To Dance like Music (5-15)
Ye gods, I'm late!
I’m editing Olympus, it’s coming along nicely, and that’s all that I've really got to say. Work, snow, work, repeat. I mean, I could lead you down the wandering path that has been my February, but you’d find it rather dull and I think we deserve a treat. So, I’m going to entertain both of us with, as is the way of writers, a story.
I’ve been exploring in my Firebird Chronicles world, so I’ll have you join me on Mars. The following takes place several years before Firebird.
It’s a short story. It’s the start of something terrible and beautiful, as all good stories are. And, since it’s Valentine’s Day, let's make it about love.
* * *
Dolphin Square is far from the hub of Biggie’s Chryse. It is not as lively as the Radical—a skyscraper with bungees and a theme park at its pinnacle—and not as elegant as the Dish. There are no flashy lights, no loud music, barely even a place to park a hovercraft. It’s small and it’s rarely crowded, and as far as Martian luxuries are concerned, it has almost nothing to offer.
To Harriot McKinley, it was home.
Except, of course, for today. Today, she barely recognized it. She sat at Clarence’s bar, a centerpiece to Dolphin Square, her feet tucked under her stool, and turned a glass of whiskey slowly in her fingers. If she stared hard enough, she could almost forget the number of unwelcome people crammed around her.
She had her elbows resting on the polished, Earth-imported mahogany. At her side, there was a rust-colored trophy, the outline of a Razor-class aircraft etched on its dull surface.
Of course, she hadn’t flown a Razor-class aircraft in the race. They were an elite set of ships, far beyond what she could afford. In fact, the only reason she could buy the whiskey now warming her belly was because of her winnings. Harry half smiled, holding the glass up to the light, watching the liquor swirl within.
“Nothing beats Earth whiskey,” she said. “Nothing.”
“I’d never argue with the expert,” the bartender muttered, tucking a bottle away on a high, library-style shelf.
Harry’s smile widened as she took another sip, this one longer. Indulgent. That was the word. She looked at Clarence, watched him as he slowly climbed back down the ladder behind the bar, his metal leg clacking against the time-worn grain of the wood. He was a large man with a heavy gut, a fiery red beard and a gleaming, bald head. He had a soft voice, though when he wanted to be heard, he brought to mind a trumpeting Earth-elephant.
“I ever tell you about my home?” Harry asked, leaning forward conspiratorially.
“Once or twice,” Clarence answered dryly.
He didn’t look at her when he spoke, rather always seemed to have something catching his attention near his feet. People called him shifty, but Harry knew better. She knew the soft tilt of his head, the way his shoulders rolled under the white, long-sleeved shirt. She knew his patience, knew its limits, and preferred to live comfortably within them.
“Well Australia was my everything,” she said, sighing, returning her gaze to the whiskey. “It’s where I flew my first shuttle. It’s where I lost my first race.”
“You make a habit of losing races, then?” he asked, moving farther down the counter, pouring a tall glass of wine for a skinny man. Another stranger.
“I was five,” Harry said defensively, flashing a toothy grin. “Feel like that’s reason enough to lose my first race. But my home. That’s where the money was. Pa was a rancher, liked his Earth-cattle. Ma—she was the racer. Could outfly the devil himself.”
“If it was so great,” the skinny man interjected, turning toward Harry, his cheeks already flushed from the blue wine. “Then why’re you here?”
Harry stared at him, as though noticing him for the first time. She was used to being—if not lonely—at least alone at Clarence’s. It was her bar. This was her conversation. But, if she was being honest, this was also her opportunity to brag. Just a little. Just enough. She sniffed, giving the trophy a nudge with her elbow. It rocked gently on the counter, a series of blue lights rolling up its sides.
“There’s no money in racing, not since Unity showed up,” Harry said, something sinking deep within her chest. “And they don’t have any use for ranchers. If it can’t be grown economically in a petri dish, Unity isn’t interested. Cattle,” she huffed, “they’re a luxury Earth can’t afford.”
“So Unity says,” the skinny man muttered, and Harry wasn’t sure if he was mocking or agreeing with her.
“Yeah, so they say,” she said, equally mysterious. Clarence had moved down the bar, waiting on his customers, but she could feel his attention on her, like a light that gently warmed the back of her neck. He didn’t tolerate fights, not in his library of a pub. Harry couldn’t say she blamed him.
“You here for the reception?” the skinny man pressed. He edged closer to her, raising his voice over the crowded bar.
She took a deeper pull of the whiskey, arching a brow pointedly over the rim of her glass.
“Do I look like I’m dressed for a wedding?” she asked, smacking her lips.
“Well, I don’t mean to presume,” he trailed off, glancing down her figure.
Harry liked to rip the sleeves off her shirts. It showed off her tattoos (the latest being a phoenix rising from its ashes, wings enfolding her bicep) and she thought it gave her a rugged, ‘don’t mess with me’ look. Her gloves were fingerless, with metal plated on the knuckles, and she kept her greasy, sandy-blonde hair tied low at the base of her skull. Her flight jacket was thrown haplessly across the chair beside her and when she went to smell her drink, all she actually smelled was the engine grease on her hands.
She looked at the skinny, well-kept man and she showed her teeth.
“I’m here for the race,” she nudged the trophy again, “and to drink the money it made me.”
“I don’t watch much racing,” the man started, but Harry interrupted with a heavy yawn.
“Clarence,” she said around it, pushing her empty glass toward him. “How about one for the road?”
“I’m not climbing back up the ladder until you show me some of these ‘winnings’ you’re so proud of,” he answered, returning to her, moving with his signature limp.
“Why’ve you got to be like that, Clarence?” she asked, stuffing her hand into her pocket, looking for her data pad.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been sitting there, permeating Clarence’s bar with her stories of Australia and ships, but it was long enough for the whiskey to have warmed her to her toes. When she found the data pad, she flopped it on the counter with a dismissive toss. The screen was cracked and one corner was stained with what she thought was blood. The best racers, she’d long ago decided, needed a few crashes under their belts, just so they weren’t afraid of the unknown.
“I’m good for it,” she said, sticking her thumb on the sensor, letting it read the print.
“You’re always good for it,” he agreed, taking the data pad and touching it to his own, “just not always on the same month you should be.”
There was a lengthy pause, then he snorted, returning Harry’s data pad to her.
“You’ve already drank up more than half of it,” he told her, crossing his bear-like arms. “Why don’t you go home.”
“Why don’t you go home, if you’re not going to bartend,” Harry muttered in return, glancing at the surprisingly low number of credits now displayed on her data pad.
“Might not be the worst idea to make rent this month, either,” Clarence continued, moving away from her. “We’ll be seeing you, Harry.”
She glowered after him. This day truly wasn’t shaping up the way she thought it would. The skinny man leaned closer to her and she edged back, placing a hand protectively on the flight jacket that occupied the chair between them. Clarence hadn’t said anything, since she was drinking her weight in expensive, Earth-imported whiskey, and taking both chairs when there were maybe twenty people forced to stand behind her had made at least part of her day better.
“I’ll buy another round, if you wanted to join me at a different pub,” he offered, giving her a shy sort of smile. “To celebrate your victory, of course.”
He had dark hair and delicate features, like a bird. She considered him for a moment, her gaze swinging skeptically up his figure—much as his had done before. Then, with a dismissive snort, she said:
She slid from her stool and climbed—with surprising grace—down the ladder from the bar, pulling her flight jacket and trophy after her. The skinny man said something, something that could have been disheartening, but Harry wasn’t listening. The whiskey had her itching for something, maybe a fight, maybe something softer. But whatever it was, it wasn’t here.
She shrugged into her jacket and pulled Clarence’s heavy, sound-proofed door open.
The Chryse, even in Dolphin’s Square, is loud. Although the ever-present music was softer here, the bass was still something Harry could feel in her chest, like a second heartbeat. Instantly, she felt the energy of the place, a kind of current that carried her out of Clarence’s and into a new world, one that was bright and pulsing with life.
Harry swore, instantly enveloped by a mass of humanity. It was never crowded in Dolphin’s Square. Never.
Except, apparently, when a princess was getting married.
Why Biggie’s daughter had chosen Harry’s haunt for her reception was beyond her. What could this dusty little corner of the Chryse have to offer that her mother’s castle didn’t? Aside from the possible threat of being mugged and ptomaine, of course.
The Edge—a wicked race that took place every year in the Chryse—had been moved to coincide with the princess’s wedding, something that had soured Harry’s stomach. The Edge was one of the reasons she lived in the Chryse. It was the one race that challenged her, the one race that let her truly demonstrate who she was, and it had been delayed for a princess.
Harry would have spat then, but for the people crowded around her. There were maybe a thousand of them, all crammed into Dolphin Square, crusting around the fountain at its center.
The crowd shifted and churned as crowds do, people pushing for better positions, leaning to see past the heads in front of them. Not a tall woman, Harry was about eye-level with the rest of their shoulders, where she didn’t even have to bother with the prospect of being able to see. She jabbed one woman in the ribs, forcing her way through the group, her trophy tucked tightly under one arm.
On any other year, the winner of the Edge would have exactly this crowd, exactly this party, but it would be for her. She would have been carried on people’s shoulders, would have had free whiskeys for a month. She would have been radiant. Instead, she swore as she was jostled by a group of perfumed-plumed dandies, their elaborate hats and dresses tangling around her like a spider’s web.
Because Dolphin Square was so compact, Harry had left her speeder in one of the side alleys, well out of the way. It was common curtesy. It’s what true Chryse folk did. But now she regretted that, as navigating the square was doubly as tedious as the opening stretch of the Edge. A tall man tried to push her out of the way, his neck craned toward the center of the crowd, and Harry let loose a series of curses that made people wilt away from her.
She saw an opening and she sprang through it, frustrated and more than a little drunk, and she found herself thrust into the open. Her first thought was to draw a deep breath of relief. The press of the crowd had her hackles up, her free hand resting on the pistol she had tucked in her belt.
But then, that breath froze in her lungs. Her heart skipped. Something like ice thudded into her stomach and for a moment, all that she could do was stare.
There was a woman in a white dress, with hair like midnight and eyes like obsidian. She danced with a someone, a man in a dark suit, and her tan skin was like caramel to the cream of her gown. She was luxurious. She was…what was the word…
Harry gaped at the woman who was daughter to an Overlord, gaped at her as she danced, her body soft and round—yet quick as a snake on hot sand. She moved like liquid, she danced like music. She was the center of the Worlds, a focal point, a prism through which colors shined.
Never had something hit Harry like this. No, that wasn’t quite true. Never had someone hit her like this, nothing touching, no contact save the air around them. It was a crash, a collision, an explosion.
It was—conceivably—too much whiskey.
Harry edged back from the cleared space the crowd had left for the couple to dance in. The fountain, the square’s very namesake, was a pair of Martian dolphins, carved from white marble. They seemed to be leaping from the pool, water spraying from their round snouts, and the droplets turned to mist in the air around the dancers, golden in the light of the square.
“That’s the princess?” Harry asked no one in particular.
A woman in a tall, purple hat gave Harry a skeptical look, like she was a mangy creature that had skulked slightly too close. It had been a stupid question. Who else would this be? And yet, as Harry watched her move across the white stones of the square, she couldn’t help but feel like she knew her. A childhood friend that had drifted away, perhaps.
“What’s her name?” Harry asked.
“Maya,” a shorter woman whispered, her voice reverent. “Isn’t she lovely?”
Harry didn’t answer. She watched Maya dance. Now and again, when her face was turned toward Harry, she could almost imagine that their eyes met over the shoulder of the man. She could almost believe that Maya was seeking her out, looking for that same face again and again as she turned. Almost, it was magic.
Harry watched them with the rest of the crowd until, after what could have been minutes or hours, the music stopped and the dancers stopped and everything around her started moving. There were guards in black visors standing on the perimeter of the crowd, and they kept the people back now, letting only the shouts of congratulations past them. Harry did not shout. She watched in silence as the man and the newly wedded Maya made for a black, low, sleek shuttle. A door was opened, the man took her hand, and Maya was ushered within.
There was a fleeting second, as the man put his hand on the door to lower it, when Harry could see within the black shuttle. And this time, she was sure that their eyes met, sure that there was a secret smile somewhere within Maya. There was a spark, a flash, and then she was gone, tucked away in an armored, shining shuttle.
After Maya’s departure, the crowd began to dissipate. Some people wandered into Clarence’s and the other couple of pubs on the square. But the majority left, picking up where their evenings had left off, moving toward the more populated corners of town. Harry remained. She eventually moved to the fountain, sitting slowly on its edge, her trophy in her lap. She stared at it, watched the blue lights flare whenever she moved it, and it seemed somehow smaller than it had this afternoon.
There was an emptiness behind her heart. She noticed it then, her inner mind probing at the possible cause. Harry pressed a fist against her chest. Her head was already beginning to pound, the ache building behind her eyes, her hangover getting an early start. She didn’t know how long she had been here, but it had been too long already.
“I need a drink,” she muttered, rising from the fountain, making her unhindered way toward the alley where she’d left her aircraft.
It was a Ruster, and she’d made it herself. Well, with the help of an engineer/chemist who was a step left of sane. It was the same size as a Razor, meeting with the race’s prerequisites, but that’s where the similarities ended. Harry’s Ruster was a murky brown color, with pale gray glass instead of Unity’s signature, unbreakable black. If something hit her Ruster, it would shatter.
That’s what made racing exciting.
She patted the aircraft’s nose, activating the sensors and unlocking the cockpit. It was a tight squeeze, and she had to slide in carefully, as the controls had no safety panels like normal ships. Harry preferred everything to be a finger’s twitch away. Her trophy, she tossed in the back, onto a pile of food wrappers, a couple of days’ worth of clothes, and a crate of suspicious, metallic bottles that—for the life of her—she couldn’t remember who she was supposed to deliver to.
She pulled the cockpit ceiling down, the gray glass illuminated with displays and sensors. With a deep breath, Harry pulled the two side levers down, clicked her seatbelt on, and engaged the engines. They coughed and sputtered—but they’d had a workout today, and she wasn’t inclined to begrudge the Ruster her quirks. With the smooth gestures that come only from experience, Harry navigated out of the alley and then into a small Skyway, falling in with a line of too-heavy traffic.
The Edge always drew a crowd, but the added incentive of Maya’s wedding had flooded the Chryse. The Skyway was a steady stream of bright traffic, the ambient music of the city pulsing against the Ruster’s glass. Harry swore under her breath, navigating lower, moving at a pace that some might call reckless. But she’d long ago burned off her whiskey and, since this day already seemed shot to hell, she was inclined to refuel.
Skyways being popular, Harry shot to the side, navigating onto a side street, flying lower than regulation allowed. The streets of Biggie’s Chryse were for pedestrian traffic only, the Skyways designed to limit vehicle contact with the public. But in Harry’s present mood, she would be only too happy to lead Enforcers on a merry chase through the backstreets of the Chryse. Part of her wished that one would pick up on her, if only to watch the little robot explode against one of her thrusters.
The Ruster was a vicious vehicle, and she was inclined to give it a treat.
She was slowly working her way toward the northern side of the Chryse, hoping for cheap whiskey and a cheaper fight. The north, bordering the Ocean Borealis, was for the sailors, for crewmen and captains alike. Folk were as likely to be stabbed as they were to have a good time, and sometimes the good time came because of the stabbing. It was where you could find Rapture, the Chryse’s largest night club, and it was where one went when looking for fences, BioChemists, and—on occasion—fledgling necromancers.
It was also where you would find Harry’s apartment.
She navigated the familiar alleyways, quickly finding her way toward the Bucket—the closest bar to her domicile. Here, people knew her, recognized her Ruster. It was good for business, she supposed. Sometimes.
Harry landed in a parking lot behind the Bucket, disengaging her seatbelt and safety bars. They seemed heavier than usual, and when she stepped free of the Ruster, that same empty, hungry feeling lingered behind her heart. Swearing softly, she slammed the cockpit closed and turned, meaning to drink herself into a fresh oblivion.
This part of the Chryse didn’t bother with lighting, the sole illumination coming from the rolling advertisements that adorned the sides of the taller buildings—warehouses, mostly. The pavement under Harry’s heavy boots was black and wet, the distant, ambient music drowned out by some kind of screeching guitar within the Bucket. Usually, she could step out of her Ruster and move immediately through the backdoor to her spot at the bar—a small stool that let her keep her back to a corner. For Harry, not even her home was safe.
Instead, she found herself staring at a low, shiny, black shuttle that had absolutely no business being on this side of the Chryse.
Her hand flew to the pistol at her back, the small powder-based weapon warming at her touch. There was a thickly built man with his arms crossed leaning against the side of the shuttle, his visor reflecting the muted red lights from the advertisement projected on a wall behind Harry. She narrowed her eyes at him, shifting slightly, keeping her body at an angle and presenting a smaller target.
“Can I help you?” She asked, offering him one of her signature half smiles. She liked the way it made her nose crooked, emphasizing an old, badly healed break.
The man remained silent, his mouth drawn into a stony line.
“You from Kigly Place?” Harry continued, her grip tightening, her smile widening. “Because I made that run last week. He should have already gotten payment.”
“No, Harry, we are not.”
It was not the man who spoke. Instead, the side door of the black shuttle raised and a woman stepped free, her white dress trailing after her. Harry’s hand went numb. She should have recognized the shuttle. She’d only just seen this woman get into it a few hours before.
“Maya,” Harry croaked, half a question, half an exclamation.
“Indeed,” she purred, her voice thick like honey. “And I’ve been expecting you, Ms. McKinley.”
“How could that possibly be true,” and Harry glanced again at the man, wondering if he was the same one Maya had danced with. One black suit looked much like the next, to her.
“Let’s just say fate,” Maya smiled, gesturing to the inside of the black shuttle. “My mother hopes to speak with you. She has a proposition.”
Harry watched her, fingers toying anxiously with the handle of her revolver. Her gaze flicked again to the man.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon or something?” she asked.
Maya’s red mouth stretched, her smile a wicked thing.
“Who’s to say I’m not?”