Short Story: The Only Way To Travel

In memory of Mira Furlan.

“Oh, shit! I’m late!” I said, as I finally looked up at the departures screen. I threw my tablet, phone, and other stuff in my carry-on and dashed out of the business lounge door. The elevators were too slow, so I ran up the two flights of stairs to the tracks, finally making it to the departure gate with five minutes to spare. I rummaged through my bag, and while I could find my passport, my boarding pass was nowhere to be found. “Oh fuck!” I said, quietly, although an old woman did turn around to stare at me. I ignored her and went over to the desk.

“Hello, how can I help you?” said the clerk when my turn came around. They had that kind of smile that showed they were stressed out and annoyed, but couldn’t show it. 

“I’m so sorry about this, but I seemed to have lost my boarding pass. It might even be in the business lounge. I’ve looked all through my bag,” I said, practically babbling.

“It’s all right Ma’am, not to worry. The boarding passes for the Global Express are also online, so if you have your phone, you can download yours right now.”

I sighed, annoyed with myself. “Of course it is! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Sorry to bug you!”

The clerk gave a genuine smile this time. “My pleasure, Ma’am. Have a good trip!”

“Thank you,” I said, pulled out my phone, downloaded my boarding pass, and got back in line. I was one of the last people to go through the gate and out onto the tracks. The Global Express was a new form of travel. It looked like a massive train, but it had a new type of engine that did something with time which shortened even the longest trips to an hour or less. I was nervous to take the Express, since it was so new, but my company wanted me to get to a meeting in Europe right away, so they shelled out the money for the ticket. 

I’d heard rumors, too, about people who took the Global Express and refused to ever take it again. But since it was so expensive, I hadn’t known anyone who had taken it except for the CEO. He assured me that it was an experience not to be missed, but wouldn’t elaborate. I sighed. I just wanted to get this over with so I could get to the client in Berlin then go home.

I boarded at the first door I came to, as the chime was ringing for departure. I hefted my bag so it was fully behind me in order to navigate the narrow, sloping passage to the seating area. I looked at my seat number on my phone. “Of course my seat is all the way at the far end,” I said out loud. I sighed again as one of the attendants began to speak.

“Hello, passengers! Welcome aboard the Global Express powered by the SciTex Time Engine! If everyone could please take their seats, we will be departing shortly. Our perceived travel time today between Los Angeles and Berlin will be twenty five minutes. Because of the International Freedom Laws, we cannot force anyone to stay in their seats during the drip, but it is strongly suggested that you stay in your assigned seat with the cocoon up until the Global Express has come to a complete stop. Please store all carry-ons under your seat for safety. Again, we welcome you aboard the Global Express and wish you a pleasant trip!” The attendant then repeated the announcement in several different languages.

I hurried along, trying to find my seat. After the announcement, the machine started moving, and at first it felt like a conventional train pulling out of a station, giving the usual lurch that always seemed to knock me around. I bumped into another passenger and mumbled, “Excuse me.” They gave me the stink eye, but hurried off to find their own seat. I looked up and was relieved to see a sign above a door that said “Seats 200-250.” I barged through and found the seats arranged about a meter apart, like we were in a movie theater, with a screen at the front that was giving travel information and showing tourism ads. I climbed up the steps and finally found my seat, number 236. 

Other people said hello as I squeezed down the row to my seat. There were people who had already engaged the cocoon around themselves, though there were plenty of others who hadn’t bothered who were laughing and talking. I was putting my bag away when a computerized voice said, “Time Dilation Commencing.”

“No, wait, I’m not strapped in!” I said to the voice, but it was too late. Reality gave a mighty twist, and suddenly I could see my life running through my mind, but it wasn’t the one I was living now. Somehow I was a stay at home parent with multiple children. Then I saw myself as an artist living in a house in the desert. Then it changed again to me living in an RV with a man and another person, singing as we traveled along the highway. Now I was a business woman sitting in a cafe in Zürich, drinking coffee, waiting for my partner to get out of work. The scenes kept changing, seemingly showing me all the possible different lives I could have had. 

After what felt like an eternity, the lives stopped passing through my mind, and I realized I was on the floor next to my seat curled up in a fetal position. I could hear other people talking and screaming as they too experienced their possible lives. I tried to uncurl myself, but my muscles wouldn’t relax. I was so anxious and scared, that I couldn’t even call for help. 

I heard people moving around and eventually a person in a white suit that looked like a smaller version of a space suit stopped in front of me. “Are you OK?” they asked. 

I shook my head, but couldn’t unclench my jaw enough to talk. 

“All right, I just want to let you know that the time dilation can affect people in this way and that the effect is only temporary. If you would like a sedative to relax you, I can give you one.”

I nodded and the attendant pushed an injector to my neck. I flinched, but then my body began to relax. I stretched out my legs, coughed, and said, “Thank you,” in a gravelly voice. 

The attendant nodded. “You should get into your seat, if you can,” they said and walked away. I managed to sit up, but had no real desire to stand. I felt wobbly from the sedative and I figured it would be better to just stay on the floor rather than risk falling down again. The screen in front of us was ticking down the time to Berlin, and we still had fifteen minutes to go. I looked to the left and right of me, and there was another woman coming down the aisle towards me. She ignored the closed cocoons, but when she saw me, she sat down on the floor in front of me.

“Is this your first trip on the Express?” she asked.

I nodded. 

“Took the sedative?”

I nodded again. 

“Yeah, I did that the first time, too. But now I don’t bother because I’m used to it. Do you know that each time you travel through the time dilation you see more versions of what your life could have been? I’ve seen so many of my possible lives that I’ve actually changed my real one! The more I change my real life, the more I see when I travel.” Her eyes were bright and glassy and wide. I wasn’t sure why she decided to talk to me, but I wondered about whether or not she was still quite sane. “I’m Mira, by the way.”

“I…” I coughed and tried again. “I’m… hang on! How do you afford so many trips?”

“Oh, in this life I’m a trust fund kid. Daddy pays for it. But this trip I saw a life where I lived on an island eating fish, so I think maybe I should just give it all up this time.”

“Why?”

“My life is boring. Even my other lives are boring. But this time, this time was different. I wasn’t only eating the fish, but there was a woman teaching me how to cook it. I want to find her.”

I stared at the woman. She sounded so sure that this was what she should do. I thought of the lives that had passed through my own mind, and felt like maybe I, too, was on the wrong path. “I think I understand,” I said.

“Yeah?”

I nodded. “My life, my real life, isn’t what I thought it would be. The truth is, I hate what I’m doing. I hate being a corporate exec. I have no personal life. I’m so lonely…” I trailed off, tears rolling down my face. 

Suddenly, a loud popping noise erupted in the cabin. Mira laid herself flat on the floor and we both looked out between the seats. A large man was shooting his rifle into the ceiling, which seemed to absorb the bullets as they hit it. A number of people in the same white suits as the attendant tackled him, wrenching the gun from him. They lifted him up, strapped him into a seat, and cocooned him. 

“That’s a first,” said Mira.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Well, the Freedom laws say he can bring the gun on board, but usually folks pack them in their checked luggage. This is the first time I’ve seen one brought on as a carry on. They’ll probably take it off him when we get to Germany, though. They don’t like it when Americans try to bring guns.”

I sat up again and thought for a moment. “Hey, shouldn’t I be more scared that some crazy guy was shooting his gun?”

“Probably, but that sedative is pretty strong,” Mira said. She looked at the screen. “Five minutes left. Hang on!” and she flattened out on the floor again. 

I followed her lead. When the twist of time and different timelines came again, I noticed that this time I wasn’t alone in them. There was a woman with me. In some timelines we traveled, and in some we had a house and a family, in others we lived on a farm, or in the mountains in a chalet. Then, as suddenly as the timelines started, they stopped. 

“Passengers, we have now stopped in Berlin. The time is 1800 and the weather is nineteen degrees. Please check around your seat for any items that may have moved or shifted during the trip. Thank you for taking the Global Express, and we hope to see you again soon!” 

I sat up while the attendant started speaking in other languages, feeling mostly normal again, then managed to stand and extract my carryon from the chair. Mira stood up, too, and stared at me. “So, uh, do you want to…” she began.

“Would you like to go to dinner with me?” I said at the same time, surprising myself. 

The other woman smiled, which seemed to light up the room. After a moment, she said, “I’d like that.” I smiled and followed her off the train into the Berlin night.