Whoever it was who said journey is more important than the destination ought to be hung, disemboweled and lashed with their own entrails to the wing of an Airbus. Then the passengers, sitting in their leg-numbing chairs and eating their prepackaged pudding, can watch the wind pull their limbs off like an indolent child, and learn from the example.
No, you're not bitter about this flight.
You are, at this moment, happy as a clam. You are delighted. You are crammed next to a man who looks and smells very much like a rotting ball of dough that grew arms and legs and spontaneously decided to go to Geneva of all things. He has a flap of fat between his legs that reaches almost to the floor. They have a name for that. More pressingly, some of his belly is slopping over into your space. Your. Space. You leased it, you have the ticked stub in your pocket, and he is USING it.
There's a child two rows back, who's been screaming for the last twenty minutes. They say at about this age, your maternal instincts are supposed to kick in. One day you're laughing with your friends about the very idea of children, and the next your genome slips you a mickey, and you're picking out shades of blue and pink and saving pictures of adorable homemade baby-clothes on Pinterest. You fantasize about plugging his larynx up with a bucket of sand. Must be the workplace. Maybe low-status males put off pheromones that repress maternity, like naked mole rats. You wonder if you could sell engineer sweat as some sort of long-con prophylactic.
(You aren't always like this, you swear. You get morbid when you fly.)
The captain comes on the intercom with a burst of static.
"Hi ladies and gentlemen. Sorry for the delay. Someone seems to have left an airsoft gun in their luggage, and the TSA had a bit of a panic. Seems to be all cleared up now. We should be departing in the next few minutes."
The baby kicks the howling up an octave, and the engines kick on. His mother has earbuds in. The plane starts to move subtly underneath you, and you clutch the arm-rests, feeling vaguely queasy. This is going to be a long flight.
"Hey, are you okay?"
One of the problems with cramped spaces, like airplanes or mainland China, is that your thresholds get all screwed up. When everyone is shouting, normal conversation just fades into the background. The airplanes are three to a row, and, to your shock, there is a fellow in the window seat next to you. Because he wasn't conducting an active, multi-sensory assault on your personal space, your brain wrote him off as furniture, and is now approximately as surprised as if the tasteful beige lunch tray had just asked about the weather.
Your blank stare is dragging. Do something. You blink rapidly.
"Whuh. Uh. Fine. I don't do flying."
He raises his eyebrows. You feel yourself color faintly.
He smiles. You take inventory: slim, brown, cardigan, not young, kinda cute, in a 'hot for teacher' sort of way. Analysis: conversation potential, no flirting, if he says he sells soap, run.
"That... and other kinds."
"Well, if you need to throw up, I recommend the other gentleman's lap."
Fortunately, the other gentleman is a napping, a process you can only think of as geological. You laugh awkwardly, and prepare to get back to your quiet panicking, when he says,
"What's the special occasion?"
"You said it was a special occasion."
"Uh. Not quite. Special circumstances. I got called out on very short notice. No time for a boat."
"Are boats better?"
The plane wobbles with a faint groaning noise, and you clutch the armrests a little tighter. You give him a look.
"You got a problem with boats?"
"I dunno, I went sailing with my dad once, when I was kid. Something about seeing nothing with blue to the horizon - and the dark and endless sea stretching down beneath you. Feels like you're a mote in god's eye, and he could blink any time, and just crush you. Anyways. The ocean scares me a little."
You smile, and off a toast with your tiny soda can.
"Irrational fears. So, special circumstances, huh? Good news or bad news?"
"Uh, very both."
More seems to be expected.
"I'm a... particle physicist. I work with particle accelerators. They're big machines that use electromagnets to collide particles into each other at very high energies. You can learn a lot from the things that come bouncing out."
Technically, when you say you're a particle physicist, that's not really true. You wish you were a particle physicist. If you'd listened to your adviser, you'd be a particle physicist. But there's no need to tell him that. You smile at him as he speaks.
"I guess. Anyway, the collider in Geneva is being... weird. And, unfortunately, it's being weird in ways that are kinda-sorta similar to what I wrote my thesis about. They're assembling a whole team. and they called me."
He's frowning now.
You wonder if you're allowed to tell him. Fuck it.
"Promise not to tell the tabloids?"
You consider reminding him that, as far as science journalism is concerned, the New York Times is a tabloid.
"They've been getting back more energy than they're putting in. Just a little bit, but-"
He looks appropriately shocked and awed.
"Now, again, don't go spreading that around. You probably heard about the fiasco with the faster than light fiber optic cable a few years ago. We're about 90% sure it's an equipment failure, somewhere. But they called me in just in case. The scary part is, they ran those exact same experiments a week ago, and got different results. It could invalidate millions of dollars worth of research if we can't find it."
He pauses, thinks, and you can see the sentence forming in his brain. It's the same one that's been sitting in your own brain since you got the call, hiding in the dark animal recesses that don't care about probability theory.
"Do they think it could have something to do with the... thing?"
You look down at your lap.
"It's a possibility under consideration. But we're trying to stick to the tangible. It's Bayesianism, right? You try to eliminate as much probability mass as you can as quickly as you can. That mean we strip all the machinery down and double check EVERYTHING before we even consider anything else."
"And what happens if that doesn't help?"
"Then I guess the crackpots get their day."
The plane is coming in to land, a process that seems to consist of getting as close to verticality as the laws of aerodynamics (and the regular laws) permit, and then leveling out at the last minute. You slump slightly as you feel the wheels touch the tarmack. After spending the last six hours psyching yourself up to slog through burning jet fuel on broken femurs, bravely ignoring the screams of your less-prepared fellow passengers as they succumb to their fates, a safe landing is a little anticlimactic.
(You know the statistics. You saw a very graphic documentary when you were six. Fuck off.)
The fat man next to you yawns, and lets off a lugubrious fart that you can actually hear escaping from successive layers of superstructure. You wince, and shift your weight. Prickling sensations take up residence in your butt, and you find yourself worrying about blood clots.
People are already making awkward motions towards standing in the aisles. Fools. Everyone knows that you spend at least half an hour on the damn plane before you -
There's the sound of a covered walkway being attached to the plane. The door opens.
Huh. Maybe the Swiss are just better at everything. The fat man stands, and you edge greedily back into the purloined two-inches of disturbingly warm seat, unjustly stolen these long eleven hours. Christ. Eleven hours. Your sleep schedule is going to get stupid in a big hurry. You turn to the other man.
"Hey, I never got your name."
He smiles at you strangely.
'Ed. Ed Goldstein."
"I'm Sarah. What do you do for a living, Ed?"
"Particle physics. I work for CERN. Welcome to the team."
He steps past you, grabs an overnight bag from the luggage rack, and walks off the plane."
You sit there for a long moment, as dead-legged passengers stumble past you, staring blankly at the back of the seat in front of you.
Well, this is off to a great start.
Hotels, or at least the kind of hotels a hard science salary can afford, have long since given into the Sherman-esque march of corporate conformity. Like a McDonalds, they are are monuments to modern standardization. Walk into a Holiday Inn in Switzerland, and, aside from the accents, you can just about imagine that you're back home at an identical Holiday Inn in good-old San Fran.
You drag your suitcase into your bedroom, kick the door shut, and fall asleep on your bed, legs sticking over the edge, shoes on. You wake up in a puddle of drool, smear your contacts around your dry, itchy eyeballs until you can kind of see, and squint at the clock, which reads 23:55. Translated out of wacky European time, that means it's... just about time to go to bed. Fantastic. You hope CERN wasn't actually expecting you to show up at the end of your eleven hour flight. Apparently, some people sleep on the plane. Well, fuck em. You open the blinds, and are briefly shocked by the presence of snow-capped postcard mountains in the gloom behind the lake.
That's the issue with the standardization. While it certainly creates a sense of comfort within the belly of the institution itself, there's a certain disorienting frisson that results when secondary data channels from the real world creep into the carefully calibrated environment of the hotel. You're surprised they haven't replaced the windows with LED display panels yet. It's the obvious next step. You step towards the light switch, nearly trip over your suitcase, and then open the bathroom door.
You need to brush your teeth, and then you need a really hot bath. Fortunately, the toothpaste and comically tiny bar soap all seem to be in order, and you're able to get the taste of airline peanuts and stale tongue out of your mouth in fairly short order. The bath proves slightly more complicated. For one thing, the bath tub is one of those unpleasantly cramped hotel bathtubs they install, presumably against a future invasion of dirty garden gnomes. Who the hell sets a standard bathtub length that's too short to lie down in? Granted at 5' 11, you're not a small girl, but men exist and besides, aren't the Swiss supposed to be tall? Or is that the Swedes?
You mark it down to Satan's influence in international standards organizations (how else do you explain imperial units)? Then you spend five minutes working out the cold-hot convention, fill the tub, strip, and maneuver your slightly-flabby buttocks into steaming water. Your knees get cold, but after you have a bit of a soak and a half-hearted scrub, you feel much better. When your skin starts to turn red, you clamber out of the tub, and, feeling suddenly thirsty, fish a clear plastic cup out of the crinkly plastic bag, and fill it with sink water. You stand there, still steaming a bit, and drink it. It's cold, and has that hotel taste that you always put down to calming pharmaceuticals in the water supply.
You're starting to get cold, so you locate a towel (which is, at least, full sized), and dry yourself. Then you track down some mostly unwrinkled clothes in your suitcase, comb your hair into an orderly fashion, apply a touch of makeup, and declare yourself, if not actually presentable, at least good enough for the damn Europeans.
You're all the way down to the lobby before you recall that it is, still, the middle of the night. You check your watch, recall that it's still on San Francisco time, and give up. With any luck, the hotel has a bar.
As providence would have it, yes, yes it does. There's a middle-aged man, another young woman in a ridiculous pink dress, and the bar tender, all conversing in hushed English. It suddenly occurs to you that you must be in the tourist trap hotel. Somewhere, maybe two blocks from here, there must be another, better hotel, with a better bar where those in the know stay. People are probably having fun there, and speaking German, and drinking exciting drinks that are on fire and have umbrellas in them. You wish you were there instead.
You sit down and order a rum and coke. The bartender doesn't even bother to card you, which is still vaguely surprising at this point in your life, until you remember where you are. Secondary information channels again.
The middle aged drunk is talking.
"Is the oracle that screws is up is what I'm saying."
The bartender leans over the bar. His voice sounds German, but with a little bit of something else, maybe French.
"Wait, I'm confused."
The drunk gives him a patient look.
"Okay, so, look, you've got all these people in pods, plugged into a computer simulation, right?"
"And then, you've got this bloke who can reprogram the computer with his brain, right?"
"Right, sure. I've seen the movie."
"And I says, I says, fair enough. No problems so far. You've got a perfectly coherent movie so far. But then the Wachowski brothers - "
" - siblings - ", corrects the woman, mildly,
"-siblings, they go and throw in this fat biddy in a kitchen who can predict the future! And what's that about? You can't do that with a computer simulation. It's complete nonsense, and nobody even questions it. They just threw it in to add a ven-veneer of mysticism to a bloody Christ parable about machines who've never heard of nuclear bloody reactors."
The bar-tender chews on his cheek.
"But if it's a computer simulation, what if you ran a copy of it on another computer, faster? Then you could find out about the future."
"Nah, nah, I thought of that. Events depend on what people do. You'd have to run the people faster too, and you can't do that if they're real people with plugs in their heads."
The bartender frowns.
"No, but, look, maybe it's, like, sucking their minds out of their brains or something. They need to do special stuff to get out of the Matrix. It looks more like a transfer than a connection."
"No, no, because in that one scene, they get killed in the real world, and their bodies collapse in the Matrix. And, anyway, look, the machines said they couldn't run the bodies without a mind in them. Otherwise, why wouldn't they just lobotomize them, and not bother with the Matrix?"
The bar tender bites his lip, and makes a hrm noise. The drunk looks quietly triumphant, and stares into his beer.
"But in the last movie - "
"The sequels," says the drunk, quietly, "did not happen."
The bar tender deflates. The woman in pink looks exasperated. She turns to you.
"Don't mind him. He's seen the movie fifty times."
"Thirty five," the drunk corrects her. She ignores him.
"So what's your story? Obviously you're American."
You blink owlishly at her. Obviously? You haven't even opened your - she points at your chest. You glance down at your fading T-shirt, with 'Obama for America' printed on it. Right.
"You're an American, your hair looks like someone took a leafblower to it, and you're sitting at the bar at two in the morning drinking hard liquor. I'm guessing you're here with the lab. I talked to some of your colleagues this morning."
You find yourself stroking your hair defensively. It isn't your fault this hotel doesn't come with single-serving conditioner. Still, you nod, cautiously.
She tilts her head.
"Let me guess, engineer?"
You shake your head.
"Oh! You must be the one they were looking for. They said to tell you to call them when I found you."
You glance at your watch, and she nods sympathetically.
"Probably too late now. Must be something exciting going on down there."
"More annoying, really. Just need to iron out some glitches."
"I thought you said you weren't an engineer."
"That's what makes it annoying."
You struggle for a conversation tactic.
"How about you? You two don't seem like physicists."
"Oh, no, we're in the newspaper business. We're here, in so many words, because you are here. It's like a mass nerd pilgrimage to Mecca. Or, more specifically, the LHC. I wonder if they make prayer mats printed with the periodic table..."
Years of ingrained hard-science classical conditioning cause your jaw to seize up like an unimmunized barefoot mud farmer in the backwoods of Uganda. You suddenly realize that the small black cylinder clipped to her glasses frame is a camera. Oh no. You've allowed yourself to be drawn unprepared into a confrontation with The Press. You've seen it happen to much older and more respected scientists. They get invited out for a drink by a nice gentleman or lady (this is the twenty-first century), and mention a few interesting details about whatever they're working on, and they wake up the next morning with a terrible hangover to find out they've made headlines in four countries, claiming that the universe is a hologram or something.
You squeak out something completely meaningless, and the newspaper lady takes pity on you.
"Relax, dear. We're off duty. Besides, one of your colleagues spilled the beans this morning. You're off the hook until they make a press statement."
That settles your mind a little. You find yourself thinking of Ed, from the plane, and your indiscretion, and find yourself with a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that, regardless of the actual fault, yours will go down on record as the proverbial loose lips. And, on top of everything, you are now, apparently, twelve hours late for what will likely be the only job in your life for which are actually qualified. How do you do these things to yourself?
You drain your glass with the stolid determination of a genuine fuckup. You look back at The Press.
"Your colleague seems a little worse for the wear."
"I warned him."
"He was very into science when he was a kid. He decided to go to the university archives and read some of your magazines, try to understand what you people are up to."
"Majored in journalism."
"Minored in theater."
"Ooooh. My sympathies."
"Fuckin' decasyllabic jargon. I mean, what's the fucking Shannon entropy of that shit? There's no way that's necessary."
You raise an eyebrow.
"He read some computer science journals as well."
"Well, frankly, because they called you. You were sort of the odd woman out. Interesting specialization you have there."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Well, it could always be worse. Underwater basket weaving, and the like."
"Is this really interesting to your readers?"
"Are you kidding? A secretive influx of researchers to a giant Swiss particle accelerator, trying to fix a glitch in the laws of physics?"
You feel the blood rush from your face, and she waves at you dismissively.
"Relax, not your quote. Anyway, journalism gold. People are going to love it. More so, now that we've got some rumors and details to shop around. Should keep people interested until the press release. Besides, it's more interesting than what we were doing.
"We were in Iceland, covering their geothermal blackout. Power went off for no reason, two months later, the power comes back on, also for no reason. Not a lot to talk about."
There's a brief lull in conversation. Then the bartender leans conspiratorially over the bar.
"So, what do you people think of the fl-"
He's cut off by the drunk threatening to throw his beer mug at his head.
"Not the bloody flicker. Nobody talks about anything except the fucking flicker. We aren't talking about the flicker"
The bartender smooths down his apron.
"Fine. Just making conversation."
You stand up.
"Well, it was nice talking to you folks. I'm going to go see if I can find a pharmacy and fix my sleep schedule before they fire me. Goodnight."
The woman in pink nods to you, and you go up to your room. As you're opening the door, it occurs to you that you forgot to call John last night. You pull out your phone and stare at it. You're suddenly unsure if this is actually a 'call John' sort of situation. Your on-again-off-again-onandoff-again superposition of a relationship has a distinct down spin at the moment, so to speak, and you have a sudden intimation that calling him might represent some sort of retreat in a complex and poorly understood game that has characterized your romantic involvements since kindergarten.
You stare cautiously at your phone, and then experimentally click it on. You're not even sure if you have service in Switzerland. As it turns out, you do. You have five unread messages from your boss. You snap your phone shut guiltily, and set it down on the table. The thing bleats at you mournfully for power, and you consider plugging it in to charge, but you're stopped by a half-remembered impression that European plugs are different, and... cause things to explode? Something like that. You aren't really sure. Best not to risk it. You haven't replaced your phone for three years, because you're pretty sure that if you ever lost your contacts list, your terminal inability to remember people's names would cause you to collapse into a downward spiral of social alienation that ends with you giving your cats middle names and choking to death alone in your apartment.
In the end, you leave your phone alone on the nightstand, fish a windbreaker out of your suitcase, and take the elevator down to the lobby.
You wave gamely at The Press, then go through the revolving door, and out into the street. You immediately regret all of the choices that led you to this point. Your Obama T- shirt and windbreaker are clearly totally inadequate to the task of taking on the harsh realities of a Swiss winter.
(For the record, you aren't really as political as the shirt would imply - you always strove not to be one of those annoying college hippies who attended rallies; not that engineering schools really HAD rallies, not counting the starry-eyed Catholics and their fetus booths. But they always struck you as lost souls, stuck behind enemy lines with broken swords and too much conviction to admit defeat and retreat to the safety of the Bible belt.)
So, first order of business: find either a clothing store, or some kind of large animal you can cut open and crawl inside. It occurs to you that you only have American money. Hopefully they either take credit cards, or take an enlightened view on money and things that qualify thereas.
You're beginning to comprehend just how poorly you've planned this trip. You can only assume that if you had been going to, say, the Ukraine instead of nice, civilized Switzerland, you would already either be dead or sold into sex slavery in a shipping container somewhere. The cold is starting to get to you, and you wonder if they have taxis in this country.
About a block down the street, there's a small 24 hour diner, which you step into. It's heated, and lovely. You communicate in broken pidgin English with the woman behind the counter, and are able to order a cup of hot chocolate, and get vague directions to a Walmart that might be open at this hour. Your US dollars vanish behind the counter without complaint, but based on the sympathetic look she's giving you, you suspect it might be a gesture of mercy towards the poor, retarded tourist.
Hugging the hot chocolate like it's the water of life, you make your way around the corner to a Walmart supercenter. The enormous blue sign and camper vans parked out front are oddly comforting. You hike across the parking lot. You're pretty sure Walmart won't take your money, but, fortunately, there's an ATM in the entrance, and, after some fiddling with the German interface, you're able to pursuade it to vomit colorful bills into your hand. You stuff them into your pocket, and go looking for winter clothes.
As you quickly discover, this Walmart seems to be entirely geared around the business of getting people who like skis into skis and garishly-colored ski-related paraphernalia as quickly as humanly possible. Anyone trying to do something exotic like purchasing warm non-ski clothing or food is clearly a weeble on the widget assembly line, and a source of constant consternation, especially if the weeble doesn't happen to speak German.
Eventually, you give up, and allow the blue-shirted Swiss people to point you in the direction of some still-voluptuous but less-garish winter clothes, and you locate the medicine aisle by yourself. You're able to find what you're pretty sure is melatonin, and your mind jumps guiltily to the modafinil tablets in one of your socks, left over from cram nights in college. You're not even sure if it's illegal here, but you had the feeling it would come in handy. In retrospect, probably a good call.
Having gained a small foothold in the land of skis, you decide to branch out, and you are eventually able to find and purchase a small alarm clock and a large bottle of a green liquid which is almost certainly either very expensive salon conditioner or some kind of drain cleaner. You really need to invest in smart glasses one of these days. Not that you're ever planning on leaving the country again, but they'd still be useful, and it's not like they're going to ding your sex appeal. Not where you work.
You pay at the register, drag your haul out to the chilly airlock, and get dressed in your new clothes. When you get done, you look a bit like a peach-colored puffball, but at least you're warm. You waddle back to the hotel.
The Press has already gone to bed, apparently. You nod to the bartender, who appears to be watching The Matrix on his phone. He nods back, and you go upstairs. You down half the bottle of melatonin, and lie down in bed to let the liquor you drank an hour ago finally kick in. Your alcohol metabolism is slightly dysfunctional, which allows you to fake being able to hold your liquor pretty well, provided you leave the room within an hour and get to a convenient toilet. You are, in actuality, more or less a lightweight.
When you start to feel extremely vague, you get up, turn off the light, turn around, and promptly trip over your own suitcase. Great. You remember to plug the alarm clock in, and set it to go of pretty early, local time, which is only in a few hours, now. Oh well. You crawl underneath the covers and fall asleep.
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