by Bryan Cole
The mag-lev train sped past the glacial landscape. Hatcher Aspen, dispossessed, watched quietly out the carriage window at the pristine scenery speeding past. The near-solid white, only occasionally punctuated by glimmers of grey from the sky or patches of civilization, made it difficult to determine the actual speed of the Russo-Fuchida mag-lev train.
The slow boat out of Kangnung had been easy, just a stowaway on a cargo ship til it hit the docks at Vladivostock, then some hitchhiking and backpacking to Korfovskiy, a ticket onto the railway and the fast-track across Russia. Although the railway could be joined at Vladivostock, it would be too risky to pop up at the very edge of a country, and at a seaport at that. Hatcher would have to be as deliberate as possible, and leave the smallest trail he could. The caution of his career became second nature. The hardest part, he thought, as the train announced its impending stop (one of two per day) and began to slow, was not knowing when you could turn the paranoia off. The kino would always show the agents slipping over the border in mere moments and then on to the glitzy locales or the extravagant underground bases or the comical firefights, but they never showed the hours and hours of waiting. The mind-numbing downtime that he’d learned to cope with in the Forces.
The easy part had been getting the language chips for the journey, and trying to figure out what areas the trip might take him through that he would need to plan for. His only real panic so far had come from the immigration and customs officials when he materialized to get his ticket for the railway. Hatcher half wondered if maybe the fuss had actually come from the inefficiency that still plagued Russia to this day, their inheritance from the bankruptcy of communism. They understandably had some trouble verifying his identity, but after several reboots of the ticketeer’s workstation and some frenzied typing by his supervisor, they had finally found a matching record for Hatcher’s assumed persona. They explained that although it wasn’t uncommon to see farmers take the railway to visit the western provinces, since he hadn’t ever left the country or utilized Russia’s ‘glorious public transportation system’ before, his record had, regrettably, been archived at central servers in the Moscow Deptartment of Transportation annex. Displaying the impatience that men of the earth had for computers and their electronic magic, Hatcher had pushed his hand but not overplayed it, expressing his disgust of this new chair-ridden society that went against the grain of all ‘real’ working Russians.
It helped that he looked older than he was.
It hadn’t escaped him later, once the train got moving, that this may have been a ruse to draw time. But since they hadn’t swooped in and tried to take him, or sent anyone to tail him (that he could tell) he chose not to drive himself mad over the possibilities.
There would be time for that once he hit eastern Europe. Once Hatcher got to Kharkov, he would have to debark the train, get his way into the Ukraine from there to Moscow. He figured on at least four more border crossings. That was his minimum exposure, and he knew that the law of averages was bound to tack a couple more onto that already very conservative guess.
Out the window, the distant gleam of Lake Baikal reflected the grey sky overhead. With the train stopped, the porters loaded meals and conveniences onto the mag-lev as the clock beat down. The teams were so efficient that they could have the work done in less than the proscribed thirty minute clock, but sometimes tourists wanted to hop off the train for a short walk or to visit the kiosks and stores setup at the station; tourist traps, mainly, and maybe a restaurant or two. Hatcher noted that a drink was starting to sound like a good idea.