Today the crowds swell with people in pest masks, skull makeup, and screaming fans with heart signs that read ‘Marry me in the radioactive fields.’ PityPatty, a Top-50 influencer, the queen of dark tourism and rumored stem cell junkie, will be joining the train this week. Just my luck.
I write for Faye’s Compendium of Good Travels. Founded during the post-plague travel boom, we’ve got a readership of over three million, the most trusted guide in solo travel. KAOSU’s the holy grail of travel writing these days, the last Perpetually Moving Country on the planet, and I’m only here because of a strategically taken office video my boss never wants to see the light of day.
At Immigration Kiosk #3, a horse-masked clerk takes my photo and then hands me my new ID card. Unlike the shiny gold ones that KAOSU’s permanent residents have, these are ugly, adorned with barcode-streaked printouts of our faces.
“Do not stand in the photo area.” A lion-masked security guard ushers me along. For those eager to confirm whether or not KAOSU is inhabited by aliens, you’re out of luck—KAOSU workers are never allowed to show their faces.
My phone rings with a series of too-late, too-early messages from my over-worried mother: Did you pack your passport? Bring a couple of oranges, that’ll settle your stomach. Don’t forget to pack a few masks, just in case. How are your neighbors? Did you bring the pepper spray, just in case?
I respond with an all-purpose thumbs-up emoji and a photo of the gate before the security guard ominously pantomimes a slashing motion over his throat with a gloved hand. Cut it out. No photos allowed.
The Boarding Car smells like a rich lady’s bath: orange peel, jasmine tea, hints of lavender. An elephant-masked attendant hands me a small welcome bag. Inside, there’s a purple jumpsuit uniform (to make it clear who is a visitor), non-slip slippers, a one-time complimentary ticket to the Dream Pods, and a headset so we can get the country’s announcements and radio channels. The on-train network broadcasts over a hundred music, comedy, educational, children’s, and spoken theater channels, but no outside news. For nearly two hundred years, KAOSU has never received a single outside broadcast.
Greetings girls and boys.
PityPatty here on the train that never sleeps. That’s right, I’m here again in the birthplace of the Dream Pod and the world’s tallest cremation light show, KAOSU.
For the newbies, here’s a quick rundown: KAOSU’s got twenty miles of space-grade metal trains, Mond-Select quality dining, and the hottest waiters without faces. It takes a whopping four days to go from the Visitor’s Center to the Terminal Station, with only one stop in between (where no can get off!).
(Recorded Studio Groan)
The folks who built this place literally woke up in an abandoned town and thought the end of the world was raging on outside. So, what’d they do? Walled off the place and built a train that could keep moving even through an apocalypse.
For all you sexy Eyestagram influencers looking for that million-Like shot, KAOSU’s main draw is its Cliff Auroras. This isn’t the kiddie fireworks show they have at the new Disney Antarctica. Visible only from the country’s highest mountain at 6,500 meters above sea level, it is sometimes described as “looking into God’s eyes.”
So, what’s the real draw of KAOSU? The Cliff Auroras? The slickest Dream Pods on the market? The hallucinogenic dining?
No. No. No. No.
(Cue Dramatic Music.)
KAOSU’s on the top of every true dark tourist’s list for one reason and one reason only… But first, a word from our sponsors.
At sundown, the Dining Car is a sea of purple jumpsuits: red-faced students swirling champagne flutes, couples slicing into marbled meats, old men passing gifts bags to women young enough to be their daughters. I take a seat near the massive window and order a pot of green tea that arrives on a crystal tray that looks more expensive than my entire office back at Faye’s Compendium.
An old woman in a grumpy cat sweater takes the seat across from me.
“Mind if I join you?” she asks, with a tea-stained smile. “I’d love some non-virtual company.”
“Not sure if I’ll be much better.” I smile back. I’ve seen the old woman a few times in the hall during the morning ID checks. She’s staying in the cabin next to mine. I’ve been lullabied to sleep each night by the sounds of her and her husband fighting, her walking accusations of infidelity, him with the old and tired defense “but she’s just a virtual friend.”
“Did you come alone?” she asks, filling my cup, steam rising to her face. She waves at one of the masked waiters to bring another teacup.
“No, my partner just basically lives in the Library,” I lie.
“Oh, mine too. So, what brings you to KAOSU?”
“My boss owed me,” I say vaguely. Never tell anyone you’re a writer. They’ll always think you’re going to turn them into your next story.
“That’s nice. My husband owes me. It cost almost all my Longevity Credits for a ticket, but we’re here for his research. I was the one who taught him about the last of the Moving Countries.”
Behind the old woman, in a massive water tank, a miniature whale swims through a forest of bioluminescent kelp. The cacophony of the hall moves around us like schools of silver fish. A fox-masked waiter brings her a silver cup and then steps back into the row of other waiters that line the walls like statues.
As the old woman helps herself to my teapot without asking, a girl in a pest mask and black lace dress comes over to our table with a boar-head-shaped basket stacked with matching masks.
“Hi. We’re having a Cliff Aurora viewing party in Car #72 tomorrow, sponsored by the one-and-only PityPatty,” the girl says, her monotone voice muffled behind the plastic mask. “There’s gonna be a cursed-doll photo booth, with legit dolls from Pink Island, ‘radioactive’ green hot dogs, and prison-themed hors d’oeuvres. Test your dark tourism knowledge in our quiz show for prizes. Come in your mask and you’ll get your first drink for free.”
I take the mask she’s offering, but the old woman waves her hand as if shooing away a stray cat.
“My husband likes to keep up with that kind of stuff. Top-50 and whatnot,” the old woman says after the girl migrates to the next table, repeating her spiel. “What do you even do with all that information once you have it?”
Write micro-revenue generating articles about it? Sell information packs to paparazzi drones? I’ve done it all for the Longevity Credits, for the slight bump up pharmaceutical waiting lists, for the slim possibility my mother will live a few weeks or months longer.
The old woman takes a sip of her tea. “KAOSU used to be an oasis, but now it’s just another checkpoint for the influencers. Everyone taking the same photos, eating the same things, lining up for the same experiences, clamoring for a glance at the Cliff Auroras like kids seeing the sun for the first time.”
“What about you?” I try to smile, but she’s starting to annoy me. “What would you recommend doing here instead?”
“I’d spend the entire time at the Temple,” she answers, without hesitation.
The Temple—the second and only stop between the Visitor’s Center and the Terminal Station where only residents are allowed off the train. Everyone knows the Temple like everyone knows the lost Lighthouse of Alexandria—as a myth. I know it as the highest paying job on the Freelancers’ Hot Gig List. A GPS-confirmed video of the inside can set a person up for at least a decade in streaming revenue, with enough longevity credits to treat any Disaster Level ailment, from cancer to dementia. I’d spent enough time calling the hospitals for my mother to know the market for treatment nowadays.
“Would you like to see it?” the old woman asks, picking the teapot up from the tray. The dining hall lights dim into blacklight, a bloom of glowing jellyfish dropping into the water tank like silent snowfall at night. “You could,” she says. “We could.”
There’s a knock on my door a few minutes after midnight. I roll over on the bed, still groggy, and wipe the drool from my mouth on the back of my hand. A gold card slides in from the bottom of the door along with a note.
11:30AM. Boarding Car. ;)
Someone is singing drunkenly in the hall. I put on my headset, turn on the noise cancellation, and tune into a channel for relaxing sounds. As the patter of rain fills my ears, I pull the blanket back over my head, trying to ignore the gold card on the floor. The old lady’s crazier than I thought. Everyone’s seen the videos of the Burned bodies on the Feeds—the Censors never take them down, knowing they bring in the eye-clicks. Some say it’s what causes the Cliff Auroras on KAOSU. Who knows. But rules are rules. Guests are not allowed off the train until the Terminal Station, no exceptions.
My phone vibrates. I pat the table by the bed until I find it and then squint at the message on the screen: Doctor says another 6-month waitlist for the meds.
What time is it at home? Why is Mom up?
“Boss promised Longevity Credits after this job. You’ll be okay,” I message back, with another thumbs-up and sleeping ‘zzz’ emojis, and then turn off my phone. Six months isn’t a long time if you really think about it—it’s barely enough time to properly bond with a virtual spouse. But it’s also more than enough time for a living body to be reduced to ash. How confident was I that my mother would make it without the Longevity Credits? Why had I lied? Even with the meds, I’d just be delaying the inevitable.
I pull open the curtain and watch the train pummel across the eerie
purple landscape, gnarled trees half-sunk in glossy black pools, the moon like an eye in the sky. In the distance, barely visible, the five-hundred-foot basalt wall that surrounded the country stands like a giant curled serpent. Had the people who founded KAOSU really just woken up here? How far do you need to run before responsibility stops chasing you? Would you build a whole moving country so you could keep running? What the hell am I talking about? I close the curtain and sink back into the bed, turning up the volume on the headset until the rain drowns my thoughts.
The next morning, I change out of my jumpsuit and into a white pleated skirt and denim shirt I’d packed into my overnight bag for the flight back home. I stick a paper-thin bodycam to a button on my shirt and snap on the cheap pest mask I got from the PityPatty fan. The beak is too sharp, and the sides aren’t properly sanded down, but it’s all I have. In my pocket, I tuck in the gold card from the floor, and after hearing my mother’s phantom scolding, I stuff the pepper spray in my other pocket, just in case I need to get away from onboard KAOSU security.
I get to the Boarding Car at 11:15 a.m., but the old woman’s nowhere to be seen. My face itches from the mask.
At 11:25, a chime echoes through the car.
We will soon be arriving at Temple Station. Please report to the Boarding Car with your resident ID.
Three strangers gather near the door, each in a different mask: a red-cheeked fox, a long-chinned goblin, and a black crow with a toucan-sized beak. The four of us look like we’re on our way to a Halloween chase at one of the planet’s last night circuses. A pair of teenage girls wait several feet away in their purple jumpsuits, clutching their cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse of the station platform. The old woman is still nowhere to be seen.
The train pulls to a stop, and the doors slide open, letting in the smell of the rain from outside. The fox-masked man strides toward the door, and I follow close behind like a fish tagging along behind a shark, seeking cover. The teenage girls chuckle gleefully nearby, snapping their camera shutters. My hands are so wet I could drown everyone here in my sweat, the video of the burning bodies playing behind my eyelids with each blink.
Outside, it’s cold and wet, the ground soaked from rain.
I follow the other three people to a gate where a woman in an owl mask and a head-to-toe hazmat-suit-like vinyl dress is waiting.
“Is that your mask?” she asks when it’s my turn.
“No. I’m helping with one of the higher tier influencer viewing parties.” I can barely breathe, so I’m genuinely surprised coherent words are coming out instead of vomit. “The party coordinator requested I wear their group’s mask for the event for the sake of their video footage.”
The woman watches me through her large eyeholes. I can see the marble white skin underneath, the capillaries spearing through the edges of her eyes. She looks like she hasn’t seen sunlight or sleep in days.
“Very well. ID please,” she says finally, holding out a white box.
I pull out the gold card from my pocket. The white box lights up green as I press the card into it.
“Welcome home,” the woman says with the enthusiasm of a houseplant. She motions for the next person to step up.
I follow the chained-off path toward a windowless blue tower. There is very little else besides scorched gray fields in every direction and frost-tipped mountains in the far distance. None of the three KAOSU residents are speaking. White breaths puff out of the sides of everyone’s masks like steaming clouds, all of us like ghosts.
At the entrance to the tower, a man in a roach-faced mask smiles with his eyes.
“Hi, hi. Welcome home, friends.” His nasal voice tears through the silence like a swarm of bees. “I hope you’ve all had a productive shift. Allen will see you in the Job Hall if you are requesting a Name Change. As always, the Dream Pods are open for use. Mina has made several fun adjustments if you haven’t tried them out recently.”
Behind him, there are six doors, each opening into a different colored hall.
The crow-masked woman and the goblin-faced man disappear down the blue corridor. Fox-Mask makes no move. I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I’ve wandered into a high-level video game dungeon, without a weapon or map.
“Decisions, decisions,” Roach-Mask murmurs gleefully, wringing his hands. “Might I suggest a trip to the Kitchens?” He motions toward the blood-red door. “The current ice cream flavor is Caramel Fingers, as imagined by our current Temple Chef. They’re almost as good as real…” he smacks his lips under the mask.
I enter the yellow door, not wanting to be the last one left with Roach-Mask.
There’s an herby scent in the air. The hall is daffodil-yellow, neon lights beaming down yellow walls, the yellow floor and ceiling spotless with a mirror-gloss. I quickly lose track of how long I’ve walked—it’s hard to tell when nothing seems to change. I cough to remind myself I have a voice, that I am in fact still alive, but after a while, I feel like I’m floating across a yellow void, my legs no longer my own. For a moment, I picture my mother in the lights, the jaundiced color of her sclera, the liver spots on her hands now snaked with blue veins, the bumps of her vertebrae visible through her thin sweater. How close can a body step toward the gates of death without becoming a corpse? She points at me with an accusing finger.
Somewhere, distantly, I register the sound of laughter, glasses clinking, the crunch of a saw cutting through something thick. My hands ball into fists. I spin around to make sure Roach-Mask isn’t tailing me with a chainsaw. When I turn back, I catch sight of someone running ahead through a door—an exit.
I chase after the footsteps, pushing through the door. The air immediately chills. There are cathedral-high ceilings, round tables and metal chairs spaced out like a café. There are no people, only seated statues on the chairs. Did I imagine that person? My head still feels like cotton, like I’m floating.
I gently slap my cheeks to remind myself I’ve still got a job to do. Just a quick video and then back to the—
“Are you okay?” a voice asks. I spin around. Fox-Mask waves at me.
I feel sick.
“You’re not supposed to be here, right?” he says cheerfully, jogging up to meet me. “I saw you in the Aquarium Dining Hall yesterday, with some wrinkled old bat. You’re one of the purple jumpsuits.”
“What’re you talking about—” I croak, trying unsuccessfully to mask my voice.
The man suddenly pulls off his mask, and I turn away, my face flushing red as if I’m seeing him naked.
“I’m not going to report you.” He smiles apologetically. “I’m not supposed to be here either.”
The man was part of a Sleep Tech research team that was studying the train’s Dream Pods. The girl he had a crush on was a huge PityPatty and dark tourism fan, so he thought he’d impress her with footage from inside the Temple.
“You sound like an idiot,” I say, and I mean it. “No amount of adoration is worth being Burned. If you just want a girlfriend, there are a ton of amazing options on Virtual Spouse…”
His frown tells me I’ve offended him, so I stop talking.
We walk the perimeter of the room, light filtering down from the skylight above. The statues all lack faces—there’s only the impression of one, like a vague handprint left fading in the mud.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Where they keep the bodies of trespassers before they Burn them?” the man replies, switching on a life feed camera embedded in a button on his silk vest.
“Who’re you broadcasting to?”
“There’s no connection, so I’m just taking some video I can edit later. I’m gonna beat PityPatty’s world record of ten billion views for a single video. What about you?” He suddenly turns around to study me. “What’re you doing here, anyway? Are you a streamer, too?”
“Yeah, something like that,” I say, reaching up to make sure my mask is still on.
He walks up to the statues, taking more closeup videos. When he directs the camera at me, I turn my back to him.
“No footage of me, please,” I say.
“You one of those people who think cameras can steal your soul?”
“No,” I say, but now I’m considering it.
“Sorry, I thought it’d be cool to do an interview in here. We’d be like that dude and his waterboy who first broke into King Tut’s mummy digs. But you’re right, maybe they can track us down later using the video’s metadata.” He relents, then turns off his camera.
There’s a confession booth on the opposite end of the room. I peer in through the wooden arched windows. It’s bigger on the inside—eight black glossy shelled pods are lined up like giant eggs inside a red hall.
“Is this your first time?” the man asks.
“To try the Dream Pods.”
“No, I’ve done it before. Not a fan,” I say. I don’t mention how my one experience was in a back-alley arcade in Tokyo-6, where a slimy stranger climbed into my pod during my session, claiming to do maintenance.
“The stuff they got here’s the gold standard. Nothing like the crap you find in some of the old VR towns. It’ll change your opinion in a heartbeat.” He waves his gold card at me. “And this is our ticket in.”
I don’t ask how he got his gold card because I don’t want him asking how I got mine. Are there two masked bodies gagged and stuffed somewhere on the train? I wonder what they’re dreaming of now.
The man opens the door to the confessional.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
The man switches on his life feed camera again.
“Research,” he says, grinning.
“Welcome to Unit 01,” the automated voice says as I climb into the cushioned chair inside.
“I set mine up for thirty minutes,” the man says from the neighboring pod. “There’s an auto-cleaning service if you piss your pants.”
“If I what—?”
“See you on the other side.” He gives me a salute, and the lid slides back over his pod.
See you on the other side. I press the ‘pause’ button on my panel as soon as the pod lid closes and shrouds me in darkness. I sit back, trying to relax. It’s not so different from the cheapest airplane seats, like a cozy coffin. I count up to three hundred, more than enough time for the man’s pod to properly start up, so I can ditch him while he’s frolicking around in Dreamland.
In the dark, your brain can play tricks on you. Time moves differently, your mind the only spotlight, illuminating anything it wants. I see my mother cooking an impossibly large turkey leg that looks more like the size of a human thigh. Red birds sit in a line on spiked fences, a row of teeth grinning in the stormy sky above them.
“298…299…300…” I remind myself to breathe, but the air doesn’t come.
I slap my hand against the emergency dispatch button on the pod. The lid pops open like an air bubble on the surface of a lake. A wrinkled face hovers over me, its sunken eyes staring down like the eyeholes of a skull. I stifle a scream as a liver-spotted hand reaches in like Death himself.
Then I see the grumpy cat sweater. The nest of gray-brown hair.
“I was looking all over you for you,” the old lady says with a smile. “Did you bring your camera?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it on me,” I step out and glance around, still feeling disoriented from the pod. I half-expect the man to pop out of his Dream Pod like a jack-in-the-box and point his livestream camera at us like the surveillance drones. “How did you get in here?”
“It wasn’t so hard. Just like coming home,” she says.
She hasn’t stopped smiling since I opened the lid of my Dream Pod.
“Shall we get started?” she asks, motioning vaguely to the body cam on my shirt. I wait for her to explain, but she just watches me in silence, a flash of irritation when I put my pest mask back on first.
“There’s no need for that,” she says. “They don’t surveil any of the rooms in the Temple. You could vanish in here and no one would know where to look.”
I switch the body camera on, knowing there was no outside connection, but still feeling better with another pair of digital eyes watching. Turning on the image stabilizer, I start walking around the confessional, getting close-ups of the Dream Pods and the small table next to each one with locked drawers, the blood red walls with symbols I don’t understand. When I turn back around, the old woman is so close I can clearly see the brown liver spots on her forehead and cheeks, the sagging skin on her neck.
“A nice video of the Temple fetches a high price, doesn’t it?” she says, glancing down at the camera clipped to the middle tortoise shell button of my denim shirt, as if watching an insect crawl up. “But those are just your normal Top-50 Rankings, right? The Dark Net Rankings are more thrilling. Do you know how much they pay for a very specific type of video inside the Temple?” she asks, her tongue pressing against her upper lip, snail-like. “With a useless husband like mine, I could use a couple of extra Longevity Credits myself. I don’t suppose I could ask you to help an old woman out?”
My first job at Faye’s Compendium was to write a freebie manual on travel safety that was bundled with our annual ranking of Top-100 places to visit.
Tip 1: Avoid overly friendly children and old people—they are often used as a front to lower your guard.
The old woman tears the camera clean off my button, with a blade that’s materialized in her hand. It’s the same one the KAOSU security staff had at immigration, the one that my boss said can cut straight through metal. The old woman steps forward and raises the camera until it’s almost aligned with my eyes. I don’t move; I don’t even blink. I become one of the stone statues outside in the pseudo-café from hell.
“Come now. Hasn’t anyone ever taught you about the importance of good showmanship?” The old woman frowns, poking the tip of her blade into the collar of my shirt. Even the slight jab breaks through the denim and pierces the skin underneath. I wince, and she nods like a jazz connoisseur hearing the start of her favorite piano solo.
Tip #2: If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, play dead (physically, but mentally will work in some cases) until the opportunity for escape presents itself.
The Dream Pod behind her pops open, the man yawning loudly. The sound distracts the old woman just long enough for me to slap the blade out of her hand. It clinks off the ground, metal sparking against the tiles. Running on pure adrenaline, I shove her into one of the other pods.
“Hey, what’s going—” The man stands, mouth gaping, magnificently useless.
The old woman regains her footing and kicks me to the floor. She scrambles for the blade, curls of white hair sticking to her splotchy forehead.
Something digs into my leg as I try to stand. The pepper spray from my mother. I pull it from my pocket just in time for the old woman to slice into the aerosol can, the gleaming tip barely missing my left eye.
Tip #3: Anything can be a weapon if you want it to be.
As she tries to pull the blade out of the can, I tear off my mask and jam the sharp beak of the pest mask into her right eye. She screams. I scream too, falling back, horrified at what I’ve done. The man, by some miracle moment of lucidity, lifts the old woman, bleeding and howling, and tosses her into the seat of his open Dream Pod. She swings at him, spitting things I don’t understand. You’re a liar. You’re a thief. You’re disgusting. I knew it. I should have left you to die. He pulls the pest mask out of her face, blood splattering onto his hands, and slams down the lid of the Dream Pod. A “30” lights up on the lid before a fluorescent red “occupied” takes its place. I stare at the pulsing word, feeling my heartbeat in my throat. Would the old woman make it through the thirty minutes? Thirty minutes isn’t very long, but sometimes it’s more than enough time for a whole life to pass by.
I glance over at the man. His camera’s “on” button is glowing green.
The train is still in the station when we arrive back at the gate.
“Done already?” the owl-masked woman asks, studying us behind the eyeholes of her mask, a sheen of water droplets covering her vinyl dress.
“We have to get back for the influencer party,” I answer.
She nods, convinced, or not wanting to be bothered.
“Do you think we’ll be okay?” the fox-masked man asks as we get back on the train. He’s still shaken. I don’t blame him.
“We have our videos,” I tell him. “That’s what matters. Go buy that girl you like a nice dinner with the money.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he says, but he’s not really hearing me. I wonder if his mind is still in that yellow hall, still running.
The train lets out a gush of gas and steam as the engine starts up again, the doors closing. The floor rumbles, and the train starts to pull out of the station as we make our way through the cars. From the window, I watch as The Temple, that blue tower, slowly becomes just a vertical gash on the white horizon.
As I unlock the door to my cabin with my ID card, my heart thrums when the man stops in front of the old woman’s cabin.
“Wow. Didn’t know we were neighbors all this time,” he says.
I watch his hand fidget over the livestream camera on his shirt until he finds the ID card in his breast pocket. Welcome back, sweetie, a familiar girlish virtual voice says from the camera.
“It’s done. She’s finally gone,” he says, unlocking the door, and grins. I don’t say anything in return as he enters the cabin and closes the door behind him.
Out the window, in the distance, I see the billows of smoke from the Terminal Station, but before that, the blinding aurora of lights.
Copyright © 2023 Angela Liu