The wheels clattering over the track junction woke him from a restless sleep.
He blinked into the strange light. For a moment he couldn’t find the source of the blue-white glow, but gave it no further thought when he couldn’t recall getting on a train in the first place. He slid upright in the uncomfortable vinyl seat, and rubbed his eyes.
The car seemed impossibly wide. It rocked and clacked as the train rolled fast down the track. The engine droned somewhere, but he couldn’t tell from where. The long seats stretched to a wide aisle, and the car ceiling arched overhead in a way reminiscent of old, wooden train cars. Time-forgotten old, and the wood around the windows glowed with amber varnish and many years of sunlight streaming through the windows.
He sat alone on the bench, near the middle. The aisle to his left had to be four feet wide before another long bench reached to the windows opposite him. Doors punctured the walls to the fore and rear of the car, gleaming brass handles set into dark, rich wood grain and a café curtain squatting taut behind the mullions of the glass.
He tried to focus his thoughts, but the car’s dimensions distracted him. It’s huge. Immense. He craned his head to look behind him, and the smattering of passengers in their seats caught his eye.
They all seemed dazed, confused, eyes unfocused, most turned toward the windows.
He slid to the end of the bench, and stared out. A bleak, barren landscape rolled past. Long, solid plates of barren rock, an occasional spike of something like vegetation stabbed up. The few leafless trees seemed dead, the trunks and limbs an ashen gray. The sky, a heavy slate color, hung low. The rises in the distance jabbed crystalline skyward. Some vanished into the nesting clouds.
An alien, colorless landscape. He had no idea where he was.
He scanned the compartment for a conductor, and didn’t find one. He turned back to the window for a moment and realized the few plants crowding near the tracks rocketed by in a blur. The train sped along at a mind-bending speed, and the desert outside spread long miles into the horizon before the broken-glass mountains sliced it off.
“Do you know where we are?”
The voice startled him and his heart spiked. He jolted and spun on the worn seat. A woman sat beside him, her face powdery white, her eyes sunken into blue-black sockets. Her white hands fluttered in her lap, two agitated birds. When the train bounced over a bump in the tracks she jerked in start. A tiny, quivery sigh escaped her.
“N-no,” he said, but she stared past him out the window. “No, I don’t. I was hoping someone would tell me. Is there a conductor anywhere?”
“I … don’t know,” she said, and her thin, airy voice whistled from her. “I don’t think I’ve been on very long.”
“You don’t think?” He tipped his head at her with drawn brows. “You okay?”
Her dark purple and black clothes seemed dated to him, but he couldn’t tell. He didn’t keep up with women’s fashions, and she seemed young. Less than thirty-five, he felt certain. A strange little hat perched at the top of her head near the back and matched her dress, shawl and black lace-up boots. Her long, dark hair snaked around in an elegant braid and vanished beneath the hat.
“I … can’t be sure. I’m having trouble … remembering things.”
He stared into the middle distance and tried to recall how he came aboard. Where the train left from. When he bought a ticket. Where he’d be going by train. He glanced down at himself and saw the sharp-creased black suit, a rich crimson tie, his gleaming black wingtip shoes. He reached for his jacket pocket but felt nothing in the depths.
It occurred to him then he couldn’t remember his name.
“I’m … I’m having trouble remembering things too.”
“Are you?” her voice drifted, dreamy and absent.
“Yeah. I can’t … I can’t even remember my name right now. Do you suppose …?”
She blinked, slow and sleepy, and her eyes rose to him. “Suppose what?”
The door banged open behind them and they jumped together with all the other passengers, turned toward the sudden noise. The lights blinked out for a moment then snapped back on.
The conductor pushed through the opening. A massive, black form in a classic conductor’s hat and uniform. It rose nine feet toward the high, arched ceiling, and the yellow, featureless orbs glowed with an internal preternatural light. The tusks emerged from a thick, rolled black lip and ended in a blunt tip just below the eyes, a heavy brow working as the head swung on a thick stump of neck to and fro around the cabin. The talons on fat, powerful fingers scraped with chilling solidity on the wooden bench backs. The floor shook and thudded under the massive weight of its thick, clawed feet.
It glowered at the woman for a moment and then turned its baleful stare to him.
“Ticket.” The word rattled like stone falling into a vast well. The voice ground with gravelly baritone. It breathed in heavy puffs of fetid air.
The thing reached out with blinding speed and sank a steel-hard finger into the breast pocket of his coat. The lining tore with a shrieking rip when it pulled a solid gold ticket from its recesses. The conductor punctured it with one savage, spit-coated tusk, then stuffed it back into his pocket.
He sat frozen, eyes locked on its wide back as it waded up the aisle.
He turned to the window, gripped the wooden edges with white-knuckled fury. “Where are we?”
She shook her head, haunted eyes staring out the window at the bleak, unchanging landscape.
The train roared onward down the tracks.