Newborns will be named after me, as will streets and airports.
Turning to my left, I slid that most helpful, brand-new self-help book under the velvet armrest. Most hot-air balloons don’t even have seats, much less armrests and satellite television.
But Cory Doctorow is nothing if not 100% first class. The sealed walls of the passenger balloon were splattered with a smattering of aesthetic oddities: elegant caricatures of dashing, debonair dilettantes, hanging urns packed with ferns, empty suits of crystalline armor fresh off some extraterrestrial medieval battlefield. Behind it all, the wallpaper appeared to be tattooed on.
Four bodyguards stood silent at each porthole, spear-guns at the ready. “Captain” Cory always provided his guests with the best protection plundered Incan gold could buy; far from being a harmless balloon enthusiast, the blogger emeritus had recently turned to sky piracy, assembling a raucous gang of fearless daredevils and opportunists.
Many mountaintop towns hired mercenaries or trained their own citizens as archers, but the Doctorow Fleet’s nighttime raids and chainmailed balloon envelopes kept them the scourge of the Andes.
One of the guards caught me looking outside. “It belongs on a postcard, no?”
I nodded. “Where is the captain? We were supposed to discuss the small matter of payment…”
“We already reached an agreement,” my Canadian companion Puck said, lounging on a plush sofa to the far side of the cabin. Our spicy camerawoman Yvette Sumberland Jr. sat next to him, working on one of her Sudoku puzzle-books.
“I didn’t agree to anything. What did you pay them? Did you pay them in beads?! Oh God, my bead collection! Why?! Why?!”
“We agreed to help the High Evolutionary build the genome for Humanity 2.0,” Yvette plodded, plotting the spot of her next blot. “And put the DNA samples under a non-restrictive license, allowing redistribution and remixing.”
“Putting our genetic magic in the public domain?! Open-sorcery!”
Sighing, Puck handed me the map of the Antarctic region locals called “Savage Land.” Atlantea was highlighted in blue: the home of the High Evolutionary. Verily, Puck, Yvette and I would help the Evolutionary with his redesign of the human race. Having been present at the original design process untold thousands of years ago, I had some pretty keen insights into what needed improvement.
“Does the captain have any requests?” I asked the stationary strongman. Before he could answer, the phone by the heat nozzle rang. Central Nav must have found the red smoke plume that would lead us to the borders of Savage Land.
Laying back into the satin cushion they dared call a mere chair, I quickly dozed off to sleep.
To this day, I curse that decision.
When I woke up, I was chained to the ground with a sock in my mouth. There was a sweatband over my eyes, so I couldn’t see. It was hot and I was more thirsty than I can remember.
“Puck?” I whispered, recognizing that obnoxiously odious overtone. “Can you move?” I gasped.
“Where are you?”
Something sharp dug into my side. Sweet Iguana of Tijuana! I was being carved up like a Christmas ham!
“Ow! Help, I’m being carved up like a Christmas goose. Or ham, either would work for this situation.”
Naturally, the sock in my mouth caused that entire sentence to sound like a protracted series of grunts and moans.
“Gee whiz, eh! I didn’t ask to hear your stump speech, I just wanted to know where you were!” Puck laughed, accompanied by a laughtrack. When did he get his own laughtrack?
A hand reached down and pulled my downtrodden face up to the light and lo! within seconds Puck snatched the sweatband from my eyes and popped the sock from my mandible.
“You stole my sock.”
I looked around, disoriented and frightened. We were in the cabin, but it didn’t feel like we were moving. “Have we crashed?”
“We just landed. The pirates are locking down the balloons so they can go hunt saber-toothed were-whales.”
“Were-whales?” I murmured. That sounded vaguely plausible. “Aren’t they those most excellent sea creatures that can swim at over 300 miles per hour, and jump over 400 feet in the air?”
“Aye, that they do. That they do. But they live on a steady diet of plankots and human blood, making them one of the rarest and most hunted, most persecuted were-mammals of Savage Land.”
Of all the things to blame on the plankot lobby, the decades-long decline of the were-whale is the most tragic.
“No use crying over spilled blood,” I sang sanguinely, slyly side-stepping the situation. Opening the now-unbolted exit panel, I set footcup down on the fertile, seasoned ground of Atlantea.
Behind us sat a grounded fleet of fortified hot-air balloons, waiting to take us back east. Ahead lay the Citadel of Science that haunted my dreams since the last time I was here — over 40 years in the future.
High up in the citadel’s highest tower, I spied a moving shadow. Could that silhouette be the Evolutionary, perchance? Mayhap, I should resolve this with but a question:
“You must be the High Evolutionary,” I blasted through my bullhorn at a man in a red metallic mask walking past a window in a bathrobe holding a cup of some hot liquid. I know it was hot because when I blasted my bullhorn at him, he dropped it on his feet and started screaming.
It’s too bad you can only make a first impression once. I’d have loved to do that a few more times.
“People, bring me solutions, not answers!” I threw another spate of design templates in the “later” pile.
Unlike all other rooms in the citadel, the planning room didn’t smell of overripe fruit and moldy flowers. The High Evolutionary was a peculiar man who seemed to lack any sense of taste or smell, decking his halls with boughs of… whatever they were, they had long since rotted away and never been cleaned up.
Herb had been an otherwise gracious host, offering us room, board and back massages. I declined all three and questioned his patriotism.
Could I be blamed? The designs he kept asking for were idiotic. Dog-people? Giraffe-people? Cyclopses and triclopses? It was all the same thing — just a slight modification to the human genome with features and doodads that already existed in some other species. There was nothing groundbreaking or controversial here. I’ve never been so disillusioned.
“Stop. We’re going in circles,” I said to the roomful of chromosome chroniclers, “what we need to do is follow Google’s Chrome team’s example. What did Google do when they designed Chrome? They took the needs of today’s modern web browser and modeled the structure of Chrome around that.”
“People aren’t web browsers,” Yvette bleated sheepishly.
“Typical Apple fangirl mumbo-jumbo! The principles are sound,” I tapped the chalkboard. “Find what the demands of modern society are on people and redesign based on that.”
“People have sedentary lifestyles nowadays,” Puck chuck-a-lucked. “They don’t need so much muscle mass.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“They wouldn’t need perfect eyesight, either. Nobody needs to hunt for their food in a society of preprocessed cheese and spam.”
“They’d also need a pouch to carry around tools…”
“And a third arm-like appendage to improve productivity! Like… a prehensile tail of the chest,” the High Evolutionary thundered, getting into the spirit of the season.
“And a box-shaped head so as to fit into any container,” I added. We quickly had a working proposal.
“I had a great time,” I told High Evolutionary Herb as I put on my green Lands’ End jacket. Pigs in a blanket, I looked stunning.
“We had a really fun time,” Yvette agreed, shaking Herb’s hand with the camera strapped to her head. Puck grabbed his hat and poncho off the coat rack.
The door closed behind us. We sat on the porch for a few minutes, discussing various matters, such as good and bad restaurants and our families. Puck, it turned out, has five children. I didn’t know that about him. And Yvette was one of the recipients of the Pierre LePike Remedial Spike award in 2004 for her part in the massive, government-funded effort to photograph Santa Claus.
Well, that’s all well and good, but there was something that still stuck in my giggling craw.
“Puck, you can break steel with your superpowers, non?”
“No…” he trailed off, somehow not liking where I was certainly going with this line of questioning.
“We’re going to steal one of the balloons before Cory Doctorow and the sky pirates get back.”
They both stared at me like I’d grown a prehensile chest-arm. “What?” They asked simultaneously.
“Sadness! Sadness within my heart. My friends, my friends, we cannot allow this genetic code to fall into the hands of those were-whalers.”
My fear was palpable. As a concerned environmentalist, I simply could not allow these blogger barons, these blustery blagards, from blindly beaching those benevolent behemoths. It all came down to the wire. Did we have what it took to save Savage Land from the wrath of the sky pirates?
Smashing one of the balloons’ fuel tanks, I ran up to another. “Puck, roundhouse kick that widget! Yea o man of Canada!”
Cheering, we destroyed all but one of the hot-air balloons, which we seized in due time, after our victory dance o’er the frigid ice. On our flight back east, the band of pirates (now returning with a fresh were-whale — oh, the horror!) started firing their pathetic spear-guns at us.
Little it would avail them! What folly, their own plating now serving against them! Verily, I did chortle lightly into my diet Pepsi, spraying the sofa with a considerable amount of droplets.
“Do you wonder,” Puck asked as I stared out the porthole, “if it was wrong to leave them to their own devices? I daresay, those devils will be quick to revenge themselves on you.”
I removed my glasses thoughtfully. “They will hate, as is their way. But in these lands, they will fend for themselves. They will learn morals from battling the giant lizards and man-squids. Slowly but surely, they will repent. They will learn to live alongside the were-whale, and take its song to heart.”
Puck smiled at my sagely advice. He was wise to do so; I’ve personally written 35% of all fortune cookies.
And yes, perhaps one day Cory Doctorow and his fellow balloonists would accept the folly of their ways. But, as the great Roman poet Icicles wrote, it is harder to change one’s outlook than it is to change the diaper of a gorilla.