He leans in close, the acid smell of cheap wine on his breath, his stained lips. “A grip like a desperate lover,” he says. I can see the blood vessels in his eyes, red lines like tentacles reaching for the iris. “That’s how William described it. Always a poet, he was. To the end. What a prick.”
“Pardon me?” I say. I look around the train, at the other empty seats. There are people watching, cameras. I don’t need this in my life.
“You think you know about it,” says the man, still leaning in. His heavy jacket is open, showing a stained and wrinkled dress shirt. It might have been blue once. The skin hangs loose at his neck, has the look of used sandpaper. “All the programming, the stories they tell you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I can almost feel the lens in the ceiling as it turns, dilates.
The man laughs. “Nobody does. Nobody ever does. William didn’t, either. But he learned the hard way.”
Maybe if I ignore him.
“He and his sister, they were the first to ever meet one of those things. Did they tell you that? She opens the airlock, he’s supposed to interpret. A body language expert.” He snorts. “A twerp.”
He pauses, like he wants me to agree. I stay silent.
“I told them it was a bad idea. The worst idea in the history of the human race. But you know that. You want to say you don’t, but I see it in your eyes. Walking down the street, sitting alone. Not watching while they all watch.”
He’s not waiting for a response anymore. “This thing slithers in. Can you believe they looked even worse back then? It comes through the airlock like an octopus escaping a jar. And William is there with a smile on his face. Mugging it up for the news back home. We’re in the Kuiper belt, and he thinks he’s going to be more famous than Neil Armstrong. He had a speech written and everything. Something about extending a hand of friendship, building bridges across the stars. Prick.
“And it comes in, you know? It slithers in, takes one look at William and his sister. Ashley, that was her name. A good kid. Popped her head like a cherry tomato. We’re up on the bridge, and the navigator starts screaming.”
One of them is moving across train, yellow-green limbs floating above the slender body like hair in static electricity. I hold my breath as it passes, nod politely. Don’t look at the man sitting next to me. But I can feel him there, shifting in his seat. What if he tries to attack it? With me there, on camera talking to him.
But he doesn’t. Does it pause as it passes us? Perhaps, but who can read them? The door at the end of the car opens, shuts. I breathe again.
The man goes on, in a quieter voice. “William just stands there for the longest time, looking at her body. And then it grabs him, pulls him in. He was wearing his space suit. It’s squeezing him, pulling at him. And it’s like he stopped caring about anything, like he was the first to figure that out. He turns his mic on, opens all channels. The live feed that never made it back. That’s when he started describing it. It tore his arms off, and the pain medication kicks in. He’s slurring, but he doesn’t stop talking until I blast the whole place out the airlock. And even then.”
The man stops talking while the train pauses to let on more passengers. I look at the digital clock next to the route map. I could get off here, escape, but I can’t afford the lost time.
“I should have been there. I told them I had to be there. They wanted the guns locked up. Why even bring them, then? We argued for days. Would anything have changed? Could anything change? William wants me to tell his family. Nobody can tell them. Nothing was ever as secret as what happened there, right up to the point where it didn’t matter anymore.”
He’s standing up now, swaying in the aisle as the train bucks and screeches through the dark tunnel. “The trial of the century,” he shouts, throwing his arms in the air. “The trial of the millennium, starring yours truly. They lost the tapes. A magnetic anomaly. A public court-martial for the rogue military officer who killed poor William and his pretty sister. I did it. I started the war with the press of a button. Give me another chance and I’d do it with a shotgun. Or a knife. Or my fucking teeth.”
The door at the end of the car slides open again. It’s back. It moves toward the man, and he turns on it, baring yellow teeth, a snarl curling his mouth. I put a hand up to the side of my face and turn away.
I see it again as it slides through the middle of the train, not stopping. No screams. I look up, and the man is standing, face blank, watching it leave again.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing to me?” he shouts after it. “Making me remember. Every second of every day, I have to watch what you’ve done to us.” He looks down at me. “We’re supposed to be the ones with a backbone.”
The train stops again, and I get off, pushing through the people waiting outside the doors. I tell myself to never forget to bring music or a book for my commutes. I nod to the guard with the automatic weapon standing at the station’s exit. I can keep my head down. I changed my name. Nobody knows that the most hated man to have ever lived, the man who doomed our entire race, is my uncle.