Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Eurasian -- second installment

Here is the second installment of The Eurasian, my novel in progress:

Chapter 3

Hong Kong was the ideal place from which to start such a 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, visitors from the Islamic republics, and even from the Western Block, were allowed 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. Seymour Williams, Lucy Kanda and Albert Fong arrived from Singapore the morning after the group from Bangkok, as did Saw U Ta Gladstone from Chiengmai. The five from Bangkok, and their counterparts from Northern China had spent the night in bed sized cubicles close to the terminal.

Fourteen were present in the VIP lounge. Lo Peng, Martin Woo and Miss Nerender Singh were absent. No reason was given, but Mickey suspected it was for the same that the rest of the group were acting as though they were presenting themselves for the first time in the nude.

At least it seemed as though Lucy Tan would have preferred to appear as Marilyn Monroe in the nude than to show her physical body fully clothed. Besides a little bit of acne, she really didn't look too bad. Jonny 'Astro Boy' Lim was tall and lanky to the point of being somewhat awkward, and Albert Fong, far from sporting a Jacky Chan physique, was short and fat.

The last to arrive looked like a recent university graduate, thin, with only the beginnings of a beard, and his uncut hair was 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.

'You kidding!'


'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!'

'No books.'

'All my naked girlie magazine, delete just now la,' said Albert Fong.


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 actually 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 consolidated 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 do you know so much?'

'Monterey Jack.'

'How will you try to meet him?'

'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 were planted 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.

Quite a lot of Hong Kong was high enough in elevation to not be 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 steps near the front of the craft. Once inside, they were directed 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.

Again, Philip made sure he sat next to Mickey, and asked for the window seat. Mickey suspected it was just as much to stay away from Albert Fong as to chat with Mickey. Albert had been tormenting him all morning.

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 to the window on their left. They kept going 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 began to tilt 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 much longer period of time.

Finally, they were at cruising speed.

'Cool!' said Philip.

'We're in outer space!'


'Wonder what America will be like?'

'Just like Hong Kong, I bet.'

'What does your friend say?' said Mickey.

'Who? Monterey Jack?'

'Yes la.'

'Not much. Just talk about what's behind it all. He say, "Everything fake", like everything The Matrix.'

'You mean everyone is, 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".'

'No kidding!'

'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 such a scumbag,' whispered Philip.

Then, they began their descent.

Chapter 4

They had a day in which to recover from jet lag before their adventures were to begin. As usual, Philip clung to Mickey's side to ensure they shared their suite.

Mickey knew such things existed, but had never expected to experience it: the bed automatically adjusted to the size and shape of the body lying in it, and something intuitively began massaging the body right where it need it. When Philip stepped out of the bathroom dripping wet from the jacuzzi, searching for a towel, something in the floor immediately began sucking the carpet dry. He had to wipe himself with his own shirt. When Philip tried the jacuzzi, he realised that the reason no towels were provided was because, at the press of a button, the the water quickly emptied out and a burst of warm air shot out form every direction, drying him almost immediately.

They spent the rest of the day watching TV on the wall sized 3D screen. Situation comedies followed info-mercials, followed again by action adventures, and weather, news and sports. The characters of the sitcoms all lived in sprawling suburban dwellings with interiors not unlike the suite Mickey and Philip were in. The difference was the view through the French doors: a patio leading off to a swimming pool, surrounded by luxuriant gardens. The sprawling estates seemed to be the norm.

There were very few advertisements. Instead, the characters were all either pictured dining at McDonalds or KFC, trying out the latest feature of their Microsoft Personal World, eating breakfast cereal with the brand name shown full face, using the latest gadget from whatever corporation, in every case making a comment on the said product, and how wonderful life was for all.

Only occasionally did they depict a character, usually a lazy, jobless addict or a misfit, living in a two room flat high up in a metro-tower. Even they seemed to have everything they needed to survive. Their poverty was defined by their lack of this or that from Microsoft, or having to eat generic food out of a can, or worse yet, growing their own food.

* * *

Mickey browsed the list of e-books under the heading of 'Public Domain'. He already had the ones by Charles Dickens at home, but he tapped on Oliver Twist anyway -- and Little Dorrit, and Tale of Two Cities. They downloaded immediately.

Other random selections: the Bible, a few plays by Shakespeare, a history of China.

Mickey's dad had read their copy of Little Dorrit. Mickey had tried, but found it heavy with old English terms and long descriptions. He had watched the old mini-series on their home theatre. Looking at this e-book version, he could see that it had been greatly simplified. He could probably read the whole thing in two days.

He started immediately.

* * *

Meals were in the hotel café, after which they'd wander about enjoying the gaming arcade, looking at items for sale in the boutiques, or sitting about the pool on a deck high above the San Francisco Straight. No one had told them they might need any swimming gear, so they just sat looking at the water, or enjoying the view below. Albert Fong suggested jumping in with nothing on, but the girls and Mr. Singh vetoed that notion. Nor did they have any local currency to buy anything apart from what was provided. That being the state of affairs, most of them, including Mickey and Philip, opted to return to their suits to see if anything else interesting was on TV, or whatever.

Mickey tried reading Little Dorrit, but that tended to put him to sleep. He wanted to force back his jet lag.

After managing to stay awake through the daylight hours, the two went off to sleep with dreams of what a perfect world they had found themselves in. The special features of their beds kept them asleep throughout the night, so by morning, they were over the worst of their jet lag.

* * *

The twelve sat at their usual three tables. Each table had room for six. The girls sat at one table, Mickey and Philip sat with U Ta, Riu and Seymour also suite mates, while the other two sets of suite mates sat together at theirs. Breakfast was scrambled egg and sausage, which they helped themselves to from the buffet.

Seymour's ancestors were South Indian, who had migrated to Malaysia in the old days of British colonialism. U Ta was Karen, a tribal group native to the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back in the days when the two were independent states, one of U Ta's forbearer was an officer in the Karen National Union, trying to create a third.

Mr. Singh arrived after the students had started in. With him was a tall dark thin woman, long wavy black hair, tight clothes, athletic build, Hispanic features. She was wearing a silver band covering her eyes and ears -- obviously see-through. The moment she arrived, she slid it upward, revealing her eyes.

'Yorba Linda, allow me to introduce you to my class.' Then he raised his voice. 'Class, this is your hostess for the next two weeks. Say hello to Yorba Linda.'

'Hello, Yorba Linda.'

'Hi Yorba Linda.'

'Good morning Ms Linda.'

etc. etc.

'Join us for Breakfast, Yorba Linda?' invited Mr. Singh.

'No thank you. I just had mine at home.'

'A cup of tea then?'


The instructor and the tour guide sat at the girls' table. Everyone went on with their breakfast.

Mickey stole a glance at Yorba Linda at the next table and got a side view of her. Not bad looking.

* * *

The group entered the boardroom where the smiling gentleman in a business suit welcomed them.

Yorba Linda did the introduction. 'Mr. Jensen, the visitors from the Far East. Mr. Jensen is the CEO of San Francisco Metro-Tower.'

'Good morning,' Mr. Jensen returned. 'It's our privilege to welcome you to our city. Please take your seats around this table.' He was also wearing the silver band over his eyes and ears.

They took their seats.

'The first order of business is to distribute your ID bracelets. They serve, as electronic identification tags, and you can use them in electronic transactions. Each one as been credited with a small amount that you can use to purchase a few souvenirs during your trip to our sector. They scan in at any check out counter in retail stores as well as vending machines, and all entrances to important places and check points will automatically detect and scan your access code. You all have level-3 access, which will allow you to take the tour of our entire sector, including all public places. Ms Kirkson?'

A woman in a business suit came in with a box, which she placed on the table in front of her. She took a bracelet from the box, held it to a small electronic gadget, and said, 'Seymour Williams.'

Seymour raised his hand. She handed it to him.

'Marisa Srisomboon...' She continued until everyone had their bracelet. They consisted of a curved metallic strip, round, but leaving an opening just big enough to admit the wrist. The moment they put their hand in, the gap closed up and adjusted to the size of the wrist.

Mr. Jensen added, 'For your safety, the bracelets are designed to not come off unless removed with a special tool. Don't worry, they're water proof, so you can swim, take a bath, get dirty. Now, your VR sets.'

Ms Kirkson had just fetched a stack of boxes which she proceeded to hand out. The ornate packaging featured the headline My Own World, with a picture of a silver band, like Yorba Lind and Mr. Jensen wore. Inside each box was the band itself.

Mickey realised that this was a slightly different version of a VR headset that came with some gaming machines. His own family had one, which Robbie and Rosie always fought over.

'These are a small gift to you, from the City of San Francisco,' Mr. Jensen said. 'On your own time, you may run the demo program to explore all the features. For right now, if you put them on, we can get on with your geography lesson. We request that you keep these on during the duration of your visit. They will sync automatically with your ID bracelets.'

They put on their My Own World's, and soon found that the whole room had taken on an additional layer, a hologram map of the world shone behind him. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, North America, Mexico and a few parts of Europe were highlighted.

'This, of course, is the Western Economic System, known to you as the "Western Block".

Mickey was puzzled by the inclusion of Japan, Taiwan and Philippines on their map.

The map enlarged so as to include only North America. The Southern half lit up.

'You are here,' a bright red spot appeared just off the West Coast, on the Northern tip of Baja California, 'on the Western coast of United States of America. In spite of the uniform regulations, enabling freedom to move, live and do business throughout the entire Western Economic System, each nation within the system, remains culturally distinct.'

Now, the map enlarged again so as to show only the United States.

'The United States, which you see on the map, has a history that is unlike that of Canada, to our North, or Mexico, to the South. As you travel, you'll find many interesting things to see and do. For instance, here...'

A large area, stretching from the coast of the mainland all the way to Texas, changed colour.

'You'll find typical American farming communities, cattle ranches complete with cowboys, and Native American tribal peoples living and working like their ancestors have for the last three hundred years.'

As he mentioned each aspect of American life, 3D animated holograms appeared in various parts of the room. This went on for about half an hour.

Later, when Mr. Jensen paused for questions and answers, Jimmy Khoo asked, 'When do we see cowboys and Indians?'

'That will be after your next stage of your journey, next week, when you arrive in Dallas.'

'Why you want to see Indians?' said Albert Fong in a low voice. 'Have enough right here, la, with Pipsqueak!'

'Ayo! Shut your mouth!' said Philip.

'Make me!'

'Tch tch!' chided Mr. Singh.

* * *

No tour of a metro-tower is complete without a trip to the very top to enjoy a view of the surrounding country. So began their tour of San Francisco. The group was just small enough to fill one lift, filling all the seats in the two concentric circles, with Philip reluctantly sitting on Marisa's lap. The G force reminded them of their ride in the semi-space ship.

'Which of you is Philip Kumar?' inquired Yorba Linda.

There was silence.

'How do you know about Philip?' asked Mickey.

'From someone who goes by the name, "Monterey Jack".'

Philip said, weakly, 'Er -- I'm Philip.'

Yorba Linda looked at him, and broke out in laughter.

Philip looked like he would start crying. Mickey put his hand on his shoulder.

'I'm sorry,' laughed Yorba Linda. 'Do you know the name, Monterey Jack?'

'Yes, la!'

'You know, he made me promise not to tell, but I'm going to tell you anyway. Do you know how old is?'


'Fourteen years old, and he's no bigger than you.'

'How do you know him?'

'He's my step brother!' Oh, he's a choice one! You never know what he's going to do next, who he going to hack...'

'When will we meet him?'

'His father won't let him out of his sight. Also -- believe it or not -- he was afraid of you seeing how old he really is!'


'But he did hack the system, and,' she sighed, 'he's the one responsible for me being your hostess.'

'"Monterey Jack" that's a kind of cheese, isnt it?' asked Marisa.

'A type of cheddar, popular with Mexican food,' said Yorba Linda, 'and it's white, like his skin. Because he tried so hard to act like a Hispanic, we gave him that nick-name. That was before his father married my mother.'

'He still do?'

'Hah! There's no telling what he'll be into next!'

The lift slowed as they reached the top -- time to admire the view.

* * *

In the café during their free time, some of the students ran the demos for their My Own World.

The first thing that happened: a brilliant blue circle appeared in the upper right corner of the parifery vision. A voice said, 'Touch that ring with your finger.' On doing so, a menu screen came up. That was the starting point for configuring their Own World.

As various features introduced themselves, Mickey realised it was much more than a gaming device. Like it did in the boardroom, it gave the environment a new dimension. If they were lost, all they had to do was ask, through the menu, how to get to a certain location, and an arrow would appear in the air, just like in a taxi driving game Mickey had played at home.

Another feature did for them what their virtual classroom did back at home. They could project their on-line image so that anyone else wearing a My Own World headset would see them that way. Had they been given these much earlier, they could have carried on their their on-line images while physically meeting one another instead of reverting to their real world looks.

Mickey tried another feature. Suddenly, the room about them appeared like a haunted house, and all his friends looked like zombies. All his friends were recognisable as themselves, but a zombies -- except for Seymour Williams, who looked like an Elvis Presley zombie. Seymour had already chosen an image to project.

Another setting and everyone looked like aliens, and the décor of the café changed accordingly. Seymour looked like an alien version of Elvis Presley, and now, Albert Fong looked like an alien Jackie Chan. Another setting, again, turned everyone into cowboys.

* * *

Mickey, Philip and Riu walked down the street to test their various settings in the public areas of the metro tower. The default setting, generated by the metro tower itself, made them think they were outside. The sky above was blue, with a few clouds, the houses were two and three stories high, made of various materials that Mickey didn't remember seeing without his head set.

He took it off momentarily to check, and sure enough, cold steel and plastic, like before. With the head set, the place looked like a variety of brick, stone, wood, marble, just like an old fashion city would have looked, or down town Chantaburi, or Hong Kong at ground level.

The cowboy setting turned all the buildings into old time San Francisco. The signs over each shop were hand painted on wood, the style of the windows, everything was Old West.

Another thing Mickey noticed when he took off his head set momentarily was how some people were dressed -- or not dressed. Some were wearing very stylish virtual clothing but very little otherwise. At least one person had only his underwear.

He hadn't noticed this before, probably because there weren't so many people out when they left their hotel that morning, and then they had sped through the city in the hover bus, and didn't see the people very closely.

Back inside, Mickey mentioned it to Yorba Linda.

'Ha ha!' she responded. 'I know some who like to go out stark naked.'

'Naked? Cool!' said Albert Fong.

'Like in The Emperor's New Clothes?' suggested Philip.

'Exactly,' said Yorba Linda. 'But, a word of warning: some people have their head sets tuned to ignore virtual personal imaging. A group of close friends I belong to consider it uncool to depend solely on projected clothing. In fact, I often just use mine as a head band and pull it down when I need information from the city network.'

'The street doesn't look as nice that way,' said Mickey. 'No blue sky above.'

'But at least it's real.'

* * *

Late evening, back in the suite, Mickey was puzzling over one of his downloads. His dad had said that the mini-series they watched was actually quite close to the book version, but Mickey was noticing some striking differences between that and the electronic version of Little Dorrit he was reading now. In fact, it was hard to believe that the book was set in the early 1700s.

Author Clennem had arrived from China, and was describing it to Mr. Meagles as a place most un-conducive to any sort of happiness. If Mickey wasn't mistaken, he seemed to be describing classical Marxist Communism.

Did that exist in Dicken's time?

Author had begun to have some serious misgivings while talking to his ailing father on his deathbed.

Okay, that was in the video.

This copy did read a lot more easily than the original. Mickey quickly learned that the Office of Circumlocution represented the fallacy of overall government bureaucracy, which invariably held up innovation, such as Daniel Doyce had to offer, with his grand contraption. Mickey couldn't help but feel that the text drove the point home a bit more forcefully than the video mini-series. Not only that, but it was quite clear that it was bureaucracy that kept the common people from the consumer goods that would enrich their lives.

In the midst of this, was the life of William Dorrit and his misplaced hope in his aristocratic roots, which aristocracy was responsible for reserving luxuries and life enhancing pleasures to themselves instead of releasing it to the consumers, the rightful recipients. Reinforcing the state of things, until his bubble broke, was Mr. Merdle's financial empire, and assisting him, the House of Clennem, and their unholy alliance with the Chinese -- until that house fell.

In the end, Arthur Clennem's marriage with Little Dorrit, both having been liberated from their respective family's bondages, and Arthur's partnership with Daniel Doyce and his multinational company, represented the rise of global consumerism.

Funny! All that didn't seem to come across in the mini-series.

* * *

The neighbourhood reminded Mickey of an old film he had seen, Back to the Future II. Several of the houses looked exactly like the settings of one or two of the sitcoms they had watched in their hotel room. They were single storey, but took up a lot of space, and had broad lawns lined with verdant shrubbery. Robotic gardeners roamed about silently cutting grass or trimming hedges. One was on its extended telescoping legs shaping a tall evergreen. Each house had its own swimming pool.

A boy sped by on a hoverboard, followed by a robotic dog. An elderly couple was lounging on the front yard nearby, drinking something with ice.

A couple of the houses were open for tours, and Yorba Linda led them into one. After watching so much TV in the hotel room, there was really nothing new to see.

Yorba Linda pointed out some of the fixtures and explained their use. She seemed to notice the lack of interest.

'In China, well, do they have these kinds of things?'

'Yeah, la,' said Geoffrey Wong.

'Our house have that,' said Lucy Kanda, pointing to the Mr. Butler robot.

'I know someone have chair like that,' said Derek.

'Local sports club, have carpet, self cleaning one, just like here,' said Albert Fong.

'Maybe not everyone has all these things in one house,' said Mickey, 'but we're happy.'

'Hmmm!' said Yorba Linda. 'That wasn't the impression I had.'

They stepped outside again.

Mickey was sure he recognised the house down the street, but not what was behind it. Instead of a snow capped mountain range, there was a giant blue fence running along the back of several properties, hiding everything behind it.

'Did they show that house on TV yesterday?' he asked Yorba Linda.

'Yes. That's our next stop, the set of a popular TV program, Janny and Joey.'

'Ah! I see that la!' said Jimmy Khoo. 'But that one have mountains!'

'That what blue tarp for, stupid!' said Albert. 'Make it anywhere you want!'

'I must say, I've heard some of the most colourful speech from your group,' commented Yorba Linda.

'Asia English,' said Albert. 'Only way to talk! Americans have lot to learn!'

'I keep hearing the word, "la".'

'From Chinese,' said Lucy.

Mickey added, 'English words, but spoken with Asian grammar structure and syntax.'

'Wow! What big words, you sat sat bo chia one man!' said Albert.

'Ha ha! Been around my grandpa too much!'

* * *

There were two people at work on the set when the group entered, one with a small camera, another apparently doing the acting. A small monitor show what the camera was catching.

The actor was drably dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and was talking to an empty space. 'Look, Hon, we've been over this before! Do I have to tell you again?'

The disembodied voice of a woman answered, 'But that was before you brought that ludicrous -- what do you call it?'

The monitor showed something entirely different -- the same room, a leisurely dressed gentleman that looked nothing like the drably dressed actor, but going through exactly the same motions, talking to a scantily clad woman. Mickey recognised them from the TV show.

The man with the camera said, 'Great! Let's go with that. Next scene.'

The actor walked over to the window and looked out. Suddenly, the monitor showed, not the well dressed gentleman, but an old wrinkled man.

'If I had my way,' said the actor, 'I'd have done it long ago!'

The camera man answered, 'Well, if you had your way, we'd all be stuck in that rat-hole they call a rhinoceros hive!'

'Huh! A man can get no respect around here!'

'You'll get your respect when you deserve it!' said the camera man. 'Okay, good. Take the other part.'

The drably dressed actor walked over and occupied the air that he had been talking to as an old man. The old man reappeared on the monitor, this time, addressing the scantily dressed woman.

Then the disembodied voice of an old man sounded out, 'If I had my way, I'd have done it long ago!'

This time, the drably dressed actor answered, 'Well, if you had your way...'

* * *

The e-Bible only contained the New Testament. Mickey couldn't find any that included the Old Testament, apart from the Psalms, so Mickey read what he had.

The translation was refreshingly modern. It was in the same style as Little Dorrit.

Mickey's favourite part was the Christmas story, which was, conveniently, at the beginning.

It was certainly different, especially the passage, ...the mystics from the East arrived, saying, 'Where is the one born to be king of this land?'...

King of this land? That was different, to be sure. Mickey read on, intrigued by more choices of words.

After a while, he began to notice the absence of any reference to Jews. The entire narrative sounded like it could have been set in Chicago, or Norway, or Bangkok.

Well, I suppose that makes it up close and personal.

Then again, he remembered Oliver Twist. The version he skimmed neglected to mention that Fagin was a Jew. What about Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice?

So I'm a banker. But I have feelings, don't I? If you pinch me, I say, 'Ouch!'

At first, Mickey thought they were just being politically correct. Now that he couldn't find references to Jews in the New Testament, he was wondering.

He looked up 'Jews' in the on-line encyclopaedia. An adherent of Judaism, a family centred religion, dating thousands of years. Adherents attend worship services on Friday evening and Saturday morning, in a Synagogue, where they participate in prayers and chants in an ancient language called Hebrew, and readings from their holy books in the same language. Teachings include belief that a deity with a name too holy to pronounce made the universe, and issued commands (called 'Mitzvot') for adherents of Judaism to follow.

The entry on 'Christianity' read: A religion based on the belief in an afterlife, and that becoming a devotee of Jesus, the founder of Christianity, will ensure one will live in heaven after death. The teachings are found in their holy book, called the 'Bible'. Adherents attend worship services on Sunday morning.

For all his searching, Mickey could find no reference to any connection between the two religions.

* * *

Mickey wondered why the classroom was so bare, then he looked at it through his My Own World, and found it really wasn't. In fact, the room no longer had walls. Where one wall used to be, was the view of the Milky Way galaxy, with the various sectors labelled with floating signs. Another opened into a meadow where a group of 18th century farmers were fighting a regiment of red-coat Englishmen. Another showed various geometric shapes and angles. The fourth was a view of the earth similar to what they saw from the semi space ship, but with labels. The group of them, students who belonged to this classroom and those visiting, occupied the square space that appeared to be a portal between four worlds.

Mr. Singh introduced his students, and then the classroom instructor for the host class introduced his. Then, they divided them all into four groups, each with four or five of the visiting group with about six of the host students. Each group went to one of the four walls.

Mickey found himself with Jimmy Khoo, Albert Fong and U Ta Gladstone, with a number of the host students, standing by the wall that had the globe. At least he knew it was a wall, but its close proximity gave him vertigo. He kept a few feet away lest he trip and go hurtling into the earth's atmosphere -- which they were already doing.

Someone had adjusted the picture so that it was zooming in on a particular part of the earth's surface.

'What would you like to see?' asked a boy.

'Hong Kong!' suggested Jimmy Khoo.

They began to descend on the coast of China. As they got closer, Mickey could make out Victoria Island and Tsim Sha Tsui, and the other islands. But there was no metro tower.

'Very old picture,' said U Ta Gladstone.

'Old? How?' said one of the local girls. 'This is very recent!'

'Where's the metro tower?' said Jimmy Khoo. 'And the shore line -- it's from long time ago, before...'

'Metro tower? You have metro towers?'

'No way! Metro towers are an American technology!'

Now, they were coming down to street level. Motorcars on rubber tires were noisily plying Nathan Road, construction workers were fixing the façade of a 20 story building whilst perched on bamboo scaffolding, all the while a dragon dance was being performed across the street in front of an office complex.

'This is out of Jackie Chan!' said Jimmy Khoo.

'Yeah, all those cars, very old!' said Albert Fong.

'This is a satellite picture!' said another local.

'Satellite? But this is street level!' said Mickey. 'That's Hong Kong 100 years ago!'

'Our satellites can do that!'

'And the water level's way down, like before global warming,' added Jimmy.

'You're having us on!' said another local boy.

'They sent you here to spread Chinese propaganda, didn't they!'

'No way!' shouted Albert Fong. 'You brainwashed with propaganda!'

Things started to get out of hand until Mr. Singh and the local teacher came to restore order.

'They say that's modern Hongkong!' said Jimmy Khoo. 'They say it's from satellite!'

'It is,' said the local teacher.

'I think not,' said Mr. Singh. 'Right there is where one of the legs of our metro tower is planted. They had to removed that whole neighbourhood.'

'Metro tower? I didn't know you have ...'

Mickey walked over to another group. They were viewing the interior of America as they would probably be seeing it during the next leg of their journey -- to Dallas. It was a view as would be seen from a hover car, flying over lush farm land, Indian reservations, colourful wilderness, slowing down over towns so as to see the shopping centres and places of entertainment. Thus the scene swept across Arizona, New Mexico and into Texas.

Since they'd be viewing this from the hover bus anyway, Mickey wandered to another wall. Now, it looked like the two teachers were having an argument over the accuracy of their satellite image. Some of the students in the third group were drawn in -- all except for Philip, Seymour and a couple of the local students in their group. Mickey joined them.

They had gathered in a corner. One of the locals said, 'I don't care what it is. I just make my own world anyway. Here, I'll show you China in my world.'

A window opened up on the section of the wall just before them. A group of ancient warriors were engaged in fancy swordsmanship. Some had staves, which they were twirling about, others were floating through the air, performing advanced Kung Fu, and some had weapons that Mickey doubted had ever existed in China. The battle even joined by a dragon which proceeded to torch several enemy flanks.

'That's part of my report on the rise of the Mongol Dynasty,' said the student who had turned on the view.

'That's -- history?' queried Seymour.

'Yeah. That's Kublai Khan, riding on the back of the dragon.'

'Creative Writing, I think,' said Philip.

'Alternative history, maybe,' said Mickey.

'When I finish school, I'm gonna write a new history of China, and this will be in it.'

'How can it be history if it has dragons in it?' said Mickey.

'Same way everything else is. No one living today was there, right? So who's gonna say I'm wrong?'

'The other history books. The history experts,' said Seymour.

'Hah! They just spout out what they want you to hear anyway. Everyone knows that!'

'But, history is what really happened!' said Philip. 'How can that there really happen?'

'We just change it to what we want,' said one of them, 'just like we change "right now" to what we want by redoing the settings on our headsets.

Just then, Yorba Linda was getting everyone's attention. 'Everyone! It's time we went on to our next stop.'

The room quieted down. The visiting group said a rather subdued good bye, and left.

Mr. Singh didn't look happy at all.

'What do you think of all that?' he asked Yorba Linda.

She heaved a big sigh. Finally, she said, 'I can give you the official version right now. If you want my personal opinion, we might need to find some place quiet where people wouldn't hear us.'

* * *

The interior looked much the same as any church hall Mickey had seen back home. Free standing buildings on the ground would have an exterior as well as an interior, but they were mostly alike inside. This one was in the metro-tower, occupying a hexagon shaped maxi-compartment not far from their lodging.

It was evening, after a day of touring about. Mickey walked about the place, looking for any hint of an answer to his new found queries. Was the Jesus they worshipped here Jewish? Did they have the Old Testament? Where did they keep their books, anyway?

The place was empty, except for an old man who looked like he was asleep, seated in one of the pews.

He couldn't find a single book. No hymnal, no Bibles.

The meeting room had the same type of seats as those back home, all facing the front, where the pulpit and holograph screens were located.

'Is this your first time here?'

Mickey turned around and saw the pleasant faced gentleman.

'Yes. I'm with a tour group from China.'

The old man in the pew perked up.

'China! How interesting! We don't usually see many people from there. I'm Pastor Ned. And you?'

'Mickey O'Brien.'

'That doesn't sound Chinese. Nor do you look it for that matter,.'

'Both parents were half and half. On my father's side, they came from Ireland.'

'Welcome to North America, at any rate. Let me show you around.'

'I don't see any Bibles,' commented Mickey.

'They'd all be in electronic format. Do you have an e-book reader? I can let you download a copy.'

'I got an e-copy, but only the New Testament. Do you have Old?'

The old man had walked up. 'You know a lot for a Chinaman. They teach Comparitive Religions there or something?'

'Er -- we do have several copies of the whole Bible at my house.'

'Wow! I thought they didn't allow that in China!' said the Pastor.

'I'll say!' Said the old man. 'They're commies! Don't allow religion!'

Mickey responded, 'Some parts have strict rules about it, but they hardly enforce them. But your country ...'

'This is a free country, it is!' said the old man.

'...they wouldn't let us bring any books.'

''Cause we won't allow Communist propaganda. That's why!'

'I mean, my Bibles. Where can I find the Old Testiment?'****

'We only have the New Testament,' said the pastor. 'The Old Testament will soon be made available here. It's had to be thoroughly gone over and edited for the general reading public.'


'It's been a long time since I had the opportunity to study it myself. The original version had parts that were hard to understand like wrath and judgement. In fact, reading some sections, there are parts that would appear to condone genocide! Have you actually read it?'

'Yes la! All the time! That's why I'm looking for it. They wouldn't let us bring our own books here.'

'What do you make of it?'

'It shows God is holy! Lots of things we must take all together, and see the whole picture!'

'The New Testament does that for us. In it, are the basic truths of our salvation, how to be born again, and be assured of going to heaven...'

'What about the prophecies -- and God's demands for righteousness?'

'All that comes by faith in the New Testament. We'll have the Old Testament available to us in the near future. A team of scholars as been revising it to make it user friendly.'

'Like they did with the New Testament?'


'But the electronic copy doesn't even say Jesus was Jewish!'

'Don't you know how much evil was done in the name of the church over that very issue? The Inquisition! The Holocaust! By making the Bible and other books politically correct, it reduces public consciousness of ethnic groups such as the Jews, so we can guarantee there won't be any such incidents in the future.'

'I suppose copies of the Koran don't have anything about jihad?'

'Jihad? What's that?'

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Eurasian -- serialisation of a novel in progress

My current writing project is a future scenario titled The Eurasian. It's been a challenge to write because inspiration comes in spurts, and then I get none at all. I think what I have so far is pretty good, and I have enough to be able to see where it's headed. It's set in the future, probably about 60 years from now. It starts in Thailand, moves to Hong Kong, then to America. However, each place is only partially recognisable. I should warn you before you start: anyone with nationalistic feeling towards Thailand, Malaysia, or America, could be offended by the future I've painted -- or, they could take it as a warning.

The main character is my own great grandson. Some of the dialect spoken by the Asian characters is something called Singlish, a sort of Pigeon English currently spoken in Singapore and Malaysia. You could refer to the website, where you'll find the Coxford Singlish Dictionary.

Anyway, here are the first two chapters:

The Eurasian

by robby charters

© 2011 by Robby Charters

Chapter 1

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.'
'Man eating?'
'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 just 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.'
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 be rolled over to tomorrow. Those who haven't completed their assignments -- I won't mention any names, as I'm sure that would embarrass Mickey -- you have one more day. Now, your itinerary...'
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 Jonny Lim didn't really 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 of the real-world O'Brien abode, Grandpa Abe watched the monkeys swing on the bamboos just 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 just 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 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 thought it went right along with their plan to expose the West to Chinese culture and politics.'
'Part of the propaganda machine, then...'
'Well, I wouldn't call it that...'
'Probably just 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.'
'Ah, so you'll get to help Uncle Jiu harvest the durian and rambutans first.'
'I guess...'
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 farang dong on-line?'
'No one looks like themselves on-line.'
'So there you go. They've probably all got deep dark secrets to hide from the world.'
Just then, 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?'
'Pastoral visit.'
'Ah! Not see us in 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?'
Just now, 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.
Just then 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 Eurasian.'
* * *
Uncle Jiu was driving the tractor, the only conveyance on the property that still had rubber tires. Hitched to that was the hover truck. It wasn't powerful enough to both drive forward and hover with such a heavy load at the same time, so it just did the latter while hitched to the tractor.
Perched on the growing mountain of durians, padded by a thick rug, Robby and his sister Rosie, ages 10 and 9 respectively, took the durians from the pickers and arranged them into a sustainable stack. They had one glove each to shield the palm of their hands from the sharp prickles. They took each durian by its stem with their bare hand, while holding it up with their gloved hand.
Their great uncle, Jiu, told them stories.
'In the very old days,' he spoke to them in Thai over the whir of the electric motor, 'they have a special penalty for attacking someone with a durian. If you throw a durian at someone, they count the punctures on the body, and make you pay one Baht per puncture. It make ten punctures, you pay ten Baht. In those days, ten Baht, a week's wage. But, in my day, before adoption of Chinese currency, ten Baht not even pay for a Cola drink!'
'Uncle Jiu, why don't we use robots to pick durian, like people on TV?' asked Robby.
'If we use robots, how could we employ so many people? Where would these people find work? I tell you. In the early days of Chinese Communism, they can't own so much land (long before Chinese come to Thailand, of course). But they find that Communism -- I mean, pure Communism -- won't work. Must let people own businesses. Businesses puts people to work, so not burden on the State. We have large property, can earn lots of money; but our responsibility to the State: employ people so they have income. We can live on what's left.'
Mickey brought the last durian before Uncle Jiu decided they had a big enough load. Rosie took it from him. Uncle Jiu began driving through the orchard towards the house.
* * *
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, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, George MacIntire, 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.
'What's that one there?' said Grandpa Abe, looking over his shoulder.
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 don'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.'
* * *
Mickey put on the head set and took his seat in the VR console and went off to visit his classmate, Philip Kumar.
He tapped on the button beside Philip's name and waited. 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.'
'What kind?'
'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.'
'Okay, la!'
'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.'
'Who's that?'
'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!'
* * *
It was noon siesta time. The workers had finished their lunch, and the kids that had tagged along were enjoying a swim. Robby was with them.
Mickey hoped he was wearing pants. He was on a personal campaign to train his younger siblings to mind their bums in public, and not follow the lax ways of the neighbours' and workers' kids. So far he'd had no help from Papa, Mama, or the rest. Nobody seemed to care.
Now, especially, since being faced with the prospect of showing his true face to his classmates, Mickey's mind had been preoccupied with the difference between life in the fruit orchard and cosmopolitan life. What he saw on TV, their regular trips into Chantaburi City, and the few excursions to the giant Bangkok Metro-Tower had made him well aware of how sophisticated life was in the outside world. His virtual classroom experience, and cyberspace visits with his school mates in private, had only confirmed it.
So, Mickey stood on the veranda and watched. Robby jumped a few times, but not high enough to reveal any white elastic. Maybe he was wearing it low. He was tussling with Pong just now. Pong had him in a hold, with Robby's arm over his shoulder. He pulled, lifting Robby out of the water, revealing only bare white skin.
Mickey sighed.
Grandpa was standing nearby.
'We're so primitive here! Why can't we make the kids wear pants in the water, like they do everywhere else?'
'You used to skinney-dip yourself when you were younger.'
True. He did, before he discovered the rest of the world.
'Yeah, but everywhere else...'
'Hah!' snorted Grandpa. 'When your great-grandpa Boz was young, it was like this all over Thailand. By every riverbank, at bath time, naked children everywhere with nary a second thought. Occasionally, even a grown-up. Mind you, they were careful in other ways. Big boys and girls never kissed. Never even held hands. Young lady, with chaperone, peeping over her fan at the handsomely dressed boy with a hat and walking stick strutting along side their tri-shaw -- that was a date. But in my time? Behind every bush, a boy on top of a girl, pumping away -- later, traipsing off to an abortion clinic. But at bath time at the river, every young bum draped in underpants. Innocence lost -- as though God walked in the garden and said, "Who told you you were naked?" So, now we've come full circle. Which way do you find so primitive?'
Mickey sighed, but otherwise stood silently.
Grandpa added, 'You're going off as a sheep among wolves. Don't you lose your innocence!'

Chapter 2

Mickey had a window seat. Riu sat next to him. 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, people living off their plankton extractors, 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.
'Donno,' answered Rui.
Mickey wondered if Riu was bothered by the same concern as he. He did look quite handsome in real life, Riu's on-line image was slightly different, making 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 before breaking to embark on their respective journeys to the meeting point, they had discussed the suggestion of coming to their last class 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 isn't well.'
Riu lived with his grandma, Mickey remembered. She was all he had. His parents were both dead.
'Is it pretty bad?'
'Yeah. I wanted to stay with her, but she wants me to go on this trip.'
'She'll be all right when we get back, maybe?'
Riu sighed. 'I hope so.'
They could just see the Bangkok Metro-Tower in the distance, and it grew steadily 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 hydrolic tubes. Some had called it an overweight version of the Eiffel Tower.
As they came closer, they could see the derelict buildings, parts of the old expressway system, the Skytrain track, and bits of everything else that once stuck up in the air. Some of the more intact buildings were used for fishing villages, some old posts, pillars, and old Skytrain 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 thousands of portals leading into the lower levels. After entering, it zoomed on through semi darkness, past lit up areas that whizzed past too quickly to be observed, 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. When it stopped, it again went on, took 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 rout to the outside instead of so many twists and turns. It was a big 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. So they walked.
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 large sized, as he perceived Philip to be. 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. What about Marisa Srisomboon? Was that her over near the tall man that could be Philip? If it was, she looked good!
Mickey continued walking, his hand on Riu's backpack. However, 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 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 rather fat boy with close cropped hair.
'I'm -- er -- Mickey,' said Mickey.
'Wow!' said Marisa.
'An orang pute!' said Geoffrey. 'Cool!'
'We wait for Philip, then?' said Mickey.
'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.
No way!
He was just 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 sure did a good job on your computer generated image,' said Mickey.
'Thanks, ha ha,' said Philip, smiling for the first time -- though still shyly.
'So,' said Geoffrey. 'What do we do now?'
'I think we're supposed to tell the hostess,' said Marisa. 'There's a meal ordered for us, and then we get on the shuttle to the other terminal.'
'Okay,' said Mickey. 'I'll tell the hostess.'
He did. 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.
'You -- er -- advanced quickly, then?'
'An exceptional child?'
At least this explained his childish giddiness in class.
They boarded the shuttle and soon they were speeding, twisting and turning, lifting, etc., until they were at the Northern Terminal. Being that this one serviced journeys to more distant places, where travel permits were required, they had to go through a check-in area, where they showed their tickets and travel permits. 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 voice sound like she was 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 meeting 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 called, so the five students boarded. Philip still stuck close to Mickey and took a seat next to him.
The hover-bus took the coastal rout, 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 when Philip was deep voiced giant and Mickey was a brown-skinned Thai: simulations, classic science fiction, and prophecies of doom.