WE LOSE OUR lives even as we live them. We forget the moments that formed us, what we were before, and how it was that we changed. So as of today, I have assigned myself this penance—to make a record while I do remember. Because I'm to blame for what happened. Everything was my fault I knew Merida. I knew how seductive she could be. And still I introduced her to Jin. Maybe I didn't understand Jin as well, not at first, but ignorance is no excuse.
Jin Airlangga Sura was not just a name on my tour group list. Even I, who hardly ever downloaded movies back then, even I had seen his handsome face splashed across the Net. Jin Airlangga Sura, born in wealth, heir to a commercial dynasty. At twenty-five, the same age as me, Jin had already become a preter-famous screen idol with over a dozen movies to his credit. His elegant Indonesian looks and sultry style drove women to acts of mindless worship. When he signed up for my Irian Jaya adventure tour, I barely glanced at the letter he'd attached about what this trip meant to him. I assumed that I knew what Jin Sura would be like.
Jolie's Trips—that was the name of my tour guide service. My extreme adventure tours drew a rich crowd—I set the prices high. Traveling on the Earth's open surface is no stroll in the mall. What with lethal sunlight and toxic atmosphere and the cyclones blowing right out of Hades, your life depends on the right gear. Top-of-the-line airtight surface suits. Custom vehicles. Hardened communications links. Lots can happen on the open surface.
Sometimes people were surprised to find a woman guiding these trips. But once they saw me in action, they stopped doubting. Bien sur, they may have joked about my scrawny size, or my bristly white hair, or my deviant fashion sense. But they didn't joke about my skill.
I met Jin Sura almost exactly three years ago in Paris, on the night of November 27, 2125—before the war broke out and changed Paris forever. As usual, Rennie's Airport Bar was sweltering hot and sticky. Can anyone tell me why they kept the humidity turned up so high in Paris back in those days? Anyway, I always met clients at Rennie's before a trip. It was easy to find, directly under the Place Etoile launchpad. The beer was nothing special. The floor was not exactly clean. There was the constant rumble of rockets launching overhead. But the place never got crowded—by northern hemisphere standards.
We had five clients that night, three men and two women. They sat hunched up in their chairs trying not to touch anything and wearing expressions like they expected vermin to crawl up their legs. The gay bodybuilder couple from Nome.Com were holding hands. The slender, thirtyish widow from Greenland.Com was talking to a Net node she kept hidden in her purse. The other woman, an exec from Yev.Com, was closer to fifty but she had a big stout body, fit for action. I wasn't so sure about the bloated bond trader from Canada.Com. He seemed eager, I'll say that. He looked like he'd rather face death than another bond trade.
I drew myself a beer and caught Luc's eye. Cher Luc grinned and mouthed a sentence at me, our private joke. "Vive les Coms!"
The Coms. Without them, we couldn't have stayed in business as long as we did. Before the war, those fourteen commercial dynasties owned all the habitable territories in the northern hemisphere, including surface domes, tunnels and undersea colonies, not to mention the life contracts of all the rank-and-file workers. Only Com executives were rich enough to afford my trips. Born to their positions like royalty, those Commies treated Luc and me like vending machines.
What the hell, they paid in advance. For the next few days, Luc and I would give them their fright show under the open skies. They'd get their money's worth. Yeah, making those soft Commie execs pay me—a tunnel rat—to scare the stew out of them, that made me chuckle.
Dr. Judith Merida was there, too, mooching my beer and glad-handing my clients. The year before, she'd signed on for my three-day/two-night Madagascar excursion. Judith Merida had once been attached to a Com, but somehow she'd fallen out with the top brass and lost her place. Merida couldn't afford my prices after that first time. Still, she kept showing up at Rennie's for the pretrip meetings.
I knew what she was up to. She was trying to snag a rich backer to fund her research. Merida didn't have money, but she had ambitions. She ran a neuroscience clinic in Frisco, California, and she'd earned a reputation for some kind of fad cosmetic nanosurgery. The Commies knew Dr. Judith Merida by name.
In the beginning, I really liked Merida. Short like me, but sensual and curvy, with full round breasts, the way men like. She had thick black hair, pretty Spanic eyes, and a wide mobile mouth outlined in lipstick. She was older than me, maybe a lot older. Ça va, I couldn't guess her age. The whites of her eyes looked like granulated sugar, a sure sign of gene rejuvenation.
Dr. M., I nicknamed her. She always greeted me with a kiss that left a big red smear on my cheek. What a mouth on that woman! "Jolie, you heavenly creature, who cuts your hair? You could frighten the dead!"
She had an earthy laugh and an easy way of getting next to people. Her Spanic accent made her sound way exotic. And when Dr. M. started describing her latest nanosurgery scheme, her mouth would quiver, and she'd fling out her hands. Mes dieux, but she could draw you in. You'd think she had discovered nirvana.
That night, she was shining. "Friends, life is a dream. Si, everything we're most certain about, what we see, hear, touch and taste—all our perceptions are mere chemical signals manufactured in our brains. They may not refer to anything outside ourselves. Our brains create colors, flavors and sounds that don't exist in abstract reality. Perhaps we're sleeping, dreaming the world."
Merida strutted around like a flirty bar singer, lifting her beer glass. "You've browsed the Science Channel, sí? The physicists know that nothing is solid. This beer, this room, even you, my excellent friends. Just waves of energy. Transient particles. Vibrating loops in vast empty space."
Her eyes smoldered with emotion, and my clients unconsciously leaned toward her. "How do you define the present moment? You can't. It has no dimension. Everything has occurred in the past. We think we remember. But memories—they're only phantom chains of molecules woven in our brains. If we can't trust our senses or our memories, how do we know what's real? What if we're caught in a maze within our own dreaming brains?"
Merida let the silence lengthen. She pranced among her listeners in the elevated boots that made her seem taller. Slicing her eyes back and forth, she held them spellbound. "What if only one of you is real, and all the rest of us are characters in your dream?' Then she leaned forward and hissed, "You already know the truth!"
The Commies drew back in surprise. The fat bond trader spilled his drink on his pant leg. Merida leered at each of them in turn. "Sí, you know. But the knowledge lurks under the surface of your consciousness. You can feel it like a nagging suspicion, something you've thought about many times, sí? At the quantum level, your brain registers more input than you realize. You know the truth! I can show it to you!"
"How?" asked one of the bodybuilders.
"With simple nanosurgery, my friend. I have developed a nano-sized robot to travel into your perception centers and activate your latent senses. Perfectly safe and painless, I guarantee. My nanobot will make you smarter man all your friends. You will gain a new kind of sight!"
The Greenland widow asked for Merida's Net address. The bodybuilders took it, too, and I saw the bond trader record a memo in the Net node he wore strapped to his wrist. Those Com execs were sucking in Merida's scam like a bunch of babies. Dr. M. had them in her palm, all set to put the squeeze on.
But then everything fell apart. Merida touched the widow's shoulder. "When will you visit my clinic, señora? Next week? How about Monday? Let's set the date now, sí?" She was standing too close, breaming in the widow's face. Even I knew the aristo snobs didn't like that.
"No, that's not convenient for me." The widow backed up several steps and tripped on the bond trader's foot. When Merida followed, the widow squeaked some excuse and fled to the ladies' room.
Merida whirled on the others as if they were escaping prey. Her expression went naked and predatory as she moved closer. I saw the bond trader's eyes widen. "My friends," Merida raised her voice, "we must set the date. I can make you smarter than God, but nothing begins till we set the date." She pointed her handheld Net node like a gun. "Open your calendar," she said to the bond trader.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and didn't answer. The bodybuilders became engrossed with Rennie's slot machines. The woman from Yev.Com simply turned her back. Poor Merida, I'd seen it happen before.
Dr. M. just couldn't blend with those Commie snobs. She didn't understand their sense of personal space. Her clothes were a tinge too colorful, and her Spanic accent marred her attempt to sound high-toned. In the end, she scared them.
Anyway, Merida worked hard, and I admired her persistence. I thought, best of luck to you, Dr. M. Fleece your golden geese. Someday, you'll get the funding you need to expand your clinic. So why should I think twice about introducing her to a rich Indonesian movie star with a long, pretentious name? Jin Airlangga Sura.
My assistant, Luc Viollett, was already halfway through the safety talk when Jin made his entrance. Everyone turned to stare. He seemed to expect it. After a weighty pause, the clients starting chattering and pretending to ignore him, but they couldn't stop rubbernecking. Jin Sura had a presence, no denying it. Sir Jin, I dubbed him. In that first glance, I decided he personified the arrogant Commie prick from head to toe.
For one thing, he was wearing the most expensive faux-silk traveling suit money could buy. Second, it fit him like a glove. Third, he stood six feet tall, as stunning as some dark Polynesian god of fire, and I felt sure he knew it.
He graced us with his movie star smile and apologized for being late. While he waited for someone to find him a chair, I signaled Luc to continue. Luc was explaining about the cyclonic winds that constantly blast Earth's surface and the necessity of staying tethered together. All the while Luc talked, I kept eyeing Sir Jin.
By noon the next day, we would be rock climbing in the Sudirman Range of Irian Jaya. It's one of my favorite places. The old volcanic peaks rise above the visible gas layer—that unbroken blanket of greenhouse smog that now engulfs our glorious planet. From Mt. Puncak Jaya, you can actually look down on the yellow muck, and you get a clear view of mountaintops breaking through the smog for kilometers in every direction. There's something euphoric about gazing into the distance, something you never experience living underground or even under domes on the surface. That view gives you scope. Elbow room for the mind. That's worth risking a little gale-force wind and lethal smog, I think.
The whole time Luc was explaining our safety procedures, the guests kept turning to gawk at Jin, He flashed his eyebrows at them. I took note of his manicure, his polished boots, his expensive cinnamon brown tan.
Javanese, his letter had said, though I knew his family managed Pacific.Com, headquartered in Tokyo. Going back to find his roots, he'd written. He seemed troubled. Even a bit melancholy. Something in the line of his mouth. A shadow under his eye. That softened my opinion a little—but not much. I'd met plenty of his ilk—bored, pampered, self-absorbed. The Commie management classes produced little else.
"Who's that dark young lion?" Dr. M. was leaning against me, whispering in my ear. I felt her stiff black curls brush my cheek. She said, "I've seen him before, sí? He's gorgeous. Yum." She made a sucking sound with her tongue against her teeth. "But so dolorous."
"Jin Airlangga Sura," I whispered back. "You know. The actor."
Merida's eyelids drooped halfway, and she moistened her lips with her tongue. "His father is CEO of Pacific.Com. Lord Suradon Sura." Then her pretty eyes sliced toward me. "This Jin is a bad boy. I've seen his face in the scandal ezines."
"D'accord, I'm not surprised," I said. I was liking this dark lion less and less. Jin Sura represented everything I hated about the Commies, wealth, privilege, and self-conceit.
"Well, well. Lord Suradon's wayward son. Introduce us," Merida whispered, squeezing my arm.
"Sure," I said. And with that one thoughtless word, I made the most disastrous decision of my life.
Don't worry, this story isn't about me. You don't want to hear about Jolie Blanche Sauvage, the skinny, bleached white Paris rat, one of the millions of Euro orphans left over after the Great Dislocation. Maybe you've browsed video about the big European die-off in the summer of 2057. That was before they knew how fast the atmosphere was changing, before they'd built enough sealed underground habitats to protect everyone from the toxins. Decades later, even with safe housing, Parisians were still dropping dead.
Anyway, I was one of the leftover kids, one of the deep-Earth tunnel rats. Living in packs, we infested the transit system, begging food and water, stealing municipal air. The only difference about me was, when I was eight, I found an old surface suit.
It was my preter-treasure, my secret. That oversized old suit and helmet allowed me to sneak up through a maintenance well, all by myself, and explore the forbidden open surface. To my astonishment, the open Earth was not a death zone as we'd been warned, but a wide storm-blasted plane full of misty sunlight and strange beauty. After my first visit, the city below seemed blighted and cramped. I took to spending a lot of time up top. Wandering through the smog. Finding things to sell. Learning.
I never planned anything, but gradually I started getting jobs on the open surface. Hardly anyone wanted to go there, ça va? The Com managers hired me for stuff they didn't want to supervise—like foaming communication towers, cleaning out vents, and guiding dome repairmen through the haze. I saved my funds and bought gear on the hot market. Finally, I acquired my first aircar through a freeboot Net site based out of Sydney. The car brought new liberty. I started roaming all over the Euro islands.
Like I said, I never planned any of it, just made things up as I went. Before long, I launched my own Net site and started a tour guide service, Jolie's Trips, extreme surface adventure for individuals of means. For a while, in my own way, I was richer than any of them. And that's all there is to say about me.
This is my account of Jin Airlangga Sura, whose strange pilgrimage I've witnessed in intermittent spurts over the last three years. What happened to Jin was my fault for sure, and I swear by the Laws of Physics, I would change it if I could. But it's done now. Jin's journey began that muggy night at Rennie's. Or maybe his journey began long before. Maybe you could say it began with the Big Bang. Don't worry, I'm not going back that far.
After I introduced them, Dr. M. linked her arm in Jin's and led him off into a corner. They talked for a solid hour. I saw Judith Merida's large, scarlet mouth working nonstop. I saw them laugh and flirt with each other, and when I looked again, they'd grown solemn and strangely intense. This time, Merida hadn't scared off her prey. But I couldn't eavesdrop. I had work to do.
Luc and I were fitting the clients in surfsuits and helmets and boots, showing them how to seal the gaskets, and answering their questions—always the same questions. Luc was good with people. Cher petit Luc. Milk white, dimple-cheeked, he looked like a skinny cherub. Only seventeen, already he knew how to say the right thing.
"Ah oui, it's possible to survive on the surface without a suit, but only for a little while, and you must get the therapy right away. Out, monsieur, the winds can lift you many kilometers into the sky. That is why we use a safety tether. Ah oui, we've done this before." Luc spoke Net English with a quaint Fragñol accent that everyone adored. Me, I'd worked hard to lose my Euro twang. Ironic, huh.
When everyone else had been dealt with, I called Jin by name. "Mr. Sura. It's time for your fitting."
Jin lifted his shapely dark head and glanced my way with an air of distraction. So patently aristo. Mes dieux, but he set me on fire.
I said, "Luc, you take care of Mr. Sura." And I stalked out to the toilet.
The truth was, Jin Sura embarrassed me. He made me conscious of my broken fingernails. We were the same age, he and I, but in his twenty-five years, he'd lived like a prince, whereas I'd had to claw and fight just to eat. Now here he was, glittering with high Com polish, a movie star no less, whereas I bad nothing to show but a pile of used gear and an overabundance of cheekiness. He made me feel raw.
Luc was measuring him for boots when I returned. Watching them, I drew myself a glass of beer and drank most of it—Rennie's Bar was strictly self-serve. Jin shifted in his seat and gave me another view of his perfect profile. Then he glanced at me as if he were seeing my face for the first time. I could tell he was noticing the five-point star tattooed around my left eye like a violet bruise.
He said, "May I ask a question?"
I shrugged and drained my glass.
"Will we see the carvings at Belahan?" He spoke Net English with the soft sibilant accent of the Pacific Rim.
His question caught me off guard, so I didn't answer at once. Hardly anyone knew about those ancient icons carved in the Javanese rocks. That site had been flooded decades ago. I enjoyed browsing the history of surface places, but few people did that anymore.
He went on in what I took to be a patronizing tone. "The Belahan carvings date back to the eleventh century. That's before global warming, before the sea level rose. There was once a coastal kingdom. It could have been paradise—"
"No," I interrupted him. "In the first place, that's in Java. We're going to Irian Jaya, which is a completely different island. In the second place, those carvings are way underwater."
"I thought perhaps a side trip?" He slipped his elegant foot into the boot Luc held. "I'd be willing to pay."
"That's a custom-order tour. You'd need insulated dive gear. That ocean is hot. If you wanted that kind of trip, you should have said so earlier."
Luc grimaced at me and made signs that I should take Jin's offer. But I grimaced back and shook my head. I wasn't in the mood.
"Have you seen the carvings yourself?" Jin asked, in that damned polite tone.
"No." I took another swallow but found my glass empty.
"That's good," he said to Luc, who had just finished tightening his boots.
I said, "Walk around, Mr. Sura. Make sure. We don't want you getting blisters."
Jin got up and gracefully stamped around in the surf boots. He glanced at me with that melancholy smile. "The inscriptions commemorate one of my ancestors. I wanted to see them firsthand. It's a whimsical idea, I know. As if that would change anything."
With a slight shrug, he crossed to the bar where I was standing and lifted the beer nozzle and refilled my glass. "Here's to making the right choices, Mademoiselle Sauvage." He flashed his dazzling white teeth and winked at me. Then he took my glass and put his lips just where mine had been, and he drank till the glass was empty