3 · Quality Assurance

Walking side-by-side along the dense faux-wool navy blue carpet of Luxury Class, the two waged a silently fierce sartorial battle.

A meticulously unbranded black hoodie slouched over faded-charcoal skinny jeans, offwhite canvas sneakers adorned by time-earned scuffmarks and a peeling red star logo. To the right and nearly a foot shorter, flourescent-laced black combat boots matched at midcalf by close-fitting cargo pants were shaped by the curves of lean athleticism. Deep bronze skin sparkled with strategic hints of glitter as all other style elements combined in a daringly fashion-forward ensemble, accented by a certain musical tribe’s distinctive signature symbol.

Knotted drawstrings dangling from the old sweatshirt’s hood swung in time with each step. “An immigration-related spike in violence came soon after the mass ‘citizens’ exodus’ following the War’s end. Older Japanese are amazingly open and trusting to strangers, though, since the crime rate is still near zero.”

“Nothing like New York, unfortunately.” Downcast eyes darkened by rueful disinterest examined a row of four manicured, black-lacquered fingernails on the upturned right hand. The middle finger’s nail elongated by an inch, tapering at the tip to resembled a hawk’s talon, then reverted back to its natural length with nothing more than a thought.

“Claws. Nice. Careful where you flash those silicon steel inches, though — the train rides an electromagnetic wave that could lightning-fry you in an instant if you accidentally cut through a spot with thin insulation. And the train security pattern-match cameras lining the main hallways probably flagged you a second ago. Train personnel are still busy with passenger check-in, so hopefully they’ll let it slide.” No response. “Anyway, day-laborer immigrants commute from slums to the city’s factories; the robots they build tend to the elderly third of the population. So very few older Nihonjin on the bullet train feel the need to lock their suites’ doors, even on the way to NYC’s concrete jungle.”

In no mood for small talk, the peevish fashionista stomped ahead of the tall, easygoing slouch who quickly took the hint. The gap between them grew in silence.

Seven feet behind, a door chime sounded. A canvas sneaker’s red star logo disappeared into the suite, and the door slid closed. Confusion at suddenly being alone in the hallway led the combat boots back to pause just outside the door; it opened a moment later, the tall slouch peeked out and pulled the uncertain fashionista by the hand into the room.

Creating Happy Customers

They stood across the room from a middle-aged pair sitting on the wide seat built to comfortably accommodate three. Interrupted from thumbing through a magazine on the tabletop screen, the two tourists looked up with mild surprise at their unexpected guests.

“Pardon my disheveled appearance during this impromptu visit.” The hoodie-wearing apologist pointed at the window, a transparent screen overlay on the lower third of the pane displaying the train’s increasing velocity, acceleration and depth below the Pacific Ocean. “Did you enjoy the pre-departure message? I helped select the stewardess you saw there. It really is true — we here on the New York-Tokyo Shinkansen take customer service to be our number one priority.” The tube’s grey prestressed concrete walls sped past the window in a blur; its vacuum-insulated, double-paned glass reflected the tall figure moving to sit across the table from the two tourists.

The older of the two, wavy brown hair parted down the middle, wore a pair of eyeglasses whose thick frames concealed their embedded hardware while perched upon a high-bridged, aquiline nose. Skeptical tones addressed the tabletop screen, eyes looking up from under the frames’ black borders. “Your picture didn’t appear as a registered train employee when you rang the bell.”

“As Quality Assurance manager, even on my off days when dressed as a ‘civilian’, I like to personally introduce each new prospective employee to our guests during our ‘In Our Passengers’ Shoes’ program.”

Still standing by the door, the unsuspecting new prospective employee was inwardly poised to run from the room. Frozen in place, eyes darted between manager and passengers, not daring to speak or make a move in either direction.

The younger passenger clapped both hands together once with a laugh of genuine enthusiasm and complete suspension of disbelief. “See Agnes? They’re so considerate. Always trying to make us happy — that’s why I told you we should take the train instead of flying to New York.”

“Thank you, ma’am. So true. And we prefer to introduce our newest probatory hires on an informal basis to ease their transition to full-fledged employees.” All eyes turned to the tense, unlikely wallflower standing motionless near the door. “Sometimes they’re still a little bit new to the visitor-greeting protocol, however.”

An uncomfortable moment ensued as the three who were seated waited for the wallflower to do something.

Stifling a chuckle at the fierce blush still visible despite the nanocyte-facilitated deep bronze tan, the hoodie-wearing manager nodded ever so slightly as if to offer a helpful cue. This broke the curse of immobility only to introduce a thoroughgoing confusion. “What? Oh, um… konnichi wa? Komban wa. Hi.” The ungainly Japanese-English melange was completed by a valiant attempt at a formal bow from the waist.

Skepticism melted into empathic understanding. “The first day of any new job is always the hardest. Isn’t that right, Janine?”
“You’re right as always, Agnes. No need to be embarrassed, honey; as lovely as you are, you’ll make a great stewardess in no time! Come, sit and we’ll have a chat.”

The older passenger’s welcoming wave of the hand caused the sparkle of a wedding band to catch the light. The new stewardess tentatively walked across the room and sat down. Still barely able to contain a fit of chuckles, the manager looked to the younger passenger across the table and noted a matching ring.

The Forgotten Parties of Tonight and Yesterday

The ostensible intention of more closely examining the wedding rings led narrow hips in faded-charcoal skinny jeans to insinuate themselves into the seat between the two middle-aged passengers. “Exquisite. I couldn’t help but notice. And how long has it been for you two lovely ladies?”

“Twelve years.”
“This past Tuesday was our anniversary.”

“Brilliant!” Frowning. “Sadly, this glittering young thing” — pointing across the table — “hasn’t been so lucky. We hold a company-wide ‘launch’ party for each new batch of employees; guess who sat by the punch bowl, forlorn and a bit tipsy all night? But we love her anyway.”

Confusion blended with disbelief, two letterform charms ‘C’ and ‘S’ jingling on a bracelet as arms crossed. “Party? And I don’t drink.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? So sober and serious in our debauched age of drug-fueled escapism. Although that sense of everyday style might veer a little bit to the obscure…” A suspiciously appraising look drew small smiles of subdued agreement from the two seated at either side. “…we know that in our trademark stewardess’ uniform, she will offer the highest quality service.”

The slight against cutting-edge fashion drew a spirited rejoinder in the vein of self-justification. “My gene-donor father actually had a recessive allele for alcoholism, so I’ve been straight-edge for my whole life. Well, mostly, except for special occasions.” A moment’s hesitation led to a sheepish smile and a fabricated conclusion to the needlessly factual biographical comment. “Being mostly drug-free definitely helped me pass the mandatory hair-strand and mouth-swab DNA testing phase of the stewardess application process.” The last sentence was saved for the manager’s smug grin sitting across the way. “I didn’t have to fake it, like everyone else does…”

An index finger pushed up the thick black eyeglass frames. “Debauched is an understatement for our modern age. It’s good that your employers are so stringent.”

“And compassionate, too, it seems. The stewardess corps has always been one of my favorite parts of the shinkansen service; now I see why. I can’t wait to see you in the uniform — hopefully you’ll be here for our trip next year.”

The smug look deepened. “Speaking of the uniform, you’ll be a real role model to the other girls on staff, being size… size what, again?”
“Guess.” Standing with hands on hips, a slow twirling turn offered a full view for the appreciative audience.

“You’re inspiring me already. If only the train was a time machine.”
“Oh, Agnes. You’re just” — squeezing the older passenger’s shoulder while assaying the twirling waistline — “fine to my eyes.”

Coral blue eyes alternated with intense fixation between the manager’s face and waist while biting a plump bottom lip. “Ah, now the memory comes back to me. The new-employee party — was that before or after you ran about madly with the firehose, naked and screaming? And boss, I hate to say, we’ve got the rest of the train to cover and only three hours to do it. This may not be ideal ‘party story time’, don’t you think?”

Without missing a beat: “Before or after running about madly? I choose ‘during’! Ha!” A laugh was shared with the other two at either side. “We here at NYT Shinkansen do love our fun, you know. And we have all the time in the world. No rush at all, I’ve done the rounds thousands of times during my tenure.”

Meeting Aplysia

The narrow jeans-clad hips stood, and the manager walked dramatically across the table, sitting down next to the new hire.

The thick-framed glasses emitted a quiet beeping sound. “Speaking of tenure, it must be time for a feeding.” A small satchel retrieved from below the seat was unzipped and both hands carefully placed inside. “I’m a neurobiologist and researcher at Columbia University’s Kandel-Hughes Memory Center in Manhattan.” The younger passenger reached into the satchel to retrieve and unfold a sheet of translucent bioplastic which was then placed across the elder one’s lap.

“What do you teach?”

Raised from the satchel, a corpulent, foot-long, exotically striped-and-spotted creature predominantly the light greenish color of seaweed drooped sleepily, its glistening surface dripping onto the sheet and seeming to dry within a few seconds. The rotund tubular body tapered to a narrow tail on one end and a broad, flattened head at the other; a small, sail-like dorsal fin ran along its back. Above its small pinpoint black eyes protruded two antennae that resembled a rabbit’s ears. Below the small vertical slit of its closed mouth, two more feeler protrusions continually tested the air currents in the room. “This is Plysia. Say ‘hello’ Plysia!”

After being placed on the bioplastic, the creature slowly raised its head, waving its antennae in the direction of the two travelers sitting opposite. Its coloration changed subtly from light green to a darker shade while the spots pulsed coral blue.

“That’s weird; the spots match my eye color… it’s both ugly and sort of beautiful at the same time.”
A contemplative pull at the hood’s drawstrings signaled deep thought. “I agree completely with at least one of those descriptions.”

“Don’t worry, I’m only taking video of Plysia for the lab; you two are anonymized and won’t show up.” Two blinks brought the university department’s homepage into view on the lens of the glasses, visible to the wearer alone. “It’s actually a megaplyisa, an ‘intelligent’ version of the coastal sea-hare. Biologists started to see these mutated versions popping up on the shores of California about six years after the war ended. It turns out that they somehow migrated — or were introduced by humans for some reason — to Japan’s radioactive ‘exclusion’ zones, then managed to wander back home across the Pacific. We’re not sure how it happened, but they’re incredibly smart — the dolphins of the mollusk world. Since we’re here already, we decided to collect an ‘original’ during their spawning season and bring it back with us.”

The younger passenger fished inside the bag, retrieved a bottle full of white viscous liquid and handed it to the other researcher. “Its body is basically a huge brain with its other organs encased in a shell like our ribcage; what you see is the protective outer coating. Megaplysia is actually dry like a snake’s skin and only becomes slimy in response to water. Somehow their bodies mutated to become amphibian as they grow, even though we’ve never seen one living completely outside its briny salt-water home environment.”

The bottle approached the creature’s head region. Plysia’s antennae sensed the air and it turned its head toward the bottle, then opened its vertical mouth, revealing a circular set of short, sawlike teeth. Plysia latched onto the bottle’s nipple and a quiet sucking sound was heard.

“Do they do anything? aside from eat and sleep?”

“We’re studying selective memory implantation right now. A DARPA research grant to map and explore its neural connectome for military AI showed that megaplysia basically acts like a huge hippocampus — a major memory center in the human brain. We realized that we might be able to replace our existing brain simulation and augmentation devices, crude as they are, with completely biological ones. This little girl — actually, they’re hermaphrodites — might be the key to reversing traumatic brain injury while reducing the current fifty percent risk of corrupted memories, or even regenerating our aging brains and nervous systems over the lifespan. We already have promising results from a few human test brains in the lab; in vivo experimentation is next.”

“One day Janine and I hope to transition our academic work into a private memory backup and repair business.”
“We already have a slogan. ‘we can remember it for you wholesale!'”
The two shared a laugh at the inside joke.

“Is that –“

“– breastmilk? Yes, mixed with algae-extract phytochemicals. Natural electrolytes feed megaplysia’s body the best; it shortens their lifespan, but the species tolerates human contact and thrives under experimentation better when they get human food. She likes mine more than Agnes’, for some reason. It’s like we’re proud parents!” Plysia turned a brighter green with spots becoming hot pink, then opened its mouth to release the nipple. A tissue taken from the satchel gingerly wiped Plysia’s small mouth. “Sadly, we’ll have to part ways when we get back to New York.”

Not really listening, a slender arm slung around the new stewardess’s shoulders. “Amazing. Ladies, in my capacity as Quality Assurance expert, I want to mention that if you need anything at all during the trip, from a beverage to a backrub –” The manager pretended to scan for a memory for a split second, then was interrupted by a hand on the thigh that reached crotchward and fumbled for a moment. The two tussled awkwardly as the marauding hand disappeared into a pocket, “C” and “S” charms on the bracelet jingling merrily all the while.

“Sorry. Reminiscing about the party. And the firehose. And the backrubs.” Gazing directly into the manager’s eyes from inches away. “Hmm… didn’t we discontinue those due to certain instances of unprofessional… bad… behavior?”

“Did you hear that, Janine? ‘Unprofessional behavior?'”
“I can’t believe something like that happening on our wonderful shinkansen trains.”

The manager smiled quickly and straightened the uncomfortably rumpled jeans. “Wait, yes, we sadly did have to discontinue our therapeutic massage services. Bit of confusion about expectations arising from the marketing strategy, so I’ve heard.”

“You know Janine, it must have been all those yakuza goons and their prostitutes trying to stir things up just after the war’s end. I’ve read that Chinese triads were involved, and the Korean chaebol families were trying to gain a foothold, too — buying up cheap land on the borders of the exclusion zones and making their way inward. Meanwhile, Japanese companies were bailing out of the stagnant economy like rats from a sinking ship, pouring ‘friendship loans’ into New York after the Independence Day nuclear backpack bombing. Hell, you and I spend most of our days walking between the Toyota and Samsung Buildings of our research center, in the middle of New Tokyo — rebuilt out of ancient Harlem under the pretext of ‘postwar economic revitalization’, and now the largest enclave of Japanese expats outside of Brazil.”

“Thank you for helping me with the zipper, there, I didn’t realize it was undone.”
“No problem.” The new hire sat back primly and offered a knowingly dirty look. “It wasn’t.”

“That must be it, Agnes. We were barely children then, but it was all-out vicious bloodshed spreading in all directions from the streets of Shibuya. Practically a guerilla war that ended in an uneasy truce. We really did need a fresh start after generations of ‘bridges to nowhere’ — economic incompetence and political corruption between the late 20th and early 21st. Who knows how much things have really changed.” The used tissue was balled up and thrown into the trash can near the door. “After the U.S.-backed ‘black gold rush’ of oil and natural gas reserves from the Senkaku islands, investors started to return. Anti-gang and anti-terror crackdowns seem to have restored peace, for the most part. Odd that they gave the district a citylike name — ‘New Tokyo’ — rather than something more like ‘Koreatown’, ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Little Italy.’ I guess buying up seventyfive percent of the land above 96th street gives you the clout to use any name you want.”

“I just came to the shinkansen trainport from Shibuya tonight. I’ve been there a million times but never heard that side of the history, aside from the official ‘blame the immigrants story’ that us post-war kids were all told while growing up. And you said ‘we needed a fresh start’ — you’re genetic Japanese, or you grew up there?”
“A little bit. Military brat. I grew up everywhere.”

The manager pulled at one of the hoodie’s drawstrings absently. “Me, too.”
“Really?”

A loud clearing of the throat and glance across the table brought their focus back to Plysia, whose antennae probed the air in the manager’s direction. Plysia’s shining skin shifted subtly from green to a shade verging on blue, its spots turning a melancholy light grey.

Never Let Them Sense You Sweat

The manager produced a finely-tailored white Carl de Urbanne handkerchief from the jeans’ back pocket and daubed at a damp brow.

“Is it a bit warm in here for you? That sweatshirt seems awfully heavy for the balmy temperature of this cabin. I might even have to give Plysia’s skin a spritz in a minute.”

Surprised at the expensive brand name hand-stitched onto the handkerchief, the new stewardess recovered with a smirk. “Looking a little hot under the collar, boss. Wonder what happened.”

In the older researcher’s lap, Plysia’s sail-like dorsal fin undulated as its body turned a dull orange with ruddy brown spots. “The megaplysia has emotions, understands basic language and apparently has a sense of humour, too. We hope to study that because it defies our connectomic models of how her nervous system works. See her dorsal fin? Plysia’s ‘laughing'; must’ve been something you said, did, or are feeling strongly right now that she can sense from across the table.”

“Must be the dampness in Luxury class; they never seem to get the dehumidification right. It affects me. Sometimes more than others.” Steadfast earnestness brought emotional authority to the untrue words. Squinting to magnify the transparent screen overlay at the lower third of the window pane, the bullet train’s smoothly increasing velocity, acceleration and depth figures further substantiated the claim. “We’re reaching 965 kilometers per hour and our depth below the Pacific is increasing at 525kph. The environmental control sensors are automatic in the Luxury suites, but they’re adjustable in Business and Premier Class — in case you might want to upgrade for yourselves next year.”

“Poor thing.” A helpful idea become a spoken suggestion. “I’m sure this would be an ideal training opportunity. Our new stewardess friend might fetch a cup of ice water for you?”

The new hire looked away to hide a peevish scowl.

Enter the Train Man

Perking up at the prospect, the manager smiled broadly. “That’s the spirit, Janine. Would either of you ladies like something to drink?”

“I’d like a Pocari Sweat on the rocks.”
“Yomeishu Classic with lime for me, please.”

Unmoving, the crystal blue eyes gazed down at a flat black oblong object in hand. Mumbling without looking up: “Since it’s my first ‘training’ day and I’m not officially on duty yet, would you like to introduce me to the other employees first, boss?” Fingertips tapped at the flat surface, and the screen was turned so that only the manager could see; the TrainMan app showed a member of train personnel approaching from the far end of the compartment.

“Ah, I see… look at the time. We are on a schedule, unfortunately.” Engaging the two passengers across the table with an somber air. “When you happen to see her in the near future, please be sure to say hello to –” pausing while coming up with a stewardess-like name “– Motoko when she makes her debut!”

The manager snatched the phone from the new stewardess’s hands as they stood and walked to the door, then, glancing at the screen, saw the dot representing a train personnel member turning and heading toward the door only a few feet away.

“May I have your card, young man? I’d like to remember you for our next train ride, just in case you’re on again. I do hope that you’ll keep us in mind if we should see each other again sometime.”
The younger passenger reached out, face alight with sensual implication. “And I’d like your card, too… just in case. Can’t wait to see that lovely waistline of yours in uniform, along with the rest of you…”

The request was met with a worried smile. “And I do fondly hope to survive this training day, preferably while still in one piece.”

The Shinkansen Two-Step

The manager slid the phone back into a jeans pocket while pretending to check for business cards. “I must have left my cards at the station office after being assigned to this train at the last minute, rather than my customary post on the Yamabiko line.” The hint of perspiration returned. “Since few people know me on this line, I’ve also been asked to act like an ordinary ‘civilian’ passenger when dealing with train personnel. A stewardess is approaching this suite right now, so I’ll make a typical request of the train crewmember in order to test their acumen. Do you mind if we sit back down just for a moment?”

“It’s alright. We’re glad to help.”

The two sat down just as the chime sounded, also illuminating the table screen’s ‘Door’ icon. Next to the icon, a small box appeared containing a professional headshot photo, first and last name, and the designation “Steward”.

The older passenger looked askance at the door, then tapped the table display’s icon and the door slid open.

“Ah, there you are.” At well over six-foot-five, gravity seemed to warp in response to every movement. The attempt at a nonthreateningly helpful posture with elbows slightly bent and palms upturned only brought more attention to large calloused hands and bulging forearms. Boulderlike biceps strained against the train uniform’s sleeves and wide shoulders led to a neck the size of a storm-hardened tree trunk.

The new stewardess froze, barely daring to breathe. The manager whispered harshly: “Be cool… stay cool. I’ll take care of this.”

The uniformed train employee looked down at Plysia, and Plysia “looked” back; a silent moment ensued in which neither seemed to know what to do. Plysia then speedily changed skin color to light brown.

The older passenger spoke disapprovingly. “Your booming voice scared her.”
“Sorry, ma’am, we have a ‘No pets in Luxury class’ rule. You’ll have to buy extra insurance to keep the animal outside its carrier during the ride.”

The younger passenger apologetically continued the thought. “Sorry, it’s not a pet. She’s a neurobiologist and I’m her assistant; this is an experimental subject we’re bringing back from the Tohoku coast.”
Plysia’s waving rabbit-ear antennae brought perplexity to the train employee’s voice. “Well, at least I can believe that it’s not a pet.”

Plysia turned dark purple with flourescent white pulsating spots like tiny strobe lights. A nervous laugh rang loudly from the new stewardess’s mouth. “Let me guess, that’s Plysia’s ‘angry’ face?”

The neurobiologist’s voice seethed with open hostility. “Yes. And now it’s time to go back to sleep before we wake her up too much with all the noise.” The bottle was placed into a side compartment and velcroed closed. Licking the left hand’s two middle fingers, the neurobiologist gently stroked between Plysia’s antennae and along the dorsal fin for a few minutes, cooing in motherly tones; the creature’s coloration returned from dark purple to seaweed green. It was then picked up gently and nestled back into its watery carrier sac inside the satchel. The assistant removed the bioplastic sheet and folded it neatly, then popped a bubble at the corner of the sheet before tossing it into the trash. The satchel was then carefully placed back under the seat. Inside the trash can, an army of tiny microbes embedded into the fibers of the sheet began the rapid biodegradation process; in a few minutes, the starchy corn-based components were all that remained, resembled a small pile of sawdust shavings.

The manager stood and stepped up to the six-foot-five train employee, oozing charm. “Hey, how’s it going! You’re just the person we’re looking for.”

“We’re running a preliminary head count before boarding pass collection. Seems we’re short two passengers in Luxury a few suites back. Are you them? The manifest says that you boarded separately; I didn’t know you two were a couple.”

The new hire jumped up with an immediate retort. “No, we’re –“
The manager cut in. “Yes, and…” the phone app was switched to display the boarding pass, flashing by the train employee’s eyes too briefly to read before placing the phone back into the jeans pocket. “…we were searching everywhere for a stewardess. Honey, aren’t these uniforms sharp?”

The manager elbowed new stewardess in the side.
The new stewardess elbowed the manager back.

“Yes, sweetie, uh, they’re awesome? They’re fabulous.”

The train employee stood at stiff attention, chin held high. “Stewardess? I prefer ‘steward’.”

Stunned by the steward’s true height and size, the new hire stepped back, mumbling and searching in vain for intelligent words. “Not to mention well-tailored. The uniform, it.. fits so well. Could be glued on. Wish I had one like it.”

The manager outstretched a hand. “Steward, of course.”
“I’m also head of the security detail for this train line.” They clasped hands and the vigorous action shook the manager’s entire body in a bone-jarring up-and-down motion. The charmingly confident smile turned into a wince for a few seconds before the steward politely ended the handshake.

“Thanks for the correction” — looking at the steward’s name tag on shirtfront pocket — “Cary. I totally see and feel the difference now. You are definitely a steward, and I feel safer already.”

Sizing up the manager: “How can I help you?”
The wince reverted slowly to a supplicating smile as the left hand gingerly massaged its bruised right-side companion. “You see, Cary, we think our friend might be on this train, but there could have been a mix-up and our friend may have ended up seated in Premier Class.”

The steward’s eyebrow arched in reprove. “So you’re either snitching on your buddy, or you want an upgrade to Premier?” The steward then busted up laughing. The walls of the suite rumbled and quivered. “Joking, pal. Joking. By the way, call me Bubba. Everybody calls me that, anyway.” A congenial slap on the back sent the manager reeling a few steps forward to regain balance.

“Ow, ha! Good one, Bubba.” To the two married ladies, a conspiratorial wink and nod. “We really do have to be going. We’re just down the hall, you can always pop in if you need anything during the ride.”

The wink and nod were returned from behind the thick-rimmed glasses. “You’ll be the first person we come to.”
“Best of luck, Motoko!” The younger passenger clapped in an outpouring of encouragement. “I’m sure the stewardess uniform will fit you perfectly! Be sure to enjoy that gorgeous body while you still have it!”

“Thank you.” A laser-etched silver businesscard holder emerged from a cargo pocket. “By the way, a friend of mine in New York owns a small boutique, and I just know they’d have something perfect for both of you. It’s a really cozy place. You can also visit their private inventory site, enter your measurements, do a virtual fitting and order online if you’d like.” A card was placed face-down on the table. The tabletop screen immediately recognized and scanned a QR-code on the surface of the card, then opened a web browser window to the boutique’s exclusive “private” home page. The card was placed back into its holder, and the holder eased back into the cargo pocket. The new hire smiled and politely waved while trying to imitate the stewardess on the window screen as the three left the room.

Her Name Is…

The door slid shut behind them as they entered the hallway.

The towering steward’s voice rumbled in the air. “Stewardess Motoko? I don’t remember you.”
Face turning bright reddish-pink despite the deep-bronze nanocyte tan, the fashionista stammered while looking directly forward at eye level and seeing the steward’s massive chest barely contained by the shirt’s buttons. “It’s just something I do. Halloween. Your uniforms, I just love them. It’s, you know… fabulous. Chic.”

The steward gave the much-shorter passenger an incredulous “what the hell are you trying to say” expression, then turned to the tall, slim slouch. “Tell me the name and I’ll go get him for you.”
“The name?”

“Your buddy.”
“Oh, right.” After few blank moments of mouth agape, the question was batted away instead. “What was her name, honey? I mean, the nickname that we always use? Somehow it escapes me.”

“‘Her?’ Oh. her. What was it again?” A few more blank moments were followed by a cry of relief. “Lilo! No, Lila. We just call her Lilo sometimes.”

The answer was relayed to the steward in full confidence. “Right, exactly. Lila… Lila Lollobrigida. Tall, brunette, curvaceous, friendly. Very friendly.” With a wink and thumbs-up: “You can’t miss her, Bubba. And she likes a big guy, if you know what I mean.”

“Uh-huh. Sounds like my kind of…” The steward chuckled, then looked around as if remembering decorum, and straightened back to strict attention. “I’ll make sure to tell the crew in Premier to keep an eye out. I could personally go right now, but you know, these train protocols are so strict. I have to stay in Luxury Class until we reach the tube’s first launch corridor. We only do boarding pass collection afterward, so I’ve got all this free time between now and then…” The steward’s massive palm suggestively rubbed the back of the tree trunk-sized neck, other hand sliding into the uniform’s pants pocket with a covert sidelong glance.

A display of pained empathy punctuated a commiserative nod. “Hey, I feel you bro, I feel you. Must be tough being a train steward nowadays. All the useless anti-terrorism regulations and bureaucratic red tape. How about we exchange contact info and I’ll see what I can do?”

“Sure, sure. Management gives us nothing but friction and static, you know?”

The two produced their phones, a prepaid amount was set on the “PocketMoney” wallet app, and they bumped phones to transfer the amount instantly. The steward’s granite-dense shoulder received a squeeze of manly solidarity. “I don’t know about the static, but that should take away some of the friction for you.”

The transferred yen amount on the phone’s screen brought new life to the steward’s eyes. “Hey, guess what, I knew it — we live on the same street! No wonder we get along so well!” The two laughed raucously.

“Isn’t that something?”

The steward turned serious, standing upright at attention with a tip of the cap to the two passengers. “You two enjoy your trip. I’ll head to Premier Class, take a look around, and when I come back during boarding pass collection, I’ll be sure to update you once we find your friend.”

“Thanks a million, Bubba. Means a lot to us. Right, hun?”
“The world. I can’t wait to see Lilo again. I mean, Lila.”

“Glad to be of service. Enjoy.”
The two stood off to the side, the tall slouch’s arm slung casually around the shorter fashionista’s shoulders. The steward nodded curtly, and continued past them to the entrance of Luxury Car Two. The door slid open, then quietly shut as the steward disappeared into the next car, leaving the two passengers alone in the aisle.

The Music, The Glory, and The Travesty

The fashionista roughly shook off the tall slouch’s arm and followed up with a hard punch to the shoulder, drawing a reaction of comical faux-horror at the act of physical abuse.

“Are you trying to get us caught?”

Shrugging: “Testing your ability to work under pressure.”
“What are you, taking a survey or something? You act like this is really some kind of crazy job interview.”

“Speaking of crazy, I can’t have you go all fangirl on me when we meet Arsenic and Crystal Smash, now, can I?”
“As if…! Now I get it. You’re totally mental. You know what? I’m going back to my seat. Enjoy being delusional for the rest of the ride, Mister Skywalker-or-whatever-your-name-is.”

Spinning on the black combat boots’ heel, a furious march down the hallway beelined back to the cabin from whence they originally came.

The tall slouch called out loudly in order to be heard. “Hate to tell you, princess, but we’re in this together from here on out. you might even say that you’re my accomplice at this point, Motoko.”

The march came to a sudden halt. “My name isn’t Motoko. And I’m not your accomplice. And if you call me ‘princess’ again, you’ll be swallowing your own broken teeth.”

“Think about it — Bubba saw you with me, right? Now he knows that we’re together. If I get caught, you do, too.”

Slumped shoulders preceded a slow turn back in the voice’s direction.

The voice quieted with a cocky grin. “Besides, what could be better than getting to know our neighbors in Luxury class? Nothing wrong with a little cordiality. I mean, we got to meet their sea horse! And Agnes even clapped for you. Lovely.”

Smiling sweetly, the fashonista walked up to stand nose-to-nose, reaching approximately to the other’s chin and defiantly looking up to make eye contact. “Right, lovely. Hilarious. When Bubba Cary comes back after finding out that there is no Lilo, I’ll make sure that he crushes and eats you first. You might be taller than me, but I’m pretty sure that I can outrun you. Then when he’s done crushing that glorious naked firehose” — grabbing a handful of the faded-charcoal jeans, intentionally missing the rectangular impression of the phone and taking a handful of something closer to the zipper — “I’ll buy him a beer to help wash down and digest those long, skinny rocker-boi bones of yours.”

The unflustered expression evinced the opposite of the jeans-grabber’s intended effect. “You with the dour attitude. Me? I’m uncrushable.” Looking down. “Quite the opposite, as you can see.” The tall slouch chuckled and gently poked the shorter adversary in the nose. “Fine. If you really want to go back to your little Luxe cubbyhole down the hall, I won’t stop you. I promise not to tell on you even if I get caught. ‘No, Bubba! We had a fight and broke up. I don’t even know that girl!’ But then the game ends, and you miss out on meeting the best musical minds of our generation.”

The handful of jeans was released and black-lacquered fingers ran through long and lustrous, half-shaved, blonde-streaked jet-black hair in exasperation. “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you. You’re a completely sociopathic maniac.”

“And you’re a natural — your acting skills are pitch-perfect. Lilo?! The look on your face was priceless — definitely worth bumping that steward a couple thousand yen!” Laughing with childlike delight, the tall slouch broke into song and walked away down the aisle toward Luxury Car Two’s entrance doors. “You shoot me down / but I won’t fall / I am titanium” — exaggerating the syllables to the word “Titanium” ridiculously.

The lyrical interpretation provoked a scowling grimace at the off-key rendition. “That’s Crystal Smash’s most girl-friendly anthem ever! I can’t believe you’re croaking vocals that were perfectly guest-sung by Hatsune Miku — who’s an autotune soprano, I might add. You are officially a travesty.” The furious fashionista trudged forward to catch up, combat boots thumping on the navy blue carpet as they continued onward to Luxury Car Two.

Note: first posted 2013.09.11. Revised 2013.09.22.

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