"So Dan and I stayed in Russia for a few days and got a nice vacation out of it. I don't remember much from that first night we landed. Everyone out on the runway wanted to buy me drinks. I probably wrecked more of my liver that night than I have the rest of my life… underage drinking included," she deadpanned and tossed back the rest of her wine.

I closed my mouth, realizing it was hanging open slightly. The rest of the table was listening to her story, on every word. Chimso snapped his fingers.

"Hah! I remember that now. You flew into a volcanic cloud, didn't you? Some mountain blew its top and you were unlucky enough to get caught in it."

She looked up and nodded, "Do you remember the name of it?"

Chimso looked thoughtfully at his plate of food before looking up with a scrunched nose. "No," he admitted woefully, "I don't."

"Derevnya Klyuchevskoy," she said, savoring the rolling Russian coming off her tongue. "Derevnya Klyuchevskoy. You don't forget the name of something which almost kills you, ever."

Chimso continued to share his information. "The micro-ash clogged the engines and sand-blasted all the surfaces. That's why you couldn't see anything on either the FLIR or the windscreen. And the St. Elmo's fire was from static charges building up."

"That was probably the coolest experience of it all: the St. Elmo's fire. It was amazing. Hauntingly beautiful, completely unreal. If I hadn't seen it I wouldn't've believed it existed at all."

She looked up at me and deep into my eyes for a second.

"Some experiences are once in a life-time things."

I got the chills at the multiplicity of what she was talking about. My mind began to race and I found myself winking at her. She smiled a sweet secret smile and turned back to Chimso.

"So, yeah, I did that for a few more years. I still love flying but I decided I wanted to be on the ground and work in nano-nursing because it'd always fascinated me." She gave a quick musical laugh. "Look at me now, I'm in geo-orbit. So much for keeping my feet on the ground."

The table dissolved into laughter at this remark.

We were quiet for a bit, eating while waiting for someone else to come up with a new topic. I put my silverware down, thought for a second and decided to find out everyone's political affiliation in one quick blow.

"So has anyone gotten any Skub mails in their e-nexuses lately?"

The table dissolved into a quick mishmash of cross-conversations and anecdotal stories. Most got quiet fast and listened as Stephen talked the loudest. I think it came naturally for him, being a politican.

"Now, I get vids from Skub on a regular basis. I run an IP trace and can't find anything except it coming from botnets. Its miserable that no-one can find out who these people are and who are sending it."

Jon interjected. "Now, Stephen, you know as well as I do that Skub is set up with cells that don't know one another. CI-Pact has tried its hardest but…"

"But what? For all we know, Skub is inside CI-Pact and OpSec itself. Skub commandments are set up so operatives are encouraged to be hypocritical. They want to bring about the old era, pre-computers and nano-tech. They say all wet-ware hardware interface is an abomination before God. You know this, its in all their spam." He stopped to take a bite of his lamb.

Jon had put his fork down to listen to Stephen. He now spoke up again, "I don't think Skub is a big threat to the CI-pact. They've only had one success, in Dallas, and that was fifty years ago. I know that they're hoping that the Zheng He will fail, too, but we won't let them." Jon looked around quickly. "Right?"

Everyone agreed with Jon. I looked down at my plate while doing so. I'd known that operational security had stepped up around the Zheng He but hadn't really discussed it with anyone else. It was like any other hazard of life up here: you lived with it in the back of your mind and didn't speak about it or you'd go crazy and rock yourself back and forth in a fetal ball from fear.

I tuned in again. Mary was talking. "…know its not politically correct but I do think that Skub has a point. It's a bit reactionary and over the top but there is something to be said for what is natural and what isn't natural. Especially now that humans can live to be 150, 200 years old if they're careful about not getting run over by anything or falling into vacuums."

Vira broke in. "Well, it's the same thing about technology. Humans are animals. Anything we do is natural and anything that we create is part of nature. Our arcos are just like an anthill except made out of steel. And on a much bigger scale."

"I can assure you," Jon laughed, "humans are still quite fine with their original animalistic instincts."

"I agree with Mary," Stephen commented, "I'm a bit religious, as outdated as it is. The idea comes down to this: if you believe in God then you believe that we're his creation. What right does a creation have to imitate its creator? Hold on," he said, putting a palm up to Jon's wanting to make a remark, "let me finish, sir. If he put into our genetics a trip code for a natural death at the end of 80 years, as it seems to me he has, then I believe we should follow that and not ask questions. Now, sir, you may go ahead," he waved his hand to Jon.

"It says in the bible that God created us in his own image. We are equals and should have the chance to become Gods ourselves if we can make it. If he coded us to have a natural death he also put in the program to elongate our lives with technology. You can't squint at a picture and say because of one area the rest of the picture must conform. See the forest, not the trees."

I found myself nodding as Jon talked. Stephen looked like he was about to retort but then decided against it. "Well, I believe for tonight we will have to agree to disagree. I am of the mindset, from life's teaching me over and again, that God is real and that we will answer to him one day."

Jon nodded, "I agree to disagree. I've been taught in life, over and again, that if God does exist he's not going to conform to any preconceived notions that humans have decided he has. Stephen, where were you when Skub attacked Dallas?"

"Woah, woah, woah, did I say I agreed with Skub?"

"No. I only asked where you were, not if you agreed with them or not."

"I was in New York at the time. We lost about 5% of our electronics and our grid for a week."

"I was in Houston visiting family. I saw the fireball from there."

"You saw the nuke go off? Wasn't it 400 kilometers up?"

"Yeah. It looked brighter than the sun, I'm lucky I didn't see it at the point of detonation or I'd probably have lost some of my vision. In any case, the EMP knocked out every streetlight, set off a city's worth of burglar alarms, fizzed all car computers, fried every hard drive and motherboard and then did some damage."

Vira commented quickly before Jon got too worked up, "I was in Oregon at the time. We saw northern lights for two weeks from the geomagnetic storms that set off. It was beautiful."

Jon raised his eyebrow at her, "Beautiful? Hundreds of thousands of man-hours wrecked, three years' of rebuilding, and trillions of dollars' damage to electronics?"

"I didn't say any of that was beautiful," she pointed out, "I only said the ionosphere's fragmentation was gorgeous."

"Vira, you see too much good in everything."

"Thanks. It's a bad habit of mine."

There was another quiet moment as every concentrated on their food. My lamb was pretty good, considering it was freeze-dried reconstituted food. Still, the CI-Pact knew from research that good food is important to morale, like proper sleep or hygiene.

The conversation splintered off as individuals talked to one another in small groups of two or three.

Stephen was arguing with Jon over the merits of wetware/hardware interface and if human imposition on nature's design was still part of nature or not. Mary and Celeste were listening to them closely. Their kids, Jessica Sid and Will were talking about the upcoming voyage and what they were planning on doing for the month's long journey. Chimso was entertaining Alfred with more details of Vira's flight and branched off from that story into a personal anecdote when he had been interested in earning a private pilot's license. Vira looked over at me and smiled.

"You're han. Like, as in, Han Chinese. I know you're name is Han."

"Yeah, I am. I grew up in the southwest United States though."

"What was that like? I'm from Minnesota, awfully cold and flat. The polar winds come down fast enough to blow over 18-wheeler rigs."

"Wow. We didn't have anything like that. Maybe a few tornados if we were unlucky during spring."

"Was it hard?"

"Hm?" I asked, pretending I didn't understand.

She rolled her eyes, put her chin down and looked up at me under her eyebrows.

"You know what I'm talking about."

"Yeah, okay so I do. We didn't get much remarks or trouble about being Han in Texas. The CI-Pact has embassies and e-nexuses designed to counteract any problems their, um, 'preferred' citizens have. For lack of a better term."

"Realistic of them."

"The only place they don't have any real presence is in the Middle east. But no-one has any real reason to go there anymore, not after all the hydrocarbons dried up. Its as barren as it was a thousand years ago. Most of the CI-Pact's officals believe in containment: as in, let the tribalism tear the region apart if it doesn't affect us. Except for the weapons sales."

"Again, realistic of the CI-Pact. I know that the EU and UN voting members decried it awhile back as inhumanitarian but that motion never made it to the CI-Pact's senate."

I nodded. "Yeah. Doesn't help that most of southern Syria and Israel still glow at night. But that's completely another discussion and full of political landmines for me to trip over. I don't know the region's history well enough to get into who started what when and if it was rational or not. I know that the energy wars of the 21st century just kinda degraded really fast after the US pulled out financially fifty years or so. They couldn't afford their war machine with peak oil."

"Most of the Middle East still gets access to eastern EU's powergrid if they want it," she asked, "right?"

"Only if they're meeting CI-Pact standards which, most of the time, they aren't. The fusion plants certainly can handle the excess drain and there isn't much to power but, at the same time, it's a matter of Chinese interests over an area's interests which hasn't behaved well since, uh, ever. Chinese people are some of the most pragmatic in the world. They have to be as the oldest continuous civilization in the world. Except maybe India, but let the historians fight over that one."

We heard a clinking noise as Jon stood, tapping his wine glass with a fork.

"Attention, everyone, thank you."

"I'd like to say to everyone, 'Good luck' and 'godspeed' as we come into the last few weeks. I am off to retire, I suggest you do the same. See you soon, Celeste and kids."

People stood up as he gave a wave and headed out the door. As I brought my dirty plate to the conveyer belt I felt a nudge behind me. Vira had bumped me with her elbow. I put my plate down and stood off to the side to let others dump their cutlery and dining ware off.

"Hey, Han, do I get a goodnight hug?"

I grinned, "Sure."

I held her tight, a half-second longer than a friendly hug and squeeze her shoulder as we backed out of the hug. Her hand slid down onto my forearm from my back. She turned to go out the other door, her fingers trailing down my arm, and I saw her eyes contently smile at me as if she had a beautiful secret.

I got goosebumps.