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This story concept is adapted from a piece by Peter Yeh

I sat on the train with my hat pulled low, in a black mood.

Outside the fading light cast the city in a sepia gray, a flat, neutral shade that blurred easily into a long streak when I unfocused my eyes. In my ears, my iPod blabbed some tunes I’d heard dozens of times: white noise.

Riding the metro was like stepping into a crowded elevator and stepping out forty five minutes later. Nobody spoke, nobody moved; nobody did anything and for all appearances, nobody might have been alive. I’d had the idea, once, that a person could become very rich by finding a way to very basically improve the experience of mass transportation; give people something to do, anything, even a damned Rubik’s Cube, and it would be an exponential improvement over this half-dead trance. It made sense. But nowadays I didn’t have too many ideas anymore.

Staring blindly out the window, head rolled to the side against the hard cushion, my mind tapped its foot emptily to the music and I thought about absolutely nothing. It was something I’d become better at; in the past, I’d had to fill my thoughts with something to chew on, like the waking equivalent of counting sheep, but nowadays—usually—I could simply turn down the volume with zenlike skill. Sometimes I slipped, though, and in came the thoughts.

Bleakness. Like an enormous plain, slightly soft and rounded, flat like television static, featureless, colorless. It stretched out farther than my mind’s eye could possibly see, infinite, more than infinite. It seemed to speak with a noiseless reverberation, some kind of empty call, like the hollow sound-without-sound of leaning over a vast precipice. It spoke, it absorbed everything around it, filling my sight, calling to me and wrapping itself around me inside and out, a vast armless embrace . . .

Mutely, I looked around the train, searching for sheep, anything with color or feeling.

Ten feet away, a woman was sitting bolt upright and arching her back through her planted feet, panting and staring at the ceiling with panic-filled eyes. Her hands clutched below her enormous belly. Beside her a young man, face concerned, was saying something. I removed one earbud.

” . . . apart? How far apart, Maggie?”

“I . . . unhhhh. It’s coming, Greg! Oh god!”

People were staring or moving around, shaken from their pubtrans trance. Pubtrance? Hmm. I thought about writing that down, but was interrupted by a near-scream from the girl.

Aaaaaahhh! Greg! I can feel it coming!” She squeezed her legs together, as if needing to pee. Greg was looking desperately around, and his thoughts were obvious; we’d just gone under the tunnel, and were beneath the bay. There was no stopping the train now.

My eyes went back to the window, and I sighed. I pulled out the other earbud and bundled the wires into my pocket, then rubbed at my face and stood up. Cleared my throat. Headed for the happy couple.

They fixed me in their gaze as I approached, though the mother was unsteady and rapidly losing it. I probably did not look like the very model of a modern trustworthy rescuer, but fuck them. This wasn’t the movies and my outfit was not provided by a stagehand. I walked straight up to them.

“Maggie? Hi. I need you to lie down. Okay?”

Greg stared at me. “What—who are—”

“I’m an EMT. Okay? She’s about to deliver a baby and we’re not going to reach a station for like twenty minutes. Help her lie down in the aisle.”

Didn’t take much to make people respond to authority. In a void, anything is real.

I’d never done an emergency delivery; the procedure was simple but I had to pause to remember it. My pulse was starting to rev and accelerate, like a long-unused hydraulic system.

I kneeled down beside her. “Maggie, can you tell me when you’re due?”

“Tom . . . tomorrow.”

“That’s great. Expecting any complications?”

“No . . . ”

“First kid?”

She nodded vigorously.

“Okay, I’m going to take your pants off.” The incongruity of this on a public train struck everyone; I heard a snicker from behind me. Well, it wasn’t a porn shoot. “Greg, does she have any medical conditions that I should know about?”

“No. Um . . . she’s allergic to beets.”

I rolled my eyes as her jeans came off her hips. I pulled them down past her ankles, then removed her panties. Tattoo over her pubes: a tiny string of stars. Cute. Her contractions were nearly continuous, and I settled her legs out at an angle with her knees bent. There wouldn’t be any build-up for this one; the baby was coming now. I wiped my hands on my shirt, excited, then leaned forward. “Okay, Maggie, push as the contractions come. You’re doing great.”

Gaaaaaaaahhhh!” Almost immediately her pelvis locked up, and she curled her shoulders forward, body rigid as a high wire. Her vulva distended, and the baby started to crown.

Push!” Greg howled, kneeling beside her. Another squeeze, and the head came out farther; I rotated it easily and let it rest in my hands. Umbilical was clear.

With a final, blood-curdling scream that faded like an ellipsis, Maggie seemed to push her guts out, and suddenly the baby squirted out into my hands.

I had a moment of soaring, purifying joy as I felt the warmth of a human life in my hands. I watched Maggie’s exhausted, sweat-soaked head drop back to the floor, and I looked down.

Gray skin.

Dead features.

The smell hit me. I stared and stared, as the mother began to howl hysterically, and a clamour of voices raised around me.

A vast, featureless, echoing plain reached for me, spread its arms, folded me into its embrace.