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excerpt from Chapter 12 of the novel Public

Chapter 12 Excerpt

Chapter 12 (Excerpt)

New Year's Eve

This year's coolest New Year's Eve party was in Vokyo. The virtual city of Vokyo, like the ancient meatspace metropolis which had inspired its design, was an enormous and complex city that was home to millions. For tonight, in honor of the special occasion, it would play host to a guest population that was expected to top one billion. In order to accommodate such a vast number of virtual avatars, the city would be instanced about a hundred times over. An instance was a homeomorphic copy of the geometry and NPCs of a virtual space. Various groups of commercial sponsors were underwriting the hosting costs for the twenty-four hour period — twelve hours either side of midnight, Tokyo time — for which the multiple parallel instances would be online. The event was being glibly promoted, with some credible justification, as the biggest New Year's party in the history of human culture.

Salma Rivera stood in a posh hotel lobby holding hands with her boyfriend, Clay. In addition to the ordinary pleasure of holding hands, doing so also provided some practical utility in that it prevented them from being swept apart by the streams of fellow travelers that were using this hotel as a jumping off place for travel to Vokyo. The hotel was Bavarian in style, ornately white and gilded, though much more brightly lit than an eighteenth century original would have been. But then, no Bavarian hotel would have boasted a Tokyo subway entrance just outside its front doors, either. A stream of guests poured down the grand staircase from rooms above, or up the smaller flights of stairs debouching from the elegant shops situated below, and flowed out the hotel's doors, or else milled around on the polished hardwood lobby floor as Clay and Salma were doing.

Clay gestured at a couple descending the grand stair, and Salma smiled and waved. Cylara waved back, she and Torch spotting them at almost the same moment. Cylara looked extremely elegant in a full-length silk kimono of a warm jade green color. She seemed to float down the staircase, the twinkle of her feet taking the stairs obscured by her clothing. Torch was caparisoned like a Samurai, right down to a pair of curved swords. He had darkened his hair to a dark brown much more in keeping with his costume, looking like a stern bodyguard proudly escorting a great lady. Salma and Clay had gone nineteenth century Spanish with their dress, with plenty of lace and ruffles.

"Wow, what a crush, huh?" Clay said as the two couples met near the center of the room. The men shook hands and the women embraced briefly and complimented one another's outfits.

"It's crazy," Torch agreed, shaking his head. "I didn't expect this place to be so busy."

"Me neither. Well, shall we get going?"

Both couples clasped hands and strode toward the open doors. Outside was a rendition of a downtown street in a German city, late afternoon on a warm spring day, very picturesque, complete with horse-drawn carriages, carts and well-dressed, bewigged pedestrians — and the amusingly glaring anomaly of a tube station entrance at the edge of the street facing the hotel. Gauche neon lettering over the top of the arch advertised "Orient Express," automatically rendered in each individual beholder's preferred character set and language. A down escalator stood just inside the arch, and with an appreciative chuckle, the four friends stepped onto it and descended under the street.

"Let's hope there's no murder on this train, Agatha," quipped somebody ahead of them.

Beneath the street was a broad platform that fronted the subway tracks. Even as they neared the bottom of the escalator, an empty train pulled to a stop along the edge of the platform and opened its doors. The crowd that had gathered on the platform began moving onto the train, but in a leisurely manner quite unlike the traditional Tokyo rush-hour style. The foursome moved toward a car that wasn't full yet, so they'd have a spot to sit down together. The train resembled some late twentieth century model.

The doors closed (without anyone stuffing yet more passengers bodily into the cars; there were some touches of historical verisimilitude which were best omitted by simulations) and after a moment the train began creeping forward. As it left the station it picked up speed, sliding smoothly and quietly along its tracks.

Abruptly the dark tunnel opened into a brilliant sunlit space. The train, moving ever more swiftly, sped along a ribbon of track laid along the edge of a bluff overlooking a pristine white beach that bordered on a calm, turquoise sea, over which the sun was rising. As it continued to pick up speed, the train altered form into something more closely resembling a French bullet train than a Japanese subway. The tracks swept gracefully to the left along a promontory bluff, well banked to cope with the G-forces, which pressed them gently back into their seats. Then it plunged into another tunnel, bringing darkness punctuated by the flicker of passing light panels and the rush of speeding air.

"Scene change!" said Cylara with a light laugh. It was so obvious, but enjoyable nonetheless. This time the train didn't change, the tunnel did. Suddenly it resembled the Chunnel under the English Channel, though traversed at a breakneck above-ground velocity. Continuing to accelerate, their train vaulted up and to the right, and emerged into daylight again. It now sped at what had to be near supersonic speed along tracks laid at the very surface of a calm ocean, straight into the orange ball of a rising sun. The rush of their passage grew to a roar, and the train's vortex sucked a wake of glittering spray behind it half as long as the train.

The four of them exchanged delighted glances. This gratuitous scenic approach to what was nothing but a glorified zone point was unexpected, but nice. The event promoters were obviously out to make it memorable. The next tunnel appeared ahead as a vast whirlpool into which the tracks swooped and disappeared. A film of water hit the windows with a slight jolt as the train dipped into the maelstrom.

After a heart-stopping moment of total blackness, the train transitioned onto a track that still ran straight toward the rising sun, but now extended, miraculously unsupported, through clouds blushing pink and ocher with the dawn. The earth was an invisible blur below as the train broke the sound barrier. As if adapting itself to supersonic travel, it became ever more streamlined and futuristic, a carbon nanosteel frame and glass skin replacing the weaker twentieth century materials. Holographic light pulses streamed like heat from the nose of the train and ricocheted around the sides of the cars within their translucent panels. As soon as one focused on the lights, their message became readable: "The future is now."

"If the rising sun represents Japan, I wonder if we'll reach it?" Clay offered.

"It's supposed to be a hot party, but probably not quite that hot," Salma replied, getting a general laugh from those near them.

Without preamble, the train executed a leisurely spin on its axis, and as it completed its revolution the scene outside changed, like rolling up a shade covering a window. Now they had corkscrewed into a reality that was purely abstract. The track became a mere pulse of light, traversing a black and fathomless void in which there was nothing, neither land nor sea nor sky nor even any stars. The sun's disk was blotted out as if in an eclipse, leaving only a fiery corona that starkly lit the scene. The light pulses down the train's translucent skin began to shift into spectra as they approached relativistic velocities. The letters formed by the pulses had changed, yet were still visible as the spectral shifts appeared to flow through them. They read: "Celebrate the Singularity!"

It now seemed clear that their true destination was not the sun, but the event horizon at the edge of the sun's disk, which they would presumably reach just as they achieved the speed of light. The symbolism was appropriate, and even strangely moving. The imminence of impact, of arrival, of fulfillment, created a moment of tense anticipation even for the most jaded of passengers.

There was a soundless starburst of every shade of light at once, a faint wrench, and then they were coasting calmly down a track within a glass tube, one of many which radiated from a common center like wheel spokes, or the limbs of a monstrous tinker-toy, toward a ring-shaped starport spinning in orbit over what was, unmistakably, Japan under the terminator. The design of the starport was similar to a representation of a complex molecule, as if their passage over the event horizon had somehow brought them down to the atomic scale. Each spoke ultimately connected up to the orbiting station's outer ring, but at a different place – corresponding, no doubt, to the particular instance of Vokyo into which they would zone once they got there. Other trains could be seen traversing their own tubes as they braked to a stop along different segments of the ring.

Their train slid smoothly into its berth in the starport and came to a complete stop. The doors opened, and the passengers came to their feet. Quite a few applauded as they walked off onto the platform, which once again looked incongruously like a subway station. Viewer-dependent neon lettering over the exit arch read “Thank you for traveling the Orient Express," alternating with "Have a Happy New Year!"

As they rode the escalator up to the streets, which zoned them to their chosen instance of Vokyo, Torch opined: "That was cool." The others agreed, and walked out onto the bustling street, eagerly looking forward to an evening spent sampling the varied night life for which this virtual city was justly famed.


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