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09.16.02


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the family vacation

by John Kessel

 

The family sits in the office of the travel agency. Rod is slender, fair, and athletic. James, the other husband, is darker, handsomer, and has thicker hair.

Rebecca holds their infant daughter on her lap and examines the vista the travel agent had called onto his screen. The baby gums a hand-made wooden rattle and drools.

"New Mexico is one of our most popular destinations for families unwilling to travel outside the security sphere," the agent says. "Though, of course, you will all have to be investigated."

"Elizabeth, too?" Rebecca asks. She is a New Traditionalist, and very protective.

The agent chucks little Elizabeth under her soggy chin; the baby flails her arms and drops the rattle onto the carpet. Secretly, the agent wipes his hand on his trouser leg. "Only a gene scan — and an MRI to assure she is not carrying explosives."

Rod does not trust the agent. "How much of a kickback do you get from the scanners?"

The agent stiffens. "Sir?"

James intervenes. "You'll pardon my husband's little joke." He kicks Rod under the table.

"Right, then," the travel agent says. "We'll book you in to the Sangre de Christo Erotic Arms for the fourteenth through the twenty-first. That will give you two days before the forest fire and avoid the tail end of the Painmasters' Convention." The agent types a few keystrokes on his board. "Do you have any preferences for the flight seating?"

Rod is still feeling surly, but he does not want James to get the big bed that night. "Rebecca cannot bear too much reality. Do you have any seats in sensedepriv?"

The agent consults the screen. "You're in luck. Don't you worry, ma'm — you're not going to feel a thing. "

Rebecca preens. She is the hottest ortho spouse in the Lake District, and knows it. Elizabeth coos. She is, allowing for certain well-considered alterations, her mother's daughter.

James puts his arm around Rebecca, while Rod, still fretting, gathers up the baby's bag. The travel agency door whispers shut behind them.

After they leave, the agent touches a hand to his throatmike. "Stella, can you come in here for a minute? "

The door at the back opens and a woman in a predestinator's blouse comes over to the desk. She takes the chair vacated by Rebecca. The agent, whose name is Derek, has called onto the screen a seating chart of the airliner. The names of passengers already booked are indicated. He touches the screen with a stylus to indicate where Rebecca, Rod, James and Elizabeth will be seated.

"Mother, 25, will be here, infant, seven months next to her. They are bracketed by the husbands,28 and 32. "

"What's the mortality profile?" the woman asks.

The man touches the seats of Rod, James, and Elizabeth, laying a red X over each of their names. "When the plane goes down, the husbands will be killed instantly. The baby will be badly burned, but will survive for two weeks in the hospital before she goes. The mother, in sensedepriv, won't suffer a scratch."

The woman's mouth twitches, almost a smirk. "You mean physically."

"Stella, you are a testimony to the liberal arts education."

The technician touches her own stylus to the screen, to one of the occupied seats a few rows back. A profile comes up in a window, a thumbnail, including photograph. "Okay, then. Here's your candidate. Jason Bixler, 27, oceanographer, hetero, recently divorced."

"What scenario?" asks the agent.

"She meets him in the hospital when she's coming to see her baby. She's devastated by her losses. He consoles her, and she finds in him the gentleness and lack of game playing that she didn't even know she was missing in her marriage. Warily, they court, and eventually marry. Thirty-five or forty years, three children. "

"Sounds good." Derek looks at his watch. "You up for a drink at the Underground?"

As Stella pushes her seat back from the desk, she notices the rattle on the carpet. She picks it up and lays it beside the terminal.

"You buy the first," she says, "and I'll get the second."

 

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John Kessel is a recipient of the Nebula, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon awards, and the author of some forty short stories. Look for new stories from him in Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the special "New Wave Fabulists" issue of the literary magazine Conjunctions, guest-edited by Peter Straub. He is a professor of American literature and the director of the creative writing program at North Carolina State University, where he has fostered the careers of a number of very promising newer writers.

 

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