Episode Sixteen – ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’, Part One

When we reached the top of the hill we paused and gazed down upon our destination – a massive glass dome that sprouted from the landscape below like a giant mushroom. “I don’t like it,” I finally pronounced after a moment of silent contemplation. “It looks futuristic.”

“Well of course it looks futuristic,” returned Michael. “It’s a… Wait a minute – what did that chap in the diner say it was again?”

“He reckons it’s Europe’s premier centre for commercial space travel – a sort of interplanetary airport if you will,” I replied. “They call it The Hub apparently.”

Hello to The Hub

“Well that sounds pretty futuristic to me. They don’t have interplanetary airports in your day, do they?”

“Not quite. Though if Richard Branson has his way it may not be long.”

“Anyway, what’s wrong with appearing futuristic?” demanded Michael as we headed out on the road towards The Hub. “We’ve been to all kinds of versions of the past in this landscape. Why should a quick trip to the future bother you?”

“Because it’s bound to be dystopian,” I told him. “If there is one thing you can guarantee about an imaginary future it’s that it will be dystopian.”

“That’s rather a sweeping generalisation.”

“It’s true,” I insisted. “Mankind is incapable of thinking up a future for itself that it hasn’t right royally fucked up in one way or another.”

“Nonsense,” retorted Michael briskly. “Imaginary futures may be bright or gloomy. After all, if you think about it – where does the word dystopian come from? It’s simply an antonym for utopia. And you’ve heard of utopia, haven’t you? From the novel by Thomas More in which he imagined an ideal society?”

“Yeah well, I suppose he had to have something to keep him occupied when he wasn’t burning protestants,” I muttered. “Besides, don’t I remember reading somewhere that the society in Thomas More’s Utopia included both slavery and capital punishment? It doesn’t sound quite so ideal to me.”

“That simply goes to prove that one man’s utopia may be another man’s dystopia,” replied Michael. “It doesn’t mean a bright future cannot be imagined. And this one doesn’t look so bad,” he added, gesturing towards the shiny modernist structure ahead of us. “It all looks perfectly peaceful, clean and welcoming.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about welcoming,” I remarked, stopping to indicate a large sign hanging over the road. “What do you make of that?”

For the last couple of miles or so the road had been dotted with these large electronic signs spouting cheery slogans like; ‘Welcome to The Hub: The Gateway to Your Future’. Only someone had gone to some considerable trouble to deface this particular sign, daubing over the lower part of the slogan so that it now read; ‘Welcome to The Hub: The Gateway to Hell’. This at least gave Michael pause for thought and he stared disconcertedly at the sign for a moment or two.

Welcome sign

But he eventually waved away any concerns with a dismissive gesture. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” he airily remarked, setting purposefully off along the road once more. “It’s just graffiti.”

“Maybe,” I muttered to myself as I scurried after him. “But I think you’ll find that graffiti rarely lies.”

 

*******************************

 

Graffiti aside, I had to concede that there wasn’t much about The Hub that struck me as particularly hellish when we finally passed through a towering archway into the bright airy concourse. We weaved our way through the usual airport array of coffee shops and concession stands, doing our best to dodge the passengers zipping to and fro on little electric buggies. All in all, the place resembled the future as it might be imagined in a swanky corporate video; i.e. very much like the present only with sleeker lines and shinier surfaces. All around us the glass walls flashed intermittently with banal slogans exhorting The Hub as ‘The Departure Lounge of Dreams’ and just inside the entrance stood a vast screen boasting a range of destinations from the exotic sounding Omicron Mandela in the Messier Nebulae to the more prosaic Ice Moon P45.

Entering the future

The one jarring note was struck by the heavy black doors that appeared to bar the way through to The Hub proper and which were guarded by a fearsome array of security, both technological and human. Having tentatively enquired of one of the imposing security guards what we might need to pass through this barrier we were directed to the ‘Travel Advisory Service’ at the lower end of the concourse. This section comprised a row of clear plastic booths lined up along one wall. We were ushered into a couple of seats in one of these booths and informed that an advisor would be with us shortly.

“I’ll tell you one other thing that can be guaranteed about an imaginary future,” I muttered to Michael whilst we waited. “It will always be seriously badly dressed.”

Michael, following my pointed gaze, took in the appearance of the various staff members hurrying to and fro. “They don’t look that bad,” he eventually replied, politely if unconvincingly.

“Listen, I may not be the world’s biggest fashionista but even I can tell you that there is not a single person in the whole of history who ever looked good whilst wearing a Lycra jumpsuit.”

“Shh, someone’s coming,” Michael hushed.

I fixed a polite smile on my face as a young woman wearing the obligatory jumpsuit and a sharply geometrical haircut slid into the seat across the desk from us. “Greetings!” she said, addressing us with a beaming smile. “My name is Liv and I’ll be your travel advisor today.” She indicated an electronic name badge sewn into her jumpsuit that indicated as much. “May I start by taking your names?”

We told her and she tapped busily on the desk. As there was no keyboard or screen visible from our angle it was some time before I worked out that these spasms of finger-tapping were a way of recording the information we provided and not just a nervous tic.

“And may I ask whether the nature of your proposed space travel is business or personal?” Liv continued.

“Actually, there is no proposed space travel,” I replied apologetically. “We don’t really want to go anywhere.”

The bright smile wavered just a fraction. “I’m sorry but I understood that you were looking to enter The Hub,” said Liv. “You are aware, surely, that The Hub is Europe’s premier centre for commercial space travel?”

“Yes, we understand – we saw the sign,” Michael assured her. “But we don’t want to travel anywhere. We just wanted to go inside to take a look around.”

Liv responded with a polite but firm shake of the head. “I’m afraid The Hub is reserved for travellers only. Sightseeing is not permitted.”

Reasoning that the most persuasive argument is often found in telling the truth, Michael and I now proceeded to relate a brief account of CJ Sturridge and the 273 scattered rooms of his prison, one of which, according to the co-ordinates on our inter-dimensional travel drive, was located somewhere within this building. Given the practice we’d had I liked to think we had our story pretty much down pat by now. Liv certainly showed every indication of being enthralled by our tale, listening with a patient attentiveness. But when we finished the response was another polite but firm shake of the head.

“That’s an astonishing story,” she said, “but I’m afraid your device must be mistaken. There’s no way a hidden room could be located anywhere within The Hub. It would have been noticed by now.”

“But that’s just the point,” explained Michael. “It’s designed to blend in. You could walk right by the door and not even know it was there.”

“Not in The Hub,” insisted Liv. “For a start there are no… Well, you’d understand soon enough if you went inside.” She paused for another soft shake of the head. “But I’m afraid it doesn’t really matter because The Hub is strictly for travellers only. They won’t allow anyone in without a valid ticket and boarding credentials, no matter how good your story.”

“There must be some way around that rule,” I replied. “What if we just wanted to see a spaceship take off? Don’t you have an observation platform or something?”

“The take-off zone is five kilometres north of here – travellers are bussed over when their flight is called,” explained Liv. “Spotters usually gather on Herschel Hill to watch departures – that’s as close as they’re allowed to get.”

“What if we weren’t travelling ourselves but had come to see off someone who was?” suggested Michael. “Isn’t there some kind of platform ticket you could offer, just for a few hours?”

“The concourse is the only area of The Hub open to friends and family,” explained Liv regretfully. “Though in fact all the major space travel providers recommend that travellers complete their goodbyes before they arrive at The Hub. It can be very emotionally unsettling, particularly if your journey is one-way. And nobody likes to have their flight delayed due to a last minute pull-out.”

“So there must have been some last minute pull-outs,” I noted. “Someone could enter The Hub as a traveller, say, but then turn around and walk out again because they’d changed their mind?”

“Well, I suppose,” conceded Liv rather reluctantly. “But you’d need to buy a ticket first.”

“I suppose a ticket for a space flight is probably quite expensive,” said Michael.

“You only get what you pay for,” replied Liv, slipping seamlessly into salesperson mode. “Space travel is a once in a lifetime opportunity and all flights departing from The Hub are Space Federation approved. With our range of deferred payment options a trip to the stars is closer than you think.”

“Deferred payment options, you say?” I repeated.

Liv smiled that eager sales-rep smile. “Would you like me to run through a few options for you?”

“It couldn’t hurt,” I responded.

Liv tapped on the desk and suddenly the walls of our booth lit up with an array of images and slogans. A bewildering range of landscapes from lush tropical jungles to icy wastes floated all around us accompanied by messages like ‘Cruise the Omega Nebula for the perfect holiday’ and ‘Have you considered the brave new world of the Jacinda Glaciers?” I sat transfixed by pictures of giant gas clouds and gleaming new cities, momentarily swept away by the bright new future on display.

“Did you have a particular destination in mind?” asked Liv.

“Let’s just say whichever is cheapest,” suggested Michael, bringing me back down to earth with a bump.

“Alright then,” said Liv with a slight sigh. “A one-way ticket would normally be cheaper than a return but all the closer and therefore cheaper destinations are already fully colonised. If money is a factor then you can’t really contemplate leaving the heliosphere…”

Liv considered for a moment, then tapped away again at the desk and the images around us rearranged themselves into one giant panoramic star-scape. “We do have some very good solar cruises running – they’re very popular with retirees. I’d say the best package currently available is the Solar Swift Cruise. That takes you out to the Kuiper Belt on a three-star vessel, includes planned excursions to Pluto, Ceres and at least one other dwarf planet, atmospheric conditions permitting, and offers a chance to view the newly discovered fourteenth moon of Saturn on the return leg. Depending on solar winds and allowing for asteroid diversions the whole trip should last between three and five years.”

“Three to five years!” exclaimed Michael.

“Calm down,” I told him. “It’s not like we’ll actually be taking the trip.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” said Liv with a light smile. “The really good news from your perspective is that Centauri Pacific are running these flights with regular departures so if you bought a ticket here and now you could proceed directly into The Hub to wait for your flight to be called.”

“And what exactly would it take for us to buy a ticket?” asked Michael with some trepidation.

Liv tapped some more. “The best deal currently on offer for a two-person package on the Solar Swift Cruise is available with a 36 month payment plan commencing from the date of your return and can be yours for a deposit of just 8000 marks.”

“8000 marks!” I exclaimed softly in dismay.

“Unfortunately that deposit is non-refundable,” advised Liv.

“Whether it’s refundable or not is not really the issue,” explained Michael sadly. “We just don’t have that kind of money.”

But the saleswoman in Liv was not easily deterred. “Cash payment is not a requirement. Our finance bureau would be happy to help you redeem a wide range of goods for currency and our exchange rates are very favourable.” She tapped again and the wall behind her lit up with a list of items the finance bureau were willing to take in part payment from items of jewellery to inheritance deeds and property rights.

Unfortunately, despite its length, it was not a list of goods we were in any way replete with. “I’m sorry but I just don’t think this is going to work out,” I told Liv regretfully. “We’re kind of light on material goods as well as currency.”

“People often have more items of value than they realise,” insisted Liv doggedly. “It’s just a matter of utilising your assets wisely. Why don’t you show me exactly what you do have and I may be able to suggest something that you’ve overlooked?”

She sounded so keen we didn’t like to refuse and so, with a degree of embarrassment, I tipped the contents of my bag out onto the table whilst Michael emptied his pockets. Even Liv’s tenacious enthusiasm flagged somewhat upon viewing the meagre array of possessions thus revealed. There was a momentary flurry of interest when she saw the inter-dimensional travel drive but once we had explained that there was no way we could part with that particular item there wasn’t a lot else to go on. Things were looking bleak indeed by the time I tipped out the contents of my purse to reveal nothing but a few nickels and dimes left over from our hard-boiled adventure with Jerry and Woody.

“Where did you get those?” asked Liv, eyeing the coins keenly.

Rare coins

“Oh I don’t know,” I replied with a shrug. “I guess it’s just some change from the coffee shop.”

I was about to sweep the coins rather sheepishly back away into my purse when Liv reached out a hand to stop me. “If you give me a minute I could get the coin desk to take a look at them,” she offered. “They’ll gladly provide ready cash in exchange for rare coins.”

“But they’re not rare, they’re just…”

I was silenced by a swift nudge in the ribs from Michael. “We’ll be happy to consider any offer the coin desk is willing to make,” he solemnly informed Liv.

Liv scooped up the coins and scurried away. I rubbed at my sore ribs and gave Michael a sharp glare. “You don’t really suppose we’re going to be able to make up the price of a space cruise from the change from a couple of cups of coffee, do you?” I demanded.

“But we’re in the future, remember?” replied Michael. “Who knows how valuable they might be now?”

I said nothing but merely shook my head disparagingly and settled back to watch the starry images dancing across the walls of the booth until Liv came back. On her return she sat down with an apologetic expression and pushed a couple of coins back across the table towards me.

“I’m afraid the coin desk were unable to take these as they have some slight blemishes,” Liv advised ruefully.

I turned to Michael with rather a smug smile.

“But they are prepared to offer 9750 marks in total for the other six coins if that’s acceptable,” added Liv.

My ‘I told you so’ look froze on my face. It was left to Michael to respond with a vaguely stunned, “Yeah, I think we consider that acceptable.”

“Then we’re in business!” said Liv enthusiastically. “I hope you don’t mind but I’ve already taken the liberty of deducting your 8000 mark deposit, leaving you with 1750 marks to spend as you see fit.” She handed us a small electronic chip which seemingly contained the entirety of our new found wealth. “Now, there are just one or two formalities to complete and then you can be on your way.”

The ‘one or two formalities’ in the end ran to nearly 45 minutes of electronic form-filling during which we were asked to provide almost everything from our preferred breakfast beverage to our inside leg measurements. By the time we were finished my eyes were dazed from watching page after page of terms and conditions scroll across the wall behind Liv and I was afraid I may have worn my right thumb print clean off from the number of times I was obliged to press it to the desk in order to signify my agreement to the said terms and conditions. But eventually we were all done and Liv provided us with our tickets which came in the form of two electronic wristbands.

“Your bands must be worn at all times for security purposes,” advised Liv as we slipped them onto our wrists. “They contain credits which may be exchanged for meals, drinks and sundry extras within the complex and the display on your band will activate to notify you of the assembly protocol when you need to make your way to the departure zone. You should expect your flight to be called within 48 hours of your entry into The Hub.”

“48 hours?” I echoed worriedly, thinking of the search for the hidden door. “That seems like quite a big place to cover in just 48 hours.”

Liv glanced around and then leaned forward with a conspiratorial air. “Actually, we’re obliged to say 48 hours but delays are pretty commonplace these days,” she told us in a hushed tone. “To be honest you’ll probably find it’s nearer to a week before your flight is called.”

“I reckon a week doesn’t sound so bad,” said Michael hopefully.

“Just one last thing,” said Liv, reverting to her usual breezy tone. “Whilst inside The Hub you’ll each need to wear one of these.” She passed over to each of us something that looked like a small green nicotine patch. “You wear them just behind your right ear, like this.”

“What are they?” asked Michael curiously.

“They’re for travel sickness,” explained Liv. “Wearing the patch prior to departure has been proven to help fight the most common symptoms of space travel syndrome – nausea, dizziness, headaches and such.”

“Ah well, as we’re not actually travelling into space we won’t be needing them,” I said and held out the patch in an attempt to return it to Liv.

But Liv firmly refused it with one of those polite shakes of the head. “Ah but you’re entering The Hub on the understanding that you will be travelling,” she replied. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wear it.”

“Couldn’t we just say that neither of us is particularly prone to travel sickness?” suggested Michael, regarding his patch with a wary eye.

“I’m sorry but it’s part of the terms and conditions,” insisted Liv. “All travellers entering The Hub must wear a patch. You’ll be ejected immediately if you are found without one.”

“That’s a bit severe, isn’t it?” I objected mildly.

“Rules are rules,” said Liv casually.

I looked at Michael and he looked back at me but, after a brief hesitation, we each peeled off the backing paper and applied the patch to the area indicated by Liv. After all, besides a vague presentiment that there was something mildly dystopian about the whole affair, there didn’t really seem to be any particular reason to refuse. After a slight itching sensation that lasted less than a minute I swiftly proceeded to forget that the patch was even there.

“Well now, that really is everything,” said Liv with just a hint of a sigh of relief. She tapped the desk and a sequence of digital fireworks exploded across the walls around us, spelling out the message ‘Bon Voyage’. She stood up and held out her hand. “On Behalf of Centauri Pacific I’d like to wish you joy on your interplanetary adventure,” she began before catching herself. “Oh but in your case… I suppose what I ought to say is…” She paused for a moment, floundering for an appropriate send-off. “Well, I guess what I really mean is… Whatever else, I hope you enjoy your time in The Hub.”

 

To be continued…

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