I think you’re lost.
The hallway ahead of him stretched into an irrational distance, a koliedescope of grey and black rings bisected by two chest-high metal walls that supported six inch-thick glass panels rising from the dividers into the ceiling. Walking down the hall gave the impression that he had existed in some transitory state between a bowling ball and a wanderer in purgatory.
To his left there was a man, probably in his mid-forties, in a suit, marching along with the look of a man who wanted to look like a man on his way to preside over weighty world-altering matters. Caleb would have put good money on the bet that he was probably on his way to enter numbers into a spreadsheet between swigs of cheap coffee and pointless meetings for ten-plus hours. To his right, a young woman who, with her chin jutting out and a bland disinterest scarred into her face, dressed down in a plain sleek coat that carried the look of something that cost far more than it wanted to appear, seemed to be treating the hallway like a catwalk.
The glass ended abruptly and was replaced by grey slate tiles and then a length of pitch blackness in which there was only light ahead and light behind. He passed through the inky darkness like he’d become briefly unstuck from the world and then been thrust back into it just as fast. He emerged into the light of a new glass-panelled section, and the people to his right and left had changed. This time, to his left, there was a young man in his mid-twenties wrapped in a duffel coat and scowling at the back of the person ahead. He seemed to be muttering violently to himself, but it was impossible to hear anything through the heavy glass dividers. To his right an elderly woman hugged her handbag to her chest. The sea had put a spiderwebs worth of lines into her face. She bustled forwards with the familiar frown of determination towards some unknown or unreal obstruction.
Back into the dark. Back out. Blink. Another change of faces. Now to his right a man in a hi-vis and carrying a hard hat, swinging his arms like pendulums, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. To his left a student with her head buried in her phone and a large book under one arm.
Eventually he filed out with the crowd into a slim pale hall stuck somewhere between a bomb shelter and a communal shower. A row of heavy contoured slats ran between floor and ceiling every five or so feet. A wide deep groove ran behind the slats into which tracks were set below a single central rail running overhead. The crowd filed along the platform and waited between the gaps in the slats in silent rows.
It didn’t take long for the cubicles to arrive. They hissed into the platform set into a series of articulated plates. Caleb looked at the stark metal cube with its speckled and notched surface. The doors slammed open like arms spread in greeting. The internal LEDs were dim. He stepped into his pod, in sync with a row of commuters. The doors hammered closed, the ringing metalling boom engulfing him in the enclosed space.
Across the unbroken internal surface of the dingy interior, people had scrawled on every corner. The common hope of seeing your own messages reappear in front of you one day, perhaps even with an answer, a paradox of desire for communication and internalised ego. More likely they would simply be drawn over or scrubbed away, messages lost to the void of process. He liked to think that somewhere amongst the millions of poorly scrawled confessions of lust, someone somewhere had managed to get a leg over as a result. These strange solitary outbursts to an uncaring public competed with the self-marketing of brash tags, the crude insults at unknown individuals, random contact details, political slogans and incoherent opinions – a decentralised public square spread across the segmented internal squares of steel boxes running through the arteries of an incomprehensible transit network.
Speakers in the corners asked him if he had considered purchasing coffee from a series of chains located in-station, with the hackle-raising uncanniness of a synthetic voice recursive in its artificial sincerity. The LEDs failed. he stood in the pitch black and listened to the pseudo-woman assure him that station staff were hard at work to make his journey as pleasant as possible. For lack of light to read graffitti by, he mouthed along with the voice, lines that he had no desire to know, but could nonetheless recite word for word, beat for beat, better than he could regurgitate facts about his family. He shook his head in the dark.
Metal screamed outside. The box lurched. The screaming intensified, the box tilted in its sockets. He braced himself against the opposite wall. He wished for a window. The supposed security of being encased in a metal chest inverting in a breath. He felt his centre of gravity lurch downwards as another box behind slammed into his own with a deafening crash, the walls of his metal casket reverberating against his outstretched palms. His box let out a grinding screech and toppled forwards under the weight. He was a human domino. He jerked forwards as his box colided with the one in front, starting to raise his arms but not fast enough. His head cracked off the metal doors. The pitch black swam in front of his eyes, the darkness spun around him, he fought against an assualt of dizziness, braced himself against the cold surface, squeezed his eyes hard shut and ground his teeth into each other until the spinning in his guts subsided. When it was through with, he took a handful of long deep breaths and tried to slow his heart down. He opened his eyes. Pointless endeavour. The woman in the speakers suggested a bar. He agreed. Someone ahead was screaming and banging against the walls of their box. The muffled thumping reaching him through the construction-site warzone sounds outside. He wished for a window.
His cubicle pitched again. Harder this time. He was sent upwards into the ceiling and came back down hard, staggering on bow legs, slamming his palms out to the sides. The world went in every direction at once. He was hurled around the small black box as a cocophany of almost deliberate metallic booms bounced around his head as he was bounced around his cubicle. Up or down? Front or back? Who knew. All he knew is his head was spinning and he was a whole lot sorer than he’d been when he’d stepped onto the conveyor. Hesitating, he sniffed wetly and raised a hand to his face. It came back damp. The wetness ran down over his mouth. He coughed liquid, lay against what might have been a wall and tilted his head back. He hopped his nose wasn’t broken. He couldn’t buy a suit with a broken nose. The world was spinning again. This time it didn’t stop fast enough and he had to lurch forwards and vomit into the blackness at what he hoped was a corner. He hunched over like that in the darkness for a while, trying not to hyperventilate while strings of vomit-laced saliva dangled from his lips and his nose ran blood down his chin, as the conveyor ground onwards and people screamed and banged and yelled. He tried to stay very still. He considered again, that he could have called a taxi.
Then the sounds changed. Broader. Distance. Machinery operating, the whirr of gears and hiss of pistons. Something clamped onto his cubicle with a shuddering clang. The world pitched again, a sudden swing that ended deliberately. To his relief this only caused a lurch forwards, but saved him a further impact with the hard graffitti-strewn surfaces of the box. Another slam sent shocks up his legs, followed by the click of clamps relocking. Then a second set of clicks and a high rasp. The doors of his cubicle crashed open. He raised an arm over his eyes against the hateful light. The woman in the speakers told him to alight for the main concourse. He started forwards, almost forgot the briefcase, snatched it up, wheeled and and spilled out onto the wide barren platform. Mechanical arms operated all around, twisting and spinning, righting cubicles as they came through in disarray, dented and overturned and piled one atop the other. Around him the battered passengers, groaning and bloody, collapsed onto the concrete flooring. After the confines of the box, the ceiling, a full twenty feet above him, seemed impossibly high. He stood blinking and dazed. Aside from their crowd, the whole cavernous area was blank and devoid of life. A sobbing reached him. A woman, blood smearing her face and clothes, crashed out of her cubicle, hit the floor and, without pause, made a shuddering scramble forwards on all fours until she regained her feet and pitched headlong from the conveyors, the sound of her weeping trailing after. They watched her disappeared into the shopping section. With a sigh he could feel in his bones, Caleb hauled one foot forwards and started towards the exit in her wake.