As always, the traveler felt guilty about enjoying herself when there
was so little, objectively speaking, in which to take pleasure: it was
the slow departure from everyone and everything that turned her on. In
fact, she made a point of never confiding to her family how these long
jaunts from home and hearth represented a form of self-renewal simply by
virtue of how they plunged her, outbound and fiercely awake, into the
sense of being someone else.
With the compartment dim so that the starlight could lance her eyes more
deeply, she gazed into the limitlessness and welcomed the continuous
stream of quiet thrills it offered. This was not the first time she had
taken the galactic shuttle, and, as on previous occasions, she loved the
gliding rush of it all. Just inhale, then exhale, and in that brief
interval she was occupying millions of different locations in these
black corridors, thick with vacuum.
Of course the opportunity to meet new people, but not be bound to them,
was part of travel’s pleasure as well. And thus it was with a certain
amount of non-anxious expectation that the traveler tapped the
open-channel command on her console to indicate she was online.
Immediately she was hailed by a fellow passenger who had been paired
with her based upon their pre-boarding intent-screens.
The traveler activated the audio link so that they could speak but kept
the cam-link closed—not to be rude, but to preserve a kind of natural
ladder of acquaintanceship. Eventually they might meet in, say, the café
sector, but for now she was content to be faceless. Meanwhile, the
stranger began the friendly overtures that would render him no longer a
“Head still swimming from the intent-screening?” his voice asked.
“No, I’m used to it,” remarked the traveler, and then added a
clarification so as not to seem brusque: “I travel quite a bit, you
Commenting that the same was true of him, the stranger replied that, as
a result, he was apt to hear the strangest of tales…
It seems there was once a planet (the stranger began) that, in its
efforts to curb criminal acts on intra-atmospheric flights, had actually
screened the physical bodies and possessions of travelers. In this
practice, which clearly demonstrates how backwards this society must
have been, anything brought aboard was inspected via magnetic resonance
and other primitive technologies. Even subservient life forms were
deployed to detect unauthorized substances in these “air-ports,” as they
Lacking the elegant solution of the intent-screen, this planet’s
governing body engaged wrongdoers in a cat-and-mouse game involving the
general population, which it dared not trust. Travelers were obliged,
for example, to remove electronic hardware from its housing and isolate
it along with various items of clothing. At one point an individual
removed several of his teeth and constructed an ad hoc weapon by
attaching them to a specially designed comb. Consequently, taking
bitewing x-rays became standard procedure.
With escalating efficiency, the state prohibited personal adornments
such as jewelry, eyeglasses, and prosthetics. Over time these were
joined by flammable objects such as paper-based books, or hair, as well
as metals of any sort, even those required by communication devices.
Compelling its customers to disrobe entirely and submit to an exhaustive
body search had, of course, a detrimental effect on the travel industry,
but security advocates politely insisted that there were no feasible
And then a great wave of infections washed over the land. The confined
spaces of the aeroplane became powerful disease vectors, and soon the
only travelers were business travelers. Gradually, and perhaps because
the term “business” is so flexible, they themselves became commodities
shipped by their employers, items of import and export. Naked,
thoroughly shaven, and more than slightly chilled by the circulating air
currents in the cabin, they needed to be incessantly entertained and
At some point, and here the history becomes murky, a cultural shift
occurred and traveling itself became punitive. Since it entailed
subjecting oneself to an endless array of probes, degradations, and
surgeries over a period of days and weeks, the standard security
screening was meted out for crimes of mixed severity. In short,
evildoers were now welcomed as passengers rather than shunned. These
criminals, as well as those simply unfortunate enough to make air
reservations, were compelled to lie on conveyor belts that neatly
anaesthetized them, dismembered their corporeal beings, and placed the
parts in various plastic tubs which could then be scanned with greater
In its final stages, this system of humane and highly organized
slaughter became the preferred method of euthanasia. When one stated one
was “going on a trip,” friends and family would hold a spirited farewell
party before dropping off the beloved at a transportation center whose
towering smoke stacks were usually visible from miles away.
Upon finishing, the stranger laughed briefly and then, as if to cover
the grisly aspects of his tale with a footnote, added, “Who knows? All
of this may be pure rubbish…”
For the traveler, though, her head clearer than ever, such conjecture
was beside the point. She wanted to know how her intent-screening had
matched her to such a macabre and distasteful individual. Indeed, she
was still contemplating the matter worriedly when she abruptly went
offline moments later.
Almost instantly she returned her gaze to the darkness beyond until, in
time, she closed her eyes. Even then, though, she continued to look and
search and look and search despite the fact that, as she reminded
herself, there really was nothing to see.
Peter Gutiérrez's work has been published here and there for a couple of decades. A longtime writer for Rue Morgue, he’s had both a short story and a poem in the long list of Ellen Datlow's "Best Horror of the Year"; 2020 stories in Misery Tourism, Gone Lawn, and The Dark.