Subway Alarm

Science fiction by Han Song, translated by Rachel Faith


1. A Sorry Situation

Zhou Xing thought to himself that if ever there had been a sorry situation, it was surely his current one.

Monday morning rush hour in the subway was always like this. As managing to push through the massive crowds down there was a significant accomplishment on its own, cramming himself onto a train was no easy task for Zhou Xing. People were packed into the trains so tightly that they had practically fused together, holding you in place so firmly that any sort of moving around was out of the question. Zhou Xing would get off in seven or eight stops, and only with this end in sight was he able to continue tolerating his current position.

At the next stop, even more people flooded onto the train. Zhou Xing wanted to move farther into the train car, but he couldn't budge an inch. Faced with the hostile glares of the more fortunately positioned passengers around him, Zhou Xing decided that he would definitely buy his own car as soon as he had the money for it.

It was then that Zhou Xing was struck by the feeling that something wasn't right. They definitely should have reached the next stop by now, but the train was still speeding onward. The crowd in the train car seemed to be swelling like a huge tumor, bringing the sense of claustrophobia to an unbearable level. Numbed by years of uneventful subway rides, no one else had initially realised that something was off, but people were beginning to notice. The fact of it was they hadn't passed a single platform; everything whizzing by outside was still as dark as the bottom of the sea.

People started putting down their papers and turning off their music, turning one after another with panicked expressions to whisper to their friends. Zhou Xing gave his arm a pinch, convinced that he must be dreaming, only to find that this was hardly a dream. Looking over, he noticed the forehead of the man next to him was covered in sweat. At the back of the car, a woman screamed. However sorry his situation might have been, Zhou Xing had the feeling that it was about to get much sorrier.

2. No Exit

Half an hour later, there had still been no sign of a platform, or even of stopping. The woman in front of Zhou Xing was twisting and squirming like a snake. Slightly afraid, Zhou Xing sucked in his stomach and curved his chest inward, pulling away from her. She struggled for a while to dig something out of her purse. She eventually pulled out a cellphone, but all of her hope faded when she saw it had no signal. Other people were trying to use their phones as well, but no one could get their call to go through.

"Shit!" she spat. The low growl of her voice and her purplish tongue reminded Zhou Xing of one of the fox spirits in Qing dynasty ghost stories. In the middle of all this confusion, Zhou Xing couldn't help but feel a bit of schadenfreude, a burst of satisfaction at the discomfort that even the passengers with seats were feeling by now.

"What's going on? What are we going to do?" he heard someone wail.

"Don't worry," came a comforting reply,"there's just been some sort of small mishap. The brakes must have failed, and it looks like the power has too, so we're stuck in the dark for now."

But the lights in the car were as bright as ever, and the vent fan whirred on with all of its might, still providing decent enough ventilation to keep people from suffocating. The most stifling thing in the car was the anxiety, the feeling that they had as much hope of escape as someone about to be hanged, the noose already around their neck.

"I'm a police officer!" a man was shouting somewhere in the car. "Everyone remain calm and keep an eye on your belongings!"

3. Got Food?

Another half hour passed in this fashion, the darkness outside still unbroken. Zhou Xing had stood for so long that he could no longer feel his legs. His stomach was loudly protesting the fact that he hadn't eaten breakfast, and he was starting to feel hungrier than he ever had in his life. On top of his fear, shock, and frustration, he had developed a sudden urge to strangle the woman in front of him, as if this whole mess was her fault. She looked a little demonic, gnawing on her enormous red lips, and she slumped forward so hard that she almost toppled right into Zhou Xing's arms. Unable to accept the absurdness of it all, Zhou Xing had a sickening sense that the train was no longer approaching this morning's original destination, but moving away from it.

The hardest thing to deal with was being packed in with this many people for so long without any personal space whatsoever. It was both physically and mentally oppressive to the point of insanity. How they had put up with it every day before this was beyond comprehension, but the fact that they were still putting up with it just as well as before was admittedly something to be proud of. No one said a word; not a single man complained, and only a few women sobbed quietly.

Yet another hour passed in this fashion, and at last someone burst out hysterically, "I can't take it! My heart can't take this anymore!"

"Someone fainted!" cried another sharp voice.

The person who had inexplicably fainted foamed slightly at the corner of the mouth. There were so many people in the train car that he couldn't even drop to the floor. The corner of the car flew into an uproar.

"Does anyone have a first-aid kit?"

"Pinch his upper lip!"

Zhou Xing felt there was something comical in all this alarm, a futile sort of farce. Without thinking, he stood up straighter and held the handrail a bit tighter.

The face of the woman in front of him had turned an oxygen-deprived shade of blue. Her breasts were heaving like a huge fan being flapped up and down, and gusts of foul breath rushed out of her nose. It seemed to Zhou Xing that she was about to have some kind of an accident. As he would be bearing the brunt of whatever happened when she finally lost it, he cautiously turned to her and asked, "Excuse me, miss, is everything alright?"

"I just don't like crowded places. I need some air; the air in here is too close."

"Just take a couple of deep breaths and squat down a time or two. You'll start to feel better."

"Thanks for the suggestion."

"By the way, which stop are you getting of at?"

"The one by the museum. We passed it a long time ago. You?"

"Youlechang. Who even knows where it is by now?"

The two of them laughed awkwardly and fell silent. Zhou Xing thought about how he had initially found this woman utterly repulsive, but once the started to chat he had begun to feel an unexpectedly soft concern for her. Thus the fickle nature of man rears its head again, even at a time like this. However, it had been more for his own benefit that for hers that he had blurted out the slightly startling question, "Who even knows where it is by now?" Was the world beyond the train really still there at all?

Zhou Xing began to meticulously take in the woman in front of him. She wore a wrinkled, blue, cheap-looking knock-off dress that looked like she'd bought it in the discount aisle of the supermarket. He wondered where she worked, how she'd managed to still have a job. Did she work all day and still struggle to make ends meet, the way he did? What would it mean for her and her family if this train never reached another station? Who would be left to deal with the aftermath?

A new train of thought shot off in a different direction: if there was an escaped criminal on board, would the train free him from any worries of going back to prison, it spite of the situation's on-the-run feel? Would the familiar cage-like quality of the train make him feel more at ease? Who's to say that this criminal wouldn't be the happiest person on the train? Although who's to say that there might not be police on here as well?

Ultimately, as the train was not a conscious thing, there was nothing to stop it from plowing forward until the end of time, but as for its passengers, how long they could keep going was significantly more doubtful. But who's to say that this situation wasn't human existence in a nutshell? The mass of mankind, locked in place by something huge and uncontrollable that surrounded them, hurtling forever onward without a single second to stop and catch their breath.

Just then, the sound of someone eating and drinking drifted out from somewhere in the car. It hummed in Zhou Xing's ears, drowning out all other sound and even reducing the bitter grinding of the train's wheels to insignificant white noise. Unable to help himself, Zhou Xing turned to the woman in front of him and asked, "Did you bring anything to eat?"

"I have some peanut butter crackers in my purse."

"I'm so hungry and I have no idea why ..."

"I'm actually pretty hungry, too, but I feel bad about eating in front of everyone else."

"At this point, I wouldn't worry too much about that."

With some difficulty, she pulled the crackers out of her purse. The people next to them immediately started to eye the crackers hungrily, saying,"Give us a couple, too!"

The woman glared at them, but eventually relented and started handing out crackers. Zhou Xing eagerly assumed the task of passing them over to the other passengers, taking a few pieces for himself along the way.

Translated by Rachel Faith

This is an extract from one of Han Song's stories in his new collection "Subway"