Freedom’s Mask – Chapter 1, Part 3

We continue our preview of the first chapter of Andrew’s new novel, Freedom’s Mask (© 2017, ISBN: 978-1-976-40079-7). The book will be available from tomorrow, 30 November, in digital format as part of Amazon Kindle’s new Scout campaign. Look for the paperback by mid-December, and keep checking in here for updates!

Chapter One, Part Three

And then we had. The dirt road gave way to a grassy field and I looked up to see that we had arrived. The pavement was in fact a light and pleasing peachy-pinkish tone, and stepping onto it after first having gone from the barren road to the mowed grass I realized that each texture had actually gotten softer. What a nice touch. The hard dirt to the resilient earth to that spongy, giving yet firm, type of hardened rubber, or perhaps a similar material. We were then just a few meters from the round building and I could clearly see past it and into what I noticed to be not a town but a full-blown city stretching out into the distance, complete with a set of trolley tracks winding its way from just in front of where we stood deep into the receding sets of buildings beyond. Everything was a clinical white and everyone I saw was wearing black pyjamas and the goofy cone hats.

Only it wasn’t just people that I saw. I also saw robots. Yes, robots. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and it was so startling that I was using both eyes, my pain momentarily fading into oblivion as the steel blue humanoid figures mounted on a pair of wheels buzzed here and there. Were they running errands? Picking up trash? Fixing things? I had no idea but there were at least ten of them in full view right at that random moment. My jaw must have been on the ground because I heard someone burst out laughing and turned to see that the mirth was directed at me. It was our boss, and I noted that she looked even more gorgeous with her face lit up like that. She took me by the shoulder and led me over to a window at the front of the round building behind which sat, or rather stood, one of the robots. It was chirping away about something, I supposed it must have been in the local language, and a little red light was flashing on the side of its round and nondescript head. I looked at it, looked at our boss, and then must have looked lost because she put her hands on either side of my face and held my head steady in front of the robot. Her fingers were thin but calloused; I wouldn’t have called them delicate but their touch excited me. The robot’s light flashed long and then short and then short again, and she let go. I wasn’t sure what had just happened but after that the rest of our group took turns standing in front of the robot while the light blinked a different pattern: just one quick flash for each of them. We moved around the cone-topped building, evidently some kind of checkpoint or gateway – although I didn’t see anything blocking entry into the city if one were inclined to just blow by the robot guard –, and to a low platform that was positioned behind it and protected from the sun by an overhang; what must have been the trolley tracks, but of a type I didn’t recognize, stretched out ahead. That, at least, was familiar. Not the trolley itself as such, although Tokyo did still have two lines for those as I recalled, but the feeling of waiting for the train. We didn’t have to wait long.

A striking light blue trolley car with a green stripe down its side pulled up to our platform and its passengers all disembarked from the rear while we entered at its front. Of course, as that was the end of the line, the front became the rear and vice versa, but trolleys are wonderfully symmetrical in that regards. There was no driver. My companions all boarded and so I assumed it to be safe enough and stepped up into the entrance. Habit is a funny thing; I had only ridden Tokyo’s Arakawa trolley line once but when I did I noticed that it used a similar ticket system to the city buses, something that I was fairly used to from the time when I lived outside of Tokyo – a paper ticket system for those who didn’t have a scannable electronic pass, that is. In those days, before my company had transferred me from the branch I was at into the capital, I would hop on a bus and take a little ticket with a number on it from a machine, and that number would match with a display board above where the driver sat, a board listing the various fares for each number depending on point of pick up. The rate increased as you rode and when you got off you dumped your ticket and the coins required into a little feeding machine next to the driver. It was all very orderly and transparent. Without thinking I assumed the trolley I had just boarded would work like the Arakawa Line, which worked like the city buses, and so I stood there searching and searching for a numbered piece of paper to take. There was no such paper. There wasn’t even a ticket machine or, apparently, a machine for payment. Given that wherever I was it was no longer Tokyo that should not necessarily have surprised me, but like I said, habit is a funny thing. Tomor finally came over and pulled me down onto a bench on the side of the car opposite the platform, between him and the woman who had given me her hat. The object of my fast-developing crush was seated next to Tomor so we were all in a row. The inevitable fatigue brought on by the whole experience of that day washed over me as soon as I was settled and my head knocked back against the trolley windows of its own accord. As the cone hat got pushed down over my face by the impact I remembered that I was wearing it and sheepishly took the thing off to return it to its owner. She smiled her thanks and set it in her lap. I wondered how thoroughly she’d wash it before putting it on again, and what that would say about her opinion of me.

As tired as I was, the city slowly unfolding around me as the trolley clacked its way down the broad tree-lined avenue it dominated was too remarkable to let myself drift off to sleep. Not really “clacked”, that is, it would be better to describe the sound the motion of the carriage made as fizzed or fuzzed or foozed, or something along those lines. It was nearly silent and the ride felt very smooth. I wished I had gotten a better look at the type of tracks we rode on but there were far too many other details demanding my attention. Through the window opposite us I could see a pattern developing in the ground floors of the buildings that lined the street. The first in the series would have an open marketplace where otherwise rooms or apartments would be, permanently in the shade of course, nestled amongst the upper floors’ supporting beams and with a cool and inviting look. That would be followed by the next building housing an indoor sports or recreation facility behind floor to ceiling windows with the word “Stathor” written above, and additionally labeled with a smaller word afterwards that was preceded by a dash. Judging by the differing activities I saw inside I assumed that smaller word indicated the specialty, such as a type of tennis-like sport, or swimming, or running, or weight lifting, or a throwing game of some manner. The third building would then have either what looked like a board game, reading, or otherwise sit-down-and-do-something-mental area, or a café, while the fourth always had what must have been a restaurant. All of those were similarly labeled with simple signs above their windows, and after a sequence of these there would be six buildings that didn’t seem to have anything other than private residences on their bottom floors, making the overall pattern one of units of tens. What was also striking was the complete lack of advertisements anywhere on the street, or indeed even within the trolley car. That took me aback and I realized just how utterly bombarded with ads Tokyo, and every other city I had ever been in, really was. Rising above all of the marketplaces, gyms, cafés, and restaurants, were buildings of roughly equal size though varying in height and containing what were surely apartments. I arrived at that conclusion mainly by the laundry hanging outside in the balcony areas, but I still felt pleased by my own astuteness. I then realized that I had not yet seen an area of stand-alone houses, or even a single stand-alone house. Did everyone live in an apartment? And where were the offices? I had seen a few buildings that clearly weren’t apartment complexes but whose first floors still held to the regular pattern; I wondered if they were places of business. It was hard to tell.

The trolley fizzed on and we began curving outwards, away from a large round building with another cone-shaped roof that was coming into view, similar to the gateway building at the city’s entrance only much larger. I elbowed Tomor and pointed at it with what I hoped would be perceived as a quizzical look on my face, and he duly responded with a long string of words, the meaning of which were all lost on me. Perhaps sensing that he then made two beaks with his hands and squawked them at each other before pointing to me, himself, and then our boss and walking two fingers across a palm. He appeared to find that, or maybe doing that, very amusing. I blinked at him; I felt a little like the butt of a joke.

The tracks curved sharply again and after another trolley went past us going the other way I saw an identical cone-topped building come into view, which we skirted in a similar fashion as we had the first, although this time the trolley wound round the opposite side of the building before the tracks straightened out once more. About a block later I was pulled to my feet and we all alighted from the carriage onto a platform – without any of us paying anything, I noted. As the others walked ahead I stopped to look at a map posted next to what must have been a timetable for the train services. It seemed the city we were in – possibly called “Sheenda” based on the label – was oval in shape, with the point of the egg evidently the area where we had entered. The two large round buildings I had noticed were roughly in the center, and in addition to the one main avenue going through the town that we had just been traversing on the trolley, there was another running east-west, which also looked to have a tram line on it. Very many side roads and alleyways also spread between the buildings, of course, and all were laid out in a grid save for the primary north-south boulevard. That street for the most part ran straight down the middle of the city from the narrow point to the wide, except for when it got to the two big buildings in the center, at which point it wrapped around one side of the first building, cut back the reverse direction to travel in between the two, and then around the other side of the second building before resuming its regular top-to-bottom route. It was an intriguing way to lay out a city and the design of it was clearly pre-planned in great detail; the whole effect lent a good deal of weight to the two main buildings as well – whatever they were for –, especially when considered that way from a bird’s eye point of view.

I heard an “Ohoto!” and turned to see that Tomor was beckoning to me to hurry up. I joined them at the edge of the platform where to my surprise we waved goodbye to the woman who had lent me her hat and watched her cross the street and head down a side alleyway into a hive of clinically white buildings. The sun was beginning to set and the extreme heat had waned considerably. I was feeling much better although my headache remained and I wondered what was to happen next. We started walking again. Naturally. It made sense to me at once why everyone was in such good shape: all they did was walk. We hiked for about twenty minutes down narrow side roads and passages between buildings, with all sorts of different services and shops sprinkled here and there on the ground floors of apartment complexes, before finally stepping into the entranceway of one of them. Were we going to Tomor and our boss’ place? Were they a couple? The thought depressed me somewhat but I remembered that wherever I was I would need to be quickly making my way back to where I should be, and so the marital status or otherwise of the two wasn’t really an issue. Besides, even if the boss were married to the guy I knew that I’d still make every effort to set anchor in her in the time available. I considered it a duty to myself, a tribute to my manhood, an acknowledgement and recognition of the value that was imparted on me by what I did with my penis. I was a straight-shooter in that way, and not afraid to call things as I saw them. I even took some measure of pride in my callowness.

We walked across the clean and empty foyer and stopped in front of what had to be an elevator. Thank goodness we apparently wouldn’t be taking the stairs. The doors opened and we stepped inside, Tomor and the boss chatting away amiably. On the floor selection plate I noticed that the numbered buttons were displayed in the familiar Arabic numerals I had always used. The Latin script on the buildings outside had been unexpected, but those numbers weren’t; yet again the question pushed itself on me: where was I? Once I realized that we were surrounded by rice paddies I had assumed I was somewhere in Asia, but then nowhere in Asia that I knew of was like the place I was in now. The people around me also clearly weren’t Asian, but then they weren’t clearly anything that could be nicely and squarely fit into a racial background box to be ticked on a customer survey form. I left work, I went to my Metro line, blackness, I woke up. The universe was toying with me. I knew that I belonged in Tokyo, but that I couldn’t get back to Tokyo until I could find out where I was, and I couldn’t find out where I was until I could speak again and tell these nice people that I had no idea what language they were using and to please speak to me in something else – preferably but not necessarily English. I fought the doubts that something far deeper than a geographic shift was afoot, despite all the clues pointing in that direction. I could only handle so much, after all.

Part four next week!
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