OLPC and the Optimistic Impulse

Now, I’m not normally the first to sing the praises of capitalism as a motor for progress-with-a-capital-p, but Grant McCracken‘s piece on the OLPC seem to have affected me at some deep, gut level –

“Here’s the thing in a nut shell: Negroponte’s One Computer Per Child project looked like a brilliant, necessary idea in 2005. Now it’s a project in shambles.

Right? Wrong. We could argue that Intel and Microsoft are rushing this market precisely because they were terrified that the first one in could own it. And this is a way of saying that Negroponte almost certainly moved up the Intel and Microsoft participation by, what?, a couple of years. Now we have a robust market, with real choices, competitors with deep pockets, momentum, urgency; not philanthropy, but that beast called capitalism.

And what’s that worth? To move everything up by a couple of years? Naturally, this is one of those calculations that don’t calculate very well. But at a minimum we would want to factor in

Kids who:

get on line
get knowledge
make knowledge
distribute knowledge
make friends
join networks
build networks
teach themselves to read
master math
become more cosmopolitan
learn to think clearly
learn to solve problems
learn to teach
learn to lead
learn to enterprise
learn to spot zealotry and jingoism
learn to refuse prejudice and violence
create value for their families, communities, country, the human community

x some millions

x ~2 years

Damn. Who called the computer a difference engine? Negroponte has created a lot of difference.

Does he get thanked? No, he gets dissed and displaced. He pays yet another penalty of taking the lead. He is paying for making a market where once there was none. Someday we’ll come to our senses. Negroponte will get his Nobel Peace Prize. In the meantime, this must really suck.”

What can I say? I’m a total sucker for the whole “another world is possible” shtick, and – as McCracken argues – the project’s success (or that of something similar) seems all but inevitable, now that the business model has been co-opted by capital. Selling out? Possibly, but – as long as the kids get their computers – does it really matter who’s in control, and their motivations?

I don’t know. Can’t help but feel sorry for Negroponte, though.

OLPC

(Image courtesy of Laughing Squid)

F3: ‘Creeping Doubts’

Another Nano extract. It’s going very slowly – at this point, I’ve written just under 14,000 words. I’m supposed to be well past 25,000. I think I may have inadvertently sabotaged myself by getting slightly too attached to the story – taking it a little too seriously. Not a healthy mindset, particularly for Nano. And the lingering presence of university assignments really isn’t helping.

Stupid writer’s block.

CREEPING DOUBTS

BAM! A world of adrenaline and nerve endings comes up to meet her; a wide beam of light leaving nowhere to hide. The penetrating gaze of the predator dissolving into nothingness. Here, she is body alone. And her body aches; a purgatory of pain which smothers the endless now – a thick red rope stretching off into the horizon. Nina grits her teeth, wiping the dried crud from her face, and trying to get some sense of her location. From somewhere above, the irregular patter of raindrops on metal. Clutching desperately at the last remnants of memory – there’s a brief rush of intense nostalgia, cast in sepia tones. But after a moment it too fades, leaving a taste of vomit in the lower reaches of her skull.

Chiram. She needs to find him, before someone else – someone entirely less friendly – finds her. Cognitive dissonance, as she realises that her knowledge of him, as an individual rather than an alias, extends only to that which she’s learned in the last-

She pauses. Time is tricky, here – little more than an illusion, altered on a whim by forces beyond her comprehension, outside of herself. After all, who knows how much of it has passed since-

Another hesitation, as she searches for some kind of mental landmark – for now, conspicuous only in its absence. Did she shoot the leopard, or Sun-wei? The ghost of a memory, stirring somewhere in the limbic depths.

Pulling herself up from the worn mattress, she searches the room for some kind of context. Information about the room’s intended purpose, signs of inhabitation, anything. The room is long and narrow, skylight open to the mountain air, and empty but for Nina’s bedding. The nest of fabric and padding in which she woke, but minutes previous. The only other defining feature is a similar pile of debris on the other side of the room, one of the sheets stained with the dark crimson of blood. Nina suppresses a shudder. Sweeping her hair behind her shoulders and rolls up her sleeve. Slowly tiptoeing over to the door, she pulls it open, and steps – straight into Chiram.

“Wh-?”

A hand claps over Nina’s mouth, and she yelps.

“Shh.” he hisses, “Stay quiet.”

Released, and with fear in her eyes, Nina looks up at Chiram. He gives her an empty grin, clearly intended as a gesture of solidarity. But, unable to sustain the illusion, he flounders, shedding the smile for an anxious grimace.

“Why? What’s going on? Where are we?”

Another smile, enigmatic but equally inappropriate.

“After the fire … did Sun-wei say anything about the fire to you?”

She nods.

“Hmm,” – Chiram raises an eyebrow – “That’s interesting. He must have taken a shine to you.”

“Oh?” asks Nina, the landscape falling away from under her. And what if he hadn’t? Before, she’d taken it on faith that the future would have her in it. Now, all she can sense is a creeping uncertainty.

__________

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On Pirates and Assassins

Implausible as it may sound, I’m currently researching an essay on offshore finance, sovereignty, and data piracy. I’m talking HavenCo, Pirate Bay, and the RBN. And while trawling through some essays and pamphlets, I came across the following nuggets in Hakim Bey‘s pamphlet on The Temporary Autonomous Zone:

‘The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably.’ (link)

‘The medieval Assasains founded a “State” which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castle, separated by thousands of mile, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge.’ (ibid)

I love it when people draw unexpected links between historical entities and contemporary theory. As another example, see William Gibson‘s musings on the medieval Church.

F3: ‘Paper Boats in the Blue Hour’

Another NaNo extract. I’m still woefully behind in terms of word-count, but the plot seems to be progressing; if not consistently, then with erratic ebullience – something that I wasn’t even aware was part of my vocabulary.

Wow. You can really see how this is changing the way in which I write …

PAPER BOATS IN THE BLUE HOUR

The room is cramped, but curiously endearing. Sprawled on the bed, Anna flicks idly through one of those vapid, content-free magazines – glossy, with improbably posed fashion models, and pseudo-articles claiming some special insight about lifestyle perfume. Too tired to read, but not yet buzzing enough to bother moving from the bed, Anna instead stares at letters – a matter of shape, colour and typography – with words continuing to elude her slowly melting brainspace.

There is a knock at the door. She moans half-heartedly in response.

“Anna? Are you okay?”

The voice is Sam’s – tentative and amused. She can’t really be bothered to let him in. The energy expended wouldn’t really be worth the ensuing benefits of his company. Heck, he’d probably demand more of her energy – opinions, ideas, conversation – once he wormed his way in. Best to take a pre-emptive strike, nip it in the bud.

Then the caffeine hits.

Looking back from that which is yet to come, the rest of that night sees Anna and Sam as but crudely folded paper boats, freed from the solid certainties of land. Here, time mimics the weather, forming eddies and channels, and settling in pools. They talk about the first book, and Sam’s script. He has a sketchpad, and she clutches his script to her chest – annotations in red. He tells stories; bawdy, and heavy with tangents, and Anna titters – politely at first, but then with genuine humour, a laughter originating from deep in her belly. With coffee as lubricant, they volley ideas in an evolving game of wits and one-upmanship. The priest dies fifty, a hundred deaths – fragments of glass shattering on flagstones. Murder witnessed from every conceivable vantage point. A plane crashes in slow motion; a sheet of watercolour paper is crumpled into a ball; a leopard leaps. And you’re there, watching as they grease the spokes with a never-ending supply of silty liquid, scalded tongues, and a bloodstream of sugar and caffeine – pumping energy to every forgotten corner of the body. Energy borrowed from their future selves. Steam rises, lazily, from coats draped on radiators and half-full polystyrene cups. They keep powering onwards, afraid of stopping, thinking, in case they lose momentum. Finally, the blue hour arrives, an unwelcome herald of approaching daylight. They try to lock it out, but light begins to seep under the door and through the curtains, forcing the remaining shards of reality into retreat. As the shadows fade, the narrative artisans fall into their own peculiar darkness, into rapid eye movement and muscle spasms. A theatre of dreams, with audition speeches from a never-ending conveyor belt of unemployed actors. Then, a tide of overpowering boredom, as the landscape melts away; their orbit degrading into free-fall where recursive visions of mechanical debris and skeletal cathedrals bloom; a nauseating panorama of noise as they plummet into the void …

_____

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F3: ‘Traitor!’

For this week’s Flash Fiction, I’m cheating. This is less a short story, and more a segment of metafiction lifted from the opening passages of this year’s contribution for National Novel Writing Month (30 days, 50,000 words, and one of the most entertainingly complicated plots in existence). Over the coming weeks, I’ll hopefully be posting a couple more extracts from the trenches of my ongoing campaign against laziness, procrastination, and writers block.

TRAITOR!

Nina wakes shortly before sunrise. The muffled tones of a heated argument between a woman and a man, as heard through a wall, gently permeating the onion padding of her subconscious. From the sound of it, the argument is in Russian; the exclamations are angular, guttural.

And as the layers peel away, leaving Nina being pulled up and into the light of the waking world, a flood of memories and impressions return. A gunshot in the darkness. A deep crimson seeping into the snow. The cold, uninterested stare of a Chinese official. And now what? A warehouse in the mountains; the sharp, metallic taste of blood; and – she opens her eyes – a man with a gun. Triggering some bestial fight-or-flight reflex buried deep in the far recesses of her skull, Nina winces, and dives into the shadows. Well, she tries to. Hands lashed to the pillar against which she was slumped, her movement is limited.

But at least she’s alive. Head throbbing, and with a clear majority of limbs long since fallen victim to a warm, dull pain, her mouth tastes of blood – sharp, metallic, and all-too-rapidly drying into a crust on her lips.

“She’s awake.”

Not so much an exclamation, as a statement of fact. This from the man with the gun – a call to a colleague; an accomplice, or perhaps an employer. There are others in the building, the argument confirmed that much. But, for now, the request falls on silence, absorbed by the empty recesses of the warehouse. Nina wants to speak, to cry for help, or ask questions. Her throat is dry, and there is something in gunman’s expression which suggests that this would not be a good idea. So she waits. After several minutes, gunman gets up, walks over the door, and repeats his call. Then he returns to his seat. This time, there are footsteps, and Chiram – the Jewish pilot who delivered her to this god-forsaken backwater – comes to the door. Her stomach tenses. She wants him to flee, to run. To take his plane, and leave this place – and all that it entails – as a memory in the dust. But then she sees something in his eyes. Something that, taken with a slight crumpling round the corners of his mouth, hints at a hidden truth. She inhales – a deep, breath of the dry, warehouse air.

“Ah, Nina. I see you’re back. You had us worried for a while, there.”

There’s something different about his voice. Shorn of its soft edges and humour, it’s as if Chiram has been bought into focus. And Nina isn’t entirely sure that she likes what she sees. While Nina starts to piece together the situation, he tilts his head thoughtfully, looks at gunman, and continues.

“Not that it would have mattered in the grand scheme of things, of course.”

“Chiram, what’s-”

Nina’s throat is drier than she’d thought, and her question stumbles briefly, before collapsing into a coughing fit. But it doesn’t matter, because she already knows the answers. He’s betrayed her; delivering them both into the jaws of the very beast that she’d been hunting. But while she’d be swallowed whole, he’d bought himself immunity.

“You turned me over? “

Given form, the question sounds somehow … hollow; faintly ridiculous.

“Girl,” says Chiram, tilting his head, “I was never on your side. Face it, doll, you’re out of your depth.”

“But Chiram-”

“I’m not Chiram,” – he stares down her desperate gaze, melting it to impotence – “Chiram is dead.”

_____
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On Religion

In lieu of actual content, I offer the following from Clifford Geertz:

‘The Christian sees the Nazi movement against the background of The Fall which, though it does not, in a causal explain it, places it in a moral, a cognitive, even an affective sense. An Azande sees the collapse of a granary upon a friend or relative against the background of a concrete and rather special notion of witchcraft and thus avoids the philosophical dilemmas as well as the psychological stress of indeterminism. A Javanese finds in the borrowed and reworked concept of rasa (“sense-taste-feeling-meaning”) a means by which to “see choreograpic, gustatory, emotional, and political phenomena in a new light. A synopsis of cosmic order, a set of religious beliefs, is also a gloss upon the mundane world of social relationships and psychological events. It renders them graspable.’

(The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 123-4)

And, from William Gibson, a ‘McLuhanist’ reading of medieval Christianity:

‘…organized religion, he saw, back in the day, had been purely a signal-to-noise proposition, at once the medium and the message, a one-channel universe. For Europe, that channel was Christian, and broadcasting from Rome, but nothing could be broadcast faster than a man could travel on horseback. There was a hierarchy in place, and a highly organized methodology of top-down signal dissemination, but the time lag enforced by tech-lack imposed a near disasterous ratio, the noise of heresy constantly threatening to overwhelm the signal.’

(Spook Country, p. 117)

F3: ‘Fortune Cookie’

I know it’s been a couple of weeks since I remembered to take part, but here’s a new entry for Friday Flash Fiction.

FORTUNE COOKIE

To Noah, the Chinese restaurant channelled clips from a hundred badly dubbed kung fu movies. There was the tank of exotic fish into which the katana-wielding goons would be thrown; here was the frosted plate glass from which the elderly kingpin would plummet to his death; and there was the door with the ‘no entry’ sign which would inevitably lead to the ill-lit underground headquarters from which the family coordinated their money laundering / prostitution / drug smuggling activities. He tried explaining this to his date, but she seemed less than entirely convinced.

Clearing her throat, she explained how it was more likely that the fish tank was made from shatter-proof plastic, and how it would be impossible for anyone – even an elderly, moustachioed master criminal – to die from injuries sustained in a fall from the ground floor. She was smiling, though. So perhaps, on some level, she understood what he meant?

He told her about the full extent of his Wuxia collection. She told him about her job in publishing. He explained how it was cheaper for him to live in his parents basement, which was actually quite spacious now that he’d moved the boxes. She smiled encouragingly.

But his suspicions about her were properly confirmed when, in a lull in the conversation, she gestured for him to lean in. Glancing sideways at the waitress, who hovered in the background like some kind of vulture, Noah’s date closed her hand on his. She believed him. And If Noah was willing to distract the girl, she’d go and investigate the underground headquarters, allowing him to follow later. Say, in half an hour. Heart thumping, Noah nodded. He ordered another glass of lemonade, and a couple of fortune cookies. The waitress disappeared into the kitchen, and Noah’s date made a beeline for the door. Glancing back over her shoulder, she winked, and the door swung shut behind her.

The fortune cookies came, along with the drink, but Noah’s date was nowhere to be seen. What if she’d been captured? After twenty-two minutes, he could bear it no longer. While the waitress was engaged in argument with a heavy-set gentleman on a table in the far corner, Noah stood up slowly, sidled over the door, took a deep breath, and leapt into the cleaning cupboard.

There was a mop, a bucket, and several bottles of cleaning fluid. The window was open, and someone had stacked a couple of boxes against the wall. Noah sighed, explained to the irate waitress that he’d simply been looking for the toilet, and returned to his table.

So much for the criminal gang. Heck, so much for his date. Momentarily losing himself in the pattern of gas bubbles rising in his glass of lemonade, Noah broke into the larger of the fortune cookies. Now, that was odd – instead of a piece of paper, there was a small ziploc bag, which seemed to contain some kind of … white … powder.

Shit, thought Noah, as he met the less-than-friendly gaze of the guy at the other table, Not again.

___________

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F3: ‘Test Drive’

Another short story. The theme: ‘a funny thing happened to me in hyperspace’.

TEST DRIVE

Liquid mildew, chemical pine and cigarette butts. Lilting accents strained through radio static. The dim lights of an industrial leviathan – heavy with freight – navigating the channel. The rustling foil of a crisp packet, followed by Tom’s enthusiastic crunching.

Her face up against the glass, Sam squints through the grime and muck, and out into the murk. Her right leg, in a moment of treachery, surrenders to the numbness. Still, he had assured her that this evening would be worth seeing – the first gasp of something that could change everything.

When pressed, he had done his best to explain and she, in turn, had tried her best to understand. But it hadn’t quite stuck.

“I’m sorry, H, but I lost you at the bit with the strings.” Sam bites her bottom lip, and – squirming in her seat – inadvertently elbows Dylan in the ribs. He yelps. The glove compartment snaps shut.

“Look, just forget I said anything about the damned strings.”

“But-”

“Believe me, it’s not going to make the slightest bit of different.” He catches her expression in the rear view mirror, and cranes his neck round to face her. “I mean, I’ve got two, almost three, years of this under my belt, and even I’m not entirely sure why it works.”

“Right.” says Dylan, “But you’re sure that it’s safe?”

“Totally.”

To Sam, Hwyel’s response sounds too confident, too polished. She hesitates, but doesn’t say anything. Turning the question over in her mind, examining it from all angles, she searches for a gut instinct that is, for once, conspicuous in its absence. Nothing there. No answers.

“Reckon that’s Zoe?” asks Dylan, gesturing at a light just beyond the hedgerow.

“Must be.” says Tom, entrenching himself in the sagging upholstery of the main passenger seat. “She said she’d be out, oh” – he glances at his watch – “at least twenty minutes ago. Probably more.”

As the light approaches, Hywel winds down the window.

“About bloody time. We’d almost given up on you.”

Close cropped hair – recently bleached “as a symbol of, like, autonomy” – and wide staring eyes, Zoe twists her torch, plunging them back into twilight. Blanking Hywel, she pokes her head through the other window. Automatically, Sam smiles. Zoe is nice. Safe. Inoffensive.

“‘Sup, Sam? Dylan. There enough room for me in the front, Tom?”

Hywel glances over at Tom, who sighs, then nods. Zoe grins.

“Ace.”

Somehow, Tom disentangles himself from Hywel’s overenthusiastic exercise in wiring, and clambers into the back. Dumping her canvas shoulder-bag somewhere in the vehicle’s murky depths, Zoe perches on the passenger seat. As she leans over to fiddle with the radio, Hywel bats her hand away from the dials.

“Don’t.” he says, firmly, “It’ll interfere with the electronics.”

While Tom struggles to accommodate the mysterious contents of a large, black bin-liner, Zoe turns to the others, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation.

“Did you sort out the interface?” asks Hywel, kick-starting the ignition.

“Yeah.” Tom reaches into the black sack. “I borrowed the departmental laptop. It’s got ten hours of battery.” With a theatrical flourish, he reveals the white monster, triumphantly holding it aloft.

“Simple as that?” asks Zoe, clearly impressed.

“Well, there were forms.” Tom’s eyes glaze over. “But, on the plus side, we’ve until Monday.” He flips open its lid, and taps at the buttons. It beeps.

“Awesome.” Zoe beams.

Sam yelps, the centre of gravity shifting under her as Hywel takes a sharp right at the crossroads.

“Believe me, Sam,” he says, stifling a chuckle, “There’s worse than that to come.” Slowing to fiddle with the clutch, he turns to Tom. “Are we ready?”

Tom is still struggling with a box of floppy disks.

“Hang on, dude.” He selects one, seemingly at random, and tentatively pokes it into the appropriate drive. There’s a click, and Tom nods, satisfied. “Ready when you are.”

“Right. Hang on, guys.”

Hywel yanks the clutch and pushes his foot to the floor, while Tom bashes away frantically on the Mac’s keyboard. There is a loud beep, and the landscape drops away – replaced by a textured blackness. Lurching sideways, Hywel’s ears pop, Zoe sneezes, and Sam’s fighting back acidic bile. Unsucessfully, as it turns out.

“Woah.” says Dylan, ignoring the guttural retching. “Like, where are we?”

“Don’t suppose anyone has tissues?” asks Sam, quietly. Silence.

“What happens next?” asks Zoe, her palms pressed against the passenger window.

“I’m not entirely sure,” admits Hywel, reluctantly passing Sam a well-used tissue, “I mean, we programmed the coordinates for Bangor, but-”

“Bangor?” asks Sam, clearly confused. “That’s, like, a hundred miles-”

“Shit.” Tom’s voice is carefully calculated, devoid of emotion. Another beep.

“What? What’s happened?”

“The box just died.”

The silence races outwards, subsuming everything in its path. They sit in the darkness for an eternity – five victims of entropy, individually contemplating their fate.

Well, almost.

“Custard cream, anyone?”

More silence. Eyebrows heavy, Hywel and Sam exchange looks. Dylan clears his throat.

“Yeah,” he says, eventually, “Go on then.”

___________

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F3: ‘Patterns in Traffic’

A short story, in response to this. Incidentally, this is also the first piece of prose that I’ve finished in ages, and a good boost to the ol’ self-esteem.

PATTERNS IN TRAFFIC

Hair swept back in a tight bun, Gutchluk was polyester and permafrost. Her devotees claimed she could restore life to the recently dead, saw the future in the city’s traffic patterns, and used her cell to speak to the mountains. When asked, she avoided eye contact, taking a lengthy swig of her pale, milk tea. But I still had a job to do. Painfully aware that conversation abhors a vacuum, I was happy to use silence as a weapon. Like so many before her, she was quick to snap.

“Sometimes, yes.” she said, quietly, “But why would I use a cellphone?”

I gave a look of polite incomprehension. She simply shrugged.

“It’s rare enough for them to reply, as it is,” she said, with a distant smile, “They are, after all-”

“Mountains.” We finished the sentence together. Layers of my stomach dropping away, I closed my eyes and fell back into my seat. To them, she was both Gutchluk and Ulaanbaatar – woman and city, united as one. To me, it was quickly becoming clear that she was newscaster, and nothing more.

“So, is there any truth to the rumours?” I asked, screwing my eyes tighter. A final barrier against harsh disappointment. I hoped the language barrier would mask my frustration but, along with my question, any misgivings were swallowed by the gaping, hungry silence.

along with my question, it was swallowed by the gaping, hungry silence. Eventually, I relaxed my eyes, opening them to slits. Perhaps I was expecting her to have melted into the room’s heavy fabrics, or transformed herself into a mountain or herd of yak. My over-active imagination had failed to prepare me for tears. Heavy with sorrow, her face collapsed into a fine, damp mist.

“You have to get me out.”

Not a plea, or even a request, but a statement. Deep, tight, and angular, this voice belonged to someone else entirely.

“It’s too much.”

I hesitated. Fumbling with my wallet, and staring at my feet. Then, seizing me by the arm, she thrust my open hand against a forehead of blue flame.

“Don’t think I can .. hold on for much longer.”

I babbled an incomprehensible apology, scooped my rucksack out from behind the armchair, and fled – my feet clattering down the corridor and out, into the city streets.

I waited in the taxi rank for an eternity, flagging down vehicles only to change my mind. I already knew curiosity would win out. It was no use running away; this entire affair had a momentum of its own. Light fading, I left the rank, and began the trek back across town.

The station’s receptionist let me in. That was a success, of sorts. Initially, my request to see Gutchcluk fell on silence. I took a seat, and once it became clear I was unwilling to leave, his nervous smile was accompanied by an anxious phone call in a foreign tongue. Muscle, clothed in burgundy. I gave up, letting the momentum carry me back to vodka, soap, and the cool side of the pillow.

For the morning broadcast, Gutchcluk had gone. The vapid stare of a copper-haired newcomer, smiling and nodding in the right places; effortlessly slotted into the rendered glass of the hyperreal. No explanation from the station. Where Gutchluk had been a source of warmth and authenticity, this imposter was stiff and artificial – born of the void.

Standing to top up my drink, I shuddered. My arm hair stood to attention. ‘Imposter’? Now, I was speaking in the voice of someone who used the word ‘imposter’ with caution and forgiveness. The same tone I used when chastising my brother’s toddler. Returning my breakfast tray to the trolley, I knew what I needed to do next.

Twenty minutes later, I was on the hotel’s roof terrace, armed with consumer electronics, thermal underwear, and a dark green puffa jacket lifted from a mid-90s music video. I wandered over to the edge, and peered down into the traffic-lined streets below. My heart was racing. Inhale. Exhale. The city air tasted of iron. The honking and yells of a distant, ephemeral gridlock afforded me no insight into that which was yet to come. But why did I need to see the future in traffic, when I could speak to the mountains?

A moment of clarity. I called up the airline interface on my wearable, and smiled. Two … no, one ticket to LHR. And freedom, for one of us at least.

___________

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