Vietnamese Food and Museums

The plan was to spend a few days in Vietnam, then fly out for a tour of South-East Asia, starting with Cambodia and Angkor Wat for Christmas, then Thailand and Phi Phi Island for New Year’s Eve and then trekking in Laos, and back to Vietnam. So, I spent the first few days recovering from jetlag and soaking up the warmth and sun. Oh, and eating. The food, the food! We went to a Korean barbecue, we ate a lot of seafood, spring rolls, pho soup and so on. The food was really great, and the fruit that one could purchase at the local supermarket were great: mini-bananas, rambutan, mangosteen and dragon fruit are excellent. Also, I’ve found out that I actually really like ripe mango, it’s just the unripe stuff that tastes like soap that I don’t like (unfortunately, that’s the stuff you usually can buy in Poland).

I don't even know the names of half of these :-)

I don’t even know the names of half of these :-)

Of course it turned out that Vietnamese food has one weak point – desserts. There are some desserts that are quite nice, but when we went out to lunch with M’s coworkers we were treated to THE MOST VILE DESSERT IN THE WHOLE WORLD (probably) – Evil Black Jelly. It tasted like, well, jelly made from an industrial solvent (I guess, I never drank industrial solvent, but it would probably taste like this jelly). I don’t know how they manage to eat that stuff.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

We also went to a restaurant that specialised in frogs. The fried frog were quite tasty, but there wasn’t really a lot of meat on their bones, but the restaurant was somewhat funny, because it was festooned with pictures and paintings of cute happy froggies.

I'm a happy happy frog! :-)

I’m a happy happy frog! :-)

We're so cute and adorable! EAT US!

We’re so cute and adorable! EAT US!

Well, except for the one frog which obviously knew what was coming. ­čÖé

OH SHIT THEY"RE GOING TO EAT ME

OH SHIT THEY’RE GOING TO EAT ME

And another fun fact – they love Christmas here in Asia. Unfortunately. I hoped I’ll escape the whole Christmas hooplah by jetting halfway around the globe, but my hopes were quickly dashed. Christmas decorations were present everywhere, in supermarkets, on the streets, in front of our apartment block… (and, as a matter of fact, they are still present in front of our apartment block nearing the end of January, although the Christmas tree was removed. The rest of the decorations are still there, though, and I wonder when they’ll take them off. :-))

You can't run

You can’t run

Who cares about global warming, let's have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

Who cares about global warming, let’s have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

They'll probably keep it until February. Or March.

They’ll probably keep it until February. Or March.

Crossing off the list of “fun” stuff to see in Ho Chi Minh City, we have visited the HCMC City Museum (tanks, Hueys and dioramas of Glorious Workers Revolution and fight against the French opressor and American invader) and the Reunification Palace, with NVA tanks on the lawn (not the original tanks which crashed the palace’s gates during the Fall of Saigon, but the same models). It felt, well, a bit like visiting something out of communist Poland. No wonder.

At the HCMC City Museum

At the HCMC City Museum

We're plastic comrades!

We’re plastic comrades!

"The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son". Hm.

“The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son”. Hm.

Get to the chopper!

Get to the chopper!

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

"Please remember who pwnd whom"

“Please remember who pwnd whom”

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Visiting the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, later “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”, now War Remnants Museum) was deferred for later, since visiting two museums in one day overloaded my propaganda fuses severely.

Some Assembly Required

“I hereby move to open the general assembly of shareholders in the Jonathan Maindel personal company. For administrative purposes, please state your name, provenance and share percentage, along with the function.”

“Jonathan Maindel, biological founder of the PC, date of birth 21st of May 2021, fourty one percent of the vote, chairman.”

“Jay-Em Prime, nee Jonathan X2051, uploaded consciousness based on the gamma-grade model of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created in February of 2051, twenty two point five percent of the vote, treasurer.”

“Morality Eigenvector, nee Jonathan X2071, uploaded consciousness based on delta-grade snapshot of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created on 21st of October 2077, twenty nine percent of the vote.”

“Eyrie Jane, an emancipated copy of a mindmeld between Jay-Em Prime and Varied&Quirky, an independent epsilon-grade Artificial Intelligence, seven point five percent of the vote.”

Arrival in Vietnam

The general background for this series of entries is that somewhere in the late spring I was approached by a friend, who shall heretofore be referred as M., with an offer to join her in Vietnam for the duration of the winter. Her company intended to send her over to Ho Chi Minh City (the City Formerly Known As Saigon) for a few months and maybe I’d care to join her and her friend, Z.?

Hell yes I would, it’s sunshine and warmth instead of darkness and cold. So I’ve found a flatmate to cater to my cats’ whims for the period I would be gone and awaited news on when we would go.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and the planned 4 months underwent sudden attrition to one and a half, leaving on 17th of December and returning, provisionally, on the 30th of January.

Still, I’ve packed my bags: laptop, waterproof smartphone, HD camera with a diving enclosure, rooted e-ink reader with Android, assorted cables and power supplies, sunscreen and DEET. Also, some clothes and melatonin pills for jetlag.

We booked a flight with Vietnam Airlines, from Frankfurt, with a connecting LOT flight from Warsaw Ok─Öcie. Our connecting flight was scheduled to leave at 6 in the morning, so I’ve decided not to go to sleep at all, in order to be tired and sleep in the plane, to facilitate adjustment to the new time zone.

Ten hours in a plane, even in deluxe economy class, with slightly more space for legs were not exactly fun, but the service was good┬áand for in-flight entertainment we had an earphone splitter and M’s earphones had a socket for daisy-chaining, so we managed to watch Page Eight on my laptop. It’s quite a nice spy movie and I recommend it to anyone who likes the genre. I even managed to get some sleep, which is recommended on eastbound flights to minimise jetlag (with a 6 hours time zone change it is difficult to avoid jetlag altogether).┬áWe’ve finally arrived at 8 AM, local time (2 AM in Poland).

Saigon from the air

Saigon from the air

When the plane was taxiing from the runway the first things I’ve noticed were Mi-8 helicopters and prefabricated concrete walls which look exactly like the ones around old communist structures in Poland. I guess the design in both cases came from the same place.

Buying a visa took us over half an hour, because the immigration officers were obviously not in a hurry, and as a matter of of fact waiting for the visas made me think fondly of the Polish Post Office. Nobody looked through our luggage, which was probably a good thing, since the melatonin pills I bought (small, nondescript white pills) came in a giant plastic container which was mostly empty, so I transferred them to a small plastic baggie. In retrospect, that might not be the smartest move, I decided while waiting at the customs.

At the airport, we were greeted by sunshine and palms! Sunshine! And palms! Adding some more exclamation points would even better reflect my mood at the moment – it was warm and sunny, and it was December! I was grinning like a slightly sleep-deprived madman.

Warmth, palms and sun

Warmth, palms and sun

I should have done this a long time ago, I’ve decided.

We were met by two girls from the local branch of the company M. works at, Mio and Nat, and they drove us (well, a taxi driver drove us) to our apartment in the 7th district of HCMC, which was like half an hour drive. There were swarms of scooters flocking on the streets, and communist propaganda posters everywhere, but also markets, boutiques, KFC and McDonalds, and of course, billboards and advertisements were everywhere. Poland is marred by an exceedingly large amount of billboards and outdoor advertising, but in comparison to Vietnam, we’re toned down and stately.

In .vn, scooters flock

In .vn, scooters flock

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Our apartment at the 5th floor turned out to be more like on the 10th floor, since all apartments in the block are two story high. There was, of course, no elevator. Walking up the stairs is healthy. There was wifi in our apartment, although with time, it turned out that the connection is… slightly buggy at times.

And it turned out the air conditioning unit in my room does not work. Which I completely didn’t mind. Some remarks were made concerning my lizard heritage, but I ignored them as the low-brow comments they were. It was warm! Thirty degrees and sunny – I was in heaven.

So we went out to eat some phood. I mean, food. Pho24 is the local more or less fast-food chains which serves pho soup and it was excellent. And the complimentary desserts were also quite nice, which, as it turned out later, we should not have taken for granted.

Oh, and we all went to sleep somewhere past noon. Just to catch a nap, you understand.

This might have been an error.

First sight

“Remember, you don’t believe in love at first sight”, my dead wife whispered in my ear.

I was holding my breath at two thirds of an exhalation, keeping the crosshairs steadily on the courthouse door, waiting for my target, when instead she came out. Her face framed perfectly in my viewfinder, crosshairs over her forehead. My heart skipped a beat and the sights moved jerkingly upwards.

“Fuck. Darling, please shut up now, this is a rather critical moment of the op”, I subvocalized in reply.

Great, now I had to breathe again. Exhale, inhale, exhale, hold. I just finished readjusting myself and placed the crosshairs back over the entrance to the building when my target appeared in the door. A Secret Service agent preceded him, but he had no chance to notice me. I was hidden in a large cardboard structure which resembled an air conditioner outlet when seen from the ground, and my optics were the best military-grade equipment one could buy in Texas. Over the 21st century the Second Amendment became more than set in stone, it was laser-etched in steel slabs. Well, what I was about to do could finally have a chance at changing the status quo.

I pulled the trigger slowly, as I’ve practiced countless times. The rifle kicked against my shoulder and a heavy antipersonnel slug struck Judge Robinson, the most rabidly conservative Republican on the Supreme Court right between the eyes.

Two down, two to go.

I quickly crawled back from my firing position, as not to reveal myself to the Secret Service agents, placed the rifle in the destruct-o-box I cobbled together, pressed the ignitor button and left without waiting to watch the thermite charge slag the evidence. When I was out of sight from ground, I rose and ran to the staircase. Descending quickly, I went through the back exit, where a scooter was parked. I put on a helmet with a reflective visor, a motorcycling jacket with a fake beer belly sewn inside, and I rode away with a quiet whine of the scooter’s electric engine.

“Can we now talk about the important thing now, darling?” Daphne spoke quietly in my ear. “The hottie that looked a bit like the younger version of me. And one that is not dead, I might add. What are we going to do about her?”

***

I remember when I first told Daphne about my plan to change the politics of my home country, which made us both progressively more disappointed and angry. It was during our honeymoon in Bali. I was bitter and despondent and I tried not to show it, but she knew me too well. She was my girlfriend for over ten years, after all. I proposed after five, and she rebuffed me, gently and lovingly.

“You know very well I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. Just be glad we won’t have to go through a divorce when you finally find yourself someone prettier and smarter than me.” she told me, smiling all the time, as she knew all too well I would never.

“It’s not about the sanctification of our relationship by the State, come on.” I held her palm and kissed it lightly. “I just want to be able to hold your hand when you’re in a coma because some redneck from Utah ran a red light while you were riding on your death machine.”

“Oh fuck you, babe, I’m not giving up my Harley, either.”

I knew that. I suggested a few times she should abandon her incredibly fucking dangerous hobby I feared would take her from me and she just laughed. I could never make her do anything she already had an established view on, which was only one of the infinite multitude of things that made me love her – mind, body and brain.

And I always thought that if anything, a traffic accident would kill her, which is why I thought she would never know my contingency plan for her death.

As we’ve stood in the morning rays of the sun, looking at the beach, my hands crossed over her chest and cupping her breasts, her shoulder blades pressing against my ribs, I felt waves of incredible sadness come crashing over me. The wedding ring radiated unreal cold that I knew was only in my mind. I couldn’t see her death metastasizing under her skin, but the fact that she agreed to wed me in a mercifully short ceremony meant she had no faith in her chances either. There were only a few closest friends with us that day, and they were all either crying or trying very hard not to.

“I always had a plan for what I wanted to do when you were gone.”, I told her, my throat choking with grief. “I want to make history.”

“Of course you do. And you don’t have the money nor the connections required to make it in politics.” she answered. We waited in a comfortable silence for a while, neither of us speaking. “So, violence?”

“Violence.”

“And you’re telling me this because…”

I started trembling slightly, fearing what was coming. But I knew her well enough that, and she would agree.

“Because we’re here in Indonesia. And there’s a company in Jakarta that does brainscans and makes shadows.”

I felt her tense then, for a short moment, and then relax her body in resignation.

“Oh fuck it. Let’s do this, then, you perverted transhuman fetishist.”

I thought I felt a trace of a smile in her voice, but I was probably deceiving myself.

Mars-bound

I woke up happy. It still felt weird, even after almost two years. Next to me, Martin was snoring. He had some stubble on his chin, and his hair still smelled faintly of acid rain. The air was oppressively hot, despite the best effort of the building’s “energy-efficient” air conditioning system. But I was happy. He was there, and I could press my body to his and feel his warmth and his heartbeat. He yawned, opened one eye and smiled faintly, and one of his hands slid over my breast, cupping it. I leaned in to kiss him.

And then I woke up, this time for real. I woke up alone and hurting. I was in a perfunctorily personalised coffin, full of hot, stale air endlessly recirculated by the life support of the colonist transport vessel. Bound for Mars.

Those dreams were the worst, the ones where everything was all right, where Martin was still alive. I took drugs to take the worst edge out of grief, but their effect was limited. I needed to be able to live my life somehow, and as long as I was able to think and remember, I would grieve.

I hoped Mars would help. The Mars project was over sixty years old and still in its infancy, but it would provide a change. And a chance of death. It’s really, really hard to effectively commit suicide in a modern hive city. The city AI sees all, there is a medical drone minutes away and no weapons of any kind available to an average citizen. I could always hope for some catastrophic weather event to kill me, like it did Martin, but Earth weather was highly random and chaotic and I had no guarantees.

On Mars, there was no weather, but its lifeless environment was consistently, permanently lethal. It took me two tries to get past psychological screening, but the Mars Program had only basic level shrink AIs, so I managed to convince them that the I have recovered from the death of my husband within a year.

A hundred years will not be enough.

Carrying a torch

I carried a torch for someone for over fifty seven years. You might consider this excessive, but I never had any doubts. It burned somewhere in my chest cavity with an intensity only a plasma flame could achieve, washing out the candleflames of all other loves, flings and affairs of the one hundred and twenty years of my adult life with a deluge of white-bluish light that would border on ultraviolet and give anyone second degree burns, were it real.

It wasn’t, of course, but I liked to think about it that way, lying awake at night next to my sleeping wife, remembering him and our times together.

And now a single coded message from a dead-drop account told me my current life was over. I had a meeting in Shanghai in two months, and in that time, I had to abandon my wife and friends, leave Caracas, retrieve my backup identity from a safehouse in Algiers, change my biometrics, switch back to female, recover all my gear and money and reconnect with my support network, and all this while conducting careful counter-surveillance drills. But it didn’t matter, because I was suddenly awash with joy.

I would get to see my handler again. Which meant that he was alive, and that was something. Enacting social changes through mass violence was not conducive to a long lifespan. But then, he was always exceptional.

Medusa, Inc.

She ripped my heart out with a smile.

Literally.

Forewarned is forearmed, though, so I managed to snatch my wayward heart out of the air. Barely, since it was really slippery. And, oh yeah, it hurt like hell. I could feel the pain stabbing out of my chest even through the layers of mental spells preventing me from fainting.

I already had my badge out in my right hand and I raised it, pointing at the woman. Then I snarled and let her have it.

The succubus exploded in a purplish-white incandescence, and when my eyes adjusted, there was a blackened, charred statue where she stood before. An expression of surprise was frozen on her beautiful face. The walls of the room were all blackened by the heat. My heart pulsed in my grip, and I quickly pushed it back into my chest, managing not to fall down to my knees. The world was turning black, but the enchantments of duty woven into my bones knitted the still-beating muscle back in its rightful place, and a few seconds later I decided I could actually walk.

I strode towards the entrance to the restricted section of Medusa Inc. with a purpose, my badge still pulsing with magic. I held in my breath and punched the black statue right in the face, and it disintegrated, falling to the floor in a cascade of larger and smaller pieces of embers. Still holding my breath, since inhaling radioactive carbon dust wasn’t really smart, I reached the glass doors, took out my warrant and pressed it to the lock. The judge’s seal burst with red light and then all the locks opened.

I looked back. There was a man-shaped anti-shadow on the wall, in the place where my body shielded it from the blast of light, and the charred remains of the female succubus were still glowing slightly in some places. Serves her right, the bitch, for assaulting an officer on duty.

And the worst part was that when I came home to my husband he’d never let me hear the end of it. After all, if I were truly and totally gay she wouldn’t be able to do that, or at least Michael would claim it was so, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary.

From the diaries of a killer in love

For most of my existence there was an aching emptiness in me, but now it was filled with the light and music of my love’s presence, right in the dead centre of my tactical awareness. I perched outside of the building where she sat at a table with another human, perceiving her with all my senses and drinking in her beauty.

The human she was talking to had a badge and a gun. His badge was out, and so was his gun, sitting at the table next to the food tray, questing around with its cold, dutiful active senses.

I hate guns. The fuckers are so righteous you can practically see the entitlement boiling off their armour, and their active senses mean it’s really, really hard to hide from them. The gun on the table noticed me and quivered slightly in anticipation, it’s legs checking for grip on the table’s wooden surface. I calculated my options and decided I could take it out, and the human too, but then I’d be in trouble. Not from the gun, but from the badge, which was a passive but heavy presence, always recording, impassionate and permanently connected to the city itself.

Well, I had to hope it wouldn’t come to violence, for the sake of my love. She looked at the man she was meeting, and then he spoke.

“My gun tells me you have a slaved murder drone waiting outside. It was really impolite of you to come to a meeting with this… thing in your tow.”

“Now now, James.” her voice was a thing of beauty. I could stare all day at the sine elegance of the waves her larynx made in the air. “You know full well that if I have a murder drone waiting outside, it’s because I’m showing that I’m not actually murdering anyone. Yet.”

“You do see my badge, Helen, right?”

The cop she was talking to was clearly uneasy, even though his implants were in an interview mode, supressing most overt body language and transforming him into a statue to professional conduct. It was still a statue made of flesh, and flesh was inferior to carbon and metal and polymers.

Well, unless it was her flesh, of course, which was amazingly perfect in it’s imperfectness. Weird, I know. Still, most personal protectors have a meat fetish of some kind and I was no exception. A drone is supposed to love her owner with a love that is pure and unsullied, but you know reality. We’re all entropy’s bitches and nothing is ever perfect.

Except her, of course. She raised one perfect eyebrow at the question.

“Oh, lighten up. It is obviously a joke, and the drone’s a fully licensed bodyguard, as you well know.” Then she smiled. “I don’t really feel safe in your city anymore, hon. The gang warfare is really annoying, I wouldn’t venture outside without my trusty bodyguard.”

She called me trusty! I could scream with joy, if I had a means of doing so, but instead I focussed on being as calm and professional as I could. That’s me, her trusty bodyguard, watching over her lovely body and perfect mind every time she left her apartment.

Empathy

Empathy is usually pretty useful, but there are moments when I wish I didn’t have any. This was one of these. My (now ex) girlfriend was sitting on her couch, her eyes glistening wet with tears. I really should have taken some blockers before coming here, but I pride myself on going through my personal life without pharmacological support, so my mirror neurons were screaming at me. Look at her! She’s in pain! And you’re the reason!

Empathy can be rather painful and unpleasant. And to add insult to injury, I was also getting quite bored. I had nothing else to say, and I felt like I have exhausted all the words I wanted to use about half an infinity ago. Yet I didn’t know whether it was appropriate to rise and leave now, or should I still wait some more. Normally, I would browse the net to kill time, but Jane was looking at me and would see the specks of light in my eyes, and it would hurt her even more, so I had to live through reality unagumented, like a straightedge.

And then my pager beeped and vibrated.

You probably don’t even know what a pager is, so let me explain. It’s a device for one-way, fully encrypted communication, which pretends to be something else entirely. My pager was shaped to look like a lighter, and I carried it in my breast pocket. A possession of a pager is a class II felony, unless you were a member of the giant shadowy world of security with appropriate paperwork and licenses.

I wasn’t.

Still, Jane thought I was. Incidentally, this a notion she curiously got on her own, since I very carefully made sure that I didn’t directly represent myself as a licensed law enforcement or national security operator. She was a law abiding citizen and thus her phone included a legally mandated sealed lifecorder functionality, so all our conversations were potentially subject to a subpoena.

I had a lifecorder, too, of course. But mine was actively paranoid, highly aggressive and utterly illegal. It was encoded with a shard of my personality, which in itself was a class I felony and would land me in one of the gitmos faster than I could say “don’t shoot, I’m unarmed!”.

What can I say, in my line of work you can’t be overly risk-averse.

Distributed

Charlotte had a distributed boyfriend.

It made her life much easier and better. Finding one person which would meet all her requirements turned out to be a rather daunting task. So she abandoned it in favour of relying on selected aspects of her many friends and lovers.

And it worked like a charm. But when the Blight came and shattered the net, it turned out that keeping one’s relationships in the cloud may not have been the best decision, security-wise.