Special Relativity

by Olga Zilberbourg

The high speed rail line between the two metropolises went through miles and miles of wasteland. A few curious or bored passengers who dared to lift the window shades to look outside invariably incurred the wrath of fellow commuters: the mere glimpse of the dark deserted woods sent shivers through the cabin, as if the engine had suddenly stopped circulating heat. There had once been small towns and villages in the recesses of the forest, people had kept pigs and cows, had grown wheat during the short summers. In the recent decades, since most of the jobs moved to the mining sector, the villages stood abandoned, people-less. Perhaps there was still some life among the caved in buildings and collapsed infrastructure, but nobody cared very much to investigate. As far as the passengers were concerned, life of any significance was concentrated in the cities. There was the Major Metropolis, usually signified by the letter M, where the offices of the mining corporations and all the banking and government organizations were located; and its counterpart, the intellectual and cultural Smaller City, S, home to theatrical and artistic institutions, and therefore, a perfect place to spend an evening or even a week-long vacation. Many of the high-powered residents of M traveled to S every weekend, to relax and to take their minds off effective drilling practices, pipelines, construction works, and money markets. Some very high ranks of M went home to S every night. They traveled on the fastest trains, the ones that departed M after sundown and returned before sunrise. Many of them had personal cabins on the train, where windows were replaced with monitors for work and entertainment. Each ride took three hours, just long enough to watch a movie and have a cup of coffee—or dictate a couple of memos and make a few phone calls.

During school holiday seasons, some children were taken on the train to visit the museums of S or their parents' offices in M, and children, being children, were always keen to look out of the window. They insisted on lifting the shades and staring at the green gauze of presumed pines and maples—but whether any pastures or farms survived in the rare openings of the forest, nobody could ascertain. The high velocity at which the train dissected the terrain turned all stationary objects into colors and then blurred the colors together. Green or gray, depending on the season, more green, some yellow, a splash of red, or most likely brown dissolving in more green. Children could spend half of the trip arguing whether a speck of dust seen five minutes outside of M was a wild dog running after the train or an abandoned house, or whether a patch of dirt halfway between M and S was a ghost town. They watched for it on the way back to M, but these occurrences were never repeated no matter how accurately the children marked the time. This was entertainment for the very young; by the time girls and boys went to high school and started setting their sights on careers in mining, finance, administration or in the arts, their childish games were quickly forgotten. For high school students, the train ride was a bore, but not a bad place to study.

The first major train crash of the decade occurred one summer when there were several children aboard. It was one of the regularly scheduled Friday night trains from M to S; when the engine lost touch with high-speed transit control, an emergency crew was dispatched to the spot where contact with the craft was lost. The results of the investigation reported to the public stated simply that due to a pilot error, the train was derailed and crashed into some trees. The report was accompanied by a few pictures of a shapeless metalloplastic mass somewhat blurred with the brown background of the track bed. The list of passengers, all dead, numbered close to a thousand names, including thirty-two children and six top echelon government employees. The government reacted to the tragedy promptly by finding a scapegoat within the transit administration, ordering a moment of silence, and compensating the victims' families with sizeable monetary donations. In the liberal circles of S, there was some speculation that the crash had to do with the foul-smelling political activity of two of the six dead government members. According to another rumor, a small horde of hungry citizens from the abandoned ghost towns banded together and attacked the train for spoils, or as a sign of their rage, a desperate call for rescue. But since the government officials were dead and could no longer provoke a public discussion of the incident, and since the people who had chosen to stay in the long since abandoned villages—if they did exist—didn't come forth to the media, the facts of the matter as presented by the government were soon taken for granted. For several weeks afterwards, commuters, shaken out of their comfort zone, flocked to alternative means of transportation, but air travel was too costly and inconvenient, and so was the highway because for the top echelon of M managers, it required hiring personal drivers or wasting hours behind the wheel. Moreover, the highway lay right alongside the train tracks, and seeing the trains zoom by from a vehicle crawling at prehistoric speeds was too much for anyone's nerves. And while nobody reported major incidents on the highway, the general consensus labeled the ride "tense." There had been some sightings of feral cats on the sides of the road, and even one dead dog. Within two weeks, most passengers returned back to their comfortable train seats and resumed their routines.

A month later, a night train twenty minutes outside of M encountered a cloud of moving rocks. It was unclear whether there was human intelligence directing the trajectory of the rocks or if their movement was caused by the blind work of cosmic elements. Some of these rocks collided directly with the front windshield of the train, killing the chief pilot, and other rocks hit the windows of the passenger cabins at the angle of 15 to 30 degrees to the direction of the movement of the train. The second pilot, a man of steely character, managed to reduce the speed of the train relative to the flying rocks and thus was able to curb the number of fatalities and the damage to the equipment. He reported the incident to transit control, and they guided him back to the port of M, where medical help was immediately administered to the men and women suffering from physical and mental shock. The number of deaths resulting from the collision was reported to be fifty-two. The second pilot was hailed a hero and promoted to the first pilot's seat. The transit control-instigated investigation concluded that the rocks were released by a highly localized weather phenomenon, a situation not unlike when it rains frogs. The investigative commission was unanimous in their insistence that there could not be human involvement in this tragedy, that no conscious man or woman could've plotted and executed the rock storm since any human thrower would have had to stand on the tracks directly in front of the craft and would be squashed immediately. The commission had no evidence to believe that the plains between M and S were inhabited by any humans in the first place, and so any further line of thinking in this direction was considered a dead end.

Holiday season finally over, the populace of both metropolises exhaled a heavy sigh of relief. Besides the trouble with the rail, there were other reasons for people to be happy about the change of seasons. Whether due to the death of the two government officials earlier in the year, or for any other reasons, the country was once again experiencing certain supply chain problems. For their survival, both S and M depended on imports of grains, meat, and dairy from abroad. One transport after another had been delayed, leaving S with no fresh bread and milk for three entire days in the middle of the summer, interrupting service at even the most prestigious restaurants and cafes. The resulting run in on flour and sugar caused bakeries, restaurants, and theatre cafes to be unable to take any orders for ten entire days. Due to an unexplained chain of events, exhaust steam from the city's nuclear power plant was rerouted through downtown streets, throwing the home Geiger counting units out of calibration and causing panic among the older citizens. At the same time, M suffered an outbreak of subway murders committed by undocumented aliens. It was not entirely clear where they had come from, since everyone coming and going was carefully kept in check by the appropriate branch of the government. After the murders, all foreign guests were immediately deported as a matter of precaution. There were rumors of people with wild hair and in tattered clothing coming to M from the forest, but if this did happen, they were immediately seized by police and transported to the mining facilities where they could make themselves useful. The coming of winter was met with joy by most citizens. Meteorologists predicted heavy snowfall even within city limits, and people bought new cross-country city commuting skis or polished the old pairs they kept in closets.

The snowfall within city limits never materialized beyond a few lazy flakes, but at least the train service proceeded without any further interruptions. Sure, several of the regular commuters were so deeply disturbed by the summer's events that they insisted on talking about bullets or giant icicles flying through the windows, the wheels of the engine deformed in transit and smeared with red or dark-brown liquid by extraneous objects slipped underneath by partisans from the woods, or even giant snow heaps built on top of the tracks—but these people clearly belonged in mental health institutions. They were expediently taken there. The most unfortunate of such cases was what happened to the hero of the rock incident, the level-headed second pilot. After clocking in a mere 239 trips between M and S in his new first pilot seat, on his 240th trip back from S to M, he made an unscheduled stop in the white expanse 117 minutes outside of M because he claimed he saw a giant snowman on the tracks ahead of him. When the second pilot burst into helpless laughter at the suggestion, the former hero broke down in tears, released his controls causing the train to decelerate, opened the door of the cabin, and jumped out into the wild. He was never seen nor heard from ever again. In all other ways, the episode had a happy ending: the second pilot was able to restart the train and guided it successfully to the port of M, where he was summarily promoted. Very few of the passengers noticed anything unusual, and those who did were quickly comforted by resumed movement.

Olga Zilberbourg is a San Francisco-based writer with roots in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her second Russian-language collection of stories was published by St. Petersburg's Limbus Press in 2010. In English, her stories have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Narrative Magazine, Mad Hatters' Review, Marco Polo Quarterly, elimae and an upcoming issue of Prick of the Spindle. She is an associate editor at Narrative Magazine.