Chaotic, crowded, noisy. I looked down from my perch on the 300-meter-high tie beams.
Beijing West Railway Station was buzzing.
Throngs of passengers like so many wriggling Cambrian organisms, a rhythmic rumble barreling up from the places they seemed to crawl. My ears couldn’t make out a thing, but each utterance was captured by sensors, sent to the Control Center and spelled out by the vocal recognition machines, all before being slipped into the surveillance files.
This was the big rush. The Chinese New Year rush. Replete with all those holiday-themed posters, ads, and various other bills. Everything for the service of the passengers.
A ten-meter-tall “World Heritage Site” sign blessed the waiting area. A UNESCO-bestowed honor. Travelers slowed, inspected, took pictures.
“Let’s go! Keep it movin’!” The on-duty police officer dispersed the memory collectors.
This was the biggest station on this celestial body, and people were always getting lost. My job was to help the machines find stray travelers and get them to their trains.
11:15. A notice came in. Someone lost in Deepzone 66.
Not a single movement in a single corner of Beijing West escaped the tightly woven surveillance network, and the machines had found the mark already. What looked like the fuzzy image of a man flashed on the screen before disappearing as quickly as he’d materialized.
By my estimation, he was probably using the latest corp-developed evasion tech from the West. Popular with the kids. So, this likely wasn’t your run-of-the-mill passenger gone adrift.
I headed down Passage 17 on the magnascoot, in the direction indicated by the machines.
Even the bulging new year travel rush had to be handled by the book. Millions of people writhing en masse through the station. An average of one thousand lost daily.
There were places people couldn’t get to, but the machines, roaches, mice—all those critters that called the station home—could. Even so, people sometimes managed to squeeze themselves into these inaccessible recesses to die, only for their clean, white bones to be discovered later.
Beijing West was old and ever-changing. Its structure not excepted. And mapping apps couldn’t keep up.
“It seems he’s intentionally avoiding us,” reported the machine. “Classification: lost-intent.”
Ah, lost-intent. They could be explorers drawn in by the intrigue of the station’s gargantuan complexity.
Others might be here to end their lives. The station’s commanding grandiosity made it one of the most renowned suicide destinations on the planet.
Then there were the saboteurs. Always trying to obliterate this architecture.
Regardless of which category they fell into, the lost-intent made my job more difficult. Normally, I might enjoy a nice game of cat and mouse, but now, during the rush, there simply wasn’t enough human-machine power.
I looked up. An enormous, tumorlike chunk of metal hung above.
Atop it, a few plainclothes female snipers lay prone. They shot me a smile.
Security was on full alert. Lunar New Year’s Eve was when officials would come to extend passengers holiday well-wishes.
The reality was that, like the universe in its younger years, Beijing West was constantly developing. Only, the rate of growth wasn’t nearly as fast.
Its tendril-like outgrowths, at their furthest reaches, spit travelers right out past the Sixth Ring Road. The lost-intent often found opportunities to penetrate the Station at these peripheries.
No one knows what Beijing West will look like tomorrow.
The machines reported that the perp had surfaced in the hotel area.
Here, a thick, vine-like mess of inns enrobed the upper reaches of the Station. Not a single international chain. Just the same basic copy-paste convenience overnighters.
“Have you seen this person?” I asked one of the receptionists, digging out my badge and showing her the image captured by the security cameras.
As she led me back into the inner reaches of the hotel, the scene darkened. Damp streets and plazas took shape. There were no vacancies, this was New Year’s Eve. Some guests were drying clothes streetside, others barbecuing. Firefighting machines patrolled.
The vile backside of the inn was piled high with years of mold-grown refuse. But since it had formed its own ecosystem, it made up an integral part of Beijing West’s totality.
Tiny nonregulation rooms jutted out in a midair Tetris explosion. Their inhabitants sustaining residence via bribes to supervisory personnel, who would then delete any trace of them from the RAM of the OmniOpticon.
This was just the sort of place the lost-intent might hide. The territory of beggars and thieves. The Station had previously tried to reform these residents. Catching them up with the pace of the times. However, Peking University’s Center for Anthropology had advocated preserving them. They were one of the reasons Beijing West had been awarded World Heritage Site status.
A third of the Peking University campus had already been subsumed by the growth of Beijing West.
This area was a patchwork, and the machines weren’t exactly able to manage it with big data or other intellitech.
I spotted a beggar I knew. A woman. She ran these parts, and her story had become osmosed into local lore. Originally from Northeast China, she’d drifted down to Beijing after a divorce and stayed in the Station. She’d been raped by more men than I care to count and had a little boy of uncertain paternal origin. She aspired to make it back to her home for Chinese New Year one day.
“Hey. This guy. You seen ’im?” I exhibited the materials.
She looked over the goods and pointed to a graffiti-covered plasticamp up ahead.
Five explorers. All PhD students educated overseas. Their faces melted into uh-oh expressions at the sight of me. I’d deported each of them before, but here they were again.
The little band of budding scholars kept trying to sniff out the true inner nature of Beijing West. Their research had found that the station was, in fact, a giant germ cell. Something that roused quite a media sensation upon initial discovery, but to which everyone had since grown accustomed.
Germ cells aren’t necessarily composed of just proteins and nucleic acids. They can also grow from metal and concrete given ample complexity to produce and circulate adequate data.
I overlooked the transgressions of these academics. Beijing West underwent reformulation daily. It was no longer possible to locate its center. This was indeed one of the reasons people became lost so frequently. Supervisory personnel needed the help of specialist explorers such as these to confirm new growth nodes.
I looked each of the grad students over but didn’t see my target.
“The station seems to have pushed out new appendages prior to the holiday,” said one of the researchers, a neurobiology PhD from MIT. “We feel some may be problematic. Just a heads-up.”
I understood their concern. But no matter how problematic, there would be no removing them. For one, there were the vast entanglements of pipes and power lines buried years beneath our feet. Millions and millions of lines. Not the slightest inkling which runs were connected or to which machines they extended. The slightest slip-up was liable to cause short-circuiting, fires, explosions.
I suspected these were the pathways the pre-gametic entity was using to relay neurotransmitters.
This was where I worked. In this organism, to maintain stability, along with five thousand others like me. Spring Festival was always the busiest, most strained time of the year. Carelessness was out of the question.
I adjusted my search trajectory according to the latest map patch from the explorers.
I bumped into some students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts at Node 797. They had been headed home but were now ensnared in the allure of the Station, painting A Panorama of the New Year Travel Rush.
On canvas, they’d rendered the Station as a naked deviless, her reclining silhouette enshrouding the entirety of Beijing.
A new update from the machines. The perp wasn’t far off. Near Node 328. Fifty-six other searchers looking for him aside from myself.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how unusual the mark was. The system had sealed off 71% of its cloacal openings—the bridges to the platforms, the passages to the subway, the tunnels to the rapid transit lanes, and even the automated passenger shuttles—in order to locate this one man.
Even if it were imposing only a negligible impact on Spring Festival transit, I wanted to know just who this person was that we were expending so much effort to find.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t that complicated. Simply a passenger trying to hitch a ticket-free ride. I hoped that was the case at least.
A newly sprouted pipe. And in the Desolazone. Certainly not laid by humans.
The growth of Beijing West abided in its own secrets and patterns. Most assumed the colossal microorganism to be well into its senior years, but in fact it was just entering puberty. It exchanged energy, matter, and information with the rails and the trains that slid across them with a great, gushing enthusiasm.
I was following the pipe when an unexpected sense of loneliness struck. Images of my life’s hardships flashed inexorably behind my eyes.
I was an outsider to Beijing. My parents had moved here from rural Henan, eking out a living in construction. We only went home for Chinese New Year. Always from Beijing West Railway Station.
We were driven out of the city a few times due to household registration issues, but we’d always come back. I only went as far as middle school. Luckily, one of the Station’s tendrils ended up extending to the basement of my parents’ house in the city’s southern Fengtai District, affording me the opportunity to work. I worked security check before climbing my way up to the rank of Searcher.
Beijing West served as a sort of collection and distribution center for a variety of intriguing tales. In its greatness it established a symbiotic relationship with humans, making us feel looked after and valued. Within it, people felt a sense of equity.
I’d reached the end of the pipe, at which sat a cluster of insectoid organisms, synthetically formed and seemingly in hibernation.
The pipe was damp, cold, and seemed to be seeping bodily fluid. The mainline split off and some of the smaller pipes were ruptured.
It was anyone’s guess as to where these capillaric pipes extended. Accretions had been discovered as far off as Mentougou’s Longquan Monastery, and there was word that at their furthest reaches, they’d left the bounds of Beijing altogether, heading for the Tianjin and Hebei borders.
Intuition told me the target was just ahead when I suddenly lost any interest in locating him.
The machines began blaring, “Warning! Don’t get lost yourself!”
I broke into an inexplicable cold sweat. Dazed.
A peculiarly shaped shadow materialized before my eyes. I remained frozen. A vaporous whiff and, just like that, I was out.
I woke in a familiar space. The interrogation room. Where all the lost-intent wound up.
The metal cranium of one of the machines made its way in front of my face. Something didn’t feel right.
“Who are you?” probed the bot.
“ . . . a Searcher.”
“Your formal identity.”
The machine dredged the depths of my consciousness. Things suddenly clicked. The system had been tracking me for quite some time, and now it had ripped my mask clean off. I was the lost-intent we’d been searching for.
I recalled the origins of my obsession with Beijing West. When I was young, I passed Beijing West daily on my way to school, often only arriving after midday due to the congestion. Then I’d have to leave early in the afternoon just to make it home by dark. The Station had already started swelling by then. My studies declined, and I’d feel the wrath of my parents’ hands.
I supposed every last one of this country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants all had their own obsessions with the giant germ cell.
I joined the Beijing West Research Network, a little subcultural group.
“Why did you infiltrate and cloak yourself within this place?”
“I . . . I wanted to know what it thinks.”
“And now, you finally know?”
“It . . . it wants to know what Chinese New Year is.”
“Is this not obvious to the Station?” spouted the evidently confused machine.
“It’s not just Chinese New Year. It wants to understand the concept of ‘home.’”
“Home? But ‘home’ for the Station is just Beijing.” The interrogator seemed unable to choke back a laugh at the absurdity of the proposition.
“It doesn’t see it that way.”
“And how does it see it then?” the machine asked, attempting to conceal its perturbation. The machines were one of the Station’s membranes, and there were many such layers of protection.
“I’ll tell you,” I started. “Two months prior to the holiday, Beijing West and Hong Kong Station’s relation began developing rapidly, and Beijing West is now unable to extricate itself.”
“Ludicrous,” buzzed the machine through a cold gaze.
“Machines are not attuned to this sort of thing. We humans can sense it. I’ve witnessed its distant memories.” I saw in my own mind’s eye the unendurable years I’d spent within the bounds of the germ’s consciousness. Every New Year I’d sacrificed my own return home.
“Have you been to its center?”
“That’s unlocatable, always shifting. Not even you can find it.”
“You’ve done something.”
Indeed. I had. I strove to recall.
A hazy recollection. I’d used a dispatcher to inoculate Node 7 with a special cocktail of infoserum.
It seemed Beijing West maintained contact with Hong Kong Station via rails and trains. But increasingly, this wasn’t enough. It was afraid of losing the other station altogether. It had been requesting human assistance—the sense of which became extraordinarily strong this Chinese New Year’s Eve . . .
When I was chosen.
“What is it trying to do!?” the machine inquired in terror.
“ . . . Something that, to it at least, is just a cheery little observance. To celebrate.”
The machine fell silent. I felt tremors.
I looked toward the main drag of the station. The marble and steel-frame flooring suddenly fell away to reveal a cavernous abyss. Some passengers were swallowed up, others scattered. Still others were climbing in a scramble up to the highest level of the 500-meter structure.
The station swayed, shook, began collapsing. A tumble of black, muculent matter and coarse chunks. The entrance hall wobbled, then the whole structure shifted. Antlike armies of travelers let out eardrum-bursting shrieks, rendering the listening sensors useless.
An ecstatic horror arose within me. I began my departure, rising. Gripping my familiar domain, I left behind the masses below and was almost outside. The quakes increasing in magnitude to a near ten.
I gazed upon the tyrannical beauty of the Station’s emblematic gates, arched across the sky like the straddle of a man’s nethers.
A heroic sentiment rose up within me. An endless flow of traffic slid beneath, some already beginning to turn back. The hotels had collapsed. People dancing in mid-air. The travelers, beggars, thieves, scholars, explorers . . . all ascending in unison.
And Beijing West was taking off.
Every last high-speed train soared into the air in a transversal, pick-up-stick crisscross, blanketing the cloudless, sapphire heavens of winter Beijing.
The structural bones of the Station looked more and more like a proud-yet-greedy emperor.
I saw the interrobot struggling to make it to the World Heritage Site emblem.
“It wants to fly!” I yelled. “It’s headed for a reunion with Hong Kong!”
First appeared in social media Nonexist (不存在日报) in its 2018 Sci-fi Spring Festival Gala (科幻春晚). © 2018 by Han Song. Translation © 2023 by Carson Ramsdell. First published in English in The Book of Beijing, edited by Bingbing Shi, by Comma Press in 2023 as part of their “Reading the City” series. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.