December 2015 – the end – The Ultimate Trip by Alex Bottle

The Ultimate Trip

by Alex Bottle

The Ultimate Trip™Maldives holidaycame with a free snorkelling session – one of the few things that prised Lenny and Lara Dawson from the All Inclusive bar. Fanie, the perfectly toned guide,explained coral bleaching. Lenny and Lara exchanged blank looks. They walked out a few paces,trying to protect their feet from the crunching dead shards, before donning their fins and taking their first tentative breaths underwater. Lara pulled up and snorted when she forgot to exhale through her mouth instead of her nose. This amused Lenny no end, but both were disappointed at the ghostly algae-stripped structures harbouring only a few hardy fish.

“I expected better,” Lenny complained as they splashed their way back onto the beach. “It’s all white. We didn’t clock up 10,000 Air Miles for this.”

Fanie clenched his jaw. “That’s what Westernoverconsumption does to delicate ecosystems.”

“Hey, that’s not our fault. We recycle. Where I come from the customer’s always right. I wanna refund.” Lenny stopped in Fanie’s path.

Fanie swallowed. “This session is free. I suppose you’re on the Standard Physical Experience holiday?”

“Hey, pal, we’ve already had the hard sell on the Upload Upgrade. We’re NOT becoming part of some huge computer, OK?”

“I mean, it’s great that lots of rich people are reducing their carbon footprint by leaving their physical body and uploading their consciousness to the Core,” Lara added more moderately, “but it’s not for us.”

“I see. Follow me, please.”

Lenny gave his wife a look of victory, but in the shop the guideonly asked the assistant to fetch the “new masks”. He took the couple’s current ones back and handed them two black-framedpairs.

“Try these.”

Lara tugged Lenny’s elbow hard enough to unbalance him. “Come on, honey. Don’t cause trouble.”

After a glare at Fanie, Lenny led Lara back into the water. This time he couldn’t stop himself from trying to say ‘wow’ into the snorkel. Gone were the scattered dead fragments, the absence of what once had been. Polyps bedecked the coral everywhere, their clownfish friends in attendance. Countless angelfish species and the whole gamut of reef life were on view in glorious technicolour. Lenny righted himself and waved to his wife.

“That’s more like it!”

Lara tapped her mask. “Is this a video?”

“Video?”

“Well, we’re not seeing what it’s really like, are we?”

“Of course we are, honey. Those other masks were faulty, is all. Come on, let’s go and look for turtles.”

“OK!”

For two weeks they lapped up the resort’s natural and imported resources.

“Back home tomorrow?” head waiter Ahmed commiserated with them at their last dinner. “You will still be with us in spirit, I think, no?”

No one at reception could tell them where their Ultimate Trip™ rep James was. They’d received no instructions about the following day’s pick-up back to Male airport. They decided the All Inclusive bar needed one last send-off.

Early next morning they groggily picked their way to reception, where a typed message from James told them that seaplane flights had been cancelled from the island until further notice. Not knowing what else to do, they ploughed through their usual mountainous breakfast.

Once installed on the near-deserted sand, Lara sat up. “Shouldn’t we check our flights again?”

Lenny shrugged. “You read the message. Anyway, if we have to stay here longer, so what? We’re insured.”

“We can’t stay here forever, Lenny.”

The snorkel instructor appeared. “Hey, guys,” he chirped. “Free private reef tour?”

Despite Lenny’s earlier run-in with the guy, the couple didn’t hesitate. Free was free.

The brilliance of colour and variety beneath the water’s surface was as stunning as before. Both of them felt the temptation but lacked the skill to duck dive and get closer to the coral and outstare the moray eel in its lair. They passed the now familiar brain, table and staghorn forests. Out in front, the guide beckoned them onwards. Lenny and Lara guessed they were heading towards the reef’s edge but they followed happily. The famous Maldivian current meant they didn’t even need to fin to keep up with the guide as they drifted over and beyond the reef’s precipitous edge. As the blue deepened, they both felt calmer, more peaceful, as if their cancelled flight no longer mattered. After a while, Lenny and Lara exchanged concerned glances through their masks.

At last, Fanie gestured to them to stop and pointed downwards. Against the dark blue, Lenny could just make out two black, slowly growing squares. Rays? Lara spotted them too.Fascinated, neither noticed Fanie swim round behind them. Both felt a sting to their calf. With the squares just three metres away, Lenny and Lara finally felt threatened. Moments before the neurotoxin held them in position, Lenny reached out and took Lara’s flapping, willing hand. Fear and yet also a sense of destinytransfixed them as the squares ineluctably inched towards their faces.

The next day, flights resumed to the island as it welcomed more unsuspecting corporeal visitors with more money than brains prior to their Upload. Sealed off within the immeasurable databanks of the Core, with no access to the outside world or the fragile ecosystems of the coral reefs that they had so recently been enjoying, Lenny and Lara began their new virtual lives. They had a long time ahead of them to wonder how they never saw it coming. Any of it.

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