Kett's gaze was locked onto the distant ocean below, through the small, thick window. It seemed to drift by, lazily, completely unconnected to the world. Except, Kett observed, he was the one completely unconnected to the world at this time. Thirty five thousand feet above the world, and only the blue water, so far away that it looked perfectly solid.
It had been a difficult choice, figuring out exactly where to go. He'd done his research, and come across a lot of possibilities. The northern provinces were all too cold, he thought, and the southern provinces just started to look like carbon copies of Cedar City. Sure, there were a few landmarks, and each province had something distinct about it, but deeper research seemed to always turn up the same restaurants, the same tours, the same museums, the same amusement parks, the same hotels, and pretty much the same people.
In fact, the entire twin continents seemed to be filled with slight variations on the same themes, everywhere. Even the huge wildlife preserves seemed to have an anaesthetized quality about them. A geyser here, a mountain there. This volcano, that rare species of buffalo. Interesting enough, he supposed, but he just couldn't really muster up any interest in them.
He turned his attention to Zhang Tsu, larger than the twin continents combined, on the other side of the world. It stretched across the equator, the northern tip of it just entering the arctic zone. It contained every terrain the twin continents had, and then some. It was just bursting with natural resources-oil, coal, metals, wood, meat and huge areas of wet grassland perfect for farming and easy to irrigate. There was just one problem. The savages.
According to Kett's research, the savages originally had a loose empirical system with each province reporting to an emperor who let each province act pretty much as it wanted. But something happened, and the savages launched an invasion of the twin continents for no reason that was ever ascertained. The attack was brutal but brief; they were quickly driven from the twin continents by superior technology.
The response was terrible. The Continental Provinces army flooded into Zhang Tsu. In just two years, fully half of Zhang Tsu had been conquered. Technically the fifty years since then had been peaceful, but the news contained regular stories of rebellion and atrocities committed by the savages. The Peace Corps had an extremely large presence there at all times. Their empire had been smashed, but their will to fight lived on.
In the very south of Zhang Tsu, relative peace had been enforced. A permanent garrison of the Peace Corps had been installed. Once the peace had been maintained for a time, the government built a huge resort. They offered airlines subsidies to set up cheap flights to the resort and spared no expense to provide the best in entertainment, food and lodgings. What's more, the brochure said, there were regular tours of an ancient city of the savages, where some of the subjugated people still lived.
The whole idea immediately appealed to Kett. This was something different. Something real. Something dangerous, and perhaps a glimpse of something that hadn't been processed, sterilized, censored and sanitized. Something that maybe might not have the stink of ten thousand shoppers a day trodding upon it. From all reports, the resort had not been nearly as successful as the government had hoped. Fear had, apparently, overridden people's curiosity.
While Kett had been immediately enthused by the idea, it was a little more difficult to convince his friends. Jason didn't require too much fast-talking-he'd been to Zhang Tsu and actually wanted to see it again. But Ray and Doug told him he was crazy. Why should they want to go?
The answer, "Because it's a free vacation," did eventually work, and both of them finally came around to Kett's way of thinking, but it took several days of hounding on his part. He convinced them all to take a month off, and go halfway around the world with him. They complained that it was full of savages, and it was unsafe. Kett quickly pointed out that there was a regiment of the Peace Corps there. There hadn't been any incidences of violence in over two years, and all reports said it was completely and totally safe.
Kett's attention was pulled away from the window by a pleasant buzzing noise, followed by the captain announcing that they were beginning their descent, and that they would be landing in approximately half an hour. The subtle gravitational tug on their seats confirmed his words. All Kett could see out his window, however, was the sun glinting off the deep blue sea.
Jason, who was sitting in the aisle seat next to Kett, startled awake at the announcement. "Wha? Are we there already?" He leaned over Kett and looked out the window. "I don't see anything."
Kett smiled. "You will. He said we're just beginning our descent."
"Man. I haven't been to Zhang Tsu in three years. And I've never been to Sura Khani before."
"You sure about that? What about Djibon?"
Jason's voice became serious. "Don't talk about that, man."
"Sorry." He looked at his lap, growing impatient for the plane to land. Six hours was easily the longest flight he'd ever taken. Most were closer to two. "Is Somal far from here?"
"Yea, Somal's about a thousand miles to the northeast, on the east coast."
"What's it like there?"
"It's a little hilly. The grasses get very tall, and there are patches of old forests. There are a lot of streams through the hills, and our base was near a wide river. It was a little warmer than at home. I think Sura Khani will be a lot warmer than home."
"Yea, it can be, especially inland, but the areas near the beach stay cool."
"Sounds great. You figured out what we're going to do there?"
"Oh, I dunno. I thought we'd wing it. I want to take some of the tours, and there's supposed to be some hiking trails in the jungle we can take. They might be kind of dangerous, though."
"Huh. I doubt you'll get those two pansies to go on one, but I'm up for it."
"I knew I could count on you, Jay."
After a few moments, Kett spotted a landmass out the window. At this distance it was nothing more than a green and brown mass that interrupted the endless ocean. "Hey, there it is, Jay."
Jason leaned over again, pushing Kett out of the way. "Huh, doesn't look like much to me."
Kett shoved Jason back into his seat. "Get outta my face, dumbass."
Ray, who was seated behind Kett and Jason, called over, "What's all that smoke?"
"Huh?" Kett peered out the window. Now that they were closer, it did look like there was a big cloud of smoke hanging inland. "Maybe it's fog?"
"Yea, you're probably right." He leaned back in his seat. As they continued to descend, Kett kept watch on the landmass. Features started separating themselves out; he picked out what was probably the resort, and a smallish urban area that might've been mostly adobe. And that curious fog bank that looked more like thick smoke, but it hung well inland.
Then the plane banked, and the spectacle was gone, replaced first by ocean, then the airport. The landing was gentle and rapid; in only a few moments, the sound of the turbines disappeared and the pressure change of the doors opening made Kett's ears pop. The pilot informed them that the forecast was sunny throughout the next week, the temperature was eighty five degrees and a cool breeze was coming in from the ocean. He wished them a pleasant stay in Sura Khani and thanked them for choosing his airline.
The four of them filed out, joined by perhaps two dozen sleepy-looking passengers. They were herded two a waiting area where they were given a brief lecture on Sura Khani by a pleasant-seeming woman.
"Sura Khani has a permanent population of only fifty thousand, but at any given time we have as few as five hundred and as many as thirty thousand visitors from the Provinces. Right now it is autumn, while it is spring back home. In the winter the temperature can get as low as fifty, but it rarely gets below sixty. In the summer, the temperature can reach one hundred and ten inland, but at the coast it rarely gets over ninety-five.
"The local fish are delicious and you will rarely find such a meal in the provinces as they do not ship well. Sura Khani offers over a hundred different restaurants, and they are all three star and above. There should be a brochure available at your resort, but if there isn't you can pick up any phone and dial 0 for information, and someone will happily help you.
"The Sura Khani taxi service is available anywhere, and is complimentary to the guests of all resorts, so please do not hesitate to use it to get around. You will find that Sura Khani's population is 90% savage. The ones who live here are very carefully regulated, and I can assure you that none of them will cause you problems. However, in the unlikely event that they do, you can dial 00 from any phone and a Peace Corps dispatch will immediately come to your location. Several companies offer wireless phone rentals.
"If anyone has any questions before you go, I'll be happy to answer any and all of them."
Before any questions could be uttered, however, the congregation was interrupted. The luggage-handlers had just arrived bringing the contents of the plane's cargo areas. The baggage was not the cause of the interruption, but the fact that each of the baggage handlers was a savage caused the crowd to gasp, roughly in unison.
All except for Jason, who was the only passenger on that plane who had ever seen a savage in person. His reaction was to narrow his eyes and sneer at them. The lecturer chuckled to herself, clearly having seen this reaction several times before.
Kett compared what he saw to his mental image of a savage. Some parts were congruous: Deeply tanned skin, the color of smooth chocolate. Sloping eyes that seemed as though they were squinting. Jet-black hair that appeared thick and coarse. Large, jutting cheekbones and uneven teeth. But the pictures and images he had always seen of the savages made them look like slavering maniacs. Big and brutish hulks of men with anger in their eyes. These savages just looked like they wanted to get their job done and get out of there.
When the luggage was removed from their carts and placed upon the tables, they did just that. None of them spoke a word, nor would any of them meet the gaze of the pale-skinned tourists.
With a bright smile, the lecturer led them to a platform where a bus was waiting, answering relatively inane questions along the way about such things as the location of bathrooms or a particular restaurant.
The air that hit them when the doors opened, finally taking them outside the airport, was warm. It filled their nostrils with the scent of the ocean. It was a very pleasant odor and was especially refreshing after six hours of breathing recycled air and sitting in cramped seats. Strange trees filled the lot, tall and slender, covered with wide, flat leaves at the tops and a regular, rough-looking bark.
Kett stepped away from the crowd a little bit, looking up at one of the trees. "Hey Jay, come check this out." Jason obligingly followed him over. Kett pointed up at one of the treetops. "That blond guy over there, wearing the nice suit with the big nose."
Jason caught himself starting to look for the person Kett was describing, but forced his gaze up to the tree. "Yea? What about him?"
"I've seen him before."
Kett dropped his finger, turned and looked at Jason. "Recently. More than once. Enough times that he's starting to stand out."
"So…you think he's following you or something?"
"I don't know, man. I just know I've seen him before and it seems like a pretty big coincidence."
"Uh, why would anyone follow you?"
"Well, let's see. First there's that whacko who showed up just before I got fired. Oh and how about the five million or so credits sitting in my bank account right now? My face was all over TV, maybe he's following me because of that."
"What, you think he'll mug you and steal your bank account, Marty? C'mon, you know it doesn't work like that."
Kett shook his head. "I don't know."
"Maybe he just wants to sell you something."
"A guy'd get on a plane and come five thousand miles just to sell me something?"
"I dunno. Ask Ray, he knows people like that. Hell, I can see Ray doing something like that. Can't you?"
"No. No, not really."
"I can, if it were a big enough sale."
Kett waved his hands. "Never mind."
Ray shouted, "Yo, Jay, Marty. Get your asses over here, our ride's leavin'!"
"I think that's our cue."
The four of them agreed to get settled into their rooms, shower, possibly nap, and meet in the resort's restaurant for dinner. Kett unpacked his luggage and showered, but the fresh air and hot water invigorated him, so he felt no urge to nap. Instead, he decided to spend the time wandering the grounds and seeing what the resort to offer.
The resort's rooms filled the upper floors, along with a spa, a pool and an exercise room on the third floor. The bottom floor had a large, comfortable gathering area with plush cushions liberally spaced about. Near that was a well-stocked bar and the resort restaurant. It had half its tables on a patio with a view of the ocean. Another large pool filled most of the back lot, surrounded by small tables and sun chairs. The whole area was shaded by a generous number of trees. A small gate opened onto a path which led down to the beach.
There were only a handful of people in the restaurant, and only three people at the pool. Two of them were in the pool, lounging and occasionally splashing each other. The third was sunbathing on one of the chairs.
Kett took his time walking through the area. The ocean scent in the air made him feel more than a little heady and for the first time in recent memory, being aimless did not bother him. Meandering toward the gate, he strolled alongside the pool and found himself looking up at the sky. It seemed somehow more blue than the sky back in the Provinces.
Looking at the sky meant he was not looking at his feet. To his surprise, his instep caught the leg of a chair and he fell face first, completely unaware, right atop the only other person in the whole area that was not actually in the pool.
He expected her to be angry, but instead she laughed. "I've always dreamed that one day I would have men falling all around me, but I never meant that literally!"
Kett laughed at this as he pushed himself up. He was relieved at her reaction, though somewhat surprised. "I'm sorry, I was daydreaming, I guess."
"Either you've had too much to drink, or not nearly enough."
"I just got off the plane, I haven't actually had much time to drink."
"Well, actually I was going to go check out the beach…"
"Mind if I join you? I'm dying for some company here."
Kett's surprise intensified. "Oh, uh-sure! I mean, no, I don't mind. Oh, I'm Kett, by the way. My friends call me Marty."
The woman laughed again. It was a light, pleasant sound. "Marty? I think I like Kett. It's unusual and interesting."
"I suppose it is."
"I'm Lisane, by the way." She winked. "My friends call me Lisane."
"Lisane, huh? That's also a very unusual name. I take it you like being unusual."
"It's what I do best." She arose from the lounge chair, her movements full of grace and poise. "And it keeps me entertained." She took him by the arm and led him toward the gate. "Come on, I'll show you the beach. It's utterly gorgeous at sunset."
"Hey hey, slow down! I'm not in any hurry here. I'm enjoying not being rushed, for a change."
She turned and tilted her head up, just a little, to look at him. She offered him a genuine smile filled with smooth, even teeth and highlighted by sparkling green eyes, but she didn't let go of his arm. "But the sun is setting soon!"
"If I miss it, there will be other sunsets."
"But this one will be gone forever!"
"The beach is right there!"
"You, sir, have no sense of romance."
Kett laughed. "Like I said, I just got here."
She gently led him down the path to the beach, purposeful in direction but not overtly forceful. Kett let himself be led along. When they got to Lisane's intended destination, the sun was just hovering over the waters of the horizon. It was a huge, deep red blob, roughly disc-shaped but made somewhat indistinct by the ocean fog. It dipped into the water as he watched, creating long streaks of light that bounced across the sea's gentle waves.
The sky around it changed color, shading toward purple as the sun was swallowed by the ocean, and then was finally gone. Above, where the sky was clear, stars peeked out and winked dimly, growing in brightness as the sun completely disappeared.
Kett watched this event in stunned silence. He had never seen anything like it back home. Sunsets, sure, even over the water. But somehow this one was different, and he couldn't put his finger on how it was different. In his mind, it was a new kind of art, something that he felt had always been denied him, until tonight.
Lisane also watched in silence, but it was a different kind of silence. She took it in like a drug, letting her eyes half-close as the light dimmed. When the sun was fully gone, she reached her hands toward the sky as though she could almost touch one of the stars, or perhaps just the faint wisp of cloud directly overhead. Then she lowered his arms and waited patiently for Kett to speak.
"I've never seen anything like that."
"I know. I hadn't either, until I came here. Now I don't miss any of them."
"Thank you. I wouldn't have looked."
"The downside is that now that the sun is down, it's getting cold out here. And I didn't bring a towel."
He smiled. "I should go get some dinner, myself."
"Oh, what a wonderful idea! Meet me in the café?"
"I'm sorry, I can't. I'm meeting friends."
Her disappointment was palpable. "Oh."
"How about lunch tomorrow?"
She brightened. "Oh! That would be lovely!"
They started back toward the hotel. "So, Lisane, you came here alone?"
"You've been here awhile?"
"You haven't met anyone yet?"
"Oh, I spent some time with this very interesting couple from Jebranton, but they flew back home last night."
"Ah, I see. Why did you come here?"
"I won a vacation in a sweepstakes!"
"Hey, that's great!"
"Yea, I didn't even remember entering."
Kett paused. "Really."
"But I'm so happy I did. I've never felt so relaxed."
By then they were just reaching the pool, and they were to go different directions. "I'll meet you down here tomorrow," Kett offered. "Say about one o'clock?"
She laughed. "Breakfast, then. See you then." She winked at him, then turned and walked away. She made a point of swaying her hips, fully knowing he would be watching.
And what a nice sway it was, Kett thought.