A recent arrival to New York discovers the darkness lying beneath its surface…

‘[…]The train is due and he makes his way to the edge of the platform, looking around warily as he thinks of reports of people being pushed in front of oncoming trains. Cautiously he looks quickly over the edge, drawn to the tracks. As bland and dirty as ever. But out by itself, partially covered with a thin strip of wood, snakes the electrified third rail; a purveyor of casual death in such close proximity to everyday life, so necessary as to be banal. Like the city itself: prosaic life streaked with violence and death. Yet again he wonders whether he made the right decision, trying to picture their last conversation: his apartment half-packed and the rest in shambles, her stifled tears and calm resignation a focus for the shifting codes of his guilt. Wondering if she would forgive him, take him back. Calling her, telling her that he didn’t belong here and that he really wanted-

Then the air jolts out of his lungs as a huge weight slams into his back and his chest feels displaced and the air somersaults around him in a confusion of brick and swirling colour. He hits the tracks heavily. Groggy and winded he peers up from his grave at the blurry faces peering over the edge. Rumbling beneath and he scrabbles to the edge of the platform, lifting himself up. One of the expressionless faces, a woman in a grey business suit, moves towards him and a high heel stamps down on his fingers. Broken fingers scream as he hits the gravel. As cold wind rushes in a wave up the tunnel from the incoming train a thin brown-haired man, all flowing overcoat and crazed eyes, launches out of the crowd and lands awkwardly next to him. The world turns red with blood as the man jumps on his chest, and the rock in the man’s hand suddenly becomes his only focus, vision narrowing like some hokey near-death hallucination. It slashes again, smacking into his temple and knocking off his glasses. Groping for them in dirt and gravel he clasps a handful of the stones and grounds his attacker’s eyes. He easily kicks the flailing, screaming man off over his head. Crawling again to the platform and lifting himself up with broken fingers like pure slices of agony coursing through his arms, looking back briefly and as instinctively as Lot’s wife and seeing the jerking, screaming shape frying on the third rail; this time the crowd parts in acceptance as he clambers over the lip of the platform, but the train is a huge onrushing blur of movement and metal. It hits. He spins lazily along the platform as his leg seems to expand and disappear.

Through a haze he sees some of the waiting passengers jump onto the tracks. Others board the train and wait patiently inside, staring out beneath the fluorescent glare. Hands on him and he looks up into the face of the woman who stamped on his fingers. She smiles briefly, like a false reflex, and then pins one arm down like a vise. Others similarly grasp his limbs, and another familiar leather and shit-lip grabs his head. Panicking, he looks down at the mangled flesh of his right foot and up at the approaching train driver, a peaked cap perched atop his balding head. A fireman’s axe rests casually on his shoulder. Despite the screams and thrashing they amputate his foot, cauterising it with lighter fluid and a match handed to them by the toll-booth attendant, a small bearded man in a blue uniform.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, he sees nightmare delusions of the burned and mangled body of his attacker dragged up onto the platform and set upon by the waiting passengers. Flashes of teeth and snapping of bones. Flesh ripping and tearing like cheap cloth. Acid tapeworm sounds sinking easily into his flesh and huddling within. The attendant brings out a hose when they are finished and washes down the concrete, whistling a tuneless high-pitched whine. Someone hands out towels to the bloodied commuters.

Two businessman pick him up underneath the arms and help him into the carriage. His right leg sways uselessly above the ground. They let him pause in the doorway to vomit into the gap between the platform and the train before placing him carefully on an aisle seat, one of them sitting beside him to prop him up. The other sits opposite and plants the familiar battered brown briefcase on his lap, silently dialling in its combination and taking out the sheaf of INS application forms. As the man begins filling in the uncompleted pages the other signals to the toll-both attendant waiting on the platform who waves to the front of the train.

He feels the bile and saliva wiped from his chin and turns to his companion, vision blurring and wavering. The smell of charred flesh fills his nostrils. The train’s side to side buffeting hastens his feelings of nausea.

“Welcome,” says the businessman, an intense and soothing smile plastered across his face. “You played well.”’

© Aaron Sterns 1998, Do not reproduce without permission



“Aaron Sterns’ ‘The Third Rail’ shows us a New York through a fever-induced miasma, a city that has become a nightmare for the lonely, frightened narrator. Life in New York is a case of us and them, ‘them’ being subject to random acts of horrifying violence committed with an almost detached ennui. For most of the story we’re convinced that the narrator is one of ‘them’, a terrifying prospect, but ultimately his true status, bestowed upon him with the message that the ‘city looks after its own’, may prove to be an even worse fate. Sterns’ writing draws you into his personal nightmare; the story, told in the present tense, has great immediacy and economy. Effectively, chillingly, done.”
-Review by Simon Brown, eidolon.net: Australian SF online

“Aaron Sterns gives us a feverish story of the subways, a disturbing, secretive world under our own, where things are decidedly not as they appear, in ‘The Third Rail’.”
-Review by Michael M. Jones, Green Man Review

“The four stories the [Aurealis] judges and I all like are Stephen Dedman’s ‘A Walk-On Part in the War’ (a new take, involving gunpowder, on the Trojan Horse myth), Jane Routley’s ‘To Avalon’ (sheep on Glastonbury Tor discover the entrance to fairyland), Aaron Sterns’ ‘The Third Rail’ (how to become a cannibal zombie in Manhattan) and Kerry Greenwood’s ‘Jetsam’ (a very touching sf version of Ariadne’s meeting with Dionysos on Naxos).”
-Review by Peter Nicholls, SF Golden Age


The original Australian cover



The Aus small paperback - book one

Book two (containing 'Third Rail')




















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