Ice was a train runner, the first I’d ever known. She’d picked her own name. We dated for a while, and that was when she showed me the wars.
It was because I asked her about the train disruptions. Because- it’s not like they’re overseeing the bloody London Underground, so how hard can it be? Okay, maybe one major disruption is okay, but three in a month? Seriously? What were you guys doing, I asked.
And her response was, “Do you want to see?”
Like the fool I was, I said yes. Hindsight, 20/20, all that jazz.
There was a hazmat suit involved, markings from the SCDF still on it. “Borrowed,” she said, and insisted I put it on before we reached the tunnels.
Marching. I remember the sound of marching. She held my hand in the darkness of the empty-station-at-3AM as we stepped over the yellow line and she touched the glass of the barrier doors. The entire row vanished, all down the length of the station, hundreds of metres of it. I looked into the cavern that opened in front of me, over the lip of the chasm, and held back a breath.
Faces hidden, clad in battle-scarred armour and purple livery, they trooped past in columns. Measured, almost mechanical movements, like CGI from one of the Star Wars movies–almost convincing enough to be real, but not quite, hovering at the edge of uncanny valley, about to tip over. I looked down the platform, and saw nothing but endless lines of soldiers coming towards us, marching down the tunnel and out of the station. “Who are they?” I asked.
“Soldiers of the purple line,” she said.
“Soldiers of the purple line,” I repeated, as if that would magically give it meaning.
A flag bearer went by, the pennant over his helmeted head emblazoned with a white logo on a background of rich purple. My mouth was dry; above the steady crunch crunch crunch of boots I heard the sound of drums somewhere, far away. Somewhere further down the line something exploded and a brief flare of red light poured down the tunnel. “What was that?” I asked.
“The enemy,” I repeated.
She looked at me. “Stop doing that.”
Nobody knew where these combatants had come from, she said, but they had only appeared very recently, in the last year or so. Every night, they fought to hold the lines. Literally. Or metaphorically. Nobody knew what stood for what anymore.
Only that the war was fought, every night, once the tunnels had been cleared of the little train larvae and their human loads, and the interchanges where the lines met became bloody no-man’s lands, seared by burning flashes of qi and littered with the corpses of foot soldiers that vanished the moment the first light switch snapped on in a station at some ungodly hour.
But there were scars left behind. Loose components. Lights with rattled wiring. An unexpected weakness, running transverse across the width of a steel cable.
I protested. “The inspectors go through the tunnels every night–”
“Yes, and they don’t see the battles. because they are not sensitives.” Speaking slowly, as if to an idiot child. “Only the damage they leave behind.” A quick pause, then: “If they are quick enough, or sharp enough.”
What happens if one of the lines wins, I say. What happens if the East-West Line breaks through at Jurong East and starts marching their way up lands belonging to the reds, chewing through Bukit Batok and Kranji and all the way to Woodlands. What happens if the Circle Line, the young eager upstart, flush with state-of-the-art technology, overwhelms the outdated forces of the older lines and starts expanding and expanding, growing like a saffron pool across the map of Singapore. What happens then, I ask.
Nobody knows. And everyone is too terrified to find out. So each night the train runners oversee the battles. Make sure the battle lines don’t shift.
Every night now, when I go to bed, I think about the battles happening underground, deep inside the crust that lies under us, and I imagine I can feel it, metaphysical seismic shifts rumbling though my bedframe. Even as a groundskeeper I know that there is so much about the fabric that knits our little human nations and societies together that I don’t understand, but the thought of this, somehow, it terrifies me in a way no other thing has.
Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. Maybe I would still sleep soundly, then, my dreams free of cloying paranoias. What good did it do, with me knowing? Knowledge is not, and has never been, a panacea for helplessness.
Ice and I didn’t work out, but that’s a story for another time.