1.6 The Big Split
1.6.1 The Story
Aboard Air France Flight 004
About to depart for Paris 8:45 pm Wednesday 1 April 1987
Alenby heard the flight attendant’s warning too late. In the act of stepping aboard Air France Flight 004, he failed to duck in the entry-way and bumped his head.
"Now it seems Boeing is making smaller jets," he complained, rubbing his forehead.
The flight attendant, a short, thin young woman with a professionally bright manner, seemed to take this as a compliment. "Indeed, Excellency," she said as she retrieved his homburg, which had fallen to the floor, and handed it back to him, "Air France is proud to acknowledge that this algae-sourced-fuel burning Boeing 0.007 is the smallest, most efficient, and most Gaea-friendly mass-transport passenger jet aircraft in the sky!"
In spite of his troubles, Alenby smiled. How charmingly typical of the feminine mind to accept the loopy liberal tree-hugging conservationists' impossible dream that a jet aircraft could be fueled by algae!
Meanwhile she prattled on: "May I take your flight bag? Flight bags normally go in our 0.007 overhead micro-bins, but this flight bag is just a little"—she lowered her voice—"excessively dimensioned."
Was it safe to give up one's flight bag? Despite the feeling of dizziness and of incipient headache occasioned by his misadventure, Alenby thought quickly. His injury did not involve his palate, teeth, tongue or any bodily parts vital to the appreciation of a nice lunch, and the selection of surgical dressings and medications he carried on his person were adequate to treat his injury, if that should become necessary, and otherwise to sustain health throughout the flight. He would probably not need anything in his bag before Paris. Anyway, in case of an emergency, this little flight attendant person seemed disposed to be helpful. Indeed, she was looking up at him with the air of adoration that persons of the weaker sex normally reserved for taller men. So he handed over his bag, turned away and moved toward his reserved window seat 9A.
Another shock awaited him—that seat was already occupied! His features congealed in an expression of displeasure, he pressed forward to glare at the offender with the petulance he normally reserved for a pasteurized Camembert masquerading as the real thing.
The interloper did not flinch. Petite, fine-limbed, she continued to occupy seat 9A with the featherweight grace of a song-bird alighted on a branch. She looked up, smiling, and Alenby was startled to recognize her eyes—gleaming brown like chocolate fondue!
Uncharacteristically speechless, he registered tiny details of her person. About thirty, he guessed at first, but perhaps older. Touch of youthful chien, moderated by a hint of gravitas. A woman with a past, and also a future. The smile revealed teeth that, while white and strong-looking, were somewhat irregular, biggish incisors. Whatever her physical shortcomings, though, she acted damnably self-assured, an irritating trait in the weaker sex....
She spoke—quietly yet crisply, in a voice whose tart overtones recalled a more-than-adequate white Bordeaux of the Entre Deux Mers persuasion.
"Yes, Excellency, I know I’m in your seat. Here, take mine." She indicated the seat beside her. "You’ll be more comfortable on the aisle."
She was right, he realized. The cabin wall curved about her head and left shoulder with space to spare, but for him it would have been intolerably confining. He subsided—not without some slight difficulty, for his hips made a tight fit between the arm rests.
"I beg your pardon," she was saying, "I’m Ada. May I call you Alenby? I happened to learn your name through—but no matter, we are together…."
Together? What was she talking about? He'd followed her, certainly, but he'd come to his senses, and now she seemed to be stalking him! This was a development he didn't care for at all. But when she raised the arm rest between them and nestled closer, he did not draw away. He sensed his bulk, blessedly unconfined, spreading like a deflating balloon across the space between the two seats, and he felt Ada’s breath eddying warm about his jowl. He inhaled her personal aromas. Very nice, redolent actually of the Midi--tomato and eggplant, garlic and olive oil.... And a Bandol Rosé splashed in the glass under the sun-dappled arbor of Restaurant Miramar in Le Ciotat….
Time to relax, to let go, he told himself.
He tried to relax, willing himself to believe for the moment that his puzzling experiences--the lost valise, little people all over the place, this Ada person--were not real, nothing to worry about. He was merely suffering hallucinatory side-effects from Comadoz, his current sleep-regulating medication. He knew that, like any combination of powerful stimulants and soporifics compounded to ensure a refreshing and natural overnight sleep experience, Lynch will occasionally gave rise to a warped perception of reality. In all probability, he told himself, the whole illusion, including this disturbingly attractive nuisance, will fade and vanish of its own accord by the time Flight 004 arrives at Roissy. Then it will be a simple matter to resume one's plans—slip behind the wheel of the sporty Borstal Aero that would be waiting for him at the airport, and then take the A4 to Strasbourg for a nice lunch.
So he let go, relinquished his personal steering wheel to the small, neatly manicured (no nail polish) hands that were currently picking imaginary lint off the lapel of his Harris tweed jacket. Female-ape courting behavior, he thought. Grooming or some such, better let her alone while she's at it....
"Oh, this is so exciting," she continued in a low, tremulous voice. "To be right up close to a—a U-person, a man from the remote and rugged universe U! A big--I mean dimensionally disadvantaged man. A real man!" As she said this she again leaned close, enveloping him in her natural body odor with its intimations of the warm South, and dropped a slim hand on his broad, strong and slightly pudgy one.
Though receptive to the erotic element of her gesture, Alenby felt no stirring of incipient tumescence. Apparently Upleze, his current erectile-dysfunction medication, had done little to restore his virility. Perhaps it was time to switch to some other FDA-approved elixir. He'd been thinking about Prixaloft.... Meanwhile, he told himself, one must be civil.
"Let’s summarize," he suggested, arranging his features in the warily patronizing expression he normally reserved for females from the West Coast who advocate a diet of brown rice and carrot juice and consult astrologers. "You assert that my provenance is an exotic universe denoted by the letter U?"
"Yes, we call it U upper-case bold-face, a universe parallel to, yet since sixty-seven years separated from our own familiar, cozy universe, u in lower-case italic."
"U and u," he muttered. "You are, I assume, joshing?"
"No, no, I have never been more in earnest," she protested. "But please forgive me--how thoughtless of me to assume that you might be au courant with our particular creation myth! Let me fill you in on that and our subsequent history."
She recited the standard story, starting with the twin universes identical up until the fateful BS event of 1 April 1920, which was coincidentally the day upon which Prohibition went into effect throughout the United Nations.
Noticing that Alenby's attention had flagged (for him, locutions like "creation myth" and "United Nations" signaled time for a quick nap) Ada skipped to the main point and, switching on her special clanging voice, declaimed: "In the nascent universe u, President-to-be Edith Bollin rallied the then newly enfranchised women of America to introduce a spirit of science and reason in public affairs. Now sixty-seven years later, as a result of policies based on science and reason, we--and by 'we' I mean Gaea, the totality of our planet--we are in much better shape than before Prohibition: CHAOS AND OUCH virtually eliminated. Population bomb defused. Global warming--well, that's still a downer, but it's not on for oh, a couple hundred--"
"Nice idea," Alenby interrupted, "but the science and reason thing, it's a bit of a yawn actually, like Jimmy Carter's idea that if you feel cold, you don't simply turn up the heat, you put on a sweater. That's not the American way. As for global warming, it's just a scare, you know, cooked up by left-wing loony scientists to pad their research funds."
As he said this it occurred to him that Ada might be disconcerted by this recital of unvarnished truths, and he was about to varnish them a bit when a message on the cabin audio-visual system grabbed his attention. It came, not from a face on a screen, but from a realistic three-dimensional image of a flight attendant walking along the aisle.
"Cute, isn't it," Ada said, smiling at his reaction. "It's HV--holovision--the latest piece of techno-trivia to beguile us here in u. It's one of the less happy off-shoots from the tremendous surge of scientific research in the post-Prohibition era, but we must not let that foolish bit of frippery cloud our respect and appreciation of science and reason as a whole."
Another interruption, an announcement over HV: Air France Flight 004, bound for Simone de Beauvoir Airport, Paris...about to depart.
Simone de Beauvoir—shouldn’t that be Charles de Gaulle? Alenby wondered. But coming as they did on top of so many other breaks from his notion of reality, the discrepancies quickly passed him by.
The cabin floor tilted up sharply and the engines roared as the aircraft took off.
1.6.2 Alenby Learns the Nature of Universe u
Aboard Air France Flight 004
About 9 pm Wednesday 1 April 1987
Alenby felt his throat muscles knotting. He was always nervous at takeoff. He could never be sure of timing his Snifitin nasal spray with the precision needed to forestall the inconvenience of clogged sinus passages at a time of rapidly changing cabin pressure. The touch of Ada's hand gave him little comfort. He closed his eyes and focused his mind on an eternal verity: on no account should wine be offered with chocolate desserts. He relaxed, breathing steadily, and then felt his throat tighten again as a troublesome counterexample hovered at the edges of his consciousness: a glass of a sweet and faintly toasty Rasteau, served with a chocolate soufflé....
But wait--that waiter fellow in the Ambassador lounge, the bird with the bushy eyebrows, what was he saying about chocolate? Something about its being prohibited--could that be so? As soon as the aircraft reached its cruising altitude and the whine of the engines subsided to a steady drone, he put the question to Ada.
"Yes, that's right," she said. "Raw chocolate's okay, I suppose. But not the candy sort of thing, because it contains Substances like, oh, milk, butter.... But we don't worry about the details. We simply comply with the law, content that by so doing we are giving ourselves a good chance of avoiding the diet related illnesses known as CHAOS AND OUCH. Cancer, heart disease and so on. It's simply a matter of going along with science and reason."
"Yes," said Alenby, "but this so-called reason and science you speak of, surely it’s dangerous! Unimpeachable authorities such as the US Department of Agriculture assure us that to maintain health we need a varied diet including milk and other dairy products for building strong bones and teeth, and seafood for that protective omega whatever it may be. And poultry, and red meat packed with high-quality proteins to maintain our strength."
"Romantic!" Ada breathed. "To be close to a U-person is to be closer to the barbaric era before Prohibition, when"—here she lowered her voice to a whisper and put her lips directly to Alenby’s ear—"when men of imposing loft and thickness—men like you, Alenby—proudly trod the earth, killing animals and clothing themselves in garments fashioned from those animals’ hides and hair—"
"If you’re talking about my jacket, it’s not hair. It’s wool, actually, the finest Hebridean—"
"Finally killing the animals," Ada pursued, "and eating their still-bleeding flesh!"
Alenby took his red show handkerchief out of his lapel pocket, dabbed it to his lips, folded it and stuffed it back in his pocket. Then he took it out again, folded it a trifle more carelessly, and stuffed it back in his pocket again. "Well," he said finally, "few authorities consider it proper to offer meats quite as lightly cooked as you describe. Bleu, to be sure, but not actually leaking, ah, blood. But that quibble aside, your picture of the culinary practices of U is correct. We do indeed consume meat and other bounty of nature--jarret de porc, foie gras trouffé-- In fact, it is with a view to spending three weeks eating the tastiest of such comestibles that I am currently embarked on my vacation in France...."
As he was saying this he read in Ada's sympathetic expression that this was not to be, at least not without violating the law. "Tell me," he urged, tell me--what’s the point? What’s the point of life? In u, I mean."
Ada repressed a smile. Very soon, as soon as she could indulge her desire in comfortable and discreet ambience, she would show him a thing or two about the point of life. But for the moment she was content to play to his epicurean leanings.
"Ah, the point of life. You alluded to truffles. In u, we have a plenitude of truffles—the black sort, the truffle of Perigord."
Alenby started. "A plenitude of—of the fabulous and rare diamont noir ?"
"Yes," said Ada, gratified at Alenby’s reaction, "the black diamond of gastronomy—as fabulous as ever, but not rare any more. Thanks to a feat of genetic engineering by a team of French scientists, the secret of propagating the black truffle is a secret no longer. Nowadays, in France, truffles are no more expensive than mushrooms. We have lots of truffles--and they are so good! In fact, truffles is the whole point of my vacation in France!"
That last was a lie. In fact she and practically everyone in France had long since tired of truffles, and the once prized fungus was usually used only to feed pets and American tourists. But Alenby did not suspect deception. His mind was locked on to truffles.
A plethora of truffles! Yet there had to be a downside. Because of this foolish Prohibition business there had to be a dearth of scrambled eggs, oeufs brouillés and so on and so forth that are needed to transport the mysterious fragrance of truffles to the palate, to the pleasure centers of the brain, to the soul…. Preoccupied, Alenby hardly noticed the hot-summer perfumes of Ada’s breath, the pressure of her lips brushing his jowl as she whispered her proposal:
"Alenby, make it our vacation. You will join me, won’t you?"
"Oh, absolutely, by all means." Surely, he thought, there were chefs out there who knew how to fix truffles....
Ada exhaled. "That’s good, very good. Now you must allow me to record your image in my locket. There’ll be a brief flash of light. Smile please. Say peas! There!" She slipped the shiny, hook-shaped object back in its place over her right ear—an ear, he noticed, pale rose and virtually translucent like a cornet of squid served in a reduction of red peppers....
"Locket?" he repeated. "Did you say that gadget hanging on your ear is a—ah—locket?"
"Yes, a Compulocket—a microcomputer actually. Many women wear lockets. It’s a convenient means of keeping track of one’s lovers. Each visual image may be complemented by adding phone numbers, vex addresses--people do vex their lovers in U, surely?--anniversary dates, codes denoting any unusually interesting sexual quirks and fetishes, all that sort of thing." To this she added something in a low voice, to the effect that by agreeing to be recorded in her locket he had testified under pain of perjury that he was free of any and all sexually transmitted diseases whatsoever, and he understood that the contract was due to expire at 13:30 h Paris time, Friday, 4 April 1987, and other restrictions may apply. But he took no notice--a certain aroma had claimed his attention.
"By the way," he said, nostrils flaring. "I believe I detect the mysteriously enticing woodland scent of truffles now. Hmmm—faint but unmistakable. They must be about to serve dinner."
Though conveyed to his gourmet's perceptions in a medium primarily aqueous rather than unctuous, Alenby found the savors of truffle pleasing enough that he could tell Ada with at least mild conviction that that the truffle-intensive main course, Pâtée Ducru (Pâtée politely rendered in the English-language menu as Broth rather than as Swill) was well up to U standards for airline food.
After dessert, digestive and coffee, the couple slept beneath a shared blanket of a material that resembled the most luxurious of fabrics. But of course it was not real wool.