Chapter Six – Passage Five
“Using your logic, what’s the point of even having a country?” Kristen asks, apparently unimpressed with my reasoning.
“Countries are good for the big things.” I shrug. “A single national currency. A standing military to ensure national defense. Shiny national monuments like Mount Rushmore to put in the brochures and glossies. But in America, at least, even since the beginning, people always strongly identified with one’s state far more than one’s country. It was really only after World War II that people started to share to a single more national identity over their state identity. Of course, in peace time, with the first few decades of the 2000s, the pendulum swung back, as it always does. When things are going well, people tend to retreat back into their own corners.”
Kristen finishes drinking her Guava juice and crushes the carton in one hand before tossing it into the train’s rubbish bin, some shiny oblong-shaped trash receptacle that looks like a futuristic incinerator.
“You know an awful lot of history for someone who supposedly never studied it.”
“Nah,” I shake my head. “I’ve looked at Foogle search trends over the decades. Once this whole internet thing happened, it suddenly became markedly easy to get the pulse of an entire country. For the first time in human history, if you had any question at all, anything under the sun, you could simply Foogle your query and find an answer.”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a correct answer,” Kristen points out. “Just cause you find some answer you want doesn’t mean it’s rooted at all in reality.”
“Who cares? It’s an answer. And if it happens to reinforce your existing worldview or prejudices, then it’s even better in that it makes you feel good. Isn’t that we humans like? Feeling good? Why else do people do what they do?”
I look at Kristen, as if seeing her for the first time in a new light. I thought I’d known her MO, but maybe I’d been mistaken.
“You work in data science, just like me,” I say to her. “Why are you in this field at all? Isn’t shaping and influencing giant populations at the core of what we do?”
“It is, but not entirely divorced from what’s true.”
I laugh. “What’s true? It’s all true.” I wave at the charts and graphs on my laptop that I was examining earlier. “Look at his. Human beings aren’t capable of just ingesting millions of rows and columns and somehow magically understanding it. We require narrative, a story to make things legible and comprehensible. But depending on what you want to spin, you can make anything sound plausible.
“For instance, I’ve been looking at this data that Alan shared with us earlier. Two years ago, if you simply read the police reports and crime incidents, then Xinjiang was as peaceful as it’s ever been. But if you monitored the log data and sentiment analysis on all of the internet chatter during this same time period for this same region, then you’ll see high spikes in the population, especially the 18-25 demographic, searching for terms like “protest,” “west,” and “democracy.” And then months later as the security presence started to ratchet up, words like “rifles,” “bombs,” and “Molotov cocktails.”
Kristen tilts her head, apparently mulling over whether or not to pursue this debate with me. I can tell that part of her really wants to. She’d thoroughly enjoy nothing more than totally going to town in an all-night bull session like we’re in some college dormitory all over again. Pontificating and discussing Life’s Big Questions until sunrise and then grabbing an egg and cheddar sandwich at the deli out around the corner. The role of media and free speech in society. Unintended consequences of an unfettered fourth estate; a world where anyone and everyone was suddenly a pressman, delivering breaking news, an outlet of information and misinformation for all.
But instead she just shrugs.
“Dexter Fletcher, man, you really are a piece of work,” she says, polishing off her baby carrots. The plastic bag goes into the futuristic incinerator. “You know we’ll be visiting Jack Bao when we reach Xi’an tomorrow morning, right? Oh man, you guys are going to get along famously.”
With that, she turns and leaves the dining car; disappearing into the connection way. The sliding door closes behind her with a quiet woosh and I’m suddenly alone again. In China on some Snowpiercer train racing through the blackness of night.
The next morning, The Silver Dragon arrives at the Xi’an Station and I step off the maglev train for the first time for the first time in something in like twenty-hours. The first leg of the trip honestly wasn’t bad at all. We were literally levitating on magnets the entire so you really couldn’t ask for a smoother rider. And we had hot showers, highspeed internet, gourmet dining, and exercise machines on the train. So it really was unequivocally the most comfortable train ride I’d ever been on by a country mile.
Xi’an though is nothing like Shanghai or Jinshui. Shanghai screamed cosmopolitanism with architecture spanning everything from French to Portuguese to Russian influences. And Jinshui, with its next-level camouflage projection technology was essentially like stepping into some futuristic Gibson sci-fi novel. But Xi’an is the exact opposite of all that. It is old school.
The terminal that receives The Silver Dragon has wooden planks for its platform and there’s a small brick kiosk with a straw-hatched roof that’s selling newspapers. Jesus, I haven’t seen newspapers in like twenty years. There is no computerized displays or cutting-edge holograms here. You can hear the clickety-clack as the massive timetable placards flip their lettering to announce the incoming schedules and updated train timings. A giant mechanical clock that looks like Big Ben’s oriental second cousin adorns the western wall, opposite of giant painted windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. At this early hour, morning light filters warmly and the entire station looks like 1920 Grand Central, untouched by time and place. It’s bustling with travelers arriving from all over; Xi’an is the central hub that connects all of Central China’s rail lines, a major artery of the Chinese HSR network.
Alan and Shu find us. Coleman and I are looking around like idiots at the parade but Deepak and Kristen apparently already knew that we’d be stepping into some time machine and traveling back to 19th-century China.
“Is this some kinda Universal Studios setup?” Coleman asks Shu, bewildered. “When did all this happen? You guys totally Wizarding World’ed this.”
Shu smiles politely and you can tell she’s bemused. Ignorant Americans not knowing a single thing about the larger, broader world. She hands us rectangular pieces of crinkled, yellowing paper.
“It’s money, you moron.” Deepak rolls his eyes. The old Indian’s gruff and keeps up a severe look, but you can also tell he too is at least a little impressed.
Coleman holds one of the bills against the sunlight, his eyes wide. “Oh my God… actual, real-life money….“