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 Their original purpose as orbital targeting systems had been replaced by an new one: provide millisecond-precise monitoring of the supercruiser bullet train line as it barreled through an airtight tube transecting the Pacific Ocean;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.

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