15 Jun 63%
The transfer from the bus to the subway went smoothly.
The subway had that sterile, clean and yet slightly run-down look that didn’t encourage people to linger. Everything was off-white or neutral-colored and eyes had nothing to stop at, not even ads, which were still vigorously pushed through the actual space that people liked to look at: AR. So nobody was paying any attention to us. There weren’t many people at the gates, and those that were there really did resemble robots with blinking earbuds sticking out of their ears, unmoving eyes staring at their phones or through AR glasses, fingers twitching to swipe through headlined and memes. Most seemed not really aware of their surroundings on a conscious level. We approached one of the gates. “You need to kinda hug me from behind,” said Tia in a defiant tone, “but no grabbing, all right? And we will just step together, starting with the right foot.”
Wow, that was unexpected. I mean, I didn’t mind of course, but that offer was a bit too direct. The last few days had been unreal, yes, but this has just reaffirmed my feeling of a fake reality I found myself in. In what universe does an attractive girl offers me to hug her just to help me out with a ride? For a moment I thought that her behaviour was a bit unnatural and that maybe I should be even more paranoid and less trusting, considering what was at stake. But you gotta trust someone, right?
I put my hands around her shoulders, said “One, two, three!” and tried to advance in lockstep to the gate. We stepped through clumsily, my butt was slummed with the gate doors on the way. We almost fell down and must have looked very funny if anyone were paying the least bit of attention. We couldn’t resist bursting with uncontrollable laughter as we were stumbling through, despite everything that had happened today. Oh boy, I really needed that laugh. I felt much better as we got through the gate in one piece, so to speak. We entered the next train and grabbed a pair of seats.
I looked at Tia and now that my panic was over, and my personal event horizon had reached farther than surviving the next ten minutes, I was seeing her in a different way. And I realized that I didn’t want to lose track of her. She helped a total stranger with a crazy story and was cool about it. And she was clearly having fun doing it. That doesn’t happen every day. There was something special about her. If nothing more, I really needed a friend like that. Seriously, these were my thoughts at the time. A friend. Can a guy be more clueless, not just of the universe but of his own mind?
“Listen… Thanks again.” I said, not sure how to continue. “You don’t know what you did, for you that was just a small thing, but it meant a lot to me. Could you give me your phone number or email so I can reach you when this is all over? I’d like to thank you properly sometime.”
She was quiet for a few seconds, thinking. “OK,” she said, reached into her backpack and dug out some pen and paper. Yes, pen and paper, I kid you not. That was cute. She scribbled her phone number on it and gave it to me. “Call me when you get a new phone and your panic attack is over. Maybe you could help me with something or other…”
My stop was coming up soon, so I stood up and advanced toward the doors. The next moment all the lights went off and the train shuddered to an abrupt stop. Passengers fell on top of each other, screaming in surprise and fear. Once the sparks flying from the ceased wheels outside died off, the sudden darkness engulfed everything. The echoes of the screeching metal slowly subsided down the dark tunnel.
“What the hell?” I mumbled. After the deafening screeching of the emergency brakes and the passenger screams, the train was eerily silent. The train was automatic and there was no one to reassure the passengers or explain what had happened. And no one to call for help: the emergency communication button, marked by a bright yellow and red signage, and normally glowing in reassuring green, was dead. It seemed like the whole train had just convulsed in the tunnel, shrieked, and died. Weak emergency lighting flickered on tentatively, and then after a few seconds went out too. The references of the things dying started to worry me. People were getting out their phones and the subway car started filling with weird dancing shadows from the flashlights being jerked around. It was a total chaos. Like being in a dance club, but with noise-cancelling headphones. And no dancing.
I approached the closest doors and found the emergency release handle, unlocked by the power outage. I pulled it hard and the doors opened into the pitch black tunnel. I turned around and saw Tia standing a few meters behind me, eyes wide open but lips tightly pressed together. She looked shaken but not on the verge of panic yet. I realized that what I was going to say may change it for the worse, but there was no way around that.
“Look, it’s just too much to be a coincidence,” I said as I made my way back to her, “I don’t know how they are tracking me, but if they are able – and willing – to stop a train just for my sake, almost nothing will stop them. They tried to kill me twice today, and I’m not waiting here like a trapped animal. I’m getting out. You can go with me or stay, of course, but I hope you come. I don’t know who is chasing me, but I am sure they won’t be long and I don’t want to meet them. I will use the opportunity to check if those subway rats are really robots. Come on, it’ll be fun!” Well, that was a poor choice of words.
It didn’t even occur to me that it might not be safe for her to be around me today. Maybe it was safer for her to remain on the train. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. But then I just didn’t want to be all alone in that dark and scary tunnel, where something might be coming for me and I wouldn’t even know what it was and why it wanted me dead. She hesitated.
“I doubt they will blow up a train or something, or ram another one into it just because I happen to be here,” I added, “but who knows, they just might. I think we should go. Also, I don’t have a flashlight, so I can’t see anything out there. I need you and your phone.”
Yes, a clumsy manipulation, but I hoped that if she feels her help is needed this might sway her decision in my favour. After all, it has worked once before. Besides, I did need the light.
I hesitantly lowered myself to the tunnel floor. It was damp and overall unpleasant. Tia did follow me, noticeably tensing as her phone’s light illuminated stained concrete walls and far ahead, on the border of light and shadow, where the imagination starts inventing monsters of various kinds, something small and positively rodent-like retreated farther into the shadows.
“Come on,” I said, “we should not be very far from the next stop, let’s just walk there and get out of here. If you give me the phone, I can lead the way.”
It felt good to be responsible for someone, even if I had very little idea about what I was doing, and I was getting even more afraid of my unknown adversaries than I had been before. I mean, how did they know where I went? The only way I could even imagine was through the ever present CCTV cameras in the subway and Square One hub. It meant that they have live access to face recognition software running on the systems which were not supposed to have remote access. This was a scary thought, which also meant that I needed to change my appearance, and do it fast. But first, I needed to get out of the tunnel. Light began filtering into the tunnel from somewhere up ahead, so we must have been getting closer to the station. I found some steps leading up… Well, maybe the steps found me when I bruised my leg on something, almost fell, swore in Russian, then noticed the stairs. We went up and reached a small metal door with a simple mechanical lock. Looked like from this side no key was required, so I twisted the handle, and with an incredibly loud squeak the door opened into the blinding world of pure whiteness. We froze in the doorway and shielded our eyes.
It took us many very long seconds before we could see around us. I let the door go and it locked itself with a metal clank. We were standing at some kind of service entrance in a busy street with cars, people, and all other things a self-respecting street should have: shops, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, moms with strollers, noisy kids, a couple of aging hipsters on e-scooters, and yes, inevitably, CCTV cameras.
Just as that thought had struck me, Tia pulled a pair of sunshades out of her backpack and put them on with a sigh of relief.
“Tia, I really really need those.” I said apologetically. “Pretty please! I don’t know what’s going to happen if the next CCTV camera sees me. You know, those e-scooters might have autopilots too. Do you want us to be attacked by a horde of zombie hipsters?”
It wasn’t that funny, but I tried my best to be cool under pressure and she cracked a smile out of pity.
“OK, take them before I change my mind. They have rhinestones, you know. I like them.”
I gratefully took the sunshades and put them on. Tia also fished out a bandana (naturally it was black, with black patterns on it) and tied it on my head in a pirate fashion.
“How do I look?” I asked innocently.
“Dashing,” Tia said with the cynical intonation that meant the complete opposite. “Now what?” she inquired, clearly yielding control over this adventure to me.
That was a damn good question…