The Secret Subway

Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger

The interior of the train was dusty but not dirty. Actually, except for the dust, it was pristine--the seats were cushioned with soft plastic, and the rest of the train was brushed metal. The walls were bare except for safety instructions and a map, and on the ceiling there was a diagram of the stops on the subway line from its origin to its terminus.

There were only three stops, two close together and the third very far away. The first stop was labeled DIAMOND DISTRICT, the second stop labeled TOP TIER, and the third was simply blank.

"I wonder what that means," Bob said aloud. "At least we know where it's going next."

After what felt like an hour, but was, in reality, only a few tense minutes, the train pulled up to the second station. It was another platform much like the first, but with a few seats, some faded maps on the walls, and a thick layer of dust that coated everything.

The doors slid open. Carefully, Bob and Jam glanced around and, finding the station platform empty, stepped out. Just then, there was the sound of quick, almost frantic footsteps, and Margaret King, her curled hair bouncing around her shoulders, tore down the nearby stairs.

"Bob!" she cried out, nearly tackling both of her friends in a hug. "Jam! I was so worried about you two!"

"Margie?" Bob held his friend tight as he struggled to keep his balance. "What's been going on?"

"It's horrible!" Margie cried out, burying her face in Bob's hair. "Dad...he's been..."

There was the sound of footsteps again, slow this time, and methodical. Bob and Jam looked up to see Percy King make his way down the stairs.

Bob opened his mouth, then closed it, completely at a loss for how to address his former boss. What should he say? What could he say?

Percy fixed him with a glare, then shook his head. "Not even a word of apology. I expected better from you, Bob."

"Apology?" Jam exclaimed. "You're the one that sent the cops after us! You've got a lot of explaining to do--"

Percy turned his head, pointedly ignoring Jam. "Do you realize how taxing it is to constantly be bailing you out of trouble? And I'm rewarded for it by having you desert me. And taking my daughter and Jam with you, too..." He sighed heavily. "I suppose I was wrong about you."

"I-I..." Bob croaked. "I don't know what you mean."

Margie pulled away and wiped her eyes. Percy continued to talk. "Do you remember the night we met, at the winter ball?" he said to Bob. "Your speech was excellent. It was sincere. You were different from the others, who were content to praise me, to use any affection they could garner, only to jump ship when they were able to..."

He sighed heavily, shudderingly. For a moment he seemed overcome with emotion--and then he shut it down, his voice becoming steady and almost monotone. "I suppose all that time changes a man. You really were like the others, in the end."

Bob's stomach lurched. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to grovel at his boss's--ex-boss's--feet, to kiss his shoes, to apologize for even having thought about leaving the comfort of Top Tier.

But why had he wanted to leave in the first place?

If nothing changes, then people are going to keep getting hurt. I'm...I'm going to keep hurting people.

Bob blinked. He grew furious, his hands curling into fists. "Is that what this is about?" he yelled. "You sent the whole city after me because I wanted to stop putting people in a televised woodchipper? I wanted to give back to this town!" he continued. "I wanted to do something positive for a change!"

"You were throwing away everything I'd given you!" Percy retorted. "Margaret," he said, exasperated. "You talk to him. Make him understand."

Bob looked to Margie, who had her arms wrapped around herself as if from cold. She was staring at the ground, unable to speak.

"In any case," Percy said, looking away again, "I have one last gift to offer you, Bob. A severance package, if you will, for my once-upon-a-time top earner." He gestured toward the train. "Take it. It runs on auxiliary power--the last the city has. It's the only way out of town."

"Out of town?" Bob echoed. "What are you talking about?"

"Just that. An exit beyond the valley and the mountains." Percy descended the rest of the steps and placed a hand on Margaret's shoulder. She covered her face with her hands and tried to stifle a sob. "Or would you prefer to stay in town and face mob justice?" He smiled thinly, his gaze still fixed on Bob Sparker. "I fear even my magnanimity might not be enough to save you this time."

"So that's it, then." Bob's voice carried a mix of confusion, anger, and despair. "After everything."

"Yes," Percy said. "After everything. Will you stay or will you go?"

The answer was quick, unhesitating, and it even surprised Sparker himself to hear it come out of his mouth. "I'm leaving," he said. "It's not like there's much of a choice." He looked over at Margaret and Jam, both looking deeply unsettled. "What about you guys? You coming with?"

"I...give me a moment. Please." Margaret reached out and placed a hand on Jam's, pulling him aside. "Can we have a couple minutes to talk by ourselves?"

"Of course," Percy said, his voice irritatingly soothing, as he patted Margaret's shoulder with a smile. "Take your time. But not too much time," he said. "The train leaves in five minutes."

Bob watched the two of them turn their backs and begin whispering, then glanced over at Percy King. The man took out a cigarette case, tapped a cigarette on the silver, and placed it into his mouth. He lit it and took a long drag, exhaling the smoke into the air.

"I didn't know you smoked," Bob remarked. It was a stupid thing to say, but he didn't want to say anything else.

"Only when I'm stressed," Percy said. "It's not good for my health."

"You know what else isn't good for your health?" Bob said, deadpan. "Shocking yourself on-air twice a day, five days a week."

"Good thing you had the best health insurance in town." Percy blew another plume of smoke. "I really did care for you, you know. And you were so good at your job."

Bob glared. That was the worst part--Percy was right. He had been good at his job. Excellent, in fact, and it had brought him a satisfaction that made everything else feel hollow in comparison. Even after striking out on his own with working on the Electric Festival, some part of him still yearned for that approval.

Bob's eyes widened. "Wait a second," he said. "I get it now. There's no difference, is there?"


"Paulina Sweet," Bob pointed out. "She bent over backwards for her boss, and he still threw her away when she didn't perform. And when she tried to win him back, she just ended up in jail." His voice quavered. "There's no difference between Top Tier and Rubyred, is there? It's just a game," he realized. "A game where people like you play chess with people like me."

A look of deep offense crossed Percy's face. He thought about it for a moment, then tilted his head, and his expression became more muted. "I suppose that's one way to think about it."

At that moment, Margaret and Jam came back. Margaret clasped Jam's hand in her own, nervously. "I'm sorry," she whispered, unable to meet Bob's gaze. "I think Jam and I have to stay in the city. There's a lot of work we're going to have to do."

Bob blinked. "What? You're--you're sending me off by myself? After all we've been through?"

"We'll take the subway out and bring you back as soon as we can, okay?" Jam said. "As soon as it's safe for you to come back. We'll make sure you get home."

Margaret nodded. "I promise."

Bob glanced back and forth between the two of them. His expression hardened. "You know what? Fine." As the subway doors slid open with a ding, he stepped onto the train. "Enjoy your life in town. I'll make sure to write."

Margaret said nothing. She kept her eyes on Bob, then slid her gaze over to her father, who was still smoking. Then she let go of Jam's hand and shoved Percy in the back with both hands, sending him stumbling into Bob and knocking them both down to the floor of the subway car.

Percy struggled to his feet as the doors closed. Through the vertical windows, Bob could see her twist something on the outside of the door with both hands--probably an emergency lock. "Margaret!" Percy shouted, pounding on the door, trying to force it aside. "What are you doing?"

Bob jumped up and nearly shoved him aside, trying to open the door. "Don't leave me alone with him!" he yelled. "Margie, are you crazy?"

She placed her palm on the window. "I know what he's done. I have to tell everyone, but I don't want them to hurt him," she sobbed, tears streaming down her face. "I can't let that happen. I'm going to fix this, I swear. Jam's going to help me."

Bob could put his hand over hers for but a moment before the train sped up and she had to pull away. "Please! You're my best friend," Margaret called out, running towards the end of the platform. "Please take care of my father!"

Her voice disappeared into the darkness. Percy dragged himself to the nearest seat and collapsed into it, moaning as he rubbed at his face. "Margaret," he whispered. "Margaret, my girl..."

Bob stood there, his hand on the window of the door, as the subway headed out of Electricopolis.

To be continued...