The Night Train

By Lavie Tidhar

Her name wasn't Molly and she didn't wear shades, reflective or otherwise.

She was watching the length of the platform.

Hua Lamphong at dusk: a warm wind blowing through the open platforms where the giant beasts puffed smoke and steam into the humid air, the roof of the train station arching high overhead.

Her name wasn't Noi, either, in case you asked, though it's a common enough name. It wasn't Porn, or Ping. It wasn't even Friday.

She was watching the platform, scanning passengers climbing aboard, porters shifting wares, uniformed police patrolling at leisure. She was there to watch out for the Old Man.

She wasn't even a girl. Not exactly. And as for why the Old Man was called the Old Man . . .

He was otherwise known as Boss Gui: head and bigfala bos of the Kunming Toads. She got the job when she'd killed Gui's Toad bodyguards—by default, as it were.

But that had happened back in Kunming. This was Bangkok, Bangkok at dusk—this was Hua Lamphong, greatest of train stations, where the great slugs breathed steam and were rubbed and scrubbed by the slug-boys whose job it was to nurture them before departure. And the Old Man wasn't exactly an old man, either.

Scanning, waiting for the Old Man to arrive: Yankee tourists with in-built cams flashing as they posed besides the great beasts, these neo-nagas of reconstituted DNA, primitive nervous system, and prodigious appetite. Scanning: a group of Martian-Chinese from Tong Yun City walking cautiously—unused to the heavier gravity of this home/planet. Scanning: three Malay businessmen—Earth-Belt Corp. standardized reinforced skeletons—they moved gracefully, like dancers—wired through and through, hooked up twenty-four Earth-hours an Earth-day, seven Earth-days a week to the money-form engines, the great pulsating web of commerce and data, that singing, Sol-system-wide, von Neumann-machine expanded network of networks of networks. . . .

Wired with hidden weaponry, too: she made a note of that.

An assassin can take many shapes. It could be the sweet old lady carrying two perfectly balanced baskets of woven bamboo over her shoulders, each basket filled with sweet addictive fried Vietnamese bananas. It could be the dapper K-pop starlet with her entourage, ostensibly here to rough it a bit for the hovering cameras. It could be the couple of French backpackers—he with long thinning silver hair and a cigarette between his lips, she with a new face courtesy of Soi Cowboy's front-and-back street cosmetic surgeries—baby-doll face, but the hands never lie and the hands showed her true age, in the lines etched there, the drying of the skin, the quick-bitten nails polished a cheap red—

An assassin could be anyone. A Yankee rich kid on a retro-trip across Asia, reading Air America or Neuromancer in a genuine reproduction 1984 POD-paperback; it could be the courteous policeman helping a pretty young Lao girl with her luggage; it could be the girl herself—an Issan farmer's daughter exported to Bangkok in a century-long tradition, body augmented with vibratory vaginal inserts, perfect audio/visual-to-export, always-on record, a carefully tended Louis Wu habit and an as-carefully-tended retirement plan—make enough money, get back home to Issan wan bigfala mama, open up a bar/hotel/bookshop and spend your days on the Mekong, waxing lyrical about the good old days, listening to Thai pop and K-pop and Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa, growing misty-eyed nostalgic. . . .

Could be anyone. She waited for the Old Man to arrive. The trains in Hua Lamphong never left on time.

Her name before, or after, doesn't matter. They used to call her Mulan Rouge, which was a silly name, but the farangs loved it. Mulan Rouge, when she was still working Soi Cowboy, on the stage, on her knees or hands-and-knees, but seldom on her back—earning the money for the operation that would rescue her from that boy's body and make her what she truly was, which was kathoey.

They call it the third sex, in Thailand. But she always considered herself, simply, a woman.


She ran a perimeter check. Up front, she was awed as always by the slug. It was tied up to the front of the train, a beast fifty meters long and thirty wide. It glistened and farted as the slug-boys murmured soothing words to it and rubbed its flesh, thirty or forty of them swarming like flies over the corpulent flesh of the slug. She checked out the driver—the woman was short, dark-skinned—a highlander from Laos, maybe. The driver sat in her harness high above the beast, her helmet entirely covering her head—the only thing she wore. Pipes came out of her flesh and into the slug's. They were one—her mind driving the beast forward, a peaceful run, the Bangkok to Nong Khai night ride, and she was the night rider. She was the train.

There were stories about joined minds liked this in the Up There. Up There, beyond the atmosphere, where the universe truly began. Where the Exodus ships lumbered slowly out of the solar system, in search of better futures far away. They said there were ships driven by minds, human/Other interfaces, holding sleepers inside them like wombs. They told stories of ships who had gone mad, of sleepers destined never to awake, slow silent ships drifting forever in galactic space . . . or, worse, ships where the sleepers were awakened, where the ship-mind became a dark god, demanding worship. . . . Mulan didn't know who they were, or how they knew. These were stories, and stories were a currency in and of itself. Darwin's Choice used to tell her stories. . . .


She met him/her flesh-riding an older kathoey body, at a club on Soi Cowboy. Darwin's Choice—not the most imaginative name (he told her, laughing)—but he liked it. He had watched her dance and, later, signalled for her to join him.

She thought of him as a he, though Others had no sex, and most had little interest in flesh-riding. He had evolved in the Breeding Grounds, post-Cohen, billions of generations after that first evolutionary cycle in Jerusalem, and she only thought of him as him because the bodies he surfed always had a penis. He used to hold the penis in his hand and marvel at it. He always chose pre-op bodies, with breasts but no female genitalia. He always dressed as a woman. Surgery was expensive, and a lot of kathoey worked it off in stages. Taking on a passenger helped pay the bills—it wasn't just a matter of cutting off cock-and-balls and refashioning sex, there was the matter of cheekbones to sand down and an Adam's apple to reduce, bum to pad—if you really had the money you got new hands. The hands usually gave it away—that is, if you wanted to pass for a woman.

Which many kathoey didn't. Darwin's Choice always surfed older kathoey who never had the basic equipment removed. "I am neither male, nor female," he once told her. "I am not even an I, as such. No more than a human—a network of billions of neurons firing together—is truly an I. In assuming kathoey, I feel closer to humanity, in many ways. I feel—divided, and yet whole."

Like most of what he said, it didn't make a lot of sense to her. He was one of the few Others who tried to understand humanity. Most Others existed within their networks, using rudimentary robots when they needed to interact with the physical world. But Darwin's Choice liked to body-surf.

With him, she earned enough for the full body package.

And more than that.

Through him, she discovered in herself a taste for controlled violence.


Boss Gui finally came gliding down the platform—fat-boy Gui, the Old Man, olfala bigfala bos in the pidgin of the asteroids. His Toads surrounded him—human/toad hybrids with Qi-engines running through them: able to inflate themselves at will, to jump higher and farther, to kill with the hiss of a poisoned, forked tongue—people moved away from them like water from a hot skillet.

Boss Gui came and stood before her. "Well?" he demanded.

He looked old. Wrinkles covered his hands and face like scars. He looked tired, and cranky—which was understandable, under the circumstances.

She had recommended delaying the trip. The Old Man had refused to listen. And that was that.

She said, "I cannot identify an obvious perp—"

He smiled in satisfaction—

"But that is not to say there isn't one."

"I am Boss Gui!" he said. Toad-like, he inflated as he spoke. "Who dares try to kill me?"

"I did," she said, and he chuckled—and deflated, just a little.

"But you didn't, my little sparrow."

They had reached an understanding, the two of them. She didn't kill him—having to return the client's fee had been a bitch—and he, in turn, gave her a job. It had security attached—a pension plan, full medical, housing, and salary, calculated against inflation. There were even stock options.

She had never regretted her decision—until now.

"It's still too dangerous," she said now. "You're too close—"

"Silence!" he regarded her through rheumy eyes. "I am Boss Gui, boss of the Kunming Toads!"

"We are a long way from Kunming."

His eyes narrowed. "I am seventy-nine years old and still alive. How old are you?"

"You know how old," she said, and he laughed. "Sensitive about your age," he said. "How like a woman." He hawked up phlegm and spat on the ground. It hissed, burning a small, localised hole in the concrete.

She shrugged. "Your cabin is ready," she said; then: "Sir."

He nodded. "Very good," he said. "Tell the driver we are ready to depart."


A taste for controlled violence . . .

Darwin's Choice used his human hosts hard. He strove to understand humanity. For that purpose he visited ping-pong shows, kickboxing exhibits, Louis Wu emporiums, freak shows, the Bangkok Opera House, shopping malls, temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, slums, high-rises, and train stations.

"Life," he once told her, "is a train station."

She didn't know what to make of that. What she did know: to understand humanity he tried what they did. His discarded bodies were left with heroin addiction, genital sores, hangovers, and custom-made viruses that were supposed to self-destruct but sometimes didn't. Sometimes, either to apologise or for his own incomprehensible reasons, he would go into the cosmetic surgeries on Soi Cowboy and come out with a full physical sex-transfer—seemingly unaware that his hosts might have preferred to remain non-op. Sometimes he would wire them up in strange ways—for a month, at one point, he became a tentacle-junkie and would return from the clinics with a quivering mass of additional, aquatic limbs.

But it was his taste for danger—even while he experienced none, even while his true self kept running independently in the background, in a secure location somewhere on Earth or in orbit—that awakened her own.

The first time she killed a man . . .

They had gone looking for opium and found an ambush. The leader said, "Kill the flesh-rider and keep the kathoey. We'll sell her in—"

She had acted instinctively. She didn't know what she was doing until it was done. Her knife—

The blade flashing in the neon light—

A scream, cut short—a gurgle—

Blood ruined her second-best blouse—

The sound of something breaking—the pain only came later. They had smashed in her nose—

Darwin's Choice watching

She killed the second one with her bare hands, thumbs pressing on his windpipe until he stopped struggling—

She laid him down on the ground almost tenderly—

Pain, making her scream, but her lungs wouldn't work—

They hit her with a taser, but somehow she didn't pass out—

She fell, but forward—hugging the man with the taser, sharing the current until there was only darkness.


"You were clinically dead," he told her, later. He sounded impressed. "What was it like?"

"Like nothing," she told him. "There was nothing there."

"You were switched off?"

She had to laugh. "You could say that."

They made love the night she was released from hospital. She licked his nipples, slowly, and felt him harden in her hand. She stroked him, burying her face in his full breasts. He reached down, touched her, and it was like electricity. She kept thinking of the dead men. . . .

When she came, he said, "You would do it again—"

It wasn't a question.


She was tuning in to people's nodes, picking up network traffic to and from—the Malay business guys were high-encryption/high-bandwidth clouds, impossible to hack through, but here and there—

Kid with vintage paperback was on a suitably retro playlist with a random shuffle—she caught the Doors singing "The End," which was replaced with Thaitanium's "Tom Yum Samurai" only to segue into Drunken Tiger's "Great Rebirth." Issan-girl was plugged in—a humming battery was sending a low current into her brain. She would be out for the journey. . . . The K-pop princess was playing Guilds of Ashkelon. So were her entourage. The French backpackers were stoned on one thing or another. Others were chatting, stretching, reading, farting, tidying away bags and ordering drinks—life on board the night train to Nong Khai was always the same.

The train was coming alive, the slug belching steam—the whole train shuddered as it began to crawl along the smooth tracks, slug-boys falling off it like fleas.

Tuning, scanning—someone two cars down watching the feed from a reality-porn channel, naked bodies woven together like a tapestry, a beach somewhere—Koh Samui or an off-Earth habitat, it was impossible to say.

Boss Gui: "I'm hungry!"

Mulan Rouge: "Food's coming—" in the dining car they were getting ready, a wok already going, rice cooker steaming, crates of beer waiting—

"I want kimchi!"

"I'll see if they have any—" though she knew they didn't.

"No need." A long, slow, drawn-out hum from one of the Toads. "I keep for boss."

Limited vocabulary—you didn't breed Toads for their brains.

She watched the toad reach into what the Australians called an esky. There was a jar of kimchi in there, and . . . other stuff.

Like a jar of living flies, for the Toads. Like what appeared to be a foetal sac, preserved in dry ice. . . .

Other things.

She left them to it, returned to watching—waiting.


"You would do it again," Darwin's Choice had said. And he—she—it—was right. Mulan had liked it—a sense of overwhelming power came with violence, and if it could be controlled, it could be used. Power depended on how you used it.

She counted the proceeding years in augmentations and bodies. Three in Vientiane—she had followed Darwin's Choice there to buy up a stash of primitive communist VR art—the deal went wrong and she had to execute two men and a woman before they got away. She'd had snake eyes installed after that. A man and a kathoey in Chiang Mai—DC was buying a genuine Guilds of Ashkelon virtual artefact that had turned out to be a fake. She'd had her skeleton strengthened following that. . . .

With each kill, new parts of her. With each, more power—but never over him.

Gradually, Darwin's Choice appeared less and less in the flesh. She had to cast around for work, hiring out as bodyguard, enforcer—hired killer, sometimes, only sometimes. Finally DC never reappeared. He had tried to explain it to her, once:

"We are I-loops but, unlike humans, we are self-aware I-loops. Not self-aware in the sense of consciousness, or what humans call consciousness. Self-aware in the sense that we are—we canknow every loop, every routine and subroutine. Digital, not neurological. And as we are aware so do we change, mutating code, merging code, sharing. . . ."

"Is that how you make love?"

"Love is a physical thing," he said. "It's hormone-driven."

"You can only feel love when you're body-surfing?"

He only shrugged.

"How do you . . ." she searched for the word, settled on—"mate?"

Imagine two or more Others. Endless lines of code meeting in digital space—ifs and ands and ors branching into probabilities, cycling through endless branches of logic at close to the speed of light—

"Is that what you're like?"

"No. Shh . . ."

. . . and meeting, merging, mixing, mutating—"And dying; to be an Other is to die, again and again, to evolve with every cycle, to cull and select and grow, achieve new, unexpected forms—"

. . . not so much mating as joining, and splitting, and joining again—"A bit like that old story about humans replacing every single atom in their bodies every seven years—how the body wears out and regenerates and changes but the entity still retains the illusion of person, remains an I-loop—"

. . . but for Others, it meant becoming something new—"Giving birth to one's self, in essence."

The body he was surfing had been stoned, then, when he told her all this. When he was gone, she hired out. She enjoyed the work, but freelancing was hard. When the contract on Boss Gui came, she took it—and upgraded to corporate.

"We are never alone," DC had told her, just before he left forever. "There are always . . . us. So many of us . . ."

"Can't you all join?" she asked. "Join into one?"

"Too much code slows you down," he said. "We have . . . limits. Though we share, too—share the way humans can't."

"We can share in ways you can't," she said. Her finger dug into his anus when she spoke. DC squirmed under her, then gave a small moan. His breasts were freckled, his penis circumcised. "True," he said—whispered—and drew her to him with an urgency they were sharing only rarely, by then.

That had been the last time. . . .

She wondered which species' sharing was better—figured she would never know.

They said sex was overrated. . . .


Yankee boy blue was no longer listening to the Doors—she couldn't sense his node any more at all. She blinked, feeling panic rise. How had he slipped past her? Scanning for him—his vintage sci-fi paperback was still on his bunk.

Shit.

She glanced back into the cabin—Boss Gui glared up at her, then clutched his bloated stomach and gave a groan. The two Toads jumped—too hard, and hit the ceiling.

Double shit—she said, "What's wrong?" but knew.

He said, "It's starting."

She shook her head. "It can't. It's too soon."

"It's time."

"Shit!"—a third time, and it was counterproductive and she knew it.

Boss Gui's face was twisted in pain. "It's coming!"

And suddenly she picked up the North American's node.

"Sh—"


They were going to Nong Khai, from there to cross into Laos. Boss Gui wanted to expand the business, and business was booming in a place called Vang Vieng, a tawdry little mini-Macau at the foothills of the mountains, four hours from Vientiane—a place of carefully regulated lawlessness, of cheap opium and cheaper synths, of games-worlds cowboys and body hackers, of tentacle-junkies and doll emporiums and government taxes that Boss Gui wanted a part of.

A large part of.

There were families running Vang Vieng but he was the Old Man, olfala bigfala bos blong ol man tod blong Kunming, and the Chinese had anyway bought up most of Laos back in the early privatisation days. He would cut deals with some, terminate the others, and slice himself a piece of the Vang Vieng dumpling—that was the plan.

She had advised him against it. She told him it was too soon to travel. She asked him to wait.

He wouldn't.

She sort of had an inkling as to the why. . . .


She was picking up the kid's node right next to the driver's.

Which was not good at all.

The driver's, first: an incomprehensible jumble of emotion, in turns horny, soothing, driven, paused—the driver and the slug as one, their minds pulsating in union—hunger and lust made it go faster. Snatches of Beethoven—for some reason it calmed down the slugs. The driver not aware of the extra passenger—yet.

The kid wasn't really a kid. . . .

His node blocked to her—black impenetrable walls, an emptiness not even returning pings. He was alone in his own head—which must have been terrifying.

She had to get to the front of the train. She had to get on the slug. And Boss Gui was convulsing.

"Why are you just standing there, girl?"

She tried to keep her voice even. "I found the assassin. He is planning to kill the slug—destroy the entire train, and you with it."

Boss Gui took that calmly. "Clever," he said, then grimaced. His naked belly glistened, a dark shape moving beneath the membrane of skin. The Toads looked helpless, standing there. She flashed them a grin. "I'll be right back," she said. Then she left, hearing Boss Gui's howl of rage behind her.


Running down the length of the train—through the dining car, past toilets already beginning to smell, past farang backpackers and Lao families and Thais returning to Udon from the capital—past babies and backpacks and bemused conductors in too-tight trousers that showed their butts off to advantage—warm wind came in through the open windows and she blocked out the public nodes broadcasting news in Thai and Belt Pidgin. The end of the train was a dead end, a smooth wall with no windows. She kicked it—again and again, augmented muscles expending too much energy, but it began to break, rusting old metal giving way, and fading sunlight seeped through.

How had the kid gotten through? He must have had gecko-hands—climbed out the window and crawled his way along the side of the train, below the window line, all the way to the slug. . . .

She reached out—sensed the driver's confusion as another entity somehow wormed its way into the two-way mahout/slug interface. Stop!

Confusion from the slug. The signals rushing through, too fast—horny/hungry/faster—faster!

He was going to crash the train. The driver: Who is this? You can't—

She kept kicking. The wall gave way—behind it was the slug's wide back, the driver sitting cross-legged on the beast, the intruder behind it, a hand on the driver's shoulder—the hand grew roots that penetrated the woman and the beast both.

Hostile mahout interface initiated.

The driver was fighting it, and losing badly. No one hijacked slug trains.

On her private channel—Boss Gui, screaming. "Get back here!"

"Get your own fucking midwife!"

But she could sense his pain, confusion. How many times had he gone through it in the past? she wondered.

The hijacker had kept the driver alive. Had to—the whole thing had to look like an accident, the driver's body found in the wreckage, unmolested—no doubt he planned to jump before impact.

Could he?

She crept behind him. Neither hijacker nor driver paid her any attention. And what could she do? Killing the hijacker would kill the interface—he was already in too deep.

Unless . . .

From Boss Gui, far away—"Hurry!"

Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if Darwin's Choice had stayed behind. It was possible for kathoey to give birth, these days . . . could an Other foster a child? Would he want to?

Or he could have flesh-ridden a host . . . she would have kept the male parts just for that. If he'd asked her.

But he never did.

The hijacker must have had an emergency eject. She had to find the trigger for it—

Wind was rushing at her, too fast. It was hard to maintain balance on the soft spongy flesh of the slug. It was accelerating—too fast.

She was behind the hijacker now—she reached out, put her hand on the back of his head. A black box . . .

She punched through with a data-spike while her other hand—


Darkness. The smell of rotting leaves. The smell of bodies in motion, sweat—hunger, a terrible hunger—

"Who the fuck are you? How did you get in here?"

Panic was good. She sent through images—her standing behind him, the data-spike in his head—and what else she was doing.

"You can't do that. . . ."

She had pushed a second data-spike through his clothes and through the sphincter muscle, into the bowels themselves—detached a highly illegal replicator probe inside.

She felt the slug slow down, just a fraction. The hijacker trying to understand—

She said, "I am being nice."

She was.

He had a choice.

The probe inside him was already working. It was the equivalent of graffiti artists at work. It replicated a message, over every cell, every blood vessel, every muscle and tendon. It would be impossible to scrub—you'd need to reach a good clinic and by then it'd be too late.

The message said, I killed the slug train to Nong Khai.

It was marking him. He wasn't harmed. She couldn't risk killing him, killing the interface. But this way, whether he got off the train or not, he was a dead man.

"I'll count to five."

He let go at three.


Light, blinding her. The wind rushed past—the driver sat as motionless as ever, but the train had slowed down. The hijacker was gone—she followed him back through the hole in the wall.

He was lying on his bunk, still reading his book. He wasn't listening to music any more. Their eyes met. She grinned. He turned his gaze. She had given him a choice and she'd abide by it—but if the Toads happened to find out, she didn't rate his chances. . . .

Well, the next stop was in an hour. She'd give him an extra half hour after that—a running start.

She went back to the boss.


"It's coming!" Boss Gui said. She knelt beside him. His belly-sac was moving, writhing, the thing inside trying to get out. She helped—a fingernail slicing through the membrane, gently. A sour smell—she reached in where it was sticky, gooey, warm—found two small arms, a belly—pulled.

"You sorted out the problem?"

"Keep breathing."

"Yes?"

"Yes, of course I did! Now push!"

Boss Gui pushed, breathing heavily. "I'm getting too old for this . . . ," he said.

Then he heaved, one final time, and the small body detached itself from him and came into her hands. She held it, staring at the tiny body, the bald head, the small penis, the five-fingered hands—a tiny Boss Gui, not yet fat but just as wrinkled.

It was hooked up with a cord to its progenitor. With the same flick of a nail, she cut it cleanly.

The baby cried. She rocked it, said, "There, there."

"Drink," Boss Gui said—weakly. One of the Toads came forward. Boss Gui fastened lips on the man/toad's flesh and sucked—a vampire feasting. He had Toad genes—so did the baby, who burped and suddenly ballooned in her hands before shrinking again.

"A true Gui!" the Old Man said.

She stared at the little creature in her hands. . . . "Which makes how many, now?" she said.

The boss shrugged, pushing the Toad away, buttoning up his own shirt. "Five, six? Not many."

"You would install him at Vang Vieng?"

"An assurance of my goodwill—and an assurance of Gui control there, too, naturally. Yes. An heir is only useful when he is put to use."

She thought of Darwin's Choice. "Evolution is everything," he would have told her. "We evolve constantly, with every cycle. Whereas you . . ."

She stared at the baby clone. It burped happily and closed its little eyes. Gui's way was not unpopular with the more powerful families . . . but sooner or later someone would come to challenge succession and then it wouldn't matter how many Guis there were.

Suddenly she missed DC, badly.

She rocked the baby to sleep, hugging it close to her chest. The train's thoughts came filtering through in the distance—comfort, and warmth, food and safety—the slow rhythmic motion was soothing. After a while, when the baby was asleep, she handed him to the Old Man, no words exchanged, and went to the dining car in search of a cup of tea.


Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman, published by HarperCollins, and forthcoming Camera Obscura. Other works include novella Cloud Permutations, linked-story collection HebrewPunk, and many others. This is his fifth story for Strange Horizons. For more about him and his work, see his website.