[News!] The Bullet, Robot World Deepens. Return to Bullet, Robot!

Good news to share with you and all the readers of Bullet, Robot, as well as any others who may care…

…it’s time to return to the cruel hopeful new world of Bullet, Robot.

After five solid months of planning the story world and building its architecture, I can now set the characters free to move, fight, love and live within it.

In short, the universe of Bullet, Robot is becoming real and coming alive on a new level.

“Real” in the sense that my only remaining task is to show it to you.

. . .

Read more about where to find the new story, where to find the previous fifty-page novella, and the larger vision that makes this project different. Click here to find out everything you need to know and return to the universe of Bullet, Robot (click here).

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[News!] Enter:Bullet, Robot — upcoming short stories to explore the Riding The Bullet Universe…

You can head over there for the first installment, “Just Another Busy Night At The Soldier Repair Shop (click here)“.

The two aspects of the story may be developed concurrently (definitely after creation of a PayPal donation button to gauge readers’ real interest and diminish distractions from such real-world concerns as paying to keep the body running while the mind spins the stories).

In the meantime, enjoy the first new story. A whole timeline has been laid out during the interval between the previous entry and now, so availability of time is the only factor in how soon the Bullet:Robot world can become reality…

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.

2 · The First Thirty Seconds

(previous chapter: Riding The Bullet)

The docking bay’s tunnel entrance resonated with a deep electromagnetic hum as the engines awakened, levitating the train’s smooth hull six inches above the track.

After a final visual check, cabin attendants stationed in each car’s vestibule pressed blue “All Aboard” and white “Close Door” buttons. Biometric recognition confirmed the attendants’ thumbprint, then signaled the fortyfive-pound cabin entrance doors to swing shut on their hinges. The door edges were a snug fit for the vestibules’ insulated doorframes, aligning smoothly to the shimmering polymer skin of the train. Once locked in place, the compartments maintained an airtight seal against the depressurization of rapid descent and near-complete vacuum in the transpacific tunnel.

In the train’s cockpit, rows of dashboard LEDs came to life, forming a steady column of high-contrast blue and white dots. The pilot inserted and turned a key ninety-degrees clockwise, then flipped a column of switches to the right of the LEDs. At each entrance gate, the enclosed passenger walkways spanning the distance between the docking bay and the train’s doorframes retracted and folded away into their housing at trackside.

A magnetic river of propulsive lift conveyed the train into the tube’s entry stage in preparation for the beginning of the ride.

Ceiling panels bathed the passengers in soothingly diffuse light that matched the early evening sun’s luminosity outside the trainport; dense faux-wool navy blue carpeting nestled in around every step of the flourescent-laced black combat boots. Inset along off-white walls, linen-colored sliding doors lined both sides of the wide center aisle in the Luxury Class compartment.

Separated by opaque polycarbonate dividing walls along the length of the train car, the inexpensively constructed cabins allowed all but the quietest noises to pass nearly unimpeded. Parents settling in for the three-hour trip impatiently shushed their collicky babies; the bustle of baggage handling and polite conversation filled the air. The clean, no-frills construction, simple lines of utilitarian design and lack of personal privacy produced an ambience more akin to prefab office cubicles than suites of any kind, luxury or otherwise.

A digital boarding pass hovered in midair from the vantage of the lenses’ display. Walking down the aisle, the eye-level low-resolution screen on each door became a procession of cabin numbers until a match was found for the number on the boarding pass. The word “Unoccupied” shone bright green below the suite number until the door was slid open, threshold crossed, door closed and locked from the inside.

The Luxury Class cabin’s interior was outfitted with two opposing rows of seats and a low table occupying the center of the compartment. The table, topped by scratch- and shatter-proof glass, displayed a shifting gold-leaf shoji pattern of egrets, mountains, dragons, and floral arrangements.

“Hey. We got cut off. It’s 2012 night. Yeah, the invite said it’s all retro. Not the whole thing — only the side is shaved. Straight, no curls.”

The small black bag landed in a heap on the empty window seat.

“What was her name? Cassius or something? Cassie, right. It’s so tame and old-fashioned… I like it, though. I was going to upload a beehive or afro, but my hair wouldn’t hold it. The charge isn’t strong enough; just goes all snow-crash frizzy. What was the 2012 slang? ‘Dope’ or ‘tight’ or ‘epic’ or whatever? You know, some people back then thought the world’s end had come. Considering all that’s happened since, maybe it has, and we’re just now waking up…”

The lights in the cabin dimmed as the window at left attained a dark, smoky tint. The image of a smiling stewardess appeared on the window. “Thank you for choosing to ride with us! As we prepare to get underway in just a few moments, I’d like to introduce you to the train’s emergency features, and the special features available in Luxury Class. Safety for passengers and crew is always our number one priority. There are five emergency exits onboard the train…”

“Yup. Blackinasian. You’re Whitetina? Rock. Love it.” Fingers running through blonde-streaked jet-black hair caused a jingle from small crystalline trinkets attached to a bracelet at the wrist; light laughter accompanied the sound. “Uh-huh. Exactly. The word ‘primitive’ is just right… race-naming is so totally stupid and perfect, like being back in second grade and haggling over who has the better marble collection. Can you believe our ancestors used to murder each other over it? Sort of hilarious, in a sad kind of way. But then, they might say that a post-nuclear world is no better, I guess.” A contrast-stitched ruggedized rubber sole ruefully seesawed its arch against the table’s edge two feet in front of the seat. “Everything’s a joke when you live in the gallows. But you know what, Maxie? At least we have better music.” The light laughter returned.

The conversation continued as the stewardess gestured forward to the table’s surface; the stewardess’s arm appeared to reach into the cabin area itself. “Luxury Class offers ‘Bring Your Own Device’ entertainment service. Please visit our website and download the ‘BYOD InShinkansen Entertainment’ app for access to our wide array of free and discounted content for you to enjoy during your stay with us.

To activate the table display, simply place your boarding pass face down above the table to unlock the screen, or if your right index fingerprint is registered with us, simply point-and-tap above the table’s surface. From there, you can easily use the Near-Field Transfer option to download the app by touching your device to the screen and pressing the ‘Confirm’ button on your device.”

The tabletop’s background pattern disappeared. At table’s center, a web browser window slid into view, set by default to the train service home page. Icons for ‘Apps’, ‘Door’, ‘Help’, ‘Home’, and ‘Security’ were prominently displayed; the ‘Apps’ icon was backlit with a softly pulsing glow.

“Jens is what? Beige? Again? He was beige at the Dark party last month. Well, you know what they say… reminds me, I’ve got to drink this crazy ganguro potion — stopped especially to get it at 109 in Shibuya. No, not that kind of potion. I want to get a little darker before the party.”

Digging into the bag, a plastic bottle was retrieved, electric blue letters clashing on a black background. “U-Polish! Give it To Ur Skin!” shouted the bold, uppercase letters of nonsensical Japanese-style Engrish. A few shakes and a twist of the cap opened the bottle. Wincing at the slimy texture, a third of the oily, sludgy substance was downed in one shot. Artificial melanocytes began their journey of diffusion from the digestive organs to the skin, evenly darkening by temporarily increasing the amount of pigment across the body’s surface.

A clock displaying Tokyo time and New York time appeared at the upper right-hand corner of the window pane. Gesturing to it, the stewardess concluded: “Our estimated arrival time is 22:15 New York time. Please enjoy your trip and if you have any questions or concerns, we’re here to help. Thank you for riding the New York Tokyo Shinkansen Train Service!” Bowing formally from the waist, the cabin attendant waved and smiled as the image on the window faded to black. At that moment, the compartment’s ceiling panels returned to diffuse luminosity, and the tabletop reverted to its shifting shoji background pattern.

“Wait, my phone is giving me proximity. I have to switch to Sleep Mode once the ride starts, though. Same with my hair and nails. Sucks. Yeah, something about magnets or whatever. There are mad Crystal Smash fans on this train, they’re everywhere! Phone is telling me that I match really well with someone walking by… okay, the person ‘notices’ me?”

The window pane’s tint dissipated, revealing the shadowed darkness of the tube interior and beyond that, the circular walls’ prestressed concrete. Vents built into the walls rotated to the ‘open’ position; vacuum pumps exhaling all atmosphere through the vents’ airlocks began de-pressurizing the tube, and simultaneous pressurization within the cabin caused a throbbing, ear-popping sensation.

An infographic comprised of three sections slid upward to encompass the lower third of the window; it was a continuously updated visualization fed by the train’s internal sensors as well as data beamed in from the trainport’s orbital monitoring systems.

In the leftmost section, a horizontal line traced the train’s route from start to finish with a “You are here” arrow pointing to the beginning of the route-line. Below that, vertical depth was plotted as a line sloping down, horizontal, then up along the train’s path.

The center of the infographic showed the train’s speed in kilometers per hour, presently set to zero. Below the ‘0km’ sign was the number ‘10879km’ representing the remaining distance to New York; at bottom, ‘5km’ measured the train’s depth below sea level.

At right was a CCTV video feed of the track taken from a camera mounted at the nose of the train. The video feed displayed for sixty seconds at a time, followed by a 15-second silent advertisement from one of the train line’s sponsor/partner brands; if the viewer leaned against the window pane, the advert’s sound could become audible via the conductive vibrating glass.

“Should I ‘notice’ them back? Maybe I should write a quick message. No? Yeah, you’re right, too try-hard. Look, I’ve got another call; ring you when I get back. Definitely, you too. Okay bye.”

The door’s “bell” chime sounded, also illuminating the table screen’s ‘Door’ icon. Next to the icon, a grey outline framed a generic dark ‘silhouette’ placeholder image; inside the silhouette sat a white question mark, and below, the word “Visitor”.

The sound was ignored, and a blink of the eyes answered the incoming call. “Yes, I saw it. I know. Another quarter like that, and we’re… well, yes, it’s _always_ a marketing problem. How can we keep selling ‘new and improved’ to a generation who’s never worked a day in their lives, and probably never will? If we saturate the ‘exclusive’ price point, knock-offs will flood the market and we go straight down the drain. Why buy the real thing when everybody’s got one and the fakes are good-enough clones?”

The door chime sounded again, still to no avail.

“It’s such a grind, constantly pushing just to stay a half-step ahead… legal? The expenses would kill us, you know how that works. Can’t sue everybody with a 3D scanner, cheap base materials, a printer and an eye for design. Besides, filing copyright claims would be the death of me…”

The door chime sounded again. Distracted by the call, black-polished nails absently tapped the illuminated icon to remotely unlock the door.

“No, ‘ten percent human and local’ is our soul! Trust and quality are why our customers love us and tell their friends. One-hundred percent offshoring and mechanization would be the last straw. We’d have to hide the truth and fake the ‘made in the USA’ label, just like the the transnational corporate jerks and desktop-publishing imitators. Our hardcore fans can tell the difference; it would be total mutiny. Can you run the –”

The door quietly slid shut. A youthfully disheveled figure clad in a rumpled black hoodie and faded-charcoal jeans dropped heavily into the chair directly opposite.

The long pause was accompanied by a hard, suspiciously appraising stare from behind the orange-tinted butterfly lenses. Quickly shifting attention back to the conversation, the window dashboard’s accelerating velocity numbers provided a captivating visual alternative.

“What? Endorsement? For a tiny-niche vanity brand surrounded by big-box retail sharks and copycat swarms? No celeb worth the trouble would associate with us. Not yet, anyway. That downward arrow on your spreadsheet graph would have to rocket through the ceiling for at least a full fiscal year.

Look, can you run the numbers again? Tokyo was amazing; I’ll be back in NYC by evening with a haul of new ideas, photos and video. If you’re still in the office, we can look them over together. Alright. Text me if something major comes up in the meantime; reception is spotty in the tube, but it might get through. Yes, thanks so much. See you then.”

From behind the orange-tinted lenses, an eyebrow raised in skeptical confrontation. “So which are you — jealous partner, child molester, or fashion-challenged serial killer?”

Stifling a yawn and pulling at a loose shirtsleeve thread: “More a Cap’n Crunch, pop rocks and soy milk sort, personally.”

“Right, and you have exactly five seconds before I call security.” Leaning forward to the table, the right index finger pointed and tapped an inch above the tabletop. The screen below responded with a square outline that became a miniature browser window. Using both hands, thumbs and forefingers above the screen ‘grasped’ the edges of the window and, spreading hands apart, diagonally pulled the display to widen and enlarge it. The browser window showed the train service home page, and a black-lacquered fingernail hovered above the ‘Security’ icon.

Carelessly tossing the pulled thread aside, strands of hair were brushed away from dark eyes. “Funny, I was just about to say the same thing to you. Starting a conversation with hostile accusations? It’s a crime against modern civility.”

Increasing acceleratory g-forces in the cabin triggered the train’s compensatory anti-gravitational re-stabilization mechanisms. At the center of the cabin’s window, a notice appeared in large, slowly blinking white type: “Please remain in your seats…” Below, a thirty-second timer counted in reverse, one second at a time. Momentary overcompensation created a low-gravity state whose mild effect could be seen and felt in the movement of objects and human beings through the cabin’s inner space.

“Civility. Yes. You seem quite mad right now. Three seconds.” A tap above the ‘Security’ icon opened a dialog box: “Are you sure? Confirm / Exit”.

Reaching into the hoodie’s front pouch, a cylindrical container labeled Apple-in-a-Can was retrieved and carefully examined at eye-level. Released in mid-air, the can remained still for a moment, then slowly floated down to the open palm waiting a few inches below. With a chuckle: “Oh, come off it. You opened the door because we’re both Crystal Smash fans. Everyone knows that Smash — well, Arsenic, at least — is straight-edge and you know the app doesn’t allow offenders on their Friends service.”

“Yes, and apparently your name is –” eye-gesturing to bring up the offline web page profile on the eyeglass display — “Skywalker. L. Skywalker.”
“That’s my name.”

Blinking once to close the web page. “It’s fake.”
“It’s not. Not any more than those glamorous half-Mongo eyelids of yours, anyway.”

The immediate blush was followed by a downcast gaze, fingertips pressed to forehead as if shading against sudden bright glare. The soothing cabin lighting remained unchanged; this, combined with the window countdown timer’s oversized white numerals contrasted against the tube’s motion-blurred grey concrete beyond the window, implied otherwise. “They’re not Mongos, they’re supposed to be Shanghais!”

“Right. So apparently some of your friends are also my friends –”

Looking up sharply: “– probably also fake –”
“– and since I’m obviously a sociopathic child molesting serial killer who just happened to wander by, I wondered if we might get along. Judging from the past few minutes, I’m sure we will.”

Jabbing a thumb in the direction of the door with a harsh laugh. “Sorry, my friend will be coming back from the loo at any moment now.”
“Alright.” The tall, hoodie-wearing figure leaned forward as if to stand up and leave. “By the way — you’ve met Crystal Smash? The band members?”

“No, of course not. Nobody has. No one even knows what they look like. Their onstage holograms change with every performance.”
“They’re just camera-shy. They rent storage space at O-Nest, so after stowing their gear, they travel light back to NYC.”

“You certainly are a good little Smash otaku, aren’t you? Head of the international fan club?”
A quizzical, appraising look scanned the other’s form up and down. “Yeah, right. And you know the lead guitarist, Arsenic? No — you’re just wearing his signature logo on your shirt. And the bracelet with the tiny ‘CS’ logo on it. And the Smash-branded boot laces. And I hope that tattoo is temporary.”

The fast-reddening blush returned. “My friend made me do it!”
Returning the sarcastic laugh: “I know, I hate it when that happens! So anyway, I heard that Arsenic might be on this train, in Premier class.”

The window display showed a velocity of 98kph, with acceleration increasing at 15 kilometers per second, with flat vertical depth as the train speedily departed the trainport.

“Premier Class is closed to us less-lofty people.”
“I could get us in, right now, but once they scan that QR boarding pass code on your phone, you’re stuck here.”

The “Please remain in your seats” countdown on the window reached zero and disappeared from the center of the pane.

Eyes narrowed: “Arsenic? From Crystal Smash? On this train? Seriously?”
“Only one way to find out.” The long-limbed, slim body rose to standing position. “Better than sitting here, watching fireflies pass by on the tunnel walls and playing with your Virtuals offline for the next three hours.”

Standing, slowly, detaching the glasses from the bridge of the nose and sliding them into a customized pants-pocket phone holster. “We’ll get busted wandering around in Premier Class. It’s a double fine, plus fifteen percent. Then they kick us back here and schedule us for special interviews at the TSA checkpoint in New York.”
“We won’t get busted. I’ve done it a thousand times. We’ll look even less conspicuous as a couple. Aside from clearly being my perfectly crazy machine-picked match,” gesturing circles around the left temple with the still unopened Apple-in-a-Can in hand, “that’s why I picked you.”

“Conspicuous-looking? I think you mean notorious-looking.”
“Even better. Nobody would dare pull a caper like this one, unless they’ve got a real sense of adventure and don’t mind a risk here or there for a solid thrill. This is Smash. _The_ Crystal Smash. Like you said, nobody ever sees them. This kind of opportunity could be once-in-a-lifetime.”

Finally clear of the trainport, the window infographic showed the train’s accelerating velocity and sloping descent to increasing depths below the Pacific Ocean.

Picked up from the window seat, the small black bag was zipped shut and slung across one shoulder. “Fine. And if we don’t meet Arsenic, you owe me a ticket to their next show. And round-trip train fare. Or else I slander you online to hell and back for being a cheat.”

“No worries.” A broad, confident smile showed even white teeth. “Like you said, I might as well be the head of the fan club.”

The Apple-in-a-Can found its way back into the hoodie’s front pouch pocket, and the two set out on their search across the train to find the elusive Crystal Smash.

1 · Riding the Bullet

The sprawling, 2.4 million square-foot trainport resembled a fortified amusement park built to survive a world war. In fact, it withstood the war intact. Subsequently, the trainport had been re-purposed to pleasantly transport businessmen and revelers, parents and children, and everyone in between from New York to Tokyo in just over three hours.

Pointing and yelling gleefully, tiny feet clad in velcro-closed toddler trainers bounded speedily across the asphalt. “Not so fast or you’ll skin your other knee!” Distress mixed with a parent’s weary admiration echoed across the outdoor lobby area.

Dying embers of an early spring sunset glanced from geodesic communications domes’ gleaming white angles. In their present context, the domes bore an odd resemblance to the ears of a once-ubiqituous cartoon mouse. Their original purpose as orbital targeting systems had been replaced by an new one: provide millisecond-precise monitoring of the supercruiser bullet train line as it barreled through an airtight tube transecting the Pacific Ocean; American Underground Rail provided the rest of the nonstop route across the continental United States.

Instead of heading for the tall rotating carousel doors, the toddler ran straight toward a long furry tail vigilantly swishing back and forth nearby. The tail belonged to an animal whose military handler stood at stiff attention, staring impassively ahead not more than four feet from the lobby entrance. At first, the parents failed to realize their child’s mistake. Oblivious to all danger, the child ran forward with arms outstretched as if to catch the cat’s tail.

The animal was in fact a laboratory creation; one that, when fully grown, recalled a mixture of doberman pinscher and ravenous black panther. Using bloody lambs’ meat as positive reinforcement and an electric shock rod for corporal punishment, its behavior had been meticulously shaped from birth to imitate the stonelike disposition of its handler — unless in the presence of an imminent threat.

During the trainport’s previous lifecycle as a military installation, targets were triangulated and verified via satellite, tactical nuclear missiles were shot into orbit, then accelerated through re-entry on a practically unstoppable trajectory. After the war, the high-energy magnetohydrodynamic propulsion systems were retrofitted as a maglev civilian transport. The propulsion systems were re-calibrated down rather than up — 790 feet below sea level into a tunnel that was more complicated to construct than the train itself. The transpacific tunnel was a fifteen-year joint construction project between Japan, South Korea and the United States with generous contributions from China via Hong Kong. Today’s passengers, mostly unaware of the train system’s military origins, had no idea that many of the popular whimsical slang terms for this method of travel were actually rooted in recent historical fact.

Both parents drew a dread-filled sightline from small footsteps’ path to the child’s intended destination, as the long furry tail vigilantly swished back and forth in front of the tall rotating carousel doors. Their anxious shouts — “stop, stop!” — traversed the distance between the helpless adults and their exuberant child, all to no avail.

Sensing a fast-moving intruder from twenty-five feet away, the animal’s pale green eyes locked on intently. At fifteen feet, its ribcage began to expand and contract as respiration increased. At ten feet, salivation mixed with breath caused a thin line of froth at the mouth. The handler noticed tension at the leash and firmly commanded “down, girl.”

In a subtle shift, the animal assumed attack-ready stance, powerful hind legs coiled to leap, five toes on front paws spreading wider to provide tactile traction. A low growl emanated from deep in its core, tail jacknifing back and forth as if silently calculating the decreasing distance.

Giggles bubbling forth and arms outstretched, the child headed straight for the rapidly waving tail. The creature bared its teeth, emitting a snarl that grew to more of a barking roar. At that point, even a three-year-old mind could decipher such a sound’s meaning and the child stopped short, falling to one knee, then back onto its rear, crying out for parental protection. Beads of red began to show at a skinned knee, and the child’s vulnerability only incited the animal more. Bristling to pounce, stiff-whiskered lips retracted to reveal gnashing rows of razor-edged teeth, froth slathering from its long pink tongue. Its handler, aware that the outcome had become imminent, waited for the right moment to intervene.

Just as the creature began to dash forward, the handler used both hands to yank the leash laterally while jamming a knee behind the animal’s jaw, forcing its mouth shut and throwing its balance off to one side. Leaning with full weight to pin and immobilize the creature, the handler repeated the previous command, “Down!” Recognizing sharp pain and the voice of its human counterpart, the animal lay still as if instantly paralyzed, motionless but for the hyperventilatory movement of its nostrils and ribs. The child sat helpless only a few feet away, screaming and kicking. The animal’s pale green eyes remained silently transfixed on their target.

“You two! Please collect your child! Now!” ordered the soldier, assault rifle inconveniently sliding across the bulletproof vest’s back and clattering to the ground. Into a brick-shaped walkie-talkie: “K-10 support unit request for entrance five lobby zone. Code three incident report pending, unit 72119. Over. Pediatric service request with medkit to entrance five lobby. Over. Oh, and remember the tranquilizer this time, please? She’s growing up fast these days. I’ve got her in side-mount neck control, and my leg is getting tired already.”

The two parents, finally crossing the distance, whisked the child to relative safety ten feet away. One hugged, shushed and caressed while the other tended to the bruised and bloody knee. Cooing: “You’re okay, baby, you’re okay…” With a cross tone: “Hun, I told you this would happen. And now we’re all out of bandages. This kid’s gonna need new knees by age five!” Looking to the soldier, who kept careful watch over the animal. “Thank you.”

The soldier nodded curtly. “Glad to be of service. Feel free to gather your belongs and proceed to the lobby. You’re safe now.” Although its breathing and disposition had returned to normal, the creature still glared, unblinking, at the child.

The station interior was immaculate. Shining chrome and brushed steel encased ticket machines. Cream-colored walls harbored no lasting traces of graffiti. The floors were chef’s-kitchen clean, tiled surfaces sterile and reflective; all spaces were brightly lit and well-attended by cheerful employees and military reserve guards outfitted with assault rifles and sidearms.

Most passengers seemed to know where to go. Those who didn’t were efficiently attended by polite customer service robots, three-dimensional holographic boarding assistants, and the occasional human supervisor. Others patiently stood in line, minds elsewhere, checking mobile phones and having conversations at considerate volume in various languages.

Heavy combat boots thudded across the first of two waist-height automated ticket gates. The base fare ticket was inserted, processed, and fare counted. A receipt stub popped up on the other side as the gate’s two sides flapped open with a clap.

The enclosed escalator hummed downward, moment of partial darkness lit by a stream of departure and arrival times scrolling past on a wallscreen at left. Exiting the escalator, the thudding boots joined a human flow of high heels, sneakers and dress shoes. The shuffle of shouldered golf bags, briefcases and daypacks intermingled with those who kept babies strapped in front while lugging strollers, chatting with partners and leading toddlers by the hand. Queues formed to pass through the second set of gates.

On the other side of the glass-paneled waiting area snaked the serpentine profile of the bullet train.

Withdrawn from a customized pants-pocket holster were translucent orange butterfly lenses. Gently pinched in place, the waveform-transducive bridge imperceptibly conducted incoming sound through sinuses, mucosa and bone to the user’s inner ear. The bridge’s tissue-thin, snug-fitting nosepads were designed using the same type of powerful, non-stick adhesive that enabled long-extinct tropical geckos to climb and cling to walls.

“Hi phone!” The phone chimed its ‘ready’ greeting. “Spreadsheet. Most recent.”

From behind the lenses, a spreadsheet depicting quarterly sales figures hovered a few feet ahead. The numbers were supplemented by a graph plotting trends and highlighting key points in the portentous downward-sloping best fit line. After scrutinizing the numbers for a few seconds, a glance at the graph led to an exasperated frown. A dismissive roll of the eyes sent the spreadsheet spiralling away.

“Phone. Browse: CURE Magazine.”

From behind the lenses, the magazine layout appeared.

CURE Magazine cover image: a single treble clef stood out against a collage of visually psychedelic sound waves. On closer inspection, the sound waves were actually headlines, names of songs and lyric fragments. An oval designed to resemble a yellow concert sticker was inlaid by an inkblot. Inside the splatters of black, spelled out in reversed white block type:

CRYSTAL SMASH // feat. Arsenic
O-Nest Live
03.25

Interview Inside

An eye-blink turned the page. The design was spare, high-contrast and intentionally haphazard, befitting a copy-and-paste fanzine layout.

“The only artists alive today who reliably inspire loyalty in both fans’ hearts and pocketbooks, Crystal Smash is an enigmatic entry into the fragmented world of popular music. They’ve landed like a neutron bomb and blown apart old conventions with their undeniable sound, gaining millions of devoted followers from all corners of the audible spectrum.”

Multicolored lines on the floor and signs along the path pointed out the correct seating areas to wait for the train, aligning with different entrances for the different classes: Luxury, Business and Premier.

In a cavernous docking bay just beyond the glass-paneled waiting area, the train’s long, conical heat-shielded nose gave the appearance of a predator’s curved beak. Shimmering metallic skin was comprised of lightweight, tear-proof intelligent polymer fabric that minutely adapted its contours for optimal aerodynamicism. Without need for wheels, the train’s magnetic underbelly was flat and smooth. Each passenger compartment held two floors with accompanying porthole windows on each floor. The sublevel below was that compartment’s machine room; no windows, only a small door section that seemed about three-quarters the height of an average human being.

Exhaust vents periodically released steam from the aft portion of each car in succession as crew members tested the train’s air brakes and liquid nitrogen cooling systems. The hustle, bustle and jargon-filled communications of jumpsuited technicians wielding various tools and instruments resembled the pre-flight checks for a passenger spacecraft launch.

Blink. “Phone — call Maxie.”

A moment later. “Hey! What’s up Maxie… yeah, on my way back from the Crystal Smash show… nope, lone wolfin’ it tonight. Riding the bullet. Rollin’ solo.”

The combat boots came to a halt in the Luxury Class waiting area. Soft nylon straps attached to a small black backpack were unslung from shoulders with a quick shrugging motion.

“What? I know. It’s new. You know those commercials with the redfaced panda and the big balls? It’s those — the Virtual Light ones, they double as sunglasses. VirginDoCoMo. Yeah, it’s paygo but their service is awesome most of the time. Reception sucks on my Virts while I’m in the tube, though — I’ve got like one bar down here. Not paying a single yen extra for WiFi, either.”

The lean, lanky traveler sat down to the left of an expensive yet poorly tailored suit that failed to conceal its wearer’s dangerous overweight. Adjusting the crisply ironed edge of the too-small dress shirt’s neck, a croaking voice managed to pant: “Hi there. Headed to New York?”

Long, athletic legs — outlined by close-fitting black cargo pants that began where midcalf-height boot laces ended — crossed away from the suit and the obvious question. With a firm press at the bridge of the glasses, the lenses immediately frosted over, creating a mirror effect. “You had your eyes re-done? Can’t wait to see it. Coral blue irises this time, right? We’ll finally match! Be sure to mention me — Gina’s cool, she’ll shine you up for half off.”

Blink. The magazine turned page. Short fingernails painted black unzipped the small bag and rummaged about inside. “Yeah, I went today. She wasn’t there; white-death quarantine. She called me to apologize, isn’t that sweet? She really did look like death over the phone, though. Said it’s TB, so who really knows? Anyway, I told the new girl I wanted three-day Shanghais; of course she gave me seven-day Mongos instead. If I wanted to look like I was from Siberia, I would have done it myself… nah, it’s cool.” A lipstick-sized applicator cylinder was withdrawn from the bag, scrutinized briefly, then dropped back in with the other items. “The shop at the station has DIY Seouls, so I might mix them with some left-over Swede. You think that if I mix Shanghai and Swede, I might end up with Tokyos?”

The wattled double chin ahem’d loudly in an unsuccessful bid for attention.

“No! No video. Wait till we see each other in person. I want it to be a surprise. Besides, this is paygo, remember? They’ll throttle me for the rest of the month if I use too much data. But I’m in client negotiations all day Monday, so I’ve got to get my eyes right before then. Any tips are totes appreciated.”

As if on cue, a stewardess arrived at the Luxury Car departure area, as did service personnel at each of the two other gates. “Welcome to the New York Tokyo Shinkansen Train Service!” The stewardess was slender and modestly dressed, a colorful neck scarf tied off to the side with a flourish. Bright eyes, symmetrical features and clear complexion required minimal makeup.

The panting croak chortled, “look at those hips! Honey, you must live at the gym!” The well-practiced stewardess was non-responsive to the comment, retaining a serenely cheerful disposition while finishing the scripted greeting. Tired parents nearby asked if they could make arrangements for a double-wide stroller, and the stewardess walked over to engage in helpful conversation.

Turning to the right: “Hey honey what’s your sign?” sleazed the voice. “Take this train often? What do you do for a living? I’m a photographer. Want some headshots? I know people. We can go to dinner once we get to New York. Where do you live? I know this great restaurant, we can get to know each other. Drinks after. It’ll be great.”

“Hold on a sec.” Pressing the glasses’ bridge rendered the lenses translucent again. Turning to face the voice. “What? Are you talking to me?”

“Hey hey hey. No need for an attitude honey. I’m just saying. I want to get to know you better.”

“I know you perfectly well enough already, but thanks.” The words were spoken while shifting in the seat in an attempt to turn away even further.

Undeterred using the power of intentional misunderstanding, the croaking gained volume. “Now that’s more like it. So many pretty young things nowadays have attitude problems. Not like that sexy stewardess. She’s hot _and_ nice. You too. The rest of them? They’re just a bunch of teases… a bunch of… a bunch of… sluts!”

The gate opened for entry to board the train.

Combat boots mashing heavily against the linoleum floor, the traveler stood, facing the obese suit. “Excuse me?!”

The hirsute back of a chubby-knuckled hand wiped a bead of sweat from a bushy eyebrow. “Hey honey, you’re not like them, right? Gimme your number. We’ll go on a date. I’m a nice guy, you’ll see! A real nice guy. A gentleman.”

The lie was delivered in a flat monotone: “Sorry, I don’t have a phone.” Back turned to the obese suit, the small black bag was zipped shut and slung across shoulders, and a beeline made for the departure gate.

Fingers still damp with sweat trembled out to fondle a sizeable handful of the traveler’s buttock before letting go.

Instinctively smacking the hand away and retreating out of reach, the traveler’s own hands balled into fists, then released. The short, augmented black fingernails grew by an inch, sharp and clawlike. Smiling sweetly: “Right. Try that again.”

The astute stewardess immediately drew a waist-high velvet rope across the gate’s entrance, gliding over to the two and standing directly between them.

“Hi there! As per train regulations, all powered augmentations – magnetic hair extensions, synthetic fingernails, and other bodywork included ” — pointing with a cheerful smile in the general direction of the menacing nail claws — “must remain set to ‘off’ for the duration of the trip in order to avoid interference with train electronics. Please proceed to the gate after deactivating your augmentations.”

Grumbling with a glare thrown over the stewardess’ right shoulder at the suit’s smug expression: “Something else I’d like to de-activate right about now.”

Noting the cheerful yet firm and unyielding gaze of the stewardess, the traveler shrugged in resignation and snapped fingers twice on both hands simultaneously. The clawlike augmentations quickly retracted to their ordinary length as legally defensible fingernails.

“Thank you.” The stewardess then turned to the sneering, upturned face. “Inappropriate conduct, determined at sole discretion of train staff, will result in non-negotiable fines of up to one hundred fifty percent of ticket cost and possible banning from the New York Tokyo bullet train line. Please note that this interaction is being recorded by train terminal audiovisual equipment. Do you comply?”

As if remembering an embarrassing secret, eyes darted up at the ceiling, then across the waiting area. There were no visible cameras, but the nearby armed security guards had turned in their direction and were periodically touching their earpieces as if listening intently.

The croak was just as loud as before, but the bravado was gone. “You know, I always forget. So much for trying to be nice. Forget it. I’m actually in business class anyway, so I gotta go.” Struggling up out of the seat, a beige overcoat bunched in one hand, faded brown portfolio case in the other. One-size-too-small scuffed loafers shuffled off to the Business Class entry gate.

Heading toward the train entrance, the stewardess fell into step with the traveler, deftly changing topics as they headed to the Luxury Class gate. Tone quickly changing from professional to personal: “I can see that you’re a music lover, too. Nice t-shirt — there are tonnes of Crystal Smash fans on this train! If you subscribe to our WiFi system, you can also use the Local Friends app on your phone. It’s a great way to meet new people who share your interests. There’s also a TrainMan App in case you need to find a stewardess or talk to one of the conductors. Or break up a catfight.”

They both laughed as the stewardess unhooked the velvet rope and passengers streamed across. “Thanks”, the traveler replied lightly while crossing the gate to enter the enclosed walkway between the departure gate and the train.

Final diagnostic checks complete and passengers all aboard, the train would be exactly on time, to the second, as it had been for every day, every month and every year of its quarter-century of operation.

Prologue · In The Fever Dreams of Fallen, Frozen Warriors

A Game of Go.

A wind-blown, frost-laden cross rose five feet tall above the frozen mountainside, thirty feet behind the military compound’s concrete exterior blast wall.

The chapped and peeling strips of pine comprising its vertical and horizontal arms were tightly bound at their intersection by spirals of barbed wire. Silver wire had begun to rust a dark red due to the rigors of the elements; ice glistening along the rough-hewn surface splintered the full moon’s light as the cross cast a shadow toward the military outpost a few hundred feet ahead.

Deep within the mountain, a honeycomb of cell-like communications cubicles crammed with electronics systems and information displays converged on a central control room. In one such cubicle, on a small table next to the operator’s console sat a notebook-sized screen simulating a game of Go, the polished ovular black and white stones appearing to gleam against a backlit 19×19 grid illuminated from within.

“You took first move last night, so I’m starting off black this time.” The stones disappeared, and four empty squares comprised the center of the board; with a tap on the screen, a black stone occupied the squares’ central intersection. “Ever since we started playing Go, something’s been bugging me. This is a Japanese warrior strategy game, right? I dig that, but man, I’ve been trying to pronounce ‘Torakanmuri’ ever since I joined this unit. From all the major allied countries, only seven of our ninety-man company are from Japan — remind me why our unit’s name is written in their language?”

Snow-covered rocky soil churned a wide, two-tracked path beneath modular steel plates’ lurching grind. The armoured ambulance nimbly made its way up the incline toward an observation post erected between the two-story blast wall and a perimeter fence of equal height fifty feet away. In the spacious rear compartment of the armored ambulance, a similar game grid reflected in a pair of eyes observing the first move. With a touch, a white stone appeared to the black one’s right. “The entire Golan area is still hot after the invasion. We’ve got Japanese orbital nuclear support priority on high-alert status. That could have something to do with it.”

Aligned below the ceiling of the cubicle, a row of timezone-tagged screens updated their heat maps of global conflict zones as they did once per minute. A glance back down at the grid preceded another black stone’s appearance on the board. “The tactical nukes can be deployed anywhere across the planet, though.”

A white stone countered the move. “True.”

“So in other words, some career-minded NCO with a taste for politics owed somebody else a favor, and now we’ve got a name that I can’t even begin to pronounce.”

“You got it easy. I’m from Hawaii. I might look the part but I definitely don’t speak it. You know how long it takes for ‘real’ Japanese passing through our unit to realize I have no idea what they’re saying? Then they get offended like I pissed on their flag.” The two players shared a laugh. “Now, I just put up three fingers and smile, thinking, ‘it’s World War III, you got the numeral wrong. We’re on the same team this time!’ They think it’s the ‘peace’ sign; every now and then somebody even returns the three-finger salute.” More laughter. “But then, the backwater bumpkins from every country get drafted first, I guess. Or in my case, the beach bums-turned-conscientious objectors.”

“Or the broke kids from the inner city.”

A few minutes passed as the screen filled with simulated Go stones and their enclosed territories.

“Ha. I win again. And it’s Patch Tuesday; time to update the sniper teams’ software. Cardiovascular device drivers need re-calibrating again; they’ve have been acting up recently.” The hardbacked paper-thin screen in hand cast a pale light toward the forward commander’s seat, and beyond that, the driver’s narrow compartment at the front of the armored vehicle. Following behind the improvised torch and climbing into the seat behind the steering yoke, the break lever was released and ignition button pressed, followed by a five-minute wait for the engine to warm up. “Still don’t get why the updates can’t be uploaded wirelessly…”

A news ticker occupied the bottom of a monitor in the communications cell. Up-to-the-minute casualty and troop movement reports scrolled across, detailing an ambush during the ongoing siege of Majdal Shams, a small city eleven miles away. “Wireless can’t be secured to DoD standard. It actually can, but they don’t want to risk it. Same reason that unauthorized devices jacked into the network are automatic fodder for court-martial. Security, security, security.” A console window opened, followed by commands typed in order to retrieve a page-length block of archanely coded output. “We’re good, though. The encryption and firewalls on our VPN are pure black ice with my paranoid homebrew touch; I doubt that anyone who’s not a graduate of the USCYBERCOM advanced course could even see our little two-person subnet, much less crack it with anything below supercomputer-grade processing power.”

“So in something resembling English, our weekly Go game tournaments are almost completely invisible to the outside world?”

The console window disappeared. “…and to the network security nerds in the server room down the hall from me.” The sweeping waves of a radar screen at right took a moment of attention before the pensive scowl returned to the simulated Go board. “Congrats on the win. Feel free to gloat; I’m only juggling communications and dataflows for the entire base over here, you know…”

The medical personnel carrier’s heavy tread turned toward to the ridgeline above the base. “And I’m a combat medic patching up software as often as I repair wounds. My NEC may be HM-8404, but the job description for us Devil Docs is about as techie as yours.”

“Not to bust your bubble, Mr. Conscientious ‘G.I.-Just-Say-No’, but who do you think lovingly hand-crafts those software patches to automate the seven-hour calibration process down to six minutes?”

Resuscitation for the Recently Departed.

“Touche… they don’t call you ‘the best REMF in the Middle East’ for nothing, do they? I mean, there’s a medal for that, right?”

“Who you calling a Rear-Echelon MotherFucker? Man, you’re sitting pretty — tending snake bites for the sniper team, dosing up sleepy night patrols on extra StayAlert, field-dressing paper cuts and injecting rabies booster for the K-10 team. R-E-M F-you!”

“Keep your panties on, Dorothy. I’ll go easy on you next time. Besides, once you get past the taste, Stay Alert’s best chewing gum out there. Hundred milligrams of caffeine per stick, better than the strongest cup of coffee. Just wait till you try the spicy Perky Jerky.” One hand on the steering yoke guided the medical personnel carrier across the rough, uneven ground; the other hand’s index finger pressed ‘reset’ on the game. “Best two out of three?”

“Sure. Just don’t start cursing in Hawaiian when I beat your ass all the way back to Honolulu. First move is yours; I’m black this time.”

The game of Go began again, dividing the driver’s attention between the LED headlamp-illuminated earth ahead and the strategic placement of stones on the backlight screen. A white stone appeared near the center of the board. “Your move.”

In an unusual tactic, a black stone appeared half the board’s distance away from its white counterpart. “Forget war, man, I’m looking to go back to school after this is all over. Foxholes and the ‘hood ain’t no place for me…”

Arriving at the foot of the elevated observation outpost, the medical personnel carrier came to a halt. “Wouldn’t mind going back home, myself… nothing wrong with the beach, sun, girls and waves…” Laughter on both sides. “But there’s got to be more to life than hanging out at home or getting shot at abroad, you know?” Shutting off the engine, the driver crouched to exit the cramped driver’s seat, scooting past the commander’s station and walking back to enter the more-spacious rear compartment. “After the last recession, there’s practically no jobs left on the Big Island. My dad’s a teacher, but that barely puts food on the table. Half my family can’t find fulltime work. Some cousins moved to the mainland, but the situation there isn’t much better.”

In the cell-like communications room deep in the mountain, the location of the personnel carrier on the embankment above and behind the base camp was shown in a perimeter-monitoring screen above and to the right. “Life is just a long march, man. Another day, another dollar. And at some point, another war. Tell Anshar I said ‘hi’.”

Taken from a cargo pocket on the uniform’s left thigh, a small earbud nestled into the left ear, leading to a strawlike microphone positioned at the jawline. The headset’s skin-contacting surface was designed using the same type of powerful, non-stick adhesive that enabled long-extinct tropical geckos to climb and cling to walls. “Roger. Will do.” Inlaid into a powered ramp comprising the back face of the vehicle, a rear door unlocked and opened outward to the frigid night air. The tactical medical bag slung from one shoulder offered little protection from periodically gusting winds on the way to the observation outpost twenty feet uphill.

The two-story tall outpost stood fifteen feet from the rear blast wall winding down and around the fortified compound. Snow-camouflage boots bounded up the two flights of stairs; a fist covered by a thick winter glove knocked on the locked door. No response from inside. The right hand’s glove was removed in order to more easily unbutton a breast pocket on the heavy parka. Above the door handle, a cylindrical tumbler lock accepted the correct key from among several strung along a chain retrieved from the pocket. A moment’s wait with right hand wrapped around the handle prompted a red light above the cylinder to turn green. The door opened with a twist and firm push.

In the observation post’s single moonlit room, the sniper sat facing the window at the opposite wall. A sleek black rifle sat on a table abutting the wall, muzzle pointing out across the mountainous landscape from behind the thick glass pane.

“Did you forget the thermostat, soldier? It’s fifteen degrees below outside…” No answer from the seated figure. “Anshar?” After locking the door and crossing the room, a hand at the shoulder of the soldier disturbed the seated posture. The body slumped sideways and fell to the floor.

Spoken into the wireless headset’s mouthpiece: “Sniper one is down. No apparent entry wounds or signs of foul play. Scene is safe. Initiating assessment.”

The body was laid supine in the middle of the room. Listening for breath at the the level of the nose, fingertips pressed for a few seconds at the side of the throat while unzipping the tactical medical bag with the other hand. “No signs of respiration or pulse.” Opening the sniper’s right eyelid and shining a small flashlight: “No pupil response. No visible injury, signs of cardiovascular distress, hypercarbic response or cyanosis. Conducting pinprick analysis.” A tiny hemisphere of blood appeared at the sniper’s index finger after the tap of a disposable needletip attached to a small boxy beige handheld.

In the earbud, consternation was evident. “Strange. Last radio contact was just seventeen minutes ago.”

Recounting the readout on the handheld: “Preliminary hemoanalysis shows no unusual sign of central nervous system depressants, intoxicants or other foreign substances. Almost like someone turned down the dial until she slowly fell asleep and stopped breathing.” Pausing to think. “I’ve been remote-monitoring the sniper team’s vitals for the past two hours; thermals, hydration, metabolic, environment, cognitive and medical measures are all steady, regular, unremarkable. And alive.”

Ten Minutes of Terror.

“…hold on, report from a half-mile beyond the wire. Patrol is reporting enemy contact.”

The snowy landscape beyond the window offered no clues. “This sector is supposed to be secure.”

“Wide-area drone surveillance is only receiving a few enemy heat signatures out there. Switching to HD capture for visual confirmation… enemy head count confirmed. Returning to thermal imaging. Patrol is engaging the enemy with small arms fire… wait… that’s not possible.”

“Not possible? Coming from you, that can’t be a good sign.” After opening the sniper’s field jacket, flattened palms aligned at the midline of the chest, one hand directly laid over the other. “Initiating CPR, beginning chest compressions.”

After thirty seconds, the voice returned. “Scrambling all mobile infantry units. One other medic is on patrol; notify Jenkins to prep the infirmary and expect casualties coming back.”

Without pausing the chest compressions: “Roger. Estimate of enemy numbers?”

“At least one-hundred-fifty, with a platoon of HULC2 mechanized armors. They couldn’t have just appeared from nowhere. It’s impossible.”

The voice-controlled headset switched channels to dial the infirmary, then lodge a request medical support for the sniper at the observation outpost and begin preparations for wounded coming back from the front lines.

Upon switching back to the encrypted channel, the voice at the command center asked: “you’re near the rifle mount?”

The sniper rifle sat waiting, cradled by its tripod sitting on the desk. Four metallic feet squeaked on the linoleum as the chair resumed its place in front of the rifle. “Affirmative.”

“Hold for a moment… okay — place your hand on the rifle’s grip, align your right eye to the sight, and then tap — not squeeze — the trigger once.”

Compliance with the instructions led the rifle to boot up, calibrating to its new user’s fingerprint and retina. The rifle’s sight came to life as its magnified machine vision displayed the terrain straight ahead. Mobile infantry vehicles streamed out of the compound through the blast wall and perimeter fence, heading toward the battlefield. The road snaked around the foot of a lesser mountain, down a steep hill and into the shallow valley below, where an intense firefight was taking place. “It’s real dynamic out there. The patrol doesn’t stand a chance — are you getting the video feed from this rifle?”

“Roger. I see what you see. You have clear line-of-sight for multiple targets. Authorized to fire.”

Re-positioning the gun stock at the shoulder while squeezing the left eye shut: “I’m a corpsman, not a marksman. How the hell do I operate this thing?”

An easy confidence came across the line. “Precision guidance — sight your target and it’ll appear tagged with a red dot once the riflescope calculates displacement for gravity, drag, parallax and crosswinds. Pull the trigger, hold steady, and the rifle does the rest. On a clear night like this with no precip, low humidity and calm winds, you practically can’t miss.”

A moment’s decision weighed the options between two sides engaged in ferocious combat, and the sniper lying motionless on the floor. “Negative. I’ve already got my hands full here.”

Layers of fabric fell away from a sharp-toothed pair of shears retrieved from the tactical medical bag. Adhesive defibrillation patches placed at the left chest region and right ribs connected via thin wires to a blue and white portable defibrillator on the floor. Programming the defibrillator to administer three shocks, a touch of a button marked “Charge” was followed by depression of a red “Start” button. Over the next thirty seconds, the shocks were administered silently and without movement on the part of the downed sniper.

The voice in the earpiece noted that “I re-radioed all snipers on duty a minute ago. They all ‘rogered’ back… including Sniper One.”

“Well, from a medical perspective, I can guarantee you that she’s not talking. At least, not to me.” After the three electrical pulses were complete, a hard white case yielded a needle and vial. Held up to the moonlight, the filled needle spurted to remove air bubbles. “Curse or cure?” Squinting skeptically: “Now’s definitely not the time for debate…” Leaning to gently push the needle’s tip below the skin, the medication found its way into the bloodstream before being sealed with a temporary dressing. Three more rounds of chest compressions ensued in an attempt at re-circulating the infused blood, and the defibrillator’s three-shock sequence was repeated.

Under the sniper’s knit cap, a wireless earpiece and microphone began to emit a buzzing static. Resting the needle back in its case, the earbud popped easily from the sniper’s ear and reached eye level. Listening intently, the static continued, then stopped. A sound began, far away at first, then more loudly and clearly. It was rhythmic, a male voice, but not quite words. As the voice became louder and clearer, the sound finally became unmistakable. The sound was a low, hollow, mocking laughter.

The rest of the room was empty and silent. Peering down at the restful-looking face, the two earpieces were brought within a hair’s breadth of each other. “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?”

“Either we’re both hallucinating or something is going very wrong here. Scope it for yourself.”

Returning to the rifle, the scope only confirmed the disembodied laughter’s sinister implications. Where both sides had begun the battle firing upon each other, the mechanized armored units of friend and foe now indiscriminately turned their weapons on themselves and their fellows. Their movements were disjointed and stiff, as if controlled by an invisible hand that was unconcerned with grace or even the strictures of natural human range of motion. Arms bent and jerked at unnatural angles as their rifles and sidearms turned and fired, clearly beyond the will of the mechanized bodysuits’ operators.

Unblinking for minutes while taking in the grim spectacle at the center of the battlefield, the sound of ghostly laughter continued, interrupted periodically by static. “I don’t believe it… what the hell…” The death toll steadily climbed as the moments passed, quickly becoming a self-inflicted massacre rather than a mutually contested battle.

The defibrillator beeped in rapid succession as the ultrasound monitor’s doppler waveforms signaled a revival of electrical activity in the sniper’s heart.

The chair squealed on the linoleum as its occupant dropped the wireless headset and leapt to the floor, kneeling in front of the sniper and quickly recalibrating the machine to “monitor” mode.

“She’s back… Anshar’s alive. Do you copy?”

“Roger. Sniper One is back online?”

“Cardioversion with Synthephrin adrenergic administration was successful. Make that two ‘impossibles’ in one night…” A slight, nearly disbelieving smile arose at the sight of the sniper’s restful face illuminated by the moon’s diffuse light outside the window. Selection of “Ultrasonic cardiac massage” set the defibrillator to assist the heart’s electrical system when needed.

Back at the sniper rifle’s sight, magnification brought into focus the first vehicles of the mobile infantry unit as they approached the battlefield. The blast wall and barbed wire fence quickly closed behind them.

Triage.

In the earpiece: “She’ll owe you drinks for life. Calling in tactical nuclear support from Tokyo. Anunnaku ballistic missile payload ETA to enemy target coordinates and triangulated base camp location is two point five hours.”

The silver aluminized thermal casualty blanket retrieved from the tactical medical bag gently floated down to provide warm cover for the sniper. “No radio contact from medic on patrol despite repeated attempts. I’ve got to get down there.”

“Negative. The zone is too hot. Orders from command are to wait for further tactical assessment and reinforcements.”

“All our troops could be dead by then. I can’t just sit here and watch on the sidelines.” The needle, vial and shears found their places in the bag, zippers and clasps shut and all other materials accounted for. “The medical team will be here for Anshar any moment now. If what I saw through the scope earlier is any indication, our side is going to need all the help they can get.”

The voice on the other end of the line was taut and matter-of-fact. “If you do that, you’ll be on your own. Medevac and attack drone support is out of the question until their onboard systems and networking are scanned and swept clean. And you’ll need a driver if you want to navigate a battlefield like this in the middle of winter. Automatic drive’s evasive maneuver algorithms can’t compensate for snow, ice and extreme terrain.”

A sharp intake of breath followed the first freezing step out of the observation post’s door, with a light gesture to the medical personnel carrier twenty feet down the steep hill. “You forget that this ambulance is actually a modified tank without the turret. Besides, I know how to drive this bus; I’ll be fine. Before I forget” — while carefully navigating the icy stairs — “Anshar’s brother Kishar is a HULC2 operator. Anshar is still at death’s door and will be until she’s stabilised in hospital. Kishar’s mind will be clearer and morale held higher if the news of her critical condition is left until after tonight. Is it possible to keep mention of Sniper One off the official channels until then?”

“Roger. I’ll do what I can.”

Entering the medical personnel carrier and shutting the door, the internal lighting system came to life, revealing a miniature field hospital in the rear compartment. Once in the driver’s seat, brake released and engine gunning to life, there was no time to wait before driving through the rear blast wall’s open gate, across the grounds of the military compound and heading straight for the front wall with a perfunctory nod to the snow-blown makeshift statue of the cross.

“Watch for non-mechanized enemy that may still be operational on the field. AIFV clearance granted. Your vehicle is now cleared to exit the compound.”

Massive gears and levers pulled the front blast wall’s nearly impregnable tonnage apart on either side. Armed sentries stood at fortified emplacements above with high-caliber assault rifles at the ready as the personnel carrier’s diesel hydrocell engine rumbled through. The barbed perimeter fence also withdrew, only to close quickly behind the speeding personnel carrier.

The view ahead was blocked by the foot of the lesser mountain that forced the roadway to curve leftward before returning right and diving down into the shallow valley basin below.

Over the half-mile crossing through inhospitable mountainous terrain, automatic drive functionality allowed the ambulance to maintain its mapped course along the highway to the battlefield without need of driver intervention. This allowed for final diagnostic checks of all needed equipment in the rear compartment.

The ambulance’s navigation systems issued a warning that the battlefield was imminent. Taking the yoke and deactivating automatic drive before turning offroad, expectations could not have prepared even the most hardened combat veteran for the scene that unveiled itself from behind the cover of snow dunes and rock formations up ahead.

All was quiet at the outskirts of the battlefield. Only the sound of the wind stirring low grasses and snow drifts filtered through the sparse covering of pine trees. The hardbacked paper-thin screen slid into a ruggedized encasement and snapped into place, and was placed into a tray-like compartment on the front of the tactical vest above a holstered service pistol. The tray shut into its ‘up’ position where it blended with the vest’s front, and all was concealed under a heavy white winter parka.

One deep breath did little to change the premonitory anticipation of what was to come. Retrieving a helmet and pair of field binoculars from the ambulance’s dashboard, the well-oiled commander’s hatch in the ceiling behind the driver’s seat opened smoothly. Standing at waist-height in the circular opening, the binoculars’ viewfinder swept across the battlefield, revealing no activity from the enemy side.

Speaking into the jawline microphone: “Onsite visual confirmation — all HULC2 armors and warfighters in-field are down and presumed nonfunctional.”

The commander’s hatch swung shut, and the ambulance edged forward onto the field. On the ruggedized screen, emergency beacons of downed soldiers shown along with available vital statistics regarding their status. Of over seventy beacons, only seventeen showed signs of life, and all were either in critical condition, near it, or showed indication of grievous injury. “Emergency beacon readings show eight-six percent probable fatalities and of those remaining, sixty-two percent are critical.” The ambulance rolled to a stop ten feet from the first living biosignature.

Coarse padded straps of an advanced life support rucksack unhooked from the storage space below a row of seats along the wall of the ambulance. The backpack distributed sixtyfive pounds evenly across its wearer’s back, shoulder straps cinched snugly to maximize the body-conforming shape.

Upon exiting the rear of the ambulance, cold and blustering wind carried an odor that threatened to overwhelm the senses. It was a mixture of charred metal, burning plastic, explosive residue and human flesh. The snow underfoot could not be trod for more than ten feet without reaching a patch soaked in slick machine oil or the dark arterial stain of freshly spilled blood. Wreckage from the mechanized infantry unit formed a skeletal junkyard of smoking, twisted steel-alloy remains.

The vest’s front compartment lowered to ‘down’ position, unfolding along the axis of a hinge at the bottom of the compartment, backlit screen pinpointing the first biosignature only a few feet away. The hard-packed snow became wet and soft as heat from the HULC2 mechanized armor radiated into the space around it. The jet-black chitinous exoskeleton’s articulated, spring-loaded lower limbs added twelve inches to the height of the wearer. At the knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, augmented joint structures allowed the wearer to bear loads that would otherwise require up to thirty times his or her natural strength. Electrical currents on the skin were detected via peripheral nervous system processing units distributed throughout the flexible nanotube “musculature” of the suit, translating into a near-infinite combination of movements limited only by the human body itself.

The tradeoff of such tight human-machine integration was twofold. The body’s natural heat dissipation was handled entirely through active cooling and exhaust ventilation throughout the suit. Use of bioelectrical impedance to create seamless kinesthetic power required that the suit be “wired” to the skin via electrodes. Those electrodes could also carry a backflow of current and a risk of electrocution if the machine’s nanotube muscle fibers became overloaded for an inordinate period.

The armored soldier lying on the ground a few feet away appeared unconscious. One screen-tap brought up the soldier’s vitals as channeled through the suit. A heading labeled “DCAP-BTLS” revealed that hydration was dangerously low due to third-degree, full-thickness electrical burns; numerous broken bones, bullet wounds and a deep visceral laceration contributed to excessive blood loss resulting in the onset of shock. The soldier’s blood pressure readings were falling by the second.

Dropping the medical tactical bag on the ground, a tap of the “Request Unlock Code” from the righthand navigation menu opened a dialog box bearing an hourglass and the word “Sending fingerprint authentication…” This was replaced three seconds later by the message “Connecting to operator. Enter authentication code:” above a blank text box. The command center’s familiar voice in the earpiece requested spoken verification of the HULC2 suit’s serial number as displayed on the screen. Once the string of six alphanumeric symbols was read back, the voice responded by speaking the authentication code which was then manually entered into the blank text box. Upon entry of the code’s final symbol, the soldier’s armor emitted a high-pitched beep for two seconds.

Glowing white seams appeared along the front of the exoskeleton’s neck below the chin, along the collarbone, to the shoulder and down the inner arm to encircle the wrist at its narrowest point. The white lines also traced down from collarbone to midsternum and down the torso to outline the circumference of the waist, then split in two down to the inseam of either thigh, knee and on to the ankle. Along the suit’s seams at each joint, the armored panels audibly clicked open slightly as would the bonnet of an unlocked car.

Steamy heat hissed out from under the armored panels into the cold air, unleashing the stench of the soldier’s charred skin beneath the suit’s burnt-out electrode contacts. A quick look at the screen revealed probable injury sites as reflected by disruptions in the armor’s continuity. Guided by the three-dimensional visualization on the screen, lifting an armor panel at the lower left quadrant of the abdomen revealed a gaping evisceration that was bleeding heavily. Sterile gauze, adhesive tape and and a small bottle of saline solution sat in the compartments of the tactical medical bag, ready for use. Removing both heavy winter gloves for improved dexterity and squirting saline solution over the exposed intestines, the muttered words “glad you’re not awake to feel this…” fell mute at the sound of medical tape noisily torn from the roll. Four lengths of tape secured all sides of the sterile gauze over the wound site as it quickly soaked in blood and saline solution. After placing an extra gauze pad over the dressing for compression of the wound site, the panel of the armor was placed back along its seams and closed. The seven more superficial bullet wounds, lacerations and as much burn coverage as possible were then addressed. No head trauma was indicated by the armor’s self-scanning output on the screen; the soldier’s full helmet and face-covering visor were therefore left in place.

The soldier’s blood pressure began to stabilize, though still falling. Once the last of the injuries were treated, each panel of the armor was quickly re-aligned with its seams and closed to help prevent heat loss, except for the two upper forearm panels. The top compartment of the rucksack contained a liquid-filled, coral blue container large enough to lie flat across the soldier’s armored thighs. A length of surgical tubing attached to the right side of the device was unspooled and brought to the soldier’s right wrist. At the end of the tubing, a needle tip quickly entered the soldier’s vein at the elbow juncture just below the bicep; on the left side, another tube was similarly placed. Short lengths of sterile tape kept the needles from moving. A firm press of the white “On” button started a centrifuge in the center of the machine spinning. The centrifuge changed from coral blue to bright red as the machine began to process the soldier’s blood; the display on the container soon reported blood oxygenation, circulation and temperature levels. A second press of the white button resulted in a humming sound and vibrations within the machine as the centrifuge increased the speed of its revolutions. The left tube’s red blood flow into the machine became accompanied by an outflow of emerald green fluid mixture from the right tube and into the soldier’s arm.

The fold-out screen on the vest flashed. All biosignatures were previously stationary or moving in a small radius; this signature appeared to be thirtyfive feet away at the outskirts of the battlefield and fast approaching from behind. Watching the flashing dot on the screen coming closer: “three… two… one…”

In one motion of the hand, the service pistol’s holster at vest-front came unbuttoned, firearm drawn and aimed in the direction of the approaching footsteps. Standing with index finger in the triggerguard and ready to pull while turning toward at the target, the words “Don’t shoot!” were immediately recognizable as belonging to the medic deployed with the decimated patrol.

“A medic in the killing fields; will wonders never cease,” lowering the weapon, the dry quip masked a racing pulse. “No response when I radioed you earlier. Explain your breach of protocol, soldier.”

Stammering, the junior-grade medic offered a first-hand account of the HULC2 armors turning on each other, some moving as if tasked specifically with destroying the patrol’s transport vehicles. Faced with the terror of the situation, the junior medic ran and hid behind a tree, not daring to venture farther for fear of being spotted and murdered by the rampaging mechanized armors. The medic’s headset had fallen in the snow and was lost during the battle.

“Alright. Help me find any possible living members of your patrol.” “They’re all dead; I watched them kill themselves and each other one by one. All the transports are destroyed as well.”

“Members of the mechanized infantry unit aren’t all dead, according to my computer.” “But what if there are non-mechanized forces on the enemy side waiting to ambush us?”

Hissing with exasperation, service pistol still in hand: “soldier, if you want to desert your post and make a run for the mountains, I’ll give you a five-second head start. Considering that I had you dead to rights before even sighting you a moment ago, you’ll want to choose wisely. Know that I was first trained as a marksman before becoming a medic.” The lie came across with the authority of a four-star general, an empty bluff inflated to the level of undeniable fact with the strength of all possible bravado.

Faced with the prospect of evading a well-aimed bullet, the junior medic assented.

The service pistol slid back to into its holster and buttoned shut. “Nuclear support will be arriving in two hours, so we have an hour and forty minutes before evacuating the area. With any luck, reinforcements will be here to collect our men in time. Until then, we triage the field. We have to share supplies, so we stay in the same area in case one needs the other’s assistance.” “Yes, sir!”

A gust of wind brought the realization that the heavy winter gloves lay on the ground near the tactical medical bag and rucksack. Flexing and extending the fingers had already become difficult due to the subzero freezing temperatures. Disregarding the prickling discomfort, a look down at the touchscreen showed three wounded, but possibly living HULC2 operators deeper in the battlefield and closer to enemy lines. Taking the tactical medical bag and rucksack with them, the two medics headed for the medical transport carrier.

Over the next hour and twenty minutes, they worked feverishly to save the few remaining soldiers whom they found alive. Intricate work frequently required the removal of the heavy winter gloves; due to previous extended exposure, gusting winds and subzero temperatures, frostbite started to set in at the exposed fingertips. Eventually, creeping numbness rendered movements requiring any level of dexterity almost unmanageable.

Into the Fire.

Only eight minutes left; the vest-mounted screen pinged a possible living soldier nearby. The display showed bullet impacts to the shoulder and neck, as well as critical structural integrity breach of the exoskeleton at the left leg. Arrival at the fallen HULC2 armor’s side made real the extent of the damage: the left leg was gone from the knee down; a dark pool of blood had gathered in the snow at the side of the neck and shoulder. A shout rang out immediately, alerting the junior medic to come and assist with treatment.

The impassive black visor offered no movement or expression. “Soldier! Can you hear me?” “Yes,” the voice returned weakly. “Can you wiggle your toes and clench your fists for me?” Fists clenched and the right leg moved slightly. The junior medic arrived and placed the tactical medical bag down next to the HULC2 armor.

“Assess the left lower extremity and prepare treatment in case of rapid decompensation once the armor is unlocked.” “Yes, sir!”

High above, the moon was obscured by heavy clouds and the battlefield became enshrouded in deep shadow.

A tap of the “Request Unlock Code” button and fingerprint authentication brought the familiar voice to the earpiece. Instead of requesting the serial number, however, a warning came across the line. “Non-mechanized troop movement has been detected across enemy lines; reinforcements are en route from Majdal Shams. Get out of there.” From across the enemy lines, flashes became visible. Seconds later, the snow twenty feet away kicked up in tufts of white. “We’re taking fire!” the junior medic cried. A glare steadied the panic with a single command. “Continue treatment, soldier.” The miserably conflicted junior medic anxiously did as ordered. “This is our last case to tackle before returning to base. Patient is alert and responsive; we’ll evacuate after status is fully assessed and triage completed.” Looking down at the serial number displayed on the screen, the alphanumeric sequence was spoken into the jawline microphone.

“Three lives or one, the choice is yours.” With that terse reply, the seams of the powered armor glowed white and unlocked, enabling the helmet’s visor to be lifted. Small-arms fire from across the enemy lines began kicking up snow and dirt closer to their location.

Moving to the HULC2 armor’s head and stabilizing the helmet between both knees, an attempt at lifting the visor without undue movement of the soldier’s cervical spine quickly proved to be too skilled a task for frostbitten fingers. The junior medic, seeing the predicament, quickly assisted in removing the visor.

Kishar’s eyes opened slowly, unfocused and wandering as the visor was removed.

The junior medic wrapped a tourniquet around the left thigh, but was unable to stop the arterial bleeding; the severed jugular vein at the neck oozed with every slowing beat of Kishar’s heart.

“Hey, doc,” Kishar mumbled. “How am I doing? I can feel the right leg, but the left one’s not so hot.”

“You’re doing fine. Reinforcements are coming and we’ll be out of here in no time.” Bullets dug into the snow only a few feet away as the enemy small-arms fire edged closer.

“You never were a good liar, doc..” Kishar said, barely audible. “How’s Anshar? Is she out here, too?” Kishar blinked slowly, eyes staying closed for a long time before opening again.

“No, she’s safe, back on watch at the base. Your sister wanted me to tell you that…” Kishar’s breathing became laboured. The gunfire was almost upon them.

“…she expects you in mess hall tomorrow morning, and…” Grimacing in pain, Kishar’s eyes opened and stared intensely upward toward the moonless sky, breath coming in ragged gasps. Bullets began to sing through the air as well as impacting the ground nearby.

“…and that she loves you very much.” One last agonal breath escaped Kishar’s lips, chest heaving in the struggle to take in one more, and finally collapsing, releasing all tension. Seeming to hear the last part of the sentence, Kishar’s eyes gently closed, face relaxing into a faint smile. Even in the depth of darkness, the young face, having barely entered adulthood, slackened in final repose and attained a restful quality strongly resemblant of his sister.

The voice in the earpiece, garbled: “worse than we thought –” Then static. A far away sound entered the line. The static continued, then stopped. A sound began, far away at first, then more loudly and clearly. It was rhythmic, a male voice, but not quite words. As the voice became louder and clearer, the sound finally became unmistakable. The sound was a low, hollow, mocking laughter. “Compromised — almost –” More static. “Quarantine” — a burst that resembled a bolt of lightning in digital form was followed by a muffled scream, then the line went silent.

“Alright medic, it’s time to get the…” Eyes traveling upward from Kishar’s restful face were met by the sight of the junior medic sitting slouched in the snow with chin to chest, helmet cocked oddly to one side and a trickle of blood slowly descending from one eye.

“…hell out of here.” Bullets began to fall like hail around them, zipping and thudding into the ground inches away. Leaving the equipment behind and heading for the medical personnel carrier only forty feet ahead, the vehicle seemed farther away than a rush-hour highway crossing would have been to a snail with only the shell on its back for protection. The distance was crossed at a full sprint, crouching with bullets nipping at heels and buzzing furiously through the frigid night air.

The rear door of the personnel carrier arrived within arm’s reach. Two steps away, right hand desperately outstretched toward the door handle, a cluster of bullets hit the alloyed door and three impacted the fingers and hand itself, instantly smashing the small bones and avulsing the flesh. With a shout and an instinctive cradling of the injured hand, a detour was made around the medical personnel carrier to the front the vehicle facing allied lines in order to take shelter from the enemy small-arms fire.

Seconds later, sniper rounds from behind allied lines dispatched the enemy small-arms targets with inhuman accuracy. After less than a minute, all was quiet again.

Partially frozen, the nearly inoperable left hand fumbled to unzip the heavy winter parka and retrieve the service pistol from its holster on the tactical vest. Staying flat against the ambulance to reduce any visible profile, the angular side of the armored vehicle made for less-than-ideal cover while edging along to reach the rear door. A silvery glint of metal behind enemy lines provoked a volley of shots from the service pistol; the required movement served as a distraction from maintaining a low profile against the side of the ambulance. At that moment, from behind and above in the direction of the base, a sniper round hit and penetrated the heavy parka obliquely on the upper right back, the force of its velocity acting as a hard shove against the side of the vehicle.

In confusion and with increasingly sharp pain at every inhaled breath, the rear door of the medical personnel carrier was flung open, then shut and locked as quickly as possible from the inside.

Cold Slumber.

The pain only grew more intense during attempts to focus for long enough to retrieve a first-aid kit and coral blue container from a shelf in the rear compartment of the carrier. Coughing precipitated the unwelcome but expected taste of blood. Sitting heavily, a packet of QuikClot coagulant powder from the kit doused the wounded right hand and fingers. Water molecules agitated by the sandy substance’s active chemical agent generated enough heat to create an excruciating burning sensation as the wound edges cauterized and blood vessels narrowed. The left hand clumsily bandaged the wound as well as possible.

Armor-piercing rounds hammered and ricocheted against the hull of ambulance one after the other, causing it to rock gently from side to side as the conductive-reactive electromagnetic composite armor panels absorbed and diffused the impact.

Battle fatigue and the beginnings of shock began to set in while clumsy tingling fingers struggled to retrieve the needle-tipped tubes from the coral blue container and insert them into the veins on either arm. After numerous failures, the left and right arms were successfully prepared. A press of the “On” button began the blood-replacement centrifuge spinning, and a second press began the final process in motion. The humming sound of the machine and its vibrations on the bench a few inches away were oddly soothing as consciousness began to fade; the left tube’s red blood flow into the machine became accompanied by an outflow of emerald green fluid mixture into the right tube. “Cryogenation 5% complete. Time remaining: 55 seconds”, the display showed.

A hazy recollection of the impending tactical nuclear strike came too late for any further action as the sterile confines of the medical personnel carrier rocked from side to side, and the pain of breathing gave way to a numbly cold, dream-filled sleep.

Note: first posted 2013.08.11. Revised 2013.08.14.