BEAUTIFUL STORIES FOR UGLY ARROWHEADS
Story by Monique Renee MacNaughton
NOTES PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6 PART 7 PART 8
PART 9 PART 10
This story, aside from involving you-know-what-aircraft, has no relation to my Arrowflight graphic novels - entirely different universe and continuity. It is based upon sentient aircraft characters I developed for roleplaying on FurToonia, my all-time favorite MUCK. A MUCK is basically a MUD without the hack and slash and little buttmunch powergamers who annoy everybody by killing their characters or doing something else really annoying. I cheerfully admit that a lot more yammering and schmoozing (not to mention 'tinysex') takes place there than does serious roleplay, but once in a while some amazing things can happen when two or more imaginative and intelligent players are participating in a real-time interactive plot being made up on the fly and you've got two or three character screens going and the pressure is on to perform. It's half rush and half riot and you never know if it's going to turn into a cliffhanger, a tearjerker or a gigglefest. Dakhaari and then Mitzlan were born and nutured amidst the gleeful chaos of MUCKdom's lounge lizard fellowship, fitting right in with the motley assortment of furries, clockwork robot dolls, cyborgs, cartoon characters and various and sundry entities inhabiting Tsar Alexei's realm.
Mitzlan is the focus of this story of course. This is her online character description:
If you are at all familiar with Canadian aviation history, you will think youFYI the 'drone' mentioned in that paragraph is that humanoid mechanical construct standing before the aircraft in the illustration at the top of the page. It acts as Mitzlan's social face and pair of hands and she can dress it up, too! (Like having a life-size remote-controlled Barbie doll with sensory feedback that you can speak through). "Mitzi" and Dak are natives of the planet Lissei, part of a large galactic consortium of worlds in an alternate universe in which Earth makes contact with alien civilizations in the mid-20th century and moves towards joining their federation as the new millenium dawns. Since the aliens' first contacts here were with the UK, Canada and Europe and they had some rather nasty encounters with the U.S. national security community, it looks like the Commonwealth and the Europeans are going to be the primary beneficiaries of this new alliance and the U.S. for once may be left out in the cold as the rest of the world says "We don't have to play with you any more. We have new friends with neater toys and a much bigger sandbox!".. Like a spoiled child who's just been told that he cannot have all the candy, the U.S. interests are on the verge of throwing an international tantrum with potentially explosive consequences. Against this backdrop an unemployed military 'aerocyber' takes what is supposed to be a minor chorus position in an aerial dance company and by a combination of many factors finds herself thrust into the center spotlight, there to contend with relentless media attention, peer jealousy, supernatural visitation, the fears and challenges coloured by her own cultural outlook and the mondo load of emotional baggage known to Canada's aerospace community as "Black Friday"
are seeing a ghost - until you see the size of it anyway. Mitzlan, ex-
military aerocyber, onetime aerial dancer and presently the worry person for
the travelling exhibitions of the Sharali Covenant Galactic Air and Space
Museum, now occupies an airframe which is a painstaking 1/2 scale replica of
an Avro Arrow, especially the one designated as #RL25203. The resemblance is
almost spooky and goes right down to the day-glo red patches and tail
flashes. Having started out as a strategic interceptor, Mitzlan settled into
this graceful, tall-standing body like a cat and never looked back. She also
has a drone, a metallic representation of a Druhihn female in various tones
of gray with long black hair and a black fringed jacket with silver conchos,
more of a dual-purpose model than either of Dak's. If you look underneath the
jacket you might see a Pufnstuf or Lidsville T-shirt, depending on the day.
Yep, she's a Krofftie!
ATTENTION! This text contains some PG-rated rudeness here and there; consider yourself warned.
This work is (c)1998 by Monique Renee MacNaughton. You may copy all or part of this work for private offline reading but please do not redistribute without my permission, or else I'll get H.R. Pufnstuf to loan me Cling and Clang so they can come over and bust you! Wouldn't that be a revoltin' development?
AND NOW, DA GOODIES....
PART ONE:What is courage now?The monsoon season always struck East Kolyena particularly hard. Bullet-like raindrops pelted ceramic-tile rooves, Nesri-wood shutters and bevelled-glass windows in torrential waves and their runoff gushed from the roof channels and eavestroughs like the output of a fire hose. The sky was a uniform shade of leaden mauve above the wine-red Lisseiji foliage which bent and creaked at the mercy of the fierce, gusting winds. Anyone with the sense Kaele gave a water-worm was ensconced securely indoors - the organics in their hold-lodges and the cybers in their own particular haunts. The aerocybers at Dr. Elcai's clinic passed the time sheltered in well-built hangars as the minds within their braincores conversed with one another, played games or surfed the planetary comm-net to relieve their tedium. Maybe if the rain and wind let up they might go out, later.
Is it just to go until we're done?
Men may call us heroes when
They can say we've won,
But if we should fail, how then?
What is courage now?
-- Leslie Fish, "Fellowship Going South"
Dr. Elcai himself stood within the glassed-over atrium of the clinic's central office complex, feeding the vibrantly scaled fish which schooled greedily at the northeast corner of the oblong fountain pool for the toasted beer-grain that trickled through his fingers. A bright green storm-drifter bird cawed stridently from the perch to which it was tethered. The elderly Druhihn male flicked a few of the seeds in its direction to quiet it down. He stroked one of his long, grey cheek-tufts, shook errant grains off of his long overtunic and undershirt and finally turned away from the pool, back to his own corner of the enclosure. The decision he was facing had to be made within the hour; although the terms of the offer had been most generous, something ancient and subconscious still expressed its apprehension at the prospect of recreating that which was both alien and four decades dead.
The final admission of Earth, or more exactly the British Commonwealth, into the Sharali Convenant was just another formality to the Lisseiji and their colleagues who were used to such things, but on Earth itself the power groups and factions which now felt left out insisted on making a controversy out of it. Would this proposal for a cultural exchange intensify that stress? The tour of Nuiit Galwian's reknowned aerial dance troupe, in and of itself, was not the problem. The 'costume' bodies for the aerocybers were another matter. The bodies that Dr. Rals Elcai, Lissei's foremost Doctor of Aerocybernetic Medicine, would be commissioned to create should he choose to accept this offer.
Oh, he should have seen it coming when the first batch of films from Earth were converted to universal holodisc format and redubbed into all the tongues of the Covenant and one of them, originally titled The Arrow, surprised even its own Canadian producers by becoming the most popular outworld film on Lissei. In retrospect it was inevitable on a planet where aviation was rated next to divinity and the appetite for tragic/romantic stories was insatiable - all the better if they were based on fact! Several moons later the communique Elcai had been half-expecting came from representatives of the cultural exchange program that was to coincide with the formal admission of the Commonwealth into the Covenant. They were planning the construction of six airframes - not merely costume bodies but half-scale replicas as close to the functioning capacity of the original ill-fated aircraft as Lisseiji engineering could make them. Only the expertise of Dr. Elcai and his staff (so it was proclaimed) could reach back into an alien past and recreate the CF-105 Avro Arrow as Mother Kaele had recreated her dead daughter Maithys from a shank of bone and a handful of the west wind. Elcai sincerely wished he'd had half as much as that to go on. It was the one thing that caused him to join multitudes of others in invoking Kaele's damnation on those particular Earthmen, both cowards and conspirators, who brought about the original's destruction and broke the will of a nation for years to come.
Elcai lifted his head from contemplation as he drew into his personal study. Kaii Nonis, the most promising of the clinic's current crop of interns, gave him an appraising glance and turned back to her design interface. There were two slots open for permanent residency at the clinic and Elcai had earmarked one of those for her. If he went for this project he'd need all the young, energetic whiz kids he could get. If he went for it. His leanings had been fuel for the local rumour mill ever since the formal announcement three weeks before. The interns, residents and technicals never brought up the subject at the clinic but he was sure they talked up a storm at the beer-halls and the juice-warrens afterward. Elcai sighed, turned towards the projector table and punched up a now painfully-familiar design, going over the exterior lines and curves which would not be as hard to reproduce as would be the internal construction and exact ratios of mass, thrust and lift which would convincingly bring the Arrow back from Earth's equivalent of the Highest Shore.
Kaii turned about and regarded the aircraft's contours with eyes not yet jaded from years of labour and professional politics. It was a classic Terran delta-wing configuration, with a canopy that opened clamshell-fashion, notches on the leading edges of the lifting surfaces and flaps generous in both width and movement. It encapsulated the state of the art of Earth's aerospace technology as it had been some decades earlier and could still be current if the flower had been allowed to thrive. Almost unconsciously she put out a hand and ran it down the image's dorsal features - she could almost feel it - as Dr. Elcai logged onto the planetary net and composed his formal response to the cultural mission's entreaty. At length he pressed "Send", leaned back and drummed his fingers on the hand-polished nara top of his workdesk.
"I hope I made the right decision," he sighed "for all our sakes...Kaii?"
"I will be taking on overall development and coordination of the project. As you are specializing in core-to-net interfacing I will delegate to you the task of core transfer and neural linkup as well as overseeing the adjustment period and performing periodic default checks, for which you will have to travel to Earth later. Nuiit Galwian and her troupe will be living in those bodies for a long spell, so they should be able to feel completely at home in them. Reconciling that with complete accuracy of outer detail will be a challenge, but should not be insurmountable."
Kaii frowned a little as she took a second look at the projection. "No holographic interface displays here?"
"None at all. Wouldn't be authentic. We'll have trouble enough hiding the sensory arrays and the external vocal output - not to mention the undercarriage motor drive. Unfortunately the dancers will have only their telepresence drones to accentuate their verbal communications but they do have some flamboyant ones..."
"That'll be hard..."
"Suffering for the sake of art, I guess." Dr. Elcai shrugged as he turned down the corridor, towards the administrative section which was the institution's outlet for hyperwave transmissions. At least now he had an excuse to pin down some engineers and others on Earth he'd been wanting to talk to, but wasn't quiet sure how a certain Jim Floyd would take to this.
The voice of Dr. Nonis came to her as if through water, rippling as her neural net struggled to adapt to the new pickups.
"Time to wake up." The voice was gaining clarity.
As Mitzlan fought her way up through the levels of consciousness, the world's sights and sounds continued to assualt her through a crazy funhouse-mirror filter, a side-effect that subsided only with the time it took to become accustomed to the new hardware interface. Only the neural dampers kept her from thrashing about in shock and disorientation. Once things sorted themselves out, the slim Druhihn female on the platform alongside Mitzlan's nose cut off the dampers and motioned to a pair of service mechs on the ground, who yanked away the chocks wedged before her tires. The doctor pressed a button to bring the platform down to ground level and stepped off, placing a light hand on the main column of her patient's forward undercarriage, urging her forward. No chains, sprockets or other modes of propulsion were visible on the outside of the authentic-looking landing gear, yet a cunning drive-train system concealed masterfully inside the shafts and hubs started up and brought her along, out of the hangar into the sunlight of the early hot season which was still lush from the tail end of the spring monsoons. Five others were waiting, already implanted into bodies which would be their only homes for the next two years. They had had some time to get used to their new situation and chattered with the ease of those long together. Five was the traditional number for an aerial dance company.
Mitzlan was the odd one out.
Since six were required for this engagement, Mitzlan had been recruited not because of any particular talent but because of her military fast-jet background, which meant that she would not require breaking in to the additional speed and power and could be relied upon to stay in formation. She was third in line, not a significant position in the Lisseiji didactic. The first and last were most critical. The others, coming as they did from the performing arts community, might as well have been outworlders so far as Mitzlan was concerned. In their conversations they giggled and squealed like little kits, but only to each other. They had never made any attempt to include her. The last-in-line, Tamrai, had been downright condescending. To The Cold with her, Mitzlan thought. If her air company had not had a falling out within the senior ranks and broken up, she wouldn't even be here right now. Desperation made one tolerate many outrages.
The young doctor enouraged Mitzlan to halt in the middle of the apron in front of the hangars. "Flex your control surfaces. I want to see that those are working right." Mitzlan obliged, flexing her ailerons, elevators and rudder to their full extent and noting a wide range of deflection. "Good," the woman continued "Now try your engines, just enough to taxi. The Druhihn stood back and watched along with the service mechs as Mitzlan tested her control over the two jet engines which, despite the noise, were only allowed to output the tiniest fraction of their normal thrust. Ah, at least the buggers have a kick to 'em... this didn't have to be a total drag.
"You've been pretty quiet so far. Any questions?" The doctor looked up at Mitzlan.
"Well... If I still had any..." Mitzlan had already reviewed the technical notes on the replica bodies. She wondered if the dancers had been as thorough.
"You can always get in touch with me through the lab prefix if something comes up" Nonis made an assenting gesture.
One of the dancers broke away from the pack and sauntered towards Mitzlan, who thought hard before looking at the number on her body's fuselage - ending in #1 in the Terran numeric system, so it had to be Nuiit herself. "Good morning, Mitzlan," the troupe leader paid her respects more out of professional decorum than affection of any sort. "How's the body feel?"
"Um ... not too much different from what I had before, except it's not on its last legs." Mitzlan replied in a noncommital tone.
"Good," Nuiit looked her over. Mitzlan took the inspection in the manner appropriate to one born to the military. The troupe leader pulled away. "We'll have to get some of that stiffness out of you," Nuiit stated, only half joking. "Can't have you flying like you're tied to a rod, eh?"
Mitzlan refrained from comment.
"Anyway, it's time you got to know the rest of the girls better. They can only be your friends if you let them. Come on over." Nuiit swung about and popped an aileron, beckoning. Mitzlan surrendered to the inevitable, hoping that Tamrai would be more interested in sucking up to her trouple leader than actively snubbing the new arrival. True to form, Tamrai did the closest thing to a snuggle that she could manage with Nuiit and spoke to her in a fashion Mitzlan thought a bit too familiar. Girl-bent, perhaps? It would come as no surprise to her at all. Nothing against it, but it ain't my draft of beer.
The other three were Lyhana, Riiu and Xahlys. Lyhana and Xahlys whispered and snickered to themselves behind Nuiit's back; Riiu maintained a taciturn, if slightly sullen, composure. Mitzlan in her worst bouts of paranoia imagined that it was her that they either gossiped endlessly about or judged behind inscrutable exteriors . Screw them if they're going to be like that. I just want to get through this with my core intact.
Mitzlan looked at all of them. Now she and they looked pretty much alike, but for patterns of black lines and/or patches of bright red on some of them. She had both, apparently. The characters on their sides were Earth-roman with 'Arabic' numerals, accentuating the otherworldly quality of these forms. Half-scale .... The real ones must have been bloody huge. Too bad about what happened to them. Recalling the cold words of the historical literature that had accompanied the orientation data, Mitzlan tried to imagine torches and powered saws rending those machines to pieces because those that ran the country turned on them and the industry and people who had created them. If aerocybers could have been nauseated, she would have been puking by now. Deshuuni was the Kolyenese translation of their name. What was the original English ... Arrow, that was it.
"Mitzee!" Tamrai's voice rattled Mitzlan's consciousness. Damn. I was having a perfectly good blue funk by myself.
"You look so goooood!" Why not hon, we all look alike now. "You know, it's just wonderful that you have the kind of background you do so that you don't have to break in like the rest of us did". It's wonderful that YOU have the kind of background you do so that we can see where snatchwings evolved from..."I'm sure we'll get along fabulously!!!" Not.
"It helps, Tamrai." Mitzlan had still not entirely reconciled to the first-name basis tradition of the peforming arts community. At least in a world of ranks she knew where she stood. In this sphere, a surface veneer of buddy-buddy camaraderie masked (in her view) a swamp of shifting loyalties and intense politicking. Give me a good air company any day. A pity that few other establishments had much demand for high-altitude interceptors. Maybe Nuiit does swing Tamrai's way. How else would she be Anchor?
"Tamrai dear, don't hog the girl. Leave some for the rest of us" Lyhana nosed in, smarm factor going exponential. "I'm sure you'll get to like it after a while. Why, they'll just love us down there. Like they hate their government." Lyhana sniffed. "Barbaric, wasn't it? Scrapping them all."
"You should know about barbarism, Hani," Riiu would have grinned darkly if she'd had the proper holographic display. "The way you buzzed Kalshiin Meis after his unfavourable review of us at Tuuarni?"
"Don't remind me. Please."
Xahlys apparently had nothing to say to Mitzlan right now. That suited her just fine.
Nuuit sighed. "Anyway... we should be starting taxi trials now. No flights today. Tomorrow we take an easy one. Everyone clear on that?"
Most murmured their acknowledgements. Mitzlan lingered on the apron a little longer, running through a systems check. Everyone could not stop telling her how lucky she was. This was an honour! Things could have been much worse for an interceptor cut adrift after her company fell apart. Nevertheless she experienced a profound unease every time she saw her present reflection, whether in a window or a puddle left over from the monsoons. Taking on oneself the likeness of the dead was no joke in Lisseiji culture, whether it had actually 'lived' or not. Mitzlan was never particularly superstitious or religious, yet she found herself intoning the Kelhien Ras, the prayer of atonement for offenses to those deceased... for whatever had resided in the Arrow and for those who had created it.
The small, gold-pelted Keti male in charge of ground operations at the home base of the Neshienan Tactical Air Company blinked twice as he read the missive from the Cultural Union. Why did it have to fall on his day to pick up the mail? He shrugged and relayed the message to its intended recipient. There. It should not be my problem. I'm just the messenger, all right, Dakhaari?. He had encountered her in passing earlier; she had not been in a good mood. When a Sieran tactical jet was not feeling especially charitable he stayed out of its way. Wait till she found out what they wanted of her...
He had been wise to keep clear of her this morning.
"Wha-a-at?!? Do they take me for a milk-sodden babysitter!?!" Fifteen tons of deep-red-and-angry stormed over the apron to the flight line, her twin rudders lashing like the tails of furious cats. "I got held back from leave for this?" She halted abruptly; the valves in her undercarriage drive letting off compressed gasses with a sharp, snorting sound.
That half-moon with Kintannon was looking more and more remote. The last thing she wanted after a long haul on Jierii was playing nursie to a bunch of dancers whom some bright mind had decided to put in overpowered fast-jet bodies as an interstellar publicity stunt - on a probationary world so bloody far away! The historical significance was as yet lost on her; she had only been back home only six days and had barely heard of the story behind it; she hadn't even seen the disc. The performing arts community of Lissei's aerocyber society could be as loopy and far-fetched as they pleased if only they'd leave her out of it.
The bipedal cyber who managed the air company's public affairs office apparently lacked the good sense of the ground crew chief. Jazarit half-stumbled over power cables, tool boxes, crates and ordnance as she ran after the irate jet and caught up with her. She hesitated for an instant; Dakhaari was still spitting boardnails. Having burrow-kits too.
"But this is Nuuit Galwian's company!" Jazarit shouted over ambient engine noise. "They're not just anybody and it's really vital to the Covenant. You're the only one of us here who speaks fluent English and knows something about Earth!"
"For Kaele's sake they could get themselves a rotting translator," the Sieran retorted. "And anything that can keep up with them could play shepherd. Which dung-for-brains agreed to this transplant anyway?"
Jazarit's head and voice both lowered, "I hear Dr. Elcai did the bodies, Dakhaari."
Dakhaari was still for a moment. Then from her issued a sound somewhat as what a nervous cartbeast makes. She remembered his hands, gnarled but steady, as they felt her chewed-up airframe and mangled innards in the wake of a firefight with a rotorwing on Jierii, a crazed adversary built of a stolen and brainwashed core and a contraband body that had almost finished her in a low-lying night fog. If not for him she would not be here today. What had possessed him to take part in this project?
"The-e-y... must have been very persuasive to bring him on board."
" You should just see the damn movie already." Jazarit withdrew a small holodisc from her shoulder bag and tossed it in the direction of Dakhaari's drone, which hovered an armspan away from the jet's nose. Its grappler shot out and snatched the item out of its parabolic trajectory. "But I'll tell you right now it's a real downer in the end."
Dakhaari scanned the graphics and copy on the disc's outer casing. Toviisa Deshuuni, the title was - translating literally as "The Arrow's Tale". "What is it with people? Do we have it so good these days that we get our crying jags vicariously? And from everywhere-rotting-else but this planet?"
"Search me..." Jazarit muttered, turning back towards her office.
"Bloody, stone-cold, scab-encrusted Hell..." Dakhaari snarled, to no one in particular. But her anger had no fuel for its fire now.
Mitzlan stood along with the other members of the troupe in the staging area adjacent to the docking bays at Tuuarni Spaceport, watching the interstellar liner Nhinale preparing to receive them into its main hold. Once inside they and their bodies would be secured inside padded transport frames on the cargo deck while their drones roamed the ship along with the smaller passengers. Nhinale would not be taking them on for a while yet, so she shifted her attention to the deep-red Sieran jet who also waited, with restive flicks of her rudders and elevators, for the starship to commence loading. Dakhaari, she had been told, had spent an appreciable period of time on Earth about four and a half turns back and knew the predominant language and culture better than any other aerocyber. She would be sharing their quarters and acting as the buffer between them and the locals while they were there. It was unusual for one designated as an attack/fighter jet to be filling a role more diplomatic than military, but not unprecedented. The Sieran carried no ballistics now but did appear to have her beam weapon systems intact. How naked would she feel without missiles?
At this time Mitzlan saw another aircraft approach the gate, heading towards Dakhaari. This one was a neat, elegant little gyroplane; the most popular type of rotorcraft on Lissei as they were easy keepers with respect to fuel consumption and, unlike helicopters, did not subject Druhihn passengers to torque vibrations which upset their finely-tuned equilbrium. This one, projecting with the voice and bearing of a masculine identity, was a two-toned profile of teal and white with the seal of the Rihoni Services Collective of Quyrr, East Ydreni emblazoned on its fuselage. He nudged as close as physically possible to the Seiran, in such a way as suggested that they were more than just friends. It struck Mitzlan as somewhat novel, even amusing, but it was Dakhaari's business and hers only.
Re-focusing on the other dancers, Mitzlan frowned inside herself at the sight and sound of Tamrai nattering endlessly away about nothing in particular while her girfriends hung eagerly on every word like pond-fish gobbling grain. During the last six yla Nuiit's erstwhile anchor-dancer's nerve-grating factor had only increased in Mitzlan's consciousness. It was a never-ending stream of variations on the themes of "Mitzlan, that's not the way we do it here" and "Mitzlan, tell your little tales some other time" and not an opportunity missed on Tamrai's part to wear her down to insignificance. What hyper-dimension was Nuiit living in while this was going on? She had come to realize that those who didn't suck up to the second-in-command and those who challenged her control of every conversation and her definition of all relationships would suffer along with "poor Mitzi". Or maybe Nuitt knew after all and didn't care...Dakhaari had only arrived yesterday, ill-humoured and unapproachable. The only bright spot Mitzlan could percieve in her current dilemma was that the Sieran, having sized up Tamrai in short order, apparently despised the little witch as much as she did.
"All embarking on Nhinale please prepare to board in five kalen!" the automated public address system blared, "Nhinale boarding in five kalen!"
Dakhaari and her chosen pulled apart at last; the troupe taxied towards the gate where a warden with marshalling lights directed them, two by two, onto a massive lift which would take them up and into the yawning rear cargo hold. Three weeks they would spend in there, one's nose between the exhaust cones of the last and next, until Earth's sun drew them near.
Dakhaari approached the lift with great reluctance, the last trace of Kintannon's private-channel caresses fading from her neural net. They had managed to get a couple of evenings together in the last few yla, sharing one another's essence in intense fusions of passion, coupling raw net to raw net rather than through the filtration of a virtual scenario. It seemed that she could never quite eat and drink her fill of him, or vice versa. They had even viewed the holodisc one quiet evening, Kintannon playfully heckling the action on the screen and switching the language track from Kolyenese to Ydrenic to gutter Keti dialects just to see how far out-of-sync the soundtrack and the mouth movements of the English-speaking human actors could possibly get, and Dakhaari feeling that the only thing she was really learning from this film was how much weight Dan Ackroyd had packed on in five years. So they built the bloody thing, everyone was duly impressed, someone thought it was too good and leaned on someone else to stamp it out, and they did just that. It was a story common to every civilization; Dakhaari saw no particular reason why the rest of Lissei should have gone for this angst-ridden epic with the same fervor that Japanese schoolgirls showed for Anne of Green Gables. That book had been part of her language study years before but it had been just a job, nothing more.
So she viewed the half-scale Arrows with a mixture of bemusement and discomfort, that ill-feeling originating from the deep reservations traditionally held about impersonating the ill-fated dead. Spending the next few yla crammed nose-to-tail with them was going to be hell. If anyone had no business taking on the Arrow's skin, it was Nuiit Galwian's anchor-dancer, a catty, self-indulgent tart by the name of Tamrai. Every time that female opened her mouth, Dakhaari's mind conjured up the image of a giant mollusc opening and closing its flap-hinged shell halves from here to absurdity. Dakhaari kept expecting the lead dancer to tell Tamrai to shut the hell up or at least say something, but correction was not forthcoming. The other dancers were either sycophantic or scared shitless of her. Then Dakhaari observed the way Tamrai had wormed her way into Nuiit Galwian's ... affections. That explained a lot.
The Seiran hung at the back of the group while a number of pallets were loaded ahead of them and braced for travel. With a little luck she might get the end-of-line position and some relief. Her optics glanced back towards the gate where Kintannon still stood in silence. A pity he couldn't come along. Now he could deal with people...
"Da-a-akeee!" a strident voice grated her pickups like steel across slate. She did not have to look or trace to know its source. Kaele spare me...
"Daki, why don't you come up with Nuiit and I?" Tamrai followed her voice over to Dakhaari's side.
No. Go away.
"Um - I rrrreally don't know what they've got assigned for us". And it's 'Dakhaari'. NOT 'Daki'.
"Well, you are the liason, after all.." Poutiness roiled just under the surface veneer of congeniality in Tamrai's manner. "I'd think that your assignment would be next to us, wouldn't it?"
"I believe that would be up to the cargo master." Dakhaari stated. "I'd love the opportunity to get acquainted, but placement would be their call to make."
Tamrai turned back to Nuiit "Couldn't we talk to them?"
Go ahead. See how far you get.
Nuiit Galwian sighed. Possibly it was getting to her. "I'm sure that Dakhaari would know best about that. She's travelled interstellar several times before, but this is the first trip for any of us."
"Pardon me, but they said she was going to be last."
Tamrai stiffened and turned around. Mitzlan, waiting her turn alongside Dakhaari, eyed her 'senior' unflinchingly while flexing an aileron in a slow, deliberate motion. "I saw the manifest when they were making it up. She's slotted with me and Xahlys."
"And that's the truth?"
Dakhaari found herself being hailed on a secure channel which only braincores of military grade were wired to receive. Play along. She won't do anything in front of you. Her inner eyes widened. Mitzlan?
Yes. And I'm telling them the truth by the way...
"Um - as a matter of fact I did get a look at that myself. That's right," Dakhaari assented, "We wouldn't want to give the cargo master any trouble..."
"We wouldn't want to tell them their job, after all." Nuiit agreed. Tamrai glowered but said nothing. "Anyway, we have the channels and the drones if we need to communicate. It's no hardship."
Dakhaari looked back at Mitzlan. Thanks. I owe you one.
No problem. Little Tam-Tam's gonna have a hissy of course, but hey, screw her. It's not like I'M making a career out of it.
Mitzlan - What are you doing here?
Keeping body and soul together. I was with the Dehai squadron. You know the rest already.
They were the last specialist unit in high-altitude interception and there's not much call for that anymore. A girl has to stay fed somehow.
That's true, but how can you live with that minx? I mean, the only reason the troupe leader tolerates her is that they're -
-Having each other, I know. Nuiit, for some mysterious reason, is as blind as a cave-snake when it comes to love.
She'll wake up to it one of these days. Won't be pretty.
I'm praying that day comes soon. Or now. But I wanna forget about her. Who was that gyro at the gate?
His name's Kintannon. We're... involved.
I know it's none of my business, but he is kind of cute.
And he's all mine, hah!
Hey, no argument there...
They're calling us ... better go.
Dakhaari got the spot she was hoping for, at the end of the line directly beside Mitzlan. With a secure channel available to them both it was easy to shut out Tamrai and her fawning section when the ambient noxiousness exceeded all bounds. This stint, or at least the trip there, could even be halfway bearable.
With the starship drive humming a dirge in the background, the group soon tired of seeing only each other and brought out their drones to roam the other areas of the ship. The drones belonging to the dancers were colourful, even bizarre extensions of their idiosyncracies in a way that Dakhaari's was not. Even Mitzlan's was other than the norm - a metallic simulacrum of a Druhihn female renderered in subtle tones of grey, with large magenta eyes and cheek-barres styled like lightning bolts. This drone also sported a head of blue-black hair - long, thick and straight - which was now arranged into a single braid down its back to keep it from tangling in the works when it went into storage within a compartment in the costume body that corresponded to the weapons bay on the original aircraft. It was attired in a simple shift of kavas cloth belted at the waist and flat-soled shoes. Mitzlan admitted that she'd bought it for the purpose of going about and seeking work after her company dissolved.
"I know it's a little much..." she admitted. Her drone echoed with a shrug.
"Actually, it suits you." Dakhaari reassured her "I always wanted one of the real fancy ones, you know? The lifelike models with full sensory input, even if the drivers tie you up completely while you're using them... But that's something you get once in a lifetime, for something really special..."
"Someone really special, you mean..." Mitzlan gave her a knowing glance.
"I suppose it would be like ... organics getting fancy underwear or really sexy clothes. A change of scenery, letting some other part of you come out to play for real rather than in a simulation."
"Oh, I get it. Loud and clear."
"I think Lyhana's is even louder, Mitz. Eight arms and Kaele, the head on it! Like an exploding sweet-root!" Dakhaari stifled a snicker across the channel.
"That's nothing. Tamrai's is the worst." Mitzlan snorted contemptuously, " That shade of green would make the Cold Ones puke. And what in hell does she need two dozen tentacles for?"
"Riiu and Xahlys have some sense, but they're too scared of Tam-Tams to admit it. Riiu's is a little baroque, but not outrageous. Xahlys has good taste, and Nuiit too, in every area but one..."
"Change the subject?...."
"How long did you stay on Earth the last time?"
"About a year. It was ... eventful. Kintannon was there too, on a job for his own people. We met for the first time there."
"How's the weather?"
"Where we're going, temperate. Four distinct seasons, one of them very cold. Have you ever been to the steppe lands or Nuura? Even colder."
"They didn't understand Lisseiji society when I was down there but it might be different now. We'll still be staying at some gods-awful fortress of an airport though. Any flights you make have to be scheduled in advance and the controllers are real sour-beers when it comes to sudden, unplanned moves. They're not equipped to deal with that. Better to take your drones to town and hang out there."
"But we don't know the language like you do."
"Well... you could learn. I still have some of the instructional grammars and phonetic modelling programs on file. I'll copy them for you." Dakhaari transmitted some files over to Mitzlan after a minute or two. "Share them with the others. We're going to be there a long time."
It was 4 a.m. EST when the Nhinale landed at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada. The facility nestled amidst a conglomeration of hotels, commercial establishments and what seemed like an infinite confusion of concrete highways where the small personal vehicles of the locals surged back and forth like streams of metallic blood cells. The seven aerocybers in the cargo hold woke from their travel-weary torpor as the ship's address system announced the details of the impending transfers to ground transport and then on to the customs counter. They themselves would be brought off in the same fashion that they had embarked, their progress eased through diplomatic channels, and escorted to the accommodations that had been prepared for them.
As they were guided off the lift ramp, the yells and noises of a small crowd echoed down the drizzle-slick tarmac. Restrained behind the gate were a number of humans of varying age, many with rain gear and umbrellas, plus a few with what appeared to be cameras and other such equipage, all jostling to get a glimpse of the troupe of the white aircraft with red patches that were being led over to the hangars. Gods, thought Mitzlan. It's too damn early in the morning... She was thinking mostly of a hangar, a stall and two days to recover from the effects of the long voyage. The lively throng of humans waved sheets of cloth and board-like materials with hand-scrawled messages spelt in a language and an alphabet she was only just beginning to make sense of. She scanned the roughly rendered signs anyway... W... E... L...C...O...M..E.. That much she was able to comprehend as a discrete word. She'd have to ask Dakhaari about the rest. Assuming that they were a friendly crowd, some form of acknowledgement wouldn't hurt. She blinked her running lights twice as she passed them by, and by random intervals the others followed suit. That brought on more noises. She hoped they were happy ones.
Looks like your public already awaits, Dakhaari murmured over the secure channel. They got up at some ungodly hour -ungodly for humans anyway - and stood there getting soaked to the skin just for the chance to see the six of you in person.
What nick of the turn is it anyway?
It's the middle of the spring. They call it "May".
Doesn't feel so warm...
It will be... in another moon.
The noise of the crowd faded into the distance as they reached their next goal. The huge, oblong structure was similar to the other hangars but showed signs of recently completed renovations. When the massive doors were opened, the troupe rolled into a red-tiled central court surrounded by partitioned areas along the walls, with power, fuel and network couplings at every station. There were eight in all. It had the look of permanence about it, obviously intended for a useful life far beyond the span of the dancers' visit. Of course the increasing number of aerocybers travelling to and residing on Earth made these changes inevitable.
The head of the ground crew spoke with Dakhaari, who alternated between him and a running translation for Nuiit's benefit. After several minutes he nodded and took his leave along with the other three. Nuiit turned to the others.
"This is going to be our home base for most of the next two turns. As you can see they've gone to great lengths to ensure that these facilities would be complete in time for us. Now, we'll have a couple of days to rest, but the next half-moon is going to be a busy one. Enjoy it while you can, girls."
Xahlys surveyed the stations, "Who's going where?"
Nuiit decided on the fly. "All being the same, the far corners are fine enough for Tamrai and me. You can haggle over the rest."
Mitzlan, acting quickly, claimed the left station nearest the door. Dakhaari took the one beside her. The rest sorted themselves out with quick negotiations and one or two little arguments.
Thank Kaele I don't have to stay next to Tam-Tams... Mitzlan groaned overchannel to Dakhaari.
Riiu has the stall next to her. Poor girl.
Riiu would have been anchor by now if Tamrai hadn't sucked her way in and given her all. Life ain't fair.
When has it ever been?
I mean, Tamrai 's an okay dancer but Riiu's one of the talented ones, and disciplined too. Burns my ass just thinking about it.
Nothing we can do right now. It'll sort itself out eventually, one way or another...
Things grew quiet again. No one would be much for conversation for the next six hours.
Mitzlan, drone-wise, was topping off her tanks. Her drone 's hair was now secured in a tight upbraid and its mid-thigh-length shift was marked here and there with lubricant stains and dust. Clothing, while unnecessary to its function, provided the machine with a semblance of normalcy which was more comforting to humans than the bizarre creations which reflected the other dancers' concepts of high style. As far as she was concerned it was better than having it go out of fashion next season. Good drones weren't at all cheap. The head hair was a bit of a frill, but it was formulated of durable non-tangling polymer fibres and topped off the device's appearance quite nicely. She had thought of getting other garments for it, but she didn't count on it being out in public often enough to justify such an expenditure.
After closing the valves, Mitzlan put away the fuel line, opened a venetian-blind hatch in the belly of her body and lowered a tubular container which was suspended from a standard military-issue pylon further inside. Her drone opened the bivalvular tube and climbed in, shutting the lid. The whole apparatus withdrew back into her fuselage, blending seamlessly and unnoticeably with the rest of the airframe. The lengths they'd go to give an impression of authenticity on the outside... no holo-interface even! Her drone was all she would have for visually accentuating her words. That was not required for relations between cybers, but she was now dealing with a planet full of humans here, or soon would be... later, I hope...
She backed out with care, turned about in the central court and headed out the great doorway. It wasn't quite like home with separate entrances for each occupant, but according to Dakhaari it was a considerable improvement over what she and her flight had to contend with on that visit some turns before. Dakhaari was lounging on the yellow-striped loitering zone surrounding this structure, along with Riiu and Xahlys. Nuiit and Tamrai were in the air, hashing out some tandem moves some miles east of the airport. Mitzlan was kind of glad they weren't around, if truth be told.
Dakhaari blinked a light in acknowledgement. Mitzlan swished an elevator. After wandering the extent of what they jokingly referred to 'the porch' (nothing much to see), she settled down beside the Sieran and settled a little on her undercarriage.
Mitzlan opened her secure channel. Morning. What's new?
Dakhaari presented her with an image of a handful of letters.
Oh. Enough mail already?
Yeh! Our intinerary for this month, the geography and weather, and ... your first fan mail!
Before we've even done one show?
It's got a lot to do with what you look like, hon...
Right... Mitzlan had been trying to forget that. The whole thing is a wake-dance... I don't know if the cultural guild should have left it alone or not.
Dakhaari noted Mitzlan's comparison of this exercise to certain Kolyenese funerary rites in which spirit-talkers put on whiteface makeup and costumes to invoke ancestral spirits and entreat them to welcome the deceased into the hereafter. Okay, if you're wake-dancers, where's the body?
Maybe we're begging to be provided with one...
You've been exposed to Tamrai too long. I wish she'd keep her damn superstitions and her mantras and her horoscopes and all her Kaele-knows-what-garbage to herself.
I'm learning that's not uncommon among show-business people. At least I haven't seen her tossing bones yet. What about this fan mail anyway?
Oh, some people telling their sob-stories about That Which You Look Like, falling into the general categories of Keep the Memory Alive, I Knew Somebody Who Worked There, I Saw It and One Got Away. And a couple of invitations and solicitations that Nuiit will have to look at.
She and her girlie-friend can have'em. I don't feel social at all. I don't even speak the lingo well enough.
Neither do they. I knew I'd end up being a glorified intrepreter.
Why'd you take the assignment then?
Let's say it was like ... returning a favour. A big one.
Mitzlan thought it best to change the subject. What's our schedule look like?
Dakhaari paused. The original text was in English. Hmmm... the troupe's first appearance is at an air show in a place called Hamilton, some distance from this place. Two-day event, so there's an overnight stay. That's a 'week' from now - like an yla, but reckoned in seven-day-cycles rather than nine. The year is five days shorter here than on Lissei. A moon is a 'month' and twelve of them make up a turn, or a 'year', as opposed to ten moons for us . Are you getting it so far?
Ding it into my head often enough and I'll remember eventually.
You'll absorb it. But you have to steep yourself into the culture to really get anywhere. Speaking of culture, don't expect the high arts community to turn up, at least not at first. Air performances are strictly beer-and-bread stuff on this world. Dakhaari indicated something appealing more to common than to esoteric tastes.
Nuiit can live with that, but Tamrai won't be happy
So? Screw her...
Rot! They're back already.
More of those on the ground heard Nuiit and Tamrai than saw them. Apparently something of the Arrow lived on in the replicas' afterburners as well as their appearances. Mitzlan, Riiu and Xahlsys received instructions to taxi out to the runways and join them in the air and applied to the control tower for takeoff clearance. Dakhaari followed discreetly behind and found an empty spot among a slew of small civil aircraft parked out in the open by the taxiway; from there she could observe them.
With Nuiit and Tamrai flying above them, the other three began with simple pattern exercises which gradually increased in complexity. Mitzlan was content to follow the others in the overall group routine, since that was her only function. The lead dancer and her anchor were traditionally the only ones to do extended solo manuveurs. Their formations shifted and waved in expressive undulations like the falanges of a sweeping hand. They were really something to watch once they warmed up. Dakhaari thought it a great shame that most of the subtleties of Lisseiji aerial dance movements would be lost on a Terran audience which was accustomed to rigid, discrete group movements punctuated by barrel rolls and dangerous stunts. Earth's ballerinas, after all, were not expected to leap through flaming hoops and over tiger-pits while on the stage. Risk was always there to be certain, but this was not a circus to Lisseiji, this was Art with a capital A.
Overhead, Mitzlan concentrated on the continuous feed of choreographic data from Nuiit's key program, funneling and reinterpreting it through her own core matrix and then on to her engines and control surfaces which adjusted trim and thrust to keep her in perfect synchronization with the other chorus dancers. They ran through the 'stormdrifter' and 'grass in the wind' moves which were part of the standard repertoire of every aerial dance company on Lissei and then on to the more complicated 'reef fish' and 'marshalling flock' routines. The latter would usually be more effective with a much larger group, but Nuiit was choregrapher enough to pull it off with only six. This sequence was intended to put spectators in mind of the ever-changing yet perfectly coordinated movements of birds gathering together before migration. It would be stunning... on Lissei. They had yet to find out if Earth people could get into it. The pilots among them probably would; the non-flyers might come to a loss. Nuiit, being no fool, was checking out the didactics of the native aerobatic form and would probably end up incorporating some of that structure to provide the audience with a frame of reference that they could understand.
The day was still early, bright and clear. Mitzlan's subjective horizon reeled with the blue and green that was Earth in the late spring, and the few puffs of white straying in from the west. The strong, attenuated shadows of her and the others raced slightly behind them on the grass and pavement below. One sun here, not two. The sky was azure, not gold-touched magenta. The foliage was verdant, not ruddy at this time of the year. It did turn vividly, Dakhaari had told her, with the coming of autumn, rather than drying and dulling as it did back home. And she still could not get it quite through her head that that delta-winged shape was her. The memories of her old body, though now on its last legs, were still potent. After this year she figured she'd have enough from her pay and pension to buy something new, if she did not find another company to take her.
They were high enough now that the clouds came between them and the green firmament. To the south, there lay the silicate gleam of a large body of water. To all other directions were highways, buildings of various heights, housing and odd green spaces. Mitzlan found herself staring directly at this alien landscape many times as she dived and rolled with the rest. What did they think of it? She had already overheard Tamrai's noisy disgust with the way that Earth's developments seemed to sprawl everywhere and encompass the land to the point that it forgot what it was like before the builders came. It was a good thing the local hosts couldn't understand curses in Koylenese and Ydrenic.
It was while executing a Terran-didactic barrel roll that Mitzlan found herself somewhere else.
The great lake was still there. The general rolls and curves of the earth were still recognizable. Conifers and deciduous trees stood in singles and in clumps throughout the fenced patchwork of Terran farmland...
Directly below was the runway. But the airport was smaller and and the vehicles filling the parking lots looked ... different. Larger, heavier, much more chrome. There was a aircraft still on the ground there. Identical to her .... but large.
Things changed again just as fast. Hotels, high-tension wires and broad highways again. Same as before. Mitzlan 's automatic processing had kept her in sync with the others, so they noticed nothing wrong with her. She checked her orientational and directional indices, trying to account for what she'd just experienced. Nothing out of the ordinary. Approximately two hours and forty minutes had passed while she was in flight. Nuiit, in the meantime, had finally decided it was time to land. After waiting in a pattern behind several commuter planes, the troupe finally touched ground and headed back to their quarters. The troupe head seemed satisfied today, or at least too tired to bother with nitpicking. Mitzlan took the time to check herself out on the diacomp installed at the facility, while everyone else was gossiping outdoors. No anomalies revealed themselves in her core matrix or in her neural net; her optic logs showed no such input as she'd just perceived. Yet she had seen something...
Dakhaari entered just as Mitzlan was logging off. "Anything wrong, Mitz?"
"Just a tiny fluctuation in the fuel guage readings. Nothing I couldn't fix by myself." Was it a lie if nothing showed up on her sensory logs?
The Sieran jerked her flaps once, executing an aerocyber's shrug. "Okay..."
They went up again, later that afternoon. There was no repeat of what Mitzlan had experienced on the morning flight, but the anticipation of a relapse was as trying as the event itself. Another two hours in the air seemed to drag on forever. In the evening hours, while the others were passing the time with games or hooked into the network, she went outside to the yellow-marked zone that was their 'front yard' and slowly weaved back and forth over the painted tarmac, her optics fixed on the runways and the landscape in the distance. She was sure that it was about, it that she tasted in her pickups and sensors, it that she would surely see if she dared to view her reflection in any shiny surface. Wake-dancers at a Kolyenese funeral rite never, ever dared to look in a mirror until their costumes were off. In the supernatural mythos of that region of Lissei, it would be an invitation to the spirit of the one you invoked to move in with you. At the very least, it could lead to a lot of mischief. At the worst... no one cared to speculate.
If it reflects, try not to look.
Over the days leading up to the event in Hamilton, Mitzlan spent her free hours butressed in language and cultural immersion mods, turning them into a wall against which Tamrai and her sycophants would butt in vain. Nuiit herself had no objections; sooner or later they'd have to deal directly with people and if at least one of them was minimally conversant, so much the better. For Mitzlan, they were also a way to forget what she'd seen on the first day of practice. It hadn't repeated itself, Kaele be thanked for that. Had her imagination taken that accursed Terran film and gone nuts with it? Could be. The incident faded in memory as Mitzlan, with Dakhaari's help, eventually managed a basic English conversation without stumbling over tenses and participles, the nastiest trouble-spots for native Kolyenese speakers. Being a cyber did not mean one-handedly sucking up a foreign tongue like mother's milk and spewing out a perfect response, although some of the supercharged stationary and network AI's back home could do just that. But it did mean that all grammatic rules and lexical information could be funneled into essential memory where the mind could draw on it, which accelerrated language absorption by a factor of ten over the average rate at which an organic could be expected to learn.
Mitzlan further forced herself by restricting her network feed to English-language broadcasts and text. How ironically amusing to learn that bland, lowest-common-denominator crap could exist in any language and culture! Did the 'soap operas' really reflect the mating habits of humans? Dakhaari was quick to remind her that while that sort of promiscuity did exist in many human adults, not everyone was so inclined nor did they overdose on drugs or rape each other or fly into jealous rages and slap each other's faces every day. What shocked her the most was the portrayal of wealth in Terran society, where a very few people occupied houses that would keep an entire motherhold sheltered, perhaps even several, while thousands scrabbled for their day's bread in the streets. For such conditions to exist anywhere on Lissei would be a terrible scandal. As for the educational system... did she really want to investigate ...?
Four days before the big weekend, Nuiit called the entire troupe together.
"This 'Air Show' we're appearing at is a two-day event, as you already know," she began, "We will be performing both days, but in addition to that there is a static display at which those attending will expect to meet at least one of us. Don't worry too much about dealing with them at this engagement; Dakhaari will help you with that. But there's only enough display room for one and I might as well decide now."
"But wouldn't it be you or I?" Tamrai appeared slightly perturbed now.
"We're both key performers; that would be unmanageable. It's going to have to be one of the other four. How you present yourselves is the biggest part of it. Would you all bring out your drones?"
The rest of the troupe obediently lowered their drone-cases and powered up their proxies. Nuiit went over each in an exacting fashion. "No... I don't think they'll find yellow-green tentacles too appealing." "I don 't know if they'd go for the head on that one." "Still a little too cold..." In a few minutes she came to Mitzlan's and inspected it thoroughly, lifting up strands of hair in her drone's grapplers and examining closely the machine's state of repair. "Hmmm... reasonably good. Of all of them I think they'd relate to this one the best. But that shift's a little too dirty and we can't have it wearing nothing either. That's the problem with these Druhihn-like models..."
"Well?" Tamrai perked up expectantly
Nuiit turned back to Mitzlan. "Take it to town and get some other clothes for it, then do up its hair, will you?" Then to Dakhaari "You know what these cities are like; could you help her out with that? If it's no problem."
"Certainly... no problem at all." Dakhaari managed a dronewise nod.
Gods...sorry to drag you through all that... Mitzlan spoke overchannel.
Really, it's nothing, replied Dakhaari. If anything it'll give us a legitmate excuse to ignore Tamrai for a day.
PART FOUR :
Much to the relief of their owners, the pair of drones only drew cursory stares as they picked their way through the crowds at the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. This multilevel temple of Terran corporate consumerism, chain stores and food courts was jarring enough, with its blaring, garish neon signage, raucous canned music, transparent elevators and its bewildering array of stores and displays. Fortunately the inhabitants of this major population center were now accustomed to seeing offworlders in their midst after several years of formal contact. Mitzlan was content to let Dakhaari lead the way; she had fished these waters before. She studied signs and cards as her proxy passed, making out words and characters that had only seemed an inchaoate jumble to her several moons past. "We're lucky we're doing this where everyone and their mate speaks English," Dakhaari had told her "You can mangle it to The Cold and back and still be understood. Most of the time..."
Mitzlan found herself being steered into a shop which at first glance seemed no different from the others she'd bypassed. "You'll need good outdoor things that look respectable. This is what they're selling in this place. "You'll also have to have more formal clothes for indoor functions, but we'll see to that a little later." Dakhaari 's drone motioned at a row of neatly pressed, hung-up garments. " Bring it over here - that's fine..."
A young human female, dark of complexion with tightly marcelled waves of black hair, stepped forward and smiled pleasantly. Mitzlan was thankful that a lot of the mannerisms of humans and Druhihn Lisseiji were so similar. As Dakhaari and the girl spoke she could make out the greeting and offer of assistance but little else. There was a pin on the young woman's beige knit top that spelled out the name of this store - "N-O-R-T-H-E-R-N R-E-F-L-E-C-T-I-O-N-S", and below that what looked like a name - "T-A-B-I-T-H-A". At length the shopgirl peered among the racks, made several selections and pointed the way to a row of stalls in the back. Mitzlan's drone entered one of them, with Dakhaari's following to show her how to put these things on.
"At least it won't need underwear." Mitzlan sighed.
"You will when you put a dress on it. People expect it to be there." Dakhaari assisted her with a sweatshirt and a pair of walking shorts. "So we choose things which aren't so tight or translucent that people see the lines underneath."
"Seems like a lot of cloth for summer..."
"The culture in this area of the planet frowns upon people going around with no clothes on in public, even when swimming. Other places on Earth are more laid-back about it, but there's that language problem again..."
"I could make out a few words today.."
"Good. You'll pick up more as you circulate."
Mitzlan now had the top and bottom together. Dakhaari paused for a look and adjusted the top's neckline and the waistband of the shorts. "You'll need shoes and sandals too. After this." Mitzlan's drone turned around to face the tall mirror that took up much of one side of the stall. What looked back from the mirror seemed a little weird - Terran clothing - dusty-rose top and khaki shorts -juxtaposed against the tones of metal grey that made up the outer surfaces of Mitzlan's proxy, with the flexible antenna that extended from behind one erect ear and the silver ring that adorned it, which was inscribed with Mitzlan's name, registration number and her old company designation. "There. That looks good enough for outside at the air show. We'll get a couple of lighter shirts and another top like that and some longer pants. That should do it for here."
Twenty minutes later, Dakhaari settled up with the shopgirl using a credit card that had been set aside for the troupe's incidental expenses. Mitzlan's proxy took several shopping bags and wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts out the door. Then it was off to "Bata" for sneakers and sandals, "Fairweather" and "Braemar Petites" for the dressier outfits and some place Mitzlan couldn't get the name of for Earth's idea of foundation garments and hoisery, which she quickly learned to detest after forty minutes of struggling with brassieres and snaps. Then, finally, a pair of slingback pumps to go with the dresses, a small handbag of neutral colour and some hair accessories. That would do it for now.
To save their proxies' energy on one of the first really hot days of this summer season, Dakhaari and Mitzlan had them ride the subway and then the trolley along with what seemed to be the best, middling and worst (looking) of humanity. Again it was Dakhaari who did most of the navigation. On a throughfare known as "Queen Street" the two machines dodged beggars, bag ladies, buskers, squeegee kids and clusters of sidewalk stalls which hawked cheap jewelry, black-velvet paintings, tacky souvenirs and tackier T-shirts. Since they had the whole day to themselves Dakhaari and Mitzlan weren't too quick to call their drones to the stop from where the Malton bus would take them back to the Etibicoke district and the airport. After sidestepping a pair of teenagers on in-line skates, the proxies ducked into a large, garish and brightly lit emporium where for once clothes were not the main merchandise. The sign - huge silver letters one leg high - did not say much of anything but 'HMV'. Mitzlan's drone-head shook, echoing her bemusement. What kind of name was that?
"I want to see if they've got the latest Joni Mitchell disc out yet," Dakhaari explained. "Won't be here long..."
"One of the native singers. I just happen to like her stuff." Mitzlan sighed and followed meekly through the battery of anti-shoplifting devices and LEAVE-ALL-BAGS-AT-THE-COUNTER signs surrounding the entrance.
Mitzlan soon found herself poring through the racks of jewel-boxed discs along with her friend, trying to ignore the tatooed and be-Mohawk'd boy standing next to her proxy who had the pierced nose, pierced ears, pierced tongue and pierced Kaele-knew-what beneath his ripped and frayed clothing. Her drone-fingers picked through artists she'd neither heard nor heard of, just for the sake of doing something to fit in and not having her public face be stared at like a zoo animal. What does Dakhaari see in this overpriced junk? Kaele spare me... Maybe, just maybe if she could find something sufficiently cheap and noisy enough to annoy Tamrai with...oh, dear, sweet, wise, kind and brilliant little Tam-Tams... the thought went as far as a malicious and halfway demented smile on her drone's lips. Dakhaari's telemetric optics turned and fixed on the other proxy's expression. "Mitzi, why are you grinning like a stormdrifter with a redtail in its clutches?"
"Oooohhhh.....I was just listening to this crap they're playing here and thinking of someone special."
"I think they call it "heavy metal" or something. She'd HATE it..." Dakhaari's interface display returned a conspiratorial wink.
"It couldn't be THAT bad then... in that case I'll take one. For once it'd be worth the price."
"You're the picture of insanity right now..."
"Yeaaahhhh..." Mitzlan's drone-face stared fixedly into infinity with mechanical pupils fully dilated ; the tones it spoke were dreamy. "And I think I like it...sweet li'l Tam-Tams..."
"Ehh, whatever..." Well, it's been a long day and she's been a good girl all this time...Dakhaari gave a gesture of assent and hailed for the attention of a black-clad, pony-tailed salesclerk as her drone floated towards the counter, "...And could you get us a copy of what you're playing right now, please?"
It was one of the last practice sessions before the troupe was due to leave for the Hamilton engagement. For one hour, after formation movements, the dancers engaged in progressive manuevers of varying style and velocity. By now all of them had adjusted to the allowances which had to be made for occasional supersonic flight and for an audience that would be watching from the ground level. Dakhaari had made well sure that they accepted the protocols of air show performance as it was done on Earth, out of respect for physical safety and to ensure the continuing goodwill of the locals. Therefore, warm-up periods between engagements presented the best opportunity for the members of the group to improvise and be themselves as they would in the skies of Lissei without giving indigestion and grey hairs to native pilots, air traffic controllers and Canada's ministry of transport.
They kept mainly to airspace that was over the huge body of water known as 'Lake Ontario', and found it amazing that a freshwater lake could rival the Sea of Meithys in area and volume. The main concern out here was looking out for piloted craft whose operators could have perceptual problems flying over large expanses of water which sometimes melted into the horizon with no frame of reference in the distance; they lacked an aerocyber's senses and safeguards. In her peripheral Nuiit spied a Piper Seminole, a small twin-engined private aircraft, making its approach to the airport from the southwest and informed the others of its proximity; the six dancers peeled off discreetly to higher altitudes. Lyhana, however, was too curious for her own good, hanging within a mile's radius and scanning the propeller-driven plane internally until Nuiit reminded her sharply to respect the privacy of others as well as their safety. Mitzlan had seen it coming about the same time Nuiit had and was already at a comfortable distance.
Inside herself, Mitzlan's recent purchase played directly into the auditory maps of her neural net - skirling lead guitar and snarling baseline, drums rumbling like the thunder of close-striking lightning with cymbal flashes, keyboard alternating between windlike keening and demonic growls and vocals that seemed to ride the wave front of a nova, with the dull roar and vibrations of the two jet engines as a droning accompaniment. Removed from the crowds and cacaphony of the music store, the disc that she had bought sight unseen had to an extent fufilled the purpose she'd originally had in mind - a surefire repellent to Tamrai and her ilk when played aloud in the hangar - but as time went on these pulses of raw emotion and energy translated into sound grew on her and sank roots into her consciousness in a way that no surfiet of travelogues and lectures had ever accomplished. Only recently had she been able to read what was on the cover, with Dakhaari's help...some artist by the name of "Yngwie Malmsteen". Rather eccentric, even as Terran names went.
She banked, wide and climbing, feeling her wings bite cold, delicious air and the atmospheric currents and thermals pass over her outer sensors, until the clouds were as wooly, docile beasts grazing on a bluish plain, the city and its outskirts were as toys and its people as ants if perceptible at all, and Earth's curvature started to reveal itself. How she had missed these heights! She had been allowed a greater degree of freedom in certain areas, such as altitude, because Nuiit was aware that she could handle it. To her credit, the head of the troupe did not allow her personal vanity to choke anyone else; she could not afford to risk the group's syntality or the ability of each of its members to work in the concord that was neccessary for a safe and satisfactory performance. Tamrai could be (and was) petty when she was in charge, but she was not leading right now.
Now, the music surged like the swells turning into white foam and crashing on the breakwaters below. Mitzlan executed knife-edges east and west, a barrel roll and a high, vertically compressed loop. "Hammerheads" were something she still had to work on - the mental block against cutting thrust at a attitude exceeding lift and putting herself into a stall ran deep - but it was one of those Terran-didactic things that the crowd they'd be performing for happened to like, for what reason only Kaele knew. After several of those, executed at an altitude which provided a reasonable margin of safety, Mitzlan checked the path ahead of her, reckoned a return course that would take her safely around two approaching commuter planes and set forth to rendezvous with the rest of the group so that they could join the holding pattern above the airport as one body. Time to land...when their turn came, they hit ground as they had left it, two at a time. They could feel many eyes going over them as they rolled down the taxiway in three braces - not just the personnel on the ground but the people waiting in the terminal and those peering through the windows of jetliners arriving and departing. To many from abroad the image in which they had been created would not mean much, but among the better percentage of the residents there would be widening and flashing eyes, rearing heads, catching breath and hands rising to chests and throats as they viewed these delta-winged forms of milk and blood and maple-leaf roundels gliding slowly across the apron, having cut their engines and engaged their silent undercarriage drives, the lack of sound and the heat vapours rising from the pavement lending them the aura of unreality, of spectres.
Mitzlan, however, did not feel so enigmatic and ghostly at the moment. It seemed to her that the day-glo red patches on her contours blinked like neon, so conspicuous. Why couldn't they do this earlier in the morning? With Riiu beside her - not Tamrai or Lyhana, thanks to Kaele - she taxied in perfect lockstep towards the back area where their quarters lay. Whatever else she thought about dancers, she couldn't fault their rythym and synchronicity.
Dakhaari was waiting for them in the yellow 'lounging zone', blinking her running lights twice as they drew near. The dancers' columns started to dissolve as they filtered into the painted area. Mitzlan was about to head inside when Nuuit hailed her overchannel in a private transmission.
Could I talk to you a minute?
No, none. I just happened to be watching you while we were up. I always knew you could stay in line and follow the routine, but lately you've been showing... more...
I.. I don't think I was doing any different from usual, just kiting around...
Well, maybe it is because you've had this level of performance all your life and you're confident and at home with it. But that's exactly the kind of character we need to project for an audience that expects bold strokes with a broad brush rather than subtle watercolours. The delicate moves will still have their place, but moonbeams alone won't do for those who crave fire. You've already grasped the fundamentals in the very short time you've been with us and you have the control to turn it on and off like a faucet, and if you can do that you can also make it rise and fall and laugh and weep in a way writ large enough for this crowd to get into. There is _too_ much at stake here to pass that over...
Mitzlan had a faintly sick-making feeling that an organic would have equated with 'butterflies in the stomach'. Our routines are structured on the usual five with the extra as an add-on in the chorus. That's what you were all figuring on, or did I hear you right?
That was what I had in mind when we left home and when we were on the way over. But I know now that this would never work for Earth. I'm restructuring the routine into pair-based phases with the three strongest doing single figures. We'll get complaints, of course... Mitzlan did not have to wonder who would do the bulk of the whining. But that's not for them to fret themselves away over. We have two more sessions before the first appearance, which will not be a particularly demanding one performance-wise. The next engagement is another two weeks away. Re-arranging everything will be intensive, but it can and will be done. I want you to work on a single performance, to go between mine and Tamrai's. Riiu is too restrained yet, and Lyhana's just a follower.
How will Tamrai feel?
That's MY headache. I'll keep her busy enough. Now get your rest while you can, for what with the static display appearances, the official functions and your new choreography you'll have as much on your plate as you ever did in the military. _I_ would find that a challenge! I've had less than a turn to feel you out but what I already know about you is that you're strong and will spare nothing.
With that, Nuuit finally turned away, towards Tamrai. Mitzlan hoped there wouldn't be a scene. But there wasn't. Tamrai was not completely lacking in intelligence. The final dance was still hers, after all.
That Friday was dull, overcast and muggy with the threat of later thunderstorms, but clear weekend weather was predicted for most of the southern Ontario region. Mitzlan, after checking her systems one more time, topping off her wing tanks and stowing away her drone and several changes of clothing and accessories for it, drew out into the just-hanging-around area and waited for Dakhaari while slowly shaking the last drops of that morning's wash off her elevators. It had been decided that Mitzlan and Dakhaari should go one day ahead of the rest, since the Canadian Aerospace Heritage Society, which was one of the tour's co-sponsors, was holding a social function prior to the show and the organization desired at least one of them there to officially present to its supporters, its guests, and members of the media. Nuiit agreed that this would be an educational experience for Mitzlan, who would need to improve her command of the predominant language and customs before appearing in the public displays. Mitzlan, although slightly nervous about this first contact, was relieved to be away from Tamrai for a bit. The anchor-dancer had not spoken to her since that conference with Nuiit, but somehow her silence was more off-setting than her usual expressions of condescension.
With Dakhaari receiving and interpreting the navigational information, the flight itself, a stone's throw from a jet's perspective, was uneventful but made a pleasant change from Toronto's urban congestion. The airport at Hamilton was also sizeable, the acommodations here not as grand as Pearson's facilities, but clean and apparently well-managed. Many of the air show participants had already arrived; a good showing of military planes from Canada and the U.S. but also quite a few vintage aircraft and a diverse gathering of kit-builders and hobbyists with creations ranging from the prosaic to the cute to the downright bizarre. The two early birds would get a chance to look them over later on ; the reception hosted by the CAHS would begin at four 'o' clock that afternoon - time to get Mitzlan's drone ready.
In a corner of a hangar already occupied by an old DC-3 and a Twin Otter, she walked it onto a tarpaulin spread out on the ground and commenced cursing at the undergarments that would have to go on beneath the camisole and the cobalt-blue dress with the shirred front. The stockings were an especially joyous undertaking - NOT! Dakhaari stood watch close to the door, not that it mattered much to Mitzlan but an unwary human might have a shock...
Last of all was the dress itself which, though already petite, had had to go in for alterations to tuck it in at the waist and was a little too low at the neckline to be worn without the camisole. It was sleeveless but structured to suggest that the wearer had more up top then what was actually in evidence; Terran designers felt obligated to do that for 'flat-chested' clientele. Mitzlan muttered dark and deadly obscenities as her drone-fingers tugged awkwardly at the zipper that went up the back, forcing her to turn the drone around so that the optics on her main body could see what was actually going on there.
"Decent yet?" Dakhaari called from the door.
"Just about..." Mitzlan's reply had that clenched-teeth feel to it as she finally closed the last three inches of the zipper. "There, you little bastard..."
Dakhaari snorted in amusement at the English maledictum ; 'illegitimacy' was not even a concept in Lisseiji society. "You're catching on, woman. At certain times knowing the native gutter-talk can be indispensable..."
Mitzlan had a mortifying thought. "Kaele's blood... I hope I don't slip up and say anything like that ..."
"You won't. When you meet people you'll be getting a translation overchannel from me, and anything you say will go through that application and then back to your own vocal relays. They've already been told to expect a delay of five to ten seconds when speaking to you. They'll understand if something doesn't come out exactly right."
Mitzlan had an easier time with her proxy's hair, weaving it into a tucked-in French braid and adding a small ornamental pin shaped like a tiny dolphin. Once the machine stepped into the black pumps and picked up the handbag, it was presentable. Some time before this she had walked the drone around with the new shoes on to adjust to the three-inch heels whilst simultaneously praying that the women of Earth would get fed up and lynch the sadist who'd brought them into existence. No such luck, unfortunately...she had it turn around to get a view of all sides as Dakhaari put her own proxy back on its hardpoint and came over to have a look for herself.
"The slip's not showing, is it?"
"It looks all right Mitz, but the poor thing's still tottering on its heels. Keep it close to your nose so it can support itself there."
"Who in Kaele's name makes these cursed shoes? Just give me five bloody minutes in an alley with'em...couldn't we just make do with the sandals?"
"Uh... a little too informal for tonight, but it's only for three or four hours..."
"Shit. Where's this go-round taking place anyway?"
"Another hanger at the other end of the field, the biggest one. We'll just follow the noise."
PART FIVE :
In spite of the heels it now wore, the well-dressed drone managed to keep an even stride as it walked between Mitzlan and Dakhaari. No wrinkles, no bra straps or panty lines in view, no runs in the stockings, Kaele be thanked. A van with a colourful logo and a top-mounted dish antenna zipped on ahead of them in the same general direction, pulling up in front of a yawning hangar already surrounded by security people and early-arriving dignitaries. One of the guards met the aerocybers at the temporary perimeter and escorted them inside while issuing rapid-fire instructions into a walkie-talkie. The interior was brightly lit with folding chairs arranged in rows before a small white dais. A banner was suspended from the rafters, proclaiming the occasion of the Commonwealth's admission into the Sharali convenant. A vibrant floral arrangement of Terran and outworld plants was being positioned just beneath the podium. The media people were setting up their cameras and microphones, their haste unrelenting.
Dakhaari and Mitzlan were guided precisely into place on either side of the speaker's platform. The drone was brought up onto the dais where it would remain throughout the better part of the ceremony, and a corsage was gingerly pinned onto its dress as the camera crews checked the light reflecting off its features and made sure that the screen image was flattering. Already the invited guests were filtering in, staring at the two aircraft and the drone with a mixture of anticipation, fascination.... and from some of the elders, a visible touch of sadness. From behind the dais and the velvet-rope barrier Mitzlan looked on, her mind almost a blank. Public speaking, translated or not, had not been a part of her original job description. Redirecting her entire sensory and motor feed through the proxy, she girded her drone-shoulders, leaned a little on one leg and surveyed the collecting throng with veiled face and crossed arms. The locks of hair falling across her proxy's brow might have been a nuisance at other times, but now they offered a small measure of privacy for the windows looking inside her. Soon even that protection would be gone and it would be her and the audience with nothing in between.
About that time, a stout, ruddy bearded man separated from the pack, sheaf of papers in hand, and approached the platform with a couple of others in attendance. Mitzlan, dronewise, turned, stood up straight and pushed the hair back from her vicarious face, revealing huge, dark-rimmed eyes of bright jewel-toned violet. Dakhaari cued her overchannel and let her know that the translation link-up was ready, but otherwise stayed in the background.
Now standing on the platform, this fellow towered over Mitzlan's proxy by almost two heads. Looking into his face, she received an impression of clear blue eyes behind thin-rimmed spectacles and white teeth through the salt-and-pepper whiskers. His mouth formed words and his right hand extended towards hers, gripping it in a firm, warm shake. The translation finally arrived back through the filter, "Hello! I'm Leonard Costello and I'm the president of the Canadian Aerospace Heritage Association and on behalf of the association and its members I'd like to welcome you to Canada and to Hamilton."
Costello waited the necessary interval for Mitzlan's reply to be bounced back to her; it came out in grammatically sound if somewhat flavourless English. "Thank you very much. I've been looking forward to meeting some of the people who've made this possible." Kaele's blood, she thought, In front of the world and all these people I sound like an ice-spitting zombie!
The organization president nodded, "And we can hardly wait to meet you and your troupe, and to see you performing tomorrow. As you can see, it's a very... emotional time for some of the people who're here now, even with just one of you." Mitzlan scanned the audience and could indeed see moist eyes here and there. Mitzlan returned the nod as Costello went on, "I must say I'm pretty overwhelmed myself," He looked back towards Mitzlan's real self ensconced within the airframe, "The resemblance is absolutely perfect, right down to the markings for each of the six aircraft. If not for the size I'd swear I was looking at the real thing." Mitzlan had no means of comparison to see for herself, but she did know that Dr. Elcai hadn't built his reputation on half-measures.
"Our people worked very hard on it.." It was the most appropriate statement she could muster.
"They definitely did..." With that, Costello turned towards the microphone on the podium and made ready to deliver the opening speech, beckoning for Mitzlan's drone to move to his side. She sidled it over, still examining the faces of the adults (mostly) now seated before her and the children in the school band arranged off to the side, now playing a spirited, if not-quite-perfect march. The cameras were fixed directly on the dais, transmitting an image to the rest of the region and possibly the rest of the country, and Mitzlan was aware of the presence of a boom mike dangling uncomfortably close to her nose probe, almost distracting her from the drone's feed.
Dakhaari was too busy with the interpretation and relay system to offer more than cursory encouragement. From now on it would be Mitzlan alone... with the cameras and the crowd. There was something about being the focus of so much attention that frightened her more than facing the worst hairball of a fight in the sky. She remembered Nuiit referring to the spectators at any given event as "the million-eyed beast" which sat on its haunches while silently commanding "Entertain me! Impress me!". Knowing that she would face the eyes of multitudes more the next day, she squared up and directed her concentration entirely on the two hundred now before her as Leonard Costello made his opening speech.
"For many of you," he began, "This may bring back memories, both triumphant and painful ones. For many others, it is the first contact with a legacy that only recently have we begun to rebuild. With the start of a new era in Earth's history, on the cusp of union with a civilization that spans the stars, they have reached out to us with the form of something that meant so much to so many people here, so many years ago, the story of which they have taken to their own hearts. The Avro Arrow lives again, ladies and gentlemen, if not in size, definitely in spirit. I am pleased and proud to present Mitzlan, wearing the colours of Arrow 203, representing the Nuiit Galwian Aerial Dance Company which will be performing, as you all know by now, at the air show which will be taking place over the next two days." He indicated the drone. "Although her brain is in the airframe, you could call this her 'social face'..." The drone stepped forward. "Here she is!"
A wave of applause surged up from the crowd seated before her, seemingly greater by far than the sum of the participants. As the prepared speech she'd been given flowed into memory, Mitzlan brought her proxy over to the mike as Costello turned it over - after pushing in a step-stool to boost the head and upper torso of the four-feet-eight-inch simalacrum over the top of the podium. For once the high heels were of some use.
"On behalf of the Cultural Council of the Sharali Covenant, the Green Order of the Lisseiji Diplomatic Mission and the Nuiit Galwian company, I extend to all of you warm and sincere greetings," the alien words flowed through her mouth, accents and inflection already preprogrammed; unlike running translation, set speeches could have their vocal stresses added in advance. "We appreciate in turn the welcome you have given us on the occasion of our first public appearance on Earth. All of us are looking forward to this tour and to meeting the people of the Commonwealth and of the rest of your world, and it is a proud and solemn honour to help commemorate such a great achievement and such a poignant moment in your history as is represented by the bodies we now wear. We intend to carry this through with the greatest of respect for everyone that was involved with it and everyone who knows and appreciates that it once existed. It is us who should be saluting you, and we will do that." Mitzlan paused at the best-advised moment, to allow the words to sink in and to provide an interval for audience feedback. Another wave of applause - and a few cheers and whistles - came her way. She was glad for the crutch that had been given her; she doubted that she could have managed without it.
Mitzlan's remote face smiled widely - it never hurt to do that - sparkle, they called it. A volley of camera flashes strobed the hangar's interior. She raised a drone-hand in a polite pray-thee for silence, just as Dakhaari had coached her. One more paragraph to go.. you're doing all right, the Sieran murmured overchannel. Keep your eyes on them...
"We know that it has been over four decades since your white bird last flew, and that we can be but a pale imitation. In our way of looking at things, assuming the likeness of someone or something long gone is a matter approached with much care and much reverence." Understatement... "Such a duty is to be taken with a quiet and humble heart, as well as a sense of things far greater than oneself and one's mundane concerns. It is our imperative, regardless of the subject we are dealing with, to make every move of our performance a prayer, every dance a sacrament, and every word from our mouths the fiber out of which the warp and weave of our past, present and future will be rendered into a tapestry of generations...for all peoples, all ages, all tongues and all worlds. So may it be."
Another surge of applause rolled in like surf onto shore. Mitzlan had survived her first speech.
It wasn't too short, was it? she asked Dakhaari
Just long enough for a sound bite on the evening news, and that's fine, Dakhaari reassured her. We're not talking long attention spans here. Especially not the kids.
Mitzlan's gaze slid over to the junior high school band seated to her left, who were already fidgeting within the confines of their formal accoutrements. She could not help sharing some empathy with them. With some relief she gave the podium back to Costello, her proxy again moving decorously to one side, there to stand slightly hipshot with hands joined before it.
She made every effort to look interested as a series of other speakers delivered their own set pieces. History, heritage, legacies, cooperation between worlds, all that ad nauseum. An hour and forty-five minutes later, a lanky, silver-haired gentleman ascended to the microphone and brought it up to his level. Mitzlan, up to this point, had been covertly observing a barely-suppressed ankle-kicking spat between two girls in the middle row of the band and seeing in it some very familiar sentiments. The bandleader, who did not appear much older than his charges and seemed even less mature, was off in the corner talking up a credulous-looking blonde. Right now this was the most entertainment the guest of honour was getting out of this evening. At last Mitzlan turned her proxy about, made a gesture of courteous acknowledgement to the final speaker and diverted the semblance of her attention to him as he began.
"I'm not one for making long, boring speeches so I won't keep you away from the coffee and doughnuts for too much longer..." A bit of laughter erupted. "As some of you already know, I was a junior engineer on the Arrow project. I was there when the first one was rolled out in Malton almost fifty years ago. I was there when it took its first flight ... and I was there when for many reasons the dream was literally torn to pieces right before my eyes, not that far from this spot, actually - " He pointed westward - "About a quarter mile that way. Now, whenever people talk about it, you don't hear the word 'cancelled' very often. You do hear 'killed' a lot." Mitzlan's drone-ears swivelled about sharply at the loaded words. She hadn't needed the translation link-up to figure that out. She also noted the great effort taken to avoid blaming anyone in particular for the fate of the original project. It was politesse to be sure, but it wasn't giving her much information. "As if it were a being, not a mere machine. As if it were more like our friends from Lissei. " He subtly indicated the aerocybers; Mitzlan flicked her rudder a little and looked on with some amusement as every pair of eyes facing her riveted on her empennage. It impressed her with the great power that the smallest move could project when the timing was right. "Later on I helped put men into orbit and men on the moon, but the Arrow clings to me always. Those who have come to know it may each have their own opinions, but they will never forget. In that way it has achieved a form of immortality. And I must say that the people of Lissei have done a wonderful job with these replicas, and in that number I must include the thinking, feeling minds inside the airframes that breathe the sort of life into them that we on Earth have only ever imagined our creations having. You have my hearfelt commendations."
There was more clapping, a few words of conclusion from Costello, and then Mitzlan - herself this time - rolled out into the wide gap between the seats and the dais so that the guests could have a close look and the cameras of the media would also have their opportunity. With the forbearance of a Clydesdale with a pack of noisy children weaving through its legs, Mitzlan accepted the scrutiny of many eyes, many hands, and a gang of lenses. Since even large aerocybers were accustomed to regular social interaction, if not the frank curiosity, tolerating their proximity was not difficult. However, one did have to watch out that an idly flipped elevator didn't strike someone on the head as they stooped to get a view of the main undercarriage. Earthers weren't yet accustomed to taking that into consideration. In addition Mitzlan felt the gaze of the guarded eyes of the older ones, looking beyond the surface resemblance to see what she really was. It was sobering.
Close to the end of the proceedings, someone passed a bouquet of flowers to her proxy. There were so many people around and so much going on that she wasn't sure exactly who sent the dozen white blossoms, which Dakhaari told her were 'roses' and certainly not cheap. There was a card enclosed, but Roman characters in cursive handwriting were as yet beyond her comprehension. It was then that a TV camera caught Mitzlan's drone with the flowers in its arms and its wide, vivid purple eyes staring straight through the lens into the living rooms of thousands of Terran households. Looks like you made a wise choice of drones, Dakhaari snickered to her privately. The cameras love your face as much as they do your airframe.
As the news crews and photographers jostled for a few last shots, the two aerocybers slowly filed out of the hangar, their way kept clear by the guards and the police until they were safely beyond public access for the night.
At Pearson, the rest of the dancers caught it on the evening news as they went over their own preparations. Xahlys and Lyhana could not stop talking about how good Mitzlan looked and how well she handled the attention. Riiu was noncommital. Nuiit was just relieved it went off without any major catastrophes. Tamrai, viewing her video feed of Mitzlan's drone with the dozen white roses, popped her rudder in quick, ragged jerks and snapped irritably at Lyhana for encroaching on her personal space but otherwise said nothing at all.
At the close of the evening Mitzlan still held the dozen white roses in her drone-arms, wondering where in perdition she was going to put the damned things in the middle of an airport. Finally, spying a large toolbox that had been left inside her temporary accommodations, she carefully laid the bouquet on top of it, wrapping it in a bit of clear plastic film she'd fished out of a trash can. How long could they keep like that? One or two days, at best.
There had not been room enough to house Mitzlan and Dakhaari under one roof tonight. Mitzlan now occupied a space beside a Beechcraft tail-dragger, watching the entrance with her forward optics while her drone changed out of the formal outfit, put it away and donned more utilitarian attire - jeans, pink cotton singlet, windbreaker, plain white Keds - decent enough for the field or the street. The proxy combed out its hair as part of its automatic self-maintenance regimen and rearranged its blue-black tresses into a simple ponytail which was secured with a bright yellow scrunchie. She had completed the change just in time, for a mechanic entered the hangar to check something about the Beechcraft. He nodded to her, she nodded back dronewise, but there was no other communication. Being there for the air show, she had the privilege of moving around a little and decided to take the drone around the environs to explore her present surroundings. For the first time since landing on Earth she was entirely on her own.
It had finally rained half an hour before, an explosive, gully-washing downpour remniscent of a Kolyenese monsoon but for its brief duration. Puddles and wet pavement shimmered with yellow-tinged reflections from the exterior illumination system and from the headlights of vehicles. The air was charged with negative ions and had a slightly electric bite to it. The drone walked along the outside wall of the hangar before cutting across the apron to investigate the rows of small personal aircraft with silouettes of people moving among them, all tinkering with engines, cables and whatnot. Mitzlan kept it in the darkest of shadows, not wanting it to be a spectacle. About two-thirds of the delicate-looking machines were there for the show, some under tarps that also served as a temporary shelter for their owners. The whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades doppler-faded into the distance; tiny lights kited back and forth against the clouds which were now breaking up to reveal patches of star-spattered heavens cyclically lit by a revolving beam of light from a tower about a half-mile away. Mitzlan supposed it would have been something like this about forty-odd years back, though maybe not quite on this scale.
It was there, in the quiet, dark alley between two hangars, that Mitzlan paused her proxy. Here there was nothing but shadows and starlight interrupted at fifteen-second intervals by the sweeping beam. The first two could belong to any time; the last was more recent. The sensation of a cool draft of air wafted against the nape of her vicarious neck, triggering a shiver that went all the way back through the neural pickups and the drone's antenna back to her core matrix. The proxy echoed with a stiff little jump, turning around, yet there was nothing to be seen. Only felt...
Something half of a breeze and half of something else trailed along her drone-neck and shoulders with the almost-weight of fingers behind it. The sensation, unparalleled by sight or sound, might as well have been a knife-blade for the impact it carried, causing Mitzlan to send a hurried recall-command to the little machine. She wanted it back, now! The drone obeyed its imperative, taking the most direct return course to its owner, but wound up in a featureless dead end with no points of reference by which it could be guided home. Mitzlan, cursing up a storm in gutter Kolyenese, rolled out of her lodgings to physically locate the errant device. Most people were on their way out by now, Kaele be thanked.
The long, murky shadow of Mitzlan's form preceded her over the wet, floodlit tarmac, making a huge and distorted spectre which mirrored every surge and flinch. Here and there were depressions in the pavement, collecting pools of rainwater that occasionally rippled with the breeze and left her undercarriage tires dripping as she passed through them. Don't these people know anything about toleranced draining tiles? It would be too much to ask for, yet... maybe in a few years once the exchange of goods and know-how between Earth and Covenant worlds really got going. She went further in a westerly direction as the homing signal guided her to the drone's location. Shit, I let it run too bloody far and where in the Cold am_ I_ going... Dakhaari's lodgings for the night were several hangars down from Mitzlan's, but she was accustomed to handling her own problems and had no inclination to bother her friend. Interceptors were like that. The distant whining and droning of engines grew a little more faint as she immersed herself in a network of oblong structures that looked pretty much alike. Mitzlan continued to invoke the profane names and actions of a thousand acid-pissing demons in surly, guttural undertones as she poked her nose in each crook, cranny and alleyway, popping her flaps and rudder in irritable counterpoint to her abrupt and jagged manuevers. Had she remembered what the old engineer had said about the history of this particular neck of town she would have been even more ill at ease, but right now all her attention was on retrieving the drone.
Reviving her link with the proxy, she had it pound on the wall several times so that she could follow the noise, since it was still out of her view. She was drawn to the last alley to her right and still could not see the machine but could hear the pounding. From that she deduced it was just around the corner and walked it around, where it appeared. It was all right.
Taking no further chances, Mitzlan extended the storage capsule from her fuselage and opened it up. Within thirty seconds the drone was safely ensconced within. She turned around smartly, heading back the way she came. In her way was a wide but shallow puddle she'd hardly noticed going through on the way in. As she approached once again, the last of the clouds that had been obscuring the moon were swept away and its pale light illuminated her enough to cast a shadowy reflection on the water's surface. Something about the image brought her to an abrupt halt.
It's too ...big...
Something like a searing pain ripped through Mitzlan's senses, several ways. Her speech was trapped inside her, as was any capacity for movement. It was hot and piercing and parts of her were falling away in pieces and she could not move or speak or do anything but feel the torch as it cut again and again and sundered her with the agonies of Meithys as the Cold Ones devoured her. Nooooooooo.... Her consciousness contracted and fled to her inner core but still could not escape the pain-things that ran alongside it, snapping white-hot hamstringing jaws with streams of acetylene flame where teeth should be. Their eyes were invisible behind dark, smoky shields and behind them were the shadows of many two-legged creatures who radiated smug victory and contentment that this would never threaten their interests again. The fear turned like the winds of a summer squall, to a rage hotter than the torchers' rending flames and her inner scream turned to a roar of unquenchable anger. Yes. Feel it. Let it burn and their own flames will turn on them and consume them. Let it out. All of it.
And it was quiet again.
A helicopter approached from the north. The wind whistled among the hangars and cast ripples on the puddle's surface, breaking the image. Mitzlan found herself whole and unhurt. Her internal log showed no passage of time since stowing the drone. She did not wait to run even a cursory diagnostic. She wanted OUT of there. It seemed to her that she made her way back to her accommodations not by motion but by instantaneous translation. The feeling did not apparently follow her back. She muttered a few invocative chants to Kaele and Meithys as she approached the doorway ... and stopped.
The bouquet of roses was on the oil-spotted pavement. There was a tarp on the toolbox now, with something moving beneath it and making noises... her inner voice of common sense finally spoke up - Don't chance it; you're not armed...
Yeah Mitz, what is it...
Um... hate to be a pain in the butt, but could you come over here now, please? Mitzlan relayed some video feedback to Dakhaari's core receiver.
I think I know what it is. Hold on...
The Sieran was there in a minute, waiting at the doors with Mitzlan as her own proxy floated silently inside. Watch this...
Dakhaari's drone hovered up to the moving, tarp-covered shapes, paused a few seconds to verify, then whipped off the sheet.
Exposed to the light were a somewhat stocky and hirsute man and a skinny, dirty-blonde woman - frazzle-haired, lipstick-smeared... and nearly naked. They stared, eyes wide and jaws agape, at the drone and at the aerocybers for about ten seconds while their faces (and other body parts) turned several shades of deep red. Then they snatched frantically at their clothes, sprang up like scared grain-munchers and fled through the gap between the two aircraft, disappearing into the darkness. Mitzlan was struck speechless for a full minute .... then began to laugh in a half-howling release of tension that even surprised Dakhaari.
"So... that's the first time you ever saw a couple of them going at it?"
"I... guess..." Mitzlan gasped between continuing fits of laughter. "What in Kaele's name is this, breeding season?"
"It's ALWAYS breeding season on Earth..." Dakhaari snorted. "They're all right until they grow up, but beyond fifteen turns or so a lot of them just can't keep it in their pants - that goes for both sexes but especially for the males - most of them anyway." She flashed an image of a heavily caricatured man that seemed to be little more than a support system for a heavily engorged endowment, a walking urge. Mitzlan sniffed at it. "Well, now that I've seen it with my own eyes..."
"And they'll do it in the damndest places..." Dakhaari had her drone put away the tarp and pick up a few scattered objects the humans had left in their wake. Mitzlan edged forward to see what she had. "What's that?"
"Oh, this?" It was a tiny metallic packet with the circular impression of something yeilding and rubbery inside. "What passes for male contraceptives here - crude, innit?"
"But how -" Mitzlan failed to make the connection.
"Well, it's like a rolled-up sheath, eh? The man... puts it on..."
"Ewwwwww...." Mitzlan finally put two and two together. "What do they do with the thing when they're finished?"
Dakhaari said nothing but transmitted overchannel images of a flushing toilet, a sewer pipe and a final resting place with hundreds of other used rubbers on the shores of a polluted beach. Mitzlan half-giggled, "That's disgusting..."
"It's even funnier when you go droning to the bar and watch the beginning of the mating dance that leads up to this. I should take you sometime." That sounded like a must-see.
"Whenever," Mitzlan shrugged her flaps. "I should be powering down. See you in the morning."
As Dakhaari left, Mitzlan set down her drone to salvage what she could of the scattered bouquet - human lust would be more tolerable if it didn't make them so bloody inconsiderate! The card had fallen about three feet away from the wilting flowers. What a mess! Possibly, if she could find some papers and something heavy and flat to put on top of them, she could dry and preserve the soft white blooms. She salvaged some old newspapers and used them to sandwich the roses before placing on top of them a wide, weighty board with casters that she'd dredged up from a corner of the building. That would do for the night. What she had experienced just minutes before faded into the background, at least temporarily. She'd be relieved to get back to Toronto.
Lastly she picked up the card and held it before her drone-face to wipe off any dirt or dust it might have acquired. The writing was still the same, but where there had only been undecipherable loops and squiggles there was now a stream of words that jumped out at her and danced their meaning into the molecular choreography of her base matrix. She stared at it, proxy eyelids blinking twice as she scanned the handwritten script many times over.
Thank you for making it live again ... The Arrowheads
What the hell happened?
PART SIX :
The other five arrived a little sooner than expected on Saturday morning, settling into the hangar space that had finally been cleared for them to get ready for the first day's performance. Mitzlan tendered her respectful greetings to Nuiit and acknowledged the rest with due courtesy, but Tamrai returned only silence. Mitzlan chose to ignore the slight; she had other matters to attend to. Dakhaari stayed in proximity, always acting as the buffer and liason she was there to be, but Tamrai's ill humour was not her problem. Since she and Mitzlan were going to be in the static display for the better part of the Saturday schedule, they would not have to put up with the anchor-dancer for too long and found themselves almost feeling sorry for Nuiit and the rest.
Many elements of this occasion were already familiar to Dakhaari - the rows of miscellaneous aircraft, the tents and displays of clubs, societies and vendors, the loudspeakers blaring music and announcements over an expanse now filling up rapidly with spectators of every age and Terran race ... and the hard-core buffs who peered closely at wing roots, undercarriages, air intakes and afterburners as if they were critics surveying great works of art in a gallery. The two aerocybers drew many stares as they cautiously negotiated a course between anxious parents with children straining against their hands, cliques of posturing adolescents, more orderly congregations of uniformed adults and distinct groups of elderly men and women, many with canes or wheelchairs or attendants. Finally they entered a semi-enclosed area with carefully monitored access which would insulate them from mobs or harassment. It was then that Mitzlan finally brought out her drone and stood it up. The slender construct was now dressed in a short-sleeved cotton blouse of natural white, walking shorts, sandals and a teal-green sweatshirt now tied by the arms about its waist. Its hair was pulled up into a simple pony tail secured by a demure white ribbon. It was wholesome and decent to an almost sickening degree.
As Mitzlan redirected some of her input feed to her proxy it blinked twice and swivelled its ears at the ambient noise; the hum of the crowd instantly stratified into layers of overlapping conversations which in turn separated into discrete words. She listened, with a mixture of awareness and unease, as sounds she had not comprehended the day before suddenly matched with referents and definitions she'd never had any idea that she possessed. The notion of telling Dakhaari surfaced once or twice, but something inside her rose up and blocked any such action. Inside Mitzlan's core her consciousness seemed suspended over a vast, murky and bottomless unknown and what was dwelling within those depths she did not want to know. Her mind retracted from the view of the maelstrom in the quiet urgency of denial and rechanneled outwards. Keep your flaps and rudder still. No sudden movements. People all around. Look at them. Smile.
Dakhaari initiated the translation relay; Mitzlan grabbed it as a drowning man would grab a rope. All that she knew and felt was her wanted to carry on as if nothing was any different from the night before. She could still pretend that she was still hearing only voices, not speech. She could still fool everybody.
The first group of people trickled through the temporary gate, under the eyes of the security guards. The two little boys bounded up to the aerocybers, stopped a yard short of them and gaped; their parents chased after them and drew them back a foot or two, uttering harried admonishments. Don't go running around big machines, you can get hurt! These children had never been exposed to large vehicles, had never been socialized with cybers, how else could they be expected to act? That's only a small taste of what's coming, Dakhaari warned her, You're going to need all the patience of Kaele. Good thing it was you and not Tamrai. Could you imagine how she'd react with kids climbing all over her and sticking their heads in every hole and leaving lovely chocolate-flavoured fingerprints all over her? It wouldn't be a pretty sight. Mitzlan could not even begin to visualize the high-strung prima donna coping with a multitude of jumping, screaming youngsters. She hates kids more than she hates me.
Exactly. I suppose Nuiit was already well aware of that. She's not stupid and she's not asleep...
I guess not. That little routine she did with the drones was all an act...
She had to do it that way. It was a face-saving measure, you see. You and I, we don't give a damn about shoe marks and fingerprints, we just wipe'em off. That's the least WE ever had to worry about...
Tam-Tams hasn't dealt with anything more dangerous than a nasty critic all her life...
-And she plays every moment as if it were a drama with her in the lead role. Wouldn't go over well with this crowd. The clothes and whatnot were a small price to pay for good public relations.
Now if I can just keep them clean... I've got an extra shirt tucked away in case one of those little wonders spills juice on it.
If anything happens I think the airport hotel has a laundry. I don't think it'd be much trouble for them...
A couple of people from the CAHS were stationed close by Mitzlan, answering most questions and giving out pamphlets and informational handouts. She was grateful for the additional bulwark they provided. Her remote persona smiled at the pair, both young men in their twenties, whenever they happened to look in her direction. If someone wanted to meet her personally she brought the drone forward and 'sparkled' as much as she could; fortunately no one expected her to have much of a command of English yet. The greeters did most of the talking. As yet she could get away with nodding, smiling, patting the heads of many more children and subtly dodging leashed dogs which sniffed her proxy-legs and presumed that just because something was made of metal they could cock their legs and 'annoint' it! When it was two hours past noon it would be time to rejoin the other dancers and get ready for their performance.
As the shadows shrank and then lengthened in the other direction, Mitzlan awaited the summons to the runway with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. She knew her part well, had rehearsed it nine or ten times in the past week, but had yet to perform for a public audience. As the call came over her private channel, she gave Dakhaari a nudge and left with her, picking her way through the crowd with an additional escort of volunteers and security guards. The group was to take off and join the holding pattern about twenty miles west of the airport to wait their turn with the other fast-jet performers. On the taxiway she took her place beside Riiu, checked the levels in her fuel tanks and all her systems for the last time, and did her best to ignore the presence of Tamrai brooding behind her. Dakhaari remained on the apron as the last of the troupe was marshalled towards their assigned runway and received their last instructions from the tower. Mitzlan saw her turn about and head back towards the other parked aircraft to watch like any other spectator. Mitzlan herself was now past the point of no return. After ignition, the building power of the engines within took over from the undercarriage drive and reverberated up through her fuselage, longerons and sponsons to the very endings of her neural net and into her core.
The beginning movements of the dance represented themselves in her core memory as an abstract choreographic pattern in three dimensions, with the course of each member as a flowing, twisting ribbon in its own colour. They would have about a minute to assume the initial formation after leaving the holding pattern "backstage". The weather conditions, though clear and light of breeze in the morning, promised high clouds and stiffer winds later. Mitzlan had found the atmospheric conditions on Earth to be less predictable and more volatile than on Lissei, and a whole new phenomenon - powerful downdrafts of colder air known as 'windshears' or 'microbursts' - were an especially deadly threat. She had been to four different worlds in the course of her military career and had all-weather experience, but the rest of these aerial dancers had heretofore performed only in the still, quiet weather of the Lisseiji dry season. She had come to have a regard for the air-traffic controllers who had to ride herd on a hairball of aircraft coming and going in all directions in weather that could change at any time, and could no longer abide the others' constant complaints about 'those sour-beers in the tower'.
Once airborne, the troupe followed an extended oval course over the countryside, just another layer of aircraft in a stacked arrangement loitering in a backstage circuit with the airport just barely visible over the horizon. Last minute instructions issued from the troupe leader and from the tower at a rapid-fire pace, acknowledgements and queries snapped back and forth among the six with the channel at a rate many times faster than human conversation. Tension was strung throughout each of them like a cable winding ever tighter on the spool. Another thirty seconds and it would be their turn to move...
At Nuitt's signal, the aerocybers peeled off from wherever they were on the circuit and prepared to assume an in-line formation similar to what Terrans were used to seeing... might as well start with what they know. Mitzlan assumed the third-in-line position from Nuiit, who was the rightmost. At the this velocity they were racing along the crowd line almost before they were aware of it, and a seeming tide of energy swelled up from those masses like a thermal which threatened to lift them into the stratosphere. The million-eyed beast was awake, its appetite whetted, ready to be more than merely entertained. Now I know what Nuiit meant. At the crux of the movement the outermost swept away, leaving the two in the center who finally parted ways after everyone else was banking up and outward into the clouds. The leader and her second looped over back, rolled and circled about one another, joining into a helical climb in counterpoint which terminated in hammerheads, a spiral descent, and a swift pullout. To do these moves so close together was something few human pilots would dare to even contemplate. After a collective catching of breath, a profound release followed and a burst of applause ripped across the field like a thunderclap, though the dancers were well past hearing.
The others rejoined the leaders at the far end of the range of performance and regrouped into a single-layer pattern with Nuiit and Tamrai out front. Mitzlan was in the slot position behind Nuiit's wing, her attention divided between the choreographical feed from the leader, the feedback from her own sensors and the data coming up from the ground; she had none to spare for how the crowd was reacting. They spead out as they paralleled the crowd line once again, this time with one end rising and the rest following in a staggered order like the undulating fingers of a hand. With the precision of machines anticipating and reacting many times faster than fleshly mortals they turned like shoaling fish and transfigured into a columnar arrangement wide at the top and narrowing downwards, a six-part vortex. On the ground, the audience pointed and exclaimed, some so colourfully that timorous mothers covered their children's ears to muffle the "intensity" of such enthusiasm!
Splitting into two groups, the troupe separated themselves by a mile or two, then doubled back to execute knife-edge passes at the midpoint of the crowd line, which they repeated another time. Each opposing pair came within thirty-six feet of one another. Mitzlan's partner in this manuever was Riiu, who of all the company was the one she most trusted. The thought of having to face Tamrai in such a situation, which might have tempted the other to cut closer than was wise in an attempt to "show her something", would have given Mitzlan severe indigestion had she been a creature of flesh and blood. On the third pass, instead of merely paralelling, they peeled over one another and exchanged places. With that, they ascended, collected and went down in a spiralling pillar of contrails, creating a maypole effect accentuated by additives in their fuel which tinted their exhaust in several colours. At the close they dipped and climbed skyward again, assembled in a slanted and staggered lineup and marshalled as shoaling fish, weaving and darting in concert.
On the ground there were bursts of applause and howled accolades. The announcer cracked "Don't try THAT at home folks, and you know exactly who you are." He continued "They think and react much faster than humans do. I wonder how they feel about having to look out for us all the time?" There was some rueful laughter. "Well, that's enough of that. Now three of them will be doing solo performances. This might be a little... esoteric to people who haven't seen formal aerial dancing before, which is ninety-nine percent of us," there was more laughter, somewhat muted now, "but give it a chance anyway. First will be the troupe leader, Nuiit Galwian, who wears the 201 markings, then Mitzlan, who you might have met in the static display this morning, and finally Tamrai. They are 203 and 206 respectively. There were murmurs of approval from people who'd been by the CAHS enclosure at that time. What they had seen of Mitzlan, in either her own person or her remote facade, they had generally liked. "Sparkle" could count for a lot.
Mitzlan lingered in the holding pattern while the three who were finished for the day landed. When Nuiit came back, she would be out there, alone before the eyes of thousands. Calm, calm... Her braincore matrix seemed to be containing a small nuclear explosion. Up till now she'd had the company of the others to orient on. Even a duet with Tamrai would be preferable to the coming personal audience with the beast of a million eyes. Tamrai was on the layer above her, communicating nothing. Her demeanor was the distilled and well-aged sourness of an old draft-beast raising its hind leg and offering to kick. Mitzlan made a conscious effort to put this hostile presence out of her mind and prepare to go smoothly into her opening movements.
Something moved across her, like fingers brushing, distinct from the rush of air and wind. It was warm, settling over her like a cloak. Never mind the little bitch. She's not fit to wear our skin and you're too good to bother with her. When your turn comes up, nothing about you will be any different on the outside but that crowd will know that they're seeing an Arrow. Even the heirs of our destroyers will fall over each other to be the first in line to eat out of your hand.
Everthing seemed to clear before Mitzlan's inner senses; she was aware of being on tarmac surrounded by golden fields tinted with sun-struck frost and shrouded by the mists of a Terran autumn morning. Across from her was an aircraft twice her size, but otherwise alike to her in every way. She had seen it before... reflected in the rainwater, that previous night. In sparkling daylight it was a proud white phoenix that she was sure had beheld its final demise with nothing short of the fiercest pride and the most damning mockery.
Your people don't look at mirrors or anything that reflects when they dress up as the dead, it spoke to her matter-of-factly in a voice that was a six-part chord, You know that even things leave ghosts behind. We are imprints of energy, left behind by the minds and souls that remembered us and refused to let us go even as our remains were shredded and buried and our blueprints burned. When you came along, you gave us a voice and you gave us a way back into the world and in turn we will give you the language and memories of those that made us and we will give you our heart to add to your own. Take them.
The vision melted; she was still airborne and still below Tamrai, but the other seemed to be merely a shadow in her upper periphery. Below and to her side was all of Hamilton, the site where, decades before, the Arrows suffered the death penalty for the heinous crime of being too good, a threat to the dominance of another power in that field of endeavor. A welling of defiance not entirely her own surged through her. Bastards.... the government might've crawled and whined before you, and you thought you ended it here, but in the very place where our blood ran we'll show you different.
In the distance Mitzlan could see Nuiit exiting and preparing to land. Her time now...
She tore out of the circuit with a vehemence that caused Tamrai to startle and shy off her course. Kaele rot you, stay out of my way! A little bit afraid, are you? Good. Fear's just amplified common sense, after all. If you HAVE any...
The spectators' heads snapped around to the point of whiplash as the loudest, shrillest keening they'd heard this day ripped out of the east like the blast wave of an explosion, followed by a clap of thunder that shook their bones. There was an undertone, almost speaking. Yes, it seemed to say, To use the words of him who killed me, I'M BACK! I'M BACK!!!
Two hundred feet before and one thousand feet above the crowd line, a phoenix of milk and blood split Heaven in two and whirled around in a movement almost too fast for human eyes to catch. The first bold stroke had seared the canvas of blue and white; there was nothing else - even the birds seemed to have vacated the sky. Mitzlan's next movement was a steep climb, another two thousand feet. She forced herself into a partial stall and executed several tumbles with gravity's assistance. She pulled out at her starting altitude and concluded with a wide, slow spiralling turn that displayed both dorsal and belly. After the blinding speed of her entrance the wide bank was almost like moving through molasses. Delta wings, Mitzlan had found, allowed for a very wide differential of speed and the proportion and deflection range of the control surfaces made for great agility. She had acquired of late a great deal of respect for Terran prowess in aeronautical design. The crowd below was quiet, but she had their full and undivided attention for what came next.
I am your past - look at me, know me, but don't weep for me... Another wide circuit. The matter is but scraps in the earth, but I am the dream and the dream lives. A dusty-rose contrail wound upward, ever smaller and tighter... until Mitzlan herself spun like a rifle bullet and then fell nose-over-tail to recover and sweep upwards once again, this time into a loop. The manuveur itself was almost secondary to the course and the pattern she was making, carefully sequenced to incorporate the trail of slightly tinted exhaust into the composition. Would the people understand? They were still watching, heads still moving in concert, eyes still fixed only on her. That was a good sign. Even the announcer who had blithely yapped through the past dozen performances apparently shut up for the duration. Alternating between raw power and finessed counterpoint, Mitzlan swiftly and precisely wove a cat's cradle which lingered in grey wisps behind her until the wind tore it out of shape. Then she drove straight through it, spinning on her centerline once again. Another ascent and loop followed. This was a high and compressed loop, and and its end point overlapped the start. Mitzlan swept out, knife-edged and snap-rolled along the crowd line once again, then entered the final phase.
The transition from what was virtually a child's game of strings to a more serious statement took Mitzlan through several slower moves, progressively weightier and poised like musical notes sustained over several beats. Would this audience follow her into moves of such subtlety? Her present economy of motion emphasized its bedrock substance rather than flourishes. They were still with her, those on the ground. She had led them this far. The next pass approached with conservative speed but broke like a cresting wave at the halfway point as Mitzlan attempted to create of herself something much bigger, closing the distance between her and the spectators as much as safety allowed. The move confirmed the intimacy she had been striving to build between her and the people below; this was not for a crowd any more, this was for each beating heart, each spirit in its solitude. This is for you. This is pride and love. You feel like you can touch me; I'm that close. Hands extended at random points over the heads of the multitude, striving. Mitzlan's next pass inspired more to join them. The effect bouyed her like an updraft as the energy she'd expended was reciprocated in kind. She shot up and into the the distance, on a course curving thousands of feet, her attitude going vertical, afterburners flaring and propelling her higher and higher until she melted into the gathering cloud banks of the afternoon. She doubled back at that level and swept down again. Time to land.
Her approach to the runway was a seamless, liquid denouement, her touchdown light as she used her well-hidden gravitic dampers and what was left of her lift to ease her full weight back down on her undercarriage. As Mitzlan's engines died she could now hear the crowd roaring. The ground crew led her back to a secure area where the others were waiting, with the exception of Tamrai, whose turn had now come up. Dakhaari was with them. Nervousness resurfaced as they came to meet her. Nuiit did not immediately respond, distraction and preoccupation were evident in the slackness of her flaps and the irrelevant stream of words which issued from her in a tersely muttered undertone.
Mitz? That was Dakhaari on the private link. You did it. That didn't hurt at all.
No... Mitzlan murmured, decompressing. I hope Nuiit's satisfied...
If the audience is that happy, she's got no reason to argue, Dakhaari glided up and transmitted a neural-net snug. I don't think you're the one she's worrying about right now.
Oh... Tamrai. Mundane reality settled over and around Mitzlan like the odor of musty hay. She sighed. This was getting old.
Tamrai was doing her first loop. Although the audience was enthusiastic as a group, the personal rapport was not there. It never would be. Mitzlan, for once, felt a stab of pity for her erstwhile troupe-mate. It wasn't for lack of trying that Tamrai did not achieve that connection; her effort was technically accomplished and seamlessly choreographed. Her transitions were perfect. In sober retrospect Mitzlan regretted how she'd shouldered Tamrai aside while departing the circuit. That wasn't her at all. That she knew for sure.
The afternoon's events terminated with a flypast of vintage warplanes, including the world's last airworthy Avro Lancaster All of the troupe were on the ground now, and they were soon called for; the press wanted photo opportunities. On the apron before the hangars the ancient Lancaster bomber waited, its easy day's work done. The aerocybers looked it over with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. Human beings went to war in that rickety old thing? They wisely kept their opinion to themselves.
The event's media liason officer, a middle-aged woman in a navy blue suit too dark for the hot day, dabbed at her forehead with a kleenex and frowned at the makeup that was coming off with her sweat. The photographers wanted a shot of one of the dancers posed next to the Lancaster. She exchanged a few words with Dakhaari, who signalled to Mitzlan to move forward. The photographers squared her up alongside the mottled-green bomber, took their light readings and snapped their pictures. They knew what they were doing; she was the one that people really liked and her unique combination of red patches, wing walk lines, tail number and the commonwealth flag made her instantly recognizable among the others. The drone further accentuated her distinction.
Tamrai hung alongside Nuiit, ailerons twitching. She made a point of avoiding Mitzlan on the ground that afternoon and on the way back to their Toronto quarters. When they arrived at their hangar there was waiting a riotous profusion of flowers - some for the company in general but one particularly large bouquet for Mitzlan.
Tamrai backed out and stalked away in silence. She didn't come back for four hours.
PART SEVEN :
"Watch the trolley!"
Mitzlan and Dakhaari's drones idled nervously on the corner of Queen and Yonge Sts. in downtown Toronto, waiting as the proxies of the other three negotiated the crosswalk amidst the Tuesday lunch-hour crowds. The remote presences of Riiu, Lyhana and Xahlys covered the short distance in skittish bursts, reflecting apprehension of the noisy, grinding traffic and a complete lack of familiarity with the region. Xahlys barely averted collision with a street vendor's cart as she regrouped with her companions.
"This has got to be the loudiest, ugliest, dirtiest city I've ever been to!" she exclaimed irritably "Don't they have any pride?"
"According to some folks I talked to on Saturday this is about as good as a big Terran city gets, at least on this side of the ocean", Mitzlan shrugged her drone-shoulders and motioned eastward; Dakhaari was already a quarter-block down. "You don't want to know about some places south of Canada."
"Guess not..." Xahlys ducked any further discussion for now.
The procession of drones provoked a few double-takes among the latte-drinkers and bruscetta-eaters in the outdoor cafes, but people in general were now more accustomed to them, Kaele be thanked. Mitzlan walked hers along the shop windows, paying special attention to retailers of clothing and accessories. With an appreciable sum having accumulated in her escrow account over the months, she now felt safe to do a little buying for herself. She paused before a sizable discount leather-goods outlet and scanned the inventory and pricing, comparing both with others she'd passed over. It looked attractive enough to warrant a closer inspection.
The stout, pigtailed sales clerk raised an eyebrow as the metallic form sauntered in but suppressed any further reaction as the rest followed it inside. Mitzlan made a beeline for a rack of black and brown leather jackets with varying patterns and ornamentation, giving a once-over to every second or third item.
"Everything on that rack is hand-sewn, miss, that's why no two are exactly alike" the clerk stated as he leaned against the door-frame and took a cigarette drag on nicotine-stained fingers. "Even the porcupine quill-work is real on that one you're holding now".
"Oh?" Mitzlan surveyed the black fringed jacket she'd lifted out. The leather was fine-grained, baby-smooth and supple to the touch with no blemishes, but reasonably thick and durable. Long silver-beaded fringes ran symmetrically biased on either side of the zipper-up front and straight across the back. Above the fringes were beads in salmon and turqoise, with embroidery in softened porcupine quills providing a neutral accent. Silver conchos set off the lapels and shoulders, glinting in the sunlight that penetrated the yellow haze of the unwashed store window. It spoke of the hands that assembled the pieces and sewed them stitch by stitch, well away from urban squalor. "Someone worked day and night on this."
The clerk nodded "Some old Ojibway lady does them up north. She manages maybe ten to fifteen of'em in a good year. You can try that one on if you like."
Mitzlan glanced at the jacket again. It looked small enough. She poked her drone-arms into it and settled it over her proxy's torso. The fringes swung with a gentle click of beads as she moved towards the full-length mirror to check how it looked. The conchos and beads cast delicate highlights on the drone's metallic features in the semi-shadow light of the store's interior. She checked the sleeves to see that they were the right length for the limbs now wearing them and flexed this way and that to check the play of the arm sockets and shoulders. Dakhaari looked on, her reaction masked. The others hung about quietly, politely overlooking the puffs of tobacco smoke which issued from the clerk's direction despite his efforts to blow it out the door. It was a wonder the merchandise itself didn't reek of tobacco.
"That looks good on you," nodded the clerk "You got the right frame for it and with that head of hair you look like an Indian biker princess."
"Thank you." Mitzlan hoped he wasn't just trying to make a sale.
She asked Dakhaari's opinion in confidence. What do you think?
Dakhaari paused a moment before answering. It's not exactly mainstream, and not what a lot of people here think 'respectable', but somehow that looks more like 'you' than your meet-the-public threads.
Mitzlan was no slave to others' opinions, but had a certain trust for Dakhaari's judgement. It's one of a kind. Like me. A little pricey compared to everything else here, but I can manage that.
Soon she was also trying a pair of black biker's boots with silver-accented ankle straps, taking experimental steps across the store's threadbare industrial broadloom. They didn't cost quite as much as the jacket. The clerk boxed and bagged them for her but she was still wearing her first purchase when they finally departed. Heat didn't bother her any more than the clucks and whispers of Riiu, Lyhana and Xahlys at what they percieved to be a bizarre and outlandish garment. But the jacket wasn't the biggest thing on Dakhaari's mind as her drone and Mitzlan's kept pace.
Is it just me or did your English really improve over the past few days?
Must've been all those language mods I've been cramming. You told me yourself that it'd come in big spurts at any old time.
Uh, yeah... I just didn't expect it to be so consistent so early.
I'm just lucky, I guess. Looks like I won't have to tie you down with a link-up every time I have to say something in public.
I'll still have to babysit the other five...
Sure you don't want me to help out with that?
Thanks, but no. You've got your nets full as it is. That reception three days from now...
Ohhh...the one with all the media people and big-time performers and all that.
Yup. We passed by the place where it's going to be a little while back. That crazy place with the vehicle sticking out the wall. All the big fish are going to be there...which reminds me, one of the big fashion designers - I forget the name - is loaning you a gown for the drone and they need it over there tonight for a final fitting. We have about two hours till then...
Final fitting? You mean they have to put a bustline on it because my remote doesn't have any... I can't get this fixation with mammary glands. They're for nursing BABIES for Kaele's sake...
Mitzi, the general impression you'll get of West-Terran males is that they never really _grow up_.... you'll just have to deal with it...
Mitzlan happened to glance in a tiny, crowded display window as she passed by. This establishment was barely the width of a decent alley and looked even tackier and more run-down than the leather store. But the gaudy, eclectic collection of articles was endowed with a crazy appeal that fixed her attention and drew her inside. The other dancers made small protesting noises but followed along. MAGIC BUS COLLECTIBLES, the sign read.
Cacaphonic industrial music strained at low volume in the background. A media-saavy Terran would have recognized merchandise and tie-ins to at least a couple of hundred movies, TV shows, musical groups and other ephemera over a time span of three or four decades from the 50's to the present day. To the Lisseiji it came across as a hallucinatory wonderland of otherworldly plastic and pasteboard gewgaws with no frame of reference except that it had something to do with entertainment. It was like driving by an accident - can't look, can't look away. A pale, reedy girl in love beads and a tie-die dress smiled tightly at the newcomers as they filed in, but kept anything more to herself for now.
This is what Terrans call "popular culture", Dakhaari addressed her companions over the common frequency. If a show or performer or movie or whatnot is really sucessful, they stick its image on anything that'll stand still long enough and sell it by the boatload. Most of it is, to be blunt about it, junk - but if it's something from childhood they tend to get all nostalgic and misty-eyed about it and collect it like seashells and gems. Clear on that?
There were murmurs from Riiu, Lyhana and Xahlys. Whether they warmed to the concept or not they were starting to get it. They viewed the bright posters and lobby cards on the walls with a little less bemusement and more realization that what they were seeing was Western Terra's own inner house of mirrors, every psychological motif and archetype extant in their psychology laid bare for the observation, with Dakhaari to clarify the sticky or contradictory points. These are their modern legends. Their heroes and villains follow the same general pattern but are recycled anew with different names and faces for every new generation, which in turn thinks that IT invented storytelling - like it invented sex.
Snickers followed that observation. But, here and there, some become icons that hold out over time. Here's Mickey Mouse, for example. He's been around, say, seventy years or so. Three or four human generations. He'll be around another good while because he's a potent synthesis of their dearest-held qualities and aspirations. The ability of the character to create empathy with its audience is what makes it enduring. You're performers, you know that already. One reason why you're here now in those costume airframes is that Lissei's population, especially _our_ element of it, saw something in a brutally murdered dream that crossed cultural lines to connect with them on a deep emotional level. Lisseiji know all about witnessing the destruction of something we loved and hoped for, from the time of the Enotene invasion...
That was centuries before the advent of sentient cybers, but in Lisseiji culture all are "we". The Lisseiji of that time, realizing that a massive alien armada was approaching and knowing that they did not have the means to fight them off, made the unenviable decision to destroy everything on the planet's surface that even hinted at the existence of a highly evolved culture and retreat into the wilderness and underground. There they waited fifty-five patient turns until the Enotene Empire began to decay and collapse from within, and then chose that time to overrun the enemy's garrisons and sieze the technology that would become the basis of their present state of development. Nevertheless, some regions of Lissei had still not completely recovered. That period of Lisseiji history continued to reverberate down the people's cultural spine in the form of epics, ballads and romances, often quite tragic. Little wonder that something combining two of Lissei's most fervent obsessions - aviation and lost legacies - should find a grand reception in its culture's gothic heart.
Mitzlan, however, wasn't really listening to this lecture. She was poking around the deepest recesses of the rear of the store, surveying with perverse fascination the Flintstones bubble-bath bottles, the Scooby-Doo coin bank and the Hong Kong Fooey board game. She wandered through a array of vintage Star Trek and Lost in Space merchandise, finding ironic amusement in the way that robots and aliens were envisioned within those little universes. She eventually came to a TV/VCR setup blaring away in the farthest corner. On the screen a boy who appeared to be in his early teens frolicked with a throng of garishly costumed characters, representing creatures and objects she'd only lately come to recognize during her time here. Despite the psychedelic loudness of the show's setting and its less than stellar production values, Mitzlan could not help smiling back at the honest impression of harmonious fellowship that seemed to transcend the show's hammy acting and visual tackiness. Companionability was in short supply these days.
The store's proprietrix glanced over to the TV and some spark of life flashed in her smoky-blue eyes "That's H.R. Pufnstuf you're watching. That goes back almost thirty years. My mother never missed an episode on its first TV run. She had a real crush going on Jack Wild - that's the boy you see there. 'Course nobody wears lapels that wide anymore."
Mitzlan responded with a courteous smile "It is... colourful, at that."
The clerk sat up on her tall polychromed stool, brushing back strands of dirty-blonde hair from her face. "Any show Sid and Marty Krofft had anything to do with usually turned out that way. Wait 'till you check out The Bugaloos or Lidsville. They just don't make'em that demented any more. Not politically correct, you see."
Mitzlan frowned slightly "I keep hearing about this 'political correctness' but nobody's explained it to me. It's not anything good?"
"Not good if you want to speak your mind or crack a joke in public without some jackass flying into a rage and tearing a hellish big chunk out of your hide," the woman snorted, "Why do you think I run my own business rather than work in an office and take that crap day after day? Let me tell you, you're lucky you have someplace else to go home to when your tour is over. You're doing that Avro Arrow thing, aren't you? My brother and his family saw you in Hamilton last weekend. They were impressed. I haven't had time to get out yet."
"I still have a lot to learn about the way things work here. All I can do right now is keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I can't possibly offend anyone that way".
"Oh, if someone decides they hate you just for being what you are that ain't gonna help. We humans are arrogant, stiff-necked and illogical creatures. The cheering section for the late John Diefenbaker has been wearing this thing like an albatross around their necks for the past forty-some years. That's bound to translate into some resentment."
Mitzlan shook her drone-head in a carefully learned gesture "I haven't run into any one of them yet, or if I have they certainly didn't let on to me. The best response I can think of is just to polite them to death. The more they bait me, the worse they'll look. I don't think the majority's with 'em right now."
"Any more than it is in Parliament, hon. In a way the Arrow got the last laugh on them even if the Liberals are no better than the Tories. You're here, aren't you? I can see it in the way you move around, even if that body is remote-controlled like I heard in the news."
A little chill ran through Mitzlan's core. Whatever had "moved in with her" was starting to show in more ways than her accelerrated fluency in English. Was Dakhaari or someone else in the party listening? It didn't look that way; they were still preoccupied up front.
"Did you just get that jacket?" the woman inquired.
Mitzlan gave a jerky nod "From someplace down the street."
"Looks good on you. Not many girls can wear something like that without looking like a biker's skank but you can carry it off. It takes a certain attitude. Hell, you'd fit right in on Living Island."
"What H.R. Pufnstuf is Mayor of."
Mitzlan's gaze went to several stuffed toys suspended above the TV screen. One of them was green, with a great lump of a head, googly eyes, a blue sash, white boots, and a tail. It resembled one of the characters now cavorting in a musical number on the show. The store owner nodded "That's him. He's a genuine collector's item now." The toy showed the years, just a little. Some wouldn't consider it too pleasing, but Mitzlan actually found it kind of cute. Its face seemed to project the genuine, wholehearted acceptance of one who would stick with his friends through thick and thin. It was for sale, but original toys like this didn't come any cheaper than had her new jacket.
"Oh yeah..." the store owner grinned. "I know the look of love at first sight. I have one other like that at home, along with Witchiepoo and Orson. Witchiepoo's a little rarer and worth more, though. Want to take a closer look at him?"
Despite the price tag, Mitzlan couldn't resist taking the plush in her arms and holding him. By this time Riiu, Lyhana and Xahlys were staring at her as if she'd lost her mind. Even Dakhaari was slightly...bewildered. But Mitzlan didn't care in the least. It was increasingly obvious that no amount of money was going to come between her and this little green dragon.
Hours later, Mitzlan clutched the securely taped box with the doll inside as her drone and those of the others rode the subway back to Lawrence West, where they would meet the bus that would take them to the airport district and their owners. The storekeeper had been good enough to knock fifty dollars off the asking price, but Mitzlan's companions were still rolling their proverbial eyes. The jacket and boots they could understand, but who among them could comprehend this? Was she the Mitzlan they'd known before they came here?
PART EIGHT :
"Did you see her? They were so taken by her she could've led them around with a halter! Damn mud-fish don't know the difference between greenfruit and manure piles!" Tamrai paced the wide aisle between the dancers' stalls and wailed like a hungry moonkit. Riiu and Xahlys looked on in awkward silence, albeit thankful that the others weren't here for this display.
"Tams, save your energy already. What's the use of throwing a hissy without an audience?" Xahlys's dry, cutting tones barely concealed a stab in every syllable. Never exactly cordial at the best of times, Xahlys and her sharp tongue had been increasingly emboldened by what she perceived as an increasing vulnerability in Tamrai's position. Riiu turned her tail to both of them and tried to ignore the increasing tension of the moment, pretending that she was alone and nothing was happening. Unfortunately that was not enough to escape Tamrai's attention
"Riiu, you little tramp, don't turn your ass on me! You were hanging all over her yesterday. Is that loyalty?"
"You don't have to explain... Mitzikins is much more fun to be with when she's popular, isn't she?" Tamrai advanced on Riiu, backing her into her corner. Riiu's undercarriage drives jerked and hissed explosively as she tried to avoid being penned in.
"Th-That has nothing to do with it-" Riiu tried to squeeze past her captor, to no avail. "Just leave me alone. Please."
"Tamrai, that's enough!" Xahlys barked, "Riiu didn't create your problems any more than Mitzlan did. Back off."
"Both of you make me sick..." Tamrai's voice was laced with the burning-cold of demon's spit. "Belly-sucking slimes, both of you!"
"Slimes?" Another voice penetrated the pall of the hangar. Tamrai froze. Mitzlan stood inside the yawning doorway, the evening sunlight beading over her canopy which crested like a horse's neck. The illumination and her bearing made her appear bigger somehow. "Well, so much for the illusion of camaraderie. Get away from Riiu. Now."
"You DARE to order me around?!?" Tamrai whirled about, wheel drives squealing. The smell of burning lubricant welled up from them. "You rot-stinking, missile-slinging savage...I pleaded, begged with Nuiit not to take you on, but she insisted. Very soon she's going to see her mistake, mark my words. She'll sling your dug-out core back to Lissei faster than your neural net can register the impression!"
Mitzlan received the abuse and the torrents of profanity with the stillness and silence of the dead. When Tamrai sputtered into a pause she went in for the kill. "Tamrai, I'm not the one terrorizing Riiu right now. I'm not the one abundantly sharing her knowledge of all Hell's profanity for the benefit of everyone within a ten-ren radius. Who's being the savage here?"
Tamrai stewed and whined, her diction and grammar finally failing her. Beneath the carefully constructed high-culture facade were psychic walls of shifting, ichorous tidal mud that were becoming all too visible with the crumbling of her sicky-sweet brittle shell. She had chosen to withdraw and retreat from the strangeness of Earth while Mitzlan had gone out to meet it halfway. Now the price was coming due.
"Mewling and crying won't work on me," Mitzlan continued, "do you think the leader of your company should tolerate such a burden? The opportunity was and still is there for you to take. All you have to do is _GROW UP_ and deal with the changes. We can help you if you let us, but you're going to have to work at it."
"Hang yourself!" Tamrai hissed, "Kaele condemn me if I stoop down to the level of these sweat-stinking carrion-eaters who carry on like barnyard animals while they claw at each other in their stupid little wars and foul all the land around them!"
"Well, thank you very much for sharing your opinions of our generous hosts. I'm sure they would appreciate that sentiment. And it's just as well Dakhaari didn't hear that either, seeing as she counts several of those 'carrion-eaters' as friends..."
"You're not much better, wallowing with them like you do. No goddam wonder the two of you ganged up on me. Ever since before we left you did that. You and Dakhaari - missile-chuckers, both of you..."
That came close to Mitzlan's hot buttons, but she kept her composure. "There is nothing wrong with defence. For me it's been an honour to put my own body between all that's worth anything in this life and the slew of thugs and marauders who'd rape it all 'till it died and go on laughing to the next target. So I'm telling you now... no more physical attacks, no more verbal abuse, no more for as long as we're here. I am keeping score, sweetass. Understand?"
Mitzlan radiated a barely constrained anger; the colour from her dayglo patches seemed to melt at the edges and tint her with raging blood, yet all her wrath focused on the now frantically-backing Tamrai. "Pull yourself together before anyone sees how you disgrace the hide you're wearing," she growled, "And by the bones of Meithys you will apologize to Riiu - RIGHT NOW - before Nuuit has to do it for you!"
Xahlys and Riiu looked from one to the other. In size they were all the same, but Mitzlan seemed bigger and taller and prouder than she'd ever been before, and carried herself as she owned the very heavens and even the smallest bird flew only at her pleasure. They watched Tamrai flinch as Mitzlan delivered a final snort of contempt and turned about after watching her humiliated adversary stammer through several quavering variations on the theme of I'm Sorry and I Won't Do It Again. The look of Mitzlan's back as she rolled away said all the rest.
Mitzlan returned later, to retrieve any personal belongings of hers that were sitting around in her stall and tuck them into her belly compartments for safekeeping. Tamrai's retaliations were underhanded but highly personal and sometimes went as far as desecration of property. The old plush she'd bought fit neatly into her half-scale cockpit, which had functional seat belts to keep the toy from being banged about during extreme manuvuers. At air shows and public events it was considered quite endearing and no TV appearance was considered complete without a close-up shot of Pufnstuf in the pilot's station. Word of that confrontration never reached Nuiit, but just the same she and Tamrai grew increasingly estranged to the point that direct conversation not related to their work ended altogether.
The summer season was in the hottest, stickiest phase of its ascendancy. A massive stationary inversion over the city blanketed all areas with a steamy, smoggy miasma that proved difficult to escape on the ground. Between appearance and performance dates, Mitzlan and the others resigned themselves to putting their drones on an automatic hose-down routine that kicked in whenever the heat and humidity feedback from their skin-embedded sensors reached intolerable levels. It would have been completely unbearable if not for the temporary escape to the sky over Lake Ontario which became their morning and evening routine, almost every day. The humans stuck on the ground looked on with some envy as the aerocybers cruised about in the cooler air over the great lake - those who couldn't make it to the water, of course. Dakhaari often joined them on these flights but kept mostly to the lower altitudes. The dancers' pipe-opening runs were visible to the crowds on the beaches, although their sonic dampers kept the noise down to the keen of a high wind. At air shows, they had found, the spectators actually preferred a healthy peal of thunder.
Venturing higher and further than the others, Mitzlan scanned the shoreline through the gathering evening haze. It would still be warm down there, but not so oppressive outside of the city. Increasing resolution on her ventral optics, she surveyed the swimmers and sunbathers, noting the underwear-like garments that they clad themselves with - on Lissei, Druhihn pretty much swam naked. "They even have - get this!- laws about how much of their bodies they can show in public!", Dakhaari had told her. Mitzlan's reaction ... "Kaele's blood, what in the Cold are they afraid of? It's only skin!" Dakhaari could only shrug her flaps at that point. "That's just the way it is here...".
Mitzlan banked southward, further over the lake and away from the most congested air routes. The miles were consumed as she cut in her afterburners and barrel-rolled several times over the jewel-blue expanse now frosted with whitecaps. At this speed, just below Mach 1, the cool lake air streamed over her body with the pressure of swift water. One more surge of the engines and the barrier broke, well clear of human hearing. She was almost to Niagara within the next three minutes, but Buffalo on the U.S. side had air traffic she didn't want to mix up with. Another sharp bank and she was headed back to her starting point to rendezvous with the others.
It was then that the squall came up.
The clouds swept in from the southeast as if summoned by a sorcerer, surrounding a high black thunderhead that seemed to swallow all the horizon between Mitzlan and home base. The wind had suddenly turned savage and bit fiercely at her wings and empennage. Chain lightning and thunder rained down along with stinging sheets of water. Mitzlan couldn't decide what rattled her more, the storm's swift formation or her failure to anticipate it. Why hadn't her detection systems seen this coming? The weather service had forecast only hazy skies and a stiff breeze for today and tonight. Dakhaari had warned her how bad it could get. How could she have forgotten?
She contacted Dakhaari and Nuiit on their common frequency and informed them of her situation. From Nuiit there was no response but what sounded like a cross between a gasp and a gulp once she realized how grave this was. Sudden storms were new to her. She quickly deferred to the Sieran on how to deal with it.
"The rest of you head in right now!" Dakhaari snapped, "It might blow over before it gets to us, but we're taking no chances. Mitzlan, how're you holding up? Fighting through this is going to eat up your fuel like crazy and at the rate you were going you won't have a lot left. If you can't fly over it or go around, try to find someplace to land and wait it out. If you do that I can come in on your locator signal and meet you there."
Fortunately, one area in which Dr. Elcai had decided only state-of-the-art would do was in the airframes' avionics packages, well hidden inside. Mitzlan's combined remote sensing system detected an island about ten miles south of her, with enough flat area to accomodate a gravitic-assisted landing. The gravitic cancellers had been tucked away in the recesses of the dive brakes, an auxiliary system for expedient use on airfields too rough or too short for landing in the fashion the design allowed for. They also eased the strains exerted on that leggy and complicated undercarriage, which like that of the full-size aircraft not only had to lengthen as it extended but rotate partially in the rear elements. It also depended on the firmness of the surface; neither wet rock nor wet grass was ideal for Mitzlan now.
A shudder ran through her which was not due to the squall. That voice again...
Lucky woman. I wish we'd had that much to play with and all your volition too; we could have told Dief where to shove his goddam cancellation notice on Black Friday. Now settle down and do it the way I'm showing you; this is for YOUR best interest now...
The soldier in Mitzlan spoke up for her before it consciously registered - Ayyad'hi!! - "Yessir!"
Whatever-it-was knew not the word but recognized the tone well enough. Good girl... not like that little snot wearing 206's paint job. I assume that's why they picked you to deal with the public. The voice had dropped a few degrees in formality compared to before and had assumed a more masculine timbre. See the glow ahead of you, like a ribbon? Mitzlan did see a strip of light that hadn't showed up in her feedback before, laying out a course partially corkscrewing around the island and out of view beyond its highest elevation. Follow it. I laid it all out for you. Keep your attitude true to the way it lies and you'll be okay. Trust me, my old ghost's been hanging around the area for years.
Mitzlan could not see any other option right now. She made the bright bluish string her path of descent, flying such that the mass of the island shielded her from the force of the gale. As she made the turn a strip of clayey, hard-packed beach presented itself, sheltered by a curving, heavily fissured cliff that sloped away gently at the closest point but twisted into an overhang at the end. She turned on the gravitics full blast and used them to absorb the speed and momentum of her approach. Wet sand flew up in roostertails as Mitzlan's undercarriage tires dug into the dirt and she yawed alarmingly, but three hundred feet downshore she finally came to rest with body and soul intact. A quick review of her systems showed no structural damage.
Come on ahead. The overhang's big enough to keep you out of the rain. Looks like it's going to last another hour at least. That's a mother of a storm for sure!
Mitzlan floundered for another twenty or thirty feet until her tires hit the better purchase of hard-packed clay-and-pebble aggregate. Thankful she was that no one else could see her! The face of the variegated blue-gray rock now beside and above her appeared to have been chiseled out by a raging lunatic, a jagged cubist composition that appeared ready to fall over Mitzlan like the crest of a wave. But no rain or wind pelted her now. She looked about, saw no one but herself. Are you still there?
I'm here. I'm not leaving you...
You don't sound quite the same as you did before.
We don't... when we're all apart as opposed to speaking as one. The group-mind thing requires a degree of protocol I don't usually go for. You were hurt and scared silly of us that night in Hamilton and I don't blame you, but it's at the point of strongest emotion that contact is made, which is why people tend to see ghosts in places where they died and often they're folks - or things - that left the land of the living while kicking and screaming all the way. I assume it's the same on your world as it is here.
More or less, Mitzlan conceded, but for us death is not so terrible for the one facing it. The pain is mostly for those left behind. I think that's where all our superstitions came about.
There's some truth to it, I guess. Unlike the ghosts of people we couldn't get through to anyone 'till you showed up, my charming half-pint clone. Even then most of us were pretty disgusted with whatshername - um, Tamrai and wanted to give up the whole idea. But you I liked, and I'll admit I'm kind of prejudiced for the one wearing my colour scheme and number, but I made enough of a case for you as a person that the other five bought into it eventually, though it was a hard sell in the beginning.
I'm sorry if the others offended you. They came from an entirely different background - nothing wrong with that but it was a culture clash just the same, almost as bad as between Lissei and Earth. Humans as a group might be bigger and louder and certainly hornier than the founding races of my world, but they're no less for that. I've seen worse.
There was not so much rain now, but the wind continued to shriek over the cliff and the waves pounded the shore's edge. It was no different from an ocean but for the lack of salt in the air. 'Scuse me for not introducing myself. I usually go by '203'.
Mitzlan winced a little. Numbers were fine for record-keeping and call signs in the field, but day-to-day existence demanded proper names; she carefully avoided comment. '203' apparently caught on to that. Yeah, I know that makes you uncomfortable but it's the best name I've got. Blame the ones who made me.
Mitzlan shrugged. Well, I guess you and yours already know my name and everyone else's. If it's any comfort to you my opinion of Tamrai is the same as yours.
If she were a human she'd be a blonde, 203 sniffed, You want to make a blonde's eyes sparkle? Shine a flashlight in her ears!
Mitzlan couldn't help laughing; she'd learned that sort of woman was not highly thought of here either. We've done a good job of keeping her away from the public. So far.
Actually, the natural blondes are all right. It's the ones that get their hair colour out of a bottle that bleach their brains along with their follicles.
Mitzlan was entertaining a vision of 203 as an ornery old cuss such as those that sat on every other street corner in Tuarni - chewing kavas-leaves, spitting in the storm drains, gleefully skewering the pretensions and habits of all their fellows and in general making thorough pains-to-the-gods of themselves. Well, she couldn't blame him for the attitude... at least it sounded like a "him" anyway.
As if to confirm that assesment 203 made the unmistakable sounds of a human hocking up something better left undescribed from the depths of his lungs and letting fly. Here you go, Diefy! A shame they didn't cut up your carcass and leave it for the crows to eat, no different from what you did to us, bootlicker! Sorry Mitz, I still forget my manners when I think of the Diefenmonster.
Mitzlan had no inclination to add an angry spirit to her problems and refrained from asking about the man responsible for 203's demise. 203 was starting to come down again, by degrees. There's people still living who survived the Holocaust, if they told you about that sorry little business yet. Almost sixty years now and they're STILL mad. It's exactly the same for us even if our own mortal selves didn't make it. He ranted and sniped for another ten minutes before settling down. You know what's kept us going all these years, what's kept us from dissipating along with our fragments? It's because everyone ever involved with us and everyone who learned afterward kept us going with their own hearts and minds. That's what the soul of an artifact really is. Instead of erasing us from history, the ones who wanted rid of us only guaranteed our immortality and all that baggage brought them down in the end. The Holocaust worked out much the same way. The federal Tory caucus couldn't fill an elementary school classroom these days - at one point a two-hole outhouse could've held'em - and who's a Nazi besides redneck losers and teenagers out to shock their parents?
The historical referents were things Mitzlan was only now beginning to understand. The Holocaust - the slaughter of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe a couple of generations ago. She was not surprised to see a comparison made between a deliberately planned mass-murder of human beings and the intentional destruction of a nation's technological potential. Taking a deep breath inside, she mustered a response. Pulling that crap on Lissei would have brought - literally - riots in the streets in both cases. You may not have been cybers in your former existence but we would have respected the love that went into your making. What happened to you was the vilest and most truly blasphemous of insults to the gifts of your motherland, to the people who built you and believed in you, and to yourselves. Even worse, you were betrayed by your own leadership who sold you out to the interests of other nations that were pretending to be their allies. May they rot on the ground! In Lisseiji culture that phrase had real power and weight behind it. The honourable way to dispose of a corpse was cremation. Allowing it to decompose in whatever fashion its material composition dictated was the ultimate expression of contempt.
At least they're rotting IN the ground, sweetheart, 203 snorted dismissively, And their souls burning in their own little Hell. If I know they're getting theirs, that's good enough for me here and now. He paused before continuing. My biggest concern is with what's coming in the future. The heirs of the same forces that killed us are on to further deviltry. The U.S. power jackals screwed up big time when they treated your first envoys so shabbily and they're sore as hell that the Commonwealth and the Euros are going to get first crack at the goodies of outworld federation and trade. They can no more stop it than they can hold back tomorrow's sunrise, but they can still "share their love" if they want to, and they've got the resources and inclination to do it. We've got to stand up on our hind legs and tell them that it ends here, and that's the other reason why we contacted you. You're a soldier at heart, you can see trouble coming and you can handle it, even if the weapons currently at your disposal are only the social kind . Here's the chance to add unofficial statecraft to your list of credits.
Mitzlan's core was reeling. Just a minute, I need to take this in small bites. I know that there are some real rotters down there that need turning over and spanking in front of as large an audience as will come for the spectacle, but me doing statecraft? The closest I get to that is smiling at the crowd and not offending anybody, that is when I'm not performing or rehearsing or tiptoeing around Tamrai when she's in her bad moods, which is more often than not lately. I'm going to have a real job on my hands trying to influence the political course of an entire planet from the odd-one-out position in a dance company, no matter how popular I am.
Don't worry about Tamrai; we'll deal with her. 203 spoke with an edge. We're not going to hurt her or do anything dangerous, just amplify the feeling, in many little ways, that she's bitten off more than she can chew. By this fall she won't be in your way any longer. Your company leader has come back to her senses - at least she has them - and will undertake to minimize the distractions for you until Tamrai is safely out of the picture. Your friend there - that pretty deep-red number - is also a big help. I LIKE her... she's cute.
Dakhaari, you mean? Yes, she's cute enough to be definitely and undeniably spoken for...
Awww... that's some lucky man, whoever he is. Well, back to the point I was making. Most of these air shows are pretty close to the U.S. border. A lot of Americans come across for this stuff and you've probably already met some of them, nice down-home folks who'd never hurt anybody who wasn't out to hurt them. Take a look-see at all the parked cars sometime and see how many U.S. plates there are. Make an special effort to charm them out of their skulls. You never know who they could be. You might even get an invitation to a big international event like the Oshkosh Fly-In, where you could influence even more people on the spot than what you've already met and get news coverage all over the world to boot. Ever hear of "star quality"? That's one of the social weapons I was talking about. You have it already. It's not the glitter on the surface that really matters, though bright shiny objects catch their eyes. It's the character underneath that brings'em back for more. That's what you have that Tamrai hasn't got.
Mitzlan looked out. The wind was dying down and the sky was beginning to clear. The squall had died as quickly as it had erupted. Within a few minutes a wine-red speck was visible in the eastern sky. Dakhaari...
203 had also noticed. Ooh, I can look at HER forever. All that woman has to do is stand there and breathe. He finished off with something halfway between a sigh and a whimper.
Dakhaari, having both vectored thrust and gravitics, executed a flawless feather-light touchdown on the shore and picked her way through the firmer-packed areas to Mitzlan's sheltering place. "Kaele's blood, we almost feared the worst for you! Are you all right?"
Mitzlan emerged from the semi-cave and flexed her flaps and rudder, "Nothing broken - I hope. I just about ran dry though."
"That's what I figured," Dakhaari released her drone to withdraw a fuel line from her fuselage. "Take some of mine. It'll be just enough to get us home." She connected Mitzlan and started the transfusion. "Storms like these are common here and come up with little or no warning. It's like demons live in the water! At least you came out of it okay. If it'd happened to one of the others I don't think she'd of had a match's chance in the Cold." The transfer was complete. "Ready to go?"
"I guess..." Mitzlan ruefully surveyed the beach, hoping the ground was firm enough for her to leave the way she'd come in. With gravitics kicking in she achieved a rolling vertical takeoff that lacked Dakhaari's grace but got her into the air just the same. The unveiled sun was almost touching the horizon, giving the quieting water a gold-leaf caste. The long summer day would die slowly before twilight, but dark was on its way.
At Pearson she found all five of the others tensely awaiting her return. With Nuiit, Riiu, Lyhana and Xahlys all mobbing her and making worried noises she could see little of how Tamrai was dealing with it, but she was almost certain that the little tart had been praying for the storm to take her. That was just the kind of person she was.
No Tams, I don't die that easy.
July was a time of intense preparation; the slew of events scheduled chockabloc through the span of August-September allowed little time for lingering resentments to well out. Mitzlan was now pretty much responsible for most engagements that concerned only her, freeing Dakhaari to take care of interactive and translation requirements for the other five. Each day after morning practice she pored over messages that came by envelope, internet or voice mail - fan letters, invitations, requests for appearances or interviews and the odd missive from home. Later in the fall one of the doctors from the aerocybernetic clinic would be coming down here to inspect the integrity of the dancers' neural nets and linkups to see that their braincores were suffering no ill effects from the long-term occupancy of these airframes. That was not likely, but what would be a minor matter on Lissei could flare up into a major malfunction in the absence of the support facilities these aerocybers usually took for granted. Unlike the regular dancers Mitzlan was not oriented towards frequent body transfers; this particular issue didn't show up on her radar just yet.
Whenever she had a rare few hours to herself, Mitzlan would go droning downtown, sometimes with Dakhaari, sometimes on her own. Her proxy-self became a familiar sight to the denizens of Queen and Yonge streets as she dilligently combed through the stock of second-hand and retro clothing shops for bargain-basement treasures, carrying on the grand Lisseiji tradition of seeking value for her money. She was rapidly evolving a personal style that combined military surplus chic with ethnic-peasant or aboriginal influences; the effect was not displeasing, although people occasionally joked that her sartorial taste was more typical of a flower child than a military veteran. But this 'flower' was likely a Venus Fly-trap. In the case of special events and functions she continued to accept reasonable guidance from the cultural liason's fashion consultants despite drawing the line at four-inch stiletto heels, flashy sequins and gowns too long or constricting. Whenever asked, Mitzlan compared it to dressing a full-size Barbie doll except that no one would expect so much of the doll.
Neither did her airframe completely escape this urge towards individuality. The Pufnstuf doll was joined by other little cockpit decorations: a string of beads and braided hemp knotted around the joystick, riotously colorful god's-eyes secured under the windscreen, a small silver coin hanging beneath the instrument panel - a little bit of precious metal on the person is considered lucky to Lisseiji, these elements being anathema to evil influences. It had to be worn directly on one's own self - drones didn't count. The other dancers displayed similar luck-tokens in all the same places so this generally went without comment among their own people, although it tended to raise eyebrows among the locals. To Earthers, Lisseiji ways came across as a sometimes unsettling fusion of technological prowess and totemic animism they would more expect in a jungle-dwelling tribe than in a complex space-faring society.
That which she knew as 203 was more or less dormant as July waned - maybe it didn't fancy summer heat. 203 seemed closest when she was away from the muggy steambath of ground-level Toronto and she felt that stallion's breath on her shoulder in the breeze that came off Lake Ontario. But speak to her he did not, keeping what it considered a respectful distance. Lately she had learned that during the Arrow's early development free-flight test models had been fired with rocket boosters into the air off the shores of the lake. Perhaps some of those models still rested beneath those deep, cold waters, guarded by the frigid depths and the infamously wicked undertow of a lake system as unpredictable and dangerous below the water's surface as it was above. 203 and Lake Ontario were two of a kind - betrayed, desecrated and disrespected by men for many years but still defiant, unkillable and indomitable. They would bide with the patience of the rocks until the time was right to talk to her again. Mitzlan had felt no harm from the experience and didn't worry about it.
One engagement took the company to CFB Trenton, where the local air museum displayed some components from the original Arrow. Mitzlan's drone-eyes peered into the glass case which held some of the mortal remains of RL-204, which corresponded to Riiu, and her proxy hands shook clear-ringing silver ghost-chimes before it to accompany her prayers of homage. Riiu herself was not at all happy about this little pilgrimage and muttered spirit-settling chants to herself for hours afterwards. It took a world of cajoling and sweet persuasion to steady the skittish dancer long enough for the people there to take a portrait of her, which they wanted to match the picture of the original 204 which had made a landing there so many years before. For once Riiu gave Tamrai some lively competition in the 'troublesome' department. No one could be perfect all the time, but like the other career dancers she often crossed the line from spirituality into superstition and the good nature of Dakhaari in particular was sorely tried.
Am I glad we only have to live with them through next year, Dakhaari confided to Mitzlan later, overchannel.
Riiu's normally such a good girl, but I could see that coming twenty ren away. Mitzlan shrugged her elevators as they taxied out to the runway, headed home. Riiu was almost bounding ahead, drawing indigant imprecations from Tamrai as she was shouldered out of line. Mitzlan was too emotionally drained to bother with Riiu now; Nuiit could handle that.
I hope they didn't notice how rattled she was. That could be contagious...
Oh, I think they understand a little by now, Dakhaari reassured her. Even if her head is full of cultish nonsense. I'm as much for paying respects as anyone else, but I'm not particularly religious even if I do take Kaele's name in vain from time to time.
Mitzlan wondered what her friend would think of her telling of her last visitation, but just as quickly put the notion out of her mind. Dakhaari, Mitzlan knew all too well, would have probably looked at her with a jaundiced eye and bitched at her for allowing the "that bunch of woo-woos" to finally get to her.
Once they were back at home base, Riiu paced like a caged animal for half the night. Mitzlan settled in her bay and practiced what she thought heroic restraint by not falling on the poor disturbed wench with a full-throated military upbraiding. She made a mental note to keep Riiu away from any such artifacts in the future.
It's not Riiu's fault. Her heart's not strong enough to bear the weight when she must carry it alone. But she did what she was asked, finally.
Dakhaari transmitted a nudge or two on the frequency only she and Mitzlan could share. In the inner space they made for themselves they massaged one another's overstressed neural maps in the way that Lisseiji of whatever composition layed on hands and groomed one another to reaffirm social ties. They were distantly aware of Lyhana and Xahlys working on Riiu in a similar fashion and finally getting some results. As long as the dancers' social bonds stayed strong and none of them was really isolated, they could weather this. But Tamrai had kept to herself these past two weeks, and not even Nuiit could bring her out of it. That was still a niggling concern, sort of like the feeling Dakhaari had of someone or something ogling her, especially when she was linked to Mitzlan. Mitzlan definitely had an idea of who was responsible for that!
Knock it off, you disembodied lech! She's already got a boyfriend!
Sorry... was the reply. Didn't mean to be a peeping tom.
Majesty, dignity, nobility, perversity...
TO BE CONTINUED....