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Around the World in Eighty Permits, Seventy-three Blood Tests, and More Trouble than the World is Really Worth
People used to travel for fun before the Rising. Can you believe that?
My flight left London at six o'clock on Friday morning. We made a stop in Hong Kong twelve hours later to change planes, at which point everyone had to go through the entire security and boarding process again, complete with medical screening. It's something of a miracle that I was permitted to return to business class-same seat number, virtually identical seat, for all that it was on a different airplane-given that I was half asleep the whole time. After you've been pursued across the United States by a global conspiracy, it's rather difficult for airports to disturb you. All the same, my lack of response and glazed demeanor should have singled me out for additional security measures. There's little that can spoil a trip more than being trapped inside a flying metal tube with someone who has just undergone amplification.
Being in coach might well have done it. I reclined in my spacious seat, sipping my complimentary cup of hot tea-if you can call something "complimentary" when it requires buying a ticket that costs several thousand quid before they'll give it to you-and watched the other passengers being herded back to their seats. Each group of five was escorted by two flight attendants who made no effort to conceal their firearms. Before the Rising, guns were verboten on airplanes, carried only by government agents and representatives of local law enforcement. Now most passengers flew armed, and the flight attendants carried more weapons than your average Irwin. It's funny how the world can change when no one's looking.
The business class flight attendants were a slightly less menacing breed, although they still possessed the warmth and personal charm of cobras considering whether or not you were worth biting. The attendant on my side of the cabin stopped by long enough to collect my cup and check the lock on my seat belt. It would release only after a clean blood test from me and a keyed-in okay from the flight attendant. I smiled at him through the fog of my exhaustion. Staying on his good side would be extremely helpful for my bladder in a few hours.
"State your name," he said.
"Mahir Gowda," I replied. I'd been through this routine before. There was nothing personal about it.
"Place of origin."
"London, England. I flew out of Heathrow."
"Will you be having the fish or the chicken for this evening's supper?"
"The chicken, please.
"Very good. Welcome aboard, Mr. Gowda." He continued on with a perfunctory nod, already keying up the next passenger on his datapad.
I saluted him silently before setting my head against the thin airplane pillow. No matter how plush they make the upper tiers of flying, they'll always have those same thin, lifeless pillows. Hong Kong was a blur of lights and motion outside the window, all of it set back at a respectful distance, which blurred it even more. One more place I hadn't been, not really; one more example of "just passing through."
Sometimes I feel like it's my job in this life to be a tourist, forever visiting, never coming home. I was mulling over that thought, and what it meant for my marriage, when consciousness slipped away from me, and I fell back into the deep, unrejuvenating sleep of the traveler.
I woke twice during the remainder of my flight: once to eat a bowl of some of the most tasteless chicken curry it has ever been my sorrow to encounter and once to connect to the plane's free Wi-Fi and set my phone to download all my e-mail. There was a time when I would have worked through the flight, ignoring my body's increasingly desperate pleas for rest; an airplane is a foreign environment, and the combination of changing cabin pressure and changing time zones makes it hard on even the strongest systems. I used to fight through the urge to close my eyes, refusing to admit that I could be felled by something as petty as biology.
I have matured since then, if maturity means losing a few hours of work to the Great God Sleep. Still, as head of After the End Times, one of the Internet's premiere news destinations, it was my job to have all of the world's information at my fingertips. So I set my phone to download and closed my eyes again. It wasn't as if I could do anything to change the news from where I was.
The first sign that we were approaching Australia came when the flight attendants walked through the plane, leaving breakfast trays in front of us and pressing the small buttons over our seats that would sound our personalized alarm tones. The myriad small, familiar noises were intended to wake us with a minimum of trauma, thus reducing the chances that a passenger, distressed by the unfamiliar environment, would turn violent. My alarm was the sound of my one-year-old daughter, Sanjukta, laughing. In all my experience with the world, I had never encountered any sweeter sound, or any laugh that more made me want to smile.
"Good morning, Mr. Gowda," said the attendant. He was still smiling the same plastic smile.
It had been-I glanced at my watch-twelve hours. The fact that he was still smiling was either a testament to his training or an argument in favor of stimulants.
"Good morning," I managed, and reached for the tea which was already waiting, enticingly hot, on my tray. "What time is it?"
"The local time in Melbourne is half-past five o'clock in the afternoon." The flight attendant smirked slightly as he glanced at my plate of turkey bacon, scrambled egg, and reheated croissant. It was the first sign I'd seen that he might be human after all, and not just a very convincing robot. "I'm afraid we're serving you breakfast for dinner. Such are the trials of international travel."
"It's quite all right," I assured him. "My mother always said that eggs were appropriate no matter the time of day." That was a filthy lie: My mother was a traditional woman who would have died before she'd fed me breakfast this late in the day. Still, there was no need to tell him that, and he looked quite pleased.
"We'll be landing in about twenty minutes," he said. "Please eat quickly, and signal if you need to use the restroom." Then he was gone, moving on to the next passenger on his list.
I turned my attention to the food. It was palatable, as airplane food went; it didn't taste of much of anything, but as taste can go either way, I was content to eat my variously textured bits of tastelessness and call it a successful meal. The other passengers were stirring, reacquainting themselves with the world as they woke. Grumbles and half-formed complaints filled the cabin, providing a discordant accompaniment to breakfast. One passenger got a bit too aggressive in his complaining. The flight attendant produced a sedative patch, slapped it against the side of the passenger's neck, and moved on.
The passenger's complaints did not resume.
Many of the security precautions humanity has embraced since the Rising are silly, useless things, more about what my old colleague Georgia Mason always called "security theater" than actual security. The safety regulations that have been added to air travel, however, make perfect sense to me. If someone is going to be belligerent, I would much prefer they be confined to their seat and handled by the in-flight crew, who have been trained for this sort of thing.
I picked up my phone, pleased to see that my e-mail had finished downloading, but less pleased to see that more than five hundred messages had arrived since we left Hong Kong. At least half were flagged "urgent." My staff is good about using "urgent" only when something actually is, but given my current situation, I wasn't sure how much good I was going to be.
I stowed my phone and pulled my tablet out of the seatback pocket, entering my password with a few quick swipes of my thumb. The home screen came up, and I pressed the icon that would grant me immediate access to the After the End Times management chat room. Half archaic IM protocols, half homebrew system devised by the late, lamented Georgette Meissonier, it was the most secure chat relay I had ever encountered, and quite probably the most secure relay I ever will encounter. We could exchange nuclear launch codes over that thing, and no one would ever know.
Well, except for the part where we're a news site, and if we had nuclear launch codes, everyone would know in short order, as Alaric set half the Factual News Division on writing a scathing exposé of the weaknesses inherent in the national defense system. Reporters are excellent at ferreting out a story. We're not so good at keeping secrets.
As I had hoped, Alaric was online. It was-I did some quick math in my head-ten A.M. in California. He must have just gotten out of bed. That, or he'd pulled another all-nighter and was about five minutes away from passing out on his keyboard.
ALARIC, NEED YOUR ATTENTION. Typing on a tablet computer while on a moving airplane wasn't the easiest thing I'd ever done, but it was no harder than anything else would have been, under the circumstances.
While I waited for his reply, I pulled up the forums in another window, skimming their titles to see whether anything important had managed to catch fire while I wasn't looking. It was the usual mix of serious news, frivolous rumor, and wild conjecture that would never make it past the first-tier review board. One of the newer Irwins was proposing an expedition up into Canada to try to locate the Masons. I opened the thread, scrolled to the bottom, and added a quick one-word reply: NO.
Shaun and Georgia Mason were two of the three founders of After the End Times. The third founder, Georgette "Buffy" Meissonier, died during the Ryman/Cousins presidential campaign. Georgia herself died not long after. Shaun was the only survivor of the original trio, much to his chagrin, and he had spent quite some time after Georgia's death trying to join her through whatever means were necessary. He stopped trying to get himself killed only when he found something to live for: an illegal clone of Georgia, created by the Centers for Disease Control. It was a terrible situation, made worse by the fact that no one knew who to trust until it was over-and for some of us, trust didn't come easy, even then.