A City Dreaming

M is an ageless drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and the ability to bend reality to his will, ever so slightly. He’s come back to New York City after a long absence, and though he’d much rather spend his days drinking artisanal beer in his favorite local bar, his old friends—and his enemies—have other plans for him. One night M might find himself squaring off against the pirates who cruise the Gowanus Canal; another night sees him at a fashionable uptown charity auction where the waitstaff are all zombies. A subway ride through the inner circles of hell? In M’s world, that’s practically a pleasant diversion.

Before too long, M realizes he’s landed in the middle of a power struggle between Celise, the elegant White Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, Brooklyn’s hip, free-spirited Red Queen, a rivalry that threatens to make New York go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired—he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steampunk universes, and demonic coffee shops. M’s New York, the infinite nexus of the universe, really is a city that never sleeps—but is always dreaming. Daniel Polansky’s A City Dreaming is available October 4th from Regan Arts.

 

 

Chapter 5
Bad Decisions

It began with an argument as to what was the quickest way to get from Greenpoint to SoHo. Stockdale maintained that if you grabbed the Z train from Nassau Street, you could be sipping a gin and tonic on Houston within ten minutes. D8mon, who had never had much luck with the Z, spoke rather passionately for the % train—true, sometimes it did not come for hours, and sometimes it came twice within two minutes, but once you got on, it was a straight shot across the Abandando Bridge, twenty minutes at the very most, and there was a dining car that sold the loveliest little bits of finger food. Admittedly, they only accepted payment in guineas, but one never knew what was in one’s pockets, and sometimes you could trade with one of the other passengers.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway system, that vast esophageal labyrinth, that there is more to it than the MTA will admit. Indeed, there are few places in which the world that M inhabited and the world known to the rest of us parallel each other so closely. Who, standing on a trash-strewn platform in a far corner of Brooklyn after midnight, has not had the sensation that if they let the 3 pass them by, the next train would offer passage to some strange and foreign existence? Who hasn’t waited until right before the door closed, only to see their conviction dissipate in the face of reality’s cold waters, and the certainty that the next train won’t roll past for another half hour?

Well, I tell you—if you had held to your fantasy for five minutes longer, if you had let that 3 slip by, you might have been privileged to watch while the Ø train rolls into the station, plopped down on a crushed velvet seat, put your boots up on the sterling silver railings, and let it whisk you home in style. Or perhaps that evening the Alkally Special would deign to make its appearance, universally regarded as having the most comfortable private rooms since the decommissioning of the Orient Express.

On the other hand, you might also have been unlucky enough to take the last spot on the Kafka Limited, which takes a whopping two and a half hours to go from Union Square to Van Cortland Park, is always packed, and smells worse than the urinals at a professional football game. Or stepped unthinkingly onto a southbound Herbert Express, which is said to lead into the maw of the sort of creature large enough to swallow a subway train, though of course no one has ever ridden it and come back to say for certain. So maybe you did all right, sticking with your reality.

“My watch stops working any time I get on the %,” Stockdale said. “And by the time I get off, I can’t remember where I was going or when I was supposed to get there.”

Stockdale and M had been friends for longer than he could remember. This was a literal fact, not an exaggerated piece of sentimentality. He was a decent enough chap, apart from being ramrod straight, rather bigoted, long-winded, overly enamored of his own person, and, above all, utterly, determinedly, deliberately British. He dressed like a country squire and carried himself like the hero of a Kipling story, an affectation made all the more curious by his being an ethnic Pakistani and thus on the wrong side of the White Man’s Burden.

“My kind of trip,” M said.

“Oh, it’s a pleasant enough interval, no doubt about it—but try telling some bird that you’re two days late for drinks because you got caught up playing whist in the dining car of a train that—so far as she’s concerned—never existed.”

D8mon laughed. D8mon had the best pompadour that M had ever seen on a man of East Asian descent—one of the best pompadours he had ever seen period. D8mon sometimes seemed very clever and other times only seemed sort of clever, which to M’s mind was a very dangerous medium. D8mon was rather new to the game, and M had heard that he could do some things with technology that other people did not seem able to do.

D8mon pulled a package of clove cigarettes from inside the pocket of his jeans, no easy task as they seemed to be painted over his legs. “Zenegal of Bombast would be the person to ask about this,” he said. Zenegal of Bombast, the Graffiti Prince and High Priest of the Cult of Funk, had been the acknowledged expert on the intricacies of the subway system since it had been opened—and, rather curiously, for some time before that as well. “But I’ve heard he’s in Sao Paulo.”

“I heard an invisible wind picked him up from the ground one day, carried him screaming off into the clouds,” Stockdale corrected.

“So either way, he’s not here to break the tie,” M said.

The conversation turned to Zenegal of Bombast. Where he was, if he was dead, what he had done before he had been made so.

“Did Zenegal ever tell you about the time he got to the Nexus?” Stock-dale asked.

It is axiomatic that all roads, if you follow them long enough, connect to all other roads. The Nexus was the concrete realization of this hypothesis. Previous incarnations had seen it as a dusty crossroads, a hostelry, and a coaling port, but these days, in keeping with the zeitgeist, it was a subway station.

“Yes,” M said. “Many, many times.”

“You believed him?”

“I didn’t entirely not believe him,” M said, taking a sip of his gin and tonic. There was a tattoo of a steam engine below his left wrist. “He said it was a long ways, but if you made it, you could hop a train anywhere you wanted, a straight shot, no connections.”

No one said anything for a while, mulling over that possibility in silence.

“I’ve always had some hankering to get a good look at Shimla, back when it was the second city in the empire,” said Stockdale.

“I’ve never actually been to Tokyo,” D8mon admitted, rather ashamedly. “I keep meaning to go, and something keeps coming up.”

Where it was that M wanted to go, he didn’t say. Regardless, when Stockdale stood up wordlessly, leaving enough cash on the table to cover the three of them—in short, when it was clear that the challenge had been offered—he was not slow in taking it.

It was a bad decision. They had no real motivation in heading toward the Nexus, no plans and no provisions, nothing but a few words from an absent friend with which to begin their quest. And one thing about Zenegal was that, in spite of, or at least in addition to, being the Graffiti Prince and High Priest of the Cult of Funk, he had a rather loose relationship with the truth. But the thing about good decisions is that making them exclusively turns out, curiously, to be the worst decision a person can make; it leads to ruination, to a business-casual existence, to eating takeout and watching network sitcoms.

In short, a bad decision is required to even things out every so often, and M was feeling up for making one that afternoon. Perhaps Stockdale and D8mon felt the same, or perhaps they were both foolish enough to mistake their bad idea for a good one. M was never entirely clear on the point, and afterward, what with how the whole thing ended, he never really felt like discussing it.

* * *

The Q from Seventh Avenue started normally enough, hipsters crawling their way into Manhattan for an evening’s entertainment, no odder or more surreal than your average ride on a New York City subway system, so fairly surreal. They got off at Kings Highway, six or seven stops down the line. M rarely rode the Q and so was not sure if Kings Highway was a real place or not, real in the sense of existing in the reality that M had been born in, rather than some other to which they were playing tourist. If it wasn’t his world, it was another similar enough not to stand out particularly, and they slipped onto the B without experiencing anything unusual. But fifteen minutes later, at Grand Flatroad Station, the train was suddenly packed with bipedal insects, not quite man-size, dressed in gilded-age hand-me-downs. One of them touched a spindle-haired tendril to his bowler hat and chittered something.

“No,” M answered, realizing with a shock that he had understood the question without difficulty, “I’m not sure if this train goes to Moss Bottom Road. I’m not exactly from around here, you see.”

The insectoid clicked its mandibles together. M found himself staring into the thing’s multifaceted eyes and had to remind himself to answer.

“Thanks for the suggestion—I’m not sure we’ll be staying long enough to see the sights.”

It bobbed its antennae back and forth in understanding, then turned to the paper it held in one of its… hands? feelers? claws? The headline read Prime Minister Agrees to Trout Negotiation—War with Prussia Averted.

“Peace in our time!” Stockdale said, rather too loudly.

The mass of surrounding creatures edged away uncomfortably.

“Don’t be an ass,” M muttered

 

At Idlewyld Station they snagged the back table in the dining car of a Victorian-era steam-engine train. It looked like a Victorian-era steam-engine train, and the people occupying it looked very much like Victorian-era citizens, but the meat that D8mon was picking looked distinctly greenish, and M was fairly certain the waiter had asked if they wanted “fish, chicken, or wyvern.” M stuck with gin, sipped it while staring out the window at a rural version of Brooklyn, quaint villages and bucolic forest scenery.

Suddenly the car door opened and a pale-faced woman burst in. “Come quick! For the love of God, come quick! It’s the Admiral! He’s been murdered!”

“Well, this is me,” M said, dabbing his lips with his napkin and standing. “I absolutely refuse to get involved in another locked-room mystery.”

“I should say not,” Stockdale affirmed, grabbing his cigarette case off the table and following M out.

D8mon forked a last streak of green meat into his mouth before joining them.

* * *

They were sitting on the Four Humours Express, surrounded by men in buckskin shouldering tarnished blunderbusses and dour-faced women in homespun cotton. On the seat across from M, a bony child held a fat pig. Whether the Four Humours Express was the vehicle that would take them all west—assuming that was where they were going—or if it would only leave them in front of a waiting fleet of Conestoga wagons, M could not possibly say.

“What time is it?” asked a loud voice from the other end of the train, followed by some introductory music playing from a tinny boom box.

“Showtime!” answered his hype man.

“Christ damn it,” M said.

The skinny child across from M gaped in horror.

“I hate showtime,” D8mon said.

“Everyone hates showtime,” Stockdale said.

“I haven’t enjoyed watching anyone break-dance since Kool Herc was on the decks,” M added.

“Maybe they’ll just do some juggling.”

“Or recite a poem.”

“Even worse.”

But when they got off the train five minutes later, M was smiling. “Credit due,” he said, “that was amazing.”

“I didn’t think it was possible to fit a squirrel up there, let alone a badger,” Stockdale responded, lighter by twenty dollars.

 

Our three adventurers were taking dinner at a bar in the vastness of St. Alban’s Station, which did not exist on any of the subway lines that M was aware of, though M very much thought it should have. A small establishment but bustling with folk of literally all sorts—day traders and MTA workers and Soviet cosmonauts and slumming international royalty, Brazilian vaqueros in leather chaps and bullwhips, spindly punk kids with safety pins stuck through their lips and eyebrows, white-clad Buddhist monks ordering red ale via hand signals so as not to violate their vows of silence. There was sawdust on the ground and a giant blackboard hanging over the bar read:

Beer 5¢
12 Oysters 10¢
Fancy women, gnomes, and cyborgs not welcome

“An admirable entrance policy,” Stockdale observed to the barman as he brought over three more pulls of stout.

“These are the best goddamn oysters I’ve ever tasted,” D8mon said, slurping one out from its shell.

“Your first time in here?” asked the man sitting next to them, bullet-headed, the chain of a watch coming out of one pocket and the butt of a revolver sticking out the other.

“Our very first time,” Stockdale said, “though, Lord willing, not the last.”

“Where you from?”

“Crown Heights,” M said.

“Crown Heights? You aren’t from one of those New Yorks where the Brits won in ’76?”

“If you call disentangling yourself from a bunch of ungrateful provincials losing…” Stockdale began. It was Stockdale’s considered belief that the British Empire did right in leaving the subcontinent and wrong in leaving everywhere else.

M cut over him. “Our New York is part of the United States, by the grace of God.”

But this wasn’t quite enough for their new companion, who was staring over at Stockdale in the way that a person might stare at someone before hitting them. He was barely more than five feet, but every inch seemed made of hard oak and scrap metal. M was wondering if maybe he could convince D8mon to fight him and then eat all of D8mon’s oysters while he was so engaged.

Though it didn’t come to that, because all of a sudden Stockdale raised his half-empty glass of beer toward the sky and said in his speaker’s corner voice, “To the Apple herself, the beating center of the human race, mad and fierce and lovely. There was never in all the worlds a woman more beautiful or more heartless.”

“To New York,” M said.

“To New York,” D8mon said.

“To New York,” the stranger added.

Everyone drank what was left of their beer. In a fit of civic pride, everyone ordered another glass and drank that as well.

“When did you say you were from, exactly?”

“2014,” Stockdale said.

“2016,” D8mon inserted.

“Yes, right—2016.”

“Hell’s bells, that’s a few years past expiration. I suppose you don’t see many of these, when you’re from?” he asked, pulling at the ends of his handlebar mustache.

“Actually, a lot more frequently than you’d think,” M said.

The stranger didn’t quite know what that meant, but he was in a good enough humor to overlook it. “What are you boys here for, then?”

“We’re heading to the Nexus.” D8mon was drunk enough for his voice to carry a few stools down.

“That’s a ways.”

“You ever been there?”

He shook his head. “The ¿ train should take you as far as Fourth Via Station. You want to get any farther, though, you’re going to need to find yourself a berth on the Alighieri Special.”

“That’s an ominous title.”

“It’s aptly named. If you’re set on going, I can tell you this much: The line goes through some of the… infernal regions. The train itself is safe—nothing can touch you while you’re on it. But the things that live round those parts are a tricky bunch—if you step out, you’re theirs. And that”—he shuddered—“doesn’t bear thinking about.”

But they did think about it then, for a while, the three companions and probably the stranger as well, who added, “You sure you aren’t better off having a couple more oysters and then heading home?”

Actually at that point M wasn’t at all sure of this fact, but there was no way at this point to bow out gracefully, and after a moment, Stockdale—who never missed an opportunity to utter an epigraph—answered for him: “Death or victory!”

“I wish you the latter,” the man said, toasting their fortune.

* * *

They had been waiting on the platform of Fourth Via Station for about half an hour when a strange rattle could be heard moving toward them. Fourth Via Station looked like it was located in one of the realities that never got over having knights and so forth—the floor was cobblestone rather than concrete, the only illumination came from the flickering torchlight, and the name of the station was hung on an elaborately embroidered tapestry, complete with heraldry. Below it a filigreed hourglass hung from a wall arm, falling sand indicating the arrival of the next train.

The platform was empty, except for M and his two companions. It seemed to be late in the evening. It was very dark, at least, but then torches don’t shed as much light as neon bulbs.

It was these torches that revealed the source of the rattling. They looked at first like children, an impression aided by the fact that they coasted forward on old-fashioned roller skates, orange wheels sewed into burlap. But even by the dim light that conjecture faltered almost immediately. Their bodies were too thick, their skin a strange mixture of white and green, like a corpse that had been left in water. They wore heavy leather jackets and bright red ski caps, and their teeth were narrow, nasty little points.

One had a length of chain in his hand that he swung back and forth in a fashion unsuggestive of amity. He called out in a language that seemed to have a lot of C’s and W’s stuck together. M didn’t speak it, but he understood a taunt regardless of the idiom.

“What do we have here?” D8mon asked, though it was obvious enough in the broad strokes.

“We call them redcaps,” Stockdale informed him. Actually, Stockdale’s people would have called them Rakshasas or something to that effect, but M did not think this was the time to deal with his friend’s false consciousness.

“I’d call them trouble,” M muttered.

They circled the three travelers like a pack of wolves that had recently seen the film Xanadu, to torture a metaphor rather cruelly. One of the bogies took Stockdale’s lapel between two of his clawed fingers, rubbed at the fabric, and smiled rapaciously.

“What ho, chap,” Stockdale began, stiff-arming the goblin back a step. “You’ve got some cheek, all right, to place hands on a gentleman.”

Stockdale’s new admirer chattered fiercely in his unseemly tongue. One of his confederates stopped in front of M, staring like a hawk at a coney. He had a string of bone fingers on a chain around his neck, and the coat he wore was emblazoned with scenes of slaughter and cruelty. M was wearing only his street clothes, faded jeans and a leather jacket, and he didn’t have any weapons on him that you could see. But after a moment, the goblin faltered, looked down at his roller skates, and backpedaled into the dark.

There was a brief moment when M thought maybe they’d be able to bluff their way past, but then there was the sound of loosed steel and one of the goblins was angling a rusted dagger at Stockdale.

Hari Kumar Stockdale was many things: He was a lover of nineteenth-century adventure stories. He was a frequent wearer of hats. He had once seen service on a whaling ship. He could not use chopsticks.

He was a very hard man to kill. Inside of his jacket pocket was a gravity knife, a four-inch handle with a blade much larger, and then it was outside his pocket, and then it was open. If M knew Stockdale at all, and M did, this was one of the happiest moments of his life, playing Aragorn in the dim outskirts of reality. Worth the trip, you had best believe. And he proved himself up to the challenge, neatly dodging the goblin’s attack, pivoting and responding in a fashion that left the green-skinned creature bled white and tumbling, gracelessly, into the train tracks.

The remaining hobs shrieked and faded back the way they had come.

“You don’t really carry that everywhere, do you?” M asked.

“Only when I leave the house,” Stockdale said.

“Where are they going?” D8mon asked, sounding a bit worried. It belatedly occurred to M that he didn’t really know D8mon all that well, knew him to get a drink with maybe, but not to stand back-to-back against the rising tide.

“To fetch us some tea and scones, I would think,” M said. But just in case he was wrong, they overturned a couple of the nearby benches, barricading themselves along the platform.

There was a horn blast that made M think of a hanged man shitting himself, and then they rolled out of the darkness four deep, carrying knives and chains and planks of wood with nails sticking out of them. They hooted and they hollered and they screamed madness in their gutter speech. Stockdale held his blade aloft, looked ecstatic to be doing so. One of the goblins came closer than it ought, and Stockdale’s counterfeit Caliburn struck a second time, and the thing screamed and fled backward, missing an ear and much of its face.

“The blood of Edward the Black runs in my veins!” Stockdale bellowed. “William the Marshal and John Churchill! Chandragupta and Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur! I am Hari Kumar Stockdale, and I will die with my boots on!”

M was happy that someone was having a good time. The pack, the scrum, perhaps even the mob of goblins, were now wary of the barricade and of the flashing blade that hid beyond it, contented themselves by skating back and forth just out of reach of melee weapons and shouting.

D8mon pulled an iPod out of his pocket and held it up in his right hand, pointed skyward. It crackled and sparked for a quarter of a second, and then there was a sound like a MIDI thunderclap and a streak of light seared the chest of the foremost redcap, before dovetailing and hitting two more behind him. The rest scattered back into the darkness.

“Not bad,” Stockdale said.

“Thank you,” D8mon said. “I wish I’d brought my laptop, then you’d really have seen something.”

“What’s the hourglass read?” M asked.

D8mon looked over his shoulder for a minute. “There’s less sand in the top half than previously.”

“Lovely.”

“They seem to have slacked off, at least.”

But then the platform began to, if not shake, at least resound loudly enough that one could be forgiven for thinking it was shaking. The thing that lumbered into the torchlight did so on its own two feet, rather than gliding along on a set of wheels. The thing did not seem graceful enough to remain upright, had it been roller-skating, though it made up for its lack of agility by being huge and muscled and mean-looking. It was twice the height of M at his shoulders, its skin was the black-green of a bad bruise, its tusks, somewhere between walrus and elephant-size, jutted out from its jowls. In one hand it carried a club fully the size of a normal man, knotted and warped as the thing’s skin, thick metal apples on chains hanging from the business end.

“If you were thinking of saving the day in some heroic and unexpected fashion,” Stockdale said to M, “now would be the time to do so.”

M took a deep breath, smiled, and hopped up over the barricade. “Bill!” he said, strutting forward toward the monstrosity. “I haven’t seen you since the ten-year reunion, back in ’08!”

The ogre cocked his head at M, a task made somewhat difficult by the fact that its skull seemed to be attached directly to its overbroad shoulders. Its club hung forgotten in his off hand. After a moment it croaked an unintelligible response.

“And how the hell have you been? You were planning to set up a distillery in Inkinshire, if I remember correctly—double malt, you’d promised me. How’d that end up going?”

Bill made the sort of sound which, were it coming from your car, would suggest you needed to have your brake pads replaced.

“And Madge? How is Madge these days? I hope you held on to her, she’s a good egg if ever there was one!”

Another shrill squeal of a similar type.

“I hate to make a break for it, Bill, what with us not having seen each other in so long—but my train’s just a moment or two out, and it would be a damn shame if I missed it.”

Bill grunted something that sounded rather regretful.

“Don’t suppose you could do me a solid and keep this riffraff off our backs? Bad element, you know. Not to be trusted and so forth.”

Bill nodded and smiled, exposing crooked green teeth the size of M’s hands. Then it turned and let out a bellow that flickered dark the nearby torches, and began to wade back the way it came, its club swinging lustily.

Things screamed in the dark.

M returned to the other end of the barricades and the astonished looks of his comrades. “Confidence is nine-tenths of everything,” he explained.

The screams grew louder, so loud that they nearly drowned out the arrival of the train, which had the facade of a Gothic church, and no windows.

“Where’s it going?”

“Gotta be better than here,” Stockdale said, holding the door until his companions could enter.

But as M took a seat and looked back the way he had come, he saw that above the door was a stained glass panel reading, “Abandon all hope…” and he thought to himself, Fuck.

 * * *

The Alighieri Special was in a state of furious decay. The standing bars were bent, most of the seating had been torn out, and there was trash everywhere. The lights flickered on and off. The scent of urine was almost overpowering. It was somewhat worse than your average L train.

“Happy Valley Station, next stop,” a voice said.

“Rapists’ Corner, next station,” it said again a few minutes later.

“Your Mother Never Loved You, change for the 4 train, the B train, and the Long Island Railroad.”

“That’s a bit much, don’t you think,” D8mon asked, licking his lips.

“Isn’t it just?” Stockdale commented.

The doors closed, the train began to pull away.

D8mon lit his last cigarette and tucked it into his smirk. “They’ll have to do better than that.”

But of course, they did.

A few stops later M’s cell phone began to emit a loud, bleating shriek, as if transmitting from an abattoir. Stockdale’s began to do the same a moment later. For some strange reason D8mon’s iPhone began to play a remix of a Katy Perry song. D8mon swore that he didn’t have any Katy Perry on his iPhone, but no one believed him. By the next stop, all of their electronic devices were behaving in ways contrary or at least unrelated to their normal functions. M’s phone showing something that seemed like a pornographic snuff film involving humanoid bunny rabbits, though M did not look at it long enough to be sure. When the door opened next, they tossed their mobiles onto the platform. M half expected something to rise up and catch them—severed hands of the hell-caught dead—but nothing did. M did not suppose he’d be so lucky if he stepped outside himself.

The urine smell was replaced with rotting flesh, and then cotton candy, and then rotting flesh again. The voice coming over the loud speaker began to tell the story of a child being tortured and eaten, a few sentences each stop (“and then they sharpened their knives against her sternum, and then they nibbled at the corners of her clavicle”). M ignored it, and eventually it stopped. For a very long time afterward the names of the station were the only thing that could be heard, and mostly they seemed straight from an unpublished Hp. Lovecraft story, consonants crammed inconsiderately against one another.

“Grand Army Plaza, next stop.”

D8mon perked his head up all of a sudden. “Did you hear that?”

“Yes,” M said.

“The conductor said Grand Army Plaza.”

“I heard him.”

There was no need to observe that this was the first stop in however long they had been on the train that existed in the reality they came from. Grand Army Plaza Station was deserted but looked like it always did, like it had a thousand other times that M had seen it. Part of his soul died when the door closed.

“Next station will be Franklin,” the speakers announced.

“I’m going to take it,” D8mon said, standing up swiftly. “It could be our last shot.”

M didn’t move. “It’s a trick,” he said.

“What?”

“Franklin doesn’t come after Grand Army Plaza.”

“Of course it does,” D8mon said, wanting it to be true enough to speak with certainty.

“It does not.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“If you’re heading downtown, then it goes Franklin, Eastern Parkway, Grand Army, Bergen. If you’re heading uptown, it’s the reverse. But either way, Franklin does not come after Grand Army Plaza.”

“They’re trying to fuck with you,” Stockdale said.

“They already have,” D8mon insisted. “Don’t you get it? This is hell, right here, the three of us stuck smelling piss for the rest of eternity.” And after he said it, he stood up, took a few steps toward the door, and wrapped his hands around one of the poles.

“Hell is not an existentialist play,” M said, “it involves knives and hot poker sodomy. Do not get off this train.”

“D8mon,” Stockdale repeated, “do not get off this train.”

The train started to slow down. D8mon was still standing at the doorway, wide-eyed. “How long have we been here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could it be years?” D8mon asked. His eyes were blinkered. His pompadour, however, was still immaculate.

“It could be centuries,” M said, and if you didn’t know any better he seemed very much to be losing his temper. “And it doesn’t matter—because hell is eternity, my friend, and it’s an eternity with needles in your eyes, and I assure you what we have at the moment is preferable.”

D8mon reached into his pocket and came out with a small caliber handgun, the kind of thing that might be used to rob a convenience store. The way he held it, M got the sense D8mon hadn’t had a lot of practice. Then again, you don’t need a lot of practice to shoot two friends at close range. “If you don’t have the balls to make a move, that’s your business,” he said. “But I’m not going to spend the remainder of forever stuck in a subway car.”

“You’d rather be blowing razor-blade chewing gum?” M asked, but he put his hands up, to show that he had no intention of obstructing the man.

Stockdale looked like he was going to say something, but then he too shrugged and leaned back against the wall. D8mon was a big boy. He could make his own mistakes.

The train opened, and D8mon took a few steps closer to it, till he was skirting the exit. Then he whooped loudly and leaped onto the platform.

The doors shut sooner than they should have, or at least sooner than M thought they did on normal trains, like a trap closing, or a coffin. D8mon was quickly lost from sight.

M sat back down. Stockdale did also. M began to silently rethink his policy on bad decisions.

“Eastern Parkway, Grand Army, then Bergen?” Stockdale asked.

M didn’t answer. The names of the stations went back to being incomprehensible or horrifying and often both.

* * *

The door opened. “Last stop,” said a voice from the speaker.

They sat there a while, a long while, still half fearing it was a trick. Finally an attendant came on and asked them politely to leave, and they allowed themselves to be ushered off.

The Nexus was bright and very clean and seemed to be built mostly of crystal. It was vast beyond comprehension, but somehow its vastness was not intimidating. Smiling travelers moved by swiftly but without any sense of hurry, commuters on their way somewhere, youthful travelers with bright eyes and heavy backpacks on their way anywhere. On a board stretching upward to the sun every conceivable destination flickered past, the letters rattling over one another loudly. They found their way to an information kiosk, where a pretty young woman in a sky-blue outfit smiled at them. “Can I help you get somewhere?” she asked pleasantly.

M looked at Stockdale. Stockdale looked very tired. M thought he probably looked the same.

“Crown Heights,” M said.

The attendant smiled and nodded and gave them directions. It was a straight shot, she said, thirty minutes to Nostrand.

They found their platform, the train arriving not long thereafter. They found a seat. Half an hour later the doors opened on reality, for whatever that was worth. It was morning. M and Stockdale found their way to a nearby breakfast joint, had a bite to eat, smoked three cigarettes each, and then went home to sleep.

No one ever saw D8mon again. No one has seen him yet, at least.

Excerpted from A City Dreaming © Daniel Polansky, 2016

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