisten with a mucosal sheen—a fussy veneer of sexual tissue dribbling with viscous weaponized mucilage. Out of the cooling discharge the outstretched limbs of victims flail and grasp at me, exposed heads heaving for air and pleading for release. I flatten myself against the spongy wall, sucking in, and slide along just out of their reach, saying, “Don’t touch me. Shh, be quiet. Nothing to see here. Shh.” Even the giant baby has been ensnared. The exosuit’s pistons whine as the occupant fights to break free. Its beheaded helmet piece looms like a prehistoric egg from the goop nearby. Out from the concourse, animals wail lasciviously over the Paleochristians’ exo-temporal. The canal is swamped with body heat. I am shedding sweat. Animal fear. Primal bafflement. Spinal contingencies. Hives break out along my throat and shoulders, pricking down my belly, firing off nerve endings at random. Invisible protohuman hairs prickle all over. It’s just a histamine response, I tell myself. It’s just the drug. Deadened action potential. I grip the whomper tighter and it vibrates. The weapon sings. I slog down the corridor, following the ragged and ulcerous throat-sung hymnals of the tribeswomen. Every step forward my feet pool, spreading like gelatin, elephant-like, tremendously heavy. I begin to stumble, feeling the urge to crawl. The Oedipal squirm back into oblivion. The womb that waits on the other side of dying. The Metro grows darker behind me the deeper I plunge. I remind myself I was born of a C-section—there is no metaphor here.
This is the inside of a store. Suspects ahead of me. No backup.
I proceed with caution.
From the concourse, a news drown sweeps down the corridor at breakneck speed, panning over the scene, beaming distress citywide. It corkscrews and flies around me, turning its all-exploiting eye on my willowish, drug-flustered being.
“The name’s TED-X33L, reporting for The Morning Commute. What’s the lowdown? Any comment on the situation…” Its lens focuses on the nametag of the uniform shirt I’m wearing. “…Sgt. Ludinski?”
“Ludinski?” Right then, training kicks in like excrement of a gland. It’s an old feeling, a cop feeling. It sputters to life out of a decade long coma. The pulsing organic architecture, its psychic overflow, becomes a terrain to be crossed. Reality’s crude and viscid dullness darkens the surreal pastels. Simple and manageable, entirely external. Third person. Zero conscience except for what the media provides. “Right. The name’s Ludinski. Listen, pal, you’ll wanna stay back. Police business.”
“Righty-o, sergeant!” the drone says.
It drops to a low-angle shot behind me, allowing the clinic’s birth canal to be framed between my knees. I see it as if I’m looking through the drone’s lens myself.
I glance back at the drone and yell down the corridor, “Stop! Police!” to solidify any Resisting Arrest charges with media evidence and trudge ahead, whomper primed.
The lobby is lined with an abundance of intersecting fallopian hallways. More victims are glued to the floor and walls.
After a few minutes, I stumble upon a lone paleo warrior squatting on his sculpted glutes at the entrance to a showroom filled with demo fetuses suspended in vats, knees splayed and warcrying, as he fires his noodle-gun at the people hiding inside. Thinly decayed teeth line the tribesman’s gums. He laughs so wide I’m afraid I might fall in.
He doesn’t notice me. I tiptoe up to the archway and brace myself against the wall. I turn my head sideways to keep reality from sliding back off. I hold my breath and level my whomper at him. Sweat runs down my face. The angles curl and wave under the tide of cocoa washing back over my brain. I measure the space between us. It’s either a few footsteps or a lightyear. I squint one eye to aim and wait for the dead, careful space between heartbeats and squeeze the whomper’s rubber ball-grip…
And a deafening pulse of non-lethal soundwaves fires right back in my face.
The single flat whomp of the shot plasters me against the wall and reverberates through the clinic and back out into the concourse. A green flash strikes like a light bulb burning out inside my skull. I fold up on the floor and stutter and spit and slap at my bleeding ears. No ringing. My ears are fried. My head swells, the skull bone becoming the rind of a melon. Gelatin grey matter sloshes in my brainpan. Bile roils up my throat, between my teeth, and I retch. Blood and stinging nettle and chunks of pineapple and Chickenoma® blow out all over the Lud’s uniform shirt.
At some point, between the wall and the floor, it occurs to me, the thought wiggling into shape, that I was holding the whomper backwards.
Whose fucking idea was it to make the goddamn things spherical in the first place?
The Paleochristian tribesman stares down and levels his weapon at me sprawled on the ground.
I say, “You’re underrrrrrr arrest, fuckface. Drop the…thing!”
He lowers the weapon, blinks at me, and hops over my body, scampering off deeper into the clinic to join the others.
I try to roll up and position my body to a pursuit vector but end up grawling toward a glowing red EXIT hologram. The news drone hovers around me, its lens focusing acutely on the blood, snot, stomach acid, and cocoa draining from my mouth, nostrils, ear holes, and tear ducts, while I pull myself across the lobby one arm at a time outstretched like an elastic, corn syrup-filled latex tube.
A heaviness seems to infuse the air as I cross the uterus. My lungs weigh me to the floor. It’s like breathing vaporized lead. The Metro. My brain. The gross weight of the entire city above arches over me, all threatening to cave in. Everything recedes. The birth canal extends darkly toward the concourse like a Metro tunnel. I attempt to pull myself upright, finding feet at the end of my legs.
And I laugh. All that’s left is laughter. It wells up and takes over.
Each guffaw a yawning gulf punctuated by heaves and stutters. The news drone encapsulates everything in its massive and singular eye. I stand giggling in the black pit of its gaze, my enlarged gourd tottering on my fragile neck, held upright on useless noodles of limbs. I chuckle and slide down the slick vaginal lining of the wall to the floor but never seem to reach it…
I lose all context. I am set adrift in amniotic nonsense
Everything fractures, expands, and differentiates.
I am bundling, compartment by compartment, into unconsciousness—the infused cocoa lets me feel every cerebral region fold up and close down. My tongue lolls like a dead cat, slaked with fur.
When my eyes open again, without my telling them to or even suggesting it, I find myself staring up at the Jovian bulge of a low-hanging crotch on a pair of crisply starched transit cop uniform pants.
“Lud,” I say, a headache blooming in my skull. “Lud, I think they got away. We should… What are you doing?”
He pulls a Rezzipen® out of my neck. A cool liquid crawls through my veins as a stream of medical nanites hulk out my liver and kidneys and run my body through a hyperdrive detox to cancel out the cocoa’s mystic poison. I vomit again, all over the Lud’s uniform—not the one I’m wearing.
He stares down at the puke covering him. “Maybe I should be asking you that,” he says and lifts me to my feet.
He half-carries/half-drags me out of the Craft-A-Crotchling’s entranceway, slipping every few steps in his socks, and sets me down on a foam chunk of gothic ruin in the median. Beside me, cuffed to one another around the trunk of a plastic palm, is the elderly couple. Blood seeps from the man’s ears and nose. A paramedic is stuffing living MediSponges® up his nostrils but they’re soaking up fast. The thoroughfare and Craft-A-Crotchling are crawling with Spillage & Sanitation crewmen in orange, form-fitting Tyvek® coveralls. They’re spraying down the noddle-gun ammunition with solvent. It fizzes and dissolves, the sharp vapor escaping through the station’s ventilation ducts.
“Your friends are holed up inside still,” the Lud says. I have to keep my eyes level with the steady plane of his mustache to keep from falling over. He jabs a thumb back at the clinic. “Some negotiators from the Terror Management Squad are inside cleaning up.”
“Hostages?” I ask him.
“If only it were something as fun,” he says. “They’re just trying to get them down off of whatever it is they doped you with. The TM sergeant said something about upgrading the situation to a five-nine-seven.” H watches me blink at him. “Mass Existential Trauma of Terroristic Origin brought on by Biochemical Weaponry,” he says. “Self-induced in this case. Probably end up flushing them out with nanites before it’s all said and done.”
“I’d hate to be the poor fuck who has to write this up.”
“Oh?” he says and smiles. I hate it when he smiles. It’s unnatural, like he’s just showing you his teeth. “All of those,” he says, drawing his phablet and tapping open a viewscreen, “are your collars.” He hands me the phablet and thumps the nametag on my shirt. “Congratulations, Sgt. Ludinski.”
On the phablet is what might be the thirtieth straight replay on The Morning Commute of me marching into the Craft-A-Crotchling with my weapon drawn and whomping myself in the face while the words SGT. LUDINSKI OF THE MTAPD ON THE SCENE OF THE GRAND OPENING OF THE CRAFT-A-CROTCHLING IN LUGOSI STATION THIS MORNING WHICH HAS PROLAPSED INTO CHAOS rolling across the screen underneath.
“Prolapsed…” I say. “Fuck me.”
“I gotta say,” the Lud says, “this Ludinski is a helluva cop. Despite having whomped himself on a live newsfeed, he somehow managed to make sixteen arrests. It’s fucking commendation worthy if I say so myself.”
“Well,” I say, tossing him the phablet, “it’s an honor just to serve.”
He slaps me on the knee. “Just hold tight. I gotta run these measly three-three-eight-sevens, sergeant.”
At this point, news drones have swooped in from all directions, picking at the crime scene’s carcass and taking testimonials from the cast of witnesses and victims still loitering about. The victims snuggle under trauma blankets and drink nostalgic comfort beverages. I must’ve been out for a while. The elderly perps’ ex-daughter-in-law is telling TED-X33L and The Morning Commute’s thirty million viewers about her “late husband’s wish” for a blond, curly haired, mathematically gifted, athletic, aesthetically dimpled, kind-hearted, broad-chested and broad-shouldered, never depressed or disagreeable, strongly chinned, resilient, well-adjusted, deeply voiced, blue-eyed, and entrepreneurial son, who would never, ever abandon his mother in times of need, had been stolen from her by the Paleochristian maniacs and incompetent MTAPD patrolmen. Tears trickle over her ample, newsworthy widow’s cheeks.
A Spillage & Sanitation crewman walks over to me, drops my whomper into my lap, and says, “Here you go, pal. Think this might belong to you. It was in a pile of crap we found.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks a ton.”
I pull whole strands of gunk from the weapon’s resonator. The discharge has lost its warmth and glow but not its potency for stickiness. It stretches between my fingers like doughy snot. Yesterday had been my fucking birthday. I like telling myself I forgot. I didn’t forget. All day yesterday I paced in my apartment wearing nothing but the ceremonial garb of a pair of day old briefs, pretending to have forgotten and hoping someone, the Lud or even Tom Gandy, would call so I could demonstrate my forgetfulness, my lack of sentimentality, but no one did. Self-pity is best left a hermit’s hobby. Thirty-eight years old. Fourteen of them spent on the fucking job. Half of my life. As a kid, I would dream of being a transit cop. I would ride the trains alone or stand on platforms for hours after school and peer into the tunnels, into those new winding caverns and the prewar fathoms of the Old Metro so stuffed with mystery, with its abandoned stations decaying in the depths like ghost towns and its unknowable mutant lifeforms prowling its spans of endless night. It was a borderland full of promise. It was like looking at manhood through the eyes of a pubescent boy. And here I am looking back and wondering if I ever arrived. Nowadays, being a transit cop is all I dream about. Paperwork, procedure, protocol. The flame of adventure has guttered. Transit infraction after transit infraction, day in and day out. A lifetime of predictable outcomes is the outcome of a predictable lifetime. Black hair has become salted with gray. All our promised tomorrows lie at the head of a long ruin of other tomorrows. The end of the line. Frontierless middle-age. My great-uncle’s receding hairline in the mirror. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. At the end of the day, the Lud has six daughters and a wife waiting for him at home. I have tonight’s rerun of The Continuing Adventures of Captain Guy Nebulon! and a delivery canister of leftover Chickenoma® chimichangas. The Metro taketh. It doesn’t give anything. I screw open my whomper’s casing. There’s noodle-gun goop in the circuitry and gumming up the woofers. I hop off the foam block of castle wall and walk across the thoroughfare. Some truants are watching the scene from the mezzanine and trying to spit on a couple of Spillage & Sanitation guys hand-scrubbing the gunk from under the Craft-A-Crotchling’s clitoral awning. I toss the whole whomper into a waste receptacle, through a hole labeled HERE.
The trash can thanks me for my civic virtue.
After finding his ruined boots in the solvent the Lud continues throwing the book at the elderly. He stands in his socks and quotes violations and ordinances while the old man nods gravely and his wife prods and pokes at potential loopholes in the seamless fabric of transit law. I consider walking away. I consider handing my badge and my cap device to the Lud, telling him, “So long, partner. I quit. I’m done,” and letting him settle this three-three-eight-seven, and all Metro’s million Crimes against the Grain of the Moral Fabric of the Universe on his own.
But right then, just as I’m about to take what might as well be my first step off the beat in fourteen years, the Lud’s dead mother calls our names over the police comm.
Billy Longino lives in Texas with his wife and two children.