For a change, Huw's head hurts more than his bladder. He's lying head-down, on his back, in a bathtub. He scrabbles for a handhold and pulls himself upright. A tub is a terrible place to spend a nightor a morning, come to think of ithe blinks and sees that it's midafternoon. The light slanting in through a high window limns the strange bathroom's treacly Victorian fixtures with a roseate glow.
That was quite a party. He vaguely remembers the gathering dawn, its red glow staining the wall outside the kitchen window as he discussed environmental politics with a tall, shaven-headed woman with a blue forelock and a black leather mini-dress straight out of the twentieth century. (He has an equally vague memory of her defending a hardcore transhumanist line: score nil-nil to both sides.) A brief glance tells him that this room wasn't a bathroom when he went to sleep in it: bits of the bidet are still crawling into position and there's a strong smell of VOCs in the air.
His head hurts.
Leaning over the sink, Huw twiddles the taps until they begin to dribble cold water. He splashes his face and runs his hand through his thinning hair, glances up at the mirror, and yells "Shit!"
There's a spindly black biohazard trefoil tattooed on his forehead. It wasn't there yesterday.
Behind him, the door opens. "Having a good morning?" asks Sandra Lal, whose mutable attic this must therefore be. She's holding a three-kilo minisledge in one hand, tossing it into the air and catching it like a baton-twirler, her grotesquely muscled forearm bulging with hyperpressured blood and hormones at each catch.
"I wish," he groans. Sandra's parties tend to be wild. "Am I too late for the dead dog?"
"You're never too late." Sandra smiles broadly, camping it up. "Coffee's on in the kitchen, which is on the ground floor today. Bonnie gave me a subscription to House of the Week and today's my new editiondon't worry if you can't remember where everything is, just remember the entrance is at ground level, okay?"
"Coffee," Huw says fervently. His head is pounding, but so is his bladder. "Um. Can I have a minute?"
"Yes, but I'd like my spare rest room back afterwards. It's going to be en-suite, but first I've got to knock out the wall through into the bedroom." She hefts her sledgehammer suggestively.
Huw slumps down on the toilet as Sandra shuts the door behind her and bounces off to roust out any other left-over revelers. He shakes his head as he relieves himself: trapped in a mutating bathroom by a transgendered atheist Pakistani role-playing critic. Why do I keep ending up in these situations? he wonders as the toilet gives him a scented wash and blow-dry: when it offers him a pubic trim he hastily retrieves his kilt and goes in search of coffee.
Sandra's new kitchen is frighteningly modernit's one of those white room jobs that looks empty at first, sterile as an operating theatre, but oozes when you glance away, extruding worktops and food processors and fresh-fabbed cutlery. If you sit suddenly there'll be a chair waiting to catch your buttocks on the way down. No separate appliances, just smart matter and raw ingredient feedstock. Last night it looked charmingly gas-fired and Victorian, but now Huw can see it in the raw. He feels queasy, wondering if he ate anything from it. But relief is at hand. At the far end of the room there's a traditional-looking dumb worktop with a battered old-fashioned electric cafetière sitting on it. And some joe who looks strangely familiar is sitting there reading a newsheet.
Huw nods at him. "Uh, where are the mugs?" he asks.
The guy stares at Huw's forehead for an uncomfortable moment, then gestures at something foggy that's stacked behind the pot. "Pick one of those," he says.
"Uh, right." Glassy aerogel cups with walls a centimeter thick, light as frozen cigar smoke. He takes the jug and pours, hand shaking. Huw has got the hot-and-cold sweats. What the hell was I drinking? he wonders as he takes a sip.
He glances at his companion, evidently another survivor of the party: a medium-height bald joe, maybe in his mid-thirties, with the unnaturally stringy build that comes from overusing a calorie-restriction implant. No piercings, no scars, tattoos, or neomorphismsapart from his figurewhich might be natural. That plus his black leather body suit means he could be a fellow naturalist. But this is Sandra's house, and she has distressingly eclectic tastes.
"That today's?" he asks, glancing at the paper.
"It could be." The fellow puts it down and grins oddly. "Had a good lie-in?"
"I woke up in the bathroom," Huw says ruefully. "Milk"
"Here." He shoves something that resembles a bowl of blue ice-cubes at Huw. Huw pokes at one dubiously, then dunks it in his mug. "Hey, this stuff is organic, isn't it?"
"Only the best polymer-stabilized emulsions for Sandra," the joe says sardonically. "Of course it's organicnothing but carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and a tinge of oxygen to them." Huw takes a sip. "Of course, you could say the same about your cellphone," adds the stranger.
"Ah." Huw puts the mug down, unsure where the conversation's leading. There's something disturbing about this: a sense of déjà vu nagging at the edges of his mind, as if
"You don't remember me, do you?" asks his companion.
"Alcohol has this effect on me at times," Huw confesses in a grateful rush. "I've got an awful memory"
"The name's Bonnie," says the man. "You spent most of the early hours trying to cop a feel by convincing me that Nietzsche was responsible for global cooling." Huw stares at him and feels something in his head do an uneasy flip-flop: yes, the resemblance is clear, this is the woman he was talking to last night. " 's amazing what a good bathroom can do in the way of cellular redifferentiation surgery these days, you know?" the bald guyBonnie?continues. Then he winks at Huw with what Huw realizes, to his horror, is either lascivious intent or broad and filthy-minded humor. "How's your hangover? Are you up to picking things up where we left off?"
"Aaaugh," says Huw, as the full force of the post-party cultural hangover hits him between the eyes, right beneath the biohazard trefoil, and the coffee hits his stomach. "Need fresh air now
· · · · ·
The next morning, Huw wakes up more gently. Awakened by sunlight, but this time in his own bed. He yawns and sits up, pauses for a moment to get his bearings, then ventures down the comfortably unchanging stairs to retrieve his post. The dusty tiles in his vintage late-nineteenth-century terrace house are cold beneath his bare feet. A draft leaks around the ill-fitting outer door, raising gooseflesh on his bare legs. Two-thirds of the mail is spam, which goes straight on the recycle-before-reading pile, but there's also a genuine letter, complete with a stamp on the envelope. Ink on papersomeone took the trouble to communicate with him personally, putting dumb, thrax-prone matter in motion to make a point.
He rips the envelope open with a cracked fingernail. He reads: your application for international triage jury service has been provisionally accepted. To activate your application, present this letter in person to
He carries the letter through into the kitchen, puts it on the table so he can keep an eye on it as he eats. He barely notices the morning chill as the battered Red Crescent surplus food processor barfs up a lukewarm cup of Turkish coffee, a vague facsimile of scrambled eggs, and an even vaguer pastiche of bacon. Today is Huw's big day. He's been hoping for this day for months.
Soon, he'll get to say what he thinks about some item of new technologyand they'll have to listen to him.
· · · · ·
Welcome to the fractured future, at the dusk of the twenty-first century.
Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun. Except for the solitary lighthouse beam that perpetually tracks the Earth in its orbit, the system from outside resembles a spherical fogbank radiating in the infrared spectrum; a matrioshka brain, nested Dyson orbitals built from the dismantled bones of moons and planets.
The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar-system has largely sworn off its pre-post-human cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander nostalgiawise. When that happens, it casually spams Earth's RF spectrum with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.
A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there's always someone who'll take a bite from the forbidden Cox Pippin. There's always someone whom evolution has failed to breed the let's-lick-the-frozen-fencepost instinct out of. There's always a fucking geek who'll do it because it's a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative.
Whether the enlightened, occulting smartcloud sends out its missives as pranks, poison or care-packages is up for debate. Asking it to explain its motives is roughly as pointful as negotiating with an ant colony to get it to abandon your kitchen. Whatever the motive, humanity would be much better off if the Cloud would evolve into something so smart as to be uninterested in communicating with meatpeople.
But until that happy day, there's the tech jury service: defending the earth from the scum of the post-singularity patent office.
· · · · ·
After breakfast, Huw pulls on jeans, boots, and shirt. He locks the front door carefully behind himself and tells his bicycle to unbolt itself from the rusting red drainpipe that stains the brick side of his house with green moss. He pedals uncertainly to the end of the road, then eases out into traffic, sneering as the omnipresent web of surveillance routes the peoplemovers around him.
Safe cycling is one of the modern conveniences that irritate him most. Also: polite youngsters with plastic smiles; cops who think like social workers; and geeks who think they understand technology. Geeks, the old aristocracy. He'll show them, one of these days. Huw wobbles along the side of the main road and pulls in beside the door of the Libyan consulate.
"Mister Rogers? I am pleased to meet you." The young man behind the desk has a plastic smile and is far too polite for Huw's taste: Huw grunts assent and sits down in the indicated seat. "Your application has been forwarded to us and, ah? If you would be pleased to travel to our beautiful country, I can assure you of just one week's jury service."
Huw nods again.
The polite man fidgets with the air of someone trying to come up with an inoffensive way of saying something potentially rather rude. "I'm pleased to inform you that our young land is quite tolerant of other culture's customs. I can assure you that whatever ISO-standard containment suit you choose to bring with you will be respected by our people."
Huw shakes his head. "What huh?"
"Your, that is, your" The smiler leans across his desk and points at Huw's trefoil-marked forehead. The finger he points with meets resistance. A plastic sheet has hermetically sealed Huw's side of the room off from the rest of the consulate. It is so fantastically transparent that Huw hasn't even noticed it until the smiler's finger puckered a singularity in its vertical run, causing it to scatter light at funny angles and funhouse distort the solid and sensible wood-paneled walls behind the desk.
"Ah," Huw says. "Ah. No, you see, it's a joke of some sort. Not an official warning."
"I'm very glad to hear it, Mister Rogers! You will, of course, have documents attesting to that before you clear our immigration?"
"Right," Huw says. "Of course." Fucking Sandra. Whether or not she is directly responsible for the tat is beside the point. It happened on her prem, therefore she is culpable. Dammit. He has errands to run before he catches the flightattracting the attention of the gene police is not on his agenda.
"Then we will see you soon." The smiler reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small tarnished metal teapot which he shoves experimentally at the barrier. It puckers around it and suddenly the teapot is sitting on Huw's side of the desk, wearing an iridescent soap-bubble of pinched-off containment. "Peace be with you."
"And you," says Huw, rising. The interview is obviously at an end. He picks up the teapot and follows the blinkenlights to the exit from the consulate, studiously avoiding the blurred patches of air where other visitors are screened from one another by the utility fog. "What now?" he asks the teapot.
"Blrrrt. Greetings, tech-juror Rogers. I am a guidance iffrit from the People's Magical Libyan Jamahiriya. Show me to representatives of the People's Revolutionary Command Councils and I am required to intercede for you. Polish me and I will install translation leeches in your Broca's area, then assist you in memorizing the Qur'an and hadiths. Release me and I will grant your deepest wish."
"Um, I don't think so." Huw scratches his head. Fucking Sandra, he thinks again, then he packs the pot into his pannier and pedals heavily away towards the quaint industrial-age pottery where he oversees the antique solid-volume renderers, applies the finishing human touches, and packs the finished articles for shipment. It's going to be a long working dayalmost five hoursbefore he can get around to trying to sort this mess out, but at least the wet squishy sensation of clay under his fingernails will help calm the roiling indignation he feels at his violation by a random GM party prankster.
· · · · ·
Two days later, Huw's waiting with his bicycle and a large backpack on a soccer field in a valley outside Monmouth. It has rained overnight, and the field is muddy. A couple of large crows sit on the rusting goal-post, regarding him curiously. There are one or two other people slouching around the departure area dispiritedly. Airports just haven't been the same since the end of the jet age.
Huw tries to scratch the side of his nose, irritably. Fucking Sandra, he thinks again as he pokes at the opaque spidergoat silk of his biohazard burka. He'd gone round to remonstrate with her after work the other day, only to find that her house had turned into a size two thousand Timberland hiking boot and the homeowner herself had decided to winter in Fukuyama this year. A net search would probably find her but he wasn't prepared to expose himself to any more viruses this week. One was quite enoughespecially after he discovered that the matching trefoil brand on his shoulder glowed in the dark.
A low rumble rattles the goal post and disturbs the crows as a cloud-shadow slides across the pitch. Huw looks up, and up, and uphis eyes can't quite take in what he's seeing. That's got to be more than a kilometer long! he realizes. The engine note rises as the huge catamaran airship jinks and wobbles sideways towards the far end of the pitch and engages its station-keeping motors, then begins to unreel an elevator car the size of a shipping container.
"Attention, passengers now waiting for flight FL-052 to North Africa and stations in the Middle East, please prepare for boarding. This means you." Huw nearly jumps out of his skin as one of the customs crows lands heavily on his shoulder. "You listening, mate?"
"Yes, yes, I'm listening." Huw shrugs and tries to keep one eye on the big bird. "Over there, huh?"
"Boarding will commence through lift bzzt gurgle four in five minutes. Even-numbered passengers first." The crow flaps heavily towards the huge, rusting shipping container as it lands in the muddy field with a clang. "All aboard!" it squawks raucously.
Huw wheels his bike towards the steel box then pauses as a door opens and a couple of confused-looking Australian backpackers stumble out, leading their kangaroo-familiars. "Boarding now!" adds the crow.
Huw waits while the other three passengers step aboard, then gingerly rolls his bike inside and leans against the guardrail spot-glued to the wall. "Haul away lively, there!" someone yells above, and there's a creak of ropes as the cargo container lurches into the air. Even before it's clear of the goal posts the huge airship has cut the station-keepers and is spooling up to its impressive fifty knot cruising speed. Huw looks down at the town and the mediaeval castle unrolling beneath him and takes a deep breath. He can tell this is going to be a long trip.
His nose is itching again.
· · · · ·
Air travel is so slow you'd almost always be faster going by train. But the Gibraltar bridge is down for repair again and last time Huw caught a TGV through the Carpathians he was propositioned incessantly by a feral privatized blood bank that seemed to have a thing for Welsh T-helper lymphocytes. At least this tramp floater with its cargo of Christmas trees and chameleon paint is going to give Huw and his fellow-passengers a shortcut around the Mediterranean, even if the common room smells of stale marijuana smoke and the other passengers are all dubious cheapskate hitchers and netburn cases who want to ship their meatbodies around instead of doing the decent (and sanitary) telepresence thing.
Huw isn't dubious; he's just on jury service, which requires your physical in-the-flesh presence to prevent identity spoofing by imported weakly godlike AIs and suchlike. But judging from the way the other passengers are avoiding him he looks dubious. Or maybe it's just the biohazard burka and the many layers of anti-nanophage underwear he's trussed up in underneath it. There has got to be a better way of fighting runaway technology, he tells himself on the second morning as he prepares to go get some breakfast.
Most of the airship's crew are uplifted gibbons, and during their years of plying the skyways over the Middle East they've picked up enough Islam that it's murder getting the mess deck food processors to barf up a realistic bacon sandwich. Huw has his mouth-lock extended and is picking morosely at a scrambled egg and something that claims to be black pudding with his fork when someone bounces into the seat beside him, reaches into the folds of his burka and tears off a bite of the sandwich.
The stranger is a disreputable backpacker in wash-n-wear tropical-weight everything, the smart-wicking, dirt-shedding, rip-stopping gossamer uniform of the globe-slogging hostel-denizens who write long, rambling HOWTOs online describing their adventures living in Mumbai or Manhattan or some other blasted corner of the world for six months on just five dollars. This one clearly fancies himself quite a merry traveller, eyes a-twinkle, crowsfeet etched by a thousand foreign sunsets, dimples you could lose a fifty-dollar coin in.
" 'ello!" he says, around a mouthful of Huw's sandwich. "You look interesting. Let's have a conversation!"
"You don't look interesting to me," Huw says, plunking the rest of his food on the backpacker's lap. "Let's not."
"Oh, come on," the backpacker says. "My name's Adrian, and I've loads of interesting anecdotes about my adventures abroad, including some rather racy ones involving lovely foreign ladies. I'm very entertaining, honestly! Give me a try, why don't you?"
"I really don't think so," Huw says, pointedly. "You'd best get back into your seatthe monkeys don't like a disorderly cabin. Besides, I'm infectious."
"Monkeys! You think I'm worried about monkeys? Brother, I once spent a month in a Tasmanian work-camp for public drunkennessimagine, an Australian judge locking an Englishman up for drunkenness! There were some hard men in that camp, let me tell you. The aborigines had the black-market liquor racket all sewn up, but the Maori prisoners were starting up their own thing, and here's me, a poor, gormless white man in the middle of it all, dodging home-made shivs and poison arrows. Went a week without eating after it got out that the Maoris were smearing shit in the cookpots to poison the abos. Biowar, that's what it was! By the end of that week, I was hallucinating angels and chewing scrub-grass I found on work-details, while the abos I was chained to shat themselves bloody and collapsed. I caught a ballistic out of there an hour after I'd served my sentence, got shot right to East Timor, where I gorged myself on Gado-Gado and Riztaffel and got food poisoning anyway and spent the night in the crapper, throwing up my lungs. So don't tell me about monkeys!" Adrian broke off his monologue and began industriously masticating the rest of Huw's lunch.
"Yes, that's all very disgusting. I'm going to have a bit of a nap now, all right?"
"Oh, don't be a weak sister!" says Adrian. "You won't last five minutes in Libya with an attitude like that. Never been to Libya, have you?"
"No," Huw says, pointedly bunching up a fold of burka into a pillow and turning his head away.
"You'll love it. Nothing like a taste of real, down-home socialism after dirty old London. People's this and Popular that and Democratic the other, everyone off on the latest plebiscite, holding caucuses in the cafes. It's fantastic! The girls, toofantastic, fantastic. Just talk a little politics with them and they'll bend your ear until you think you're going to fall asleep, and then they'll try to bang the bourgeois out of you. In twos and threes, if you're recalcitrant enough. I've had some fantastic nights in Libya. I can barely wait to touch down."
"Adrian, can I tell you something, in all honesty?"
"Sure, mate, sure!"
"You're a jackass. Really revolting and duller than I can imagine. If you don't get the fuck back to your own seat, I'm going to tell the monkeys you're threatening to blow up the airship and they'll strap you into a restraint-chute and push you overboard."
"You're a bloody card, you are."
Huw gathers up his burka, stands, climbs over Adrian and moves to the back of the cabin. He selects an empty row, slides in, and stretches out. A moment later, Adrian comes up and grabs his toe, then wiggles it.
"All right then, we'll talk later. Have a nice nap. Thanks for the sarnie!"
· · · · ·
It takes three days for the tramp freighter to bumble its way to Tripoli. It gingerly climbs to its maximum pressure height to skirt the wild and beautiful (but radioactive and deadly) Normandy coastline, then heads south-east, to drop a cargo of incognito Glaswegian gangsters on the outskirts of Marseilles. Then it crosses the Mediterranean coast, and spends a whole twenty-two hours doodling in broad circles around Corsica. Huw tries to amuse himself during this latter interlude by keeping an eye open for smugglers with micro-UAVs, but even this pathetic attempt at distraction falls flat when, after eight hours, a rigging monkey scampers into the forward passenger lounge and delivers a fifty-minute harangue about worker's solidarity and the black gang's right to strike in flight, justifying it in language eerily familiar to anyone wholike Huwhas spent days heroically probing the boundaries of suicidal boredom by studying the proceedings of the Third Communist International.
Having exhausted his entire stash of antique read-only books two days into a projected two-week expedition, and having found his fellow passengers to consist of lunatics and jackasses, Huw succumbs to the inevitable. He glues his burka to a support truss in the cargo fold, dials the eye slit to opaque, swallows a mug of valerian-laced decaff espresso, and estivates like a lungfish in the dry season.
His first warning that the airship has arrived comes when he awakens in a sticky sweat. Is the house on fire? he wonders muzzily. It feels like someone has opened an oven door and stuck his feet in it, and the sensation is climbing his chest. There's an anxious moment, then he gets his eye slit working again, and is promptly inundated with visual spam.
"Hello! Welcome effendi! The Thousand Nights and One Night Hotel welcomes careful westerners! We take euros, dollars, yen, and hash (subject to assay)! For a good night out visit Ali's American Diner! Hamburgers one hundred percent Halal goat here! Need travel insurance and ignorant of shari'a banking regulations? Let the al-Jammu Traveler's Assistance put your mind to rest with our"
Huw instantly posts a bid for adbuster proxy services, picks the cheapest on offer, and waits patiently for his visual field to clear. After a minute or two he can see again, except for a persistent and annoying green star in the corner of his left eye. Finally, he struggles to unglue himself and looks about.
The passenger lounge is almost empty, a door gaping open in one side. Huw wheels his bicycle over and hops down onto the dusty concrete apron of the former airport. It's already over thirty degrees in the shade, but once he gets out of the shadow of the blimp his burka's solar-powered air conditioning should sort that out. The question is, where to go next? "Hmm." He rummages crossly in the pannier until he finds the battered teapot. "Hey, you. Iffrit! Whatever you call yourself. Which way to the courtroom?"
A cartoon djinn pops into transparent life above the pot's nozzle and winks at him. "Peace be unto you, oh esteemed Madame tech-juror Rogers Huw! If you will but bear with me for a moment" The iffrit fizzles for a moment as it hunts for a parasitic network to colonize"I believe you will first wish to enter the terminal buildings and present yourself to the Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, to present your entry visa. Then they will direct you to a hotel where you will be accommodated in boundless paradisiacal luxury at the expense of the grateful People's Magical Libyan Jamahiriya! (Or at least in a good VR facsimile of paradise.)"
"Uh-huh." Huw looks about. The airport is a deserted dumpliterally deserted, for the anti-desertification defenses of the twentieth century, and the greenery planted under the aegis of King Muammar the First, have faded. The Libyan national obsession with virtual landscaping (not to mention emigration to Italy) has led to the return of the sand dunes, and the death of the gas-guzzling airline industry has left the airport with the maintenance budget of a rural cross-country bus stop. Broken windows gape emptily from rusting tin huts; a once-outstanding airport terminal building basks in the heat like a torpid lizard, doors open to the breeze, and even the local snack vendors don't seem to come here any more.
It takes Huw half an hour to find the Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, a wizened-looking old woman who has her Nike-soled feet propped up on a battered wooden desk in the lobby beneath the International Youth Hostelling sign, snoring softly through her open mouth.
"Excuse me, but are you the government?" Huw asks politely, talking through his teapot translator. "I have come from Wales to serve on a technology jury. Can you direct me to the public transport terminus?"
"I wouldn't bother if I were you," someone says from behind him, making Huw jump so high he almost punches a hole in the yellowing ceiling tiles. "She's moonlighting, driving a Thai investment bank's security bots on the evening shift. See the bandwidth?"
"Um, no, as a matter of fact I don't," Huw says defensively. "I stick to the visible spectrum."
The interloper is probably female and from somewhere in northern Europe, judging by the way she's smeared zinc ointment across her entire observable epidermis. Chilly fog spills from her cuffs at wrist and ankle and there's the whine of a peltier cooler pushed to the limit coming from her bum-bag. About all Huw can see of her is her eyes and an electric blue ponytail erupting from the back of her anti-melanoma hood.
"Isn't it a bit rude to snoop on someone else's dreams?" he adds.
"Not really." The interloper shrugs, then grins alarmingly at him. "It's what I do for a living." She offers him a hand, and before he can stop himself he's shaking it politely. "I'm Björk. Doctor Björk."
"I know what you're going to say, named after the early twenty-first century bard, yes. I specialize in musical dream therapy. And I'm here on a tech jury gig, too. Perhaps we'll get a chance to work on the same case?"
At that moment the Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council coughs, spasms painfully, sits up, and looks around querulously. I'm not working! Honest! She exclaims through the medium of Huw's teapot translator. Then, getting a grip: "Oh, you're tourists. Can I help you?"
Her manner is so abrupt and rude that Huw feels right at home. "Yes, yes," he declares impatiently. "We're jurors and we need to get to a hotel. Where's the light rail terminal or bus stand?"
"Are no busses. Today is Friday, can't you read?"
"Friday" Huw does a double-take.
"Yes, but how are we to our hotel to ride?" asks Doctor Björk, sounding puzzled.
"Why don't you walk?" the Council asks with gloomy satisfaction. "Haven't you got legs? Didn't Allah, the merciful, bless you with a full complement of homeobox genes?"
"But it's" Huw consults his wrist-map and does a double-take"twelve kilometers! And it's forty-three degrees in the shade!"
"It's Friday," the old woman repeats placidly. "Nothing works on Fridays. It's in the Qur'an."
"So why are you working for a Burmese banking cartel as a security bot supervisor?" Björk asks sharply.
"That's!" the Council glares at her. "That's none of your business!"
"Burma isn't an Islamic country," Huw muses aloud, seeing which direction Björk is heading in. Maybe she's not a fucknozzle after all, he thinks to himself, although he has his doubts about anyone who has anything to do with dream therapy, much less musical dream therapy. (Unless she's only in it for purely practical reasons, such as money.) "Do you suppose they might be dealing with their demographic deficit by importing out-of-timezone gastarbeiters from Islamic countries who want to work on the day of rest?"
"What an astonishing thought!" echoes Björk. "That must be illegal, mustn't it?"
"Stop! Stop!" The Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council puts her hands up in the air. "I have a nephew, he has a car! Perhaps he can give you a ride on his way to mosque? I'm sure he must be going there in only half an hour, and I'm sure your hotel will turn out to be on his way."
The car, when it arrives, is a gigantic early twenty-first century Mercedes diesel, with tinted windows and air conditioning and plastic seats that have cracked and split in the dry desert heat. A brilliantly detailed green-and-silver miniature mosque conceals a packet of tissues on the rear parcel shelf and the dash is plastered with green and gold stickers bearing edifying quotations from the hadiths. The Council's nephew looks too young to bear the weight of his huge black moustache, let alone to be driving this Teutonic behemoth, but at least he's awake and moving in the noonday furnace-heat.
"Hotel Marriott," Björk says. "Vite-schnell-pronto! íHale, hale!"
The Mercedes crawls along the highway like a dung beetle on the lowest step of a pyramid. As they head towards the outskirts of the mostly-closed city of Tripoli Huw feels the gigantic and oppressive weight of advertising bearing down on his proxy filters. When Libya got serious about consumerism in the second decade of millennium three, they went overboard on superficial glitz and cheezy sloganizing. The deluge of CoolTown webfitti they're driving through alternates between insanely dense technobabble and a bizarrely arabized version of discreet Victorian trader's notices, with just a seasoning of old-time anti-western paranoia. Once they drive under the threshold of the gigantic tinted geodesic dome that hovers above the city, lifted on its own column of hot air, it finally gets through to Huw: he's not in Monmouth any more, or even Bradford.
The Council's nephew narrates a shouted, heavily accented travelogue as they hoot and lurch through the traffic, but most of it is lost in the roar of the air-conditioner and the whine of the differential. What little Huw can make out seems to be pitches for local businessescafes, hash-bars, amusement parlors. Doctor Björk and Huw sit awkwardly at opposite sides of the Merc's rear bench, conversation an impossibility at the current decibel level.
Doctor Björk fishes in her old-fashioned bum-bag and produces a stylus and a scrap of scribable material, scribbles a moment and passes it over: DINNER PLANS?
Huw shook his head. Dinnerugh. He's gamy and crusty with dried sweat under his burka and can't imagine eating, but he supposes he'd better put some fuel in the boiler before he sleeps.
Björk scrolls her message off the material, then scribbles again: I KNOW A PLACE. LOBBY@18H?
Huw nods, suppressing a wince. Björk smiles at him, looking impossibly healthy and scrubbed underneath her zinc armor.
· · · · ·