The Glass Tunnel
By Tim W Boiteau
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
You first see her framed against a hazel sky over a tabular iceberg sea. She is drinking an espresso and with a fork is etching figures into one of the tables of the automat car. Though the carving is nebulous and rambling, it somehow mirrors the essence of the stark seascape, or at least one viewed through a short-circuiting granulizer.
You pay for an octopus and tomato sandwich and sit at her table. She is the only person you have seen in three days.
Attractive. Slender neck. Long, loose ponytail.
You ask her her name. She places her passport in front of you.
The packet is thick. She has traveled extensively, having at least thirty different visas and collected the entry and exit stamps of fifty-odd countries. You gather from the color of the booklet's cover that you are not compatriots, but the language within, like the language of trains, is a shifting mystery to you.
She is unresponsive to any attempts at conversation. She cringes subtly at the sight of your face. After finishing your meal you take your leave and return to your berth.
Outside, the ocean is flying by waveless, silent. Though you are moving at an incredible speed, you can still make out with perfect clarity the warty humps of whales and the gulls harpooning fish. The only sound is the soothing hum of the train as it sails through its glass vacuum.
When you finally strike land, a wintry lunarscape spreads out beneath you, punctured with ancient arrowhead bluffs jet black in the blue hour, then the occasional honeycombed-glass sweeping dune rise of a hotel and above all the thin iridescent cloud fingers coiling across the horizon.
The train speeds through hours and hours of dawn over the vast, frozen desert. The overhead display is incomprehensible in the strange boustrophedonic script, linguistic codes intersecting, flickering, but you don't need to be able to read the information to know that this is Antarctica.
Pointless to time meals by using the train clock, which shifts every hour or so into a different time zone, a watch provides you with stability, anchored to your internal clock, and strangely, the Arabic numerals have survived the collapse of your conceptual orthography, so at least you know when you're hungry whether it's breakfast-hungry or dinner-hungry.
You're breakfast-hungry apparently.
She was wearing a watch, you remember, although it had been set to a time zone eight hours in the future. European time.
The presence of a watch is the easiest way to tell if someone travels on the train extensively.
In the automat you buy an egg and kale sandwich and an espresso. As you begin to eat, the toothy cliffs of some promontory blur past, followed by bleached patches of corroding city. Within minutes you are blasting over a bronze, late winter shrubland.
The clouds stack impressively here, just as they did in Texas. You can see the storm coming, thunderheads churning kilometers high, a fast-approaching gray horizon, rain in silent sheets, purple-shrouded lightning you can almost hear. Before long you are flying underwater, speeding faster and faster with the consumption of every lightning bolt.
You'll be several days over jungle and savannah. Should be able to spot Mount Kilimanjaro by midday tomorrow.
At Baghdad station you get off and wander among the perfumed crowd of tourists, looking for a currency exchange outside of the station. At any time you keep on your person small sums in at least twenty different currencies and manage to earn a meager living playing the exchange. In this way you can continue to afford rations while milking your lifetime rail pass.
A man in a suit and telescoping top hat assists you. You have him read out the current rates and summarize any changes that have occurred over the past week. You spend several hours at the booth, taking a break to eat a curried eel sandwich, then returning to study the shifting rates.
Through some complicated maneuvering you manage to make a few hundred dollars.
Coincidentally, the two of you change onto the same train.
As you are testing your reaction time in one of the entertainment cars, she passes by wordlessly, as if you had not shared a lunch together the week before. You watch her recede into the adjacent car. Maybe she does not recognize you. It is one of the symptoms of traveling too long in the glass tunnel: first the reading goes, next place recognition, then face recognition, and finally autobiographical memory.
Every few cars there are medical stations equipped with self-diagnostic tool you can take yourself or administer to another passenger if the need were to arise. The only known remedy of the disorder is to disembark and settle down in an environment resembling your hometown, but if you reach the amnesic fourth stage, the damage is irreversible. You grow entirely apathetic, eventually dying of inertia.
Perhaps you will retrieve one of the instruments from the medical station and test her.
In the lounge car you find her one evening drinking a glass of vodka. The place is empty, light low, a blurry ambient string soundtrack pulsing out of the floor. The bartender creaks and jerks, spilling alcohol on the counter, like a broken-keyed player piano butchering a tune. In between carving a design into the left arm of the bartender, she stare out the glass wall of the train. Outside are mountains, a black sea, a moonlit cloud tower.
You join her and ask her her name. Absorbed by her work and the scenery, she places her passport in front of you. There is something militaristic about her pose in the passport photo, in complete opposition to how she looks now with her soft face and distant eyes.
You ask her where she is from.
"The beginning of the line," she smiles as if she had made a joke, and then, upon seeing your face, grows disturbed and turns back towards the plastic arm. Her foreign accent is barely discernible.
You ask her where she is going.
"The . . . end of the line," she says dubiously.
Her responses seem like the evasive strategies of a stutterer, using words with unproblematic pronunciations, except she is evading something deeper-rooted and more troublesome than difficult syllables.
You recall the test but feel the timing may be inappropriate and decide to wait till later.
Instead, you invite her back to your berth.
At a ten-tiered metal and glass station somewhere above the silent ocean waves, you weigh the option of disembarking and changing magnet trains. The structure is built a kilometer above the water on the flexible stalks of responsive pleximetal, the junction of twenty glass tube lines, relaying the vibrations of wind and sea, earth and star, transmitting passengers to every continent, an enormous spiral orb web swaying the width of the Bosphorous. There are a few dark figures positioned around the complex, staring out at the sea—station agents in black jackets and ties, tourists in fancy dress—so static and indifferent they may as well be mass-produced ornaments on a crystal tree.
Out of the corner of your eye you spot the girl who did not recognize you, riding up one of the glass elevators. She lands on the top platform where a train is idling, and her red-clad figure fractures behind the obscuring prism created by so many overlapping and interdigitating glass stairs, walls, and machines.
Changing trains will be auspicious, you think.
You navigate through the station, up several levels to the top line where you can see the stars and the far off orange crest of dawn. You board without comprehending the departure table hologram but soon note that the train is moving away from the rising sun.
The corridors are empty, same as all the other trains.
You find the comfort of an air-conditioned, coffin-like berth and spend the night there alone.
You turn over in your sleep and open your eyes.
Full of converging and diverging, iterative structures, what must be a city tides past: neon cathedrals pulsing lambda waves—pseudo-Gothic tetrahighway valleys mantle-deep—blueshift pixelated industry webs—expanding Mecca spire distortions—skyscraper koan vistas—synesthetic billboard parks—bureaucracy apartment temple gridlock—concrete alpha pathways—mechanical spiderwork fire.
Just as with the train's twisted Sino-Arabic writing system, you are lost in the multiple, infringing dimensions of these urban association trees.
Crisscrossed above by the innumerable glass tunnels of the magnet trains, the phantasmagoric city stretches on for miles and hours, then vanishes into night and distance anonymously.
You are sick with the nausea of the ostracized.
In the ambiguous darkness beneath the speeding train, the world could be forest, ocean, or desert, darker and less defined still next to the pulsating bright aura of the memory megalopolis. When the moon rises you see that you have been traveling along a prairie and that the land is beginning to fold and layer on top of itself, spouting cysts and boils. You turn over towards the ceiling and study the map display to see if you recognize the shape of the rising land. The picture is zoomed in too close, so close you may as well be staring out of the window and at the ground. You touch the screen to adjust the setting, but every attempt only results in more confusion.
You find her in the automat car.
Her red cheongsam pops out against the clean white upholstery. She looks up when you enter, no recognition, and back down at her new etching, which seems to have spawned on the table, careened off up the wall and spread out like rot. Maybe she is marking her seat so she can remember it later on. If she is in stage four, as you suspect she may be, she will not even remember having made the design.
You have brought along the computer test from the medical station.
When you set it down on the table in front of her, she looks up with interest, the fork falling from her hand.
You turn on the machine.
The computer announces in a flat tone: "Today I will be assisting you in determining whether or not you are affected by an acquired disorder commonly found among railway travelers: glass tunnel syndrome. One in ten travelers that has accumulated over thirty thousand hours of train time will start to suffer symptoms such as alexia, topographagnosia, prosopagnosia, and retrograde amnesia. If you have experienced any of these problems, seek medical assistance immediately. This is only a diagnostic tool and will thus only be able to determine with ninety percent probability whether you are affected; treatment must be sought outside the train. If you are unsure that you have been experiencing any of these conditions, please continue with the test."
You press the giant green button on the computer.
"Welcome to the test. Part One. Reading. Please read the word presented on the monitor and tell me whether you think it is a word or nonword. For example, 'cat' is a word, and' dofex' is a nonword. If you understand the instructions, tell me, and we will begin."
She takes the test. You watch her expression throughout and occasionally glance at the confusing jumble on the monitor. She is calm.
"You scored 32 out of 100. Seek medical assistance immediately," the computer says in a neutral tone at the end of the first section.
"Part Two. Place recognition. Please look at each picture as it appears on the monitor and tell me where it is located. For example, if I show you the Parthenon, you would say 'Athens'. If you understand the instructions, tell me and we will begin."
She starts the test. Paris is a cubist nightmare. Shanghai an ink black pen-stabbed scribble. Sydney one of her fork etchings. Your head throbbing, you look away after the first few items and focus instead on her poised reactions. A few times she hazards the name of a city, but mostly she just says the word "drawing" again and again.
"You scored 3 out of 100. Seek medical assistance immediately," again in a neutral tone.
Next, identifying famous faces. Again, she guesses a few celebrity names but for the most part says "pass" or "drawing". You recognize nearly all of them except a few whose features had been deleted by a bug in the computer.
"You scored 6 out of 100. Seek medical assistance immediately."
For the fourth part, you scan her passport. The computer accesses her information and generates a personalized test for her.
The first question: "What is your name?"
The test concludes after she fails to respond and provides her with a summary of her performance. The results do not seem to impact her in any meaningful way.
The computer presents her with a final message: "Please disembark at the next station, stay in a hotel for a few days to recuperate, and when able, take a private capsule to Bucharest, Romania."
She half-smiles at the computer's suggestion, perhaps the word "Bucharest" serving as a cue igniting for a brief moment a complex series of undestroyed memories of her childhood, and then the brightness in her expression, along with those memories, vanishes.
You decide to alight as soon as possible and take her along with you. The disturbing place images from the test reminded you of the strange chimera city you had seen several nights ago. You too have been traveling for far too long.
You invite her back to your berth, this time not to sleep with her but to keep track of her in case she decides to wander off.
This time she accepts.
You sleep longer than you intended and miss the next stop. It will be a few more days before another one. The interim you spend eating train-generated, random two-ingredient sandwiches, drinking espresso, and playing Pong with her in the entertainment car. Her one condition to staying with you is that you wear a bag over your head, so she does not have to stare at the jumbled mess of your face. You comply, fashioning a mask out of one of the pillowcases in your berth.
While you play games and sit together, you continuously ask her questions about the past, but they all lead to evasion on her part. Eventually, you notice the questions begin to nettle her, and the conversation stops.
In the evening you treat her to a bottle of vodka, get drunk, and miss another stop.
One morning she no longer has the energy to leave the berth. A new symptom of her condition has emerged. Her face has become the scrambled confusion of a Parisian landscape.
When she finally stops moving, you seal up the berth and move down to the next unoccupied one.
You consider taking a walk down the train to see if you can find anyone else. Of course, if you were to walk for days from car to car and not encounter a single soul and then finally happen upon another Lethe-drunk traveler, you would wonder why you had been looking for them to begin with.
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