Flight of the Vajra: Chapter Zero


[This is the first chapter of Flight of the Vajra, to be released in September 2013. Find out more about the book here.]

I went dancing with my wife the night she died.

My wife, my daughter, and my best friend; they’d all been with me that night in the main ballroom of my luxury liner, the Kyritan.

That ship wasn’t supposed to have been their coffin, but since it had been theirs it ought to have been mine as well.

I’ve got any number of pictures of my wife Biann — a chemical contact-print portrait made by an old uncle who dabbled in the art; a drawing in happy, shaky lines my daughter made when she was three; a whole mess of optical data dumps straight from my cortical link. None are like what I see when I close my eyes and remember Biann dancing step-two-three, stamp-two-three, back and forth in time to my own movements across the ballroom floor. She, like me, was from an Old Way world — we both had CLs, but not much beyond that. Not much selective engineering in her family or on her world (or mine), so her long legs and high forehead and wide grey eyes were all the prettier because no one had made them that way.

She had on a high-collared, close-fitting dress with a cape that flared and ballooned with each snap of her body, a third of which she hid behind that giant fur-and-feather trimmed fan whose colors reminded me of a whole day’s worth of sky. Her dress was protomic, and so she changed it in mid-dance between that high-collar outfit to something like a flamenco skirt and back again. The fan had been handmade out of plain old regular material and didn’t change into anything else, but that was magic enough by itself. Doubly so when it was in Biann’s hand.

When you’re Old Way, you work that much more to set aside space in your life for such miracles.

I’m a lot less Old Way now than I was then. And for a long time, to my ears, miracle was just a nicer word for accident.

My six-year-old daughter, Yezmé, didn’t join us at first. She’d spent most of her time during that cruise with her face pressed to one window or another, staring out at whatever gas cloud or high-orbit view there was to be seen. Sometimes even if there was nothing to see at all, she’d take up a post next to the window and stare out anyway. If I tried to get her attention she’d put her finger to her lips and “Sh!” at me. I think I did that to her once when I was hard at work on that ship, plowing through a pile of hull fluid-dynamics tests, and she’d since picked up on it herself and ran with it. It’s what grownups do when they’re being serious, and every kid in his heart wants to be taken oh so seriously. Then the kid grows up and wonders what she was in such a rush to get rid of.

“May I have this dance?” I asked her.

She was oh so serious as she faced me, stood up, and took my hand. Her own little dress was protomic as well, and she re-patterned it after whatever her mother was wearing after a few sulky seconds. Even that sulking, I loved.

On the Kyritan, I felt more than safe; I felt lordly. It was, after all, mine — or, rather, ours. My name, Henré Sim, on the builder’s plate, followed closely by my co-designer’s, Cavafy Enno. We’d spent three years building the first iteration of the Kyritan and its eleven sister luxury liners for Exoluft, with me plotting every curve and tracing every morphic variation I or Cavafy or any of the other designers could anticipate a need for. On the water, it was a luxury liner; then, after dismantling and reassembling itself, it was a series of train cars for any planet’s elevator; then dismantled and reassembled in space once more, it was another and entirely different luxury liner. And that had been only the beginning of what Cavafy and I had planned for Exoluft’s future line of luxury vessels — before disaster and disgrace and self-exile, that is.

Cavafy had been there that night himself, a fresh drink always in his stubby, squared-off fingers. Sandy brown hair covered the backs of his hands; along his upper arms and shoulders, it was clay-red. He was Old Way all the way, at least as far as his pleasures went: he could put away an entire bottle of whatever real drink you had in your cellar and he wouldn’t even get a blush going on. He waved me over, right as Yezmé decided her mother was getting too much attention from some stranger and cut in.

“Aren’t you glad I asked you to give me the keys for the night?” Cavafy said. “I imagined your wife would be happy about it, even if you weren’t.”

“Hey. You, of all people, know what a control fiend I am. But you’re also the only other person I’d trust with the Kyritan for any measurable length of time.”

“You need to do that more often, Henré.”

“What, entrust my latest pride and joy to the hands of friends?”

“Let other people you trust take the reins so you can actually live a little.”

“Taking the reins is how I live, remember? I’m only letting you do this because it’s one night, and because Biann’s about to twist my head off for wanting to hang out more in the control space than be with her on the dancefloor.” My just-kidding smile wasn’t fooling him, and I doubt it ever had.

He put a hand on my shoulder and steered me over to the window where Yezmé had stood not all that long before. “To be honest,” he said, “the way you put this together — the way you put everything together — I didn’t think a body needed to be in the control space at all. But I knew there would be at least one by default, and it would be yours. And given all the time you’ve barely slept making sure all this would work as planned, I’d not be much of a friend if I didn’t at least offer to let you kick back for one night.”

“And now you’re discovering there’s nothing for you to do in the first place.”

“Marveling at your handiwork doesn’t count?”

“Technically, it’s our handiwork. You didn’t exactly sit around and blow bubbles at the ceiling.”

“No. But there’s nothing here you can’t sign your name to in some form. And I will never pretend otherwise.” He raised his glass. “Here’s to the most brilliant protomic designer I know.”

I raised mine. “And here’s to someone with excellent taste in friends.”

“Oh, thank you.”

“I meant me, too.”

My drink was still burning on my gums when Cavafy closed his hand around mine. In my palm I could feel the tiny, biting edges of something. It wasn’t a real object — it was my CL’s somatic feedback system telling me he’d used the initiation of physical contact between us to send me a piece of data. That was one of the nice things about direct cortical linking, social restrictions or moral condemnations of it aside: it gave you an unprecedented way to be discreet.

“What’s this?” I said. “I thought you were trying to get me to think less about work.”

I inspected what he’d sent me for a moment, two moments, and only when I realized what it was did I not only let go but stepped back a pace.

“This is the key to the summer house,” I said. “Your summer house. What’s up? It’s not like you don’t have any way to have the place looked after.” It was the best kind of jocularity I could summon up in that moment, just when I’d been seized so suddenly with unease.

“The house itself is only half the gift,” he said. “There’s an old wedding present I’ve been promising you for entirely too long now.”

“You know, you keep teasing me about this — ”

“This time, it’s for real.”

“That’s beautiful, but why all the skullduggery? You could have just brought it here and rolled it out onto the floor with the ‘Happy Belated Anniversary’ cake or something.”

“This isn’t just a place for you and Biann to enjoy some sunshine up on the roof.” He wasn’t looking at me; what with all that astral glory outside to distract him, I almost didn’t blame him. “Do you remember once I talked about a certain something special I was hanging onto for a certain someone special?”

I did. I felt foolish for not having picked up sooner on all his hints. “You told me you were looking for the best possible candidate to receive it,” I said. “Of which I was only one of several contenders.”

“Of which you are, and always have been, first on the list. It’s high time I quit second-guessing myself and let it change hands to someone who’s earned it. Let’s face it — even if I knew someone more skilled than you, they still wouldn’t deserve this. Because they wouldn’t be you.”

“What do you want me to do with it?” I’d asked him that question before, but now it was a good deal less hypothetical.

“Ah, the conditions of the gift.” He smiled as if he’d been reminded of an old public peccadillo. “Those haven’t changed. All I ask is that you use it to create something . . . new. Truly new. Not even as an end in itself, but a means towards something bigger. That something bigger, whatever it might be, that I know you’ve been wanting to find.”

I remembered this all too well. Apart from Biann, Cavafy was the only other person in all of creation who was close enough to know about such things. Even as I’d come aboard the Kyritan and admired every self-aligning bulkhead, every cabin that melded on demand with the adjoining cabin to become a luxury stateroom — and, more importantly, admired the way everyone else admired those things — I’d asked myself the same question that had always surfaced in the face of such alleged success: Is this it? It was the nagging feeling that somewhere out there waited something far better, more ambitious, more genuine for me to be doing — a feeling that surfaced, suffocated me from the inside for a little while, and then was slowly pushed below under the weight of my friends’ reassurances and the promise of another, bigger project that might well turn out to be everything I was looking for. Not that it ever did.

“But I know you,” Cavafy went on. “You’ll figure something out. You always do. That’s the one advantage you’ve always had over me.”

I was still sorting through the logjam of words and thoughts that had piled up inside me when I felt Biann’s arm crook itself around mine. “You know, I can’t turn my back on you for five minutes — ” She yanked me away from the window and back towards the dancefloor. “ — without you and Cavafy shacking up somewhere and talking shop! Besides, isn’t he supposed to be taking the helm tonight?”

I was glad she was drunk. It meant I was under no obligation to explain anything to her. I turned, took her hand, and did my best to make sure we didn’t step on each other’s feet. I even smiled, but inside I was dizzy: had Cavafy been expecting more of an answer from me? And why tell me about all this to my face, orally, instead of in an even-more-private direct CL connection with me?

It was right when one of the all-too-flimsy shoulder joins on Biann’s dress came loose — and she, laughing, grabbed at it to meld it back together — that the meaning of it sunk in. It was an Old Way thing, something I’d also missed due to all my outward giddiness and inward unease. When you speak of the things that change a life, or two lives, that’s news you deliver to someone’s face. That’s something reserved for a real voice and real ears. Not for a CL link.

“Did you yank on that earlier?” Biann pulled her dress shoulder back up. “You wicked kid, you. There’s no way that would come loose on its own. — Oh, watch out! Don’t go stepping on my daughter now!”

I’d taken a step back to give her room and almost augured right into Yezmé. To spare the girl any further harm, I scooped her up and let her ride on my shoulder. “Oh,” I said, “so she’s your daughter when I’m almost stepping on her? Here, let’s take your daughter for a little trip.”

Somehow I knew no amount of clowning around with my family would lift the weight of Cavafy’s words off me. But I had to do it anyway, for all our sakes. I owed Cavafy — and Biann, and Yezmé — that much.

I don’t remember how long Yezmé rode around on top of me, but at some point I was on the other side of the dancefloor, looking back at them — my daughter once again riding on my wife’s shoulders, the two of them cavorting with the director of Exoluft’s product-management team. She, the director, looked just as giddy as the other two did. None of them seemed aware I had stepped away. I stood and waited for them to notice me, making a kind of a bet with myself: If they see me, I’ll go back to them; if not, I’ll step away for a bit longer and think a bit more about Cavafy’s offer. The view at the window was perfect for such things: nighttime side of the planet below, nebula above, a moon here, a moon there.

In one moment, their backs were to me; in the next, they were obscured as another wave of people took to the floor. I turned and wandered into the interstitial corridor flanking the ballroom, with its panoramic wall and windowed floor (and crisscrossing opaque walkways, for those whose heart stopped at the idea of stepping out over empty space). Idly, I patched into the ship’s sensory surfaces through CL and asked the ship to show me where Cavafy was; it indicated he was about a hundred meters off near one of the interstitial compartments — one of the many spaces that manifested between bulkheads depending on what configuration the ship was in. No idea what he was doing, though. While CL could give you the freedom to work with anything else CL-connected by simply thinking at it (and let it directly connect back to your mind in return), that only made some things harder, not easier.

The view outside inspired less in me than I thought it would. I’d imagined myself standing in the middle of all this, dreaming up the one great answer to Cavafy’s question, and then returning to him in a haze of pride: I know now what I’m going to build with your gift. And you, sir, are going to love it. But minutes went by, with stars flickering all around and the occasional echoing footfall of couples and trios passing along somewhere far behind me, and no answer came.

You see how it is? I thought. You make an excuse for coming out here to ponder this by yourself, and now all you can think about is going back in. Probably for the best.

Just then, through the floor, and then through the outward-facing bulkhead my hand was resting on, I felt tremors I didn’t recognize.

I knew how the Kyritan was supposed to feel — not just from the simulations or the full-sensory CL-feed immersions I’d run, but from having ridden in the damn thing for countless days and weeks as it was being assembled. This wasn’t the smoothly rising and falling oscillation of a compartment refactoring itself, or a bulkhead realigning. This was chaos.

I gave Cavafy a shout by CL and had my signal bluntly rejected. I didn’t have time to finish wondering why in cosm’s name he would be turning off inbound connections before the ceiling and floor and walls began to all peel away from each other.

The entire corridor was tearing open, as if the different layers of the ship’s infrastructure had all decided to walk off in separate directions. The floor yanked itself around for a few dozen centimeters in all directions before the flooring, made of tuned-to-transparent Type B substrate (emulates heavier plastics and thin metals), splintered. Air screamed out around me and threatened to freeze-dry my eyes right in their sockets.

I shut my eyes and threw myself at the nearest inward-facing bulkhead. I’d tried to patch into the ship’s sensory surfaces via CL, and see what was around me through the ship’s own eyes instead of mine, but nothing came back. If I wanted to climb into a rescue pod, I’d have to do it by touch alone, and I had mere seconds to do it before my blood boiled and I passed out.

My fingers groped and closed around the handles set into the walls. Normally they were hidden, but despite everything that was going wrong, the emergency depressurization routines at least seemed to have triggered. I remembered the one very boring night I’d spent deploying all that code into most every bulkhead in the ship, reminding myself this might well save someone’s life in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Now all I could think, as I yanked myself along from one handle to the next, was: Please don’t let it be just me that’s saved. Please don’t let it be just me.

The fifth handle I reached was larger than the rest and had a familiar trigger set into the underside. Next to it was the rounded edge of a doorway that hadn’t existed before. I hauled myself around and bailed forward into the hatch, right on top of four other warm bodies. I opened my eyes, blinked the mist out of them, and saw vaguely familiar faces: the gender-mutable who had been playing cello the other night; another ’mute who was most likely that one’s lover; the director of technological services for the company; a teenaged girl who had been in the pool and was still wearing only a slightly damp one-piece bathing suit, her teeth chattering.

We were thrown to the floor in a newly-disorganized pile as the pod lurched and we were blown free. I didn’t strap myself in like everyone else; I scrambled up to the one porthole in the top of the pod and clung to the handles on either side of it, staring back up at what was left of the Kyritan.

Like a glass peapod split up the middle, I thought. A hailstorm of glittering shards spewed outwards from the two remaining husks of the hull.

I connected to the CL mesh network that I knew would have been established between the escape pods and hunted frantically for the only three names that mattered. I was still searching for them long after the last icy remnants of the Kyritan had passed from view, and even longer after I knew full well all hope would have to be laid to rest.

And then one fine day, five solar years later —



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