Riding The Ghost Train

[Scene: Filthy Side Street, Charmed World]
[Music: “Let The Good Times Roll” on a scratchy L.P.]
[Shot: Train horn, discordant chord, D# major. Camera pans up past a sign reading “Single Resident Occupancy”, then across the elevated rail line and zooms in on an open window. Two men are inside, talking; one’s dressed for the street, one for the gutter.]


“How often do the trains go by?” he asked out of curiosity.

“So often, after a while you don’t even hear them,” I replied. The Circle Line went right past the window, about four feet away — one train every ninety seconds. I’d timed them.

He grinned, waited for the noise to die down enough to talk again. “Is that really true?”

“Nah. Heard it in a movie once and it sounded good.” I gestured at my old turntable. “I play the vinyl to drown it out; helps a little.”

“You’ve got a package for me, then?” So much for small talk. Maybe it was the trains, or perhaps the distressing smell, but somehow I could never get a guest to stay more than a minute or two. Hell, once I got paid, there’s no way I’d be staying more than a minute or two. First a drink — alcohol, something brewed from actual plants. And then…

My attention had drifted. Dangerous. I shook my head impatiently, and reached over to the tray that served as a table. “It’s all there, all eleven packets.” I looked sideways at the courier; he was supposed to be a professional, but you never know. “And you’ve got something for me, I take it.”

He nodded, handing me a small bundle. “Cash, as requested. The rest will be released from escrow into your account as soon as I make delivery.”

“Do you…” I cleared my throat, nervous, mouth suddenly dry. I started over. “Do you know who’s paying for these?”

“My job’s moving things, not asking questions. Or answering them.” Our eyes met. “Sorry,” he added. He wasn’t, but I appreciated the courtesy. It’s the little things.

He flipped quickly through the manila packets, nodded, tucked them inside an attache case. I could hear the faint whine of explosive bolts activating inside the locks. Definitely a pro. He nodded at me again, then stepped through the door and was gone.

I sighed and relaxed my grip on the slugthrower I’d had concealed under the newspaper at my side. Couldn’t be too careful; it was a lot of money for this neighborhood. Hell, it was a lot for any neighborhood. Fifty thousand, all in small bills. Just thinking about it, my hands started to shake and I started to sweat.

…No. It wasn’t that, wasn’t the money, wasn’t excitement. I needed another dose or I’d start seeing bugs again. Bugs…

I stared moodily at the bottle of synthesized rotgut, and the tiny thimble I used to measure my doses. Five years ago, it had been different, before the Bugs came, those damned alien Horwasp, but today… I poured out my shot carefully, neck of the bottle tinkling on the rim in syncopation. Was it my hands or the train going by? Hard to tell, and no point trying. Just the one and I’d be better. Less bad.

For three weeks now I had kept my intake to the bare minimum, just enough to keep the worst of it at bay without easing the thirst even a little. Riding the ghost train, they called it, and the description fit my shakes perfectly. Didn’t describe the confusion and bugs crawling on my skin, but then what could?

Besides, you can’t write intelligence reports while delirious, and the pay for this job would set me up again in style. It was worth a little suffering. I glanced over at my uniform, the only clean thing in the whole room, still encased in the dry cleaner’s plastic: Crisp lines are what gets you the jobs. Not many of those recently, though. Five years since my last real hitch, and the coming of those damned bugs. I still dream about them sometimes… if every night is sometimes. Just barely made it out of that sector in time.

But I wasn’t going to think about that tonight. Tonight was for celebration. They say money can’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell can rent some good times. First, the public baths to sweat the stink of this nasty little room out of my pores. Then a good shave, a barber’s shave, one with hot towels. After that… after that…

Suddenly it hit me again, what I’d just done. It was plain from the terms, this wasn’t a job the Senate would approve, and the cash bonus made that doubly certain. Who really needs dossiers on all eleven races, written by a man who’s served in all eleven fleets at one time or another? What empire wouldn’t already know all that — and who out there researches themselves at the same time as they do their enemies, and in exactly the same way? No, there was only one real possibility for a client. Their psychic stink was all over the contract in any case. I could almost… feel? taste? them.

I shuddered. Small wonder the shakes wouldn’t go away. Damned bugs would never let me go, not really.

I don’t know how long I sat there, shaking and staring at the shot I’d poured, somehow never spilling a single drop. After a while I leaned back in the creaky chair and looked around the room, really seeing it: peeling wallpaper, unwashed dishes slowly decomposing in the sink, flies buzzing around an unshaded lamp. My reference books, ledgers and journals from a thirty year mercenary career. A copy of Sun Tzu, all marked up and full to bursting with handwritten notes. The ancient Selectric typewriter. Half a ream of paper. I still had two weeks rent prepaid…

I lifted the shot — hesitated — raised it to my lips, and sipped.  Just a little, just enough to stop the shakes.

Then I pulled the typewriter back toward me and began again.  Maybe this time I could finish something worth selling.  Hadn’t I just proved I’m capable, still able to generate clean text, readable reports, sound military counsel?  And there on the shelf… I reached down the unfinished manuscript, a bundle of tattered pages I’d hauled around for years, from one posting to the next: “The Art Of War:  A Commentary — By Lt. Col. Tolliver South, SFN (Ret.).”

Now, where was I…  “All warfare is based on deception.”  My fingers began flying across the keys…

[Camera: Pulls back through the window.  Yet another of the incessant trains goes by… so often you don’t even hear them any more… Faintly, over the sound of the trains, a listener can hear it:  Guitar and piano together, an ostinato… it resolves itself as the camera pans down:  Mancini’s “Peter Gunn”.  An ancient battleship of a groundcar rolls to a stop, and the shadowy driver (somehow, disturbingly, insectoid?) reaches into the passenger side and drags over a rocket launcher.  He (?) raises it to his shoulder, aims at the dim window, and…]

[fade to black]

[explosion, followed by gunfire]


Stay tuned to Planets Magazine for our upcoming series: “Articles Of War: Threat Assessment”!

This is the first and last installment from the beach, a taste for you of what’s to come. You can make a PayPal donation, or click the button below to Buy Us A Mojito. We promise, it’ll help keep the bugs away.

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