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By Michael Swanwick, Eileen Gunn, Benjamin Carre
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn
All rights reserved.
Radio Jones came dancing down the slidewalks. She jumped from the express to a local, then spun about and raced backwards, dumping speed so she could cut across the slower lanes two and three at a time. She hopped off at the mouth of an alley, glanced up in time to see a Zeppelin disappear behind a glass-domed skyscraper, and stepped through a metal door left open to vent the heat from the furnaces within.
The glass-blowers looked up from their work as she entered the hot shop. They greeted her cheerily:
"You invented a robot girlfriend for me yet?"
The shop foreman lumbered forward, smiling. "Got a box of off-spec tubes for you, under the bench there."
"Thanks, Mackie." Radio dug through the pockets of her patched leather greatcoat and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. "Hey, listen, I want you to do me up an estimate for these here vacuum tubes."
Mack studied the list. "Looks to be pretty straightforward. None of your usual experimental trash. How many do you need — one of each?"
"I was thinking more like a hundred."
"What?" Mack's shaggy black eyebrows met in a scowl. "You planning to win big betting on the Reds?"
"Not me, I'm a Whites fan all the way. Naw, I was kinda hoping you'd gimme credit. I came up with something real hot."
"You finally built that girlfriend for Rico?"
The workmen all laughed.
"No, c'mon, I'm serious here." She lowered her voice. "I invented a universal radio receiver. Not fixed-frequency — tunable! It'll receive any broadcast on the radio spectrum. Twist the dial, there you are. With this baby, you can listen in on every conversation in the big game, if you want."
Mack whistled. "There might be a lot of interest in a device like that."
"Funny thing, I was thinking exactly that myself." Radio grinned. "So waddaya say?"
"I say —" Mack spun around to face the glass-blowers, who were all listening intently, and bellowed, "Get back to work!" Then, in a normal voice, "Tell you what. Set me up a demo, and if your gizmo works the way you say it does, maybe I'll invest in it. I've got the materials to build it, and access to the retailers. Something like this could move twenty, maybe thirty units a day, during the games."
"Hey! Great! The game starts when? Noon, right? I'll bring my prototype over, and we can listen to the players talking to each other." She darted toward the door.
"Wait." Mack ponderously made his way into his office. He extracted a five-dollar bill from the lockbox and returned, holding it extended before him. "For the option. You agree not to sell any shares in this without me seeing this doohickey first."
"Oh, Mackie, you're the greatest!" She bounced up on her toes to kiss his cheek. Then, stuffing the bill into the hip pocket of her jeans, she bounded away.
Fat Edna's was only three blocks distant. She was inside and on a stool before the door jangled shut behind her. "Morning, Edna!" The neon light she'd rigged up over the bar was, she noted with satisfaction, still working. Nice and quiet, hardly any buzz to it at all. "Gimme a big plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami, with a beer on the side."
The bartender eyed her skeptically. "Let's see your money first."
With elaborate nonchalance, Radio laid the bill flat on the counter before her. Edna picked it up, held it to the light, then slowly counted out four ones and eighty-five cents change. She put a glass under the tap and called over her shoulder, "Wreck a crowd, with sliced dick!" She pulled the beer, slid the glass across the counter, and said, "Out in a minute."
"Edna, there is nobody in the world less satisfying to show off in front of than you. You still got that package I left here?"
Wordlessly, Edna took a canvas-wrapped object from under the bar and set it before her.
"Thanks." Radio unwrapped her prototype. It was bench-work stuff — just tubes, resistors and capacitors in a metal frame. No housing, no circuit tracer lights, and a tuner she had to turn with a pair of needle-nose pliers. But it was going to make her rich. She set about double-checking all the connectors. "Hey, plug this in for me, willya?"
Edna folded her arms and looked at her.
Radio sighed, dug in her pockets again, and slapped a nickel on the bar. Edna took the cord and plugged it into the outlet under the neon light.
With a faint hum, the tubes came to life.
"That thing's not gonna blow up, is it?" Edna asked dubiously.
"Naw." Radio took a pair of needle-nose pliers out of her greatcoat pocket and began casting about for a strong signal. "Most it's gonna do is electrocute you, maybe set fire to the building. But it's not gonna explode. You been watching too many kinescopes."
* * *
Amelia Spindizzy came swooping down out of the sun like a suicidal angel, all rage and mirth. The rotor of her autogyro whined and snarled with the speed of her dive. Then she throttled up and the blades bit deep into the air and pulled her out, barely forty feet from the ground. Laughing, she lifted the nose of her bird to skim the top of one skywalk, banked left to dip under a second, and then right to hop-frog a third. Her machine shuddered and rattled as she bounced it off the compression effects of the air around the skyscrapers to steal that tiny morsel of extra lift, breaking every rule in the book and not giving a damn.
The red light on Radio 2 flashed angrily. One-handed, she yanked the jacks to her headset from Radio 3, the set connecting her to the referee, and plugged into her comptroller's set. "Yah?"
The flat, emotionless, and eerily artificial voice of Naked Brain XB-29 cut through the static. "Amelia, what are you doing?"
"Just wanted to get your attention. I'm going to cut through the elbow between Ninetieth and Ninety-First Avenues. Plot me an Eszterhazy, will you?"
"Computing." Almost as an afterthought, the Naked Brain said, "You realize this is extremely dangerous."
"Nothing's dangerous enough for me," Amelia muttered, too quietly for the microphone to pick up. "Not by half."
The sporting rag Obey the Brain! had termed her "half in love with easeful death," but it was not easeful death that Amelia Spindizzy sought. It was the inevitable, difficult death of an impossible skill tenaciously mastered but necessarily insufficient to the challenge — a hard-fought battle for life, lost just as the hand reached for victory and closed around empty air. A mischance that conferred deniability, like a medal of honor, on her struggle for oblivion, as she twisted and fell in gloriously tragic heroism.
So far, she hadn't achieved it.
It wasn't that she didn't love being alive (at least some of the time). She loved dominating the air currents in her great titanium whirligig. She loved especially the slow turning in an ever-widening gyre, scanning for the opposition with an exquisite patience only a sigh short of boredom, and then the thrill as she spotted him, a minuscule speck in an ocean of sky. Loved the way her body flushed with adrenalin as she drove her machine up into the sun, searching for that sweet blind spot where the prey, her machine, and that great atomic furnace were all in a line. Loved most of all the instant of stillness before she struck.
It felt like being born all over again.
For Amelia, the Game was more than a game, because necessarily there would come a time when the coordination, strength, and precision demanded by her fierce and fragile machine would prove to be more than she could provide, a day when all the sky would gather its powers to break her will and force her into the ultimate submission. It would happen. She had faith. Until then, though, she strove only to live at the outer edge of her skills, to fly and to play the Game as gloriously as any human could to the astonishment of the unfortunate earth-bound classes. And of the Naked Brains who could only float, ponderously, in their glass tanks, in their Zeppelins.
"You have my position?"
Cameras swiveled from the tops of nearby buildings, tracking her. "Yes."
Now she'd achieved maximum height again.
"I'm going in."
Straight for the alley-mouth she flew. Sitting upright in the thorax of her flying machine, rudder pedals at her feet, stick controls to the left and right, she let inertia push her back into the seat like a great hand. Eight-foot-long titanium blades extended in a circle, with her at the center like the heart of a flower. This was no easy machine to fly. It combined the delicacy of flight with the physical demands of operating a mechanical thresher.
"Pull level on my count. Three ... Two ... Now."
It took all her strength to bully her machine properly while the g-forces tried to shove her away from the controls. She was flying straight and true toward Dempster Alley, a street that was only feet wider than the diameter of her autogyro's blades, so fine a margin of error that she'dbe docked a month's pay if the Naked Brains saw what she was up to.
"Shift angle of blades on my mark and rudder on my second mark. Three ... Two ... Mark. And ... Rudder."
Tilted forty-five degrees, she roared down the alley, her prop wash rattling the windows and filling them with pale, astonished faces. At the intersection, she shifted pitch and kicked rudder, flipping her gyro over so that it canted forty-five degrees the other way (the engine coughed and almost stalled, then roared back to life again) and hammered down Bernoulli Lane (a sixty-degree turn here where the streets crossed at an odd angle) and so out onto Ninety-First. A perfect Eszterhazy! Five months ago, a hypercubed committee of half the Naked Brains in the metropolis had declared that such a maneuver couldn't be done. But one brave pilot had proved otherwise in an aeroplane, and Amelia had determined she could do no less in a gyro.
"Bank left. Stabilize. Climb for height. Remove safeties from your bombs."
Amelia Spindizzy obeyed and then, glancing backwards, forwards, and to both sides, saw a small cruciform mote ahead and below, flying low over the avenue. Grabbing her glasses, she scanned the wing insignia. She could barely believe her luck — it was the Big E himself! And she had a clear run at him.
The autogyro hit a patch of bumpy air, and Amelia snatched up the sticks to regain control. The motor changed pitch, the prop hummed, the rotor blades cut the air. Her machine was bucking now, veering into the scrap zone, and in danger of going out of control. She fought to get it back on an even keel, straightened it out, and swung into a tight arc.
Man, this was the life!
She wove and spun above the city streets as throngs of onlookers watched the warm-up hijinks from the tall buildings and curving skywalks. They shouted encouragement at her. "Don't let 'er drop, Amelia!" "Take the bum down, Millie!" "Spin 'im around, Spindizzy!" Bloodthirsty bastards. Her public. Screaming bloody murder and perfectly capable of chucking a beer bottle at her if they thought she wasn't performing up to par. Times like these she almost loved 'em.
She hated being called Millie, though.
Working the pedals, moving the sticks, dancing to the silent jazz of turbulence in the air around her, she was Josephine Baker, she was Cab Calloway, she was the epitome of grace and wit and intelligence in the service of entertainment. The crowd went wild as she caught a heavy gust of wind and went skidding sideways toward the city's treasured Gaudi skyscraper.
When she had brought everything under control and the autogyro was flying evenly again, Amelia looked down.
For a miracle, he was still there, still unaware of her, flying low in a warm-up run and placing flour bombs with fastidious precision, one by one.
She throttled up and focused all her attention on her foe, the greatest flyer of his generation and her own, patently at her mercy if she could first rid herself of the payload. Her engine screamed in fury, and she screamed with it. "XB! Next five intersections! Gimme the count."
"At your height, there is a risk of hitting spectators."
"I'm too good for that and you know it! Gimme the count."
"Three ... two ... now. Six ... five ..."
Each of the intersections had been roped off and painted blue with a white circle in its center and a red star at the sweet spot. Amelia worked the bombsight, calculated the windage (Naked Brains couldn't do that; you had to be present; you had to feel the air as a physical thing), and released the bombs one after the other. Frantically, then, she yanked the jacks and slammed them into Radio 3. "How'd we do?" she yelled. She was sure she'd hit them all on the square and she had hopes of at least one star.
"Square. Circle. Circle. Star." The referee — Naked Brain QW-14, though the voice was identical to her own comptroller's — said. A pause. "Star."
She was coming up on Eszterhazy himself now, high and fast. He had all the disadvantages of position. She positioned her craft so that the very tip of its shadow kissed the tail of his bright red 'plane. He was still acting as if he didn't know she was there. Which was impossible. She could see three of his team's Zeppelins high above, and if she could see them, they sure as hell could see her. So why was he playing stupid?
Obviously he was hoping to lure her in.
"I see your little game," Amelia muttered softly. But just what dirty little trick did Eszterhazy have up his sleeve? The red light was flashing on Radio 2. The hell with that. She didn't need XB-29's bloodless advice at a time like this. "Okay, loverboy, let's see what you've got!" She pushed the stick forward hard. Then Radio 3 flashed — and that she couldn't ignore.
"Amelia Spindizzy," the referee said. "Your flight authorization has been canceled. Return to Ops."
Reflexively, she jerked the throttle back, scuttling the dive. "What?!"
"Repeat: Return to Ops. Await further orders."
Angrily, Amelia yanked the jacks from Radio 3. Almost immediately the light on Radio 1 lit up. When she jacked in, the hollow, mechanical voice of Naked Brain ZF-43, her commanding officer, filled her earphones. "I am disappointed in you, Amelia. Wastefulness. Inefficient expenditure of resources. Pilots should not weary themselves unnecessarily. XB-29 should have exercised more control over you. He will be reprimanded."
"It was just a pick-up game," she said. "For fun. You remember fun, don't you?"
There was a pause. "There is nothing the matter with my memory,"
ZF-43 said at last. "I do remember fun. Why do you ask?"
"Maybe because I'm as crazy as an old coot, ZF," said Amelia, idly wondering if she could roll an autogyro. Nobody ever had. But if she went to maximum climb, cut the choke, and kicked the rudder hard, that ought to flip it. Then, if she could restart the engine quickly enough and slam the rudder smartly the other way.... It just might work. She could give it a shot right now.
"Return to the Zeppelin immediately. The Game starts in less than an hour."
"Aw shucks, ZF. Roger." Not for the first time, Amelia wondered if the Naked Brain could read her mind. She'd have to try the roll later.
* * *
In less than the time it took to scramble an egg and slap it on a plate, Radio Jones had warmed up her tuner and homed in on a signal. "Maybe because I'm as crazy as an old coot, ZF," somebody squawked.
"Hey! I know that voice — it's Amelia!" If Radio had a hero, it was the aviatrix.
"Return to the Zeppelin —"
"Criminy! A Naked Brain! Aw rats, static ..." Radio tweaked the tuning ever so slightly with the pliers.
"— ucks, ZF. Roger."
Edna set the plate of eggs and pastrami next to the receiver. "Here's your breakfast, whiz kid."
Radio flipped off the power. "Jeeze, I ain't never heard a Brain before. Creepy."
By now, she had the attention of the several denizens of Fat Edna's.
"Whazzat thing do, Radio?"
"How does it work?"
"Can you make me one, Jonesy?"
"It's a Universal Tuner. Home in on any airwave whatsoever." Radio grabbed the catsup bottle, upended it over the plate, and whacked it hard. Red stuff splashed all over. She dug into her eggs. "I'm 'nna make one for anybody who wants one," she said between mouthfuls. "Cost ya, though."
"Do they know you're listening?" It was Rudy the Red, floppy haired and unshaven, born troublemaker, interested only in politics and subversion. He was always predicting that the Fist of the Brains was just about to come down on him. As it would, eventually, everyone agreed: people like him tended to disappear. The obnoxious ones, however, lingered longer than most. "How can you be sure they aren't listening to you right now?"
"Well, all I can say, Rudy —" she wiped her mouth with her hand, as Fat Edna's bar was uncluttered with serviettes — "is that if they got something that can overthrow the laws of electromagnetism as we know 'em and turn a receiver into a transmitter, then more power to 'em. That's a good hack. Hey, the Game starts in a few minutes. Who ya bettin' on?"
Excerpted from Zeppelin City by Michael Swanwick, Eileen Gunn, Benjamin Carre. Copyright © 2009 Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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