I found the train’s porter in the dining car, industriously polishing the long wood bar. It was a gremlin, a small humanoid amphibian with huge ears and bright green eyes with slit pupils. They’re passive-aggressive, ill-mannered little creatures, so I was surprised when it immediately put down its cloth and stood up.
I gestured at the cloud of aerosol microspeakers wafting around us. “It’s a little loud in here. Is there any way we can get the volume turned down?”
“Certainly, sir.” The gremlin produced what looked like a marble. It rolled its long, multi-jointed fingers around the little sphere and the music cut off abruptly.
“Does that controller drive everything on the train?” I asked.
“Everything that isn’t operated by the conductor, sir.”
“Can it work the coffee machine?”
The gremlin smiled, showing rows of needle teeth. “How do you take your coffee, sir?”
“Badlands normal, no adulterants.”
It rolled the marble from finger to finger, and then did something complicated with two of its thumbs. The big copper coffee urn made an authoritative “click” and a granite mug emblazoned with the Amtrak logo filled with steaming black coffee. I reached across the counter, retrieved it, and dipped my pinkie in it to let the unicorn’s horn tattooed under my fingernail neutralize anything toxic.
“Is the coffee all right, sir?”
I took an appreciative if puzzled sip of the coffee. It was delicious, and I said so.
The gremlin gave a little bow. “I’m so glad to hear it, sir. Is there anything else I or Amtrak can do for you?” it asked.
I stared at it. “Um…no.”
“Don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything, sir. Ah it’s getting dark. Let me switch on some lights for you.” It rolled the controller across its knuckles and the car filled with a soft yellow glow. It smiled politely and got back to work.
I grabbed a complimentary newspaper and found my way back to my compartment.
Fairfax was snoozing under the bench when I sat down. She opened her eyes when I sat down and put her chin on my foot. I found a hard-light pen in my bag and went to work on the three-dimensional crossword puzzle.
I was racking my brain for “what pep rallies raise,” (eleven letters across, starts with “s” and ends with “t”) when someone knocked on the compartment door. A tall, rawboned blond guy stood in the doorway. The sword slung across his back was bigger than he was.
I gestured at the seat opposite. “Sebastian Cook. What are you doing here?”
Cook unlimbered his sword and ducked under the lintel of the door. His voice was deep and hoarse, with a funny accent I’d never been able to place. “I thought I smell you, so I come to say hello. Is not always that two troubleshooters on a train!”
“Three, at least. I’m almost positive I saw Amos Bridegroom on the way in.”
“Yes. I don’t know how he does the regulated tattoos with his thin skin.”
“He doesn’t. He sweats tailored pheromones—everything from truth serum to nerve gas to this gnarly acid fog that can melt steel plate. Went to Nippon Prime right after graduation and paid a black clinic a shitload of money to hack his pineal gland and lymphatic system.”
“Is prospect of getting gassed why no one will work with him?”
“Most people won’t work with him because he’s an asshole, even for a gremlin, but sure.”
Cook balanced the sword’s crossguard against the coat rack and sat down. “Ten years. Is weird, seeing all of you again. Tenth is first college reunion I go to.”
“You didn’t go to your fifth?”
“No. Did you?”
“I was in Ulthar chasing The Angel of the Crypt.”
“I hear about that. The little cats that hire themselves out as assassins, they personally ask you.”
“That’s right. Took me ten hours to track the Angel and incinerate it. That’s where the dog and I hooked up.”
Sebastian peered down at Fairfax. “Yes, the Atomic Schnauzer. I had heard you had gotten lazy and gotten a dog to do all your work. Can I pet?”
I nodded. The big blond offered the dog the back of his hand. She let out a snore and turned over in her sleep. He shrugged and sat back on the bench.
“Rude little animal.”
“She is what she is. What’s with the sword?”
“Alien weapon. Drinks karmic energy.”
“How is it on Ecthroi?”
“It work very well. Got to hold onto it for like, two minute after you slam it in, though. I swear every kill take a year off my life. Even with tattoos, is terrifying.” He grinned.
“Can I see?”
“Of course. Don’t touch the edge.”
I stood up and gripped the carved mother-of-pearl scabbard, putting my thumb against the hilt and exposing a few inches of the wide golden blade. It crackled softly. I looked quizzically at Sebastian.
“It cutting dust, air molecules. Maybe pet dander—she don’t look like you ever brush her.”
I gave him the finger with one hand and handed him the sword with the other. “It’s beautiful. Where’d you pick it up?”
“High London. Beautiful place. Took care of infestation in monastery. Monks said I am Chosen One, give it to me.”
“Don’t let it go to your head. I’m the Chosen One on this little island chain on Terra Epsilon where Australia’s supposed to be.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We all get to be Chosen One somewhere. Is first time for me. Let me enjoy it, huh?”
“Everyone but Amos.”
“Everyone but Amos. Even for gremlin, he is abrasive. To be fair, is mainly that he get impatient with people who don’t do their job to a high standard.” Cook opened the door and sniffed the air. “I smell other troubleshooters. Mark Carolinus and Pacer Looney. ”
Something about what he said about Amos bothered me, but I couldn’t think why. I mentally shrugged and put it aside as a puzzle for later. “As a matter of interest, how do you do that? The smell thing.”
“Part lycanthrope on my mother’s side. Please don’t ask how it happen.”
Carolinus was a thin, ghostly character who did tricks with a fused-carbon yo-yo on a monomolecular cable. You could see the wallpaper through him, and he was only intermittently solid. Looney was baseline human with a lot of subdermal tech implants. He’d brought hooch. A couple of other troubleshooters on their way to the reunion found their way to our compartment, then a few more. Soon the car was full of old friends.
A lanky brunette in leather jeans, a crop top and a bomber jacket just like mine knocked on the outside of the compartment. She had delicate curved horns just above her ears.
I waved her in. “Hey, Meg,” I said.
She found her way to my lap. “Been a while,” she said.
I slipped my arm around her waist. “Too long. The dragon scales look good.”
“They felt really weird growing in. The wings were worth it, though. Flying is amazing.”
“How do they hold up in a fight?”
She grimaced. “They haven’t taken a hit yet. Getting shot hurts like hell, though, even through the armor. I can feel the bruises underneath, even if I can’t see them.”
“You look gorgeous.”
She smiled. “You look good, too. You grew up.”
I glanced over at Fairfax. She was still fast asleep. That was odd. There’s something about the combination of loud noise and the smell of alcohol that gets on her nerves. Every time I throw a party she hides in the coat closet and growls at anyone who opens the door. I glanced over at the complimentary newspaper, still open to the crossword puzzle. All of a sudden I knew what was wrong.
I gently lifted the dragoness off of my lap and climbed out of the compartment. The corridor was quiet. I turned around. Everyone was standing very still, looking at me. Meg smiled sympathetically and put her hand on my cheek. Sebastian clapped me on the shoulder, and then they all faded away. I leaned on the compartment door and cried for a while, then went down to the café car. It was empty save for the porter.
“Too polite,” I said.
“Excuse me, sir?”
I knuckled away tears. “How about we cut the shit?”
It smiled. “I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Miskatonic doesn’t do reunions,” I said hoarsely. “No one likes to be reminded of all their dead friends.” I ran my hands through my hair. “A slave of the Laughing Razor shot Meg out of the sky over SoCal Prime eight years ago. Punched right through those pretty scales with an enchanted musket ball. Mark cast that yo-yo at the Ghost in the Fog in a graveyard in Tamerlane two years later and missed. The Ecthros tore his intangibility field right off—there wasn’t even a body to bury. Sebastian didn’t make it to graduation—he died in a training accident sophomore year. He was my roommate.”
The gremlin put down the glass it was cleaning. It looked like it was waiting for me to say more.
I continued. “I worked with Amos Bridegroom six months ago. He and I are the only ones left of the old crowd, which I assume is why he hasn’t made an appearance. He’s arrogant, rude, and extremely good at his job, which is a pretty good description of gremlins in general. No one in his right mind hires a gremlin to do customer service; they don’t have the patience. You’re too polite to be real.”
The gremlin unbuttoned its coverall and slid its hand inside. “I’m not sure I know what you mean, sir. If you’ll wait just a moment, I’ll get the conductor. She may be able to help you.”
It stopped. “Wait for what, sir?”
“Were they real?”
The gremlin’s body language shifted. Suddenly it looked floppy and awkward, like a marionette. It made a sound that could have been a sigh. “They were echoes of something real,” it said softly. “They were the dreams of ghosts I found in the Worlds That Lie Sleeping to keep you happy so that I could eat.”
“Stand still,” I said. “I’ll kill you if you move.” I dropped into a trance state and awakened the holy golden-eyed serpent tattooed on my beating heart, the symbol all troubleshooters are required to inscribe onto the source of their karma. Through my third eye I could see through the porter to the little sphere, now buried in its chest, that had operated the coffee machine and the speakers. The controller. Garagath al-Sargos, The Pearl of Dreams, an Ecthros small enough to hide in plain sight. The real reason the dog and I had boarded the train in the first place.
“What have you done to Fairfax?“
“I encouraged her to sleep deeply while I took a little of your life.” It saw my expression and held up its hands beseechingly. “I was starving, magician. I can only feed on dreamers, and I only take what they can afford to give.”
I locked eyes with the Moon’s host and put my hand on the door. “I’m going back to my compartment. Be somewhere else when the train stops.”
“I’ll inform Miskatonic that I’m turning over the contract when I get there. Someone else will come after you.”
Fairfax was still under the seat. I stroked her fur and called her name until she blinked sleepily and licked my hand.
I went to the cemetery at Miskatonic with some flowers a few weeks later and said goodbye to my friends again. The Pearl of Dreams is still at large.
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.