Gina slowed her breathing, and found comfort in the slow, wheezy rhythm imposed by her asthmatic airways. She stayed in this meditative state for a minute, trying to forget where she was. Slowly, she forced herself to stand up and opened the cubicle door, coming face to face with her pale, distraught reflection. A splash of bathroom tap water helped minutely with the relaxation. So too, did the vision of the crisp marble countertop, sleek chrome tapware and decorative twigs set in a tall vase, all bathed in a soft ambient light. The relaxing effect was immediately counteracted by the arrival of another bathroom patron right when her face was at its most dripping wet. The anxiety crept back quietly.
She blotted her face with paper towel and left the bathroom, gripping the straps on her backpack like a safety harness. Even the bathroom hallways in this hotel were fancy. This one was spotlessly clean and there was a series of abstract paintings on the wall. Is this what success feels like, she thought? Bathroom fittings ten times more expensive than the whole of her worldly possessions and art galleries in toilet corridors? Was there some study somewhere deep in the depths of the scientific journals entitled ‘The soothing psychological effects of modern art on the toilet entry and exit experience of corporate leaders?’ She took a seat at the conveniently placed pouffe, perfectly positioned to view a triptych of fighting polygons.
Gina unfolded her old 2nd generation manifold from her pocket, flicking to the pages of the conference program to remember why she had come here in the first place. The program looked really interesting; she was looking forward to absorbing the knowledge and learnings of her peers and idols. Hopefully it would be worth the effort of getting here. When she had arrived in the city, she had not realised that the building numbers were accessible via an instant download to her mani, she had been expecting static, digital numbers displayed on the buildings themselves and found herself totally lost and unable to find the hotel. Luckily she had downloaded an old map before leaving home and was able to troubleshoot her way through the neighbourhood using key landmarks and a bit of guesswork.
By the time Gina had made it to the hotel on the 300th floor, she was so worked up she had rushed straight to the first bathroom she could see and sobbed into her hands. This place was much more demanding than she had been expecting. The sheer number of people was phenomenal, every square of space was taken up, leaving no room for those who just wanted to stand to the side out of the way while figuring out where they were. There was no out of the way here, there was just this way, and the other way. In contrast, the bathroom and this corridor were serene; a little tiny retreat from the fast paced world just outside. As she daydreamt, a small holographic otter leapt up from the mani on her lap. It was holding a tiny pocket watch and tapping on it with a chubby little finger. She knew these hollies were for kids but she didn’t care, she found them whimsical and calming.
Gina swiped the otter away and an event notification filled the screen of her mani. ‘Networking event in Ballroom 45 in 15 minutes’, it read, ‘6:45 pm to 9 pm’. Gina let out a long sigh and tapped her fingers on her thigh meditatively. This was the part she hated even more than traversing a big city for the first time: talking to other researchers. But she had to at least try, her advisor was expecting her to introduce herself to people and tell them about her research. She needed to talk to at least one delegate, and stay for at least an hour. After setting herself this goal, Gina spent a few minutes checking her news feed, but this could only last so long since she didn’t have any messages. Gina didn’t normally get many messages from her friends and family. She sighed again, folded the mani up and stuffed it into her pocket, and made her way back into the hotel lobby.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to find Ballroom 45; there were flashing signs all over the place pointing conference delegates in the right direction. Gina followed the multitude of signs up a carpeted staircase; it was the plush, luxurious kind of carpet that you wouldn’t find inside anyone’s modest home. The kind that, if you did, you certainly wouldn’t let anyone walk on. It would be sectioned off with a velvet rope, you’d walk your guests past it and say, in a snooty accent “And this is the room with the carpet, note the fullness of the loops and the royal crest design. Please, look but do not touch.” That’s the kind of carpet it was. Gina savoured the softness of each step as she ascended.
The signs disappeared at the top of the stairs. There in front of her was an extremely large set of heavy looking double doors. They were easily two and a half times her height. They were doing a good job of keeping the noise of the networking firmly trapped inside the ballroom, there was just silence out here. Just to the left of the doors was a desk behind which two bored looking hotel employees sat. One of them plastered a smile on her face upon seeing Gina, “Registering for the conference?” she asked. Gina nodded. The girl disappeared behind the desk to rummage in a cardboard box, and came up brandishing a lanyard with a clear card attached to it. She passed it to Gina over the table, “Here’s your pass, it is also your translator, and there’s a copy of the program in there too.”
The other employee waved a small device over her pass and announced in a robotic voice, “I’ve loaded your pass with two beverage tokens. Please take care to remember which door you’ve entered through. Exits for some of the other dimensions aren’t compatible with human life. Have a wonderful conference.” Gina took a deep breath, closed her eyes, opened one of the doors and stepped through. Before she even raised her eyelids she sensed a bright, warm glow. Opening them slowly, she was stunned by the vision before her. The ballroom was a vast, convoluted hive of extravagant curved bars lined with plush red velvet stools. Everything around her was glowing golden as if it had all been smothered in molten gold. Even the ceiling, which stretched away like a vast sky, was a warm yellow hue giving one the sense of a glorious summer’s day. The air smelled of honey and there was the gentle sound of water trickling from an enormous golden statue filling the entrance.
But Gina didn’t notice any of this detail, she was too busy fighting down a panic attack over seeing the sheer number of conference delegates swarming throughout the room. All around her, there were beings of the strangest shapes and sizes, in all colours, all elemental forms, all personalities. Most terrifying of all, some of them were experts in her field, who championed alternative hypotheses, and it was impossible to tell which ones they were. Okay Gina, she thought to herself, you just need to talk to one delegate, just one. Gina sidled over to a harmless looking, vaguely humanoid-shaped delegate who was sitting alone at one of the bars. When she got closer to them, she realised they were not in fact a single being, but were a flock of small flying creatures roughly the size of bees. They seemed preoccupied with their drink. The composition of their form kept changing as each creature flew down from the ‘hand’ to take a sip of the drink, then flew back up to reform the hand.
Just as Gina steeled herself to say hello, another delegate approached the hive being. They had a slimy, jelly-like body that glided along the floor leaving a sticky trail. The jelly-person reached out a jelly-hand and shook the hand of the hive being in a familiar kind of way, while raising another arm and encircling the hive being’s body. Great, they already know each other, Gina realised. She hurriedly aborted her mission, swerving to the left and marching away purposefully as if that had been her plan all along. This new route took her to another bar, empty this time, and she decided to sit down for a minute and order a drink. Gina waved her pass over the receiver and a menu appeared, projected holographically from the pass. She swiped through various options and selected a ginger and kingflower beverage that sounded refreshing. This bar had an auto-waiter, a kind of robotic machine that automatically dispensed drinks. Gina watched as her selection was created from various liquids in different tubes that shot down from the ceiling. While she was waiting, a tiny winged creature flew over and landed on the velvet cushioned stool next to her.
The little creature looked tired; Gina watched them pull out a miniscule mirror and apply fresh lipstick, then order a drink. Once they had both received their drinks, Gina decided to bite the bullet and offer a greeting. The creature stretched out a petite hand in return, “I’m Xanthia,” she said, “Nice to meet you.”
“Did you travel far to get here?” Gina asked.
“Oh yes,” said Xanthia, “It takes two weeks from my dimension. I used the transit time to get some writing done though, so it’s not all bad.”
Gina felt suddenly grateful for her 2-day trip to get here. “What are you writing about at the moment?” she asked.
“Oh all sorts,” replied Xanthia, “I’m a reporter. From Universal News?”
Gina had to fight to control an involuntary eye roll directed squarely at herself. Of course, the first person I decide to talk to is totally useless for networking! And am I supposed to know who she is? She wracked her brain trying to picture the Universal News logo, but her neurons did not want to cooperate and she came up empty. She deployed the old smile and nod manoeuvre, which didn’t raise any alarms.
“Oh, excuse me,” Xanthia breathed, almost spilling her drink as she replaced it on the counter and hovered off her stool. “That’s Professor Windall, I need an interview for my piece on interstellar cooperation.”
Gina watched, wide-eyed and gulped the last of her drink. This was it, she had read Professor Windall’s papers and they were incredible. If she was to meet anyone here it should be Windall. Gina followed Xanthia as she zipped through the air, weaving in and out through the delegates. Gina had to hurry to keep up, her pass bouncing on her chest in an irritating way. She slowed down as Xanthia reached her destination and dropped her jaw in awe. Prof Windall was a huge, towering being, with four protracting stick-like legs, a sort of ruff of delicate long tentacles around the neck and two humongous eyes that looked like they’d been stuffed into a too-small skull. Gina perched herself behind a large retractable banner and watched as Xanthia interviewed Windall. It looked to be a reasonably successful interview; they spoke for about fifteen minutes and Gina was pretty sure she saw Xanthia laugh at one point.
Okay, thought Gina as she watched Xanthia flit off to find another story, I can do this.
She took a deep breath and strode up to Professor Windall and smiled in their direction, standing nearby. They didn’t smile back. However, they didn’t frown either. So not a disaster, yet.
“I’ve read a lot of your work,” offered Gina, waiting breathlessly for a response before she continued.
Prof Windall glanced down to see where the noise had come from. “Yes well, I don’t really read my own work so…”
Gina tried something more relatable. “Your hypothesis about patterns of aggression being linked to interstellar distances is really fascinating, how did you come up with that?”
Prof Windall appeared to snort at this, although Gina wasn’t sure whether that was just a result of their breathing through the rather small nostrils in their undersized head. “Any numpty could figure that out, all you have to do is look at the numbers. That was one of my very simplest pieces of work.”
Gina took a moment to reassess the situation. This is not going well, she thought. She scratched at her collarbone, although she wasn’t itchy. She let the silence sit uncomfortably for a spell. It squirmed around them. Unable to bear it, she broke the silence again.
“What are your thoughts on transdimensional family structure?” she asked, adding “I’m looking into examples where cultures have merged along family lines to see whether it has lasting effects on peacetime relationships between cities.”
At this, Professor Windall leaned over her, enormous eyes boring into her miniscule ones. Gina noticed that their tentacles had become rigid and were almost shaking. They spoke in a sort of drawn-out way. “Family structures are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. They mould to the surrounding context, not the other way around. If I were you I wouldn’t waste my time on such nonsense.”
Gina felt a giant lump form in her chest. Her heart was racing. She looked around for an escape route, feeling hot tears forming beneath her eyes, threatening to expose her. Luckily, Prof Windall didn’t seem to be paying any attention to her at all now, and, clearly done with the conversation, they ambled off towards someone they had spied at one of the bars. Gina looked around, hoping that no-one was looking at her, and then she ran towards an empty bar in the far corner of the room, sobbing into her hands. After a few minutes, Gina pulled a napkin from the table in front of her and gently mopped her face. When she felt brave enough to look up, she spied a concerned looking face peering at her from the other end of the curved bar. Oh no, she cringed and shut her eyes tight. She opened them again. Still there. No, no, no! The man attached to the face chair-hopped his way over to her and offered her another napkin.
“Are you alright?” he said.
“Not really,” said Gina. Kind of obvious isn’t it?
“I saw you talking to Prof Windall. Don’t worry, many of their conversations end in tears, or worse, and they’re never the one crying at the end.” He frowned.
This was somewhat comforting news. “Is everyone here such a monster?” she asked.
“Only if you’ve got actual brain cells,” he replied, grinning.
Gina narrowed her eyes, watching as he twirled a cocktail onion on a stick through his drink. The dark purple substance he was drinking swirled and ebbed. “What do you mean?”
“There are only two kinds of people in this world of conferences,” he said, “those that build others up to advance knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and those that take others down to advance themselves for their themselves’ sake. It’s worth remembering that the only people worth taking down are the ones with the good ideas.” He winked.
Gina thought about this. “But how do you know which ones are which?”
“That’s the interesting part,” he said, nodding in the direction of a group of people over Gina’s shoulder. She turned to look as he continued, “See that group there? There’s that big hairy dude -”
“The one who looks like they’re about to swallow that small woman whole?” gasped Gina.
“That’s the one, but just watch for a minute…”
Gina watched as the large being opened a humongous mouth lined with thousands of razor sharp teeth that stretched back into their throat in rows. The mouth gaped and threatened to engulf the small, plump woman, but then it closed partially and opened again several times. The being’s whole body shook and their several eyes were squeezed shut. Gina was confused.
“Is he crying?” she asked.
“Keep watching,” said the man.
She did. The hairy guy wiped a tear from his eye, and she realised that he was laughing!
The plump lady stormed off looking very unimpressed.
The hairy dude, now with no one to focus his laughter at, glanced over in their direction and crossed the floor. He sat down next to Gina.
“Luuuuuke,” he said, holding out a hand to Gina’s newfound friend and shaking it vigorously.
Luke smiled and pointed at Gina. “This is…er,”
“Gina,” she interjected.
“Right,” said Luke. “And Gina, this is Doug. We used to work together on Feldian politics.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “So what was going on over there? I thought for a minute you were going to attack that woman.”
Doug looked shocked at this suggestion and all of his many eyes widened. “Heavens, no! Not me. I was on the sharp end of a rant on the history of Feldian culture.”
“Why was she ranting?”
“Well because I told her she was wrong, the silly woman!”
Gina looked at Luke, eyebrows raised.
“That woman is a renowned professor of Feldian studies, but she has some wacky ideas that don’t hold up to scrutiny,” explained Luke.
“And she’s just covered in prickles. Literally and figuratively,” added Doug. “She may look harmless but she has some nasty barbs and she isn’t afraid to use them. Even when an actual Feldian tells her politely that she has it wrong, she just gets more prickly!”
Gina nodded slowly, “but…then why were you laughing?” she asked.
Doug made a strange snorting noise she interpreted as a giggle. “Sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh!” he said, his snorty giggle turning into a bellowing roar as he slapped his thigh. “A quiveringly irate little woman is a sight to behold!”
“You mean you weren’t upset that she didn’t respect your experience?”
Doug looked surprised by this question. “Worlds! Not at all,” he said, “She’s just one person, even if she is one with a large amount of influence. Eventually the flaws in her arguments will be ironed out by the words of others. In the meantime, I know the truth and she’s wasting all of her energy being an angry ball of spines!”
Gina laughed, unconsciously tugging on the pass around her neck. Perhaps Prof. Windall’s opinion on her work wasn’t the end of the world. She didn’t even feel like finding the nearest toilet cubicle to hide in. Her pass flashed at her and she looked down. The holographic otter synced to her mani was back, telling her that she’d reached the one hour time limit she’d set herself. Gina paused for a second, then swiped the otter away. Although she’d already reached her networking goal, she suddenly felt like she could make it to the end of the event and that she might even enjoy it. Gina smiled at Luke and Doug as they recounted a previous experience with a prickly professor, and she ordered another drink.