By Robby Charters
Rating: Not yet rated.
Published: Aug. 09, 2012
Words: 66189 (approximate)
A group of Asian students take a tour of a futuristic America dominated by multinational corporations. They find that virtual reality has totally obscured the real world. Then, they stumble into the "real world", a area divided between countless republics: Nazi, Militant Christian, Native American, Mafia, you name it. Can they escape it and return to their homes in the Chinese half of the world?
The world of the late 21st century is divided between Greater China, the Western Block, the Islamic Block and the Southern Free States of Africa and South America. The Western Block is dominated by the multinational corporations, who have created a paradise for its citizens -- so everyone thinks.
Mickey O'Brien is the Eurasian, half Asian and half Irish. He has a problem with that, because all his friends are fully Asian. However, no one has actually met each other -- only their virtual projected images they show on their on-line classroom environment. He and his classmates meet each other for the first time as they go on a class trip to America. It turns out they all had things to hide.
In America, they accidentally discover what the Multinationals have been trying to hide. Their hover van is hijacked, and they are left trapped in the great American outback, a vast area of what was once U.S.A., now divided between countless republics. Some are Nazi, some are militant Christian and other redneck cowboy states, some Native American Nations, Mafia kingdoms, etc etc. The wild west is again wild. Once having stumbled in, can they ever find their way out again?
It's a story of finding out what's real, and discovering true faith as they become involved in an espionage war trying to prevent a Nazis takeover.
Mr. Singh appeared right on time, out of thin cyberspace.
'Good morning class. Everyone present? Ah, I see Derek Hong has yet to join us.'
'Logging in soon I think,' said Lo Peng. 'Just talked to him -- had to water the flowers.'
'No. Have real ones la.'
The sixteen of them -- minus one -- appeared to be sitting in a semicircle facing the instructor's console.
'My friend, Kim --' whispered Philip Kumar, leaning over to Mickey, '-- he have botany design game -- makes carnivorous...'
'While we wait,' intruded Mr. Singh -- his on-line presence was a stout, majestic, grey-bearded gentleman who, apart from his turban, could have passed for Professor Dumbledore -- 'I'll load the module for today, so we can start as soon as Derek gets here.'
Immediately, the space next to the professor began filling up with the usual script code, and an image began to materialise: a map of the North American West Coast.
'America? Wa! I thought Extension of Chinese...'
'Even did homework la!'
Mickey heaved a sigh of relief. He hadn't finished his.
'I'll explain it as soon as -- ah! He's logging in now. Good morning Derek. Glad you could join us.'
The space next to Lo Peng began materialising into the shape of Derek Hong.
'So,' began Mr. Singh, 'You're all wondering, why a map of North America? You'll remember that three months ago, we, as a class, put together a proposal for the field trip of our dreams. Well, it appears that someone in high places, in the Department of Education, in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, thought that it fit right in with their policy to enhance the West's perception of the Chinese half of the globe. In short, you will be taking your graduating class trip to North America. The official name for us will be the China Cultural Exchange Tour'
There was general cheering, both vocal and otherwise. Half of the seated images degenerated into fireworks, stars and other graphic images, the finale of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture resounded from where U Ta Gladstone sat, while Jimmy Khoo morphed to both look and sound like a collection of horns, bells, whistles and airborne confetti.
Mr. Singh brought the class to order by tapping the 'muffle' icon. Everyone reappeared in their assumed shapes.
'We'll have a lot of planning to do, special training, extra reading, you'll each receive an orientation packet that you'll be expected to view on your own. There are restrictions on what you're allowed to take with you; books, for instance. Today, we'll talk about your itinerary. Today's lesson, The Extension of Chinese Sovereignty -- Mid 21st Century, will roll over to tomorrow. Those who haven't completed their assignments -- I won't mention any names, as I'm sure Mickey would find that embarrassing -- you have one more day. Now, your itinerary...'
Both the city of San Francisco and Mickey's face, lit up in red.
'You will begin your trip here, on the Northern tip of the island of Baja California, which, as you can see, is separated from the North American mainland by the San Andreas Straight...'
The professor droned on, but Mickey had lost his concentration. Dreaming about this was all very well. Apart from Riu, his closest neighbour right here in Chantaburi, he had never actually met any of his classmates face to face. What did they really look like?
He knew that the real live Jonny Lim didn't resemble the cartoon character Astro Boy, and Lucy Kanda probably didn't look like Marilyn Monroe, nor Albert Fong, the younger version of Jackie Chan. Mickey O'Brien was the one student everyone assumed looked like himself -- whereas in actual fact, he had carefully modified his image to get rid of all his Eurasian features, making himself look the product of the Thai Chinese side of his family.
That sort of worried him.
* * *
Lounging on the veranda, Grandpa Abe watched the monkeys swing on the bamboos across the lake from their fruit orchard. Mickey sat on the swinging chair with his e-tablet on his lap, loaded with his delinquent homework assignment.
'Grandpa,' he started. 'You were around, weren't you, when China extended their sovereignty to all of East Asia?'
'Hah! Extended! I like the choice of words!'
'You don't sound very positive.'
'Well, I suppose change is inevitable. I was born Thai, I live the life of an Irishman, I'll die as a Chinese.'
'But our family is part Chinese, aren't we?'
'I suppose we are -- and it was only a matter of our motherland catching up with us foreign born Chinese. It's just too big. That's all. Now, Ireland, that's a nice small country. Manageable. Thailand used to be a small country once, not as small as Ireland, but now we're part of the giant super-power. Lost our uniqueness -- not that we had much of that left. I suppose we were ripe for a good take-over.'
'How?' queried Mickey.
'You got your history book there. What does that say?'
'It gives some background. I suppose the political crises in Thailand in the first quarter of the century, with the demise of the monarchy, and then the rising sea water, which flooded most of the central planes, and then the massive influx of non-Malays from the Malay Peninsula fleeing from the tide of radical Islamic repression...'
'Yes -- the entire Chinese as well as the Indian populations of the East Indies, bringing with them their English fluency, and their Chinese ways, to welcome the Southward expansion of the Beijing Empire as they "came to our rescue". The sleeping giant not only awakened, but took charge.'
'The -- what?'
'They used to call China the "sleeping giant". It woke up, just as everyone was afraid would happen, and now here we are, with Beijing central bureaucracy.'
'But it's not so bad, really.'
'Yes, the bark was worse than the bite. Thank Chinese pragmatism for that. But, of course, you grew up with all this. You've never known anything else. Me? I've been to dozens of countries in my time, all small, independent...'
'You know, our class is going on a trip to North America.'
'You're -- what?'
'Just announced today. We had this proposal that we wrote -- you know, just for the heck of doing a proposal. We didn't think anything would come of it. But, I guess, the Department of Foreign Affairs liked the idea -- you know, to educate them about us.'
'Ah, part of the propaganda machine. Probably what they need -- the Americans. They still think we all dress in green pyjamas with a wee red star on our caps, if we're not up to our knees in a paddy field somewhere. So, when do you go?'
'Twenty-eighth of next month.'
'So you'll get to help Uncle Jiu harvest the durian and rambutans first.'
After a long pause, Mickey said, 'Grandpa, do you think my friends will like me when they've seen me up close?'
'Why wouldn't they?'
'I mean -- if they suddenly know I'm Eurasian.'
'Don't they already know that by your surname?'
'They know me as Mickey Mao.'
'As in -- Mickey Mouse, or Mao Tse Tung?'
'Ha ha -- both.'
'Oh! Listen to you! Why do you think they won't accept you as you are?'
'Well -- the jokes they tell, and -- well -- the virtual classroom is the only place I don't hear farang dong, farang dong, everywhere I go.'
'So you don't look like a -- er -- pickled guava on-line?'
'No one looks like themselves on-line.'
'So there you go. They've all probably got deep dark secrets to hide from the world.'
* * *
Two hundred years earlier, most Europeans in Siam were French. The Thai word for a Frenchman, farang, was identical to the word for guava, the fruit. Later, farang came to apply to all white Europeans and North Americans. The pun, farang dong, was a European type who had been 'pickled' in Thai culture, either by staying a long time, or as the result of a mixed marriage.
The edible variety could be bought from a street vendor.
* * *
The whir of a hover scooter sounded from the driveway, as it died down to a stop. The two looked up in time to see Reverend Pongsak step up to the veranda.
'Good afternoon, Pastor,' said Grandpa.
'I think you not do road repair since you stop using rubber tires!' commented the clergyman.
'What brings you this way?'
'Ah! Not see us for two weeks, ah?' Grandpa always reverted to the regional Pigeon English when the occasion called for it.
'Yes, ha ha, notice that too. But how are you? How your cousin, Jiu?'
The said Cousin Jiu, Abe's partner in business, was napping in the hammock strung out between two of the pillars supporting the older, traditionally built, half of the house. He was surrounded by oil cans, tools, engine parts and a pile of early ripened durian.
'We all well, la. Next week very busy. Pick durian. But this Sunday you see us.'
'Ah, well -- Your sister, Rosemary. You hear from her?'
'Yes -- the thorn in your side.'
'You know, EFT churches, government recognised. We allied with Three Self Patriotic Movement in Beijing. We must keep good relations.'
'What's that to do with Rosemary?'
'She must come under covering of EFT. Officials asking questions, la.'
'But there hasn't been a crackdown on house churches since -- when?'
'Not in long time. That's true. But we must keep peace, la. House church? No control!'
'They acknowledge Christ as head of the church.'
'Ah! Christ the head! Christ the head! Christ the head of earthquake destroy Tokyo!'
'I forward your concern when I see her. Here! Let me pick out a durian for you. Your family, they like durian, ah?'
'Oh! No no, you mustn't!'
'No, I insist.'
Grandpa Abe walked to the pile next to where his cousin Jiu rested. He began to pick up various ones by their stem, tapping them with a long stick.
Uncle Jiu sprung to life and took a large durian from near him. 'Look nee sook raeo...' telling him, in Thai, this one was ready to open today, and the other one should be ripe in two days.
Reverend Pongsak drove away with two durians.
'What's he got against Aunt Rosemary?' asked Mickey, standing at Grandpa's side.
'Your Aunt Rosemary has done many times more for the church than that Pongsak ever will. She's a woman of God. Takes after her grandmother, after whom she was named. Our Grandmother Rosemary, in turn, followed the footsteps of her mother, Ma Hanna.'
'That was an awful long time ago.'
'1913, same year the Titanic sunk. She started a school for girls in Lampang. Later, she came back with her husband. My grandmother, Rosemary and her twin were born in Lampang. Later, Grandma Rosemary come out and marry Grandpa Willie in Tak province. They start new churches there. Your great grandpa, Boz born. He married Bless, Thai Chinese, so I'm the first Eurasian. The rest of us, Eurasian, down to you, Robby and Rosie.'
Mickey had heard the story hundreds of times, but Grandpa Abe seemed to enjoy telling it.
'Now you,' Grandpa went on. 'You have a great heritage. Don't be ashamed of being Eurasian.'
* * *
The sound of the hover-car coming up the driveway was unmistakeably that of Papa, returning from his office job in the nearby town of Makham. That was followed by the sound of footfalls on the gravel. But the sound was slower and more deliberate, and the taking off of his shoes on the veranda seemed to take some effort.
Mickey went out to look. Papa was struggling with a large box. Yet more books.
Over the last ten or so years, there had been a surge of used books on the market -- English language and, according to various handwritten notations, from places in California, Canada, Texas, Mexico. According to the electronic tags...
Mickey could remember first trying the scanning program one of his classmates had hacked. They revealed an intriguing history. The second to the last entry was always something like, 'Property of San Diego Archives', or 'Property of Vancouver Archives' -- always property of somewhere-or-other archives. The last entry was invariably, 'To be destroyed' and a date.
'Pity to destroy such great books,' Mickey had commented.
'Obviously, someone did the right thing in sending them here instead,' Papa had replied.
Now the family library included the complete works of Charles Dickens -- two or three of some titles, though never matching sets -- H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clark, Agatha Christi, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tokein, Brian Adlis, John Grisham, William Gibson, William Shakespeare, Tobias Buckell, Peter O'Tool, Michael Crichton, John Scalzi, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, Cory Doctorow, John Wright, Billy Whistle, just to name a few. There were also Bible commentaries, encyclopaedias, works on ancient history, and even a few tractates of the Talmud.
Mickey took the box from Papa, brought it inside and set it on the floor. Robby and Rosie ran over and began rummaging for any children's books. As usual, Mickey had his scanner.
Again, he noted the date on the 'To Be Destroyed' label. Always 2055, give or take a few months. Some had 2056, or 2057.
'Why did they suddenly decide on that date to destroy all these books,' wondered Mickey out loud. He had just scanned Idoru, by William Gibson. He set it on his own to-read pile, and then picked up The Brick of Heaven by Billy Whistle.
'What's that one there?' said Grandpa Abe, pointing at another.
Mickey picked it up, a paperback, with a headline and subtitles meant to shock: The Coming Purge, by Dustin Smith. The subtitles read, 'This may be the last book you'll be allowed to read!' 'Massive brainwashing campaign', and 'Major rewrite of history!'
'I remember him,' said Grandpa. 'A prophet of doom. We thought he was a ranting crack-pot.'
The book looked brand new, as though it had never been opened. Mickey looked at the inside front cover. There were prices pencilled in, crossed out, replaced by cheaper prices, no owner's name.
Mickey scanned the destruction tag: August, 2055.
'Same year as the rest,' said Mickey.
'Hmmm -- wonder if that was his prophecy, come true?' said Papa.
'You know, they won't let me take any books along to America,' said Mickey.
'They say I can download as many e-books as I like when I'm there, though.'
Mama piped in, 'Make sure you download a Bible, then.'
Just like her to say that, thought Mickey.
* * *
Mickey put on the head set and took his seat in the VR console and went off to visit his classmate, Philip Kumar.
The names of all his friends scrolled down through the air before him. He stuck his finger into the icon next to Philip's name. It turned to red to indicate that the call was going through. He knew Philip wouldn't be far from his console, as they had agreed to meet -- or if he happened to be downstairs, it would page him through his mobile.
The large body of Philip appeared, and his deep voice resounded, 'Hey! Mickey Mao! What gives?'
'New books, la.'
'You have one, William Gibson, Idoru? One after Virtual Light.'
'Have already. Still no have All Tomorrow's Parties. You have?'
'Don't have. Sorry. But I have this -- weird. My grandpa says written by crackpot prophet of doom. But I think he prophecy about why we get so many books.'
'Cool! Let me see!'
'Here. I put on scanner, you download.'
The machine began flipping rapidly through the pages.
'Ready for America?'
'Y-es.' There was a bit of hesitation in Philip's voice.
After a pause, he suddenly perked up and said said, 'I hope we can meet Monterey Jack.'
'Someone I talk to on-line. Live in California.'
'But California different Internet system!'
'He have to hack. He know we come. He tell us a lot!'
Bangkok Metropolitan Tower
Mickey had a window seat next to Riu. The hover-bus sped along in as straight a line as could be navigated, sometimes over the mud flats, sometimes over sea, but swerving around the islands. A line of hover-vehicles before and behind them showed that they were in the correct lane for traffic in their direction.
Ahead of them, he could see Pattaya Island. On this side, what was once Jomtien Beach, now an archipelago of ruined buildings standing in the water. Then, they saw the built up town of Pattaya Island, then beyond were similar ruins demarcating what used to be the great tourist resort of Pattaya City. Further along, was the island of Laem Chabang, then the dyked cities of Sriracha and Chonburi.
Generally the sea was to their left, in Mickey's plain view, and only where they swerved significantly inland could he see the mudflats, generally to their right, though covered with water at high tide. These were dotted by settlements consisting of buildings on stilts and platforms, families living off their plankton extractors or harvesting seaweed, taking the said produce to market by boat, buying what they could with the proceeds, but otherwise living primitively.
Both Mickey and Riu were silent. Mickey tried to break the silence.
'Wonder what they'll all look like,' he quipped.
'Dunno,' answered Riu.
Mickey wondered if Riu was bothered by the same concern as he. Though he already looked quite handsome in real life, Riu's on-line image made him look like some old movie star or other. He shouldn't be that concerned. Why was he so quiet?
On their next to last class session they had discussed the idea of coming to their last session looking like themselves. No one could bring themselves to do it. So now, they were on their way to meet one another with no idea what to expect.
Mickey remembered his grandfather's words, They've probably all got deep dark secrets to hide from the world. He didn't feel so bad now.
So, why was Riu bothered?
'What's the matter?' he ventured, finally.
After a pause, Riu said, 'Grandma not well.'
Riu lived with his grandma, Mickey remembered. She was all he had. His parents were both dead.
'Is it bad?'
'Yeah. I want to stay with her, but she want me to go on this trip.'
'She be okay when we get back, maybe?'
Riu sighed. 'I hope.'
They could now see the Bangkok Metro-Tower in the distance, growing steadily larger as they drew near. At high tide, the mud flats were indistinguishable from the open sea making the Bangkok Metro-Tower look, from this distance, as though it were standing on its five legs in middle of the sea. The pentagon formed by the legs was about three kilometres in diameter, and the structure, itself, was about five kilometres high, consisting of millions of cellular compartments suspended in a vast network of hydrlic tubes. Some had called it an overweight version of the Eiffel Tower.
As they came closer, they could see, sticking out of the water below the belly of the tower, the derelict buildings, parts of the old express way system, the Sky-train track, and bits of everything else that once stuck up in the air. Some of the more intact buildings were now fishing villages, some old Sky-train stations housed plankton extractors, or had become warehouses for harvested seaweed -- communities living their primitive lives under the shadow of ultra modern technology.
As they approached the Metro-Tower, the hover-bus aligned itself with one of the hundreds of portals leading into the lower levels. After entering, it zoomed on through semi darkness, past lit up areas, scenes that went past their eyes too quickly for observation, curving here, turning there, and finally coming to a stop. It was dark outside, but that wasn't the end of the line. The craft suddenly began to ascend like a lift. It reached its level, then it went on taking more turns, until they finally arrived at the hover-bus terminal.
Mickey always wondered why such a big place as a hover-bus terminal didn't have a direct route to the outside instead of so many twists and turns. It was a huge place.
The passengers disembarked on to a platform, and the two students, shouldering their backpacks, started off to the point where they were to meet Philip Kumar, Geoffrey Wong and Marisa Srisomboon. It was a café on the opposite side of the terminal from where they were -- a long walk.
The place was crowded. Mickey walked a bit behind Riu, keeping his hand on his back pack so as not to lose him. On his right was a boy wearing thick glasses, apparently by himself. Indian, by the look of him, hardly bigger than Robby. A bit young to be by himself, thought Mickey.
They were about to meet some of the others for the first time. Mickey wondered if some of them were nearby. Philip Kumar, maybe? He glanced about for someone who fit his perceived description of Philip -- large, broad-shouldered, with a deep voice -- even if he did show childish excitement at times. That tall man up ahead maybe? He looked a bit Indian. And was that Marisa Srisomboon over near the tall man who could be Philip? If it was, she was a dish!
Mickey continued walking, his hand on Riu's backpack. In his mind, he was following the tall man up ahead.
There was the café -- but the tall man kept right on walking. So did the lady he had hoped was Marisa. Riu and Mickey went in.
Table eleven -- there it was. There were two people sitting there already.
'Hi,' said Riu. 'I'm Riu, you must be ...?'
'Marisa,' said the long haired skinny girl that had looked a bit like Cleopatra on-line.
'Geoffrey,' said the fat boy with close-cropped hair.
'I'm -- er -- Mickey,' said Mickey.
'Wow!' said Marisa.
'Orang puteh!' said Geoffrey. 'Cool!'
So far not so bad, thought Mickey. Orang puteh was Malay for farang, meaning literally 'white man' -- not a derogatory term like the 'N-word'.
'We wait for Philip, then?' Mickey suggested.
'I guess,' said Marisa.
They sat down.
Mickey looked towards the door, and then around the room. No sign of anyone fitting the description.
About three metres away, between two other tables, was the boy he had noticed earlier, with the thick glasses.
He was standing there looking at them, terrified.
Mickey called out, 'Philip Kumar?'
The boy nodded, and walked slowly towards them.
'Er -- Hi, Philip. I'm Mickey.'
'Hi,' said Philip, in a voice that sound as far from the deep manly computer generated voice as could be imagined.
'You're kidding!' said Marisa.
'Wow!' said Geoffrey.
'Yeah -- wow!' said Riu.
'You do good job with virtual image, leh' said Mickey.
'No, lah, pian jia pian jia only,' said Philip, being unpretentious, smiling for the first time.
'So,' said Geoffrey. 'Go where?'
'Makan, I think, la,' said Marisa. 'They order for us already. Then, get shuttle go to other terminal.'
'Okay,' said Mickey. 'I tell the hostess.' He did.
A lot of Malay/Hokkien/Straits Chinese vocabulary had arrived in Thailand over the years via the mass migrations from the Southern Peninsula -- words like makan for 'food' and such.
They sat about the table nervously while the meal was brought -- fried noodles with seafood. They ate in silence.
After that, they walked to the inter-terminal shuttle. Philip walked close to Mickey's side, almost as though he were clinging to a big brother for security. Definitely not the image he projected in the virtual classroom.
'You don't look eighteen,' said Mickey.
'Actually, I'm thirteen,' said Philip. He looked small even for that.
'You -- er -- advanced quickly, then?'
'An exceptional child?'
At least this explained his childish giddiness in class.
They boarded the shuttle and again they were speeding, twisting and turning, lifting, until they were at the Northern Terminal. Being that this one serviced journeys to more distant places that required travel permits, they had to go through a check-in area, where they showed their papers. Then, they had to wait in a transit lounge.
Philip had to use the men's room, but didn't want to go by himself. Mickey went with him.
While Philip went into one of the stalls, Mickey used the urinal, and then went to the sink to wash his hands.
'Ah, Mickey! There you are!' A woman's voice. The tone of her voice sounded as though she had been expecting him.
A glance in the mirror told Mickey it was Aunt Rosemary!
'Wow! What are you doing here?'
'I work here now.' She produced her mop as evidence. 'Here. I have something for you.' She began reaching into her apron pocket.
'But -- how did you know I was here?'
'Abe told me two weeks ago you were going, so I took a job here to give you this.' She handed him a brown envelope.
'But -- I didn't even know my travel plans then! We could have left from --'
'Never mind that! Keep this with you. Put it in the inside pocket of your blue jacket. Don't open it until you get to Cactus Head.'
How did she know I had a blue jacket? Where the heck is Cactus Head? 'You got a job here just to see me?'
'Oh, no. The pressure was getting a bit high in Sakeo, so I decided to spend some time in Bangkok. We now have a group that meets in the staff lounge of this terminal. I must go now. Have a good trip. Remember, Cactus Head. Open the envelope there, not before. I'll be praying for you.'
She rushed out the door, just as the toilet flushed. Philip emerged.
'Who was that lady you talk to?'
'My aunt Rosemary,' said Mickey, still in a daze.
'She surprise you?'
'Yes, she did.'
'We better get back. Bus leave soon I think.'
They went back into the waiting area.
Hong Kong would be cooler than Bangkok, so Mickey decided to put on the blue jacket right away. He looked again at the envelope. The handwriting on the front said, 'Open in Cactus Head.' It fit perfectly in the inside pocket.
The departure to Hong Kong was announced, so the five students boarded. Philip still stuck close to Mickey and took a seat next to him.
The hover-bus took the coastal route, around Cambodia and Vietnam. Mickey recognised all the old sights, including Chantaburi, as they passed.
About half way to Hong Kong, Mickey and Philip were once again talking about all the things they used to do when Philip was a deep voiced giant and Mickey was a brown-skinned Thai: simulations, classic science fiction, and prophecies of doom.
Hong Kong was the official point from which to start any long trip. It was the one port still open to non-Chinese nationals of the buffer states, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, India and Singapore. Occasionally, they allowed visitors from the Islamic republics, and even from the Western Block into Hong Kong. Any excursions into other parts of China required special visas. Singapore was really a part of China, but being that it was an island wedged between the great Indochina Islamic Republic and the rebellious states (claimed by China) and rogue sultanates; Singaporeans entered the rest of China through that port for security reasons. Likewise, all outgoing travel Eastward originated from Hong Kong.
While the entire journey could have easily have been completed in one day, the plan was to spend the night in Hong Kong to make sure everyone made it.
* * *
'Woah! So you a gweilo ah?' was Johnny Lim's first reaction on meeting Mickey, followed by 'Woah! Who is this?' on seeing Philip.
Mickey lightened the atmosphere by asking after the classmate that looked like Astro Boy, which Johnny Lim looked like anything but. His shyness over what he really looked like also took the edge off his cockiness. He was tall and lanky to the point of being somewhat awkward. Lucy Kanda, Mickey could tell, would have preferred to appear in the nude, but looking like Marilyn Monroe, rather than to show her physical body fully clothed. Besides a little bit of acne, she really didn't look too bad.
After meeting them in the VIP lounge the five from Bangkok, along with Lucy, Johnny, Jimmy Khoo, Derek Hong took their vouchers to the local food centre where they wandered about the stalls and ordered their choice from the respective stall owner. After sitting around all evening, they retired to their bed sized cubicles near the VIP lounge.
* * *
'Adoi! A mat salleh!' exclaimed Albert Fong, on meeting Mickey.
The Singapore translation of farang, gweilo, and orang puteh, the word was commonly thought to be a corruption of 'mad sailor', from the early days of British colonialism.
Then, Albert noticed Philip. 'Wa! Who bring their little brother along, ah?'
'That's Philip Kumar,' said Mickey.
'You Philip Kumar? Ha ha! You only a ku ku chiao!' -- the Hokkien equivalent of 'pipsqueak'.
Philip simply glared at him as he went on to size up his other classmates.
Far from sporting a Jacky Chan physique, Albert was short, fat and barely into his adolescence. Though Mickey knew that mat salleh wasn't necessarily a derogatory word in itself, Albert had the nack of making it sound like the N-word.
* * *
U Ta Gladstone arrived from Chingmai later that morning, via an old fashion aeroplane.
* * *
The last to arrive looked like a recent university graduate, thin, with only the beginnings of a beard, and his uncut hair tied in a ponytail. His Indian features threw everyone off.
'Who are you?'
'I know -- Philip Kumar!' said Albert Fong.
'Here already la!' shouted Philip.
'Then one of you is...'
'Class, class! Don't you know your dear professor when you see him?' said the newcomer.
'It's me, your own Mr. Singh, in person! Alright. Everyone here?'
'All but Lo Peng, Martin and Nerender,' said Marisa.
'And Philip Kumar,' added Albert Fong.
'Hoi!' started Philip.
'I've been informed those three won't be joining us. Now, did everyone do as instructed, and pack only essential clothing and toiletries? No one has any reading material apart from the travel manual on your e-tablet?'
'No books, la!'
'All my naked girlie magazine, delete just now la,' said Albert.
Mr Singh continued, 'As soon as we are ready, we can board our vessel.'
'What departure time?'
'There are no scheduled flights to North America,' replied Mr. Singh. 'Departures are on a need-to-go basis. We need to go -- so they've provided a flight. So, does anyone have any last minute business? There will be no going to the toilet on the flight.'
After some sorting out of bags and belongings, and trips to the toilet, they were off down the corridor towards the flight terminal.
'Have any of you ever been on one of these flights before?' asked Mr. Singh, as they stood on the conveyor belt.
'Flew aeroplane from Chiengmai,' said U Ta.
'I wouldn't call this an aeroplane. You'll feel the weight below you as you ascend to above the atmosphere, then you'll feel pressure from behind as the craft accelerates to a tremendous speed, followed by weightlessness as we descend. The entire flight will take two hours, during which time, no one is to leave their seat. In fact, your seatbelts will be locked, and the backs of your seats will adjust automatically so as to give maximum support for your body. Any questions?'
'Nice view, I bet,' said Lucy.
'I don't know,' replied Mr. Singh. 'Haven't ever been on one myself. They were developed a bit late to be used as commercial aircraft -- the way the world has been divided up.'
'Not true, la,' said Philip to Mickey. 'But because China consolidate all into one part of globe, for us only, not practical. But Western Block use them -- trips from Australia to North America to Germany. Islamic Block use them, from Europe to East Indies. Also Southern Free States, flights from South America to Africa.'
'How you know so much?'
'You meet him -- how?'
'He hack, know we coming, know details.'
At the end of the conveyor belt, the group walked to the big door. For the first time since arriving in Hong Kong, the group stepped outdoors. Ahead of them was a massive platform, or was it a deck, mounted on the side of the metro-tower. In the middle was what was apparently the craft Mr. Singh had been describing. It looked like a sawed off version of the old space shuttles NASA used to send up.
Mickey and Philip were next to the guard rail, from which they caught a glimpse of the ground. From here, they could tell that the platform, on which they stood, was, in fact mounted on one of the three legs of the metro-tower. This leg was planted in the middle of Wan Chai on Victoria Island, and rose at an angle towards the main body of the tower. Perched on the leg in step formation were towers that blended in with the ancient skyscrapers that still stood on the ground. The tops of the highest of them were at eye-level. The other two legs came down in Tsim Sha Sui and North Point. Below the belly of the metro-tower was the Hong Kong harbour. Mickey could see ships coming and going, and even a few old fashion junks.
Much of Hong Kong was high enough in elevation to have not been so badly affected by the rising sea water. However, there were many house boat communities lining the edges of the land masses.
Mickey wanted to look some more, but Mr. Singh was calling them to the craft.
They ascended by steps near the front of the craft. Once inside, a hostess directed them into two separate compartments running along either side, separated by what Mickey guessed was the rocket motor.
Despite the size of the craft, there wasn't much space inside. The compartment Mickey and Philip entered had only twelve rows of two seats with the aisle on one side and the window on the other. Across the aisle was the inner wall. Even though Mickey couldn't remember seeing the windows from the outside, they were quite large, enough for both passengers seated together to see out. There was lots of room between each pair of seats, each had its own arm rests and lower leg support.
Philip was still clinging to Mickey's side.
Stuck with you again! Can't I sit with one of the girls just once?
'I take window seat okay?'
Hoi! Sit with me AND take window seat?
Mickey let him in without complaint -- all because Albert Fong didn't know when to stop.
Everyone settled in, and fastened their seatbelts as requested. These consisted of two shoulder straps as well as one that went around the waist and between the legs. Once everyone had fastened themselves in, they heard an audible 'click' as they locked. Then, a safety bar came down in front of each passenger, and the back and lower leg support automatically adjusted.
The craft lifted off vertically. They saw portions of the metro-tower, and parts of Hong Kong and the rest of China from the window on their left. They kept rising until they had cleared the tower. Then, the craft tilted upward, while the seats adjusted by tipping forward slightly, so that the passengers were no longer seated behind one another next to an aisle, but above and below each other, in semi-reclining position like a very tall bunk bed.
Then, the deafening roar, the G force, the speed. The cabin pressure automatically compensated for altitude, so there was no discomfort to the ears. That couldn't be said for the rest of the body, which felt like it had become a seat for an elephant.
As the world below began to look like a TV weather map, the craft slowly tilted forward again, and the seats, back. The pressure on their bodies lessened, but only for so long. Now; forward thrust, but that was more bearable, more like that of an ordinary take-off down a runway, though sustained for a longer period of time.
Finally, they were at cruising speed.
'Cool!' said Philip.
'So this is outer space, ah?'
'Wonder what America like?'
'Just like Hong Kong, I bet.'
'What does your friend say?' said Mickey.
'Who? Monterey Jack?'
'Not much. Just talk about what's behind it. He say, "Everything fake", like everything The Matrix one.'
'You mean everyone, like, attached to wires and tubes, and they only think they're walking about?'
'No la. Not that bad,' replied Philip. 'Just everything not what it looks like. And that book you send me, about no more print books, and change history, he say, "Happened already".'
'That's what he say.'
'Whole Western Block?'
'Whole North America. Maybe not Australia, Ireland, Germany -- I think they buffer zone, just like China have Japan, Korea...'
'In all North America, no print books, only e-books?' asked Mickey.
'Yeah, I guess.'
'How do they change history?'
They sat in silence, gazing at the view below. The girls in the seat ahead of them had closed their window. They could hear Albert Fong a few seats beyond, chatting with Derek Hong.
'Albert Fong, he very the scumbag one la,' whispered Philip.
Then, they began their descent.