book 2/1, travelling
and we need to talk about sex
_______________________________________Fri, July, 8
Rio de Janeiro
8 July 2016
New York, at an airport
Around seven in the morning
The SUV stopped under the tip of the plane’s wing, and Alice and Tom got out, stretching their legs and looking around the hangar.
This was Tom’s private hangar, but it was pretty busy all the same: people were loading luggage and equipment into the belly of the double-deck airliner, security guards were posted at the hangar doors, presently checking new arrivals, other guards were walking the hangar, two of them stopping at a van, where a cook seemed to have an argument with a deliveryman.
‘A pep talk?’ Alice repeated, grimacing while taking in the enormous size of the double-deck airliner, or as much as she could see of it.
‘Yes, a pep talk,’ Tom replied, following Alice’s gaze with a hint of pride. ‘You insisted on heading the project. Pep talks are part of the job.’
‘And Alice, please, remember you’re not in your first week any more. Try not to upset our new team members. They are all—’
‘—good people,’ Alice forestalled him, finally taking her eyes off the airliner. ‘I know, Tom. But I still think, the team is too big. Though, they’ll fit into this plane, all right. Probably five times over.’
‘Alice, the public is impressionable, and we want to impress them. If we arrived with just two or three people, no one would pay us any attention.’
Alice didn’t comment. They had this argument before. Repeatedly. And so far repetition didn’t help.
As they started to walk, two carriers overtook them, pushing carts with boxes of fruits and vegetables towards stairs at the front of the airliner.
‘By the way,’ Tom remarked while they followed the carriers, ‘your Security Team added some gadgets to my airliner, and they said I can keep them.’
‘My Security Team? Are you still annoyed they don’t trust you?’
‘No,’ Tom replied, crossing his arms behind his back. ‘I’m annoyed they still ignore me. They don’t even greet me.’
‘Sorry about that. But—’
‘I know. No one tells them what to do or whom to accept.’
‘Look, Tom, I’ll have a word with Jazz.’
‘Don’t bother. They are as stubborn as you are. Oh, the oranges. You make a good team.’
The oranges remark referred to a box that had slipped from one of the carts, close to the stairs of the airliner. Now oranges rolled around everywhere.
‘Stubborn or not, there’s no need to rub it in,’ Alice said.
Tom picked up a stray orange. ‘Well, I’m glad THE protect us.’
‘Mhm,’ Alice murmured.
She was glad too. She just didn’t like being monitored. And THE was big on monitoring. She had to wear a trackable leather wristband with silver embroideries. It measured her vital signs, and it could make recordings. In addition, she was usually followed by two guards, presently by Jazz and Anthony.
Alice grimaced to herself, and she grimaced again when she noticed Tom’s reproachful glance.
‘Alice, could you, please, cheer up?’ he said, stopping next to the stairs. He picked up a second orange and nodded to the carriers who had recaptured most fruits and were about to carry the boxes up the stairs.
‘I know,’ Alice said. ‘I should be happy about THE, and about going on this networking, handshaking, diplomatic mission.’
‘And I know you’d rather be in London with the main team, working on the plans for the town. But do you remember why you insisted on meeting me face to face? Why you didn’t just send me a summary of your town idea?’
‘Yes, I thought you wouldn’t give a damn unless I made my case in person.’
‘Precisely. I needed to see who you are. I needed to get the measure of you. And that’s why it’s so important that we meet with as many people as possible. In person. Allow them to get to know us.’
‘We chose sixteen international teams for a reason.’
‘And it’s a shame we can’t visit them all.’
‘We’ll see the world.’
‘Alice, honestly. I don’t want to keep fighting your moodiness.’
Alice exhaled. ‘I know. I’ll get better.’
‘You said at our first meeting: “From where I stand, we can continue to whine about the state of the world, or we can employ our imagination and explore how to do better.” The same goes for you. You can continue to whine about not being in London, or you can do your job while our teams do theirs.’
‘All right. I hear you.’
‘Thanks.’ Alice accepted the orange with a lopsided smile.
‘Excellent. Let’s do the tour of the airliner then and, please, try to be a bit impressed.’
‘That should be easy.’
And it was. The interior of the airliner was expensive on both decks: velvet and leather seats, plus sofas, carpets, wooden panels, indirect lighting, dark furniture, light-coloured walls.
But it wasn’t overdone. It sort of felt comfortable and practical rather than overly luxurious.
Tom explained that the interior had been adjusted to meet the requirements of the travelling team. Accordingly, the lower deck was assigned to Programming and Security. It had a fitness room and a large programming space with a labyrinth of tables and monitors wherever you looked. Andy, Devery and a few others were already busy here. Too busy, in fact, to say hello.
This deck also had a kitchen, and a medical room in the nose of the airliner. The latter was one of the gadgets THE had installed for this trip.
The upper deck was allotted to Business, Admin, Town Planning, and to Leo’s team. Tom’s private quarters and a lounge were also on the upper deck.
Both decks had passenger areas with rows of seats, and there were bathrooms, bars and a few tiny bedrooms.
Early arrivals were busy here and there, but Alice didn’t recognise any of them, and they seemed to be too shy for a greeting. Though admittedly, Tom was talking without pause, so maybe they just didn’t want to interrupt.
The decks were connected by two spiral staircases, one next to the cockpit, and another next to Tom’s private quarters, towards the back of the airliner.
They finished the tour in Tom’s study.
‘Not bad,’ Alice said, looking around the square room, which had dark panelled walls, and a large writing desk at its centre.
‘I hope you’ll like your room too.’
‘Yes, let’s go over the details for the teams in London— My what?’
‘Your room,’ Tom said amused by Alice’s delayed reaction. ‘Come, I’ll show you. It’s just opposite. Our children used to stay there when they were younger.’
Surprised, Alice followed Tom across the narrow corridor, and into the spare room. Below the windows stood a double bed and a small writing desk. Opposite the windows was a passenger seat with a little coffee table, and next to that a wardrobe. The narrow space between the bed and the wardrobe led to a bathroom. A bloody private bathroom on a plane! With a shower!
Alice turned to Tom. ‘All right, this is pretty cool.’
‘Good,’ Tom said.
Tom was still smiling when a noise from behind made him turn, and his smile disappeared.
Jazz was standing in the door. ‘Sorry to interrupt, Alice. Any wants a word with you in the safe room. Lower deck, just down the staircase, between the programming space and the fitness room.’
Alice looked at Tom. ‘How long do we need?’
Tom grimaced a little. ‘Maybe sixty minutes for the London Team, maybe thirty for travelling matters? For time sensitive issues?’
‘Yeah, probably. Jazz, is that OK?’
‘Yes, I’ll tell Any.’
Jazz disappeared and Tom muttered sourly: ‘You make a diplomat after all.’
Alice gave a short laugh. ‘Nah. Besides, I don’t like diplomating. I’ll talk to Jazz.’
‘Let’s get to work then,’ Tom said, walking back to the door.
When Tom was gone, Alice took another look around her room. Yes, this was pretty cool. She smiled, placed her orange on the coffee table and followed Tom.
Alice briefly wondered what Tom and Fran’s bedroom was like, but Tom didn’t offer a peek into the room next to his study.
On the way to the safe room, Alice saw more new faces in the lounge, and she quickly disappeared down the staircase to the lower deck. She wasn’t in the mood for small talk, and she was glad to have an excuse to hide away in the safe room — at least for a bit.
The narrow passage between the programming space and the fitness room was empty, but she heard voices, coming from the programming space. Quietly, she slipped into the safe room at the end of the passage.
The safe room was tiny: a table with a monitor on one side, a flight seat on the other, and hardly enough legroom in between.
Alice squeezed herself into the seat and closed the door. She still wasn’t sure how a safe room worked. But apparently you could make and take untraceable calls from here, and no one would even know that a connection to the internet had been established. Something about disguising signals as a flurry of dust, or something like that.
Alice looked out of the oval window — at the corrugated-iron wall.
The tour of the airliner plus the fact that she had an actual private bedroom on a plane, and working with Tom had cheered her up. But now, her gloomy mood was taking over again.
She tried to think of the blue sky — outside.
Usually blue sky cheered her up. And the sky had been blue all week. But for days now, she had been struggling with an inner turmoil she couldn’t quite account for. She didn’t even know when it had started. Yes, the project was growing at a breathtaking pace. The Hub alone had more than two hundred and seventy million users by now, with nine Hub Stations up and running, and numerous more in planning. In addition some twenty Easy Town businesses were in full operation, often in connection with the Hub Stations. And the main team in London were still recruiting and transforming the former factory into the new project base. And the food and raw material teams were travelling around the world to negotiate deals with potential suppliers. And then there were the sixteen international teams, not to mention the odd classified activity.
And Tom kept pressing forward. And Alice kept reminding him that the town experiment was complex enough all by itself. Well, it was her idea to set up project businesses already. And the Hub— Yeah, she started that one too. But—
‘Are you going to talk to me, or not?’ Any asked, appearing on the screen in front of Alice.
‘How do you know I’m here?’
‘The mysteries of modern technology.’
‘Ah, the door.’
‘What’s up with you? You look as if someone ate your birthday cake.’
‘No cake. Just me being strange.’
‘You got high on the secret meeting, and now you’re suffering from withdrawal.’
‘Of course I am. It was exciting, and it was something useful and palpable. Not some handshaking mission where I’m bound to mess up. I’m not a diplomat.’
‘You listen too much to Tom. You don’t mess up. You’re straight forward. Don’t let him talk you down.’
‘He’s been talking a lot,’ Alice conceded.
‘Don’t listen to him. You’re doing a good job, or I wouldn’t work for you.’
Alice smiled a little. ‘Thanks.’
‘Don’t mention it. Anyway, you could be happy that we managed to set up a secret team which will grow and stash all sorts of seeds, and which will provide the town’s suppliers with said seeds thus making you independent of the big food corporations and their damn copyrights.’
‘What are you? My therapist?’
‘Someone has to be. Also, we got to test our security measures and managed to get you to the meeting and back without anyone on the team knowing what you’ve been up to — except Daria. And you got a brief holiday, including martial arts training with Jazz.’
‘That was cool. I got to try out stick fighting.’
‘That’s the spirit. Now you take that, and use it for the job at hand.’
‘You’re right. But why do I feel all whiny and restless?’
‘You dislike having no choice. Tom isn’t helping. And most of your friends are in London. Besides, the travelling team is pretty large.’
‘Tell me about it. Tom still talks about wanting to impress, but I don’t want us to impress. I want us to get results.’ Alice exhaled and added: ‘So, why do you want to talk to me?’
‘To see how you are?’
‘Thanks. But I’m sure there’s something else.’
‘Yes. As you know, I have teams at all travelling locations in addition to the Security Team that’s travelling with you.’
‘So we’re well prepared for all eventualities.’
‘Alice, the threats against you and Tom are serious. With all that’s going on, it’s easy to forget the growing opposition to the project from different groups: corporate, religious and political, and from the public.’
‘I know. And I’ll do whatever Security says. I met them all. We did another emergency-exercises-drill thing yesterday. I’ll be good.’
‘Some say you don’t take security seriously enough.’
‘Oh, come on. I’m wearing the wristband so you can monitor me and record every meeting I attend. I have your latest ear-whisperer in case I need to hear you. And there are constantly two people following me around. What else do you want me to do?’
‘Don’t be reckless. Don’t be annoyed by people whose job it is to protect you.’
Alice sighed. ‘Sorry. Funny though. I’m annoyed while annoying others.’
‘Tom is annoyed?’
‘Yeah, he’s annoyed that I’m not radiating with happiness. And he’s annoyed that your people still treat him with suspicion.’
‘Nothing I can do about the latter.’
‘All he’s asking is that your people don’t treat him like thin air.’
Any fell silent and looked down with a frown.
Alice leaned back.
Over the last weeks, she talked a lot with Any, in preparation for this journey. These days face to face, not cardboard to face like during the first two weeks of their cooperation. And by now she knew Any’s thinking expression, and she knew he wouldn’t look up again until he was ready to respond.
After two or three minutes, Any met her eyes again. ‘Tom has a point. Do you want me to talk to Jazz?’
‘No. I’ll talk to her.’
‘What else is on your list?’ Alice asked.
‘A new appointment came in last night, for you and Tom.’
‘The property mogul Clive Stodd wants to sell a site. It’s ideal for the California Hub Station, but he insists on meeting you in person before deciding whether or not to sell to the project. You and Tom are expected at Clive Stodd’s villa at half past three this afternoon.’
‘The site is extensive, and it sits between two towns. Both towns have suffered severe declines, because too many jobs went to San Francisco and to Silicon Valley. The Hub Station would run for ten million Hub subscribers, providing the region with four point eight million dollars a month to invest locally. So meeting Clive Stood might be worth your while.’
‘Hm. What sort of person is he?’
‘He’s a billionaire, sixty-four, with a grudge against Silicon Valley. In private: unmarried, casual relationships, only works three days a week, has a private island in the Caribbean. Fortunate for us, he had a string of bad luck on the stock markets and needs ready money. His grudge against Silicon Valley and his need for cash are your main bargaining chips.’
‘But he’s not a philanthropist, and quite a dick by some accounts. There’s a file on him in your inbox.’
‘OK. I’ll have a look. Anything else?’
‘Yes. Tom keeps getting pressure from political groups.’
‘I know, and I’m glad I rarely have to attend these meetings.’
‘I’d feel better if you did.’
‘Maybe, but I’m always in danger of telling them to go screw themselves. Our town experiment is not about cosying up to any political or economical view, and even less to anyone’s interests. We need to be independent. That’s the only way to explore how we can live on this planet without screwing said planet and ourselves. And anyway, you get the recordings of all those meetings.’
‘Not all of them.’
‘Oh. Why not?’
‘I don’t know. But we should keep this to ourselves. I don’t want Tom to know that we keep a close eye on all his activities.’
‘Do you remember that I had this fight with Tom during the conference?’
‘And you’re finally going to tell me what that was about?’
‘No. But Tom and I made a deal that day. And I trust him.’
‘And we stay on the safe side as long as I don’t trust him.’
Alice sighed. ‘All right.’
‘Isn’t there some kind of welcoming the team before the take-off?’ Any asked.
‘Oh, yeah. The pep talk in the lounge.’
‘Then you’d better go. Take-off is in thirty-nine minutes.’
Alice was standing between the two semicircular sofas, and she felt the urge to take yet another step backwards.
More people were entering the lounge from both directions: the passenger area next to the bar, and the spiral staircase next to Tom’s quarters.
Alice grimaced. Nearly a hundred and thirty people, board crew included. And so many unfamiliar faces.
Tom and Fran stood in the front row. Leo, Alice’s assistant, was with them. Audry was at the bar. Andy, Devery and Javiera leaned against the central circular sofa, and Jazz stood near the staircase. All right, some faces were familiar.
When the last arrivals had squeezed into the lounge, everyone focused on Alice, and she met the expectant glances with a half-smile, trying to guess professions and ages, and trying to decide what to say. Pep talks had a way of sounding silly, and she had no idea how to avoid that.
For some seconds, her eyes lingered on a couple. He whispered something into her ear, she smiled, and he sealed his remark with a kiss.
‘We need to talk about sex.’ Oops.
Instantly, the air filled with giggles and murmurs. Eyes widened, some people blushed. Leo pursed his lips. Tom and Fran tensed.
Well done, Alice. But since it’s out, I might as well get on with it. I’m supposed to talk. Why not talk about something that keeps puzzling me? And what better place to talk about sex than the crammed and indirectly lit lounge on Tom’s plane?
Alice inhaled. ‘Like I said, we need to talk about sex. Sex has been puzzling me for some time, and I’d like to find out whether there’s some sort of key, something that could help us to better understand our actions, behaviour, motives and needs. Sex makes up so much of our lives and—’
That’s how far Alice got, because Fran interrupted her. ‘Alice, you’re not in your first week any more. You can’t jump something like that on us. And I don’t want to discuss this in public.’
Most people seemed to hold their breath.
Alice swallowed. Not so much from embarrassment, but because she really wanted to argue her point. Except, getting into a public argument with Fran, or anyone really, wasn’t a good idea. Not with so many new faces around, not on the first day. Besides, Tom’s eyes clearly stated: ‘Don’t look at me. You brought this one on yourself. Sort it out.’
Alice forced her mouth into a lopsided smile: ‘Sorry, everyone. That thought just popped up, jumped over the checkpoint and popped out.’
Many people chuckled, and everyone was breathing again.
Alice inhaled. ‘Now, welcome on board everybody. Today we’ll start with a six hours flight to San Francisco. Not enough time to meet all the new faces, but we can make a start. You’ve been briefed, so all I can say is: happy flying.’
Happy flying. Really? Hell, I blew this one too.
Juno Brooks, their red-haired pilot, saved Alice from more embarrassment by announcing that it was time to find a seat. In a reassuring voice, she added: ‘I am proud to be your pilot. Weather conditions are excellent, and we will take off as planned at ten thirty this morning. My crew and I are thrilled to be part of this exciting project. It is our great pleasure to ensure your comfort, safety and well-being on board of this airliner. Please, do not hesitate to come to us with any request or question you might have.’
So, that’s how it’s done.
At once, nearly everyone started to move towards one of the exits.
Alice was undecided where to go or what to do. Tom was talking to Fran, moving towards the private quarters. Leo was surrounded by his team, moving towards the passenger area. Andy and Devery were busy with their new team members, probably explaining that the little scene between Alice and Fran shouldn’t worry anyone. It really shouldn’t, Alice thought when Tom’s voice made her turn.
‘Let’s talk about sex then,’ he said with the hint of a smile.
‘You want to talk about sex? With me?’
Tom inclined his head. ‘Alice, you messed up the pep talk, and my wife is still upset about that.’ Tom paused, briefly looking over his shoulder. Alice followed his gaze and saw Fran enter the private quarters.
‘She’s sorry about attacking you in public,’ Tom said. ‘She will tell you herself. Just give her a moment to calm down.’
‘Can I ask you why bringing up sex bothered her this much?’
Tom pursed his lips. ‘Let’s say, she’s an all-American. We are a bit prude, sometimes. Also, I think she’s angry that you couldn’t for once—’ Tom stopped.
‘Keep my mouth shut?’
‘Alice, you do understand, don’t you?’
Alice sighed. ‘Yes. You want to be comfortable with everything I do, because you really want to support this project.’
‘Ah, well put. See, we know you, and we want to support you. But you can be—’
Tom gave her a half-smile and said: ‘OK. So let’s talk. How about we sit down in the corner over there. I had the seats put there for our open office. We have our workspace, and at the same time, we are accessible for our teams. What do you think?’
‘Hence the table between the two seats, the single seat facing the two, and the extra coffee table so we can offer our guest a drink?’
‘Ah, you get the idea. Yours is, of course, the window seat.’
‘Thanks. I like it.’
‘Excellent. And look around, for now we have the lounge to ourselves.’
‘Hm. Shouldn’t there be a chaperon while we’re talking about sex?’
‘I detect the first signs of recovery. I’m glad you’re less moody. I told Fran, all Alice needs is something that intrigues her, then she’ll be fine.’
Alice smiled a little.
The engines rumbled, and the airliner slowly left the hangar. Gradually bright daylight filled the lounge.
Alice and Tom were fastening their seatbelts when the flight attendant appeared. He gave them a satisfied nod and disappeared down the spiral staircase.
‘So?’ Tom said.
‘All right. I’ve been thinking about sex on and off for some years. And I can’t help feeling that somewhere in all of this mess, beauty and horror, is an important key. Sex makes up so much of our lives and cultures.’
‘I don’t know where to start or what to include. Though for now, I’d say, let’s include everything that has even the slightest connection to sex. From advertising to riding a horse. From passionate love making to genital mutilation—’
‘Genital mutilation? Um. Sorry, carry on.’
‘Um, from marriage to trafficking. From honeymoon to domestic violence. From gender to architecture. From fashion to sex education. From puberty and menopause to cooking. From going to war to making love. From dancing to homosexuality. From the Kama Sutra to parenting and whatever else we can think of.’
‘Well, that’s not what I expected. What are our questions?’
‘For example. Where does the irritation with the human body and especially with our genitals come from? Why do we still know so little about our bodies? Why has the body been demonised and mystified in so many cultures? What are we afraid of? Why are sex and nudity perceived as offensive? What is the offence? What is it we are guarding by hiding behind clothes. What is sex? Where is the connection between sex and violence? What’s so funny about genitals and sex that it constantly comes up in jokes? Or on a different note. Why do governments still concern themselves with gender, sexual orientation, fertility or even marriage? And what makes sex so important? How can sex be such a wonderful experience for some, and the worst experience for others? Why is one touch pleasant, and another intrusive? Why is rape a violation that goes far beyond physical pain?’ Alice inhaled. ‘So, when I talk about sex, I’m not just thinking about making love but about everything that has even the slightest connection to sex.’
‘Um. That’s a lot.’
‘I know. But I’m sure that somewhere in all of this, there’s a key—’ Alice paused and looked out of the window, distracted by the take-off.
The airliner stopped on the runway. The engines accelerated. Then the brakes were released, and the airliner shot along the runway and took off into the blue sky.
It was only after they had reached altitude that Tom said: ‘If we find the mysterious key, what are we going to do with it?’
‘We won’t know before we know what the key is. Best case scenario: we’ll have a better understanding. It might help us to treat ourselves and our fellow humans better. Because one thing seems to be clear: our sexuality has brought a lot of devastation to people, and that for centuries. If we understand sex better, maybe we can enjoy the pleasant aspects of it while avoiding the destructive ones. And since our sexuality influences us far beyond the sexual act, a better understanding might help us to reassess, and maybe even rethink and redefine, a lot more than just sex.’
‘But how would we apply the findings to our town experiment?’
‘I don’t know. We could make a point of not caring about anyone’s gender or about their sexual preferences. Maybe most importantly, we could have an open discussion about sex, sexuality and all that comes with it. Make our sex research part of the experiment.’
‘How would you start?’
‘I’d set up a small team. A group of people who are comfortable enough with each other to explore everything without holding back, and who don’t believe they have all the answers already. Also, I’d like to ask each project team to consider where and how sex might be influencing their specific fields.’
‘OK. That sounds workable.’
Tom’s phone pinged, and he checked his display. ‘Oh! One of our new team members posted your pep talk online.’
‘Yes. Fran writes the internet is celebrating.’
‘So it’s not just on the Hub?’
‘No, it’s everywhere. And happy flying gets some applause too, Fran writes.’
Alice and Tom spent most of the flight in their open office corner, talking and working. Oddly, no one joined them, but they were too busy to worry about that.
They had lunch with Audrey, the head of the town planners, to give her an update on her team’s tasks during this journey. Later, Alice and Fran talked. They were both a little tense at first. But after hearing more, Fran offered to organise the sex talk. Since Fran was the head of the Research Team that was fitting, and Alice agreed, provided that curiosity and openness would not be restricted.
‘That sort of openness will be a challenge for me,’ Fran admitted. ‘But I accept the challenge.’
About eighty minutes before landing and back in the open office corner, Alice repeatedly looked up from her laptop.
Something seemed to be off.
People — people unknown to her — looked at her and Tom, kind of watching. Only whenever she looked up, they looked away. And it happened with people who passed through the lounge and those who got a coffee at the bar, and others who sat on one of the sofas.
Was this still about the pep talk?
Eventually, Alice turned to Tom. ‘Am I imagining this, or are people watching us?’
Tom looked up from his reading and shook his head. ‘No, you’re not imagining it. Something’s in the air. But the first days with a new team are always a little up and down. People have to find their place. I wouldn’t worry just yet.’
About forty minutes before landing, Leo dropped into the single seat opposite Alice and Tom.
‘We have a situation,’ he said.
‘What is it?’ Alice and Tom asked.
‘As you know, the on-the-spot team act as coordinator and mediator between the travelling team and the local team.’
‘Yeah, we know that,’ Alice said, frowning.
‘Each on-the-spot team arrive at a given destination a fortnight before the travelling team. This gives them enough time to get to know the local teams and to prioritise which issues to bring up with the travelling team—’
Jane from Security interrupted Leo: ‘Sorry to barge in, Alice. But you and Tom need to get changed. We’re landing soon.’
‘Of course,’ Tom said, getting up. ‘Leo, don’t worry. We’ll be fine.’
Leo looked doubtful and was about to reply when Jazz appeared. ‘Alice, we’ll have to leave directly after landing, for your appointment with Clive Stodd.’
‘We’d better get you changed,’ Jane repeated, and Alice got up too. ‘Leo, we’ll talk later. As soon as I’m back. Promise.’
book 2/1, travelling, San Francisco