(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.