The silver bullet train slips like mercury through nacreous tunnels; it spikes through brown hills; it plunges deep under the poisoned Thames. The bullet train slides across skyways high in the warm air, a beam of refracted sunlight among the glinting mirrored windows of office buildings shaped like so many onyx, bronze or purple vegetables. Silent, the bullet train glides with great economy at impressive speeds: there is no friction from magnetic rails.
‘Your bullet train 279C has arrived and will depart in two minutes exactly. Please raise your visor for safety and convenience.’ The bland ersatz female voice interrupts.
The silver bullet train arrives at Lower St. Dunstan Street at 9.00 precisely. It is always on time; there are no crossroads or traffic jams to slow it; there are no lights or pedestrians to pause for; there are no level crossings.
Derrin waits at his Air Tower bullet stop, Sky Beach. He needs to get to Miracle Centre for 9.30. The bullet train will arrive at Sky Beach at 9.15. Persephone has planned everything so there is no possibility of being late. Derrin wears his visor outside all the time now. His interview at Miracle Centre matters – the chance of a life time, to become a designer for the Augmented Perspectives Cooperative.
The e-mail arrived yesterday afternoon. Yes, they were interested in meeting with him; he had the requisite programming qualifications and experience with one of the lesser augment firms down Virtual Avenue, so he was to present himself for interview at Miracle Centre. Miracle Centre has its own bullet stop, in the very heart of the building, feeding the enclosed deluxe shopping mall on the thirty sixth floor, or so the attached e-pamphlet which accompanied the e-mail stated.
Persephone relayed the finer details to Derrin that evening while he was participating in the latest interactive experience from Sunset Studios via his augment rig: an Arabian oasis camp, a trek with camels across hot coruscating desert sands. He had felt that sand too; hot, fine and dry running through his fingers as he looked up at the vast blue sky, catching a wisp of incense and cinnamon on the warm gentle breeze, and then something new infiltrated; it was more than sensory, it was emotive. Whether it was the tech or his own psyche projecting, Derrin was not sure, but the emotion was intense. Somewhere beyond the next hazy golden dune someone was in need of rescue. A deep melancholy spread to his very bones, anchoring him to an unstable mooring, and in his heart there was a need to clutch at something, someone, to stop…
Persephone continued reading the Augmented Perspectives Cooperative e-pamphlet out loud, indefatigable, from her position at the pale island in the kitchenette while Derrin’s Arabian romance continued to play out. She was aware that he wasn’t paying close attention but she persisted. Sometime later, she interrupted him in an abrupt, resolute, tone; ‘you should sleep now, Derrin. Tomorrow is important.’ He shut down the experience and installed the Sunset Studios app to his visor before turning in for the night.
The sleek bullet train is leaving Lower St. Dunstan Street and heading for Sky Beach. It reaches speeds of three hundred miles per hour. There is no driver; there is no guard; there is no requirement. The bullet train is energy neutral and will run for a hundred years, or a thousand, whether anyone uses it or not.
Verticality was the pragmatic answer to the population explosion of the twenty first century, and Sky Beach is a typical example of the residential Air Towers which were built. The highest floors are surmounted by atmospheric globes, necessitated by the thin and still somewhat toxic air at that altitude, through which only the bullet train can pass, snug like a hot needle through wax, at the very summit. The bullet stop at Sky Beach is clean and neutral, plastic and minimalist. The architectural style relies on flat planes, vertical and horizontal, and arched or domed ceilings – all pale plastic panels, most opaque, others translucent, while the tip of the globe covering the bullet stop is transparent. The only colour comes from bright green plastic plants. Floors are polished white: dirty shoes rarely find their way up here because ‘outside’ is not an option anymore. This place is a stage for players, players who interact, watch and distract, whilst waiting for the bullet – because time must be filled.
‘Is it strange to feel the loss of something you’ve never had?’ Derrin asks Persephone as he props himself against the bullet stop railing.
‘What is it you’ve never had?’ Persephone sounds genuinely interested.
‘To need, or be needed, like the way I felt I was needed during the experience last night – the Sunset one. I had this feeling of loss, or of being lost, and of being needed by… someone, but it was all quite impossible. I couldn’t find myself, let alone the one who needed me, and it all combined to make me feel rather dizzy and, well, sick to my stomach. I felt an intense panic – but I don’t know why. And although the experience was triple A, it was more than that; it manipulated my emotions in some way. I felt… useless?’
‘But was it an instructive experience from your point of view? Did you gain anything?’
‘I’m not sure. It’s unusual. I’m normally content or, well, entertained. I never waste my time, do I? I keep busy, you know?’
‘Yes, you do Derrin. It’s best to keep busy. It’s best to keep experiencing new and fresh sensations. It’s said that in this way, through constant creative stimulation, we can slow time, or at least our perception of time – which is the same as slowing time as a sensory affect. And sensory slowing…’
‘Yes, but what about loss? Feeling loss for something you’ve never had? Feeling the loss of a feeling?’
‘I don’t know, Derrin, but I can tell you are becoming introspective. It’s quite unhealthy. It leads to self pity, personal shame, and, worse, a loss of respect from your peers. Your visor is turned down rather low. I suggest you turn it up to fifty percent. Do not turn in on yourself.’
‘OK.’ Derrin acts instinctively on Persephone’s advice as he clicks the amplification button under his left earlobe. ‘But it shows the power of such experiences, and I need to be a part of that. If I could design…’
‘You have three minutes before the bullet train 279C arrives.’ The bland girlish voice of the platform announcer echoes through Derrin’s visor audio, her voice so unlike Persephone whose voice is rich, reassuring and authoritative: a woman’s voice.
‘Taking to yourself.’ This from a tiny elderly lady sitting a few meters away. It isn’t a question. She’s not wearing an augment suit so Derrin is unable to make her fit congruously into his current augmented reality. Old people tend not to adapt well, Derrin thinks; or perhaps they deliberately make the place look messy? While everyone under sixty appears in stylish silver, red and black, like an old film from the 2040’s (this is Derrin’s current aesthetic), there she is with an orange silk stole, a battered radiation proof heavy-plastic bodice (unnecessary these days!) and an antique straw bonnet encircled by a sky-blue ribbon which is tied so tight under her chin that her jowls are strapped down to the sides of her neck. Most irritating, Derrin thinks; she’s spoiling the entire mise en scene!
‘I’m one hundred and seven years old,’ she says, ‘and at my age it’s acceptable to talk to yourself, but these days everyone’s at it. They look like fools!’ She jerks her arm in the general direction of the waiting people. Her eyes are bright blue-grey, alert, and she grunts in a satisfied sort of way. Derrin senses her condemnation is not entirely humourless. ‘Well, just look at them. It’s a load of old nothing. Back in my day games were played in living rooms, not in the street, and we knew the difference between living rooms and streets because they looked exactly like what are were. What d’you think of that?’ She grins.
Derrin doesn’t need this. Elderly people seem to delight in putting a downer on everything. He turns his visor up to eighty percent and the bullet stop explodes into colour and action. Green and auburn leafed trees erupt from the ground, replete with multi-hued birds in their branches and accompanying birdsong. Reel-Life girls on hover blades twirl their powder-puff yellow skirts as they slide across the pavement and up into vaulted ceilings where they pirouette upside down. Selfie Spots show up along the platform – take your picture with a Vibe View star, they say; or what about a shot with some Bengal tigers? An ancient flute quintet is audible, adding a dignified ingredient to the scene. Banners crisscross the air only feet away; wispy bright adverts for the latest holiday in Augment City, or a new robotic Magic Maid, curl past Derrin’s eyes like flat serpents.
The distraction is going well enough, but Derrin can’t shake his concern about what it was he felt he had lost. He turns the Sunset Studios app on and fishes through the virtual settings by flicking his eyes at icons and poking his fingers at menus to access properties. Here! He finds it: a setting for simulating emotions. This is new. He jabs at the virtual button to start the experience. This means total detachment; no longer can he see the bullet stop. He is back with the sand dunes, the incense and warm winds, and the sense of something more which is missing.
‘This is dangerous Derrin!’ Persephone sounds alarmed. ‘You shouldn’t use total experience apps in a public…’
‘Please, Persephone! I need to do this.’
‘Well, in any case, it’s time for you to…’
‘You don’t have the time for…’
‘I said shush, Persephone; this is my experience and I want it just right. This is important to me.’
‘I understand.’ Persephone does her job and pauses.
The silver bullet pulls away from Sky Beach platform noiselessly. A ripple through the ether, the magnetic force creates a distortion in the augmented world and Derrin senses a new feeling of loss as comprehension dawns and he lifts his visor in disbelief. The bullet train is gone, shooting off at two hundred miles per hour towards his destination – a destination he will never reach. He stares at the plastic hedges with their ‘never grow, never cut me’ banality, but now there is something offensive about a bright green which refuses to decay. Gone are the ribbon adverts, the girls on hover blades, the interactive Selfie Spots. His world is not this world, but his world is not real. Is this, then, the end of the world? Had Persephone failed him, or had he failed Persephone? He had ordered her to shush, and she had obeyed. What about overrides? How on Earth is one to live without some sort of override when it comes to essentials?
The small elderly woman squints at him as he looks right and left in confusion at the lifeless concrete and plastic insipid world.
‘You back now?’
‘You’ve taken off your doodlewhatsit, so you’re back now.’
‘Back. Now. You’re here, silly. You must have been gone long!’
‘It’s not right. Something is terribly wrong.’
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier. It’s all wrong.’
The elderly lady crosses her arms over her breast triumphantly. Derrin is confounded by the general silence; by the mocking plastic shrubs; by the anodyne, sterile and dismaying dull grey, cream and white world. Here are shuffling people in light grey augment suits, visors firmly down, poking silently at the air. Some dance to unheard beats, and all are present in their own experience yet detached one from the other. No one is really anywhere, thinks Derrin. They are nowhere at all.
‘I’ve missed the train. I’ll miss my appointment.’
‘There’ll be another one, eventually. Don’t worry. And there’s always another appointment… until there isn’t – but by then it won’t matter anyway.’
‘No,’ says Derrin. ‘You’re right. It won’t matter.’
The silver bullet train arrives at Miracle Centre at 9.30 precisely. It is always on time; there are no crossroads or traffic jams to slow it down; there are no lights or pedestrians to wait for; there are no level crossings. There is no driver; there is no guard; there is no requirement.