Strangers on a Plane
"Boarding group 'A', you may board at this time."
Vince picked up his bag and shuffled into line. Since his last flight was overbooked, he took the offer to get bumped to the next flight and the free drink vouchers. He could afford to be a tad late on this first leg of the trip. He could afford being late getting home, too; there was no one to go home to anyway. His girlfriend got transfered to Paris six months ago and the relationship didn't survive the distance.
Being in sales, he traveled a lot, but he never had much choice in the locations. His beat was APAC, so he spent most of his time crossing the Pacific or hopping between the tech centers which littered the continent. Making a quick weekend jaunt to Paris wasn't really an option. After a while, the phone calls lessened, the emails dwindled and things just took care of themselves.
"Sir, your ticket?" The woman at the gate smiled banally at Vince, bringing him out of his thoughts. He fumbled quickly for his ticket, finding it in his inner suit coat pocket, and handed it to her. She looked at the bar code at the top of the ticket, the faintest of red-eye showing within her pupils, and handed it back to Vince. "Thank you, Mr. Kenesviki. Have a nice flight."
Vince took the ticket back from the 'bot behind the counter. He knew immediately. No 'bot could pronounce his last name correctly, and no human would attempt it without pausing. He put the ticket back in his coat pocket and walked down the tunnel towards the plane. Back in line again, but now with the heat of the San Diego summer filtering through the thin plastic walls around him, he took his coat off and hung it over his shoulder. He looked forward to getting to Beijing; their climate control was so much more sophisticated than the National Weather Service.
"Excuse me, you dropped this?" Vince turned to see the woman behind him holding a ticket. She was about his age, early twenties, with short blond hair pulled up into two pony-tail tufts on either side of her head. She wore the standard fashion of the day: white baby-doll t-shirt, no bra (that he could tell; he didn't dare study too long) with a faded denim vest tailor-cut at the bottom and cut wide at the top as sort of a poor-man's corset. The effect on her bosom was not unnoticed, although it did make it difficult to tell what was her and what was part of the vest. Her hip-hugging white shorts were cropped above the knee and white sandal flats showed off her red toenail polish. She was still looking for an answer, though, and pushed the paper closer to him. "This fell from your coat."
"Oh?" was all Vince could muster. He quickly checked his coat and yes, his ticket was missing. "Thanks." he said simply, taking the ticket back from her.
"I'm Molly. It's nice to meet you, Vince." she said casually. Her hand moved from where it was holding the ticket to offering a handshake.
Vince shuffled his jacket and bag between his arms to oblige. "Nice to meet you, too." he said, shaking her hand quickly. Vince turned back to the line, stepping forward to the edge of the plane.
"That's an interesting last name you have; I saw it on your ticket. Is it pronounced 'Kenevski'?" she asked as she followed and stood close behind him.
Vince startled for a second and glaced back at Molly; he was not accustomed to hearing his last name, spelled 'Kenesvki', pronounced correctly the first time and with such conviction. He nodded to the flight attendant who was saying hello to any humanoid shaped object that passed in front of it and continued onto the plane.
All airlines used 'bots these days, mainly for the security of the passengers. Since the Quantas Incident, when the one 'bot flight attendant disarmed and killed three would-be terrorists without allowing any of the passengers or human flight crew to be hurt, 'bot flight attendants were practically required. Legend says she didn't even spill any of her drink service.
"So, where are you headed?" Molly kept asking, not deterred by Vince's lack of response as he scooted sideways down the center aisle. "I'm heading to Beijing. I am meeting up with some friends there. We met online. We are going to see the whole country!" she hopped to accentuate the last word. "Are you going to Beijing, too?"
"We all are; it's a plane to Beijing." Vince made it to a row near the back of the plane without the window seat taken and slid into the far seat. He liked to sit near the back so he could let the engines rock him to sleep. Thank goodness for Southwest's seating policies. It was one of the few advantages of the latest rounds of budget cuts. It was a shame to lose his miles from the last preferred carrier, and Southwest did tend to overbook flights, but again, that didn't bother him.
"I know, silly, but you could be connecting to another flight." Molly sat down in the empty seat next to him.
Well, she did have a point there. "It's Beijing." He bent forward to push his small carry-on under the seat in front of him. Sitting up, he looked at her again. "So, how did you know how to pronounce my last name?"
"I dunno. It just looked like how you'd say it." She was rubbing the tops of the armrests of her seat, feeling the texture of the warn fabric.
"First time?" Vince asked. It felt corny, even at the time, but he was curious.
"No, I've flown before, but I've never had seats, um, this nice before. Sorry, I'm a little excited."
"Not at all," Vince waved a hand in reassurance. "I fly so much I guess it's lost its charm. It's kind of nice to see the experience through new eyes again."
She smiled back and leaned forward to shuffle through the safety pamphlets and free magazines in the pocket of the seat back. Well, thought Vince, if I'm going to be stuck on a plane for three hours, at least I'll have some interesting company.
He took the advantage of proximity and her attention elsewhere to look at her more closely. She was in excellent shape, that was sure. He knew the effort it took to stay in shape. One of the advantages of traveling as much as he did is the use of many good hotel workout rooms. Not just for the chance to work out, but to watch other travelers do the same. He was always amazed at what some women would wear for workout clothes. He always figured some women worked out in public for the chance to show off their bodies, and it would be a shame if he ruined their intentions by ignoring them.
Leaned forward as she was, the gap between her top and shorts made it pretty obvious that she wasn't wearing any underwear. The small of her back made an inviting transition to the cleft of her bottom as it disappeared beneath her. His eyes started their examination up her back when she bolted upright.
Vince was caught and he knew it. He looked her in the eye while blush filled his cheeks. She smiled, as if she appreciated the attention, and glanced around. "Do you mind?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I really didn't-" Vince hoped he could smooth this over. Any trouble, any at all, even harassment of another passenger, and the flight attendants would throw him off the plane. There was even one right behind them, tagging overflow carry-on baggage for stowage in the cargo compartment below.
"No, not that, silly. Do you mind?" She leaned forward slightly, turning her back towards him, and nodded towards her back.
Vince, still somewhat startled, wasn't sure what she meant at first. Then he saw the zipper running down the back of her vest. It would seem the buttons on the front were ornamental. He tentatively reached for the top of the zipper as he looked towards her eyes. She nodded again, and he grasped the zipper top and pulled downward slowly, unconsciously savoring the action. He could feel each catch of the mechanics of the zipper come undone. Reaching the bottom, he flicked the two sides of the zipper apart and released his hand.
"Thank you!" She shook her shoulders, letting gravity pull the vest off of her front and off her arms. Folding it neatly, she set it in her lap. "You have no idea how uncomfortable that is. There is no way I could survive this flight trussed up like that."
"Happy I could help." was all that Vince could think to say. His eyes were drawn to the front of her plain white baby-doll t-shirt. It was now entirely obvious she wore no bra and her vest had no padding.
"I'm so excited!" She bounced in her seat, unable to contain her excitement. Her chest bounced as well.
Vince didn't hear what she said; he was praying for turbulence.
The overhead speakers clicked on. "Attention passengers, we have an over-booked flight. Please stand by."
Molly's expression went from jubilation to concern in a split second.
"Don't worry; you have a seat." Vince tried to reassure her, but it didn't look like it was going well. "They won't take it away from you now."
Molly did not look convinced. One of the flight attendants walked past, escorting another passenger towards the steps down into the cargo compartment at the rear of the plane. The passenger, a woman in her mid-thirties in a smart business suit, did not look happy.
One of the other stewardesses stopped by Molly. "Miss Anders? I'm sorry, but the flight is overbooked," she said while offering a blue card to Molly.
Molly pleaded with the flight attendant. "Please, no, don't do this to me. I have no one who will know to find me. I will take me days to get out of claims."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but the terms of you ticket clearly state-"
"Is there a problem?" Vince looked past Molly to the flight attendant who ignored him. She still stood there, paper in hand.
"I'm really sorry, Vince," Molly said as she put her vest back on and turned for him to zip it back up, which he did so reluctantly. "Can I ask one more favor of you?"
"Sure," he replied, "What can I do?"
Molly took the paper from the attendant, ripped it down the perforated center, and handed one half of the claim ticket to Vince. "Don't forget me."
Taking the rubber band now offered to her by the attendant, Molly wrapped the other half of the paper around her left wrist and held it in place by the rubber band. Nodding to the attendant, Molly followed her to the rear of the plane where both descended the steps into the cargo bay.
The person who took Molly's seat, George, an older man from Denver, at least was quiet so Vince could sleep. Vince's dreams were odd to say the least. He remembered lots of zippers. He awoke as the flight attendants were preparing the plane for landing. He recognized the attendant passing his seat row as the one who escorted Molly to the under body of the plane. "Miss?"
"Yes sir, can I help you?" the flight attendant answered.
"Um, what..." he showed the claim ticket to the attendant, not quite sure how to phrase the question. Sure, he could wow a hardware store owner to carry his companies line of bathroom fixtures, but he had little clue about what to do with this.
"No, not yet, sir. You can claim your autonomous companion at the claims lounge. You'll find it near the baggage claim at the terminal." she explained in a pleasant even tone. He imagined it would have been well-practiced if she weren't a 'bot herself.
"First time traveling with your 'bot?" George asked. It was the first thing he had said to Vince since the plane took off.
"Well, kind of. She's not mine. She was just sitting here before you."
"So how'd you get her claim ticket?"
"She gave it to me?" It was more of an answer than a question, but when he said it, it had a questioning uncertainty to it.
George's eyes perked up. "Really? Of her own free will?"
"I guess so. I didn't ask her for it. She just, you know handed it to me. Said it'd be a favor."
"My boy, you have no idea what kind of a golden ticket you have there. She could have given that to the airline and they would have released her after 48 hours. But since you have her ticket, she's yours."
"I don't understand. Mine?"
George nodded. "The airline won't release her unless it's to someone who is encoded into her systems as an owner. She must not have had one and chose you. All she would have needed would be your name and a picture. She can take the picture herself and I'm guessing you gave her your name."
Of course she had his name; she could even pronounce it. "You mean I'm her owner now? I'm responsible for her?"
"Yep, for the next 48 hours at least. That's the minimum time before she can change ownership again."
The two men sat in silence as the plane touched down onto the pavement. Vince was stunned. It didn't seem possible. First he was flirting with a cute young woman, then she was a 'bot and now she's his 'bot. At least for the next two days. He wasn't even trying to do anything more than have a fun conversation and let his eyes wander.
"Look, son, you seem worried." George shook his head and gave a grandfatherly grin. "Don't be. She knew what she was doing. She knew the consequences. Unless you are a jerk, and I don't think you are, you'll treat her right and you'll have a good ownership experience."
A good ownership experience? "So, what, do you work for a 'bot dealership?"
George's smile deepened while his head dipped forward slightly in self-enforced humility. "Something like that." He looked up, making eye contact again. "Anyway, I'll be headed to the lounge, too. I have someone to retrieve myself." The plane had landed and taxied to it's gate, and George stood up to wrestle his carry-on bag from the overhead bin.
Vince slipped the claim ticket into his pocket and slipped his briefcase from underneath the seat in front of him and slid sideways into the aisle seat. There they waited in silence for the other passengers to disembark so they could as well. He kept finding himself glancing back towards the hatch in the floor where Molly had disappeared.
The baggage claim area was just like you would expect it to be, flat serpentine belts which contained no luggage but was surrounded by a throng of expectant travelers. As Vince descended the escalator towards the claim area, George leaned back to him. "Do that last; they always get the 'bots out first."
Vince followed George through the baggage claim area towards the offices on the other side. There were two doors. The one on the right, labeled "Lost/Unclaimed Luggage", led to a glass enclosed waiting room. The other, labeled "AC Lounge", had a smartly dressed young Asian woman stationed in front of it. George flashed a blue bar coded claim ticket to her.
"Welcome to Beijing, Mr. Havaner," she said in a slight Chinese accent as she opened the door.
"Thank you, ma'am," he replied as he entered the door.
Vince showed his claim ticket to the 'bot as well.
"Welcome to Beijing, Mr. Kenesviki." The beginning of the statement was not a recording of what was said to George; this bot had some decent personality. The mispronunciation of his name, as usual, broke the illusion.
Vince was not quite sure what to expect on the other side of the door, but what he did find was not that strange, really. A modest room with out of fashion industrial looking chairs, not unlike the ones found outside the airport's gates, lined the walls. There was a small table in the center of the room which had a half dozen airline magazines in theft proof covers. The room's inhabitants were ten or so women, mostly young but all beautiful in their own way, either sitting and chatting or milling about. George was talking to the woman who was escorted to the underbelly of the plane before Molly was taken below.
"Vince!" Molly saw him before he saw her. "I knew you'd come!" She skipped to his side and hugged him. "I knew you'd figure it out and come to my rescue!"
"So this is the one, eh? This is your Molly?" George stepped up to the couple. "Hello, Miss. George Havaner, at your service." He took Molly's hand and bent to kiss it.
Molly's eye's almost popped out of their sockets. "THE George Havaner?! Oh my GOD!" She pulled her fingers from his hand and nearly tackled him in her attempt to hug him. "Oh thank you thank you! I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you!"
Vince was looking at the scene his charge had made with George and was trying to figure out what he had missed. The smartly dressed business woman walked past George and held out a hand to Vince.
"Margaret Havaner. Pleasure." Vince took it and shook. He knew it was somewhat customary for 'bots to assume the last name of their owners but there was a tone in her voice of it being more than that to her. "Molly has told me, well, to be honest, almost nothing about you." Vince took the moment to get a good look at Margaret. Very good looking for woman in her late thirties, with obviously mature but healthy hips and well proportioned butt and chest. Well, maybe an over proportioned chest. Hard to tell in her suit. Her brown hair was cut short, slightly longer than a classic bob cut, but it framed her tanned face well.
"Well, we met on the plane. Not much else to tell."
"Of course there is." George, now released from Molly's enthusiastic hug. "He's my newest sales recruit."
"Fuck, George, you can't keep doing this!" Margaret's face fell from its previous leery expression towards Vince to one of exasperation towards her apparent owner. "We have plenty of 'bot sales people. We don't need more."
"You mean Vince is going to come work for you? That's fantastic!" Molly started bouncing and clapping in excitement.
Any blood flowing to Vince's brain to figure out what the three of them were talking about immediately took a detour to his crotch.
"Look, Marge, he befriended Molly and convinced her that he was trustworthy in the time it took to board the plane. And he has sales experience already. That's why you are here in Beijing, right?"
Vince nodded, somewhat dumbfounded. "How'd you know?"
George grinned. "I know. Come, Margaret, we have to get going. We need to get to the hotel if we want to get our room reservation changed." He headed towards the door to the lounge.
Margaret followed him quickly. "Reservation changed?"
George paused in the open doorway. "Sure. From a one to a two bedroom suite. These two are staying with us now." He turned to Vince. "Your training starts immediately if you're to be ready to represent Havaner House, the finest companion dealerships across five continents! Vince, welcome to the company!"